Dear Sweet Intern

Dear Joshua,

Thank you for taking the time to contact my office regarding the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ruling on internet regulations. I appreciate hearing from you and I care about your thoughts. […]

We care about keeping the internet open and free. Since its inception, the internet has played a vital role in driving innovation, commerce, economic opportunity and job creation. It has provided an accessible space for small business owners and entrepreneurs to compete in the market. That is why this Congress has rolled back harmful and overreaching regulations that were enacted by the Obama Administration. […]

As this debate continues in Congress, I will keep your comments in mind to ensure a free and open Internet

Sincerely,

Tom Reed
Member of Congress

Thank you, dear Intern, for writing this vacant, pro-forma e-mail for your boss.

Senator Reed (who I’m beginning to suspect may not have read my letter) either has an understanding of Net Neutrality that’s so flawed as to be ironic, or, he is baldly promoting the interests of the multi-national corporations who stand to benefit from its dismantling — in direct opposition to the interests of his constituents.

Constituents like me.

Yes, hi.

Look, I have lots of respect for modern intelligent conservatism, and I understand and share the fear of giant, non-transparent governments.  I’m no fan of fascism, authoritarianism, or really any kind of autocratic government that isn’t The Philosopher King’s Benevolent Monarchy.  I believe the absolute freedom of the individual is our most fundamental modern right, and anything infringing on it requires overwhelmingly demonstrable proof of its necessity.

That being said, I have only hatred in my heart for the corpocracy that rules this country.  We could just as easily be talking about private prisons, or industrial weapons and war profiteering, or health care “insurance” that ranks citizens in access tiers and puts profit-makers between patients and doctors — we could be talking about a great many things, and this fact would remain:

Protecting the freedom of corporations to prey on our citizens is an irony of astounding short-sightedness.

Your boss, dear Intern, is either willfully ignorant, willfully corrupt, complacently stupid, or some absurd combination of the three —  NONE OF THESE OPTIONS ARE DEFENSIBLE.

This man and his ilk should — and God willing and the creek don’t rise, WILL — be stripped of their titles and their dignity and made to walk home to their constituents, barefoot and crying.

Sorry, Intern, but — Congressman Reed,  it is my belief that you are a rank asshole.

Listen:

A free market REQUIRES REGULATION TO OPERATE. The game-theory incentives of a truly free market are for the top players to collude, force out competition, and drive up prices. ALL unrestricted markets devolve into MONOPOLY, ALWAYS, you brainless twat.  If you stand to benefit from that system, as Congressman Reed does, and your principles are only skin-deep, self-serving lip service, as Congressman Reed’s are, then hey, who cares?

But if you care about justice, or kindness, or the collective human trust that is placed in the hands of a public SERVANT, then you care. And what’s more, you are growing increasingly ANGRY at being talked to like a child.

Intern, forgive me, but your boss IS the servant of someone — and it ain’t the public.  But as that public grows ever more educated, as knowledge is further democratized and disseminated, the day of his disgrace may not be long in coming.  For his sake, for all our sake’s, when that day comes I hope our species has outgrown the guillotine.

For today, though, for this sorry day in a string of sorry days, the slap in the face that was your pro-forma response has simply cost him a vote he never had.  And so he laughs, and returns to his life.  Hell, he probably won’t even have to face the minor discomfort of reading this letter.

Forgive me my malice, but if on the off-chance this makes it to your desk, I hope you choke on your next ill-gotten check, Mr Reed, as it’s crammed down the insatiable maw that is your greedy, still-slurping throat.

You are beyond saving.

But for you, Intern, all I can say is question everything; nobody has a premium on absolute truth. It’s up to you to bring the servant back to public servant.  Someone has to be the seed.  If the corporations aren’t pried off the head of our democracy soon, they will devour the host; and this 200 year experiment of by the people, for the people, will fall finally to its ruin. If you aspire to a place of rulership in the new aristocracy of that old world order, then goodbye sweet Intern, and God save your soul.

But if you aspire to a better world, one constructed in the very face of the supra-national powers that rule us — If you aspire to preserving and fulfilling the promises of actual freedom and self-government made at the signing of our incredible constitution, well, you have my email address.

I’ll be here, swallowing my vomit, husbanding the last of my compassion, cupping my calloused hands around the flickering, fading light that was the birth of this beautiful republic.

By the people, For the people,

With love,

Joshua.

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porko rosso, or: that one time i got way too stoned

Muscle memory from a misspent youth has often gotten me into trouble as an adult.  One moment in particular happened a few years ago, when there was a Hayao Miazaki / Studio Ghibli run going on at the Cornell Cinema.  I met up with some friends to go see Princess Mononoke, and they were of course packing a bowl.

Now, I quit smoking weed regularly when I was living in Taipei in my mid-20s.  Though I had been a daily, incessant stoner for years, it had started to slowly dawn on me that the worm had turned.

When I first started smoking it was a joyous discovery, mesmerizing in its ability to get me outside of myself and away from my anxieties:  Touching, tasting, listening to music, watching a cool breeze run through the grass and ripple the blades, feeling its chill wash across my skin in a wave of goosebumps — Seeing the world not from the hazed depths of myself, but from a lifted vantage up and out, through a giggling kaleidoscope of vibrating color and sensation.

Somehow though, in a twist of actual irony, it began to take me not out, but straight down and in.  I would smoke weed with people, and then immediately become not just self-conscious, but self-critical.  It was terrible, pure paralytic self-loathing anxiety.  Eventually I reached a point of deciding to only smoke alone at home, as I had convinced myself I needed it to sleep.  Then of course, I just started having these downward spiraling anxiety attacks by myself, alone in my rooftop apartment in Taipei.

Eventually, in what would become one of my first real moments of maturity, I decided to stop.  I realized I was paying money — and in Taiwan, it cost kind of a lot of money — to be unhappy.  So I stopped.  And it turned out I didn’t need it to sleep at all; it was just like having a fan, or the humming of a fish tank in the room — it was simply something I had gotten used to, and it took a surprisingly short time to get used to its absence.  Of course drinking then took off in a major way and became its own spiral, requiring its own epiphany, but that’s another story.

Anyways, I was at my friend’s place, before the Miazaki film, and they were packing a bowl, and I figured heck, if ever there was a time to get stoned again, it was before sitting in a dark theater and watching a beautiful animated movie that I had already seen and loved.  So we were talking, and I took the bowl, and I took a hit, and I passed it, and it came back, and I took a hit and passed it, and so on.  Muscle memory took over completely, and I was taking massive “get-fucked-up” pulls on this thing, repeatedly, as I had once done on the regular, every day.  Unfortunately I did not have the tolerance of my youth.  I got WAY too stoned.

