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Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Monday, July 8, 2013

Update, and Notes on "The Shuttle Sleeps Alone Tonight"

Hello! How have YOU been. Good, good. Glad to hear it. I hope that little thing with the whatnot cleared up. The salve helped? I thought it might.

Me? Oh, you know, this and that. Mostly this. Probably less that than I reasonably should.

Well, in case you remain unswallowed by the hydra of social media, I should probably mention my story "The Shuttle Sleeps Alone Tonight" published by the wonderful, friendly, and understanding folks at Devilfish Review.

It's a little elegy to the space program, written when they were moving the Space Shuttle Enterprise onto the Intrepid, and it revolves around something I heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson say to the effect that, should we attempt to return to the moon in this day and age, we'd have to reinvent much of the technology from the Apollo program, because many of the people that got us to the lunar surface in the first place are now old and/or dead, and we kept inadequate records of their creations. The confluence of these two ideas (a de-prioritizing of sending men into space, coupled with the evaporation of knowledge), together with the decommissioning of the ship that was supposed to make travel into space a daily occurrence, created a feeling close to what I imagine is meant when the Japanese speak of mono no aware AKA the "Pathos of Things." There's a sense in everyday objects (and, for a while, the Space Shuttle was an everyday object for me, as familiar and as homey as a toaster) of the passing of time, and the transience of all things. I wanted to capture that sense of loss, to talk about the hopes and dreams of humanity that still awaken in us when we look into the sky at night. To hopefully revive, by showing where we've fallen short, the vision of the future that once was, that might still be again.

Writer, Write Something Good

At the beginning of the year, I made some promises to myself. One of those was that I'd post more here.

I named this blog as I did because, at the time I created it, I was studying Zen Buddhism, and I thought the name sounded cool. It reminded me of what I was trying to do: sit quietly, so that when I did talk, my words might be worth more.

I still meditate (in a different style, and that might be a good topic for a post at a later date) but obviously, that's not what Zen is about. I mean, Buddhism (except for offshoots like Soka Gakkai) really doesn't emphasize the whole materialistic thing.

Where am I going with all this?

I'm not doing a lot these days. I don't have a lot of projects. The craziness of my mid-30's has given way to a much more sedentary early 40's. I stay home a lot. I watch TV, I write smaller projects, I publish the occasional story. I'm happily married (as opposed to wandering through the world with a hole in my chest where my heart was supposed to be, which is what I did for a number of years).

Why am I telling you this.

What I'm trying to say is that, despite my seemingly having toned this shit down, there burns within me, still, this dream that I was put on this earth to do something extraordinary. Everyone has that, as a kid. You know, you draw band names on your notebooks, read books, watch movies and think, "Man, I want to be that. I want to be famous."

I'm lucky now, in that I don't want to be famous. I want to communicate with a lot of people, but these days, you don't have to really be famous to do that.

I'm rambling, I know. I feel like, at one point, I used to be able to pull together a coherent point, and then I did a lot of drugs and watched too much TV and got just enough older, and now maybe it's too late.

Funny story: I've thought it was too late since I was 20. I was bummed since I thought that I wouldn't be a prodigy. I wrote stories, won contests, got published. realized I liked it, got distracted by rock and roll, by laziness.

It's just, somewhere within me burns this dream that I can write something that will touch someone, that will come through the screen, through the page, the way that I've been touched. That I will find my way through the incoherent fucking fog that is my brain most of the time, and write something that somebody will pay me for, something worth something to somebody.

So here it is. I've been talking around it, and not really saying it, because maybe if I left it sort of open ended? Then maybe nobody could really hold me accountable when it all crashed and burned. My friends know that this is more than just a hobby. It's something I've been doing everyday, for a few years now. But I need to reiterate it, just to make sure that everybody who knows me knows what I'm about here:

I'm a writer. I want to write. I love writing, and I want to do something amazing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In praise of difficult books

A book is an instrument of possession, in the old-school, demonic sense.

Reading a book is an act of self-derangement.

When you read, the voice in your head that you live with every day, ostensibly your own, is displaced, for a time, in favor of the voice of another. This voice can be friendly, or hostile; cold and dictatorial, or warm and humanist. Just as some people are incompatible and fill each other with antipathy, and should not be seated next to one another at a party, so some writers should be avoided as bad company. This is not a reflection on them, or, for that matter, on yourself, as some people simply don't get along, and may be perfectly fine human beings otherwise. In the same way, there may be authors that you like to have in your head, who, in the heads of others, fill them with dread and despair.

The things that you like about your favorite author may be the things that cause others to throw the book across the room in disgust. There is, as they say, no accounting for taste.

Having said that, even if their values completely contradict your own, it can be useful, for a time, to deliberately take on the mask of another's incompatible personality, to stretch the boundaries of what you consider to be yourself. This exercise, though uncomfortable, can only be usefully accomplished by reading books you don't necessarily "like." Or "understand." 

This intentional mental weight-lifting could be likened to taking a hit of salvia, or DMT. It isn't necessarily "fun" per se, but it can be instructive, providing we approach it with an open and flexible mind. 

