Tuesday, 15 May 2007

For The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched The Sky

It was 1991. I was standing in the lobby of the movie theatre in the Gloucester Town Centre on the other side of Ottawa, feeling very exposed. I was 21, and I was about to attend my first "in a movie theatre" movie against my parents' wishes and the teaching of my church. There were many theatres closer to where I lived, but I had picked this one because I knew of only one family from my church who lived anywhere near this shopping mall, and who might see me waiting in line.
      It wasn't like I was going to keep this indulgence a secret for the rest of my life, but still, the shame of possibly being seen by someone I knew while perpetrating the act had been engrained in me heavily enough that it felt exactly like picking up a prostitute would have for the average person.

* * * 

More than 15 years earlier, I had first seen Star Trek on television. It was the 70's, and my parents had recently gotten rid of their television when the jokes on M*A*S*H* had became too embarrassingly sexual and/or alcohol-related for my father to be able to comfortably watch with my mother in the room. We were visiting my grandfather's much-younger brother's house, and he had a pair of teenaged sons. I was about five years old, and when I went down to the basement to where they were hanging out, they were watching Star Trek.
     I asked what the show was, instantly engrossed in anything that moved around in black and white on the little TV set. Jamie kindly explained to me that it was Star Trek and that it was a very cool show. I started to watch it with them, the show already underway. What I saw terrified me so much I had to go upstairs and sit with the adults as they discussed politics, home renovations and mortgages.
     What I had seen, I learned much later, was a small part of the "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky" episode. What was happening was that the Enterprise crewmen had beamed down to a planet where the inhabitants for generations lived inside the planet, rather than on the surface. The inhabitants of this hollow planet did not know or understand this, as the whole society had descended into mindless, superstitious religion, in which a computer called The Oracle told everyone what to do and shaped how they thought and lived. Questioning any of this resulted in the computer punishing you by inflicting mortal pain directly into your head. If you didn't relent and give in to the brainwashing, it fried your brain from the inside out.
     I saw the heroes writhing on the floor in agony, punished by the computer for bringing "outside thinking" into this tight-knit religious circle. Not too oddly, this terrified me.
     Its connection to my own life then is still actually kind of creepy now. The episode takes its title from the dying words of a man, newly freed from the shackles of his superstitious religion, grasping that they are, in fact, inside a hollow world, who utters this realization as he dies, having won some vista on the truth at the cost of his life.  
     Star Trek was already in repeats when I saw that brief terrifying scene, it having been cancelled before I was born. I soon forgot all about it until an animated version of it was made for Saturday morning television, and though I didn't see it, the kids started talking about it at school. As usual, I followed them around, pumping them for information and trying to picture the whole thing in my head with no visual reference.
   The ideas of an emotionless man with pointy ears, of ray guns with immense destructive power, of being teleported from place to place, exploring alien planets; these concepts captured my imagination. Because I was imagining it rather than seeing it realized on 1960’s television budgets, it didn’t have cheap special effects. It was REAL.
    My father taught gym class at a grades 6 through 8 school I did not yet attend, and I was in his office in June. I was perhaps in grade 4 or 5, having started to read books, and I saw on his desk a book called Star Trek: Log Seven. It had been left in a change room by an unidentified kid who was now done school for the summer, so first I read it covertly, then I got brave and asked if I could keep it and Dad said I could, but would have to give it back if the kid came looking for it. I still have it.
    This started me on a quest to find the novelizations of all of the Star Trek episodes and read every one of them in the evenings while normal kids were watching TV. Star Trek: Log Seven, I found out later, wasn't even a novelization of the original TV show; it was an adaptation of the animated cartoon that came after. I didn't care. It was a book that allowed me to experience Star Trek. (The idea of writing books with the characters from the TV show, but in new, completely original stories hadn't really taken off yet.)
     Eventually, I convinced my parents to buy for my birthday (we didn't have Christmas) a black plastic toy phaser gun that shot a circular propeller from the front, and later on, a Mr. Spock doll from Mego. I never did get the dolls of any of the other characters. (Well, not until recently, when I discovered eBay)
