Category Archives: Personal

Yen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Towel Day

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

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


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

Ave Et Vale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PBS was a great teacher of these virtues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock & Roll, Episode 4: The Wild Side.

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

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

The episode began with a profile of The Velvet Underground.

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

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

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

And then there came this segment and this man.

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

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

And this music!  I like this music!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seeyou

Tagged , ,

Impostor Syndrome

Today – technically yesterday – I’ve done something that simultaneously feels very bold and very belated: I’ve made a profile on a freelancer marketing platform.

I’ve always wanted to be A Professional Writer of some kind, and this is really the most obvious and respectable way of going about it.  But it’s still, to be completely professional and respectable, shorts-shartingly terrifying.

My relevant experience is negligible, and some of my most personally-meaningful accomplishments are so obscure that I feel like I’d need a thirty-minute long audiovisual presentation to even begin providing the basic context.  I couldn’t even bring myself to list the actual paying freelance work I did earlier this year, just because I’m sure the average client would find it unconventional to the point of abstruse. I’m nowhere near good enough or competent enough to do this.  But somehow I’m apparently doing it anyway?

I was somewhat relieved to see that the platform had skills assessment tests, right on site.  I’m one of those few, rare people who actually made Poor Life Decisions by not majoring in English, so I thought it would be nice to get some objective proof of my writing skills without having to spend four years of my life and another few thousand dollars in cash so that I could wave a diploma around.

But I was a little concerned. Sure, I love writing.  Sure, I’m pretty good at it. Sure, I’m one of those weirdos who loved spelling bees and competed on the high school Spell Bowl team. Sure, I’ve somehow cultivated such a strong and practically innate-seeming fluency in the English language that spelling, grammar, and usage errors can make me feel like I’m being stabbed in the brain.  But this is a site for professionals, and I am… not one of those.

So I took a basic English skills test and steeled myself for an “above average” at best.  Instead, I missed one question because it had two valid answers, and I wound up in the top 3%.

My first thought was, “There has clearly been a mistake.”

So I took a spelling test, and I wound up with the top score out of all users.

Rationally, I know that strong performance on an objective skills test is – assuming the accuracy of the test – absolutely strong evidence that the person is good at those skills.  And I’m pretty sure that it would be normal and acceptable for that well-performing person to feel some sort of pride and accomplishment.  If this were anybody else in the Universe, I’d absolutely believe they were really inordinately good at those skills, and I’d say they should be very proud!

For some irrational reason, though, those beliefs are not at all absolute if the person in question is me.

Instead, my brain pulls the Cognitive Dissonance Fire Alarm.

I actually feel intensely uncomfortable about doing well on these skills tests – like there’s something wrong with the test, or like I caused a problem somehow, or like they’ll somehow see my Google search history, see that I looked up a couple of the words after the fact because they got songs stuck in my head, and decide that I had somehow cheated retroactively.  Even if none of those are the case, I feel like I’ve just painted a big bright target on my head, and that everyone’s going to be paying attention to me to find all of my flaws. This is business, after all. AND it’s the Internet.  I’ve accidentally made myself out to be “better” than other people, and that’s absolutely unacceptable.  I feel even more like, from this point forward, I am never allowed to make any sort of mistake.

This is old familiar ground, really.  I’d say I’ve walked it before, but there was very little walking involved.  Instead, it’s a place of complete paralysis: the paralysis that comes of believing that mistakes are both unacceptable and unavoidable, and that, if you can’t be certain of doing something absolutely right, you have no right to do anything at all.

I even took another office skills test, just because I thought I’d do okay-but-not-awesome at it, thus putting myself in more comfortable territory.  Knocking myself down a few pegs before anybody else has the chance to.

I got in the top 3% of that, too, and I am doing to go dig a hole and hide in it.

For someone who is attempting to become a freelancer, this reaction is incredibly non-optimal.

This freelance platform I signed up on has gone through three name changes since I first learned about it.  I’m not even sure how many times I’ve gone to the site – whatever it was at the time – thought about signing up, decided I was nowhere near good enough to even try, and closed it again for another year.

I know it’s stupid to even consider it significant, but the fact I’ve signed up at all feels like a milestone.

But it also feels like a millstone.  So much is going to be expected of me.  Can I carry the weight of this?  What if I can’t? What if I’m promising more than I can fulfill?  What if it doesn’t matter because I don’t get any clients? What if I do get clients? What if they hate my work? What if I’m not actually educated enough in writing to do it correctly, and this seat-of-my-pants, doing-what-sounds/looks/feels-right is going to make me a complete failure? Because, seriously, I know what a grammatical sentence looks like, but I still forget what the pluperfect is, or what a subordinate clause is, so what do I really know?

