Category Archives: Music

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 29 – The Theme Song For Your Life If It Were A Sitcom

It doesn’t have to be an existing TV theme song, the prompt says.  Which is good, because theme songs now are rarely very gripping.  Granted, I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.  And I definitely don’t watch a lot of sitcoms.  But the classic, cheerful Song Whose Lyrics Explain The Story seems to have fallen by the wayside long ago, for better or worse.

I could extrapolate on that for a while – and, ahem, did in an earlier draft.  Musing on how theme songs have changed in my lifetime, and how technology seems to have influenced both that and a shift from episodic stand-alone content to shows with long-running mysteries and twisting plotlines.  Few people have to worry about missing an episode of their favorite show now.  Or even about having a tape in the VCR. They can watch whatever they want, on demand, quite possibly while sitting on the toilet.  Companies don’t have to worry as much about someone saying “Oh, crap, I missed Wednesday’s episode – now I’ll have no idea what’s happening.”

Of course, that’s never been as much of a problem for sitcoms.  It’s entirely possible I’m wrong, but the situation of a sitcom is still usually resolved within the half-hour, and there’s rarely much continuation of plot from one episode to the next.  Every episode is more or less like the last, and more or less like the next, and it’s unlikely that any character will see any significant changes.

Yeah, that sounds like my life, all right.

This prompt is interesting, though, because I’d be more likely to characterize my life as some sort of drama.  Not a particularly exciting one, mind.  There isn’t a very big cast, all the characters get along pretty well, and the biggest conflict is between what those other characters expect of me, what I expect of myself, and what an absolute wreck I actually manage to make of everything.

To best distill my life to a sitcom, then figure out its most suiting theme, I guess you’d have to figure out what elements of my life to approach.  It definitely couldn’t be an office comedy; I work from home and never even see any of my clients.  The Boyfriend and I don’t get into nearly enough wacky hijinks for it to be some romantic comedy.  Besides, those are insufferable.  Most of my social interactions – and almost all of my comedic moments in general – happen online.

So perhaps that would be the setup.  A sort of social media Herman’s Head, where all my various avatars vie for attention and relevance, without overstepping their bounds. The bloviating blogger, over-serious, over-analytical, sometimes painfully forthright.  The enthusiastic virtual world resident, forever creating stories within stories, eager to help spread the strange.  The irascible hermit who, on reading most of the news, wants to unleash a torrent of swears and/or go back to bed until three years from now. The independent contractor, faceless and neutral, who has to keep everybody else quiet until the job is done.  The chirpy, oxytocin-doused cuteness glutton who’d shiv you to get another cute cat video. The generic public face who has to moderate it all and decide who should be seen how much and in what context.

Forget the tired cliche of “having the boss over for dinner.”  I worry about sitcom-worthy travesties like “sending the boss, not The Boyfriend, a link to something from The Weird Part Of YouTube.”  Or perhaps undermining my veneer of rational rectitude by squeeing over otters.  Or defusing any illusion of affable competence by sharing a link to one of these prolix disquisitions on my identity and purpose.

And then there’s Facebook, where realworld acquaintances are rubbing electronic elbows with virtual world friends, theater freaks, gamers, former teachers, relatives, and audiophiles once removed.

Fortunately, all my friends are… well, y’know, decent.  They’re not going to start stupid arguments with anyone, and if they don’t have something productive to say, they don’t tend to say anything.  Still, it’s a place where the walls between worlds go thin.  The friend-of-a-friend who composes glitch music is just a click away from talking to your uncle, who could talk to your weirdo theater friend, who could talk to your dad’s former coworker, who could talk with the webmaster for that one influential website, who could chat with the Lovecraftian bouncer, who could talk with the dude who grew up down the street from you, who could talk to your mom.  All these people are totally valid, and all my relationships with them are honest and valid, and all the varying ways I may present myself to each of them (swayed by those strange forces of habit and politeness and mutual interest and unconscious emulation) are also honest and valid.  But the idea of trying to explain everyone to everyone else becomes staggering!  And, ultimately, I don’t even have that many friends!

Obviously, it isn’t as if any of these people in any of these constructed categories would be shocked or scandalized that I had all these various facets.  It isn’t disingenuous to display only the most relevant and useful facets of your personality; the failure to tailor your behavior to the social situation is usually more awkward and harmful.  Still, if exaggerated enough, that’s the only source of sitcom-level wackiness I can come up with from my life.

Now the question is: what song could be a decent sitcom-style intro to all that?

It would have to be something that wasn’t too alienating for any one of those facets of my personality (except, y’know, the professional ones that don’t get to have any personality.)  And also not too alienating to any one of those nebulous social groups.  Something accessible to all ages, not insulting or polarizing, but not meaningless or tepid either. Something that, all around, could “sound like me.”

There are two bands I can think of that probably everyone – from my weirdest weirdo friends to my farthest-flung internet friends to my relatives – could recognize as being Things I Like.  First and possibly foremost:  The Beatles.

Given all the Fun With Self-Expression, perhaps The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” could suit the situation.  I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together, indeed!  And, emblematic of my life, it’s mostly a cacophonous heap of semi-poetic imagery that, try as one might to analyze it and find deeper subtext, is ultimately meaningless — but hopefully at least a little bit enjoyable.

Though that’s a bit of a reach, for a good few reasons.  My life really isn’t that psychedelic, for one.  Plus, there’s this inalienable Britishness about The Beatles that makes it an unfitting soundtrack to American suburban nerd-life.  Even – perhaps especially – in this song.  Sitting in an English garden is unlikely to be a thing I ever do.  Plus there’s “fishwife” and “knickers” and “custard” and other distinctly Albion-flavored imagery.  This is America, dammit!  We don’t have fishwives, knickers, and custard; we have bitches, boxers, and Imitation Cream Filling.

And, well, The Beatles are The Freaking Beatles.  I am not awesome enough to deserve The Beatles as a soundtrack.  Or Ringo’s All-Starr Band.  Hell, I wouldn’t even merit Wings.

And so, as often I do when I find myself in an existential quandary full of loneliness and self doubt and wracked with the pain and isolation of my pitiful, meaningless existence, I turn to “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Fortunately for us all, he does indeed have a song that’s hyper enough for a sitcom, short enough for a sitcom, and – best of all – doesn’t have any pesky lyrics whatsoever!  No lyrics to be factual or inapplicable, no lyrics to be tied to a place or a language, just fast, goofy sounds.

True, that it’s more of my theme on a good day – or, at least, on a caffeinated day.  True, that it’s still probably more weird than I warrant.  But if my life were to be a sitcom, it would already be focusing on all my best, funniest, weirdest times, intersecting with all my favorite, better, funnier oddballs, here in this supremely bizarro realm of The Internet.

And so, a thousand words to justify a song that doesn’t have any.  (Well, except a big pile of “HEY!” at the end.)

My ideal theme?  Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fun Zone.”

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Day 27 – A Song You Think Can Save The World

Good thing this isn’t a tall order, nor hyperbolic in any way.  I’d really like to say I’ve been slow to write this one because I’ve been formulating a well-reasoned and elaborate justification behind the power of a certain song, and that – at long last – I’ve come up with something brilliant and beautiful.

Actually, I’m hopped to the gills on Mountain Dew, and I figure that if ever I could barf out some stream-of-consciousness stuff to meet the theme, this would be the time to do it.  (And no, that’s no PG euphemism for anything.  Good old caffeine has always been my best muse, and frankly I tremble to think about how I’d react to anything harder.  I tremble a bit anyway, at this point.)

The first thought that pops into my head at this prompt is… “Save what from what?”  What about the world really needs to be saved?  If you’re talking about man’s inhumanity to man, well, that’s just hardwired into the human psyche; tough noogies.  Our little primate brains can only clearly conceptualize around 150 people as being real and actual people with real and actual feelings like us; everyone else is a sort of cipher.

