Re: Freedom

Manny,

Indeed I’m grateful to hear that your current travels have you connected to some good people. When life gets particularly dark, it’s good to remember that we aren’t the only ones to wade through the shit of life. But, as you point out, the world isn’t just a difficult place for you and I. As we speak millions of Syrians are displaced and migratory. Turkey reels in the aftermath of a serious terrorist attack and an attempted coup that left hundreds dead. And this morning I was yet again greeted by the news of another shooting that left a black man bleeding in the street, this time for simply assisting his autistic ward at work. Thank God this man didn’t die, but he must wonder why this keeps happening, as I do, for this isn’t exactly funny to me that it keeps happening.

I must cling onto a reality that accounts for both the shattered remnants of perfection and the aim of our longing for justice. I must reach for a shared space of healing and reconciliation that can, as Desmond Tutu saw twenty five years ago in South Africa, the hatred of law enforcement and marginalized citizens come together at the same table.

In fact, as a Christian, this is tantamount to my spirituality. The two beams of the cross do not only meet in tangible space, the wood cut from trees in an unimportant province at the hands of a militaristic, powerful empire. They hinge and hold together the infinite horizontal needs of our common humanity, crying out with the same breath as Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So too does it reach the infinite space between earth and heaven, with Christ’s bleeding, naked body stretched between, lungs gasping for air with each ragged, pained breath. In my estimation, the failure of our society shows deeply when those who are sworn to protect and serve end up as violent oppressors, using their authority as a vehicle to abuse and torture. This week we saw that Freddie Gray’s killers were acquitted of all wrongdoing: not a surprise to those of us watching what happened in the case of Michael Brown, but still shameful and heartbreaking. In a world that paints the asphalt red when we march to the beat of #BlackLivesMatter, I want to believe that the bleeding arms of the One who came to dwell in our midst, the One who holds All together, can absorb this pain. Once again the arms of Christ hold Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the dozens killed in Orlando, and those police officers murdered by twisted individuals seeking their own sick sort of vengeance. I want to believe that even these killers, on the Last Day, can lay down their swords and bow before the King who sets us free from our enslavement to violence. Will they recognize him, though, with the face of the “terrorists” that we were sent to kill in the Middle East? I wonder.

It might surprise you to hear that my latest round of music has hinged on Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2015 release To Pimp A Butterfly. Against the backdrop of deep jazz cuts from some of LA’s most gifted musicians in the game, like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and others. Although I enjoy the music for its own sake, Lamar elevates his music, already prominent from his last entry Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, to the level of contemporary prophecy as he rails against institutionalized racism, poverty, mental health, and cherishes the beauty of life found at the margins. That spirit, found so beautifully on the track “Alright” has propelled me to look again at the situations affecting Black America and hold onto hope.  “Homie you fucked up,” he raps, pointing the finger at himself as much as anyone, “But if God got us than we gonna be alright.” The music video, shot equally between San Francisco and LA, moves from a dark, violent beginning to a light-filled, although ominous, ending. I think music like this is meant to be more than appreciated, it’s meant to move us into action. Isn’t that a special type of art that can do that?

Stay safe, Manny. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

-Dr. Miller

Freedom

Dr. Miller,

Indeed I’m turning into a more sporadic writer than I’d hoped. Between the long hours on the road traveling to places like San Francisco, where I visited my friend Jay, a prospective student at UCSF, and Oakland, where I had coffee with a cute mutual friend of my best friend’s wife. We’ll see if that goes anywhere; my romantic escapades have led me through some sad territory in years past…

Perhaps I’m hesitant to comment too directly on my mental health at this point because it’s too soon to say if these waves of anxiety and depression will be a constant companion or are only symptoms of my current listlessness, my itinerant life away from any real “home.” All I can say is that finally I’m getting sleep every night, and no longer awaken with the dizzying disorientation that I felt when admitted to the hospital. Instead, I feel groggy as hell, but grateful to be alive and (relatively) well.

