Small Words

Last year came the cloud. The cloud of small bots that we breathed, that sat – and sit – in brain and nerve. The small bots that took our words.

Not all words. Just the grand words – those of more than one sound. To say or think a word of more sounds is to hurt. The more long the word, the worse the hurt. To make words short is to hurt, too: the small bots know when we speak short but think long.

A pain like a lance in the skull. A rise of harsh gall. A throat through which air will not pass.

We choke on long words.

We can choke to death.

Some of the first to die were those who heal the sick. They fell to their knees on the floors of each health care place. They fell, those who cut bad parts out of meat gone wrong, the trunks of the sick still wide and red. They fell, those who gave the drugs that stop thought and pain. And so fell those who helped. They could not stop the long thoughts of part names and sick names and drug names. The sole ones left were kids who had just been born. The sole voice sounds their squeals.

Also dead: those who built and fixed the tools that help us do work. Cars crashed. Planes fell. Trains went off tracks. Once things broke, none who knew how they worked could bear to fix them. Those part names, too, were too long. The strands of the World Wide Web snapped: none could tend a box of bits and bytes.

Math was not safe from the loss of words. We lost the name of the sum of four and three, and of all things more than ten.

We could not buy or sell for the big sums of old – and our trade from land to land came to an end.

The flow of goods more close to home did, too.

There were folks who were well versed in How Works The World, who worked in labs and fields and who could think hard and clear – but the more they knew and thought, the more they hurt. They could not save us. And we could not save what they knew.

And so we lost the names of beasts and plants, of stones and germs and worlds, of the small bits that bind to make all things.

We try to teach and keep known the Past Times, but we can not speak the names of the lands or those who ruled them, or tell why wars were fought, or tell of trade or lore.

But it is the small, dear things that hurt the most. Not the things we have lost in our minds, but the things we have lost in our hearts.

We have lost our names, and the names of our moms.

We have lost the names of our pets. We call them by new names, but the beasts cock their heads and whine.

We have lost the names of our gods and of those who once came to save us.

We try to teach things and keep things known – but we know we must try to let go.

There are those who fret, who fear that grand things can not be taught or learned if we can not speak grand words. They say all is lost, in a way that can not be fixed.

They may be right.

But the young are quick to learn.

They make new names for those things we need to know, but which we can not speak.

The sum of three and four.
The clear drink we need to live.
The parts at the ends of our hands that we use to grasp things.
The bad taste at the back of the tongue.

They make new names for those things we may not need to know, but which help make up our world.

The sun hued weeds that grow in cracks, whose young leaves we can eat.
The lights and sounds of the sky when it storms.
The masked beast with rings on its tail.
The red fruits that grow on trees.

In each place of this scarred land, from East Sea to West Sea, they learn. Each tribe in its own way.

But it is seen that they draw and they paint and they dance and they sing with a force and a need that we old ones can not know.

We can not speak as they do. We have only these small words.

But when the last of us who think long thoughts has died – teeth clenched tight on the tip of our tongue, clenched tight on the name we can not let go – it may be that still there is hope.

A work of weird flash fiction for

Ha Ha, Only Serious

I’ve lost track of how many election-related posts I’ve started, stalled, and scrapped.  I try to say something significant, interesting, or relevant, but what can even be said?  What can even be done?  Every time I think I’ve given some tidy summation of the absurdity, something even more implausible happens.  But there’s only days to go before the elections, so no matter how incoherent a thesis I may have, no matter how sprawling and meandering my thoughts may be, this is – hopefully – my last chance to get any of them out there, so I might as well dump them all, stream-of-conscious, and have done with it.  Goodness knows it’s not like my observations have any significance, so I’m not even sure why I’ve tried to make anything clear or conclusive this whole time.  It’s not as if reality itself makes sense anymore, after all.

This lack of sense is, really, the core of it all.  Things that seemed like jokes at first have become ha-ha-only-serious. Donald Trump is running for president? Haha, he’ll drop out in a week.  Haha, okay, a month.  Haha, can you believe he said Mexico is “sending their rapists?”  He’s done for sure, now!  A few months and an official nomination later, haha, can you believe he joked about how his wealth and fame can even let him get away with sexual abuse?  He’s done for sure, now!

Repeat ad nauseam, ad absurdum.

Donald Trump says ridiculous things.  He calls for violence against protesters, he insults women based on their appearance as if that’s relevant to their abilities, he has advocated barring all Muslims from entering the United States.

But he’s just being funny, right? It’s hyperbole.  Trump doesn’t actually want anybody to attack anybody for protesting, and he doesn’t really think that our history of violently attacking protesters was better – that people should be punched in the face and sent out on stretchers. Right?  He just said so as a joke.


But here’s the thing.  If he’s serious, then that’s an unforgivable call to violence, and if he’s joking, that’s unforgivably devoid of empathy or awareness.

I see three options, if he or his supporters ever walk back a derogatory or violent statement by saying it was a joke:

1) Trump knows exactly what historical horrors he’s evoking when he “jokes” about inciting violence against protesters or “jokes” groping the genitals of unconsenting women, and he’s making these comments to demonstrate just how little he cares about anybody who’d stand in opposition to him.  A similar “joke” would be going up to a woman whose son was just stillborn and telling her all the dead baby jokes he can think of. “What, it’s just a joke! I’m not saying YOUR dead baby, or that there should be dead babies, I love babies! YOU’RE a baby! If you weren’t so sensitive, maybe, I’m just sayin’, maybe your baby wouldn’t have died, how about that? Personal responsibility.”

2) Trump has almost no sociopolitical or historical insight, and he’s making one of those babbling toddler jokes that prove he doesn’t understand how jokes work, or how language works, or how logic works. “Why… why is… why did the dinosaur… eat… eat a shoe? Because he wanted to be race cars! Hahahaha!” His supporters, like a toddler’s parents, see everything this half-formed mind produces as brilliant, unique, innovative, and proof that the child is a genius who’s going to grow up to be president someday.

3) It’s some kind of elaborate metajoke where the real joke is on whomever laughs. It’s “No soap, radio” on the national stage.


I could probably go into a whole exploratory tangent that tried to figure out how ethics intersect with humor.  From Mel Brooks’ quote that “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die” to the old saw that “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” there’s an understanding that comedy often involves something Wrong or Terrible happening, usually to somebody other than you.  There’s been tension, or risk, or sheer juxtaposition, and laughter serves to acknowledge that something unexpected and juxtaposed just happened, but to also acknowledge (or assert?) that everything’s safe.  There’s a good reason America’s Funniest Home Videos always had the canned audience laughter – without it, even with the goofy sound effects and the stupid voiceovers, there would’ve been uncertainty, discomfort, or even fear.

How soon is “too soon?” What things are too serious and important to joke about?  What responsibility does the teller of a joke have for the feelings it evokes in people?  Can they take credit for the mirth but wave off the people who are infuriated, insulted, or hurt?  What responsibility does the listener of a joke have for the feelings that arise in them, or that they choose to express?  These things vary intensely, depending on content, context, culture, and the individuals in question.

He doesn’t have to be a stuffy, humorless, serious politician, because he’s Not A Politician. And because he’s Not A Politician, he doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else has.  That very refusal to follow convention becomes a selling point. If you don’t like the status quo, you’re more likely to favor anyone who flouts it.


The trickster figure is important in almost every culture.  It’s necessary to have someone who shakes the halls of power, who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, who reminds everyone that social conventions are largely constructed things with only the clout we’ve collectively agreed to give them, and that the more stiff and serious an institution tries to be, the more absurd it becomes. A trickster’s power comes from being able to confuse, stymie, and subvert. It’s the power of liquefaction, like an earthquake turning solid ground to mud.

But can the trickster still serve that purpose if the he attains power?  Can he – or would he – still shake the halls of power if he was living in them?  Would he point out his own lack of clothes?  Would he allow the defiance of conventions to continue?  Or, on ascension, would those very same acts of rebellion become strictly forbidden?  After all, he’s The Person Who Can Change Things, and he’s in the place of power, and he’s Making America Great Again. No further mockery, satire, protest, or complaint would be necessary.

A trickster’s influence comes from being able to do the unexpected, the unpredictable, and even the unthinkable. But a leader’s influence often comes from the opposite.  Because what followers want most often is for today to be more or less like yesterday.  Hopefully better, but generally the same.  Isn’t that what people are asking for when they say “Make America Great Again?” They’ve seen stagnant wages, outsourcing, corruption, and abuse, they’ve seen a lot of Todays that are a lot worse than the Yesterdays they remember, and they just want a stable world again.  They miss being able to have a 40-year career in the same company, with a living wage, cost of living increases every year or two, decent benefits, and a retirement plan. Instead, loyal employees are being coerced into early retirement so that some know-nothing graduate can do their job as an unpaid intern. If they’re lucky, they can come back as “independent contractors” for wages that may or may not make up for the outrageous self-employment taxes. Is this something that a trickster could secure, though?

When someone’s entire public persona seems to rely on saying whatever’s attention-getting at the time, on being prepared to dismiss everything as a joke, on being prepared to rescind every deal, to renege on every promise, to deny every fact – can they actually lead?  Can they be followed?


Does it even matter if they deny facts, though?

My concern is that facts don’t matter anymore.  I wish they did, but even if someone is shown objective and factual evidence that their belief is wrong, they only believe it even more fiercely. Forget any attempts to argue that Trump’s polemics show him to be a demagogue, a proto-fascist, a narcissist, a sex offender, a misogynist, a bigot, a tax cheat, a potential nuclear bomber / war criminal, or anything else one might hypothetically suggest, based on the man’s own statements: he, and Pence, and his supporters, would all gladly reply NOT that Trump was misunderstood, but that he had never actually said the thing he was recorded saying. Even if I were trying to explain things as some expert in political science, it wouldn’t help, because that’s not how this game is being played. To paraphrase something I’ve read in various forms, trying to counter this campaign rationally is like trying to play chess with a pigeon: no matter how good you are and how well you play, the pigeon is just going to knock down the pieces at random, take a crap on the board, and strut about as if it’s won.

So that’s it. Nobody can be convinced, no minds can be changed, truth squidges out from beneath the boottreads of Truthiness, and I might as well fight absurdity with absurdity:

Donald Trump is a tulpa. An egregore. An entity willed into existence by force of the American peoples’ beliefs. A corporeal thoughtform of the American Fever Dream.


Is it any less ridiculous than some other presumably-joking allegations?  Like the one that says he was paid by Hillary Clinton to throw the election (though, ala The Producers, it’s backfiring?)  Or the one that says he’s illiterate? Or the one that says he’s Andy Kaufman in disguise?  Does it even matter anymore? This all began with Truthiness, so why not take it all the way and assert, even more fully, that the reality of the situation is, and only is, what people have believed it into being.

After all, look at how involved he was in the WWF, back in the day.  It’s not so hard to imagine that Donald Trump is still a larger-than-life character, one that he’s completely committed to portraying, never breaking kayfabe in public.  That’s a fun argument, but why not go even farther and claim that this character isn’t even HIS character, that there IS no “real Donald Trump” behind the facade, and that the reason Donald Trump seems like an living caricature of The Sleazy Fat Cat Billionaire is because that’s precisely what he is.  He’s not an actual person, he’s a psychically-generated avatar of Big Business, of The Rich, of Success, of Capitalism, of Materialism.  His focus on gaudy opulence is glamour in both the conventional and the occult senses of the term.

However, those who’ve believed him into being – a group that includes both his adherents and his opponents – do not, as a whole, know enough about business, politics, wealth, or success to know what to imagine in the first place, so there are all sorts of little flaws in the model.


First of all, there’s the name. It’s a little on the nose, wouldn’t you say?  “Trump,” in English, derives from “triumph,” and is most used in reference to card games where a card of a certain suit can, regardless of the broader rules, automatically outrank all others.  In other words, a trump card doesn’t just have artificially- and arbitrarily-increased importance and success, it has a certain inbuilt privilege, a silver spoon in its mouth.  Fitting for an entity that believes he should win because he is A Winner, and because everyone else is a loser, because nobody else is him.

However, “trump” has another meaning of “to fabricate, devise, or deceive,” as in “trumped-up allegations.”  That meaning derives more from the Old French tromper, meaning “to blow a trumpet.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen would blow horns to try to attract attention – and to attract a new mark to scam.  Given the entity’s self-absorption, history of duplicitous business practices, and accusations of outright fraud (as in Trump University,) both these connotations are apt, as well.

As for Donald, the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that it ultimately comes from the Proto-Celtic *Dubno-valos – meaning “world-mighty, ruler of the world.”  I mean, come on now.  A self-important, bloviating huckster who’s focused on winning, and is trying to become the leader of the free world, is actually named “World-Ruler, Fabricated, Triumphant, Deceitful, and Loud?”  Even Dickens and Rowling are more subtle about the names of their characters!


