Saturday, January 30, 2010

Powder Keg

The weather here is fickle.
One moment it is springtime in January.
The next it is snowing in March.
The changes come more quickly than that,
a sudden switch from green to gray
taking place between days, minutes.
No one can know how to dress,
and we leave our houses in short sleeves
to find the world has frozen.
We forgetfully wear sweaters in the searing
heat. We wear layers, shed, add, as needed.
Most find it unnerving, the inconsistency
a memory of migration. Constantly being kept
on our toes is disquieting, as if we've been flung
out of the womb, weened, fallen out
of our mothers' arms in less than half a lifetime.
It is a great feeling of betrayal,
this being left out in the cold.
And the heat. And the desert.
And the sleetful rain.

What I don't want to admit is that I find
a small spark-filled moment in between switches
that sounds like slithery blood sliding through
veins. It sounds green like life. Up and down
like pulse. The weather here swings wide
open. It is what makes light of dark.

Friday, January 29, 2010

You're Nobody Til Somebody

I have had the distinction of being friends with a lot of somebodies.

I have a knack for having interesting friends. Doers. People whose lives are imbued with a magical quality created by their own talents and actions. Creators. Producers. Actors.

By “actors” I mean people who take action. Those drama kids aren’t really my style.

I was thinking about this while clicking through the photographs done by a photographer friend of mine on Facebook. I tried to be a photographer. My parents bought me a really nice camera many birthdays ago—a camera that has subsequently been stolen and perhaps been put to better use by a homeless man in Deep Ellum. I was terrible. I constantly had that experience of getting my shots developed and thinking, “What was I trying to take a picture of here?” They always seemed to lack any kind of definable design. I would occasionally get the good shot here or there, but I figure this was always just dumb luck.

I also tried my hand at fashion design, but, alas, I cannot sew. I studied it for almost an entire academic year, but I eventually had to withdraw in an attempt to avoid failing. And growing up I took piano lessons, but I always lacked the discipline to become anything other than a girl who played only at her lessons and the yearly recital. I wasn’t awful. I could’ve been a whole lot better if I’d ever tried. But, again with the alas, I was not much of a tryer in those days.

Based on the feedback I’m getting from spelling and grammar check right now, though, I am apparently quite the sentence fragmenter and word maker-upper.

Sometimes when I look at my friends, an amazing group of impressive people who do really cool stuff, I feel a little like I don’t know what I do. What do I do? I paint, but I don’t paint well enough to consider myself an “artist.” I dance—at the club. I sing--in the shower, in the car, in my house when no one is home. Mostly I think--a lot--about a whole bunch of stuff no one wants to talk about. Heck, I don't even want to talk about most of it. I think in Socratic reasoning, which is a good way to deduce things in theory but mostly just frustrating in practice. Every question leads to another question. This is one of the things I love most about life. We know virtually nothing about it. But that's why most people would rather discuss the more concrete concepts presented by Jersey Shore.

That last comment makes me sound like a smarty-pants asshole, and it should. For the last few weeks I've been feeling kind of like a smarty-pants asshole.

The other night I was furiously working on an essay about pubic hair. As I worked on it, I could feel myself getting more and more worked up over the feelings of injustice around my subject matter. That's right. I've been oppressed by pubic hair. More specifically, I've been oppressed by certain people's opinions of pubic hair and what those opinions symbolize. I swear, it doesn't take much for me to feel like the bottom of the shit pile. And I may still finish said essay because, hey, who doesn't want to hear about how oppressed I am by pubic hair? But I suddenly ran out of direction about halfway through, a sure sign that I'm not sure if I totally believe in whatever it is I'm furiously saying.

The next morning I found myself thinking, "Hey, asshole, why are you so worked up over pubic hair?" I applied a little of the Socratic method to the problem and realized that I'd started taking myself way too seriously lately.

It all made sense! The rather didactic essay about how personalities are bullshit? The strange and growing obsession over whether or not I seem "interesting" to other people? The comparing myself to others, feeling personally turned out as a lame person because other people have cooler pictures on Facebook? By the way, I still stand behind the core argument in the previously mentioned essy--I just wish I hadn't sounded quite so preachy and accusatory.

Once again I'd forgotten what I learned.

