Friday, July 31, 2009


My students have a new favorite word: Awesome. I didn't teach it to them, and I don't know how they learned it, but almost every time they utter it, it's with a sort of exuberance and emphasis. They are not saying "awesome," they are saying "Awesome!" you can hear it, the capital letter and the exclamation mark, and I'm pleased with their use of American slang.

I've noticed that the word "awesome" (or rather, "Awesome!") has come into a particular kind of popularity. I hear it all the time, appended to all manner of things, and I like how it's being used. Granted, I do like the old meaning, as in something that fills you with awe. (As in, "The awesome power of the atomic bomb utterly leveled Bikini Atoll.") But, as a word, it seems to be succeeding because it fills a niche, specifically in that it describes good, admirable and laudable things that are worthy of note, but not exactly "cool." There is a certain amount of overlap, and I do use the words interchangeably, but I do think that there is a subtle difference in connotation between "Awesome" and "Cool."

Awesome is different from Cool. Related, maybe, but different. Cool listens to Jazz and dresses impeccably, even when wearing jeans. Cool can mix the best martini you ever had. Cool is James Bond and James Dean at the same time, and hangs out at the Playboy Mansion. Cool can dance. It can tango, breakdance, and salsa. Everyone would get in bed with Cool in a heartbeat. Then Cool won't call you, but it was all worth it. Cool can treat you like shit, and you'll still come crawling back. You'll crawl back on your knees for cool.

Jimi Hendrix was Cool. Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger were Cool. Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday were Cool, and in their day Prince and Madonna were Cool. Bruce Springsteen remains Cool, as does Tom Waits, in a certain way. Beautiful people are Cool. Beautiful, sexy and aloof is Cool.

Awesome, though, is a very different animal. Awesome, for one thing, is much smarter than Cool, and much more exuberant. Awesome does weird shit, like making homemade flamethrowers. Awesome can't dance, but dances anyway, and pulls it off. Awesome plays obscure musical instruments, speaks weird languages, wins at Trivial Pursuit, and dresses up splendidly and hilariously for Rocky Horror. Awesome sings the fuck out of karaoke and wins spelling bees. Awesome knows all about irony, and makes use of it on occasion, and can juggle and hang glide.

Batman is awesome. The Talking Heads and Devo were Awesome, as was Hunter S. Thompson. XKCD and Simon Pegg are awesome, and so were Richard Fenyman and Einstein. Geeks, nerds and science fiction are Awesome, and so was Lester Bangs. The best concerts I've ever been to were the Awesome ones. I saw Van Halen in high school, and they tried to be Cool. It was... okay. I saw Amanda Palmer in a park, and she was Awesome. More worth my time, definitely.

Being cool is exhausting. Trying to be stylish, sexy, or have that ineffable "it" just seems like a lot of work. I like cool, yes, wish I was cool, sometimes, and want to sleep with cool almost always. But I'm not cool. Neither are you. You're not cool. Admit it.

Awesomeness, however, is more attainable, and more human. "Awesome" means dynamism, varied and myriad spontaneous bursts of life, creativity and joy. It's not an aloof or uncaring sort of mindset, not something that beguiles your allures you with an almost unnoticable come-hither. (But, like I said, that shit's not worth it.) Instead it is shiny and involed ans says to you "get the fuck over here!" Awesome is loud, brazen, egalitarian, pluralistic and ebullent. It lets loose its barbaric yawp at the world, flings open its arms and loves the world, rather than sulking in cool, icy aloofness.

I want to pursue Awesomeness, and leave Cool by the wayside. I'll leave it for the insecure and grossly supertalented to make tries at Cool. Have fun with it, guys. In the meantime, I'll be enoying myself, not giving a shit. I'd rather be Awesome.

(Of course, who knows- maybe in fifteen years "awesome" will sound like "groovy.")

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Annotations To an Enjoyable Experience

(Don't get the wrong idea about the following post- I had a great weekend. But, I've already talked about the positive aspects of dressing funny whilst camping, and this post is about something else. Think of this as an annotation, or addendum, to something that is mostly positive.)

Celtic knots and skulls seemed to be on everything. Bracers, boots, coats, necklaces, tatoos. The intricate, interweaving braids and headbones formed the ornamentation of choice, closely followed by pentagrams, dragons, and the occasional fairy. It was hot, unpleasantly hot, and I wanted a cigarette. No idea why. It's a vice I try to limit, but I was in a mood and craving one. I was dressed as a pirate. All around me, other people were also dressed as pirates.

I was at what people who are into this sort of thing term an “event,” a large-scale camping trip wherein lots of people strut about in historical garb, maintain historical personae, and generally carouse and drink a lot. Several of these events are associated with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This one wasn't- it was a pirate-themed extravaganza Called Sea Dog Nights and Gypsy Carnival. I've done this sort of thing before and enjoyed myself, but last Saturday found myself wandering and filled with a peculiar kind of anxiety about it all, an anxiety that I think had something to do with all of the Celtic knots all over the fucking place.

