Monday, December 22, 2008

Lucent Dossier at the Edison

Look at Lucent Dossier and at the Edison first!

I’ve written elsewhere about the Los Angeles club scene. I think it’s a tyrannical dictatorship system with Style and Connections holding top office. There’s no grace for people who don’t want to spend a lot of money, for people who just love to dance or want to have honest, exuberant interactions with strangers. There’s classism, ageism, sexism, and nearly ever other discriminatory practice occurring at the front of the velvet ropes. Nearly every worthwhile time I’ve had “going out” in LA has been as a performer, an employee, not as a customer. Now that I'm part of an artist crew it's a brand new day! We go out in costume and derail all the old social tropes--and one of my favorite episodes recently was seeing Lucent Dossier.

For Louis’s birthday and our six-months demi-versary I found an event in an L.A. venue that seemed too good to be true. The place is called The Edison, it’s in downtown, and the show was a group called Lucent Dossier. The aesthetic was 1930s circus side-show/fantastical zoo.

We dressed in costume—Louis in a top hat, cropped-sleeve jacket and hand-painted shoes, me in a black corset, hip fringe, boots and a short, Louis-tailored black trench coat. People stopped us for pictures and mistook us for Lucent performers all night, which I found particularly gratifying not just because it indicated that the outfits “worked” but because it also indicated that our energetic engagement with everyone we met matched the performers. We were part of the experience, as we received it.

The Edison is a transformed warehouse with a style I found both cozy and formidable. Someone perfectly blended the stark heavy beauty of a master welder and the plush luxury of Daisy Buchannon’s lounging parlour—slouching leather armchairs under exposed plumbing, brick walls and thick Persian rugs, curio cabinets through which you could peer at the bar from your mahogany table. One enters the Edison on the top floor, then descends a metal staircase into the vast chaotic dance of light and shadow, textures both soft and unyeilding. 19th-century style light bulb sculptures illuminate the bar, silhouettes of esoteric animation keep the walls moving, television screens encased in thick gilded frames tell us that here we find a crashing together of some perfect historical visual tropes (frame your art) and totally modern beauty (backlight your art, let it move).

The music continued our ahistorical disorientation, turning “Basin Street Blues” into a trance-like dance beat, Sarah Vaugn’s “Fever” into a rave-scene.

And then there was Lucent Dossier. What I loved most about the show was the mingling—each performer stayed in character and costume all night, periodically dancing in a spotlight for more traditional performance numbers (although their aerialist did a bondage show that trumped all other girls I’ve seen in silks), but more often playing with customers and each other everywhere in the venue. They had a foot washer, a screen-painter, an air-brush body artist. They crept and crawled and behaved like birds, like children, like cats. Once they danced in unison from all corners: up in some rigging, on the bar, next to tables, and we were swept into their playful, sexy refrains.

So it came as no surprise to me that Lucent Dossier goes to Burning Man every year. The feeling inside the Edison that night was particularly friendly, participatory, collaborative, playful, and experimental. These are all feelings that most L.A. clubs can’t foster unless they have a base of regular customers who don’t clique up when new people show. I occasionally saw the Lucent Performers as the cool kids who knew they were having more fun than the insecure, collar-wearing normals, but it was easy to forgive them because of how often they engaged everyone in their games. They clearly have a great deal of performing intimacy with each other, which heightened the beautiful sexuality of the show even more.

And this was the small revolution that I witnessed: a very hip place, a very good show, and a crowd interested in art and joy. A sensual frolic as opposed to a meat-market catwalk. Loving attention to detail in costumes as opposed to frantic attempts to signal a familiar Hollywood-sexualization in the same old tight jeans and heels. Loud, real laughter instead of ingratiating snickering. With the addition of the odd beauty of the Edison itself, I felt that thrill of originality—this is an animal I haven’t seen before—from the first descent of the staircase to the knot of people outside at 2AM who didn’t want it to end.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Sweat Test

Babies hooked up to oxygen in the Pediatric Pulmonary/Cardiac waiting room. “I think I’m in the wrong place,” I say to the receptionist. “I was sent here from Genetic Counseling for a Sweat test.”
“No, this is it,” she says, typing something unrelated into her computer. “We have the Sweat Lab here.”

I’m called in. Stephanie the aspiring physician's assistant straps electrodes to my right arm, one red and one black, like I'm a car battery that needs charging.
"This doesn't hurt," she says, "but it kind of stings." It doesn't do either, and I think she is used to working with scared kids who perceive any change to their bodily sanctity as pain. At my questions, Stephanie talks me through the test, which involves a current being run through two gel discs (ends of the battery charger) placed on the inside of my forearm and middle of bicep, first right arm, then left. After five minutes the discs are removed and a collector, which looks like a Star Wars comlink, is strapped on with Velcro, then wrapped in gauze and Saran Wrap. The comlinks talk to my skin. I am sweating through two glands into tiny coils of plastic tubing. I am reading Ellroy in the waiting room.

I'm getting a sweat test because I have two very rare generic mutations that cause cystic fibrosis, discovered in a thorough genetic screening during my initial phase of becoming an egg donor for a couple who were unconvinced by my initial negative cystic fibrosis screen. The normal screening for cystic fibrosis only looks at 97 possible mutations. I had none of those, and tested negative. But the recipient couple are worried because the husband is a carrier. The chances of my having one mutation after a negative screen were about 1 in 300,000. Then, I had two. We don't know if I'm cis, meaning both mutations occur on the same gene, or trans, meaning one occurs on each strand. I don’t quite understand it except: the mystery is whether one or both of my parents is a carrier of cystic fibrosis. If I’m trans, I might actually have the disease. I’m sitting in the waiting room with the sweat collectors around my forearms, hidden under my sweater. They are comlinks, talking to my genes. Trying to find out if I’ve secretly been sicker than I ever thought possible. Cystic fibrosis usually presents immediately in children as respiratory problems, failure to thrive, and other dramatic symptoms. But in adults it can go undetected, in mild forms, for many years. Sinus problems. Diarrhea. Things you don’t think too much about.

A harried mom struggles with plastic tubing and her normal- looking son gets a quick aspiration if the throat. "When you got a kid like this, you don't got no life," she says to another mom. "For-real-for-real. You don't got no life." Another baby to my left is hooked to an oxygen tank and hovers on the edge of sleep.

In recent months I've been getting teased for how much I sweat, and I wonder if right now my little glands are responding with a normal amount, or with a vengeance. We are looking for elevated levels of salt, the diagnostic test for cystic fibrosis. In the last day I’ve been informed that it’s possible I’ve had this disease in mild form my whole life, and then would be at risk to manifest symptoms as I get older.

Finding Nemo plays on the ceiling-mounted TV and a woman to my right studies irregular Italian verbs. After a half-hour of sweat production I can’t feel, as the Italian student and I are discussing the way pictures of Tuscany motivate her to study the language better (she's about forty and in her first semester if college, which I normalize without hesitation by not commenting on how "great" it is) Stephanie appears. "Thanks for sharing that with me," the Italian student calls after me as I go, and I don't quite know if she is referring to my love if Italy or just our moment of non-anonymity together, so rare in this city in particular.

Stephanie chats. She admits that she decided not to try and be a doctor because it's too hard and takes too long. A physician’s assistant does many of the same tasks without the years of internship. Stephanie uses a syringe to peel out the tightly coiled tubing in the sweat collectors. She says I sweat plenty. “You're good,” she says. “Some people don't really sweat at all.” Tell me about it. She clips the other end of the tubing from the plastic disc on my arm and puts that end in a half-inch-tall plastic vial, then pushes air through the tube with the syringe until the sweat all deposits in the vial. It's ingenius, this little system. It's science fiction. Something in the collectors has turned the sweat bright blue, like those Gatorade commercials. Stephanie wipes my arms. I ask if I’m going to continue sweating from the stimulated glands. She smiles. “No, you should be all set.”

I’m standing at the clearance rack in the Downtown Crossing TJ Maxx when I get the call: negative result. "We consider this result very diagnostic," the friendly genetic counselor says. And that’s it—in 24 hours it’s over. All I’ve got are two silent, recessive, super-rare mutations. “I already knew I was special,” I tell my nurse later. She laughs.

Egg donation is a strange procedure. A couple spends thousands of dollars selecting an anonymous donor with features they like, many of which have an undiscovered or unknown link to genetics: creativity, sociability, leadership. They pick a donor who looks like the recipient wife. They rule out donors with genetic diseases: cystic fibrosis is one of the main concerns, because of how common the recessive mutations are, and how severe the disease. But the phobia of cystic fibrosis is extreme: many donation agencies won’t even use women who are carriers, even if there’s no risk of disease development with couples who are using male DNA that doesn’t carry the mutation. This speaks to a level of emotionality and irrationality in the field that should concern everyone.

