Tuesday, December 1, 2009

American Dad wins again

I don't know the inner workings of Fox and so can't comment on the competition between all the animated shows on Sunday nights--I imagine the Simpsons stand a bit outside the ring, if Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show are all in it. And I claim no authority on any of the shows except American Dad. I just don't have time to watch hit-or-miss TV, which is what most of it is. So what I offer here is a love letter, plain and simple.

Why is American Dad an exception to my tendency to ignore TV? Because it is more obsessed with American culture than it is obsessed with scatological humor, cynical send-ups, or itself as a show.

When I say the show is obsessed with American culture, let me be clear. I think Family Guy is also obsessed with our culture, but it is mostly obsessed with doing reversals of obvious values. Reversals, or jokes that rely on shock value, don't actually make real comment on culture. They simply reveal what is already there. It is wacky and shocking to have Peter wear S&M gear! But why? All that does is remind me that most Americans think S&M is weird, scary, and so, even with its minimal exposure nod as a joke, it stays taboo. American Dad, in general, is asking more difficult questions of obvious values. It does this through plotlines that, like the Simpsons once did, consistently return to real emotional concerns about family relationships and the way American families interact with issues of class, race, and gender. And it does this hilariously, by applying liberal coats of pitch-perfect absurdity.

In a recent episode called "My Morning Straight Jacket," Stan Smith becomes obsessed with My Morning Jacket's frontman Jim James. Through each season of AmDad the issue of Stan's inability to feel real feelings has surfaced as a barrier to his being close to, well, anyone, and is often the basis for great jokes. In this episode, the table gets turned. Stan feels so many feelings listening to MMJ he becomes a narcisistic, self-involved fan, who ignores his family (who are drowning, falling down the stairs, etc.) to live in his little solipsistic world with Jim James.

Francine, who at first is exasperated and wants the old Stan back, finally becomes his means to meeting Jim, as she flashes her breasts, crotch, and latent lesbianism at every level of security at a MMJ show. Of course it's funny that the sweet mom can become a trashy groupie, but what's especially wonderful is the moment when Stan, without any compunction, gets on his knees and thanks Francine's body for helping him. This is a revolutionary moment. The cliche goes: the husband becomes jealous of other men's eyes on his property, even as he benefits from the objectification of his wife. Here, the objectification still occurs, but Francine does not suffer for it, and Stan responds only with gratitude to her. Even more subtly, he responds to her body directly, thanking the "girls," (her breasts) and "ma'am" (her vagina) separately. This is a moment that suspends itself above familiar arguments about gender and sexuality and offers real hope in the potential for lovers to be conscious of the systems they are in, transcend or participate in those systems, and build intimacy with each other regardless. That kind of hope seeps through the show in nearly every episode, which is great anodyne to the cynical, heartless, jaded style of humor that is so ubiquitous now.

When Stan finally meets Jim James, the sweet moral we thought we were in for gets upended. Jim claims he's just another guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time, then backflips into a set of dungarees held by two flying llamas. The point is, who cares if Jim James is a god, a hippie, or my cousin? Stan has to learn to take the sense of excitement and joy he finds in the music of MMJ and use it to better his actual life, to deepen his relationship with his wife, not to devise bullshit fairy tales about his shared brain with his idol. American Dad isn't afraid to actually HAVE a moral to their story, which is something else I admire about the show.

That my humor tends to the surreal/absurd means that I love the packaging of AmDad's heart, and I will eventually write much more about its textural experiments with meta-fiction, with ahistoricity, and with pastische. For now I'm satisfied to know that snark hasn't totally won the battle for the airwaves.

Watch AmDad on Hulu!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Do Not Agree, GRE

I read Stanley Aronowitz's book The Knowledge Factory as a renegade auditor in Stephanie Hammer's Metafiction class last year at UCR, and had many of my suspicions about the problems in Higher Ed confirmed. More importantly, Aronowitz taught me a clearer philosophy of education against which to measure current trends. One of the biggest problems of college admissions, which Aronowitz discusses and I have done a lot of yelling about lately, is the increasing evidence that standardized tests like the SAT and GRE simply don't have enough predictive validity, and in many cases are a barrier to education, for people who are not affluent, white, and male. I know that I'm not one of the real victims of systemic prejudice here. If you want to read about this issue with regard to the GRE, I suggest visiting FairTest.org.
I do take another very serious issue with the GRE. I disagree with the notion that graduate school applications should include any "hoops." Everyone I've expressed my disdain to, whether they've taken the GRE for grad school or not, has said something along the lines of "you just have to get it done. It's just one of those things."
It's not.
Well, in America it is. And this is what makes me so angry. I agree with an extensive application package that includes a Statement of Purpose, transcripts, other writing samples or essays, interviews, and so on. I think people should consider the decision to do graduate work very carefully, and departments accepting students should be able to have some reasonable idea about how those students will fare in an archive, a lab, a classroom, under pressure. Tests like the GRE do not predict these things. They are used to weed out applicants from a pile that is simply too large for admissions committees to deal with. I do not blame the universities for this practice. I blame a culture that thinks of education as a privilege.
When studying for the GRE Subject test in English Lit, I realized that I was going to score lower on it than a recently graduated English BA. Let's be conservative and say that at 30 years old, with an MFA and a few years teaching and editing experience, I've done roughly 2,000 more pages of reading per year than someone with an English degree who is 21. That's something like 18,000 pages. Let's be conservative again and say that I've written 50 pages per year more. That's 4,500. One more time. Let's say I've had 5 hours per week, or 260 more hours per year of discussion of literature. I admit that a recently graduated English BA student may have less fuzzy memories of the differences between the Structuralists and the Formalists, or might have new ideas that I simply don't have because I'm a different person. But on the whole, I'd still contend, conservatively, that the GRE Lit in English test is not going to fairly represent my knowledge base vs. hers.
Maybe that argument is stale to everyone. I concede. It's the next step that really goads.
"So what?" someone close to me said. "Everyone else has the same problem. Everyone hates the GRE. Admissions committees know it doesn't mean that much. It's just something you've got to do to prove that you're serious."
In fact, I think admissions committees, while they may not unfairly weigh the GRE against more predictive pieces of the application like transcripts, DO notice GRE scores. They notice because GRE scores often matter very much to funding decisions. (In part because faculty recommendations for funding are not fully trusted?) They notice because a really high score is still a boon. They may consciously reject the notion that GRE scores are important, but with such an "objective" measurement of a student's aptitude (even if it's just test-taking aptitude), I argue that there is little anyone can do to counteract the very entrenched belief that the scores mean SOMETHING. And studying for the test may not be that big of a deal for students moving directly from a Bachelor's into graduate school, but for someone like me, it required many many hours of preparation, money spent on materials, a relearning of multiple-choice strategies, etc.
And, what of this idea that everyone hates it? Like I said earlier, America has put barriers between students and higher education. Education is a privilege, not an opportunity for those who want to take it. This is because education is subject to the laws of capitalism. This is the strongest and most terrifying reality revealed in Aronowitz's book, and I think is nowhere more ugly than in admissions practices like the GRE.
Why do I want a PhD? To write great books, to teach great classes. Sure, I selfishly want to be smarter. I want to have access to journals, want to have conversations with more accomplished people in my field, want to enter a community of writers and researchers I respect. But ultimately, I will die, and I'll die leaving behind some great books and some inspired students, or not. It is a benefit to my society if I am successful. It is absolutely illogical for there to be access barriers for people who want to work as hard as I do. Like I said, I'm perfectly willing to prove my seriousness in essays, by showing transcripts, by baring my past, my current work, my plans. It's important that I enter a program and a department where I will work best, and where I will offer the most. But none of that is tantamount to hoops to jump through--that's about a very sophisticated game of matchmaking. If higher ed were funded properly, the exchange of education for work would be so much simpler.
Under a capitalistic understanding of education, students accept painful conditions and a divorcing from their product that is unthinkable for a socialist. Why doesn't it bother anyone that the Literature in English GRE is 3 hours long with no break for drinking water or peeing? It's just one of those things? It's hard enough to think well, to write well, to continuously commit to work. I don't approve of extra-special sadistic hoops to jump through. Especially when those hoops cost hundreds of dollars.
I know I'm not alone in my disdain here. One of the programs I'm applying to has a very clear "NO EXCEPTIONS" clause on their GRE requirement, I imagine because they've received many letters making similar points to mine. I'm still in the application process, and I am still jumping through the hoops, which, at this point in my career, feels a bit dirty. The plan is to one day have a higher soapbox to yell from because of those efforts, and that's how I prevent myself slipping into depression about my hypocrisy. (This in addition to the fact that the faculty I want to work with are not the ones who require the GRE, and at least one of them is in the fight against the standardization of education.) Remember, I don't think essays, interviews, etc. qualify as "hoops." I love working on those.
I'm not entering a PhD in education, and I honestly don't know the solution to the issue of testing and student assessment. My main concern is the problem of living in a culture that regards education, and particularly education in the arts and humanities, to be a luxury. I don't think it is helpful to anyone if we all just continue to shrug that off.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Goldilocks and the Five Washer Bears

