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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Everything I needed to know about capitalism, I learned playing Monopoly

Unless you had a sadly deprived childhood, you have probably played Monopoly. In Australia in the 1980's, everyone had a set that looked like the one above with street names from London, but with prices listed in $ instead of £. So strange. Even the McDonald's Monopoly promotion in Australia used the UK version's property names. I thought the game was actually from the UK and that those names were original until I moved to America and was laughed at by my husband.

Monopoly is phenomenally successful for good reason. It demonstrates to players how fun capitalism can be, and how much power money wields. It's especially gratifying for children, who have zero financial autonomy, because for a little while they can feel like they imagine their parents do, collecting money and refusing to give it out unless required.

But wait. Funny thing: even though the game is called Monopoly and the simplest objective for players is to obtain a monopoly, the original point of the game is to teach us the negative effects of monopolization.

I have to assume that a lot of Americans (to pick on one group) didn't have the patience to play the game through to the end, otherwise they would probably understand that point. Not so in my family. We didn't play Monopoly all that often, because my mother and I were so stubborn, it would take hours to complete. How does a Monopoly game end? First, there have to be only two players left, because everyone else has gone bankrupt and had to retire. At this point, the game becomes an extremely boring and joyless death match. Everyone who bowed out has left the room to do something else. The two remaining players pay money to each other, back and forth, until eventually one of them, through dumb luck, ends up owing more to the other player than they own.

The last player, having achieved a true monopoly, is the winner, and the game ends.

The game ends. Nobody can play anymore. The bank closes, and the properties go to waste because nobody can pay rent. The winner is left with a pile of fake money, and because everyone else has already gone home, they have to pack up the board and wallow in their own miserable loneliness.

If you don't have the attention span to play the game through to the end, capitalism is about getting as much money as you can and fucking over as many other people as possible, because this is rather fun.

If you do play the game through to the end, you realize that once you've won, the entire system falls to pieces because nobody else can play, and having a monopoly and too much money is ridiculous and sad, because once you win, everything you've won is worthless.

At some point, if you play Monopoly enough, you discover that the only way to keep the game fun is to make sure other players stay in the game by trying not to exploit them too much. Sometimes we would bend the rules in my family. We would make alliances and loan or give money to each other to keep each other from going bankrupt. We would forgive rent, or pay more than a property was worth to help players that were struggling. This also usually prevents other players from all hating the winner, should the game be played through to the end.

That is the lesson of Monopoly. And apparently a lot of people in this country didn't have the mental discipline to learn it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

This is probably a bad idea, but I have to say something.


A terrible thing happened in Aurora, Colorado. A gut-twisting, mind-shattering, terrible thing. Innocent people were massacred by a 24-year-old man.

It was horrifying to hear the news. I read the circumstances and felt real goosebumps of fear, imagining myself in a dark theater being terrorized by a masked gunman. I was confused and angry about how and why this had taken place.

Then I started reading some of the reactions to this terrible thing, and they made me feel even worse. These were reactions from people I look up to or consider friends.

It's hard for me not to take this a bit personally. A few times on this blog, I've spoken about my mother, who has bipolar disorder, and has had countless psychotic breaks since 1987 (I gave up counting how many times she has been committed to psychiatric institutions for extended stays after the number hit 15 sometime in my teens). I try not to be utterly defined by the fact that I grew up with a mentally ill parent, but there's no doubt that it has done its part in shaping who I am and how I react to certain tragedies. A few years ago, I came to the decision that I was sick and tired of feeling uncomfortable talking about it, and I started opening my eyes to the way the stigma and silence and ignorance surrounding mental illness make the whole situation significantly worse for my mother, my family, and everyone else in the world who is touched by mental illness in some way. I want to do what little I can to change that, so I try and talk about mental illness frankly and openly and often publicly. It might be a futile endeavor, because the more you realize how easy it is for most people to dehumanize the mentally ill, the more overwhelmed you become by the enormity of the problem.