What I have learned is this: I love it that I know so many awesome people. And I'm okay with the fact that I tend to be more of a chronic appreciator than an accomplisher. I love it that I do what I do because I love it, not because I'm good at it or because it might gain me something in return. I love it that I don't place those kinds of restrictions on my actions or make choices based on the accumulation of wealth or status. I don't mind if other people do their thing to accumulate wealth or status. Everyone should go after what they value most. I don't value those things. I value love in all its forms, and that's why it feels good to see my friends as such amazing people. I hate it when I start to forget these things because even the simple self-pity schtick of comparing myself to others and feeling like they make me look bad feels like my begrudging them their awesomeness.

I feel thoroughly snapped out of it for now. As soon as I realized what was happening, I had a good laugh at my own expense. It only takes about three seconds of that to evaporate all the seriousness that had slowly settled down around me, making me feel put-upon and turning me into a downer. Who cares if I'm awful-to-mediocre at a whole mess of stuff? At least I can enjoy the process of sucking.

Bad choice of words. You know what I mean.

And at least I have a talent for knowing a whole lot of people who are amazing enough to pick up my slack.

Oh, and don't worry. As soon as I finish that essay about pubic hair, you'll be the first to know.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


This song is red glass,
the way acid is the sound of ice between
my back teeth. I hear music in physical
sensations. I see sounds in colors
and steel. The lines on the highway
are beats to me.

I have given up on anything being
what it is.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who Are You?

"Blake and Wordsworth wanted identity without personality; but personality is ultimate western reality."

-Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neftertiti to Emily Dickenson

I am no longer fascinated by insanity, the build up of a persona based on impulsiveness and reckless abandon. The buildup of any personality, really, no longer seems interesting to me. Those people you see, the ones who seem so extreme in their look and have integrity, a sort of til-the-death idea about who they are and what that should look like to the rest of the world? They are the emptiest shells, the least sure of themselves. The more "personality" a person has, the less you're seeing of his or her "identity."

But personality is ultimate western reality. The western idea of who you are is what you look like to other people. According to Gestalt psychology, you cannot know yourself completely without the knowledge of what other people think of you. It's all part and parcel of a whole. We define ourselves by where we shop, where we live, who we know, what we listen to. We don't just take pure pleasure in these things--we need for them to define us. We need for other people to know that we enjoy these things, which actually deteriorates our ability to enjoy them. If part of my enjoyment of something stems from your ability to appreciate and admire my enjoyment of that thing, I can't be fully free to enjoy it until I've received the validation for the enjoyment. That's the trap of personality.

That's why we create our personal brands.

Personality and identity are not interchangeable. Having a personality is inescapable unless you choose to move to nowhere and live completely alone. There are aspects of who you are that are visible, and these will always be captured by others and turned into your personality. But the molding of a personality, the shaping of a specific image that you want others to see in place of any real identity--this is what does not fascinate me.

I remember sophomore English. We were discussing Shakespeare, and my teacher informed us that when the schism between a person's persona and his or her actual identity is too great, that person is more likely than anyone else to commit suicide. I remember that this stuck with me; it scared me. It made me wonder if I was going to commit suicide, partially because I felt like I had plenty of identity but that everyone else had it wrong on my personality. I knew that personality was how others saw me. So I set out to create a specific personality.

When it was all said and done, I think I'd created five.

I remember reading my father's aunt Mayhew's yearbook profile. When asked to describe Mayhew, someone said, "Still waters run deep." This stuck with me because I always figured nobody noticed the still waters or, at the very least, didn't think them exciting enough to be interesting. I know it's a stock phrase, but what struck me was that someone recognized her through her quiet exterior. They must've believed there was something there beyond a lack of discernable personality. She must've had identity. Adventurers don't go still-water-rafting. They go rafting on the churning and somewhat dangerous white water. This is excitement. Excitement is interesting. If you live an intense internal life and have difficulty translating that to your external life, or are bored by the idea of even trying, is there any room for you in social discourse? Do you count? Will anybody notice you and, if nobody notices you, will they be able to love you?

People who are less-than-loud often admire the loudest in the room, thinking the loud ones have something they lack. People who are not crazy admire crazy people because they seem so fun, so vivacious, so willing to throw off the shackles of convention. I remember being the loudest in the room, an image I'd cultivated for myself after growing up so completely alone. What is so funny is that the very thing that was supposed to help me feel less alone made me feel even more alone. I wandered through situations feeling frustrated by a lack of understanding--a lack I'd created because I presented nothing I wanted understood. The more personality I cultivated, the less identity I seemed to have. A few people saw me anyway. These people saved my life.