Next time you’re stuck in traffic, think about all those rows of people all around you.  Try to realize that every single driver and passenger is coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, and that every one has a purpose.  Not only that, but they each have their own history, their own feelings, their own favorite songs and favorite foods, their own great memories and terrible nightmares and bold aspirations and secret shames.  You’re sitting just yards away from all of these people, all of your disparate journeys bringing you there, to that same place, at that same time. You probably have something in common with all of them.  If you somehow knew what it was, you’d think that this conjunction was some fantastic coincidence — to think that the mystic vagaries of the Universe could bring together all these similar people at once!  But it’s so agonizingly mundane that you can’t even care.  Unless you take the time to really think about it, it’s hard to avoid objectifying them, treating them like some sort of Other.

What’s the solution to that?  It’s not like having smaller, more isolated villages and tribes is a sound solution; this newfangled global economy schtick isn’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.  Besides, while you’d feel much more in tune with your small community, you’d probably feel much more conflict with those other communities beyond. We humans really like being in groups and having that sense of belonging – of being special, of being apart from the others. But you can’t have that sentiment if EVERYONE is invited.  The cool kids’ club isn’t “cool” if it doesn’t actually separate the social chaff from the wheat, and belonging doesn’t feel special anymore if you know that literally everyone else belongs, too.

But a monoculture has its own problems.  In my totally-not-a-real-sociologist opinion, a monoculture is just as bad for the survival of humanity as it is for the survival of, say, a food crop.  Variety makes survival more likely.  Some strains will be hardy against certain stressors, others will be weak against them but strong elsewhere; if only one strain is allowed to proliferate, but it’s affected by some kind of blight, that entire crop can die out.  The inclination may be to make one super-strain that’s hardy in every way, resistant to every possible stressor – but there’s no way to predict what stressors will arise in the future.  So versatility and adaptability can be more powerful than singleminded stubbornness.  And maybe the same’s true for cultures.  Because, if some devastating meme infects the monoculture, and there’s no wide variety of ideology, perspective, or general cultural coping-mechanism… well, it’s Gros Michel bananas all over again, and who’s to say whether there’s a Cavendish to fall back on.

It’s with prompts like this that I realize how easy some other people might have it.  People like those I grew up around.  Those who believe in humans as intelligently-designed creatures with a spark of divinity within them, creatures guided by God whether they believe it or no, creatures who are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Those people can just answer this with “Jesus Loves Me,” talk about how Jesus is the way and the only way,  remind everyone that non-believers will go to Hell, and sign off satisfied in their testament.  Things are harder and hazier when you see humanity as the risen ape instead of the fallen angel, and when you don’t believe that you (or anyone else) actually has (or could possibly have) the One True Right Idea.

The distressing thing is, humans don’t have an inerrant moral compass; “good” isn’t a real and external force in the world, and people can convince themselves of the rightness of just about anything – especially if the ultimate moral of the story is “I’m a special hero.” It’s pretty terrifying.  We’d like to think we’re moral and we’d stand up against abuse and atrocities, but… we tend to accept whatever’s around us as normal, no matter how repugnant it is.  Just look at Japanese internment camps, racism, homophobia, or harvest gold shag carpeting.   We don’t want to be outside the norm – especially not if that norm is armed to the teeth and on the lookout for “sympathizers.”  I know that this whole relativism thing freaks out some of those people who have faith in a god they see as the flawless and incorruptible font of all good and truth and rightness.  As long as they think their moral compass points due God, they think they’re fine – and they think it’s terrifying that others might not have a god-based moral compass. But they won’t believe the terrible truth: that everyone’s got their own selfish little magnet that they use to sway the needle. Everyone’s compass is still pointing every which way, and many are still pointing toward hate, but they’re all telling themselves the same story – that their way is what the higher power wants for the world.  That the very fact that it feels right to them is proof that the higher power wants it, because that power wouldn’t lie. So they’d rather talk about why the needle moves for them, and how strongly it does, and how little it wavers, and how firmly they believe that direction is North, than they want to actually walk in that direction or do anything for anyone who isn’t on that path.

It’s not like having an ego like that is bad, or that it’s wrong to let it guide you.  I’m not entirely convinced that ego-dissolution is any more noble or productive than being ego-driven.  (Though it’s less likely that you’ll natter on about how your god has a plan for you, and will protect you no matter what damnfool thing you’re actually doing.)  Still, that magnet of your self-interest may be big or small, strong or weak, but it takes a transcendent effort to throw it away and watch the compass swirling – reacting to all the other magnets of all the other selves around you, no longer even presuming to guide you toward true north.  Letting it just guide you toward others.  So maybe it’s enough to just walk where you can, lost though you are, and try to do what you can for whoever you find along the way.

But what would I know; the closest I get to helping anybody is blathering away at stuff like this, as if my half-digested ruminations are insightful or valid in any way.  That’s the other problem of this whole prompt: the assumption that everyone, much less anyone, could find inspiration or even meaning in one thing.

So, what else could possibly work?  It’s not like I could even lean on some secular hymn like “Imagine,” because that, too, romanticizes human nature to the point of utter implausibility.  The fact that we have to try to imagine these things is part of what makes it so melancholy: people don’t really want to walk hand in hand with their fellow man; they want their fellow man to wise up, stop doing the weird Other-y cultural crap they’re doing, and walk hand in hand with THEM.  “I hope someday you’ll join us,” after all.  And even if “the world will live as one,” well, there we go with the monoculture again.  We’re not gonna live as one.  We don’t need to.  We don’t even need to want to!  We can maybe just be content with other people doing their own thing and, y’know, not killing each other over it.  That’s as close as we’re ever going to come to “saving the world.”

Honestly, even that is unlikely. If a biological mechanism behind aggression could be found – or even a biological mechanism behind selfishness and entitlement, which is arguably at the core of every type of cruelty – and if those inclinations could be treated or cured or prevented… I’m just not sure if people would accept that.   We value autonomy too much to ever do those things.  We’ll inoculate people against diseases of the body; we’ll take out tonsils sometimes before they ever get infected, just to be proactive – but when it comes to aspects of personality and identity and senses of self, those are just inviolate.  Which is a little strange, when you think about it.  Charles Whitman, who infamously shot a bunch of people from the clocktower at the University of Texas, is remembered as being a notorious spree killer who just snapped one day.  But he had a brain tumor, and his violent tendencies grew over time; he lost more and more control by the day.  What if all violence is like this?  What if it’s all tiny tumors, or small-scale brain damage that we don’t have instruments sensitive enough to measure right now?  What if it could all be treated?

I’m not sure that we’d allow it.  We’d see it as Clockwork Orange style brainwashing.  A manipulation of the center of identity, of selfhood.  Taking out an inflamed appendix isn’t morally-nebulous “appendixwashing,” after all, because that’s not the core of anyone’s sense of self.  It doesn’t guide their behavior, prosocial or antisocial as it may be.

In this culture, at least, we have this idea that any change to our personality or our beliefs or our behaviors has to come from within, or else it’s inauthentic. Feeling like we’re being our best and truest self is more important than being impelled to “do the right thing” by someone else’s standards.  We are Americans; we have American Exceptionalism; we have American Bootstrappy Independence, and we need to have the right to choose. And that includes the right to choose to be a selfish, entitled asshole who kills and maims and tortures and hates, I guess — even if the person who’s choosing that is actually being affected by some actual biological damage and they aren’t really capable of choosing otherwise at all.

I doubt that this cultural concept is likely to change.  (And it’s not like it’s uniquely American, either, though I think some elements of our culture really hammer on this implausible narrative that we can do and be and become anything, which sets us up for some truly egregious cognitive dissonance.)  But I think it is further evidence that humanity’s not going to be won over by recognizing ourselves as part of the brotherhood of man.  We can’t think that broadly about so many people without turning them into faceless abstractions, and when we think about ourselves as part of that global village, we can only imagine ourselves becoming faceless abstractions as well. On the small scale and on the large scale, we want what’s ours, and anyone Not Us can cram it.  We’ll even tell ourselves all sorts of stories about why we, or the people we know, have extenuating circumstances whenever we’re in trouble, or sick, or in jail, or poor — but those OTHER people, the strangers, well, their problems are clearly due to moral failings, lack of effort, stubbornness, or stupidity.

