Posts Tagged 'punk'

In Which I Listen to Modest Mouse and Get Nostalgic in a Hanoi Hotel Room

Sitting in my underpants, white sheets and AC, bag of lychee beside me and lychee fingers, sticky on the keyboard.

Pitchfork tweets something about Silver Jews. I click, I scan, I click on something else and I scan on something else.

See the ad in the sidebar. Ignore it, actually, flashing words and image of a sky outside a car window, like I’m in a car on an American highway, looking out of the window, riding. Finally succumb to the ADD-inspiring ad and read the words: “Pitchfork Classic: Lonesome Crowded West.”

“Lonesome Crowded West?! A ‘classic’?!” I scoff through through my mouthful of sweet goo, spit a seed into a plastic bag. “That was… oh shit, that was hella long ago.”

Click, load, let the video start to play. Montage of young boys on tour, wrestling, grinning, sweating under the lights on stage. Familiar sounds come blaring out of the speakers of my laptop; I turn it down, though fuck knows why since everyone else is this hotel is so damn loud. Hear the jangles and screams and distorted echoes of another place, another time, another era.

It hadn’t felt like that long ago.

*

North Oakland, 58th Street, the end of the last millennium. The first house friends of mine got together: ashtrays, 40 bottles, Goodwill couches. It wasn’t a proper punk house since there were only four people living it. Every punk house needs at least 1.5 residents per bedroom and it also needs a name. This house never had one; it was just “The 58th Street House.”

Sav, Jon, Sophie and Ben. Sav was a punk and so was Jon, though it was fading into a general Carhartt-wearing blue-collar tough. Sophie wasn’t a punk. Ben definitely wasn’t a punk.

So it was probably Ben that first brought the album to the house. It was that Northern, woodsy indie shit we generally didn’t like—too soft, too weepy, grow-a-pair-and-start-screaming. But he did scream was the thing, and I guess that’s what got us. Got me.

It was my first year at State and I was staying out there, over the bridge and through the BART tunnel, in that foggy patch of clapboard houses that disappear into the ocean, at the end of the continent. My first year in college, my first year sober, crazy as a motherfuck.

I’d take the train out on the weekends, those kinds of houseparties kids have when they first move out on their own: all-night, wrecked, music and smoke, backporch and basement and bodies on the floor. I didn’t drink—what the fuck did I do? Kick it and pretend. Feel less awkward than at the college parties, cause at least these were my breed. My people. My tribe.

And that album playing, over and over. Polar opposites don’t push away.

Sav and Jon singing along, late into the night.

*

They’re playing clips and flashing pictures, someone’s home movies of the band on tour. “A time when strip malls were coming, the paving of the West.” Do I remember that? Not really. I was in the city, we didn’t feel it as much, didn’t see the land changing under us.

“I guess you could say it was a prophetic album.”

They’re talking about the grunge era, old bands: Candlebox, Karp, Heavens to Betsy. I laugh; I hadn’t heard those names in a long time.

“It was a different time. Pre-internet, pre-youtube. You actually had to go to a store and buy a record.”

Is that not how we do it anymore? I wonder.

Holy shit, that’s not how we do it anymore.

*

There was this weird thing about the 58th St house—it attracted stray animals.

Like a lot. So much it got to be a joke. First it was a couple cats lurking around. Then someone knew someone who needed to offload an iguana. So an iguana cage showed up in the kitchen. Iggy the Iguana would come out and party with us, crawl around people’s backs.

Then there was a rabbit. It just showed up. Hopping down 58th St like it wasn’t a thing, like it was the goddamn Green Gables out there instead of North Oakland. Sophie was on the porch smoking and swooped the rabbit up. It chilled with them for a few weeks, then the owner showed up, some little kid asking.

A couple weeks later, they saw the same rabbit hoping down the street. They ignored it this time.