I don't want to sound too pedantic, but Celtic imagery has about as much to do with historical pirates as petunias have to do with janissaries, and the juxtaposition was bugging me. (Bear with me here- I'm not trying to bitch, really. This is not a “Joe spews bile on x” post, not that I ever do that.) What was bothering me, is that the connections seemed tenuous and almost arbitrary. All over the place people were dressed in in Hollywood-style pirate garb, kilts, belly dancing skirts, boots, tricorn hats, flowing dresses, etc. It seemed, at once, a wild motley of unrelated things, a hodgepodge of anachronism. At the same time, though, there was a weird, settled uniformity to it. Almost all of the visual elements were things that had been adopted by geek culture, things that I was familiar with because they'd been adopted as recurring visual tropes by the sort of people who know what THAC0 means.

This bothered me. I looked around, very much hoping for some kind of originality, some kind of garb or conceit that would surprise me, and found not much of it. There was one guy dressed up in gear that looked African in origin, and I thought that was quite cool, but saw little else in the way of aesthetic differentiation. There were only the same sorts of variations- look, here's a skull! Here's a ship, a dragon, a pentagram!- recurring again and again. I wanted someone (for clearly there were a lot of creative, driven people involved in this thing) to mix it up. I wanted someone to wear a Fez or samurai armor, to dress up in a toga or gladiatorial gear. I wanted see someone bedecked in Aztec finery or have the rigging of a Chinese junk set up in their camp. The whole thing was crazy, yes, creative, definitely, but I wished that it was more insane and unrestrained, more varied and unrestricted. More diverse, divergent, and arbitrary, even more anachronistic. If histories were going to clash with each other, if supposed “pirates” were going to walk around with kilts on, than I wanted it to be anachronistic all the way. Vikings in cowboy hats. Centurions with muskets. Persian Immortals behind Prussian artillery. It wouldn't clash any more than this Norse-looking figurehead at a pirate party.

The standard tropes seemed far too comfortable. I wanted someone to do something risky.

Make no mistake- I had a great time. I had a really good time. I mingled with my friends, drank a lot, and greatly admired the industriousness of my roommate K who managed to construct a wonderful and quite comfortable pavilion for us to hang out in. The inside was strewn with carpets, drums and cushions and a hookah acted as a centerpiece, making the camp a bit different from the normal "scurvy dog" theme that kept popping up. Lounging about inside, I had nothing but appreciation for her creative energy, and, indeed, saw her deviation from the norm as laudable.

At night I took in fire dancing and music, and in the dark the ships' masts and pavilions of the participants lost all hokiness, and I was taken in by the experience. Yes, I was taken in, eventually. I sang, pranced about, and had fun, even as I thought way to much about it.

But, I kept thinking to myself: Go further. If you're going to play fast and loose with history (and I'm okay with that), then play as fast and as loose as you can. I would have nothing but respect for someone if they showed up at something like this dressed as Barbary Corsairs or Zulu. I would applaud anyone who dressed as a detachment from the Golden Horde or the Huns. Variation, daring, rather than staid replication of the standard tropes, would have breathed even more life into the event. Instead, the same safe themes and memes were stamped out again and again.

There is a Wondermark comic that I quite like, purporting to show next year's internet memes. Instead of ninjas and pirates it shows deep-sea divers and gendarmes, among others. I appreciate it greatly, because it shows the arbitrariness of fads and crazes, and posits that deep sea divers are just as potentially meme-worthy as, say, ninjas. It's a nice wake-up call to anyone who has been immersing themselves in the cozy repetitions of the internet and popular culture. The fad that you see as so whimsical may indeed be, but it is not apogee of quirk or fun. There is plenty of other stuff out there to gawk at- plenty of the world that can be mined in the name of oddness.

I'll definitely go to an event again (I like camping, and I like drinking, and they tend to be mainly that) but I think that the participants could learn a thing or two from that Wondermark comic. Remixing the same song over and over again does not make for a good party. Yes, pirates are kind of neat. Even the Hollywood sort. But c'mon- branch out, reach out. It's not like anything is historically accurate right now, so you might as well go fuck-wild and be awesome about it. I think these last guys were onto something: Pirate motor cycles. Purple, chrome, and ahistorical in a gleeful, badass way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Bit of Awesome Portland-Based Smut

This is just to joyously perverse/sexy to not share with others. Anything that puts strippers, drag queens, a furry and a superhero all together is probably going to get at least a smile out of me.

My sister and her fiancee caught Storm Large earlier this year, and had nothing but awesome things to say about her. This video makes me wish I'd caught the show.