We don't really know anything about the perpetrator of this horrific deed. For all I know, this was the act of a (somehow) sane person with a (somehow) sane but awful rationalization. Or he could be experiencing the onset of schizophrenia. But the way online spectators have instantly tried to dehumanize this person, without knowing anything for certain, makes me think about the mentally ill people I know, including my mother. When she has psychotic breaks, she sometimes does really terrible things, things that, despite my best efforts, I am still uncomfortable talking about publicly, things that make my throat close up and my eyes burn just remembering them. If my mother had done these things while she were sane, they would be unforgivable. I guess it never occurred to me before now that, when she did those things in public (which happened occasionally), a lot of bystanders probably instantly thought of her as an attention-hungry monster or animal.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to think about a mentally ill person as less than human. It's far, far too easy. Despite my contact with the mentally ill, I've struggled with it myself; like most people, I find it difficult to even acknowledge the presence of a homeless person in the grips of an obvious delusion. I've seen the way some psychiatrists who have been practicing for a long time look at their patients with thinly veiled contempt, and treat them the way they might treat a vicious dog with rabies.

Maybe I sound like a soft-brained bleeding-heart idiot when I criticize people who start using words like these to discuss the shooter. But thinking of someone as human does not mean I condone or forgive the deed. It just means that I'm trying not to forget that there is a person under that label, a person for whom something went terribly wrong at some point - and we don't know what that something is yet. If there's one thing my upbringing taught me, it's that the complex human brain is sometimes so unpredictable, each of us should never take sanity for granted. Utterly normal, strong, good people lose their grip on reality every day, and when it happens, they have no idea because what they're experiencing feels completely real. It could happen to you. It could happen to someone you love.

It's also extremely easy to throw around the word "evil." "Evil" is probably the most dehumanizing word in the English language. As a result, it has been used throughout history to justify everything from discrimination, theft, torture, rape, and murder, to terrorism, war, and full-on genocide. When you start thinking of someone as "evil," you give yourself permission to stop meaningfully thinking about them. It reminds me of when particularly closed-minded or intellectually lazy people see something they don't understand, and instead of trying to understand it, they dismiss it as supernatural or something God did that shouldn't be questioned.

So when I see people calling the shooter evil, or talking about taking away his name and giving him a number, I am reminded of other terrible deeds that began exactly that way.

Like I said, maybe he's not mentally ill. My first suspicion will be that he is because my outlook is colored by my experiences. But even if he is not, even if he did this terrible thing of his own free will, in perfect knowledge of the trauma and heartbreak it would cause, it does nobody any favors to dehumanize him. Because if he's sane, he was able to kill those people by doing exactly the same thing to them.

I got preachy. Sorry. Well, no, not actually sorry, because I think this needed to be said, for my own sake if not for anyone else's.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Summer funk

I'm in the dark stage of the break where I realize that I've taken on way too many projects, and I feel very overwhelmed and pessimistic about everything. Small setbacks automatically translate into THE WHOLE WORLD IS SHIT AND I AM GOING TO FAIL. I stay indoors and try not to interact with anybody because I'm afraid I'll be one of those scuttling black holes of negativity that leeches light and energy and time from everyone who comes near. You know the type. Anyway, you're in danger just reading this blog entry.

School starts in about six weeks, and I'm not ready. And it's getting worse every day.

I hate everything.

Everything except the new Up Your Cherry website, which is the one thing I have completed this week (collaboratively with Matt):

It is pretty spiffy, I think, for something that was created PDQ.

Meantime, I dream of a time when I have less to do.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Up Your Cherry - we made a song

Finally, when someone asks me what Up Your Cherry sounds like, and whether we have any recordings, I can point them toward something. We just finished mixing and uploading our first song, "This One."

Yes, it's in 7/4 mostly. Of course.

We have at least one more song to record this week, and we're also hoping to revamp the website. I've also been tossing around video ideas with a friend of ours Chris Braak, who will hopefully also be joining us live at some point in the not-too-distant future on bass.

