Description

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.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Bringer of War

Like this

Our ancestors had a different idea of war. Much like their conception of disease, War was something that happened, a natural force, like tides or the phases of the moon, that came along in its due season and ravaged the earth.

And like love, or luck, or the harvest, or wisdom, or really anything that our forebears found irresistible, inexplicable, or overwhelming, War was personified as a God, then worshiped and propitiated (to varying degrees of perceived success) with sacrifice.

Now, I'm no polytheist, and really, I don't believe in God, per se. But I don't not believe in God, either. I'll argue with fundamentalist atheists and throw down with hardcore religionists alike. I have had a series of experiences which have multiple explanations, and I recognize and practice the efficacy of belief in order to get what I want. I don't believe like a fanatic (those days are long gone), nor like the Catholic bored in church at Christmas who believes without it having an impact on their lives or behavior.

All that is to say that I believe that there are psychological states that can only be accessed through ritual and the self-hypnosis of belief, and that these states are occasionally useful in making my life more interesting, more fun, and just plain better. The Gods of old were the way our ancestors did that.

War was one of the biggies. Mars, with his red armor and his bloody sword, figures large in the pantheon, and everyone gave him his due, mostly because the world was perpetually at war. They saw, in Mars, both the destructive aspect of war that we all recognize, the raping and pillaging and razing of the land, and the creative. War was seen as a breaker of stagnancy. Cultures were smashed together like particles in an accelerator, and new things came from their violent marriage. Gene pools were poured into one another with interesting and surprising results. The weak were culled, leaving strong people to rebuild.

This may sound a bit tastelessly rah-rah for some, and anyone's distaste is understandable. As I mentioned at first, we see war today as something primarily negative, and also under our control, like disease. The Four Horsemen (excepting Death, whom we still cannot shove aside, though we might like to) are no longer inevitable tax collectors of the cost of doing business on Planet Earth. War, Famine, Disease, are all seen as eradicable, and entirely under our control.

But are they?

Mars still exists, inside us. There is something inside us that loves a fight, that wants to kill, that demands dominance. There is a chauvinist inside us, a warrior, bloody and exhilarated, that loves the smell of meat and the burning. We are, all of us, capable of enacting the horrors we read about in textbooks and see on television.

So when we speak of war, what are we talking about? If these things exist within us, then how can we hope to eradicate them? We have met the enemy, and he is us.

We can't eradicate war, because we are war. The part of us that is soft and loves comfort and camaraderie is at war with the part of us that loves a good scrap. There's blood lust in us. What do we do?

We learn to be kinder. We can learn to treat others with respect and deference. We can learn love. But until we learn, underneath our civilized exteriors, that we have the capacity for destruction, for heinous acts against our fellow humans, we cannot hope to end war. Because we will see war as something outside ourselves, something that must be eradicated out in the world, and we will go to war with war.

See how that works?


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Django Unchained: A Follow-up Post

Update 1/25/13: Find the original post here

Spike Lee also says that Django Unchained is "disrespectful" to his ancestors, with the implication that any white man trying to communicate something artistically about the black experience is a fool (not to mention probably a racist), and automatically disqualified from any serious consideration by right thinking people.

The idea that no person of a different race, gender, creed, etc. etc. etc. has any place writing about the experiences of a different race, gender, etc. etc. etc. is abhorrent. I'm pretty sure I don't even have to say this, and I feel like most people who might conceivably read this (a vanishingly small number, to be sure) are on board with this, but I'm gonna say it, just in case.

A given author/artist may have the paucity of imagination and empathy that makes their attempt to portray the experience of the "other" (whomever that might be for them) lie there like a corpse on the page, but that is their failure, and not necessarily a failure to be imputed to all authors of a given race etc. etc. etc. Jesus. Look at the way I have to torture these sentences to even talk about this shit. That should give you an idea of how twisted the logic behind it is. 

Regardless, if Michael Chabon wants to write from the point of view of a black person, if Quentin Tarantino wants to have a black, or Jewish, or female, or Basque, or Muslim, or whatever-the-fuck main character, and they can pull it off, then more power to them. God knows, I don't have the stones for it, but I'm no Michael Chabon, so there's that.

Update: Please note that, in many cases, these failures of imagination and empathy are functions of systemic, and often unacknowledged, racism. This does not absolve artists of the obligation to attempt to confront and root out these unacknowledged biases and write as honestly, creatively, thoughtfully, and above all, engagingly about any facets of human experience with which they choose to wrestle. The question as to whether they have done so successfully is entirely other to whether or not they should do so at all.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Django Unchained and the Uses of Catharsis

In Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up, there weren't a whole lot of black people. Not none, certainly, a handful in my high school graduating class, for example, but not a huge number (less than five percent of the total population, actually). But even so, everybody learned the word you were never to use when referring to blacks, and of course my parents never used that kind of language around me.

