Drive Like A Man

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I’m really not a very good driver.

It’s once a week at least that I get that sour-stomach, adrenaline-blood-tingle reaffirmation of the Buddhist precept that death comes suddenly and without warning (let alone a courtesy honk). I drive a minimum of 80 miles a day on the 101, so I’d like to say these things are just par for the rush-hour course, but most of them are my fault.

I first suspected this conductive ineptitude around age ten, when I sensed Big Al’s reluctance to let me drive the boat, even in the open, calm, deep-water back bays of Lake of the Woods. It became painfully obvious (literally) the next summer when I slammed the Grumman into the dock because its imminent approach freaked me out and I couldn’t let go of the throttle on the 10hp outboard. I’m clumsy at best on a John Deere Gator, a liability on a jet ski, and a veritable threat on a forklift. I can ruin a hedge and make onlookers scatter just by climbing into the seat of a ride-on lawnmower. Snowmobiles flee before me of their own accord.

Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

Deceptively death-trappy. For reals.
Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

And forget about dirt bikes – my friends all kicked ass on them and I couldn’t even shift out of first. Seriously. And I’m talking 90cc Hondas that like blind eight-year-old girls get around on just fine.

I’ve been in stupid wrecks and dumb fender-benders and gotten hit turning left in front of people and sticking too far out into traffic. I’ve knocked side mirrors and crushed my passenger door against a telephone pole taking a corner too tight. Hiding beer at 17 (the worst possible time to do something stupid), I three-point-turned my way into a bush and every Austin-Powers-point-turn-attempt after that to extricate myself just wedged me deeper and deeper. I’ve even rear-ended my own mother driving like a reckless jerk.

A lot of this has to do with my serious spatial awareness problems, for one. Not “serious” as in I have some advanced neurological deficiency, but as in I’m just plain bad at knowing where cars or other objects are and how fast they’re coming or going. This contributes to an already high level of anxiety over the fact that I’m hurtling a ton.5 of metal around white and yellow lines that seem more or less arbitrarily scrawled across expanses of slick black pavement – or whatever the vehicle at whatever speed on whatever surface.

But I’m also competitive, and impatient and retaliatory, which can make me forget my anxiety altogether and pretend I’m Ayrton Senna (great biopic of him, by the way) — like I did Tuesday evening through Decker Canyon.

I mean, if anything's gonna bring out your Niki Lauda, this is gonna bring out your Niki Lauda. Pic: flickr user digammo

If this don’t bring out your inner Niki Lauda, you ain’t got no inner Niki Lauda.
Pic: flickr user digammo

Despite this overwhelming evidence of my crappy-driverness, it’s not an easy thing to admit.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of this admission, though, and it seemed worth writing about.

For most of my life, I’ve believed that one’s masculinity was linked to what proportion of one’s blood was gasoline. Driving’s a skill, and a super-macho skill, and I wanted it. Bad. I grew up on Steve McQueen movies, and that image of Bullitt in his 1968 Mustang GT fastback is about as Marlboro Man as they come for me.

But, Q.E.D., my blood-octane levels are actually pretty low, so this Steve McQueenism is actually responsible for 83% of my lifelong feelings of inadequacy.

bullit

Thanks, Steve.
Thanks a lot.

The incomparable Jim Blaylock once told a group of us that his father used to say, “The more letters a guy has behind his name, the less likely he is to be able to change a tire.”

Now, despite having bought a Chilton AND a Haynes for every car I’ve owned, I’ve yet to loosen so much as a single nut under the hood of my own car, and I know what Jim and his dad mean by that. (I do change my own tires, though. Really. They’re, uh, not under the hood.) I’ve mentioned this before At The Wellhead, but it’s apropos here, too, so I’m repeating it: Tom McGuane, author of Nothing But TomMcGuaneBlue Skies and Ninety-two In the Shade and liver of the outdoors life described in his essay collections The Longest Silence and Some Horses, said in the intro to the latter that he never wanted to be “one of those writers with soft hands,” and he obviously accomplished that and set the bar about nine times as high as I can reach on a stool.

Plenty has been written about the legacy and pitfalls of this mantle of American Literary Macho, a primogenitor of which was ole Papa Hemingway himself, so I’m not going to belabor that point any more than to say this whole driving/cars thing fits into a much bigger fucking massive morass of expectations and preconceptions that I don’t remember picking up but that I’ve clung to and that has influenced my behavior and worldview for as long as I can remember.

But anyway, this post was supposed to be about getting beyond all that,

and I’m happy to report that I’m starting to see the benefit of copping to my sanguinary-octane deficiency. Driving and fixing cars is simply not my path to rough-hand macho-sleek-chic masculinity.

In fact, maybe – just maybe – über masculinity of any kind’s not what I’m after, after all.

Which is probably another not-shock to people who know me, but let’s all take a second, shall we, to remember that most of the time we’re the last ones to know the most obvious things about ourselves.

Practically speaking, this awareness may keep me from spending an absurd amount of money on, say, a Bugatti. Because despite how amazing it’d feel to have a thousand-and-one horses under my feet, I’d not double-clutch or whatever you have to do with that ridiculous of a car and drop the tranny, or hit the gas like it was my Jetta and bury the thing in a brick wall fifty yards away before I could turn the wheel (à la Grumman), or try to take curves like Jeff Gordon and end up Misty-flipping off that bend by La Piedra.

Alright, alright, it’s probably not only awareness that’ll keep me out of a Bugatti, or any other $1.6MILLION car. But it may keep me from thinking, say, a $200k Jaguar, or anything over 400 horses, really, is a smart buy. I just don’t have the minerals for that kind of car, and while I’m as susceptible as the next guy to the incessant luxury-is-better consumer-culture McLaren Group onslaught, I know that it’s an ultimately vapid juggernaut, and maybe I can avoid being crushed by it by bowing out of this particular leg of the Macho Race.

I’ll do plenty of stupid things in my life, make plenty of bad decisions based on insecurity and fear and vanity, but hopefully it won’t be the car that’ll get me.

Beyond practicalities, giving up an entire set of criteria by which I’ve measured and found wanting my masculinity is a taste of freedom. It probably never should have been a part of how I saw myself, a metric by which to measure my inadequacy, but it was. I know a lot of people get and make a lot of meaning out of cars and driving – some of my best friends have rebuilt cars from the ground up. They take great pride in it and it’s part of who they are. I think Brent’s amniotic fluid was 91 octane.

But it ain’t me, babe.