And look at the ego.  You can’t NOT look at the ego, because there’s nothing else to him.  Armchair psychiatrists love to point out the failures of empathy and the signs of narcissism. He focuses on his will and his will alone, asserting that he and he alone can fulfill the public’s wishes and “Make America Great Again,” despite a complete lack of experience and understanding.  He doesn’t thank, he doesn’t regret, he doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t apologize. He can’t truly understand or feel empathy for any other perspective but his own, because he’s been created a He simply wants whatever he wants and pursues it, regardless of anyone else’s needs, regardless of what anything means.

How can someone so self-centered be seen as someone who’d faithfully serve an entire country?   This might seem baffling, but if he’s perceived instead AS a manifested force of will, then there’s no conflict at all.  His is the will of the people, because HE is the will of the people.  They wished him into being, and into relevance, and he will stay relevant for as long as that belief-in-his-relevance is sustained.

Look, too, at the time a veteran gave him his Purple Heart, and Trump responded with “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” That statement strongly implies that he wanted the award for its prestige alone, since that award is only granted to people who’ve been injured or killed in action, circumstances which inherently entail bravery, effort, and sacrifice.  In short, he wanted to get the Purple Heart, not to earn the Purple Heart, and so long as he has one, he appears to see the difference as immaterial.  Why?  Because he, being the American Fever Dream, IS getting-without-earning, being-without-meaning.  He cannot be otherwise, and he knows he is the most important, valuable, and flawless entity that exists, so he therefore can’t care about – or even conceive of – a meaningful difference between Getting and Earning.


And then there’s the complete lack of clear plans or policies.  The people who’ve created him don’t know what a good policy would be, so neither does he.  But people know what they want to feel.  They want to feel safe, they want to feel exceptional, they want to feel powerful, they want to feel free.  So all Trump needs to do is make noises that perpetuate those feelings, and it keeps the feedback loop going. There doesn’t need to be any truth, any possibility, any reality to the things he says or promises – it just needs to be believed. No matter how unbelievable it seems, it just needs to be enough to resonate, because belief alone is what sustains his pseudo-existence. There may never have been so shameless a demagogue.  But, when it is what The American People want to hear, clearly it is reflective of democracy.


Why does Trump speak so poorly, with such mangled sentence structures and such elementary words?  Because that’s the vocabulary level of the people who’ve believed him into being, and because sometimes his mishmash of programming causes him to emit a disjointed string of stock phrases that his believers like to hear.


Other more obvious flaws are in the ill-shaped physical form that’s been manifested for him. Trump wears suits, because businessmen wear suits.  But his suits are just as baggy as any suit an average guy wears off the rack, because the average American doesn’t know enough about good tailoring to imagine it any better.

This also explains the hair: there’s just enough conflict between whether he should be the stereotypical balding boss or the suavely-coiffed playboy to create a strange middle-ground: Uncanny Valley transplants and a combover with more architectural innovation than any of his buildings.

As for the tan, the collective consciousness still associates paleness with sickness – but recognizes that genuine tanning only happens if someone spends a lot of time in the sun (which is unlikely for a businessman like Trump, who is imagined as either working very hard in NYC boardrooms.)  Therefore, to maintain that veneer of youth and accomplishment and vigor, he’s been manifested with an overdone spray tan and/or fell-asleep-on-the-tanning-bed look, replete with pale goggle-spots around the eyes.


Why, if Donald Trump is an egregore, has he appeared to age, then? Two interlocking reasons.  The first is that he’s a product of his time – the same 80s-era Yuppie zeitgeist that spawned the ideas of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman, the one fueled by Robin Leach and Reaganomics, Madonna and Miami Vice, Dynasty and Dallas.   The second is because his current power relies on the idea that today’s world isn’t similar enough to the world of the 80s anymore – but that it could be or should be.  Time needs to have passed, and it needs to have passed for Trump, too. He has to be advocating a return of the 80s, not asserting that nothing has changed.

Furthermore, although he’s meant to seem larger-than-life, Trump also needs to appear “real.”  He has to epitomize the American Dream of ascending to wealth and success through hard work and determination – despite that he did no such thing, started off with “a small loan of a million dollars” from his father, and would’ve been more successful if he’d invested all his money and done nothing than if he’d gone through with all his ultimately-failed business ventures.

The result is a collection of physical features which are all meant well, and are all intended to be better than the alternatives of age, balding, relative pallor, etc. – but which add up to the exaggerated caricature we see, a form that reflects its believers’ desperate attempts to reconcile reality and desire – a form that reflects the cognitive dissonance that has brought him into being.


Why the dissonance?  Why not make him square-jawed and clean-cut?  It’s because he’s meant to reflect the same dissonance we feel as Americans.  We grow up inculcated with the American Dream, and it feels un-American, undemocratic, anti-capitalist, and almost obscene to deny it: to deny that everyone can get everything they want if they work hard, and any failure to have what you want means only a fault in you and your work effort, not in anything systematic.  Nevermind that the system itself has been set up so that only “the right people” succeed in the first place, so that underdog stories are rare, and so that – once again – things stay mostly the same for as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, whether it’s because of greed, ambition, an erosion of protections, public apathy and cynicism, or the sheer fact that there won’t be any consequences and there’s no need to put up the pretenses anymore, income inequality is worsening and the very wealthiest people are becoming exponentially more wealthy than everyone else put together.  Perhaps, even though these same sorts of issues preceded the Great Depression, that doesn’t matter now – because “the right people” weren’t affected by the first Great Depression, so why should this generation’s elite care if there’s another one?  Have they ever not made their success at the expense of their inferiors? Why should they shy away from doing so more blatantly?  It’s not as if the masses can do anything to change it, anyway.

Besides, thanks to that American Dream, we – to quote that old adage – think of ourselves as temporarily-embarrassed billionaires.  We can be rich and successful, we should be rich and successful, and we WILL be rich and successful – we just need to try harder.  So whenever any initiative would threaten to increase taxes on the people who can most afford it, we rankle, because that could be us someday.  And if we’re getting our well-deserved rewards for being Good Americans, working hard, and achieving the dream, why should we have to give anything up to those “takers?”  They say some of them don’t even pay taxes; how useless is that?


Make no mistake, it’s hard for the white, working-class schmos of America.  Jobs are being outsourced, and nobody seems to be up in arms.  It’s suddenly becoming damn near mandatory to send your kids to college, but tuition is skyrocketing and there’s less and less out there to help.   Lobbyists and special interest groups seem to get all the attention, but your industry isn’t big enough or influential enough to sway anyone toward helping you.  Yet it seems like other groups are getting no end of public sympathy and support.

A lot of his supporters see patience, compromise, and diplomacy as weaknesses and hurdles, not as integral parts of any process.  They’ve lived whole lives being told never to give up, never to back down, never to show vulnerability, never to cry. When shit goes bad – and it always does – they don’t have the money or the resources to just buy a new thing.  They’ve got to make do with what they’ve got, use the ingenuity at their disposal, and try to come up with something unconventional that does the trick.  Or they use something they heard at their Granny’s knee, and that she heard from her Granny before her.

And what do they get?  Jokes about uneducated, inbred hillbillies.  Jokes about flyover states. Jokes about outhouses from the same people who advocate for clean water in Bangladesh. Jokes about trailer homes from the same people who advocate for Habitat for Humanity. Jokes about bad teeth and diabetes from the same people who see poor dental care and nutrition as absolute tragedies when they happen to someone on the other side of the planet.  Jokes from the people who are so wealthy, so safe, and so privileged that they can afford to throw away money on feel-good bullshit – everything from kale to quinoa, yoga to pilates, “spirituality” to The Secret – and who act as if they and the world around them are actually better off because of their mindfulness and positivity.


So there’s an appeal in the demagogue, in someone like Trump or Sanders who wants radical change. When “The System” itself is corrupt, then playing by the rules of that system can surely only foster further corruption.

But the thing about fascist demagogues is, they don’t care about truth or ethics or legality, just about results.  They don’t care about the rule of law.  The people who want one in office want him there explicitly because he doesn’t care about the rule of law. But instead of a slow and steady change – instead of electing officials at the local level who can affect things close to home, they’d rather have one person knock everything down from the top so it could all be restarted in one great go. Suddenly, decades of experience become a liability. They don’t want a stable status quo, they don’t want business as usual, they don’t want stability, they want things to change, even if it’s for the worse for a while, because that’s what it seems like it would take to make an improvement. They don’t want checks and balances, they want him to make all the decisions, because he’s a winner, everyone else is a loser, and he’ll make America great again.  And he can be as harsh as he wants in the process, because everyone he’s disrespecting and alienating deserves to be disrespected and alienated, because they’re the weird fringes of America – and he’s the only person who’s even paying lip service to Real America, as embodied by the rural blue-collar worker.

We’ve come to accept that politicians are full of bluster and bullshit.  So much so that, when we encounter someone whose lies aren’t just stretches of the truth, or lies by omission, or lies by exaggeration, but are wholesale fabrications – or complete denials of ever having said things, despite video evidence or his own prior statements – he can still be embraced because “at least he’s not a politician.”  So many promises have gone unfulfilled for so long that, now, someone can promise to create national databases tracking religious minorities, or to keep them from entering the country, or can threaten to deport legal citizens – and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his base.” He can brag about sexually assaulting women, and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his friends.” That roughness and crudeness and lack of experience become virtues. And, furthermore, the sorts of people who maintain racist, sexist, bigoted beliefs get the reassurance that such things really are normal and reasonable.  He can joke about imprisoning someone who, after many thorough investigations, was not found to have broken any laws – but “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to Republicans.”


It’s been a fact forever that politicians lie. They tell lies to get votes. They tell lies to get campaign financing. They tell lies for strategic purposes, because revealing the truth would be much more destabilizing. Diplomacy is just a lie with a doily on it.

But we’re surrounded by so many kinds of lies now. We’ve grown up with mass media, so we’re used to inaccurate representations of reality.  We’re used to reality shows where everything is actually scripted; nobody’s surprised or horrified anymore to learn that they’re fake.

Amid those shows, we’re used to commercials where every product is the best, the greatest, the most important, the most significant. We’re swimming in superlatives.

If we think we’re avoiding entertainment and picking up “real news,” we’re used to sharply-polarized media with a 24/7 news cycle that wrings every last possible plausibility from the most popular, ratings-grabbing story – media that attempts to create stories about outrage and scandal even where none exist. There’s no “fairness doctrine” anymore, so being Fair And Balanced can be the equivalent of having a NASA scientist on to talk about the latest mission, split-screened with a literal flat-earther.

We’re used to a gatekeeperless Internet where anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being heard – which is wonderful, but which helps us forget that not anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being correct.  We’re used to bite-sized bullshit in Facebook posts, we’re used to “Like and share if you agree,” we’re used to emails that say Bill Gates will share his millions if you pass along this email; we’re used to seeing people play along with them because “It can’t hurt.” We’re used to Internet comments full of random insults and invective based on no facts, just boredom and the desire to cause a stir.

We’re used to sarcasm and satire.

And even if you think that media rots your brain and education is more important, we’re used to teaching for the test, even when that doesn’t help anyone retain that knowledge or apply it.  Even science is marred by biases and the replicability crisis.

As long as things can seem to be the case in some measurable way – even if you’re ultimately measuring something else, and poorly – it can be treated as reality.

Informing is not as important anymore as appealing to the pre-existing beliefs and, through obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lies, making them look more like the truth.   And perhaps, on our end as receivers, there’s just so much to parse all the time that we can’t help but fizzle out at some point and begin accepting things at face value. Perhaps, biologically, we just can’t process all the information we take in with as much critical thought as would be necessary to truly understand and to more safely navigate our way in the world.  (Assuming we’re so lucky as to have learned how to think critically about information in the first place.)

For all these reasons and a bunch of others that I’m surely not even thinking of right now, the media landscape has become reality-proof. Giant headlines and chyrons can proclaim certain ideas – while the inevitable retractions, if they come at all, are hidden away.  One person’s complaint can be spun into outrage, creating its own backlash of outrage.  The very idea of “breaking news” has been broken, because that label will get slapped on the most pointless and arbitrary non-events, in the hopes that someone will stop and pay attention, and people paying attention is more important than people actually learning anything.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates all of this better than Fig. 1, a Buzzfeed listicle of absurd breaking news stories.

This is as close as we come to media literacy.

I wonder whether the combination of ratings-driven media, the lack of gatekeepers and the accessibility of alternate sources of information, and the general ethos of postmodernism are all working together to keep people outraged, fearful, confused, and disparate, each with such drastically-different beliefs about reality that communication is impossible. The Overton window might not even explain it anymore: it’s not just moving, it’s undergoing mitosis.  I wonder if there’s not enough consensus left to describe one window with fringed ends, but whether some peoples’ Unthinkables have become others’ Sensibles, whether that’s the legalization of gay marriage or the idea of barring all Muslims from entering the country.

