Category Archives: Art

Yen

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
tumbling
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
up
onto multiple
lines
because
like framing a random stain on a gallery wall
this format of
bite-sized
easily-digestible
phrases
gives the reader
permission
to slow down
to reflect
to listen
for one goddamn moment
and when they
are amazed to hear
echoes
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?
No.

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.


Blue!
Red!
Green!
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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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
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
I can remember
Standing
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.

seeyou

Tagged , ,

Day 30 – The Last Song You’d Want To Hear Before You Die

Halberstadt, Germany, contains a church that has stood since 1050 AD.

This church, the church of St. Burchardi, contains a pipe organ.

This is not particularly unexpected behavior for a church.

Even less so a church in Halberstadt – the first permanent pipe organ was installed in a cathedral there in 1361.

But the organ at St. Burchardi is different.  It was built for one single purpose: to play one single song.

John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP”

The initialism stands “As SLow aS Possible.”

This is the only direction given for the tempo.

The premiere performance of “As Slow As Possible” lasted nearly half an hour. Others have lasted over seventy minutes.  Some have gone eight, twelve, or even fourteen hours (and fifty-nine minutes.)

The performance in Halberstadt is slated to last six hundred and thirty-nine years.

It began on September 5, 2001, with a rest that lasted seventeen months.  The first note was heard on February 5 of 2003.

A dozen note changes have taken place since then.  The most recent change was on October 5 of 2013.

The next will take place on September 5, 2020.

With its massive bellows, the organ at St. Burchardi holds its notes unfailingly as the seasons slide by.  In due time it will change chords, play solo notes, and possibly rest for months on end.  If everything goes as planned – despite the many, many ways and reasons it might not – it will only end for good in the year 2640.


I have an odd relationship with time.  Time and numbers in general, really.  Math is the most objective possible way of explaining things, and yet it never feels like an explanation, just a quantification.  Just saying “639 years” does little to help me imagine the true length of that time; it’s the “years,” not the “639,” that bears meaning for me.  So I tend to fall back on analogies and comparisons, finding something that I can relate to in my personal experience – humanizing, arguably even egocentering the values (to coin a verb.)

Most often, I accomplish this involuntarily through Things That Make Me Feel Old.

I know, from an objective and logical numerical standpoint, that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out in Fall of 1991.  I know that the year is 2015.  But, somehow, performing that simple arithmetic – realizing that was 24 years ago – blows my mind.  I know – or think I know – how long a year is; what a year feels like, and I have trouble reconciling the objective and logical numerical fact that I have existed not just for 24 years, but for even more years than that.

Today, as it turns out, is October 21, 2015 – “Back To The Future Day,” the then-future date to which Marty McFly traveled in time in Back To The Future: Part II.  I’m pretty sure I’ve watched that movie at least once, but recently; it’s not something I watched when it came out.  So I’m not thrown off by that depiction of the future becoming, as of today, a depiction of the past.

What does throw me is simply this: that, in the original movie, when Marty McFly traveled in time back to 1955, that was as long ago to him as 1985 is now.

Retrovertigo

When I was a kid, the 1950s felt alien.  It was this weird little parallel world of pinafores and perms, black and white TV and black and white saddle shoes, Sputnik and sock hops and frozen Salisbury steak.  Anyone who’s been reading along knows that I grew up listening to – and enjoying – Oldies.  But that’s what they were: old. Old things for old people, and I couldn’t really relate.

I couldn’t figure out how I could really engage with those things.  An oldies song, enjoyable as it might be, didn’t feel as new and raw and true as a song I heard on the radio.  It was old; it couldn’t speak for me or my time.  I couldn’t make “At The Hop” sound as parent-terrifyingly dangerous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  I couldn’t make “Wake Up Little Suzie” sound as raunchy and depraved as “I Wanna Sex You Up.”

I could enjoy those things some, from this outsider perspective, but watching anything about or from the 50s was like going to a museum.  Sure, that was what people wore, what they did, what they were interested in, what they danced to.  But they were relics, artifacts – tools.  Old tools that old people used to interact with old feelings and old things in an old world – one that was just different from the modern world, the real world, the world toward which all of human history had obviously been advancing.

The best I could do to humanize that length of time was to think about my parents.  They barely became teenagers before the 1950s were over, and they were obviously Way Old, so the 50s might as well be ancient history.

The 50s just felt like a threshold, a stepping stone toward the present, toward Progress.

Yet it was one of the first somewhat modern-feeling decades – based, I’m almost certain, on the fact that it had television, and I struggled to relate to those prior decades where the most familiar form of media just did not exist.  Still, I knew that, if I’d grown up in the 50s, I’d have been a fundamentally different person – I wouldn’t have been able to become myself, or anything very much like myself.

And now, I’m sure my niece feels the same way about the 80s.

It’s that time period her mother grew up in, becoming a teenager partway through it.  Early rap may be as quaint as doo-wop.  Madonna and Whitney Houston and Pat Benatar may sound as innocuous as Connie Francis and Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, time dulling even the edgiest performances.  It may be as hard to imagine cable TV being new as was for me to imagine TV itself being new.

Or worse: perhaps the 90s are her threshold decade for modernity, thanks to the growing adoption of the Internet.  Perhaps it’s hard not to look at the 80s and feel like something huge and significant is simply missing.

I try to keep perspective. I know I’ve reached that age now where it’s tempting to believe that everything I grew up with was the apex of human endeavor – and that everything from here on out is unnecessary or outright backwards.  That current music is terrible and will be loved only by gullible idiots, that everything else in the media should go back to the old familiar formats I grew up with, that Back In My Day, we didn’t HAVE these newfangled whatsits, and we liked it that way!  Change and progress are exciting when you’re young and learning.  But once you’re of an age where you’re supposed to settle down and make a stable place in the world, change is threatening and “progress” can sound like anything but.  Even if you think things are stable, you may be one disruptive technology away from becoming this generation’s buggy-whip manufacturer.

But, despite the fact that time progresses onward at a steady rate of one second per second, entirely measurable and comprehensible, perspective is hard to maintain.  More and more often, I hear myself say those old people phrases, like “Where did the time go?” and “It seems like just yesterday.”

Time Loss / Gain

By my best estimations, the speed at which I sense the passage of time seems to have doubled since I was in elementary school.  Back then, a six-week grading period felt, subjectively, as long as three months feels to me now.  A half-hour cartoon took as much subjective time as an hour-long drama does today.  It has – to my shame – been quite a long time since I’ve watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and so I just thought back to watching them as a kid, thought about how long a time it seemed to take, and guessed that the average short was fifteen minutes.  After a quick search for such cartoons on YouTube, I found that any given Bugs Bunny cartoon usually lasted seven to eight minutes.  Half my estimation.

Why, though?  Why, as I get older, does my sense of time speed up?

I have a theory.

Time feels like it passes more quickly as we age because more and more things are familiar.

I’ve noticed – again, subjectively, anecdotally – that my first experience with anything seems to take longer.  The first day of class always took forever.  The first day of any new job.  Even the first time I saw any given commercial, or watched a given movie. The second day is always faster; the second watching more swift.  And why?  Probably because I already know what’s happening.

My guess is that, perhaps, when experiencing novel phenomena, the sensation of time slows – and maybe there’s a causal relationship. There’s a temptation to say that it’s a reaction: that, presented with new stimuli, the brain slows down your temporal perception somehow, giving you more subjective time to perceive and process it all.   Overclocking itself, in a way.  But that might be exactly backwards.  The sense of time dilation might be a result of all that perception and processing – more like a sudden onslaught of complex processes making the computer run slow.  I’ve fortunately suffered few emergencies in my life, but they’ve all felt like they lasted for ages.  For one in particular, it felt like an hour passed between accident and ambulance – but I’m sure, objectively, it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes.  Hell, that could even be a fair analogy for my tendency to faint – it’s a system crash.

                                   AAAAAAA.

Maybe that swift sense of time is a good thing, an efficient thing – it means that we’re not in a crisis, not overwhelmed, not needing to slow down.

Time

After all, we’ve done all this before.  We wake up in the same bed in the same room, we put on some of the same clothes, we head off to the same job.  We stand or sit in the same place; we do the same types of tasks, we take breaks at the same time. Every day is more or less like every other day.  And while, depending on the tedium, any given day may feel it takes forever, somehow it’s Thursday already, and it’s almost the end of October, and where did the year go?

It feels like a life on fast-forward, trying to skip through the dull parts, realizing that they’re all dull parts.  You know that what you really need to do is to change the channel – or just go somewhere else, do something else, think something else, make something else.  But it’s hard not to get bogged down in the feeling that those, too, would become dull.  That you’re dull.  Or that you just create dullness around you, because you don’t perceive things the right way, or think about your perceptions the right way, to feel energized by anything.

You know you want to make the most of things, but you get caught up in all the things you have to do.  Before you know it, a week’s gone by.  Then two, then a month, a quarter.

Perhaps it’s a fast sense of time that’s a psychological response.  A way to deny the objective truth about how much you could have done in a day, how much you could have done in a quarter, by convincing yourself that it really only felt like a couple of weeks at most.  You can only do so much in a day, after all.  And your days, like God’s, are long.

The specious present expands.

It Was Acceptable In The 80s

My friends and I have a running joke.  Whenever someone mentions a date from the 90s – say, an event from 1995 –  we interject with “TEN LONG YEARS AGO.”  The 90s do feel like ten years ago.  I fear the 90s might always feel like ten years ago.

I have these stereotypical models in my mind of other decades.  Caricatures of The 1950s, The 1960s, The 1970s, The 1980s, The 1990s.   The fine details worn away, the only things left being the big distinctive elements that made them stand out from everything else.  It’s been strange to watch the caricature of the 90s coalesce, to watch it go from a lived and present thing to another distorted representation of outdated technology, near-meaningless pop-cultural referents, bizarre fashion styles, half-forgotten music.

I’m distinctly aware of the differences, not just in culture, but in perception of that culture.  I remember when 80s stuff was just tired and dated and dumb, and when it was retro and cool again, and how it’s once more on the wane.  I’m watching that happen to the 90s now, too – and feeling strange about how twentysomethings are venerating a time period for which I have a little less fondness, nostalgic for things of their childhood that were things of my early teen years.

But I don’t feel that happening yet for the Aughts.  By the year 2000, I’m sure I felt that things from 1995 were utterly dated and passe.  But I find myself watching some things from the early 2000s, and while I recognize that they’re not exactly current events, they don’t feel old; they don’t feel dated.  …That is, not unless it’s an Internet phenomenon.  Those wash out in weeks, after all.

Before I know it, nostalgia for the Aughts is going to sweep across pop culture, and I may not even feel like we’re out of the Aughts at all.

Have things in pop culture changed so little?  Or am I so busy rushing through my days, so ignorant of some popular media, that I just don’t notice those changes?  Do the 2010s feel like the 2000s to my parents – and do they also feel similar to the 90s and even the 80s?

The Day I Tried To Live

Maybe it’s a sign of competence that things rush by so fast.  I’m making my own choices about things now, after all, and my cohort is no longer just my age group, or even people in my same geographic area. I no longer have to listen to Top 40 radio because it’s blaring on the school bus – but that also means I barely have a grip on current music.  I can curate my media experience so that I only get what I seek, so that I can only seek what I want – and unless I choose to, out of curiosity, listen to popular music, I won’t hear it.  I have to choose to be in touch, and it’s tempting to pride myself on not being in touch with these things that stupid teenagers like.

