Friday, December 14, 2007
A Week! A Brendan! A Week In Brendan!
Hip Hop Down Under
We spent a long time on this one, so you should read it over and over and over again and drop as many comments on it as you can, just to let my editors know that it's not a waste of time to polish my prose so hard.
And now, back to the normal grind of journalistic maneuvers:
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Frankenfoods
Giving That Makes A Difference Without Bill Gates' Bank Account
A Look At The Year 2000 From 1900
The Last Place On Earth Is Filled With Germs
The Falsest Of The False
Social Networking For Language Lovers
UPDATE: two more....
The 15-Year-Olds Speak
Do You Want World Peace With That?
New Feature: Will It Nog?
Monday, December 10, 2007
A Second Fact About The City Of Minneapolis, City of Lakes & Twins & (Sometimes) Twinned Lakes
The streets of downtown Minneapolis are festooned by Skyways – elevated walkways that stretch from office building to office building. Minneapolitans can traverse the Skyways for miles, keeping themselves out of the weary winter snow or the blistering summer sun. But few Minneapolitans know the secret history of the popular Skyway system.
They were first dreamed up by Apollo S. Snark, an investment banker who lived his entire life in Minneapolis. On February 15th 1913 he founded the Skyway Society, hoping to construct covered walkways through every building in Minneapolis. He gathered together investors, but the project stalled when Snark was killed in the trenches of the First World War. It was his widow, Beatrice Snark, who took his bequest and devoted it to the construction of the Skyway.
The Skyways were all the rage in the Jazzy Twenties. Gangsters and cops rubbed shoulders at B. Snark’s fancy parties drinking the famed Skyway Sour. However, it was in the Great Depression that the Skyway became legendary.
Thousands of displaced laborers found refuge in the Skyways, slowly constructing a shanty-town that would erect itself every night, only to disassemble early in the morning, before the custodians opened up the doors. The shanty town had groceries, bars, playhouses – even schools. Many of the squatters were skilled white-collar workers, thrust into poverty by the Great Depression. Because of their proximity to the business center of Minneapolis, these men found it relatively easy to secure jobs downtown. By 1944, over twenty percent of all executives in Minneapolis businesses were residents of the Skyway, according to the Skyway Benevolent Society.
In 1951, while an open secret for long before that, the Skyway squatters were officially discovered, and over three thousand men women and children were evicted from their homes in the office buildings of Minneapolis. The leaders of the Skyway’s society gathered their substantial resources and bought plots of land in Minneapolis’ northern suburbs, founding what would become town of Edina.
Edina was meant as a temporary refuge. The nadirs of Skyway life founded a mutual fund, the Skyway Benevolent Society, and encouraged all Skyway denizens to donate ten percent of their income to the mutual cause. Since so many Skyway residents held powerful positions in Minneapolis industry, this mutual fund bloomed. It is one of the biggest mutual funds in the U.S. today.
The leaders had only a single goal: to buy the Skyway – their ancestral homeland – back from the city of Minneapolis.
“These men felt betrayed,” explains Harold Sampson, a Skyway ancestor. “Many of these guys had fought in the Second World War and felt entitled to some respect. The Skyway was their home. They didn’t think of themselves as squatters.”
The next generations failed to share their parents’ enthusiasm for the Skyway system. They found life on the outside to be just fine, and many rejected their cultural heritage. Harold Sampson is one of them. The trim thirty-two year old is a member of the Children of the Skyway, a social club for people whose parents or grandparents were Skyway refugees. But he does not want to return to the Skyway, even if the Skyway Benevolent Society bought them back. “I’m fine where I live. Why do I want to go sleeping under a bench just because my granddad did?”
In 2005, the Skyway refugees were thrown into a near civil war. The mutual fund had finally amassed the one trillion dollars that would buy the whole downtown from the City of Minneapolis. The Council of Elders put the proposed sale up to a vote. After a three-day long debate, the council was still split down the middle: the dissenters, many of whom had never lived in the Skyways, wanted to use the Society’s ample wealth for charitable causes, or to provide Skyway ancestors with a college fund. The other half wanted to buy back the Skyways. Finally, an accord was met: the group would buy only a small part of the Skyways, amounting to only forty percent of the system, and rent them out to the City during the day. Today, if you look under the windows of certain Skyways, you will find a brass plaque that reads “Property of the Skyway Benevolent Society”. These Skyways convert – at night – to housing for Skyway residents. Historical tours of the system are given three times a week in Summer.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Friday, December 7, 2007
There Were Seven Days, And In Those Seven Days Was Brendan Mackie
Saving Marriage, Not Just Tradition
An Old Gospel For A New Century
Writing From The Inside
What To Do When Going Green Seems Pointless
Giving That Makes A Difference, Without Bill Gates' Bank Account
Kids' Books Aren't Just For Kids Anymore
Money Can't Buy Love But Happiness Is A Bargain
Real Life Superheroes in Pink Saris
Are We Enlightened Yet?
Readers of my blog! Go forth and make comments!
Friday, November 30, 2007
A Week Happened, And Brendan Was In It
The Grimm Brothers, Remixed
The Future Of Science Will Be Decided By Robots
A Path To Enlightenment In Comic Panels And Speech Bubbles
Art Can't Save Darfur But It Might Help
Let's Play Nice
The Not-So-Green Side of Marijuana
Dark Matter: What The Heck Is It
Here we go guys - you know what to do: click the links, comment like crazy, defeat my detractors in round after round of blog-to-blog comment.
A Fact About The Twinned Cities: Minneapolis and Saint Paul
A group of fur-traders set up camp along the banks of a small lake in 1837, drawn by abundant water and game. The area was flat and fertile, perfect for settlement. When summer came, the group headed out east to gather people to found a new town – Minneapolis – the city of the lake.
The problem was that the settlers had kept themselves amused through the long winter by getting profoundly and consistently drunk, and on the way back, the head of the expedition, Silas Sharksman, realized that they had no idea where the town actually was. In a late night meeting with his lieutenants, Sharksman proposed three courses of action: sending out an expeditionary force to scout for the lost settlement, scrapping the entire wagon train and return to Philadelphia, or deception.
The group decided to bluff. They continued out west, spinning lies to their settlers, as the wagon train ambled its way through the densely wooded hills. “Just over that hill,” they’d say, “there’s a fork in the road.” “And then we’ll be there?” The settlers would ask. “We’ll be close,” the trappers said. After a four and a half month trip – they had only enough provisions for three months – the exhausted group saw a lake on the horizon, which glinted the setting sun. “That’s it!” Sharksman yelled. “That’s the place where we will found the City of the lake!”
The excited band feasted that night, and the next morning they realized – with horror – that the area was littered with lakes. The lieutenants mutinied, and revealed the hoax to the settlers. The acrimonious group split in two: Sharksman’s group settled what is now Minneapolis, and a lieutenant named Paul Hawkes founded Saint Paul.
For the first decade of their settlement, the two cities waged a perpetual low-scale war. But as the nineteenth century grew bloodier, the repeated raids softened to a series of pranks, The cities’ unique founding is remembered to this day by the annual April Fools’ tradition of “Joking” in which the mayors of Saint Paul and Minneapolis prank each other.
One noteworthy “Joking” prank was played by Saint Paul mayor Monty Montson in 1924. He had successfully masqueraded as Minneapolis Mayor Garry Pegsson’s wife for an entire year before revealing his transvestism to an amused Twin Cities. Sally Pegsson – Garry’s wife – had spent the year on a relaxing Carrabeian vacation – provided by Montson, who, from then on was known by the Pegsons (and the local media) as "Mommy Mayor".
Monday, November 26, 2007
Why You Can't Ever Really Know Anybody - And Why That's Not So Bad, After All
We should be honest with one another, right? Because when we keep secrets from those closest to us, we create a rift: our intimates are being denied data they might otherwise use to understand us. So even when it’s awkward, or untimely, or it just plain hurts, we should be share the truth with our loved ones so that they can better understand who we really are.
