Sunday, May 30, 2010

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Westerns

Two anecdotes:

I am nine years old. In an effort ot distract me and my sister from our mother's recent death, my father takes the two of us (and our tiny brother) to a rodeo just outside of Portland. It rains, and the performance is not particularly good that night. My sister and I are pelted with rainwater and are undistracted from our loss.

The other:

I am fifteen years old. I have completed my freshman year of high school, and it is summer. For most places, I am just too young. They will hire sixteen year olds, yes, but not anyone younger. Because I cannot find a job in Portland before summer vacation lets out, my father arranges for me to work on a garlic farm in eastern Oregon.

I get off a Greyhound at the designated spot. A man in a workshirt asks me if I'm Joe, and I say that yes, I am. I get in his car and he takes me to his farm, where I'm work for the duration. I live with his family- he, his wife, and two daughters. My room is in the basement, and I sleep on a cot next to a large meat freezer. On the wall, there is a poster. It is a poster of Ronald Reagan. He is wearing a cowboy hat, and the poster reads: "AMERICA: REAGAN COUNTRY." I sleep next to this. When I am alone in the basement, I listen to the Led Zepplin tapes that I brought with me, or read some of the Asimov novels that were in my suitcase.

During the day I move irrigation pipe. I learn how to ride a motorbike, shoot a rifle, and move large sections of pipe in a set pattern. It is an easy job because I don't have to think. It is a hard job because it is repetitive and physically exhausting.

When I converse with people, I realize that I am in the minority. The people in eastern Oregon do not like abortion, or gay people, or people who are not Christian. They listen to Rush Limbaugh and modern country music. They watch versions of Hollywood movies that have the nudity edited out, and the swearing bleeped. I am in foreign territory.

I try to stand up for what I believe in- I tell that that it's okay to be gay or have abortions. I am argued with, and I lose, because I'm only fifteen. I know that I'm right, but I cannot defend myself.

Therein are the reasons that I've never loved westerns. Also, my dad liked them and I dismissed them as a genre for old people.

Westerns have reminded me, perhaps unfairly, of that postmortem rodeo and that summer on a farm. I am reminded of a certain bleakness, crying in the rain, or trying naively telling a whole swathe of America that homophobia is wrong.

When I thought of westerns, I thought of that poster of Reagan in his smug cowboy hat, "AMERICA: REAGAN COUNTRY" above my old cot. I did not want to be a part of that. I did not want to enjoy or abet that.

I thought of westerns as enemy territory- lumped them in culturally with Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Christian rock. The repetitive myths of Red State America.

I am now prepared to say I was wrong about westerns.

Yes, this is all in part because I'm playing through Red Dead Redemption right now, for those of you who know what a horrendous geek I am. That is the catalyst. But, I have to acknowledge that there were always examples of the genre that I've enjoyed.

I quite liked the Dollars trilogy, The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Unforgiven. However, each and every time I watched a western I enjoyed, I simply assumed it was an exception, a classic that was non-representative of the genre. Last night I saw Tombstone with some friends of mine, though, and it's really clicked for me- the western is not a genre that has much to do with rural America.

Yes, Red State America might lionize the cowboy, but, truth be told, westerns are just like space operas, gangster movies, fantasy, etc. They are fantasy films. They do not actually take place in America in the 1800s. The desolate land they show is an idealized no-man's-land, a fantasy apocalypse. The movies where Clint Eastwood guns down outlaws have nothing to do with history- they take place in the same cinematic universe as Star Wars and Kill Bill. This is a facile revelation to have, but, fuck it, I'm enjoying it.

Westerns, now that I've divorced them from history and political context, are a great genre. They're about civilization without infrastructure, organized crime, social and political progress, self-reliance, social and political ostracism, and, of course, shit-tons of dead dudes.

The world that they take place in is fairly divorced from the actual American frontier, if only because several of the gun tricks pulled off by cinematic gunslingers are actually impossible. More importantly, though, there is nowhere that bleak violent. There is no place that is actually as nihlistic or horrible as the west that the Man With No Name or his compatriots inhabit. It is as fanciful as Dagobah.