EDIT: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: She lives in Portland. That's the Park Blocks behind her in the last bit. This here is some good, Portland-grown smut, and makes me all the happier to live here. She performs her all the time, and now I feel like I've got some kind of moral imperative to go see her live at some point.

Yay Portland! Our shit is weird! Woo!

Moderately NSFW, by the way.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ten Years Later

I was tempted to say "I freaked out, joined the army, and now I'm a professional killer." Tempted to say it, several times, but I didn't. Nor did I tell anyone that I was a male stripper. I was tempted to say that, too. I told everyone the truth- that I'd been in Japan and was teaching English, and that I'm leaving again, next year. That got good enough responses, I suppose.

When asked why I was going to my ten year high school reunion, all I could really say that it only happens once. Yes, there are twenty and thirty year reunions, but it's the ten year that really counts. That's the one that everyone talks about, that gets made into movie scenarios and is supposedly so jarring. The ten year reunion is where you see that everyone has turned into adults, where the ugly ducklings have all turned into swans, or where the former prom queen got fat. That, supposedly, is where everything is starkly shifted into dramatically different adulthood.

Except it wasn't.

An old classmate of mine looked out over the dimly lit floor, sighed into his drink and said with bitchy wistfulness "no one's fat." There was nothing to pick over, no flesh for the vultures of pettiness. We'd gone to Lincoln High School, which in our time was the most academically successful, privileged school in Oregon. We were the snobs, the elite, and if this had been a bad teen movie, we would have gotten some kind of comeuppance, some ironic punishment for our privilege and advantage. None of that.

Smart, rich, urban kids, it turns out, grow into beautiful and successful adults. My experiences in Japan were not atypical to the gathering. It seemed like every other person had been abroad, and I chatted with old classmates who'd lived in Brazil, Germany, Tanzania, Lebanon, and Italy, to name a few. There were some people with spouses, yes, and some who had children. Mostly, though, people seemed themselves. We'd been intensely smart teenagers, strutting about downtown Portland with youthful arrogance and now we seemed to be basking in twentysomething cleverness and satisfaction, a natural outgrowth.

As much as I've changed in the past ten years, even in the past three, very much of me is still that seventeen year old boy who wandered around downtown Portland, reading Kafka in coffee shops, smoking through precocious conversations about Locke and Rousseau. I seemed to see him in stark relief at the reunion, as I searched for my classmates' past features that I had known them by. Remarkably, I found those features. I did not find them because they persisted, though, but because they had grown into something else, matured, been fully realized. The successful little ducklings had turned into successful ducks.

That's wonderful, I suppose, but I remember hearing a lot of people saying "No one's changed." Not intrinsically, not imminently. But we had become more refined, more well defined. I suppose that means we'd grown up.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Live, Real Star Trek

You know the whole phenomenon of Shakespeare in the park? It's great. Basically a bunch of people do a free performance of Shakespeare in a public place. Last Saturday I went to something like that, but instead of "Shakespeare" it was "Star Trek."

Live Star Trek. It was fucking fantastic. The actors were wonderful, the audience was massively appreciative, and geeky enthusiasm ruled the day. I was amused to see one of the actors from King Lear, which I saw earlier this summer, also in this. I suppose there's a fair amount a crossover between Shakespeare and Trek fans. Also, the whole thing was accompanied by The Fast Computers, a band whom I'd seen a few times in Eugene, and were great in this setting, providing a retro-electro background.

The episode that they chose to perform was a nice one- Amok Time, wherein Spock goes into heat and subsequently battles Kirk at the behest of a sexy Vulcan chick.

The homemade props were especially good. Both of those polearm things ended up splitting in half during the fight, to great effect. All in all, utterly awesome. My geek heart was aflutter the whole time.

And, apropos of nothing, here are a bunch of kids splotching paint all over a car.

Friday, July 10, 2009

In Which An Elephant is Utilized

The woman with the antlers on her head is Amanda Palmer, half of the Dresden Dolls. Earlier in the evening, she gave a ukulele performance in Portland's Park Blocks. The gentleman with the deer skull staff later climbed on top of the elephant and regaled us all with a few accordion songs. A good time was had by all.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"So, why did you get your ears pierced?"

That's the question that's been asked of me for the past week or so. I got my ears pierced a bit over a week ago, just two metal studs in my lobes. Pretty understated, but I may get more prominent earrings when the piercings heal completely. Inevitably, friends and family have asked "why." There are two reasons. The first is that I felt like it, and thought that I'd look alright with pieces of metal in my head. The second reason requires a bit more of my characteristic verbosity.

When I was in Japan, my friend D would often say of the various Harajuku kids that they were cute because they were "all rebelling in the same way." This is the sort of clever-guy observation that I normally appreciate, but I think that it sort of misses the point. Firstly, looking unconventional is not the same as looking unique. Not at all.

