05 December 2012

Busy Bodies (Or, My Fitness Blog)

I've started a regimen of physical fitness. Ha! Just days ago Joseph invited me to a yoga class his friend was teaching.

"Jos, you know me. Do I seem to you like a yoga person?" I asked.

My body is what's inevitably going to let me down, after all—hardly the sort of thing I want to curl up and relax with. Under the best of circumstances it'll begin circumscribing my motions in a couple decades' time, fortress walls crumbling and opening nothing up, but rather blocking all the doors with fallen rubble. I've managed the business of having a body as someone trapped in a yard with a sleepy but presumably vicious dog: no sudden moves, and things will probably be okay. Avoid eye contact.

Of course, it makes no sense to say these things. My brain is body. My eyes, my ears, my tongue. But useless to deny the sense of separation, too. I relentlessly knock my hips and shoulders against doorframes I've passed through thousands of times, take steps that fail and trip me for no reason I can understand. What am I, to the section of my mind that runs my motions? A camera mounted on a broomstick? Or something smoothly limbless like a water-snake; but nothing I inhabit is calm water.

As I write my foot has fallen asleep. Without ticklishness I run my fingers down the sole. Curiously, it registers the chill of my hand, and nothing else. My circulation is poor, as forgetful of my extremities as my primary motor cortex. When I was very young and had not crawled out as far yet from my flesh I would say: my foot is dizzy. Limbs, nerves are brain.

I've groaned and rolled my eyes at the thought of "working out" for years. It certainly was not a punk rock thing to do, and later it seemed unrelated to the life of the mind. Sometimes I've gone for runs when my body's grown twitchy from too much sitting around. I overdo it immediately, which doesn't take much. To sprint is more fun. I bike about 20 miles on most weekdays, but that is simply how I get places; I like to move just fine, but I want the motions to get something done. I do not want to think about my form. Are there not enough labors to be undertaken in this world?, I sniff. Must we work so hard at useless things? (After which I generally turn back to reading the internet for another hour or two.)

It is a little bit more than my laziness speaking when I get nervous about these gyms and classes and machines and the people in them. One hears of the sense of accomplishment to be obtained from working out, and it is probably no more useless than most ways one could spend an hour's time. But nothing has really been pushed forward in the world, unless you are training for combat, perhaps, or to perform a demanding dance. That we spend hours running in place is too blockheadedly obvious a metaphor even to complete.

Heather brought home this Jillian Michaels DVD, is how I started my regimen of physical fitness; it was lying there, and I'd been sitting around working from home all day. So I began. "You want those abs!" Jillian Michaels says by way of encouragement as she gestures to her fellow demonstrators of fitness, and suddenly the video is some kind of QVC program, the viewer window-shopping for body parts which she will, hopefully, soon be able to afford. (Jillian has two fellow demonstrators, one supposedly more and one less advanced along the path of fitness, though the less-fit model's only visible difference is that she is five or six inches shorter than the other. And that does make her more relatable. Possibly she also cannot reach the top shelf of her kitchen cabinets.)

Shopping is a feeling, though this version is about as interesting to me as coupon-clipping. I can sprint, and, on the other hand, I can endure. Long bike rides, hikes up mountains, walks across town. These seem to be the natural rhythms of human movement. Something is darting past quickly and must be seized, or else it is staying put somewhere far away, and it will take a while to reach. The stuff in the middle is too vague to bother with; there are complicated calculations of pacing, budgeting. I am not so interested in becoming "shredded," as Jillian horrifyingly puts it. (She really isn't awful, and doesn't talk that much, but naturally my radar's tuned to certain wavelengths.) It'd be easier if I would simply agree that our goal is for me to lose twenty pounds in thirty days. But this is an instance in which you realize that you are dependent on certain figures who have extremely little in common with you, almost by definition of their profession: the dentist, the hairstylist, the banker. The woman on the workout DVD, who bosses me around while remaining cheerfully immune to my scoffing at her music choices.

It would be good to be stronger. And it is good to step out of my habit of only ever doing things I'm already pretty sure I'll be okay at, to be physically humbled in a different fashion than tripping on the sidewalk or dropping a glass. Because I started on a whim, I may have a chance of sticking with this thing—or at least get as far as I did a couple of weeks ago with National Novel Writing Month, which I also began impulsively, pounding out 26,000 words or so before losing hope of meeting the deadline. Which feels not so bad. It was good, then, to slip into a space mostly soundproofed against the hemming and hawing of the internal editor (though what lets me hope I'll finish the project is the anticipated pleasure of going back and fixing, improving). Its hesitant voice is also difficult to hear over Jillian's smooth encouragements, the bastardized synthetic '80s jazz that's never acknowledged by the women onscreen, the thump of jumping jacks. The unfamiliar-sounding bursts of breath that are emerging, somehow, from your lungs. They are forcing their way out on the wrong beat, Jillian keeps telling you, but eventually you may begin to bring them under your control. 