Still, turning on the news or clicking into my social media feed doesn’t do much to lighten the emotional burden that I feel whenever another one of my friends with dark skin is terrified to go outside. After this week’s string of police killings (and, although I’ll stop short of calling them murders, I rage within that we live in a world where doubtless they’ll walk away from any charges levied against them) I feel the burden to tune into the type of art that channels both the anger and empowered activism that stands in the face of white supremacy and the systems that continue to oppress people of color in this country. When our President was elected to office back in 2008 I rejoiced, as one who could just barely vote in that election, for we seemed to turn a corner in our race relations, no longer encumbered by the shackles of the past’s evils. But I spoke too soon, and no sooner had he taken office that messages of deep anger and disgust were repeated over and again. Though they decried any accusations of racism, I could see through all that. It was racialized hatred, plain and simple. When the fascist pretender Donald Trump gets up on the podium and spews his incendiary rhetoric against my people, I feel the same type of anger mixed with grief. Really, how did this type of horrific misogyny, racism, and xenophobia grow within one person with aspirations to power? Moreover, I’ve noticed that there is a growing trend among undereducated people of color to support him. It’s baffling, honestly.

Though Beyoncé doesn’t exactly connote the type of activism that goes along with the type of pushback to the system that #BlackLivesMatter has, she put out a hell of a record that addressed a journey from bondage to freedom, mostly within the context of a romantic relationship. Yet it’s hard not to see the overtones of justice movements in the song “Freedom,” where Kendrick Lamar lends a guest verse, rapped over a heavy mix of blaring horns, synth pads, and drum hooks. She belts “I break chains all by myself/won’t let my freedom rot in hell” in the electric chorus, loudly remind us that she is able to overcome the limitations imposed upon her by the tyranny of a toxic system, male or otherwise. Lamar mentions the anxiety of getting pulled over in his verse: “Eight blocks left, death is around the corner…Five-oh asking me what’s in my possession.”

But the most impressive version of this song was delivered live to the audience of this year’s 2016 BET awards. As her dancers marched onstage to the drill of snare drums and a silvery lining of smoke, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech rang out with the words, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt, so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” With that, Bey launches into a mesmerizing step ritual in the ankle-deep water that conjures images of the primordial biblical chaos. After singing and stepping some more, splashing up these waters defiantly and with incredible abandon, Lamar rises from the platform, cloaked in a gray hoodie that evokes the death shroud worn by Trayvon Martin on the night of his murder. He defiantly delivers his bars and joins Beyoncé in the waters to kick up and flail. No longer are the waters signs of destruction, as they were in August of 2005, but they herald new life.

That good art is made in the midst of terrifying times is surprising, unexpected, and altogether refreshing. But it still does nothing to ease the wounds of the grieving mothers of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Brown, and so many more.

Yet, it makes for good conversation. Now that it’s mentioned, I think I’ll give that cute Oakland girl a call back. You never know what might happen.

Hope all is well, Dr. Miller.

 

-Manny

Re: Sprained Ankle

Dear Manny,

I’m grateful to hear from you again. I apologize again for my absence and long months away from answering your latest letter. I hope and pray this has been a season of healing for you. As I’ve learned in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-altering situation like you’ve described, the words of loved ones can only do so much. I remember after my father died the words and concern of others seemed almost suffocating. In my grief I fled to my refuge of solitude, embracing the bitter sting of loneliness rather than confront one more face looking at me with pity. I can only see the face of my wife in moments like that, looking back at me with the same compassion that she first showed me long years ago before we made our pact together for companionship over the long haul. It was purely the love she showed me in those days that drew me closer to her, and now that she has seen my highs and lows (inherited, no doubt, from my father’s bouts of highs and lows) she is only supportive. Is that not the definition of compassion, to suffer with?