Because of that, (and because of encroaching maturity) I've been able to watch westerns and simply enjoy them, like them as a genre piece as opposed to monuments to Red America. I recently rewatched A Fistful of Dollars and loved it. It, like the science fiction movies and books that I love so much, exists in a world apart from and other than our own. Its world is a compelling alien and cinematic one, an open dead place of violence and airlessness and unthoughtof potential. It is an curious place, one that exists without coordinates or real dates. Because of that, I thought not at all of the horrid bleakness of Red America and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Single Most Important Part of a Concert (Which I Don't End Up Explaining Very Well)

One of my little brothers once went to see a Pink Floyd cover band (not something that I could imagine myself doing...) and I asked him how it was.

"It sucked," he said. "They were too good. It's like someone put the CD in and pushed 'Play.'" I completely understood where he was coming from. What he described didn't sound like a concert at all, but some sort of "musical experience" or whatever.

The best concert experiences I've had don't just involve music, but the performers getting on stage and dazzling the audience with that ineffable charisma that makes them so good at what they do. Not only do musicians have to be good at, well, music, but they have to be engaging and fun to watch in a sort of ineffable way. (Of course, musicians aren't the only ones who have to do this. Actors, lecturers, comedians, etc. also have to be able to work a room.)

Last weekend I saw Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley play at the Crystal Ballroom. I'd seen both of them last year (albeit in an entirely different fashion) and I was happy that I decided to catch them again. Both Palmer and Webley have charisma in spades- not only are they great at playing music, but they exuded waves of charm, presence and charisma on stage. I was amazed at how much the room liked them. Really, really liked them. Granted, the deck was stacked in their favor- I think every hipster/goth/geek in Portland was in that room that night, but still.

A good part of winning over the audience came from the fact that the concert was not simply a concert per se, but also a theatrical performance. In the middle section of it, Palmer and Webley were dressed as the fictional conjoined twins Evelyn Evelyn, each of them wearing matching wigs and piled into the same huge dress/bag costume. As conjoined twins, they performed using Webley's right hand and Palmer's left on the piano, accordion, and ukulele. This added absolutely nothing to how they sounded, but it was a neat party trick and the crowd loved it.

They played up their persona as fictional twins as much as possible, singing about their backstory and predicaments, occasionally accompanied by shadow puppets. There was comedy, weirdness, and a freakshowy vibe to the whole thing that just worked, even though (well, maybe because) it was extremely silly.

By the time they took the stage as their actual personae later in the show, the crowd was completely prepared to shower them with love and adoration. When Jason Webley told everyone put their arms around each other, sway from side to side, and sing a drinking song, we all cheerfully obliged. When Palmer prattled on about the story behind her songs, I didn't care. I liked her too much. I know I'm not going into details, but it's late and I don't really know how I can effectively explain how utterly charmed the audience was.

That feeling of being charmed and disarmed, of being compelled by a performer's raw charisma is exactly what I want out of a show. And, again, I feel like a completely lousy writer for not being able to fully articulate it right now, but I think that's part of it. It's not about how well you play or what you say or anything like that. It's about sheer power of personality. It's about being utterly charmed by a man with an accordion who tells you to sing along, and then joyfully doing so. It's about rooting for the artist, about being utterly engaged (and them engaging you) with everything that they're doing.

I'm sure actors and whatever talk about this a lot. I hope that in my own oratorical pursuits I can be half as compelling as Palmer and Webley. The sheer moxie that I saw on display last Friday is the reason why I will always be willing to get out of my house, open up my wallet, and go to a show.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Awesome Thing: Moon

I've added categories to this blog, and after doing so realized that I tend to blog quite a bit about media. No surprise there. I've decided to intermittently endorse various things that are not necessarily current, stuff that I enjoy for some reason or another. All of these will be under the "Awesome Things" category. Here's my first non-current endorsement, Moon.

I've been meaning to blog about Moon for quite some time now. You really ought to watch it. I don't want to give away too much about it, but was far and away one of the best science fiction stories that I've seen or read in a long, long time.

When I was a kid, I devoured Asimov, Clarke, and Dick's short stories. I checked out collections of Hugo-winning short stories and novellas, and devoured them with gusto. Science fiction, I think, is uniquely suited to the short story. Brief narratives can be built around a single interesting idea, a nice little "what if..." scenario that can put a human face on speculation and abstraction.