Then there was Mama cat. She wasn’t Mama cat when she first showed up, a skinny teenager howling at the top of her lungs. “God, go out and get laid already!” Jon yelled. She did. She got knocked up and plopped out four kittens. Sophie videotapped the birth. They’d watch it over and over, having it on during those houseparties, tiny kittens crawling around the floor and people trying not to step on them. “The Lonesome Crowded West” playing over and over. Smoke billowing, bottles clinking.

Soon a chain reaction.

Stray animals to stray souls, I said. Or maybe I just thought it.

*

They start going through each song on the album—the history behind it, explaining the lyrics, who wrote write part first. It’d be tedious if I wasn’t already invested, strung along by a whiff of nostalgia like the aftershave of an old boyfriend.

“They did it the old-fashioned way: you get in a van and you tour. You play shows. There was no Myspace, no Facebook, no youtube.”

I feel a little pang when they say that: “the old-fashioned way.” Is that an era that’s really gone? I still think of Pandora and youtube and iTunes as an accessory to going to shows, accessories to hearing some awesome touring band you’d never heard before, to the hat that would pass for gas money. Sure I’m away from it all now; sure I’m dependent entirely upon music blogs and PirateBay, but that’s just because I’m on the other side of the planet, right? That’s not really how it’s done now?

The laptop screen glows in the dim hotel room. I think of the hearing Le Tigre for the first time at a Santa Cruz co-op; I think of seeing Lost Sounds open at an East Oakland warehouse. I think taking the train out to see Modest Mouse at the Great American, Murder City Devils at Slim’s. I think of the last band I saw before I left the Bay; I’d found out about them on Pandora.

Did it really all change that much, when I wasn’t looking? Or worse, when I was looking but just couldn’t see it?

They keep flashing pictures of the band when the album came out. Their skin burns with youth, that flush of youth. They snap back to the recent interviews and their faces have dulled. Wrinkles and grey hairs in their beards. It feels like the first time I noticed wrinkles in my friends’ faces, the first time I noticed them in my own.

I’m enraptured by the younger shots, by the burning. Did we really ever have it? Did we really lose it?

I’ve said what I’ve said / and you know what I mean

I want to look. I want to check and see. But I can’t—the pictures from then aren’t in my iPhoto. They’re in crackling old albums in some box in a closet of my parents’ house, halfway around the world.

*

Iggy was the first to die. Sophie went out of town and someone didn’t feed him. Or someone left his heat lamp on or didn’t turn it on, I can’t remember. They buried his limp green body in the backyard.

One of the kittens died too. Someone sat on it; it was trapped beneath a couch cushion and they didn’t hear it crying. Another kitten got hit by a car but it survived. It had a wonky tail and it ran crooked, like its equilibrium were permanently off. “Brains,” they called it.

There was a fight in the kitchen one night, at one of the parties. That jack-ass Kevin tried to stab his girlfriend—threw her up against Iggy’s old cage and they had to pry the knife outta his hand.

Well, do you need a lot of what you’ve got to survive?

Whatever happened to Mama cat? She got old, I think, disaffected and uninterested. She wandered off one day. Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. I can’t be sure anymore.

*

I remember being shocked that Modest Mouse made it big.

It was eight years later. I was back living in Oakland—had I ever really left?—waiting tables and had just started dating this new guy. God knows why, we didn’t have much in common. It was a beautiful June day and he wanted to draw the shades and play Guitar Hero. Um, okay.

A song came on; it sounded oddly familiar, the sensibility to the screams. “Who is this?”

“Modest Mouse.”

“What the fuck happened to them?” I remember thinking. It was poppy, slick, overly produced. I hadn’t been listening to the radio, didn’t pay attention to much outside my little DIY bubble. I’d forgotten all about Modest Mouse. My friends had moved out of the 58th St house; North Oakland had gentrified. Ben had broken a heart and left town. Sav had gone up north, lost in doom metal and an abusive relationship. Jon had disappeared. I’d imported “The Lonesome Crowded West” into my iTunes, sold the CD and promptly forgotten about it.

“Are they, like, big?” I asked the dude.

He gave me a look. “You haven’t heard of them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not like this, I haven’t.”

