Tag Archives: Read it and Weep

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Midweek Roundup

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

Periodically, I’ll get to the point where I’m almost incapable of writing new posts because every post idea I have is an old half-cooked one from two and a half weeks ago. And at the point at which there are twelve of these or so, it’s time to clean out the closet and just put the leftovers on the table for consideration. Could I mix my metaphors any more? Could I care any less?

Think of this like your Lewis Black interlude in The Daily Show, only way less painful and with punchlines that, where applicable, are capable of inducing at least a chuckle. On second thought, please consider nothing that I do remotely akin to Lewis Black in any way.

Stocks are the New Fantasy Football or It Takes a Distraction
If I’ve learned anything about trying to live life while somehow enmeshed in the trash compactor known as an American Day Job, it’s that one must find things one looks forward to doing at, around, or directly after work or one will spend far too much of one’s energy contemplating different ways to throw oneself in front of the train (or swerve the car off the road, etc.). I wish I were less serious.

The difference that having this (or these) upside distraction(s) make(s) cannot be underestimated. Simply cannot. It makes the difference between a spring in one’s step as one whistles on the way to the next lobotomizing task and being so overwhelmingly Eeyorishly depressed that one cannot hide it from one’s supervisor. (At least for me. Your possibly more emotionally flatline results may vary.)

When I worked at Seneca, I had to pull 16-hour shifts on Sundays with no breaks or lunches. This is legal, they told us, because we were technically in medical care, where apparently rules about taking care of people do not apply to employees. I think some people were told they could have breaks if they really raised a stink, but it was on them that the ratio dial was being turned from “Absolute Minimum Containment” down to “Life-Threatening”. And who wants that on a Sunday morning?

Nevertheless, there were natural downtimes in the rhythms, such as “Quiet Time” (less of a misnomer than the “Quiet Room”, I can tell you), where the kids played in their rooms for 15-20 minutes and staff got to be on the computer. Theoretically we were supposed to work on mental health notes during this time, but anyone who could write even such rote stuff in the midst of a 16-hour shift was differently constructed than I. I checked Fantasy Football.

It was perfect. I don’t even like football that much, but Sunday is devoted to football in America and the scores would roll in over the course of the day. Looking for opportunities to check football stats was the highlight of every Sunday, to the point where half the year was considerably more dreary because there was no football. But I started the job in August and that’s right when football gets going, so it acclimated me to 16-hour shifts as much as imaginable. And I wouldn’t have been able to get into it without Fantasy Football as a reason to care about so many different games and players. This whole association may actually be a big reason that I can’t play Fantasy Football any more – the associations are too strong.

Anyway, reading books on the train is definitely a big help in the current compactor, but that becomes inconsistent. Especially when I’m still immersed in The Idiot, which is really starting to show why it’s not discussed in the same breath as C&P and Brothers K, at least by most people. Basically, it seems there are about 40 pages of scattered brilliance that mostly consists of asides and non sequitirs sprinkled across a rather unremarkable story. Though I can sort of see why this book would’ve shaken up Russia’s society at the time it was written. Big D still has about 50 pages to salvage a message, though, so I’m holding out. Anyway, the point is that books help, especially if they are engaging and thus give me a reason to want to ride the train to work.

But stocks – stocks are the biggest help. Starting to play the stock market (I’ve basically broken even so far over 9 months, which I’m guessing is beating the average experience) has been my recent salvation from eight unending hours of drudgery. There’s always plenty of five-minute spurts in which I can take a break and get the rundown, and being on a computer all day makes it easy to keep in the background and monitor live-update sites. It’s gotten to the point where there’s a little pang of sadness in part of me every weekend because there are no exciting stock movements to keep an eye on. Which is perfect – if one’s resigned to not resigning a day job for a certain period, one wants a distraction so great that one misses it (just a little) during the weekend. (Please note that if this is making you want to stay at a job you should be leaving, you’ve gone too far. Use this method only in moderation to stay at jobs you have to for brief to middling periods of time.)

Huh. I guess that was plenty of post by itself after all. But wait, there’s more….

Time is Just a Bit Outside or Calendary Dreaming on Such a Winter’s Day
It occurred to me walking home from work in early January (maybe the first day back after all the breaks) that our calendar almost makes sense. I noticed that the days were getting longer again, as they say, and it was a new year. But these events are not quite aligned. Winter Solstice is 9-10 days before year’s end, when really it makes perfect sense to have it right at the end of the year. The shortest day of the year should always be the last, with the longest at mid-year. Doesn’t that just make obvious intuitive sense?

The only complication of this I can really see is that, for some reason, the Solstices and Equinoxes don’t always fall on the exact same calendar day. Which, if you think about it, seems to indicate that our calendar is off. Shouldn’t those always come around at the exact same time if a year is really what we say it is? But, of course, there are complications like the quarter-day (leap year every four) and the skipping of leap year every few leap years and the extra second and such. Years don’t comport with days perfectly, so there must be a little flexibility. However, I don’t think it would be too much trouble to alter our year length to ensure, at least, that the last day of the year is always Winter Solstice.

Anyway, this got me thinking about calendars and time and whether our current incarnation of a year really makes the most sense. Without going all Robespierre on you, I was going to present the case for a new 8-month calendar of evenly-sized 45-day months, punctuated by a brief universal holiday period of 5-6 days each year. But I wasn’t sure that was right – I was then thinking about changing the lengths of weeks to align more exactly and then maybe going back to 30-day months… it all got jumbled to the point where I decided I couldn’t post on it, pending further study.

So I’ll get back to you on the full-scale new calendar proposal, replete with equivalences of every current day to the newly proposed day. That might take a while. But I’m convinced that we should end each year with Winter Solstice. It’s just sort of obvious.

Analyze This or I Miss Debate
I’ve been dreaming a lot about debate lately. A lot. Sometimes the dreams make sense and sometimes they don’t, but it’s sort of reaching a critical mass.

This is not particularly new, though this recent wave is above average. For a long time, especially when I was still debating, I had debate anxiety dreams that closely mirror very common school anxiety dreams. I had a round about which I was uninformed, I was ironmanning (no partner), I didn’t have a case, I couldn’t find the room, I was late, etc. etc. (Sometimes, I swear, every single one of these would happen in one dream about one round.) Those have thankfully faded over time, though they still crop up every once in a while.

The last few years have graced me with many more painful dreams about debating in important rounds, often finals or at least outrounds, and realizing very sharply that I need to savor and enjoy this round because I will miss debate terribly painfully when it’s over and there will be no more chances to be part of a debate league and I don’t want to feel like I’ve left something on the table. The crippling disappointment that comes from waking up from these dreams long since retired from the debate circuit is indescribable. Especially since, in almost all of these dreams, the round never really got going. I just sort of lived in the milieu of the round without actually kicking off the debate.

(Which is a fairly typical thing in dreams for me – for the first fifteen years of my life, I could never eat anything in a dream. I would have dreams in the middle of grocery stores or restaurants and be unable to consume anything. Attempts to do so would either magically be rendered impossible or directly wake me up. This prohibition was actually lifted right around the time I became a vegetarian and started having accidental meat-eating anxiety dreams. Of course, I’ve always been able to die or splat on the ground or what have you in dreams, which is supposed to be impossible – or at least rare.)

It’s gotten to the point where I can actually identify and describe a place that is a frequent setting for my dreams that doesn’t seem to exist in real life. There are only about four such places I can think of, whose recurrence is so strong that they have become real places in my mind despite not tying to any real locale during waking hours. In the dreams, it’s always called “Dartmouth” but is absolutely nothing like any venues actually on the Dartmouth College campus. I think a subconscious association of that school’s tournament and my success is in play here, even though my sophomore year there was my only final. It was my first varsity victory, after all. It’s (the dream venue) a relatively modest GA/final round lecture hall – modest in size, I should say, but pretty grand in decor. It’s aligned a certain way, with the lectern raised about half a person’s height atop ascending stairs on the right side and the colors are vaguely red and gold, but faded in the way of day-to-day college campuses.

There are more details, but I won’t bore you. The point is that this place has become real and I think about it often, even though it doesn’t exist. A place hasn’t ensconced itself this substantially in my mind since the aquarium room with the shark tank and the holes in the glass and the paralyzing dilemma about drowning vs. death by shark tooth. Which still pops up from time to time, but has mercifully receded from the fever-pitch of a decade ago.

I was going to talk about a specific debate dream I had just two nights ago, but maybe another time. It’s getting late and this Roundup has become more of a Cattle Drive.

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Suicide in the Sort of Present: Thoughts on the Passing of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

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

David Foster Wallace was whirled into my life by my eighth girlfriend (if she can quite be called that), the one I’ve lovingly dubbed “Try Before You Buy” in the nomenclature of retrospect. It was my sophomore year in college, an absolute disaster of an annum if I’ve ever lived one, but one that birthed a good deal of long-term positivity despite its torments. It was the age in which Introspection was born and Steve-o and I won three straight tournaments and I was trying to fall for this crazy smoker who dervished words together at will and chopped off all her beautiful hair the week before we started dating.

The nickname comes from the fact that she introduced me to the concept of dating multiple people at once as a deliberate medium-term approach to life (as opposed to a brief but unfortunate transition, or the infamous “overlap” phenomenon). This has apparently become a standard way of being in contemporary America for those unmarried in their mid-twenties and above, but I sure wasn’t ready for it at 20 in the year 2000. I don’t think she was either, frankly, but like so many people she felt that circumstances were dictating her fate and it was time for her to learn about open relationships. This didn’t require her telling each of us about the other without revealing identities, having us discover each other’s identity almost immediately, and making it clear when she was spending time with one or the other of us to the other, though. But she did that.

As those of you familiar with the story (or who’ve read the earliest entries of Introspection) know, she broke up with the other guy to be with me exclusively after some weeks of torturous sharing. And then the guy, during the breakup conversation, told her some mangled misinterpreted third-hand half-truths about me that caused her to freak out and break up with me too (enter the Even-Number Principle). A tornado of misinterpretation and bad blood emerged, briefly costing me my friendship with Mesco (long since repaired), and leading to a couple months where the girl and I IM’ed for multiple hours a night, every night, but I wasn’t permitted to see her in person till the last week of school.

It’s probably not surprising that this sounds like the plot of a David Foster Wallace short story, both because the girl revered the man as her favorite author and because her head was such a constant wondrous jumble of verbiage that her life had no choice but to follow suit. I admired her spinning blender of verbosity, perhaps as her most shining attribute. As I came to read Wallace, initially at her behest and later of my own interest, I came to see the source and even understand my past a little better.

I think I first started reading Girl With Curious Hair after she and I were no longer together, but were arguably more emotionally attached via constant IM contact than we had been during our relationship. (She was one of the few people in my life with whom I had meaningful and/or extensive IM conversations.) Actually, it may not have even been till the next year, when I was working at Goldfarb Library and had ample free time to read books of my interest since I sure wasn’t reading my unpurchased textbooks. My reading tends to form as a sort of queue and it takes a while for me to get to hot recommendations. As I’m remembering this, it might not’ve been till my senior year, since I wasn’t at the desk the first semester of junior year. This recollection is rapidly losing traction.

