Tag Archives: Awareness is Never Enough – It Must Always Be Wonder

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Start Walking

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Metablogging, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

By any metric, 2017 has been a great year so far.

Now that I’ve said that out loud (on print), in public, it feels like a jinx. And not just because of my erstwhile belief in Mack Truck Time, the notion (reinforced by countless events in my life, really) that as soon as things start to go truly and obviously well, there is a Mack Truck waiting to hit you around the next corner.

I’ve told people that my New Year’s Resolution was to write every day. Simple, no frills. But it’s also a little less absolute than previous such attempts, because I’m not actually trying to write literally every day. The problem with a resolution like that is that failure is cooked right into the formula. It’s not really possible to actually write every day, really. There are migraines and exhaustion, there are, say, impromptu trips to Atlanta, there are days where household chores take over any other possible priority. And for those of us with self-hating shame-spirals who rely heavily on self-intimidation to get anything done, being that inflexible about something important – something that feels like it could be renewing and even life changing – is a bad plan. Every day is going to be different. Every day is going to have its unique challenges. Writing every day is not really an option.

But writing just about every day is. And part of the magic here, the tricky alchemy of convincing oneself to take this seriously while still not holding it to be every every day, is expecting to write every day, but not being crushingly disappointed with oneself on the days when that doesn’t happen. To look forward to tomorrow’s writing if today’s didn’t happen. It’s very hard for a self-hating person to do this. But somehow, in 2017, I’m managing better than almost ever before.

The reason this really feels like a jinx is because the last time I talked about writing in this forum, it was a jinx. A gigantic one. In an effort to update friends and (more importantly) hold myself accountable, I chronicled the first fortnight of my work on the Uber book, which now has a tentative title: Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber. I had written over 12,000 words at a nearly 1,000/day clip, which is often used as the over/under margin for a productive writer. The date was 20 September 2016.

I didn’t write another word of the book in 2016.

As October led to November to December, I spent a lot more time trying to parse why that had suddenly been the moment the wheels came off after I’d projected an end-of-the-year deadline for myself. The jinx theory is convenient and hapless, but of course not what I really believe. Though part of me felt like it was a factor, like looking too directly at my own methodology somehow abridged its ability to be effective. This would sound crazy if there aren’t a lot of real-world parallels: driving, typing, breathing. When one thinks too intently about things that are best done by effortless repetitive rote, they become suddenly challenging and, in some cases, impossible. If you start to focus on the mechanics behind driving a car or even the pulse of your heartbeat, you can think yourself into non-functionality mighty fast.

That was part of it. More of it was that I’d met a literary agent in my Uber and he’d seemed excited about getting a query letter and a little after I put that post up, it became clear he was never going to write back. It was a small stupid setback, minuscule really, not even worth thinking about for veterans of rejection. But it had been a while since I’d queried anyone and I was more fragile than I realized, especially in light of the tangible hope his (drunken) enthusiasm provided. There is a deep conundrum here, especially given that basically every successful writer in the past century has been rejected by virtually everyone in the publishing industry at least once and yet hope/daydreaming provides a profoundly large quotient of the fuel necessary to enable writing consistently significant quantities of text. Say what you will about writing for its own sake and to slake some inner thirst that needs no external validation. You’re kidding yourself, honey. If you felt that way, you wouldn’t write. You would think. That’s what internally motivated intrinsically rewarded writing is called. Thinking. Your urge to put it into text that lives somewhere (a page, a webpage, even someone’s ears for a fleeting moment) is directly correlated to your desire to impact other people. This doesn’t cheapen the exercise. If anything, it makes it meaningful, powerful, it makes it matter. After all, as I always say, there’s a reason we’re not all born on our own individual planet. We are here to save each other.

Did I get distracted by the political situation? Sure, everyone did. Did I get run down by the day to day of driving for Uber and playing poker again and trying to read and trying to coach debate and trying to keep up with housework? Definitely. It’s everything. Writing is the greediest habit I have, the greediest habit I can imagine shy of an addiction to an innately destructive substance. It even puts video games to shame. Those at least can be done casually, the voice trying to make them all-consuming does not actually require you to set aside other activities. Writing, however, demands to be a part of one’s attention all the time. And it requires silencing of distractions, quieting of other uses of time. You have to be bored to write in twenty-first century America, because otherwise more distracting excitements with shorter attention spans will consume your energy first. It is easier to read, it is easier to play video games, to watch TV (even if you don’t usually like it, which I don’t), to walk, to talk, to play, to do anything else. And it’s not that writing is some torturous event that is painful and torments the soul (I guess it is for some; this has never resonated with me). It’s just that writing takes time that is cleared out for no other purpose because it takes more effort and concentration than any other effort. And, frankly, because anyone who’s been through the American educational system associates writing with obligation and procrastination and burden, with getting that paper done at 3 in the morning, with chunking out all your thoughts after a long delay. All writing still feels a little like that. And that makes it very hard to just set everything else aside and be excited about doing it.

There is a counter-weight to this, however. And this, ironically, is what I was trying to gin up when I wrote that blasted jinx piece on 20 September, the piece I hope to God I’m not repeating in some way today. That counter-weight is, roughly, momentum. Because writing is actually fun in the throes of it and it is exciting when the words are coming down on a direct line from somewhere else, bypassing the critical brain, when your fingers are struggling to keep up. And as a project comes together, as the hope/daydreaming gets some flesh and teeth and energy into it, it starts to transform from a vision to something with real shape and substance and tangible reality. And that morphing is exciting as all heck. I’ve written three books in my life and at some point, the tipping point has always been hit where it’s easier to finish than to not finish, where the book is mostly out in the world, where the head is crowning and if the last few pushes are the most painful, at least we know there’s a baby coming so it’s all gonna be worth it. The real alchemy of writing, of being A Writer in the sense that everyone would agree with and no one could dispute, is being able to be in this state all the time. Which, of course, is best aided and abetted by being able to do it full-time, professionally, of knowing that you don’t have to trudge through another job or another use of time that takes away from writing. For some, of course, that kind of freedom and control becomes its own enemy and leads to a lack of urgency, to writer’s block, to stalling out. But for me, I crave it. The entire struggle to write is in drying out my mind enough to make the space available. To clear the decks of all the other life stuff that gets in the way, that requires an occupation to provide food and all the rest. There’s a reason all three books prior were written at times when I was making no income whatsoever. And why the current struggle, to do it with a pseudo-job (driving for Uber) is a key litmus test of transitioning to a slightly stronger model.

Momentum. 2017 has it, so far. No whammy no whammy no whammy.

First of all, here, on the blog, because that counts as writing and it kind of helps me excise other distracting thoughts so the writing on the book itself can be more pure. This is the fifth post of 2017 to appear here. It’s the 18th day. In 2016, my fifth blog post appeared on June 7th, nearly halfway through the year. My first didn’t even show up till March! And yes, I had a day job for that first half of 2016, one I was rapidly becoming disenchanted with. But you know when the fifth blog post after September 20th, 2016 was? It was a month ago. The sixth was two weeks ago. The tenth is this post.

How about the book?

I started writing it again just over a fortnight ago (no whammy no whammy no whammy), on January 5th. In the intervening two weeks, I’ve written 19,279 words (1,377 words/day), which is over 60% of the book’s total so far. This makes 31,700 words in two two-week sessions, with a high-end ballpark figure of 100,000 words total for the first draft. Which is a three-month pace. Which is what I do, generally speaking.

For me, this time, if I can keep it up, it was the promise of a new year. Say what you will about New Year’s Resolutions, but they’re a good excuse. Mostly, when we need to change something, it’s not news to us that we need to change it. We just need a good excuse to explain to ourselves why we’re only changing it now. Is it because 17 is my favorite number and this is the only year ending in 17 I’ll ever live through? Sure, I’ll take it. Is because I just got fed up with my own inadequacy but needed a better story to tell myself? Probably. But hey, we all live off of signs and meaning, whether real or self-imposed.

I haven’t been reading much lately, not nearly as much as I’d like, a casualty of writing and also trying to exercise again (Grand Canyon 2020, baby!) and just getting everything in order. But the other day, flouting the reality of how much energy I have for reading, I checked out The Familiar, vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski. For the unfamiliar (ha!), picture a brick full of inconsistently typefaced, bizarrely laid out text, often spiraling into unreadability. Like a graphic novel without the characters, where the text itself is most of the illustration. This is apparently my light-reading antidote to an effort to write my first non-fiction book.

In my first 70-odd-page flurry of reading it, something fell out of another section of the book. It was the following hand-written note:

I’m going to transcribe it here, in text, for readability and searchability:

You know that thing you have always wanted to do, to be?

The path you were on as a little kid, before middle school, before you ever had a drop to drink or touched a drug.

That thing, that dream.

If you start walking towards that, now, a path will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

It will. It will open up.

I promise you.

Start walking.

I’m not the perfect target audience of the note, having already never had a drop to drink or touched a drug. It’s New Orleans, after all. But that’s really just window-dressing on the overall message. The message is one I was already heeding, again again again but also for once, when the paper fluttered out of the book. But life is like a horror movie with a trick ending laden with clues along the way. Once you’ve figured it out, everything you see thereafter reinforces your having figured it out. Everything after is a reaffirmation, if you know where to look.

We are here to save each other.

Start walking.

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The Quest for Understanding

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

For most of my life, the prevailing presumption underlying my existence is that I was on a mission to be understood. More even than to be loved (though I of course see them as related), certainly more than to be happy. Simply to be really fathomed, to have someone be able to see into my thoughts and feelings and take up residence. If not comfortably, per se, at least with the notion that this is comprehensible.

I would argue that this is a more universal desire than might be readily agreed to. I have argued, at times, that this is all anyone wants out of life, or what most people most want. I’m not convinced this is the case anymore, in part from growth in (note the irony here) understanding others, and starting to grasp the depth of human diversity and perspective. There really are people, whether it’s deeply authentic or largely shaped by societal structures, who just want to be happy. Or, more often, comfortable. And being understood isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a deeply unsettling experience.

Such an unsettling experience, that was simultaneously disturbing and movingly comforting, was had by me last night. It took place, like so many moving and disturbing experiences, in a movie theater. It was the experience of watching the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.

Folks, if you have even a passing interest in understanding me, if you want to know what it’s like to be the crazy person you know or read as Storey Clayton, this is your chance. Get yourself to a theater.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly spot-on in every place. I leaned over to Alex about four times during the screening and said “I’m not this bad, right?” It’s fueled by substances, both alcohol and tobacco and also lithium, none of which I’ve ever partaken in, nor ever plan to. And that makes a huge difference, in the severity and breadth of manifestations of manic depression. The see-sawing nature of addiction and chemical reliance certainly put a more dramatic and tenuous spin on the experience of emotional sine-curves. But good God, by and large, it was like watching a documentary of my emotional reality. Made doubly more mind-blowing by the fact that Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose range and depth I’ve always found disappointing, was bringing it to life so perfectly.

I was also probably more flabbergasted than normal by the fact that this viewing was one of the few in my life where I had the ideal movie-watching experience. I’d seen no previews, read no synopses or reviews, had no Earthly idea of anything about the movie other than its title when the movie began. All I knew is that someone I trusted to know me, at least a bit, had vouched that I would like the movie. So to have the movie really seem to get me, to understand my life and perspective, while I was viewing it this way, was incredibly special. One of the best experiences like this I ever had was seeing Memento in Boston at that vaguely independent theater that always seemed to spell doom for relationships. The immersion that can be achieved by having no idea what experience is coming brings movies the closest to simulating real life that they can. Something about that unpredictability that underlies our existence.

This issue of understanding, by the way, is what has made romantic betrayal such a particularly consternating aspect of my life. There is something about the people who came the closest to understanding, who professed understanding almost endlessly, being those who suddenly shun and disregard, that creates the ultimate devastation. There is this sinking feeling, actually attested to by my ex-wife, that the more one understands, the more inevitable betrayal becomes. That getting that close to the reality, to actually knowing what’s going on, creates repulsion, fear, the need to separate oneself. It is the increasing conviction that being truly understood will create this betrayal that has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider that being understood might not be the goal after all. That maybe we’re here to help each other get by without understanding.

True fact: I have received one (1) new e-mail during the time I’ve been writing this post. It is an invitation to the latest Bring Your Own Story event, wherein the theme of storytelling will be “To Good to Be True”.

I, literally, can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe I should just go hang out with the screenplay writer of Infinitely Polar Bear. Or even Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to capture something that so easily could have been a caricature as a real experienced life. Frankly, most people will probably see it as a caricature. And some of the extremes are things that I may not have actually done, though I’ve probably been close to everything depicted, outside of those scenes involving substances. Which I guess brings us to the only conclusion I can be sure of from all this today: Thank God I never started drinking. Thank you grandparents, thank you Gin Blossoms songs, thank you Sarah Brook and Fish for stopping me when I got off the plane from Liberia. I am convinced today that alcohol alone is the difference between me managing life as a high-functioning manic depressive who can “pass” as “normal” (though of course this blog lives in public largely because I don’t believe in passing) and being worse off than the polar bear stumbling through life on a screen near you.

The movie's publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo's character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess.  This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

The movie’s publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo’s character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess. This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

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Senior Retreat and the Infinite Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM.  I am haunted by this lake.

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM. I am haunted by this lake.

My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?

It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.

This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.

And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.

So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.

I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).

It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.

My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.

My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.

This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.

Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.

For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.

I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.

I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.

I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.

Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.

I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.

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Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)


*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.

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The Irrationality of Atheism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: , ,

Atheism is the prevailing theory of the universe among most intellectuals below a certain age in this country. Many people are ardent atheists, while others acknowledge at least a passing uncertainty, but the avowed belief in God is increasingly becoming categorized in the same general box as those who believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps that they have personally been kidnapped by aliens upwards of ten distinct times. All of this is done with the same sneering elitism and assumption of universality and correctness with which many intellectuals approach many issues in their life, be it the superiority of certain academic institutions or the idea, say, that people of all races should be treated equally or some other (actual) standard accepted fact.