Moon reminded me a great deal of those stories by Asimov & Co. The film is science fiction in the traditional sense, starting from a speculative scenario of what it would be like to live by yourself in a station on the moon. It goes from there, with Sam Rockwell having no one to talk to except himself and his computer buddy voiced by Kevin Spacey.

I wish I could talk more about the plot. I really do, but I don't want to spoil a thing about it for anyone who hasn't seen it. There is a twisty moment in the middle, but something that I really, really love about the movie is that the further sci-fi weirdness is used as a departure point, not a conclusion. When the audience does find out about a given futuristic oddity in the world of Moon, the movie does not just say "PRESTO!" and leave it at that. Instead, it actually develops the weirdness, exploring it just like good science fiction should.

Moon reminded me of all the reasons I love science fiction. It reminded me why I love speculation and wonder, why I think that "what if..." is a great question to ask, why I devoured all those short stories, and why I wanted to be a sci-fi writer when I was younger. (Actually, I still sort of want to be a sci-fi writer sometimes...) It is everything good and neato and smart and clever about the genre, and it reminded me not that I love stories about space and robots, but why I came to love them in the first place.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Last night I found myself on stage with a microphone in my hand in front of a room full of complete strangers. I could feel my heart banging against my ribcage, and I wondered if the mike was able to pick up the beats and gasps of my cardiopulmonary system. I'd been wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but ditched it in favor of a black tee. Freedom of movement and looseness were necessary. I was sweating and filled with a very specific kind of fear. The primal part of my system was telling me to run away, to get the hell off the stage. I had to tell that part of my brain though, as well as my heart, lungs, and sweaty forehead, to shut the fuck up.

"We're doing this," I mentally said to my rebellious brain-stem, "we're doing this and it's going to be great." At the comedy open mike I'd already seen one guy bomb horribly. At the very least, I would not be the least-funny person on stage that night.

I opened my mouth and heard the parting of my lips amplified by the mike. "I was raised Catholic," I said. There were a few "Whoos!" from the audience. I proceeded to talk about being an altar boy, and launched into a routine about how I never got molested.

"I was an altar boy for a lot of priests," I said, "and I never got molested. Ever. What I want to know is-" and here I did my best to adopt a put-out expression, "why the fuck not? I mean, I'm not that bad looking of a guy! I was even sexier when I was fourteen. I ran cross-country- I was fit! And I didn't even get a wink from a single priest. Nothing! Quite frankly, I feel left out."

For the next few minutes filled the air with absolutely filthy material about pedophilia, the Catholic church, and how God was an asshole because he cuckolded Joseph. I made jokes about Mary was probably a pushy Jewish mother, and how if God had any manners he would have offered to have had a threesome with Mary and Joseph instead of just going behind the dude's back.

I chose sex and religion because I thought it would be easy to joke about. Joking about the Catholic church and sex is kind of like selecting Ryu in Street Fighter- it's cheap, easy, and gives you an overinflated sense of your own skill. The subject matter, though, seemed to make a lot of the audience very uncomfortable. I had a few people laughing consistently (I was pleased that they were other comedians) most of the audience seemed to be squirming uncomfortably as I called God an asshole for knocking up Mary and then never calling her back.

Their discomfort made me in turn uncomfortable. I thought to myself "I'm offending people! Shit! I should have done my routine about ancient Greece!" I realized that working with that kind of subject matter means that you have to not give a shit about the people who are uncomfortable or offended. If you're going to talk about God giving Mary the best orgasm in history, you have be prepared to deal with the people who think that's gross. I did my best to focus on the people who were laughing, and stay positive.

I finished my routine, got off the stage, and my heart rate immediately dropped. My back muscles loosened, and I breathed easier. The host shook my hand and told me "right on." I sat back down. Prior to my routine I'd been too nervous to drink the beer that I'd ordered from the bar. I sat down and almost immediately drank all of it.

As I was sitting down and drinking my beer, my dominant thought was "I want to do that again!"

