Archive for the ‘It’s All About Me! What? You Were Looking For Folk?’Category

What’s the Worst Thing that Could Possibly Happen to You?

Most Formula One racers spend about four seconds in the pit stop. I’ve been here for a week.

Like a high-performance automobile, my body has been accelerating through my schoolwork all semester, dodging deadlines, careening between classes, whizzing past my competitors as they choke on the dust I leave behind in my wake. Midterms, homework assignments and practical exams disappear in my rearview mirror like so much unfortunate road kill. I spent most of the semester with my wheels barely touching the tarmac, oblivious to anything but the approaching finish line.

About a week ago, though, the engine started to falter.

I spent my first round of exams at around a thousand RPM (Revision-minutes Per Midterm), fuelling up on bottomless cups of tea and racing through the night. My body, ever the practical machine, knew I was too busy to get sick, and so took the liberty of rescheduling any impending sniffles or colds for sometime in mid-August 2014. Nevertheless, it was evident something didn’t feel quite right, but with Spring break approaching I knew I’d be fine if I kept pushing just a little bit longer.

I had interviews and coursework and more midterms, but I continued to ignore the warning lights that came flashing up, even as the ominous spluttering from under the hood grew ever louder. The little dents and scratches that usually managed to heal themselves began to accumulate, until I realized that my body was just too preoccupied to waste resources healing itself. Just a little further, I told it. Drag me past that chequered flag and we’ll be fine.

Eventually I was forced to see a doctor, whose advice I half-heard as I was flipping through textbooks in her examination room. Blood tests were taken just to be sure, but we all knew the oil was fine. All the engine really needed was a rest.

It came down to the final week. One last barrage of midterms and practicals, and I could put this disintegrating technology to rest. The balding tires, the unwashed grills, the rusting transmission, and at the very heart, a hiccuping engine held together by bubble-gum and the caffeine coursing through its valves.

And then, suddenly, I had finished.

I don’t remember much about packing my suitcase. I don’t remember my girlfriend driving me to the airport in the morning or checking in or taking my shoes off at security (was I even wearing shoes?). I don’t know if I had the aisle or was crammed into the window, or if I asked for extra peanuts.

I do, remember, however, seeing my mother try to sneak behind me at the carousel in an effort to surprise me, and then upon seeing my pale unwashed skin, wrap me up in a bear hug and half carry my luggage and me to the car outside. I do remember her plying me with sandwiches and drinks as my dad drove us home, and I do remember landing on the couch after walking through the door and waking up hours later with a blanket covertly wrapped around my body.

Through the course of my life, I have moved houses innumerable times across Asia, Europe and North America and after a few months at each new location my mum will ask me without fail, does it feel like home yet? And the answer is always yes, because wherever my mother is, be it Singapore, Southern California or Saturn’s rings, I will always feel like I’ve lived there my entire life.

And now, wrapped up each night in fat slabs of indulgent endless sleep, I can feel my body slowly putting itself together again. Each morning, I wake up with the sun streaming in my window, and for a split second I forget where I am. Then I catch the smell of scrambled eggs or porridge or lemon meringue pie wafting up from the kitchen downstairs, the door opens and my mum brings in a cup of tea and tells me what she has planned for the day, and there is no doubt in my mind about where I could possibly be. I am, of course, home.

So, I find myself now, firmly entrenched in a pit stop, changing my tires and cooling my pistons. I know that soon I will have to fly up north again, to return to the tarmac and the distant finish line, and in truth, I can’t wait to get back to burning rubber. But for the moment, you can keep your four seconds. I could easily stay here forever.

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In the spirit of home comforts, I turn back now to possibly my favorite folk artist of all time. Josh Ritter, as some of you may know, has always been very dear to my heart, and when I received the official Josh Ritter Fan Club newsletter recently and learned that he was releasing his new EP ‘Bringing Home the Darlings’, I knew I had no choice but to indulge.

While I’m a little sad to say that most of the songs did not quite stand out for me, one in particular has been constantly repeating itself on my iPod. ‘Why’ has just the right combination of beautiful harmonies and heart-rending lyricism to lodge itself inside your head for weeks. Ritter excels when he is at his most simple, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his faux-country vocals. Presumably this EP will lead on to a full-fledged album, and I’ll be counting the days.

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The Sorest Thumb in the Room

I think we all like to have a collection of stock stories that we can fall back on at interviews and cocktail parties. These are the old reliable anecdotes that serve as stopgaps between awkward pauses, or warm-ups to more important conversations. Perhaps it seems a little phony for me to say it, but in truth there is something comforting about turning a unpredictable encounter into a quasi-formulaic exchange you’ve had thousands of times before.

Considering that I’ve spent the majority of my life with somewhat of a minority background, it’s easy for me to steer an uneasy conversation into a more familiar arena. “You know you can’t chew gum in Singapore? I know that because I lived there for 8 years. Oh, what I haven’t mentioned that? Well…” There. Easy.

Many friends and acquaintances reading this may be familiar with some of my old favourites. Others may never have met me but may do one day in the future, and at the risk of giving away or spoiling any of the ammunition I might one day use to segue myself into our burgeoning friendship, I won’t spoil any surprises. There is one particular story, however, that has been so heavily used that it may soon need to be retired, and to give it a proper sending-off, allow me to employ it one final time.

When I was 11, my family and I moved to hot, tropical Singapore from temperate, waspy Connecticut. I’d spent most of my important growing-up years at a public elementary school and when I left in the winter of 2001, I didn’t bring any chewing gum or other contraband (except maybe about a million Pokemon cards) but I did manage to import a very strong, very nasal American accent.