Regardless of when it was, I recall being struck by the fearlessness of Wallace’s writing, how he seemed a perfect parallel on paper to my way of being in the world. He legitimately didn’t seem to care whether anyone read a given story or not, much less whether they enjoyed it or wanted to keep reading. He wrote exactly what he was going to write, in exactly the language he chose, regardless of accessibility or interest level. This struck me as a remarkable trait in a writer and just as admirable as I find it in human interaction. Above all, it was honest experimentation. It was like witnessing a writing test zone, with all the similar risks of getting shelled by live fire.

Everything that had ever occurred to me to try or to one day aspire to try, Wallace seemed to be up for the challenge. Writing entirely in dialogue or second person or with words that start only with vowels. I don’t think he did any of these things per se, maybe not in any of his works, but he was exactly the kind of author who would do them. And there seemed to be a breadth of forethought and intelligence behind such efforts that was often breathtaking and certainly worth reading.

After getting through Girl With Curious Hair, I think some vague bitterness about the girl or the fact that none of his other collections at the time were of short stories dissuaded me from going on a DFW kick. But the stories therein haunted me for a long time and certain scenes still came to mind out of nowhere, with a visceral reality that was oft overwhelming. His story about LBJ (“Lyndon”), particularly, seemed so unbelievably real as to be a historical account transcribed.

Thus a few years later, when bored and depressed at a PIRG party, my eye was particularly caught by the word “stories” next to “David Foster Wallace” on a book cover. And so I picked up Oblivion, tearing through much of the first story before leaving the party. Isaac Bloom, the book’s owner and a friend, tried to insist several times that I take the book home, but I refused when finding out that he hadn’t yet read it himself. I would pick up a copy at some point, I assured him.

And then, late last year, came the torrent. I read it all, sometimes reading DFW books back-to-back or nearly so, which I tend to try to avoid. I hauled Infinite Jest to India over the protests of all my traveling companions, who insisted that such a move was surely asking for trouble. I pointed out that I was far too invested in the book to quit now (over halfway through), and besides it was easier than taking the equivalent number of books needed to replace the lengthy tome. I finished the book on a train in the middle of India and while I wasn’t all that impressed with the ending (most DFW books seem to die rather than end), it was a momentous, moving night.

I’ve still yet to read his two nonfiction works, but I completed all of DFW’s fiction early this summer. I was especially impressed by Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, especially dark and the most seemingly relevant to the events that transpired to end Wallace’s life. For one, the jaw-droppingly brilliant micro-short story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” immediately merited inclusion among my favorite short stories of all time, coming in at #10. The thread stories of the titular brief interviews are almost universally stunning. And a line that struck me as powerful and bizarre at the time, read in a memorable bleary fog of plane-switching downtime in the Phoenix airport, has taken on a whole new meaning. Addressed to someone trying to relate to himself, he wrote: “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.”

It shouldn’t take much explaining to demonstrate why this line impacted me so. I mean, David Foster Wallace was not just any fiction writer, he was a fiction writer who could literally get anything published to the reading and adoration of the masses. The story from which that line was taken (“Octet”) is perhaps the greatest proof of this fact, an absurdly rambly meta-meta-meta-fiction piece that pulverizes the comprehensible limits of any sort of fourth wall with the audience. It is immensely entertaining, but perhaps only because I aspire to be a groundbreaking fiction writer myself. Aspire. Desire. Want. Would love to. Would in no way, ever, consider the condition “unfortunate”.

And so we arrive at the heart of the matter, it would seem. In the face of the success, the adulation, the reverential readers and students and literary crowd, in the face of having feasibly decades of writing opportunity ahead, as discretionarily unmitigated in time constraints as he would possibly want to be (yes, I focus on this as the blockade against writing success since this is what hampers me almost entirely at the moment), he chooses to walk away. And not just from the shining light of it all, like J.D. Salinger, but from the potential to even write for oneself and burn the results. To take the ability and hard-earned position to influence others, the profound compulsion to make them think and think hard… and crumple it up irreparably.

It would be easy to have my next line be something about the unforgivable nature of this act. The truth is, of course, that I could never fail to forgive someone their suicide. I am hardly prone to forgiveness in any capacity, but I am prone to suicidalism and as such find it to be infinitely understandable. Unfortunate and perhaps mired in an extreme lack of ultimate creativity, but understandable all the way. And while I happen to be on the upside of my lifelong battle with suicidal ideation, I am hardly naïve enough to conceive that I would never be on the down-swinging pendulum while simultaneously a successful, acknowledged, and influential writer of fiction. Especially if somehow I felt that the essential angst of the era were laden in being misunderstood or unable to continue to create at the level to which I had become accustomed or even expected.

But we are not given the details of Wallace’s suicide. Surely a hanging seems rather dull for such an expansive and explosive creator. I had to read it three times before I even believed that aspect. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if he really did do it himself, a la the old Elliott Smith rumors from back in the day. Talk about two people who have something to say to each other at the next water cooler. No doubt they would hate each other in person despite having begrudging admiration and ultimate high respect, not to mention so very much in common.

Perhaps there will be books on it in the future, perhaps a note published. The media seems all to eager to conceal details of a suicide, likely equal parts respect for family and some sort of extremely passive campaign against any alleged glorification of the act. We can be told how many times the murdered were shot, but those who chose to stage their own departure and arrange the details are denied the spreading of that statement. Of course, it must mostly be those closest to the suicide who aid in the concealment – we would surely never learn if his final note, discovered by his wife, blamed her for all his troubles. The resentment and horrifying insult of loving a suicide must ultimately take over in the immediate wake.

And so we are left to imagine the details, to fill in our own perspectives and wonder how we relate, how there but for the grace of God go we. It is not a planned, constructed, or well thought-out suicide that I fear for myself so much as an impulsive one. My incredibly unstable moods and widest imaginable range of highs and lows make me caution myself at approaching trains and over high ledges, but I have no concern at something so elaborate as a noose. By the time I had put that much thought into it, I would have realized I still had one more thing to try to write or express, or that I could spend a whole life doing nothing but playing video games or poker until I got sick of that and wanted to be more productive again, or that I could just disappear and start over. All of these things, of course, unless I did something which I regretted to the point of being unable to live with it. Which is why I spend so much of my time and effort trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

David, I don’t know the details of your life (maybe I should read your nonfiction, huh?) nor what brought you to this point. But I’m disappointed. Not in you or with you or even by you, but by the fact that there won’t be anything (or much) left to read from you. It was good. I would have done some of it differently, but generally very good. I hope you can find a way of communicating more urgent messages next time around.

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Thursday Roundup: Peace, Hope, Truth

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

Peace
So it looks, thankfully, like the Olympic Ossetia War may be over almost as quickly as it started. If you’ve been under a rock for a week (or in Vegas, as I was for the bulk of the war), Georgia invaded the breakaway republic of South Ossetia as the Olympics opened. Russia invaded South Ossetia to drive the Georgians out, then kept going for a ways, stopping short of the capital in time for a ceasefire.

Sound familiar? I’ve already made much of the parallels between this Georgia-South Ossetia-Russia scenario and the Iraq-Kuwait-USA scenario circa the early 1990’s. It took a while longer for the whole thing to unfold in the prior case, but then again, it was the USA and not Saudi Arabia that went in to “liberate” Kuwait. The fact that no one in the US media or perspective has labeled this recent struggle as Russia’s “liberation” of South Ossetia is frankly baffling to me. I thought our country believed in self-determination. Well, no I didn’t really think that. I’ve always known that we were hypocrites.

But the hypocrisy goes deeper than recent history. The more compelling parallel, it occurs to me, is the Mexican-American War, with Texas playing the role of South Ossetia. The majority of Texas wanted to leave Mexico and they declared a shaky and unsound independence. Unable to sustain real independence, they floated between Mexico and the US, leaning toward the US. When the US finally tried to absorb Texas officially, Mexico went in to crack down on the renegade province. And the US quickly reconquered Texas and penetrated the aggressor, this time going all the way to Mexico City and taking the Congo California, Arizona, and New Mexico as a penalty.

Now I’m not on the side of the US in either of these examples, or Russia currently. Nor am I on the side of Mexico, Iraq, or Georgia. Frankly, all these people are committing horrible acts by using violence to resolve their differences. If people want to be free, let ’em go. You’re not going to get very far by holding people against their will, be it in a prison, a camp, or a country.

What I do find interesting, however, is how prevalent the principle of defending a weak breakaway republic has been in US policy and yet how blatantly the US has sided with Georgia. It doesn’t surprise me, as stated – I expect the US to be inconsistent in an effort to only defend its friends and partners, no matter how atrocious their acts may be. I guess what surprises me most is how much the media have let the US policy advocates get away with this perspective. Not a soul has presented the counter-arguments about Russia defending a weaker (interestingly, ethnically Iranian) group against an invasive force. On the contrary, they’ve dredged up Cold War rhetoric and comparisons to the ’68 crackdown on Czechoslovakia. This is just preposterous. If you’re going to believe in the Mexican-American War and Gulf War I, you have to side with Russia. It’s just logic.

Regardless, it very fortunately doesn’t seem to matter any more what side one’s on, because this conflict is over. It looked really scary for awhile, but everyone authentically seems to care more about peace than ego. Which is mind-boggling, but may give us some reason for…

Hope
Not only am I elated to see the end of this war, I’m also heartened by articles like this one, talkin’ ’bout my gen-eration. I know that I certainly feel like my generation cares more about being socially conscious, environmentally friendly, and actually doing good instead of evil, but it’s nice to see confirmation.

Obviously, though (you knew I wouldn’t stay optimistic for long), I am highly concerned by how this article seems to indicate that lip service is more or less enough to lure my gullible generation into signing on the dotted line. Yes, there’s a section entitled “More than just talk”, but if your company is destroying people’s lives on one hand and then turning around and giving a token amount of money back, it’s still mostly doing evil. Here’s a good indication if this is the case: the word company. This word means that the bottom line overrides other concerns, even if the bottom line can offer light dusting to the community. Usually the only reason it sprinkles this dusting is to advertise, to make people feel better about the company in the first place. Don’t be duped, fellow Y’s/Millennials (I still prefer Y because of the homophonic implication of my favorite three-letter word), it’s just a token. If you have to do a day job, best to put it directly into a non-profit, where there is no bottom line really.

But hey, if everyone is going into these businesses with these attitudes… and can somehow manage to maintain them while working in a company for decades (a gargantuan if), then maybe there’ll be some real change in, uh, 30 years. Hm. That’s a little hope, right? But the fact of the matter is that things are going to need to change big time before then. Fact? Perhaps I meant…

Truth
Which is actually going to be a section title for an update about fiction. Contradictory, you say? The old saying says that truth is stranger than fiction, but I’d actually like to coin that fiction is truer than truth. Before you start lumping me in with a Steven Colbert “truthiness” spoof, hear me out. This will explain why 98% of what I read is fiction and why I aspire to be a writer of same rather than non-.

