Life

Thoughts About Death, 2017 Edition

Jan 3, 2017

Talking about the prospect of your own death is like talking about your own dreams. No one can consider your mortality with the same level of urgency or interest as yourself. That said, I wanted to lay down some thoughts as I approach the end of my tenure among the living, in hopes that it will ease my existential terror somewhat.

Fear

Death is terrifying to me for two basic reasons. One, the idea of there being a final day – a day beyond which I will experience no more days – is deeply disturbing. Someday, my consciousness will simply cut off. There will be no end credits. No sequel to the movie of my life. All thought will end.

Two, unless I’m very fortunate, my death will be preceded by some sort of horrible illness or injury. At best, I will suffer some level of physical/mental discomfort. At worst, I will plunge into an agonized or intolerable state. I could suffer intense pain, or some measure of paralysis, or failure of my internal organs. I could fall into some sort of locked-in state. I could contract some sort of respiratory illness, like my uncle Steve did in his 70s, and slowly asphyxiate.

After

These fears would all be alleviated to a great extent if I had any firm belief in an afterlife. Although I do have spiritual beliefs, I’m very skeptical about the possibility of a conscious existence after physical death. At most, I think it may be possible that whatever energies generated by our bodies will be absorbed back into the cosmos in some way. I dunno.

Of the afterlife scenarios I’ve encountered, I guess the ones that seem most plausible to me are implications of the possibility that the universe is actually a simulation. If we are all just data in some superintelligent being’s computer simulation, then it’s possible that we will live on in some way. The simulation could run its course and be restarted. (Though I guess it’s unlikely that I as an individual would be born again.) Or “characters” from one simulation could be copied into another simulation. Or something is done with us when we “die” in the simulation where we would reawaken as ourselves, with our memories intact.

I suppose anything is possible, but again, I doubt that I will have any form of consciousness after my brain dies, so I’m not banking on any form of afterlife.

There could also be some deus ex machina in the form of medical/technological progress that occurs within my lifetime, that could extend my life significantly or indefinitely. But again, not banking on that.

Lifespan

I just turned 48 years old. If I’m fortunate enough to avoid serious illness or injury, I think I can reasonably hope for about 20 more years of life before my luck runs out. If my luck holds, however, I could live to about 77 to 82, according to a couple of life expectancy calculators I’ve tried.

Genetically, it’s kind of hit-and-miss. All of my grandparents (except my maternal grandfather, who was disappeared by the North Koreans, so I have no info there) lived well into their 80s, in reasonably good health. However, both of my parents had cancer (which killed my dad).

So, I dunno. But I think if I do my best to maximize my chances, and evade or survive the deadly illnesses of old age, I could make it another 30 years or so.

Time

In some ways, 20 years doesn’t seem like a very long time. When I look at the number 20, it’s terrifyingly small. H and I buy eggs in 18-packs and can go through the carton in a week. So that feeling of time running out adds to my terror.

However, 20 years is also a pretty damn long time. 20 years ago was 1996. Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996. The first DVD movies were released in 1996.

This computer was the new hotness:

The Internet was primitive. (Hotmail…was launched…in 1996.) I wouldn’t even create my first “Internet home page” until a year later, and I wouldn’t become a “blogger” for at least four more years. That’s pretty crazy to think about.

Add another 10 years to that and it becomes ridiculous. So, if all I get is another 20-30 years, that is actually a shitload of time.

Of course, the problem is making that time meaningful so that it seems like a long time, and doesn’t just whiz past. The problem with getting older is that the years start to fly by. So the 20 years at the end of life don’t feel the same as your first 20 years.

According to science, the passage of time feels faster the more familiar your everyday life is. Taking in new information and experiences is what makes time slow down. So you can make the years feel longer and fuller by learning new information and experiencing new things throughout your lifetime.

Death

I don’t so much fear the actual event of death. I think the brain has features built in to ease your transition, so that you don’t feel very much pain or discomfort. What I’m afraid of is everything leading up to death, and the eternal absence of consciousness afterwards.

Also, I think there are basically two reasons why most of us fear no longer being alive. One is thinking about the impact, or lack thereof, of our nonexistence on our loved ones and the world at large. A lot of people worry about their legacy, or the emotional/financial welfare of their families and friends. At the end, will I be able to look back on a satisfactory life, having achieved most of my goals and dreams? Will I be consumed with regrets?

The other is contemplating nonexistence itself. I will no longer be in the world, to think thoughts or experience things. I will no longer enjoy the company of the humans and non-human animals that I love.

This second fear is irrational, though, because I obviously will not be around to feel any absence of living experiences. It’s a fear that is based entirely on some imagined external perspective that has any emotion or opinion whatsoever in regard to our nonexistence.

Sleep

Probably the best, most merciful way to go is to simply die in one’s sleep. Ideally, there is no fear, no suffering, no terror as one approaches the end. You just slip away in the darkness. However, that doesn’t do much for one’s fear of death while alive. It just makes bedtimes more fraught.