I work at night, I live in East Hollywood, and I park on the street. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for six weeks now. At 3AM on Saturday mornings I walk through either Korea Town or Melrose Hill for five to ten minutes to get from car to apartment. Sometimes I run into a guy I’ve named “Richard,” who has a grocery cart, an Oakland A’s baseball hat, and a few things to say about the way the world works, but usually, I am alone.

This week, I saw my first neighborhood raccoons. Scuttling across the street to my right was one of those really fat guys who’s too big to be a cat, too nimble to be a dog, and therefore, for the second before I realized what he was, I was terrified. He ran onto the curb, then stopped, turned around, and stared. His eyes glowed, and his huge tail hovered an inch over the sidewalk. I don’t know if raccoons pounce. I only know this one seemed ready to. I got few steps further through the intersection, and then there was an alien commotion to my left, just around the corner. Three more raccoons shuffled into the storm drain. Another stayed behind. I crossed the street, then turned back to check on them. Raccoons #1 and #5 were still there, dead still, on either side of the block, watching me.

Okay, I thought. Five raccoons. Two of which appear to own this neighborhood. This seems weird. Is this weird? Or is it just me who’s weird, being out at this time of night, and they have lived here for years, perfectly normally?

The three of us stood there for at least ten seconds before a white truck with two boys inside who cared more about where I was going than why I might be standing still on the corner finally ended the stalemate. I waved the truck onward and watched a few grey and black stripes slip down the drain.

As it turns out, raccoons don’t usually run in packs. When they do, people aren’t sure why. Their paws, which are hypersensitive, seem to lose no sensitivity after long submersions in cold water or exposure to urban elements, which we also can’t explain. However, considering their current social status as “varmint,” I was surprised at how much research has been done on raccoons. Maybe the reason is: they are one of the few animals native to North America that has successfully adapted to city life. Maybe the reason is that they can carry rabies. They have played an important role in Native American mythology, colonial trade, plantation cuisine (for both slaves and white folk), and the vanity industry of the 1920s upper class (as both exotic pet and car coat). Now, most people ignore them, except for my grandma up in Oakland who fed a few particular raccoons wet cat food on a nightly basis. In other words, raccoons have traveled from the realm of the sacred, through every social class, into the invisible world of late-night scrounging and living in the storm draims. I wondered if my raccoons knew Richard.

Linnaeus called them “washer bears” and perpetuated the misunderstanding that they washed their food fastidiously in water because otherwise they could not swallow it. We now know that “washing” is a captive raccoon activity that has no real correlative in the wild, and that raccoons just like to touch everything a lot because that is their most highly developed sense. They are rambunctious and curious, and tend to disobey commands, even though studies have shown that they can remember how to solve puzzles and open locks for up to 3 years. In a Menomonee folk tale, the Raccoon is a crafty deceiver who uses practical jokes to teach people lessons about staying patient with each other, not getting unduly suspicious, and communicating better.

I like to think of my neighborhood raccoons meeting up in the storm drain after our encounter.

“Who was that?” says R1.

“She’s new,” says R5.

“People scary!” say R2, R3, and R4.

“I don’t like her,” says R1. “Did you see all that makeup she had on?”

“Don’t judge,” says R5, “she wanted to talk to us. No one around here’s wanted to do that for a long, long time.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bob Dylan at the Palladium

The Palladium is right. Concentric circles of light, just askew enough to push us all towards the front, the apex? Even the wood on the dance floor is bowed. We’re spiraling around a possible aberration, we’re in orbit.
I love my boots and faux-leather jacket but this place makes me ache for those chandeliers to turn on, for a swing band to play, for a satin dress to wear and nice gent to give me a turn around the floor. 85% of this crowd is in jeans and they make me feel like some future anthropologist will wonder if they were a religious requirement for us.
Bob Dylan starts with Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat. This is the blues. The blues of loss, but also the blues of aggression. And that juxtaposition is delicate, because it can teeter into self-pity, or the other way into rage.
Beyond here lies nothin’, he says, nothin’ but the moon and stars. You can’t keep on with your terrestrial life—you’ve got to look UP. The point isn’t to make art in spite of pain, it’s about making art that transforms, uses, alchemizes pain. To allow pain to bring new ideas. The most difficult thing is to not be told what to do by your pain, to figure out when your pain is unnecessary ego attachment and when your pain is the beautiful wrenching grief that comes from witnessing or experiencing true human suffering. Pain that makes us want to stop dead in our tracks and curl into self-protective solitude is dangerous. Pain that makes us angry at systems, that helps us accept truth, or that cuts into the dead flesh of habit is a gift.
As if to reward us for starting to understand, the lights in the room become twinkling dots—we’ve made it into the moon and stars!
But immediately Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum remind us that if you don’t learn to think, you’ll be brought to your knees. And even if you do think, you might still. Then we feel Dylan’s toughlove on Sugar Baby.

I cried hard during When The Deal Goes Down, and then immediately afterward Dylan sang Be Honest With Me. He reminded me that the desire for return on offerings of vulnerability is a grand mistake of ego. You give up your truth freely. Then you ask for truth freely. You got to get stark naked, and then not care. I sent a few text messages, to Anth, Linz, and Louis, in a surge of affection and humilty, proclaiming my steadfastness and apologizing for times I've been afraid.

