a writer's journal - politics, music, american culture, esoteric aspects of life, and stories

Saturday

The epidemic of obesity

As a smoker, I'm pretty excited about obesity becoming a full-fledged disease. It will take some of the heat off me. The same people who sneer at me as I smoke in public will also sneer at those with a Big Gulp of Mt. Dew, which is pretty addictive or so I've heard.

I don't smoke too much - I'm a recreational smoker, and in some social circumstances a binge smoker - I've been known to overdo it, and wake up next to some stranger I was smoking with the night before, & our breath is pretty terrible - you can easily set your bed on fire in the hazy company of such people - but one of the interesting things about smoking nowadays is that there are many places that are so off-limits for smoking that there isn't an ash tray anywhere in sight of many public buildings, so you just have to throw your butts on the ground, grind them with your shoe, then pick them up to throw them in the trash. Or you just leave them on the ground, obviously. A silent protest.

The frightening thing about obesity is that you know that the morbidly obese don't eat the tastiest foods very much. Alcoholics don't drink microbrews, champagne or fine scotch, they drink the worst sorts of sludge, and that's sad, but at least they get drunk and don't care; the obese just eat junk because that's all they can afford. Good food is expensive, time-consuming to prepare, and it's all about details, whiffs of sage, only eating pasta within the first 5 minutes of coming out of the boiling water... It makes you think about nymphomaniacs, are they the same way? After a while, it would have to be just a restless quantity hunt. Of course, it would be pretty interesting for America to declare war on nymphomania. It is kinda the flip side of obesity, the dark underbelly of our current interest in being too huge to move.

I'm all for the fat tax, of course. The twinkie tax. Sin should be taxed, not outlawed. Just like gay "marriage" - tax it, like other kinds of marriage. Anybody who hates our drug laws should support this sort of regulation, because you don't want the state to outlaw Twinkies; you want the state to become addicted to the tax revenue the way its citezans are addicted to Twinkies. You want the state to recognize more vices, and stop treating drugs like magic weapons. You want the feds to have to deal with truckloads of unstamped Twinkies smuggled in from Canada. That's what I want.

Wednesday

What makes Galveston unique - 1

In a what will hopefully be a continuing series of edutainment installments where I will be bringing you Galveston trivia, I was pleased to note this morning that the main fire engine in town is named "Aggressor", as blazoned on all four sides.  I wasn't aware that fire trucks got names like boats and nitro-burning funny cars.  It's a good name, though; at first you'd think that an item like that should have a name implying how it protects the community or is the reddest vehicle in town, but from the perspective of the firefighters, here we have a powerful machine that seeks out a dangerous foe proactively, and blasts it before it can do too much damage.  It's a strong word that fits the firefighter ethos well, I would think.  Fits with our american ethos.  It falls into that class of words with deep ambiguity on the etymological side, because in Latin it simply means "one who steps forward" but in English (and French, where we get it) it has a military provenance and thus sounds violent.  But "one who steps forward" is a first-responder, a selfless volunteer; a good fit.

I stepped forward to boldly inquire of the fireman who was polishing its brass or something.  He impressively confirmed my question about the truck's name, and told me that although the other support vehicles at the station weren't formally named, he did think of them all as males, not females, as when for example they need maintenance, e.g. "he's coughin' up some smoke."

Tuesday

The greatest nation on earth - philosophy of history, pt 2

What makes America great?

If you are a young Rockefeller or Kennedy or Osbourne, one of the interesting questions you would ask yourself would be, "what makes my family great?"  You want to know how to take advantage of your situation, how to embody Rockefeller-ness as your forebears did so that you, too can be a great Rockefeller - you want to do your part.  There are Rockefellers who paint pictures, who want to be artists, but they fade the way snooty debutantes wither into spinsters; yes, it is probably better for you to seek the Rockefeller way, to try your hand at real Rockefeller things.

Now, if you happen instead to be from one of those lesser families who have a long relationship with the Rockefellers, but aren't hideously wealthy - only rather rich enough - you would be very interested in the activities of your Rockefeller friends who are your potential playmates, business contacts, marriage partners.  Sometimes you ask yourself, "what accident made her a Rockefeller, and me a Dempsey, lateliest scion of that restless man my great grandfather who invented Dempsey Dumpsters?"  You may be priviledged to have an inside line on understanding the historical accidents that make some men financial genius robber-barons, and others scrabbling visionary entrepeneurs who make a splash but fizzle in the big picture.

Ah, it's a well-known fact that even those most vociferous critics of U.S. foreign and domestic policy such as Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich enjoy admitting that the U.S. is nevertheless "the best," they wouldn't want to live anywhere else.  It's not as if you make yourself a better Rockefeller by acting like a Dempsey; there's not much point in moving to Canada.  Our slow-moving, bloated and anti-intellectual democracy is the worst form of government besides all the others, as the saying goes.

But America - the best?  What do we mean, exactly?  It is the beast that has clawed its way to the top (for now), in Darwinian fashion.  In the Renaissance the emerging socio-political nation-states were squabbling children in an orphanage, who heard wonderful talk of antiquity - of Rome and Greece - and these nation-states gained power in knowledge, which was written down in Latin by their robed and tonsured scribes.  They gradually gained the power to attack each other in more concerted and complex ways, and eventually the power to attack far beyond Europe.  And all the time, these growing bodies compared themselves to the father, Greece, and the mother, Rome.  The brain and the soul, the idea and the word, the mysterious seed and the miraculous womb.

