Ichiro is better than Dragon Express.

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Some Thoughts on Aaron Weiss’s guest track “No Friend” on Paramore’s album After Laughter

nofriendlyrics

*unofficial lyrics to spoken-word portion after the song taken from the mwY reddit*

I see myself in the reflection of peoples’s eyes

Realizing what they see may not be even close to the image I see in myself

And I think I might actually be more afraid

I feel like they know the story

I saw a bear floating in the river and thought it was a fur coat

Twelve years ago, I stood on the shore

Jumped in and grabbed the coat

And the river is rushing toward a waterfall

And my friend stood at the shore and shouted to let go of the coat

And swim back to land

I let go of the coat, but the coat won’t let go of me

In any case please let me know if there’s more I can give you

If nothing comes of it, then just know we are grateful

*

The pendulum swings back.

I don’t know much about Paramore for a person writing about a track on a Paramore album credited simply to Paramore. But that’s okay because Aaron Weiss, guest vocalist and writer and frontman for mewithoutYou, has the envious ability to transform stories into his life, his life into stories. Though essentially functioning as a reverent tribute track to Paramore’s career (seen in stolen lyrics and references to the pop punk band’s oeuvre), in “No Friend” it seems like Weiss cannot help himself from turning a simple guest track into another emotional outlet. This isn’t unprecedented for the man. Weiss’s early, early 2002 guest vocals on Norma Jean’s “Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste” are obvious analogies to his romantic troubles; his 2014 appearance on Say Anything’s “Push” reflected the mature adult realities of family and mental health. I believe it’s fair to say that even Weiss’s secondary works reflect his mindset and function as parts of the mewithoutYou canon.

“No Friend”’s harshness has given me pause. There is self-righteous wrath in Weiss’s voice that hasn’t been heard since at least 2004’s Catch for Us the Foxes, veering closer towards his debut record A->B Life which admittedly was an angsty, power chord-heavy generic hardcore album. His yelling sounds less like a catchy musical effect and more like a genuine beg. You must understand: Weiss has presented himself as on a quieter, increasingly theological trajectory for the past fifteen years. He never mellowed out, per se, but just opted to dive headfirst into religion and philosophy rather than continue writing about failed relationships from years past. This wasn’t an easy trick to win an audience of Christians, as Weiss quickly progressed from Sunday School lessons to rejection of the self, universalism, and the nature of reality. He perhaps rejected the fame and fortune of his peers by going down this path of artistic purity. While his band is a phenomenal group it’s been clear that Weiss’s openness is what gives them definition. I, like many others, found much of my love for the writer in his numerous thoughtful, heart-felt, unafraid of looking uncool interviews of old. I, like many others, experienced the absolute pleasure of sitting down after a performance with the sweaty, tired, bandana-clad singer and picking his brain for an hour. This has been his gimmick. Famous and approachable. Fashionable and homeless. The high-minded man of the people.

So how in the world do I deal with hearing, “I’m no savior of yours, and you’re no friend of mine”? How do I reconcile my admiration of my favorite author with the request, “Throw your pedestal of stone in the forgetful sea as protection from the paper-thin perfection you project on me”? And how does a man who just spent fifteen years in near-monasticism earnestly claim, “Back when I felt most free I had a butcher’s heart and no one thought they knew me”?

Let me tell you a story. It’s not a secret, but very dear. Last November I met Aaron for the third time (the first in 2010 was for a quick hug, the second in 2011 was for an extended talk prompted by my own girl problems). As it was the night after the presidential election Aaron posted to Facebook an open invitation for a post-show Salat prayer. A few people gathered for him, but I was the first applicant. He had to pack his gear first and get everything loaded into the band’s trailer, so I got to wait outside. He’d walk by occasionally and always check if I was still joining him. I was, I was. He knew my name and he treated me as a special individual, and even though he understandably forgot me in the five-year interim he acted as if we had never parted. We prayed together. Our shoulders touched on the rug. As the group dispersed and he gathered to leave I sprang to get a private word with him for a quick moment. He slung his arm around my shoulder and asked, “Yes, brother?” I teased him about being one of the few to see his shameless Joyce references in his latest album and then I asked for a picture. As I waited for Snapchat to focus I saw his tooth smile turn to a neutral expression for my image, a deliberate sabotage I speculate was in reaction to public celebrity suddenly interfering with private intimacy. We waved and departed. But still, he put his arm around my shoulder. He called me his brother. He invited the people, brought the rug, found the alleyway, taught the method. He provided and I received, as has been the case since I was a teenager in my basement bedroom with a CD player and a curfew.

meandaaron

What I realized in 2016 that I didn’t in 2011 is how much this takes out of a man. This love, this kindness. The joy of being a decent person can add much (including, dangerously, an ego problem), but these measures of fan appreciation remove time and thought and experiences from any other thing. In that five-year interim Weiss was married and had a child. They joined the band for the tour. His every moment with me was another second removed from his family. He revealed to me that he truly wanted to visit the pinball arcade nearby but didn’t, for he found the praying more important. He revealed that his band was ready to leave and hit the next town. “My driver’s waiting so let’s make one point crystal clear: You see a flood-lit form, I see a shirt design.” When I watch old videos of Weiss talking theology, I no longer see a genius or a holy man. I see a kid younger than my younger friends repeating some basic philosophy and Biblical values to maintain an aesthetic. That all said, the guy’s mind is brilliant and he has introduced me to more beautiful works and avenues of thought than I care to admit, but he was a kid, man. Musical talent aside, he’s another guy. He’s any guy. Maybe he’s even me. But is that assuming too much?

