Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In the Church of the Great White Noise

Upon the summit I can see
The one I worshiped as a boy
The Creator, the Great White Noise

Last night Dear Husband and I went to see Owen Pallett (the most wonderful, most mind-blowing musician I have ever seen) in concert. The concert was held in a large ashtray. Or so it seemed. I smoked 2 packs and a cigarette never touched my lips. The large ashtray is a much loved bar/pub/venue called The Earle. The Earle looks just like such a place should look – grubby on the outside, with old concert posters crusting over the building face. It squats like a wino in a little parcel of newly renovated boutiques and shops. Earle had lost its sign, the waitress told me, when the last tornado went through. It sounded as there were no plans to replace it. A rusting bicycle hung from the ceiling for no apparent reason. The food was actually good (except for the French fries, which had the tang of old grease), and the waitress (who had impressive tattoos on both arms) was actually able to absorb the request for gluten free suggestions.

I don’t know why Dear Husband and I still arrive early to these events when no one bothers to show up until at least 20 minutes after the stated start time (which is still 10 minutes or so before the opening band actually starts), and often until the main act is onstage. But there we were, rattling around the empty room with a few other eager beavers. It was dim. It was shabby. It was relatively small. Stickers and posters covered most surfaces. Almost everyone was younger than us and were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Definitely not the sort of audience that focused on being seen or looking hip, thankfully, as at these events I prefer to scuttle into a corner or pretend that I’m invisible. It became increasingly murky, with not even the scent of a clove cigarette to break the monotony.

Owen Pallett was magnificent. The songs on his most recent album are all backed by an orchestra, so he had to adapt them for a single violin with loop pedal and a guitarist/percussionist. What an incredible job he does with recording and playback, so that the sound is layered. I also really enjoy a musician who knows how to use a microphone without creating that hideous scratchy muffled sound that singers produce because they think they have to hold the mike somewhere near their tonsils, and who changes his distance from the mike when he increases the volume (why on earth don’t all singers do that?). He has a lovely voice, too. Magazines always refer to is as a “music school voice,” whatever that means. What does that mean, anyway? That it is trained rather than natural? Pretty?

There was a peculiar man in the audience. I’m not sure if he was high, or perhaps had been high so many times he was permanently affected, or if he had some unusual motor issue. Sometimes he held his hands in front of him as if he were about to take a dive into an imaginary pool, or perhaps launch into the Sun Salutation. Sometimes he took a shank of hair in each hand and made himself a set of horns. Sometimes he moved his hands to sculpt a cube from the air. And sometimes he shot his left arm straight up, jabbing at the air with his index finger, lowered it and then repeated the movement with his right arm. In the time-honored tradition of city dwellers, everyone studiously ignored him. Early in the show, when Mr. Trippy was particularly frisky, Owen did say, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I wish you’d stop doing that.” I’m not sure if that reined him in or if I just stopped noticing. Now and then I caught a bit of air sculpting. I assume that Owen entered into whatever musical zone he enters and stopped noticing as well.

Isn’t that cute? “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” I love Owen’s stage presence. He always says “Thank you” after each number, which is charming. He’s confident without being cocky about it. If he makes a mistake he acknowledges it with a laugh. He doesn’t try to be showy and seems perfectly comfortable being sort of geeky.

Dear Husband teases me because he thinks I’m besotted with everyone I get obsessed with. Owen has a British schoolboy appeal – very cute - but what I really feel is awe. The angels themselves can’t make more beautiful music. At least that’s how I feel listening to it. And to watch a musician play live, walking the tightrope of performance, leaping into space and then flying away, that’s a holy thing. This smoke-filled cave felt more holy than a church. Churches are filled with schmaltzy, cloying praise songs, three-point sermons and a utilitarian approach to the great mysteries. A true artist lives in the mystery.

Sadly, concerts are as ephemeral as cotton candy, melting quickly into memory. You chase the music and then it slips away with a regretful smile.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


