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Vertigo, Bacchanalia, and the Art of the Controlled Burn

How to set your life on fire without blowing it up, and why you might want to.

Vertigo is the wobbly feeling you get on the top of a building (or when you’re sick or drunk), often described as the feeling that you might fall. I’ve always experienced vertigo, however, as the feeling that I might jump. Apparently, psychologists have recently recognized this urge-to-jump, dubbed it the High Place Phenomenon, and determined that it’s fairly common, even among us happy-go-lucky, generally non-suicidal types.

I’ve experienced a similar urge when driving at night (the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic), and when holding a baby (the urge to drop the baby). After brushing up on my psychology texts, I feel confident enough in the normalcy of these urges to share them with you, right here in black and white (even though my sister might read this, perhaps while holding my fresh new gorgeous baby niece). 

I’m not actually going to jump off the building or swerve into traffic or drop the baby (fear not, dear sister!); there’s just something in the human psyche that can’t help but ask: what if you went ahead and ruined everything?

For the purposes of this piece, I’d like to extend the metaphor and say that I also experience vertigo as it pertains to my day-to-day life: the urge to blow up my mental health, my career, my money, and/or my marriage. I’ve thought, “what if instead of warming up my voice before this very-important show, I just drank this whole bottle of Jack?” or, “What if instead of paying my bills this month, I bought this airstream trailer off of Craigslist?” or, “what if instead of going home to my husband, I went home with that greasy-looking drummer? We could start a cover band, right here in Johnson City, and have eight kids, and plant an orchard full of peaches, like in that John Prine song.”

And again, it’s not that I really want to play a sloppy-drunken show, or have eight kids. In fact, I emphatically don’t want either of those things. It’s the vertiginous feeling that the workaday banalities of being a pretty happy person with a pretty decent life could be… spiced up, shall we say… by throwing a nice fat hand grenade smack into the garden party.

The Controlled Burn

A controlled burn is when somebody (usually a farmer or park ranger) sets fire to a piece of land on purpose, as a technique for “land management”. Controlled burns have been used for millennia, by all kinds of people all over the world. Wikipedia says, “controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fire”.

In other words, a controlled burn is a cute little manageable wildfire that people set on purpose, so that their homes and crops won’t be destroyed later by a bigger, angrier, less-manageable wildfire.

So in the spirit of the controlled burn, folks, I’m here today with a proposal. The next time you get that drop-the-baby, bang-the-drummer, hand-grenade-at-the-garden-party vertigo feeling:

What if you went ahead and ruined a few things?

Orgies, Carnivals, and Bacchanalia

Another thing that people around the world have done for millennia is dress up in costumes and go to parties to drink, fight, bang, yell, and sing all night, in relative anonymity.

One of my favorite historical examples of this phenomenon are The Bacchanalia, which became an “epidemic” in Rome around 200BC. According to some Roman guy called Livy (writing a couple centuries after-the-fact), the Bacchic cult - to the scandal of some echelons of Roman society - held “five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes; featuring wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals.”

Sure, we frown upon this sort of thing now. 

But on the other hand, we still have bars, and clubs, and festivals, and internet porn, and sex clubs and theme parks and Halloween. And some of us lucky bastards even have Mardi Gras, which is a direct descendent of the pagan orgiastic traditions of Europe (co-opted and packaged for resale by this other, tres-popular European religious cult called Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it)). What are these things if not modern society’s attempt to contain and mollify those nasty little anti-social urges?

We humans are prone to revelry: drunkenness, violence, sex, shouting, singing, jumping from high places. We’ve tried for millennia, but we can’t seem to quit.

You can dress up us in suits, give us jobs and families to manage, and wedge us into churches and communities, but those urges still crackle just beneath the surface, threatening to burn us alive. If we don’t have a war to spend them on, you’d better give us a Bacchanal, or, by golly, we’ll make one of our own - and it might not be so elegantly contained.