*

“Here / There” signs in North Oakland

It’s not all bad—Ben and Sav moved back. Ben got married, had a baby. Sav got clean, still plays in bands. Sophie became a preschool teacher; she moved to Costa Rica a few months before I moved to Cambodia. I think one of the kittens survived; Meiko adopted it and it might still be alive.

The malls are soon to be ghost towns / Well, so long, farewell, goodbye

Jon never showed back up.

*

I end watching the whole damn thing, all 45 minutes. The heat of the laptop has made me sweat and the lychee stick on my fingers has dried. Miniscule ants scurry around the keyboard, disappear behind the glowing keys.

I click on my iTunes, bring up Modest Mouse. Yup, still there. I go to click on the album, then stop.

All the people you knew were the actors

I’m alone. I’m alone in a cheap hotel room, a long time away, on the other side of the planet. What’s the use?

I get up and brush my teeth instead.

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Where Glen E Friedman and Travel Blogging Intersect

Friedman/Fairey collab that happens to hang in my living room

I didn’t expect to get so sucked in. I didn’t expect to get so inspired, and I certainly didn’t expect my interview with photographer Glen E Friedman to have anything to do with travel writing or blogging.

Which it didn’t, not explicitly. But in talking to Glen, crosslegged on my bedroom floor for over an hour one Monday morning, in asking him about his drives and motivations, about what inspires him and what doesn’t, I saw so many parallels to my own experience in the travel blogging world that I couldn’t help but write something up about it. Our chat served as a kind of check, about what really matters to me and what I really want to do with my writing.

Glen is old-school. Some would say “an idealist from a bygone era,” and I suppose I can appreciate where they’re coming from. But that wasn’t my experience with Glen. My experience was that he didn’t want to fuck around, that he didn’t want his time wasted by people who didn’t actually care or didn’t want to work hard, and that he truly truly believed in what he was doing and had done. And fuck if you can say that about a lot of people.

But in fact, the most personally inspiring part of my interview with Glen didn’t make it into the actual published interview (up in two parts, one and two, on Hi-Fructose). Because, well, an hour-long interview is really fucking long transcribed.

I was intrigued by Glen’s frustrations with the contemporary art scene, and asked him about it. He went on a kind of rant (homeboy can talk) and some of the lines he used I’d actually read in other interviews. But as he described the scene of it all, what is really the inherent bullshit in any artistic scene, I couldn’t help but think of what one writer dubbed “the circle jerk of travel blogging” (don’t worry, I won’t dog you out):

There’s definitely some people out there that are doing some good stuff—Shepard’s name goes to mind—but there’s a ton of shit out there too. And it makes it boring and frustrating to go to a museum or an art gallery and see the stuff that gets the credibility, because the people hobnob with the right people, you know, or they get high with the right people or had sex with the right people, or they’re just in the scene. I have a strange feeling that if you’re in the scene, then you’re probably not very good. It’s all about the emperor’s new clothes in art. I’d say maybe 5% of people actually have a real talent for what they’re doing and aren’t just getting over. And that’s in most of the fields, whether it’s in music or painting or any kind of craftsmanship that’s considered an art.

It’s a pretty bold position, but as he spoke, I replaced “art” with “blogging,” and well, the same held true.

“I don’t know what suddenly makes so many people artists these days,” Glen wondered aloud. He talked about a laziness, a getting-over attitude, enabled by the ease of having one’s voice heard these days; when he was young, you had to be really driven—you had to really want it. Everything was DIY, because there was no other choice. No one was making any money off their bands or their skating; you did it because you loved it.

It reminded me of my own beginnings in writing—the little callous on my thumb from the pencil ridge, fingertips covered in glue from making zines, waking up from a long night with bits of poetry scribbled across my arm because I hadn’t had any paper on me. I didn’t do it for page ranking, I didn’t do it to “travel the world and get paid”—I did it simply because I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Because there was a voice in me that would not be still.

