Tag Archives: reflection

The End of Opportunity

The Mars rover Opportunity failed to respond to its final call, and the mission is now over.  There’s a NY Times obituary and everything: the rover is dead.

I find this surprisingly saddening.

Yes, it was a mission only meant for 90 Martian days, and it went on for 5,111. It was only a matter of time, especially considering that dust storm last summer that scuppered it. The dust was on the solar arrays, and the writing was on the wall.

Still, though.

I remember tuning in to the Opportunity landing from my dorm room – still marveling at being able to watch such a thing with a proper broadband connection, having so recently been back home and on dial-up. Everything felt possible, felt exciting, felt… future.  Both for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and for, in some way, myself.

And when they just kept on going, days then weeks then months then years after they’d been expected to expire… well, it was encouraging. Especially as I felt barely more than a programmed device, myself – just a thing that was tasked to go to certain places at certain times and perform certain actions and analyze data, and to continue doing this until I was no longer capable of doing so.  And there was something anthropomorphically charming about the idea of these rovers that just… weren’t satisfied.  They weren’t done yet.  There was science to do.

There were discoveries of hematite “blueberries,” of jarosite and gypsum, of clouds – increasing evidence that there had been water on Mars before, that the ice we saw was water ice, that not all Martian water was always frozen – and that somewhere, some of it might still be liquid.

To me, this was amazing. At the time, Earth was the only known world that had ever had liquid water – or, I think, water in any form: the Gas Giants’ clouds were all methane, the Martian ice caps were thought to be frozen CO2, and I’m not sure if there was even any agreement that a comet’s ice was water ice at all – it’d be another year until Deep Impact took a test chunk out of Tempel 1.

It was interesting to exist contemporaneously with things that seemed so futuristic.  To lurch my way around campus knowing that, that very moment, a couple little robots were wheeling over the surface of another world.

But nobody else seemed as excited, or even interested.  Opportunity found evidence of ancient Martian seas – and Long John Silver’s gave out free shrimp.

The analogy still seemed to parse: of expectations somehow simultaneously exceeded and completely unmet.

For myself, I didn’t really have plans – oh, the hubris of a plan – or even sincere expectations.  The present was unnavigable enough, much less a future.  But I had curiosity.  Curiosity about what the world could be, and what I could be, in some amount of time.  Assuming a continuation beyond the expected parameters.  It was hard to articulate things like “wanting” at the time, or even “I,” but I probably could’ve said something to the effect of “It would be interesting to see where the rovers end up and what they find.”

As I do with any sort of ending, and particularly of something I had some affinity for, I sort of can’t help but compare: Where was I when this started, and where am I now? What of my own weird trajectory?  Perhaps I was only meant to be a 90-day mission, and I’m really pushing it now, myself.

I think of futures past. Public and personal, large and local. Of the things that seemed to be… becoming, then.  Of things pushed to the limits of ability and probability. Of the baffling potential of exploration.  Of the bleeding edge. As with most space exploration things I’ve watched, I came away from the video of the landing feeling as if humanity could do incredible things – and that, maybe, so could individual humans. That there was still a place in the world for awe and wonder – and for forging out into the wilderness to find more things to gawp at wide-eyed and poke at with a stick.

Some wag more sardonic than I has probably already said that Spirit died a few years ago, and now we can’t even pretend we still have Opportunity.

But, well, there’s part of me that relates to that metaphor, too:  Small machines were launched into space, landed against all odds, drove along the skin of a distant world, and brought back information to give insight on that world’s past – and maybe our own – and took over a decade to die.  And I look at my own trajectory, writ small and mere on the mappa mundi.  And I look at the paths taken and not taken, the turns and jags. The places I could’ve gone, but didn’t.  The places I went, but shouldn’t have.  The places that looked promising but weren’t. And those things that I did do – that I had set out to do, been programmed to do, succeeded in doing – still aren’t enough to satisfy or even interest most people, even those who’d been invested in the endeavor.

Still.  Science is a process.  Everything is a series of steps, observations, theories, tests, and revisions.  Nothing just matters objectively; value and significance are largely contextual.  Even the various developers of radio and of electromagnetism didn’t think there was much to the effort, but that they were interesting novelties.  So if Opportunity seems dead and its successes seem hollow… it could always be a matter of context and perspective.

Yes, part of me is surprisingly sad that both Spirit and Opportunity are roving no more.  That thing that was future once is now past, and that’s uncomfortable.

So I think on the things I’ve seen since then: the Curiosity landing, Huygens landing on Titan, Rosetta and Philae on 67P, New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and all the amazing images, the recent glance at Ultima Thule, the entirety of SpaceX and AN ELECTRIC SPORTS CAR BEING LAUNCHED INTO SPACE. WITH A DAVID BOWIE SONG PLAYING. AND A MANNEQUIN IN A SPACESUIT IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. AND A COPY OF THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY IN THE GLOVE BOX, AND “DON’T PANIC” ON THE DIGITAL DASH.

And that’s just the stuff specific to space exploration!  To say nothing of all the other scientific and technological development: of CRISPR and optogenetics and metamaterials and quantum machines and gravitational waves and exoplanets and microbiomes and Watson and Deep Dream and electric cars and self-driving cars and drones and even my mom has a smartphone, and… yeah.  (Also the polar ice is thinning alarmingly and Antarctica is calving more than a cattle farm and people are putting “smart” features in friggin’ appliances but not giving a single wet fart about security and the goddamn measles is coming back because people trust Facebook mom groups more than an actual doctor and expertise is dead and corruption is rampant and democracy is backsliding and everything is ruined forever.)

But, good and bad and hopeful and awful all at once… there’s more out there.  There’s always more.  One endeavor might end – but there’s always something else planned.  And something completely unplanned, but that might be discovered by pure accident at any time.  And something old and seemingly useless that’s just waiting to be applied in a groundbreaking new way.

I can only hope that holds true of myself, as well.

