Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009, in Review

Yeah, yeah, I know this "year in review" thing is a little late...

For me, personally, 2008 was pretty much the Best Year Ever. At the end of last year, I wondered how the hell 2009 would be able to compare, but also had high hopes regarding my career and future travel.

2009 was not what I expected, but still neat in its own way. Sure, I spent most of it rather ingloriously unemployed in Portland (an anticlimax compared to last year) but there was a very, very positive side to that.

When abroad (and before that, in Eugene) I had fond memories and good thoughts of Portland. I remembered it as a vibrant, liberal city, a place where something was always going on, and where the high amount of culture and activity belied the city's more modest population. I was worried, somewhat, that these were memories colored by nostalgia, that Portland was only slightly less gray than any other American metro area.

Fortunately, though, I was wrong. This past year I've found that my geographical parent is even better than the home that I remembered. I hadn't lived here properly since high school, and I've since found out that Portland is a land of zombie bike rides, clever smut, vampiric awesomeness and Star Trek in the park. Also, lots of really excellent beer. Having my nostalgia be confirmed and even exceeded has been an interesting experience, and I love this city more in reality than in abstraction. Portland, the place I call home, has been inspiring. I've had bouts of creativity and productivity here that I never had in Japan, and am perplexed and thrilled by that.

My experience is probably colored by the fact that for the most part I've spent 2009 writing. While I have worked for five different employers this year (GEOS, a canvassing company, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Kaplan Aspect, and Macy's) my primary focus has been on my own creative endeavors. I have managed to actually get paid for it once, and have a small gig with a tourism website at the moment. I've also managed to get myself into a nifty local 'zine somehow, which is a fun project.

This is great. Really fantastic, actually. Prior to this year, I thought that it was kind of ludicrous to expect anyone to pay me for anything I've written, publish it, or whatever. However, I'm getting some pretty dangerous ideas here, and I think I can pull it off. You all may need to pull me back to earth if I get too optimistic- I'm actually pitching stuff to websites, stitching together a *cough* book *cough* (I've been sort of embarrassed to admit that) and (this is the part that boggles my mind) actually being accepted on occasion. Last year I ended 2008 saying "in 2009 I'll start my career." I was anticipating going into the Foreign Service or Peace Corps, but I guess this counts as a different kind of start, something I've always wanted to do, i.e., be professionally creative.

I wasn't entirely stationary- there was a little vagabonding going on. 2009 was also a year in which I rode quite a bit on the I-5 corridor, going down to Eugene and up to Seattle, down to San Francisco, and, of course, to Burning Man. (And yes, Burning Man really is neat- it's not all hype.) Not only is Portland wonderful, but the rest of the West Coast has some pretty cool stuff going on as well. Seeing friends up and down the tectonic plate made me wish I could teleport, or, at least fly really fast. Something like that.

I have no idea what's happening in 2010. I'm scheduled to join the Peace Corps, have a fantastic new girlfriend, am working on turning Hired Tongue into a book, flinging unsolicited proclamations of my awesomeness to editors and literary agents, and suddenly don't really know what's going to happen. I'll be thirty years old, writing furiously, and still wandering about. I don't mind that, really- it certainly beats banality. This lifestyle is fitting, for a time, but it has to lead somewhere to be truly satisfying. I don't know how much of a vagabond I'll still be in a year's time. 2010 looks uncertain, but I know it will not be boring.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Three Reasons Why The Past Decade Didn't Suck

It's the end of the decade. Yes, it really is. Mathematical pedantry aside, we're entering a new, arbitrarily-determined time unit, and that's something to be kind of excited about. People seem to be complaining about the last ten years, though, and I do think that they were a pretty nasty time, all told. But, they weren't all bad. There's a lot to like about the past ten years. Here are a few things:

It Has Been Much, Much Worse

Think about the twentieth century:

1900s- Not much
1910s- WWI, Spanish flu, millions dead
1920s- Decadence, stock market crash
1930s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1940s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1950s- Cold War, Korean War, nuclear paranoia
1960s- Cold War, Vietnam War, JFK assassination, general unrest
1970s- Cold War, Vietnam War, Watergate, recession
1980s- Cold War, decadence, hair metal
1990s- The Cold War is over! WOW! HUZZAH! (Gulf War happens, though.)
2000s- Iraq War, Recession

Our parents and grandparents faced existential threats to the U.S. in the form of the Great Depression, Nazi Germany, and the USSR. We no longer have that. As much as some might attempt to remake Islamic terrorists into the Nazis or Commies of our time, they do not pose a serious threat to Western civilization. Think about it: The biggest and most complicated thing that they were able to do was destroy a significant portion of downtown New York. As devastating as that was, it was nothing compared to what Germany did to Poland, Japan did to China, we did to Dresden, and any nuclear bomb could have done to anywhere.

Moreover, as awful as the current recession is, it's remarkable that we don't have people standing in bread lines or trying to sell pencils in the street. Yes, Detroit has suffered quite a bit, but the economy has started growing again. The Dust Bowl destitution from the thirties stayed in the thirties. We don't have any Hoovervilles. Think about that: We've been through a long, crushing recession, but have managed to avoid absolute destitution. In its own way, that's great.

The Internet!

Remember the internet ten years ago? It was full of dancing hamsters, pirated music and porn. Now, it's full of lolcats, pirated music and porn, but also a bunch of other neat stuff. Think about this: Let's say you want to learn how to decoupage. So, you Google "how to decoupage" and WHAM-O! There are a bunch of sites telling you how to do precisely that! That is really, utterly, super profound. That access to information is unprecedented in human history, and despite all of the annoying memes and pictures of cats, the Internet really is the greatest thing since bread or slices. Cyberpunk (remember that?) was a SF genre chiefly characterized by the existence of a giant web of computers all across the world connected to each other. Now, Cyberpunk is dead because it's central tenant is real. This past decade, we made a subgenre of SF obsolete. How cool is that?

The Decline of Bigotry

Yes, there's lots of problems with the health care legislation, and no, Obama didn't magically fix everything with his ultra-charismatic Jesus-like wizardry, but it's still fantastic that the U.S. elected a black dude. And, despite Proposition Eight passing in California, gay people are getting married in the U.S., and we will have it sooner or later. There's gay marriage in Iowa! That's pretty amazing. If, thirty years ago, you were to tell someone that in 2009 the president would be black and gay dudes would be setting up wedding registries they probably would have said "Shut your pie-hole, hippie!" HA-HA! Take that, you imagined Archie Bunker-like hypothetical conservative person! Woo-hoo!

Carl Sagan (one of my heroes) once said "We live in an extraordinary age." He said that back in the eighties, and he was right-on then. He's extra-super-mega correct now. As much fun as it is to bitch, we do live in an extraordinary age, and it really is getting better all the time. Here's to the next decade.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


"You do realize," said the HR woman, "That you're very qualified for this?" The statement annoyed me. Yes, I realized that I was "very qualified," by which she meant "overqualified." Yes, I knew it would be a pay cut compared to what I was used to, yes, yes, yes.

"You do realize," I wanted to say, "That there's a giant fucking recession out there? Right?" I didn't say that, though. Instead, I held my tongue and got a seasonal job at Macy's, America's Department Store. I was a teacher, once. Now I would sell pants and blenders and underwear and neckties.

Training was insultingly slow. I wanted to simply say, "I have done retail before, and I can see that your proprietary computer system is very intuitive. Can I start working now?" But, I had to slog through it anyhow. "A lot of people don't have jobs right now," I thought to myself, "a lot of people don't have jobs..." (Echos of "There are starving kids in Ethiopia! Now clean you plate!" I don't think my parents ever said that to me, though.)

My job is in Beaverton. The commute is long and I wish I could read on the bus, but I get motion sick. I listen to podcasts and music instead. The commute is the worst part of the job, in it's own way. If I was going two hours to teach or do something meaningful, I wouldn't mind as much, though.

I bought a black suit so I could work there. The dress code is black, all black. I know this makes us easier to identify for customers, and for security cameras.

We are supposed to sell the Macy's credit card. I don't feel comfortable selling a financial product that I don't know the details of, so I haven't bothered to push it. I exceed all my sales goals easily, but as far as I'm concerned the credit card can go fuck itself. They tried to get me to get one, and I said no. I don't have any credit card debt, and I'm not really in favor of it generally.

People have lots of coupons. Most of the time, the coupons don't work, especially with big brands like Levi's and Calvin Klein. When the coupons don't work, people get angry, but they buy the expensive things anyway.

Most of the time when people as me questions about products, I just read them the labels on the products. "Is this dishwasher safe?" they ask. "Yes," I say, reading the label that says so, "it is." "Thank you so much," they say, and then I ring them up.

Selling is easy. Lots of people just want to be reassured.

I wish our Macy's has a Santaland. It doesn't. Santa's out in the mall, and there's just a line up to his chair. He's near the food court.

