Reflections of a Philosophy Major ~ Ben Kharakh

I’m a philosophy major, which means that I like having things spelled out for me. Case in point: my first day of philosophy class, wherein it was explained to me why thinking is important. “Thinkin’? Important?” Whodathunkit?! Simon Blackburn thunks so because how you think about something affects how you do it or if you do it at all. Could I have provided you with a list of reasons why thinking was important prior to that moment? Maybe, but I’m not a fan of arguing over guesses. “Was Mona a character on Who’s The Boss? Or Charles in Charge?” So, instead, I quote Blackburn a lot because I find his comment to be profound.

“You mean obvious!” If it’s so obvious, why aren’t you teaching a philosophy class? “I don’t want to!” Really? All you’d have to do is say a bunch of obvious shit for eighty minutes to a bunch of idiots. “Why idiots?” Who if not idiots is gonna pay to listen to some stranger spew obvious shit for an hour plus? “Good point!” It’s obvious though, isn’t it?

That a knife in the face might kill you may be obvious, but if you didn’t know that you’d be dead by now or have half a face.  ”I wouldn’t pay someone to tell me obvious stuff!” Obvious stuff isn’t necessarily worthless though. If philosophy’s worthless, then my degree isn’t worth squat. And by that logic, raising kids is worth less than squat because that’s what we pay our mothers. “But mothers are priceless!” And that’s what I’d call my degree: priceless. Well, two-fifths of it. One fifth I’d call timeless since I minored in history, and the other two-fifths I wouldn’t know what to call if you wanted to debate the merits of English.

For the sake of argument, though, I’ll grant that philosophy is obvious. In fact, I’d say that the philosophy that resonates with me most is the most obvious, indisputable (yet controversial!), and blandest stuff anyone could tell me about myself or the world. “I coulda told you that!” Huh? “I coulda told you that you learn about yourself from others.” Holy crap; keep going! “You often see ourselves as others do!”  This guy’s a genius! PUT THIS IN A BOOK! There’s not going to be anything to put in a book if you keep spoiling it like this. That took me six pages to say! (I had to put that in italics so that you’d know I was doing a third voice. And I had to put all this between parentheses so that you’d know it was me, Ben. Hope you can keep up!)

One of my issues with philosophy is how long it takes many philosophers to say what they say.  Example: Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to be a Bat? In this essay, Nagel talks about how we can study a bat and imagine ourselves as a bat, but we still wouldn’t know what it’s like for a bat to be a bat because the objective study of a thing does not reveal the subjective experience of being that thing. A very accurate description! Unfortunately, in the amount of time it takes Nagel to say all this I could have actually dressed up as a bat, flapped my arms around, eaten some bugs, and then thought, “Something’s gotta be missing because these bugs are gross, my arms are tired, and I haven’t flown an inch!”

I think there’s a good reason for writing philosophy the way that it’s often written, though. This is because I often think of philosophy as horribly, unfunny satire. See, a lot of philosophers try to give as accurate a description of everyday stuff as possible, but they do it in such a way that the everyday appears alien. That’s why so many philosophers write circuitously, use unfamiliar language, make up their own words, or just use traditional words and phrases in untraditional ways. They’re trying to wake you up to the world around you! Luke Wilson wakes up in the future in Idiocracy, but he really wakes up IN THE PRESENT! Philosophy’s a trip! So, if you love rollin’ dubbs, you’ll love Wittgenstein! Just don’t smoke Schopenhauer; he’s a bit of a downer!

“Long words? Telling me stuff I probably already know? These people sound elitist!” I’d say there’s more to elitism than using long words. You’d have to, for example, think you were better than other people because you used long words, sorta like how you think you’re better than elitists for thinking they’re better than you. “OH SHIT!”

Not all philosophers are elitists, of course, but a number of people I’ve come across seem to think that they’re engaged in privileged thinkin’. “I’m wonderin’ bout stuff common folks couldn’t even imagine!” I think of philosophy as just another type of thinkin’, which means that I think philosophers and non-philosophers think about the same stuff. “Like what it would be like if Arnold Schwartzegger was shrunk down to teeny-tiny size and injected into someone’s body like in Inner Space?”  The 1987 action-comedy-adventure, staring Martin Short, Dennis Quaid, and Meg Ryan?! “The Joe Dante picture?” Who? “ME! Directing’s been slow, so I’m taking on roles in third rate puppet shows to supplement my income.” Third rate?!” “Listen: I get paid by the hour, so unless this is going somewhere you better wrap it up!” Right, so, yes, I think about Arnold Schwartzegger being shrunk down to teeny-tiny size. I also think that a philosopher’s no more likely to find the truth or think rigorously than a non-philosopher.

I’m also of the opinion that there’s no necessarily inaccessible knowledge, although some disagree. I’ve had people (more than one!) tell me that there might be biological reasons why I couldn’t know or understand something. “I think they called you retarded,” my friend said. (I had to cite my friend on that one not so you’d know I have friends but because I’m writing a joke research paper. Thanks B.C.!) So if anyone knows something, I think they can explain it to you. And claiming otherwise is just a lie the man made up to keep you down!

When philosophers do explain things they often use analogies, which is fine if you recognize that thought experiments only highlight what’s similar between things rather than what’s the same about them. And when people fail to recognize this, they end up taking seriously something that’s absurd, like wondering if we’re always dreaming. Don’t worry, we’re not, because that’s not what it means to dream! Unfortunately, too often philosophers forget or aren’t aware of obvious stuff like what it means to dream or how we use words. Plenty of people make the same mistakes, but they don’t know they’re making them. As a result, people find ludicrous things to be genius. And that’s why hundreds of years later I end up having to write essays explaining how we use words and why we can’t always be dreaming; or why I find myself in a classroom being told that it’s a strike against a theory if it disallows time travel.