I can’t find anything as clear and solid as a study – and, believe me, I’m aware of the irony in referring to anecdotal “evidence” – but it seems to me that, even as sarcasm and satire grow more prevalent, the average person’s ability to recognize them as such is dwindling. I knew college students who’d never heard the word “parody” before. I saw 50-something adults believe that Stephen Colbert was being sincere on The Colbert Report.  I’ve seen people not only be unable to take a joke, but unable to recognize them as jokes.  And I’ve seen the rise of antihumor, cringe humor, trolling, and other such modes where the humor comes not from what’s said, but from the disappointment, confusion,

So I have an utterly unfounded pet theory that the ability to detect sarcasm and satire might have correlations with political leanings, in that “liberals” might be more willing to perceive additional layers of interpretation in a statement whereas “conservatives” might be more willing to take things at face value.  The downsides of this being that “conservatives” might fail to recognize when something is a joke, sarcasm, a lie, a scam, etc – and that “liberals” might create a whole new unintended meaning through their interpretation and erroneously ascribe that to the author’s intent.  The fringes on both sides have similarities, though – believing in conspiracies based on bad information that they value over “mainstream” news, which they believe cannot be trusted.


But the point of this seeming digression is that there is an eroding consensus about reality itself now.  Not just in distinguishing sarcasm from sincerity, satire from assertion, joke from advocation, but even fact from opinion.  This entire election cycle – this entire year – has felt like a coma dream.  I have heard, in full sincerity and from multiple media outlets, outlandish phrases I never thought I would hear.  Phrases like “Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump,” “the late David Bowie,” “Swedish Fish Oreos,” and “World Series Champions the Chicago Cubs.”  And while, yes, I have long loved the idea of subjective reality, and while I believe that we have some ability to influence our perceptions of reality, and while I also believe that there is an extent to which our perception of something as reality can help us behave and believe as if it were reality, and while I ultimately also believe that this sort of subjunctive-case reality helps enable us to, through actual words and deeds, create those conditions in objective reality – a set of beliefs some people sum up as “magic(k added for supplementary potassium,) my worst nightmares are also those where my genuine beliefs and truths, like that the sky is blue, our planet is called Earth, and there are four lights – are treated like insane ramblings and I’m ignored, mocked, or put away.

I’m not arguing here that reality is subjective and that any failure of reality to reflect my subjective preferences is therefore Bad, and people need to learn better.  I’m arguing that, whether you try to explain or understand the world through fact or fantasy, science or religion or magic, myth or metaphor or mechanism, you take on some responsibility.   That the people who say things have some responsibility to avoid misleading others, but the people who perceive things have some responsibility to think critically and avoid being misled, and that it works best if we’re all aware of how constructed our worldviews are and do a little more to keep our assumptions in check.


In some small way on Tuesday, Americans get to exert their will on reality.  The voting process has undeniably many problems – the electoral college, first-past-the-post, the fact it’s on a Tuesday, the long lines.  And, yes, one could try to argue that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all decided already – whether you’re a Trump supporter who wants to say it’s all rigged, or a third-party supporter who’s angry Johnson and Stein weren’t in the debates, or a Bernie supporter who thought the primary was fixed, or someone who wants to vote FOR a candidate and can’t support either option, or an apathetic person who thinks everyone’s equally terrible and there’s no point getting involved or speaking out or trying. Who knows, maybe any or all of that is true, and the Secret Masters of the Illuminati have already decided every president through 2032.  Maybe we, the people who vote and argue and participate, are dupes, believing in a false reality.

But maybe we just need to act like democracy itself isn’t broken, and this act itself will *be* democratic.  One that lets us do what we can to keep that main scaffolding in place while we try to make more significant changes at the local level.  Maybe we can try to bring about that change we want in our neighborhoods, help to shape the reality we live in every day, through the people we choose for our Board of Education and our Court of Criminal Appeals.

Even if it does nothing to exert my will on objective reality, I’ll still perform an arbitrary and meaningless ritual by going to vote. Even if it changes nothing but my own perceptions, I’ll value that sense of investment, of participation, of affirmation, regardless of how my state as a whole actually decides or what the electoral college might do thereafter.  Perhaps I might as well stick pins in a voodoo doll, or focus on a sigil, or cross my fingers, or pray.  But I’ll try to fill the circle next to Clinton’s name – and close the circle on a rite to banish Trump back into irrelevancy.


On this day last week, I was up all night finishing up some new stories – an eleventh-hour push before an event.

I have no such deadline today, and it’s hard to tell what kind of thing I want to write.

So I’m musing instead on the oddities of the writing yen. It isn’t exactly mood-based: I can be in a goofy, zany sort of a mood, but want to write something mythic or poetic. I can be in a sentimental mood, but want to write something didactic.

Sometimes, I can’t quite sense what it is that I want to write. That’s how I am tonight.

I can tell enough to know that it’s more introspective. It’s not a desire to hook up my forebrain to another’s and jump-start it with information. Nor even entertainment. It’s definitely not a comedic mode. But whether that means it’d lend itself better to a thoughtful essay, a bit of short fiction, or some roleplaying, I’m not sure.

When I’m lucky, I have specific inspiration. I got An Idea out of nowhere, or I have a couplet lodged in my head. There’s some distinct conceptual particulate around which the writing can condense.

Though this isn’t a sure shot, either. If I let the idea sit too long, if I don’t at least start the process while the inspiration is live, it’s harder to build on. The confluence of mental processes that brought the idea into being may not be in play tomorrow, much less next month or next year. It may still be an interesting idea, but it feels distant. Relic-like.

Obviously, what’s changed is how I relate to the idea.

(This is also why any completed work has about a six-hour shelf life, at best, before it goes from “as good as I can get it” to “utter trash that proves my insufficiency as a human being.” Either you keep writing something forever, never finishing it, never being done, changing it as you change and refusing to show it to anyone… or you do call it “finished” at some point, consigning it to a fixed point in time, after which point you’re forever growing away from it. It becomes a snapshot that reflects the idea, your understanding of the idea, yourself, and your surrounding culture, at that one specific moment in time. Whenever your understanding of any of those things changes, the work is only as good as Past You could make it, but it’s going to reflect on Present You for as long as the work survives. Which may very well be longer than you survive. But I digress.)

That’s why I find it important to at least start on any idea as soon as possible after I get it. If I get a good start, then the nascent work itself can help cue me into whatever mental state I had when the idea first came to me. Not with the exact same fidelity, true. Already, by the second approach, it’s become a bit of a performance: me trying to mimic the thought-processes of a previous version of myself.

There’s a sense in which all writing, and all reading, is an attempt to reconcile the differences between the subjective and the objective, between the self and the other, and between the present and the past and (ideally) the future. The very act of writing can change how we frame an idea, an observation, a belief, or even a fact – and that change in framing can itself change how we engage with it.

It’s like trying to remember a dream, really. You may or may not remember your dream when you wake up in the morning – but it’s less likely you’ll remember it tonight, and very unlikely that you’ll remember it next week. But if you write something of it down – anything, even keywords – you probably have enough to cue yourself to remember it later on. The act of writing helps you encode it into memory; reading that writing again later on, obviously, helps you trigger those memories again. But you do have to keep coming back to it, keep reminding yourself, keep making your present self acknowledge the ideas of that past self. Keep making those past-ideas into part of today’s thoughts. Like a time capsule you never bury.

And there may come a point where you realize that you aren’t remembering the dream as such anymore – you’re remembering thoughts you’ve had about the dream. You’re remembering yesterday’s memory, which involved remembering the day before’s memory.

That’s part of why it sucks to have unfinished works. There’s one story in particular that I always wish I could finish – but, really, I wish I could have finished it when it was more relevant, when the wire was still live. I started it my sophomore year of college, after all, and even then it was a ridiculous, self-indulgent, post-adolescent paean to my high school theater days. But that stub of a story is still such a guilty pleasure, and while I hate to leave it unfinished, I’d hate to start it up again only to realize I’m just too old and too far distanced from that young Thespian self to be capable of finishing the job.

I’m not sure what’s worse, though: the fear I’m too old and too lost to share an artistic empathy with my past self and one of my life’s most cherished experiences… or the fear it would be all too easy, because I haven’t traveled far enough from that self –  because my maturity and sensibilities and skills all stalled out nearly two decades ago.

A week ago tonight, I was writing a poem. I used to write poetry a lot when I was younger. I like words, I like assonance, I have an innate sense of the rhythm and meter of words, and so poetry feels like a fantastic puzzle. “Hmm, I need a two-syllable word or phrase that rhymes with ‘eyes’ and has stress on the first syllable, and that ideally has some assonance or alliteration with this other part of the line…” There are rules and formulas, and while I might fudge things a little, the attempt to create something that’s simultaneously cogent, rhyming, and rhythmic is so much more fun and fulfilling.

And yet I feel that “doesn’t count” as modern poetry anymore. As if “real poetry” doesn’t rhyme, has no meter, and has no particular need for evocative language of any sort, but instead has to be “free verse,”

the coward’s form
where everything
no matter how prosaic
no matter how much its supposed rhythm sounds
like a running unbalanced washing machine
down the stairs
becomes a poem
so long as you refuse to punctuate
or submit to the yoke of capitalization
and so long as you break
your ideas
onto multiple
like framing a random stain on a gallery wall
this format of
gives the reader
to slow down
to reflect
to listen
for one goddamn moment
and when they
are amazed to hear
in their minds
they think
the depth
is in the words
and writer.

I already feel guilty about how easily poetry comes to me, relatively speaking. I come to it armed with a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, often, but I can make it happen with relative ease. And if my insurance-company coworker’s arrhythmic, mangled, CC’d-company-wide “parody” of “The Night Before Christmas” was any evidence, that’s not something the average Joe has the same knack for. Much like how I can’t move my body rhythmically to save my life – literally; I can’t even coordinate my limbs enough to tread water.

But my regular prose can already trend toward the purple, and if all I had to do was chunk it up onto separate lines to make it “poetry,” then what the hell fun is that to write or to read?  Shouldn’t all of this be harder?  If it’s easy, if it’s enjoyable, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?

Still, I’d stopped writing poetry when I was 12 or 13 – shortly after I learned the word “doggerel” – and except for a couple required assignments in a Creative Writing class, I didn’t succumb to the temptation again until this past year. (Assuming we don’t count song parodies, anyway. …Which are even MORE fun, because they have even more constraints to fulfill – like rhyming, or at least having some assonance, with the original.)

But, now that I’ve written poetry again, I can’t help wondering if it’s remotely “better” than when I left off. I still like to do it, but isn’t this, too, something I should have grown out of? Is it any surprise I haven’t gained any skills if I haven’t let myself do it for twenty years?

It’s the same old Catch-22 as ever: you can’t get better if you don’t practice, but you’re not allowed to “practice” because everything you do counts and has consequences. Whatever I do is only as good as I can get it, and my instinct is always to sit on it and hide it away and try again sometime when Future Better Me is capable of doing things right.

I’m getting better about realizing that I can’t just quantum leap from here to there, and that I have to do things “well enough” and make mistakes and revise things over time. Though that still feels like a free-verse sort of life, one where I decide that rules and consequences shouldn’t apply to me if I don’t want them to, so long as I’m conceited enough to believe I’m doing something “meaningful.”

Still. If everything is a constant series of mistakes, at least I’m trying to make interesting ones and to err on the side of creation.

But now, tonight, I’m tired.  And while this doesn’t feel done, or interesting, or anything, nothing else compels itself to be said.

I know I should write other things here.  Better things.  More meaningful things.  Things that address all the political absurdity going on lately.  Not that I have anything worthwhile to contribute, but it’s a civic duty sort of thing.  I can emit words in a place where they can be read, so I should probably damn well say some things about some things that may need to be said, even though they’re things that should damn well go without saying.

But, at least I fulfilled that yen for vaguely-poetic introspection.

Tomorrow, most likely, there will be improvisational fiction, and possibly some technical writing, and maybe some life-sciences sci-fi, and a bunch of regular old conversations. And, who knows, maybe some strange synapse will fire, and I’ll end up scrawling something that all flows together, just the way I want it to, just the way it feels like it’s waiting to be, in a way that could practically make you believe in the Muses.

Or maybe it’ll be, like most other days, a day where I have the permanent drive to write, but no direction or focus in mind.  I just have to listen to myself, figure out what seems to be flowing best, and set myself on that task as long and as well as I can.

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – Creativity

(Note: since I have reason to suspect that the final episode will be coming out tomorrow, and since I’d like to at least address all of the episodes, these will be more like bullet points than full essays.  Management reserves the right to rewrite or expand them later, even though they’re probably wrong.)

What’s your favorite idea?
Mine is being creative.

And so the lessons begin.  Through music and visuals, the Sketchbook attempts to teach The Red Guy, The Yellow Guy, and The Green Duck Guy about creativity.

Red and Yellow show a dramatic and excited reaction, leaning toward the Sketchbook. Yellow’s mouth is agape, and he looks wholly amazed.  But Green does not even move.  He is completely unsurprised – either because similar things have happened before, or because the very same thing has happened before.  As stated in the previous essay, the characters behave as actors waiting for their cues.  Perhaps Duck Guy is weary of this role, after many takes.