There are videos of me when we were still in America alighting from a big yellow school bus, complaining about something my principle at my elementary school had said that afternoon. “Mr Rechi,” I complain to the camera, curling my vowels and tapdancing across consonants. “Mr Rechi didn’t tell the students to have a good weekend.” My siblings find endless joy in this clip. Not in the red, wire-framed glasses. Not in the vibrant bowl haircut, billowing in the wind. Rather, my brother and sisters laugh and laugh and do imitations and generally don’t let me forget, the very strong, very nasal American accent.

I wouldn’t strictly say I was bullied for the way I spoke when I arrived at my new international school in Singapore, not least because my ‘tormentors’ eventually became my best friends (in fact, the same best friends I Skype with now every week). Instead, it was perhaps a form of very influential teasing, that eventually convinced me things would have to change. Carefully, I studied the accents I heard around me. The cafeteria at my school was probably fairly similar to the one at the United Nations, with hundreds of different flavours of English bouncing around ever corner. Anyone who has ever spent time in an ‘expat’ community will know that the effect of all these translated mother tongues, these human filters transmitting Australian and Korean and British and Indian and Kiwi and German intonations and pronunciations, is an amalgamated, universal Overseas Accent.

To the layman ear, it sounds pretty British. But linguistic connoisseurs will detect rhotic consonants and stunted vowels, lazy “t’s” and curvy “er’s”. When I moved to England I was told I was Australian, when I travelled through Melbourne I was told I was South African. At the age of 11, teased for having a voice reminiscent of Spongebob Squarepants, none of this mattered as long as I didn’t sound American.

This is the part of the story where, depending on how much you seem to be enjoying our conversation, I would add that interestingly enough, my twin sister still has an American accent. As long as you didn’t laugh politely and search around the room for somebody more exciting to talk to, I would tell you how my twin, unpressured by spotty adolescents to drop her American pronunciations, talks now like she spent most of her life growing up with a Beverly Hills postcode. Her accent has remained, a relic of her New England childhood, so that when my mother introduces us to her friends at parties she has to quickly chime in to explain that we are in fact twins, though we don’t necessarily sound like we are.

This is usually a good point for me to start telling my story.

Keen readers will notice that for the past year or so, this blog has been written the same way it would have been spoken aloud: Englishly. My “favours” and “neighbours” are stuffed with redundant vowels, I avoid filling my “recognise”s with exciting z’s, I fly “aeroplanes” and put suitcases in the “boot”. However, once again, it seems, the time has come for me to change. Like my 11 year-old self did so many years ago, I am feeling the pressures to amalgamate, to homogenise, to blend in. Now, however, rather than coming from a troupe of boys in a humid South East Asian locker room, the pressure comes from within.

Everyday, I begin my lecture by putting the date in the top right-hand corner of the page. And everyday, a crisis strikes. Today is February 17th, I think to myself. What comes first? The month or the day? In my sociology classes back at university, we would learn about hybridised and multiple identities, British-Asians, for instance, who oscillate between cultural personas, British one minute, Asian the next. When I am deciding whether or not I should put write a 2 or 17 first, a little mini argument erupts in brain. But it always ends the same way.

I travelled 5,000 miles from family, friends and a first-class degree to start all over again in city where nobody, except maybe my sister, knows me. I remind myself of this, and then I then I pick up my pen and majestically write 2/17/12 at the top of my paper. Of course the problem with this particular method of cultural identification is that by the time my internal conflict has been resolved, the class is already three slides deep into the Powerpoint presentation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I haven’t sold my soul and my British heritage for a slice of the American dream. I’m far from becoming an anonymous member of the Greatest Nation on Earth, and in fact I still stick out like a sore thumb at parties. Despite my attempts to blend in, I still ask for the temperature in Celsius and am always momentarily stunned when people tell me they like my ‘pants’. It is more for consistency and convenience that I have decided to slowly Americanize (did you see that?) how I write and type. In the end I’ll never be happy unless I’m just a little bit strange.

And in case you were wondering, I won’t be losing the accent any time soon. It’s way too popular with the ladies.

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So it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and you know what? I’m not gonna apologise! That’s right. I’m not.

Well, okay. Maybe I will. A little.

Okay, okay, I’m really really really sorry. It’s just I’ve had midterms, and coursework, and medicine stuff, and… and to say sorry properly, I’ll provide you with something gorgeous today.

A couple years ago, Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez got together and informally formed Middle Brother. Their 2011 self-titled album took a fat chunk of all three members, resulting in a crunchy folky album that drifts along and does what it likes. The album is a whole mix of different stuff, but Million Dollar Bill stuck out for me for a number of reasons, not least because each member gets his own verse, before harmonising together in a swooning trio at each chorus. I think you’re going to like it too.

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Oh, the Weather Outside is Inconsistent

I’ve always thought it would be cool to write a book about all the different ways people do Christmas. Not a particularly profitable book, I suppose, because now that I think about it, it would probably be kind of boring, and the demographic would more or less basically just be me. Maybe just a magazine article then, or a Powerpoint presentation.

I’d still find it really interesting. I’m fascinated by the protocol of Christmas. Every family who celebrates the holiday has their own special way of doing it. Stockings on the bed or over the fireplace? Christmas Eve in with the family or out on the town? Presents all at once or spread throughout the day? For some, I understand, this protocol is relaxed and malleable. Your formula for the ideal family Christmas may be altered by varying circumstances, and family traditions may be subject to drastic change from year to year. This is not, however, the case for my family.

You see, we’re somewhat of a mobile bunch. In a few weeks’ time when we’ve all returned to our respective homes-away-from-home, my brother will be in Singapore, my sister will be in San Francisco, my twin will be in Scotland, my parents will stay in San Diego and I’ll be dodging bullets back up in Oakland. It’s always been this way, all of us spread out across the globe like a bunch of family diplomats each responsible for keeping up appearances in one corner of the Earth. Consequently, Christmas has become not just a time of celebration, but a time of reunion, when we get to eat homecooked food and wait with anticipation for each other to arrive from the airport. The location of that airport has changed many times over the years too. With each new move, we find a new place to call home, and a new quandary over which room in the new house we should put the Christmas tree in.