That’s right: in philosophy class, it’s minus points if your plans mean you can’t Quantum Leap into Genghis Khan. I’m pretty sure “no time travel” isn’t a problem anywhere else. “Hey, you wanna hang out?” With dinosaurs and Richelieu?! “No, with me.” Nah, I’m good. “Hey, I’m gonna order a pizza. Want some?” Is it one of those time traveling pizzas? “Is that like a pizza that’s already eaten by the time you get it? Because I’m not paying for an empty box.” Then, no, I don’t want any.

And that brings me to my final (for now) gripe with philosophers: they spend too much time mulling over stuff that cannot be practically applied to everyday living, like whether the world is made out of stuff or ideas. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to be told you didn’t understand someone’s long, convoluted, and circuitous paper—or book!— on why ideas are more real than stuff could ever be? Euch! And then, to cap it off, the author says that she’s figured out philosophy forevers. So we can rest our heads because the debate over whether stuff or ideas are the real deal is over. We can finally go on living our lives because she’s done all the important thinkin’ for us! No dice says this guy!

That’s right, lady I made up. I saw through your purported shangri-la of heuristics for what it really is–a dreamed up world of rules and regulations that shields you from an indisputable matter of fact:  that you, like me, are the same– just a couple of animals. And, like all animals, you and I will one day die. The real tragedy is not that your behavior alienates the people most likely to help you, but that you’ve been living in a dream for so long that you’ve come to mistake it for waking life. But, you know what? You can put up all the walls you want and stick porcelain or tile wherever you please, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all squatting when we shit, that we all shit outside, and that everybody dies. Yeah, where’d you think the houses were? They’re outside! And maybe if Gargamel knew this stuff, he’d stop trying to kill the Smurfs (they’re just fun-sized humans!).

That’s what I think of when I think of philosophy: trying to understand the world and what about it makes me laugh. Along the way, I hope to break down walls, bring us all closer together, and be a good person.

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Humorless Budget Report ~ Ben Kharakh

RUSA had a good grabber for their budget meeting: “Where does your money go?” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out the answer to that question. Instead, I left after becoming both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the first hour of the event—overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at me; and underwhelmed by the absence of tools to make sense of it all.

The meeting began with the presentation of a survey regarding what some number of students thought about the current fiscal situation. I say “some number” because the audience was never informed of how many people RUSA spoke to for its survey. I’m not interested, though, in what random students think about who’s responsible for the current state of affairs. I’d care if random students knew how to fix the problem, but then they wouldn’t even be random students; I’m pretty sure we’d all know the names of the people who figured out how to balance the budget and save us all money. But rather than get something resembling a way out, I was given what struck me as a deeply unsatisfying narrative.

I was told that the cost of tuition was going up, that the amount of financial aid was going down, and that banks were profiting from it all. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had passed a bill barring private lending institutions from making a buck off the whole shebang, with the government handling the distribution of funds instead.  So: there was a massive problem and the closest thing to a solution came from the government. My gripe with all this is that there’s no room for me in the narrative besides as being the victim. The whole thing struck me as very disempowering.

Unfortunately, most of the information I get, whether it be print, online, on TV, etc.,  is oriented around problems rather than solutions thereto. I can see the appeal of framing particular parties as “bad guys,”; and it certainly seemed like the audience was none too pleased with banks or the government. But none of that tells me how the banking and lending system works in the first place or what I or anyone else can do about it.

I never found out where my money actually goes— unless RUSA meant the bank (ha ha joke’s on me!)— because I left the meeting early. I was simply too dissatisfied to stick around for the whole thing. So, I went to an open mic at the Red Lion Café instead. I watched the show rather than performed in it, but I felt very excited nonetheless. As a philosophy major, I like having things spelled out for me; as a comedy nerd, I like jokes; as someone that likes a challenge, I’d like to synthesize the two; and as someone who enjoys his sanity, I see no other option.

Philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein is rumored to have said that, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes. ” I can see that for sure. Something makes you laugh, you explain what it was to someone else, and that explanation is the joke. If something strikes you as funny about something serious and you can explain what it was to someone else, then you’ve got some serious comedy on your hands— you’ve entered Bill Hicks/Maria Bamford/Louis CK territory.  And there’s more utility to that sort of comedy beyond the good PR it’ll bring.

The first hour of the RUSA meeting was full of charts and bad news. A few jokes would have made the whole thing not only more palatable but easier to cope with too.  The latter becomes even more apparent when the budget meeting is taken as only a part of all the problems facing America and the world today. If I read nothing but bad news on the web followed by hateful, angry comments and combine that with a sense of impending catastrophe, impotence, and general absurdity, I’d feel awful. But absurdity can be a source of laughter as much as it can be a source of despair. And I’d much rather be full of laughs than dread. Besides, people are a lot more eager to listen to you and share your message if it’s as funny as it is insightful.

I figure that if I’m going to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, I’m going to need my sense of humor to lighten the load. But this sentiment, I would argue, is founded upon a misunderstanding of what it means to be a person. I alone don’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders; all people carry that burden if a person is to carry it at all. And, by the looks of things, we could all use a few more laughs, which is good, because I got me a hankering to tell some jokes.

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JVP Speaks: Wikileaks & Transparency

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks disclosure, how much should we, as people, know? Is there such a thing as knowing too much? Or are some things best left unsaid?

