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Rituels Technologique

I have not infrequently stated a desire to shed my body and set my brain loose on the world (or, well, floating in a vat) with only a high-speed Internet connection for diversion and companionship. The only thing to hold me back so far is the effect this transformation would have on my ongoing relationship with Matt Damon, but I realized this morning you may consider me effectively a “pre-op.” Somehow when I wasn’t looking, my habit upon awakening has been to reach instantly for iPhone so I might check my emails, friends’ Facebook updates, stocks, weather, and occasionally GPS location. (You might be interested to know that iPhone still thinks that I live in the middle of Interstate 83, but no one said this system was perfect.) I’ll then respond as necessary, do a survey of the blogs and sites I follow, and perhaps rev up my mind with a few games of Scrabble before reaching for my Kindle and reading a chapter or two of something or another.

This is all before I even think of getting vertical, and I find it immensely satisfying, but there must be factions within me that resist this wired state. I have been exercising again regularly (up to 40 or 50 pullups daily plus other physical atrocities), attempting to meditate, and strongly considering attending acupuncture school in the fall. I also yesterday, while walking Goblin in the warm weather and sun, had the strongest compulsion to work in the garden that I have ever experienced.

I’m not sure where on the spectrum falls the psychic helmet I purchased a few weeks ago, especially since I’ve only used it once due to its arrival with insufficient Velcro.

I realize this requires some backstory, though given all of these elements, I’m not quite certain where to begin. Adding to the confusion is that Microsoft Word puts a green squiggly line under “back story” but a red squiggly line under “backstory,” which both my editorial instinct and the green squiggly line assume is correct. Well, Backstory then:

A couple of months ago, Rob and I saw an episode of “Paranormal State” in which the funny-looking protagonist who thinks everyone is possessed by demons strapped his head into an odd contraption to try to pick up on whatever supernatural forces (read: demons) were molesting a little girl’s sleep. This was referred to as a psychic helmet, and naturally upon seeing televised evidence of its function I immediately began researching how to get one of my own because if anyone should be picking up on demons it should be me. As it turns out, the psychic helmet has nothing to do with the supernatural or even telepathy but is a form of transcranial magnetic stimulation, which can affect moods and perceptions depending where on the scull the magnets are fastened. The one and only time I used it, I tried for spiritual wonders, but all I got was a strong sensation, five hours later, that I had taken too much Percocet, which was not among the list of either effects or side effects listed. I chalk this up to improper placement of the magnetic stimulators due to the previously established lack of enough Velcro to get everything where it needed to be and keep it in place. I’m not going to draw you a diagram, so just trust me on this.

Last week, upon being summoned on a trip to Target with a mission to buy baby clothes, I decided to check that retail nation-state for a roll of freelance Velcro that I could press into service. But since I asked an employee in the baby clothes department where that material could be located, he first assumed that I had some sort of baby clothes-oriented need of it.

“No,” I said, “I just need some extra Velcro, no babies attached. Ha ha.”

“Oh, then that would be over here.” He led me toward the aisle that contained sewing materials. “What do you need it for?”

“For my psychic helmet.”

He furrowed his brow, and I thought I might have to launch into some version of the Backstory, but instead, all he said was, “Well, all we have are these little strips. You might need a roll of it. They have that at Michael’s across the parking lot.”

“Um, huh?” Backstory on my tongue, this was all I could get out.

“Michael’s? It’s a CRAFT STORE?” The Target employee and Velcro expert clearly felt I was weirder for not knowing what Michael’s was than for my possession of a psychic helmet. It was then I realized that if I can fail to shock a baby clothes employee at Target that I must not be even vaguely interesting to anyone in the world. But I mean that in a good way. All of those years I worried over my appearance or my sexuality or whatever there was to worry about people’s reactions to—all of it was a complete and ridiculous waste of time. Nobody really cares anyone else is ugly or gay or possesses astounding psychic powers in helmet form. At most, these traits might cause a momentary befuddlement as they skitter across the worldview of another person—How can ANYONE not know what Michael’s is?—but a normal, mature person with half a brain will just blink and go back to sorting footy pajamas. And who cares what abnormal, immature people think besides the Washington and Hollywood press corps?