I talked to a woman who said this job was a ninety percent pay cut for her. I felt sorry for her, but I also wondered where all of her savings or whatever went.

Vendors from companies like Waterford, Calvin Klein and Calphalon are sometimes in the stores. One of them said to me "They treat you season guys like shit," and then apologized for swearing. I told her it was okay.

I keep wanting to tell people that I don't do this in real life, that I'm not actually a Macy's worker, that really I teach English. Being there is a blow to pride, and it really does sting, just like Marcellus Wallace said it would. ("A lot of people don't have jobs. A lot of people don't have jobs...")

I was scheduled to work on Christmas Eve, and talked myself out of it.

Christmas music fills the store. Some of the songs are rock or hip-hop versions of Christmas tunes, and I think that these versions of the songs are embarrassing, like watching my dad try to dance.

There are no religious Christmas songs. I like those songs much better, usually. I like Oh Holy Night, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World. I like them all, and they are never, ever played.

They do sometimes play the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas, though, and I like that.

Macy's in Beaverton is part of a mall. I wish I worked at the downtown store. At that store, I could pretend that I worked at some class joint in the heart of Portland. Instead, I work at a mall.

The mall would be okay if it had a bookstore to hang out in on lunches and breaks, but it doesn't.

It does have two Starbucks', though, and I often get coffee there. I don't like saying "tall" or "grande" because I think it's sort of silly so I'll say something like "Can I get a twelve ounce coffee please?" "One tall coffee? Sure!" is a common reply. I don't like hearing grown up people having to talk like that.

A guy behind me one day is laying it on thick "Thank you so much for shopping with us!" he says, and I want to punch him in the mouth. I'm always polite, but he's obsequious, parroting all of the things in the training videos. I like finding real people in retail establishments, and he was a total Caufeldian phony.

I don't like saying that things are "9.99" or 29.99." Those are bullshit prices, and everyone knows it. I like saying that something is "ten" or "thirty dollars" much more.

My girlfriend drove me to work one morning and brought me coffee. I was touched, but also a little embarrassed that she saw me on the sales floor. Part of me doesn't want anyone I know or respect to see me doing this.

I asked to stay on after Christmas. I don't like it, I'm overqualified, but, yes, there's a giant recession out there. A lot of people don't have jobs...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Recreational Consumerism": The Ikea Experience

Until recently, until that fateful two days ago, I had only heard of "Ikea" in rumor and hearsay. The furniture and furnishings, yes, those were familiar, but the interior of the blue-and-yellow (if you go cross-eyed, it's green) store remained terra incognita. I'd heard stories of it. Travelers' tales and legends, songs, lays, and canticles. The bards spoke of the Fountain of Youth and Fantastical Beasts. Dragons of ferocity and terror were said to lay within its caves, and Ikea's storied glens and forests were thick with Unicorns and creatures of Faerie. I knew not what lay in store (in this store) for me, as I set out in my gilded chariot (by "gilded chariot" I mean "my girlfriend's Volvo") for a new land of wonder and inexpensive modernist furniture.

Ikea, so long rumored, did not disappoint.

Stepping into the display rooms I was immediately impressed by how everything was, first and foremost, contextualized. Ikea does not start by showing you aisles, boxes, or even displays of buyable merchandise. Before any of that, it puts you in the right mood, it romances you properly. Most furniture stores show you goods in a manner that is totally divorced from how the merchandise will look in real life, i.e., you see a couch and it's in a row with a bunch of other couches. Or, there's a chair displayed on a pedestal, with nothing else. Such methods of display are utilitarian, perhaps, but they are not natural. Ikea's strategy, though, is to show its merchandise off in idealized domestic settings, to put its chairs, tables, and sinks in the sexiest contexts possible, and it works. Before I was able to pick up or handle anything buyable, the display rooms got me good and ready with a heavy dose of mercantile foreplay, and boy, did I appreciate that.

The displays were aspirational, inspiring, and, best of all, I could relate to them. Unlike so many catalogs and architectural advertisements that feature heavy furniture that costs more per pound than I do per hour, I could actually see myself assembling these bits of particle board and screws into a delightful modern living space. I had been located, demographically, and hopelessly seduced. Gazing upon the desks and tables and beds and curtains and television sets and spatulas I couldn't help but enjoy myself. My girlfriend referred to it as "recreational consumerism," and, yes, that was the perfect word for it.

Stopping for lunch midway through the excursion, I couldn't help but order the Swedish meatballs. There was no other option, really. The meatballs were too distinctively Ikean to pass up, too much part of the idealized experience. They were small and distinctive, manageable and delicious like so much of the merchandise that the store offered. Gravy and all they were wonderful, and I looked at a picture of Stockholm on the wall.

By the time Ikea hits you with the part that looks like an actual store, the part where you get a cart and put things in it, you are raring to go. You want it. You've had your aspirations piqued and sweet nothings of consumerism whispered into your ear. Ikea has suggested and shown to you all that it can offer, all that can be yours. You want to stroll through the housewares section, inserting things into your cart with capitalistic abandon. "I don't know what this is," one of us would say, holding some kind of houseware or domestic gadget, "but I get the sense that it's somehow useful. I want to do things with it!" Indeed. I did manage to control myself, to not buy a shoulder bag that I found useful-seeming, but the final part of the store has you wanting to recklessly consume, and things that seem like large purchases look like impulse buys under Ikea's seductive spell. By the time I handed over my debit card (I bought a nicely inexpensive dresser, by the way) a wave of relief and satisfaction coursed through me, fantastic release.

The next day I opened my new box of furniture, and got to relive a bit of the Ikea experience as I assembled my new furniture. (I'm even actually reorganizing my room.) That's what Ikea has going for it, and that's why it's great: It offers an experience. Most of the time when I've bought something, I think little of where I got it, and mostly I just want to get home with my purchase. Ikea, though, has managed to make itself a kind of theme park, a sort of temple that is a font of affordable and neat-looking things. You can't really say that about anywhere else. I'll stop, before I start sounding too much like Ikea's bitch.

I will simply say: Ikea, you sold me furniture, took my money, and I liked it. You win at capitalism. Congratulations!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You Really Ought to Read The Road

No, I haven't seen the movie, and oddly, I don't want to. I did enjoy Cormac McCarthy's The Road, immensely, though. Well, maybe "enjoy" is the wrong word, as so much in the novel is rather dark and nasty, but it does dark and nasty really, really well.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, it's about a father and son making their way through an utterly dead post-apocalyptic landscape, and that's pretty much it. The back of the book describes it as "burned America," but I think that such characterization misses the point. The ravaged landscape didn't so much remind me of a post-apocalyptic America so much as it did Mordor. Yes, I mean that. The father and son in The Road reminded me most of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Through a hopeless landscape, through uncertainty, danger, fear, and anxiety, the two principals have no choice but to move forward. They have no idea what their goal is, what will happen at the end, or whether they have the strength or ability to get to where they're going. But, standing still is not an option. They are driven, compelled, to some uncertain goal. It also reminded me of Kafka's The Castle, as well, wherein the main character must navigate through a clouded and hostile landscape to an uncertain conclusion.

Despite the immensely negative worlds that these stories present, I generally find them rather hopeful. The heroes are in Hell, the underworld, a bleak place, yes, and their is no guarantee that they shall reach their goals. But, they know what their goals are, they have no option but to strive. Whether it's truly hopeless or not can't be known, so Sisyphus has to push the rock upward. He has to. It will crush him if he lets go.

So, if you like books about pressing through fear and dread, read it. It's not nearly as good as Blood Meridian (one of the best and most frightening books I've ever read) but it does depict the classic landscape of anxiety in a pretty perfect way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Glam 'N Gore: Two Neato Movies With Lots of Shiny Things and Blood

Weird, sexy, dark shit. Black leather and nasty violence, bloody messes and flamboyant costumes. Recently I saw two movies that had these enticing properties in spades upon spades. One of them was actually good, and the other was enjoyable trash.

Repo! The Genetic Opera
is not a good movie. I did, however, find it immensely enjoyable. The film very much wants to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its earnest desire to supplant that flick as the reigning midnight movie is actually sort of cute. Rocky Horror, though, is ultimately a fun little romp about exciting underwear with not much in the way of blood and gore. Repo!, though, more than outperforms Rocky Horror when it comes to blood, gore, and sheer fuck up-edness.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on Anthony Stewart Head (you know, Giles from Buffy) as a futuristic repo man who extracts designer organs from deadbeats who can't pay their surgery bill. Also, there's some implied sibling fucking and a neon-blue corpse-based designer drug in their somewhere. Also, Sarah Brighton sings (oh yeah- it's a rock opera with songs of dubious musical quality) and Paris Hilton's face falls off. It is awesome. It's not good, artful, or redeeming, but it kicks ass. I would recommend watching it with lots of booze and lots of friends. My group peppered the screen with MST3K style retorts, and we frequently had to stop for "booze breaks." Repo! isn't the next Rocky Horror, but the world is a bit more nifty because of its existence.