So we drive up there, and I’m in the back seat fidgeting uncomfortably.  And we’re sitting in the theater, and I’m super conscious of how my legs are crossed, where my hands are falling on the arm rests, wondering whether I’m taking up too much of my neighbor’s arm rest, feeling the eyes of everyone on me, feeling like I don’t know how to arrange my face, feeling like I don’t like my face, feeling like the world is closing in one me, like everything is raw unbearable discomfort, spiraling downwards all over again, feeling like…

and then I noticed there was a piano on the stage.

The Cornell Cinema is actually a beautiful theatrical space, with a big red velvet curtain, and there was a piano on the stage in front of the curtain, and a young asian woman walked out and sat down.  As the hum of people continued around me, the scope of my focus narrowed suddenly to a tiny circle of light:  Her sitting down, her opening sheet music, her opening the piano and adjusting her seat, her laying fingers on the keys, her closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.  Then she started to play.

She played the opening music to Princess Mononoke, live, on a grand piano before a red velvet curtain, and I was suddenly exactly as stoned as I was supposed to be.

Never before or since have I had such a movie-going experience.  She played the whole thing, then got up, bowed briefly, and walked off stage.  The curtains opened, the lights dimmed and the movie began.  If you aren’t familiar with studio Ghibli, I strongly suggest you acquaint yourself.  Miazaki can be a wandering storyteller, but his films are rich, vibrant, heartfelt, and gorgeous.  And the music?  Well, have a listen to the ending credits of Porko Rosso — one of his earliest and least known works.  Miazaki and his composer Joe Hisaishi’s meeting was a glorious accident of fate, and their constant collaboration has been a thing of shining wonder, spanning countless projects, characters, childhoods, decades.

I don’t smoke weed anymore, and honestly I far prefer my life this way.  But if you feel like having a joint for old-time’s-sake, before opening the song below, I can say with some authority that there is still a place in this world for the reckless choices of childhood.  Sometimes, even still, way too stoned turns out to be just right.

composed by Joe Hisaishi
for Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miazaki

promise

“By 1995, Clear Channel owned 43 radio stations and 16 television stations. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law, the act deregulated media ownership, allowing a company to own more stations than previously allowed. Clear Channel went on a subsequent buying spree, purchasing more than 70 other media companies and individual stations.”

Man, this Ben Howard guy.  When I first heard his voice through phone speakers I immediately wanted to dislike him.  Him and his 9 million views.  I know, that’s not fair.  But hear me out.

I grew up in the age of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that quietly bought up an enormous market share, fired all the independent DJs, and replaced them with pre-recorded patter and standardized set-lists.  These set-lists consisted of whatever media executives paid them the most to play.  Subtly, carefully, without alerting the public that the game had changed, this single corporation neutered and homogenized radio music across vast swaths of the United States, for profit.

Fuck them so much.  Seriously.

Clear Channel and their ilk are the reason an entire generation was subjected to bands like Creed and Nickleback.  Bands nobody asked for and nobody liked, but who had clever and wealthy management, and were bland enough not to rile any focus groups.  Instead of the steady diet of Lou Reed and David Bowie we should have been getting, what we got instead were pre-paid formula songs, selected by empty suits, that then played constantly in the dentist’s office while we read Highlights magazine and waited to get our teeth cleaned.

The local Clear Channel puppet in my time was Lite 97 FM — Cursed be their name.  By the time I hit puberty I had already heard a lifetime’s worth of samey musical mush, all of it polished to a shiny nub of inoffensive nothing and poured down the ears of an undiscriminating audience.  Hell, I was part of that audience.  The radio was where you heard music, that’s just how it was.  That’s how it had been since humans first harnessed the airwaves.  How was I supposed to know the DJs were dead?

My childhood was a dark time for music.  The period between the demise of the DJs, and the rise of the internet was rough, and music didn’t mean much to me as a kid, not really.  I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of polished plastic trash.  That top 40 shite, for both the suits and the musicians, is all about making money — about “making it — it’s not about making art.  The ongoing commercial success of these people and their barren dreams and hollow ambitions really upsets me.  Can you tell?

It doesn’t upset me so much that they are rewarded — I mean fuck them, I really don’t care if they live in a cardboard box or an island mansion, as long as I never have to interact with them —  it upsets me because in pursuit of personal profit they’re stripping something gorgeous from the world.  They’re stripping honest art from the casual lives of people; leaving them to suffer without its solace.  Life is hard enough.  Stop fucking doing that.

So I heard this Ben Howard guy, all polished and professional and what not, and I figured, hell, more studio-executive-approved-focus-group-pandering turd music.  And I shook my fist and got on with my life.  But for some reason I came back to this one.  Despite that initial reaction, I found myself coming back for that melody, that guitar, and I brought headphones this time and, oh.

Whoa.

Then I found myself sitting at my desk, trying to learn it, discovering it’s in this weird tuning — some sort of open D, tuned down a step, then brought back up with a capo.  I couldn’t get it to sound right, so I stopped.  Bah.  But then

I was in the kitchen late at night, cooking a bachelor’s midnight dinner, and found myself listening to it again.  Aw, man, it’s pretty, I thought, but it’s really sad.  And I was standing there all lonely, late at night with headphones on, listening to this guy sing and cooking these really somber scrambled eggs, when the guitar started to pick up.  And then suddenly I was dancing around the kitchen, smiling like an idiot, while my eggs sizzled in silence.  He really got me good, that guy.

So fuck Clear Channel, still, always and forever, but this isn’t about them, not really.  And it isn’t about Ben Howard, or making money, or “making it,” either.  It’s about expectations, and art, and lonely scrambled eggs.  It’s about being sad, and listening to a song.

“Tell me, who am I
darling, to you?”

Fade in, Fade out

We fade in reading books.  My parents were former hippies who had gone legit: a Jewish father who had just opened a small-town matrimonial law practice, and an Irish-Catholic mother who taught Math and Earth Science at an alternative education high school.  By the time I hit my mid-20s she had moved on to district administration, his practice had exploded, and they were making a very good living with money to spare.  But as a child, in that house out in the country, we lived mortgage payment to mortgage payment.  It was a comfortably middle-class American upbringing — a fundamentally happy childhood.  I was kind, the people around me were kind, and life consisted only of playing outside, video games, sports, school, and books.  Mostly I fade out reading books.

Christmases we spent with the Clarks, my mother’s parents in Parsippany, New Jersey.  If we were maybe middle to upper-middle class, they were very clearly middle to lower-middle.  My grandfather at this point was a full-blown alcoholic, glued to his recliner in the living room, while my grandmother, Alice, was, I dunno, some sort of saint.  This was the Catholic side, and though my mother is basically an atheist, the holidays were important to Grandma, so we always went down there in December when school was out.  First Hannukah in Ithaca, then Christmas in New Jersey.  I was the envy of all my single-religion friends.

Alice Clark, as I said, was some sort of saint.  She had lived through both World War II and a life-long marriage to a hyper-intelligent, underachieving alcoholic.  Tom Clark had been an aerial photographer, scouting forward positions on the western front, then turned so hard to bitter when he came home that it was impossible to see what had once made him happy.  My clearest memory of him is bare-foot, hippie-child Joshua trying to give him a hug, and him pushing me back and extending a hand.  Men shake.