The thing about non-fiction is that it’s trying too hard. The truth (!) of the matter is that everything that one writes, thinks, does is laden in one’s perspective. There’s no helping it or getting around it. Truth may ultimately be vision without perspective, but no one is ever able (in this species in this era in history) to divorce themselves entirely from their own vantage point. So attempts to be objective with a single or group voice are always going to fall short. One is always trying to prove a point, find an eternal truth, even just tell a story about something that happened to someone else. But it’s never (ever) 100% true. It’s fictionalized, cast in a certain light, omits some details, even if they’re only the details that physically can’t be attained in the process of researching the story.

None of these weaknesses of non-fiction would really be a problem if non-fiction called itself “semi-fiction” or “half-truth”. The real problem that non-fiction has is its branding itself as objective fact/truth. By claiming that something inherently biased is indeed objective, non-fiction sets itself up as misrepresentation and disaster, often misleading people into believing it, accepting it whole cloth. When of course, as we’ve established, it needs salt.

But is hope for truth lost? Of course not, because we have fiction. Fiction makes no bones about its factual content – it’s not even trying to be true. But to be believable, to be functional, to resonate with any reader, fiction must establish itself within a consistent and real framework. People are constantly analyzing and evaluating it for its reality, thus holding it already to a higher standard than non-fiction.

But more compellingly, fiction is freed from all constraints, so it can actually tell its story completely, regardless of what someone may say or think or feel or critique. And this liberation allows it to get at a more fundamental truth about the world, because it’s much less self-conscious. It’s not trying to recenter itself in some objectivity or reality, but simply trying to convey a feeling, a presence, a story, a reality of some sort. And this is really the only way to tell the truth. At least more fundamental truths, about how people really are, about what they go through, about what is important to humanity.

With that off my chest, this section was supposed to be about my proclivity toward absurdly long books this year. I’m close to completing Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s WWII treatise that feels more like work than any sort of recreation. I’ve never delved into Pynchon, despite being given the absurdly short The Crying of Lot 49 at some point in college, but he was compared to David Foster Wallace (actually vice versa), so I figured once I ran out of Wallace fiction, it was time to jump in. Having already read Infinite Jest (1,049 pages), The Brothers Karamazov (711 pages), and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (607 pages), I was not concerned about the 760 dense pages of this one. (Parenthetically, this is not me bragging so much as trying to explain why I’ve only read nine books this year.)

Boy, was I wrong. Gravity’s Rainbow is about as inaccessible and oblique as a book can get and still be in any way readable. While it’s an interesting challenge at times and authentically hilarious when one least expects it, it mostly leaves me apathetic. Part of my disappointment is surely derived from having read the first paragraph in a bookstore and being intrigued by what seemed like an apocalyptic plot. Instead, it was just another WWII retread. And I understand how WWII was confused for the apocalypse by the generation that lived it; I even understand why. But it’s less interesting now, it’s overplayed, and it clouds our vision of the future.

I mean, this may not be entirely fair. I don’t know where it ends. There could be a whole bunch of highly redeeming endings for Gravity’s Rainbow. Less than a hundred pages to go and it’s not looking stellar. But if Slothrop ends up in a GE lab with the five people controlling everything and all the other victims lined up… maybe. I’ve made a lifetime of reading books and watching movies out of hoping for crescendic endings that perfectly conveyed my perspective to all, only to have hopes dashed against the rocks 98% of the time.

Deus ex crapola.

Conclusion
I will talk about Vegas at some point, wherein I spent 72 hours (59 of them awake). I will talk about struggling through the ennui of life in the late summer of my day job world (because that’s something I haven’t talked about enough on this blog). I will talk more about the economic situation of a country that still doesn’t know it’s about to collapse, about the excitement and ambivalence of being here to watch it crumble.

But when the opportunity presented itself to filter today’s tidbits through the lens of my old phrase of the three big ideals, how could I pass it up? When I still haven’t decided whether to go to my 10-year high school reunion, why wouldn’t I label a post as I labeled my senior page in the yearbook supplement?

I think my world today can be summed up as follows:

“I’m thinking of going.”

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The Race Goes On

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

My job is making me a racist.

I probably mean something very different by this than you might expect. Perhaps because my definition of “racism” is as much “awareness of race” as anything else. I could go into an extensive diatribe about why I find this to be the case, and I’m torn about whether the time and place for this is now. In part because, rather obviously, if awareness of race is racism, then the more one talks about race, the more racist one becomes. Or is acting. So the whole enterprise is inherently somewhat self-defeating.

The two-minute summary involves the fact that race is innately misleading and arbitrary. Race is based on appearance and nothing more. Nationality is something that at least has some meaning and complexity and subtlety, and awareness of nationality (or primary language) might actually have some value in relating to both culture and to how to understand or serve someone better. But race glosses over these subtleties and divides people based on physical appearance, into 4 to 6 categories that are based on some idiotic Anglo-centric perception of how people look. At the very best, our racial classifications are like a Racist’s Guide to Race.

White folks are defined as those who look totally and completely white, without a strain of anything else in them. African-Americans are those who have at least 1% of their ancestry from pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa. Asian/Pacific Islanders are a meaningless conglomeration of over half of the world’s heritage; a group within which there is as much diversity of culture, background, and appearance as within the rest of the groups combined. And Hispanic is a new category created because those now placed in it didn’t look quite whitebread enough to be White. Even though, functionally, Hispanic is essentially White.

Some people have Native American as a category, presumably as a conduit for further subjugation of these victims of the most successful genocide in world history. And then a few places are finally adding Multiracial, a category that would honestly encompass 80-95% of the population if people were thinking clearly. And whose takeover of 100% of the population is the only real hope we have of putting this issue to bed once and for all.

The point is that these categories are meaningless at describing anything except the broadest of appearances, and basically appearances only through an extremely traditional White racist filter. “Oh all them Asians look the same to me.” Come on. It’s pathetic. And continuing to codify and classify based on these distinctions only cements the way people look at the world, perpetuating future generations into meaningless classifications along vaguely colonial racist lines.

My job is making me racist because my workplace, like most leftist “liberal” institutions in contemporary America, is obsessed with race. And my job as a statistician and analyzer ends up focusing a great deal on race. I end up running demographic reports and devising new ways of making more interesting demographic reports… and by far the demographic most people are interested in is race. I work with executives and consultants who are obsessed with race and believe that the entire question of poverty in America can be solved through the filter of these 4-6 categories that divide people upon meaningless, Eurocentric lines.

Indeed, every time I run a report by race, I get this twinge, this pang in my gut that I’m doing something wrong that’s making things worse. Any alleged enhancement of service that would be derived from this report would be based on a racist stereotype… e.g. “All people who look African-American do this.” or “Most people who look Asian want that.” Like it or not, these are stereotypes. And last time I checked, stereotyping based on appearance was racist.

It just goes to show, as much as anything, that no matter how deeply committed I feel to the general mission of a workplace, I still wind up doing things I feel terrible about in all my day jobs. Restraining kids at Seneca. Having to kill ants at Chapman. Sales work at RMI. There is no way to fulfill my principles and not make compromises unless I’m on my own, making all of my decisions. This is an important thing to remind myself when evaluating what to do with my time.

And I know at least some of you would argue that my problem is there are too many things I don’t like or feel morally constrained about. To which I have this to say to you: You’re wrong.

Anyway, true to form, just like going to law school makes you more likely to justify selling out or living in Washington DC makes you a bigger believer in the power of the US government, working with racial data all day has made me much more aware of and focused on the issue of race. And people’s individual races. And that stinks.

I know, I can hear all you people hollering in the back about the inability of any of us to truly put away our mental knee-jerks about race and the people we see. To an extent, with some limitations, I might even agree with you, for our generation. And probably the next if they keep having to juggle these 4-6 asinine categories. Ultimately, though, this behavior is entirely learned, so once we stop teaching it, we’ll be in good shape.

And there was a time when I really didn’t see race. I went to three schools during my second-grade year, when I lived in Washington DC (1987-1988), plus spending a fairly significant time homeschooled. All three were pretty low on diversity, but the third one (Watkins Elementary, where my Mom taught the whole year) was the lowest, running at about 97% African-American. At first, having been in majority-White environments my whole life prior, it seemed a little different. But after about 45 days there, I really stopped being able to see the distinctions. People were just people, and I probably couldn’t have even named the race of a given person after awhile. This may sound crazy to you, but I was seven years old. It was early enough for me. Had I spent time in similarly mixed environments thereafter, especially with even broader diversity, I might’ve had to have someone teach me in college what race was again.

But the next year, we moved to the Oregon coast and I once again fell back into a monoracial world. Which is not a criticism of my parents; just an explanation of my development and where it went.

Still, I think I’d be a lot further along the road to the perspective I crave were I not asked to constantly divide our programs and clientele and numbers by race every week.

And this fact didn’t really hit home until this morning, when I went to return a book at Borders. This is really the anecdote that’s reinvigorated my wake-up call about this whole issue and spurned this post in the first place.

The other night, in the midst of the crazy volatility of feelings and urges that has been the story of Spring 2008 in many ways, Emily and I decided to go to some bookstores at 9:30 at night. Even though we’d pretty recently been to bookstores and there was no particular need for new books. So we rushed out to Borders before they closed and spent a good bit of time accumulating some more tomes. One of which was Paradise for Toni Morrison, which Em was intending to read.

But we got back in the car and realized we weren’t done – we craved even more bookstore. So we remembered that Half Price Books, just two blocks from our house and full of cheap used editions, was open past 10:00. So we headed there and acquired more. I bantered with the clerks about buying both War and Peace and Gravity’s Rainbow for pleasure… some “light summer reading”. And Em found a copy of Paradise that looked almost as good as the new one she’d just picked up at Borders, for less than half the price.

I chided her about the odds of her returning it and we briefly jested about looking for a third bookstore that might offer a third copy of the Morrison book. But we called it a night and left the book in the car.

Fast-forward to today, wherein I’m taking Em to the train station in Emeryville to head to Fresno for her parents’ late-breaking renewal of their vows on their 40th anniversary. The renewal is tomorrow and the train will offer her much-needed time to catch up on work, while I have projects of my own that need attention here, plus baseball on Sunday. Regardless of which, there was the new Borders edition of Paradise, waiting with receipt, to be returned to the store literally across the tracks from the station. Em looked at me imploringly and I sighed.

I have trouble with any customer service interaction that is not abundantly positive. There are various reasons for this, but a primary one was that I was raised around a lot of negative customer service interactions that frequently made me feel uncomfortable. I basically now find it impossible to complain at any restaurant, store, or other sales environment, no matter what’s going on. I will only send food back if there’s meat in it, since I simply couldn’t eat it as-is. I will eat around sour cream, mushrooms, and any other detestable vegetarian thing that comes on my plate, no matter how explicit I was about asking that it not come with my food. I will not bring up any price discrepancy on an item being rung up, no matter how much I may be overcharged. I simply try to ride these interactions out and have them wind up okay.

