Tag Archives: Read it and Weep

by

Seventeen Years of Blogging

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Let's Go M's, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are two relatively unflattering portraits of me, seventeen years apart. What can I say – blogging hasn’t always been pretty.

Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of Introspection, my first blog. It lasted for just seven years and change before the daily short-format gave way to this more haphazard long format, now nearly ten years into process. My first post was mostly about dreams and teeth. My first post on StoreyTelling was mostly about Introspection, but also my larger history with blogging and the web. Today’s post will be about neither, really, but it felt like an anniversary to mark, not least because of the significance the number 17 plays in my life. But I haven’t posted in a while and that’s partially because I’ve had only a bunch of micro-post ideas flitting around in my head and that reminds me of Introspection and its flitty, flighty, one-liner format. So here we go:

-Mardi Gras was great for parades and great for Uber and kind of terrible for Uber. I gave multiple $150 rides and also had half-hours where I went six blocks without a rider the whole time and wanted to tear the steering wheel out of the car. Ultimately, it was still a very very good couple of weeks. I got pretty Zen about the traffic once I saw just how much I was making on most of the rides that I actually was able to give. I’ve also never had so many cancellations and frustrations since both Uber and especially Lyft had no real idea how to line people up with a pickup spot that made sense given parade routing. Driving during the parades was the worst; just after was much better.

-After a fantastic January for writing, February and March so far have been dismal. I partially blame Mardi Gras, but also wedding planning and also that it’s just flipping hard to focus on writing and anything else. Like yes, Uber is both a pretty easy casual job and the subject of my book, but it still consumes 35-45 hours a week, depending, and that’s time that really needs to be close to empty for me to write effectively. And/or I am also wrestling with too many internal confidence demons to really commit to writing fully and effectively. And/or there is too much variation and too little routine? I am inclined to think they are all factors, in the order presented. The book remains half-finished, but feels over the tipping point and should still be available to my loyal friend readers by summer at the latest (no whammy).

-Today was one of the first times I’ve ever delivered rolled change to the bank and they didn’t kind of whimsically roll their eyes at me. This is kind of a thing that I do regularly, in part because I find rolling change relaxing and re-ordering for me. I was almost heartbroken when Capital One briefly decided they weren’t accepting rolled change anymore and had me actually unwrap and unceremoniously dump all my change into a bucket so it could be fed into their automatic coin-sorter. By the next time I was ready to turn my change into electronically tracked currency, however, their coin sorting machine was out in the shop, perhaps indefinitely, and they were back to asking me to roll it. The bankers are always kind of bemused by me bringing in rolled change like I’m some sort of crank, but then again, most all commercially available change starts in rolls – someone is doing it somewhere, regularly, to keep the economy going, right? Is it so weird?

-Another relaxing and re-ordering practice for me is reading, which has been even more dismal all year than writing in the last forty days. I blame my ambition as a reader – I’ve spent most of the year allegedly reading The Familiar, vol. 1, a gigantic graphically bedecked book that looks like an elaborate prank. It was a mistake to try to read this, especially at a time when I want to be writing, but I really liked House of Leaves by the same author. The last renewal ran out at the library today and I returned it, having done about 160 pages in two months. I’m sure it’s brilliant in some way and I found some of the characters intriguing, but it just hadn’t spoken to me sufficiently to make it worth the work. I need to be reading regularly, though, and it needs to feel like a joy and not a chore. I may return to it someday, but long after I’ve written a couple more books.

-I am so insanely jealous of the folks living in the path of the snowstorm that’s about to batter the eastern seaboard. There’s a lot I don’t love about the northeastern United States, but the regular access to blizzards is not among them. I keep repeating the promise to myself that someday I will live in a place where I don’t have to anxiously anticipate snow, but it will be a regular occurrence with no possibility of not happening. I worry that places that used to be on this list are starting to fall off of the list, but no matter. Next year in Murmansk.

-Was there ever a more short-sighted decision than to decline to name that British ship Boaty McBoatface? Now the yellow sub they allowed to be called by said moniker is getting all kinds of press its expedition never would otherwise. Sometimes you have to steer into the curve. People are so often their own undoing by taking themselves too seriously.

-The Louisiana state government is having massive budget shortfalls this year because gas prices are low. This prompted them to try to charge state taxes from me from 2014 on all of my New Jersey-earned income. My only Louisiana income that year were some poker winnings from a large payout at Harrah’s. They sent me a bill for nearly $2,000 a few months back, including fees for failing to file and interest (as though interest were something that exists in the world these days). They sent multiple threats via certified letter. After three responses from me, all also sent certified, they sent me a check this weekend for $108, which was actually what they owed me for taking too much out of the poker payout in the first place. I was happy to let this money go in exchange for not filing a Louisiana return back in 2014. But they wanted to push it, so I’m happy to make them pay. Of course, in reality, it all feels like a huge waste – of state employee time, of my time, of the certified mail system. But I know to them it’s not a waste, because like all made-up bills, 80% of people probably just get scared and pay them no questions asked. And we wonder how the poor are kept poor in our system.

-Something I have been doing a lot lately is play chess. It’s not quite as relaxing as reading or walking or even writing sometimes, but it’s good for me. The problem is that I should spend more time between chess club “tournaments” practicing, but that would cut into time potentially writing or driving. This is actually an argument that cuts into a lot of things lately, including a pretty successful video-game moratorium I’ve put on myself for all of 2017 till the book is finished. Chess, like all games, is great patience practice, even the fifteen-minute games I favor and we play on Monday nights. The problem is that I still am spending more time looking at my mistakes and how to get out of them than not making them in the first place.

-I lost about an eighth of a tooth the other day. I think I swallowed it. I have an impacting wisdom tooth that’s pushing its neighbor on a tilt out of position, and I’ve just realized that this has made my bite sufficiently uneven so as to hammer into the tooth below with every chew. As a result, the top corner of the tooth below finally gave way. Luckily the root was not exposed; unluckily I have not had dental insurance since 2014. Trying to get into the LSU dental clinic is proving to be a chore, but at least after three days my tongue toughened up enough so that the newly jagged tooth edge stopped serrating it. It was an ugly couple days at first adjusting to the new reality.

-The Mariners lost their Spring Training game today by a score of 24-3. That said, all their best players are at the World Baseball Classic. They were doing really well before the WBC started. I am irrationally exuberant for the lineup of Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

-Peak Trump Outrage seems to have passed. I know a lot of people want everyone to stay angry and vigilant, but I feel like Trump has slowed down into a kind of plodding pace of not being able to get any of his agenda done. I had long predicted that a President without either party really behind him would have a lot of trouble getting anything done and I think that’s coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant or react strongly to the truly bad stuff that comes out of the administration, but a half-assed tweak on a bad healthcare law to make it slightly worse doesn’t pass muster on that for me. Especially when the best analysts don’t think they even want it to pass in the first place.

-Speaking of which, “Get Out” is one of the most flawlessly executed movies in recent memory. Right up there with “Arrival”. However, the former’s third act is its weakest point while the latter’s third act is its best, so just keep that in mind. “Weakest” in this context, however, is still mighty strong.

-I feel supremely lucky to live in a time when the Lumineers can be as popular a band as they are. The Lumineers being popular feels like one of those things that shouldn’t be able to happen – they defy all the tropes of what you’d expect of rock music success. And yet, there they are. Alex and I saw them ten days ago in the UNO basketball stadium and it was incredible. They seemed to express the same kind of incredulity at their success and following that I felt. At one point, referencing the time that they used to spend playing in living rooms and similar tiny venues, they came out into a literal pop-up stage in the center of the arena, closer to our seats, and played part of their set there. It was magical. The Lumineers feel magical in the way that New Orleans does when it’s at its simplest, most historical, and most charming. They seem like they shouldn’t be real. They aren’t passing Counting Crows or anything, but I forget how transporting and inspiring music can be sometimes. It can get so habitual and dull or so processed and rote. The discovery of music, the reimagining of it, makes me supremely sad that I didn’t end up in music somehow even though I have no natural ability there whatsoever…

Submarines
Flowers in Your Hair
Ho Hey
Cleopatra
Gun Song
Dead Sea
Classy Girls
Where the Skies are Blue
Charlie Boy
Slow it Down
Sleep on the Floor
Angela
Ophelia
Big Parade
In the Light
My Eyes

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

-Nothing compares to the magic of having by far and away your favorite song from a band close the encore. Especially the first time you see them. You’ve spent the entire show wondering if they’ll play that song or not, with the drama increasing the whole way. And then finally it happens and it’s their sign-off and you don’t even want them to keep playing after because it’s too perfect. I think this has literally only happened to me one other time, the first time I saw Counting Crows. That was in November 1999, notably just more than seventeen years ago. You would think that means you can’t read what I thought of it at the time online now. You would be wrong.

by

When the Good Die Old: Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) and Richard Adams (1920-2016)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Primary Sources, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve last year. That will always be a fact of my life, that I got engaged to Alex on the night of the day that Richard Adams, author of my favorite book of all-time, Watership Down, passed away. I was sad, of course. Not sad enough for it to derail my planned proposal, or luminaria day, or anything like that. And not as sad as I wanted to be. Because, after all, the man was 96. It is sad to know that the world no longer contains a person who has done so much for you personally as to write your favorite book. But less sad to know that they got as much time as anyone would want here, and perhaps more.

Eighty is not ninety-six, certainly, and Mary Tyler Moore didn’t have quite the impact on my life that Richard Adams did. But I spent a lot of my teenage years watching Nick-at-Nite incessantly, hours at a time, and both The Dick Van Dyke Show and especially The Mary Tyler Moore Show were key features of the late-night network’s lineup at the time. I loved them both, but especially the latter, where MTM had been able to shed some of the sexist tropes of the DVD writers and really star on her own as a model of independence, talent, and humor. It’s not to say that the MTM writing was totally without sexism, but as people have observed the world over in the last 24 hours, Mary Tyler Moore was ahead of her time and a pioneer for feminism.

Of all the Nick-at-Nite shows I really liked (along with close second Get Smart, Dobie Gillis, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Taxi, and Cheers) I think I loved Mary Tyler Moore the most. Her show was fresh and funny and avoided a lot of traditional romantic arcs that one would expect from that kind of show. Mary Richards was not continually pining for one person in a will-they/won’t-they battle that where we all knew the ending on the second episode. She was independent, smart, and worked in journalism, but not as the flashy broadcaster you might expect for someone in her role. She was a producer, and one who can see the buffoonery of the pretty figurehead in the anchor role. She worked with a tough boss, an old-school journalist, and the insight into the world of the news and how it really gets made fascinated me. More than anything, Mary’s world felt real to me. Her effort to make it in the world of work, friendships, relationships, and what we now might call “adulting” resonated with my picture of what the future might look like. She, and the show, were eminently authentic.

Watching Mary Tyler Moore, growing up on the coming-of-adult-age story meant for a prior era, I found so much to emulate. I wanted to be like Mary. I wanted to be compassionate and emotional and independent and capable like she was. I wanted my life to look like hers. And not just because I wish I’d been my age in the sixties instead of the nineties.

I’ve probably seen every episode of the show at least twice. It’s in the pantheon with Gilmore Girls and Doctor Who and The Wire and Lost and probably a smattering of the other Nick-at-Nite selections listed above. I think of myself as someone who really doesn’t like TV, but I’ve honestly watched a ton of TV for someone in that category.

Richard Adams is not my favorite author of all time, any more than Mary Tyler Moore is my favorite actor. Adams’ other works are uneven, generally disappointing. He is one of those authors who possibly had only one truly great story to tell, his first, something crafted over years of oral storytelling in long car rides with his daughters. I tried to get into The Plague Dogs and couldn’t, largely because it was about dogs and not rabbits. (It prompts the question of whether I would have been deprived of the grand and life-changing allegory of Watership Down had it been about dogs instead.) I liked The Girl in the Swing, but it was a bit overly sensationalized. Even the sequel Tales from Watership Down, which I was so excited to hear of and read, rang hollow, felt a bit contrived, felt like an effort to tweak and/or cash in on the past, left me feeling pretty empty. None of this really cheapens Adams’ legacy for me, though. Just ask Harper Lee, whose only (until the cynically commercial effort to publish Go Set a Watchman) book stands atop the Blue Pyramid’s composite list of people’s top twenty-five books of all-time. You don’t need to write more than one book to change the world.

How do we mourn those who had a full long life? Is it okay to feel less sad? Having so recently experienced the sudden death of a 34-year-old, I can say that it feels different and it probably should. Of course, the other key difference there is that I knew Jon, while Richard and Mary only influenced my life as far-away strangers, through their art. As someone who hopes to be an influential artist, I can mourn this loss by proxy, while still recognizing that I would expect the sadness of people impacted only by art to be quite muted compared to those who actually know me in real life.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be how I feel about Moore and Adams relative to, say, David Foster Wallace. They all impacted me from distance, but DFW, by his own choice, didn’t get the time he should have been allotted. Part of that loss, to be sure, is the pain of the books unwritten, the art unmade, the other things one could have enjoyed. And part of it, perhaps, is not being able to meet someone who influenced you so much. I never much carried the illusion that I could meet Mary Tyler Moore or Richard Adams someday. But DFW felt more accessible, gave me more time to get in a position where such a meeting would be more likely.

Which makes mourning all feel a little selfish, I guess. And stranger in light of my primary emotion at the loss of Adams and Moore being somehow sadder that I’m not more sad. But maybe being at peace with death, when it comes late in life and after it has been full, is okay. Maybe a little more acceptance is just what’s called for when the good die old.

Or maybe I should look to one of the most profound and powerful meditations on death I’ve ever read:

One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs
later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of
time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as
in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain
and elder bloom — when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly
beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The
sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first.
Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to
me?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in
a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears
were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”

“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about
that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to
have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The
sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay,
keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to
Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the
edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get
used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing
inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right —
and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and
together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the
first primroses were beginning to bloom.

by

It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

by

The Muddy Lens

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , , , ,

The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.

But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.

Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.

This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.

I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.

But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.

This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.

This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:

As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.

There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.

Are you ready?

The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.

Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.

1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”

2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.

3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.

Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)

Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.

I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.

The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.

Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.

That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.

MuddyLens

by

On Waiting

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.

by

Revolving War

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

“And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
-President Barack Obama, 10 September 2014

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle.  Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away.  Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle. Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away. Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Last night, Barack Obama finally made me fully proud and vindicated that I did not vote for him in 2008. Yes, there have endless disappointments with his presidency and I’ve been glad that I didn’t give, say, his mandates a mandate, or the drone strikes my support. He is about as progressive as Reagan on most issues and has done a great job of cementing the political “divide” in this country between the right-center and the far-right, all the while making it look like some sort of actual historical left vs. right battle. Trust me, there’s been almost nothing I’ve been able to point to about his presidency and say “Yeah, I’m down with that.”

But last night he cemented himself as exactly what he’s been leaning toward all this time, George W. Bush II. The policy of endless war, revolving war, war without end or hope of end as the American Empire continues to try to prove itself to the world was reinvigorated. After years of winding down failed wars in failed states abroad, Obama finally found the war that he was willing to start, officially, after carrying on secret ongoing murder-raids for the duration of his six years in office. He took to the national airwaves on September 10th to make a Bush-like case for a war that will outlast his presidency so that we can ensure that every President comes into office a horse in midstream, a warrior with the same war to keep fighting. It’s always the same war.

Last time, it took an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil to prompt the regeneration of war-without-end. Yes, there was a lot of fearmongering and sleight-of-hand to include Iraq in the war cycle, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally prompted by 9/11. And whoever actually carried out 9/11, at least most people were convinced that it was people who were somehow associated with the countries that we were demolishing by air, land, and sea, so that seemed like a reasonable response.

This time, it’s two dead. Two. ISIS killed two Americans, albeit brutally and publicly, and they get the endless war treatment.

I look forward to the time when an American exchange student visiting a foreign country gets poked on the playground and the President takes to the airwaves next day to announce that all of the poker’s countrymen will die.

Look, I understand that the beheadings were shocking and appalling. We just went over this yesterday, how violence seen is infinitely more horrific than violence unseen. I am not defending beheadings, any more than I defend any violence at all by anyone. It’s all wrong and it’s all abhorrent. But, as I’ve discussed before, we created ISIS. The invasion of Iraq single-handedly created this organization and all of its nefarious deeds. To my surprise, the entire US mainstream media agrees with this assessment. Everyone understands this. And yet, when confronted with the exact same decision and the exact same mistake, no one seems to think it’s a good time to pause and wonder what new monster we might be creating by attacking this one.

It’s almost like there’s an ancient Greek myth we could turn to about a monster that kept getting stronger and regenerating no matter how much you attacked it. And as I explained, it’s not because the “monster” is innately monstrous, but mostly because it’s mourning all the family that the US killed last time and the time before that. Killing people makes their relatives angry. Then they want to kill. Repeat ad infinitum.

Why was the speech on September 10th? So that all the assessments and feedback about it could carry the date this post does: September 11th. Because we are a nation so in love with our own PTSD about the one day we were vulnerable in the last sixty years that we are committed to punishing the rest of the world for our suffering forever.

There were three absolutely shocking moments in the speech itself, which I watched live, that really shouldn’t shock me at all. But I watch little enough mainstream media news that it kind of floored me that Presidents can get away with this kind of hubris and be lauded by even people from their “opposite” party directly thereafter. But this is the Cowardly New World we live in.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

I almost choked when I heard this line. These secret wars, conducted throughout the Obama Presidency, are something that brought denial and refusal to comment for most of that term. These operations consist of the “kill list,” where Obama decides personally who should be assassinated in foreign countries through undeclared wars, obliterated from the air, often taking families, friends, neighbors, and strangers with them. There is no evidence that there is anything resembling “success” to this strategy. Somalia remains an anarchic failed state and both Somalia and Yemen remain hotbeds of people who hate the United States, most often because they live in a country constantly perused and bombed by anonymous unmanned killer planes from said nation. And yet we are expected to hold up these operations, which the administration denied for years, as models. It’s like if Nixon had held onto the presidency after Watergate, invaded Cuba, and touted our secret war in Cambodia as the example of successful action that proved this war would be unlike, uh, Vietnam.

“My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.”

Using the “change” line here for any actual progressives still listening to this speech was such a low blow that I still feel like I’m physically recovering. I wasn’t on the front-lines of supporting Obama, didn’t even vote for him, but I sure understood the fervor and excitement he generated. I wanted to believe in it, even though I knew better. I got swept up at times, the person citing visionaries and progressives of the past, saying that we didn’t have to wait any longer because we were the people we had been waiting for. It was contagious and infectious. And just because I didn’t get the full-blown disease, I was sick enough with the fever to get my hopes up.

Here’s the thing that’s so insidious: there is no change at all in any of Obama’s actions. The things he cites, 9/11 and the Great Recession, existed before he took office. This is not change we can believe in or the change he was going to bring. This is regressive, retrograde, W. Bush stuff. Saying “Gee guys, did you know there were some planes in the towers a while back” and bailing out the banks were the last administration, the last war. The people who put Obama in office did so to get away from that kind of rhetoric, they believed there was a change from these kind of citations coming. But there is no change. There is the exact same policy and the exact same approach. We can quibble about whose boots are on what ground when, but the policy of war-without-end, bomb-em-all, let’s start a fight in Iraq, guys, is the exact same thing we’ve seen for most of my lifetime. This is the fourth straight President of the United States who announced to the country that what it most needs to do for “peace and security” is to drop explosives on the people of Iraq.

And we keep lapping it up. Every one of those campaigns has met with majority approval at the time of announcement. Every one of those campaigns has been a disaster for the US, let alone the long-suffering and infinitely war-torn people of Iraq. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every time we bomb Iraq, the enemy is more ferocious and angry than the last time? Do I have to walk you down the “Red Dawn” thought-experiment about if your nation had been bombed to oblivion by the same blunt idiotic foreign superpower for a quarter-century? Are we really this stupid?

Really?

“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

“…long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

At the outset, when he’s trying to be reasonable and build the case slowly, Obama recognizes the fundamental truth that I’ve been trying to express in different ways on this blog for years. You can’t just kill everyone who disagrees with you. That is not a successful strategy. The lesson of the arcade game whack-a-mole is that there are always more moles that will pop up and maybe, just maybe, the moles keep fighting you because you keep bashing their friends over the head. But by the end, it’s the old lie and the old myth. Our strategy is to vanquish. The American Empire subsists on the lie that we can bomb everyone and everything into submission, that if we just kill enough “enemies,” eventually everyone will agree with us. Even when in the same 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledges that we cannot do this. The failure is built right into the recipe. He’s telling you that this doesn’t work.

But he’s also telling you it will never end. He’s telling you that the policy is that small groups of killers will always exist and we will always fear them and always attack them. That the official stance of the United States of America in the world is that it must always be conducting these kinds of wars against anyone who harbors ill will toward the country. This is a game that has no end. There is no exit strategy, no strategy at all other than to play whack-a-mole forever while people commit themselves to a state that scares them and the industries and machineries of war make select Americans rich and the victim nations poor. Winning isn’t even the objective. As soon as we “destroy ISIL,” we’ll have new and scarier enemies to target.

In my teenage years, I used to lament that I’d been born thirty years too late, that the great moment of pacifist activism in the US had passed and that I’d missed out on the opportunity to show the ills of war to this country. Now, I just lament that we have been so fully manipulated and that the military-industrial complex has so thoroughly consolidated its power and abilities that the idea of protest or disagreement is somewhere between passe and ridiculed. I remember how depressed I was going into work in 2003 on the day that we invaded Iraq, how my boss told me the war would be over soon. The war will never be over, as long as this country persists with these kinds of policies. We will kill and kill and kill and enact the very horrors on other people that we so fear for ourselves, all in the name of safety.

We are, for a long time now, become our enemy. It’s almost like we’re all in it together. Do you think, for one second, that ISIS beheaded those journalists and thought the US would react in any way other than exactly as it has? If not, please explain why you think they conducted those actions. Your only viable alternatives are the American exceptionalism to believe that we do things for reasons, but all other people are barbaric animals who just act on impulse and instinct for no reason (discussed earlier) or that they are the most naive and stupid people ever to live on the planet. ISIS wants this war even more than Obama. They know it will be just as successful for the US as the last one and just as galvanizing to their cause.

The war is what ISIS wants. You think that attacking ISIS, that bombing Iraq is fighting ISIS. It is working with ISIS. It is doing exactly what they were trying to get us to do.

There is this section of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I just finished, where the narrator struggles with the phrase “fighting with” and how sometimes that means fighting against and sometimes it means fighting alongside. And how context in language makes that same phrase useful for both purposes and that people seem to get the author’s meaning regardless. And how much of a struggle that makes for her in her efforts to be clear, which is pretty much the struggle of the whole book.

But it’s the perfect illustration for us today. We are fighting with ISIS. Both/and. Both meanings. By fighting against ISIS, we are supporting their goals and objectives and fighting on their side. Forever and ever, amen.

by

Obliviate

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

“Had four brothers once upon a time
He said they toured the country far away from the Rio Grande
But the road just wore them down
So they bought a house beside a lake
Outside of New Orleans
And stared in the direction of the escalating sound.”
-Counting Crows, “Cover Up the Sun”

David Foster Wallace tried to write a book about boredom and it killed him. There was some other stuff there in between, including electro-shock, sorry, -convulsive “therapy” and a lifelong understanding that the world has some things that need fixing and may just never get fixed but it’s still important to spend all your energy trying anyway. I’m trying to write a post about memory loss/confusion/destruction and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m probably going to spend a little less time on it that DFW did on The Pale King.

This will either be up today or one of those posts that sits in my pending limbo box for years and greets me every time I log in and reminds me, like everything, of my failings. Actually there’s really only one of those and it’s called “Seven Billion Ghosts” and it’s been sitting in that prime position since Halloween 2011 and it was all based on a false premise, which is why it never got posted. The false premise was that there were more living humans than there had ever been cumulative living humans before and what that meant about the planet and its currently dominant species. But as I was researching the last little bit of it, I discovered that this idea is a common misconception that has been thoroughly debunked and that we probably have something like a hundred billion ancestors haunting our past, depending on exactly what you count as a human.

No wonder people feel pressure to procreate before they die.

There’s this scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, right at the opening, where Hermione, having realized how unsafe her parents are in the wake of a world that contains a resurgent Voldemort, has come to the disturbing decision to wipe out their memories so they can’t give her up or be tortured to death while refusing to do so. She doesn’t have the opportunity cost in time and energy to keep them safe otherwise and the best thing for everyone is for them to just forget they ever had a daughter. The movie rendition of this scene is pitch-perfect, Granger shakily aiming her wand as the four syllables in the spell “Obliviate” echo through a room otherwise illuminated by only the mundanity of a Muggle television. And she vanishes from pictures on the mantle, her image receding into oblivion, and then she turns to go.

Obliviate

There are days, days like yesterday, where I think this would be the best spell for me to cast on the world.

I just finished reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in half a decade, maybe ever. I don’t know quite how to grapple with the fact that it’s a book that exists in this world, it hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like a Counting Crows album, which I incidentally bought on Tuesday, when it came out, like always. There’s nothing terribly unique or profound in the book, but like the movie “Boyhood,” it just feels so much more real than a novel. I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress too, and that book is trying so damn hard to make you feel like a butterfly dreaming of being a man, but Colorless just does it without trying. At a certain point between all these influences, I can almost squint and believe that I’m not really who I have been all these years, that I don’t really exist the way it’s felt, that this is all kind of a thought experiment or an exercise or just a dress rehearsal. Feeling like one’s on borrowed time always carries that connotation a little bit, but it’s somehow so much stronger when in the midst of artists who seem to be feeling and saying exactly what you’re feeling all the time.

Of course what this really speaks to is the universality of experience because we really do all exist and there is meaning and no matter how hard to see that it becomes, we can’t let go of that reality. There are people, we’ll call them “Chris Baia”s for short, who believe that the world is just shit and it’s stab or be stabbed and you might as well pride yourself on your ability to stab first. And if there’s a reason to keep going, near as I can tell, it’s to prove these people wrong. I don’t believe in evil, but if these people win, I don’t think a nuclear holocaust could wipe us out faster. There is something here. I don’t know if it’s real, I don’t know how much it matters, but it has meaning and purpose and it’s important to value that, somehow, against all odds. “Don’t let the Chris Baias get you down,” a future generation may someday say to each other as they go out to face impossible pain.

This is the first weekend that I’ve not been with the Rutgers University Debate Union for a competitive start to a season in six years and I don’t even know how to process it. The team has been asking me to help with things from afar and I have been pretty remiss about doing it because I feel so guilty and bad for leaving them in the lurch of an administration that seems hell-bent on dismantling everything we built. There seems to be so much of life that makes everything into sandcastles and the inevitability that the next tide will render all your energies and efforts moot. And the only answer I can find for this in a world of mortal fallible idiots is the mandala, some of the most beautiful art in the world, created by Buddhist monks and then deliberately wiped out, wrecked, destroyed, left only to exist in the fleeting hollows of memory.

People fail to do so many things out of the fear of facing themselves and their shortcomings and, mostly, guilt. We all feel so bad for so much we’ve done to other people and it makes us just not want to try or face other people and the longer time goes on, the more things seem to meld together into just one big ball of wrongdoing. And so we don’t contact the old friend, we don’t open up to the next one, we just hunch our shoulders and try to get through a day without feeling pain. And it doesn’t work and it never happens. And it’s easy to say we should just open ourselves up and be vulnerable but that hurts and it’s too hard sometimes, like when we’re sick or busy or hungry or lonely or breathing.

No wonder people get electro-shock-convulsive treatment-therapy willingly sometimes.

I wish them so well, my cherished debate team. I know they will do well against the mounting odds and I will try to help them as best I can in my mired mind about everything. I never was good at drawing boundaries or putting limits on my time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post I made before any of that. Before the divorce and the team and I hired Chris Baia and any other countless numbers of mistakes piled up to make me feel like every coinflip I made in those days was disastrous. And yet, and yet, there was last year’s National Final, there was even this tournament in Mississippi just weeks ago, there’s so much that makes me feel like pre-birth I chose to have the most extremes, the highest highs and the lowest lows, just so I could see it all before I go.

Eventually, if you live long enough, and listen, and read, everything just becomes a reference to everything else. And I guess if you live an emotionally charged life whose past you dwell on all the time, you’ll start seeing it in everything and then even the pain of a character or memory of someone else’s becomes your own and eventually it can snowball until you don’t even need to supply your own new experiences at all. I saw a movie last night about a misanthrope’s misanthrope, a classic Woody Allen proxy in a classic Woody Allen movie and halfway through I thought “is that me?” and it reminded me of seeing “Wonder Boys” with Stina in Boston in 1998 and she reassured me that I shouldn’t see myself in the hopeless bumbling of the main character but I still do and I can relate so hard to all our mistakes, hard enough that it almost makes me want to forgive these people who have shaken my mandala so hard. It’s so hard to dance in colored sand and not care about the edges one took so long perfecting.

But it’s what we’re here to do, right? I mean, no one gets out of this world alive.

“I said goodnight, goodbye
Seems like a good thing
So you know it’s a good lie
You can run out of choices
And still here a voice in your head
When you’re lying in bed
And it says that the best part of a bad day
Is knowing it’s okay
The color of everything changes
The sky rearranges its shade
Your smile doesn’t fade
Into a phone call
And one bad decision we made.”
-Counting Crows, “Possibility Days”

by

33 at 33: The 33 Best Books I’ve Read in the Last 11 Years

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

I know a decent number of these numbers are going to appear random, or somewhat so. At first you might think that this is the list of the 33 best books I’ve read of all-time. This is not so. That list would be some sort of amalgam between the list that follows (the 33 best books I’ve read in the last 11 years) and the original list of the 25 best books I’d read to that point, which was the summer I was 22. That list actually probably has no right to call itself the “original list”, either, since I wrote a really original list four years prior, the summer before going to college. I’ve been making lists of books for a long time. This one happens to be exactly eleven years and three days after the last one I personally made, though I’ve of course been compiling a cumulative collective top list (most recently updated to 1,276 total books) here ever since.

In 1999, when I posted the 1998 list to my fledgling website, I wrote that “I’m sure that in 20 years, this list will have completely changed, excpet maybe the top ten.” It’s not 2018 quite yet, but the top ten didn’t even last four years. Tales of the Night, a book of Peter Høeg short stories, cracked the list at 6th in 2002, displacing the rest of the books. And John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany debuted there at 8th, causing further disruption. I’m reading a John Irving book currently, as I was for most of my trip west (which I should probably post about at some point). It is no Owen Meany. Nothing Irving has written comes close, in my opinion, though my second book on his list is A Widow for One Year. I’m currently meandering through Last Night in Twisted River. It may well be the last Irving I read. Irving, like Sherman Alexie, is a writer that gets worse the more of his books you read. Read 2-4 books and you think he’s brilliant. Read 5 or more and you start to realize he’s repackaging the same story and themes over and over again in increasingly tired ways. These concerns will not apply if you haven’t read Owen Meany yet because, despite the appearance of these same cornerstone themes, that book is special.

All of the books below are special. Probably only the top three are worthy of discussing in the company of the top ten from years past, though the overall top twenty-five would face significant alteration from the 33 upstarts below. I should probably consider compiling that updated top twenty-five, but it would be hard. And I want to let this list breathe a bit and have its day for a while too. How many times can you look at Watership Down, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in order? A lot, if you’re me. But it doesn’t tell you anything new.

This list below is new. Not all of the books, of course. A decent number were written in the 11 years in which they were read, but some are much older, like selection #2. I can only imagine that I’m going to get some flak for my #1 choice, but it wasn’t really even close for that spot. And probably even more flak for #2 being such a classic and being upended by such a young and oft-trivialized book. But I don’t care what people think, any more than I did when I declared my 1998 list “The Hundred Best Books Ever Written”. That’s kinda how I roll.

So here we go, 33 from the last 11 years – three for each year (though that’s not how I read them… I’ve actually included, with almost guaranteed accuracy, the year which I read them because online tools and a few of my files have helped track that information). Each year is represented at least once, though 2004, 2010, and the current year (really a half-year), 2013, are represented only exactly once. It’s harder to tell the impacts of things that are extremely close in temporal proximity, which may explain why 2012 is over-represented with four books (including two in the top five and three in the top ten) and also is ironic given the title of 2013’s entry. 2004 really barely made the list with its lone entry at 31st (I only read 7 books that year, probably my all-time low in my life) and 2010 may be suffering a bit from how awful that year was for me, though I also spent much of it reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which may well be 34th and just out of this list. (Honestly, if I’d never learned that the whole last section was basically lifted from reality rather than actual fiction, it would probably be in the teens.) Meanwhile, 2005 and 2008 lead the pack with five entries each. Four from 2005 are in the top twenty, including #1 and #8. Given how long ago 2005 was, these have some real staying power. All right, enough analysis, on to the list!

Look, I even made you a graphic of the top ten:
RecentTopTen

1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (read in 2005)
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2007)
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (read in 2011)
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (read in 2012)
5. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (read in 2012)
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (read in 2006)
7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (read in 2005)
9. The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (read in 2012)
10. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (read in 2007)
11. White Noise by Don DeLillo (read in 2010)
12. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (read in 2008)
13. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (read in 2006)
14. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (read in 2003)
15. Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley (read in 2005)
16. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (read in 2003)
17. July, July by Tim O’Brien (read in 2002)
18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read in 2005)
19. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2011)
20. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read in 2012)
21. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2006)
22. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (read in 2007)
23. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
24. One More for the Road by Ray Bradbury (read in 2003)
25. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (read in 2009)
26. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (read in 2013)
27. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2008)
28. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (read in 2008)
29. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver (read in 2002)
30. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2002)
31. Let’s All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury (read in 2004)
32. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2005)
33. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (read in 2009)

It’s no surprise to see DFW lead the pack with three offerings (and his miniscule This is Water was in late contention for the list as well), in a tie along with old favorite Kurt Vonnegut. Though Wallace’s #3, #7, and #23 substantially outpace Kurt’s #21, #30, and #32. New friends (to me) Dostoevsky, Atwood, Murakami, and Rowling are joined by old friends Huxley and Bradbury with two each on the list. And I have no doubt that people will question The Pale King soundly out-ranking Infinite Jest, but I will defend that decision extensively to any who question it. Infinite Jest is surely a brilliant work of our time, but The Pale King has deeper and more poignant insight into the human condition, often speaking more incisively through its humility than the former does with its absurdity. Both, of course, are stellar.

Really, all of these books are worth reading, of course. And before I get to questioning too much too much more, I should just put the list out there and let you consider it for yourself. Happy reading! Or, given my taste, should I say… Thoughtful reading!

by

The Need for Boredom

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I just finished reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace that came out last year. I read it faster than most any book in recent memory, even though I’m not in love with how it was written. I never read biographies and it was at once too journalistic and too incomplete. Despite the use of footnotes (either common in bios or a nod to the subject matter), the style of the book probably deliberately lacked the sprawling, expansive approach that DFW took to his own material. And as a result, the book has a quality of feeling like it’s laying its subject extremely bare. DFW looks stripped-down, sad, pathetic, even ruinous in this retrospective portrait. It also makes it clear that this was not a particularly likable, or good, man. For a literary hero of mine, he can hardly be considered a hero in other regards. His struggles were human and (to me) relatable, but his behavior was frequently reprehensible and his relationship with life and others seems altogether willfully misanthropic. Perhaps most frustratingly, there was decidedly little on the last couple years of his life, the main thing I sought from said biography, still reeling from the absence of info I lamented four days after his death in 2008.