Titus, though, is an actual good movie. This is surprising, given the source material, Titus Andronicus, considered one of Shakespeare's worst plays. The Bard wrote it very early in his career, and I suspect that the budding playwright was thinking of little else besides how to pack the house with rabble. This is several orders of magnitude down from, say, King Lear. Titus Andronicus is grindhouse Shakespeare. Heads and hands are lopped of characters, rape and insanity feature prominently, someone gets their tongue ripped from their head, an absurd body count mounts, cannibalism and slaughter ensue, and there's even some blaxploitation in there.

Director Julie Taymor obviously realized this, so Titus is an insane, weird, costume-heavy, gory, version of the play that gleefully slams anachronisms together, mixing gladiator armor with overcoats, vibing together the aesthetics of ancient and fascist Rome in a blend of insanity that just sort of works with the over-the-top source material. Anthony Hopkins plays the title character with more than a little of his Hannibal Lecter-y scenery chewing, and it's an entirely appropriate leading performance to go with all of the swirly weird shit, severed limbs, casual murder, and general shininess that pervades the film. If you like Shakespeare (or just movies with really nice costumes and/or orgies) see it. That old Elizabethian hack would be proud.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"But the evil is that they hold for certain that they are in the light."

I sit down at my computer on Sunday night, all ready to finish up my post on Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco that I'd been working on earlier, and what do I find? That post-stealing cockblocker Seph has beaten me to it. The nerve. Nevertheless, I had this thing mostly written. Might as well finish it up...

The plot centers aroudn three editors at a vanity press are up to their earlobes in manuscripts about the occult, conspiracy theories, and general weirdness. To amuse themselves they decide to create a world-spanning fictitious model of history and reality that connects all of the esoteric stuff that they've read about, a grandiose intellectual game they call the Plan. Problems arise when a rather nutty group gets wind of their fictitious explanation of everything, and takes it seriously. Indeed, even the creators of the fictitious Plan take it far too seriously themselves, and eventually their creation consumes them.

(Incidentally, I would not have really enjoyed the book very much had I not been constantly consulting Wikipedia about the various historical, religious, and esoteric references the tome is crammed with. I liked the intricate connections and fanciful historical weaving, but constantly having to look up what the hell the characters were talking about made it something of a slog.)

I will admit to having a sort of enthusiasm for this kind of thing- I loved The Illuminatus! Trilogy, have read both the Principia Discordia and the Book of the SubGenius, and know what "fnord" means. The central appeal of the occult or conspiracy theory genre is that at least someone is in charge, at least that which appears arbitrary and meaningless from the outset actually has a place in a grander scheme. Everything means something, and while the world may be dangerous and mysterious, it is at least not capricious. I understand that appeal, enough that I sported an eye-in-the-pyramid on my arm at Burning Man. However, I also engaged the book somewhat seriously, and through the filter of my own particular biases and interests.

So much of what is described in Foucault's Pendulum- the esoteric arts, arcane secrets, cloistered spiritual orders -seems to imply a certain amount of contempt for the wondrous nature of the real world. For truths to have any sort of impact or value for the esoteric scholars in the book, they need, necessarily, to be secreted from view, to be apart from and cloistered off of the "real" world, to be part of narrative that is not accepted by "conventional" descriptions of history or science. Some of the most painful, and poignant, chapters of the book are when the main character's girlfriend offers him grounded and realistic insights into some of the details of the Plan. She is persuasive and touching in her deconstruction of the "hidden" truths that the narrator and his friends have concerned themselves with, but despite her enlightenment, despite the fact that he even says "yes" to her, the narrator and his companions still remain enmeshed in their all-consuming fiction.

Despite the book's slogginess, I found this emotional thrust to be deeply affecting. Years ago, I spent no small amount of time in the occult and New Age section of a used bookstore in Eugene, stocking shelves and conversing with the patrons there. I could not help but feel that these book buyers, these enthusiasts of the occult and arcane, needed their truths and revelations to be hidden and privileged. Knowledge, for them, did not come from the "real" world, but from a realm actively suppressed and ignored by reality.

Giving these people their books, ringing them up and hearing their comments about them filled me with a range of emotions that went from pity to anger. In the rest of the store one could find books on history rather than conspiracy theories, medicine rather than auras, philosophy rather than hokum. Set before them was the choice between that which was enriching and real, and that which was self-deluding. They chose, actively and deliberately, to delude themselves, much like the narrator of Foucault's Pendulum fails to heed the advice of his girlfriend. Worst of all, they thought that they were privileged with truth, privy to something more real than real.

Again, This is not to say that I don't find that sort of stuff amusing. I think that delving into weird shit and strange beliefs is a lot of fun. It's utter brain candy, and as such I could entirely identify with the pretentious editors in Foucault's Pendulum, men who take obvious scholarly joy in weaving all of this stuff into a coherent whole as an exercise in intellectual gamesmanship. At the end of the day, though, there is more real wonder in a single real leaf than in fraudulent delusion. The conduits of the greenery, the veins and the stems, the photosynthetic processes and changes from green to gold- all of these are greater truths and more potent revelations than anything about telluric energy or Templars. There is more active power in those intricate veins than in all of the ley lines that supposedly cross the Earth. Realizing that, one should not mourn the death of delusions or cry over the loss of intricate conspiracies. Rather, take joy in reality, chaotic and undirected though it may be.

(One last thing, unrelated to my above rant. When the Da Vinci Code came out, the thematic similarities were obvious and Eco was asked if he'd read it. His response:

I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
- But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.
No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

As far as I'm concerned, that is some serious literary bitch-slapping, proclaiming a lesser author to be one of your comical characters. I think that Umberto Eco could probably make Dan Brown's fingernails fall off just by staring at him, such is his brainy power.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Watching The Planets!

The Flaming Lips have finally released the video that I took part in, and it is pretty damn cool. I'm most visible towards the end, wherein we all take off Wayne Coyne's clothes.

Here it is, very NSFW.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Conan the Barbarian is One of the Best Fantasy Movies Ever

Conan the Barbarian was the very first R rated movie that I ever saw. I remember being at my redneck neighbor's house and being informed that it was "kind of like He-Man." He was sort of right- it is kind of like He-Man, except with nudity, blood, and way more awesomeness. I re-watched it tonight after over twenty years, and it holds up surprisingly well. In fact, I found it sort of incredible. I sat down expecting a cheesy movie where the governor of California tossed off one-liners and mowed down extras, and got a lot more than that. A few reasons why this movie is a masterpiece of sword-based cinema:

1: Conan, not to put too fine a point on it, has a dick.

A trope of fantasy movies and literature that I absolutely detest is that the main characters win by simply being "pure at heart" or "chosen." What bullshit. What utter tripe. I'm not pure at heart, and neither are you. Fortunately, Conan avoids this idiotic trope, though, and we get to see plenty of the titular character and his friends having sex, drinking, buying drugs, stealing stuff, stabbing the bad guys in the back, and in general enjoying themselves. (I hate to say it, but as much as I love LotR, you've got to admit that Frodo and Co. really don't have much in the way of gonads. It's like they have glowing sacks of goodness instead of balls.)

And think about this- how many times have you seen the heroes of fiction show mercy, but then have the bad guys betray them? For that matter, villains often fall victim to their own villainy and arrogance rather than to the efforts of the heroes. None of that in Conan- there is no unwarranted mercy, and the heroes triumph not because they are good or pure, but because they are strong, smart, and willing to strategically decapitate dudes when the opportunity arises. That is something so absent from popular fiction, that I actually said "Fuck yeah!" a couple of times when Arnie and friends mercilessly mowed down the evil snake cultists.

Speaking of snake cultists...

2: James Earl Jones is fucking awesome as the bad guy.

There are plenty of bad guys out there who seem to be evil just for the sake of plot. They swish around sinisterly, wring their hands with badness, and in general remain fairly undeveloped. Not so with James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom. Jones is a charismatic cult leader, seeing him in action one can actually see how he'd be able to attract followers and keep a large organization going and growing.

Moreover, he has an awesome suit of armor and a sexy, sexy voice. And speaking of sexy...

3: Valeria is a badass.

I wouldn't say that Conan is a feminist movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Valeria holds her own in the movie. She is, most assuredly, not detestable little femme-flower. She's a competent killing machine who happens to have breasts. I can get behind that. Conan's two other compatriots, a thief and a wizard, are also quite neat, enough to make any D&D enthusiast smile.

So, yeah. I liked the movie so much that now, as I'm blogging about it, I'm listening to Motorhead and grooving on the awesome slayage that is Conan. Apparently there is a remake coming out next year. I am very cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Which I Read About Meat

On Wednesday night, I shared the stage with a hunk of dead cow. This was somewhat unusual for me.

The event, Livestock, was billed as a "literary and literal conversation of killing our dinner," and was hosted by the Art Institute of Portland's International Culinary School. The highlights of the evening included a demonstration of cow butchery, readings about experiences with meat from three local authors, beef tasting, and and Q&A session with a butcher and various farmers. I was one of the authors, though I felt the term slightly outsized for me.

I saw the submission call and sent in a short essay that I wrote a while ago about seeing eels getting slaughtered in Japan. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted, and was to read my essay aloud, along with two other authors, while the butcher took apart a side of cow before a crowd of wine-sipping onlookers.

When I got to the event (which is in it's first year) I was sort of nervous. I hadn't read any of my own work aloud since college, and was trying to psych myself up for it. Seeing who the other two speakers, were, though, kind filled me with equal parts excitement and dread. One was the poetry editor of the Portland Oregonian (who also teaches at PSU) and the other was Emily Chenoweth, an actual published novelist who has written one book under her own name and a number under pseudonyms. Then there was me.

On one hand, I was completely thrilled to be on stage with them. The organizer had decided that my essay was just as nifty as the stuff from the actual, published, credential-bearing people. On the other hand, I felt like I was severely outclassed by the "real" authors, and my heart began beating in earnest, looking for an escape route from my chest. That I was reading last did not help matters, (though I was sort of also thrilled about that).

The crowd filed in, the butcher got the cow flank ready for cutting up, and various plates of hors d'oeuvres and bottles of wine were available for consumption. I was way too nervous to eat or drink anything. The first author, the Oregonian editor, took the stage, and I started listening to what I had to share the stage with.

She was great. She wrote a wonderful, touching short essay about going hunting with her father. This was NPR quality stuff- good stuff that actually jerked a few tears out of the crowd. I was nervous. The novelist was next, and absolutely killed. She was witty, funny, and had the entire audience in stitches while reading about misadventures with bacon. The butcher even had to put down his various knives and take a moment to regain composure. This woman was funny.

I thought to myself "Well, fuck. I'm not touching or funny. I'm just sort of purple-prosey, metaphor-laden and weird." I think that was the point, though. All of our pieces were very different, and I suspect that the organizer wanted a diversity of styles at the event. When the novelist finished, I stepped up, my heart pounding and...

And calmed down. As soon as I was up there, as soon as I started reading, I was at ease. People, much to my delight, were into it. I read all about witnessing public eel slaughter, about attitudes towards meat in Japan, and about how I ate some kind of odd things while I was there. My mention of eating an entire sparrow got an audible "eww!" from the audience. I was reading my own work, and the crowd was reacting positively to it. I can see how open mic stuff gets addictive.

After I was done, I felt relieved, and the editor said that she really liked what I'd written, and gave me some advice about selling it. I thanked her, and downed a glass of wine. The rest of the evening was an informative Q&A with the butcher and a few farmers about what goes into raising and preparing beef, and different sorts of meat were presented for a tasting.

I stuck around to answer a few questions from people ("Did you really eat a sparrow?" was the most common one, "What's raw horse meat like?" was the other) and chatted a bit with a chef who'd spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia eating weird stuff. I left the event and abuzz.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampires: Occasionally Entertaining!

Saw Nosferatu last night, the 1922 German silent film. The movie was accompanied by a live soundtrack composed and performed by Mood Area 52 and shown in the Mission Theater, a smaller venue with the twin advantages of having both beer and an awesome balcony. Several people were wearing top hats and corsets and the like, and a mood of delightful retro-ness carried the evening. The movie itself was great. There were three things I liked about it:

1: Count Orlok is an evil sonofabitch. No vampiric torment here, just creepy, carnivorous, awesomeness.

2: Nosferatu is Dracula, for the most part. The studio wasn't able to get the rights from Stoker's widow, though, so they just changed the names of the characters and kept the exact same plot. The blatant off-ripping is kind of hilarious.

3: In modern vampire fiction, vampires always have to live beside their fictional counterparts. There is usually an expository scene where a character (usually a vampire or vampire hunter) explains what works and what doesn't, differentiating the "reality" of a given piece of fiction from the common cultural effluvia that accompanies vampires. (My favorite scene of this nature is probably when Kris Kristofferson says "Crosses don't do shit" in Blade.)

Nosferatu didn't have a scene like that, and it was kind of refreshing and sort of weird to see. The vampire was presented as something new and alien, which is wholly different from how we see him popular culture. We're inundated with vampires, drowning in them, and the characters in modern fiction inhabit the same vamp-soaked world where everyone has seen at least three different versions of Dracula. Nosferatu isn't like that at all, and it was very cool seeing a familiar face presented as something so novel. Vampires are cliche now, but this was where a lot of those cliches come from, this was the root of so much else. Despite the prevalence of vampires, Count Orlok still seems uniquely monstrous, and the creators of Nosferatu, even as they ripped off Dracula, created something that still seems fresh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guys, I Just Discovered Something! Diversity is GOOD!

I am actively appreciative that there are people who see the world differently than me. This is weird.

This was something that really struck me two weekend's ago at Portland's regional Burning Man event. There I was, surrounded by bright lights, mechanized spider monsters, circus stuff, and lots of things on fire. It was all awesome, and most of it not stuff that would have ever occurred to me. A fair amount of it was stuff that wasn't entirely to my taste, but I was glad it was there anyhow, adding to the general weirdness and eclecticism of it all. I wouldn't want to live in the glowy/happy/hippy world that is Burningmanland, but I'm glad it's there. I really am glad that there are whacked out hippies who sing heartfelt acoustic songs about love and shit, even though I make fun of it and don't claim identification to that sort of "tribe."

This, to borrow a well-worn phrase, kind of blows my mind.

When I think about ideas, I usually think about them as potential universals. I think killing is bad, so I want everyone to act accordingly. I think evolution is very, very real, so those who disagree are delusional. When I think about ideas and values, I usually think things that should work all of the time. You know, Kant type stuff.

This is not true of aesthetics or cultural tastes, though. Not only do I tolerate things that are totally unrelated to my personal set of aesthetics, but I actively like the existence of things that have nothing to do with my artistic preferences. This seems really bizarre to me, and also kind of profoundly awesome.

I'm trying to imagine the world if it wholly conformed to my aesthetic principals. It's hard to do. I'm imagining everyone wearing black and listening to Joy Division. Also, there is a lot of sushi. I'm sure there would be more to it than that, but I know that the artistic diversity that I enjoy is dependent on the nonuniversality of Joe. That's humbling. If I want there to be neat shit to gawk at, I have to accede to the fact that my principals will not and should not always carry the day. The freaks from Burningmanland should also be doing their thing, for instance.

How strange. How unsettling and liberating to admit that one need not always be right, that there is a realm of experience and ideas wherein subjectivity is entirely okay. How wonderful.

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Than Non-Negative

This post is long, personal, and perhaps with time could be better developed. I've been thinking a lot about this, and I know I'll return to this theme again.

In a recent Daily Show interview, Barbara Ehrenreich said "I am always opposed to delusion." Even, she emphasized, when the truth was more painful. The audience clapped, and I greatly identified with this sentiment. I do not like deception. I don't like it when others try to deceive others, or when people try to lie to themselves. Ignoring what is true make me very uncomfortable, and oftentimes has led me to cultivate a segment of myself that is founded in negativity. This contrarian personality-bit has often been prominent, wanting mainly to destroy deception but, troublingly, not wanting to replace it with something positive.

Being a contrarian, being one who points the finger at bullshit, hypocrisy, and delusion is in many ways only a beginning. One only has to say "There it is!" or "I see some over there," and merely identify bullshit, drag it into the proverbial Harsh Light of Day and congratulate oneself on a Job Well Done. Moreover, the contrarian can utilize her emotions of reaction and disdain, can say to herself "my hatred of delusion and desire for intellectual purity is useful." The contrarian imagines herself as a bristling guard dog, a vigilant protector and herald of truth. The urge to destroy and tear down seems like an asset, even like something that should be cultivated.

The problem with this, though, is that one may turn into a mere naysayer, one who destroys but never creates. My images of this are Christopher Hitchen and Penn Jillette, two men whom I consider immensely amusing and occasionally stimulating, but whose ideologies seem ultimately unfulfilling. Regardless of their probable complexities, they seem to be mere corpulent destroyers, bellowing overgrown juveniles who put the highest value on smug destruction and another glass of scotch.

In addition, having a standpoint of pure reaction leaves one with the unrewarding feeling that one may be a bit of a coward. If all you do is attack and jeer, you are in an unassailable position. What do you believe? What are you for? That's unknown. That can only be inferred by your arguments against things. If you have not bothered to erect any kind of real position for yourself, you know, at the back of your mind, that you are acting in a risk-averse way. Such behavior patterns invite self-doubt and regret.

