I had to get out. I spend all week experiencing life vicariously through a glowing rectangle, and I’d let my apartment talk me into doing it some more on Saturday. Even though the outside world was full of blustering winds and bald-faced bullshitters, I was coming to empathize with Howard Hughes all too well.
After a lot of cajoling and wheedling, my apartment finally released its hold on my brain, pulling the ceiling back to its proper place and letting me see the door again. I knew I was going to pay for my insolent independence all night as the apartment pouted and clanked the radiators in retribution, but a man needs a social life.
I prised myself out into the cold night and down 16th street. The world seemed new and fresh, sounding bright and powerful. I could hear everything so clearly – firsthand experiences collided against my face, made tender by a week of vicarious living via internet abuse. Screams and car horns were positively musical, and auto exhaust felt like honeysuckle perfume.
I met up with a real, 3-d, non-internet related friend at an art opening, and here’s how it went:
Afterwar is a collection of color photos by Lori Grinker, now showing at the Project 4 Gallery. The artist spent fifteen years documenting the impact of war in dozens of countries, and the body of work is powerful, painful, and massive. There are images of amputees, victims of chemical weaponry, child soldiers and a twelve-year old African boy that knows the psychology of killing way too well.
Each portrait is accompanied by a story told in the subject’s own words. All of the stories make you want to cry in a wide variety of ways that nevertheless do not include tears of joy.
I spend so much time craving experiences that are real, something that plucks me out of my bourgeois existence in DC and smack into the continuum of real life…but I think that if I were to take the photos Grinker did, I might go a little too insane.
The juxtaposition of the art-opening crowd under images of war-wrought suffering was too much. Nobody can help who they are, or what their reality is, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing here... but it was just so weird seeing everyone air-kiss and chug cups of art-gallery wine while saying “oh, I know what you mean. Her work is so real.”
I mean, they were right. It is real, too real... but man, that was weird.
My apartment and I have a symbiotic, parasitic relationship. I get shelter and privacy in return for providing it a sense of fulfillment and well-being. Healthy apartments want to be lived in, just as food wants to be eaten … everyone knows this.
I am learning that my apartment can actually influence my behavior so that I stay inside it more often, stroking its flimsy ego with my very presence. It can’t actually speak to me or change the dimensions of the rooms, but it can alter my perceptions so that I think the walls are closer or further away, or that plaintive whines and angry edicts are bubbling up through the kitchen sink.
During my first few weeks of residence, my apartment released a cloud of spores carrying its consciousness into the air above the ceiling fan, which disseminated them over my sleeping body. The spores made their way through the mucoid lining of my lungs, coursing through my bloodstream and have now taken up residence within the folds of my brain.
Comfortably lodged in my grey matter’s soft folds, the parasitic spores communicate the wishes of my apartment by plucking on various synapses and nerve endings like tiny harpists, causing me to see and hear things that influence me to stay inside all day long.
When I woke up this Saturday, the ceiling was no more than six inches from my face, and breathing heavy, measured breaths. The wind shrieked at the windows, and the room was so dark that I couldn’t even see the front door. The only source of light came from my laptop’s inviting glow.
I sat down and checked my email, scanned a few websites and fiddled with my Bittorrent client. The people walking past my apartment looked stupid, every last one of them. Their laughter sounded hollow and forced, as though they were being paid a very low wage to convince me to go outside.
A deep, throaty voice gurgled out of the sink, saying “those people sure are suckers, aren’t they? Going off to pay too much for breakfast and coffee at some dumb restaurant. Why, you’re an incredible cook and you’ve got an espresso machine…why would you want to fall in with that crowd out there?”
I had to concede the sink’s point. The next thing I knew, it was five-thirty and I was still sitting in there in the underwear I had worn to work on Friday. Maybe on Thursday, too.
One of my best friends in Australia is a driller -- he drills for oil, methane, any old fucked-up thing that God has hidden from mankind under miles of dirt and rock. He's working as a foreman on a rig in India right now, and sent this letter during some R&R time in Perth:
I have been back in Perth just over a week and am heading back to India tomorrow. After staying long enough to see a glimmer of hope that things can get better, I’m giving it another go. It was fucking hard. Man.