And then there’s all the other practical stuff. What if they don’t pay me? What if I’m asking for too much money? Or not enough? Between this, the dayjob, my book, and that craft project I intend to have ready by mid-January, what kind of unholy mess am I making of my taxes?  What if I’m doing something terribly wrong as I start out that’s going to chaotically branch forth into uncountably many more mistakes with every step I take?

What the hell gives me the right to act like anything I do should be worth anything to a stranger?

The thing that bothers me most is that I know exactly why this reaction is happening.  Given the set of assumptions I have in my brain, it’s a logical, justified, and even necessary conclusion.  So it’s incredibly hard to make it stop happening in any way that feels equally logical, justified, and necessary.

Let me give you a little context about tests.

I did well at school, growing up.  As I’ve said before, it was the only thing I did well at.  I didn’t have any more practical skills or talents, I looked like a third-rate Muppet knockoff, and I had all the coordination of a newborn foal, but at least I could conquer a standardized test.  The most nervewracking part of any test, for me, was trying to keep my #2 pencil marks inside the circles while trying to make my mark heavy and dark. I got along with my teachers better than I got along with my classmates – they, of course, subscribed to that same value system.  But I was an eager participant in it all.  I wanted to listen quietly, hands clasped, and learn.  I was excited to learn new ideas.  I felt validated when something I said or did impressed an adult.  So I saw my grades as a clear, objective evaluation of my merit – the evidence for how competent, valuable, and worthwhile I was as a human being.

In second grade, I took a placement test for the gifted and talented program.  I remember sitting in the brown-brick cafeteria in an uncomfortable plastic chair at a round, beige table, looking at a question at the top of the right-hand page of my test booklet.  The test was nearly over, and I’d thought I’d been doing so well.  The math problems had bothered me some, but all the word problems had been easy, and the pattern-problems were fun.  But this innocuous multiple-choice question was confusing:  to my great discomfort, it had a word I did not know.

I squirmed in the ugly orange seat.  They’d said this part of the test booklet wasn’t like the rest of the test, so I raised my hand to risk asking a question of one of the milling adults – feeling like I was trying to cheat, not sure if they’d be allowed to answer.  But one of the adults came over to me, and I awkwardly asked the shameful question.

“What’s this word?”

The word, she – smiling – said, was opinion.

It meant your own feelings and thoughts, and so there was no right answer!

“But how do you know what to pick?”

The right answer is the answer you think is right!

“…But what if that isn’t any of these?”

Just pick whatever’s closest, or whatever you feel like picking!

All of this was profoundly uncomfortable.  I complained about it at the dinner table that night, feeling like I’d been tricked.

My new classmates, however, also gave clear and objective evaluations of my merit, and they were significantly less glowing. The more I tried to assert myself and my interests, the worse it got. Some refused to talk to me, some just tried out their favorite insults no matter what they were, some tried to mislead me or build up false hope.  A few brimmed with that carefree, pure-hearted cruelty that only a child can know.  The only reason I wasn’t actually beaten up was that anyone who touched me for any reason was just as shunned as I was – at least for a little while.

Adults, of course, did little to help or to teach me whatever social nuances I lacked. Instead, they recited that dreaded litany: Ignore Them And They’ll Go Away.  Forgetting, somehow, that they don’t, and that this only makes bullies try different and harder-to-ignore things. Forgetting, somehow, that nobody else was ever going to speak up for me besides myself.  And forgetting, somehow, that they’d instilled in me one core belief: that being wrong and doing wrong were equal, and equally prohibited.

Learning wasn’t as valuable as knowing, and improvement was only as good as an apology: it was expected, and it was even noble, but it was never as valuable as as never having made a mistake to begin with.

I couldn’t understand why, when it came to Statements About Who I Was And What I Was Worth, being incorrect no longer mattered.

Ultimately, I just couldn’t sanely sustain this belief that everyone – everyone but me – was allowed to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  I was supposed to be A Good Student, a gold-star stellar nursery in the nebulous fug of a thousand scratch-and-sniff stickers.  But I was nothing but the sum of a thousand red check marks, forever unbalanced against a straight-A+ ideal.   I wasn’t even truly good at the only thing I was good at, and no matter how good I was, it wouldn’t save me from all the other awful things about me.

The only way I could make any sort of peace with myself was to assume that everyone wasn’t wrong – that only the logically-consistent things people said about me were true, that I was simply too stupid to even know which things they were, and that my insistence on asserting myself – and even on having a sense of self – was the direct cause of the problem.