A small girl is outside on a warm day, a quilt on the grass where she can play with her toys - a phone with moving eyes and an orange receiver, that clicks when you dial a number; a blueberry colored dog that she loves because it is long and filled with small pellets that make it squishy and floppy. Then an airplane passes overhead with a sound that cracks open the sky. The small girl looks up and she feels suddenly that she is floating, that she is no longer quite there, there with the scratchy grass poking at her legs through the quilt, or her mother watching over her through the kitchen window. No longer definitely herself, with her shape that fits into certain clothes, that can hide in the linen cupboard or lie completely flat in the bath if she likes. Her heart, her insides feel funny, not bad funny but the sort of funny she feels when her daddy swings her up over his head, and then back down. She is moving beyond her own body somehow, as if what is inside is pressing gently through, flowing out into that bright sky with the beautiful ribbon of cloud trailing behind the silver plane.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading a nearly impenetrable article on Lacanian psychoanalysis. You know, for fun. Because I like nothing better than an intellectual challenge, except maybe reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, chocolate, music, sex and…well, I like lots of things more than an intellectual challenge, but while my mind was drifting along it happened to snag on Lacan and by golly I had an elite education that I’m still paying for and I was going to nail this sucker to the wall.

I am not a systematic learner. I skim and dip. I nibble. I can grasp some things quickly but superficially, particularly if I stay with secondary, pre-digested sources. I’m not a deep thinker, but I can be clever. I like shiny things. There’s nothing shinier than a mirror, and Lacan has a mirror. Plus I get to look at myself – my favorite subject.

But fuck it, I don’t understand this stuff. When you desire, you desire the other’s desire, which is their lack (something blah blah about castration). Oh, that should be the Other, not the other. The other is an object and the Other is a subject. I think. If you’re a pervert you deny desire and if you’re a neurotic you flee desire. Something like that. The pervert refuses to desire but torments the other (not the Other) by discovering his desire and refusing to fulfill it. The neurotic just freaks out at the uncertainty of what the Other might desire, and I guess bites his nails and plays Dungeons and Dragons.

I think it’s possible that French philosophers are full of shit, and they would be willing to discuss the metonymy of shit and its role in the current political structure as the shifting location of meaning. Then they would go out and smoke a lot of cigarettes, drink very strong coffee and sleep with undergraduates.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Me, Myself and I

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so...

~Peter Handke
Besides watching episodes of this fascinating BBC teen drama Skins on Netflix (you'll be glad to know I'm using my time so wisely), I've been slowing turning over various thoughts. My mind is not like a rock tumbler - the stones don't come out polished and shiny. My thoughts are more like the clothes you forgot in the dryer, so wrinkled you need to put them back in the wash.

The wrinkled laundry includes: ambition and desire, artistic production, doubt and longing, God and creativity, God and desire, emotions versus values, and my stupid tooth. I'll get that last out of the way first - I had a root canal and now another tooth hurts. All expressions of deep sympathy are welcome. On the positive: I now have a bottle of Lortab.

I keep thinking about that Insurrection event. I've already mentioned Peter Rollins' take on doubt, which I found incredibly comforting and challenging at the same time. I've been practicing not leaping in to fix negative feelings. You know how therapists will tell you to rewrite the tape or recognize the distortion and rebut it? Well, I'm giving that up. My thoughts and emotions are what they are and if I try to correct them at every turn I'm just getting more enmeshed in myself. So, no beating up doubt with the cudgels of faith. I'm tired of always trying to soothe myself. No wonder my memory is crap - my eyes are pretty firmly fixed on myself.

At one point, he said something along the lines of "I desire your desire." At the moment he was alluding to the human need for approval, love, and admiration, but it made me think of God's desire for us. If we yearn for Him, he must also yearn for us. I guess that's Christianity 101, but it isn't something I get. It's like doubt, which we say is important and understandable but we really just tuck it away with the ugly Christmas present from Aunt Agnes. We act as if God were a frigid, purse-lipped missionary who drops by to say the occasional hello, leave some pamphlets, and check the sheets. Or perhaps as the smug and glib CEO who drops by on a Sunday morning to graciously receive our applause and drop a few inspirational words in our ear in return for dippy praise music. If God wants us, really wants us, that's kind of...weird. Why would He?

Desire, ambition, yearning, creativity. I desire your desire. I am reminded of that interminable book I read many years ago by Deleuze and Guattari, which spoke of desiring machines. I only read it because I had a crush on my lit crit professor. It was over my head, or full of crap, or both - something about production and schizophrenic capitalism. It was very French. But that in turn made me think of a friend who told me she got turned on listening to a lecture about Paul Ricoeur. I guess we all have our kinks. I tried reading Ricoeur and it did nothing for me. Which made me think about the excitement of ideas, because I actually totally get what she means. Why else did I have a crush on my lit crit prof anyway? He wasn't all that cute, but he was a purveyor of interesting ideas. That's why we have celebrities that people obsess about. If you hear music that completely floors you, that breaks open your heart, and there in front of you is the musician, that musician becomes the most desirable person on earth. You would like to be their best friend ever, or have their babies, or just a few hours in a motel, whatever. You think that surely God swept through that person, and maybe He's waiting there for you. Or at least I think like that. I have the urge to yank the divine out of the people I lust after admire.

