08 October 2013

the grass is always greener.

When the 1980s began, preparing to unleash its firestorm of neon, hair spray, and cum-splattered acid washes on an unsuspecting public, I was just eight years old. So I guess you could say that the better part of my 'formative years' (or, rather, deformative years) are owed to that fateful, Swatch-guarded decade. 

As 'wonder years' go, I'm sure there could've been much worse. Consider the poor kids from the 1340s by way of contrast. You think acne is bad?  Try asking Winnie Cooper out on a date when you come down with the Black Death and large boils—endlessly seeping a thick pinkish amalgam of pus and blood—start appearing under your armpits and around your groin. See what good 10% benzoyl peroxide cream does you when your fingers turn black from gangrene and your skin eventually falls off. (That zit you had on your nose for class photos doesn't sound so bad now, does it?) And then what's your reward for enduring a week's worth of agony and suffering—without the benefit of a Walkman or The Cosby Show, I might add? Oh. You get to die. But before you finally shuffle off that mortal coil, maybe you'll serve as yet another link in the chain of misery and death overtaking the continent by infecting a few friends and family members. Then, at long last, you'll only be remembered as a worst-case-scenario statistic for some twat writing a blog over 600 years later.

Yay for you. Not exactly yearbook material, is it? Before you try to imagine how awful life must have been before cellphones, think about that for a while. Texting your bff an emoji sort of becomes irrelevant after your face falls off. I'm not advising you to look at the bright side—because I am surely no bright-side looker myself—but context is always important. When I'm complaining that the iPhone doesn't have Swype, I try to remember that a hundred years I might have died from diarrhea. 

But let's return to the 1980s for a minute. While there were undeniably some great features of the decade—the decline of the Soviet empire, the introduction of the space shuttle, the musical career of Samantha Fox—I don't recall the decade very fondly (on the whole). I realize that the notion of decades as unified, demarcated temporal-cultural units is preposterous when you think about it. The 1980s are only the 1980s because we say, 'Those were the 1980s.' There isn't anything intrinsically distinct about this ten-year period. It's an artificial framework that has been laid over whatever happened to occur.

I'm bringing this up because every time I go to youtube to watch a music video of a 1980s song, I inevitably come across one of those cultural nostalgia comments left by some drooling idiot who probably posted it during computer hour at the mental institution. Why do I read youtube comments? They are the single greatest anecdotal argument against the advancement of the human species. But in the same way some people have to look at a car crash when they're driving down the road, I have to look at the car crash of humanity—and where better to find it than in the comments section of youtube (or the comments section of any given news organization's website). It's truly impressive how stupid, mean-spirited, and utterly useless most people are.

For many years, we didn't know just how dumb the populace was. I mean, we knew people were dumb, but we didn't know the frightening pervasiveness of the dumbness. Then the internet was invented by Al Gore and we were suddenly provided a prime vantage from which to see all the dumbness sprawling all around us. It isn't that the internet exacerbated the dumbness or the mean-spiritedness; it just showed us more of it than we were ever likely to see in our limited travels on this planet.

Case in point: If you go to any music video from an earlier decade on youtube, you will very likely see a comment somewhere below it claiming that '[that decade] is when they made REAL music... not like this Lady Gaga shit today.' Or something to that effect. 

I really want to find each person who has ever posted something like this and piss in his or her face. I'm not really sure why. Don't lots of people have (irrational) affections for the past? It isn't particularly unusual. Most of us can point to a specific time in our lives that we thought was our 'golden age' of innocence, and many of the more feeble-minded among us will extrapolate this innocence to the decade during which it occurred.

All the same, I'm fascinated (in a negative way) with the kind of mentality that feels compelled to post the following comments. To all of you nimrods: I lived during the 1980s! The whole decade! It wasn't that great. Clothes and hairstyles were particularly ugly. (Not as ugly as the 1970s, but still.) It was, generally speaking, a bad decade for film. Republicans were in the White House the whole ten years. And Phil Collins was actually popular—which no amount of rationalization or memory repression can erase from our cultural history. We're all to blame. 

07 October 2013

the complaint desk.