Some months ago I was pedestaled. I felt my weight cracking the foundation. I heard endless compliments. I was such a special guy, so kind, so smart, so generous. Sure, I appreciated the words but began noticing a tone of helplessness from the speaker that placed on me unnecessary burdens. Rather than my alleged abilities inspiring another to perform in equal measure it was merely understood that I had some special nature or aura that gave me supernatural qualities. The speaker of sweet nothings never saw this as a muscle or learned technique, and they just guessed they didn’t have this own capacity within them and therefore never tried. As a strange result I felt my own goodness unappreciated. Because my actions (as a friend, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on) were attributed to mystic forces around me or within me, my hard work, along with my inherent tit-for-tat selfish motivations for a friend of my own, was never complimented. I became an idol, and on a pedestal anything can be an idol.

Weiss is, as he says in “No Friend,” sleeping in the bed he’s made. His actions have led to expectations, and the acceptance or rejection of these expectations lead fans to elation or disappointment. But Weiss, at least up until 2015’s Pale Horses when this modern thought began, never let on to the emotional, mental, physical toll it has taken on him after fifteen years of being the relatable hero young, confused kids always want to talk to for an hour after a dancing, screaming, exhausting performance. And just like Weiss’s musical capabilities, he has been performing, always. In every interview, every guest track, every handshake or prayer or dumpster dive. It would be unfair to say I don’t actually know anything of the man – I do. It would also be unfair to say he’s harboring some dark and repulsive secret – he probably isn’t. But I must respect, as must we all, the fine line between public and private and the lack of knowledge I do have. Everything has been provided, the humanity is just an art piece. A drawing’s not an artist even when an artist draws himself.

The resentment in “No Friend” has the adverse effect of making me only more grateful for the kindness Weiss has provided me. It reshapes his image from a holy man to a man who may offer you his time or friendship or love due to his own volition. This is how all of us operate. None of us are saviors. And when we talk big, when we call for togetherness or join hands in communion, when we impress potential mates with charismatic hijinks or beautiful poetry or stories of religious experience from thousands of years ago the truth is that we’re not doing much more than repeating all the people who came before us.

And yet in the spoken-word portion of the song, after the official lyrics end, you hear an admission and apology. “I let go of the coat, but the coat won’t let go of me. In any case please let me know if there’s more I can give you. If nothing comes of it, just know we are grateful.” Aaron Weiss is a great man, but he’s not any greater than you are.

Memories

My only memory of taking ACAD, the introductory freshman course at Winthrop, during my starting semester in the Fall of 2007 is when a girl with freckles, a button nose, and waist-length straight brown hair, who claimed to be a model, who was attractive but in the preppy way where an otherwise kindhearted soul is naïve to the fact she hangs out with the bullies, asked a boy, around 6’1” or 6’2”, muscular but in a nonspecific way, perhaps a badminton or ultimate frisbee enthusiast, with a tousle of sandy blonde hair, what he was wearing around his neck. “It’s an ankh,” he replied. “It means peace. It’s from ancient Egypt.” The rest of the class awkwardly watched this encounter as it took place during the last thirty seconds of class.

The girl whispered to her friend as they left class together. “He’s so deep.” The ankh means life.

I went swimming with my church’s youth group. The girl I had a crush on caught a glimpse of my bare feet. “Are you alright? What is that?” It was dual circular patches of dry, flaky skin right above my toes. I said that I didn’t know, don’t worry about it. Well, it’s psoriasis. It’s not a big deal. I get the cream and slather it on and it goes away and if anyone does see an outbreak I have an answer at the ready. But that’s now and I didn’t have the answer for her at fifteen. I was embarrassed of my physical body, thinking it was a part of my physical body and not a disease. If I was fifteen again and developed cancer I’d just live with a gigantic tumor growing inside of me because I’d assume it was another natural part of myself to be ashamed of. I never went to my parents about the flaky skin, never made a fuss about an odd rash. I don’t know why. I don’t have a good reason, at least besides an unearned feeling of shame stemming from nothing.

The Wii came out over ten years ago. On launch day I went to Chris’s house and fawned over his console. We played a trombone in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz but it barely worked. Later Nick came over and we got into Wii Sports. He and I stood parallel to one another during baseball, which is totally not how baseball works in reality, with me pitching, and Nick swung so hard he hit the controller right into my funnybone.

The first movie I saw in theaters was Beauty and the Beast. I was enraptured by the whole thing. I knew how to be quiet and pay attention to a book and was told it’s the same for a movie so I did just that. I don’t remember the experience but it’s what I’m told.

I do, however, remember my sister’s first movie, Aladdin. About half-way through, around the time a giant sand panther head emerges in the desert (I haven’t fully watched it since) I turned to look at my little sister and she had fallen asleep. The plebeian, I thought. She doesn’t appreciate the arts as I do. I was four years old.

My initial profile picture on Last.fm was an image of a clock where every digit was replaced with the word “rape” and Pyramid Head, the sexually assaulting antagonist of the Silent Hill video game series, standing off to the side, saying, “Good Heavens, just look at the time!”

It’s hard to remember why I thought that image was funny. It was cheap, a rape joke, I guess, but did it even qualify as a joke? My girlfriend didn’t say anything, no one said anything. Perhaps I was enamored with the absurdity of the image, the mixture of a “lol random” word and a forbidden word, as in one imbued with meaning. I certainly never approved of sexual assault or found the concept amusing, but when the language was wrapped around an early nihilistic meme it became silly. I blindly scanned past the image for several years until one day when I was all of a sudden awakened and decided to change it.

Meanwhile my friends were being raped.

God knows what you’d find on all of my failed hard drives. I wish I knew too.

“As I have said, we stood there for a long time in a strong embrace, but with her face lowered against my chest, and my own eyes staring across the room and out a window into the deepening obscurity of the evening. When she finally raised her face, I saw that she had been silently weeping. Why was she weeping? I have asked myself that question. Was it because even on the verge of committing an irremediable wrong she could weep at the consequence of an act which she felt powerless to avoid? Was it because the man who held her was much younger than she and his embrace gave her the reproach of youth and seven years? Was it because he had come seven years too late and could not come in innocence? It does not matter what the cause. If it was the first, then the tears can only prove that sentiment is no substitute for obligation, if the second, then they only prove that pity of the self is no substitute for wisdom. But she shed the tears and finally lifted her face to mind with those tears bright in her large eyes, and even now, though those tears were my ruin, I cannot wish them unshed, for they testify to the warmth of her heart and prove that whatever her sin (and mine) she did not step to it with a gay foot and with the eyes hard with lust and fleshly cupidity.”

