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):







False dichotomies

Bad argumentation

Misused/misunderstood words



Private prisons

Factory farming


Social media solidarity


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.

The madness is getting very meta up in here.

I haven’t posted anything in a couple of weeks, and for that I really am sorry. My life is a little bit bananas at the moment, and as much as I would love to sit down and write every day it simply is not possible. And I wouldn’t have had anything to put up this week, either, if it weren’t for a super annoying twist of fate. I was going through some stuff, straightening up my books because everything housewifery-wise is completely out of hand because I’m a sleep-deprived monster right now, and I found an old notebook with an unpublished blog stuffed in one of the pockets. I hate that. So rarely do I misplace things, let alone blank on their existence altogether. But whatever. Now I have a post! Hooray! It’s from a couple of years ago, and my writing has changed so much since then that this is almost difficult to read, if I’m being honest. It feels book report-ish and stilted, but I did enjoy the shit out of that book, so here you go. Further thoughts after. And now, Time Machine Theatre presents: the lost blog post from 2013. [cue TARDIS noises]

Art is Pain.

I know a little bit about a lot of things. I know a lot about a few things. When I encounter things I know absolutely nothing about, I seek to educate myself. That’s all intelligence is, enjoying the systematic eradication of ignorance. It has come to my attention lately that one of the things I know less about than I’d like is art and art history. I took a class in college, but it was way too broad (Art and Music of Western Civilization – holy overload). Also, I was really high. It’s hard to think critically about symphonies and pretty, pretty pictures when you’re stoned and get all distracted by liking stuff. How do I even have a college degree? Seriously?

The reason I bring this up is because I read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova and it was tremendously frustrating. I loved loved loved her first book (The Historian, I highly recommend), but that one was deeply rooted in the written word and books about books are some of my favorites. This newer one is just as entrenched in its subject and its intricacies, but I kept getting lost because I know so little about art. That aside, the book was great. To sum up:

A semi-famous artist is arrested while attempting to stab a painting in the National Gallery. When he won’t talk during his arrest, he’s committed on a psychiatric hold. His shrink, being an amateur artist himself, is intrigued by the case and proceeds to break both laws and ethics to get to the bottom of his particular delusion. Meanwhile, the artist is obsessed with a pack of old letters that he reads over and over, so the novel switches back and forth between the doctor’s investigation and the one-sided story from the eighteenth-century letters. The writer of the letters was a young woman who was an artist in France, a contemporary of Monet and his gaggle of Impressionist rebels. It’s basically a three-way conversation among artists, across three centuries. With one of them being both mute and insane.

Kostova’s style is richly descriptive, and her characters obsessed – not a great combination when the reader gets lost. Scene after scene about color and brush stroke and lighting just went in one ear and out the other. But in all honesty, my not understanding art didn’t change my liking the book. The story’s great and I really liked the constantly shifting voice and the puzzley way all the clues came out just a little peek at a time over hundreds of years.

It’s also an interesting look at obsession and madness. Robert, the artist in the mental institution, has always been a little nuts. But the kind of nuts one could blow off as wacky artist behavior – poor hygiene, sleeplessness, forgetfulness, desperate obsession. That stuff is, for whatever reason, connected in our minds with artsy type people, and the better they are the more craziness we’re willing to excuse. But at what price? At what point should we stop dismissing it, stop saying “Oh, he’s just a tortured artist,” and get that person real help?

I’m guilty of perpetuating this stereotype myself. Not in any effort to minimize my mental problems or use them to my advantage. Because writer or not, that shit’s no fun at all. But I do tend to excuse it, consider it a necessary evil. The twitchy mental stuff and the arty stuff are inextricably bound in my head. Maybe because of the folks I admired early on. People like Kerouac, Plath, Sexton, Dickinson, Poe, King – all fucked up in one way or another. It seems normal, natural even, that artists be a touch crazed to make the appropriate circuits fire. Or something. If you seemed completely normal and well-adjusted then told me you were an artist, honestly I’d probably think you weren’t that good. How fucked up is that?