Rebecca Zandstein: I cannot answer what we should “as people” know, but I strongly believe that as American citizens we should be extensively educated on matters that can allow us to become better political activists and voters. The government should not be hiding relevant information on wars, for example, since it relates to those that are representing us and whom we vote for. Information should be disclosed as long as it is not secret information relating to positions, strategies, and informants’ names. Otherwise, just like The Pentagon Papers allowed us to see the corruption within our government [officials]. WikiLeaks allows us to have more accurate body counts in Iraq and shows the public that Iraq is indeed a “bloodbath on every corner”.

Everyone chooses to live and see their own version of reality but in the end there is only one. The reality that the American government sets out for the public should not be masked in an attempt to make the public “safe” and “secure” in knowing untruths. As long as our national security is not at risk, there should not be such extreme restrictions on publications released for the public to become more educated.

Mike Stuzynsk: The problem with the stuff released by wikileaks is that it is shockingly bland.  Australia doesn’t think Iran is the devil–holy shit, no way!  It seems so me like these leaks are really a non-issue and the government is making a bigger deal about it than needs to be made.

Jhoany Benitez: There IS such a thing as knowing too much. Some things are irrelevant pieces of information. Curiosity is not always a good thing; it can lead to paranoia and losing trust. While it is good to know things, it is also a bad thing to know everything. Part of the beauty of life is its mystery.

Ben Kharakh: I endorse the idea of Wikileaks with the hope that the fact that we now know what’s going on will make people change for the better (as opposed to staying the same and just getting better at hiding information). Will this actually happen? On this issue I remain agnostic.

I also think, though, that power should not be focalized in such a manner that individuals are able to affect the lives of so many people so quickly. And in those instances when it’s unavoidable that people become this powerful, I’d prefer that their activity be as transparent as possible so that I know just exactly what’s going on with that power.

Some of the leaked info seemed private and some may argue that, as a result, the information is not inappropriate to know (and in this case I don’t mean people’s names, etc). I don’t buy the whole private/public dichotomy, nor the offline/online distinction. Private stuff is just public stuff we don’t want other people to know about (and I don’t mean your email passwords). And how one behaves in private, methinks, is indicative of how one behaves in public. Unfortunately, too often a lot of the behavior showcased in the cables is treated as gossip rather than a justification for improvement. Although, given that all the starlets the media harangues have yet to better themselves, maybe I’m naïve to expect the same of diplomats and leaders.

Lastly, I’m gonna paraphrase my friend Maximum Barkley (Barkley to the max!) and say that the success of Wikileaks is indicative of a failure on the part of contemporary journalism. The fourth estate, I would say, has dropped a ball in terms of being the party to get this sort of information. Sure, the press is writing article about this stuff, but it’s not the press that’s getting the stuff in the first place. They need to hit the pavement harder!

Brendan Kaplan: I think that as individuals that make up a larger body politic, complete with its own behavior, rationalization process, and mechanisms of action, it is important to understand what that body is doing.

In other words, we need to understand the processes being carried out by society through its aggregation and direction of our behavioral outputs. What is not necessary, however, is to release content beyond that which is not necessary to fully describe the process to which the content claims to be relevant.

In the case of the Wikileaks, it is important for the public to understand the types of practices that the United States carries out. If this could be done without releasing the names of specific dates, then it should be.

Additionally, Wikileaks would be able to take the moral high ground in any argument claiming, “We were vague… claiming that this foreign power is worried about that foreign power. Then the 1st power started arguing and claiming that we were only making it up. We were thus forced to release the details to back up what we are saying. If they had just accepted the truth in the first place instead of trying to lie about it, we would have spared that nasty details”

Basically, process is necessary to understand, and some content is required for individuals to understand process. If content is released that is not necessary to understand process, than that release is done so for publicity or political purposes.

Personally, I think Wikileaks walks a fine line between the two and has engaged in both. One thing is for certain right now though: Julian Assange is in way over his head and is part of something he can no longer control.

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Inside JVP: An Interview with Brendan McInerney by Ben Kharakh

I joined the JVP too late to get to spend much time with Brendan McInerney. But the few days that I did get to see him, he was nothing but delightful and fascinating. So, getting the chance to speak with the person behind such wonderful photographs was a great opportunity.

From talking to Brendan for just a little bit, I was able to tell how much of him is in his work. Brendan captures emotion with his lens in the same way a poet wrangles up feelings with words. He doesn’t take photos; he snaps haikus. And that’s only scratching the surface of Brendan McInerney.

What brought you to Rutgers? Originally I wanted to go to RIT in Rochester, NY because they have a great photography program. However, due to budgetary constraints, I decided to head to Rutgers instead. I had decided before I went off to college that photojournalism would be the best way to pursue an interesting career in photography while not starving to death. Since Rutgers didn’t have a photojournalism major, I decided to study plain journalism (unfortunately), though I never took their photojournalism class. Since the journalism ‘major’ only consists of 30 credits, I was done with it in a couple of semesters. I was also taking Spanish classes at the time. I had intended on it being my minor but I did the math and realized that I could double major. So, I did.

What sort of aspirations did you have growing up and which of these, if any, are you putting the most effort into making a reality? I’ve had a million aspirations growing up, I’ve wanted to be every type of scientist, a politician, a historian, I even considered majoring in African studies at one point. The closer I got to graduation, the poorer my idea about my future was. I have since graduated and I am now a ‘committed lost soul,’ as my dear friend Alejandra so deftly put it.

