Death needs a day off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabin fever

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

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

A Tale of Two Chucks

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

Chuck the First – Encyclopedia Klosterman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck the Second – Real American Weirdo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blanky forts forever!

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

The point is that I read super duper fucking fast.

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

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

IMG_0074

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

Jesus Murphy, woman – get to the bloody point!

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

However.

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

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

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

Fuck yeah, agropants!

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

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

Row, row, row your boat.

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

Down to my last cigarette

and there’s no end in sight.

There are demons in the tv.

They provide fantastic light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lies. All fucking fat, ugly, slimy lies.

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

You know the rest.

Social Justice Wizard

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

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

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

Terrorism

Xenophobia

Racism

#AllLivesMatter

Homelessness

Refugees

False dichotomies

Bad argumentation

Misused/misunderstood words

Education

Healthcare

Private prisons

Factory farming

Hypocrisy

Social media solidarity

Privilege

Men’s Right’s Activists

Veterans’ programs

LGBTQ rights

Medical cannabis

Planned Parenthood

Corporate personhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need more mindless crap in my diet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.