This is what we Americans are also measuring our nation against, when we flush with pride in contemplation of its greatness.  We are not building pyramids, though we could: we now could build a church to our god bigger than any oriental power could conceive, of durability to outlast Ozymandias.  Think of what kind of amazing giant pointless monument we could build if we set our minds to it.  We could reshape the moon...  but no, we are content with trinkets like the statue of liberty.  And we are not ruthlessly subjugating or exterminating all of the weaker societies, like a Khanate; we are selective, we show some restraint, we let some Cherokees scurry away.  We seek a Pax Romana, road-building and aquifer-building infrastructure so that we may trade our way up to glory.  The Khans lost their glory because they let their subjects turn them into good Chinese; they were the strongest power on earth, but swallowed up by a greater culture.  The communists replicated the empire of the Khans, but they too lost their way, their ideas dribbled and puddled into the steppe and communism was absorbed into Russianism, Chinese-ism...  American power is smarter, that will not happen to us.

You are an American: a cell working away in the brain of this supreme Rockefeller.  This is the problem of life: how does a cell make the brain stop being evil, make it do good.  It's a terrible puzzle - the cell cannot even perceive the outside world except through the eyes and ears of Rockefeller, interpreted elsewhere in the cortex, and reports that reach you, wherever you are, they are fragmentary.  Of course you do not even know what good really is.

America, the greatest nation on earth right now?  Is Rockefeller the greatest man?  He is charitable, educated to a semblance of witty wisdom, and a man of action.  I would rather be in his house than in Dempsey's, I suppose, if it comes to that.  But the greatest man?  Is such a question even seemly?  It is for him and for Dempsey, come to that.  Hm, interesting.

You are an anonymous cell in the brain.  You may protest on the street with a sign, that's a way of talking to some other cells in a roundabout way.  You talk to those whom you touch.  But unless you are one of the cells in the right place, you're mostly along for the ride.

And this, again, is the problem of bureacracy.  Rockefeller tramples a man, (a Middle Easterner) what does he do?  Can he change his brain cells?  The brain cannot regulate itself.  It cannot see itself.  "Mind commands the body and the body obeys.  The mind commands itself and finds resistance." (Augustine)

Rockefeller's brain with each passing year grows more calcified and accustomed to routine.  There are restless impulses within which perhaps do not grow fainter within the brain, but are less able to affect its course.  This is decadence of bureacracy, the late stage of life, when all is small details to be enjoyed or petulant over.  The decadence of our political system, which has so insulated itself from all change, that only the most superficial questions can ever be addressed: a stifling of bureacracy which precludes any reform beyond the cosmetic, any housecleaning deeper than that of an hour's effort.

In science fiction (the opposite of history) we sometimes think about how humans millenia from now will view us: as we view cavemen, or the Greeks and Romans?  It makes sense to say, "what was the meaning of life for a caveman?  He was a scoundrel, but we are better."  It isn't true, of course - but we are trapped in the great mind of our own culture, and it is grinding to its halt, to be superseded.  The next generation Rockefeller, or his murderer.

voice

An aside about finding your voice - I mean, my voice, here, for this web log -

At this early date, I'm most comfortable here with a sort of cleaned-up full-sentence version of a shorthand voice that I use for my note-taking, which developed out of my work style at college: as I read a book or listened to a lecturer, I would occasionally write down thoughts as I went, interpolated with relevant quotes from whatever I'm working on.  It's a bit tortuous at times, and I have a tendency to use jargon from all sorts of disciplines in my own idiosyncratic way, without explaining how my use of a term veers from the natural way such tools are used.  Eventually (by summer's end) I should be much clearer to read, because I will have settled on a more focused subject matter for this venue.

Here, it's a bit new to me, because I am using one of my uninhibited private-writing techniques (I have three main other private writing styles: [A] cobbling a fictional story up from the raw lumber of notes, [B] writing letters to friends and family I don't intend to send, [C] recording noteworthy dreams and bad french pseudo-poetry), and it's clearly inadequate for the long haul.  But it is what it is, for now.  Actually, as it is when it was so it shall be: for my thoughts in the days before the flood were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that I entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so shall the coming of this blog be. (that's from the gospel of Matthew, by the way)

I.e., what I want is not to destroy that earlier form of note-taking self-writing, which I do find amusing and interesting when I reread it; I want to use this new outlet to change it, so that my notes to myself gradually become more outward-looking, permanent in intent, limpid and universal, engaged not just with the text or voice I am hearing, but with the world.

Saturday

Bureacracy, plutocracy, hegemony, and pointlessness

I took a course once in something called "Philosophy of History", and found it pretty inadequate - first of all, we didn't read any Hegel (where the phrase comes from), not to mention Nietzche or Freud, and we read maybe 10 pages of Marx.  I was hoping for a little Rorty and Baudrillard, too.  After a fleeting preliminary section on issues of historiographical praxis (how is truth arrived at among historians, etc. - I found this a good start), the meat of the course was devoted to questions of determinism and the will.  Though I had little interest in this - it's something I'd largely worked out my own beliefs on, and they are now well calcified: I am a determinist through and through - it was at least stimulating to tackle an issue that engages both types of 20th century philosophers, analytic and continental; so you look at it either as a quirky offshoot of philosophy of science (how can we predict history? an analytic question) or a semi-pragmatic-looking application of metaphysics (is the possible discontinuity between the hypothetical free will and the natural causes which affect its decisionmaking the only way out of reductionism, or are there other ways out of a deterministic world? a very nebulous line of inquiry into near-mystical solutions)

I would've been perfectly content to spend a semester looking at issues of historiographical praxis, preferably in a classroom of 50% history majors, 25% philosophy majors, 25% others.  There's plenty that's quite fascinating in a timeless way, like the almost literary question of how much emphasis on great figures is appropriate to history-telling; and there's the current crop of issues, which deal with the new interconnectedness of knowledge, post-colonialist relativism, the need to grapple with the idea that certain conspiracy theories such as the Kennedy assassination will never be resolved, etc.

