Saturday, April 30, 2011

Le Bon David

Morgan Meis:

David Hume was — at least on the matter of death and dying — a Socratic man. Even in his most canonical works, A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume was largely preoccupied with establishing limits. The way Hume saw it, our brief lives, crowned by unavoidable death, are unlikely to put us in touch with any grand absolutes. On the other hand, the human mind is an indubitably powerful tool and its powers of reasoning have penetrated many an enigma. Hume was as amazed by human knowledge as the next guy. He simply wanted us to be honest about its failings and limitations. Most of the things we know come from observing what happens around us and making the reasonable inference that what happens one day will continue to happen the next. The sun will rise, dropped objects will fall, harsh words will bite, etc. We don't know the greater "why" of such things, suggested Hume, and there is no reason to think we ever will.

Hume always found himself astraddle those two great pleasures, study and society. When he spent too much time studying, the mechanisms of human reason would take flight, leading him into seemingly logical conclusions that defied his actual experience of the world. Thinking hard in his study, Hume would reach the conclusion, for instance, that there is no such thing as causality. Then he would step outside and go about the business of daily life in the full assurance that cause and effect operates just as we've always experienced it. Everyday experience would do its work, grounding him again in reality. That contrast between reason and experience never failed to amuse, trouble, and delight Hume.

I always loved that about Hume, the way he could follow his reason and intellectual conscience to the absolute starkest conclusions, but still know when to shrug and go enjoy a game of backgammon. When one of the most relentlessly reasonable mofos that ever strode the earth tells you that "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions," you might want to sit up and take heed. You don't have to grasp after metaphysical delusions in the absence of rational, philosophical justifications for life, you just have to trust that ordinary life has a rhythm and pattern of its own that will carry you along when you need it to. When you can't figure out why or how to live, just do it anyway, without worrying overmuch about perfect intellectual consistency, and something will likely come along to alter your perspective soon enough.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Arthur sent me an inspirational quotation from Oscar Wilde to encourage me as I go through this turbulent period of my life:

"Nothing that actually happens is of the slightest importance."

Yes, indeed. If I may, let me supplement that with two others that I often turn to when I need a clear perspective:

"What do we matter? Our whole lives are experiments; let us also want to be them!"

- Nietzsche

"We're all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there's still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead."

- Ronald Speirs (from Band of Brothers)



Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva believes this season has proved he has the quality to be a long-term success at Anfield.

The Brazil international was a much-derided figure among fans during his first three years after signing from Gremio in July 2007.

However, following the departure in successive summers of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano the 24-year-old has grasped the challenge of added responsibility and is enjoying the best form of his Reds career.

In previous campaigns he was criticised by supporters for being a favourite of former manager Rafael Benitez but this term has fully justified the belief the Spaniard had in him when others had their doubts.

I admit it. I have crow feathers sticking out of my teeth. I was one of those who groaned every time I saw Lucas in the starting lineup. Up until this season, he was the Liverpool player I loved to hate. I often wondered how Liverpool managed to find the one Brazilian who didn't seem to be preternaturally gifted with a soccer ball at his feet. I watched through my fingers every time I saw him bearing down on an opponent anywhere near Liverpool's own goal box, dreading the sound of the referee's whistle and the crowd roar signifying another penalty kick being awarded. His passes didn't show any creativity on attack, and his reckless tackling was a liability on defense. He used to constantly give away free kicks in dangerous areas and accumulate yellow and red cards like they were prizes. Oh, how I wished he would be sold to another team, post-haste, but there he was, week after week, seemingly immune to the injuries that sidelined so many top players.

But taking on the task of being the sole defensive midfielder after the departure of Mascherano seems to have coincided with him settling down and assuming a more confident role. His defensive work has been stellar and his energy boundless. During last weekend's demolition of Birmingham, I recall one play where Liverpool's 17 year-old left back, Jack Robinson, drafted into a starting role out of desperation following a spate of injuries to several experienced players, was shepherding an attacker toward the corner flag by himself, when Lucas joined in to help him out. Just as I was thinking it myself, the commentators noted what a great help he'd been all game long to Robinson and John Flanagan, the teenage right back, playing under similar circumstances, making sure they were never left alone where their inexperience could be exploited. After they'd successfully won a throw-in from their efforts, Robinson was trotting away, and as the camera lingered on them for a moment, I saw Lucas call out to him, and when Robinson turned back, he slapped his hand in encouragement and congratulations. It was a nice little snapshot of what a mature team leader he's turned into.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

That Which Was

I was talking to my dad the other day about business and the job search. It's strange, noticing how our relationship is in the process of changing in such a short period of time.

I've never minded working for the family business, never felt confined or desperate to prove anything completely independent of them. I've done all the things a supposedly mature adult is expected to do as a productive member of society, and I'm still young enough to look forward to being a little more selfish now that some of those obligations and responsibilities are passing. No complaints.

It wasn't always easy, especially when I was a kid. My dad is such an intense, domineering presence. Hot-tempered and sharply opinionated, not to mention highly intelligent, driven and successful, it was very easy to always feel intimidated, like I was being judged and found wanting, even though he's never been belittling. It was just something I'd sense, in the way he'd listen to something I'd say and pause for a moment before responding while staring deeply at me, as if waiting in vain for me to come up with a little something extra to truly impress him. He just exuded such a forceful, impatient persona that you felt compelled to step up or quickly scurry out of the way. Whatever I was doing never felt good enough; he would always have an idea to slightly improve anything I was doing, from schoolwork to personal choices. Trying to develop my own personality as an adolescent, especially one that directly contravened many of his values, often felt like trying to walk against a ferocious headwind. I now appreciate that it tempered me and forced me to be more sure of myself, but there were many times I didn't believe I'd ever feel confident enough to stand in front of him without feeling a compulsion to stammer or make excuses for my thoughts or actions.

My parents are taking an early retirement now. Listening to him the other day was unlike any other conversation I've had with him. Disappointed and slightly stunned at how quickly the bottom fell out of the business, he's been worrying himself sick over how he'll be able to help my brother and I if we should need it, with no regular income of his own now. He even admits that flat-out, which makes me realize that I don't ever recall seeing him act unsure or anxious about anything. Even when I reached the age where you no longer blithely assume that your parents know everything and have all the answers, even when I began to consciously disagree with him, it always seemed like he believed he had all the answers. No more. Now he just seems like any other borderline-elderly man, unsure of his bearings, who did his best and worries it wasn't good enough. I told him not to worry anymore, that he'd done fine, I appreciated it all and that I'd be okay, and I meant it. It felt like the last little bit of growing up I had to do.


• His caring is a nightmare to us,
and his voice a stone.

We would like to heed his words, but we only half hear them.
The big drama between us
makes too much noise
for us to understand each other.