Donation is lucrative for the donor. It’s a last-chance effort for the recipient couple. It’s eugenics. It’s altruism. It’s for couples who really believe it’s important to have their OWN baby, at least 50% genetically, and carry it in the mother’s uterus, rather than adopt or give up. It’s only for people who can afford it, and often they spend everything they’ve got. I’ve signed two contracts that allow possible offspring to contact me when they are eighteen years old. I’ve told two psychologists, totally honestly, that that possibility intrigues me and is fine with me. I like the idea of my genes getting passed on without my having to raise a child. Donating eggs has helped me pay student loan debt and have time to write, which feels very close to justice, and I’m grateful for it. I think about people who would go to these lengths to be parents and I would rather them raise a child than someone more haphazard, less invested in the role. Still, the ethical issues are myriad. Myriad and seemingly brand new, because the technology is so new—like stem cells and cloning, it’s become another part of our cultural conversation about how much or how little to intervene in “nature.” That conversation, however, is as old as science itself.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving in Las Vegas: A Very True Story

Some argue that the road to Las Vegas is dull and dusty, a stretch of nothing between Los Angeles and sin. But for Lindsey, Anthony, Louis and Vanessa, the attractions began just outside the borders of dogma, with many hours still to press on before the redemptive glow of the Strip. They found the theme and origin of their Thanksgiving weekend on the side of the road at a very famous, and yet somehow still culturally foreign idea.
Nestled deep in the C-major Ohm of the lavish casinos wearing their walking shoes, marveling at the gifts of design and aesthetic Vegas offers for free, there was no better state to enter than metamorphosis. When Willie Wonka loans his lamps to the Wynn, ancient Rome frames modern fashion, when you can see Paris from New York and Egypt from Camelot, when your way across the street is up and over a lightsaber graveyeard or under a Michaelangelo, your own truest, most fantastical shape emerges. Anthony lent his body to a wine bar hovering fourteen floors up while his mind walked a labyrinth of poetry.Lindsey dove into the city's ether, and where others had drowned in cacophony or sunk into unconcscious muck, she could float, she could breathe, she could see.Louis grew to incredible heights and embedded himself in the circuitry until he was one with the light.
Vanessa became a lion.
Four transformed members of the Rebel Alliance, arms linked and minds locked together, stormed the Imperial Palace with pens and songs and texts and dances. Electric, poetic, aquatic, and fierce, they drove the long way home in solidarity with a world whose distinctions, dichotomies, and categories (especially Real vs. Fictional) had been exploded by the temporary river running under the hotel. No elevator, no tram, no landscaped walkway, no velvet rope, no mirrored wall, no parking lot, no "public" or "private" space will ever be the same again.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bob Dylan 9/07/08 With Anthony Cristofani

It was only the two of us who drove from Los Angeles to a mysterious venue called the Santa Barbara Bowl, because one of our lovers was physically unfit for the journey and the other mentally unfit. We’ve decided to use our twosome-ness in the two-fold reception of the Bob Dylan show. This is the first time. Hopefully the tone will sound like a bastardized, harassed Carlisle and an abnormally coherent and organized Cristofani.

No one told us the Bowl was situated on a hill to maximize sacralization. And nowhere in the capitalist manual for justice and fairness did we read that we could have possibly gotten in free, merely by asking people. There was no preparation for a ticket gifted silently, at the mention of Vanessa’s being a fan (and not a scalper.) We should say it was Vanessa who got us in free, but in a very meaningful way, WE are Vanessa. Excuse the pronominal glibness of the next few paragraphs.

Like the musicians, operating within some perfect and consistent frame, we separated and reunited and separated in body and text throughout the show. Here are some of the things we shared on September 7th, 2008.
A Jack in the Box Coffee
Knowledge of the way pelicans look over Santa Barbara
The transition from Zarathustra to David Bowie
A cursory exploration of the Star Wars Force Unleashed Graphic Novel
The conviction that the last verse of Desolation Row, whose performance by its creator we also shared tonight, is the best.

There’s only so much you can share. What was in Anthony’s, and what was in Vanessa’s mind when “we” heard Desolation Row?

Anth: Bob Dylan walked backstage before the show started and told his band: “Tonight, it’s a bittersweet country blues show. Rewrite everything before you come on.”
Ness: Desolation row as prayer: music is the triumph of belief over time. The sound of Desolation Row didn’t match the lyrics, but it matched its own history. It told the story of itself.
Anth: Like Bruce Springsteen by now with Born to Run revisions. In 1988. Bob Dylan songs are all implicitly about constancy and duration.

In Bob’s Santa Barbara BluesTown show with His Band, Times they are a Changin’ became: let’s all sit together in the backyard together talking about the World.
I Believe in You became: you can feel us moving forward no matter what you do. The drums pounded out the consistent belief underneath.

A nugget of unifying wisdom elicited by the instrumentation: celebration of continued fight. When the Deal Goes down was a waltz, a slow, long-haul pushing-through of a song. Honest With Me was a march, tight, in motion, no loosening of the framework, not even in Bob’s gritty soup of a singing voice. We keep going, we must keep going. This was an incredible message to receive in an election year.

We realized the songs were teaching us how to hear them. Most icons trigger nostalgic responses, even if their older works are still relevant, still brilliant. We simply can’t help recalling who we were when we first experienced the music. But this time, you didn’t have to remember who you were when you first heard How Does it Feel?, because the music will create new listener out of you. It’s nearly impossible to be nostalgic when the music is unrecognizable. The meaning is new, and your hearing the song before is only an asset insofar as it helps you understand the lyrics.
This process extends outward. Bob plays in unrecognizable places-- venues like county fairs, the town outside the city. Unrecognizable formats: Bob and his band, not just Bob Dylan. Those that would come see him just to relive their youth stay away.
He also broke the show format by playing Thunder on Mountain in the middle of the show. Given its lyric, its bombastic first few chords, it sounds like big opener. It begins the show! But the show is already going! And we are reminded not to get lulled into what we’re doing, ever. Start over before you are Ready.

Question of blowing in the wind:
Is the comfort in the music (beautiful, lilting, lovely) ironic or are we to be truly comforted by some grand scheme, in which we are eternally returning to the same questions, to be settled and unsettled in same way over and over again? I don’t know how to straddle that line.

Sing even as you drive Dixie down, even as desolation row becomes America and vice versa.
Even as your rolling stone becomes a southern ballad on a plantation. Even when the song tells you you’re like Mick Jagger, you can shake it and you got soul, but you can’t speak.

But not when levees break. (Doesn’t even need to write new lyrics, with instrumentation and venue moves.)

He wrote this song in the period when he looked and talked like Cate Blanchett. The price, benefit, puzzle of being an icon: you can feasibly say “So-and-so does Bob Dylan better than Bob Dylan.” Las Vegas reminds us of all the movies we’ve seen about Vegas. MSNBC Lockup has privileged access—Anth forgets “real” prison, remembers MSNBC Lockup. Vanessa looks out of a plane window in Thailand and thinks it looks like an Indiana Jones movie. The representation predates the referent in our world. Bob engages this by throwing out preservation as a virtue. What is needed, what works, what gets through, what this band in this town with this weather next to this ocean in this time of history in this country with this audience is truest to the fundamental mission—THAT is the show. When literature about truth and honesty fails, we put down the book and confess.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Picking a Fight With Diablo Cody

My problem with Diablo Cody is not Juno. I loved Juno. The dialogue was “unrealistic” in exactly the kind of exaggerated, funny, sharp way that I know is actually real, after years of being a smart teen and then working with them. I could write an essay about why I think Juno was an important movie, but it’s already been done. A lot. I know Cody wrote an angry blog about all the "haters" who dissed the movie too, but still, she got an Oscar. I’d like to congratulate Cody on the success, and have the context for what I say next be my basic admiration for what she’s demonstratably able to do. Plus, my problem is not about her, at all.

My problem with Diablo Cody is what she did with Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, her “memoir” about stripping in Minneapolis. Why, do you ask, is “memoir” in quotes? Surely this book is about her experience! Well, yes. And No. In fact, my problem is that this book is mostly NOT about her experience. Cody writes like a journalist at a snarky weekly rag: all quip, no analysis. When she veers into the territory of conclusion-drawing, she quickly zooms backwards into description again. And in fact she was praised for this—one reviewer called the book “refreshingly devoid of moral conclusions.” I disagree. The book was irritatingly chock-full of moral conclusions—but they were implicit, assumed, and unexamined by the author. More than exposing some new truths about the industry, the society that has demonized it, or even herself, Cody uses Candy Girl to self-congratulate, not once truly questioning the taboos and stereotypes she carries with her from beginning to end. She’s proud of stripping because it’s hard, and it’s wrong, and she wanted to rebel. She’s proud of quitting because it was the grown-up thing to do. Yawn. Despite the title, I'm not actually trying to fight with Diablo Cody in this review, I'm trying to get at a cultural tendency towards NOT questioning the origin of our opinions, through her demonstration of that tendency in Candy Girl.

