Tag Archives: Identity

Yen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

This is not particularly unexpected behavior for a church.

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

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

John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP”

The initialism stands “As SLow aS Possible.”

This is the only direction given for the tempo.

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

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

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

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

The next will take place on September 5, 2020.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Retrovertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Loss / Gain

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

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

I have a theory.

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

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

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

                                   AAAAAAA.

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

Time

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

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

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

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

The specious present expands.

It Was Acceptable In The 80s

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day I Tried To Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wants To Live Forever?

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Gig In The Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will become fiction.

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

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

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

Disgustipated

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

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

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

And it’s dumb.

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

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

We Interrupt This Broadcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep is nothing like this.

Golden Slumbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

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

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

And yet, I still hope a stupid hope.

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

Not even when it’s 2640.

The sky is blue over Halberstadt.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time comes.  Their hand moves.  

The sound ends.

Except for the echo.  

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

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

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

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

“Encore!”

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

One can dream.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that sounds like my life, all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 27 – A Song You Think Can Save The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, ultimate attribution error.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tool’s “Lateralus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first returned the volley: “SECRET GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I still remember his response, too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, finally, it was my turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more, with feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, if only I had fewer scruples.

Wait, that’s the ticket!

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is weird.  And creepy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t.

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

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

Fiat ugly.

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

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

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

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

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

Work.

And now, I must get some beauty sleep.

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Day 19 – A Song That Describes You / Your Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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We Interrupt This Broadcast…

I’m still catching up on the 30 Days (ahem) of Songs, yes.  But I learned something this past week that’s thrown off my bloggery something fierce.

Not just the recent arrival of my new niecebeast.  I wish that were my excuse, honestly.  I feel rather bad that I couldn’t think of anything to say about this imminent human that I hadn’t already said about the previous niecebeast.   Surely I should have been able to distill that same curiosity and excitement in a completely different way, befitting the completely different protohuman?  I tried, but there was nothing I was thinking, feeling, wondering, about this new human that I wasn’t thinking, feeling, wondering, and writing down about the last.  The knowns were just as few, the unknowns just as multitudinous.

No, what’s rattled my writerly foundations isn’t the new niece with all her unfurling futures, all the wonder of what she’ll see and do and think and feel and become, the mindboggling ways that her every experience will, in some way, alter her every future experience. That’s her own story.

Rather, it’s a sense of sudden disconnect from my past, from my own story.

You see, I just learned that OpenDiary shut down earlier this year.

OpenDiary is – or was – one of the very first online journaling sites.  How old?  It predated the existence of the word “blog” by a solid year.  I left my first post on September 29th, 2000, and my last, it seems, on January 11, 2009. And apparently the whole works was shuttered on February 7, 2014.

I had no idea until I went to check it out the other day in one of my rare fits of curiosity.  Fits that had come less and less frequently, in time.  What once had been a near-daily haven became a fitful biweekly obligation.  A quarterly attempt.  It became less a path toward introspection and growth, less a way to push my way out of that psychological instar and grow into, let’s face it, just a bigger, weirder, slightly-less-inept sort of caterpillar… and, instead, it was more like sweeping up the past months’ moltings and trying to pin their dry, crackling husks to the page.  They didn’t stay, and they were barely recognizable, but it was important to at least keep trying to put up the facade of writing there.

To hear that OpenDiary is gone, and so long after the fact, is… a little like hearing that the house you lived in as a teenager burnt down to the ground.  But it happened a while ago – there’s no flame left to put out, the ashes have been plowed away, and it’s all been paved over.  Why should you be upset?  You don’t live there anymore.  It’s not like the fire went back in time and made Past You homeless.  In fact, if you’re lucky – and I was – you may have even managed to take out every single personal item you’d left there, perfectly intact. (Yes, OD allowed you to download your entire blog as a .txt file.  Yes, I have it.  I feel like I might have posted at least something after the end of the aughts, but perhaps I misremember.)

