Friday, May 15, 2009

Heaven isn't real.

(written earlier in the year while still at sea...)

I can't stop listening to "Oh, Heaven Isn't Real" by David Karsten Davies. I'm listening to it mindlessly, drawn to it because it is so happy and cheerful. Something about it is just absolutely joyous.

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something in the sentiment which also draws me to it.

Sometime last week I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air that was about a modern heretic. I'll have to look the guy's name up later, but the long and short of it is he was an evangelical leader who after some soul searching found himself facing down a belief that everyone will be welcomed into God's presence in Heaven, that it isn't a matter of being saved or not, but rather that Jesus was a sacrifice for all, not just a gate to let the right people in and keep those others out. I've got to say, he's one of a very few Christian leaders I've heard in a long time who made anything that resembled sense when he spoke. The episode was more about how everyone else flipped out when he shared this shift in understanding. Without Hell, lots of people just weren't interested anymore.

How 'bout if you take out Heaven, too?

My childhood was extremely religious. Thankfully, my parents and the other people around me in my family translated this fervor into reaching out to other people. All other people, no matter what. This ecumenical openness and kindness towards all humanity is the part of Christianity that I continue to hold onto and appreciate. Please excuse me if I recount a short history of personal religiousity.

Among my earliest memories is a memory of coming home from church filled with the music. I mean that somewhat literally. I'm guessing that I couldn't read, but I remember looking at the sheet music and images of angels with trumpets coming out of the page and really feeling like singing was making a joyful noise. It all made sense for a brief moment. Why we sang, why people went to church, why there was any church at all and why anyone should worship God. Because of how that song felt, the angels with their trumpets that came in the music and touched this small child, this is why we do all this. The word 'holy' made sense. This, unfortunately, was a brief memory. It isn't repeated, though it was seared into my consciousness. It is this feeling against which I still measure all religious experience. If it leans towards that beautiful connection with the unknown, then I'm all for it. It is doesn't, well, most doesn't. If it seems against that, then I'm bound to be venomous (as I am with most politically religious ass-hats).

Most of my early religious life was spent feeling ripped away from this and having people try to convince me that all kinds of other criteria was important for the salvation of my eternal soul. I prayed and read and tortured myself with trying to reconcile everything to be found in the Bible. Reconciling the text in the Bible with the text in the Bible is a foolish task. Anyone who says they can, particularly with any remotely literal reading of it either hasn't read very much of it, has a very selective and sieve-like memory, or a particularly gifted imagination. It doesn't reconcile literally. If it did, we probably wouldn't spend much time with it. Trying to reconcile it with daily experience can perhaps be more instructive.

Our daily experiences don't make much literal sense either most of the time. So finding something in that expansive text to relate to or bolster what you want to believe isn't the most difficult task. The difficulty comes in being consistent. Actually, consistency isn't the biggest concern for me these days, but once upon a time, it was a dire concern. Anyway, point being I traveled along my own little spiritual journey. I tried to make this text and my life and the world as I experienced it all make sense. How does it all work?

Of course, I rolled around with all the fun little philosophical questions. If God is great, why does he let people die and all that stuff. What do I have to do to get into Heaven? How can he let people go to Hell who never had a chance to get saved? Why couldn't I have enjoyed some of the more fun sins for years without knowing any better before I got saved? If I make it to heaven, but know that other people are burning and tormented forever, then could it ever be heaven? If I am someone who could enjoy this while others burn, why would I belong there?

I'll spare some of the details, but edging up against a mental breakdown that was heavily influenced by a crisis in faith, instead of going over the edge, I stepped back. I'll go ahead and allow it religious terminology, so, if you will, we can call it being born again. This is a fair way to describe the transformation. And it was a transformation.