Alice though, must have spent half her tiny pension on junk for me and my brother.  All the useless plastic crap that my parents refused to buy us somehow ended up under that Christmas tree.  A plastic bow and arrows with suction cups, which – so unlike the cartoons – fell only a few limp inches when fired; an elaborate black Lego castle that must have cost 100 bucks, and which my parents had dubbed: The Castle That Cost Too Much; that sort of thing.  She spoiled us rotten and loved us to pieces.  They lived in what was basically a one-story trailer, built up on a foundation, and chain-smoked incessantly when we weren’t around.  It wasn’t until years later that I identified the smell in that place.  I loved it there.

What I really loved, of course, was fading in on Christmas morning.  Every year, me and Alice, we played a game:  it was a race to see who could get up first.  Every year I woke up in my tiny Mighty-Mouse pajamas, in the blue-black morning, thinking this would be the year.  And every year I raced out into the living room and there she was, sitting calmly at the table, drinking her coffee with a quiet smile.  Not a smug smile, just a sort of, maybe next year kiddo, don’t give up smile.  Then we fade out waiting together, shaking presents, eating sugary crumb-buns from the local bakery, until around ten or eleven when my uncle finally came out of his room in their house, bleary-eyed and hung-over, and Christmas day could begin.

Then I fade in on the Christmas morning when things changed.  As always, I hopped out of bed in my pajamas, the whole family still asleep, and went racing out into the living room.  There, for the first time, all the lights were off; pre-dawn darkness ruled with equal indifference outside and in.  I learned something then in that dark room about getting what you want.  Unsure of what to do, I sat down in her seat at the table and crossed my legs like a grown-up.  What I know now is that Alice was still in bed because she had a malignant tumor growing inside of her.  She refused to admit it, never went to a doctor, and by next Christmas she was dead.

That same year both our golden retriever and our german shepherd had to be put down, and Grandpa checked out almost 6 months to the day after Grandma shocked us all and disappeared forever.  I fade back in later that year walking into my mom’s room and finding her crying.  She told me our cat was missing.  I said, well heck, let’s get some fliers together, go paper the neighborhood, get off our butts and go find Tigger!  She said oh, dear, no.

I sat down next to her, she put her arm around me, and she explained that Tigger wasn’t really missing.  She was old.  Cats sometimes have a way of going off alone to lie down with dignity.  I think we both cried, or maybe just she did.  The last time I know I cried, for sure, was at Alice Clark’s funeral.  I must’ve been 10 years old.  The next year I started having panic attacks during health class and passing out in the coat room.

There’s so much to feel, and taste, and smell, and do, all at once, it’s overwhelming.  Life is difficult for everyone, everywhere, and existence on this planet can get way, way worse than death.  But right now it’s here, just here, and in this moment it’s all sort of okay.  You’re here, I’m here; just stop for a minute and be here with me.  Notice all the little things hidden in this silence.  There’s so god damn much to experience before the darkness comes back for us.  Taste every flavor of ice cream, feel every emotion, laugh at the sheer absurd unlikelihood of any of this.  Laugh just to hear the sound.  Then let it go.  You gotta let it go.  Fade in, fade out.

smoke rings

Almost a year ago today, by some yoga-teacher-training miracle, I gave up nicotine.  Since then I’d bummed a smoke now and again when out and about, but my brain had firmly reversed course, closing down the synapses that had fired relentlessly for “pack-a-day-smoker” these past 8 years, and re-opening the cracked and broken avenues of childhood, the decrepit synaptic pathways of “non-smoker.”

It all began with a girl, of course, and a desire to share something with her.  In time the girl faded, but cigarettes?  Yeah, me and my monkey, we got along famously — if it were just a dirty habit we’d still be together.  Make no mistake, I won’t lie to you: I loved smoking.

I had no tattoos and no piercings; as Tom Waits once said, cigarettes were my “artist’s jewelry,” part of my identity, the self-destructive mask of how I saw myself as a poet.  More than that though, way, way beyond aesthetics or emulating old heroes, cigarettes became my teddy bear, an escape from crowded rooms, an ever-reliable steam-release valve for any and all anxiety.  Finding a quiet place to sit and smoke was my faithful friend through all the times that I was lonely.

It was some 5 years later that I finally knew, without a doubt, that smoking had moved beyond “inescapable problem” into “serious dysfunction.”

I was home alone in my rooftop shack in Taipei, having trouble breathing, probably from smoking my way through a chest cold.  In time that fear grew into a blossoming panic attack about emphysema and lung cancer and dying in a hospital bed with only my own idiot choices to blame.  I don’t know how to describe this kind of anxiety, except that it’s physical, and unbearable, and it demands more than anything an outlet.  The way I dealt with that unbearable anxiety, of course, was to go outside and smoke a cigarette.  I knew as I was doing it: this was fucked.  I was fucked.

So some 3 years later — it took 3 more years — the stars aligned and I found myself truly ready.  I moved into vaporizing, wrapping my own coils, twisting my own wicks, then another year tapering the nicotine down, then finally, on the first day of yoga school, I quit the beast altogether.  The last exhale was, for this humble addict, something of a miracle.

For the next year I was free.  It was cool, I could bum a ciggie now and again when I was out, no big deal, no tailspin, nothing.  My machinery was re-wired, I went running, sat through the credits of movies, regained my sense of smell, it was good.  Then last month, cold turkey off meds and returning to the world, I had a suddenly powerful urge to smoke a cigarette.

With no-one around to bum from, I drove to the store and bought a pack and smoked one.  I’d been on a successful kick of don’t make a thing of the occasional square, and it won’t become a thing.  But something felt immediately different this time, maybe it was having 19 of them there in that familiar little box, maybe my stars had fallen out of alignment, I don’t know.  Wrestling with myself the whole way home, I eventually threw it out the window as I passed a bar.

The next day, as I was moving into my new place, I bought another pack.  It just happened.  With a pack in the pocket it was like the last year had never existed, my brain tore the police tape right off the “smoker,” synapses and lo, they had been impeccably maintained: first thing in the morning, again with coffee, after a meal, last thing before bed, every hour on the hour and not even physically addicted yet.

There was more to this than just a re-lapse, (smoking starts as symptom, not cause) but I told myself I would finish this pack and that would be that.  The sooner I went back to the mental state of “non-smoker” the easier it would be to believe.  The new housemates had no idea that me sitting outside in the morning, shirtless, smoking cigarettes, was me in crisis.  They thought that was just me.  And I suppose, to some extent, it was.  I smoked that pack down in two days flat and that was that.

There is an intersection on the way to my apartment, where you turn right to go home, but if you go straight you’ll come to a 24-hour gas station.  The next evening I found myself sitting at this empty country intersection, engine idle, light green, listening very carefully to the sound of the turn signal:

Tik-tik, damnation said.