Life

I think there are basically two reasonable approaches to living in the knowledge of your mortality. One is to strive to live a life that you will feel satisfied with when it’s over. (I wonder if extremely accomplished people, like Steve Jobs or David Bowie, died somewhat prematurely…that they could have lived far longer if they had desired to cling to life. But they gave up the ghost, as it were, because they recognized that they had achieved as much as any human could hope for, and that desire to keep going, to keep striving, was simply not there.)

The other is to let go of the drive for achievement or the goal of looking back on a life where you achieved your ambitions, and simply try to live as happily as possible from day to day. Here, I don’t care whether or not I achieve any personal or career ambitions. I could spend the rest of my life just playing video games. But I will die happy if I live so that each day is lived well.

Obviously, it’s possible to live one or the other approach, or some combination of the two. I guess the latter is the most appealing for me. I want to enjoy day-to-day wellness, physically and emotionally, which includes creativity and the fulfillment of setting and achieving goals.

There is nothing I can do to absolutely ensure that I will live to 80+ in decent health and enjoy a peaceful death with minimal discomfort. There are too many examples out there of people who did everything by the book and still died early or horribly. All I can do is try to improve my chances with a healthy lifestyle, and enjoy my life from day to day, without worrying about the last day.

I don’t know when the last day will be. It could be 40 years from now. It could be today.

When my dad reached his late 40s and 50s, he went from a life of terrible wellness choices – heavy drinking, high stress, shitty diet – to exercising and drinking ginseng tonics and obsessively talking about and researching wellness. Nevertheless, he got cancer in his mid-60s and died.

I used to harbor this superstitious magical thought that what killed him was reversing course and pursuing a wellness path. And less magically, dwelling with bitterness and fear about how his efforts ultimately came to naught.

But I now think that what really killed my dad was stress. Whatever else he changed about his lifestyle, the one thing he didn’t really change was his stress level. When he started pursuing wellness, all he did was rechannel his stress into trying to stay alive and well as long as possible. He pursued that goal with the same clenched-jaw determination that he applied to everything else in his life.

So, I think the best thing I can do, as I pursue a wellness path, is to let go of any attempt at control over the outcome. And reduce my stress level in general. I’ll die when I die. I just need to be as well as I can, in body and mind, but also to avoid obsessing over wellness to the point where I become stressed.

Conclusion

Okay that helped.

R.I.P.

Remembering Garp

Aug 12, 2014

For me, the most meaningful performance Robin Williams ever gave was in the 1982 film The World According to Garp, adapted from the John Irving novel. Williams plays the title character, T.S. Garp, the son of an iron-willed nurse and a brain-damaged WWII turret gunner, who grows up to become a literary novelist.

Garp is a quirky, rambling drama that veers from slapstick comedy to the darkest tragedy, sometimes combining both in a single scene. It’s not an aggressively emotional film, but it ambitiously attempts to tell an entire life, from birth to death, covering the heights and depths of the human experience.

I probably had no business watching Garp, back in the summer of ’82, since I was a tender 13 and unequipped to appreciate the film’s adult themes. Plus, it was rated R, and I can’t recollect how I got in to see it. (I suspect the theater staff wasn’t all that zealous in guarding this fairly tame character drama from incursion by under-17s.)

It caught my attention because I was a huge Mork & Mindy fan, so I was immediately on board with anything starring Robin Williams. I’m sure I went in expecting a straight-up comedy, which it very much wasn’t, but what it turned out to be completely blew my teenaged mind, and I ended up watching it three more times that summer, and a few more times when it eventually came out on VHS.

Garp had a particular tone to it that I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t focused on a single objective, like the action/adventure flicks I normally watched. It was just the story of this man’s life, interwoven with the lives of his friends and family, jumping from episode to episode as it drifted with the current down this long narrative river. Later on, I’d learn that the tone I sensed was that of a long novel, the kind I had never read.

If I thought in windy film critic terms back then, I would have said that Robin Williams’ performance was “revelatory.” The last thing I expected from Mork was a subdued, human-scale dramatic performance. But Mork disappeared completely the moment the adult T.S. Garp made his entrance.

It’s Williams’ face that was new to me. I didn’t know that likable, goofy face was capable of expressing pain, anxiety, sorrow, anger. It was all the more affecting because Williams didn’t overplay the emotions, but kept them mostly beneath the surface, only his eyes and the set of his jaw communicating his intensity. And the goofiness was still there, humanizing those emotions, making them sympathetic and universal.

John Lithgow deservedly stole the movie with his out-of-nowhere performance as Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual ex-football player, but for me it was all about Williams. There’s a scene late in the film between Garp and his wife Helen, whose infidelity inadvertently leads to a family tragedy. In the aftermath, an enraged Garp confronts Helen, but since his jaw is wired shut, he can’t speak. He can only glower, his posture stiff, every movement charged with anger.

