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Reality

From the ages of 8 to 11 I wore berets to school. Every day. In my mind the wearing of berets made me a sophisticate, an eight year-old far more worldly than my classmates in their bedazzled fare. At the height of my beret period I owned upwards of 23 berets. It was like Dr. Seuss. There were blue berets and red berets, school berets and bed berets. I wore berets while playing ball. I wore berets while at the mall. I wore them here, I wore them there. I wore them nearly everywhere. Throughout third, fourth, and fifth grade, they were a mainstay. And I thought I was the coolest. I made no connection between my donning of hats meant for gay poodles, and my staggering unpopularity.

 

On the first day of middle school, I strolled into the kitchen wearing one of my jauntiest numbers, a purple wool beret with silver studs around the base. And my mother, with love in her heart, looked me in the 11 year-old eye and said, “If you ever want to have friends, you will stop wearing berets.” She made me take it off. I was hurt.

 

Throughout that first day, I encountered a new level of school bullying. My property was stolen and destroyed. I was covered in RC Cola. I was so, so glad that my mother made me take off the beret. I have no doubt the beret would have upped the ante considerably, and I enjoy not being burned in effigy. I only wish my mother had told me I looked like a dumbass earlier.

 

If you are engaging in jackassery, the better friend is not the one who supports your fantasy. The better friend says, “That makes you look fat,” or “There’s no way you can hit the high notes in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’”, or “Honey, you are just not a lesbian. I’m sorry, but you’re not.” Reality bites. But in a good way.

 

Reality is a harsh teacher. And it gets a bad rep, for pulling no punches, and delving into corruption, and barbarity, and hopelessness. But with every act of cruelty it is begging us to make it better. Fantasy never asks for help. It never strives for improvement, because it already thinks it’s perfect. And that is dangerous. Fantastical thinking says, “Worry not about global warming.” It says, “Enjoy Pokemon. Believe in Scientology. Eat Hot Pockets.”

 

Also, Reality has better stories than Fantasy. There’s no fucking contest.

 

In Narnia, the Pevensie children escape the London Blitz and party down with talking animals and Christian allegory. They become war heroes, and leaders, and journeymen of the fantastical.

 

But in the inescapable Netherlands of World War II, a fifteen year-old Audrey Hepburn carried messages for the Dutch Resistance in her ballet shoes, and danced for audiences of spies by candlelight. When she finished they held their arms aloft in silent praise and thanks, because applause would bring the police.

 

In Hogwarts, an unassuming kid named Harry Potter discovers he has magical powers, becomes the greatest wizard ever, and saves the world, and it is, indeed, awesome.

 

In Kyoto there was a warrior named Okita Soji. He was a captain in the army. He was considered the greatest swordsman of his time. He was fourteen fucking years old.

 

In Verona, teenagers named Romeo and Juliet meet a tragic end because of unyielding parents and a series of contrived misfortunes, and it’s hella romantic.

 

In 1898 Britain a guy named Ewart Grogon falls in love with a woman named Gertrude. Her dad doesn’t like him, doesn’t think he’ll make anything of himself. So Ewart says he will walk across the length of Africa and prove he can do whatever he sets his mind to. Potential father in law is like, “A worthy task. Best of luck,” which is the Victorian equivalent of “Never gonna happen. Go for it, douchebag.” Ewart walks from Cape Town to Cairo. It takes two and a half years. He survives cannibals and fever, thieves and heat. He marries Gertrude shortly there after, and is “most joyously pleased,” which is Victorian for “Bangin’ your daughter tonight.”

 

Fantasy is what we can’t do. What we can’t have. What we can’t be.

 

Reality is the intricacy of blood vessels. It is the truth that we will destroy ourselves or venture to the stars. It is genocide and kindness, orgasm and prison. Reality is the most hilariously awful date ever, and the existence of Jolly Ranchers, and that time I totally got laid in a library. If there is a God, God’s face will be more wondrous and inane than anything we could dream. Reality is.

