Book Review: “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” by Brendan Leonard

Brendan Leonard semi rad book

All that discussion of Jack Kerouac in my review of “The Book” by Alan Watts got me itching for a good old-fashioned road trip story. So I picked up “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” by Brendan Leonard.

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my girlfriend, entirely on a whim and with no more context than a few Amazon reviews. I did not realize that it would read very much like the sort of book I might write in ten years.

Leonard draws his inspiration from climbing, mountaineering, skiing and seeing the world through a lowly lens. His book chronicles a post-breakup period of dirtbagging around America in the back of a Subaru Outback. He even starts his odyssey in Denver. The similarity to my own sensibilities was simultaneously comforting and disconcerting.

The book is a quick read— I read the entire thing in the span of a few hours.

It is even printed double-spaced, like an assignment you would turn in for your writing class. It was self-published, which fits the ethos of the writing. The copyright page contains five lines. All that blank space is exciting.

“The New American Road Trip Mixtape” is adventure writing— quick, breezy and inspirational. To the sort of person who can identify with Leonard’s passions, the book will practically read itself. Those who can’t appreciate the appeal of the modern dirtbag lifestyle won’t find much of substance here.

It’s telling that two months since Christmas, I am the first one in the household to finish this book.

“The New American Road Trip Mixtape” differs from the writing I give you here in one key way. “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” is not a celebration of youth, but rather a chronicle of the end of youth. The book is about Leonard’s pivot into a deeper understanding of the world, not simply a celebration of living. The story is very much that of an inflection point in life.

“What is a life?”

This phrase is repeated often throughout the book. The full question, “what is a good life?” goes largely elided and unanswered. In the final pages of the book, Leonard sums it up as well as he can:

“There was something in everyone I knew in Utah, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and California figuring it out as they went, stubbing their toes and tripping sometimes, turning around after false starts and making the second or third try really count, making it as forever as we know how anymore.”

In the end, Leonard is quintessentially young, even as he chronicles his search for the way to age gracefully.

(You can find more writing by Brendan Leonard at his blog, semi-rad.com)

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Book Review: “The Book” by Alan Watts

Philosopher Alan Watts

Dedicated readers will notice I updated the tagline in the banner.

“Ski town philosophy” is a much more apt summation of the blog these days. Something about the unchecked youth and recklessness pulsing around me makes me spiral into my head, and continuously think about the deeper things. When I’m not skiing or snowboarding, that is. Those activities remain, deeply, blissfully, entrancing. Outside of those hours, things make a little less sense.

I am more or less exclusively reading philosophy these days.

Alan Watts The Book modern cover

“The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” by Alan Watts is a playful examination of our perception of our own selves, and how we interpret our place in the world. “The Book” considers the duality of existence, ultimately saying that such constructs as “in-group” and “out-group” suggest a complete unity of existence.

According to Watts, we should stop conceiving ourselves as “other,” an instead see ourselves as a part of the fabric of everything. To put the book’s thesis simply, an in-group can only exist by defining itself in terms of an out-group, thus, there is in fact no separation, and both groups are one and the same.

Watts’ rhetoric is surprisingly approachable, considering the topics he is touching upon. He flirts with Sausserian semiology at points, but his prose never becomes too dense, academic or unintelligible. I do think a basic understanding of semiology and semiotics (thanks English degree!) would provide helpful context for this book, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.

Watts writes well, and lays the groundwork for a lot of challenging thinking.

One can’t spend much time learning about Alan Watts without encountering his connection to the Beat Generation. Watts, an early Western evangelist of Buddhism, served as a forefather and guiding figure for young beat generation figures such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.

The beat generation and the millennial generation are kindred spirits, although the technological abstraction of our modern day keeps the two from being brothers. You could accurately characterize the two as like-minded cousins, perhaps.

The millennial chases “experience” and “life” above all. Raised in suburbs and by televisions, video games, and the Internet, ours is a generation with a vague sense of unease and rebellion. We don’t know what we want.

To put it in the parlance of the video above, we have a sense that the goal society has presented us with is a hoax, but we have no idea how to dance along with the music of our lives. Dancing to the music of life is where the beat generation excelled. These crazed bums knew a thing or two about how to live— or so it appears, half a century down the road. We must keep in mind what Jack Kerouac wrote in “On The Road”:

“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

From there, we must also understand that Kerouac died, angry and bitter, at the age of 47 due to cirrhosis of the liver. His days were spent slurring drunk, ecstatic in his escapism. Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” died at 42. Shortly before he died, he said:

“Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

The Beats, partially drawing their inspiration from Watts’ Buddhism and cohesive theory of existence, sought to live their lives like music. While Watts would argue that the Beat interpretation of Buddhism was somewhat different than his own, the Beats were drawn to Buddhism because they could not find the answers they wanted within their own culture.

“But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.”

–Alan Watts, “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” 

Today’s millennials do not understand our own culture thoroughly enough. We are constantly swayed by corporations, conglomerates, and social media, trends which erode our idealism and cut away at our individualism, while seemingly promoting a culture of total acceptance.

Without the awareness of the forces, micro and macro, that act on us on an everyday basis, we cannot find our youth. We will be doomed to an indescribable malaise, a nagging sense of something wrong, something unfulfilled.

“The Book” is a good place to start on that journey of understanding.

Book Review: “California” by Jennifer Denrow (poetry)

Jennifer Denrow Poetry

My girlfriend has never been to California.

We lie awake at night, snow falling softly outside the window of our ski-town cabin. Cozy under the blankets, we stare at the flakes obscuring the bright mountain stars, and wonder about someplace else.

“California is the sort of place where it seems like anything can happen,” I tell her. “We’ll go there, someday.”

This is the sort of exchange which underlies Jennifer Denrow’s audacious book of poetry, “California.” Denrow is a young American poet from my home state of Colorado. As with all modern poetry, her work is obscure except in certain circles. I’m doing my little bit to change that.

The title poem, “California” is my favorite piece of poetry.

“California” is broken up into three sections. The first is a long poem titled “California.” This is the gem of the book. The second section consists of more traditional, shorter verses. This section, like many poetry collections, is rather hit-or-miss. The third section consists of a back-and-forth dialogue between ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie. This section struck me as too avant-garde. Perhaps I lacked the proper context to understand the subtext of this section, but it never clicked for me. It doesn’t matter though.

Section 1, the “California” poem, is worth the price of admission alone.

“California” is a poem about escapism and the lingering dissatisfaction of modern life. The opening lines of the poem state this mission well enough:

“Forget Your life
Okay, I have
Lay down something that is unlike it
Sold boat, Italian song”

The poem goes on for 19 pages, and it continues to expand beautifully and elliptically on the abstract idea of California as a stand-in for satisfaction, exotica, and adventure in our everyday lives, which find themselves dulling more and more as computer slowly remove the very essence of living from many situations.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing here, because Denrow is a young poet who very much deserves your money. I encountered this book during an advanced undergraduate course I took, “E 479: Modern American Poetry.” The class was taught by Dan Beachy-Quick, himself a successful modern American poet. Beachy-Quick is the closest thing you’ll encounter to a genius at a state university, and I’ll always hold a respect for the man. His rambling nature of speaking made going to class every day absolutely worth it, just to hear the strange tangents he could touch on and still leave you with something of value.  He told us to go buy a random book of modern poetry off of Amazon, because the library wouldn’t have anything and the authors appreciated every purchase they could get.

Live Your Passion: Dan Beachy-Quick from Colorado State University on Vimeo.

So I’ll repeat this man’s great message: buy Denrow’s book. Both of you and she will appreciate it.

The book is melancholy, looking inward and outward simultaneously as it explores the concept of leaving. “California” tiptoes past suicide, depression, and the spectre of a rapidly receding youth with gorgeous, deadly quiet lines.

I’ve written academic criticism on the poem, but that defeats the point, really. Read it yourself, and then think on it for a few days. Think about California.

California Jennifer Denrow Poetry

Then go.

(If you’d like to purchase the book, you can throw TWO poor writers a bone by buying it through my Amazon affiliate link)

I Just Graduated — Now What?

Cover graphic I just graduated now what

“I just graduated. Now what?” is more or less the zeitgeist of the Millennial generation. We’ve been raised since we were children to believe that a college degree held all of the answers we needed to know what we wanted to do with our lives. Many of us find out only after graduation that the degree was simply another stepping stone, not a conveyor belt. As a young college student or graduate, you need to take the steps which will lead you to where you want to go. The four-year degree track will not magically take you there. Some people realize this during college or even before; others do not see that far ahead.

So we end up with “I just graduated. Now what?”

That’s a tough question. The answer will vary hugely from person to person, depending on circumstances. The privileged white kid whose parents paid her tuition will have a different answer than the first-generation student saddled with debt. The engineer will have a different answer than the English major. The overachiever who completed a few internships and worked a side job will be in a different situation than someone who did neither of those things in order to focus on their grades.

Unless you’re lucky enough to finish college with a job offer, nonetheless you will end up lost for a moment, asking “Now what?”

My advice would be: live your life, and don’t worry too much about the money. Work to live, don’t live to work. I’m not much of anyone though. You don’t have any reason to listen to me. What’s to say that my approach won’t end in pain and misery and loneliness by age 29? Better to look to those who have proven themselves successful, Katherine Schwarzenegger says.

This is the approach Katherine Schwarzenegger (of the Schwarzeneggers) takes in her book (Anthology? Interview Collection? Curated Collection?) “I Just Graduated… Now What? — Honest Answers From Those Who Have Been There.” This book is a collection of essays written by famous figures about the path they took to success. Seems interesting enough, but unfortunately, it does not deliver on its potential. Book is dead boring and seriously lacking in insight.

Reading this book is no more helpful than asking all the adults you know how they got their jobs.

The stories contained within are random and the collection has no underlying thesis or thread. Some of the contributors never even graduated college, which seems a bit disingenuous for a book which is ostensibly about how to leverage your college education. Not that these dropouts have nothing to say— I’d actually argue that their chapters are the most focused and relevant, especially when put besides say, Serena Williams’ one-page essay which essentially says “I made sure to do other things so I’m not fucked when my tennis career ends.” Thanks, Serena.

Before we go on, I’m going to do you a favor and transcribe the entire list of contributors, as a public service for those who may be interested in the book. I have also linked to a recent relevant work by each contributor. If you are interested, you may explore many of these people and their careers further by clicking their names.

  • Laysha Ward (Target exec.)
  • Darren Hardy (Entrepreneur)
  • Alli Webb (Entrepreneur)
  • Adam Braun (Entrepreneur)
  • Maria Shriver (TV Anchor)
  • Matt Barkley (NFL Quarterback)
  • Cristina Carlino (Entrepreneur)
  • Mike Swift (Chef)
  • Serena Williams (Tennis star)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger (Actor/ Politician)
  • Gayle King (TV anchor)
  • Candace Nelson (Entrepreneur)
  • Ron Bergum (CEO)
  • Ben Kaufman (Entrepreneur)
  • Joe Kakaty (CEO)
  • Dan Siegel (Psychiatrist)

That list is heavy on entrepreneurs and privileged people. I bolded the ones who I thought had something to say. Four out of 31 (32 if you count Katherine Schwarzenegger herself, who contributes nothing to the collection except staggering amounts of privilege) is not a very good quality ratio for anything, let alone an anthology, which by its very nature implies some degree of curation.

The huge concentration of entrepreneurs who did not pursue traditional careers paths aside, many of these essays only tell the what, not the how. It’s hard to connect with the story in the book when essayist after essayist says “I got a job at a TV station in Baltimore right after graduating” or “I saw a need and founded my company to address that need. It was hard, but in the end it was all worth it.” These stories, while true and perhaps uplifting to a certain sort of person, are utterly useless to the struggling Millennial generation. There is critically little practical advice in this book, which I feel is more or less the pitch. The practical information is shoehorned into two tiny chapters at the very end, dealing with debt and the stigma of moving back home.

There is too much privilege in this book for it to be palatable to me, and I’m a straight upper-middle class white male. This is a book written by a rich white girl who is the daughter of a Kennedy and a beloved actor who was also a highly influential politician. That perspective alone almost invalidates the book; the essayists do not do much to salvage it. I can’t imagine these essays appealing to much of my generation, especially not my peers who were sold a college degree as the catch-all answer to social advancement, by their parents and by society at large. The book really steps aside on the bigger issues inherent in the current college crisis, which is absolutely shameful. If the book isn’t going to address the question in the title or the larger societal issues inherent in that question, why bother?

Do I think too big? Maybe. Does the book live up to the title, at least in letter if not in spirit? Maybe again.

But that’s the huge elephant in the room, the heart of this issue, the unspoken challenge that is tearing an economic and idealistic hole through our underclass. Surface-level thinking and surface-level studying GETS YOU NOWHERE. Your degree is utterly worthless if you don’t dig beyond what is presented to you in school. Doing what our parents and our predecessors did will not yield the same results for our generation. The path to success leads nowhere. We need to think of that path as the trek to base camp; the real work begins when that trail ends. You can’t extend that trail with law school or graduate school; at a certain point you need to put your fears under you and start climbing. 

“You progressing on something, and that’s, that’s all about. You gotta keep moving, having a progress in your life.”

—Ueli Steck

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is less than stellar

Christopher Nolan is one of the best mainstream filmmakers working today. There are better, I won’t argue that with you, but there are only a select few artists in the mainstream who can consistently make blockbusters that are as visually pleasing, thought-provoking, and tense as those that bear the stamp of Syncopy, Christopher Nolan’s production company.

Nolan is one of the only filmmakers whose movies I will see without knowing anything about them. I went into “Interstellar” having seen a trailer or two, and not much else. I knew it was sci-fi, a genre I love, and from a man whose previous original projects included “Inception,” “Memento,” and “The Prestige.” Those are all fantastic mind-bending films which have a lot of flair. It’s hard to argue with a pedigree like that (although many online Steven Spielberg fans will argue with you about it until neither of you enjoys the discussion anymore).

Interstellar tries really hard to fit the same mold, but it just didn’t work for me in the same way Nolan’s earlier films did. Simply put: Interstellar is a decent film, but I left it in the theatre (along with eighty dollars, but that’s another story). My mind was already on tomorrow by the time the lights came up. I didn’t find myself immediately wanting to rewatch it, which is the way I felt after “Memento,” “The Prestige,” and “Inception.”

This may be because Interstellar uses less sleight-of-hand to keep audiences guessing.

Although the plot of the movie (I’ll keep it vague, promise) revolves around some fairly advanced astrophysics, information or understanding is never withheld from the audience. The critical scenes in the movie all have clearly defined stakes and rules. The movie progresses from plot point to plot point in a linear fashion. And even when the film ventures into strange territory and advanced theoretical concepts, there’s never much of a sense of mystery or wonder.

The cinematography is jaw-dropping and breaks its back to instill meaning and scale into the void left by a compelling plot. The score by Hans Zimmer is well-constructed, but unobtrusive (not usually a word I would use to describe the work of Hans Zimmer).

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper is the emotional center of the movie, and it is largely the strength of his performance that anchors the movie. Nolan clearly understood this, as he hangs the success this film on emotional appeal.

I’m a cerebral person. Although I can appreciate a good tearjerker or a quiet movie which silently swims on emotional subtext, I’ll take the guessing game of “Memento” over that stuff any day. At least in a Christopher Nolan film.

I left the theatre underwhelmed; my girlfriend came out sobbing.

I can’t say that “Interstellar” was a bad film; it clearly connected with her, and others I have spoken to about the film echo her sentiment. The film strikes a resounding emotional note. And for some people, that’s enough. Strike that note in the cold vacuum of space though, and it produces no sound.