And I wouldn’t say I’ve sold out or even sold myself short. But it’s easy to get caught up in the scene of it all. It’s easy to see all the recognition other people get and to want it too—to want something measurable, to drive traffic, something to point to: “See, it actually matters; what I have to say matters.” And if you’re a decent writer, it’s easy to write the kind of stuff people want to hear, that garners retweets and comments and link outs. And it’s even easier to get lost inside all that.

Glen’s always followed a higher call that went beyond this scene or that scene, the cool kid club. He’s done his work in order to inspire other people, and he’s really held himself to it. To be fair, he’s had the luxury to hold himself to it: he begun being successful at age 14, and has supported himself through his art his whole adult life. But despite that, there’s always always the opportunity to get lazy, to ride the gravy train, to put your images on a tshirt and make a fuckton of money cause who can’t use more money?

It’s also easy to get frustrated with the scene, to point the finger and scream (internally, of course), “For fuck’s sake, write something real, not just what’s easy or convenient! Write about what’s inconvenient, about what’s difficult and painful and scares the shit out of you.”

In my best of moments, I’d like to be able to take a more loving, tolerant approach. I’d like to not roll my eyes and shittalk (which I’m of course guilty of), but to somehow say to all those writers: “You’re fucking better than what’s easy, than what drives traffic, and you deserve to let that voice be heard.”

But I’ve got a big enough job just trying to hold myself to that standard. Cause, you know, I still have to pay the rent too. And I’m sure as hell not gonna do it transcribing Glen Friedman interviews. But what I will get from it is a reminder, like a small stone you can carry in your pocket and rub when you’re bored or lonely or nervous—of what it really is I want to do with my writing.

Beautiful: The Ridiculous Hair of Chaos in Tejas

Oh, kids these days…

Or actually, kids circa 1979. This year’s crowd at Chaos in Tejas was kind of like a time warp. I haven’t seen that many liberty spikes and back dreads since the hey day of the Telegraph Ave gutterpunk.

Now everyone loves a good Elmer’s glue mohawk with an anarchy symbol spray-painted on it. And who hasn’t shaved half their head before? It was like being a kid again…

By the end of it all, I wanted to wear a pink leotard and sparkly tights. To the dude who wore a tie-dyed t-shirt: rock on. You might have been the punkest of them all.

Sunset at the Super 8

Dusk and the birds come out.

Diving dark bodies against a fading pink—the kids are getting ready.

Ripples in the pool, empty cups and sagging neon intertubes, nodding “yes, yes.”

Drums and distortion and a screaming rage, rattling out of too-small speakers, a half-open door. Hanging over the rail of the balcony, smoking and slouching, bad postures and back patches.

A bird swoops, circles, disappears inside a nook under the drain pipe—small squabbling voices: hungry. Ready to be fed.

Skateboarding in the parking lot of the Super 8 as the light fades: pink and darkness stretching, chasing, reaching for the sun and consuming the city instead.

Night is coming, the shows are starting, the air exhales and a breeze from no particular direction blows across the pavement, the hot stretch of steel, winking windshields, “yes, yes.”

The birds keep circling, searching for something to take between their beaks. They are only aware of their wings, the wind—not of their dancing or the shape it makes against the sinking Austin sky.

Chaos to Kona: This Will Be Epic

SFO –> AUS –> SJC –> LAX –> KOA –> LAX –> SFO: This will be epic.

It happened like this: my brother’s family was going to Hawaii. It’s an annual thing. My sister-in-law has a good family friend who is famously, fabulously wealthy, and owns a private villa along the Kona coast (“It’s like your own personal Four Seasons,” my parents told me). They go down and stay at the house every year, usually with a big group of people in January (when you can watch the migrating whales from the pool deck). The imminent arrival of my new baby niece pushed the party back till the end of May this year, which gave me enough time to scrape together airfare and justify taking a proper vacation (travelers don’t vacation, see below…). I roped my hard-working best friend into getting some time off from her fancy scientist job and come along with me.