Among this swirling maelstrom of change, December 25th remains an island of unwavering consistency. Apart from the ever diminishing role that Santa Claus has taken as the years have passed, for the most part Christmas has remained more or less unchanged in the Burns family since around 1986.

Maintaining such ruthless regularity has not been difficult. You see, Papa Burns contributed a lot of German DNA to the family gene pool, and the clockwork precision and efficiency of our Teutonic heritage becomes apparent at this time of year. My sisters, who appear to have inherited the majority of this DNA, adopt the unofficial titles of Christmas Coordinators. Some years I forget portions of the Christmas protocol, but they are like the village elders, the keepers of ancient Burns family lore, always at hand with knowledge of old customs set by precedence of previous Christmases. Not sure which way the dessert spoons should face? Susie will tell you that since 1997 we have been facing them to the left, except between 2001 and 2003 when we broke tradition and used forks. Not sure if our mother will like the lavender hand soap you’re giving her? Consult with Holly and learn that over the years Mama Burns has received fourteen lavender-related items, and shown Medium to Medium-High recipient satisfaction for all of them. Should you have any doubts or queries, kindly direct them to the Christmas Coordinators (but please, if you wish to avoid any arguments you will be unable to win, keep all comments and suggestions to yourselves).

And so, keeping with the tradition of all past Christmases, this one was excellent. The food was overwhelming, the presents were fantastic and my family were as fun, gregarious and highly-efficient as ever. Now that my parents are happily settled in their current house (or at least, for now, their current state) and their children are gradually feeling the gravitational pull of America (Tom moves to New York in April), it seems like the restlessness of our past is finally starting to fade. I’m really looking forward to us maybe one day all being in the same country, to the day when we won’t have to worry so much about the effects that snowstorms or lost passports may have on us being reunited with each other every year. As much as I love the pomp and tradition of Christmas, I’m also kind of looking forward to the day when it won’t be such a big deal, when it’ll just be another day in December that I get to spend eating food and cracking jokes with my family.

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You know what I really really don’t get? Maybe I’m missing something here and one of you can correct me, but I just can’t understand why artists insist on covering Christmas songs. I’m still waiting for the day when a band covers Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas better than Sinatra or Fairytale of New York better than The Pogues. For me, each Christmas song is so wrapped up in the symbolism and meaning that hearing someone else cover it just sends me into uncontrollable convulsions of cringe.

However, there is one song in particular that kind of breaks this mould. Lisa Hannigan (she of Damien Rice duo fame) once released this amazing version of Silent Night, where she took the melody and some of the familiar lyrics of the song, but totally rewrote its meaning and delivery.

It’s a beautiful song, and is available for you to stream or download below. I really think that is the secret to a good cover; totally revolutionising the song, making it your own, but keeping enough of the original that people can still realise what an improvement you’ve made on the original.

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Custard

Things have gotten dark lately. I don’t mean in any sort of emotional or metaphorical sense. Literally, it’s been getting dark lately, as tends to happen during winter months, I suppose, you know, what with the tilt of the Earth and its journey around the sun and everything. Still, it came as quite a shock to me, having grown accustomed to such ceaseless unrelenting sunshine everyday, to open my window shades expecting a barrage of energising photons, and instead having to spend the rest of the morning trying to remember where I’d packed my umbrella.

At the age of 13 or 14 I suddenly became obsessed with the concept of consistency. I think it was something to do with never having had a single country to call my home, or living in a place like Singapore, where there was always just enough time to become somebody’s best friend before their dad’s boss made a casual decision during a Friday morning board meeting that sent the family spiralling off to a new life in China or Dubai or Hong Kong.

Change is definitely good. It’s what launches you outside of your comfort zone, forcing you to learn new skills for new situations and most importantly grinding you up against people whose customs you’re unaccustomed to. I would always advocate throwing all you’ve got at a single goal, turning your life so that it points in the opposite direction and soldiering through the curveballs and sliders of a new world where every person seems to drive on the wrong side of the road. This is, after all, exactly what I did when I set off to become a doctor in America with nothing but a degree in Politics & Sociology and a rough understanding of the Krebs cycle. (Doesn’t this make me sound like a Polish immigrant coming to New York in the 1890s? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…and those among you with first-class degrees from top British universities that have minimal scholastic value in America.)

I met a girl here a few days ago who has this whole academic thing completely nailed down. With straight As and a great shot at any medical school in the country, she is nearly ready to start that long, hard march to clinical residency. But she’s putting aside her applications for a year to travel. When I asked her where she wanted to go, she reeled off the names of most of the countries in Europe, and then added that she wouldn’t mind doing Africa, oh, and Asia too. She just wants to be anywhere but where she’s been for the last twenty years. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, or so claimed Oscar Wilde, and even the consistency so exquisitely crafted by my friend’s steady 4.0 GPA and her reliable circle of lifelong friends could do with a little disruption.

For all its merits, though, change can be a little trying sometimes. Spontaneity can get tiresome and unpredictability is not always welcome. There’s something mundanely beautiful about routine, something comforting in its familiarity, something beans-on-toast boring that you know is never going to let you down. And so, despite my claims of being a crazy maverick who moves five-thousand miles to complete anonymity, in truth I’m still surrounded by tiny islands of consistency that remind me of how mundane and unadventurous I really am. I call up Mama Burns for a chat nearly every day, or visit Holly and Sean and recant the same inside jokes we’ve had for the last decade. I go to the supermarket and buy butternut squash by the truckload, like I did without fail every week in Bristol, or jars of the same apple sauce I was eating back when I lived in Connecticut in 1995 (granted I was 6 then; the impressions I get from American friends now is that perhaps apple sauce is not something that twenty-two year olds are supposed to continue indulging in). For all the change we impose on ourselves and for all reports of clean slates and new leaves, there’s something comforting about doing the same old things, just in a brand new post code.

