On mediocrity, drowsy revelations

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to the slats of moon light patterning across my sheets, and it strikes me, a bold and lucid flash against the crags of stupor that accompany the half-consciousness of the half-night, that I’m quite technically an adult already. It was last Wednesday, that I walked back home from class on campus listening to the episode of This American Life entitled “Fear of Sleep”, Act Five: A Small Taste of the Big Sleep. You can probably guess what the title intimated but here are a few excerpts taken from the transcript online:

“I can feel time whizzing by. And I’m trying to hold on to something generally. So I usually start grabbing the walls or like clinging to the pillow. And I’m like this isn’t going to go away. I need to hold this. I need to hold on to time. I need to stand in this river and just not move.”

“Like it’s a kind of very primitive feeling. You have to just, like, flee from this totally horrible thing that’s happening to you. But there is nowhere you can flee. And understanding at the same time that what you’re fleeing and trying to run away from is the complete cessation of you.”

Conkers, by Sylvia Plath
Conkers, by Sylvia Plath

A procession of public disclosures detailing early morning revelations, of the sort that only a good rousing from delta waves sleep can elicit, passes on by. The trail of stories ends with a woman articulating her sad resignation and an eventual amorphous and non-committal acceptance. I’m disoriented when I stare at the darkened ceiling, and while I can empathize and on other nights sense all too well for myself that utter suffocation of this done deal of life and its stony indifference, as I become cognizant in degrees, what my mind wanders to is something on a slightly smaller scale, a sub-category of this larger motif. It’s a rude awakening nonetheless, as my thoughts circle on to the fact that I’ve passed the threshold of twenty and now I must be quite serious if academia is what I want to pursue. That I must think responsibly, deeply from now onwards until I can no longer. Sylvia Plath was precociously serious, I had realized earlier that night; I hopelessly browsed through a few of her published journal entries, all eloquently wrought on paper by the tender age of 18, to remind myself of the deliberation, the self-doubt, and the nerve that it takes to procure decent writing. Thoreau’s journal too, is trenchant by the time adulthood overtook him – succinct bursts of wit and honesty that would herald Walden and Civil Disobedience. And then an influx of young but promising women and men parade in my mind’s eye, apparitions like Macbeth’s dead kings all suspended with their portfolios bursting with talent while I think on the day ahead, a schedule penciled in with a series of urgent nothings. They all began at some discrete moment in time on an ordinary day, not particularly unlike any other, a smudgy event that only in retrospect we identify as the first star that formed in their life’s constellation. Yet they wrested their discontent with the world into some comprehensible form – either shimmering and snapping prose or unabashed and seismic visual forms. While Ira Glass’ interviewees flee from the scythe, budding artists and/or the young persons of our generation seem to shudder at the thought of insidious mediocrity. In a plaintive tone, Plath expresses that to be a round peg struggling in a round hole “with no awkward or painful edges – no space to wonder or question in”, you might as well be finished. It has been a constant debate in my head and at least a million others: Is melancholy and frustration or the glow of high spirits the better catalyst? For me at least, I’ve been more of a member of the former camp – needing some sense of dissatisfaction to light the proverbial flame and get things a’rolling.

Alternatively, it doesn’t take very much for unconsciousness to take over once more – there’s no struggle to fall back into the warmth of slumber, only that dreaded contentness that Plath makes mention of. It’s just a flash in the pan, these unsolicited midnight “insights”, that under the afternoon sun, seems to wither in consequence.

Challenging Fun

The statement: “I’m a theatre major.”  The common responses: “Oh fun!” “So, you’re like gonna be on Broadway or something?”  “That must be like not even being in school!”  What I want to say back: “It is, but it’s also hard work.” “Absolutely not.  Even performance majors have to work very hard to get to that point.”  “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”

An issue that has come up in many of my classes and conversations with friends lately has been this idea of the easy major, the non-serious major, the idea that having fun and making a life are completely separate things.  Honestly, I’m offended, as are many of the others engaged in this constant struggle for legitimacy.  Our gut response tends to be, “Why shouldn’t it be fun?” but I’d like to dig a little deeper than that.