To have the fact that for me it’s empty and has no actual bearing on my life or who I am dawn on me is pretty amazing. It’s energizing and motivating and rewarding and makes me feel like I’m connecting, somehow, to What Really Is.

I know it's a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West

I know it’s a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West‘s take on it if you have some hours to spare.

This chink in my faux-masculine suit of armor is an example of the kind of preconceptions I’ve been reexamining of late. It’s an example, but it’s not actually one of the things I’ve been actively picking at. Which is also indicative of this Examined Life process – most of the time, whatever insights or breakthroughs or satori or whatever you want to call them I have are not things I’ve been looking for. I don’t choose which walls I end up tearing down. If I try to, it’ll never come.

What I do is just do the work. I read and study and sit and practice dharma –

and I wait.

For what or how long, I never know, and I’m constantly wondering if I have missed or am missing something. And then when something finally does happen, it’s not what I expected at all, and sometimes the dawning of it takes a really long time.

I met Swami Vidyadhishananda a few years ago, and the one thing I asked him was how best to make reparation for harms done. His advice was not to seek people out, but instead to

“prepare your heart to be spontaneous.”

He didn’t tell me how to do that, and I wasn’t about to sign on to the S.E.L.F.’s 90 minutes of mantra practice a day every day for the rest of your life to find out, but that advice has become something of a guiding light, and these mini-satori along the way – like this whole driving thing – are sustenance, like cups of Gatorade on the marathon route.

They’re also proof that you’re laying the groundwork, priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, so that you’re ready to recognize and receive the lessons when they do come at you – spontaneously or otherwise.

At the same time, I realize this one realization isn’t anything all that special. A lot of people don’t give a shit about cars or driving or anything like that, and it doesn’t affect their sense of self and never did. It’s certainly nothing new to redefine masculinity or reject it altogether. Mick’s been singing about men and their different cigarettes for 50 years.

And yet, this discovery process has to be repeated forever anew because no matter how many times you’ve read about it, it’s not the same as experiencing it. And each of us has to grow up on his own, right? And write his own manual based off trial and error.

Which is what this blog has become in a lot of ways. The narration of my own coming-of-age-story.

So file this one under Get-Over-Yourself-Turning-Points, I guess, or Sunday Afternoon Satori.

What’s one of yours?

When did you realize things weren’t quite the way they seemed?

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Family of Origin

FamilyOfOrigin

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Odd phrase, that.

You only really hear disgruntled or dispossessed family members say it, about the people they came from biologically and at one point definitively left. It rings with a certain finality, a sense that after leaving their family of origin, people who say “family of origin” were Cain-like wanderers upon the face of the earth.

You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I just love my family of origin.”

They usually pause right after origin to sneak in a silent clause. “My family of origin,,, was dysfunctional.” Which you get the feeling means something like, “My family of origin [may they rot in hell], was dysfunctional.” You usually don’t hear orphans use it – “My family of origin was killed in a car wreck.” When a tragedy’s involved, people stick with more familiar monikers – “My mom and dad and my sister Shirley.”

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingMy dad has a family of origin. He’s never said those words and I doubt he ever would and he’s hardly a Cain-like-wanderer-upon-the-face-of-the-earth type of guy, but what family was left by the time he took off as a kid was not exactly the white-picket-fence nuclear-family post-war Norman Rockwell dream. I don’t know his family of origin at all, and have heard very little about it over the years.

When my mom came along, he adopted her family. And this is the good news about families of origin – you’re not stuck with them. There’s all kinds of families out there, and so many of them will take you in. And even if you have a good family, you can always use another good one. I feel lucky – people who believed in blessings would say I’m blessed – to have the number and quality of families I call my own. And this is what I was thinking about when I thought about writing this post.

I’ve seen this – we’ve all seen this – countless times, but it never fails to impress me as one of the great things about life and the human spirit. It’s one of the great tropes of storytelling for a reason – taking someone in, being taken in, providing for another, being cared for and supported by others are the things that remind us what matters in life.

So my dad adopted my mom’s family, and was convinced his kids would have something more than a family of origin, and we have. My family of origin is my family. Period. All our weirdness and dysfunction is preeettttty minimal in the grand scheme of things – we get along and talk and say “I love you” and mean it. They’re there for me in everything. (I didn’t always know this, but it was always true.)

WestinBoatShopGreatSouthBayChart

The Great South Bay. Home of the in-laws-to-be.

Come May, I’m marrying into another rock-solid family. I’ve lived with this family before, so they’re family already and it doesn’t seem like a huge deal that I’m officially becoming an in-law, but way back when, when I first started coming around, they took me in immediately, no questions asked. Well, I think maybe a few questions, but they were things like,”Wanna go for a boat ride?” and “Can you use a Sawzall?” After that, golden.

And best of all, of course, is the idea that Erin and I are making our own family, together, for some other little people to one day come from. (And never never never never never leave. Ever.)

DinoUVaSwimDive

Dino.
Paterfamilias of 35 families.

Anyone who’s been on a serious sports team knows what additional or surrogate families are all about. You do together the hardest things you’ve ever done and (unless you go into the military afterwards) probably the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. You spend an inordinate amount of time together, during most of which you’re exhausted and not at your best and in your sweats and eating. (Especially swimmers – always with the eating.) My UVa swimming family is a lot like a large extended regular family, because I didn’t always like everyone I swam with, but I loved them and would to this day do anything for them. One of my teammates, a guy I really love and respect a lot, told me about a year ago, after listening to me describe the novel I’m writing and my pilgrimage to India and my SoCal routine and a few other things that are just simply outside of his Virginian sports-watching lawyering lifestyle, “You know, Prichard, there’s no real reason we’re friends. If it was’t for swimming, we would never be friends. Never.” Kinda funny, the way he said it, but probably true.

JonesSliver

Jones with a decent turnout.

After college, I worked as a Jones Beach Lifeguard, and let me tell you, that is a crew. Teachers, firemen, artists, cab drivers, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, businessmen, businesswomen, some cops – some robbers, too, probably – who spend their summers at the beach saving lives. And at Jones Beach, that’s no macho I-save-lives bs posturing. You’re running rescues constantly there. Constantly. People getting scared, getting swept out, getting saved, barely living – sometimes dying. Hundreds of thousands on the beach. (Seriously – there were 275,000 there July 4th, 2005.) Tourists, Long Islanders, Indians in saris, guys from the Bronx in Timberlands – in the ocean, in Tims – who’ve never seen the ocean before. And these lifeguards take care of all of them, and they depend on one another to help them keep the hordes safe. And they’re New Yorkers, so it’s a tough kinda love they share – and not one they frivolously give away. But those guys and gals let me into their world and their hearts and it was an experience and a group of people I’ll never forget.