I felt loose and exhilarated. Despite seeing audience members squirm awkwardly, I wanted to go on stage and do another comedy routine. Punching through the fear, the pressure to perform, and the feeling of actually succeeding at being engaging, actually making people laugh, was a huge rush. I had all kinds of endorphins firing through my system, and I was enjoying a very familiar sensation.

I enjoy public speaking. I enjoy getting in front of groups and being interesting, funny, and engaging. I did speech and debate in high school (where I did pretty well at competitive stand up), was the speaker at my high school graduation. I was in a band in college, and have been a teacher, tour guide, and wedding officiant. Maybe I'm a huge narcissist, but feeling a roomful of eyes on me, and then being able to power through the nervousness and actually perform is my drug of choice.

I love the idea of being alone on stage. There is nothing there. Nothing. Everything that comes off stage has to do with you. The mood, the audience reaction, the vibe of the room- it all comes from your voice, body language, and presence. I want to be that kind of person, the kind of person who can fill a room with just their voice, and make people react with just a gesture. The instant gratification is also nice- as much as I like writing, I can't see my audience. Closing the gap between creation and reaction is, quite frankly, just neat.

I admit that I love hearing myself talk, being the center of attention, and being able to charm a crowd of people. I will do stand up again, probably soon. It will probably be a while before I do another routine about sex and the Catholic church, though. I have a routine about ancient Greece I've been working on, and some jokes about science fiction. I don't care about my rebellious brainstem- I wanna go again!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Break That Cycle: Why I Gave Up Pasta

I am jonesing badly.

It is an unpleasant feeling. I keep thinking about the object of my desire/addiction, the thing that I want so badly to enter my bloodstream. I'm antsy and I wonder how long this self-denial will last. If it's for real. I keep thinking how easy it would be to go to my hook-up, how simple a task it would be to trade cash for what a really want, and make all of this energy and anxiety go away. I keep telling myself that I'll make it a month. Yes. At least a month.

I'm talking, of course, about how I've given up pasta.

I love pasta. Noodles are, bar none, my favorite food in the entire world. They are my ultimate, super, desert-island megafood. Ever since I was a little kid and I was making fresh pasta with my mom, I've loved the stuff. Loved it. Right now, if I could have my way, a bowl of fettucini alfredo with salmon would show up right in front of me.

But, that's not going to happen. I'll admit it- I almost bought the ingredients for fettucini alfredo at the store, and didn't. I bought some eggs, veggies, and a bottle of wine instead. (With that bottle of wine, at least I'm indulging myself a bit...)

I gave up my very favorite food ever as an exercise both in vanity and self discipline. On one hand, I'd like to get rid of my gut. Having a 36" waist was not a pleasant truth to face, and, being quite nearly thirty, I need to admit that stuffing myself with carbohydrates and fat (i.e., pasta covered with cheese) has consequences. Time to give up the food that I most often pig out on. So far, I have noticed some results. Hopefully, this will be the one and only time in my life that I fill out my current pants...

The other aspect of it, though, is more ephemeral. It is very useful to give up something that was so normal, so expected. Pasta was what I made for myself when I could not think of anything else to make. It was a default food that required no thinking, no planning, no real cognizance of any sort. Giving up something that was so much a part of my normal schedule has required a great deal of presence of mind.

The result of this is that I've thought far more about what I eat than I previously did. I think about the composition of my meals, what I'm actually putting into my body, what is necessary and what is not. I broke a cycle that was not necessarily healthy or useful, and it feels great. I just finished eating chicken and asparagus for dinner, and I know it was sufficient. That knowledge is extremely nice to have, comforting in an immense way.

I don't generally endorse puritanism or self-denial for it's own sake, but I do think that testing oneself in small ways is usually a good idea. Seeing how much of something you can do, or take, or go without. Seeing how much of a given thing is necessary or not. Power over others or over situations is all well and good, but it is quite rewarding to feel power over oneself in tiny ways on a regular basis. I gave up pasta. Probably not forever, but I banished my favorite food from my life. The results have been amenable.

While it has a rap for being associated with things like puritans, the military, and religious types, when done right I really do think that self-discipline can benefit people in very non-fucked-up ways.

I'm still jonesing. Hopefully I'll stick with this.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May First, 2010: What I Think About Immigration

Yes, I know it's a few days later, but I think it's fitting that I'm writing this particular post on Cinco de Mayo.

