Wisdom & Naivety

The Midnight Gospel, Penn Ward’s latest collaboration with cosmonaut Duncan Trussel, came at the perfect time. Stuck in quarantine, I struggle making peace with the new reality. I re-examine my life, identify the places where I want to slow down and let love in. The Midnight Gospel has been a blueprint for that process.

The show is a crystal, a multi-faceted examination of spirituality through the lens of various subjects: forgiveness, mentorship, psychoanalysis, and death, to name a few. Each episode structures itself around an interview. These interviews are conducted by space caster Clancy (voiced by Trussel), and animated by Ward’s surreal, archetypal art.  

Like Adventure Time, Ward’s other show about an unraveling candy universe, The Midnight Gospel takes place in an apocalyptic reality that doesn’t resemble our world aesthetically, though it suffers from the same problems. The planets are dead or dying.  People horde resources. Disease abounds. Cops are agents of violence. Through chaos we follow Clancy, a restless and flawed protagonist–a naive hero, like the Fool in the Tarot–on his quest to “meet reality on reality’s terms.”

The naivity of the animation gives the show freedom to explore heavy concepts without getting bogged down, to express wisdom off the cuff, the way we hear it in real life. Often, the art is a gorgeous distraction from the dialogue, which makes sense considering the entire show is a journey of illusion. Remember at the end of The Holy Mountain, when Jodorowksy’s characters look into the camera screen and break the fourth wall, laugh? That same energy is here.

Clancy’s quest projects him across the stars, but his travels exist in the the context of a stimulation. He puts his head through the vaginal slit of his computer and waits for it to zap his consciousness to other realities. The computer assigns him a different avatar each time.  Each one is an exquisite corpse of character design: a liquid body made of cream, a Jimmy Buffet fan with fifty genitalia, a gnome nose, a chicken head.

In short, Clancy doesn’t need to leave his house to face the strange, or to find the peace he’s looking for. And neither do we. In the final episode, the show provides a practical guide for beginning meditation.

At times the scenario reminds me of a metaphysical D&D game. But if this is the case, who is the Dungeon Master, the divine driver of story?  It’s certainly not Clancy. Is it the Computer, the annoying voice nagging for software updates?  Again, no. 

It’s Trussel and Ward, the creators themselves. Considering Trussel’s interviews are non-fiction and deeply personal, I get the sense that this elaborate show is simply the space these two seasoned story-tellers designated as the spot to untangle the painful aspects of their own realities.

And it works. The show is an exercise in how to accept reality, and yourself. And that’s difficult. Even when I like myself, I’m not accustomed to spending this much time in my own company. In quarantine, the high whistle of my anxiety bounces from the ceiling as I hole up with a blanket and my laptop and grasp for an iota of normalcy through the screen.

I’m not saying The Midnight Gospel’s 8-episode primer into mystic philosophy “cured” me from the mortifying  ordeal of hanging out with myself, but it made me more at peace with the situation. It made the process of sorting what I can control–exercise, skin routine, writing– from what I can’t–pandemic, death, the bureaucratic constipation of the unemployment office–feel a little more natural.

Unlike Adventure Time, this show isn’t for children, unless those children are baby prophets of destruction.  We get blood. We get butt plugs. We get meat clowns chopping up deer dogs and pressing them through a squishy factory farm that, like an especially visceral acid trip, turned my stomach back to vegetarianism. 

Right now,  Americans  recochit inside. For those of us who lost jobs, each week can feel like an oscillation, a ride on a sputtering sound wave inside one of Clancy’s vintage synthesizers. Fading in and out of time, we try, fail, and try again to reconcile change. 

In the confines of my quiet life, I let in the wolves,  their pain. Their  love.


100 Pop Ballads

I listen to what Youtube tells me are the Top 100 Pop Ballads. I do this because I miss the radio curating my listening experience.  I don’t listen to the radio anymore. I tuned out gradually, then all at once when I moved back to Pennsylvania. There were a lot of reasons for this, but in the end I couldn’t stomach the dehumanizing outbursts disguised as on-air banter.

One Pittsburgh station I call Gun Radio. Late at night, voices crinkle the air waves in defense of the second amendment. The voices are always outraged. Not all local radio stations talk about guns, though most cultivate an outlandish anger ironically labeled conservative. This anger is rarely aimed at individuals. Usually the targets are broad categories: Women, minorities, immigrants, queer people, or any group whose struggle for human rights Gun Radio perceives as a threat. The anger disguises itself by running behind a pack of good-natured caveats: I’m not racist, but I’m just saying–I love women! Ask my wife! But–

Youtube plays Writing on the Wall by Sam Smith. I skip it.  I also skip Stay by Sara Bareilles, settling on  Foolish Games by Jewel.

I love exercising this god-like power.  As a woman, skipping songs gives me a control over my environment I rarely enjoy. I’m cynical about most internet-based technology manufactured post-2010, but not music streaming services. I also don’t make my living as a musician, so don’t know what it’s like to earn $.006 for every play on Spotify, or how to reconcile that with the instant gratification of a global, online audience. All I know is, given the opportunity, I will take control of the the laptop, the aux cable, the blue tooth speaker, whichever device pours music into a room.

Again Sam Smith comes up. Again I skip him. I can’t stand the soulful affectation of a man with a fade haircut. Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know plays instead, thank God. As far as pop bards go, the British frontman in a big-buttoned coat and his piano player wrapped in a Dr.Who scarf are more my type. 

Outside, November rain beats down yellow foliage. I want to go to the woods today, but will settle for the gym. I bide time. I want to work out, but I don’t want to walk in the rain to the gym, where two monitors screen reality TV twenty-four hours a day. I have never seen the monitors show anything else. Considering the lack of substance on the TV and radio, is it any wonder that so many people choose streaming services as their medium for stories and music?

