The Trash Period

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Photo by Rachel Sharon
Photo by Rachel Sharon

You never really know what any of this is going to be, you know? The trick, I’m finding, is to tear straight into it and see.

The first time I picked up a guitar, I hit it the same way I would see Townshend hit his. Brave, angry, unapologetic. Yeah, it sounded fucking awful, but it felt amazing. And that was the beginning of the whole thing. One noisy punch of teen angst and I got free. That’s the really right-on stuff about being fucked up—the restlessness, the relentlessness, the charge to find the thing that will help quiet that junk. I found mine in records. I found even more in making them.

The first time I ever tried to write anything, it was trash. So were the next hundred, maybe thousand. The Trash Period—that’s the part people don’t brace up for or they forget about or give up on. Man, here’s what it is: that is the time. That’s where it matters. The process, the struggle, that is the healing. Sitting down inside of nothing and making something out of it, poking holes in your guts to drain out something really real—man, that’s still my favorite part of this stuff.

I don’t know. I spend most of my time thinking about too many things at the same time, so much that my brain gets raw. I wonder about this weird life thing we all do. What’s that thing Bukowski said about being stuck with so many knives that when someone hands him a flower it takes time to make out what it is? I get that. I do.

Look, I listen more than I talk. I think more than I listen. Most days I forget to change my clothes. And I never comb my hair. I’ve never cared much about denting the world or fitting in.

Rock and roll is a lawless place for forgotten kids. We insisted on that part.


Listen to Beach Slang here.

Featured image by Jessica Flynn.

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God is in the transistor

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Somewhere in the basement of a home on the outskirts of Birmingham there’s a cassette tape filled with half-songs. This wasn’t intentional. It’s just that nobody wants to miss that shimmering acoustic passage at the beginning of “Crazy on You,” and if you lose twenty seconds off “Immigrant Song” you’re down to just two minutes. No matter how fast you were, it was impossible to record a song perfectly off the radio.

That was a ritual of my teenage years: kneeling before a boombox while Rock 99 or Kicks 106 rolled through Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd or Lita with Ozzy, trying to snag my favorite songs out of the air. Twenty-five years ago in Alabama we still worshipped the radio, although it was an aging god on its knees, a Prometheus who’d delivered fire forty years before and had nothing left to offer.

Even then our bedrooms were given completely over to music television, Headbangers Ball on Saturday nights and Night Flight on USA. My grandparents had gotten cable before my family (the first videos I ever saw starring Michael Jackson and Billy Joel in the living room of a retired coal miner), but we’d finally caught up, and in study hall we talked about the new songs we’d seen the night before, not ones we’d just only heard.

But you couldn’t get MTV in a car, and cars were our life. We drove battered Chevrolets from the sixties and seventies, white Mustangs with no headrests, carried Craftsman tools by the boxful in our trunks and tucked behind bucket seats. The floorboards of my ’69 Camaro were rusted straight through enough that you could see the asphalt flash by if you pulled the carpet back, but the radio worked just fine.

We listened to classic rock, and we studied every solo and chorus like sacred texts. We chanted the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” before we ever knew who Bruce Springsteen was, let alone that he wrote it. We held hands to the same songs our parents had on the nights we were born. We bought new cassettes by Aerosmith and Heart with their hair teased all up and listened to them alongside the vinyl albums we dug out of our uncles’ closets. We went to concerts starring Steve Miller Band and Bad Company and Ted Nugent and didn’t know that was weird, that they were long past their prime, because it was the most vital, most current music we knew. Their songs were still played constantly on the radio, even more than MTV played “Paradise City” or “Something to Believe In.”

There was no way in the world to own all of that music. The idea never even broached our minds, never seemed possible no matter how many version of your names you signed up for Columbia House under, twelve cassettes for a penny. Everyone knew that “More Than a Feeling” would come on the radio at any minute, just so long as you kept listening, so there was no reason to actually buy any records by Boston.

The call-in hours on the radio were our favorites. If you really needed to hear something you could mash the buttons as fast as possible on a Conair phone or even spin the dial at your grandparents’ house, hoping that you’d get through. It was nearly always busy, nearly every time we called. We’d applaud when someone we knew got through on the line and requested something deep in the catalog (like anything by Pink Floyd other than “Money”), when we had a friend banned from calling I-95 for contantly requesting “One” by Metallica.

The radio was our form of communion, and we took it constantly, on the way to and from school, back and forth to the drug stores and grocery stores where we wore blue aprons and carried dull boxcutters, to ear-piercing booths in mall kiosks and apprenticeships in the garage down the street. Sometimes it was too much fuss to fight over what tape to play at a party or in the car, so we’d just turn it to a channel, let the ether decide.

Sometimes the radio was even how we told each other how we felt. One time a girl I had a crush on called me on the telephone. She had long brown hair and teased-up bangs and knew I loved Led Zeppelin, that I’d tried to learn the order of every song on every album in chronological order. A note of hurried anxiety in her voice, she called and said they were playing Zeppelin on the radio, to turn it on right now. I ran across the room and flipped the dial. It wasn’t them, but Journey doing their best Page impersonation with “Wheel In The Sky.

But who sang the song didn’t matter; what mattered was that she’d heard it and thought of me. A quarter century later I walk around with the feeling of that phone call shining in my stomach like a brass plaque mounted on a block of granite in a park, a tribute to people and times so long past nobody even remembers what it was really for in the first place.

Yet remembering that phone call and those four minute bursts of static and beauty is important, for the same reason we build marble memorials and carve our names into granite and lay wreaths on tombs. It’s important because all those shared moments are what really build our lives. It’s all those holy uncatchable moments, sitting in front of boomboxes, mashing numbers on the phone to break through on the request line, unfolding liner notes to try to learn the lyrics, chanting choruses like a rosary. It’s not the songs, it’s the connections built because of the songs. And radio was that connection.

No one remembers the last time we called into one of the radio stations. No one remembers the last time we called somebody to tell them their favorite song was echoing out to a million people. But somewhere in a basement in Birmingham there’s a tape of half-songs, and at the very end there’s a voice—a squeaky teenager’s voice, probably sounds a lot like the one you had, could be a girl, might be boy—saying, softly, almost like a prayer, “Can you play that ballad by Cheap Trick?”

And if you wait just a second—just like we did back in 1991—chords start to shimmer out, and “The Flame” will start to play. I got every second of it, the beginning all the way to the last, and the DJ didn’t even talk over the end.

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I was gonna call this “Relax,” but then I thought, Wait, that’s in the imperative voice Meaning it might sound like a command. Not too friendly a way to start; and it’s hard to imagine commanding people to relax, isn’t it?

At least with any possibility of success.

Then I thought “Relaxation,” but on second thought found the word too trochaic, Latinate. Stilted, you might say. (Why don’t you sit in this horrible ugly antiquated torture-rack the Victorians called a chair, and just try to relax.

Then it hit me. The gerund/present participle. Relaxing. A friendly word. I like gerunds, I really do. I don’t hate gerunds the way people say I do. I just take against them in titles. Poetry titles mainly.

Watering the Wine. Parsing the Wind. Like that.