But to me, there’s something a little more to it.  OD wasn’t just where I felt “at home” with my journaling – though believe me, it was.  With each adolescent reinvisioning of myself, I’d adopt a new theme.  New background, new font, new colors.  From the ever-so-angsty red on black to a nature-seeking green on black, then finally forgoing the tedious pseudogoth phase in favor of ghostwhite backgrounds with bubbly purple borders, or with a starfield, or… I think I had blue on my sidebar and archive for a while?   Still with a ghostwhite background, though.  One I sampled for this background, as well.  Maybe it was just the habit of writing in such a familiar place for so very long, but it was so hard to write anywhere else.  LiveJournal, Diary-X, Blogger, just plain notecards… none of them felt right.  Even WordPress doesn’t feel quite right, to be honest.

It’s not as if I didn’t know the site was always in danger of going under.  They’d had two separate hacking incidents, one that resulted in the permanent loss of eleven weeks of entries.  I really wonder how my life might have been different if I’d been able to read back to some of those weeks, in fact – they were about a change in the nature of a relationship, a transition from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” a transition that was not as smooth as I later wanted to believe – or as he’d later assert.  Server problems happen, and everyone understands that… but nothing burned worse than to write some long, cathartic journal entry, hit save, and watch it fail, the data lost forever.  To this day, before I save any writing on this blog, a forum, or even a particularly long Facebook post, I still compulsively hit Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, and prepare to paste it into a text file and submit it again if I have to.

But even though it was fickle, even though it was not the most secure, even though its management was out of touch, even though it was often somewhat gaudy, even after its various “makeovers,” OpenDiary was home.  If just because it was where I wrote nearly ten years of my life.  (Don’t think that I don’t see the parallel with my current online home.)   I put so much of my energy and my time into that, detailing my travails through high school, college, and living on my own, almost up until I moved.  There’s so much ME in there.  Or what was me, anyway.

I’m glad I have the words, still.  Bitterly glad.  It’s not like I want to read it all again – it’s got some of the worst of all adolescent whining, and so much college awkwardness and fretfulness, and there might even be POETRY in there… ye gods.  All the times lately that I sit and think about how much better off my life could be right now if only I’d learned certain lessons earlier, if only I’d made different decisions, if only I hadn’t wasted my time and affection on broken jerks, if only I’d taken different classes, tried talking to more people, stood up for myself… arguably every stupid decision I’ve ever made that has put me where I am now, it’s in there.  Of course I want to reject it, because I have only an uneasy peace with my past.  Still, it is my past.  It’s mine.  I wasn’t much for taking pictures, and I didn’t have many friends, and so I just don’t have that much from my past except for those ceaseless babblings.  Yes, it has the records of me fawning over and pining for people who are now anything from “acquaintance” to “What was his last name again?” to “bludgeon on sight.”

But it also has stories of theatre opening nights, and tales of my first days in college.  My first Rocky Horror.  Graduations from both high school and college.  It has stories of events, once so terribly magical and important, that are now not simply tarnished, but corroded.  It tells the tale of other nights which have only become even more storied and wonderful with the passing of the years. It has descriptions of average days that will someday be marvelously quaint, and descriptions of those rare days filled with small awesomenesses.  It has fanciful reinterpretations of suburban adventures.  It has my full set of introspective adventures into the “Mindscape,” and mock-interviews with the various facets of my personality and identity, in hopes of understanding myself better, reconciling my various drives, and figuring out how to be more like the parts of myself I actually enjoyed.  So much of it is probably so irrelevant now.  A dreadful amount might still teach me a thing or two, if I were bold enough to go back and read.