But that way lies isolationism.  And if I have this theory about novelty extending the subjective perception of time, shouldn’t I be seeking out novelty for its own sake?  I’m not a really hedonic person; I’m not going to go recklessly having experiences just for the sake of them.  I also don’t have the kind of ambition or egocentrism that believes “being happy” is a valid thing to spend time, effort, and energy on.  Plus, well, I don’t have that kind of money, if nothing else.  But why not do at least some smaller, simple things?  Why not at least listen to the Billboard Top 10 once a month?  Why not grab a random book off the library shelf and read it whether or not I think I’ll like it? Why not do more crafts with the supplies I already own? These things don’t cost me money, and i won’t lose much time or energy even if I don’t like the end result.

Sure, I’m an adult, and I get to set my filters for what media I absorb and what I do with my time, and that’s a wonderful sense of freedom – especially compared to a childhood that forced passivity upon you, where you’d need permission to go outside, to eat, to touch the radio dial.  But, because of that childhood, I learned to find something worthwhile in whatever I experienced.  Or, at least, to try to.  Why not continue cultivating that, even if it means creating a false sense of requirement?

When you’re a kid, you think you’ll get to be Who You Really Are when you’re an adult.  As an adult, you realize how much more latitude you had in certain ways as a kid.  But, when you’re a kid and you’re being taken care of and it’s safe to make mistakes, you’re under such rigid control that you can’t try and fail.  When you’re an adult, you can try whatever you want, and nobody’s going to tell you no – but any miscalculation, any failure, any error, will be a waste of resources that might massively affect you from then on out. There’s a lot more to be afraid of.

Still, perhaps it’s sheer decision fatigue, but I’m not as anxious and panicky as I always used to be.  I have more – and more serious – things to be worried about now, but I don’t feel as bad.  If being in a crisis slows one’s sense of time, then maybe that’s another part of why it feels like it’s passing quickly: I no longer feel like I’m in a constant state of low-grade emergency.  What’s the delusion, though – that I was worried all the time for no reason, or that I’m actually a functional, sorta-okay person now?

Because, face it.  There are still a lot of times when I try to do something – something that seems like it should be simple – and I make such a complete mess of it that I can barely show my face.  I have to ignore my every instinct and pretend that I don’t hate how incompetent and worthless I am, instead acting like everything’s okay.  The more I try to do, the more I try to achieve, the more I make mistakes that cause problems for myself and others.

But, well, at least I am trying, now.  For whatever that’s worth.

Maybe I should be glad that time passes by so quickly.  It means I’m doing it right.  That I’m properly predictable, properly placated.  Properly bored.  Properly an adult.

Who Wants To Live Forever?

But that’s where the duality kicks in.  I live in that subjective time.  The slower it passes, the longer I feel like I’m experiencing things.  The faster it passes, the more swiftly I’m swept toward my inevitable demise.  I already have the sense that I’m well past the halfway point of my lifespan – possibly more like four fifths – and while that’s a rational result of everything from genetics to epigenetics to choices, I still resist the idea.  It’s inevitable, and it’s not like I’m so valuable to the world that I’m worth keeping forever.  But, well, existence is habit-forming.

Yet I’m not sure that I would want immortality.  Even a long but normal lifespan might be painful. Everyone I knew might die before me, and I’d have so much loss to deal with.  And I don’t know that I’d ever be worth it.  All the food I’d eat, all the water I’d drink, all the trash I’d generate and resources I’d expend… the world only has so much, and it’s hard enough not to hate myself for taking what I take now.  No matter how long I lived, could I ever make anything good enough to justify all that?

Non-corporeal immortality, on the other hand: now that’s an idea.

I work online; I do most of my socializing in a virtual world.  Just let me upload my consciousness already.  No more stupid body, no more constant pain, no more worries about how much worse my body will get as I age.  Hell, 3D model that body for posterity and mocap my awkward clomping gait; make my avatar a photorealistic simulation of myself, for the sake of the people who know me.  And, the rest of the time, let it be whatever I feel like looking like, whenever I feel like being looked at at all, which is usually never.

That’s possibly the crux of it.  I want to think forever, not live forever.

The Great Gig In The Sky

I’m not really afraid of death.  I’m somewhat afraid of the act of dying, because I’m reasonably sure that it would be intensely uncomfortable.  But, more than anything, I’m pre-emptively regretful for the inconvenience that would inevitably be caused.  While I’m much, much better with this than I once was, I still sometimes feel egotistical about existing.  I sometimes think that my presence – or the mere fact of my existence – is an unnecessary burden on other people, and that I don’t do enough good things to make up for it. I hate to think of the quite literal mess I’ll leave for others when I’m dead.  All the things I own that will need to be disposed of. The things that have sentimental value to me and me alone – they’ll just be objects at coordinates.  They won’t evoke memories to anyone else, they won’t be tangible touchstones to another time and place.  They’ll just be things.  A lock of hair.  A dried flower. A sack of plant parts and dirt.  Unless I write about them, I suppose.  And someone reads it.  And someone cares.

People will have to go through all that and decide where to put it all.  And they’ll have to wonder about what things mattered to me, and what things matter to them, and whether or not certain things should matter to them, and whether any of it matters at all.  They’ll have to wonder about what to do with what’s left of me – this husk I’ll leave behind.  Someone will have to scoop up my swiftly-cooling meat, and take it to a place, and clean it and make it presentable, and maybe mail it a thousand miles to my home state.  People will have to take time off work to go look at it.

They’ll have someone go up and say some words, but that person won’t really know what to say since I don’t subscribe to any conventional religion, and haven’t even come up with my own funerary rites or burial practices yet. (Well, other than “Do not pickle or set on fire.  Bury in ground near trees because I am made of food.”) So that person will say the vague words about remembering the good times, and the vague words about not hurting anymore, and – if they’re very astute – the vague words about words themselves and how they keep ideas alive even when matter is dead.  Other people might say some God words to tell themselves a story that helps them make sense of things.  Still other people might keep thinking about human words that they wanted to tell me, and now they can only imagine stories about telling me those things.

And they’ll feel bad for a lot of reasons, many of which won’t even make sense, and they’ll feel bad about the senslessness of everything most of all.  There will be little stupid things for the rest of their lives that will make them sad because they’ll think of me, then will be forced to acknowledge the fact that I don’t exist anymore.  Whole books might be ruined for some people.  And, even into the future, there will be new things – new books, new music, new media – whose existence I will never be aware of, but which someone might think I’d have liked.

It will be a big stupid inconvenience on a large majority of the people I’ve ever known, and that’s terrible.  When being alive feels so selfish, I can’t even imagine the hubris of being dead.

I’ll never have done enough.  I’ll always leave something unfinished.  There will be things left undone that I never even knew I was supposed to put right.  A few last disappointments to remember me by.

And everyone will have that strange experience of knowing me in certain ways, of having certain memories, and being left with that mental model of me.  One that might not even match anyone else’s – and that, suddenly, doesn’t have any real-world referent at all.

I will become fiction.

After this meat has stopped emitting words, after all the vague words and the God words and the wish words and the story words, there might still be these words.  Someone, sometime in the future, after I’m dead, might be reading these very sentences right now.  They’ll know when I died, and why I died, and they’ll know a bunch of things that I should have done before I died that might keep me from having died when I died.  And, no matter how long I’ve been dead, it’s still possible – so long as these words are out there to find – that someone will experience them for the first time, long after I ever lived.  Meeting me after I died.

Hi, whomever you are.  I probably just made this even more awkward, but, what can I say; that’s the kind of person I was / am / will be having been.  Sorry to make the situation more… tense.

That’s right, folks.  PUNS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!

Disgustipated

I’d like to think I have a reasonable perspective about death, even though I know it sounds irrational to plenty of other people.  It’s a little detached, a little flippant, a little hard to couch in the conventional narrative, and the lack of specific religious overtones may upset some people – ones who might believe that, if I believed differently, a metaphysical entity would endow me with a longer physical life and/or acceptance into a transcendental realm of eternal goodness.  But I know that death is something that’s going to happen – and probably sooner, rather than later.

There are a lot of things wrong with my meat-husk, none of which I can afford to diagnose or treat.  It’s entirely possible – plausible, even – that I’ve got an abdomen full of tumors, and there’s nothing to be done about it.  Sometime, maybe in a couple decades, maybe in a couple years, maybe even in a couple months, my functions will just stop functioning, and that will be the end of me.

It’s unfortunate, I guess.  And very inconvenient.  And, honestly, pretty stupid.  A collection of molecules, many forged in the hearts of stars, comes together and attains self-awareness.  It learns things about the surrounding world.  It has thoughts that nobody has ever had before.  It has experiences.  And then some cascading chemical reaction happens in some of its component molecules, and the awareness and experiences go away, and they never ever come back.

And it’s dumb.

It’s the most obvious, normal thing in the world, death.  It’s necessary to keep the ecosystem functioning.  There is nothing special about sapience, about awareness of the world or awareness of ourselves or awareness of our mortality, that gets us a special exemption.  We die, we rot, we are food for things that are food for other things, and this coincidental construct we called “ourselves” just… stops.  There is no awareness to be aware of itself, no experience to experience itself, and all those things that make up selfhood just stop happening forever.  That permutation will never happen the same way again, and even if it could, even if your very same personality could be forged by a future brain, it would live in a different place, at a different time, and be molded by different experiences.  This sense of self, here and now, is all we get.  All I get.

And I have to spend so much of it worrying about how to continue being alive – to secure the food and shelter and health care that’s necessary to keep my stupid crapsack body, my ever-aching self-house, alive.

We Interrupt This Broadcast

Much as I might like to, I can’t make myself believe in a consciousness that lasts beyond death. It’s like believing in a fire that exists after dousing – insisting that the fire can’t just be gone, that all that light and heat and other energy must still be happening somewhere else, in some ideal realm.  Or that all the heat and light from the extinguished fire might transfer themselves into another fire someday – the very same fire, burning from different wood!   Nevermind that the fire, the energy, is an emergent property of that wood burning in those specific conditions at that specific time.

Consciousness is a property of brains, but when something disrupts a brain, consciousness stops. I’ve felt it happen – and then felt nothing, because there was no consciousness left to feel anything with.  I’ve never been dead, to my knowledge, but I have fainted plenty of times – and I can’t imagine how dying would be much different.

For those who’ve never done it, passing out is nothing like falling asleep.

It starts with the shock. The cold stab of panic.  Then come the cold sweats, the feverish feeling of burning coldness, frigid fire.  Your skin is clammy and cold under your trembling fingers, but you can’t bear to touch yourself or be touched.  Then come the feelings of detachment, the dissolution of your sensorium.  The roar of static in your ears; the high-pitched, keening tone.  The creeping tunnel vision, shimmering at the edges.  Static in the eyes and static in the ears and static in the limbs, pins and needles throughout your entire body.  You try to stave it off, but you don’t have control anymore.  The roaring darkness washes over you, and the last sensation of “you”-ness is swept into a still, dark sea, where it dissolves.

There is nothing.  No dreams, no visions, no sense of the passage of time. No sense of anything: the thing that does the sensing is broken. No experience: the thing that generates The Experience Of Being You is broken.  You may have tried to walk it off, or tried to walk to a safe place. Your empty body may take a few more steps before it collapses.

Some timeless time later, the process happens in reverse.  Somewhere at the edge of perception, there’s a notion of turbulence. It isn’t felt strongly enough to be a sensation; it’s more like a dim and distant memory of what movement feels like.  And The Experience Of Being You reactivates.  The seashore static rushes away, the high tone fades to the background and becomes inaudible, the blood comes back to limbs and lips and skin.   You wash up on the shore of reality again, aching, your breaths shallow.

