The first word that comes to mind when I think about modern life is "overload." The second is "dispersion."
We are the targets of an ongoing war for our attention: the Web, new technologies, food, clothing, music. We feel the constant need to be connected; TV and radio are just not enough. We need to link to social media outlets, know what's going on or else be out; each instant of time is taken by a screen, small or large; information pours down in torrents.
If we forget our cell phone at home, we feel like a body part is missing; we are the phones, the phones are us. We are addicted to it, as we can see when a plane lands after a 45-minute flight and hundreds of passengers turn on their phones as if their lives depended on information that just came out. We are addicted to linkage and I am guilty as charged.
We no longer allow time for contemplation.
People feel time is passing faster because we have less and less control over it. To do nothing feels like a huge waste of time. Any open window of time must be filled with tweets, Facebook updates, email, YouTube videos, podcasts. If no one is talking about us, let's make sure that they do.
One of the victims of this "race to linkage" is our connection to nature. We can call it the new missing link.
We hardly look up to the sky or the at the life around us. To most people nature is a concept, something that exists out there, that we see in YouTube videos or magazines, on BBC and Animal Planet specials. To recover a sense of control over time we need to return to nature; we need to create space to observe other forms of life; we need to reconnect with the night sky, far from the city lights. At least this is what I do to slow down.
To me, entering a trail for a hike or run is like entering a temple. And as with any temple, I go in search of a connection, trying to restore a sense of identity as I surround myself with green and blue.
We recently published a story about how used clothes that get donated in the U.S. often wind up for sale in markets in Africa. As part of the story, we published some photos of used T-shirts we found in a couple markets in Kenya.
One shirt in particular caught our eye:
The shirt had a name inside it (Rachel Williams) and a bat mitzvah date (Nov. 20, 1993). We wanted to close the loop — to find Rachel Williams, and Jennifer of "Dancing with the Toons" fame. So yesterday, we threw up the Internet bat signal and asked for help tracking down Rachel and Jennifer.
Adam Soclof of JTA, a Jewish news service, saw a post about our search and set out to find Rachel Williams. He used Facebook Graph Search to look for people named Rachel Williams who had a friend named Jennifer, who would have been about 13 in 1993, and who he shared common Facebook friends with.
The first Rachel he tried was not the Rachel we were looking for. But he found the right Rachel on the second try:
Rachel, super random, but recognize this bat mitzvah shirt? Let me know...
It is my shirt! Williams is my maiden name. The bat mitzvah girl is Jennifer Slaim, she is married now. That picture is crazy!
(Read Adam's full post here. It includes his conversations with both Rachel and Jennifer.)
We saw Adam's post and followed up with Rachel this morning (her last name is now Aaronson, by the way). She told us she had a bunch of bat mitzvah T-shirts that spent years sitting in the basement of her parents' house, in the Detroit area. This one had her name in it because she took it to summer camp. About five years ago, she said, her mom gave the shirts away to a charity called Purple Heart.
She told us she's happy that the shirt will have a second life in Kenya. "I would love for the shirt to continue to be worn, to continue to be used," she said. "I hope whoever's wearing it is wearing it in good health and happiness."
Rachel also put us in touch with Jennifer, who said that this was, indeed, the shirt she gave away at her bat mitzvah, which was held 20 years ago at a Somerset Inn in Troy, Michigan. She even sent us pictures.
Jennifer was into cartoons at the time, especially Betty Boop. Hence the theme. When she saw the picture of her shirt yesterday, she said, "I couldn't stop laughing. It's crazy ... Twenty years later, who would think that my shirt would make it to Africa?"
"Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous," reads a sign photographed by filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi for Nuclear Nation. By the time he shows this small-town civic motto, the irony is unmistakable: Japan's nuclear-power industry may have enriched society, but it has left this particular city desolate.
