My wife is one of the bravest people I know.
Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.
Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.
Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.
(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)
In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.
I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.
I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.
But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013′s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014′s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.
Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.
These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.
My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.
I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)
There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)
But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.
I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped. My friend Ed Platt notes, in a thoughtful blog post, that this probably isn’t an appropriate option for people with serious alcohol problems.)
As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)
So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”
It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.
So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)
I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.
TweetThis past December, I gave a talk at the Oxford Internet Institute about possible relationships between “new media” and new approaches to participatory civics – I blogged my notes for the talk at the time.
The fine folks at OII asked whether I would be willing to publish the notes of the lecture in the journal Policy & Internet, edited by Vili Lehdonvirta, who had invited me to lecture at Oxford, and by Helen Margetts and Sandra Gonzalez Bailon. I agreed, and worked with the editors to polish my handwavings into something more permanent.
What I had not realized was that the editors had solicited a set of responses to the lecture from some of the smartest people in the new media, political theory and social activism space. The latest issue of P&I features my essay, as well as responses from Zeynep Tufekci, Jennifer Earl, Henry Farrell, Phil Howard, Deen Freelon and Chris Wells, who do a great job individually and collectively of challenging and expanding my thinking.
P&I, unfortunately, is protected by paywall, but I and others involved are archiving pre-press versions of our papers. Mine will be up on MIT’s DSpace repository in the near future and is here in the meantime. Other participants have been making their pieces available online as well. If you’ve got access through your university or a library, please check out the whole issue!
Last night, I attended Town Meeting in Lanesborough, MA.
Town meeting government is peculiar to New England and especially strong in Massachusetts, where almost 300 of the state’s municipalities are governed by an annual meeting of town residents. My town is under the population threshold of 6000 at which towns can choose to elect representatives to town meeting. In small towns like ours, we are required to hold an open town meeting, at which any residents may speak and ask questions and where registered voters vote on any major discretionary spending and on changes to the town’s bylaws.
These aren’t the question and answer sessions with national-level elected officials that became infamous for revealing how angry and partisan many American are. They are dead practical discussions of individual line items in the annual budget of a small, mostly volunteer-run organization. (Lanesborough has three elected selectmen, who appoint a paid town manager. The selectmen are nominally compensated for their work, and most committee members are volunteers. The town’s budget of $10 million, goes almost exclusively towards salaries for teachers, school administrators, police and highway workers.) The conversations that take place aren’t the sort that play well on cable TV news – instead, they’re familiar to anyone who’s served on the board of a budget-constrained nonprofit organization.
Town meetings are frequently lauded as one of the purest forms of direct democracy. Everyone has a voice, which is a good and a bad thing – only fifteen minutes into last night’s meeting, it became clear why every meeting has a moderator and why that moderator has extremely broad discretion over closing discussion on a topic. About an hour into the meeting, I asked a question about a $10,000 expenditure on road repairs, and quickly regretted doing so. I was curious because it was the sole article on the warrant where the selectmen and finance committee were at odds, and I was interested to know what the dispute was about. Half an hour later, I knew a great deal more about the problem of runoff from unpaved roads into Pontoosuc Lake, snowplowing and the nuances of accepted, non-accepted and private roads than I’d really wanted to know.
Mark Schiek, Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman, speaks at Lanesborough Town Meeting. Photo from iBerkshires
I was acutely aware of the time my question was taking up because, like most of the people who attended the meeting, I was there because of a single article, Article 21, slated for discussion near the end of the meeting. Lanesborough has quite high tax rates (38th statewide), even for Massachusetts, in part because we maintain our own elementary school and share a high school with larger, wealthier Williamstown. That high school has serious structural deficiencies, and there’s a plan on the table to retrofit the building or build a new facility. First step in that plan is gaining approval for a $850,000 feasibility study at the town meetings in Williamstown and Lanesborough.
Many of the people in the elementary school gym last night are parents of young children (like me) who wanted to ensure that their children’s high school remains strong. And, like me, many were paying babysitters to watch their kids so they could vote in favor of a feasibility study.
My presence at Town Meeting was a straightforward illustration of an idea Anthea Watson Strong introduced at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York. To explain why it’s often difficult to get people involved in civics, she offered an equation:
The benefit of renovations to our local high school is quite high for me: my son enters kindergarden in 15 months, which means he’s likely to enjoy the full benefits of a new or renovated middle and high school. Those campaigning in favor of the feasibility study persuaded me that P was pretty high, as they were expecting showdown between pro-education and anti-tax forces, and they needed every vote they could get, as this allocation requires a supermajority. Even without considering duty, P * B was high enough to overcome the substantial cost of action: three hours of a babysitter, a rushed dinner instead of a night of bad TV on the couch.
As it happens, Article 21 didn’t need my vote. Several townspeople spoke passionately about the need for strong schools, one suggesting that as Berkshire County shrinks in population, we should expect our high school to become a magnet for high performing students in nearby communities. Members of the regional school committee had good answers to probing questions about school choice, tuition for out of town students and the steps in funding a renovation process. Two townspeople spoke against the article – as it turned out, they were the only ones I saw vote against the article – well over a hundred voted for it. I misperceived P – spending time at Town Meeting seemed like an effective civic action because I anticipated showdown that didn’t actually occur. (I suspect that “perceived P” is more important than actual P – if you think your vote counts, you’re more likely to vote.)
When the Article passed, dozens of people left the meeting. I left, too – I wanted to pay my babysitter and get to bed. In the process, I illustrated precisely the problem Massachusetts communities are having with town meeting. Several communities have abandoned the meeting system of government because it’s very hard to get people to attend when there’s not a controversial issue on the table. In other words, D is very low. In my case, it’s low enough that it hasn’t moved me to attend Town Meeting in the 15 years I’ve lived in town, until an issue arose where PB > C.
That may change for me. I learned a great deal about my town by attending town meeting, details about how the water, sewers and roads work that I’ve honestly never thought about. The main thing I learned was that to participate in these meetings effectively, I’d need to do a great deal of reading ahead of time, much as I prepare for budget committee meetings for NGO boards I sit on. At that point, P would be higher (though, most of the time, I’m not sure B or D is high enough for me to stay engaged.)
These calculations about the civic utility of attending town meeting suggest some problems for those who are seeking change through government transparency. It’s hard to think of a ritual more conducive to transparency than the Town Meeting. The town publishes an annual report with a detailed, proposed budget ahead of time, and every line of the budget can be questioned by any resident. While this transparency is laudable, it’s also extremely confusing to those who don’t know the issues already. Transparency without explanation opens the process to those who have time and motivation to learn what’s at stake. The rest of us could use a good guide, something we rely on the increasingly stretched local press for. The Berkshire Eagle ran a brief story about what issues were on the table at the meeting, though no follow up about what decisions were made. (A local news site had an excellent article on the Article 21 vote.)
There’s another way of considering engagement in Town Meeting, beyond Anthea’s PB + D > C
equation. Zeynep Tufekci, reacting to a tweet I posted about Anthea’s framework, wondered whether a game theoretic equation was the best explanation for civic behavior. She suggested that most people participate in social movements because their friends are participating, or because it seemed like “the right moment”, not because of some careful calculus. That’s true for me, too. My favorite waitress at Bob’s Country Kitchen, who’s slated to be my son’s kindergarten teacher, urged me to pay attention to the school funding issue, and friends at a BBQ talked about the importance of passing Article 21. Without those nudges from my neighbors, it’s a lot less likely that I’d have left my house last night.
Much of my research on civics focuses on questions of why people don’t find it effective to engage with their governments. It was a refreshing challenge to my thinking to spend time with my local government and find it surprisingly open and responsive. At the same time, it was a reminder that many of the issues I care about – prison reform, gun control – aren’t ever going to be settled in a room as transparent and congenial as the Lanesborough Elementary School gym.
MIT’s commencement was Friday, and (despite the fact that most of my Masters students are continuing to work on their theses over the summer) my official summer began yesterday. Yes, I’m looking forward to catching up on reading, not driving into Boston and the general wonder of the Berkshires in the sunshine… but I’m most looking forward to working from my walking desk.
I have been restructuring my life around walking over the past couple of years. I’ve found that it’s the only exercise I can consistently get myself to do when I’m at home, in Cambridge or on the road. In Cambridge, I now stay in a bed and breakfast three miles away from my office, in part so I can get almost half of my daily walking goal during a 50 minute walk to work. When I travel, I try to wake up early and take hour-long walks around the city I’m staying in, which is good for combatting jetlag and for getting the lay of the land.
