Jess A.

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Happy Birthday, Kurt Cobain

Programming note: This was originally published at Music Mind Zone on Feb. 20th, 2011. I’m re-posting it here to preserve it and to collect the various writings I have around the web.

Today would have marked the 44th birthday of Kurt Cobain if he had lived. If you have extra reading time, I highly recommend checking out Kurt Cobain’s journals for insight into what Cobain was thinking and feeling as he broke Grunge ground with Nirvana. An excerpt:

If we were going to be ghettoized, I’d rather be in the same slum as bands that are good like Mudhoney, Jesus Lizard, the Melvins and Beat Happening rather than being a tenant of the corporate landlords regime … There are a lot of bands who claim to be alternative and they’re nothing but stripped down, ex sunset strip hair farming bands of a few years ago. I would love to be erased from our association with Pearl Jam or the Nymphs and other first time offenders.

Cobain not only talks about music, but also about his thoughts on authority, life, love, fame.

It’s good to question authority and to fight it just to make things a bit less boring, but I’ve always reverted back to the conclusion that man is not redeemable and words that don’t necessarily have their expected meanings can be used descriptively in a sentence as art. True english is so fucking boring. And this little pit-stop we call life, that we so seriously worry about is nothing but a small, over the weekend jail sentence, compared to what will come with death. LIFE ISN’T NEARLY AS SACRED AS THE APPRECIATION OF PASSION.

The music that Cobain wrote for Nirvana remain some of my favorite songs, ever. Living on the East Coast, in a small town that lived outside of any music scene, it was a miracle that I heard of Nirvana before MTV picked them up and turned them into a household name. I had a friend who had a cousin from the West Coast. She was much older than my friend and I, but she humored us for the two weeks she was in town visiting and let us hang out with her. She carried around her Walkman everywhere and we had to constantly shout her name in order to get her attention. At one point, she was so fed up with our shouting that she just handed us her headphones and let us listen. It was a bootleg tape of Bleach and it changed my life. Even listening back on it now I’m transported back to 1990 and I can see all the ways that Bleach changed me. What would have happened if I hadn’t heard Bleach when I did?

I was an angsty little kid, much too old for my age. Bleach opened my eyes to the world in a way that other music hadn’t. Back then, I was still digging through my dad’s record collection, listening to The Beatles, Boston, Journey, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Who, Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t know music could sound like Bleach, let alone be released. Listen to “About a Girl” from Bleach, released in 1989.

When Nevermind was released in 1991, it was a huge deal in the town I grew up in. Stores refused to stock Nevermind because of the cover so I had to settle for videos on MTV until, by chance and luck, I ended up at a chain store while visiting family, something like Wal-Mart, and I was able to sneak off and buy a copy. I hid that from my family for a long time, listening to the music but hiding the case under my mattress. “Lithium” was on repeat for three months straight.

Two years later, I was in pre-adolescent angst mode, and In Utero was released. On the verge of becoming a teenager, my depression had already set in. Nirvana’s previous albums all served as fuel for my emotions, and In Utero was no exception. At the time, my friends were listening to Pop music on MTV, we finally had a decent radio station that played something other than Country and 80s music, but they still weren’t playing stuff like Nirvana. Here is “Heart-Shaped Box” from In Utero, a song that I didn’t really understand until I was older, but was listened to at least once an hour that year.

Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain, opened my mind and world in ways that would have taken years if I hadn’t been exposed to them. While they’ve sort of dropped off my listening radar in the past few years, I still consider them one of the many bands that influenced me throughout my life, and I thank them for it.

From The New York Times

“Perhaps the most striking thing I learned is that the answer to whether today’s marriages are better or worse is “both”: The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than the best marriages of yore.”

This is by far one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Here is an excerpt but seriously consider reading the whole thing.

A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A roadside-accident figure, covered with a sheet. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed. The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures. Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended. All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. Death sucks but, enh—click the channel.