Cody never owns her prejudice about the sex industry—she simply assumes that everyone understands why she’s an “unlikely” stripper. Everyone probably does, because of how widespread the stereotypes are, but I'd like to question why. She’s unlikely because she’s educated? Funny? It’s not clear, exactly, since so, so many of the women who work in clubs are as educated as she is (if not more so, in the case of many Brazilian and Russian women who come to the U.S. with higher degrees that suddenly mean nothing in our xenophobic society). Oh wait! I know! She’s unlikely because she was never a victim of sexual assault. (She goes so far as to claim that “most” strippers have some kind of sexual victimization in their pasts. I offer that this might be true in places where the prejudice against the sex industry is highest—namely, Midwest and South? It’s certainly not true in California. She’s proposing that the industry attracts damaged goods, which is the same argument that’s always been made to support a theory of its inherent destructiveness. I think it’s very likely that the industry, where it is most vilified, does attract women who have psycho-sexual problems. In places where it is not so taboo, however, the exact same work attracts plenty of women who aren’t fighting the demons of rape or incest. Causality might be working the other direction, you see.) She does dispel the myth that all strippers are also drug addicts, but doesn’t ever discuss why we’d assume women need to be intoxicated to do such a thing. And, she doesn’t tell us if she was one of those girls who needs a few drinks to get out on the floor, coyly mentioning a few times when she got drunk at work as if it was a rare occurrence.

Cody is obsessed with the issue of why she would be attracted to stripping since she doesn’t fit her own stereotype of who a stripper is. This circular moment is unhelpful to readers who share her stereotypes. Nobody learns anything about how those stereotypes are functioning in the industry, or in the greater society. Also, her ideas about what is damaging to everyone about stripping are fundamentally insulting to those of us who dropped those stories of who enters the industry, why, and what it does to them, long ago. It’s not that she’s wrong about the potential self-esteem-crushing effects of being part of the “girl buffet,” but she doesn’t seem to think it’s possible that one could both strip AND be smart, well-adjusted, and busy with other projects, because she couldn’t do it herself. She calls herself a “nerd” often throughout the book—but she’s not an analytical writer here, she’s just a hipster who likes Star Trek. A real nerd would have taken the experience much, much more seriously, in the middle of all the titillating and disgusting detail. If she'd claimed the book was just an expose, a la Video Vixens, fine. But she makes it seem as though she's thought a lot about it all, and with a critical eye.

Lily Burana, who wrote Strip City and is another self-proclaimed nerd-dancer, also struggled to come up with some conclusions about what stripping MEANS to America, even though she worked all over the US and did a great deal of research into the history of the strip-tease. She tried, and, tried hard. It’s not an easy subject, nor is it “shallow,” as Cody claims. While she touches on the issues of female competitiveness and friendship at the club, Cody never discusses one of the most interesting psychological issues of stripping: dissociation vs. sexualization in the act of exhibition. She never once cops to being attracted to a customer—which means she’s lying to us. At least once in that year, there was someone she really enjoyed giving a lap dance to, and whether she felt exultant or guilty afterward would have been a great complexity to her story. She never calls what she does dissociating, although her writing belies it. She’s got a hawk’s eye on the club (the anthropologist/journalist), but forgets to talk about her own true psychological (much less philosophical, intellectual) experience until the very end of the book, when she’s suddenly burned out. How did she get that way? We can’t know, since she represented herself as a tough-as-nails cynic with a perfect boyfriend for the 200 previous pages. She doesn’t let us in to her relationship with her body, save for a few mentions of how her costume changes and a particularly funny and accurate passage about the importance of tanning. She never quite details how her feminist self deals with her stripper self.

Cody was so enthralled by her ability to capture the simultaneous sparkle and grit of her environments that she failed to notice what’s really interesting about dancing for money:
strip clubs are where our national anxieties get deposited. Because of the cultural taboo on women’s exhibitionism, clubs are places where every value we’ve got about sex, gender, money, and “success” collide. Cody wanted to enter this roiling secret world without becoming OF it. She didn’t seem to learn anything, and so the book doesn’t teach readers anything. This made me angry, especially because she’s clearly able to write. She had an opportunity to do something truly revolutionary, and she told a fluffy story about one good girl’s trip to the dark side. This means that nobody has to think about what makes her “good” and what makes stripping “dark.” She might claim that she never set out to do that work, that she's just a storyteller, etc. I think it's cowardly to claim you're an intelligent, thinking woman who's interested in the sex industry and then NOT force yourself to take a stand on what is good and bad about it.

Thankfully, Juno did a much better job of posing a few real questions about our cultural values, although it neatly skirted the real bugaboo of abortion. Since Candy Girl predates Juno, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another effort that actually challenges—and I think that Cody may be one of those writers who tells more truth in fiction than she can in autobiography. I hope that as she moves forward with her work she shows us the guts and the brains she so vehemently claims she has.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Confluence of Importance

November 4th! History is made. We cried with elation when the 8-year shame of being American got lifted.

I'm sad, angered, and surprised about California voting against civil rights with Prop 8. I want to ride the wave of hope that Obama has brought to us, and yet, there is an unmistakeable sense of fear that prevailed in many states on the issue of gay marriage and I'm tired of teaching people about civil rights. I'm finally proud of us for turning the tide in the national election, and I know that I will never be satisfied, truly, with a national culture that is so deeply saturated with capitalist values.

What cheers me tonight is the fundamental shift that has happened in a country that has been fearful and reeling since 9/11, that finally seems strong enough to question systemic issues.

Hope. Hope Hope. It's a meaningful day for me personally, too: One-year anniversary of this blog, five months of commitment with Louis, I bought a file cabinet, I drank a glass of very expensive port with Anthony, Linz, and Aaron in the Riverside apartment.

We're drinking and yelling and watching Bruce Springsteen videos. My life is good.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Altered States at UC Berkeley

Over the weekend I attended an interdisciplinary conference at UC Berkeley called "Altered States: Metamorphosis, Epiphany, Revolution" put on by the Comparative Lit. department. Thanks to Anthony, who is in the Comp. Lit PhD program at UC Riverside and drove all day with me on Friday, I was able to hear several papers by graduate students and see Amy Hollywood of Harvard Divinity do a presentation she calls “Don’t Touch Me,” which is about 40% scholarship, 40% creative performance, and 20% feminist deconstruction of both scholarship and performance. My Dad came in from Alameda and spent the day in the front row with us. In the spirit of a post from the second week of camp this past summer, I’ve been noticing again that my concept of “fun,” and therefore how I describe what I enjoy doing, differs quite a bit from most people I meet.

For instance. We were at the conference on Saturday from 9:30 am until 5:30pm. We got three breaks, all of them truncated by panels that went long and Q&A sessions that spilled over. At the end, we nibbled brie and crackers and tried to clarify things with panelists, asked them questions, discussed the talks with each other. On the walk back to the car, I was animated, elated, excited! That was so FUN! I kept saying. Fun because Anth and Dad were there to talk with me. Fun because I think Amy Hollywood is doing a brilliant, layered, strange piece of scholarship with “Don’t Touch Me,” and it makes me hopeful about the state of the academy. Fun because Brook Henkel, from Columbia, who presented a paper called “The Mysticism of Film: Cinematic Visions in Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törleß” spent fifteen minutes telling me more about his project and engaging in some lively argumentation. I think the experience of learning, the physical moment of “Aha!” that occurs when new information, new categories, new connections are made, is fun. It’s pleasurable. It energizes me. Hence, eight hours of paper presentations later, I was bouncing down the streets of Berkeley like I’d just drank a pot of coffee. (I suppose I had come close to it, anyway, over the course of the day.)

Henkel’s paper was particularly interesting to me because of the confluence of issues I also think/read/write about: sexuality, adolescence, and what Musil calls the Other Condition, which is a type of consciousness reserved for visionary, or “altered” moments. Henkel reads Musil’s character of Törleß as someone obsessed with externally confirming his experience, who distrusts his own “visions” (which are written in such a was as to seem cinematic) unless he can somehow validate them in the experience of someone else. I asked Henkel, as we stood too close to the trash can and prevented everyone from casually dumping their paper plates in the pile without acknowledging us and our conversation, if he thought that was a condition of adolescence, a normal condition for everyone, or some kind of pathology. He thought about it. “I think everyone has this desire to some degree, likely beginning in adolescence,” he said, “but this character is obsessed.” So visionary, or “altered state” experiences are fundamentally frustrating (and ultimately, truly maddening for some) because by their nature they flout three basic desires: the desire to control when and where they happen, the desire to remember their wisdom perfectly, and the desire to articulate them adequately to others. How are we to use the wisdom gained from our time crossing into the “secret, unnoticed life of things” if we have trouble remembering and articulating it once we’ve crossed back over into normal life? Henkel seemed unperplexed by this question, but he liked my “irritation.” I told him I wasn’t irritated, I was caught in what seemed to me a very noble frustration. We agreed that the problem of bringing useful wisdom back from the Other Condition was likely only to be solved by those who cross over and back regularly. One must practice having visions, then.