We watch his lips moving, shaping sounds that die away.
We feel endlessly distant,
though we are endlessly bound by love.

• Does anyone love a father?
Doesn't one leave a father's worn-out words
to old books that are seldom read?

Is his heart not a watershed
from which one flows away,
toward passion and suffering?

Isn't the father always that which was?
Used-up years with their odd ways of thinking,
outmoded gestures, old-fashioned dress,
pale hands and ashen hair.

And while in his time he may have been a hero,
he is a leaf that, when we grow, falls away.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

BFF No More

Nietzsche was famously close to Richard Wagner for a time before splitting from him and subsequently heaping much scorn upon him. Most accounts of their relationship have focused on things like Wagner being a disciple of Schopenhauer, as Nietzsche was early in his life, thus making their split inevitable when Nietzsche became disenchanted with Schopenhauer's philosophy. Or they mention that Wagner was the same age as Nietzsche's father, who died when he was only five, thus making Wagner the father-figure that Nietzsche had to rebel against for his own intellectual independence. You get the picture. Serious issues of philosophy and psychology here.

But as it turns out, uh... oh, let's let Peter Watson tell it:

Only nine days after the composer's death in 1883, Nietzsche confided in a letter to a friend, "Wagner was by far the fullest human being I have known." However, he went on, "Something like a deadly offence came between us; and something terrible could have happened if he had lived longer."

Details about this "deadly offence" emerged only in 1956, when correspondence first came to light between Wagner and a doctor who had examined Nietzsche. It related to a consultation Nietzsche had in Switzerland in 1877. The doctor, a passionate Wagnerian, examined Nietzsche and found his health poor—indeed Nietzsche was at risk of going blind. This was when Nietzsche and Wagner were still friends and so, following the examination, Nietzsche wrote to Wagner, reporting the diagnosis, but also enclosing an essay on The Ring, which the doctor had written and given to Nietzsche, on the understanding that it would be passed on. Wagner replied to the doctor, thanking him for the essay, but also raising the matter of Nietzsche's health, apparently referring to the belief, common at the time, that blindness was caused by masturbation. The doctor, in his reply to Wagner, behaved extremely unprofessionally, confiding that, during his examination, Nietzsche told him he had visited prostitutes in Italy "on medical advice." (This was sometimes recommended then as treatment for chronic masturbation.)

Even at this distance, the set of events is shocking; how much worse it must have been then. It is now known that the details of this exchange circulated during the Bayreuth Festival of 1882, coming to Nietzsche's own notice later that same year. He confessed in a letter that an "abysmal treachery" had got back to him. More than one observer has concluded that this episode helped to unbalance Nietzsche.

It is a story that diminishes two great men.

Diminishes? Not at all! I find it amusing and deeply humanizing to realize that even two towering cultural figures like this could be brought low by the same pettiness that plagues high schools everywhere. (I haven't read Julian Young's biography of Nietzsche yet, but I understand that in his account, there may have also been implications of homosexuality in that letter.) I can totally see Nietzsche lying in bed on his back, feet up against the wall, arm across his eyes, a phone pressed to his ear: "...and then he told everyone at the party!! I know, right?! And after I totally dedicated my first book to him and his crappy music! God, I was so stupid, stupid, stupid! Why was I even born?!" Meanwhile, a Coldplay playlist repeats itself on iTunes. Nearby, we see a yearbook open to Wagner's picture, now sporting devil horns, blacked-out teeth, lightning bolts above his head, and disembodied penises hovering in and about his mouth and ears.

I Wanna Idealize You Like an Animal

This is a loooong essay by Raymond Tallis, and I fully admit up front that I don't have the time to give it the careful attention and engagement it deserves, but at the same time, when an argument starts off with such weak points, it doesn't bode well for the rest of it or make me inclined to want to spend much more time on it:

The failure to distinguish consciousness from neural activity corrodes our self-understanding in two significant ways. If we are just our brains, and our brains are just evolved organs designed to optimize our odds of survival — or, more precisely, to maximize the replicative potential of the genetic material for which we are the vehicle — then we are merely beasts like any other, equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives. Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.

Hmm. I don't know; maybe we can only get the full effect if he tells it around the campfire with a flashlight under his chin. As it is, I'm sorry, but repeating a viewpoint in an incredulous tone with a disbelieving look on your face does not count as a rebuttal. Affronts to your vanity or conception of human dignity are not automatically disqualified. Does this really need to be reiterated anymore?

Most of those who subscribe to such “neuroevolutionary” accounts of humanity don’t recognize these consequences. Or, if they do recognize them, then they don’t subscribe to these accounts sincerely. When John Gray appeals, in his 2002 book Straw Dogs, to a belief that human beings are merely animals and so “human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mold,” he doesn’t really believe that the life of John Gray, erstwhile School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has no more meaning than that of a slime mold — else why would he have aspired to the life of a distinguished professor rather than something closer to that of a slime mold?

Because he is a distinguished professor and not a slime mold. He's not claiming there is no difference at all between the two, he's claiming there is no more inherent biological worth to one over the other. I'm not sure what the implication is here. What is he supposed to do upon realizing that humanity is an extremely clever ape that may nonetheless be undone by its own cleverness? Run off to the woods to subsist on grubs and berries, communicating through clicks, hoots and grunts? Commit suicide? What?

Was it Stephen Jay Gould who basically said that humanity exists at the discretion of bacteria and viruses, the real rulers of the planet? One random mutation is all it would take to quickly eliminate tens or even hundreds of millions of oh-so-special humans. And all of our wonderful cultural achievements aren't going to grant us any exemptions from the consequences of environmental destruction or of any meteors streaking toward an impact with Earth. Our kind of consciousness is obviously a wonderful thing to experience. But it doesn't imply anything about us somehow being independent of our biological origins or promise us a glorious future.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Shanna and I were talking about myths and archetypes, tarot, horoscopes and other woo-woo recently, especially about the use and abuse thereof. How far can we go in framing reality to suit our personal perspective while still maintaining intellectual integrity?

Anyway, when you started talking about the world being all mystical it made me think of Jungian archetypes, which you don't approve of. So I'm wondering why you draw the line of artistry at constructing a narrative. It's alright to admire, to compose paeans and songs, but not stories? Why? I've always felt you don't approve of the stories people tell themselves, as if constructing a narrative in order to self-soothe was somehow an act of weakness. But what I see here is simply a variation of degree, not of type.

Given that most people cannot resist (nor want to) their own pattern-making capabilities, I think my approach is most useful for those people who don't desire the rigour of Zennish ascetism.

That's always been my beef with Buddhism. I don't need the capital-R real, capital-T truth. I don't actually think it exists, and even if it did, I honestly don't think it's useful, in a pragmatic, day-to-day reality. It's kind of like pure science. I acknowledge that it's useful, perhaps even necessary, but applied science is really where that action (and my interest) is.