And so when I finally found my umbrella the other morning and ventured out into the grey wasteland outside my window, I didn’t get grumpy or mad about the change in weather. In fact, if anything, I felt a little homesick. The clouds in the sky and puddles on the street were just a little reminder of the last place I called home.

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Luckily for you, my taste in music is as bland and boring as it’s always been. An acoustic guitar and a clever lyric will catch my attention no matter what hemisphere I find myself in. I was catsitting again the other day, and in between textbooks, spent some time stumbling across the songs that passed me by while I wasn’t looking. One that slipped through the net way back in 2008 was something from Neil Halstead, who is, according to Wikipedia, “one of Britain’s most respected songwriters”. Though I haven’t had a chance to get to know his music super well yet, I’m happy for this title to stand while I listen to the excellent tune below again and again and again (and again and again and again).

Neil Halstead seems to get his words tangled up as he sings, and as a lifelong mumbler myself (I just got shivers at the thought of trying to articulate the phrase ‘lifelong mumbler myself’ out loud), there’s a nice familiarity there. He does, however, use the F-word perfectly.

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A Long Way from Home

You remember that time you lost your wallet and had to cancel all of your credit cards? Oh man, what a bother that was! What about when your car keys fell out of your pocket and you had to catch a ride to the dealership to replace them? How annoying! Oh, and then there was the time your passport was stolen on the other side of the world and the embassy wouldn’t send anyone to help you and you weren’t allowed to leave the airport without a passport and so you were trapped in the arrivals hall in a really really unfunny version of The Terminal?

No? Just me then.

I’d finished  a month of awesome traveling, starting with work experience in a hospital in Singapore and ending on my best friend’s farm an hour north of Brisbane. 8 hours after leaving Australia, I found myself in transit at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, at the unfriendly end of a 36 hour, three-part journey back to LAX. Upon landing in Malaysia at 6 am I prepared myself for my 8 hour layover, sank into a faux-leather armchair and spent the next 480 minutes on the lookout for departure lounge pickpockets, hungry for their jet-lagged prey.

You see, since becoming a quasi-grown up I’ve had a pretty decent track record for not losing things. The trick, I find, is to have absolutely no faith in yourself whatsoever, especially when carrying around  important items like passports or wallets full of cash or babies or whatever. When I’m airports, I constantly stop to check that my valuables haven’t fallen out of that invisible hole in my bag that may have mysteriously opened up in the intervening five minutes since I last checked for a hole that may have mysteriously opened up in my bag. When using free wifi, I wrap my legs around the straps of my rucksack to deter potential pickpockets (“Mmm, that gross dirty looking backpack must be full of diamonds…”) and I minimise risk by keeping all important documents in a single leather wallet whose location–uh, definitely not the front pocket of my bag–is known to no one but myself. It seems, however, that my weakness comes in bathrooms (I promise that wasn’t supposed to sound like an ad for incontinence medication).

I was about 7 and a half hours through my layover. As I walked towards my gate I removed the holy leather wallet from its sacred resting place in preparation for boarding. The next few minutes have replayed themselves so many times in my head that I’ve started to embellish them with facts that I think must be only semi-true (was there really a tiny Malaysian man with an eye patch and a missing tooth smiling at me as I walked in?). I don’t want to give away too many secrets about boys’ bathrooms to the ladies who read STFU, but the…ahem… ‘peeing section’ was all full, so I headed instead for the first stall. Oh, how I curse the architect who put a little shelf above the toilet so the passenger wouldn’t have to hold stuff while he urinated! Oh, how I hate the airline manager who dictated I should have 16 hours of idleness in which my brain could turn to irresponsible jelly! Oh, how angry I am at the airport staff who informed me that my gate was now open, hurrying me out of the bathroom and toward my waiting aircraft.

But most of all, oh, how utterly frustrated I am with myself that I turned and opened the stall door and left the bathroom and walked to the gate and sat in a spare seat, while my little leather wallet, with my passport, my green card, my boarding pass and the tiny bit of money I had been saving for months and months and months sat on that little shelf above the toilet.

Of course, five minutes later I had a Mysterious Bag Hole Check, and ran back screaming into the bathroom, and of course, it was gone, and of course, neither the cleaners nor the security nor the information desk had heard anything about it, and of course, the airline staff would not let me board without a passport, and of course, my luggage would be removed from the plane, and of course, sir, the police will have to be summoned if you do not calm down and stop flailing about in desperation. I’m only 21, I haven’t had much time yet to experience the more extreme emotions of life, but I think the moment I sat and watched the departure of the aeroplane I had waited 8 hours for to arrive, I got a basic understanding of despair, the feeling that there is nothing that can be done, that you are utterly bereft of any possible options, that were your life to somehow pick itself up and continue, the direction it heads in is entirely indeterminable. That’s a little dramatic. Perhaps it wasn’t full-blown adult despair, but certainly a taster, a kind of Diet version.