I’d love to have a creative family, but writers are by and large not very familial people. Well, they might be on their own, but for the most part they’re not looking to hang out with other writers that much. It’s a more or less solitary pursuit, and except for children’s books and TV writing and the odd movie script, writing doesn’t really benefit from collaboration. It’s not like music, so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s so much doing-your-own-thing. What am I gonna do, sit five of us in a room and write a book? That’s why god created Williamsburg coffee houses. To be honest, I have no desire to sit around talking about what I’m working on for more than a couple minutes, tops. We try (especially us Millennials – we can’t even help ourselves) but even communities of writers are hard to come by, let alone families.

I have this other family, too, this strange assemblage of freaks and misfits and ne’er-do-wells  all trying to get our lives back on track and/or keep them there. I’ve met a few of my best friends in this group, and some of the strongest people I’ve ever known. They’re allies in a weird fight that a  lot of people out there don’t even know they’re fighting. In this group in particular there are a lot of people who come from nobody and nowhere. People who have families of origin – families they left or who left them. These people have discovered in this motley crew the family they never had. And that, man, is something to see.

Who’s your family?

What does “family” mean to you?

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On Creativity

Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.

TreeHouseLogoSquare

Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.

Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.

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On Creativity

We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

pic from Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

pic from Nat Ma’s rad photo blog, Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.

Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.

MrMiyagiThis is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.

If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)

In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.

I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.

Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.

Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.

Crushed-Stella-Artois-can-001By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)

One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.

But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.

Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.

SprucesMatsAlmlof

Photo: Mats Almlöf for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.

Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.

PrichardInfluencesThat Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.

There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.

For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.

Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.

To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.

You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.

strataSince we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.

It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.

It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.

It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.

But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.

It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.

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Where do you get your creativity from?

What things stand in your way?

How do you get over/past/through them?

OasisNatGeo

Photo: Nam In Geun for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

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Build, Baby, Build.

I love soccer.

I love playing it, I love watching it, I love reading about it.

(I’m horrrrrible, I rarely see games, and I do so very slowly to “practice” my equally horrible Spanish, respectively.)
photo from FIFA.com

FIFA.com

So I was thrilled that Jozy Altidore came through big against Honduras Tuesday night and got us/U.S. one step closer to a World Cup berth. (Chances are bad they’ll do it in one more game, but great they’ll do it in two.)

I’m also enthralled by all things Brazilian, so this World Cup is especially exciting for me. At one point some years ago, a bunch of us were planning to roam through Brazil together, see some early round games in the smaller cities, and try to just be in Rio or Sao Paulo for the finals.

But there are some serious protests going on in cities all over Brazil, and I gotta say, I kind of see where they’re coming from. Protests started over a 20-cent bus fare increase, and then BLEW UP after rather brutal reactions by various police forces (unlike Turkey, the media’s covering the heck outta Brasil’s protests).

Most apropos to this post’s lede, the demonstrations are also fueled by general indignation over the high costs – both financial and personal – of preparing for the very 2014 World Cup that I was planning (until life happened) to attend.

A Copa do Mundo next year, and the Summer Olympic Games two years after that. According to the WaPo, stadium and public transportation construction costs are estimated at $14.6 BILLION for EACH the World Cup and the 2016 Games. True, the construction projects will employ a lot of people – 3.6 million between the two projects – but they’re only temporary jobs. And there’s not really any space for these facilities, or at least for the ones that’ll be right in town, and the people that are being moved to make room for those new facilities are, as usual, the poor and powerless. And not just asked to leave for a bit before coming back after the Games – I’m talking entire favelas being ‘dozed to make room for new facilities.

In Rio.Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

In Rio.
Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

This is the case everywhere, right – whenever there’s a GIGANTOR sporting event, people get displaced. Even in Atlanta, where it seemed like there was still plenty of room, in the good ole rich-and-wealthy USA where everyone’s treated with the utmost respect and dignity, Olympic construction still wrecked major havoc on people’s lives. While not nearly as many people were displaced in Atlanta as in Seoul (725,000) or Beijing (as high as 1.5 million), those whose neighborhood was destroyed were still among the city’s poorest. Thousands and thousands of people living in public housing sandwiched between the Coca-Cola plant and Georgia Tech were packed on buses, given a one-way ticket out of town and wished the best of luck, in order to make room for the Olympic Village and the housing of 10,000 athletes. Only 7% of those people returned to their old neighborhoods and the rebuilt homes promised them by Team USA and Atlanta city planners. Basically, the Olympics gave the latter the opportunity they’d been waiting for to “wipe out blight” (read: relegate poor blacks to the sticks) and complete the gentrification of certain neighborhoods.

Even in London, where the 2012 Games were, most of the people displaced and/or affected by stadium construction and the influx of new residents and attention were from the other side of the (both proverbial and literal) tracks. Check out Zed Nelson’s great photos of London’s rough-edged Hackney to see what I mean.

But Brazilians aren’t taking this action lying down.

A 6/21 UK Guardian article goes into more detail.

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Photo: Cintia Barenho from “The Displacement Decathalon” article at the Design Observer site.

If you want more info on this whole Olympic displacement stuff, Lawrence Vale & Annemarie Gray have written a thorough and detailed examination of what they’re calling “The Displacement Decathalon” over at Design Observer. (If you’re an equal housing opportunity type person, I highly recommend reading with a sturdy G&T and at least three stress balls close to hand.)

Much of this might not be news to you. What interests me is what people think of it.

AthensPool

This is the diving well built for the 2000 Athens Games. Nice, right?
Click for a NatGeo slideshow of others.

Economics aside, is it worth the hassle?

I know it’s ethically wrong (or at least terribly disagreeable) to displace entire communities to make way for a fancy gym that the world’s elite* will use for a few weeks. Especially when those facilities crumble into disrepair in a matter of years after the event has ended.

On the other hand,

I believe in sport and international competition.

I swam until age 22, and growing up – this was before more than one or two people could make a living swimming – the Olympic Games were THE ultimate goal for me and everyone I knew. For those I know who’ve gone to the Games, they’ve lived up to every promise, every hope, every dream. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, the very idea of the Olympics – and the World Cup, and any other international competition – are some of the most inspiring things I can think of. And let’s face it – the world likes being inspired on the scale of spectacle.

But is that inspirational spectacle ultimately idealistic, rosy-glassed and unrealistic? Are those heartwarming/-wrenching Bob Costas stories of tribulation and triumph that we all love so much really kind of just self-indulgent, if the very place where one triumph happens is also the site of another – and likely worse – tribulation? A tribulation planned for and arranged by plastic-smiling organizers pandering to TV markets and big-big wallets.