A flash back to my time in Japan: On more than one occasion I was stopped by police, asked to show my ID, what I did for a living, where I worked, etc. I was stopped because I was very obviously a foreigner, and the police in Japan routinely ask for ID from those who are obviously not Japanese. I would not say that I was harassed per se, but the whole process was inconvenient and somewhat humiliating.

More to the point though, I hated these incidents because of what it said about Japan. Every time I got stopped by a police officer, Japan revealed itself to be a country possessed of an alienating insularity. I wanted Japan to be a better country than that, a modern country, a country that didn't really mind if foreigners were about. Clinging to national identifications seems deeply childish, and the police stops that I had to put up with did not really accomplish anything. The only thing that they did was remind me that I was a foreigner, and that Japan (as much as I loved it) could be a real dick sometimes.

Which brings me to Arizona.

I would like to believe that the U.S. is a bit more enlightened than Japan, a bit more inclusive and broad-minded. I would like to believe that the U.S. will never behave like an insular island nation, insecure in its own cultural integrity. On May first, a substantial amount of Portland's Hispanic population was in the streets, protesting more generally for recognition and equality, but with a special emphasis on Arizona.

I have a hard time, thinking about immigration. On one hand, I do think that people should come to the U.S. legally, that crossing borders without authorization is, indeed, a crime. That said, simply trying to deport everyone in the U.S. illegally would be a massively impractical (and probably inhumane) undertaking. Something else needs to be done.

The protesters and various speakers over and over said that they were in the U.S. for jobs. That's the crux of it, right there. Every year, thousands of people make the completely rational decision that it is preferable to be illegal in the U.S. than poor in Mexico. I find that very, very affecting. Being poor, out of work, and generally on the lowest rung of the social ladder in Mexico is so bad, that every year a very appreciable number of people make the decision that it is better to be surrounded by hostile law enforcement, live without documentation, and be in the midst of a language that you don't understand. They choose that in favor of poverty in their home country. Think about that- think about being so completely destitute and desperate that you decide to smuggle yourself to, say, Russia in order to actually support yourself. That would take a certain amount of wherewithal.

The U.S. does not have an immigration problem with Canada. There is a reason for that- Canada offers a range of economic options for its dwellers. It's a perfectly nice country, and the poor in Canada are not so desperate that they choose our illegality over their poverty. Canada has jobs and social infrastructure, and that's why the Canadian unemployed tend to stay there.

The fact of the matter is that illegal immigration from Mexico is going to be a problem until Mexico gets its act together. This is not something that we can necessarily fix quickly. It has taken us over a year to fix the comparably coherent domestic economy, and as much as I'd like to believe in American economic and political power, we cannot pull up Mexico by ourselves.

Until then, yes, the people who are here from Mexico (a dysfunctional, corrupt, and impoverished narco-state) ought to be accommodated in a humane matter. This does not mean that we should open the border to all comers, but it does mean that if someone has been in the U.S. for over a decade, contributing to the economy and possibly even with a family here, then amnesty should be considered. (One set of my great grandparents also came to the U.S. illegally, so the family story goes. That also certainly effects my views on the matter.)

I most certainly don't think that anyone who looks foreign should be stopped by police and asked for ID. I brought up my experiences with Japanese police not so much to identify my situation with that of Hispanic immigrants, but because I knew that I had it easy- I was an American white guy. I'm sure those police were much harder on the people whom they heard speaking Mandaring, Cantonese, and Korean. I'm sure the Arizona police will be much harder on Hispanics. (To be fair, the Portland police were out in force, and I didn't see any incidents of nastiness. They seemed much more concerned with directing traffic.)

The whole march had a kind of carnival atmosphere to it, and as much as I tried to stay a disinterested observer, snapping away with my camera, I couldn't help but experience great feelings of empathy for the families carrying flags, placards, and signs in English and Spanish. The pro-pot protesters in the square looked somewhat sophomoric by comparison. Here were people asking for things like jobs and familial coherence. They were asking for something that I thought was immensely reasonable. It is a shame that their requests have to be shouted.