More than anything, it was letting go and releasing some of the weight that I had carried around. Particularly the moral weight and all this religious crud that I'd spent years piling on. It was partially both reaffirming and completely renouncing my identity as a Christian. It was certainly renouncing all the crap which other people spent years loading into that identity. I was never comfortable with it being an identity based on either I'm-going-to-heaven or you're-going-to-hell, and let's be honest, that's what most evangelical religious identity is based on. Which is stupid and is kind of an asshole-ish way to approach life. So all that was happily out the window.

All along, really the only thing that kept me tied at all to any type of religious identification was that early touchstone, the feeling from that early memory. I had felt sort of shut out from that for years, and I knew this transformation was real when I could touch that place again. I recognized it and knew it when I found it. This is the peace that passes understanding. Most people want nothing to do with it. They want the peace that is everything in its proper place. This is why people do dumb things like vote republican.

The closest I can come to describing the change is that I came to a point, a sort of realization, that I should just shut up with all my praying so fervently to understand everything and for everything to be in perfect order and to make sense. We'll call it being put in my place, and I suddenly felt both emboldened and humbled and to a certain sense like, "What business do I have even praying at all?" Telling the Almighty what you think should happen or what you'd like to happen or even just asking what he/she/it/them thinks is kind of presumptuous if you think about it. I reconciled the desire to still reach out communicatively by reducing my prayers to "wow." and "thank you." (demure punctuation and lack of capitalization intentional; an exclamation point still seemed a bit big for my britches)

I can't begin to describe how much more beautiful the world became, how much more I liked other people and myself once I got to this place. I like to think that it is apparent in my life, this joy and happiness, but I'm sure it isn't always. I was so dour and uptight before though (but I hid it well). This is slowly making its way back towards something resembling a point.

There was a time when I would have been scandalized and horrified at the existence of this song. I would have probably deleted the file, destroyed the cd if I could get my hands on it, prayed for the singers and everyone who had heard the song, and pleaded on their behalf for God to help them and change their ways. Honestly. This would have seriously rattled me.

Which misses the whole point. The song is happy. It is joyous even. So what if it is blasphemous? My old self would shriek at such heresy, but it is the old self that was further from joy and peace than the current self. I was so ready to be derailed and find darkness. Now I don't have time for it. I started writing all this when I realized how much I liked this song and how it would have bothered me in the past. Trying to put a finger on what is so different, I asked myself if I believed if this song was true or not: do I believe that heaven isn't real?

This is so literal and limiting; I can't even consider it a reasonable question. What does it matter or not? Of course it is and of course it isn't, too. I'm always looking for the beautiful and a more full experience and chances to let myself be a vessel for making a joyful noise, but am I expecting some big fat reward at the end of life for being such a just right the way God wanted person? No. That doesn't sound appealing, but I don't have much time for the question either way. I'm going to do my best to embrace and love and try to treat everyone better than they deserve and smile and spread joy where I can and mischief too. I'm going to embrace the sad and tough stuff too and I'm going to say my prayers, "wow." and "thank you." This doesn't have the least to do with trying to get to heaven. If there is a way to get there, I can't imagine it looking different from this, but the point is that this is just the way I want to move through the world. Why would I do it differently?

Back to the preacher who let go of Hell. It scandalized and fractured his megachurch (is there a grosser word in the english language?) for him to relinquish hold of belief in a literal place of eternal punishment. How toxic do people's minds have to be that this is a thing they want to cling to? Would giving up a literal belief in Heaven also rock people so terribly? How much of most Christian faith is wrapped up in wanting to "be in that number"? Do so many people live their lives based so heavily on some final end goal?

This shouldn't baffle me. I was a religious nutcase. Earlier tonight, one of the memories that came uncalled from the vaults was of me writing in the inside of the cover of a Bible that I was giving as a gift to a boy I was smitten with. It wasn't a love letter, to be sure, but maybe it also was. It was jointly an attempt to reach out to him and an attempt to save his mortal soul. It is painfully embarrassing to look back at. Thankfully I can't remember what I wrote, but you can be sure it was dumb and embarrassing. The point is, I should remember what it is like to feel so powerfully that my eternal life hinged on what I did in this temporal plane. And as far as all that goes I can, but also I don't think fear of Hell or of not getting into Heaven was ever a motivation for me. I've always been inclined to think that anyone doing something out of fear or for reward doesn't really have anything which resembles faith anyway.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

HP Lovecraft, a first taste

(written earlier in the year while still at sea...)