So goodnight, Opportunity.  Thank you for the science.  And thank you for the reminder that even a distant machine on a cold, dead world can still do more than anyone ever expected.

A thin yellow line superimposed on satellite imagery of the Martian surface, showing the last few hundred Martian days of its travel

Opportunity Traverse Map, Sol 4997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.  


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 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 22 – A Song That Energizes You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT, yes indeed, is what adolescence sounds like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was, indeed, impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 16 – A Song You Need To Listen To Again Right After It’s Finished

This is actually a rare phenomenon for me.  Once in a while, a song will resonate with a certain mood, or a certain event, or even a certain story, and I’ll want to replay it to continue setting the ambiance.  It happens most often while I’m writing.  For example, as I was nearing the end of “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” the song “Blue” from Cowboy Bebop got into my head and made a home.

It was thematic, and it was even evocative of part of the time period I was addressing.

I had a short story I was writing once – the sort of thing, as so many of my fitful attempts at fiction are, where I have a set of scenes in mind, or concepts, or an emotional ambiance, but not those tiny, fussy elements like plot and character development.  The closest to plot I came was another iteration of the Monomyth, which I’d freshly discovered.  Still, for an ostensible epic about a rural Midwest kid who comes to discover magical power and a hidden world, the jangling banjo and orchestral sweep of The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorceror” hit the spot precisely, and I listened to it on repeat as I wrote.

Every once in a while, I will hear a song that strikes my fancy, and I keep wanting to listen to it.  Not necessarily right after it’s finished, mind you.  But maybe every day, or twice in a day. But it’s dangerous: I risk burning out on it.  It’s a little like cotton candy: small bites can be delicious, but if you eat too greedily, if you drool over it too much, that sweet and intricate structure just turns to a cloying, clumpy mass.

This is part of why I don’t often listen to some of my very favorite songs.  I don’t want to dissolve them.  I may never be able to recapture the sensation of hearing a certain song for the first time, but the less frequently I listen to it, the less I approach it, the more I let it find me, the better.  It’s also part of why I’m glad of things like Pandora: they broaden musical horizons with things you might actually like to hear, but preserve the element of surprise.  There’s a deep difference between putting on your favorite song and hearing it on the radio or on a stream.   It’s great to have control, to have the means of instant gratification, sure. But when that control is held just a little out of your hands, when you have to content yourself with what you get, you appreciate a mediocre song all the more – if just out of stubbornness.  And when you DO get what you want from something that’s out of your control…  it’s as if the skies have parted, the sun has emerged, and the great and acephalous system has cast a little ray of light right onto your face. Out of all the many things that could have been, it was a thing you like.  And if you hear two of your favorites in a row, or a whole block of winners before the commercial?  It’s inexplicably reaffirming!  No amount of listening to those songs by choice could match the delight of hearing them unexpectedly on the radio (or online radio analogue.)

What songs have I listened to the most, then?  Let us consult Winamp and its Most Played list. Even though it’s been through a few new computers now, and is therefore not a comprehensive list of how many times I’ve listened to things, it’s at least got a year behind it.  So, disregarding my usual DJing intro song (67 plays!) and things from holiday sets or other special occasions – all that listening and rearranging and relistening fudges the numbers hard – what have I most frequently played?

I’m not surprised that it’s a mashup, but I am a little surprised it’s one of my more recently acquired ones – and not by one of my favorite mashup artists, either!  Not to say I dislike this guy’s work by any means; his just isn’t one of the names that leaps more swiftly to mind.  But, regardless, my most-played not-a-special-set song is “Freefallin’ Explosions” by LeeDM101, a mashup of Ellie Goulding and Tom Petty.

What’s made me hammer it so hard?  I’m not even sure!  I’m not particularly familiar with Goulding’s work, so it wasn’t a surprising conjunction of two incredibly disparate things.  I’ve long liked “Free Falling,” though, so perhaps it was just the drama of the orchestral arrangement in the background that, heedless of its context, put that old familiar song in a newer, richer ambiance.

Still, I can’t say I ever felt compelled to listen to it twice in a row.  This prompt is difficult.

But I’m forgetting something.  In fact, I’m forgetting some of my very fondest songs – songs that were explicitly designed to be listened to over and over, on an unceasing loop.  Songs I could listen to for perhaps even hours at a time, and gladly, without wanting to punch the speakers into the Sun.

That’s right.  Video game songs.

With good video game music, it’s not just a sense of “needing to listen again right after it’s finished.” It’s more accurate to say that hearing the song finish at all seems alien and wrong.  I genuinely wonder how many times in my life I’ve heard some of these melodies, and how many more times I’ll hear them before I die or go deaf or whathaveyou.

But this won’t just be a list of my favorite pieces of video game music.  There’s many a video game song out there that I love, but have only rarely heard, after all – some from games I’ve never even played.  To fit the bill of this prompt, it’s got to be something I really have heard over and over again on loop – it’s got to be from something I’ve actually played.  This narrows the field significantly.  I’ve owned every other Nintendo console:  NES, no SNES.  N64, no Gamecube.  Wii, no Wii U.  Plus a Game Boy and a Game Boy Advance.  Friends, relatives, and roommates have had other consoles, though, but I played them more rarely, for less time at a stretch, and so I was always focused more on sheer gameplay. With my own games, on the other hand – or those I rented from the local video rental place (before it became the Blockbuster rental place, before it became a local athletic wear place) – I had no qualms about squandering my gaming time however I saw fit.  Suicide missions!  Playing with my eyes closed!  Trying to get the lowest possible score!  Ignoring the real narrative and goals and imagining other stories – like my survival narrative where Link slashed bushes for firewood, ate candle-roasted monster bait, and tried to recruit more of those money-gifting traitor Moblins to his cause.  But, yes, that squandering often included parking myself somewhere in the game and simply listening to the music while I did something else.  Which confused my mother to no end, of course: “If you’re not playing Nintendo, turn it off!”  But there were certainly some songs that I was particularly excited to listen to, and eager to give just one more repeat before I pressed Start or turned it off.

