Worlds within worlds within worlds…

Holy shitsnacks, you guys. Has it really been almost a month since I last posted a blog? I’m so sorry. Please don’t think I’ve forgotten or given up. I assure you when I lose my shit completely, I’ll probably tell you first. But, the good news is that our great moving adventure is complete! We have reached our final destination and unpacked the suitcases and put the dishes away and filled out the paperwork and complied with all kinds of mind-numbing bureaucratic nonsense. Now, onward and upward. I’ll be back on a regular blogging schedule as much as is possible from here on out. Cross my heart.

It is strange, though, this new living situation. You know how you have those friends who you can geek out with over shared interests? Like, your super scifi-loving homie, or the person who turned you on to your favorite tv show? Through a series of fucked up coincidences, I have somehow ended up having one of those friends as a roommate. It’s a full-on when worlds collide situation. Point is, rather than going out and being normal and interacting with other humans, we decided to spend a whole day drinking on the couch and binge watching season one of The Magicians. We read the first two books together a few years ago, so most of that couch time was spent having some version of this conversation a hundred times:

“Who’s that guy? What’s happening right now? Why’d they do that?”

“Dammit, Vanessa, I don’t know! I don’t remember! Stop asking me questions!”

Still, the show is awesome and now I have to go back and reread the books. Because clearly I don’t remember a lot of the details. I’ll try to run down the basics for you, though, with the caveat that I’m about to use some analogies that really only work on the surface. Bear with me for a minute.

Imagine that you’re a Harry Potter type. You don’t know magic is real, but you’ve always felt a little weird and out of place. Suddenly, you’re told that you can study magic at a school specifically for people who are particularly talented, and that you’ve been scouted for some time without your knowledge. Now, on top of all that, imagine that when you arrive at said university, you are a big old geeky fan of something like the Narnia books. As a reflex, you couch everything in this weird new magical paradigm in Narnian terms simply because it’s the best frame of reference you have. With me so far? Good. Being chosen and, obviously, being the main character, when the shit inevitably hits the fan, it’s aimed at you. Of course it is. Only, here’s the problem: the only possible solution that you can come up with to fight the big bad, comes from the books, the fiction, that you’re obsessed with. It’s silly and no one takes you seriously, but you’re absolutely convinced that in addition to all this other wacky shit, Narnia might be real.

And you’re right.

In all seriousness, though, that summary isn’t too far off, putting aside my using somewhat lazy comparisons because they’re easy points of reference (but it seems appropriate, given the books-about-books, worlds-within-worlds nature of this series – I think that if he weren’t probably sick to death of hearing how his books are similar to/different from the Potter and Narnia series, Grossman would approve of my tortured analogy). Quentin Coldwater is our hero, who has recently finished a short stint in a mental hospital when we meet him. He leaves the facility so he can make it to an interview for a spot in a graduate program, but when he gets there realizes that the interview is a fake and he’s there to take an exam for entrance into a university for magicians. Mind fucked, he passes the test and starts his studies at Brakebills, which has a vibe like Hogwarts and Harvard had a baby – snooty and refined, but still full of idiot young people with the requisite hormones and illicit substances onboard. Quentin loves the Fillory books, a series of children’s fantasy novels from the 1930s, which he’s read so often since he was a kid that he knows them backwards and forwards. Thus, when the bad guy from the books rolls into the school and starts killing innocent bystanders, he figures out what it is when no one else does, but he doesn’t trust himself because of his so recently being 5150’d. (That’s not a spoiler, this is all in the first half of the first book – we’re just getting to the good bits and I’m going to have to cut you off, sorry.)

But here’s the thing I dig the most about The Magicians trilogy: it’s magic by grownups for grownups, with all the crap that comes along with grownupness or striving for grownupness (sex, drama, drugs, drug problems, obsession, frustration, self-doubt, existential angst, loss, death, etc). And while you’ll find some of these in fantasy for kids or young adults, anything with a villain worth his or her salt, there’s something really refreshing about the realism of these characters and how utterly fucked up they are. Like we all were at that age. They’re trying to learn how to be people just as much as they’re trying to learn to be magicians, and Grossman pulls no punches in showing how tough that can be. Sometimes shit gets dark, you know? Even if you don’t have otherworldly beasts stalking you. None of which is to say that adults can’t or shouldn’t thoroughly enjoy fantasy for children, but I’m pleased to see something in this vein that is specifically not for children, that also isn’t just a romance novel or one long fight scene in disguise. That shit gets boring real quick.

So, yeah. I highly recommend The Magicians books, if you’re up for some excellent magic and worldbuilding with bonus drinking, drugging, and sexy times. And if you’re the sort of person who has access to television on the interwebs (not endorsing nefarious behavior, but not judging it, either) the television adaptation is definitely worth your time. And it’s really beautifully shot, which surprised me. Because SyFy (fuck those guys for making me spell it that way) has been pretty hit or miss in the past with the old production value. Let’s hope they’re on an upswing, yeah?

Anyway, new blogs soon. Stay tuned. I bought a fat stack of books the other day. Because I can. Because there’s a bookstore here. It’s like it’s the real world or something. Hooray for civilization! It’s so good to be back.

Food, television, classism, mind control – you know, the usual.

We’re staying with The Husband’s family for a minute while we reacclimate to normal human society (whatever that is – I really couldn’t tell you). I find myself suddenly confronted with things I had largely forgotten about: delicious fried foods, the convenience of living five minutes from a real town, roads off of which it is mostly impossible to plummet to a watery death, cat allergies, and television.

Oh, sweet opioid light box, how I both love and loathe you.

On one of our first mornings here, I sat down to have some coffee and watch the news, but it was Saturday, so the news was all puff pieces and celebrity gossip (as though war and genocide and bigotry and violent death also work 9 to 5 Monday through Friday – WTF, CNN?). I’m not sure how it happened, but I ended up getting sucked into a vortex of reality tv. It was that one show about people who save tons of money with massive numbers of coupons, and I was utterly transfixed for a few straight hours. Transfixed, I say.

First of all, good on these folks for gaming the system. Getting a few hundred dollars worth of stuff for ten bucks? Awesome. Way to stick it to the man? I guess? (Although there are probably easier and more environmentally friendly ways to both upset capitalism and use coupons – so much paper!) However, it took all of two minutes for me to start armchair psychologizing all over these people. What the hell is wrong with them? This seems like a mutant hybrid of OCD and hoarding, with a little addictive behavior thrown in for flavor. On the one hand, I was completely fascinated. On the other, I think some of them might need real help. As usual, I was angered by reality television exploiting people, and by people wanting to be exploited by reality tv. Not to mention angry at myself for becoming a drooling zombie while watching (even though I watch cooking shows all the time and they’re not that different, they don’t switch my brain off in the same way – I swear reality tv is subliminally screwing with us somehow).

Of course, I do love a good deal. I appreciate a sale or a discount as much as the next red-blooded American homemaker. But the logic here is not sound. To buy a thousand of an item just because they’re only a penny each still means you’re spending money you wouldn’t have spent. On something that you may not actually need or use. Save the money, you’ll be better off. Or, buy the thousand items, keep the few you’ll use, and donate the rest. To spend a fortune making your house look like the Wal-Mart with a lifetime’s supply of every brand of every item just makes no fucking sense. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? First, I don’t switch brands that often. I don’t need to have them all onhand. Second, as The Husband pointed out, some of these families are destroying their homes with the weight of their stuff, which will cost them more to fix than they’ll ever save buying shampoo by the gallon. And third, I think it’s pretty gross to play on people’s economic fears and insecurities by promoting this doomsday bunker, scrimp and pinch mentality like it’s a game these particular people are playing better than others. Like the viewer isn’t good enough at being poor.