The other brilliant pairing was Highway 61 just before Workingman’s Blues #2. From the esoteric poetry to the pain of poverty, an old song to a new, this is how Dylan gets people to remember what was happening in the 60s. What was important about the vision of the 60s, what needs to keep happening, even though we must do it differently now. You are never allowed to sink into a love song without the context of history, and you are never allowed to forget that every piece of poetry is interacting with politics. People are still sleeping with their heads in the kitchen and their feet out in the hall. We got to raise ourselves an army, some tough sons of bitches!

One of my favorite love-lines of all time: I got the pork chops, you got the pie, you ain’t no angel and neither am I.

When Dylan plays the Ballad of the Thin Man, and the lights turn nearly off except for bright yellow on his face and looming silhouettes behind, people who don’t like to be hurt by the mystery of the world leave for more beer. They return when he plays Like a Rolling Stone, which comes on at 10:14pm on 10/14/09, my mother and Melissa’s birthday, the moment at which this LA crowd is finally lit up, when Dylan asks us how it feels to be a complete unknown, and the jubilant recognition of an old favorite masks, for some, the sobriety of that question. For others, the perfect complexity, the Dylan specialty, is reached. Acknowledgement of what is wrong and hard in this world, without anxiety. In fact, he’s even able to enjoy himself in the conversation. And with the help of Charlie Sexton, and a band that plays the dirty dark sexy beautiful blues like they drank a glass of molasses and milk every day of their lives, I can enjoy it all too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Circus and the Temple


Mystery. Reverence. Fear. The jungle, the savannah, the circus, the temple.

Ganesha on one end, Salt and Sauce on the other. An elephant is a god, a killer, a child’s toy, a sideshow freak.

I spent my 30th birthday at the Elephant Odyssey in San Diego. What profound joy. What masters of meditative curiosity they are. Pulling, touching, probing, checking everything with their tender trunks.

Ganesha, the Elephant-headed god, Lord of Obstacles, is in charge of both removing obstacles and placing them in the way of those who need to be slowed. He is also the God of Letters, who loves the intellect. I would have expected his chakra to be the head. I was wrong: he resides in the base, #1 chakra, which is at the root of the spine. The place where I, and most women I know, hold our tension. Also our wisdom?

How can something so large be so cute? It’s one of the great complexities of the elephant.

One can read colloquial history of circus and zoo elephants who kill their keepers. They have been known to go into rages when in captivity. On their own, even when the males fight for mating rights, they rarely hurt each other. It’s more like a game of wits they play.

In the wild, as adults, they have no true predators or prey. This gives them time to become idiosyncratic and individual. Even the elephants at San Diego Zoo all have little habits and preferences that set them apart. They are preoccupied by food and family, like Italians. They make friends, and grieve when their friends die by crying, standing very, very still, refusing to eat.

Elephant pregnancy is its own oddity. They go through a 22-month gestation period, the longest of any mammal. Still, when babies are born, they don’t have a lot of instincts. They

need to be taught. All the elephants in the herd gather around the baby and touch it, caressing with their trunks. The very first thing it experiences is the touch of its family’s vulnerable and informative body.

An elephant’s trunk is precise enough to pick up something tiny but strong enough to throw you. They look like all they can do is lumber around on those huge chunk-feet, but they’re great swimmers.

They hear in their feet. They pick up vibrations. Their communication is largely underground. Trumpeting is just one way to talk. When they seem like they aren’t “doing anything,” they are often sending messages underneath the noise of daily life.

Elephants aren’t a universal symbol for any one concept, although they are a reliable cultural fascination and can be expected to symbolize something, to nearly everyone.. In India, they have been revered since before they were rare. In America, they have been exoticized nearly

to monstrosity. It’s this kind of layered cultural-historical meaning that fascinates me. An elephant is a text.

It’s an erotic delight to uncover meaning. Stripping clothes is stripping pretense, stripping away the over-simplified, obvious, calculated. When we do this uncovering with a text, an object, a space, the same fascination comes. The erotic is always about the process of peeling layers to find the next. And this is why India can eroticize an elephant, eroticize death, eroticize sitting very still: it isn’t the predictable form of sexiness (curve of hip, slant of eye) that brings us to love or ecstasy, it is the infinitesimal moments of discovery, revealing, uncovering. Milan Kundera writes, in The Curtain, that the job of a novelist (or any artist) is to rip through our “pre-interpreted” world to show what is hiding. It’s a sort of violence, to do this, as it destroys inevitably what was once accepted as

reality. Many people never do acid (replace with: seek intimacy with another person, write in a journal, travel, get more education, pay attention to their government, and on and on) precisely because they are afraid of what might be revealed to them. But again, I claim this process, in its violence, to be also the real process of creativity and therefore the real life of the erotic mind-body. It is also the process by which social change is made.

There are always layers to uncover in our affinities. When an elephant loses its last set of teeth, it is time to die. Dreams about losing teeth are one of the top ten most common, and most disturbing for us. A poetic coincidence can lead to meaning, if we are brave enough. And that is why it is never acceptable to have a conversation in which you assert that you “just like” or “just don’t like” something. Complacency of that sort keeps current power institutions

in power, keeps paradigms firmly in place, keeps the elephants safely understandable based on what we “know.”

But did you know that they purr?

Get your mind blown on a broadband connection at Ashes and Snow.

Meet my friends at the Elephant Odyssey.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Love is All Fire

At Burning Man, we were all Ted. We each introduced ourselves as “Ted,” and we all answered to Ted, and Ted became the way we were described, and Ted became an object of study for some biologists we met on the playa, and Ted is still how we address each other when we want to return to the state of loving community that Ted brings.

In Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown writes "love is all fire." The Teds read passages from Love’s Body out on the playa, crouched in an art piece that looked like a pirate ship escaped from grandma’s attic with a layer of memory held fast with chicken wire.


“Love is all fire; and so heaven and hell are the same place. As in Augustine, the torments of the damned are part of the felicity of the redeemed. Two cities; which are one city. Eden is a fiery city; just like hell. Cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XXII, 30.

The truth concealed from the priest and revealed to the warrior: that this world always was and is and shall be ever-living fire. Revealed to the lover too: every lover is a warrior; love is all fire. Chandogya Upanishad, V. iii 7. Heraclitus, frg. 29

Broken flesh, broken mind, broken speech. Truth, a broken body: fragments, or aphorism; as opposed to systematic form or methods: 'Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest.' Bacon in McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy, 102-103”

We are all Ted, Love is all Fire, Writing is all Truth and Truth is all Broken. Only the warriors, who are lovers, and the lovers, who are warriors, see.

I am Ted, then, burning, writing broken.

I live in a Dollhouse now, and sleep some nights in a loft bed that creaks when I roll over. I turned 30 at the San Diego Zoo, talking to my elephants with my Anth and my Linz. My elephants have no predators, and no prey. Therefore, they have time to dance, solve puzzles, ask for attention, and explore the world with tender trunks. I miss them all today.