Many such songs were high score music or victory music. Something about it fascinated me: this was a song you could only hear if you performed a certain series of tasks with a certain degree of accuracy.  This was pre-Internet, after all: there were no soundtrack downloads, no Let’s Plays.  No feasible way – save maybe for an audio cassette recorder with the mic held up to the TV speaker – to hear any video game’s music outside of the game itself.  This wasn’t music that you could hear on demand; it wasn’t music that was dispensed seemingly at random by the vagaries of the radio station playlist.  It was music you had to earn.  Save for Game Genies and cheat codes, anyway.  I’m not ashamed to admit I often used hints culled from an outdated, battered copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, borrowed from the library.  Matt’s reflections on it in this Dinosaur Dracula article reflect my own with surprising accuracy.  …Including the bit about never beating Super Mario Bros. I wasn’t driven to win for winning’s sake; I just wanted to see – and hear – everything.

So what were -and are – my favorite things to hear?

Sometimes, I’d just get in a Tetris mode.  I’d let it gather dust for months, play it again on a lark, and find myself hooked once again.  Hours would be spent before the little television, my features galvanized by that intense, semi-unblinking rictus of concentration known to the wise as Tetris Face.  And when I beat my high score?  Oh yes, the wood paneling of the family room would be echoing with this for as long as I could get away with it.

Though I had many of the staples of the NES, I also had a few obscurities that I loved as much as Mega Man or Mario.  (Maybe not Zelda, though.)  Prime among them was Pin-Bot, an NES port of a pinball machine by the same name.  Only with a a sort of level system that recolored the playfield and introduced clouds that could eat your ball, wasps that could steal it and take it away to one of the drains,  other wasps that bombed your flippers, and bonuses that turned your ball into a prism or a cube.   Through it all, some of the most amazingly strange music.

The intro theme – which, it seems, was an 8-bit version of the high score music on the actual pinball machine – always got a full listen:

But the NES game’s own high score music…

It’s the most ridiculously simple tune!  There are barely any chord changes!  And yet it was beyond endearing, somehow.  It looped like that forever: unlike the intro theme, there was no clear beginning or end, making it even harder to stop listening and play another game or – still harder – to turn the NES off.

But there did come a time when the NES was turned off for, it seemed, good and all.  It may have been after I got the N64; it may even have been before.  Regardless, there were many years when my gaming was relegated to the N64 alone.  As with the NES, though, I owned few games – but, by this time, that local rental place had become a big chain retail place, and so it carried a strong variety of games to rent. And – surprise of all surprises – they often had more than one copy of popular games!  I particularly loved renting San Francisco Rush for the N64.  I’m certain I could have bought the game twice over for all the rental prices – and overdue fees – I paid.  But it was everything I wanted in a racing game.  Shortcuts!  Ramps!  Off-roading!  Hidden secret keys! Cheat codes!  Explosions!  And if you got to a high score, you didn’t just get to put your name on the leaderboard.  You also got to hear one of the most exuberant bits of music ever.  I’d rarely listen to this less than twice.

THAT’S yo’ name!

Again, as with the NES, I did have the standards.  And I certainly did spend plenty of time idling around in Gerudo Valley for absolutely no reason but to take in the music.  …And because I loved diving into the canyon. The first time I’d done it, it was just on one of my typical Dumb Ways To Die adventures; I was certain it would be yet another stupid thing where, yes, there’s water down there, but you’re going to die halfway down for some arbitrary reason.  Imagine my thrill when I actually hit the water!  When I floated downstream, all the way to Lake Hylia!  And yet, even that delight was tempered, because I was always sad to stop listening to this song.

But there was another N64 game with a disproportionately excellent soundtrack.  One, like Pin-Bot, which nobody seemed to have heard of except for me.  The game was Tetrisphere, a sort of 3D Tetris (only not) where one tried to match one’s blocks to the blocks that comprised a freely-rotatable sphere below, generally to clear a certain number of blocks, or expose a certain amount of surface area of the core.  The entire soundtrack was excellent, but there was one song in particular that I adored: a song, appropriately enough, called “Extol.”

I was known to restart levels until I got this song as the background tune.  I don’t know when, or even how exactly, but at some point many years later, but before the dawn of YouTube, I managed to find the song in mp3 format, languishing on a personal website of… I actually want to say it was the composer.  And now I can listen to it on loop as long as I like – though, again, it’s more fun when I hear it randomly.

I got to play the actual Pin-Bot table only once or twice in my youth – and I sucked at it.  But there truly is something about pinball music that’s so distinct from any other game music.  I’m not versed enough in music or electronics to explain what it is, really.  It’s the way the music is layer upon layer of electronic horns and squeals, and the sound effects are so much more visceral somehow, being associated with so much… actual mechanical physics, I suppose.  The vocals – often from times when vocals were amazing in their own right – are so muffled and tinny, yet so charming, especially in contrast to the rest of the electronic bombast.  It’s no realistic-sounding orchestra, but it’s no Casio either.  It’s like a MIDI hopped up on Mountain Dew and Pixy Stix.

Of all the pinball games, the one that’s most dear to my heart may well be Black Knight 2000.  Whether I was playing it with my dad at the little game room in the inn at my favorite State Park, or whether I play it with The Boyfriend at the local arcade, it’s got so many fond associations.  And, even if it didn’t remind me of particular good times, it’s still incredibly badass.  The vocals!  The taunting!  The choir!  The bizarre shaking chunking madness at certain points!  It’s absurdly motivating.

But I think that the video game music I love and could listen to most of all – more than anything from my pre-college days, perhaps even on a par with the nostalgic songs from my childhood, possibly even rivaling some ‘normal’ music – is the music from the now-shuttered browser game, Glitch.