“Relaxing.” A nice name, since the root-meaning of yoga is to yoke, or to join. With “relaxing,” you have both meanings in one word. Taking verbality for energy and nounnity for particle, the word is sorta quantum, huh?

It’s a fact that relaxation is just as important as effort. That without relaxation, whatever living thing it is will eventually break down. Exhaustion to failure, but not in a good way. I’m not trying to promote a cliché, but hurry-up-please-it’s-time is the kind of time most of us think of as time. We talk a good game of relaxing but we seem to specialize in lives that preferentially reward the continually-wired. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, that kind of pseudo-bravado. Yeah, and with that approach you’re gonna be dead a lot sooner.

I think of Neko, our two-year-old Belgian Malanois. Lean and alert and possessed of boundless energy. When it’s time to play You-throw-the-ball-and-I charge-away-to-catch it, an elegance of absolute ferocity.

Speed to burn, and she burns it.

Over and over, till her dripping tongue hangs low. Then she collapses into perfect stillness. She can be asleep in five minutes.

It’s a fact that in order to get greatest power from a given muscle, it is necessary to relax the muscle completely. The same principle applies to brainpower, desire, cleanliness, even love. Why wouldn’t it?

So it’s natural that a great deal of yoga is about relaxing. (One thing about relaxing is if you attempt to boast about your progress, the instant you do so, you are no longer relaxed. You cannot relax competitively.

Well, maybe certain special forces types can. But I’m inclined to think that sort of thing more nearly a matter of severe compartmentalization.

Relaxing takes concentration. It isn’t the same thing as just not making an effort any more. That may seem paradoxical, but if you do enough yoga, you’ll realize how much sense the principal makes.

There’s something called “the red light” reflex that nearly everyone in this country suffers from. It’s an unwitting muscular tension, the tension of somebody under threat. Some people see threats everywhere, and so they stay tense all the time. No wonder it wears them out and keeps them angry and confused.

“The red light reflex” is that sort of hunched-forward, cramped, ready-to-run posture most of us spend most of our time in. The fight-or-flight syndrome, except we stay hunched in the pose all of the time. Maybe you do it and don’t even recognize it as tension, because it’s always there.

Here’s what happens in “the red light reflex.” All the musculature across the front of your body is tense. As a result, you hunch forward, and your breathing is cramped. The last thing you need is restricted breathing, especially if you’re in a situation that requires drastic action. We celebrate the cult of “the warrior” nowadays without having any damned idea what it’s about. A true warrior has learned to relax even in the face of death. He or she will not be flinching, cramping his or her breathing, panting with fear.

A great many asanas have to do with relaxing “the red light reflex.” Chest-openers, for example. The Bow. The Grasshopper. Any number of others. What they all have in common is that they work the opposite way from the way we crouch and cramp our breathing still. Think of it as curving the spine under tension (this is good tension) in a concave way backward (or convex way forward). You assume the position and hold it for a while.

For a lot of people this is a powerful strain. But actually the point is to relax the forward muscles—belly, chest, and quads. You tense the back muscles in order to relax the front ones. If you aren’t exploring how to relax your forward muscles, you aren’t doing half of the pose. It isn’t all strain. It’s ought to be about release. In yoga, every tension ought to have a balancing relaxation. That’s where the paradoxical statement above comes from.

Yoga is about gaining mental control of bodily systems, not being driven by the situation or the stress into postures that seem necessary at the time but really do not help. In other words, you can learn to recognize, consciously, the way individual relaxed muscles and ligaments feel. When you learn to recognize how they feel, you’re on the way to deliberately and consciously relaxing.

Fear and anger tries to tell you that they come from outside of you, that you can’t do anything about them, you just have to endure them. This is not true. Fear and anger are emotions, and all your emotions come from your own mind. Our pretense is that emotionalism is truth, the “gut.”

It isn’t. We stay tight and cramped, hardly able to take a deep breath, all the time nowadays. The problem is not that we should never tense a muscle. The problem is that we usually keep the wrong ones tensed all the time, and so they lose flexibility and power.

Look at the people around you. How many do you see with shoulders hunched to the point of causing an actual hump where the head and neck join the shoulders, the head thrust forward on the hump, what I have come to think of as “the old man’s posture.” But not even old men have to be that way. Of course the human spine naturally assumes an S-shape, but not that much of one.

We’re watching “True Detective,” HBO’s new series, on video. (Not much action, lots of Serious Philosophical Dialogue. Good dialogue, though. ) The Matthew McConaughey character has exactly that slumped posture, the exaggerated forward thrust of the head, the slumped shoulders and caved-in chest. I don’t know whether he’s doing it for the character or is naturally that way, but I can tell you this. He’s healthy and well-built, but if the actor himself stays that way all the time, he will become a warped and misshapen old man.

Actually, much yoga asanas pit one set of muscles against another set, with the intention of relaxing the muscles we do not need to tense. Even Virabudra I and II depend, not merely on gravity, but on that tension and relaxation. In deep Virabudra (either one), one think you are doing is making the hip and core muscles assume their part of the burden.

There are two ways that yoga can further relaxation. 1) It pits opposing muscles against each other, and as you’re learning to tense the one set, you should be more easily able to relax the opposing set. 2) Sometimes yoga relaxes muscles by working them to exhaustion (the good kind), so that they can’t help relaxing. Both sorts of relaxing occur in the Virabudra poses.

Short version of this column: We go around tensing the wrong muscles all the time, and keeping them tense. Yoga is a way to learn to relax.

Among other things.



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For how it sounds. Or Watsonossana? for my address. (And something, I think, of Sherlock Holmes–not as he was written, but as he’s currently perceived). Or What’s an asana? for plain lucidity.

I’ve written before of two questions: 1) Sometimes what you would call an asana is performed along the body’s vertical line of symmetry, so that it’s done twice—from both sides, that is. Well, in this twoness, this mirror image twinning, what’s an asana? The two performances taken together? Or each performance alone?

Or suppose you’re on the mat both to relax and as an aerobic flow, moving smoothly from asana to asana—a smoothness which is often strenuous in the extreme (but in a good way).

So which is the asana, some particular point in the flow, or the flow itself? Either answer gives you trouble making a definition. Is an asana the holding of a particular position, or a section of the flow itself?

I think though that the word “asana” means something in particular, however difficult it may be to define that something.

Sometimes things seem one way to me, and sometimes they seem the other. I practice however seems natural at the time. Sometimes I use a count to guarantee that I’m holding the pose long enough, and sometimes I just play with the tension and relaxations. Go deeper into the pose. Get lost in it.

Or keep moving evenly from one asana to the next.

Sometimes I mix and match.

Maybe each asana is a sort of “phase space” of the body, together comprising all the possible positions the human body can assume, given sufficient training. There should be an infinity of possible positions. At first you think it’s a countable infinity, but then you realize that smooth movement is a whole different ball game, yoga-wise. There was that yogi, somewhat controversial at the time, whose name I just cannot dadblame think of, who followed no pre-cut routines. Each of his sessions was unique, a spontaneous movement to itself alone (though it might incorporate many smaller movements).

I think he had a point. I suspect he was the real thing. I suspect he was the live-in-the-moment guy who actually lived in the moment.