I skip Martina McBride, OneRepublic, and Adele. I skip Lady Antabellum, Hoobastank, Dido, and Jessica Simpson–names I’ve only seen on the back of Now! That’s What I Call Music CD cases–until I find what I’m looking for: Back to Black by Amy Winehouse.

Then I look at a few outtakes from my photography sessions this autumn: 


And by the time I’m done, Coldplay’s The Scientist has sighed through a verse and a half. Coldplay, like U2–like most bands on this damn playlist–is a band whose music quality diminishes in proportion to their growing stack of corporate paychecks. The math of selling out is an inverse relationship.

But I always loved this particular Coldplay song, The Scientist.  Yes, the lyrics are unpoetic, and the chords remind me of my teenage years spent finger picking piano in my high school practice room–but the music video, which tells the story of a man retracing the steps of the car crash that kills his lover, moves me.

Images can change our mind. They can make an average looking man a rock star, render a boring song beautiful. This may be why big labels poor money into high-production videos. It’s also why I picked up a camera. I wanted to direct the story of my life, no matter how banal or unglamorous that life may be.

I never make it to the bottom of the list of 100 pop ballads. I get bored and bail. I don’t know what makes a compelling piece of music, but more and more, I think it’s an evocative image. I’ve picked up albums for the cover art, and have ignored others for the same reason. 

I wonder what the sound of my voice looks like. I imagine a soft animal with long claws. The claws scrape and become atonal, but the body of the beast keeps moving, like a river gorged by constant rain.  Rain dogs, wrote Tom Waits. Rain dogs.


Meditations on Southern California

The first time I encounter California, that wild slice of American imagination, I am fifteen, visiting family friends in a long, purple bungalow in the hills of San Francisco.  At the time, I am obsessed with cults. When my parents aren’t looking, I flip through Heaven’s Harlots, a book about The Children of God.

  

Like many Western cults, The Children of God was infamous for sexual freedom, some of it healthy, some of it (the pedophilia) morally criminal.   Members were encouraged to masturbate to Jesus Christ (a metaphor not so  different from the King James metaphysical interpretation of The Song of Songs, in which a woman substitutes her object of affection for the church). 

 

Walking the sparse, cold beaches, I mull over one pressing question:  “Is Jesus sexy?”


To my disappointment, no cult members pop out of the sand to elucidate the matter.  What I expect to find in California–cults on every corner–turns out to be a myth.  So I scrunch my toes into the edge of North America, the gray cliffs crumbled by waves rippled from distant storms.


My parents are laissez-faire in their approach to child-rearing. I am expected to get out, get lost, get scraped-up and grass-stained.  I savor the freedom of being alone in a new place, a right rarely afforded teen girls.  We are always watched: what we wear, how we eat, even the sound of our laughter is closely monitored.  Adults live in constant fear of us transforming into exotic dancers, sluts; in other words, they are afraid we will recognize and perform our power.

I return to California , to L.A., in 2017. I lounge topless in a hot tub in Mar Vista, casually discussing the finer points of capitalist history with the singer of a a local punk band.   I have grown. I am no longer a skeptical teenager, but a working creative who demands to be taken seriously as a poet and intellectual–while female, while desexualized and nude–or sexualized and nude, if I feel like it.  


Reclined in tessellated baths, the ancient Greeks discussed politics and philosophy naked.  Our country borrowed a lot from Greek culture–democracy, architecture, mathematics.  But our religious self-flagellation prevents us from claiming the most delicious figs, the athletic and aesthetic joys of the body.

In regards to flesh, most of the United States suffers from a Puritianical hangover of shame.  L.A. seems to have shaken this hangover. Walking in orange light made thick by ocean spray, I watch the surfers revel in their skin, the refreshing cold of autumn water, the triumph of balance.   Their faces are cracked with salt and sun, steeped in stories.   They float like otters.  Wait.  Chase. Topple. Fail.  But this doesn’t stop them from throwing their bodies at every opportunity for fun or squalor. 

“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself,” wrote James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. “To be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”  The surfers are sensual.

Californian body worship sometimes manifests as cosmetic obsession.  Billboards for liposuction and plastic surgery–like dashes interrupting a sentence–punctuate the sprawl.  My relationship to these body modifications is complex.  For women in image-based fields, these procedures are simply a requirement for success, like a college degree or a driver’s license. 

But I don’t think of these women when I see the billboards.  I think of the young girls who haven’t yet been taught to hate their bodies. I wish I could block these billboards from these girls, pick them up and place them on the water with the surfers instead.

For all of the palpitating neon of L.A., the bokeh skylines and Hollywood folklore, it’s the wilderness on which the city spins like a dazzling top that intrigues me the most.  

The Native Chumash people of Southern California tell an apocalypse-turned-creation story. First, a torrential rain eviscerates life on earth, all but a few birds, the descendants of gods. The spotted wood pecker and the great eagle decide to create new people, kinder this time.  The Earth goddess plants seeds, and the new, kind people grow from the seeds. 

Even in their myths, the Chumash are connected to the land.  I compare this myth with the Christian creation story; Adam is given “dominion” over the plants and animals of the earth.  There is no reciprocality.  In Genesis, the Judeo-Christian tradition encourages a one-sided, abusive relationship with the earth.

 For thousands of years, natives populated North America without irrevocably fucking it up.  It took colonists less than 200 years to level the forests, poison the water, and pollute the air. 

Outside L.A., the canyons brim with trash.  I strive for kinder ways of understanding my body, my land, and myself. 


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