Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Failure and insomnia

"When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep... and you're never really awake."
--Edward Norton, Fight Club

Sleep eludes me.

It's partly due to just one of the demoralizing...no, soul-crushing...bits of news I received over the past month.
I was rejected from yet another PhD program.   I won't say what university it was other than it was one in the Midwest that is mainly known for its engineering and agricultural programs.  I was of course attempting to enter its English department.  But I was turned down.  Not for any reason related to funding and not because of my academic record or so I was assured by The Powers That Be.  No, it was because my "research interests don't match theirs."


This has really made me rethink furthering a career in academics.  Just try another school, you say?  It's not that easy.  Especially at my age.  An applicant needs to gather together a serious and impressive portfolio of work and write a statement geared exclusively to the university.  You also need good GRE scores (which I think I have as I scored in the 95% of the fucking nation) and hope that you can get into a place before the scores expire (I have one year left.)  Additionally, one must pony up the nearly $100 application fee.  So it's not just time consuming, it's expensive.

Yet there is no way for me to move forward in academics without a PhD.  I like teaching and I like being around smart people, but I have begun to experience the fact that advanced degrees are no indication of one's intelligence.  In fact, a few of the dumbest people I have ever met have the letters "PhD" following their names.  Add in the fact that I write science fiction, the academic equivalent of garlic and a crucifix to English department vampires, and I really must question if I have indeed chosen the correct path.

So I've been losing sleep over it.  I sit awake at night in an otherwise dark room lit only by the glow of my iPhone.  My thoughts consume me, ranging from the crucial to the inane to the utterly tangential.  Here's a soupcon culled from the past week's sleepless musings:

-How, if at all, can I move on without a PhD?

-How will I pay the bills?

-The phrase "all you need is now" seems woefully simplistic to me at this time.

-I need to get chummy with Trent.

-I want my next book to be centered around a robot.  I wonder if I could get Bernard to sketch or paint a mock up of it for me?  Any attempt I would make would surely look hideous.

-Will I ever stop hating myself?  Probably not.

-Speaking of Bernard, I'm determined to get our podcast show off the ground and onto iTunes.

-As the ice caps melt, bromine is released into the atmosphere.  This depletes the ozone layer.  Yay human race.

-The baby seal hunt is going on right now in Canada.  I loathe the human race.

-Could Matter-Eater Lad from The Legion of Super-Heroes eat Captain America's indestructible shield?

The world begins to look strange without sleep.  Glad-handing smiles on people seem more of an artifice than usual.  Reality truly begins to seem subjective, that in truth it is really that "consensual illusion" that the famous quote speaks of.  I begin to wonder about consciousness.  Is it subject to space and time?  Is its definition unique to each one of us?  To our respective bodies of knowledge and perceptions?  Is there a universal consciousness?

So help me, I'm actually considering mediation once more.  In my heart of hearts, I want to believe that we are, in fact, consciousness itself and not the physical "stuff" that makes up our bodies.  Do we share consciousness?  I hope so.  For that may be our best bet to render our society at least a little less bloody.

For all of you having difficulty getting through the night, you have my sympathy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 29, 2013

With Teeth

I have spent the past month flattened by depression.

Disappointments in both my personal and professional life really did a number on me.  But I met someone who helped me come back from it.  Met?  No, rather got reacquainted with.

His name is Trent Reznor.  He is Nine Inch Nails.

I went through the majority of the 1990s as a strict devotee of that band.  In time, my tastes altered and in truth, softened a bit as I branched out into other musical directions.  There are those who would say "so much the better."
Why?  Because Nine Inch Nails is "so depressing." True, the lyrical content of the songs tend to deal with heartbreak, rage, suicide, and insanity.  It's not exactly "feel good music" but it also fucking happens. They are legitimate aspects of the human experience.  Therefore, they are subject to treatment by art and artists.  If anything, it is the obligation of artists to explore these subjects and deal with them openly and honestly as opposed to shunting them into a corner for safety and happiness' sake.  Besides, whoever said that art was supposed to be safe?