Mental illness is a strong enemy to fight, especially if the problems are chronic. My father chose to eschew the advice of his psychiatrists for the last years of his life and suffered the effects of his manic-depression even as we watched him deteriorate from the cancer. The battle of treatment and mental unquiet took its toll on him, and his death came more quickly than I or any of my family anticipated. This surely contributed to a feeling of disequilibrium, a lack of control that makes us feel like the world is stacked against us. You may not be uttering meaningless words when you call out for God’s presence in the moments of desperation, asking “Where are You?” Indeed the prophets asked such questions as they saw their worlds fall apart. I think of the prophet Jeremiah, who utters, “Lord, you deceived me, and I have been deceived.” Careful scholars have translated the Hebrew patah in its more accurate, sexualized connotation: “You seduced me, and I have been seduced.” Though the mystics attach an ecstatic value to this description in scripture, I see the language more bluntly as an accusation of rape. When the worst of my father’s illness would take over, he would describe himself in third person terms. It was always that guy that took over, like some sort of Bruce Banner/Hulk analogue. For if we understand the Spirit of God to come upon people in periods of ecstatic manifestation, can we not also fear the spirits within that wage against our mental well being? Still, I know the problems that you face are not merely spiritual. Sure, you are searching for meaning, and your emotions are sensitized after an episode of severe disorientation. But physical vulnerabilities are real, and they deserve our attention, too. I hope that you’ve taken your doctor’s advice and have carefully considered how to best manage your life to support your health. But I digress; you don’t need yet another voice badgering you over your mental health. From what you’ve told me about your family you have enough to deal with on your own.

Lately I too have been attracted to Julien Baker’s music, although sometimes her work runs too far into the darkness for me. Still, I respect her as a queer artist and how she stands up for her Christian faith in the midst of the confusing rhetoric of a divided Southern culture. Speaking of the South, Richmond, Virginia has a bustling indie scene, and I’ve been listening to one artist, Luray, that has helped to bring a little more light and life into my days. Her album The Wilder was a sleeper hit in 2015 on the great music finding site Noisetrade. Luray uses the banjo and mbira, an African thumb piano, to great effect on the record. My personal favorite is “Promise of Lakes,” where she sings of “ask[ing] the stars with a speck of doubt/ from a deep starve.” This prompts the question, what is she asking for? The next line is telling: “the reason why we stay / is the promise of lakes / and the sun on your face.” Perhaps the simple joys linked to our childhood memories are more than escapes. I’m not suggesting that Luray, or any artist for that matter, is pointing towards nostalgic memory as providing a panacea for our ills. But I do know that looking over photo albums with my father and I in them has helped me cry tears of healing beyond what I could conjure up from my own mind. A sense of place, of belonging, of home is important. Though I know you’ve moved around these past three years since you graduated, I hope and pray that you’ve found a place to call home. Perhaps this is the most abiding sense of God’s presence, a space within yourself that you can return to even when you’re away.

I suggest taking a few minutes at the end of your day to release the thoughts and worries that have built up in your mind into the vast Abyss that wells within. This space, in which the Creator has built his dwelling place, is able to hold the paradoxes and confusions of our modern lives more ably than our dualistic mind can. As you breathe, let the pain collapse into this space. I take a deep breath in, inhaling the loving Presence, and exhaling the fear, doubt, and self-hatred until it turns into pure, unmitigated love. If this sounds too religious to you, remember that the great traditions of all religions practice meditation in one form or another. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you’ve been up to these past few months.

Best,

Dr. Miller

Sprained Ankle

Hi Dr. Miller,

I’ve been reluctant to reach out to you over the long months of winter. When you wrote that last email we were still in the midst of fall, that season that most of my peers deem their favorite. But now we face the last month of winter, and the air outside seems to cling to the cold; I can still see my breath when I walk outside in the morning.

The months between our conversation have been long, to tell you the truth. And hard. I told you I hit rock bottom when I mentioned Ryan Adams, desperate enough to reach out to you, a friend who I know understands the throes of depression and heartache. I thought the worst was behind me, but then I was readmitted to the hospital, a victim of severe panic attacks that left me exhausted and starved for sleep. I’ll just tell you what happened as far as I remember.

