Friday, June 24, 2011

Nick the Magic Unicorn

Nick is an interdimensional space-faring unicorn.  He is also one of the smartest people I've ever known, and one of the unhappiest. I've known a lot of very weird people with a lot of interesting lifestyles in my life, and been both horrified and delighted by what I've found.  I've always found Nick's eccentricities to be both charming and original, and he's personally bought me over ten drinks in the past year and a half.  Nick is also the key to understanding something about myself that has long confounded me, and it is to Nick that my narrative has taken me.

I find writing about Nick to be somewhat paradoxical, and this is one of the real challenges of a blog like this.  Thus far, everyone I've written about has more or less been out of my life -- characters from my past rather than my present.  But Nick and I are still good friends.  What I write here I write with explicit permission on the grounds that I conceal his identity, and I am very grateful that he trusts me enough to let me publish this.  At once brilliant, strange, driven, wise, foolish, and surprisingly capable of empathy when it's needed, he is both blunt and capable of astonishing subtlety, very often at the same time.  No matter how difficult he can be to be around sometimes, he is both a loving and supportive friend, and an endlessly fascinating person to me.

This story starts, like so many, on an internet forum.  I wrote a story that Nick liked, and he wanted to roleplay with me via instant messenger.  I noticed the contradiction as soon as we started talking about our respective creative works.  It didn't take me long to work out just how cerebral he was, like the computers he worked on, and yet so creative that his imagination at times overwhelmed him.  My fantasy life has been well-documented here, but I was unprepared for the depth and intensity of Nick's.  Nick is only a few years older than me, but he had clearly spent most of his life working on an entire universe -- places, timelines, and people -- right down to the tiniest detail, such as the choice of fabric of a military uniform.  I got lost in that world after only a weekend of exploration.  But the intricacy and complexity of it belies a simple truth about it: it is separated from the rest of him by a tremendous firewall.  The Nick that the outside world usually gets to see is not the Nick of that universe.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Nick is an eminently practical man.

Nick's philosophy in life is to take game theory and apply it to every sphere of human existence.  One of the first times we met, I was driving him to a restaurant from the train station and he complained bitterly that I "drove like a little old lady."  I have a bad history of getting speeding tickets and try to avoid speeding anymore unless it's absolutely necessary.  A couple of months later, when our roles were reversed and he was the driver, I watched him fly into a frustrated rage that he had mistimed a column of traffic lights and now had missed hitting all greens.  To Nick, something is only as good as its usefulness, and then that usefulness is in turn rated on a scale of how useful it is.  This applies to both people as well as everyday objects, and it's a belief that we both not only share, but can often turn into a source of endless frustration and disappointment.

I tend to value both objects and people by their potential.  A lot of people believe that genius is something innate.  I am not one of those people.  Rather, it is our ignorance (or the ignorance of others) that holds us back.  On the face of it, this seems like a rather optimistic philosophy.  Certainly, there is a lot of benefit to be had by optimizing one's potential.  This is something Nick and I agree wholeheartedly on.  But this belies a deceptively simple truth about this belief: most of what we encounter day-to-day isn't the best that it could be for any number of reasons.  Nick tends to turn this disappointment outward towards others.  I not only do that, but take it a step further and turn it in on myself.

The truth of the matter is, neither one of us really know how to have fun.  When you spend your life constantly trying to analyze your surroundings, you lose out on the experiences to be gained by just accepting them as they are.  My favorite moments on my meditation walks are not when I'm thinking about something in particular, but when I'm just simply enjoying my surroundings and taking in the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront.  This is something many of us preach, but in practice it can be nearly impossible.  Why wouldn't it be?  I don't know a single person -- myself included -- who doesn't struggle with this.  Is life meant to be about doing everything bigger, faster, and better than before, or is the meaning of life about letting go?

The irony is of course that at least in modern times, it's both.  It's this drive for the former that brought us the ability to ponder the latter.  The older I get, the more important it becomes to me to try to strike a balance between the two.  He only seldom admits it, but it's plain for me to see how stressed and depressed it makes Nick to believe what he does.  I think in his mind too that he sees himself as something of a disappointment, despite a very high-paying and intellectually rewarding job and a substantial savings account.  What good is success if you can't enjoy it?  At the same time, we have become so obsessed with the failures and shortcomings of others (particularly our leaders), but we run away headlong from any kind of self-reflection of our own.  It seems clear to me after many years of effort that one of the first steps to coming to terms and accepting the world is to accept yourself.  But we don't, and instead we recognize the failure high and low but everywhere except where it truly matters.

One of the most confounding things to me about being a Buddhist is just how easy the Noble Eightfold Path seems to be on its surface.  You would think that it would simply be a matter of changing our views and practices.  But that makes a fundamentally wrong assumption: that we are inherently and instinctively rational and integrated beings.  If I know one thing about the human race it's that we're quite the opposite.  So maybe I should be cutting myself -- and everyone else, for that matter -- a break.  I think Nick could stand to do the same.

As for our respective imaginations, I don't think either one of us would be where we are today without them.  Freed from the restraints of a restrictive reality, we can both imagine worlds without limits, however impractical or implausible.  Not everyone talks about it, but I like to hope that most of us have a secret place like that in our minds even if we're not necessarily comfortable openly sharing it.  That is after all the greatest of human gifts.  The tragedy is that all too often we reject it in return for the illusion of security.