Chances are, if someone asked why go to the theatre, you’d say to be entertained or something along those lines.  Good, great, wonderful.  I hope that the shows you see succeed.  However, there are millions of ways to be entertained.  The means by which The Phantom of the Opera, Endgame, and The Odd Couple entertain you are entirely different.  So let’s change up our word choice a little.  Let’s say that you go to the theatre to be fulfilled. Oo, things just got a little more serious.  There is a contract between you as an audience member and the production that you will get something out of the show.

As a theatrical company, then, we have an obligation to make sure that you leave with something new.  What that thing is differs from production to production—laughing harder than you have in years, realizing that your relationship with your parents was way more complicated than you thought, a new perspective on race in the 1960s—whatever it is, we are providing a service.  That is what you pay for.  Now how many people are involved in achieving this goal?  That varies from theatre to theatre, but let’s say we have actors, a director, designers, a stage manager, a backstage crew, a writer, a producer, a marketing team, a literary office, a development office, an artistic director, and a managing director.  Wow.  That’s a lot of people.

Now these people have “fun” jobs.  They enjoy what they do.  Good for them.  If you don’t enjoy your job, you might want to reevaluate your choices.  Why is me having fun at my work any different than you having fun at yours?  All of these people have to work together to achieve this goal of giving you, the audience, something new to carry with you as you exit the theatre.  This begins in planning a season, and goes all the way to selling tickets and striking the set after the final curtain.  There are so many steps in that process, and they are not always fun.  They are challenging and stimulating, and sometimes they involve fights and hard-fought compromises.

Right now, I am finishing my second play.  It is driving me to the brink of insanity.  I sit staring at the blinking cursor wondering how the hell I am going to wrap this thing up.  What am I trying to say?  Who am I trying to reach?  What is propelling the plot forward?  At the same time, I am working on Beaux’ Stratagem, watching actors struggle through comedic timing while still dissecting their characters’ intentions.  My theatre back home is producing my first play, and the director is taking on the task of getting the play on its feet and staying true to my vision with practical space concerns.  Each member of each team is busting their ass making sure that the product that you finally see is outstanding.  We might not work nine to five, but there is no way you can say we are not working.

So yes.  We get to do what we love, and for that we are grateful.  There are incredibly rewarding moments sometimes, the eruption of laughter when you hit a joke just right or hearing our words come to life or seeing our renderings materialized on stage.  But along the way, as with any job, there are challenges.  There are tear-filled nights and hours of thought.

So sure.  My job is fun, but that is only the beginning.

Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All Don’t Give A Fuck

They chant “Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School.” Their lyrics are bursting with statements like “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” They condone violence, preach chaos and thrive on the unpredictable. They dedicate their lives to disrupting social norms and shattering moral barriers. They accomplish all of this through their harsh music. They are the members of the Hip Hop group Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, or OFWKTA. And they are fascinating.

For the past week I have immersed myself in their music, videos and live footage. Their group dynamic is that of any friendly collection of teenagers, except they add a barrage of expletives and vulgarity unique to their own dynamic. Comprised of Tyler, the Creator and his partners Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats, Domo Genisis and Frank Ocean (among others), Odd Future is a Hip Hop team unlike anything else the world has seen. The emphasis of their music is placed almost entirely on their lyrics; the bass-heavy, steady beats prevalent in almost every Odd Future song merely provide platforms for the voices, which forces the listener to pay close attention to the words. The words, in turn, elicit an inevitably emotional response, and the response spreads the group’s message. That message is the reason for their music.