People may tell you about the things you did – they may say you shook or shouted, or that you fainted here – yards away from the last thing you remember seeing.  You know that you didn’t do any of that.  All they saw were the spasmodic glitches of an innervated meatsack, under the control of no consciousness.

Sleep is nothing like this.

Golden Slumbers

Falling asleep is calmness and torpor, a heaviness of the eyelids, a heaviness of the limbs. Where fainting is being washed out to sea, falling asleep is sinking into soft sand – a sensation warm and heavy, a feeling of presence, a gentle pressure all around you. Mentally, you don’t go from panicked wakefulness to nothing; you go from controlled imagination to runaway imagination to dream, sometimes in a seamless handoff.

I’m often aware that I’m dreaming, in dreams.  I can’t control the dream; as soon as I try, I wake. But there is a dream self that is experiencing the dream, the dream self that is thinking about and analyzing the situation as it presents itself, the waking self that is observing both of the above, and the waking self that is trying to analyze the dream and my waking self and looking for correlations or significance.  Again, the more I look for meaning, the more I search for sense, the more likely I am to wake up, at the worst, or just divert the dream, at best.  I wish I could make lucid dreaming happen; I’ve only had a few moments, ever, where I had that type of control, and I could feel myself waking all the while.

“I’m experiencing something amazing!  Yup, it must be a dream.  Maybe I can make it last… nope.  Welp.  Time to get up and get to work, I guess.”

But strange perceptions of time reign, in sleep. I’ve dreamed days in fifteen minutes.  I’ve dreamed a short conversation, a beautiful song, something that seemed to last five minutes, and woken up eight hours later, surprised I’d even slept. I’ve had dreams that repeated over and over, like fractals of themselves, spending a whole night’s dreaming on the iteration after iteration of the same subjective half-hour event.

That alone seems proof enough that my perception of time isn’t something I’m detecting in the world around me, but something generated by my brain.

I’ve even had an experience that I once considered paranormal, but now just consider wonderful coincidences.  Like the dream I had as a child where I was sitting on the family room floor, listening to a small radio that was playing Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams.”  Presumably because the song was stuck in my head, and it filtered into the dream, in some sort of phantasmagorical diegesis. There’s a point in that song where it rests – no backbeat, no vocals, no nothing – then starts back up.  And in that rest, I woke up.  I looked at my clock radio and frowned at the time.  I turned it on.

And Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” played, picking up right after that rest.

But I like these strange perceptions.  I like these stories that my unconscious tells me, without any clear influence from my will.  I love that sense of a mind unfettered by body or physics or basic logic.

Victory

And, even though I have no reason to, I want to believe that death would be like falling asleep.

I want to believe that perhaps it feels like a faint at first – the panic, the coldness, the detachment.  But that, somewhere, somehow, it stalls.  The cold and tingling sense of dissolution is replaced by that warm, close pressure.  Your breaths are slow.  Perhaps to flee from the pain of your present, perhaps just as some last-minute kernel dump, you begin to imagine and remember.  But, instead of an easy transition from imagination to dream, the transition is from imagination to dream to deeper dream to something far beyond.

Perhaps your life flashes before your eyes, as it’s so often said to do.  But your sensation of time slows, in this moment of ultimate crisis.  Your memories grow vivid as life. After all, it’s said that we never forget anything completely.  Perhaps your brain gives up on your body, more completely than it ever has before, and it has all your body’s resources to itself.

And perhaps, in one second, five seconds before death, you re-experience your entire life in real time. All those moments, from birth to now, lived again – but with your awareness cutting in from time to time, musing, commenting, analyzing.

Perhaps, in one second, four seconds before death, you realize that you have already done this.  You realize that this is not just the first full repeat of your life, but that your “original” life was itself a replay.  All your living moments of deja vu were moments that, for whatever reason, you already remembered remembering.

Perhaps, in one second, three seconds before death, subjectivity falls away.  You break away from reliving your lives and other lives, and you think about everything you’ve learned and read and seen and experienced.  You begin to correlate everything. Synapses crackle as connections are made, and you understand the world on a deeper level than you ever had before. All the information from all the different perspectives.  Everything makes beautiful sense. Not in the thin, impressionistic watercolor way of a dream – those bitter beloved dreams where, within them, you have some fantastic epiphany, only to wake and look logically and see that it was meaningless nonsense.  No, you can tell somehow: this sense isn’t just in you, or in any of the other yous.  It’s in the world, and it works, and you ache that you didn’t see it sooner.  But you acknowledge, dimly, dispassionately, that our brains – sense-making organs though they are – just can’t correlate all their contents AND let us be functional independent animals at the same time.  You’re only seeing this because you’re all mind now, not wasting anything on your body.  You’re suffused with timeless truth about the world you lived.

Perhaps, in one second, two seconds before death, you shift your focus from your memories and your reason to your imagination.  Having re-experienced all there is to experience about you as you were, and about the world as you experienced it you extrapolate, modeling all the outcomes of having done things differently. The paths your life would have taken if you had talked to that person, did not talk to that person, left five minutes early, spoke your mind, stayed silent, took that job, watched that movie, cultivated different habits, lost your legs, killed that jerk, were institutionalized, had a child, went to Australia, won the lottery.  Your other lives flash before your eyes. Perhaps you even imagine a couple of them in real time.  Your imagination feels as vivid as your memories, which felt as vivid as your lived experience. Given this indistinguishability, you become aware that it is hard – if not impossible – to make any claims about which ones are “real.”   You acknowledge that there’s no such thing as the “real you” save for your belief in it, your fondness for familiarity – and that you can let it go.

Perhaps, in one second, one second before death, you realize that, since some of the other “real yous” were so different as to be strangers, that strangers are therefore not that far off from you.  Free of that misapprehension, you extrapolate once more, imagining the lives and experiences of other people you’ve known.  You imagine the lives of your relatives, your friends, that interesting stranger.  With each one, you learn more things about the possible ways of the world, the possible truths.

And, perhaps, in one second, the last second before death, you think about all those experiences of all those people and all those possibilities of all those worlds, and even more correlations are forged.  That beautiful truth you’d seen before was only the truth of the world that you experienced – only one facet of an enormous gem.  The you that is everything is suffused with the timeless truth about not just the world as you experienced it, but all the possible worlds.

The brain dies.  But, in its last millisecond, it was eternal.

The End

Do I think any of that is actually possible?  Absolutely not.  Is it even something I choose to believe, pulling the wool over my own eyes?  No.  But it’s what I’d want to believe, what I’d want to be true.  A way to reconcile my desire to think and experience forever, to dream forever, with my acceptance of death and of the incoherence of post-death consciousness.

I’m just going to die, and be too busy dying to think, or to hear any music around me.  But, if I could choose, perhaps Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End would be a fine thing to ride out on.  Appropriate in many ways at once.

And yet, I still hope a stupid hope.

I hope that, sometime in my lifetime – even though I doubt I’ll make it so long – technology advances significantly.  Nanotech exists, human level AI exists, and consciousness can be uploaded.  Similar to the foglets in Transmetropolitan, people can become clouds of nanobots, loosely cohered, taking shape when they feel like it to interact with the physical world, otherwise simply viewing it.  Make whatever assumptions need to be made so that everything Just Works, and will not stop working.

Not even when it’s 2640.

The sky is blue over Halberstadt.  

But a grey haze hangs over the Church of St. Burchardi.  

It still stands, despite everything.  It’s over a millennium old, now – a millennium and a half, in fact – and while there’s certainly a church-shaped building intact on that site, restoration and preservation measures bring to mind the old ship of Theseus problem.  

Collectively, the grey haze would be the last to judge.

The swarm seeps into the church, through the doors, the walls, the micron-sized holes in the mortar.  As per etiquette, they consolidate themselves into one dense sphere, hovering silently in midair, out of the way of the gathering crowd of humans and other sapients.

The organ’s long low note fills the air.  The grey sphere ripples with the harmonics.

Slowly, a human – or, at least, a human-presenting foglet – steps to the organ.  They carry no stopwatch, have no contact lens or heads-up display. They simply think about what time it is.  

A wistful smile crosses their face as they reach out to the weathered wooden key of the organ, held down with a small weight.  The weight is unhooked by one graceful hand, while the other holds down the key for just a little longer.  

The time comes.  Their hand moves.  

The sound ends.

Except for the echo.  

The echo fades to nothing, and the cathedral erupts in applause from humans, sapients, and foglets alike.  

I whirl my nanobots away from the rest of the crowd and glide around the room, gazing at the plaques on the wall, eyeing the helpful translations that have popped up on my consciousness.  I think them away and look at the original Pre-Ing text like it’s an old familiar friend.

Finally, I turn back to the organ.  Finding a convenient space, I pull the requisite molecules from the air, ground, and litter around me, assembling a human shape – this human shape – around my cloud.  

I wiggle my toes on the stones and feel the old familiar weight of my body.  I clear my new throat.  

“Encore!”

I disassemble that body, technically dying yet another death, and my invisible cloud of consciousness passes out the doors and into the bright blue sky.

One can dream.

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Day 28 – A Song You’re Embarrassed To Tell Other People You Think Is Good

Once again, if nothing’s else has been made evident throughout these 30 Days (har!) of Songs, it’s that I don’t readily subscribe to objective ideas about the “goodness” or “badness” of music.  Maybe it’s that I don’t know enough about music theory to truly understand the hallmarks of good composition.  But, even then, I know I enjoy things that turn those conventions on their ear – and my make other people want to cover up their own ears.  Audio collage, glitch music, mashups, even the occasional bit of musique concrete – though I’m first to admit that I don’t exactly enjoy the sounds themselves, I enjoy thinking about how those sounds were collected, arranged, fixed, copied, distributed.  Why these sounds, why at these times, why in these conjunctions.  It both satisfies and frustrates my pattern-seeking behavior.

A tangent, but I sometimes wonder if that’s not a thing I do rather often: intentionally expose my brain to some source of unnecessary conflict so that it has a problem to solve.  Take my room, for instance. Never in all my life have I been able to keep my room clean.  Sure, part of it is the fact that I get tired easily when cleaning – but wouldn’t that be all the more incentive to clean small bits every day?  Like a responsible person?  No, instead, I let things pile up to atrocious levels, so much so that finding anything, including the basics like my wallet, my keys, my shoes, and even my goddamn pants, goes from a straightforward act to a half-hour mystery.  Where did I put them last?  What have I moved since then that might possibly have buried them?  Did I move something on top of the thing that I moved on top of the thing I’m looking for?  It’s obvious that my life would be easier if I just used shelves, drawers, and closets for their intended purpose, so, seriously, why the hell don’t I take that little extra effort — unless it’s actually the case that I enjoy making things difficult for myself?

Of course, it’s more the case that I just don’t see small amounts of messiness as problems at all  – especially not compared with the pulsating Junk Shoggoth that has inhabited most of my rooms for most of my life.  So you take that high tolerance level (a few dirty dishes and empty packages aren’t worth bothering with,) compounded with frog-boiling (so a few more dishes aren’t worth bothering with either,) perhaps compounded further with some lingering low expectations (if I’m awful enough to have made this much of a mess, I obviously deserve to live with it,) and there you go – a nicely self-perpetuating problem.  I could save myself a lot of time, effort, and frustration if I just expended trivial amounts of energy on a more regular basis, obviously, but I can never seem to calibrate my giveadamnometer such that it actually registers these small problems as anything worth expending effort over.

I guess that sets up an interesting challenge, then: try to get my room completely clean, maintain it for at least one month, and see what problems I solve (or create) elsewhere.

But!  We’ve established that, both in the abstract and the real, I have a high tolerance for low rigor: for dissonance and disharmony and mess and flux.  In short, for all the things that arguably make for Bad Music.

