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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Maybe you should give up – THIS IS NOT A TEST #51 (transcript)

Published December 12, 2015

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Hello world, welcome to THIS IS NOT A TEST, at the helm today as always is your captain, your skipper, your glamorous bon vivant, professional hand model and high fashion guru, Michael Phillips. Six feet tall in heels, but standing before you today barefoot and humble, welcoming you to the boudoir for another deep tissue massage. Well, this isn’t coming to you from the boudoir, though recording it while laying down is something I continue to work toward achieving one day. It’s good to have goals, after all. And the only tissue we’ll massage is in your ears, so don’t get any ideas. This is starting out all wrong. I don’t usually veer this far off track for 10 minutes or so. But we don’t even have a track yet, do we. So I should probably get to it, yeah?

Someone asked the other day, “Where is the counterculture’s alternative to Oprah’s show & book club?” Well, Oprah Winfrey hasn’t had a TV show or book club for almost five years, but I get the point of the question. The answer is: there isn’t one, for a couple of reasons. First, counterculture isn’t mainstream culture, so there will never be a counterculture group or figurehead that will have the influence a pop culture personality has. Second, and probably more importantly, there’s no alternative version of a popular book club or website or whatever because no one has built one. Not a big one, anyway. Not one that’s promoted and relevant and new. You might notice I didn’t say there isn’t a great counterculture literature promotion hub because it’s impossible to do. It isn’t. I don’t even think it would be terribly difficult to do. But someone has to do it. In all fairness, the guy who asked the question was wondering where the TV show equivalent of Oprah was for the counterculture, but TV is an old medium, especially if you’re looking for readers, which I’m pretty sure he is, so I wouldn’t even consider TV a viable place for such a thing anymore.

And by “someone has to do it,” I mean someone has to dedicate themselves to doing it. Like it’s a job, because it would be. And when someone dedicates themselves to doing something, they usually want to get paid for their time. Or they have to get paid for their time, because, you know, they want to eat and have shoes and stuff. So now you’re talking about the necessity of it being a money generating thing, which might disqualify you from being counterculture. But really, the spirit of the question is valid, and it could be surprising that such a thing doesn’t already exist, but it probably shouldn’t be. Why? Because most writers don’t care about promoting your work, they care about promoting their own work. So a collective type of thing, a rising-tide-raises-all-boats kind of deal, is unlikely to ever be organized or run by writers. Not these days. Back in the 60s and 70s there was a little of that going on, but just a little.

When we tried something like that on the Internet, with the Guerilla Poetics Project, it ultimately failed because every poet who heard of the project wanted to have their poems be part of it, but very few – none, really, but I’m trying to be generous – wanted to do anything to help the project. I talked about that right here back in September. I’ll leave a link on the show notes page if you want to listen to that. Anyway, Internet “zines” have come and gone, but those weren’t really the same thing. They weren’t centralized locations for information, interviews, reviews, all that. They were more one person’s taste in literature or art or whatever, and that person kept it up for as long as it was interesting for them. Or until they got a real job.

So that’s the answer to “Where is the counterculture’s alternative” to anything: go make it yourself. Aren’t we a world full of DIYers and “makers”? That’s what I’ve been lead to believe. But somehow on the Internet people have come to equate making something with making something that will make you a millionaire. And a literature site probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s list of sure fire money-making schemes. But really all it will take is one obsessively dedicated person to start the whole thing rolling. I can think of a few ideas that would be great for such a thing, but I have no interest in building it and babysitting it, and that’s what someone would have to do. Just not me. I’ve got enough to do, Jesus.