I couldn’t remember returning anything in my life that wasn’t broken. In fact, I’m not sure I could remember returning anything, broken or not. It’s just not something I think of doing.

But I begrudgingly agreed to return the book, because the proximity was too obvious to make it anything but perverse to refuse. I made it clear to Em that this was a big deal to me, and she reassured me about how breezy and normal it can be to return a book, especially with the reason that we’d found a cheaper copy somewhere else.

I make sure to walk in an entrance that is immediately visible from the sales counter, since I’m also randomly paranoid about being accused in this kind of transaction of trying to scam someone by picking up a copy off the shelf and returning it with the old receipt. I think my reasons for this little paranoia are somewhere between my appearance and my inability to deal with any vague implication that I might not be 100% forthright.

Anyway, matters are not helped by the sales clerk in this empty bookstore (it’s 10:20 on a Saturday and I’m a little surprised they’re even open this early) joking to my opening request “We don’t do returns here, only sales,” with a serious face. I had actually started to pivot toward the door on my heel when she starting waving her arms and saying she was kidding and would help me right over there.

And I immediately became conscious of the situation through a racial filter. I was returning a clearly untouched Toni Morrison book to an African-American woman. On a receipt with other books by non-African-American authors. And it’s not just an African-American, author, it’s freaking Toni Morrison, who wrote The Bluest Eye for Chrissakes. Me, a European mutt, doing this. I quickly set the book on the counter upside-down, thinking that after all the barcode would be there and it would make the transaction less obvious.

Wrong again. As I glanced down, the author picture on the back smiled up towards the clerk, revealing that the live person in front of me was a dead ringer for Toni Morrison twenty-five years younger. And I don’t say that because I think all African-Americans look the same, I say that because the hair was identical. The exact same dreads. And of course, I’ve determined about myself that roughly 80% of my visual perception of people is their hair. If someone drastically changes their haircut, I will risk not recognizing them, while nearly any other dramatic change is almost unnoticeable to me. The facial structure is mighty similar too, and the body type.

The clerk was consummately professional and cheery and conversational (we had a brief talk about wrestling with bar code scanners that don’t function and the joy of all those manually typed digits), perhaps a little as a result of feeling bad about the poorly-timed joke, but mostly because she was just good at her job. She betrayed no indication of feeling weird about the racial dynamic of the interaction, no even vague wisp of a hint of such. But I was almost tearing up, a lifelong biological reaction to feeling like someone is secretly uncomfortable in dealing with me or having a less than sincere interaction with me (yes, I’m a North American champion debater, but I often nearly go to pieces in 1-on-1 interactions when I pick up on negative cues). I couldn’t wait to get the receipt and book it out of there.

And I immediately thought to myself, I wouldn’t have even noticed this had I not been working at Glide the last two years.

Glide does wonderful things for all kinds of people. But I wish they, and so many other leftist groups doing otherwise wonderful things, would just ease up on the racial categorization. I, for one, would feel a little more comfortable. And I daresay everyone else they’re serving would too. One-size-fits-all is not perfect, but four-to-six-stereotypical-sizes-fit-each is much worse.

When can people just be people? Mandatory intermarriage would almost be better than this.

by

Storey’s Favorite Stories

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

I just assembled a PDF packet of my seventeen favorite short stories of all-time. Given that the short story is probably my favorite use of the written word, this was a pretty big undertaking for me. I like the benefits of it being accessible online, but I don’t really want to have this become a regular Blue Pyramid project that everyone can access and gets indexed on Google because, well, it’s not exactly respectful of copyrights. But this system beats the heck out of copying 200 pages and shipping them to people.

So, uh, e-mail me if you want the URL. I’ll share it with whoever’s interested… I just would like to limit it and not make it fully public.

Maybe it’s ironic that I feel compelled to limit access to great short stories, but not my daily emotional reality. It makes sense to me.

As an introduction, here’s the intro I wrote last night that appers on page 2 of the 196-page packet:

It’s actually been a couple of years since Matt “Fish” McFeeley and David “Gris” Gray and I were sitting around and came up with the idea to share our ten favorite short stories with each other. Gris made his list relatively quickly and printed out a packet for Fish, which I believe he still has to this day. And I dallied on making my own list, only becoming re-inspired recently upon reading a new story and thinking to myself: That has to make the top ten! (And so it did, at #10.) Fish joked that it would be pointless to reprint Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” ten times. (This story narrowly missed inclusion with this compilation.)

In any case, as you can see, I found it difficult to restrict myself to ten stories. After all, seventeen is my favorite number. And at a certain point, the exercise’s point is equal parts to rank a top ten (which this expanded compilation does achieve) and to showcase the most memorable and profound stories experienced in a lifetime of reading. And indeed, this latter may be the larger purpose behind the effort. Thus, the prime criterion in selection was to choose stories that had most deeply impacted me in both the course of reading them and especially in my days to follow. This not only makes it easy to compile these stories (they can easily be recalled), but often the test of time is the best judge of a good short story.

The best short stories are ghosts. They follow one around, haunting and affecting one’s mindset for years to come. They’re waiting for you around street corners, behind people you meet, over your bed when you go to sleep. These stories have all played that role in my life (with the exception of the new one, whose haunting season has only just begun). No doubt I will be chided for the extremely healthy portion of Ray Bradbury stories, but there’s a reason he’s my favorite author. Six of the reasons are herein included.

Please note that all these stories are copyrighted by their respective authors or estates. This is a much more efficient way of compiling them and presenting them to everyone than copying on actual paper, though you should print on your own if you prefer to curl up and read instead of staring at the screen. But please don’t spread this URL around too far so that I get in trouble with the copyright police. I have the deepest respect for these authors and don’t want to steal from them. But until I’m an author that people are expecting to compile short stories for republication and public consumption, this’ll have to do.

by

Distribution

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

On my way into work this morning, I nearly finished the latest book I’m reading, Paradise by the late Donald Barthelme. I will finish it on the train home tonight, just two days after finishing the last book I read, The Quiet Girl. Hopefully I will not be in Orinda at the time.

The book is short and has fairly big type and is pretty much a novella, so it’s not like this rapidity is a reflection of anything other than that. I guess it’s also an engagingly quick read. Up next is the longest book I will probably ever read, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, checking in at over a thousand pages. I’m looking forward to it, I think, even though Wallace probably annoys me at least as much as he impresses me. I suspect I would hate him in person. But if I’d grown up with him, I’d have infinite admiration for him. Life is often all a matter of perspective. See also friends may just be assholes you like.

But this (length of books and time to read them, not DFWallace’s personality) got me thinking about my own writing and how many words it takes to convey something. I think it was my Dad who told me early on that a standard of “making it” as a writer was writing one’s first million words. I think he got this from his grandmother Hemme, who he writes about in his most recent post. I haven’t really sat down and calculated where I am on my own road to a million, but I suspect I might be getting close. It depends on what counts. E-mails? That would clinch it for sure. The Legend of Enutrof? That would certainly help. The website counts, and Introspection alone probably gets me up there. I should do a count.

But then it occurred to me, as my train approached Powell, that writing is not a matter of actually writing a million words. Probably there are no more than few thousand words actually in play, no matter how many millions one “writes”. What writing is (and I think this has hit me before, but not as clearly) is a matter of distribution. One is not creating, per se, so much as allocating. One could go a step further to reveal that one is simply allocating letters and punctuation… distributing not from a pool of a few thousand so much as about forty. The realization doesn’t really translate to Chinese, but is probably viable for everyone else. Even if it’s just words and not symbols, it’s an incredible thought that what matters is the distribution, and one is not making new stuff.

It’s incredible in part because it’s the story of our planet at this time (and probably for the last few centuries). There were probably times when distribution of resources was not the central question of humanity… times when communities were extremely isolated and lived on the edge of extinction at all times. When a drought hit, people died. There were real shortages.

Those times are long gone, replaced by a heartening era in which we are not shy what we need, but we simulate that idea through mismanaged distribution. This is not revelatory, but I feel like it needs to be broadcast on all the radio stations at infinite volume for a week or so. Then maybe people would get it. Would understand. No one starves on this planet for any reason other than distribution. And a load of people are starving, starving literally to death, every day. Thousands. Because of distribution.

Mismanaged distribution’s partner in crime in this enterprise of starving and otherwise abusing people is the myth of ownership. The concept that we somehow possess things, or should, even though we all are on a one-way train off this planet forever, and will leave with nothing in tow. My friend Russ is continually mindblown that people are willing to pay $1 for pixelated “gifts” on Facebook to send to each other, when there is no reality or purpose to these items. He and I both spent years of our life subscribing at a $10-$15/month clip to an online role-playing game where we bartered in all manner of fake goods that were no more than the transmitted image of pixels. Both of these are stunning emblems for the entire reality of ownership on Earth… it’s just a collective illusion that we partake in which has no lasting value or meaning.

Ownership, as a limited and controlled concept, does have some practical benefits. It can be very hard to share the whole world all at once without drawing some lines and dividing things up. I think it’s possible, but we’re not there yet. However, that doesn’t mean that a redistribution project the size of the world is not in order. The point is that once we look through all the economic nonsense people proliferate on this planet, we see that all any item or its possession really is, in reality, is a collective agreement to suspend disbelief. We all hold hands and together just agree that such and such will be the value of a dollar, that this person deserves to live in that house, that this country belongs to those people. There are strong assertions, as well as threats and use of violence, backing these things up. But really, at their fundamental core, is the willingness to go along with the suspension of disbelief. Forget the invisible hand, it’s the whole invisible enchilada. Who says we’re not a nation of believers anymore?

If we were to redistribute, the starvation thing would go away, and the homelessness thing, and the lack of clothing (though really, when was the last time someone was at risk for a lack of clothing? I think that one’s been solved despite the famed food/clothing/shelter trifecta being so popular). Everyone could be on an equal footing, without the wealth and poverty.

I hear you economists in the back. You’re worried about incentives and motivation. Without a bunch of metal or paper that symbolizes the suspension of disbelief, how could we possibly have our food and shelter and… stuff?

First, about the stuff. We don’t need it. Really. I mean, I love the internet, but I’d trade it for the assurance that every person will get food and shelter. And medicine, probably. That’s about all we really need.

So how many people do we actually have to motivate? We need farmers for sure. And builders. Maybe not even builders at this point so much as building maintenance folks. Don’t we have enough buildings at this point? Clothing-makers. Clothes wear out, after all. People to get the resources that go into clothing, which is mostly back to the farmers. Doctors, I suppose. Teachers, I guess, but the curriculum needs some major changes.

Everyone else can be thinkers. Artists. Creators. Isn’t that what most of us ultimately want to do? That… and help people? (See above for how to help people.)