The Bacchanalia, in other words, were a controlled burn.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a much-needed weekend retreat. We had just weathered a fairly major accidental wildfire, and although we managed to escape with most of our valuables, our ten-year partnership was feeling a bit brittle. We rented a cabin, packed up the dogs, and drove to the gulf coast.

The cabin didn’t have wifi or cable, but they had a TV with a primo selection of DVDs such as The Fast and The Furious, Madagascar 2, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 2005 one, not the Hitchcock). So, after eating a lot of gulf shrimp, we hunkered down on the couch and popped one into the player.

In case you’ve forgotten this (admittedly pretty forgettable) movie: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about a married couple who – although they happen to be the hottest human beings on earth (Brad & Angelina, in the role that landed them in an actual marriage) – are deeply ensconced in their domesticity, bored with each other, and no longer having sex.

(I can’t help but wonder, in the aftermath of Brangelina, whether their real-life marriage ever entered the too-bored-for-sex phase. It seems crazy, I know, but you have to admit  the possibility that it did. If that’s not a good argument for the stultifying power of domesticity, I don’t know what is!)

Over the course of the film, we find out that John and Jane Smith are actually both assassins, working for rival firms. Upon discovering each other’s identities, they are assigned the task of killing each other. They don’t, but before we are sure that they won’t, they have literally blown up their beautiful house, their fancy cars, and all their rich-people-stuff, with the extensive secret artillery they both had hidden in the oven/basement/closet. Not that shockingly, destroying their domestic life reminds them that they are married to the hottest human beings on earth, and their passion is re-ignited.

Mediocre though it was, I found myself laughing maniacally throughout the movie, and eventually bursting into tears.

“Bud,” I said (because that’s what we call each other), “I think we need to blow up our house.” 

We’re no Brangelina, sure. But like lots of couples, we’d been lulled by domestic bliss into a kind of stupor, and lost track of the fact that we are both super-sexy assassins. 

A Tiny Hand Grenade

So here’s my proposal.

Perhaps happiness cannot be achieved just by building a perfect domestic life; a life of daily exercise and organic juicing, with zero debt and a “landing strip” by the door with a little basket for your keys. 

Maybe it can’t be achieved even by building a perfect artistic life, full of inspiration and gobs of time to write; the sweet husband, two cuddly dogs, and a little studio in the backyard, with pots of succulents and a hundred-year-old guitar.

Perhaps building these lives of order and comfort will not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, we should be aiming to build lives that can withstand a little Bacchanalia.

I’m not sure what your particular Bacchanalia is, but I know this: it’s not something that falls roundly within the boundaries of domestic arrangements and socially acceptable behavior. It’s not a pedicure, or one Mimosa at brunch on the weekend. It’s something that scares you a little, and probably scares your family and your friends. It’s something ugly and shocking, and tantalizing and indulgent, and maybe confusing and inexplicable. It’s something your heart and body wants that your mind probably can’t fathom.

Do you already know what it is?

I’m proposing that true happiness might be found only by making room for that nasty, scary, shocking thing, right there inside your cute little life.

It’s finding a way to pay the bills and buy the airstream trailer, or (my personal favorite) bang the drummer and go home to the husband. It’s throwing just an ever-so-tiny grenade into the garden party, perhaps the itty-bitty grenade of your true personality and your actual feelings and thoughts, such as ‘fuck this garden party, I’m going home to watch Housewives and work on my dinosaur sculpture’, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, my little wildfires, sometimes something has got to burn. Wouldn’t we be better off if we named it now, and lit it up ourselves, instead of waiting until we are engulfed in flames? 



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Look, Ma, I’m a Socialist!

I’ve decided to take this incredibly politically-charged moment in American history to make a politically-charged statement!

In short, I’m a Socialist. Like, not an Obama Socialist, or even a Bernie Sanders socialist, but an actual, far-left Socialist, who challenges the fundamental principles on which our government and economy are built.

But I still think you should vote for Hillary Clinton.

In long, see below. 