So what’s an asana according to him? I have no idea. (Not so much because he’s dead now, but because I cannot cotton-picking think of his name.)

There’s something there though, some entirely real if indefinable entity. There’s something that serves as a beautiful guide to the practice, but that cannot be known as a definition. The only way to know that something is to practice it, over and over and over, to spend a regular part of your life practicing it.

Then you will recognize the questions I’m posing. We could talk about them without imposing preconception, aware but not attempting final definition.

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First, a bit of old business:  I suppose I ought to say that you can hurt yourself doing yoga.  It’s just that you aren’t nearly as likely to as in any other discipline or sport.  There are always accidents.  Be sure, when you’re practicing, that there’s nothing you can fall on but floor and mat.  And simply do not yield to the pressure to push until you hurt yourself.  It’s a lot better to wimp out and do a less strenuous asana that leads in the right direction than to keep trying one you just can’t do yet.  There is no penalty for staying safe.  Take it e-easy.

Yes, you should push yourself a little.  But only a little.

Secondly, I’m digressing today.  Instead of what I told you I would talk about, watsonasana, I’m planning to tell you a little true story.

I was watching a food show with Alex, my El Salvadoran son-in-law.  I was basically watching because there was nothing else I wanted to do.  Alex himself has turned into quite the cook and gourmet—somehow it doesn’t seem right to call him a “foodie,” the way they do nowadays.  Seems to trivialize his passion.

Anyway, we were watching this food show, maybe Anthony Bourdain, since that one involves a lot of traveling, a lot of folk byways.

This was India, at the market.  Hot, brilliant sun, and dusty.  There seem to be a presence of glistening dust in the very air, and all the street performers and many of the vendors and buyers wore a dirty coat of it.

This particular street performer specialized in incredible limberness.  He did some sort of wrapped-around-himself knot I can’t even visualize in my memory, but as I remember he was standing on his hands with his head dangling loosely and his legs folded in the lotus.

He was a tall skinny fellow, grimy with dust, and he wore only a tiny covering over his genitals.

His next performance was even more amazing.

First he cinched his balls and scotum with a cord.  Then he pulled the cord between his buttocks, pulling his genitia between and through his legs.  Then he cinched the cord around his waste.

Then he started a series of rapid deep-bends, literally bouncing up and down.  This showed how limber he was, because other wise, he would have torn his business from his body.

I still smile to remember Alex’s reaction.  Every time the fellow did one of those deep knee-bends—and remember he was doing at least two or three per second, Alex emitted a loud burst that somehow combined violent alarm and incredulous laughter—Alex laughs when he gets hurt.  It’s his way of coping with the pain.  In fact, my daughter, who has learned to tell the pain laugh from his many other laughs, worries when she hears the sound.

It was easy to tell that Alex has loads of empathy.  He couldn’t help thinking what would have happened to him—or to most men—if they had tried it.

The man was smiling insanely, but completely relaxed.  Bouncing.

I do love Alex and the genuineness of his responses.

Anyhow, the performance caused me several days of confusion.  This fellow was a master far beyond anything I would ever be able to do.  Surely such a master—he must have done yoga since he was a child, to develop such loosenes and flexibility—had reached enlightenment?  Surely he merely appeared to be a dust-covered street performer because such a master didn’t care about appearances, didn’t care what others thought of him?

Gradually my opinion changed.  I came to realize that no, despite his mastery, no doubt enabled by having done yoga since he was a small child, he was not a master—he was a street performer.

He had absolutely mastered yoga, yes.  To a level that’s incredible unless you see it, and then it’s still hard to believe your eyes.

But the best thing he could think of to do with it was use it for his act as a street performer.

There’s a yogic lesson to be learned here.  Mastery of the body does not imply mastery of the spirit.  No surprise.  I’ve met a number of people who could practice yoga at an extremely advanced level, who even taught the science, but who were horrible humans, rude and competitive.

The point of yoga is within its name:  The name means “yoking,” uniting that which is unnecessarily divided.  In our country it’s typical to be almost entirely unconscious of the body (unless of course it’s in such bad condition it causes you pain).  In my view, that means being unconscious of the “spirit,” too, since what we divide into “body” and “spirit” is not two things, but one.  We walk around, as I noted in my first column, thinking of our bodies as “machines” into which a spirit, or “soul” has somehow been decanted.

But if we approach yoga in a competitive and purely physical sense only—how many “tricks” we can do as compared to how many others around us can do—then we’re in exactly the situation of that street performer.

At some point, if yoga is to continue making a difference to your life, you will have to begin to think of its application to spirit.

Think of it otherwise, and you will eventually become a mere performer, using one of the more helpful and wonderful disciplines there is as a mere trick, a way to get what you want, a mere ploy in your plans, like someone writing a blog who chooses his or her content according to how many clicks it will generate, not according to how much good it will do.

Our desire is less than yoga.  It’s better to let yoga gradually influence your perception of desire, helping yourself to become more sane and more gentle.

It’s getting the cart before the horse to think of yoga as a means to go after what you want, as a way to be healthier, a way to impress your friends, a way to look better in the mirror.  Oh, you can get what you want that way—yoga works, and if that’s what you want from it that’s what you can get.

At the price of showing what you desire to be vapid and common and completely mistaken.

I don’t know what that street performer wanted—to make enough to live on, I would imagine—but it was a shame to see such mastery dedicated to so mere and so ignominious an end.

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The Yoga Bug

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I do yoga on my own, not being terribly motivated by classes. I’m one of those characters who prefers unnarrated discovery. There are, however, a lot of good reasons to start out with a teacher.

One is you can waste a lot of time doing things wrong.

Another is it’s harder to put together an entire yoga session unless you’ve had a knowledgeable teacher who started you off with a basic routine that you could manage, if just barely, and that leads you through suites of related asanas in a directed and helpful fashion.

I’ve become convinced that you don’t know yoga, you practice yoga, in the same way as all those action heroes who supposedly “know” karate but can never be seen to practice it. “Know” is just the wrong verb. I prefer “practice,” in both its senses: keeping a regular workout schedule, and as a way of life, a practice.


(As Wallace Stevens meant the word in Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu)

You do not ask for heaven;
you take the love you’re given.
You eat your daily bread.
You’re glad you’re not the head
of a nation, bank, or church,
especially since research
would indicate that you’re
corruptible, impure,
and made of passing stuff.
The practice is enough.

 That’s how I mean “practice.”

As I was saying, it helps to have a teacher to guide you. I have a sequence I follow three days a week (along with some free-wheeling work on my off days), and although it has gone through many modifications and revisions, it derives from the basic sequence my original teacher, Kirsten Mustain, taught me in a beginning class. She was always careful to think through the session beforehand, arranging a sequence that would both feel natural flow and be helpful.

I average between eight and ten hours a week, I’d guess, which means I get pretty used to the activity. Time is not the point, though. Doing yoga to the greatest purpose is the point. I suspect the masters would look askance at someone who required so much time to get the benefits of the practice. I expect they can drop into a given asana or come out of it with hardly any hestitation. Me, I shake and tremble and strain. Got a lot to learn.

