Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Patrick Stolley
Yesterday, within an odd window of down time post-holidays and pre-everything else, I opened Miranda July's book, "It Chooses You," and read it straight through. It's something that never happens and even this circumstance is impossible to understand, but it most certainly did happen. The book focuses on July's difficulties in finishing the screenplay for her latest film, "The Future," and then finally getting it financed into reality. She'd hit some rough patches with her writing and in trying to kick-start her juices, began calling people up on the phone who had been placing classified ads in the free Los Angeles weekly, the PennySaver. She'd see an ad placed by someone wanting to get rid of an old hair dryer for $5 or someone advertising the fronts of old Christmas cards for a $1 each and she'd ask if she could pay them $50 to interview them about their lives, their fears, their happiest days, what they did with their time. Most of the people she called told her they weren't interested, but the ones who said yes to the idea proved to be fascinating subjects, sharers. They raised bullfrog tadpoles or they spent their days at the public library printing photographs of people they'd like to have in their imaginary families. Most of the interviews were sad as we looked in on people dealing with their own delusions and shortcomings their own way, or at least that's how it usually seemed. Let's put it this way - you wouldn't willingly trade places with any of them - but somehow they didn't seem all that unhappy. They were less unhappy than they should have been. July found in these assignments that she gave herself, insight into her theory of time being a bunch of loose change after a certain age - something you couldn't trade in for anything greater or worth more, and really nothing you could do all that much with on its own. She debunked the thought and wound up believing that it was all loose change, but that her definition of it was way off. All time was meant for were the little episodes.
It would be easy to see Casey Dienel, the lead singer of the Portland-based group White Hinterland going on such a sojourn, sheepishly inquiring about conducting an interview about a stranger's life, then driving all over her city, stopping in neighborhoods she'd never been to in her life, with a jar of homemade sauerkraut as an offering, to be inspired or set straight for a few hours. You could understand how the entire process of doing what July did would be uplifting and gratifying, both ways. The person doing most of the talking could feel validation for their sometimes strange and mediocre existences - though even the blandest people here had stories that dwarfed any kind of fiction a person could ever create - and the person conducting the interview could feel as if he or she were snaring just a little better glimpse at humanity. As Dienel has advanced as a musician and songwriter over the years, she's seemed to transition even more into that pricker bush of her mind and in thinking of others that always winds up messy, but it's just always so tempting to try to get through, less scratched than the time before. It's not an option to just go the long way around. She's found that she prefers going the long way through, which involves advancing and retreating in equal measures. Within the song, "Icarus," from her latest record, "Kairos," she sings, "Why must I always see the end at the beginning?" and it feels like the question that she might be asking often, trying to figure out through the workings of these mysterious little numbers.