Irony, cynicism, and reaction will only take you so far. They are useful tools, and may be a bit too much fun to use. Ultimately, one will be left only with the corpses of dead delusions, and not much in the way of real value surrounding oneself. "What did I do? What did I achieve?" One must be positive, constructive. Merely being non-negative is not existentially satisfying. Irony, beautiful blade that it is, is a poor building tool. Sincerity must be let it. For ultimate satisfaction, one must, include, and create and experience the opposite of the contrarian's prevailing emotions.

Recent activities that I've found most fulfilling have been those that are non-ironic. I prospered most in Japan when I allowed myself to be inundated with the ambient sincerity of the landscape and traveled with what I hope was a minimum amount of judgment. More recently, I attended Burning Man and was in a Flaming Lips video. These are activities that could have invited some ridicule, but are rewarding and awesome precisely because of the verve and unabashed sincerity that pervaded the proceedings. I feel much the same way about writing.

The problem is, once you invite sincerity into the room, self-doubt comes with it. You may very well produce or do things that invite irony-laced criticism. Also, being in favor of construction, inclusion, and creativity means that you will have to share a certain amount of space with hokum. Not everything created or fervently felt will be worthwhile. There will be waste and error, precisely of the sort that one who is formerly so contrarian will be tempted to bark and snarl at. Spirituality, conspiracy theories, and baseless emotions will be impossible to entirely weed out from the conversation- indeed, the former cynic might find herself espousing some of those things in moments of weakness or nonlucidity. I found plenty of these during my recent hippie-flavored wanderings, and had to remind myself that these things were the byproducts of what were largely worthwhile experiences. Indeed, quelling the urge to bristle and argue made the experience more rewarding.

Another problem is the worry that with all your newfound sincerity, you'll become the prey of some other contrarian, some other wolf just looking to sink her acquisitive teeth into someone who's gone soft. The newly sincere find themselves wondering whether they will suddenly be on the wrong side of truth, find themselves playing with delusion, fancies, and hypocrisy and will have to bare their throat in shame after some other critic reveals their inconsistency and surrender to unreason.

This will happen.

Anyone who attempts to be constructive, to be creative and positive, will find themselves straying somewhere where they are not rational, where they do indeed lie to themselves and others. When some other predator does find the wayward, does bring them back down to earth, though, it should not be viewed as a defeat. Instead, the quarry should look to her pursuer and say "Thank you. Thank you for keeping me honest, for bringing me back to what I know are my true values. The flight into momentary delusion was a necessary risk of the creative process, however."

Having trained oneself to point a finger at bullshit, to shout down hypocrisy, inconsistency, and deception, it takes a certain amount of discipline to stay in constructive, creative mode. The urge to call out the idiotic or unrealistic for what it is must be suppressed a little, and that small amount of restraint can be a niggling worry at the back of the former contrarian's mind. There is an urge, a strong urge, to wipe the field of play as utterly clean, completely free of hypocrisy and delusion. The cynic can often think of the truth as a sort of absence, a blank, white desert where no sort of bullshit can grow. Pure and apprehendible, objective and unmistakable, but such a landscape allows for nothing at all.

As bleak as this sounds, though, I prefer going from negativity to sincerity, rather than the other way around. Instead of being a jaded former romantic who gradually has lost his illusions, I like coming from a standpoint where (for the most part) my negativity has learned to accommodate the positive. This has been a process of growth and loosening rather than losing illusions. As I've gotten older, I've found that I have gotten more positive, not less. This seems to be the opposite of the conventional wisdom, of young idealists having their visions crushed and becoming jaded cynics. There has been some of that, too, but for the most part I've found myself to tolerate the purely positive, which, in the end, is rewarding.

It is worth remembering that sincerity is not an inflexible master, that opinions and theses may be revised in the face of new evidence. Heartfelt belief in an error does not mean that one may not fix that error, nor that one's decision-making capabilities are fundamentally flawed. With this in mind, one's unabandoned contrarian mindset may be used as a kind of error correction mechanism with regards to whatever one is sincerely constructing. Irony and its attendant tools will not be used to create a flat, pure field of nondelusion, but rather as pruning shears of sorts, tools to make something positive prosper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'll Miss You, Video Stores

Video Verite is one of the several chic little shops that lines Portland's Mississippi avenue. It's the kind of place that groups movies by director and has lots of obscure specialty stuff. Posters line the walls, and the whole place has a decidedly movie-geek feel to it. It's precisely the sort of establishment that makes Mississippi (and Portland in general) "hip."

Pity that it will be gone within the decade.

I just took back a DVD, and I know that eventually such an activity will be utterly obsolete. Even renting movies seems a little silly, as I know I could just download them if I wanted to. As of now, everything that a video store offers is more or less superfluous. They traffic in video information, and everything that they offer can more or less be found online. Video Verite, and all of its siblings, will soon go the way of the newspaper.

This disappoints me a little. I like going there. I like the decor and being surrounded by titles. I like the atmosphere and how the place looks on the street. The staff seems nice- last night I wanted to get An American Werewolf in London, but it was out. The guy behind the counter effusively recommended Dog Soldiers, as an alternative, though, and we proceeded to geek out over our shared love of Ginger Snaps. This sort of foray into geeky expertise, being surrounded by movie-ness, is fun. It's neat to go into a place where you know that all sorts of things you haven't thought of await, and there are people who will gladly help cultivate your taste in whatever you're into. I also like things like movie stores (and book stores) simply as fixtures of urban life. It just feels right for Mississippi to have a store like that.

It's not an efficient system, though. Don't get me wrong- I'm completely on the side of advancing technology, and making information more accessible. However, I know that urban fixtures that I appreciate will be phased out because of it. Soon, there won't be any more posters or movie geeks behind the counter. There won't be any rows of DVDs (or even Blu-Ray discs) looking at you from the shelves. You won't need to walk around in movie-ness any more than you'll need to get newsprint on your hands.

Obviously this makes me a little sad and wistful. The process of technological advancement that I'm so fond of won't be without side effects. One of my favorite businesses will go under, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Horror Movies

As I write this, I'm listening to Manowar. It is not what I would typically call "good" music, but I'm enjoying it so I guess that counts for something. I've been listening to metal all evening. Earlier this week I re-watched From Dusk Till Dawn, which is not what I could call a "good" movie, but I enjoyed it a lot so I guess that counts for something. Both the Rodriguez movie in question, and lots of splashy metal, belong to a genre of camp that I thoroughly enjoy, and have historically had trouble enjoying.

My basic thought process (or lack thereof) was that an entirely well-adjusted person would not find any enjoyment in things like gore, spikes, vampires, zombies, blood splatters, dismemberment, werewolves, monsters, slashers, etc. I worried not so much that horror movies, etc. would turn me into a psychopath, but that my fandom of such a genre betrayed some inner werewolfian nastiness. (I think the term "guilty pleasure" is a bit overused, but in my case my enjoyment of this stuff really was steeped in guilt.) If I was such a good guy, why was I smiling at all of the guns and blood?

It is worth noting that if stuff like splatter movies and heavy metal actually did earnestly portray violence, gore, and death, then they really wouldn't be that much fun, would they? And, when I do see honest, real depictions of violence, I do get kind of queasy. You know that famous picture of a guy executing a Viet Cong? That picture is honestly and horribly terrifying. Watching George Clooney and Harvey Keitel blast the shit out of vampires, though, is my idea of a "romp." When just enough of the edges are off, when it gets a little "safer," this kind of thing seems kind of fun.

In the end, though, I can't completely explain it and just have to accept that I know for a fact that I'm a pretty good guy. I also know that I like watching the undead explode. Thus far, wringing my hands over the matter hasn't gotten me anywhere. I might as well just acquiesce to enjoying what I occasionally do and tell the guilt to take its business elsewhere.

So: Fuck it. I'm through with making guilt-ridden judgments or having reservations about my own enjoyment about campy, cathartic, fun portrayals violence. I enjoyed every bit of watching Clooney & Co. blast vampires into bloody smithereens, and right now I'm enjoying obnoxious, shouty music without a shred of guilt. Halloween is coming up, and I know I'll be in the mood for horror movies aplenty, soon.

If you don't like it- fine. I have headphones.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"There is Grandeur in This View of Life."

I just saw Richard Dawkins speak. Pardon me, but I'm feeling inspired. I enjoy being an atheist, and am happy because of it. A few reasons why:

No external divine benediction is necessary for things to be beautiful, meaningful, of value. Being an atheist, I know that I must make my own way in the world, that I must pursue what I find rewarding, what makes me happy, what is good. No other force will deliver this. No god, angel or saint will come to my, or anyone else's, aide and therefore I know that I must be active in my pursuit for satisfaction in life. The only life that I'll ever have, wherein I know it is my duty to make it as good as possible.