     The window of opportunity between when one could ask for things like this, once or twice a year, and when said objects were eventually all sold out of stores was a narrow one. I only had Mr. Spock for company, and I related to the man heavily. I had exactly the same practice of not showing my emotions on my face. It wasn't safe to wear your heart on your sleeve in the setting I grew up in. If you showed pleasure in something and anyone concocted a reason as to why it wasn't a good thing for Christians (for example. my uncle saying "Star Trek is a Godless show" ) that joy you had just displayed attracted lectures and guilt like a magnet attracts iron filings. Conversely, if your face or posture showed some sign of boredom or annoyance with some church-related person or thing, you might be showing signs of being headed for Hell.
     My buddy thought Captain Kirk was so much cooler than Spock, because Kirk hit people and got girls and was the boss. My friend tended to hit people and sometimes got girls as well. He's on his second wife now. I related to Spock because he was an outsider, no one understood him, and he wasn't allowed to show emotion, take part in or enjoy anything, so all he had was logic and a life inside his own thoughts. When everyone was laughing at the end, he was standing there with a blank look on his face.
    I loved to laugh, but I’d been taught that an awful lot of things weren’t at all funny. Sexual or alcohol-related jokes, for instance. Or ones about religion. When I played with my Mr. Spock doll (which I always called an "action figure" as my father apologetically explained to visitors "Michael plays with dolls..." ) the intrepid officer had always just beamed down to an alien world alone, and had gotten stranded there, for various reasons. Able to communicate with his ship, but stranded nonetheless, he waited around, trying to survive and eventually to escape it all. I related heavily. Star Trek movies came and went, and I read the novelizations of each one, from the library. When it came to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I read the newspapers, and was appalled. They'd killed Mr. Spock! I read the novelization of that movie and found it deeply moving.
     By the time Star Trek III: The Search For Spock was out on video, I hadn't gotten my hands on a novelization of it yet, and besides, I had a new idea, made possible by the wonders of practical 1980’s electronics technology. The kid across the road had gotten a VCR, and we hung out, so I screwed up my courage, went directly into a video rental store, no matter WHO might see me, and I rented Star Trek's I through III.
     I watched them almost back-to-back. I started with what Dave calls Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and was amazed and interested in how the characters moved, what their facial expressions were, and how their voices sounded. I hadn't suspected that William Shatner would talk...thaaaatWAY! or that Leonard Nimoy as Spock would have such a deep, resonant voice. I had assumed that, in typical American TV style, the "smart science guy" would have a nasal, nerdy voice.
   I borrowed a second VCR and made a murky copy of the movies onto a VHS tape, one whose picture darkened and lightened in a partly successful attempt at copy protection. Watching those three Star Trek movies was an incredibly definitive experience. It felt spiritual in a way church never had, as guilty as that made me feel. I'll never forget it. Now I could simply wait until half a year after the movie stopped playing at the theatre, and I could simply rent it as it came out on video, being careful not to read the novelization until after I'd watched the movie, so as not to "wreck" the movie by knowing how it all turned out.
    Then I went to University and Star Trek: The Next Generation came on TV. It was ok, but I certainly never felt I needed to watch all of the episodes. I always felt like it was good, but was watered down Star Trek. Same stuff happening to more characters, more talking, and a ship interior that looked like it was designed by the people who design cubicle-farms in offices.
   Later, when my buddy got an apartment with cable TV and a VCR, we started a routine. I would go over to his house each week night shortly before 10 while he was still at work and set the VCR to tape the rerun of Star Trek that was playing that night, but I'd leave the TV turned off so as not to see it. He'd get in from work around eleven (he was working at the gas station below his second-floor apartment) and we'd rewind the tape and watch it. I soon had eight VHS tapes of Star Trek episodes, commercials still in them. After a year or so of that, I had seen every episode. This definitely felt like a victory of sorts.
* * *  
So, having a TV and VCR of my own (no cable though, out in cow country), and getting comfortable renting movies from the video rental store without shame, at the ripe old age of 21, I was ready to take the next step.
    I drove into Ottawa and across the city to the most out-of-the-way movie theatre I knew of, in the mall where I'd worked at Radio Shack during Christmas and been laid off once the holiday season was over. Having a TV was a bit shameful if you wanted to be taken at all seriously as a follower of God's will, and was not something one talked openly about with church folk, unless one knew for certain that everyone within earshot also had a TV.