The rest, I must say, is just crap. Everything else. Which is not to say that what you’re doing (how many of you are doing one of the above things?) is crap, given the circumstances. The circumstances are also crap, and require adjustments. I work for Glide, a nonprofit that helps provide things for the victims of distribution. 90% of us here believe we are doing something the government should be doing, but isn’t, so they need us. We are desperately trying to put ourselves out of business. Until redistribution, it’s not going to happen though. So, yeah, what I’m doing is crap. We shouldn’t need it. We don’t need it. We need redistribution.

I am part of the problem. I buy stuff. I spend my time interested in and investing in crap. We all do it, unless we are a victim of distribution and instead can focus only on survival. It’s the sad result of a really powerful collective delusion.

Have I still not answered the motivation question? There are a lot of folks who would advocate that we should all be self-sufficient… everyone their own farmer, builder (or maintainer), sewer, doctor, and teacher. It’s feasible. It’s a stretch, it would take all someone’s time, it would be a half-step above the survival level, but it could be done.

However, as I often say, we’re not all alone on our own individual planets for a reason. We’re supposed to be in this together.

So I’m a firm believer in specialization. Everyone should be an expert at something. And if you’re worried that that’s not enough work, then everyone can take a rotation turn at whatever’s undesirable work. We’ll all pitch in on the farm with 20% of our time. Or get a choice of building, farming, or sewing for a third of our time. The rest of the time, we can think. Interact. Develop the higher arts. Ponder. Focus on what’s important. Unlearn fear, collective suspension of disbelief, and shortage.

I think enough people would be satisfied with being full-time farmers or builders or what have you, reveling in their extra-beneficial role to society and their friends, that we wouldn’t even need rotations. But it might take some time of taking turns first.

Maybe it sounds too simple. Communication and transportation would be severely limited. We could have some system for these things, maybe, although I’m not convinced they’re strictly necessary. It’s nice to see the world and to maintain contact with distant friends. They might be luxuries we could redevelop over time. But there’s something about all that movement that seems wasteful to me today. Maybe just in the transportation. Communication is always probably good. But one system and stick with it, not ever-slightly-better technology. At the point where we have instant communication, we can stop. Maybe we can keep the internet after all.

Until then, we are all (in some way) victims of distribution. No one is poor. No one has shortages. Everyone who suffers for basic needs does so because humanity is too selfish and stupid to break out of this mess. Collectively. Clinging to our illusions.

Maybe if I can redistribute a million more words, others will start redistributing everything else?

It’s just about all I’ve ever wanted out of this lifetime. That, and a Mariners jersey. We all have a long way to go.

by

Existence is Futile?

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

On the train into work this morning, I finished reading The Quiet Girl, Peter Hoeg’s first novel in about a decade. I adored the book (unsurprising given where Hoeg rates on my list of authors), but it was not flawless. Parts of it left me a bit cold. One part, in particular, was one of the passages I found least resonant in the history of literature.

To wit:

Shortly before Groucho Marx died, a journalist asked him to sum up existence. The great comedian had stripped the irony off his face like a latex mask; so close to the grave there was no time for anything less than the truth. “Most of us,” he said, “must try to compensate for our low intelligence with hard work. It’s all a matter of training.”

Really? Really? Groucho, you said that?

I’m on the verge of basically reinventing this post about the quest for challenge. That is not what I want to do here. There is something deeper or beyond calling to me at this moment.

If I were asked to sum up existence, I think I would say something about the challenge being to stay awake in a life where most everyone else seems to be asleep. Eventually one starts to lose the motivation for wakefulness, to wonder if sleep isn’t really vastly preferable, to ponder whether anything could even be done if everyone were awake all the time. One yawns. It’s a struggle. The struggle to keep caring, keep trying.

And maybe my summation is the same as Groucho’s, in some way. Maybe they’re flip sides of the same fence and Groucho really just had us all fooled. I feel like if I ever fool anyone, it’s with the notion that it really takes me a full day to do a full day’s work. You can do the math and check the post times. You know where I am now. And where I’ve been for many of these posts. And phone calls and e-mails and other things.

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t pace myself by trying to hold things back, to deliberately tank and sandbag in order to maintain a regular pace of tasks instead of finishing the race and just waiting around. Work is really no different than school in that way. Seneca was different, because it was live interaction… it was an entirely different world. Everything else, though, has been a struggle to avoid the debilitating feeling that one has to put time in the seat when there is absolutely nothing left to do and no reason to spend that time. So I make sure there are always a couple things waiting, and then get the little thrills of making sure I have just enough time to rush to complete whatever that is.

These are my highs. This is my drug. This is how I artificially maintain sanity in a world of impossibly low expectations.

I guess I often assume that everyone’s doing this, or something like it, unless I see glaring examples of their incompetence to the contrary. But I really don’t know. I have no idea. There are certainly some who I’ve talked to about doing this, but not many. It can be a dangerous topic to bring up when people are on the other side of the fence.

Oops.

Of course there was another passage in the Hoeg book, less recent and thus probably harder to find, about how many have agreed that to the spiritually inclined, the world seems like an insane asylum, while asylums are tolerable or even pleasant. This, contrasting with the other passage, is one of the most resonant passages I’ve ever read. (Is it strange that I verbatim printed what I disagree with and am paraphrasing what I agree with? Maybe I’m still just an LO at heart.) Maybe this is why I want to go to Bhutan. And, linking the links, not that Bhutan is that perfect place, because I know there isn’t one. But maybe Bhutan is my comfortable madhouse.

When I told someone at work I wanted to go to Bhutan for a year and just think, he said it sounded very lazy of me. Lazier than working in America?! Surely there is nothing lazier than that.

(And here I should caveat against generalizations – there are people who work in physical labor in America who work “harder” in a day than most others ever work in their life. But still, how active is the mind in such cases? Also, we seem to have shipped most of those jobs to countries with less influence, maintaining America’s rank atop the lazy sector.)

And yet it’s often lazy in that exhausting way. That way that whenever you globally consider how many hours you’ve piddled away serving time in the seat, it becomes hard to even breathe. This pounded into my eardrums the other day. Life is not a drill. This is real, this is the one shot on this planet. What on Earth am I doing? Are most any of us doing?

This morning I gave Emily a ride to the train station for her day in Sacramento. On my way back up the hill, I cranked music and sang horribly at the top of my lungs and wound up in tears of humility in the face of existence. Of a sunrise. Of a morning. Of possibility and blessings. That was a scant four hours ago. Already I’m back ‘neath the weight of the prisons we entrap ourselves in, lined with ambivalent prison guards who play solitaire and smirk at what you care about.

The problem is our assumptions. Yes, they even go beyond the assumption of the shining challenge on the hill. We assume that there is an innate value to work (which may be true), but then we blindly accept society’s definition of work. Which is time in the seat for money. Which could be digging ditches or giving advice or playing games at a desk or playing games on a field or pretending to lead. Or solving the world’s problems. Or going to meetings. Or writing. Or reading. It’s freaking anything, regardless of whether it has work or value. But all of us (at least Americans, and I suspect this goes throughout most cultures) just can’t get over this strange predisposition that if someone gives you money to do something, it has value, and otherwise you’re slacking off. Even if the absolute reverse is actually completely true. Adam Smith, you have ruined all of our lives. The market solves nothing, except the problem of how to keep people in fear of being judged by their peers. A fear that keeps the wheels of meaningless currency spinning, and prevents people from pausing long enough to think about why everything they’ve ever been taught has been imparted with the intent to manipulate them.

It’s looking like it may be hard for me to get through the rest of this day. Maybe I should put off doing one more essential task to up that last-minute thrill-factor. I’ve gotta feel something.

by

They Shoot Messengers, Don’t They?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

If anyone had lingering doubts about my post from about a week ago (the one with the distinct lack of terrorists), this latest missive from CNN should clear those right up for you. And it’s not this article in and of itself, per se, so much as the fact that one of these articles gets released every couple weeks. Just in case anyone in the world is wondering, the US could not be more open to terrorism if it took out large billboards in unfriendly nations saying Please bomb the United States of America, North America, Western Hemisphere posthaste and greeted would-be bombers with VIP dinners and a show.

And yet, no terrorism.

It should be extraordinarily relieving to realize that there is not actually a terrorist threat to the soil of the United States of America. Maybe it would be more so if we didn’t seem so obsessed with trying to create one. Or believe that one is already there when it is not. But the absence is nevertheless blatantly and painfully obvious. There is no other explanation for the lack of action despite abundant motive, opportunity, and means.

Shooting messengers was probably an early form of terrorism. In the old days, it wasn’t just a rhetorical joke to get one’s boss to not yell about bad news. They actually shot messengers. Or stabbed them, when the practice was popular prior to firearms’ invention. Talk about a conversation stopper.

It’s sort of the ultimate act of bad faith. Someone is entrusted with the courteous gesture of giving you fair warning, knowledge, or understanding of a concept. Sometimes an unfriendly concept or plain old bad news, to be sure, but still just letting you know. Giving you a heads-up. And then you take their head out. No doubt some of these instances were simply rage or a lack of control. But occasionally they would be deliberate, and punctuated by things like sending the messenger back, hand delivered (no COD), by your own messengers. Few volunteers raised their hands for that return journey.

Obviously, at some point, it just becomes inconvenient to engage in such messengerial slaughter. After all, the incentive becomes high for one’s own messengers to book a ticket for a cave in the woods rather than deliver the actual message. In any case, it all boils down to one thing: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Nowadays, we have e-mail to keep us from the dilemma of whether or not to execute a messenger to make a bold, if rude, point. And the worst you can do with e-mail is ignore it, which must be worse than deleting it. Unless you’re the White House, in which case e-mail deletion has been criminalized. Good luck winning that case, courts. Ordering someone not to delete an e-mail is sort of akin to ordering them not to think about something. Not only will you have no way of proving whether it’s happened or not, but telling them not to do it will guarantee the opposite.

Ignoring e-mail is dangerous, if not often deadly, because there’s full documentation that something has been communicated and a complete lack of acknowledgement or response. Some days, I half expect an urgent notice in my Inbox saying that my Outlook courier has been shot by a colleague.

But it beats the alternatives. Some of the world’s great bloody battles could’ve been prevented by a good e-mail system. The Battle of New Orleans was among the largest of the War of 1812, and fought entirely after peace had been declared. It just took a while to get the word out. It’s hard for me to pick and choose amongst deaths in war as being more or less unjustified than each other, but that one’s pretty objectively hard to explain. War deaths are needless enough without waiting four to six weeks for delivery.

Around the same time last week, I promised another post about the misperceptions associated with the War Without End (WWE – remember, WWF is taken) that the US is engaged in. To review, Iran will get toasters and there are no terrorists in or coming to the United States.

The perception that’s making it impossible for the US to prosecute an effective war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and indeed would hold true in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and wherever suicide bombing is sold) is individualism. Individualism is, almost by definition, a Western concept. Yes, home on the range, but more specifically (or actually, less specifically) “Greek Western”. (And now you’re just thinking of Alexander the Great in a John Wayne film. We’re getting nowhere. Or maybe I’m too glib tonight to really write this post seriously.)