What does it MEAN, that love is all fire? As I watched the Man burn in clouds of white-hot shocking billows, I thought I knew for an instant. Anthony to my left, vowing to burn his own false words. Janet in my lap, burning away the false friendships. Me, burning the little lies of exaggeration and omission I’ve told to appear less guilty, less cravenly selfish, more approve-able. An instant of searing hope. Hope that branded us with its demand for action. This is the Beauty and Terror of my favorite Rilke poem. Rilke tells us: Let everything happen to you.

Let Love happen to you. And be willing to burn.

This means my work changes. My life changes. There's no getting ready, or getting set, there's only GO!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mangos and Sand

In the psychedelic twilight near Comercial grocery store, everything turns indigo, orange, and verde, verde, verde. Yellow gingham tablecloth at El Charro, y uno Pacifico, despues de visitar a Alma. Alma the healer, who works from her bright tangerine home on a side street off the beach in Manzanillo, Mexico.
“I am going to check your soul,” she said, and pressed on my sternum. I cried. For much of the first ten minutes. She told me I don’t let my mind rest when I go to bed—“necesitas descansar la mente”—and that I need to let go of the past. These are clichés only now, as I write them. Coming from her, in that dusty mint green room, with the Spanish chant playing and Jesus in a shrine watching, every word, every touch of her hands, was a discovery, a moment of sheer, almost unbelievable newness. Cracked tile and one burning candle.
I lay on the table, in striped underwear with a white sheet covering my breasts while she pushed on my pubic bone “con permiso de Usted y de Dios.” A quick muttered line, asking permission from me and God to touch my womanhood. I did feel different, better, calmer after an hour with her. Any massage will do this—but they don’t have Alma’s children poking heads through the door to ask about a phone call, don’t have that perfect vocal chant in the background (not new agey, not sterile), don’t have the cars and trucks driving by, don’t have the unfiltered, unconditioned air. Que perfecto, para mi. A massage occurring in life, not as an escape from it. This is what I looked like directly afterwards. Rumpled and curious.
Ahora, Pacifico with lime and chunky sea salt. Taco especial de Adobada. Across the street, people watch a soccer game projected on the side wall of the Office Max.
Due to a fortuitous mix of the generosity of family friends Annemeike and Tom and the impractical exuberance of our own decision-making, I am in Manzanillo with Lindsey and Anthony. We live in a white marble apartment, in a tower of soft round rooms called Burgos II, on a hillside from which we can see Playa Audiencia and a peninsula called The Elephant.

One day, we went to a beach town called Barra de la Navidad.

An hour drive in our new friend Diyana’s yellow jeep through rainforest and shacktowns held up by tarps and ropes. It’s crowded with banana plants and palm trees and the brick and plaster homes are painted bright teal, pink, orange, royal blue. Hand lettered signs on every store. Fruit stands with piles of coconut, mango, prickly
pear. Jackfruit hanging from the awnings like dead armadillos. Diyana is from Jordan and her soundtrack is middle eastern pop—the kind of sexy belly dance beat and electric bass you’d hear in a suave New York lounge called Tantra. Incongruity works here—I love the sounds of the drums as we careen through red lights on newly paved Mexican roads. Thatched roof and rainclouds. We drive through miles of overwhelming green—climbing vines and unruly orchards of coconut palms and banana plants. Life creeps into and over everything.
After winding through a disturbingly well-landscaped and abandoned resort complex/golf course, we arrive at a rickety dock off the Restaurant Calimilla, which is a large sprawl of plastic white patio furniture under heavy palm thatch awnings, say goodbye to Diyana, get in a bright blue and red boat, and speed five minutes across the lagoon to Barra de Navidad, a town from my childhood dreams. Pink and purple umbrellas on the beach. Restaurants open to the air on the water. A town full of little carts and buildings snarled in and out of huge draping trees. Cobblestone walkways and frozen pelotas made from bright green cactus fruit—spit out the seeds or break your teeth on them. Mango with chile melting down my chin. The sweet chicory cream café con leche, in a blue mug by a yellow wall. I want to take 8,000 pictures. I want to smell and taste it again. I want to somehow have it rubbed into my skin every day.
It’s too much to look at or understand, this town. Again, I have option paralysis and buy nothing. Woolen animals hecho a mano, bracelets tightly crocheted with semi-precious stones at their center, thin cotton dresses with tacky starfish and the name of the town printed on them. Every time I remember Anth forgot to put his contacts in, it hurts.
On the way home, we stop at one of the fruit stands. Two starfruit, two mango, a bunch of tiny bananas, some limes, for diez pesos. One coco, cut open for Anth to suck the juice out, for another ten. Diyana says they are usually five and we got cheated.
She drives us on winding lumpy stone roads past huge resort hotels of Las Hadas, Tesoro, La Punta. Mediterranean, domed, turreted, brilliantly white against periwinkle twilight storm-sky. Immediately next door, abandoned homes that overlook the ocean. Unbelievable situation. Americans are so afraid of juxtaposition, confusion. They like their appliances beige and their streets planned. Here, you will have no such façade of continuity.
It’s incredible, actually, how much Americans want to shut out the entropy of life—a middle-class culture that is phobic of bugs, clashing colors, death, smells, germs, dirt. I used to see this as a psychological problem of wanting to shut out pain by becoming control freaks. I now also see it as a political problem of wanting to differentiate ourselves from the poor. We spend a lot of money making things seem clean—but as anyone who has worked in a high-end restaurant will tell you, just as many dirty hands touch your $50 entrée as your $5 burrito. I’m not insulting our potable water or our hospitals. I’m saying we seem more interested in the appearance of cleanliness as a feature of our comfort than I’ve experienced in Europe, Asia, and now Mexico. And, I think it really is an attachment to appearance, not to “real” cleanliness as something that improves our health, helps us think clearly, or produces great art, the way a yogi or monk might care for cleanliness .
Here in Manzanillo, there is no concealment of the facts of tropical life. There is no embarrassed attempt to keep out the flies in the open-air restaurant on the beach. People bring their young babies to the beach and let them get sandy.
Tonight I’m staring at bright lightning, thinking about the quiet click-crackle of palm trees in the breeze, which I don't hear anywhere in L.A. A balm, this balmy air, a soothing softening that's entered my muscles and bones. I am equally relaxed by the lack of artifice in a world where iguanas and egrets hang out as I am by the weather. I'm learning how to stay liquid.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Panopticon, a Bushwhacking: The Hollywood Sign

On a recent sunny day, Linz, Joel and I went for a hike. We left from the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank and walked up up up up into the hills. Joel brought his camera. Linz and I brought phones and keys, and that was it. We wore shorts. We thought it would be something nice to do.

Instead of nice, we got unexpectedly profound, surprisingly thrilling, and deeply memorable.

We found an enchanted forest of burned tree skeletons--where Harry Potter meets Tim Burton for a quick tea. Linz and I allowed the shapes to inspire our bodies and Joel allowed our bodies to inspire his camera.

Next, we decided to extend our hike a bit further and go to the Hollywood Sign. As anyone who lives in LA knows, one is no longer allowed to hike all the way to the Hollywood Sign, technically. In fact, the highly publicized security system installment has made the sign an even better symbol for the town itself: you can see the dream shining in front of you, but you really, really won't be allowed to touch it. Unless you're US! Unless you are magic and victorious and jolly and ignorant about the fact that you are on a real-time webfeed to a security team!