    One guy would actually stand outside of church afterward and ask, "Did you see Magnum PI (on the microwave?)" in a mock attempt at subterfuge, as he didn’t much care about his reputation. Going to the movies was something I had always strongly disapproved of in others, far into my teens. It was decadent, sensual self-gratifying pleasure wallowing and nothing less. It had no possible worth or spiritual purpose, so if you did it, you made clear to everyone that you were the sort of person who preferred "the things of this world" to "the Lord's things." You could be a respected churchgoer who forswore various fun things, or you could be an indulger in these things who was merely a tourist at church, and there was no middle ground. You knew who you were and what was expected of you.
     By 21 I had come to terms with how hypocritical it was that my family now had a television, but strongly disapproved of people who would watch a movie at the theatre. This didn’t make sense, and I knew it. My plan was that I'd go see Oliver Stone's The Doors with a guy from work, but I'd been recently laid off and we hadn't managed to synchronize schedules, so I went to my first movie, as with most movies since then, alone. With only myself to please, there was no contest. Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country it was, the last film with the original cast.
     It was a very cold winter evening, and I went into the mall, and walked around pretending I wasn't actually about to do the most audaciously irreligious, heretical thing of my life up to that point. Other people's kids at church were (somewhat) secretly drinking alcohol, smoking pot and having sex at this point, but I wasn't other people's kids. I was from a family who insist upon taking absolutely everything deadly seriously, even if it kills us. Just going to the movies would hurt my dad’s credibility at church and completely destroy mine. If I wanted to ever be a respected member of the church, an unofficial elder or teacher of some kind there, I was boldly going in the wrong direction.
    So, I walked around, getting my courage up, seeing the bastard who'd laid me off from Radio Shack, hard at work in the store. (Not that I had a brain that could think of anyone as a "bastard" at that point. My brain literally thought of him as "that ______ guy, Tito Peralta" with an unexpressed blank spot where I wasn't allowed a word to express my anger with him, in much the same way I often made inarticulate grunts in place of "swear words" when angry).
    If the "important" boss people from my church had found out that I'd gone to the movies, they wouldn't have excommunicated me, as they did a few years later over the parody of their religious literature that I made. They would probably have either informally shunned me as an unabashed hedon, or else would have given me a "word to my conscience." You couldn't have fun AND expect blessing from God. It didn't work that way. You were given eternal life as a free gift, thanks to the work of Jesus. Your life was blessed or not, based upon your abstinence from joy. Every moment of transient pleasure you forestalled was money in the Bank of Heaven. Saved by grace, living by sombre continence, we subsisted.
     After living a few decades this way, when anything pleasurable seems to be in the offing, one develops a learned annoyance/disapproval/disappointment response to it that overshadows what would have been the natural one. My cousins soon found out exactly where I'd gone the first time I showed in depth knowledge of the movie before it was out on video, and one of those cousins who routinely watched (rented) movies with me made it very clear that I wasn't "living properly."
    I didn't agree, but I nonetheless literally had a series of nightmares in which he and the other church folk drew back in fear and disgust, with burning black globes of hate for eyes, as I became a walking curtain of maggots, vainly calling out for their aid as the writhing grubs filled my eyes, ears and mouth until I couldn’t cry out or breathe anymore.
     Needless to say, I bought a ticket for the sixth Star Trek movie, not sure where to go or what to say to get a ticket, trying not to look over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking (in case someone was looking) and went in to catch the very start of the very tail end of the very last incarnation of the very first Star Trek franchise.
     It was perfect. In every way. Drama. Wit. Tricks. Shakespearean quotations in space. Klingons may be scary, but their blood is pink. The origin of the word “sabotage.” I was surprised at how it felt to be surrounded by a room full of people laughing and cheering and so on as the story unfolded. I had always before watched movies alone or with one or two others only, as kind of a guilty, secret thing. Now, I was in a roomful of strangers, all openly enjoying something in a way I never saw a roomful of people enjoying church. It was perfect. The animated signatures of the principal cast at the end made me feel almost teary-eyed, as if I had just managed, through cunning and boldness, to seize for the very first time my very last chance to see Kirk and Spock on the big screen. I saw it all, and it was very good.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Conformance Disorder