To truly put the loss in context, I might have to describe my relationship to the Internet itself a little more clearly. I am not a digital native; I remember a time before the Internet, before it was common to even have a home computer.  I remember having email-only Juno service, and eventually a 26k dial-up modem and AOL, back in the fall of 1999.  In fact…. a little research later, and I have an exact date: September 23, 1999.  I spent my nights searching random keywords of things I was interested in, seeing what I could find.  These were the days when you REALLY couldn’t trust what you read on the Internet, because it was probably written by some random schmuck.  Google was only two years old.  Wikipedia didn’t exist.  You weren’t ever supposed to put your real name or your picture on the Internet.  Not that you could see pictures very easily, anyway.  Did I listen to music online?  Sure – I was always looking up MIDI renditions of popular songs.  Some of the people at school talked about Napster and mp3s, whatever those were, though.  Me, I was jsut poking around on MUDs, using Telnet with no local echo – arguably THE greatest boost to my typing skills.  Or I’d talk about books in the AOL chat rooms, try to follow discussions on Usenet, or delve into H2G2, reading and writing and editing.  “Whoa, an encyclopedia of everything, just like the Guide!  What a fun idea!”  I’d wait half an hour for a Flash or Shockwave video to load on Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep.  I’d marvel at the convincing photoshops in the video for All Your Base.  I’d roll my eyes at this week’s extrapolation of the Hampster Dance.  I’d delve deep into the yellow labyrinth of HyperDiscordia, and boggle at the 3D madness of CabaretDiscordia, and skim the staggering roster of the House of the Kiwi, and trail off into the Church of the SubGenius and Cthulhu Mythos.  I’d follow little blue links until I was learning all about chaos magick and culture jamming and glamourbombing, Temporary Autonomous Zones, the Cacophony Society and Burning Man.  I didn’t even feel like I was, or could be, part of that sort of counterculture – but just knowing it existed seemed to help somehow.  Just that awkward reassurance that it’s not just teenage rebellion – the world really is messed up, and even some adults are still trying to do strange things to reality.

There was so much more I’d wanted to do, though.   To make my own site, to download music or programs, to learn how to make my own MIDI music, to figure out how those animated icons worked.  I maintained a few gloriously tacky cabals on Geocities, granted, but nothing more legitimate than that.  I couldn’t have my own website, couldn’t download anything, couldn’t install anything, couldn’t update anything.  Ever.  Period. My uncle once mentioned The Palace, one of the first graphical chat rooms, where you could have your own avatar, any picture you wanted, and actually stand around in what looked like a room.  I never got to check it out, but that description alone defined”cyberspace” to me for most of my young life – something that wasn’t just a page and some comments, but a sort of place, where you could have an icon that represented yourself, and move it around in relation to other people and things, and write instantly to other people!  All the amazing things of MUDs and chat rooms and graphical video games, all rolled into one!  It sounded so futuristic at the time.  Such a relatively short time has passed, and it’s already so quaint that it’s hard to even explain how or why it could hold such fascination.  Still, just the idea of The Palace fostered my future fascination with MMOs, virtual worlds, and other digital social tangents – and my general desire for interaction with the Internet and its wealth of ideas, coupled with my incredible lack of agency in the real world, made such constructs all the more compelling.

I had a modest Buddy List, most of them friends from school, acquaintances, or relatives… but a few were Internet Friends, people I had met through the chat rooms or Usenet or whathaveyou.  Shocking it may have seemed, but they were generally more genuine, more honest, more caring, than the people I knew in person.  One was twice my age, but he helped remind me that it was good to be a weirdo in the world.  He reinforced that, painful as it could be at the time, I was better off for being able to recognize the oppressive thumb of the media in every aspect of teenage life – how we all defined ourselves through music and movies and products and clothing, our desires for freedom and individuality forever bought and sold.  He reminded me that so much of the drama of high school was, in the end, completely meaningless; it was just that pressure-cooker environment, closing us in and denying us any good outlet, making it so intense at the time. And, of course, we talked books.  Teachers and parents were so much older, so distant, so dismissive.  But his curmudgeonly arse was well prepared to rant with me against Society At Large, while still reminding me that at least that part of it was fleeting — and that I’d end up better off by the time I was as old as he was.  I suppose I am, now. And I suppose, in some ways, I have.  And now I have no idea where he is or what’s become of him.  I guess he was even more right, that the things and people that seemed so important when I was 16 would someday seem dim and immaterial.  Ah well.

But another such Internet Friend was how I found OpenDiary in the first place.  He’d found it through his girlfriend, then stared one himself.  I can actually still remember seeing his first IMs with links to his journal, peering at the strange URL and mentally parsing “opendiary” as one word that would rhyme with “incendiary.”  The friendship with him lasted longer – but it, too, faded, became a Was instead of an Is.

