Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Of Mos Espa

So I’ve been quite depressed lately. I’m sorry if I’m a broken record about it. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s actually happening. 
That’s the funny thing about depression! Because depression is actually quite funny when you think about it. I mean, I’ve always thought so. Inasmuch as my life and the life of everyone in my close family and everyone of my close relationships has been scarred by depression to a greater or lesser degree, I think depression is a fucking laugh riot. But it’s also because of all the stuff I said in the last sentence that I was completely in denial about the state of my mental health for many decades. 
But this is the time for getting real! 
I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life but writing. There’s not really a lot I can do – I have a mild talent for teaching but also the aforementioned depression and other assorted bits of mental illness and neuroatypicality have made the parts of teaching that aren’t actually dealing one-on-one with students increasingly difficult. I see postings on Twitter for jobs in the comics field, editorial positions, the kinds of things for which I – with (one quarter of) an Eisner and a Masters degree both – would actually be qualified to apply. But I don’t apply because I don’t think I could hold down a job. I’ve never actually held down a day job – the closest I came was when I worked nights, there I could be left to my own. I really don’t like being told what to do. 
So I’m doing the only thing I really know how to do: write. And at this point my only real strategy is to produce as much decent writing as I can and hope that for all the crap I fling out into the world something finally sticks to the wall. I keep going because I don’t have much of a choice but to work on faith. 
And it does take a lot of faith to do something like that . . . but it’s not a faith without any context. 
There’s a line I want to talk about from an Of Montreal song that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” off the album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The first thing you have to understand about Of Montreal is that you cannot escape the art student obfuscation that he wraps around every layer of his music and presentation. I spent some time hanging out at an art school a couple years back. In that time I learned that there truly are few things more annoying than one or two awful art school affections – Of Montreal and its ringmaster Kevin Barnes are proof, however, that adopting every art school affectation at once actually makes you go super saiyan. Lesser men have died trying. 
Because it is so perfectly itself – that is, completely histrionic art school “conceptual piece” pop music – it works. I can’t explain it any better but than to say that it should by all rights be awful bullshit but it is in fact quite far from being awful bullshit. He came of age in Elephant 6 so it all sounds like you just woke up after a long nap in Dave & Buster’s: it’s a godawful racket but it works.
I’ve always loved Of Montreal – and this album, Hissing Fauna, in particular – because Barnes seems capable at times of mustering the jilted nervous breakdown energy of the mentally unbalanced in a way that I can’t help but recognize, intimately. I’ve felt that kind of electricity too many times. Manic, one might even say, but perhaps not in the clinical sense. Or not always. 
And I respect being able to use that energy so well, to channel that kind of emotional abandon – well, it requires a strength of will and sense of purpose I can only admire. It takes a great deal of discipline to be emotionally vulnerable on a stage. 
It’s also a powerful impulse. Sincere emotional honesty disarms people. It’s the next big thing. I’ve seen it on TV in the faces of high school kids keening their dead. 
There’s a line in “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” that I always note – 

I spent the winter with my nose buried in a book /
While trying to restructure my character /
‘Cause it had become vile to its creator. 