28 October 2012

Hard Listening: Patti Smith, "Horses"

When I summon some of my most intense teenage memories, a primary sensation is of school bus seats. Are they the same everywhere? The color a sort of horseshit green. The texture a zombie version of leather, a third-generation imitation that isn't even vaguely trying for authenticity. Holes in some places letting the white cloth backing and then the yellow foam show through. And always cool and clammy to the touch, no matter how many kids were packed inside. Your cheek lay resting on the back — if you were motion-sick or queasily nursing an impossible crush or just very, very tired — and the side of your forehead made a little live circle on the frosty window glass, which rattled and buzzed in its frame. Inhaling, you smelled old foam and dust, infinitely stale. I was on buses a lot in middle school and high school, not just to and from school but often across the state to theater competitions. It cannot always have been dark on these trips, but the essential atmosphere is always the darkness of evenings in winter or early spring.

Claire and I are sitting toward the back. We hold a clunky Discman delicately to avoid skips, and we share a pair of headphones — earbuds not yet being ubiquitous, we simply turn the volume high and lean into the speakers, plugging our outside ears with our hands (and even then, the sounds of the bus and the theater kids around us make it a little hard to hear. We are working from memory; both of us have spun this record countless times).

Singing is a classic ritual of the drama bus ride home. It's a group thing, even if the social butterflies with the big musical-theater voices lead the way. The songs I like don't lend themselves to this campfire approach, but I love singing in a car anyway. In Kelly's minivan late at night on the way home from a show or a party in the middle of nowhere, my friends and I belt out our songs. Sleater-Kinney, the Clash, dozens of punk and ska bands on the mix tapes that circulate endlessly between us and whose sequence of songs we have memorized as well as any actual album, the next track keyed up in the back of our throats in the static pause before it begins. I'm too self-conscious to join the theater-kid sing-alongs. I don't have the talent to sing nicely without a lot of apparent effort or the self-assurance to belt it out without caring how I sound. At Girl Scout camp one year I overheard a girl complaining that I was "showing off my voice" when I sang along with everyone else -- showing off the voice that had frequently been judged not-good-enough in other contexts. It's hard to know how to use an in-between voice like that, especially when you're 16.

So Claire and I sit and strain to hear this album. There is a lot of silence in it anyway, a lot of space. A sense of an actual room. The opening chords come softly, a low church-bell cadence on piano. We just barely pick them up. I'm not sure when we start singing, but by the time we reach the chorus we are wild and audible, breathless with the excitement of football fans cheering on their underdog team.

"That's not how the song goes," notes one of our friends, a straight-laced theater boy a row back. He thinks we are listening to and fucking up Van Morrison's "Gloria." It takes us a minute to even understand what he means. For us, this is the primary text. Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine -- what use could the world even have anymore for a version that did not begin this way?

As Claire and I sang along with this album, we'd sometimes stop and look at each other and crack up with delighted disbelief at just how crazy she was being. There are words we've never managed to figure out. And the name of the band is . . . Twistelette? Twist-to-the-left? Take me up, up, to the belly of the ship, she stretches out over about a dozen bars, and later ends the song: We . . . like . . . bird . . . land. This almost Sesame Street thing. But there's a looseness to the album that makes the hippie weirdness work; it sounds like it all could be ecstatically spontaneous, and doesn't land with the thud of solemn calculation. And it doesn't interfere with the moments of aching poetry.

Or of forthright sex appeal. I knew even then that Patti Smith was not actually gay, I think (having almost certainly researched this online as soon as I brought the record home), but the female-directed sense of sex in the record felt convincing — probably because rooted in the power of the singer rather than in the object of desire. That strut a consummation in itself. Eileen Myles has written a little about being a young woman wanting to be a boy — not to be male, but to occupy the same cultural space that a boy does. To be independent and have adventures and make mischief selfishly and forgivably. To be, automatically, a protagonist. And there's a similar, wholly untortured sense of boyishness to Patti Smith, not engaging femininity in battle but just ignoring its expectations outright. In fact it took me a while to identify as a feminist when I was young, not because I disagreed with any feminist principles but because I had a hard time feeling that being female was all that essential to my character; I was reluctant to play up that accident of my birth too much.

