what did one anarchist say to the other anarchist?

If you don’t know this about me, it might surprise you: I love America. I’m obsessed with the 4th of July, I’m fascinated by all of the history, and I get seriously choked up when I visit the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. Knowing this, you can imagine how enthralled I was during a recent 3-day weekend in Washington DC. I saw family and friends during the evenings, but during the day I was a shamelessly wild tourist, scouring the monuments and various museums. Completely losing self-control a few times, I even informed some not-as-obsessed tourists waiting at traffic lights. “Did you know that Lincoln’s hands form an ‘A’ and ‘L’  at the Lincoln Memorial, for his initials?”, “Did you know that Washington was designed by a Frenchman because Thomas Jefferson wanted the city to have the feel of an American Paris?” Most tourists pacified me with a semi-interested nod or smile, or in the case of non-English speaking Japanese tourists, a look of utter confusion.

On Sunday it was time for me to return to warm, sunny, spectacular Milwaukee. In an attempt to save some money I flew into Baltimore, not realizing it would have been easier to travel between East and West Germany in the 80s than to travel between Baltimore and Washington. The MARC only runs on weekdays, and never if it snows. The Amtrak only runs twice a day, and once on Sunday. The horse and buggie runs every day, but doesn’t transport Protestants. I gave up on finding an affordable option, breaking down and calling Super Shuttle, which would take me to the airport in Baltimore for a ridiculous 39 dollars. At first the only passengers in the van were myself and a successful businesswoman in her 30s. She was from Boston, and was in Washington for her sister’s bachelorette party. A few blocks later we picked up a girl from Georgetown University, a disastrous trust fund baby who staggered into the van rather than boarding it. She looked and smelled hung over, barely covered in pajama pants, a tanktop, a hoodie, and the kind of flip-flops you wear in the shower at Summer camp. She got a text message every twenty-seven seconds, which I assumed were coming from her dorm-rat one night stand. I wouldn’t blame her for not revealing her whereabouts, since “I had to visit my parents in Albany” sounded like a classic “get out of breakfast lie”.

Our final pick-up would be our demise, as two college students entered our van. The first to enter was Alexander Findlestein, a junior in English from Arizona State University. He was wearing one of those ties that only a frat guy or a game show host could pull off, and was sporting a ridiculously safe and generic haircut. The next guy to enter was Evan McDaniel, a PHD student in anthropology. Because of Princess Hangover’s phone going off I didn’t catch where he went to school. They commenced into an intensely stimulating conversation, one of those conversations where nobody is really listening but rather everybody is showing off their arsenal of one-liners and useless statistics. Their conversation would be the soundtrack for what was surely the most annoying hour of my life. Because I was clearly stuck with their banter I decided to at least be constructive and determine what the heck they were talking about. I deduced from context clues that they were in some sort of student organization that was having a national conference. I always thought these sorts of conferences were a little ridiculous, with the hours of speeches, mixers, and awkward evening parties with free booze. Let’s face it, college students go to these conferences for the aforementioned booze and the potential of meeting a person of the opposite sex that is equally as passionate about whatever absurd cause everyone was supporting in the first place. The next morning, instead of cuddling, these people would blog about their ideals and swap contact information so they can have more of these terrible conferences. Looking at these two gentlemen in the back seat of the shuttle, neither of them had the fortune of the boozing or the women. They were hardcore, the doofuses with ribbons and pins all over their nametag, and a booksack full of books to be autographed by otherwise unknown authors. I continued listening to their conversation, and eventually determined their conference was to do with something political in nature. It was becoming increasingly painful to eavesdrop on them, their idealism and lack of reality about issues like healthcare, the economy and urban poverty was sickening. I had almost decided that they were right-wing radicals until they started a discussion about legalizing certain drugs, which had me truly stumped.

I realized this was going to be a harder case to crack than I previously thought, so I started to google some of the names they had dropped on my phone. I couldn’t even fathom what all of the results had in common: they were anarchists. The irony of anarchists unifying enough to have a convention made me chuckle for a moment, but the laughter soon turned to rage as I realized what a buzz-kill this was at the end of an “I love America weekend” in Washington.