Tik-tik, I said to damnation.

Tik-tik.  Tik-tik.  Tik-tik.

droplet on a hot stone

The human brain takes in everything.  Everything.  If you spin around in a circle just looking and listening, your brain logs every bit of sight and sound; every single detail your eyes glaze over is absorbed with a computer’s meticulous accuracy.  We’re super good at processing this information, these sights and scents and sounds and sensations, and deciding on the 1% that is pertinent while pushing all the rest to the back of our brains.  It’s what allows us to function.  Our brains are cream-of-the-evolutionary-crop super-processors.

We don’t know much about sleep, except that without it we go — literally — insane.  The theory I’ve heard that makes the most intuitive sense is that when we dream, the unconscious brain processes all that raw information, the ceaseless, endless litany of sensory stimulation we spend our waking hours accumulating, then like a secretary in an office, it separates and categorizes all that input, filing what it needs in long term memory, clearing the cache of short term, and junking the rest.

We’re the evolutionary products of people who managed to trick themselves into believing this world fits into understandable categories; the children of the ones who got good at parsing this chaos into manageable chunks, pretending there was order and sanity and logic to any of it.  Pretending that the reality of our existence is somehow a comprehensible thing.  It isn’t.

We’re a pack of talking monkeys who leap-frogged our evolutionary capacity via language and technology to a point where we’re now sitting at our control panels pushing buttons, twisting knobs, pulling levers on things we only half understand.  Evolution will catch up, eventually, but right now?  If we were shown the hyper-dimensional reality of the universe, merely the actual parameters of the physical space we occupy, our silly heads would pop.  There are some things (cough, infinity) that we simply don’t have the capacity to understand.

If some god-creature came down to Earth and said, “Hey monkey, wanna know what’s really going on?  What all this really is?”

We would say, “Yeah, of course!”  Then just before the fatal hemorrhaging began and we dropped like a wet sponge, our last few sentences would go something like,

“The 4th dimension is time?  Time isn’t linear?  What does that say about free will?  How many dimensions are there, anyways?  Why are my eyes bleeding?  What’s an exponential infinity?”

Our life is vastly more absurd than we allow ourselves to understand, and that’s no accident.  The childless aunts and uncles on our ancestral tree who couldn’t ignore the base insanity of existence went crazy.  CrrRraAAzY.  Crazy.  You’re here today because your ancestors caught the gene for classification, for putting things in boxes, for dealing with the 1% of pertinent information that mattered for survival and letting the subconscious sort the rest.  Taking in all that stimulus at once is impossible, and if you try to fight the current and struggle upstream to the source?  Well, we’re bred for putting our heads in the sand.  Trust your evolution.  Stick it down there deep.

The universe is infinitely large and infinitely tiny.  I’d wager it’s safe to say we’re almost certainly part of something bigger, some ridiculous thing which you and I will never know and lack the capacity to even understand.  Any god-creature I conceive of is just a creature that exists in the universe in relation to us the way we exist in relation to ants.  An order of magnitude more complicated, with the power of life and death, but still basically middle management.

Oh, those poor ants, who think we speak ant, who think we hear prayers.

No, ultimately, you and me?  We’re just a couple of ignorant droplets, soaring through space for the tiniest sliver of time, destined soon to smash on a hot stone.  Safe money says a bit of steam, and that’s the end.  What larger source dripped us?  Who put the stone there?  Why are we falling at a constant 9.8m/s^2? Don’t be sad, friend, that we’ll never know — be glad instead that we got to be so beautiful.

“From the earth I rose… 

…in the earth I’ll decompose.”

girls

So wordpress has a stats page that, to my shame, I check obsessively.  At the bottom there is a little field for “search term” that almost always just says “unknown search term.” Every once in a while though, for whatever reason, something else will appear down there.  It’s not uncommon for that something to be along the lines of “fucking with handkerchief,” or “girl tied with handkerchief.”

Some non-zero number of people are sitting down with their pants around their ankles, reptile-lust-brain fully in command, searching for very specific bondage porn, and ending up on the bindle.  This pleases me very much.

A lot of people, a LOT of people, will or would react to that with, “ew.”  And yeah, sure, “ew.”  But there are only a few variations among human here:

1) you don’t masturbate;  2) you do masturbate, but not to pornography;  3) you masturbate, at least sometimes, to pornography, but you think handkerchief bondage porn is a bridge too far; or 4) some combination of the above, plus you’re embarrassed / guilty about it.  The connective tissue across all those options, excepting maybe the aesexual, is shame.

What bothers me about “ew” is our knee-jerk tendency to “otherize,” to point at someone else to prove we, at least, are not that.  Our need to create “in” and “out” groups is an evolutionary imperative, and it’s been the cause of some of our most callous collective activities.  Being “out,” to a group of humans, means they’ll torture you slowly to save their children.  Don’t be “out” come winter, says evolution.  I would ask, among consenting adults, what constitutes a bridge too far? Why must your answer be “ew?”

Why must you not be that?

Human sexuality is such a funny thing. Some of it’s rooted in nature, some of it’s nurtured in the darkness of our formative years, but after a certain point, it is what it is.  We like what we like.  And because sex is so vital to us, because it causes us to act so irrationally, it’s also our catnip, our exposed heel, susceptible to the machinery of institutional control, via the state, religion, madison avenue, dad’s shotgun, whatever.

Our endless capacity to live in thrall to lust is such a truism it’s become trope.  It’s no secret, this weakness.  Your sexuality, growing up in a self-aware society that thrives on conquering and control, is never quite your own.  We’re slaves to our sub-conscious, and to our sexuality most of all, and the key to those chains has always been our shame.

Making art, for me, is about honesty; it’s about harnessing truth to help us feel less alone.  This shaming and exclusion, this hurting alone in the dark, that’s my bread and butter. The sad irony of our alienation and shame is that it’s something we share.  I’m interested in the stuff we know but don’t talk about, the underwater caves and connected tunnels that exist below everyone’s surface, the impossible lights in the darkness we all see but can’t raise in polite company.

I spit on polite company.

Bring me your reptile-brains with their pants around their ankles, bring me your picked-on teenagers, your girls with daddy issues, bring me your fetishes and your orgasms and send them to the bindle, and let them wank if they wish while I play my guitar and sing a little White Stripes song about children walking to school.  The bindle delights in it all.

Fuck the shame of rich old men. Live your own weird life.  Come sadness we’re all the same monkey, hurting alone in the dark.  Open your window, toss out what you don’t need, let me in with the light.  It’s just life, darling.  Have a wank and a giggle.

In the end, it’s not so serious.

clark and michael

First, in fairness, came This is Spinal Tap.  That was the genre-breaking beginning of the “mockumentary,” the inflection point of genius-level innovation.  But before The Office exploded, and before Netflix web-streaming, there was Clark and Michael.  