So, as with so many of these prompts, this may come down to another game of Define Your Terms.  What’s meant here by “good?”  Technically proficient?  Enjoyable?  Catchy?  What’s supposed to differentiate this from Day 03’s “A Song You Know Is Horrible But Love Anyway?”

Perhaps it’s just that Day 03’s songs are supposed to be technically faulty, discordant, or insipid, but I like them anyway… and today’s songs are supposed to be musically sound, but unpopular and widely derided.

That still doesn’t make much sense, though. If it’s only about being technically sound, what’s the point of saying it’s a song you think is good? Even if we handwave that, and assume it really is about being technically sound… where’s the embarrassment supposed to come from?  I mean, sure, I know I’m incredibly pedantic, fond of overanalyzing things, and moreover fond of sharing my pithy little insights with anyone who makes eye contact for too long, often well past the point where I should be feeling socially awkward.  But, honestly, once I start evaluating whether or not I should be embarrassed about anything I’m liking, saying, or doing, it just results in me holing up in my room for a few days, talking to nobody, just reading books and eating junk food.  And not cleaning up the wrappers.

I guess the difference here is that Day 03’s songs are ones that think are horrible, and today’s songs are ones that I believe other people think are horrible.  And that’s where the embarrassment comes from.  It’s the difference between saying “I like this stupid song,” and between saying “I like this song” and hearing someone else call it stupid.

Of course, I don’t really have any good sense of what other people would find stupid. And, having grown up in a fairly small town with relatively little access to media and even less to do, extracting every last bit of enjoyment from even the most tepid, boring, or outright insipid thing wasn’t just a way to get more for your money, it was an outright survival skill.  If the world around you is trying to bore you to death, find something interesting in it.  So some of these aren’t songs that I’m really “embarrassed” to say that I like – they’re just ones that I suspect your average Joe would laugh at me for, and the ones for which I might throw up my hands and say “Look, I can explain…”

I suspect I should probably be embarrassed about liking “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk, if just because it’s one of those upbeat pop anthems.  They always have the same problem, these anthems: there’s a wonderful span of a week where the song is new to you, and you read yourself into it, and you feel like it’s, in some way, Your Song, inspiring you to defy convention. But then it gets overplayed, and it gets familiar, and it becomes convention, and it seems to become as toothless as anything at a high school pep rally.  But the message is still good, though, and it does still remind me of my beloved Weirdo Contingents through the years.  Besides, it’s already “cool” to defy convention; maybe it’s even cooler to keep enjoying things even when the mainstream tries to sweep it away.

Also, I should be embarrassed about liking the song just because she sings “What the dealio.”

Similarly anthemic, similarly poppy, similarly reminding me of my weirdo friends:  Aqua’s “Cartoon Heroes.”  Avatars and cartoons have their similarities, after all.  But, come on.  How can I resist those beginning drums? The way it slows down in the middle and speeds back up again?  The sing-alongable refrain? And no matter how nonsensical the rest of the lyrics are, I can’t help loving the line “What we do is what you just can’t do.”  As someone who spends a dang lot of time doing creative things, coming up with characters who are uniformly more capable than I am, there’s something stirring in that – this idea that our fictions can be more powerful than our realities, and that imagination really can save the day.  One can hope, right?

But if you want storytelling and bombast – and I sure do – and a shameless pulling of the emotional strings, I can look no further than Meat Loaf.  I’ve already mentioned how Bat Out Of Hell II was, in many ways, the soundtrack of my precocious adolescence. It’s basically what puberty sounds like.  And if that’s not a little awkward, nothing is.  It’s the soundtrack of a time when every feeling seemed to fill my entire body, when nothing was ever a half-measure, when the intensity of everything was cranked up to 11.  Everything louder than everything else.

I suppose the embarrassing thing isn’t that I liked that music then, or that I’m still fond of it now.  It’s that I actually miss feeling so emotionally overwhelmed.  Sure, I was far too sensitive; sure, it was incredibly counterproductive. It was hard to relate to other people; it was hard to be myself.  But I can’t think of many times in recent years when I’ve had such a powerful depth of feeling as I did when I was young.  Little joy has been so joyful, and even grief – despite actually having experiences worth grieving, now – has rarely seemed so profound.

Sure, this is maturity: the competent handling of one’s emotions, the ability to set aside your feelings and do unpleasant things, the understanding that your subjective experience of being yourself is not remotely important to anyone but yourself, and the only thing that matters is what use you are to other people.  But, selfishly, I sometimes miss it.  I miss being able to get hopelessly wrapped up in sentimentality and that strange, strangled selfishness that thought I was special somehow, important somehow, magical somehow. Even when it was just my firm belief that I was absolutely worthless and disgusting, it was still a feeling of specialness: I was THE most worthless, THE ugliest. Number One at being number none.

Of course, even that burned out for a long time, and I tried to be as devoid of feeling and subjectivity as possible. And, as I tried to figure out how to be a people again, there was a sort of second adolescence, another time when everything felt almost unbearably vivid, when every nerve seemed raw, when every experience seemed heightened.  And now?  Now I have a general sense that, even though a lot of things suck pretty hard, everything’s still going to be sort of okay on average, just because I’ll adapt to whatever the hell happens.  That’s probably the most even-handed approach you could practically have: not so much optimism you believe everything will just work for you, not so much pessimism you believe nothing will ever work no matter what you do, just the general notion that you have agency over some things, and not over others, and you’ll probably come through okay no matter what, but it really doesn’t matter either way.

It’s rather dispassionate, really – not as dispassionate as I’ve been in the past, for sure, but arguably still less engaged than I’d prefer.  I don’t necessarily want to wear my heart on my sleeve again, and I don’t want to keep it buried.  It’s there, and it beats, and I know I can’t ask for much else.  But wouldn’t it be nice if, just a little bit more often, I could really feel something deeper, warmer, more sincere, without having it be ignored or eyerolled at or turned into a joke? Without being embarrassed? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could share that feeling with someone else, and have it shared with me?  I don’t think the world works like that, though; we’re all aliens to each other, and nobody can trust anybody enough to try.  Meaning isn’t something Out There, it’s something we make – but, even with flawless communication, you can never be certain that anyone else even understands you, much less shares your feelings. When you say a word, can you be sure the other person knows what it means, or knows the nuances around the reason you chose it?  When you don’t say anything at all, but try to express things through body language, facial expressions, the ways you show your moods, can you be sure anyone is picking up on those nonverbal cues, either?  Maybe not.  Which is nice, I guess, because even if they do judge you or make you feel embarrassed, there’s no way to be certain that they even understood you well enough to judge you for the right things.

Even when I was little, I never thought I’d be anything but an outsider. I desperately wanted to fit in, to belong, to have people care about me as much as I cared about them, to matter somehow, despite knowing deep down that I didn’t.  I wanted to do something bold enough, brave enough, emotive enough, magical enough, that everyone changed their minds about me and let me in.

I watched this movie a lot as a kid.  An obnoxious lot.  And, for a good long time, I could relate to that desperate drive to be accepted by this alien society – so desperate that I’d give up anything just to have a shot.

Of course, looking back on it now, there are a lot of flaws with that movie.  Ariel signs the contract; it’s in English – but she doesn’t think to write Prince Eric a note at any time?  Ariel gets married in the end, sure, but she still barely knows anything about this foreign culture or its customs.  It’s still unclear what Eric sees in her besides a pretty face and a pleasant voice. She’s given up everything she’s ever known – her home, her culture, her voice, her anatomy – and I’m just not sure that he’d have done the same for her. If King Triton had zapped Prince Eric into a merman, I’m not sure he’d have been so keen to get married and go along with it.  I doubt their happily ever after actually lasted very long.

I guess that’s the ultimate bitter realization of adulthood, the one that makes every other feeling so brutally embarrassing, but also so brutally meaningless: the realization that, no matter what you do or who you’re with or how much you care or what you say, you’re ultimately always alone.  Maybe the best you can really hope for is somebody who doesn’t judge you or begrudge you your feelings, someone who doesn’t make you feel embarrassed, no matter what you share.  Someone who maybe helps you feel more okay with feeling things and sharing things, whether that’s because they care and will protect you, or because they really don’t care at all and will weather your feelings like a rock weathers the wind.   Someone who reminds you that there’s no need to be ashamed of anything you feel — not necessarily because it’s understandable or forgivable or even endearing, but maybe just because feelings are meaningless in the first place, so having feelings about those feelings is even more absurd.  I’ve been lucky to have that, and more than that, at a few times in my life – but the first time fell apart in a truly fantastic fashion.  The depth and sincerity of my feelings had no bearing on how well anything worked out in the end.  And while I’ve got something far, far better than that now… in my more reasonable moments, I still know it’s more than I merit. The world isn’t a Disney movie; love isn’t magical.  It doesn’t heal anything, it doesn’t change anything, and maybe it’s just overwhelming emotions that make you believe it means anything. Happily ever after just doesn’t happen, and even understanding-each-other ever after is probably rare. So maybe that ceaseless search for acceptance and belonging and support is prettymuch bullshit – maybe all you can do is find somebody to be alone and confused with.

Or maybe that’s ridiculous, and maybe someday I’ll look back on this and laugh at myself.

 

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Day 25 – Your Favourite / Most Tolerable Musical Number (Movie/TV/Theatre)

Though there are plenty of classics I’ve never seen on stage or screen – Les Mis, West Side Story, even The Phantom of the Opera – musicals have had a tremendous influence on my life.  I’m not active in theatre now; it’s not part of the warp and weft of my life.  Instead, musicals have often stood like lampposts in my life – beacons glowing on a darkened path, things to look forward to each year, things that cast new and different light on the world around me.

But, let’s approach things in order of appearance.  Movies, first.

I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, but I still consider The Blues Brothers to count as a movie musical – and a damn fine one, at that.  “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” puts a big damn grin on my face every time.  Even my dad would watch it without too much complaint, and he’s usually allergic to musicals, comedies, and fun in general.  But, while it’s pleasantly unifying, I’m not sure that it’s my very favorite movie musical, nor that any of its numbers are my number one.

Though I do try to resist going with the easy answer – and though I know it’s adapted from a stage show – I do have to at least put in a good word for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  “Hot Patootie / Bless My Soul” is indeed right up there among my favorite musical songs ever, though it’s understandable: I’ve always had a healthy appetite for Meat Loaf.

This 30 Days of Songs campaign has done nothing if not demonstrate that I rarely extricate the merits of a song itself from all its associated feelings and memories, and perhaps this is where that comes most clear.  Rocky Horror is no great cinema, and if not for the ridiculous audience participation angle, it would probably have faded into arguably-rightful obscurity. If it ever becomes possible to travel between parallel worlds, that’s probably going to be a usefully unique marker for Earth as we know it: “Oh, yeah, that’s the one where Rocky Horror is still a thing.”  If just because it was one of my life’s only occasions where I got to dress weird and go out late at night with friends, I loved everything about our midnight madness adventures.  From the hours of androgynous pseudogoth primping beforehand – fishnets, miniskirt, and low-cut top paired with stompyboots, necktie, and fedora – to the inexplicable traveling music by The Coral on the way, to all the traditional (and novel) callbacks at the show, to the requisite meal at Denny’s on the way home, there were all these lovely bits of ritual.  Each one was a variation on a theme.  Though I’m no end of bummed, to this day, that our last attempted trip was such a bust – the last tickets bought by the people in line before us, the night turned to an evening of somewhat awkward drinking and videogamery in a friend’s apartment – including, on my part, a bit of overindulgence, a bit of throwing-up, a bit of having to crash at said apartment, and a bit of my first hangover the next day.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of getting that band back together somehow, just once, and going to Rocky one more time.  It’s a little dumb, perhaps, a little The World’s End, but also a little true.