I don't normally go in for horror or gothic fiction or movies. It just has never been my thing, but I think I've just gotten my hands on the wrong stuff. I might actually have inside me the makings of a decent enthusiast of the darker, creepier side.

Earlier I wrote about Neko Case tingling my spine and making my hair stand on end and lamented for fiction or film that could do the same. I hadn't prepared for this desire, but in a music exchange last fall a few MP3's of Call of Cthulu came my way. I discovered, much to my horror, that the three sections did not encompass the entire tale, so I listened rapturously then found myself against a wall: no more Lovecraft for me.

: (

I haven't avoided his books, just never picked one up. I'm kind of glad it came to me as it did. The audiobook version of this is perfect. The sounds quality isn't great actually and hisses a little bit, but the voice of the narrator... I'll venture there has never been a better match of voice to tale. I could listen to this speaker for hours reading anything, but it seems particularly suited to this tale. So gentle, I've started to listen to it as I go to sleep, which probably doesn't do good things to my dreams (or maybe amazing things).

It isn't often that I listen to an audio book and then want to go back and read it again, but this one I want both in text and audio. The language is delicious and rich. Had Lovecraft not chosen to benefit humanity using his gift for good as a sci fi author, who knows what horrors he might have done as an evangelist. Which I suppose he is in a way, just not the bad way. He preaches wonder and more than meets the eye and reminds us to be scared of the dark. Perhaps the ugliest stupidity to come out of the twentieth century is the widespread belief that we shouldn't have to be scared of the dark. Sure, it is nice to not always be terrified when the lights go out, but we should remember how to be scared in the dark. We need dark evangelists to remind that not everything is illuminated by reason and not everything makes sense or has motives we understand.

Perhaps I get ahead of myself in assuming I understand our author's message. I plan to dive deeper in and remedy this deficit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More sad song love: Mountain Angel

(written early in the year while still at sea...)

I've already established that I like sad songs. This is just a short moment to comment on the latest which is breaking my heart into little pieces. It is nothing new that I'm listening to Dolly Parton. Love, love, love her. Anyway, I've lately been giving her another listen to and "Mountain Angel" snuck up on me and punched me in the tear ducts. (incongruously, my shuffle just followed it with "9 to 5" which is not a transition I'm ready to make.)

Such a pretty little song, but just horrible and so damn sad. It would almost be a hokey tale, but Ms. Parton knows how to write if nothing else. She obviously also knows how to sing, and in this song her two talents combine to terrible effect. The melody is so sweet and gentle, and the story starts out the same but it doesn't stop until the title character is a naked crazy lady scaring children and screaming through the night after her death upon on her dead baby's grave. Don't hold back, Dolly.

I'm sure I've listened to this before and just sat around soaking up its sad, because in college Kearney and Willis got this cd and became obsessed with it. I didn't like her cover of "Shine" (because I dislike the song itself, not her rendition) and was already a fan, so I didn't quite replay it quite like they did, but I am sure I was sat down and told to listen to the song and have my heart stomped on for a little while. I don't remember this specifically happening, but I know this happened because I do remember them (aaaakkkk!!! "9 to 5" again! Too happy, too soon... ahhh, "Dagger Through the Heart", much better) sitting me down and forcing me to listened with focus to songs from this album as they had done with other albums and songs, including most notably "The Coward of the County" by Kenny Rodgers. If you don't know the song, go listen to it; if you aren't crying at the end of the song, you need to see the Wizard and ask him for a heart. Maybe I should blame my obsession with sad songs on them (it totally predated them, they might have made me more willing to talk about it and coached me to cry out loud over songs).