In the meantime, this coming Saturday July 21, we have a gig to play, the first we've had time to book in ages. We're the house band for a puppet slam at Walking Fish Theater for the second time. It's hella fun, and you should go. Here's a flyer:

Monday, July 09, 2012


craigs·list-beau·ti·ful    adj.    \ˈkrāgzlistˈbyü-ti-fəl\

1 : not beautiful
   a : marked by lack of style : ugly
   b : overhyped : not as beautiful as one has been led to believe

Arising from contexts such as in which the word "beautiful" is used so often to describe objects that are not beautiful that the word has lost its meaning.

  • Is the rug really attractive, or is it craigslist-beautiful?
  • Their marketing is so excessive, I suspect their products are craigslist-beautiful.
  • The craigslist-beautiful girls danced at the gentlemen's club.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

NATS 52nd National Conference -- a weekend in Orlando -- also, SeaWorld and DINOSAURS

As previously reported, this past weekend, Matt and I went to Orlando for the NATS National Conference, where Tesla's Pigeon, which won the Art Song Award Competition, was performed on Saturday. We had a terrific time, and I hope I manage to stay in touch with the many wonderful people we met. I couldn't possibly list all of them, but of special note are Carol Mikkelson, the NATS Art Song Coordinator, who is quite possibly one of the sweetest people I think I've ever met, with one of those gentle southern accents I could listen to all day, and Colleen Gray (soprano) and Nanette Kaplan Solomon (pianist), who together performed Tesla's Pigeon. In addition to being lots of fun, they are both quite extraordinary and dramatic musicians who learned the work in record time despite being busy with so many other things. They sold the hell out of my songs in the concert!

Carol feeds me a cookie.

Introducing Tesla's Pigeon at the NATS Convention

On Saturday morning, I was browsing the booths in the exhibit hall, when I spotted an Australian flag out of the corner of my eye. What's that about? As I drew in closer, I saw a table was stacked with all manner of tourism information for Brisbane. Brisbane!? The city in which I was born and bred? Eh? I was so absorbed in trying to figure out why my hometown had its own booth at NATS, I completely missed the basket of lollies to one side. "Mel," asked Matt, "is this Australian candy--?"


MINTIES!!! I got very excited about these at the ICVT table #nats52

I'm not sure I've ever been so excited about Minties in my life. I hadn't even thought about them in nearly a decade. For confused Americans: Minties are functionally equivalent to Tootsie Rolls, but white and mint-flavored (and Australian, obviously).

It turns out that beloved BrizVegas is the host city for the 2013 International Congress of Voice Teachers next July, and in attendance at NATS were representatives from the Australian Voice Association. I didn't get to properly sit down with them all, but I met the president Jane Mott and had the chance to speak with VP Adele Nisbet, and caught a good case of homesickness talking about mutual friends and haunts. They left me with a bunch of Minties (eating the last one now) and a packet of Aussie flag cocktail toothpicks (expect those to show up at future house parties).

The conference was held at the Renaissance Hotel at SeaWorld, so it seemed natural Matt and I should hang out at SeaWorld on Sunday, especially with discounted tickets. I enjoyed myself more than anticipated, and didn't even mind the Florida heat (Philadelphia was simultaneously in the grips of a heatwave that brought worse temperatures anyway). I sort of forgot that SeaWorld is more circus than zoo or amusement park -- and the animals actually do seem to enjoy performing, although I'm sure PETA would disagree or something. They even have one of those troupes of rescued pets that seem to be all the rage at the moment, which of course turned Matt and I into insufferable cat idiots squeeing at all the performing kitties.

The biggest squee of Sunday, however, was reserved for a blog comment notification that buzzed my phone in the middle of the seal and sea otter pirate show. One of the highlights of our recent roadtrop was a dinosaur dig we did in Wyoming, and our guide dropped into the roadtrop blog to give us some exciting news about a bone I found at the dig -- see the latest roadtrop entry for details!

Now we're back in Philly. I have parts to create for a new arrangement of Jack and the Beanstalk for the Kennett Symphony, and a crapload of laundry to fold. Sigh.