The brainchild of pre-fame Michael Cera and Clark Duke, the show was delivered as a web-series before web-series were a thing, breaking the fourth wall by filming filming, by taking a meta-contextual step beyond the camera long before Jim was lamenting Dwight’s antics with a knowing wink at the screen (or Tim and Gareth, if you prefer — which I do).

Filled with deadpan, serious-sad humor, and flush with rising guest stars, this is a concept that was well, WELL ahead of its time.  It almost hurts the brain to consider the thought process of its writing and inception.  Michael Cera rode this to Arrested Development and beyond.  And Clark?  Well, Clark Duke had a harder road.

It’s become a trend these days for young intellectuals to trash J.D. Salinger, and bear with me here, but it grinds me up inside.  It’s very easy to disparage a Perfect Day for Bananafish when you’ve read a thousand shitty short-stories that end in suicide, all them — like it or not, know it or not — owing a debt to Salinger.  Same goes for Rushmore and The Graduate and The Royal Tenenbaums, they would never have existed without Holden Caulfield and his phonies and his kid sister Phoebe and her floppy hunting hat.

Having been raised on a generation of Salinger-influenced art, it’s now a hip trend to talk down his work, and I understand how it might seem uninspired in the wake of everything it inspired.  But that’s lunacy.  Salinger was a genius, an innovator, and while he may have been an asshole, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great.

Even if you prefer his imitators, he should get credit for his creation.  I’m not calling Clark and Michael J.D. Salinger — far, far from it — but innovation means something, something extraordinary, and if it’s your creation, well, credit is the only currency that matters.  For what it’s worth, this is me, giving them theirs.

“Despite the skepticism of their friends and family, Clark and Michael are convinced that they have a TV script that will make them stars.”

THE INTERNET presents:

knife

Weird shit is my shit, it’s my life.  Unusual things are what get me out of bed in the morning, it’s where I find most of my beauty.  But I don’t like weirdness for weirdness’ sake.  Years and years ago I watched the first season of LOST and loved it.  As an aspiring academic political philosopher, I was tickled by all their references to state of nature social contract theorists (i.e. Locke, Hume, Rousseau) and by the general edge of absurdity and darkness to the show.  It was weird for a purpose, and genuinely good art.

Eventually though, as the series progressed, it became apparent that the creators had no real vision for the show, no direction, but because of the nature of popular television, this thing had to grind on, and it had to grind on in a specific way: cliffhangers.  By shocking the audience, they got us to sit through commercials.  By shocking the audience, they garnered chatter between episodes, playing into the hands of deftly synced marketing campaigns, social media astro-turfing, all the whirring bits of the New York ad-industry hype machine.  By shocking the audience, they sold advertising.

It didn’t matter what the shocks were or what they were for, what mattered was that they were effective, and they were.  This is the formula for daytime soap operas — no meaningful part of this process is about making art.  The show had become an advertising delivery mechanism, where the advertisements and the back of my brain talked directly to each other, while the front of the brain was distracted with explosions, death, sex, laughter, all the shiny monkey shiny look shiny things.

Shocking me to sell advertising, once I’ve wised up to what you’re doing, is both alienating and upsetting.  It’s cheap psychology that’s painfully effective because in many ways we are still slaves to the evolutionary imperatives of our atavistic monkey brains.  I would argue free will itself is suspect, and all our choices are constrained, but that’s another conversation.  My point here is that we are eminently manipulable, and the incentives of the global capital system reward our manipulation.

It’s not that advertisers are evil, any more than corporations are evil, I have good friends who work in both areas.  These people by and large are doing only and exactly what the system they exist within values.  It’s like water flowing out to find the limits of its container, this shit was always going to happen.  It’s symptomatic of the real problem: a global morality based on pure profit.  More than anything else, it’s this morality, and the plausible deniability of all of our participation in it, that will one day ruin us all.

But though advertisers as a whole can’t be labeled evil, some of them certainly are, and the umbrella under which they operate definitely is.  Advertising is evil because it works on us in a way that’s beyond our choice, it preys on us without consent.  It’s about planting seeds and turning the science of psychology to its logical economic extreme; it’s effective despite us, and it feels like being used because that’s what it is.  Shiny thing, snapping fingers, get your wallet, snapping fingers, shiny thing.  It’s insulting because it works — it’s evil because it’s rape.  I want what I want to be what I want.  Is that so much to want?

I realize most people weren’t… personally insulted… by the artistic direction of the LOST franchise.  I realize this is part of why life is so difficult for me.  The reaction I’ll get from people who care about me when I get worked up about things like this is usually, yeah, okay — but is it worth it?  Are you happier for having spent your time this way?  I don’t know.  There’s certainly no societal validation in it, but I have to believe it’s worth it somehow.  You have to believe in something, right?

Weird is still one of my highest compliments, and taking risks is a huge part of making art.  The psychology of advertising exists in art as well, and the line is a blurry one sometimes.  A really sad side-aspect to all of this is that the best advertisers are incredibly smart, incredibly capable creatives.  They’re evil geniuses, who in another world would have been artists.  They’re the black knights, in their Manhattan towers and sushi dinners, to my white knight with no home and nothing.  We all make choices.  And in the end, when all is said and done, outcomes are irrelevant; what’s important is the motivation behind our risks.

This Grizzly Bear video has always bothered me.  It’s weird for the sake of being weird.  The song itself is ostensibly about domestic violence, but the video, though it has interesting moments and visuals, connects neither with the song, nor with itself.  It’s just sort of meandering psychedelia with a diffused hippie message about the mechanization of mankind.  I think.  But in the end, I forgive them, because this is not about selling me anything, it’s not about tricking my monkey brain to sit through commercials, or planting the seed of a product so when I go looking at a shelf I have that subtle prodding push to buy what’s familiar — no, this failure is about art.  And in the pursuit of beauty, unlike profit, there is nothing more noble than a weird, embarrassing failure.

“Can’t you feel the knife?”

a life of missing notes

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof in the end come despondency and madness.”

-William Wordsworth

When I was in 4th grade, this kid Greg was going to go sign up to learn the trumpet.  For whatever reason I said, hey, alright, I’ll do that.  So we both went down to the music room at Belle Sherman Elementary and got permission slips for our parents to sign — something about the financial liability of loaning a trumpet to a ten-year-old.  I went home that night, threw my backpack on the floor and I guess went and played video games or read a book or something.  Whatever it was, for whatever reason, that permission slip just never made it to my parents.  Greg’s did.  So now Greg can play the trumpet.  In my later, wiser years, that shit has always killed me. Continue reading “a life of missing notes”

all my friends

All My Friends will not make your coke habit more poetic.”

-LCD Soundsystem, Official Website

(bullshit it won’t).

That’s the thing about co-dependency, about anxiety and addiction, about living around the world: you’re always losing people, so many people, for so many reasons.  But music soothes, and what’s more, music records — old playlists are better than any journal.  When I hear a song that was on repeat during an emotionally resonant time, it takes me right back to not just the place and the people, but the feelings and sensations of being there; there’s an almost frightening immediacy to the emotions it evokes. Music is my diary.