India is certainly a different place to Cottesloe. If you're observant, you can pick up subtle differences between the two places, such as...
- It’s ok for men to walk down the street here holding hands or to stand around with their arms over each other’s shoulder at places other than the pub at closing time. Public displays of affection towards women seem non-existent so far.
- You don't need to wear a seatbelt while driving. You do, however, need to weave your way in and out of the traffic at the maximum speed possible. The term "traffic" here refers to cars, buses, trucks, chickens, goats, pigs, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, sleeping dogs, holy cows, children brushing their teeth, tractors, men holding hands and street vendors pushing their carts. The main form of passenger protection comes from beeping your horn as loudly as possible. Have not seen one single incidence of road rage.
Our first day on the rig involved a two-hour blessing of the project by a priest. This ceremony took place about three metres from the mast while we were still madly trying to set up so that the minister for energy could perform the official starting of the rig in front of a crowd of about 100. It then appeared that there was a protest outside the gate as a group of people started yelling and waving flags. This was actually a rent-a-crowd organised to show support for the minister.
The real protest took place the next night. We had to shut the rig down as the locals were threatening violence if certain demands weren't met. The following day three of them had jobs with us. I reckon if they fight as hard as they work, we could have taken on the whole village.
The rig at night. The crew are standing there discussing how many things they can discuss before Mr. David comes over there and tells them to do some fucking work.
The work itself has so far been extremely frustrating as we've been given a machine that no-one has more than four weeks experience on, an Italian supervisor whose inability to speak English is surpassed only by his inability to speak Hindi, crews that not only can't understand a word I’m saying but assume that I probably meant something like "put yourself in harms way as often as possible" and a lack of some pretty fundamental equipment.
For example, the "mixer" on our mixing tank is actually the three villagers standing atop the tank and stirring with pieces of bamboo. The Indian work ethic is not a combination of words that even belong together.
On the positive side, the food is wicked and there are some pretty good people to work with.
What does India look like, you ask?
Filthy is the one, overriding word I would use. There is not a rubbish bin to be found anywhere and so all garbage is simply dropped in the street. No water or sewage systems either, which means the morning ritual upon waking is walking out the door of your house, shitting on the ground while you brush your teeth, walking a few more steps to the local water source be it tap, creek or dam and washing yourself with your clothes on. We pass this scene every day on our way to or from work.
The trucks are the colourful clunkers you imagine. The tinsel hanging off the bumpers, the Hindu idols on the dash and Christmas lights around the windows are all there, followed by a thick plume of black smoke as they rattle by. So many of the classic, national geographic images are all here. Graceful sari-clad women walking with their loads balanced on there heads, overloaded motorcycles, etc. great photo ops, but need to feel like less of an intruder before I’m comfortable taking some of these shots. Being able to share with the subject the finished result instantly on the screen of a digital camera seems a bit of a winner, I reckon.
Here’s a few more pics:
I asked the security guard for his shotgun. So he gave it to me. And some ammo.
The caste system dictates that the better people (like me and my mate Rajiv) are given more food than they can eat. The lesser people, who obviously led evil past lives, have their meals served to them on TV dinner trays. I secretly think those trays are pretty cool but am too afraid to ask for one as it may dishonor the chef, whose bottom lip started to quiver the last time I asked for "just toast" for breakfast.
Frank was dawdling, as usual. The only child of two divorced parents, Frank was accustomed to having the world rotate on his schedule. No matter how much Frank poked or I procrastinated, nothing was going to delay Monday, the due date for our final project in ninth grade history. We had managed to spend most of our research time together drawing Batman as a vampire, Batman as a guest star in the Lost Boys, and our English teacher bound and bleeding in a burlap sack, lowering slowly into a shark-filled pool.
It was rainy autumn Saturday two weeks before Halloween. I flipped quickly through Frank’s V for Vendetta collection, waiting for him to get his slow self out of the bed and ready to go to the library. “I’m going to take a shower, and then I’ll be ready, I swear,” he promised. “Here, check this tape out,” he said, nodding to his boom box as he flipped a cassette across the room. “I can’t stop listening to it.”