My sequence for some time involved preliminary chants and asanas, and then a series of warm-up asanas. In my head I grouped these sets together.

The next batch consisted of standing asanas, sitting concave stretches, and sitting convex stretches. (By “concave” and “convex,” I mean whether the torso is curved forward or curved backward. It’s not a pure distinction, because some of the asanas in that batch involved twists.

I would conclude with a set of three reps of what I call “hip-openers.”

So my yoga session divided, at the time, into three distinct sessions. Not sure why my visual imagination went that way, but I imagined the three groups together as an insect—head, thorax, abdomen.

That, by the way, is why I call this paricular column The Yoga Bug. Probably not what you saw coming.

I have no idea what the legs were or the antennae or anything like that. I got no further than drawing the bug in one of my many and various journals.

I was trying to describe it analytically, fit all its “parts” together in my mind. (I have a near-compulsion to put what I know in some sort of order.) But trying to analyze my yoga session, I always lost my place, wandered off into other notions.  I recognized all the parts, and when they might come.

I began to wonder just what an asana was. Some of the poses had left and right versions, mirror-symmetrical. Was I doing two asanas, or just two halves of a single asana? Sometimes I did reps, usually three. Was each rep an asana, even though I held each for much less time than I held the single pose when I wasn’t doing reps? Or were the three together considered one asana.

Questions like that.

Asanas are the very basis of hatha yoga, and I was clearly gaining flexibility and resilience, but it was becoming less and less clear to me exactly what an asana was. How could I be doing asanas without knowing what they are?

And that’s my subject for next time: Wotsa nossana?

What, that is to say, is an asana?

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Yoga and Gravity

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I should observe, before beginning, that physicists have very precise meaning of the words “force” and “energy,” and that I am using them far more loosely and informally here.

You can think of gravity as radiation (radiation which slowly cooks us).  We live in a radioactive zone.  Our very cells change, and the atoms in the molecules in the cell change.  Every living species, while giving a nod to the “immortality” of wood and stone and bronze and iron, have figured out how to survived.  We make ourselves from patterns in the radiation itself, and pass those always-changing patterns on through procreation, through our children.

Humans have not only survived, but have built huge and intricate structures against gravity—and we use gravity to help build those structures.

Weights and pulleys, for example.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that yoga, which is, among its other effects, a healing discipline, must deal with gravity.  I cannot think of an asana which does not require the use of gravity.  Sivasana, the corpse pose (SIV ah s’na), comes to mind:  What is sivasana but slackening all the muscles one habitually tenses— letting gravity have its way with your tissues and organs, allowing the skeleton and its ligatures to support the weight?

Arda chandrasana, the half-moon pose, stretches the major hamstrings and muscle-ligament clusters in each hip, and to some extent, the torso.  Done well (I’m not-so-good), it uses the weight of the lifted leg to power the stretches.

The cobra uses the weight of the torso distributed along the bent arms, the convex spine , and spread shoulders—it “opens the heart center,” or centers an expanding force in your chest, a force that can be set counter to the positions that express (and enforce) fear or anxiety.

All forward bends use the weight of the torso and head to stretch various arrangements of hamstrings.  Those right and left twists sitting twists use gravity to stretch the tendons in the back and widen the shoulder-blades.

And so on and on.  Gravitational force is deployed against itself to stretch a muscle or a muscle group and the associated tendons.  (I use the words “muscle” and “muscle group” rather loosely.  It seems unlikely to me that an asana would focus on a single muscle.  Besides, all of the things we call muscles are themselves made of what amounts to “micromuscle.”)

In some measure yoga sets you free from gravity.  You train yourself to the poses, become accustomed to them, fall into them naturally, let go of your usual obssessive fixations, and let gravity do the rest.  There’s no right or wrong for individual tries, because every try brings you closer.

I have a hunch that the more nearly one approaches that sort of stable position, the more one settles into the asana “correctly,” the less the pose demands that fierce quivering of counterposed muscle sets with which we approximate it.  In fact, I think there are two “successful” asana states.  The earliest and more common are those asanas in which you’ve learned how to keep every related muscle in just the right table tension.  The later and rarer success is when no muscular force at all is required to hold the pose.

Yoga’s also a cleansing of gravity-damage (one which is, however, never total or perpetual, not even for the masters.  Not only do the asanas cleanse your body of gravity’s accumulated damage, they teach you going forward how to incur the least gravity-damage.

(I do not, by the way, know all the sanskrit names of even the asanas I practice regularly.  Said information is easily available, though somehow I sometimes continue to fail to google it all.  Educate me.)

Let’s talk bodily self-image, let’s talk accurate models.  I said that when we practice yoga, we’re “practicing to learn” something.  That is, something real.  A discipline that actually and visibly works.  What’s more, we can learn the gist by simple (but continual) observation.  Practicing yoga, we acquire a much vaster repertoire of moves.  We learn the effects of each asana all the way out to the toes and fingers and beyond.  We get direct experience with how our own bodies work.  We are no longer dependent on the authority of a model or teacher or book (although it helps immensely to be taught by someone who truly understands).

The current model, for westerners, treats the body as a biological “machine,” transmitting “forces.”  Our skeletons are sets of levers that deliver the force generated by muscles.  This image, of the bones as levers and the muscles as engines (with, I suppose, the tackle of the tendons), is how we explain our all our physical behaviors.  Since it’s so obvious that the body’s a machine, we never for check the accuracy of the image, what it might imply or leave out.

I’ve been as dubious as any reductionist about “energy meridians,” waiting to hear some sense, some structure in such chatter.  But consider.

It isn’t beside the point that we invariably think of the “machine” of the body as “containing” a soul, a soul which confers individuality and personality on what would otherwise be merely meaningless and mechanical.

In other words, instead of emerging from experience via induction, the image predetermines certain inaccurate ways of thinking.

What if we began with a different image?  What if our culture saw the body and the mind as a single if complex thing, and tracked the ways energy flows through the body, rather than speaking in terms of levers and machines?

I bring this up because watching yoga interact with gravity is a lot easier if you have good “flow visualization.”

(In so saying, in preferring, loosely speaking, an “energy flow” model of the body to a more mechanical model, I am not giving up science and rationality.  I am in fact using them to create the most accurate model possible.)

If you pay attention to way the different asanas distribute the force of gravity through your body, you are actually directly observing yoga at work, and your regular practice will be more aware and successful.

(And after all, we’re talking yoga here:  The practice of the asanas gives you a perfect time for such meditation.  I mean, what else can you do while practicing an asana but meditate on the ways it effects your body?  And so, meditating as you practice, your practice will become more accurate and more successful.)

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Yoga and Fear

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I’m no expert. I’ve been practicing steadily for some time now, but I don’t think of anything I say as the inside scoop. I’m not a life-long yogi setting forth the truth from deep experience. I’m just a writer writing about yoga.

And only hatha yoga at that, which is what most Occidentals mean when they talk about yoga. I’m going to follow that usage, because it’s too much trouble to keep writing “hatha yoga” over and over. So when I write “yoga,” I mean hatha yoga. If I mean something different, I’ll tell you.