Nick is many things to me, but what I value the most about him is just how alike we are.  He is both a good friend and a living reminder to know when to push forward, when to stretch your mind to its limits, and most important of all, when to just simply relax and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Maggie Fournier

It was the fall of 2006, and I had just met the devil.  The devil wore long skirts and cowboy boots, and her name was Maggie Fournier.  Maggie was the last in a long line of academic rivals, but in time she would be a lot more than that.  At times matchmaker, often a thorn in my side, theological opposite, and secret lover, Maggie Fornier and I paradoxically hated and wanted each other at the same time.  Our relationship was to affect my life in a very profound way even to this day.

French Canadian Women and I have a very bad history together.  I lost my virginity in Quebec to a stripper with fake breasts on a dare a few years before I met Maggie.  I had equally bad luck with them in between.  The year before I met Maggie, I'd gotten involved in another twisted relationship with Catherine, a preppie with too much makeup and an eating disorder, with an equally soft last name, though I didn't go so far as to sleep with her.  Maybe it's the Catholicism.  Maybe it's something else.  I don't know.  Like many things that happen in college, Maggie Fornier was a very bad idea that seemed like a perfectly good one at the time.

Every word Maggie uttered was like a photon from the sun.  It had been forged deep in the core of her mind and spent an achingly long journey escaping.  There was nothing spontaneous about the way she talked: every line was rehearsed a thousand times in her head if she said it once, every thought lingered over and second-guessed, like she was a character in a movie and not a real person.  She was also drop-dead gorgeous: strawberry-blond, with a stocky swimmer's frame, ample breasts, and nearly picture-perfect curves.  Her eyes were like beads of amber they were such a light shade of brown.  She dressed like a Victorian might if they had been transplanted from the late 1800s directly into the early 2000s with little or no period of transition: long skirts, tall boots, long sleeves and high necklines, but always a flair for the dramatic and feminine that never quite managed to become modest.  She was a mystery, she broadcast to the world.  A forbidden tome.  Come and read her.

I met Maggie at an undergraduate fiction writing workshop class at UNH, though we'd had several mutual friends for some time and each recognized each other by face from somewhere else.  I actually wasn't supposed to be in the class -- I had transferred into this division due to a scheduling conflict.  The class was, in a word, cutthroat.  Fiction-writing classes tend to amass collections of egos, and at least at the time I was no exception.  There were about fifteen of us in the class and we all had a chip on our shoulder about something.  Our professor, who I'll refer to here as Adam, was a well-known and award-winning writer of literary fiction.  I had been to other writing classes before, but this was the big time.  My writing repertoire was just beginning to blossom, and the summer before I had embarked on a massive creative binge.  In fact, by the time it finally petered two years later in 2008, I would have written well over two million words spread across close to fifteen manuscripts.  I was going to kill, I thought to myself.  I had it made.  This would be a coronation.  The women would adore me.  The men would fear me.

Let's just say that Adam was not so easily impressed.  It was only the second week when I was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, and he began to push me.  Tough love, it's called.  True, I was one of the better writers in the class, but I was not the universal object of adoration.  And let's face it, I had no idea how to write anything but a first draft, and my characterization sucked.  To Adam, writing was all about language.  I would argue that a story is first and foremost a story -- language can only be built off of it, but I can't blame him for the bias.  This was after all a writing class, and writing was what I needed to learn.  And Maggie was the best writer of them all.  If I thought her speech was beautiful, when she was actually able to take the time to fully meditate on what she wanted to say, she could produce some truly spectacular prose.  I fully admit, I was jealous.  To make matters worse, it seemed that for every time Adam harped on me about one shortcoming or another, he would lavish praise on Maggie.

So Maggie and I became rivals.  We really didn't like each other.  To each of us, the other was arrogant, unduly harsh, and a perverse slow motion train wreck the other couldn't help but stare at.  We fought.  We screamed.  We snarked.  And then one night it all boiled over, until Maggie was in the living room of my crappy little apartment and we were making out.  For two glorious weeks we saw each other in secret, a forbidden relationship culled from the sauciest of romance novels.  Then it ended as suddenly as it had begun.  She dumped me.  There is more to this story than that, but I don't want to detract from my thesis, and the particulars are irrelevant.   We had used each other up, and managed to deeply hurt one another in the process.  Maggie and I both meant everything we said, and when the end came, we meant to cause pain.  We never publicly acknowledged our affair, and no one from the class ever found out until much, much later.  It was like a fever or a prolonged dream.  In those two weeks we had taken each other apart, deconstructed ourselves like we would to a Flannery O'Connor short in class, and then one morning we woke up next to one another after a particularly wild night, fully disassembled.  Love, lust, whatever it was, it had burned itself out, and after a brief fight she walked right out my door without another word.  I had never felt so empty, and we still had five more weeks of class together.

For most of my adult life, Maggie has been something of a mystery to me.  Understanding is the key to acceptance for me, regardless of motive or reason.  The world can be a pretty stupid and fucked up place sometimes, and I'm cool with that, I really am, as long as I know why.  But I had never really fully explained Maggie to myself until now, and I realize now that she is at the core of a problem that has been nagging me for some time.

I have never taken criticism particularly well.  For better or for worse, I am narcissistic in a way that makes me feel unsually sensitive to others' opinions of me, and by extension my writing.  Adam was of course right about everything -- and for every time he pointed out yet another mistake or flaw he followed it up with a way to fix it, which I responded to.  He listened to me rant.  He listened to me rave.  We conferenced, and conferenced, and conferenced.  The man devoted dozens of hours of his own time to helping me.  But still, at the end of the day all I felt was shitter and shittier.