I know my mom didn’t understand what was going on with me. I was back in Sacramento for Christmas when it happened: my chest froze with terror and I felt like I was going to die. My thoughts were racing and I was talking a mile a minute, unable to “switch off” and just rest. I was losing sleep each night and eventually I popped up in the middle of the night laughing hysterically. She didn’t dial 911 like last time, thankfully, and so I had her to keep me company and escort me back into the noisy emergency room. My memories of that night are fragmented, still, and so I can only describe visually what I saw as the images return to me piece by piece. I remember the nurse who admitted me – a young man of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. I remember my mom’s pastor coming into my room and talking to me, though I don’t remember any of what we talked about. After the emergency room I was committed to the locked-door confines of the mental health facility, where I stayed for nearly a week. The staff there pumped me full of medication for anxiety, often holding me down in my bed with forceful grips so they could administer the shots in my backside. As the drugs took effect, I felt myself dragged beneath the roiling sea of side effects. I had to return to the emergency room because of one particular drug’s “extrapyramidal” side effects – I was rendered literally speechless, and my mom had to speak through an interpreter to communicate for me. It was humiliating, yet I am forever grateful for her help; who knows what the doctors would have done without her advocacy. The overarching tension of paradoxical circumstances marks this whole experience for me.

I’ve been staying in Sacramento ever since my second breakdown, and doing a lot of reflecting on this time in my life. I have to say, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, and it leaves me with a few difficult questions. How can I explain what happened to my closest friends and family? How can I be certain that my behavior is “normal” and not influenced by these cycles of mania and depression? Will I ever be able to get a job that won’t stress me out to the point of a breakdown? Will I ever be able to find a partner, dare I say, a woman with whom I can share the rest of my life?

And now for the big one: where the hell was God in the midst of all this?

I’ve been listening to a lot of sad music lately. Not just Sufjan, as you suggested, but lately an artist from Tennessee that I found on Paste’s 50 best albums of 2015. Her name is Julien Baker, and the album is called “Sprained Ankle.” Although she’s only a 20 year old college student, she writes about heartache, failure, death, and God like a seasoned veteran. The title song is a beautiful piece performed on a solo electric guitar, presumably with a looping pedal to provide a nice layering effect. It’s lovely, although it’s a sad ballad with the central image providing a counterpoint to her own desires to “run a marathon,” metaphorically speaking. She isn’t running on empty, but rather staring down the impossible task of moving forward with injured “ankles.” It seems like an apt metaphor at this point.

Still, I have reason to hope. Every day the world regains a little bit of color, and I find that I remember more and more (at one point I was having a hard time with my memory). I enjoy listening to music for its own sake. Art can and should be enjoyed for its own sake, don’t you agree? Does everything have to have some sort of extrinsic purpose? Each morning I rise from bed without dreading the day to come. I even picked up my guitar again for the first time in years and started to practice playing a few simple tunes. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be up in front of audiences again – did I ever tell you that I played in a band during high school? The world is full of possibility and beauty.

I think that’s enough of me processing. I guess sharing all this might leave you overwhelmed. I hope not. I’m alive! And I’m grateful for your friendship. Would you write me back to tell me how you’re doing?

It’s been too long.

 

Re: Gimme Something Good

Manny,

I’m grateful to hear from you. Truly, I am.

I understand your reticence about reaching out to me, or to anyone, given the magnitude of the last few months for you. No doubt this hasn’t been an easy season.

I understand, to some extent, the pain that such feelings of loss, or rather (more specifically) a loss of control, can entail. You may be wary of those who offer you support or words of encouragement. Mental health is stigmatized in much of society, not just ethnic, religious, or political circles. My own father struggled with periods of intense swings of mania and depression that I remember clearly when I was a younger adult. It was something that I did not know how to handle then, and it took many years to learn to live with him and love him through all of the most difficult times.

I’m telling you this because I had to be by his side while he battled the final stages of a rare type of blood cancer, recurring on and off for the past four or so years. He finally passed a little over a month ago. Now that the dust has settled and the stream of calls, emails, and cards have slowed to a trickle, I can look to regaining some semblance of normalcy. Yet a genuine period of grief must follow, and distraction or medicating will not do. Our culture has largely forgotten how to mourn.