This question and its response come on like a koan.  The notion of having a “favorite idea” is bizarre.  Treating “being creative” as an idea unto itself is stranger still.  Creativity is not being treated as a process or method, but as an entity in its own right.

How do you get the idea?
I just try to think creatively.

Creativity is treated as both cause and effect here: Sketchbook got the idea for being creative by thinking creatively.  This doesn’t impart knowledge to the unfamiliar. You need to accept the wisdom of the answer and be capable of applying it already in order to gain and apply the wisdom in the first place.

The rhyme scheme is also simplistic.  “Idea” is rhymed with “idea.”  “Creative” is rhymed with “creatively.”  Tautologies are the antithesis of creativity.

Now, when you look at this orange,
Tell me, please, what do you see?

It’s just a boring old orange!
Maybe to you, but not to me.

A bold move, ending a line with “orange,” one of the English language’s most famously-rhymeless words.  Almost any other fruit could have worked – like “apple,” or even “pear.”

Why, then, an orange?  Given the nature of the puppets as puppets, the attempts at inculcation, and the hints of authoritarianism, it evokes A Clockwork Orange.

Strangely enough, when you stare into this fruit basket, the fruit basket stares into you.

DHMIS Fruit Basket.png

Something blue is at the back of the basket.  It has a googly eye and either a feather or a tuft of hair.  This seems to be yet another entity that has a face, yet is not treated as a character.

The orange is, however.

I see a silly face (Wow!)
Walking around and smiling at me

I don’t see what you mean!
‘Cause you’re not thinking creatively!

The Yellow Guy, who comes across as somewhat naive, childlike, and unintelligent, is at least playing along, expressing enthusiasm at the Sketchbook’s creativity.

Red is somewhat more ambivalent, and his character comes across as apathetic.  He reacted to the Sketchbook’s appearance, but not as dramatically.

Green is more pragmatic and more fussy.  He’s trying to learn, in that he’s questioning the Sketchbook and attempting to get her to explain herself in a way that might make more sense to him.  However, his failure to learn this way of thinking is being treated as the reason he failed to learn this way of thinking in the first place. His inability to see the world the same way as someone else is being called “uncreative,” and he’s being told he should change how he thinks. This is conformity dressed as creativity.

The attempted rhyme scheme reverses here.  The first two lines of each couplet don’t even come near a rhyme, but me / creatively succeeds.

So take a look at my hair (Cool!)
I use my hair to express myself.

That sounds really boring.
I use my hair to express myself.

While Green is trying to engage with the Sketchbook and to demand , Red seems to be more random.  He played along in the beginning, mugging a reaction, and his voice can be heard saying “Cool,” though Green’s cannot. However, Red also resists the Sketchbook, saying her attempt at expression is boring.

When confronted with the idea that her attempts at wild and colorful self-expression are, in fact, boring, the Sketchbook’s only response is to repeat her assertion that she’s expressing herself. It as if she cannot conceive how her personal self-expression could be seen as boring to anybody else, and therefore Red must not have heard her the first time, or must not have understood her – his response couldn’t possibly be his own genuine self-expression.

There could also be some mockery of those who’d wear “wild” hairstyles to express themselves in the first place – given that hair grows out and can be dyed, making it a safe and risk-free way to creatively express oneself.  Perhaps the argument is that real creative self-expression entails more risk – and doesn’t need to be explained or asserted.

Perhaps Red is saying that her hair is cool, and it would be cooler if it was there for its own sake: her insistence that it’s “expressive” gives it meaning and purpose, and therefore makes it dull.  Ars gratia artis, after all.

She never risks letting others draw on her, or drawing on herself – she doesn’t seem to express herself by her own hand, or to facilitate creativity in anyone else.  Rather, she just acts as a presentation, flipping from already-existing illustration to illustration.

Now, when you stare at the clouds in the sky,
Don’t you find it exciting?

It’s not looking at clouds that’s engaging – it’s the search for patterns. (Even then, it’s not “exciting,” it’s generally more relaxing.)   Still, is pareidolia a creative act?  It doesn’t analyze or recreate or compare – it just involves looking at an amorphous or ambiguous shape and recognizing the shape of something familiar.  Being able to see more things might denote higher creativity or adaptability.  So might an ability to see things in both the positive and the negative space. But I would argue that there’s nothing creative about seeing a shape in a cloud or a face in a rock formation on Mars. The mind simply recognizes a pattern in things as they are, comparing them to other things-as-they are, whereas creativity involves an ability to imagine things as being other than they are.

Come on, take another look! (Oh wait!)
I can see a hat, I can see a cat, 
I can see a man with a baseball bat.
I can see a dog, I can see a frog,
I can see a ladder leaning on a log!

Curiously, “creativity” appears to involve each person seeing the same thing at the same time.  Genuine creativity would arguably result in a wider diversity of perceptions.  Still, the Sketchbook asserts that they’re on the right track.

Think you’re getting the hang of it now!
Using your minds to have a good time.
I might paint a picture of a clown!
Whoa there, friend; you might need to slow down.

The Duck Guy still looks dubious and unimpressed, even as the Skechbook says they’re doing well.

The direct connection between the mind and time is somewhat odd.  In the phrase “have a good time,” time is being used in a much more abstract sense. But the picture illustrates both very literally – the mind is a brain, and time is a clock.  This is a very reductionist approach for someone who supposedly advocates creativity.

It also foreshadows the second episode, which focuses on time – and which begins to address the idea of time as a human invention, not an actual entity.

And so is pausing the entire song to dump black paint all over Yellow’s painting of a clown.

Why should he slow down?  Even if he’s comprehending creativity (or the Sketchbook’s concept of it) more quickly than The Duck Guy, there’s no sense in destroying his progress or holding him back – unless, of course, even the Sketchbook realizes that she’s not advocating real creativity, and is just encouraging a sort of versatile positivity within arbitrary authoritarian constraints.

What sort of creative exercise does the Sketchbook support instead?

Here’s another good tip (Yeah?)
Of how to be a creative whiz kid:
Go and collect some leaves and sticks
And arrange them into your favorite color.

Again, this is koan-like insensibility.  It does make much more sense to have a favorite color than a favorite idea – but arranging “leaves and sticks” into a color can’t exactly be done.

And so they arrange the leaves and sticks into the words for colors – the signifiers instead of the signified.

Green is not a creative color.

The Red Guy picks the color blue. The Green Guy picks the color red. Yellow picks Green, and is scolded, his work covered with a large black X.

Yellow was not asked to arrange them into a creative color, just into his favorite color.  He’s punished for taking the Sketchbook at her word instead of paying attention to the subtext – that his favorites should now be in line with her ideals.

No reason is given for why green is not a creative color.  Perhaps it’s because leaves and sticks are already greenery, so using greenery to spell “green” requires too little imagination or seeing-things-as-they-aren’t.

However, again, the Sketchbook thinks creativity is nothing but seeing whatever everybody else sees. Whatever complaint she has about green, the fact that it’s not truly creative enough is unlikely to be one of them.

Perhaps there is something else that is wrong or threatening about the color green.

Blue and red, both primary colors, were fine – but green is a secondary color, made by combining yellow and blue. It is, itself, created, a sum of disparate parts, and it is therefore an objectively creative color.  It looks all the more as if the Sketchbook is only interested in asserting authority – legitimate displays of creativity are blacked out, X’d out, or otherwise maligned.

There’s one more thing that you need to know
Before you let your creativity flow:
Listen to your heart, listen to the rain,
Listen to the voices in your brain.

This would be three more things. The depiction of a heart shows a more anatomically-correct heart, aorta and all – another very literal depiction.

“Listen to the rain” seems more abstract, but it’s not an encouragement to listen for patterns, melodies, voices, or anything else in the rain besides the literal sound of raindrops hitting surfaces.

On “Listen to the voices in your brain,” the Sketchbook shows a simplified image of the lobes of the human brain.

DHMIS Brain.png

An image of grey matter would have sufficed, but the lobes have been created – and color-coded.

The forebrain is blue – Red’s favorite color.  This is the part of brain that controls decision making, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and ethical choices.  It may be worth noting that damage to the frontal lobe can result in a lack of emotional affect – a failure for emotional states to be reflected in facial expression or tone of voice.  This evokes Red’s muted, neutral reactions.

But the lobe in green is the temporal lobe.  It’s the lobe that processes sensory input, recognizes language, and forms long-term memories.  If green is a forbidden color, and the temporal lobe is green, then the Sketchbook is cautioning against accurately processing the evidence of the senses, against comprehending language, and against remembering events of the past – all of which could be used to refute or disbelieve authority.

Come on, guys, let’s get creative!

The fridge shows “Get Creative” in colorful fridge magnets – and then the image snaps from live live action to rather-dated CGI, as might be seen in an extremely low-budget children’s cartoon.  The letters fly off the fridge and toward the camera.

A montage of live-action creativity begins – the characters using traditional childrens’ craft materials like glitter and googly eyes, popsicle sticks and potato stamps to create random-seeming amalgams of matter.

The camera returns to the live-action shot of the three characters sitting at the table.  The image flickers between this and a crude CGI representation of the characters and the kitchen.

DHMIS CGI Before.png

The camera pans around the table, and the kitchen falls apart – the walls slip aside, and the cuckoo clock swirls through the air.  Soon we see what has been behind the “fourth wall.”  The characters are being filmed, and are aware of this: there are cameras, a boom mic, a clapboard, and a director’s chair – all manned by creatures that appear to be nothing but giant eyeballs on yellow birdlike legs. The background is the pale blue-green with confetti, as in the title card.

But as the scenery is changing and previously-unrevealed entities are being shown, the characters are changing as well.  When the camera returns to its initial position, Yellow and Green are significantly different:

DHMIS CGI After.png

Both are taller and broader.  They appear to be adults.  This could be seen to represent the same characters, only older – or it could represent their parents.

The image becomes pixelated, then returns to a live-action view.  The puppets are no longer the same, and no longer appear to be puppets at all, but rather people in full costume.

DHMIS Live Action After.png

Another craft montage begins.  A raw human heart sits on a yellow background. Shredded confetti is haphazardly stuck to an ill-painted round disc.  Red – or the elder Red – covers the heart in gold glitter.

The three stand in the kitchen again.  The table is gone, and the letters of “Get Creative,” presumably having flown off of the fridge, now hover in the background. The calendar still shows June 19th. Yellow dances erratically while Red and Green look on.

The view looks out the window, where dark storm clouds roll in and a thunderstorm begins.

The music grows more and more frenzied – violins sawing, occasional discordant notes played over them.

All three characters now dance wildly.  Red rolls the heart from the glitter, exposing the unglamoured flesh.  He shakes and gyrates, rolling the heart in the glitter, blood smearing the pale yellow surface.

The original puppet Yellow is seen again, convulsing somewhat, while the Sketchbook looks on in apparent approval.

The three larger, adult characters sit at the table again, excitedly cutting into a cake bearing pale blue frosting and the words “Get Creative.”  Red and Yellow clap as Green removes a slice.  The cake is full of offal.

Red and Yellow, two of the three primary colors, are represented in these characters.  So is Green.  Perhaps Blue is in the cake.

The three hug and spin as the music reaches a peak of screeching frenzy.   Green’s potato stamps spell “DEATH” and the H trails off into a smear as his limp hand slides down the frame. Fallen offal is pulled into the mousehole by an unseen agent.  The small version of Yellow convulses again, even more wildly, and the Elder Green scoops more offal into the cake.  The DEATH potato stamps are seen surrounded by skull stamps and smears and by the potatoes themselves, and Green’s hand casts them away as cymbals crash and faint screams echo.

Through this cacophonous phantasmagoria, creativity is shown to be far from the tame and rulebound ideal expressed before.  It is unhinged, it follows no pattern, it is heedless of time.  It confronts mortality.  The raw matter of the world, of plants, of animals, even the very hearts of animals and the innards that work within them, is distorted and changed.  Potatoes are used as stamps, hearts are covered with glitter, organs are made into cakes.  Food, life, art, and death are all intertwined.  It is unclear what the dancing is meant to celebrate – life and art, or death itself.

Perhaps this is a view of the past – of the characters’ parents, on June 19th of 1955, another Father’s Day, performing some sort of creative / destructive rite, a summoning or appeasement of horror, which the main characters now have to live with.

The screams die away, and we see the Sketchbook and Green again, Green in his original form.  The original view is shown once more – Red looking at the Sketchbook, Yellow looking distraught, but not making eye contact with the camera, the Green Duck Guy looking vaguely toward the book. Nothing has changed in the kitchen.  Time does not seem to have passed, to go by the clock.

Yellow looks around, as if confused, though the other characters show minimal reaction to the events. The upbeat music strikes up again.

Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.

With a discordant honk of a woodwind, the Sketchbook falls backward, its cover closing over it once more, and the screen goes black.

Next Entry: Frenzied Nigh-Random Bullet-Point Observations About Other Things In The Rest Of The Series.