Let me diverge back to the old-timey mechanics of the Internet for a minute.  The Internet may still, in some ways, be a Wild West, but it was even Wilder and Wester then.  Different in the small things, like how links were shared – the fancy websites would let you click a button to fill in your email address, the receiver’s email address, and it would send a link right to their email!  Groups of sites on related topics would sometimes cluster up into Webrings, since it was so unlikely you could find more information just by using AltaVista, Dogpile, or by Asking Jeeves. If we had something to say about it, maybe we could find the author’s email address, but that’s probably it.  Not every page had a comments section Almost everything seemed to be made by individuals, not companies, and the user was on the receiving end.  You could only make a website if you knew HTML and could afford the hosting.  Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod were genuine revelations – the easiest, most accessible way for an average user to publish content.  But even on them, you probably couldn’t get any comments.  Thus the everpresent Hit Counter – with no comments, likes, or shares, hits alone were how we’d measure our impact.

I rehash all of this as a reminder of how different it was to interact with information then — and how innovative OpenDiary seemed at the time, bog-standard as it is now.  To be able to write anything you wanted,  put it on the Internet, and get comments from other users – even if you didn’t know a lick of code?  That was pretty amazing!  You could even select certain blogs as your favorites, to read their newest posts more easily!  Readers could submit posts they really liked to a Reader’s Choice feature!  If you didn’t know what to write, the home page always had a writing prompt, under which you could read what others had submitted for it!  These were surprising and complex features for the time.  No, really.  Some upstart called LiveJournal started doing similar things a few years later, but eh, that was the site for the stupid kids – the ones with the pixel doll avatars with blinky eyes and sparkly jewelry, the ones who got so worn out after reading just one paragraph that they’d whine if you didn’t put the details behind a cut.

To actually have a sense of community online – of creating content, sharing it easily, having it be read in a timely fashion by other users, who could then comment and respond to those comments and so forth… this was genuinely new. And, though I didn’t have many friends on there, nor did I really follow many other journals, it still made a huge difference to my life.  Not just the venting, but those flickers of feedback, support, even empathy. One person in particular helped keep me sane and bolster my spirits when I needed it most.  Arguably, what I really needed was a swift slap to the face, an internal sense of validation, and a different boyfriend, but still.  To be encouraged like that, to be able to have “girl talk” even at a distance… it was an amazing thing.

But really, why do I keep explaining the nature of the Internet at the time I kept that journal?  Because that was a big part of the experience for me.  It wasn’t just keeping a diary.  It was sharing it.  Even if it was never stumbled over by anyone, even if nobody commented, I knew it was out there.  I knew it wasn’t just me ranting into the void.  “Anyone could read this, today or tomorrow or next year” was part of the excitement.  And the anxiety.  There surely were times I was tempted to put the whole works on Friends Only.  Times I was a little afraid to say what I wanted to say, not knowing who was going to read it.  Times when I wondered whether – or how much – I’d “crossed the streams” with screen names or character names or whatever, how much I’d made it easier for people to tie together the other anonymous threads of my online life.  But, in the end, it felt better to have it out there.  To be a face in the crowd.  To give myself permission to trust the other faces.  To reach out, even if nobody reached back.

I have the text, yes.  I have all the comments.  But I don’t have that sense-of-place.  I don’t have that sense-of-outreaching.  Nobody will ever reach back and take a hand unhinged in time.  I’ll never have to worry about somebody taking those details and trying to figure out who I was, or who I now am.  I used that site to understand myself for so many years, and now I never will again.  The first times I ever really dared express myself, try to find myself, study myself… it was in a way that, in theory, any incredibly bored user could randomly stumble upon.  And a few did.  And however they reached out back then, however I may have reached back, that connection is cut forever now.  It is, all of it, Past, no longer Present, never again Future.

So I’m shocked, and I’m gutted, and I feel a sense of loss.

But I also feel… okay with it.