Much of my source for this understanding of how people behave and think is, of course, the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) community, a place where I spent the formative bulk of my time in my own undergraduate college years and then the last five years of somewhat less formative but somehow no less meaningful or tumultuous time. This is the most unabashedly and thoroughly intellectual community in the United States that exists currently (I will take on all challengers to this mantle, but not spend time doing so in this post) and also among the most sneering… intellectuality and elitism are so intertwined in contemporary America that it makes one almost want to be stupid sometimes just to be unapologetically kind and/or human. And while there are some theists on APDA, they are often ridiculed and scorned, either directly or by association, and the running assumption is that anyone with a shred of skill or talent at debate is of course an atheist, which I ran into in my own personal experience, especially during my recent coaching stint at Rutgers where people would start discussions all the time from the premise that I’m an atheist and would look so puzzled when I corrected them with my actual belief set. One person in such a discussion actually said “But you’re smart!” as, to him, a complete rebuttal to my stated belief in God.

This state of belief and proliferation of atheism as (pun/allusion very much intended) Gospel truth among purveyors of and adherents to logic is, in my opinion, appalling. It is also largely inexcusable for people who actually want to hold a mirror of methodology and logic to their own beliefs which is, near as I can tell, the complete goal of the examined life and logical process in the first place. I would contend that it comes from the same oft-ridiculed place of knee-jerk assumption that is so maligned when it is found among believers. People hear that scientists/respected authorities don’t believe in God, so they don’t either, more or less full stop. Surely some people examine it more than this, some much more, but I don’t think people get a lot further than taking issue with some particular doctrines of specific religions, usually those they have encountered most in their personal lives. Obviously the phenomenon of “person is raised in religion, person has disillusory moment with specific doctrine/person/aspect of religion, person writes off religion wholly as concept” is so common and frequent as to be an almost universal trope of my generation. I had my own religious falling-out when I realized in Catholic mass in seventh grade (Catholic school – I was raised very loosely Episcopalian with salt and alternative theories) that the cross was a method of execution and that if Jesus had been shot, the symbol of Christianity would be a gun, and that there was Something Very Wrong Here and I had to leave the church, both physically at the moment and more metaphorically in the long-term. But to jump from that moment to atheism would be, in my perspective, like having one scientific experiment fail in a chemistry class and then believe that everything ever written or spoken in human history was a deliberate lie.

So let’s address the actual evidence that’s out there, since the idea of God is so often decried as unprovable and irrational and insane. Because science is doing its damnedest to prove and propose the possibility if not the certainty of God and basically no one is paying attention and I find it really irksome.

There are two key issues I’d like to focus on in this post, though there are numerous other proofs of God and aspects of theism that I personally see abroad in the land, so to speak. But the two most obvious and frustrating issues are those that come from the cutting edge of science itself. I’m sure a third would come from the Higgs boson if I understood better what said boson really is or is about (NB: I know that people who like science hate that it’s nicknamed the “God particle” and say it has nothing to do with God. I also suspect that this is because people who like science consider themselves more allergic to the notion of God than EpiPen-wielding children are to bees or peanuts.). Maybe someday. But the two issues that I find glaringly obvious are (1) the simulation hypothesis and (2) the Big Bang.

Nick Bostrom is famous for first seriously proposing the idea that we’re all living in a simulation in a modern scientific-academic context. Of course the idea dates back to Descartes’ brain in a vat and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream ages before that and the fact remains that for all our invention, intellectual/philosophical thought probably hasn’t progressed during most/all of what we consider human history.

(Brief aside: my friend Michael a month or so ago was discussing a passage in the Odyssey that he loves about Odysseus wailing like one of his victims and that in this moment he seems to be learning compassion for his enemies and realizing that they bleed as he does and that this is beautiful art. I retorted, crankily, that this realization made me suicidal because in 2014 we are no closer as a society or people anywhere to that understanding and we could easily look at all time since ancient Greece as wasted wheel-spinning. Michael was understandably put off and said “okay, Homer makes you want to kill yourself”. This was before the recent re-eruption of Israel/Palestine War number 86,000 roughly reminded me of my own point. We are not making any progress as a species whatsoever.)

In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.

Yet despite all this recent fervor for the idea that super human intelligence has created simulations and possibly even nested simulations that actually explain what we perceive as reality, no one seems to be making the logical leap (or tiny step, I would argue) that super-human intelligence could be capable of same. In other words, we are somehow capable of imagining and seriously logically engaging with the idea that clones of ourselves could create this reality, but that no one else could. This is, in a word, short-sighted. That’s probably the kindest word I could come up with for it.

At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?

The only viable explanation I can find for this is the same that I find endemic to almost all aspects of atheism: hubris. The atheist, as a general rule, finds it impossible to imagine an intelligence that is more developed or sophisticated than the contemporary Earth human. It places itself at the very pinnacle of the universal food chain, something that one would think at least takes some sort of hit in reference to the idea of a simulated reality when we are not yet, in 2014, capable of creating such seamlessly simulated realities ourselves. But they still put an Earth human behind that glass because it is so hard to admit that Earth humans may be riding the universe’s very short bus indeed compared to what else is out there, let alone what is behind that glass. Given the extreme vastness of the universe, it seems obvious to me that the intelligence of whatever’s behind the glass if we are a simulation is so great as to be worthy of reverence and arguably worship on face. Granted, the cynical among us must entertain the idea that the force is value-neutral or malevolent, and the divorce between intelligence and morality is all the rage these days, but I think there’s plenty of additional evidence abroad in the land for realizing that benevolence is very much a part of the universe’s agenda, in addition to an unending sadness/disappointment at what we, both collectively and individually, manage to squander in terms of opportunity/potential.

In any case, I’m not looking to convince you today that the Benevolently Sorrowful God I feel I interact with (not Uniquely or Specially, mind, but as a normal everyday human being) exists. I’m looking merely to convince you that it is wholly rational to believe in God or at least the possibility of God and that, as such, Sneering Obvious Atheism is irrational.

If you disagree with this premise still, I would ask you to explain how you can simultaneously (a) entertain the realistic possibility of the simulation hypothesis and (b) entirely disregard the possibility that God or similar is behind the proverbial curtain of said simulation.

I have long disabled comments on this webpage because, well, read Internet comments anywhere, but I will entertain and rebut any serious explanations of the above. storey@bluepyramid.org

And you might not really take the simulation hypothesis seriously, which would be totally fine. But if you don’t, I bet you believe in the Big Bang. So the next part of this post is for you.

Before the US media had decided that Israel/Palestine War 86,000 deserved all/most of your attention, there was a lot in the US media made of the recent discovery of “proof” of the Big Bang, manifest through the sighting of gravitational waves that are consistent with the inflation model of the universe stemming from said Bang. I only vaguely understand the precise science of things like, say this, but the upshot is that the Big Bang looks all kinds of correct as an Origin Story for our universe, which is so vast as to be utterly beyond incomprehensible to human understanding.

Now one of atheists’ favorite games is to make fun of God-based Origin Stories, such as, e.g. Genesis, wherein God is so ridiculously powerful that it takes just seven days to form a world and one of those isn’t even busy! Of course, here is the prevailing scientific understanding of how long it took the entire universe (functionally infinitely larger than Earth) to form from literally nothing:

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

If you’re scoring at home, some of the relevant time markers there are one-one-hundredth of a second and three minutes. According to this rationally proven prevailing scientific understanding of the universe, everything necessary to build our universe was inevitably underway one-one-hundredth of a second after there was literally nothing there before. And, at that time, while expanding, the universe was roughly 85% of its current size with all the matter it would need to form, well, everything.

One-one-hundredth of a second. Or, if you prefer, three minutes, when the nuclear fusion had finished and all the matter set to, I guess, cool for the next few hundred-thousand years.

Two key questions arise from this. (1) Why is it rational to believe it took three minutes or less to create everything in the universe, but irrational to believe it took six days to create the world? and (2) Why/how did the Big Bang happen?

(2) makes people crazy. I have never encountered someone who has a good reaction to that one. It is where all of science, for its claims to proof and obsession with replicability and ultimate complete understanding, gets its spade turned, hard. And so science leaves us with this unsettling idea that it is crazy to believe there is intelligence or deliberate thought behind the formation of the universe, but wholly rational and consistent with understanding to believe that nothing became something in a period of time so short that it is unimaginable to human feeling. And not just something, but the building blocks for EVERYTHING. To insert God into that creation process, that something-from-nothing hypothesis, is ruled straight out by people who have no alternative explanation and find the whole question of explaining it tiresome. This is the height of irrationality and uncuriousness. But it seems bizarre to conclude that one should devote their life to discovering minute details of this process of ultimate creation, but take zero interest in what may have caused it.

Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??

Look, I’m not saying you have to believe in God. Nothing I’ve offered here proves a divine intelligence is behind these things. But I think you have to conclude that being sure there’s no God is poppycock. It is intellectual absenteeism to care about the Big Bang and then abdicate the question of how or why it happened. And everything-from-nothing-in-no-time looks more like God and Creationism than it looks like anything else at all. Every scientific method and explanation we have looks at all matter coming from nothing in zero time and rails against that, demanding some sort of source or force or deeper reason. It breaks all the rules. So the closer we get to proving that this model is an accurate depiction of how we got here, the closer we get to having to face something that looks an awful lot like God.

Again, I’m more than open to refutations. With permission, I will reprint an rebut them in the coming months if anyone’s interested in having this debate out more thoroughly. Or just summarize and rebut them if you don’t want that kind of pressure. I am genuinely curious about the mind of an atheist and how it grapples with these possibilities, realities, and understandings. I may have missed something or lots of somethings. But ultimately, I just don’t think it’s rational to look at the way the universe seems to be shaped, have started, and may possibly have started, and to be sure that there’s no God behind it. And at the point where atheism is irrational, then its sneering superiority to belief falls away and we can agree that we’re all just choosing premises we like and running with them rather than some of us thinking and others of us not.

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Facing the Direction I am Bound

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, From the Road, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , , , ,

It's always emotional.

It's always emotional.

I’m overdue to head back north, racing for the direction where things should be wrapped up tight in a nice little bow, or at least packed up in cardboard and covered over with tape. Progress on the move has been slow and steady and not fast enough and I’m facing the very real possibility of having to cancel some of my farewells so that I can ensure the movers have stuff to actually take with them, since I’m not enacting the Bonfire Plan for the move to New Orleans. In the meantime, I’ve spent another weekend in Atlanta for so many good reasons, one of which was the first of two opportunities this week to see Counting Crows.

I feel like Counting Crows show posts for me should already come preloaded with the emotional ramifications, baggage, and impact of all prior such shows. Lord knows you can find a lot of that background information already in here (just pop “Counting Crows” into the Search function on the sidebar and see what happens). But there’s a reason that “Awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder” is a seminal phrase in my life, a watchword for my experience of the divine, and a clickable tag/category in this here blog format. Because it’s true.

I should be getting coffee and on the road for ten hours soon, so I don’t really have time to do the full concert justice. Suffice it to say that they opened with a classic 10-minute “Round Here”, went on to do one of their better covers from the recent cover album, and then Adam announced to the crowd that he had written a song for me.

Okay, not really. But kinda really.

I’ve been trying to find the lyrics online to prove to you that I’m not making this up. But listening to “Cover Up the Sun” for the first time in my life brought back exactly the same chill that “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” did on the pre-release quasi-illicit MP3 back in Waltham so many eons ago. But (remember the phrase!) even more so. Way more so. The song includes the lyric “When I left California, I was 29 years old, and the world just spun me round.” Which, okay, maybe that’s something Adam Duritz and I inadvertently have in common, though I’d never quite put it together before, but sure. But when the next lines are “Now I just watch Louisiana scroll across the window pane, and I’m facing the direction I am bound”, well, it’s enough to make a solipsist of the best of us.

Yeah, the song is about leaving the west and moving to New Orleans. There’s only a couple of references to the New York City area just thrown in for fun.

Of course I am not the only person who feels this way about Counting Crows or their lyrics or their shows. The magic of the band, as I’ve said repeatedly here, is being able to gather together thousands of people for whom the songs were written and feel the absolute power of people belting along to songs that are about them and to share that experience with everyone else who feels the same way and yet somehow have none of the charm of the song being about them reduced by the shared gathering. If anything, it’s enhanced. It’s perhaps in these moments that we get closest to the Jewish idea of God (although I note the irony of that statement in print, because I’d have to cross out the o for it to really be Jewish, but I’m not gonna because I find the idea of an unnameable God so distasteful, no offense dear Jewish people), with the re-convergence of all our divided split light, that we are all the same in our unique brightness and by coming back together, we can drown out the sun.

There were a couple more covers than I would have chosen for the set (I could probably go without “Friend of the Devil” for the rest of my CC life, though the intro to it this time ’round was hilarious) and I’ve probably never cried less at one of their shows, though this is largely because I am happy, both in the moment and with the visible trajectory of the near future. But it was also a summer set of joy and energy and just the right amount of bitterness to recognize the year just ended. And while none of the other new songs quite lived up to the power of that first one, they all sound at least intriguing and at most like future sources of wonder.

Maybe Counting Crows shows are well written horoscopes, online quizzes, or tarot card readings, that we can find our own meaning in the deeply expressed emotion of Duritz and friends bleeding out on stage. You can take the cynical road if you want to and I’ve never lately begrudged anyone the cynical road. But at the risk of being the sucker who falls for the seventeenth time, I prefer a deeper, more fundamental explanation. In a recent debate round for a summer exhibition tournament, I explained how free will is compatible with a tri-omni vision of God, how I believe we are all offered free will as the ultimate sign of respect and love. Much of my third novel is about exploring this concept as well. And yet, somehow, there always seems to be room for this incredible sense of everything working out, coming together, being for a reason. I don’t think it’s absolute or as powerful as free will, since refugees routinely starve to death in diseased camps after watching their families die, but the feeling of a benevolent net from the universe is palpable. Maybe it’s first-world privilege, which was on display at an other-worldly level in the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta last night, but maybe it’s just our best burning bush, coming to you live on a perfectly-lit stage.

The rant about people leaving CC shows complaining that he didn’t play “Mr. Jones” will have to wait till after Atlantic City.