So this skinny figure with a ratty halo of hair, an Oxford shirt, and a jacket jauntily slung over her shoulder staring out of the white album cover with utter self-possession -- androgynous but not sexless -- resonated with me. Horses (and Smith's book Just Kids, which I've just read) has plenty of affection for women, but it's mostly full of boys. She's watching them, drifting in and out of their stories as she tells them, merging with them in places. In "Land," there is a boy, on a beach or on a bed or in the hallway of a school, dying or being violently transformed; she arrives finally on the scene and touches his throat, his hands, his brain itself before all boundaries are erased, stuttering out with him: I, I, that's how I, that's how I, I died.

Few songs provide so clear a template for transformation through rock and roll. There's this scene of high-school violence and hysteria, of self-destruction undertaken not as an act of enmity toward the self but as the defiant answer to the angel who looks down at him and says, Oh pretty boy, can't you show me nothin' but surrender? (As she shouts sublimely on the CD's bonus track, a cover of "My Generation:" I don't need their fuckin' shit! Hope I die because of it!) Then this moment of perfect stillness -- he felt himself disintegrating, there was nothing happening at all / and go inside the black tube -- before a little window opens in the blackness onto a street scene, and there's the "sweet young thing" we met in "Gloria." Finally, in the last seconds:

In the sheets
there was a man
to the simple
rock and roll

I like and listen to "Elegie," which follows, but this has always felt like the end of the album for me. When I wasn't listening to it on a bus, I'd listen by putting on my headphones and lying down on my bed in the dark, letting myself be cleansed by this ocean of a record. At the end of "Land," Patti converges with her beautiful doomed boy and then there I am too, on my own sheets, twitching a foot to the rhythm, having drowned whatever ugly adolescent commotion had made me retreat to my room and now ready to make something, to take on that rock and roll strut for myself. Less alone in my wedge of Venn-diagram overlap between poetry and punk rock, the Watusi and Rimbaud.

Because it so demands my concentration and involvement, I don't listen to Horses much anymore, but when I do I often think I may be able to hear it anew after a gap of however many months. It always turns out that it is too deeply embedded in me to come at fresh; it's like trying to frighten yourself by shouting "Boo!" In a silent room I can reproduce every intonation, every stab of guitar in my head. I don't think I've ever put a song from Horses on a mix tape -- maybe "Gloria" or "My Generation." They're less songs than weird spastic meditation exercises, existing beyond the purposes of appreciation and built for total catharsis. It's almost not necessary for me to listen to the album anymore. The squeak in her voice, when she tosses it up and catches it midair — I've stolen that for my own use for years, and "Gloria" thunders through my head whenever I need to feel okay about going onstage. In smaller moments, too, the album is with me. Riding in a car at night, looking out over fields: It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, 'cause when he looked up they started to slip. That cold starlight made warm has always gotten me. This is a record that shapes and purifies the darkness, using wild noise to engineer a peaceful vehicle through the night.

15 September 2012

First Strangers

People, when they meet me, do not typically suspect that I am a performer. Which is all for the best, really — what a pretentious and demanding thing to be, a performer.

You feel that way, at least, before you have become famous. If you are famous it will probably be accepted that you are giving a gift to or at least making a fair exchange with the audience by performing—performing for them. Before you are famous, you may feel continually that you are performing at them, taking advantage of their hospitality. Stop showing off, sing the ghosts of the schoolyard if you are prodigiously talented; sit down and shut up, if you are anything less.

This is the smalltime music-scene space I currently inhabit, and maybe always will. And maybe this space is not so small, and its boundaries will keep stretching even if I should ever approach them: the current omnipresence of the Kickstarter model for arts funding means that it is expanding, this band-as-charity, consumer-as-philanthropist feeling.

But at first we are all performing for each other. There is this economy of showing up. Joseph was talking about a pair of friends outside of the music scene who have attended a number of our shows. "It's too bad," he said. "I wish they had something I could go support." According to this system of values, attending someone's show both is a virtuous thing to do and may get you another body in the audience when you perform again. Pleasure may or may not factor into your decision to attend.

When I get onstage, I am trying to convince myself that it does (even if, the moment I step offstage, I feel that I have probably wasted everyone's time and goodwill and ought to quit). "People pay to see others believe in themselves," said Kim Gordon, writing in Artforum in 1983. As a concertgoer, I know this is certainly true. So I try to do that (though, to be a little more precise, it's really only about believing in myself as an acceptable vehicle for the music we are making. Somebody has to do the job. Here I am).

