Thursday, October 20, 2005

As I Might Have Guessed . . .

You fit in with:

Your ideals are mostly spiritual, but in an individualistic way. While spirituality is very important in your life, organized religion itself may not be for you. It is best for you to seek these things on your own terms.

80% spiritual.
80% reason-oriented.

Take this quiz at

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

OK, I'll bite . . .

10 years ago: Having spent several months in Salt Lake City after failing to complete college, I was giving notice at my job at Matrixx Marketing, where I was working the incoming customer service line for Clairol hair coloring products. 'Stine and I were pooling our resources, and would be moving, in two weeks, to the great northwest, to Seattle.

5 years ago: Having just moved out of the studio where we'd lived for the better part of five years to our current one-bedroom apartment, I was waiting--quite apprehensively--for the opening of my zombie-farce Sunken, being directed by the beige one himself. I was also growing hair and a beard for Gorey Stories by this time, and was already over it and wanted to shave.

1 year ago: It was around this time I first saw Sleepytime Gorilla Museum in concert, before having actually heard any of their music, and was dumbstruck at the sheer spectacle and transcendental brilliance of it all. That I went at all was an exercise in feeling comfortable going out and doing things I enjoyed, very necessary in the wake of a turbulent summer and absolute collapse of a fall. I was trying to deal with my depression and rage on my terms, which are sometimes a little . . . well, stringent and unorthodox (if those words aren't too intrinsically contradictory).

5 snacks: Quesadillas, celery, kale stalks, peanut butter & jelly on apple cinnamon rice cakes, Gellato Classico green tea ice cream

5 songs I know all the words to: If I discount musicals I've been in (and I have to, or I'd never limit it to five) . . .Morphine, I'm Free; Peter Murphy, Marlene Dietrich's Favorite Poem; Sky Cries Mary, Elephant Song; The Flaming Lips, She Don't Use Jelly; and Nine Inch Nails, Terrible Lie

5 things I could do with $100 million: Pay off my debts, buy a bass guitar and several months worth of classes, take martial arts classes every night (Aikido twice a week, Muay Thai once a week, Krav Maga twice a week, intensive yoga on Saturday and T'ai Chi on Sunday . . . probably), get a car (or a scooter), get a philosophy degree

5 things I would never wear: I'm assuming I can count things I'd never wear again . . . Polo shirts, short shorts, a mullet, tight leather pants, a leisure suit

5 favorite tv shows: Lost, Firefly, The Tick, Freaks & Geeks, The Sopranos

5 biggest joys: The heady buzz after a good workout, seeing an audience member with tears in his/her eyes, 'Stine sobbing while I cradle & rock her, herbal tea late at night, having every last pair of underwear clean and in my drawer

5 favorite toys: Defined broadly . . . my jump-rope, our strap on, my juggling balls, my hackey sack, the Super Scrabble tiles

That was fun. Are the beige one and rob listening? I know 'Stine already shouted out . . . I don't imagine JJisaFool would be likely to play, but I'd be curious to see what he had to say.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Are You Not My Tribe?

I remember reading this a few years back in The Stranger, our local free "alternative" weekly. I don't know why it occurred to me today, but it ties into something I've been confronting as I try to write about music and film, particularly music or film that falls under the catchall headings of "independent" or "alternative".

First off, let me explain something about my ostensible preference for the independent, underground or alternative: My concern is less about who makes music or releases it, whether my neighbor likes it or not, or whether it has any sort of dubiously defined "credibility". My sole reason for skewing towards the independent is not that it's inherently better, but that reduced commercial expectations seem, on balance, to lead to a greater receptivity on the independent circuit for the original; whereas larger studios and distributors are more risk averse, overall, because they have to protect not only their direct investments in the product, but the massive infrastructures of their bureaucracies. So I'll be the first to acknowledge that independent record labels and film producers can churn out pablum; and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that perennial iconoclast Bjork has been on a major label for years, while former indie darling Chris Nolan's major studio blockbuster Batman Begins (a franchise entry, no less!) provided the second most potent shot of adrenaline this most reason movie season (the first was Murderball). It's just a matter of recognizing which lever most often gives me a food pellet and which one most often gives me an electric shock.