Here’s something very specific to my life and experiences that I’d never really heard anyone mention before, at least in the context of a song: Barnes is describing a sensation of pure disgust at your own personality strong enough to inspire you to reconceive yourself from the ground floor, or at least to want to. To feel the urgent desire to just – be other than you are, because what you are ain’t cutting it. Maybe you’ve felt something similar? I remember all the way back to middle school, that feeling of absolutely loathing myself because of some intangible factor in my personality that made me – 
What? Too much? Too . . . something? 
I was raised a boy by a world that saw no reason to address me as anything other. You’re conditioned as a boy to know from a very young age that any expression of emotion outside a narrow band of approved masculine activities is strictly forbidden. Violations past single-digits can result in instant social ostracism. Kids learn quick to button up. 
It took me longer than most. Part of that can be put down to ignorance. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with my assigned gender so I had no special reason to be wary of expressing excess emotion, other than simply the masculine conditioning I had received my entire life. That’s still a lot, but the lack of specific understanding of any connection between my emotional instability and gender also, oddly, saved me. I never learned to stigmatize gender emotionally because I was raised by a strict feminist who taught me there was nothing shameful or inferior at all about being a woman. 
I’m not terribly emotionally repressed because I was raised by frigid or abusive parents who denied me any outlet. On the contrary, there was quite a lot of emotion expressed in my house throughout my growing up. I’m emotionally repressed for a number of reasons, beginning with gender dysphoria that remained undiagnosed until the age of 36 and continuing on through similarly undiagnosed mental illnesses . . . 
So when I listen to Of Montreal I respond to the state of emotional panic. I have so much excess emotional energy that I’ve always felt powerless to staunch. Ten pounds of emotion in a five pound sack. Some of it is bad and negative and harmful. And some of it is good and has begun to be developed in a healthy way, such as more sustained and lasting bonds of friendship and love. 
Love is another question entirely . . . part of me feels like I should be coy and play out a mystery. But there’s no real mystery to the fact that I’m incredibly, perpetually lonely in a tangible way that has impacted negatively on my life at multiple serious points in my past. I am drawn to people, pulled into other people’s lives with a need that seems almost . . . painfully overpowering at times. 
And it’s all just a mass of emotional havoc constantly floating behind my eyes, even after years of therapy and testosterone poisoning and estrogen supplements and bad relationships and good relationships and professional frustration – just simmering. Constantly simmering. 
(That’s where my temper comes from, incidentally. There’s a lid on a great big cauldron of emotions, and most of the time I managed to keep that lid on tight, but it’s really rnot a very strong lid at all and sometimes it gets the best of me.) 
So yeah. I’ve been in love. I’ve been loved. I’ve been lied to. Like anyone. I feel at a loss in some respects because my desire for honesty and my sincere belief in the importance of honesty to – whatever it is I’m doing here, writing about my emotions using Star Wars as smokescreen . . . my desire to be frank with you is at odds with the fact that I don’t feel justified in revealing secrets that aren’t mine to tell. Kevin Barnes doesn’t seem to feel that kind of restraint: he’s been broken into pieces and feels empowered to call down the judgment of the heavens on the object of his disapprobation. 
There’s a problem here and it points to an important power differential. The song after “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” is called “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” and it’s a ten-minute-long epic about Barnes’ relationship with his then-ex (later reconciled, at least for a time) wife. It’s savage. If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” it’s one of the few songs I’ve ever heard that manages to summon the same degree of suffocating bilious rage against the subject of the singer’s disapprobation. It’s hypnotic. It’s freeing. 