Why Governor Cuomo’s Plan to Educate Inmates is a Good Idea

Governor Cuomo recently announced that he would push for a plan that would provide college degrees to inmates[1]. A lot of people on my Facebook feed are up in arms about the whole thing but I would like to offer up some context and perspective. Unlike most of the comments and opinions I’ve seen, I’m for the plan for a number of reasons. The criminal justice system is biased towards minorities and poor white people that would ordinarily not have the opportunity to receive some form of higher education. The program that Cuomo suggests would not only allow inmates to receive an education, it would give them marketable job skills that would keep them out of prison, and decrease the likelihood of recidivism, and would ultimately benefit the taxpayer.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world–about 3% of the U.S. population is currently incarcerated (that’s about 3.3 million people)[2]. The United States represents about 5% of the world population but houses a staggering 25% of the world’s inmates. Much of this is due to increased sentencing laws, including the three-strikes law, and the War on Drugs. Approximately 1 in 10 Americans are charged with a drug related crime and these laws disproportionately effect Blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, and women. Of all women in the federal prison system, 58% were convicted of a drug related offense.[3] A significant proportion of the U.S. prison population are minorities–16.3% of the prison population is Latino or Hispanic, making it the largest ethnic minority, and 13% of the population is Black, making it the largest racial minority [4].

In his 2009 book entitled Punishing the Poor, U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant demonstrates that that 60 percent of those currently incarcerated were at the time of their arrest living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line. Wacquant further establishes that nearly 70 of current inmates were unemployed at the time of their arrest. The message is clear: unemployment in the formal labor market substantially increases one’s risk of imprisonment.[5]

Recidivism, the rate at which previously released offenders will re-enter the criminal justice system, is an astonishing 67.5% in the U.S.[6] Prison is meant to be a deterrent, as is the death penalty. The problem is that this is the only deterrent. While incarcerated, most inmates are not provided with training or education resources that would give them any sort of marketable job skill once they leave the system. Their only recourse is to revert back to the life they had led before they were incarcerated in the first place. Not only this, we don’t prepare inmates for life outside of prison at all. Skills such as how to find a place to live, how to manage money, etc., are not provided which makes assimilating back into the population difficult.

In fact, many inmates are denied even a high school education based on their race. Schools unknowingly participate in the “School to Prison Pipeline” through the use of discriminatory policies such as stop-and-frisks and referrals to juvenile justice systems. Low performing schools often push out under-performing students into GED programs in order to artificially raise graduation rate numbers. Many of these under-performing students are minorities.

The School to Prison Pipeline is a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. This system disproportionately targets youth of color and youth with disabilities. Inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, high-stakes testing and the prison industry contribute to the pipeline.[7]

The NYCLU released a report last year that studied how Bloomberg-era policies in New York City pushed Black and low-income students out of school through Suspensions and Arrests[8]. The number of suspensions from 2001 to 2012 more than doubled. Blacks made up less than a third of the student population but served half of the suspensions.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 22.6% of the incarcerated have their high school diploma and only 12.7% of the prison population have a Postsecondary degree[9]. Studies have found that “inmates that participate in correctional educational programs while incarcerated had 43% lower odds of recidivating.”[10]

Whether we look back over the last two decades, or just the last two years, education, in particular, has become a casualty of state budget battles. Analysis by the National Association of State Budget Officers shows that elementary and high schools receive 73 percent of their state funding from this discretionary fund; colleges and universities count on the fund for half of their budgets. However, $9 out of every $10 that support imprisonment come from the same pot of money. With tens of billions of dollars in prison spending annually, states are finding that there is simply less discretionary money available to invest in education, especially in these lean economic times. [11]

The annual cost of housing one inmate in New York State is about $60,000 [12], higher than any other state in the U.S.[13] Most of the money used to fund correctional programs comes from a general fund that, if not spent on correctional spending, would have been earmarked to go to a number of other public programs including healthcare, housing, public assistance, and education. In the short term taxpayers would give $5,000 more per inmate to fund the new education program. While this may sound ridiculous–yes, let’s give MORE money to someone that is in prison–it isn’t. Studies have clearly shown that education reduces recidivism by 5–20 percent [14], meaning that education would reduce the number of prison inmates in the long-run. This would eventually lead to a reduction in overall spending for correctional programs. The money saved by these education programs could be put back into the general fund and could be spent on other public needs.