There are other words that one could use besides "nigger" to refer to black people in a derogatory sense. I'm not going to bother listing them here when a quick perusal of a YouTube comments thread will give you plenty of choices. However, I never really knew those other words until college, where I learned a whole bunch of them from one movie. 

Doing the right thing? Sure. Why not.

Which is why I was surprised to hear that, sight unseen, Spike Lee had decided to declare against Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Surely an artist who understood the power of language would want to see how it was used before condemning a movie. Not doing so would make Spike Lee the equivalent of the right wing demagogues who picketed the gallery displaying Serrano's Piss Christ. They wouldn't see it either, as, to them, it was blasphemy. 

Leaving aside the questions of mental/spiritual/political purity that Spike's objections might raise, let's talk about why someone might use the word "nigger" in a movie like Django Unchained.  

Is it historically accurate? Many people argue that "nigger" was used to refer to black people during the period during which Django takes place, and is, therefore, perfectly acceptable. But, many others might counter, there are plenty of other words that were current during the period. Why not use those, mix it up a little?

This counter argument brings to the fore the reason why Quentin might have chosen to use the word "nigger" over others. It is not, surely, a paucity of imagination or vocabulary. The reason why Tarantino uses that word is because this is not a period piece. 

Django is a Quentin Tarantino movie, bearing more similarities to, say, Inglorious Basterds than to, I don't know, Lincoln. This is a fantasy movie, specifically a revenge fantasy movie, and its primary goal is catharsis.

At the risk of pedantry, catharsis can be defined as, "The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions." Like Inglorious Basterds, Django takes a horrible story (the Holocaust for Inglorious and the history of people owning other (black) people in the United States in Django) and re-imagines the narrative. This re-imagining provides, not a happy ending, per se, but a cathartic reversal: the wrongs are, if not righted, at least avenged. We identify with the victims and then, with them, take the power back. Hitler is finally given the ass-kicking he so richly deserves; the slave kills, not only the master, but the hateful ones who colluded with the master. These things never happened in the "real" world, at least not in such a satisfying fashion, but through an act of magic (for what else is story telling?) Tarantino allows us to go back and have our revenge.

Many people objected to the humor in Django, as well as the language. How could slavery be presented in a comic context? While certainly not all of Django is humorous (and much of it is deliberately horrifying), parts of it are quite funny. Why?

Humor is, especially in Tarantino's world, another mode of catharsis. Where Mel Brooks famously parodied Hitler to rob him of his power, and used the word "nigger" in Blazing Saddles to point up his parody of racists, Tarantino uses humor as mini-catharsis, to relieve the tension (slightly) as he builds up towards a bigger payoff. Where for Brooks, humor was the point and the weapon, for Tarantino, humor is a dramatic tool, with an eye toward the larger catharsis.

And this brings us back to our original question. Why say "nigger?" Like the stories these movies retell, the word "nigger" is more than just itself. It is an uber-narrative, containing an entire history of injustice and repression in a very tight package. It is the one of the few words that still bear a bit of that old black magic (if you'll forgive the pun), that power to wound. Those other words he could have used instead might have been more period-accurate, but period-accuracy is not what Django is about (as the modern soundtrack should clue us in). The point here, as I said earlier, is catharsis. 

Using the word itself is cathartic, in its own way. No other word would do. It's the one word you can't say, and by saying "nigger" upwards of one hundred times, Tarantino goes for that hot, transgressive button right in the amygdala. He simultaneously amps up our adrenaline, getting us, the audience, primed for the explosive payoff, and robs the word of its power over us. That is also the point of the violence, and of the relieving humor. He is working us up so that, when the bad guys get what they so richly fucking deserve, we stand and cheer. He creates that space where we can deal with the feelings of unfairness, and our own conflicted attitudes towards race, in a manner where we participate vicariously in the righting of a wrong.

Tarantino is not just a white guy who likes to say transgressive things (though, let's be honest, he is that too). He's an artist who is using the tools at his disposal in an artful way to potentiate and deliver a specific emotional payoff. People who object to this use, while they have a right to their emotions and perceptions, are missing a big part of what he's doing and why. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Menu is Not the Meal

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. The usual hipster suspects, of course, like This American Life, but also some ones you might not expect. I'm a big fan of the Joe Rogan podcast, because he's into MMA, which I have discovered I really dig. Aside from his emphasis on all things punchy and kicky, he is also a perpetrator and aficionado of high weirdness. He recently had Dennis Mckenna on his show to talk about the Mayan apocalypse and all that nonsense (or "fuckery" as he likes to say). Dennis is brother to the more infamous Terrence Mckenna, who was rather instrumental in the popularization of psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms and DMT in the 90's. If you went to a rave circa 1993, you heard his voice, booming at you over the speakers, explaining (and possibly inducing an experience of) the fractal nature of the universe.