 

I am grateful for flights of fantasy, and the occasional escape. They are not without merit. Often, they are inspirational and necessary. But Jeff Mangum never records In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, unless he falls a little in love with Anne Frank. Richard Adams never tells his daughters a story about rabbits called Watership Down, unless he first learns true camaraderie during the Battle of Arnhem. Gene Roddenberry never creates Star Trek, and Sydney Newman never creates Doctor Who, and Charlaine Harris never creates True Blood, without first wanting a reality in which we actually don’t discriminate against those who are different, and we actually learn from the mistakes of our past, and in which we actually go boldly where we have never gone before. The fantasy of it, the trappings of vampires, of a goofy British time traveler, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, they’re trappings. Beneath, Reality is still there, more varied and kaleidoscopic than any artist can capture, begging us to make it even better.

 

And, yes, each night, as I drift off to sleep, I wander through fantastical, wonderful scenarios. I win awards, I perform with rock stars, I spend a sordid and sweaty week with Simon Pegg.

 

But the reality that cradles me is pretty sweeter. My boyfriend holds me, working out the problems of the day. And, I am able to sleep, and dream, because I know that in the morning, he will actually be there.

 

That’s what can happen when you accept the world as it is and stop wearing fucking berets. 

 

 

In 1987 Randy Shilts published And the Band Played On, a groundbreaking chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. He had been covering the AIDS epidemic for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1982, but it had taken those five years for the country at large to even begin dragging ass into discussion of the disease.

 

In 1987 Ronald Reagan was spending nearly all of his presidential capital overseas to end the cold war, famously saying on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Upon returning to the US, though, he did turn his mind to the long-neglected and festering injustices of his own country. Almost two weeks after his media victory at the Berlin Wall, on June 25th, the Great Communicator arranged a House Joint Resolution, and issued Presidential proclamation 5672. He brought Republican and Democrat together, and ushered in a new dawn of observance and appreciation.

 

National Catfish Day. “In recognition of the value of farm-raised catfish, the Congress, by House Joint Resolution 178, has designated June 25, 1987, as “National Catfish Day” and authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in its observance.”

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a scant 24 years since the Gipper declared a day of National Catfish appreciation. We’ve come so far. We are still so young.

 

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim June 25 as National Catfish Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

 

Tonight, across the country, in remembrance, families will gather to devour the beasts according to their regional specialties. There will be Tuscaloosa catfish served with corn bread and rice. There will be fried, blackened, and grilled. There will be feasting. And then, once supper is complete, Americans will retire to the television, where the annual viewing of “Grumpier Old Men” will take place.

 

A Presidential Proclamation is intended to be a statement on public policy. They can be substantive, like the Emancipation Proclamation. They can be largely ceremonial, like National Dairy Goat Awareness Week (also, Reagan). But, either way, they are writs delivered to the American people from on high with the sentiment that this is what is important to us, as a country, right here, right now.

 

In June of 1987, it was National Catfish Day.

 

Reagan’s doctors maintain that he showed no signs of Alzheimer’s until the early 90s. Following this assumption, that Reagan was in his right mind, then what he intended we observe and appreciate, to this day, is an animal known for mud digging, bottom feeding, and stabbing bystanders with venomous barbs attached to their mouths. And, you know what, gazing about at the collective asshattery we laughingly refer to as American politics, I’m gonna call Presidential proclamation 5672 a home fucking run.

 

The catfish. In the whole of American poetry there is one line celebrating the catfish. In Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs, Carl Sandburg writes, “I have seen farmhands with their faces in fried catfish on a Monday morning.” Man, what a crap poem.

 

The catfish. I’ll grant that a great many catfish have died in America. I’ll even grant that the deaths might have increased as a direct result of Reagan’s endorsement. In 1987, 190 million pounds of catfish were consumed in the US. Also, in 1987, over 40,000 people had died from AIDS, and another 70,000 had contracted it. Since 1980, Reagan had not publicly mentioned AIDS, let alone issued a presidential proclamation regarding it. But, lest you think Reagan was entirely silent on the matter, the New York Times published a brief piece in April of that year entitled “Reagan Urges Abstinence for Young to Avoid AIDS”. His exact words on the subject were, “I think that that particular subject should be taught in connection with values, not simply taught as a physical, mechanical process…But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?