The other thing that bugs me about this show is that, almost without exception, the food that they’re getting these amazing deals on is crap. Why would you buy hundreds of boxes of pre-packaged, preservative-filled, salt and sugar and chemical shit that’s probably going to expire before you use it all? You will get diabetes and die of cancer before you plow through that truckload of Hamburger Helper, I assure you. This is all reinforcing the idea that poor people (or even people on what I would consider a reasonable food budget) don’t deserve to eat fresh, healthy food. That it will and should remain out of their financial reach. Ooh, it pisses me off so much. So. Much.

And look, I understand that my eating organic (when possible) and vegan (mostly) is big, fat, ugly privilege. I get it. But I’ve been broker than broke for long stretches of my adult life. I’ve had the cabinet full of 10-for-$10 Hamburger Helper and fifteen-cent dollar store brand ramen. I have cooked the last meat in the house and given it to my dog because it’s all we had until payday. I have survived for days at a time on McDoubles paid for with pennies. I won’t apologize for any of it. I shouldn’t have to, and no one should be made to feel like they have to. It’s fucking Les Mis out there, for real.

But have you noticed which foods in the grocery are covered by WIC or EBT and which aren’t? Have you noticed how politicians and pundits harp on Welfare recipients being freeloaders, being lazy, wanting handouts, when really all these people want to do is feed their children? Have you noticed that the people who eat this chemical shitstorm food are always sick? And how their medical bills keep them from getting off of Welfare or their disorders prevent them from getting better jobs or their needing access to disability and/or better healthcare makes them doubly shamed in the media? Have you noticed that kids who don’t eat decent food or enough food get lower grades in school, perpetuating a false meritocracy that favors the wealthy? Have you noticed that this is all connected? Have you noticed that it’s purposefully orchestrated? Have you noticed that living in the forest for so long has made me a cynical conspiracy theorist?

No, I kid. I’m not a cynical conspiracy theorist. I prefer the term “realist.”

What burns my biscuit (man, I’ve really missed using that particular Southernism), is when people roll their eyes at me or call me a hippie or some other dismissive thing. The bottom line is that this is massive systemic control over our bodies. It’s not healthcare or abortion or microchips or colony collapse or poisoned municipal water, but it is fabricating a narrative that convinces us to voluntarily put shit that will kill us in our mouths all day every day. I loves me a Big Mac, I do. I really, really do. But they are not food. That’s all I’m saying. That doesn’t make me crazy. Saying that they’re full of drugs that make us dumb and passive and obedient would be crazy.

Although it’s not entirely out of the question.

Things are getting better, in some ways, in some places. CSAs and community gardens are popping up in food deserts. Some schools are incorporating cooking and nutrition classes. Subscription box services like Blue Apron are making it almost as convenient for people (who can afford it) to cook as it is for them to eat out. People are actually asking where their food comes from and what’s in it, even if those answers might be manipulated or flat-out lies (“natural” doesn’t mean a goddamn thing, y’all, stop paying more for it). I had dinner last night with my web guru and his family. We talked about food and GMOs and Monsanto and the meat industry and, eventually, how many restaurants there are in our little town now. When last I lived on this side of the country, I never would have guessed that we’d be able to sit down and enjoy a local craft beer on tap on Main Street. It blows my mind that there’s a bustling farmer’s market here in the summer. It makes sense, though. I always wondered why, in a town surrounded by farms, you couldn’t buy any of those products in the grocery. So, good on you, hometown. Now, let’s work on improving those school breakfasts and lunches and maybe get some more veggies available to families who can’t afford them, maybe? Baby steps. You got this.

Anyway. I’m still getting used to being around people again. Please pardon me if I come across as a crazed cave dweller, dazed and blinking and stumbling in the light. That’s not too far from the truth, really. I might go on and on about totally normal things that, for no good reason, strike me as bizarre. Things like eating food, watching tv, and having a beer with friends. It’s all new and batshit and weird. I’ll get used to it. Probably. Fingers crossed.

Out here on the perimeter, there are no stars.

I drove across our beautiful, delightfully strange country. I’ve done this before, many times. It’s always different. I always learn something. I always go into the journey with expectations, which is stupid. I never come out with any answers, just more questions and a new handful of stories.

This particular adventure, I found myself in an unexpected state of shock, suddenly set loose and feeling inexplicably unsafe – obviously I haven’t left my nest in the forest for far, far too long. “Bewildered” is the most appropriate word I can think of, even if its meaning is literally the opposite of what was happening to me.

And I wondered if the Beats would still feel at home in our America, with its pockets of fast food and big box stores, a sorry excuse for civilization. Would Ginsberg really have to ask why our libraries are full of tears? Would Kerouac, now nearing one hundred, use an iPhone? Or would he stay up late clackity clacking away on that mystical Underwood, reeling and railing at the scene around him? Would Burroughs even notice anything was different? Those guys were always so good at seeing beauty in the ugly and the dangerous, and yet I think maybe we would be too much for them.

And I wondered, driving past abandoned town after abandoned town in the desert: what happened here? These houses, spray-painted or burned out, who worked to make cozy homes of them? Were they the same people who put murals of birds and gods and trees and lovely, lively things on the ruins of their old lives? Like explorers who left their homeland, then set it on fire and signed the ashes? Or was that art put there by strangers, itinerant scavengers who, in fine American fashion, were so desperate for unclaimed space?

And I wondered about the shuttered trailer with four identical, gutted, and sun-bleached Fairladies in the yard – was there a fifth? Was it patchworked together out of cannibalized remains of its sisters and made beautiful again, with love and sweat and blood and beer? Was it screamed at, laughed over, turned into an important part of someone’s world? And, when the time came to board up that house and flee whatever happened there, did the owner look for a moment at those four dead husks and thank them before driving away into the cold, dusty night?

And I wondered: why are all these small farms brown and dead and their houses empty? Why do all these big, green, lush farms have McMansions bristling with satellite dishes, big shiny trucks out front? Why can’t I finish this thought? Why doesn’t that speak for itself?

And I wondered if this is the beginning of the end of the world. If maybe we’re missing it, not noticing, because it looks like empty houses and spray paint and reality television, rather than the angel of death.

And I wondered, driving across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas: is it possible to grow tired of the sky? Of it hypnotizing you into thinking you’re the smallest thing in the world? Of feeling both crushed and yet somehow completely untethered to the earth?

And I wondered, in Tennessee, what the folks who travel great distances to go to Graceland or Nashville or Dollywood would think if they found themselves up in a holler. How would they handle themselves when faced with those Appalachian stereotypes which, while vastly overblown, contain a certain measure of truth? Porch picking and moonshine are hidden wizardry, the architectural mathematics underpinning all that other shit. I wondered how many billboards it takes to erase history.

And I wondered if I’m a disgrace to my hitchhiking, road warrior, punk-poet brethren and ancestors. The Merry Prankster types who we worship as young pot-smoking liberals. Do I dishonor their memory, their legacy, the church of the blue highway, by traveling in this way? Or am I just thirty-three, with two bitchy dogs in the backseat, and people texting me every damn hour to see what city I’m in now. How about now? What about now? How many miles? Which state lines? And I wondered if I’d be happier traveling on those small back roads of America again. Those teeny little squirrely ones, like the veins in a wrist. Am I psychologically safer on the big interstate, where everything is always the same? Reliable? Or was I merely in a hurry this time, and what I need to do for my sanity is hit up some delicious paths less taken? Will I even see them in the same way anymore? Have I lost that thing that makes places magic? Have I turned every vista into a postcard? Why is this all so blindingly absurd?