Early on in school, I simply couldn’t wait until I became an adult so that my fellow adults would take me seriously, appreciate my work, and even give me whole hundreds of dollars for it!  I was going to be a writer, and I was going to say really interesting things that would even teach the adults, and people were going to be proud!

Before elementary school was out, I was trying to go entire days without speaking or being spoken to, and wishing I simply didn’t exist.

I still did well on most schoolwork – when I wasn’t hamstringing myself by forgetting assignments or turning things in late.  But I no longer had the idea of doing well in school and getting a career and having a future.  That was hubris.  I was just trying to do whatever would be least noticeable, least bothersome, least remarkable.  I still hated the thought of making mistakes, still feared getting in trouble, still saw decades of horrible consequences spiraling out from my every smallest flaw – but I was so overwhelmed by it all that I couldn’t see the point of trying, sometimes.  Nothing good would make up for all the bad, and I’d only find a way to ruin it.

My best was never good enough, because it was my best.

Now I’m many years removed from school, trying to keep my head above water in the Real World.  But some of those old, bad lessons linger on.

Every time I venture into any new territory, no matter how small and well-calculated that step, I fear it’s a world full of classmates – now older, craftier, and more powerful – who not just might but will try to make my life terrible. People who do not need any reasons, who do not care about being wrong, who do not care about being punished, and who are serving me my rightful punishment for having the stupid, selfish gall not just to exist but to call attention to myself.

But I learned, not so long ago, that it’s really just a world full of adults: people whose answers often rely on ignorance, artificially limited choices, and carefully-filled circles.  People who, somehow, don’t know yet don’t feel wrong, don’t care yet don’t feel cruel.  People who legitimately don’t expect anything out of me in any way, because they will never even register my existence.  I learned that I am not, somehow, the focal point for everything everyone dislikes.  Not everything is my fault.  Even some of the things I could, in theory, have helped or have prevented, are somehow not my fault, and aren’t even mistakes!  People are not going to automatically blame me for everything just because it’s easy or funny. People do not magically know how awful I am.  They somehow don’t even realize I’m awful at all until and unless I tell them so, strangely enough.  Even then, they often say I’m wrong!  Regardless, whatever they know about me is based only on what I show them, and it’s not dishonest or necessarily even selfish to share the things that I personally find more appealing.

I wish I would have realized this a long time ago, in all those years of deer-in-the-headlight paralysis.

But, to this day, some part of me feels like the word opinion is a nasty trick.  Yet another setup by someone trying to get me to say wrong and ridiculous things about myself, trying to get me to assert anything about myself at all.

There are still times I wish I could be some anonymous, formless cipher. That someone could need work to be done, and that I could do that work, and could receive some sort of compensation and vague appreciation for having done that work, but without anyone giving me any actual attention or scrutiny. Something with personality and experience enough to make work that’s lively and interesting, witty and engaging, and worthy of the occasion, without in any way conveying the false idea that it, itself, is interesting or witty or worthy.   Something still so ultimately immaterial that IT, itself, is less than an afterthought.

A friendly ghost, only without all that unpleasant-sounding “being dead” malarkey.

Instead, I feel more like Schroedinger’s cat: not dead, not alive, unduly affected by the simple act of observation, and probably better left as a thought experiment.

But here’s the thing: I went through so much of my life trying to be a nothing, or trying to be whatever my observer wanted. And it was always out of fear that they’d be something more like a classmate.

The amazing thing is, though, that there are surprisingly few classmates out there, and a hell of a lot of adults, but there’s truly an incredible number of teachers.  True teachers.  Patient, compassionate, knowledgeable people of all ages and backgrounds who know wonderful things and are glad to share, who accept my interest and participation, who support my work as it stands, encourage me to develop, and even help me redeem myself for my mistakes. People who don’t just give me a checkmark, a gold star, a number, but – bizarrely enough – seem to want to learn things from me as much as I want to learn things from them.  People who let me work with them to help create something more amazing than either one of us could have accomplished alone.  People who see other people as they are, and as they can be.

It’s understandable that I formed such terrible expectations of other people, and it’s understandable that I tried to dissolve myself.

But it’s also understandable that I was wrong on both counts, and that that’s okay.