At home, though, I have become a reluctant treadmill user. It’s shockingly lovely where we live, and hiking is one of the very best ways to encounter the Berkshires. But home time is wife and kid time, and so I try to be efficient enough in my workdays at home that I have time to throw a ball with Drew or watch bad TV with Rachel. For the past two years, I’ve tried to schedule 1-2 hours a day of conference calls in the afternoon so I can drive to a nearby rail trail to walk and talk. (And yes, I certainly do see the irony of driving to walk. We live on a twisty mountain road where it’s just not especially safe to walk, and where it’s damned hard to carry on a conversation while trudging uphill.) When it’s too cold or rainy to walk outside, I’d tried a new trick – walking on the treadmill after Rachel went to bed, watching old episodes of LOST.
Rachel started using that treadmill – a noisy hand-me-down from friends – to walk while “syncing” in the morning (checking email, social media, etc.) and found that taking half an hour in the morning to do so made her happier for the rest of the day. I tried it and decided that, while I could sync and walk, I needed a desk for real work and a treadmill that was dramatically quieter if I was going to use it to walk and talk.
Last month, we took the plunge, and bought Lifespan’s TR-1200, which seems to be the entry-level walking desk treadmill of choice. (Lifespan makes cheaper treadmills, but this one is rated for several hours of use per day, and with the two of us sharing, it seemed a better option than the cheapest model.) Because Rachel and I are close in height, I was able to build in a desk that’s comfortable for both of us. I bought a new 27″ LCD monitor and a swing arm, repurposed an old desktop speaker set, and bought a remote control fan to mount on a ceiling beam behind the treadmill.
For the past month, we’ve each been using the desk about an hour a day when we’re in town. This week, working from home, I’m putting in closer to 3 hours each day and starting to get a sense for how the new setup does and doesn’t work for me. Some lessons learned:
- The right treadmill matters. I love the guys at Instructables, and I think their advice to “just do it” and build a walking desk around an existing treadmill is conceptually sound, but not practically possible for me. If you can comfortably hold a conference call on your existing treadmill, perhaps then this is a good idea. My hand-me-down treadmill squealed like a stuck pig, and the first step in moving to a standing desk was taking the plunge and making the purchase of the Lifespan treadmill.
- You don’t have to go all in. I’m not an absolutist. Some of the folks who write about switching to treadmill desks encourage you to go all in, moving your full office setup to the treadmill desk. As a road warrior, I don’t have a particularly robust desktop set up at home – I work outside under an umbrella if it’s nice, in front of the fire if it’s cold. The treadmill desk has become another locus for work, but I doubt it will ever become my only workplace.
- Match the task to the workplace. The desk is magical when I’m on conference calls. I can walk at 2.5 – 3mph and no one seems to notice. I get the occasional comment when on Skype or Google Hangout, as my head does bounce up and down, but no one has groused yet. (One Kenyan caller was surprised that he was reaching me at the gym, but that may have had as much to do with how I was dressed as my walking motion.) And, like Rachel, I find that checking email and social media is perfectly reasonable at 2 mph, though I sometimes slow to 1.5 mph to reply. Thus far, I wouldn’t move major writing, programming or reading onto the treadmill… and, for better or worse, I usually have enough conference calls and email to give me 2-3 hours on the treadmill, which is enough to get my 15,000 steps a day.
- Walking is great for combatting distraction. The tasks that work best on the treadmill for me are ones where I don’t need my full focus. When I sit at my desk during conference calls, I don’t pay close enough attention because I end up reading news in another tab. Walking seems to lessen the need to multitask. It may be that I know I’m doing something good for myself physically, or it might be that the little bit of effort it takes to keep the legs moving forward and keep the hands on the keyboard means I have less cognitive surplus to deal with. Amy Harmon, writing in the New York Times, speculates about this as well, pointing to a study by the Max Planck institute in which children and young adults performed better cognitively when walking at their preferred pace.
The moments where I notice this the most are when I’m answering email I don’t want to answer. At a desk, I flit from tab to tab, reading this, tweeting that. At the walking desk, I seem to be able to focus better, perhaps because I know I’m going to use the walking time as email time, then sit down to concentrate on something more engaging.
- Don’t be an idiot. There have been several posts questioning whether it’s possible to work efficiently while walking. This one, by Alyson Shontell, titled “The Truth About ‘Working’ On A Treadmill Desk, makes the experience sound like training for a marathon. At the end, she reveals that she wasn’t so much testing the walking desk as a work choice, but competing with a fellow Business Insider reporter who’d walked 17 miles the day before. I’m finishing this post on the treadmill, having walked 6 miles over 3 hours today, and that’s more than enough for me. Getting in an hour’s walk a day would be a good change for most people, while spending 8 hours walking probably isn’t good for anyone’s productivity.
I realize that hearing other people talk about their work and exercise regimes is roughly as interesting as hearing them talk about their dreams, but the walking desk really is one of the more exciting things in my life right now, and I’m not able to resist evangelizing.
I would be sad to return to the pre-internet days of music fandom. I think back to the days of paper fanzines with hazy nostalgia, but in truth, it was pretty wretched to hear about a band you might or might not like, order a 7″, wait weeks and discover that just because some dude with an exacto knife, glue stick and access to a xerox machine loved a band, it didn’t mean they were any good. I try to remember to be thankful every time I look up an unfamiliar band on AllMusic.com, when I surf a band’s back catalog on YouTube and buy CDs I would never have found without online retailers who stock the long tail of musical tastes.
That said, one casualty of the digital age is the demise of the local record store. I am blessed with an excellent local record store, Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, and I was thrilled to see a line of patrons waiting to get in to celebrate Record Store Day a few months back. (I took Drew to buy his first LP. Four and a half seems like the right age to start building a record collection.) But despite how fortunate I am in terms of local record shopping (both in Williamstown and in Cambridge, which has great stores like Weirdo and Armageddon), I feel the loss of the institution of the record store when I travel to different cities.
This past week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, with Media Lab students, staff and faculty, working to build a partnership between the Lab and iHub, the remarkable tech incubator and coworking space built by the founders of Ushahidi. I wanted to make sure my Media Lab friends saw Nairobi for the wonderful, exciting city that it is, and I especially wanted to show Joseph Paradiso, the other lab faculty member on the trip, some different sides of the city. Joe is a celebrated builder of analog synthesizers and a massive prog rock fan, and while I knew finding music to suit his tastes in Nairobi might be a challenge, I figured a visit to a record store was in order.
Johnstone Mukabi and Peter Rugenye perform at the Melodica Music Store in Nairobi.
Visiting Melodica Records in Nairobi is as much pilgrimage as shopping excursion. The proprietor, Abdul Karim, has been managing the store since 1971. Located in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Melodica is part musical instrument shop, part performance space and part archive. It was quiet on the Saturday afternoon we came by, staffed by Karim, his mother and an assistant, and we were the only customers exploring the stacks.
Like many African music stores, Melodica burns CDs for customers rather than selling packaged CDs. (Teju Cole writes movingly in Every Day is For the Thief of finding John Coltrane CDs in a record store in Lagos, then discovering they are astronomically expensive to buy, as they are designed to be kept as the reference copy, parent of the copies for sale.) Joe immediately begins grilling the sales clerk, asking for the weirdest, most experimental music the shop stocks. The first track the clerk plays is Kanda Bongo Man’s “Zing Zong” – not exactly what Joe was looking for, but I recognize it immediately and shout out the title based on the opening notes. That earns me admission to the back room, packed with piles of dusty vinyl, and an invitation from Karim to use his turntable to listen and discover.
Melodica dates from the days when African record stores weren’t just selling a product – they were recording studios, producers, distributors and retailers. Many of the records Karim hands me are ones on the Melodica label, which he produced in the 1970s. As I’m picking through a stack of dusty Luo ballads, looking for Lingala dance music, Karim explains that musicians would travel with reel to reel masters from Kinshasa or Brazzaville to Nairobi to press their work and bring it to audiences throughout central Africa.
The production on the records varies widely. Some were originally recorded badly, and the saturated tape leads to gnarly, distorted records despite Karim’s engineering efforts. Others have the wide-open, echoey sound that’s characteristic of my favorite Congolese music, a sound that somehow evokes both all-night, outdoor dance clubs and distant vistas. Karim and I talk about what types of records I like and he does his best to find records that feature organ and synth crossing into traditional song structure, the local parallels to styles like Afrojuju in Nigeria (my genre of choice.)