The cassette was The Cramps’ ‘Bad Music for Bad People’. By the time the chorus to ‘Garbageman,’ kicked in, I had forgotten all about deadlines. With his haunting shriek in the beginning of ‘Love Me,’ Lux Interior reached through time and straight into my mind, temporarily deleting my entire concept of education. By the time ‘She Said’ ended, I was changed.
On the one hand, the Cramps sounded like something on one of the three oldies stations that passed for radio in Hampton Roads. But there was something else to them-- something dark and joyous, brilliantly primal, and gleefully retarded. I couldn’t tell if I loved the tape or hated it, but I had to hear it again and again.
A rash grew between the folds of my teenaged brain that day. It smelled like marijuana and had a soothing, itchy voice that said to me: “ From now on, things are going to be different.” That burning life-changing itch flares up so much more rarely now, but it’s so sweet and precious when it does.
It wasn’t until two or three years ago that I learned that nearly half of the songs on ‘Bad Music’ were covers. Nearly half of the Cramps’ entire repertoire may be cover songs.
This does not diminish them at all, by my reckoning. It may even make them better. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach are obsessive collectors of old, insane rockabilly music. I imagine the two of them lying awake in the middle of the night together, sometime in the mid-seventies. That bed is maybe a mattress on the floor of a warehouse in a dangerously shitty part of an otherwise boring town in Ohio.
Lux (before he took that name) says “My God, Ivy, where has all the great music gone, and who is going to bring it back?”
She replies, “Honey, it’s not gone – it’s just taking a little nap in the coatroom. Now it’s our job to wake it up and bring it back to the party.” Then the rest is history.
Now that I have heard the Cramps’ influences and learned to love them, I see the Cramps themselves as a brilliant study in reinvention and the creation of durable, thrilling personae. They’re nerdier, more academic and worshipful, and therefore even more lovable to me. Anyone who wears one weird heart on their sleeve and another one draped right over their face gets my undying support.
Frank and I decided to create representations of medieval torture devices for our history project. We lovingly inked the rack, an iron maiden, a cat o’ nine-tails and a pair of thumb screws onto the back of brown grocery sacks and carefully burnt the edges of our drawings with a candle, listening to the Cramps the entire time.
Fueled by the power of one of the world’s greatest history projects, we stayed up late into the night and earned and A from our teacher and confused looks from our classmates. That project secured our reputations as the weird, scary nerds, and locked us right out of any homecoming activities that fall. Things couldn’t have been any better, and we both owe it all to the Cramps.
Here’s the original version of two great songs from Bad Music for Bad People, followed by the Cramps’ rendition.
This video is from the Cramps’ infamous performance at the Napa State Mental Hospital. You really can’t tell the difference between the band and the crowd after a little while. If you mention this video to anyone else, you have to try extra hard not to say that the performance is "crazy."
Kenny Rogers has maintained a gentle, friendly presence in my family's record collection since before I was born. "The Gambler" is one of the first songs that I can remember hearing, pouring simultaneously from my dad's massive hi-fi (a leftover from a singlehood I know little about, which is fine by me) and my father's joyous atonal throat.
"The Gambler" is the song my dad sang while getting ready to chop wood, while cleaning up the Saturday breakfast dishes, and while I helped him build the new deck on the back of the house. The actual work that went with the title of Dad's Official Deck Assistant was to hand dad his hammer, feed him lines in a call and response duet of "The Gambler" (...when to hold 'em ... when to fold 'em...) and run get mom whenever dad cut corners on the project and consequently cut holes into his flesh.
We used to pile into the den to watch the Muppet Show together in those days: me, Mom, Dad, and my younger sister who was still mired in toddlerhood and could only clap arrhythmically to Kenny Rogers' musical numbers. It was 1979 or maybe 1981.
It always frightened and confused me a little bit when Kenny did "The Gambler" on the Muppet show. The Muppets with him on the train were a bunch of dried up dirty old men, and I could tell they smelled funny even though they were only on the TV set. The Gambler himself freaking DIED during the song and his disembodied ghost danced around, finishing the song, for Christ's sake.