I just watched the VH1 Storytellers episode with Tom Waits. Unsurprisingly, his performance manages to end up coming across as being completely structureless and virtually uneditable.
     There is no part where he walks out and says hello, no part where he says "this next song" or in any way signals that he is about to, or has played, the last song. The anecdotes between the songs do not really have anything to do with any of the songs, for the most part. It's hard to tell when the songs have begun, and where they will end. It's entertaining.
     He's getting by on oddity, ugliness and charm, with a created wistfulness as to the worn out and the thrown away, without choosing to make any reference, conversely, to the new or current being inferior, confusing or unsightly, as is the manner of some.
     I thought about how a person can take guitar lessons for 5 or 10 years, and get really good, and what they usually do is end up playing only the most challenging songs, on the very best instruments, for the most discerning audiences. Usually, they leave most people behind, and don't mind doing it. A highly trained guitarist can play anything (with his/her fingers, like a jukebox, at least, if not usually with his/her heart.)
     Why then, is there always some guy with idiosyncratic choices as to equipment and music, with (frequently) a very limited range of technique, who does something in a certain way that so fully exploits the possibilities of an extremely limited range of choices, that everyone cries "Creativity! How'd he manage to do so much with so little!?" I guess creativity isn't about being able to do anything you want, just because you can. It's more to do with being poor and inventing the blues, or something like that, on a broken guitar you found somewhere, using three chords, or three strings or something. Many of my friends are a bit like Tom Waits. I'm a bit like that, but they're consistently, completely like that. It's like, given any situation or opportunity, it is no exaggeration to say that, inside, in terms of their own self images, they absolutely can't follow the expected path, or do what it is assumed that a person will.
    Examples? Well, give J an online searchable bible with 35 translations to play with, and he can't help himself but type in things like "transistor radio" or "white supremacy" that he knows won't be in there, until he gets tired of that. He won't type in a single thing that will result in a positive hit. Most people would type in "buttocks" or "murder" or something, and see where the word occurs and in what context. Not J.
     Another example: any game where you're supposed to type in your name. Most people would just type in their name, a made up rude name, a nickname, a celebrity name, a name of some sort. Not the people I know. They can't. I have dress clothes. I seldom wear them, and view them as a costume it is amusing to dress up in on certain occasions.
    My friends actually do not have any dress clothes. They do not dress up. If there's a wedding or a funeral, you will see me in dress clothes that in some way reflect my personality. My friends? They will be wearing a fur vest, a black turtleneck and leather pants. (and that's at their own wedding.) And they will ask bizarre things of people. Like potential employers taking them seriously at a $60 000 per year job interview, wearing a Pac-man shirt and torn sneakers. Or with tattoos on their throat and hands. (or being a girl with a buzzcut and eyebrow piercing)
     I'm not innocent of this. I got a teaching job with hair down to my shoulders and a beard, hoping I reminded them more of Jesus of Nazareth than Charles Manson. I did have a tie and dress shoes. I've met many, many people like this, most of whom consider themselves artists of some stripe. Artists expect to be accepted and well treated while continuing to do quite odd things on a daily basis. They will decide they want to be referred to with a specific symbol instead of a name. They will demand to be referred to as "The Baron," (or some other form of title or royal designation, or a made up name like "Alice Cooper" "Marilyn Manson" or "Rob Zombie" instead of their birth name) or will ask that their gender never be referred to in any way, including by any pronouns, they will ask that people respect their insistence in not touching anything that is made of plastic, they will refuse to wear shoes anywhere, they will say the word "elevator" instead of "and," or declaim "your feet are melting" in lieu of the words "thank you" and want everyone to accommodate them and treat them normally, despite their not acting normally. One is tempted to "warn" people that they will need to expect this sort of thing from this person, yet one gets the feeling that this robs the "artist" in question of most of the fun of confounding people.
     I'm a lot like that, but not to the same degree. Growing up, it was all about wearing all black, or not wearing anything with a designer name or company logo on it, or something like that. To this day, I feel odd if I'm not wearing something that is black, even if it is only black shoes. I don't feel quite like myself. All it used to take in my teens was getting a "blank" shirt and subtly making a little parody of a designer logo on the breast of it ("Rolf Loran Polar", with a little guy clubbing a polar bear to death with a polo mallet from astride his shoulders). Or "Reekbok" or something like that.
     What does this sort of thing say about us? That the "norm" annoys us, and does not accommodate us (or makes it known that they feel they are doing us a huge favour by "accommodating us" in what seem to us like trivial ways, but to them seem like a huge deal)? That we want to be special, or more interesting than the usual, which we don't like much? Is it all elitism? Is it "anything but the normal?" or "something besides the normal?" Is it about boredom with the usual, feeling alienated from the usual, hating the usual, distrusting the usual and needing to be outside of it, or what?
    We notice that living differently seems to threaten people, and this annoys/amuses/fills us with a feeling of being threatening and interesting and special? What is the difference between someone who "has to" do what 'everyone else' is doing, and someone who "can't do" what 'everyone else' is doing, whether they admit that or not? (each would claim they are free to do as they wish, and just "don't want" to do the opposite, but could each move freely around socially and feel like themselves, if they'd switched stances on their relationship with normal?) Are a lot of people keeping societal expectations away from them with walls of absurdism and continual mocking parody of the usual?