Last night I dreamt I was in the basement of my old Fort Wayne home, playing cards with the boys. As we passed around draw twos and draw fours I lamented about some girl I was pining over, which is strange because this girl is from Rock Hill and I did not meet her until years after I would’ve been playing cards in the basement of my old Fort Wayne home. We had been in a few classes and I had gone out with her a few times but it never led to anything and I wasn’t hung up on it because it wasn’t a new genre of rejection. Oh well!, I say to my conscious being. Perhaps it bothers me still, not because she had done anything wrong or because I was particularly deserving but because after years of being a rampant piece of shit I had finally approached a romantic interest as a mature adult and had nothing to show for it but a slightly-better understanding of coffee variants.

We all sat and lamented as we once did and when Glen Lake Drive was at its quietest, half-an-hour before dawn, Jarrett stood to leave. I helped gather his things, his controllers and wires, into a black duffel bag and followed him upstairs to the front door. He seemed perfectly confident in his exit of the home, having opened and shut my doors at his will dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. But as he turned the handle of my front door I felt a desire to stop him and hug him before he left. I wanted to call out, to say, “Alright, later,” and deliver my embrace casually as if it were a mutually understood way to part. I felt the passing of every millisecond as I waited for the proper moment to pull him in close, quickly, loosely, friendly, and as I waited for my opportune moment my throat became clogged with thought and he unknowingly opened the front door, said his goodbye as if we would see each other in the cafeteria tomorrow, and departed.

Love is the Same Thing You’ve Heard Before

Love is Grammy walking away from Pop’s casket and knowing she’ll never love again. As it goes. Love is the same thing you’ve heard before. It is not an alien invader. It is the book you already read, the genre fiction you found all the flaws in, the literary technique repetitive and tiring. Love is the shameless ripoff. It is the lines of literature directly quoted to fool and impress. Love is kidnapping Tao Lin’s “Love is…” short story titles, adopting Robert Penn Warren’s laborious, comma-ridden consciousness, and passing it off as ingenuity that of which the world has never seen. Every person tells every other person their love is unique. Love is not unique.

Love is the cat laying on your ribcage in the morning. Love is the poking elbow. Love is walking into the woods behind the apartment complex or crossing the water to the houseless side of the lake and finding that beer cans exist there, too. Love may or may not be your first kiss, but it’s where your first kiss was – a place already conquered and civilized by generations before you learned how silly smooching was. Love is when you drive by your old house in your old hometown that you had moved away from seventeen years ago and still feel a sense of ownership not over the item but over your memories (“It’s still mine to me”). Love is not only the ever-present Living God but also the Dead One. It is the nap in the backseat. The nap in the backseat while the hot air balloons pass over. It is the meaning of memory.

Love is mewithoutYou. More specifically love is mewithoutYou when they are the only band you really listen to and they’re just a group of guys on a bus that can break down or drive off a railless mountain pass and kill the music with it and you’re forced to drive home alone from the cancelled concert listening to hushed voices on talk radio. But most of the time love is when Aaron puts his arm around you and forces you to look him in the eyes.

Love is not a DVD collection but is seen within the DVD collection when any movie you play conjures specific moments in a friend’s basement, your first viewing of a film that changed your life, a joke delivered perfectly after an epic hero’s monologue. Love is writing a good critical paper and feeling proud of it, and it’s also skipping an assignment to watch the sunrise. Love is never about violence or abuse or punching a friend in the gut, but occasionally it’s about you getting punched in the gut and dropping to your knees, looking up to find the perpetrator, and finding no one in sight. Love is divine revelation and what we pretend is divine revelation.

Love is above the river on the train tracks on the bridge you can barely make out from miles away. It is the impromptu trip to nothing. The romantic element of adventure. It is also the routine. Love is between dusty graduate theses and it is in the steam coming from Miso Sushi. Love is the tympanic membrane getting the news of the day. Love is accountability. Love is me being wrong and thinking damn, damn, later, I guess I was. It is always the truth. It is always nature.

Love is the salat on kitchen floor tiles. The phone call from the cops. The firemen who stepped foot in your living room. Love is the crazed fervor, the sleep, and then no longer the crazed fervor. Love is writing a joke on a sheet of notebook paper and watching her take it seriously. Then the smile as you lie on the couch and realize what’s really happening. Love is too long for a Tinder profile. It’s also too short for life.

I believe I have given up on love as performative showmanship. I do not value immediate gratification as I once did. I am less focused on labels, of “in love” versus “not in love.” I no longer toss and turn about virginity and conquests. Love, however, is not hypocrisy and I am in all likelihood a hypocrite. But I am just a sign and never the signified. I am not the thing to hold onto, though I hope to do my best in maintaining the greater thing to hold onto. I am no easy task, no warm, enveloping blanket, no divine revelation. Just a messenger. Love is making it up as you go along. Love is what you’ve done all along.

Love is the slow, stumbling steps up my stairs. It is the knock. Love is the trembling thighs as you hear Him walk towards the door. Love is the abject terror of The List of Sins, the document he surely made to judge your character. Love is planting your feet like the roots of a tree and not budging even in the face of annihilation, determined to stand up against whatever Love isn’t. Love is forgiveness. But the greatest Love of all is forgetting. We all forget.

Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial

The other day I was asked, “Why do you give so much of a damn about _____?” The _____ was Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, a book I first read less than two years ago and yet have already written two academic papers about (one short, one uninteresting). If you’ve talked to me about literature in the past year, you’ve heard me gush. Recommending the novel has become muscle memory. I don’t rack my brain in a selfless attempt to find just the right book for just the right person, I spew the spit from the tip of my tongue that hits the listener square on the nose and when they wipe away the spit with their hand and look at their hand while trying hard not to bring up me accidentally spitting in their face they read “READ ALL THE KING’S MEN,” all capital letters sticky between their fingers.

