Monday, December 19, 2011

The Trip Home and Bizarre Alaskan Weather

It’s weird how locales seem to change along with the traveling individual and their experiences. You’ve doubtless all heard the expression, “You’ve taken X (earthquakes, rain, clouds, etc) with you” when you travelled to a new place and found that something unforeseen and unexpected to the residents happens soon after your own arrival. These experiences, however, aren’t new to you, and people seem amazed at your jaded placidity.

When I travelled to Oklahoma last year, a spate of earthquakes hit the state. This wasn’t new to me, but it was to everyone else there. The generally apocalyptic weather that this state effortlessly summons seems preternatural and somehow unfair. Like there’s some metaphysical agenda against this pancake land, mocking the attempts of these walking bags of blood and bone to dominate nature by turning their finest architectural achievements into junkyard scraps. It actually helped me theorize the abundant penchant for religiosity in the weather-stricken Bible Belt. Theological abstractions must be conjured in order to persevere, and this particular streak also inserts itself into the ubiquitous football discourse (“Boomer Sooner” actually means “Go God/Jesus/BBQ/ Toby Keith!”).

Anyway. I arrived back in Alaska and it seemed to turn into Oklahoma. It was unseasonably warm, with 80 mph wind gusts that I have literally never seen here. Last week, a friend of a friend told him he saw lightning. Yes. Lightning during an Alaskan snowstorm in December. A truly freak occurrence, even during the summer, let alone dead winter.

I went running in the windy, icy street outside my mother's place yesterday, and felt like I needed Yeti blood just to keep going.

One last note. I seem to have a frustrating knack for meeting incredible, beautiful, intelligent women on flights from one random city I’ll never even be close to and another equally distant from my usual location. This particular knack seems, at once, bittersweet, somewhat cool for its rarity and storybookishness, and also painfully sadistic (lol). I once had a flight from Phoenix to Seattle with someone I connected with on every single level. Mind sparks flew, and we ended up having a two-hour layover after the flight and hung out at the airport. Alas, it ended with email exchanges and all, but we ended up flying two opposite directions and eventually lost touch. This scenario happened again on this most recent flight, and makes me wonder why I can make ephemeral encounters with beautiful, intelligent, professional women of my age in metal tubes five miles above the surface of the earth, but rarely when I’m firmly attached to a small segment of soil I happen to inhabit for long periods of time. Yargh. 

Anyway, it also gives me some reason to be optimistic after feeling particularly nauseous about the whole romantic thing lately.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Lo and behold, I found myself enjoying the latest iteration of what passed as entertainment for a high school and college-aged Derek: Jackass 3D.

The prevailing discourse regarding maturity would have me be ashamed of this indulgence at the age of twenty-eight. It would have me immediately point up my nose at such nonsense and pull out Faulkner in order to get my responsible intellectual vitamins. But something has been yearning in me recently to experience youthful, mindless glory, an unashamed revelry in pain for no reason juxtaposed with the juvenile exploitation of bodily functions.

I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but there’s something symbolically wonderful about Jackass and their stunts. Something boldly anarchic and charged with contemporary frustration. Most would brand me a postmodernist babbler who would also likely deem a piece of contorted metal on stand “art” if I dared to allow Jackass in this category …but I think there are some unrecognized merits in their stunts. Call me crazy.

Although it feels slightly hyper-masculine, in the sense that it’s really just a bunch of skateboarders reenacting the same premise as Fight Club in a more overt and less narratively cohesive sense, I also feel the stunts can be stripped of such gendered interpretations by looking at the motivations behind them. Sure, Jackass 3D does not contain the same rebellious twenty-somethings trying to eliminate boredom, but it does harken back to those initial intentions. Boredom is powerful stuff. It makes one uncomfortably aware of their goals, life intentions, or inherent motivations. And when one doesn’t have a responsible or coherent answer, we’re left with a gripping nausea.

A nausea which makes us want to ride grocery carts over ramps and into nearby pools. A sickness which makes us want to take someone’s fast food bag out of their hand in the drive-thru and spike it on the ground in front of them while wearing a football helmet. The ideological undercurrents informing these kinds of stunts—commercialism/materialism generates absurdity or ubiquitous mendacity—may not be articulated by these guys, but I have a feeling it’s there in essence.

Qualifier: On occasion.