Well. I don’t think so. I think that sometimes, some dishonesty can be really healthy in a relationship. Now, I don’t think that we should – in general – manipulate other people, if only for the simple reason that the pay-offs of manipulation (sex, attention, whatever) are outweighed by the distress of being a manipulator. But then again, sometimes hiding a part of yourself can be less about dishonesty and more about consciously crafting your public self.
To look at this, I’d point you in the direction of Jonathan Swift’s A Lady’s Dressing Room. In the poem a bumbling lover Stephon steals into the bathroom belonging to the girl he has a crush on, Celia. In there he finds a survey of disgusting things: her stained underwear, her dirty towels, and – worst of all – her chamber-pot. Stephon vows never to find another girl pretty ever again.
This poem is a staple of English classes. I was exposed to it countless times – burdened with ploughing through countless bumbling feminist analyses that marked Swift as a woman-hating demon. One prominent reading of the poem reckons Swift a misogynist (English professors, I suspect, use the poem to teach young undergrads the word misogynist). By focusing so much on Celia’s ugliness, Swift is saying that all women are ugly, he’s being a voyeur, he’s being bad, something.
But that’s a woeful misreading of the poem, I realize. In the last stanza, Swift writes that Stephon is actually an idiot. Now whenever he sees a woman, he thinks that they’re just ugly beasts instead of appreciating them as beautiful – even if they are ugly underneath their makeup, they are beautiful . Swift admonishes us instead to look at the conscious artifice of beauty, and appreciate it for the crafted thing it is:
Should I the Queen of Love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking Ooze?
To him that looks behind the Scene,
Satira's but some pocky Quean.
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht Sight to see
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung.
But what does this poem tell us about honesty? Well, Stephon does something that we modern 21st-century sensitive American types do: he tries to play archeologist to a person to discover their ‘true selves’. In loving someone, he wants to investigate. When he finds that what he loves is just an image, he reacts too strongly, and believes the lovely image to simply hide ugliness. When our friends keep secrets from us – especially those juicy secrets about betrayal, sex, pain, crime – we think that they are hiding important parts of their personalities, in the absence of which, we cannot understand their “true self”.
And thus we get a lot of clap-trap about coming clean, about talking things through.
Well, I don’t think that you need to talk everything in a relationship through. And I don’t think I need to know everything about a friend to stay friends with them. Instead, I think that the desire for knowledge about our friends’ secrets spring from no nobler source than a thirst for gossip and a hope for control. We have public, crafted selves. We reveal only parts of our personalities to the outside world. And rather than that being dishonest or slimy or wrong, I think it’s part of the essential part of being a person. But when we get close to someone, we may want to see their hidden side, thinking it somehow more special for being rarer.
Look, Celia’s private ugliness is accidental: she doesn’t mean for her dressing-room to be looked at. And yet her public beauty is conscious. And so Stephon makes a mistake by confusing Celia’s uncrafted accidental self with her crafted, public, intentioned self. Isn’t the consciously-crafted self more of a person than their accidental ugliness? If I am consciously kind, and yet, in a moment of drunken torpor, yell at a friend, you would forgive me, because I am in general a nice person – even if my natural reaction is nasty, and I display only a conscious, crafted niceness. We would not think that just because I put effort in to live well, that I am somehow nastily hiding a truer, albeit more vicious inner self.
This is why – by the way – it’s so embarrassing when people see you when you don’t expect them. When a co-worked walks by you when you are making fun of them, when your grandma accidentally stumbles across that video of you drunk that’s circulating around YouTube, when you send drunk e-mails.
One of the big problems with Stephon’s approach to Celia is that he sees the hidden Celia as her true self. He sees two descriptions of Celia: ugly Celia and pretty Celia. The ugly Celia is what’s ‘really real’. And similarly, when we demand honesty from our friends, we are imagining that getting all that juicy gossip will help us get to know our friends’ ‘true self’. But part of both Buddhist and (some) pragmatic epistemology is that descriptions of a thing are revisable and particular.
Let me unpack that. Buddhists think that all descriptions are impermanent and subjective. A person who we think is nice can be thought of as evil. A heavy rain might be a hassle for pedestrians, but great for farmers. Once we understand that the true nature of reality lacks human description, we are able to be more conscious with our description. Yeah, while we think that when a girl dumps us it sucks, we can also realize that it might not be the worst thing for everyone – the description is relative. Anyway – everything human, all description, is impermanent.
The pragmatic side of this is that all descriptions are revisable and particular. Whenever we describe something, we’re doing it from a particular angle, for a particular purpose, and we always leave open the option for changing our description. I describe a girl I see as beautiful, say – but then I see her face and, on closer inspection, she is actually a hag. Or: I think a girl is very charming and wonderful, then figure out that she is a girl that broke my friends’ heart, and suddenly her charm looks like artifice.
This doesn’t seem like too profound a thought on first blush. But, I think that it means something very important. For one, that we have no true self. There is no golden, unimpeachable, solid self: there is only a couple different selves under different descriptions. Look at the difference between Brendan as a cashier, Brendan as a journalist, Brendan as a roommate, and you can see how you can find at least three drastically different selves at play in a single person on a single day. This means, I think, that the process of trying to unearth our loved one’s true selves is wrong-headed. There is no true self to uncover. There are only various different manifestations of that self. And, if you want to have a self where you sit around and air your dirty laundry, then fine, but you should think over that: does it really help your loved ones understand you more? Is it useful? Or is it just another exercise, another act, one that’s just sloppier, and ugly?
This Was The Week That Was - In Brendan
The Blabber Beat.
Hot Investment Opportunities For Literary Geeks.
The Super-est of Superheroes.
Every click counts! Plus, if you guys post a comment, it might make the blog gods increase my blog-efficiency. Who knows? It might work.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Squid A Month Club
I'm serious. Get y'all's money together.
Jesus is a squid, of course.
Buy me this.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I think it's because drunk people aren't actually funny they just think that they're funny when they're drunk.
Post a comment with actually funny videos of inhibition addled people just to prove me wrong.
Friday, November 16, 2007
This Week In Brendan
The Disappointment of a Liberal (Feature)
Save A Koala, Pray For Rain.
Bombed Buddhas, Redux.
Hummer, Meet The Prius Of Death.
Leave a comment -> you're a legend!
Monday, November 12, 2007
What's The Meaning? What's The Point?
The big question: What’s the meaning of life? Put it another way: Why are we here on earth, towards what purpose? If we dare answer our answer will embarrass and disappoint. We are here to reproduce, we might say. We are here to recognize Jesus Christ as our personal savior. We are here to experience eating a flourless chocolate cake.
But wait, even by trying to answer the question – what’s the meaning of life? – we’re jumping the gun a little bit. It may be helpful to look at what we actually mean when we look for a meaning to life. What is it that we’re looking for?
We can find meaning in our everyday actions easily enough. For example, I work so that I can get paid. My work has a reason – money. A more complicated example: The painting is beautiful because the colors are chosen well. (Why this reason is more complicated than the previous, I will leave to the reader – this essay is too packed already). Either way, we can posit meaning for things by seeing them instrumentally, as means to an end. But then we get into a problem so simple it’s boring: if we se everything as defined by something else then we are caught in a circular argument. While it seems sensible to say that I work to make money; why do I make money? Why – to buy stuff. Well, why do I buy stuff? These questions can go on forever. Unless we consider intrinsic good. That is, good that’s good just in itself. There seems to be a point where either you must find a transcendent meaning or else recognize meaning as a tissue-thin bankrupt concept reserved for the illiterate masses.
This is not academic. We want a deeper meaning that transcends our everyday meanings. We work, eat and strive – and we want to understand this working eating and striving as being important. And we need a meaning. More often than not, we will not be satisfied by worldly reasons: we need to find intrinsic or transcendent meaning. I see religion as a smorgasbord of transcendent meaning.