I’ve changed, you know.  If slowly.  I’ve hung on for so many years to so many terrible things.  I’ve been slow to see how I’ve changed, how I’ve grown, how I’ve stopped being that small child everyone seemed to love to hate, stopped even being that sullen and cynical adolescent, that untrusting yet self-sacrificing college student.  I’ve seen how those other ODers changed.  That helpful and encouraging girl? Apparently she gets to make a living at both writing, being encouraging, and being pretty, now!  Meanwhile, that friend who introduced me to OpenDiary in the first place?  I haven’t talked to him in years; he unfriended me on Facebook after I called him out on one too many instances of taking jokes seriously and getting critical in illogical ways, then acting like his paragraphs-long complaint was, itself, a joke.  It’s one thing to try to make a heavy situation lighter with comedy.  It’s another to turn every single conversation into anti-humor performance art.  In the end, I couldn’t tell whether he wasn’t the guy he used to be, I wasn’t the person I used to be, or if it wasn’t really about either of us — more about the fact that I’d made, well, real friends – ones who didn’t just rant at me, ones who didn’t make flippant jokes and insults when I tried to make real conversation, ones who actually cared about talking with me, sharing things with me, having a proper give-and-take.  Friends who didn’t just talk to me because they wanted an excuse to talk.  And that other early Internet friend?  Even less of a clue – I think we’d stopped IMing even before I was out of high school.  I’ll probably never know what’s become of him.

Over time, and by forging new connections in a different online community, I’ve gradually felt more comfortable with myself.  In some ways I’ve genuinely changed; in other ways, I’ve just molted more of the not-me things that had been encasing me. The beliefs – some imposed by me, others by others – that molded my growth, that constrained my ideas, that paralyzed my ambition, that exaggerated my every smallest mistake into an unforgivable catastrophe.  Through it all, I’ve cobbled together a sense of self, a sense of identity, a sense of will.  And now, as I write in this blog, as I write my short story collection, as I write my character guides, as I write my roleplays, as I edit an upcoming RPG, as I prepare to go for some much-belated sleep before I work from home a while, game a while, eat a while, and continue another day of life… I realize I’m finally developing a sense of agency.  I realize that there are things I can do, not just in the abstract potentiality sense – you know, that bullshit sense that we use to tell kids that they “can be the President someday,” or that they “can be whatever they want when they grow up.”  No, I realize that here and now, in the actual world as it is, with the actual me as I am, I can actually DO these things.  And I am.  Multiple such things at any given time, in fact.

I know that all these things will pass, too.  The online community I have now, the one that lets me reach out, write, be reached to, tell stories, meet people, grow… it will be another Connection Failed someday.  The friends may fade – if just because I do that awkward thing where I essentially assume they don’t want to talk to them anymore, try not to “bother” them, and go years without contact.  But, who knows.  Even The Boyfriend could decide that all this stupid “feelings” crap I try to impose on his life is only getting in the way of his work, and he could tell me to leave one day.  Maybe nothing in my life right now will last, not even a little bit – it isn’t some glorious, shining future that will see me through to my old age, and maybe it won’t even last the next year.  For all my ostensible agency, I really don’t get to decide.  Regardless of how long it may be, it’s still a chapter, and it too will see its end.

Still.  It’s an undeniable fact that the span of my life that could be written about and posted on OpenDiary… is over.  Completely and forever.

It gives me… a sense of closure, really.

It feels as if the ME that was written about in OpenDiary is also over.  That melodramatic high school kid.  That anxious, overwhelmed freshman. That emboldened sophomore.  The sallow, hounded years that followed, cloistered like a hermit alchemist trying to turn lead to gold, apathy to love.  Those fitful, transitional years of first living alone, trying to hold a job and scrape together a future when I was still just barely feeling like I was allowed to exist in my own present.  I’m not the type to burn their whiny high school diary.  That’s no less emotional and maudlin than anything that might have been written in there.   This, I want to save.  I never knew who I was writing it for.  Me in the future?  Some future kid I knew I didn’t really want to have, but half-assumed I’d end up having anyway because That’s What Adults Do?  Maybe my nieces, I thought, once the first one emerged.  I still don’t know, honestly.  But I’m keeping the whole shebang.  I may never trust it to the Internet again.  I may never share it with anyone.  But it’s my past, and I’m not about to just delete it.  It was me. Though even the Internet doesn’t know that anymore.