I decided that Alexander Findlestein was innocent and harmless, too young and green to know any better. His father probably bought him that hideous tie, and he probably got roped into anarchism when they were offering up free tacos and bumper stickers in the student union. Evan McDaniel on the other hand was older than me and too high on his pedestal to even know that I was listening. I felt bad for Alexander because he was clearly enamored by Evan, who boasted his “two master’s degrees” and “research grant”. I had to restrain myself from blurting out, “he lives in his parent’s basement!” or something else to snap Findlestein out of his hypnosis. I came to the conclusion that to be happy with myself I was going to have to zing this guy. This was tough, because the last thing I wanted was a political debate in the close quarters of a van. I also wanted to somehow zing him in a way that he wouldn’t be able to go into his whole “schpeal” on me. Much like PETA, Greenpeace, or Mormons, I assumed anarchists had a whole speech ready to go at any time, complete with statistics and reading materials. I finally got my opportunity when I found out where he went to school. When he began his next sentence “back down in Austin…” my blood boiled. Not only was he an anarchist, not only was he a toolbag anarchist, he was a student at the University of Texas. I could just picture Evan McDaniel back in Austin, wearing a pair of Birkenstock sandals and socks, a Longhorn shirt, and some denim shorts. He probably handed out leaflets at outdoor music concerts, and pranced around with his other anarchist friends, drawing moustaches on Obama posters with a Sharpie. Evan McDaniel had somehow in a very short amount of time shown me exactly what my arch nemesis in life may look like.

I saved my zing for the last five minutes of the bus ride, because I knew the timing had to be flawless. I innocently engaged him in conversation, telling him I was originally a Texan. I gained his trust by making familiar references to I-35, Whataburger, and tumbleweeds. As the van pulled up to the airport I asked him where he went to school, even though I already knew the answer. He cleared his throat, looked at me as if there were no other schools in the entire state, and said “Why, the University of Texas, of course”. I could see in the way he smiled at me that he assumed I was a fellow Texas Longhorn, and he believed that at this point we would swap humorous stories about gay old times on 6th Street, loving Bevo the Longhorn, and having all organic, cage-free, fair trade, unicorn-encrusted picnics on the edge of the Brazos River. Because of this, you can only imagine how horrified and startled he was when I replied to him:

“I would rather be boiled alive than wear burnt orange”

He paused and looked at me with puzzlement, so shocked that he couldnt’ come up with a comeback as I was already off of the van, with my suitcase, entering the terminal. It really was a weak zing, but for some reason it felt good. “I’d rather be an anarchist than a Texas Longhorn” probably would have been better, but if being a proud, government-loving American has taught me anything, it is to live with no regrets.

frank the cannoli guy.

Some lyrics for a snowy morning (maybe one day I’ll put the song up).

This morning on my jaunt, to my only coffee shop

I happened on my favorite passerby.

He’s so easy to spot- on Brady Street every day,

His presence warms my heart, I don’t know why.

Some will call him predictable, and others will say he’s pedantic,

But when he looks on straight at me, and says “you want some cannoli?”

It’s truly nothing shy of romantic.

He’s Frank, the cannoli guy.

Serving Italian baked goods until he dies.

Oh Frank, who knows where I’d be,

Without your delicacy.

Oh Frank, you work so hard! You must be so sore.

I know it must be tough being urban folklore.

But where would Milwaukee be, without your amazing cannoli?

When I’m wasted at three in the morn?

He’s Frank, the cannoli guy

Fist pumpin’ at Jo Cats, I saw him try.

Oh Frank, with things how they be-

Your cannoli is extacy.

You know Frank, he makes the ladies stare.

In a cashmere sweater, pomade in his hair

But he’s still, just one of the guys

All standards he defies.

Oh Frank, I know this affair may just be momentary.

But your company and your cannoli, they are extraordinary.

Our times together, I’ll just have to cherish.

I’ll be an East Side hipster until I perish.

You know I’d die without C-A-N-N-O-L-I.

You know Frank, he’s the modern man.

He’s curing world hunger with a divine plan.

About Frank, you know I’d never lie

He’s really a heck of a guy.

Here’s to Frank, a guy you should meet,

He’s the prince of Wisconsin, king of Brady Street

Oh Frank, who knows where I’d be

Without your delicacy.

Oh Frank. Thanks for the dance.

I’m sorry I threw up in your bake shop’s plants.

It’s just, you are too sweet.

And an awful great guy to meet.


grant them rest.

Music does not have the ability to heal, but it does have the ability to put one’s heart and mind in a place where healing can begin. This experience is all the more impacting when the composition that aids in the healing is the perfect fit for the situation, almost as if it was written for it. This weekend the Milwaukee Symphony is playing Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, and elegant piece that achieves its drama through being subtle and transparent. With all of the tragedies occurring in Haiti the past week, one would assume that Faure’s Requiem was a wise pick and a worthy tribute. What makes this amazing is that the work has been on the calendar for well over a year, and is truly the perfect piece in the repertoire to bring peace to the overwhelming tribulations that are happening in Haiti.

I feel like I’m able to wrap my mind around this because I lived in Southern Louisiana when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused so much damage and pain. I know that the numbers of people dead and the level of destruction in Haiti is far worse, but certain parallels make me feel attached to what is going on there. A lot of people after a tragedy go to the same expressions of sympathy, the most common being the statement “it’s all going to be o.k.”. These words are comforting but hard to grasp, because truthfully nobody really knows at this point if it is going to be “o.k.”. The only thing more heartbreaking than the disaster itself is when people’s urge to assist can’t get to the devastation; for Haiti in the lack of runways, for Louisiana in the lack of a competent president.

Food, running water, and medical supplies are what we can give to the people of Haiti, but what they truly want as much as these things is even simpler: rest. Rest encapsulates all of our deeper needs: energy, the ability to momentarily forget, the normality of sleeping in a bed, and the peace of knowing that while everything might not be “o.k.”, at least it is o.k. to lie your head down, breathe deeply, and dream. As I listened to Faure’s Requiem last night, I heard the word “rest” in the text more than any other word. This is why I couldn’t believe the kismet of this work and the message that Haiti needs more than anything right now. Faure’s Requiem doesn’t make too many promises, it doesn’t overlook the graveness of human suffering, and it doesn’t tell us that everything is going to be o.k. It simply asks God to grant us rest. It doesn’t dramatize pain, and it doesn’t underestimate suffering, almost as if the work knows that is a task each of us most grapple on our own. It simply facilitates: it creates a moment for healing while not trying to do the healing itself. To grant the people of Haiti rest is to grant them a far better tomorrow.

what happens to a dream deferred.

When I was growing up, I was obsessed with recordings of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. I loved the clarity, the overall shape and arc of the phrases, and the wonderful discipline you could hear in every whisk of the strings. In some ways, I like a Cleveland Beethoven recording more than a Karajan Beethoven recording, which if you know anything about the recordings of the era, says a lot. Since I was young I have had a dream to visit Severance Hall and hear this great orchestra, live and in person. The Cleveland Orchestra is famous for being an orchestra more acutely tuned to their hall than anybody, so I could only imagine how the most perfectly rehearsed details would unfold in a space like this. I reconsidered this dream for the first time in my life yesterday, and I would like to tell you why I no longer wish to visit Ohio to hear the Cleveland Orchestra.

I have learned a lot of things about music since being a kid listening to those recordings. I practiced very hard and became a half-decent percussionist, I crashed the books and developed a love for music history, and I took a shot at conducting because I felt like I had a knack for people. I’ve lived life up to this point on a simple guiding principle: that classical music is a worthwhile, captivating experience for everyone and that if we educate our audience about its story and relevance, they will appreciate it as much as we do. I’ve lived by this credo, and I still believe in what our audiences have to gain from spectacular performances. I’ve also learned to various degrees how classical music relates to its adjoining community. When I used to work in public radio I begged my listeners to send emails to the Baton Rouge Symphony, asking them to program more contemporary music (if they liked it, of course). I would remind them that the symphony is not called the “Wealthy Donor’s Symphony”, but the “[insert city here] Symphony”, an ensemble for all of us, regardless of our age, creed, or socioeconomics.