But what are the alternatives? Are there alternatives?

How much of a difference would it make if the Games were held in the same place every year?

To Olympians? To spectators?

By the time I was 13 and knew what a travel meet entailed, I didn’t care where a competition was. Fargo or Fort Lauderdale or Florianópolis, you’re really just shuttling between your room and the pool.

But if the spectacle disappears – and it’d at least diminish with a static venue – and the money disappears, would the Games and other international competitions disappear, too? That’s not a problem if you don’t think that sport does anything, but if you think like I do that sport has great potential to encourage civil rights, then the disappearance of international competitions is something to be quite concerned about indeed.

Better yet, let’s get the UAE to build some ridiculous portable underwater and/or floating facilities that could be moved every few years to just offshore of and/or into the airspace above a different country. I guarantee you, a hovering Olympic Village wouldn’t let down a single athlete. And plenty of people would tune in to see.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

floating-city

From HomeDecorDream. Click to go.

What do you think?

Where’s the balance between spectacle and respect?

Do you care where various Games/Cups/games are?

*Almost all of them are athletically elite, and many are also “elite” in the way Americans use that word to mean “filthy rich.”

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Hatred, Bosnian Style

Having been out from under the beneficent yoke of academic tutelage for a little while, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out what to read.

This has and has not been what you’d call a problem – not having multiple syllabi to guide me has hardly cut down on the number of books I buy, but it has more or less obliterated any semblance of An Approach to Literature.

At first I reveled in this, bouncing from Arlt to Zamyatin and everywhere in between.

AtoZ

But I realized after a time that as in life, so in reading lists – I needed to get some structure STAT or things were really gonna start unwinding. So I decided to focus my efforts, and after considering a few methodologies, I settled on a geographical approach.

First up is the Adriatic – the Western Balkans, plus some northern Italy, maybe an Austrian or two for good measure, since despite their distance from the actual sea, they did exert a bit influence at one time or another over the area. I’ll probably reach down into the Ionian for some contemporary Greeks and Sicilians, too, just to round things out.

Adriatic             photo_11110_landscape_large

So, if anyone has any Yugoslavian/Austrian/Greek author recommendations

(besides Aleksandar Hemon), I’m all ears.

Anyway, the Adriatic to start. Specifically Bosnia, because I’ve always found the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (which arguably provided the catalyst for the First World War) to be one the most interesting points in European history. What I know of it boils down to a string of facts. But recently I’ve become more interested in the stories that surround or transcend the various groups of facts that I know, the implications of the facts for the people who have to deal with them or the life they created, the impact of those facts on people’s psyches and on culture in general. One of the places to turn for this is literature, which is one of the reasons I developed my reading lists geographically – in the hope that maybe I can get a general sense of what life or some various fractions thereof are like in these places that have, in the course of voracious-news-consumption-modern-life, become places on the map where “victims” and/or “threats” are reported on by CNN.

Gavrilo-Princip

Anyway, realizing that I have no real idea what life must have been like for Gavrilo Princip, the “Yugoslav nationalist” who shot Ferdinand and his wife, I started with a man of Princip’s place and age: Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslavian writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ivo-Andrić-2

Ivo Andrić

Andrić was born in Travnik, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1892, about two years before and a hundred miles east of Princip. Back then, the whole area was “united” under the Ottoman Empire, though everyone – Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Crotas, Albanians, Macedonians, etcetera – knew who one another were and had been and would be again. Living side by side, often within the same “ethnicity,” were (are) Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For some people, religion meant more than origin or language – for others, political worldview trumped any kind of ethnicity. This is the same in many places, of course – those of us who celebrate difference (like the US [ostensibly] does) consider it a strength of a country or region. But the cheek-by-jowlness of the mix in Yugoslavia seems more interesting because of the volatility involved – the volatility, and what Andrić called “the hatred.”

TheDamnedYardIn his collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories, I hoped to get a feel for what early 20th century Bosnia must have been like. While there wasn’t that much insight into what might have compelled Princip, man, what a world Andrić paints. Myths and legends from the days of yore, rivalries and grudges centuries in the making, medieval rituals and modern thought carried out throughout the country, from tiny village to small town to big city. 

Underneath it all, though – and this is the beauty of literature, the very reason why I read it – are things I recognize about my own life, my own circumstances, and my own prejudices. In particular, the following excerpt from “A Letter from 1920.” Andrić was very specific about his settings, so the fact that this was from 1920, a year and change after WWI officially ended, when Bosnia was licking its wounds and half-optimistically-dreaming-about and half-mortally-fearing-for the future, is rather important. It’s narrated by a man who runs into a childhood friend in a train station in the middle of the night, and from whom he gets a letter several weeks later. The friend is an emigré, a European who grew up in Bosnia but fled for a doctor’s life in France after WWI – was in the middle of fleeing the night he and the narrator ran into one another. Their meeting was strained, and the letter he wrote after was an attempt to clear things up. What follows is part of that letter, the crux of his explanation of why he couldn’t stay in Bosnia, why he felt compelled to abandon his homeland:

TrainStation

“Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast…it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief and elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them color and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions – so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which Bosnian man lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the very best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in greatest numbers at places of worship – monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier, while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, then come to blows and hate each other to death.”

KostaHakman1 KostaHakmanSlikar HakmanMujerAcostada

Three by Kosta Hakman.

I don’t want to say too much about this (shocker, I know) and risk spoiling it, but I can’t help but emphasize again that first sentence I bolded – “virtue itself speaks and acts through hatred.” How much like jihad and Fundamental Christianity and anti-choiceism and uber-American-nationalism does it sound to make a mortal sin out of something you don’t agree with?  Andrić implies that there is another way to do things. I don’t know whether he thought people could change – he, or at least his letter-writer, certainly seems to think that Bosnia hatred is endemic – but for me, it’s enough to pause and wonder, how much of what I consider virtue is based on hatred or even dislike of that virtue’s opposite? I’d like to say none, but am I really as breezy as I like to think I am?

How much of what we consider good is rooted in opposition to what we consider bad?

How open to different opinions/lifestyles/worldviews are we really?  

Where do those judgements come from? Are they legitimate?

.

