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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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Sex, Shame, and Your Ferocious Inner Pleasure Goddess

Since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in sex. I’ve been fascinated by it, titillated by it, amused and inspired by it. I was the kid who pretended her Barbies were prostitutes. I was the kid for whom “playing house” included the Mommy and the Daddy having sex (i.e. making out with my friends under the bed). I was the kid who found the stack of Playboys in my dad’s office, and distributed them.

And as long as I’ve been interested in sex, I’ve understood that my interest was something to be ashamed of. I was the kid who got blamed when J’s brother got suspended for bringing Playboys to school. And when M’s mom caught us making out under the bed - and subsequently activated the Rural Virginia Concerned Moms phone tree - I was the kid whose friends stopped answering my calls; who got disinvited from parties; who got shunned, publicly, in gymnastics class.

Apart from the occasional public shaming, though, I didn’t catch much of the usual anti-sex propaganda. I was raised in a sort of new age Group Therapy Commune, by an atheist and an agnostic/Christian mystic Jew. Nobody ever told me outright that sex was bad, or that I was bad for being interested in it. Of course, this is how shame prefers to operate: covertly, behind-the-scenes, under the cover of night. Nobody had to feed me shame; I breathed it in and absorbed it.

Sex is hip, desire is square.

As a teenager, very little changed. I wanted to try everything, to feel everything, to make out with everyone. I remember the first time my boyfriend went down on me - I was stoned, and the room was dimly lit, and it was like I was seeing the stars for the first time. Pleasure, sweet and bright and fluid, filled my whole body.

But I also remember being called a slut, and “nasty”, and being told repeatedly to “change into something appropriate”. I remember my boyfriend telling me he didn’t want to have sex with me because “sex ruins everything”. I remember a series of drunken hookups, all of them fun at the time, all of them followed by ugly words and dark, shame-infested high school dramas.

And I remember the slow realization that, despite the cultural imperative for every woman to be a recently-shaven, fresh-smelling “down there”, Kegel-squeezing sex bomb for 100% of her life (waking or sleeping), it was not actually cool to want sex, or to enjoy it.

I’m thirty now, and my little perverted heart remains unchanged. Sex is still the central fascination of my life. It is one of my primary sources for joy, inspiration, and connection. Sexual energy, for me, is the same stuff as creative energy; my songs come to me by way of my libido.

But the shame also hasn’t changed. When I’m feeling insecure, sex is the hammer I use to bludgeon myself with. Every hot-cheeked, sweaty-palmed moment comes rushing back, from that humiliating gymnastics class to the other day, when I tried and failed to initiate sex with my husband. “Why do you have to ruin everything?” I think. “Why are you so obsessed? “ “Why can’t you just be cool, like a regular gal?”

And then, in my funk of self-loathing, I’ll turn on the TV. And that is almost always a mistake. Because there, I find an alternate universe where every man is always turned on, and pursuing sex with a goofy, dogged-but-endearing determination. And every woman is the hot and flighty babe-next-door, for whom sex is a sort of side-hustle; the game she plays to win the stuff she really wants: romance, marriage, nail polish. If she does deign to have sex with him, it’s because he said something mushy; in which case she will grab him by the head and suck face like a CPR instructor, then remove exactly one item of clothing, and be primed for penetration in four seconds flat.

Or, maybe she is “troubled”, and thus uses sex to get other stuff she wants: attention, social status, the jealousy of other women. Rarely, if ever, does she want sex because sex is fun - because it inspires her, and fills her with bright and fluid pleasure.

How to Feed Your Pleasure Goddess

So, I am making my own media. I wrote ‘Vim and Vigor’ from the perspective of my righteous, unabashed Id – the Pleasure Goddess who lives deep inside me. She is full of desire and delight, she is ferocious and unashamed.

“I know I got a dirty mind
It’s in the gutter all the time
I don’t believe that it’s a crime
I consider it a service!”

In the video, we find her in her desire mansion, surrounded by men who turn her on, get her off, and feed her cake, according to her whims. She eats burgers by the pool. She has a pair of tap-dancing butlers, and a thousand pairs of pink shoes.

This creature lives in me, and I believe she lives in you, too. Maybe your Pleasure Goddess loves pie, or snowboarding, or women, or fennec foxes. Maybe she lives on a boat, or in a cave. But I’d wager she is down there now, making mischief and getting perma-laid. I’d wager she comes out to play sometimes, when you are truly in your party place.

And the great irony is this: the people who shame us, the so-called Good and Decent People? The gym teachers, and the pastors, and the moms who activate the phone tree? The Pleasure Goddess lives in them, too. She is in there somewhere, on her velvet throne, drinking Sake and watching Patrick Swayze (circa Dirty Dancing) shine her shoes.

But eventually, because they never let her out to play, she becomes a Goddess of Destruction, and starts to eat them up from the inside. So they lash out - they try to beat down their own desires by beating you up for yours. 

And before long, these people are not good and decent, tempered by their love of God and country. These people are bullies.

And bullies do not respond to reason, nor do they back down from intimidation. You can’t fight bullies with bullying. You can only fight them by being good to your own Pleasure Goddess: by living, delightedly and ferociously, right in front of their ugly, stupid faces.    


The ‘Vim & Vigor’ music video comes out next week, on my birthday: July 22nd. 

image

(Photo by Ben Berry of Mountain Craft.)



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