I'm tired of the nature of things. 

What I mean by that is that I don't approve of the way things are designed in this world. What things? Everything that's organic or essential. I'm talking about the things that we didn't invent but were always here, establishing the rules and parameters of our subsequent existence. Disease. Deterioration. Death. The collusion of matter in this cumbersome, tactile universe in which we find ourselves.

As you probably know by this point, I don't believe in God—either as a super-powered son-of-a-bitch or as a diffuse, organizing principle tapped into by hippies and other Californians—so I don't really have anyone to register my complaints with. This, I think, is the most troubling aspect of my worldview. We are conditioned to seek out a Complaints Desk in every facet of our lives because we trust that—if the powers-that-be were doing their job properly—things would be improved, optimized, perfected... Even though we live in a mostly infuriating world of traffic jams, murder, country music, and pop-up internet advertising, we somehow believe (instinctively?) that there is an authority figure behind the scenes who's dropped the proverbial ball—another old man in a navy blue suit with an American flag lapel pin snookered by powerful lobbies or the base urges of their own corruptible natures. 

When you don't believe in God, you reach a limit. If you get bad service at a restaurant, you can complain to the manager. If the manager is rude, maybe you can write to an owner or the company that owns the franchise. If you don't get any acceptable response, perhaps you can write a scathing review on Yelp in the hope that you'll negatively impact the restaurant's business in the future. But if you keep going on like this, climbing the hierarchical chain of griping and grousing, you'll eventually arrive at a place where you finally zero in on the nature of things themselves and there's just nobody left to read your comment card. (Let me introduce the idea here—only as fleeting conjecture—that maybe humankind created 'God' in order to have someone to blame for how shitty everything else. I have no evidence of this idea, but nobody has evidence for the existence of God either—so we're even-steven.)

It's frustrating when things are shitty in your life—i.e., completely circumstantial things that have nothing to do with your own volition—and you don't have anyone to point the finger of blame at. (And you also don't have anyone left to give the finger to either.) Why do I have to floss my teeth to keep my gums healthy? Why can't we cure pancreatic cancer? Why does it get too hot in summer and too cold in winter? Why do spiders freak me out? Why do I have to get tired? Why can't I always have the energy to do whatever I want to do? Why am I intolerant of lactose? Why do I have to keep dropping things—my keys, the mail, coins, receipts, my glasses? Why do we have to die? Why can't we just live forever—or as long as we choose to? What's the use of pain and injury? Why aren't we more indestructible and intelligent? 

I know that some of these things have 'scientific' answers. But who created science itself—its laws and fundamental structure? Ultimately, every question eventually recedes to a brute fact that cannot be explained or understood by earlier facts. There is always a limit that we'll butt our heads against. But why this limit? Where's the twenty-four-hour hotline where I can tell a knowledgeable but indifferent operator about my allergic reaction to the nature of things—to the way things fundamentally are? She could suggest a salve or an ointment to reduce the swelling, and I would be pacified by her authority and by her mere presence 'behind the scenes' of reality, understanding its esoteric mechanisms.

But there is no operator, no quality control manager, no all-encompassing Fact that validates all of reality in a satisfying or conclusive way...

It's like this. If 'Life the Way It Is' were a product that I had ordered from amazon.com, I would like to be able to go the website and write a lengthy, critical review of this product—which would not necessarily be seen by anyone or anything that had the power to change or to improve it but which would (at least) offer the hope that it could be seen. It might be seen. It's possible that my protest would reach the iPad of the authority figure who had the power to change everything. Or at least explain it.

But there's no such recourse. This blog is probably the best proxy I can hope for.

(In case you were wondering, if 'Life the Way It Is' were a product that I had ordered from amazon.com, I would give it two or three stars. I'm not sure which.) 

05 October 2013

sigmund fraud.