Then, his rage collapses into a torrent of helpless sorrow and unimaginable pain, all communicated through Williams’ amazing physical performance. Every time I watch that scene, it breaks my heart.

Garp ends the way anyone’s story ends, if it goes on long enough. In his final moments, Garp tells Helen to remember “everything.” Watching the movie at 13, I did remember everything. I felt for the first time that I’d experienced a life in full, with all its crazy emotional textures and strange and mundane moments. It gave me what felt like a truthful look into the grown-up world, the entire road map of a person’s journey — and their mortality.

Film

Not Armond White’s Film Roundup

Jun 26, 2014

Snowpiercer

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris

Armond WhiteChaotic, unsophisticated paean to fake-tough military stoicism and pseudo-populist martyrdom that exploits eschatological post-9/11 class paranoia to lend faux solemnity to this glum, calculated wallow in cheap anarchy, as if middlebrow journeyman Bong Joon-ho had studied the au courant deconstruction of po-mo liberal ideology in the extraordinary, convulsive The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), only to discard its inspired poetic essentialism in favor of swaggering machismo and hollow philosophizing.
 

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci

Armond WhiteMichael Bay’s visually rapturous symphony of geometric sensuality moves with ineluctable narrative momentum through a luminous Cubist maze that is as conceptually daring as it is esthetically extravagant. Deceptively whimsical, film evokes mythological anamnesis with the naive forthrightness entirely absent from Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s lethargic, patronizing extravaganza of faux-mystical fanboy cynicism.
 

They Came Together

Directed by David Wain
Starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler

Armond WhiteSnarktastic parody trades authentic truths for manic, glibly cynical amalgam of cinematic tropes, masking its fumbling vulgarity with rank, calculated cuteness. Shill critics will doubtless champion this committee-drawn checklist of recognizable, audience-tested romcom set-pieces, with nary a nod to film’s true inspiration, the authentically whimsical Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.
 

Begin Again

Directed by John Carney
Starring Mark Ruffalo , Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld

Armond WhiteExuberant pop culture virtuoso Adam Levine is tragically wasted in this hoary, cynical throwback to pre-9/11 indie romanticism, whose manic, cartoonish hyperactivity constructs a tower of juvenile, test-marketed schmaltz that inevitably disintegrates into a jumble of musicalized self-pity. Glib, ludicrous melodrama that cribs the bravado but not the authentic emotional conviction of the magnificent Step Up 2: The Streets.
 

The Last Sentence

Directed by Jan Troell
Starring Jesper Christensen, Pernilla August

Armond WhiteCynical, indulgent and lifeless film that sentimentalizes its own hipster bleak-chic affectations. Nihilistic nonsense devoid of the warmth and complex emotional textures of the far superior Grown Ups 2.
 

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Directed by Joe Berlinger

Armond WhiteUnfocused spectacle of self-aggrandizement and cheap moralism shamelessly trumpets liberal journo sanctimony with hackneyed, narcissistic sensitivity. Berlinger is a stranger to the intellectual honesty and sentiment-free objectivity Rick de Oliveira achieves in The Real Cancun.
 

Drones

Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Armond WhiteTrite, condescending propaganda pays lip service to bleeding-heart liberal handwringing over American digital-age hegemony, while indulging in corn-pone neocon fantasies of Bush-era triumphalism far more authentically documented in the brilliant, kinesthetic Punisher: War Zone.
 

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Directed by Brian Knappenberger

Armond WhiteHipster do-gooder sentimentality reaches its inevitable postadolescent apex with this solipsistic hagiography, elevating dreary pseudo-spiritual self-pity to apocalyptic proportions. Unbearably overwrought wallow in parochial, commercialized nihilism designed to stroke the egotistic self-romanticization of Internet era digital elite idiots, who rejected the far more incisive and less insufferably precious cultural critique of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Eating the Dinosaur

Eating “Eating the Dinosaur” (Part 11)

May 23, 2013
[Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 4.5Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11]

Eating the Dinosaur CoverI’m going to skip over the next essay in this book, “The Best Response,” which is a series of questions and answers between a questioner seeking a response from someone who’s in some sort of trouble (a scandal, police, etc.)

This is a pretty entertaining piece, with some funny, thoughtful answers that probably qualify as “the best responses” to the questions. However, I really do not have anything useful to say about them, so I’m going to move on. It is a fun piece though.

So. “Football.”

Chuck Klosterman is way into football (and sports in general). So much so that he’s currently a contributor at Grantland, [Update: Grantland is no more.] where he writes almost exclusively about sports, and aside from his Ethicist column [Update: Klosterman is no longer The Ethicist.] and his upcoming book, sports seems to be what Klosterman’s mostly interested in lately. As someone with virtually zero interest in sports — or at least, none that I’ve actively acted upon — but is interested in things Klosterman has to say about things, this is a little disappointing.