I started to look into photography at the end of high school although I had always enjoyed taking photographs. After I finished the journalism major, I realized that journalism was a big joke. To me, my professors made it seem that journalism amounted to nothing more than trying to keep people’s attention for as long as possible. Once you lost that attention, you move on to a different subject.

I heard few successful photographers speak and taking a class called ‘Engaged Anthropology’ with Prof. Daniel Goldstein, I realized that the work I want to do involves becoming a part of a community so that I can understand it and share that understanding with the rest of the world. Hence, I am going into the Peace Corps where I can, hopefully, engage and improve a community while creating a significant photographic work.

Did your professors say the same thing about investigative journalism? Not in so many words. Apparently, some students were taught about OPRA, but I was never taught about it. The classes I took consisted of the history of news media, how to strictly abide by AP style, how to put the most relevant information (and only information) at the top of the article and how journalism is a dying field so we’ll never get the same opportunities they did. The journalism department is waiting for some successful alum to give them money so that they can change the name of the school from SCI. But that will never happen as long as they are preparing their students so poorly for the field.

I feel that I am very self-centered when it comes to the things that I want to do with my life. The fact that I have left out music in this interview is a good example of my egocentrism. During high school, I was heavily involved in music. I went to Sparta High School and the people who taught me there are, hands down, the best teachers I have ever had. They really pushed me as a musician and helped me to achieve a great deal of success as a high school musician. During my senior year I applied to a number of schools as a music major but at the last minute I decided that I couldn’t do it. I regret that decision. It’s funny how even though the majority of my education from 5th grade to the end of high school focused on music, I often forget about it completely.

What was and what is your relationship with music like? At the moment, music is purely a hobby for me. I still pick up my clarinet occasionally (though I should do it more often) and I’m getting into blues harmonica. I like the harmonica because I can take it wherever I go and practice while I’m driving or waiting for someone.

What inspired you to not study music? Is the regret something that bothers you? I chose not to study music because I don’t think I have the right personality. All the successful music majors have an obsessive interest in music and nothing else, I just couldn’t dedicate myself to one field at such an early age. The regret doesn’t really bother me, I like to think that I would have done well in music but it can enrich my life as a hobby just as well as it would a career.

What sort of scientist would you have been? I wanted to be an astronomer, it was my ambition to gaze longingly into the night sky and to think up new and creative ways to measure the velocity of different sized rocks. It seems to me that most scientific fields consist of mind-blowing, universe altering discoveries in between months or years of mind-numbing, universe contingent math equations. I think I would be good at that; I may yet make a good astronomer. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

What happened to being a politician or historian? I wanted to be a politician, but I stopped acting like a 5-year-old when I turned 6. Politicians are people who work for their own interests under the guise of helping others. Except for Barack Obama, that man can do no wrong. I actually want to help others. There’s nothing wrong with being a historian. I often consider pursuing a life in academia, but if I do, I want it to be in a field that will help others in a direct way. I’m not saying historians don’t help others; they do, just not in as direct a manner as I would like. If photography doesn’t work out, I want to study linguistics and preserve the world’s dying languages.

How would you describe your relationship with photography? Photography is the easiest way of sharing with others the beauty that I find in the world. I’ve also tried poetry, but I generally I find the poems I write to be pretty corny. Alex Webb is one of the photographers that I’ve seen speaking about their work. He said, “if I was any good at writing, I wouldn’t have to trouble with photography.” I’m most proficient at sending a message visually, so I use this proficiency to help people in any way that I can.

How did you develop an interest in helping others? I have no idea why I have an interest in helping others, I’m also pretty good with children, though I couldn’t tell you why. I think its just part of being human, we are inherently social creatures and the drive to help one another is an evolutionary feature that has helped us survive.

What about people who seemingly hurt others? I don’t know really; there are always things like greed and mental illness that overcome the desire not to hurt others. But I think that those who hurt others lack an understanding of the world or an open mind about people. They don’t realize what it is like to be in someone else’s situation, or else they would know the damage they are doing. Really though, I’m not sure.

What was your first encounter with photography like? I’ve attached the first picture I ever took (which I’m quite proud of). I remember when I went to Ireland for a few months the summer after 6th grade to visit my relatives and explore the country. My mom had given me a bunch of disposable cameras to take pictures of my trip. When I got back she was pissed, “where are the people? How come you didn’t take any pictures of people?!” There isn’t one specific moment that I was hit by some divine inspiration to take photographs, it has been a gradual progression. I got into photography in high school and then I got into it more in college. Soon I hope to get into it in a way that will help me support myself.

Who are some photographers whose work you enjoy or appreciate? I don’t enjoy any other photographer’s work. I’m inspired by others, but its always tempered by jealousy.

I heard a great joke once:

Q:How many photographers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Five. One to screw it in and four others to stand around and say ‘I could have done that.’

That being said, there are many many photographers that I admire. Of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern ‘photojournalism’ and James Nachtwey, the current grand master of photography, if you will. Emilio Morenatti is another, he has really striking and unique images, I’ll never forget seeing this image on the front of the New York Times. Julio Mitchell has captured the essence of an entire continent although he has lived in relative obscurity until recently. Peter van Agtmael is my real life inspiration whom I saw speak with Alex Webb recently (Alex Webb was caught by the border police a couple of times because he was following illegal immigrants over the border to shoot photographs of them). If you look at the list of photographers on the Magnum website, you can pick any one of them and I can tell you why they are incredible and I want to be like them. I could go on for days.