One of the main things I like about yoga is it really works. Just do it, things go better for you physically. You don’t have to take anybody else’s word for it. You could probably manage to start with nothing but the pictures in a paperback book, but it goes quicker, at least at first, if you have a teacher.

A knowledgeable teacher, I mean. There are genuine things to be learned. And a compassionate if firm teacher. If you get hold of one of these latterday exotic jocks who treats yoga as a competition, run, do not walk, in the other direction. That’s a view that’s common to westerners. It’s the misconception a friend of mine was under when she asked how many tricks I could do.

Yoga is for you. It isn’t about competition. It isn’t about tricks.

Nevertheless, there are difficulties.

Early in my practice, I was preoccupied with fear. I find myself fearful more often than I want to be, especially when I’m trying out new practices or new situations. Maybe you’re the same way.

There was also that minor panic, familiar to anyone who works out, that you experience before every session. In spite of knowing that you’ll be healthier in the long run, the fact is that now, just right now, you really don’t want to.

For what it’s worth, with yoga, I’m no longer particularly afraid. With maybe one exception, ado mucha srivasana (the downward-facing tree pose, or standing on your hands). That one, all of a sudden, after having managed without trouble for years, I suddenly myself incapable of.

I know what the problem is. I lost my trust in what would happen after I deliberately threw my feet over my balance point.

There was a while there when my original teacher, Kirsten Mustain, would practically weep at failing to manage ado mucha srivasana, though she had been doing it just fine for years. At the time I found it hard to imagine how she could lose an asana after being so successful at it for so long.

I get it now.

The kinds of fear that yoga aroused in me fell naturally into four different categories. I count them (1) the fear of pain; (2) the fear of falling; (3) the fear of humiliation; and (4) fear of the holy.

 The Fear of Pain

Nobody likes to hurt. We’ve seen the contortions that some yoga adepts go through, and we think how much we would hurt if we tried those. Or perhaps we’re trying to get into a recommended position, and all we’re aware of is how much it hurts. There was one Kirsten tried to get me to do that was simply impossible for a human with testicles. The thighs would crush them.

She saw what I was talking about, and that led into a fruitful discussion of sexuality and yoga, and how yoga was originally developed for young monks, whose sexuality had to be diverted into other activities.

It also led to dropping that asana for others.

I believe deeply that yoga teaches you to do yoga. I believe it because that’s the way it has worked for me. That is, if you simply begin, if you simply establish a regular practice, doing the asanas will lead you to a better understanding of the goals of those same asanas, and you’ll do them more successfully.

One of the better understandings is the difference between actual pain and mere discomfort. Too many Americans are confused about this difference. They refuse to exercise because they think exercise hurts.

If it actually did, only a very few people, the masochists, would engage in it. Exercise (including yoga) is about stretching your limits, but it is not about pushing your body too far. “No pain no gain” is one of the stupidest sayings around. What it ought to say is “No discomfort no gain.”

Here’s the difference as I see it. Pain, actual pain, means you’re damaging yourself. Discomfort means you’re stretching your limits, but not causing actual physical damage. If an asana hurts too badly, give it up for a while. Try a milder version, one that develops the flexibility needed for the one that hurts.

Kirsten could loop an arm over the pulled-up knee of the opposite leg and the other arm around her back and join her hands under the arch of that knee. I still can’t, not even close, but I’ve developed a modified approach that may, some day,

give me the needed flexibility.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you did have trouble distinguishing the two. I had trouble, and I had been working out for decades (running and swimming for distance, primarily.) In general, our culture simply fails to teach us that. It teaches us instead that there are only two sorts of people, jocks and non-jocks. This is patently and obviously untrue, since plenty of people have been one type and turned themselves into the other. Nevertheless, we get the message drummed into our brains constantly, and most of us accept it without noticing.

So the rule: If the asana hurts, if it seems likely to do actual damage, leave it. But if it is merely uncomfortable, not a position you find natural, but not one that tears muscle or tendon or damages you in some other way, embrace it. You will rapidly learn to tell the difference.

In most yoga postures (I’ll more often use the word asanas—AH-sun-Nas), if you can assume the asana at all, you are extremely unlikely to damage yourself, so the truth is you don’t really have to worry. Just don’t force your body, from a misguided sense of competition, into a position it can’t assume without damage. Don’t sacrifice your well-being in order to temporarily look more adept. No real adept will be fooled, and you won’t be able to do anything the next day.

In yoga, you have to think about time. The way you are now is not the way you will necessarily be in the future. You practice toward the goal of making the asanas more natural for you, not to impress others.

The Fear of Falling

Then there’s the fear of falling: We all have an instinctive dread of falling. We know it hurts. Many asanas require not just flexibility, but balance. Arda Chandrasana, for example, the half-moon pose. For a long time the balance will not come, and the pose will disturb you because you don’t feel well-grounded. Your body triggers an atavistic fear of falling.

The fear is not realistic, though it’s powerful. It isn’t realistic because, as with hurting yourself, even if you were to fall, for most asanas you won’t fall far enough or hard enough to really hurt yourself.

Ado much srivasana may be one of the rare exceptions, though even with it you aren’t likely to get badly hurt. For one thing, unless you’re a deep adept, you are probably doing it against a wall. The couple of times I’ve fallen over backwards it was because I was doing it against a door and although I thought the door was firmly closed, it wasn’t. Even so, I wasn’t really hurt, not enough to skip a single practice, just thumped up a little.

The Fear of Humiliation

There’s the fear of humiliation. This fear is more prominent in classes, because we’re all afraid of looking like clowns to others, and especially when you’re a beginner, you’re acutely aware of your limits.

And yet many people learn better in classes, will not keep on with practice unless they have the structure of a class.

There’s always a troll or two who want to show off how far they’ve advanced, and who may play on your fear of humiliation. Just ignore them. Most of the people in the class are suffering the exact same fear you are, but you aren’t thinking about what clowns they are, are you?

This is really just self-consciousness. Fight it by saying to yourself, many times each day, that yoga is about stretching your limits to live a healthier and more fulfilled life. It isn’t about impressing other people. Which is better, developing gradually, over time, a practice that will give you new life, or attempting to impress your temporary classmates right now?

This approach gets easier once you begin to notice that you do, indeed, feel better, that it isn’t just that sudden easy freedom and relaxation you feel after a session, but that it carries through into your daily life.

I realized once that yoga could be thought of as a martial art. You train your body to adapt many more positions than most adults do. What do you think that body will do if you’re ever in a frightening situation, when the adrenaline kicks in and it’s time to break a few moves to save yourself?

Under adrenaline, even the asanas that feel difficult to you will become available to your body’s need for instant reaction. That’s one of the things training is about: enlarging your menu, so to speak, of crisis moves.

If you stick with it, you may be able, someday, to manage impressive feats. But that’s a by-product of regular practice. It isn’t a goal, and until you can see it as no more than a by-product, you’re crippled by your own fear of humiliation.

There’s simply no learned behavior in which you can start out at the top. Think constantly about your fear of humiliation, until you have reduced it to a ridiculous little quiver, one you can vanquish at will.

Fear of the Holy

I phrase the fear this way even though the phrasing isn’t as immediately obvious as in the other cases.