We took many beautiful pictures of ourselves climbing, kissing, hanging from, making love to our city's most recognizable symbol. We became part of the scenery. (Be my friend on Facebook to see them!) Periodically, a buzzer would sound--maybe from the cameras? Were they on motion sensors? I had one moment of "paranoia" during which I asked Joel if he thought the city actually had enough money to monitor the sign 24/7. He didn't think so. I didn't think so. We resumed.

Suddenly, a voice boomed from a loudspeaker I had not noticed before. A female voice, menacing and severe, telling us something important that I couldn't understand. Linz later told me we were being informed about a squad car waiting for us on the road. The voice of authority, nearly unintelligible, acomplished its intimidating duty simply by way of being loud and unexpected. We hid, and then, when the helicopter came, we ran.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, the helicopter we were sure was out to hunt us circled another 3 or four times. No one ever chased us into the brush, and no police cars appeared. However, we acted as if all these things were happening--hiding under thick bushes when we heard the copter, checking from high points for squad cars. Joel bushwhacked us a path to the nearest access road, where we eventually relaxed enough to walk arm in arm, out in the open, like we'd just gotten away with stealing bags of money from the city bank. The hike was hilarious and harrowing--we were all covered in scrapes and dirt, dehydrated and disoriented, when we tumbled out onto a residential street.

I think, now, that we experienced a strangely inflated sense of triumph over the Man, considering the fact that we never once saw a person trying to come after us. We thought we'd escaped the law, but really we'd just entered a Panopticon. Conceived in the 18th-century, a panopticon is a circular prison building designed with a guard tower in the center, and all cells facing it. The inmates can't see the top of the tower, so they can never be sure if they are actually being guarded, but the concept behind the panopticon is that if there are enough consequences in the beginning (i.e., if there are guards punishing wrongdoing at the outset) then inmates will eventually act as if they are being guarded all the time, even when they aren't.

So. We saw all the cameras at the Sign, but weren't convinced that we were being watched until the voice came over the loudspeaker. Then, we turned into panopticon inmates, dodging helicopters that were probably checking traffic, trying to find secluded roads to walk on long after the Hollywood Sign Security had probably given up on finding us. We knew we were probably safe, and the caution became a sort of joke. But what if those helicopters HAD been for us?

Since we'd emerged on the opposite side of the hill, we hitched a ride back to Oakwood from a friendly Swiss guy in a yellow Firebird. When we got home, Joel looked up the consequence for trespassing at the Sign. Surprise: it's not prison. It's a ticket for $283. This means that the state-of-the-art Panasonic security cameras are at the Sign mostly for fire warning and intimidation. The police are simply not going to go charging into the wilds of Mt. Lee to issue me a ticket.

I was humbled by my ignorance about the consequences of our adventure. I don't know a lot of practical information about the way life works. I used to think I did, which is even more disorienting.

A similar feeling came over me two days ago when I received a check for $801 from Emerson College as part of their settlement in a case regarding their student lending practices. I still don't exactly know what Emerson did to get sued--my guess from the cryptic letter accompanying the check is that they pushed us into contracts with "preferred" lenders when they were supposed to leave us free to choose our own banks--but regardless, I was faced with the fact that I was ignorant, again, about some piece of legality in my life. At the sign, I didn't know the consequence for breaking a rule. At Emerson, I didn't even know the rules that were getting broken.

And so the righteous struggle to be organized without obsession and creative without disintegration rages every day in my life.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Independent Shakespeare, Derridean Forgiveness

Last week when I saw The Independent Shakespeare Company do Henry V, David Melville (ISC’s Co-Founder and Managing Director) told me: “Come see the Tempest. Our Henry V is pretty good. Our Tempest is great.” So yesterday I drove from the Bay Area to Los Angeles just in time to squeeze onto a picnic blanket in Barnsdall Park. And he was right.

Aside from theatrical aspects one could “review”—which I’m underqualified for anyway—I know the show was great because I cried. The Tempest is called both a romance and a comedy, and I don’t think you’re particularly expected to cry at the end the way you are at, say, well, something like Hamlet. (Not that there is anything, or anyone, “like” Hamlet.)

I cried because the end of the Tempest is a scene of grand and surprising forgiveness. Where revenge would be narratively appropriate, if not morally so, only reconciliation is sought. Antonio, who has betrayed his brother Prospero, is forgiven instead of punished, and the way ISC plays this scene (which is very tricky, since Antonio never speaks a word about it, and the entire exchange, if there is one between Prospero and Antonio, must be physical) is incredibly poignant. (Cheers to Ahmad Enani and Joseph Culliton for those moments.)

It’s true that I cry easily, that I’m sensitive to emotional nuances in art, people, myself, everything. But I hate being lumped into some kind of irrational female class; the Cry-At-Movies-Type, the Emotional One, etc. I never cry for no reason. I cried at the end of the Tempest because of how absolutely rare and utterly earth-shattering forgiveness really is. I was instantly aware of how difficult it is to achieve, and how difficult it must be to portray to an outdoor theater filled with Silver Lake hipsters and their funky-booted kids. How shocking it was to me, who grew up hearing Christian rhetoric about forgiveness to see it represented, briefly and in unfamiliar language, like an exotic bird suddenly flying across the dinner table.

It turns out that the kind of forgiveness I grew up believing in was really a sort of private psychological/spiritual affair, during which I asked forgiveness for sins. Forgiveness between people has always been much more problematic of a concept. It was not an activity that changed my relationships much, and certainly not an activity that changed the social, economic, or political landscape around me in any profound way.

But the forgiveness Prospero shows his usurpers does have these effects. Forgiveness in this sense is a political act as much as an interpersonal one, because letting his brother live and return to Naples serves as an example of what kind of ruler Prospero will be hereafter, and offers Antonio the chance to show loyalty, and avoid further betrayal.

I could spend a long time working carefully to tease out the particularities of forgiveness vs. amnesty, reconciliation, etc. I think Derrida’s writing on forgiveness, in which he conceives of it as a paradox one must be continually moving in and out and through, is the closest anyone’s come to understanding the particular problems of the action. Very crudely and briefly: Derrida argues that genuine forgiveness involves an impossibility, which is the forgiving of an unforgivable act. If something were imminently forgivable, then it’s merely an act of logic to forgive it. But for something truly horrific, forgiveness is actually the act of bridging an infinite divide—and therefore it is actually insane/impossible. The very best we can achieve is a sort of conditional forgiveness, in which we have received an apology, come to some accord or terms, or maybe even just begun to feel we understand the motivations of the offender.

So I’ll call the tenderness at the end of the Tempest between Prospero and Antonio forgiveness, because I think it is truly engaged in the tension of Derrida’s impossible moment, in spite of the fact that it may be more accurately called amnesty. This is not about any little clichéd, forced, dishonest moment of being a “better” person who can “put the past behind” them. This is about an offender facing the full horror of their deed (credit here to Enani and director Melville), and a forgiver feeling grace enough to extend a hand in human understanding.