Monday, May 3, 2010

May First, 2010: What I Think About Legalizing Marijuana

On May first, the unofficial holiday of protests, of demonstrations, of signs and shouting and slogans, was in full swing in downtown Portland. I was somewhat conflicted- that Saturday was also Free Comic Book Day, and the geek in me wanted to bike around town to the various shops and get all of the free books that I could get my hands on. I did go to two shops, but my political curiosity got the better of me, and I spent most of the day in downtown Portland.

In Pioneer Courthouse Square, a very specific kind of music was playing, a certain slack-sounding rock, a loose, unconstrained music that immediately brings to mind tie-die and unkempt beards. Several tents were set up in the square, many of them selling glass pipes, hemp crafts, and other marijuana peripherals. The whole event was dominated by NORML (National Organization for Marijuana Legalization) and a not-unfamiliar vibe of hippie rhetoric and low-level outrage dominated the event. The police, of course, were milling about diligently.

A speaker took the stage, and began to speak about the alleged virtues of medical marijuana, and declared that the U.S. was denying sick people medicine to which they had a right. The medium-sized crowd responded favorably, applauding and whooping, all the while milling about, signing petitions, and looking at pipes. The speaker went on to extol the various virtues of marijuana, its safety and supposed health benefits, the economic rewards of turning it into a legitimate crop, etc. I have to admit, that the rhetoric coming from the stage made me more than a little uncomfortable.

I am in favor of marijuana legalization. More specifically, I'm in favor of recreational legalization, and believe that moderate use by responsible adults is fine. I have no moral opposition to the drug, and an generally a civil libertarian when it comes to what people should be allowed to do with their own bodies. I think that legalization would be a fine thing, and will probably come about in the next twenty years or so.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric in the Square on May first made me a bit squeamish. I believe that there were a few reasons for this:

1- While I don't doubt that marijuana has some pharmaceutical benefits in specific cases, I can't help but wonder if advocacy of medical marijuana is a fig leaf for recreational legalization. Actually, I think that this is the case more often than not. Pretending that marijuana is some kind of panacea or essential medicine being denied to sick people makes me very skeptical. There are several depressants and opiates already available to the health care industry. I would rather have honest advocacy of a recreational drug, rather than dressing it up as a medical necessity.

2- I do not like it when cannabis advocates call marijuana "safe." It is true that it is relatively safe, compared to, say, cocaine or heroin. To classify marijuana as the same kind of narcotic as these drugs is absolutely ridiculous. However, it is still a drug, and still entails a certain amount of risk. Drug consumption is always a managed risk, and it is a risk that individuals should be allowed to take. Moreover, just because something is unsafe, it can still be managed. I would not pretend for a moment, for example, that driving is perfectly safe, or that whiskey, traveling, or sex are safe. However, all those things are worthwhile, and the benefits outweigh the risks.

3- Marijuana advocates do not seem to anticipate the economic changes that legalization will entail. The speaker in the square repeatedly mentioned everyone "growing their own marijuana." While I have no doubt that this will happen, she and others like her seem very naive about how marijuana will be commercialized almost as soon as it is legalized. I believe (but cannot prove) that the various tobacco companies privately hope for marijuana legalization. They have the infrastructure already to manufacture and distribute smokables. I truly believe that RJR Nabisco will be selling joints as soon as they are legally able to. This does not seem to occur to many legalization advocates.

4- Enthusiasm about drugs generally makes me uncomfortable. I am not by any means a puritan (in opinion or behavior) but I think that many people mistake the easement and momentary satisfaction provided by drugs as a substitute for genuine enlightenment. I believe it was in Heaven and Hell where Aldous Huxley after (I think rather unevenly) extolled the virtues of hallucinogens, referred to the experiences they offered as a "gratuitous grace," a momentary glimpse of supposed understanding, as opposed to the thing itself. I do not doubt the feeling of relaxation that comes with, for instance, a frosty beer after a work day, but I would not mistake that for genuine psychological well-being, the ability to be at peace in the midst of chaos. Genuine existential satisfaction comes from an array of experiences that cannot be readily obtained.

Given all that, I did agree with the protesters about their policy prescriptions- that marijuana should be legal. However, I did not feel a real connection with them, did not see myself as part of their "team." I will vote with them, but I am not of them.