Friday, July 29, 2011

I'm Too Busy Acting Like I'm Not Naïve, I've Seen It All, I Was Here First

John Barth:

If I could time-travel back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I would console Khakheperresenb with the familiar paraphrase of Walt Whitman: “Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.” Or André Gide’s comforting remark, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Originality, after all, includes not only saying something for the first time, but re-saying (in a worthy new way) the already said: rearranging an old tune in a different key, to a different rhythm, perhaps on a different instrument. Has that been said before? No matter: on with the story!

Postmodernism held sway during the last few decades of the twentieth century and is the end of the Romantic emphasis on medium rather than content, the notion that outside of words there is nothing. Postmodernism is characterized by a fin de (vingtième) siècle weariness: all has been said, all done; we are merely adding footnotes to footnotes. Pastiche, as in the works of Walter Benjamin, was held to be the most profound artistic expression; doing literature in the voices of others (espoused by the Russian theorist Bahktin and exemplified in the ingenious fables of postmodernism’s patron saint, Jorge Luis Borges) was all we had left. Some of the postmodernists, to be sure, give the sense they’d like to be direct and fresh again, but can’t forget what they know: so academics tried unsuccessfully to blow up the walls of their ivory tower through the Marxist “cultural studies” of the 80s and 90s, focusing on Barbie and Princess Di instead of Tolstoy and King Lear. Yet making Barbie academic just brought Barbie inside the ivory tower and displaced the things already there, classics of art and literature (written, it was pointed out as if this were the deal-breaker, by dead white males); the meat changed but the smothering sauce of academic jargon, the lingua franca of the educated classes, made it all taste the same as before.

I wonder how much of our modern angst over originality in art is related to our conceptions of individuality, as in the individual personality, the one-and-only author, being responsible for this particular thought. Without that perceived importance of specific credit being acknowledged, does it matter how derivative a song or story is? It will still be new to someone.

On a slightly related note, it occurs to me that those who eagerly anticipate life-extending medicines and technologies might want to consider how jaded and weary they'll feel if they aren't able to forget most of what they've seen and experience the world anew again.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Elude the Human Race, Discover What Still Feeds Me

Rob Horning:

Maybe those people living paycheck to paycheck who are running out of money at the end of the month are learning to see that it’s actually best that way. They are enjoying the really important things that deprivation can reacquaint them with—togetherness, family, nature, and so on. Likewise, underemployment is a chance to enjoy the riches of leisure, if you can block out the nagging insecurities of precarity from your mind.

...Has there been a general shift in values, though? Do people want less stuff and are thus willing to work less? Do we choose unemployment over drudgery and better appliances? Are we all eager to “take our share of the economic surplus in leisure,” as it’s sometimes technocratically expressed? (I wonder if this is a reason new households aren’t forming. Opting out of parenting, say, is a frugal lifestyle choice.) Reading values from macroeconomic data seems like slippery hermeneutics. (The mere fact of a drop in consumer spending doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in the desire to spend, unless you assume revealed preference is the only reality that matters.) Wilkinson makes the case that for creative-class types, being an economic free agent isn’t so terrible once you choose autonomy over material goods. Rather than make as much as you can, you can be a “threshold earner,” make what you need for your minimalist lifestyle, and then segue into “medium chill” mode, to use David Roberts’s coinage: “This is me,” Wilkinson admits. “I don’t want to maximise income. I want to maximise autonomy and time for unremunerative but satisfying creative work.”

Well. It's easy to romanticize poverty, but I've spent a lot of time worrying like crazy about not being overdrawn at key times of the month, and I've spent months on end having no less than a few thousand in the bank at any given time, and I know which one I prefer by far. The stress of never knowing if you have enough to get groceries this week or pay the rent on time is no small thing, and probably contributes to a lot of ruined relationships. Make and save your money if you can, by all means. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash. Staying out of debt is the most important thing, though. One less chain around your leg when it comes to your employment options. One less way for the bastards to hold you by the short hairs.

Life is What You Make It, and if You Make It Death, Well, Rest Your Soul Away

Samuel Smith:

To some extent The 27 Club represents an observational fallacy. There are only so many ages at which a person can die, after all, so of course a lot of famous people have died at any particular age you want to consider. The 28 Club, if there is such a thing, includes The Big Bopper, Jeff Buckley, Shannon Hoon, Heath Ledger, Brandon Lee, two Kennedys and Caligula. The 29 Club? Marc Bolan, Anne Bronte, Josh Hancock, Christopher Marlowe, DJ Screw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ronnie van Zant, Hank Williams and yet another Kennedy. It’s always tragic when talented people die young and our society – perhaps any society – feels an excess of pain when we see wasted potential. We can’t help imagining what might have been accomplished over the course of a full lifetime.

We spend a lot less time thinking about those who do great things by the age of 27 and then live out long, comparatively pedestrian lives, though. That kind of narrative doesn’t make especially good fodder for songwriters or filmmakers, as it turns out.