This moment can happen in tandem with the activities of justice—Prospero is returned to his throne. However, that’s difficult to imagine because forgiveness has such a strange place in our social world, given its connotation of conservative Christian values and simultaneous tension with the punitive culture of incarceration conservatives so devoutly support. We simply cannot discuss forgiveness without Christian tropes. And, we can’t discuss it without making some kind of caveats about the differences between what people do for each other to preserve relationships, and what a state does with someone who has violated social order.

For those who are elite, however, we’ve set up a social norm of “retraction” and “apology,” wherein public figures can appeal to America for “forgiveness” when they’ve said something racist, sexist, or otherwise stupid. But it’s perfunctory, and we all know it, in the same way that many appeals for forgiveness interpersonally, or in confession, are perfunctory. Dishonesty on the other end occurs when one proclaims forgiveness but holds a grudge, or forgives half-heartedly to avoid more conflict, or tries to forgive in an effort to be moral but wishes, deep-down, for reparation. I’ve done all these things. I’m conflating the interpersonal and the broader social processes here to show how tangled of a notion forgiveness is once you realize nothing, nothing, nothing, is private life. And Derrida would dismiss all of the above as not even part of a conversation about real forgiveness anyway.

How are 21st century Americans to understand an imaginary Shakespearian king who forgives? A king who sets his slaves free and then begs the audience to set HIM free? Our understanding of power is polluted by so much self-protectiveness that it’s nearly impossible, I think, for us to hear a character give so many commands earlier in the play and still think of him as vulnerable, graceful, and tender. But he is.

And this is where my tears come from. Everybody and nobody really deserves to be forgiven. It’s impossible to know beforehand whether forgiveness is, in any given relationship, an act of grace or passivity. It is one of the greatest risks possible to take in love, and an even greater risk, in terms of human life, to take in politics.

Prospero knows exactly who has wronged him, in what way, to what degree, and with how much malice. I fancy myself someone who does not keep score in this way, but it’s not true. I also have a short list of people who would have to come to me with abject apologies for me to feel tenderness towards them. In fact, a few of them would have to basically read an apology I’ve already written in my head for them. Simultaneously, I forgive some other people almost instantaneously. On a good day, this is because I’m filled with grace. On a bad day, it’s because I’m conflict-avoidant and have trouble mustering anger when it would be appropriate. I ask those in my life who’ve felt the business end of this habit for forgiveness.

I celebrate The Tempest’s model of forgiving, as envisioned by ISC. No time wasted on revenge—only creative pranking play, much like Nietszche's Zarathustra. The goal is a restoration of justice and nurturing of new love, new visions. Those who have been immoral face the gravity of their deeds while they are invited to reenter the light. If they refuse to choose morality when given the chance, they can stay on the island, hunting for grubs, while the rest of us set sail for Naples!

PS: If you will be in SoCal at all this summer, go see the show.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I Will Bear The Weight

The newspapers today reminded the world that Michael Jackson has actually not performed in 12 years. Twelve years--during which the Wacko Jacko reputation was calcified, and memories of his music and philanthropy were erased, save for the nostalgic respect people clearly hold for his “early stuff.” What I feel now is the loss of potential--he was about to tour, about to make more music, about to give us MORE, about to reenter the sick and snarky music industry with his abject awe and dedication to grand mind-changing. I'm sad in part because I'm scared. Scared that the small windows of opportunity for artists who aren't world-weary and self-protective are closing, and closing fast. This is why we all have to think of Jackson as a sage, not an icon crusted in our nostalgia. (Read Anthony’s incredible blog about MJ’s cultural importance here.)

At the same time, it’s important for us all to think about how MJ shaped our understanding of music, of the world. “He meant a lot to me,” sounds insipid at moments like this, when there are hundreds of people who knew him personally, who are suffering a very tangible loss of his body/self in their lives. But he did mean a lot to me, not just as a musician/artist/philanthropist.

When I was in gradeschool it was already a little uncool to like Michael Jackson. My girlfriends were into New Kids On The Block. There were a few of us who still listened to Bad, which was by then (let’s say 1989/1990) a sort of relic, in child years.

I have very strong memories of standing on my street corner after school in fourth grade, talking to Louis Cristofani, who would be balancing on his bike pedals if he planned to go home soon, or standing next to his bike if he wanted to talk for a few minutes, or detached from the bike completely, kickstand down and everything, if we were going to stay for an hour. We talked alone after school almost every day. We had an unspoken agreement not to walk with each other directly from school—where I was already getting teased about him, a teasing that lasted another, oh, 20 years—but to meet at the corner a few blocks away where I turned left and he went straight. I got there first, always. Sometimes I’d read. Every day I was excited, nervous. Every. Day. Every day I felt awkward, like I couldn’t say what I meant, like the precocious, mature, smart, witty girl my Dad’s adult friends always loved me for being was stuck in molasses with tape on her mouth and the only things I could really do were giggle and sweat. My first taste of real insecurity.

And every day he’d come. And we’d talk. And there are only a few conversations whose content I actually remember now. One of them was about Michael Jackson. I remember the light behind Louis’s curly brown head, orange sunlight, and I remember him doing a few dance moves, which made me want to squeeze him—but I wouldn’t dare! Oh my God!—and I remember how his eyes widened in excitement as he told me I should really listen harder to “Smooth Criminal.” I’d think I’d said that I liked “Another Part of Me” best. I went home and listened to Smooth Criminal many, many times. Grateful that I had some planned content for the next day’s conversation. I often thought about what to talk with Louis about on the walk from school to the street sign where I waited, convinced that if I didn’t have some conversation planned I’d stutter or be silent, ridiculous. I learned to hate this feeling, learned to hate this planning, learned to hate insecurity itself. But not then—then my only thought was seeing him again. Talking to him again. Feeling chosen, over whatever else he wanted to do, or whatever friends he wanted to play with, for those minutes. We are still the only people I’ve ever known to be a couple for that long, (two years) as kids. We broke up in middle school, but I carried a torch until I moved away—a painful one, since he quickly fell for a girl I thought was probably the coolest I’d met. She was more confident, funnier, and had a less inhibited sexuality than me. At thirteen, the blueprint for what kind of woman would intimidate me henceforth was drawn, framed, and brightly lit.

Michael Jackson wove his way through my life—while I became a fan originally because of Louis (who was a fan originally with big brother Anthony Cristofani), I was a staunch listener and defender of the “Dangerous” album among my high school friends. I choreographed a dance to “Dangerous” that was a loving, playful parody of gender and an indictment of sexual expectations created by MTV-style media during my sophomore year of college. I played MJ myself in the dance, lip synching from under a huge fedora, doing my best (it was still bad) impression. I loved that song, loved performing it at a tiny liberal arts college dance concert where everyone else took their modern dance very, very seriously.

After college, I listened to the “Invincible” album many days in a row at my horrible office job, in my little Honda, driving too fast on L.A. freeways while I cried about a breakup, cried about not knowing what to do with my life, cried about feeling alone, cried about doing something as clichéd as being 22 and feeling worried about my life.