It also makes me slightly queasy to think about the fact that Barnes by virtue of his platform – by the authority granted by his emotional exhibitionism – has virtually unlimited power to define his relationships. Except on those rare occasions when two artists might actually have platforms of equal or at least commensurate stature, sufficient enough to pummel each other publically without either seeming out of bounds – basically, Jay-Z and Beyoncé – more people are going to care about what Bob says about Sara than what Sara says about Bob, especially since Blood on the Tracks isn’t particularly an obscure record. Not like, say, God Bless the Red Krayola.
There’s another line in “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” that I think sums up the impulse: “None of our secrets are physical now.” Blowing open all the doors. But you should also be able to imagine what it must have felt like to hear those words if you were the woman those words were written for. 
Sometimes it hits me, suddenly: the fact that I’m a she. So many songs sound different if I stop to think about the fact that I have gone from possibly identifying with the speaker to possibly identifying with the object in so many of them. That’s a profound but very subtle internal shift that I can’t say I fully comprehend. Life is weird now. 
And I struggle with my Arena ranking. Part of my frustration comes from the fact that I made a conscious decision to put it off for a long time. I only have so many resources in that game. I judged for a long time that the best uses of my resources was always to build with an eye towards the longest of the long term, and that took a great deal of willpower but I think I more or less succeeded. 
After a certain point I realized the time had come for me to pay attention to my Arena ranking. It was garbage and had always been garbage and I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself. 
Now, I should explain. The Arena seems when you look at it like it should be the main part of the game: it’s your best team against everyone else’s best team. You go up against a few people every day. As of this writing the number one Arena Squad on my server consists of Emperor Palpatine (Leader), with Vader, Thrawn, Darth Nihilus, and original Han Solo (he of the natty vest and having shot first) rounding out the quintet. They just last week announced new Zeta abilities for Palpatine and Vader. Vader had already had one Zeta, which I had filled, but now he’s got another slot I need to fill meaning I had to veer off what I was doing to catch up. Because boy they have made sure you really have to level your Vader, if nobody else . . . 
Palpatine hadn’t had any Zetas before, and now he has two. He has a reputation as a bit of a glass canon, and it’s earned: he can shut down the entire board in one turn but he also dies in three hits. Apparently that’s not quite the case anymore. I don’t have either Thrawn or Nihilus quite ready yet. Perhaps I should take a minute to describe the leveling mechanisms? I mean, every character has so many different leveling mechanisms . . .  
But the most important leveling mechanism is the actual character shards. Each character goes to seven stars, and the developers have pretty much promised that they are going to leave it at seven. All the other mechanisms seem designed to be expanded perpetually, however, as the game continues and each successive generation of characters inflates the power slowly but surely. 
So in order to get seven stars you need to get a total of 330 character shards. I only have my Thrawn up to six stars because he’s an exclusive character available only during a special event that requires a fully functional Phoenix Squadron. (Who due to their synergy are incredibly powerful in this game despite their relative low firepower relative to other characters in the saga.) 
When I have Thrawn unlocked at seven stars I’ll also be able to unlock his capital ship, the Star Destroyer Chimaera. His ship was the first new capital ship released since they started the ships mini-game with the three basic capital ships – one apiece for Grand Moff Tarkin, Mace Windu, and Admiral Ackbar (RIP). My guess is that the next capital ship they release is going to be for General Grievous, and I stake this guess on the fact that they’ve started selling (the previously quite expensive) Grievous shards periodically and at a much better price in the same slot they also sell shards for, yes, Tarkin, Windu, and Ackbar. Now, I wanted Grievous anyway since he’s honestly one of my very favorite characters in all of Star Wars – ‘tis true, don’t look so shocked! – but the extra incentive that he might be a little bit more important was enough to put me over the edge. I almost have him up to six stars, after which it’s another hundred shards to get to seven stars. 
Anyway, the next verse in “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” goes – 

