There Is No “We”

17 12 2014

The report is out: the CIA tortured prisoners (and lied about the nature, extent, and effectiveness of it.) One phrase I hear in a lot of outraged responses is “That’s not who we are.” But clearly it is who we are, because we did it.
Plenty of us are disgusted, ashamed, horrified, but there is also a segment of the population for whom torture is not a problem. How can we call ourselves one society with two viewpoints so wildly opposed? I’m starting to think we can’t.
This is the only way I can live with the torture report– to consider those in favor of torture as another country, a foreign subculture. I know it’s a cop-out to just say the divide can never be crossed. The enormity of the crime of torture demands (besides prosecution of all responsible) an effort to convince the other side that it’s wrong. Maybe I’m just tired, but honestly, does anyone see that working out?
The gridlock in congress is just a symptom. Gun rights, cop shootings, gay marriage, income tax, even women making video games; issues have become fault lines that no amount of argument or entreaty will entice people to cross. We are not a society, because we’re not interested in being one. We’re not interested in unity. We’re only interested in scoring points against the other side. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
I don’t see any way out of it.
Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. I do believe that on many of these issues, the opposing viewpoint is a small minority that is disproportionately represented in the media and the government. If we had accurate representation, things would be different. But that’s a whole other topic.
I guess my point is, if we’re going to advocate for a national conversation about anything, we need to start from the premise that we really aren’t one people. We are a lot of seriously aggrieved subsets demanding satisfaction. We need to either be granted satisfaction, or convinced to give up on it.
How is that ever going to happen?
What it will take is leadership. Courageous, undaunted leadership in the face of deeply entrenched powers that profit from the status quo. That, or the caveman minority gives up on all their backwards bullshit. One seems about as likely as the other.





Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
noxSquare

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.





Wyatt

16 07 2014

Sunday night, Marcie couldn’t sleep. At 3:30 in the morning she went out to the couch. She was groggily trying to set the alarm on her phone when it rang. I found this out minutes later when she shook me awake to tell me who called: Open Adoption and Family Services. They wanted to know if we would adopt a baby who had  been born hours before, outside of Seattle.

The first flight out of Minneapolis we could get was at 12:50 pm. We used the morning to clean the house, arrange for dog care, and tie up loose ends with work. I should have been terrified. We were about to become parents. Everything would change forever. But I was weirdly calm. If the call had come last year, or the year before, or the year before that, I would have been terrified. But by now, we were more than ready.

Up until eighteen months ago, we were living in Portland. During a couple years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, we learned about open adoption from Dan Savage’s book The Kid. For those who may not know; in open adoption, the adoptive parents are the parents, but the birth parents are part of the family. They visit regularly, and the child knows about them from the beginning. It may sound scary, but it’s clearly better for the child than wondering where he came from or why the birth parents chose adoption. And it’s better for the birth parents than wondering what became of their child. And it’s also better for us, knowing from the beginning that the birth family is as committed as we are to us being the parents.

We went through the training with OA&FS, had our home study done, our backgrounds checked, our fingers printed, built our autobiographies and photo collages, and attended monthly support groups for waiting families. We met lots of wonderful people in the waiting pool and formed some lasting friendships. The average wait is 12-18 months, but the actual wait time is totally random; it just depends on when a birth family chooses you. For the first year, we didn’t sweat it. We were still new to the pool, and parenting was still a scary prospect. We spent a lot of time with friends who had small children, picking up whatever practice we could. As the second year wore on, we started to get demoralized. All of our friends from our initial training had adopted, and we were thrilled for them of course, but becoming anxious for our turn. The wait is a strange period of zero feedback. Birth mothers may or may not be looking at our file, and they may be strongly considering us and choosing someone else based on the tiniest random detail. We don’t know. It feels like being stranded on an island, contemplating the vast odds against anyone receiving our message in a bottle.

Right around the two year mark, we moved to Minneapolis. We felt confident it was the right career move for Marcie, and that a new adventure would be good for us. We could stay registered with OA&FS. Most of their clients are in the Pacific Northwest, but our counselor told us that waiting families outside the region get chosen all the time. It’s just impossible to predict who gets chosen and why. Living in the Midwest might reduce our odds, but we couldn’t make a decision on the  move based on the entirely unknown preferences of our entirely unknown future birth family.