Thanks, ultimate attribution error.

So – making the broad assumption that a song (or anything) could “save” humanity whatsoever – we don’t need a song that tries to inspire us to come together and hold hands.  “Jesus Loves Me” will not save us.  “Imagine” will not save us.”  “Kumbaya” definitely will not save us.  It’s not enough to feed the world or save the children, and who the fuck cares if they know it’s Christmastime at all.  You can’t just send Bob Geldof a fiver and have done with it.

I promise I’m really not trying to be this much of a cynical asshole about this prompt, but for fuck’s sake, you might as well ask for A Song That Could Make Everyone You Love Live Forever.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful?  Yes.  Don’t you want it to be true?  Yes.  Is it, or could it ever be?  No; our stupid little primate bodies are all going to die, and some of them are going to be brought to that death by other stupid little primates, and all the stories in the world won’t save us.  Even if we try to find a song about doing what’s right in order to help and protect others, well, that’s not safe either; this world contains horribly maladjusted people like those who feel it’s right to kill black people “because they threaten white society” or something, and everything is terrible forever.

I really don’t want to leave this blank, or put down something bleak and sarcastic.  The whole prompt is fundamentally flawed, but it’s not like I don’t understand the spirit in which it’s being asked. It’s not like I’m avoiding the mental exercise of figuring out what sort of song could actually inspire people to channel their selfish desire for exceptionalism and special-snowflakery into acts of heroic compassion.  That’s what it would probably take, really.  Because we’re stupid, selfish little primates and we’re inclined to care more about the primates that are more like us, closer to us, whom we know, than we care about the far-away ones who look and talk weird.  Because we’re not going to just become enlightened as one; we’re not going to wake up into Krishna consciousness, or turn into Indigo Children, or be transformed by b’ak’tun 13 or any other New Age bullshit.  We don’t get to just wait for compassion to fill our stupid little hearts.  We’re going to have to actually work for this.

Saving the world – if it means anything at all – means cultivating the ability to suspend your own self-interest in pursuit of a broader and more compassionate perspective.

I think that any song that could inspire that would be a song that acknowledges the differences between everyone, but recognizes that humans are all ultimately the same kind of animal.  A song that doesn’t try to compel anyone else to change their values or their beliefs, but that reminds us, as individuals, that we can change our own minds, when we choose to.

So.  What song makes me feel like I’m capable of getting past my own shortsighted individualistic bullshit enough to recognize how small and meaningless my perspectives (and problems) are – but also reminds me that, despite my tendency toward alienation, I’m still part of the human experience?  What song, by extension, might do the same thing for other people?

For me, it’s got to be personal – not about systems or societies changing, but individuals.  Something that reminds me to keep open to broader perspectives, to refuse to shut my eyes to the aberrant, the unconventional, the inconvenient.  Something that reminds me to try to understand more about the world instead of rejecting whatever I don’t personally like.

It’s got have something to do with being self-reflective enough to know myself and know my own limits – an ability to look at my beliefs and understand that I was taught some of them, gained others more passively through enculturation, gained others through personal experience, and gained still others through reason (but probably not as many as I’d like to think.)  It’s got to have something to do with admitting that my personal truth is only personal, and having a willingness to let it go and reach for something beyond the familiar.

But… it can’t just be ego-dissolution, it can’t just be breaking things down.  It’s got to involve building things up, too.  It can’t be about resignation or becoming a hermit, obviously; it can’t be about giving up on humanity, whether it’s your own humanity or humanity as a whole.  Because that’s not saving anything; that’s just refusing to play.  Understanding the limits and the arbitrariness of what I know and who I am have often alienated me from myself, ironically enough – being aware of how flimsy and constructed everything is, it’s hard to just exist “in the moment.” However, I do think that being mindful of all that subjectivity has, in the end, made it easier to be objective and empathetic.  (And, recursively enough, that ability has made it easier to suspend judgment not just of others, but of myself – making it easier to extend myself the same trust and compassion as I’d give someone else.  A little bit, anyway; that bit is still kind of in the works.)

In short: the song has to encourage the listener to accept the limits of their minds and their selves, but it also has to encourage the listener to go beyond their comfort zone and to be willing to experience humanity in all its fullness — with the understanding that every other human who is or was or ever will be is just a slightly different iteration of the same damn pattern. That everyone is simultaneously utterly unique, utterly alone, and utterly similar to everyone else in fundamental ways.

I’ve thought about it for a long while, and I’ve finally realized what song, to me, encompasses this line-walking between the animal and the divine, the meat and the meaning.  The song that, perhaps, best traces the limits of the baffling fractal that is humanity.

Tool’s “Lateralus.”

Feed my will to feel this moment,
Urging me to cross the line.

Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow.
To feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.

It’s not like this song really could save the world.  Not everyone has the luxury of spending time in mindful contemplation.  Some people are overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to keep their meat-husks alive and functioning for another day, and they don’t have the time or patience for anything that isn’t subsistence-level survival.  One might be forgiven for wanting to tell Maynard and company to take their expanded consciousness and shove it.

But.  If everyone did have that luxury – if everyone did have time enough and clarity enough to pursue this mindfulness, to feel deep emotional connections, to grieve and to be awed, to feel inspiration and agency, to suspend judgment, to try to transcend our limits…  It’s true that this song couldn’t save the world, and nothing else could either.  But I think it might be a reasonable description of what a “saved” world might look like, on the individual level, if it were attainable.

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Day 26 – A Song That Tells A Great Story

I see what this topic is up to.  It’s trying to be sneaky.

Oh, it may play coy, fluttering its serifs at me, but it is trying to lure me into a deadly trap: the trap of defining the terms.  It is trying to lead me from an open field onto a broad road, onto a slim path, into a narrow alley, into a cramped corridor, into a spot so precise and so narrow that I realize I can’t ever fit into it.  No, topic, I am not going to spend the better part of this entry defining what I mean by “a great story.”  I am not going to explain what makes a story great by objective metrics.  I’m not even going to explain my subjective feelings about what makes for a great story.  Because I’ve been trying to write more fiction, to create more stories.   And I know that, if I spend too much time contemplating What Makes A Story Great, I’m only going to realize that there is nothing I could possibly write that would meet my own standards.  Having expressed those standards, I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I didn’t know any better and was just haphazardly writing as my muse willed it.  Nope, that wouldn’t fly anymore; I would have written some thoughtful, well-reasoned rubrics for What Makes A Story Great, then completely failed to live up to them in every single way.  And so, if just because I am really not in the mood right now to have my opinion of my utility devalued any further, I’m just not even going to mess with it.

What makes a story great?  For the purposes of this entry, it is Because I Said So.  I might explain what I like about each one, and what elements of their stories appeal to me, or – as is my heathen wont – whatever irrelevant personal memory substitutes for reasoned critique.  But I am not going to create criteria for What Makes A Story Great and then look for the songs that fit the mold.

Thinking chronologically, one of the earliest story-songs that I remember enjoying is Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”  I remember perching on the arm of my dad’s red-orange armchair as he listened to it on the stereo.  With its jaunty honky-tonk attitude and its sing-along chorus, it was hard to ignore the appeal!  Even though it’s a jaunty honky-tonk singalong about a pool-hall knifing.

Speaking of barroom ballads wherein someone gets murderlated for hustling the wrong guy, I had a soft spot for “Stagger Lee,” as well. I know, now, that it’s quite an old song that’s been covered a vigintillion times, but Lloyd Price’s version is the one I’ve known best.

What was the appeal?  Was it how exaggerated and ridiculous the fights were?  How pat the songs ended, without getting into the finicky little repercussions like, oh, police involvement, vengeful friends, or simple guilt?  The way they were as simple as morality tales, only without those pesky morals?  It may just be that I inherited my mom’s streak of morbidity – though I definitely didn’t pick up her fondness for 60s-era teen tragedy songs.  Leader of the Pack, Teen Angel, Last Kiss?  No and thank you.  Getting in a fight over someone hustling your money was way more reasonable to me than getting creamed by a freight train because you went back into the stalled car for a ring.  That’s not romance, Skeezix, that’s just idiocy.