But just look at the variety of transcendent meanings that are proffered to us, and you realize that there is something deeply unsatisfying about any of them. No single explanation for the meaningfulness of life seems, by the lights of the evidence at hand, to be any better suited to a life than any other. We choose one, it seems, randomly. And so the question “What meaning has our lives” becomes a question that makes us laugh at ourselves, say something ironic, and keep on living our lives. We recognize that we’re not going to be able to answer the question satisfactorily, so we tend not to hold up our answers for criticism or thought unless some crisis forces us to.
Yet it is not like we have given up hope for a transcendent meaning. We’ve just stopped expressing our hope. And so we stop being open and critical about what meaning we give our lives.
I believe that there can never be a transcendent meaning to life. That the sensations, events, and stories that build our lives are without meaning beyond the human world. The world is chaotic, there is nothing even close to a providential supernatural order to the universe. Everything beyond human understanding is blind colorless accident, neither good nor evil, nameless and cosmic and ineffable.
Which is not to say that I don’t think life has meaning. I think it does. But it’s just a human meaning, not a transcendent meaning. We force the chaotic explosion of our senses to make sense through acts of story-telling and memory. And it is through these actions that we make our own meaning. There is no other meaning. And that’s okay. But to recognize that is to recognize a fundamental humbleness about the things we think as important.
To make that last point make sense, I’m going to have to flesh out what I mean by telling stories. Which I will do right now, if you manage to hold tight.
How do we go about making a story out of the events of our lives? Let’s look first at how we remember a particular experience. Out of a mass of sensual data – out of the storm of sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts that assault us every second – we pick out only a selection to form a memory.
I will pick out these sensations with some story in mind. If I have dinner with a friend, and am angry with him, I will remember sensations that back up my feeling of anger. I will give particular credence, say, to his annoying laugh, or to my discomfort. If I am very happy with him, I will chose a different cast of sensations. The point being, what is remembered and what is relegated to forgetfulness depends on what story I want to tell. Memory, far from being some objective recording device, is more of a collaged art-work, a coherent story patched together from a selection of available material.
So, in my reckoning, the very texture of all lived experience is already marked by the will towards narrative. There is no meaningful sensation that we have that comes to our consciousness free from its dependency on story. More importantly, once sensations are understood as more than mere sensations – when we begin to consider them, not as flashes of light or whiffs of air, but as meaningful occurrences like a movie, or the scent of coffee in the morning – we must consider them within the context of the story they are attempting to tell.
So we are creatures driven by the desire to make a narrative of the world, to string together the random occurrences of life in some sensible, artistic string.
But the problem is that often we mess up in our attempts at making a narrative of our experiences. For instance, we can craft a narrative out of a situation that isn’t really appropriate – by selectively choosing particular sensations instead of others, or by self-delusion. Don’t think that this is some silly academic problem, here: think of a boy who has a crush on a girl, and will imagine every little thing the girl does as evidence that she, too, has feelings for him. These narrative delusions are perhaps easy to spot when they are so drastic, but they happen to in innumerable, small and subtle ways: when we are pissed off at the world and take a cashier’s tiredness as haughtiness, when we consider the weather as a mirror of our souls, when we are having a good day and imagine the birds are singing for us.
But even if we succeed in making up narratives that are sensible to ourselves and others, which fit in with the rest of our communities’ reckonings as what makes an acceptable narrative – that is, if we manage to imagine our lives in a more-or-less sensible manner – we have only done half the work in front of us. What’s even more important, and vastly tougher (and a subject for another essay) is how we can make good stories, not just serviceable stories.
But back to the question at hand. Why do we mess up so much? Well, because we are naturally in a bind, as far as existence goes. We like to posit order to things, and reasons. Why? Well, because when we look at the things in our lives and assume that we can rationally understand what they’re doing, we can better interact with them. It’s a super useful tool to have. But the problem is that while we can find small-scale and medium scale reasons (that rock fell because somebody pushed it; she dumped me because I didn’t brush my teeth) we eventually get into a reasoning dead end when we butt our heads against more profound levels of understanding: what’s the reason for It All!? And the sad truth of it is, that the world itself is without reason. Reason only exists within human beings. Something without human interpretation – without a human looking at it and understanding it – that has nothing of reason to it.
But we want things, everything, to have a reason. When we have a bird shit on our heads or are not accepted for a job, it’s hard to accept that as a random meaningless event mostly outside of our control. We want to ascribe meaning to it. The trouble being, that the majority of the things that happen to us are either meaningless or their meaning is obscured to us. We walk into a restaurant and are served by a rude waitress. We would like to understand her rudeness. Maybe she doesn’t like us, maybe she’s a bitch. But the meaning of her mood is most likely forever obscured to us, and therefore resists subsumation into a narrative. This works for large-scale events far better than it does for quotidian ones: it is one of those constant questions of human life why people who are good and kind and constant are not rewarded by the world, while rapacious, mean, and nasty people end up sitting on piles of gold coins, laughing maniacally. Well, it is only a question if you believe that the universe has a meaning above-and-beyond that which human understanding ascribes it: that is, it only becomes a problem if you believe that there should be some reward for goodness, some meaningful pay-off for somebody’s actions.
It may not be terribly comforting to think of your life as having no meaning. I believe that understanding that the only meaning a life has comes from inside it provides a person for an opportunity to consciously craft their own lives, and arrange their sensations, doings, beliefs, and things in an artistic manner.
But that question – we’ll hold off on it for a while. What I want to talk about right now is how this need to make everything into a narrative can actually make people’s lives largely incoherent – or at least inflexible.
Look at how the narrative drive of much of born-again Christianity works. Every random event has meaning by virtue of that event leading to a precipitating revelation in the believer’s life. Lo, and they are saved from the life of sin etc. And their life afterwards is portioned out into careful measured regions of sacred and profane, and while some things may be most definitely good and other’s evil, the real comfort of such overwhelming belief is not of holiness, but of meaning. The evil is not merely insensible, or accidental. It is evil. The good is not just expedient or pleasurable. It is holy. It is immensely comforting, because it explains every single moment of a person’s life, it fills each moment with meaning.
But the problem from this perspective will be apparent to anyone who has fallen on the foul side of the equation: there is a certain rigidity in this zealous meaning that renders the true believer somewhat stubborn, epistemically. But it is this epistemic rigidity that is the comfort of extreme belief.
This applies, not only to born again Christians, but to fundamentalists of many stripes: Marxists as well as Jihadists: Punk kids and heroin addicts as well as gurus and hippies.
The real lesson to be drawn is not that these fundamentalists are evil or annoying or wrong – but that their methods of making memory is not as useful as other methods. In being so strict, they loose out on a flexibility that can give a more flexible thinker comfort and joy. Soon I will write an essay that details another kind of belief and memory fixation: an artistic, or liberated, memory.
So, to sum up my point: We search for transcendent meaning for our life. But there is no such thing as any particular transcendent meaning. Instead, we construct our lives as great stories. But we have choice as far as these stories go. So there are better and worse ways to organize a life. That’s all.
Comments welcome, of course. You know – if you made it this far, you deserve to lay a comment down, just to humor us all.
Friday, November 9, 2007
Another Week, Another Week In Brendan
What's Bigger Than The GDP Of Pakistan and Stars Al Pacino?
Robot Secrets For Winning Friends And Influencing People
Webcams, Pay-Offs and Porn, Oh My!
Can The Internet Save China?
Diagnosing American Healthcare
As always: click, read, comment. It makes me popular with the lay-dees.