The truth is that the question posed to me was not so antagonistic as I relate here. It was far more open-ended. I was to explain why I like the book. But “the book” could translate as easily to any other thing which has captured me and held my attention far, far longer than the course of reading. Asking me why I like All the King’s Men is like asking me why I liked High Fidelity so much in high school, a book that, in retrospect, has many qualities of a proto-All the King’s Men (despite being written fifty years later, it functions as a prototype in my chronological life). It’s asking me why I listen to mewithoutYou on repeat, singing it to myself in the shower, when falling asleep. It’s why I like Swamp Thing more than Batman. These related media aren’t me, I have to constantly remind myself, but they’re about me. They’ve become more than enjoyable reads, some lighthearted summer fare or even a great novel in a college course that you enjoy but didn’t enjoy as much as your peers, but philosophical approaches to life. And maybe the philosophy of my favorite things only makes sense to me because I’m me. Maybe I can never ever relate the struggle. Maybe others will read it and go “It was ok, I liked it alright,” and I’ll have to roll with the physical assault. But you at least deserve an answer.

I’ve learned to not be a human. My self has fallen into discrete categories. This book is a part of me. This book is another. This video game, another, this podcast, another. No one but me has the full picture, the full history. I’ve written diatribes that mean a lot and say nothing. I’ve taken secrets to my grave. In the effort to “grow up and be an adult,” I’ve left a lot of passion behind. I’m very happy to not constantly be making an ass of myself, on one hand, but on the other I sorely miss the enthusiasm, the depression, romance, hate, unbridled infectious liveliness that caused me to be an ass fifty percent of the time and a saint the other fifty.

So I’ve turned to metonymy.

The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? aren’t anything I’ve ever lied about, but they are topics I steer conversation clear of. They’ve become isolated incidents, things I can parse out as aberrations of my “usual” self. “That was a weird summer.” “It was a different time in my life.” “I apologized already.” I work hard at making them irrelevant today. I remind myself that people change, they evolve, they don’t grow into bigger, meaner versions of the snips and snails that created them. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are excised from the body, cut off like a gangrene leg, all screams and flails and then sleep and phantom pains.

At least that’s how I try and sell it. Problem is, all these books from people infinitely smarter than myself show me the end of that road. And they show me how to dig myself out. And the digging myself out fucking hurts.

Middle-class white men with ego issues attempt to reconcile their past with the present and in doing so admit their sins. Jack Burden drives West to replay his mental home movie because he cannot deal with the fact that he pushed Anne Stanton away with his carelessness and false bravado. Rob revisits past relationships when Laura dumps him for being insensitive. Aaron repeats old lyrics with new meaning when Amanda is long, long gone and he gets married to someone his old self had never planned on (Nature Had Another Plan!). Reconcile, replay, revisit, repeat, rewrite. Relive and arrive at some conclusion you hadn’t thought possible. Maybe you two will get back together or maybe you never will and no matter the matter who you are and what you are is not a separate being than the egotistical self-centered jerkwad but the inevitable conclusion of it. The Deep, Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010? are shared, first inwardly, then outwardly, and they lead to some path that you are afraid will lead to loneliness but will probably just end up leading to a functioning human.

I hit my girlfriend. Back in 2009. We were fighting, a bit too much for a relationship considered serious, and then, smack, without even thinking about it. Knocked her glasses off and they fell to the cold dormitory floor and didn’t break. Her face, shocked, made mine, frenzied. I couldn’t believe it (God, I still can’t) and ran for the knife for the obvious solution, certainly before apologizing to her, which would be to “…cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.” So after slapping her across the face she was the one to comfort me, to tell me she forgave me and understood the reasoning even if the action wasn’t good and that no, no, I didn’t literally have to amputate. I said I’d never do it again. And I d

You know what I did the next night? We were fighting again, and I did it again.

“The Incident” is no longer an incident, it is a living reality no fun tricks of nomenclature can cover up. “The Dark Secrets of 2009? 2010?” pale, absolutely pale, in comparison to others but my own ego, my own false strength insists that the worse is the worst simply because I’m the one who did it. I’m the worst. Social media would crucify me, and they’d be right to. I’m as big a shithead as the rest of them. I’m a Lifetime movie villain. I’m the manipulative ex-boyfriend dead in the ditch flung from the open jeep off the bridge with mud in my blood. I’m an abused abuser (or does it sound “better” as the abuser abused?) who swore the self to secrecy not because of ramifications but because of the lack of them. I had to protect myself and I had to punish myself and in the protection I punished and I punished and I punished. I practiced Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial.

Suburban Ritualistic Self-Denial is the Protestant practice of self-isolation, self-subservience, self-mutilation, self-Self-Denial when no confessions are available, no penance can be made, no incense can be burned, when the father can berate you and the counselor can arrest you and the friends can abandon you (maybe they won’t, but maybe the chances increase with knowledge), when the Thanksgiving Feast is eaten alone in the bedroom on the floor by the record player and the shed fur of the dead cat and you say to yourself, “I will enjoy this life! But I will enjoy it by the smell of gasoline and the cockroach-ridden walls!” It’s the price of freedom, of too much money and too much time, of not having to wake up at eight in the morning every day and allowing yourself to ruminate in bed all day to turn inward upon yourself upon the universe a thousand times creating, not recreating but simply creating, a thousand separate names for the hit, the incident, the slap, the dark secret, a Thousand Names for God. It’s what you’ve got when you’ve not got.