Nick Cave pens some fine gore-spattered stories, as well, and has an entire album of – and entitled – Murder Ballads.  In fact, that album even has another version of “Stagger Lee.” But the song that’s most memorable to me isn’t on any of his albums – except for a compilation of B-Sides and Rarities.

And, of course, I’ve got an anecdote to go with it.  You were warned.

I was a tremendous fan of The X-Files back in its day. I’d never seen anything on TV quite like it, and it seemed to have everything my adolescent brain enjoyed.  Mysteries! Crime! Murders! Conspiracies! Secret truths THEY didn’t want you to know! Put-upon underdogs! Will-they-or-won’t-they relationships!  Unnecessarily poetic field reports!  It all meshed so well with adolescence – these ideas that the world had fantastic things in it, things adults couldn’t understand or were actively keeping from you, but that someone who was persistent enough, clever enough, and brave enough could stay aware of the weirdness of the world – horrors and all – and share that wisdom with others.

But these were the dire days when TV shows could only be seen at their regularly scheduled times, and when watching a show at other times required you to either buy the VHS tape or record it yourself – commercials and all.  It was long before the days of Netflix binge-watches, automatically playing one episode after the other unless you specifically told it to stop.  It was even before Tivo, which would considerately record things for you and help you avoid the ads.  It was harder to engage with the primary source material, and so my ravenous knowledge-hunger had to stretch out into secondary media.

Which, delightfully, was plentiful.  There were episode guides and magazine features and fun facts written on collectible cards.  And the confluence with the rise of the Internet helped, as well: The X-Files website was the first I can ever remember visiting.  So, in addition to the tapes, the t-shirts, the trading cards, and my well-worn copy of the official episode guide… I also got the soundtrack.

For being the soundtrack to a mid-90s sci-fi show on Fox, I suppose it’s not so bad, even objectively.  And I felt a few songs were clunkers, even through my fervid fandom.  But I would still listen to the whole works, especially when going to bed at night.  Portable CD player nestled close to my head, flimsy headphones clamped down tight in hopes they wouldn’t fall off, I’d lay there and imagine solving X-Files, discovering Bigfoots, or first-contacting aliens until I fell asleep.  Sometimes the music would weave itself into the dreams, which was often an odd experience.

But the oddest experience of all came in that nebulous, liminal state between waking and sleep.  I woke up from a confusing dream sometime on the far side of midnight.  The battery indicator glowed amber on the CD player, the music still playing through headphones (askew.)  But it was a song I’d never heard before.

I’d listened to the CD more times than I could count, beginning to end, and never – not once – had I heard this. As consciousness seeped back into me, it brought confusion. I slipped off the headphones, wondering if this was somehow something on the stereo, but it was certainly the CD. So I listened. It was slow to the point of funereal, thick with regret and haunted by violins.  A British-sounding voice, detached and dolorous and disdainful, sang of wastefulness and silence – of losing a message, of buying a house and a car, of caging birds and listening to their songs.  The violins cried out again – and ended. The amber light turned red.  The disc whirred to a stop. The batteries had run out.

The next day, I listened to the CD straight through again.  Nothing remotely similar was on it.  There were no hidden tracks at the end.  I tried to research, the next time I was at the library – searching for song lyrics that included “and we bought a cage and two singing birds,” the only line I was certain I remembered in full.  Nothing. Had I still been dreaming somehow?

I scoured my perpetual sty of a room, and found the CD case again.  I pored over the liner notes, and saw the cryptic message I’d ignored before: “Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like to remind you that 0 is also a number.” So I loaded up the CD, pressed play, pressed the back button – and it only went to the start of Track 1 again.  But that night, I pressed and held it – drifting in and out of sleep again.  And it rewound through minutes of silence.  Then through a strange squealing cacophony: music. I let up – and it wasn’t the song.  It was some parallel-universe cover of The X-Files theme.  So I rewound again, through the silence, through the cover, through more silence.  And then came something else.  I let it get all the way back to the beginning, hoping it was what I was looking for – worried it somehow wasn’t.

But it was the mysterious dirge I’d been looking for – stricken and purple and with angst enough to drown an entire low-lying town.   Blame adolescence again, but I loved it.

Eventually, I learned the song’s title – “Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum.” -And I was rather dismayed, some years later, to learn that it did not mean that boding refrain, “Dread the passage of Jesus, for he does not return,” but was instead almost completely meaningless.  That, or demons just speak really terrible Latin.

I can’t seem to think of any story-telling songs that truly gripped me in high school or college. I’m sure one will come to me overnight – having fallen asleep with my finger on a mental rewind button.

But I think the story-telling song I like best right now, though, goes even farther back than my teenage years or my childhood – forever-ago as those were.   Rather, it’s a Swedish folk song from centuries ago called “Herr Mannelig.”  It tells of a mountain troll who tries to marry a noble knight, offering him gifts and gold – and he rejects her.  Not because she’s, y’know, a mountain troll, but because she isn’t a Christian mountain troll.  And if that’s not hilarious, I don’t know what is.

I think the first version I heard was Garmana’s, which I’m sure is fairly accurate in instrumentation and pronunciation.

That being said, In Extremo’s version rocks faces off pretty well. …Even if they pronounce it more like Herman Gully.

Folk music like this is just fascinating, to me.  To think that these songs have been sung for centuries, were once only heard when actual people took up actual instruments in an actual place, and you heard them when you were physically close enough for the vibrating air molecules to strike your eardrum – but now an mp3 can be Googled in the blink of an eye, a video pulled up on YouTube, a version downloaded.  I only heard this song in the first place because an Internet Friend DJ’d it, after all.

I think that’s what I love most about these story-songs: not the stories they tell, but the stories they are.  The layering of history and culture, the changes in language through time, the loss of original context and the recreation of it.  Each song is its own ship of Theseus, sailing through the generations – its instruments swapped out one by one, some of its melodies tweaked, its words altered, its origins forgotten, but still sailing on and still considered “the same song.”

I can’t exactly sing – though I like to – and I don’t play any instrument very passably anymore.  And yet I have this strange yen to record my own versions of some of these songs.  To follow, if limping, in those footsteps of old; to steer, if three sheets to the wind, that ship.

Sure, I’d put the baddest of bad into “Leroy Brown,” I’d murder “Stagger Lee” as good as he’d done Billy, and I’d make Herr Mannelig believe as much as Nick Cave that Jesus had abandoned this world – but at least I’d have joined the stories.

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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 23 – A Song By An Artist/Band That You Have No Idea Why People Like

…First off, excuse the hell out of the winceworthy, hamfisted structure of this prompt.  I didn’t make it up!

This might be a challenging one to answer.  There are plenty of kinds of music that I might not personally like, but I can understand how somebody else would.  Christian Rock. Screamo. Nu-Metal. Disco.  There are people who have certain thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, and they find those feelings reflected in that music.  Listening to that music gives them a sense of inclusion and solidarity.   Is it depressing to think that someone’s life and mind might exist in such a way that they could see something like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” as anthemic?  Good sweet gods on a waffle griddle, it sure is.  But that’s not the same thing as having no idea why they like it.

And, after all, not everything is about the lyrics or the melody or anything else.  You can like a song because it reminds you, more strongly than almost anything else, of a certain place and time.  The music itself was incidental to the experience, really, but – this many years on – it’s the only element of that experience or that memory that you can really engage with again.  You know you’ll never see those people again, or be in that place, and even if you were, you’re not the same person you’d been.   Hearing that song, then letting your memories unspool, is the closest thing you can ever have to experiencing those memories again.  Well, short of dreams, hallucinations, or certain types of brain trauma.  It might be inaccurate in the strictest sense, but I have no problem with someone saying they like that song, even when it’s just a shortcut for saying they like the memories that only that song can evoke.