We live in a magical time for this, a digital golden age unlike anything that preceded it, where music is always available, exactly as we want it, and never more than a moment away.  My parents were good hippies and listened to good music, truly they did, but their relationship to it was more along the lines of buying the new Cat Stevens album and getting everyone together to share a joint and listen.  There was a record-player plugged into the wall and there were crates of vinyl you carried about when you moved.  It was something you did at home, there was a physicality to it, a degree of separation between music and life.  It’s not the same.

My entire adult life has been set to a personalized soundtrack.  Each scene I score becomes cinematic, infused with art and meaning and metaphor and beauty, and I pick it all myself, and it’s perfect.  The memories aren’t just linked to songs, they’re linked to the right songs.  That being said, far too often I’ve found myself scoring lonely, despairing scenes.  It’s a powerful diary, all this music, and an excellent one, but the film I’m watching when I listen to it, for all its loveliness, all its emotional depth and richness, is ultimately very sad.

“…where are your friends tonight?”

golden chords // good house

Joshua “Deakin” Dibb, the notoriously expendable member of Animal Collective, left the band on a “hiatus” right before Merriweather Post Pavilion dropped and sent them into the global music stratosphere. As the three-man Animal Collective toured the globe and became internationally famous and wealthy, Deakin faded deeper and deeper into the mists of their history.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) he was never truly forgotten, because the internet was still busy reviling him.

sCpXN2P

During this hiatus he put together a Kickstarter asking for  $25,000 to go to Mali.  I’ll say from just a travel expense perspective, that’s an outrageous amount of money to send one person to Africa.  Ostensibly he was going to play a show with Gang Gang Dance, record an album, and produce some kind of visual poster/book to go along with it.  Gang Gang Dance dropped out, but Animal Collective fans still, sort of shockingly, donated enough to meet the goal.  So he took the money and went.

And then nothing.  Nothing happened for years, no music, no nothing, and the internet was not impressed.  His micro-fiscal backers left angry posts all over message boards, and a new breed of “crying Deakin” meme was born.  It got bad.

1auFOMp

During this time he would pop up periodically to reply to some of his most virulent critics, saying he was sorry, that he had actually given most of the money to an anti-slavery NGO in Mali, that he was trying to work on an album, that it just hadn’t happened.

Later he would talk in interviews about the crippling insecurity he struggled with, the weight of his doubts about what he had actually brought to Animal Collective, about his singing voice, about whether in the end he even had anything worth saying.  So this year, when his solo album finally came out, it created a small sensation.  And honestly?  I hated most of it.  The meat of this record is a painful, try-hard mess.

I’m moving into the realm of speculation and opinion here, so it’s important to back up and say first that I think Animal Collective was one of the most innovative, influential bands of this generation.  So much art, even great art, is the rehashing of old ideas, the use of old tropes in new ways.  It’s trope because it works, and there’s nothing wrong with that; this kind of art represents most of our cherished cultural heritage.  But real genius, that sporadic flash of true human miracle, is innovation.

Animal Collective, at least up through Feels and Strawberry Jam, and to a lesser extent Merriweather Post Pavilion, were truly doing things that hadn’t been done before.  It was fresh, and weird, and difficult, and exciting.  That being said, it was always sort of understood that the driving creative forces there were Avey Tare and Panda Bear (Dave Porter and Noah Lennox).  To echo poor Josh’s demons, it’s hard to tell what exactly Deakin was doing that was vital to this phenomenon.  I mean shit, they kept sort of telling him nicely not to come anymore.

PxTwBiY

But Animal Collective of late, both with Deakin and without, has lost its fire.  They’re still weird, but it’s more weird for weird’s sake, and it’s not new anymore.  The heart has gone out of their music, for me at least, along with the heat — their new songs are missing something important; they feel hollow.  As a band they’ve moved very far away from sitting on the floor singing “Covered in Frogs” to a room full of confused people.  So it was with surprised delight that I discovered, despite Sleep Cycle‘s rancid meat middle, that Deakin opened and closed his late little offering with bookends of pure blue sky.  It’s authentic early Animal Collective, and it’s bliss.

He may not have invented Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s irregular rhythmic and vocal methods, but he was there, and he helped, and he learned.  Those years on tour and in the studio were not for nothing.  Animal Collective after Merriweather Post Pavilion no longer sounds to me like the Animal Collective I fell in love with — but here, Deakin does.  His songs are excellent, and real, and full of simple, vulnerable heart.  Despite his public humiliation, his failures and paralyzing insecurity, he did have something to say, and he says it here softly to himself, and it’s all about redemption.

“You tell me what’s wrong…

…But what’s right?”

9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9

This internet of ours has become a brand new medium of expression, and as such it has opened up all sorts of new spaces, new folds and crevices in our brains where art, as it will, slipped in and sprouted.  Perhaps my favorite example of this (beyond the bindle itself of course) is the ongoing saga of the Interface Series.  From what I can tell, it’s a science-fiction/horror story, being told in installments by someone calling him/her/itself 9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9, primarily as comments on reddit links.  A small subset of the geek underworld is going bananas over it, and rightfully so.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say it starts with the narrative history of flesh interfaces, a recounting of pseudo-historical events told by some large number of distinct and unreliable narrators, each a fully formed character, each easily identifiable by their own individually realized voice.  The existence of this story as an unfolding mystery in the mossy places of the internet is not what makes it special, though it certainly is genius advertising, and speculation certainly fuels the small but growing hysteria about it.  What makes this work special is not the artist, or artists, or whatever the back-story ultimately turns out to be.  In the end, what makes it special is the writing.

Holy shit, it’s so good.  So good.  I say this with the authority of someone who has read both his share and yours of bad writing.  It’s cerebral, and philosophical, and littered with powerful symbolism and connective foreshadowing.  With an incredibly deft touch MHE wields the twin tools of voice and mind-melting creativity to coax the various disparate narrators and perspectives into slow focus as a single horrifying meta-story.

If this is just some shmoe off the internet, some lonely alcoholic basement-dweller and not an established author, then it’s someone who has been writing and failing and struggling and learning for a long time.  This is no first-try amateur, it’s the fully realized, written and re-written work of someone who has paid their dues and knows what they’re doing.  And what’s most exciting about it, is that it’s happening! This is a live thing, going on today, yesterday, tomorrow!  Every morning I check the user’s post history, and the subreddit that sprang up around it, to find the new narrative pieces.

Things are speeding up, story lines are coming together, and the whole horrible thing, this shambling meta-monster of creeping underground art, this work that began so innocuously as a few head-scratching non-sequitur ramblings about mass LSD dosing, flesh interfaces, and segmentation, is beginning to hit some sort of stride.  And the best part is it’s happening right now, it’s dynamic, and weird, and this sense of continuous syncopated growth gives it a buoyant vibrancy.  Well, that’s not true — the best part is the writing.  Holy shit, it’s so good.  So good.