Counting Crows
22 June 2014
Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA
with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Daniel and the Lion
new songs in italics

Round Here (Private Archipelago alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Cover Up the Sun
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream
Hospital
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Scarecrow
Recovering the Satellites
Like Teenage Gravity
God of Ocean Tides
Friend of the Devil
Big Yellow Taxi
Hard Candy
A Long December
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain

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Nindil Jalbuck

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

The year has been slow to arrive. My family celebrated Christmas on New Year’s Day, despite the luminaria display on the normal date of the 24th, one marred (despite the optimism of my previous post) by a massive windstorm that blew almost the whole roof layout down after it had stayed stolidly upright for the 28 hours from placement to lighting. We had a small display of lumis on New Year’s Eve, both somewhat traditional and to show the candled bags to my girlfriend, who arrived in New Mexico late on the 27th.

For Christmas/New Year’s, she gave me the board game Lords of Waterdeep, a D&D-based game that is, if I may, nothing like D&D. It was introduced to me by my friend and former debate coach, Greg, and I immediately adored the game, given its almost perfect pacing, competitive play, versatility, and overall fun. I would highly recommend it and my enthusiasm for the game made it almost certain that I would get it eventually. There are eleven “Lords” in the game that one can play, each with two types of quests that they prefer to complete (and an eleventh who just wants to build buildings in the city). In the first game I played with Greg, Clea, Russ, and my girlfriend, I was Nindil Jalbuck.

Nindil Jalbuck’s goals are the unlikely combination of Piety and Skullduggery, a pairing that can only be explained by the fact that he was once an upstanding citizen in a mask who all respected, but he got killed in some sort of robbery and before word got out, a rogue named Hlaavin stepped in and took his place, masquerading as Nindil but using his power and influence for devious deeds. In various places, Hlaavin is described as a doppelgänger for Nindil, making Nindil a functional Two-Face or Dr. Jekyll type character. As far as the world’s concerned, these are not distinct people, but one unified changed man.

Now this may seem like an awful lot of back-story for one cartoonish D&D character that I happened to play the first time I encountered Waterdeep. But it’s a captivating story, and one that reminded me a lot of what I feared as my own outcome in the wake of my divorce. All the time, people use trauma as a justification for their skullduggery; most of the people I’ve had the most trouble with on the debate circuit and elsewhere have justified being jerks to people by noting that bad things happened to them in the past that “made” them this way. While I always retorted that I’d had trauma too, and plenty of it, the loss of identity and self-worth brought on by the way my marriage ended certainly brought me to the brink of wondering if this kind of corruption by events were inevitable. I have tons of anger which I wrestle on a daily basis, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes just above it. And I’m more aware than most of what kind of control and discipline it takes to be a good person. There’s a reason that all our rhetoric about being good describes the “straight and narrow” and incredible pains and awareness. It’s because our default settings are to be petty and selfish. The easier way is the one which requires less diligence. It’s hard work to try.

And thus, when my defenses were down and my identity and life were shattered, the thin line of defense between me being a roughly upstanding person who is trying hard to be better and being something like Hitler seemed blurry and perhaps indefensible. I had lots of long conversations (and maybe even posts here?) about how the path to being Hitler was actually fewer steps and an easier fall than one might think. Many friends wrote this off as hysteria and letting the trauma do the talking, but there’s an additional angle of which being an extremist and an absolutist can make this switch faster than one might think. Much of what inspires me to try to do and be good is a certain absolutism, perfectionism, and idealism. Once ideals shatter, once moral standards are breached, then it’s very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The purpose of a dam is to hold back water. Once the dam is breached, it finds it sufficiently demoralizing to not try any more and let all the water through. On a moral level, it seems there’s very little difference between one transgression and several similar transgressions. And at the point where transgressions are fair game, then the entire motivation starts to change. This is frankly why I felt like suicide was a somewhat reasonable option for a period of several months – because I was literally afraid of who I would become. I knew I could survive, but I was very concerned that whoever did survive would be so dissimilar from me that they would be someone I didn’t want to make it.

Now I know most of you reading this are screaming that this is the problem with absolutism on the moral level and that most of you don’t find the above paragraph relatable because most people in America this century grow up being gradualists and moderates and seeing themselves as making compromises when they see fit. I, for example, find it incomprehensible that people can aspire to be mostly vegetarian but still eat meat occasionally and feel like they’re being better than if they ate as much meat as a regular person. They, in turn, people like Fish and my father, find it incomprehensible that I can only find it good to refrain entirely from meat as a moral aspiration and that eating chicken once a month may as well be running a chicken slaughterhouse. And I’m not sure I have the inclination to make a full defense of my stance for ideal absolutism here and now – I understand that it’s dramatically less practical, but morality has never appeared in any way practical to me. Indeed, because of the ease of life away from the narrow path, it’s always seemed somewhat obvious to me that morality is diametric to practicality. It is decidedly impractical to be good, but this makes it no less of a moral imperative.

As a sideways method of defense, I will say that I think gradualism can easily lead to corruption, perhaps as quickly as my fears of the Hitler within rising up once my principles had been breached. Another of my Christmas/New Year’s gifts, from my mother, was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a book I imagine you’ve all heard of. I’ve been on a bit of a Gladwell kick lately, reading the books backwards. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions – some of his cultural stuff in Outliers seems obviously cherry-picked and his defense of broken-windows theory in the most recently read tome seems a bit shallow. If he has a flaw, it’s that he over-simplifies things that are decidedly more complex and I think he relies too heavily on one or two studies to prove a general theory or practice about humanity globally. (Incidentally, I’m not sure when the scientific method decided that repeating something once or twice in a measured way was sufficient to declare it as a universally repeatable law.) Nevertheless, I take the 10,000-hour rule as Gospel and found a great deal of Blink compelling.

Another thing I found compelling, though, was his study of how little factors can turn ostensibly good people into bad. There’s a study in The Tipping Point about how telling seminarians that they’re late makes them override their Good Samaritan intuitions, even if you have them meditating on the story of the Good Samaritan at the same time. There’s an examination of self-described pacifists in the Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City while over thirty horrified onlookers stood unmoving by their telephones. Instructing people with certain motivations or telling them to focus on certain things will, in most cases, “tip” them into being just as selfish and animalistic as the worst of their peers. Not just because it’s easy, but I think because of the nature of corruption itself. It’s what I’ve long discussed as my general theory of how people “go bad”. Rarely, despite the implications of the concept of a tipping point, is it an overnight plunge into debauchery. Rather, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs with a slight shift in perspective each time. I call this the A to B, B to C, C to D phenomenon. If we imagine this to be a descent into bad behavior, almost no one would ever jump from A to D. People standing on A would find that laughably poor behavior. But B seems forgivable or reachable or reasonable – they can find a way to justify going to B. And so they do. Suddenly, from the perspective of B, C seems reachable. From A that seemed crazy, but they’ve already gone to B and now the world looks a little different – they’ve gotten their hands a little dirty and now it seems like less of a step. This is how most cheating happens, in my opinion, be it on marriages or taxes or in business. Almost no one just jumps into bed with someone or becomes Bernie Madoff overnight. It starts with little things – hand-holding or skimming off the top. But those practices are reaffirming that being bad isn’t as bad as it once seemed and then it becomes a hop, skip, and a jump to disaster. That’s why we have that phrase, hop, skip, and a jump. Because it takes each of those sequential steps: A to B, B to C, C to D. It can’t be one giant leap. It has to be small steps. The road to hell is paved with individual stones, not one giant brick. It is, after all, a road.

Which is why I didn’t think much of Nindil Jalbuck at first. Or even second, for I got his card the second time I played, the first time with my girlfriend after opening the game on Christmas/New Year’s Day. The third time, she got Nindil. Keep in mind there are eleven possible characters and when we played each other, we were only dealing two of these cards. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times we played, I was Nindil Jalbuck. I have currently played twelve games of Waterdeep. Two of them left Nindil out altogether. Two of them, she has been Nindil. And the remaining eight have given me his card.

I was having arguments about odds with Freez when I saw him over the break in Albuquerque and I’m sure he’d find a way to tell me that this experience is somehow unremarkable or predictable. Call me crazy, but this feels like more than a minor trend. A sufficiently freaky trend to make me research Mr. Jalbuck’s backstory and think on it heavily.

Two days ago, I got back from the Dartmouth tournament, slept a lot, woke up and watched a heartbreaking Seahawks game, and logged into my Wells Fargo account to make sure (as I do weekly) that everything was in order. It wasn’t. Someone had rung up over $2,000 in charges in Atlanta and Miami while I was in New Hampshire. There was an early charge for dinner for about fifty bucks and then the next day they went to town, spending 2k on hotels in the South’s major cities. I immediately called the bank’s 24-hour number and reported the fraudulent activity, dealing with an incredibly nice and helpful individual who promised to reverse the charges, issue a new card, and investigate the fraud.

The same thing, roughly, happened to my parents’ credit card a few days before I arrived in Albuquerque last month. My mother asked the people who helped her through it if this was common and they said it happens all the time. And when I spoke to a local banker yesterday in getting a temporary card, he said that there’s been an “epidemic” of this lately. Now admittedly he was using this in part as a platform to try to sell me a bunch of fee-based “protections” for my account, but the part in which he described helping a ton of different customers with similar problems recently seemed genuine. And epidemic is precisely the word that Malcolm Gladwell uses across The Tipping Point to describe the virality of ideas that catch fire in this or any culture. Indeed, that book more than any other created the meme of the “good” virus, of things “going viral”. It’s not that bank fraud is a new concept – I would venture that everyone reading this knows someone who’s experienced it. But it may be reaching some sort of tipping point.

My banker suggested that part of it is a new technology they’ve been finding in some ATMs that somehow reads the magnet strip of the card without interfering with the transaction in any way. It’s some sort of tiny scanner that they put in the card-reading slot that must be sufficiently transparent to let you proceed with your transaction while still capturing the information in the magnet, which is all the information needed to either recreate the card or use its numbers online. A little device that turns the cash machine into Nindil Jalbuck, doing good and ill at the same time, marching your account down the successive path to a dwindled state.

It doesn’t take much to change things from good to bad, to lead us on to the gradual trail to our own demise. The only thing we have in defense is a righteous vigilance against the weakness and temptations in our own soul, the little things we let ourselves get away with. There’s a little Nindil in all of us and the hard work of trying to try is the only way we can keep the dark side at bay.

The other moral of this story is that you should probably check your bank account status regularly. There have yet to be more bogus charges accrued, but I’m probably going to be obsessively refreshing my bank account page for a while. My banker tried to tell me to avoid dubious ATMs on the road (“always find a Wells Fargo if you can”), but also admitted that they’ve found these devices in WF ATMs, so that hardly seems like a fix.

If you’re looking for another moral, it might be to play Lords of Waterdeep. It’s really fun.

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Mortality Day Strikes Again: Remembering Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

What appears, by all accounts, to be Ray Bradbury's favorite picture of himself from his later years.

What appears, by all accounts, to be Ray Bradbury's favorite picture of himself from his later years.

I didn’t have to look up Ray Bradbury’s birth year for the title of this post. I have read his biography at the back of countless books, visited the park named for him in Waukegan, Illinois, his birthplace and rearing grounds, the site of his beloved tales of a childhood run in a freer era before the fear of real bogeymen kept children penned in to replace imagination with television. He was neo-luddite, shunning driving and the Internet and distraction in all its forms, preferring the tribulation of daily sessions at the typewriter amongst his toys and dinosaur models and planets on a string.

He was my favorite author and is, more than any other human being, the reason I wanted to write. The reason I want to write. His essay “Make Haste to Live,” an afterword to one of his recent collections (Quicker Than the Eye) is a siren call to all humans, but especially those who hope to chronicle our experience in semi-permanent language. He is, as described here responsible for the name of this website. (It occurs to me that I badly need to update that particular page, as with much of the site that carries a tribute to the recently deceased.)

It is not lost on me that this occurs on the day I have long dubbed “Mortality Day,” though reports appear to indicate that his actual date of death was yesterday, June 5th. I had a vividly intense dream some years into this life about dying on June 6th and subsequently my maternal grandfather died on this date in 1991, which only emphasized the significance of the dream and the date. It is the date imprinted with the memory of the storming of Normandy, the day I made my first will in 2006. I have spent much of my adult life using this day as my personal time to contemplate the nature of having a fixed temporal lifetime in this form and all the incumbent implications that most of us set aside each and every day we’re not directly confronted with it.

Ray Bradbury himself was bequeathed into my life by death, the tragic one of my cousin (with whom I shared the grandfather who died in 1991), Buster Nicholson, in a single-person plane-crash in August 1988. Having recently graduated from Stanford, Buster was an avid flier with a love of the movie “Top Gun” and an earlier younger penchant for Bradbury’s rocket-bound heights. Consensus was that the box of paperback novels, heavily laden with Bradbury titles, would naturally go to the eight-year-old reader in the family and it didn’t take long for me to see what Buster was so intrigued by when he opened these books a few years earlier.

I don’t recall exactly which book I read first, but I was through several tomes of short stories by the time I was deciding that Bradbury could well eclipse C.S. Lewis as my favorite writer of all-time. Though it wasn’t until seventh grade that I was assigned Fahrenheit 451, not among Buster’s collection, and was so engrossed that I finished the entire work in the first night when we were designated the first chapter. I tried to coyly imply where things might be headed in the next day’s class discussion before giving too much away and sheepishly admitting that I’d been unable to stop myself. Never before had I been so enthralled by a book – to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a weighty work in literally one sitting before or since.

Many of the short stories I wrote in high school were heavily cribbed from the style of Bradbury, as well as his unique blend of science fiction, coincidence, philosophy, and oddity. I have never so deeply wanted to write like someone as him… and while I think I’ve crafted a more individual style, there is no doubt that many of its roots are still embedded in the Martian landscape and calliope call of Ray’s universe. He alone understood the import and thrall of Halloween, the essence of October, the power of intuition, the promise of the all-night writing session in the sheer hold of a simple idea. Having never met the man, never coming close, I have never felt like I’ve had a closer mentor and personal advisor on the very nature and concept of writing than Ray Bradbury. And while this may seem strange to feel so powerfully personally linked with someone so distant, I feel that Ray himself would understand and relate, finding his own inspiration from those who wrote before him, truly getting like few others how momentous the transmission of feeling and reality can be through the written word.

He had a full life, one not skimped or cut short, having broken into writing quite early and making the most of it throughout. He had been heartbroken since the death of his wife a few years back, writing of the experience movingly. It is hard to feel the pang of tragedy or the sting of unfairness in this particular passing. And yet I hold firm that the occasion of death ought not be a celebration, but a reflection. On this day, among all others, it must be doubly so. So let us remember his cautions, his warnings, to not be distracted by the wall-sized televisions he predicted long before their ubiquitous invitation into our homes. Let us remember the book, the power of the written word, to trump any such agent of propaganda or dissembling. Let us honor Ray Bradbury with a ride on a carousel, a walk in the park, a spin of the top. Let this Halloween chill the air like none other. Let us make haste to explore, to wonder, to chronicle, to live. Knowing all the while that our future will be just a bit bleaker for the lack of Ray’s narration.

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Acting with Impunity

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

There has long been a debate in the community of moral philosophers and thinkers about the idea of being “good without God”. In the advent of a neo-atheistic culture in the United States and other post-modern, post-WWII Western societies, people have increasingly felt the need and interest to establish a moral framework that is devoid of the divine, arguing that humans can derive their own moral precepts intuitively or empirically and that there’s no need to rely on some higher power for inspiration. They cite the idea that it would be irrational to believe in a God who advised things we would not otherwise consider moral and that atheists empirically seem to be just as good as believers.

It’s this last part that I want to take issue with today, especially since it tends to be the one most closely guarded and obviously apparent to those defending the idea. This issue is further complicated by it often being played out in a heated conversation between a believer (me) and an atheist (not me) and their accusatory glare at whether I’m accusing them of innately being a worse person or less moral because they happen to not derive their moral standards from a divine or higher being. It is challenging, to say the least, under the white-hot spotlight of the cornered debater, to look them in the eye and explain to them why they actually may be less moral without drawing a diatribe of vitriol or disregard in response.

The better question to ask is not whether people are more or less moral, in part because this question is incoherent without context. It’s also ridiculous to try to conclude globally, since there are of course hypocrites on both sides and plenty of people who fail to act in accordance with their own stated beliefs, goals, and ideals. The question that I find interesting and salient to this issue is which approach to life tends to bring out the more moral behavior and why. And I’ve been coming to some interesting conclusions about how this question relates to the idea of privacy vs. publicity and what that has to do with what people think they can get away with and how that informs moral choices.

To start off with, I find it to be trivially true that someone can be good without God. We can imagine a believer and an atheist each making the exact same choices in all places at all times and the difference between one person believing and one person not is in no way a meaningful tipping point between whether one or the other is good or not. To me, the God question is more an issue of fact globally. We can imagine a perfectly moral actor who happens to believe that New Jersey is south of Florida. The fact that they are incorrect about this fact in no way affects or impairs their moral judgment – at worst, it may lead to a poorly informed choice that could still probably be forgiven in light of the fact that they were misinformed. One can argue, as I sometimes do, that the illogical clinging to atheism in the face of the legion evidence against it becomes tantamount to willful denial, but this still seems like something short of actual moral breach. The goodness of an action ought be determined by its innate morality, not by its happenstance in relation to a correct set of factual beliefs about the universe.

What becomes problematic, though, is when we descend out of the thought experiment structure. Yes, if we imagine two people making the same actions and reactions and choices, then the lone fact of belief or not isn’t a tipping point. But no two people act the same way, and the way they believe and even the facts they understand impact the choices they make almost entirely. At that point, how does belief meaningfully change the way someone interacts with their environment as opposed to non-belief?

Clearly, there are lots of ways. There’s prioritization of values over mere survival in life. Faith in an afterlife gives someone more perspective about the temporal and physical reality of life on Earth. There’s a certain humility in not believing one belongs to the highest order intelligence that exists in the universe. There’s acquiescence to not controlling one’s fate or destiny. But none of these have such a clear impact on behavior as the idea that one can keep secrets and only need be accountable to oneself. The notion that what’s private is permanently private (unless admitted or exposed) is perhaps the most damning (pun intended) part of non-belief.

Those who believe in God believe they are living a life in public. Maybe not a public of seven-billion people, maybe not a public they will be exposed to for all-time, but that there’s an audience of some kind for every single action and choice they make, no matter how small or internal or invisible. At all times and in all actions, they must hold themselves accountable to the standard of not just what they claim or hope to believe, but what they actually believe, for someone is watching them and observing. They are likely to be less concerned with the optics of their actions to mortal observers because they know there are immortal observers as well and that eventually their actions will be assessed by that entity in a much more meaningful way than any temporal judge. They fundamentally can’t believe in privacy in its truest sense, for nothing they do is truly private.

Meanwhile, the non-believer believes that walls and secrets truly cloak their true selves. They may aspire to higher-order moral action, may attempt to be their own top-drawer accountant, but at the end of the day, whatever they can get away with doing is fine for themselves, because they have no one to own up to at the end of it all. The only person holding the person accountable is that person themselves, once they’ve navigated whatever court of public opinion is necessary to traverse. These people thus tend to put a great deal more stock in the perspective of others, for convincing those people or not is all that matters to their ultimate worth. Public actions cast a much longer shadow on their lives than those they believe to be private. And those actions that are private that might inspire shame or discomfort or regret become much more susceptible to the murky cloud of denial, revision, and editing. The person who does something wrong and convinces themselves it was right has actually erased the wrong that was done if there’s no accountability at the end of life. The person who does something wrong and has to account for it is less likely to worry what they themselves think of it, for they know there’s an objective arbiter at the end of the show.

Which line of belief tends toward inspiring the more moral actions? Empirically, we see that people tend to be better people in front of others. They are more likely to pick up trash, offer generosity, be kind, help someone, disregard selfishness if someone is looking. When that extra impetus of judgment is removed, people tend to devolve toward their baser selves, prioritizing self over others and ignoring moral obligations. This impact is clearly flattened for those who believe they are always being watched, especially by the most important judge of character. And where do things that even devout atheists believe to be dubious take place? In secret, in the shadows, behind closed doors. Stealing, cheating (on tests, spouses, or contests), individual violence – these things are all shielded from public scrutiny and almost none would take place without the veil of privacy. Those who believe or imagine that someone is always over their shoulder observing and taking notes are far less able to take such actions.

Obviously it would be ideal if everyone were motivated and inspired to act perfectly even without the notion that someone is watching them. Moral action should be taken for its own sake and ideally not merely for the sake of avoiding punishment. (Although I must note that my own theology believes there is accountability and expectation without direct punishment or reward.) However, it seems highly unrealistic that this developmental stage of humans in this backwards and tempting world is capable of expecting most of its denizens to act rightly without someone watching. More importantly, it’s not even clear to me why we would want privacy or to feel like someone isn’t watching our moves. If we are to be good and inspiring people, shouldn’t we be trying to live more publicly, more openly, more clearly in order to interact, communicate, synergize, and motivate?

Privacy is not your friend. Publicity is not your enemy. Even if you don’t believe, imagining yourself taking actions before your best friend or your worst enemy is most helpful to checking your own temptation to act poorly. Even if you believe firmly that there is no evidence for the existence of God, that such a belief is irrational, it seems fairly clear that convincing yourself to act as though there were a God will make you more likely to be a good person and act morally. Forget Pascal’s wager – that’s just trying to game the system for a reward. This is Pascal’s wager for everyone else – they will derive more benefit from you if you don’t believe there are shadows where you can skulkingly give in to your baser instincts. And if we all agreed to this, then we might actually start getting somewhere on this thus far increasingly hopeless rock sphere.

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The Way Life Used to Be

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Just Add Photo, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Boy, can I not wait for this year to be over! Who’s with me? Yesterday I found out that I need a root canal, which joins my wife leaving me and kidney stones as great things that have happened in the second half of 2010. Not all of these things are equal, of course, but the piling on could really stand to stop. Forgive my lack of posting lately, but sometimes trying to live one’s life overrides trying to chronicle it. Suffice it to say I don’t feel totally poetic lately.

A couple days ago, though, I joined my parents for a trip to Bandelier National Monument. I’d thought it was my first time ever there, but upon arriving I realized I’d been there briefly with my Dad once before, though not climbed up toward any of the cliff dwellings or anything terribly detailed. This time, I took lots of pictures so I wouldn’t forget:


The remains of the dwellings at the base of the cliff.


The holes in the cliff face are all either footholds or former dwellings.


The cliff face.


Looking up the cliff.


Cool formations, with a vista beyond.


The view from the cliff.


Dad with his camera.


Reminds me of Yosemite.


The old apartments.


Lookout.


The old community below the cliffs.


High rise.


Easy access.


Hole in the wall.


Majestic.


Dwellings more conveniently located.


Cactus!


The sign between my parents says “Do not handle the bats.” We saw no bats.


Winter scene.


The remaining snow.


Red wood.


At the base of an upcoming climb! (The camera case belonged to other photographic tourists.)


Going up…


A light in the distance.


High atop the cliff.


Streaked with airplanes.


Sunset in the distance.


The highest kiva.


Sun sets on the highest kiva.


Various distances.


From within the kiva.


Twilight.


The loneliest tree.


Going down, with people I don’t know.


I climbed down the ladders facing out from the wall, since they felt a little more like steps.


Looking back at where I stood, ensconced in the cliff wall high above.


My favorite tree in the park.


When I hit the parking lot, I thought the closest car was actually my car. From a distance, it even looked like it had yellow Jersey plates. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that they were Nuevo plates. Upon even closer inspection, it was revealed that the plates read “119 PFT”. As in 119, my current address in Jersey. As in pft, the dismissive onomatopoetic statement of derision. As in, maybe the idea of staying east is laughable. Yeah. This moved me pretty significantly, though it hasn’t managed to literally follow suit. Yet.


Nifty sign near the little village of shops and ranger housing near the visitor center.


On the drive home through the Jemez Mountains, we saw this gorgeous winter horizon.


Dad got out the binoculars to look at a distant herd of elk.


Aspens in snow.


Bonus shots from my parents’ camera: it’s me, looking strangely happy.


Bonus shot 2: me climbing.


Bonus shot 3: my mother and I on an untolled bridge.

Before the year ends, it’s supposed to snow again, my friend Brandzy is supposed to show up, and I may write in this space at least once more to sum up what has almost certainly amounted to the worst year of my life, despite the successes at Rutgers debate and the completion of my third novel. As I once told Mike Galya, there’s really only one portion of one’s life that really matters. 2011, you better be better.

by

Second Street Soliloquy

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“Courage is when you’re afraid
but you keep on moving anyway
courage is when you’re in pain
but you keep on living anyway

It’s not how many times you’ve been knocked down
it’s how many times you get back up

Courage is when you’ve lost your way
but you find your strength anyway
courage is when you’re afraid
courage is when it all seems gray
courage is when you make a change
and you keep on living anyway”

-Orianthi (via The Strange Familiar), “Courage”

This song has been following me around lately, most recently finding me on the way to Fish’s at a time I was starting to feel particularly haunted again. One of those “awareness is never enough” moments to be sure, even though it seems sort of innately silly that such moments can come with frequently heard radio songs. I remember finding significance in every time “The Freshmen” by Verve Pipe came on, even though it was probably #1 in the country for most of that summer. I also remember a time just after when “Brick” by Ben Folds Five came on at precisely the right time and my counterparts and I shook a late-night hotel parking garage with the reverberation of speakers echoing against our plaintive sing-along cries. That was a night I balanced off a fifteen-story interior balcony and later ripped up a dollar bill to post, ticket-like, under the windshield wiper of the most expensive car I could find. I would long call it the best buck I ever spent.

It’s easy to feel like the radio is speaking to you, especially at nights when you’re alone and the power of your feelings is so great that it feels like it’s almost extracting penance from whatever DJ is on the other end of the signal. I’m using the second person not as a crutch, but to convey the singularity of feeling spoken to that the radio itself provides at such times. You can go around and around as many have about whether pop songs reflect our emotions because they are trite and corny but have manufactured similar shallowness in our hearts or whether they reflect fundamental truths that cut to the core of emotions we try to complicate and mystify in our own minds when, deep down, people are really quite simple. I don’t have a horse in that race, but you might. I just feel and react as sincerely as I can when it feels like the world is talking. And I’m listening a lot lately, especially.

Driving back from Fish’s house has involved late nights on Second Street in Albuquerque ever since my family first moved from the place on 12th Street to the current location on Silver in the midst of luminaria central. I’d long discovered 2nd’s superiority to 4th, the slightly larger street more famously close to Fish’s windy back-road domicile. It’s got higher speed limits and fewer lights and way fewer businesses with drunk and/or distracted drivers pulling out into traffic without looking so much as one way. So for nigh on a decade or so, I’ve been wandering back from late nights and early mornings at the place long lovingly dubbed “The Tank” (where does a Fish live?) between the straight-shot painted lines that demarcate Second.

Early on, Second Street is as much hinterland as anything, but as it approaches downtown, there is an eerieness that creeps in, especially in winter. I forget about it almost every drive, or more accurately every first drive of the season I’ve returned home concurrent with Fish. Albuquerque’s downtown buildings tend to be lit in various colors at night, especially during December, and Second is particularly partial to purples and greens. Additionally, Civic Center shows up on Second, a wide-open expanse of paved space that’s so clearly designed for throngs of people, yet so often empty. Needless to say, the confluence of lights and buildings, against an often misty frigid backdrop of winter sky creates an aura of presence and even prescience rarely felt in vehicular transit.