I realize I’m diverging from my main topic of brains in vats, technology, Velcro, and psychic helmets here, but I think they’re all connected. People used to use technology for two primary reasons: for convenience and to distance themselves from unpleasant truths. Picture the transition from pooping under a tree to pooping in a chamber pot to pooping in indoor plumbing, or from butchering your own chickens daily to buying them boneless and skinless in the grocery store. But modern technology now has the ability, via information sharing, to illuminate as many truths as it hides. I find myself bouncing around that pyramid of convenience, distance, and revelation. I think that is the essence of my morning ritual and the counter-rituals I’ve established to keep it in balance. Again, I’m not sure where the psychic helmet fits in, as a perfectly functioning psychic helmet of my dreams would transcend all of those points, rendering them meaningless.

But then again, maybe that’s exactly where it fits in.

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She’s the One Who Can Put Out the Fire

I have been reading about geopolitical analysis and forecasting for the next century. If you are looking for a way to rid yourself of magical thinking, read about geopolitical analysis and forecasting. Or, as Goblin Foo understands it: a city block isn’t just going to pee on itself.

On the other hand, I like magical thinking, which on the grand scheme of things puts me somewhat on par with a baboon or a religious fundamentalist, but if you don’t happen to be a baboon or a religious fundamentalist, it makes the world a more interesting place.

Most of my magical thinking in recent days has centered around, given certain realities, what I should do with the rest of my life. I have come to the conclusion that I need to change the realities, which is where the magic comes in. Starting a new business or taking out student loans when I’m already trillions of dollars in debt is perhaps not the most brilliant maneuver. Then again, it might be nice to be sheltered in grad school until the worst of this lingering Republican nonsense blows over. (Yes, it’s Democratic nonsense, too, but why do the Democrats always try to out-Republican the Republicans? It’s a race to the bottom.)

All of this and I haven’t even gotten to watch the last episode of Battlestar Galactica yet because I am bound by a magical pact not to make any progress on the TiVo queue when Rob is out of town. All I can do within the bounds of treaty is help Goblin carefully execute her urinary strategy.

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In Which We Learn About Real Estate Negotiations in the End Times

I have been neglecting you, 2009. Oh, how I desired you when you were a mere concept in the looming future, a number on a page signifying the departure of one of our country’s greatest evils. But now almost twenty-five percent of you is gone and I am not yet feeling the love. Two thousand eight—well, the less said, the better. But nobody expected anything good out of 2008. Two thousand eight was the 476 of the twenty-first century; I wonder what the Romans thought 477 would bring?

So today I went to look at a property for a new café I’m working on. Did I tell you this, 2009? Stop me if I have . . . I get so muddled. When I had to—was forced to—close the café that was a part of my downtown store, I came up with the idea of a new café owned jointly by the workers who had made the first one such a success. This has proven a delightful theory but we’re having some trouble solidifying the dream since all of our favorite properties are still too expensive even in this shitpile of an economy. (Investors wanted.)

Wait, the property. It’s in an up-and-coming area that has not quite yet up-and-come. But it has potential, this property, a potential that I found out today is drastically lowered by the owner, a barely intelligible human who spent the whole time waving his arms around and making the most ridiculous proclamations I have ever heard about the nature of business. Well, I suppose they weren’t so ridiculous from his standpoint since they involved how he wanted to take all of our money and guarantee nothing in return. (Sort of like AIG but on the slumlord scale.) This financial genius has decided it is better to let his property, a crumbling former paint store, sit abandoned for three years than take one penny less than he feels he deserves for being smart enough to invest in a crumbling former paint store. And he is quite emphatically convinced that in five years, without his lifting a finger, it will be worth more per square foot than what is currently the most desirable retail space in Baltimore.

Well, I have never had very good luck with landlords.

The funny part was that I had brought my brother, a real estate agent and renowned negotiator, to bully him into doing what I wanted, but I was the one who ended up going off on his crazy ass while my brother remained level-headed. Perhaps I am a loose cannon. A loose cannon swaying gently in the breeze of 2009, the squeak of my hinges barely noticeable amidst the chaos of a failing empire.

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In the Seventh House: Pedantic Commentary on Hair

My first exposure to Hair was in elementary school, and that was where I fell in love with it years before I ever heard a note from that collection of hippie anthems. Working on the crew for a Broadway revue staged by my sixth grade teacher, I witnessed her deliberation on whether to include a number from Hair (which I had never heard of) and eventually censoring it out for being too controversial. That was around the time I discovered my first copy of 1984 laying sodden on the school’s athletic field and—once it dried—read it ferociously. As the actual 1984 was upon us, I was eternally on the alert for the scheming tentacles of Big Brother, and though my Maryland suburb was in the shadow of the closest our country had yet come to that horrifying creature, Ronald Reagan, I somehow became caught up in the idea that the banishment of a silly musical number was more significant than the few current events I was aware of.

Fifteen years later, I saw the 1979 movie remake for the first time and was stunned by the lack of impression it made on me (except for the brief incursion of Treat Williams into my avid fantasy life). Finding it tame by any modern standard, I assumed its controversy stemmed from its genesis in the late 1960s, a period of time fixated upon for decades by seething conservatives obsessed with the moment they lost control of the social imagination. Of course, by then, I had already steeped in what survived of the hippie culture, mixed with the punk, drama geek, Renaissance Faire, queer theorist, and other cliques I had passed through on the way. At that point, the most interesting thing for me about the movie Hair (again, except for the delectable Mr. Williams) was that it featured the fabulous antics of both Charlotte Rae and Nell Carter in supporting roles.

I forgot all about it.

But then: Vietnam II. During the build-up to the current Iraq war, when it was crystal clear to anyone with eyes to see that our society was being bamboozled once again by the military-industrial complex, I developed a passionate fascination with the years immediately prior to my birth. As George W. Bush cracked down on the freedoms of speech and assembly, I familiarized myself with the great protests that helped end our follies in Southeast Asia, downloaded the music that sustained this great activity, and studied the horrors of the massacres of Kent State and the assassinations of our great national leaders, like Dr. King. I was particularly intrigued by the hippie movement and offshoots spurred by similar intentions, such as People’s Temple in the 1970s. As our country sank further into the clutches of political and economic dictatorship, I wondered where-aside from the “dirty fucking hippies” of the center-left blogging community-was the revolution? In search of cultural support, I went to sad, ill-attended street protests, briefly joined the Quakers, and spent the rest of my free time fantasizing about fleeing to New Zealand. Outside of my bizarre Republican family, I didn’t personally know anyone who supported the war or believed the president’s lies, but at the same time, I also didn’t know anyone who was doing anything significant about it. In the time of one of our greatest national crises, we were all self-absorbed.

Which is, again, why the hippies fascinated me. Their wackadoodle lifestyle of free love, habitual drug use, and myriad pagan rituals, combined with a lack of hygiene and a general sense of rebellion against the oppressive, warlike society that surrounded them, was the basis of a powerful movement. What they lacked in direct political efficacy, they made up for in fear. These were the people your parents warned you about, who didn’t do what they were supposed to, didn’t trust anyone over thirty, didn’t submit to the hierarchies or hypocrisies of society. They arose in great numbers as a check on the rampant patriarchy of the day, their long hair and colorful garb allowing them to easily identify each other.

Where, I wondered as our world disintegrated, were the hippies of the twenty-first century? And by this, I don’t mean the rare counterculture enclaves and anonymous incendiary Internet personae. Where were the ones who “dropped out” and became the public pariahs to their cause?

I speculated that the lack of a new generation of hippies had to do, in part, with the success of the first batch of getting their ideas accepted in “normal” society. Whether they went on to become Reaganites or college professors or to live in trailer parks, the original hippie ideology of sex and drug use had largely become mainstream and even commercialized. But oddly, at the same time, the more radical ideas of universal love and peace became less fashionable. Even the leftist bloggers spoke of peace pragmatically, as a better solution to certain problems or a means to an end, rather than as a way of life. While the flower children of the sixties reacted to hundreds of years of oppression, repression, prejudice, and inequality they had seen first-hand, the lack of flower children in the two thousands was most likely a reaction to three decades of suburban mall culture and video games.

All of this is to bring us back to Hair, which I finally saw for the first time on stage last night in its big Broadway revival.