He also talked about how the stories we tell don't always match up with how we actually are. The way we appear online, but also in person, is highly edited. Of course. Otherwise everyone would hate us. I have one story at work: straightforward creedal Christian, dry sense of humor, something of a scandalous past that I've fully repented. I know the lingo and I can use it. With others I would downplay the Christian part, because I'm way too cool for that. It's just decoration. In general I want people to think I'm witty, intelligent, a good writer, insightful. I'd rather be smart and clever than nice, but I would rather be nice than contradictory. I want everyone to like me. I desire your desire, only that sounds as if I want to sleep with you, which I don't. Well, some of you maybe. I reveal a lot about my weaknesses and foibles on here. But, in fact, I am the definition of "disingenuous." It is, I find, quite easy to deliver over parts of myself; I can transform them in the writing, give them a bit of panache, and it's all about me. I've always been fascinated with me, even when I've loathed my very existence.

Peter mentioned Columbo in connection with making the story told match the events that actually happened. Well, Columbo reminded me of the great film Wings of Desire, in which Peter Falk appears pretty much as his TV persona. There - desire again, the desire of angels to experience being human, which is the desire of humans to experience being human, the suspicion that this world should be heaven, because the leaves turn brilliant colors, and cats sleep in the sun, and there are paintings by Caravaggio and Rothko and poetry by Rumi, John Donne and Mary Oliver and music by Bach and Schoenberg and Owen Pallett. Shiraz and Chardonnay, strong coffee, chocolate chip cookies, romance and love and friendship. Heaven should be that, for everyone.

But the problem is, I'm all talk, and I really have to change that.

The Human Abstract

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Caterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

~William Blake

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In which Peter Rollins totally rocks, Dear Husband surprises me, and Netflix provides palliative care

I would like to say that during my blog absence I was pondering the deeper mysteries of life. What actually happened is that we received a CD from Netflix that allows us to download movies via our Wii. I've had a candy box of movies open before me, and I'm taking a bite out of everything. Don't bother watching The Passengers, by the way - totally lame. I am now working my way through the BBC teen drama series Skins.

On a more serious note, Dear Husband and I went to the Atlanta stop of Peter Rollins' Resurrection=Insurrection tour. I like Peter Rollins very much, and I'm still thinking about that event. What I found very profound was his statement that it is in the very midst of experiencing God's absence that God is most present. He used Jesus' "Why have you forsaken me" as an example. He also mentioned that churches don't appreciate doubt - it's all happy clappy affirmation. I wrote down this not quite direct quote: "Church as a desert in your oasis, not an oasis in the desert of your existence." I think this is connected with his statement that "God is the wound that births your yearning." Get rid of the painful yearning and you've pushed God aside. He also described how often we say doubt is important and necessary but in fact we let the institution believe for us. Oh, yeah, direct hit there. Oh, and then he answered complaints that his thinking would lead to denying the resurrection. He said that yes, he denies the resurrection every time he walks by someone who needs help without doing anything. Wow.

A little frustrating to me is the fact that Dear Husband actually cornered him and talked to him at length, whereas I only managed a quick "thanks oh so much I'm an idiot who thinks you are oh so swell and really hot and jeepers you actually gaze into people's eyes when you talk to them which is completely rattling me so I'll be off now." Uh, yeah. I'm a total dork around cute men with Irish accents.

Now, Dear Husband has always been the conservative, orthodox bulwark of our home. We've clashed on many an occasion. I've fussed and fumed about penal substitution and inerrancy and the focus on personal salvation. Well, you think you know someone and then they go and read Brian McLaren. All of a sudden half (or more)of what he has up to this point believed has been overturned and replaced with, well, pretty much what I believe. This is not as comforting as you might think (see above about letting institutions believe on your behalf). I've rather relied on Dear Husband as a foil to my fanciful theological pondering, attacks of doubt and general faithlessness. Now he's gone all emergent and progressive.

Easter itself was not quite as cool as the Rollins event, but the sun shone through the church windows (oh God I am so happy to go to a church that actually has windows), and we rang bells and shook key chains and some of the ladies had fantastical hats like something out of Dr. Suess. But this isn't our church. We don't have a church.

Now, I wonder what's on Netflix...