I say I “see myself” in All the King’s Men, but that means nothing in its short, innocuous phrasing. Is he a Student of History? Is he neurotic? Is he cold? Or is it I’m on that trip out West and it hasn’t taken me three days but has taken me five years and my home movie is on repeat and I never took the advice to burn it and live callously? Or did I live callously, because when I look down at my toes I see callouses burning off? Did I make a mistake, or did He make a mistake, He being me of some different era and different Name that I can partition into a locked safe while I bleed out in Real-Time and not All-Time? Because that’s what I mean when I say I “see myself.” I see myself loving, angry, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, heart beating coffin thumping up to surface worms between teeth saying I need another chance, I need another chance, I don’t need to hit again but I need to be angry enough to hit and then not hit and maybe my right arm can write poetry or play music or hold an infant and not be all severed tendons and bloodsoaked bedsheets.

I have made my penance and no one saw. Here it is. It’s in an condominium in Hunter’s Chase, off Celanese and next to the Krispy Kreme, and the floor is dirty and sagging from pacing and jumping and falling and kissing the ground when landing. It’s nasty and it’s mine but it can’t be only mine.

So there’s your answer.

“…for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody’s fault, for things are always as they are.”

I am very sorry.

Dean

I first met Dean

in December in my bed.

 

He bit the ends of my fingertips as I traced her back.

He nipped my nose when my hands flipped her over

and he told me to stop.

 

I brush my teeth and I pop a pill and I apply a cream.

I set the alarm (8:30 with no snooze)

and I can only think of the movies I’ve never seen.

 

I white-water raft and try to climb a mountain. I cook a hot dog.

I listen to songs played by crickets and watch light shows performed by fireflies

and I can only think of the albums I’ve never heard.

 

I kiss a woman. I hold her in my arms after we make love.

I peek over her shoulder at her graphic design homework

and I can only think of the art museums I’ve never visited.

 

I read a book. It is by an author I like. I am quiet on a bench and I am invested.

I get to chapter two and decide it’s a favorite

and I can only think of the books I’ve never read.

 

I think of Dean.

Sext: Poop

She wrote this and held her face up to the ceiling and its spinning fan blades and its glow-in-the-dark star stickers. Thinking about the tweet made her laugh and her laugh was a cackle and each “ha” was enunciated as a separate article. She held her face up to the ceiling and said “ha-ha-ha-ha.” She had made a joke and it was a funny joke and her friends and admirers would enjoy it because she had said it was a joke and anyone who did not laugh at the joke was, to her, a humorless ogre. She wrote three longer tweets explaining the joke, explaining that the idea of a sexual text message merely containing the word “poop” was strange and baffling and metacontextual after the string of internet sext jokes devolved into saying words that sounded silly. She had dissected a frog and each pin that held the frog’s chest cavity open was liked by over ten thousand subscribers.

When Mark, her ex-boyfriend and first cousin twice removed, asked her to join him at a Thai restaurant on 8th street, she agreed. They hugged when they met but she made sure to slap his back during the hug so that he wouldn’t feel too comfortable. Mark ordered the thing with chicken in it. She practiced saying “tom yam kung nam khon” before ordering and when she ordered she said all the words too fast and they merged together into “tomymkunamon.” The waitress understood the order and always understood the order.

The two friends both took pictures of their food before eating, but she put her spoon in the tom yam kung nam khon first to make it appear as if she hadn’t snapped a picture of a pre-eaten meal (to do so would be passé). They updated each other on the contents of their lives, about how Mark had recently left his job at Walgreens to work at CVS because CVS was more interested in the plight of the working class, about how she had sworn to never talk to her sister Diamond ever again after she had betrayed the family by moving out. The two started to talk about books but realized they hadn’t read any new books since the four months they had last seen each other, so they talked about internet essays. They agreed in everything. They agreed in nearly everything. Mark said Tegan & Sara weren’t very good anymore and was chastised into saying that they had simply changed as artists.

She was having such a good time with Mark that she decided they should go back to her place, her parent’s place, her childhood bedroom, for drinks and a movie. She put her fingers in her mouth to whistle for a cab but no noise would come out and she spit all over her fingers. After that she started whistling normally. After that she grabbed Mark by the arm and walked the three miles back to her place, her parent’s place. The pair started looking at everything they saw along the way, saying the name for the thing aloud (Stop sign! Crosswalk! Billboard advertisement for Nike!) and laughing at its sound. Mark would look at people walking by them and swivel his head to keep looking as they passed.

She was taken aback when, upon entering the den, Diamond was seen in her usual chair, laying in the recliner as if it were a couch, looking at her phone and sending pictures of her bare feet. It was enough for her to tell Diamond hello and keep walking. It was stupid, she supposed, but it was a normal human response to brainwashing that would be overcome with time and effort. Up in her room, she and Mark sat on the edge of the bed drinking cheap tall cans of urine-flavored beer and watched a big-budget Hollywood movie on her scalding hot laptop. The film was one she had wanted to see in theaters but didn’t watch during its theatrical run because her friends made fun of the director when she brought the movie up. They went to her room instead and filed through physical and digital shelves of purchased films, talking about each one and its worthiness or worthlessness but ended up talking so long that it became too late to watch a movie. She and Mark watched thirty minutes of explosions destroy Vancouver, but during the sequence they believed the movie was set in New York City. The main character lived in and went to school in Vancouver but she and Mark had never been outside of New York City and hadn’t realized that the rest of the world was not all like New York City. Mark swore he saw the Thai restaurant they had just been to on 8th street in the film.

She stood up to open the window, she opened the window, she unsealed the fake can of Sprite that contained Ziploc bags of marijuana, and then Mark reached into his backpack and threw out a one-pound bag of pot mustard pretzels. Mark said he had yet to try them and would rather try something unconventional for the evening. It took a half-pound each for her and Mark to feel any change. She showed him her writing, her webpage where “Sext: Poop” was the hit of the day with the numbers of favorites and retweets updating in real-time, the numbers so fast they appeared to only increase in three digits. Mark was impressed with her work and as she scrolled down the page to show him all the other sexting jokes, he began to kiss the back of her neck in a lightly-felt but controlled rotation.