This conversation dovetailed nicely with a question I asked of one of the conference coordinators: why no panels about drugs? What a long and rich artistic tradition we have of writers and filmmakers using psychotropics to create deeply affecting works. Seems that they belong at an Altered States conference, deserve to be critically read and viewed by people this skilled. “We got some papers on that,” she said, “but they just weren’t that good.” Wow. So the American phobia of DRUGS has not yet been destroyed by the bright light of rationality in the academy, and the myriad artifacts of human explorations into altered states induced by injesting substances both legal and illegal, synthetic and organic, culturally traditional and culturally taboo got lumped into a “that.” She defended the conference by reminding me that there was a paper on Dionysian cults. Yes, that’s true, I said. But I am still surprised that there wasn’t enough good scholarship submitted on the Beats, or writers of the psychedelic movement, or even the opium-smoking artists of Paris and Vienna in the 30s and 40s. It seems those kinds of altered states still, still, STILL, are considered second-rate next to an ecstatic vision from God, which most of these academics don’t even believe in. Strange, and disturbing, since that indicates even those who study the altered state, Other Condition, visionary “trope” in literature are cynics, not people deeply fascinated by the human potential for expansive, ecstatic experience. Or maybe they are, and there was just some little politics going on that I’m unaware of, where scholars of early Christianity and ancient mysticism don’t like the kids from the other side of the timeline, and it hurt them enough to invite Sarah Juliet Lauro, whose paper was titled “The Zombie Martyrs: The Contagious Spirit of Christian Conversion Narratives.”

Shifting gears: What I loved about Amy Hollywood’s work was that it simultaneously did the job of teaching me about things I didn’t know and derailing my models for “knowing.” Her piece did not explicitly address the idea of the altered state, rather, it put us all in one! Where we had been doing the receiving work of listening to formal arguments, we were suddenly being asked to do the active work of connection in the face of a poetic, fragmentary experience. Hollywood dealt with elements, not points or issues. Her elements were sometimes historical figures (such as John Edwards, and his oft-forgotten wife Sarah Pierpont Edwards), sometimes objects, sometimes texts (Howe’s Frame Structures), sometimes the strange convergence of object and text (crumpled pages, destroyed poems), and she framed this renegade work with a quote about the sublime, which takes place “where works touch.” I call it renegade because she can’t publish it in its current form due to having no permissions from the sources she quotes. Another surprise! I applauded her for bringing a maverick work-in-progress to us. I’ve been reading Stanley Aronowitz’s book The Knowledge Factory, which asserts mostly the death of learning and the stagnation of the humanities, so this crack in the decay, where Hollywood’s bright little weed poked through, thrilled me.

Hollywood reminded me of one of the reasons why I started writing on gorgeous curiosity lo these many months ago, and she called it “meditation on the infinitesimal detail.” This is the way I’m learning to watch films from Anthony via Margaret Waller at UCR. This is a Derridean activity of seeing Big Picture in Very Small Piece, of allowing for fluidity and connectivity between objects and experiences that seem to lend themselves to categorization and separation. Amy Hollywood expressed another of my work’s grand projects: how to tell a story and also disrupt the complacency a narrative can generate. “We should have suspicion of any history that is error-free,” she said. I think this is why she seemed so happy: if the anxiety of perfectionism is replaced by the careful consideration of the meaning of everything (misspelled word, missed appointment, missing link, wrong thought, wrong shirt) not in a Freudian, pathologizing way, but in a deeply curious, compassionate, and creative way, then our constant engagement, which for many is an “altered” state, becomes fabric, grain and weave, the embedded functioning of our lives. We achieve at least one of Musil’s concerns: the ability to move fluidly in and out of the Other Condition. And then comes the desire and mandate to articulate. I recognize that I didn’t discuss the papers on Political and Formal Transformation. I didn’t discuss the papers on Monstrosity and Divinity. There’s just so much, so much.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

At Home in Union Station

Today I woke up to the violent, clutching, screaming pain of Louis getting a wretched calf muscle cramp. It was the kind that hurt so much it feels, in Lindsey’s words, like a piece of metal is trying to push its way out of you. The muscle aches for days like you ran a marathon. We woke up on the floor, because the air mattress I’d clumsily pumped up at 3:00am in his new apartment had deflated.

I’ve spent weeks now running from Riverside to LA, staying on couches and floors and yoga mats and inflatable beds, returning to my room to find more boxes to unpack, more phone calls to make, more little issues to resolve with the cable box, the trash pick up, the rented fridge, the car. I have spent more hours in the past month doing the tasks of moving (for me, for Anth and Linz, for Louis, from Boston, from mom’s, from storage, from multiple apartments) than anything else. More moving than writing, more moving than reading, more moving than watching films, dancing, sitting in cafés journaling about the wonders of Southern CA, reconnecting with friends and family, going on city adventures. It’s all taken much longer than I’d anticipated. Over the past few days I’ve begun to feel trapped in a purgatory—no longer energized by my liminality, I’ve started resenting the unsettled, disorganized, future-thinking (“oh I’ll do That Important Thing once my life has settled down…”) state I live in. A writer needs at least one routine: daily writing practice, or close to it. I can put it off for brief periods to bask in the glow of some other worthwhile activity, but if I go too long away, especially if the other activity feels less and less worthwhile, everything in me gets clogged up and gunky, putrid and ugly, like an old shower drain.

The consequences of not writing enough are quite dire. I feel physically uncomfortable—aching and restless, then lethargic. I become more vulnerable to depressive states and less motivated to make changes in my life. I feel a general discomfort and insecurity about myself, my life situation, my work, my career trajectory, my attractiveness as a friend or partner, my worthiness as a thinker, teacher, artist. I even slip into cahoots with my oldest enemy: secrecy—I may talk to people I don’t know well like I’m writing, even though I’m not. These consequences can be deeply compounded by a lack of exercise, healthy food, sleep, and physical touch. If I’m not writing every day, it’s likely those other disciplines are suffering too.

The most terrifying consequence of all is inertia: once a practice of writing every day has been derailed, it is far more difficult to get it back on track because I become overwhelmed by shame (that I let it happen), exhaustion (just thinking about what it would take to start again), and then paralyzing frustration because my actions don’t match my greater values and intentions. It feels as though there is a never-ending stream of crisis states or pressing tasks (leg cramp! DMV appointment!) that I will have to sit down to write AFTER. I say it "feels" this way because it is truly my fault that I do not write during, before, around and in. I take full responsibility for my abandonment of the work. In this state, I don’t even think like a writer. I have more difficulty noticing the world, interpreting texts, collecting details, staying aware of all the “material.” I feel a strangeness in myself, a loneliness that I’ve attempted to ameliorate in the past in ineffective and sometimes truly destructive ways. I'm waiting in line behind myself, waiting for myself to call me up to the window.

All this weighed heavily on me when I arrived at Union Station at noon, ready to commute back to Riverside once again. I was early for the train, and so walked around the station looking for a good bench to prop myself, my bags, and my laptop on. I’ve reached a point in my career and writing life where I know that the most important step back towards health and productivity is just to open a file and fill some pages. I don’t need my desk at home, my familiar window, my same cup of coffee or pot of tea. I don’t need the same restaurant booth, or the same time of day. I’ve trained myself to feel at home in the laptop itself—I put in earplugs or phones, and the white frame of my MacBook IS my writing room.

So I dutifully turned on the old workhorse (now smudged with the rough grit of my transient life), and then, in a moment of unexpected clarity and creative grace, I noticed where I was.

Los Angeles Union Station is a tiny wonderland. I sat outside near a blue-tile fountain, while children kicked a beach ball under a lush canopy that had been strung with wrought-iron hanging lamps. To my right, a patio of white-clothed tables gleamed in the midday light, and the loveliness of that place, that place built FOR transients, was the greatest comfort I’ve experienced in days. I am bolstered by the commitment LA made, to make its waystation so intentionally aesthetic. I’ve sat in so many stations that demonstrated only the travelers' desire to get out, get on with it, get to the destination, built with forgettable, industrial floors and ceilings, uncomfortable plastic benches, horrible fluorescent lights. In contrast, Union Station offers up the notion of a Journey, an adventure that starts in the twenty minutes even before you board the train, through its Spanish architecture, tiling, landscaping, leather cushioned seats, Art Deco signs and cozy patio.

I’m glad that after years of journaling I have trained myself to start the writing flow with noticing and describing my immediate circumstance. This is a meditative practice. And because of it, my creeping despair at the state of my life was addressed. Apartments get put together. Lovers come back to tenderness, and to passion. Groceries get purchased and dinner gets made. I have committed to putting it all down, to seeing with intellectual, creative, and emotional courage. When I am running fast towards some imagined future, I must still always remember that my work is my home, and that my home comes with me.

This "nesting" in a portable, transient way calls into question both the notions of home and travel. In 2004 I wrote a paper on the Deadheads for a Travel Literature class taught by the great thinker Maria Koundoura. She's written extensively on the destabilization of "home" for multi-national people (such as herself). My paper explored the special circumstance of the Deadhead community, who are both geographically transient and internally culturally consistent. Where traditional understanding of traveling includes interacting with "new" places and people, the Deadheads have perfected a way of traveling that effectively divorces the act of changing location from that interaction. They somehow build the same city in a different parking lot.