If you have never heard them, Odd Future’s lyrics are easily some of the most violent and morally insensitive statements ever imagined by mankind. However, these horribly offensive insults only serve as a blanket that hides the essence of their ideology. Odd Future’s true declaration is to not care. About anything. Ever. As children of broken families these teenagers have encapsulated the apathetic, misanthropic, Blink-182 credo that intrigues so many adolescents in our society, and have rejuvenated it into a culture much larger than any punk band could have dreamed of. Hordes of people, including (if not especially) members of every race, gender, religion and sexual orientation attacked in the music, have flung themselves at Odd Future. This cult following has formulated because of the attitude ringing out of its very name. The music allows an outlet for anger and helplessness by first accepting that anger, and then disregarding it. They don’t care that what they say is terrible. They don’t care that their lives have not followed any of the traditional paths for youths today. They don’t care that they are pissing off every well-respected adult they come in contact with. They don’t care about anything.

My initial curiosity regarding this group stemmed from my appreciation for Frank Ocean’s music. Frank Ocean, who has one of the best voices on the planet, was featured in two of the songs on Kanye and Jay-Z’s recent collaboration Watch The Throne. As this proves, he has the talent to work with the biggest names in his industry, yet he remains a member of Odd Future. This surprised me because of the contrast in their principles. While Tyler the Creator is often reprimanded for his frequent use of the word “faggot” and seemingly strong homophobia issues, Frank Ocean spreads lyrics such as “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman, but between love and love.” Then I began to listen more closely to Tyler’s words, and I began to understand their relationship.

Tyler the Creator actually has a much more brilliant mind than he likes to display, one he keeps intact through his substance-free lifestyle. Tyler often attaches a sarcastic, contradictory tone to make his points in lines such as, “I’m not homophobic, faggot.” Or in his song She, he pleads, “I just want to ask you on a date, cunt.” These lines prove that Odd Future’s mentality delves much deeper than the phrases that initiate these derogatory proclamations. Tyler has nothing against homosexuality, but harsh insults transfer his anger and provoke his desired reaction. The point is that they aren’t homophobic; they aren’t racist. They’re just kids.

The true brilliance of Odd Future rests in their ultimate belief. They stress the glorification of violence and anger, and exist in a world with no rules, no morals and no restrictions. They don’t believe in right or wrong. They eliminate the concept of immorality because they don’t recognize it as a possibility. They want to rape, burn, and kill just so they can remind the world that they can. It is utter and complete indifference; they do or say anything they want and never think of the consequences. They have condensed the entire universe down to the flat line of basic primal desire. Critics of Odd Future need to stop creating a controversy because they won’t ever be able to win; they’re fighting a losing battle. They’re attempting to rationalize the irrational. Instead, they should embrace the ideas and reflect on how a bunch of teenagers have captured the attention of millions by channeling their frustration into, albeit, terribly vulgar lyrics that nevertheless precede an inspirational message. It is youth rebellion at its finest. It is the oddest future. It is pure apathy. So I join in, and chant, “Kill people Burn shit Fuck school.” Because I can.

When in Time

Science fiction seems to frequently visit and revisit familiar elements: extraterrestrial colonies, teleportation, alien invasions, technologically advanced societies fallen into some sort of dystopian twilight. There is, as in any genre, good writing and shoddy. There are works that more squarely align with the genre’s central tenets (classics, perhaps?), others that are downright unusual, and some that inhabit a more peripheral space, prodding at logic, imagination, and that slight, niggling feeling that none of this is very foreign after all.

Despite a personal tendency to read other forms of fiction rather more frequently than science fiction, the allure of particular works remain striking. I, for one, had until the past year never heard of the late Kage Baker. Yet, the Novels of the Company series for which she is best known seems to open up entirely new fields of speculation, of narrative structure, of logic and awareness. It may be in itself an entirely new genre. Time travel? Done. Technologically-enhanced human life? Done. Baker takes both of these yet further. The premises of her stories seem straightforward— futuristic society selectively chooses past eras, mechanically and biologically enhances certain individuals to make them virtually immortal, and leaves them with instructions and work to do for “the good of the future.”

And then, everything begins defying expectations. The historical periods the author visits are rich with historical detail, when it is available. Period speech and politics are realistic. Protagonists are drawn from their own times by some future entity for which they are to work, sent all over the globe and all over history, to Civil War-era California, to sixteenth-century England, to prehistoric times, to times ahead of our own, in which familiar placenames are associated with unfamiliar new attitudes and conventions. Dates and events we know from our textbooks are all bound up in the goings-on.