The point is that many people see the world as West vs. East (or at least West/East… there is not always diametricity). The Islamic world, neatly, serves as a bridge, both geographically and conceptually. While Islam falls squarely in the evolution of Judeo-Christianity, which is at the core of Western culture, there are sufficient links to the East in the cultures who tended to adopt Islam (Persia, Arabia, The Stans of Central Asia) to muddy the waters. And a (the?) central question in West/East debate is individualism vs. communitarianism. All for one or one for all? Or really, one for one or all for all?

Suicide bombing, as a tactic, is at the heart of this issue. Again, I’m going to speak tactically and strategically about war and violence despite being a complete pacifist. I’m not exactly sure why I keep doing this. Maybe because what’s going on in this country is so broken that I’m not sure how everyone doesn’t see it, and yet I recognize that pacifism is not widely espoused. So I seek to explain a middle ground, or even “win on the road” as it were. If I can beat people in their own violent ballparks, just showing how ridiculous the status quo is by their (your?) own standards, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.

It beats just accepting things.

So back to suicide bombing. In some ways, nothing is more individualistic. One person’s sacrifice and martyrdom for the good of all. Your name in lights. And the much-ballyhooed “72 virgins” theory. Although, upon reflection, it seems these are all extremely Westernized views of a phenomenon that, deep down, the US mind can’t fathom. My suspicion is that these suicide bombers do not actually make much of the glory and the individualism of it all. My guess is that this is the West trying to put what it finds incomprehensible into some neat little package that makes sense, such as 72 times as much hot sex, forever. But I’m not really buying it. Sure, I guess there’s a passage somewhere about 72 virgins. But tons of smart activists have done a really good job of carving up Leviticus to demonstrate the unending prohibitions contained therein. And the whole Judeo-Christian lineage is on the hook for the Old Testament. Pretty much any religious text reads like a string of self-defeating schizophrenia. This is one of the damning things about organized religion – it tries to be so all-inclusive and universal that it ends up saying everything. And thus, ultimately, nothing. And God gets lost in the process.

God is for another post. And certainly little could be further from God than suicide bombing. The point is that despite the West’s claims that “suicide bombers are doin’ it for themselves”, I’m not buying. I think they’re making a sincere, if abominable, sacrifice. I think they mean it. The reward, if they really believe it, might not hurt, but they’re mostly motivated by making their life an effective weapon in a communal fight for a communal ideal.

So what has the primary strategy of the US for four (Iraq) to six (Afghanistan) years been to combat this new communitarian weapon? You heard it in the very first hours of the Iraq War. “Decapitation.” The entire core strategy employed by Western forces against insurgents/rebels/freedom-fighters/terrorists who use suicide bombing has been to try to kill leaders so that the whole movement collapses on itself.

Obviously, the grand-daddy of this strategy was the original “decapitation strike” (attempt) on Saddam’s life when the war began. But it has continued ever since. The only news stories of purported mini-victories have been about this or that person, key leaders who you just heard about for the first time after their death, being killed. And all future speculation is about killing this person, and then that person, and Osama, and then maybe it will all be over.

This is very Western. In the West, we like individuals. We like strong personalities and people who tell us what to do. I just finished reading Shantaram a few days ago, continuing to find it over-rated as all get out. I couldn’t stand the narrator. But he was a classic Western hero. And time and time again, he was admired and admonished for not believing in anything except people. He didn’t believe in God, religion, society, but he liked individual people. No wonder this book is so popular among Americans.

And when you kill our people, boy does that weaken us Westerners. JFK’s death killed a generation’s hope and perhaps the whole damn country. MLK’s shooting plunged the Civil Rights movement into chaos from which it is still recovering. RFK. John Lennon. The US does not bounce back from the dead.

But this is an individualistic perspective. It is one that innately believes that people are more important than their ideas. The author’s name should be bigger than the title on the book cover. The actors are bigger than their movies. The artist beats the art, the politician beats the politics, the ideologue beats the idea.

This is not what the suicide bombers believe. It is not what the people who follow al-Qaeda (if and how it exists) or any of the other groups fighting Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan believe. In fact, even saying “people who follow” is misleading. It would be better to say “people who are”. Because that’s what believing is like for someone with that kind of conviction.

Conviction is not hip in America, unless we’re talking about sending people to prison. It’s cool to be apathetic, dispassionate, not stand out in your love for something or your dedication. You don’t want to be labeled as “obsessive” or “compulsive” or in need of heavy doses of widely advertised and unsafe legal drugs.

The Eastern world seems to lack these hang-ups. Despite noted emotional dispassion in much of the Eastern world, it can widely be seen that there is a greater level of conviction and dedication therein. And this is usually toward a higher ideal or purpose, almost always with a communal aim.

Thus, there is no decapitation strike. To use a weird and disgusting and easily misinterpretable (but still compelling) analogy, the “enemy” (of the Western forces) is basically like an army of worms. And the US is trying to use decapitation against an army of worms. Every strike just makes two more where there were one.

And what’s the US motto? An Army of One.

In a hypothetical struggle between an Army of One and an Army of Worms… Ditka. (After all, what is the Da’Bears sketch but a testament to the unending faith of Americans in one individual’s ability to vanquish all?)

Hopefully you can see by now why the US has yet to make any progress against the purported “enemy”. The thought that we might spend the next few decades listening to overpaid pundits and analysts say “Now if we just kill this next leader…” is pretty daunting. The fact is that the top twenty al-Qaeda leaders could be killed tomorrow and they would be replaced overnight with forty more, plus thousands of new recruits who were on the fence until this mass-murder angered them enough to finally get involved. What binds them is not devotion to leaders or individuals, but the ideas of the cause. And one of the core ideas is revenge and punishment for injustice. The steady fuel of American injustice is not doing a good job of quelling the motivation here.

So, you may ask, what is the solution? For you militarists, there is probably only one purely tactical solution, which is genocide. There is no way to continually inflame more and more of a population, doing their recruiters’ job better than your own, killing leader after leader and brother/son/father/mother/daughter/sister one after another, torturing the survivors, and somehow quell the population. The intimidation thing isn’t exactly working. The people being attacked are too passionate to be afraid and (especially in Afghanistan’s case), they’ve just suffered too much already to be scared of more war or torture. Afghans have been living in an almost unending state of war since before I was born. You wonder why people liked the Taliban – they actually united the country in some semblance of peace. It was a pretty awful government, but oppression usually beats out endless mortar fire and land-mines. At least you know where you stand and how to wake up the next morning. Ditto that for Saddam vs. status quo in Iraq.

The other unsettling reality (unsettling really only for militarists) emerging from all this is that conquest is no longer really a viable option for world affairs. It’s hard to accept as someone who’s played in excess of 200 Risk games in his life, but I pretty much have to admit it’s true. When was the last time a country was conquered and held by force by an external power? (And Grenada doesn’t count.) Afghanistan was supposedly conquered by both the Soviets and the Americans in the last 30 years, but neither of those have really turned out to be sustainable. Vietnam and Korea? If World War II gave us anything, any consolation prize, it’s the end of conquest. You can’t take over other countries by force anymore. After watching what Hitler did and how the resistances in each country helped bring him down, every nation on the planet has resolved to never let an outsider come in and tell them what to do. No matter what.

As a pacifist, I have to look at this a little like nuclear weapons. This huge commitment to violence is devastating and depressing. But the net impact may (eventually) be to scare people out of fighting, which has to be good. Or, as Shantaram would put it “the right thing for the wrong reasons”. A little like belief in global warming theory. It gets people to do something good, but for bogus reasons. But sometimes, these days, maybe we can take the bogus reasons.

As a strategist in this post’s discussion, one has to think that the sooner the “great powers” realize the no-conquest rule of the post-WWII reality, the sooner they’ll be able to preserve their resources and be reasonable about things. Which puts the US pretty much squarely on the ore cart to the abyss at the moment.

So the actual best strategy (not just what I believe in morally) is total withdrawal. There will never ever be “victory”. There will never be a stable conquest. And make no mistake, victory = conquest in the minds of the US. Sure, it’s not technical “51st state” conquest, but it’s the kind of economic domination over the property and wealth of the remaining country that becoming a 51st state might be less invasive. And there’s no way the people of Iraq or Afghanistan, so long as they’re alive, will ever accept this.

So we can fight forever or fight for a day or just stop already. The question is quite simple: how many times do you want to bang your head into an unbreakable wall?

At least with total withdrawal, there’s a chance of credibly being involved in subsequent diplomacy. The US can again become (or seem) a disinterested party, who has the neutrality to be reasonable, as they are sometimes perceived in other negotiations (though, really, all that comes to mind is the cessation of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that won Teddy Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize). The US can join with the world community in hoping that these countries truly find their own way to be a part of the world, not a branch of Western-based corporation culture.

It’s not looking likely. Will we stop banging our head first? Or will our brains splatter all over the wall?

It’s not a pretty image. But it’s not a pretty time. It’s an ugly time to be an American individual.

I’m just the (gulp) messenger.

by

At the ER

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

Someone told me it’s all happening at the ER.

A day ago at this time, I was still holed up in the charming waiting room of Kaiser’s Oakland Emergency Room. I was waiting for Emily, as I had been for more than 2 hours prior. I had read through her copy of The Economist (magazine), haphazardly, almost cover-to-cover. I hate magazines.

Note to self: next time leaving for the ER at less than breakneck speed, bring the book you’re reading.

About a month ago, I was in Albuquerque at my Dad’s (first) cataract surgery. This was not an ER and had thus been planned, but the waiting room was similar. They’re all similar. The oppressive decks of fluorescent lights, washing everything in sight to pale apathy. The drone of the TV, always tuned to the most insipid show imaginable. (Seriously. “The View” during the cataract surgery. “Dr. Phil” at the ER. At night. I didn’t even know they aired Dr. Phil at night.) At some point, someone must’ve decided that the silence mixed with buzzing of fluorescents was too brain-rattling for a waiting room, so they posted up a TV in every corner. For distraction, I suppose. But there’s something so wrong about the normalcy of a terrible TV show that just makes my focus on whatever’s going on that much worse.

But in Albuquerque, I had brought my book. And I was at least able to wander inward, become engrossed as though on a train ride, and not constantly think about what was going on and what could be going wrong. Waiting rooms could not be more aptly named. But the whole game of surviving them is to make it less about waiting and more about being. A good book is extremely good at this purpose.

Instead, I had a magazine. Magazines are the compromise where everyone loses. They are too long to be sound bites of news (especially The Economist), but too short to be narrative. They are too old to be news and too young to be history. Advertising is overwhelming and garish. The pages rip easily. I can’t stand magazines and, perhaps more than any other container of written words, I don’t understand how they are successful.

So the waiting room was a lot about waiting.

I had a pretty good sense that Emily was going to be all right, though by hour three this feeling was starting to hit some snags. I had not carried her into the ER unconscious and bleeding from the head. She had not been shot. She was not missing anything. She had walked, more or less of her own recognizance, in through the front door. We would have gone to urgent care, but urgent care closes at 7:00 and she wasn’t convinced she had to go till about 7:35. Isn’t that always the way.