I am also a terrible judge of my own merits, and I've all but given up trying to apply any metric to my accomplishments in life.  If I can find a way to diminish the good that I do, I'll take it.  So, truly, it was a miserable semester, even as I slowly began to pull my writing together.  I should have taken it as a good sign when I was invited into an advanced graduate form and theory class, but by then it was hard to shake me from my funk.  After the sucker punch of my two weeks with Maggie, it was hard to find anything good in either myself, the class, or the world.  I withdrew -- into my writing, into my fantasy life, and away, and only the chance meeting of Kari three months later ever pulled me out.  Had she not, I'm not sure where I would have gone.  I suppose I'll never know.

There's nothing new to the notion that my writing reflects my state of mind.  It is in many ways the crucible of my illness: both an expression of it and the primary vehicle for its treatment.  But that medicine is also in its own way a form of poison, because success in writing is not based upon one's own judgments, but rather the opinions and judgments of others.  To that end, I have a very hard time.  It's difficult to be a famous author if you have that much trouble even showing your work to others.  But even still, that in and of itself is only a symptom.  If I second-guess everything I do and constantly need validation for everything, how am I supposed to get anything done?  If Maggie and Adam and that class represented anything, it was doubt.  Doubt in my confidence, doubt in my talents, doubt in whether I even deserved to be loved.  I wish I could say that I'm over it, but I've struggled with all of these things to this day.  Maggie hurt me.  She had gotten deep down to my core, seen who I really was, and rejected me for it.  I had largely rejected her too, but that made it no less traumatic.  We finished the class, and spoke sporadically from there on out, but we had nothing more to say.  I haven't seen her in years.

As for Adam, I probably haven't been very fair to him.  He gave me the kind of gift that only comes a few times a lifetime, even if I couldn't see it for what it was at the time.  It absolutely hit home.  I think there is a very human tendency to believe that fluid, transitory things are in fact permanent, and that includes our own identities.  I am not who I was in the fall of 2006, but that is one of many images I still see when I look at myself in the proverbial mirror, with the ghosts of that class and Maggie right over my shoulder.  So let this be my beginning.  I am acknowledging our time together for what it was and moving on.  There is no profound realization, no great dramatic breakthrough.  It is what it is.  That's all I'm going to say on the subject.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Ja, ve are nihilists.  We don't believe in anysink!

Any discussion I undertake about music is inevitably going to lead me to talk about metal, and any discussion I undertake about religion is inevitably going to lead me to talk about atheism.  The two are actually more closely linked than a lot of people think, but what links them together may be surprising.  Maybe I can do this in one post; maybe I'll need two.  We'll see.

When I think of metal, I think of a friend I knew when I was younger who I'll call Mike.  Mike has had a huge impact on my life over the years, even though we're no longer speaking.  He really deserves his own post; more than one, actually.  But since this is a post about metal and atheism, I'll talk this time about the greatest thing Mike did for me, which was introduce me to many of the bands and artists who have had the greatest influence over my young life.

The year was 2000, and I'd been "officially" a practictioner of the alternate lifestyle for about three years.  In those three years I was kicked out of two high schools and got into probably three dozen fights.  I was at the age where anger and frustration with the world synergizes so perfectly with adolescent self-absorption, and boy was I ever pissed.  I like to think I had good reason to be: I was dateless, most of my friendships were in ruins, I was going on my third school in as many years, and even though I had plenty of people to blame, in my heart I knew even then that this was all my own damn fault.  In its purest form, I truly believe metal is an expression that one can see little or no beauty in the world, and when that ability is taken away all we're left with is our pain, anguish, anger, and spite at everything else.  For my adolescent years, it was a match made in heaven (or, erm, hell).

Mike ran a website that reviewed popular metal bands and albums of the time, particularly those that were part of a movement in the genre that came out of scandanavia in the mid-to-late 90s and crested in the first half of this decade.  Primarily focused on the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, these included bands that would later find commercial success in the US such as In Flames, Arch Enemy, Soilwork, Children of Bodom, and Dimmu Borgir.  Generally speaking, as far as music goes, if it's popular in the US, I tend to dislike it, but if it's popular in Europe, I tend to like it a lot more (the crossover metal/progressive rock band Dream Theater is a notable exception).  In the span of a year, from late 2000 to the end of 2001, Mike and his website introduced me to literally hundreds of bands that received repeated play time.  I spent probably upwards of two thousand dollars on CDs and merchandise that year, and my collection grew from about 50 albums to close to five hundred.  But it was more than music I'd bought: it was an attitude, an image, a lifestyle.  I grew my hair long and wore dingy band shirts.  I cursed.  I spat.  I was generally an angry dick.  But as far as being an angry dick went, whatever I could do, Mike could do a hundred times better.  The world was as bleak and dark to us as the music we listened to.

One thing people don't seem to appreciate about metal is how much like classical music it is.  Metal, no matter how noise-like and unmusical it may seem, has and always will be about emotion.  In particular, it is about negative emotion, and the intensity of the anger and the bitterness of the music and musicians reflects the anger and bitterness of its listeners.  The whole Satanic motif is only useful as a means to an end as far as imagery goes: the message is really about atheism and nihilism, not a belief or worship of Satan.  This is something the traditional critics of metal have had a really hard time understanding.  Mike was at his core a nihilist, like I was for those years, even though I called myself a Buddhist.