People are sometimes surprised to learn that I am a performer because I am not at all outgoing. Given the instructions to work a room I would get about as far as the nearest emergency exit. My specialties are the silent nod, the demurely appreciative laugh, the gaze inadvertently darting past my interlocutor's shoulders to find an escape route. This is with people I like reasonably well; I have caught my panicked brain automatically generating excuses to get out of a chance conversation with someone whom I'd positively hoped to get to know, musing on the matter in my solitude. And it is not just that, say, I love music so deeply as to overcome my shyness, because I was an actress in high school; I competed in poetry slams; I volunteered for every class and camp skit; I still make the occasional no-budget video with friends and post it online. It is an actual drive.

I won't claim I'm immune to the desire for praise and attention, but I think being shy has itself fueled my taste for performing. If a social butterfly wants to spend time with a bunch of people and feel the fact of her existence connect with theirs, she can go to a bar or a party and do just fine. Performing is a way to be in a room full of people without the burden of social interaction. There is a script—if not literally, then a set list at least, or a clear task at hand. There is no need to justify your presence in the room. The art you perform may make that argument or fail to, but it does not tax your interpersonal skills. (I used to try to develop a bit of stage banter before going on, but more and more I feel that it is not what I'm up there to do, and leave it to chance or cut it out entirely. For the same reason, I wouldn't stand up there and tap dance.) Likewise, I can't really handle elevator conversation at work but have no problem leading a meeting or speaking up in brainstorming sessions. The role assigned to me then is clear, and any anxiety I may have upon getting into costume is simple stage fright, nothing more serious or existential.

This month marks our third anniversary as a performing band, and it's only now, this past season, that everything is beginning to consistently feel right. It still takes me a few songs to find my sea legs. (At the gig of my dreams, we'd be playing for about fifteen minutes before they'd open the doors to let everyone in.) But after that it's possible to relax a little, almost have fun. I don't mean that it feels natural yet, or easy, but I can trust that the music will be there for my voice and my fingers to fall into. I'm one of many parts moving in a machine, not frantically and shakily building the machine in midair as I play. (None of us is an improviser at heart, I need hardly say.)

We've also started to notice a (small) number of people who listen to our music not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because, astonishingly enough, they like it. I am embarrassed to say what a triumph this seems. But we have made a long investment in something entirely untested, and though we've enjoyed the process enough not to count it as a loss no matter what, these strangers we've reached feel like the first true returns.

When celebrities gush about how they're "grateful to their fans," the instinct is to roll one's eyes, but for all I know it could be sincerely uttered every time. The kindness of strangers upon which we depend consists in their ability to make us believe that they are not doing us a kindness at all; our occasional doubts are accompanied by a rush of gratitude. Every person who turns to your art for pleasure advances the process of your redemption for having dared to perform, your transformation from someone who demands and demands into someone with something to give.

04 September 2012

Some Words on Failure

Right now I am reading Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure, after a long wait for it from the library. It is an okay read; I am skimming more than I should. I think this is a case where the underlying idea seems so inevitable that, once it has finally been expressed, the expression itself can come off as rather dull, almost trivial. (It may also be that Halberstam's writing moves with not much more grace than most academic prose, piquant subject matter aside.) But then I check this reaction a little, remembering that I am probably more disposed toward failure than most people, more likely to find it natural and self-evidently important.

By which I don't mean that it's more likely to be my destiny (though, sure, that too). But the art and the stories and the modes of life that keep my interest tend to come with some negativity built in. The records that buoyed me through the gray late winter were the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee and of Montreal's Paralytic Stalks, two narratives of flamboyant despair that anthemically proclaim "I hope you die, I hope we both die" and "I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good." The kind of music I put on and thoughtlessly hum along to until whoever else is with me suddenly tunes in and stops and stares with concern. Until this point it has seemed that I am, if not nice, at least well-behaved and appropriately invested in maintaining a positive attitude. Now something has been called into question. 

I tend to forget that my particular brand of deep-seated skepticism is not necessarily the human condition. This startles me again and again. During college, noticing the mellowing of my personality and convictions, I began to assume that I would be pretty well aligned with the mainstream once I graduated from my mountain cloister and rejoined it. This assumption thudded to the beer-slicked sidewalk the first time I walked down Clark Street on the night of a Cubs game, having just arrived in Chicago. Taken a few at a time, they would have been a perfectly digestible part of the greater world I expected was somewhere outside my door, but the sheer numbers of these blonde and ball-capped persons having the time of their lives in a noisy hell forced me to revisit my status as the alienated weirdo I had always been.  