Ideas are a funny thing. Everyone has ideas. Everyone sees something and thinks of a way to improve it or create it if it doesn’t exist, and we never do them. Because thinking is free, it doesn’t require any work. “Man, someone should invent a box that opens like this…” or a can opener that works properly, or a better way to store sweaters. We’re always thinking of great inventions, but inventing is hard, so we don’t bother. That’s why your million dollar check is in someone else’s box, as Prince once sang. Dreaming up inventions is a harmless way to spend your time, but what’s not so harmless is saying you’re actually going to do something, committing to it, and then not following through. That’s not an uncommon thing either, but it’s different. I get why someone might commit to something they know full well they’re never going to actually do. Committing feels good. It’s like you’ve accomplished something. Only it isn’t really an accomplishment if you don’t follow through. I know that sounds obvious, but not everyone has a flair for the obvious.

We’re all such geniuses, aren’t we. How many times have you seen someone look at a painting or any kind of art and say, “I could do that.” Well, no you couldn’t. If you haven’t done, you can’t do. You’re just talking and making sounds. “I could have made that better lawnmower, I had the idea 10 years ago!” No, no – if you could have, you would have. Don’t be confused. Don’t let your inflated view of yourself or your abilities distort reality like that. You can’t do anything other than what you do. It’s especially funny where art is concerned, because as stupid or simple as you think a piece of art might be, it isn’t stupid or simple to actually make it. Usually. It’s nervy to look at someone’s work and say you could do it, because all signs indicate that you can’t. So next time you’re looking at some art and someone nearby scoffs and says they could have done it, tell them to shut up. You know, if they’re not bigger than you.

12 or 13 years ago I was reading about Sumi-e painting, an ancient kind of Japanese ink painting, and it interested me, so I went out and got an ink stone and some old ink sticks and brushes and I learned how to grind out the ink and blob it onto paper. Then I thought, well, this is fine, but what the hell am I doing? I don’t want to make calligraphy or traditional anything, really. I happened to have a really old book that was falling apart laying around so I pulled some pages out of that and started making some paintings. Not like painting paintings, but kind of cartoony things with funny captions. Or captions that I think are funny. And “cartoony” because that’s the extent of my artistic ability. But I really liked them so I kept making them. I looked around for someone else doing something similar, but I couldn’t find anyone. I put up a website to show the things, you can see it at mjp.ink. Try it, you’ll like it. I’ll leave a link in the notes.

Anyway, when I say that I looked for someone else doing the same thing, I mean I looked for a long time, but there wasn’t anything. I’m sure someone, somewhere had to be doing something similar. It seemed like to good of an idea to be just mine. Good ideas are like that. If you write a good story or song a lot of times you’ll think, “Well, I must have seen or heard that somewhere…that was too easy.” In fact the Beatles used to do that, they’d write a song and play it for the other Beatles and say, “What is this?” assuming they’d heard it somewhere. That’s what I thought about the “ink poems,” as I came to call them. Though they should probably be called “ink jokes” or “ink gags” or something. Finally I figured, if I can’t find anything like this anywhere, I guess I made it up, so I gave myself a pat on the back and made a sandwich to celebrate. Other people have seen them, I know that because now I see other people using the ink on old book paper method to make something wacky now. Did they get it from me? Stranger and more unlikely things have happened. It’s the Internet after all. I’ve had my work “borrowed” a few times – images, entire website designs and layouts, things like that – and it’s always shocking for a minute to see it, then you get kind of mad, then you shrug and go, whatever, and get on with life. Or make another sandwich.

Anyway, whoever came up with the ink on old book paper cartoon gag paintings, it was something that we did, rather than me reading about Japanese ink painting and thinking, “You know, I could paint jokes on old pages,” I just did it, then thought about it later. That might be the key to all of this. Doing what comes to mind then thinking about it later. Or never thinking about it at all, that works too. Either way, the doing is the thing. You have to come to grips with the doing, or you’ve got nothing. You’ve got an idea, but unexecuted ideas don’t mean shit. An unpainted painting doesn’t exist, so you didn’t create it. An unimproved lawnmower is just synapses firing in your brain, it isn’t a thing. Don’t lay claim to something unless you’ve made it. That’s the parable for today’s bible class with mjp.

