My neighbors are mythical creatures.

I finally got to see Willow Creek the other day. Normally I hate found footage and fake documentary movies with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, but I made an exception here. Also, I’ve recently enjoyed both Creep and The Conspiracy, so maybe my stance is changing, like how suddenly in my early twenties asparagus wasn’t my archnemesis anymore. I’d been meaning to watch Willow Creek since it came out, though, because it was filmed here where I live. I could take you to almost every spot in the movie. I wouldn’t, but I could. There are some locals in it, which is cool. And it’s directed by Bobcat Goldthwait who has done some outstanding work lately (World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America, and a bunch of episodes of Maron). They even did the west coast premiere in Arcata instead of Los Angeles, which I thought was a really classy move.

So, if you’re unfamiliar, a very brief rundown: a somewhat doofy dudebro and his very accommodating girlfriend drive up from somewhere in southern California to north Humboldt because he is a Bigfoot enthusiast and this is the place to try to spot the beast (although I’ve heard that there are actually more sightings in Canada, they’re just more spread out). They putz around the area, filming as they go. I couldn’t really tell if they were legit trying to make a documentary or just aggressively filming their adventure. Anyway, after talking to Steve at Bigfoot Books (who is just as awesome and weird as he is in the movie, and an expert in “Sasquatchanalia”), they head out to Bluff Creek where the famous Patterson film was shot. You know the one. And that’s when shit goes all Blair Witch, with lots of screaming mountain people and getting lost in the woods and being scared in tents.

Now, were we in the real world and not a horror movie, the explanation of what happened to them is probably pretty simple. I want you to click on this link and not ask any further questions.

Otherwise, hey, maybe it was Bigfoot. I don’t think Bigfoot would be an asshole, though. Like everyone else up here, I like to think he’d be pretty chill as long as you stay out of his space. Seems like a quiet homebody type. I don’t know if I really believe in Bigfoot. I can’t think of a reason not to. Sure, they’ve never found any remains, but they don’t find remains of much of anything in these woods. The bears and other toothsome fauna would take care of a body with a quickness. Seriously, I can’t even put chicken bones in my trash. A whole dead thing? Doesn’t stand a chance.

Me and my personal Tyler Durden at the Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek. Oh, yes, that's a real place.

Me and my personal Tyler Durden at the Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek. Oh, yes, that’s a real place.

All the Native American tribes in these parts talk about Bigfoot like they talk about the weather, it’s just a given fact of life. Just because no one can find one right this second doesn’t mean they were never here in large numbers. The same as wolves and moose and fucking brontosauruses, right? They’ve also got some pretty great stories about river monsters. Can’t you just see it? Bigfoot and the Kraken, hanging out, maybe munching on some salmon, kicking it in the sun on a beautiful afternoon? Man, that makes me happy.

Um, anyway. Moving on.

I don’t see why skeptics have to shit on people who believe in these sorts of silly things. What harm does it do you if someone believes in Bigfoot or ghosts or fairies? Absolutely none, as far as I can see. (And what you really need to focus on is the slow erosion of the First Amendment and America becoming an oligarchic theocracy because that’s where belief actually is getting really dangerous – but that’s a conversation for another time.) Personally, I suffer from this horrible condition where my mind is way too open. I don’t believe in a lot of that oogy boogy stuff, but I definitely don’t have the evidence to categorically say it’s not real. That’s not my job, and weird shit does happen all the time. “Impossible” is a word I try to avoid. I just don’t think we’ve figured a lot of stuff out yet.

Take ghosts, for example. When I was a kid, I was into spooky stuff, like a lot of kids. Anything with monsters or vampires or bumps in the night, I loved it. Still do. But ghosts were my jam. I wrote ghost stories, read everything I could about sightings and hauntings, watched Ghostbusters about fifty thousand times. I even wanted to study parapsychology when I grew up. Basically, when I was about seven I wanted to be Egon Spengler (may he rest in peace). Anyway, point is, I was also really scared of ghosts (plasmophobic – such a great word). I still get the creeps when I think about the thing that scared me the most: looking up to see fingers curling around a doorframe when I’m the only person in the house. They’re long, white, sort of Nosferatu fingers? Bluh. I had that nightmare until college, you guys. But now that I don’t believe in them anymore, I think what I was scared of was seeing something that wasn’t supposed to be there, that couldn’t be there. That makes sense to me, and seems like a reasonable instinct. That prickle up the back of your neck when you think someone’s behind you? I know there’s a word for that. Pretty useful, right? Thanks, evolution.

And now that I’m not afraid of them, I think all the different things that can make people think there are ghosts are so damn cool. Sounds and vibrations that our ears can’t register, changes in blood pressure, misunderstanding the quirks of old buildings, all sorts of psychological phenomena (like the micro movements that move ouija board planchettes). Brains are fucking crazy. On the other hand, now I have a lot more time and energy to be scared of things I know are real. Like serial killers. And cancer. So, there’s that. Barring the discovery that they’re some sort of interdimensional intrusion that our physics doesn’t grasp yet, I don’t really have room in my life for believing in ghosts.

But I can see Bigfoot being or having been real. More in line with a giant squid than, say, the Loch Ness Monster (although Loch Ness is creepy as fuck, even birds fly around rather than over it and it’s super eerie). There are tons of weird and/or elusive animals, and even ones that we thought were extinct until one of them wandered up on some humans one day. Bigfoot isn’t, to me, out of the realm of possibility. So why do we talk about his existence like we talk about ghosts or vampires? Put his believers in the same category of whackadoo? What is it about this one animal that stirs our interest and our ire so much? More than Nessie or the giant squid/Kraken or el chupacabra? I think it’s because he looks like us. We can’t stand to think of one of our relatives living out in the forest, in our own country, unstudied and undissected. It would be like discovering that gorillas are real by finding one in the vast wastelands of Detroit. The gall of that ape!

Evolutionists want Bigfoot to be the missing link (he’s probably not). Hippies want him to be peaceful and wise and an example to humanity of how to live in harmony with nature (again, probably not, but there are worse role models to hope for). Conspiracy theorists and cryptozoology enthusiasts just want an answer. I get that. But I’m happy to not know, too. I’m sure if Bigfoot or any of his kin (yeti, wendigo, mothman, wookiee, etc) are out there, they’re pretty good at avoiding us by now, and I’m not really gunning to tip the balance of that relationship. And I’m damn sure not going to go crashing through the woods of the Pacific Northwest like an idiot looking for him. That’s how people get shot. So long as Bigfoot doesn’t scare my dogs and stays out of my garden, we can totally be neighbors.

Even educated fleas do it…

I want to pre-apologize for this blog. I’ve been working on it for a week and it got a bit out of hand. It’s a big, messy issue that does not lend itself easily to my personal brand of deconstruction and answerless questions. Also, fair warning, I am absolutely not going to be objective. I ain’t even going to try. So, scatterbrained rant, ahoy!

Ahoy?

Well, whatever. Moving on.

Last week’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was about sex education in America. If you haven’t seen it, you should (a lot of what I’m going to say kind of relies on your having watched it – and I need a choir to preach to here, friends, why don’t you ever click on the things?). First, I want to applaud Oliver and the writers for the educational video bit at the end. Genius. I hope people got that Mullally/Offerman/banana joke. I really do. Second, I kind of wish Oliver had chimed in even for just a second about what his sex ed class was like at an English prep school. I’d love to know, and it would have been somewhat relevant. Damn old journalistic detachment getting in the way of comedy.

I suppose my biggest question about the sex ed situation is: what are we so scared of? Why are we terrified to talk about something that we talk about all the time? What makes jokes and innuendo perfectly acceptable, but frank, open discussion taboo? I don’t understand what the roadblock is. Not that I consider myself overtly sexual. I mean, I make a decent dick joke from time to time, but I don’t sit around yacking about my bits in any Carrie Bradshaw kind of way. Last fall I said something to my buddy Kiwi about not being a particularly sexual person. She laughed in my face and said she thinks I’m very sexual because I’m comfortable with my body and with having an adult conversation about sex. I guess the real disconnect there is that I don’t think of myself as “sexy,” whatever that stupid word means (and please, seriously, I am absolutely not fishing for compliments here – keep it to yourself). It’s a weird kind of bias, I suppose, that I had always assumed that “sexual” stems from “sexy” and had thought of myself as an outside observer of that phenomenon. But does having a reasonable and honest conversation about sex make me seem sexual? Or just like a grownup human? I don’t know. I think this is one of those topics where language might fail me.

Anyway, not having a real discussion and relegating the subject strictly to innuendo and other dark arts of the unspoken word doesn’t do anyone any good. And I think that mindset is especially harmful to children. The more you talk about something without talking about it, the more “you don’t need to know” or “I’ll tell you later” that they hear, the more they want to know what the big deal is. Kids love a secret, don’t they? As soon as those brain chemicals and hormones start to change and their little bodies start getting weird, they should know what’s going on so they can deal with it. So they’re not afraid of it. I honestly can’t fathom why anyone in their right mind thinks that’s a bad idea. Is it like how mechanics won’t explain what’s wrong with my car so they can charge me more for fiddling with things I don’t understand? Maybe a little. If we can turn ignorance and curiosity into shame and fear, isn’t that a form of control over a vulnerable population? And it’s not just the grownups in their immediate vicinity. It’s every song, every tv show, every movie, every overheard conversation at the grocery store. My cousin recently told me that her young daughters (I forget their ages, maybe seven and ten? Ish?) were playing with their Barbies and had a whole elaborate scenario about them getting drunk and waking up “with each others’ boyfriends in their mouths.” What? That sounds like a sitcom script to me. A bit gross and lacking in some degree of technical understanding, but it could totally be on any number of dumb comedy shows. Point is, if you’re not talking to your kids about sex (or the kids in your life, I know we’re not all raised by parents), and you don’t want the school talking to your kids about it, they’re going to start out with some bad information, just sponging bullshit out of the ether. Like they do.

That’s just little kids, though. Teenagers are who really scare us as a culture, I think, and rightly so. Adult bodies with child brains, zero experience points, and almost no impulse control. They’re weird hybrid, mutant things, teenagers. Terrifying. And look, I don’t mean to shatter anyone’s delusions here or step on your personal experiences, but by and large, on average, teenagers are going to have sex. It’s been happening since the dawn of time. Giving them information they need to do it safely and stay healthy is so, so important. To say that sex education class makes young people want to have sex is like saying that explaining gravity makes people want to jump on trampolines. We want to jump on trampolines because it’s hella fun, but knowing how gravity works might make us think for half a second before we go and try to jump off a roof, yeah? This analogy is falling apart. You know what I mean. Teenagers want to have sex for any and every reason. A strong breeze makes teenagers want to have sex. Teaching them how to be safe and responsible is not going to make them notice that sex exists. They know.

Which is, of course, not to say that we should tell them to go around screwing their little unformed brains out. But we could definitely do with less “your body is telling you to do evil things,” I think. Where does that even come from? Teaching abstinence has its place. It’s the only foolproof way to prevent both pregnancy and disease, sure, but that’s not the only thing to recommend it. You want to tell young people to wait until they’re married or in a committed relationship to have sex? That’s great. I support that. But not because of purity or ownership or that “why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” thing (which always seemed really transactional and gross to me). No, I think it’s a good thing to teach only because one should be absolutely comfortable with someone during sex, when you and they are at their most vulnerable. Especially at the beginning, when you’re naked and defenseless and easily embarrassed by all the unexpected fluids and noises and muscle contractions you’ve never had before. It’s a lot like taking LSD. You should only ever trip or have sex with people who you trust to see you at your weirdest. Life advice from Nessa, folks. Just dropping some science on you.

However, to say that abstinence until marriage is the only way to live your life is a little absurd. It presumes that marriage is everyone’s goal, first of all. Secondly, I wonder how many dumb teens have gotten married just to get laid? Seems silly. How is it that signing a piece of paper suddenly makes sex sacred? Considering that our divorce rate is so high? That doesn’t even make sense. Maybe if we taught them to understand and respect, rather than subdue and ignore and even fear, those perfectly natural inclinations, we wouldn’t have this weird sociocultural idea that sex is the end-all be-all of human experience. I understand there’s some instinctual thing about replicating our DNA, sure, fine, but it is goddamn embarrassing to me that so many people blindly assume that the endless and relentless pursuit of nothing more than sticking your dick in a wet hole is the primary motivation of my culture and my species. That’s how we end up with Charles Manson and Elliot Rogers and Roosh Vorek, you guys. It’s pretty fucked up.

And while I don’t want to go off on yet another tiresome rant about gender politics (I really don’t, it’s exhausting), I feel like there’s an undue burden put on girls in the abstinence-only sex ed structure. There’s the idea that consent is solely their problem, that they’re some sort of gatekeeper. That is some bullshit. Consent is everyone’s right and responsibility, and that should be the first thing taught in sex ed. But I kind of see that as a given and a basic requirement for being a good citizen of the world. No, what really bugs me is that tape/sneakers/chewing gum comparison. The problem with those analogies is not just that they imply “uncleanliness” or whatever, but the inherent implication is “who will want you?”. As though being wanted is our highest measure of value. Physically speaking, teenagers have enough weird body shit going on to worry about. And psychologically, it puts their merit outside of themselves and cedes it to someone else’s standards. Fuck that. This thing about “purity” bothers me. The virgin bride is still the ideal, apparently, in some people’s minds. But men have the opposite problem. If they decide to abstain for any reason and talk about it out loud (presumably the exceptions being in an abstinence-based sex ed discussion or in church), they’re seen as weak or damaged or not manly or, worst of all, “girly,” a “pussy.” Man sex equals power, while woman sex equals filth, but in a culture that prizes heteronormative sexual relationships, one would think this would be more in balance. That’s some bad logic, ‘Muricuh. The fact is that sex existed long before the concept of sacredness. The idea that sex is sacred is simply beyond me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big deal and it’s important, but to talk about it like it’s a gift, to tell someone who’s done it outside of anyone’s parameters but their own that they’re dirty or used up, to reinforce hypocritical standards that originated in Medieval European aristocratic society, seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? It’s not some holy act. It’s biology.

Furthermore, teaching abstinence until marriage does not mean we shouldn’t also teach other forms of birth control. It baffles me that people still think that getting married turns you into some magical fuckbunny who just wants to pop out cabbages until your junk dries up and then you die. If you honestly think that giving birth is the only reason sex exists, you are doing it wrong, my friends (and you should probably take a little look at the way you think about women in general). Even married folks need to know that and how birth control works. Maybe they’re waiting until they’re ready to have kids, or maybe they’ve had all the kids they want and they’re done now, or maybe they want to wait a while between kids, whatever. Teaching young people about birth control is just the responsible thing to do as adults, parents, educators, role models. But not with fear. You can’t say “every life is a miracle,” but at the same time use pregnancy as a scare tactic. Get your story straight, folks. And if you’re so virulently pro-life that you think birth control is as serious a sin, you really need to read up on some science. Birth control prevents abortion. Fact. Preach contraception, throw out free condoms from the fucking rooftops, and explain masturbation (to both sexes). The abortion rate will go down. We should really be on the same side on this one, pro-lifers. No one who is pro-choice is pro-abortion. I don’t think that gets said enough.

As much as we don’t like to think of ourselves as mammals since we stepped out of the food chain, we are. We’re monkeys in shoes. Apes, sorry. Apes in shoes. And why would we consider it anything but science? We teach science in schools because that’s what schools are for, right? Learning how all the things work. Things like sperm and eggs and penises and vaginas (“vaginae,” actually – fun grammar fact). We should understand their behavior before we try to approach them in their natural habitats. Simple as that. All the cultural stuff can come later. If we teach kids about sex in an honest, healthy way, we will naturally, by extension, mitigate some of the social and psychological pressure that they feel. Sex is weird and its repercussions can be complicated. But it is everywhere. Their culture and their bodies are positively screaming at them all day, every day. Just like driving or drugs or friendships, we should teach them about the bad and the good and trust them to make the choices that are right for them. That might include mistakes. Because they’re not going to be people someday. They’re already people. Remove the stigma and the fear and maybe hand them some responsibility. I think we think too little of our youth in general, really. Give them the information and let them use it properly, rather than sending them out into the world, blind and groping at the edges of humanity without a roadmap. Kids are absolutely going to do stupid shit because, for the most part, stupid shit feels good. The very least – the very, very least – we can do is make sure they do stupid shit with a condom on, just like a helmet or a seatbelt. Maybe then we can get on with the business of evolving, unencumbered and without these distractions. We have more important shit to do.

That sweet, sweet dopamine.

This Monday was my birthday. I’m not one of those ladies who’s freaked out by aging. I like being in my thirties. So far, so good, and a lot better than my twenties, for sure. I know myself better now, and am more willing both to stand up for what I think I think and to change my mind. Point is, my birthday doesn’t make me feel icky because I’m older, any more than any of the other things that constantly remind me that I’m sliding inevitably toward death. No, birthdays are gross for me in the same way I think New Year’s Day is for a lot of people – an arbitrary demarcation of time that we imbue with some regenerative power. Turning a page, a new leaf, a fresh start. And then I get all existential crisis-y and become insufferable for a minute.

For the past couple of years I’ve asked my friends and family to please not get me any gifts, but instead go and do something nice for someone and tell me about it. I got a great collection of good deed stories this year, you guys are awesome. My mom paid the toll for the car behind her on the turnpike. My buddy bought jump ropes for a school in Costa Rica that needed gym equipment (because I like jump ropes). Another friend and her son went through all his old toys and donated seven (seven!) trash bags of usable things to the shelter in our hometown. But I think my favorite is from my friend Will who owns Hero Hunter Comics in Asheville. A very shy older lady who is not internet savvy came into the store and asked him if he knew anything about cosplay, because she wants to make a Winter Soldier costume and wear it to Comic-Con. So adorable! He knows nothing about cosplay but agreed to help her figure it out. She was so skittish he really thought she’d run away in the middle of their conversation, but by the end she was telling him how she’d been going to the gym for this and showed off her muscles. Good on you, my friend, for helping a scared fan in need.