Aside from the not-paying-for-a-place-to-stay bit, it’s kind of the classic American vacation: a relaxing one-week Hawaiian beach vacation. We’re renting a car (which I’ve never done while traveling), traveling with family, have nothing on the agenda other than morning yoga, noontime naps and all-day sunbathing. Which means, of course, it was nearly impossible to justify. I don’t relax when I travel; that’s not the point. If I need to relax, I’ll sleep till noon and go eat ice-cream cones in Dolores Park. I travel to see the world, dig in, explore, run myself ragged on third-class busses. When I travel, virtually no sacrifice is too big: I’ll bankrupt myself, take as much time off work as I can without getting fired. But when it came to taking 5 days off work and spending $436 to fly to Hawaii, I balked. It seemed like a lot to do nothing, learn nothing, gain nothing but a couple pounds from my brother’s bad-ass cooking.

I took it on as a sort of spiritual challenge: a traveler vacationing. In a lot of ways, it’s going to be my first vacation in 5 years. Unwinding, unplugging. But of course, I’ll have to write about that. And bring my laptop along. And then a friend gave me some tips on non-touristy places to go on the Big Island. An independent traveler tackling the most touristy place in the US? Sounds like a killer article…

Already, I was chipping away at the “vacation” element of my vacation. And then came Chaos.

It’s the dirtbaggiest, DIY-est music festival of the year. Organized by one dude with a blog and Xeroxed flyers, Chaos is Tejas brings out some of the biggest names in punk/crust/sludge/metal for four days of sheer debauchery in Austin, Texas. Friends had been road-tripping out since its inception 6 years ago. I finally went 2 years ago, and partied like I was 15 (minus the malt liquor and methamphetamines). I stayed with a tattooer/artist friend of mine, and ran around the streets till 4 in the morning, lighting off fireworks at after parties and making out in the back of a truck with some dude while his friends careened us around the city. And that was stone-cold sober.

I remembered the festival as being in early May. A tight squeeze, but I could fit it before Hawaii, right?

Turns out Chaos in Tejas (which has entered the digital age this year with a Facebook page) is Memorial Day weekend. And I was leaving for Hawaii on that Sunday. Some friends were planning to drive out. A hair-brained scheme began to hatch.

The road-tripping part had to get chopped out, but here’s how it’s ended up working out:

Wednesday: Fly to Austin with Liz and Melissa.

Thursday – Saturday: Rock our effing brains out. Killer bands from all over the world playing nearly 20 different shows. 3 single girls in a sea of crusty boys: think “Girls Gone Wild,” but with more tattoos.

Sunday: Fly from Austin to San Jose. Meet Alicia at the airport. Fly from San Jose to LA, where we’ll connect and fly to Kona. Grab our rental car and traverse the dark turns of some deserted highway, arriving at the gate to the mile-long driveway.

Monday-Saturday: Chill-ax.

Saturday night: Red-eye back to LA.

Sunday morning: Fly back to San Jose. Get a ride back to Oakland. Be at work by 2:30.

It’ll be one end of the spectrum to another: ridiculous partying to ridiculous relaxing. Punk rock shows to private properties, dirtbags to nieces, stinky clubs to island paradise. 11 days, 2 destinations, 7 flights, 1 rental car, 3 girls in 1 cheap hotel room, 15 people in 1 oceanside villa, 99 bands and 1 me to live (and write) it all.

Subtle Like T-Rex: My Obscure Top 10 Travel Songs

Just in case there’s someone who hasn’t got enough of the Top 10 list, get ready for another nail in coffin.

When it comes to songs about travel, there’s plenty looming giants that drown out the subtler stars. Now, I love “Route 66” and “On the Road Again” as much as the next red-blooded American. And I’ve got a well-bred affection for “Graceland,” “Booby McGee” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” But when it comes to the songs that really get my feet itching and fingers a’packing, it’s all about the lesser-known jams.

Call it the forever-to-the-contrary, anti-mainstream, cranky old punk in me, but I think these songs kill the more widely embraced classics (though, baby I was born to run too). I’ve listed them vaguely in order of ranking, but more in terms of a flow fit best for you’re listening pleasure.