So, at heart, the question might actually be, “Is there any artist or band that seems so completely aberrant that I can’t see how anyone could empathize with their work — while simultaneously NOT being ‘performance artists’ whose entire purpose is to actually *create* that sense of alienation, such that a conscious failure to empathize actually fulfills their purpose?”

Good dang question.

I’m not going to take the easy route of castigating Justin Bieber.  He’s just a product.  I can understand how people like his music, or other manufactured pop music, because it is specifically designed to be catchy.  I can take umbrage with that whole racket – and do! – but, again, that doesn’t mean I can’t understand how people like it. It’s like saying I can’t understand why people don’t like the taste of… well, bubblegum.  It isn’t nutritious, it isn’t filling, it isn’t even what you’d call a food, and it’s just a sticky, artificial vector for sugar.  If you have a tongue, and you like the taste of sugar, you probably like the taste of bubblegum. It’s not “good food,” of course, and Bieber isn’t “good music,” but it’s cheap, well-marketed, and designed to appeal to the most basic receptors.

So.  It can’t be music that’s designed to be unpleasant, dissonant, or confrontational, because disliking it actually fulfills its purpose.  And it can’t be music that’s designed to be popular, because liking it fulfills its purpose.  This artist’s music has to be something else.  Something that I can’t fathom anyone having strong feelings for whatsoever.  Something that just seems devoid of unpleasantness or dissonance, with no polarizing themes… something inoffensive.  Offensively inoffensive.  Music that’s like tepid tap water: no zing, no sourness, no heat, no high fructose corn syrup, no caffeine, nothing that’s going to stir the blood, nothing that’s going to make you feel anything about anything.  Something so neutral that I can’t imagine anyone saying they LIKED it.  Just that they didn’t necessarily dislike it.

I think I’ve got it.

I have no idea why anyone would like Kenny G.

It’s hold music.  It does little more than occupy your ears.  When silence might make you think the line was dead, and the hold time is going to be so long that a series of beeps will get annoying, you play Kenny G.  It’s musical grout – a white, pasty, spongy spacefiller.  It’s functional — almost clinical.  I cannot fathom anybody going out of their way to seek Kenny G music.  I cannot comprehend purchasing a Kenny G album.   While I could understand it if more than 50% of persons surveyed in a broad cross-section of age and cultural demographics ranked Kenny G’s music as at least a 5/10, I can’t imagine anyone ranking it a 10/10, feeling their heart swell with hitherto unknown joy as the music gave song to their innermost self.  It simply strains my imagination to believe that someone out there is an obsessive, die-hard Kenny G fan. That they have all the albums, all the merchandise, they’ve followed the tour, their bedroom is bedecked in signed memorabilia.  That it isn’t a pathological fixation, but your usual sort of superfandom.

Even assuming such a person exists, I can’t help but imagine them saying they were proud of their collection, and glad to be Kenny’s #1 fan in all the world, but had to admit that they really liked Hall and Oates.

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Day 22 – A Song That Energizes You

I can’t dance, I can only haphazardly play any instrument, and I can’t sing all that well.  I can’t even read sheet music at a glance.  But, despite all that, I have always had a sort of strong musical empathy.  There are few things I love so much as letting a song carry me away: just leaning back and imagining some sort of narrative that ebbs and flows with the music, the drama rising, the story swelling and soaring as the song reaches its peak.   Blame the prevalence of the 80s Get Shit Done montage, where months and months of training and progress are distilled into one three-minute music video, perhaps.  But no words of wisdom, no last-minute terror, no simple sense of responsibility can spur me into action the way a song can.  With the right sort of tempo, the right sort of chord progression, and perhaps a gratuitous key change or two, the right song can just grab me by the adrenal glands and yank.

I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic this evening, so allow me to tell the tales of a few songs that have energized me through the years.

When I was in third grade or so, I intruded into my sister’s room one day and decided to listen to her stereo.  I’m not sure how I got away with this, exactly: if she just wasn’t home from school or, by then, possibly work; whether my parents were out of the house or just couldn’t hear the music; whether nobody actually minded, and it was one of those things that I thought was sneaky.

My sister was practically a decade older than me, which was more than a lifetime at that point.  She was a teenager, and teenagers were the font of all coolness.  (Not necessarily my own sister in specific, but teenagers in general.)  Still, I knew she had some cool music – the music that wasn’t for boring old people but wasn’t stupid kid stuff, either.

I don’t exactly remember my mental state at the time, but based on the general contextual evidence of the rest of my life, it probably wasn’t all peaches and dew.   Thanks to a handful of factors, some of them social, some of them biological, moody and angst-ridden adolescence came early.  So I went looking for the angriest-looking cover I could find, ideally one with the black-and-white Parental Advisory: Explicit Content sticker that was as sure a sign of quality as the Nintendo Seal of Approval.

And there it was: a cover with angry blue storm clouds, a skull-fronted, streaking motorcycle, and a gigantic malevolent bat on a skyscraper.  I looked closer.  The biker was shirtless but for a black leather vest!  He had long hair! His right hand was most assuredly NOT on the handlebars, but glowed with some mystical power!  The bat had massive claws and matted fur!  There was an angel tied to the top of the skyscraper!  There was a swear in the title of the album!  TWICE!  This was it, I knew.  I put the disk into the stereo, expecting rage and riot and instant damnation.  My sister didn’t have any albums by Judas Priest, after all, so this would have to do.

What I heard had all the screaming guitars I could have hoped for.  But more!  There were backup singers!  There were choirs!   It reminded me of musicals, really: bombastic, orchestral, like every emotion was dialed up to 11, with a nearly Gospel fervor.  It was over-the-top, precisely because it was so sincere.  Love and loss and lust and anger and guitars and pianos and demons and angels and motorcycles and anger and death and caring about nothing and caring too MUCH and EVERYTHING LOUDER THAN EVERYTHING ELSE!

THAT, yes indeed, is what adolescence sounds like.

So what songs energized me during my actual adolescence?  I was a little bit busy being a mopey and disaffected pseudogoth at the time, so there wasn’t a whole lot of energizing going on at all.  But I could only listen to the goth-music mix tape my friend mailed me so many times, and it’s not like that music was played on local radio, or even sold in many stores.  And, honestly, it’s not like I wanted to be a big sad sans-serotonin sack, so I tried to indulge myself by keeping my spirits up as much as I self-indulged in Joy Division. So I still listened to plenty of classic rock – and made time every Sunday night for The Dr. Demento Show.

I’m not sure if I could say that any one song from Dr. D energized me more than all others.  The sheer fact that something that weird, that individualistic, that hilarious, that subversive, was on the air…  demented it may sound, but it made the world seem like a better place.  Somewhere, a man made his living playing this music.  Many somewheres, hundreds and hundreds of musicians made the music he played.  Some recorded in studios.  Some in their basements.  Some in the Cal Poly bathroom.  There were bits by people who were world-famous.  There were bits by people utterly unknown outside the field of Dementia.  And I knew they probably had day jobs.  They were office drones, or maybe they drove a taxi or something, or worked at a gas station.  This was just something they did in what spare time they had, for fun, and because they damn well had a ridiculous song inside them and wanted to let it out.

I was no musician: I pecked awkwardly at my Radio Shack keyboard; I’d never been able to get the hang of a guitar; I could only make a few asthmatic sounds on the harmonica.  But I did like writing, I did like trying to write parodies of things, and I did harbor a small, strange hope that I’d make something that got on Dr. Demento someday.  Even just once, and never again.  It hasn’t happened, of course, and probably never will, and so I’ve contented myself with the fact that the Good Doctor has played some of my requests online – including a dedication to my friends.

Still, even when I was out of the broadcast range, even when the webcasts were shut down, it’s been a comfort to know it was on the air somewhere.  And, once it wasn’t on the air anywhere, it’s been a comfort to know it was online.

So there’s no one song from Dr. D’s vast archives that makes me more energized than any other – unless, of course, you count this lovely little tune right here:

Most people my age cared about sports scores, or who got voted out on their favorite reality show.  I stayed up until midnight on Sundays so I could hear who was #1 on that week’s Funny Five.  Who knows how much that reduced sleep might have ruined Monday’s scholasticism, but I regret nothing.