And good on that lady for asking for help. I don’t know anything about cosplay, either, in any practical way, but I do know that it draws attention. Seems like it would just be easier to go to a convention in invisible mode, in the jeans and a t-shirt nerd uniform, and remain unnoticed. Cosplay is a big step for a lot of fans with social anxiety stuff, particularly in that crazy Comic-Con setting where costumes of the same character are constantly being compared to each other. In theory it should be a safe space, but scrutiny can be hard if you’re shy.

But for the record, if I ever make it to Comic-Con, I’m cosplaying as Patrick Rothfuss. I don’t think he’ll mind, but I wonder how many people will think I’m just Hagrid in a Serenity shirt.

Anyway, good deeds. They come in all shapes and sizes. I think I started asking folks to do nice things for my birthday because I’m stuck up here on the mountain and don’t see many humans myself. I’ve been screwed over by geography in a lot of ways. I do want to help people, but I’m not sure that I know how. I have, like, maybe two skills, outside of being physically healthy and able to do manual labor. And while the thought of getting super buff building houses for the homeless is appealing, that sort of satisfaction would probably be lacking in intellectual engagement. Gotta feed the old brain, as well, ideally.

Then I say shit like that and I feel selfish. “Whine, whine, whine, what do I get out of helping people?” What an asshole. The argument could be made (and has been, actually) that all altruism is inherently selfish. We get a dopamine rush out of it, strangely-wired creatures that we are, and that’s what we crave. The “goodness of your heart”? Dopamine. Which is not to say that it doesn’t count or anything, obviously, but it makes us happy to make people happy. It’s beyond our control. The human condition. We’re dopamine junkies, all of us. Use your brain chemistry for good and not for evil, is the lesson here, I guess.

While it makes me happy – so, so happy – that the people I love did good things on my behalf, honestly it’s got me a little rattled. I have a Plan, and I really love my Plan. I see it all in my head, me in my dumb little bookstore, playing records, suggesting excellent scifi to the masses. That picture makes me smile every time. But here’s the problem: where’s the room in the Plan for helping anyone? Handing out good books aside? The other part of the Plan includes using the bookstore as a jumping-off point for things like literacy programs and writing tutoring, so why don’t I just do those things? Skip the part where I make money and get to do the thing I love and just get right to the helping people? Wouldn’t that be better, in the long run? Should I, with my in-my-thirties flexibility of principle, give up on the Plan? Rolling Planless makes me all kinds of squickity. But maybe it would be good not to have this tunnel vision. I don’t even know. I’m on shaky ground. Everything is weird. Stupid birthday.

“We are all just prisoners here, of our own device…”

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like lately. What I have written has been pretty good, and I’m happy about that, but I find that when I try to sit down and pound out the pages I’ve been hitting more and more walls. So, as an exercise, I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and write whatever came to mind for the length of each song and then move on, sort of a stream of consciousness plus timed meditation deal. I used to do it in college to clear all the blah blah out of my head before writing a paper.

Here’s the thing, though – I’ve got fourteen or so gigs of music on my iPod, and out of all those songs only about ten of them are happy. I exaggerate. It’s got to be more like twenty. And of those “happy songs” most are not objectively happy, they just make me happy. That counts for something but is a bit beside the point.

No, you know what? That is exactly the point.

When Brick comes on and you hit skip because it’s bumming you out and the next song is Down in a Hole and you’re like “Oh, so much better, what a relief,” you should really reconsider the roots of your emotional reactions.

“You” in this case being me.

A couple of years ago I read a book about time management and how to be organized in a more psychologically healthy way (because I’m a horribly obsessive control freak who doesn’t respond well to deadlines – how does that work?). The writer said one of the things he does is to make a new playlist every few months, so that if he gets in a negative headspace his playlist won’t put him back in that rut. It makes good sense, right? That logic totally tracks. So I tried it for a while, tried to rustle up a happy playlist. That winter was really, really tough, one of my blacker black wave times. Now, almost all of those cheery ditties put me in a foul mood. They’re ruined. The experiment backfired. Bummer songs make me happy and happy songs piss me off.

It’s one of the items on an increasingly long list of shit that’s wrong with me.

But is it “wrong,” really? If the end result of listening to a sad song is my feeling better, isn’t that good? Isn’t that the point? The point of making things? Of liking things? The feeling you end on, no matter which you started on? Something something artistic catharsis? The fact that my iPod reads like a suicide note to an outside observer should really be irrelevant if I’m happy knowing I have all those songs in my pocket.

I don’t have a favorite song. I never have. At best, I could maybe give you a top five favorite bands, with a few runners-up for greatest hits albums (not counting soundtracks). I used to think that was weird, that everyone has a favorite song. Now I’m pretty sure that favorite songs are a bullshit thing teenagers invented to more efficiently size each other up because they’re sociopaths. Or maybe I’m just chronically indecisive and would rather stick to loving a thousand songs that make me dance or laugh or weep or call someone I’m reminded of. On the other hand, I’ve often said that I wish I could cue my own theme music when I walk into a room. In the movie of my life, I know what every character’s song would be.

To that end, a story. Get comfy.

Ahem.

Once upon a time I was a college student. I have a degree in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, which just means I wanted to be a writer but have commitment issues. In order to graduate I had to submit a portfolio to the English Department, forty pages of which had to be in one format. I chose fiction, which as you may have gathered, I do not do. But it was the dream, at the time. My thesis adviser read an early draft and called me into her office (prompting a panic attack of epic and unmatched proportions). She told me that I wrote like a screenwriter. That wouldn’t have been a problem, we could have slapped that forty pages into a script easily, except that to graduate with a screenwriting concentration I would have had to declare a theater major a year earlier (which logic I contend makes no sense, but what do I know? I have a lowly literature degree). So I spent my last year of school learning how to not write like a screenwriter. That adviser and I got my bad fiction into somewhat presentable shape, along with another thirty or so pages of nonfiction that was already pretty alright, if I’m allowed to say so. I should have taken the hint at that point and realized that fiction wasn’t for me. I did not. Such a dumbass. I did learn a lot from that experience and from her, and while I obviously harbor her no ill will, I think that must have been some of the worst advice I’ve ever gotten. Right up there with “You look great in red” and “Eat another handful of mushrooms.” I should have learned how to do better what I was already doing. Not because I have any sort of plans to be a big fat Hollywood screenwriter. I didn’t even know I wrote like a screenwriter. But in retrospect, that seems like a skill I could have worked on, rather than squeezing myself into a fiction box where I don’t fit just because fiction is what I enjoy the most. The devil you know, as they say.

Anyway, some time later my sister and I were sitting around one night boozily yacking about The Eagles, something we do more than normal people would think is actually necessary. It started when our dad died. I suppose we were trying to bond with a dead guy by listening to his records. Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Rare Earth, Cream, Queen, BB King, and especially The Eagles. All really good stuff, and all stuff we had grown up loving, only now it seemed more important. A message from beyond. The thing about The Eagles is that their songs are like snapshots, vignettes, little peeks into weird microcosms. As, I suppose, a lot of great songs are. But their music in particular has a storyteller-ish quality that my sister and I respond to, probably because we’re both writers. That’s my working theory, anyway. So, we were sitting there trying to break down Hotel California, arguing over whether it’s about Satanists and demons or American classist consumerism and I said that either way it would make a great horror movie. It’s all there: setting, plot, conflict, characters, soundtrack. Everything but an ending. She said I should write an ending. Seemed simple enough.

That was twelve years ago.

I’ve tried. I really have. I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count. I’ve got a fat folder full of drafts, snippets, stray lines of dialogue, character and costume designs, descriptions of sets and locations – none of which, I’m sure, are in any sort of acceptable screenplay format. I can see it all in my head, some weird combination of From Dusk til Dawn and The Shining. And still, I have no ending. Because what the hell does one do with “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”? I hate to get all meta and lit-major-y here, but that’s pretty much how I feel about this project. “You can write as many endings as you like but you can never finish this goddamn story.” And now, because oh how we do love an inside joke, it’s become a point of reference for my sisters and me.

When are you going to finish your degree?

When are you going to finish your Hotel California script?

When are you going to marry the lovely man you’ve been living with for a decade?

When are you going to finish your Hotel California script?

When are you going to get your shit together?

As soon as I finish my Hotel California script.

This thing is a monument to unfinished business, and rightfully so. Those bitches know exactly which buttons to push, though, don’t they? I feel worse about not finishing some stupid writing project than they do about either of those life decision-y things I mentioned and they know it. To be fair, while I’m being fair, the one without the degree has her dream job and the one with the wonderful boyfriend is blissfully happy, so clearly it’s my hangup and not theirs. It’s not just about finishing the script, really. I’ve got a lot tied up in this emotionally because of my dad. Maybe I’m not ready to be done with it yet. It’s funny how certain things become symbols, touchstones, talismans, and how they’re often weird or unexpected things. I don’t remember ever talking to him about Hotel California. We did talk about music a lot. The last couple of years before he died we talked about music all the time. I suppose it’s safe territory for a musically-inclined parent and a difficult teenager who’s trying to figure out what she likes. One time we stayed up until dawn arguing about who was the better drummer, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker. It remains a mystery for the ages (but largely irrelevant because John Bonham). I am unprepared for those conversations to be well and truly over.