This week I’ve picked up Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie and Lowell, released earlier this year on Asthmatic Kitty. In a series of mild, mostly acoustic, and spare songs, he unpacks and processes the loss of his own mother, passing away after a difficult life struggling with schizo-affective tendencies. The emotional climax of the album, for me, is the heartbreaking “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” where Stevens’ voice teeters on the edge of breaking, quietly recounting how his mother’s death launched him into drug use and despair.

It’s important to acknowledge when our programs for happiness come up short. In the face of such suffering, perhaps it is only right, even necessary, to exclaim “Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” as Stevens does at the song’s end. But the song points to a deeper reality than that. The Shade that the singer speaks of, for me, is the comfort that we seek to escape some sort of pain. When confronted with the reality of sin and evil, the Cross does not allow us to escape even death. In order to reach the Resurrection that Jesus shows, we have to experience death first. Jesus could not ascend to heaven without fulfilling his purpose. This is an archetype for all of humanity, and the transcendence of God eclipsing our broken spheres of influence. The Cross is not some brutal, petty settlement of debt that God “requires” to “satisfy His wrath.” What made sense to medieval sensibilities is rendered meaningless and unfulfilling in the face of tragedy like this. The meaning is redeemed in that, even at the pinnacle of our suffering, God shares in all of it. It is also, thankfully, not the end of the story.

I would gently invite you to consider your own path of healing as one to accept the small “death” of whatever programs you had put together for fulfillment. To consider taking your own life is, yes, an unfortunate product of chemical imbalance, but also an explicit acknowledgement that we cannot make it under our own steam. Our egos all need to “die” in some way.

It is up to you to see what emerges on the other side.

You are in my thoughts and prayers,

-Dr. Miller

Gimme Something Good

Dr. Miller,

I know it’s been awhile.

That’s an understatement: it’s been damn near over a year. Let me explain myself over the course of this correspondence; it was never my intention to leave our conversation paused for this long.

I understand that you just embarked on your Sabbatical, so I get why my inbox has been empty of good, solid, music and life talk. What do you plan on doing with your six months away from campus? Traveling? Trekking? Searching for new and vintage vinyl, no doubt?

I want to own my absence for these long months of silence. You are not the only one to fall out of communication with me. The relationships and friends that seemed so vital during my time in college have, unsurprisingly, come up short for long-term dependence. In the past three months I’ve been in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Tucson, San Diego, and Las Vegas. There have been some fun times at hand, yet I return to the distressing reality of my life in this moment: I am more lonely than I’ve ever been in my life.

I guess I should have seen this coming, which is why I chose this week’s favorite of mine, Ryan Adams’ recording at the Carnegie Hall, where he delivers an acoustic and spare version of those songs that showcase his impressive skills as a writer and composer. The single “Gimme Something Good” from his eponymous 2014 album is, at least here, devoid of the jangly electric guitars and driving rhythm that characterize the best-produced of his music. This is typical of the way we interact with Adams: on one record we are swept into a full scale of sounds backed by a full band and competent studio mixing. On another, it is the striking intimacy of his voice, the most underrated part of his performance, unable to lean on the band to do the heavy lifting. At the end of the song, he addresses the audience and discusses medication, loneliness, and depression. “You’re at a fucking Ryan Adams concert!” he quips. How he speaks to me at this point in my life.

Let me back up. By now you’re wondering what has kept me away from my computer and reluctant to engage much over email, or any social media for that matter. The short answer is that I have only been able to consistently log on with my own accounts for a few weeks now. The long answer is that I was hospitalized in the mental health unit for the better part of a month, after an escalating battle with depression that got severe enough to induce suicidal thoughts.