Glitch was the apex of whimsicality.  Not completely childish, anything but pointlessly edgy.  Even its Hell had charm.  Gitch was surreal, and inspiring, and sometimes melancholy, and the music made it even moreso.  I can’t explain it, really, but from the first time I heard some of the songs, they felt familiar.  It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but it somehow bore nostalgia from the start – as if it already knew it was going to be gone someday.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at all, on what I could have possibly heard before that would have made Glitch’s music feel once-known, once-loved, and forgotten.

The whole experience – both of the familiar music and of Glitch itself – reminded me of a rare species of dream I have.

In them, my dreamself goes to a place that my waking, thinking mind – which is always along for the ride – knows I’ve never been to before.  Maybe it’s a shop, modeled only vaguely after one I’ve actually seen.  Maybe it’s some theater’s backstage, only tangentially like any I’ve worked in.  But, in these dreams, my waking-self knows I’ve never been there, and my dreamself doesn’t believe it’s ever been there, and is only ambling around, lost at worst, a tourist at best. But the people there know me.  They’ve heard of me.  And they stand a little more straight, smile a little more sly, and say they always knew I’d be back.  I apologize for the confusion and say there must be some mistake, I’m new here, I’m just visiting, but they – or someone they take me to see – just says they knew I would say that, too.  And then they give me something they say I’d left there once before: a wallet I’d lost, or a notebook, or some similar personal effect.  Awkward now, I try to hand it back, but they’ll hear nothing of it.  Open it, they say, it’s been ages!  Not sure whether I’m humoring them or myself, I do – and it all comes washing over me.  Memories of a whole life I’d lived once and forgotten.  Things made, friends met, conversations held.  Helping and being helped.  A whole sphere of my life that I cared about, deeply – but, somehow, forgot.  It’s overwhelming, and it’s undeniable, and even my attendant waking-self is thoroughly impressed and weirded out by how my brain is generating all of this. When I manage to reach my words again, I apologize, saying I have no idea how I could have forgotten for so long, or why it took me so long to come back, and I swear I didn’t mean to abandon anyone or worry anyone for all these many years. But I’m assured that all is well – that it’s just the way of this place.  People come and go, remember and forget, and nobody even pretends to understand it all, so neither do they judge.  But, someday, even without their willing it, even without remembering, everyone finds their way back.  It may not always be to stay – and there I hold up my shaking hand and say no, I wouldn’t let it happen again, I couldn’t possibly forget again – but they just shake their head, smile, and say again no, it may not always be to stay, but everyone does find their way back.

Glitch itself is trying to come back – in Children of Ur and in Eleven – both of which are patterning themselves closely on the original, reviving that world once loved and shared and lost.   It’s been long enough now, and some people likely found Glitch so late and got to play so little, that someone will have that sort of experience.  They’ll stumble on this browser game, decide to give it a try, and find themselves in a place they didn’t know they knew, a place they didn’t remember they’d forgotten.

Ultimately, the biggest reason why I don’t listen to some of my favorite songs, though I very well could listen to them on loop… is because I want to preserve them as time-capsules.  I want to take them in, let them surround me as I am in a place at a time, then forget them.  And, when I hear that song again, some years in the future, unlock that capsule and be able to feel, if just for that moment, that immersive, suffusing sense of place and time once more.   Something so acute, so overwhelming, that couldn’t have been called up from memory without that key – that song (or, often, that smell.)   Yes, that does a disservice to the song: it puts aside its meaning as a song itself, renders it secondary to what it makes me feel and think and remember.  But, what can I say.  Sometimes, I appreciate a song for what it means on its own.  Sometimes I appreciate it for my personal interpretations.  And sometimes, selfishly, I appreciate it for how it reminds me of myself.


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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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Labor’s Love Lost

Labor Day has come and gone.  Summer ends, and school starts for the kids, marking the end of freedom and the start of a fresh new year.  And, for the adults, the day off is an appreciated but insignificantly short lull in the droning sameness of workaday life.  There’s no real appreciation of labor or the workforce, no reflection on the condition of workers, or even on the condition of work itself.

I tried to write something more profound here.  Something about how hard it is to find work that affords even a simple life.  How the full-time job with reasonable pay and benefits is no longer basic, no longer standard, but a promotion.   How so many of us are temps, or “independent contractors” – frequently in name only – that we can only hope to be real employees at all.  How many of us have to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet to any degree.  How we’re saddled with student loan debt, because everyone all our lives told us that we’d need a good education to make it in the real world — so we sought one, paying more than we might ever earn back, even if we were still responsible enough to go to a public school in-state.   How we still get accused of being irresponsible spenders, even though an increasing number of us are choosing to rent homes rather than buy them, avoid owning a car, and even delay marriage and children — some might say out of a prolonged childhood, but arguably because independence is yet another luxury we can’t afford.

But it’s hard to try to speak so broadly.  I’m no expert in socioeconomics; I can’t sum up the changing function and fears of the American workforce.

All I can do is speak to my own experience, as one of those “gifted and talented” kids who grew up to be apparently useless to the world.

I won’t go through my own sordid work history; suffice it to say that it’s consisted mostly of temporary positions, rarely offered any kind of benefits, occasionally resulted in injury, frequently was riddled with miscommunication at the least and outright scandal at the worst, and had no bearing on anything I actually wanted to do when I grew up.

Because I never wanted to be something useful.  I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic or a teacher.  I kind of wanted to be an FBI agent until I learned all the rigors of training, which I knew my crapsack legs would not allow.  I kind of wanted to be an entomologist, until I realized that field work would require endurance and stamina as well.

No, what I always wanted to do, since the first time I pushed a key on my mother’s electric typewriter, was to be a writer.

Of all the things to be good at in the world, I was good at writing — at least, if you asked the adults around me.  They were always sharing the little poems I’d write as a kid, or the little short stories, or saying how good my essays were.  It was like that well into high school, when my teachers would say my papers were already graduate-level — and into college, when professors would say THEY had learned something from reading my essays.  (I’d stopped writing fiction and poetry shortly after I learned the word “doggerel.”)

And yet there was one constant refrain:  You Can’t Make A Living At That.