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PS – There are some who say, apparently, that Andrić’s work is being dusted off and employed for anti-Muslim purposes. This I find very unsettling. It seems to me that, as this passage indicates, the vitriol he felt for his native country wasn’t directed at any one group of believers, but at the whole lot of them. If anything – and being the good Communist he was, this isn’t a stretch – he disagreed with people of all faiths, and used the various faiths of his homeland as vehicles by which to examine or expose the ridiculousness, the futility, the inherent malevolence of blind allegiance to anything.

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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Spontaneity

I don’t mean the it’s-8-o’clock-on-a-Monday-let’s-get-in-the-car-to-Vegas!! type of spontaneity.

spontaneity

I mean the kind where you’re ready and able to be open and engage with anyone, anywhere, no matter what is happening.

How many times have you gotten the opportunity to talk to someone you really wanted to talk to — and totally screwed it up?

Exhibit A: Eric Kandel.

In 2006, when I was working at the Dana Foundation in New York, I helped put on Eric Kandel’s conversation with then-chairman (and dearly departed) William Safire at the 92nd Street Y. I read the galley proof of Kandel’s book In Search of Memory (which you should totally get) and did what side research was necessary to help develop interview questions, and in so doing fell in love with Kandel’s work. And, I’m not gonna lie, I fell in a little bit of love with Dr. Kandel, too.

Eric-Kandel-Laughs-e1271530014222

I mean, right?

You get the sense that he goes through life with this smiling attitude just by reading his book, and then you find out he really is laughing all the time and I mean be still my heart, man, he’s just a total joy.

I knew that after the event at 92Y, I was going to have the opportunity to say hello and ask him to sign my book, and I agonized about what to say for days and weeks. It wasn’t going to be the time or the place for a long drawn-out conversation on how Kandel’s work was affecting my perspective, but I did want whatever I said to be memorable and interesting and smart. Okay, brilliant.

So the event was over, we got the place more or less broken down, and Dr. Kandel was still there talking with a couple stragglers who, luck would have it, turned to leave just as I came up.

“Dr. Kandel,” my manager said, “meet Ian. He put together your questions, did research, bugs everyone in the office because he won’t shut up about you, blah blah blah,” everything to goad me on, but aside from “uh, good job up there tonight,” nothing, not one thing, that I’d planned to say came out. I walked away feeling sure that Dr. Kandel was thinking, “Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

Which happens over and over and over whenever I meet someone I have half an interest in meeting, whether it’s something anticipated like Kandel or something out of the blue, like running into William H Macy or Cate Blanchett at a stoplight (don’t even ask).

It’s akin to the feeling of regret I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where after you’ve failed to say something you absolutely should have, you’d do anything to have that moment back, but it’s not quite the same. That had to do with knowing full well in the moment what you should say and consciously not saying it because you can’t handle the vulnerability it requires. This is about not having a clue about what to say in the moment because too many thoughts and emotions are running through your head.

Which is what I mean by spontaneity – being able to relate openly and unabashedly with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The stuff that runs through my head at such times is laden with the ogres and trolls of ego, with misconceptions about who I am and who I want to be and how I want to appear and how I’m sure I must look, and the neuroses that attend to the distances between those four Shades of Ian.

I do this because I don’t trust myself to just be “myself” – whatever the hell that is – at the drop of a hat, or any other time, really, and so I get tangled up trying to figure out how to present.

I like to imagine myself as a composed, imperturbable, unflappable person, but the truth is I feel like a little kid in these – honestly, in most – situations. I think of my dad, and I think of some of my friends’ dads, and that’s what unflappable looks like to me. I mean, when was the last time the cat got Clint’s tongue, Coop, am I right?

Imperturbability seems to come from a combination of knowing who you are, and being in general not all that impressed with people.

There are two ways to achieve this level of equanimity – through arrogance and through abandonment. Though I have a feeling the uber-arrogant are never quite as comfortable as they come off. Or they’re sociopaths, which is a different post altogether.

sunyataTrungpa would say that you abandon your ego by developing compassion, and that one of the ways compassion develops is from sunyata, or emptiness. That can be a confusing concept if you haven’t been introduced to it, so for the purposes of this suffice it to say that sunyata implies “no ground” – that is, none of the ideas you have about yourself-as-you-are OR -as-you’d-like-to-be have any basis whatsoever.

Where do those ideas come from in the first place? you start to wonder.

They come from other ideas, which come from society and memory and impressions and dreams and hopes and fears fears fears and not from anything actually solid. So they don’t actually mean anything or have any actual basis in reality. Which after a time frees you from trying to be, well, anything. It frees you from TRYING, and allows you just to be – to be whatever the situation calls for.

Besides which, Cate Blanchett, I guaran-effing-tee you, is NOT worried or even thinking about what kind of person you are. Ever.

If you can get those two ideas down – the conviction that we are always on shaky ground and the humility that no one cares – then you can begin to realize that the person you’re so intimidated by isn’t all these things that you and the world at large have built them up to be. In that moment, that person is nothing more than just a lump of flesh, decaying and rushing towards death at more or less the same speed you are. And thus can be dealt with as you are. However you are. Not as some other, whatever other, version of you you’re not.

So, then – how do you put into practice this notion of emptiness, how do you develop your compassion, how do you shrink and slay and shatter your ego if you’re not a Buddhist?

Well, you start by doing something for someone else. For your wife or your kids or your parents or your sibling who never does anything for you or that guy at work you can’t stand or that woman at the market who you don’t know anything about except that she wouldn’t know a good deed if it smacked her in the face like a tennis racket. You do these things and you put other people ahead of your own needy little needs, once a day or once a week or even just for once in your entire life, and you’ve started to cherish  your own ego a little less. You think, “That good deed didn’t come from the guy who I think would sweep Cate Blanchett off her feet at a stoplight. Where did that come from? Who did that come from? Who’s this person that does good things for other people and makes their life a tiny little bit lighter?”

gollumDo more things for more people more often, and you’re practicing not cherishing yourself more and more. And the less you cherish yourself, the more you realize there’s no self there to guard so jealously and get so worked up about – let alone multiple selves to completely freak out about – so there are way fewer walls or fences or obstacles of any kind, really, between you and whoever you happen to run into.

Which means that the next time you look up from your phone to find you’re standing next to Cate Blanchett, you can relate to her with spontaneous compassion – as a simple person, in other words.

You can be patient with your mom. You can be generous of spirit, even with that malcontent at the grocery store.

This carries over into the other kind of being-ready-to-say-what-you-mean, because in the process of preparing your soul for baring at a moment’s notice, you’re also preparing it for baring no matter what the risk. To the extent that spontaneity and vulnerability combine, you become tougher and tenderer. Tenderer, because you’re laying your heart open, and tougher, because there’s nothing that can come of it that you can’t handle.