The risk of this action, when mapped on to American styles of travel is, obviously, a sort of isolationist elitism, which we can see in self-contained resort hotels that provide just enough familiarity and just enough exoticism to lure moneyed vacationers from the U.S. to places in Asia, the Carribbean, and so on. They get to be "in" Thailand without having to meet any Thai people outside of the service industry, without exiting a carefully constructed living space that is theme-park-ish in its totality of aesthetic (which I otherwise love, when it is THE cultural artifact, not a way to escape culture), without interacting financially or physically with the country directly. It's a complex situation politically, of course, because of the jobs and revenue these hotels tend to provide in struggling economies. It's a very complex conversation for many other reasons too, and I'm not doing it even a modicum of justice except by acknowledging its unprobed and undescribed scope in this sentence. But what I'm addressing here is that the psychological effect for the resort-style traveler is arguably similar to the kind of at-home-on-the-road mindset of a Deadhead, as both are insulating themselves from the New Unknown in favor of repeating the general routine of their daily life in their new location. While it seems oxymoronic to call any traveler an isolationist, the effect of this kind of movement is NOT to encourage interaction, exchange, knowledge.

I'd like to distinguish that process from what I'm trying to do in calling my laptop my writing room, or bemoaning my lack of routine. I've shrunk the conditions of familiarity so effectively that I can carry them on my back, and that frees me up to DO the kind of observation/interaction/receiving a resort guest or Deadhead is protected against. Of course there is a level of effectiveness I can achieve with my work while surrounded by my hundreds of books that I can't continuously achieve away from them. But what had begun to grate on me this week was that I wasn't lovingly cultivating the self-sustaining discipline of my Project, and instead, had begun to allow the vagaries (vagrancy!) of my outside circumstances to decide more of how I spent my time. While this is an appropriate act to engage in consciously if I have one day in Venice, it's not appropriate to do it unconsciously, and certainly not for weeks on end. And it is especially inappropriate when I am in the transitional period of establishing what my life will look like in Southern California for the next months, possibly years. And thus, the gunked-up shower drain. I need to bring my home with me more, in order to do my work, while avoiding the pitfalls of the isolating travelers.

This is one reason why I'd like to do more travel writing. In Alaska, I felt an energized and workable balance of writing vs. adventuring time, and thus between experiential, meditative, receiving of new information and the intellectual, analytical process of thinking that information into meaning. I know it is possible to stay conscious, focused, productive, and still have flexibility in my days such that the adventures can overtake me. I know it is possible to do these things nearly simultaneously, even (thus a voice-recorder during the movie, a pen and paper during the concert). One of the hardest steps toward that balance, for me, is the one where I start saying no to requests my loved ones make of me--the most powerfully convincing variance of daily life is certainly the continual opportunity to do things with and for the people I love.

Ultimately, I've chosen a life that has the problem of too many worthwhile things to do. The possibility of greatness in my work stems from a more fanatical attachment to it, a protectiveness of my writing time that may very well seem overdone to those who are used to me being able to spontaneously participate in...everything else.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Meeting The Children

I've accepted that I've finally entered the stage of life when some friends will be getting married and having children. What wasn't totally expected was that two of the girls I used to dance with in Los Angeles--when we were all fishnet-wearing cabaret Dames in The Toledo Show--would have children only four months apart. This weekend four of us Dames got together at my mother's house out in the Valley, ate BLT's, and I met Bodhi (right photo, with his mom Kristin) and Juliette (left photo, with me).
"Who would have thought?" said Toni (Juliette's mom). "Just a few years ago we wouldn't have believed this."

Since moving back to California I've been thinking a great deal about the value and purpose of sharing personal history with people. I'm celebrating fifteen years of friendship with Melissa this month. Tonight Louis and I realized that we've known each other for twenty years, which means Anthony and I have known each other for as many. Kristin, Toni, Emily and I all shared an incredible coming-of-age together in the Toledo Show beginning seven years ago, and have kept in touch long after that period was over for all of us. Susan has known me since I was eleven. For the first time, ever, I feel surrounded by history. I made large moves at eight and fourteen years old, and so don't have a sense of "hometown." There's no house I grew up in. I didn't keep groups of friends over my childhood, and don't have a crew from high school. I'm reconnecting with a few college friends, who've known me ten years now, and it feels like a very, very long time.

I don't want to wax sentimental about the inherent value of history. I don't think that shared history alone should be enough to sustain relationships, and I know that for true closeness to occur, relationships have to have current, working content. Otherwise, they are empty vessels for nostalgia to pour in, and I don't want to waste time on that. Examining past patterns, triumphs, defeats, and methods: great. Listing memories for the sake of establishing some commonality: not interested. What seems to be the perfect relational balance is some blend of the irreplaceable shared past experience AND commitment to continual examination and awareness of shared values in the present.

I occasionally worry that because I didn't have a wealth of childhood friends make it into my adulthood I will over-value shared history and offer loyalty to people who no longer have real commonality with me. I notice that the people from my past who seek me out on Facebook are of two kinds: those who exuberantly approach me with concrete memories of something I said or did with them, and those who seem to have a bare minimum of name recognition ("you went to my high school..."). I accept as Facebook friends those who seem to have been affected by knowing me at some time in our lives, and ignore those who don't take the time to extend themselves. This, I think, is one way to make explicit the fact that I value and am interested in what I can learn from the past, without falling prey to an indescriminate invitation for all. There's just not time to try and reminisce with everyone. What I want, above all, is to be in contact and communion with people who care about the same things I do. Many of them, especially at this point in my life, are also people with whom I have years of relationship. Some of them are not, and those friendships have a very different flavor/tenor/trajectory, which is also fascinating.

All of that being said:

Toni taught her baby to kiss. That photo is of Juliette leaning in to kiss me, after sitting in my lap for a total of about sixteen seconds. There is something to be said for that kind of immediate trust and affection, and the something is YES!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'll Wear That Jacket in the Nighttime Too

By far my most favorite lyric of Sunday’s evening at the Greek Theater with My Morning Jacket is from "If You Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 2:"

If you touch me/I'm going to scream/because it's been so long/since someone challenged me

Although similar sentiments have appeared in Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and even Sarah McLaughlin’s songs, I have never heard a male rock singer admit to this feeling. He's going to scream? Like, in a falsetto? Because it's so overwhelming to be touched by someone challenging? Yes. Yes he is.

The origin of my surprise: I have never seen an all-male rock band play a show that progressively threw off, then put back on, again and again, the mantle of aggressive masculinity that permeates most of their genre. My Morning Jacket has (maybe unintentionally) made themselves into examples of a new masculinity, in both their songwriting and onstage personae. This is a style of being male rock stars that my generation seems ambivalent about spotlighting in the mainstream. This is a masculinity not solely dependent on the phallus, however able it is to wield one. Rock music that isn't phallocentric has open spaces for listeners to get taken into trances; it creates a sense of enveloping, rather than a sense of driving forward motion. It is collaborative as much as (or more than) it is virtuosic. It can build to a climax without seeming goal-oriented. Watching a band so beautifully negotiate traditional male rock-n-roll-ness and some other, more cooperative, almsot vulnerable kind of showmanship is exciting. I call it “new” masculinity in part because it simply can’t be the same as the friendly 1970s-fuzzy-beard-and-tight pants-type of male sexuality which MMJ recalls more than anything I can find in our current culture. It can’t because we’re living in the textual-media-universe of 2008, where that style is blatantly nostalgic.

I'd heard MMJ described as a "jam band," and so as a Phish fan, I expected a certain longevity and looseness to the songs that MMJ have actually chosen against, for the most part. They work together, they improvise, but it's clear the whole time they're playing a Song, and that in the Song they want to go a few different places—granted they’d like to go to maybe three or four places, which is two or three more than you're allowed on a pop hit—but there's a plan to the journey. This is what makes them teeter on the edge of a traditional masculine aggression: they're following a structure and plan towards a goal, which is a masculine activity, according to literary critics. They often stand with their legs open wide and their guitars right at their crotches, like familiar icons from the 80s, which is a masculine activity, according to me. And yet, they're noodling around a bit here and there on their instruments, they're tossing their lovely locks all over the place, they're wearing capes and dancing around stuffed teddy bears, and they're singing in falsetto. Often.

Contrast this latter list of behaviors to another performer’s I saw recently: Nick Cave, who came out on stage looking like a goth pimp and growled "Get ready to shoot yourself" as an opener. Sure, he had flamboyant cuffs on his shirt and occasionally flipped a wrist around, but Nick Cave makes music that can't be mistaken for un-masculine, even if you don't find it sexy. He’ll bend you over anything waist-high and pull your hair while he’s at it—whether his sexual object is male or female, it’s clear he’s the top and the audience is happy to be the bottom.