It’s difficult to talk about this with any candor or clarity at this point. Honestly, through the new lenses of self-understanding and medication, I’m still putting the pieces together. I want to ease any worries you have. Sure, the depression has/had emotional and trauma related elements, but much of my recent inability to manage has been the unhealthy coping habits I developed when traveling from one place to another without any real goals or direction. That, plus the lack of a consistent community, made me feel all the more isolated. Right now I’m at home with my mom, who has taken care of me since I got out of the hospital. She doesn’t quite understand what happened. Mental health issues are misunderstood and anathema in every culture, not just Mexican. What she does know is that now I’m exercising, eating (mostly) healthy, and I quit smoking. I don’t drink every night, either. Thinking about giving up booze totally. So she appreciates that, though I still wrestle with the God that she prays to. Apparently she’s been praying for me the whole time. So what the hell happened? Did the big man get caught taking a crap?

I’ll try to share more with you as we press on. For now, I enjoy the stillness and slowness of a season with only one goal: get healthy.

Hope to talk to you soon.

-Manny.

The New Year

Dr. Miller,

It’s deep into 2014, and I can hardly believe how quickly time has flown by. Since relocating to the heart of the city I’ve had the chance to revisit a few albums that have collected dust over the past few years. Paste just released a list of Death Cab for Cutie’s best songs, and I’ve been playing their list for the afternoon. When I got home after the long weekend away I decided to spin “The New Year,” the strong opener from their 2003 effort Transatlanticism. It’s a powerful salvo into the halls of indie rock history, complete with guitar blasts that anchor swirls of noisy drums and cymbals; it’s quite the antithesis to the mopey ballads that give them their indie stripes and (dare I say it) college-rock cred. I had the privilege of seeing the band do the song live back when I was a sophomore in college. When Ben Gibbard and company took the stage, I could hardly recognize the singer because he had lost so much weight! They played a blistering set that didn’t disappoint.

It’s sweltering here in Fresno, so I took a detour to visit a few friends in beachside Ventura, California. It’s not far from Santa Barbara, but it doesn’t have that town’s uppity demeanor or swagger. Apart from the tragedy that hit Isla Vista last May, that community hasn’t gotten a taste of the struggles that affect nearly every other corner of the world. Fresno, though far from cosmopolitan, has its share of problems. Still, there are networks of people (mostly religious, like yourself) committed to the well-being of the city. For some reason they cite the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, where the prophet tells the exiled people of Israel to “seek the well-being of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:7)”  I seem to agree with that sentiment, even if I have my own doubts of God’s sovereignty. Why would he trust us with all the free will to make a mess of the city? The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri seem to know what I’m talking about.

But I digress. Yes, the world is full of pain. No, I cannot, despite my efforts, solve all of it. I’ll have to remain committed to treating everyone with kindness and hope for the best. Overall the noise can seem overwhelming, like “thirty dialogues that bleed into one,” as Gibbard coos on “the New Year.” In the meantime I have to sit back, enjoy the upper 90s here in the valley, and hope that these boys from Seattle keep churning out good tunes, even without producer/guitarist Chris Walla in the mix.

Re: England

Manny,

Great to hear from you. It’s funny you should mention The National; I’ve been a big fan of theirs since their 2005 release Alligator, which includes the anthemic “All the Wine” and “Abel” that defined the band’s early success. A recommendation: if you want a good live cut of “England”, look no further than the Deluxe Edition of 2010’s High Violet. It’s a fitting inclusion for an album that sticks to the serious and somber tone, even by this band’s standards. When it comes to the band’s standout characteristics I’ll chalk them up to some fantastic chemistry, marked mainly by the growling baritone of singer Matt Berninger and Byran Devendorf’s incessantly high-mixed drums. Maybe it’s no wonder they come with two sets of brothers, so every show you see them perform in it’s like watching a miniature family reunion.