This morning I listened to a Grantland podcast episode featuring Klosterman, and one of the topics was Star Trek Into Darkness. There were two things revealed about Klosterman in this episode that heightened my disappointment: one, he apparently really liked Star Trek Into Darkness, and two, he isn’t much of a Star Trek fan. He likes Star Trek, but he isn’t, you know…a fan.

At one point in the episode, he says to Alex Pappademas (the host) that he thinks it would be cool if Star Trek mixed-and-matched characters from different iterations of Trek. For instance, how about a Star Trek movie that featured Data and Spock?

Pappademas, correctly, is appalled by this suggestion. He likens it to saying “Hey, why don’t we mix up Christianity with Islam?” For a genuine Trek fan, this is a totally reasonable analogy.

I mention this because football seems to be to Klosterman what Star Trek is to me (and vice versa). I’m not sure whether the two are necessarily incompatible, but I suppose it’s unlikely that a person can be a diehard Trekkie/er and a diehard football fan simultaneously, since each of those interests requires a significant time and energy commitment.

Also, Klosterman seems apologetic (at least to the imagined audience for his book) about his interest in football, in much the same way that I feel kind of weird about how into Star Trek I am. 1 At least twice in “Football,” he stops to acknowledge that some of his readers might have no interest in this topic and should maybe just skip ahead to the ABBA essay.

Klosterman doesn’t offer these disclaimers about the other topics he covers in the book — including David Koresh, Garth Brooks, or, well, ABBA — so he’s clearly self-conscious about his interest in football.

Since I don’t share his interest, I don’t really have that much to say about what he says about football in this essay. However, I will share one personal observation and then move on to briefly respond to Klosterman’s central points, which I do find interesting.

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION ABOUT FOOTBALL

Something I can say about football that I cannot say about other sports is that I wish I had played more football when I was a kid. The last time I played any football at all was in 6th or 7th grade, and that was just some “flag” football during P.E. I hated it at the time, but in retrospect, it probably would have been good for me.

What I disliked about sports in general at the time is that most sports involved some sort of projectile that was propelled in your direction, and you were expected to somehow engage with that projectile in a purposeful way. I hated this in part because I have shitty depth perception, so, for example, a baseball coming at me in the outfield looked pretty much the same the entire time it was in the air, until it suddenly grew very large and then hit me in the face. Also, I just generally hate anything coming at me at high speed.

I think I would have enjoyed football, though, if I had understood how football was different from the other sports we played in school.

Baseball, for instance, is pretty much what it appears to be — a game played with two teams, where one team tries to score points by hitting a ball and running around bases, and the other team tries to stop the first team from scoring points, and they take turns performing the two roles.

Football, ostensibly, is also a game revolving around a ball and teams that try to score points or prevent the scoring of points. In practice, however, it is also a game in which the teams’ objective is to, within regulated guidelines, beat the living shit out of each other. 2

As a kid, I had some pretty severe anger issues. I rarely got into actual fights, though — my anger usually vented itself in random acts of violence necessitating adult intervention (and, in once case, my mom threatening to drown both of us in the river).

So, one might think that I’d gravitate towards a full-contact sport like football, where violent aggression would be rewarded. (I was also physically suited to football, being stocky and densely built, and difficult to knock down.) However, I was extremely literal-minded as a child, and it never even occurred to me to do anything in the game that wasn’t expressly stated in the rules.

As a result, unlike 99% of kids who play football, I actually attempted to play the game without any extraneous aggression. This made the game no more or less appealing than any other game we played in Phys Ed.

In retrospect, I deeply regret not perceiving and taking full advantage of the huge opportunity for state-sanctioned violence that football offered. There were a couple of jerks in my class for whom this would have really come in handy. 3 It’s not that acts of extreme violence would have gone unadmonished, so much as that they would have been tolerated as an unavoidable part of the game.

I have actually, as an adult, had dreams in which I’m back in elementary school, playing football, and this time I’m just totally whaling on my enemies with unbridled savagery. I’ve gotta admit, it’s pretty satisfying. Insofar as I’m beating up 11-year-olds.

TWO INTERESTING THINGS KLOSTERMAN SAYS ABOUT FOOTBALL

It’s tempting to dismiss “Football” as Klosterman self-indulgently taking advantage of an opportunity to ramble on about his favorite sport for a few pages, but his insights here are actually totally relevant to the themes of image and authenticity that are central to the book. I do not have much to say about these insights, nor am I qualified to, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note them.

1. Football is a liberal game that feels conservative.

This is an interesting observation, one I have not encountered before. Klosterman’s assertion is that football, while perceived (and marketed) as a deeply conservative sport, is actually overseen with a liberal/progressive approach:

It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have — it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy.