I see this video now and realize what sanitized times we live in. Kenny Rogers himself smokes a cigarette with a Muppet (a dirty old man Muppet, but still) and gives him a drink of whiskey on PRIME TIME TELEVISION. Then the Gambler tells Kenny and every kid out there in TV land all about gambling and dies in his sleep. The clip is greyish beige and completely bizarre, like a friendly lunatic on a Greyhound bus ride.
It's just fine for kids, but not at all the kind of aggressively wholesome programming we see now. Take a look:
By the sixth grade, I was delicately flirting with the onset of high-octane ADD. Terence Trent D'Arby's 'Wishing Well' on top 40 radio was like anthrax delivered out of a leaf blower and straight into my attention span.
I could barely sit still as it was without George Michael's 'Faith' rattling around where my multiplication tables belonged, and the combination of a green Virginia springtime and Terence Trent's silky soul literally turned me upside down.
And by upside down, I mean upside down. I always felt like doing a handstand whenever 'Wishing Well' came on the radio. It was too hard to explain to my parents and sister when I was listening to the top 40 countdown in the living room, so I took to my room for the 'Top Eight at 8', keeping the door shut so I wouldn't have to waste precious seconds of 80's soul/handstand time running across the room in case the song snuck up on me.
I never learned to do a handstand. After the first few failed tries, thundering to the floor (I have been 6'2" since '87), someone would always yell, "What are you even DOING UP THERE?" and the truth was way too hard to explain.
So I took to just standing there on my hands in the corner of the room and walking my feet up the wall, then backing my hands up until I was casually leaning against the wall, but upside down, calmly listening to Terence Trent D'Arby, smelling the spring air through the window and trying to breathe normally.
I just remembered that -- clearly, there is some kind of theme here.
The Flaming Lips' 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' is the 21st century's 'Sergeant Pepper's.' The Lips' followup album, "At War With the Mystics" is nearly impossible to discuss without saying "eagerly anticipated," "much desired," or any sort of pat phrase to indicate that the entire music industry from the fat guys on top to the fans in high-water indie pants has been going through the motions of liking new music until this thing hits the stands.
'Yoshimi' was hopeful, sad, eager and innocent as an elderly alien child from space, and the entire world has been wondering: what can those acid-soaked aging Xers possibly do next?
The best way to be disappointed by 'War' is to listen to it hoping for 'Yoshimi II." This record doesn't have the same beat-heavy, sugar-pop blast that its predecessor does. The first two tracks, "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "Free Radicals" are built around chants that border on irritating and tantalize with the hope of a full-on rock-out without ever quite exploding the way I wanted them to.
The following cluster of songs fade back into heavy mellow psychedelic territory, sounding at first pass like the Flaming Lips' efforts at a 70's hippie sci-fi film score. Although the band doesnt' go straight into James Taylor territory, there's a definite barefoot feel-good vibe to the record that sounds a little too much like a hippie temptress with long, long, armpit hair : elegant and alluring, but not without definite aesthetic hurdles.
In either case, you'll get over it pretty quickly and never look back.
"The W.A.N.D." is the first single from 'War' approved for release in the States, and is the only true rock-out anthem on the record. It delivers. While this album isn't 'The Soft Bulletin' or 'Yoshimi,' it's great stuff.
Look. It's late. I'm up late trying to come up with a bunch of clever analogies and witty insights into the latest release from a band that made themselves my favorite with their last record. And frankly, people, the gears are grinding slowly. I'm tired as hell.
Just listen to the album yourselves and tell me what you think. If I had a bigger blog or more traffic, I might not do this, but my repeat visits are minimal -- as always, the link above is good for 25 downloads or seven days.
The fact is, this is a great album, and a real bold move into some newer territory from a band that has never played it safe... it's not what you think you want, but I guarantee that once you hear it a few times, you'll be hooked.
A couple months ago, I happened across a breakdancing competition in my neighborhood. All the dancers were astounding, and the whole thing throbbed like a Puma advertiser's secret dream.