Friday, November 2, 2007
This Week In Brendan
Doing King-Cat (Feature)
An Arithmetic Lesson
Riverbend Continues To Illuminate Impact Of War
Wearable Mosques For Muslim Faithful
Don't Believe The Lie (Even If Your Brain Wants To)
Click on these links. Read the stories. Make witty comments on the stories. These things impress my editors. And then I will get chocolate.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
On The Small Genius Of Everyday Things
When we make our first attempts at a task, our efforts inevitably botch. The new graduate enters the office on the first day, a teenager scribbles her first, shaky lines of poetry, a barista tries to steam milk for the first time: we will fail before we succeed. Yet through practice, hard work, grace, talent and intelligence we can slowly improve ourselves. A child's crayon scrawl will become handwriting - more study renders handwriting calligraphy. Through effort what was messy becomes art.
There is no distinction in kind between the work of art and the work of labor, only a difference in quality. Somehow everyday activities when refined, buffed, and perfected, when their elements are arranged by a careful perception, become more than their merely useful inartistic counterparts. Their meaning spills over from the merely practical, and into the sublime. A man may tell you his opinions about some political problem; but listen to a great orator and that opinion is joined with an aesthetic pleasure that unites a practical goal with an aesthetic joy.
And then, as art is itself a polished version of everyday activity, art itself can be improved upon and become genius. Now, if art provides aesthetic pleasure in addition to a practical goal, genius is a special embodiment in which form and pleasure feed off of each other.
Of course, not everyone can be a genius. Most people who think that they're geniuses - who have the gall and the self-possession to admit out-loud to friends associates and benefactors that their mind and energy are great-souled enough to mark them as one of the blessed - are just assholes. And yet we all and orient our lives by genius' stars, and head off into the deep knowing that we probably will never reach a shore, but that our journey will be useful yet, just for trying.
But I want to tell you that genius is within our reach. The problem is that we fail to recognize the potential for genius in the simpler parts of our life. Can't we be geniuses of friendship? Why don't we recognize the genius in an easy life? There may be a genius in listening, in eating, even in breathing?
John Dewey argues in Art As Experience that there is no real distinction between high and low art and the lived experience of our daily activities. In fact, the aesthetic experience is only beautiful because it follows the form of our lived experience: we arrange our lives' meaning from the scattered material of our daily experiences, and art does the same, but arranges its collage of colors and people in a way that is especially pleasing. Indeed, we can and should turn an artistic eye to our own life, to our own crafting of our days. But art, we think, is something that is impractical, removed from the commerce of life, done for its own sake and hidden away in museum galleries and the avant-garde, abstracted away from real life, hung on rich people's walls, inaccessible to the common mob who lack the developed minds and eyes that can appreciate the rarefied heights of culture. No, Dewey says, art is everywhere. Rather than being separate from everyday experience, art is just a really well done type of everyday experience. And once we realize that we can start to take the lessons that artists and art provide us with and apply them to our own lives: looking at our actions with the same lingering sensitivity we would look at a Picasso or read a Dostoyevsky.
Before the American Revolution, pretty much everybody thought of work as a curse, something that people would only do if they were coerced into doing it. The gentleman who thought of themselves as the representatives of society were lucky to be free of work, in part so their great sensitive minds could better appreciate the real refined beauties of art, politics, sport and science. But after the Revolution, people began to find a joy in work. Gordon Wood, in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, quotes John Adams as saying:
"We define Genius to be the innate Capacity, and then vouchsafe this flattering Title only to those few, who have been directed, by their birth, education and lucky accidents to distinguish themselves in arts and sciences or in the execution of the what the World calls great Affairs." But if we apply the title of genius to all those above the median, then, said Adams, we will find that "the world swarms with them." "Planting corn, freighting Oysters, and killing Deer" - these were among the "worthy employments in which most great Geniuses are engaged."
As the Founding Fathers looked out into a freer, more egalitarian society, they realized that the Liberty they fought for - of finding a vocation, of crafting a life - need not mean a freedom for work. That work itself, that rude hunting and fishing could be genius.
Look at the cashier scanning your food in the supermarket, the call center staffer working long hours in an Indian business park, a college stoner cutting class to doodle in his art book - we would denigrate these tasks, we would hold them below our aesthetic appreciation, and call them common and flat. They probably are. There is probably little joy to squeeze from those moments. But in doing so, we deny the human potential for infinite improvement. Why can't there be geniuses scanning groceries?
Buddhism points to a more dramatic expression of this point. In paying so attention to the act of breathing, Buddhist meditative practice encourages its adherents to improve upon the most basic and constant act of their lives. If you could develop a genius for the breath - a breath that was enjoyable, loving, aesthetic - then what act of genius could compare? The breath is always with you, it never leaves, if it can be improved upon, then everything else in a life would also be improved upon.
And we can improve upon everything in our lives. I think that with enough effort, we can turn our everyday experience into something finely crafted, something that speaks to us in the same way that great works of art speak to us. If this beauty doesn't seem too convincing, then I think the converse is scary enough to be convincing, too: imagine a life lived blindly, ugly, in which every action was done merely for some end, so that the actual lived moments of each day were as useful and as beautiful as a rusted metal cog in a large continuously profitable machine. Recognizing the potential for genius in our everyday actions, then, can make our lives not something of commerce, but something of art.
Wittgenstein Facts, The Eighth Edition
Once I, Ludwig Wittgenstein, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Wittgenstein. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Wittgenstein. I do not know whether it was Wittgenstein dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Wittgenstein. Between Wittgenstein and the butterfly there must be some distinction. But one may be the other. This is called the transformation of things.
Friday, October 26, 2007
This Week In Brendan
Rudy Giuliani, The Loneliest Candidate
How The Onion Can Save The News
Britain's Climate Change U-Turn
If you like this blog, and like what you read over at Utne, leaving a simple comment on my Utne posts can tell my editors that I'm as fantastic as you think I am.
Squids, and Facts About Them, Part Four
In an old aquarium a couple of miles outside of San Diego lives a group of the most remarkable squid ever. Known by scientists as the Comstock squid, better known as the prognosticator fish, these squid were subject to much attention before retreating from the public eye in 1985.
The prognosticator fish are the only living representatives of their species ever seen. A group of over fifty brightly colored squid, about the size of a wine cork, were bought from a grizzled miner on the Comstock lode in 1863 by a San Francisco investor, Mr. Antonius Shnarch. Shnarch put the squid in a small glass aquarium and included them in his Medicinal Mystery Show, based in San Francisco. People were amused by the strange looking fish, but nobody then could predict how much they would amaze the public for over a century.
A diary recently discovered in an attic in Sugar Bush Knolls, Ohio might shed light on the prognosticator fish's origins. The diary is from a man, Sharky "Pinchum" Jones, who had left his native Ohio in 1860 wanting to strike it rich on the Nevada Gold Rush. He returned in 1864, penniless, and would die of a liver infection April 1st, 1865 in his family home. The diary - in barely legible handwriting - describes a strange meeting Jones had with a Chinese merchant.
Old Smoker mine - played out. The Grande Dame - played out. Damn this luck of myne! To hell, I say! But the Silver Banshee - she has been displaying the sines, yes she has. I may be a rich man yet, therfore, [bought] a hundred feet.
I met yesterday with a consarnned Clestial! Snuck up on me aslepin, he did. Well and he said he knew I'd be in some money soon, saw it in his dirt-worshipin heathan fuckery. I said I don't give a screw and a half go and smoke some opium with the other Celestials, why didn't he, rot in his boots. But that night I done found a nugget a color in the Banshee mine and he was at the entrance, waiting for me like a love-sick mongrel puppy, and he said that I should give him that nugget, or else no other nuggest would come, and should I did what he said, I should be in riches for my natural life. Well I gav him a good thrashing from here to Washoe county, not sparing any blows to his Celestial Ribs and his eyes neither, so that by the time I was finished with him by god he'd never be recognized by his heathan Chinee gods no more, he had to go pray to the Negro gods he was so black and blue. Anyways, next morning I discover outside my tent this here aquarium, with a bunch a funny looking fish. Now ain't that something?
A sudden attack of St. Vittus' dance left Jones unable to work his claim, and his stock in the mine - which later proved a bonanza - was bought by his partners for a mere ten dollars. He had to sell the squid to pay for his passage back home.
