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

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali

Before I learned I was pale and skinny and weak and strange, before the other boys taught me my place on the playground, I believed I could be dark and strong and funny and fast. I believed I could be like Ali. I could sing sweet and sting sour and make 'em all laugh as I beat 'em down. I was five years old and every time Ali clowned Cosell, that pinched little man in a suit, every time he got in front of a crowd and told them who he was and then proceeded to prove it, I believed I could be what I wanted to be.

He was mine, too. I loved his big mouth. I loved the way he moved, faster than I could see. I loved that he made my parents angry when he talked about the world, even though I didn't understand what he meant most of the time. I loved that he fought. I, afraid of everything, loved that he feared nothing. He would get punched and stand up, fall down and stand up, get booed and stand up. They'd take his title and he'd stand up and take it back. Over and over. He believed he was a man and demanded others treat him as such. I wanted to be a man like that. Funny, fast, strong, unbowed, unafraid.

I still do.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Real Men

My sister, arbiter of all things cool, her 18, me 11, informed me that the lyrics to "Little Red Corvette" were "dirty." I was singing along in the car, probably getting most of the words wrong.

"Underneath, where you can't hear it, they're singing, 'Real men call back.' It's about gays." She was, as always, absolutely unassailable in her rightness. She declined to educate me as to what the "Trojans" were about, but seemed to believe that the line about "horses" was so obviously filthy that no explanation was needed.

Now I was intrigued. I found myself listening even more carefully with nervous excitement, straining my ears to hear the subconscious assault on my burgeoning sexuality. Once she'd said it, of course, it was obvious. I mean, just look at him! Thigh-high boots and hair piled to heaven, purple lamé and eyeliner. He was terrifying and thrilling. That high pitched voice sang a siren's song of debauchery.

The graffiti at my elementary school already read what they'd say for years afterwards: "Scott Williams is gay." The slurs could not be have been more laughably far from the truth. I wished I was gay, just so this aching longing I seemed to have almost constantly carried around in my chest for the Jennifers and Christinas of my class would go away. I loved women in a way that crippled me and left me entirely unable to speak to them. I dreamed of becoming a girl, just so I could sit comfortably with them, talk to them, listen to their secrets, brush their long, shining hair. Just like the rest of the girls.

And didn't the kids have a point? I knew I wasn't like the other boys, obviously. I sang to myself. I cried too easily. I was "sensitive." I moved around like I wished I was an elf (the gayest of all the mythical creatures), and my hips swished, just a little, when I walked, no matter how still I tried to hold them. I wanted to write stories and poetry, for God's sake! When I turned thirteen, in lieu of the sex talk, my parents straight out asked me if I were gay, presumably to avoid having me lie to them more than I did already. I may not have been gay, but I was clearly something.

I went through a lot of confusion, for years. Maybe I was gay, and just didn't know it. The girls I liked clearly caught a whiff of whatever it was that made me strange - desperation, loneliness, a little bit of fey weirdness - and steered clear. So I went looking for sex and affection wherever I could find it. It didn't help that there were plenty of older men who didn't hesitate to take advantage of a horny, confused teenager with a penchant for self-destructiveness. It took years, and a move across the country, to figure even some of my issues out. But through it all, almost without even knowing, I had somebody showing me the way.

Prince showed me you could wear eyeliner. You could swish a little, or a lot. You could be soft spoken and scream and then destroy a motherfucker with your guitar. The girls could love you. The boys could respect you. And vice versa. You could sing about purple bananas and God and sex and nobody could say shit to you if you believed in yourself. You didn't have to explain yourself to anyone.

I never heard the voices singing "Real men call back." But Prince showed me real men - real people - do whatever the hell they want. I'll miss him more than I can say.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Morning Routine

My morning routine:

