all kinds of faulty metaphors

I wish I had more to write about here, but all the new, writing-worthy things I’ve been doing lately involve my job.  I have a lot to say about how I’m adjusting to the decision-making part of it.  It’s been a long time since I had a job in which people came to me to inquire about What Should We Do With This Thing or How Should We Approach That Issue.  In the past five years I’ve been a waitress and an HTML e-mail coder, neither of which involved other people consulting me on the major decisions.  This new role is an interesting adjustment.

But I can’t really talk about my job.

Last Sunday afternoon I watched ten episodes of Dexter in a row.  I didn’t intend to watch ten episodes in a row, but I watched the first one while riding my exercise bike, and it was really good so I watched the second one while I ate.  That one was good, too, and I wanted to find out what happened next.  So I watched another one and another one and another one, and then I looked up and it was midnight.

Dexter is really scary.  It’s very gross, but I’m mostly okay with that.  It’s creepy and dark and suspenseful, and that was scary enough that I debated sleeping with the lights on.  But what scared me the most was the main character.

Dexter is a forensics analyst for the Miami police by day and a serial killer by night, but he only kills people who are guilty of terrible crimes (child molestation, multiple murder, etc.).  The fact that he only kills bad people, coupled with the slightly dubious story of how he became the way he is, compounded by the fact that the story takes place from his point of view, is supposed to make him a sympathetic character.  And for the most part, it does.

So the character of Dexter himself isn’t what scared me.  No, the thing that scared me arose from a particular type of dizzying myopia that comes from spending long hours immersed in a fictional world.  This happens to me all the time.  When I watch one season of a TV show from start to finish, or when I read a book from cover to cover in one sitting, the characters and situations and themes stick with me long after I’m done.

As I was watching all these episodes of Dexter in a row, I was thinking, I bet it’s really hard keeping such a big secret from everyone.  How lonely it must be to have nobody to talk to about it.  I wonder if anyone I know has a really big secret like that.  Oh come on, that’s dumb.  But everyone has little secrets, don’t they?  Things they’ve only told one or two people over the course of their lifetimes?  Sometimes I look at people I know and wonder how much I really know about them.  How well do we know anyone at all?

That’s what really scared me about Dexter: the idea that (Google notwithstanding) we can only know as much about another person as they’re willing to tell us.  Though this scary thought was magnified by the ten hours I spent watching a show about a serial killer, it’s a thought I’ve been playing with for some time.

A few weeks ago I had dinner with a big group of people, most of whom I’ve known for at least six years.  I’d lost touch with most of them, though, and there were a few people there whom I hadn’t seen in a very long time.  At one point during the meal, I looked up from my plate and thought, I don’t know these people anymore.  Time and new jobs and moving away and breakups turned them all into virtual strangers, people I don’t know any better than I did six years ago.

During dinner, I found myself basing my interactions with these old friends on what I knew of them from the last time I saw them.  It didn’t work, of course.  They’re different and I’m different, and although I didn’t expect things to be the same as they used to be, I was surprised at how really weird it was.

Which made me wonder how well I knew them in the first place.  Maybe dinner was weird because they’ve all become secret serial killers in the intervening years.  Or maybe they were always secret serial killers and I just never knew.

As I’ve gotten older, everyone I know has become less and less forthcoming with the details of their lives.  Situations get complicated, relationships and other personal details get sticky, and we’re not as likely to share these layers of our experience as we were when things were simple.  I imagine it like a bedsheet falling slowly from a clothesline: as the sheet falls into the grass, the fabric sinks into a wrinkled pile, and you can’t see the whole thing anymore.

See, I used to have jobs I could write about.  When I was a waitress, I could tell you all about my coworkers and the bad customers and the good customers.  I didn’t care too much about my e-mail coding job, so I could write about that one, too.  But I care about this job quite a bit, so I’m holding it in.

The job example is a faulty one, because of course I talk about it with my family and friends.  But I used to be more open than I am now, and it’s a pattern I’m seeing in other people both online and off as I get older.  Good or bad, we’re all playing our lives close to the chest.

P.S. If I know you and you’re a secret serial killer, please don’t ever tell me.  And don’t come to my house, either; I’m sleeping with the lights on.

* A friend asked me, “Are you watching less TV now that you’ve decided to reevaluate what you watch?”
“Not really,” I said.
“But are you watching better TV?”
“That’s the thing,” I said.  “I’m definitely watching better TV, but somehow it still takes the same amount of time.”

