Monday, February 18, 2008

some days take less, but most days take more

Well, it seems a tour of shame through my playlists continues. Instead of posting what would have been totally hipster-approved, the new DeVotchKa single Transliterator, I went into the vault and dragged out this little number, which is the equivalent of hanging up a disco ball without a touch of irony. I might post Transliterator next week- I'm not done digesting it, and it just did not fit my current mood.

I do not like everything U2 does. I am not such a huge fan of them in recent years. Yet, most people point to the album from which this song is plucked as part of the decline of U2, with All That You Can't Leave Behind being their dutiful return to form. Here's where I reveal my anti-coolness once again. I kind of loved Zooropa. Yup, kind of loved it from start to finish. Sort of listened to it the way most people did Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby, in an endless loop on repeat. I liked those two albums, very much so. I liked pretty much everything U2 had done prior to Zooropa. It's not that the album was so much more superior to everything that had been released beforehand by U2, far from it.

The album had some stones though. Say what else you want about it, but you have to give it that. U2 had been doing this for some time, but no one had really given them much notice for it. It was kind of this quiet progression, followed by a tweak here and there and whoops, entirely different band and sound. It felt like a huge departure, but if you went back and listened carefully, you could see the connections. It wasn't an aging band trying to front, thinking the kids'll dig this, wasn't Mick Jagger stooping to the Harlem Shuffle.

I guess that is what I liked about Zooropa. So much of it was ridiculous. It was over-the-top. Some of the lyrics seemed more like gibberish than past U2 songs. And certainly there was posturing, because by this time, Bono's head had definitely, permanently inflated. But it did not feel false. It did not feel forced. It felt like a band toying around with an idea, like thinking aloud. And, in particular, at the time when this album came out, I was thinking aloud a lot myself.

When I was listening to Zooropa the most, my dingy apartment in Allston had been burglarized, a mere week after I had moved in. I was working a part-time job that summer to pay rent, trucking across Boston with my T-pass to take Physics at a school where I could afford tuition, and then trucking it back to my actual university to work for free in the lab. Everything had its purpose, though it seems senseless looking back on it. I had to take the class in order for my parents to feel I was justified in staying in Boston that summer. I had to work the part-time job to pay the rent. And the whole reason I was jumping through both of those hoops was so that I could stay in Boston to work in the lab. Unpaid.

Oh, and there was some nonsense with a boy going on in the midst of all that. Nonsense, because what else could it have been with everything else happening?

I would come home exhausted, flop on the couch, turn on the CD player. I had barely enough money to make rent, pay for my T pass, and eat various noodle-type of packaged products. You could hear the cockroaches scatter when you turned the light on to go into the apartment at night. There was no air-conditioning, and a huge heat wave swept through for a month, such that I would take the T or work in the lab just to cool off some times.

And yet, it was a time of such great awakening. It was a time when I really delved into myself and figured out what I wanted. And being that busy, that scattered, strangely helps you to focus. Other things become background noise and suddenly emerges what is really important, what is keeping your heart beating, keeping you waking up every morning and hurrying through your day. For me, that summer, it was research. It was working in the lab, working with that solitary purpose, that single-minded focus. It was a thing that couldn't let you down, even when things didn't work out. You could go back, figure out what went wrong, try something new. You had to give up on it, because it would not give up on you. And when you find something like that, when you find that you can throw yourself into something with that much recklessness, whether you stick with it or not, you earn a certain strength that can't be stripped away.

This song always makes me think of that time, and makes me, oddly enough, think of research. Lab research at the bench is not the kind of thing where you wake up every day, stretch out and think another wonderful day. Some days are fantastic triumphs and you will make what seems like quantum leap breakthroughs. Other days you will want to smash test tubes against a wall because you have been set back a month in the matter of minutes. It's not just working, step-wise, to a carefully crafted goal. It's a mess, and it teaches you that nothing, neither the triumphs nor the defeats, is permanent. And even though these days I am doing something entirely different with a lot more instant gratification, I would do well to remember the lessons I learned that summer.

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