But it is the echoes of such prior experiences and revelations, many themselves already documented on this page in one place or another, at one time or another, that really compounded the feeling tonight. I remember early trips down Second in the green Kia, blasting music of my own choice wrenched from any awareness-yielding fates lingering at the touch of a far-flung jockey. “A Murder of One” at top volume, with thoughts of at least two different girls vying for my heartache. The liberation of loud music belted along to in the company of self alone, the release of such insane frustration at one’s personal state, the glinting possibility of the dead of night contrasting against the vast emptiness of darkness itself. “Change, change, change!” And things, they did. Later trips down Second Street (memory lane?) with Emily herself, even relating the stories of my lonely angsty nights years prior, warmed and heartened by having finally secured love and having her fall asleep to murmuring stories of yore after a long night with friends and games and camaraderie, the throes of knowing exactly how lucky and happy I was in the moment I was feeling it. An awareness that seemingly could only come with the totem of the asphalt beneath us and its solidity, its unflinching sameness, the constancy of the buildings and the environs and even the lighting that evoked resonance. And now, full circle, back again and alone, raging against wrongs present and imagined futures in a quieter, hollower, aged way. Only to pass Civic Center and discover that it was precisely past two, the bars of Central emptying themselves of short-skirted revelers and their bravadoing cohorts, all spilling in an overdressed but underclothed mass into the damp night air. The concern that one or another might trip and fall into the path of the oncoming gray Kia, the fourth car utilized in this unending lifelong procession from one home to another.

I have no conclusions for this nighttime series of visions, only the sinking feeling of being thrust into a hologram, of seeing the shadowy ethereal nature of reality blinking back at me but being no more able to seize it or control it than I could hold down a phantom and demand the answers. It’s a little like a Ray Bradbury story, “Night Meeting”, but I am the Martian I am colliding with, blending the story almost into “Night Call, Collect” as well. But I am not here to torment my past or future, either, just to nod at it, to sagely wave as I pass through versions of myself, stalling and humming at red, sailing along through green.

Time is an illusion in this world, a well held and reinforced one, but a fraud nonetheless. To be able to see through it, to capture the constancy of what underlies our lives, surely that must be what most of this metaphor is trying to show us. Damned if I can see it, or how, or why, but I can detect the underlying attributes, the essence of what is being shown. Hello, Storey. It’s Storey. You will live and love and feel pain and mostly, even between friend and family, you will be alone. You will feel alone. And no matter how well or much or deeply you connect, no one will ever understand. Not really. Not fully. This is your lot. And it will be okay. For maybe in the manufacturing of multiple selves through time, you will find the understanding from another that you crave so deeply. Even if that other is merely yourself in another mirror.

But tomorrow is luminaria day and now you must rest, if only for a little while. Good night.

by

The UMBC Redemption

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

The 2002 American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was one of the great highs and lows of my life. It marked the culmination of my competitive debate career and a turning point in my relationship with the woman who would become my (first) wife. It would long be remembered as my favorite weekend of debate despite becoming a crippling and embittering disappointment in terms of my actual debate performance. And in light of events of this year, the whole event would retroactively transform into a debacle, with the one grand saving moment of both the weekend and my life (perhaps the best story about me that exists) becoming yet another tired tragedy in a litany of a lifetime of mistakes.

The tournament got off to a great start, long before the tournament itself. Brandeis was in the habit of renting a team van to attend the National Championship, a tradition I believe started by our coach Greg once we got in the habit of qualifying teams for Nationals. While we were heavily laden with the teams who’d qualled and our additional free seed, a number of judges were also along for the ride, mostly younger debaters who’d just missed as part of a year I spent seemingly dropping semifinals by one ballot almost every weekend. These included close friend Nikki, who was the only person in the world fully informed about my personal intentions for the weekend after a late-night post-practice conversation about where I saw my life going. And then someone went and suggested that they braid my hair.

I’d had my hair braided a couple times before, most notably at the Senior Retreat in high school, a weekend I’ve long remembered as the lowest point in my life after the age of ten and perhaps the saddest I’ve ever grappled with being until 2010. It’s always been an amateur effort by a group of bored girls, though I usually really enjoy the look and feel of the results, at least until my head starts itching a few days in. For this tournament, there was something particularly important about taking up the spontaneous offer of hair-braiding – I’d always wanted to attend a tournament with my hair in braids and there was something about the freeing nature of doing something so unconventional and even bizarre in the most important, serious, and ultimate tournament I’d ever faced that felt like a necessary rite. I remember the bewildered looks of many rival debaters as I entered the halls, debaters who expected me to be one of the contenders for the Championship, wondering why I’d decided to go off the deep end at such a pivotal time.

Thanks to the power of photography and preservation, you don’t have to take my words for it:

My recall for the round-by-round progress of that tournament is uncanny to this day. I would mentally replay the competitions and speeches on lonely train rides and in late-hour contemplation, in downtime at numerous jobs and drives. First round against Yale novices, Korn and Bendor (the former of whom went on to become an APDA President and help me run the 2007 Vassar Nationals five years later), and they ran a case against civil disobedience. Phil Folkemer of Maryland judging. The goofy grins that Tirrell and I exchanged when they read the case statement, the flawless opportunity it gave me to wax eloquent on my personally favorite topics. Round two, judged by an UMBC dino who seemed twice my age, removed his shoes, but still looked askance at my wild and unkempt ‘do. Hitting Joe Ross and his partner, the same Joe I’d met at the debate camp I hadn’t wanted to attend in the summer of ’97, the same place I’d met Kate who was directing that selfsame tournament, the camp that seemed to all but save my life at the time from the bottomless rabbit hole I was dropping down. Joe who was dating my girlfriend’s best friend and debate partner, the concentric circles of a nine-year debate career looping and spilling, combining and recombining into an effortless beautiful confused mosaic. We ran the Professor case, our classic first-rounder, cruised easily into a 2-0 record despite the judge’s possible misgivings about my reckless youth.

Just two rounds on Friday for a title tournament, then gearing up for the next day. The irony of talking briefly about the Lottery case, the one we’d prepped for Emily and Lauren just in case, given that they were perhaps the only opp team we fully respected at the contest. Emily asking me how to opp the case idly on our way into the tournament together. My joke, my mysterious smile: “Well I’m not going to tell you that now.” A dead giveaway of what we’d run when, horror of horrors, they posted round three and we were in fact Gov against Princeton CG.

The round that became unfortunately ugly, Lauren and Drew getting fiercely competitive as Em was upset about our case choice and I was just trying to enjoy my last round running my favorite case. Speeches going well over time, getting docked for scores apparently already suffering, and then the realization going into round four that we’d just put my girlfriend on the brink of elimination from Nationals, which was (as was the general tradition, the prior year excepted) breaking only to quarterfinals. And both our teams, speaks tanked, hitting our two respective least favorite teams. Me squaring off against the President of APDA, a fierce rival of both Emily’s and mine. Emily against Yale’s top team of juniors, the same group who’d gotten her to unknowingly prep against me at Worlds and then bragged to the whole American contingent about throwing a wedge in our relationship.

And then the judging debacles ensued, a mad scramble of scratched and ineligible judges leading to a sophomore panel for Emily’s round and our round being judged by an ex of mine, another Florida high school debater, more circles spinning and spinning around this epic series of events. To top it off, the Columbia rivals chose to run a case I’d already hit, no less when debating with Kate for our first time ever her freshman year, one I’d long remembered for its topic being organ donation and my LOR crystallizing into themed tags about different organs, including “The Appendix: extra extraneous stuff in their case that doesn’t help”. I gave basically the same opp, basically the same LOR, and we won this time around. The MG from that team would be dead within a half-decade, but no one knew that then. He’d beaten Emily for the APDA Presidency the year before and nothing he’d done since had endeared him to either of us. Emily would spend as much of her senior speech calling him out as thanking anyone else.

On to the 4-0 round, a matchup with defending National Finalists, current Team of the Year, and future (spoiler alert!) National Champions, the other top-rated Princeton team. We had a fabulous round with them about where to try Milosevic, a case they ran and did well, though we ended up disagreeing with Steve Maloney’s call that we hadn’t carried the contest. I remember an ornery and bored-seeming younger brother of Yoni watching the round, seeming utterly disinterested in debate as he was treated to a real showcase round. The same kid would go on to debate quite ably for Yale, including a great performance in the best round I would ever judge, a match between he and his partner and a Stanford team in a bubble round at Nationals 2006.

4-1 still left us a shot at the break, though the quality of our competition was indicating to us that our speaker points must be pretty poor. Emily had already learned they’d dropped 4th round to Yale and would need a miracle to try to become the one 2-down team to break. With our points, it was utterly clear we needed to win. We were Gov against good friends and excellent opponents Raj & Phil from MIT. We had burned Lottery. It was the most important round I’d faced since National semifinals the year before. It threatened to be my last. Drew and I looked through the casefile. I almost whispered “Reparations”. He looked askance at me. We’d never run it together in competition. It was perhaps the most open case in our file. But one, like Lottery, that I really believed in. He asked if I was sure. I nodded definitively. “If this is my last round ever, this is exactly what I want to be running.”

It wasn’t our last round ever, nor as it would turn out even the last time that I’d run that case, given Emily’s and my return to APDA four years later for a one-tournament sequel. We put it all on the line for that debate, asking the US government to give $1,000,000 to every man, woman, and child born on a reservation or whose parents were. It’s the only time we ran that case without it being recorded and it was by far the best that case ever did. At one point, panicking, MIT actually suggested that we weren’t giving enough to Native Americans, that perhaps the only real apology would be actually bankrupting the United States. We won and were in, though it would take many long hours of agonizing waiting for us to learn that.

During those hours, I spoke to Emily about their chances, about how much my former teammate, the President of ‘Deis debate when I’d joined, had liked their 6th round and given them a shot to break with high points. I took the braids out of my hair in preparation for the formal banquet. I nervously contemplated my plans for said banquet, ideas I’d discussed as possible with Em at some point so as not to put her unfairly on the spot, but to still make a magic moment. My hair was curled and crinkled as we dressed in our hotel room for the pending announcement, both of us on pins and needles about all to follow that fateful night.

Off we went. The vegetarian offering was disappointing, the hotel’s standard introduction of servers a cringeworthy combination of Disney and racism. We could barely eat. The nerves and tension mounted. Lots were drawn for the order of senior speeches and Emily secured the last one of the night. I asked to trade with her. She smiled at me sideways and said okay.

The speeches rolled on, shorter than normal at the behest of UMBC who, like the Disneyesque introduction, was losing the banquet hall at midnight. I was finally called, almost over time already. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my longest speech on APDA, calling out that same President briefly before launching into an ode to the people I’d loved so dearly and competed with so fiercely for four years. I closed with two people. The first was the host of that tournament, an old and important friend from that debate camp and everything that followed. The second was Emily. I only spoke briefly of her before losing myself in emotion and noting that I had a question to ask her if she could come up to the front.

It was the second-happiest moment of my life (the happiest to that point), but somehow cannot remain so. Or maybe it will until something somehow surpasses it, something that God-willing will not fall victim to the eternal tarnish of time. It is a moment that prompts tears and breaks my heart to even begin to contemplate, one that did plenty of both at the moment. That hushed ripple of rising shock when I said that sentence still makes every nerve ending tingle. I can recall every second of that slow walk all the way from the back of the room. Everything slows to almost a standstill, then I get up, hug her, and everything goes into warp speed. A hundred congratulations, a thousand smiles. I almost didn’t notice when they announced that Brandeis CT had advanced to quarterfinals.

We were facing NYU A, including a person who, as I noted at the open of my LOC, had judged my very first APDA round ever, a contest at Columbia Novice, which Kraig and I went on to win, where I also had to LOC, this time following a 150-second PMC from Riley McCormick. She went on to get much better and I somehow scrambled about 6 and a half minutes of responses out of her barely outlined case. I remain uncertain to this day how he was qualified to judge that round and yet also had a year of eligibility left for that tournament concurrent with my own senior year, but I don’t mean to cast aspersions. I’m sure it was all above board. What happened that round, though, never seemed quite so much to me.

The auditorium was packed, a steep rising lecture hall that had clearly decided this was the quarterfinal to watch. There were some surprises in the break and a couple noticeable absences, including Emily and the same MIT team we’d edged in 6th round. It wasn’t until awards that we learned the latter was supposed to break but hadn’t due to a mathematical tabulation error. But us against NYU was a battle more predicted for semis or even later, and we had the edge on Opp. Only three judges were in the round to decide the contest.

Had there been a floor vote, we would have won by an almost 95-5 margin. But only three opinions mattered. One was clearly with us. One was against us for reasons that sounded strange, but I ultimately felt were sincere. And the tiebreaking vote was from someone who, as I flashed through my memories of his time at that tournament after the heartbreaking announcement of our 2-1 loss, I could not separate from images of our opponents. Indeed, I still have run across pictures from that tournament where he is in every car, every room, every table, every situation hanging out with our two opponents. They were the closest of friends.

Which would be somewhat acceptable had he been able to give me a coherent reason for his decision. But it rapidly became apparent he’d made no effort whatsoever to adjudicate the round at all. His flow was almost blank and he stumbled over forming the beginnings of a sentence about why he’d voted Gov. After five minutes of stammering, the judge who’d voted for us intently listening as well with increasing concern, he finally said “Look, it’s not about you guys personally.” To which I looked him straight in the eye and said “I know. It’s about them personally and that’s why this is an illegitimate decision.”

There was no recourse for the apparent travesty and I long blamed my close friend Kate for these events, at least in part, though my calling out of her tournament’s tab policies hurt her perhaps even more than I felt hurt by unfairly losing my last round ever. The ensuing conflicts led to a long-time dissolution of our friendship that we have only recently patched up, exacerbated by a series of slights and indignities that seem to mar many friendships that become infused with the heat of personal competition and ego. I handled it poorly. She made some mistakes too. These things happen between people. I am learning to try to figure out how to forgive. But there are many people in my life who I can give a second chance to, even if I don’t forgive them fully. Even if they can’t try to take that second chance.

Suddenly the tournament was a crushing failure. Yes, I was now engaged, and yes, we’d had a great run. But my debate career was suddenly over, just when I’d been preparing for semifinals as so many around me had told me how certain it was we’d dominated quarters. I couldn’t bear to watch semis, making sure to recommend that the Chicago team hitting NYU protest that judge’s empaneling before I took off for a long walk around campus. I returned for finals, featuring that same NYU team, forlornly telling some Harvard kids about the case Drew and I had prepped for National Finals while we watched a round about libertarianism instead. They promptly stole the case and ran it at Triangulars next weekend. But Emily and I would get to run it at BU Finals four years later and you can listen to the round.

Fast-forward eight years and seven months. I am back at UMBC for the first time since that fateful weekend. My marriage has ended in betrayal. My life has wended back to debate in a big way. And while it’s not Nationals and we didn’t have a big rented van and it’s a really bad idea to braid someone’s hair while they’re driving, something like that same team spirit has gelled and coalesced at the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU).

Our best team went north to MIT by themselves and, as of this writing, it looks like their being awarded 9th team and just being kept out of the break was the result of a mathematical tabulation error – they should have been the 6th or 7th breaking team. Left to their own devices, the five teams we took to UMBC all consisted of first- or second-year debaters, all kids I’d tutored from the beginning of their time with parliamentary debate. Chris and Ashley were fresh off their first varsity break together at the massive Fordham tournament just before Thanksgiving. Krishna and Bhargavi were fresh off losing a bubble round at the last tourney they’d attended together just before Krishna’s finger was smashed in a car-door and kept her out of competition for a while. Our novice teams had put together some good performances lately. But without our top team, how would we fare?

The tournament was no cake-walk. We thought Chris and Ashley were undefeated after Friday, but it turns out we were all 2-1 or 1-2 at that point. Our novice teams had both gotten out of the gate 0-2. We weren’t even sure they were breaking to quarterfinals, meaning that all of our teams might have almost been out at that point. And then it became Saturday.

We got our pairings and it was evident no one was 3-0. People prepared cases, went off to rounds. Krishna & Bhargavi came back bubbling about a spectacular 4th round and got the information they’d won 3rd round after being worried about it. Chris & Ashley returned confident. The stage was set for important bubble rounds. And then Chris & Ashley drew the highest-ranked team in attendance, the nation’s 6th team from Hopkins. They were nervous, but finally were able to be pep-talked into not being intimidated. They felt good about the round afterwards, but weren’t at all sure of the outcome, of what the judge would focus on. And then, after pizza and waiting and long last, the announcements came.

First, our novice hybrid team was into novice finals. Then, Chris & Ashley broke. Then, Krishna & Bhargavi did too. Suddenly there was a World-Series-like mob of breaking debaters on the side of our row in the General Assembly lecture hall. Two teams in quarterfinals, including the first break ever for Krishna & Bhargavi. Maybe this UMBC tour was going to be different.

While Krishna & Bhargavi were out of cases and had to borrow one for a tough round in quarters, Chris & Ashley were well prepped and took down a Fordham team 2-1 with one of their classics. Then I was given the semifinal round off from judging, a nod from a tab staff well stocked with judges and knowing that I’d probably like a chance to see my team. We went down a cinder-block tunnel and I almost froze. I realized what couldn’t quite be true – this lecture hall where Chris & Ashley were about to debate for a trip to their first final round was the same one that had hosted my last qualified competitive round ever. Quarters at Nats 2002. At first I thought I’d been wrong because the desk up front was different – I told myself it was just very similarly situated and sloped. But as I examined the desk, I realized it had to be a new computerized addition not present in 2002. And after comparing it to this old picture from that round:

…it was all too clear. And for extra fun, one of the panelists on this semifinal panel was the legitimate of the two who’d dropped me so many years ago in that ultimate round. I had a sinking feeling. Would history repeat itself? I dug into the seat for the round between Maryland and Rutgers and watched.

At first, I was a bit nervous. Chris was on his game in LOC, but his time management wasn’t amazing. And then Ashley started to really turn things around in MOC, setting up what turned out to be one of the best opp-blocks I’ve ever seen. Chris’ LOR was nearly flawless. A kid I’d seen often be rough and flailing was polished, rhetorical, inspiring. I was taken aback. The PMR was strong, but there was no way we were dropping this one. It was half an hour until we heard a 5-0 decision favored Rutgers. Chris & Ashley were going to finals and a win away from both qualifying for Nationals.

The Final was a treat. Chris & Ashley had fun with a case from the back-burner of Fordham’s file and made the right choice of those offered them in an entertaining opp-choice. They won a 6-3, us tensely waiting for the announcement that was started, stopped, and restarted three times after we’d learned of many other great awards detailed in this post on the RUDU blog. The exuberance was overwhelming with the announcement, the sheer joy and shock pouring out that as I well recall only the very first tournament win can bring. Indeed, after collecting their trophy, Ashley and especially Chris actually tackled me to the ground in celebration:

Getting up slowly from the floor, almost teary and completely mindblown, I came to terms with the incredible pinnacles and troughs of human emotion and experience. I’ve been talking periodically about my writing The Best of All Possible Worlds tearing open a portal of surreality in my life that may never again close. That the fork in the road taken by the completion of that piece has irreparably heightened the extremity of everything that follows. It’s a weird, vaguely extreme thing to believe, and yet you may understand if and when you read it. The quarterfinal round I judged was about the interpretation of art and made for a fascinating debate. And yet I must conclude that titles should always be bigger than authors’ names on book covers, because any good work is far greater than the author could have intended. And what if in crafting that work, I crafted undeniable surreality for myself and the rest of my days? What is to anchor us to the present, to the understanding that our lives are indeed as random and mundane as probability would lead us to believe?

I don’t have answers today, a lazy Sunday spent basking and recovering from the enormity of all these memories compiled and reconfigured, for both the worse and the better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so much fun as a debate tournament as this Saturday at UMBC. It’s quite a replacement for a prior Saturday at UMBC. I will be processing this and more for a long time to come. But for 24 hours, I’ve been happy. And I’ve lived through enough to know just how to appreciate that. I pulled Chris & Ashley aside to remind them before the Final round of just one thing: to have fun. To appreciate what they were about to experience. I have to pull myself aside and remember that too sometimes. Now, mostly. Right now.

by

Handwriting Analysis (or: the Role of Coincidence?)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Strangers on a Train, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , ,

It’s been a rough couple days in the northeast. People say things like that which they have no business saying. Most people in the northeast have probably been doing just fine. There’s preparations for what appears to be the northeast’s favorite holiday in the offing. After all, Thanksgiving was born around here, built on the backs of people who have since been chased out or eradicated, leaving only the overstuffed turkeys and their caretakers to gloat over the bounty of having more ruthless ancestors than others.

Highland Park today is dressed up in its Thanksgiving finest: overcast and all the leaves have faded to that brown dead crinkle that rattles above or crunches below and makes everything look like red-brown Thanksgiving print napkins. People walk quickly and wear jackets universally and seem even more hurried and annoyed than usual. Maybe it’s from this observation that I acquire the hubris to say things like it’s been a rough couple days in this part of the world. Maybe it’s from spending the better part of a subway ride and an extended period in Penn Station crying without a soul bothering to so much as ask if I was okay.

Yesterday I got home and caught up with the things online I’d missed over the weekend. One of these, among my favorites, is checking out PostSecret, reading the scattered private thoughts of countless strangers as illustrated by their innermost ravings. It’s an idea we all wish we’d thought of and one very much in line with my ideals as a person writing this blog – the exposure of normally suppressed feelings so they might live, breathe, communicate, and ultimately hearten. And then my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a stark postcard:

And the hovering over the card on the page led to the flipping of the ‘card to the back:

Now, this one would’ve caught my eye anyway for a couple reasons. A, I read all the cards anyway and usually pause to contemplate all the implications. B, this is pretty much exactly what Emily would tell you about our situation, though I can’t necessarily speak to the relationship status of the other person involved, so who knows. But the most important issue is that the handwriting on this card is identical to that of said individual. Trust me, I had almost a decade to learn that handwriting, to watch it over her shoulder on debate flows or see it on hastily scrawled notes left behind or to read it on a notebook or textbook I was carefully lifting off her sleeping torso where it had fallen on her exhausted frame.

Now there’s some realistic counterpoints to consider. For one thing, the odds of Emily sending anything to a website like PostSecret are basically nill. The second thing, the most powerful, is that the postmark faintly visible on the back says SC 290, indicating pretty clearly that it was mailed from somewhere in South Carolina, where many zip codes start with those three digits. Is it possible she concocted some obscure way to send a card to Carolina for its submission to Germantown, MD? Sure, but any sense of feasibility or reality is pretty much knocking this down to zero. I often wonder about those postmarks and whether there’s some PostSecret sharing syndicate to make sure that especially high-voltage cards aren’t traceable even to a particular state, but I think this is considered an acceptable risk by most people.

No, the far more likely explanation is that someone else with Emily’s precise handwriting found herself in an almost identical situation to hers, or more appropriately one they would describe the same way. At which point, all kinds of larger cosmic questions arise. There have long been serious subscribers to the theory that handwriting is an indication of personality. In fact, many prison programs attempt to rehab criminals by changing their handwriting first under the theory that the link between letter shape and mental frame is so significant that it can be reverse-engineered. So what does this handwriting indicate about loyalty, faithfulness, approach to marriage? And out there, somewhere, someone who is not Emily or the author of this postcard is reading this and thinking that this handwriting looks an awful lot like theirs and wondering about the role of micro-destiny in their own path.

All this would seem to carry a little less weight had I not nearly bowled into Gwen on the street again the other day, in the midst of ill-informed debaters getting us lost on the streets of New York City on the way to Fordham. (Which, by the way, went pretty well.) She’ll forgive me for reprinting from her subsequent e-mail to me: “I’m starting to feel as though we’re being a bit cosmically messed with. Like we’re tinseled cut-outs in some toy theater production that just happens to be our lives.” And she, like most everyone, hasn’t even read The Best of All Possible Worlds yet. I’m starting to feel like that book is the cork in the center of the island on “Lost” – once I released it, deep important secrets were on the loose that wound up turning my whole life upside-down. This is a ridiculous thing to think, objectively, but most empirical studies would reaffirm it anyway, especially in light of how reality-bending the work itself is. All this would feel less significant had Russ not spent ten minutes trying to explain how LA feels small compared to NYC because you can always bump into people in the former and he never once bumps into someone he knows in NYC because it’s too vast, even though he knows tons of the City’s denizens. And then I told him my experience was a little different.

My experience is always a little different, it seems. Most people don’t have the capacity for such high volumes of things, be it crying or talking or writing or marveling at the construction of the world’s interactions. It’s not very realistic or practical to spend such time on such things. It’s better to do the dishes or laundry or buy furniture or hang pictures and somehow keep it all together. But it’s not all together and rote mundane tasks rarely help keep things that way. All I can do is contemplate, try to keep everything in perspective, throw up the poisons that seem to enter my system, and try to keep the phone charged for when I myself am running out of juice. It’s a good thing I have several scheduled days with other people coming up. Russ’ll be here in 90 minutes and all my dishes are in the sink.

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Won’t Somebody Save Me Please?: a Desperate Plea from a Loaded Catapult, also known as a Counting Crows Show

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: , ,

All of a sudden she disappears
just yesterday she was here
somebody tell me if I am sleeping
someone should be with me here
cause I don’t wanna be alone

As already indicated, it’s been a crazy last few days. The way things are going, almost everything is becoming believable at this point. But before I knew the extent of the damage to the apartment here or the extent of damage my body had suddenly started taking, I decided to go to a Counting Crows show in Montclair, New Jersey, since they had extra tickets for the 18 August show. And since I’d missed the show I was scheduled to attend on July 31st. And since I needed an emotional bloodletting, of which Counting Crows shows are the best kind I know. And since I don’t care what happens to me anymore. And since I just need to find a way to get through the next eight days, likely in many ways to be the most painful of my life thus far. Those of you who know what’s going on know exactly why that is.

I wanna be the knife
that cuts into my hand
and I wanna be scattered
from here in this catapult
what a big baby
won’t somebody save me please?
won’t find nobody home

I found Montclair, New Jersey to be something of a dying small-town community feel nestled in the midst of an industrial wasteland. This probably sounds a little worse than it is, but I haven’t exactly been in the most flattering of moods lately about anything. Everything looks dead or dying, everything seems to be atrophying, everything has the stench of broken dreams. The miniature downtown of Montclair seems to be built around the newly reopened and revitalized Wellmont Theatre, a pretty nifty little venue long fallen into disrepair and recently rescued. If the fellow line-waiting front-row patrons are to be believed, the ceiling is still in danger of collapse and they have a thin excuse for netting up there to make sure no one takes a direct plaster hit if so. Against the odds, the building remained intact not only while I bought tickets, waited an hour or so in line, and jetted up to the second row on the floor, but even through the duration of the emotional turmoil unleashed when CC and their friends took the stage.

All of these quiet battered voices
wait for the hunger to come
we’ve got little revolvers
and stupid choices
no one to say when we’re done
well I don’t wanna bring you down

This is part of their summer tour and their summer tours lately have been subheaded The Traveling Circus and Medicine Show, an innovative amalgam of whatever three bands they have grouped together, all switching out songs and sets and playing two acts with an encore like a seamless 20-piece band. It’s not exactly my favorite incarnation of the Crows, but it works pretty well most of the time, even when they have an angry joke of a white rapper as the third piece in their triage. There’s a rockabilly sensibility to this manifestation of their live act, but this particular show lacked most of the boisterous highs one would typically expect to come along with that. Adam Duritz seemed more dazed than I felt, often staring into space and almost muttering lyrics in a dejected haze. It wasn’t sloppy or misdelivered in any way, though – it was deliberate, calculated, crafted. It spoke of a person whose life has whizzed past him, leaving him to contemplate the rubble. It spoke to me.

I wanna be the light
that burns out your eyes
cause I know there’s little things about me
that would sing in the silence of
so much rejection in every connection I make
can’t find nobody home

I wept, literally, through six of the songs. Having been to something like ten Counting Crows shows, I have long come to expect that they will move me, that I will find them religious experiences, that the poetry and pathos of the live delivery will shake my foundations and reignite the core of my soul, for both good and for sad. What I am often not prepared for is that even my expectations of transcendence will be exceeded and surpassed. That the phrase “Awareness is Never Enough – It Must Always Be Wonder” is so frequently made corporeal in those unexpected moments of a CC show. What song will they build into what other song? What meaning will be encompassed or recalculated in such a way as to render the entire deepest voice of a song bare in a new and scintillating light? What will cut so hard and so fast to the quick that one’s heart will bleed anew, pouring forth a whole new reason for pouring? This is the emotional breakdown and rebuild, the evisceration and glinting hope, that these shows offer.