He supports this by sketching out how football has evolved over the decades, rapidly incorporating innovative, avant-garde strategies and regulations. According to Klosterman, football, of all sports, is one of the most open to adopting change and new ideas. He even suggests that football, as a business, is a socialist enterprise, citing the practice of revenue sharing.

Despite being progressive in nature, however, football — or Football® — managed the neat trick of presenting itself as conservative, by carefully crafting a media image designed to appeal to reactionary values, and adopting conservative iconography and symbolism.

2. Football is unique among American sports in that it does not attempt to attract the casual viewer.

Klosterman’s assertion here is that Football® is successful because it caters solely to its base of committed fans. Baseball tries to sell itself as a timeless, historical pastime; basketball tries to align itself with youth culture. Both struggle to bring in new audiences. But football doesn’t bother with any of that. It doesn’t care about drawing in the new or casual viewer, but is totally focused on keeping its core fanbase motivated.

I don’t watch enough sports to adequately assess the merits of this argument, but based on what I’ve observed, it doesn’t seem wrong. In football promos or whatever coverage I’ve seen, I don’t perceive much if any effort to “sell” football or extol its virtues. Rather, it just sort of announces its presence. It doesn’t try to draw me in; instead, it merely celebrates itself to itself.

In so doing, Football® weaves an air of exclusivity around it, exuding the vague promise of a rich, undiluted, uncompromised experience, should I possess sufficient cojones to get on board. We’re having too awesome of a time to care about whether or not you want to share in it.

To the extent that this is the case, I guess it’s why I haven’t been able to make any of my attempts to get into football stick in any lasting way. When I watch a football game, I enjoy it, but at the same time, I’m aware that, in order to truly become part of the experience, I will have to make a tremendous commitment. I can’t just check out a game once in a while — I have to join the family. I’m either in or I’m out. I suppose this is true of all televised sports, but it does seem especially true of football.

Come to think of it, this is actually also true of Star Trek. Here’s a franchise with a dizzying array of TV and movie incarnations, an enormous roster of characters, a lengthy and convoluted history, and a complex and rigid continuity that is jealously guarded by legions of fanatically devoted viewers.

For a commercial pop culture product sold to the general public, Star Trek is remarkably insular. The movies — one through ten, at least — don’t waste a single frame of screen time explaining who Kirk or Picard or their respective crews are, or offering any expository background on the galaxy’s alien civilizations. They’re just there, and it’s totally up to the viewer to get up to speed. When Kirk makes his entrance in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he just…appears. He’s Kirk. ‘Nuff said.

Perhaps that explains the hostility from hardcore Trekkies towards the rebooted Star Trek 2.0: these new films have been designed on every level to appeal to audiences unfamiliar (or even hostile) to Star Trek. Unlike any previous film or TV series, these Trek films reach out to the casual viewer. (This is why they appeal to Klosterman; in a way, they’re sort of the Friday Night Lights of Star Trek movies.)

Therefore, no matter how many pandering references to “classic” Trek J.J. Abrams throws into these films, Trekkies will never see them as anything but inauthentic. As egregiously shitty a film as Star Trek: Nemesis was, it’s more authentically Star Trek than either of these slick interlopers.

Of course, Star Trek is unfortunately not like football in that, when it’s most authentic and true to itself, that’s when it’s least artistically and commercially successful. At the risk of making too neat a comparison, I suspect it’s because in some ways Trek is the converse of football: if football is a liberal game that presents itself as conservative, Star Trek is a conservative show that presents itself as liberal.

Using Klosterman’s argument, while football constantly embraces change and quickly adopts new ideas and approaches, Star Trek is staunchly resistant to change. Trek fans cling to a rigid ideology comprising deep reverence of “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” and faithful adherence to Star Trek canon, and prefer the traditional to the unfamiliar, even if that rigidity helps drive the franchise into the ground.

Although Gene Roddenberry is enshrined as the creator of Star Trek, the person who has had the most direct influence over Trek for the vast majority of its existence is executive producer Rick Berman, who led the franchise from The Next Generation through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, all the way through Star Trek: Enterprise and the TNG-era feature films, finally retiring in 2006.

More than anyone else associated with Star Trek, Berman epitomized Trek’s innate conservatism. Once he’d established a winning formula in TNG — a competent, if largely unexciting ensemble cast, episodic storylines, a static universe — he held it down with a firm hand. No matter what catastrophes befell the Enterprise or Voyager crew, the magic reset button set everything back to zero in time for the following episode. The result was an increasingly bland, creatively destitute Trek universe, one built for longevity rather than greatness. Under Berman, Star Trek essentially became “Cheers in Space.”

Interestingly, the one Trek series to strain at the leash — Deep Space Nine (helmed during most of its run by Ronald D. Moore, who went on to reboot Battlestar Galactica) — was arguably the most artistically successful of the bunch. It was the first Trek series to break from the Berman formula and explore darker, more emotionally intense themes, create serialized storylines, and all but do away with the magic reset button.