And I wondered, coming home to the town where I grew up: how’s this going to go? Has the town changed? Have I? Can I be culture shocked by my own culture? On the way to the grocery store (now a quick ten minutes away rather than two and a half hours – thank every pantheon in every language) I saw two Trump stickers and a Confederate flag. To each their own, obviously, I’ve got no beef with self-expression. Still, things like that will take a bit of getting used to. The young lady at the grocery eyeballed my soy milk and was annoyed that she had to look up all the codes for my organic vegetables. She asked if I was from here and, without even thinking about it, I said, “I used to be.”

And I wonder what the hell that means.

An apology, an update, and a small galaxy of strange possibilities.

So, I have good news and I have bad news. When asked which I prefer first, I always go with bad, so as to end on a high note. Sticking with that logic, the bad news: I’ve been a real deadbeat blogger lately. And while I’m truly sorry about that, I don’t expect it to improve anytime soon. There may be a workaround, if we can all stomach my talking about myself more than usual, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. At the moment, we’re all going to stay here in blog limbo. At least we’re together.

By way of explanation, the good news: I’m moving! Across the whole damn country! Again! That’s what has me so preoccupied that I can’t do a lot of writing right at the moment. And I want to, but I haven’t been able to wrap my head around anything for more than a couple of paragraphs before I get utterly distracted by packing and arrangements and route planning and blah blah blah. My writery impulse is not dead, merely buried. So I apologize for my inability to multitask, and I assure you that I’m slowly stomping my way through some fairly coherent sentences about the newly resurrected X-files. But Mulder may be best friends with E.T. before I finish it. We’ll see.

So that’s what’s going on right now. The other thing, the less predictable upcoming future thing, is that moving 3500 miles with two dogs is stressful as fuck. And when it’s over, I’ll need some recovery time. I have no idea when we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Just bear with me. Please please please.

The maybe upside is that, like a lot of people who moved often as children, travel energizes the shit out of me. I might scribble like a madman while I’m on the road, go back to spewing some Kerouacian nonsense about life, the universe, and everything wonderful about seeing America’s back roads, the astonishing loneliness of an empty highway on a warm night, the sunrise over the desert while my beautiful husband sleeps in the passenger seat, how we’re all connected by the space and time that separate us, how travel replenishes the soul while fast food crushes my recently vegetarian intestines to a greasy pulp. It certainly makes a difference that the only book I kept out of the boxes to read along the way is the final David Foster Wallace novel. This might be brain overload, but surely something usable will come out of it. I put complete faith in the gods of both the highway and the footnote. They’ve never done me wrong.

And after we get where we’re going, there’s a wealth of possible material in my reacclimating to normal human society, my inevitable culture shock, and the weirdness of moving, temporarily, back to my hometown. This is why I say you might get sick of me talking about myself. Ironically, it’s probably going to get worse as I come out of a state of complete, crushing, mind-numbing isolation. Weird, that. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The bottom line is that right now we’re in blog purgatory, and I don’t know how long we’ll be here. I say we kick back, put on a Doors album (the only acceptably purgatorial music), roll the windows down, and enjoy the shit out of the ride. Who’s with me?

Death needs a day off.

It’s been a rough week, you guys. First we lost David Bowie and then Alan Rickman. Both died unexpectedly, both at age 69, and both of cancer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: fuck cancer. So much. Rest well, gentlemen. You will be missed.

Here’s the problem I’m having at the moment: my instinct is to write some sort of heartfelt piece about how much these fine artists’ work meant to me. I want to talk about that stuff because that’s how fans mourn. It’s simple. And it feels like gratitude when we do it. I suppose it is, actually.

However, it also feels like me talking about myself. Again. My adopting Bowie as a personal saint and role model. How Rickman’s performance in Dogma changed my view on religious satire, which helped solidify my views on religion in general. Not having a relationship with these people outside of adoration, that’s really my only option. Still, it feels selfish and hollow to talk about me right now. And the internet is full of that shit almost immediately every time this happens.

That’s the real point, I think. Not that we all have an individualized experience with these semi-strangers, but that we’re all thinking about those experiences together. Somehow in our self-absorption we feel more connected. You know for a fact that, while we were all sitting alone with headphones on, a billion people were all listening to the same voice at the same time. The world sits shiva on Twitter. The future is fucking weird. Just weird beyond description.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m not going to do that whole “the first time I heard a Bowie album/saw a Rickman film” thing that I usually do (Diamond Dogs and Robin Hood, respectively, though, just for the record). Because I’m sick to death of talking about myself, frankly. Especially teenage me. She was a dick.

I’ve been reading stuff about Rickman all morning and almost every article has something about Harry Potter in the headline. Without a doubt, Snape is his most well-known character, and probably the one he’ll be remembered for by anyone too young to know who Hans Gruber was. Much in the way I was reluctant to talk mostly about Spock when Nimoy died, I think reducing Rickman to Snape and only Snape would be a mistake. That’s not my intention, but follow me for a second.

My generation had a pretty juvenile and petty social structure. We still operated on a sort of Breakfast Club level – if you’re labeled X, you can’t do/like/wear A, B, or C. It’s fucking ridiculous and I’m glad that mindset has largely dissipated (both among us old folks and with the whippersnappers I know). Harry Potter was, in my experience, a huge player in that culture shift. Anyone can be a Potter fan, because they’re great books and that’s all that matters. As it should be. Snape is, weirdly, a kind of avatar for that whole idea. In the Sharks/Jets, Capulet/Montague, Hatfield/McCoy sense, Snape was a big fat traitor, not only to the Slytherin/Gryffindor feud but also to the Death Eaters. He was a double agent in some real good versus evil shit. And he did it for love. He’s the villain with a heart of gold, the sheep in wolf’s clothing. Also, he was the kid who got bullied and pushed around and had his heart put in a blender and fed to him by the girl he couldn’t have. He’s probably the most important character in that series, besides Harry (or Neville, depending on which theory you choose to believe about the Chosen One). Rickman brought that character to such astounding life, made him flesh and blood and love and hate and tears. That’s something that anyone can point to now and say, “Here. This. Do it like this.”

(Now I’m going to have a lit major moment. It’s not good. Just grit your teeth and we’ll be done with it soon.)

Where Snape was a bunch of big ideas narrowed to a single point, Bowie was a bunch of big ideas emanating from a single point. (See, that didn’t hurt too much, did it?)

Bowie, too, was a character. Not just a stage name, but a public persona, a constantly changing fabrication. Which is how he could do anything and everything and get away with it and make it beautiful and strange, while still maintaining some private, authentic, original self. But the influences of his work are everywhere. He’s like air or space or something. Important, but impossible to pin down with words. One of my young cousins asked me who Bowie was. I described him as “the emperor of the weirdos” and just told her to look him up. I mean, where do you tell someone to start? There’s so much. Like Rickman/Snape, I’m hesitant to use Ziggy Stardust as the shining example of his work, even though, again, it’s the one everyone knows. The thing I love about Bowie is that he ostensibly gave zero fucks about what anybody thought of him. He was one of those guys who seemed to live and breathe art and, more importantly, served as inspiration for subsequent oddballs to do the same. I want to say he “gave permission” but I think he might have found that gatekeeper role distasteful, given that gatekeepers are obligated to sometimes say “no, you can’t come in.”

Anyway. I don’t know. This post feels inadequate. I apologize for my comparing and contrasting. It’s probably the worst structure for this conversation, but I can’t help it. I think in analogies. And these guys have a pretty big intersection in my personal architecture. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, but there’s something really comforting about the idea of great artists and thinkers together, young and healthy and beautiful, doing what they love without all the bullshit that comes with fame and business. Do you know that Tori Amos song “Happy Phantom”? Or the Stephen King story “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”? I’d like to think it’s something like that. I don’t really believe it, but man, doesn’t it make you happy to think about?