I watch TV, but not for Jesus

I spent my sophomore year of high school as a fundamentalist Christian. My teenage years were fraught with the typical awkwardness and I-don’t-fit-in-ness just like everyone else, but it all went away when I fell in with a group of Baptists. These new Baptist friends made me feel like I belonged, like I had a purpose, like Jesus loved me in spite of my bad skin and frizzy hair.

My Baptist leanings alarmed my parents. They were (are) Christians, and I’d grown up going to church, but our church was pretty casual compared to the Baptist way of doing things. At our church nobody cared if you listened to rock music or if you went trick-or-treating on Halloween. Nobody told you to keep your Bible visible on top of your other books at school so that your fellow students could identify you as a living symbol of Christ’s love.

I started going to the Baptist church on Sundays instead of the one my parents attended. I remember informing them of my decision to attend another church, and of my newfound belief that Halloween Is Evil. I expected them to congratulate me, to tell me that I was right, that Halloween was indeed Evil, but instead they just stared at me. “Oh,” my mother said. “Okay.”

I can imagine the conversation they must have had later. “She may be a Baptist, but at least we know she’s not doing drugs.” I wasn’t cool enough to do drugs in high school, Baptist or not, but I don’t think they knew that.

My new Baptist friends didn’t listen to secular music or read secular books or do anything secular at all. When we watched movies, we watched them for Jesus. When we hung out at someone’s house, we were hanging out for Jesus. When we went to the mall, we didn’t just go to the mall. We went to the mall for Jesus. I bought Petra CDs and Guardian CDs and went to a DC Talk autograph signing. And I started reading Christian novels.

At the time, Christian novels were all about demons and the Rapture, or at least those were the ones I read. I could never find any Christian novels that weren’t about demons and the Rapture. But that was okay, because demons and the Rapture were thrilling! In the books I read, plucky protagonists dealt with large-scale demonic possessions and epic Second-Comings with their beliefs and virginities intact. These books were like airport gift shop paperbacks with a Christian theme.

I can remember the names of most of the Christian musicians I listened to, and I still know the lyrics to some of the songs, but the only Christian author’s name I can think of now is Frank Peretti. I read three of Frank Peretti’s books, but I remember just one scene, from his third novel, Prophet. The main character, rebelling against something or other, goes to a secular rock concert. He looks around at the people enjoying the concert, and he looks at the performers on the stage, and he thinks to himself, “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?”

The implication of that scene (and if I recall correctly, this was the theme of the book itself) was that you should evaluate the things you’re a fan of and the things you spend your time on based on what these things are trying to get you to do. If the message being conveyed by these things isn’t leading you to Christ, then you shouldn’t be doing them. I took it to heart at the time, and evaluated nearly everything I did with a “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” test.

If my sophomore year was the Year of the Baptist, then my junior year was the Year of the Heavy Hand With an Eyeliner Pencil. That was the year I realized that the Baptist kids had a hierarchy of popularity just like the secular kids did. That was the year I figured out that being a Baptist wasn’t the answer for me. And that was the year I discovered Led Zeppelin. I stopped going to the Baptist church and resumed my proper place at the church I’d once attended with my parents, a proper place which involved being the president of the youth group and director of the youth-group dinner theatre. That was more about leadership and theatre than it was about Jesus, but that was fine with me, because I could listen to “Houses of the Holy” on the way to rehearsals.

I’d forgotten all about Frank Peretti and Prophet until a few days ago. I was reading a blog post about Kathy Reichs, the woman who inspired the TV show Bones, one of the many shows I watch. The writer of the post compared the characters on the show to the characters in one of Kathy Reichs’ books, and found the book to be lacking. “Of course she didn’t like the book,” I thought. “Those crappy airport murder mysteries are never any good.”

As soon as I had that thought, I stopped eating my lunch (I was at my desk at work) and looked away from my computer. Why do I watch a show based on as a book I’d never read in a million years?

I’m pretty picky about my books. I don’t read crime novels or cheesy romances or books from the poorly-named chick-lit genre. I don’t read anything put out by the Tom Clancy Industrial Complex. Outside of the free pass I gave myself on the Harry Potter series, I like my fiction to come with believable character development, an insightful point to make, or at the very least an inventive way to tell a story. Essentially, it’s “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” applied to the relative worth of books. I don’t want to read a book if its author has nothing to say to me.