Recently a friend told me about an advice column he'd read. The person seeking advice wanted to know why her insane artist friend seemed like such a bore since she'd given up drugs and gotten sober. The person seeking advice wasn't the type to do drugs; she was a "normal" person. What she doesn't realize is that what looks so interesting really isn't. It is interesting to explore the nature of reality. It is interesting to constantly try to get to the bottom of things, see what they look like, explore the possibility of living them as they really are. I have a much greater admiration for people who can see themselves clearly and live that comfortably than I do for anyone who can run away from that into extremes. Doing drugs and being "interesting" is easy. Real life is much more difficult to understand, define and live.

I am no longer fascinated by people who destroy themselves, but this is probably because I understand them.

I've never liked fantasy fiction. At certain times I've considered this a personal failing, a sign of a lack of imagination. But I find them uninteresting for the exact same reasons I find people's personalities so uninteresting. We don't understand the nature of reality. In fantasy fiction, even as the realities seem so foreign to us, the creator understands every bit of the nature of that reality and can meter out that information to us as he or she sees fit. Pages upon pages of detail describing how gravity may work, what the plants might look like, how people speak and what they wear. All of it perfectly in order, even if gravity works backward or the sky is hot pink. There is nothing about the nature of a fantasy world that cannot be understood. How can that be interesting? What is there to explore there? It's a stilted and static situation, an escape route for people who cannot handle the ambiguity of identity in the mysterious world of reality. And personality is a fantasy land we create around ourselves, everything in perfect working order, even if that working order doesn't match up with the reality in which it is operating. Personality comes with hard-and-fast rules. All things are this way. No things are that way. I always do this and I never do that. They're easy enough rules to live by except when you can feel the pulsing of identity underneath the skin of your personality. Identity is nothing hard-and-fast. It is all ways and no ways all at once, a mingling of these things that brings us in touch with our surroundings and somehow creates reality.

I can remember moments thinking, "I wish I could escape this person I've created, but no one would believe me if I showed up any different." This is the trick of personality. What is at first meant to make my ego more comfortable eventually becomes a place of disease and discomfort. It becomes a point of misery because, deep in the night, the personality is left alone, and alone it becomes obsolete. In the moment I love myself when I am charming because I see my success reflected back at me from others, but afterward I always feel it is myself who has been fooled.

It is said that "the measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out." There is no room for character in the world of personality. Nothing happens there that isn't seen by others. No action is taken by the personality that isn't a performance for others. Even if no one was there, the personality must recount for all the harrowing adventure or the angelic decision. But the personality can keep secrets as well. It doesn't want to mar its own appearance by admitting to wrongdoing, whatever wrongdoing might mean in the constructed world of that specific personality.

And "this is the disease of western love." Paglia talks about the "susceptibility to the glamour of charismatic personality." "But the person invested with so much hieratic energy is coldly discarded when he or she proves humanly frail." There is a crack in everything God has made. Everything that man has made is plastically perfect and a complete falsehood. Here comes the caveat to my original statement. Everything that man has made is a complete falsehood, but this falsehood can be fun. It can be fun right up until the moment it is mistaken for identity.

It can be fun right up until the moment we become so consumed with being the falsehood that we believe it is true.

But Narcissus looked into the pool and fell so in love with his own reflection he drowned in it, and so many people fall so in love with the idea of themselves and become so enamored with the personalities of others that they wake up alone, whether in a room with another or not, and find that the night is most black when one has betrayed who one is.

"All my lies are always wishes. I know I would die if I could come back new."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Some of the People, All of the Time

Christmas Eve, my boyfriend, brother and I were watching The Hundred Greatest Songs of the 90's on VH1. We made it to number 97 before we had to change the channel for fear that our collective adolescences would be turned out as the artistic wastelands that they were. But before that happened, my boyfriend did manage to project that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be number one.

I have no idea whether or not he was right, and that has no bearing on the rest of this story.

When he said this, I told him that I remember the day Kurt Cobain killed himself the way people who were alive in the 60's remember the Kennedy assassination. I remember Kurt Loder breaking in to MTV's regularly scheduled programming to deliver the news. I remember all those people--mostly dirty-looking teenagers--sitting on the front lawn of his mansion in mourning while Courtney Love tearfully called him a jerk and rhetorically asked him why. And I remember all of this so vividly because it defined so much of who I was at the time and who I would continue to be for many years after. In fact, the event of Cobain's suicide and the subsequent cultural impact would be the crux of an intense internal struggle that would almost destroy me.

But not for the reasons one might think.

It's not that I was an ardent Nirvana fan. I liked their music, and I respected them as artists. But at the time of his death, I owned none of their albums. Actually, I still don't own any of their albums. I thought they were important, but more because of what they stood for than for their actual music. Nirvana was the voice of disenfranchised youth. They were the voice of teenagers who dressed like homeless people as an outward symbol of their inward feeling that they'd been rejected by society for being different. When I describe them that way, it's hard to believe I wasn't more into them than I was, seeing as I wore steel-toed combat boots with skirts. But Cobain's death didn't represent the ultimate demise of all my youthful ideals. Quite the contrary. What happened afterward defined my ideals and gave me an image to go with a yearning that would then become a goal. I remember thinking, "My goal in life is to have that many people sitting on my front lawn when I die." The aftermath of Cobain's death defined meaningful celebrity for me, a fact which I'm sure he would detest. In a way, the idea that he defined meaningful celebrity for not just me but a whole bunch of other people was part of the reason he committed suicide in the first place.

Essentially, I wanted to be so famous that complete strangers would show up in public and cry over my death, just like they did for Kurt Cobain.

Cobain committing suicide didn't shock me. It was the only possible ending for the story, really. What else was going to happen? Cobain was going to grow old, eventually releasing a Christmas album? Nirvana was going to breakup and get back together several more times for reunion tours? It couldn't happen like that. And before anyone thinks me cold for essentially arguing that suicide was the only ending Cobain's persona would allow, let me say this: I think suicide is the least sad way to go. People who die in plane crashes and burning buildings didn't want to die. That's sad. People who commit suicide are the only ones who didn't die against their own will. The rest of us--the people who don't commit suicide--think it's sad because we don't want to die and can't wrap our minds around the possibility that anyone would. But as someone who used to want to die and managed to grow out of it before acting on it, let me assure you--if I'd committed suicide then, I wouldn't have been sad about it at all. My life now is just an alternate route in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I appreciate it now, but that's only because I'm still here to appreciate it. If I weren't still here, I'd have nothing to lament.

And trust me when I say I somehow come across as much more cynical in writing than I do in real life.

But there were no possible alternate endings for Cobain, and I suppose that might be why I didn't feel sad when he did it. His flannel-wearing followers were sad, but I honestly can't understand how they didn't see his death as somehow justified. He died their martyr. He died on the cross of their ideals. "See?" one can imagine them saying. "The Man ate him alive. He was too much of a genius for this place. This society kills its rock stars. It eats its young. It destroys everything that is different and unrelenting. It sucks." They would definitely use the adjective "sucks." But, then, I suppose without their sadness at the inevitable demise, the demise would then stand for nothing. Like most demises.

So I needed for Cobain's fans to somehow be saddened by this unshocking event for it to be so meaningful for me because that was what gave it meaning for me. I wanted future people to be so saddened by my own passing, even if I died an equally inevitable death. If I jumped out of a plane without a parachute and made an announcement that I was going to do so to the entire world a week beforehand, I wanted people to be standing on the ground when I landed ready to light candles and talk about how unfair it was that such a brilliant light had been snuffed out too soon.

There are certain things that are inevitable when a person reaches a certain age, and these inevitabilities extend beyond death and taxes. One of these inevitable things is that whomever one is dating at the time will have dated someone else before and might possibly also have a former spouse. This is something I hadn't ever thought a lot about (except in my previous relationships where the person I was dating was very clearly still in love with a former partner, which would be almost all of my previous relationships) until recently. My current boyfriend loves me a lot by all appearances, and he's never turned up any songs by Third Eye Blind in the car while talking about how they remind him of his ex-girlfriend and then started crying. As far as our relationship is concerned, his ex-girlfriends are mostly nonentities. But I find myself more and more consumed by a wish to believe that he's never been with anyone before me. I type that sentence, I look at it and I realize how ridiculous it is. It's like wishing that I would never die or could somehow escape taxes. I've never been consumed by this desire with anyone else. Even when I was dating someone who was obviously still in love with someone else and that upset my ego, I understood as a given that there would have been someone else before me. I wasn't completely insane. But I think part of the reason that him having previous loves bothers me when it never bothered me before (and bothers me more now than it did when we first started dating) is because this one feels special. I knew a week to a month in that none of those other guys was going to last. I might have loved them, and I might have tried beyond the point of all sense to make it work with them, but I ultimately knew that we weren't going to make it. I don't know how to explain how I could expend emotional energy on suicide missions other than to say that I was young and conflicted about how relationships worked. I knew I had a longing for one, but I also knew that I couldn't seem to do them right or find the right person to have one with. Other much more complicated explanations were proposed, and some of them might've been true. But I also think that human beings have an innate need for companionship and sex and will do the darnedest things to procure both, especially in their early 20's.