Now…this is not Sartrean existentialism. I’m not saying it has high artistic merits or credibility But it is, on occasion (and when they aren’t over-compensating by attempting to display how manly they are through pain-endurance) symbolically powerful stuff.

Call it the logic, or illogic, of “Jackassishness.” It’s the new way of saying something “just ain’t right, so I’m gonna go hurt myself to pass the time. Cause at least then I’ll feel something.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I haven’t blogged in a while due to grad school preoccupations. But I figured I would productively procrastinate once again and write, public journal style to broadcast my thoughts, for others and for myself, about interests and happenings.

Of course, most “happenings” happen in my mind nowadays. That’s a euphemistic way of saying I’m too busy to have a social life.

A preoccupation of mine recently has been the psychological root of ideological formations. I mean ideology in the post-Marxist sense, the wide social, conceptual patterns of thought that make up what Foucault calls a discursive formation. The drive to knowledge at the heart of various contemporary institutions and articulated in individual values, apparent everywhere from journals to the voiced preoccupations of undergrads in my own composition classroom, feeling compelled to major in something that will win them money (tacitly: happiness). Values pronounced in the green ink of dollar bills, hovering silently over transactions and affirmations of company loyalty.

The root is psychological, I think, because, if happiness is satisfaction or contentment, then the compulsion to strive for knowledge is behavioral. I guess what I’m talking about is a kind of psychology unmoored from the purely empirical domain—a philosophical psychology—which accounts for visible, manifested patterns or tendencies of a given populace, regurgitating the values of a contemporary episteme, without reliance on the purely testable, measurable. The way through which it is thought, in a certain sense, that the normative “we” can attain meaning or assuage feelings of hopelessness, despair, futility. Religiosity once fulfilled this function, but now accounts for little. Empirical questing is the new religion.

At the root of this is the compelling fear of the human animal, perhaps present in boredom. Erich Fromm and Heidegger have the same kind of emphasis here that I do, in that they understand boredom as an intolerable cessation of temporal progress and thus opens the space for aporia in contemplation—a kind of contemplative realization of one’s own striving and the teleological assumptions society articulates through it, alleviated, in some regard by distraction from these kinds of uncomfortable thought-swamps.

Perhaps this is why I have turned to ontology and am considering gender constructs. It seems to me that the heroic quest to self-fulfillment is inculcated through our physiological assumptions about gender roles. What, though? How to answer this question? What is the at the root of the strive for power which eliminates the need to contemplate boredom and open the dialogue of nihilism? And how does this reveal itself in the late 19th/20th C. cultural imaginary?

I’m on the verge of some kind of theoretical articulation for this project, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to sound like Ernest Becker in his Denial of Death….but, then again, maybe I do? In a gendered sense?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Furry Prisoner (aka Animal Companion)

I have a cat named Blaze. I never thought I would own a cat—call me a sucker for the obdurate loyalty of the canine, which trumps almost any ephemeral human connection—yet here I am, and I love the little guy.

He’s a zestful fellow who, in his short year-length span on earth, has managed to see half of North America, albeit flashing by through the window of a car. An ex-girlfriend, who was driving with me from Alaska at the time, owned him. When that didn’t work out, he ended up mine. And he’s a great companion for the secluded scholarly sort, the kind of creature that adores privacy and a good nap. If dogs are perpetually extroverted, the cat is introverted, and scrupulous and practical regarding his selection of companions.  The gateway to a kitty’s heart isn’t a free-for-all. One has to earn it.

Anyway, I’m in a quandary. Blaze used to be an outdoor cat. Due to a pretty bad injury resulting in several teeth marks and a large open wound on his leg from an angry neighborhood dog, I decided to wean him off the great outdoors and keep him inside from here on out. Indoor cats live longer and are less expensive to keep around than an adventurous Zorro-cat seeking nightly duels with other local felines.  Budgets matter when you make 12k a year as a graduate teaching assistant.

However, I’ve since noticed a tad bit of melancholy creeping in. While before he was a blur of furry excitement, he’s become a tad mellower, collapsing lazily on the carpet, watching to see when I’ll go to the kitchen and thus be near enough to his food to beg in the form of inquisitive meows. I’ve bought him several electronic and non-elextronic toys that spin and bounce and squeek and even mimic the movements of actual prey, but he gets bored of them quicker than it took for me to spend my hard-earned money on them. I’ve found him clawing at the posters on my wall, possibly thinking they are avenues for escape.