How did you change over the course of your time at Rutgers? Over the course of my time at Rutgers, I recognized the value of a good education and the need for one to pursue wisdom and knowledge, not just have it given to him. I had this idea as soon as I got to college, but I didn’t really act on it until my second or third year. As I went through college and learned more about the world, I realized that the more you know, the less you know. Which is a pretty tacky phrase, but still one that holds some truth. I hope that I can continue to know less and less every day.

How has your education helped you seek knowledge and wisdom? If four years of education has taught me anything it is that I truly know very little about anything. This makes me want to know more, as futile an effort as that may be. Think about every single book you have ever checked out, every song you have ever listened to, every movie you have ever seen and every person you have ever listened to. I feel like a silverfish chomping away at the corner of a page of a book and my goal is to eat everything in the library. But it’s not just school, I think that listening to people has helped a lot too. Living in New Brunswick, there are few moments that someone is not trying to speak to you. It makes you realize that, although you may not agree with something someone is saying, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. People are much too quick to discredit one another these days.

So, how’d you find out about the JVP? I remember working with Mike Stuzynski at the Daily Targum and always having him talk about creating a publication in opposition to the Targum. I think he used to use the phrase doppelgänger, though I’m sure he’ll correct me if he reads this. I slinked in and out of the organization until Alex G took over, he really pushed me to produce content for the site.

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Iron & Wine’s Walking Far From Home ~ A Review by Megan Rusciano

 fell in love with Sam Beam (the voice behind Iron & Wine), his guitar, his ginger locks, and his trademark beard in high school. But 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog’s shifted away from acoustics towards a more country/ folk-rock feel. This left me wondering where Sam Beam’s poignant guitar rifts had gone. I wanted to go back to the drifting melodies that rocked ever so slightly by Beam’s hushed voice. So, I had my doubts when it came to Iron & Wine’s new EP: Walking Far From Home.

Walking Far From Home gives us a taste of where Iron & Wine will head in their upcoming album, Kiss Each Other Clean, set to be released in January ‘11. From the glimpse provided by the EP, it appears that the album will not be a return to the older Iron and Wine that I believe many of us, myself included, initially fell in love with. But for those who were dissatisfied with ‘07’s The Shepherd’s Dog, this EP represents a divergence from Beam’s earlier work. The EP moves away from a country and acoustic sound to confront an interesting musical juxtaposition: Beam’s rustic voice situated within an electronic and jazz setting. By doing so, the album stands upon a musical threshold, straddling a number of genres–each song acting to illuminate Beam’s versatility.

The opening track “Walking Far From Home” (the only track that will actually appear on the new LP) gives the initial impression that Iron & Wine has gone electronic. The song, however, is driven by a composite of piano, the consistent beat of a snare, and Sam Beam’s slightly distorted voice. It invokes a repetition both in lyric, tempo, and melody that is reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s well-known track “The Trapeze Swinger”. The subtle use of piano acts to reinforce the profundity of Beam’s lyrics. This accentuates the track’s transcendent quality that displaces me, the listener, if I let myself wander with it. The ending almost seems to mirror the conclusion of a Sigur Ros song: subtle, whispered voices that are slightly indistinct.

But it’s a quick transition into the next track: “Summer in Savannah”, a song that blares jazz from the start. Filled with amazing syncopation and a fantastic horn solo about 2 minutes in, the song ends in a wonderful climax of utter jazz. Sam Beam’s voice seems somewhat misplaced in a sea of horns, but here emerges his versatility. The contrast between his voice and the jazz disrupts the distinctions of typical musical genres illustrating that Beam can move beyond folk and folk-rock labels.

The final track “Biting Your Tail” initially sounds like something out of the new Sufjan Stevens album or perhaps The Postal Service’s Give Up. It gives off an electronic feel with a synthesizer and a cyclical rhythm. However, it is supplemented with profound lyrics: an Iron & Wine staple. Indeed, “Walking Far From Home” and “Biting Your Tail” stand out with verses that I find myself repeating under my breath in an attempt to further encapsulate their warmth and insight.

If avid fans are expecting a return to the older Iron & Wine, they may be unimpressed with this EP and perhaps the upcoming album. But if they set their expectations aside, they will realize like myself that Sam Beam does not disappoint. Instead, he proves that he can move beyond acoustics and find innovative ways to make music. People should give this EP another listen if they don’t enjoy it at first: it is well worth the second chance.

At the end of “Biting Your Tail”, Beam advises “May your words be well worth stealing/ Put your hands on your heart when singing”. I believe that he follows this advice quite well in this new EP. Evocative of the Iron & Wine I fell in love with, Walking Far From Home sets me adrift within Beam’s passion. But instead of using a guitar, Beam has found new avenues through which to express his reverent melodies.

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What Are You? ~ Rebecca Zandstein

I forgot to warn you about how Aliza’s hair may look in the morning… She convinced me that she usually has braids in her hair when going to sleep. I attempted ‘pig tail braids’ as per her request but that didn’t work out…nor did one braid. I can only braid challah. So I apologize in advance for my attempt to convince Aliza that two pigtails twisted into a pony is indeed a braid. I hope her hair isn’t a catastrophe in the morning.”

Last week I watched the children of a family friend. After leaving the house, I e-mailed the mother warning her about her child’s hair, since I had forgotten to shamelessly tell her such to her face. Apparently, my attempt at pretending that the child’s hair was challah in order to make a braid ended up giving the girl flowy waves for school the next day- mind you that her hair is usually pencil straight. It’s times like these when I truly reflect on my identity.