WHAT I REALLY THINK ABOUT AMERICAN POLITICS:

I voted early in Louisiana, and I voted for Hillary Clinton. I prefer Hillary’s policies to Donald’s, but more urgently, it’s clear to me that Donald is using rhetoric that has been used many times throughout history, rhetoric which can be neatly categorized by any linguist or PoliSci major as “fascist”. History tells us that rhetoric like this often precedes fascist policies, such as voter suppression, abolishing or de-legitimizing elections, enacting martial law or a “police state”, and/or locking minorities up in concentration camps. I don’t think we are exempt from these dangers, as all of them have happened in our own recent history.

Thus I believe that a Donald presidency could be dangerous, PHYSICALLY and IMMEDIATELY, to a number of people whose lives are not currently in danger.

Hillary, on the other hand, is a dedicated, supremely competent, moderate politician, whose presidency will probably not put new lives in danger.

HOWEVER: a Hillary presidency will, almost certainly, maintain the American status quo of endangering and degrading the quality of millions of human lives, including but not limited to: the 2.5 million Americans in prison (at least 30% of them nonviolent offenders); the 15 million American children living in poverty; the tens of millions of political, religious, and economic refugees threatened by American-backed regimes; the hundreds of millions of workers (including children) employed by American companies under internationally-condemned conditions; and notably, every other human on earth, whose lives are threatened by the effects of global climate change.

Her presidency will not fundamentally change these problems, just like the Obama presidency hasn’t, and neither did the Bushes, or the other Clinton, or any of the others, alllll the way back to the very beginning of American presidencies.

In other words, by electing Hillary, we will be Continuing to Keep America Roughly as Fucked Up As It Usually Has Been. Which in this case, is definitely the better choice.

But I want to go ahead and say, while everyone is all fired up about American politics: I think we are stuck with these problems to a very large extent, regardless of who we elect, because they do not belong to one political party or another. These problems and many others are, in my estimation, the natural, predictable, unavoidable results of our ideological and economic dedication to CAPITALISM.

I think capitalism is hazardous to humans and other living creatures, and that socialism, despite its obstacles, may be our only chance at survival.

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WHAT I MEAN BY THAT:

First of all, CAPITALISM is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners, for profit.

SOCIALISM is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are owned or regulated collectively by the citizens of that country.

Both of these systems can and do exist alongside Democracy, as independent-but-related operating principles. Socialism is not anti-democratic, although there have been socialist societies that have repressed democracy.

(I’d argue, though, that our capitalist society has, historically, also gone to impressive lengths to repress democracy. A few choice examples: women, African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Quakers and Catholics have all been legally barred from voting in this country at various points; felons still have voting rights permanently revoked; then there’s voter suppression & corporate influence on elections (notably the Citizens United ruling).)

The Big Unsolvable Problem of capitalism though, according to me (and many others, notably Karl Marx), is that it creates exploitation of people and the environment with an efficiency that cannot be effectively controlled by regulation. Capitalism operates almost like a natural force, and exploitation seems to be a powerful, self-organizing, emergent property of capitalist societies.

The best metaphor I’ve found is this one: capitalism flows around obstacles naturally and efficiently, like water around a stone. New regulations are circumvented, either by rebranding (see “slavery” versus “sharecropping”), political propaganda (see “The War on Drugs”), or exporting (see child labor, which was outlawed in the US in 1938; but which is still rampant around the globe (recent statistics estimate that there are over 200 million child laborers around the world) and employed, legally and widely, by American companies).

Socialism is imperfect, and there are historical examples of its imperfect implementation. Before you drag out those dead horses to beat, though, consider the atrocities that have been committed by our capitalist society. I’m not going to trot them all out here, but hey, you probably remember. 

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WHAT THE HECK TO DO ABOUT IT:

First of all, definitely do vote for HIllary. Voting third-party at this point is akin to farting in a windstorm. It’s just. Not. Going. To. Help.

So… I don’t know!!!

But.