The feelings of repulsion you experience when reading a so-called difficult book may have nothing to do with the content. You are taking into you a small piece of another person's mental DNA. His or her voice, way of seeing the world, and the inhabitants of his or her mind, regardless of what actually "happens" (in, say, a work of fiction), may arouse the immune system of your mind (that is, of your ego) which is designed to keep you in a state of equilibrium. Something about the picture this author paints of the world disturbs that equilibrium, challenges your assumptions. 

Notice this. As uncomfortable as you might feel, you will probably not die.

Deep content may be dredged up, and where there is defensiveness, there is often hurt, or fear, or sadness. Again, notice this. You might not have even been aware that you felt this way, since the immune system has kept these issues well protected and hidden. If you are able to trace back the defenses into the darkness, you may find out very important information about yourself, and about what you assume the world to be.

Afterwards, you may need a little something to soothe your inflamed mind. I've always been fond of Neil Gaiman, or Mark Helprin, but your salve might be quite different. Regardless, be gentle with yourself. You've worked hard. Just as you wouldn't work out everyday, you wouldn't read difficult books everyday. Be kind. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Something My Mother Gave Me


I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom without bothering to turn the lights on since I read somewhere that excess light in the middle of a sleep cycle disrupts circadian rhythms. I sit on the toilet to pee in the total darkness, not trusting my blind aim to keep me from making a mess, even though a childish part of me thinks only girls sit down to pee.

After finishing, I pad barefooted to the front room where the cat is sleeping on the couch, and sit with her, my fingers buried in her thick fur, there in the glow of the street lamps that shine through the windows and keep the apartment from every being completely dark.

I remember my mother, how she would rub my back and tell me not to be afraid of the darkness, how she taught me it wasn't scary at all, that it was the deepest, softest velvet blanket, descending over me to give me peaceful, sweet sleep, that the darkness was my friend.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Third Eye Blinder


I feel like I'm being overly obvious. Surely I'm not the only one who has thought of this:


"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

"But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.


Yet here we are again, on Ash Wednesday, with a bunch of pious folk wandering about with smudged foreheads.

Oh, I've got mine, too. Don't worry. I haven't been going to church much lately, and it seems that my fanatical side has taken a long sabbatical (see what I did there?), so I mostly did it because I like going to church with my wife. There's something very comforting in engaging in rituals like that with her.

The symbolism of the ritual particularly struck me today, though. The ashes are applied right over the third-eye chakra (or Ajna), between the eyes, with the ritual words, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." The usual explanation is that we remember our sinfulness and our need for the salvation of Christ, but it struck me that there might be a different explanation.

The third eye (not an actual "eye," btw, in case anybody's feeling particularly bloody literal minded) symbolizes our ability to see things as they are, leaning toward the interconnectedness of all things. Through the application of the ashes, we remind ourselves of our inability to see things as they really are, because of the various ways in which we obscure our true vision, which leads to incorrect action. We then pledge, through fasting and austerities over the next forty days, to clean it, and return to our original state of clarity and love.

I mentioned this to Katie with my usual pedantry, saying how the church probably doesn't even know the symbolism of their own rituals, and she, with characteristic ease, took me down a peg. "Sure they know," she said. "They might have forgotten, but you know that somebody thought of this stuff at some point." Which is most likely true.

I'm probably talking like this more lately because I recently started back up on my meditation practice, which mostly involves continuing to do yoga everyday and adding in some visualization exercises from The Golden Dawn handbook. It's been really helpful in continuing the upward swing I've been experiencing in the last year or so. I'm learning to manage my moods, and my brain seems to be working better. Cleaner.

With the advanced techniques out there (chaos magick and the like) I'm basically hacking my brain with the ritual equivalent of a Commodore 64. Frankly, I don't want anything higher octane right now, as I might end up with a head full of shoggoths. There are rituals and techniques that, supposedly, can send you right up the lightning path to godhead, but I'm content to keep working the slow and steady route. I just keep plugging everyday, little by little chipping away at the barnacle of self.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"What I meant to say was..." - Why I got into a twitter war with a fictional character.

So I got into this fight with Will McAvoy on Twitter. No, not Jeff Daniels. That would be too easy.

For those of you not in the know, a writer I'm quite fond of, Mr. Aaron Sorkin, wrote this show called The Newsroom. It's pretty good. There are the usual liberal tropes, which I mostly agree with, and a bunch of romantic entanglements with unnecessary misunderstandings and complications. Think Downton but in the modern day, not everybody is related, and it's set in a New York television newsroom instead of an Edwardian mansion in the English countryside. Got it?

Okay, so, as people do for TV shows they're fond of, somebody set up a Twitter feed for the main character, a man named Will McAvoy. He's portrayed on the show by Jeff Daniels. The character is neurotic, curmudgeonly, profane, morally courageous, short-tempered, and smarter than you. Typical Sorkin leading man, sort of a revenge of the ubernerd. All well and good.

And the person behind this fake Twitter feed is pretty good. He's got the curmudgeon thing down, for sure, and the moralizing high-handedness.  He's smart enough for mass consumption, and he says things that sound pretty close to what the character would say. It's good stuff. Twitter as fan fiction. I'm quite fond of the feed.

(Side note: "Fond of the Feed" should be the name of a podcast about Twitter. That one's free: use as you will)

Until one day, and it's really kind of stupid, but the other day, there was all this fuss in the papers and whatnot about the folks who make Monopoly changing out one of their playing pieces. They took the iron (one of those old-fashioned ones that's basically a heavy slab of metal with a handle) and replaced it with a cat (because it was voted on by the internet and the internet is ALL about cats).

So this person, whoever they are, behind this fictional newsman's twitter feed says, "Eh, it's not news, and the people reporting it aren't journalists."

This got up my nose for some reason. So I picked a fight.

Now, don't get me wrong. I knew, and know, that I was not picking a fight with the character "Will McAvoy". He is a fiction. He is not real. I get that. I was not arguing with him. I was arguing with a point of view, which, regardless of who holds it, is very real. This point of view says that certain things are news, that certain people have the education, right and obligation to discern and report upon those news-y things, and that anything else is "not news" and that these things are not worthy of report by serious journalists.

There's a whole series of assumptions we need to unpack from that point of view. The idea is that there is a group, let's call them "journalists," who know what the news is, and what it isn't. They report the news, you watch/read/listen to their reportage, and you go away, edified and able to make informed decisions about the world, and you vote and change the world. It's a lovely concept, and it has a lot to recommend it.

It is, however, bullshit. It's bullshit because it presumes to tell you/me/everybody what the news is, and that they know it, and that we, the unwashed masses, do not. It suggests that we, said masses, would, if given the option, gorge ourselves on nothing but Lucky Charms and Pixie Stix, and that it is up to the adults to make sure we eat our vegetables. There is some evidence that this is the case (cf. all the Entertainment Journalism shows like TMZ and whatnot).

The problem with this point of view is that it promotes a gatekeeper mentality, and that it works both ways. These people, whomever they are, tell us the news. Not only do they report, they define what news IS. They say, "Kim Kardashian is not news." Okay, fine. We're tired of hearing about her anyway.

But these same people can say, "Brown people dying half-a-world away is not news." And we say, "Oh sure, you're right. What brown people?" And that's the end of it. Out of sight, out of mind. We have defined an entire narrative out of existence.

Please note, I am not advocating that all stories are equally important to everyone. That would be stupid. Kim Kardashian is not on the same level as drone strikes in Pakistan. To me.

What I am saying is that no one gets to say what stories are important to me. I get to decide that. If I choose Kim Kardashian over drone strikes, that's on me. Or vice versa: if I choose to ignore the latest celebrity news, I am free to do so. The point is that the information must be available. No one gets to say, "This is not news. This doesn't bear reporting by anyone."

Now - and this is important - this doesn't mean that everyone must report everything. People are free to report what stories they believe to be important. If a news program has decided that they want to report only on "important" stories, that's fine. They are allowed their point of view. I am free to choose their point of view. This doesn't make other points of view less valid. A point of view could only be said to be invalid if it is factually incorrect.

Saying something is "not news" also presumes a sort of Malthusian model of attention and information delivery, i.e. that there are a finite number of broadcast hours, a finite amount of information delivery channels, and that a person watching this cannot watch that. If "this" is some thing that Journalist X has deemed to be unimportant ("Kardashian ass") it necessarily preempts "that" ("drone strikes") and leaves "that" by the wayside, ignored.

This ignores the internet entirely. On the internet, there are a functionally infinite number of ways of getting information, and as many points of view as there are people. All of them are available 24 hours a day and archived for as long as there are servers and electricity and the will to keep them in existence.

To sum up: I got irritated and said that I thought somebody saying something was "not news" was high-handed and presumptuous. Ultimately, I also think it's dangerous. The world is too big, and there's too much information for anyone to think that they have the line on what everybody else gets to talk about. It seems like a small point, but like many of the things in my life, I develop a certainty about minutiae over which I will fight a principled (read: stupid) battle to the death.

I didn't change anybody's mind, I don't think, and a couple of people called me an asshole on the Internet. That's the way it goes.

That's how I spent my Wednesday night. I did learn something, though. Nobody EVER wins a Twitter war.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Karen Carpenter: RIP February 4, 1983

Karen Carpenter, one of the great voices of pop music, died on February 4, thirty years ago. She was lovely, and strange, and too beautiful for this world.

In honor of her memory, I'm making the entirety of the very presumptuous series of essays I wrote last year about her and The Carpenters' album A Song for You available in one place for download and viewing. I wrote these with both sincere respect and a knowing wink. No one, least of all me, could possibly know everything about what she was dealing with in her life, and I wanted to tell the story that I heard (correctly or not) in those heartbreak lyrics and soaring melodies. You can read the whole thing here.

I hope you enjoy it. Please drop me a line and let me know if you have any thoughts. Thanks.