And through many dreadful nights 
I lay praying to a saint that nobody has heard of 
And waiting for some high times to come again. 

What you need to keep firmly in your mind if you’re not familiar with what Of Montreal sound like is that this song with the depressing lyrics is really the chirpiest, most sickeningly sweet and positively saccharine tune, also with a weird Europop feel for this album in particular (but certainly not everything he’s ever done). And instead of playing it straight he turns it into the – well, I was reaching for a word and the word that came to mind was “camp.” And I don’t think it’s necessarily camp because there’s nothing at all campy about his approach, even if some of the surface details might be the same. But perhaps that description will suffice. 
Even if he might sound a bit demented on the first few listenings (seriously, the voice might take a bit of getting used to . . . if you didn’t grow up listening to They Might Be Giants, in which case you’ll be fine) – once you can actually figure out what he’s saying, you see that he’s being nothing less than absolutely, completely, deathly sincere at all times. And I feel for him. I feel for him because I was never able to pull off a convincing replica of human emotion either, save for rage. For decades friends and lovers told me I was needlessly, repulsively theatrical in my affect. Even back when I believed myself to be a cis dude Barnes’ emotional exhibitionism appealed to me in ways I couldn’t express. 
I don’t know a lot about Barnes other than the specific bits of trivia that manage to accrue to the music – I know he was having trouble with his wife because you almost can’t not know that about this album, but I’ve never been one to dig into people’s lives like that. It seems like an invasion of privacy even for a confessional artist like Barnes – perhaps especially for someone like him who gives so much of himself already. I don’t need to know the story because what I need to know is already in the song.         
Heavily autobiographical music can be approached in the same manner as a concept album, then. No one except the hardiest of the hardcore ever remembers the details of the plot of the concept album after the first listen. They just don’t. If you ever doubt the principle just ask yourself how big of a Queensryche fan you gotta be to know the plot to Operation: Mindcrime. I don’t want to know all the details of Barnes life – that I know so much about Dylan’s is an artifact of celebrity culture as much as the music itself. 
If you think reading an essay about me gives you insight into my character – well, it gives you insight into a character we’re constructing together, a version of me that exists as a collaboration of my very prescriptive elaboration of my feelings and your very descriptive imagination. I don’t control the version of me that lives with you, dear reader.
So what can you control in your life? 
The emotional exhibitionism in my writing is high calculated, just as I’m sure Barnes’ is as well. What sounds frantic and overheated on record is, certainly, rehearsed and rearranged to within an inch of its life. That it manages to pack that punch after being pressed on the proverbial wax is a miracle of modern recording. 
I don’t usually win games. I’m good at playing games, however, a distinction the responsibility for which I place at the fact that I enjoy the social function of games and long for game states of happy equilibrium where no one really has an advantage but everyone gets to play for a while. It’s not a conscious decision but I don’t have any kind of cutthroat instinct at all. 
As far as my Arena team went I had to learn to overcome my natural (small “c”) conservatism and resentment towards the metagame being so heavily channeled towards the latest big exclusive character. I mean, it makes sense. Obviously. They want you to want the new characters. But what I really enjoy about games with any kind of strategic component is finding weird combinations and strange and eccentric interactions. And any game environment built so heavily towards selling new upgrades will always be defined by the biggest and newest toy on the block. If I want to perform well in the Arena I need to, well, grow up and start playing the game – at least, that part of the game – the way the developers so clearly want me to. 
Which means I got my CLS completely buffed. And I’m on track to get my Vader his second Zeta ability within probably two weeks. Maybe a bit less if I hustle. I’m working on my Phoenix Squad so I can get my Thrawn. He’s got two Zeta abilities that will need to be filled, eventually. Always something else. 
As of this writing my Arena team is Vader (Leader), with Tarkin, R2-D2, BB-8, and CLS. Vader’s Leader ability only buffs himself and Tarkin but R2 is valuable because he acts as a kind of second leader, buffing up everyone in a few ways but especially CLS and BB-8, who both share multiple factions with one another. It’s ad-hoc based on the best characters I currently have. I have a lot more to build because this isn’t getting me any better than (as of this writing) #128. 
It’s nice to have a part of your life, however small and inconsequential, where things do what they’re supposed to, and consistent effort meets consistent reward. 
Rebuilding emotionally after – well, take your pick, really. A winter depression? A move? Separation? Transition? Heartbreak? It’s not an easy thing to do. Breakdowns happen. The muck that sticks to your body and sucks you back down to the swamp gets heavier each time. 
I dislike the fact that advancing in the game requires dropping everything to collect the newest character – but I’m really complaining about the game itself. That’s what it is. As much as I resented having to stop everything and build my CLS I still felt a great deal of satisfaction having finally finished everything and having a pretty badass Luke Skywalker. Which his not really a phrase you often associate with Luke Skywalker? 
When I was in college (the first time) I had a Star Wars Monopoly set and no one ever wanted to be Luke. People don’t really like Luke, or at least the Luke who was the protagonist of the first three movies. People put up with Luke because he was the main guy in Star Wars and Star Wars is great – but we all know Luke was a drip, Han was more fun, and Chewie will buy booze for anyone with fuzz on their face if their money’s green.           
The Luke in Episode VIII, though . . . he’s a guy who’s had a breakdown. He failed himself and that meant he failed a lot of other people. And it’s not so much that when it counted he swooped in to save the day – did anyone doubt he would? He’s Luke Fucking Skywalker, of course he was going to save the day. It’s not Cassavetes. It’s that the most important battle he fought in Episode VIII was with himself. And it wasn’t like fighting his dad – where, if you remember the plot of Episode V, he fucks up a lot, but still manages to stand up straight and face towards the future even after getting his hand chopped off. It was more like his dad fighting himself, a battle which you might recall didn’t turn out so well for the good guys. 
But Luke succeeded where his dad didn’t because he learned to see past his own overwhelming sense of shame and failure, and to see the genuine need that still existed beyond his own feelings of worthlessness. Anakin of course never saw a world bigger than his own pain. 
The need to look beyond ourselves, see past our own limitations – it can’t help but seem that the bars on the prison door were put there by ourselves, built to entrap us by the people who know us and hate us the most. Some were, some weren’t – but speaking for myself, I know I blame myself too much for some things and not enough for others. That’s life. Sometimes we get the privilege of knowing which one. 


Galaxy of Zeroes

3. Of Mos Espa 
4. Much Ado About Nihilus - Part One 

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1 comment :

Pupuk Pembesar Umbi Wortel said...

it's quite funny, yet real. looks like nothing really big and if we do something about it, it might disappear... but can't even move on from that pace, it's all about that