I've said before that even if you have to cry listening to it to be human, ultimately "The Coward of the County" has a cathartic resolution at the end which tempers the brutality of the sadness in the song. In a way this makes it all the more potent and it is usually this little glimmer of hope that is the point at which you crack and breakdown listening to it. The tragedy isn't always as bald as in "Coward" ("...the torn dress, the shattered look..."), but these hokey emotional destroyers are the secret ninjas of country music. They sound so friendly and sweet and you don't even realize you've started listening to the words, you didn't mean to leave it on this station and all of a sudden you are stuck at a red light trying to wipe away the tears before the light changes (or the other drivers notice). Why didn't someone warn you that something named "Teddybear's Last Ride" or "Giddyup Go" or "Christmas Carol" could blow up your heart like that? Hell, if you aren't careful and no one is around to keep face in front of, even "Roll On" can do it, but all these songs leave you feeling exhausted but still somehow a little vindicated. It all works out in the end. "Coat of Many Colors" is this kind of song, actually one of the most potent and dangerous of the genre, only made safe by its ubiquity.

"Mountain Angel" does not do this, does not take you down and bring you up. You probably won't actually cry listening to it; it doesn't do tricks to give the heart a big yank other than start off happy and sound so sweet. But if you are sad and you are open to feeling the cracks in humanity's shiny veneer, this one just keeps dropping, down and down. Sunshine turns to clouds, man leaves girl pregnant, baby dies, she has mental breakdown... it is just getting going.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Neko, rediscovered/re-explored

(written earlier in the year while still at sea...)

Neko Case is not a new discovery for me. Granted, everyone else found her before I did. She came to me as so many musical discoveries do: on a mix cd Mason made for me. I can't remember which one, but on it he had put "Deep Red Bells". At first it only sort of caught my attention, but then there is that moment when she asks, "Where does this mean world cast its cold eye? Who's left to suffer long about you? Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag past empty lots and early graves?" And you are swept off your feet...

She stole my heart but I haven't accumulated near enough of her music. Mostly I've listened to her through other people's collections. This is more accidental. I always think I have more of her music than I do. I used to have more, but other than a couple of random songs, the only album of hers I have on my computer (my musical lifeline out here in the lonely ocean) is of her live from Austin. I've listened to this whole album before, but tonight something about it is sending chills up the back of my neck.

This shouldn't be surprising. She has that voice. If ever a voice could sing haunted, she is the one. And you know this when you hear her the first time. It isn't a secret that sneaks up on you slowly, but somehow this realization feels fresh and new listening tonight.

Maybe this is partly because of the intentions with which I began listening to her. I'm working on a mix CD for Ben, which is difficult since we share most of our music already and I haven't really gotten much new music lately. And what music I do have that he doesn't has already gone on a thousand other mixes, so trying to make a new one that doesn't just sound like one of the old ones is a challenge. I suppose I should just wait, but I like making mixes when I am out to sea and feel double compelled this time for some reason that I have to succeed in this mission. Anyway, trying to sort out what music I got from Ben and what came from other sources, I sorted iTunes by 'date added' to help me remember what came from where and anything that I thought came from another source and hadn't been shared on our home computer yet got scoured for potential songs. Enter Neko. Both from this aforementioned cd and also from a song she did for a tribute album for the movie Nashville (we already know how obsessed I've been with that lately). I grabbed "Favorite" and threw it in the possible mix pile. "Favorite" sounds sweet and nice, right?

Burnt houses and warm deer blood soaking through her dress in her dream... maybe not right for a mix cd for your sweetheart. Great song, but why don't I go back and see if I can find a sweet love song by Ms. Case instead? And with such intentions I reentered her songs. Searching for a love song, the voodoo and magic came screaming out at me. Some how, on this listen the creepiness jumped out at me. Good creepiness, I'm totally digging it, but damn. Wow. It isn't enough that it just unearths the emotions she puts into the songs, but it reminds me of seeing her live.

She performed a few years ago at the Bowery Ballroom, which is one of my favorite live venues and it wasn't likely I'd have the chance to see her play anywhere that small again anytime soon. Several friends of mine were going and I got a ticket too. Simple enough, but Ben and I were broken up but both going. I am certain the situation was more complicated than this, as he will later remind me, but this was complicated enough. We hadn't broken up because we were no longer in love, rather we were driving each other crazy and at least from my side I didn't know how to make it better and felt like I was making things worse. So there I am with a group of friends and a boy I'm in love with but broken up from. He's told me since that that night was insanely difficult for him, so I know I wasn't alone in standing there blown away by the music but having no idea what to do with my hands or how close to stand or how to act at all. The situation itself was so intense by itself, but now listening closely again I'm reminded how this voice must have heightened the tension and electricity. I sort of feed off of awkward terrifying energy (a survival trait learned through years of being unimaginably self-conscious; otherwise I would be institutionalized) , so I also remember that night as exhilarating at the same time as I remember it as painful and confusing.

All said, Neko Case making my hair stand on end shouldn't come as any surprise to me and maybe she requires special consideration anyway for putting on a mix cd anyway. Listening and feeling the creepiness almost makes me want to watch creepy movies or read spooky books. I don't really go for gore and think most horror movies really miss the mark in terms of really making that mood without just going in for the kill. Hitchcock, of course, knew how and The Twilight Zone did too, but I can't think of any movie that really does what I want right now.

In the ideal world where I get to decide who sings together, Neko Case and Emmylou Harris get together and make this mind blowing other-worldly gothic southern rock opera. Actually, I've long wanted to put Emmylou together with Lucinda Williams, Iris Dement, and Nanci Griffith for a gothic southern rock opera. They all have that crazy warble in their voice that lets them sounds both sugar sweet and tormented. Neko Case doesn't have the warble, but can you imagine her doing a duet with Emmylou Harris? Let's make this a three disk project. These are the main women on it, but let's have backup harmonies from Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Natalie Maines . For a little balance, let's bring in Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Raul Malo, and Toby Keith. Hell, as long as this is my fantasy, let's also throw in Joel Gibb and the guy from Songs: Ohia. Daniel Lanois as producer. Sort of like a mix between Wrecking Ball and The Red Headed Stranger, but darker. I mean really haunting and cold spooky. Start spare and build, piling harmonies and layers on, going from whispers to screaming and howls. Not every song, but enough. Back and forth between too many voices and instruments and spare, bare-bones sound. It has to be recorded in New Orleans, during a hurricane. Ok, just kidding about the hurricane part. Before, during, and after a thunderstorm.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Redwall by Brian Jaques

I had fled the boat in a hurried rush after being woken from an attempt to catch up on sleep by the stinging difficulty I had trying to breath as our boat was enveloped in a cloud of ammonia released from the cannery. As you can tell, the day started auspiciously. My retreat had been made to the comfort and wifi access of the lobby at the Grand Hotel, where I discovered in my haste I hadn't brought all the paperwork I had planned on dropping off at the office. Fortunately there wasn't much and it wasn't pressing that it get there, so after puttering around on the internet for a while I retired to the bar/restaurant for a final beer with an overdue lunch before heading back to the boat to begin our next trip. By chance, another observer wandered in looking for someone else and as she couldn't find them was heading to the library. This was on my way so we hopped in a cab and I made a last ditch attempt to snag some more reading on the way back. Being unplanned, I flew through the shelves. I wanted something fun and light to read. I haven't exhausted the supplies of books I brought along, but nothing was jumping out at me so I wanted something new.

The only Terry Pratchett book they had, I've already read. No Charles Stross. Scanning the shelves, they had a whole collection of Brian Jaques novels. I've never read him, but I've seen his novels forever in libraries and in bookstores. There didn't seem to be a coherent order to the books, but grabbing one randomly I managed to grab his first, Redwall. A fantasy medieval world populated by woodland creatures in human roles? A fantasy world with numerous books in a not necessarily chronological order? Perfect.

Against my better judgment, I grabbed only the first book. I don't know how many books we are allowed to check out at once and I already had two books about fish (yeah, I'm that kind of nerd). It is the middle book of a trilogy, written first before being followed by a prequel and then the final book. After these many more stories had been added to the universe but that was as much order as I could figure out in my haste.

This whole trip I've had a serious solitaire problem. I can't stop playing compulsively. We've had rough weather and whole days where I couldn't go out on deck, so I've had tons of time that needed filling. Mostly it had been filled with solitaire. My mind was starting to slip. Hence my desperate search for fun reading. Having started Redwall yesterday, here I sit waiting for the next string of pots so I can sample, already ready to review the novel.

I sped through it because I couldn't sleep and it is an easy read. I mean really easy. I don't know that I would call it a page turner, but I enjoyed diving into the story and just floating along. There are no real twists and none of the characters is at all complicated. Good kind mice, bad evil rats; wandering rogues vs. peaceful monastery; prophetic legend foretold and fulfilled. It does take a cute path getting there and I enjoyed the meander, but it also annoyed on several fronts.

It was pleasant if I didn't ask it to be complicated and resigned to just cheering for good guys and booing the bad guys, which was easy enough. I felt like they left big gaping what-if's and why-not's in the story though that irritated and didn't fully flesh out the feel of the world we were moving through. I never got a full feeling for whether or not these creatures were moving through a human sized world or one built on their scale. True, it did clearly state that mice had built Redwall Abbey, but obviously on a scale large enough for badgers and such to wander through but also small enough that said badger might lift a table. So larger than mouse scale, smaller than human scale, but what about the trees and the forest? This was an animal scale construction but the walls were so high that a tall elm only just reached over its walls? The descriptions have the animals moving through the abbey world as if it were built for their size but then incongruously has them dwarfed against everyday objects. Nit picking, I know, but these are the details that make or break the illusion of a fictional world. This was a world which required a great deal of just setting disbelief aside and not asking questions or critiquing. You have to want to read it and enjoy it or it would be really easy to just pull apart. The seams are not tightly sown and not hidden at all.

I gave myself up to the fast and loose of the scale of the environment, which I was willing to do because you get the feeling that this was a story written enjoyably by someone who had loved dipping into this world and creating it. It feels like an exercise in imagination and I like that. So I'm being gentler than I might otherwise be. And I'll probably read further into the series when I get back. But (you knew there was a 'but'), the what-if's and why-not's really did grate at me as I read. Mostly they reconciled themselves with the weak argument, "Otherwise the story would end sooner/differently." Why was there a solitary beaver who got no name? Why only one badger? Both are naturally social animals. Only one snake/hare/family of squirrels in the whole landscape? Fine, the author can limit the characters; lines must be drawn somewhere. Still, not particularly believable. Same with tactics employed in defense of the Abbey. The badger and beaver can make a cross-bow in a matter of hours and deploy it with enough accuracy to impale the head of a rat inside a tent across the field, but they can't come up with one more stick to shoot again when they realize they hit the wrong rat and never use the weapon again? Really?

But in the end I'll read more of the series (when I'm on a boat again). You can feel how much the writer enjoyed writing this when he wrote it and perhaps it becomes more tightly crafted as the series continues. My first memory of writing as an enjoyable experience was in second or third grade. We had to write a story. i think it only had to be a few paragraphs long, but once I started, I couldn't stop. I wrote page after page, taking this assignment home and sitting in the principals office the next day trying to finish as adults exasperatedly told me to just finish it so it could be graded. But the story wasn't finished and I didn't know how to end it. It was just getting bigger and bigger (I suppose I've always been longwinded). It is worth noting that I wrote very slowly and and have horrible handwriting and as much as I enjoyed the process of daydreaming the story (isn't that what I already did during every class?), the process of writing was actually fairly torturous. Writing remained so until I learned to type. I bring all this up because reading Redwall reminded me of this story because my story was also populated by woodland creatures and I could feel behind the writing that feeling of daydreamed worlds being made manifest on the page. I don't remember what my story was actually about, but there were lizards and frogs with guns that shot grains of sand, and a salamander scientist/inventor who lived in an observatory which looked like (and could open like) a magnolia blossom which was at the end of a branch over a lake. I wonder whatever happened to that story. I know my mother has a permanent file of any writings/drawings/whatever any of us created but I somehow doubt she got that story. I think I was ashamed of it because it wasn't finished right because they rushed me and I was the kind of child who would hide something like that. I should ask her though...