Cabin fever

In my last post, I wrote about how great it was to take a day off and just read books because the power went out for most of a day. As of this writing, the power has been out for six days (more or less, it came back on for a few hours a couple of nights ago and then went out again – it’s been a real emotional rollercoaster around here). And, while the novelty of living like a caveperson has definitely worn off, the great book binge of late 2015 continues unabated. It’s strange having no other input right now. Well, books and watching my tiny dogs do their very best polar bear impressions in a foot and a half of snow – it’s pitiful but hilarious. I’ve been without outside human contact for far too long. I think I’m getting weird. You’d think living in such isolation for so long would have trained me at least a little for something like this, but I can still feel the weirdness creeping.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I bring you:

A Tale of Two Chucks

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Now is the winter of our disconnection…sorry, I’ll stop. I don’t remember the rest of that quote anyway.

Chuck the First – Encyclopedia Klosterman

When I grow up, I want to be Chuck Klosterman. Not because I’m not awkward enough already (I am) and not just because he’s an amazing writer (he is), but because the man is a fucking font of music history and trivia. Furthermore, he’s the perfect age to love and hate all the music I, too, love and hate (although not in the same combinations). Perhaps it’s because I’m from a very small town where I had very little access to new music or people who gave a shit about music, or maybe it’s because I spent so many post-Napster years without internet access, but I feel like I could be a million times more knowledgeable about music and not even come close to scratching the surface of what Klosterman knows. To be fair, though, it’s been his job to know. He was a music and pop culture journalist for SPIN and Esquire (among others) back when that job was amazing, and he was an obsessive fan for years before that. Where I made books my friends in my youth, he, apparently, kept the company of a badass record collection and actual rock stars.

Besides so thoroughly knowing his shit, the thing I dig about Klosterman is how he routinely takes two (or twenty) obscure songs/bands/movies/ideas and synthesizes their analyses into a perfect golden nugget of cultural or psychological insight. Contrarily (or possibly merely as an extension of this way of thinking), he also takes a simple, or even shallow, idea and dives incredibly deep with it. Examples of this from IV (the book I read yesterday) include: interviewing Robert Plant and actually arguing with him about whether or not Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal; deconstructing voyeurism and sexuality in late-90s America in an utterly batshit and mostly pointless pantsless conversation with Britney Spears; and (probably my favorite) contending that Lost and Survivor could never have been ratings competitors without the other, that they’re two sides of the same coin, conjoined twins of a sort.

So many essayists go into a piece with the intention of beating the reader over the head with their precious, meticulously cultivated point. Klosterman rarely does that. Maybe because, as a journalist, so many of his stories centered around interviews, experiences, moments that were, much like the work of the Romantic poets, “recalled later, in tranquility.” One gets the sense that he’s perfectly happy to ask “what just happened?” or “what does this mean?” and never come up with an answer.

At the heart of everything Klosterman writes is the conceit that we are bound together more than we are divided by our enthusiasms. We can and will always find common ground in the things we know/love/hate communally. In one essay called “Five Interesting Corpses” (which is about Johnny Carson, the overabundance of choice in a consumerist society, monogamy, and, weirdly, that summer that all of America knew the words to that one Outkast song – seriously, this is how this man thinks), he posits a scenario in which one could conceivably sit down at any table in a bar filled with very, very different types of folks and still find something to talk about with every stranger. He writes:

“This is not the purpose of art and culture, but it’s probably the biggest social benefit; these shared experiences are how we connect to other people, and it’s how we understand our own identity. However, all the examples I mentioned are specific and personal; they are only pockets of shared existence. They are things individual people choose to understand, and finding others who understand them equally are products of coincidence.”

Way to sum up everything I’ve ever written in three sentences there, Chuck. I might as well stop now. And, hey, many props for correct and unabashed use of semicolons. Respect.

(Sidebar, tacked on later: it has come to my attention that in my absence from the modern world Lemmy Kilmister died. Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed. I bring this up because in wanting to write about Lemmy, Motörhead, and metal in general, I realize that I’ve still got too much Klosterman floating around in my bloodstream. In order to not ape or inadvertently quote him, may I suggest that we all just go read/reread both Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live, his amazing books about heavy metal and dead rock stars, respectively. And listen to some Motörhead. It’s good shit. Maybe rock some muttonchops if you can.)

Chuck the Second – Real American Weirdo

Chuck Palahniuk confounds me. Finishing one of his books always feels a bit like realizing how dirty a lake is only as you’re getting out of it, after swimming gleefully in filth for hours. Super fun, but tiring and a little scummy. I read Rant right after finishing that Klosterman book, and I must say that combination was quite toothpaste-and-orange-juice-ish.

(How many weird analogies does it take to describe Palahniuk? I dunno. Let’s find out!)

Like most bookish children of the 90s, I came to Palahniuk because of Fight Club. Much to my chagrin, I still have not read all of his work, but everything I’ve read I’ve adored. It fucks me up, though. I’m always a little disoriented when I come back to the real world, but it’s in a completely different and unexpected way with each book. And while that may sound like criticism, I assure you that admitting something wormed its way under my skin and I can still feel it squirming is, indeed, high praise. The only other author who does that to me is Clive Barker, and even his stuff is inconsistently squirmy. And maybe Irvine Welsh, I suppose, but for different reasons.

I think what makes Palahniuk’s fiction challenging is that, inevitably, as you figure out what’s going on, that new understanding changes what you thought you already understood. And it happens again. And then again. And then five more times. As such, it becomes nearly impossible to pick out any shreds of deeper meaning while desperately hanging on to a flaming, speeding narrative by your fucking fingernails. This is both a positive and a negative experience for me, as a person who is doomed to think like a literature major forever. On the one hand, my instinct is to analyze and deconstruct as I go, constantly looking for comparisons and symbols and references (which is why I think/talk/write in analogies). It’s tremendously frustrating when that becomes difficult, although it seems both selfish and shallow to say so. On the other hand, there’s something blissful about being forced to just let go, to buy the ticket and take the ride in a Hunter Thompson or Bill Hicks sense. So rarely do I actually relinquish control of what I’m reading (which is a completely whacked thing to even say), it always comes as something of a shock to the system.

All of which is to say: there’s no way in hell I can summarize this or any other Palahniuk book for you. Just read them and we can talk after. Something something culture bubbles. Briefly and subjectively, though:

Rant = exactly four layers of mindfuck, all of which are spoilers, but please please please go get a rabies vaccine immediately

Pygmy = I couldn’t speak proper English for a week and it was totally worth it

Haunted = gave me nightmares, made me want to turn the book into a movie and also to have a plan for any possible future cannibalism situations

Lullaby = complete, perfect distilled terror of babies and baby-having culture

I don’t really have a good, tidy way to wrap up this post. I think I may be out of practice. And with all the clean country living, it’s starting to feel like one of those epistolary adventure novels up in here, isn’t it? “So cold. So alone. Tell my mother I love her. Goodbye, cruel world. Rosebud.” Or something like that. I feel like I should be more prepared for these sorts of catastrophic disconnections. Maybe invest in carrier pigeons. Learn smoke signals. Support the reintroduction of the telegraph, perhaps (come on hipsters, you’ll love it). Get me a snazzy butter churn. Do the Amish have wifi? I could go learn from them. Also, is it a good idea to pedal a bicycle fifteen miles uphill in two feet of snow just to go get beer or will I die? The downhill bit doesn’t seem like it will be a problem. I’ll let you know. As long as the power stays on.

Blanky forts forever!