And in case you’re thinking, “Those men he mentioned earlier, those paragons of the virtue he’s making out of unflappability, those white Baby Boomer American men, they didn’t do any of this touchy-feely pseudo-Buddhist crap. Why’d he even bring them into it? What’s he talking about?” True, they didn’t get to be the way they are by practicing lojong and reciting mantras. They got to be the way they are by having seen a thing or two in their day, and realizing through those experiences that in so many ways we’re all the same – just lumps of flesh heading towards destruction – and because of that, they’ve abandoned any pretense of uniqueness, in themselves and in others, and it’s like, “You’re a lump of flesh, I’m a lump of flesh, let’s see what we can make of this moment. Ready go.”

So yeah, that’s an option. Just keep your head down and do your thing and be generally nice to people and probably you’ll wind up a sage old dude/womanequivalentofdude. All this I just rambled about is just a way to be conscious of what’s happening to you, and to maybe speed up the sageness a little. If you’re interested in that.

If you’re not, go ahead and be uncomfortable as a whore in church next time you see Cate. No skin off my back.

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“Learn to hurt, baby.”

I heard that from a friend the other day. He was talking about what this mentor of his used to tell him when he was first kind of coming out of his shell a few years ago.

scarfe-illustration-for-the-wall

This guy talks about how he was pretty shut down for a pretty long time. He had some hard knocks as a young kid and he set things up so that nothing was going to bother him ever again.

Except, everything did.

And the more things bothered him, the thicker and higher he had to make these walls he was building to keep out the hurt. After a while, looking around, he didn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear anything. Nothing was coming in, good or bad. Which is the problem with walls – they keep it all out.

This is perfectly obvious to everyone in abstract. We all know about walls – especially other people’s.

“He’s so closed off.”

“She should open up more, it’d be good for her.”

“He doesn’t let anyone in.”

Etcetera.

KitchenDemoBut when it comes to ourselves, well, things are a little different. Because knocking down a wall to redo your kitchen is fun, but tearing down emotional walls is not. It requires you to pass through various – often serious – amounts of pain.

You gotta go through the bad to get the good, otherwise it isn’t even good.

Which is one of those annoying paradoxes of life, right, that so often you have to do the opposite of what seems to make sense at the time.

It doesn’t always mean you have to learn to GET hurt, though. A lot of people do that already, and do it quite well. For some people, getting hurt is their first, immediate, only reaction to anything. They build their walls out of hurt – their walls, their makeups, their very identities – and they play the perpetual victim, use their hurt manipulate people or justify really awful behavior.

I know because for a few years, that was my M.O. I couldn’t catch a break, nothing was going my way, everything was everybody else’s fault, wah wah wah, and so I numbed it all out. And then I realized that I was rather UNcomfortably numb, because I could still remember the good, somewhere back there, and I knew things could be different. That they had to be.

And this is where the learning HOW to hurt comes in. To hurt in proportion to the injury. To realize it’s not the end of the world. To hurt and then move on.

To realize there might not even be an injury.

This is also where these two slightly-different kind of Wall People converge: proportion. One’s afraid that any hurt at all is going to be the end of the world so he goes to every single length possible to avoid any possibility of hurt, and the other is absolutely sure that every single hurt he gets really is the end of the world and you’d-act-this-way-too-if-the-end-of-the-world-was-happening-to-you.

Getting out of that requires you become vulnerable. Which is part of what my buddy’s mentor had in mind, I imagine, when he’d say, “Learn to hurt, baby.”Rolling Stones Let It Bleed

Learn to get hurt if you need to, or learn how to hurt if that’s your thing. Either way, it’s about being vulnerable.

Vulnerability in the former circumstance is easy to understand – just allow it to happen. In the latter, it means laying yourself open to what comes instead of the hurt, or after the hurt, when you realize it wasn’t that bad, when you have to take responsibility for it and for all the things you didn’t do before.

Vulnerability is a different kind of hurt than the soul-evisceration of self-victimization. It can sting still, but it can also reward. And more importantly, what pain it entails is tempered by the optimism inherent “putting yourself out there.” Because you wouldn’t risk it if you didn’t think on some level that it will or at least could work out.

Case in point: I’ve been writing stories for 15 years, but I never sent one anywhere (for fear of rejection, fear of exposure-as-a-charlatan, for all kinds of reasons) until last summer. So I never got a rejection letter.

(Though I still felt victimized by the American publishing industry for not having a book deal. Seriously. That’s how I felt. I wrote about it. Several times. Thank god no one published that drivel.)

Well, I’ve gotten plenty of rejection letters now. And they suck. Every time.

But every time I get one and turn around and send the story somewhere else, I say c’est la vie. Because that really is life – especially a writer’s life. But it’s representative of this whole shift in attitude that I can even say that and mean it and not feel like I should see how long it takes to hit the water from the roadway of the Golden Gate.

Marley-truth

Like Bob says right there – getting hurt is part of life.

And it’s being okay with that, allowing yourself to run the risk of that happening, that makes you a stronger person.

And we can always do better at that. Even if you’re not one of those Wall People, you can always find a way to loosen up, to open up, to lay yourself bare. I know, I know – “laying yourself bare” sounds awful. You’re doing fine just the way you are.  But there’s always that part of you, in close relationships, in intimate interactions, when you know it’d probably be better if you said X or did Y, let the person know how you really feel.

Those moments when, if you’re like me, you think, “Get me the fuck outta here.” After which you breathe a huge sigh of relief because you maintained the integrity of your shell. That you think about for hours days weeks months years after and wish you’d just said or did whatever that soft part of your heart knew was the right thing to say or do.

I’m going to leave you with another motivational-quote meme that the internet says is attributed to Bruce Lee:

BruceLeePrayDifficult

I’ve got a lot more to say on this. I was going to segue into a different vein that has to do with the Rolling Stones (hence the album cover up there), but I think maybe that’s its own thing. You’re probably happy to get outta here in closet to 1,000 words for once anyway.

Thanks for coming.

Now go forth and be strongly fragile.

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Hunger

This post is about hunger.

So, put down your chocolate éclair or whatever you’re eating on whatever break your taking to read this. (Thanks for doing that, by the way.) I don’t mean to guilt you out of it, that scrumptious snack, but you’re probably just not gonna feel much like eating it by the end.