But there’s another movie musical that I love to no end.  And it’s got fun social memories attached to it, as well.  A visiting Internet Friend shared it with me, and I’d later share it with another Internet Friend who’d share it to that same online community. But, even taken at face value, it’s ridiculous, it’s sarcastic, it’s hilarious, and it has Alan Cumming.  (And, I ask you, who doesn’t like to watch Alan Cumming?) I have no strong feelings about pot, but I do have strong feelings that Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is one of the funniest goddamn things I’ve ever seen.

My favorite song from it is “Mary Jane / Mary Lane,” but it can’t be enjoyed out of context so easily, and so sharing it wouldn’t convey much – though the link’s there if you want it. As a consolation prize, here’s “Reefer Madness,” the opening song.  It only gets better from here.

I don’t keep in good touch with that originating friend anymore – which is largely my own fault.  I did that thing where things get awkward, you stop talking much for a while, and then you feel dumb and weird about ever trying to talk to them again because you feel like you should have something REALLY important to say, and who are you to just say “Hi” out of nowhere like it’s nothing, and they probably don’t even care about you anymore anyway, and everything just attains a degree of meta-awkward because you’re so intensely aware of how awkward things are, and how did everything get so weird and complicated?  It had been such a regular old thing – me, him, and another friend, all just talking online together, playing games, goofing off, forging some of my first new friendships in… uh… quite a bit of time.  Them being sometimes-obnoxious weirdos, me slowly coming out of my shell, them even coming to visit me at my apartment sometimes!  But signals were missed, and others misread, and stupid things were done by me, and all the goofy, endearing fun just wound up dissolving and falling away like a pile of sugar under a cascade of warm water.  That I spilled all over it.  Because I am terrible and dumb.   I dunno, maybe things didn’t really become that bad, and it was just my self-imposed awkwardness that made it so; I’m nothing if not good at making things worse than they have to be.

But this movie will still always remind me of that friend and his first visit, and our enjoyable – if arguably oblivious – nights of barbecue pizza and video games and Skyy Vodka and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and general awesomeness.  All of it my first affirmation that the online friends I was making in my new community were, well, real and actual friends.  It may be dumb somehow, or selfish, to let myself preserve those memories, given that I made such a colossal mess of everything in the year to come, but… well, if anything, remembering the awesome times just puts a finer point on that later cockuppery and makes me feel even worse, so I guess it’s still fair.

This actually does tie in to the TV musicals somewhat, believe it or not!  Because, when I first started working on this entry, I couldn’t think of a single musical episode of any show I’d seen – until I remembered Clone High’s rock opera episode, “Raisin’ The Stakes.”

Clone High was, in significant part, how I’d met those two friends.  I’d seen them around in that online community, had found them funny and weird and just obnoxious enough to be cheeky without being actually cruel, but hadn’t really talked to them myself.  I think it was the sort of thing where we were all in a larger group which had started to disperse for the evening, leaving this smaller contingent of me and them and one or two other people.  I was still hanging on to the social periphery – feeling like I should wander off myself, but too entertained to want to, even though I felt like I was basically a semi-voyeur, a laugh track at best.

But then, one of them made a reference to something that had happened in the ’80s.

Making the other interrupt with “WAY WAY BACK IN THE 1980s?”

The first returned the volley: “SECRET GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES”

The second, I believe, was prepared for this, and was already quick on the draw with “DUG UP FAMOUS GUYS AND LADIES.”

But I was prepared, as well, and butted in with “AND MADE AMUSING GENETIC COPIES.”

There was some surprised boggling on their part , some “You’ve watched Clone High?!” – and probably just some surprise and bafflement that I actually said anything at all –  and, somehow, I got to be part of the conversation.  I had no idea how I was accomplishing this, and was expecting them to shoo me away with a broom at any point – or reveal it all to be some complex setup to make fun of me – but I ran with it.

And, to my surprise, they let me talk to them again in later days.  Sometimes, they even instigated conversations with me!  I was still – obviously – incredibly socially awkward at the time, but they both were instrumental in my great, slow, thawing-out.

So I would point to “Raisin’ Us Higher” as my favorite TV musical number, despite that faint post-dated tinge of social upfuckery, if just by dint of it being the only one I’d ever seen.  BUT!

As of this very night, I’ve finally watched the full series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  And anyone who knows that show knows that one of the best episodes is, in fact, a musical.

It’s handled realistically, strange as that may sound – though the fact that the main character regularly fights vampires and demons means that it’s already a show with quite a lot of latitude in the Implausible Things Happening department.  But the fact that everyone’s suddenly expressing their secret feelings in song is, well, not exactly approachable to anyone who hasn’t been following along.  When I say that someone who hasn’t watched Buffy wouldn’t appreciate it, that’s not a nose-in-the-air belittlement of ignorant philistines – it’s a caution that, just as they couldn’t jump into any sixth-season episode of a seven-season show and understand who the hell these people are, how they relate to each other, and what the flying purple monkeyballs they’re talking about, they definitely couldn’t just enjoy “Once More, With Feeling,” either.

Which is a shame, because trust me, you guys:  this episode is absolutely great, and this song is my favorite of the lot.  No, it can’t be enjoyed as well out of context, but it’s probably the most accessible out of any of them, so here it is regardless.

I’d say some interesting or clever things here about how I relate to this particular bit of media, or what pleasant associations it has – but, honestly, it’s all too live and present to have crystallized in my memory like that.  Ask me again in a year or five, when The Summer Of 2015 is a distinct and encapsulated bit of history, rather than just, y’know, my life as it is right now.

But it’s safe to say that it will always remind me of yet another friend of mine – and of thousand-mile, distributed-networking, two-man Buffy Marathon pizza parties.

I guess there’s just something about me, pizza, dudefriends, and musicals.

But there’s also just something about me and musicals.

I grew up not only on Disney movies with Ashman and Menken, but with my mom’s VHS tapes of Rogers and Hammerstein. When I wanted to watch a tape, there were strong odds I’d put in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin, but when I felt like being a little more grown-up — mature enough to enjoy live action — I was likely to pop in South Pacific, The Music Man, or The King and I. I might not have understood everything that was going on in them at the time – and I don’t even remember their plots so distinctly now – but I surely remember the music.

Perhaps the song that charmed me most was “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific.  It was unlike anything else in the show, and it sounded as strange and mysterious as the island itself.  The then-innovative Technicolor extravaganza didn’t hurt, either.  I remember wanting to go to Bali Ha’i on vacation, and being sad to learn it was fictional.  Though a little research now shows that it was based on Aoba Island in Vanuatu, so perhaps there’s still hope.

I don’t count that as my favorite movie musical number now, though.  Nor as my favorite stage musical number, even though that started out on Broadway. But it is an important part of my musical background – though not nearly so much as stage musicals were.

My sister was in high school when I was in elementary school, and she was involved in school plays.  Only backstage, however; she never trod the boards.  But my mom and I would go twice each school year: to the Fall Play, which fell sometime around October or November, and the Spring Musical, when landed somewhere around March or April. I went because it was something to do, only to find that they entranced me like nothing had before.

There was something ineffably magical about being in the presence of a live performance, even one put on by rural white-bread high schoolers.  I could watch a story unfurling in front of me, with true, live people inhabiting those characters.  There was no screen, no barrier, no pause button or rewind or fast forward – it was really there, really happening, there and then.  They were reciting lines that had been recited by who knows how many people before, but never just this way, in just this place, on just this night, with just this audience.  For me, theater bore all the awe and ritual of church.  It was where people could gather, sit in silence, and let stories feel true and real. And when singing and choreography matched up with the swell of strings and horns, it raised the little hairs on my neck, it sent chills down my spine, it brought the blood hot to my cheeks, and it made the world feel, somehow, just right.  Despite that my only comparable feeling was the one I got when thinking of just the right word or just the right rhyme, it was something I had no word for.  I do now, though – frisson – and yet it still seems unnameable.

I don’t remember as many of the plays, now, but I do remember the musicals: in no certain order,  “Guys and Dolls,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Anything Goes,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Marc Chagall’s “The Fiddler,” a source of inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It was “Fiddler” that struck me – and stuck with me – most.  Given the rural white-bread nature of my town, I genuinely did not know that religions other than Christianity existed.  My family didn’t go to church, we weren’t made to do bedtime prayers, we weren’t taught to fear God or a Devil or Hell, but it was so culturally prevalent that I absorbed the notions anyway.  Ambient dogma.  So when I watched this musical with all its unfamiliar language and customs, it was a window on another world.   I suppose its says something about the uniformity of my town that Judaism could sound so alien and “exotic,” but so it seemed.  I actually wasn’t sure, at first, whether it was fictional or not, but – nerd that I was – I did my research, and was amazed to learn that Judaism was an real, still-existing religion.

I still remember, sitting at my desk in second grade, likely the week after the show, breathlessly gushing at the kid next to me.

“Did you know that there are religions that aren’t Christianity?  I thought they were all extinct!”

And I still remember his response, too:

“Yeah, but we’re working on that.  Everyone will believe in Jesus someday.”

I don’t know what shocked me more, what he said or how he’d said it – so casually, so hopefully, without a shred of malice.  The idea of all those ideas, those stories, those languages, those customs, going away… it felt worse than the endangerment of anything else.  I watched plenty of Nature and Wild America, so I knew all about endangered species and worried about them with a sense of helpless shame and guilt – but this was on a whole different level.  Save the whales, sure; save the tigers; mourn the dodos – but to think of an entire way of seeing the world falling away into history, never to be thought or believed again?  To think of people wanting that to happen, trying their hardest to erase that belief and replace it with their own?  I felt this curdled blend of horror and anger and disgust.

So I read everything about Judaism I could get my hands on, throwing information from library books into my brain as if I were throwing them out of a burning building.  I thought it was only a matter of time before the missionaries won and Judaism – and whatever else was out there – died forever.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I found information on the Holocaust, which was only fuel for that fiery fear.  How anyone could have let that happen then, or stand on a remotely similar side now, I just couldn’t fathom.

But I never really wanted to convert, though I’m sure people practically expected me to, by one point. The  YHWH of the Torah was – surprise, surprise – no more credible than the God of the Bible to me.

I’d never been able to make myself believe in God, prevalent as the idea was around me. I’d try, but it felt like my little mind games of trying to look at the green grass and convince myself I was seeing red.  No matter how hard I tried to imagine, how hard I tried to believe, how much I tried to persuade or punish myself, I couldn’t see the grass as red, and I couldn’t see anything as made by God.  The closest I could get was acknowledging that there was nothing in sounds of the word “red” that gave that noise any meaning, and that someone out there might speak a language where the word pronounced “red” meant the color I called “green.”  Or acknowledging that some people were colorblind, and the “red” and “green” both meant the same brownish smear – they could look at the green grass and call it red, they could tell no difference, but it was because there was something skewed in the way their eyes detected colors.  I wondered if I was the “colorblind” one or not, and worried frequently about whether everyone else was right, God was real, and he’d be sending me to Hell for being unable to believe in him.