But that wasn’t the only energizing music of those years, though.  When I was a junior in high school, a friend burnt me a CD-R of music.  To my chagrin, it was an assortment that one of his other friends had given him, and not that most treasured and significant of gifts: the custom mix tape.  But still, it was a notable thing, because it was the first digital music I’d ever owned.    This was shortly after the dawn of Napster, which sounded like such science fiction at the time.  Unfortunately for me, even if we’d had the kind of Internet connection that would have made downloading even a single song remotely possible, my father was so particular about the computer that he wouldn’t allow anything to be downloaded or installed at all.  No music, no files, no games, not even updates to Shockwave or Flash.  Or, as was the thing at the time, RealPlayer.  Shudder.  But we’d only had the actual Internet for all of a year at that point, so I took what I could get – and was always well aware of how meaningless and optional Internet access was to him, the person with the money, the person who made the decisions.  I wasn’t about to risk breaking any rules and losing what little access I had.

But my friend thoroughly assured me that I could play the music right from the CD, nothing would end up on the computer, and nobody would be the wiser.   And so I began my plan.  The CD came home in its clear-fronted jewel case, tucked into a pocket of my backpack.  I had an hour or so before anyone came home from work. And so I conveyed that disc to the family computer, prepared to claim it had files for a group project, should anyone get home early, see it, and ask.  The hairs on my neck rose with the thrill of rebellion.  I put in the disc and looked at its assortment of contents.  A smattering of alternative songs, perhaps a couple Metallica tracks. To see files for actual recent songs was novel, to say the least. It made me think of a mix tape recorded off the radio.  Only, CD like, you could skip from one track to another without fast-forwarding.  No longer linear.

My expectations were low. I’d only heard two kinds of audio through a computer’s speakers, honestly: full-length MIDI arrangements of pop songs, and the ten-second clips of actual songs on Encarta 95.  It was a good few years past ’95, at this point, making Encarta far too out-of-date to have anything currently popular, to my constant chagrin.  (H2G2, I thought, had the right idea, and I was certain that it would supplant the CD-ROM encyclopedias that had were already supplanting the actual books. Close, but no cigar.)  So I figured that something had to be compromised to make this possible.  Maybe it would sound tinny and distorted.  Or a little hollow, the way it sounded on my cheap handheld radio.

“Energized” is not an inaccurate way to describe how I felt upon hearing my first mp3 ever, The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

I’m not going to say it sounded true as life.  The sound was coming out of the factory-standard speakers of a Gateway 2000, two years after “2000” had forever stopped coding for “future.”    But it sounded better than the radio did, in our particular part of the semi-suburban sticks.  And not that much worse than our decades-old stereo.  The thump of the bass, the swell of the strings, the ringing of the bells, it all came through clear, at least to my untrained ear.   No static, no crackling, no DJ prattle.

I was, indeed, impressed.

And so I checked out another song on the disc — after being somewhat surprised that the next song didn’t just play automatically, and amused that I didn’t have to hammer a Skip button to get from Track 1 to Track 12.

That next song:  Fatboy Slim, “The Rockefeller Skank.”

You talk about “energized…”  This was one of the more uptempo songs I’d heard, period.  The sampling was very novel to me – I hadn’t been aware, at the time, that the orchestral backing of “Bittersweet Symphony” derived from a sample, itself – and I liked how the lyrics, such as they were, became percussion in places, or just… tones.  But the snappy drums throughout it all!  The twanging guitar riffs!  That shifting of the gears at 1:23, which I lacked (and still lack) enough music theory knowledge to describe!   It wasn’t a catchy melody, it didn’t have poetic lyrics, but damned if it didn’t make you wanna move.

Regardless of the merits of the songs themselves, the whole concept of downloadable mp3s was, itself, an utter revelation. I wanted, so badly, to find some way of secretly installing Napster and gathering up all the music I wanted, from all the bands I’d heard of but never heard, and which our local stores didn’t even carry.  But I abstained.  If only because my parents didn’t stop having 56k AOL dialup until somewhere around 2011.

But soon high school was over, and soon graduation came.  I was 18, bridging that gap between “teenager” and “adult,” and I had almost no goddamn idea what I was doing with my life.  Everything about my entire existence had led up to going to college, and I had one last summer at home before my life went beyond the bounds of familiarity or easy prediction.  I’d never have to deal with certain people ever again!  I’d possibly never get to see certain other people ever again.  The exodus was here.

And so there was one song that stuck out in my mind at that time.  One song that I heard but rarely on the radio, one that I’d blare at ear-bleeding levels from my Best of The Who CD when no one was home.  It was the first song I played when I arrived in my dorm room.  And, when the CD cracked, when I was badly in need of some motivation, when I was full of caffeine and rebellion and possessed for the first time of a high-speed Internet connection, it was the first mp3 I ever downloaded.

The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Sure, I could get into the music that excited me from my college years and beyond, but I like the idea of stopping it here.   For one, because my later musical discoveries have been rather more broad and more strange, and the storytelling would become far more convoluted and improbable.  To even establish who I heard the music from, or the context in which I heard it, or how I came into such a position in the first place… I’d need the better part of an autobiography.  (Fortunately, it would be the better part of my autobiography in many more ways than one.)

But, for another, because leaving it here best highlights a certain trend – the excitement of forbidden music.   In every case, the music that excited me was, in some sense, disallowed.  Because it was my sister’s CD.  Because I was up two hours past bedtime listening to music you’d have to be demented to put on the air.  Because they were mp3s of unknown and possibly unscrupulous origin, themselves made of illegally-sampled music.  Because it was an mp3 of known unscrupulous origin.  (But how else was I going to replace my broken CD without buying it all over again?)

Whether I was actually right or not about how forbidden the music was, or how much trouble I’d have been in if anyone had found out, that sense of anticipation primed the pumps: with the adrenaline already flowing, the hitherto aloof neurons suddenly forced into friendship, it was perhaps all the easier for the music to be exciting.  And, as I’ve readily admitted all throughout these prompts, it’s often not about the music itself: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the beat, just the utterly self-contained associations that the music evokes within my three pounds of squishy grey thinkmeat.

Still, each song was another chip out of my barriers and inhibitions.  Another fleck of mortar from between the bricks of the wall.  (That song, too, was exciting and anthemic once, in a way it can perhaps only be when you’re in seventh grade.)  And now, somehow, not only do I have a hole in that wall, I find myself in the position where I get to chip holes in the walls of others.  I get to share songs with people.  Songs that make them laugh, mashups that blow their minds, songs they’ve never heard before, songs they forgot they remembered.  It’s nothing but a party playlist, and yet… it’s one of the highlights of my entire week.

I’m still no musical expert.  I don’t know house from EDM, I don’t know how you tell black metal and death metal apart, and I wouldn’t know shoegaze if it gave me a flying kick with cleats.   But – and this is quite a momentous thing for me – I know what I think is fun, and not only do I get to have fun, I get to facilitate fun in other people.  Which is absolutely incredible, and energizing beyond almost anything except for sharing the things I write.  (Well, possibly moreso.  Sharing what I write is still at least five times more terrifying.)

But there’s nothing quite like wrapping up a multi-hour set, possibly while the sun begins to drag itself over the horizon, and playing one last wildly uptempo hurrah.

And so, the one that’s perhaps my favorite:

I haven’t gone many places in this world, to be honest.  I doubt I ever will.  There’s a lot I’ll never get to see or do, because of time and work and money and pain.  But this song always makes me feel like I have been on a hell of a journey, that I have come a long way through strange and varied lands, that I have owned more than could ever be summed — and that even more lay ahead.  For the four minutes of that song, the world is wide, and it’s not being held up away from me, and there’s a place in it for weirdness.

And, as it ends, another little chip falls away.

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Day 21 – a song from your favourite movie

And now I have to figure out my favorite movie!  Gracious.