I'd also like to cite Northwest writer Sherman Alexie, who, when addressing the matter of his writing almost exclusively about matters tribal (he's American Indian--he rejects the term "Native American" as a white-guilt thing), suggested that focusing on the tribal is the only way to address the universal. He points out that tripe like Pearl Harbor is made possible by a bland desire to appeal to everyone. Might we not, he suggested, achieve the universal by aiming for the highly subjective?

Alexie, of course, was referring to the "tribe" in terms of ethnic identity. Well, that's not really something that resonates with me; my "Irish" ethnicity might still carry some currency if I were, say, a practicing Catholic on the east coast, but our racial identity thing is a little more passive out here. No, I've based my notion of tribe on a number of things: where we fell in the adolescent caste system; class; aesthetic preferences; political leanings and temperament; attitudes towards sex, sex toys and kink; feelings towards the churches in which we grew up. Eventually, the ways of delineating tribes become so abstract that my tribe becomes whatever circle will at least feign an interest in what interests me, whoever will at least try the strange and foreign flavors I'm trying to feed them.

In some ways, this is true in the broader culture, as well. Tattoos were first the mark of sailors, whalers, military men and unintegrated natives of faraway, "primitive" cultures. Later they would be the province of fetishists, bikers, punks and cops. Then gangsta rappers. Then sensitive art students, and the first generation of emo kids. Now there are tattoo shops at the mall...

Really, this is all terribly exciting . . . and disconcerting. It reminds me of 1992, when all the music I'd been listening to in high school--R.E.M., The Pixies, New Order, Joy Division, Modern English, They Might Be Giants, The Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode--were suddenly not so very alternative anymore, because alternative was the genre du jour. What had been featured only on "120 Minutes" the year before was now WHAT WAS ON on MTV, with Siouxsie Sioux sharing air time with the likes of Metallica and En Vogue. It was rapture, briefly. The democratization of the underground, the breaking through, was, to my mind, a show that the mainstream had finally caught up, that the last innovation had become new guard. I was set to become suddenly, impossibly cool, the guy who was on the scene before anyone knew what the scene was . . . only to watch every jock frat boy who used to beat up my friends back in the hometown trying to play the sensitive guy who was listening to The Replacements before they were cool (yeah, I saw you back then, asshole: you thought "that punk shit" was gay, and had Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood blasting from your Dodge pickup). After that, enough copycat bands even ruined the music (for a while). It was enough to make anyone long for that sense of authenticity, and it's hard, faced with said longing, to avoid wondering if it wasn't better when it truly belonged to us.

The article to which I've linked, however, seems to represent the sad culmination of this line of thinking, a socio-aesthetic dead-end wherein it can be assumed that there's a wrong kind of hip-hop audience. I've also seen this in the punk crowd: an assumption that those who are inadequately "in-the-know" can be excluded from the party, that those unfamiliar with Botch and Kill Sadie can't be real fans of These Arms Are Snakes.

When did we start thinking this way? When I seem to be focusing in on a specific audience, it's usually an economic decision, a business move, an attempt to ascertain who is most likely to pay for and appreciate the art that I value and intend to make. When I appear to reject certain audiences, it isn't because I don't want them there, but because I have no intention of catering to their desires and doing art that has no meaning for me.

I understand the impulse to run from those you may come to perceive as hostile to your aesthetic interests. God knows there are people for whom I've stopped even trying to play music, people who are no longer invited to the shows of which I'm most proud. And I'm sure that people like Kareem Panni are only trying to protect the integrity of their vision from the facile expectations of an audience with little invested in that vision.

But is the measure of that investment apparent in an individual's hair color, skin color, fashion since, absence/presence of piercings or tattoos? Or is it, rather, in the abstract reaches of the mind and heart, where we process the things we see and hear, transforming them, word-by-word, note-by-note, into spirit? Do you have to tolerate the dilletantes and posers to get the work out? And can you tell the authentic listener from the poser by any external cues?