But this one feels different. Which makes him special. Which makes me want to feel like I'm special. It's why I want to believe against all sense that I'm the first girl he's ever said things like, "I'm so glad you're here," to when laying in bed together at night. It's why it bothers me when his ex-girlfriend "likes" his status on Facebook, even though I would generally consider myself beyond such petty concerns--I don't want to ever be reminded of her existence, let alone the fact that they ever knew each other. It's why I went on this tangent after having talked about Kurt Cobain's suicide. I think the reason that my boyfriend having exes bothers me is the same reason I was so affected by the death of Kurt Cobain.

All of my life I have wanted to feel special.

Some people say everyone is special, and these people are elementary school teachers who don't understand that this sentiment doesn't make sense (or at least are given to oversimplifying things for the comprehension of five-year-olds). Some people say that no one is special, and these people have incomprehensibly low self-esteem or are anti-social and try to dress one or the other of these problems up as philosophy. The truth is that most people are special to at least one other person, and no one is special to everybody except for a handful of extra special people like presidents and rock stars. The fact that I wanted to be like Kurt Cobain and I wish my boyfriend didn't have any exes he actually loved speaks to my desire to be not just special but extra special. My therapist once told me that a lot of my problems stemmed from the fact that I was the oldest of four children and the second in the line was born so soon after my birth that I never got to feel like the center of someone's universe. I was always chasing that feeling. And I've come to terms with the fact that there will be no strangers at my funeral other than the ones brought as the date of someone who knew me. I also know well enough how silly it is that I wish my boyfriend had no former loves--at least I know it enough to keep it from affecting my feelings for him or making me believe that his feelings for me are disingenuous. But sometimes I still sing along with the radio in my car while imagining that I'm performing for thousands of people, and sometimes I still internally bristle at the mention of my boyfriend's ex's name. These feelings don't drive me like they used to, but they're still there, like some vestigial organ that doesn't do anything but could still get infected.

None of this feels as depressing as the artsy movies I grew up on made it seem like it would. I was raised on art that sent the message that mediocrity--letting go of childish fantasies and living the same life as 98.7% of the people on the planet--would eventually make me want to kill myself or develop an addiction to Valium so as to forget how un-special I really am. But, honestly, getting okay with being one of those people who is only special to a few other people (and I feel like I'm making a bit of an assumption there) and not extra special to everybody feels a lot less miserable than holding on to childish fantasies about what it means to be special ever did. The truth is that it turns out I was wrong. This life does feel special to me. I don't need a multitude of people to think I'm extra special to validate that experience. What I understand intellectually but can't always seem to understand emotionally is that the specialness of others does not preclude me from being special, too. I used to absolutely hate it when people would try to console me by telling me that God loves me because God loves everybody. This fact made God's love seem irrelevant to me. I wanted to be the only loved person. I suppose what I'm really saying is that I can be kind of an ego-driven jerk. But this is one of those moments when it kicks ass to not be special: We can ALL be ego-driven jerks.

I suppose I have utterly failed at my childhood goal. Or, I should say, my adolescent/early adulthood goal, although that feels more embarrassing. There will be no Courtney Love-esque person sitting on the lawn of my house, hanging out with my fans and making it appear that I had tragically bad taste in women when I die. And as much as my ridiculous need to be extra special makes me want to be overdramatic about the ex-girlfriend issue, I know my boyfriend loves me. I know that the existence of previous lovers in my life doesn't detract from my feelings for him at all, so why should I assume the opposite would be true for him? If anything, the existence of my former lovers strengthens my feelings for him because they were all just so not right that he feels extra right. And what all of this is making me realize is that being an adult is awesome. Most people under the age of 25 (including myself when I was under the age of 25) are delusional about everything and think that they're right in their thinking. Now I understand enough to know I don't understand much, and it feels more like reality--and I like that. It doesn't make me want a Valium. I guess when you dive so whole-heartedly into acting on all of your most insane impulses when you're younger the way I did, it ceases at some point to be interesting. Settling down into what most people would describe as a lack of specialness feels magical and special to me.

Absolutely nobody prefers reality to delusion, which means I'm probably special after all--even if my song isn't projected by anybody to be number one on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's countdown.

But if my boyfriend ever turns up the Third Eye Blind in the car and starts crying, then I'll be worried.