What she did have was a spinning head. She kept saying that her brain felt like it was moving. She was dizzy and disoriented, sometimes dropping scarily out of touch in the middle of conversation. She kept saying her brain instead of her head. And it had happened much of the day, but gotten much worse rapidly that night. It was time to go.

When one is sitting in an ER waiting room, with little to no idea what is wrong with one’s spouse, having surrendered said spouse to the care of those who deal with everything and anything, there is a sense of heightened awareness. In taking in the idle surroundings, normally a source of mild musing and perhaps casual scrutiny, one suddenly realizes the magnitude these memories may carry on later. For someone who naturally and unconsciously examines their life as much as I do, everything is constantly being analyzed, considered, and reflected. I recalled the things I would recall if something went terribly wrong… little omens, small annoyances, distractions that led me back to worst-case scenario thoughts, and the dissonant light-board that constantly scrolled, stacked, or built up the anachronistically cheery message: WELCOME TO THE KAISER EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.

And on page 57, more about Darfur.

And then, after 11:00, the shootings in Oakland on the late local news. It was enough to make one consider whether anyone showing up on the screen was on their way to the physical location. At least this waiting room was wisely constructed to the side of the main entrance, ensuring that we would never know.

We. There were growing fewer and fewer of us. It seemed that many people had just missed the 7:00 cut-off when we entered a nearly packed room. By 11:10, it was just about myself, a homeless man who kept starting awake, and a very calmly reserved young man who either had everything or nothing wrong with him.

The triage nurses were chatting, crossing their invisible barrier where they independently intently stared at those seeking help and instead discussing weekends and relationships and weather. Just a job. Everyone has one, and every job has regular people in it. I will remember this, I knew (if something goes wrong). I will forever be bitter at the nurses who were just living life when.

And then my jacket pocket started shaking. It wasn’t an earthquake, or even the end of the world. It was Emily’s phone, which she’d insisted on leaving me, so that she could give them a number to call. Everyone has a cell phone nowadays. Emily has two. I have zero.

It was Emily. She was okay, even sounding relieved. She was on her way out.

She has vertigo. It is almost certainly not a prelude to a stroke. But, the doctors said, it was one or the other. And given those choices, it was good we came in. After all, she has never had vertigo or any symptoms thereof in her life. It is rare for this to start out of nowhere. Rare, but most fortunate when compared to.

Emily wants Drew Tirrell and Dan Stafford and even Pete Lee to know that she has a newly profound sympathy for them and their plight. Vertigo sounds like a bit of a trumped-up malady to most. It is an easy joke. Far too easy to ape and to question. Em described it as “just about the worst feeling in the world” early this morning.

No way of knowing if it’s permanent or temporary. Most likely the latter, but everything starts sometime. For now, she’s not driving and is taking work slowly. Getting up and lying down remain impossibly discombobulating. The medicine does little to nothing noticeable.

But it’s all good, relatively speaking. I can forgive the nurses their banter. I can let go of the grains of red sand building to the word WELCOME. I can watch “Dr. Phil” again (though, why?) or even the late local news.

For now.

Because nights like this, like last night, they’re run-throughs. I have often distilled the fairness we are given in this lifetime down to this: We all (almost all) will either die prematurely or watch our loved ones die before us. Or some combination of a bit of both. This is the curious curse of existence on Earth, our blessed gift of tragic learning.

There are a few, several standard deviations out, who may watch everyone they love be slaughtered and then be killed at age 7. And some who pass at 89, just before everyone they ever cared for.

But almost all of us have the same lot.

So it’s a run-through. It may not be Emily, ever. But if not, it will probably be me for her. It may not be for years. It may be tomorrow.

So there’s something to be said for the experience. And for thanking God it’s not tonight.

by

I’m Feeling Lucky

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Blue Pyramid News, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

I have spent the better part of the last 2.5 hours finally updating the list for OMBFP. (This stands for One Million Blogs for Peace, but I really only call it OMBFP. That’s how I roll.)

Anyway, updating this list for the first time since 9 September (read: +67 blogs), laboriously copying and pasting into my detailed database (read: spreadsheet), and sifting through the attempted splog signatories (read: many many cialis many) has transformed my mood from, say, somber and reflective to, perhaps, giddy and punchy. (I seem to really lack a giddy-n-punchy post here as yet, but parts of this are close.)

So I was wending my way towards the end of my computer evening by doing my last nightly round-up of websites, many of them to see how the Blue Pyramid’s doing today. (Despite this blog’s resurgence, October is a way down month after a banner September and a very good August.) And I got this post as one of the recent updates, which of course reminds me of the fact that if you type in “best books ever” on Google and click I’m feeling lucky, you get the list I made. And not even the updated list I made or the good list I made with tens of other people. It’s this list I made in 1998. For years now, that has been Google’s definitive #1 answer to the question of what the best books ever are. With quotes or without. Rain or shine. Lucky or discerning. And boom.

The irony? About the not being widely read in fiction (yet) but my opinion on books is my great Google success? Oh yeah.

You’d be amazed at how often people try to find the “best books ever”. A lot. Just since switching to my new servers on 3 October, people have headed for the BP after searching for best books ever 1,095 times, best books of all time 325 times, best books ever written 240 times, greatest books of all time 110 times, and greatest books ever written 83 times. There are seven more similar search strings with 50+ times.

Why me? To what do I owe this bestowal of random authority on books?

One of the only things I’ve ever been able to discern about this supernaturally high ranking (a cool 142 million sites show up for best books ever) is that my posting of this to the web on 22 February 1999 just gave me “dibs”. (Someday I will again be able to think of this phrase and not think of the crunchy ice cream snack. Curse you, Dreyers, for replacing my thoughts of swell 50’s-era phraseology!) I got in the door first, and everyone had to get in line behind me. This is not exactly how search engines work, but it’s close to some principles thereof. It hasn’t held up for the quizzes as much, which have flirted with front-page rankings and since subsided. But dibs in 1999 and dibs in 2003 are way different animals. Ice cream aside. (Incidentally, Dibs the ice cream has overtaken Wikipedia’s article on dibs the calling-aide for the coveted I’m Feeling Lucky spot for dibs. I wonder if they called dibs.)

There has to be more to it than getting in the door first, though. And I think a lot of it has to do with people being afraid of using a term so definitive as “best books ever written”. There has been much made throughout my educational history of it being intellectually savvy to equivocate. It occasionally backfires for politicians, but it’s quite sound for an academic. As long as one is willing to hem and haw, to go back and forth, and to constantly modify every statement (“‘I’ statements, please!”) with qualifiers, then one can’t possibly be driven off their point, however watered down into oblivion. I, being an extremist, had no problem dubbing (note: not dibbing) my list with an incredibly over-the-top phrase. (Though note again, not without some self-awareness, in tacking on the all-important “(More or Less)” to the back end of the list. See, that’s being able to laugh at yourself while still being an extremist! Note also that, to date, not a soul has found the BP by searching for the phrase more or less.)

The point is that anyone else who was willing to make a list of 100 books that they thought were the peachy-keenest (peachiest-keen?) would also be very careful to moderate their title for it so it seemed reasonable. And so it was probably years until anyone else went grandiose on their title. And by then, they had to get in the back of the line.

Not all of my Googular victories are so coveted. It’s possible the Weakerthans already had some inkling of who I was, because I’ve topped the list for weakerthans setlist since shortly after the show in SF in December ’04. Depending on whether you put a space in setlist (please, sir, can I have more semantics?), there are only 5k-19k competitors. I get both, despite the words “set” and “list” not appearing separately in the aforementioned setlist. Google is getting smarter.

Despite feeling so lucky here, only 8 times has someone landed at the BP after searching that string (this October).

I was pleased to note just today that I also top the list for 2008 presidential ticket, mostly (I would surmise) because of the ungainly nature of that phrase. Despite the election year fervor, this string shows up less than a quarter-million times on the interwebs. And I named a quiz after it!

It’s also worth noting, though (lest I feel too lucky), that not once this October, but twice, someone has shown up at the BP after entering the following words into Google:
the parralel between jim crow and to kill a monking bird

Maybe it’s time to start a third incarnation of the Search of the Week. That or start investing in the acquisition and sale of monking birds. I hear they’re like crows.

by

O, October!

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

My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy.

The Blue Pyramid, despite the fact that it’s still deciding what exactly it wants to do with itself and where it’s going next, is quite popular according to Technorati. And Technorati should know. But despite spending at least a week with its listing as being in the coveted Top 100 of Technorati blogs, it still fails to actually show up on this list. It should be about 71st, they say. But it isn’t.

This could be due to many factors, including the gut-check reality that the Blue Pyramid itself is not, strictly speaking, a blog. But this isn’t keeping it from being listed as one anyway. In any event, I will be happy with the BP for exceeding the likes of Andrew Sullivan and CNN’s Political Ticker and Cute Overload.

I really wanted to post yesterday. It was one of those dramatic crazy days where most of the people one knows have become pod-people overnight, often losing their self-awareness in the process. Everyone was able to recognize that it was a tremendously weird day, but also insisted on finding organic reasons for the problem. Including it being close to “the holidays”.

Not even in my world, where Halloween reigns supreme, are we close to “the holidays”.

So what is it about October, anyway?

I spent too much of the other morning and last night trying to track down a foreword or afterword from Ray Bradbury where he succinctly cuts through so much of the October mystique. Bradbury, already my favorite author when I read the passage the first time, cut through so much of what I’d felt about October my whole life in a single series of passages, with bone-jangling clarity. I was taken aback and, like the Watership Down passage I quoted a few days ago, it has stayed in the back of my mind ever since.

But try as I might, especially in a dedicated quest last night, I couldn’t find it among any of my seemingly endless Bradbury tomes on the shelves. Granted, our books are still disorganized 20 months after moving into our current apartment, so searching is not as straightforward or likely to be fruitful. I searched about twelve times through The October Country (the man has a book about October and it’s not in there?!) and just got frustrated.

I went and updated my Facebook profile. Facebook asked me for favorite quotes. All I could think of was the increasingly resonant line from “Magnolia” (the movie), “The book says we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.”

I went back to the bookshelf. Yestermorrow seemed like an impossible longshot, but let’s give it a go. All I found, buried against the spine like it was trying to hibernate through a long winter, was a movie ticket on page 5 from a special theater showing at Century Rio of “Gone with the Wind” from 7/26/98.

Thanks, October.

Today, I almost thought it was the prologue from Something Wicked this Way Comes. But it wasn’t quite extensive or thorough as I remember. It might be the one I was remembering, buffeted by the continual references to the seeping of the October world into one’s mind in a novel set entirely in the last week of this pivotal month.

But I somehow don’t think it was. And I still can’t find it.