After Mark left, after he gave up his efforts and allowed himself to brood on the edge of the bed for a minute and a half, she turned back to her computer to write. She wanted to say things of merit and of substance, to write an inspirational blog post telling younger women to not settle with abusive men or to take a bold stance on an ongoing war. She came off her high staring at the computer, only slowly moving her hands from her empty lap to the keyboard to write about her trouble. Her writing about her trouble was not about her trouble but about her trouble with trouble. She wrote of guilt and of shame and of suicide and of her continued existence at the foot of the bed. She wrote that to be herself she must always be in a perpetual state of dull stillness and that this dull stillness was funny because her fans could relate.

She was taken by surprise when she received an email from a prominent ebook publisher who specialized in young writers from New York City. Elaine Griggs, the woman in charge of small-time publishing house Quackle McButterson, wrote to her that she was “a better poet than she realized,” that “your value system and moral code, though appearing to be purely esoteric, are indubitably universal”, and that she expressed “unbridled, passionate, beautiful, irregular and yet utterly charming sincerity.” She read the email five times over, attempting to wrap her mind around the possibility of worldwide success and of being a staple of sincerity, because in the little shred of understanding left she knew that the last sincere thing she had said was two months ago and was about enjoying French fries.

The Nu-Metal Classics

Fort Wayne’s 98.9 THE BEAR writes that it’s the city’s only ROCK station in all capital letters. Its website features a “Babe of the Day,” which doesn’t seem Indiana-specific but looks more like hastily copied-and-pasted photos from the first images in a porn set. The station’s top DJ is named “John the Mexican.” In his photo he’s wearing a sombrero, but, though I may get into hot water by determining a person’s ethnicity based purely on facial features, he sure looks like a white guy.

Hard rock is what I started listening to as soon as middle school began. I say “Hard” rock, but it’s not hard. It’s not like the suburban Midwest was playing GG Allin or Black Flag. Everything in suburbia is hard like Daughtry is hard. My mom and my after-school tutor were both American Idol fans and nearly every week had to have a short discussion about how different Daughtry was, and how they liked him despite being such a rocker! He has a wallet chain! He has a bald head (on purpose)! He has tattoos, and tattoos are crazy and different and not a thousand-year old establishment. I raised my nose at them. I did a “Nyugh!” and went back upstairs.

Even within the couple of years that I stopped listening to Suburban Dad Rock I instantly recognized my failings. Neither of my parents are musically inclined. I don’t say that to criticize or anything, they just never had music on. They had records, sure, but their latest (and, hilariously, greatest) was Bruce Willis’s The Return of Bruno. If I wanted an album to listen to as I anxiously paced in my bedroom, it was Radio Disney or Weird Al Yankovic or borrowing one of my sister’s *NSync CDs and attempting to judge the thing on its own merits. So when I learned there was music out there for adults, assumedly, and not just for kids, I eagerly downloaded every post-grunge nu-metal song from Kazaa that I could find. Yeah, Kazaa. In case I didn’t mention it, I am an exceptionally old man and this was the turn of the century.

The first thing anyone remembers about the 2000s is 9/11. I hate to bring it up, but it’s something defining and is more concrete than just a fluttery literary notion. The fall of 2000 had a silly, embarrassing presidential election, but it didn’t matter until the chickens came home to roost. A lot of music was written in the wake of the attack. Some of it was peaceful and earnest. A very tiny minority of it was thoughtful. The vast majority of it was angry at no definable source, though generally assumed to be a girl instead of rightful culprit the elimination of the Glass-Steagall Act, and hysterically patriotic. That was nu-metal in 2003. Think of a naked obese man draped in an American flag who, when sitting on his couch, smells and feels Dorito dust rising from the cushions, and loudly grunts obscenities when reaching for the remote. By 2007 he gives up, collapses, masturbates, and falls asleep. Popular music is still popular music, but I do think we’ve gotten better.

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the hits 98.9 THE BEAR played back in 2003 and assuredly still plays today (because the station is garbage). Maybe I’ve been too harsh. Maybe my personal life is too tied up in tastes and experiences to look at popular culture with an objective eye. Maybe “shut up and turn off your brain!” really is a legitimate response to people who pay attention to things. Maybe it’s just been eleven years and I want to see how much I’ve really changed.

Here are the number one U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks of the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-three.

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When You Stay a Christian in College

“Anybody, any denomination, it doesn’t matter if they’re a rabbi or a cleric, you know, when they tell their sermons, you know. They do one every week, and they run out of material pretty quickly. They’ve gotta fuckin’ force in that Isaiah 4:13 in there, so they’ve all got this bullshit story about…

‘You know, uh, last Wednesday I was at the mall with my young niece and some of her skateboarding friends.’

And I’m like, alright, well, alright. You know it’s bullshit. He made something up about skateboarding.

‘Um, hey father? I’m a skateboarder and stuff and I love crazy punk music, but is there a place in Heaven for me?’

You know, whatever. It’s just crap.  It’s lies. It’s just like any politician with his fake story about people you never see.

‘I was in Flint, Michigan last week and a young lady came up to me and said ‘Senator, because of your opponent’s policies, I could not afford Christmas dinner and I was forced to eat my own eyeballs.’’

–          David Cross, “If Baseballs Had AIDS on Them”, Shut Up You Fucking Baby!

“Can I be baptized?”

I asked this in the bathtub. My mother stopped washing my back to ask why, what prompted the question. I told her about the man on the TV who touched his palm to a woman’s forehead and she collapsed, and either I wanted to be baptized to avoid collapsing or I wanted to be baptized to collapse out of happiness. I was supposed to be doing homework, likely math problems, when I saw it. The early 80s-made nine-inch TV in my bedroom was mostly used to play Earthworm Jim, but when I did homework I’d turn to actual programming. Most of the time I heard Home Improvement, and sometimes I heard World Championship Wrestling, but the night before my bath I turned to the televangelists’ station.

I sat on the edge of my bottom bunk bed and peeked over the arms folded on my knees to keep watching.

“Yes, I think we can arrange that,” my mother said.