So, as crazy as it sounds, maybe the best thing the caretakers of Star Trek can do to preserve the franchise is to become more like football.

Next: ABBA 1, World 0

Eating the Dinosaur

Eating “Eating the Dinosaur” (Part 10)

May 18, 2013
[Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 4.5Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11]

Eating the Dinosaur CoverAnd so we come to the short, wondrous life of Chris Gaines, 1990s rock superstar who sort of was.

1

If there’s a weirder celebrity alter ego story than that of Chris Gaines, I’d love to hear it. Gaines, the creation of country superstar Garth Brooks, was intended to be the main character of The Lamb, a movie Brooks was developing, about an alt-rock pop star. As part of what I’m assuming was a marketing campaign to promote the film (which never actually got made), Brooks actually became Chris Gaines, recording a “greatest hits” album of Gaines songs, appearing in a VH1 Behind the Music mockumentary, and hosting SNL as himself with Gaines as the musical guest.

Chris Gaines

The reason this was weird was because Chris Gaines couldn’t have been more different from Garth Brooks. It would be one thing if Brooks had played some variation of a country star, but Gaines was conceived as a raven-haired, brooding, soul-patched alt-rocker who recorded “edgy” message anthems (such as”Right Now,” a reworking of the hippie classic “Get Together” by The Youngbloods) and smooth pop ballads like the album’s biggest hit, “Lost In You,” and came complete with a ridiculously detailed biography, which Klosterman summarizes:

Gaines was allegedly born in 1967 in Australia, the son of an Olympic swimmer. For some reason, the bio also mentions that this woman medaled in the Commonwealth Games. He is said to have completed his GED in 1987, which I’m guessing was included for inspirational reasons. A lot of people he knew throughout his life died violently, and Gaines almost perished in a 1992 one-car accident that forced him to get plastic surgery on his face, shoulder, and hands. I still have no idea why a doctor would do plastic surgery on somebody’s shoulder.

I’ll do my best to summarize Klosterman’s take on Chris Gaines. I disagree with his conclusions, but here we go.

Klosterman’s thesis is essentially that Garth Brooks tried to pull a “Richard Bachman.” Bachman, as any Stephen King fan knows, was King’s secret alter ego between 1977 and 1985, when Bachman’s true identity was exposed. As Richard Bachman, King published five novels before his cover was blown and he was forced to kill off his alter ego with a fatal case of “cancer of the pseudonym.” 4

King’s stated motivations for creating Richard Bachman: (1) King was cranking out too much material for the comfort of his publishers, who were afraid of saturating the market; (2) King, who by 1977 was already a literary star, wanted to know if his writing would be as well received if it were published by an unknown writer.2

Garth Brooks, Klosterman argues, was in about the same position in the country music world in the 1990s as Stephen King was in the literary world in the 70s and 80s:

No other nineties artist comes close to his dominance. For ten years, Brooks was twice as popular as U2 and REM combined.

The reason Brooks sold so many millions upon millions of records, according to Klosterman, is that selling millions upon millions of records was in fact what drove his career. It wasn’t even really about the money for Brooks, so much as the statistics and the volume. Brooks aspired to become the Walmart of country artists, and Chris Gaines provided Brooks with the ultimate test of his ability to sell records. If he could convince the public to embrace Chris Gaines, and buy Chris Gaines albums in the millions, he could sell anything. It would establish and validate his greatness as a commercial artist. He would be the Walmart of all music.

Unfortunately for Brooks, his bid for glory fizzled out when Chris Gaines failed to catch on with audiences. The Gaines album received sympathetic, if puzzled, reviews, but failed to impress critics. Garth Brooks fans were, for the most part, confused.

No one really knew what to make of Gaines. It was 1999, and this kind of thing just wasn’t done. Sure, Bono could go onstage as the Fly guy, but it was explicitly a stage act, and Fly guy was just an incrementally more douchey Bono anyway, so people accepted it. But Gaines? What was this shit?

2

I don’t think Stephen King is being dishonest about Bachman. When he says Bachman was an experiment to see if his work would be accepted if it weren’t a product of the Stephen King™ empire, that seems reasonable. 2 But if it was an experiment, it was a half-assed one.

If King really wanted to test himself, he would have published his work the way aspiring authors actually publish their work. He — or more precisely, Richard Bachman — would have submitted his manuscripts to publishing houses, written cover letters, and tried to get an agent to take him on. Because most aspiring authors don’t get to call up a publisher and simply arrange to have their book inserted into a designated stratum of the book market.

The reason King didn’t do this, and why he gave Bachman a shortcut that no unknown, unconnected author ever gets, is that the experiment was only half of Bachman’s purpose. The other half — the…dark half? — was that he just really wanted to get his stuff out there, and if putting a fake name on the cover was the only way to accomplish that, then so be it.