Years later, in Boston, the Babes in Boinkland did a Halloween burlesque show to “Thriller,” and it was homage, reverence, love—we learned the real choreography, as best we could, then turned into zombies…

Louis Cristofani also wove his way through my life. Anthony and I maintained deliberate and significant friendship, wrought of letters and visits and calls and commitments. Louis and I knew each other largely through Anth. We had times of closeness, when our friendship spun its own delicate content—sometimes tinged with romance, often not. We had times of estrangement. The theme was always that there was “Something Important” between us. We promised, when we were 20, to get married if we were both still single at 40. Always, he didn’t write or call back enough. We both loved other people. He nearly married. We also both hurt our other lovers by having a recurring vision of being together—I called Louis “the love of my life” in a conversation with my boyfriend in graduate school, Louis told a girlfriend around that time that he still thought he’d end up marrying me.

Eventually (after 17 years) I tired of this fantasizing, although it took a great deal of convincing from Anth and Linz for me to admit it. I finally said to Louis: Let’s do it, and do it now. We’re almost 30, I said. Let’s find out. At first, he balked. He had many concerns. We had an argument. Then, a day later, he agreed.

We spent a year trying. We’ve decided it’s time to stop. Of course this summary does incredible violence to our actual experience of love, tenderness, disagreement, disparity, hope, pain, friendship, respect, attraction, impatience, ego, desire. But it also is the truth.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes:
(Human lives) are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence…into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life…Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences…but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

Kundera goes on to describe how this perceiving of events is not the same as superstition, it is not “looking for signs.” It is a way of seeing one’s life as an interconnected web of what has been translated as “fortuity,” or chance events. What connects these events is our own narrative. We compose the life. We are drawn to symmetries.

And so this is how I experience the death of Michael Jackson. It is symbolically tied to the death of my childhood dream, my fantasy of marrying my childhood sweetheart in a swirling cloud of rapture. Michael Jackson has been part of our lore together. The story I told about us is getting rewritten now—every moment of closeness since we were eleven was not leading up to The Ultimate Partnership, the Transcendent Duo. Every album since “Bad” was not leading up to a righteous comeback. Death and breaking up show me how little Buddhistic understanding I have of attachment. I want, have always wanted, grand future dreams to carry with me during times of bleakness. Otherwise the meaning of all that came before must change.

Maybe I’ve held on to these myths (of who Louis is, of Louis-and-I-Together, and many, many others) since I was a child because I never really learned the lesson of Nietszche’s eternal return.

In The Gay Science, Nietszche describes it this way:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

And Kundera writes:
In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht)…The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

I took one of the most beautiful and important risks of my life when I asked Louis to be my lover last year. I subsequently was humbled by how difficult it was for us, and clung quasi-rationally (irrationally, but bolstered by his own attachment to a future dream of Us) to the idea that we were “on our way,” changing for the better, moving progressively, slowly, towards something other than what we currently were. Every moment feeling not quite there. Every exciting minute of intimacy only a fraction of what I envisioned was possible. This was acceptable to me because I forgot about the weight of eternal return.

Now that I’ve accepted the weight, instead of accepting its absence, I can actually grieve the death of my childhood, the death of my attachment to a future vision. I see that I stopped thinking about Micheal Jackson because I thought he’d be there, sometime, in the future, doing something grand. I’ve done this to everyone I know, in some way, at some time. I’ve done it to Louis, I’ve done it to myself.

Kundera calls this the “profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.”

In other words, every time I felt a twinge of disappointment, a tremor of fear, a frustration that Louis and I hadn’t “yet” careened into what I’d decided should have been our Grand Love, I failed to live up to the demon’s offering. Was the problem my inability to trust? Was it his inability to fall? These aren’t the pertinent questions. The real question is: what about this moment now? Would I live it again and again?

It’s such a tightrope walk, to be simultaneously aware of the weight of every choice, every moment, and also to be able to laugh as Nietzsche does, to be free of anxiety and fear.

I see the overlapping of Jackson’s death and the death of my old dreams with Louis as beautiful. There is a poetry to it. I wonder if there are others who have incorporated this event in a similar way. These deaths overlap with my reading Kundera and Nietzsche, overlap with my being thrust back into an L.A. existence after the transcendence of Phish Tour. Overlap with new and renewed commitments with Anth and Linz. The world is different without MJ. The world is different without my daily fantasy of marrying Louis Cristofani. The world is different, not just I am.

And the last piece of convergence/metaphor I’ll celebrate here is that these deaths do not, cannot affect what is most true and lasting. Louis and I are part of a community, a family, and so, unlike many other couples, we won’t disappear from each others’ lives. The death of my big romantic dream is not the death of our reality—shared projects, shared history, intimacy based on a shared mission. In the same way, Michael Jackson’s death does not erase his music. It’s what we create that lasts. Of course we need dreams and visions, to be artists and lovers and fighters, but we also need them to be the seeds of action. Then we can look in the face of the eternal return and laugh, and be grateful, and want it all again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Phishing for a Miracle

Here I am in the NYC subway, facing my greatest foe: Sameness. Sanity. The Same-Sane Vanessa. I'm wearing a Star Wars: Episode I backpack and a sweatshirt with horses running on the front, a pair of sequined jeans I bought in the Rio hotel in Las Vegas for $15. I'm on the road.

I've seen four Phish shows live. I've listened to another all the way through with the tribe in the car. Tomorrow we head out to Bonnaroo for Phish, Bruce, Wilco, David Byrne, Oh GOD IT'S TOO GOOD.

What's been happening is transformation. How it's been happening is the same way humans have been doing it forever: ritual. It's just that our ritual is rock n' roll, our priests are the rock stars, our temple is the shakedown, the amphitheater, the arena, the Lawn. We gather. We raise our hands up, we get taken far away. We think about everything with wider perspective. We dance like dervishes and run like antelopes out of control. And, like most rituals, many people snap out of it the instant they perceive it's "over." But that hasn't happened to me this time. It's not over. It will never be over. The point of achieving some higher level of awareness is to stay there, not just to dip in once a year when you need to stop being stressed.

Before the second show, the four of us who were there: Max, Aaron, Karine, me--sat in a circle and I reminded us all of how very, very lucky we are. That we are able to make/have enough money to live, to tour, to wear matching shirts. That most people in the world live much more dangerous lives and often don't have their needs met. We dashed into the Shakedown with smiles and tears and gratitude.

Really really good art contains a blueprint for how to understand it. Great art, like Nabokov's Lolita or a Phish show, has a blueprint for how to Understand. Here’s how to listen to this music. Here’s how to listen to all music. Here’s how to listen. Here’s how to read this book. Here’s how to read all books. Here’s how to read. And all activities of engagement are determined cross-purposely, so that Phish teaches you to read and Lolita teaches you to listen, and they both teach you how to see and smell and touch too.

It’s not just how to make art that we learn, not only technique to be replicated. It’s how to be ARTIST PEOPLE, super fine-tuned sensitivity vessels. How do you Jibboo in the backseat? How do you Jibboo when you don’t get in? When you are overwhelmed? How do you Jibboo half asleep? Too high? (need to learn about Jibboo?)