  • Wake up to my phone (current alarm: "And You And I" by Yes, mostly because it starts off nice and mellow and I like to wake up gradually)...
  • ...except that really it's the cat waking me up by sitting on my head about five to ten minutes before the alarm actually goes off. She would like to be fed.
  • Kick the cat off my head. Dog tries to eat the cat as she jumps down. Scuffle ensues.
  • Calm the dog. Kiss Katie good morning before she drifts back off to sleep.
  • Feed the cat while holding in an almost crippling morning pee (work those kegels, kids!).
  • Finally pee.
  • Fumble through the dark hallway down to the front room, draw the curtains, lay down my yoga mat on the floor, and proceed to read a bunch of articles on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr. 
  • Give up on my timelines after I realize it's only been six hours since I last looked at them and everybody in America's still asleep, while my international crew are still just getting up. Set my timer for yoga (I use Insight Timer. It's got good sounding bells, the timer allows me a lot of flexibility in setting extra bells so I know when to switch positions, and it does this totally non-spiritual badge system that gives me gold stars when I use it everyday, which tickles the part of my brain that needs a "good boy" from some kind of authority to stay motivated).
  • Do yoga. I practice Sivananda style yoga and have on-and-off for the past 24 years. The cat usually obstructs me as best she can by draping herself fetchingly across the mat until my excessive movement disgusts her and she leaves to stare moodily out the window while I finish.
  • Meditate. I do a simple Zen exercise of counting my breaths which is about as complicated as I can handle. 
  • Shower, weigh myself, shave, and listen to music or a podcast.
  • Get dressed. By this time, Katie's up and watching the morning news. We don't have cable, so we're stuck with the major network news shows, all of which seem to be staffed and written by cretins (in the case of the Today Show), out-of-touch squares (in the case of CBS This Morning), or bores (Good Morning America). We've settled on the squares, for now. I could do with quiet or music, but Katie seems to need the structure of the same thing happening at the same time each morning to let her know what time it is. Periodically I yell at the TV when the squares say something particularly out-of-touch or banal.
  • Eat breakfast: yogurt, blueberries, and honey.
  • Kiss Katie goodbye, all the while lamenting the need to leave the house instead of staying home and hanging out, because work is for chumps. 
  • Head downstairs and out into the world.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Time and Sleep

A. lives in the apartment above us with her possibly older brother. "Possibly" because both brother and sister have reached that indeterminate age where time has done most all it can to you for the moment, and the ravages of the years pause or plateau, leaving the body, damaged certainly, and much the worse for wear, but still somewhat serviceable, to go on for a little while unmolested. In looking at them, it is impossible to distinguish their ages. He may be older than she, or vice versa.

We often hear them come and go, walking around their apartment, and Katie and I speculate, both on the layout of their apartment (a constant source of speculation in New York City), and on what they might be doing. Walking - yes, certainly - but why are they walking to and fro at eleven at night, or four in the morning, or even the middle of the afternoon? Why do they tread above us, causing the ceiling - our ceiling, their floor - to creak and groan in protest? Why do they pace the length of the house, and which one of them is it doing the pacing? 

What keeps them awake on their constant rounds, pursued by what unknown hauntings at all hours? Is it regret for their mutual spinster- and bachelor-hood? She seems happy enough when we greet her on the occasions we meet. Are they lonely, with only the stale bread of their long companionship to comfort them? Or are they merely walking off the tiresome wakings of the aged, when sleep slips from beneath their eyelids and leaves them bereft and abandoned in the silent darkness, and they must walk the halls and bedrooms, searching, hoping to coax sleep back into their beds before the sun rises to begin another day. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Follow Up to a Dust Up

After being harassed by a small group of kids (late-late teens) doing the usual raising-money-for-our-school-team scam, I was surprised at how potentially violent it almost got - one of the kids actually smacked me. Well, really, it was more a little slap on the back. Which is no big deal on the face of it: people get touched involuntarily all the time in this city.

I have to fight against my tendency to catastrophize incidents. It may be just how I'm wired, but my brain tends to want to connect my experience to larger trends in the world. I had a small epiphany when I realized that my (very small) dustup occurred on the same day that presidential candidate and professional clownshoes Trump cancelled one of his rallies due to his "fear of violence" from protestors. We'll leave aside for the moment that the people most of us are afraid of attend his rally as supporters. Is there a change in the zeitgeist? Is a long suppressed violence rising up to once again pervade our culture? Are the black kids in New York City finally losing their cool over gentrification, inequality and racism, and taking matters into their own hands?

Nonsense. Honestly, that's crazy talk. The world is not becoming inherently more violent. Some days are tough for some people, they might have been going through stuff I don't know about, and if that's the worst thing that happens to me this week, I'm having a great life.