Not only that, but he’d be sending all the believers to Heaven, no matter how they treated anyone, either.  As a certain somewhat-friend would tell me, some years later, God wouldn’t let anyone do anything bad to a fellow Christian. Anything cruel that happened only happened because someone wasn’t saved.  (It was an argument mirrored by a somewhat-boyfriend, some couple decades after that: a Baptist could never go to Hell, he said, no matter what he did – he’d just go to the skeezy outskirts of Heaven instead of the right hand of God.  These beliefs may not have been true representations of mainstream Christianity nationwide, but they were certainly representative of what I saw around me.)  So reading about the Jewish religion gave me no better insight on God or theology or matters of faith — but it did make me aware that there was more out there than Baptists, the Catholic “Mary-worshippers” they groused about, or the Satanists that were supposedly sacrificing babies to Judas Priest while reading D&D manuals backward, or whatever.

I liked the ideas of some of the Jewish customs and rituals, since I was fond of rituals of all sorts.  I loved picking up words in Hebrew and Yiddish, since I was fond of words of all sorts. And the music sounded neat – assuming, as I was, that Fiddler on the Roof was anything to go by.  I just wanted to understand everything about the religion and the culture, to absorb, to keep it as much as I could without being it – in hopes that, even if Nazi Klansman missionaries got rid of every single Jewish person in the world, and burned every book about them I’d ever read, their worldview wouldn’t totally die.

…Meanwhile, from all I could tell, my supposed peers were most concerned about how to convince their parents to buy them a pony, and who was cuter, Luke Perry or Jason Priestley.

Yeah, I was pretty rad at alienating myself.  Maybe everyone had such hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing daydreams of saving something – a culture, a pony, a Priestley – and I was the only one with poor enough social skills to blather about my interests so much.  Regardless, it certainly didn’t help me relate to anyone, which didn’t exactly help me gain the social skills that would let me de-pariah myself.

That one simple night of watching a high school performance of Fiddler had a massive impact on me for years to come.  It made me aware of other ways of thinking, yes, but my fandom was probably the #1 factor that took my social status from “quiet ugly nerd kid” to “grade-wide verbal punching bag.”  Objectively, I’m sure it was only to be expected; I was probably completely insufferable.  But from adults I got nothing but the usual platitudes about “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve” and “Ignore them and they’ll go away” and “Boys will be boys,” rather than anything that would help me actually figure out how not to be – as a classmate so accurately put it – a social reject.  So, in due time, I gave myself up as a lost cause, internalizing that idea that God didn’t let bad things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and accepted that I should never have, show, or share strong feelings of any sort.

The Judaism jag passed in a few years’ time, and I learned – with much more muted interest – about Islam and Sikhism and Hinduism and Jainism and Buddhism (and psychology and philosophy and biology and astronomy, and paranormal and unexplained phenomena, and sci-fi and fantasy and…) and I continued my fascination with all the different ways people could see and believe and think about the world.  I grew all the more convinced that no religious belief was right, but that it was our ability to tell ourselves these stories about the world – to look at the world and imagine it otherwise, then try to bring it into being – that really made humans something special.

That said, I still couldn’t seem to understand the people around me, and I figured I was a complete cipher to them, as well.  But, in a depressing but tidy way, my belief that I wasn’t allowed to feel things or be happy kept me from feeling too bad about that life-permeating unhappiness. At least I was dispassionately absorbing and processing information in my own way, influenced relatively less by other people.  I wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, I wasn’t hoping to be popular – I was just trying to avoid being noticeable at all. And so, while I learned to subdue as much visible personality as I possibly could, I “cultivated a rich inner life,” which is a respectable sounding way of saying I spent a lot of time alone reading books, listening to music, and playing video games.  But, in that near-anaerobic isolation, my ideas got to swirl and ferment into new and interesting thoughts.  Especially when I got Internet access. Sure, I was convinced for decades that I was fundamentally worthless, undeserving of the human experience, and so transparently, inherently contemptible that nobody could ever like me in any way.  But at least I felt free, in my mind, to think about whatever I wanted, to try on any idea, tailor it in any way, discard it, repurpose it, or reassemble it.

And so I can’t help but wonder.  How might I have turned out, if I’d stayed at home that night and never saw the show?  Would Judaism have fascinated me as much, if my first glimpse didn’t come with art and song and frisson?  Would I have found something else to obsess and ostracize myself over?  Would I ever have gotten so isolated and probably-depressed?  Or would I have latched on to something my peers also liked, found a group of friends, learned better social skills, and turned out normal?  Would I have tried to keep those friends by stomping down my other ideas and interests, picking up theirs, and trying to follow the fold, to quote a different show tune?   Maybe I’d be typical now – married, churchgoing, working a steady day job; or a homemaker even, on my second kid, if I’d really decided to care more about social expectations than my own feelings.  Or maybe I’d be even weirder, having had encouraging friends who spurred me to identify and follow my interests earlier on.

But it’s incredibly likely that the following is true: that, without being a social outcast all through school, I wouldn’t have some of the issues that I came to bear.  I wouldn’t have been able to relate to and appreciate my weirdo friends from theatre, all of us, in some way, the outcasts’ outcasts.  I wouldn’t have had the college experience that I had – wouldn’t have made some of the same mistakes that drove my personality further underground than ever.  …And, seeking to make my way back out again, in as distanced a way as possible, a way that was on my own terms, a way that was mediated by a few thousand miles of fiber-optic cables and a freedom to just log the hell out whenever I felt in over my head, I wouldn’t have made my way into that online community that’s been so overwhelmingly influential and important to me these past few years.  I’ve forged so many genuine friendships through it – some of which I’ve somehow managed not to ruin.  And, honestly, I can’t really fathom a world, a me, that isn’t touched by all these people.  I don’t know where I’d be, what I’d be doing, what I’d be putting up with.

If I had to do every single stupid thing in my life over again, just this way – the same obnoxious fandom, the same utterly unviable responses to the constant mockery, the same isolation and drama and awfulness – in order to get to the parallel world where I meet all these incredible weirdos from all over the world… you’d better believe I’d do it.  I spent a very big part of my life wishing that someone fundamentally better were living it instead of me, and wishing that I could do everything over, and do it right this time.  I’m not entirely sure whether this new feeling is one of competence or complacency, but it is what it is.  I wouldn’t change it.

Life’s a weird thing; you never know what all will result from one seemingly-minor thing on one seemingly-unimportant day.  You’re probably doing everything wrong, but the absolute mistake that is your existence may be setting you up for other, more interesting things to come.  You’ve just got to run with it and make the best of it, even when everything is truly, objectively, pants.

So. I looked forward to those high school plays each year my sister was in school. And, by the time she graduated, one of our second cousins was in high school and working as a techie.  And his mom was the person in charge of tickets.  So we still got to go: my mom helped out in the ticket booth, I came with, and I got to claim front-row seats (and even catch little bits of the behind-the-scenes preshow buzz.)  Then that techie’s younger brother, only a couple years older than me, became a high schooler – and a rare freshman-year Thespian, since he’d actually been coming to help his brother out while still in junior high.  So my aunt still did the tickets, my mom still helped, and I still went.

And, finally, it was my turn.

I didn’t have great expectations of myself; I never expected to be on stage, not even for a minute.  But I did want to be involved with theatre, in whatever way they’d let me.

I don’t remember, now, how exactly I fell into it.  I think I just turned up after school one night, and tried to help, and tried to keep out of the way.  I’m sure I didn’t audition for anything my first year; backstage would be daring enough.

And was it ever.  Everywhere else in school, there was clear control.  Teachers taught classes, classes were subdivided by grades, grades were subdivided by Honors, College Prep, and Tech Prep tracks. Everyone had a place, and except for a few (almost universally awful) classes, the castes did not intermingle.  But behind those huge blue doors, the world was different.  Upperclassmen taught the underclassmen, there was barely an adult in sight, and nobody seemed to care about anything except what needed to be done, who could do it, and who could teach the people who didn’t know. Except for best-guesses based on who looked older than whom, it was hard to even tell who was in what grade. It was the first time that I’d seen anyone even approximately my age given any degree of power or decision-making.  And when those decisions were about making art, constructing that tangent reality… it was, by far, the most influential thing of my high school career.  I’d go through the whole of high school all over again, every bit of stupidity and awkwardness and stifling frustration, just to spend more time in that experience.

However, for whatever reason – perhaps a rumored long-simmering feud between the choir teacher and the theater teacher – musicals fell by the wayside some years before I started.  We didn’t perform any musicals during my time there – except that I think we did “Bye Bye, Birdie” one year and I didn’t participate in it because… Quiz Bowl?  Because choir preps wouldn’t learn anything?  I don’t really know, now.

So while my love of musicals is definitely part of what brought me to high school theatre, made me a Thespian, and allowed me to meet some of my most influential and enduring weirdo friends, all of that experience isn’t really pertinent to the topic.  But I absolutely had to mention it, at least in passing – or what passes for “passing” in my writing.

Sadly enough, musicals have never been as big a part of my life since then.  I went to the opera a lot in college, and I saw a few musicals – most notably Rent and Avenue Q – at the campus auditorium. Rent just didn’t speak to me much, and felt like a cheesy high school assembly.  Implausibly upbeat caricatures trying painfully hard to be cool, insistently trying to inspire some revelatory social awareness of shocking, hot-button issues like Some People Are Poor And Some People Are Gay And Some People Have AIDS But They’re Still People.  I realized, watching that, that I was just immune to its supposed power.  I wasn’t a hip, trendy young person who was just now discovering the power of musicals as an expressive art form.  I wasn’t a fussy well-to-do patron who was just now discovering the plight of the poor.  I found no engaging contradictions or juxtapositions, just hokiness and an almost palpable sense of self-importance. Avenue Q, meanwhile, was clever in is execution, but the music and plot was often inane – much like the sort of life it portrayed, I suppose, so… success?  I did end up working for the opera theater, post-graduation, for a single season, but left due to layoffs and injury – then got a comfy desk job after that, which bore very little risk of nearly amputating my fingertip in jerry-rigged industrial equipment.  I haven’t been on either side of any stage since.

I miss it, though.  Quite a lot.  Maybe I should find some way to go to some performance, somewhere, sometime this year.  Once a year might not be too hard to arrange, if circumstances ever start looking up.  It doesn’t have to be world-class.  It doesn’t have to just set all my brain and limbic system afire with ineffable, nigh-holy frisson.   It just has to be, and I just have to be in the presence of it, in much the same way that I just need to go out and have grass underfoot and trees overhead once in a while, or else something at the base of my brain begins to gnarl.

I think I need that again – not just the conjunction of music and motion, but being in the presence of it, live and raw and ephemeral, one fleeting iteration of something that’s been recurring possibly for decades and may keep on going for decades more.

So I think I’ll see what I can do.  See if I can’t get live theatre into my life again.  See where it takes me this time.

Once more, with feeling.

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Day 24 – A Song That Describes Your Job / How You Feel About It

There aren’t any songs that will describe any of my jobs in specific.  I’m not Working In The Coal Mine, Working On The Chain Gang, or even Working 9 To 5.  I’m not a Blue Collar Man.  I don’t even dislike the jobs, so I’m not Working For The Weekend, and “Bang on the Drum” – catchy as it may be – just doesn’t apply.  Besides, one of my work meetings is always on Sunday, so I don’t even have a full weekend to look forward to.

When it comes to my day job, I’ve assuredly had worse. I get to work from home, in my pajamas, posting real estate listings for a property management company in the Big Apple.  Instead of a five-hour commute, I walk two feet from my bed to my computer chair.  I can set my own hours.  My work’s appreciated; my boss is cool, and it’s a low-stress job.  But it’s only part time, and the pay is somewhat on the low side, so it’s hard to make ends meet.  It’s better than the guaranteed nothing that I’d have without it, though!  I’ll do it as long as they let me, absolutely, and try to keep doing it even if a more profitable opportunity should arise.  But, to be honest, if it were profitable enough to be a more livable wage, with full-time hours and benefits and all that jazz, they wouldn’t be able to pry me out of my position even with a lever of Archimedean proportions!