the sun is also a star, as it turns out

Now, the brothers Mckenna are/were a delightful bunch (Terrence passed on to the Great Glowstick in the sky in 2000, alas). They had an interesting theory, which ended up popularizing the Mayan nonsense, in that they believed that the end of the Mayan calendar corresponded with a calendar they had discovered in the I Ching. This, bolstered with some prophesies they overheard/created while under the influence of catastrophic amounts of magic mushrooms... well, you get the idea. Long story short, they had some trippy experiences in a Mexican jungle back in the seventies, and spent the next several years trying to justify, corroborate, and generally make sense of what happened. Terrence, in an effort to explain to himself what happened to his brain, came up with a lot of weird math that he believed tied all these disparate elements together.

This fascinated Joe Rogan. On an earlier podcast, he'd discussed his fascination with the Fibonacci Sequence, which is set of numbers which outlines proportions that seem to govern much of what we consider healthy and beautiful in nature - the ways that leaves grow, the proportions of beautiful faces, the curve of a nautilus shell. He actually said something at this point, however, that struck me, and stuck in my craw, as it were. He said something to the effect that he was amazed that somewhere, there was a mathematical formula that ruled these things. The implication was that the math made the proportions happen, that somehow, these formulas were operating and creating these organizations of matter.

This may be a bit of science heresy, but I really don't believe that idea.

I think what we're dealing with here is a type of confusion very familiar to anyone who has worked with the more popularized forms of Buddhism expounded by Alan Watts. Watts has a way of compressing very complicated ideas into easy to remember slogans, and this has always been one of my favorites. In one of his most famous phrases he said, "The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal." He was talking about the confusion between our ideas of the things themselves; between the words we use for things, and the things themselves. Humans have a tendency towards this kind of category confusion. It's magic thinking, believing an equivalency exists between the words we say, the maps we create, and the world around us. There is an equivalency of a kind, and, in magick, it's a very useful belief system that can produce occasionally surprising and instructive results. For the most part, however, it's a one way street.

How does this relate to the Fibonacci Sequence? Well, the numbers describe a relationship in matter, they may even predict certain behaviors. But never, in no way, can a formula be said to be real.  Matter is the primary thing, and our experience thereof, and the numbers are a descriptive tool: useful, but having no existence in and of themselves.

When we confuse these categories, we get weirdness like people wondering if the world is going to end based on calendars and math. We also get weirdness like people believing that the formulas that we use to describe the universe (great though they are) are more real than the stuff they are meant to describe.

The takeaway (also known as tl/dr): the world is real. Don't confuse formulas (or any other prophesies) for reality. I'll talk about why I think so in subsequent posts. Have a great week!

update: some other thoughts on this subject (admittedly involving morphogenic fields and other fuckery that I'm not so sure about, can be found in an interview with Rupert Sheldrake on the very fine Disinfo podcast.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Resolutions and the Meaning Machine

Happy Freaking Arbitrary New Year

A friend of mine, during the usual start-of-year conversation, says "I made a resolution years ago not to make any more resolutions."

I laugh. It's an old joke, but I get it. At a certain point, you get tired of the whole self-improvement business, I'm sure. I myself have all kinds of resolutions, but that's my thing, and other people are free to do whatever they want.

Then she goes on. "I mean, why should January First be any different than any other day. It's just a day, right? Why should I pick that date, as opposed to any other?"

A switch trips in my brain. "Because your brain is a meaning machine, and you're actually missing a huge opportunity. Because there's no difference at all, unless you think there is."

January First is an arbitrary date to ring in the New Year, in the sense that there are dozens of factors that went into making it the first day of our Western Calendar (see here if you want to read about them). Some of the reasons are political, some religious, some both. Almost none of them are directly relevant to us now, except insofar as they make for us these milestones by which we might measure our lives. 

Christmas, Easter, one's birthday: these are days, just like any others. If we choose, however, we can imbue them with meaning. There is an argument to make, in fact, that that's the only thing that a brain is good for, that is, creating meaning.

The world is full of events - crowded with them, really (he said, understating drastically). Every moment of every day our senses perceive these events: light hitting objects, objects moving through space, the rush and pump of blood and lymph beneath your skin, gravity and physics working their inexorable will on everything. And every moment your brain, with whatever tools it has at its disposal, whatever experiences it's stored up in that imperfect attic of memory, your brain pieces those perceptions together into a story, a narrative that help give you a way forward, a method of response. Most of those narratives, in answer to olden days when everything was out to kill you, are pretty conservative in nature, and mostly geared toward keeping you alive.

Most people, bless them, do okay with that. Their stories get them through the day, and so they don't change much. They tally up their minor wins and losses and usually call it about even. They go through their lives, assuming that the story that they're in is the only story that they can be in. 