My Morning Jacket tows an unpredictable line--multiple genres, multiple moods. Jim James won me over with a brief speech about how wonderful it was to see everyone "participating." I think that was the most incredible piece of the MMJ mystique: everyone is participating in something that is at times eerily familiar--a melody that sounds like an old Doobie Brothers song, a harmony that invokes the Bee Gees, a transcendent U2-ish chorus--and at other times so bafflingly surprising it must be brilliant. It was like seeing a nostalgia band and the Next Big Thing, at the same time. Is that possible? How does the band get people to buy into this craziness? They've somehow freed their audience from the "smug hedonism, short attention span, and hunger for hits" Camille Paglia once warned rock stars against, and transformed even coolness-paralyzed Los Angelenos into patient, willing attenders.

I've read a few critics of postmodern art and have a rudimentary knowledge of music, and so it seems clear to me that My Morning Jacket, which is both rooted in the familiar and spilling into a sense of newness, provides a rich text to work with even if that text is problematic (because it risks caricature, parody, and worst of all, pastiche). MMJ might have a song that ends up soudning too much like the Doobies, or another that falls flat because their repetition of two chords is less like a trance and more like a ring-tone. However, the reason I don't think MMJ slips into these problems permanently, and why they have far more moments of genuine greatness, is that they are willing to keep pushing forward with an authentic experiment that isn't on a delineated path towards the Ultimate Expression of a particular Genre. If they were trying to achieve only one new take on one old sound, they’d likely succeed commercially and fail artistically. It’s their lack of perfect marketing built in that makes them interesting. They actually manage to be unique, even though you could name all kinds of artists and genres that seem to have influenced them. The trick is you just couldn’t name one or two—you’d have to think of five. So the fact that they are as successful as they are actually gives me some hope.

People who like watching great rock musicians are impressed by proficient solos, naturally. But jam bands, especially those whose musicians are truly genius, are impressive in their accepting the challenge of collaboration in a genre that didn't set out to accomodate it. They have to have some kind of jazz-mind. This is yet another way in which MMJ tumble a notion of manhood on its side: as much attention as Jim James gets as a frontman, this is a band that needs each other. Onstage, they aren't a bunch of ego-driven virtuosos deigning to play together for the chips a record company has promised them. They are bouncing in rhythm as a team, moving towards each other during the jam sections to watch each other carefully. They’ve matured since the exclusive head-banging antics they once displayed on Conan O’Brien. And maybe that’s the greatest compliment I can bestow on them: they write for people with adult emotional complexities, and manage to escape the cynicism and irony-addiction that are so ubiquitous in 20/30somethings. I’m tired of music for large, libidinous children. I love My Morning Jacket for making music for grown-ups with kinetic brains and conscious bodies.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Accepting Destiny at Disneyland

I celebrated my 29th birthday, both the day of and the day after, at the Happiest Place on Earth with people I love. Love, represented here as the mirror in which you can see yourself, is one of the pieces of my destiny that ran through the days with strikingly loud colors. I wore heart-shaped sunglasses and a backpack with LOVE printed across it in bold letters. "So there's no ambiguity to your mission here," Anthony said. Love leads the way, and Love is what I'll leave in my wake. As I go even deeper into this transition time--not yet teaching, not yet moved in, not yet settled into routine-- I'm finding the importance of my fundamental missions gets distilled. Bono was right: only bring all that you can't leave behind. Turns out I don't need a home, a clean room, or a short-term plan, because I've got some other desires that should last me until I die.

I need Love. I need Art. I need Overcoming. When Sam Phillips sang "I Need Love" she tried to help us understand what it wasn't: "I need love/not some sentimental prison." I'm not talking about needing comfort, except the comfort of trusting that I will be told the truth. I'm not talking about ego-stroking or codependence or enabling or even basic consideration. I'm talking about the kind of love that actually breaks you open, feels dangerous because of its power, changes the way you do things. I'm talking about love that matters. I think I've spent most of my life cultivating this kind of love, even without being fully able to sustain it. I've always been drawn to people who believe in it--not just romantic partners, but other creators of community, friends who need no privacy, people who prioritize Love over conflict-avoidance or control. I've been drawn to it, I've been trying at it, but without a clear philosophy of what it was, I was engaged in the slow process of experiential learning. That's changing. (Read "A Little Book on Love" by Jacob Needleman.)

Last night at the Hollywood Bowl I listened to Spiritualized sing "All I want in life's a little love to take the pain away/feeling strong today/giant step each day" and I realized that it's a sad fallacy of our pop-psychology culture that we've started to confuse Love with all kinds of other, smaller, less noble processes that people rely on for well-being. Love CAN take pain away--it's the only thing that truly can. Self-love, partner love, community love. They aren't crutches. They aren't stop-gap. They aren't inferior to Prozac or quitting your job, they are the foundation from which all courageous life-changes are made. It's not wrong to want love--it's wrong to pretend you want love when what you really want is someone around to know a lot of your details. We can live with the knowledge of our mortality if we really have love. We can transcend and float in space, we can dig and burrow and taste the dirt.

I need Art. I can't think of anything better for me to do or experience on a daily basis. It's an emotional imperative, a moral choice, and also a practical discipline. My commitment to writing in particular is now so embedded in my self and life that I don't even think about "how" I'll do it. I quit asking questions about when there would be enough time, where I'd have space, to whom I'd show my work. Writing and all its ancillary acts like taking notes, exploring, traveling, listening, and so on have become the rhythm and structure of my days and nights. The state of sensory overwhelm, which happens in the uniquely precise world of detail that is Disney, is nourishment.

I need Overcoming. This is the Nietzchean way of fear-conquering. This is the disentanglement of terror and resentment. I need to no longer resent or hate that which causes me terror. At Disneyland, I rushed into Introductory Overcoming on Splash Mountain, which is a ride I've dreaded and still tried every few years since it was built. Every time I make that drop, I feel I might die. I cry and shake and hate it. Not this time. This time Anthony and I marveled at how beautiful the ride was--the animatronic characters I'd loved as a child from "America Sings " were all brightly lit and dancing. We noticed the mother rabbit's fear of The Laughing Place (metaphor for what? drugs? vagabondism? premarital sex? Rock n' roll?) just before our log plummeted eight stories into the briar patch. I leaned forward, screaming like a warrior, and came out delirious: laughing, crying, high on adrenaline, soaked head to toe. No less fear than before, just less attachment to it, and no trauma afterward. "Once you've decided what you think is best to do, the terror is irrelevant," I told Susan on the phone.

The next day Louis took me to the Hollywood Tower of Terror, and I passed a lesson in Advanced Overcoming by allowing a Twilight Zone elevator car to rise and fall and rise and fall--faster than gravity would demand, it seemed--with my body inside. With Splash Mountain, I knew my foe. The Tower was an unknown entity, far more overwhelming in its magnitude. I came out unable to speak at first. I had to slump against the wall and cry even harder, laugh, and shake so violently I couldn't lift my bag for a few seconds. "Did you see that weird out-of-control breathing thing I was doing?" I asked Louis a few minutes later. "You mean the hyperventilating?" he said. Oh. So that's what that was. It had never happened to me before.

For nearly a half-hour my heart was pounding. I wanted to punch and kick things. I was very, very proud. I apologize here, publicly, to all the people in my life who've tried to get me to go on roller coasters over the years. I still cry at the end, you see. But I don't hate that feeling, I don't hate the world for having stimuli in it that causes that feeling, I don't hate the people who want me to get over that feeling, and I know I need to keep going towards it when it appears. This was the lesson of the zipline as well. It's not only physical danger that drives me to terror, but physical danger is reliable in that way, and therefore a good teacher for me. I don't like thinking any doors are closed to me because of my own resistance. My life is now totally encompassed by Project Limitless.

Maybe another thing I need is Incorporation, so I don't have to keep taking the same lessons over and over again...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And Then, We Burned

For a description of the scope and purpose of Burning Man, I encourage everyone to visit and read around on the website. There are pictures, lists, musings, and stories all over the web, and I will not take it as my project to separate fact from stereotype here.

What I'd rather do is sift through a few of the experiences in the overwhelming file from that few days and think with you about the art, about the community, and about what it means for any of us to want to live by the principles of radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.
In an experimental, temporary community as large as Black Rock City, there will be half-baked, flawed, and problematic manifestations of these concepts. There were unwelcoming art cars, who should have been offering rides. There were pieces of art
that broke down or couldn't handle the volume of visitors. There were burners trudging the playa without a requisite level of joy on their faces. Sure, of course there were. It's a 49,000-person city! Someone will screw up and be cranky.
Thrillingly, there were also gems of totality in purpose and execution--at the level of art, costuming, and attitude. One interactive art space, called the Dust City Diner, was created by masters of concept and design, and it was where I had one of my more profound moments of appreciation for what Burning Man seems to be "doing" in the world.