On occasion I fit into the stereotypical construct of a Jew and “tomboy”. Aside from the moments where I find myself picking up the dirtiest penny ever because, well, it’s a penny, I am usually closer to being considered a gay man than a “girly girl.” Many mock me for always announcing one identity over the other, but I find that my prioritization of identities highlights my true self, which partially has been created for me and I have created for myself. Granted my last name gives away that I am most likely of Jewish descent, I still accentuate my identity as a Jewish woman before any other aspect like my sexual orientation or religious and political beliefs.

I find it necessary to couple my gender with my main identity of being Jewish; after being ridiculed many times for looking too androgynous (seriously? me?!) and my entire Jewish education being a bit chauvinistic, gender has come to play almost as big of a role as my ethnic and religious identity. When fellow peers tell me that I’m intimidating, my initial [mental] response is “well, I’m a Jewish woman…and it runs in my family (thank you, Grandpa!).” Sexual orientation is more or less a social construct and while ethnic background may be considered such as well, I find it more relevant to a person’s makeup. Who you’re attracted to doesn’t mean as much as anything else; it’s more so about the relationship between you and someone else, and your identity should reflect more about you.

Focusing on my Jewish identity allows me, like other religious/ethnic identities, to take hold of the past. Denying my Jewish identity would be denying what has happened to my immediate family and how we came about as a generation. Although the argument can be made for sexual orientation as well, I do not find myself attached to all people who share my sexual identity; all straight people cannot feel connected to one another. Sexual orientation is just a minor identity while my being Jewish is more “macro.” Furthermore, sexual orientation does not involve much tradition and being Jewish is all about tradition. Sexuality, whether you are straight, queer, bisexual, or transgendered does not involve an adequate amount of tradition and culture when compared to ethnicity and religion.

LGBTQQIA people do not have certain “traditional” dishes on specified days or celebrations, though they may have alcoholic drinks that are deemed “gay” in bars. There may be rituals within the LGBTQQIA community but they are not shared or known to all within the community because of the constant change and making of history; Judaism has not added new rituals, for the most part, so nearly all rituals are known to most Jews within the community.

Additionally, for example, the flag used for the LGBTQQIA community is usually a rainbow but who said all of the members of that community like rainbows or understand why in the Lord’s name a rainbow is usually used to symbolize the community? Moreover, it must be noted that those in the LGBTQQIA community are quite diverse because they are everyone not considered heterosexual therefore making singular traditions and rituals within the community hard to find and agree upon.

On the other hand, the Jewish symbol and even the Israeli flag has a Jewish star- it’s our sign. It’s what many of our ancestors and families wore in the Holocaust- my family members were forced to wear Jewish yellow felt stars on their sleeves, announcing their identity, and later on we still wear Jewish stars but we took this symbolic representation back for ourselves. The LGBTQQIA community were not forced to wear rainbows while being scapegoated and then took that symbol back as theirs.

Announcing my religious/ethnic identity allows me to expand upon one of my identities: I’m not just Jewish, I’m an Ashkenazi Jew (Eastern European). This then usually stereotypes me as always being on time, but usually early, using everything with potatoes and paprika, and that I’m usually on the paler side (unfortunately, I did not inherit my Grandmother’s olive tone), which isn’t so far from the truth. Identities can sometimes be worn on one’s sleeve but by identities being so general in nature it allows for expansion and room for other identities to compliment each other.

Looking back at my last two years of Rutgers, I can finally grasp how people identify themselves. It’s not about what you’re necessarily born with but what you attach to most. When asked, many students would identify themselves as “gay” before announcing their ethnicity or religious background; this may be due to feeling more comfortable and/or accepted with this one identity or lack of open-mindedness that they possess other identities. Others would emphasize their age before telling me other relevant demographics. A majority of students assume I know aspects of who and what they are, skipping what they considered obvious like gender. Regardless, identity is a social construct and so we should take advantage of the construct we make use of and enable.

When I am asked “what are you?” it’s not a recorded slew of terms that I spew to each person; it’s a concise arrangement of terms that have been organized and prioritized for good reason. The distinction between “who” and “what” is that “who” requires a definition of focus on the demographics and details of who one is. “What,” on the other hand, focuses on personal experiences and history that make up a personal identity while taking into account current identities that a person labels themselves with. Next time someone asks “what are you?” give some thought before answering.

Photo courtesy of forward.com

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Inside JVP: An Interview with Alex Giannattasio by Ben Kharakh

I found out about the Johnsonville when I overheard co-founder and former editor-in-chief Alex Giannattasio talking about the JVP with Professor James Livingston. (You call it eavesdropping; I call it journalism!) It wasn’t until the spring of 2010 that I’d reached out to the JVP. Once I did, I fell head-over-heels. It was as though I was at the top of a snowy hill, leaned too far over the edge, and suddenly found myself rolling downwards at a high speed– throwing up all over myself, and throwing up even more after having swallowed my own throw up (effectively regurgitating what I’d just regurgitated).

The downhill vomitorium is an effective analogy of what my relationship with the JVP was like when Alex was around: I’d make my way to Alex’s, tell him everything I’d thought about that week, he would give me his insights, I’d mull over his take, and a few days later I’d have my latest article.

While Alex might be in law school and no longer physically around to chat about my latest piece, his presence is always felt whether it be in his comments, guidance, or ever-growing legacy as a contributor. And while this Q and A isn’t the same as having Alex around full time, it’ll have to hold you over for now.

What brought you to Rutgers? The State of New Jersey. I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into where I would be going to college. Rutgers offered me a quick and cheap option with no fuss. I took it primarily out of convenience and now I’m glad I did.