There are certain asanas—downward dog, for example—which communicate a sense of submission. You’re literarily putting your body into a position it can’t help sensing as submission. These asanas make you feel like a peasant kneeling to a king or god.

Then too, there is the awareness that you are not all you could be, physically or morally, that there are forces larger than you and greater than you. You feel not merely the concept of such a thing, you feel with absolute certainty that there is something out there so wise and so loving and so far beyond you that you feel completely exposed, completely obvious. You feel yourself a preposterous little jackanapes in the presence of the holy.

But you cannot advance in your practice, or in love, until you learn to quit being afraid that there’s someone more advanced in practice, or in love.

This fear touches on yoga and religion, but I will leave that discussion for a later column. Perhaps I should call it fear of submission, but I think that the awareness of other and greater forces and beings is salutary.

And here’s the thing, finally, about all these forms of fear: Yoga brings them home, forces you to notice them, deal with them. We usually hide our fear from ourselves, but yoga won’t let you do that.

Yoga is a way to confront your fear over and over, to actually work on it. Every day if you like. It was years after I began before I could see how there was no solution to fear except to do away with its physical symptoms. One cannot think one’s way out of fear, or talk one’s way out of it. One can only train one’s body to maintain those positions and rhythms that do not permit fear.

Fear doesn’t go away because you figure it out. It goes away when you learn to breath deeply and fully and to expand your heart center at will.

More than all that, yoga is a safe way to confront your fear over and over. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You might be afraid that something bad will happen, but it won’t. Trust the powers who give you yoga.

Pay attention to your fear. See where it comes from. See what physical behaviors remove it. This approach turns your fear into a teacher. When you have learned to send that fear away at will, you will be a far more powerful being.

And far more accomplished at yoga.


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At this point, it’s a matter of principle.

Sure, I could simply put this laptop on mute, or just indiscriminately close out all the browser tabs, but that’s not the point— this really should not be so difficult. Let me be clear: I intend to find you, browser tab, and close you and your noise out with extreme prejudice, just as soon as I get my cursor on you.

Whichever one you are, browser tab, I must say, it was impressively irritating, the way you began your covert broadcast with the low simmer of a woman’s murmur, ostensibly trying to seduce me into entering her live webcam show— a sleazy babble that did not at all jibe with the opiate-like saxophone stylings of John Coltrane that I had going on.

The sudden commingling of Webcam Girl with the tinny voice of an overly excited man attempting to sell me a digital prophylactic of some sort— MacGuffin’s Anti-Virus Software, I believe— was a cruel and ironic thrust, given the fact that you have yourself come upon me like some kind of invisible, anything but silent killer-of-a-cacophonous disease. Well, enough is enough. I am going to sit right here, expand every single one of the 23 browser tabs spread across the bottom of this screen, and figure out which one you are.

I must confess, I am not completely without blame in the case of this dissonant plague that has visited me. There have been, for instance, in my recent browser history, the websites “,” “” and “,” none of which are exactly known for their savory nature, and all of which have certainly been known to saddle visitors with any number of unwanted additions to their internet experience, mystery audio well-included.

I am not without sin. I acknowledge this.

Still, that program change you made just now? The switch to Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait?” Now you’re just being sadistic, browser tab. What reason could there possibly be for playing this song? We’re approaching a decade now since Dawson’s Creek went off the air— a decade that most of us have spent trying to get that scourge of a song permanently out of our heads. You are driving me to the brink of a very special episode of laptop destruction, browser tab, leading me to suspicions of a manufacturers’ conspiracy intended to increase sales.

It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if there were at least some sort of visual signifier of the audio’s source, as is usually the case with these things. Say, video to go along with the audio, or even just the presence of an audio player itself. But alas, I am seeing no such thing, and this is honestly beginning to feel like some kind of nightmarish, sonic Where’s Waldo.

Annnd…the Dawson’s Creek theme is now playing on loop, flavored by the wind-chime jingle of incoming instant messages, along with the click-click-clatter of a keyboard being tapped, presumably by the unseen webcam girl going wordlessly about her business, in what has now become a regular jam session of mystery ruckus.

I don’t want to wait, for this life to be over...

Over and over, sums things up nicely right now, browser tab. You are a deathless cricket chirping outside a bedroom window, inspiring murderous, villainous Disney dreams of Jiminy assassination, sans any conscience as guide.

In a moment worthy of a Rod Serling voice over, I have now closed out all the tabs, and found that still, the audio remains. I have checked behind the couch and beneath the bed, searching perhaps for a Lilliputian band featuring Paula Cole and a scantily clad webcam professional attempting to solicit an extremely displeased miniature John Coltrane, all to no avail. I will soon have no choice but to attribute your drone to a digital djinn-in-the-Dell, a curse placed on some ancestor of mine by an angry voodoo priest far ahead of his time, or some other, similar practitioner of the Dark Arts.

If unplugging the laptop still does not silence you, browser tab, I intend to contact the old lady from Poltergeist via Ouija Board, in hopes that she can work the same magic for me that she did for Carol Anne, et al.


Jason Edward Harrington


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In On the Undertaker

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My mom thought watching professional wrestling would turn me gay, so I usually saw the WWF only at my dad’s house, on his twelve-397px-Undertaker_oldschool_2inch black and white television with aluminum foil for an antenna. Every other week I would stare at two hours of gyrating pretty boys, unexamined racism, heavy breathing, and the occasional obese man whose blubbery folds could endure endless punishment until he mercifully ended his match by sitting on his opponent. There was a Jewish accountant wrestler who would berate the crowd for cheating on their taxes. There was “Kamala the Ugandan Giant.” There was a clown. The greytoned pixels on my dad’s tiny television gave all this a timeless, literary quality, in the same way that Cary Grant can cross his eyes and do a spit-take and still end a scene without any champagne on his lapels.

On friends’ regular TVs, it was different; the colors on WWF Superstars seemed like they had been invented just for the Macho King’s sunglasses or the Ultimate Warrior’s arm tassels. They were in a new prism, one too vibrant to exist outside of a true, fake world. The only character who was the same in black-and-white or color was the Undertaker. His legend was slapdash, to the point that, if you thought about it, you’d realize he was misnamed; in his black hat and leather gloves, he cut the figure of an archetypical gravedigger, while his manager Paul Bearer’s garish mortician’s makeup and cheap suit actually typified an undertaker. In between-match promos, Paul Bearer handled the microphone, sounding like a cross between a preacher and a ghost on a “Spooky Sounds” cassette, caressing a golden urn, while the Undertaker made angry faces at the camera. The urn was supposed to hold some sort of key to the Undertaker’s power, which was never explained. I think the idea was that it had brought him back from hell. Sometimes Paul Bearer would hit a dude in the head with it.

The golden age of professional wrestling is whenever you’re twelve years old. You know superheroes aren’t real but still believe that, with a couple breaks, one day you might be one. The bad prove good on a whim, clearing blotchy consciences with an efficacy otherwise unseen outside of Stridex ads. You suspend disbelief on purpose, wanting things to be this way. At a time when you’ve begun to pose that you don’t care about things that really, really matter, it’s comforting to watch two men pretend to punch each other in the nuts.