My hope, my dream, is to make the art I want to make and share it with everyone. This is a delusional line of reasoning of course, this notion that I can make art on my terms and expect a large and diverse audience to be interested in making sense of it all. But far be it from me to tell anyone who "gets" the work I do that they don't belong there. If you've found a brother in me through my offerings, you are my tribe, are you not?

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Tyranny of Beauty

It was early last week that, walking down the street, I noticed him. I heard him first: That unmistakable tone and timbre of man yelling at the unseen (to us) presence lurking at his side, over his shoulder, perpetually in front of him, that desperate, frantic howl of a man plagued by voices. Such things aren't unusual in any city, and they're downright commonplace in Seattle, where pretty nearly the whole lot of us suffer from some sort of mood disorder and/or a tendency to talk to ourselves. I didn't look because it's unusual, but because . . . well, because I always do. Maybe it gives me comfort to imagine that there are people out there crazier than I am; maybe I think such people speak a deeper wisdom, their minds damaged by divine revelations crammed too quickly into their capacity-challenged crania.

The "why" isn't important. What's important is that I looked, and was surprised by what I saw. Instead of the usual grizzled malcontent or unsanitary transient, I saw someone who could, more or less, have been me . . . only much, much better looking.

And all I could think was, "I didn't know they could go crazy."

They being the beautiful people, of course.

Of all the perceived advantages for which I have envied beautiful people, impunity is the one that haunts me, this notion I've had in my head my whole life that they can get away with more, they win more favor with a greater number of people, they don't need a well-formed, overriding philosophy, they get laid more, they don't lose their minds and start talking to people who aren't there (again, so far as the rest of us can see). My guess is that some of these beliefs are backed by honest statistics while others are not; either way, I think that, for rhetorical purposes, we can assume that these assumptions are bullshit. What interests me is why I have them to begin with.

It's obvious that our culture obsesses over beauty. Sure, all culture obsesses with beauty: the philosophy of values class I took in college was called "Truth, Good and Beauty"; art is often spoken of in terms of defining, re-defining or decontstructing beauty; music is often asked, by those of classical persuasion and/or those who expect music to engender primarily "positive" response, to either be "beautiful" or to explain itself for failing to do so. Beauty is perceived as a universal good.

But in the West, and the U.S. in particular, the notion of individual, physical beauty is not only a commodity on par with money, security, enlightenment and accomplishment, but an end that supercedes all of these . . . or, perhaps more correctly, is seen to contain all of these in itself. Our cult of celebrity is often seen, perhaps correctly, as a cult of youth and beauty (more on youth later): the beautiful individual as millionaire, tastemaker, icon.

Thing is, when I see money, power, influence, public adoration, what I really see, what I truly desire, is impunity: the ability to function without accountability, to choose projects based on how much they appealed to me, to live outside the dictates of traditional morality, to stop for a cheeseburger without worrying how much it's going to cost. Oh, and to avoid tedious niceties like eating, sleeping, shitting, blowing my nose and writing out bills (for surely the beautiful needn't do such things).

Interestingly enough, studies have shown contradictory data on whether the physically attractive actually receive these kinds of social benefits. Physically attractive people do seem to get hired more readily than do less attractive people; but they also do worse than others in terms of getting help from concierges, or cutting in lines, perhaps because of people like me who think, "Yeah, right, like I'm gonna help you Mr./Ms. Supermodel."

Except, of course, when I'm thinking, "I'll gladly help him/her out if he/she could at least pretend to be flirting with me."

All of which gives me pause with regards to my association of beauty with impunity. Does physical attractiveness create a different set of obligations in exchange for the ones it seems to take away?

I think the association of beauty with youth also speaks to the desire to postpone accountability. There's tremendous comfort in feeling like there's still time to do those things that we'll have to be too responsible to even think about in a few years. Is that why, in the interest of maintaining that which we understand to be beauty and youth, so many actors resort to plastic surgery?