In brief, I responded that art, poetry and music was to me a way of celebrating that sort of mystical joy we're occasionally lucky enough to find, that sense of having a cosmic place for everything, and everything in its cosmic place, ourselves included, without clinging to it. Relating to archetypes, though, talking about your life in terms of mythic generalities, makes it too easy to overlook the particulars of your life that don't conform to the hero's journey or the hermit's quest. I said that some Buddhist writer I can't recall (Brad Warner? Stephen Batchelor?) used the analogy of a pretty outdoors scene painted on a window pane. Why not just wipe the pane clean and see the one that's already out there?

I thought of all that again while reading this fascinating post from Julia Galef. Seriously, I love this stuff:

We instinctively graft abstract concepts like “time,” “theories,” and “humor” onto more concrete concepts that are easier to visualize. For example, we talk about time as if it were a physical space we’re traveling through (“We’re approaching the end of the year”), a moving entity (“Time flies”) or as a quantity of some physical good (“We’re running out of time”). Theories get visualized as structures — we talk about building a case, about supporting evidence, and about the foundations of a theory. And one of my favorite metaphors is the one that conceives of humor in terms of physical violence. A funny person “kills” us or “slays” us, witty humor is “sharp,” and what’s the name for the last line of a joke? The “punch” line.

Interestingly, a lot of recent research suggests that these metaphors operate below the level of conscious thought.

Associating the future with the forward direction and the past with the backwards direction seems pretty harmless. But cases like “morality equals cleanliness” start to suggest how dangerous metaphorical thinking can be. If people conflate dirtiness with immorality, then the feeling of “Ugh, that’s disgusting” becomes synonymous with the judgment, “That’s immoral.” Which is likely a reason why so many people insist that homosexuality is wrong, even though they can’t come up with any explanation of why it’s harmful — any non-contrived explanation, at least. As the research of cognitive psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, people asked to defend their purity-based moral judgments reach for logical explanations, but if they’re forced to admit that their explanation has holes, they’ll grope for an alternative one, rather than retracting their initial moral judgment. Logic is merely a fig leaf; disgust is doing all the work.

So far I’ve been discussing implicit metaphors, but explicit metaphors can also lead us astray without us realizing it. We use one thing to metaphorically stand in for another because they share some important property, but then we assume that additional properties of the first thing must also be shared by the second thing.

Since our ancestors’ genetic fitness depended on their sensitivity to each other’s mental states, it feels very natural for us to speak about plants or inanimate objects as if they were agents with desires, wills, and intentions. That’s the kind of thinking we’re built for. In fact, even the phrase “built for” relies on the implication of a conscious agent doing the building, rather than the unconscious process of evolution. Metaphors are so deeply embedded in our language that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think without them. And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as we keep a firm grasp — metaphorically speaking — on what they really mean.

There's nothing wrong with framing your life's experience as a story with a progression, either. There's a sense of reassuring continuity to think that whatever the individual details, you're on some sort of path that countless others before and after you have been on. But that same feeling of treading a well-worn path to a preordained goal can help you switch off your conscious attention to everything that's happening right now that doesn't fit a neat storyline. And I say this as someone who loves words. Absolutely loves 'em. I spend more time than almost anyone I know wallowing in words and other abstract representations of reality. Pattern-seeking creatures that we are, I doubt it's possible or even desirable to exist in a permanent state of non-abstract thinking.

But for me, on the occasions when I manage to set aside all the intermediaries between me and direct perception, it's intense and overwhelming in a (good) way that metaphors can never capture. I only humbly suggest: don't spend too much time talking about what your life is like. Just experience it for what it is. Your life isn't valuable or meaningful because of how similar it is to countless ones that have come before, it's because of the fact that you occupy a unique, unrepeatable moment in space/time. Stop reaching for words every so often and just twirl a flower.

Friday, April 22, 2011

...That, When I Waked, I Cried to Dream Again

Most of the time, I don't have the sort of dreams that make the slightest bit of sense or relate to anything going on in my life at the time. But last night, I dreamed about one of my dogs. It was like I walked into a room, and all of my dogs jumped down off the bed to greet me, and when they did, I saw he had been lying behind them, hidden in the covers. I whispered hoarsely, "Hey, big bear (one of his dozens of nicknames), where have you been? Come here, buddy." He laid his ears back like he did when he was happy, mouth wide in a dog-smile, wagging and starting to get up. Then I was suddenly awake in the dark, heart jackhammering in my chest, breath hitching in my throat, eyes brimming with tears.

What is it about dreams that make them feel so much more real than any other kind of abstract thought? How do they connect so much more strongly with emotions? I've thought about him countless times since he died, but there's always been a slight awareness of the difference between memories and immediate experience that acts as a barrier, keeping me from feeling completely overwhelmed with sensations. As upsetting as it can be to spend time reflecting, I'm always aware that I am reflecting; it never resonates as if I'm literally seeing him in front of me again. I've thought about him enough since then that I can usually cover all that ground again without getting too upset, but this still haunts me and leaves me with that gut-punched feeling all over again.

Dreams cast such a shadow over your mind in a way that conscious thought doesn't. It's even stranger, given how fragmented and surreal they often are. What's going on in the brain when we're asleep that accounts for the difference? What is it exactly that consciousness does to keep all those intense emotions under a tight lid when we're awake? I've never read much of anything about it before, so I'm just wondering.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I've Eaten the Sun So My Tongue Has Been Burned of the Taste

A thought occurred to me earlier, so I went back and checked, and I was right: I've barely written about politics at all in the past few months. Why, I'm quite proud of that fact.

When I first started reading blogs, I pretty much thought they were synonymous with politics. I was reading Tom Tomorrow's site at the turn of the millennium, and he kept mentioning this "blog" of his, which I figured was a different site he maintained somewhere else on the web. I thought I was just reading a website that was updated regularly. Then he started linking to other sites like Eschaton, and I started following more links like that, and eventually I figured out the concept. I guess I always had an inkling that there were people who used blogs to write from a more personal perspective, but I was wary of wasting too much time on what would seem like reading a bunch of strangers' diaries. With an insular network of bloggers only linking to others who share their opinions and write about the same topics, it can be hard to find anything new and interesting without feeling like you're looking for a needle in a haystack the size of the entire Midwest. It's taken the better part of a decade, but I think I've found a good roster of interesting writers that touch on much more interesting stuff, and I hardly even glance at the political blogs anymore.