I don't really buy into (traditional) dream interpretation. I think the whole enterprise is a distant cousin of astrology and is based on two rather ludicrous premises:

Firstly, we assume that the human mind (which already has a lot on its plate) is bent on encrypting our neuroses and emotional hang-ups—most of which are fairly obvious anyway—in an arcane or preposterously literary symbolic code. Why doesn't the mind just come out with it and say, 'Hey, you've got some major intimacy issues' or 'You feel like your life is out of control.' The conventional rebuttal is that there is some sort of egoistic scrim that either protects us from troubling self-awareness (i.e., Oedipal complexes and past traumas) or obscures deep-seated psychological dysfunction in order to maintain a basic (albeit superficial) functioning. In other words, if our fears and the hobgoblins of our so-called id became too preoccupying, we wouldn't be able to go to work or mow the lawn or get our driver's license renewed. In a way, this is itself dysfunctional because it prioritizes banal concerns over a more thoroughgoing happiness (which itself would make tending to these banalities less tiresome, one might assume).

As attractive as this speculation appears, I'm not sure we have any basis for this presumption. Yes, people sometimes do actively 'forget' instances of sexual abuse, for example, in order to avoid confronting the trauma head-on, but I am not so sure how this translates to the dreamworld. Do these same people 'remember' traumas through their dreams? Or is the imagery of dreams retrofitted to seem to represent these traumas after they've already been rediscovered in the conscious mind? It's another chicken-and-egg scenario really. Also, these kinds of stressors are truly exceptional, and most of us are fortunate enough not to have experienced a trauma worth 'forgetting.' For comparison's sake, it's interesting to note that Freud seemed to discover dream imagery related to the Oedipal complex while not ever providing any compelling evidence that the Oedipal complex even exists. It's as if he went searching for evidence to support a hare-brained hypothesis (which—viewed through the lens of this theory—may itself just be a product of his own individual psychological hang-ups).

This brings us to the second—and more disturbing—premise of conventional dream interpretation: certain 'experts' purport to enjoy a special insight into the mechanics  of dream encryption. This stinks of religiosity and authoritarianism in the worst way—especially since, as I just noted in the previous paragraph, these experts are subject to the very same mind games that they claim to decode! Always beware of religious gurus, prophets, metaphysicians, and experts in manufactured disciplines. Freud was a well-meaning charlatan. I don't think he set out to sell the world snake oil; I think he was excited enough by a basic understanding of human psychology to extrapolate these principles to areas beyond the purview of science and logical analysis. Don't be fooled. Whatever lies beyond this purview is mysticism and religion and superstition.

How did you like that puffed-up introduction? Yes, it was only an introduction. This is the meat of the blog entry right here. I am going to cannonball into the waters of narcissism and self-absorption in order to talk about my own dreams now. 

Generally speaking, I hate hearing about other people's dreams—unless something really amusing or coincidental happens in them. But this rarely happens. Mostly they're just mish-mashes of past experiences run through a food processor or scraps of ideas ground up in the garbage disposal of the human mind. In other words, if it wasn't important enough to be spoken aloud by your conscious mind, then I certainly don't want to be subjected to the blooper reel of your unconscious mind. 

Nevertheless—in an embarrassing claim to my own exceptionalism—I'm going to tell you about my dreams, not because they are interesting or remarkable in and of themselves, but because they occur with such obsessive regularity that I feel they must be reckoned with in some way.

I've been out of high school for (HOLY SHIT!) twenty-three years now. (I'll say it again: HOLY SHIT!) But judging from my dream-life, these four years of matriculation scarred me profoundly. I'm forever walking the halls of St. Joseph's High School during my sleeping hours, bathed in the faintly bile-green filter of those institutional walls. Of course, little if any natural light reaches the hallways, so everyone's face is hollowed-out, blanched by the sputtering overhead fluorescence. I'm not sure how this corresponds with reality, but the place smells dank in my dreams (or else I'm impressed by the idea of its dankness). The muskiness of too many bodies in a tight space sours the air. 