In JV Press On, you said your high school guidance counselor said you were lucky to get into Rutgers. Why was that? Simply because I didn’t shop around for schools or put much effort into the admission process at all…

How’d you decide on your major(s)? My first semester classes were laid out for me upon arrival. One of them was Introduction to Ethics, taught by Professor Ruth Change. I loved the material as well as the professor, and I got really into the class. (I recommend to anybody taking a class with her if you can). It was such a good experience that I signed up for more philosophy classes and a major just followed from there.

I also undertook a history major later on in my undergrad career. Around junior year, I realized that I already had quite a few history credits under my belt simply as a result of taking classes I was interested in and that had been recommended to me, most notably among these Professor Phil Roth’s classes in Luso-Hispanic Dialogue and Colonial History. He’s an excellent professor who’s extremely knowledgeable in his field, and I’d definitely recommend taking his class if you can.

For the most part, my major selections were happy coincidences.

What about history and philosophy clicked with you? Argument. The two topics take slightly different approaches, but in the end, they are all about argument. Crafting arguments is something I’ve been naturally drawn to since I was a little kid. That, and the material is interesting. Of course, it’s easier to sit down and read something if you’re interested in the topic. Historical and philosophical writings can be very interesting.

What’s your relationship with writing? What’s my relationship with writing? That is a tough one…

Writing is just another means of communication. Objectively, there isn’t really anything special about writing that makes it any better or worse than any other form of expression or means of communication. What is important is that people are communicating, expressing themselves, because this is how we as humans learn and share, build societies, and get things done.

Personally, I prefer to express myself in writing as opposed to in person. I always feel more confident in an expression of my opinions and positions when I’ve had the chance to sit down and think about them first. Writing them out gives me the opportunity to do that. I also really enjoy the satisfaction I get from producing a quality piece of writing. And of course, it’s a nice feeling to know that my writing is improving all the time.

On the other hand, I have a tendency to labor over my writing. I invest a lot of time and emotional energy when I write, which is good for the final product, but it can also be very draining. In order to improve your writing you have to keep pushing the limits of your ability, which can really stress you out while you’re doing it. Having worked with a number of writers, I get the feeling that really good writing comes more naturally to some people: personally, I’m not one of them. I’ve had to put in quite a few hours to get anywhere. But in the end, it’s like anything: practice makes improvement.

What sort of aspirations did you have growing up and which of these, if any, are you putting the most effort into making a reality? When I was real little, I wanted to be a scientist, an archeologist or an engineer. Clearly, those aspirations ended when I took up philosophy, and especially when I committed to law school, although I sometimes regret giving them up…

Growing up, I always found different ways to make money. I always had a new scheme, some more effective than others. That ambition has stuck with me to this day. In the short term, I’m focused on establishing a comfortable living for myself and my family. In the long run, I’d like to be able to transition from a more lucrative but stressful lifestyle to a more peaceful, self sustaining lifestyle. I’d like to retire to a farm and grow produce for myself in the next thirty years. I’d love to be surrounded by a natural setting using my hands to produce real products. But that is more an ideal than a goal. We’ll see what happens….Right now, I’m focused on entering the world of productive adults. I get money, you know?

When do you find yourself regretting them and why? I like to build things, to work with my hands to a more tangibly productive end. With a humanities degree, the closest I ever get to that is by writing. Science, on the other hand, gives you more opportunities to build stuff. So I sometimes regret the choice. On the other hand, if I make enough money to pursue a few hobbies, like carpentry and farming, I think it’ll be worth it…

What sort of things do you like to build? I enjoy working with wood. I got into woodworking and carpentry in high school; I was something of a shop kid. On one occasion, me and some other students built a couple of 6 foot tall, functioning trebuchets, medieval catapults. But I’ll build anything, as the situation and circumstances necessitate.

What sort of schemes have you been involved in? I’ll give you an example. When I was in high school, I used to take breakfast orders from kids. Then I would wake up early, run down to Mcdonalds, BK and Dunkin Donuts with a wagon, and pick up the orders. I’d deliver the purchases in the morning for a nominal fee. Eventually, the school decided to put an end to that scheme, but I made a buck while it lasted…

What inspired you to go to Law School? I wasn’t so much inspired to go to law school; it was more like I fell into it. Law school is the natural next step after a humanities degree, specifically one in philosophy/history. Of course law school is the place to be if you want to make something of yourself. So many people are going off to law school now for just that reason, and I’m among them. I have high hopes that by the end of my 3 years at law school, I’ll have a good idea of how I can make a positive impact on the world while doing interesting and engaging work. And the skills I’m learning are invaluable. At this point, I couldn’t be happier about my decision to go.

What were some of the biggest surprises you found in Law School? It’s nice to be surrounded by a group of very intelligent people inside as well as outside the classroom. Also, nothing can really prepare you for the workload, or the style of learning and writing they seek to teach law students. But you pick up on it as you go.

What’s the work load like at law school and style of learning/writing like at law school? Basically, the work load is not so difficult that it’s beyond you, but you still gotta bust your ass to do well. Personally, I enjoy law school quite a bit, though so many of my peers think I’m crazy for that. Frankly, it’s not something anyone wants to read me talk about, so I wont.