There is an emotional tendency of human beings to view things and speak of them in absolutes.  This is just as true for a belief in nothing as it is a belief in God or the Bible.  As I approach the age of 27, theologically I really only draw two lines in the sand anymore, both of which I learned the hard way. The first is the belief that one's own spiritual or moral problem and prescription is necessarily true of anyone and everyone else.  I resoundly reject this.  The other has to do with the rigidity or absolutism of one's faith and/or practice..  Either one of these beliefs, however they're practiced, at best guarantees the practitioner will do not good in the world and at worst will cause a great deal of damage to those around them and the world at large.  Every atheist and everyone who appreciates metal the way I used to has for whatever reason been unwilling or unable to see beauty in the world.  They have also been unbelievably rigid in their belief of this, and insisted that others come to the same conclusion.  Stephen Prothero, in his various non-fiction books on religion, likes to call a fundamentalist "a religious practitioner who is angry at something."  The same applies here.  Whether you're angry at the world like a metalhead, angry at modernity like a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist, or just angry at religion, you have ceded control of that part of yourself to the emotion, and you will cause harm, not the least of which to yourself.  This has not been an easy lesson for me to learn.  Anger and hate are very easy and convenient sentiments, because they allow us to avoid responsibility for our actions.  Which is not to say anger is wholly or inherently bad and call for its elimination: rage is as human as joy and compassion and therefore just as legitimate.  But we have to be careful how we digest and carry that rage, and deny it power over us.  This was to have significant consequences between me and Ken, as I will write in the coming days.  So let this serve not as an admonition, but merely a caution.  When you believe there is nothing good and reedeeming to the world, or even if you simply believe that as a net result on a theological balance sheet, you're going to have a very hard time controlling your anger and your hate, and you're going to have an even harder time maintaining a balance between the positive and the negative: thus you will cause harm to yourself and others.

All this is not to say that I don't still enjoy metal.  Negative emotions are every bit as important to us as positive ones, myself included.  But the dark side does have the ability to infect and take over the light in a way that the light does not really have the ability to do the reverse, at least in most people I know.  So we can't let it be the only way.  There is always beauty and positivity if you're wiling to see it, even in tragedy and misfortune.  The real tragedy, and the true misfortune, is that so few of us are willing to see it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cult of Avril Lavigne's Femininity

I think you might be taking your "punk princess"
title a bit too literally here, Avril.
Bold title, huh?  This post has been a long time in the making.  What side of me it reveals to the world I'm not entirely certain, but it's the next part of my narrative, and thus gets a post like the rest of them.  This post is ostensibly about Avril Lavigne, but it's really about perception, and how things are not always what they appear to be.  I will begin with a confession: I have an incredibly twisted, one-way, love-hate relationship with pop singer Avril Lavigne.  This relationship has existed since the release of her first album in 2002, and it continues to this day.  I have expended great time and effort trying to explain this relationship to myself, and now finally nine years later, I think I can.

I'll begin with some background.  I was not really popular with the ladies until my senior year of college.  I've lived most of my life in abject terror, held hostage to flickering, overwhelming anxiety about people, and in particular women.  I have a long history of run-ins with female authority figures, which while pertinent, are too lengthy to list in any detail here and deserve their own posts, so for now I'll trust that you can take me at my word.  My dating history before the age of 22 is equally dodgy.  I had one significant relationship in 2001, for which to say it ended acrimoniously would be a tremendous understatement.  Then nothing save for an on-again/off-again fling from 2003 to 2005, until finally in 2006 my love life started to pick up, culminating in meeting my fiancée in early 2007.  Social skills are not something that really developed in me until my twenties.  In the meantime, in part because of my romantic experiences and in part because of the way I had been raised (my mother is a radical femininst, but that's a post for another day), I had come to view women and feminine power as a kind of strange magical force -- a force I both feared and sought for myself.  Let's call it femme-manna.  Enter Avril Lavigne, who entered my life while I was working at a bookstore in 2002 and 2003 after dropping out of high school, while all my friends were starting college.

I am obsessed with direction.  There have been long swathes of my life where I felt like I've had very little of it, and I crave it more than anything else.  Presented with anyone young and successful -- their persona and image, but also particularly their confidence -- will quickly become the object of considerable envious obsession.  To me, direction is power.  So when I read an article about Avril Lavigne in 2002 after her debut album began to make it onto the playlist for our overhead sound system at the bookstore where I worked, there was an instant and devastating connection.  She plays hockey with boys.  She's confident and assertive.  Oh yeah, she's only seventeen.

Power.  Pee on me to show your dominance, why don't you?

Yes, like a good dominatrix or reptile, Avril Lavigne is the master of displaying her dominance.  Watch her videos, or read her interviews, or better yet, listen to the lyrics in her songs.  Whether it was her first record LET GO, THE BEST DAMN THING (of Girlfriend fame), or her latest single What the Hell.  I am Avril, she shouts, I am better than you, and I am in charge!  Moreover, she carefully cultivated a personal style that rebuked the loud, sexualized, but also subtly submissive femininity of stars who were popular at the time such as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson.  At first it was actually quite masculine, evolving into time into the more feminine pink skulls that almost seemed to announce: "I have not only captured my femininity from THEM, but I've conquered it as well."  Not only that, there was this other element to it too: like she was saying "This is who I truly am."  Especially viewed side-by-side with someone like Britney Spears, she certainly made a compelling case.  And if Avril is one thing, she is very good at convincing others of how genuine she is.  In the cult of femme-manna, Avril was High Priestess.