On Saturday night, 'Stine, the beige one and myself all took in Broken Flowers, a movie so insinuating I can't even write a lucid review of it (just yet). One of the things we all noticed, however, was that Jessica Lange appears to have had some "work" done. I wonder, not without some sense of irony, whether the fact that we even noticed or speculated is as much a symptom of our society's obsession as the fact that she may have been concerned enough with beauty and the appearance of youth to have felt pressured to do it in the first place. I'm ashamed that I'm talking about her face, instead of pointing out that, in her brief appearance in the film, she gave one of the most nuanced performances of her career.

What strikes me most of all about it is that someone as beautiful as Lange (on whom I had a huge schoolboy crush back in junior high) would feel this pressure at all. Thinking about it in this light, I suddenly feel fortunate to be sort of plain and bald, with love handles and hairy shoulders. The idea of getting a facelift or an eye job seems so foreign to me, because . . . well, I'm just not possessed of enough ethereal beauty to feel like I have to preserve anything (plus I'm, like, poor).

And when I start hearing the voices, at least I know it wasn't because I failed to be good looking enough to dodge them.

Of Course, Under Alternative Careers . . .

Your Pimp Name Is...

His Majesty Slick

Surprise, surprise . . .

This test was hard, because I'm sometimes too cerebral to function as a practicing artist, yet too intellectually lazy to operate successfully as a philosopher or a scholar. So erring on one side of the intrinsic debate within the questions on this test . . .

You Should Get a PhD in Liberal Arts (like political science, literature, or philosophy)

You're a great thinker and a true philosopher.
You'd make a talented professor or writer.
What Advanced Degree Should You Get?

Of course, the Gemini in me had to take the test twice (in classes, I was known to both put a new spin on ideas AND argue with the professor; I'd like to express myself AND spend more time thinking than working; I like to challenge myself with new ideas AND express those I already hold), so here's the second version:

You Should Get a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts)

You're a blooming artistic talent, even if you aren't quite convinced.
You'd make an incredible artist, photographer, or film maker.

It seems there must be some way to practice somewhere in between, to be both a practitioner and a theoretician. Of course, it may seem that way because I'd like it to be so.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Pretty in Beige . . .

Wanted to take a moment to wish the beige one a bon anniversaire...

Monday, October 03, 2005

Notes on the Last Post

I generally despise the kind of navel-gazing in which I've just engaged, but it was clear that my posting bottleneck wasn't going to clear without some good ol' fashioned purging. Those of you who read it before reading this, I'm sorry that I didn't warn you. The rest of you are hereby warned.

Dynamic Stasis: Chaos=Completion, or You Want Some Hate With That?

Michel Foucault rejected Sartre because Sartre held choice to be the highest human ideal. This never really jibed with Foucault's postmodernism, wherein the "individual" was little more than a whirling confluence of social and economic forces, human relationships a tangled web of power dynamics. Individuality is subservient to the "identity group" in postmodernism, which leaves choice a somewhat illusory commodity that can only be won collectively; whereas Sartre tended to be suspicious of the notion that groups existed as anything other than arbitrary arrangements of individuals, each of whom is as lost as another in the face of life's absurdity . . . and yet, perhaps paradoxically, each is equally in control of his or her destiny.

Granting that, despite a postmodernist's affinity for deconstruction and appropriation (thank you, Derrida) I've always been more Sartrean than Foucaultian (although I tend to prefer Camus, who saw a sense of purpose in life's arbitraria; and who, not coincedentally, chastised Sartre for his inexplicable support of Stalinism), I've often been confused by Foucault's failure to see a contradiction between his rejection of Sartre and his embrace of Samuel Beckett. On the surface, Beckett's characters seem swept up in the tides of circumstance as Foucault seems to have imagined; and yet there's no getting around the fact that the theatre of the absurd, while postmodern in the character of its worldview, grows from the soil rent fertile by the work of the existentialists. More importantly, Beckett's characters--helpless as they may seem in the face of fatal inevitability--continue, like the anti-hero of Sartre's Nausea or Camus's The Stranger, to assert some (perhaps feeble) force of individual integrity, to choose courses of action and succumb to their consequences.