Talented. Potential. Accomplishment. Oh, how dreadfully bourgeois to drag such considerations into art! Again, what's this obsession with longevity? Seriously, what shall we call the crowded club of artists who put out two or three great records and then spent a long, slow decline into mediocrity and the sort of mortifying, self-unaware embarrassment that you watch with one hand clamped over your face, peeking out between two fingers? (Besides "The Metallica and Aerosmith Club.") There are fates worse than death, you know.

Not Long for This World

Intensity is what I need to suffer for the pleasure
Heat, hard, life and death living all together
Need a small room full of me and my friends
Trying to find the means to justify the ends

- I Mother Earth

David Berreby:

Until that moment comes, Clendinen says, he is having a good time, appreciating what he calls "the Good Short Life." He believe it is fine, sweet and decorous—fully and naturally human—not to make old bones. We could use more of this strain in our national conversation. In which we assume (if talking about future Federal deficits) that millions of people can and should live as close to forever as they can. In which we assume (if talking about our own lives) that we're obligated to hang on until the last machine-aided breath. In which we assume, if talking about technology, that the right question is how it can extend our lease on Earth for centuries—instead of asking what point and value all those lingering years might have.

It is sad to exit at age 27, or even at age 66. But it doesn't mean one didn't have a good life.

I'm fortunate enough to have someone in my life who makes me want to enjoy many, many years of shared experiences. It wasn't always that way, though. I used to often think that living until my late forties, early fifties would be all the life I'd need. Some of that was melancholic thinking, yes, but some of it was also a realistic sense that that age was a good balance between wisdom and zest, serenity and passion. It's the sort of thing I know better than to say in most company, but when I hear about someone who died before reaching senility, the nursing home, etc., my thought is never "Oh, how sad, they went too soon," but rather, "Did they like the story they told?" I mean it in the Nietzschean sense of creating your life like a work of art, making yourself into an interesting character. If you reflect on the life you've lived, does it feel compelling to you? Would you be interested to read about the character you've inhabited? It's about living well, not living long.

Peanuts for the Gallery

Yes, I'm still working my fingers to the bone like a common prole, but I haven't forgotten about you, my favorite people, no indeed. In fact, here's a couple tidbits to give you something to chew on for the moment, presented without comment of my own.

For Noel: a review of the latest Brian Eno recording. Discuss if you choose.

All of Norway’s equality and fairness has a side effect, which is a severely conformist culture. Calling something “original” or “special” is a devastating criticism in Norway. The demands for sameness are so high that even I, a native Norwegian, never felt I fit in completely simply because my mother is American. As something of an outsider, what I find intolerable in Norwegian society is that it’s common for people to seriously believe that Norway and Norwegian culture is under existential threat from foreign forces like Islam, refugees, immigrants, the European Union, large multinationals, and environmentalists—it’s normal to fear foreign things.

Likewise, discuss, if you choose, this paragraph in relation to the extreme metal scene that Norwegian society (or Scandinavian in general) has spawned.

Think of this as audience participation time. It's like an open thread, but with intelligence.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Indisposed, In Disguise as No One Knows

Ilana Kowarski:

“Names are loaded, full of pitfalls and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to writing...” Ciuraru explains. “A change of name, much like a change of scenery, provides a chance to begin again.”

With skilled research and palpable empathy, Ciuraru chronicles the lives of secretive storytellers - those who wished to communicate without being known. In our tell-all age, such shyness might seem strange, but there was a time when pseudonyms were common.

...But – as Nom de Plume reveals – pseudonyms can also facilitate honesty. Without fear of retribution, authors like George Eliot felt empowered to express their controversial views on religion and politics.

It's like the Buddhist saying about the finger pointing at the moon: My everyday personality isn't important, so I try to remove myself from the picture and let my words and ideas speak for themselves. Conversation will always gravitate toward gossip and irrelevancies, alas and alack, but goddamnit, I'm going to do my best to keep my little nook of the Internet focused on the life of the mind!

It's true, though -- I express myself more openly and honestly here than I do in everyday life. Why, you lucky few know more about me - the stuff I consider important, at any rate - than people I've known for years and seen on a regular basis. Don't you feel special now?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Last Men

Garth Risk Hallberg:

“The truth explains everything,” runs one of Grayling’s “Proverbs.” It’s an article of faith for these writers. But they must sense, even as they affirm it, that the real threat to the cult of human reason in the 21st Century is not the religious, but epistemological. We live today under the dispensation of what one contemporary wise man calls “truthiness.” In the great ecumenical marketplace of our culture, belief systems thrive not on compulsion, or verifiability, but on narrative interest.

I think he's right. Religion is certainly a major repository of unreason, but it's not the only one. More prevalent is the widespread cynicism that says no one can be trusted, that earnest truth-seeking is a quaint and outdated brand in the ecumenical marketplace, that you might as well just tell yourself whatever story flatters your vanity and seek out an echo chamber to reinforce it. It's not even that we can't agree on the answers of how to live, we can't even agree on how to frame the questions, or whether to even bother asking them at all.