I was listening to my brother, a perpetual aggrievement machine, venting his bottomless spleen as usual this morning about Obama Obama liberals Obama snarl spit blargh, and as has been the case for some time, I just didn't even care to listen or try to fruitlessly argue with him. Laugh if you must at the spectacle of me talking like a hippie, but the sheer caustic negativity that he and the rest of my family give off in their monomaniacal obsession with politics just wears me out and disgusts me. Like, mucho bad vibes, dude! When he tried to bait me into it, I told him he was one of the most miserable, bitter pissants I've ever known, he talked like someone three times his age, and why didn't he just talk about sports or prostitutes or alcohol or whatever else he enjoys for a change? We live in a one-corporate-party imperial state that will eventually collapse under the weight of its own effluvia, but try to enjoy life anyway.

Then I Went Down Into the Basement Where My Friend, the Maniac, Busies Himself with His Electronic Graffiti

J.E.H. Smith:

But here is the thought that makes death formidable again: it is the moment after which I will never post to my blog again, after which I will never write another Facebook status update, I will never again tweet. My soul cries out: “But I can’t live without doing these things!” And death answers back: “No. But you can die.”

This is to say that my life is wrapped up with an activity from which I will have to leave off at death. But it is also the activity, I am increasingly coming to think, of actively constructing my self, and this activity, when it leaves off in death, will leave an accurate and vivid trace of a life. My online activity is, as I already put it, both mask and gravestone at once.

This may not be an entirely different experience than the one Robert Burton had when he brought out the fourth and fifth and sixth editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy. But the immediacy of blogging, and its lack of finality, make it much more like life itself than a book ever could be, with the backlogged publishers who promise it and the slow-churning presses that produce it. There is no publisher to blame if my blog is not sufficiently far along in its perfection at the moment of my death, no editorial wrangling or grinding production process. There is only me, and what I hope might be a mirror of me, diffused then through the Web of my culture by means I don’t understand: a mirror of me mirroring the world by sitting in a chair and looking at a screen and, every now and again, out the window.

Blogging as self-creation rather than the more typical sense of self-expression; that's a pretty cool way to think about it. I've said before that I feel much more complete as a person since I started systematically writing my thoughts down like this. My brain feels more alive, my ideas feel more substantial. At times when kismet arranges for an abundance of stress and work to align with a paucity of time and inspiration for writing, as was the case earlier this week, I can feel seriously low and empty (as the angelic Shanna, who graciously takes on the thankless task of trying to cheer me up, can attest). This has done more to shape and sculpt different aspects of my personality than anything I've done in my adult life, I think. It's what mainly provides a sense of dynamism and prevents me from feeling stagnant. I wonder what kind of person I'd be if I had started doing this as a teenager?

My mom was trying to give me helpful advice about fleshing out my résumé the other day, telling me to add in anything extracurricular that might be interesting. "What about writing? Do you do any? You know, so-and-so always said you had real talent..."

No, I said, I don't do any writing. There's only a few people who know that about me, and I have incriminating photos of all of them to ensure their silence. This is one of the absolute most important activities in my life, and I prefer to keep it a secret and do it just for fun. Maybe that's what defines me as a hermit more than anything.

For We are Never Finished with Our Not Dying

That's a line from a Rilke poem. Maybe he was prophetically referring to the book:

It is perhaps a symptom of print’s decline that the current conversation about the book’s demise has forgotten all these other ones. Instead we shuttle between two equally hollow poles: goofball digital boosterism a la Negroponte on one side and on the other a helpless, anguished nostalgia for the good old days of papercuts. Call it bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object—as if Jeff Bezos could be convinced to lay e-profits aside by recalling for a moment the soft, woody aroma of a yellow-paged Grove Press paperback; as if there were nothing more to books than paper, ink, and glue.

For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

The essay, which is actually pretty interesting, is called, yes, "The Death of the Book." (I wonder if it's too late to trademark that phrase and make a mint.) I'm eagerly awaiting the essay proclaiming the death of grandiloquent proclamations of the death of this or that object or tradition. Ooh, meta.

The Yellow Peril

I drove down a rural road this morning, turned around and came back the other way a minute later. Not only was the pollen still swirling through the air in my wake, like a grainy mist or fog, but I could see my tire tracks, as if I had driven through a light dusting of snow.

There are many lovely things to appreciate about spring, but this is not one of them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's Over Now and Not Enough

According to a notice posted on the band’s official site, TV On The Radio bassist Gerard Smith died this morning, only weeks after it was revealed he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 34.

Damn. I've been listening to them a lot in the last couple months, and their new CD has been incessantly playing in my stereo for the last week straight, partially because I find it difficult to get past the first three songs. What a shame.

In Dixie Land I'll Take My Stand

I thought I had seen it all when it came to unconscionable desecration of the image of Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes). Even though Bill Watterson never made his work available for merchandising, you still see stickers and window decals of Calvin being used to symbolize contempt for various NASCAR drivers via a stream of urine and an evil smirk, or as a religious simpleton kneeling in prayer before a cross. There is no end to the number of treasures these cretins will defile with their filthy hands.

But this, now... I saw a truck yesterday with an image in the back glass of Calvin defiantly holding up a middle finger and a Confederate flag, right next to another stars 'n' bars sticker reading "Rebel Pride". So I did the only thing a reasonable man could have done.

I followed him to his destination and waited for him to park and head into the building, whereupon I walked over, stuffed a rag into his gas tank, lit it on fire, hopped back in the car and drove off. As I looked back in the rearview mirror, mine eyes saw the glory of the orange fireball blossoming over the ridge. Up in flames like Atlanta under General Sherman, I tell you what.

Mess with the greatest comic strip ever written, and my wrath will be merciless, swift and sure.


It translates into this: I end up playing video games with a bunch of 23-year-olds until 3 a.m., and he ends up reading the Nietzsche I give him.

This is a pretty cool glimpse into Glenn Greenwald's personal life. I already held him in high esteem for being the closest thing to a mainstream Noam Chomsky we can likely have in our media, but he's a Nietzsche fan too? Awesome.

What Has 150 Legs, 16 Teeth and a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ?

The uncontrollable twitching is a little unnerving when you're trying to concentrate on the sermon, but they're still some fine folks. Me, I'm still partial to taking my Sunday service at Our Lady of the Opium Haze, though.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Definitely Maybe

Mitch Horowitz:

For all of its inroads into mainstream life, New Age became a term (and sometimes an epithet) that for many serious people connoted nothing more than a softheaded jumble of spiritual-therapeutic remedies or bromides. But the New Age did, in fact, have a core set of beliefs and a definable point of view. Most people, thought schools, or movements identified as New Age from the 1970s through the early twenty-first century shared these traits:

  1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas
  2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health
  3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages
  4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
  5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine

Most twenty-first century Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of those statements.

Well, let's see how I do:

1. Meh. I'm sure a lot of spiritual or religious ideas are comforting and reassuring, especially those that reinforce core features of our identity, the ones we don't like to question. On the other hand, Catholicism, to name the most obvious example. Assuming you're not forced to spend a lifetime in therapy to recover from being raped by a priest, you're still going to have all that infamous guilt to work through. And on the other other hand, I see intelligent people put themselves through unnecessary anguish over the state of their soul and the purpose of their life, straining their third eye to try to perceive supposedly hidden clues to the Meaning Of It All behind the presumed façade of empirical reality. And that doesn't even touch on whether believing in manifestly false ideas can be said to be truly good for you in the long run (assuming, of course, that at least some metaphysical ideas are indeed false), regardless of whether they make you temporarily happy or not. Is ignorance truly bliss, then?

2. Given that the mind is part of the body; more specifically, the brain, then yes, obviously. The problem comes when you're asked to rigorously define "connection".

3. No. And what does "higher" mean anyway? Better? In what way? I have a terrible suspicion that a lot of people think there can and should be an ideal world in which nothing "bad" or "negative" ever happens, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how necessary those things are in order for there to be anything "good" or "positive". I don't need to elaborate here, since Alan Watts wrote many fine books about this concept before I even existed. Check them out.

4. Thoughts can determine how effectively you act upon and react to reality, but there is still something going on out there independent of your ego that you simply do not control with the power of your thoughts, no matter how much of a market there is for books telling you otherwise.

5. First, we would have to agree that there is such a thing as "spiritual understanding", rather than just metaphysical nonsense, so once again, let's define our terms. Even if we can't, though, I can certainly agree that ordinary individuals are perfectly capable of coming up with their own nonsense without having to be instructed in the proper methods by any supposed authorities.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bounded in a Nutshell, a King of Infinite Space

Peter Lawler:

Will indefinite longevity be the secret to human happiness? Well, there's no denying that people would rather not die at any particular time, and that there's a lot of misery in being governed by the scarcity of time. Time, we can't help but notice, ruins or undermines at least most forms of human enjoyment. That's why, we can say, that human beings have always longed for immortality, to be freed from the miserable constraints of their self-conscious mortality. When thinking about immortality, we can't help but begin with the Greek gods—who were self-conscious but didn't die. They were, in other words, in many respects like our vampires.

But the immortality of the Greeks gods was even meant to make sense or be a realistic possibility. The poets invented them—like today's poets employ the Vampires--to show that immortality isn't only impossible but undesirable. And so if we thought about who we are, we'd actually chose the mortality with which each of us stuck anyway. Our longing for immortality is best satisfied by accomplishments that stand the test of time—the immortal glory of the great political deeds or of the enduring beauty and wisdom of works of art or literature--although even our fame, we really know, doesn't last forever. And we can achieve a kind of immortality through our minds, through knowing the eternal truth about natural necessity, through philosophy. Everything great that we do—from having children to writing THE REPUBLIC –depends on being mortal. The polymorphous human eros that animates us, in other words, depends upon death. Only mortals know what it means really to fall in love.

Good stuff, preach it, true dat, but I must beg to differ with one of his lines above -- time is the necessary boundary marker that defines most forms of human enjoyment. The passing of time is what gives us the impetus to act at all. Without the need to take advantage of a unique, unrepeatable opportunity to act on a possibility that may never present itself again, why bother to do anything but daydream about limitless potential?

I've often thought that my late forties or early fifties would be enough living for me. It's not so much a statement of desire or intent to be dead within the next ten or fifteen years as it is a way to force myself to live mindfully in the meantime. If you didn't have a vague expectation of living for another several decades, becoming a doddering, senile husk of a person, what might you do differently now? How much more vivid might so many experiences seem in light of that perspective? I'd rather take the decade-plus of focused, intense awareness than the somnambulant daze that so many people spend their long lives in.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Got Mine

Bill Moyers: But here’s the problem for journalism. When we write about inequality, we use numbers that are profound but numbing. I mean, here’s something I just read: over the past twenty years, the elite 1 percent of Americans saw their share of the nation’s income double, from 11.3 percent to 22.1 percent, but their tax burden shrank by about one-third. Now, those facts tell us something very important: that the rich got richer as their tax rates shrank. But it doesn’t seem to start people’s blood rushing.

David Simon: You start talking about a social compact between the people at the bottom of the pyramid and the people at the top, and people look at you and say, “Are you talking about sharing wealth?” Listen, capitalism is the only engine credible enough to generate mass wealth. I think it’s imperfect, but we’re stuck with it. And thank God we have that in the toolbox. But if you don’t manage it in some way that incorporates all of society, if everybody’s not benefiting on some level and you don’t have a sense of shared purpose, national purpose, then it’s just a pyramid scheme. Who’s standing on top of whose throat?

Bill Moyers: Why do you think, David, that we tolerate such gaps between rich and poor?

David Simon: You know, I’m fascinated by it. Because a lot of the people who end up voting for that kind of laissez-faire market policy are people who get creamed by it. And I think it’s almost like a casino. You’re looking at the guy winning, you’re looking at the guy who pulled the lever and all the bells go off, all the coins are coming out of a one-armed bandit. You’re thinking, “That could be me. I’ll play by those rules.” But actually, those are house rules. And most of you are going to lose.

I've had some form of this conversation three times in the last five days with friends of mine, puzzling over how we got to this point as a nation, where Wall St. and the Pentagon can keep taking, taking, taking as much money as they want, but the blame will fall on teachers, unions and unemployed people. Circling the drain, we are...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Young Love

My stepson and his girlfriend are finally living together after a year and a half of a long-distance romance. I was watching them yesterday attempting to make a pound cake together, obviously enjoying every minute of it despite getting in each other's way constantly, and later falling asleep on each other while watching TV. It may not do my reputation any favors, but I can admit to feeling a bit verklempt as I looked at them, illuminated in the cathode glow, and thought of another poem by Auden:

Do not turn, do not lift your eyes
Toward the still pair standing
On the bridge between your properties,
Indifferent to your minding:
In its glory, in its power,
This is their hour.
Nothing your strength, your skill could do
Can alter their embrace
Or dispersuade the Furies who
At the appointed place
With claw and dreadful brow
Wait for them now.

Good luck, you two.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Plink, Plink, Plink, Plink

John Carpenter:

AVC: The movies you scored have a very distinctive sound. How did you end up focusing on the synthesizer as your primary instrument?

JC: From early on, when synthesizers were first introduced into music, I liked the idea that you could get a big sound with them, electronic, but like an orchestra. And I could play it all myself. That was exciting. I was kind of a half-assed musician.