What the book did do, other than make me feel like DFW is decidedly less deserving of respect than previously hoped, is remind me of the urgency of my own writing life. It’s never far from my mind in general, but the period of time since my divorce has been so devoid of inspiration or motivation to write that it’s been like a thick layer of snow has fallen between myself and the searing parts of my desire to put thoughts into words. It’s explicable and reasonable that this winter has fallen, perhaps even that it’s lasted nearly three full years. And coming after the most productive year of my life in writing is both enabling of self-forgiveness (I can take it easy, I’ve done so much recently), but also extra tragic in the wake of feeling like I’d finally figured out and mastered how to write quickly, frequently, and with energy. And of course this resurrects the same guilt-cycles shared by both my protagonist in American Dream On and, apparently, good old Wallace himself, for not pursuing publication basically at all in the last three years, years during which the relevance of both 2009-2010 novels has, if anything, seemingly increased.

The point is that, facing the two months off I have built into my schedule, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Part of me wants to buckle down and try to churn out most of a novel – I don’t really believe I could do a whole one in such short order, especially when essentially four of the nine or ten allotted weeks are booked with travel. But the other part of me wants to relax, have fun, take it easy, restore energy for the coming year of debate after the easily most exhausting annum on the personal record in my four at Rutgers. And the best idea seems to split the difference, to dabble on BP projects, sending out the last two novels to prospective publishing opportunities, and maybe wade into what the fourth novel would look like. It’s not going to be Project X (last discussed, sadly, in May 2011) as I’m still way too close to that idea to see it objectively and for what it could be. That novel seems a better candidate for the 2030’s at this point, something to cap a career with if I’m ever so fortunate. I’m much more motivated by an as-yet untitled work (Project X, it’s worth noting, is not a title, but a working codename for something that does have a title, but not that one) which would involve my first-ever foray into overt humor, as opposed to humor against a painfully dark backdrop which seems to be my current modus, or at least was in ADO. It’s been taking shape more and more each day and has distilled into something that seems super-relevant to the current state of things and could easily be made more so. But I am terrified, as always, of writing novels in multiple stretches. The 2-3 month binge-write when all other interests are cast aside still has been the only real successful model. But maybe I could construct a few scenes and map out the plot and come back to it in Summer 2014?

The biggest challenge to all these goals, even, arguably, taking fun seriously, is the need to dry out. Boredom is essential to the writing process. This, I fear, is what DFW never really grasped in his career, being so prone to addiction and distraction and never being able to quiet the nagging voices of self-criticism in his own beleaguered head. You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative. The problem is that a novel is far too abstract and two-dimensional, especially in its nascent phases, to be as captivating as a full-color Internet, as video games and movies and spending time with friends. And the project is far too extensive to be able to see in the same micro-gratification strategies by which most people of my generation and younger are able to complete any work at all. You can string yourself along for a 10- or 20-page paper with the tantalization of the inevitable satisfaction euphoria that comes from completion, but holding out that carrot across multiple months is unforgiving and ultimately ineffective. Yes, novel-completion euphoria is elating, but even the greatest burst of excitement in your life is hard to hold your attention for half a year of slogging.

So to make the process of writing a novel truly work, at least in my experience, it’s important to enforce a certain quantity of boredom upon oneself. One has to get to the point where the novel is truly the most interesting thing one has access to. Doing so enables the essential infusions of creativity and vibrancy that a novel demands, but failing to do so means that one will just end up distracted. So much of DFW’s bio is about his failure to get over this hump. The entire cascade of his life seems an endless bounce from women to drugs to teaching to TV, all shelving his ability to work as he felt he best could. And he also struggled with what I find to be a very tangible conundrum, namely that even if one knows that undivided focus and boredom is the best for the noveling process, the twin of this mindstate is solipsism, and the spiral of lack of human contact threatens to not only drown a person in self-doubt, but also something a little like going crazy. Withdrawing from life to provide insight into it is just the sort of irony fiction writers adore, but it’s a tightrope wire worthy of some far more entertaining act.

Wallace was doubtless aware of these acrobatics and their seeming impossibilities. Indeed, he wanted to directly tackle the subject not just of boredom, but of how boredom can be blissful and inspiring, in his final work, The Pale King. But he was no more able to effectuate it in his own existence than he was able to finish that piece itself, the mystery of boredom’s power ever dangling out of grasp like so much Gatsbian green light. D.T. Max (Wallace’s biographer) doesn’t put forward that the book killed him, but I still think the evidence is pretty clear. That and the electro-shock (*convulsive in new-speak), feller of writers everywhere.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t achieved sufficient boredom on this, the third day off of work, but then again I still have a couple small work projects to wrap up and even day three feels more like a long weekend that summer break. And the very nature of trying to do twelve small projects is almost antithetical to the long work model. It is precisely because such projects have the hallmarks of micro-gratification that they can string one along into doing things that don’t require a full dose of boredom to really get off the ground. It also makes them more appealing and, perhaps, more compatible with the idea of taking it easy this summer, just a little less easy than the last.

The only real urgency in all this, other than the innate writer’s desire to change the world that keeps seeming to get worse, or at least no better, is the sheer volume of stuff I have to write. It’s not competing with the amount I have to read, yet, but I still have four complete novel plots (by complete I don’t mean fully mapped and plotted, but rather general guidelines including beginnings, endings, characters, and general messages) unwritten, three of them without a word to their name. There are a handful of additional short stories in need of either writing or rewriting, as well as some simmering threads of things that could become novels but aren’t there yet. This, near as I can tell (and not to brag, just to observe), is more total novel notions than good old DFW ever developed in his life. But again, his distractable mind suffered more from the lack of ability to zero in and focus than to create. But one became the other.

And maybe I should stop comparing myself to Wallace at this point. For all the similarities I see between us, the differences have never been more clear than in the wake of reading so much about his life. It could also easily be seen as hubristic or egotistical, but it seems clear he was far more worried about such (mis?)perceptions than I ever will be. Indeed, thinking so much about what people thought of him may have been as much of his undoing as his final work. But for me, the issue has always been a shortage of time rather than a shortage of ideas. Ideas I’ve got, spilling out everywhere. It’s the execution, the patience to grind them out, the not letting the beautiful competing ideas of life and what to fill it with, get in the way. And thus so much relies on having the ultimate certainty that someone will pay for that time, or at least that someone wants to read its results, to justify the expenditure of that kind of time, mindspace and, yes, boredom.

Which of course DFW had in spades. He seemed to spend all of his post-publication life complaining that such early success had skewed his vision and rendered him unable to work sufficiently, despite the fact that it seemingly rendered such things more possible than ever. But then he was more of a ruminator than even myself, being able to think himself into a corner even in a wide-open field. Whereas I have experience with same, but am usually able to keep eyes sufficiently on the prize to find the escape hatch, most of the time. And all the while there’s the urgency of all the things those unwritten novels have to say, bubbling up and demanding their months of sequester, their months of suppression of all the fascinating distractions lurking in today’s world so they can have the stage and pass through the keys to fruition.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

He was writing about processing tax returns, but it’s hard to find a better mantra for the process of writing a novel, especially one whose fate is uncertain, whose outcome is not the surefire date with publication and readership that TPK and Wallace himself enjoyed. The inevitability, perhaps, is that such boredom is part of everyone’s structured life. And the key is to make more of it work for something that feels more meaningful. It is perhaps ironic (isn’t everything?) that my current day job is almost entirely devoid of such taken-as-given rote boredom, but what I aspire to be, truly, requires it.

by

May is the Worst

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

I just spent a fair bit of time re-reading my posts from past Mays on this blog. There are five years’ worth of them and they ain’t pretty. Actually, some of them are kind of pretty; I think a lot of the writing I did in May 2011 may actually have been some of my best in a while, even if it’s extraordinarily laden with pain. But you get the point. I’m almost never having a good time in May.

Things often end in May. People make jokes about the Harry Potter series always putting undue emphasis and tension on May because that’s the natural end of the school year, but I always feel like reality actually conforms to this pattern. And I know that somehow most people like April and May because they feel this bizarre boost in springtime, easily the worst season of the four for my money. I have lived long enough to know that early April through early June is the worst time in my life almost every year and by far the most consistently bad. Maybe I’m misaligned, but I know my alignment all the same.

This May hasn’t been trend-setting in its badness, but more indicative of the kind of malaise and slow descent this season always seems to mark. I was sick for most of the month – probably about 3 full weeks of it after getting sick on May Day. I suspect I had some sort of infection, though the doctors insisted it was either allergies or an especially lingering cold. I’m still not exactly 100%, but I’ve probably been 95 or 97% the last couple days, so I’m definitely through whatever it was. I’ll probably feel 100% on June 7th, because that’s just how these things tend to go for me. I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t seem to be a total determinist lately, so being resigned to a bad 70-day stretch every year is pretty good by comparison, right?

In any event, today is an event! My last day at work before my two months off till August (though I will have to come in a few days to tie up some loose ends and trade for the first week in August as you’ll see below…), the end of a desperately bleh month, and the return of my girlfriend from Costa Rica tomorrow. Things are looking up. And it seems to be a May tradition on this blog to post a little graphic indicating my summer “tour” for the year, or where I’m planning on traversing to with the opportunity to make use of the time that I’m given. So I don’t really want to make this exceptional, since this May hasn’t even been exceptional in its badness, just kinda averagely awful…

…But I don’t really have a theme for my summer travel. Part of this May has been just feeling totally uninspired. I am almost starting to get inspired for when I will be inspired and I have lots of resolutions for the summer. You’ve heard some of them before, things like actually sending American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds to agents and/or publishers for the first time in 3 years, or actually writing new fiction for a similarly unprecedented stretch. I need to get more active, even if it’s just walking around Highland Park or something. Or doing yoga again. I would like to read more and more intensely, to spend more time deliberately and investing in projects I want to do. Heck, maybe the Song Quiz will finally happen this summer. Really.

So far all May has brought me is joining Twitter. Seriously. And I think the main thing I’m going to do with that is post links to posts here, assuming I actually start writing more. Which makes this all rather meta and self-referential. Which I guess goes well with starting to read David Foster Wallace’s recent biography last night, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Best title ever and makes the synergy between he and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (such connections discussed here) even more poignant. So far I’m up till DFW’s early grad school years and the writing isn’t really seeming worthy of DFW and CC, but maybe that’s just because I never read biographies and so the flat journalistic and presumptive tone is simply unfamiliar to me. Reading non-fiction, though, always convinces me even more that there’s far more truth in fiction. The things taken as given in non-fiction, the sweeping unjustified generalizations, are kind of shocking. It’s a way of transforming hearsay into fact. All the same, I’m enjoying the experience of the book. I think we all just miss Wallace way too much.

Anyway, I need a title for the tour and a theme because I like pretending my life is a book tour or maybe it’s just that the Summer Tour themology is fun. I think May was way too short on fun. This summer, the first order of business is fun.

But I can share the tour dates and the little graphic will have to wait till (gasp!) June. Thank God it’s going to be June. Soon.

15-16 June: Upstate NY (Wallflowers/Counting Crows show)
17-19 June: New Brunswick, NJ
20-27 June: Los Angeles, CA
28 June – 4 July: Albuquerque, NM

28-29 July: Helsinki, Finland
29 July – 3 August: Paris, France
4-8 August: Berbiguières, France
8-10 August: Paris, France

It doesn’t look too glamorous like that, maybe because it’s not a road-trip and thus the locations are few. But the durations are long and the locations are awesome. So let’s make plans! Let’s have fun. Let’s not revisit May for a while, shalln’t we?

by

Derivatives

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

Perhaps you saw “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” in theaters this summer. Or you’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the best-selling novel. Maybe you’ve seen or read one of the millions of derivations or mash-ups or sequels or post-scripts or pre-scripts to already established works out there in the American culture.

No? This is what it looks like…

It's a real thing.  I couldn't make this stuff up.  In fact, no one could!

It's a real thing. I couldn't make this stuff up. In fact, no one could!

It looks like that, a cover like that, but it also looks like the death of a culture. America is a place in particular that has always prided itself on its creativity, its ingenuity, its ability to come up with novel (pun intended) solutions to complicated problems. This is the birthplace of so many innovations and inventions and “outside-the-box” thinking that’s been the precursor to the wealth and riches that we lord over the rest of the world.

But things have changed lately. In their hunger for money and the desire to turn every pursuit into a business model, originality has been sacrificed in favor of a sure bet. After all, originality also brought us credit-default swaps and toxic assets, right? Publishing houses and agents used to seek dynamic, exciting, original writers. Now they want to know what your “comps” are, books that are so alike to yours that they prove there’s a market for what you’re trying to write. A market, not because it’s good writing, but because they’ve already liked a book exactly like yours. I used to shudder in the fear that someone would scoop my unwritten plots and take the limelight of creative inspiration I’d cracked open or been lucky enough to tap into. Now I welcome the realization that the plot of American Dream On has enough thematic similarities to The Hunger Games that someone might believe I was riffing on it when I wrote it before its publication. (To say nothing of the widely reported notion that said book was just a rip-off of an earlier Japanese movie which matches major plot points almost exactly.)

This is perhaps not a surprising trend in a country racked with economic woes after a dream of endless prosperity, nor especially in a land so obsessed with safety and certainty after one terrorist attack that it is willing to attempt to subjugate the rest of the world and its own citizenry just to avoid the possibility that 3,000 people could die at once again. Not surprising, maybe, but remarkably disheartening. The best balm for the recent hardships of the nation, one would think, would be originality and creativity. But as Congress faces a patent inability to compromise and potential Presidents continue to present a rematch of rejected 1980s theories, there’s a vast dearth of variation from an ever-predictable norm. It’s no wonder that nearly every Hollywood movie slated for creation is actually a recreation or a sequel. And we continue to buy and absorb this rehash, just as we accept the two major parties’ offerings every four years. Because we haven’t the money to make a choice and we’re not in the top corporate offices where these decisions are being made.

But the snake is eating its own tail. There’s no evidence that this desert of good new material is insidiously brought about by maniacal corporate officers so much as that the system itself incentivizes them to favor the sure bet over the risky original proposition. And the consumers have only the power to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, reaffirming the apparent wisdom of risklessness. And on the cycle continues.

It wasn’t always like this, however. American writing and movies have circled the globe, gaining recognition for their depth, insight, creative power, and new way of looking at the world and its inhabitants. So what happened? When did we go from making new things to recycling the same animated plot that probably wasn’t enough for a first movie into a fourth?

There are a lot of contributions, some of which I mention above, but I think the biggest and best explanation is a phenomenon I’ve observed in countless manifestations, from people to non-profit organizations to historical nations. It’s something clearly embedded in our human nature, but fighting it may be the last best hope for people to break out of molds that earn their associative names by entrapping us with stale thoughts and decaying thinking. It seems American creative culture and its would-be admirers have crossed over the tipping point from feeling like they have more to gain from the future to feeling like they have more to lose.

This single concept, the idea of whether the future is about potential and benefits (which encourages risk-taking, bold thinking, and dramatic action) or about the possibility of loss (which encourages defensiveness, safeguarding, shoring up, and sitting tight) probably effects more of our daily lives than we would like to think about. This is what makes recessions so deep and can make poverty so liberating with the right mindset (but realistically makes poverty so debilitating). This is what makes people who grew up bungee-jumping and horseback-riding afraid of leaving their house for weeks at a time as they age. This is what turns liberals into conservatives when they become successful. It’s what turns revolutionaries into tyrants. If we could pull a lever and prevent someone from ever tipping over this apex, mandate that they always feel they have more to gain from the future than they do to lose, we would cure uncounted social ills and political pitfalls.

Alas, defensiveness is not so easily cured. Many people have an enormous amount of wealth, power, influence, and comfort stacked up, especially in this country. They chronically fear someone coming to take it away, be it in the form of regulation, taxation, theft, extortion, nationalization, or pure greed. Even if they don’t really like what they have, even if what they have fails to provide them happiness or any other higher good, they will defend it to the death if they think they have more to lose than they do to gain. It’s in our nature to hoard and protect when we are fearful or even cautious about the times ahead. It’s backed by millennia of evolution and reinforced by centuries of history.

Incidentally, this is why banks aren’t loaning money and the rich aren’t hiring people. And why those things will persist for a long time to come, perhaps as long as this country persists. No one has more to lose than the banks and the rich, almost tautologically. And the banks can continue to get free money from the government as long as interest rates stay low, so there’s no incentive to take the risk of a loan. And the rich don’t need to “spend money to make money,” because they already have money. So those tax breaks and cheap loans just go in their back pocket as they hunker down more closely over the piles of coin in the counting house.

Believing that there’s more to gain than to lose is about more than trite platitudes about happy days or mornings in America or popping anti-depressants. It’s about a belief that one hasn’t attained that much, or enough. And most often, that isn’t measured in material goods so much as notoriety, recognition, or true accomplishment in terms of changing the world. This is precisely why the revolutionaries so consistently flip into oppression as soon as they get into power, or within just a few months. The turnover from having nothing to having everything is so fast that they literally don’t know what to aspire to anymore, while they’re immediately becoming accustomed to having more than 99% have ever dreamed of. Those who have more to lose than to gain are terrible leaders, ever watchful and fearful of being criticized, unseated, disregarded, losing the power and influence they (feel they) worked so hard to gain. It’s the hungry and desperate that provide the ingenuity and spark necessary for true leadership.

So how to we hold the imaginary carrot a few yards out in order to make ourselves run for it? The key is complicated, but I think the most accessible answers to this are in two essential areas. We must first embrace a certain healthy amount of dissatisfaction with our present affairs, whatever they may be, and we must secondly and correspondingly become comfortable with change.

The latter could contain a whole volume of material (and I believe it does, perhaps floor-to-ceiling volumes, as nearly the entire Self-Help section of any bookstore is really just “get comfortable with change” in long-winded and bound format, rephrased over and over in the hopes that someone might listen). Nevertheless, the point bears repeating that change is the only constant and resisting it is as foolish as fighting a gale with saliva. Just the other day, my new boss told a roomful of people, myself included, that he’s looking to produce a line of T-shirts with the slogan Embrace the Uncertainty. It’s a powerful message and one I took to heart, especially as he expounded on the need for not freezing in place with the entire class of 2016 inbound, they not thinking about the pressures that new leadership might exude on a university so much as that their college careers (and by extension, their lives) are about to start.

I’ve always felt more at home with uncertain futures and changing venues than most, but the last three years of this blog alone could well tell you that I’m no guru when it comes to accepting whatever life surprises you with. This is a struggle for all of us by virtue of our humanity, it’s why so much advice for the species is so simple and, dare I say it, derivative. Embracing uncertainty, welcoming change, it’s hard. It’s like waking up young in the dreadful night, envisioning the monster under the bed, then jumping from above to tackle-hug it and give it a sloppy kiss. Or, put another way, it’s like loving your neighbor no matter what they do. It’s one of those really challenging near-impossibilities. Especially when you have stuff or people or circumstances in your life that you like. It takes so much work and energy to find things that you like, be they pastimes or cohorts or jobs or places, that losing them or altering them seems a fate worse than death.

Which brings us to the first part, the somewhat easier bit, the healthy dissatisfaction with the present. This is easy to get carried away on and, despite what you may think, I’m not about to launch into a call to depression for all readers. Rather, it’s important to be a critic and a skeptic of one’s own choices and the path they’ve wended. Not to the point of self-recrimination and -doubt, unless said are truly warranted, but sufficiently so that one is able to craft an aspirational trajectory for the future.

This is extremely counter-intuitive. Almost all of us have the final goalpost being happiness, however we define it. No matter how we define it, happiness consists in feeling full, satisfied, like there’s nothing more one needs or wants or has to strive for. Contentedness, comfort. And yet this feeling is, itself, a form of death. No, really. Because at the point where one is comfortable, one doesn’t want to move. And if one doesn’t move, how can one find anything interesting that one hasn’t already found?

Imagine you’re in a chair. And your chair is uncomfortable, rotting in the seat, prickly in the back, set at the wrong angle. You get up! You’re motivated to find a chair that’s not as painful. You’re ready to look around for a while, maybe leave the house and go to stores or yard sales or junkyards till you find something manageably sittable. Maybe you go through 5, 7, 18 chairs. And then, glorious then! Then you find the chair that’s comfortable, has the cushioning in the right place, well-angled armrests, the whole bit. What happens next?

You fall asleep.

And you don’t go traveling again, because the opportunity cost is time in this chair.

That chair is happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to sit in that chair. I have a real-life chair much like this at home, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m not getting rid of it (though I’m open to a future, or trying to be, in which I don’t have it anymore). I would never tell anyone to just make do with the first cruddy chair or to stop looking for a nice one.

But we also can’t sleep away our time and potential in the comfy chair. Because then life becomes the story of sitting instead of exploring, doing, interacting, being. And that, my friends, is not what life was designed to be.

Life is about the journey. Maybe the rest of the self-help books are about that. You know what else is about that? One of my favorite movies of all-time, “Finding Nemo”. Which they’re re-releasing (now in 3D!) in a month, in theaters. Because they can do that now. Spruce up a movie that’s already had its day in the sun (or I guess, more accurately, the refrigerated shade) and release it to watch while you’re wearing glasses. For more money.

Because it’s derivative.

And I’ll plunk down my fourteen bucks or whatever 3D movies cost these days and recite the lines I know by heart and bob my head with the turtles and shudder at the sharks, along with a bunch of much younger kids who don’t know how old this magic is. Who feel, unlike almost everyone else in the theater, that maybe, just maybe, they have more to gain than to lose from living into the future. Maybe they’ll have the creative solutions.

Or maybe they’ll grow up to write Finding Nemo in Abraham Lincoln’s Vampire Civil War. And oh, what a hit it will be!

by

1,276

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

Well, for all my talk yesterday about 1,277 books, I found an inadvertent duplicate in the list that had to be edited out. So it’s actually 1,276 books on the newly updated Book List. You should still check it out, see where your favorites fall, and share it with friends!

If you haven’t submitted yet, now’s a good time to start thinking about your own list. It might be a few months before I update again, but you can be part of the next batch! Here are the top picks from only the new batch of books.

by

The Day Before Tomorrow

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

Today, I feel like I finally hit my stride for productivity and balance this vacation. I return to work on Wednesday.

I’d imagine this is a lot like what retirees feel in their waning weeks of work at a particular vocation, feeling a sudden rhythm and a smoothness they never felt in anywhere from months to decades of prior toil. Of course, it’s insidiously endemic to the nature of the impending closure. Only with the mix of relaxation and appreciation that comes from imminent cessation can we find the peace and ease to not take what’s in front of us so seriously. It’s because we’ve unlocked that there’s a life beyond what’s immediate and routine, and only then can we approach said immediacy without the pressure of its drumbeat of routine.

This conundrum prompts a lot of people to try to split the difference, to find a way to see beyond seeing and cultivate that wakefulness and ease of daily living into their actual daily living, as though they know it’s all set to end, even if it’s not. Such people, unfortunately, tend to also be fervent users and advocates of marijuana or other similarly minded substances, and the outcome is probably a lot like being stoned. Or maybe like Christian Science, which is oddly similar, wherein one is not allowed to take one’s diseases or their symptoms seriously with anything other than prayer and the faith that God will heal them. The problem is that even if one knows it’s all going to work out in the end, throwing up one’s hands and signing everything over to that fact seems strangely to violate the initial principle. It’s as though there’s some unwritten rule that one has to try in order to activate the part where things work out. And this is, ultimately, only in a theology where everything somehow works out for the best, which is very much in play these days. And while recent events of the past few years haven’t quite shaken my faith in God (as I feel no personal tragedy that one hasn’t already been aware of someone else experiencing should), describing this planet as everything working out seems at times short-sighted.

Maybe the best we can hope for are the brief moments of clarity that cannot be manipulated or contrived into existence. Sometimes we simply cannot understand how much we care for something that is lost until it has been lost. We cannot grasp how meaningful something is until it’s already transpired. We cannot anticipate the things that are most vital until it is already too late to grab them.

I was listening to a broadcast of a funeral of one of the Aurora movie shooting victims the other day and her brother or boyfriend tearfully admonished us to not delay our dreams but pursue them immediately because we don’t know how much time we have left. But it’s precisely because we don’t know how much time we have that most of us won’t go out and do that. If I told you the date of your death, you could start planning immediately exactly how far to pursue those dreams and when to switch gears. And despite a million exhortations to live each day as if it were our last, most of us are more moved by the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, droning away for a future winter that may never arrive.

I can’t quite put myself in the grasshopper camp these days, despite the fact that I feel now doubly living on borrowed time and that I truly love my job coaching debate. I spent today revamping the Book List (update will be out later tonight or early tomorrow and will be linked from this blog) instead of writing publishers or agents about American Dream On or The Best of All Possible Worlds, works I truly believe to be the best things I’ve ever done with my time on this planet but have yet to be read beyond a handful of people (especially the latter). I spent some time this week reviewing ADO as prompted by a new reader and found it far more relevant that I remembered it, reigniting the hope that it’s not left stillborn to only impact a handful of people. And yet the incredible uphill climb of wrestling with a publishing industry somewhere between slow lumbering death and reinvention, in a country mired between same, seems exhausting in utero. As it probably always has. And being confronted with the weight of the 1,277 favored books of the readers and submitters of The Blue Pyramid only enhances this fatigue.

The thing is, almost all of the twelve-hundred-plus volumes were written in the twentieth century. There are classics that have been handed down through the ages, dating back to Homer and Plato, but the vast majority of the books therein have been written within a lifetime of now. You can say that this is about the fact that the world has changed so much as to make even Dickens and Dostoevsky of borderline dubious relevance in a contemporary world. Or perhaps that seven-billion is such a high percentage of those who’ve lived during the history of writing in our human experience that the last lifetime is actually proportionally represented. Both of these are decent arguments, but the fact is that a 2112 list would probably draw equally largely from the twenty-first century. (Or perhaps, I suppose, the list would be of favored tweets or cat videos, as those contain the requisite length to command a 2112 attention-span.) But I fear it’s just that almost nothing that gets written has staying power beyond the time it was written in.

I’m currently almost done with Don DeLillo’s Libra (not among his two entries in the 1,277) and it’s so clearly a relic of the period from 1963-2001, when the JFK assassination was the focal point of culture, experience, innocence, conspiracy, and intrigue. The book is fast-moving and entertaining, but I can’t help but remark at how naive and obvious the purportedly daring accusations and connections made in the book appear. Or how irrelevant the JFK assassination seems to a 2012 world. Even remembering my AP Economics’ professor’s habit of spending the month of February on the JFK assassination (a personal hobby of his) instead of teaching econ seems somewhere between embarrassing and sad when it used to be the epitome of cool.

I am having that distinct experience of those who age on this planet that the world one grew up in is not the world in which one will die.

No sentence could be more mundane in its obvious factual truth. And yet waking up to the reality seems to stun every one of us as much as the ease of doing something we can no longer do after a very short time. Indeed, so many are mired in the process of constantly reawakening to that reality like so much shock at the sun’s daily reappearance overhead.

The inability of media to readjust to the world is unendingly apparent. Never before have so many writings and movies been set in the just-before-recent past, mostly so that plots can deftly avoid cell-phones, the Internet, and all the hijinx-prevention that we imagine those inventions to enact. The recent Woody Allen movie, which is horrendously nihilistic, hinges on the improbability of someone dropping their cell down a sewer grate rather than grapple with the realities of the world ever-connectedness has created. I’m sure someone or several someones out there are writing and creating masterworks on the changes that this technology is creating (other than imagining that the Joker can rig up a cell in someone’s stomach and use his designated one jailed phone call to blow the whole joint), but it doesn’t seem to be making it to my desk or movie theater. Inevitably, it will happen, though, ushering a new era of reading and flushing out many of the currently enshrined 1,277.

It’s enough to make the entire act of writing seem futile, even more than living in a mundane or newly reawakened way already might. (I know, children’s birthday parties again.) But seriously, what is the hope of writing something to impact a species when that impact, even at its greatest, is unlikely to live beyond one’s lifetime? It is questionable whether any of the people we consider geniuses in creative fields today will have their names remembered in 2150. And 2150 is where all this is headed, so what chance of changing things?

The only candle in this darkness, of course, is that 2150 doesn’t exist yet and the only people who will make it happen are currently ensconced on the planet, living and (hopefully) absorbing creative culture. Barring the landing of some alien species that can successfully breed with us, every ancestor of 2150 is alive today. Which is even more jarring to consider when reflecting it backwards, spinning our history into past generations. No wonder the Bible is full of passages of begats and sex is considered a holy act by so many. Hundreds of us would be wiped out instantly with the revocation of any given inseminative sex act of 1000 AD.

Makes you think about your choices, doesn’t it? Every one one of us really does have an impact!

Is the lesson then that rearing children has far more impact than writing? Perhaps. Though of course the writing of the day also influences the writing to come and the entire evolution of everything, not just procreation itself. It’s hard to imagine how different the future of our culture will be just from the success of Harry Potter alone, let alone the aggregate of the 1,277 tomes compiled in the Book List.

And yet you probably don’t know a single person who has read 1,277 books in their entire life. The sum of all we created has only the most tangential reach on any one of us.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “This American Life” podcasts lately, working my way backwards through their archive sprinkled with the new ones as they come out. (Though a startling number of the current broadcasts are reissues, to go with the summer movie theme of nothing original anywhere ever.) I’m somewhere in mid-2010 now, just listening to their 400th episode wherein they challenged the whole production team to make stories from what their parents had pitched to them over the years. The moral of the episode was that the effortless blend of pith, wit, pathos, and ultimate fullness of the average “This American Life” story is actually very hard to replicate. That coming across seeming like they just took anything and ran with it is actually the result of careful selection and practice, that the appearance of spontaneousness requires rehearsal. This all comes to a head in this perfectly distilled moment when Ira Glass’ dad finishes telling a story and Glass prompts him by saying this is the moment when, on the show, the story says something deeper about the human or at least American experience. His father snorts and notes that there’s nothing like that to see here.

There’s nothing like that to see here.

No. I’m just kidding. The deeper point here is that you might not be able to perceive your own impact, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t having one. This is something almost magical about living in a temporal world. No one gets to cheat, no one gets to bend into the future. We’re all alive now, and not a moment later. And this gives us all the potential to affect everything to come, no matter how much or how little.

No matter how little you’ve done, you haven’t seen what’s to come. And you will help shape that, whether you want to or not.

Maybe, just maybe, that will help give you enough of a fire to make that perfect connection in whatever you seek to do just a little sooner before you stop doing it.

by

Object Lesson

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

I have learned a lot about myself in the past week. This is good. Learning is fun!

One of the things I have learned, or relearned perhaps, is how little I am surprised by things. Most people like surprises. I kind of miss them, I guess. Which is not intended as a way of tempting the fates. But if anything, I think I’m surprised that there aren’t more mass-shootings in America. About one a day is probably what I’d expect. Maybe we’ll get there soon. This is not a desire or a hope. It would be nice to have no mass-shootings in a year. But there would have to be a lot of changes to make that happen.

No, not increased security measures.

I wrote at length about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon last October, how I saw it as a harbinger not of a revolutionary protest movement in our society, but as a reflection of how many people were left with nothing to do in our society. It would be nice if it were a revolutionary protest movement that was burgeoning in our society. Unfortunately, we have all seen too many revolutionary protest movements. We are watching several of them now! Look at Libya, Egypt, Syria. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. A bunch of people get themselves killed and do some killing and you end up with a society that looks a lot like it did before. But the leaders are slightly different and maybe this race or religion or sect has the advantages to lord over the prior victors. There is much to deter a young revolutionary in society today.

To believe in revolution, you have to believe in the future. You have to believe that there is a future worth fighting for. We are getting little stark illustrations all over the place that this is a foolish perspective. There will be a future, surely, in the sense of days that follow this one. No matter how much caves in or how much I lose, that is inevitably clear. But the idea that the right people can be in control, nay, that there even are right people, seems unlikely. And the more people who were raised and brought up to believe in an American dream and a future that was better than their parents’ and the mass accumulation of growth and so on and awaken to find the piles of debt and futurelessness waiting for them, the more people they are likely to go out and shoot.

I probably shouldn’t put in print that I understand that frustration and powerlessness of mass-shooters. I am a pacifist, of course, and abhor violence of all kinds, and am in no way trying to justify or vindicate the actions of James Holmes or anyone like him. But I get the idea of the world being so backwards and upside-down that only an absurdist and horrific reaction seems fair or justified. I have felt this way in my life sometimes and am very grateful to my pacifism for keeping me from stockpiling weapons. I know that some of you are probably surprised (there it is again!) to see me writing this, but I think you are not necessarily checking in with yourself sufficiently if so. Look inward, my friend. Have you never felt that kind of anger and despair?

This society is manufacturing anger and despair at an incredible rate right now. We’ve been over why, this worship of the magical “Economy”, and we’ve even been over how it manifests when people only turn the proverbial gun on themselves, most recently. As my friend and debater Kurt Falk often tells me, I should be the entertainment at children’s birthday parties. His idea for fixing all this is in his most recent post, where he joins Kurt Vonnegut (in Palm Sunday, just finished today, certainly influencing the style of this post) in advocating that we have new rites of passage for American youth, bar mitzvahs or quinceañeras for a culture unmoored. It’s a good idea. It used to be that graduating from high school was our culture’s adulthood commemoration ceremony. But now there is no real adulthood to be reached. In the sense of independence, of self-sufficiency, of freedom to make informed decisions, our newly minted adults are as bankrupt as someone with six figures of student loan debt. And just like those folks, they can’t file it and start over.

So they shoot people, don’t they? I guess that’s a little oversimplified, but that looks to be the size of it. Apparently Mr. Holmes is walking down the corridors pretending to be the Joker or some other masked movie villain (get it?), but I’m sure he was perfectly sane when he spent meticulous hours buying guns on the Internet or laying tripwires across his apartment. He did the math. He was good at it. He realized that he had no future, that the people of America who were being distracted to death had no future, and he tried to illustrate that. All the way down to the six-month-old and the six-year-old who were apparently watching one of the most violent franchises in movie history after midnight.

I am not trying to glorify this scumbag or turn him into some sort of dark anti-hero (I’ll leave that to Hollywood). But I am trying to dissent from the media chorus singing about the senseless unpredictable shock of all this. It’s perfectly predictable and it has a kind of logic. Michael Moore did much the same treatment of Columbine in his masterpiece movie Bowling for Columbine, which we should all probably go rewatch. Part of his thesis was that kids growing up in the shadow of defense contracting, preached to about how the country they’re supposed to love solves all its problems through violence, will occasionally take this environment seriously. And respond in kind. People are all agog about what’s wrong with Colorado when Michael Moore already told you. To be fair, Holmes did hail from San Diego, one of the biggest military cities in the country aside from those found in Colorado. When we have a society filled with people who play a little video game attached to real drones that blow up real people, how shocked can we be that disgruntled broke teens or twenty-somethings from the new Lost Generation walk into a movie and emulate the solutions found on-screen and in real life?