So I am stepping forth into freelancing, and maybe ghostwriting, and maybe things I can’t even expect – or maybe nothing at all.  But it’s a very me-ish thing that I’m doing. I’m putting myself out there with the one-and-only thing I’m good at, the supposed best of myself, and crucial, company- or even life-affecting assignments could be on the line. I’m going to make mistakes, and things are going to be imperfect, and there will probably be clients who are insensible or cruel or downright criminal.  And, yes, this is terrifying, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live up to any expectations.  Especially not the expectations someone might have of anyone who, however accidentally, is showing themselves to be objectively high-performing at something. They will expect their perfect ideal, and I may or may not be able to fulfill that.

I just have to try to remember that most-incredible thing I’ve come to learn through all of this: that no matter how bad I’m doing compared to any objective measure, no matter how bad I know I am as a person, no matter if my very best just isn’t very much…

…Sometimes, maybe, it’s good enough to help someone today.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Into The Wild

Now that my 30 Days of Songs endeavor is over – and now that it’s, er, exactly two years since I began it – I’ve been wondering what to turn my focus toward.  Current-events commentary?  General slice-of-life journaling?  Flash fiction, even?  Should I find a new set of writing prompts – perhaps one without a ludicrous time limit to which I would certainly fail to adhere?  Should I just write about whatever I feel like writing about, and if so, what is that, anyway?

As I’ve warned since the very outset, I had and have no fixed plans on what this blog was going to contain, or what “audience” I’m going to aim for.  Certain posts have been unexpectedly popular, which I greatly appreciate.  Others are ones that I enjoy, but that are likely too personal for anyone else to bother slogging through.  Still others, I believe, only got hits because of Google Image Search.  So it goes.

Part of my brain nags at me that I should be taking my writing more seriously.  That, if I’m going to be making a public blog like this, I should curate it more carefully: even if I do intend it as a dumping ground for stray thoughts, it should be a little bit more like a well-maintained compost bin, and a little bit less like an open-air latrine.

It even tells me that I should be busy looking for freelance writing opportunities, no matter how little they pay, and that I should try to cultivate a strong and specific niche.  Anything outside that niche should either be put up on some other blog or simply kept to myself.

And it tells me that I should do more to promote this, and post in it on a regular schedule, and display more rigor and consistency in every aspect.  I have followers somehow, after all!  People have liked the things that I’ve written – utter strangers – and they presumably want more of the same!  They don’t just want any old thing that I write, they want more of whatever-it-was that they liked, and the more diverse my blatherings are, the more I’m going to dissatisfy a lot of people a lot of the time.

And yet.

I relish the idea of wild spaces.  Gardens are lovely, of course – everything in its place, everything complementing everything else, with well-edged paths between.  And farms are important, too – productive and predictable, churning out nutritious things for someone to chew on.  But there’s something about the wild. You venture in, and you don’t know what you’re going to see.

Perhaps there’s a woodpecker bashing its head against a massive old tree – and, by some miracle, actually opening up a hole, exposing and destroying the bugs, and even making itself a place to live.  Perhaps there’s an old fallen log, damp and decayed – but now clad in an emerald shawl of moss.  Perhaps a little fungus grows, a pale ball of isolation, but with the smallest prod it bursts with eager and lively spores.

Perhaps, sometimes, there’s just a very angry badger.

I spent a lot of time in my backyard, as a child.  It was fairly large, and in a rather rural area, and so there were plenty of natural things to observe.  The stationary saga of the maple trees: from deep red buds on scraggly twigs to broad green leaves that showed their silvery underbellies when the late spring winds picked up.  The twirling helicopter-like seeds that spun to the ground; the browning and falling of the leaves themselves.  I took peace in the fact that Nature still seemed to know what it was doing, and would keep on in its own dispassionate and untouchable way.

It wasn’t really wild.  Trees were trimmed, bushes pruned, grass mowed.  Dead trees were cut down, to my distress. But, even within the fairly small confines of the yard, little bits of the wild always crept in.  Puddles formed in the gravel driveway, and mud daubers bowed by the waterside to gather their supplies.  Spiders wove their webs in bushes and under gutters – darting brown flatweb spiders, lurking in their funnels; slender-legged argiopes with their vivid black and yellow abdomens and their faintly cranial thoraces; bulbous orangey orb weavers, their webs rimed in mothdust.  Sky blue eggshells might lean against a trunk as Spring turned toward Summer; translucent, earth-caked cicada shells clung to the bark as Summer turned to Fall.  On a lucky day, there might be mantids or red-tailed hawks or little brown bats.  Once in a great rare while, there’d be a coyote or deer.

Whenever I ventured out the door, I always had hopes of what I might see.  But I learned a certain lesson early on, and I’ve found that it applies to almost every aspect of life.