I wanna be the light
that burns out your eyes
cause I know there’s little things about me
that would sing in the silence of
so much rejection in every connection I make
I wanna be the last thing that you hear when you’re falling asleep

It was actually Augustana who offered me one of the most painful and beautiful moments when they stuck “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” in the middle of “Boston”. I openly bled tears, taken back to both a moment on a bus in Scotland convinced I was going to die when that song came blaring over the speakers to give me hope and also to the understanding of the song’s original purpose: an open letter to a suicide, committed to voice too late to make any difference for that one but submitted all the same in hopes of saving others. Suddenly the fact that “you don’t know me and you don’t even care” was cut back by the fact that we’re all “stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it”. It was at that moment, after a long soliloquy on growing up in light of “Up All Night” and two songs before “Catapult” that the song selection stopped speaking to me and started being for me, about me, through me. By the time “Time and Time Again” was paired back-to-back with “Richard Manuel is Dead” near the open of the second act, I was slayed and begging for more.

I wanna be the knife
that cuts into my hand
and I wanna be scattered
from here in this catapult
what a big baby
won’t somebody take me please?
can’t find nobody home

It’s impossible to explain everything I’m feeling or thinking or going through now, or was then. It’s impossible to explain the importance of “Richard Manuel is Dead”, Emily’s favorite Crows song, or the precise implications of the way Adam sang “A Murder of One”, centering on a to-me-unprecedented line of “I need to change,” observing and reflecting on the painful nature of growing up through things one shouldn’t have to experience. By the time “Rain King” was offering hope “With a Little Help from My Friends”, I’d already settled in a numb fuzzy-faced coma of crying to the point of catharsis. It was no wonder that I stumbled home to find a dumpster overturned by the storm in the parking space normally reserved for the Prius and would be in the Emergency Room within a few hours, dealing with the extraction of kidney stones. Every day, hour, minute, is its own special trial. And like the singing of a song or the passing of a kidney stone, the pain embedded deep in each moment makes the overall picture impossible to even grasp. No wonder Emily seems capable of such callous calculation and diffident distance. No one could hope to understand what’s happening without living through each second. Even me.

Caravan
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
Omaha
[NOTAR]
Up All Night
Stars and Boulevards
Boston (with Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of)
Steal Your Heart Away
Twenty Years

Catapult
[NOTAR]
Why Should You Come When I Call?
You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Four White Stallions
Time and Time Again
Richard Manuel is Dead
Safe and Sound
A Murder of One (with Doris Day)
[NOTAR x2]
Just Like a Woman
Dust
Shot in the Dark
Sweet and Low

Come Around
A Long December (with A Murder of One)
Hanginaround

Rain King (with With a Little Help from My Friends)
This Land is Your Land

(Augustana songs in italics; NOTAR songs not named)

by

Summer Chill

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s amazing how important titles are to my work. I have almost never written a post for this blog without knowing the title in advance of laying down a single word. One of the very few counterexamples was my last post, in which I wrote the title between the last words and the hitting of the slightly pretentious “Publish” button at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t know what the theme was for that post until I finished it. Ironically, the theme was themes themselves, or “threads”.

The theme for this post is “Summer Chill”. There are many possible interpretations of that phrase and I would hazard that all of them are relevant to the intended scope of this post. Read closely, pay attention. You may be surprised what you see. Or you may find the theme trite and blase, which it probably is in some ways, and go off to read about Lady Gaga.

I have discerned that Americans very much don’t like to be hot. This is probably because Americans, as a rule and general practice, are overweight. The precise coordination between weight and heat aversion took me a long time to figure out, but has become in the last few years one of those obvious and universal truths, like “donuts are tasty” or “parents have a lot of both direct and indirect influence on their offspring”. It took me longer to figure out this particular truth because it is generally considered impolite in this society to discuss the weight of other people. Thus conversations like this are unwelcome:

“I’m hot.”
“Really? I think it’s rather pleasant.”
“Well I think it’s too hot.”
“Hm. I guess you are a little pudgy.”

Comments on weight are especially unwelcome from people like me who, despite a two-year period of being somewhat overweight in the middle part of this decade, have otherwise been rail-thin. Since I rekindled my metabolism after its premature death at 27, I’ve gone back to being cold everywhere relative to every other human being, including even those who normally serve the role of being the coldest person they know. Ha ha!

Never is this phenomenon more apparent or frustrating than eating out during the summer in the United States. A phenomenon that I swear was predominantly limited to Florida during my youth has since gone nationwide, and now I must never leave my house without a jacket in summer if there’s even the slightest chance I will be asked to dine somewhere before returning home. In LA, in Albuquerque, in Philadelphia, I relied on my Mariners jacket to save me from hypothermic expiration in the bitterly frigid confines of restaurant after restaurant. After the third one, I stopped asking if I needed to bring my jacket. I would hit the swinging-door threshold, feel the blood harden in my veins, and suit up.

What’s ridiculous about the whole thing is that people keep restaurants at temperatures that no one would enjoy at any other time of year. Two in particular, Waffle House in Albuquerque and Los Segundos in Philadelphia, had the thermostat well below 68 degrees. Imagine going from a crisp November night into a restaurant kept in that meteorological condition. There would be literally no business. No one would go. So why does it being summer make it more acceptable? Why does everyone get to presume that all patrons have just run a marathon in their fat suits before entering their building?

Yes, this is part of an absurd class of things rapidly becoming known as “First World Problems” – the complaints only the spoiled of our species could possibly imagine worrying about, the offshoot of a pampered instant-gratification culture centered on the self. A waste of time, probably, but one that is both alienating to experience and hopefully a bit humorous to relate. And also, perhaps, emblematic of that selfsame pampered spoiled society itself, that we have created expensive, energy-wasting cultural standards and practices designed to cater further to our own self-centered obesity. It’s like the whole thing spirals on itself into the stratosphere to the point where to even observe or complain about our society’s missteps has itself become a misstep that presumes caring about the fate of that society. Paragraph summary: we’re in a fine mess indeed.

I’m reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise and it’s done something that Golding, Tolstoy, Foucault, and Calvino have failed to do in the last month or so: hold my attention. Granted that Tolstoy held my attention about four times as long as DeLillo’s even trying to, so maybe it’s a weak comparison. But he’s also done something else that the other four never approached: scare me. Not because his 1985 vision of the present or the future comes across much like all those movies I’ve seen lately (“Koyaanisqatsi”, “My Dinner with Andre”, “Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y”, “Double Take”) in its prescient understanding of the incredibly insular self-absorption and chaos to come (it does), but because it reminds me of my own book just finished and nearly fully edited, The Best of All Possible Worlds. Not in whole, not overall (yet), but in certain scenes and themes and focal points. And it not only predates the book by 25 years, but I had never read one word or heard one thing about it before finishing my own tome.

This is at once highly problematic and a little relieving. It’s the former for obvious reasons – on a planet of seven-billion willed agents, I constantly fear accidentally rewriting another person’s book that I’ve never had contact with, just because there are only so many ideas or thoughts out there. As a writer whose greatest asset is originality of ideas, this could lead to unmitigated disaster. At the same time, it’s relieving because the publishing world seems very focused on “comps” – equivalent books to the one being pitched to them that they can in turn use to pitch to potential readers, writing such ridiculous drivel on the back of books as “…with the rich landscape of John Steinbeck, the emotional insight of Sigmund Freud, and the quick-paced action of Dashiell Hammett…” I made that up, but you get the point. No one is allowed to be themselves, at least not at first. Everything has to be derivative. And since I’ve never read anything remotely like The Best of All Possible Worlds, it’s encouraging to run across DeLillo just in time to be able to put a comp in my cover letter.

But also scary. Really, really scary, depending on where it all ends up.

I’m back in Tiny House, by the way, mostly just to block everything else out and finish editing before departing again for roadtrips that will lead up to my series of flights to Africa. The editing is about 70% complete, though there’s the second round of it that comes when I transcribe my red-lined notes into the electronic file that contains the work. It’ll take a while, maybe up to five days. But as an only child, I sometimes just need to be alone, especially to buckle down and do work. Once the work is done, really done, I’ll be sending it out to friends and the one agent who wanted first crack at it, then probably hit the road once more.

So, uh, public service announcement: This is your open call to let me know if you want to read The Best of All Possible Worlds. Your odds are better if you’ve already read and commented on American Dream On, though it would be absurdly self-indulgent of me to require this. Honestly, if you’re my friend and want to see it, that’s enough. Send me an e-mail.

And to leave you on a fun fact for the day, so that we can all laugh about the past and be awed by the present, here’s your news: The girl who said she couldn’t be friends with someone who had a blog had a blog. Far more fascinating than that is what she’s spent the last nine years doing, forsaking some of the first-world concerns she seemed to have in 2001 for time in the Peace Corps in Mauritania and working in Sri Lanka before coming back stateside to work for a really cool organization. I would say I’m proud of her, but that sounds really weird and probably obnoxious since I may have had nothing at all to do with it, especially given the way things ended. So, uh, I don’t have anything to say. Yeah.

I’ve summed up homecomings of all sorts with the following lyrical quotation throughout much of my life. It always has this way of being more transcendentally accurate and true than even all the times I’ve utilized it before. Guess what, “Awareness is Never Enough – It Must Always Be Wonder”? You just got to be the sixth category for this post!

“Looking all around the room
I see the clutter and the gloom
I’m not only back
I’m not only numb”
-Gin Blossoms, “Not Only Numb”

by

Full Moon Fever

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

The moon was crazy full tonight, approaching the kind of round perfection we are taught is never quite achieved in our mortal understanding. It stood as a stalwart reminder of why the energy seemed a little strange, overcharged perhaps. Enough to drive normally friendly rabbits into corners or normally social men into caves. After all, the depiction on the orb is one or the other.

As stated earlier, it was laundry night for me (miraculously, I seem to have not gotten a migraine). I normally sort of dread laundry in the way that I negatively anticipate most chores. They are monotonous, imminently predictable, and often require disproportionate energy and concentration relative to their ultimate value in one’s life. More aggravating than many household chores, laundry cannot be done while listening to a baseball game or music. I mean, sure, one could put a portable music device on and walk around listening, but the only point in having music on during chores is so one can loudly sing along and actively distract oneself. Being unable to do this would just augment the initial frustration of being concentratedly bored in the first place. And Mariners games aren’t exactly on while I tend to do laundry. Doing laundry in primetime is most unrewarding in Princeton’s Butler Apartments, especially at the volume that we accumulate.

Which is why I set out to do laundry at around 1:00 this morning. Normally there are at least a handful of other people around at most hours, but tonight there was just a lone soul packing up the last of his load as I arrived. I recognized the exhausted frustration on his face, the look of the last few items that one knows one should fold thoroughly, but one is becoming sloppy as real fear sets in that one might not be able to finish the laundry before needing to retire to bed. One starts bargaining with oneself about the safe and friendly patrons of the campus neighborhood laundry room, how no one would disturb the clothes if the last of them were just left in a neat unfolded pile, if just… one… more… shirt.

And I started to haul bag after bag into the room, unloading each completely before trudging to the car for the next one (I usually walk between our apartment and the laundry room with each independent bag, but I didn’t feel like traversing the distance for all five bags at a surprisingly cold 1:15 AM, so I drove the Prius circuitously around the complex to a prime parking spot in front of the fluorescent palace). The guy’s eyebrows were raising by the time I’d retrieved the third bag, but he was just about on his way at that point. Thus he missed the fact that my dirty clothes filled all eleven functioning washing machines in the room.

I mused at what might happen were the one other person in the complex who had been clever enough to wait till the middle of a Tuesday/Wednesday night to do their massive laundry to waltz in and drop their jaw at the row of churning tumblers. But said individual never showed, the product of academia demanding at least some sleep from those trawling toward finals. I noted that I had forgotten my book, jogged home for it and a few insurance quarters, and returned to settle in for the work that was barely underway.

The real pain of laundry, of course, doesn’t hit until the dryers stop spinning in their slow, tilty dying drones. At that point, it’s time to make an effort at folding and sorting, lest the five bags sit in hopeless mussed clumps at home, waiting for the cat to separate Emily’s shirts from my socks (we’ve done this before and it’s not worth it, trust me). This is what takes the real energy, mind-numbing and unsophisticated as it may be, and it comes when the enthusiasm for the project is at its lowest ebb. There will be no more time for reading, because no matter how fast one sorts, each dryer will stop before the last dryer’s load is sorted. There will only be time to try to think about something less dull than a catalog of all your doggone clothes, while still maintaining the focus to fold each neatly and sort them efficiently.

What I noticed tonight, amidst all this mental wrangling, is how much more relaxed about the whole thing I was than I am when I choose more popular hours for the task. Granted, I’m almost never there when it’s packed, but only once have I done the overnight thing and it was earlier in the night and closer to a weekend, ensuring that others at least darted in and out throughout my time in the room. There was something remarkably freeing about knowing that no one else was going to walk in, no one would eye my underwear or try to make awkward conversation (though this never happens in Jersey, frankly, despite being a staple of doing laundry in, say, the Bay Area) or give me a sort of abrupt head-nod if I said so much as “hi” (this is more the Jersey way) or create otherwise vague unpleasantries.

And then, of course, I started mentally composing parts of this post, pondering what details to retell of the laundry scene and how to convey my precise perspective on the chore. And I came back full circle to this bizarre conclusion that I couldn’t wait to tell a bunch of other people how much better I felt when I was alone.

And yet I relished the telling and the knowing that lots of other people would read this. Every bit as much as I dreaded the possibility of another person walking in.

Was this some grand contradiction in my perspective? Was I a hypocrite, or merely crazy? Could I really be thinking and believing both of these things simultaneously?

The answer struck me relatively quickly, to my general emotional relief. It’s not that the people coming in would be strangers and those reading generally aren’t – after all, some strangers do read this blog and I’m happy for the fact. And theoretically someone I know could’ve entered the bright hall of cleanliness and I’d still be less than enthused.

It was about free will.