Anyway, it’s not even that easy to create something or put an idea forward and then stand up and take credit for it or stand behind it. The world likes to beat down people who stand up. That’s nothing new, since we talked about Japanese painting, the Japanese also had a saying, or have a saying, “the nail that sticks out will be hammered,” meaning if you stand above the crowd you should expect to get whacked down. I talked about Chrissie Hynde back in September when she was talking about her new book, and how people lost their minds because they disagreed with something she said. They thought the comments were politically incorrect or insensitive to rape victims, but Hynde took all the criticism and said, “fuck you,” that was her take on her experience, she was entitled to it and she stood behind it. That takes a lot of nerve, because when everyone is coming at you it’s easy to cave in and apologize for things you aren’t sorry for, but she didn’t. She’s also been playing on rock and roll stages for 35 years, so that probably helped. It tends to give you a thick skin.

But standing up is difficult and painful a lot of the time, so my hat’s off to anyone who does it. If you’ve never taken heat publicly for something you said or did it’s hard to explain what it’s like. My experiences have been small scale, on punk rock stages and the Internet, but they still hit you in a way that’s difficult to describe. When I imagine that on a larger scale, well, you’ve got to have some balls to deal with it. Especially if what you’re being attacked for is something people consider offensive. A couple of years ago, or more than a couple years ago now, I guess, The singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked made some comments during a show that were interpreted as anti-gay by some people in the audience. Because the comments were anti-gay. There was a big to-do about it online and as it turned out, Shocked does have some weird ideas in her head about homosexuality that were put there by a church. Or maybe they were always there, but it didn’t seem like it. She was always down with whatever, on the side of peace and human rights and all that. But now she’s got some different ideas.

She apologized for offending anyone, but then she kind of went into whack-a-mole overdrive on Twitter and engaged people who were criticizing and insulting her, throwing bible verses back at them, along with her own brand of vague commentary. She’s a kook, but I like kooks, and the point is, she stood behind what she said, and gave her reasons for believing what she believes. You have to respect that, even if you don’t agree with it. I mean, you don’t have to, most people don’t, but I do. It doesn’t mean I agree with anything she thinks about anything, it just means I respect her. That’s kind of a problem these days though. We used to be able to respect and even work with people we didn’t agree with. Now it seems like if you don’t toe someone’s line, they don’t want to have anything to do with you.

I read a great article somewhere the other day, at Salon? About a young member of the Westboro Baptist Church, that tiny little congregation of lunatics who hold up the GOD HATES FAGS and THANK GOD FOR MILITARY DEATHS signs at people’s funerals. This young woman ran their Twitter account, and she used it to spout the insane Westboro party line about hate and judgement and more hate. As you might expect, most people mocked and insulted her and her church. But a few people didn’t. A few people who disagreed with her – and I think everyone disagrees with what Westboro says – were kind to her and tried to reason with her. They talked about things they had in common, TV shows they liked, bands, everyday things. She kept up the hate rant for years, but eventually started to see those people who disagreed with her, but were kind to her, as real people, and not the demons her church would have her believe they were. Eventually that connection with people who she initially completely disagreed with, caused her and her sister to leave the church. That’s a pretty powerful demonstration of what not shutting out people who you disagree with is capable of achieving.

Imagine if we could do that with politics. Yeah, it doesn’t seem very likely, does it. But it’s still the same thing, and it’s still proof that working with someone you think is crazy because of their beliefs can eventually have a positive outcome. I was watching a movie or a TV show, I don’t know which, but one character was complaining about how difficult something was, how it was taking all their time and it seemed impossible and whatnot, and another character said, “Maybe you should give up.” I thought that was pretty funny, but it’s also pretty true. Sometimes giving up is a valid option. Sometimes giving up is the only reasonable or sane option. It’s always the easiest option, that’s for sure. But there’s something to be said for not giving up when something seems difficult of impossible, and it’s something I am always drawn to. That person who everyone thinks is crazy because it would be easier to give up than to do what they’re doing.