In the spirit of old mix tape, my early Christmas present to you:

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1. Hard Travelin’, Woody Guthrie

Whenever a bus is delayed or flight canceled, I wanna bust out a harmonica (that I don’t own and can’t play) and break into a freestyle rendition of “Hard Travelin'”. I may have been born three generations too late to live the train-hopping, vagabonding hobo dream, but Woody’s keeping it alive for me.

Best Line: “That mean old judge done said to me / It’s 90 days for vagrancy / And I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’, Lord”

2. Ramblin’ Man, Hank Williams III and Melvins

Not the Allman Brothers. With the heart, soul and twang of the original in his DNA, Hank Williams III buddied up with, that’s right, Melvins, and well, they killed it.

Best line: “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / Till I hear those freights rollin’ down the line / Then I hurry straight home and pack / And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow stack” Amen.

3. Ready for More, Murder City Devils

AKA, the best show you went to in 2001 (really, no one lights their drums on fire anymore). The boys that made the trucker hat cool wrote this one about the exhaustion of hard-partying touring/traveling that only copious amounts of cocaine can fuel you through. I may have missed the boat (or tour bus) on that one, but I can get down with the angsty howlings of Spencer Moody any day.

Best line: “And I’m subtle, subtle like a T-Rex / And I haven’t even started yet / One week on the road / One week, and I’m already wrecked”

4. I’m Moving Along, Patsy Cline

With the guts and growl that can only belong to one woman, “I’m Moving Along” is an anthem for anyone that’s split town to heal a heartbreak. The way Patsy belts out that last line always make me wanna grab a suitcase and slam the door on whatever’s bumming me out at home.

Best line: “I’m moving along, I gotta be free”

5. Gone Till November, Wyclef Jean

He may be pretentious at times, but god damn, it’s a pretty song. If you’ve ever had to reconcile the traveling lifestyle with leaving loved ones at home, this is the jam for you.

Best line: “See you must understand, I can’t work a 9-5”

6. Sloop John B, Beach Boys

Not every trip is awesome. And even in the best of em, there comes that moment when, say, you’ve had diarrhea for two weeks and are really over the whole squat toilet thing. For moments like these, “Sloop John B” ‘s refraining “I wanna go home, Let me go home” hits the swollen and tender spot.

Best Line: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” (though, with Charles Manson running around the sandbox, we can’t be totally sure what kind of trip they mean…)

7. Board of Tourism, This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb

The touring-est band I’ve ever known wrote this cheeky tribute to the “attractions” their hometown Pensacola, Florida. It perfectly captures the two-bit claims-to-fame that small cities grasp at. And it’s adorable.

Best Line: Tie between the refrain, “We got a drive-thru funeral home” and “You know they even filmed a movie there one time / They had James Brown and gave away hot dogs”

8. Rock Island Line, Leadbelly

This song is the definition of bad-ass, by the guy that created the word cool. Nuff said.

Best Line: “If you wants to ride, you got to ride it like you find it”

9. Unknown Passage, Dead Moon

By another band that spent half their lives on the road, the hypnotic riffs of “Unknown Passage” hauntingly capture those road-tripping 3ams full of dark highways and strange landscapes. (And if you wanna know how to build a house, raise a family, travel the country six months a year, and rock and roll like it’s going out of style on less than $20,000 a year, check out the Dead Moon documentary by the same name.) Just don’t put this on if you’re trying to stay awake while driving.

Best Line: “There’s a red light on the hill / And a bridge out going down / There’s a city limits marker / Of an unfamiliar town”

10. So International, B-Legit Featuring Too $hort

Nothing like a little local love to round it out. Hometown boy Too $hort teams up with B-Legit and flows about, well, mostly having sex around the globe and flying first class. Can’t relate, but the hook is catchy as shit.

Best Line: “Yea, we fly first class, touch down like pimps / What’s the next event, tell me what town it’s in”

Thanks for Nothing / Everything

I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.

Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.

Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.

Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.

Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.

But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.

Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.

The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.

Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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