An old friend of mine, Shekinah Pugh, is doing this World Food Program five-day challenge called Live Below the Line. You subsist on $1.50 a day, which is the US equivalent of the worldwide “extreme poverty line.” People sponsor you to stretch yourself thin to raise money for, as the Web site says, “some of the best U.S. charities that fight extreme poverty around the world.”

lbtlOne in four kids is stunted due to hunger. It’s the world’s largest solvable problem.

Shekinah’s eating a hardboiled egg for breakfast and some reheated frozen broccoli for lunch and some white rice for dinner. In addition to the paucity of food $1.50 gets you, Shekinah’s also realizing what poor quality food it gets you, too, because decent food costs a lot of money, which is one of the myriad reasons why poverty = poor health. She did her grocery shopping for the week at the 99-Cent Store, which as you can imagine a) a whole lot of people have to do, and b) means she doesn’t have the world’s freshest ingredients.

I know it’s totes #firstworldproblems to not be able to shop the organic kale section at Whole Foods for a week, but it highlights just one of the innumerably shitty things about living in poverty. Whether undernourished or obese – both of which go hand-in-glove with poverty – you’re low on energy, your brain ain’t workin so you get behind in school or fired from your job, you’re feeling horrible, depressed, even suicidal – your entire life can be ruined by malnutrition.

Says Shekinah, after only a few days on this little food: “Never before in my life have I felt the pains of hunger the way I experienced this evening. Never before have I been brought to tears as I felt my stomach cramp and turn inside out. My emotions have hit a wall today. I’ve been crabby, tired, sensitive, sad, angry…. A roller coaster. Irrational.”

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Hunger_first_edition.jpgThose of you looking for a literary meditation on just how insane hunger can make you should check out Knut Hamsun‘s Hunger, a Dostoyevskian investigation of the lengths of self-denial and self-destruction to which a man’s pride will drive him. The protagonist is an unnamed wannabe author who’s roaming the streets of Kristiania hoping to be recognized for the genius writer he thinks he is, sure to strike it rich if an editor would just read the latest and best essay he’s figuring to prepare, just as soon as he can get a full stomach, or at least enough for his brain to work a little. His pride keeps him from begging and his delusions from stealing, and the narrative gets weirder and weirder as he descends further and further into starvation insanity:

I was fading helplessly away with open eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. Finally I stuck my forefinger in my mouth and took to sucking on it. Something began stirring in my brain, some thought in there scrabbling to get out, a stark-staring mad idea: What if I get a bite? And without a moment’s hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.
I jumped up. I was finally awake. A little blood trickled from my finger, and I licked it off as it came. It didn’t hurt, the wound was nothing really, but I was at once brought back to my sense. I shook my head, went over to the window and found a rag for the wound. While I was fiddling with this, my eyes filled with water — I wept softly to myself. The skinny lacerated finger looked so sad. God in heaven, to what extremity I had come!

If you like heavy, if you like disturbing, if you like moving and incredibly good writing, you should pick it up. If you need a pedigree-type reason, Hamsun won the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, and helped usher modernism into Norwegian literature. Paul Auster said about the book, “you can tell something new is happening here.” He’s kind of a big deal.

If your tastes run more towards the cinematic, there’s always Hunger the film, by Steve McQueen (the Brit, not the biker) with Michael Fassbender, based on the 1981 Irish prison hunger strike. Besides the mind-blowing twenty-minute dialogue (shot in one take!) between Fassbender, who plays strike leader Bobby Sands, and Liam Cunningham, who plays his priest, the film’s also impressive for its gritty display of what hunger does to people. Fassbender lost what looks like about 93% of his total body weight for the last-days portions of the film, and the makeup artists did an incredible job mocking up the sores and skin-cracks and other horrible things that happen to a body wasting away from lack of food. The political history stuff is interesting – it’s why I picked it up – but by the time Fassbender’s convinced you of the reasons he’s pursuing this hunger strike (it has as much to do with his personal grit than anything about The Troubles), politics takes a backseat, and you’re watching this man just shrivel up but you’re pulling for him in his revolting and pathetic attempt to maintain his dignity, despite the fact that it’s killing him. It shows better than anything I’ve seen or read a) just how horrid and unfeeling The Machine is and b) just how powerful the will of men can be.

It’s because of Hunger, but even more because of Hunger, probably, that I’ve had such a strong reaction to the hunger strikes going on at Guantánamo Bay. In case you don’t know, some of the 166 prisoners down in Cuba – about half of whom have been cleared for release yet continue to languish – have gone on hunger strike. The latest discussion – dealt with well in this NY Times article – is whether prisoners have the “right” to starve themselves to death in our prisons, or whether our military has the “right” (they call it “responsibility”) to keep them from starving. Doctor Jeremy Lazarus of the AMA says that, “Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.”

That might be true for American ethicists, but Gitmo supervisors, I’m guessing, aren’t too concerned about the finer philosophical points the Tweed Coats are debating. They’re probably more worried it looks pretty. fucking. bad. when your prisoners start killing themselves to protest their imprisonment. NYT’s changed the article since Tuesday to include Obama’s assurance that “I don’t want these people to die,” and his belief that Gitmo is a “recruiting tool for extremists,” so I can’t get you the exact quotes by the Gitmo staff that I’d wanted to, but basically they were saying that they added more staff to help do this “enteral” feeding, and that as guards, it’s their duty to keep prisoners alive so that, ostensibly, they can go through the justice process.

Perhaps, as it may fall out, to be put to death.

What that means is that the US is trying to maintain a level of control over their prisoners’ lives to goes far deeper than what we normally think of when we think prison-as-controlled-environment.

“I do not want to kill myself,” one of the Gitmo detainees is quoted as saying. “My religion prohibits suicide. But I will not eat or drink until I die, if necessary, to protest the injustice of this place.”

Albert Camus wrote that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical question.” Everything else outside of that is secondary. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus is referring mostly to the reactive, seemingly inexplicable act: “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps.”

Death-by-hunger-strike is different in that it very much is a planned event. It takes place over a long period of time. Its practitioners are far from “ignorant of it.” But it very much gets to the core of Camus’s project in “Sisyphus” – the meaning of life. Camus argues that just because life is absurd does not mean the actions we take within it do not have meaning. In fact, life’s absurdity endows our every single action with meaning – that’s existentialism’s whole project.

And it’s this notion – of self-determination, of rights and responsibilities – that is at the core of this force-feeding debate at Guantánamo. These people have nothing – nothing – with which to assert their humanity except by starving themselves, by putting themselves through the most drawn-out, agonizing death imaginable.

Sieges on cities worked because starving people breaks their spirits. Warlords and mafias control entire areas by controlling food – some would say dictators control entire countries or populaces that way. World hunger is a solvable problem – that’s what Shekinah is raising awareness about and money for.