So it went for the better part of a decade.  Avril continued with her message, each record she made seeming to only increase the level of intensity of her message, and me like a hopeless addict worshipping at the altar of the feminine power women seemed to hold over me.  She even managed to penetrate the fantasy world, shaping how I viewed my sexuality and allowing me to warp it around my own delusions of dominance and submission.  This was, in fact, a spell that remained in place even throughout my relationship with Kari.  For years I couldn't explain it.  Except now I think I can, and herein lies the lesson in perception.

There's always been a part of me that wanted to call Avril a fraud.  She didn't really mean any of her lyrics; this was all a sham, a giant dog and pony show fueled by a cynical desire for money, fame, and power.  I won't deny that probably had something to do with it -- after all, why does any artist slave away over their creations but for the glory?  This I can actually relate to.  But there was always something more to it.  I believe very firmly that if we tell a story about ourselves long enough, that story will eventually become us.  This is true regardless of how genuine or deceitful that story is.  Avril has been broadcasting her message for a long time now.  If she didn't start out that way, she certainly seems to be living it now.  In fact, it is because Avril seems so genuine about her message that I feel like I can finally understand it.

For the sake of argument, let's take Avril at face value.  That means we'll take her music, lyrics, and image literally.  What is she?  Avril Lavigne is, quite literally, what we expect a famous empowered young woman to look, act, and feel like.  I'm not using the word "empowered" here in its colloquial sense, but rather a literal one.  She has a lot of power, and she wields it.  Read her lyrics.  Sk8er Boi, Girlfriend, My Happy Ending, What the Hell, the title track from The Best Damn Thing (in which she actually goes to the effort to spell her name out as part of the song, and proclaims herself quite literally "the best damn thing your eyes have ever seen").  She kind of comes across as a selfish bitch.  Not just an allegorical one, either.  She is someone who I genuinely do not wish to meet or get to know.  I've watched video of her concerts: they only seem to reinforce the notion.  I've been to both large and small concerts.  There's always some degree of interaction between artist and audience.  This ain't it.  Rather, it's high mass at the temple of femme-manna to the glory of the high priestess herself.  And before you claim that all pop singers do this, watch any Lady GaGa performance and see if she does the same thing.

Yet, at the heart of it, this doesn't make me enjoy or desire Avril any less.  It's the social equivalent of a highly-sophisticated optical illusion.  I desire her power and prestige and seek it out.  She embodies it.  All this despite the fact that what that power and prestige actually means in functional, literal terms is something highly undesirable to me.  Avril isn't what I actually want.  She's what I think I want.  Therein is the heart of her genius as a pop singer: give us what we think we desire, and make us believe it.  We do want to believe it.  There is some powerful part of our brains that tell us not only that this is the way things are, but that it's desirable and damn the consequences.  To a girl between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I can imagine this message is especially powerful.  It carries all the more weight, because she's been so successful at putting her fame to useful ends.  The fragrance, the clothing line -- she's a brand and her brand is now a business.  The most successful artists all do the same thing.  Artists don't really sell art anymore, or at least the ones who do don't see a whole lot of material success for it.  Materially successful artists sell an image, and that image becomes a brand of which their art is only one interlocking part.  Purists decry this as a corruption, but I don't see it that way.  It's a natural evolution, and there's nothing wrong with it.

We all tell stories about ourselves and the people we meet and see in our lives.  Avril to me is a story, for better and for worse.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The only time it should be considered a problem is if it causes the storyteller distress.  I am not an artistic purist.  It doesn't matter how eloquent and beautiful your message is if you're screaming it into a brick wall.  Rather, let this post just serve as a caution not to let the stories you tell and the beliefs that go with them go to your head.  Things are not always what they seem.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Prophet Arjen and Notes on Psychosis

Arjen Anthony Lucassen is more epic than you,
as this green screen clearly shows.
Any post that follows my feelings towards the musician Neal Morse and continues to talk about music, spirituality, and life, must inevitably lead to Arjen Anthony Lucassen and his various projects.  Arjen Lucassen is somewhat of an oddity in the metal and progressive rock genre, in that he's known more for being a composer than being in a band.  From the mid-90s to 2008, he had a long-running project of interconnected rock operas featuring a plethora of the best and brightest vocalists in the two genres called Ayreon, and it was Ayreon that provided the soundtrack to most of my lunatic meditation sessions last spring and summer.  I can't talk about myself and what I went through without also talking about Ayreon and the story and the man behind it, too.  Let this post fill in the blanks.

Ayreon is as much a story as it is music.  I'll spare the reader most of the details, as the plot is highly complex with a large cast of characters and many suplots, each told out through five operas, all but one of them double-albums.  At its root, there is a race of aliens, called Forever, who have become so dependent and indistinguishable from their technology that they have ceased to feel, grow, evolve, and change, and are forever frozen in a permanent state of eternal waking stasis, unable to feel either pleasure or pain.  Their home planet is called Y, and is purported to be in the Andromeda galaxy, though in the final opera 01011001 it is claimed they are capable of sending a comet to Earth in a reasonable length of time, so perhaps Planet Y is instead located in the Milky Way.  Mankind is their experiment, designed to help them relearn how to think freely and feel.  Over the millenia, they have conducted various experiments on selected humans to help further this aim.  These experiments form the rock opera INTO THE ELECTRIC CASTLE.