I catch him gazing longingly to the outdoor awesomefest he once had a daily dose of. A squirrel occasionally comes onto my porch in search of bird seed, and Blaze makes his typical predatory sounds and lion-like movements, but quickly gets discouraged when he realizes his efforts will always be deterred by a thick pane of glass.

It would be different if he had never experienced the outside world. One doesn’t miss what one doesn’t know. But he has, and I cannot avoid the icky feeling that I get when he pines for his outdoor prey-fest…the feeling like I’m a prison guard, keeping my furry inmate from living the life he was meant to.

On the other hand, I also get more icky feelings at the thought of letting him out to kill helpless birds and rodents and whatnot. This is what a cat’s meant to do, yes, but I feel like somehow harnessing the beast within is the most humane approach. Let’s face it: they’re adorable little Ted Bundys, people. I saw a documentary once where some documentarians filmed neighborhood cats National Geographic style. Despite the fact that most of them had full stomachs, they still proceeded to rip the heads off of a few dozen baby chicks the crew had placed in certain locations.

I don’t know what to do. I want him to be happy, and I guess he’d be happier if he weren’t dead and had a nice meal and a warm bed, right?  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Recently I witnessed an apartment complex burn down across the street from my own. The first thing I remember thinking was that it looked like the set from a movie. If you’re so cocooned in cinematic tragedy, to the point where you forget what real blood or real auto accidents or real flames look, feel and smell like, the real thing is likely to shock you—not for the sheer sensory immediacy of the experience, but the fact that this “real” event cannot potentially be divorced from the visual panopoly of “fictional” experience streaming out of our glass screens every second.  

Hello, Baudrillard.

I don’t have to tell most people reading this blog that the news is probably just as much entertainment as reality. News itself is gathered and read off Teleprompters by handsome or pretty talking heads, and clips of the event are possibly intercut with them, albeit sanitized for general audiences.

The “news” itself is fiction—you need to look elsewhere to find the actual images of the brutal consequences. If you hear about an accidental stealth bombing of a noncombatant’s building in Afghanistan and hear the reporter rattle off numbers—4 children, 5 adults killed—you’re left to imagine the scenario (perhaps a dim flash of nine whole bodies lying in circular fashion in the midst of a crumbled building, charred and battered but still somewhat photogeneic) deem the military’s actions as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of war, and move happily on with your day. But if you go to an a obscure site that publishes all the stuff CNN won’t display on its screens and see the mutilated body parts and the horrible screaming of the gathered relatives, maybe you’re not so ready to let Uncle Sam off the hook.

Perhaps this explains the dumbfounded look of some of the gathered pedestrians who watched with me as the building burned down. Some tweeted on their smartphones, some took pictures, others just stared and gaped. A few uncomfortably chuckled and, believe it or not, asked others “if there were any dead bodies.” Gawkers clogged the streets with their fat-ass SUVs, impeding the ability of the ambulances and firefighters to maneuver around them. I jokingly told a few friends afterward that this kind of behavior makes me actually wish the world would end in 2012. Hope you were right, Mayans…or, rather, contemporary non-Mayans interpreting a cyclical event as an ending date rather than a temporal rebirth.

Anyhoo, there were a few of my ilk amongst the crowd, trying to convey their sense of shock to people on the other ends of cell phones. I imagined the people receiving the information on the other end in the same fashion they hear the news delivered every night: “Wow. You’re seeing a building burn down right now, huh?....(pregnant pause) What else is new?” And the almost palpable nervousness in the voice straining with exigency would be lost due to the fact that their friend is lost in a sea of dim images, "Backdraft" –esque Hollywood sets alight with controlled, pre-programmed bursts.

My point, if there is one, is that it is occasionally refreshing to realize that one is mortal, after all. Hyperreality often masks the disturbing, raw “real” so that it becomes a dim figment of our imagination, something beyond the pale. Every once in a while, you have to be reminded how fragile and exposed we really are. This is uncomfortable, yes, but it gives you the ability to appreciate every living second.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Sensitive-Person Brain Disease

Recent events have caused me to think a lot about the nature of depression lately and the people I’ve encountered who have had their lives altered in some way by it.

Every once in a while, I too go through what I call a “Cobain phase” where I withdraw from social contact and simply reflect in a very unorganized and nihilistic fashion, alternating currents of anger and apathy, usually manifested in the kind of music I have playing at the moment. I’ve been on antidepressants since I was a teenager and I’ve since convinced myself that I need them in order to function. Name a brand; I’ve been on them all.