In between bouts of professional competition, people from the crowd were free to hit the cardboard for a bit of their own spinning. Suzanne Vega's 'Tom's Diner,' of all songs, was thudding over the system when this one lanky redheaded guy took the floor. His moves were a little off, a little jerky, but still light years beyond my ability. He slithered and spun, popped and locked, and right as the song was approaching a breakdown he went into a wicked backspin. And then, right in the middle of the break, he ripped his own leg off and pumped it to the beat. Everyone screamed, then clapped and screamed more. Then that one-legged badass jumped up, threw his prosthetic to a friend and kept going.
I'd like to see him and LazyLegz Patuelli go head-to-head sometime. LazyLegz, or Luca Patuelli, was born with arthrogryposis, a disorder that affects his bone structure and muscular growth from the waist down. He has been breakdancing since the age of 15.
I've been taking a long look at myself and my peers since seeing this, and thinking that if at all possible, I would like to remove the phrase "I can't" from my vocabulary. Guys like Luca and the legless backspinner make me think that most "I can'ts" are actually "I'd rather nots," or "It's too hards."
As a species, our subconscious mind is a dark, eerie stew of suppressed fears, memories and desires. But if the collective unconscious is a rich, fertile brew, I think my subconscious might be a bouillon cube the size of a cinder block. Dreams are weird, weird things for everybody, but at least three times a week for as long as I can remember I have been the central character in an seriously intense funhouse of a film written by chimps and edited by LSD-fueled octopi.
When I'm not having paranoid, violent delusions in my sleep that leave me panting, sweaty and needing dental repair, I usually revisit the same theme: I am taking a leisurely stroll through a garden and can use my hands and feet interchangeably. Although there is no noticeable increase in the muscle mass of my arms, I can support my body's weight on hands that never tire or step on shards of glass. My pectoral muscles are never the size of asscheeks, as they would have to be if this were to happen in real life.
I can just flip right over on an invisible axis of symmetry and balance that runs through my waist, and continue a normal stroll. The people walking beside me never take any notice of it at all. Sometimes I pick fruit with my feet, which work just like hands. Other times birds alight on the soles of my feet and sing merry tunes -- their little feet and feathers never tickle.
There's something my subconscious is trying to tell me here, and the only way to read this message is to turn myself upside down. These dreams have happened for years, and last week I decided to do something about it.
I've started teaching myself to walk on my hands. It sounds simple enough, but the devil is in the details. For starters, I am six-two, weigh 220, and can barely walk upright for longer than twenty minutes at a stretch. I may be the only man outside of the professional stunt whose pants wear out as fast as his shoes through repeated collision with the earth.
So whenever I can, I steal down to the gym at work, scoot the aerobics steps aside and back my feet up against the wall, then walk the hands back to the wall until I feel like I could almost topple forward. It's only thirty seconds before my size thirteens come down with a dragging racket against the corrugated aluminum wall, and I sit there with patterns of larval dust bunnies tattooed against the back of my eyes until my arms quit shaking. Then, back up the wall.
This challenge seems to be as physical as it is mental. It's about determination, endurance, willpower. If a rabbit hole through space-time opens before my suspended head and sucks me in, and if that happens, so be it. I'm taking this thing as far as it goes, and I don't much care which way that road twists. Like the inspirational posters say, the journey of a lifetime (or something) starts with a single step -- in this case, that step will be taken upside-down.
My friend Alysse is a middle-school ESL teacher and debate coach. She sent me the following letter: _________ Today's topic was "Resolved: That human cloning should be permitted in the U.S." Um, I wish I had had a tape recorder, for it was the most hilarious discussion I've ever heard.
Highlights of the Affirmative Case (direct quotations--I fished their notes out of the trash after they left):
* If someone is super, super lonely they can have a friend to do stuff with. * You could learn stuff from the past, like clone George Washington and ask him stuff. * Clones could go to school for you. * If it's someone's decision to clone themselves, it's no one else's decision to judge. * You could make clones do the jobs no one wants to, like deep underwater diving.