Our power went out the other day. It’s one of the problems with living in the forest – one little record-breaking windstorm and half the county loses all connection to the outside world. But, upside, I got to snuggle my dogs under a fuzzy blanket and read books with a flashlight for twelve hours. It was like a mandatory blanket fort childhood regression therapy day. And then the power came back on and I had a wicked flashlight headache and found my very special Christmas ice cream had melted and all my happy feelings were undone. But that’s not really the point here.

The point is that I read super duper fucking fast.

No, I’m kidding, that’s not the point either. It is relevant, though. I read two and a half books that day. One of them is smallish and the other had to be pried out of my freezing claw so I would eat something at one point, but still, that might be a personal record. Bonus. Level up.

Lately I’ve found myself overwhelmed by my to-be-read pile. To the point where I have decided both to buy no more books until the pile is gone and also, later, to tell the pile to get fucked and run up my credit card more than is fiscally responsible buying new stacks of new books. Problem is, there’s an actual, literal pile…

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…and then there’s The List. The List haunts me. It’s either the mark of an ambitious young woman who sets unrealistic goals so she can (cue glitter and breathy voiceover) shoot for the moon! Or. I might be a mental hoarder and The List is where awesome things I want to learn about go to die. To be fair, it is quite an impressive list. At one point it existed as most of a small notebook, but now it’s a spreadsheet. It’s beautiful, like all spreadsheets. And having been transferred from file format to file format over three computers now, it’s got that amazing, sort of schizophrenic non-font font that looks like creepy baby teeth or old headstones or something. You know the one. It’s possible to look at The List and trace all my momentary obsessions and psychological phases – every Pulitzer winner, dead rock star biographies, the history of circuses, British interregnum scientists. As well as, during my time at the Giant Evil Bookstore, listing the ISBN and publisher and format for every book (which is handy, mostly, for finding rare or out of print books, like those on the history of circuses and British interregnum scientists). If I die before I wake, I pray my future hypothetical biographer/psychologist/archaeologist my fucking ridiculous to-be-read list to take.

Jesus Murphy, woman – get to the bloody point!

Fine! As you may recall, I have an aversion to New Year’s resolutions. I fail enough already without setting myself up with what are usually, frankly, unattainable goals that I think are brilliant at the time due to far too much champagne and encouragement from my equally wasted rapscallion buddies. Also, I’m rubbish at winter. I should really just be focusing on getting through a normal day, not doing anything new and exciting and difficult.

However.

In wracking my brain for blog ideas this week, it occurred to me that there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet and fifty-two weeks in a year. So, if I read one fiction and one nonfiction book a week (for a balanced diet), and go through the alphabet twice (as an organizational device), I can cross two hundred and eight books off the list this year. In all honesty, that probably won’t happen. Life so often gets in the way. More and more, Netflix and podcasts get in my way. Back when I still lived in the world, though, I’d read four or five books a week, easy. So now it seems to be a question of discipline, doesn’t it? Books vs internet, brain vs eyeballs/earholes, the thing I love the most in the world vs oh god, so easy and soothing like aloe vera on the sunburn of my having to deal with anything whatsoever including thinking. Still, let’s call it one hundred and seventy-five books for sure, and aim for two hundred and eight, shall we? Which is not to say that I’m setting you up for a whole year of blogs on nothing but books. I’m sure I’ll find something else to prattle on about. I mean, it’s an election year, you guys!

I am a touch concerned about that thing brains do, where they respond to telling someone an idea about a project in exactly the same way that they respond to doing the actual project. Realistically, that will probably be the thing that screws me over here. Stupid brain and its janky dopamine system. We should tell brains that we’re running out of dopamine and they should switch to solar.

Holy shit. What if that’s true? What if we’ve so fucked the planet and our food and water that we can’t make enough dopamine anymore? And that’s why everyone’s so hateful and fighty all the time? What? Did my being a dick and making a bad joke just solve a thing?

Fuck yeah, agropants!

Alright, but really. I’m going to try to stick to this book thing. But we’re not calling it a resolution because I don’t do those. What should we call it? Bookapalooza? Listgate? Spreadsheetathon? Something like that. I’ll get back to you.

Meanwhile, I suggest you turn off all your devices (except the freezer – RIP, extremely expensive organic peppermint ice cream), build a pillow fort, and read a book or two with your cuddle buddies. Doctor’s orders. Go. Book. Fort. Now. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Row, row, row your boat.

Once upon a time, I thought I could be a poet. I thought anyone could. Which, I suppose is true. But I was/am a horrible poet, and I had delusions of one day being A Great Poet. That has never happened. I like all the steps of writing poetry, though, the process. First, the purgative brain spew is quite nice. Then, the cutting and grouping and rewording, finding where the pauses go, looking for when to breathe. Everything clicks into place, eventually. Poetry is some of my worst writing, but my most satisfying editing. Occasionally, particularly when I’m having a dark day, I still give it a go, mostly to kick all the bad words off the hamster wheel. And don’t get your hopes up – I am putting very little of that shit in this post. You sadists. But here’s one snippet that I wrote when I was about sixteen. I come back to it often. It runs through my head in the middle of the night, uninvited:

Down to my last cigarette

and there’s no end in sight.

There are demons in the tv.

They provide fantastic light.

Yes, it is awful. Take a second to appreciate that terrible little blip from my adolescence. Read it again, really soak up how bad it is.

Now, shut your giggle hole, because I’m going to tell you why that nibble of suck is important.

It’s important because it’s a moment, pinned down and euthanized like a butterfly. It exists somewhere on paper, trapped in an old journal in a box in a basement in a house in a town that, I’m convinced, tried to kill me. Still, a moment: it was late and I wasn’t sleeping again. I rarely slept. I read books and chain smoked and drank lots of tea, but I rarely slept. Normally, I would have been watching Trainspotting or Empire Records or Pulp Fiction because I know all the words and I could ignore them while I read, but my VCR had died a horrible death that day so I had late night talk shows on mute. For company, I suppose. Even back then I cared very little for the chit chat of famous people on television, if they weren’t Star Wars or comic book adjacent. I remember not knowing who any of the guests on any of the shows were, and by the time Carson Daly came on (does anyone remember that guy? Or his shitty show?) they were all just grinning skulls, pretending to laugh, trying to pass as human. I got really angry. Like, irrationally angry. And I scribbled pages and pages of unintelligible nonsense. Like I do.

It was just a moment, but it was the beginning of something. For whatever reason, that moment with the cigarette smoke and Carson Daly’s pixel rictus was the moment that I realized that my thoughts were not okay. Not “not normal,” but seriously not okay. It’s not okay to get so mad at a smiling handsome talk show personality that you want to hurt yourself. It was when I finally talked to my family about maybe getting some help. That process did not go well (the help, not the talking to my family). The pieces didn’t click together. I never really figured out when to breathe. But fuck, it could have been so much worse. I started seeing a therapist who asked to read my notebooks. I roundly told her she could go fuck herself. She gave me that line about “you have to help me help you.” But I knew that all the garbage spewing from my Kerouac-and-insomnia-addled brain would only help this underpaid hick land me in the bughouse. I might have been wrong. Still, I feel like all my blah blah about death and sex and demons and drugs would have been misconstrued. This is, after all, the woman who tried to convince me not to go to college, told me artists couldn’t be trusted, and eventually kicked me out of her office without a referral to another therapist saying, “I can’t help you, you need medication” (I was already on quite a bit of medication). Oh, and just for context, this all happened less than a year after my dad died. Since then, I’ve been largely managing my own mental health. I quit taking medication my sophomore year of college (and very quickly had to take a semester off when my grades nosedived), but the counselors there were very helpful. I meditate. I drink too much. I lean heavily on the kindness and compassion of friends who, I’m sure, are tired of listening to me have the same crises over and over.