I am interested in a future where private profit does not dictate our laws, our national political discussion, our children’s ability to survive on earth, or our imaginations. This future does not, by my estimation, exist within our current system of economics and government. Even Bernie Sanders, although “getting warmer”, was not openly willing to question the fundamental soundness of capitalism as an organizing principal of society.

But me? I’m an artist, not a politician. I consider it part of my job to think outside of the boxes I’m born into; to be radical, to be compassionate, and to give my imagination plenty of exercise.

So, I’ve been reading Marx, and David Harvey, and Jacobin Magazine. I joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation - PSL. And I’ve begun going to events organized by Black Lives Matter, which appears to be one of the only movements currently willing to acknowledge the systemic nature of the problems we face as a society.

This thought-project has shifted my perspective dramatically, so that the whole world looks a little off-kilter, which I find exhilarating. I now see the profit motive lurking behind every single injustice in the world, like Satan, or Sauron, or the Dark Side. It’s so big, and so pervasive, it’s as invisible as the air we breathe.

And all I’m saying is, it’s NOT the air we breathe.

So, can’t we at least consider the possibility of just… stopping?

As Ursula K. Le Guin​ reminds us, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have the answers. But I’m not willing to stop asking the questions. Like,

Are we really facing a million different problems, like police brutality and Climate Change and poverty and gun control and the Dakota Access Pipeline? Or is it possible that we’re ALL facing One Very Big Problem?

If it wasn’t all about profit, what would it be about?

Are humans really fundamentally greedy, prejudiced, and cruel?

Is this the best we can do for our children?

What about the children of the rest of the world?

Can you imagine a different future?



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Objectification! It's Not Just Women's Studies Jargon, it's Evil Poisonous Bullshit

Or, How My New Music Video is Smashing The Patriarchy for the Good of All Your Sons and Daughters, You’re Welcome.

OK so, yeah, I made a music video of myself lounging in various corners of a mansion while hot men wait on me hand and foot. And yeah, it was fun. And sure, maybe it happened to satisfy a number of my personal fantasies. 

But I also believe that making this video was a radical act of revolutionary patriarchy-smashing moxie. It was a brick thrown through the window of The Man’s corner office, and I’m proud of it.

Because, my friends, most of the TV and movies and music videos we’ve been imbibing throughout our lives, despite the pleasant buzz, are full of objectification. And that’s not just a Women’s Studies jargon word, it’s Evil Poisonous Bullshit. And regardless of your gender, it’s ruining your ability to think, talk, and ever have decent sex.

Here’s how.

Evil Poisonous Bullshit Idea #1: Women’s bodies are for looking at.

On TV, all the women are beautiful. The heroines are beautiful and the villains are beautiful. The love interests are beautiful and the ninjas are beautiful. The leading ladies are beautiful and so are the extras. The moms, the daughters, the check-out girls, and the mean ex-wives are beautiful. The only women who are allowed to be less-than-beautiful are the comic relief: the fat friend, the crazy neighbor, and the grandma.

Thusly, we learn from TV that if you’re a woman, regardless of your other roles in life, your #1 job is to be beautiful at all times. Your only choices are between kinds of beauty: are you cute or lovely? Are you hot or pretty? Are you a Carrie or a Charlotte?

If you’re a man, on the other hand, you can choose from an array of jobs. You can be beautiful, sure. But you can also be strong, competent, funny, evil, brilliant, kind, foolish, geeky, gutsy, witty, or rich. Male characters are frequently endowed with the gift of complexity, female characters aren’t. Male characters are allowed to be unattractive, even if they are a lead character; female characters are not.

The implication is: if she’s not beautiful, at every moment and from every angle, how will we know that we like her?  

(Good news though: TV is changing. Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, the makers of Orange is the New Black and others are dismantling this bullshit as we speak, with panache. It doesn’t matter if you like those shows, they are improving your daughters’ futures, you should thank them.)

In other words, your main job as a woman is to be a decorative object. This is called “objectification”. Because that’s a jargony word, I’ll explain it more thoroughly.