What no one seems to realize is that you need to do something with these people. I don’t mean to sound pejorative when I say “these people” – many of them are my closest friends and confidants. I coach them, I talk with them, I worry about the very concept of a future around them. They need things to do. They have active minds and have been raised on poisonous dreams about growth and accumulation. They need to put their mind to something other than disappointment, despair, and the soulless thresher we call “The Economy”.

Many would suggest a war. I have no doubt that’s one plan being hatched in the corporations funding the Obama/Romney campaign. A nice big war to sweep everyone into the old employer of last resort. You wouldn’t even need a draft, you’d just have it de facto. I’m sure a land invasion of Iran or North Korea would keep many hundred-thousands of a Lost Generation occupied and out of the way. The legend is that this is what saved America from the Depression, what saved the Baby Boomers from totally overwhelming the system in the sixties. There’s little doubt that part of the lack of enthusiasm to really make jobs and work for the youth of our society has to do with making the incredibly unappealing military look a little more enticing.

I, of course, would never suggest a war, any more than I would advocate you going down to your local movie theater and shooting up six-year-olds. They are the same thing. Only in a war, more six-year-olds die. Usually more horribly, more painfully.

I would suggest make-work programs. We certainly have things that need fixing. Let’s build a free wireless Internet network for the whole nation. Yes, even rural North Dakota and Alaska. That would require some people, wouldn’t it? Give them room and board and a college-like camaraderie, a little spending cash (so they can – gulp – see a movie), maybe access to a shared fleet of cars on weekends. Let’s build some high-speed rails so we can take all these dangerous overpriced gas-guzzling trucks off the road. Let’s build some solar and wind plants. I know, I know, it would require a total resignation from the very concept of The Economy. It would mean government was actively putting corporations out of work, and some of their employees too, and treating the youth of America with dignity and respect and like they’re people who can do things. Heaven forbid.

But what are your alternatives? These people are going to be on the dole one way or the other. There aren’t jobs, there aren’t opportunities, and everyone in The Economy is doing their damnedest to make sure there are fewer jobs and fewer opportunities to come. I guess you can repeal minimum wage and make everyone punch each other in the nose for a scrap of bread you throw from the tower at midnight, but these people are increasingly going to leverage their debt and take matters into their own hands. And they’d have to believe in a future to make a revolution. If all they believe in is despair, then you get Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech. You get little dark knights everywhere, believing they are extolling some kind of neo-nihilism with every bullet, not realizing governments cornered that market with wars centuries ago.

I envisioned this post a long time before there was a movie theater shooting, and it was going to be about another kind of object lesson, back to the theme of learning about myself. It was about the fact that I bought a new coffee maker I didn’t need a few months ago and haven’t had the heart to set it up and replace the old one. The old one looks like this:

CoffeeMaker

I won it at the Yale tournament in the spring of 2002. They gave out useful or fun objects like rice cookers and Gameboys and coffee makers with the budget they would have spent on shiny trophies. I actually initially took the rice cooker at Emily’s behest, but quickly swapped it for a more practical (for me) coffee maker with Steph Tatham, who’d won some lower award. The thing has worked perfectly for a decade. It’s a relic of an American era of making machines that lasted, even though it didn’t come from that era at all. I’ve probably had six-thousand or so cups of coffee out of this thing. It still worked perfectly this morning.

My intent was to replace it with this model that I got at Target for like twenty bucks:

Sunbeam

It shouldn’t take much imagination to see why I picked this out. The color is like the font of this page, the color I would pick for nearly all objects out of a pantheon of a thousand hues. It has a timer so that it will brew the coffee for me and have it ready when I blearily awaken at six in the morning to go to a tournament or fulfill some other wakeful task of existence. It is in every way perfect. Whereas the old one is dingy, off-white, wearing the stains of thousands of brews, incredibly simple in its design. It doesn’t even have digital numbers! In an era where you can’t dry your hands in public without interfacing with a motion-sensor, holding on to this thing is as old-fashioned as not having a cell-phone (I’m coming up on two years with a cell-phone!).

And yet I can’t seem to make the transition, to get rid of the old thing. It was free. It has served me so loyally for so long. It still works.

I am such a bad capitalist.

Or maybe, to borrow a phrase, I’m just committed to commitment.

Maybe we just need to take everyone in the Lost Generation and have them paint our coffee makers. Have them fan out in the neighborhoods, house by house, and ask what everyone would like updated or changed or painted or retooled so that life feels new and fresh again. So that it feels like there’s a future that’s not just austerity and decline. So that people can feel like a rich person without actually being decadent or aspiring to buy and sell people.

That kind of house-by-house work sure beats the hell out of what that phrase is being used for in Afghanistan right now.

by

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.

by

One Year Later

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, Metablogging, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

This blog still exists, by the way. This isn’t a conscious decision to never blog again, but the combined product of possibly the busiest year of my life and some factors therein that haven’t seemed to lend themselves to public scrutiny. It’s a weird feeling, not wanting absolutely everything out in public, and one unfamiliar to me, but nonetheless there. It’s a bit of a crossroads, but there is no doubt that May and the ensuing summer will bring more use of this venue to communicate and more interest in projects on this site, or at the very least more time. I love the team I coach, but they are draining in all the ways a group of people can be draining.

Anyway, it seemed fitting to mark a year. No, not since I last posted in my blog. Something a bit more personal and more difficult. It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to Emily, a year since Chris and Ashley pulled me away from despondency in a debate meeting and convinced me what so many others had tried to before, that a person who callously hurts you without regard or self-awareness is not a friend no matter what kind of premium you or that person puts on that word. It was an important lesson, and one I needed to learn from people younger than I am who knew me better at the time.

What a difference a year makes. But does a year make any difference? She’s allegedly coming back to Jersey, so I hear through the backchannels. Coming to finish a small part of what was started that fateful year when she moved us out to this state I can’t seem to extricate myself from. I have a variety of choices, as everyone does, always, in life. I could reopen the channel, stem the flow of absence after a year, try to rehumanize and poke around for any signs of life or remorse. Or I could continue to persist in a cocoon of relative comfort, the illusion of her death replacing the reality of her betrayal, the lines blurred. There’s the old metaphor I used to use in the rehab case, of course, about not being fully well until you can walk past your drug dealer and say “no thanks” – bubbles don’t really count. But if you need to be in a bubble in order to survive, surely it’s preferable to expiring in the open air?

May Day is a pregnant spot on the 366-slot pantheon of the year, loaded with associations and allusions and metaphors galore. It’s a distress signal and a call to action. Occupy is apparently calling for a general strike of the 99%, something I’d consider honoring had today not already been designated for RUDU’s Senior Banquet, a four-hour festival consisting of the conclusion of our annual Ironman tournament, senior speeches, a team picture, and dinner. To see RUDU’s next step in its blossoming as an institution is something I couldn’t dream of missing, no matter how much the calls of labor leaders and communist organizers hearken to the importance of May 1st. It was also May 1st, of course, when I went in for my Glide interview in 2006, with an HR Director wearing a T-shirt in solidarity with the marchers outside but deciding that Glide was worth working for all the same. Labor leaders. The longer one lives, the more patterns and associations become fraught. No wonder my mother can’t listen to music from the sixties.

And what else of getting older? Certainly one is more surprised by life with each passing day, or at least I am. The feeling that this is now twice over borrowed time, both liberating and demanding as the time is both precious yet unexpected. The question of whether those patterns make life more navigable, or less dramatic, or merely serve as distractions while the universe carries out its destiny on your behalf. And while forgiveness continues to elude me conceptually, the idea of letting someone’s transgressions stand as warranted and valid, the process of turning cheeks and baring souls never seems very far. I seem to always find a way to reopen the path, even if that path is marked with wounded, strewn with dead, mined and booby-trapped all the way up to its foggy conclusion, itself inevitably another murky fork.

If there is a lesson to be found in all of this, I don’t think I’ve learned it yet. Which probably means more pain to come, the best professor in the business. Trying to be mindful of one’s own actions sufficiently to make them valid, to make interactions meaningful, to demonstrate the kind of compassion one hasn’t been afforded. Inevitably, though, the bubbles we live in puncture those of others, the defense mechanisms we construct deal damage as an exchange for not taking it, and the alternative seems to be being so vulnerable that the mere air pressure of a May day is enough to crush one’s skeletal structure into white powder. Where is this balance to be struck? Every day, you can walk outside and see people doing it wrong. Passive-aggression, aggressive aggression, timidity, fear, paranoia, meanness. No one intends any of this. They’re merely trying to protect themselves from the dangers they’ve felt, or worse, the dangers they’ve only imagined and seen reflected in others’ pain.

The Hunger Games series seems a fitting backdrop for all this contemplation of mine of late. There is probably no more important reading for a member of the first world in this age on this planet. The mere reading of an allegedly young adult series has pitched me back into an uproar of whether living in America at all is too great a burden and harm on the planet itself, whether the exploitation of others innate to our local quality of life makes us all complicit if we don’t tear down the structure or flee. We are in Omelas, but the dungeons are lined up a hundredfold, the screams reverberating off each other in harmonious cacophony. To say nothing of what we do to each other, ourselves.

The only prescription I can give myself is thought. More time to think. About contact, about withdrawal, about the nature of a society so determined to use others that we all end up using ourselves. I am keyed up with the lightning reflexes of the debate world, argument turns and split-second timing and case choices on the run. Life doesn’t have to be like that. Not in May, with a view of summer, reminding us that no matter how abysmal April manages to be each year, it will eventually be replaced by something warmer, more relaxed, less stringent.

In the meantime, someone stole my laundry detergent from the basement and even such mundanities of life cannot be overlooked on May Day. It’s a neighborhood where I’ve accidentally left my car unlocked and GPS in view for days at a time, but one’s own neighbors will take detergent. And, as always, there could be confusion, miscommunication, an explanation that makes it a mere trifling misunderstanding. The question becomes one not of intent, for everyone intends always to be a good person and believes they are. I know you think you are. The question, rather, becomes one of how much thought and care goes into any given action. How much do you think about the implications of what you do?

In today’s world, we are all merely fragile butterflies, but our wings are bringing up tidal waves everywhere. Mayday.

by

In Defense of the Harry Potter Epilogue

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Tags: ,

First, a full disclosure. I have seen the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 four (4) times in theaters. I started seeing scenes from the movie in dreams, in waking moments when I would sit idle for a brief time, started quoting and reciting passages in everyday conversation. It got so bad I decided to reread the book under the extremely thin excuse that I had a British copy of the book (a gift a year ago from a close friend who’d visited Britain) and I hadn’t read the version with extra u’s in it yet. It should be noted that I have reread perhaps five or six books in my entire life, at least once I got past the echelon of tomes authored by one D. Seuss. This is a rare occasion, but one I started before viewing four but didn’t complete till after it.

I have also done ancillary reading and research on Harry Potter, with particular focus on this installment of the book and the film. The film was more excellent in my first couple viewings than it seemed in rereading the book. Especially the final bits, which are so much better conveyed in the book. The movie did a good job of making me forget how much better the book was because it, itself, was good. I read reviews, I read analyses, I signed up for Pottermore, I was just eating and breathing a whole HP world for something like a month.

And throughout, despite most people joining with me in the belief that Harry Potter is excellent overall, that the movie was generally a great adaptation of the book, that the book was an excellent conclusion to the series (possible qualms about the deus ex machina survival of Harry aside – and no, you don’t get a spoiler alert, because look at the title of this post and have you been living under a rock?), and so on, there has been one almost universal critique. Everyone hates the epilogue. Everyone, I should note, except me.