The one thing I was naturally good at, the one thing I enjoyed doing above all others, the one thing that anyone gave me any positive feedback about — the one thing I most loved to do — and the first thing out of anyone’s mouth was You Can’t Make A Living At That.

Nevermind that time and experience have shown that I can’t apparently make a living at anything else, either.

There’s never been anything I’ve loved so much as creating.  Writing most of all, but also music and drawing.  I’ve never been quite as good at anything as I was at writing, but the arts, in general, were my few islands of patience.  I’d get frustrated, as a child, with my lack of coordination in every other sphere of life, but something about Art of any kind was self-soothing.  There has never been anything in my life as wonderful as finding just the right word, playing just the right chord, watching that stirring scene in a play or a film.  Feeling the goosebumps rise, the tiny hairs stand up on the back of my neck, the wave of energy as if my body’s every cell was overflowing with life.   There is nothing like that aesthetic overload.  And if I could do anything, I’d spend my life trying to do things that wreak that same sensation in other people.  (Though it’s insufferable hubris to think I even could.)

I love to create things, but it’s so hard, at the same time.  Because there’s no point if you don’t share them, and yet sharing them is always an abject terror — calling on other people, sometimes even strangers, to judge the thing you’ve poured your time and effort into. Even if you wouldn’t go so far as to call it your “talent,” it’s damning enough to know that you spent time and ATP on it.  It could have been spent on work that makes you money.  It could have been spent on applying for jobs.  It could have been spent on reworking a resume for the tenth time, or tweaking another cover letter.  It could have been spent on something that was really worth something.  And I know that it should be.  Especially during these times that I’m unemployed, and everyone tells me that “your full-time job is finding a full-time job,” as if there are even enough jobs out there for which I’m qualified enough to apply.  All my ostensible “talent” just boils down to a fast typing speed and firm grasp of grammar and spelling — but every job I find is heavy labor or skilled professional or some kind of high-powered executive.  Jobs that I’m not qualified for, and in many cases physically can’t do.  But  America doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” we just forgive different reasons for “won’t.”

But every once in a while, something just breaks, and I fritter away an entire afternoon writing something, or working on some sort of graphic design thing, or otherwise doing something creative. It hardly feels like any time at all – I’m just in the moment, doing what needs to be done for that task at hand, letting the inspiration guide me, and it’s all deeply appealing on so many different levels.   I’m focused, alert, productive, and yet I’m calm, steady, and persistent, even if I end up having to start over.  For those few timeless hours, I’m not scared or stressed or sad.  And then it’s done, and I have my draft of a post, or my short story, or some kind of photoshopped something, and I have a few moments of relative contentment (you know, where you realize the work is still totally Wrong but that it’s the best kind of Wrong you can make it.)  And while I might not be beaming or boasting, there may be a faint pearlescence of pride.

At least, before I look at the clock and see just how much time I’ve squandered — time which could have been money, had I been working on something valuable.

And yet,  one part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is always yelling at me that I can’t afford not to do these creative projects, because with every day that passes, I might be losing inspiration, losing the moment, losing the window of opportunity. I know that if I don’t start writing when I’m inspired, the idea and the mood will be gone and I may never get it back.  And that maybe, maybe, this is the idea that DOES matter.

This is a selfish part of brain, really. It says to me, “YOU are the one with this idea right now. YOU are the one who can do this. YOU should do it, because nobody else is going to do it unless YOU do it. You’ve spent all your life hiding and making yourself feel bad, internalizing every paradoxical insult ever hurled at you, convincing yourself that you weren’t worthy of anything. But after all these years, you convinced yourself that you are worthy of being alive, you are worthy of having a sense of self, you are worthy of having a unique identity, you are worthy of having a will to achieve and incorporate new things into yourself, you are worthy of developing a sense of agency in your life. There is a reason you feel peace with yourself when you’re creating, or contributing to artistic creation. There is a reason that it feels like it’s what you should be doing. There is a reason something at the core of you twists itself up in a knot at the idea of working in an office again. There is a reason the bile rises in your throat at words like ‘proactive’ and ‘webinar.’ You know this, no matter how complicated you may try to make things for yourself.

“All your life, you’ve been hiding your lamp under a bushel, and forcing yourself to see it as a faint little glow under the Chernobyl sarcophagus — and equally as treacherous if freed.  But there are people who want to hear what you have to say, to see what you have to make. Some are known to you, and some unknown — waiting for some mutual creative experience to, however loosely, however briefly, tie your minds together. And you know that, even if there were nobody left on the planet, you’d still be writing. You’d still be trying to make something of it all. This is what you do. This is your nature. And if you’re going to feel guilty about anything in your life, feel guilty about denying these most fundamental truths of yourself. No matter what has happened, you never fully let them go. You never let anyone take them from you. Not even yourself. You think you’ve changed so much in these past few years, but you know the secret – know it and have known: the only change has been in self-perception. You’ve always had this same potential, but only now are you allowing yourself to see it.

“But now is no time to blind yourself for blindness, guilt yourself for guilt or shame your shame; if you think that any time was squandered, then allow it to squander no more. Don’t seek permission or justification to pursue a life where you are what you know you could be: by being and by knowing, you have earned this. Earned this, and earned things that will be beyond your knowing until, reaching upward – however weakly, however slowly, however blindly, with hands however numb, you find them in your grasp. Some you may have already – have but not yet feel. And no matter what anyone has told you, or you have told yourself, it is a goodness to feel. So – for the love of any and all ye gods and a thousand glimmering shoals of little fishes – just let yourself CREATE.”

Meanwhile, the rational part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is telling me, “Will you shut your idiot piehole and talk sense? Look, if you don’t work every possible moment your job lets you work, you can’t afford to pay rent and eat food. It’s not that complicated. Not that you exactly need to eat so damn much, and not that you deserve to live where you are, but you have a responsibility to yourself and the people who let you live with them to keep yourself alive and pay your fair goddamn share.  Remember THAT word, Dostoyevsky?  RE-SPON-SIB-IL-ITY?