Solvency, Well, It Hurts Like a Bitch

Shake the slab of flesh, taunting for a fetch,
Time to ring the chime
Whet the appetite, teeth are grinding tight,
Reinforcing life
Drooling down the sides,
Eyes are bulging wide
Yes, the price is right
The cut is very tough,
Gristle's good enough
They all need a bite
No tolling of the bell, just the one to hell
There they'll all know
Thimbleful to chance, pay the luxury tax
Do not pass go
Try and bring the beef, see what is to keep
Not a pretty sight
The cut is very tough, you bit the big bluff
Take another bite

- Prong

David Leonhardt:

The notion that the United States needs to begin moving away from its consumer economy — toward more of an investment and production economy, with rising exports, expanding factories and more good-paying service jobs — has become so commonplace that it’s practically a cliché. It’s also true. And the consumer bust shows why. The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Sure, house and car sales will eventually surpass their old highs, as the economy slowly recovers and the population continues expanding. But consumer spending will not soon return to the growth rates of the 1980s and ’90s. They depended on income people didn’t have.

The only major economic burden I have to bear is a mortgage, and even that has me working longer hours than I want at a job that often drives me insane. I don't mind making the sacrifice for the time being, but I would much rather look to simplify my life even more than struggle indefinitely like this. I have no idea how most people manage to sleep at night with the amount of debt they've incurred for all the shit they have that they don't need.

No Feeling Is Final


But what Aurelius was talking about was heartache, depression, grief, despair, and disappointment. He called himself a Stoic and Stoicism had long claimed and developed the idea that we could think our way out of the pains of living. There were lots of different ways they used to reframe life so it didn't hurt so much. The big idea was that you are part of the giant machine of humanity and the universe and you shouldn't be taking so seriously the specifics of what happens to little you. Stuff's gonna happen. Roll with it. Aurelius tries to cheer up his own blue self, and you, thusly:

For with what art thou discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily; and consider how many already, after mutual enmity, suspicion, hatred, and fighting, have been stretched dead, reduced to ashes; and be quiet at last.-

But perhaps thou art dissatisfied with that which is assigned to thee out of the universe.- Recall to thy recollection this alternative; either there is providence or atoms… and be quiet at last.-

… But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame will torment thee.- See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed, and be quiet at last.

Consider that the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.

This then remains…all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.

I've never really liked that about Stoicism. It feels slightly... disingenuous to me. Not that one shouldn't try to view frustrating circumstances from different perspectives, but trying to hop back and forth from the universal perspective, where nothing really matters because the heat death of the universe blah blah blah, and the individual perspective that we have to inhabit just to function as human beings in a social context seems like trying to have it both ways. You can't derive meaning and joy from the things you consider most valuable and then try to brush off their eventual loss with philosophical sleight-of-hand tricks. Some losses may indeed be too intense for a person to bear -- but so what? The fact that we don't ultimately matter should be an invitation to feel more deeply while we are here.

Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.

- Rilke

I'm Very Ape and Very Nice

Simon Pegg:

Masculinity reached a certain point in film where it became so ridiculous that it couldn't go any further. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the perfect male in the "Terminator" pictures, in that he was made of metal and he was super-built. What happened then is that masculinity sort of got chipped away until you had a character like John McClane in "Die Hard", who was slightly more vulnerable and, as such, imperfect. That was almost the beginning of dismantling the super-male into something more normal. Through that process, what used to be the Beta male became the Alpha male. You've got people like Seth Rogen, I guess myself, and Steve Carell and Paul Rudd—all slightly more normal guys that are taking the lead roles because it's okay now to be imperfect and nerdy.

Okay, dismantling boneheaded machismo is fine and all, but I'm still staking out the Omega Male territory for myself and putting up a barbed-wire fence and a crocodile-infested moat. Not every outcast is hungering for acceptance and respectability.

Martyr, Martyr, Burning Bright

There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, with many rungs; but three of these are the most important.

Once one sacrificed human beings to one's god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most…

Then, during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one's god one's own strongest instincts, one's "nature": this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, "the anti-natural" enthusiast.

Finally – what remained to be sacrificed? At long last, did not one have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn't one have to sacrifice God himself, and, from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing – this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up: all of us already know something of this.

- Nietzsche

Self-immolation in the Buddhist tradition is not the same thing as political self-immolation: the mindsets and motivations involved are different, and so is the societal impact. Yet even though the importance of religious-cultural background is undeniable in the case of the Vietnamese monks, political self-immolations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have become a major symbolic gesture in their own right. Still, regardless of their different specific aims (mystical enlightenment or political protest), all self-immolators share the same desire to transcend the human body as a strictly biological entity and to turn it, through fire, into a tool for other, higher purposes.

...Martyrdom (political martyrdom included) is as much the deed of the one who performs it as it is of those who witness it. The self-immolator’s death, no matter how spectacular, will remain utterly meaningless unless it is captured by a receptive gaze—that is, unless it occurs within a community eaten up by guilty thoughts and feelings. The guilt can be due to several factors: habitual toleration of injustices, collective cowardice and ethical numbness, passivity in front of political oppression, a general sense of defeat in front of a force (totalitarian government, foreign military occupation, and so on) perceived as invincible, if illegitimate. In other words, self-immolators are effective in societies that feel responsible in part for their servitude, where feelings of complicity, mutual resentment, and distrust have not only poisoned people’s private lives, but also undermined whatever social life is left.

We seem to be somewhere between the second and third rung -- we pay lip service to the idea of "future blisses and justices", and we're still big on renouncing the body as a biological entity for, uh, "higher" purposes, but we seem to be worshiping the entertaining spectacle rather than the nothing. Self-immolation would barely stay in the news cycle for a few days here.

Perpetual Motion Machines

Your key word is meaningless. Everything is natural. Everything in the universe is a part of nature. Polyester, pesticides, oil slicks, and whoopee cushions. Nature is not just trees and flowers. It's everything. Human beings are part of nature. And if a human being invents something, that's part of nature, too. Like the whoopee cushion.

- George Carlin

Wayne Ferrier:

But for most of us the idea of back to nature might be a myth. In our past we might have been closer to nature, but we probably were never truly happy living in it as a group. And for the planet this may be a good thing. Towns and cities, artificial as they are, might have saved the rest of the planet from our kind. If human beings didn’t concentrate in highly populated areas, they would be more uniformly spread out across the continents and human beings are harder on the environment than a herd of elephants is. So cities it is!

I doubt humans have ever been "truly happy", though I also have to wonder if previous generations grappled with the sort of existential meaning of happiness that we do, where comfortable, reasonably meaningful lives aren't enough, thus leading people to imagine that some sort of magical transformation will blissfully envelop them if they leave it all behind and go live in a cabin in the forest while growing and hunting their own food.

I can see where the shift in perspective can seem beneficial to harried, overworked people who just want days to go by at a slower pace, but that's only because you're contrasting it with your modern, frenzied lifestyle. Your kids, lacking that contrast, will grow up bored out of their skulls, and go off to the cities in search of adventures. T'was ever thus.

Deep ecologists pride themselves on finding a supposedly intrinsic worth to nature, independent of whatever practical use humans can derive from it. Granted, there are numerous solid reasons to not simply treat the rest of the world and all the other species as tools or raw clay for humans to mold to their liking. But the idea of intrinsic worth and value is an old Platonic/Christian inheritance. There's no moral redemption for the ideological children of Rousseau, any more than there is moral damnation for those who live modern lives in big cities. Humans invented the latter because they wanted to escape the drudgery of rural, rustic living. Now we think we cast ourselves out of the Garden and want to find our way back. But if it's Biblical metaphors you want, it might be more useful to think of us as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander, never feeling at home anywhere.

The Naked and Famous

Tom Jacobs:

Nevertheless, Rolling Stone is a reasonably good indicator of pop-culture attitudes. And while its decisions may be based solely on marketing — sex, after all, sells — the cumulative message its cover images convey is certainly troubling. This research finds men needn’t necessarily be sexy to see their smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone. But for women — whatever their artistic accomplishments — hotness is mandatory.

Someone actually did an official study of this? Isn't it painfully obvious? I remember complaining to someone, oh, about a decade ago that I actually found it annoying to see almost every interview with a female actress, musician or athlete accompanied by a cover photo of them in various states of undress, offering a come-hither look to the camera. What, like I couldn't possibly be interested in what a woman has to say unless I see her tits first?

He said I must be gay. Thus did I realize that the masses were not ready for my insights. But you people are the elect, capable of handling nuance, so I'll return to the point here.

I enjoy photography. Don't know nothin' about it on a technical level, but I love finding a captivating photo of someone, anyone, and using it as a stimulus to meditation (along with music and scent). Hotness really has nothing to do with it, though. And even being arrested by someone's appearance isn't the same thing for me as being attracted to them, desiring them, associating them with whatever pleasure I could imagine them bringing me. Some people are just interesting to look at, that's all. Nothing else necessarily follows from that, believe it or not.

But even leaving aside my quirky definition of true attractiveness, something else always bothered me about the neon-light garishness of images of nearly-naked women on magazine covers -- don't people feel, well, a little offended at such blatant attempts at manipulation? Fellows, doesn't it rankle your pride just a little to have some advertising schmuck blithely assume they can so easily yank your chain and get a predictable reaction out of you? Don't you ever wonder how much of your table-pounding, wolf-whistling reaction is just a Pavlovian response to years of inculcation? I mean, I genuinely don't get turned on by the mere image of a stereotypically pretty woman, but even if I did, part of me wouldn't want to give Madison Avenue the satisfaction of knowing that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

No More Tears

See you laugh
See you dance
We take that all away every day
See you cry
We turn your head
And then we slap your face
Bow down
Bow down, live your life
Head down
Head down, hide that smile

- Soundgarden

V. started training on the job the same day I did. A young guy, polite, with a gentle, intelligent expression on his face. Working with him, I learned he was a fellow vegetarian (which he was enthused to discover), a cyclist, and a liberal Christian, with "Patience, Compassion, Simplicity" tattooed on his arm. He bemoaned the macho mentality of the electrical company he had worked at previously, but enjoyed working with his hands, he said, so he was hoping this would work out.

I could tell over the past month that the stress was getting to him, especially on one job we did together. He had a brief temper tantrum after we were done. Working with him again a couple weeks later, though, he actually broke down and cried over something relatively minor. I talked him through that one, but a week or so after that, he walked into the office and broke down again when one of the guys asked him how he was doing. I heard my boss's wife say "Would you like me to have a talk with him, see if I can get him to grow some balls? Christ, I've got more balls than he does."

You can guess what the other guys began to say about him. One of them entered him into his phone contacts as "V. the Flamer", with a perky techno ringtone. Jokes about him being "an emotional one" soon followed, along with morbid humor about what the signal would be for one of the guys to take him out should he snap and come into work with a gun. He took up smoking just to try to calm his nerves, at the suggestion of one guy, and they made fun of him for the "fruity" way he held his cigarettes.

He had told me at one point that his goal was to try to get through the summer before quitting. Then I saw him two days ago at the office, where he had another crying spell in front of everybody. He told me then he only wanted to work long enough to get out of debt. But he gave his two week notice today, and the only reason he's even sticking around that long is to avoid getting financially penalized for not lasting ninety days.

There's the wisdom of experience for you -- the only thing separating me from him is that I know most people can't be trusted to be shown weakness. Never let the bastards know they're getting to you.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

His Smell Smelled Like No Other

Courtney Humphries:

Think of some of your most powerful memories, and there’s likely a smell attached: the aroma of suntan lotion at the beach, the sharpness of freshly mown grass, the floral trail of your mother’s perfume. “Scents are very much linked to memory,” says perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. “They are linked to remembering the past but also learning from experiences.”

But despite its primacy in our lives, our sense of smell is often overlooked when we record our history. We tend to connect with the past visually - we look at objects displayed in a museum, photographs in a documentary, the writing in a manuscript. Sometimes we might hear a vintage speech, or touch an ancient artifact and imagine what it was like to use it. But our knowledge of the past is almost completely deodorized.

...Smell is unique among the senses in the way it is processed by the brain - olfactory information travels directly to a brain region linked with the hippocampus and the amygdala, sites of memory and emotion. Scientists have suggested that the way smell is processed makes smell memories particularly strong and persistent. But outside of our memory, smells themselves are ephemeral: They are formed by volatile chemical compounds that can easily disperse and disintegrate. So smell is both a powerful part of our experiences and an evanescent one.

I had heard as a kid that the memory of a scent lasts longer than that of any of the other senses, despite being the least developed of them. (Alas, I recently learned that it's not true; yet another lie foisted upon my innocent, trusting young mind.) But I've always had a heightened appreciation for smells, especially in an artistic context -- I find that both visual and musical sensations are made much more intense and vividly particular when combined with powerful aromas. Looking at photography while listening to trance-inducing melodies and rhythms and inhaling certain fragrances is a pleasant enough altered state for me.

In a Cast-Iron Cage You Couldn't Help but Stare Like a Creature

It's been another long day in an endless string of them. (Wait, is today Sunday? I think so. Eh, doesn't matter. They all bleed together now.) My work vehicle is broken down again after supposedly being fixed. I got home to discover the leak under the sink was in effect after supposedly being fixed. But if recent history is any indication, tomorrow will find a way to be worse somehow. I have faith.

Now let's see if I can find anything to write about with my few remaining brain cells and preserve what's left of my sanity.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm Just Sitting Here Watching the Wheels Go Round and Round

What do you do?
Same as you do.
What do you do?
Well, I'm fine, thank you.
What do you do?
Man, I just mind my own business, so why don't you kiss my ass?

- Saigon Kick

Jessica Freeman-Slade:

“What do you do?”

Of course, the question isn’t “What do you like to do?” It isn’t even “Who are you?” that grandest and most open-ended of personal inquiries. It’s the suggestion that we are, as productive human beings, always in a place where we should be doing something, and that what we do with our time is an essential expression of who we are and who we hope to be. Of course, anyone that’s worked a temp job, a data entry job, a telemarketing job, a retail job, a janitorial job, might not say that the way they make money is really who they are. Or they might feel a deep affinity with the clerking, the shoveling, the building, the frying, and declare themselves proudly for it. Because the answer to the doing question is almost always answered with an “I am” statement. I am working. I am busy. I am needed, somewhere.

On the one hand, yes. A human without actions is a vegetable, so of course we're largely defined by what we do. Of course, when most people ask what we do, they only want to know which narrow skillset we use in the course of earning a paycheck. I work in a sufficiently manly field to impress those who are impressed by such things, and earn good enough money doing so to impress those blah blah, but I don't take pride in either. You know what I've learned in the past month or so? One of the most defining qualities of who I am, one of the things that makes me feel most centered, complete, grounded and fulfilled is having the leisure to daydream. I mean, uh, meditate. Being able to let my thoughts meander for hours at a time is a large part of what powers my writing, and it complements my reading as well. When I don't have that, I feel like less of a person. My career goal, such as it is, is to get good enough at what I do to be able to do it on autopilot while listening to music and letting my mind roam. Something tells me, though, I shouldn't add that to my résumé.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I Was Comin' Down the Mountain, Met a Child and She Had Pin Eyes

Brad Warner:

During the discussion, one of the supporters of drug abuse as a way to gain spiritual insight started in with the time worn cliché that drugs are like taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain rather than climbing it. You get the same breathtaking view as someone who has climbed the mountain. But you get there much quicker and more easily. “You can’t deny it’s exactly the same view,” one guy said. But, in fact, I would unequivocally deny that it’s the same view. It’s not. Not at all.

To a mountain climber, the goal of mountain climbing is not the moment of sitting on top enjoying the view. That’s just one small part of the experience. It may not even be the best part. To a mountain climber, every view, from every point on the mountain is significant and wonderful.

People who think that the pinnacle of the experience is that moment of being right on the tippy-top, don’t understand the experience at all. The poor attention addled things probably never will.

What I am working on in meditation involves every single moment of life. So-called “peak experiences” can be fun. But they no more define what life is about that so-called “mundane experiences.” When you start making such separations, you have already lost the most precious thing in life, the ability to fully immerse yourself in every experience.

I wholeheartedly agree that the whole point of "consciousness-raising" experiences should be to cultivate a sense of appreciation for the moments of life that we normally ignore in our rush to get somewhere more interesting where something more important is supposedly happening (the majority of our lives, in other words). I'd also add that, of all the people I've known who have used drugs, none of them have ever relayed any profound insights as a result, anything that couldn't have been arrived at via ordinary thought. Wow, smoking bales of pot and absorbing truckloads of psychedelics have convinced you that war sucks, we're all one and people need to love each other more? Thanks for traveling to the outer limits to bring us that important news, dude.

Monday, July 11, 2011

$piritual Bazaar

Genevieve Walker:

What does religion mean? It’s a question that Lofton’s work hinges on. The message of Oprah usually gets described as spiritual, and spirituality and religion are kept separate by most religious studies scholars. The word “religion” is roughly defined as a belief in a superhuman being. This belief includes practices and worship. There was a time, religious historians say, that religion was easy to pinpoint because people were defined by their beliefs, practices and traditions of worship. Now, with the sheer number of people and faiths intermingling, believers are consumers of religion. “As this consumerizing process evolved, the contents of religion have become less otherworldly and more tied to behaviors and thinking associated with the secular work of business, sports, entertainment, and healthcare,” Porterfield and John Corrigan write in Religion in American History (Blackwell Publishing 2010).

There are some who say religion no longer exists in the way we knew it before the turn of the 20th century. They say our actions and traditions are not tied to a belief in a higher power, and are not governed by religious law. This argument says we live in a secular era. Then there are those who say we live in a post-secular era, where religion is not gone, but has been re-integrated into our lives after our secular phase. But there is also the cultural preoccupation with self-help mantras and yoga that are examples of something undefined––spiritual maybe––or vaguely religious. Like living a life according to Oprah’s likes and dislikes. Lofton argues that religion is not gone, but that it changed in direct proportion to our consumer behaviors, and that ignoring these vaguely religious preoccupations would be a misevaluation of contemporary religion.

This reminded me of something else I read recently:

We no longer count on a community to provide the context in which we can be recognized; we can be anywhere and continue to act like ourselves. Whereas the horizons of local familiarity once limited what we could imagine for ourselves, modern life has situated us in broader “abstract systems” — standardized ways of doing things and ubiquitous cultural reference points, universally recognized procedures and authorities. Tradition — “how things are done here” — has been fatally disrupted. We can enter an elevator in any city or an Italian restaurant in any American town and understand what to expect and what to do. And thanks to the universality of money and the pervasive norms of capitalist market exchange, we trust we don’t need a personal relationship with a pub owner to get a pint.

One of my consistent criticisms of the SNR crowd is that their disposable, buffet-style beliefs often fail to be genuinely transformative, instead reinforcing a hyper-individualistic consumerist identity sorely in need of questioning. I don't suggest that things were better or more genuine when religion was the unquestioned background to that community context within which we used to define ourselves, of course. But I do have enough respect for that aforementioned transformative potential to feel that something important may have been lost when our middle-class educated suburban professional lifestyles became the uncritically accepted norm around which our beliefs have been arranged like so many shelf decorations. To get Nietzschean about it for a moment, it's hard to imagine placid Oprah-style affirmations ever profoundly inspiring someone to create great works of art, say.

Sunday, July 10, 2011



He also says it is "laughable" that Fabio Capello's side are still rated amongst the favourites to win major tournaments, and believes the Three Lions will not do so until it starts to mirror the selfless ethos of World and European champions Spain.

"It was a frustration for us United lads," he added of spending time in camp with other players.

"When there is a simple pass of 10 yards, they might try and smack it 80 yards. They will do things to try and get themselves noticed. If you look at the Spain team now, they all seem to play for each other. There isn't one of them who would try to do something in a game that doesn't suit the team. And that could happen over here. If you look through our teams, there are loads of technically brilliant players but for some reason when we go on to the international scene, we don't look like that. We're the favourites every time and we probably will be next time. I think it is quite laughable. It is just the mentality of English people, we think we are going to win everything."

The logic seems impeccable, I suppose: take the best individual players from the best club teams in the best domestic league in the world and put them all together, and something magic has to happen. Yet England consistently disappoint on the international stage. Football is a strange game like that.

I remember, funny enough, a British coach from my youth soccer days who used to holler at his players whenever they'd start sending too many long passes through the air: "NO BOOM-BALL!" When I'd go to state team tryouts, the best players and coaches all stressed the importance of making short passes on the ground to keep control of a game. Even American youth teams knew that much, is what I'm saying. But one of the most annoying things about watching English professional games is the number of times they turn into a series of long passes being sent sixty or seventy yards through the air, only to get knocked down and sent back the other way, repeated ad nauseum. The English sure do love the typical tall, strong striker who can win headers off of long passes, but it's a low-probability attack, and Scholes is right: with the success of not only the Spanish national team, but their domestic teams like Barcelona, stocked with small, quick, technically flawless players, you'd think the Brits might start catching on sometime.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

My Hate-Pop Won't Ever Stop, I'm Fucking Glad We're Different

Whatever kind of bizarre ideal one may follow, one should not demand that it be the ideal, for one therewith takes from it its privileged character. One should have it in order to distinguish oneself, not in order to level oneself. […] Whereas: true heroism consists, in not fighting under the banner of sacrifice, devotion, disinterestedness, but in not fighting at all – "This is what I am, this is what I want – you can go to hell!"

- Nietzsche

So let's rise up against the tyranny of the "like" button. Share what makes you different from everyone else, not what makes you exactly the same. Write about what's important to you, not what you think everyone else wants to hear. Form your own opinions of something you're reading, rather than looking at the feedback for cues about what to think. And, unless you truly believe that microblogging is your art form, don't waste your time in pursuit of a quick fix of self-esteem and start focusing on your true passions.

And please, despite what I said earlier, do not +1, tweet, StumbleUpon, like or comment on this article. You'll only be making it worse.

In the last couple months, I've gotten a both a Twitter and blog link from a much bigger blog, as well as a couple of my posts being linked on Facebook and StumbleUpon. I certainly appreciate that something I wrote inspired someone else to want to show it to others, but I have to admit that it was an unsettling feeling to look at site stats for the week and wonder if I got re-routed into someone else's account by mistake. I can accept that my small handful of regular readers are just warped individuals with terrible taste and a lot of time to kill at work, but if I ever got inexplicably popular, I'd start to worry that I might have to slip away quietly in the night to start a new blog under a different pen name. Never fear; you all are the inner circle. My posse. My peeps. My homies. I'd surreptitiously let you know where to find me should that ever become necessary. But please, try not to tell your friends about me. If you absolutely feel compelled to quote me, pretend you don't remember exactly where you read it. Keep me safe from prying eyes. I work best toiling away in anonymity.


David Gems:

The battle with aging is akin to that between Heracles, the hero of Greek mythology, and the multiheaded Hydra. Each time Heracles hacked off a head, two more would sprout in its place. Likewise, the old man successfully treated for prostate cancer may not long afterward stagger back into the physician’s office with macular degeneration and dementia. Such piecemeal approaches to treating age-related illness have undoubtedly improved late-life health to an extent and they have increased life expectancy. This, again, is something to celebrate. Yet in the long run a more powerful way to protect against age-related disease would be to intervene in the aging process itself. This would provide protection against the full spectrum of age-related illnesses. Returning to our classical illustration, to really defeat the diseases of late life we need to strike at the heart of the Hydra of senescence: the aging process itself. But is this actually where biogerontology is headed?

Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’ It’s no wonder they live their lives that way as adults, too.” He sees this in students who graduate from Swarthmore. “They can’t bear the thought that saying yes to one interest or opportunity means saying no to everything else, so they spend years hoping that the perfect answer will emerge. What they don’t understand is that they’re looking for the perfect answer when they should be looking for the good-enough answer.”

The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.”

We've all heard of various candidates for the most distinctive quality that separates us from other animals. But the idealistic belief that we can ever create a world free of pain, dissatisfaction and death (leaving aside whether we even truly understand what we're asking for) has to be a serious contender. I would say that the crucible for any experiential philosophy is how well it equips you to realistically and gracefully deal with the inevitability of suffering.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Jackoff Smirnoff

John Caruso:

I've never understood the appeal of Slavoj Žižek, whose main talent appears to be to take any topic, no matter how straightforward, and obfuscate it with meandering pseudo-intellectual bafflegab. He's like Yakov Smirnoff without the hilarious jokes or penetrating insights. I admit I haven't read much of his stuff (for the aforementioned reasons), and I'm willing to be proven wrong about this if someone happens to know of a particularly brief and brilliant article of his that I absolutely must read, but as it stands, oy vey.

Ahahahahaha. I've always had much the same reaction, but never got around to articulating it. Thanks to John for saving me the effort.

Inner Meet Me, Oh, You Can't Decide

Philip Goldberg:

No fact summarizes my argument more succinctly than this: The fastest growing category of American religion, particularly among young adults, is "spiritual but not religious." That the land of the free gave birth to such a designation makes perfect sense, and those who identify with it should not be dismissed as frivolous or noncommittal, as certain critics have contended. They are, for the most part, serious questers who are not inclined to take on faith either religious dogma or facile secularism. They are mystics and idealists who also happen to be rational, pragmatic and independent.