Come on, brain, get your shit together.

I like this immersive, obsessive thing that Kostova does. There’s something claustrophobic about it. But her characters aren’t condescending or pedantic, explaining things to the reader through unnecessary exposition. You know how on those CSI-type shows, scientists are always telling other scientists how science works? I hate that. It’s hamfisted and unrealistic. Any group of peers in a given social or professional setting will use the accepted shorthand of that setting. For example: “The MOD needs you to make an LSL of that display of TPB SFF when you’re done zoning.” That’s nonsense, right? But my Giant Evil Bookstore homies know what it means. Liminal language. It’s good stuff. My point is that Kostova doesn’t do that CSI thing. She acknowledges that these people understand each other and that it’s not necessary for the audience to be completely onboard. Some might see that as a turnoff, but I appreciate her commitment to realism even if it means I now have to go buy some books on art theory to know what the hell she was saying. All the better, I say. Yay for learning and stuff!

So, yeah, give The Swan Thieves a go, even if you’re not particularly into art. And definitely put The Historian on your to-read list. And maybe throw me some good suggestions for books about art that I could get through without getting completely lost. You guys have got to help me out. I know nothing. And knowing is half the battle, I hear.

[End of post. Please return to 2015 and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.]

Okay, firstly, what even is that title? So melodramatic. Secondly, I don’t know what was going on in my head in that little diatribe about mental illness. It’s like some doughy, half-formed thing that I thought was okay to commit to paper. I have some further thoughts on that whole mess, though, which I’m working on squeezing into a more delightfully brown and crispy post for later. I’ll get back to you.

Also, I still haven’t picked up a book on art history. Not even one of those pop science ones that I like. Things I have taken it upon myself to read up on since 2013 include but are not limited to: the American colonial period, FDA regulations and legislation, the British invasion and takeover of Australia, the history of timekeeping systems, how wine snobbery/collecting became a thing, the origins of punk, and all the different things that happen to dead bodies in America.

But not art. Guess I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I should, though. Seems important. It’s one of those dauntingly huge subjects, with so many ins and outs that I’m not sure where to start. Technical stuff, so I know the lingo? Perhaps a broad overview of timeline and key players, like a smaller version of that survey class I took? Or should I just pick one thing or person and really dive deep? Van Gogh seems like a pretty interesting dude. Or some of those complicated renaissance guys who sneaked scandalous stuff into their work so the church wouldn’t notice. That’s ballsy. I always wanted to know what was the deal with Hieronymous Bosch, as well. See? Too many options! I’ll get on it. Meanwhile, I stand by my statement that you should check out Kostova’s books. They’re fun, quick, smart reads.

Should I find anymore forgotten blogs hiding in my house, I shall post them as quickly as possible. I don’t think there are any, but there’s never any way to know what things you’ve forgotten, right? But seriously, if more start turning up I think I’ll probably start believing in blog fairies and lose my shit completely, start screaming about Fornits (mega bonus nerd points if you get that reference). So that will be fun for everyone. Good times.

Some rabbit holes are stranger than others.

You know how sometimes a strange thing happens to you out of nowhere? Often, it’s the sort of thing you have to check and make sure someone else witnessed it as well, just to be certain your brain’s not malfunctioning? My roommate in college called these kinds of events Weird Shit (you know you love someone dearly when you start being able to hear their capital letters). Weird Shit happens to some folks more than others, and it’s magnetic – the more it happens to you, the more it will happen to you. One of the key requirements for something to qualify as Weird Shit is that it’s completely inexplicable with the evidence available to the observer. I’ll give you an example: one night a buddy and I were walking to my car down a long, straight street that slopes down a hill to the parking lot, lots of streetlights down one side. It’s very still and very quiet, late at night in a very small town. As we approach where we have to turn to get to my car we both see, sitting on a retaining wall, perfectly framed in the circle of light from the streetlight: a bologna sandwich and a giant, freshly-lit cigar. Which would have been weird but not Weird. Except. There was a match on the ground, still smoking, we could still smell it, but we’d been walking down a straight, empty, well-lit, and almost silent street with a full view of this spot for at least five minutes and there had been no one there. A very David Lynch moment. Weird Shit.