Some of them don't even know that they're in a story.

But you and I, dear reader, we know. The story that we are in, is, after all, a story that we are making up as we go and telling to ourselves. And if we're writing it, we can change it if we don't like it.

But how?

We tell a new story. "On January First, Twenty-thirteen, the first day of a new year full of promise and magic, I decided to change my life." We can choose to believe that the first day of a year has a special significance, and by doing so, it does. Not only that, but you've got the rituals of an entire civilization (the ball drop, champagne, the kiss at midnight, Dick Clark's reanimated corpse) reinforcing your story. That is powerful stuff!

Wait, you might say, there's nothing special about the first day of a new year. Of course not. There's no meaning to the first day of a new year. There's no meaning to anything, come down to it. A rose, a stone, a dog, a star, the touch of your lover, the breeze blowing off the sea at sunset on a warm summer's day - meaningless. They have literally no meaning inherent to them whatsoever. 

That's YOUR job. You give meaning. You create the story. If the world has no meaning to you, then you kill the world, and that's your choice. You can do that if you want. Let me know how that works out for you.

But, if you want, you can choose to see the signs, the circumstances, the good fortune that carries you forward toward the life that you want to live. You can use the rituals of your society to "boost the signal," as it were. You can make up your own rituals, if that's more to your taste. Whatever you want. And from that, you can change your life, the way you see the world and yourself, to be happier and more alive.

As a very wise man once said, "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves." If you believe that your life is getting better, and that life has significance, you will begin looking for and finding evidence of your beliefs. It's called confirmation bias, and, if used correctly and mindfully, it can be a powerful tool. 

(Used incorrectly, of course, it can nuke your life from orbit. It's that powerful. Caveat emptor.)

So think about it. What kind of life are you living? Are you happy with what you've created? Do you want better? What kind of story are you telling yourself? 

Image from: http://christmasstockimages.com/free/new_year/slides/2012_sparklers.htm used under Creative Commons. Thanks.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

This is My Jam: Katy Perry - Peacock

As part of my New Year's resolutions (about which I will write more here later), I've resolved to write here at least once a week. That should keep things interesting. I will have a schedule, which I am formulating more clearly right now, but one of the things I will be writing about is the song I post at thisismyjam.com.

For those not in the know, This Is My Jam allows you to post a song to Facebook, Twitter, etc., announcing, like the girl in the convertible Jetta with the top down, that this song, above all others, is "my jam!" A lot of the fun in these sites is the constraint, the 140 characters to which you must limit your discussion of said song. It keeps the commentary tight, and encourages aphorism and wit.

Those who know me, know I prefer the long form, however, and since I'mma let me be me this year, I'm gonna talk at length. About Katy Perry. Because I can.

"Peacock" seems, at first, to be a female empowerment anthem, but really it ends up being entirely heteronormative, in the sense that it centers entirely on penis. Of course, this is done coyly, in that the said appendage is only referenced indirectly (if repeating "I want to see your peacock-cock-cock, your peacock," over and over could be said to be "indirect").

It seems to be at least partially a response to the "Pick Up Artist" community that sprang up a few years ago. As Pick Up Artists, normally unsuccessful men tried to use special manipulative techniques to improve their chances of getting laid. Not only is "mystery" (or "Mister E" a sort-of celebrity in Pick Up Artist circles) referenced, but "peacocking" is a well-known technique in the PUA community. It's pretty gross and sexist, and dubiously successful. Google "Pick Up Artist" if you want to know more, but I must warn you, your faith in humanity may be compromised.

Beyond that, though, there is something incredibly compelling about this song. The idea of Katy Perry, all wide-eyed faux innocence and body built for sin, singing a song about dick, is really hot to me. It's dirty. I am, for better or worse, a target audience for this song.

There's a taunting quality to it, too, a turning of the tables on the "show us your tits" douchebag that's fun to watch. This is where she's being supposedly empowering. And then she subverts her own subversion with the middle bridge where she finally gets to see said peacock, and rhapsodizes unreservedly about her love of it. The fantasy becomes, not one of female empowerment, but of worship by the female of the male. The way she does her fantasy fulfillment is interesting here, however.

Like another song in Katy's ouvre, "I Kissed a Girl," there's a feigned subversion of the heteronormative relationship that actually serves to reinforce the dominant paradigm. She's doing something that is supposedly "out there", but really it builds up the male ego. In "Peacock" she's teasing and taunting, only to swoon in amazement and joy when finally "shown the goods." In "I Kissed a Girl" she goes outside her "normal" sexual parameters, but only to reinforce what men find attractive, and she even looks to her "boyfriend" for approval.

Katy Perry traffics in fantasy fulfillment. The fact that I dig the fantasy notwithstanding, she is fascinating for what she reflects back to us of our sexual politics.