They are, for the most part, privileged enough to have been raised and educated within a, uh, "facile" secular society that provides them the opportunity to subject metaphysical beliefs from around the world to rational scrutiny in pursuit of a Western concept of objective truth independent of the cultural and familial ties that might otherwise bind them to an ideal of obedience. They are often confused dilettantes who use those exotic beliefs to adorn an all-too-ordinary egocentric consumer perspective that goes unquestioned. I'm just saying.

Tragic Collage

It's been a long, hard week, so I'm just sitting here contemplating some words of wisdom I've come across in the brief time I've been online.

Wilde said that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. It's a good observation, and in my opinion it's the best reason to do whatever it is we choose to do with our lives. You spend so much time on the job you hate, listening to the boss who treats you like shit, and wondering why you bother to get out of bed anymore. So if you want to spend your time writing the great American novel, building birdhouses, attending Star Trek conventions in animal-themed S&M gear, or touring the country in a van with a band no one has ever heard of to play before tiny audiences, so be it. There are always risks, ranging from simple embarrassment to bodily harm depending on the nature of your pursuits. Hell, having any pursuits at all is a risk. Why not get a second job or work harder at your first one instead of wasting your time telling jokes at the Comedy Pouch in Possum Ridge, AR or playing math rock at the 4th Street Vomit Bucket in the worst neighborhood in Newark? Well, not only are some things more important than being practical, but what could be more practical than doing whatever is necessary to make yourself feel like your life is worthwhile? It's OK to remind yourself that you're not quite as worthless as the world makes you feel, even if there are considerable risks and opportunity costs involved.

Life is glorious and vibrant and joyous at points, but it is essentially tragic. That's not a unique David Simon perspective. That's the perspective of anyone who contemplates anything as simple as mortality. You're gonna die, and everyone you love and care about is gonna die. Life is finite. Some of them are gonna die too soon, and some of them are gonna die with things unsaid and things unfinished. And if you look at life in a fair and accurate context, you see that it is often deeply tragic, regardless of how well or poorly you live portions of your life -- and certainly some people get luckier than others.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Like a Giant Dildo Crushing the Sun

Germany's Green Party is worried about the health risks of sex toys. Dildos and vibrators contain dangerously high levels of phthalates and other plasticizers, which can cause infertility and hormone imbalances, they claim. Now the party wants the government to take action to protect the 20 percent of Germans who use sex toys.

Because dildos and other sex toys are widely used in Germany, the Greens see the issue as a problem for society as a whole. While children's toys are subject to strict regulations that allow only the smallest percentage of plasticizers, a 2006 study by the Öko-Test consumer magazine found that sex toys contain high quantities of the chemicals. Plasticizers comprised up to 58 percent of materials used in such products, the magazine wrote. More than half of the vibrators examined by Öko-Test contained so many toxic substances that they failed the test entirely, it said.

Not that anyone asked me, but I'm a bit alarmed that only 20% of the population uses them. I keep hearing about these degenerate European welfare states, but I would at least expect to find that each household contains government-issued sex toys for each person living there; otherwise, what is socialism for?

Friday, July 01, 2011

I Only Wanna be Your One-Life Stand

Mark Oppenheimer:

Savage’s straight-talk approach has an intuitive appeal: our culture places a huge premium on honesty, or at least on confessional, therapeutic, Oprah-fied admissions. We are told to say what is on our minds, so why not extend that principle to sex? Why not tell your spouse everything you want, even if that includes wanting another person? My sense is that this kind of radical honesty may work best for couples who already have strong marriages. Where there is love and equality and no history of betrayal, one partner asking if she can have a fling may not be so risky. Her partner either says yes, and it happens, you hope, with only the best consequences; or the partner says no, in which case their relationship endures, maybe with a little disappointment on one side, a little suspicion on the other.

That is the ideal situation. What if the revelation that a partner is thinking about others creates a shift, one that plagues the marriage? Words have consequences, and most couples, knowing that jealousy is real and can beset any of us, opt for a tacit code of reticence. Not just about sex but about all sorts of things: there are couples who can express opinions about each other’s clothing choices or cooking or taste in movies, and there are couples who cannot. I don’t mind if my wife tells me another man is hot, but it took me a long time to accept her criticism of my writing. We all have many sensitive spots, but one of the most universal is the fear of not being everything to your partner — the fear, in other words, that she might find somebody worthier. It is the fear of being alone.

I'm skeptical of making an absolute out of any generally good principles, honesty included. People who proudly describe themselves as "brutally honest" only make me think that they've found a way to be supercilious about being a self-centered, inconsiderate blowhard. So I have no problem with the idea that each of my loved ones has some sort of sensitivity that requires certain things to go unsaid. Kindness sometimes trumps honesty. And not only that, but not every fleeting thought or impulse is worth voicing, let alone acting upon. It's great that we have the privilege to customize our comfortable lives to such exacting specifications, but you're not really being deprived if you can't have absolutely everything you think you want.