Our file was put on hold until we could complete a home study for our new home. In the end it took six months, and much more money than we expected, to get ourselves in accordance with Minnesota’s requirements. Marcie’s relatives in the Twin Cities and our many new friends gave us great support, but we still found ourselves in culture shock. And we got here just in time for the worst winter in 30 years. We couldn’t help but feel that moving far away from our adoption agency had torpedoed our chances of being chosen.

In June, it had been three years since we entered the pool. It was starting to feel like our time was running out. We had always wanted to adopt an infant, but we started to seriously consider adopting older children through the state. We planned to attend an informational meeting about state adoption in mid July. A week before that meeting, we got the call.

We didn’t know how long our stay in Washington would be. Our agencies in Washington and Minnesota would have to complete an interstate compact before we could take the baby home. Early in our training, we were told of the possibility of placing outside our home state, and living in a hotel for a week or more while the papers finalized. We packed a lot of clothes, wrapped the car seat in a giant black garbage bag, and went to the airport.

Checked in and past security, we took some time to assess over lunch. The one thing we really needed was a name. We’d talked about names periodically, more often in the first year of our wait. Usually it was me suggesting some outlandish name and Marcie vetoing it. But now the pressure was on. We pulled up a list of baby names on Marcie’s phone. A handful jumped out at us. It would take us until the following morning to officially settle on Wyatt. That name never came up in any of our prior searches, which is nice. It kind of feels like it was his name all along.

Wyatt01

in the hotel

We made it to the hospital around 5 pm on Monday. A counselor from the Seattle office of OA&FS met us in the birthing center lobby, and informed us that the birthmother had already left. She was struggling with some things and decided to leave the hospital as soon as they would let her go.  We don’t know a lot about her, but we know she was committed to an open adoption, and we know she overcame significant obstacles in order for us to adopt her baby. We are maintaining open lines of communication, and we hope to meet her when she is ready.

Wyatt was sleeping in the nursery. There were two cushy recliners next to his cradle where we could sit and hold him and feed him. We stayed in the hospital the first night. The nurses made sure we ordered food before the kitchen closed. They had a room for us– a nesting room normally used by parents who had just given birth. As far as the hospital was concerned, new parents are new parents. Now, it’s not like we’ve been shunned or oppressed based on our choice to adopt, but somehow the attitude at the hospital was really refreshing. It also brought home the reality that we were now parents.

At 48 hours old, Wyatt was discharged from the hospital, and we all moved into a hotel a block down the street. At this point we determined to shamelessly use our story for added sympathy from any and all service providers. It turned out the hotel had a discount rate for people coming from the hospital, and they left a small gift basket in our room. They also provided a pack’n’play, but it wouldn’t stay assembled, so we just let Wyatt lay on one of the beds.

The hotel offered breakfast every day. For all our other meals, I walked across the street to a slightly divey family restaurant for take-out. We thought we’d be able to just kick back and bond with the baby during our hotel stay, but there were endless amounts of stuff to do, largely due to the fact that it was a last minute placement. And of course, the adoption happened at the yearly peak of activity with Marcie’s company. Even though we didn’t sleep a whole lot between feedings, it was a relief to close down activity for the night.

Wyatt02

boarding the plane

Marcie’s Mom drove up from Salem and stayed one night, and a friend from Portland took a day off work to drive up. We would have loved to introduce Wyatt to all our friends and family in the area, but there just wasn’t time. In the end, we were only in the hotel for three nights. Our friends at OA&FS and Adoption Minnesota worked hard to put the interstate compact through in record time. On the fifth day after learning of Wyatt’s existence we were taking him on a plane home.

Everyone in the airport had the same reaction. First, they gushed about how small and cute he was. Then they asked how old he was, and were horrified that we were taking a 5 day old baby on a plane. Then we told them about the adoption, and they were overcome with joy.