That being said, I was furiously angry, albeit about 5 minutes afterwards. It takes me a minute to realize exactly how I feel about a thing. Regardless, I spent most of the night forgiving them, which is an easy way of saying something very hard to do. The one thing I did think of that made me feel somewhat sympathetic towards them was, "God, kid. Don't touch a white man in public without his permission! What if somebody sees and calls the police? Suddenly you're on the ground in a chokehold and both our nights are ruined, mine because I've got to go down to the station and fill out a report, and yours because you might be dead. Get smart, man!"

I was still mad, but at something entirely different. They were a little hasty, a little stupid, but nobody deserved to go to jail, and for damn sure nobody deserved to end up dead. And yet, that had been a very real possibility for them if things had gone too far south.

It just put some things in perspective, is all.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

On Longing

In the heart of every story, every character that I've ever loved is a hook. It tugs at me, pains me somewhat, leaves a scar when it goes.

It's longing. Not just desire, that hot, wet, vicious little monster with the teeth. Not the burning of ambition with its cold, mad stare. Longing has tenacity, and a penchant for the long game. It's patient. It might seem to leave for a while, but just when you feel like it's gone, like you're finally free, it reminds you - nope, still here. Miss me?

It comes in many forms, too. There's nostalgia, always a favorite of mine, a longing for an idealized past. The longing of love is a good one, too, that delicious heartache that always threatens to kill you, but never does. Religion has always given me that feeling, much to the chagrin of my more rational friends. God, or the thought of him, the love universal that sustains the stars in their courses and our cells burning with life. That longing hits me pretty hard.

The longing of stories, though, is more complicated. It's a particular mixture of the intention of the story and the reception of the reader. What might leave you moony and full of deep yearnings for days might leave me absolutely cold, or vice versa. 

The Muppet Movie, to pick what might seem like an odd example, is shot through with longing for me. Friendship, adventure, humble beginnings rising up to the heights of success, dreams, true love - when I was a kid, this was what I wanted my life to be about. It seems like a place where weirdos like me could find their space. I came out of that movie, a simple kid's movie, profoundly moved.

People can exploit that longing. A slogan like, "Make America Great Again" seems like a bunch of nonsense to anyone with even a modest grasp of history. We know that the "greatness" of America's past was partly built with racism and the wholesale extermination of native peoples. But the longing that makes that phrase resonate with so many people comes from a real place, a place of heartache and the deepest hungers of our souls. "Greatness" is, for many, not just domination, but a state of exaltation, an almost holy calling that combines strength with righteousness and a sense of responsibility. It comes from a place of love and hope. Others, manipulative and mendacious, will use this feeling, this longing, for their own purposes, which only further points out their evil.

Which is not to say we should foreswear longing, only that we should be wary of it. It is a powerful emotion, and like all things of power, should be treated with respect and caution.

For a long time, I tried to write with a sharp eye and a cool heart. There's a time for that, editing, for instance. But there's a saying: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." I know I'm on the right track with something I'm writing when I get that old feeling, that feeling of falling in love, of missing a place I've never been. When I begin to ache for the world I've made, for the people in it and the mistakes I know they're going to make, that's when I know I've made something good.

The throat tightens. The chest opens. I wish for wings that I've never had. I want everyone to feel like I feel: this loving longing that might be the only thing that gives the world any meaning at all.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thoughts on Hateful 8

Quentin Tarantino is responsible for two movies that, if you wanted to give an alien an insight into the American Id, would be your first exhibits. "Django Unchained" is a revenge fantasy, a spasm of horrific, bloody rage towards all the injustice of slavery, and a long look into our deeply conflicted attitudes toward black masculinity. "Inglorious Basterds," also a revenge fantasy, goes back in time to rewrite history and exact revenge on behalf of the Jewish people. Both movies are a howl of impotence at the unfairness of the world, and both movies have an almost classical use of catharsis as artistic device.

If you're watching a Tarantino movie - you've gone to the theater and paid your twenty bucks, you've pressed play on Netflix or Amazon, you've flipped passed on cable and gone "Oh, hey," and then not pressed the channel up button on your remote - you usually have a pretty specific set of expectations, namely: funny, sometimes shocking dialogue; gratuitous, horrific violence; Samuel L. Jackson; feet; at least one really long monologue that ends with somebody getting their head blown off; repeated uses of a derogatory term for black people That's his schtick. I've written at length about other Tarantino movies, and it's safe to say I'm something of a fan.