Saturday, 12 May 2007

All About Yesterday

I think a lot of us have a reservoir of things from the past that cause us sadness, if not actual regret, if we think about them much at all. We "try not to dwell on them." It's pretty easy to unexpectedly get reminded of someone or something from the past and then find your day shot through with feelings that have nothing to do with anything that's happening right now at all. People always say you need to move on. You can move on, but you always take the past with you inside, wherever you go. Many of us get through hard life stuff by using creative outlets. One of the disadvantages of this method is that, years after, even if the creative work has been destroyed, that difficult experience was once given some concrete, memorable form, and this stays with you. In my case, paintings, bits of writing and songs stay in my memory, long after I no longer want or need to think about the events that made me feel I needed to create them to begin with. The better they were, the more memorable they are, and the more they seem to connect to ongoing life stuff that continues to unfold. Even if I don't keep them around, years later, a bit of one may float into my mind, and these fragments tend to drag after them almost all of the details and bits of difficult things that they were once part of. People, places, conversations, things. This means that you can have a quiet, still day to live on the outside, while on the inside, you are all about yesterday.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

When Brakes Break

Today I'm off to my parents' place so my Dad and I can look at my rear brakes which are grabbing and grinding a bit. Last night I drove into the city to see Spider-Man 3. There were huge line-ups and I had to wait an hour to see it. Oddly, I happened to need to stand in line right next to Bill's brother Joel (wearing his Indiana Jones hat, suspenders and Spider-man black costume T-shirt in honour of the event) and four kids from my school. We all just happened to show up to the same showing at the same time (well, Joel was watching it for the 5th time that day.) This is a small part of the world, and running into people you know is unavoidable, and kinda fun. The movie was fun. I liked the darkness and the silliness. There was more of a darkness to it than any real seriousness, depth or intensity, but it was ok. People nitpicked and fussed, but I didn't agree that it was too complicated. It was no Batman Whatever. I did agree with the ass behind me, shouting out that they're standing around with umbrellas at the end, but it's not raining, but I was annoyed by his derisive shouting of this fact. I liked the social complications and relationship stuff and was bored whenever the whole screen went CG (which it did a bit too often) so that kinda makes me a girl, I suppose. I'm also tired of movies with brick walls being battered to pieces by people's heads, which heads don't end up with bruises or abrasions of any kind. Some real physics would help, not hurt, but people are cheating, and not in a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon arty way. After neglecting doing so for a full year, I finally went and got my hair trimmed. I got over three inches off it, and no one noticed at all. Time for a fried egg bagel sandwich before going to fix my brakes.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

New Week

I came home today and found some guys replacing my kitchen door (it's never fit right in its frame, and lets snow in in winter). I was tired enough that I took a nap despite all the drilling. Naturally my cat hid under the bed the whole time. When the guy left, he called out that he was done, so I woke up, had some supper and watched Dylan Moran's Monster which is some pretty funny stuff. 
     Then, when I was supposed to be marking, I just kinda recorded another old hymn fairly quickly. I used the opening drum loop for Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and did "Little Brown Church In The Wildwood." I wonder if I should call my eventual hymn CD (for my parents and their friends) something like "Kickass Hymns." 
      Before bed, tired from such things as rapid shaker and tambourine shaking, not to mention lots and lots of singing and strumming and bass playing, I decided to go for a jog. I was coming down the fire escape when I heard some sounds from the area with the garbage bags piled in the corner of the parking lot for garbage pickup. I looked straight down, and one story below me was a 20 pound skunk, tearing open the garbage. I waited until it toddled off before coming down all the way (doing some Batman-like rooftop lurking until it left) and then walked to the park, ran around the track under the almost-full-moon a bit, then came back. 
     I didn't have much energy in me (lots of emotional energy, little physical energy). I had to edit this fairly extensively (for me) due to the fact that when I run or exercise, all the oxygen seems to leave my brain in favour of my muscles.