Some people tell us we’re being courageous for adopting, as if it were a kind of charity action. That’s a nice sentiment and we appreciate the goodwill behind it, but it’s really a misinterpretation. We are not rescuing this child. We had a need, the birthmother had needs, the child had needs, and we made an agreement that helps us all. If anyone acted with courage, it was Wyatt’s birthmother.

We’ll make sure Wyatt knows that as he grows up.

Wyatt03

at home





Seriously – Godzilla

27 05 2014
fanart by vladgheneli

fanart by vladgheneli

Warning: giant radioactive spoilers

I figured I’d better chime in on the new Godzilla movie. He’s kind of the mascot of this blog. I want to take him seriously, even though his movies tend to be aggressively ridiculous. Thankfully, Godzilla (2014) is not. At no time does the movie wink at itself with campy meta humor. For that feat alone, I can forgive the movie’s flaws. Bottom line: the story makes sense, the characters act like people, the effects are convincing, and the monsters are glorious.

Some of my favorite people online were disappointed that it wasn’t more of a horror/disaster movie, that instead Godzilla becomes a heroic figure. I do agree that there should have been room in the film for a more catastrophic, force-of-nature aspect of Godzilla. However, when I realized that there was more than one monster in the movie, I was absolutely elated. The film essentially jumps into sequel territory right away, which is a bold choice by Hollywood standards. But honestly, do we really need an origin story for Godzilla? Do we really need a whole movie of throwing ineffective planes and tanks his way? I was thrilled that this movie went straight to kaiju-wrasslin and Godzilla as both threat and protector.

Some of the plot was awkward. Some promising background elements were undeveloped. My biggest complaint is that the monster scenes were often cut short for no good reason. Individuals generally made rational decisions, while institutions made terrible ones, which to me feels true to life.

I’ve heard that a sequel has been green lit. They will have to bring in another classic monster. My favorite was always Gidorah, but it’s hard to imagine Legendary Pictures finding a workable rationale for a deeply weird monster from space. I predict Godzilla and Mothra teaming up against a new adversary.

What would be really cool is for a rival studio to make a Gamera movie. Warner Brothers? How about it?

 

 





Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!

 

 

 





My Life Story in Mixtape Cover Art

14 03 2014

Yes, mixtapes. I’ll try to skip all the nostalgia and just tell you the story.

In the early 80s, I owned a half dozen cassettes, all Men at Work and The Fixx and Depeche Mode if you really want to know. I also had a couple mixtapes of odds and ends; bits of movie soundtracks I captured by holding a tape recorder up to the TV, a handful of Queen songs, Flight of the Valkyries, etc. Around the summer of 1985 I put some favorites on a 60 minute cassette, which I christened Neal’s Pirated Tape. I brought this to a kind of summer camp where we lived in a college dorm and took all sorts of crazy classes, and the tape went over well with my small circle of friends. Pretty soon I was assembling a second tape, and in the process decided to revamp the first one, to give it more variety and a more satisfying narrative. Thus, 1986 (my first year of high school) brought about Neal’s Pirated Tape in it’s only surviving version, and Neal’s Other Pirated Tape. And now I was hooked.

I would buy albums, but only by my favorite bands (and I would slowly amass all their albums). Other songs I liked had to go on a Pirated Tape. I always had one in progress, and always named them some variety of Pirated Tape. Throughout high school and college I completed one every 3-9 months. There was always a wealth of songs to be discovered from my friends and family. The tapes began to function as an abstract journal, chronicling my changing connection to pop culture.

After leaving college, the process slowed down drastically. Maybe my own tastes had gotten too specialized, maybe I just wasn’t close enough to enough people, but the fountain of discoverable music just dried up. Even working in a company with lots of cool young (and less young) adults, the fertile sound network just wasn’t there. It took me over a year to complete my first tape out of college, and the one after that languished half-finished for two or three years. It became clear that like staying up all night, spontaneous road trips, and boffer sword battles, the Pirated Tape series belonged to a magical time of high independence and low responsibility that must come to an end. In 1999, I made an effort to fill up the remaining minutes and close the book with Neal’s Last Pirated Tape.