All of this wraps up into the reason I have taken my visit to Cleveland off of my bucket list. The Cleveland Orchestra went on strike late Monday night, ironically enough after they finished playing a free community concert of all things. An orchestra going on strike is really not an out-of-the-ordinary thing: it happens as often as other unionized organizations do when agreements cannot be reached. I don’t question the need for resolved contractual issues, I question their timing. The city of Cleveland is hurting badly in our current economic downfall, as many cities in our nation’s Midwestern “Rustbelt” are. I’ll be completely honest: I have a hard time feeling sorry for picketing musicians when I know how many recently fired people with blue collar jobs all over Ohio cannot feed their families. Those same unemployed people would probably turn to the arts for a brief solace from their terrible situation, but alas, their orchestra has become too expensive for its own city.

Music making can be as prestigious, revered, and celebrated as it wants to be, but it is all pointless without an audience to enjoy it. What a terrible thought: that an orchestra would care more about its stature in Vienna, New York, and Boston than it would in its own city. If we forget who comes to listen, there is no point in playing in the first place. An audience’s respect and admiration is just as much of a gift as the sound that an ensemble gives to them. Yes, it costs a lot of money to be as spectacular as the Cleveland Orchestra is, but nothing makes this nail in Cleveland’s coffin justified to me. The recession does not end when the wealthy are stable, but when we are making automobiles again and selling fields of flourishing crops. Great music is a refuge to an unstable world, not something to complain about. They could be out on the street like most of America is right now. How can we take anything for granted? I sure try not to.

the fruition of discord.

Conflict is not only inevitable, it is necessary. As many of you say to yourselves, “that’s the most staunch and conservative thing Nathan has ever said”, allow me to explain. I am not referring to our wars as men, our world-wide battles that arise from a lack of communication and understanding. The necessary conflict I am referring to is our every-day tribulation, our moments of resistance that make us appreciate what we have. We are naturally more emotionally invested in anything where we have become part of the process, the period of growth. Like the growing pains of an awkward, developing child, things aren’t always so easy. Conflicts do arise, but the in the long run the lessons learned from overcoming these adversities make it all worth it in the end. We all know what they say about teaching a man to fish as opposed to taking that man through the drive-thru at Long John Silver’s. It’s easy to pacify somebody, and harder to challenge them, and that challenge of learning lessons through tough love makes us stronger and more resilient.

Perhaps the most often overlooked day-to-day conflict is the one that each of us has with ourselves. We all read books, and watch movies about wars, battles, and hockey games. I ponder: does any conflict have more drama than the inner battle of one’s self? I am not referring to the inner conflict of temptation, as humorous as the imagery of angels and devils on shoulders is. I am also not referring to the inner battle for happiness, since that fight tends to resolve itself in a cyclical fashion over time. The conflict I am thinking of fundamentally encompasses both of these, and also involves two distinct characters. The conflict that fascinates me is the battle between our actual self, and the non-existent person that we wish we were. It is a compelling standoff because our actual self will always be the underdog, since the idealized version of ourself has the advantage of being imaginary and therefore capable of anything.

I’m sure for some people the two are similar than for others, but this is a dilemma that each of us face often, for some people even daily. Perhaps that person you stare at in the mirror has taken more risks, or is a better listener. Maybe that person was stronger than  you earlier on in life, avoiding addictions and illnesses. The person looking back at you could be in love with different people, wearing different clothes, and living in a different city. We have everything in common with this person, while still having nothing in common with them. They are the better “us”, the worse “us”, and the same “us”, somehow all at once.

It is easy to see this relationship as a negative one, since it is after all a constant reminder of what we are not. I wonder what we would could be capable of if we shifted our thinking, and began to view the conflict with our better self as a healthy, growing relationship. How many times in our lives are we told these words: “be yourself!” The simplicity of this cliché is the exact reason it is so daunting; do we even know who “yourself” is? The person that knows us better than anybody is that better half, that one that we get so angry with because their life has been so much “easier”. We grow through our hardest moments, we evolve past our worst adversity. A conversation with our better self could help us to not only be ourself, but also realize how thankful we are for the toughest of days, the darkest of nights, and the most grueling pains. Somewhere between conflict and perfection lies the most beautiful fruition of all discord, ourselves.

small particles and catalysts.

