Jesus Christ, It’s 1973

Every year at Easter, I force my little family to sit through yet another screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t cook a ham, I don’t color eggs, I don’t force anyone to attend church. This is my whole observance of the holiday – contemplation of an early 1970s take on the days leading up to the crucifixion.

Every year, the movie sparks a lot of discussion – what’s up with the people dressed in rags? They’re lepers. Why doesn’t Jesus like swap meets? They’re having their swap meet at the temple, and Christ thinks its inappropriate to have people turning His church into a marketplace. In Phoenix, we had our heads on straight. Our swap meet was the the parking lot of the place that had greyhound racing during the week. Why did people live in the middle of a crappy desert? Most of Israel isn’t a crappy desert. I hear it’s really nice. Is Pontius Pilate the same guy that invented the yoga? Yes.

The thing that came up this year was the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, a year marked in my mind by the kind of soul-crushing shame that makes me want to dig a pit, fall into it and collapse in on myself as my body digests itself with the acid of horror.

I was 8 years old in 1973. Aware enough to know that I was surrounded by a culture that people would look on for decades as the nadir of human civilization.

New Seekers’ song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was not only still on the radio, it had been made into a commercial for Coke so we could hear it that much more often. The song “One Tin Soldier,” which had been used in the film Billy Jack (which I have never seen and about which I have no opinion) was still battering the airwaves with its antiwar bludgeon. The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” while not a peacenik antiwar protest was nonetheless another giant bummer you couldn’t dance to. They get lost with other agonizing, horrible songs like “Wildfire” and “Run, Joey, Run” that came out while I was still cringing.

The clothes of 1973 were a combination of chunky, greasy, scratchy lumpy miracle fabrics and loud colors that looked good on the idealized anorexic frame of models, but looked horrible on actual parents. Kids were all stuck dressing like Holly Hobbie, a fad so popular that it spawned the “Little House on the Prairie” television series the following year.

In 1973, my mother had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs and often had nowhere else to go but our house. I can’t count how many times someone at our house broke something, and then went limp with hysterical laughter at the mess they had caused. Or how they would, in their inebriated haze, try to have serious conversations with my siblings and me. They failed to make the slightest bit of sense, although it was apparent that in their minds, they were relating to us at some very deep and spiritual level because they grokked us as human beings. These people are why I never got involved with drugs in any significant way.

But the blind self-absorption wasn’t just my mother’s friends. All over America there was a fascination with the 1920s, especially The Great Gatsby and its cast of characters who spent all their time contemplating themselves and each other. Everyone played backgammon, spending tons of money on little suitcases full of tiny poker chips over which they could pose with drinks and pretend to be intellectual for the benefit of equally drunken pseudointellectual onlookers. And the 1970s was when the adults all decided that sex should be moved out of the dark bedroom and into the living room, dining room or front yard, where we could all see it.

How can you be 8 years old and not be scarred by the skin-peeling embarrassment of it all?

But Jesus Christ Superstar somehow escaped all of it.

As an opera, it’s a story told entirely in song, but no one song tries to contain the whole narrative, so we avoid the whole weepy story ballad agony. The clothes are mainly the kind of clothes that dancers still wear today – close-fitting pants and tops that allow freedom of movement. And the story itself isn’t one that will go out of fashion anytime soon.

So that’s my real celebration of Easter. That Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of 1973, redeeming what would have otherwise been the worst year of all time.

Film #8: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows two boys who, after the older boy’s mother is taken by the police, are left to fend for themselves in the projects for an entire summer.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

When the Pirate and I first looked at the catalog copy for this film, it looked a lot like Tekkonkinkreet, a manga we both loved about two orphan boys who fend for themselves in a weird futuristic fictional city Treasure Town. We were very, very wrong.

First of all, I’ve heard this story before. In December of 2007, This American Life aired a segment called Boy Interrupted about a boy who, at the age of 15, was left alone for five months while his mother was in the hospital. “Defeat” took his story, and amped it up considerably, first making the mother a heroin addicted prostitute, then adding a 9-year-old Korean boy with a mother who was not only a junkie prostitute, but an abuser as well.

There are certain things I can’t watch: torture, abuse, privation, humiliation. I especially can’t watch innocents undergo sustained abuse. By halfway through this film, I was crying and mouthing the words “I want to go home now” over and over.

To spend two full hours watching two boys undergo disappointment, humiliation, neglect, assault, starvation and abandonment is more than I can take, but I’m shocked at the review given it by Salt Lake Magazine’s Dan Nailen, who ended his review with “By the time The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete started answering those questions, I had stopped caring.” I guess that’s the problem that makes me weep. Yes, this is a movie. But as the TAL episode shows, it’s also real. And there are millions of other people in similarly harsh, desperate circumstances that don’t just have to sweat them out for a few months, but have to live them for YEARS. I’m willing to bet that Dan Nailen never even started caring about any of them.

I’m fortunate in that I have enough money to do pretty much whatever I want, including coming out to spend a week at Sundance. The problem is that I don’t have quite enough money to solve anyone’s large-scale problems, and the people that do have that kind of cash don’t feel any pressing need to help anyone else. But just because I’m no longer poor (and I say “no longer” because I grew up government-cheese-and-horsemeat poor) doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what desperation, shame and hopelessness feel like.