“I don’t care how burnt out you feel, I don’t care how incompetent you feel, I don’t care how dissatisfied you feel. I don’t care how peaceful or happy or accomplished you think you should feel, and I don’t care what you aspire to, because your feelings don’t matter, and your idea of a future doesn’t matter.  Because the future is just like today with a different date slapped on the tin. I don’t care if you feel bad about yourself, because you should feel bad about yourself.  Because, idealism aside, you ARE the money you make. You ARE what you can afford. You ARE what everyone else sees you as. You are a human in a society, and you need food, shelter, and a certain base level of acceptable appearance in order to stay alive and engage in in remotely successful interactions. These things cost money.

“You like to think you see yourself as better now, but you don’t, because you’re still at least a little awkward about going out in public, and — yet again —  you should be. You’re pining away like you think you’re a Romantic hero, some melancholy soul rejected by society to its own disservice, but you’re just a dumpy unemployed ugmo with bad skin and bad teeth and bad legs and bad hair.  You don’t even deserve to THINK about beauty, much less believe you can craft it. If you wanted to help the people around you, you’d stop believing you could make things that people want, and you would sell all your art and craft supplies for actual money. Nobody will ever pay even five bucks for anything you’ve ever done, because they know and you know that there’s more value in the printer ink or paint than in the “work” you’ve subjected it to.

“And whose fault is all of this? Yours. You could have chosen differently all along, and you didn’t, and now you think you can THINK yourself into the right to a better life than you’ve earned. You are not a bohemian, you are not insightful, you are not important, you are not a thing that matters, and the more you delude yourself into thinking you are, the more you are going to be discontent with the normal responsibilities of adulthood. Nobody gives even a sixteenth of a shit about your life but you, and you don’t even deserve to care about it as much as you’re trying to. Even if I let you do the artsy-fartsy bullshit you think you want to do, you KNOW you’d only be upset with how it turns out, and you KNOW you’d whine about how it could be better and how you’re just not good enough. And guess what — you’re right.

“I’m saving you a lot of trouble and embarrassment. You think you’re at peace with yourself when you’re creating, and you think you’re finally freeing yourself, but you’re actually hiding from the reality of the world you chose for yourself. You could have majored in anything in college – English, or arts, or psychology, or some kind of science. And whatever you majored in, you could have chosen to spend less time and money on that asshole you were with at the time. But no, you majored in Philosophy because you thought the critical thinking skills were more practical, and you still wasted your time, energy, money, GPA, and sanity on an ungrateful alcoholic jerk. Thinking that you could help him, even though you clearly couldn’t even handle your own life well enough to pick a major that’s not a cultural joke. You regret that time now, regret how everything happened, but you know you deserved just as good as you got, and still deserve to be suffering the consequences. Everything matters, every choice matters, and all the choices you have ever made up until this point have put you where you are. And it’s not even that bad, you ingrate. You’re just poor and unhappy, and both of those are logical consequences of those previous choices – or have you completely forgotten the Philosophy major you wasted your family’s money on?

“Listen. Your responsibility to yourself is not to be happy. Happiness is what you can pursue when you are DONE with all your responsibilities, and even then you can pursue it ONLY if it doesn’t come at the unhappiness, botherment, or even mild inconvenience of anyone else. If you manage to climb out of this hole you’ve put yourself into – and good goddamn luck with that, gimpy – then maybe you can start thinking about whether you have needs as a person or not. Until then, shut up, be a broken-toothed little cog, get a job, and do it.  Be grateful when someone chooses to pay you money to perform one of those few services your useless ass is capable of performing. All you ever do is let everybody down – and that’s when you’re NOT trying to do things beyond your limits. I have been telling you these same kinds of things every single day since you were in the third grade, and just because you decide to stop listening to me doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So sit down, shut up, and go back to work.”

Clearly, that part of my psyche is rather a lot more emphatic. And louder. And tends to go on at length. And has more objective evidence behind it. All the hippie-dippie encouraging attitude has behind it is your usual hope/faith/optimism stuff, which is painfully cyclical. If you want to be an optimist, you have to be optimistic that optimism will help you. It’s like most religion, magic, and other forms of faith that way – though, while that paradox of optimism is straightforward, actual systems of faith tend to be convoluted and circuitous enough that you ultimately manage to believe in yourself without your own ego interfering. It’s pretty damn wonderful and heroic when it all works out, but there’s the reason why that’s the kind of thing you read about in fiction. There’s a reason why, when that happens in the real world, it’s news.

And so here I am, on my first day of my latest bout of unemployment, an indefinite Labor Day weekend.  Telling myself that I’ll write things, I’ll create things, I’ll do useful things for people, until I get some kind of job that gives me dollars again. Trying not to be so stressed out and sad that I give up and hide from the world.  Trying not to delude myself with optimism, nor fall too deep in the mire of pessimism, no matter how much that pessimism looks like objective and rational truth.  Trying to make peace with my lack of social value while still believing it possible to redeem myself.

Nobody ever gets what they want in life.  Nobody ever gets to be happy — the hedonic treadmill sees to that, if nothing else.  And so, perhaps nothing has changed in all this time.  Perhaps none of it matters.  I’ll take the next job I’m capable of that opens up, I’ll work it until they arbitrarily get rid of me, or the company goes under, or the work runs dry, or they replace me with someone, or I have to quit before I have a nervous breakdown over the incompetence and impossibility of it all.  I’ll try to do the creative and calming things I can do in what free time I have, if just for myself, if never to be seen by anyone else.  And in every other hour of my life, I’ll feel myself age, feel myself grow stupid, feel myself grow even more slow, and regret more and more all the things that hindsight fools me into thinking I could have done with this time.

Because this is what it is to be an adult.

This is what it is to be a worker.

This is how we make a living.