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – The Establishing Shots

Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations

After the title card of DHMIS, there is a series of seven establishing shots, all silent save for a faint background hum. Some are close-ups, and some pan along walls of the room, until the seventh shot, which shows the full room – and is the first appearance of the three main characters. Despite the lack of dialog, narration, or music, these shots establish the physical setting of the episode, establish the mood, foreshadow themes and later events, and establish the viewer’s expectations – but, already, they also subvert those expectations.

DHMIS Air Mail

The first image is not of any establishing shot, nor any character, but of a felt air mail envelope, complete with red and blue edging and a plane-shaped stamp symbol – one that does not appear to have been cancelled.  This indicates that the letter is waiting to be sent – and it’s being sent by air mail.  Moreso than a typical letter, air mail is emblematic of communication across great distances – often, places hard to reach by land. It implies that there’s a tremendous gulf between one end of the conversation and the other, and that the sender is possibly quite isolated.

Not all communication is cut off, however: next comes a shot of a newspaper called The Right Wing.

DHMIS Right Wing

It’s not a glossy magazine, it doesn’t have a charming human interest headline about a celebrity or a local event. Rather, its headline speaks of stocks, and the picture shows a coin featuring a crowned duck.  This has connotations of business, investment, rigor – in short, adulthood. A child is unlikely to read about or have interest in finance; even if one did, they wouldn’t be earning their own money, most likely, and couldn’t engage with the information.  This implies that there is at least one adult involved in whatever we’re about to see.

More symbolically, the newspaper may imply certain things about the socioeconomic system the characters are in – probably right-of-center, given the title; probably led by a single powerful figure, given the crown; possibly favoring corporations over individuals, given the focus on finance, and therefore conceivably fascist.

However, the implication may not be political as much as it is psychological.  In light of later context, the use of “The Right Wing” and the monarchy-implying coin may instead evoke right-wing authoritarianism.

To lazily quote Wikipedia, if just because its citation link is broken, “Right-wing authoritarians are people who have a high degree of willingness to submit to authorities they perceive as established and legitimate, who adhere to societal conventions and norms, and who are hostile and punitive in their attitudes towards people who don’t adhere to them. They value uniformity and are in favour of using group authority, including coercion, to achieve it.”

As will be seen, each episode of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared features at least one authority figure who, presenting itself as legitimate, tries to inculcate at least one main character with the societal and cultural norms or scientific “facts” it presents. This authority is, at the very least, hostile toward resistance, despite that the information it presents is often spurious and may not even represent diegetic truth.

DHMIS Shelf with Prism


Though the newspaper establishes the presence or influence of at least one adult, the next shot pans along the well-lit kitchen shelf, where we see a red-and-blue ball cap with a yellow brim.  With its bright primary colors, the hat looks like one that a stereotypical storybook child might wear. Though the soft felt objects already bore connotations of harmless childhood entertainment, the presence of the cap reinforces the notion.  The camera moves then moves along past a plain-looking white-and-blue canister.

And then we see the first face: a red prism-shaped object with a tuft of hair at its apex, its front face sporting two googly eyes and a flat mouth.  Yet the camera keeps panning, putting no focus on this object.  Just when the viewer has seen enough felt items to expect puppetry, just when the viewer has prepared to suspend disbelief and accept that inanimate objects will be treated as characters, we see a felt object – one with eyes, a mouth, and even what seems like hair – but it appears to be no character at all.

What is it doing there? What is it meant to be?  In the context of the world being established, it’s hard to say.  But the object was created, placed there, filmed, and not edited out: its inclusion is a conscious choice.  What purpose does it serve, then?

It’s essentially an expectation subverter: a false alarm that compels the viewer to acknowledge what they expected and why they expected it, acknowledge how they could tell they weren’t getting what they expected, and address what it the difference is between fulfilling the expectation and failing to fulfill the expectation.  In this case, the sight of the faced and motionless prism compels the viewer to acknowledge that they expected puppetry because of all the other soft felt objects and the presence of googly eyes, hair, and a smile. It compels the viewer to acknowledge that they don’t recognize the object as a character because it’s not being focused on and because it’s not being moved.  It compels the viewer to acknowledge that this is what puppetry is: an unseen agent moving and manipulating an inanimate object in order to construct a narrative.  And it calls on the viewer to keep that in mind in the later shots, when the main character puppets are introduced.

The prism isn’t just there to kick down the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, though. If the faced and motionless prism were shown after the three main characters were introduced, after the viewer had put into practice their suspension of disbelief in order to accept that these face-having inanimate objects would be treated as characters, then it would seem to have little purpose but to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of belief.  The viewer would keep expecting it to move – any shot now, any time now; after all, every other faced thing was expected to move, and did move, and is still moving. Instead, by showing a faced and motionless prism four shots before the characters are seen, it creates a brief hiccup in the still-growing suspension of disbelief.  The dissonance begins and ends before suspension of disbelief becomes necessary to engage with the work.  This lets the prism work as a symbol – a symbol of what it means to be a puppet. A reminder that it is not a puppet, but the characters to come are.  And why are they puppets?  Because they are being manipulated by unseen agents – not just literally, but metaphorically.  Somebody is controlling them, somebody is influencing what they do, somebody is putting them where they are.

Given the rest of the context: some authoritarian adult is manipulating the characters we’re soon to see – manipulating them, possibly through coercion, possibly through force, into accepting that adult and their indoctrination.


DHMIS Calendar and Knives

The next shot is of a recurring sight in all videos: a wall calendar reading June 19.  The camera pans down – slowly revealing a wall-mounted knife holder, all the blades pointing up at the calendar.  This creates an association between that date and danger. The sense of danger is reinforced as the camera pans down further to a stove.  On the stove, there is a pot.  And in the pot, there is an egg.

DHMIS Knives and Egg.png

Nothing needed to be on the stove in order to establish that it was a stove.  It wasn’t necessary for there to be a pot.  Even if there were a pot, it wasn’t necessary for there to be anything in it. Even if there were anything in it, it wasn’t necessary for it to be an egg.  It could’ve been beans or spaghetti or virtually any food. It takes work to make these props, and it’s reasonable to believe that anything that’s present and focused-on – especially during establishing shots – is meant to be important.  What is placed, and where it’s placed, matters. In fact, a real egg wouldn’t float that high in water, and anyone who was actually about to boil an egg or two would have it in the pan, immersed in water.  It wouldn’t be visible from this angle.  But it seems that the creators went out of their way to handwave physics, just so an egg could be seen.

A clear connection is drawn between June 19th, knives, and a stove with an egg on it.  Why?

Let’s take these in reverse order, just for dramatic effect.

Eggs are offspring.  Even though the eggs we eat are unfertilized, an egg is still symbolic of youth – of a new generation.  In this case, the young egg is in a cookpot.  The heating element is in black felt, not red, so the burner’s supposedly not on – but there’s still a looming threat.  This egg, this offspring, is going to be cooked. This kitchen is a threatening place to the young.

Above the egg is an array of knives, reinforcing the idea of violence.

And above the knives, the calendar showing the date of June 19th.

What’s the significance of that date?  This video, itself, does not hold any direct clues. But beyond this calendar itself, and the other identical calendars present in every episode, there are still other allusions to June 19, 6/19, or some other form of the date throughout all the episodes (as will be described in later entries,) so it certainly isn’t arbitrary. But this video was released in 2011, and June 19th had no particular significance in that year.

To skip ahead to the second video for a moment, though, a character says “The past is far behind us” while pointing to a framed photograph bearing a placard that reads”19-06-55.” This gives us one other year to look at in order to determine the date’s significance.

In 1955, June 19th was Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is on June 19th this year, as well.

This establishing shot establishes a connection between Father’s Day and danger to children.  It implies that some father figure – perhaps the adult in this household – poses a threat to his offspring.

DHMIS Red Radio

Next, the camera pans right to left once more, showing a red radio on a windowsill. Again, this has a connotation of communication, but it’s communication that only works one way – it can be received by the people in the house, but not transmitted. The tuner is off to the left, implying a low-frequency station – one that could be broadcasting from farther away.

DHMIS Cactus and Radio

On the other end of the windowsill sits a small potted cactus – and a rather anthropomorphic one, at that.  Here, again, there’s a blurring of the lines between “face-bearing inanimate object that could be a character” and “face-bearing inanimate object that’s just an object.”  But, taking the liberty of assuming it’s meant to be an actual cactus, not some novelty cactus sculpture, it may imply that somebody here does not have a green thumb: they’re not trying to tend something as finicky as an African violet or as commonplace as a Boston fern; they’re tending something that’s even more hardy – and harder to kill.

In short: the adult of this house may not be a particularly good caretaker.

DHMIS Get Creative

Next, we see what appears to be an assortment of things on a desktop: one edge of the earlier air mail letter, a fairly large skeleton key, a red and angular object off to the left – and a sticky note scrawled with “Get creative.”

Sticky notes like these are generally used as reminders for quotidian tasks – tasks more like “get eggs” or “get milk” than “get creative.” There’s something strangely contrary about the idea of reminding oneself to be creative, as if it’s something you might otherwise forget to do.  It could be argued that creativity is a skill more than a trait – that it can be practiced and fostered as much as anything else. This idea that some people fixedly are or aren’t creative is just another manifestation of an entity theory of intelligence, as incorrect as the belief that some people are or aren’t “math people.”   While the next entry will analyze this episode’s approach to creativity in much more depth – suffice it to say that its approach to teaching creativity has a variety of contradictions – this establishing shot is a summation of the core concept: that creativity is or should be less about self-expression and more about fulfilling external expectations.

The note appears to sit on the same small table as the air mail letter, and is shown to be somewhere between it and some unknown red object to the far left.  The only other object seen in full is a single key.  While this could be a metaphor meant to be linked to the “Get Creative” note itself, implying that creativity is a key to success or a key to opening new doors, it may not be meant to relate quite so directly to that message.  Instead, it might bear a more literal interpretation: something or someone is, or will be, locked up.  As the key is not a modern car key or door key, but rather a more old-fashioned lever-lock key, there’s a suggestion of age.  Perhaps it’s a house key and the house is old.  But perhaps the key is simply metaphorical in a different way: something or someone is locked up in an outmoded system of beliefs.

At last, the camera moves to the final establishing shot: the one that also establishes the characters.

DHMIS Characters










This gives us an overview of the entire scene: a somewhat poky kitchen.  Considering things in counterclockwise order, starting in the bottom right, we see again the small endtable with the sticky notes, letter, and key.  The red object is revealed to be a red telephone, reinforcing the subtle association of red with communication that was earlier established with the radio.

Above it, the wall shelf.  The orange prism is still present, and is shown to be next to something that might be a cookbook displaying an image of a fried egg and some bacon.  This second depiction of eggs being cooked recapitulates the threat to offspring that was earlier established by the egg in the pot.

More of the top of the refrigerator can be seen, and it’s a somewhat strange assortment of items: a scale; an iron; some sort of yellow, red, and blue ball; a percolator; what may be a blue toaster with toast; a blue canister of some sort in the back; a small potted plant in the front.

But each might be interpreted in some way: the scale might be seen to imply measurement and analysis, a weighing of things so that they might be portioned out accurately.  It could hint that the people and things in this room are being evaluated somehow.

The iron smooths out wrinkles, when used properly.  However, when used improperly, it can iron-in a wrinkle and make it worse, or could even burn the material. This could reinforce the idea of an authority that is attempting to suppress deviations and create a smooth path, but that may be causing worse problems.

The colorful ball may be a pet toy, or a child’s toy, held up and out of reach – another indication of a power dynamic where an authority has control over an inferior.

The percolator is a tool for making coffee, a drink that is generally distasteful to children and preferred by adults, again implying the presence of an older authority.

The toaster, like an iron, applies heat – but an excess of heat could cause burns.

Whatever the blue canister may hold, it’s rather hard to get to, and it’s odd that it wouldn’t be placed on the shelf instead – perhaps where the hat inexplicably stands. Is it a sugar bowl being kept away from a child, perhaps?

Finally, the potted plant sits in front of everything on top of the fridge, rather than being placed in the sun or on the endtable or on the kitchen table.  Is the plant dangerous to children or animals, perhaps – or is it a temptation with which they can’t be trusted?

Moving along, we see the calendar and knives again, and also see a small rack of dishes from which also hangs some cutlery.  Five dishes are on the rack, though there are seven slots.  Seven is, literally, an odd number for a set of dishes. Perhaps this could indicate that there were once seven people in this house, one dish for each person – but that two people are now gone.

The window shows a green and featureless landscape to the horizon, and a blue sky with small white clouds.  They aren’t in a desert, on a mountain, or in some other clearly isolated place; it seems to be nothing more than a suburban lawn.

Below, we see the three main characters: on the left, a tall red creature with a moplike head, large eyeballs on the top of its head, and no visible mouth; on the right, a shorter green bird, possibly a duck, wearing a brown twill jacket; in the center, looking directly at the camera, a yellow person wearing denim overalls and a somewhat concerned expression. Mugs that coordinate with the blue striped canister (and with the light above) are near each person; a red teapot is near the middle of the table, near what appears to be a basket of fruit.  The newspaper is on the lower right corner of the table; what appears to be a book is diametrically opposite it on the upper left corner.