Shnarch was surprised as the squid continued to grow, until they were about three feet each in length. The cost to feed them and find a bigger aquarium threatened to bankrupt Shnarch. One night, losing patience, Shnarch resolved to sell the fish to a butcher. But as he plunged a net into the water to fish them, something happened.
The next day, Shnarch opened up a new act. He would lead people up to the squid tank where, he said, the squid could tell their future. Through an elaborate series of gestures, the squid would communicate their divinations. They produced amazing results, and Shnarch's World-Famous Future-Telling Fish were a hit throughout the Western United States until Shnarch's death in 1916, at the age of 103.
After Shnarch died, the squid - whose numbers had dwindled to a mere dozen - were shipped to the University of San Diego's marine biology department. A group of prominent philosophers, theologians and political scientists protested the move. They believed each that study of the squid could unlock the mysteries of the universe, and each wanted a squid for their department. But a cloistered and diligent wing in the marine biology department turned their efforts to conservation, breeding the small stock of squid so that their numbers almost reached 200.
Finally, in 1956, the squid were ready to go to the public. There were rumors that the squid were involved in code-breaking activities for the Allies in the Second World War, but these claims have - as yet - been unsubstantiated.
The squid did little of any note until 1959, when a visiting movie star named Ronald Regan approached their tank. The squid became agitated. One handler, versed in their language, was surprised. "They say you'll be President," he told the bemused star of Bedtime for Bonzo.
From then on the squid would amuse themselves by predicting the winner of each presidential election. They never guessed wrong. The biologists would keep the news secret, out of respect for the democratic process.
In 1983, Walter Mondale, then the Democratic Presidential nominee, made a pilgrimage to the future-telling squid. He spent three hours with them. When he finally emerged, he was in tears. "Will you win? Will you lose?" an aide is reported to have said. Mondale shook his head. "I will lose," he said. "But that’s not why I'm crying. They showed me something… something horrible. Something no man with a soul should have to see."
Mondale refused to share the squids' secret. Some speculate that he has written in his will that his secret should become public after his death. But for that we will have to wait and see.
Since them, the prognosticator fish have been removed from the public eye. They are now housed in a basement laboratory, where they wait for something only they know. Private meetings are available: but few are ever granted.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
They Might Be Giants + Gilgamesh = My Idiosyncratic Tastes, Perfected
They Might Be Giants - The Mesopotamians
Add to My Profile | More Videos
Looks like good old Gilgamesh is finally getting his due.
Found this on Drawn.
Friday, October 19, 2007
A Third Fact About Our Nautical Buddies, The Squid
Squid are the only invertebrates to display a love of coffee.
The first recorded instance of a squid drinking coffee comes to us from Dr. Constance St. Germaine, a naturalist who experimented with cephalopods in the late nineteenth century. In a letter to a friend, St Germaine tells a story of an acquaintance, Mr. S. Mark (complete first name unknown), who had been keeping a pet squid in his London apartments for "quite a while - some say it a year, some say it three, others insist the two have shared over a decade of cohabitation". Originally, St. Germaine reports, Mr. Mark kept the squid as a mere diversion: "he came to admire the undulations of the squid's mantle as it swam back and forth in its tank, positioned, as it was, in the middle of the small apartment's parlor, and he would watch it for hours on end, as if practicing a form of mental constitutional." But after an incident at a New Year's eve party Mr. Mark discovered that the squid displayed remarkable intelligence: the squid expressed what seemed like keen interest at the party-goers' conversation. The squid - who Mr. Mark soon named Clarance, after a beloved uncle - became quite popular around the many scientific salons, making upwards of ten appearances in a week. Often presented as an oddity, Clarance was soon appreciated for his supreme elegance, and what one anonymous newspaper writer described as his "animal wit."He was known to host high teas where he would encourage diners to float small cups of coffee on the surface of the water of his tank. Clarance would position himself over the cup and - to the amusement of all - drink copious amounts of coffee. Clarance was found dead under mysterious circumstances, in a London gutter: St. Germaine suggests that his death might have been caused by "Mr. Mark's jealous hand."
These days, many squid at popular aquariums are given their coffee in special floating bags. They're named Clarance-Cups, in honor of their ostensible cephalopd inventor.
Friday, October 12, 2007
New Friday Feature!
This will also be available in some sort of e-mail list soon. Next week-type soon.
Can The MRI See God? - Utne Reader
Utne's Rough Guide To International Opinion - Utne Reader
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Doris Lessing: Official Badass
Here's Lessing on the award:
To celebrate I'd have to go and buy champagne. I'm going to bed.
Monday, October 8, 2007
Happy International Cephalopod Awareness Day!
Readers of this blog will know the superlatively interesting squid is one of our favorite subjects. So it's great that today is Monday October 8th, because while you might be in your office battling your malaise with cups of coffee and day-dreams about leaving work and getting a big muffin, you should be aware that over in the world's oceans there are a bunch of squid and octopus plashing around, having fun, like they do every day, Monday to Sunday. Which is why it's apt that Monday October 8th is International Cephalopod Awareness Day. Check it out. And remember those majestic monsters of the sea, the squid today however you can.
Maybe you can go out for calamari?
Or watch squid videos on YouTube?
Or tell a friend a squid fact?
Or buy me a cute squid plush?
So in honor of this day, I'll put up a new squid fact this evening, work permitted.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
In Praise of Funny Voices
When Serge told me this I laughed so hard I couldn't think of anything else for four, maybe five minutes. If I would've been drinking milk, milk would've shot out my nose. My chest hurt. When the laughter would start to die down, I would remember that line again they wouldn't stomp on your balls or anything and the laughter would spark again, my chest heaving, leaving me gulping for air. But I can't expect you to understand why this was little story was, to me, the height of Western Humor - it was funny because Serge told it in a funny voice.
The voice was this sort of clipped, muffled version of a Hollywood imitation of a mid-century
A lot of people say that friendship is about trust and intimacy, about confiding secret-most heartfelt feelings, about sharing passionate mutual interests, about companionship and company. For me, friendship is all about the funny voices.
Me and my friends have the New York Voice, the Robot Voice, the Seagull Voice, the Pretentious Artist Voice, the Pirate Rapper Voice (M.C. Pegleghook), the Werner Herzog Voice, the Australian Voice and a voice that’s just called the Voice. The Voice is deadly. A sort of mangled imitation of a British accent that, like an over-Xeroxed piece of paper, lost all of its form and definition from over-repetition until it didn't sound British at all - it just became the Voice. Two of my friends talked in the Voice for almost three weeks straight. It got so bad that they had trouble speaking normally. They didn't want to speak normally, they were content to just banter in the Voice.
The voices are more like games than like impressions.
Let me explain with an example: The Pretentious Artist voice goes like this. You speak in a fake German accent, elongating your vowels, accenting odd syllables your voice over-confident verbal strut. But the voice itself is only one half of the fun, it's what you say that really matters. The pretentious artist will describe a pretentious art work and then attach some hideous price-tag to it: "My new art installation, you must see it! First, I shave off all my body hair. Then I mold the hair into a giant mustache! Then - I set it on fire! It's genius! A representation of the modern soul in plaster and hair." Then, you wait a beat. "The price? ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"
It's hilarious. Believe me.
Because when you speak to someone in a silly voice - especially if it's a really stupid silly voice, you're trusting that they'll get it, that they're in on the joke, that they won't look at you with one cocked eyebrow and say, in an everyday voice free of willful mispronunciation or silly sentence constructions "What the hell are you talking about?" You're certain, when you're talking in a silly voice, that you are going to be allowed to goof off, to put on hold some of your seriousness. And it's damned funny. But the problem is that you have to be pretty good friends with someone to break out your Pirate Rapper Voice. You can't do it with just anyone. Because for the people who aren't in on the joke, who haven't been explained the rules of these games, some essential part of the joke is missing. All of my friends might be doubled over themselves in giggles, while people listening in - well, you just have to be there.
