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 clich├ęd 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?