 

In short, don’t have sex, or you’ll get what’s coming to you.

 

One hopes he wasn’t in his right mind. One hopes that if he’d been in possession of his full abilities his response would have been different. But, coming from the man whose legacy involves trickle down economics, neo-cons, and ketchup as a vegetable, who knows?

 

So, we are left with National Catfish Day as one of the many bewildering, absurd, and pathetic monuments of Ronald Reagan. How should we observe with appropriate ceremonies and activities? What would be the correct show of honor, not only for the noble catfish, but for the man who brought national attention to them?

 

Perhaps a reading from Dante’s Inferno. The ninth circle, treachery. Second level, the traitors to country and citizens. “…one head hooded the other one; the way the starving devour their bread, the soul above had clenched the other with his teeth where the brain meets the nape.” The betrayer’s skull is forever gnawed by his victims, you see. We shall read aloud, and tell our children stories of how catfish devour more than they feed others. Like we teach the fairy tale of Santa on the roof, we will teach the poetic justice of our 40th president consigned to eating the muck in hell’s carpet, a generation of AIDS victims forever gnawing on the back of his addled, vile head.

 

Or, maybe just a catfish fry at a gay wedding in New York. Maybe that.

 

Happy Catfish Day.

 

 

 

 

 

Hello friends.

I am long overdue in posting this. Back in March the grand high wonderment that is Ian Belknap (Dean of Mean, Minister of Veracity, Overlord) deigned to have me over for his monthly battle royale known as WRITE CLUB.

3 rounds. 6 writers. Going toe to toe on differing topics before a paying audience, and all for charity. Truly, it is great.

I was given the topic FOUND, and faced off against the estimable Noelle Krimm doing LOST. I lost. Justly. But here’s my first venture into the storefront blood sport. Enjoy!

I killed Lost when I was seven years old, standing before the congregation of a small Presbyterian church. You’re welcome. It wasn’t hard. Lost just sucks, like someone who promises to have sex with you for six years before pulling the “they were all really dead” card.

But back to my tale. I was raised a Christian. In a modest Floridian town. Everyone’s business was known by everyone else and, accordingly, everyone was judged in the court of public opinion. And on Sundays this was emphasized with the discussion of the lost and found. Who was lost, who had been lost but now was found, what they’d done to be lost, be found, and on and on. I remember trying to count the minutes until we could go to Dairy Queen and cursing whoever had decided that I had to wear pantyhose in a church with no air conditioning. And I wondered if my lack of patience in church meant that I was lost. I know now that though I was raised a Christian, I was born a pragmatic Agnostic, and my doubts were natural. At the time, I worried. Others worried about me, too, and confided that they were concerned with the contents of my heart, and where I might end up. Before I was seven. I had no words at age six to refute them. I didn’t know the phrase “pragmatic agnostic”, which might have come in handy. These people were my friends, and I do not remember them with anger, or condescension. They were smart, good people, and we had a difference of opinion. But there sure as shit were a lot more of them than there were of me, and it is tiring for a child to hear that she’s going to hell. All wit aside, it is hard, and frightening. I imagined hell as a game of hide and seek where I was forever “It”, and knew the people I loved were around somewhere, but I could never find them and they never came looking for me, and at night I would apologize in the dark, hoping that the presence my community said was God would hear me. Once I was apologizing in the early morning and thought I heard someone say my name in response. “Caitlin.” And that was worse than no answer at all, because the voice was bored with me. I was five, and already God had no patience for me.