And, no, it isn’t “Always carry a good Poking Stick,” though that can be useful, too.

It’s a somewhat more abstract and impractical lesson, and one that I sometimes had to consciously remind myself of as I explored – especially on those days in the jaws of February, when everything was brown and grey and silent, and I was hoping for any smallest sign of spring.

“Don’t look for, look at.

If I set out looking for something – if I tried to hunt for morels or even toadstools, Brown Thrashers or even Bobwhites, Swallowtails or even Sulfur Moths – I was usually disappointed. Not just because I didn’t see what I was looking for – Nature operated on its own schedule, not mine – but because I was so caught up in that specific quest that I failed to notice the other things that were happening all around me. I had specific criteria for what I wanted and expected, and if they weren’t fulfilled, I’d be chagrined – until I realized that the problem wasn’t with Nature being boring, the problem was with my expectations and perception.

Sometimes, acquiescing to that fact felt like lowering my standards. Sometimes, it even felt like doublethink – attempting to believe I wasn’t actually hoping to see the things I hoped to see.  Sometimes, it felt like the mindset of a ritual – on the one hand, my will; on the other, the world; my experience sitting in the middle, trying to bring the two into balance without making myself aware I was trying.

And so there was a corollary, as well:

“If all else fails, just be.”

The yard – and to a much greater extent, any given park or bit of wilderness – was a place where I could simply exist.  To stand as a creature among creatures.  And part of that was acknowledging that I wouldn’t see what I wanted to see, I wouldn’t necessarily get what I wanted, and my best bet was to learn to want whatever the world presented.  (Or, when that was frigid 30mph wind without a hint of snow, and nothing but empty limbs clawing at a flat grey sky, I could at least appreciate going back in to a warm living room and a comfy fleece blanket.)

At heart, that’s what I want out of this blog, too.

I don’t want to make an orderly garden or productive farm.  I don’t want to go about my day looking for things to blog about, denying certain things that don’t fit my arbitrary expectations.  I don’t want to limit myself only to writing about the most beautiful and rare things, or to writing about only those things that are most predictable and stable.

Perhaps it’s somewhat unprofessional.

Uncivilized.

But what I basically want is to open the door and write about what I’m experiencing.  Even though that’s often ephemeral and divergent; even though it may not relate to anything else, or matter to anyone.  I just want to walk into the wilds of my brain, see what’s happening in there, and put it into words.

I might plant the seed of a prompt and watch it grow.  I might analyze something specific, looking at it from all angles, turning it over to see the ant colony underneath, trying to investigate where and how far it sprawls.  I might look at my vague clouds of thought and emotion and attempt to see patterns in them – whether it’s whimsical pareidolia or an attempt to forecast the weather.

That may not be what anyone else wants out of this blog, of course.

But there’s no way I could satisfy everyone with this blog, and I doubt there’s any way I could satisfy anyone.  All I can do is say that this isn’t a single-crop farm, and it isn’t an orderly garden.  It’s not even true and noble wilderness.  It’s just a big park, full of small-scale wonders and surrounded by the painfully mundane – sometimes a place for peaceful observation, sometimes a place to play games, sometimes a place to rest in the sun while listening to music, sometimes a place to explore.  A place that’s trying really hard not to be bulldozed and turned into an office complex.

But it’s open to the public – and anyone who likes any or all of its manifold features is welcome to wander around with me.  There’s no telling where we’ll go or what we’ll see, but, hopefully, that’s part of what makes it enjoyable.

Though you might want to bring a stick.

Tagged , ,

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

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

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

This is not particularly unexpected behavior for a church.

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

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

John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP”

The initialism stands “As SLow aS Possible.”

This is the only direction given for the tempo.

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

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

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

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

The next will take place on September 5, 2020.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Retrovertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Loss / Gain

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

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

I have a theory.

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

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

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

                                   AAAAAAA.

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

Time

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

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

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

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

The specious present expands.

It Was Acceptable In The 80s

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day I Tried To Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wants To Live Forever?

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Gig In The Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will become fiction.

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

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

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

Disgustipated

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

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

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

And it’s dumb.

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

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

We Interrupt This Broadcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep is nothing like this.

Golden Slumbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

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

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

And yet, I still hope a stupid hope.

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

Not even when it’s 2640.

The sky is blue over Halberstadt.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time comes.  Their hand moves.  

The sound ends.

Except for the echo.  

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

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

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

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

“Encore!”

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

One can dream.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

Tagged , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first returned the volley: “SECRET GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I still remember his response, too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, finally, it was my turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more, with feeling.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: