Monday, May 28, 2007

Slacker Mystics: Gen Y Visions in Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls

Downloadable mp3 file: podcast

In 2004, two television series, Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls, both of which were critically acclaimed but fairly quickly cancelled despite fervent fan bases, featured young, underachieving “slacker” females who started to receive messages from a higher power, through both human and inanimate messengers. In Joan of Arcadia, protagonist Joan Girardi, a 16-year-old C-average high school sophomore at Arcadia High School, reluctantly comes to believe that the individuals she happens to encounter in her daily life are actually God. The way they appear to her is disconcerting: God takes human form as a little girl wearing mismatched outfits, a gruff, elderly dogwalker, a high school maintenance man, to a punk high school student with piercings and safety pins in his lips, and many other quotidian personae.

For Jaye Tyler, a Brown University graduate with a degree in philosophy, who decides, to the dismay of her over-achieving family, to work as a clerk at a gift shop at Niagara Falls and to live in a down-at-the-heels trailer park, the voices do not purport to be God, but they still give her divine instructions. Jaye’s divine edicts are delivered to her by inanimate objects (all with a face) that suddenly start to bark cryptic orders at her. They range from a taxidermied trout on the wall of a Niagara Falls bar, a malformed wax lion, a chameleon puppet, plush animal souvenirs of Niagara Falls, and even the carved head at the top of a wooden totem pole outside a gas station.

At the beginning of both series, both Jaye and Joan are quintessential slackers. They resist attachment or involvement in the lives of their family and community. Further, neither Jaye nor Joan is religious nor has religious leanings, although Jaye’s brother is working on his doctorate in comparative religion and Joan’s mother is immersing herself in Catholicism. Nevertheless, somewhere within a nihilistic consumer culture in a kitschy tourist destination where Native American myths and heritage have been commercialized (Niagara Falls) or a decaying, ethically empty American city (Joan’s Arcadia), voices appear, and they ask the young women to resist the constructivist pressures of their environments, and to replace emptiness and passivity with activity.

Both Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls reflect contemporary culture’s anxieties about imparted wisdom, and they question the assumptions that are embedded in the skepticism that characterizes an existentialist legacy. Yet, Gen Y lives and operates in a world where there is enormous tension between observable, Newtonian views of reality and seemingly irrational quantum world of unpredictable possibility. The generation is comfortable with believing in processes they can neither see nor understand. In Joan of Arcadia, Joan’s younger brother, Luke, is an honor student whose interest in science and physics gravitates him toward string theory, quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which he describes in almost every episode. With a degree in philosophy, Jaye Tyler is comfortable with multiple explanations for reality, although she does worry about her sanity when the wax lion speaks to her.

Further, Gen Y and the “millennial generation” are of special concern because they seem to be two generations that embody the digital divide. While other generations have learned to navigate a world with rapid technological change, they are not “digital natives” like Gen Y and the millennial generation. Are “digital natives” truly different? If one believes in environment pressure and adaptive speciation, there is cause for concern.

Rather than relying on the latest handheld device, powerful computer, or wireless gadget, both Jaye and Joan tend to find their messages in people or “things with faces.” As a result, one might conclude that the digital natives may be skeptical of digital information (knowing that everything digital can be manipulated) while people and stuffed animals possess more authenticity.

The two series also reflect a certain view of Gen Y’s response to a context that includes both religious fundamentalism and New Age spiritual eclecticism. As platforms for re-examining determinism, free will, ethical dilemmas, and other philosophical issues through often quirky, touching Gen Y lenses, they provide a fascinating opportunity to examine how kitsch and popular culture are deployed to impose a sense of mission and purpose upon two nervous, intimacy-averse, Gen Y slacker grrlz.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Too Close to the Tornado

podcast / mp3 file:

The Medic was not there, although I could feel his presence in my bones, which heated and seemed to boil, even though the early afternoon had suddenly taken on a brisk, chill edge. Wind scoured my face with Panhandle grit. An eerie mustard glow came from underneath the clouds that plowed across the sky from the west.

The parking lot was filled with pickup trucks driven primarily by oil field workers and employees of the nation's second largest slaughterhouse and packing plant. A woman smoking cigarettes with a pink band explained how the company avoided waste. Every last scrap of meat, muscle, hide, bone, and gristle was used -- everything except the tail, she explained.

I felt my stomach heave uncomfortably. Nausea surged anew as I recalled that I was just now recovering from two beastly days of food poisoning. I never quite determined what it was that made me ill, but I suspected it was the fish chimichanga from the Sirloin Stockade buffet where I ate a late lunch at around 4 pm. By that time, the fish chimichanga had been under heat lamps for at least 6 hours.

The packing plant was ten miles away. If you parked near the parking lot, there were no smells. When the wind wafted down from the north, it was enough to make your eyes water.

The feedlot was pungent with an unidentifiable something -- fear and death - at least that is what I viscerally registered, even though it was tempting to say the thought was all too cliché.


Most nights were clear, warm and oddly silent. The short-grass prairie stretched out like dark dreams, inverted. The sound of soft breeze through grass, chirping birds, and coyotes triggered intrusive thoughts.

In the afternoons, scissortail flycatchers perched on telephone lines, eating twice their weight in destructive insects.

For the last three years, I had shadowed the flycatchers. I had perched myself on a line, engaged in a solitary frenzy of work and cross-continent migrations. Not a single animal behaviorist could possibly rationalize my actions, except to say that the quiet rhythms of work were strangely soothing to me. Before my "scissortail years," I was, at least on some level, deeply traumatized by pain, fear, and loss. My response was to fight fear with fear. I masked the fear, even as others saw me as fearless.

I was anything but fearless.

I felt the presence of the Medic in the cold chill. He was the semi-fictional persona I had constructed from a chance encounter. Now, he was a presence that animated my waking dreams and the dark, dreamless hours spent in a room where, when I looked in a mirror, I was unrecognizable to myself.

The Medic floated in on the curl of smoke from the slaughterhouse employees' cigarettes.

From the mustard sky, a wall cloud dropped down. Cloud-shreds tangled themselves in nearby power lines. In the distance, I saw the wall cloud rotate and take on conical dimensions. Before its geometry registered in the limbic system of my brain, before I could have a fight or flight reaction, I watched three funnels form. The middle one achieved a tight, thick tubular shape, and a dark, oval-shaped debris cloud flew up at the base.

The tornado had formed. The F-1 or F-2 twister was not moving toward us, but north, directly on track for the slaughterhouse, toward the grain elevators, and toward the flat, short-grass prairie and the state highways now choked with men in pickups trying to get home, trying to call home although cell circuits were busy and we were on the brink of losing electricity for the remainder of the night and a stretch of early morning.

I felt the Medic leave me and his presence race north toward the slaughterhouse, where his trembling hands would busy themselves trying to revive his gravely injured friends.

I looked down at my own hands, which had begun to tremble in sympathy. I heard the roar of the storm. I longed for the Medic's heat in my bones. The tornado had changed direction and was headed our way.

A lone scissortail still sat on a telephone wire, as though calculating the impact of the storm on one's way of life -- in the flycatcher's case, on the insect population.

Before the tornado hit, its center did not hold, and the twister unraveled like thread, or a fanciful destructive thought, slouching toward the slaughterhouse.