"It's just noise" has been another criticism I have heard.  Perhaps.  Reznor loves his grating sounds and loops of atonal cacophony, but it isn't exactly "noise" without purpose.  To me, the music of Nine Inch Nails is the sound of a technological society coming apart at the seams.  It's the sound of a world where the Cylons won or the transhuman singularity happened and it didn't exactly pan out the way we wanted it.  Piece by piece we replaced ourselves with cybernetics, all the way until each one of us saw the world through William Gibson's eyes.  As I continually maintain, I am a singularity proponent but I am not blind to its potential pitfalls.  Reznor may be pointing out just such pitfalls...or openly accepting them as an inevitable and inexorable swan dive into the abyss.

During that aforementioned run in the 1990s, I saw Nine Inch Nails live three times; twice on The Downward Spiral tour and once opening for David Bowie on the latter's Outside tour.  I can personally attest that one of the hallmarks and distinctive aspects of the band is their live shows.  The first two times featured a stage set that was one of the most artistically innovative that I have ever seen before or since.  It seemed a landscape of the discarded, halfway between a prison yard and a post-apocalyptic planet and all of the lighting appeared to be centered from shoulder-height and down as opposed to hung overhead.  At the onset of the "trilogy" of "Eraser," "Hurt," and "The Downward Spiral," a scrim lowered and obscured the stage.  Upon it was projected various black and white images of various levels of "disturbing" (if you've seen the live video for "Hurt" then you probably know what I mean.)  Then, as "The Downward Spiral" reached its climactic moment, streaks of red ran down the images and the scrim rose.  The stage was bathed in red light and more dry ice vapor than I have ever seen.  Standing in the midst of the fog you could see three figures: Reznor and his guitar players, thrashing in place like a trio of hellions.

As I said, I lost touch with the band shortly after The Fragile and Reznor's work with David Lynch on Lost Highway.  So I decided to see what the band has been like live in recent years.  Check out this performance of "Vessel:"

Again the color red makes its return, but in spastic flashes and discordant breakdowns.  Something's coming apart.  Is it that technological society that I mentioned or is it sanity itself?  Are these perhaps synapses firing in the fevered brain of someone who just can't manage the world anymore?

I explored further, seeking out records that Nine Inch Nails has made in the past decade or so.  On With Teeth, I found what have already become a few of my favorite NIN songs: "Only" and "All the Love in the World." Year Zero was a record marketed as a broadcast from a dystopian future, warning us to fight what is to come.  Composed at the height of the Bush administration, Reznor describes a political state where Christianity is the national religion and all citizens are required to fall in line with it.  Case in point, this is one of the logos from the corresponding tour for Year Zero:

That's right.  Guns and religion.  And really, what else were the Bush years about?  Just another day in 'Murica.
To me, Year Zero represented true artistic growth for Reznor.  He seemed to realize that while there was great merit to the introspective work he had been doing, he came to a point where he had to look externally for inspiration.  Once doing so, he obviously found a political situation he was unhappy with (who could blame him) and could not let it go by without comment.

Trent Reznor is busy with a new Nine Inch Nails tour and I wholeheartedly recommend seeing them.  I'm disappointed about missing the band at Lolapalooza Chicago with The Cure, but them's the breaks.  Reznor is also working with his wife on a project called How To Destroy Angels, another set of music I encourage you to check out.  If you in any way appreciate spectacle, the show will drown out whatever you might think about the tonal or lyrical content of the songs.

Because I know it's not for everybody.  Except for perhaps Morrissey, no one can do self-loathing better than Trent Reznor (Now there's a visual.  A Morrissey/Trent Reznor cage match.  Mozz has a bit of a bite to him but he's also world weary and been rather sick lately.  Meanwhile, Trent looks big enough to bench press Buicks these days so my money is on him.)  That likewise leads to the adjective of "depressing" that some folks tend to apply to Nine Inch Nails.  But anyone who does any amount of critical introspection should come away with attributes about themselves that they don't really like.  Perhaps even hate.  Again, that makes for honest material for an artist to draw from.

Depressing?  Maybe but there are those of us out there who have struggled with that very condition.  Music like that of Nine Inch Nails is oddly reassuring.  It reminds us that there is at least one other person out there who has felt this way and they used these dark emotions to positive and creative ends.  That alone makes Nine Inch Nails, in my opinion, most therapeutic. 

So thanks, Trent.  Because of you I'm back...with teeth.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets