Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

Spine

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Tonight, I was sitting on the curb drinking a glass of wine—AS WE DO HERE IN CYPRESS PARK, LOS ANGELES—and thinking about the city vs. the country. I’ve read a couple of things lately that have emphasized the difference. Don’t be impressed by my nocturnal musings, please. I was thinking about my immune system. And I was thinking about my skin.

Apparently kids who grow up in the country have stronger immune systems. They’re exposed to dirt, bugs, and swampy muck, and the result is an immune system that can withstand a lot of outside nastiness, unlike those milquetoast city kids who are running our financial centers of industry!!! But cities have their demons, too, and all the pollution of cities is really hard on your skin. Wrinkles. Cancer of the eyeballs. The usual suspects. Anyway, I was just sort of emptily musing about these different places and the various degrees of trouble/salvation they hold.

And then I just thought: whatever. The fact that we even have this dichotomy—city vs. country and all the nuances in between—is amazing. I don’t really care if I’m breathing in a little pollution right now. It’s so incredible that I’m sitting here with my feet—OKAY, MY BIRKENSTOCKS—planted on concrete that covers dirt that covers pipes and water and the army Beyoncé is slowly building underground. It’s pretty incredible that I can see the moon and a few sad stars and that there’s also an electric light over my head. I love that it’s dark out but I can see two teenage girls sitting on the stairs of the school across the street and gossiping. I love that I can see a few ants milling around. And I love that there is such a thing as the country, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, and I can see it whenever I want, because there are also things like Rental Cars and Airplanes and Jobs that Pay and Credit Cards For When You’re Really Desperate to Get Out.

AND THEN!!!!! (Never talk to a fiction writer if you want a short story, unless you’re talking to a flash fiction writer, in which case you may have to lean over to hear what they have to say because they will be laying on the ground because most flash fiction has no spine. YEAH, I WENT THERE.)

Then I reached down and touched the concrete.

About a year ago, maybe more, I wrote a flash fiction piece (I AM NOT IMMUNE TO SPINELESSNESS) about the end of the world. Fine, fine, I’ll link to it, go ahead, twist my arm. It was about a mother, in a space station, who watches the world split in half. I felt very emotional when I wrote it. I felt, deeply, how sad it would be if that actually happened. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to say, but just think about it. Ehhhhhh? Are you imagining it? The little grave you dug for your parakeet when you were 7? The name you scratched into that tree and then, embarrassed, tried to scratch out again? The last batch of recycling you threw away, thinking somewhat guiltily that recycling old birthday cards feels wrong but hey, are you supposed to save them all forever?? ALL OF THAT GONE.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I read a submission for Cicada (a hip cool teen mag I freelance for) about…a girl in space watching the world end. In both pieces, the world ends in flame. In both of them, humans watch it happen with a particular gaping nostalgia-tinged grief. And when I say “the world ending,” I mean the world LITERALLY BEING DESTROYED. No zombie apocalypse or global warming happening here. I mean the planet physically blowing up/burning up/cracking apart.

When I stroked the concrete I thought for a second that maybe I was stroking the spine of the planet. Like it was some big animal that we’ve all forgotten about. I actually whispered something to it. I wanted it to know that I remembered it. I just couldn’t bear the thought of Earth not existing anymore. I mean, it’s so amazing! And yes, it has been the unwilling—unwitting?—stage to so many horrors. And all we talk about are those horrors. And we should talk about them. But all this time, under us, has been this great sleeping animal. And I feel like me and this other writer were probably feeling the same way when we wrote those little pieces. Like, we really haven’t appreciated the Planet-ness, the Globe-ness of this earth enough. And the whole thing will probably split open someday. And won’t that be awful. Won’t that be the ultimate sadness.

Writing As: An Introduction

A young Tori fresh out of college, considering a career as an oil painter.

A young Tori, fresh out of college and considering a career as an oil painter.

I’ve tried to update this blog—this PORTFOLIO, sorry, this portfolio—a million times this summer and fall, but I’ve been wracked with that weird form of writer’s block that comes from having too much to say and too much money to be bothered to write it down and too many conflicting celebrity birthday party invitations to attend them all which has resulted in a lot of very hurt, very famous feelings, as you can imagine.

The past twelve months have been full of so many changes. For example, I lost some skin cells and grew new ones. I also started washing my hair with yarrow root and researched video games. Exciting statistic: I’ve officially been a full-time freelance writer for a year! Yeah, it was right around the start of football season that I quit my hilariously lucrative, moonshine-soaked waitressing job so that I could write full-time, and by “write full-time” I mean “write fashion news blurbs for almost no money full-time.” But the journey of a thousand miles starts with one underpaid gig, compatriots.