The writing helps, usually. I’ve been trying to write a reasonable blog post all week. The last one was actually really difficult for me. And everywhere I look, there’s just horror. Shootings and war and death and Donald Trump. Hate and anger. I can’t muster enthusiasm for anything, let alone write with any levity. The title of this post was going to be “With a Heavy Heart.” Which is not melodrama. When I get like this, so sunk in, I am literally heavy. It’s hard to move, like I’m wearing layers of coats. I forget to eat. I have to set a reminder alarm so I shower. I’m trying. I really am. I’m sleeping better most days. I surround myself with things that make me happy: The Husband, our lurpy dogs, bad slasher movies, new books, tea, the occasional cheap cigar. I go through the motions. I do the dishes. I play nice. I smile. I try to pass as human.

Anyway. I thought I’d take a moment, for you guys. Taking moments is vitally important. Take them, they’re yours. A dear friend of mine used to say “We only get one moment, it just moves around a lot.” Take a moment to breathe. To cry, to scream, to punch a wall, to write a shit poem or a rambling blog post, to drink some water, to take a shower, to ask for help. Especially to ask for help. There is no good reason not to ask. I’ll say that again because whatever argument you were about to give is a bullshit excuse, not a reason. There is no good reason not to ask for help. Literally ask someone. Make a phone call. Send a text. Don’t just post something ominous and vaguely suicidal on fucking Facebook and scare the shit out of your family, hoping someone gets the message (and be assured, it does scare your family and friends – we know your backstory and we know that you don’t normally talk like Elliot Smith). Don’t offhandedly mention “not doing so well” or make what you’re going through sound like you have a cold. And if people offer you help without your asking them, do not blow them off. Those might be the people you need. They might not, but don’t try to convince them that you’re not worth helping.

Listen, here’s the bottom line: depression lies. It’s a snake in the grass bastard that sneaks up and whispers in your ear and you’re doing what it says before you even notice that it’s there. But it lies. Everything it says is a lie. It will tell you that this is just how life is, that this is how you’ll always feel, that it’s normal to feel like screaming all the time. It will tell you that you don’t deserve any better. It will tell you that it’ll get better on its own, that you don’t need help, that you’re not worth helping. It will tell you that no one sees that there’s something wrong, or that no one cares. It will tell you to self-destruct or self-harm, that you’re not worth the effort it takes to care for yourself, that other people should always be your priority. It will tell you that it wouldn’t make a difference or that things would be better if you weren’t here.

Lies. All fucking fat, ugly, slimy lies.

Take that moment, too, to remind yourself that depression lies. Take it a hundred times a day if you need to. Look that little demon motherfucker straight in the eye and tell it that you know it’s a liar. It doesn’t like to hear that. That little bit of proactive self-care can change everything. It may not feel like much, but action is action, and we sometimes have to deal in baby steps, right? That same friend, the one who talked about only having one moment, he was a real weirdo. His favorite song was Row, Row, Row Your Boat, because “It teaches you to be a man of action, Vanessa. And that’s important, very important, very very important indeed.” You’re in the boat, and you’re going down the stream. The stream will carry you, if you let it, if you’re lazy. But if you row, you’ll get there faster, and you’ll have gotten there on your own. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.

You know the rest.

Social Justice Wizard

I was trying to write a blog post last week. I was already cranky because, for a number of reasons, I haven’t written anything for a while and was having a hard time getting going. Wanting to quote a particular interaction, I had spent longer than planned digging through old tweets, so I was double cranky. And then I started seeing all these tweets about Paris. The events of that evening were hideous. I was double cranky plus sad plus scared. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I started to write a new post about not being able to wrap my head around it, because the writing helps me get my feelings straight, usually. But then I felt selfish and awful and went to bed feeling like an asshole. A sad asshole. And I had the dream where the house falls down around me over and over and over again. That is never a good sign.

There’s a bit from The Basketball Diaries that runs through my head on repeat when I get like this: “It’s been hard, the writing, lately. Just all comes in beautiful fragments like nods now. So high. Guess I’d rather sleep forever this sleep and forget. But the gnats, they keep buzzing in my ear, and the heat, and the dreams…” (And then, because it’s the next thing on the soundtrack, I get the Posies stuck in my head, which is a whole other special kind of torture.) And obviously I’m in no way comparing my depression or my being riled up about something to Carroll’s heroin addiction, but I do feel scattered and incoherent. I’ve never dealt well with anger. Seems I’m angry about more than I thought. I keep starting to rant and rave and then realizing I’ve changed the subject without really noticing. It all does come in beautiful fragments, but they don’t fit together and they don’t make any fucking sense. So I made a list. I’ve been avoiding using lists as a writing style for about a year, but they are pretty well unbeatable for getting all the distracting bullshit out of my head. I’ll just give you the bullet points.

Things I’m pissed about at the moment (actual title of actual list, because I’d had four beers and was weeping):

Terrorism

Xenophobia

Racism

#AllLivesMatter

Homelessness

Refugees

False dichotomies

Bad argumentation

Misused/misunderstood words

Education

Healthcare

Private prisons

Factory farming

Hypocrisy

Social media solidarity

Privilege

Men’s Right’s Activists

Veterans’ programs

LGBTQ rights

Medical cannabis

Planned Parenthood

Corporate personhood

I’ve got pages and pages on some of these things, most of which is bitchy to the point of being unpublishable. But at least it’s not all clanging around in my brain anymore. I think, though, that the real problem I’m having at the moment is actually with the discussion of any of these issues. When the attacks happened in Paris, I was gutted. And while people were still screaming and bleeding in the streets, I was already seeing tweets and posts about Muslims and refugees being responsible, being evil, and how France had brought this on itself, how Paris deserved what was happening. While no one had yet caught the attackers or even counted the dead. The reactionary way in which people comport themselves in what passes for news or debate makes me more angry, sometimes, than I have words for. Passion is one thing. Throwing a temper tantrum is quite another.

So many assumptions are based on labels. For example, thinking that because I describe myself as a liberal that that automatically means I hate guns and don’t want them to exist. Why does A equal B? I like guns. I’m an excellent shot. Do I think that I should have to prove that I know how to safely and properly use them in order to own them? Yes. But the same is true of my car. (It is, ironically, not true of the twelve extremely dangerous swords I keep in my bedroom. Or my kitchen knives. Or any number of chemicals we all have around. If I wanted to kill someone, I don’t need a gun to do it.) Sometimes your assumptions will fail you. Sometimes you will be wrong. Sometimes, when you spit labels at me like insults, I will laugh. I will put that shit on a t-shirt. Politically correct? Fine. Liberal? Sure. Secularist? Yup. Humanist? Absolutely. Social Justice Warrior? Fuck. Yes. Say it again. Say it louder. Point is, don’t think that the way someone labels themselves tells you everything you need or want to know about them. I assure you, that’s untrue. Further, there’s no harm whatsoever in simply asking. Why are we so afraid to ask for people’s opinions to be clarified when we know they differ from our own? Opinion is nuanced. To think you know everything based on a few generalizations is reductive and quite possibly dangerous. Let alone inflammatory and damaging to your own argument. I do it all the time, am quite often wrong, and almost always immediately regret it.