Now, there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, but there’s no way that I can connect the dots and reach that explanation with the information I have. If I could, then it wouldn’t be Weird Shit anymore, just a mystery, and then a mystery solved. Most of my personal Weird Shit has remained not mysterious. There’s no question to be answered, no trail of breadcrumbs to follow. Just a series of mindfucks and incongruities, most of which were deposited in my vicinity by the permanent scars of the tiny wormholes in the universe that LSD creates (I should note, however, that in the above story I and my compatriot were both cold sober). But some people have questions, and even evidence. And a few lucky ones have a friend with a weird hobby, to whom some genius has handed a microphone and we all get a podcast out of it.

Mystery Show is probably the strangest podcast that I listen to, and I say that as a fan of Welcome to Night Vale. Starlee Kine, our hero, has a thing for seemingly unsolvable mysteries, things people think are Weird Shit. She takes their stories and really goes down the rabbit hole, following every possible lead. It’s earnest investigation and storytelling, but there’s still something going on. Something just a little off. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is. Maybe – and I could be wrong here – it’s every single person on the show failing (or refusing) to acknowledge the ridiculousness of these situations, being collectively deadpan and tongue-in-cheek. They really want to solve the mystery, they’re not silly people, but they are somewhat absurd mysteries. For example, in the second episode the client is a writer whose book tanked really badly. But a couple of years later she sees a photo of her idol, Britney Spears, carrying her book out of a Los Angeles restaurant. She must know – how did Spears get the book? Did she actually read it? Did she like it? Did it help her at all (this is during Britney’s head-shaving crazytimes)? So many questions, so many roadblocks to legally shaking down a celebrity. But it turns into a really interesting look at art and artists, fame and failure, fandom and existentialism. It’s ridiculous and profound at the same time. One could easily imagine that this is a piece of outlandish performance art, thought provoking but too absurd to be real.

On the other hand, this woman isn’t fucking around. She does, ostensibly, get as close as she can to solving the mysteries and even dives really deep with people, asks them serious questions about their lives and the meaning of life – sometimes so unexpectedly that I’ve asked myself both “Does she talk like this all the time?” and “Why don’t I randomly grill strangers about the nature of reality?” I think I should. I think we all should. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time with people. They want to waste time talking about the weather and I, understanding the inevitability of my death and that time is fleeting, would rather discuss something fun like quantum physics or how it’s impossible to have a Platonic ideal of truth. Of course, I’m perfectly happy to sit and have a beer and talk about bad 90s music and Doctor Who for hours on end, as well, so maybe I just find certain people eye-gougingly boring. It’s possible.

On the other other hand, given that silliness and seriousness are merely opposite as terms and not mutually exclusive personality traits, maybe I should try to take my silliness more seriously. An absurd or ridiculous question could lead down an interesting or complex rabbit hole just as deceptively simple ones often do. I mean, Einstein changed the world with math because he liked to think about trains, you guys.

On yet a fourth other hand, silliness is relative, or at least subjective. Maybe if I asked someone about the nature of the universe they’d laugh and tell me to stop goofing around, stop wasting their time. And maybe if I asked someone else about annually compounded interest or the electoral college (both boring but very important), they would equally think those things a waste of time and tra-la-la their fairy wings back into the forest. One man’s dire is another man’s “so what?” I suppose. Although I feel like there’s not a lot of middle ground between these two types of people.