In the business of being an alienated weirdo, I have often come up against lives that are more strongly guided by the capitalistic imperative of growth and progress (if only implicitly; one senses that their owners half-observe its quiet motions as they do the streetlights turning on every evening, only ever registering that something must have happened). Reactions to these collisions have ranged from incomprehension to offense. There have been, of course, the teachers aggravated by the fact that the specter of bad grades could not convince me, young Bartleby, to do an assignment I found fundamentally flawed. The people, often for some reason in the self-evidently virtuous field of medicine, who are frankly annoyed by the apparent uselessness of my pursuits, which in addition to not making much money do not even seem fun.

Or there are the genially mystified ones like my father, upon whom, after a dozen conversations on the matter, I have still not been able to impress that my band is not nor is especially intended to be a moneymaking concern. Along the same lines, although I enjoy and am doing well at my current job, you couldn't especially count me among the ranks of those who "care about their careers." I live with an economic level of comfort that is probably par for the course of my age and level of education, but it still continually astonishes me. When someone asks whether I'm worried about losing my job I say no not because I don't believe it can't happen, but because there's some small muscle within me whose only purpose is to stay ready for resuming life as a waitress or temp and calculating the price of every bean-soup dinner.

I'm not entirely sure how I got this way. For a while as a kid it seemed I was supposed to be the successful one. There is this relevant thought, from an excellent essay by Alexandra Kimball: "Poverty doesn’t allow you to develop a linear career trajectory or a coherent professional identity, because when cash is hard to come by, you do whatever job will bring you more of it." Being an artsy kid in an economically unstable family, I got the worst of both worlds: none of the drive toward professional identity, and also none of the drive toward money. 

My mom has also located the focus of her life outside of her low-paying, dead-end job. I think she spins that as a sort of living-in-the-moment thing these days, and means it. But behind the spunky middle-aged optimism is the history of a woman who was first-chair violinist in her high school orchestra, who dreamed of being a veterinarian but had to leave college in her first semester due to depression and lack of money, who grew up with a mother who—as I learned only in the last five years, and second-hand—apparently thinks so little of women's capabilities that she believes they should not hold political office. (My grandmother, whom I love as much as I do anyone, surely soaked up this belief along with an upbringing's worth of other messages telling her that she was dumb and fat and unattractive and duty-bound to meet the whims of men; I can forgive her this, while also recognizing the subtle toxicity it must have introduced into her family.)

So there has been all that, and then also an early religious infatuation that presented being a nun or monk as an ideal way to live—another form of opting out of the drive to succeed. My brand of Christianity was never the delayed-gratification school of stockpiling one's treasure in heaven. There is a line in Simone Weil that I cannot now find, about gladly running to sit in the pit of hell for a thousand years if God ordered her to do so. I was no longer religious by the time I read that, but I immediately understood. Spiritual "success," if the term is meaningful, can surely not be so neatly allegorical; if this world truly does not matter, it cannot just be an off-brand version of the one to come. 

Philosophy and its extensions into anarchism probably took care of the rest by the time I was a teenager. Looking down into the roots of things is itself discouraged by the requirement to keep climbing and acquiring; it is so much time lost, and will not change anything except yourself once you come out the end of it. I always bristled when anyone characterized punk rock or anarchism as nihilistic — I aligned myself with these movements not because I hated the world as a whole, but because I dearly loved it and wanted to create structures that would let me spend more time there, appreciating things, rather than racing ahead somewhere profitable. (It is, of course, the voice of capitalism that insists that anarchism is nihilism, seeing no other alternative to itself but death.) Having examined the matter, I have determined that I am not here to make money or have babies to carry on the family name (or, probably, to carry out grand political projects either, as I eventually realized).

Not going in for an afterlife, I also know I have only a little time here or anywhere else. Weirdly, this results in laziness as much as it does activity. The inefficient machine of my creativity runs on vast quantities of indolence; I have just now been spurred toward the keyboard after several straight hours of reading while lying sprawled across the loveseat. I fail constantly at small talk and social life and family obligations, and happily, this leaves more time to lie around and read, walk around and look at things. There is, of course, one sense in which my ambition is foolishly, desperately huge, its goal to add beauty and resonance to the world through art. The thought of this success hangs always suspended before me, cushioned and protected by the pockets of failure I have positioned all around.