Marriage 101: A College Course About Healthy Relationships

From The Atlantic, The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates

“The foundation of our course is based on correcting a misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person,” Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person. Given that we’re dealing with 19-, 20-, 21-year olds, we think the best thing to do at this stage in the game, rather than look for the right partner, is do the work they need to understand who they are, where they are, where they came from, so they can then invite in a compatible suitable partner.” — Alexandra Solomon

The syllabus for the course is pretty intense but offers up a thorough reading list.

On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I wish I had something more to say about the fact that Michael Dunn was not convicted for killing a black boy. Except I said it after George Zimmerman was not convicted of killing a black boy. Except the parents of black boys already know this. Except the parents of black boys have long said this, and they have been answered with mockery.

Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.

Commute Listening: Podcasts

Podcasts have become a staple to my commute. After numerous hard drive crashes that wiped out my music collection, including one external hard drive crash, I decided to start using cloud-based streaming services like Rdio and Spotify which made listening to most music difficult because I have no cell reception during most of my commute. Podcasts are the next best thing but also allow me to keep up to date with things I find interesting.

The only issue with that is Apple’s podcast app is lacking several features that I especially wanted. There are a few podcast apps on the market currently and there are more on the way. I decided to try out a few different ones to find the one that suited me best. I’ve only tried one so far, Pocket Casts, which is infinitely better than Apple’s podcast app. So far I’m happy with it.

I plan on trying other podcast apps in the future but for now I’m happy with Pocket Casts. In the meantime, I’m always on the lookout for new podcasts to listen to. Below are the ones that currently occupy my commute time.

1. NPR’s Fresh Air – Terry Gross is a wonderful interviewer. Whether she’s interviewing celebrities, authors, or other cultural figures, she manages to keep my interest.

2. Nerdist – I mostly listen for the guests but Hardwick and the other hosts have a habit of making the even the most serious of people bring out their funny. It’s laid back and hilarious.

3. This American Life – I love the storytelling. I’ve been listening to This American Life for years and it is still one of my favorites. Each week a new story is told, in three parts. The stories are interesting and insightful and are told from a perspective that I normally wouldn’t be able to put myself in.

4. Planet Money – Economics is interesting but Planet Money turns an often boring subject into something that is relevant to its listeners.

5. Radiolab – A science-themed podcast that can turn any topic into one of the most interesting things you’ve ever learned.

6. Freakonomics Radio – Again, Economics is interesting but boring. Like Planet Money, Freakonomics tackles everyday issues but turns them into one of the most interesting things you’ll ever listen to. It’s a spin-off of the Freakonomics book.

7. WTF with Marc Maron – I listen for the guests. Sometimes Maron goes on long spiels that don’t always hold my interest, but the interviews are spectacular. He’s not afraid to ask questions and it makes his guests feel human even if they normally seem out of touch.

8. How to do Everything – This short podcast will teach you how to do everything. Like the best way to get rid of your abnormal amount of static shock so you can stop shocking, literally, your friends.

9. Stuff You Should Know – This is what school should be like.

10. StarTalk Radio – Science from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the most interesting figures in science today.

11. Stuff You Missed in History Class – Ever wondered how Egyptians actually mummified people? Well, you can take a listen to figure it out. They do the research for you.

12. Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! – Current events from comedians. What’s not to love?

13. New Yorker: The Political Scene – A weekly dose of current politics.

14. Love + Radio – Similar to This American Life, this podcast tells you stories that are interesting.

Funfetti birthday cake with homemade rainbow chip frosting

We found out that Betty Crocker no longer makes rainbow chip frosting–seriously, are they Communists?–so Burçin made her own from scratch using white chocolate, food coloring, and frosting. This was the best birthday cake I’ve had, ever.



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