Scholars on this matter are probably slapping their forheads at my facile distillations; and those of you who don't care one way or the other are, of course, already bored. Faced with despair, however, I will take refuge in whatever philosophical conundra seem to apply.

See, 'Stine and I work. Not an insane amount, but enough: Full-time, diligently and with an eye for detail. We're both more than willing to work more than we do: She's lobbying, as always, for more clients, and has succeeded recently in finding a fairly brilliant part-time gig (Go Team!!!!). I've been applying, on a large scale, for part-time evening-and/or-weekend work to supplement my current full-time income, hoping to take advantage of my current disillusionment and, let's face it, utter boredom and dissatisfaction with the theatrical form by paying down some debts and ensuring my financial security. So far, no good . . . or rather, only limited good: I've got a little money coming in from a 6-hour per weekend gig selling merchandise for a long-running, wildly popular local production at the theatre where I work during the week.

None of this is going to help us this month. If we include the money I'll get Thursday, the money my mother's graciously loaning us and the paychecks coming in, we might just make rent. The other bills will be covered through the generosity of our overdraft protection, which will mean that our account will be about $400-$500 in the hole come the next round of bills. What's worse, I don't see much in the way of potential for improvement, at least on my end: I lack the skills that tend to lead to lucrative employment. And while 'Stine is in a growth industry, I sometimes fear that, realistically speaking, health issues may impose limits on how much more I can reasonably expect her massage to bring in . . .

All of this might have been moot (well, not moot so much as secondary in importance) if the original reason for our poverty and my near-unemployability--my/our love of and ambition in the arts--still applied in any measure for me. As it happens, I feel such antipathy for the theatrical form and my (perceived) place therein that I'm not even certain I want to act again, especially considering that the biggest hit in which I've participated have been among my least satisfying artistic experiences, while my most potent artistic experiences seem to have been carried out for audiences consisting largely of crickets (or, even worse, of people who seem to have given all credit for my work in said pieces to my director--those of you who know me know which show and which director I'm talking about). My hope, in distancing myself from acting, was to turn my attention towards other aspects of my interest/aptitude: Exploring my writing and my love for the rogue strains of popular music by writing music reviews; using that same love of music to turn my recent forays into gnostic philosophy into an industrial opera; immersing myself in martial arts study with the hope of either qualifying myself for instruction, learning enough to create my own form and/or finding a way integrate my martial study with my philosophical and artistic pursuits, maybe even reinvigorate my love of theatre. The original purpose of the extra part-time work I've been receiving was to fund these activities, to earn the money to buy new music and see performances for review, pay for martial arts classes, buy the seminal touchstones of gnostic literature (or at least pay to photocopy them from library books), take some writing classes . . . something, anything to make this life appear as more than a ludicrous, empty, futile scramble to try--and fail--to turn arbitrary work into necessary, but maddeningly unsatisfying, resources (which exist, it seems, primarily to perpetuate the same absurd cycle).

I am further spurred to wondering whether all of these aspirations are pipe dreams, whether any talent I've lead myself to believe I have is a sham, whether I'm indeed such a mediocre intellect and self-absorbed spirit that to imagine I could accomplish the sort of tasks that actually contribute to culture and community is a fantasy spoon-fed me by the occasional over-indulgent family member, teacher, lover or fan. I sit at my desk and wonder whether I fail because, at a cellular level, I am a failure, that I'm not only inadequately qualified to fashion an art that suits me, but that I am, in fact, inadequately qualified to create even those arts I find overly pedestrian.