And because of that, there's a wonderful intimacy that comes with speaking in a silly voice. I was hanging out with a bunch of people a couple days ago, and we started speaking in funny voices. It was like a floodgate broke and I felt suddenly closer to these people, more accepted - because when you're with someone and you pinch up your vocal chords and pretend to sound like a chipmunk or something and your friend starts to laugh and then starts speaking like a chipmunk too, then you know that you are actually friends; a certain sort of friends, good enough friends to speak in a funny voice to.
Why don't you tell me about your silly voices?
Sunday, September 30, 2007
A Round-Up of Blogs I Like
Watch as this young blogger creates a new blog a day for a year! At last count he's hit number 245 - the SausageAppreciator - and my personal favorites include the Edited Journal of Stuff I Lost In The Laundry and Guerrilla Lawn Decorator. I'm certain that you'll find your own favorites in a couple minutes. He updates each blog maybe once or twice a week, which is a pretty amazing feat, if you realize that this means he's making about 1,200 posts a month!
Susan N. is just one of thousands young graduates who leave college in May to become cub cashiers, working long hours for little pay in hopes of hitting it big in the highly competitive field of Supermarket Sales. Susan dishes all the dirt: how she gives out one customer a wrong amount of change and hides it; how she notices some famous cashiers showing up to work late; and of course there are the daily reports of office gossip from the break room. (Last Tuesday they had cake!) She even has some run-ins with cashier luminaries like Brad, Nancy and Faye! I'm usually not into celebrity gossip, but I've always found the high-wire world of the Supermarket really entrancing. And you will, too - when you read this blog.
I Didn't Know That You Could Eat That!
Well, now you do.
23 Squids Do!
This is one of my favorite squid websites ever! Updated by a zoologist at the Center for Cephelopod Studies in Snarksburg, Virginia, 23 Squids Do! is the official eye into the Center's famous Squid Pen. In an effort to map squid social life, researchers put 23 representatives of different squid species into a communal aquarium to figure out what happens when squid stop being polite... and start getting real. The daily updates about the squids' lives are incredibly illuminating. Everybody ends up having their favorite squid. A friend of mine likes Porky, the diminutive Piglet Squid, whose kind heart means he gets picked on by the other squids. My personal favorite is Lester, whose developing relationship with the trainer Valerie is heartwarming, to say the least. (Last week it was Valerie's birthday, and Lester remembered! He made her a hat out of kelp!) Check it out, and find more about our aquatic neighbors, the squid!
Monday, September 24, 2007
If you don't drink coffee, we probably don't have enough in common, me and you.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Oops... We Did It Again!
Now, I'm scared of Bush like the next liberal, but sometimes it all goes too far. Like a supervisor of mine who I overheard educating some hapless cashier - in the staccato squeal of the profoundly over-caffinated and under-informed - that she thought that September the 11th was an American version of the burning of the Reichstag. Say what you will about American education, but I don't think that a supermarket check-out line is the most appropriate place for a lecture on the history of the Second World War. And then, on Boing Boing today I saw a post about Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Warning Letter to a Young Patriot, which has this list of ten 'warning signs' that shows oops! we're living in a fascist society. They are:
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2. Create a gulag
3. Develop a thug caste
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Harass citizens' groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Target key individuals
8. Control the press
9. Dissent equals treason10. Suspend the rule of law
Now we, as blog-reading, well-informed, Bush-hating Americans are meant to look at this list and gasp and say to ourselves Oh no! Bush is in the middle of creating a fascist state. And then we get to sit back in our easy-chairs, feel doomed and indignant, and maybe make a tut-tut-tut sound before going back to whatever it was we were doing before we realized we were living under the iron fist of Darth Bush.
Now there are a couple things wrong with this checklist. The first is that it's pretty thin, information-wise. You could apply these ten points to the administration of that greatly beloved tyrant, Abraham Lincoln. Now, I think that the worst thing Lincoln did was to use hard Presidential power to secure his goals - it set a dangerous precedent for American dictatorship. Go through the list and ask yourself: did Lincoln do that? I think that the only thing he really didn't do was equate dissent with treason.
You've gotta remember, too that before Lincoln came around America was less a nation and more a loose confederation of states. Secession seemed a bit extreme, sure, but well within the logic of people's conception of American nationality. This was a time of unstable borders, where American expansionism drew up new territories by the decade, the term United States used to be plural (these United States), and regional and sectional differences were incredibly profound so that it might seem a different country in New York and South Carolina.
The second thing wrong is that I don't think that America could even host a fascist state. While Lincoln certainly forged a nation with a unified, if shaky national identity, I think that the monolith of our shared language, national politics, and national media hide a divided nation. The difference in culture and practice from Idaho to California to New York is so great that imposing the order and discipline of fascism over America's four (plus!) time zones would be a logistical nightmare about a billion times harder than, say, imposing universal healthcare on our unsuspecting nation. We've had a hard enough time imposing a working national education system on Americans. How the hell do we think we can impose a well-run fascist state? Try imagining the dystopic government Wolf intimates in her checklist actually being able to quash the deep stream of dissent of our American culture. The greatness of America is the same as our weakness: we're who we are, and not much can change us, and who were are is a group of contrarian, individualistic, materialistic assholes. And those don't mix well with genuine fascism.
The third thing is that the idea that the Bush administration is somehow on par with Hitler or Mussolini both diminishes the horror of true fascist regimes and elevates the efficacy of the Bush administration. The Nazis, the Soviets, the fascists - they were a organized wave of unspeakable horror and repression. The Bush administration is a bumbling enclave of kids who were bullied too much in high school and have some hard-on for hard-power. They're so incompetent that they'd be utterly laughable if, say, they were the leaders of a country the size of Turkmenistan or owned the coffee shop down the road. They might be messing a lot of things up, but the America that exists today, after six years of Bush, is not some predetermined step on the course to tyranny; it is, rather, the result of large-scale failures of leadership.
That's not to say that if the Bush administration had effectively pursued its policies, we'd be much better off. But I think that the real lesson we'll get from this administration is one of incompetence and arrogance, not malfeasance and Machiavellian politics. To paint Bush otherwise, as some sort of Darth Vader character, is to give him far too much credit.
If you like this, check out Damned Interesting's post on a failed coup set up by wealthy industrialists in the 1930s....
Paul Krugman on Healthcare
- HOLY SHIT! I CAN READ KRUGMAN ONLINE AGAIN! FOR FREE!
Celebration is at hand.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 7
"No I won't! No I won't! I will never!" Wittgenstein screamed at a fashionable New Year's Eve party in Berlin, ushering in 1921. The next day found him on a train to Sweden, where he got himself a small room in a boardinghouse. For the next six months, Wittgenstein refused to speak a single word. He communicated in a series of grunts and gestures, spending his days hunched over a desk, writing furiously, tearing out his hair, ripping up pages and pages of manuscripts. Often at dinners, Wittgenstein would frustrate his fellow boarders by trying to participate in their lively conversations about Swedish politics and art - but without words. The great philosopher would get angery that nobody could understand him, often throwing plates against the wall and shaking intractable interlocutors. When summer came, he built a large bonfire in the countryside and burnt all of his past six months' of work. He wrote a postcard to his sister soon after that said, simply "Life is for reading great works. And writing them. There is nothing else."
Wittgenstein scholars have long fantasized about those lost pages. What new insights could they give to Wittgenstein's sometimes obscure oeuvre? In 1998 their questions were answered when the landlord of the Swedish boarding house was cleaning up the disused attic, and found a manila folder, with Ludwig Wittgenstein's signature on the cover, one edge half-burnt. He looked inside and found the only surviving pages of that 1921 manuscript. But Wittgenstein hadn't written a word. He'd filled the reams of paper with nothing more than thousands of drawings of differently sized squares.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Oh my love it's a funny little thing.