I suppose this story doesn’t really have an ending, either. Seems appropriate.

Meanwhile, I venture onward in the never-ending search for the elusive happy song. A most noble pursuit, indeed.

Shadows and magic.

My awesome new roommate lent me a book to read a few weeks ago. I’d never heard of it. It sat on my nightstand on top of the stack of ongoing books, but The Husband was out of town, so the stack was hidden behind my laptop screen because I was binge watching Netflix in bed, because that’s how I roll when I’m home alone. Don’t we all? When he got home and I moved the laptop, I realized that this book glows in the dark. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was sitting there just positively screaming to be read. So the next day I read it in a little under eight hours. One should never ignore a book that first comes highly recommended out of nowhere and then reminds you that it’s there of its own volition. That’s always been my experience anyway. But I’m a bit weird about books, a touch superstitious. I have been known to find the dustiest shelf in the most hard-to-reach cranny of a used bookstore, cross my eyes and pick up the fattest book I can find, buy it, and start reading it immediately without even knowing what it’s about. It doesn’t always go well, but when it does it’s the best thing ever.

So, basic rundown (with a couple of very mild spoilers): Clay, a chronically unemployed graphic designer gets a part-time job at a bookstore in San Francisco (where one can’t throw a rock without hitting a graphic designer, by the by). He works the night shift and quickly notices that almost all of the customers aren’t buying from the new releases at the front of the store, but borrowing from the dark and cavernous lending-library-type back part of the store (the backlist, for those of you familiar with bookstore jargon). To alleviate boredom and increase productivity, he designs a 3D model of the store and inputs all these customer’s lending histories. He notices a pattern, that they’re all borrowing the books in the same order, and after looking inside one of the books and seeing only pages and pages of random letters, he figures out that the books (and the customers, and the store) are a part of a puzzle. Enter the bad guys, a shady bunch who come in giving warnings about shutting down the store, saying that Mr. Penumbra has broken the rules and needs to answer to their leader. Fearing some dangerous Da Vinci Code shit, Clay enlists his girlfriend (who works at Google because San Francisco) and his best friend (a tech startup millionaire, obviously), to help solve the puzzle and save his boss. He drags them both to New York City to the headquarters of the bad guys. Turns out they’re not for really real bad guys. The bookstore is one of many such odd establishments all over the world, and the scary gangster types, along with Mr. Penumbra, are actually part of a secret society who have been both trying to solve and also adding more information to the puzzle since the invention of movable type. The problem is that Mr. Penumbra has been pushing to use newer and more efficient technology in the process, and the group’s leader insists that they have to use only what was available when the puzzle was created. It becomes pen and ink versus supercomputers, a clash of the titans, a race to the finish line.

I will tell you, though, that this is far from a perfect book. Sometimes he tries too hard with the old witty quip. And it seems as though every catastrophe has an easy solution, a convenient plot twist. Good ones, granted, but I think it eliminates some of the peril that hopelessness lends. Now, one could say that this is because it’s a debut novel and he’s just getting his sea legs, but that, too, feels like an easy answer, and dismissive. I think it’s more likely that I’ve just read so many books with cliffhanger endings and seventeen fucking sequels that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a story with a tidy ending. Or even a happy ending. Lots of doom and gloom on my personal bookshelf, folks. The convenient plot points do somehow make this book seem really cinematic. I can totally see it as a caper-type movie. With lots of getting ready to go on a mission montages and no explosions and very little running. And with Sir Ian McKellan as Mr. Penumbra.

The crux of this whole story is new technology versus old technology. Books against computers. There’s a little bit of a stereotype at play here, though: most of the people that we meet in the secret society are old (at least at Mr. Penumbra’s San Francisco branch – there are some younger folks in the New York office, but not many). And then these young upstarts with their Google and their cloud storage and their crowdsourcing come along and rock the boat. It’s most likely just a way to maintain his position of power, but I wondered if the leader of the group’s unwillingness to incorporate new technology was actual dedication to the integrity of the process, or simply the stubbornness that comes with age? That sounds shitty of me, but you know what I mean. Grandpa can’t figure out how this newfangled whatsit works, or whatever. We see it all the time, right?  It seems to me that that stereotype is largely crap. Almost all the older people I hang out with are just as good with computers as I am and the only archival librarian I know is several years younger than me, so there’s that.

But old technology vs new technology shouldn’t be confused with old vs new knowledge. Old wives’ tales still exist because a handful of them are true. (The same with fairy tales – the good bloody ones, though, that princess nonsense is mostly bullshit.) Look at hipsters with their artisanal, hand-stitched plaid shirts and their free-range mustaches and their organic everything. It wasn’t so long ago that all that stuff was just normal, just how things were. Everyone made their own clothes and grew their own food and some poor schlub fucking copied out the Bible by hand. Which is, of course, not to say that one way is better than the other, that old is better than new. I dig vaccines and cars and the internet. But we have to realize that one is built on the other, and in a lot of ways we can’t go back. We shouldn’t think of them as separate bodies of information. And hipsters shouldn’t think that they’re doing a new and exciting thing, either, just because they’ve got an iPhone in their pocket. Your great-grandma could’ve done all that shit with her eyes shut, son.

For me, this conversation comes up a lot because I want to own a bookstore. “Why would you do that? Bookstores will be dead in a decade because of Amazon and Kindle.” I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of books out there that can be sold over and over and over again, and they’ve got to go somewhere. Business models aside, paper books versus ebooks is a false dichotomy, and bad argumentation. You can like both. I don’t, but you can. There’s nothing stopping you, you do not have to pick a team. Especially considering the rarity of some books that are now available as digital downloads. That’s the only way that some of us who aren’t librarians or academics will ever be able to see those books. Esoteric knowledge is becoming more and more esoteric, as people and companies increasingly don’t see the point of disseminating information that not very many people will pay for. Money grubbing motherfuckers, choking our evolution. But rest assured, books will never go away.

Books are my one expensive vice. Books about books are like chocolate-covered heroin for me. The Historian, People of the Book, The Name of the Rose, Shadow of the Wind, Codex, House of Leaves, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Neverending Story, City of Dreaming Books, The Book Thief – all amazing (and you should read them posthaste if you haven’t, but the Eco and the Danielewski may not be up everyone’s particular alley). Books about bookstores run by secret societies whose secrets are tied up in puzzles in really awesome old books? I don’t even have an analogy for that. Bookstores are magic. They’re like TARDISes, or time machines, or Phantom Tollbooths, or synchronicity engines. And it’s not just the wealth of knowledge and story gathered together in one spot, although that, too, is wondrous (also available for free at your local library). Bookstores feel a certain way. All those vertical lines stacked on horizontal planes, casting shadows in ways that don’t occur in other places (it’s worth noting here that “penumbra” means “almost shadow” or “edge of shadow”). It does something to my brain. Short circuits it, but in a good way. It’s how I imagine actors or dancers feel when they walk into a theater and see an empty stage – pure potential, wrapped in calm and comfort. That shit? That’s magic.

Pride and prejudice.

Tomorrow’s the 4th of July. It used to be my favorite holiday. Just beer and friends and food and blowing shit up. A clear summer night in Virginia is a thing of wonder. Of course, I say that with some degree of homesickness. I don’t know if I appreciate fireworks anymore, now that they make me cringe in terror. Forest fires suck. Living in a place where summer is called “fire season” is bullshit. But I still like the idea of the 4th of July. I’m a patriot. I might bitch about politics and culture, but I’m glad I live in a country where I won’t get jailed or killed for it. Our great nation has some big, fat flaws, sure, obviously. I’m proud as hell that it’s my right and my duty to help fix some of them, to try to leave this place better than I found it in some small way.

It’s been a weird couple of weeks in America, folks. What a strange and exciting time to be alive. And yes, I know we all wish I would just stick to telling you which movies to watch or what books you might like, but I think I’ve earned taking a couple thousand words to talk about the heavy shit. It’s a holiday weekend. What else am I going to do? You don’t have to read it. It’s a free country, after all. So, good news or bad news first? Let’s go with the bad news first, and maybe try to end on a high note.

My last blog was written on a Tuesday and posted on a Thursday. It was, largely, about race and race relations in America. That Wednesday, nine black people were shot and killed by a racist inside their church in Charleston. Obviously, I could have added an addendum to that post, but I didn’t want talking about such a horrible thing to seem like just an afterthought. And while Rachel Dolezal’s actions are weird and the commentary about her confused, a terrorist trying to start a race war seems like it should be discussed in a completely different conversation. While they’re related, they shouldn’t be conflated.