I went first to family, grabbing them on Gmail and begging for solutions. My parents are the most resourceful individuals I know, but at midnight, in a country 9,000 miles away, there is only so much that even they, the Captains of Knowledge, can do. I spent the next few hours pressing my desperate head on various help desk counters as reluctant staff joked in Malaysian around me and slowly passed me off down a gradually decreasing chain of authority. Eventually, by 5 pm I was sitting in an immigration office, listening to a catch-22 that in my jet-lag addled state, I couldn’t do anything but smile at. The UK embassy had told me earlier that day that it was strictly against policy to send staff to the airport to deliver emergency passports. The airport authorities, on the other hand, claimed that there was no possible way they would let me enter Malaysian soil without a passport, even if my destination happened to be the UK embassy. No one could think of a possible solution to this conundrum, and no one was willing to give. The boss lady sitting a few desks away certainly wasn’t. Instead, it was Papa Burns, a couple of continents away, who got on the phone to encourage the rusty wheels of bureaucracy. (It sounds like by encourage I mean ‘bribe’. Actually, I think it was more ‘speak rather sternly to’.) You’re never too old to defer to your dad.

To cut a long story short, I was given 7 days of special stay in Malaysia. I lived with an incredibly generous French family who had been our neighbours in Singapore, and in return for the room they let me sleep in and food they let me eat and money they let me borrow for the next few days, I babysat their kids a little bit. Not really a fair trade since their kids were so much fun, and the most consuming task I had while babysitting was thinking of the best way to balance all three of them on my shoulders in the swimming pool at the same time.

Through a combination of string-pulling, helpful embassy staff and, if I do say so myself, some pretty awesome shuttle-diplomacy skills on my part, I managed to replace passport, green card and aeroplane ticket in a measly four days, a task which I was originally told would take a couple weeks.

It was a pretty horrible experience in the end, and not the best way to cap off an awesome month of traveling. My 8 hour layover had become a 96 hour layover, and I still had 20 hours of flying on top of that before I finally arrived home. At LAX I was detained at immigration for an hour while they checked I was who I said I was, and it took me another hour to get through all the lines for customs. After all that, though, I finally emerged in the arrivals gate where my dad and my twin sister Susie were waiting. I saw them a split second before they noticed me. I could see the impatience and the anxiety and the nervousness and the worry splashed across their faces, the same exact look I’d had tattooed across my own for the last four days. They turned at the same time and saw me, and that look just vanished. Susie lifted a sign she’d made that said ‘FINALLY’. At that moment I knew everything was going to be alright.

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My entire folk collection has been depleted by a failed hard drive, and what with all this traveling and not being able to travel, I’ve been kept me away from doing any music research. Until I restore myself, you’ll just have to make do with some classic Jackson Browne. It’s the best way to keep reminding myself I’m back in California.

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Interlude

When I wrote my last post I was only a few days away from setting out  across the Atlantic for a long month in San Diego. Now I’m preparing myself for the journey in the other direction. Is STFU a necessary precursor to intercontinental travel?

Traveling is a major theme in my life right now. After two days of door slamming, passive-aggressive body language  and the subsequent gestures of apologetic tea-making, Mama Burns and I finally negotiated the ridiculously convoluted world of airline ticket purchases. I’ll spend the next few months polishing off the rest of my degree in Bristol, before flying to Singapore for three weeks of medical shadowing. Then it’s on to Melbourne for a road trip with friends I haven’t seen outside of a Skype window for nearly three years, and finally back to California where I’ll be beginning my pre-med in San Francisco.

Sorry, what was that? Oh, you hadn’t heard? YOU DIDN’T KNOW I WAS ACCEPTED INTO THE PRE-MED PROGRAM AT MILLS COLLEGE?

I’d spent the first few days in California convincing myself that I didn’t want to study medicine in the US, that all my friends were in the UK, that Britain’s National Health Service was far superior to the strange amalgamation of insurance companies, HMOs and half-functioning government programs of America. I had already been rejected from a program on the East Coast, I had had such trouble getting my documents from Singapore and Texas and Bristol and San Diego to the colleges I was applying to, I just wanted to get my rejection over and done with so I could start looking at A-Level science programs in the UK.

So when I received an email one morning from Mills with the subject line reading ‘Congratulations!’, I was initially confused. I opened the document, read the attached letter of acceptance, checked the date, examined the signature. It looked legit, but it couldn’t possibly be real. April Fools had only been a few days earlier, and in my apparent lack of any self-confidence I was certain that one of my housemates must be pranking me. (Just before I left Bristol I steam-opened some of Josh’s junk mail before it got to him, inserted my own document with genuine company letterhead informing him that the job he thought he was getting with said company at the end of the summer had been nullified due to ‘unforeseen market circumstances’ and innocently delivered it to him when he came home from lectures. The joy I felt at watching his face fall as he read the letter was nearly as great as the joy I felt when I revealed the truth to him just as he was frantically dialing the head offices.).

Despite my doubts, I half-ran to see Papa Burns (Susie’s American friend Brindley later remarked that my footsteps followed the distinct cadence of someone who had just got into college), who promptly released me from my own doubts with a big congratulatory bear hug.

(I still phoned Mills just in case.)

A few days later I drove up to San Francisco with Mama Burns and saw Holly, SPS and their fashionably-shaved cat, as well as the beautiful campus grounds and overwhelmingly friendly staff at Mills.

I’ve spent the last couple weeks figuring out how I am going to scrape together the cash to pay for my pre-med and also found the time to finish my 10,000 word dissertation, which is sitting in front of me, printed, bound and full of tiny little errors that knock a year off my life every time I uncover one of them.

The outcome of all this nonsense is that I’ve had little time to do my folky due diligence. Nevertheless, somewhere in between the paragraphs on American social capital, the fender benders on the I-5 going North to San Francisco and the trips to banks to secure low-interest loans, a few songs somehow trickled into my iTunes ‘Most Recently Added’ playlist. I’m not sure where I got them from or how they found their way onto my computer, but the Shins-y, clappy, Vodafone-advert-soundtracky folkiness of Radical Face make me kind of wish they’d got here sooner.

(Actually it’s a ‘he’, not a ‘they’, a certain Ben Cooper from Jacksonville, Florida, the kind of guy who’s left his fingerprints on various musical projects over the years.)