Gluteally-challenged he may be, but I loved the soundtrack to the first couple Halloween movies. Loved it, I tell you. One of the very first things I did when I got Internet access was look to see if I could find the actual CD, and I ended up getting it from some Wiccan bookstore somewhere. Before that, I had made recordings of myself on a shitty keyboard trying to recreate my favorite tracks so that I could listen to them around Halloween. See, I've always felt that one of the most glaring deficiencies of my other favorite holiday is that unlike Christmas, there's no body of music to help ground the experience of Halloween in the memory. No Halloween carols. And no, novelty songs like "Monster Mash" do not count. Don't even insult the macabre grandeur of that most sinister time of year with such tripe.

Anyway, yes. Every October, I spend a fair amount of time listening to Halloween 1978 (Laurie's Theme), The Haunted House, and, of course, the famous theme itself on repeat. Just can't get enough of that simplistic, spooky piano.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Those Who Help Themselves

De Botton promised his series would be "a ground-breaking experiment", offering rigorous self-help books that hark back to the days when – in the hands of Epicurus and Seneca – such tomes were highly valued, rather than the much-ridiculed genre of today. "We need self-help books more than ever before," he said. "In the age of moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be redesigned and rehabilitated."

Well, I'm interested to see what this will be like. I've always enjoyed de Botton's writing, though others disagree:

Is there a sniffy faction within the world of philosophy that takes a dim view of attempts to make the subject more widely accessible?

"Oh, I'm absolutely sure of it. But I also think that attitude has moderated considerably over time. Ten to 15 years ago, when I started to try to do this, I'm pretty sure there was a lot of sniffing going on." He does a bit of his own sniffing, though, a moment later, when I mention the popularity of bestselling writers whom he has described as quasi-philosophers.

"Hmm, yes, the [Alain] de Bottons and so on," Grayling murmurs rather sorrowfully. "He's a perfectly nice fellow, but it's not philosophy. It's cream-puff stuff. What worries me is that someone will go to it thinking, 'Ooh, this is an opportunity to think and find out something', and then they find that it's actually very shallow and doesn't have deep roots. And I do think that people who do this kind of thing should really have done some work and got engaged in something serious, and then they won't make too many mistakes when it comes to trying to introduce others to it."

I'm not aware if de Botton's books have been marketed as philosophy per se, but I also don't remotely care. I've read a lot of "deep, serious" philosophy that I found useless. You already know I hold Plato directly responsible for at least half of the stupidest ideas underpinning Western culture. Hegel was a human hot-air balloon. Descartes' mind/body dualism still plagues otherwise intelligent people. De Botton just strikes me as an intelligent guy who uses readings of philosophy to make sense of everyday life. Philosophy in the sense of "how to live" as opposed to an academic discipline. Give it whatever taxonomy you want. I'd enjoy shooting the breeze with him.

Besides, if self-help books were good enough for David Foster Wallace...

A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with "self-help," which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.

Yes, exactly. I see it as being similar to spiritual-not-religiousness in that regard; reinforcing rather than challenging the very egotism that causes so many problems. Hopefully that's what de Botton wants to rehabilitate about the genre.

God Hates Flags

Pew Research:

Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say they display the Confederate flag in places such as their home or office, on their car or on their clothing; 91% say they do not. The number that displays the Confederate flag is just a small fraction of the 75% who say they display the American flag in their homes or offices, on their cars or their clothing.

Whites who consider themselves Southerners have a more positive reaction to the Confederate flag than do other whites: 22% say they react positively when they see the Confederate flag displayed, compared with 8% of all whites and just 4% of whites who do not consider themselves Southerners.
That's funny. I think I see five Confederate flags just within a couple-mile radius of my house. Anyway:

I don't need no country, I don't fly no flag

- Alabama 3

Don't pledge allegiance to flags, I burn 'em

- Warrior Soul

Patriots? Little boys,
obsessed by Bigness,
Big Pricks, Big Money, Big Bangs.

- W.H. Auden

Paperless Cuts

Ted Genoways:

In July, revealed that sales of e-books were now outstripping the sales of hardcover books, with the possibility that their sales will double that of hardcovers by the end of the year. With the appearance of Apple’s iPad in April—and its stunning sales of four million units in its first four months—Barnes & Noble dropped the price of its Nook e-reader and Amazon announced the release of a cheaper version of its Kindle in July. Each of these companies is expected to unveil souped-up and cheaper e-readers in time for Christmas. All of which has media gurus heralding this as the year that publishing will finally go paperless—and trumpeting that change as the latest step in the greening up of American consumerism.

But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

By some estimates, small electronics already account for more global carbon emissions than the airline industry, and the wave of new handheld and portable devices—from smartphones to laptops to e-readers—stand poised to wreak untold havoc, much of it in developing nations.

...Taken together, these essays reveal the hidden price of the paperless revolution. Every MacBook and iPad, every Kindle and Droid contains the labor of hundreds of invisible workers, uncounted lives foreshortened by poisoned water and air, and a landscape permanently scarred by our voracious scavenging. No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood. This is not to say that our information age is inherently bad. The protests after last year’s elections in Iran were largely organized over Twitter and documented via YouTube. Across Africa, farmers are using smartphones to access daily market prices via the Internet, assuring fairer compensation for their crops. This summer our government used Facebook to enlist and organize volunteers for the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill. But in our rush to embrace the new—the smaller, the faster, the more powerful—we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production. We must not forget that even in this age of enlightenment, much of the world remains stooped in black tunnels, tracing veins deeper into darkness.

I know a couple gadget-junkies to whom I'm going to enjoy returning their smugness over my extensive book-buying habits. And at least we're not waging imperial occupations over the trees necessary to produce my books.

In My Room

I'd never heard of Fred Cornog before now, but if his music resonates with me half as much as his words, I'll be quite impressed.

Do you continue to work your day job at Home Depot because it gives you access to the kind of people who populate your records?

I am one of those people. I’m basically a working class pawn, a cog in the wheel, who happens to write songs. Maybe I’m more artistically inclined than your average Home Depot employee but, beyond that, I don’t see much of a difference.

Could you ever imagine making a living off of your music?

Of course. But the thing that bothers me is that making a living solely from music nearly always involves a list of compromises that I’m unwilling to make. And, ultimately, the commerce side of things kills the artistic side. When you get semi-successful, you will be asked to tour and promote your music in various ways. Eventually, you’ll end up spending more and more time promoting your music and doing this peripheral bullshit stuff, and less and less time creating music. And, ironically, making music is what made you semi-successful in the first place. An artist must always be aware of this. Don’t fall into the traps. Otherwise, slowly, slowly, the power gets pulled away from you.

You've hardly ever played live, and certainly not for well over a decade. Why is this?

