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

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.