I’m happy for Dan Nailen that he never experienced that kind of life, but I’m sad for him and anyone like him who look at “Defeat” and see nothing more than a movie they didn’t like.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

What Dreams May Come

“You’ve certainly been scarce lately,” you say.

“Sorry. I plead a medical exemption.”

“You’ve been sick?”

That’s a good question. I’ve been on SSRI inhibitors for a few months now, and it’s been a bit of a struggle. The first ones made me both groggy and bitchy (exactly the opposite of how they affect most people). The second ones made me so sleepy I couldn’t tell whether my mood had improved or not. We’ve been fiddling with the dosage, and I’m now at a dosage where my symptoms are manageable, but the side effects are apparent.

I’m always thirsty. I get headaches often. I procrastinate more than I used to, because I just don’t worry about the consequences of not getting things done. None of those things is great, but they’re not fatal.

The worst is that I just don’t have the urge to create anymore. I don’t care so much about writing. I haven’t written anything new in quite a while, and I can’t seem to motivate myself to get started. It doesn’t help that my most potent source of story material seems to have dried up.

I’m not dreaming anymore.

If you don’t know me, you don’t know that my dream life is almost as important to me as my waking life. Google “virtual bank line” (with the quotes), and the first few results will be me talking about my dreams which are action-packed, specific, and detailed. It would be easy for me to believe that this life where I’m sitting in a coffee shop and typing at a computer is my dream life, and that the other one is my real life, it’s that detailed.

Without dreams, it feels like my days are incomplete. Like I’m missing half of my life. All those things I do in my dreams feel like they’re going undone. Like somewhere, there’s a world where I have a job to do and I’m not doing it.

I discussed this with my therapist, and his response was “There’s no free fucking lunch.” (He’s that kind of therapist.) He’s not kidding – not only are my dreams gone, but I’m paying for the privilege of having them taken away.

I feel now that if I’m going to keep taking these meds, I have to figure out how to rebuild my life, including the dream life. I’m not sure it’s worth it to let that go.

Drinking Like a Real Writer

In the 1940 classic “The Philadelphia Story,” C.K. Dexter Haven tells Macaulay Connor “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.” He tells Macaulay that Tracy Lord never understood his “deep and gorgeous thirst.” I’ve always thought that writing and substance abuse go together. Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, O. Henry, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway – all famous literary alcoholics. Baudeliare smoked hash, Stephen King did coke, Aldous Huxley did mushrooms – the list goes on and on. I think it might be more difficult to find a successful writer who hadn’t at some time abused something. Sadly, I’m not a drug addict. I don’t have the personality for it. I can’t stand the thought of regularly using something so expensive. I’m just too cheap. On the other hand…there’s always liquor.

I was at dinner with a couple of friends last week, and the drinks menu featured a couple of cocktails whose names I hadn’t heard except in novels in years and years. Singapore Sling, Manhattan, Harvey Wallbanger, Old Fashioned, Cuba Libre…I started feeling like I should be wearing a satin gown and maribou-feather slippers, making sure that I didn’t smudge my lipstick or muss my marcelled hair.

I had a couple of Singapore Slings and suddenly, I was Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Bette Davis all rolled up in one (seriously – they were tiny women and have you seen me?). If I had been at a typewriter (or, more correctly, if I had been a typewriter sitting at my machine), I would have been churning out the kind of prose that made people laugh on the bus, cry in restaurants and call up their friends just to read extensive passages. I’ll tell you a secret, though.

When I was 18 or 19, before they raised the drinking age in Arizona to 21, my boyfriend and I would walk to this Italian restaurant a mile or so from my house and split a plate of pasta and a bottle of bad chianti. I didn’t know it was bad chianti at the time, but I was young and stupid then. We would get drunk and, in that pretentious way that only 18 or 19 year olds can pull off, talked about deep, philosophical truths. We talked about world politics and art and the nature of reality. We talked about popular culture, the human condition and how we were going to change the world with art. These discussions were monumental. They were profound. They were so important, I felt, that I persuaded my boyfriend to bring his new mini tape recorder to dinner one evening so that we could actually remember one of these conversations the next morning.

That night, we drank two bottles of bad chianti and ate spaghetti with butter and mizithra cheese. We probed the very depths of the deepest questions mankind has asked himself since the invention of language. We revealed ourselves as the gods of our own private universe, a place much more orderly, beautiful and just than the one that everyone else seemed to inhabit. We weren’t golden children, we were beings of diamond.

The next morning, after throwing up, we listened to the tape. It was hard because the night before, we had apparently had some difficulty working the tape player. You know, pushing both the “play” and the “record” button at the same time. There was a great deal of giggling, some of that “I love you, no I love you” crap that couples at a certain stage of their relationship think is terribly charming, and a whole lot of incomprehensible mumbling punctuated with belches. When we did speak, we seemed only to be able to complete one sentence in four, and that one generally ended with a loud “HA!” The two of us looked at each other, mortified, and vowed never to do that again.

My loving husband is mixing me a cocktail even as we speak, but I’ll likely sip it slowly and perhaps not finish it, for I’m in the midst of Nanowrimo, and I’d like the words I put together to mean something.