I don’t know, man. It’s hard for me to give up on anything, but that can be a problem too. As I get older I’ve been learning to do it, just to keep a tenuous hold on my sanity and time. But it’s still hard. When something like that Guerilla Poetics Project winds down, it’s hard for me to think that all that work is just going to – not be lost, because it isn’t lost – but most of the mechanics of that site aren’t used anymore. All the cool stuff that we dreamed up and I built. It’s hard to let it go. What’s worse is building something and then handing it over to someone else, someone who doesn’t know or care about the thing the way you did, and watching them slowly murder your wonderful creation. I’ve been there a couple a times – well, maybe more than a couple of times – and it can drive you crazy if you let it. Watching a monkey disassemble your atomic bomb with a stick and a rock.

But really, I will admit right here and now before you and the good lord Vishnu, that it’s also a little bit liberating, letting go of something. I’ve had some ideas that I started working on, took them to a certain point, and then couldn’t see the potential or the reason for the thing, so I’ve let them go. The bottom line is you just have to come to grips with your work disappearing, and maybe that’s just an ego thing. I mean I know it’s just an ego thing, what else could it be? Everyone’s work eventually disappears. Everything in the world around you at this moment is eventually not going to exist. It’s a crazy thought, and probably not something you should ponder after you’ve eaten a fistful of magic mushrooms, but it’s just reality. If you can come to grips with the death of your work, it’s easier to let something drop and go do something better, Or go do nothing, which is also a good and viable option. Every time.

So we started out today with me suggesting that you should just go do something, and now we’ve swung all the way over to “just give up.” That’s what they call the circle of life, I think. Or the sign of a troubled mind, one of the two. But I like to exist in a world where both options are valid. Doing something and doing nothing. If you’re committed and dedicated you can sometimes even do both at the same time. I think I do it every day at work. Something and nothing. Just like this thing you’re listening to right here. It’s something and nothing. Look how profound we are, and we’re not even trying. That’s why I like you. You make me better. You complete me. You accept me with all my flaws and hair shedding all over the place. Hair shedding? Sorry, I don’t know where that came from. That sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it? Shedding hair? But with the exception of the bald of head among us, we all shed hair all the time. Mine’s just more obvious because it’s like five feet long. Well, maybe not five feet. But if I keep not cutting it off it will probably be five feet long soon. The CTO at the company I work for is very blunt and unfiltered and he says the most insulting things to people, then he laughs and you kind of have to laugh too because you realize he doesn’t mean any harm – anyway, this guy said to me about my hair not long ago, “Why don’t you just cut it off?”

Which is kind of like saying, “maybe you should give up,” but it’s a reasonable question I suppose, and one I don’t have an answer for. Hair this long is utterly inappropriate for someone of my advanced age, someone who is mostly man, anyway, as I am. Mostly. 51% some days, 49% others, but that aside, I really don’t know why it’s long right now, other than I’ve just always liked it that way. I guess some people are born to have way too much hair, and I’m one of them. Maybe it’s that half pint of Native American blood flowing through my veins. I shaved my head practically bald about eight years ago, and I’ve cut it once since then, but other than that I’ve just let it do its thing. When I was a kid in the 60s my step father took my brother and I to the barber shop every month, and as soon as we’d walk in he’d shout, “Short and regular!” Those were his instructions to the barber, and short and regular it was. My brother still keeps to the short and regular, but that was never my fate. Especially as I got to be 8 or 9 years old and wanted cool hair like the Beatles had. Then a few years later I wanted cool hair like those guys in Alice Cooper had. Well, you get the drift. Hair was the thing, man, so as soon as I could convince them to keep that short and regular clipper away from me, I let my freak flag fly, baby.