I realize now that, though I may struggle – though finances are a horror, and job prospects are grim, though I struggle to reach toward what I want to do and be, though I still sometimes question whether I even deserve what I have now, much less what I want… I’m no longer grappling with existence itself.  I’m no longer trying, and so often failing, to justify my presence to the world and to myself.   I no longer feel so constantly judged, as if every person held an invisible dagger to my skull before I ever said a word – as if my existence alone was an invasion they had to defend themselves from. I no longer fear mistakes so profoundly.  To try and to err does not disqualify me from trying again, does not disqualify me from being an acceptable entity, does not disqualify me from having any worth, merit, utility, or potential.

I know this invokes all the most horrible types of irony, but it’s true anyway:  I accept my own existence.  I accept my sense of self – as a thing that exists in the world, and is allowed to.  I accept my sense of identity – as a thing that can be described in certain ways, that has certain characteristics, that exhibits certain behaviors, and is allowed to.  I accept my sense of will – as a thing that can wish that things and circumstances were other than they are, a thing that can express opinions and preferences, can make choices, can argue for its desires, can want to have an impact upon the world surrounding it by means of its choices, intents, and decisions, and does not need external justification or permission to do so.  And, though slowly, I’m accepting my sense of agency – as a thing that can actually act upon that will, a thing that can attempt art, share its ideas with others, collaborate to bring events and stories into being, and can otherwise manipulate its surroundings in order to cultivate circumstances it believes it would find more preferable.  Through so much of the time of that journal, I tried so hard not to be seen, not to be judged, not to BE – and now, I’m capable of asking other people if I could work with them in order to bring things into being.  I still feel riddled with hubris, often.  I still feel I’m pushing my luck.  I still worry about bothering people.

But it has been a long time now since I questioned whether or not I was really permitted to want, to feel, to think, or to exist.

I know I can still backslide.  That it may always be there, waiting for a moment of despondence, of confusion, of indulgent self-castigation, and I’ll lay myself back into the slow, sucking mire and, perhaps, never again convince myself I’m allowed to stand up again, never believe in another proffered hand, never be offered such a hand in the first place.  I worry, still.  I hold back, still.  Still, yes, but less. I know that the things I am wanting, the things I am doing, are – very often – not good, or at the least, they could always be better.

But I am doing them.

And, by this, the Me that is creating and influencing its world – if crudely – has walked away from the Me that waited for hope to happen.

This isn’t me telling my past self, or telling other present or future selves, “See, you can do it if you put your mind to it!  All you have to do is try!”  It’s a reminder of the long road I’ve walked to even become a person capable of trying.  It was not okay to be wrong, or to be unprepared, or to be caught off guard; I could not make myself try when I was not certain beyond all doubt that I’d succeed.  And my capacity for doubt is mighty.  And that vigilance is wearying.  I did not have much, but I thought it would all be lost if I made any sort of mistake.  On anything.  Ever.

I don’t think I could have been able to get here if I didn’t have this social structure I have now, this way of seeing myself reflected in others’ eyes, and reflecting them to themselves. Each of us standing on the other’s shoulders in that non-Euclidean geometry of friendship.  Mirrors reflecting mirrors, wheels within wheels, turtles all the way down.  It’s alarming how much different it’s made things – and a little scary to realize that, if that social scaffolding were to collapse, I’m not sure how well I could go back to that mire of silent isolation, now that I’ve been permitted an alternative.

The road to get here has been long and tiring. And I’ve found that, even once you reach Agency, there’s even more road left to walk, but you don’t know where it goes, and you may even have to create it from nothing.

I think you only get to find out by going there anyway.

Given an infinite Universe — or, perhaps, even a finite one — I’ll discover it for myself.

Off I go.

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