I’d do a little more folkological research, but it’s time I got packing. In the mean time, if the person who inserted this fantastic music into my iTunes without me realising would like to continue, I’d be much obliged. Just get it to me before my next transatlantic departure.

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Welcome Home – Radical Face

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Wrapped in Piano Strings – Radical Face

What I Did When I Was Supposed To Be Studying

It’s that time of year when things start to get serious. New Year’s Resolutions lose their shiny appeal, diets plateau and the job market fizzles. We’re forced to accustom ourselves to the awkward ambiguity of Spring–shorts or trousers? This crucial choice made bleary-eyed at 7 am in the morning will decide whether you seize the day or later rue it–and suddenly it’s everyone else’s birthday. The simple pleasures of Christmas are long-gone. Now we are faced with the hard fiscal responsibilities of the First Quarter, the mid-year realities of work and study and the slow realisation that summer is still two long months away.

For UK university students, it’s a particularly stressful time. We are on the cusp of exams, exams that will for some set the trajectory of their oncoming years. If you, like me, are a final year student, you’ll know that the exams we’ll be taking in a few weeks time are probably some of the most important exams we’ll take in our entire lives.

Uni staff are aware of this, and they try their best to prepare us for the two-hour torture sessions that await us in May with toothless, bland advice:

When revising, bring a snack!

Don’t revise in front of the TV!

Be creative with your revision tools! Make up a rap out of your notes! Have fun!

We all know this is silly nonsense. If you have fun while revising then you’re probably drinking at the same time, which may not help with knowledge retention in the long run.

I’ve been a uni student for three years now and I think I’ve got a good grasp on the realities of revision. I know all the ins and outs of the cruel library environment and I’m not one to gloss over the harsh truths of studytime with multi-coloured post-it notes and hands-on learning. You’re here to revise, not turn the periodic table of elements into a play.

I can still help. It’s never easy, but there are some things that you can do to increase your chances of turning that wasted weekend into a successful cramfest. It’s not going to be easy, but together we can do it. It’s all about getting the work done but not taking yourself too seriously. You’ll find it all below, in

Luke’s (Realistic) Guide to Getting Sh*t Done!

1. MAKE THE LIBRARY YOUR BITCH. This is the most important aspect of good revision or work techniques. The library is now a permanent fixture in your life. She is your mistress, she is your friend, she is your rival. She receives you at your strongest and most confident, and if you are not careful she will spit you out weak and soggy like a crumpled A4 page of scribbled revision notes. She shows you no mercy, no love, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t reciprocate the same sentiments. Make the library your bitch. The second you enter those glass doors, the fight has begun. She’ll throw everything she’s got at you: lazy friends who want to ask you about your weekend, Internet connections that creak under the strain of so many open browser tabs, tables packed with hundred of jarring student elbows. But you ain’t gonna take that crap. This is your house. Carve your way into your own study warren. Once you’ve found your cubicle or table space, decorate it with your own accoutrements: discarded outerwear, your pencil case, a fortress of textbooks and binders. Kick off your shoes. Make yourself at home. Get comfortable. Bring your lunch in a tupperware box and eat while you revise (cannot stress how satisfying it is to watch jealous peers covet my homemade mac and cheese, while they make do with old Mars Bars from the vending machine). When it finally comes to leave the library, do so with your head held high. Because while the beast behind you has conquered thousands, she’ll respect your arrogance and fortitude. And she knows you’ll be back again tomorrow.

2. BE REALISTIC. You know that feeling, when you’re teetering on the edge of sobriety and okay-sure-just-one-more-beer!, when your whole degree hangs in the balance, when your ability to answer question 13 on the exam next week depends entirely on whether or not you decide to spend the evening revising or queueing up outside a club? That decision is yours to make, but make sure you make it on truthfully. It’s easy to restore your own confidence by enthusiastically swearing that you’ll be in the library by 8 am tomorrow, but it does no one any good when it’s obvious you’ll still be drooling into your pillow by 10. Be realistic. If you have to, take long pointless breaks, but make sure you keep track of them. If it’s a quarter past and you feel like you deserve half-an-hour off, take it. If you’re going to be lazy, though, at least be regimented. Rather than have thirty guilty little breaks an hour, concentrate the guilt in one long timeframe and equate the guilt with numerical values: 2 hours of guilt on Monday, 45 minutes of guilt on Tuesday. You can bully yourself to efficiency.

3. HATERS GONNA HATE. LOOK FOR ALLIES. You’re settled in, you’re getting comfortable, you’re an hour in and the momentum is cascading you through your studies. Then suddenly someone sits down next to you and instantly they are transformed into the worst human being on Earth. It’s the way they obnoxiously thump their laptop onto the table, the way they flout the library rules that strictly ban food and liquids, the way they engage a friend in whispered conversation for a solid three minutes. You sneak a cheeky peak at their screen and smirk with satisfaction at the Facebook page they’re on, satisfied with the hard work and effort you’re putting in in comparison. Suddenly you realise, though, you’ve spent twenty minutes mentally bitching about the stranger sitting next to you, and the only person privy to your witty remarks is yourself. The moral here is, basically, concentrate on your own game. Sure, The Librarian never works alone, and a little sshhh-ing here and then, and maybe even a pointed cough or two ensures that the general student body are all working in a collectively quiet atmosphere. For the most part, however, you are your own boss. Focusing on how your desk neighbour is tapping his foot in the most frustatingly inconsistent rhythms helps no one. Instead, look for allies. You know that pretty blonde girl tapping away at the computer across from you? Remember when her phone rang and she stood up quickly and didn’t answer it till she was far enough not to disturb anyone? Remember when that friendly guy sitting next to you picked up your pen when it rolled onto the floor? These are your buddies, your comrades. On this long boring road to good grades, they’re all you got.