So it’s been a year of thinking about writing in a much more tangible, practical way than I ever thought about writing before. It’s not so much, “Ooh I like writing OOH HERE’S A GOOD TITLE FOR A POEM: EARL GREY RAINWATER,” it’s much more, “What do I want to write? What am I good at writing? What role do I want writing to play in my life? How do I want to write? Is there a void in the world that only my writing can fill?” (Yes there is, and it’s called TARANTINO’S GHOSTWRITER.)

In short, it’s been a year of thinking about my calling, which is sensitive term that I used once in an awkward meeting with an Indiana University administrator. I told him I didn’t want to be a teacher because being a teacher wasn’t “my calling.” He actually laughed at me.

“You believe in callings?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, but what I should have told that sad, incredulous man is, “How can you not?”

So I’ve decided to write down my thoughts on the subject of writing like a bored housewife keeping a diary on the back of her grocery receipts during the awful summer heat of Arizona, 1964. I’ll make it a series: writing as all sorts of different things. I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of them, but this is what writing means to me at this moment in time as I sit in my air-conditioned mansion and count my millions and, well, I could write about it all day.

Everything

I don’t even know where to begin. Here’s how I’ve been feeling lately: ecstatic, dopamine-fueled, like everything is happening at once, and full of that subtle but deep underlying sadness that I don’t think any thinking woman will ever be able to shake. Example: today, I saw Picasso’s “Guernica” in person. I started crying. I stood close to it for ten minutes. I stopped myself from even thinking about taking a picture. My vision was blurry. I’d had so much coffee, and so little food. I felt: so moved to be in the presence of legend, so moved to be in the presence of great art, so envious of every artist and ex-pat who’s ever lived in Europe among this deep deep artistic history that we will never be able to approximate in the US, so sad about the bombing of Guernica, so intimidated by how perfectly Picasso channeled real human suffering into art, so restless about the fact that I don’t live in a city with Guernica in it, so dreamy at the thought that I was standing in an art museum by myself in Madrid, so confused.

I walked back, buzzing with caffeine and Guernica and work, listening to something just as blood-pumping and confusing as anything: a song that my brother recommended to me for a road trip with my sister but that has come to represent, for me, my first solo trip to Europe. Buzzing is the best word for what I’ve been feeling lately. Sometimes it’s literal (wayyyyy too many gin and tonics in Portugal), sometimes it’s because I’m listening to a great song and walking extra fast, sometimes it’s because I’m angry (I recently got an EMAIL criticizing one of my articles for having a TYPO), sometimes it’s because I’m thrilled, sometimes it’s because I’m making eyes at everyone on the street and I can’t stop. I’m too obsessed with burning imagery, stigmata, flash fiction. I just stopped writing and reached for the screen. See—the big gesture of my life right now is me holding my hands out in front of me and shaking, fingers poised in a gesture that’s half-claws, half-reaching. With joy? With fear? Even I, the trembling mind inside my only body, couldn’t tell you.

Suitable Thoughts While Eating Quinoa

1. I am an ancient Aztec!!!!!!!!!!

2. Wait, is quinoa an ancient grain? Or is that farro?

3. I’d Google it, but opening up another tab just makes me want to die of Internet over-exposure, given that I already have open tabs for Gmail, Facebook, screenwriting competitions that I will never apply to because of the $60 entry fee, a Google search for “cheap easy free meal,” and 5-10 different pop-ups at any given time that promise to find me “aggressive Russian babes in Bloomington, IN.”

4. Does the Pope eat quinoa?

5. Gosh I’m being so healthy by eating this ancient grain. If it is indeed an ancient grain. Just think of all the terrible things I could be eating instead: Brie, champagne, chalk, mud, baby powder, shampoo, eye serum, anti-wrinkle face mask, noncomedogenic sunscreen.

6. I just poured raw sugar all over my quinoa. Now it’s crunchy and sweet. Just like carrots (or so I hear).

7. Man, the Aztecs really got screwed over by the Spaniards. (Feels sad about it for one second.) (Moves on.)

8. I’m saving sooo much money by eating this bowl of quinoa instead of doing what I really want to be doing, which is starting a start-up for start-ups in deepest Africa. (Snickers.) Oh I’m sorry did I just subtly mock naive idealism? I could have sworn I typed “…what I really want to be doing, which is guzzling coffee and sour cream coffee cake while engaging in a terrifying stare-down with a local baby.”

9. True, true, quinoa is super cheap, but something about it feels so…yuppie.

10. Does this make me the 1%? On a global scale? Granted, I have less than $6 in my checking account, but there are people who will never even have the resources to Google “quinoa,” let alone eat a whole bowl of anything except for perhaps RANCID LAKEWATER.

11. I KILLED THE AZTECS.

Today the Sky is Gray: A Compendium of Scientific Theories

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1. It is a direct reflection of Freud’s “melancholia,” from which I am currently suffering, and the grayness is actually emanating from me as I sit here, staring out the Megabus window, driving farther and farther away from a land where coffee is made with care and buses run down literally every street, although they do smell terrible (both the buses and the streets), but then again Chicago in the winter is not New York in the summer, odor-wise, not even in the same ballpark, so I rescind that last complaint.

2. All across the globe, fish are dying. Instead of reflecting the blue ocean, the sky is now forced to reflect the gray, scaly underbellies of dead fish as they float silently on the surfaces of rivers and ponds across America, reeking slightly, glimmering moistly. This is because of global warming and/or Obama’s presidency.

3. By referring to Borges as my soulmate, I have created some sort of space-time continuum rupture and, in a totally Borgesian turn of events, I am slowly becoming Borges–and losing my sight.

4. The entire globe is on fire and what I take to be “clouds” is actually “smoke.” Signifier/signified/what is reality/what is meaning/etc.

5. Someone has colored the sky gray with a crayon. Probably Mary Poppins. Did anyone actually read the book Mary Poppins? That biddy has some serious superpowers and sticks the stars onto the sky with glue. She is way creepier than in the Disney movie.

6. The heavens have grown so bored with everyone’s petty Tweeting that they refuse to be a color anymore. Or maybe it’s not Twitter that’s the problem, maybe the universe is still mad at Anne Hathaway for refusing to embrace her total smugness and instead pretending (note that I didn’t say acting) to be surprised at her Oscar win.

7. The lead singer of Counting Crows finally got that gray guitar and played.

8. The gray, leafless trees and the gray, foggy, slowly-descending sky are in some sort of agreement, possibly whispering to each other behind all of our backs. Trees know, okay? Trees know. If you’ve read Tolkien you know this; if not, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

9. Zombie apocalypse.

10. Someone is holding a large piece of fabric over this Megabus with cornfields, farmhouses, and very realistic semi-trucks painted on it in order to deceive me into thinking the day is cloudy. This seems the most plausible explanation, but WHY? I will muse on the motivations behind this horrible  simulacrum while looking for small tears in the fabric.

Making Things Happen

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Friends, Romans, countrymen:

I just had a storytelling revelation. It may not mean much to you, but it’s big for me. If you all give me five bucks, I’ll share. By reading this far you have already agreed. Awesome. I’ll send my accountant around to collect. Isn’t it great how the Internet lets us make up our own rules?

Right now, I’m trying to write something long. Writing a 100+-page piece is so, so different than writing a short story. And it’s freaking hard, since I don’t exactly have my long-form muscles developed: over the course of my long and illustrious writing career I’ve written two novellas (both featuring nightmares and ghosts, obv) and a couple 30-page stories. Everything else has hovered around the 10-20 page range. I’m pretty sure all the non-writers in the audience just fell asleep. PAGE LENGTH IS REALLY INTERESTING TO WRITERS, OKAY? I could talk about the difference in tension between a 10-page story and a 15-page story all day, and maybe I will if you all don’t stop being so mean!

In short-form literary fiction, we’re encouraged to be so delicate. We have to handle huge issues with grace and extreme minimalism, with subtlety and poignant images that mean so much more than they say. So when I describe a grandfather clock that’s no longer ticking, you know immediately that I’m talking about MORTALITY. A salty little wave gently creeping up on the beach? EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY AFTER SOME BAD THINGS HAPPEN. &tc. &tc. &tc. (By the way, for people who get confused when I write “&tc.”, I’m 70% sure I once saw David Foster Wallace write “etc.” that way and I have appropriated it for my very own, like someone stealing a small kitten with one missing eye.)