See, every time you come read this blog (unless you’re subject to some Clockwork Orangeian experiment involving my impact on the unlidded human psyche, in which case my apologies), you do so voluntarily. And not just voluntarily in the way that people pledge money for their co-worker’s daughter’s fundraiser run, but legitimately of your own volition. You have chosen this activity over any other you could do with your time.

Granted, you might be bored or on Internet-autopilot or whatever, but your choice to interact with my perspective is about as unfettered as they come. You’re reading because you want to.

Meanwhile, entrants to the laundry room are certainly signing up for a date with Maytag’s finest, but by no means is my presence part of the equation. Sure, they understand that other people could be there and probably will, but it is no part of what they are volunteering for (again, unless – and this scenario is slightly less outlandish than the Clockwork Orange thing – they secretly seek out human contact in every trip to clean their clothing). Any interaction they have with me is functionally involuntary. A byproduct at best, but most likely an annoyance.

And that’s all there is to it. There’s something fundamental in my perspective that has always dreaded interactions with people who in some way do not desire that interaction, however casual or essential it might be. It’s not some secret desire to be liked or to have everyone want to interact with me, either, because I do nothing to try to bend these interactions into something enjoyable for others. In fact, I usually end up (less so than in my school years, but still at an alarming rate) making the interaction remarkably awkward, sometimes even by tearing up uncontrollably. This used to be a serious problem of mine in late high school and early college, usually manifesting with convenience store clerks and gas station attendants. These were not people I feared rejection from. I just felt intensely, a priori uncomfortable with the idea that I was abridging their free will so they could interact with me. That they felt obliged to interact with me, but clearly had no interest in doing so.

And I think, de facto, that’s how I see most public interactions with strangers. Obviously there are pleasant surprises sometimes, but generally it’s safe to assume that I’m part of the scenery. And I’d just as soon avoid any pretense or awkward attempts to bridge a divide based on a perception of polite obligation. This is why I got so excited the other day about the opportunity to order pizza online instead of calling someone in person, or why I opt for self-check-out kiosks in stores or movie theaters.

I know the arguments. In the latter cases, I’m helping put people out of work and destroying jobs, thereby eliminating livelihoods! But I would argue no one should have such jobs, and any system that makes us choose between people having jobs that are the functional equivalent of doing obnoxious chores all the time or starving might as well employ no one so it collapses immediately. And in the former, aren’t I making too much out of this whole free will thing? I mean, does anyone really choose anything?

I think this argument, more and more prevalent the more I talk to people, is what I find most disturbing. The idea that our wills are either chemically determined or otherwise imminently influenced to the point of predictability. While my deconstruction of this alleged reality is worthy of another entire, much longer (and less tired) post, I will stab wildly at the concept and accuse it of being one of the greatest threats to our humanity and hope on this planet. And as part of my evidence, I use this Kantian sensation I have about interactions with other people’s free will on a daily basis.

I stress that despite waxing on endlessly about free will for much of my life and being well aware of this phenomenon about my personal interactions, I don’t think I’ve ever linked the two concepts or labeled their connection until tonight in the laundry room. Which means that the reason I was feeling uncomfortable all those years was truly a priori, something I felt and intuitively understood, but could not articulate and was not really cogitating about.

Although the argument now occurs that making this discovery and connection in such a situation is exactly what makes mundane ridiculous chores like doing laundry all worth it. David Foster Wallace would be proud.

by

Inspiration

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

Rarely do I feel as inspired in my life as when I’m just starting out on a car trip (of almost any length), looking forward to where I’m going, with music blasting. Life is just good under those conditions, but there’s more to it than that. Like taking a shower or playing certain kinds of puzzle games (e.g. Tetris), the process of embarking under these circumstances precipitates an extra uncanny layer of inspiration. My mind works in a slightly different way, one that’s quite simply much better than everyday functionality.

I have known this for most of my driving life, especially since I got a car (post the ’51 Buick era) that could play music. I remember driving out in the Kia the first few times, blasting Counting Crows, realizing that not only could I conquer the world but I had the thoughts in mind right then that would do it. I don’t recall exactly how many of the novel ideas I’ve developed were composed at the outset of music-blasting trips, but I can tell you exactly how many short stories I wrote tonight were.

One. And it might just be the best story I’ve ever written, a 3,200 word gem called “Haywire” that I could not feel more euphoric about. I came up with the idea on the outset of my journey to New Brunswick tonight for debate, letting the concept play in my mind for about two and a half songs before I let myself believe I was really on to something. Then it was time to grab the flowpad at stoplights and jot down as much as I could, just in case the idea simulated some inspirations I’ve developed in dreams and fled as soon as I had a grasp on the real thrust of its direction. But I needn’t have worried and I needn’t have written. Until I got home, of course.

Which I did, promptly, spending the 2.5 hours since arriving crafting the thing. And then I started celebrating, as much as I could pump my fists in the air and jump up and down without waking Emily. No, seriously. I really did this. I feel that euphoric right now.

It’s not just about the quality of this story, which may be inflated in my perception – I will have to read it tomorrow to really know for sure. It’s about being able to come up with a story I feel this confident about, start to finish, in six hours, three of which I spent at debate. That the stories are supplying the fiction to breathe life into my months designated for writing non-fiction, just as I hoped they would. There’s a part of me, sure, that looks at all this euphoria with an eye to the past and considers that this might be the last short story I write for months. That this might all be a lot of sound and no fury. That this is an exception, an anomaly.

But God, I hope not.

I once joked with Emily, noting the phenomenon of how this inspiration struck, that I should just go for short drives with music every time I wanted to get jump-started on writing something. But I surmised, shortly thereafter, that this somehow wouldn’t work. That it might be cheating. That I couldn’t trick my brain into getting in the state where the world slows down and opens itself up to a new idea.

But at this point, I’m ready to try. Bring on the showers and the Tetris and the driving with music. Bring on the life that I am living. Everything I’ve done has gotten me to this point and it’s all been worth it. Thank you, thank you God for letting me get to this point right here right now.

Gee, I really hope this story is up to all this swagger.

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Experimentality

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

I have been having a tough time the past 60 hours. Not really bad, just weird. It’s mostly the result of trying to figure out how to approach the next writing project, Good God. As my first non-fiction effort longer than a college paper, it’s a daunting task. And with five novel ideas queued up behind it, in widely varied states of readiness, there’s a big part of me that wants to just stick with the fiction. Fiction, after all, is fun. And I feel that American Dream On was a profound success, the book that will ultimately, some way or another, probably put me on some sort of map. So why shift gears?

Well for one, it’s due up next. I was trying to explain the other day that the book ideas have been coming at about the pace one might expect them to over the last several years of not writing, despite the fact that I haven’t written the old ideas. American Dream On was the real gorilla on my back, having been a pretty well formed idea since early 2002. But the next few books are old-timers as well, all dating back to at least 2005. Chronologically, Good God is the oldest unwritten book. So it should be up next.

But that’s probably not good enough reason all by itself. There’s also the issue of my trip to India and the religious experience I had there in a boat on the Ganges in Varanasi. Wherein I felt called, more than anything else, to write this book which I have just re-embarked on tonight. And though the book is not the product of literal divine revelation, my life would seem pretty empty without its many religious experiences. I feel impelled – deeply impelled – to write this book.

There’s also probably the matter of hope. I find American Dream On to be an ultimately hopeful book, but I doubt many will agree with me. For the most part, people have found it somewhere between bleak and Kafkaesque… and it is those things, too. Good God, on the other hand, is a legitimately and unequivocally hopeful book, perhaps the only one I will ever write. And it may be the only non-fiction, unless I decide to tackle my theory of dinosaur extinction or the book earns enough refutations to warrant a defense publication. It’s a unique book, even for all the differences I see among the many novel plots I am contemplating. So maybe I want to write it next to prove I can, to show the breadth of my versatility. Em and I were joking a few hours ago about how anyone excited about publishing ADO would be utterly baffled by my description of Good God as the follow-up work.

But as I embark on it, writing 7-8 pages tonight to accompany the paltry 14-page headstart I brought to New Jersey, more questions than answers loom. What sort of tone can one maintain for a largely second-person conversational non-fiction work on God? Is this just going to be too experimental? How do I balance philosophical exploration with straightforward personal appeals? And how do I get the target audience to want to read whatever this looks like?

Tonight, though, I remembered that these questions are pretty thin and unimportant when the process of writing is afoot. I have come up with six book ideas yet unwritten and I have developed them because I believe in them. There will be questions of form and plenty of time to second-guess and to doubt. That time is not amidst the two years I’ve set aside to churn out the ideas full-time, to make good the promise of my inspiration. It’s time to churn, to chunk out the pages and let them do the talking. It might not work.

But it doesn’t matter. I must work and the rest will follow.

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Sometimes I’m Happy Just to Be Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

My day was spent differently than I originally envisioned it.

It started with an afternoon trip to the pumpkin patch with friends, as expected. This was a prelude to tomorrow’s 4th Annual (1st on the East Coast) Pumpkin Carving Extravaganza. We were preparing to acquire a bunch of pumpkins and then head out to do party shopping and come home to decorate.

Everything was going pretty well up through being on our way to go shopping. We had plenty of pumpkins and had really enjoyed our time at the pumpkin patch/farm/market place where we’d gone. We were in high spirits and already anticipating the day to come.

I stopped at the first red light after the patch, and was looking to my left to see when I might have an opening to make a right turn. I thought there might be enough of an opening, then hesitated and decided to wait for the next cars to pass. A black pickup truck was coming toward me and then threw on its turn signal to go right. I thought this would possibly make an opening, so I looked behind the pickup to make sure the trailing car was slowing down enough to give me time. I noted with alarm that they were actually accelerating toward the truck. I expected them to start to veer left around the truck at their increasing speed, but instead they drifted right, picking up speed while climbing the grassy shoulder. Then they suddenly took out the corner street sign and I turned away to brace for impact.

It came.

They smashed into the back part of the right side of the pickup, which had almost fully completed its turn, sending the pickup straight into the front corner of our car. I didn’t see what happened to the out-of-control car next, but it somehow ended up crossing the opposite lane of traffic, taking out a mailbox, and winding up crashed into a tree.

I felt for any major damage to myself and noted none, then turned to Emily and asked “Are you alive?” She was, and largely unhurt, and then I looked up to the driver of the pickup. He opened his eyes and looked at me dazedly. Emily and I discussed what had just transpired and I explained it to her since she had seen none of it coming. We left the vehicle, talked to the pickup driver, who proved to be mostly all right, then tried to assess what had happened. A couple of bystanders went over to see if the person in the out-of-control car was okay.

She attested to blacking out and having no memory from seeing a green light in front of her to seeing the tree in front of her on the other side of the road. Somehow she too was generally unharmed. All three vehicles were in really bad shape and everyone had some neck pain and such, but it was a generally amazing survival of the worst situation I’ve ever faced in a motor vehicle.

The thing that’ll stay with me most, assuming that the negative x-rays were accurate and my soreness eventually fades, is that split-second between seeing the street sign go down and the cessation of the impact. In that moment, which was both slow and fast just like you’ve heard (or felt) such moments to be, I had to prepare to die. That feeling of resigning, of yielding the fate of one’s life, is not one I’ll forget soon, or perhaps ever. I was completely out of options – there were cars behind, on my left, and in front. There was no where to go that would not increase the danger of the situation. There was no time to react. All I could do was cede control to the forces already in motion and hope for the best.

There’s no telling the fate of the car, which was towed and will be dealt with by insurance companies and the dealership. I was surprised at how late I got concerned with and upset about the fate of the car – it had been several minutes before I thought about it being unfortunate that our car may be totaled. I was probably more concerned with it catching fire or blowing up and creating a new round of jeopardy well before I thought to be upset that the car was wrecked. It was enough to have spent a second preparing to leave the planet and reopening my eyes to find I was still here.

I have a feeling this pumpkin-carving party is going to be even sweeter than normal.

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Wired

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Pre-Trip Posts, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

As bad as I felt last night at this time is as good as I feel tonight. What a difference, as they say, a day makes.

I have just rattled off over 3,000 words (~12 pages) tonight, in a remarkably fast and focused session that has yielded what I am convinced is some of the best work of the whole novel so far. This brings American Dream On over the 70,000 word threshold (71,408 words/~285 pages) with just under two months to go and helps offset the fact that there will be no writing tomorrow night. It’s kind of too bad, because I’m in one of those grooves where baseball players find the ball looks as big as a grapefruit. Suddenly, after a week of angst, the dam has burst and things are flowing once more. (Though it probably doesn’t hurt that I’m on to a different chapter entirely, one that did not carry with it some consternating problems from the get-go.)

And Vassar pulled back on their threat to only break to semis, once again going with quarters, joining the ranks of virtually all modern tournaments. And it looks like I will be participating in the APDA Cup, thus getting a chance to compete in rounds that are adjudicated and are not demo rounds for the first time since 2006. (Yeah, I guess I thanked the BU Finals panel for judging my “last round ever”. Oops. We all know I’d debate professionally for a lifetime if I could.) And while I knew that this time yesterday too, it seems a lot more exciting today for some reason. Probably because the whole world does. And I’m almost short of breath and insanely full of energy for quarter till five in the morning, when I should be lapsing and a little tired. And given that the alarm’s set for 9:00 tomorrow, the earliest I’ve been up in weeks, to get ready to go to Vassar, this is all looking a little problematic.

But I don’t care that much, mostly because I’m in the throes of a manic phase of the sine-curve lifestyle. And the mania may be seen as problematic for some people, but I don’t know who those people could be. Being on the upswing of a roller-coaster, sailing upward on a high-energy high-productivity euphoria, this is about as good as it gets in this lifetime. I mean, yeah, the super-contemplative revelations are perhaps a little better, but this is a darn fine second place. I feel like running out into the middle of the early morning rain, whooping with joy at the fact that I get to be alive to see this kind of mood. I wish everyone could be here to feel this. I feel I’ve known people who never get this excited their whole lives.

I don’t know how I’m possibly going to sleep. It may end up an all-nighter and I’ll crash hard after round three at the tournament. But I should try all the same. Try to walk away from the euphoria to get a little shut-eye that’ll ultimately serve me well tomorrow. In the meantime, I leave you with this:

Wooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

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