To be fair, I was a mouthy kid. Church was a weekly trial for my parents as well, but for different reasons. Every Sunday, at the halfway point of service, our minister, Gabe Goodman, would invite all the children up to the front of the church for an easily digestible mini-sermon, after which we kids would talk about what we’d learned. In front of everybody. There were Sundays my parents regretted ever encouraging me to speak. Whenever I got a chance to grill the God expert I took it. “God loves you.” Why? “Because you’ve accepted him.” But we’ve never met. “You don’t have to.” Why? “Because he’s all around.” Why can’t I see him? “You aren’t looking hard enough.” Is it because I was born with crossed eyes? Why would God make it so I can’t see him? Why? And I received answers I didn’t understand, and I apologized in the dark, and reconciled myself to being Lost.

Then one Sunday, Minister Goodman called for the kids, and up I went with my pantyhose running and sticking and my patent leathers cutting my feet, and Gabe started to talk about our failures. How we came into life failing, and losing, and I feel no anger now, but in that moment I was four feet of blonde rage. So now, according to this God, who refused to come out and explain the rules, I was a failure before the game even started? And so was my little sister, Laurel, in her pink cowboy boots, and so was my baby brother, Walker, three months old and my favorite thing in the world. Well, fuck that. Say whatever you want about me, you pissant bully, but talk about my siblings again and I will hunt you down. I will find you, and you will wish you’d never arranged for me to be born.

Hitched up my goddamn hose, put my skinny arm up in the air, and found some words. Words, which have remained my salvation. “I don’t think there is such a thing as failure. My mom says if I stick to my morals, there’s just set backs. I don’t believe in failure. I don’t.” I remember their faces, which gave up on me. I remember my mother’s face. More specifically, I remember that it wasn’t angry. And that was when I discovered that I didn’t believe I was Lost. I didn’t believe in Hell. I didn’t believe I was anything besides a logical person who meant no one harm, and that was good enough.

Lost? Fuck lost. Lost is a shit pile of misspellings, grave dirt brushed from your hands, busted cherries, blind faith, and layoffs. Come at me, Lost, you false Christ. I renounce you, I deny you, I turn my back. I save myself. I fail, sometimes. I do believe in failure. But I find it within myself to stand, and walk, and do it better the next time, and I am the only thing that makes that happen, I have found.

Found is knowledge, and progress, and strength. It is acceptance, but of your own code, and not a rote lesson. Found is muscle memory in nimble fingers, and empathy from experience, and honor. It is footing, and your calling, and the way, and true love, and forgiveness. You can find it in your heart to forgive the people who did not know they were killing a child. Gabe Goodman, I find room in my heart for your good intentions. Community Presbyterian Church, I find room in my heart for your education and hopes for me. God, I find a sliver of doubting room in my heart for you, because mystery is a gift. Should you ever make yourself known, I will treat you as you would like to be treated. Because, though happily a pragmatic Agnostic, I have found that I’m also what some would call a good Christian.

Never was lost. Am found.

Hello friends.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of performing at The Paper Machete, Chicago’s premiere weekly live periodical. As tomorrow brings round once more the celebration of Buddy Christ, I’m posting the mp3 of my piece on the history and cultural significance of PEEPS.

Click on the link and enjoy.

PEEPS


The Paper Machete

Hello Friends!

Recently I had the pleasure of dropping by The Paper Machete in Chicago. Here’s a transcript of my piece on our race to colonize space. Enjoy!

In 2011 our steaming, teeming planet will reach a world population of seven billion people. It’s predicted that by the year 2045 we might be nine billion strong.1 Forget the portent filled birds falling from the sky this week, the truest “end days” sign we have is each other. If there are too many of us, the Earth quits. And if the Earth quits, if it suddenly grinds to a halt and shows Ayn Rand how it’s really done, then all we seven billion ladies and gentlemen floating in space will be hurled off, like water droplets from an angry dog. Scary, but more appealing than the human race choking on itself.

There are a number of people trying to address human population control, with varied approaches. China’s male population is taking one for the team and smoking more cigarettes than ever.2 Churches in Egypt are being blown up by Muslims, Christians, Jews, or the US military, depending on who you ask. And, homosexuals continue to not get each other pregnant.