If something is "unique" then it means it is singular, one of a kind. (Which means that something is either unique or it isn't. Saying that something is "very unique" is rather silly.) Very few people, I think, want to affect styles and modes of appearance that are unique. Sure, there might be a few weirdos out there who want to be the very first person to wear a flying ferret on their head, but for the most part folks want take part in stuff that already has established meaning. This includes looks and modes that are often described as "alternative."

The kids in Harajuku were just as much expressing solidarity with each other as they were rebelling from the Japanese norm. If anything, their construction of their own group, their own "us" was probably more important than any ideals of rebellion that they might have had. Likewise, I didn't get my ears pierced because I'm rebelling against anything. I did it mainly to advertise the fact that I belong to a given branch of American culture.

My various beliefs and opinions, I think, are fairly well advertised by my appearance. The fact that I have pierced ears, a beard, oftentimes a buzz cut, wear a studded belt, Dr. Martens, and have an inordinate amount of t-shirts from Threadless all advertise things about myself. Namely, that I'm the sort of person who voted for Obama, is in favor of things like gay rights and abortion, has opinions about which version of Blade Runner is best, and is more likely to read Pitchfork than Rolling Stone. I want people to realize this. The idea that people can assessed and judged independent of their appearance in some idealistic or pure way is absolutely ridiculous. Because people will always make discernments about how I look, I want it to be on my terms, mostly in hopes that I can associate with others like myself. It's not necessarily about "being unique" or "rebelling" at all, even though it is at once adopting a moderately unconventional mode of appearance.

Eventually, after I get back from the Peace Corps, I might get myself tatooed or pierced in a more dramatic fashion. God help me, though, if I ever end up looking like any of these assholes.

EDIT: By popular demand, here's a picture, though they are not huge, and do not show up especially well in photos.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sympathy For Sanford

I know I'm a week late on this, but whatever.

Last week, I found Mark Sanford's press conference oddly touching. Yes, there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in me as well, as he is, in fact, a Republican and called for Bill Clinton's resignation during the whole Lewinsky thing. But, he was obviously flustered, obviously unscripted, and obviously falling apart emotionally in a very public setting. The cameras were on him, the ticker underneath him was summarizing his words, and he seemed to constantly have a look on his face that said "Um... What do I say next?"

The whole "politician has affair" story is rather tiring. It's commonplace and trite, and I don't think it's really all that newsworthy most of the time. Seeing Sanford, though, brought a few things to mind:

1: The personality of a successful politician and the personality of a successful monogamist do not overlap.

Politicians are generally outgoing, charismatic people with powerful personalities who know how to talk to people. They are also, almost by definition, ambitious. They are generally exactly the sort of people who attract others (they have to be, really) and exactly the sort of person who seek others out. We demand monogamy of our most driven, most well-spoken, most socially skilled people. It's almost like expecting vegetarianism from orcas. Which makes me wonder...

2: How many of them are actually swingers?

No, really. It seems like there would be way more political fallout if a politician admitted to being in an open relationship than cheating on their spouse. Cheating, after all, is an indiscretion performed by red-blooded testosterone-charged Americans. Open relationships, though, are for perverts who live in filthy hippy holes like Eugene, Oregon. Better to just cop to the cheating, rather than admit being involved with weird, pervy sexual practices. Which brings me to my third point...

3: Monogamy isn't for everybody.

But we expect it to be. As far as I'm concerned, if everyone's on the same page and no one is emotionally maltreated, consenting adults can do whatever they wish with their anatomy. I don't think that what Mark Sanford did was right because he obviously lied to his wife and it sounds like he was also stringing his girlfriend along. However, I think that in a more permissive culture, he could have done right by both of them. Having multiple partners, I think, is utterly possible. However, one can't be fair about it unless they are open and honest about it. That can't happen when you're strutting about as a public figure pretending to have a vanilla marriage. Also...

4: Your favorite politician is a probably a cheater, so just get used to it.

Like I said, their personalities make it more likely. Better to just expect them to be boning half their staff, while the other half watches. (And who knows, maybe their wives are in the cheering section.) Barack Obama, messiah that he seems to be, is probably sleeping with someone who is not Michelle. G. W. probably had a few girls on the side. Reagan probably forgot more sex than you'll ever have.

But you know what? I don't care. I don't think any less of, say, FDR for having a mistress. I don't think any less of Bill Clinton, John Ensign, John Edwards, or Mark Sanford. If I was in their position, I would have probably succumbed as well. You probably would, too.

The idea that Sanford should resign because he cheated on his wife is utterly ridiculous. Politicians should resign because they break the law or are incompetent. Sanford was a dick to his wife, yes, and also a dick to his girlfriend, but that has nothing to do with the execution of his office. He should fill out the duration of his term according to the law, and doesn't deserve the abuse he's gotten in the press.