And don’t jump up my ass for using the word “terrorist.” Somehow we seem to have relegated that word to a specific concomitant set of verbs like “bomb” or “hijack.” Just because we love our guns (and to be clear, I am quite fond of guns), that doesn’t make a mass shooting any less an act of terrorism. “Shooting” only adds specificity, it doesn’t diminish the intention to terrorize. This particular asshole also chose a location that stands as a symbol for the black community of Charleston. A historic church, a landmark for both Christians and civil rights activists for close to two centuries. History aside, this motherfucker shot up a church. A place where, outside of hearth and home, we should feel safest among our peers and cohorts who we’ve chosen as a family. I’m not religious, as you know, but I have much respect for churches that create that sort of safe, loving environment for people who need it and may not be able to find it elsewhere. A church should never feel dangerous, should always be an asylum, a safe haven. To try to take that away seems particularly vile and hateful. Also, as of my writing this, seven black churches have been burned down across the South. I have no idea why this hasn’t been the biggest news story of the past week. Clearly there’s some sort of very ugly movement going on and it needs to be stopped. I can’t imagine what sort of person actually thinks that lynchings and cross-burning and segregation were “the good old days.” Well, you know what? That’s a lie. I can imagine. In fact, I know. I grew up in a very small town with about ten black people in it. Racists aplenty. I knew people who would sling the n-word around and talked about how “they’re taking over” (which is a dumbshit thing to say in a town with only ten black people in it), while two sentences later they’d roll a blunt and say how much they love Snoop Dogg and would totally fuck Halle Berry. Those are 90s references. Those folks have probably moved on to hating Latinos by now. Keeping up with the times and all.

Now, in the wake of all this awful shit, much chatter has arisen about the Confederate flag. The South Carolina capital lowered their US and State flags to half-mast after the shooting but left the stars and bars at full-mast (although I should mention here that that particular flagpole was built without even the possibility of being lowered to half-mast, which shows either an incredible lack of foresight or a steadfast intention to always keep that flag a’flyin’). Personally, I don’t have strong feelings about the Confederate flag. Sure, I’m from the South with, always, a capital S. My great-great (or maybe great-great-great?) grandfather was a Confederate General. I appreciate my heritage and my ancestors, even if they were ignorant, slaveholding assholes and my appreciation is largely just that my family exists in its current incarnation. But honoring history is one thing. Keeping an obsolete and offensive symbol on top of a government building is another. That flag is the battle flag of a dissident army defending a traitorous nation. It’s fine if you want to fly it at your house or whatever, but it has no place officially representing anything governmental anymore. People in South Carolina are all “but that flag has flown there for a hundred years!”. No, dummies, it has not. It was reinstated in 1962 by a white governor in a very overt protest against civil rights measures being made in his state. He was a racist co-opting your history for his own agenda and now you’re pissed because you’re so blinded by buzzwords that you can’t even be bothered to read a fucking history book. Get over yourselves. We don’t need to go back and blur out the stars and bars in Gone With the Wind or get rid of the Dukes of Hazzard, but for fuck’s sake we can make an effort to move forward with some class and decorum befitting a more evolved national mindset. Don’t give me that “Roots, not Racism” shit if your roots are racist as hell. You can be proud of where you come from and still be flexible about maybe changing some stuff that deeply hurts other people in your community.

But just as hate and anger seem to be logical outcomes of having such a big, diverse population, so too is love. It’s inevitable. We saw that this week. In case you live under a rock (in which case you’ve got excellent wifi because you’re reading this and you should probably go catch up on the news first), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Nationwide, no matter what, every marriage counts now. Fucking finally. I knew it was only a matter of time before that patchwork situation got too complicated. Even though states’ rights are important, human rights trump them in this case.

I’ve never understood the arguments against same-sex marriage. They all seem really flimsy to me. “Well, the Bible says…” Don’t even get me started on all the fucked up shit the Bible says about marriage. I’m playing the First Amendment card. What else have you got? “Well, they should use a different word. Have ‘civil unions’.” Hey, remember that piece of paper you had to sign at the courthouse when you got hetero-married? Every marriage in America is a civil union. You do all that churchy stuff on your own and if we’re being honest, it really doesn’t count. If you need an attorney to get out of it, it’s a civil contract. Continue. “Well, it invalidates my marriage if they get to have one.” Nope. Nope nope nope. Someone else being a vegan doesn’t diminish my love of juicy cheeseburgers, if you’ll pardon a sort of gross meat metaphor. And if your current marriage is threatened by this decision, one of you is gay. “Well, the voters in our state wanted to ban same-sex marriage and now SCOTUS is stepping on that.” Oh, so the voters in your state wanted to take away the basic rights and dignity of a percentage of other taxpayers in your state? But still take their money? Well, hmmm. What can I really say about that? How about: fuck that hypocritical shit. None of us should be allowed to legislate bigotry. Let’s just go ahead and cut to the chase, shall we? Say what you’re really thinking. “Butt sex is yucky.” I’m totally with you there, my friend. However, that has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. Nor exclusively with being gay. And as many jokes and comments as we put in movies and tv shows and comedy routines about dudes wanting anal sex, I really have to argue with the foundation of your assertion in the first place. You think that another guy having sex with your personal butt is yucky, and that’s fine. You’re a top. Own it and stop trying to use it as an excuse for all this other nonsense. Also, if you’re going to stand on these convictions, you should probably go ahead and quit watching lesbian porn. Just a thought. For consistency’s sake, yeah?

Here’s the bottom line, y’all: marriage equality is not about sex, but about love. Hearts, not parts. We should all have the right to have whatever kind of (consensual) sex we want and not have the other aspects of our marriages come into question. We should all have the right to have our mate hold our hand in the hospital. To pay our taxes as “married, filing jointly.” To ask for alimony and child support in a divorce. To not have to go to court just to get custody of our own biological children born through surrogacy. To not have to fight to get them on our health insurance. To leave our stuff and our death benefits to our family when we die. To, simply, be able to introduce the person we’ve built a life and a home with as “my wife” or “my husband.” You know that both of those words mean “caregiver”? That’s the whole fucking point here. A few years ago, my cousin’s kid asked her about gay people. She was little, so my cousin just told her that means that two people of the same sex are in love, like moms and dads, that it’s just another kind of couple and it’s okay as long as they’re happy and take care of each other. Being from the super churchy side of the family, I was a little bit surprised that she kept it so simple (because apparently I’m an asshole, expecting anything different – what the hell is wrong with me?). I told her that I was impressed and I thanked her for not filling her sweet baby’s head with hateful garbage. She laughed and said, “Do you know how many people have told me that I shouldn’t be in my relationship? I’ve got no right to tell anyone how to live their life.” Damn right. We should put that shit on a t-shirt.

More and more lately, as we make what I see as advances in culture and civil rights and acceptance, I’m hearing this “What happened to America?” crap. Well, we’re growing the fuck up, is what’s happening. Change is ongoing and ubiquitous and unavoidable. What exactly do you want? What delusion are you living in that you think America is a place where everyone thinks alike and gets along perfectly? Because that has never been the case. You want bold, ballsy, Revolutionary-era America? Where we died from an infected papercut at a stupidly young age or froze to death in the winter and nothing you had to say mattered if you couldn’t prove that you owned property, which might have included other humans? Or do you want Westward Expansion, cowboy-era America? Where we genocided the shit out of the native population and murdered each other over horses and tons of people had tuberculosis? Or do you want Industrial Boom-era America? Where we sent tiny kids down coal mines and we polluted the sky and the water for the sake of a few insanely rich white guys’ profit margins and women couldn’t vote? Or do you want post-WWII-era America? Where black people were murdered for using the front door rather than the back and folks hid their domestic violence and their alcoholism and their misery behind a new toaster and a white picket fence like a shield because it was supposed to be enough, supposed to fix everything? Or do you want Reagan-era America? Where all you needed to get respect was enough money and no one cared what fuckery you perpetrated to get it and we put the biggest burden of fixing our rampant drug problem on our children by telling them to “just say no” and our President wouldn’t even admit that AIDS existed until almost thirty thousand people were dead and then he blamed “the gays”? Which America would you like? Which America is the pretty, shiny one you have in your head that you want to “get back to”? They’re all real, but none of them was ever ideal. America has always been a beautiful mess. It probably always will be. It almost has to be. And I love it. I love that we’re all different, that we’re allowed to be, even expected to be, on a good day. If that means we have to bicker and quibble and sometimes scream, so be it. That’s what families do.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are bloody complicated.

Holy shit, Rachel Dolezal. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. I’ve been fascinated by this story for the past week. She is the living embodiment of WTF?. In case you missed it, Rachel Dolezal was the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. While interviewing her for a local tv news piece a reporter, seemingly out of the blue and unrelated to the topic at hand, asked her if she is black. Confused, I assume, about the relevance, she responded, “I don’t understand the question,” bumbled and spluttered when asked again, and then walked away. Now, that would have been fine, and excellent news blooper fodder. Except Rachel Dolezal isn’t black. She’s been posing as a black woman for almost a decade. Which would also have been fine, if she hadn’t accepted a college scholarship for black students, filed several police reports saying that harassment incidents were racial hate crimes, and told her adopted son not to blow her cover. That’s where this gets a little fraud-y and gross.

Legitimate fraud aside, why does this story seem so batshit crazy? Is it because her white birth parents (from whom she is estranged) outed her suddenly after all this time? That definitely makes me think there’s some weird backstory we’re not being made aware of. Or is it because we’re hearing about it in the aftermath of all the recent stories about systemic racism and police brutality against people of color? And all that very real, very nasty shit makes Dolezal seem silly? Is she actually mentally ill or delusional? Is she conducting a social experiment? Is she taking advantage of and defrauding social programs like Affirmative Action for her own financial or career gains? Again I say, WTF?