Where am I going? One of two places. The first is my locker. It's locker number 777, which was actually my locker—although I don't remember which year. If you were an interpretation fanatic, you might think all the sevens were a good omen, but they're not. It's the first day back after Christmas break, and I'm approaching the locker, which is a dismal army-green, and I'm oppressed by the task ahead of me. What task? you might wonder. Taking a test? Re-encountering some of the douchebags of my high school class? (Sorry, douchebags. You know who you were.) No, none of these things could be further from my mind. The impossible task which (as always) confronts me is remembering my locker combination. Holy fuck, what a terror. Why didn't I ever write it down? How could I trust my mind to hold on to those random numbers? I never even thought up a mnemonic device. I just laid down the numbers—one after the other—in my conscious mind, and I hoped they'd stay put. But they didn't. It's like trying to make out something at a very great distance. You're teased by the general shape of it, but you can't quite grasp it in its specificity.

Where else am I going? Algebra class. Delphine Luzney is the teacher. Who could forget a name like that? Delphine Luzney. Why is it always that class and none of the others? But the problem is that I don't know where the class is. Why didn't I keep my high school schedule? Why did I assume that just because I remembered it one day that I would continue remembering it forever? It's been twenty-three years (HOLY SHIT!) and I don't even know what floor it was on. I could stop and ask someone, but they won't know either and why would they bother helping me find it? Delphine Luzney, where are you? It's not like I'm goofing off like the other kids. I'm trying to find you, but I don't know where they keep you. Maybe whenever I start remembering where you are, they decide to move you again to someplace else. 

My point here is that I don't think these dreams are particularly symbolic. I think they are what they express on the surface: a fear of being lost, of forgetting, of feeling disoriented. Aren't these normal fears for human beings? Why does all of this wandering through the hallways of my dreams have to point to anything more profound or particular? My mind is saying to me, 'You are afraid of this,' not 'You are afraid of this, meaning that.' 

It's interesting to note that I don't ever recall once forgetting my locker combination or the location of a classroom in real life. I'm sure I probably worried about it at some point, but the object of the fear never really materialized. It was just the symptom of a general fear that still nags at me to this day. Nothing could be more literal-minded than forever not locating what you're searching for. You can apply this to locker combinations or to existential questions of life and death. It's all the same. 

04 October 2013

filth and squalor and dirty bras.

So, yeah. I'm going to just start blogging again as if I haven't been mysteriously absent for five long months, during which time I didn't really accomplish anything remarkable or improve the world or even my life in any substantial way. My life, you see, is like a stained brassiere discarded in a dark alleyway. Who would ever dare to pick it up or move it? If anything, it's gotten crustier and become a more intrinsic part of the scenery over time. That's me. The dirty bra. Or no. In this metaphor, I guess I'm the person who wears the dirty bra. Or maybe I'm the dark alleyway. In any case, it's a comparison best left unanalyzed. 

I have a particular fascination with filth. (Who doesn't? you ask. Why preach to the choir?) For instance, I love (artful) photography of urban and suburban squalor. The vivid sense of abandonment and disuse captured in these photos transcends the mere rust and detritus and discoloration; what these pictures really 'say' can be read in what is absent: the activity, the functionality ... the ever-present potentiality of objects and human beings interacting together. A photograph locks the elusive present into a strained immobility; even if it's a still-life, we sense the extension of the persons and objects into time and space. I suppose photographs are a lot like speeding trucks that have suddenly screeched to a  halt. We can still feel the residual momentum in our bones. The truck wants to move so badly that we almost move on behalf of it. Our imagination is the proxy.

When we see spaces and landscapes like these—and I mean really see them, not just assimilate them as more useless noise in our sightline—we see the places that weren't meant to be seen. We are looking at the party after all the guests have gone home; the setting has been used up or exhausted of its described function. Instead of a living room or ballroom or a church hall, we're looking at what has been spent there. It's almost a collusion of dread and euphoria at the same time. A free fall.

But also, regarding filth... I recently stayed at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco. It is a gargantuan old-style hotel with three distinct towers (each with its own bank of elevators) and a cavernous lobby aspiring to grandness but achieving only a burnished institutionalism. To its credit, my hotel room had an exceptional view of the San Francisco skyline, but anyone who knows me well understands my troubled relationship with hotel rooms. I am not altogether pleased at living in a space where countless faceless strangers have fucked, shat, walked in their bare feet, drooled, sat around in their underwear, and projectile-masturbated. (I say 'faceless strangers,' but let me assure you that my imagination supplies all kinds of faces.) Every time I set my head down on a hotel room pillow, I can't help imagining a Dirty Sanchez enacted atop the very same pillow just last week. Even if the resentful housekeeping staff has laundered diligently, I am (to put it mildly) uncomfortable with the intimacy between my face and a stranger's anus achieved by a shared pillowcase. And even if it's just paranoia, an imagined event is (psychologically speaking) just as troubling as a real event if there is no objective means of distinguishing between the two. The so-called reasonable person will say, 'What are the odds?' Well, let me just say this: someone eventually wins the lottery. And if it's the fat-man's-anus-in-my-face lottery, you can bet your Murphy's Law that I'll be the winner. [As you might guess, I cover the pillow with a piece of my clothing before I go to sleep.]

Hilton is an upper midrange hotelier, so for whatever deluded reasons, I was less worried there than I might be at a Motel 6 or the old mom-and-pop place along the highway (you know, the motel with the rust-colored carpeting—all the better for disguising the blood and urine stains). But I confess the bathroom bothered me. The drop-ceiling tiles above the shower were stained (and perhaps moldy?) and there was a suspiciously fecal-colored stain in the floor tiles that wouldn't come off no matter how hard I rubbed it with the bath towel. Every time I walked into that bathroom, my eye immediately went to the stain. It was like my eye was a starving man and that fecal-colored stain was a plate of nachos. 

It's interesting that (in general) I'm not a big germaphobe. I think nothing of touching railings or public restroom doors or flushers. I don't wash my hands nearly enough. I don't experience a creeping sensation after I shake a stranger's hand. I never think twice about airplane seats or subway poles. There are certain places that my imagination won't go. I like to think that this is an innate preservation instinct. If I thought too much about everything, I'd never have time to worry about the really pressing anxieties, like sinkholes and dirty bombs and catastrophic meteor impacts.

01 May 2013

the plight of eric carmen (is the plight of all of us).

You probably imagined you were safe from Biblical passages, nestled as you were against the warm, nourishing teat of this blog, but even your mother's milk can be poisonous. Don't become complacent in the world, friends. It doesn't belong to you, after all. It's not a trained dog that heels or a museum exhibit or a television episode. 

I hate to glorify my own neuroses and to regard them as something less than ordinary, but I want to tell you that yesterday evening I was accosted by the realization that I was entirely alone in the world.

Now don't send out the suicide watch or the men in white jumpsuits just yet. While our aloneness in the universe may not be terribly comforting, it's liberating too—and empowering. 

What would happen if everyone you loved or depended upon—either for their support or for their mere presence—disappeared, died, went away? What would be left of you? You'd be sad, of course, but would you ever recover? Is there anything within you that would continue to exist without a world to see you and validate your existence? What I'm asking you, in a manner of speaking, is whether you actually exist or whether you're only a carcass—a scrap of dead meat that's only borrowed and fed off the lives of others around you?

Remembering my aloneness—which wasn't completely a negative feeling—reminded me of a 'song' by Diamanda Galás' called 'Deliver Me from Mine Enemies' which quotes liberally from the Bible, particularly Psalm 22. I don't believe in god, but I think that's what makes the silence that answers this passage all the more chilling—and the misplaced trust in the mercy of fate all the more poignant.

My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My god, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
By night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the holy one;
You are the one Israel praises.
In you, our ancestors put their trust;
They trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
In you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
Scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
They hurl insults, shaking their heads;
'He trusts in the Lord,' they say,
'Let the Lord rescue him.
Let the Lord deliver him
Since he delights in him.'

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
You made me trust in you, even at my mother's breast.
From birth I was cast upon you;
From my mother's womb you have been my god.

Do not be far from me,
For trouble is near
And there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
Strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
Open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
It has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
You lay me in the dust of death.

30 April 2013

the rite of spring.

People who don't live in seasonal climates probably won't understand this, but the worst thing about spring is the obnoxious euphoria of the cargo-shorted and spray-tanned as they emerge from their long hibernation. Suddenly, the roadways are filled with tricked out Hondas, with tinted windows, neon detailing, and fancified rims that cost more than the driver's total net worth. These vehicular equivalents of taking out one's penis and waving it around inevitably spill forth a tsunami of bass-heavy music that you feel palpating every organ in your body—even the ones you were never before aware of having. 

Girls who are scarcely old enough to marry Jerry Lee Lewis convene in parking lots and in the Slushie aisle wearing what twenty years ago would have been considered the uniform of the street trade. Their shorts are so short and their shirts are so tight that Vietnamese hookers blush and put on a shrug. Pink and chemically treated in every imaginable way, these apprentice hoochies are somewhere southward on the continuum between Rainbow Brite and rainbow parties, but their parents—whose baby showers preceded their senior proms by two full trimesters—are still in the thrall of the high school politics they never quite graduated from, so they are reluctant to apply the brakes on their daughters' runaway pussies.

The boys, meanwhile, in their preppy date-rape fashions—strange pastel golf shirts and long bleached shorts—have the uniformed look of cult members on the way to a ritual deflowering. Have you noticed that most of the boys these days are always looking sideways for law enforcement, patriarchs, Hollister managers...? 

All of the men, women, and indiscernibly gendered enthusiastically molt their coats and coveralls to display their damp, ballast-like stomachs and backs. They've emerged from their Poppin' Fresh cans and splayed their most uncharted territories for us, the unwilling explorers. Their flesh—so cold and moist and gelatinous—heaves itself into the innocent line of sight in every direction. It's a terrorism of shape and contour that eclipses the newly scorched earth and the slurry of allergens swirling through the air.

29 April 2013

putting down the anvil.

The American Midwest is, by and large, an infinite-seeming patchwork of flat fields inhabited by paunchy, slow-witted social conservatives still wearing last decade's fashions. Reluctant as I am to admit it, I am a product of this environment—which is not to say that I am paunchy or consider myself (especially) slow-witted, but only to claim that the greater part of my personality has formed as a knee-jerk reaction to this decidedly bovine milieu.

Knee-jerk responses of any but the physical kind—in other words, the kind appropriate to actual knees—are unfortunate. We generally enjoy the luxury of not needing to form opinions urgently. We can reflect on what we think is right or good and spend our lives pretty much fine-tuning our attitudes as we come in contact with competing ideas or revelatory experiences.

And yet there is something so essentially repulsive to me about garden-variety Midwesterners that this theoretical high-mindedness rarely wins the day in my daily encounters with them. Sometimes I imagine myself throwing heavy objects at them or pushing them out of a moving vehicle, and I'm (a little) ashamed to say that these fantasies are consoling. I can't help thinking that something severe—perhaps even violent—needs to happen to these people to shake them out of their intellectual dormancy or moral complacency. But who am I to speak about morals when I'm imagining myself gleefully throwing an anvil at their heads? (Don't worry. I could never lift an anvil. And I'm not even sure where to find one.)

I work in an office that could almost be considered a museum of Midwestern archetypes. If I described some of them to you, you might argue that they aren't necessarily Midwestern archetypes, but more likely office archetypes or mid-sized city archetypes or even middle class American archetypes. I don't think this is true. Perhaps I couldn't articulate what it is about their cud-chomping demeanors that sets them apart from your local dunderheads, but I insist that there's something ineffably distinct about their manner and bearing (and certainly their banal preoccupations) that earns them the right to be considered if not a different genus, then a different species of American.

I've practically made a hobby of being annoyed by my office neighbor 'Sandy'—who is the subject of other blog entries—but when I look at her, I don't just see a loudmouth, busybody Michigander with a bad dye job and a large, distressing mole on her left cheek; I see the Plato's Form of the Midwestern species—the optimized blueprint against which all other weather-obsessed, casserole-baking, folksy automatons are measured. 

It's almost as if Sandy and I were characters in a novel and she is symbolic of all the values that I reject but which, ironically, are responsible for creating the person I've become. Without Sandy, David (as I am) probably wouldn't be possible. (I guess you can either thank Sandy or go get your own anvil to throw at her head.)