I also realized that we all already know everything we need to know to have the kind of lives we want, to make the kind of art we want. I'm not saying we're masters at everything. I'm saying we have access to the information we need, and the philosophy that guides is at our fingertips all the time. The most important thing we can remember is that we have to stay humble, relearning lessons all the time instead of always running desperately after the next thing that seems brand new.

Humility is saying to those you trust:
Tell me again--how to do it.
Tell me again.

The Christian myth of the body—that it is a heavy coat the soul must wear for some kind of pre-paradise slog through earthly temptations and trials—never seemed right to me. But neither did the body-as-authority bondage of so many New Age systems. A new way, made loud and large on this trip, is integration. It's a revelation to stay unresentful of the body’s simple machinations—hydration, excretion—because even those can be eroticized and holy. Peeing against the wall at the back of the Show, feeling the pleasure of relief as part of the jam Phish is in, the moment of vulnerability when my pants are down in public is beautiful. Drinking water is holy--when I'm thirsty, the water is delicious, and it's borne to me by love--friends, careful engineering, etc. But neither does the body dictate everything. Exhaustion can actually be ignored when necessary, without destroying oneself. There is a way to be a great self-lover, someone who is healthy and excitable, without also getting stuck in hyper-active physical maintenance.

Two days ago the front left tire exploded while I was driving because Max overfilled it. We spent nearly three hours in a truck stop roadside McDonalds in Virginia, off I95 South. It did not stress me out. According to Anth I made a panicked face during the catastrophe. According to Aaron I handled everything perfectly. I know that I was shocked and then got us off the freeway. Laughing laughing fall apart, while we tell each other the stories of what we thought when the tire turned into a bomb and pieces of shrapnel started flying off the car, over soft serve and coffee. The van was truly a sight to behold:
All day I’ve been thinking—what part of the jam is this? What would be happening in the music right now to describe our lives?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Half-Believer's Story

I love: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Yet another film to be poorly received by critics who like their genres tight and their narratives "compelling," Magorium is a vignettish, slightly coquettish, whimsical, sad, and lovely moment that has a character I've only seen in real life, not in movies: the half-believer. I could write for two hours about the many aspects of the movie that were brilliant, but the representation of this half-believing person in Molly Mahoney hurt me. She was me. I was her.

You want some helpful plot? Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a magic toy store. Molly Mahoney was a child piano prodigy and has been working at the store since high school--she's now 23--and is having writer's block in last few lines of her first big concerto. Magorium is 243 years old, and has decided that it's time for him to "leave." Mahoney flips out. She clings, she cries, she threatens. The point is, Magorium wants to give her the store, and she doesn't think she can run it. She's perfectly happy believing in the magic of the store, but she's confined her belief in anything beautiful ("magic," of course, is allegory) to the store, and to Magorium. More than once she says, "but I'm not magic, I can't do it. Only you can."

The poignance of this character in my life can't be understated. I've been her, and I've been the Magic One trying to convince someone else they can! Do it! I'm rarely the Real Unbeliever (here represented by an accountant)--the one who most often appears in children's films as the grown up, or the villain. In films like this, usually, when something fantastic is happening, there's the people who get it, and the people who don't. But Mahoney straddles the land of childhood fantasy/imagination/belief in magic/excitement at the world around AND the land of adult responsibility/pressure to achieve/pragmatism. She actually believes that magic exists, but can't seem to see herself as part of it.

She reminds me of people who come to SARK events and express jealousy at the life SARK has had. They believe in the possibility of an extraordinary life, they just don't think THEY could ever have one. For years I felt this way about SARK too--and about Anthony, Linz, and Louis. It just seemed like the big crazy beautiful things happened to other people. I was jealous of them, but I didn't feel like I was really the "kind of person" to whom those things happened on my own.

What I failed to do for so many years, and what Mahoney fails to do for most of the film, is realize that this pseudo-victim position is actually a position of total culpability. Mahoney's nine-year-old friend Eric tells her this more than once--he knows she could "be magic" if she quit being so insecure, and he knows that no matter how imprisoned she seems to feel, she built the prison to protect herself from the responsibility and potential heartbreak of being BIGGER. SARK's been trying to teach this to people for decades now! And Mr. Magorium has many moments of it that are concrete, if not patently philosophical. (For example, when he and Mahoney are about to run into a mattress store and jump on the beds, she says, "Ok! on Go!" and he says, "No! It's always on Go!" and she says "You're right---um, okay, on Triscodecaphobia!" and then when she yells "TRISCODECAPHOBIA!" off they go. She was already in the eccentric situation of being about to jump on beds, but Magorium asks her to go further, weirder, even more outside.)

Mahoney suffers from that ridiculous pop-psych superstition about "personality" that leads so many people to say they aren't creative, or just "don't think that way." What Magorium helps her understand, and what delighted me the most about the movie, was that there really isn't a "type" of person that is magic. There is just a type of decision a person can make to be so. The decision has everything to do with letting go the self-protective ego, letting go the fear of being out of control, letting go the fear of losing things, letting go the fear of being on one's own, of being disapproved of, etc. There may be circumstances or temperaments that lead some to make this decision easier than others, sure. I'm not discounting the complexity of being a human being who has a particular family, socioeconomic background, experience of real victimization, and so on. However, I think we mistakenly rely on that complexity when almost every time someone thinks they aren't magic it's just because they're afraid of some consequence of being so.

The fear of consequence manifests in another piece of the film's genius--many times characters are being dishonest with each other in ways that are actually socially normalized (for us), but totally unacceptable in a world where magic, desire and curiosity reign. So--instead of their little social stories getting ignored the way they normally would, the stories are pulled out and scrutinized. You must be absolutely honest about what you want or you will be forced to confess it, basically. It's genius, and it's heartbreaking to watch the people in the film putter around something and then finally come out with it, clumsily, abjectly: "I like you," or "will you play with me?" or "I don't understand," or "I'm sorry." Erudition is no help in moments like that, and Magorium's hilarious, wonderful playfulness with language completely falls away when emotions like these need to get expressed. Rightly so. Rightly so.

So the film doesn't just rely on messages about behavioral change, although it is very clear that it is important for everyone to start doing everything differently. It asserts that there is a moment of surrender involved when you want to become "magic"--and that this moment is available at anytime to anyone. You have to surrender to a childlike sense of unfamiliarity with the world in order to see its potential. That surrender doesn't come easy--most adults need something really big to happen to them--a drug trip, a trauma, a baby, falling in love--and then they usually compartmentalize it and try to get back to "normal."

But we should remember Mr. Magorium, who lived until he was 243 precisely because he never came back to normal. He stayed high! He kept a zebra in his house! He learned to play the Euphonium in a hospital bed!

He also never once lied about there being sadness in the world. He was very aware of the loss Mahoney would feel when he died. This is why critics thought the movie was not really for kids--they forgot that whimsy is always contexualized by the rest of life, in the same way that sadness is contextualized by the rest of life, even for kids. There was magic and grief in the store at the SAME TIME. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.

This was especially important for me, right now, as I'm in more than one state of loss. Instead of having the grief paralyze me, I've been keeping it "in motion"--every day trying new ways to engage it. Eroticize it. Write it. Cry it. Fight it. Get pummeled by it. Hate it. Eat it. Triscodecaphobia! There is never a time when we have to stop being magic.