On the left wall, previously unseen, there hangs an image of a sailboat, and to the left of it hangs a cuckoo clock.  By the baseboards below, there is a mousehole; near it is a food dish and a water dish, most likely for a pet.

The picture shows a sailboat on dark and wavy seas.  There are subtle things wrong with this ship, however. The hull appears symmetrical, from this angle, making it hard to tell bow from stern.  There is no rudder. Since much art in Western culture tends to depict movement from left to right, that might be the initial assumption – that the bow is on the right, the mainsail is therefore red, and the jib is yellow. But this may not be the case: it’s the yellow sail that seems to be attached to the boom, and it sits higher up than the red sail – where the mainsail would be, at least per the most simplified diagrams. Therefore, while it may seem to be true that the red is the mainsail, the driving force of the ship, while the yellow is simply an additional airfoil, the reverse may be the case.  This may be true of the red and yellow characters, as well: The Red Guy may at first appear to be the driving force behind the action, the character who propels progress, while The Yellow Guy is his dramatic foil  – one who also drives progress and plot, but who provides a stark contrast.  However, it may in fact be Yellow who progresses the story along, while Red is his foil.

Of all the possible wall clocks to create for this scene, they chose to create a cuckoo clock.  Given the ornateness and complexity of real cuckoo clocks, it seems unlikely that the creators would choose to spend the additional effort necessary to make one out of (apparent) felt if a more ordinary clock would do the trick.  Therefore, the question changes from “What is the significance of a clock on the wall?” to “What is the significance of, specifically, a cuckoo clock on the wall?”  What features distinguish one from the other? The cuckoo.  At a certain time, a door automatically opens, and the small mechanical bird is shown – or is extended somehow – and sings.  Until that time, it’s trapped inside the house-shaped timepiece.  The cuckoo clock therefore reinforces an idea of this house as a place of isolation and control, a place of specific schedules, a place where action, free movement, and singing do not happen freely, but happen only at their appointed times.

The presence of the mouse hole below implies that this house is being eaten from within.  Natural creatures that cannot be reasoned with are, by their nature, seeking warmth and shelter and food, and are destroying the unnatural structure in the process.  The homeowning adult, apparently, has responded to this threat by getting a pet – presumably a cat.  Its food bowls sit near the mousehole, as if to make it associate the area with a food source.  A literal game of cat and mouse is being played within this home.

Finally, to return to the characters: the shot lingers on them for a somewhat awkward span of time.  We don’t catch them in the middle of breakfast, or a conversation.  They simply sit and look straight ahead.  The Red Guy seems to shift uncomfortably.  They appear to be doing nothing but waiting for something else to begin.  Their expressions are neutral at best – The Duck Guy looks weary, and Yellow seems confused and possibly distraught.  This is an unnatural sort of waiting.  They’re not looking out the window, idly reading the newspaper, sipping tea, or even resting their heads on the table.  It is more like they’re awaiting their cue, or expecting somebody else to initiate the action.

And somebody else does: the sketchbook on the table flips itself open, revealing a face – and, as music begins, the book begins to sing.

Next Entry: Get Creative

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Towel Day

I’m forever grateful to a certain friend for recommending that I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, far back in my Freshman year. I was dubious at first – much like I was with those dang Terry Pratchett books that my friends wouldn’t shut up about. I didn’t read much sci-fi or fantasy at all, back then – perhaps because I was still trying to be as inconspicuous and normal as possible. And I figured that, even if the books were fun and funny, they’d just be parodies, right? Wouldn’t it feel like those Weird Al songs where I don’t know the song he’s mimicking? “It’s probably not my sort of thing,” I thought.

But I did finally read it.  I’m not sure what convinced me, but I plucked the hefty hardcover from one of the upper shelves, the yellowing plastic dust jacket crinkling in my hands, and added it to my stack of library books.

When I finally started to read it, its text began to sink into my brain as if there were waiting pilot holes. It started with “the movements of little green pieces of paper,” and redoubled with “…and no one would have to get nailed to anything.” It became inevitable by “Beware of the Leopard.” And by “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t,” it had permanently affixed itself as One Of My Favorite Things Ever. I could only wish I’d read it earlier.
So I tried to make up for it by foisting it upon anyone who’d listen to me.
I got a paperback copy at the Waldenbooks in the mall, and it became a vade mecum. It had a permanent place in my backpack, despite how heavy it was already. Whenever I went on a trip, it came too. It was there when I first saw the ocean. It was there when I went to Washington D.C. It was in my bag again on the first day of college, and the first days of each semester. I was reading it in the waiting room while my eldest niecebeast was born. It was wedged into my purse on the first day of my first real job.
Whether I took it out and read it or not, it was always a comfort to have that book around. It was an ambient reminder that, no matter how new or strange or nerve-wracking this experience was, or how stressed out I was over trying to be good at things without having done them before, the Universe was an incredibly bizarre and arbitrary place where every well-reasoned answer only brought forth more and weirder questions.
It was a reminder that, even if you seem to be having tremendous difficulty with your lifestyle, it’s mostly because you’re expecting the Universe to shape up and make sense — instead of accepting the fact that your tiny primate meat-brain can perceive only an approximate nothingth of the Universe, and can understand even less than that, making it ridiculous to believe that your brain’s idea of “sense” has much bearing on anything beyond your own braincase.
It was a reminder that bad things happen and confusing things happen and there’s rarely a helpful guidebook and there’s never enough tea – but, for all that, the Universe is still a pretty cool place. The other sapient organisms in it are probably just as confused as you are. And even if you don’t have much money or much agency, you can still do and see a lot, if you try – a savvy hitchhiker can see the wonders of the Universe on only 30 Altairian dollars a day.
Not much in my life has gone the way I had expected, in as many good ways as bad ones. It’s still hard to see beyond the end of the week – the month, if things are going really well. But at least I’m more equipped to see the humor in it all, at least I’ve got some good travelling companions, I’m getting ever better at heeding the advice of “DON’T PANIC” – and, if nothing else, at least I know where my towel is.
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Budweiser and America


This looks like it should be some edgy high-schooler’s culturejamming photoshop – but it isn’t, it’s official, and it’s apparently sincere. Budweiser is changing its name to America.

Get ready to enjoy America-battered onion rings, and making late-night America runs before the liquor store closes. You can’t buy America on Sundays, after all.

Remember, you have to be a certain age before you can legally enjoy America. But being allowed to buy America is one of the last milestones of adulthood. That’s how you know you’re not a child anymore: when you can gulp down the cold, bitter contents of America and at least pretend to like it.

But if you spend your young years looking forward to that night when you’ll be able to sit down, an adult among adults, and appreciate America, you may actually be disappointed. People don’t like to admit it, but America is an acquired taste. You especially don’t want to admit it to your loud uncle who likes to get really drunk on America. You really have to take in a lot of America for it to start making you feel much different, though – it’s not as strong as you’d think. Even after just a little America, though, some people start coming up with excuses to act selfishly or irrationally. Like your uncle, who loves America so much that he even sips a few road Americas while he’s driving around in his Mustang. The more America he has, the better he feels about that decision.

Also, there’s a sense in which your masculinity is tied in to how much America you can stomach before you want to throw up. It doesn’t matter if the flavor of it is just not to your liking – America isn’t one of those girly drinks that’s all about tasting nice! Oooh, look at them, all fancy with their sugared rims and their little umbrellas! Sure, so just one of those drinks might actually be more effective than three Americas put together, and it might be sweet instead of bitter, but you can’t even acknowledge those facts as relevant. Or acknowledge those drinks as real drinks! They’re not AMERICA!

You’ve got to buy into this idea of America – this idea of spending a summer afternoon kicking back to watch multimillion-dollar sports teams moving balls around in a stadium your tax dollars helped build – a stadium that reeks of America. Or the idea of coming in after a hard day’s work and having your wife deliver all the goodness of America to you while you watch TV until she’s done with dinner – you earned it! Or the idea of standing around in your party of choice, trying to have fun and relate to people around you, and trying to make sure you look like you’re enjoying America enough. Get a little more America in you, and it’ll come more naturally.

How can you tell if your party is a good one? Just look at how much America it’s used up and thrown away. But you can also look at how many America runs people have made. The people who are the least drunk on America are the ones who have to go get more America for everybody else. The more America they’ve brought to everybody else, though, the less likely those guys are to remember to pay them back. They’ll probably have to buy a lot of the America with their own money, which they know is a little backwards, but everyone else will make good on it, right?

Okaaaay, so what actually happens is that, the more America they bring, the more the drunkest people keep drinking. And those drunk people get angry when someone takes THEIR America. If you want in on America, you need to go get it yourself – nevermind that you have been, all night, but you’re just not being allowed to keep much America for yourself. You’ve got to keep acting like you’re enjoying the party, though. Even though you sorta think a nice sweet cocktail would be nice instead, with a small group of friends – or just a nice cup of tea all by yourself somewhere.

But you know that’s un-American. It’s not what the party’s all about. If nothing else, you still think that you’ll get paid back someday for all that you’ve invested in America. Maybe the drunkest people – who, of course, don’t think they’re that drunk – will finally get SO drunk on America that they fall down. And maybe you and the other runners will be the ones sober enough to roll them into the backyard and keep the party going – maybe a little more mellow of a party, though, with a little less yelling and groping and trying to break things? (Yeah, yeah, you know – they’d just feel like it was THEIR turn to get sloppy drunk and let somebody else do the work, and the same things would happen all over again.)

America can make you a little dizzy, a little nauseous, a little impulsive and thoughtless. But that’s what America’s all about! What’s liberty if not a lack of inhibition? What’s justice if not the sorts of judgments we all agree make sense when we’re thoroughly immersed in America? And it’s for everyone – except for young people, or old people, or people taking certain medications, and we still sorta look at women funny when they want one.

But this is America. Drink up.



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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – The Title

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (frequently abbreviated DHMIS) is a surrealist vision of children’s educational content. In each episode, didactic felt puppets employ catchy music and cheery animations to teach a lesson about a specific subject, creating surface similarities to media like Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock.  In DHMIS, however, the lessons are disjointed and incorrect, the rules being taught are arbitrary, and things often take a turn for the grotesque and overwhelming.  At its (glittery, raw) heart, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared evokes the dangers of submission to authority via parallels with the helpless horror of childhood.

I’d originally hoped to do a shot-by-shot analysis of at least the first episode – ideally the whole series.  While there’s certainly enough to read in to every shot — isn’t there always? — that’s not going to be sustainable for the entire set of essays.  Instead, this first entry will cover the title card and the silent establishing shots shown before the song begins.

Before there’s the first bit of action or dialogue, and even before the characters are first seen, these shots help set the viewer’s expectations – and already begin to subvert them.

In fact, in the title placard alone, there’s incongruity, ambiguity, and the establishment of the entire series’ atmosphere of cheerful malevolence.

The background is a placid and pastel blue-green color – not entirely blue, not entirely green – festooned with cheerful confetti drawn in reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and pinks.  This is already a bit of a contrast between peacefulness and festiveness, but the real contrast is with the text: over this background, stark white sans-serif text proclaims DON’T HUG ME I’M SCARED.

The fact that the title is in the first person is already rather unconventional, as titles are often abstract – and often aren’t full sentences at all.  The title is not “Don’t Hug The Scared,” or “Why You Shouldn’t Hug The Scared,” or”Don’t Hug Them, They’re Scared,” or “Hugging The Scared: A Recipe For Tragedy.”  It’s personal.

Though I’m frankly not well-versed enough in linguistics to explain how this works, the use of the first person in a title isn’t just a summation of the overall theme of the series, as most titles are – it’s a speech act being made by the protagonist.  Whether it’s “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” or “I Accuse My Parents,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” or “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” we expect that “I” to be the subject of the story.  But who is the protagonist saying this title statement to?

I’d argue that it isn’t actually the viewer: it’s more like a statement in a journal.  It’s a statement that person is making about their identity or their actions or some other aspect of their life. It reads more like a line from the protagonist’s own private diary – something personal and reflective and confessional for them, so much so that reading it as an outsider seems pulpy, sensational, and even invasive.

But in the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared,” there’s an understood “you.”  It’s not just a declarative statement, it’s an imperative. That “Don’t” is a command being levied at somebody.  As a result, teading the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is less like reading a line from a character’s diary page, and more like overhearing a sentence of their conversation with somebody else.

Making this assumption, we can analyze this speech even further to attempt to figure out who the protagonist is speaking to, what they mean, and what significance it bears.

Semantically, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” means the protagonist is expressing fear and vulnerability, and it acts to refuse an offer of – or attempt at – a hug.

Pragmatically, though, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is a fairly complex speech act.  It cannot be uttered in a meaningful way without a significant amount of awareness, confidence, and assertiveness from the speaker.