Who knows what it means. I mean, the hair itself doesn’t mean anything anymore, not as a social signal or statement or anything. It’s just long hair. It doesn’t shock or offend anyone anymore. Not here in Los Angeles anyway. You know – I hadn’t intended to talk about hair, or my hair in particular. It wasn’t on the agenda, you know, “Okay, right after you talk about giving up on things, talk about your HAIR!” but here we are. Roll with it, who knows. Actually there was long hair that made a statement not so long ago, and that was dreadlocks. I grew really long dreadlocks, twice. Once wasn’t enough for me, I suppose. Really long meaning when I sat down I’d be sitting on them, that long. I like dreadlocks, I like what they represent – or what they used to represent to most people anyway – and I think they look cool. But I guess I only thought they looked cool when I was one of the 3 or 4 white dudes walking around Los Angeles with them. Then some time in the 90s suddenly every knucklehead stumbling out of the tattoo parlor seemed to have dreadlocks, and it became a lot less cool to me, so I chopped them off. Again.

In some cultures long hair is a sign of wisdom or spiritual awareness, not so much here in America. It’s just long hair. It has to be really long to get anyone’s attention. Like down to your knees or ankles I guess. Then people will take a step back and say, “Now there’s something different.” I read somewhere not so long ago though that the maximum length for your hair is something that’s hardwired into your DNA. The maximum life of each hair. So even if you wanted to grow your hair down to your ankles you might not be able to. My hair grows pretty fast, so it seems like maybe I’m at my maximum length, because it might have stopped growing. It seems like it should be longer after 5 or 6 years anyway. Seems like those dreadlocks were tickling my back pockets after five years, I don’t know. I’m not good at judging the passage of time. At some point though I suppose it will just be “enough!” and I’ll cut it off. I saw a woman with hair down to her calves at the gas station last summer, and I don’t know, it didn’t look like fun, all that hair. It looked like a full time job.

But I understand how it could get that long. After you haven’t cut your hair for a certain amount of time you start to think, “Well I can’t cut it now! It’s like a thing of its own.” That’s how I think about it anyway. Hey man, it took a long time to get here. How many sad and lonely nights have I brushed it and cared for it, and now to cut it all off? Never! But it’s just like that website or that bad novel that it’s time to give up on, isn’t it. It’s the same thing. So you see, we can even pull hair into that idea, that topic of discussion. It must be a solid topic if you can apply it to hair and websites. That should be the standard for all future topics here – can it apply to hair and websites? No? Then we can’t talk about it! Next time we talk about hair I’ll tell you how I haven’t used shampoo for almost a year. You won’t want to miss that.

When’s the last time I did a chirpwatch update? It’s probably been six months, yeah? If you don’t know what that is, my neighbors have smoke detectors – I think they’re smoke detectors, but this had been going on for so long that I’m starting to wonder, and question my own sanity – but anyway, you know how when the battery is getting low in a smoke detector it will start to make a chirp sound every few minutes? Then as the battery gets lower those chirps become more frequent? Well, back in June I started to hear the neighbors alarm chirp like that. First it was every few minutes, then as time went on it became more frequent. Well, that was chirpwatch. Me updating you on the neighbors smoke detector chirps. Well that started in June or July, and guess what? IT’S STILL CHIRPING. Not only is one chirping every 15 seconds – yes, you heard that right – but now there are two alarms chirping every fifteen second of every day, around the clock. That should tell you everything you need to know about my neighbors.

“mjp!” I hear you saying, “Maybe someone is hurt over there, maybe they’re dead! You should notify the authorities!” I understand why you’d think that, it makes sense. I mean, who could stand to listen to that if they were conscious? Who could just ignore a constant irritating sound for half a year? But I know they’re okay over there, I can hear them screaming at each other. Something else that happens every day, around the clock. Well, not around the clock. They don’t scream at each other in their sleep. Though if I had to guess I’d say that when they’re sleeping they’re dreaming about screaming at each other. They’re dream-screaming. See there, what I did? Good stuff, man. Un hmm. Well make sure to come back next time for more of that good stuff. See you then.