But, as it stands, I appreciate it, and it’s keeping me afloat when I’d otherwise be utterly screwed.  I like it, and I can’t complain, but I know it’s not perfect, and there’s probably something better out there for me, if I can figure out how to make it happen.

So the song that best describes my day job is “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Good Enough For Now.”

You’re pretty close to what I’ve always hoped for
That’s why my love for you is fairly strong
And I swear I’m never gonna leave you, darlin’
At least ’til something better comes along.

As for my editing job, that’s even harder to address!  I’m editing the players’ handbook for a friend-of-a-friend’s upcoming tabletop RPG, a position which I fell into by a staggering sequence of increasingly-unlikely events.  I’m unsure how it’s all going to play out in the end.  It could be a big dang profitable deal!  It’s always possible it could flop, and that I could be the one who ruins it somehow!  Aaaagh!  But, to be honest, it’s fairly low on the strife scale.  And I tend to forget there’s even a chance of money in it.  I get to use my skills to help people out!  I get to help someone else’s cool creative ideas get the context and clarity they need to better explain to and inspire the players!

My bossfolk are the worldbuilders, and I’m just facilitating others in engaging with that world.  Maintaining the spacecraft that’s going to bridge the gap between Earth and that world, orbiting and surveying it. Checking for errors and irregularities, probing both craft and world for a breathable atmosphere and gravity that won’t pancake people or fling them into the void.  Making sure all the instruments give accurate readings, so the players can launch their landing pod, get out on the surface of that world, and have a damn fine time. And also get out from under the weight of the real, largely-sucky world.

So, with that metaphor in mind, perhaps Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void” would fit the bill. Especially given that game world’s design as a place where certain kinds of judgment and inequities simply haven’t come about.

Freedom fighters sent out to the sun
Escape from brainwashed winds and pollution
Leave the earth to all it’s sin and hate
Find another world where freedom waits

But I have another job on top of it all: the job of writing.  This blog thing, other short story things, and even a commissioned piece, recently, which made me a Legitimate Professional!  I don’t make a living off of this work, true.  But I’d like to say that’s just not true yet.  I’ll figure things out more, get myself out there more, and manage to get by.  I don’t want fame, by any means; I’m not out to be a bestselling author or anything.  It’s just that I want to do very little else but writing, and I’m good at very little else but writing, and I also want to not be homeless and starving, so if I could actually fund my existence through the act of writing, it seems like things would work nicely all around.

If I were a really good writer, of course, I’d be able to just write a persuasive essay that convinced people to give me money.  It worked for L. Ron Hubbard, after all, and he wasn’t even a good writer!  And I do enjoy religions and rituals.  So step right up, folks, and join the Gantist Mystery Cult — only $50 a head.  Is it a UFO cult?  Doomsday cult?  Lovecraftian cult?   Sex cult?   All of the above at once?  That’s part of the mystery!  You’ll pay good money for the opportunity to figure out what the hell you just paid good money for!

Ah, if only I had fewer scruples.

Wait, that’s the ticket!

SCRUPLES — $50 APIECE!  The more I sell, the fewer scruples I’ll have, and the more I’ll charge, so GET YOURS FIRST!

In all seriousness, I’m unfathomably humbled that people have actually paid for things I’ve written.  It still feels like the most self-aggrandizing thing in the world, having somebody essentially pay to read an assortment of your thoughts.  If I had a useful occupation, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel so weird.  Somewhere out there, there’s a guy who legitimately loves being a repairman.  He knows what the parts cost, he knows what his time and labor and expertise are worth, and he makes a living doing what he enjoys and excels at, without feeling like he’s ripping people off.  The value and utility of his work are self-apparent, and while nobody’s pleased that their stuff is broken, they’re probably glad to get it fixed.  If someone doesn’t believe the fix is worth the price, they can try someone else or go without.

But that’s just not the case with writing. It’s not so easily quantified.  It is so easily lived-without. A painting or sculpture, unique in all the world, may go for millions, but words suffuse everything. We notice when they’re missing from something, we notice when they seem to be organized strangely, we notice when they’re catalyzing a dramatic reaction.  But their mere presence or availability is unremarkable.  Only when we already know someone’s a writer, care that they’re a writer, and moreover care what they have to say, only then do we yearn to read their words.   A writer has to emit a whole secondary set of words in order to convince people to spend their time reading their primary set of words, when we’d really like to believe that the primary set of words speak well enough on their own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if words would just shine through the covers of a book somehow, glowing brighter for each person depending on how interested they’d be?  Every book a beacon.  Many a book a lighthouse. But it isn’t so, and so we must put out a trail of smaller lights to lead to our larger. We must tell people why they might want to hear what we’ve said, without directly telling them what we’ve said.  Or we have to tell people why other people might want to hear it.  Gatekeepers abound.

And, yes, I know this all just screams “Paperback Writer,” but I refuse to be so cliched.

Because it would be nice if writing just shone with its own light without anyone having to read it yet, but it doesn’t.  And because I haven’t been going through those gatekeepers of publishers, either.  No Dear Sir or Madam.  No rejection slips. Just my own (*shudder*) marketing.  Taking the thing I’ve spent so long fleshing out and condensing it into a little spore, hoping that spore gets noticed, hoping it takes root, and hoping it grows into enough of a neuron-overriding brain-mushroom that it influences the host to alter its originally-intended course of behavior in order to instead obtain and intake more of our words.

This is weird.  And creepy.

The way I feel about writing is not just about the writing and the trying-to-get-published and the making-a-living, it’s the fact that I essentially want to infect someone else’s brain with ideas.

It’s a particular sort of irony that, in writing about writing about writing, I can’t even write THIS particularly well.  Nothing seems to be coming together, the ideas are vague and sludgy, and it’s more like the compost of discarded ideas than an actual idea itself.  Compost that isn’t even fostering the growth of any seeds.  Light, spores, compost, seeds, but nothing’s growing, everything’s just kinda rotting in the sun.  It happens!  Maybe it’ll ripen pleasantly, break itself down in time, and become more fertile ground for other ideas later on.

All I know is, I write because I have to.  Something in my brain insists.  I remember banging things out on the family typewriter when I still needed help getting into the chair.  I remember reading Dick and Jane books and being so angry that they were so dumb, knowing that I could write better stories already than these adults were writing for me.  I remember writing stories in kindergarten with the teacher’s aide while everyone else was learning their letters. And I remember a time before I could write, when I had a basket of plastic play food and was taking my parents orders, scribbling on a notepad like a waitress — then being incredibly frustrated with myself, five minutes later, that I couldn’t read my scrawling pretend-writing scribbles, and couldn’t remember what they had said.  It felt like part of my brain was missing.  Or part of my memories, or part of myself.  There had been a thought, and because I didn’t write it down, it was gone forever.  I couldn’t follow up on it.  I couldn’t even try.  It was terrifying and depressing, and I fear that my life will have symmetry someday, and I’ll get old and senile and forget how to write, but remember enough to know what I’m missing.

Until then, every day, I write.  Blog posts or conversations or roleplay or complaints or workmatter or analysis; the format forever varies. There was a long time when I didn’t write fiction anymore; trying to plan my everyday life was stressful enough without standing at the helm of an entire fictional universe, guiding the micro- and macrocosm.  I even used to write poetry, when I was too young to know any better.  I write fewer analytical essays now than I did in college, for certain.  But – as was absolutely verboten in those essays – I inject more personal opinion and experience into these bits of enbloggenment that I write now.  What I write and how I write it, that’s always been in some flux.  That I write… that’s just a given.

So a song that describes how I feel about writing might as well be a song that describes how I feel about existing.  It’s… a thing that I do.  Not doing it sounds very inconvenient and unpleasant.  I don’t really have a great sense of purpose to it, or any real aspirations, and I’m not trying to achieve anything or become anything or be anything specific.  I’m just being right now – and I’m okay with that, and that’s pretty monumental!  I’m doing things, enjoying doing them, and being appreciated for doing them!  I can’t always try to write – or live – for people, intentionally trying to make them happy, because that always turns out crap.  But I can just do what I do, see it through, and try to believe that it’s going to turn out okay.

I can’t claim that I’ve “made it” yet, or that I have any real concept of “making it,” much less an expectation to do so.  I don’t have a destination.  But I am finally doing something; I am finally going somewhere, even if that’s just “away from all the before-crap.”  I’m writing things, I’m putting them out there in public, I’m sometimes even sort of advertising them, and I’m getting paid to write occasionally!  All of these things that have been stewing in my head forever are slowly getting out onto paper (or screen,) and being seen, and being appreciated, and every one seems to take me further… somewhere.  I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, but there are people who are legitimately interested in coming along for the big weird wordy ride.

Ah ha!  It took a long and circuitous path, but I suppose it’s only appropriate.  The song that may best describe how I feel about writing – and existing – is “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys.

Well, it’s all right, doing the best you can
Well, it’s all right, as long as you lend a hand
[…]
Well, it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well, it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line

 

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Day 20 – a song that you thought was sung by a female but was actually sung by a male (or vice versa)

From “Describe your personality in a song” to this.  Huh.

To be honest, I don’t really mind a small break from the intense introspection.  At best, I’ll be able to summon up an anecdote or two!  Hooray, you’re spared!

When it comes to the phenomenon of Dude Sounds Like A Lady, there’s one person who comes to mind.  Nope, despite a childhood chock full o’ oldies, it’s not Frankie Valli.  I always knew him for a guy.  Rather, it’s a singer from a couple decades later, whose high-pitched vocals I heard, if but rarely, on the hometown classic rock stations.  A singer with a strange, antiquated sounding name.  An old lady name.  As Lottie was to Charlotte, as Dottie was to Dorothy, as Hattie was to Harriet, so this name must have been to Gertrude.

I spent perhaps half a decade of pre-Internet life foursquare convinced that the lead singer of Rush was a woman named Gettie Leigh.

As for a song that I thought was sung by a lady, but wasn’t…

There was a strange rumor going around my school in the early 90s.  Supposedly, the tall, glamorous lady who sang “Supermodel” was secretly a boy.   The common reactions were like the reactions to any other urban legend: flat denial, laughter, or belief undercut with horror.  Yes, the idea that a boy might dress in girl clothes was right up there with Bloody Mary or the pop-rocks-and-Coke death of Mikey from the Life cereal commercials.

Me, I didn’t think RuPaul was a boy.  Sure, as classmates pointed out, the name had Paul right in it.  But I had some male classmates named Jamie, after all.  And that little girl from E.T. was named Drew!

Besides, she was doing all those things that girls got to do – or, more accurately, had to do – when they grew up.  Wearing dresses.  Walking in heels.  Wearing lots of jewelry. Doing her hair.   Putting on tons of makeup.   I was certain that nobody would spend all that time and money unless they had to.

I had an older sister, one already into her teenage years by this time.  I’d been dragged on more shopping trips than I could count.  I’d boggled at the array of products she needed for her hair alone: Aqua Net and LA Looks mousse and Dep gel.  And then the perfumes, like the everpresent bottle of Exclamation! And all the hues of lipstick, lipgloss, lipliner, eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, nail polish, topcoat… not to mention necklaces and bracelets and earrings (through HOLES stabbed through your dang EARS)… it seemed to go on forever. And so did the process of putting it on.  Even half an hour feels like a long time when you’re under 10, and somehow my sister could spend an hour – or more! – getting ready for even the most prosaic occasion.  And gods forbid that it should rain, or that she’d break a nail or get a run in her hose, because all of that work would be for nothing.