When I was a kid, my father used to yell at me constantly to stop playing the piano. He’d scream, “Stop playin’ that damn piano! God damn it, you had all day to play that damn thing! Can’t you see I’m watchin’ the television! I want some peace and quiet, God damn it!” When you’re a kid and you hear this over and over and over, it changes you, and it changes your brain chemistry. Another kid might have started a rock band down at a friend’s house. But me, my father’s wrath drove me inside my mind. It made me want to curl up and hide. So I quietly wrote songs in my room and became a Tascam mini-studio musician. But the catch is, in working alone like this for years and years, and never collaborating with other musicians, my methodology has somewhat crippled me. I’m not complaining and it’s not sad or anything. That’s just the way it is.

Another reason is that I’ve never liked being the centre of attention. I have the absolute worst kind of personality for the rock world. When I go out, I like to quietly sit at the back of the bar. The last thing I want to do is stand at the centre of the stage in a fuckin’ spotlight with people staring at me waiting to be entertained.

Do you consider your refusal to 'play the game' to be in any way rock 'n' roll?

I don’t think that the rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll exists in roll ‘n’ roll anymore. [It] is inhabiting other artforms. The spirit is moving to where there are fewer rules. The spirit is moving to where there isn’t an expectation of money being made. It’s moving away from the marketplace. It always does.

The power of music, man. I know exactly what he means, to be the sort of person who is content to live an anonymous life, secretly, almost furtively being creative, even if it inexorably draws you into a set of circumstances you'd never choose otherwise. I was absolutely driven to write and record music. I wanted to be able to share it with people. And yet I knew that I would almost certainly hate everything that would result from that. For me, fate intervened in the form of an autoimmune disease and kept me from ever having to make a Herculean attempt to square that circle, but it could have ended badly if I had gotten what I thought I wanted. I have decided, though, that before I become penniless and homeless, I'm going to go ahead and finally get whatever recording equipment I need to be, as he said, a mini-studio musician in my bedroom. I don't care about anything else at this point besides the joy of doing it.

It's an inner rebellion, though. Like a lot of people, I don't believe that popular music has any real power to change the world anymore. That window closed by the end of the '60s, if it was ever truly open to begin with. The system can package and market anything you throw at it, and most bands are content to just keep recycling various beatnik/hippie/punk clichés anyway. I kind of imagine this ideal as something akin to the concept of Bildung among the Aufklärer, a passive, inward-directed refusal to accept prevailing norms. German mysticism is in my DNA, anyway.

Arthur once wrote something to me about the rebellious spirit of rock 'n' roll that affirms what Cornog said:

Schiller wrote about the fundamental contrast in cultural history between what he called the naïve and the sentimental -- the original, less sophisticated but more powerful kind of art (Homer, e.g.) and the belated, more sophisticated but less visceral and emotionally powerful (modern) art. Something like a transition from naïve to sentimental has happened in rock music, and probably would have happened even if Reaganism and cynical consumerist manipulation had not taken place. Artistic movements that begin spontaneously tend to become more self-conscious and backward-looking as they develop: revolution cools into evolution, and, as with modern jazz, a creeping classicism sets in where once all was anarchy and freshness. That rock and roll is becoming classical music is just one more melancholy truth coming home to aging baby boomers like me.

From El Niño to Viejo

Paul Hayward:

But there is good reason to worry. Torres has become a trudging player, flat-footed and slow to react, no longer the panther of his early Liverpool years. He has not scored in 12 games for club or country. A bright start faded into a muddle of miss-placed passes and doomed runs. A visible drop in confidence accompanied each error, which chimes with a theory popular in Spain. Torres spent so long wanting to get away from Liverpool that when the chance came a worm of self-doubt had burrowed into his brain.

I was impressed with Torres at the 2006 World Cup, enough so that I started following Liverpool once he joined them in 2007 (the presence of several other Spanish stars didn't hurt, either). Like any other Liverpool fan, after suffering through a solid year of increasing misery, only to finally start to feel the tingling of optimism once Kenny Dalglish returned to managing, followed by a dramatic improvement and an impressive string of results, Torres' abrupt transfer request was a highly unwelcome dissonant note. Couldn't he have at least waited until the end of the season to see how it pans out under a new manager and club owners? But once that shock wore off, I had to admit it was a shrewd business deal to unload him while there were still any suckers willing to pay an astronomical fee for him.

Seeing Liverpool go to London and beat Chelsea a week later was sweet enough, but the evil part of me is getting a continued kick out of seeing Torres continue to struggle. All the talking heads seemed to think Chelsea had gotten a great deal by buying an expensive striker they didn't need, and one who has been made of glass the last few seasons at that. His first touch is often heavy, his passing is woeful, he's too easily taken out of a game mentally by tough defense, and he's clearly never recovered from his spate of hamstring and knee injuries. Contrary to what several of them said, he was never even the best striker on Spain's national team, let alone in the world (and I hope Fernando Llorente starts getting a place ahead of him on international duty as well).

Liverpool, on the other hand, used the money they got from the sales of Torres and the benchwarming Ryan Babel to turn around and grab Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. Two top-notch strikers for the price of one who hasn't played consistently well in a couple years? And it's Chelsea who came out ahead in this? Seeing Suarez's jaw-dropping slaloming goal against Manchester United (not to mention his impossible-angle goal against Sunderland) should have laid any such notions to rest permanently. Torres hasn't made a drive on goal like that since who can remember when.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

This World Is a Comedy to Those That Think, a Tragedy to Those That Feel

Nancy Shute:

Teenagers are more likely to be depressed if they spend a lot of time listening to music, while teens who read a lot are less depressed, according to new research.

...By contrast, teenagers who read were far less likely to be diagnosed with depression. They were also far less common. Just 0.2 percent of the teenagers said, they were reading a book, magazine or newspaper. The teenagers who read the most were one-tenth as likely to be depressed as the ones who read the least.

Primack figures that may be because reading is far less passive than watching TV or listening to music. "You really have to engage a lot of your brain" when you read, he notes. "It may be that people who are depressed just can't gather enough energy to do that type or thing."

I've always read and listened to music to an extreme degree, and I've been melancholic my whole life, so I'm not sure how I would fit in with these findings. As for music listening, I would guess that people who are in touch with their emotions to such an extent are more likely to feel depressed, especially during those tumultuous adolescent years. But reading also leads to thinking, and hasn't melancholy been described as the thinking person's disease?

There's Just No Future Left for Us to Dream Of, Living in an Era of Instability

In case you've ever wondered, I've made my living up to this point within the newspaper industry. Along with the other members of my family, I've helped run an independent distributorship, with the New York Times as the centerpiece of a variety of publications we've handled (Now you know how I can be so phenomenally well-informed; I've had free access to all sorts of publications and newspapers). That will apparently all come to an end by June 1st, which has come as a slightly nasty surprise. It's just a dying industry doing everything it can in a futile effort to cut costs. The Walmarts of the industry are gobbling up the mom 'n' pops. There's still some details up in the air, but when I asked my Magic 8-Ball if it was indeed time to make a career change, it said, "All Signs Point To Yes."