As certain long-suffering friends of mine could attest, movies have not played a central role in my life.  Going to the movies was a once- or twice-a-year treat, and, those rare times I got to rent a movie, I tended to stick with my standards.  As a result, there are many classics I’ve never seen, or never saw until far, far later than you’d expect.  I never saw The Wizard of Oz until I was in 8th grade; I never saw The Goonies until I’d already graduated from college.  Of the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list, I’ve seen a whopping 21.  That’s almost a quarter, hey?

In the past few years, I’ve been seeing more movies, for certain – though not exactly any more of the classics.  I haven’t seen Citizen Kane, but I have seen DEATH BED: The Bed That Eats!  (Somewhere, a cinephile wicks an unbidden tear from his eye.)

So picking a sincere favorite film is… tough.  I can’t even read films very well, honestly, which makes even the best film hard to appreciate.  The bigger the cast, the more similar the characters, the more lost I am.  (The Godfather is the story of a whole bunch of indistinguishable black-haired guys in suits who kill each other for, probably, reasons.)  As with everything else on this list, I gall at picking a “best” anything – I don’t know enough about film to make that determination.  But when it comes to a subjective favorite… yeah, I’m still not sure..

In terms of the films I’ve simply watched more than anything else, I’d say it probably comes down to Star Wars or, possibly, HELP!  The one is a used-future modernization of the classic Monomyth.  The other is two or so hours of The Beatles being ridiculous.  But both of them are… comforting, in some way.  No matter what sort of mood I’m in, I’ll probably enjoy watching either one, and my mood will be all the better for having watched it by the time the credits roll.

Star Wars is… well, it’s Star Wars.  For all that it’s yet another riff on that same old Monomyth structure, it still feels so much like a glimpse into other worlds.  So many great aliens and robots and languages and technologies!  And, yes, so much great music.  I still remember being amazed to realize that different characters had different songs!  There was the Imperial March, obviously, but there were other bits of soundtrack that related to specific characters, varying a bit depending on what was happening!  Amazing!  It felt like a secret code somehow, a whole extra layer of information hiding in plain sight.  Not to mention that it was just plain beautiful.

Of course, I love the main theme and the Imperial March.  And if ever I fail to have chills on the Binary Sunset scene, just go ahead and put a tag on my toe.

But, much as I may love that one… I think The Throne Room / End Title are even better.  Bittersweet, of course, because it means the movie’s over.  But triumphant nevertheless, and carrying all the pride and weariness and relief without a single word being said.  Well, besides [assorted beeps] and [roar].

Not that I’m ever going to get married, but if I were, this is what I’d be playing when I went back up the aisle.

That’s right.  Eat a bag of ’em, Mendelssohn.

And what of HELP!, you may ask?  It’s a tough call there, as well, given that the entire movie is basically an excuse for The Beatles to lark around in the Alps and the Bahamas, playing music all the while.  And given that I’m being pressed to pick a favorite Beatles song, and that’s just onerous.

But the one that I like most today, at least, is probably “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”  The slow jangling strumming, Ringo’s despondent tambourine-playing, the unexpected bits of classical flute… just plain lovely.

In fact, it was the first song I ever sang at karaoke. And, no, you don’t get to hear that.

I feel somewhat bad about this post, because I feel I should have something more to say.  But I don’t really have anything complex or profound to say about the songs themselves, or the movies themselves.  They are what they are!  Much as I may love analyzing things to death and back, some things are somewhat monolithic in my mind, and Star Wars and The Beatles are among them.  I’ll savor the minutia I pick up on, but I don’t always try to pick everything apart, weigh it, qualify it, justify it.  I allow it, and my enjoyment of it, to exist unquestioned.  And there are bits that make me grin, if not laugh, every single time, no matter how many times it’s been.  I’m glad enough of that; I’d hate to kill the jokes for good and all.

But I can question why I have that approach, of course!  And my best guess is not just that I was entranced by Star Wars, growing up, or that I also grew up feasting on a rich and steady diet of oldies (including an acceptable parts per million of Beatles.)  But it’s also that both movies gave me some small, scrabbling fingernailhold on social relevance, back in the dark days of late elementary school and junior high.  They gave me some common ground with friends, or at least with people that I hoped I could get away with calling “friends.” (I was used to social interactions that were asymmetrical, to say the least.)  But those movies were somewhat off the radar, at the time.  It was still shameful to be too much a nerd, back then; there weren’t many who’d openly admit to liking Star Wars, Star Trek, or anything else old or uncool.  Sharing an open fondness for these things created a camaraderie, a sense of being brothers in (pasty, noodly) arms.  A social… not relevance, really; perhaps mere presence, which was otherwise unattainable.  I had Things In Common with people, and they would actually talk to me about those Things!  It was a whole new world, I tell you.

Though these movies and these songs are still nearly timeless presences in my life, there is still some sense in which they’re never as vibrant as they’d been back then, back when it was us against the world — or, well, me and those people that acknowledged me against the world, not exactly like a team or anything, but, you know, headed the same general direction, coincidentally, for now.

Indeed, “for then,” for the most part; the last I’d heard, one of them became a real estate agent and the other joined the Peace Corps, and both are somehow married, and the world still seems a little upside-down for it, because apparently they figured out how to stop being awkward adolescent nerdlingers, and here I am in my underwear watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eating a Christmas Tree Cake that had fallen behind the microwave.

But I do still keep in touch with the other of that strange small crowd, who’s in much the same odd boat, and who’s proved a more genuine and longstanding friend than any I’ve had.  There’s a delightful sense in which we’ve just been having the same single, sprawling conversation for a couple decades now, with occasional brief interruptions to go to the bathroom or go to bed or have a shitty relationship for a few years.  But the conversation always picks up again later, no need for “Hello” or “How are you,” just back into the swing of discussing whatever bits of music or movie or TV or life we care to discuss.

Like those movies themselves, it’s a comforting, familiar presence that can improve any sort of day, one which always elicits a grin at the least, which I enjoy just as it is, and which I don’t tend to question.  Is that profound, or just really myopic?  I don’t know.  (Third base.)

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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 19 – A Song That Describes You / Your Personality

I’ve written at least two drafts of this post, then scrapped them.

Like everything else in this 30 Days (hah!) of Songs prompt, this just wants an example of a song that reflects some facet of your life. But ye gods and little fishes, “A Song That Describes You / Your Personality?!”

First, I tried to describe myself and define my personality, which involved trying to break myself down into each of the so-called five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.  Of course, having broken things down so particularly, it only made it more difficult to find songs that described each element.

Then I tried to think of songs I’ve ever considered anthemic.  Which seemed promising, right up until I realized that many of the songs that were anthems at some point just aren’t so relevant anymore.  They describe me-as-I-was-at-a-time, but that isn’t the me that I am now.  It’s not as if those elements aren’t part of my life at all anymore.  They’re just… not at the forefront.  I hate to call them smaller or quieter, in case they’re truly just as large, possibly even bigger, only appearing so small because of foreshortening.  Perspective is a killer.  Still, the fact that they aren’t first and foremost in my self-identification… that’s something.

In short, my personality just isn’t quite what it used to be.

Not that I’m complaining at all. It’s just… strange, I suppose, to realize how inverted everything has become.

I’d been so introverted before, with no sense of will, no sense of agency, and not even much sense of identity. It’s inaccurate to say that there was a certain sort of person that I aspired to be – aspiration was selfish and the idea of being anything was hubris. But there was a certain sort of person that I felt intense guilt about not being able to be. There were things that I couldn’t really *want* at the time, but could regret not having. Feelings that I couldn’t precisely wish I could feel, but could acknowledge the feeling-shaped holes where they… not “should have been,” not even “could have been,” but a neutral, non-presumptuous “might have possibly fit, in a way that provided utility.”