I absolutely couldn’t fathom getting all gussied up for any outing that didn’t involve a formal invitation.

“Oh, that will change,” I was assured.

It didn’t.

However, as a kid, whenever I was dragged along on those interminable mall trips – which always spent so much time in LS Ayers but so little time in the pet shop or Kay-Bee Toys – I secretly hoped to go to the Glamour Shots someday.  I had this occasional daydream that they’d put makeup on me in just the right ways, and do my hair, and take a really elegant photo, and everyone I knew would be amazed.  All the people who’d made fun of me would scuff their sneakered feet and apologize, and the ones I liked would realize they liked me, and nobody would ever call me ugly or worthless again.

But I realized before long that nothing would really work that way.  It didn’t matter what I looked like, because no matter how pretty I made myself, everyone around me had already decided I was, and always would be, disgusting.  Just like how I was always decreed a retard, no matter how objectively I surpassed them in schoolwork, or how I was somehow both scrawny and a fat cow, regardless of how much or little I weighed, I was ugly by consensus.

Fiat ugly.

Still, I was a little curious about makeup just because I wasn’t allowed to wear it until I was old enough, and nothing sparks curiosity like something disallowed.  Even then, I never did come to care that much about any of it. Blame stubbornness if you like, or uncoordination, or lack of money, or a general belief that any attempt to beautify myself was akin to polishing a Dumpster.  Regardless, I just rarely felt inclined.  Once in a while, I’d put some eyeshadow on, or wear some lipstick.  Once in a wider while, both.  If I was feeling REALLY exciting, there might even be mascara.  But it wasn’t a daily thing.  It was more like deciding to wear my favorite shirt, just for fun.  “Say, I’m in a good mood today, or perhaps just aesthetically inclined!  I think I’ll put some art onto my facemeat.”  Even then, it was done more for contrast purposes: clomping around with my black ankle stompyboots, my trenchcoat, my pocketwatch, and PURPLE SPARKLY GLITTER EYESHADOW.  And maybe even some of that glitter lotion that was ubiquitous at the time.

Even now, I only own a small amount of makeup, almost all of which, I realize, should probably be thrown away because it’s got to be at least two years old.  Ew.  I still figure that making myself look particularly aesthetic is a lost cause.  Sure, in idle curiosity, I wonder how I’d look with different makeup styles.  But there’s no way in any number of hells that I care enough to by all those supplies and spend all that time trying things out.  I just cannot compel myself to care.

And it’s interesting, I’ve found, that my disinclination to play the Pretty Princess Dress-Up Game of female adulthood seems to make me default to “masculine” in some eyes.  Yes, yes, this is where I could spout off some more noise about gender being a performance, and of the masculine being considered normative, and of how weird it is that guys get to fuck around with their gender expression by wearing a whole shopping cart full of stuff, whereas a girl can get mistaken for a dude or lesbian just because she *doesn’t* wear a lot of products or show off her figure.  It’s the very exaggeration of the hair / makeup / nails / perfume / jewelry rigamarole of womanhood that makes drag the statement that it is.  We have all these products, all these procedures, all this focus on aesthetics… and it’s only for girls.  Dudes don’t have to – or get to – be pretty.  And when they try, apparently it’s weird! Somehow, a guy who dresses in drag and constructs an exaggerated representation of femininity is seen as slightly strange, but biological females construct a less extreme sort of beauty carapace every day from age 13 to death, and that is totally copacetic.  I’ve known girls who put a full suite of makeup on to go hiking.  I’ve known guys who had terribly chapped lips, but refused to wear any chap-stick because that would be girly or gay.  And I’ve known people, both girls and guys, who don’t see either of those behaviors as remotely irrational.

I could go on about that… but I’d rather not.  Because, in the end, it’s just how things are, at present, in our society.  Is anything about gender identity or expression really that black and white?  Nope, but we’ve got this binary concept anyway.  And it’s somehow seen as more sensible and appropriate for a whole bunch of people to spend at least some part of their lives freaking out that they – or others – are Too Masculine or Too Feminine or Not Feminine Enough or Not Masculine Enough… than it is to let people wear and do the things that make them feel awesome, whatever they are.  Idealistic claptrap, that, apparently. The society around us has made up its mind about what we’re supposed to do and be and look like, and we must attend.  Ours not to reason why, ours but to hairdo and dye.

Besides, no amount of words I wrote could be as effective or cutting an indictment as a single sashay of RuPaul.

Work.

And now, I must get some beauty sleep.

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Day 14 – A Song From The First Album You Ever Purchased

You’d think I’d remember, wouldn’t you?  That I’d have some distinct memory of saving up my pocket change to buy a certain album with my own money.  But, y’know… nope.

My parents were members of the Columbia Record Club, or BMG, or one of those mail-order deals, and in order to not get an excessive bill – and to avoid getting sent some “free album” nobody in our house would even use as a coaster – there was some minimum monthly order.  Which meant that, once a month or so, we’d get the flimsy, tabloid-style catalog in the mail, printed on paper that was a little better than the supermarket circulars in the Sunday paper, but a little worse than Parade.  I’d curl up on the living room couch and pore through it, squinting at the tiny font, and circling my hopeful choices with a pen that jabbed straight through the paper half the time. I got a fair few of my earliest CDs that way: “Heigh-Ho! Mozart,” “Bugs & Friends Sing The Beatles,” “Songs in the Key of X.”

Still, I wasn’t the one who purchased those.  And I’d had albums even earlier that my parents had bought me – generally at the local K-Mart.  We didn’t have a proper music store in town, and I don’t even remember there having been one at the mall until the FYI opened up when I was, oh, in middle school or so.

Still, that place was a revelation.  An entire huge store full of music, aisle after aisle packed with the slim, shiny cases of CDs, and a forlorn section off to the left, at the very back of the store, where the cassettes and records gathered dust.  All along the walls, there were little standing areas with listening domes, designed so you could scan and preview an album before you bought it – though most of the more obscure albums had no song samples at all.

I rarely bought anything, but I loved – and still love – window-shopping as an entertainment in its own right.  It isn’t even an aspirational thing, going around and looking at all the stuff I want but can’t have.  It’s more objective than that: a simple thought process of “This exists.  Humans made it.  Humans made the songs, somebody made this cover art, people made a bunch of decisions, money changed hands, a factory churned this out, all under the expectation that enough people will buy this thing to make it worth the effort. And there it is: Michael Bolton.”  Between being a chronic outsider from everything “popular,” and living in a town where there was practically nothing to do for entertainment besides going shopping, I cultivated an almost anthropological perspective.

Not to say that I didn’t pine for that sense of inclusion, of awareness.  We seemed to define each other and form our subgroups based more on musical tastes than anything else, so the music store felt almost like a living history museum.  Artifacts of dozens of subcultures, carefully catalogued, but available for anyone to view and interact with and learn from.  But I always had that dim and hollow hope that, if I were somehow to listen to enough music, become versed enough in the archetypal bands for the musical subcultures around me, I’d be able to fit in.  Music wasn’t how I defined myself, because I didn’t have much sense of self, at that point, to define.  Still, I knew its power, individually and socially, and I wished I could grasp it.  Music was not my armor and heraldry; it didn’t protect me or define me.  I was the polisher of the armor, inspecting it and – if not seeing myself truly housed within it – seeing myself reflected in it.  I couldn’t be a standard bearer, or even count myself among the ranks, but I could think about how the music became iconic, how and why people might choose to form beneath its banner.  So I rankled a bit as the Parental Advisory stickers began to pepper all the album covers, black-and-white castigation that, I knew, would only become its own banner: The Music THEY Don’t Think You Should Hear.  So I snuck albums by Rammstein and Marilyn Manson to the listening domes, so I might get the barest glimpse of what people were talking about at school.  So I looked at almost all the music, hoping to at least be familiar with artists, if not with the music itself. But, on the days I went home with anything at all, it was probably a Beatles album.

So I don’t have a clear memory of the first album I personally purchased, at that music store, at Kmart, or from anywhere else.  But I could certainly tell you the first CD my family purchased, shortly after we got our CD player:  Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints.”

To say that my parents are reluctant adopters of technology may be a bit of an understatement.  It’s understandable, to some degree: when you’ve lived your entire life without some certain high-tech gizmo, whatever you have is good enough.  So I was amazed when we got our first CD player.  I’d feel the same sort of cusp-of-the-future amazement when we later got a cordless phone, when we got our first computer, when we first got email, when we finally got the Internet.  If these bleeding-edge Future Tools were mainstream enough that my father was buying them, it really must not be a fad!  (My grandfather, meanwhile, had cable TV, surround sound, and a laserdisc player.  Go figure!)

Our stereo system must have been from the 70s.  Two-foot-tall speakers in the living room, a glass-fronted cabinet that held a record player, an equalizer, a dual cassette deck,  a stereo, and, suddenly, a CD player.  I’d remembered listening to the radio, certainly, and cassette tapes as well.  No real memories of records, though.  But when it all got hooked up, after I’d had my first look at the rainbow colors of a CD – and heard the first of many refrains of “DON’T touch the bottom!  DON’T put it face-down!” – in it went.

And on came the drums.

It really did sound clearer than any music I’d heard in my admittedly-few years of life.  Cassettes always had that faint hiss.  Radio usually came through a little tinny and staticky.  But this was clear as life.  I sat there, watching the “sticks” of the equalizer dance to the beat, jumping up and down to a rhythm like nothing I’d never heard before.  I didn’t know how any of it worked – not the CD, not the speakers, not the equalizer, nothing. It was unfathomable, but wonderful.

The album would become a fixture of my childhood.  If we were going on a long road trip and needed albums with as few clunkers as possible, that was always on the roster.  Somehow – perhaps because we were sick to the gills of traditional music by that time – it even became the album we’d play while putting up the Christmas tree (along with The Best Of The Ventures.)

I still don’t grok much about the magical stack of stereo stuff – how to tweak the equalizer for the best sound for a song, etc.  I was never supposed to touch those settings, and I didn’t want to mess something up and not know how to get it right again.  (Another common thread throughout my life.)   I’m sure it’s just that I grew adapted to CD-quality sound – and why wouldn’t I?   But something of that first magical listening was lost, or taken for granted, in time.  And I always felt like, if I understood things enough, I’d be able to tweak those knobs and shift those sliders, and somehow zero in on That Sound again – that world-infusing, clarion clear, present and stunning sound, like I’d never heard it before. I’d be able to bring back that same amazement of sitting on the fuzzy green living room carpet, watching the bright green sticks.

But it’s funny. It had been such a singular moment on my first listen, a moment I wished I could replicate with it or some other music ever since.  And yet, now, I’m okay with it being a bit of background radiation.  Not analyzed, not thought over, just a soothing wash of sound.  What was once revolutionary is now comfortable; what that was once innovative is now familiar. So much so that it’s difficult to even write about the music as music; all I can do is dispense anecdotes and experiences with no clear point or purpose.

And, intellectually devoid as it may seem… I like it that way.  Easy access to music has dulled so much of my nostalgia; the songs that I’d once heard only in my childhood and never again, I can now call up on a whim. They no longer code exclusively for childhood.  The more I listen to them, the more I think about them, the more I think about them as the person I am now, the less power they have to remind me, so immersively, of my past.  That’s something I can’t get back.  I can’t critically analyze something into reminding me of when I was six years old.  I can’t rationally interpret a song and make it remind me of perpetually grass-stained knees and a perpetually Red #5-stained tongue.

Even if it means locking a song away in a mental time capsule, vaulting it away from rational thought, barring me from genuine appreciation… I think, sometimes, it’s worth it.

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