Because white people appropriate black culture all the time without running around in blackface. Furthermore, white people get jobs with the NAACP. White people teach African American studies. White people have black spouses and adopt black kids. You do not have to be a thing or pretend to be a thing to love and protect and fight for it. Somehow her charade feels really icky and insulting. But I’m white. I don’t necessarily know how sure my footing is in my arguments against her actions. I do know that I’m a hopeless Anglophile, but I haven’t cultivated a fake accent or lied about where I grew up. That’s a really weak analogy, but you see what I’m saying. She may feel a deep and abiding affinity for black or African culture, but she damn sure hasn’t had the black American experience.

But then that raises even more questions. What is the black American experience? Can one even say “the” rather than “a”? Why does it seem so weird that she would choose to go from white to black, given that black is, ostensibly, “harder”? What does that even mean? What does it say about our country that we can label one racial identity “harder” than another out of hand, without even thinking about it? And on a similar note, black people straighten their hair and lighten their skin all the time. Why isn’t that weird? Does it insult and offend and appall people like this story seems to have? I honestly don’t know.

Not to change the subject too drastically, but I wonder if Dolezal’s story would have had a different impact if she had been a man. So often we talk about body image and beauty standards as a distraction from bigger, more important issues. Oddly, in this case, it really does seem to be at the heart of the matter. Having said that, I find the many comparisons of Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner really annoying. “Transracial” is not a thing. Transgender definitely is. Transgender people legitimately feel that there is something physically wrong with their actual body, and they make the decision to transition after years of struggle and pain, knowing that their path is not going to get any easier. Jenner didn’t just slap on a new vagina and a new name like someone getting a tattoo or a haircut or some overzealous bronzing. The comparisons between these two women are absurd. Jenner was seeking truth and authenticity. Dolezal is a liar. Although I can see the logic in saying that while Jenner always felt she was a woman, she also didn’t have to go through life having the experiences common to women in America – misogyny, harassment, unequal pay, job loss due to maternity leave, the costs of child care or the controversy of contraception, sexual violence or threats of sexual violence, body shaming. But she will now. Welcome to our wonderful sisterhood, Caitlyn.

Our bodies and our identities are inextricably linked, obviously, and we’re advanced enough to change one to suit the other by both small and large degrees. And that’s fine. That seems healthy and like a step in the right direction. Why, then, do I support Caitlyn Jenner but think that Rachel Dolezal is a raving banana sandwich (actual prosecute-able fraud aside)? Where’s the line? When is a body just a body? Are medicine and psychology ahead of or behind our culture? I mean, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1986, for fuck’s sake. We’re still fighting to keep people out of those evil sexuality conversion places, but at the same time require sex offenders of all stripes, no matter the severity of their crimes, to pay enormous amounts of money out of pocket for court-appointed therapy, basically trying to change their sexual proclivities in exactly the same way. There’s a particular body dysmorphic disorder where people feel like a part of their body (usually a limb) is not theirs, an alien, intrusive thing. They, too, are routinely sent to therapy and heavily medicated in order to be “normal,” and often resort to crudely removing the offending appendage themselves. We still have puritanical prejudices against the heavily tattooed or body modified. We fat shame and skinny shame, making some arbitrary average number the demarcation of “health,” but only if it looks a certain way. While we simultaneously pump our food market full of poison, fat, sugar, and salt, we fill our media exclusively with airbrushed ectomorphs. We sweat the hot ladies in skimpy outfits and overtly sexualized scenarios on every billboard, magazine, and commercial, but are deeply unsettled by public breastfeeding. We rejoice at the sudden acceptance of the “dad bod,” but put only fit young hipsters and ripped silver foxes in Father’s Day ads for beer and burgers. We extoll the virtues of diet after diet after diet so we can show off the sexiest body possible to whomever will look, but cry foul on a rape victim’s allegations when her skirt was too short for our outdated sense of sexual modesty.

Why do we have to have all this running commentary on other people’s lives? The real problem, I think, is that so many folks see those lifestyle choices as an affront to their own. The word “tolerance” has been thrown around so much lately as to make it meaningless. As in: “Why do I have to tolerate you but you get to be intolerant of my opinion? Who are you to judge?” Well, who the hell am I to judge? Who am I at all? Is there a Venn diagram that perfectly lays out the topography of my personality? I mean, I guess so. But I’ve never really had to defend any of the ways that I identify from outright attack. I’m white, but I have had people be shitty to me several times when I had a deep tan because they thought I was Hispanic (and once, Asian – weirdly, this usually happens in grocery stores, maybe it’s the lighting). I’m from a lower-to-middle middle class family, which has only ever been a problem when I’ve told people that my dad worked for the most evil corporation to ever evil, but clearly that wasn’t my decision. I’m bisexual but nobody cares – except maybe that one girlfriend I was an asshole to in high school because she wanted to hold my hand in the hallway and I didn’t want to put up with any redneck bully bullshit (I’m sorry about that, Mel, I truly am). I’m an atheist, and I guess that’s the one where I have to pick my battles the most. But I’m not evangelical about it, like a lot of atheists I know who start fights just so they get to tell religious people they think they’re stupid. That shit is mean and unnecessary. And, by the way, just as ignorant and judgy as they think religious people are.

But these are all words. Words that we hear and assume we understand. A word or a label is never the whole story, the big picture. We use so few words but we need so many to really explain ourselves, and then we let a disturbing number of them go in one ear and out the other. There are very few words people use as identifiers that I immediately react negatively to (pedophile, for example, or Neo-Nazi). So long as you’re a nice person and you tell me which pronouns and adjectives you prefer, we can probably be friends. Why can’t we all just be a meaningless jumble? Why don’t we realize that we already are? There’s this saying about religion that I often regurgitate. It varies, but it’s usually something like: “Religion is like a penis – it’s fine to have one and love it, but don’t wave it around, show it to my kids, or try to stick it down my throat.” Truth is, lots of words can be substituted in that analogy. Race, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, politics, wealth – anything can be a penis. Just don’t be a dick about it.

No pilikia today. Sit. Talk story.

My family reunion is this weekend. Sadly, I’m not able to be there this year (Hi, family! Love you! Air hugs!). It’s a huge family, probably two hundred folks or so. Not Dugger huge, but former Catholic huge, which is pretty damn huge by normal human standards. And we’re Hawaiian. Hawaiians don’t “chat” or “visit” or “catch up.” We “talk story,” a figure of speech that I absolutely love. Very direct and to the point, Hawaiians. Probably a result of only having thirteen letters. The problem with having such a big family, though, is that I don’t get to talk story with all of them. There are far too many who I don’t know at all, and by this point we’ve grown into such a many-headed beast that I can’t even keep straight whose kids or spouses are whose anymore. Not to mention that I live so far away, which is a whole other bucket of bullshit.

Anyway, the other day I listened to a TED Radio Hour episode with Dave Isay, the guy who started StoryCorps, and I honestly think he’s a genius. If you’ve ever heard StoryCorps, it was most likely a snippet on NPR. But if you’re unfamiliar, the basic idea is that two people sit down in a recording booth and interview each other. The interviews are all archived in the Library of Congress and have become the largest collection of recorded human voices. There’s also a podcast, if you’re interested, but both it and the pieces aired on the radio are just short excerpts from each interview. Some of them are funny, some are mundane, some are baffling, some are gut-wrenching. Which, I suppose, is true of all conversation. So why are interviews different?

I listen to a shit ton of podcasts. Like, I probably spend five or six hours a day listening to podcasts. This may be an actual sickness. Some of my very favorites are interview style, with interesting people in both chairs. But here’s the thing about StoryCorps: the whole point is that everyone is interesting. We forget that, I think, obsessed as we are with celebrity and gossip and commentary and punditry. I may have some weird social anxiety stuff and prefer to watch people over talking to them, but I know that every single person has at least one interesting story (except babies, babies are pretty boring). How simple to just ask for those stories. How elegant. And potentially really important. Like Isay says in his TED Talk, the older generations will be gone one day but we can keep what they have to say forever. And some people don’t get to tell their stories. Either they’re part of a marginalized community that nobody cares about (prison, retirement home, freaky cult, etc), or simply, and perhaps more sadly, no one ever asks.

For example, recently one of my cousins was talking to one of my aunts and my aunt said something about the time when my mother lived in Iran. My cousin had no idea that my mom had lived in Iran. Or Singapore. Or Scotland. Or any of the other weird things my mom has done. She’s an interesting lady, but it had never come up, I guess. Not that I think a sit-down interview that’s being recorded would necessarily bring any of that to light, but there’s something about a microphone that flips a switch in our brains and eliminates the need for chit chat. Frankly, I’ve always sucked at chit chat. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg thing with the social anxiety. Obviously, being a writer and an eater of books, story is important to me. Some people probably don’t give a shit what regular folks have to say. But we should always remember that those among us who are extraordinary are only made so by their stories. And sometimes we need to hear the story to see that they’re extraordinary, if they’re hiding in plain sight, masquerading as normal. Things like StoryCorps (and, in a slightly different format, Humans of New York) are making it easier for us to see the amazing stuff about each other that we might have missed.

And now StoryCorps has put out a smartphone app so anyone can record an interview and upload it to the collection without having to go to a sound studio. This is going to change the game. Of course I thought of my giant, wacky family when I heard about this thing. Wouldn’t it be incredible to get interviews from all two-hundred-something members of one family? What a great artifact, not only for us to have for ourselves, but as a weird little slice of this whole human story? I think I’m going to make it a project for the next family reunion. Get some quality microphones and set up a quiet place, have everyone pair off with a family member who they don’t know very well (or who they know has a good story they want on record). It could be so fun.

More to the point, it could be really important as our old folks get older and eventually leave us. We lost one of my uncles a few years ago (in a motorcycle accident – SHARE THE ROAD!), and I’m sad to say that I didn’t know him very well. I would have loved to hear his stories, but now I only get to hear stories about him. Same with all four of my grandparents. And, it’s funny, when my dad died the first thing I forgot was what his voice sounded like. I don’t think I have any recordings of him just talking, and certainly not singing or laughing, although those are the three things I remember him doing the most (when I could hear him over his tractor). We mythologize the dead in our minds, but for whatever reason, in my head they’re silent. Static. Makes me sad.

There’s a strange linguistic thing that happens in groups of people – families, friends, coworkers, whatever – called liminal language. It’s a sort of shorthand specific to that group, very referential, and it binds the group together. So, for example, if I walk into my little sister’s house and say “Hello, meteor!” there’s a very good chance that either she or her mate will say “Aaaah! The atmosphere!”. Nobody else gets that, but there’s a story there. A dumb story, granted, but a story. A series of events and experiences distilled down to four words in a silly accent. I’m endlessly fascinated by the brain’s ability to do this. Memory, language, representation and reference – these are stories. Stories inside stories inside stories. Everything is story, inescapable and infinite and all-consuming. I see it everywhere, like the fucking Matrix.

And I could tell you that the written word and the spoken word are equals in our efforts to preserve story, but they’re just not. Reading and listening happen in different parts of the brain using different neurochemical whatsits. This is why I maintain that one should never read the plays of Shakespeare, but should see them onstage whenever possible. They weren’t meant to be read off of a dead page in cold ink, and doing so turns them into a wholly different creature. On a similar note (but in no way trying to compare myself to Shakespeare), it’s interesting that people who know me say I write like I talk. I think this is true, for the most part. However, when I was younger I helped out occasionally with producing my older sister’s radio show and would sometimes have to speak on-air (notice I say “have to” and not “get to”). She told me that I sound like a dead fish, that my voice only works when someone is looking at me. This is also true. My voice is rather monotone, but I talk with my hands a lot and pull tons of stupid faces. I imagine that talking on the phone with me is much like reading my writing – if you know me, you can see me saying it. If not? Potential dead fishness. This is why I blog instead of podcasting, and why recording people’s stories can be so much more impactful than writing them down. The medium does make a difference.

Anyway, check out StoryCorps. It’s a hell of a rabbithole to get stuck in. More importantly, even if you don’t record them, ask people to tell you their stories. People you love, people you hate, people you don’t know. It’s an incredible moment of human connection, some serious brain-on-brain action. Talk story. It’s all we are.

My own meandering experience…

It’s the end of May, friends, which means that it’s commencement speech season. I love commencement speeches. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but hear me out. In the spring of 1997, Baz Luhrmann gave a speech to a graduating class that was later set to music and, for whatever reason, became wildly popular. By the time I walked across the rickety stage at my high school graduation in 2000, it, along with that insipid Green Day song, had been played ad nauseam at every important event in teenage American life for years. When I got to college, it continued to feature prominently on mix CDs and Napster playlists, and is now one of a handful of de rigueur nostalgia anthems for myself and that group of friends. So I feel confident blaming Mr. Luhrmann for my fetishistic love of folks in weirdly medieval robes behind lecterns droning advice at youngsters through subpar sound equipment.

And isn’t it a strange tradition? Robes and funny hats aside, very famous or successful or important grownups giving lengthy speeches to groups of exhausted twenty-somethings, sweating in the sun, waiting patiently for this person to stop yacking so they can have their parents buy them lunch and then go get wasted and forget everything in the speech almost immediately. Basically, it’s the age when people don’t listen and a day when they particularly don’t care. I don’t remember my college commencement speech, or even who gave it. But ten years later, now that I can pay attention, I enjoy seeing those people doling out nuggets of wisdom. It’s one of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes. Very much like watching TEDTalks, only sappier. Do I need this sort of advice? Not usually, but sometimes. And it is certainly not collated and speechified with someone like myself in mind as the intended audience. There are some great ones that I watch over and over, though, because they consistently make me happy.

Very often, it’s easier for me to just make someone watch one of these than it is to organize my own thoughts coherently and efficiently. Why reinvent the wheel? It’s not that I think I give bad advice, necessarily, but I’m a pragmatist and I don’t sugar coat things very well. When I try, I get all befuddled. It’s like my brain can’t tolerate bullshit and it can make me seem harsh or cold. I like to describe myself as “frank,” “straightforward,” and “levelheaded,” but in this context those feel like euphemisms. Someone once told me I’d be a very good mob boss, but that’s probably a conversation for a different time. There are two distinct types of these speeches: “You did it! Hooray!” and “Okay, now the rest kind of sucks.” Both of which are completely valid sentiments and things graduates need to hear. But I wonder if there aren’t other folks who need to hear that sort of thing as well. College is becoming less and less important, frankly. Not that it’s not valuable, but in the day-to-day paying the rent sense, people need jobs more than they need degrees. And sure, a degree might help you get a better job, but it might not. Then what? You’ve wasted a number of years you could have been gaining job or life experience and saddled yourself with a mountain of very dangerous debt and you still may not get a job in your field. It’s a risky gamble. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not.

Guys like Adam Savage and Mike Rowe make an excellent point when they talk about technical training. Both have said that teaching people a skill, a tangible, immediately usable and marketable skill, is a better investment than sending them to a four-year college. If you can drive a backhoe or weld or build real things with your actual hands, there are huge opportunities out there because we’ve come to value and want tidy office work over getting shit done. What’s that about? Dig a hole. Plant a seed. Swing a hammer. Simple, useful work. We need those things done but look down on those who do them. Fuck. That. Shit. I spent $80K on a piece of paper that says I know how to read books, you guys. Think about that for a second. I won’t say it was a waste of money, absolutely not. But I feel like what I paid for was that time, not that piece of paper. Those years were incredible and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Just being able to dedicate myself to thinking and learning and growing and making mistakes? Invaluable. Unquestionably, though, a luxury. If I had gotten a degree in something “useful,” maybe I wouldn’t call it a luxury. But for me, having the degree itself hasn’t changed anything. And I didn’t learn a single thing about what I’m doing with my life now during those years. Not one.

So when do those folks who don’t go to college get their big motivational rant? Who tells them when they’ve done well on a lengthy, difficult thing? When they get a promotion? When they have a kid? When they retire? Nothing really compares to the pomp and circumstance of getting a degree. Why is that? Why do we so equate education with utmost accomplishment? Don’t get me wrong, a college degree is a huge deal, and ostensibly a lot of work, but it seems to me to be one of the only occasions for which such a fuss is made. And, as far as I can tell, the last one. No more marching in weird robes (probably). No more speeches. It’s bleak and it’s hard, but you can do a good job and for that I preemptively pat you on the back. Hooray! You did it! But the rest kind of sucks.

Clearly I nor you see myself giving any commencement speeches anytime soon. But a couple of years ago, a friend’s younger sister was graduating high school and as a gift my buddy had people from all over the country send postcards with life advice on them that she bound together into a book (a fantastic graduation present, by the way). I kept a copy of my list and have kept adding to it. So since no one asked or is likely to, I will dispense this advice…now (cue bass line):

  • Find something you love and strive to be very, very good at it.
  • Never let anyone tell you what not to love.
  • Don’t order blue drinks at parties or crowded bars.
  • Travel and read and see as much live music as possible.
  • Tip heavily. Always.
  • Learn to appreciate difficult poetry.
  • There’s nothing between you and anything in the world but distance and time.
  • Pay attention. Be deliberate. Be precise.
  • Always carry a flashlight, pocketknife, and lighter.
  • Pick your battles.
  • Keep an open mind. Be flexible.
  • Don’t stress too much about money.
  • Embrace new experiences, even when they’re awful.
  • Give help freely and often.
  • Own your mistakes and use them to your advantage. You’re better for them.
  • Memorize important phone numbers.
  • Know how to drive a stick shift.
  • Laugh. Laugh. Laugh some more.
  • There is a big, important difference between a discussion and an argument.
  • Vote.
  • If it feels bad, don’t do it.
  • Never own more tupperware than will fit in your fridge or more hangers than will fit in your closet.
  • Love doesn’t fix anything.
  • Say what you mean, not what you think they want to hear. Never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
  • Comfort equals confidence – comfort in your own skin, your clothes, your beliefs, your decisions.
  • Respecting others’ opinions doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
  • Make your bed first thing every morning, especially if you live in a small space. It does wonders for your motivation, and you’ll always have extra room to get things done.
  • Accept compliments and criticism gracefully.
  • Food is fuel, not just stomach-filler.
  • The glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. The glass is always full. It’s half air.

“We are the weirdos, mister.”