Friday, May 08, 2009

A few thoughts upon reading the March 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone

(written while still at sea earlier this year)

A few thoughts upon reading the March 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone:

1) On the cover and in the third picture in the article about her, Taylor Swift looks like Stevie Nicks (in a very good way). In the other pictures shot for the article, particularly the second one, she looks like Chris Crocker. Really.

2) In her Q&A interview, Stevie Nicks looks like she is made out of plastic, though certainly lifelike. I do like the style she is rocking. Hello white top hat. In the actual interview she comes across as likable, but a little crazy. Talking in third person? Really?

3) Can someone pry those stupid-ass glasses off Bono's face already? Who thinks they are a good idea? Does he just really like them or is there a misguided stylist telling him this is cool? There is something to be said for having a signature look or making an accessory your own, but wearing something no one else wears because it is impossible to not look stupid wearing it is not the same thing as wearing something so well that it is impossible for anyone else to wear them like you. Even Michael Jackson took off that sparkly glove and the black shoes and white socks, but he still owns those looks. The damn red or yellow glasses? They own Bono, not the other way around.

4) Miley Cyris is what Suzy from Calvin and Hobbes would grow up to look like.

5) The writing in the magazine is good, but the articles about things other than music are better than the articles about music.


pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) sunning in dry creek bed; Short Mountain, TN.

Wood poppy

by a stream, Short Mountain, TN.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


I'm officially certified as a crab observer for ADF&G! They sent me a hat and a lollipop to prove it.

clothes line

the hills: no wonder our enemies hate us

This will sound disingenuous, but I don't normally watch the hills. Everyone says that, because even if you like watching the show it is impossible to not know that it is a horrible thing. Watching it is bad, that it exists is bad, that people produce something like this is bad. I've been unable to justify its existence at all, at least until last night. I may finally be able to make a (feeble) argument in its defense.

SOMEONE made me watch it last night, though I've been told I'm not allowed to tell anyone that he watches it because he is appropriately ashamed of this vile habit, but why would I sit through such torture if I can't make fun of it afterwards? Well, I'm nicer than I look, so I'll let this person remain nameless. Let's call him "Beth". Beth and I had gotten in a squabble and there was that moment where you feel like you've already had all the arguments a couple can manage and that you are doomed to repeat ridiculous gripes forever and ever. In that shortsighted moment, it is easy to blind yourself with all the ways that you and this other person are incompatible and also question whether or not you really are just a jackass. Maybe I'm retarded and don't know how to manage a relationship. Maybe I don't know how to communicate my feelings effectively or listen when someone else is trying to communicate them to me. Maybe we just don't work together...

None of this is true. I know that and even when feeling frustrated facing the picked scab of slow healing old fights, I still know that we've got a real good thing going on. I'm no fatalist and know better than to wallow too deeply or believe that moments of frustration are doomed to be eternal, but it is nice sometimes to have something external to your situation remind you how good you've got it.

When Beth wanted to quit talking and watch the hills, you can (if you have ever met me) imagine the look I shot in his direction. It was somewhere between over-my-dead-body and i-dare-you-to-try. Watching the hills isn't something you should wish on your worst enemy, much less someone you love. Had there been someone else to protect from this blight, I might have stood strong but he made an impassioned plea and I relented.