I was thrilled when I found out the Public Theater was reviving Hair forty years after originating the play, first last year in their free Central Park series and then sending the production to Broadway this spring (we saw it on the second day). The Public, in my limited knowledge of them, seems to have their finger on the pulse of the times, having originated Caroline, or Change at a time of worldwide racial and economic tension and staged Henry V as the Iraq war got off the ground. Perhaps, as it became clear that our fascist dictator was on the way out, the theater wanted to reflect an expected cultural change or, better yet, instigate one. In a time where artists are finally seeming to get more control over their work and its distribution, maybe the Public wanted to help once again mainstream the art of protest. And, not being overly familiar with the action of the play except that it was originally a reaction to the futile loss of life in Vietnam, I thought perhaps it would be seen as an allegory of our current times, much as The Crucible is an allegory for the Red Scare of the 1950s.

The problem is, The Crucible was written in the 1950s about the 1950s, using the 1690s as a backdrop for modern political ideology. Hair was written in 1968 about 1967 and was not so much a rallying point for the existing hippie movement as a way of humanizing it for the masses. True, it was considered shocking for its colorful language and famous nude scene, but it was also considered a brilliant theatrical breakthrough when it got to Broadway. That is, it was probably less shocking than titillating.

If Hair had been written in 2004 about the late sixties (or better yet, the early seventies), it obviously would have been more relevant to today’s issues instead of so . . . random. I think that’s probably my chief reaction to this revival: I enjoyed it very much, the performances were without exception amazing and vibrant and full of life, the production values were, while not brilliant, better than okay. But aside from enjoying the spectacle, the question in my mind was, Why? Why is this happening in 2009? What is going on?

As someone sensitive to writing in general and specifically educated for eight years by my husband, a professor of musical theater, the tragic fact is that Hair is a bad play. There is no action, no character development, and a very thin story line that lurches from scene to scene merely as an excuse to sing some songs that have nothing to do with what’s actually going on; what’s actually going on is vibrant and colorful and, on one level, really quite dull. The characters aren’t realized enough for you to care about them, and as they interact with each other and with the audience (yes, it’s THAT kind of play), you get a feel for them more as icons than as people, as if the whole thing is a gathering of spirits representing banished archetypes.

And so: why? It’s perhaps not fair to judge the presence of a fully realized play by its lack of meeting my perhaps unrealistic expectations, but as Rob said, a revival (or any play, really) needs to justify itself. Hair had the perfect opportunity to make connections between the events of forty years ago and the events of today because those sets of events are intricately connected. The infantile roadblocks that beset the congress today on a daily basis are an endless rehashing of the cultural and political battles that were staged before I was born. This is why President Obama is seen as such a transformational figure . . . he was the only candidate who had by virtue of his generation avoided the original brouhaha and does not participate in the ensuing culture wars.

But instead, with Hair, we got a period piece, almost a period pageant. I think people of my generation who understandably expected to find a meaningful connection with our own times were at first dazzled and then puzzled. Unlike with the new Battlestar Galactica, which is set in outer space in the distant future and is such a poignant commentary on our own way of life, today’s Hair, I think, celebrates the legacy of the sixties in a way that doesn’t touch the twenty-first century at all, as if those hippies of yore are saying, OK, we’re putting this out there. Have fun and do with it what you will. I can get that from Avenue Q. From Hair, that banished oeuvre of my youth, I expected more.

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Now That I Can Dance

I have been dreading this moment in a vague but persistent way that paralyzes my days and haunts my sleepless nights. My return to blogging after well over a month should be triumphant, yes? And I do feel the benefit of putting pen to paper, so to speak, watching the words appear in their tortured staccato. Mostly, it’s just a joy just to know they’re still there.

But—you knew there would be a but—but Jesus God, I wish I could return on a higher note. The past month has been extraordinary.

On February 13, I was forced by the bank to shut down my first store. The second one still lurches on in this tortured economic environment, but the first, my favorite, is gone. Worse, I had to pull the plug myself, forcing most of my poor employees to help pack everything up before being laid off. I didn’t even have the wherewithal of a bailed-out banking executive to escape regrets and endless second-guessing by fleeing to the Caribbean.

That’s where I’ve been for so long, and I won’t say it wasn’t a tremendous blow, both in dealing with the events myself and in watching them affect the people I care about. But I also can’t say that it’s not a relief on some level, not to deal with the daily horrors of a failing business.

It already failed. It’s done. And now, the future.