I note a promising album propped up on the studio window, the scratched plexiglass producers once sat behind to offer hand signals to the band recording in what’s now the store’s main space. It’s “Mandingo” by Black Blood and Karim explains that he can’t sell me the album as it is his sole remaining copy, but urges me to download tracks from it from the store’s website. Karim’s role is at least as much preservationist as proprietor these days. A search for “Black Blood” on Afro7, a site dedicated to East African vinyl, offers the clue that Black Blood was a group of expatriate Kenyans playing in Brussels, but there’s little else about them online. Karim’s copy is surely not the sole one extant, but it’s one likely to ensure that a funky, ferocious band survives another generation.
Crate-digging, the art and science of searching for rare grooves in record stories, antique shops and yard sales, is a celebrated, if controversial, practice. Classic hiphop was built on the art of the sample, and the more obscure the sample you could find, the better. (Afrika Bambaata had notoriously deep crates, and was legendary for soaking the labels off his hottest breaks and replacing them with other labels to throw rival DJs off.) After a successful lawsuit by George Clinton’s publisher, Bridgeport Music, established a precedent that any sample, identifiable or not, would merit royalty payments, mainstream hiphop moved away from the world of crate-digging… but the best DJs didn’t.
Recently, DJs like Diplo have built their reputation on finding inspiration in global dance sounds from musical cultures unfamiliar to North America and Europe. (I discuss Diplo’s work at some length in Rewire.) German DJ Frank Gossner has established himself as an “archaeologist” of African vinyl, making multiple trips throughout the region to find rare grooves he can throw into his dance sets. This practice has its critics – DJ Boima Tucker draws parallels between the search for undiscovered African vinyl to the quest by colonial powers for natural resources in Africa, while allowing that these records may simply disappear if someone doesn’t rescue them from obscurity. (A comment by Gossner on Tucker’s post gives you a sense of just how nasty these conversations can get when one DJ accuses another of colonialism…)
Visiting Melodica gives a certain perspective to the crate-digging versus preservation conversation. I didn’t exactly have to fight off an army of European and American DJs desperate to throw some vintage Congolese rumba into their sets. And Karim is hardly a naïf, unaware of the treasures in his store. Instead, he’s acutely aware that the work he’s doing to preserve the music he grew up with requires this music to find new and broader audiences.
Joe and I each buy half a dozen compilation CDs featuring 7″ singles of taraab, rhumba, and afrorock that Karim has digitized. His assistant burns the CDs for us and prints fresh covers for the CDs – it’s hard to believe the roughly $1.20 we pay for each CD pays for more than the disc and the printout. I choose four of the records I most enjoyed and Karim apologizes before charging me $6 for each, explaining that his stocks are slowly dwindling for the old vinyl.
That evening, I had dinner with some of the members of Just a Band, one of Kenya’s most exciting artistic collectives – the group includes filmmakers as well as musicians, and they are at the center of a scene that includes designers and installation artists as well. One of the filmmakers listens to my story about Melodica and says, “I’ve been meaning to do a film about that place.” I hope he will: Kenya’s music scene has a rich past and a promising future. It would be great to see the next generation honoring such a historic treasure.
Kentanzavinyl has a great database of the sorts of artists I found at Melodica, as well as a good blogroll of African record collectors, many of whom post digitized audio from their finds.
Melodica is in the Elimu Co-op House, across the street from KTDA on Tom Mboya Street. Abdul Karim is always happy when fans of east African music visit.
Special bonus tracks:
“A.I.E. A Mwana” by Black Blood
“Africans Must Unite”, by Geraldo Pino, one of the 7″ I bought at Melodica
The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.
Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.
French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.
The original “Happy” video
The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.
There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.
Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”
Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.
“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)
The original “Empire State of Mind”
“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”
The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.
The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)
Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style
I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.
Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.
Dig Grave Style
Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.
“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.
Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.
Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)
We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.
While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)
I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”
For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.
The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.
A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.
Happy in Tehran
Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”
The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television
Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:
It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness http://t.co/XV1VAAJeYI
— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) May 21, 2014
It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”
Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.