So here, this is your invitation to a weird new thing that I’ve just spent five paragraphs trying and failing to explain as introduction.  Instead, I’ll do what I should have done from the start, which is simply hand you over to Mother Horse Eyes herself/himself/itself.  If you’re my sort of weird, and you enjoy it as much as I do, then consider this my gift to you.  For those who appreciate it, I see it truly as a gift, though I make no promises about your sleep tonight.  And if MHE isn’t your thing?  Well, then move along, you.

The slick lips of the magical space pussy beckon:

The Compiled Interface Narrative, begins at the beginning.  Start here.

/u/_9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES, the user/author/authors.  You’ll have to scroll way back to get to the first posts, but a good resource to stay current.

“I will always regard the first instance of a flesh interface to have occurred in Treblinka, 1944. The geologic disturbances, partial tunnels, so-called interdimensionality, and wealth of clearly segmented bodies leave no doubt of its existence. The Soviets have documented this.”

/u/_9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9, post 6, 4/21/2016    

i keep losing heart

During the summer between 10th and 11th grade, I was in training.  After playing junior varsity soccer for the first two years of high school, it was time to try out for the big leagues: the varsity squad.   The varsity coach came from a track background, so part of the tryouts was a mandatory run.  We had to do the 800m (twice around a standard track) in something like 2:20.  If you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t make the team, simple as that.

So I spent the summer going periodically for runs.  I would lace up my shoes, run down the road for a while, then run home.  I did this kind of a lot, I don’t know, I mean it felt like a lot.  I absolutely hate running.  When we had to run on the JV team, these long cross-country 5k type runs, I would hide behind a car with my friend the goalie after the first turn took us out of eyesight.  Then we’d just catch up as the group came thumping back around.  The junior varsity coach, Gilbert, was something of a space cadet.

Running for me, in all the sports I played, was never connected in any meaningful way to being successful in games, scoring more goals, whatever.  I’ll compete until I collapse, but when I run it’s just me and this little voice on a loop in my head: “this hurts, I can’t breathe, this hurts, I want to stop, let’s stop.”  It was something I was forced to do, all the god damn time, for soccer, hockey, baseball, lacrosse, every god damn thing, and mostly by men who were overweight balding alcoholics, men who enjoyed yelling like drill sergeants, men whose own glory days had ended with their proms.  Maybe that’s not fair.  The point is I hated it.  I still hate it.

That summer wound down, and eventually it became the week before tryouts.  An old friend of mine, a year older, happened to be at the track one day when I showed up to run.  He’d made the leap to the varsity squad last year and knew the deal, so he offered to time me.  As I came around the home stretch, he held up the stop-watch and started yelling out encouragement, and I found myself running like I’d never run before, rounding the final corner, gulping breaths like a drowning man.  When I crossed the finish line I crashed down and collapsed, helpless, on the red rubberized track.  From my wheezing vantage point on my back, unable to speak, the look in his eyes was worrying.  When I caught my breath and managed to ask, he told me, tactfully, that I wasn’t even close.

A week later, at tryouts, I tried.  Really I did, but what I had learned that day was that this run required basically sprinting the entire 800 meters.  To my genuine surprise, the jogging I’d been doing all summer had been woefully inadequate.  Given my apparently lackluster training routine, I simply wasn’t physically capable of it — without a time machine, it wasn’t going to happen.  So I  tried, and I failed, and I packed up my things, and I went home.  For the last two years of school I played tennis.  The tennis coach didn’t give a shit about running.

I say this a lot, and I’m sure my friends and family think I’m being sort of a dickhead every time, but I really believe it: there is metaphor in everything.  It’s the great gift I’ve taken from writing, a wisdom that extends beyond poetry, the idea that there is connection and meaning and symbolism everywhere, not just in art, but in life.  Awareness cuts both ways though, and metaphor doesn’t discriminate between happy or sad, good or bad; these are human concepts.  Metaphors are just connections, lines between two points. This one really haunts me.

I think I’m trying.  I really do, and I find this life incredibly difficult, every day is a struggle inside myself.  And yet for all that striving, there’s precious little to show.  I’m 31 years old, living in an un-insulated room, with no career, a handful of crumpled dollar bills, and a pile of little arts that I find beautiful but nobody sees.  When I reflect on that honestly, there is a part of my brain, a part that I hate, that wonders:

am I just… jogging?  

big mistake

The two ends of the bell curve, the perfect human and the worst of us, can have each other.  I’m not interested in either of them, except insofar as if the perfect human were ever born, perhaps it would do something about the worst of us.  The evil ones who rule the earth can go fuck themselves, I’m doing my best to opt out of their world entirely, and the perfect human?  Well, it would be an interesting phenomenon, but the philosopher king wouldn’t be one of us at all.

A perfect human is no human, our tragedy is our beauty is our definition.  What makes life worth living for me is to be among the ones who scuffle in the dark, always stubbing our toes, crashing to the floor, destroying what we struggle to build.  I’m here for the ones who are doomed and flawed and know it and try anyways.  A perfect person does nothing for me.  I’m in love with the cracked ones who care.

purple rain

Ah, geez.  Well there are a million obituaries popping up all over the internet, and it would be a waste of time for me to throw my hat into that ring.  So I’ll talk instead about the time Prince came to visit me in hell.  Let’s back up for a minute and start this story at the beginning: with karaoke as an institution in Taiwan.  It’s a big god damn deal.   There are these massive skyscrapers that dominate the commercial districts of Taipei, each one basically a luxury hotel, all of them devoted exclusively to karaoke.  It’s a really big god damn deal.

The American model of getting drunk and embarrassing yourself on stage in a public place, a model where you expect and basically invite ridicule, has no place here.  This is much smaller, and much more serious.  You rent these hotel-room-sized spaces, replete with couches and menus, then order up food and drink.  It’s intimate, and straight-faced, and there’s no giggling at singers allowed.  I had a friend who would sometimes rent a room and do karaoke by herself when she felt sad — that was actually the sanest thing about her (the final straw was her mailing, physically mailing, an envelope to my parents in the US with pictures and a note she had written pretending to be me… but, I digress).

So anyways, you’re in this room, and the music is terrible.  I cannot stress this enough.  Except for an exceedingly tiny, exceedingly awesome bohemian subculture, the sound-track to modern Taiwan is big-hair-blowing pop stars beating their chests and professing their homogeneously generic love/lost love.  It’s just, gag.  I know, commercial music is bad everywhere, and cultural relativity, etc… but I’m sorry, straw man who is judging my judging, you didn’t have to sit through it.  I did.  So I would sequester myself in the elbow of the L-shaped couches with a bucket of beer and a bottle of whiskey, and get absolutely smashed in an attempt to blunt the assault of super-serious banality, at which I wasn’t even allowed to poke fun.  It was relentlessly awful.