If we accept that Garth Brooks was attempting something along the lines of Richard Bachman, then he, like King, fudged his experiment, by creating Chris Gaines as a fully-formed rock star from inception, rather than making Gaines go through the tortuous process of climbing the ladder to stardom. But while King would likely have failed if he’d done it this way, I assert that Chris Gaines would have succeeded.

3

I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone reading this listen to In the Life of Chris Gaines. Not because it’s a bad album, but because the music — basically what you imagine when you hear the words “Adult Contemporary,” — is not something I can unironically recommend to anyone.

Taken by itself, though, In the Life of Chris Gaines actually is a pretty decent example of earnest, middle-of-the-road pop music. I mean, sure, it’s schmaltzy, cheesy R&B-Lite, overproduced and polished to a bright anonymous sheen, but those are the features of the genre of music that a real-life Gaines would inhabit. Although I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the album more than a couple of times through, my reaction was pretty much exactly the same as it would be to any album in this style.

So, if the music itself wasn’t bad — inasmuch as it was a good example of the form — why did In the Life of Chris Gaines fail to catch on?

For Klosterman, the issue was authenticity:

This, oddly, is the one musical situation where authenticity does matter: If you want to adopt an unnatural persona, that persona needs to be an extension of the person you secretly feel like. You have to be “authentically pretending.”

While this is true enough (see Bono/the Fly guy), I’m not sure that it’s actually relevant to Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines.

Klosterman assumes the worst of Brooks, in taking as given that Brooks was attempting to build “Chris Gaines” into the superstar in reality that Gaines was in his fictional biography. He assumes Brooks was too stupid, or short-sighted, or egotistical, to understand the basic truth Klosterman describes above, and that Brooks sincerely believed that his millions of country fans, along with the millions of fans of the kind of flaccid pop music Gaines personified, would buy into this alter ego.

I don’t think that’s the case. Garth Brooks is and was a guy who, obviously, knows how to build a music career. Does Klosterman really believe Brooks would have been so un-savvy as to go about building a second career out of Chris Gaines in the manner that he did?

4

A digression before I finish this out.

I believe some people may be born with, or develop very early in their lives, a particular affinity for alter egos. I believe I am one of those people. I love disguises and pseudonyms. I have used them almost all my life, since childhood. I am using one now, in fact. But why?

Part of it, I suppose, is the fantasy element — the fun, imaginative exercise of creating and inhabiting a character. It’s a form of playacting. And, as with acting, it provides an opportunity to set parts of yourself free in ways you can’t get away with (or so one tends to imagine) within your “real” persona. For Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman freed him to be nastier, darker, and more overtly misanthropic than he could as Stephen King™.

It can also function as a form of time travel. An alter ego can represent an optimized version of yourself, the fantasy you whose life went the way it ought to have. This optimized self can be confident where you are insecure, bold where you are timid, experimental where you are conventional. The alter ego gives you permission to be the person you want to be. This is fucked up and wrong, of course, because no one really needs permission to transform themselves, but people are often fucked up and wrong.

There’s another way in which alter egos are employed that I find bizarre and fascinating: the author who openly maintains multiple pen names. This is different from the typical pseudonym in that concealment of identity is not a goal. Generally, this open pseudonym is adopted by authors who normally publish books in one genre, but want to publish in a totally different genre. Nora Roberts (itself a pen name) writes romance novels, and also writes suspense novels, but as “J.D. Robb.” Literary author John Banville goes by “Benjamin Black” when he goes slumming in the mystery genre. Iain Banks: mainstream author. Iain M. Banks: science fiction author.

The reason I find this bizarre is because, like most other motivations for creating alter egos, it’s completely unnecessary. There’s no actual, good reason why Nora Roberts can’t write romance novels and mystery novels under one name. The actual, bad reason is, of course, marketing — “Nora Roberts” is a brand that represents a certain kind of novel, and readers are conditioned to a certain set of expectations when reading a “Nora Roberts” novel. John Banville doesn’t want to muck up his sterling literary reputation by putting his name on (sniff) “genre” fiction. Iain M. Banks fans don’t want to preorder a new “Iain M. Banks” novel only to find that it’s just about stupid old present-day Earth.

This is, in my view, kind of dumb. Authors should be able to put out whatever the hell books they want without having to channel them through pseudonyms. Readers should be aware enough to understand that one Nora Roberts book might not be like another. It’s dumb because it appeals to and accommodates faulty aspects of human nature that shouldn’t be appealed to or accommodated. Like readers who can’t handle not getting the same basic book all the time. Or publishers who don’t want to muddy the brand.

But you know what’s also dumb? Having to use an alter ego to behave or express yourself in ways you “can’t” as yourself. Because, obviously, you’re fully entitled to do those things. Nothing actually constrains you, physically or legally, from acting in ways that “aren’t like you,” or even from becoming a completely different kind of person. Nobody needs these disguises. Or they shouldn’t. Nobody should feel as if they need permission to be whatever kind of person they want to be.