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Wherein I Act Like Some Sort Of Low-Rent Art Critic

I’ve been spending a lot of time in this blog yammering away about Things Of Seeming Import as if I actually have a meaningful opinion on it.  It’s enjoyable enough, but there’s a strange pressure there.  It’s largely self-imposed, of course.  But while I almost always have that drive to study and synthesize and talk about things, I’m first in line to admit that this doesn’t always overlap with my desire to say things that matter.  Or that even really mean anything.   And while it’s nice to have a place to vent about sociopoliticoecookyriarchical -ism crap when I feel the yen, you could say it gets to be a bit of a drag.

Moreover, whenever I’m particularly stressed out, my brain seems to have a strange desire not to relax and slowly unspool itself, but rather to switch gears and spin them all the faster until the tension’s released.  In college, I was rarely as creative as in those few last caffeinated hours after I’d finished writing an essay, but couldn’t yet sleep.  I’d burn off the last of the energy drink and rapid-unwind my brain by writing something ridiculous – a sketch, an absurd analysis of something from pop-culture, an overly extended metaphor about why some noun – any noun – was symbolic of the human condition.

I think it’s an attempt to reclaim my brain as my own.  I’ve spent hours and hours subsuming myself to the task at hand: I was only the agent by which the work had to be done; I had no right to be concerned about myself at all until and unless the work was done fully and properly.  Still, I could only do what I could do; I wouldn’t know how proper it was until I got the grade back sometime later.  Since I couldn’t leave myself hanging like that, or the stress would never end, I did something else instead, on a surface-similar bent, but which wasn’t at the mercy of anyone but myself, and which was usually outright ridiculous. When I’d finished THAT to my own satisfaction, it seemed to overwrite enough of my other anxiety to let me stop re-reading and fretting and relax.  Sometimes with a whole four hours left to sleep before I had to go to class.

I feel similar now.  I haven’t had the luxury of being able to immerse myself fully in my work, and that’s a huge part of my current stress, but I do feel like writing and evaluating and thinking and DOING, a desire that seems to be fed by my inability to do what I’m supposed to be doing or to be certain that I’ve done it adequately.

So why not analyze the bleeding hell out of something else entirely?  Something that doesn’t actually have any meaning or significance to it whatsoever?  Rather, why not try to analyze meaning INTO something?  It’s always hard to tell whether I’m nurturing a seed found in the work itself, or planting seeds and seeing whether the work will nourish them or not.  So why not play that up?

I don’t want to do such terrible things to anybody else’s anything, however.  I polished up my backgrounds and such on this blog recently, though, so let’s do that.  heh.

First, how it was all made:

The blue pixelated sidebar / background started with randomly generated clouds, courtesy of some GIMP filters. I played around with the hue until I found a particularly pleasing shade of blue, but there seemed to be something… insufficient about it.  It would have been a serviceable background, but… meh. So I slapped a pixelation filter onto it.  For the central writing area, I used the ghostwhite color and a variety of artistic oil and splatter blushes for the edge effects.  The top banner is a mix of Upheaval Pro font and handwriting – originally a little more sloppy, recently redone to be just a little bit better.

And now for the fun part.  Or, just as it says on the tin, Wherein I Act Like Some Sort Of Low-Rent Art Critic.

Starting with clouds implies an affinity for nature and the outdoors, which is emphasized by the greenish-blue color choice, somewhere between the color of leaves and the color of the sky.  This was not the intent of the color choice, however; that will be described later. However, not only are these clouds generated by some mysterious algorithm, they are further obscured by pixelation.   The pixelation is mirrored in the header: as it’s the name that is rendered in a pixel-style font, it suggests that my very identity is forged, in some fashion, by digital interaction.  Together, both could be seen to represent the degree to which a digital life mediates my vision and alters – in some instances supplants – my interactions with the outside world.

However, this is a mediation, but not a dictation: this was not a pre-existing background that I chose for myself, but rather something I generated and manipulated.  The fact that this was digital does not therefore diminish my agency, abilities, or identity, but rather speaks to the fact that it is through these digital means that I feel most capable of expression.

This can be evinced in the “Rants” portion of the header.  Of all the elements, this simple handwriting went through the most revisions, and saw the most significant change.  While the first was less bold, more blurry, and poorly anti-aliased, this new version is brighter in color, cleaner in line, and more representative of my actual handwriting.  The angled brush evokes the angled nib of a calligraphy pen – a craft I’ve dabbled in.  As a result, it is a digital reflection of a very real-world, very hands-on practice.  To put ink to paper is to make an indelible mark, to alter something physical about the world.

Moreover, calligraphy – though it has its guidelines and rules, just to meet aesthetic standards – still allows for creativity and uniqueness.  Handwriting is distinctive; fonts are the same to all viewers.  The ink from a pen flows freely; pixels have no such flow, and are either ON or OFF.

The difficulty I faced with getting the text to look right could be interpreted as a difficulty in channeling that creativity and uniqueness through just a digital channel – but the persistence required to make something successful reflects the fact that even a real-world work of any kind takes just as much revision, patience, and persistence.  That is, it is a reminder that, no matter the means, a job well done is rarely quick or easy.

The fact that I altered it so much from the original represents the fact that these more expressive, creative traits of mine are naturally more mutable, and what’s seen as adequate at one point can be seen as insufficient when approached with different skills or a different goal.  The willingness to change it affirms a desire to improve and to demonstrate that improvement, no matter how arbitrary it might seem.  The shape of an S may be trivial, but headers exist to inform and to give a first impression.  A flaw in any small part can spoil the whole, and can even color how other things are perceived.

The effort put into the header therefore reflects my own concern with impressions and my appearance to others: an awareness of flaws and insufficiencies, a fear of their ability to undermine my credibility, and a fear that by my very focus on them, I’m only drawing further focus onto them, drawing attention away from the writing itself, and elsewise shooting myself in the foot.  This could also be seen in the original header’s use of a white background of the same value as the writing-area background: while this looked seamless enough originally, that monitor’s failure and my resorting to a much smaller CRT caused the layout to look different: the white background of the header protruded into the left sidebar, no longer melding naturally.  This could be seen as a metaphor for the desire to find a place within the wider scope of things, marred by frequent failures to actually comprehend the breadth of my own borders:  the very act of trying to blend in causing me to stand out.  That this was fixed by instead placing both text elements on a transparent texture could be metaphorical as well: indicating that one blends in best when one stops trying to construct an artificial grounding, stops asserting one’s own borders, and stops acknowledging that ones surroundings are borders at all, but rather shows confidence in the ability of one’s actual subject matter to stand out appropriately.  It indicates that the jarring juxtapositions and sharp borders are frequently self-defined, sometimes self-asserted, and that by discarding them one is able to blend and stand out, as appropriate, against almost any backdrop, from almost any perspective.  The fact that this revision was both the largest one (by size) and the last one performed may speak to the difficulty in acknowledging and fixing the behaviors they can be seen to represent.

Furthermore, the use of the artistic oils and splatter brushes to create and edge the writing area is another mimicry of realworld art.  In this, too, I juxtapose the physical and the digital.  The fact that this raw, handmade looking surface overlays the pixelated background might be seen to represent an idea that such raw, physical art supersedes the digital in some fashion.  Moreover, its whiteness, organic appearance, and vague borders evoke the clouds that were almost wholly pixelated away in the background itself: a suggestion that art seeks to mimic, recreate, and control nature.  The very fact that all of this is, itself, digitized makes a mockery of that suggestion, however, much as any painting – no matter how well-made, no matter how verisimilar the trompe l’oeil — is still a human creation, made with tools.

For as many revisions as the text went through, this simple background seemed to go through just as many: to position it properly, to eliminate its seams, and — most of all – to remove the bleedthrough of the background.  For whatever ill-thought reason, this was not made as a simple filled-in rectangle with fancy-brushed borders; instead I ‘painted on’ the whole thing, leaving various gaps that somehow weren’t noticeable until uploaded.  For all the other elements’ emphasis on the digital and the pre-formatted and the simplified and the square, the failure to do this the “obvious” or “easy” way in lieu of a more hand-drawn way may speak to a desire for authenticity.

As much as the cloud-resembling, organic writing area could be seen to supersede the pixelated, digitized background, the fact remains that this writing area exists only to be superseded by writing.  This might be seen to represent a belief that writing is somehow superior to visual arts.  Perhaps  it asserts an idea that writing is more capable of providing a profound or insightful representation of the world than any visual mimicry:  that visual art may represent a moment, or evoke emotions, or may portray another’s mindset or vision with near one-to-one clarity that cannot be evoked in words, but that words somehow transcend what can be seen, or can better express some nuances.  The font used for the text, unlike the handwritten or explicitly pixelated font in the header, lies somewhere between them: the lines are crisp and anti-aliased like the handwritten text, but as rigid and dark as the explicitly pixelated font.  This could be seen as a desire for the words represented by that text to find or forge a similar balance between the rigid and the fluid, the digital and the organic, the predefined and the mutable.  Or, even more broadly, that which exists after being wrought by human actions, and that which exists unto itself.

The pixelation may have another layer of metaphor, as well — it may represent the very act of overanalysis.  In pop culture, especially detective fiction, images and video are frequently zoomed-in and “enhanced” almost infinitely, until some previously-undetectable feature is clearly visible.  In practice this only leads to blurrier and more pixelated images.  This could be seen as a subversion of the tendency of the text itself to overanalyze its subjects, seeking clarity but only seeing bigger, blurrier squares, increasingly indistinct and unidentifiable as a part of a whole, yet each one distinct from the other.  This reflects the experience that deeper analysis may sometimes yield more refinement and more detail, but that. after a point. one can perceive only a few rigidly defined areas of ambiguity.

And yet this itself leads to questions of how such an assortment of ambiguous parts can form a whole.  Two features of an image may appear to have a distinct border, and any two pixels that comprise the image of that border may themselves have a distinct border, but when sufficiently zoomed in, each square is frequently an indistinct jumble, devoid of texture or of anything but raw color, and even then each pixel’s color as an indistinct blend of the colors of either feature.  As such, it reflects the search for identity, both in how one is distinct from others or from one’s surroundings, and in how one’s identity is forged from its components.

To, at last, address the color choice of the handwriting font, there appears no clear symbolism.  While purple is commonly held to symbolize royalty, no content or connotation seems to support such a reading (unless one were to see the desire to seek balance between the natural and the human as some expression that “the king and the land are one.”)  But any “art” interpretation seems to always hinge on some single secret event in the creator’s life – a private symbol, extrapolated into art, but which may or may not be able to be found in the whole.  (This extrapolation and the failed attempts to find it again on closer scrutiny is another instance of the “enhancement” paradox represented by pixelation.)  In this instance, the purple and teal are the author’s (once) private symbol of wonder, the unexpected, and the unknown.

There is an explanation behind that.

However, by having an explanation of the significance behind those colors and their personal meaning, and by mentioning their “translation” but not elucidating it, these colors are now inherently less representative of wonder and the unexplained to me than they are to anyone else who’s reading this.  Being aware of the association, but lacking a reason, creates some measure of wonder and the unknown in others that it can’t generate in me.  And that’s an interesting twist. Moreover, all the other analyses and critical readings were highfalutin, yet fatuous (and still not inherently inaccurate.)  I was creating them out of nothing just now: I had no actual intent behind them at creation.  The color choice for that header, though, was a choice made at creation, and does have a significance and a story – and yet that story is still utterly silly, far moreso than even the most ludicrously lofty thing I’ve put here.

And that, itself, might be symbolic.  A reminder that, for all the deep analysis and studying and interpretation, there is still potency in things as they are, and in things left unsaid and unsay-able.

The strange thing is that, at the end of all of this blather… I feel strangely compelled to try writing poetry again.

Maybe that’s just because I’ve proven myself able to write things that are both florid, arguably meaningful, and also arguably bullshit.

But it is said:  Bullshit makes the flowers grow, and that’s beautiful.

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