But there is still plenty to look at from a phenomological point of view, too.  To my mind, the idea that each little corner of human endeavor such as war, sex, chemistry or hairdressing needs its own philosophical exegesis is a natural aftereffect of each little corner having its own history.  The basic idea here is that every historian of hairdressing has a philosophical outlook on it, which is implicit in his approach to the subject (e.g. hair is essentially a mode of expression, or perhaps hair-cutting is a form of domestication and civilizing).  The problem is that those historians who produce the best history sometimes have questionable philosophy underpinning their work, skewing their conclusions.  Therefore, you need a second layer of theory to sift through the historical work in order to even it out, separate what is known and agreed on by all from what is conjectural.

I felt for a long time in the English major ghetto that a pleasant revolution might be enacted by swapping roles, literally, with the history department.  All the English majors could spend a year reading nonfiction of various types, mainly political and social histories, and dealing with these texts in an "English majory" way.  Looking at the narrative structure and so forth.  Figuring out what makes a popular history better than an unpopular one - such an important issue.  The historians, for their part, might try to clean up the messiness of English lit. theory, try to map it out better - when symbolism was happening in France, influenced in part by factors x, y & z in world history, what was happening in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America?  What are the connections?  You can't do this in English lit because you have to focus so narrowly in subject: historians are good at focusing narrowly on any axis (time, subject, nation, etc.).

Of course, the main problem with this random thoughtlet is that it would be impossible for anything so free-form and experimental to happen at a university, because it's a giant bureacracy.  There's a very narrow view of what kinds of history writing and lit crit research are worthwhile, enforced by the nature of the educational system, everybody knows this.  And in the end most people feel it doesn't matter - who cares that the best historians succeed in part because they are smooth and interesting word-wielders?  Who cares that English lit is quite simply a formless morass of talk, without any pretense to organization?  It doesn't affect the price of gas or how people vote or anything, does it?

I'm going somewhere with this, incidentally.  It's just a metaphor, really, for what I think is the major challenge facing the human race right now.  In order to see things my way, you have to search for the unifying principle that explains that stultifying bureacracy, and the attendant corrosive plutocracy; you need to connect that with the hegemony of the system, its monopolistic control of thought and option; and how that relates to the purpose of it all, or lack thereof.

That's what I'm searching for, that unifying principle.  I'm going to write about this all next week.  I think this idea has legs.

Thursday

You eat what you are

I was wandering around the grocery store last night, thinking about American food.  It's greatly misunderstood - when people discuss it, they either talk about things like pigs in a blanket and mac'n'cheese, or they talk about things like California fusion and other types of really random trends on the coasts that happen to represent the last few decades, or they talk about various types of honorable southern cooking: Cajun, grits and collared greens (that word "collared" is chosen for a reason, you know), Tex-Mex, etc.

The way I see it, American cuisine is best understood as an industry, and you should look for it in the grocery store itself - in aisles and aisles of specialty foods devised in American laboratories.  I'm talking about snack crackers, Little Debbie, soda pop, all that kind of thing.  I have no time for recipes about spam - but spam itself, upended and on a dish, with the gooey tin crumpled like an empty beer can - that's American cuisine, right there.  Spam in a recipe - you know, mock olive loaf with spam chunks as a surprising substitute for pimentoes - this is an admirable form of mental gaming, like crossword puzzles or presidential debates.  It's cute I suppose, I'm not up in arms against it, it's just not my thing.

But grocery stores are amazing, here in america.  I get my produce, my meats, my alcohol, and typically either cheese, or milk, or eggs; then I need usually to either go down the spice & baking aisle, or the mexican aisle for some refried beans or canned peppers or something.  There's like three times as many aisles, with things that just hypnotize me.  If you want to know what american cuisine's all about, your answer is is in those aisles.  Cooking with sauce packets, fruit flavored yogurt whose main ingredients are sugar and gelatin, and of course chips of all sorts.  I eat this stuff quite a bit when I'm staying with other people, but I run a pretty tight ship at home, for various subtle reasons like it makes me feel guilty when I buy it.

It's an interesting thought experiment, wondering what grocery stores in Europe would look like if America didn't exist.  Would they lose their endless aisles of colored cereal and pop tarts?  Obviously, but you wonder, precisely, how american every last prepackaged item is.  Surely they'd have salad dressings in bottles, pre-packaged.  Actually, they'd probably still be in tins, and there wouldn't be any creamy ones or low-fat ones or raspberry-balsalmic vinagre ones.  It'd be drastically different, for sure.  Consider that Japan is also famous for its weird food, but it hasn't overrun supermarkets in any other country the way our fabulously successful cuisine has.

You sometimes hear complaints that "Olive Garden" & co. don't really do very good Italian food, that they invent silly things like lobster spaghetti and their breads and sauces are incredibly poor.  Well, in a funny way, the American system insures the opposite - that over in Europe, they really get pretty good copies of American food.  Their Coke isn't always perfect, but it's pretty acceptible.  Now, if it's clearly an imitation, I wouldn't go near it, but if it says Coke, you can trust it.  The Bagel Bites in France are actually superb - sometimes I think they are even better than the ones my mother buys.

Who would expect americans to create the kind of flimsy culture that cannot be reasonably exported?  Our potato chips truly are robust.

Tuesday

How it all works

Maybe the most important part of your life is the part that has repercussions on those who will be living a long, long time from now.  You can spend your life building solid relationships with loved ones, amassing and enjoying things; but it takes a certain sort of genius to make meaningful time-capsules and bury them about in a mathematical pattern, to make the sort of puzzles that will fascinate the alien intelligence of our descendants.

You can do this in your spare time, but it's worth really any amount of effort you can afford to put into it.  The curious thing is, it doesn't matter whether you do this anonymously - after all, who will care 3000 years from now what your precise name was or what other things you did here and now.  Do we care what Newton's personality was like?  It's a rather recent tenet of historians of science, actually, that if Newton or Einstein hadn't existed, it would've been only a loss of a few years or so, the discoveries would've been swiftly cracked by men hot on their heels.  The historians like to say, if Bach or Shakespeare had never existed, the arts might look very different today; but science doesn't need particular geniuses, only a steady supply of them.