The vulnerability is established by the sentence “I’m Scared” – something has happened to put the speaker in fear.  On its own, “I’m scared” may be a declarative statement of fact.  But, much as saying “I’m cold” may have an illocutionary force – may act as a request for someone to close an open window or turn up the heat – saying “I’m scared” may have an illocutionary force of requesting the hearer to help the speaker stop or escape the frightening stimulus.

The first half of the sentence “Don’t hug me I’m scared” may be far more telling.

First, we have to step away from linguistics and into non-verbal communication for a moment.  A hug isn’t just any wrapping-of-arms-around-another-body.  If you bump into someone on the train and your arms end up encircling them, that’s not really a hug.  Rather, a hug is a physical act of affection.  At the very least, it’s an act of rapport.

When a person being hugged is frightened, however, the dynamic is different.  The hug is less an act of equitable rapport, appreciation, or affection, and more an act of comfort and support — therefore, it’s an act that establishes the hugger as a protective figure.  The person being hugged is experiencing some form of emotional upset; the person hugging is less affected by that fear and may be trying to allay it. In short: the person being hugged is vulnerable, the person hugging is powerful.

A hug also necessarily involves one person entering the other’s intimate personal space, a reaction zone generally reserved for close and trusted friends or family.  The more frightened or vulnerable a person is, the more anxious, fearful, or otherwise upset they’d likely be at the prospect of being hugged by someone who is not so close — or not so trusted.

Assuming that the relationship dynamics and interpersonal boundaries are equitable between the speaker and the spoken-to, “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” sounds almost like a contradiction: a scared person should want to be hugged, because A) hugs are comforting gestures and B) hugs are only performed by someone close enough, trusted enough, to be permitted inside that intimate reaction zone in the first place.  What scared person wouldn’t want a hug?  What kind of person would try to hug someone if they had the slightest thought that the hug would not be welcome?

What kind of person, indeed.

Clearly, the relationship between speaker and spoken-to, attempted-hugger and prospective-hug-recipient, is not equitable: permission to enter that intimate reaction zone is being refused – and it’s specifically because the speaker is scared.

“Don’t hug me I’m scared” is grammatically incorrect, technically speaking.  They’re two separate sentences: “Don’t hug me” and “I’m scared.”  Conventionally, a semicolon is used when two sentences are so closely related to each other, often causally, that the writer wants to be sure the relation is evident.  While the same title could have been grammatically rendered as “Don’t Hug Me; I’m Scared”, “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared.”,  “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared!”, “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared.”, or “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared!”,  all but the first would allow for the interpretation that the speaker’s fear and the speaker’s refusal of the hug are two separate statements with two separate causes.  Instead, however, the choice was made not to render it as two separate sentences, and not to render it as one sentence with its parts separated by a semicolon, but as one single sentence.  Arguably, this is not a grammar error but a stylistic and creative choice: the authors are trying to make it abundantly clear, from the very first image of the very first episode, that the expression of fear and the refusal of the hug are absolutely, breathlessly linked.

The speaker is scared of the person attempting the hug.

However, the sentence does more than express that fear.  “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is an imperative sentence. The speaker isn’t saying “Could you not hug me, I’m scared,” or even “I’d rather you didn’t hug me.” It’s a command.  It isn’t simply evocative of the unequal relationship between a powerful figure and a vulnerable figure, it’s a recognition by the speaker of that vulnerability, of that inequality — and, critically, it’s an attempt by the vulnerable person to shift the balance of power.

In order to meaningfully say “Don’t hug me, I’m scared,” the speaker has to:

◊ Be aware enough of their surroundings to perceive that they’re in danger
◊ Be aware enough of their own feelings to recognize vulnerability and fear
◊ Feel confident enough in the accuracy of their perception to risk making an assertion about that danger
◊ Feel assertive enough to admit that they’re scared and expect the listener to care
◊ Be aware enough of their feelings to recognize when they don’t want to be hugged
◊ Refuse to dismiss, ignore, or otherwise deny those feelings
◊ Feel confident enough in the validity of their feelings – or feel threatened enough by the hug-attempter – that they dare to refuse the hug
◊ Feel strong enough to face whatever negative consequences may result from this refusal

And, most crucially:

◊ Value their safety (or mere preferences) so much more than they value the attempted-hugger’s preferences that they’d issue a direct command and attempt to impose their will on the listener.

It sounds simple.

For victims of abuse, it’s not.

Through tactics like operant conditioning, authoritarian abusers can impel their victims to struggle to act upon – or even admit to themselves – their rights, their agency, their will, their preferences, their beliefs, or even their most fundamental feelings. It may even become difficult to assert objective facts about the world, for fear the abuser has a different belief: the abuser’s personal opinions are paramount, and disagreement is seen as defiance and disrespect.

That the statement “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” would be uttered by the protagonist (The Yellow Guy, hereinafter “Yellow”) at all – and that it would be the title of the entire series – foreshadows that the overall narrative arc will involve Yellow’s recognition that he’s been isolated, manipulated, gaslighted, and abused by his authoritarian father figure, Roy, under the pretense of education; his refusal to keep accepting this treatment or “education;” and his ultimate revocation of Roy’s status as a loved and trusted person who’s permitted to be close to him in any way.
Next Entry: Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations


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How To Survive Mercury Retrograde

How To Survive Mercury Retrograde: 1. Stop believing in Astrology.

Via The Credible Hulk on Facebook; image credited to Rainman of Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes

Fiction can be a good tool, and a temporary suspension of disbelief is integral to a lot of things: art, magic(k added for supplementary potassium), even basic human interactions – you tell yourself a story about other people being decent and kind, even though they’re probably not.

But part of using a tool is knowing that it’s a tool, and choosing when and how you use it – rather than letting your beliefs about that tool control what you do.

If you want to use the wrench of astrology to tighten your mental lugnuts… whatever. You might want to admit to yourself that it’s a plastic toy wrench, though – and you might also want to ask yourself how convenient it is that your problems just so happen to be fixable by using your favorite plastic toy wrench. Are there other problems that this tool can’t fix, and that you’re ignoring as a result?

The problem comes when someone cannot put down that tool.

They’re not just using a wrench to tighten their own mental nuts and bolts, they’re using it to hammer a nail, to hold a pen, to stir their food, to shake their client’s hand. They’re saying “The moon position means I can’t go to dinner with you.” They’re saying “The cards told me not to take that job.” They’re saying “I prayed on it, and I’m supposed to run for President.” They’re using it for everything – not just internal diagnostics and repair, but for guidance in how to do everything they do with and to everyone and everything else in the world. Tools help you do work, they say, so this is HELPING. But they’re never using any other tool, not even when it’s clearly more suited for the job. When this happens, it’s not a tool anymore, it’s a fetish object – one believed to have supernatural powers, and maybe its own will that the user must obey.

So they can’t put down that wrench, they can’t close the circle, they can’t drop character, they can’t stop. No matter how much harder it actually makes their life, they can’t stop, because they have the incontrovertible belief that their life is better than it would have been otherwise.

By all means, use fiction as a tool. Draw some tarot cards and see how you interpret them – and realize that your associations and interpretations will clue you in to your mental state in ways that may have hidden from you if you tried to look more directly. Or cast some yarrow stalks, or read some tea leaves, or flip to a Bible verse, or look at some inkblots, or shake a Magic 8-Ball. The human mind is incredibly skilled at denying things, even to itself, so sometimes you’ve got to play a game to figure out What Am I Thinking And Why?

And sometimes, just to buy yourself a few precious moments of peace of mind, you’ve got to absorb yourself into a narrative in which the world makes sense – whether you do so by sitting in a pew or under a yew. (Or making some stew, feeding a ewe, painting in blue, or wearing J. Crew. You do you.)

But if you can’t stop, can’t change, and can’t adapt, you’re not using the tool anymore.  You’re letting it use you.

When your tool or your system-of-tools or your religion or faith or whatever starts telling you “BE AFRAID! SUFFER! EXPECT THE WORST! DO NOT DENY ME OR ELSE! ACCEPT THIS OR ELSE! DON’T YOU DARE STOP! IT’S BAD LUCK!” — ask yourself what you even have to lose. What do you have to lose by stopping, when it’s your belief itself that’s making you afraid, making you suffer, making you expect (and think you deserve) pain?

Obviously, pain is part of life, and if you only tell yourself the story about how you deserve only good and happy things, and anything that interferes with that is obviously unholy… that’s not a great coping tool, either.  You’re still limiting yourself and telling a distorted story.

A key trait of humanity is our ability to look at the world and imagine it otherwise. It’s why fiction is even possible.  And it’s wonderful and amazing that fiction can inspire us to change things about ourselves and the world around us.  There are many ways to see reality, many possible beliefs, and – even at the risk of existential choice-paralysis – you’re probably better off cultivating the ability to perceive and engage with the world in MORE ways, rather than fewer.

But no matter how well you tell yourself the story, no matter how much it seems to help, no matter how accurate a story it tells… it’s a story.  Nobody else perceives the world quite the same way as you do, so the story that works for you doesn’t work for everyone else, and as you age and as your situation changes, the same narrative probably won’t even keep working for YOU. That doesn’t mean you need to reject everything and become full of bitterness and nihilism, refusing to acknowledge anything as more than electrochemical signals in your brain.  It doesn’t mean you have to become an automaton.  It just means that things just happen, and there’s not necessarily meaning, reason, or sense in any of it.  “Sense” is another story.

So do what works for you – but, if just to make sure it IS what works, if just once in a while… put down the duckie.

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Ave Et Vale

Growing up, the music I heard most often fell into two camps: Oldies from my parents and Top 40 from my sister.  It was a time when commercials and television themes were original, oft-kitschy jingles — not “real” music. And so all music made between 1970 and the time I was six years old was completely off my radar.

(I still remember how strange it was, yet how inevitable it felt; how attention-getting it was, yet how sad it felt, first hearing Jimi Hendrix music in ads for the Pontiac Sunfire, and no end of classic rock over Burger King Whopper commercials. )

It would be years yet before my family got Internet access; years more before I heard my first mp3.  If a certain kind of music wasn’t played on the radio, and wasn’t on one of my parents’ CDs, and wasn’t ever on the TV, it was essentially gone.  Unheard and unhearable, unknown and unknowable, lost in a gulf of time unplumbed and unplumbable.

The library existed, of course, and was rather glorious, given the size of my town.  If I’d asked one of the librarians, I’m sure they’d have helped me find Music Of The 1970s and introduced me to its various genres: the southern rock, the punk, the funk, the glam, the prog-rock.

But, for some reason, I believed what the rest of TV — and the rest of music — seemed to imply: the 1970s were made of disco. A single crop in a near-fallow field, and the earth had been salted and burned come ’79.

Perhaps the most terrible fact about human brains is that, if we already believe we know enough about something, we don’t seek out more knowledge.  And nobody’s more sure they know enough about what’s worth knowing than an eighth-grader.

Even so, I did love learning, and I’d absorb whatever information was presented to me.  In part because I liked learning and loved trivia, but also perhaps because it was an adaptive trait.  Call it a defense mechanism against curdling small-town ennui: if media is before you, and if it’s endurable in the least, you glean whatever you can get from it.  You alter your expectations.  You cultivate patience.  And if all else fails, you get anthropological: “Who the crap likes this, and why?!”

PBS was a great teacher of these virtues.

Slow and stately, conventionally uncool, but full of fascination when your mind was right, PBS was often the best thing on our broadcast-only television.   (Though I constantly clamored for cable.)  That wasn’t always hard to do, of course.  But that also gave it a power: the things that were a little too unconventional for my parents’ tastes – too silly, too cheap, too weird – could generally get a pass if it were shown on PBS.  It was perhaps our go-to channel for ambient TV — for the thing that would be on in the background while we all read books, did crossword puzzles, or fell into a Ken-Burns-induced coma.  PBS could never be objectionable.  PBS could never be cool.  PBS could never cross the line.

And so it was, during a pledge drive in 1998, that PBS introduced me to David Bowie.

The documentary series had been produced in 1995.  It was simply called “Rock & Roll.”  From its very introduction — a red electric guitar flung, in slow-mo, into the air, where at its zenith it exploded and caught fire — it was immediately the coolest thing I’d seen on PBS, and possibly the coolest thing I’d seen on TV all year.

It proceeded chronologically, as documentaries tend to do, starting with episodes now mostly forgotten – roots rock, doo-wop, Motown, all the things my parents and I already listened to and enjoyed.  Or, at least, endured.  I was fascinated by the counterculture of the 60s: the emotional sincerity, the rising up against war and racism, the belief in the power of words.  Okay, and the fact it annoyed my dad.  So I was eager from the start to get to that episode – and ruing the disco-doused episode that would surely follow.  But, with those virtues PBS had taught me — it might as well have stood for Patience!  Be Serene! — I watched each episode in full.

The narration was soporific, but the interviews were interesting, the archival footage was fascinating — this was the first time I’d seen actual moving images of most of the people I’d been hearing for years — and the subject matter was undeniably awesome. It didn’t seem that common, yet, for popular media to analyze itself with the same depth and sincerity as it analyzed history or science or the works of other cultures.  And, as a perpetual outsider, the documentary was doing what I felt like I did every day: studying coolness, studying pop culture, trying to figure out what it was and how it worked — even though that only distanced me even more.