If you have read my stories and essays in the past, you have probably gathered that I believe strongly and unquestionably in fate. I also love talking about this, because it inevitably leads to stimulating and intense conversation. Ironically, a conversation about the predictability of life that is fate can lead to constantly unpredictable topics. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have an opinion in this matter, and coming to terms with how we all come to this says so much about us.

I am now, and have always been, horrible at understanding anything relating to science. The formulaic process behind it grinds against my creativity and lack of process like unlubricated gears under the hood of a car. When I was forced to think about science in high school and college, I literally could feel my brain shorting out, similar to when your laptop’s cooling fan suddenly kicks into full speed. This makes it all the more astonishing that my belief in fate comes off a tad scientific. When we look at ourselves alone, the notion of fate is impossible to understand because there is nothing to compare ourselves to. We have no foiling sidekick, and no lavish set to act out this play. If our world was simply “ourself”, free will would certainly reign, but nothing would happen because there would be no choices to make, no actions to do. When we zoom out on our Google Map of existence, the acts of fate become far more obvious. Relationships, choices, and actions become visible, and more importantly the repercussions are easier to see. I think people have a skewed view of us believers in destiny, like everything is epic and dramatic like a never-ending episode of “LOST”. The moments that cause us to keep each other on course are the ones that we probably see as irrelevant at the time: opening a door for somebody, smiling at a stranger, wearing boxers instead of briefs one day. We are unaware of the nudges and pushes in destiny because we lack the bird’s eye view, the ability to watch it all unfold like a game of “Risk” or a recently disturbed ant hill.

The aforementioned argument gets all the more interesting when you talk about who has that bird’s eye view. I would call him or her “God”, a declaration that makes this all the easier or less easy to understand, depending on who you are. I think I really confuse people when I tell them I came to my belief in how fate works not through any Christian values, but through finding places on earth where we as people gain access to that divine bird’s eye view. I imagine a piano, its 88 lonely keys waiting for hands to play them. I imagine a downtown skyline at night, with thousands of lit and unlit windows. I imagine miles of red, orange, and yellow leaves, falling one by one as the wind delivers their beautiful, fatal blow. I imagine a snow globe, waiting, begging, and pleading for that one shake that will bring it to life.

The one thing that all of these have in common is a catalyst, a larger force that puts the sedentary into motion. Pianos have pianists, cities have sleep, trees have the wind, and snow globes have us. Every time we catalyze that snow globe by shaking it, we begin the destinies of each and every one of those snowflakes. Life is short, so fragile, and yet so meaningful. What a wonderful thought, that somebody not only holds us and cradles us, but shakes us as well.

prelude. waking and waiting.

Cold faces. Eyes filled with the same grey that looms in the clouds and damp street puddles. Strangers wait for the bus, staring forward to avoid the chance of looking at each other. A man wears a tall coat and an eggplant-colored turtleneck. A woman to his right contemplates how awful her breakfast was, which in turn reminds her of how awful she thinks her life is. Another girl sitting on the bench stares at the man in the turtleneck. She has been infatuated with him since last March, when he smiled and helped after she dropped her groceries in the crosswalk. He has no idea, and may never know, because she has immense self-esteem issues and feels like she doesn’t deserve somebody like him. This is a shame because he bought his eggplant-colored turtleneck after inferring that she has a knack for purple things. Filling up the rest of the bench are two best friends, an everyday Joe and everyday Jane. They have known each other since the second grade, when they were tied together in a three-legged race at the Racine County Fair. They are perfect for each other, and everybody knows this but them.

As the grey in the sky sees to grow heavier and more burdensome, the bus-waiters inevitably contemplate. When you wake up at the same time and wait for the same bus, it is easy to believe that our lives are recycled scripts, with occasionally compelling twists. As compelling as these twists may be, most of us will believe that life is simply a oscilation between waking and waiting. This thought could crush the souls of our bus-waiters, but fate knows better. Fate knows that life doesn’t shift in dramatic swings. Fate delivers its blows in the form of subtle pushes, a nudge so minor and light it feels irrelevant at the time it happens. The girl on the bench suddenly feels a cold sensation on the tip of her nose. She looks up, bewildered, and utters one word:

“snow.”