Yeah I know, boo hoo. Woe is me.

When I started this blog, I promised myself it wouldn’t be a self-indulgent public journal in which I gripe and moan on and on about past pains or whatever or whathaveyou. It’s not like I’ve had it particularly bad in my life—I’ve actually had it relatively good. Depression isn’t necessarily about feeling “sorry” for oneself, as many who have never experienced it tend to think. It’s evoked subtly over prolonged periods of slowly accumulating anxiety about the state of the world, leading to the possibly quite “sane” view that humanity is…well…screwed up. Like our overevolved frontal lobes are a thin biological barrier barely harnessing some simian brutishness. Like if an apocalypse were to occur, and food, sex, warmth and whatever else fuels the man-beast were scarce, an inner Dahmer might be unleashed on our loved ones for that last bit of squirrel meat. And I absolutely hate it and hate humanity for a while and hate myself for being a part of it.

Then, I get over it. The soundtrack of my mind turns from grungy screams to anthemy hope fests. The world is hunky dory again and I hear birds chirping and, though my mind may choose to gravitate in that direction, I choose not to hear the predatory, dinosaurish screech of their ancestors in their sounds. I filter out the negative, concentrate on the positive. I feel somehow dishonest in doing so, but I have to do what I have to do in order to function.

It’s like my brain is a thought battery, programmed to go through this purge every once in a while in order to recharge in a ritualistic fashion.

It seems like I’ve known quite a bit of people in my relatively short life that have committed suicide. One was a college friend. I wasn’t in the same state, or even in the same time zone, when it happened and hadn’t talked to him in months before it occurred; yet I do feel partially responsible—like I could’ve done something. Anything. Like I could have reminded him to appreciate simplicity, to drag him to the mountains and smell the foliage on the breeze or pet an animal or simply listen to what he had to say about his pain, which I love to do for others.

Recently I’ve been in one of those rare states where you suddenly have an epiphany and realize, in full raging, empathetic glory, that someone close to you may have experienced what you’re feeling and that you should learn from how they handled it. I’m no stranger to loneliness—one might even call it the academic’s affliction. Loneliness is simultaneously the burden an academic has to bear in order to thrive in this career, as well as one of its greatest joys. It’s bittersweet. Being alone with a book can be one of the greatest joys one can experience. The problem comes when you let ideas replace actual flesh-and-blood people to the point where they become your best friends.

I think this was my friend’s problem. And I’ve learned that the best way to cope is to seek out others and connect, and now I don’t have as much of these “Cobain phases” anymore. I realize that everyone on this earth has had periods of despondency and that the best way to overcome your own inner pains is to reach out. Cut out the bullshit small talk and really connect. Live bravely with your emotions. Stop waiting on the hinge of another person’s words in order to outdo their narrative and make yourself look “better.” Stop the conversational competition and just fucking listen.  And understand. And empathize.

The key, I guess is, to realize that the meaning of life is to help each other get through…well… life. And it’s awesome. Staggeringly awesome that we get to borrow elements of nature and experience consciousness and thoughts and feelings instead of being dead matter. And I don’t take it for granted. I think that’s what gets me through those rough spots.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lutes Avec le Francais

 "Uhhuhhuh! Mon écharpe ressemble à un morceau d'une table à manger! 
C'est magnifique!"

As is my usual fashion, my procrastination tendencies have brought me here. But I think I started this blog as a way to “productively procrastinate” because if I’m writing about my struggles, at least I’m thinking about a way to overcome them, right? Right?

Right. Glad you agree.

So, for my doctoral program I have to learn how to read two languages, ostensibly so I can translate valuable alien words I run into during my research into the mother tongue. This summer I’ve been (re)learning French. The “re” is in parentheses because I don’t know if my two semesters of French in high school really count, as most of the time we were learning cool ways to insult people. “Tu as un vache grasse” (you are a fat cow), for instance, still sticks clearly in my mind.

Anyway, if I hadn’t been so immature, maybe I would have learned the language by now and wouldn’t have to worry about such matters now. Of course, my juvenile mind would have never predicted that I would become a scholar of anything, except maybe heavy metal and comic books. This, of course, would have occurred naturally.