I wasn't exactly disappointed by "The Hateful 8." I enjoyed it. I thought it was entertaining. It had a much slower pace than many of his movies (which is not a criticism), it was beautifully shot (I highly recommend seeing the 70mm Roadshow version if you can), the soundtrack was gorgeous (Morricone, scoring a western for the first time in years), and it checked off almost all of the bits on the list I mentioned above. That being said, it left me a bit cold. After such a great run with Django and Inglorious, I kept waiting for the story of eight terrible people shoved together in a cabin during a blizzard to open up into something more. It kept threatening to. The politics of race, slavery, and the Civil War kept coming up, but, in contrast to Django, they were used as motivations for characters, rather than a larger backdrop on which to hang the story.   Every time a new backstory was added, another character introduced, I found myself thinking, "Okay. Here we go. Now we're going to get to it." To borrow a phrase from John Crowley, I kept hoping it would signify, and it just kept on ramifying. 

There wasn't anything in particular I objected to. It just had the sprawl of a John Ford Western and the claustrophobia of an Agatha Christie drawing room mystery. It's a pretty traditional whodunit/crime film. Katie compared it to "Reservoir Dogs," which seems about right to me. 

So I'd classify this as a minor Tarantino movie. Here's the order, if anybody's keeping score at home:

1. Inglorious Basterds
2. Django Unchained
3. Kill Bill part 1
4. Kill Bill part 2
5. Jackie Brown
6. Pulp Fiction
7. The Hateful 8
8. Reservoir Dogs
9. Death Proof
10. Four Rooms

Just because Death Proof and Four Rooms are at the bottom doesn't mean I don't like them. I just thought they were trifles, is all. And IG and DU could switch places, depending on which I saw most recently. 

Updated 10/06/18: Couldn’t stand having my my name associated with the use of a derogatory term for black people, when I wouldn’t speak it. Took it out.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Don't Call Up Something You Can't Put Down

New York Times Article: Kratom, an Addict's Alternative, is Found to be Addictive Itself

And to that, I merely can say: no shit

And also: no shit, again.

No judgement, but I must admit to a certain amount of anger at this. The lies and half-truths that the people in the article fell for were the same ones I fell for.  People are, and should be, free to alter their brain chemistry in any way they see fit, but it's a drag when they do so when they're misinformed about the strength of what they're taking. I believe that's one of the issues with a free society, and it sucks, but I can't say I know of a good solution.

You're a wizard, right? and you read in your spellbook, find a ritual you think is going to help you. You think you're calling up a kitten. Problem is, it's actually a tiger. And then you've got a tiger in the room with you, and you don't know how to make it go away. That's kratom.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Christmas Metta

The lights are up, strung across the streets between the lampposts and illuminating the shop windows. The apartments are lit up too, little hazy glowing portals in every building facade, framed in red and green and blue. Music plays almost everywhere you go, heartwarming and vague tunes that remind you of childhood, songs you know so well that their words fade into nonsense sounds.

Like this one: "God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay." And the chorus: "O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. O tidings of comfort and joy."

Christmas comes and, for a few days, there is a general wishing of comfort and joy to the people around us. We try to offer comfort and joy to each other, and we wish for God to give it to each of us. It is unique. From the period of Christmas through New Year's Day, we wish for peace on earth, where most other times, we think about most other people, if at all, with a certain distaste.

There is a Buddhist meditation, called metta, which many people do. It's a simple exercise in benevolence. We concentrate on other people - first people we know and love, then people to whom we're friendly, then those to whom we feel neutral, and then those people who are difficult. Lastly we concentrate on ourselves. And to all those people we visualize, we recite the following:

May you be happy.
May you be at ease.
May you be free from suffering.
May you be at peace.

We are to concentrate, sending them love and feelings of peace. Whether or not you believe that these feelings we send have any effect in the world, or on the people we send them to (I happen to believe they do, based on no science whatsoever, so, you know, take that as you will), the fact remains that we tend to find evidence for the thoughts we entertain. That means that, when we think benevolent thoughts about the world and the people around us, our minds look for evidence that these thoughts are true, creating a positive feedback cycle - we wish each other well, we look for evidence of happiness in the world, we find it, and we feel happier, which allows us to wish more happiness to others. You can only give what you have. If you have happiness, you can give happiness. Them that's got will have, them that's not will lose.

So, I wish you a happy new year. May you be at ease. May you have a year free from suffering.

May you be at peace.