The Undertaker was 6-foot-10. He wrestled in pants, not tights or briefs. He could walk across the ropes of the ring like a circus performer before leaping off—useless peacocking, but not without it’s own beauty. He never lost. He followed his finishing move, “The Tombstone,” by crossing his opponent’s arms over his chest while rolling his eyes back in his head so nothing showed but the whites, a parody of demonic possession, as the referee counted out the pin. It was terror made goofy, and you couldn’t tell which was the original intention.

Years later, I lived with a punk named Joe Piglet, who interned at the WWE offices in Connecticut (at some point the World Wildlife Fund won a lawsuit over the rights to the acronym; a rare victory for the effette). Joe paid for cable for the house, with the understanding that wrestling preempted anyone else’s TV watching.

Wrestling had changed.

The easy stereotypes and gentle homoeroticism I had grown up with had been replaced with something realer and nastier—the new crop of wrestlers had normal names and acted like the dads of my friends who had really bad childhoods. The character who had been a villain years ago because he flaunted his good manners now jabbed at his crotch while telling his opponents to “suck it.” The Undertaker was still around, but his character had evolved into something like a biker, and not the scary Altamont kind either, but the kind you might see eating brunch silently with his tired wife at a sidewalk café on Bleecker Street. Paul Bearer, apparently, had died. In real life.

All the new wrestlers wore all black, all the time. They made a lot of angry faces at the camera.

I used to imagine what it would look like if you constructed a perfect sphere out of a one-way mirror. What would you see inside? Would it just suck in light and show you a vacuum of nothing and darkness, or would there still be something within that nothing if you chose to see it? What gets reflected when the only thing in sight is a reflection? The Undertaker had captured the essential elements that make up the psyche of a twelve-year-old boy (at least one twelve-year-old boy)—the goofiness and terror and unearned vanity and wanting to be taken seriously and just plain wanting—and reflected them back. The reflection was black, in color or in black-and-white, but it lived and moved and clotheslined Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and you could still, faintly, make out your figure in it.  The men that reflected this reflection, even the simulacrum of the man who originated it, had made it grow darker and blurrier, and then held it to their crotches to shove your face in it and make you admit that you saw yourself there.

This, too, is true (fake). Despite his popularity (even my black friends liked him), the Undertaker himself was always on the fringes of whatever larger story was being told in the wrestling universe. The same silent, black-and-white void that let him reflect what you wanted to see also left him unable to walk the everyman’s tightrope of personality and facelessness, as navigated by the Hulk Hogans, the Tobey paul-bearer-in-ring-219x241Maguires, the Barack Obamas of the world. So when the Undertaker’s gestalt, though not the man himself, became the organizing principle of his universe, larger, crueler forces corrupted its dumb, macabre absurdity. Sometimes, when the good guys win, they become the bad guys. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and maybe one that some kid who had grown up with Andre the Giant and Rowdy Roddy Piper saw in the black-and-white and vibrating neon world of wrestling of the early ‘90s.

If change always changes, the question becomes one of how much an individual can do to influence the shape of these reorganizations. The shells of all bivalves grow according to patterns set by a fixed logorithmic spiral, but wouldn’t exist in the first place if not for the life inside. Was The Undertaker really a cipher in a trenchcoat, a dead man wrestling, or was he animated by genuine intention, the full spectrum cloaked in a parody of death’s black shroud? A void is only nihilistic if the believers stop looking inside. Into the turnbuckle, a flying elbow off the top rope, the ref never sees it, but no one ever believes the ref anyway. In my vague memories of the times Paul Bearer actually opened the urn that was intimated to hold the key to the Undertaker’s power, sometimes there was a beam of light inside, sometimes there was only ash. I don’t know which, if either of these, is true (fake), or if there’s even a difference between the two; the ash to which everything will be reduced and the light from which everything arises. I don’t know if this is funny or terrifying.


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Consider the Zombie: 10 Years of “House of 1000 Corpses”

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Consider Rob Zombie. Of the six feature films he’s directed since 2003, only one, “The Devil’s Rejects,” received over 50rsz_tumblr_m4gh8eqj4t1rwgbgfo1_500 percent critics’ approval rating on the aggregate review site, Rotten Tomatoes. His lowest, “House of 1000 Corpses,” topped out at 18 percent. Another, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” failed to garner any major reviews at all. In total, Zombie’s films average at a disheartening 32.8 percent critic approval rating.

 I can’t remember where I first heard or saw Rob Zombie. Maybe it was the music video for “Demonoid Phenomenon” off his 1998 album, “Hellbilly Deluxe.” In it, Zombie gallops around a festival stage in front of thousands of sweaty metalheads, and sports ass-length dreadlocks that seem to hover unnaturally mid-thrash. His backdrop consists of a giant, flaming X, his gyrating leather-clad wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, and a large Confederate flag.

Or maybe it was the sizzle reel trailer for the aforementioned “House of 1000 Corpses.” The clip is almost impossible to find now. In it, a biohazard team is shown disinterring graves during a thunderstorm. The mud they shovel out has the consistency of soup. I don’t remember what film the trailer preceded, but I remember that damn trailer.

Then I didn’t hear about “House of 1000 Corpses” for two years. I tried in vain to find the VHS that included Zombie’s trailer. I started to believe that I imagined the thing. Then, one day as I flipped through a grocery store magazine rack, I spotted a “Fangoria” magazine with a blurb for the movie I thought I hallucinated. The front page banner read “First News! House of 1000 Corpses!” First news?

It turned out that the movie I waited two years to hear about was almost scrapped entirely. Twice. Universal Pictures originally planned to release Rob Zombie’s first film, but shelved the picture when they feared Zombie wouldn’t edit it down from an NC-17 rating. Eventually, MGM Studios briefly picked it up. Then someone asked Rob Zombie what he thought about Universal dropping his picture for “having no moral value.” Zombie joked, “Well, MGM picked it up. I guess they have no morals.” MGM didn’t take kindly to it, and canned the movie.

So, once again, “House of 1000 Corpses” was condemned to development hell. Finally, Lionsgate Films, then slowly transitioning to the horror distributor it is today, took a chance with the movie and released it in 2003 to abysmal critical reception and modest returns. My parents, being morally sound and protective, refused to take a thirteen-year-old me to see it. I had to wait another three years to get my hands on it. And then, after six years of an unexplainable fascination with the film few people gave a shit about, I saw it.


 “House of 1000 Corpses” isn’t exactly scary. Sure, it’s cartoonishly disgusting, like a Luciferian “Itchy and Scratchy” episode, but it’s not scary. Rainn Wilson gets hacked to pieces and reassembled as a taxidermy sculpture lovingly referred to as Fishboy by an inbred cannibal named Otis. Baby, played a very shrill Sheri Moon Zombie, licks the blood off a butcher knife she used to kill a girl in some random field. Sid Haig, painted up as a clown, blows the head off someone with a revolver and eats a lot of fried chicken. A doughy Chris Hardwick gets lobotomized by a subterranean sanitarium surgeon named Dr. Satan. Or something. Rob Zombie switches to negative image film a lot, so it gets sort of confusing.

I don’t get why people hate this movie so much.