Alas, I did mature (I think). And now I’m faced with dividing the world in twain in verbal fashion, because of the damned confusing fact that French is a gendered language, and every person, place and thing in the world all of a sudden had fictional genitalia of some sort. This daunting task is also exacerbated by the fact that I have an overactive and possibly hypersexual imagination, and I keep having visions of a French grape (de raisin--male) doing the nasty to a banana (la banane—female). Which, on a symbolic level, doesn’t even make any damned sense. You have the most obvious phallic symbol mother nature ever devised, compounded by the fact that most men still associate a woman eating a banana with…you know, as the female and the grape—squishy, round, filled with, uh, juice--as the male? Lacan is rolling around in his grave. Just so ya know.

Anyway, my translating endeavors are going better than expected, but still slowly and painfully. I remember, enviously, that at one point in high school I had an entire Shakespeare play memorized, yet now I can’t remember 20 new French words in a day. Maybe if they made their language more intuitive, like having obvious genitalia-like fruit become masculine, I wouldn’t have such a hard time.

I guess I shouldn’t complain though—learning to read a language in a couple months is still pretty darned good (If I can do it, and I think I can). And I’m sure others are struggling much more with it than I am.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Valhalla Rising

I very rarely have a cinematic experience worth raving about to everyone, but I have seen one that everyone who appreciates gritty realism with dabs of the mystical should experience. It’s a Danish film called “Valhalla Rising” and it’s probably the most curious case of mismarketing I’ve come across.

The trailer, given below, would probably have you believe that it’s a blockbuster action film, filled with blood n’ guts n’ glory. Now it is that…but these furious snippets come in so short (albeit intense) bursts that it really can only be appreciated by those with greater attention spans and possibly under the (ahem) “influence” of certain herbs. Hey, it’s not called an acid film for nothing.

Since this is an art house film that was billed as an action blockbuster, it suffered some pretty unfair criticisms as a result. An audience expecting a Viking “300” but instead getting a brooding, unflinchingly realistic piece of stunning visual poetry (think David Fincher meets Stanley Kubrick meets Terrence Malick and you’ll get the idea) might be pretty disappointed.

It takes place primarily in an unnamed area of Denmark in 1000 A.D. The movie is slow in terms of action and plot, but fast in intellect and in craftsmanship. It meditates on foggy mountaintops bereft of signs of humanity and painstakingly detailed shots crammed with symbolism. The realism comes from everything to its authentic scenery to its grunting, sparse dialogue. Whereas most films would light every single perfect-looking expensive actor on its payroll, this works with natural lighting and with grimy, mud-caked actors in a way folks would’ve looked before hygiene and dental care.  Of course, insects buzz around the camera to give it a nice touch, and it gave me an impression of the level of care that went into making it. As one reviewer said, most medieval era films merely approximate the feeling of “being there,” but this film rips “you out of time and drops you there.”

Anyway, just go watch.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Metamodernism or Post-Postmodernism or ?????

It recently dawned on me that I have no definite position. On anything, really. I’ve been so against “labels” that I just shrug when someone asks for my position on political matters, I hem and haw when it comes to spiritual enlightenment or on the purported “progress” of humanity and whether it is actually in cyborgish declension.

This doesn’t mean I’m apathetic. Far from it. I just realize that there’s this destructive self-defeating pattern in human thought that we haven’t evolved past yet: Utter Certainty.

In other words, if I have a position on anything, it’s likely to entail this self-generated maxim: “Don’t be too certain about anything. Ideological extremism kills. Like for reals.”

I’ve been fighting the Oklahoma sun’s sweltering calls to bask in vegetable-like postsemesteritis like mad. I’ve been hermiting up and reading about seven books a week trying to discover what I can “call” my theoretical stance. In other words, even though I arguably have “some” time to do fun things, I’ve been using all my time by being more monkish than a temple full ‘o Jainists. Yay for celibacy and meditative enlightenment! 

My artist friend painted this. It was easy for him because I didn’t move from this position for a few days. Don’t expect me to engage in lustful acts or talk to other humans in a while, in other words. 

I have this tendency to float between the seductive certainty of scientific positivism and the relativity of poststructuralist constructivism. Michel Foucault and Auguste Comte are bare-chested, battle-scarred warriors chucking spears at each other in my head, in other words. One carries the large, weighty weapon of experience-based epistemology and the promise of “progress,” while the other carries the subtly powerful a priori spear (possibly invisible and made of binaries) and mumbles something about “progress” being code for the proliferation of ideological state apparatuses.