The place in question is Futaba, which borders the Fukushima Daiichi nuke plant. Funahashi shows Futaba mostly in exile; after four of the six reactors failed on March 12, 2011, the town's residents were evacuated. As of April 2011, 1,415 of them were living in an abandoned high school in Saitama, the prefecture that holds much of Tokyo's northern sprawl.
Over the nine months the movie chronicles, about half the refugees leave the school building. Many return to the Fukushima area, but none to Futaba, which is still radioactive and officially off-limits. When a bus trip is organized so former residents can retrieve treasured belongings — for one, that means Mad Max and Planet of the Apes DVDs — the visitors are allowed only two hours within the hot zone.
Despite its title, the film spends little time analyzing Japan's macro issues as a "nuclear nation"; the director, who also served as editor and main cinematographer, sticks with the Futaba refugees. His approach is direct, intimate yet respectful, and sometimes as mournful as the stark piano-and-flute score. Both movie and music proceed slowly, although probably faster than in the original version, which was nearly an hour longer.
The principal characters include Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa and a father-son team, Ichiro and Yuiichi Nakai, who use their two hours in Futaba to pray for the soul of the wife and mother who died in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuke-plant hydrogen explosions.
When the movie leaves the Saitama shelter, it's usually to follow the mayor or other residents on a mission. Some of them stage a march in Tokyo, protesting Futaba's abandonment. There, in a classic clueless-politician moment, one elected representative bows solemnly to a demonstrator and asks, "Where are you from?"
Sometimes, though, the nation comes to the evacuees. The emperor and empress pay a visit, and a military band arrives to perform sad enka ballads and a tune that vows, "We love our Fukushima home." There are also letters and promises of compensation from the national government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which some find disappointing. "It would have been nice to receive something more heartfelt," remarks a shelter resident.
Each new reactor brought an influx of cash, Idogawa explains, but only temporarily. After all the construction, Futaba was still one of the 10 poorest towns in the country. That's why the mayor endorsed two more reactors, whose construction had been scheduled to begin just a month after the disaster.
By mid-2011, the mayor had changed his mind about nuclear power — not that it mattered much. He still had an office, but it was in a high school some 150 miles away from a town he couldn't even visit.
Idogawa and the Nakais aren't the documentary's only mavericks. There's also farmer Masami Yoshizawa, who insists on feeding and watering his cattle, even though the animals are too radioactive to have any economic value.
"I'm committed to letting these cows live," says Yoshizawa. That sentiment, given the circumstances, seems rather more inspiring than "Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous."
For those drawn to doom and gloom, the most affecting music sometimes takes a while to reveal itself. In 2008, the happily named duo Have a Nice Life released Deathconsciousness, a messy yet fascinating double-album fixated on the darker side of life and endowed with a gauzy, shoegaze-drenched underbelly. As time went on, I'd continue to see Deathconsciousness pop up in RSS and Twitter feeds from those just discovering an album too weird and too bleak for its time — or any time, for that matter. I should know; I was one of them a few years ago.
Six years later, in early 2014, Dan Barrett (also of the ghostly folk outfit Giles Corey) and Tim Macuga will finally return with a proper follow-up called The Unnatural World. It's massive in its scope, with production that reflects the heft of the material more than ever. "Defenestration Song" is our first peek into its realm.
With a driving rhythm and distorted bass line out of classic Bauhaus, "Defenestration Song" sounds restless and ominous in its movement. (A fitting title, as defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out the window.) A two-note guitar riff is barely heard above the dank din as warming feedback permeates the whole affair, like the kind that lulls you to sleep just before an icy death. It's a far cry from the thin-sounding version that appeared on the Voids demos and B-sides collection, that's for sure. And, on an album that maintains a plodding pace, "Defenestration Song" is the kind of pitch-black, post-punk party-rocker that'd really turn up at any Goth Night dance.
Throughout this week, we at NPR Music are taking a look at the year in music with our friend Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered. I joined her to bring a closer ear to two very impressive classical albums and an international rarity that's been brought back to life. (I also provided Audie with a primer on pronouncing my last name. I hope you all pay close attention.)