Likewise, I know that things are wonderful not because hint at something larger or divine. They are wonderful because they are. Sunsets and reddening clouds need not be orchestrated by god to be beautiful. Beauty, in absence of director or agency, simply is. It springs up and presents itself out of literally the basic building blocks of the universe. With the intercession of absolutely nothing, the world is supremely amazing.

When I look at another human being, I know that I'm looking at one of the most complex phenomena that exists in the universe, a system like myself that contains depths and wonder. We are complicated. We are amazingly and wonderfully fascinating and beautiful, and it is intrinsic. If we attribute our higher emotions and impulses to the divine, we sell ourselves short. By saying “all good comes from God,” we severely discredit ourselves. Human beings are wellsprings of empathy, creativity, love and compassion. We are authors of profound goodness. No divine being interceded and to create the love between you and your family and friends. No angel is overseeing the connections so many make on a daily basis. That comes, entirely, from ourselves, and for that we should be joyful.

To those who say that such a view of the world is “mechanistic” I'd reply- what a glorious mechanism it is. How wonderful and amazing it is that such a mechanism, the universe, exists at all, and has managed to produce life, intelligence, and and wonderful phenomena all by itself. It is a “mechanism,” yes, and it is precisely because of that that we exist at all. It is precisely because of the mechanistic achievements of the cosmos that we have stars, planets, life, multicellular organisms, intelligence, and creativity. It is precisely because things are mechanistic- regular, predictable, systematic- that we have evolved here in all of our functional complexity. That mechanistic view of life itself, of the world itself, should not be dismissed as cold. Instead, we should see the system of the world for what it is, a glorious set of machinery so amazing that it encompasses love, humanity, and the whole spectrum of who we are.

It is all there is, and it is enough.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Coffee Shops

Working at home is possible, but it takes discipline. One must focus intensely while the objects of leisure are right there. I've been working on a manuscript for a while, but to write or edit at home, I have to ignore the Internet, video games, my roommates, and my books. I have to shut out people who may be over, or other stimuli that seems to show up at my house on a fairly frequent basis. Besides, this is my home. This is where I relax and do fun things, the place where I sleep, read novels, and watch movies. I associate it with idleness and off-time.

Fortunately, there are coffee shops.

I'm convinced that coffee is not really the primary product of most coffee shops. Coffee is something I adore, and if I don't have either it or tea I usually am in for at least a noticeable headache later in the day. However, the primary product of coffee shops is really a place to sit. A place, outside of your house, to read, socialize, or work. I've found them an ideal place to focus on my manuscript about Japan. I finally printed out the material I have so far (224 pages, single spaced) and have been editing it for the past week and a half.

I sit there for an indeterminate amount of time, imbibing my favorite stimulant, and spilling red ink. Without fail, there is someone else with a laptop or a notepad or some other such portable object whom I often imagine working away on a similarly creative endeavor. I like the simple presence of others, and I like the atmosphere and smell, the piles of alternative weeklies in the corner, and the paintings on the walls with price tags like footnotes. Oftentimes, there's some kind of music playing, usually jazz or some obscure imported genre that is simultaneously interesting and easy to ignore. I like that, too, a low-level white noise that eases attention to detail.

I've been staggering which ones I go to, and seeking out new coffee shops. Yesterday, I found a new one in Southeast, in the Hawthorne District, a converted house filled with paintings. The owner had dragged in an old-style school desk which I found too amusing not to sit at. When I went in, there was a guy on the porch reading a newspaper. He was there when I left, too. Across from me a guy with extremely long hair and hemispherical earphones sat at a laptop for the entire time I was there. A girl reading what looked to be a gigantic novel said "thanks" to the counter guy as she left, and he said "see you tomorrow!"

Not home, not an office, but another node or point of contact, another place on the map that can be used as "base," a resting zone. If all coffee shops had was coffee, I wouldn't go to them nearly as often, wouldn't drink nearly as much of the stuff. I go there for the state of mind, the focus, go there to be outside and at rest at the same time.

Monday, October 5, 2009

October: It's Neat!

Tonight I saw the huge, yellow moon low on the horizon and thought that yes, October is precisely the time when you expect to see such a gigantic moon, even though, really, you should be able to see them every month. There it was though, illusionarily large and round and bright and autumnal and I was happy to see and feel my absolute favorite time of year, all around.

I like October a lot. Of course, I'm biased since I was born in this month. I sort of like it by default. There are plenty of other reasons, though. This is the time when all of the leaves turn things get windy. You can now, if you want, wear a jacket. Or just a t-shirt. If you want to bust out a scarf at night, that's perfectly alright. It's a kind of equilibrium weather, warm and cool and windy and calm all at the same time so you can take your pick as to how you react.

There's cider. Cider coming out of taps and in bottles that advertise the season, cider in heavy glasses on heavy wooden tables that are, indeed, around all year but seem at home in what is now unmistakably autumn.

In stores all kinds of nasty things are suddenly acceptable- toys and accessories that feature the weird and grotesque are no longer in contravention of social norms. For a bit everyone, a little, admits that they really do like the dark. They really do like, a little, things that are not exactly positive. It's suddenly okay to revel in the strange, to enjoy the sight of blood and flesh, to admit that things that excite us and scare us are often the same. Horror movies and tubes of fake blood are consumed in record amounts, and if we are going to know anxiety and fear, at least we should have some fun with it and make sport of our own racing hearts.

Piles of leaves flurry all over the place in patterns and whorls that allow you to "see" the wind in a matter of fashion, and the really big storms that shake the trees and snap off branches start up. This is significant weather. This is not passive or monochromatic- this is not boring or endless. These winds are intent on changing the environment, bringing things down and snapping pieces of the world apart. They will make themselves heard and their presence known, and for that I respect them even if they are troublesome, because part of me prefers dynamism and action to peace unpunctuated.

Everyone gets creative. "What are you going to be for Halloween?" Ideas and hypotheticals are tossed around freely, projects are embarked on and things contrived, built, and shown off. There are parties. Often several. Portland is bedecked with advertisements for haunted venues, and I should take in at least one. This month people build personal contraptions of weird, display their own craftiness to an extent unshown otherwise, flourish their arms and say "look what I made!" (It is for this reason that my birthday party has a fanciful theme.)

October, though, seems to have this sort of balance about it. Equilibrium between the year's other extremes and excesses. It is not summer, not winter, not cold, not hot, not anything that is somehow immoderate. It is all of those things, open to interpretation, democratic. It is transitory and therefore all encompassing (maybe I'm imagining that) and the month that I continue to love the most.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why Finally Reading David Foster Wallace Was Good, But Also Kind of Sad

I'd been ignoring David Foster Wallace for a while. Mainly because of Infinite Jest, which I still haven't read. Infinite Jest is a huge and imposing book and honestly it intimidates me even more than Ulysses did. I will read it. I will unhinge my jaw and devour the entirety of a North American buffalo. This will happen, yes, mainly because I've now read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, one of DFW's essay collections.

The best thing about ASFTINDA is DFW. The essays are about stuff like tennis and cruise ships, topics that I normally wouldn't care at all about, but I cared about them because DFW's perspective and style was such that he allowed me to care about him. In other words, I really liked him. Not just as an author, though. There are plenty of authors whom I quite admire but would never really want to meet in person. Hemingway and I would not have much to talk about. DFW, though, seems exactly like the sort of person with whom I could relate, even be friends with. This happens very rarely with me and media figures, but it happened with DFW, and I found it quite frightening given that he put himself at the end of a rope last year.

There are plenty of suicidal people whose work I enjoy and think were geniuses. Abovementioned Hemingway, Woolf, Akutagawa, and Mishima all offed themselves, and that doesn't really bother me all that much. That might sound callous, but it's true. I guess that's because, really, I wouldn't really ever have wanted to hang out with them or see myself in them at all. However, I was able to see a lot of me in DFW (does that sound really arrogant?) and that was sort of weird.

He has all sorts of little affectations which I found at once horribly pretentious and also utterly charming. He uses 24 hour time notation, uses the abbreviation "w/r/t/" without explanation, and has a joyous and unrestrained love for footnotes. He is unapologetically what one would call an "intellectual" and thinks the fuck out of things like carnies and corn dogs while finding dread and anxiety in the Illinois State Fair. On the back of ASFTINDA he smiles sweetly through stubble and slightly unkempt hair and I realize that I don't just want to hang out with this guy, I want to be this guy. I want to be funny, smart, respected, and successful in the same ways he is funny, smart respected, and successful. Under normal circumstances he would be what is known as a "role model" for me (can 28 year old adults have role models?) but I'm still really bothered by how he died, i.e., at his own hand.

I think that suicide is, for the most part, extremely unreasonable. If someone's in immense terminal pain, I can certainly understand that, but most of the time I think that there are reasonable alternatives for functional adults. At the risk of sounding immensely insensitive, I think that able-bodied people who commit suicide are usually, at best, shortsighted and, at worst, cowards.