4. BRAG ABOUT YOUR SACRIFICES. One of the best things about revising efficiently is rubbing it in the faces of those who don’t. So what if your friends hit the bars and you hit the books? They’ll wake up in the morning with a hangover and an empty wallet, and you’ll wake up with bragging rights. Brag about your sacrifices. If you like, fine, go ahead and employ a little tact, especially among those who may be struggling with the workload. If possible, try to accidentally get caught on your way to the library as much as possible. Bring books with you everywhere. Yawn a lot. All these signals will cue your friends and family into seeing how hard you’re working and in the process help to remind you that maybe you actually are.

5. CURSE MARK ZUCKERBURG. Damn you, Facebook. Damn you! The site is probably the greatest invention so far of the 21st century. 500 million people have active accounts. It has triggered revolutions all over the Middle East. It’s worth more than US$50bn. The only problem is, it will eat your soul and dance on your academic grave. Curse Mark Zuckerburg. He has stolen created a platform that, if left unchecked, will transform the most studious of studiers into the most status-hungry of stalkers. That is why it is so important not to go on Facebook while revising. The same goes for Twitter, Youtube and STFU.com (I can see the data! I see you loitering!). It’s always the same. You think to yourself, hey, is that party on Friday or Saturday night? I’ll just check. Next think you know, three hours have passed and you’re flicking through the Christmas photos of the older sister of that girl you had a lecture with two years ago. Facebook is like a long series of increasingly more addictive drugs. You start off liking photos, then suddenly you’re smoking crack. Keep out.

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I hope all of the above helped somewhat. Even if you’re no longer at university, I’m sure you can find parallels in my guide to help you get sh*t done!

Getting so close to swearing like that has put me in a rebellious mood. I originally heard this song from my sister, who described it as ‘Paul Simon-ish’ and I initially agreed. Now, though, I’m thinking it’s more ‘folk-rappish’. Alexander is the solo effort of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes frontman Alex Ebert, and you’ll notice straight away that this style is a little different from his stuff with the band.

This song has attitude. It doesn’t take crap from nobody, and if you listen to it you’ll be protected by its ultra-cool vibes. Today, as I left the library after five hours on Facebook a killer six-hour session, I plugged in my headphones and whacked on this tune. It felt like I was walking in slow-motion.

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Maybe I’m Wrong And I’ve Always Been That Way

The last couple days for me have been a lot like an episode of Scrubs, except with less Zach Braff and more exposed shin bone.

I spent Thursday and Friday shadowing a surgical team at a hospital in London, where my sister’s lovely generous doctor friend had so kindly volunteered to let me get in her way while she tried to save people’s lives. Getting work experience is of course an essential part of the process of trying to get into medical school, but for me it was particularly important. I needed to make sure I was doing the right thing.

You see, I’ve been so intent on becoming a physician I was worried that maybe I’d been swept up in the romance of it all, with the idea that every day starts with a fresh set of scrubs and ends with a patient making a miraculous recovery after thirty seconds of CPR and a young handsome doctor saying, Dammit, I am not losing this one!

I was worried that despite the mile long queue of weary medical residents and SHOs who have warned me to get out while I still can, despite the $120k+ education fees I can expect to spend a good chunk of my life paying off, despite not being able to even think about making a salary for the next six years, despite having to leave all my friends in the UK and start all over again in a country I haven’t properly lived in since I was 11, despite all this, I am still as enthusiastic about becoming a physician as I was on that sunny July day back in 2009 when I realised there was nothing else in the world I could imagine myself doing.

In reality, I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was little (though the career path did have healthy competition with ‘astronaut’ between around 1997 to 1999) but poor science grades gradually chipped away at that dream until it seemed like nothing more than a silly idea. When my GCSE results came back sometime before my 17th birthday and I realised I was not the mediocre student I had always suspected I’d been, that little doctor seed that had been frosted over by a blizzard of Bs and Cs for so many years suddenly broke through. Despite this, I was so keen to get to university and so reluctant to spend another year getting the science prerequisites required to get me to medical school, I ended up settling for a Politics and Sociology degree in the UK.

The past three years have been fantastic, but only because the last two have them have been spent knowing the pure unstoppable fact that when I graduate I will be pursuing an MD in the United States. Okay, sure, so I have to do a post-baccalaureate premedical degree first, and that will take up to two years and around 30k to finish, but the important thing is, I’m getting there.

So when I got to the hospital on Thursday morning (I was so nervous I arrived an hour early and had to sit in the staff room awkwardly watching SkyNews with a bunch of exhausted doctors who did not want to have to make small chat with a clueless pre-med student after a 12-hour night shift) I knew that everything was on the line. My little medical dream seed had matured into a sturdy sapling, but I was waiting for the gale forces of reality to come and blow me off my feet again.

So I waited.

I waited through my first round on the ITU ward, dealing with patients who everyone knew were most likely headed for the morgue.

I waited through my first surgery, a knee replacement that involved a lot more chiseling, grinding and power tools than I had ever expected in a hospital.

I waited through my first cardiac arrest, when the resuscitation team fought and won against an elderly heart that stubbornly refused to keep beating.

I waited and I waited, peeking through my fingers and holding my breath for the moment when I would say, Oh, right, yeah, that’s why I would make a terrible doctor, that’s why everyone says it’s not nearly as a good career as it used to be, that’s why I should just give up right now.

It was only when I dumped my blood-stained scrubs on Friday evening and left through the revolving doors of the hospital that I suddenly realised nothing at all in the past 48 hours had made me any less determined to be a doctor. Finally I could relax my shoulders, untense my worried mind and think, Right then, let’s get on with it. I came away unburdened by my fears of failure and instead weighted down with a hundred-and-one more reasons why I have to succeed.