So why aren’t I so discerning with television? Why don’t I apply my guidelines for books to what I watch on TV? It’s a different medium*, but the storytelling mechanisms are, or can be, similar.

I’m going to start evaluating what I watch on TV the same way I evaluate my books, the same way I looked at everything during my sophomore year of high school. “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” Why do I like this show? What is it trying to say to me?

I think this will be good for my television-watching habits:

I watch Psych because I feel smart when I get the eighties references. Nope! Gone.

I watch How I Met Your Mother because I like Neil Patrick Harris and his character is funny. Not good enough. Gone.

I watch House because Hugh Laurie’s American accent is just that impressive. Sorry. Gone.

I’m only going to watch Heroes until they try to sell me another Nissan, and then it’s gone. But God help me, I’m still on the fence about Bones. It’s really just CSI for people who liked Buffy and The X-Files, and on its best days it’s only as good as the mediocre episodes of the latter two. But I think the show has good characters, and the dialogue is well-written. Come to think of it, I might be on the fence about House, too.

Okay, it’s clear that this new system isn’t going to be exact. But for someone like me, whose self-loathing muscles are never so flexed as when she’s spending her sixth straight hour watching a show she isn’t even sure she likes, at least it’s a start.

*I think that at this point, television exists almost exclusively to support advertising. That doesn’t mean that good work can’t be done on TV, or that good stories can’t be told. They’re just not told that often.

the flux capacitor

Last week I went to Houston to take a class for work.  I spent my days in class, my afternoons in the hotel or at the movies, and my evenings driving around town, wondering what to do with myself.

Last week is when I realized that Houston doesn’t feel like home anymore.  There are more people there I want to avoid than people I want to see, more places not to go than places to go.  Some of the places not to go have disappeared, too, leaving little holes in the landscape, not-places to which I will not go.

As I drove around I kept remembering things I don’t remember.  I turned right from Westheimer onto Mandell and had a sudden flash of going to someone’s house nearby.  There was a whole big group of us at this person’s house, it was late at night, and whoever lived there wanted to teach me how to play the drums.  But since it was so late, I couldn’t play too loudly, so I had to hit each drum and cymbal as if tapping a spoon against a wine glass.  That’s all I remember about that night.  Whose house was it?  Who was I with?  Where did I live?  How old was I?

When I drove down Wesleyan, I thought of Jamie.  Jamie and I took a drawing class together at U of H, and we spent our evenings after classes at a karaoke bar with another friend from class, Laura.  Jamie was a singer-songwriter in his spare time, and he gave me a CD with one of his songs on it.  One of the lyrics was, “on the corner of Edloe and Wesleyan.”

“Edloe and Wesleyan are parallel,” I said when he played the song for me.

“I know,” he said.  “I just thought it sounded cool.”

I had a crush on Jamie, so I listened to the CD multiple times before stowing it carefully inside a Moby CD case.  He had a stage name he used because he didn’t like his last name, but I can’t remember what it was.  What did he look like?  Why did I like him so much?

I have a vivid memory of going to the West Alabama Ice House with Brandon.  He sat on the picnic table, I sat on the bench.  It was night, and one of the patio lights was right behind Brandon, so he looked like a solid black shadow with no face.

But that memory is false.  It never happened.

Houston isn’t real anymore.  Driving down the freeways, the streets dappled with potholes, felt like taking a tour of the folds of my own unreliable brain.  Houston is a sinkhole, a below-sea-level basin too flooded with memory to hold any new experiences.

When I tell people that I don’t really like living in Austin, most of them say, “Are you going to move back to Houston?”  No, I tell them, because moving back to Houston would feel like moving backwards, and I’d rather move forwards.

This isn’t technically true.  Since time only goes in one direction, there’s no such thing as moving backwards, not really.  If I moved to Houston, I’d still be moving forwards.  But it’d be like taking up residence inside my own head.  Every experience I would have, every place I would go, would have cast upon it a corresponding shadow of something that already happened, or didn’t happen, depending on how reliable my memory is.  “Is this happening right now?” I would ask myself as I walked into a coffeehouse or bar, “or is this happening six years ago?  Or is it happening at all?”

This, I think, is what makes time travel possible.