Obviously everything is different now, with every song and album instantly accessible online. I still prefer to hoard music, even if it is pure data, rather than stream Pandora or other such services. I’m still making mixes as a home for stray favorite songs, but now they are playlists, ever fluid and changable, not so much a magnetic engraving of my history with music. However, I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing all 24 of my old Pirated Tapes and adding them to my iTunes library. Naturally, part of the process was to create album artwork for each one. I did what I always do when I need album artwork in iTunes: image search some evocative words from the title and see what comes up.

And now we come to the point of this post: below is all the cover art I came up with for all the Pirated Tapes. Most of it is pure found imagery, but a few I messed around with in Photoshop. Some of the image searches got a little more specific. Like the tapes themselves, the art won’t mean much to anyone but me, but I wanted to share anyway.

NPTcovers





Music is a Weapon

7 02 2014

weaponI’ve been listening to Skinny Puppy for about 26 years– since just before the release of their fourth full album, VIVIsectVI. In that time, they’ve released 8 more albums, explored a wide range of industrial nightmare stylings, had one member go through rehab, another die of a drug overdose, broken up, and reunited. I saw them in concert once, saw two shows that included individual members (Pigface and Download), and I’m seeing them again this month. As a young teen, discovering Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Bauhaus after they had splintered, I wished I could have been there to follow any of those bands’ growth. As it turns out, I got to have that experience with Skinny Puppy. It’s been a privilege. I hope it goes on for many more years.

You may have seen a news story going around about the music of Skinny Puppy being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. I find this disturbing for many reasons. Foremost, of course, is that torture is going on at all. As I’ve said in this space before, torture is utterly unconscionable. There is no justification for it. Even if it yielded useful information (which it doesn’t), deliberately dehumanizing another human being is just about the most evil, despicable thing I can imagine. The fact that our government continues to practice it makes me want to find an overpass and just scream “STOP THE TORTURE” like a lunatic until my throat gives out. Or, failing that, listen to a  track like Hardset Head or Hexonxonx or Pro-Test at full volume, and let the pounding, roaring noise absorb enough outrage that I can function like a person.

Aside from the cathartic effect, Skinny Puppy made me feel powerful when I was a runty teenage weirdo. I knew that the hulking stoners endlessly reproducing Metallica logos in drawing class would not stand up to 30 seconds of Skinny Puppy. The same went for the cool kids at the top of the pecking order with their Huey Lewis and the News. Not merely loud, not simply aggressive, Skinny Puppy is challenging. In the 80s they challenged the whole notion of popular music. Today’s breakbeat and ubiquitous sampling owe debts to Skinny Puppy that will forever go unacknowledged. Which is fine. To cross over into the mainstream was never their intention. Us fans get to live forever in that “before they sold out” world.

Using Skinny Puppy’s artfully sculpted sensory assault as a blunt instrument against prisoners is just about the most banal expression of mainstream cluelessness there is. The worst part, though, is that I’m sure I’ve said at some point in the past (like when US forces were trying to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy with Guns ‘n’ Roses) “If those idiots knew what abrasive music really was they’d be using Skinny Puppy!” Now, at last, someone in Guantanamo has discovered my favorite audio sculptors. Maybe it was a fan who decided their music would be an effective torture device, or maybe it was some Hootie and the Blowfish frat boy. I don’t know which would be worse.

The band’s response is true to form. Consummate artists, acidic commentators, they’ve embraced the role thrust upon them by American torturers and invoiced the US government for $666,000. Then they titled their newest release Weapon, and made it a critique of our current state of lawlessness in pursuit of security. It’s probably the most publicity Skinny Puppy has ever gotten, and it’s drawing attention to the most glaring neglected atrocity in America. If the statements issued by cEvin Key about this event seem muted, there is always the music for channeling the outrage.

There’s a nice review of Weapon here.

Note: I’m sorry for hurling the term “mainstream” around like a club. As a grown-up I no longer bear the mainstream (whatever that means) indiscriminate ill will. Many are lovely people whose company I enjoy.








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