But before all of that, before getting wasted and before the night devolved into whatever blurry mistake those sweaty rooms became for a blackout drunk, I made sure to grab the booklet and leaf through to the small section of English songs.  Most of these, of course, were abysmal boy-band shit as well, but, without fail and for whatever reason, they always had Purple Rain.  And so it went to the back of the queue, behind all the Chinese pop songs, sorted and forgotten.

At that point in my life, I was only going out to escape the hellscape inside my head.  I was there because I couldn’t stand the destructive, spiraling, heartbroken darkness I was living in alone anymore, and so I sat, and tried not to visibly hate everything, and drank.  Hours later, as the room was starting to dim and smear, the sound of that purple guitar rolled from the speakers like a revelation.  Mid-conversation I lurched across the couch, over an irrelevant number of unfortunate people, and grabbed the microphone.

For a kid drowning in the quicksand of written-by-committee, soul-less, art-less, commercial garbage, drowning himself in darkness and demons and dead dreams, Prince appeared as a pair of purple wings.  This raw virtuoso, who played every instrument, who sang with such an infectious passion you couldn’t help but feel, man, when that guitar came on… Well, like I said, I was very drunk — It got emotional.  Whatever else happens, whatever you’ve had to endure, there are no truly terrible nights in which you’ve sung the entirety of Purple Rain.  That’s just fact.

So rest easy, sweet The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.  Rest easy you gender-bending, multi-instrumental, sex-symbol, rock-god prodigy.  I’ll always remember you as the sultry purple angel in my hell.

“I never meant to cause you any sorrow…”

[ed: they keep deleting the video — find it here if the embed is gone.]

the good times are killing me

When you really get down to it, most musicians are lazy writers.  Music can get by on the strength of a funky baseline, and falls prey very easily to the positive feedback sickness of “good enough.”  That’s fine for a certain sub-set of listener (i.e. the top-40-consuming public) but I demand more, because I know if you push there is more.  As someone who has spent a lot of time writing, most lyrics read to me like shitty first drafts.  There’s potential in there, but if you were at a bar and someone wrote the words to any Red Hot Chili Peppers song on a napkin, handed it to you and said it was a poem they wrote, you would struggle not to laugh at them.  It’s a bunch of stream of consciousness, “good enough,” first draft, you-figure-it-out garbage.

When you take a step back, this isn’t that surprising — writing and music are two separate mountains, each requiring a lifetime of struggle to climb.  But the only songs for me are the ones that go beyond the good into great, and lyrics are always the final push that gets them there.  Composing melodies and writing poetry are two very different, very difficult things; Isaac Brock puts the lie to the idea that you can’t do both.  He’s a musician and a writer, and sings lead with a crazy lisp.  He is awesome.  Here’s a guy, I guarantee, who writes a second draft.

“Jaws clenched tight we talked all night oh but what the hell did we say?”

love and mercy

Speaking of Brian Wilson, the folks behind the television adaptation of The Walking Dead commissioned a cover of his song, “Love and Mercy,” specially for an episode of the show.  This is the same brain-trust that opened recently on a tribute to David Lynch’s ear-in-the-grass scene from Blue Velvet, an homage so obvious it had me giggling incredulously in my seat.  I began the series with Robert Kirkman’s jaw-dropping graphic novels, and they were so damn good (seriously, so damn good), that I didn’t really want to watch a television adaptation — I figured it would just be cheap/effective tension tricks and cliffhangers to sell advertising.  It’s a rare thing, and don’t tell anyone I told you this, but every once in a while, I am in fact, wrong.

The acting, the writing, the loving but not slavish handling of the source material, all of it is top, top notch.  More than anything, they understood the thesis of the series, which is the thesis of all zombie movies stretching back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: nothing actually changes in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, it’s just that death has now been given form.  For us pampered, bovine Americans, droning the days away in whatever combination of work and escapist fantasy we prefer, the specter of our own mortality is this impossible thing.  We lock that awful knowledge in a room, refuse to acknowledge we’ve done so, then pretend it doesn’t exist.  Is it any wonder then, that when it bursts out, as it must, we are woefully unprepared to face it?

Death in a zombie apocalypse is just another part of life, the same way it was for our ancestors, the same way it is for people in less developed parts of the world.  It’s always there, and every day could be the day we slip and it snatches us down.  Done correctly, zombies are nothing more than shambling, grotesque, excellently articulated metaphors.  They’re the doom that stumbles along next to us, clutching vainly at our ankles; the clumsy, absurd half-wit, that despite all our best efforts, will someday eat us alive.  It’s always there, always waiting, but better that it’s part of the scenery, moaning softly where we can see it, than forgotten in the closet, pawing at an unlocked door.  Death comes for us all in the end, sure as shit, but it’s not necromancy and it’s not evil, it’s just a part of life — and life, my friend, is beautiful.

“So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight…”

shining force

For most of my childhood, the three main activities were reading, sports, and video games.  In the eyes of my parents, one of those things was awesome, one was healthy, and one was an embarrassing waste of time.  What could I say?  I liked what I liked, and what I really, really liked were the cutting-edge-for-their-time, 8-bit translated Japanese RPG’s.

I picked up Shining Force randomly at the local VHS rental spot (before Blockbuster, just somebody’s personal rental business, remember those?) when I was maybe 8 or 10 years old.  It was a revelation. I kept renting and returning and renting and returning this game, praying each time that my save file would still be on the Sega Genesis cartridge.  Even as an adult, in terms of story and world-building and character development, in terms of sheer inventiveness, I’ve seen it surpassed only once, and that was by its incredible sequel.  These games were big, and dark, and complex, with every bit as much depth as a grand fantasy novel, and what’s more, they were interactive.  The memory of those characters, that experience, is emotionally resonant to a degree it’s hard to explain.  They were important to me.

Every art form has something it can do that others can’t, and for video games it’s the personal involvement you feel when a story runs directly through you.  It engages the imagination a thousand times more than passively watching television.  And sure, times have changed, and continue to change, as new generations grow up with interactive storytelling as a matter of course.  It’s becoming normal.  These few paragraphs already are sort of a throwback to a time they won’t understand.  But we lived through the beginning, and it was weird, and nerdy, and the generation that raised us had been raised on baseball, and bicycles, and neighborhood-wide games of hide-and-seek.  They had no idea how to classify this phenomenon except maybe as, “dungeons and dragons shit.”

To this day I still carry a sort of embarrassment for playing video games, a reflexive sense of, “you’re wasting your life inside, playing on that thing,” that was shamed into us early and often; and sure, everything of course in moderation.  But there is also a part of me that knows and always knew the truth: it isn’t that video games are changing, it’s that  perception is finally catching up to reality.  This is, and always has been, an artistic medium.  All those little unlined faces, sitting cross-legged in the glow of the television, unfolding a living adventure to Motoaki Takenouchi’s piano compositions — They knew it was beautiful.  It didn’t matter if anyone else understood.  There’s a moral in there, somewhere, about giving a fuck what other people think.

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