Knowing that this guy whom I've been admiring so much for the past week succumbed to that is really, really troubling. DFW suffered from chronic depression, yes, and was attempting to go off his meds when he offed himself. I guess that's a mitigating circumstance or something. Still, it's weird to see a guy who has precisely what I, personally want out of life- intellectual acuity, my name in print, and sex with smart, creative women - radically admit to unsatisfaction. I'm thinking to myself, Jesus Christ, that wasn't enough. That didn't make you fucking happy? You had it fucking all. (At least for a certain nerdy, literary definition of "all.")

One of the recurring conversations that I've had with Seph is that there very well may be a certain baseline of happiness/depression. One may be satisfied/exuberant for a time, think that one has "made it" or whatever, but eventually you just readjust your expectations and desires and end up in the same kind of happiness/blah-ness cycle that typifies most of life. There is nothing, really that can make those heavy, gray days (and weeks and months) go away where you know that most of your internal switches are in the "off" position. Abraham Maslow is famous for saying "Whatever our sorrow, it fills us up." I'm never going to off myself like DFW, but from his experience I know that if I ever am hypothetically successful I'll still have rather grim periods, and that's a nasty little truth to face.

God, what a fucking downer of a blog post. Shit. I should say something positive.

Oh, yeah- ASFTINDA is awesome and you should read it. Reading it made me want to write, and I think that's one of the nicest things that one can say about a writer. I was reminded why I like books so much, and after I finish up the pile of tomes presently dominating my bedroom floor, I know that sometime before I leave Portland (I'm thinking early next year) I'll be shoving Infinite Jest into my brain.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Roman Polanski

I like Yukio Mishima. Confessions of a Mask is a great book about alienation and isolation in the face of societal expectations. I like Yukio Mishima despite the fact that he held deplorable, racist, nationalistic opinions. Moreover, he ended his life by first kidnapping the commandant of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and then killing himself in a grisly ritual. Yukio Mishima was a hideous, awful person. A horrible man, and eventually a criminal. This does not mean one may not read and enjoy his books. What this does mean though, is that he has to be read with a certain amount of conscious criticism. "This interesting work of neatness," one must recall, "was written by a horrible, whacked-out lunatic."

This isn't just limited to individual artists. Most of the very shiny wonders of the world are the result of rather nasty absolute dictators doing fairly awful shit. The terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, China, for instance, were basically a vanity project for a monarch. Qin Shi Huang decided that he wanted a fancy tomb, and poured an unreasonable amount of China's budget into making a work of art that only his corpse was going to be able to enjoy. He so infuriated people with his monument to himself that after he was dead the place was burned to the ground out of (deserved) spite.

Think about it: One of the most iconic pieces of archaeology in the world started as a an act of extreme hubris, arrogance, self-aggrandizement and waste. And now it's a well-visited UNESCO site. Think about the pyramids. Slave labor. The Parthenon. I doubt that Pericles was a union-friendly OSHA-following kind of guy. These are great works of culture and art that were also awful wastes of life, and we need to acknowledge that.

Which brings me to Roman Polanski. Here we have more good art from a bad place. If I had to summarize my opinions about the guy, they would basically be "Fuck Roman Polanski." Allow me, though, to expand...

Roman Polanski drugged a thirteen year old girl alcohol and quaaludes and then raped her. There were witnesses, and he pleaded guilty to precisely this. Later on, he evaded the authorities and attempted to dodge the punishment that society would mete out on any similar rapist. He also makes pretty good movies. So good, that lots of people are embarrassing themselves by sympathizing with him.

The question is- can one watch his movies without guilt? Does watching, and praising, Polanski's movies make the viewer a party to rape of a thirteen-year-old girl? If you like his movies, does that put you on "his side?" I'd say "mostly no." Lots of people, like Nicholas Sarkozy, seem to be thinking "Oh, I like his movies, so therefore I'm in favor of clemency for this guy." This line of thought is unnecessary and unfortunate.

First- If you try to limit your consumption of art and media to only stuff that was made by morally enlightened people, you will have a hard time of finding anything to fill your brain with. Sean Connery thinks its okay to hit women. He's been quoted as much. Are you going to stop watching James Bond movies? Are you going to never watch Last Crusade again? Didn't think so. You do have to separate yourself from the art, and recognize that deplorable, awful bastards can be capable of making things that are neato.

Second- I would posit, though, that since Polanski committed an extremely serious criminal act and has subsequently evaded justice, it is okay to watch his movies, but not to pay for them. Moreover, the world would do well to not burnish his reputation by throwing awards at him. I'm kind of reminded of Pete Rose, even though I don't like baseball very much. Pete Rose bet on his own team to win, which I always thought wasn't that bad a thing to do, and was shut out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Polanski raped a girl and got an Oscar. Even though I think that MLB erred on the side of harshness, they've got the moral edge over Hollywood in this comparison. If a guy doesn't follow the rules, he doesn't get the accolades.

In the meantime, I think that it's perfectly acceptable to download Polanski's movies and watch them without paying for them. If anything, I think that's how the viewer can absolve themselves while watching them. Once he's dead, though, feel free to pay for the things.

Third- Film is a collaborative art. I do admit that I want to see Chinatown, but it's not just a Roman Polanski movie. It's also a Jack Nicholson movie. The finished products contain the creative efforts of lots of people. Polanski was just the guiding force of all that creativity and work, and even though you are watching his stuff when you watch one of his movies, you are also watching the work of the writers, cinematographers, actors, editors, and guys who work the lights. One or two of them were probably alright dudes.

But, with all of that out of the way, the man should be in jail. Oscars are not reasons for clemency, and I believe that liberal, democratic, rule-of-law societies would do well to punish child rapists, be they famous or obscure. The victim has asked for the charges to be dropped, but mainly because she's tired of the press attention. I can understand, really. If I'd spent the past thirty years best known as a victim, I'd want it all to go away, too.

But, when it comes to violent crimes like this it's not up to private citizens to decide that everything's okay. I like living in a society where rapists will most certainly go to jail. His awfulness does not change the status of his art. We can still admire, the terra-cotta warriors, the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. However, we must acknowledge their bloody origins, and not fool ourselves as to how they came to be. Likewise, one may read a Mishima book or watch a Connery movie and know that the art came from someone who, really, was an awful sort, but who managed to occasionally spurt wonderful things into the world.

So, one may watch Polanski's movies without being an apologist for the man. Hopefully, viewers will be watching them, though, while he only gazes at the walls of a cell.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tough Chicks

About two weeks ago I found myself in Seattle, watching several scantily clad women run around and tackle several other scantily clad women. They were, theoretically, playing football. Not very good football, mind you. There weren't many completed passes, and the game was pretty lopsided, score-wise, but there were scantily clad women, which theoretically made up for that. (American football, by the way, is a game that I would be more into if there weren't so many interruptions. It's tactically interesting and can be exciting in fits and start, but the pace of the game really kills it for me.)

It was the opening night of the Lingerie Football League in Seattle, and as semi-amusing as I find the conceit I could not help but be reminded of the XFL, the failed and gimmicky "extreme" football league started (and folded) some years ago by wrestling mastermind Vince McMahon. Like the XFL, lingerie football seemed extraneous- an established sport with a patina of something allegedly interesting on top of it. The "extra" part of it, though, the girls and their semi-unclad states, was not sufficient to really hold my attention. Even though two teamsworth of conventionally attractive women were piling on top of each other (though not especially well) I didn't really see too much of a reason for the league's existence other than the brief novelty we were all enjoying in our variously semi-drunken states.

The whole time, I thought to myself "Roller derby is much better." The comparison was unavoidable, really. Both are active spectator sports, and both feature attractive women falling down. The next week, miles southward in Eugene, I got to view my preferred ladysport, watching the last bout of the year of the Emerald City Roller Girls.

Unlike lingerie football, roller derby is something wholly new and other. It is not an approximation or copy of something else, not a parody of something established. The image I got of lingerie football was some barker saying "Hey, buddy! Yeah, you! You like football? You like bitches? Well guess what we have! We have bitches playing fucking football! You like that? Yeah you do. Get in there."

Roller derby, however, is it's own realm and species, unlike other forms of competition. Because of this, the attitudes and sexiness of it all come across as intrinsic and essential, an organic part of it without pretense or artifice. Moreover, it has teeth, and the teeth are half the reason I enjoy it so much.

For some reason or another, roller derby has become a sort of hipster/punk/indie/etc. event, a spectacle bedecked with skulls, flames and attitude. The derby girls sport noms de track such as "Lil' Whip-Her Snap-Her," "Bettie Aim Fire," "Slapcat," and "Reign of Tara." Team uniforms are not uniform at all- embellishments and flairs of individuality are common. There may be fishnets here and garters there, flashes of nonuniform color or different stuff on helmets. The roller girls really do look a lot like a gang, like a bunch of like-minded people who just happen to dress in a very similar fashion.