If you've never seen the hills, don't. It is a bunch of horrible vapid people who do horrible vapid things. Actually, that is being generous: the cast is entirely RealDolls and motorized mannikins. The purported main character, Lauren, almost comes across as human and occasionally says things that make sense. The worst people in the show are heidi and spencer. She is on the show because she is pretty. She looks like she has escaped from the Playboy Mansion and and flounces around with layered blonde extensions and a pouty, perpetually surprised/confused look. And why not? spencer doesn't make any sense. There is no reason he should be on television. She is at least pretty. He is not, and while she isn't particularly likable, her abject idiocy allows for occasional flashes of unintended humor. He isn't even funny. This is the second episode of the show I have ever seen, but just that small snippet leaves an indelible bad taste in the mouth towards this couple and him in particular. In this episode, the two are going through couples counseling. The counselor winces as she listens to their idiocy. heidi is flipping out over a bartender who he flirts with and who is sending him text messages and squares off against this jezebel when she and her brunette gang step to her blonde fembot gang at a club. All of them come across as stupid monkeys dancing in front of a camera, but the brunette wins the round by pointing out that at the end of the day, heidi is still dating a douche bag who hits on other girls and always will.

The other main drama of the show was some awful girl (named "Jayde") with bad collagen injections and a bottle of Jaegermeister acting like an idiot over a dumb boyfriend. But I'm not really here to give a play-by-play recap; I have no desire to recreate this horror. Watching all this absurdity though, suddenly my own relationship seemed incredibly healthy. We get in fights and sometimes silly fights and sometimes the same silly fights over and over, but there is no way either of us is ever going to be that disagreeable. The show's value seems to be in showing what is purported to be a fabulous life (glamor, parties, clothes, etc.) and making it look like the worst hell imaginable. And not even a fun sort of wretched hell. Lost occasionally looks like hell, being stuck on some time-travel island with an atomic bomb and people trying to kill you and your friends, but it is an interesting dynamic hell. The hell that is the hills just looks so painfully boring. They make leisure and money look awful.

And then there is what they do for relationships. If they make hanging out in bars look painful, they make dating look like pure torture (and not the waterboarding kind, but the ripping-off-fingernails-with-pliers kind). Sitting watching these... people(?) after having my own spat suddenly made me appreciate what I've got. We (like every couple) come up with some stupid things to fight about, but contrast against this alternate universe displayed in the hills we suddenly seem remarkably sane and stable. And there was a certain vicious catharsis to answering "Yes," when asked by Beth if he sounded like a particularly awful character as she picked a pointless fight. Having this televised nightmare to remind me how beautiful -even if occasionally frustrating- my reality is made the night a little easier, but I'd still rather it just didn't exist.

I would have still felt sour about the experience of being subjected to the show had we not followed it with the current episode of Family Guy, which spoofs the hills. Family Guy treated it with all the delicacy and tenderness that it treats any subject. If watching the hills made me feel better about my own small social sphere, it made me cringe for humanity in general. If this is a hit show, if people in droves are choosing to watch this eagerly, how can one have faith in our fellow man? Looking around the world today, it is easy to bump up against these terrifying dilemmas ("How can people do such horrible things?"), but then Family Guy dives in to save us. The brutal satire reminded the self-important jerk inside me that perhaps my negative reaction to the hills is the point. The show is done in arch seriousness, but everyone watching is in on the joke: no one watches it thinking these are likable people. Some are more likable than others, but all of them are kind of walking caricatures of our pop-generic obsessions and desires. Family Guy reminds that we all know this beast is absurd, that even Lauren Conrad is in on the joke, voicing herself as a character in the episode even as they present her as dating a (literal) dog (culminating with a scene of her dragging her ass around on a rug after Brian gives her worms) and lampooning the emptiness of the show.

In the end, rather than ruining my night and deepening our divide and prolonging our disagreement, the hills (I am still not going to capitalize it) actually salved the wound and gave us a common horror to be happy we weren't a part of. This isn't to say I plan on watching it again or that I don't think it should be cancelled, but you know me: always looking on the bright side.