The context for the Dust City Diner is the "deep playa." This means that the real hectic noise of Black Rock City is quite a few minutes away by bike, and in the dark one can barely see the forms of various art installations spread out across the hard-packed desert. We had ridden across treacherous dust dunes six inches deep that unexpectedly arrest and disable even hardy mountain bikes. We had lost and found and lost and found each other in the dark, searching for the signature glows: Lindsey and I with bunny ears, Max with red loops down the side of his leather
jacket, Anthony with flashing red devil horns. (you must light yourself at night or fall prey to the blind forward inertia of other bikers and art cars!)

The Dust City Diner does what any city diner should: provide oasis at 4am to bleary-eyed travelers. In this case, however, it is a true oasis in the Platonic sense, providing beauty and refreshment in the middle of an enormous stretch of barren land. It was unreasonably well-decorated with a perfect retro-graphic sign, vinyl-covered counter stools, sturdy counter tops, metal napkin dispensers, a short-order kitchen, and waitresses who all wore the same pink dress, white apron,
and platinum wig, regardless of their gender. We four hovered on two stools together, drinking tea and coffee, munching grilled cheese sandwiches with Lowry's seasoning salt off of real dishes, listening to the other "customers" and talking about what we'd seen already that night. We were in a diner. We were ouside on the playa. Without any monetary exchange we were fed. The contrast of urban cues in the diner and the utterly desolate and difficult natural world of the playa reminded me of how arbitrary our little worlds can be. We remember this in times of crisis: an earthquake, a fire, moving out. We see that it's all temporary and permeable and filled with mortality. I get so easily lulled into feeling "at home" with my stuff, in my little walls and boxes, as if living with the knowledge the Temporary would destroy me. But it doesn't. Sitting in an un-walled restaurant, which is a "real" restaurant despite having a different deep playa location every night, I felt that deep acceptance of entropy and chaos that ultimately describes what is real beauty in the world. We can never repeat anything. With that truth, nothing is mundane, and the truly transcendent is miraculous.Max, Kelsey, Me, and Linz interact with the shiniest spheres of pure purpose.

Louis flies above the familiar.

This is not the kind of trip that gets compartmentalized and forgotten. Not only do I hate that practice anyway, it would be blasphemous to the often unspoken mission of Burning Man: to change the Default World. BRC is not just a gathering of self-selected givers, who want to massage their hippie potions into each others' tanned shoulders for a few days before driving back into their forgettable jobs. There is an urgency to the act of "burning" (literally setting fire, also a way of living and existing at the event characterized by constant curiosity, willingness, adventuring, opening to change, etc.) that tells me our country needs more Bacchus, more Dionysus, more room to bounce high, bounce hard, fly, fall, make stuff, break stuff, and make more. That many people I know believe they can't dance without a few drinks is evidence enough for this problem.

On Saturday night, after the ceremony of burning the Man had occurred, a reporter from the BBC asked me to articulate what I thought it meant. In the chaos of those thousands, with the lights and the music and the drums and the thrumming of my blood, I told him it was a marker of the most important death: death of the old self. Death of the anxiety, denial, lack of awareness, passivity, hiding, and exhaustion of a self that has been dictated by past pain. Once that self has died, the new self rises from the ashes--I saw all those dancers, I know they were giving birth--and the committment to living wide awake can get made. But that committment can't get made without some fireworks, some violence, some brief terror that it wont WORK, that we're on the brink of madness here, that it's impossible and too terrible to try. And then, we burn. And just after it seems like it will never end, I found the triumph of living beyond that moment, of finding my body strong in the heat, my will strong in the crowd, my love glowing like a neon heart above my face.

Why would anyone want to do that? My grandma asked me.

Susan has given me a line from Rilke to respond with:

Let everything into you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.

The dust coated our skin and hair and made us look as wizened as we felt. Now, we embark on the grand task of descending into the world with our newness, our energy, our missions, and continuing the burn.

thanks to Anth for the pictures!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Something is Always Happening

I thought there might be no good GC content in my current liminality, my last few days in Boston before my move back to California. I'm nearly moved out, staying in my sister's guest room, spending nearly every waking hour packing, cleaning, carrying boxes, trying to decide what to do with that Andy Warhol banana-split-bowl-set I bought at the art museum and never used.

It would be easy to think of this as in-between time, when "nothing" is happening. It would be normal to not count it as part of the creative, interesting life I'm supposed to be leading. But this is the real challenge: can I see opportunity for meaning and art in the middle of all this chaos and detritus? I'm not sitting on a cruise ship in Alaska, or watching 100 Rowe kids dance together, or eating wild boar at a tiny restaurant in Toscana. In one week I'll be on my way to Burning Man, where more peak experiences will present themselves, and I'm tempted to hibernate--on all levels-- until then. No one will notice if I drop out for a week...

But even artists have to take out the trash, and I'm reminded of a book I read in college called "Peace is Every Step" in which Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the meditative joy of doing dishes. I was shocked at the possibility that I could stop hating the white noise of my life. I thought there would always be the daily activities I was annoyed by, and was hurrying to finish, so that I could get to the good stuff. I still struggle with boredom and impatience when I feel the important moments are taking too long to come.

However, I've been on a campaign to change this. I'm using my time more wisely. I think of all my hours as worthwhile, precious, and opportunities for making something.

Last week in New York, my friend Greg, who directs one of the camps at Rowe and is a professional trumpet player, did a gig at a tiny club called Little Branch in the West Village. The place was like a speakeasy, with no sign, a swanky underground bar, and a very fancy cocktail menu that reminded me of dreams I used to have about being Marilyn Monroe. I was there with a group of people (hi Pippi, Rob, Jonah!) who have this easy way of enacting the kind of wide-awake-ness I'm trying to describe. They are funny people, and a lot of our conversation is grounded in jokes-- jokes that are collaborative, brilliant, emotionally honest, more about discovery and thinking of brand new ways to see everything than the kind of competitive sarcasm I see around me most often. It doesn't take much to inspire me to play, but it takes some real ingenuity to make me laugh that hard. We danced in a late-night pizza place, played a game we invented called "Where Does Poop Go?" (for which I offer no explanation or description) that left me gasping for air in between guffaws. We had a four-person sleepover in a studio apartment. I'm so grateful for it, in the middle of these weeks of transition. Every activity (food, getting a cab, music, walking, stopping at Bloomingdale's to try on hats) was an opportunity to make something new out of our time. I was infused with energy, even after returning to the thunderstorms-and-piles-of-crap-to-sort-through that is my current experience of Boston.

This second piece of the change is that when the time for necessary "boring" activity comes, I've started treating it differently. I don't allow myself to sink into frustrated inattention when waiting in lines, sitting in traffic, etc. When I have to do slow or menial tasks, I add something to them--attentive listening to great music, a "thinking project" (which is when I pick something in my life that feels unresolved, a passage from a tough text I've read, a move I've just seen, and think only about that for a few minutes), a body-check in or stretching, or take notes. There is no point at which "nothing" is happening.

"Nothing" is actually so rare I'm not sure I've ever experienced it. Whenever I'm asked what I'm doing and I'm tempted to say "nothing," I have to decide if I'm doing some kind of restorative resting, or if I'm not paying enough attention to the world. There's nothing wrong with rest when I need it--but it turns out I need much less than I thought. And real rest is very far from "nothing," it's an act of self-love and vulnerability. Good rest brings dreams. Good rest opens up space for new ideas. Good rest heals. Good rest keeps me from depression, helpless exhaustion, apathy.

I always tell my students to work at pushing themselves out of passive movie-viewing into active, critical viewing. I tell them to read with pens in their hands. At the very end of a semester when they're used to my constant reminders, I tell them what I REALLY believe, which is that everything, including laundry, taxes, packing to move, taking walks, watching Olympics, talking in funny voices, and on and on, all deserve that careful attention and reflection. Some activities, like the zipline (read Eat, Sleep, Zip!), demand total presence, and reflection has to happen afterward--but it's the engagement, and commitment to engagement that counts. Engagement is excitement. It's times like right now, when the pieces of inspiration aren't flying into me from brand new channels, when the details of my daily life are cheap coffee and dust bunnies and packing tape, that I feel the true necessity of my and other people's creativity. We're all on a team here.

What I also wanted to write about:
Why are the women's beach volleyball uniforms so much more revealing than the men's? Why couldn't the announcers stop talking about the female teammates embracing each other? What does the lyric "eleven angels of mercy sighin' over that black hole in the sun" mean? What would happen to my identity if I got rid of most of my objects? Why do I have such a hard time recycling old drafts of stories and novel chapters, after I've made revisions? What's the reason/cure/meaning of that particular amnesia that sweeps over Bostonians in the summer, when they think the winters "aren't so bad?" What does it mean for our culture that our news media is allowed to ask stupid questions like "You just lost/won the race by one one-hundredth of a second. How do you feel?" Do people who play jazz think more creatively about everything else? Are there any good texts on how and why we came up with the concept of "cool"?

Friday, August 8, 2008

I'm Converted. Writing Retreats Work.

I returned from Alaska to the reality of my impending move to California. There are many, many piles of STUFF to look at, make decisions about, pack tightly in shippable boxes...and I knew that I was going to get no writing done in the noise.