This is precisely the model of the time-capsule as the simplest, most elemental art form, yet one begging to be explored by artists.  The great thing about time capsules is, they don't necessarily require great artistic talent in the selection of the objects - whatever you put in will be historically priceless and luminously mystical.  It helps, but it isn't necessary.

Consider, if you wrote your life story, very few people today would care.  But in the time capsule!  Can it really be so easy?

Sunday

On killing things

This article provoked a debate here to which I contributed.  I don't think I've ever had occasion to mention it to anyone, but my views on ethics led me to the conclusion, years ago, that I am not troubled by infanticide*, which is a pretty odd view.  In fact it's repugnant to most people.  When I realized this about myself, I wondered, "What other strange conclusions might my beliefs result in?"  It is as though, lurking inside me, is a latent army of hobgoblins - maybe without realizing it, I also believe that rape is justifiable against enemy combatants?  (I don't believe I do).  Of course, I didn't approve of infanticide before I had given it much thought - I disapproved of it.  I simply did what we all do, I clothed my psyche in various beliefs mostly taken from the ragshop of my culture, and some of my beliefs color-clashed (were logically inconsistent) with others, which lamentable situation persists in me to this day in other relatively obscure ways of course.
 
I mention this about infanticide because that's what I intend this blog to be all about, I guess: a place to drag these ideas out into some sort of very limited public forum, to see if I have the nerve to air my thoughts.  But what's essential is not that you understand why I believe in such a horrible thing as infanticide; merely that you might wonder as I do, "if my own ethical (or, say, aesthetic or erotic) precepts were kept in better order, what hobgoblins might lurk there?"
 
*There is the special case of sex-selective infanticide as practiced in asian nations such as India and China, where boy children are prized and girl children may require dowries, or have cooties, or something.  Here, I can cleverly finagle my ethical stand (which I am not even bothering to explain to you, because above all I think my belief about infanticide is quite unimportant) by assuming that infanticide of girls is symptomatic of the oppression of females all over the world and especially in Asia... but then, I triumphantly note that by reducing the female population relative to the males, an ingenious evolutionary strategy is being exemplified, of the sort that amphibians excel at, which will reduce the population locally, and force males to emigrate to find mates elsewhere (such as the U.S. and Europe).

Saturday

Metaphysical Anarchy

Between 7 and 8 am this morning I was lying in the tub (post jog) thinking mostly about a hypothetical world where individuals had much better articulated views about the meaning of life.  Perhaps they did this instead of discussing religion, perhaps they did this as a result of a mainstreaming of psychiatric therapy into everyone's lives (say, the various types of depression currently on the rise in developed countries are traced to an HIV-like virus which mutates too rapidly to be contained by traditional prozac-like pills, and this disease reaches an epidemic level).  Perhaps the fascination with the meaning of life metastasizes from some bestsellers to a cultural fashion for a short time; it could even be limited to or define an American subculture and still be quite interesting.
 
In general, I think it's quite uncomfortable to discuss the meaning of life.  Maybe because admitting you're a hedonist who tempers that with strong feelings for family is A) probably the nearly universal honest answer, thus embarrassingly mundane, B) pretty clearly derives from basic concepts of evolutionary biology, thus dishearteningly mechanical, C) generally assumed to be somewhat inadequate, or shameful, or something...
 
It'd be hilarious if e.g. a democratic presidential candidate countered her republican opponent's fraudulent use of Christianity by requesting a "national debate about the meaning of life itself," because the natural responses to this would range from bewildered scoffing to smug floundering (which is not such a wide range).    But it would be breathtakingly audacious.  She might say, "A good example of why I want to have this discussion is that it may be possible now that America is so rich, powerful, and technologically advanced that we could expect more out of this club of people than simply ensuring its members enjoy their Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.  Maybe it's time to add some things to that?  What about charity to other nations and people, should we consider that a fundamental goal of our nation?  Can we afford that, and do we want that, why or why not?  Perhaps that's just something we do to make ourselves happier, but perhaps it isn't, so let's discuss that.  Also, what about our legacy?  Should'nt we Americans be striving a bit harder to make the lives of future Americans better?  For a start, we could be focusing on building much more durable housing structures, that would in the long run result in nearly free housing for those that want it..." etc.
 
Consider for a moment what it would be like if you were asked to analyze the meaning of your parent's lives.  Wittgenstein says meaning is derived from use, and we can apply that to the concept of hedonistic pleasure + interaction with family/friends.  You might make a list of all human beings (or begin with a few) starting with one of your parents and proceeding to the left in order of how much their lives were improved by the influence of that initial person.  (assume that, had they not existed, you and your siblings would've been born to an absolutely average person, thus your life would've been approximately so much worse).  This list is the x-axis, and the y-axis is how useful the initial person was in improving everyone else's happiness, giving us a downward slope starting with how effectively the person maximized their own happiness, followed by their influence on family and close friends.  Depending on how influential someone is, at some point the slope gets close enough to zero that you can ignore it, but of course there's a dip below zero that counts all the people one hurts inadvertantly or maliciously in one's life without giving them enough counteractive help.  The area under the slope is a crude measure of someone's worth - not the same as meaning, of course.
 
Ah, but it's a theoretical start.  To account for meaning, that's illuminated by a third dimension on the graph, which measures what kind of usefulness we're talking about.  The curious thing is, what we seek in life is a variety of types of assistance and interaction from other people.  We want material support in various ways, education and life lessons, pleasant company, scientific and cultural advances, etc.  We are looking for a good mix - there are things important to us that are off the scale for someone in the middle ages, and yet more of what we need is off the scale for animals.  My parents were strong in certain areas of teaching me life lessons, weak in others perhaps; I eventually pick up elsewhere some of the things they didn't manage to help me with.  So if I'm, say, 6th in line of people positively influenced by my father, amongst my mother, siblings, uncles, grandparents, etc., and I make a rough sketch of all the ways he's made my life better (and worse), and lay this out on the spectrum of all the possible ways a person can affect me, that's another complex line graph.  You could stack it on top of the first graph, person by person, and this time the measure of my father's influence would be a volume, not an area.  Ultimately this z-axis is derived in complex ways from our personal take on the first half of what the meaning of life is - the half having to do with pleasure.  What exactly gives me pleasure?  The second half of the meaning of life - how we relate to others - dictates the nature of this 3-d graph (must its x-axis involve all human beings, or only close relatives and friends, or only myself?  how heavily weighted towards my own pleasure is it, really? etc.)
 
The upshot of this view is that the meaning of a person's life depends on what they do for other people, and whether their effect is relatively uniform or diverse.  I'm not proposing that one actually make such a graph of course, but what's interesting is that one could, though it would be hideously subjective / feel-good.  You must admit that in a weird way we all mentally construct such a graph for everyone we know, and fill in the blind spots with reasonable estimates.  So this is not such a specious thought exercise after all - I feel that thinking about it will help us make a slightly more objective ideation of how we value others and assign them meaning in our world.
 
Naturally, once one is finished with people, one can move on to animals, objects and ideas, and consider how they also give meaning to life.  It gets sticky with that last category.
 
Perhaps I am wrong, and it is not the case that the majority of human beings have roughly congruent views on the meaning of life.  Perhaps there is a "fundamental" difference between the view of an atheist and a fundamentalist, though I do not think so - it seems to me that most so-called fundamentalists live their lives in very similar ways to non-fundamentalists, so that for example turning a typical young radical Muslim into a suicide bomber is a difficult piece of brainwashing involving many months' work, resulting in someone who can be called mentally impaired and deluded, i.e. in some ways insane, as most suicidal people can be so viewed.  For all their talk of god, the day to day life of a fundamentalist can be understood in terms of pursuing pleasure and trying to achieve positive credit status in their family-/friend-relationships.
 
Well, that was a bit long-winded.

Thursday

~thought for the day~

Pero el ajedrez es la Ășnica ocurrencia humana que queda fuera del alcance del ser humano.
-Juan José Arreola
 
(...yet chess is the only human occurence outside the reach of the human being)
 
found this while trawling for info about this poet...  in doing so I found reported that interestingly, Borges wrote only a couple poems about chess - too obvious a metaphor, perhaps, for him to use as much as I'd have guessed.  I am tentatively teaching myself spanish, a little a year, and as with french reading poetry is a useful window half open.  But I'm saving Borges' poetry - with which I am almost completely unfamiliar, apart from the most famous occurences - until I have at least some feeling for the moods of the tenses and modes.

XL fits all

  
  
 
Been thinking about a program for promoting leftwing agenda as a(n) Xian agenda.  There's not a whole lot on the subject, surprisingly - Google's first few posts are mainly encyclopedia entries which mention such prominent current thinkers as Tolstoy (and I'm a Dostoevsky guy, doncha know).  You make a list of all the Xian things that the right pushes, and stack the left's agenda against it, but cleverly recast the things on the left in terms of WWJD: 
  

  
 
  
 
Abortion = Murder                      Caring for the Sick (universal health care as Xian responsibility)
Gay Marriage Bad                       Christian Nonviolence (no aggressive wars "   "             "         )
Abstinence not Condoms              Tending the Garden (environmentalism     "   "             "         )
Decency on Airwaves                   Eye of the Needle (punishing greedy CEOs "   "             "         )
Creationism is a Science               God Loves All His Children (truly equal schools "    "      "       )
'God' in Pledge/Courthouse         No Moneychangers in Temple (campaign finance reform " " "  )
...etc... it needs some work, maybe that last one is a bit strained...
 
Obviously the beauty is it's true: atheist socialists are far more christian in what they preach than members of the religious right.  Just as the left decries how beholden the right is to the regressive fundamentalists, so should progressives seek to extricate Democratic party rhetoric from godlessness - crazy but tautological when you think about it.*  Sensible politics: the media has been saying for years that this nation is more religious than Europe, and possibly also going through some sort of regularly scheduled millenial revival; we on the left should just accept it and try to work with it.

*brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, "A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth" - Niels Bohr


The supremacy of porn

I'm a fan of the arts, having been educated to think so.  One of the quirks of western culture is the very high value placed on art - you can easily imagine an educational system that valorizes literacy without making language arts the major timesuck they are in our secondary schools. Most kids in high school in the U.S. spend more time in English than they do taking science, for better or worse; language arts plus social studies creams science plus math; and most fluff courses are centered around papers and presentations i.e. argument/rhetoric, not anything to do with proof, hypothesis-testing, logic, etc.  There are good reasons for the evolution of this and valid if complex reasons justifying it today but you probably wouldn't object too much to experimental schools which devalued literature a bit in order to push thinking skills on the non-fuzzy end.  Instead of teaching literacy through reading stories, and teaching math by teaching dry math, you could teach math through money management, science through human health, and teach literacy by teaching dry literacy, and see what happens.
 
But yeah, art plays a big part in my life - I read a lot, I'm always looking for music, I pore through art books from the library and photocopy them for my walls, I have very specific tastes in film and television, I have a pet theory that goes sculpture:buildings::female:male, etc.  One thing I'm starting to notice is that music is easy.  So much so that I think you can argue it's a more powerful tool for the transmission of one's feeling/s than the other arts.
 
Basically, as time wears on, there is no end to the process of unearthing excellent musical recordings from the past that almost no-one knew existed.  The beloved obscurities known only to hipsters are constantly being dragged forth to wider exposure.  1960s or 70s curiosities from exotic locales are rediscovered and are favorably compared with the most famous British and American records of their time.  Seemingly endless wellsprings of blistering funk by unemployed midwesterners and spacy experimentalism on homemade machines which promptly fell apart are issued every month on boutique labels, decades after they were recorded, many of which were never released at all.  Early pop music and eerie folk wails from before the 1920s continue to be sought after, and compiled in ever-improving sound quality.  You may not buy any of these kinds of reissues, but I assure you, you will hear it in commercials, in films & tv shows; it will seep into the culture the way Nick Drake did, the way Robert Johnson did before him (he recorded in the mid '30s, was unknown until the mid-60s, became a touchstone for Clapton & Richards but was still very obscure, then went platinum in the 90s after a new reissue, and suddenly was famous as the greatest bluesman ever.)
 
There is, quite simply, no comparison for this phenomenon with any other art form.  One reason for this is that music is more typically purchased with the expectation of repeated replay, as opposed to archival film & literature.  People buy more cds than they do dvds or books, and use them more: the market's thus much bigger.  The corollary is that the pool of enthusiasts who obsess over music is bigger, and they accomplish more than the people who comb through old issues of magazines that emulated Harper's in search of overlooked short stories.
 
But I think there's something else: unknown music is just more interesting than unknown literature, art and film.  A piece of music you've never heard from 1947 has a decent chance of holding your attention, whereas a poem will likely not, a painting will likely not, a dramatic scene from a movie will likely not, etc.  And that's because, seems to me, music's easier to do.  Painting an interesting painting is incredibly difficult; writing good dialog is too.  Writing a song about your dog is easy.  Singing it is easy.  We have a low standard for quality in music, because it's packed with information about the singer, and it's usually reminding us of some other song we like because we all love songs with every set of chord changes and all types of melodies.  We have a musical culture in that sense, though very few people bother to learn how to play an instrument or carry a tune well anymore.
 
It's been said that film/tv is currently replacing the novel, which replaced poetry before it.  That big changes like this just happen, for a million different reasons which interact.  I've always thought that pop music is the current incarnation of poetry, and film is replacing symphonic music and theatre, and tv replaced conversation, bible reading and game-playing, but tv's hopefully on its way out.  So I like to think about what will replace pop music.  I figure it will be the perfect integration of some sort of rock/dance hybrid with comedic pornography, in 3-D with taser-like electroshock stimulation of the pleasure centers and carbonation, and very very catchy.
 

Tuesday

Thinking about the blue of the sea

-Thought more about the blue of the sea today (i.e., where the color comes from). My theory (that it comes from the sky) also explains why it's black at night.

-Saw a bunch of gulls swarming people at sunset feed time. Was struck by the idea that the female gulls probably get .5 or .6 pieces of bread for every piece the males get, and this made me a bit depressed.

-The sand castles of a given stretch tell you whether you're in public beach or private beach - shoddy slum castles crowded round each other and falling apart, vs. huge earthworks with moats, canals and scattered bits of toys. I wonder whether children in the age of chivalry made sand castles based on their homes, or those of their masters. Better yet, did children before castles make castles?

-If it is not the case that waves are caused by the beating of the heart of the earth, nevertheless there would be no difference if the earth had a heart which did beat. Like the sound of one's beating heart, the waves are almost immediately inaudible, as if one quickly falls partly asleep in the pleasant heat.

-I've not read any of the relevant statistics, but looking around here, it seems that if you aren't a grossly overweight American, you are grossly underweight. Either you expend an enormous amount of care & effort on your body, or you roll over and let our chemical culture have its way with you. Certainly you never see mismatched couples, 1 large 1 small, as you once did. They would need entirely separate kitchens, nowadays.

-Nudists must wonder, "How long until we will get a nudist president?"

-I was trying to remember whether birds only either are hoppers or walkers, or if there are also hop-walkers.

-When you tan, you don't think too much about the sun. Our heat sense is a bit deeper in the dermis than touch & pain, so one gets the impression that tanning wells up in the flesh, rather than being lavished upon the edges of us by direct beams from heaven.

-I suppose dolphins can easily detect pregnant humans who bravely lumber into the water. The ocean smells like the womb: our life is full of such coincidences. Anyway men at Seaworld probably pay close attention to the dolphins' flight paths when their girlfriends get in the tank.

-I wonder if the more sophisticated avians have developed rudimentary breasts. Sea gulls have milky looking bellies. It's true only (and all) mammals nuzzle, but some parakeets mimic this behavior (a tropism). We always forget the definition of "mammal" should probably be pinned on the drinking, not the dripping; otherwise only females would be mammals. Like all chicken-egg problems, there is a clear answer, in this case the lip came before the pap (that word "pap" reminds me of the opening scene in the Brothers Karamazov, when Fyodor is ridiculing Zossima, he thanks heaven for the woman that suckled such a great man, "especially the paps, particularly the paps!"). NB - must look into the linguistic logic of the new term "only/all" as a possible mirror term for "either/or".

-Through a geographic quirk, the sun neither rises nor sets on the water here at Stewart beach - it uses the seam where sand zips into sea. This probably accounts for a coarsening of the residents here, comparatively...

-A few dozen yards back from the waves and the sound suddenly changes: that's where it really does sound like a seashell at the ear. It sounds like leaving.

-I dunno why but I always have assumed there's a slight bow to the ocean, and that at the shore the water is a bit further down than out a half mile or so. This would accentuate the famous curve of the horizon one sees from the beach.

-A shy person looking for love knows the sea is full of fish, yet can spend a lifetime grasping with his bare hands. Perhaps he reflects, how much less painful for the fish this way... You're struck by how empty the sea is. You might settle for a clam or a crab... with bare hands it's not always painless.