Around its release, the majority of critics sided with Universal Studios claim of no moral value. One reviewer describedtumblr_m4inlb8Aes1rwgbgfo1_500 the film as “sickening.”

Another wrote, “Possibly the greatest waste of celluloid since Jerry Lewis was first allowed to stand before a camera,” which is more than anything else just plain rude to Jerry.

Another reviewer said “House of 1000 Corpses” was “too highbrow to be a good cheap horror movie, too lowbrow to be satire.”

It was that last one that made me rethink Rob Zombie’s work. Critics treat “House of 1000 Corpses,” and to a larger extent Zombie’s filmography and discography, as weird, gray-area objects which are unclassifiable. Neither ingenious nor idiotic, they are therefore wastes of time. They don’t allow them to be exactly what they are—love letters to a genre he adores.

You know who also writes love letters like that? Quentin Tarantino. And that foot-faced motherfucker has won Oscars. Plural. “Django Unchained” came out last year to largely unanimous fanfare. For months, everyone told me how much I would love that movie. Sure, I thought “Inglorious Basterds” watched like a fourth-grader who first learns about the Holocaust and tells his parents, “Why didn’t they just shoot Hitler with a bunch of guns?!” But Django was different. I would like Django.

I’ve never thought a movie was almost over, looked at my watch, and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized there was another hour-and-a-half left. “Django Unchained” did that to me.

Tarantino takes three hours to spin exploitation-era references into ivory tower Oscar gold. Rob Zombie doesn’t hinge his films on nods and winks, he just makes the movies he wasn’t supposed to watch as a kid for kids like me. Then he’s panned for it. Why? At least his movies are half as damn long as Django.

Every time Quentin Tarantino or some similar blowhard gets in front of a camera, they wax philosophical about their process and the motives behind their latest opus. They don’t let the films just speak for themselves. It’s almost as if they don’t trust you enough to enjoy their movies without baby-walking you through them. I sometimes think they only make movies for the respect they earn and the statuettes they are awarded.

Rob Zombie could have edited down “House of 1000 Corpses” for Universal Studios. Any sane person would have told him to—it was his first movie, he shouldn’t blow the opportunity, he’d have more say in his films down the road. He could have kept his mouth shut and not joked about the second studio that picked up the movie. But maybe he thought they could take a joke, that they could not take it all so seriously. He stuck with his film because he loved it, and he hoped that other weirdoes out there would love it, too.

“House of 1000 Corpses” has more heart than the last four Tarantino films. It’s just as poorly shot as Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” confusing as Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” and uncomfortable as Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” None of those films were respected when they were released. Rob Zombie’s films aren’t horror classics like those, but at least he’s making the films he trusts us to enjoy. And we can enjoy them if we just accept them for what they are—movies that the next generation of filmmakers will reference in three-hour think pieces about the bygone days of exploitation cinema, the days when no one realized the genius of Rob Zombie but them.

Wait a minute.


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“It’s very hard to get lost in America these days”

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The Blair Witch Project was the first horror movie that fucking destroyed me. I was ten years old and living in a Bible-thumping suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, a place where Halloween is ignored almost completely. My friends “weren’t allowed” to celebrate the holiday, something they always explained to me while sighing. They attended a “Fall Harvest” party instead – some lukewarm, cornucopia-stenciled Jesusfest the local mega-church always conveniently hosted the night of October 31st, leaving kids like me in the lurch.

My mother and I went to Blockbuster to find a horror movie instead of trick-or-treating, knowing that the majority of our neighbors’ blair4windows would be dark by sundown. There was one copy left of The Blair Witch Project out of dozen or so spaces on the shelf. I remember the dreaded and sexy “Parental Advisory” sticker pasted on either side of the VHS box, and having to convince my mother to rent it for me. I guilted her, telling her how much I just wanted to have fun on Halloween, how isolating it was being the only Jewish, left-leaning family in Clinton. It worked.

It’s difficult for any horror story to convince us it’s real. But I was ten, and I was gullible. I thought I disappeared with Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Michael Williams into the Maryland woods. I thought I lost my way with them, succumbed to cold and fear and distrust and hunger. I thought I discovered the abandoned, lean-to house with them at the end of the film, and I was terrified. Later I was embarrassed to find out otherwise, that it was all a genius marketing gimmick, but I know I wasn’t the only one, and I loved being a part of that.

It was also the last movie to get away with what it did. You can’t have a found-footage horror film interact with an audience that way The-Blair-Witch-Project-1anymore. Technology won’t allow it. We’re too stubborn and skeptical of the medium.

I rewatched the movie this year as part of my annual horror movie run-up to Halloween, this time in a giant, largely empty, ranch house in the country. The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out me when I was ten. And guess what? It scared the hell out of me at twenty-three. I didn’t fall asleep until four in the goddamn morning, and then I spent the next few days sheepishly trying to figure out why I let myself get carried away again by those shrill college kids shooting a documentary about an urban legend.

Heather, the director and de facto leader of the trio, begins the film naively assertive and gung ho about the documentary she is making. This isn’t anything new to horror, but the way the film goes about stripping Heather, and by default the crew, of their control is particularly upsetting. As they lose themselves further and further in the woods, their dialogue erodes while their volume amplifies. Heather repeatedly insists they’re right on track, when it’s clear to everyone they aren’t. Josh disappears, and the last thing we ever see of him is a bundle filled with what looks to be his teeth and parts of his tongue – he is literally silenced. The last shot shows Mike standing quietly in a basement corner while Heather is reduced to incoherent screams and babbling behind the camera. Then she abruptly stops, and the camera falls to the ground, broken.

That ending, man. Fuck.

When I was ten I was scared of the off-camera, never-seen Blair Witch. My imagination got the better of me. Now, as a young guy recently out of college, part of the horror of The Blair Witch Project is its focus on the loss of control. It’s the realization and acceptance that there are forces out there who don’t care about you, who will harm you as a means to an end. They may not be supernatural, but they do sometimes seem all-powerful.

I stand by my argument that you can’t make a movie like The Blair Witch Project again, that our technology and our social networking won’t allow for it. Not that kind of visceral, analog, found footage horror. But that’s the exact argument that The Blair Witch Project sets out to tear apart: That our modernity makes us safe in the wilderness, that there’s no way we can get lost for good in America. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days,” Heather unconvincingly reassures herself, and her audience, midway through the film. Believing we’re still on the map, right on track to a definite and discernible conclusion doesn’t mean we’re not heading straight for the witch’s house.

As I write this, a fringe conservative movement in Washington is forcing a partial government shutdown. At the public library where I work, I’ve started showing patrons to the website for nationally subsidized health care, but I don’t talk about how influential people off-camera are trying to deny them access to it. As the days go on and the politicking amplifies, I get the sense that I’m being led to a place I can’t find my way out of, and that I’ll eventually find myself stuck with little to no options.  All because a small group of politicians are blazing ahead into a forest they don’t know anything about, still babbling about how they’re doing this for the right and noble reasons. This standoff is temporary, but it won’t be the last. The Blair Witch Project is terrifying now because it somehow manages to mimic what I see every day in real life. Being dragged into the woods is scary, because I’ve seen the movie, and I know how this ends.


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