This gets compounded when those labels are then used as insults. I’ve noticed a lot of chatter lately about the term “politically correct.” To my recollection, this phrase gained widespread use in the 90s when things like “physically challenged” replaced things like “crippled.” We’ve largely moved on to a third wave of less shitty terms (“disabled” in this case, although I’m not entirely satisfied with that, either, and “differently abled,” while less internally dispositive, is a bit of a mouthful). Here’s the thing about PC terminology: I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, people don’t like to be described with pejorative words. I totally get that. On the other hand, people don’t like being told how to speak (possibly because that feels an awful lot like being told how to think). I totally get that, too. But you don’t get to come at me specifically because my efforts are to be more inclusive or respectful. Where’s the upside in yelling at me for being nice? I very rarely correct how others speak if it’s not outright inaccurate, and I try not to take offense on anyone else’s behalf. I do not tolerate certain things being said in my own space or about me specifically, but out in the world, I can wince and move on or remove myself from the conversation. Because I’m a fucking grownup. No one is trying to take away anyone’s right to be an asshole. That right is yours to cherish forever. But don’t get upset and try to pull the free speech card when someone tells you that you hurt them. The First Amendment is my favorite, too, but it has never been without consequence.

People can be overly delicate, sure, but that’s hardly new. What feels new to me is people being outraged that anyone would dare say that they take offense to something. I see shit all the time about “why you so butthurt over words?” and “we’re raising a nation of pussies” and “man up” and “the word police are trying to create a nanny state.” Trying to at least act like we give a shit about people by choosing our words carefully is not a nanny state. The nanny state is having fifty warning labels on everything because litigious idiots don’t know better than to stick their hands in spinning blades or to drink lighter fluid. The nanny state is freaking out over “free range parenting” and putting padding under playground equipment. The nanny state is telling me I can’t smoke in a fucking bar, because apparently cigarettes are bad for me but liquor is healthsome and good. The nanny state is being so scared of law suits and bad press that we’re becoming averse to innovation and risk-taking and radical ideas. We’re fat and we’re boring and and we’re stagnating as a culture and it’s because we don’t want to lose any money, not because of the words I use. Stop trying to insult me for striving to be kind.

While we’re on the subject of words (and really, when am I not?), there are a few that get consistently misused and it drives me up a damn wall. “Capitalism” is not the same thing as “corporatism.” To that same end, “communism” is an economic construct, not a governmental one. “Socialism” is a governmental concept, and should not be confused with “fascism.” Fascism is the bad one. Socialism is not inherently evil, and we’ve already got quite a few socialist principles in place. A few years ago I read an article about a survey asking Americans which was better, “socialized medicine” or “nationalized medicine.” These are, of course, the exact same thing. Across the board, people chose “nationalized medicine,” saying Socialism would ruin us all. Around that same time, I saw a clip on the news from a protest against the ACA, of a lady holding a sign that read “Keep the government out of my Medicaid.” I can’t imagine she was being sarcastic. Anyway. Words. “Equality” bothers me, as well. This is one that’s so misused that to point it out is pedantic and annoying, but I’m going to do it anyway. Equality is a given. What we seek is “equanimity.” Look it up (see also: literally, ironically, and chaos).

And lately the one that’s gotten under my skin the most is “courage.” No one’s using it wrong, as far as I’ve seen, but it’s been turned into something pretty gross and it bothers the shit out of me. I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner should necessarily be winning any awards for her courage. She’s rich and white and famous, and her transition has to have been a breeze compared to most people’s. But I have seen so many memes with a picture of her next to a picture of a soldier or a veteran saying something like “This is real courage.” And you know what? Fuck you. Every time I see one of those posts I want to pull my hair out. Because they diminish everyone who wants to use that word to describe themselves but now can’t because they don’t feel like they’re good enough, because they don’t think they’ve met some standard. Bravery and courage aren’t the absence of fear, but rather being scared out of your mind and doing the thing anyway. Those soldiers and cops and firemen? Brave, of course, no question. But also, those kids in the cancer ward? Brave. That single parent trying to get through their day? Brave. That woman walking into an abortion clinic? Brave. That person with mental illness who’s finally asking for some help? Brave. That child sticking up for the other child getting picked on? Brave. That teen telling their parents they’re gay? Brave. There’s more than one kind of courage. There’s more than one way to be a role model. Kicking back and posting memes about people you don’t know or don’t understand? That takes zero bravery. Disagree with people or opinions if you want to disagree. That’s fine. Doing it without being an ass is admirable. Noble, even. But don’t construct false dichotomies, pitting two unrelated things against each other. It’s lazy, and when the argument falls apart, you look like an idiot.

But it happens all the time, doesn’t it? “X versus Y” becomes our only argumentative option. Gun control versus mental healthcare, every time there’s a shooting. Increasing food stamps versus paying for college tuition, every time there’s a conversation about helping the poor. Just lately it’s helping refugees versus housing the homeless. These are all crap arguments. The truth is that we can do more than one thing at a time. The real truth is that there are some things we just want to do more than others. If we housed a whackton of refugees right now and it went perfectly fine, when the dust settled I guarantee that those same people who rallied behind our own homeless population would find some other way to not help. Suddenly they’d be a drain on the system again. Here’s the ugliness: we need people to be homeless. We need them to be an example of the lowest of the low, a cautionary tale. We need to feel good donating to charities and foodbanks and handing that guy on the corner five bucks. We need an excuse to ignore the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. We need a Y to every future hypothetical X. Right now we need homeless veterans in particular to be a scapegoat for our hatred of Muslim refugees, apparently (putting aside the fact that those refugees are running from the same pieces of garbage that we’re spending billions of dollars fighting). Thing is, we’ve had homeless veterans since the beginning. Homes and jobs and lives have been destroyed by every single war in the history of war. It’s in the nature of the thing. There are guys out there in the cold right now who are fucked beyond unfucking because of Vietnam and we haven’t helped them yet. We just cut VA benefits again. We refuse them housing because they have drug problems that we also refuse them treatment for. We bitch and moan about lazy poor people taking advantage of food stamps (which account for less than half of one percent of the federal budget), but ignore how many active duty military personnel are on food stamps! What the actual fuck is that about? Stop making these bullshit arguments about the refugees and just own up to the fact that you’re terrified of Muslims. Just do it. I don’t respect that bias, but I can respect your honesty, and I will damn sure respect you more if you don’t hide behind some veterans who you have no intention of actually helping.

And look, I get it. We should take care of our own. We really should. We should be paying our soldiers enough that they don’t need food stamps. Absolutely. We should get a roof over every vet’s head. No doubt about it. But we what about all the others? What about these values that we claim are so goddamn American? Helping people? Being a melting pot? The land of opportunity? Home of the free? Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? And “he who gives to the poor will never want but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses.” And “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Don’t give me that Christian nation shit and then tell me you don’t want to help a starving baby who doesn’t even know what God is yet. Of course, I’m an atheist. I think you’re all fucking bonkers, and everyone gets to hate me equally. But my godless heathen ass would rather help people in need than not. I’d rather say “I’m sorry these terrible things happened to you, fellow human” without stipulations or conditions.

Of course, I know my privilege is showing here. I know that politics and culture aren’t exactly at the top of a lot of folks’ lists of priorities, especially those who are in the thick of some shit the rest of us just disconnectedly talk about – the refugees, the soldiers, the displaced, the poor, the sick, the old, the discriminated-against, the marginalized, the imprisoned. I get that I am not realistically in any trenches here. Hell, I haven’t even seen any real live people except The Husband and the roommates for weeks. I ain’t fighting any good fights up in my room with my multiple computers and my craft beer. Clearly. I’m just saying that countering outrage with outrage is useless if we choose to remain uninformed about what the words we use actually mean. We can’t just be pissed all the time about buzzwords, soundbites, labels, stereotypes, half-assed summaries, headlines, and social media distillations. Get mad about stuff. Please, for fuck’s sake, give a shit about things, about people. But before you bite someone’s head off, know your argument. Try to understand theirs. None of us should fight just for the sake of fighting. Don’t just say all the same things you’ve said before, like a rehearsed monologue. Listen to people. The hard work is in the learning from each other, being compassionate and open to changing our minds. And even if you hate the other guy, give him room to say his piece, or else everyone’s freedom of speech is fucking wasted. You can misuse these things we so take for granted. You can forget that some people still fight to have those things. You can’t know which side you’re on if you let anyone else tell you how or what to think. Don’t ever be afraid to say “I don’t know” or to bow out of a debate because you don’t understand the issue. It’s okay to need to learn about something before you speak to it. That’s responsible. That’s respectful. Be a citizen of the world. We’ve only got the one, after all. If you’re really going to choose a side, that’s the only one there is when all the other bullshit is taken out of the equation. Life is short. Try not to spend it being a dick.