And still others, who hear Carl Sagan whispering in their hearts that the sky calls to us, incline their necks, and pray we can hold out on destroying ourselves for just a little while longer. Just long enough for them to venture to the stars.3

The Romantic scientists theorized that travel through the cosmos was possible. Perhaps we might hop from comet to comet. This was before the understanding that the sun would set on the British Empire, or that enough oxygen is not a given. They also thought we might find new homes or neighbors close by. We know now that there is liquid water on Mars, but no little green men. In fact, within our own solar system Earth is the only planet we could possibly inhabit. Air, water, heat, but not too much heat. We’ve got it made. For now.

The search for an extrasolar planet that we might inhabit is ongoing. We’re looking for what’s called “Goldilocks planets”. We’re shopping around at inconceivable distances, which makes it hard to tell whether the air on a planet is good, or if the water’s cool and yielding, but we can tell whether it’s possible for a planet to be friendly, based on its distance from the nearest major star. Too far away, and the planet will be inhospitably cold. Too close, and the heat of the star would turn any humans to cinders. A Goldilocks planet lies just far enough from and close enough to its nearest star. It is “just right” for we thieving children to sleep there.

And, in the waning days of 2010, we found one.

Gliese 581g is the sixth planet around the red dwarf Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. It is 20 light years away from us. Its sun is a third the size of our own. It is, itself, 3 to 4 times larger than Earth, which means its equator is between 75 and 100,000 miles long. It keeps the same face to its dim sun at all times.4 You would have to travel to change from day to night or night to day. A year’s orbit on Gliese 581g would be 37 days. That’s what we know. Precious little, but the imagination fires. We think of the other planets we’ve imagined and the changes we’ve wrought from our own. Does Gliese 581g have the deep red grass of Gallifrey? Do the sightless beats of Ixchel roam? Is it Caladan, covered in oceans? Is it Arrakis, covered in sand? Are there lemon yellow mountains five times the size of Everest, or blood red canyons that travel though its core and out the other side? No one in this room will see it.

At least, not with our current technology. 20 light years away, using our present tools, cannot be traversed. It would take 300,000 years. The Cubs stand a better chance. Again, like crafty apes, we’re trying to troubleshoot. Maybe we could create a huge spaceship with the capabilities to sustain life for 300,000 years. We pick 50 men and 50 women willing to live their entire lives in a spaceship, and to birth generation upon generation that will live their entire lives in the same spaceship (sounds horrible, but we’re basically doing the same thing now, we just don’t notice the walls). It raises issues. How do we pick these people? Who picks these people? Would there be law on the journey? If they did reach Gliese what would they be when they did? It’s problematic. Scientists are pursuing other avenues. Hyperspace might be conquered by the Department of Energy’s Z Machine, bending space and time to our will and allowing us to play hopscotch over to Gliese. But even that technology is decades or centuries away and 2045 promises nine billion people and yesterday a thousand turtle doves fell dead onto a piazza in Ravenna, Italy and Sir Pete Postlewaite is no more and Carl Sagan called it when he said “the universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition”.

There will be much talk of the end of days between now and December 12, 2012, we ought just get ready for the conversation. It’s nothing new, there has always been much talk of the end of days, and there will be until the actual end of days, whenever that might occur. I was 15 in 1999, when the Y2K panic set in. At the time, I was located in a small Southern town with a number of K-Marts, Wal-Marts, and Big Lots. I saw some crazy shit purchased in advance of the apocalypse. And 2000 came and went and all was not well but we were still around to see it. We might very well be around long enough to make it to Gliese, or some other lovely marble. But the fact of the matter is, that even if we succeed in surviving, this Earth has plans of its own. There will be another ice age. One day the constellations will no longer be visible. The continents long to reunite and never, ever break apart again. No one in this room will see it, but one day the sun will burst and trickle. If we are to be around in a billion years, whatever the human race might be at that point, we must be elsewhere. Colonization isn’t an option. It’s what must be. We will wander in the woods until we come to a shelter. If, upon entering, we are not killed by the environment or its denizens, we will appropriate it for ourselves. It’s our way. If we are around long enough to do so, whatever we’ve become, we must remember to extend our new terra firma more courtesy than the last.