“I prophesy and know all mysteries

All hidden things are opened up to me

But I don’t know the first thing about love

I don’t know the first thing about love”

–          Thrice, “Moving Mountains, The Alchemy Index Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth

How to Stay Christian in College was given to me around my high school graduation but I didn’t read it until this summer.

From: Pastor Dale & Catherina

“With our love, prayers, and God-speed as you graduate from high school!”

June 9, 2007

Matthew 19:26

For years it was on the pile. By the time I had my own apartment, I was angry at it. It’s spent its years in the closet of the spare room on top of devotionals and old Game Informers. I knew this book was going to make me mad. It made me mad. I sat on a bench at Winthrop Lake surrounded by dragonflies and goose shit with a blue pen to annotate on my own for the first time.

J. Budziszewski is a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. He sells graduating high schoolers fear. There is no beautiful prose in How to Stay Christian in College. There is no heart to it, just a screaming ruleset that blares like the fake bugle from electronic speakers on the tops of buildings at boy scout camp once the camps got too big and everyone’s explorations were replaced with schedules. Every metaphor is war-like. “Under attack” and “defend yourself” and “sword and shield.” There are endless stated facts without citations, without explanation. This is the way it ought to be because I say so. We can never be sure why God wants it to be this way, He just does. No, don’t ask that. No, don’t think that. No, stop wondering. Stop being that committed. Stop sending me links to the Gospel of Judas. If you’re going to read The Da Vinci Code, make sure you read it in a church.

Budziszewski sells fear not because he profits too greatly from it, but because he himself is afraid, as I am, as we all are. Fear makes good servants to the Lord. And good servants do, sometimes, have good wisdom. I am not above complimenting the book on its truths.

“Build new interests and attachments in a careful, discerning way.” True!, I write, agreeing that a rigorous moral code avoids basic college pratfalls.

“The early Christians risked death and torture for their faith.” True!, I write, even though he didn’t provide sufficient evidence or sources. That seems to be common knowledge.

“Jesus Christ was the Son of God.” True!, I write. Budziszewski has all the answers. He knows the right interpretation in every context. He knows that Jesus was as much God as he was human, despite other theories. He knows the Bible has been perfectly translated, word-for-word, in the past two thousand years. He knows. I don’t know. I have my guesses. I don’t think any of my guesses make me damned.

“I’ll spend almost the same amount of time on general and girl myths, but on guy myths my comments will be about 50 percent longer because guys take more convincing.”

“If sex is only for marriage, sexual arousal must be too.”

“They say, ‘But what if we plan to never have children?’ Sorry, unless you’re biologically incapable, never is not an option. God commands spouses to be fruitful and multiply.”

–          J. Budziszewski, How to Stay Christian in College

Budziszewski wants control but he doesn’t know he wants it. He can’t see the world any other way. If gays can marry he sees a world similar but doomed to sin, but he can’t even perceive of a world where straight people see gay people get married and no one bats an eye. There is always a war, always a cause, always a reason to metaphorically and, eventually, literally ram a man’s head into the broad side of a tree. This isn’t for him. He loves God. I know he does! He has the most basic concept, he has the essentials. Here is the story. Here are the verses. Here is a worldview that is inclusive and universal.

Is he a cheat? Is he a liar? Is he a fraud? He probably isn’t, or at least it would surprise me. He’s not the right hand of God, the chosen one to explain everything sternly, perfectly. He’s the right hand of society. He’s the right hand of men who cheat on their wives with every secretary in the office and of men who accumulate great wealth by using churches to sell their books and of men who accumulate great wealth by using wars to sell their bombs. The poor man wrote his book with all the sincerity of his heart. He’s grown now. He probably won’t make radical lifestyle changes in the next thirty-odd years.

I can’t sleep at night because of J. Budziszewski. I am J. Budziszewski. Some part of me is still overconfident and underprepared and eager for fulfillment. Some summer nights I stay up late and whisper to myself plans on how to fix things and how to make the world right and I forget that God comforts me. Some nights verses I remind myself of help me fall asleep. Those keep me alive and nodding my head, but they don’t actively fix anything. With Jesus a believer can survive anything. That doesn’t make the world a better place.

I called a girl “bossy” at the same time I admitted to crushing on her. As a bonafide child of God in the most classically How to Stay Christian in College sense she probably expected it. But she was a person, too, and nothing about that year went well for me.

“See, war is horrible. I’m generally against war. I didn’t even really enjoy my time in service, I just did it to get by. But sometimes there’s a proper reason. I mean, Pearl Harbor…how do you not go to war over that?”

          My dad, to me, 1-3 years ago

“They just have to understand their place.”

–           My dad, to his friend, about the Iraq War, at the beach cottage around 10 years ago.

My dad is sick with a sore throat while I write this. Get well soon, Dad.

My dad laughs at me when I express a viewpoint. He giggles a little, in an arrogant way that isn’t a real belly laugh, and might snort his nose once. I stopped telling my parents these things some time ago. The serious topics, religion or politics or what to do with guys who abuse animals, illicit giggles and snorts. No one ever tries to convince me of anything. There isn’t data, no, not even rhetoric. Old Southern women who get their news from failing newspapers and AM radio but love you with all of their hearts ask questions and then get upset when you try to give them the answers you thought they were seeking.

My parents taught me to be kind to others so I try and be kind to others while they say life is actually getting the hardest for us white people. My parents taught me to never fight so I take every little beating while they point fingers at fast food restaurant employees who run out of napkins. My parents taught me to run when I fear for my own safety and might encounter bodily harm so sometimes I run out of the house and down the street and down the interstate and into a parking lot and lie face down until the hurt seems to go away while everyone still sits at the dinner table, full after their meals, and talks about the walking speed of Hispanics.

One Christmas Eve my Uncle Max left the candle lighting and singing ceremony to stand outside in the lobby until we had finished our program. I wanted to cry and hug him. He was welcome to join us, but he knew that if he opened his heart he wouldn’t be welcome any more.

“But…how does it feel? To just stop breathing?”