There are at least three problems with living inside a body that is a decorative object:

1)   If your body is for looking at, it is not for doing things with.

A male body is a tool with which he can manipulate the world; a female body is a pretty thing for other people to look at.

And as Ani DiFranco pointed out, life imitates TV. Try to count the number of times you hear a female child being called “cute” or “pretty”, versus a male child being praised for a physical action like “fast” or “strong”. The difference starts young, and the contrast gets turned up as the kid ages. I believe this is at the root of why many women believe that we are inept at driving, lifting heavy objects, fixing mechanical things, killing bugs, etc.: we have been taught that our bodies are for looking at, not for using.

Here’s a partial list of other things that we believe a female body isn’t for:

  1. Climbing
  2. Running
  3. Eating
  4. Fighting
  5. Screaming
  6. Digging
  7. Building
  8. Contact sports
  9. Motocross racing
  10. Smashing the patriarchy.

If, by chance, a woman on TV is allowed to use her body for one of these activities, the need to be beautiful trumps the need to do that thing well. One of my favorite recent instances was the movie “Jurassic World”, wherein the female lead (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs from a series of life-threatening dinosaurs, through rainforest and rock quarry, for the duration of the two-hour movie, all while wearing high heels.

It’s as if the director was saying to us: remember girls, even when threatened by a velociraptor, your #1 job is to be beautiful.

2)   “It is better to look good than to feel good.” I stole that from a mid-80s Billy Crystal skit from Saturday Night Live, but it’s a perfect description of this problem. If you’re focused on how you look on the outside, you’re not focused on how you feel on the inside. (This concept is beautifully illustrated in Peggy Orenstein’s newest book, Girls & Sex, which I could not recommend more highly.)

If you’re talking to someone, and you’re thinking about how your lipstick might look on your mouth, you’re probably not deeply processing the words being said. If you’re having sex, and you’re thinking about how your cellulite looks from this angle, you’re probably not noticing the sensations inside your body.

It’s difficult or impossible to focus on both at once; and if you’re a woman, you’re programmed to prioritize how you look. In other words,

3) Being a decoration is distracting. When it’s my job to look pretty – which TV would have me believe it always is – it’s harder to concentrate on a problem or task in front of me. This phenomenon has been studied and documented, and it only works on women.

The study linked above shows that when women are asked to solve math problems in a swimsuit, their math performance suffers significantly. When men are asked to do the same, theirs does not. That means our poisonous programming has been so successful that we can no longer turn off the sense that if we are being watched, we must make it our top priority to improve our physical presentation.

Add to that the stereotype about women and math, and you’ve done stupefied more than half of the human population. Nice work, The Man.

In Vim & Vigor, I attempt to create a scenario where male viewers of the video can have a taste of how objectification works. Ie: we objectified the male bodies in the video, and avoided objectifying the female one (mine). The men in the video are improbably hot and muscled because I want male viewers to question their own physical fitness and attractiveness. I touch all the men’s packages in the video, because men’s penises are one of the only physical attributes they are culturally programmed to be insecure about (as women, on the other hand, we are programmed to feel insecure about literally every part of our bodies – from the volume of our hair to the size of our “thigh gap”).

I want male viewers to feel that they are being sized up physically, and may not measure up. I want them to wonder, “am I thin enough? Strong enough? Handsome enough? Do I have a big enough dick?” I want them to feel that tremble in the pit of their stomach, and to wonder whether they are worthy of a woman’s attention. I want them to think they might be dismissed, ignored, or humiliated, simply because of the shape of their physical form.

It’s not that I’m a sadist, though. It’s all in the interest of creating empathy. I want you to feel this way, gentlemen, and I want you to recognize that this is what it feels like to walk through the world as a woman, every fucking day.


Evil Poisonous Bullshit Idea #2: A woman’s value is based on how desirable she is to men.