Mornings like this one, I wake up with a sense of inevitable dread. I’m afraid that all of my hopes will float by me unfulfilled, and then, what will happen to me? Will I curl up into a little ball? Will I become one of those bitter old men who walk the streets with loneliness like lead weights? And I lay in the warmth of my sheets, and think of how my day’s going to go once I cast off the duvet and throw on clothes, and from there I think of the next day month and week, and there’s something meaningless to it all, something flat and without pay-off. I'd rather just lay in bed for another fifteen minutes and sink into the shallow-oblivion of half sleep.
And I’m not suffering from some universal existential angst here. I’m not doubting that there’s any meaning to be had from life. What I’m doubting is that there’s any meaning left for me.
At the same time as I worry this, I also think: I’m being so clichéd, every other twenty-three year old with a touch of ambition feels as hopeless as I do. It will pass, or I'll get used to it, or I'll wake up tomorrow and bam everything will be okay.
Maybe that's worse, though. That everyone feels this way.
I’m living in a strange city. I don’t know which bars to go to, I don't know which cafes to go to - and when I do go somewhere, I'm alone - and shy. So I read a lot. I've been watching far too much of the HBO Original Series The Wire. And don’t get me wrong – I’ve met a lot of very nice people here. But there’s something missing in the day-to-day concourse of my life. My great friends – those people who know me well enough for me to be wholly open with them, who probably like me enough to read this blog on a semi-regular basis – they’re all far away from me. I hear their voices on the phone, I send them e-mails. But after a while, those long-distance calls make my present loneliness just seem a bit starker. I can remember a time when I knew everyone, when I could feel popular and successful, where I was a senior in a small college and I knew what to do.
So I feel caught adrift on something. Placeless.
And where do I go from here? My ambition leads me somewhere. But where? I know I want to write. But there’s a whole underground economy of wannabe writers, garnishing their egos with short stories and blog posts, who have just as much ambition and just as much talent as I do. I'd like to be able to sell some Alternative Weekly my squid facts for one-hundred dollars a pop. But the things I find interesting seem to bore other people. I feel foreign to a big bulk ot people. And there are plenty of people who have found themselves friendless in a big city. There are plenty of people who wake up and get scared that the next warm summer day they step out into they'll be twenty-four and not be allowed to have fun.
You’d hope that your dread, your angst, your deepest fears, weren’t so goddamned normal that they were terribly clichéd. I wish I could be feeling something horribly shocking and new. I want groundbreaking angst.
But at the same time as I dismiss this, it's there, and it's real, and it's hard to shake it. I wake up and don't have joy, only hunger. I work and what I do is desperate - like a person at the beach trying to scratch their name in the sand quickly before the next wave comes to wash it all away.
I want to run away to a new life. One where I can go into a cafe and everyone says hi and wants to talk about books. One where I can go read my short stories out loud at open mic nights. One where I can call my friends - and see them, in flesh, in real life - and talk with them in silly voices. And the hard part is that the life I imagine seems about as possible as me making friends with Mark Twain; which I want to do, by the way.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Dispossession - A Draft
I began this essay a week or two ago. As it grew longer, I found it harder and harder to strain sense out of my sentences. I would write in furious bursts, in great metaphors, and then look over what I wrote to edit, and while I'd cut some sentences and re-write others, I found myself unable to come closer to any sort of point. My reasoning suddenly seemed cumbersome, my arguments stale when I thought them fresh, the ideas confused, when I thought them clear.
That being said, I think I'm onto something here. And while I'll be setting aside this topic for a while, I'm going to post this stump of an essay for you readers. Treat it as what it is: something raw, a bit of a beginning, a bit of a curiosity.
If you think I'm onto something, by all means - tell me. I'd like to know what it is.
This generation faces an uncharted wilderness of the mind. New technology has afforded us a terrible opportunity: the spoils may be rich, but the failures desperate. Will we be representatives of some new golden age? or citizens of a broken Diaspora?
All that’s certain is that we are a people without maps. We are lost. We have nowhere to go. We will find our way - but only in time.
It’s a tired fact, but true, that the same wealth of opportunity that makes our lives easier –cel phones, the internet, our relative ease – can make our lives feel impoverished. We have all wasted nights and days buffeted from website to website like a piece of trash caught in the wind until we notice that it’s three in the morning and our eyes hurt; we have all searched in the desert of cable TV for some El Dorado of satisfaction and in vain; we have all found our attention scattered between the conversation on the cel phone, the five open tabs on our internet browser, and the actual physical world that sits a couple feet in front of our computer screens. We have wealth, sure, and wealth which would have been unimaginable to our forbearers. But we find ourselves overwhelmed. We hide in our beds and never want to get up. We go to the gym. We feel stranded in a desert of the soul. We don’t know how to be the people we think we need to be.
Our wealth is hollow. It doesn’t give us happiness. That truth is an empty one, a sign that doesn’t point anywhere. But we don’t know what will make us happy. And so we continue deeper into the desert.
Our patience runs short. In a couple clicks we can land on another argument, another game, another song; so we have trouble devoting our attentions to any single thing. This is not a bad thing, within reason. In a way it makes us informational omnivores, with wide interests. Look at the epicurean vitality of websites like BoingBoing.net, modern day wonder-closets, collections of curiosities for the truly curious. But there is a point when this distraction, rather than feeding our creativity, shatters our attention, cracking the surface of our deeper thought. The people who do not learn to channel this distraction will find themselves living in an archipelago made up of tiny flat islands of understanding, surrounded by a dark unnavigable sea.
Plus it’s addicting. There is something immediately satisfying about the internet, but this makes it dangerous, because it’s so easy to access that satisfaction and much of it is hollow. We can foster the illusion that if we go to the next page of porn, something deeply rewarding will happen to us. That if we gain another level on WoW, we will possess some greater meaning to our lives. But when we are done, we find ourselves none the richer, just a little bit more tired, more distracted, sinking deeper into our computer screens.
In Japan there are young men called hikikomori . These young men hole themselves up in their rooms and don’t ever come out. The struggle of the outside world has become too much for them, perhaps, and so they creep back to the comfort of depression, of mediated experience. Filling their lives with comic books, computer games, and magazines, they are safe. And the are safe even if they cannot escape the familiar prison of their rooms nor their dramas the plotted fantasies of books and TVs. They can experience, but it will not hurt. They will feel, but they will not give up their control. They do not try – but neither do they fail. How do they get like this?
We spend our lives listening to songs other people sing, watching TV shows dealing with people we will have no commerce with, and reading stories that take place in far-away places we can neither effect nor change. We tend, as a generation, to critique more than we create, to watch more than we do. And this means that we suffer from an overactive critical sense, but an active life that is benumbed and abstract. What’s the big deal, though? The big deal is that we live a life surrounded by artificial lives, that no longer reflect the real struggles people tend to go through.
TV’s a great comfort. But while TV can comfort, more often than not it just numbs, putting our problems on hold by pausing our life. It makes our life a little bit more lonely. First, TV is too easy a comfort. We can press a single button, turn on the TV, and be safe. It’s far easier than, say, going to a café and trying to talk with someone you don’t know. But most friendships, most of the rewarding things in life, require us to put ourselves out there in some way, run a risk of looking stupid. We might be too shy, and stay at home watching TV.
The temptation to loose ourselves in this fantasy land are really great. Especially since, the more we slip into this comforting box of stories, the more impossible it seems to get back out. Because TV, in its non-stop interest, spins tales of people who are well-adjusted, active, funny, and engaging. If you’ve been sitting at home for the past month or two, ekeing out a life on the edges of society, then you can’t relate to the people you see on TV. You can’t relate to Ross and Monica, Rachel and Chandler. But the problem is – they’re become your good friends. That’s how you think people are meant to act like. And even though we all know that TV is fake, we lack the stories of people who are messed up, lazy, conflicted – television’s inability to communicate stories about loneliness and ennui trap some of us into a deeper cycle of loneliness and ennui, where we fail to recognize the sensibility of our problem.