The plot grows convoluted. Time starts doing strange things. People disappear. The Oddslot Company for which the protagonists are working will tell no one anything. Happenings grow stranger and stranger. Like any piece of science fiction, there are laws of what can and cannot happen. Baker’s world is fully fleshed-out, the characters relatable, the writing easily readable, and, at times, the story emotionally powerful.

Out of Print

We all know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but can we judge a person by their cover?

At Out of Print, a website that sells shirts, tote bags, iPhone covers, etc., each product features an iconic book cover design from classic (and some not-so-classic) literature.  My inner literary nerd did a little jig when it saw Out of Print’s t-shirts emblazoned with the titles of some of the great stories it loves or loves to hate. Pride and Prejudice, The Origin of Species, and Ulysses are just a few examples of the book covers featured on Out of Print’s products.

Which book cover would you choose to cover your pages of personality? Perhaps a romantic Pride and Prejudice, a political 1984, or a deep and intellectual Ulysses would be your cover of choice.

Out of Print works to share the love of literature worldwide. For each item sold on the website, one book is donated to a needy community through Books for Africa. Buyers get to help improve literacy around the world, while fashionably displaying their love of literature.

If you aren’t in a shopping mood,  the Out of Print website also offers some bookish fun.  They have a blog on literary topics, an internet book club, and a “bookshelf” with lists of books that Out of Print employees are currently reading, want to read, or have just read.

If you’re a lover of literature and appreciate good cover art, you should check out Out of Print.

I Dwell In Possibility

I get strangely excited every time the course guide for the next semester is available online.  I wish I could say that this is what marks me as a nerd, but if I’m being honest, I get excited about far nerdier things than the course guide (marching bands, office supplies, the smell of books).  I like the feeling of possibility in the new course guide.  I get the feeling, a little flutter somewhere between my heart and stomach, when I first print out my schedule of new classes—that feeling before you are steeped in research and deadlines, that great openness, a new beginning.

It may seem absurd to wax poetic on the course guide, but for me the guide is indicative of that starting over point that we are lucky enough to get every first class meeting.  Syllabus week is famously boring, but there’s also something thrilling about the textbook list and schedule that stretches into the future, providing a definite plan.  This is something unique to college.  Once we’re out in the “real world,” we won’t have chances to start over, to learn things we never would have dreamed of, to fulfill that childhood hopefulness for the college experience once every fourteen weeks or so.

So when I logged onto Wolverine Access last week to find that the course guide was available, I was first greeted with my familiar feelings of optimism and the adventure of finding unexpected exciting classes (I warned you, I’m a nerd).  But as I began sorting through meeting times and how many classes I wanted to take and figuring out credits, I was struck with a sort of despair.  This will be my last semester at the University of Michigan.  Suddenly, my enthusiasm had disappeared.  Two things occurred to me: one, I will never be able to take all of the classes I would like to, and two, it’s really happening.  I’m really going to graduate.

I transferred to Michigan my sophomore year.  It took me one semester to not feel like a freshman and another semester to really get the hang of it and feel like I belonged here.  Now, three years later, I never want to leave.  I am so excited to go out and start my career and put what I’ve learned to use, but there’s a part of me that knows that I’ll miss seeing my best friends every day in the lobby of the Walgreen and being able to geek out about Tennessee Williams with professors and classmates.  Now, I finally feel like a major part of a major program.  I have friends telling me every day not to graduate, and sometimes, I really wish I didn’t have to.

I’ve always loved school.  I was the kid who woke up at 4 a.m. on the first day of second grade, trying to shake my parents awake because I was afraid I’d be late.  Soon, it will be my last first day.  And while I know it means I’m taking a step toward a (hopefully) awesome career doing what I’ve always known I wanted to do, it also means I’ve really got to make it count.  So if you see me glued to my computer screen the next couple of weeks, don’t mind me.  I’m just taking one final walk through the pages and pages of possibility that is the course guide.