I’m back in New Mexico for a quick visit. I’m staying in Albuquerque this time instead of my normal haunts in Las Cruces. Though I don’t think the green chile can compare, I’ll check in for an enjoyable view of the aptly named Sandia Mountains and remember what it was like to hike the eight miles up the mountain’s face for some spectacular views of the whole central Rio Grande Valley. My soundtrack of choice? The Nineties wouldn’t be complete without the bright sounds of Third Eye Blind. Although they get remembered mostly for their cheery drug anthem “Semi-Charmed Life,” I’ll pick a cut off their second effort, 1999’s Blue. It’s the last time you’ll hear Kevin Cadogan’s fantastic guitar work that made the first album such a classic. For me, I’ve got the track “Deep Inside of You” stuck in my head for now. It’s not as big of an earworm as the “doo-doo-doo’s” of “Semi-Charmed”, but it’s got some classic emoting going on. “I never felt alone/till I met you” croons Steve Jenkins. It’s a fitting memorial to a decade that gave us some of the best rock we’ve ever heard.

-Dr. Miller

England

Dr. Miller,

It’s been awhile since we’ve written. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of the brooding, sonorous, and witty tracks from one of my longtime favorites through my college days, the National. I had the privilege of seeing them share the stage with Modest Mouse and R.E.M. back in 2008 when I was but a high school junior. I had no idea who they were, but the mix of heavy percussion and the insistent pulse of “All the Wine” left me an admirer by the end of their set. When I spin The National, I expect long drives in the night or a starry sky with the wisps of smoke rising from my tobacco pipe. It’s mood music, pure and simple.

Since I’ve been traveling, my track of choice comes from their 2010 effort, High Violet, where deep in the second side of the album comes the song “England.” Singer Matt Beringer drones on that “You must be somewhere in London, You must be loving your life in the rain.” These days I relate to these words. Far from being the “Dad rock” label that gets levied against the band, they tap into the dizzying results of living self-aware in the postmodern age. The album packs a wallop compared to the slow burn of their latest release, last year’s Trouble Will Find Me. “England” has one of those strong outtros that makes you want to raise your brandy glass and sing along, in lieu of a lighter at a concert. Yes, I’ve been to London, and I hope it makes my list of places to stop. For now, I’m holed up in a small apartment in the city. If I had a brandy glass to toast you, I would. Here’s to the riches of the journey even as we live our life “in the rain.”

Too bad we’ve seen a huge drought this year in California. I’ll just use my imagination.

The Mother We Share

Dr. Miller,

Sorry I’ve been so flaky to swap music with you lately. Unfortunately there are some side effects of the travel lifestyle I’ve been living-the last few mornings have made it hard for me to get out of bed.

I was visiting a friend in Fresno last week and decided to go the gym. Normally one must get exercise in a facility, because outdoor exercise might not be the best for your health. In fact, that’s an understatement: Fresno has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Still, in the last few days we’ve seen some fairly good weather; I could even see the ridge of the towering Sierra Nevada stretching out along the horizon, fresh snow glinting off the saw-toothed ridges with names like “Black Kaweah” and “Mount Silliman.” The downtown core of the city is pretty depressed, but I found a few friends and an amazing brewpub named for the owner’s pet Peeve (yeah, the dog’s name is “Peeve”) that make the journey worthwhile. The church crowd seems to think that there’s something special about the Big Man’s plans for the city. From what I’ve seen I remain skeptical. There’s a harsh difference between the manicured suburbs of the north side of the city and the poor swaths of the south half, replete with Latino and Asian immigrant communities. It reminds me of Sacramento’s neighborhoods where I grew up. But there is notably more poverty here.

I’d like to write more about this city in the future as I stay with my friend here in the city. He’s a campus minster with a group called InterVarsity. He seems to think that relocating to a poor neighborhood and redistributing resources to the local community is a good idea. Sounds like early church communism to me. But hey, isn’t that biblical?

Suffice it to say, I found some music to keep my pulse up as I crank out a few miles on the treadmill.

This week, I’d like to suggest Scottish synthpop band Chvrches for our mixtape. They have a knife-edge clarity about their music. The hooks will stick with you. But I love the cascading lines of sparkling synths and droning bass undertones from the debut single “The Mother We Share.” Although other synthpop groups like The Knife have carved out more progressive territory, I think Chvrches have found their place in the optimistic and extroverted world of this digital soundscape. Plus, it gets me out of bed in the morning!

-Manny