OK – I’m going to outline this point:
Loneiness can be soothed with TV
But it makes you more lonely
- why? Because you don’t do anything with other people, it is easy to watch it (the initial costs are low)
the illusion of TV: it makes a world in which people do a lot
- but also, because of the temporal shortening (all the boring stuff is necessarily edited out to fit in the thirty to sixty minute window of time we have) we see no boredom
-- so we can escape into a world in which everything happens, but not to us. We think that we shouldn’t be bored.
The utter inability of TV to communicate a struggle against meaninglessness and eunnui in a meaningful way leads to us trapped in a cycle of meaninglessness and ennui because we fail to see that the problem actually exists.
The second problem is that TV spins an illusory world in which people are well-adjusted and active. Most of the human beings I meet are not like the people on TV. But the active, healthy people on TV are bad role models for the ranks of unhappy, broken people who find their solace and comfort of the television. A person might come home from a life alienated and unsatisfying, and watch an episode of the sit-com Friends. Let’s say they watch an hour of it a day. But that life on the screen is so very different . People on TV have friends, and they see their friends, and they work, and they are necessarily unbothered by the crippling existential angst that might lead a young person to withdraw from the world and watch the pleasant stories of people who do not withdraw from the world. We, who as a nation consume, consume stories about people who are far more active than anybody we ever see in our real flesh-and blood existences.
Where are the miscreants? The insomniacs? The alcoholics? The people in credit card debt? The idiots who hate their friends? Who have no friends? The compulsive masturbators? The guys who lie to get pretty girls in bed? The pretentious? The lonely? – we are all lonely. The people so bored they don’t know what to do? These marginal stories are now surrounded by a constant drone of normalcy. An exceptional normalcy – a life of event, carefully poltted and portioned in half an hour to hour dollops.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
A Fact About Our Nautical Friend, The Squid # 2
Image by Basil Wolverton from the Animation Archive
There arose a peculiar belief about squids among seafarers, that touching a squid would cause severe, almost instantaneous baldness. I've found evidence for this belief in English, Portuguese and Spanish writings (the French are curiously silent, but that might just be a shortcoming of my research). The belief even led to the popular (if mystifying) nautical exclamation: "He's so bald he must've shaken hands with a squid!"
Here's a section of the diary of Robert Snarksman, an officer of the Royal Navy who served from 1798-1820:
We were out afishing in the earlie day when we caught a monstre: a squid, aboute the size of a large dogge; we tried to fling it back overboard, but in the fighte a tentacle touched poore Pipkin, and he woke next morn his pate wholly bald.
This belief has also inspired the sea shanties, Squidtop, and She Served Him Squid For Dinner.
In the journals of Lorenzo Snarkaretti, an Italian explorer who visited China in the middle of the eighteenth century, we find evidence for how far this belief spread:
The Chinese, in their brothels, will have numerous squid living in their baths, as if the baths indeed were large aquariums. The women, when they bathe in these, will be approached and often fondled by the creatures and their many tentacles. This practice renders the women entirely hairless, which is the preference of the Chinese nobleman. The women wear the most elaborate wigs, which are sewn from the hair of peasant women by armies of slaves. The wigs can often be worth more than whole households, and tower over the diminutive women! Though we have never seen these baths, them being in the women's quarters and viewable only by concubines and eunuchs, they are so widely reported, they must not be doubted to exist.
My state of mind:
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Friday, August 31, 2007
A Fact About Our Nautical Friend, The Squid
Squid are very good at smalltalk!
Researchers at the Society for Nautical Research in Kempsy, Ireland have taught a select group of squid to communicate using an innovative system of symbols. The squid are given a large waterproof boards with over 100 pictures on them, representing everything from simple nouns like 'fish' to a symbol that denotes that the squid is asking a question. The squid touch the various symbols with their tentacles to communicate, often forming complex sentences. After months of painstaking training, three special squid have become quite adept at the system, and repeatedly ask their trainers how their days have been going and whether they can have more fish. The squid have proved adept at smalltalk, engaging trainers on long, pointless conversations about the weather and what was on TV last night.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
An Antaomy of a Crush
I remember giggling myself near half-to-death when I saw a singer at some 16th Century Italian choral concert whine in a perfect castrati squeal that when his Love looked at him sweet arrows pierced his bleeding heart. It was just so mawkish a sentiment, so utterly unapologetic about its creepiness, and so perfect in summing up what it feels like to have a crush that I couldn't help to blush. Because I had been there before - sugary arrows of love and everything.
For me having a crush is an exercise in various kinds of agony. When I like a girl I can't speak, look at her, walk near her, or exhibit any of the signs biologists use to determine life for fear of embarrassing myself whenever I'm around her. Then, after I bumble my way through a conversation or two with her about, say, cartoon characters or giant squid and the crush deepens, I will realize that I spend a sizable chunk of my day - from one to three hours, I'd guess - rehearsing what I will say to her and thinking about how cute her cheeks are. And then after I do talk to her all I can do is wonder whether she likes me or not, whether, when she laughs and touches my shoulder - does that mean that she likes me? that she, perhaps, might have a crush on me, too?
But the worst happens when the relationship moves - as it inevitably does - to its penultimate stage of casual e-mail flirting. This is the stage in courtship where you've been out on a date or two - you might have even kissed - and are slowly sorting out the second or third or fourth date through a salvo of e-mails. By this point I'm reduced to an awkward lump of nervousness, checking my e-mail once every five minutes or so to see whether she's responded. When she does respond it feels like I've just been given a bag full of candy and straightaway I will write and re-write my response until it's a little polished jewel of wonderfulness that, as I'm about to hit send, I know will charm her completely and then she'll call me instantly and we will rush into each others; arms and make out a lot. Then, after I hit send I realize I just sounded creepy or accidentally propositioned her. And I hope like hell she doesn't realize how nerdy I am.
Of course, there are rules to these e-mails. One must let a respectable amount of time pass between when you get a response and when you yourself respond. It must not be too much longer - or too much shorter - than your interlocutor's last e-mail. But above all these e-mails must spin the illusion that you do not, in fact, have a crush on this person; that your heart doesn't make 16th-century Italian noises whenever you get a new message from her; that you haven't imagined what it would be like if you kissed her right now.
I don't need to say that whatever initial charm I could throw out into the relationship is scuttled around this point in the process.
I tell my friends that I hate crushes. That I don't have time for them, that I'm not in a romantic mood right now, that I don't know anyone who I could have a crush on. But the truth is that I love crushes. It's like O become a secret agent: I have an agenda hidden to all but myself, except rather than kill someone I want to give them hugs and tell them how they're cuter than most common varieties of bunnies.
And I think maybe the deeper satisfaction of a crush is that it gives you something to do, a thing of beauty to mull over, and some hope to look forward to. Your days, while being as formless and generally pointless as ever, will sometimes surge with a sense of purpose and joy. However flimsy, however delusional that joy actually is. Because the girl sent you an e-mail or waved at you.
But there is a real beauty of a crush that I tend to overlook, in favor of the sheer craziness of it: you get to care for someone. And care, love, kindness - no matter what word you use - is one of the most beautiful things I can think. When I have a crush on someone, if they called me up at four in the morning waking me from beautiful dreams about hanging out with Mark Twain to ask me nonchalantly if I could make it over to their place to eat ice cream I would act like it was completely and utterly cool and not in the least bit inconvenient and I'll be over there as soon as I can. This is not the sort of care that I hold for most of the people in my life. If it were anyone else I would yell at them and tell them to call in the morning are they smoking crack or something. But with the crush, I have this almost unfathomable spring of care for them, and that care is fresh, and amazing for its even being there.
Even if it is about as creepy as saying that you have arrows of love stuck in your bleeding heart.