Highlights of the Negative Case
* Clones could turn into evil twins and come kill you. * The Sniper might clone himself. * * Japan might steal the machines and start cloning an army. ** * Some dead people might not want to be cloned. ***
*remember the sniper? he was a big deal around here; schools closed for 3 or 4 days
**I think they must be studying WWII
***but the Affirmative had a good solution for this: after you clone them, ask them if they want to be cloned, and if they don't, kill them
Whenever the subject of cloning is raised, I am reminded of a discussion in a class I took at UNCG. They had just announced the success of "Dolly," so my prof raised the topic of human cloning. I sat in the back, near this guy who never said much and wore a baseball cap pulled low so you didn't really even know what he looked like. He did not raise his hand to contribute his opinion, but I heard him say--not loudly, but quite firmly, "I'd whup my clone."
My Uncle Jimmy saw the dinosaurs of rock when they still ruled the earth. He saw Sabbath in the gym at William and Mary, Hendrix at a now-defunct venue in Virginia Beach and Zeppelin twice: once at William and Mary, and again at the Hampton Coliseum. He's told me many times of the Stones show at Hampton Coliseum in 1981 -- how a fan bumrushed the stage to try and grab Keith Richards' sweaty, discarded vest and Keith unplugged his guitar, bashed the fan several times with his axe, then plugged back in and kept right on rocking.
I always thought it was a kind of tall tale, until today. Here's video evidence:
I was never there for it, but I still miss rock 'n roll.
Here's the band in 1971, performing Dead Flowers, my current favorite Stones tune.
Emotional Rallying Point, Yes, But Not So Much a Leader
Cindy Sheehan is the emotional rallying point of the anti-war movement, but if she is its leader, we are in some serious trouble. I say this as someone who is at odds with the current administration and went to hear her speak last night, ready to cheer and love her every word. I'm saying this as a person who shook with excitement when I took this photo last fall.
Sheehan lost her son to a war that many people find ridiculous, and held an incredible spontaneous vigil in Crawford to demand some answers. This is an act of incredible passion and bravery, and it has propelled her to move for peace all over the world. This activity has nothing at all to do with her ability to articulate concise, well-reasoned ideas and field difficult, nuanced questions.
She also does not hold an audience well, or at least she didn't at her book reading at the All Souls Unitarian church here in DC the night before last. While I freely admit that I have not been able to stay awake in a church since the early eighties, I have rarely fallen asleep twice in a half-hour period at what is supposed to be an emotional anti-war rally.
A woman from the crowd asked Sheehan "What would you say to the argument that if George Bush were impeached and tried for war crimes, it would only put Cheney and Rice in a position of more power? I think we all agree that this would be worse."
Sheehan paused, her mouth working silently to jump-start words. She eventually replied that anyone in the administration who has decision-making power related to the Iraq war should be impeached en masse and sent to prison for war crimes. Most of the audience clapped long and loud at this response.
Another woman asked Sheehan "If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both influential American spiritual leaders, spoke out so vehemently against war in their times, why is it that T.D. Jakes has not said a single word against this one?" Again, the question was met with awkward silence. Sheehan then said "I'm not familiar with that person. But every religious leader should speak out against this war because it is immoral." True, but that was hardly the point of the question.
Cindy mentioned that she is considering running against Dianne Feinstein in an upcoming election. As a liberal who is against the war, I would really like for Sheehan to not do that. She got schooled by accident, twice in a row, by people who were on her side. If she runs for public office on a bring-the-troops-home platform with that kind of gauzy, ill-prepared rhetoric, she's going to get torn to shreds, along with the American public's perception of the entire anti-war movement.
It's fine for her to be emotional and publicly passionate -- she lost a son to a ridiculous, trumped-up war (which has not been without the benefit of stopping some Iraqi mothers from losing their sons to Hussein, I have to admit) and is entitled to her opinion. We dip our brushes in the same paint bucket. The difference is, I need a leader to work with a much narrower brush, and her roller only comes in a double-wide size.
The anti-war movement has some serious work to do, and we need some savage, heartlessly detail-oriented sons of bitches to do it. We need a legion of snarling Hunter S. Thompsons with a Swiss watchmaker's eye for detail. There needs to be an insurgency of rationality and precision against the Bush administration, and while Sheehan can marshal emotions and excitement, she is not at all the person to command this army. Cindy Sheehan believes in peace to the bottom of her huge and broken heart -- we need someone who can wage and win a political war.