As TV would have it, any female character worth a damn is some dude’s love interest. This applies to superheroes as well as house wives, and it’s hazardous to our health in a variety of ways (it gives us a weird and tragic sense that a single woman is a worthless woman, for example). For now, I want to focus on just one aspect: on TV, a character’s value is correlated with her sexual desirability.

This is what it means to be a “sex object”; we believe that our value is based on our usefulness as a tool for men’s sexual pleasure. There are at least two major problems with this one.

1) We are unwilling to do or say anything that might make us less desirable.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why do we need to train men to ask for consent? Shouldn’t women be able to say that they don’t want sex?” this is the reason. And believe me, I am at least as frustrated as you are. Tragically, this particular poison has rendered many of us speechless in situations that involve suppressing or interrupting a man’s desire. We’re taught to believe that our value as a person is linked to our desirability, so if you want us, that’s good! If we say “stop”, and you lose your boner, we have just downgraded our desirability, and thus, our value as human beings.

Again, big thanks to The Man for that one. Really nice job.

Date rape aside, though, it’s worth noting that our need to be desirable to men applies to ALL MEN, even those we are not attracted to, don’t want sexual attention from, or don’t like. We feel driven to maintain a backlog of male desire, or we start to feel worthless. This is why many women won’t say “no” or “leave me alone” or “fuck off, drunken douchebag” to a drunken douchebag who is harassing them in public. We are taught to believe that all male attention, even drunken douchebag male attention, increases our value.

Less crucially but still worth noting: it’s is also why many women don’t like to eat in front of men, or wear something unflattering, or fart, or mention that we take shits. We are supposed to be sex objects, like a porn cartoon or a blow-up doll. And sex objects don’t take shits (unless that’s the kind of porn they’re appearing in).

2) We prioritize men’s pleasure above our own pleasure.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: women like sex just as much as men. There is no biological reason for women to be less interested in sex, or less turned on, or less easily sexually satisfied. I repeat, NO BIOLOGICAL REASON! (And don’t come at me with the latest evo-psych, either, because this particular crock has only been served for the past couple centuries. Before that, the crock was that women were insatiable hysterical sex animals. So which is it, science?)  

Regardless of our libidos, we’ve been poisoned, since birth, with a hallucinatory drug that makes us believe that sex is something we do for the benefit of men. And who’s going to tell us otherwise? The men believe it, too. Our own desires get buried deep beneath our many concerns about the pleasure and satisfaction of our male partner, or even an imaginary male witness.

It’s not that we don’t like sex, it’s that we’ve don’t get asked to consider what we like. It is not our job to have desires, let alone pleasure or satisfaction.


Conversely, in Vim & Vigor mansion, my desire is the only desire that matters. The men who surround me may or may not desire me; that is beside the point. I don’t care to titillate or satisfy them; I don’t even allow them to display desires of their own.

This was a thrilling and mind-bending point to discuss on set. When talking through our roles in each scene, any suggestion that involved a man looking turned on or pleased had to be quashed immediately. If anybody was gonna do “blowjob pose”, it was gonna be me (and, it was me, thank you).

I wanted my value and power as a character to come from something other than my desirability to men, and I wanted my own pleasure and satisfaction to be prioritized 100% of the time. 

In this case, my value as a character comes from the fact that I am the queen and owner of this mansion, and every man in it, and I can do and ask for whatever I want. My value had nothing to do with how many men want to fuck me. Quite the opposite, in fact: the men are only allowed into my mansion if I want to fuck them. Otherwise, they are worthless.

In other words: “I don’t give a fuck if you find me foxy.”

This very statement, my sisters, is a battle cry.  I hope you’ll put on your favorite ugly outfit, take a messy bite out of giant cheeseburger, and say it with me. We don’t have time to be a pretty object or a sex toy, we’ve got a patriarchy to smash; grab a brick and join me.

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Special thanks to:

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Dietland by Sarai Walker

The whole cast & crew of Vim & Vigor for executing my vision selflessly and without ego, especially director Andrew Rozario.

 



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