Okay, sure, I’ve only seen the clean, daytime tip of an otherwise frightening, exhausting and mind-numbing iceberg, sure I’ve only seen one hospital, and not even one in the country in which I intend to practise. But I’ve seen enough to know that the roots of my dream to one day (still a long, long way away) become a doctor have gripped me so tightly that if I don’t drop everything I am doing right now and pursue this time-consuming, money-draining, life-changing goal, I will have let down the six-year old self that envisaged it in the first place.

When I got back to Bristol at 10 o’clock at night, I walked through the frosty streets to an empty house and sat in our basement living room, drinking beer and eating pasta. One of my housemates texted me and asked if I wanted to come round to a little party a few doors down the street. It was 2 degrees outside and I’d just picked up on three clinical inaccuracies in an episode of Scrubs I was watching.

I told him I’d see him in the morning.

In other news, I’ve been zeroing in on a lot of amazing folk lately, and can’t even quite remember where I found this week’s track. I wish I could tell you more about Nathaniel Raitliff, but I’m thinking all you really need to know is that he must have been reading the part of my secret diary where I wrote how much I love vocal harmonies. He must also have read the footnotes on including wonderful lyrics and the margin where I’d scribbled how much I like powerful chest-baring choruses. Either that or he’s just one of the amazing new artists that contemporary folk has been churning out lately.

I’m going to start locking up my secret diary.

When I Finally Grow Up (Part 1)

I’ve got rather messy career aspirations. For a good part of my life I’ve been having an internal struggle over what I want to do with myself. This is pretty normal of course, most people have no idea what their futures will be until they stumble into them sometime around their twenties. Usually, people know that they want to be in business, or in media, or in fashion. For me though, I knew there were only two specific ways I could turn out: as a doctor or a writer.

I come from a family of writers. My sister is a travel writer, got a 1:1 in English from University College London and gets flown around the world to give speeches on various aspects of the written word. Mama Burns is also a writer, following Papa Burns’ job from continent to continent and editing various magazines and newsletters along the way, writing her own column in New England and now gradually breaking into the journalistic world on the West Coast. Papa Burns co-wrote a book once, Brother Tom studied English at university and the Twin is doing the same now.

You could say it’s kind of in my blood.

Of course, we’re all attracted to the romance of journalism. I remember reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diaries and assuming that all journalists must live debauched lifestyles on tropical islands with beautiful women and unlimited supplies of white rum. I also got lost in the idea of becoming a foreign correspondent, jetting off to Iran and Burma and Chile on the BBC payroll, whipping up a furor in the international press with my dry witticisms and then returning to a good night’s sleep at one of my many bohemian loft apartments dotted around the globe.

It was under these pretences that I pursued a degree in Politics and Sociology at university in England. As a first year undergraduate it was hard to penetrate the student journalism scene (it’s not what you know…) but I was soon embroiled in it after someone in my halls of residence drove a brand new Mini across the quadrangle and up and down the stairs. I’d signed up to be my ‘hall reporter’ in hopes of being assigned a decent story, and though they didn’t want a lowly first year to write this particular front-page article, they would be happy for me to take some photographs of the wasted car and give a statement.

How exciting! I relayed to my friends in a cafe on the day the newspaper came out, That’s me! I took that photo! I gave that quote about that stupid idiot driving the Mini! Unfortunately, a boy in the cafe overheard, came up to me and told me that I should probably not quote things that I didn’t know anything about, and it later turned out that this boy was the stupid idiot who had been driving the Mini. Oops.

I learned to be a little more discrete in my journalistic ventures but remained just as enthusiastic. I hounded friends for stories and constantly scanned the news for mentions of my university. While chasing one particularly controversial story I was assigned to, I was given a phone number for a staff member at the uni and I called him up. After some particularly cautious (boring) responses, I decided to drop the tact and rile him up to get some more interesting quotes for the paper. We ended the conversation with him more or less slamming the phone on the receiver, and as I smugly Googled the man’s name to find out his role at the uni, I realised that I had just been provoking and teasing the chancellor’s right-hand man. Second oops.

By the end of the paper’s run, I had managed to squeeze into the elite circle within the student newspaper, a place where few first-year students manage to go, and had earned the title of Senior Reporter along the way. It was only during the paper’s final edition that it dawned on me what a little shit I had become. I ran around the university, antagonising people, eagerly searching for the most gruesome stories about students getting beat up and mugged and attacked. I looked for controversy and institutional unease. I was always the first to hear the latest gossip, and there was a certain thrill in being the one who got to dispense it on the front page, but it was always a short-lived high. I decided I wouldn’t work on the paper the following year, that I would stand up for my morals, the morals that I had been decimating all those months simply for the sake of my silly title as Senior Reporter.

Then of course I was offered the role of Deputy News Editor and my morals went back out the window.

To be fair, I did my best to change my ways. I standardised the paper’s writing: no more first person narratives (shudder), contractions (shudder) or whacky alliterations (SHUDDER). I gave more control to new reporters. In the end, I let the Editor steer the ship while I just sat in the background, scrubbing the barnacles off the hull. Unfortunately, the ship–for me at least–was sinking, and while I enjoyed polishing other people’s rough articles and seeing my own work occasionally grace the front page, I knew that this would be the last paper I would write for. Journalism wasn’t for me.

Luckily, STFU isn’t a newspaper and so there’s no reason why I can’t post you a song that I think you’ll all like. I picked this up a few days ago. If you are starting to feel the grind of Winter life, think of ‘Sounds Like Hallelujah’ from Seattle’s The Head and the Heart as a big old overcoat that’ll keep you toasty, if not for a full day then at least for the few minutes it’ll be playing on your iTunes.