Separately, on Earth, another plot unfolds regarding the demise of man in a nuclear war in the year 2084, which is witnessed by the last surviving human: a colonist on Mars (which forms the two albums THE DREAM SEQUENCER and FLIGHT OF THE MIGRATOR).  Before the war, a group of scientists attempted to warn the past of impending disaster due to global warming, environmental degredation, disease, and chronic conflict by sending messages into the past.  However, the warning, instead of going where intended, finds itself in the hands of a blind mistrel in Dark Ages England named Ayreon (which forms the basis of the first opera, THE FINAL EXPERIMENT, as well as one of the main plots of the last opera, 01011001).  In addition, one of the Forever uses a device called the Dream Sequencer to complete their experiments and fulfill mankind's intended purpose, which forms the basis of the remaining album THE HUMAN EQUATION.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Admittedly, I am a huge fan.  But it is significant for another, far more important reason.  To explain this, I am going to have to explain a little bit about how my psychosis and my dissociations worked.

Before there was Jennifer, Emma, AK, and Haley, there was a world.  This world took many forms, but it always possessed the same properties: it was utopian to those who had power, dystopian to those who didn't, and in it I forced the will of my beliefs onto its form and shape.  I'm not entirely sure how long it's existed for me.  It seems like it's been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  It started out simplistically, sure -- often the result of an imagined encounter with a djinn.  What I wanted was power.  I was bullied in school, both a scapegoat and target, and my relationship with my parents growing up was both complicated and ambiguous in a way that didn't exactly engender a positive worldview.  I dreamed of escaping it all, and slowly those daydreams coalesced into something living and breathing.  As I grew older, I began to explore the flip-side of all that power, and the dynamic contained therein, and so was born the world.  It was my own private alternate universe, one very few ever got to see.  The world of THE ACADEMY is very loosely based on it, as are a number of my short stories, but the purest expressions of it I never showed to anyone.  Its four prophets were Jennifer, Emma, AK, and Haley, who came to embody the narrative of the world and how it changed, grew, evolved, and eventually was redeemed.

I would not exactly hallucinate when I lost touch with reality.  The only description I can provide would be for you to try to imagine having two realities superimposed onto each other.  There was me, and my apartment in Portsmouth, and my fiancee, Prescott Park, and the hospital where my psychiatrist works.  There was also Jennifer and her machine world, Emma and her life, AK and his campaign of terror, and Haley and her kingdom.  It was possible for any of them, or me, to slide back and forth between these worlds.  But sliding was just about all I could do, for the most part, unless something else could help me penetrate the barrier between them.

Enter Ayreon, and in particular the opera 01011001.  There were many things that could breach the fantasy world, but 01011001 was always the most effective.  Jennifer identified with the Forever.  Emma liked the theme.  AK identified with the apocalyptic aspects of it, and Haley understood what it meant to me.  01011001 was playing on my headphones on probably at least three-fourths of my meditations.  I could even see myself in there, as Arjen Lucassen's autobiographical hippie character and would-be prophet, by the time of this story now aged and in a mental hospital, his prophecy ignored in one of my favorite songs "The Truth is in Here."  Other things -- songs, people, stories, characters -- could penetrate the world.  Ayreon tied it all together, and grounded me in this world.  It was to Arjen Lucassen's operas that I fought my demons, and slowly began to come to terms with my illness and get it under control.

To that end, as I later learned, 01011001 was written at a time of personal distress for Arjen Lucassen.  My favorite music always seems to be produced during times of great trauma, stress, and pain for the artist that writes it.  As a writer, I can certainly attest to the power of putting yourself into your art.  It's that element of the artist's personal struggle that makes their art so great to me, like I can feel and experience their own pain and suffering in some small way.  01011001 oozes with pain, guilt, regret, and frustration.  Arjen even took it to another level shortly after he concluded the Ayreon saga by creating a side project specifically to address those feelings, Guilt Machine, the year after 01011001 was released.  There are things that I think and things that I feel, and music is something that I feel.  My favorite musicians are all like me: artists for whom the emotion of the music always shows through regardless of the content.  Which is why 01011001 feels as personal to me as one of Neal Morse's TESTIMONY albums: Lucassen's pain is palpable throughout.  When I'm feeling sad or depressed or low, I don't want to be cheered up.  I just don't want to feel alone.  Listened to, really.  01011001 hears those prayers and delivers a resounding response: "I understand."  So I listen, and I feel better.

Some people are like this; some aren't.  Maybe ten years ago I would have felt like there was a right way or a wrong way to appreciate music, but I don't anymore.  What I've come to appreciate the most about people over the past year is just how different our needs can be.  Kari, my fiancee (her real name, used because it would be nearly impossible to conceal her identity), takes quite a different approach.  Her favorite band is The Flower Kings, who she listens to specifically because it cheers her up.  This is not just true of music, either, as I've written about in previous posts.  When I read a story or listen to music, I want something that will break that barrier between me and it, and the barriers within me as well.  To that end, Arjen Lucassen is the master, and I'd be hard-pressed not to like anything he produces.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Gospel According to Neal

Religion and spirituality has been on my mind a lot these days, and after giving it some thought, I've decided that I can't really talk about my spirituality without also talking about music.  Both are deeply connected to my psyche and my emotions, so much so that they're almost tangled up in one another.  That isn't a problem for me, in fact I enjoy it quite a bit and it brings me tremendous benefits.  It plays into my obsessive nature and my means of regulating myself.  As such, while I want to talk about religion and what it means to me, this post is probably going to turn into a musical review of sorts, because I can't really talk about my religious practices without talking about the prophets of my religion, and one prophet in particular who goes by the name of Neal Morse.