5

The first time I saw Chris Gaines, in the music video for “Lost In You”, I was totally blown away. There were so many layers of things going on. It was Garth Brooks, but Brooks was also completely, convincingly Chris Gaines. The song itself was mildly compelling as a cheesy pop ballad, but at the same time I was aware of the fact that I was meant to be aware of the fact that “Lost In You” was constructed to be a “cheesy pop ballad.”

This was complicated and perverse in a way I found fascinating and brilliant. 3 Chris Gaines actually made me respect Garth Brooks for the first time ever. Which is, for me, the weirdest aspect of this whole thing.

Here’s why I believe Klosterman is wrong about Chris Gaines.

Klosterman is wrong about Chris Gaines because in 1999, he — along with most of the rest of the world — did not fully comprehend what Chris Gaines was. Gaines wasn’t a joke or hoax, but he also wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. Brooks didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was Gaines. But he also wasn’t trying to convince the world that Gaines was in fact the secret, true self that Brooks had been hiding underneath his good ol’ boy persona all this time.

There was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical aspect of “Chris Gaines” that almost no one recognized or acknowledged. If you don’t believe that, go read the liner notes to In the Life of Chris Gaines. (Do this even if you do believe.)

Chris Gaines on his song “Right Now”:

The idea came to me while watching the news…senseless acts of violence, the slaughtering of innocence, and the countless opportunities of the ’90s with the “give peace a chance” theme of the 60s. I don’t do anthems. I’m not a preacher, but people, this “win no matter what we lose” attitude is going to kill us all. Please, love one another.

Chris Gaines on his song “Driftin’ Away”:

“Driftin Away” was a revelation for me. After years and years of unsuccessful relationships, I found a woman who I would do more than die for. I had never felt more loved in my life and I had never been treated better. I will never forget how unusually quiet and cold it was the morning I left, and how orange the sunrise made everything. I grabbed my jacket and my guitar and left the rest. Driving away that morning, I realized I had been the problem all these years. Why to some does loneliness feel so good?

Chris Gaines on his song “White Flag”:

“White Flag” is the only good thing I got out of a bad relationship. We both were so intense, and when you put two intense people together, the highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low. Sex was on a level I had never experienced before and the fighting was on a level I had never experienced before. One day I found myself in the middle of Matoya Valley, standing on the hood of my car, fists clenched and screaming to the heavens. The phenomenal rush of the highs could not compete with the constant drain of the lows…I broke. My will surrendered the girl of my dreams for the loneliness of freedom. On the way back into town that night, on the inside of the windshield, I wrote with my finger, “I say black, you say white…”

These liner notes are hilarious. And they’re meant to be hilarious. No one involved in the conception, creation, or execution of “Chris Gaines” was under any illusion about what they were creating. Chris Gaines is a masterful caricature of a self-involved, pompous, narcissistic pop star. His official presentation is only a few shades more serious than Chris Gaines fan fiction, which, by the way, is the most unspeakably awesome thing I’ve encountered in calendar year 2013.

I’m not saying that people didn’t realize Brooks was indulging in a bit of role-playing. Rather, they realized this, yet still apparently believed Brooks intended Chris Gaines to be a genuine expression of a heretofore untapped side of Garth Brooks’ musical soul, and judged Gaines and Brooks on that basis. Klosterman attributes the failure of Gaines to a failure to communicate authenticity. But that was never the goal.

Chris Gaines failed because the public did not realize Chris Gaines was not meant to be authentic in the first place. As with the other tragic figures in Eating the Dinosaur, Gaines/Brooks was punished for failing to be something he did not actually try to be.

I think the reason Klosterman draws the wrong conclusions from Chris Gaines is that, while he is ultra-sensitive to how people (himself especially) are perceived by others, the way he manages his image-anxiety is to strive for authenticity. When we think of Klosterman, we do not see multiple Klostermans, but a single, multi-faceted, authentic Klosterman. I believe that authenticity-seekers like Klosterman find it difficult to understand people who respond to their image-anxiety by generating personae. That’s why Klosterman, wrongly, views Chris Gaines as, not just a commercial and artistic failure, but a manifestation of the worst, most craven aspects of Garth Brooks’ character.

Closer to the truth, I think, is this: Chris Gaines was a project that allowed Garth Brooks to (a) flex his musical talents and previously untapped acting skills; and (b) subtly poke fun at the Top 40 musicians, and their fans, who disdain and ghettoize country music. Just as Stephen King is a talented enough writer that he can perform different literary styles as well as anyone who writes exclusively in that style, Garth Brooks is talented enough to walk into just about any musical genre and produce a fairly convincing example of that genre.

We were never meant to appreciate Chris Gaines in a totally earnest, one-dimensional way. We were always meant to be aware that Gaines was a construct. Chris Gaines failed because we failed Chris Gaines.

Next: Are you ready for some football?