And we, the Superabundant, are controlling people’s continued existence by force-feeding them. Brutal fucking irony, that, no?

What do you think?

Are we robbing these people of their humanity?

Or am I missing something?

Should you be allowed to starve to death?

How different is that from euthanasia?

Is is the context that makes it different?

What is the context in which it’d be okay?

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To Be or Not To Be “Yourself”?

We all like sayings to live by, but sometimes

aphorisms are a pain in the ass.

needlepoint

They’re supposed to be laconic little piths of life-knowledge that you can digest and recall (and regurgitate) at a moment’s notice. The sayings Grandma needlepoints and frames and hangs above Granddad’s rocker – which homey image is how they’re supposed to make you feel. Complete. Earnest. Well-Intentioned. Striving To Be Whole.

Whole Already.

But they’re not so straightforward as they seem. At least, not to the extent those who repeat them endlessly and unprovoked would have you think, as if they’re the answer to every last one of life’s little (and even major) problems.

Most of the time, they pose more questions than they answer.

The origins of these sayings are often obscured or ignored or simply unknown. Such is also the case with their contexts, especially in the aphorism compendiums that litter the feet of Christmas trees and other present-loci the world over, such as The Viking Book of Aphorisms that Auden edited, or the Native American Wisdom Collections you find in the gift shops of the natural wonders of the American West, or Zen-Thought-A-Day, or The Approachable Vedas.

Or the many varieties of Shakespeare Quotations.

Thus the Bard’s “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which has been much on my mind of late.

It’s become a self-empowering phrase, one that rat racers use to maintain their identities against the onslaught of gray-flannel-suitism, that yogis use to justify the (often ridiculous) cost of yoga studio membership, that people in recovery from everything from cancer to Catholicism to divorce to drugs use to reinforce that you are important, that you matter, that you are beautiful. That you are more than the disease and/or more than a victim and/or more than whatever it is that ails you. That whatever other people think of you, or require of you, or want you to be means nothing compared to what’s inside you and what you know in your heart of hearts you are and should be doing.

Trungpa would say it means not letting other people lay their trips on you. (But then he’d laugh and say, “That’s assuming there’s a self to lay trips on, which of course there isn’t. There aren’t even such things as trips! It’s all an illusion haha!” So, maybe he’s not so much help in this one.)

Not that any of these interpretations are really bad, obviously. If they work for people, if they’re a help, then good.

But back to “To Thine Own Self Be True.” If it appeared on Jeopardy, a lot people would askanswer, “Who is Socrates [or Some Other Ancient Greek]?” because the phrase is often emblazoned above a Greekesque profile or some esoteric/occultish symbol, like a triangle or an eye or some sun rays or an ankh.

Those that do know it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet often forget (or ignore or don’t know) its context:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

What act it’s from (I.iii) is hardly important to most people. Neither is the fact that this is the last advice Polonius will give his son Laertes, who’s off on some business (ad)ventures and won’t return to Denmark before his windbag father gets himself killed for eavesdropping on a paranoid and borderline/depressive Hamlet.

Also not that important, when we’re talking about how the phrase functions in daily American life, is the rest of the bit. Old Polonius is basically saying that if you don’t lie to yourself, you’ll never have to lie to anyone else, and not only will you not have to, but you won’t even be capable of it.

Within this advice is the conceit that it’s better not to lie to people or take advantage of them, and that you or we or Laertes or at least Polonius is aiming for “better” or “right” behavior, just as Grandma’s needlepoints implore you to do. But all that pesky functioning-within-society bs is neatly done away with by the amputation of the aphorism’s surrounding lines, and we’re left with something intensely focused on — just as we’d have it since The Me Decade, when that culture of self-care I describe above really solidified — the self.

Trungpa and no-self Buddhism/Eastern-philosophy-in-general aside, the problem I’ve been having with this aphorism of late is: to which of mine myriad selves am I supposed to be being true? Especially considering what Thomas L. Masson, Life’s late-19thC literary editor and an ironic fan of aphorism himself, had to say about it:

“‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people.”

falling_downBecause I often find myself acting in a way I would not describe as imitation of the better angels of my nature. And not just acting that way, but enjoying it. Feeling as if I’m good at it, or would be, or once was and could be again. I live in a major metropolitan area, so traffic is a concern, and an instance of this, or provoker thereof. But I’m not just talking about violent fantasies (I mean, come on, we all know I hardly have the stones or the stomach for it) – I mean everything.

Procrastinator.

Liar.

Taker-of-the-easy-way.

Glutton.

I’m also – like most people – in some ways juggling several different identities, wearing several different hats.

My anti-social Jack London hat fits really well and I feel really good when I’m wearing it, but should I really drop out and go find a sea-bound frigate upon which to weather some storms and develop some character? The other selves that have recently made some really awesome and exciting life decisions and are gaining traction in some pretty exciting areas would probably have something to say against that.

On a more positive note, some days I feel like I’m pretty good at my 9-5, and could, if I really applied myself to it, make something of myself in that world, long-term-career-wise. But sometimes I want to go back to teaching, and feel like I’m better at that, or “made for” that. Other days, I just want to get a manual labor job so I can move during the day and think at night instead of coming home already brain-tired and carpal-tunnel-sore (violins!). Or become a National Park Ranger. Or build furniture.

How much of life, after a certain point, is picking a person to be and sticking to it and developing one’s “self” within the parameters of the person you’ve picked to stick to being?

Is that being/becoming an adult? Or is that selling out? Selling short? Or just one way to live?

How do you know when you’ve reached that point of choosing?

How do you know how much of one part of yourself (a pinch?) and how much of the others (a dash? a dab? a handful?) to tip into the mix?

How do you keep it in mind that life’s a process, a progression towards a decent recipe? And that everyone else is experimenting, too? That we’re all just a bunch of amateurs knocking about the great big test kitchen of life?

How do you pare away the false selves, the selves others have made for you, and know the right one(s) to be true to?

What does it mean to “be true”? At what cost – to yourself, to others?

See what I mean about posing questions?

Then again, aphorisms fall into the category of Folk Wisdom and Common Sense, which like religious instruction doesn’t reward (or stand up under) too much critical inquiry.

Meaning, shut up and just go with it.

Whatever it means to you at any given time, if it catches you in a moment of passion or despair and helps you maintain a measure of equanimity, then take it for the momentary respite it is and leave the worrying-it-to-death alone. I guess.

What sayings do you live by?

What sayings do you despise?

How do you keep them straight?

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