But then it hit me like a ton of bad similes: in this longer piece, I simply have to make things happen. Real things! People can die, babies can be born, people can marry and divorce and fight viciously with both guns and something worse than guns (HURTFUL WORDS), people can change their mind not once not twice but THREE OR MORE times, dishes can fall crashing from the shelves because of dinosaurs walking by, bad weather can reverse the entire plot trajectory, and so on and so forth. In a 10-page story, there’s only so much that can actually occur if you’re trying to avoid a rompy melodrama. But in a longer piece, if not much happens, you’re left with a snoozefest like Melancholia (oh!).

So I need to abandon grace and delicacy for the moment (I’ll pick up those valuable tools during the revision stage) in favor of one thing and one thing only: ACTION. Plot action and character change and inexorable forward movement. There will be no new spring leaves softly scraping against the windowpane in this draft, baby. No nubile young girls singing nursery rhymes to contrast with the protagonist’s slow acceptance of death. No no no. There will be car chases and people exploding out of dark closets and terrible, terrible screaming matches. I need to let go of my crippling fear of melodrama. I don’t know if I can. It’s too ingrained in me. This is what happens when your parents give you a good education. (Thank you, Mommy and Papi! I love you!) But this is really important right now—it’s time to smash down whatever imaginary dam is keeping the movement out, and let the flood roar in.

(METAPHOR: STILL GOT IT.)

Also, happy Saturday and much love to everyone reading this, even the bad ones! This post may come across as slightly aggressive, but it’s just the breve, I swear.

Tori

PS: I’m usually all, I don’t care what people think! But in this case I actually do. Thoughts on creating something lengthy? Am I missing some important mark?

Loving the Cliché, Or Why Lana Del Rey Might Be a Genius

Something in me loves the cliché.

Of course, as a writer, I also hate the cliché. I avoid it like the plague (cliché), run screaming from it (cliché), and am constantly attempting to drive a stake through its heart and rub it with garlic before topping with brushcetta (certified toridotgov mixed metaphor).

Point being: I have always had a tempestuous relationship with the cliché, which I’m sure makes me really unique. Lemme define “cliché” real quick: I mean anything that has that unmistakable aura of heard-before. I don’t just mean idioms (raining cats and dogs) or situational cliché (boy and girl are snarky arch-rivals oh wait they’re in love), but also sheer melodrama (masked intruder knifes the pretty blonde girl first) and predictability (the mysterious woman is…wait for it!…Chuck Bass’ mother!). I dread all of it. I want originality, creativity, freshness, unpredictability, blah, blah, blah, if you’re one of my undergraduate students I hope you’re listening.

In college, I wrote a story that purposefully used every ghost story cliché imaginable, and in doing so I thought I was being super radical and subversive (four years later, Cabin in the Woods comes out. I AM SO AHEAD OF MY TIME). But upon reading the story, my professor said something that has always stuck with me. He said: “But–they’re still clichés.”

Therein lies the horror of the cliché–in its inescapability. If you try to enter into a dialogue with it, it will always win, by its sheer force of cliché-ness. It Is The Cliché. It has been around for decades before you were born and it will survive long after you are dead. Ultimately, trying to reimagine the cliché is a little bit boring (Cabin in the Woods didn’t really have a satisfying payoff, am I right?). I truly love anything meta but I have to admit that meta/4th-wall-destruction/general subversion gets old really quickly, because there’s only so much you can do before running into the formidable, battle-scarred bulk of the cliché.

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But here’s where Lana Del Rey comes in. I have a soft spot for this melancholy crooner, despite the fact that all the musicians I know hate her. And for good reason, maybe: Lana Del Rey’s most popular songs are quite literally a string of clichés. There’s barely an original line to be found in Del Rey’s oeuvre. For example, here’s the chorus of Born to Die:

don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry (cliché-ish)
sometimes life is not enough (cliché!)
and the road gets tough (cliché!)
I don’t know why
keep making me laugh (cliché!)
let’s go get high
the road is long (cliché!)
we carry on (cliché!)
try to have fun in the meantime (cliché!)

come and take a walk on the wild side (cliché!)
come and kiss me hard in the pouring rain (cliché–THE NOTEBOOK)
you like your girls insane (cliché–MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL)
choose your last words (cliché!)
this is the last time
cause you and I, we were born to die (cliché!)

Video Games is similar, sauntering shamelessly down the idiomatic indie-romance gamut with everything from “his favorite sundress” to “take that body downtown” to “seeing stars” to “I heard that you like the bad girls.” Not convinced yet? Blue Jeans features slogan-y superstars like “fresh to death,” “you fit me better than my favorite sweater,” “ride or die,” and “dancing all night,” culminating in a chorus that is literally a Hallmark card: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years./Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine/Baby, can you see through the tears?” BAM BAM BAM BAM. Happy Valentine’s Day month, feel free to re-purpose as necessary.