Of course I’m overgeneralizing here, but I think our generation’s extended adolescence has made it easier to dick around and do things that “don’t matter” for more of our lives. Easier? Maybe “more acceptable” is a better way to say that. I don’t think it’s ever really been difficult to kill time. Point is, is that time actually wasted? Who gets to decide? Are those seemingly silly pursuits dicking around? Or do we need to understand life and ourselves more than previous generations of grownups? Going out and doing and seeing and tasting and feeling and fucking up seems like a better way to be happy once we figure out how to adult, rather than just ticking off arbitrary goals on a list and trying to squeeze happiness into a box having had only the same experiences as everyone else. That sounds like a nightmare. I’d rather be a weirdo who’s had some fun and gets called irresponsible than a drone who always pays the bills on time but is dying inside from boredom and monotony. Any fucking day.

I should also point out here that a lot of those silly or ridiculous or absurd pursuits that people scoff at and say “get a real job”? They’re artistic or creative pursuits. Wanting to paint or dance or write or make a podcast or make movies – these are worthy goals. And one could spend a shit ton of money going to school to learn to do them, thereby getting their ticket onto The Great American Hamster Wheel of Debt Forever and maybe (probably) still not finding a job they want. Or. They could just go do the thing and be called crazy or irresponsible. Our capacity for ridiculousness is directly proportional to our capacity for wonder. Absurdity and whimsy, silliness and imagination. They’re all tied together. And they all color what we think is important. Remember when you were a little kid running around, screaming like a banshee, playing some game you made up as you went along? That was just as important a part of your day as sitting quietly in a chair learning how to read or do math. One or the other might have been more fun, sure, but they were both important. Why have we cut out so much of the screaming banshee stuff from our grownup lives? What makes us think it’s not okay? Not important? Be an idiot for a little while. Roll down a hill. Spin in circles until you get dizzy. Fight a dragon. Make up a game. Write it down. Turn it into a movie. Whatever. I say embrace your ridiculousness and be happy. That hobby or that project or that invention, whatever it is, might be your life’s work. It might become a job. It might become a business. It might become legend. But it sure as shit isn’t time wasted. We really need to stop trying to turn our time into money, our lives into jobs. I hate that expression “making a living.” I’m already living. Now I just have to make something out of it. How, though, remains a mystery.

The stuff of Nightmares.

Wes Craven died. People keep dying whose work I like and I feel like I need to write about them. It’s been quite a lot this past year. My sister says it’s because I like old people. Which is partly true, I guess, if inevitable. Everybody who doesn’t die young gets old. When old folks die it’s sad, but when younger folks die it’s shocking. Both are hard to write about.

I don’t know much about Craven as a person, except that with a name like Craven he was destined to work in horror. I get the impression that he didn’t like to talk about himself. I do love his work tremendously. Obviously I extend condolences to those who knew him personally, but I’m just a lowly fan far removed from the man himself, so I’m going to talk about his movies. I hate to go on and on about characters and films when a real person has died, but this is how fans mourn. We have these conversations because those we admired worked so hard on stuff they loved so that we could love it too.

Back to my sister for a second. This is all her fault. Not Craven’s dying, obviously. That was brain cancer. I didn’t even know he was ill. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: fuck cancer. Fuck it right in its evil little mutated face. Anyway. My sister. She’s eleven years older than I, and being bored and faced with a fairly blank slate (that’s me! Hello!) she proceeded to impart all the wisdom of an 80s teen on a six-year-old. I basically went through being a teenager twice. Which is fucked up, but I got a ton of good trivia out of it. You want to talk hair metal or D&D or Brat Pack movies or Reaganomics? I got your back. Most importantly, though – Freddy Krueger.

The 70s and 80s were the second golden age of horror movies, the rise of slasher flicks. Tobe Hooper completely changed the face of horror (if you’ll pardon a really bad pun) in 1974 with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film was so ahead of its time and yet completely a result of its time – it was trippy as hell, to the point of becoming a kind of weird hybrid exploitation movie, proto torture porn on acid. One of my favorites. So, by the early 80s it was perfectly fine to have a faceless, voiceless, character-less character in sequel after sequel. Two of them, actually, making crazy money. Jason Voorhees is the only person to ever make a goalie mask even vaguely intimidating (most important position on the team, silliest uniform – seems a little unfair, they should get spikes or something). And Michael Myers, whose mask is actually a William Shatner mask from a Captain Kirk costume spray-painted white – fun fact. Anyway, point is, in an environment where people would go to a seemingly endless series of movies just for the main character, not for the other actors or the director or the repetitive plots, Freddy was different. He was the only one with a face. Clearly an iconically fucked up face, but a face you can see. He smiles. He’s got teeth. And a voice, raspy and smoke-tattered. Mostly, for me at least, Freddy is funny. He has to be funny because those movies are so absurd.