-They say when the gray whales come back to their favorite spots in California, their songs abruptly change. Anthropomorphization is pretty odd stuff. Sometimes I think the big project of science itself is a case of anthropomorphizing, trying to view the world through a filter of what it means for us alone. But maybe, just maybe, when we listen to whale song, we are doing the opposite - we are animorphizing, trying to pretend we are whales.

-The term "dream job" can be inverted to mean "jobs that, if I did that for a living, and self-identified into it so much that I dreamt about it, and I was naked in the dream, it wouldn't matter".. Like, you deal with algae all day, you dream about it, but in your naked dream you don't freak out, because you're underwater. This also applies to porn stars and probably all the support crew on the porn set (if the cameraman suddenly gets naked, who could object?). People I wonder about re: naked dreams...
People who don't dress themselves, such as Steven Hawking and J. Lo
People who not only don't dress themselves, but would be afraid & conflicted when trying to cover their privates with their hands - such as those guys with guinness book fingernails
People who sunburn easily - are their naked dreams more traumatic?

Monday

I am my own admin

Still getting the hang of this, as Cole Porter would say the slang and tang and harangue of this, the pang and sturm und drang of this...

Anyways, by the end of the summer I'll get around to putting together a homepage, with music to download (mine and other people's, and most importantly, mixtures thereof), pictures of important people in my life such as myself, artwork and mp3s of me snoring and so on. Until then, things will be pretty minimalist here. Bau to the haus.

I'm not really sure how much political stuff I want to write, because it's some kind of conviction of mine that only experts should really discuss policy; ideally it's the job of the democratic everyman to respond to the experts' pitches and ignore the partisan commentators and paid-for journalists. Then you vote, and in between times talk about it with your friends/family to spread the message, and if necessary, organize. So if you're talking politics, either you're an expert (good), an everyman (good), or a commentator (bad), or a journalist (in theory, good, in practice, bad).

So long as I don't put my political viewpoints through my English major filter, I think I'll be ok. i.e. trying to analyze narrative thrust of Daschle or something. You know, his epistemic vagueness which recontextualizes our despair into his nambiness, his pambiness and (as Cole Porter would say) his bleating-heart lambiness.

Another way to waste your vote

I was reading the political platform of one of the fringe candidates the other day, which is one of the more disheartening ways to get sidetracked when thinking about politics in our two-party system. Although it doesn't get taught in schools anymore (if it ever was), we all learned in the past three presidential elections that third party candidates like Perot and Nader have the opposite effect in a two-party system as they do in a parliamentary system: instead of taking part in a coalition, the outsider candidates act as spoilers. In another system, Perot in 1992 would've loaned his share of the vote to the republicans, and tried to force the Bush sr. government in the direction of his "pro-American" policies, whatever they might have turned out exactly to be (certainly he would've tried to prevent NAFTA). Well then, what is the function of third party candidates in the U.S.?

The standard response such as this is that third party platforms are like experimental labs of kooky ideas - such as the vote for women - which occasionally prove hitworthy, so they can be stolen by the duopoly and incorporated into the system. Leaving aside for the moment our passing observation that the political system insures a duopoly, which is marketplace poison because corrupt collusion between them would almost immediately set in, it's worth noting that third parties often run extremely odd looking candidates, even ugly or sinister ones. They do this because their true function is villainous...

Which is odd because whatever your political beliefs, you have to respect the fringes who refuse to compromise on their pet issues. For example, I am a fairly left-leaning voter, so I have a lot of respect for this particular anti-war kook's platform I was reading about:

  1. End unconditional U.S. support for Israel, which the rest of the world condemns, and incites terrorists to organize and act against us

  2. Gradual pullback of U.S. military bases from the hundreds of nations we are decamped in, particularly from the Arabian countries whose populace would look on our departure with approval; in order to refocus our military on defense of the homeland

  3. Withdrawal from Iraq & Afghanistan, replaced by multinational peacekeepers

  4. Re-evaluation of our support for Russia, India and China, who cloak their often vicious internal crackdowns and repression in the mantle of U.S.-sanctioned "anti-terrorism"

  5. More broadly, a less cynical style of statecraft that no longer tolerates corrupt and tyrannical governments simply for reasons of business

  6. And finally, massive increases in funding for alternative energy sources, to reduce the need for our dubious relationships with oil dictatorships



To be sure, it's not a very well-rounded platform, but then neither is the Green Party's. It's an interesting take, though, and certainly merits discussion. If you think about it, the fiascos in Iraq and on 9/11 almost demand a complete reorganization of our overarching diplomatic and military style, and if Islam is not the new communism, we might very well make it the new communism if we persist in the old style of fighting.

Of course, I had to paraphrase this so-called platform, because I've just heard about this it third-hand: I don't know any Arabic, and certainly not the strange dialect of Osama Bin Laden, whose platform it is, as elucidated in his videos.

I told you this was disheartening.

Sunday

Abstract Music

Bought a few dollar records at the goodwill yesterday, with my player 800 miles away. It was a good little haul though, and gave me much pleasure. I may not listen to them when I pick up my turntable in August; I may not get around to all of them until Autumn. It's a game you indulge in, buying records; like a child in a movie about 1940s NYC who passes an alley chalked for hopscotch, I stop and play. That's the quiet way of playing records... there's a great Otis Redding lp (dictionary of soul), a Sinatra record I've been looking for for a few years (softly as I leave you), the first Quicksilver M.S. lp in very decent shape, Jackie Mason's first lp with a very young man on the cover who looks almost disconcertingly normal if smugly impish, a fantastic looking barely played lp of Elizabethan dulcimer music by one Randy Wilkinson (must be transcriptions)...