HOWEVER: I love Lana Del Rey. I think her songs are these beautiful little cultural fabrications. There’s something about the incredibly languid way she murmurs each cliché that makes it okay. She’s got this attitude of so what? I’m using these lines because they’re here. Her songs are weirdly heartwrenching and unmistakably romantic because that’s what love is! Love is till the end of time, wait a million years. Love is not I discovered the God particle for you. And the whole point of Lana’s aesthetic is its sleepy, easy relatability, right? She’s the Youtube miracle of our generation, her music videos take place in this melodramatic hipster dream world, we get her, she gets us, she is not afraid of the cliché. In fact, she embraces it. And isn’t that what makes it okay? The self-awareness? Knowing that what she’s doing is simply stitching together idioms and video clips and handing them to us along with a crown of flowers, just because?

So what I love about the cliché is this: it’s part of us. I mean, what are we but a collection of clichés? These are our bones. Sure, it’s really exciting to open a book of poetry and read that the moon is a great white shark or whatever, but that’s not what “moon” is to me. To me–your average East Coast baby who migrated West over the course of her childhood, mid-twenties, daughter of the new millennium, likes neon, worries about the future–moon is man in the moon, moon is made of cheese, moon is Many Moons and Goodnight Moon, moon is the Dreamworks logo, moon is werewolf, moon is eye and silver coin and little sun. Moon is a beautiful cliché, familiar and strange all at once, but what matters is that it’s lovely and that I know it.

And THAT is why Lana Del Rey might be a genius. Maybe she’s not the voice of a generation–but she’s a mirror. (I mean, the video for Blue Jeans alone has everything from Coca-Cola to Tupac…and I’m pretty sure she’s wearing that American Apparel rose sweater that we all wanted at some point.)

Rihanna’s Instagram Feed: Reality Check or Pinspiration?

I spent a productive half hour tonight drinking red wine and browsing Rihanna’s Instagram feed. (If you’re over 40, I simply don’t have time to explain all those words to you.) As I scrolled through photos of freakishly fabulous underthings, Chris Brown’s naked upper half, and hashtags like #dopedealer, I couldn’t help but wonder…(c) Carrie Bradshaw…

I kind of want Rihanna’s life. She and I are nothing like each other, except for our love of flashy things. (She just bought matching TEN GADJILLION DOLLAR Rolexes with Chris Brown, I have a massive peace sign necklace that I bartered for–yes, bartered–and snagged for a cool $3 on a beach in Tijuana.) We also both love catchy songs. And weed. Just kidding! I hate weed, it makes me feel like I have an eyelash stuck to my eyeball. But my optomological paranoias are another blog post entirely. What was I saying? I hate weed, I love heroin…oh yes. Rihanna’s life.

Like, in the music video for Freakin’ Weekend or whatever that song is called, she looks so happy! And then she sings, “Life’s too short to be sitting ’round miserable.” And this question opens up in me a deep, jagged existential chasm, which I think we can safely presume is the intention of all Rihanna’s lyrics. I think, “Am I sitting ’round miserable?” And then I think of all the things I wish I was doing instead of watching Rihanna’s music video:

1. Eating fries at Hopleaf
2. Reminiscing about that time we hung out with the Biblical-looking British guy at Hopleaf and I felt bad because he got a weird tiny thick beer

…and so on. You get the point, my life is full of creepers and French fries.

But then I think to myself, Rihanna is a human being, and as such, she experiences depressive depths and manic highs just like the rest of us. So what if her Instagram feed doesn’t reflect that? She’s a celebrity and it’s all about image. And then I think: what’s my image? I’m not sure, but I sure as hell hope it’s this:

taser

(This man, Daniel Wood, is everything I want to be in life: memorable stare, slightly off-putting hair, BURST INTO FLAMES WHEN TASERED BY THE POLICE.)

One thing I appreciate about Rihanna and all Top Forty music in general (including my bff Britney “omg ur so medicated these days” Spears) is that it’s not high art. I think I might legitimately hate high art. I tried to read some New Yorker-type short stories over break and I was like WHY AM I LOOKING AT THIS AUTHOR’S WELL-PLUCKED NAVEL? This doesn’t move the people! And if it doesn’t move the people, can it approach truth? And if it doesn’t approach truth, is it high art? RIHANNA IS JACKSON POLLOCK TAYLOR SWIFT IS HEMINGWAY.