Last week Sony announced that they’re remaking The Craft. And then the internet exploded. The horrified gasps of thirty-somethings rang through the ether. Cries of “Noooo!” and “Whyyyyy?” could be heard from every corner of social media.

Okay, hang on. We’ll get back to the outrage.

To clarify (with mild spoilers): The Craft is a 1996 movie about a coven of high school pseudo-witches. They’re basically a gaggle of goths, outcast for one reason or another, until a new girl starts at their school who has actual powers. They take her in and explain their version of Wicca to her, so she becomes comfortable enough to show them how to do what she can do. They learn from her, usurp her powers, go a little batshit, and turn on both her and everyone who wronged them in the past. All hell breaks loose and it becomes a good witch versus bad witch situation.

As silly as it sounds, there’s a lot going on in this movie. The 90s were a very gothy time. Not in that lovely Victorian-esque, grownup way (which has since largely morphed into steampunk), but in a post-grunge, angry young Marilyn Manson fans in black lipstick kind of way. I don’t know how closely they’re related, but it makes good sense to me that Wicca was a huge deal in the 90s as well. The gothy version, mind you, not the hippiefied, crystal-munching, Earth goddess version. I suspect both of these trends were direct results of 60s and 70s teens coming of age. On the one hand, alternative religions became more acceptable because of all those New Age parents. And on the other hand, there’s the fallout from the Satanic cult scare of that era, which affected everything from practices in child psychology to the way law enforcement deals with religious groups, and of course every heavy metal band ever. All of which is to say that The Craft took advantage of a cultural perfect storm on a lot of levels.

As a teenage goth girl, The Craft was pretty much made and marketed specifically for my demographic. I was interested in Wicca myself, being at that age when one searches everywhere for any like-minded community and just tries shit on for size. I was never a spell-caster, per se, but I definitely read a lot of books on the subject, burned a ton of candles, and pissed off my parents with a séance or two. I never believed any of it was real, though, and I think that was the stumbling block to finding the deeper meaning or comfort that one should get out of any religion. But it did lead me down a rabbit hole to other New Age practices, meditation, Buddhism, and from there to Beat poetry, Castaneda, Bill Hicks, and on and on. My lifelong devotion to weirdos of every flavor can probably be traced directly back to those four idiot girls chanting “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” Sounds trite, sure, but every chain has a first link.

There’s a great documentary on Netflix right now called Beyond Clueless that deconstructs teen movies from the late 90s and early 00s, particularly as they relate to the rules of high school and the portrayal of social structures among young women. It’s fucking fantastic. The bit about The Craft had a lot of interesting stuff about outcasts and power dynamics. Each of the four girls is weird for a different reason: the new girl, the girl from a broken home, the lone black girl, and the girl who is physically disfigured. Tropes or stereotypes, yes, but they’re bound together by this involuntary otherness and use that bond to create a group that then relies on their voluntary otherness (their witchcraft, which they could have practiced separately but didn’t). That’s high school for me in a nutshell right there. Find the weirdos and stick with them. Safety in numbers. And when I was a messed up teenager, seeing something even a little like myself represented onscreen was massively important. It’s one of the few dumb teen movies that I really loved, everything else seemingly being about beautiful people or romance or other stuff I didn’t care about at all. Also, I had just fallen ass over teakettle in love with Quentin Tarantino movies and films about heroin that I probably shouldn’t have been watching (I’m looking at you, Basketball Diaries), so the weirder the better to hold my interest.

As far as 90s teen movies about weirdos go, they’re either bubblegummy (Bubble Boy) or indie artsy (SLC Punk), but we did have a few other representations of Wiccans. Thing is, they were all either silly or psycho, and never a realistic representation of actual practitioners. When real Wiccans get together, stuff does not fly around the room. Sparks do not fly from wands. There’s a great stink of burning sage and a lot of talking, but none of that other nonsense. Anyway, Willow from Buffy is the obvious example, and one of my all-time favorite characters. She was great until that time she lost her shit and went all evil because someone killed her girlfriend. This is basically a “bitches be crazy” moment that somehow made it seem like the magic’s fault and not the result of grief. There are movies like Practical Magic and shows like Charmed, neither of which starred teenagers, so at the moment they’re irrelevant for our purposes. And of course Sabrina, which was just a sitcom with a quirk, pretty much a reboot of Bewitched without all that creepy 60s nuclear family propaganda (also heavily relying on residual viewership from Clarissa Explains It All, but was so different as to make that plan crash and burn with a quickness). These are all witches of the Hogwarts variety, not that girl from your dorm who sincerely believes that every living thing is connected and all energy is a resource that can be tapped with focused intention. And they’re damn sure not things that creep in the night.

But now, with some kind of hindsight malfunction, every article talking about The Craft remake is calling it a “cult horror” or a “teen horror” movie. For me, it’s neither of those. It did well at the box office and has had great success since then, so I would never call it cult. And when I think of “teen horror” as a genre, I wouldn’t compare any of those movies to The Craft. Something like I Know What You Did Last Summer is a great example of 90s teen horror. Or Final Destination, for a more supernatural plot point. Older stuff that’s more slashery tends to be populated with teens, like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, although I wouldn’t necessarily say that those were marketed as teen films. And all four Scream movies relied heavily on teenagers being morons for one reason or another, even as the main cast aged out of the genre (I recently binge watched all of those, I should really do a post about that). More to the point, and I hate to pigeonhole or discourage anyone from watching The Craft if you haven’t seen it, but this is a chick flick. I might come off like an asshole for saying this, but no one makes horror movies that are marketed to girls. Sorry. Horror for girls is not a thing. Horror starring girls is a thing. Horror that girls enjoy is a thing. But horror made specifically for girls? Not a thing. It should be, but it isn’t. And there are too many reasons The Craft isn’t a horror movie for me to call it one just to fill a niche. Not going to do it.

I wonder if, remake or not, we really need another movie about young women being mean to each other. Yeah, sure, the first half is about solidarity and finding your tribe or whatever, but there’s a twenty minute magical catfight at the end of this movie. Which is the lesson that will stick? I’m all for making more female character-driven movies (especially with a female writer/director, as is the case with this remake), but the crux of this whole story is that a group of friends gets torn apart by jealousy and greed. They wanted her power, and when they got it they immediately forgot that their vulnerabilities were what drew them together in the first place. It’s a good way to put women in the age-old “absolute power corrupts absolutely” situation, but this is ultimately going to be watched mostly by teenagers and I suspect what they’ll see is just bitches throwing vengeance spells at each other. A glittery action film. Obviously I’m underestimating their critical thinking skills to some degree here, of course. Seriously, though, what teen do you know who comes out of a movie talking about the bigger social ramifications of gender politics or power dynamics in friend groups? I could think of a couple of kids in my life who would do so if asked, but they’re oddballs anyway and they’d have that conversation with me, not with their friends.

And everyone else who’s going to go see it will be angry women in their thirties who just want to see what a mess has been made of a thing we loved. I’ve said this before, but maybe it’s that generation gap thing. Maybe it’s just our turn. Maybe teenage girls will watch this remake with a different set of assumptions about witches than we had in the 90s. These kids are kind of steeped in supernatural entertainment and might be more primed for this type of story than we were at their age, because where we just saw angry goth girls they see something like other characters they’re already familiar with. But why not just watch the original? They don’t have cell phones, but other than that it totally holds up. And it has a great soundtrack. And Fairuza Balk completely losing her shit, which is always a pleasure to watch. There’s really nothing quite like it.

This remake is a bummer for so many people, I think, because it was so, so much a product of its day. It may not make sense now. To try to tell this story in a post-sparkly vampire world feels like they’re just grasping at supernatural straws, doesn’t it? Not only are they stepping on the adolescence of a ton of people, it’s just lazy movie making. “Bring me any script with a monster or some weird shit and at least three bitchy, hot chicks. I don’t care if it’s already been done! We’re going to pump this market as dry as Kristen Stewart’s acting!”

That was mean. I shouldn’t have said that.

But notice I didn’t delete it.

Moving on.

Why remake a twenty-year-old movie that’s probably both going to piss people off and not work as well as it did the first time? Why does this keep happening? Where are the new ideas? As if franchising titles up to fifty sequels weren’t bad enough. As though milking trilogies by adding an extra cliffhanger and a fourth movie weren’t the most insulting, obvious, money-grubbing scheme ever. I know it’s hard to get a movie from script to production, and that a lot of those movies are financial risks for those companies. But I feel like it’s condescending to audiences to assume we’ll just watch the same story over and over and over again. We can handle new ideas, new writers, new directors. We can be trusted. And pretty soon we’re going to get bored with the safe bet and angry that the things we love keep getting kicked in the balls. You can’t throw shit on a canvas and call it Jackson Pollock 2.0.

Wait, that’s a bad analogy. Someone would probably buy that.

Anyway, I suppose we’ll see how it goes. I will admit that I’m curious. Not enough to drive two hours to a theater, but I’ll probably watch it at some point. After I send some tweets begging Sony not to piss on my childhood. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen The Craft and you were sentient in the 90s I definitely recommend it. Sometimes cultural artifacts can also be deeply satisfying junk food for the brain. As above, so below. Or so they tell me.