Sorry, Neal.  I love you, but you still look like a church boy.
That's Neal on the right there.  Neal was not the first musical prophet of my life -- in fact, he's one of the most recent.  The first belongs to Jimmy Buffett, the object of much obsession for me as a child.  Jimmy gave way, strangely enough, to Metallica, Metallica begot Corrosion of Conformity, who begot Arcturus, who in turn begot Opeth, then the metal bands Mercenary and Katatonia joined Opeth in a pantheon, who in turn yielded influence to Dream Theater, then Ayreon, which lastly brings me to Spock's Beard, and the man behind Spock's Beard, Neal Morse.  Sound convoluted?  It's enough to make a Yoruba practictioner's head swirl.

For the longest time, I felt trapped when I talked about music.  Like any teenager, I tended to believe that my personal opinion was objective truth, and that led to many an argument over music between friends and enemies alike.  What I've come to realize about music is that it isn't necessarily the quality that makes it for me (though I do primarily listen to progressive rock, so take this with a grain of salt), but rather what it means to me that makes it good.  I used to be one of those metal snobs who wouldn't listen to anything they played on American radio, but for most of my life I probably couldn't tell you what made the bands I listened to good.  Ultimately, what I decided, after I had fully converted to my cult of Ayreon/Arjen Anthony Lucassen- and Spock's Beard/Neal Morse-ism was that it was music's power to affect me positively that ultimately determined its relative strengths and weaknesses.  Had you asked me two years ago what I listen to, I would have unequivocably told you "Metal."  Now, I'd simply say anything that happens to move me, regardless of genre or label.  Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon, will get his own post tomorrow, because it's Neal whose personal story compels me more, and that story is reflected through his music.

Like me, Neal was a struggling artist for most of his youth, a musician of immense talent who couldn't quite put it all together into material success until later in his life.  His band, Spock's Beard, became one of the most successful acts of the late 90's prog revival, along with Dream Theater, The Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree.  In fact, Neal has frequently worked with former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.  Don't get me wrong, I like Dream Theater too, but unique among all the prog bands of that era was the amount of himself Neal put into his music.  He alone wrote almost all of Spock's Beard's songs, and many of them are not only quite technically complex and beautiful, but also mesmerizing in their ability to stir my emotions.  His singing voice, deep for a prog singer and nasal, has always had a tremendous capacity to soothe me.  Over the course of five albums in the span of six years, he poured his heart and soul and all of his energy into some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard.  Then, in 2002, immediately following the release of his magnum opus, the double concept album Snow, he seemingly very suddenly and abruptly became a born-again Christian, left the band, and moved to Nashville, Tennessse to pursue a solo career in gospel and Christian music.

I came to Spock's Beard in the fall of 2010, shortly before I attended Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity (another fulcrum point of my life, which I will write more about as the narrative unfolds).  Spock's Beard has gone on to release another four albums without Neal (drummer Nick D'Virgilio took over the job of vocals), and the change to me was very abrupt.  It had seemed, if the lyrics and Wikipedia were any guide, that Neal had simply gone crazy and had an epic meltdown.  As it turned out, there was a public record of this, as he then recorded a double-album about his experiences becoming born-again, which to me only seemed to deepen the mystery, not solve it.  It wasn't until literally the past month, when I gained access to the album's sequel (and, I came to understand, Neal was ready to tell the rest of his story).  What it told was a story of self-loathing, frustration, hearbreak, longing, and self-doubt that could only be gained by simply listening to what he had to say, rather than trying to study notes or websites.  What astonishes me the most about his story is how close to my story it seems to be.

I know very few people who have as much access to as much of themselves as Neal appears to, and even fewer who can so ably and directly express it through their art.  It is a skill I've had no choice but to learn as I try to fight my own demons.  And yet still, the way in which Neal appears to have broken to me under the weight of his burdens makes me deeply uneasy.  It serves as both a testimony and a reminder that life is not an upward spiral -- that at any moment there can be both a tremendous breakthrough or enormous damage.

I think it's very hard to manage life's complexities and tribulations without having some sort of mythos or spiritual system.  I've yet to meet an avowed atheist who was happy about life or the world they live in.  Most seem to treat nonexistence as a release from their misery, which at least to me seems like kind of a bummer.  Which is not to say that I think their position is any more or less reasonable than living this life for immortality in the next.  Life presents us a great many different existential problems, which we all try to solve in our own way as we live.  But there's a particular kind of self-loathing many born-again Christians seem to embody, and a particular kind a cynicism that seems to go along with it (though which comes first to me is a chicken and egg problem), and while I decided on a different solution to it, I appreciate Neal, his story, and his music and can connect with it as deeply as I do precisely because he can communicate it so well.  Every person I've ever met has had some inclination towarsd nihilism and some inclination towards hope, and it's how exactly the two are balanced (both quantitatively and qualitatively) that seems to shape one's outlook the most.  The two can often be confused for each other, as well.  The Rapture is a story of hope, but that hope is based upon a tremendously nihilistic premise.  Buddhism, my chosen religion, is not immune to this phenomenon, either.  I've used the Dharma both to secure myself and inflict pain on myself.