“Strange. You realize…just how much…effort…it has been…all along.”

–          Alan Moore, The Saga of the Swamp Thing #25

When I got baptized I was able to go into the back of the church and see the secret doors to the secret rooms. As a child you only had access to a few areas of a few buildings because everything else was an adult’s office or a closet. I remember changing clothes in a bathroom I had never been in before and being shocked, just shocked, that said bathroom had been kept secret from me for years. That is what I remember about washing away sin. I looked at piping of the sink.

When I was brought up from the water, very thankful that my pastor was right and I wouldn’t drown and die, I was told that my sins were forgiven and I could go through life as a new man. He was probably right. A little voice in my head told me that I’d never have to work hard again.

Another Weird Trigger for Insight

I was just the right age for the first Spider-Man film. I was twelve, maybe eleven, when Spider-Man was released at the end of my first day at a Star Wars convention. At the theater, my dad and my friend and I saw a lot of the same faces from the convention. The same sci-fi space opera nerds were also comic book geeks, which should be sort of obvious. Back in 2002 there was a really palpable enthusiasm for a superhero movie’s release. I saw a Stormtrooper take off his helmet and put on a Spidey mask. People cheered at the opening credits. I got goosebumps, partly because of their enthusiasm and partly because, even if I wasn’t alive for the forty years between Spider-Man’s introduction and his theatrical debut, I had gone back and loved him in my little span of time. Hollywood was filming the “unfilmable,” which is the same thing Hollywood said about the Lord of the Rings. Nothing’s unfilmable. Executives just try to suppress their imagination for as long as possible.

I went to a comic book club at the Fort Wayne public library when I was ten. The older kids were discussing the ins-and-outs (relatively, the utter minutia) of heroes. What they thought about ___ Crisis, or whatever. I asked if they knew anything about Pokemon and they laughed at me. That’s a totally fair response, especially in that environment. I’d do it now.

So my parents got me Marvel encyclopedias for one of my childhood birthdays. Hulk, Spidey, and the X-Men. I still have them. I remember poring over them, memorizing every character and their respective powers. I read every comic book I could get my hands on, but there were a lot of back-issues too expensive for my little allowance. Also, the 90s were a dark time and tried to be “gritty” and “adult” in ways that would offend my parents if they looked over my shoulder. So I read a lot about Cable without often having Cable issues in front of me. Did you know that one time Magneto ripped the adamantium out of Wolverine? Woah! The X-Force kills people! This picture of Mojo and his Mojoverse actually sort of scares the hell out of me!

The second X-Men film came out on a middle school band trip to St. Louis. It’s the best (was the best?) in that film series and definitely better than the first. I remember taking glances at my friends after the film’s best scenes, locking eyes and wordlessly asking them, “Are you seeing this? Can you believe they were paid millions of dollars to film this? This is so good – is this what we missed out on for not being alive in the 60s?” I saw X2 in the theater at least three more times.

What happened later in the decade is that the money got to be too much and the egos got to be too big. Executives wanted too many villains in Spider-Man 3 and dudebros got to direct X-Men movies and you tried to justify it, you tried to make it seem okay, you wanted that enthusiasm but it wasn’t really there. “Well, we have Venom now. That’s cool. Angel was in his movie for a total of four minutes and still got on the poster hanging outside. Better than nothing, right?” The movies started to suck and the directors and actors knew they sucked and everyone moved on. I remember remaining optimistic that 4 will turn it around! Spider-Man 4 will be great, X-Men 4….uh, clearly I hadn’t watched Superman 4: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

It’s like I became resentful at every reboot announcement. Now Peter Parker isn’t a dorky anxious kid you can relate to, he’s handsome and hilarious to everyone and has no trouble – but he watched Star Wars once! The X-Men are attractive young hairless nobodies plucked from the Disney Channel, because we need people on the covers of teen magazines! Those movies aren’t bad. They’re okay. I just don’t care. I’m not overwhelmed and no one is cheering the opening credits. There are my favorite characters, doing what they do, as I have seen them do for the past 15 years, but this time it’s purely for money. Older kids don’t high-five each other walking out of the theater of The Amazing Spider-Man, they just walk back to their cars in silence, remembering almost nothing, and wait a month for the next shot. No one falls asleep in the backseat on the way home with a smile on their face.

The movie I saw tonight, X-Men: Days of Future Past, ends up justifying my theater experiences since 2000. It takes what I saw as the hairless tween nothings and weaves them into the “classic” (lol) series that got me so excited. It doesn’t leave me in the dust. It recognizes its own past, gives meaning to experience. Hell, to make sense of a lot of it you have to see the bad movies. To get the most you have to suffer through the past like I did. That’s all I’ve ever asked for: consequence. What I’m watching, reading, listening to should matter, it should have ramifications for the rest of the story. (As a complete aside, me saying “listening to” spawned a realization: I love mewithoutYou because their albums and songs establish continuity. Demon Hunter mostly sucks because they made one okay album they’ve been repeating for the past twelve years.) Sure, I’m not saying X-Men represents the highest caliber of art. It reestablishes my favorite parts of the series with time travel and retcons. Shoot a bit higher than X-Men, and for God’s sake don’t let Brett Ratner near a dead fish much less an important franchise, but try to give me the same feeling I had tonight: a smile on my face for the film I’m watching and for what I watched as a kid. I’m out of the 18-24 age bracket and am getting closer and closer to leaving 18-35, and Hollywood could ditch me for being old and constantly reboot in order to let new middle school kids standing outside the Smithfield Cinemas see the origin, new and cleansed and ready for accepting Teen Choice Awards. But with this one movie, one little two hours of my life that I’m never really going to expect, I knew my own childhood wasn’t totally whitewashed.

I’m not saying DoFP is this amazing, important experience to everyone. It’s a really good comic book movie, and if you don’t have my own history then that’s really it. It speaks to me – and that’s sort of wrong, because no one was thinking of me when they made it. They just did what came naturally, and I’ve been along for the ride for most of my life.