My psychology background taught me to adore hard data, no matter how small, obscure or tainted the sample size from which it is derived. Something about numerical precision—the “1” being absent of ontological qualifications or specifications…it is a singular entity that is whole and there is no debate about such matters—is extremely seductive, and I always wondered what it would look like if psychological analyses were applied to research in the humanities. A significant Z-Score from a bunch of extra-credit bribed undergrads taking a subjective questionnaire about their emotional reactions to Paradise Lost, in other words.

Troubling, to say the least. Are we talking about a different field if we incorporate such research strategies into the humanities?

This guy, Jonathan Gottschall, has already answered this question in the negative: Indeed, empirical research, as he sees it, is the future of the humanities. It is the sole savior for a sector of academic thought abused by budget cuts and disrespect, he says.  

Others, called the adherents of cognitive cultural studies, ala Lisa Zunshine, think that we should incorporate empirical evidence with Derrida and Lacan as another kind of narrative. Not “the” Truth (with a capital T), but “a” truth (little t). One of many, in other words, and maybe not privileged over others.

I’m more inclined to agree with Zunshine more than Gottschall. I’ve come to the determination that I see problems with empirical research outright replacing traditional literary criticism. Art is art for a reason: Its answers can’t be quantified, and it’s probably dangerous to think that we can do so. There’s nothing more grim than a future, at least to me, where something all of a sudden isn’t “art” because it hasn’t fit previous numerical patterns. Sometimes, we should just cease trying to think we can give X=this formulaic answers to everything in human existence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek likely answers for questions about art, but we should never be dogmatic when it comes to our positions about them.

Empiricism is seductive. I see no reason why I can’t draw on studies from cognitive psychology regarding empathy if I’m analyzing a given text’s treatment of empathy. But when I do so, I expect to deploy at as another kind of narrative that tells a portion of the story.

So…I still don’t know where I “stand” necessarily.

 I suppose it won’t matter when all professors are replaced by robots in 2050 anyway, dispensing pre-packaged knowledge nuggets like cashiers at a McDonalds branch.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tool and Other Auditory Friends

I was asked recently why Tool is my favorite band. It’s one of those questions you’re almost annoyed to hear because it’s so incredibly painful to explain. It’s like being asked why I think trees and oceans are pretty.

 I should have qualified my previous statement to this person by saying that Tool is usually my favorite band, but I suppose to most straightforward thinkers this wouldn’t make much sense. Either you prefer it above all other possible choices or you don’t, for most people. But I rarely think this way. As an indication, some days I immensely prefer Coldplay to Tool when I feel that surge of inspirational life-energy, usually just after heavy doses of caffeine.

I think most people have dimly lit 90s memories of Tool, of distorted claymation figures zombie-walking about the penumbra of their MTV-charged thoughts to roiling tribal drums and pulsing bass notes. Here’s “Stinkfist,” as a case in point:

The vocalist, Maynard James Keenan, sounds alternately angelic and demonic, changing form quickly or slowly—ecliptic or apocalyptic. I suppose I say that Tool is usually my favorite band because it usually corresponds with my mood. Contrary to popular thought, Tool does not dwell in negativity. Rather, it appeals to highly sensitive people (like muah) who get the thought sniffles when they observed the tragic world around them. In this regard they’re often read analogously to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favorite philosophers, in that those with short attention spans often mistakenly accuse them of celebrating nihilism, like the inept, ferret-bearing German dudes from The Big Lebowski

Maybe people think he’s filled with despair because young Nietzsche looks kinda like Viggo from Ghostbusters 2? It looks like his flesh can barely contain the intensity in his skull. Which is why his eyeballs protrude so much.

Music for me has always been about emotional movement –the oceanic rumble of the drums to the predatory bird-screech of strings. But it’s always in some kind of confined space, and it summons a kind of landscape as a result, which, if you pay attention long enough, is actually far from still. Animals move, wind bends the trees, snow coats trees at odd angles. Each visual space has a musical movement of its own, and I seem to summon a unique soundtrack for every piece of scenery I look at. This is probably because I’m naturally visual or because my generation has been programmed to dutifully translate all emotions into cinematic landscapes so we’re more susceptible to commodity fetishism. Either way, visual poetry bubbles about my brain when music hits my ears, like a very distorted, creepier version of a Terence Malick film.

Tool for me will always be an Alaskan landscape during dead winter, the time of year when the sun begins setting absurdly early—3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. As the light dims and the world’s eye slowly crumbles into the dark, snowy sleepiness, I can’t help but think the auditory equivalent would be an overactive and rhythmic primal heartbeat, some symbol of brutal interconnectedness like the irony smell present in the blood of almost everything, the kind of thing that would could, alternately, evoke the loving tenderness of a wolf mother sheltering its cub from the cold or the hungry grizzly breaking the neck of a moose calf and dragging it screaming into the woods. The brutality and the tenderness of nature awakened with one scene or one strong piece of music. That’s Tool to me, and I suppose it explains a lot about the way I am. I appreciate the people and artists who can stare into the abyss but always come back and find the positive in what they saw—how they can learn and grow just as much from tragedy as they do from seeing symbiosis and kindness.

They aren’t afraid to feel, in other words, everything there IS to feel.

Monday, May 30, 2011

First Tornado Experience

As an Alaskan, the only natural disasters I’m familiar with and know how to prepare for are earthquakes. Since moving to Oklahoma for a doctoral program, however, I’ve become fascinated by these gargantuan wind tubes that droop out of the sky like demented elephant trunks and make our best-built structures look like sand castles.  Otherwise known as tornadoes.

They’re also, oddly, the only natural disaster that also doubles as a kind of tourist attraction. 
                                Look Mommy! It likes me! Can we feed it some trailers? 

People come to tornado alley and follow storm chasers just for the chance to get a picture with one. I’ve tried to distance myself from the spectacle as much as possible by watching as many scary National Geographic documentaries on the things as possible, but, alas, tornadoes still fascinate and scare me at the same time. And everyone else, it seems.

The fear that these things generate has almost become commodified. It comes in prepackaged “Tornado events,” where it seems every news station around here turns momentarily into Fox News and scares us shitless so we’re motivated enough to get off the couch and go into the basement.

At the same time, a crapload of insane images appear on the TV, daring us not to watch: Power lines floating above storm chasers (who listen to Prodigy while cruising toward debris-churning sky blobs), sturdy houses disintegrating into bits, dead livestock being carried and then dumped piece-by-piece in a field miles later. I almost feel guilty for watching, almost like it’s torture porn. I wanted to sing a phrase from one of my favorite Tool songs: “Vicariously I live while the world dies.”

Anyway, the media and the images and the creepy NOAA weather station voice, which sounds like one of those grunting action movie trailer dudes (Action. Excitement. But it isn’t coming soon to a theater near you, Cleveland County. Get the fuck to shelter.) all impelled me to start freaking out a little. While talking to my dad in Alaska, who was watching the whole thing on CNN, I decided that staying in my shitty apartment complex was a bad idea. I thought that if I can clearly hear my neighbor’s conversations and slap-tastic sexual adventures, there’s no way a tornado wouldn’t make confetti out of this place. I drove to campus, because I kept hearing rumors that, apparently, the OU campus has never been hit directly by a tornado. It also has several strong buildings with basements.

As I drove, the sirens began going off. Since these are tested every Saturday at noon, this is normally just annoying background noise, like a mondo vacuum cleaner in the distance. But since the radio and the weather anchors promised all-holy-hell would rain down on our heads from a vengeful wind god (Aeolus?), it took on a robotic, bomb-raid kind of screeching urgency. I churned toward campus and wondered why there were serene Okies sauntering about on the sidewalks. Weren’t they aware of the imminent windpocalypse?

When I got to campus, many others were already huddled on the bottom floors of the library, crowded against the walls, saucer-eyes glued to laptop screens. Some undergrads looked amused, like there was some secret joke we weren’t in on, while the older folks wore faces of protective concern, guiding their dogs about on leashes, herding their offspring to sheltered corners. I found a little corner and squatted there with my friends Jarrod and Rachel, and we all took to the internet, trying to get updates.

I made the mistake of opening the live severe weather chat function (also used for sporting events!) and freaking everyone else out with random people’s reports from across the state. “Huge tornado headed toward OU!” One dude reported. “An EF5 reported near OKC!” Another exclaimed. Of course, this was exaggerated bullshit, but when you’re in a near panic mode due to the overhyped television coverage, you’re likely to believe concrete blocks were raining out of the sky.

Of course, all of our minds were also on Joplin. Ultimately, a lot of property was destroyed in the state and ten lives were lost, but the single tornado that came close to Norman roped out just before the National Weather Center and just spewed debris on the city:

So...phew. I would still prefer to deal with these things rather than earthquakes though.