Once they start rolling, the action itself stays, and interruptions are usually only about thirty seconds. By definition and nature derby is about speed and maneuvering, tactical issues that carry the unavoidable side effects of people falling down. It is jostling through a crowd, except the crowd is zooming and turning. There is action, music, and spectacle. Lingerie football billed itself as something explicitly prurient, and for that reason my interest in it (and the girls) flagged. Roller derby is not prurient. It is a real sport. There is impassioned competition flying by, courtesy of those wheels and axles. There is a sheen of sexiness upon it, but like I said that sexiness is emergent rather than applied. Watching the roller girls, I found them in their embellished uniforms far more interesting than any of the football chicks. Given the choice, I know which breed of female I would rather chat up.

Which brings me to a larger point. I'm going to ignore the creep-factor of a single guy talking about chicks, and talk about them anyway.

I'd take Bettie Page over Marilyn Monroe, thorns over roses, Suicide Girls over Hustler. My preferences are by no means radical or even all that unusual, but I like to think that this choice of attitude and aesthetics says something positive about me, makes me a better man in some respects. I would by lying if I said that I didn't feel superior to "ordinary" guys because of these preferences. I set myself apart from the rotund guys wearing football jerseys because I think "I get off on better quality shit than you do, suckers."

I don't think that this is simple arrogance. I really, honestly do think that roller girls are sexier than lingerie football girls, and I actually do think that finding them so is the more enlightened/feminist/socially responsible/generally interesting position. The conclusion that I'm drawing here is that I like women who are actually ambitious, creative, and idiosyncratic. By extension, I'm putting guys who like conventional blond bimbos in a negative light- supposedly if I like these things, they don't, and I, therefore, have a cozy place where I can feel arrogant and superior.

This does bother me slightly, but turning the idea over in my head I can't get away from the feeling that I am, in fact, right. Heres why. The lingerie football girls all seem to be approximations of some kind of cenerfoldian ideal that remains unreached, and therefore they do not become as interesting as their skate-mounted counterparts. (By the way, I'm sure that individually they could easily be highly cool, but I'm dealing in generalities and images here.) The derby girls, on the other hand, seem to have dispensed with such uniform pursuits and mostly just present themselves in a way that they find interesting and suitable. This is much better, and why the aesthetics of roller derby interest me much more.

Armpieces, centerfolds, and trophies are boring. I don't think this is a misogynistic conclusion to come to. If anything, I think it's a very feminist position for a guy to have. I don't want to personally associate myself (or find myself in the position of wanting) a girl who has all the personal constitution of a well-soaked piece of gingerbread. Granted, both the lingerie football and derby girls were presenting themselves as tough. But, in the case of the football girls, it was a kind of parodic and cute toughness, as if inviting us to say "Aw, look! The chicks are doing boy things!" Roller derby, though, has none of that.

I'll probably never go to another lingerie football game, but I'm definitely catching roller derby again. The Rose City Rollers are supposed to put on quite a show, and I'd love to see it on a banked track, rather than a flat one. Wheels and attitude. That's what will keep me coming back.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Most Satisfying Encounter With the Flaming Lips, a Horde of Very Nice Naked People, and a Giant Spherical Vinyl Fur-Vagina

K posted it, and I saw the call up. The Flaming Lips were shooting a music video in Portland, on Mt. Tabor, and they needed naked bicyclists. This was too good to pass up. I am a bicyclists, and in a few moments I can easily turn into a naked bicyclists. I, along with my friend K, were definitely going to this thing. We met up, biked to Mt. Tabor, and sought out fame, fortune, and rock 'n roll nudity.

I was not expecting Wayne Coyne to actually be there. I imagined that the whole project was going to be overseen by a director or producer with a pre-approved shots and images to capture. A limited amount of people, I thought, would be told where to stand and what to do, and it would all be very scripted.

I was utterly and completely wrong. Instead of some functionary that I'd never heard of overseeing the shoot, The lead singer himself was addressing a crowd of semi-clothed Portlanders and explaining the dilemma at hand. Earlier in the day, Coyne and the crew had been filming people riding down a hill on their bicycles entirely naked, as was the plan. The park ranger, however, had come by and told them that such absolute nudity was not an appropriate activity upon Portland's mini-volcano, and demanded that everyone's bums and junk get covered up.

So, as K and I approached the crowd Coyne explained the solution: The next day the shoot would move to Sauvie Island, where full nudity would not be a problem, and there would be more space anyway. For the time being, though, he wanted to utilize the pretty environment. The solution: guerrilla nudity. On a more visible path, several people would be wearing underwear, there would be lights, and lots of whooping. It would all be a diversion, though, designed only to look like filming was going on. The real shot would be down below.

About twenty of us descended down a path for a shot of naked people pushing Coyne's trademark hamster ball (which he calls the Space Ball) up and down a hill. “Okay,” he told us, “we have to do this quick. I don't want anyone to get arrested or in trouble. When I say 'go' the underwear comes off, and as soon as we cut, put it on again.” We got around the big ball, pushed it around, and no one was completely naked for more than thirty seconds. It was still a lot of fun, but only a taste of the next day's activities.

“Wow,” said Coyne after we'd pushed the ball up and down the hill a lot, “for a bunch of naked people you really don't smell that bad.”

The next day's shooting, though, was an entirely different matter.

The lot of us (and our bikes) bused out to Sauvie Island where Gus Van Sant apparently has a house and a fair amount of property, and the director, according to Coyne, was quite enthused about having his land invaded by a bunch of enthusiastic naked people. The house itself wasn't all that opulent looking, but Van Sant has quite the enviable lawn, some nice woods, and a small beach at Sauvie Island. I could think of worse things to spend millions and millions of dollars on.

The day's shooting consisted of a few main scenes- a longer shot of a mob of naked bicyclists, filmed on Van Sant's sizable wooded driveway, more shots of people rolling the Space Ball around as well as us lifting it and Coyne above our heads and carrying it away. The main set piece of the day, though, involved another, similar inflatable ball. Except this one was covered in fur. And, it had a giant vinyl labia on the front of it.

Here's a (NSFW) picture of it.

The whole album, Embryonic, is all about birth and whatnot, and the big idea of the video was that all of the naked people got shot out this giant spherical fur-vag and we were a bunch of reveling, newly-born primitives who encounter Coyne, a supposedly magical being in a crystalline Space Ball and we think that he's special in some way or another. But, his Space Ball deflates, we see that he's just another fleshy organism just like us, so, like any right-thinking group of whooping nudists we of course pull him from his deflated Space Ball, strip off his clothes, and then carry him off, subsequently stuffing him into the giant, hairy mother-vag that recently spat us all out. Very straightforward.

K, who was pregnant, said that the big, round fur-vag would proceed to dominate her maternal anxieties.

I was pleased to be among the twenty or so people involved in the birthing scenes, and even though I didn't get to crawl out of the orb-shaped birthing fuzz myself, I did get to hoist a few people out of it. I can say, with a certain amount of confidence, that it was the first time in my life that I've ever hoisted naked strangers out of a comically large set of female genitalia. K, though, was fortunate enough to get spat out of the thing, which will probably be good practice for when she has to eject a smaller human from her various biological systems. (“I love it that you're pregnant,” Coyne said to her, “it goes with the whole birthing, mother thing. That's great.”) The feeling of the birth scenes was great, what with people shooting out of the giant vag and the rest of us whooping, hollering and generally carrying on in the buff. "Everybody freak out!" began to replace "Action!" as the directorial command of choice.

A bit on the nudity- I was sort of surprised at how non-sexual it all was. One would think that getting naked with a bunch of reasonably fit bicyclists would be an invitation for general bawdiness, but it seemed that everyone was trying very, very hard to not be pervy. I restrained myself from checking out the various highly attractive women too much, and in general the atmosphere was towards revelry and whimsy rather than lewdness.

There was more shooting of naked bikers, and towards the end of the day we did some night shots all carried Wayne Coyne's naked body aloft over our naked heads. I was happy to be one of the guys hoisting him above the crowd, and can go to my grave with the knowledge that my hand has full on cupped middle-aged ass of the lead singer of the Flaming Lips, for whatever that's worth.

The whole affair was easily the most naked people that I've ever seen in one location. Even after seven years in Eugene and attending Burning Man, I've never encountered that many bare asses in one place at one time. It was sort of freeing and relaxing, really, to just be standing around completely nude and not giving a shit. Not that I'm going to stop thinking that nudists are weird- they are. But, it was great to have an opportunity to do weird shit for a purpose. The crowd was fun, though, and I was impressed with how hands-on the Flaming Lips were with the making of their own video. It will certainly not be the product of intermediaries or a studio- it will be unequivocally theirs.

The video should be released sometime in the first half of October. Hopefully me and my ass will be in a shot or two.