You live in DC now. How would you compare New Brunswick and DC? It’s certainly not easy to compare a small town of 50,000 people to a major metropolis holding several million. For one, DC is less dirty; there is less trash in the roads, the sewers are well managed, and you wont see gas leaks spouting fire on any given day. On the other hand, both cities do have quite a few homeless people walking around. In both places you can find significant disparities between the well to do and the poorly off, though these discrepancies are, of course, much more stark in the major city. I enjoy[ed] living in both places for different reasons: in DC, there is always something to do; the charm of NB, however, is that if there isn’t really much to do, you can always do-it-yourself, so to speak.

How did you change over the course of your time at Rutgers? Unavoidably, I grew up. College is where you learn about yourself, and I certainly did a lot of that at Rutgers. More specifically, each year I had a new independent project, just to keep myself busy and engaged. The most recent of these, of course, was the founding of the Johnsonville Press. I suppose the best I can tell you is that I became who I am today while I was at Rutgers, and I have no regrets.

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Shenanigans in the Doctor’s Office ~ Brian Connolly

uzz Lightyear. Balloons. And babies.

What do the three of these things have in common? They all start with the letter “B”. Also, they were all present with me in my doctor’s waiting room.

It would be best if I explained.

Right?

I think so.

You see, a few weeks ago I had a regular physical scheduled—well, I don’t know how ‘regular’ it was; I hadn’t had one of these in years. And if I knew that a conniving little assistant, a person determined to drag my pale body into the office, was on the other end of the phone, I never would have answered the bloody thing. But, queserasera. The fates conspire as they may.

To be honest, doctors creep me out. (I know, not the most original of predilections—amiright? It’s like saying that astronauts and fireman instill me with a sense of boyish wonder.) Something about them, though, unsettles me. Like a greasy salesman, trying to slip through the cracks of life. Part of me believes that they only took up the profession to evade the jinx of ill health, because who ever heard of a doctor getting sick? It’s the perfect charm to ward off bodily bad fortune.

But the Powers That Be want me to go to see my doctor? Fine, I guess I’ll go then.

On a rather overcast afternoon, I slipped into my Malibu and sped over to my physician’s. On the way I tried to keep myself occupied. This was accomplished by nibbling on an apple. (I didn’t smoke, as I wanted to appear presentable to those who would be examining me. Nothing says that less than by smelling like Chicago after the Great Fire).

Two blocks away from the building, I stopped at a light. As a cat plays with a mouse, so too did the light play with me—it batted my expectations this way and that—green, yellow, red, green, no turn on left, fuck!

Eventually I made the turn. During the final leg of my journey Stairway to Heaven played on the radio. This doesn’t bode well, I thought. I parked my car and approached the door. While doing this, I mentally parsed out my meager possessions, due to—or so I thought—my soon-to-be corpse-like state. Who am I going to leave with all my shitty writings?

On my way to the door I spotted a cat. It was most likely a stray. “Hello, cat,” I hailed. He—or she—looked at me with dead eyes, in an attempt to intimidate me. “Hey, fuck you cat!”

I entered. The stale artificial air hit me. Something else too struck me as odd. But I could not quite place what it was.

Sauntering up to the main desk, I made myself known to the receptionist. She was nice. I think I made her laugh about something or another. After confirming my appointment, I turned around and took stock of my surroundings. And that’s when it dawned on me: this was a pediatrician’s office!

The colorful assortment of effin’ cartoon characters on the walls confirmed this.

I walked back up to the same receptionist. This time I did my best to speak in a deep, adult, voice, while at the same time making emphasis to my old man blazer getup. I asked her “why in God’s name was I in a medical facility for children?” I felt like I was in that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when Jason Segal gets his penis examined while on a toy fire truck.

Responding calmly, she told me that due to the current economic climate, the pediatrician in question and his brother—he ran the adult facility—combined resources. Oh, great. Lollipops for everyone! And I mean that in the most literal way—there were lollipops on hand.

So I sat on a tiny red chair and waited to be called.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take all that long.

I sat my ass down on the noisy meatpacking paper and did some more waiting. The door in my room was open a smidge and I noticed a patient exiting. He was in a suit. Suddenly it didn’t feel so weird being here.

It took about five minutes, but in walked my doctor. I soon noticed that she wasn’t one of the brothers—the primary clue being that she was a she. Large offices like this have many practicing MDs on staff, so I really wasn’t too taken aback. My mind definitely does wander, but it’s not like I thought she killed the fraternal duo and took over their practice.

Though, what a story that’d be—doctors are suppose to be comfortable around blood, right?

Anyway, we went through the laundry list of questions. She expressed concern at my low weight, but continued rattling off the standard enquiries. Then she asked, “Do you work out?”

Primarily due to boredom and that I like to get a rise out of people, I facetiously replied, “You tell me.”

“So…no.”

I smiled and said, “Actually, I have some fifteen pound free weights in my room.” I paused for a moment. “I call ‘em fifteen-pounders.”

She may have grinned at that; I can’t remember. But she wrote something down all the same. My guess is that she scribbled, “Lifts ‘weights’—maybe?”

Finally, wrapping up our little session she ordered some blood work done. As if remembering a long forgotten fact, she shuffled through my history. “What college do you go to again?”

“Rutgers.”

“I’ll add some STD tests then.”

I always am very proud of my university’s legacy. At least she didn’t ask me about the football team.

I left, happy I was still alive. For the time being, my skeletal shell of a body remains ticking.

When I returned to my car, I noticed the half-eaten apple from earlier. I picked it up and examined the variety of teeth marks on its surface—they were like acne, but on food. Does that mean it was blemished, unfit to be eaten, or more human-like and fit for praise? At the time I didn’t care. Riding high on my bill of good health, I threw it out the window, where it surprisingly landed in a trashcan.

Afterwards, I lit a cigarette.

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