...and the real find of the day, a homemade record made by a couple of nurses, calling themselves the Mad Hatters, singing apparently humerous songs about tuberculosis. I'm imagining something like the Roches meets Ween. I googled them only finding a passing reference dated 2003 - but the hairstyles on this wonderful platter date to the late 70s, I think; anyway, it's hair like my mother's was back then. I'll certainly be mp3ing this and offering it to those in the found music community... this is the first unique object like this I've found in the dollar bin, and it's quite exciting.

Friday

Peoplewatchingholes

God, I love McDonald's. Not the food so much, although I am a salt fiend - will lick for salt - but the atmosphere, the ethos, the Hannah Arendt's-banality-of-evil of it. You know like, you can compare it to the 50s diner and so lucidly see what's changed about America.

I became an enthusiast of peoplewatching a few years ago, and there are some places you can go for invisible peoplewatching, like shopping malls and museums. It's almost expected there. You can smoke in a park and stare for five minutes and that's plenty of both for a day - turn around and walk home with spring in step and the brain's tongue wags. But McDonald's is a perfect place to Provocatively Peoplewatch. When we were in college we'd sneak a bit of p-watching or e-dropping at Perky's (Perkin's - it was a block from the strip club come to think of it), but you can go too far, get grilled for that. If you gawk too much in a country bar you can get your car molested as I have, or much worse I'm sure.

McDonald's, now, it's by its nature safe, like a graveyard. Lack of rules, etiquette and pride; but lack of meaning, value or risk. You can shout in a McDonald's, so long as you bought your food and don't look like a bum; you can sell things in the back, so long as you don't make a fuss or do it every day. Making out, singing along with the soundtrack, running children - vibrant things there, framed in that whiteout backdrop. So you can peoplewatch pretty openly, with ice on your tongue from the never ending diet coke (I'm too lazy to chew ice anymore). We all learned to peoplewatch in school under flourescents and on molded chairs: just feels natural to me.

I'm in there every couple of months normally, to kill a few hours with a book in a corner, in sunglasses, and it's good for me, I stare a bit and think pretty hard, squeeze the stone-mind and try to get some blood to drip. But on the road, in towns unfamiliar, times I need the jolt of the raw truth, I look more at the structure itself, the furnishings (again just like malls) are always different always the same; I also scrutinize employees, food, and tray liner. So I was there last night, checking in on the Stewart beach one. Two gulls were watching two girls claw at each other's straps in the play area, past the brackish half moon shadows cast by the carnivalesque striped parasols. Inside I was immediately struck by a hanging three ply mobile that certainly wasn't there last year..: It caught the stuttered breeze of my casual entrance and spun, showing a panel of fries, a panel with a girl who looked a bit like Garofalo in black eyeliner and a provocatively obvious foundation line giving oral sex to a french fry with a rather driven look leftwards, over a caption reading "shoes aren't my only obsession", and then the third panel was revealed a cropped closeup of Ronald McDonald's feet. I smiled at this, and smiled at the plump, sweaty girl and overly tall begoitered boy who took my order together in some sort of retraining mind meld. God, I love McDonald's. Like loving guns I suppose, or a worthy enemy you've been sleeping with for some time.

Thursday

Note to elf:

Track down this and this by Ben Marcus, who wrote this of course, one of your favorites; and investigate the people he mentions here, including him and her and him, but not him & him who you have already finished investigating almost completely.

I mention this because I just read this worthy attempt of a crossover book, and I am beginning to formulate some sort of dictum that goes sort of like, "Never read novels in one sitting, dip into them at random, as one does with the bible; as for things meant to be read straight through, these include textbooks (meant to be crammed in a night), anthologies (meant to display the editor's skill in juxtaposition), cereal boxes and newspapers (meant to help soothe the transition to a waking state), sex manuals (meant to induce drowsiness, or meant to be crammed in the night), dictionaries and other references (meant to assist alien visitors), vols of poetry (not meant to be read at all)."

~thought for the day~

From the Athartvavedaparasishtra, as rendered by Wendy Doniger: Whoever dreams that he is smeared with oil, or that he enters his mother or enters a blazing fire, or falls from the peak of a mountain, or plunges into wells of mud or drowns in water, or uptroots a tree, or has sexual intercourse with a female ape or in the mouth of a maiden, or vomits blood from his throat, or is bound by ropes - he will die.

A single sentence, a single thought that twists like a snake. A slinky thought that seems to tell a story - i pick out a flavor common to Marquez and Prassinos. A very good illustration of the huge difference between what words can say and how they act.

Wednesday

Famous first words: I have started a blog

The title of this here new site derives from a Robt Service poem which illustrates how the technique of apostrophe - addressing something that isn't present - doesn't have to be obviously signalled. Usually apostrophics begin with that lovely word "O". O Wild West Wind, blow / Typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes. . . SMOG! etc.

The Service poem, "My Masterpiece", speaks to a book he never wrote, which appeals to my sense of murky irony. If you like, you can think about the small paradox in that gesture: a poem exists to apologise for the nonexistence of a book. There isn't much to say about any small paradox, though.

Service is famously lowbrow, a "people's poet", whose almost bitter obituary scathingly refers to those "Fancy-Dan dilettantes" who would disparage his conservative style. "Fancy-Dan dillettante" was my second choice for this site, I should say. Anyway I was huddled over this maudlin remonstrance "don't haunt me now" a few years ago once again, here, as sung or maybe congealed by a scottish pop group very dear to me (Service was half Scot you know). They call themselves - abashedly - the Trash Can Sinatras, very middlebrow, very abashed, and when I met them, I mentioned to one of them over two pear ciders that someone such as I should write a book about such as they, and the being of a heartbreakingly unknown group - just famous enough not to break up, to be able to pay for their liquor, but not famous enough to eat - and the small paradox of heartbreakingly being a group whose songs are coincinotdently mostly heartbreakers. But there isn't much to say about books that never get written.

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