I need more mindless crap in my diet.

Winter is coming, friends. It’s that time of year when I try to keep the old brain perky while sleep-deprived and overworked. So, on top of my existing eight-ball a day podcast habit, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately. Seems like a better use of my many multitasking hours than binge watching Stargate for the fiftieth time. Although I must admit that the deeper we get into this election cycle, I’m getting a powerful hankerin’ to rewatch The West Wing. I might do that soon.

Anyway, all these documentaries and podcasts are giving me information overload, I think. They’re doing weird stuff to my brain. For example, yesterday I watched one documentary on DMT, one on Keith Richards, and listened to an episode of The Memory Palace (which is a fucking amazing show and you should go listen to all of it right now) about the first female doctor in the US Army. Now, it’s been less than twenty-four hours since I absorbed all these things, and as I’m writing this I just woke up, so either I’ll forget more as the day goes on or I’ll remember more as I get my coffee intake up to a normal human level. Either way, those three completely unrelated things will probably always be connected for me. I’ll remember that Howlin’ Wolf’s real name was Chester only because I recall that DMT stands for dimethyltryptamine and that will remind me of Mary Walker refusing to give back her Congressional Medal of Honor. Someday I’ll forget that yesterday happened, but I’ll know that the one fact makes me think of the others and have no idea why. And don’t even get me started on how weird my dreams are. Point is, I’m learning a lot but not retaining much, just bits and pieces and half stories and inexplicable connections.

In an effort to mix it up a little and maybe remember more of what I learn, I’ve been test-driving a few fiction podcasts. Thinning the stew, so to speak. The brain stew. The delicious brain stew. This is uncharted territory for me, mostly. I’ve been a vocal fan of Welcome to Night Vale for some time now (and I’m super stoked about their novel, which should be sitting in my mailbox today, so more on that soon), and a closet fan of A Prairie Home Companion for as long as I can remember. I like some storytelling stuff like The Moth and Snap Judgement, which have both fiction and nonfiction pieces. So, I ventured into fictional podcasts on a mission, but with no real idea what I wanted or where to look. I tried to find things like Night Vale or things that Night Vale fans recommend, but man is that a niche market. Do you have any idea how many podcasts there are about Cthulhu? More than there need to be, that’s how many. But because Night Vale and because it was almost Halloween, I found a bunch of lists, things like “spooky stories for your Halloween” and the like. I figured these were as good a place to start as any, horror being in my fiction wheelhouse. Listicles are occasionally helpful, I don’t care what anyone says. And I have learned some things, my friends. About the world. About myself. Shocking things. Important things. Things that I feel obligated to tell you because I love you and I care about the health and well-being of your earholes and your brain stew.

So, first Thing (category: surprising) – Just as there’s nothing quite like Night Vale, there’s also nothing quite like Serial. However, every jackass with a microphone seems to want to compare themselves to Serial and every idiot who leaves an iTunes review seems to want to encourage that behavior. Every other podcast says something like “Serial meets X-files” or “Serial written by Lovecraft” and even “Serial broadcast from Night Vale” (true story, I did not make those up). I understand wanting to ride on coattails, and Koenig’s got a great coattail pedigree (herself having ridden on Ira Glass’s), but just because it’s a podcast with a weekly narrative in a journalistic vein does not make it like Serial, y’all. Sorry. One show even went so far as to mimic the intro and style of Serial and use theme music that’s so similar I’d be shocked if whoever wrote it doesn’t get sued for copyright infringement. Homage is one thing, but ripping off is another. Name dropping for the sake of search engines is a third, lazier, more awful thing.

Second Thing (category: disappointing) – I spent probably eight solid hours listening to first episodes of things. It was a difficult day. I couldn’t get through a lot of them, even knowing that it takes a while for some people and shows to get their feet under them. I understand that, I really do, but if I’m going to pump your voice literally directly into my skull, I have to like you. A weird personal rule, but I stand by it. Having whittled it down to things I could stand, I gave a few second episodes a shot, hoping for improvement. But for fuck’s sake, so many of these shows are just bloody horrible. How do you decide to make a podcast and then hire bad voice actors? Do you just not hear it? It’s a podcast! You have one job! Well, two jobs, actually, but I have to say that the writing was not too shabby on most of these. I would have stuck around a lot longer for the stories if I didn’t want to punch the actors in the mouth.

Third Thing (category: faith in humanity-damaging) – Okay, a small caveat here. I’ve never left a review. Amazon, Goodreads, Yelp, iTunes, nothing. I click on the stars on Netflix and Goodreads, but I find that my instinct (and everyone else’s, whether they admit it or not) is to leave a review when something is either amazing or horrible, but never in between, when real discussion can happen. Point is, I don’t know how iTunes reviews work. If they can be taken down, edited, upvoted, paid for – I know nothing. However. I know that if you read enough of them you will start to feel like a different species. Putting aside the thing about only reviewing when you love or hate something, I was appalled – appalled, I say! – at the glowing, gushing reviews for some of these awful podcasts. “Excellent production!” Nope. “Fantastic acting!” You’re kidding, right? “It’s just like Serial!” It is not! More than all that poor taste (or even just different taste, fine, whatever, I’ll allow it), what bothered me the most was how many people thought these were real. They’re either master-level trolls, or they legitimately did not understand that these shows are fiction. I’m baffled here. Comments like “I don’t know how she kept recording, she must have been so scared.” Huh? Seriously? Or, even better, the angry one-star reviews from folks who realized it was fiction after listening and felt that they’d been duped somehow, lied to, misled. I realize that I’m writing a couple thousand words about this whole fiasco, but my ire has got nothing on those one-star review anger monkeys. Holy shit.

Fourth Thing (category: the worst part) – I finally got it down to the last handful of options. I was going to listen to one more episode each and if I still hated them, I would start over from the beginning. Still feeling pretty blah about all of them, I plodded through and Bam! Bam! Bam! All of them had some awesome, crazy twist ending, and now I have to keep listening. And because obviously the universe is against me right now, those four shows? All brand-new. Those were the latest episodes. I’m right back where I started, with nothing to listen to and, bonus, cliffhanger blueballs. I feel like I should maybe go back and give some of that other utter crap a second chance, just in case, but that makes me want to throw a toddler temper tantrum. Life is short, I can’t waste any more days on shitty audio entertainment. Fuck it, yes I can. I probably will. Dammit.

So, what have we learned? Podcast shopping is hard. Reviews are weird. Good voice actors are, apparently, really rare. I may go mad if I have to spend all winter with just the people who talk to me from my iPod. I haven’t slept. Howlin’ Wolf’s real name was Chester. A disheartening number of people don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. All learning and no fun makes brain a dull stew. But I’m considering this an exercise in extending my comfort bubble, so it’s probably for the best in the long run. And if you have a favorite fiction podcast, let me know. I’m on a mission.