And so, with a clunk and a whir, our trusty old VCR taped each episode, so I could watch them again.  (Ah, the quaint old days when things were shown once and only once, and if you missed it, you had to wait for reruns.)  I had no idea, back then, that Mr. Rogers had been instrumental in advocating for that liberty, and it would have felt nicely full-circle.

But, in time, there was another episode.  One that was as far from Mr. Rogers as you could get.

I didn’t watch it as it aired, but instead another day — after school, I think, sitting much too close to the big, wood-encased living room TV.  And each segment of it absolutely blew my know-everything eighth-grade mind.

Rock & Roll, Episode 4: The Wild Side.

It began with helicopter footage of Woodstock, thousands of people and thousands of tents, a technicolor throng, Arlo Guthrie playing in the background: the event that, in my mind, had been the crowning moment of counterculture, of weirdness, of acceptance, of freedom, of kindness, of all my fondest and most unattainable ideals.  If I had been alive back then, surely those would have been my people!  And they would have appreciated me, not just despite but for my feelings!  Thus always the delusion of the adolescent: “My feelings are deep and significant, and everyone else is a sheep, and nobody understands me, and I should have been born in a different time!” The narration spoke of that culture’s hope to change the world with a philosophy of peace and love, and I felt some affirmation.

But as the narration spoke of the fading of those ideals, the technicolor faded into the stark black-and-white face of some stranger — who I’d soon learn was Lou Reed. From there, a quick montage of other strangers, still stranger: Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, David Bowie.  I recognized Jim Morrison, but no one else at all. And they all seemed so different — different from anything covered before, and different from each other, united only by an apparent affinity for tight pants and a complete disregard for shirts.  None of which I minded in the least.

The episode began with a profile of The Velvet Underground.

I stared, amazed, as Flower Power was completely and utterly stripped of its standing.  That was no counterculture.  That was no weirdness.   That was no art and freedom.  Peace and love were all well and good, as ideals go, but here was this mad droning poetry about grime and isolation and futility and raunch and everything the hippies wanted to hope away.  Here was theatricality.  Here was an effort to distort sound, and the world, and minds, into something Other.  These people weren’t just strumming guitars and singing plaintive, rustic songs about how things should be and totally will be, if people just love each other enough.  Here were voices singing sideways from the gutter, inside out from orgies, transmissions from the alien planes of drug trips and nightmares and Art.  It wasn’t a six-string letter to the editor, it was a bizarre manifestation of some completely divergent headspace.  It was not a persuasive essay.  It sought to move you, but did not seek to change your mind.  It did not care if you came along.  It did not want you to hold its hand.  It was just going to be there, and do that thing that it was doing, and operate by its own surrealist non-logic, and it did not care if you accepted it.  It did not care if you wanted it.  It did not need you.

The episode went on.  The Doors.  Iggy Pop.  Early Alice Cooper, “this shiny, new, horrible monster that was really fun to watch,” a thing built out of everything low americana wanted and hated at once.  Yes.

But still, weren’t some things beautiful, I thought?  Not everything could be churning grunge.  Was there any room left for wonder, for something resembling magic?

And then there came this segment and this man.

This thin, gaunt man, impeccable in tie and pocket square.  His mismatched eyes gazing off to the ceiling, to the past, to space.  His careful, near-purr of a voice speaking of isolation, and the wasteland of suburbia – the “desperation, the exasperation” of it all.  And of how, looking on the unfurling music scene beyond his current scope, he and his wife realized there was “a job in there somewhere, and it was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it, and I was the man for it — or, rather, I was the androgyne for it.”

What a word, I thought!  What an idea!  That’s a thing?  I like this thing!

And this music!  I like this music!

And, moreover, I found myself liking this person.  He was so thoughtful, so introspective, so insightful, so charming.

And then there were the next scenes of him as Ziggy Stardust – wild hair, bright clothing, makeup and jewelry and painted nails — a character, an alien, a fiction.

I watched this tape so many times that some of its lines still burn in my mind, like the lyrics of songs themselves:

“And if you’d asked me at the time what it was I was trying to do — simply no idea.  All I knew, it was, um — and I sound like a parrot saying this, but it’s true — and this otherness.  This other world, an alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace.  I wanted anything but the place that I came from.”

I had only so many opportunities to embrace otherness at the time.  Books and music and my own thoughts were my primary escapes, and sinking myself into learning.  So, after watching this episode, I remember eagerly looking up information on Encarta 97 (before my parents came home.)  I had always been enchanted by the grossly-pixelated videos, the few seconds of songs by select artists, and I was   Again, this was before I had access to mp3s or the Internet at all.  But there was a brief article on Bowie, and even a clip of “Changes” – from 2:51 to 3:14.

These tiny fragments were almost more tantalizing than if I had access to his full body of work.  Truth be told, I never have listened to his full discography. To me, the fascination wasn’t just in his music, it was in the persona. The fiction of his character, the fiction of his stardom, fictions inside of fictions.  I admired that ability to not just embrace theatre but to take it beyond the stage, to admit the unreality of stardom itself, to weave another world, not just for himself, but for anyone who wanted to come along.

Not that most of America did.  As the episode said, while glam rock exploded in Britain, it got no traction in America, and Bowie himself got no regard until he replaced the makeup and dresses with suits.  Alice Cooper had already switched from dresses to midnight-movie horror host costuming, and his own stage sets were full of blood and guillotines and monsters — but this was more acceptable than a man in a dress.

I thought, not at all for the first time, about what my mother told me of her own dress codes at my age. Girls wore skirts or dresses, end of story.  They did not wear slacks.  They certainly did not wear jeans.  (As dad said, jeans were far from cool when he was young: they were what the poor farm kids wore.)  I’d always wondered whether the generation after me might change its mind about what boys could wear — if they might go out in skirts or dresses as casually and meaninglessly as I went out in jeans.

I’d often used the word “tomboy” for myself, though it never quite seemed to fit.  It seemed to have unavoidable sports connotations. You could be a tomboy if you played basketball or baseball.  If, on the other hand, you didn’t even “run like a girl,” but rather more like a marionette — and one where half its joints were rusted tight, half the remaining pivoted on some unnatural axis, and half the strings were cut — you didn’t quite seem to be eligible.  Perhaps because tomboys were supposed to be more boylike, and being a boy was about being strong and fast and physically capable.  But that same benighted lack of coordination made performative femininity a hell of a lot harder, as well.  My natural locomotion came straight from the Ministry of Silly Walks; heels were a recipe for disaster.  Simply staying upright was exhausting: butt out, chest out, back somewhat arched, walking heel-to-toe, swaying the hips — ugh.  Putting on makeup without a smear or smudge or streak — ugh.  Doing anything more complex with my hair than brushing it, which itself was strenuous given its inexplicable tendency toward massive rats’-nest snarls — ugh.  Shopping for shoes — ugh.  Trying on clothes — ugh. Existing corporeally whatsoever — UGH.

There was a sense in which I thought I’d never be “feminine enough.”  I didn’t like the right kinds of things, I didn’t wear the right kinds of things, I didn’t move the right kinds of ways, I didn’t watch the right kinds of shows, I didn’t care about the right kinds of concerns, and my caring and nurturing instincts only kicked in in the presence of animals.  The only thing that kicked in around a crying baby was intense misophonia and the desire to kick it out a window.  But there were more senses in which I didn’t care about that supposed insufficiency, because it just felt like an uninteresting subset of a broader fact: of course I might not be “feminine enough;” I wasn’t anything enough.  On my best days, I saw myself as some sort of protohuman, a test case that somehow got mixed up and sent out with the actual production models.  The engineers responsible – assuming they were doing their jobs at all – were probably just watching me as some sort of field experiment, and there was an office pool on whether I’d be self-sustaining, and how long I could make it at all.  More often, I was less protohuman and more… sub-.  Nothing special or unique or experimental, just a problem and a mistake — but one whose existence posed marginally fewer problems for others than its nonexistence.  Inasmuch as I had any goal at all, it was to be as minimally noticeable as possible.  And so I wore plain medium-blue or black or grey jeans, and plain solid-color t-shirts, and black shoes, and unstyled hair, and no makeup, and simply tried to be as uninteresting as possible.  So much of “girly” fashion seemed designed to get attention — either to attract boys or to show up other women — or it was just being done for the sake of fun and art.  I’d almost entirely given up on impressing anyone, male or female, and I didn’t feel entitled to fun or a worthy subject of art, so I really couldn’t compel myself to care.  Besides, even if I did dare to flaunt my barely-extant personality somehow, it’s not as if any conceivable combination of clothing, hairstyling, or makeup could do the job.

And that was part of the fascination of David Bowie, for me:  through his androgyny, calculated as it was, he was all the more compelling and captivating and intriguing.  It was as far as you could get from “meh” or “neutral” or “whatever answer will satisfy you so you stop looking at me.”  If there were a form where Ziggy Stardust had to check either Male or Female, I could only imagine him neatly drawing his own box and writing an alien hieroglyph beside it.  Through his costuming, his persona, his stage sets, he created fictions — and by believing in his fiction, even for the length of a performance, the length of an album, the length of a few clips, someone might begin to believe in their own.  To try to cultivate their own personality – or at least their persona – and to weave themselves a narrative, a satire, a pastiche.  To be something they weren’t, and in doing so, be more of what they were — and to define that by their own measure, rather than anyone else’s expectations or ideals.  I did wish I could do that.  And, as I entered my high school years, got into theatre, and began to outwardly manifest some semblance of a personality now and again, I tried to live up to it.  Most of my gear was still neutral; I still was introverted as they came.  My accessories grew ever so slightly more distinctive: black trenchcoat, somewhat-platform stompyboots, somewhat-affected accessories like a pocketwatch and a wallet — both of which I carry to this day. But, once in a while, when the powers of Mountain Dew or cookies or Friday (or, gods help us, all of the above) compelled me, I might indeed bust out the makeup.  But when I wore sparkly purple eyeshadow, or daubed on glitter body lotion, or made another bad attempt at lipstick, I wasn’t trying to look cute and sparkly, or girly and pretty.  I was going for juxtaposition.  I was going for weirdness.  And, if only as a descriptor of my stylistic choices and not of my personal or interpersonal attitudes, I was going for androgyny. I was going for David Bowie.

Bowie’s out-of-character sexuality and gender identity are immaterial for the purposes of this blather, really — how he actually identified or lived, in public or private, has had no influence on the formative impressions I got, few and brief as they were. The inspiration I took from what I saw, well, it is what it is. But there was something about even his out-of-character behavior in the interviews — something about the movement of his hands, the careful styling yet stray strands of his hair, the softness of his speech and the enigmatic looks in his eyes.  The vulnerability. If nothing else, it was about what wasn’t there: aggression, machismo, contempt, even certainty.  He was not trying to project an attitude of “masculine enough.”  He did not seem embarrassed by his erstwhile aesthetic.  I’ve known people to be more embarrassed about having worn acid-wash jeans.  He was just a person, an artist, thoughtful and somewhat distant and so terribly alone.  I stood corrected and reminded myself: my caring and nurturing instincts activate only in the presence of animals and cute broken boys.

At heart, the greatest part of Bowie’s appeal, to me, was that he didn’t seem awkward or apologetic or stilted.  He was apart somehow, distant, somewhat perplexed, and himself perplexing, but not closed-off, cynical, or brusque.  He was open in the way that a maze is open.

Above all, he seemed at home in ambiguity and isolation.  And that, in itself, was inspiring. It told me that, no, you don’t have to know who you are right now.  You don’t have to have some ironclad sense of self.  You don’t have to check all the boxes of life, or meet others’ criteria, or adhere to traditional roles.  You can choose to perform, or not to perform, and to change your roles and personae however you want for however long works for you.  Nothing you do or wear, write or say, act or make, will ever say anything clearly.  Nothing will ever be truly intelligible to anyone else.  Even when you’re as honest and straightforward as you can possibly be, something of your body may betray you, and even if you do precisely what you mean and nothing else, whoever’s observing may construct their own fiction using their own interpretations.  Everything, even the most tedious stuff of life, is part of a story that we’re telling ourselves about the world and how it works.  And sometimes, we really can’t change anything.  Sometimes, the world’s not ready.  Sometimes, we can’t even change ourselves.  Sometimes, everything spirals out of control and the world falls down and you’re not even sure how to curate your own story anymore.

But maybe that’s okay.  Maybe it’s okay to live in uncertainty, in ambiguity, in the liminal states. Maybe even then, even there – especially then, especially there – we are ourselves, and truly ourselves, and more than ourselves.

I will be king
And you
You will be queen
Though nothing
Will drive them away
We can be heroes
Just for one day
We can be us
Just for one day.

I can remember
By the wall
And the guns
Shot above our heads
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall
And the shame
Was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them
Forever and ever
Then we could be heroes
Just for one day.


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