There is something in this fruitless search that is like the month of October itself. Elusive, frustrating, and yet exciting and seeming perhaps more monumental than it really is. I tried to put some ghost lights up next to my pumpkin lights today at work. They flickered and died shortly after being hung. They spent much of the morning going on and off at will. Now they’re just off.

They are ghosts, after all.

Perhaps I can substitute Bradbury’s exposition on October with my own attempt to capture this fleeting spirit in Loosely Based (not coincidentally the opening paragraph of Chapter Thirteen): “It was the first night in October, but Matt would’ve bet money that it was the last. He had a sense of foreboding that could easily be associated with Halloween, with the prowling night and its wayward spooks. Leaves had already begun to flee the trees, and a large branch, now barren, swung between a lamppost outside his dorm window, leaving a continual silhouette against the cloth shade. The outlines of this haunting shadow were just visible in the descending night, as darkness fell a hair earlier on this eastern side of the building.”

Things come alive in October. That life you always knew you were living, but couldn’t quite place amongst the day-to-day comes ricocheting out of its cocoon at 120 miles an hour, knocking everything in its path sideways. You are in its path, and go sideways, and suddenly see how it was all supposed to be all along, horizontal turned vertical. Sick to your stomach, you wonder why every day can’t be like this, why everything is half-asleep and tepid. After three days of it, you burn for the tepid, or anything calmer and slower than this.

Yesterday, I was burning. Today, the tepidity is challenging me with its own brand of fiery madness. It’s like 2002 has smashed right into 2007. And why not? Five years. Is it time to let go of this phase, this chapter, this repackaged but lucrative version of time in the seat? If I didn’t respect it in school, why do I respect it here? Because I have the illusion of more control and of change? Because I like feeling part of something larger, with many hands on deck? Because a little bit of schedule seems like the only anchor between me and a life of Octobers?

The baseball commercials remind me “There’s only one October.” And how. This is my twenty-eighth, and I promise you they’re all the same.

by

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

When it rains in the Tenderloin, it’s easy to lose your footing.

Not only is the rain itself slick in this oft-forgotten neighborhood of San Francisco, but the sidewalks are so often coated with various debris that it mingles with the rainwater to create conditions reminiscent of a Slip-n-Slide. But there are few fun and games when it rains here, only the usual mass of poor, tired, and huddled, alongside the pimps and the dealers.

Everyone, even the pimps and the dealers, look a little more miserable in the rain. When your life is out-of-doors, especially overnight, there’s no such thing as appreciating a rainy day. As Richard Adams notes in Watership Down (my favorite book of all time), “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, and for poor men, winter is another matter. Rabbits, like most wild animals, suffer hardship.”

And since there is no snow in San Francisco, the biting wind-blown rain is our winter.

I’ve been reading Shantaram lately, highly acclaimed by many of my friends. Much of the book is centered in the slums of Bombay. The descriptions and insights remind me much of the Tenderloin, though obviously on a much vaster scale. Which makes me wonder, sometimes, why I’m not in the slums of Bombay, or Baghdad, or the camps of Darfur. Surely there is a deeper need there. The rain falls harder in the land of monsoons. Or perhaps doesn’t fall at all.

I know all my arguments for positioning myself here. The United States remains the epicenter of world influence and thus, obviously, the best place to write, to speak, to be read and heard. One can change the minds of the poor and forgotten, but they have already been disregarded. One can change the minds of the rich and remembered, and watch the ripples fall out from there. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t choose for it to be this way, but I can’t deny practicality out of hand. Besides, it makes a certain amount of sense. The people of the Tenderloin are living much like rabbits, or any other being on the constant brink of survival. Survival does not afford one the luxury to consider larger aims of philosophy or politics. Survival clouds out all other issues and concerns, dominating the landscape with decisions of fight or flight. Part of our mission at Glide is to get people above the survival level, so they can again consider the larger questions. But the landscape of those larger questions will always be dominated by those who have the most time and energy to consider them. And thus, I remain here. Or at least I justify remaining here. Every day, it’s one or the other.

(This post, by the way, has earned the categorization “Read it and Weep” by virtue of discussing books and reading, not by necessarily being sad. The titling of my books/reading category being “Read it and Weep” is my own joke at myself for liking sad books. But this is not meant to imply that you should weep at this post in general. What you choose to be sad about is your own prerogative.)

I lack a window in my crowded narrow office, insulating me from momentary reminders of the rain or the rabbit-people of the Tenderloin. I have a warren. They do not.

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Assorted Thoughts Before Vermont

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Metablogging, Pre-Trip Posts, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

All right. Turns out that this whole “keeping posts long and narrative” idea works pretty well, but seems wholly unfitting for times like the morning before I depart on a big trip. I have a long-standing personal tradition of firing off correspondence and/or public missives before departing on trips, of getting up a little earlier to do so. Deep down, I know that a large part of the reason for this is the heightened perception of the risk of death during travel. Even though it’s absolutely not true, human beings feel this elevated threat level on planes that in someone like me (even though I know cars are eleventy-billion times more dangerous and life-threatening) makes me want to tie up loose ends… or at least give people awareness of what I was considering on the final day. Truth be told, it’s really amazing how much of my life I spend anticipating and preparing for final perceptions like that.

What a wonderfully cheery thought for five in the morning. But hey, if anything, I’m opening up even more with StoreyTelling than Introspection, because long explanations sort of require back-story, and back-story often requires taking a can-opener to those rusty containers that long ago developed botulism.

Regardless, the point here is that I have all these leftover thoughts and ideas that, now that I’m back in the blogging spirit, would normally have found their home in delicious two-liners on Introspection’s format. But there’s no place to put them. So they’re about to go here… periodically I’m probably just going to have to do posts like this with relatively unrelated assortments. I don’t think any of today’s are cryptic… I already have a whole “Keepin’ it Cryptic” category/tag planned too, since there will be inevitably be times when some other person feels they have a right to privacy, or I don’t really feel like forcing the issue with some person I know right here on this blog. But not today. So this will be like the appendix post.

Speaking of which, they allegedly found the purpose of the appendix this week. Nifty, huh? There’s a reason for everything. The proof for God is in the logical purpose, people.

Baseball is clearly something I’ve still been paying attention to, since it’s October and that’s one of the things that makes October great. And I am blessed to be paying Comcast an inordinate amount of money to get channels like TBS, so I’m not missing out on the playoffs. Hosting the baseball playoffs on TBS makes about as much sense as putting Top Chef on the History Channel. Especially since it’s the second playoffs in 465 years to not feature the Atlanta Braves. You could sort of draw a link between the channel and the show (in the same way that APDA draws links to resolutions), but no one who normally watches the channel will want to watch that show, and everyone who wants to watch will be vaguely frustrated to have to find a channel they never watch. Maybe that’s the strategy though, TBS gets to spam adds for their bizarre shows at a whole new audience. In 20 years, the Anime Channel will bid for the baseball playoffs and we’ll be inundated with ads for the latest blend of medieval fantasy themed Japanese characters with crazy hair and soap opera interactions between innings. And I’ll have to debate with Em about the value of adding the premium Anime Channel for 2 months and whether Comcast will respect our right to cancel it even though they’re already taking $746 a month.

I tend to be exaggerative in the morning.

My only real point in bringing up baseball was to observe how completely unlikely it is that anyone could’ve envisioned a Rockies/Diamondbacks NLCS even a month ago, let alone earlier in the season. And yet it looks extremely likely that this will happen. Granted, the Phillies are in the exact same position as the ’95 Mariners in their Division Series … down 2-0 going on the road. And we all know what happened then. (Or maybe you don’t. The M’s won 2 games in NY, then came home and won the decisive fifth game in extra innings in the greatest game in Mariner history.) And given that the Phils basically are the Mariners from a few years ago (not really, but the pitching staff is… after all, Pat Gillick’s their GM), it’s all possible. But at this point, the Rockies will probably be winning the World Series, so I wouldn’t put much faith in a Philly comeback.

I’m also starting to believe that a 5-game series just might not cut it for baseball. Or if it did, you’d need to have a 1-1-1-1-1 schedule, instead of 2-2-1. But it’s way easier to just go 7 games instead of changing venues for every game. The first World Series was 9 games. You don’t play 162 contests to get ousted by a 3-game losing streak. It’s just too short.

(By the way, the paragraphs directly above will earn this post the category/tag “Let’s Go M’s”. This is not because the M’s were briefly mentioned, but that will be my baseball title in general. I’m trying to limit myself a little here.)

Ack! In finding the link to that series recap on Wikipedia above, I just realized that I’ve been incorrect in my memory about the ’95 ALDS for years! Apparently they used to do a 2-3 schedule for the ALDS!! Two-three?! So the M’s were down 2-0 going into 3 straight home games, which they won all of. I’ve been recapping that series incorrectly for ages. Wow. That really blows my mind. Whoever thought 2-3 was a reasonable schedule for a baseball series? See, this really proves that it needs to be longer than 5 games.

Hm. Now I’ve gotten myself so hyped up about baseball that I’ve forgotten most of what else I was going to say. So it goes. I should go pack and clean out the catboxes anyway.

I’m going to Vermont, by the way, for Stina & Dav’s wedding, which will be in Octobery fall colors confines near the borders with New York and Quebec. It should be beautiful, and a little chilly. Em and I are changing planes approximately 4,000 times on the way out, so we’re loading up the books. The next book I finish will put me over the top of last year’s total (21), which is right about the pace I’d like to maintain for a year. My commute has been very good for keeping me reading… and I don’t want to read much more than 25 books a year, because then I’ll never write. I can’t quite decide if I like David Foster Wallace or if he’s just messing with everyone (or, I suppose, both), but his imagery is some of the strongest stick-to-your-mind kind of stuff ever.

(Gah, now I have to add a book/reading category/tag too! This is getting to be too much. I’m now believing that the way I really should have approached this morning’s posting is to post 4-5 separate posts, all neatly categorized and separated. But that would sort of be like a strobe-light-blog, wouldn’t it? Hrm.)

Thank you, by the way, to everyone who has written me e-mails in the last few days about this blog and welcoming me back into the communication fold. I really appreciate it and I will respond to everyone individually soon, but sadly not before leaving. But I want to acknowledge how touched I’ve been by your reception… it’s good to know I haven’t alienated all my readers by taking a couple months off.

Also, to delve into the slightest metablogging, I can’t figure out why the second post I made here was labeled as the third, and thereafter all the numbers have seemed to be off by one. This is the kind of thing that really bugs me about using automated blogging software and what I was always afraid of. Having an accurate postcount is one of the things that I was excited about with automation, and the slightest inaccuracy (and what could be more slight than an inaccuracy of one?) drives me crazy. When I return (there’s no time now), I will have to delve into the actual files of this database and see if I can alter everything to restore order to the numbers. So be mindful of permalinking these few early posts. If I restore the numbers and they count properly, I’ll never change them again. As I look at it now, though, it’s possible that WordPress is just terrified of a sophomore slump – category #2 doesn’t seem to exist either. Don’t fear the deuce, WordPress!

Okay, now to clean Pandora’s box.

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