Being attacked by something in your sleep is terrifying, as a concept. Even the thought of having someone near me or watching me in my sleep gives me the all-overs. But you have to sleep or you’ll go crazy and die. It’s an interesting vulnerability that we don’t fully understand yet, try as we might to bend nature and amphetamines to our will. Rather than coming after their limp, defenseless bodies, though, like a normal bad guy, Freddy gets people in their dreams. How horrifying is that? Bonus, this trope keeps writers from painting themselves into any storytelling corner. Dream logic gets you around all those pesky plot snarls. Oh, yes, Freddy solves every bullshit horror movie problem ever with some weird dream shit. Up to and including the scores of idiot bitches who run up the stairs. What are you doing, idiot bitches? I swear, I don’t think the people in movies watch movies.

And then Scream came out.

See what I did there? Man, I’m so proud of that segue. Just look at it. It’s beautiful.

Moving on.

I like to think that Craven made Scream as an answer to the overwhelming criticism of the horror genre. After the 80s teen slasher market dried up and people started getting into artsy independent films, Scream certainly feels like a big fat “fuck you, I do what I want and people love me for it!” I hope that’s what he was doing. All four Scream movies (but probably especially Scream 3) basically do what Freddy did in New Nightmare – bring the bad guy out of the movie. Craven’s obsessive love for the genre is walking around personified as Stu and Billy, only his is less murdery. One hopes. It’s definitely a mark of the generation gap between 80s kids and 90s kids, though. My sister doesn’t like the Scream movies. I can see how someone who so frothily loves bad/cheesy/overblown horror could feel made fun of by them.

And if I may have a little movie buff moment here, this paragraph may seem out of place, but I can’t shake the half-formed thought: there’s a weird element at play in both of Craven’s famous franchises that I think might be some lurking biographical damage – the small town. The small town is key in a lot of horror movies, it’s almost a character archetype. There are two kinds of small towns in horror: A) the “stranger passing through and terrible shit happens to them because crazy people have been isolated too long” town and B) the “something horrible happened here a long time ago and now we live with the consequences/mythology of it, which you’ve never heard of because you’re not from here but let me explain it to you through the whole movie” town. Towns A are the sort from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, House of 1000 Corpses, Jug Face, Parents, and We Are What We Are (lots of cannibalism in this bunch, as well, I hadn’t noticed that before). I would venture to extend this metaphor to certain apocalyptic situations like The Purge, but that’s post torture porn and has a different sort of feel to it, so I’ll leave it be (also there’s no stranger, which is kind of important in both categories and I feel like voyeurism doesn’t serve the same purpose). The Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies all belong in category B, with their heavy reliance on small town legend, gossip, and revenge. I should note here that the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises also used this trope to death, which might be why by the time Scream 2 rolled around it seemed new again (Scream 1 being, of course, just your classic fantastic, psycho-driven, self-referential slash fest). And analytical moment over.

So, did Craven revolutionize the horror movie industry? Not necessarily. Not in the way that Queen changed rock or that Rowling changed fantasy. But maybe in some small ways. Inserting humor without getting all the way to schlock was a big step. And he undeniably gave us some touchstone characters. Even people who don’t watch horror movies know who Freddy Krueger is, what he means. Craven may not have turned the genre on its head, but he changed fans and fandom. And he will be missed. So go, friends, turn off the lights and watch the scariest movie you can stand. It’s worth doing every once in a while. And I assure you, no matter what anyone says, there really are things waiting in the dark.

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!


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.


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.