Whatever the reason, it's clear to me that Neal Morse spent most of the past two decades in unimaginable pain, and he found an outlet for it through his music.  At the end of the day, (incidentally, also the name of my favorite Spock's Beard song), what matters more in life are the outcomes more than the processes themselves that led to them.  I may not know Neal Morse, but I feel like I understand his pain, and I feel like if we met, he could understand mine, too.  For that, he occupies a place in my spiritual life, despite the differences of our respective religions.  And his music always moves me, even his Christian praise songs (for more on my views of God, consult the post "The Day I Met God").  So, to sum up both my feelings on music and religion and tie this all together: in the end, it doesn't really matter what you like and what you believe, as long as it gets you where you need to go.  It's a difficult answer to a complex question, but I believe it to be the truth nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mundane Art

So, I have about 3-4 posts lined up to follow up my last one, but after the events of last weekend, I wanted to make a little bit of a detour to talk about my writing process a little bit, because people seemed to be curious.

Last Saturday, at the invitation of my friend John Herman (real name, not a pseudonym: as a general note if I'm involving last names I'm usually using someone's real name, unless otherwise noted), I took part in a project that's probably the closest I'm ever going to get to performance art.  In literal terms, with the help of Google Documents, I and 22 other writers and an illustrator wrote a novel in 24 hours, all the while broadcasting live both on the web and in a gallery in New Jersey that sponsored the event.  In a way, the experience was very ordinary for me, but in many other ways (and I hope this doesn't sound too cliché) it was both extraordinary and unique.  It made me realize a lot of things about my writing process, which I am going to attempt to rectify here in this post.

The short answer to the question "What is my process?" is that it is quick, intense, and runs on a combination of jealousy, dread, and self-discipline.  I am part of a local writing group of about 30 or so regulars (of which John is one of our co-chairs), and one of the most frequent subjects at our get-togethers has to do with how much and how often we write.  On a typical day, I will write between 2000 and 4000 words over the course of about 3-4 hours in the morning, usually at a rate of about 1000 words an hour, though sometimes that can almost double, and sometimes it only goes about half that speed.  The highest single-day word count I've ever achieved is about 9100, and the greatest weekly word count I've achieved is about 50,000.  On Saturday I wrote about 8500 words after receiving a very brief outline and character description at midnight the night before, which is a typical length when I'm on a deadline.  Generally speaking, on first drafts, I'm more concerned with working efficiently and getting the story down on paper than I am the details, though that's more of a guideline than it is a universal doctrine.  I've had first drafts take me as few as eight days, and as many as eighty.  This apparently flabbergasts many of my friends in the group, and they want to know how I do it.  I'd like to say this comes about through the power of positive thinking, but that would be a lie.  Generally speaking, the better I feel about a story, the less that gets done.  My claim to fame was that I wrote a 320,000-word trilogy in a summer.  What nobody knows about that feat was that the whole reason I wrote it that quickly was to try and beat the TV show Dollhouse to the air, which I was convinced had ripped off my idea (and, to be perfectly honest, helped in principle to inspire it just a little bit once the story got going).  The first book of that became known as THE WONDERS AT YOUR FEET, my first published novel (the second, OVERFLY, was written in collaboration with John Herman's 24 Hour Novel Project last weekend).  I like deadlines with real consequences: they get me to work more efficiently.

Of course, the first draft is, ultimately, probably the least of all the stages of writing a novel, though certainly one of the most important.  My friend and fellow author Clark Knowles likes to speak of re-writing as the best part of novel-writing, and I'm inclined to agree.  The truth of the matter is, there's only so much I can get done in most drafts.  If it's a plot-driven story, the first draft is always about hashing out the plot.  If it's character-driven, it's about figuring out the character dynamics, and even then sometimes only the most important.  I don't believe you HAVE to write a shitty first draft and then work your way up: every story has a certain potential, no two stories are alike, and each story requires its own process to fulfill its potential.  For me, that's usually 2-4 drafts, but again, those numbers aren't doctrine.  For the early drafts, I just pick a part of the story to work on and take everything else along with it.  I think the two most important thing new writers need to understand about novel-writing is how to be flexible enough to follow the story and its needs, and how to be patient enough to see fulfilling all those needs through.  Some drafts are brilliant, some are messy, you may even have to take one step backwards to take two steps forwards.  All of the above have happened to me at some point or another.  There is nothing glamorous about this, either: it's hard, difficult, often thankless work for very little immediately tangible reward.  I don't believe in this "writing because you have to" mantra, either.  Nothing makes me write.  I write because I enjoy it, and it's a very good way of sorting out complicated thoughts and emotions in my head.  The more magical you try to make your art, and the more important you try to make it to you, the harder it's going to be to work on it, let alone finish it.  My process works precisely because I treat it as something mundane -- just work by any other name.  That isn't to say that it isn't extraordinarily fun and entertanining work.  My fiancée can certainly attest to that, given the number of rants and raves I've subjected her to about it over the years.  But it is just another job nonetheless.  All writers would do well to remember that, regardless of their level of experience.

As far as my chapter in OVERFLY goes, I wrote the story I was given.  My characterization doesn't tend to show up until the second or third drafts of a really plot-driven story like my assigned chapter was, and for that I feel tremendously self-conscious about it.  I feel like I was basically asked to write a really crazy episode of Scooby Doo, and so that's what I did.  Quite frankly, while my chapter was the longest, it wasn't the best, and there is a competitive, ego-driven part of me that's pissed off about it.  But that in no way diminishes the actual experience of working with so many other talented authors on such a collaborative project.  At the end of the day, the high I got from it was as great or better as some of the best rock concerts I've ever been to, and it's that high from creating something -- bringing something from your head to life that makes writing so enjoyable and rewarding to me.  Like all things, there's a positive and a negative side to it for me, and it's only by acknowledging both that I can feel truly in touch with my creations.