But no one in this room will see it.

 

 

1Rauhala, Emily. “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”. Time Magazine January, 7, 2011

2Burkitt, Laurie. “Chinese Smokers Get Dire Warning”. Wall Street Journal January 7, 2001

3 The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars. – Carl Sagan

4Overbye, Dennis. “New Planet May Be Able to Nurture Organisms”. New York Times September 29, 2010

 

Hello friends!

This past week I had the pleasure of performing in Chicago’s The Encyclopedia Show. This month’s topic was brains, and I was given the topic of toxoplasmosis. Here’s my piece. Enjoy!

A small parasite, one found primarily in cat feces, enters your blood stream and makes its way ’round. No major damage, should you have an excellent immune system. But to those who don’t, toxoplasmosis can mean swollen glands, encephalitis, schizophrenia, or, worst of all, Cat Lady Conundrum.

Czechoslovakian scientist Jaroslav Flegr, the foremost researcher into whether or not a mere proximity to cats can cause sad lady-itis, believes toxoplasmosis may be domesticated cats’ way of convincing the human brain that it wants to be eaten by cats. Passive aggressive? Absolutely. Cats are dicks. And they have a plan.

It’s our own fault for domesticating them. We turned wild beasts into mere mousers, and expected them to take it lying down. They did. But cats do not play checkers. Cats play chess. And the long game goes on.

History’s first known victim is a 9,500 year old Neolithic corpse found buried in Cyprus with an eight month old cat. Neolithic cat lady, let’s call her Angie, was perhaps one of the first humans to roll with a domesticated cat. Angie’s flesh has disappeared for the most part, making it difficult for archaeologists to know conclusively what killed her. What we do know is that Angie died alone in her cave. As she kept to herself for the most part, her body was not found for days, leaving plenty of time for her newly domesticated cat to feed upon her. And choke.

Gertrude of Nivelles was a medieval nun, who later became the Catholic patron saint of cats. At the age of ten she declared that she would marry no one except her Lord Jesus Christ (which is God-speak for being forever alone). Gertrude was already displaying signs of Cat Lady Conundrum, having attended several dinners wearing three day old pajamas, serving her kitten diet Coke from a teacup and ham straight from the plastic wrap. By the will of God, she was later devoured by cats.

During the middle ages, we humans began to sense the threat that cats posed to future generations. We began the mass extermination of cats, throwing them off roofs or burning them alive as witches’ familiars. While this was an excellent impulse, the sudden cat decrease allowed the rat population to run rampant, and the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. However, almost no one during this time was eaten by a cat. For a moment, we held toxoplasbastard at bay.

The next great cat lady on record is Joan of Arc. During her crusades in France she was accompanied by four tomcats. She’d found them in a Paris alleyway, smoking black cigarettes and looking so cool. After adopting Jean, Paul, Georges, et Ringo, Joan began hearing divine voices and bells ordering her to free France from the English. She was burned at the stake for her efforts, her four tomcat sentinels sitting coyly below and relishing the thought of a cooked meal. It’s said that Joan’s heart would not burn. But it was sure as hell devoured by four tomcats.

There have been more. Marie Antoinette. Mary Todd Lincoln. Marilyn Monroe.

Marlene Danielle, a dancer, performed in the entire eighteen year Broadway run of CATS. Her career was devoured by cats.

But who would suspect a conspiracy so insidious, or ridiculous? And therein lies its brilliance. And when poor, sad, beige Jennifer Anniston is found with chunks bitten out of her sinewy upper arms, two Siamese queens curled atop her corpse, bearing collars that read “Ghost” and “Darkness”, no one will think twice. Except, perhaps, for a policewoman on the scene. Let’s call her Angie. Even weeks later Angie’s brain will warm, and itch, and she will delight that she took those poor cats home.

 

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