The thought of a different line of work isn't that traumatic; after all, I've worked for years in conditions that would send our self-made, independent, don't-need-nothin'-from-nobody teabaggers sprinting back to their paid vacations, sick days, and employer-provided health plans faster than you could say "Fuck John Galt." It has frequently been brutal, but feeling content with having done my best, I can imagine being just as content to move on to a job that allows me a break once in a while. It's just that this has been my entire life. From the time I was six years old, struggling to stay awake past midnight on a Saturday night to go with my dad to deliver Sunday's Washington Post so I could keep a copy of the big color comics section for myself, to sweeping up the warehouse and emptying the trash as a teenager, to starting part-time work as a Sunday inserter on the cold morning of my fifteenth birthday, to running a small route before school my entire senior year, to going full-time immediately after graduation, running home delivery routes, driving bulk delivery, and even doing office work on the computer at home, my whole life has been spent in the newspaper industry. Finally reaching this point makes me feel very, very old all of a sudden. The finality of it really does hurt, even though we've known it was coming for a long time.

The most menacing aspect of all this change is the possibility of not being able to keep making mortgage payments. I'd hate to have to sell my house and find something cheaper, but I also don't want to start working longer than I want in jobs I hate; those kinds of compromises tend to snowball, in my experience. One of the guys working for us works seven part-time jobs, cobbling them together to make one full-time income. I don't want to spend all my time working just to have a place to sleep during the few hours when I'm not working that I never have time to appreciate because I'm too busy working just to pay for it. It's the same reason I always resisted my dad's efforts to get me to take over the business, or to run my own distributorship. I'd rather drive around in the middle of the night doing grunt work than spend twenty hours a day in the office, talking to people from New York, D.C., White Sulphur Springs and Charlotte all the time. I wouldn't want my dad's existence for anything. And seeing him the other day, weary look and hard lines on his face, sparse grey hair disheveled, stubble on his cheeks, talking in a soft, resigned voice about how he would have thought 28 years of service to the NYT with no problems would have meant something, makes me all the more determined to not spend my life chasing after that kind of security. I'd rather chew my own leg off than feel stuck in an indefinite trap like that.

I wish I could have had more time to feel more secure financially, but I'd rather amputate if necessary and find a way to live a simpler life that allows me to do the things that make life worth living to begin with -- reading, writing and music. I have no career ambition. I just want to do something I'm competent at, that I don't hate too much, that allows me the time and energy to pursue my hobbies.

You know what's funny? The most sinking feeling I got as I listened to this news was wondering if I would have time to keep writing the way I do. My schedule as it stands allows me plenty of time to be online during the day, and I don't even have to worry about a boss peeking over my shoulder or perusing my browsing habits. But the thought of having to work a "normal" job, having no time until late in the day to read and write online, is really quite scary. I don't know how things will shake out in the next couple months, but it seems clear enough to me that as long as I can afford Internet access and a few hours a day of spare time, I need to keep doing this, and I don't want to slip below my nearly-a-post-a-day average. It's part of the bedrock of my mental health, such as it is.

I suppose I could start entertaining the thought of a marriage of convenience...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

We're All Alone in Time, Someone Has Cut the Line

Tom Jacobs:

It may be the foundation of modern biology, but fewer than 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution. While frustrated scientists sometimes blame religion for this knowledge gap, newly published research suggests the key factor isn’t faith per se but rather a benefit it provides that Darwin does not: A sense that our all-too-short lives have meaning.

Okay, but why, then, do Europeans and Japanese manage to accept (not "believe"; accept, goddamnit) evolution and still find a reason to get up in the morning?

I'm also reminded of something Pascal Boyer wrote:

The common shoot-from-the-hip explanation—people fear death, and religion makes them believe that it is not the end—is certainly insufficient because the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear. Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long. Also, inasmuch as some religious thoughts do allay anxiety, our problem is to explain how they become plausible enough that they can play this role. To entertain a comforting fantasy seems simple enough, but to act on it requires that it be taken as more than a fantasy. The experience of comfort alone could not create the necessary level of plausibility.

It seems to me that the problem is in the fact that we've been made to believe that meaning resides "out there", independent of us, a basic preexisting characteristic of existence itself, and our job is to uncover it rather than create it ourselves. You know who I blame, so I won't say it again.

Slightly related, while looking in Boyer's book for that part, I saw this interesting one too:

Reassuring religion, insofar as it exists, is not found in places where life is significantly dangerous or unpleasant; quite the opposite. One of the few religious systems obviously designed to provide a comforting worldview is New Age mysticism. It says that people, all people, have enormous "power", that all sorts of intellectual and physical feats are within their reach. It claims that we are all connected to mysterious but basically benevolent forces in the universe. Good health can be secured by inner spiritual strength. Human nature is fundamentally good. Most of us lived very interesting lives before this one. Note that these reassuring, ego-boosting notions appeared and spread in one of the most secure and affluent societies in history. People who hold these beliefs are not faced with war, famine, infant mortality, incurable endemic diseases and arbitrary oppression to the same extent as Middle Age Europeans or present-day Third World peasants.


Germany general manager Oliver Bierhoff hopes Spain's players will be too tired after a grueling club season to defend their European Championship title next year, when he expects his squad to reach its peak.

"I can see the difference in our players from 2006 to 2010, the young players coming now are better technically educated, more used to the media, physically much better," Bierhoff said. "In 2006 we still had problems with a lack of speed and technical issues. With these young players you can see they have had a good education in the clubs' technical centers."

I like Germany's national team and was pleasantly surprised by their performance at the World Cup last year. They seemed to be in poor form in the months leading up to it, so I expected that they might sputter out early, but they managed to pull it all together when it counted. It was especially fun chortling at the looks on Diego Maradona's face as they destroyed Argentina. The semifinal against Spain was a nice game to watch and very clean -- I think I recall it being nearly a half-hour before there was a single contact foul, which is nice, of course, but you would expect a young team in a massive game to be a little more nervous and overzealous. It seemed like they were just too timid, too afraid of making a fatal mistake, and sat back waiting for Spain to come at them, which, of course, probably sealed their fate right there. But overall, they were impressive, and I said at the time I'd be highly surprised if they weren't serious contenders in 2012 and 2014 at the Euros and World Cup. I still love Spain, but it wouldn't be a travesty if Germany were to win either of those competitions. Joachim Loew has done a good job, and even admitted to modelling his team's style after Spain's with more passing and smaller, quicker midfielders like Mesut Özil and Marko Marin. Fun to watch.

And I always have loved watching Bundesliga games, even though it's funny how so many players and coaches play a game of Musical Teams, rarely leaving the league to ply their trade in England, Spain or Italy, just switching to one of their rivals. Good to see so many young players coming up through the club systems there.