When I first read it, I adored the epilogue. I thought it was maybe a tiny bit too pat as far as there being no trouble at all in the last line, but otherwise every prior word was great. And I couldn’t believe those who criticized it after comparing notes. And now I’ve had the opportunity to see endless lampoonery heaped on it from almost every corner, to the point where people are attributing all but the very ruination of Harry Potter itself as a phenomenon to a few thin pages under the banner of Nineteen Years Later. So allow me, if you will, a bit of time to defend what I think is a key part of Harry Potter’s literary ascendance from great young adult reading to true literature.

By far the shallowest and yet most pervasive critique of the epilogue is that it doesn’t make any sense that everyone (or the key figures at least) marries the person they’re with throughout the duration of Book 7. Prominently, of course, that Harry marries Ginny and Ron marries Hermione. Now we can leave aside doubts about Ron and Hermione’s coupling to begin with, but that doesn’t seem to be the objection most people have. No, they say, it’s obvious that people have to go through lots of cycles with tons of people after school before finding the people they marry and this is an amateurish attempt to make the fans happy.

First of all, how many of these people have ever been through a war? Like, in their homeland? Have you ever seen the impact that trying circumstances, that life-or-death traumatic situations have on people’s relationships? They bind people together like little else. It’s an unfortunate fact that timing plays an enormous role in who we end up with (don’t make me dwell on this too much right about now), and the sense of timing can greatly be enhanced by the kind of urgency and meaning that being close to death infuses into a situation. The fact that so many of these couples from the 7th year at Hogwarts stay together to marriage is actually evidence that JK Rowling has great insight into actual human behavior and is the opposite of amateurish.

It should also be noted that the wizarding world clearly matures and marries at an overall younger age than its more modern counterparts. Surely you’ve noticed there’s no university education in wizarding Britain. Hogwarts is an amalgam of the classic boarding school and college. Graduating Hogwarts makes you a full wizarding adult, so it naturally follows that this is chronologically more like university than high school. And that makes finding a mate at that time far more reasonable and understandable than the lampooners portray.

I can’t really figure out why else people hate the epilogue – many of the critiques seem to just sort of see it as self-evident. I’ve heard that the whole thing, not just the last line, is too pat. I think it should be noted here that JK Rowling had sworn off writing anything more about the Harry Potter world (something she’s already repeatedly gone back on, but she must’ve believed it at the time), so she was trying to wrap up a whole landscape she didn’t want to revisit. To do that with an ending in the rubble of Hogwarts would be far more unsatisfying than to provide some sort of perspective and closure, besides opening the door wide for endless speculation and clamoring for sequels. It seems Rowling wanted to get very much away from being pigeonholed as a writer the rest of her career and that, possibly sadly, she’s being forced back into that comfort zone, whether it’s from the pressure of expectations or her own nervousness at failing at something else. The point is, only by offering some closure and making it seem as unadventurous and unthrilling as possible could she have a hope at ending the series instead of turning 7 books into 10 or 14 or 21. And I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Any opening for major ongoing conflict or strife would’ve been an invitation to that expansion.

It’s also worth noting the beauty of the narrative arc that’s completed in the closing of the scene on Platform 9.75, which is far more evident and obvious from the movie than it is from the book. (I also think the movie gives a slight out for people who don’t like the epilogue – the three protagonists close their eyes while holding hands on the bridge at the close of the main part of the movie, making it possible to believe they are all envisioning what their future will be like in 19 years and possibly even apparating to that vision. Watch it again – it’s there.) The close reminds us that each generation has its challenges, just as Harry struggles with in relation to all the people of his parents’ generation and their struggle against the same foe. By stringing us back to the place where it began, we can find our place in the cycle of life now as an older generation thinking of others to come after us, having grown up with Harry and the series. It’s, in a word, brilliant. It seems obvious that for the real impact of the entire effort to be felt, we need something expository like this to put the whole trajectory and experience in perspective, especially given how much speculating about even having a future that Harry does during the book and the entire series.

Not only do we get to see what Harry’s life on borrowed time came to, that he fulfilled the simple desires of life that we all forget to appreciate while we’re enjoying them because few of us came back from the dead, but we get to put ourselves on that train anew and remember where we’ve come from as Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione are doing on that platform. You can also believe that it’s about seeing everyone off to safety and happily ever after, but even the pat ending that Harry isn’t bothered anymore doesn’t promise that it’ll always be that way. But now we’re speculating about future lives of characters we don’t even know, making our insistence to hear their story less important than its reflection on our own lives.

You don’t have to be as obsessed as I strangely became with this work of art to recognize that it’s really excellent literature that takes the next step and has something meaningful to say to all of us. I just wish people could trust the author enough to recognize the merit of the whole work, not just the parts they particularly like. Even the deus ex machina is growing on me, which is real proof that Rowling’s won my respect, word by word.

by

Truth in Advertising

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, From the Road, Just Add Photo, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, TH'HEAT 2011, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , ,

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that having access to all of one’s e-mails for several years should allow the refinement of particularly effective advertising. Still, seeing these two back-to-back was a bit jarring this morning:

GMail20110721

Thanks a lot, GMail. Are there really people out there who are worried that Facebook is closer to taking over the world than Google?

As Goo Goo Dolls would put it, “Scars are souvenirs you never lose. The past is never far.”

In other news, while it wasn’t the most impressive book overall, methinks it was particularly well-timed for me to read Siddhartha this week. There’s a lot of insight in there about the particular paths that might be tempting at this juncture of life and good reminders of what roads are full of folly. Especially interesting as I play some poker and wrestle with the material reminders of my past that I want to haul out to Jersey.

Been sleeping and dreaming too much lately. The hazards of being home. Have extended my home visit a little bit and then will probably be taking about a week to cross back over the country. Leaving Saturday maybe? Still a little bit in flux. Might hike in Rocky Mountain NP, but definitely skipping Grand Canyon and LA, as were possibilities even a couple days ago. Feeling daunted enough about driving another 3k-4k miles at this point.

Next immediate stop: The Frontier!

For those without Facebook, here’s the latest album of pics: Volume 3.

by

Summer Tour 2011: “TH’HEAT”

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, TH'HEAT 2011, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

Man, am I glad we’re about to be done with May. May was not without highlights, but was mostly an unmitigated disaster. The first month of being out of touch with Emily has been rough. It appropriately began on May Day (made all the more appropriate by just finishing The Handmaid’s Tale, which I loved and tore through very quickly, though was annoyed by the “Historical Note” addendum) and could not be over soon enough.

In the spirit of all this and more, here’s something to look forward to, already less than a month away. If you don’t like the title, finding it to be outdated, melodramatic, or even self-indulgent, you should know that my first notion for the tour title was the “Not Dead Yet” Tour. Which in some ways I find more fitting, though I like this acronym better, even if the ring is overall more nostalgic and less triumphal than Not Dead Yet might be. There are not a lot of detailed plans for this Tour quite yet, other than possibly daily yoga, since I’m losing my yoga routine with the close of the weekly class this evening, hanging out a bunch with friends, and two weddings (one in Boston and one in Albuquerque). I am still ruminating on a video diary thing as well as a writing project, so stay tuned for lots of neat new possibilities to come.

Anyway, obligatory Tour dates list:

Additionally, it’s worth noting that if you’re along the implicit route of this trip and I haven’t included your city, there’s still some room for amendment. You should contact me about that. The cross-country treks on either side of Albuquerque are going to be a little rushed, but there’s still room for flexibility there and especially on the East Coast portion.

Also changed the theme of the blog to reflect the new summer plans. The image up top is pretty much the best characterization of how I feel about this trip.

More soon.

by

We Got Lost in New York

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

The summer is coming but it can’t come fast enough, can’t pass fast enough, can’t make up its mind about coming or going or raining or pouring and there’s a sense I have that I should be better than this better than this by now because everyone else believes time is something more than a construct and they forget forget forget and get to be better and why can I not be better and the things that I do in the wake of what’s done are no better and all I get is what I give and I can’t can’t can’t forget and this is all I get.

Emily is in the states from what I can tell, from what I remember. I’m trying so hard to forget but it doesn’t work like that, the mind doesn’t just shut down and mine in particular seems enthralled at its height with what it should least be interested in. It’s horror, it’s fascination, there’s a reason we put ourselves through 10-inning 8-7 baseball games or literal roller-coaster rides or falling in love all over again when we know that we shouldn’t. Read your Watership Down, head for Strawberry’s Warren, know in your soul, in the core they keep telling me to engage on Tuesday nights that all this diversion and distraction is there to replace the life-or-death fight-or-flight feeling innate to being an animal. Not that kind of animal, but then again why not? Am I anything more, anything better? Truly?

But and so I have to be concerned on subway cars, on late-night (too late) trains to the middle of New Jersey, as though seeing the actual person would somehow be more powerful than the ghost that is waiting on brown warped leather or dingy graffitied plastic, hiding on street corners and under bus depot covers and in the parks and playgrounds of any city, but oh especially this city. As though talking on the phone or writing on the computer or reading the masterwork of the late great can in any way interrupt the flow of mental traffic borne ceaselessly against the tide, what would you say? Is this grand plan anything better than mild distraction, any more nuanced than the “look behind you!” trick when you’re going to take the money and run? Does the distance, real or imagined, help sever the seamless soul-deep bond that was tied so tightly, became interwoven with heartbeats and that nasal intake of air, stay here for five breaths, for five million breaths, why does the total count of a lifetime’s breaths seem like such a small number in the end?

A veggie burger with avocado and fries and Harry Potter 3 on the weirdly overdone big-screens and there is no event that I process without the mental image of you by my side and I try to insert others there in your stead but something seems off and even when it doesn’t there are larger problems of trying to replace something that’s missing and I know it and I get it and I understand how the comparison doesn’t wash but if you lost all your limbs tomorrow and someone told you the only thing we can replace them with are fish because it’s wrong to want arms and legs again because you had those before and new arms and new legs don’t want to be compared and I say fish are you serious and so I take the anesthetic and wake up days later with floppy jetsam of the sea just sort of stapled or sewn to the nubbins and I can still feel my digits so rudely severed and a walleye gives me this deadpan look from where my elbow should be like why don’t you want to play with me, why can I not use my little tiny gills to help you pick up where you left off?

Not to mention the falling over.

I watched a soccer game of some high-school-or-so youth club league, caged like visions of the Bronx Zoo in four perpendicular/parallel sheets of 30-foot chain link and then the Allison Weiss show I’d so been looking forward to, the only one of fifty or seventy with the guts to go it alone, and then people on the train back as I read some of the most even more compelling bits of The Pale King before DFW left me alone forever. And the echoes of the pin-drop pathos of “Ghost Stories” and that late chapter I relate to so well (but shouldn’t?) haven’t left me since, I am a walking shadow for the backlit realities of a few moments in time and space that feel like connection, that feel like art reaching out to me across the solipsistic divide of otherness and telling me it’s not okay but it doesn’t have to be and I am here hurting too. It is not okay but I am here but it is still not okay but I am still here. Over and over, till the mantra itself fades out of meaning and becomes another dull echo of an empty chamber.

I may go again Wednesday night in Princeton.

I bought a yoga mat. It is teal green and the color that anyone would have predicted and all I can hear is the voice and the lilt and the reaction that she would have had, that she might as well be having. At a certain point, if you can almost simulate your life well enough, is there a point to living it out?

She is still my wife. I have to figure out what to do about that. Maybe the 26th. Maybe the 6th. Maybe I can’t.

Allison Weiss at Rockwood Music Hall (with Bess Rogers)
New York City, NY
21 May 2011

I Don’t Want to Be Here
You + Me + Alcohol
I Was an Island
Ghost Stories
Nothing Left
The End Part 2 (Boston)
Don’t Go
Try to Understand
Wait for Me
I’m Ready
Fingers Crossed

1 2 3