I feel unfinished, the confluence of several strains of mediocrity that have spent the last 33 years conspiring to convince me I was of any worth whatsoever. And it fills me with such ennui, such anomie, such antipathy, such HATE that I live as a viper whose venom-producing glands have burst from overuse, flopping about as I die slowly from my own poison, the contempt that has fuelled my greatest perceived triumphs turning my very blood corrosive. It all came to a head on Friday, when a screaming match erupted twixt 'Stine and I over the sub-pitiful state of our financial affairs, and I bombarded her, viciously and unfairly, with the full weight and fury of my nihilism, my desire to pull the world in and crush it underfoot, scrape it from my shoe, swallow it whole and vomit it into the unforgiving cosmos . . .

Then I had my acupuncture appointment Friday afternoon. My five-element acupuncturist, so we're clear, is who I see instead of a therapist, as she engages me in a significant amount of discussion and cognitive resolution; and the acupuncture, with its emphasis on constitutional balance and energetic redirection, is what I use to fulfill the purposes of medication (though I do take St. John's Wort). I won't go too far into my skepticism regarding therapy and medication--I could take up a whole post with that, for one thing; and, as with religion, I hate to appear to disparage those for whom such ideologies and solutions work--except to say that my experience with therapists has been that they're often unwilling to treat existential dilemmas as such, and that both therapeutic models tend to be pointing me in the direction of making peace with a world and a culture against which I really wish to wage a more effective war (or at least establish a diplomacy without an insufferable level of compromise). Being of a metaphysical bent, and close enough to my age as to avoid an unbridgeable generation gap, my acupuncturist is better able to serve my needs than anyone else I've encountered.

But more importantly, she did what any therapist does: She listened. She listened to my tirade, an outpouring of content unlike any I've offered anyone (until I decided to write this post, of course). She listened, and she sympathized. She didn't have any advice, and that was fine. It was nice to have someone acknowledged that it all just sucked, that it looked like I was doing all I could be expected to do. Who knew that mere validation could feel so cleansing (I hear you snickering, 'Stine, and you can stop it right now).

After that, of course, she poked me with needles in all the appropriate spots; and more than at any other appointment, I felt calmed, cleansed, renewed. My hate had diffused, leaving a warm despair. Everything was hopeless, still; but I felt that I could embrace that hopelessness, wrap it around me and be warmed by it.

She also loaned me a book, called Nourishing Destiny, a traditional Chinese medicine text that delves into the abstractions at the heart of Chinese mythology and philosophy, and the parallels between these metaphysical guideposts and the actual mechanics of technique that guide the practitioner. Aside from reminding me of the parallels between Taoism and Gnosticism--thus renewing my fervor for exploration of both--the book also offered me a concept that, in the face of my current dilemma, I find immeasurably bracing: The idea that the Tao (or Dao) is "chaotic yet complete", that hun (chaos) and cheng (completion) are the ultimate principles of life.

Like Foucault's "confluences", I am a being out of control. Of course, if the original principle from which we are separate, which we call Tao (hence separating ourselves further by giving it a name, but can allow ourselves to discuss and explore by so doing), is chaos, all control was illusory. But like Sisyphus, the Greek mythological model for both Sartre and Camus's understandings of the existential dilemma, I can find purpose in opposition, in pushing the boulder up the hill. Of course, Taoism suggests that I should flow with nature rather than opposing it, which makes the analogy harder; but then, I'd have to suggest, faced with that conundrum, that what I oppose isn't nature, but that which opposes nature . . . or more importantly, that which opposes my nature, my own little piece of the void.

So here I am, as broke as before and as broken as ever, finding little solace in the mechanics of my daily life. I'm as uncertain of the future as ever, as frustrated by my incapacity as before. I don't know that I have the capability to transcend my economic circumstances or to re-engage with creative endeavour. I may be doomed for the mediocrity I despise. And I'm not okay with it.

But I'm here. My suffering is colored with some sort of perspective. My hate has the potential to become something else. Maybe not anything useful, maybe not anything that will pull me from the vicious--and still detested--cycle of meaningless work for pointless commodity. But I can feel my venom slowly clearing from my body, making room for . . . perhaps nothing.

It's not much of a happy ending. It just happens to be where, as of so far, it ends.