On a really good day, I could write something creative, make a clever photoshop of some kind, have the wherewithal to do practical things, feel okay about going out in public, and even feel various emotions.  Excitement, goofiness, affection, awe, and possibly something that couldn’t really be considered “optimism,” but an absence of foreboding.  Something that couldn’t be called “pride,” but a temporary failure to acknowledge shame.  It’s not like I suddenly thought I was an okay person who had any sort of potential.  I just managed to not notice or care about how awful everything was for a while.  I’d even have conversations with a friend or two online, and we’d make each other laugh.  On a really good day, I might actually spend time with someone in person, going to get coffee or lunch.

Of course, the next day – or later that same day – perspective would come crashing back with a vengeance, and I’d think of all the time and energy I’d wasted, and what an absolute moron I looked like, and how much more likely it was that people were going to use my every action as fodder for mockery and mistreatment.  For many, many years, whenever I’d displayed any sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or even minor interest, it was used against me, after all.  Switching off seemed like the best method of self-defense.

So, on an average day, I just tried to do as little as possible, to feel as little as possible, to exist as little as possible, generally trying to keep under life’s radar.  I did the things that were expected, or that I was told to do, or that would make my life blatantly and abundantly worse if I didn’t do them – if just because I was trying to have as completely non-remarkable an existence as possible.  It wasn’t laziness that made me such a doormat, it was my absolute conviction that, if I had the audacity to think or feel or do or want anything for myself, something absolutely horrible would be done to me or the people I cared about.  Because, as I absolutely knew at my core, I didn’t deserve to be happy, I didn’t deserve to be comfortable, I didn’t deserve to feel safe or wanted or welcome or acceptable, and even existing was only acceptable to the degree that it was more convenient for everyone than the alternative.

I had a vague concept that I could somehow earn the right to happiness if I did… something.  If I graduated, if I got a job, if I kept a certain amount of money in my account, if I had a relationship, if my body looked acceptable, if my grades were within certain parameters.  If I failed at those obvious, attainable tasks, how could I expect to earn something so nebulous as “happiness” or “value” or “worth?”  It couldn’t just come out of nowhere; I couldn’t just decide that I was enough.  But no matter how close I got to any of those things, no matter if I actually surpassed them, it wasn’t enough.  It proved nothing.  Nothing I could ever do would overcome the fact that it was me doing it.  Every single accomplishment I achieved inherently meant less – for me and for everyone around me – because I accomplished it.  Nothing I could do could bring me up; I could only drag things down to my level.  And so there was no way to get from where I was to where I thought I might sort of like to be, because no matter what I did, how hard I tried, or even if I succeeded, I’d still be me.

And now…

In the past week alone, I’ve had a meeting for the upcoming RPG for which I’m the editor, I’ve completed my first commissioned writing work, I’ve done my day job, I’ve cooked some dinners, coordinated an event, made its poster, filed my taxes, filled out loan repayment paperwork, spent time in person with my best friend, played a tabletop RPG, made plans to go visit another friend, DJ’d, gone shopping, and spent time with my significant otter.

Very few of these things were even conceivable fifteen years ago.  Or even ten.  Or five.

I interact with more people.  I’m more open to people.  I take more initiative.  I doubt less.  I worry less.  I panic less about making mistakes: I’ve made enough that haven’t ended the world, and I’ve even made some that led to positive things.  I’ve realized that no matter how much I plan or predict, I won’t get everything right: I’ll still mess things up, nothing will ever be absolutely perfect, and everything could always have been better.  But I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, something is better than nothing.  That it’s better to put something into the world, even if it’s not perfect, even if it could never be perfect, than to just sit on your hands and wish it were possible.

How did I get to the point where I was doing all these things?  Really, it’s because I started small.  Taking those tiny steps that seemed so completely insurmountable.  Knowing I wasn’t ready, and would NEVER feel ready, and just doing it anyway.  Deciding to be bold and dumb and stupid, to make ridiculous mistakes. If I started panicking and regretting everything and telling myself I Should Not Have Done This, This Was A Terrible Mistake, I made myself punch through it.  No ragequitting, no ha-ha-only-kidding, no sour grapes.  Just doing the thing, and if I didn’t like how well I did that thing, if I didn’t think I did a good enough job at that thing, if I was embarrassed to exist because of the thing, then I made myself do the thing again next time.  Either I’d improve, or the novelty would wear off, or it would become normalized, but either way, the panic would subside and I would be doing a thing I hadn’t done before.

As a dear friend once put to me, in his blunt but effective way, nobody really cares about these things but me.  That didn’t mean I shouldn’t care, or that my worry was invalid, or that my anxiety – by existing alone – had already made me fail.  And that didn’t mean that anything could take away the past: everything that happened, happened, and he held no expectation that I should change what I felt about it.   The only thing that could influence anything, from that point forward, was what I did next.  I could bail, hide my head, and resolve to never make the mistake of trying something new ever again.  And that would be fine.  Nobody would judge that. In all likelihood, nobody would even notice, and in time, nobody would even remember my attempt.  That’s the option that played to all my instincts.  But, as he said, in a way that somehow made it sound logical for the first time in my life, I could try again.  It wouldn’t take away what happened the first time.  But, assuming anyone noticed at all, they’d have noticed that I kept trying.

And I did.  And because I did, an unfathomable chain of events unfolded, over the course of years.  Uncountable small steps, some broader strides than others, some veering or stumbling.  But, in time… I’ve become who I am in the place that I am and in the condition that I’m in.

In short, I’ve slowly stepped out of the Spotlight Effect.  I’m not actually so magically horrible that average people notice or care. It doesn’t radiate off of me.  I don’t have a universal reputation as something worthless.  Nor am I somehow dutybound to express all misgivings about my worth, lest someone make the mistake of thinking I’m an okay thing.   At some point in the not-so-very-distant past, I came to realize that more people were neutral toward me than antagonistic, and that a surprising number of people were actually benevolent.  I still don’t really know that I deserve that degree of kindness, but it appears to be there whether I deserve it or not, because the kinds of people I’ve surrounded myself with are truly just that incredible.

I still worry that I’ve become selfish, of course.  Doing things, calling attention to myself, taking the initiative to make things happen just because I think that other people might like them.  Upsetting applecarts left, right, and centre.  But I’ve received so much positive feedback that it’s reinforced me to continue doing these things that I happen to like and want, and that other people happen to like and want even more.

And yet there’s an inherent hypocrisy to it.  I can’t believe that everyone who ever said anything awful to me was wrong, but everyone who ever says anything kind to me is correct.  Granted, there’s quite a gulf of years between the times of greatest awful and the times of greatest kind.   The criticisms of the past may feel like they hold true, but perhaps they don’t anymore.  The commendations of the present may ring hollow in the empty halls of that past, but perhaps they are relevant now.  This is the downside of isolation: you lack an outsider’s perspective on who you are and what you’re like.  Have I changed to become worthy of pleasant things somehow?  Was I always so? Am I actually mistaken and selfish, somehow blind to how terrible I am (despite how, by almost all objective metrics, I’ve undeniably worsened in every regard?)  Have I let myself be fooled by everyone else’s kindness, fooled into believing I’m a more worthwhile person than I actually am?  Am I just always going to feel worthless when I’m actually all right, and feel worthwhile when I’m actually a walking ruin?  Which is more ignoble?

I don’t think I have any answers.   But I think that’s okay.

All of that having been said, I’m still not sure there’s any one song that best describes me or my personality.  But this song resonates with me quite a lot lately, and once I actually took the time to look into the lyrics, I think it can be representative of this entire transition.

It sings of the constant clawing of regrets and the clangor of judgment. It sings of recognizing the depth of the dark and having no firm faith that anything will lead to light. Of questioning oneself constantly, forever beating a dead horse, never able to resolve anything.  Of a life confined and constrained, surrounded by dangers personal and impersonal and random, past and present and future.  But, above all else, it sings of an acceptance of that past, and even an acceptance of hope, and, with that acceptance, a shedding of old skins.  It sings of a life confined that moves forward not with great bravery, not with confidence, and not in pursuit of something sure and good and light – but, rather, by accepting that something awful could very well happen, that it could all be a terrible mistake, and Doing It Anyway.

The song that best describes the arc of my personality over the past few years is “Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine.

 

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