So I escaped, back to Rowe, for 2 and a half days. I brought one pair of pants and my laptop. Senior High Camp was happening, so I stayed mostly incognito. My goal: either finish what feels like a full draft of the novel, or get the manuscript up to 75,000 words. I did both! On the first day! I got more work done on my novel in those two days than in two months prior.

I've always had a little scorn for "Writer's Retreats." The main reason is that I have this impression that they are the selfish, expensive, last-ditch effort on the part of people who want to write, but don't have a daily practice. If there's no commitment to writing, there's not going to be some sudden upsurge of brilliance after three days in a cabin. "REAL" writers shouldn't need them. I didn't even know I was prejudiced until I decided to take some time away from everything to work on the novel, and felt shy and silly. Like I was buying into some myth that going into the woods will fix a block.

Now, I'm totally converted. I have a writing practice, a writing career, a writing life. I don't feel at all shy about calling myself "a writer" when people ask what I do. And like I said, I got more done in those two days than I had in the months prior, which means something special was happening in those days, and I think I know what it was.

There are three parts. Part one was that I successfully cut down on my distractions. I couldn't get online on my laptop for the most part, so when I sat down to work, it was only to work. I was alone for hours at a time with no cell phone and no piles of mail. Totally obvious. But somehow I thought I was a pillar of discipline and had never truly considered how distractable I am.

Part two was that I had an incredible amount of social support, built into my being there. I told everyone the reason I was visiting was to write, so when friends at Rowe took breaks from running camp they would ask me how my writing was going. I was getting checked on every few hours, totally unexpectedly, by people I care a great deal about, and that was surprisingly motivating. Because there is such a high value placed on creativity in that community, the air was filled with stories of the brilliance of the camp, and I think creativity works by osmosis, if you're deliberately permeable. Their great work helped me do great work. The legend of the lonely writer, who works best shut in a tower, just doesn't apply here. I'd prefer to be at a picnic table outside, with people all around doing projects, planning games, and occasionally patting my shoulders. At every mealtime someone I hadn't seen yet would come up and hug me. I had a perfect balance of silence and company.

Part three was a slightly more complicated abstract process of making my book feel more real by taking it somewhere new. I've worked on it mostly in Boston. I've done some writing in Los Angeles, where the novel is set. I've done some work on the cruise ship in Alaska. Each time I take the manuscript to a new setting, and try to re-enter the world of my characters, I have to ground their world even more carefully. I'm noticing new things in my own environment, and that leads me to think about new details of my fictional environment. Writing from Rowe, an isolated rural place, somehow turned the volume up on my reflections about being in an urban environment. I thought differently about the Los Angeles in my novel, being so far from it. I noticed how hard it is to eat alone all the time when you're in a city, as I ate family style in camp. I remembered a lot of noises I wasn't hearing--the distant horns and unfamiliar voices outside my old Hollywood apartment were replaced by thunderstorms outside Rowe's Farmhouse. I thought about how many pairs of shoes my characters needed to wear, because I was wearing the same ones for three days.

The grand sense of relief and the thrill of accomplishment hit me on Tuesday night, when a group of friends, some excitingly new and some with dear history, met me in the "smoker's tent." I'd brought a tin of fancy bourbon vanilla cigars for the occasion, and we had a hilarious fifteen minutes puffing away together in celebration. It was one of the more touching, silly, and fulfilling mini-parties I've ever attended. I felt surrounded by support and wished that everyone I know would both (1) start and finish big creative projects and (2) have a crew of chums like mine to help them along. Earlier in the day, I'd gone adventuring with two of them, to an enchanted swimming spot called Tannery Falls. We scrambled down a long set of wood plank stairs and muddy trail to a secret, shaded waterfall that looked about five stories high. The water was freezing. We got in! It was glorious! I ceremoniously dunked myself and proclaimed a new phase beginning. Then we cruised back to camp in time for dinner, wide awake and happy. I even got work done after that.

Now I sink back into revision, into the transition of moving back to California, into preparations for Burning Man, into the next, the next, the next.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dolly's House and Doll Houses!

Ketchikan is 3,656 miles from where I am.

I’m sitting at the Diesel Café in Somerville with a group of writer
friends. We have built a little wall of laptops and iced coffees. It is nearly impossible to me that just a few days ago I was walking the creaking plank-streets of Ketchikan, Alaska, paying $4.00 to visit Dolly’s House.

Dolly was a business woman. She owned a number of properties, and spent her summers in Ketchikan, running a brothel. Eventually she got tired of managing the girls, fired them all, and made all her money herself. She had sex for money until it was illegal, and then for many years after. She offered short pulls of whiskey from a hidden bar under her stairs during Prohibition. When she died, she stipulated that her house become a museum. There’s a ton more to the story, of course.

Susan and I had a brief, uncanny visit inside her landmark home. I’m fascinated by the stories of women in the sex industry from the turn of the century into the 50s—if that fact wasn’t already evidenced by earlier posts! Dolly’s house was especially bizarre because except for a few little pieces of evidence (a shower curtain with appliqué made from old condoms, for example) it seems like any regular time capsule from sixty years ago. She had a nice stove. She made her own clothes. She had some mass-produced art on her walls. I had to ask the girl at the cash register if one of the rooms upstairs had originally been a “working”
bedroom since the “personal” bedroom seemed too stuffed with private paraphernalia to function as a place to receive gentlemen callers. In fact, she told me, the “sitting room” was designated as such when Dolly quit seeing clients in there. In her seventies. So, at 72, she threw in the towel and started writing her letters, reading her novels, and keeping her exotic birds in the room where she’d made $75-100 a day on her back for all her adult life. I wonder what she did with the bed that used to be in there. In that sitting room, pictures of a nicely-dressed lady and her various doggie “children” sit next to shelves of books, collector’s dolls, and postcards sent to friends.

I like all the kitsch, but I loved especially the objects of daily life: dishes, old medicine bottles, gloves and hats, letterhead, coffee pots. I love that for a time, prostitution was legal in Alaska, and Dolly was citizen of respect and notoriety, who did a great deal for the town of Ketchikan. I’m sure she was called many things in her life. I’m sure some people thought it was narcissistic and preposterous that she would want her home to become a museum.
But her desire to be seen, and especially to be seen as a woman with many interests and skills (She raised animals! She sewed amazing dresses! She ran a bar!) indicates an almost utopian vision for later generations’ ability to see sex work with an unperturbed clarity we’ve never attained in our country. Or maybe she believed that people would always think she was “bad,” and she set up the museum just to cause mischief. After all, the small street behind her house, from which clients could come and go through the back door, is officially called the “Married Man’s Trail.” Indeed.

In Victoria BC I forgot my camera. I am so grateful for the internet, so that you might view the madness that is Miniature World. The virtual tour is almost as perplexing/wonderful as the real thing. Susan and I were the last guests through the exhibit, and were told we needed "45 minutes to an hour" to fully appreciate everything, even though we only had 25 until they closed. We did it all in 20, and let me tell you, there were moments of true horror peering into the Civil War exhibit. Why make miniature death? WHY? But even the doll houses, or the Dickens, or the Fantasy displays were more creepy than cute. My cuteness sensor finally went off at Circus World, one of the largest miniatures (not an oxymoron, look at the website) with what seemed like thousands upon thousands of tiny people, tiny animals, tiny rides in the tiny
midway, tiny popcorn and tiny balloons and tiny cars and tiny picnics. Tiny elephants with tiny riders wearing REALLY tiny rhinestone slippers. It was Susan's favorite as well, which leads me to believe it must have been the only actually cute thing in the place--since we two are among the few people I know who are truly, deeply, in our core, emotionally affected by cuteness.

We then stumbled onto Luminara Victoria, a festival of lights that happens in the lovely Beacon Hill Park. Glowing costumes, reflective sculpture made from old CDs, ballet dancers lit with purple floods, and a bridge over a lily pond lit with two-inch jars, covered in colored paper and each with a tea light inside, wired in winding pattern across the railing. It was magical.

One of my favorite little rituals from the cruise: Almost every morning on the Westerdam, Susan and I would order breakfast in our room. She would fill out the form before we went to sleep ("Eggs?" "Scrambled." "Me too!" "Toast?") and then when the steward's quiet knock broke our earplugged slumber in the morning, I would sit by the window and pass her dish after dish. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we watched the mountains and the water out the window. Sometimes we facetiously complained about things that couldn't possibly matter considering how incredible our lives are, just for variety. I miss doing this. I miss the intimacy of it, and am still in awe and grateful for every second.

We spent two more enchanted days in Seattle at my new favorite hotel, the Alexis, taking long walks and having Seattle adventures with Phil, new friend from the cruise. One reason to love the Alexis: a free glass of wine in a bar called the Library, where you can paint postcards to send home.

I realize I've devolved into reportage instead of interpretation at this point. Sometimes I get scared I'll lose the details--especially since my journaling got quite sketchy towards the end of the trip with so much running around. I promise I'm thinking, still, about what it all means...