Awhile back, I read a book on anxiety, and the writer said that one of the indicators of whether a person is likely to develop an anxiety disorder is whether his parents distinguished between taste and morality. For example, if your parents encountered someone strange or quirky when you were young, would they be more likely to say that something is 'wrong' with the person or that the person is unique or one-of-a-kind? If they saw a teenager with dyed-purple hair, would they be more likely to think it was shameful or just an instance of personal expression? 

This passage in the book really resonated with me because my parents—particularly my father—often categorically judged people based on their appearances or their opinions, many of which were rather incidental but within which he seemed to decipher a defective character. It's easy to see how this kind of parenting could really fuck up a kid and instill a lifelong anxiety in him—because it seems to extend morality to every conceivable choice we could ever make. Anything we do or say could possibly be 'wrong' without our even realizing it. And not only that, this philosophy also suggests that who we are (fundamentally) could be judged as bad because we failed to conform to a certain formula of correctness that isn't even rationally discernible.

I think this is where my feeling that there is something essentially wrong with Midwesterners originated. You see, I just can't let them be. I can't understand their way of being as just one way among many—each of which has its own right to be respected as a choice with little or no moral consequence. If Sandy obsesses about the weather or talks (excessively, I think) about squirrels or brings her down-home common sense to bear on issues that affect her own life, then why can't I just keep my moral judgments to myself? What's any of it got to do with me anyway? 

I am now going to provide you an extremely abridged list of matters of taste that I seem to morally judge compulsively. I want you to understand that none of these is made-up or exaggerated. When I hear that a person happens to like or to enjoy one of the following items, I wince on the inside and my opinion of that person is damaged (if only minimally or temporarily). It isn't something that I even rationally consider anymore; these are fully-formed reflexes. I don't say this to excuse these judgments but to explain to you how difficult it is to get out from under these reflexive responses when they occur.

Here's a sample list of negatively-judged items or behaviors:

* iced tea
* Mountain Dew
* General Motors vehicles
* WalMart
* True Blood
* country music

* watching/attending sporting events
* FoxNews
* flip-flops
* slow driving
* the phrase 'spot-on'
* tropical resorts

* mustaches (ironic or not)
* Dell computers

Again, this is only a very small sampling of the countless reflexively-judged objects or behaviors which inform my attitude toward other people (before I get the chance to really know them and have these impulses overturned).

A certain friend of mine has made a sport of mocking this reflex. You see, whenever he voices an opinion that is (offensively) contrary to mine, I usually say that's he wrong or dumb in jest. In addition to imitating me unflatteringly, he has needled me about the fact that this habit of mine isn't completely in jest. Sure, I hide behind the deadpan humor of it, but he and I both know that there is something in me that really bristles at a challenge to my moral judgments. And this is a problem. It's clearly not a healthy way to approach the world.

How healthy can it be to set yourself up as a deeply-entrenched moral opponent of your very surroundings (i.e., the Midwest)? How does one get along with and have meaningful relationships with persons whose very existence seems to violate one's moral outlook? 

I attempt to answer these questions again and again—but particularly on Monday mornings, when Sandy is bubbling with what almost seems like an excitement to be back at work and she chatters on and on about so many details of her life that are not only beneath my notice, but (seemingly) undeserving of my respect. 

The alternative strategy, I think, is to write blog posts about this impulse so that I can possibly understand it better myself and maybe set down the goddamn anvil occasionally.

28 April 2013

the completist.

In case you haven't surmised, I'm a compulsive kind of guy. Fortunately, the majority of my compulsions fall into the 'mostly harmless' category—although there's an argument to made that any and all compulsions are harmful to the extent that they impair normal psychological function. But whom are we kidding here? Is there even such a thing as 'normal psychological function'? And if there actually is such a person on this planet who epitomizes normal psychological function, I guarantee he isn't someone you'd like to invite to a party or share a tandem bicycle with. In fact, I'd even go so far as to suggest that a normal person is so fantastically rare that he'd be the most abnormal thing you'd ever lay eyes on. Like a three-legged, purple-spotted unicorn gazing up in the sky at Halley's comet. 

The consolation that I'm attempting to sell to myself here is that at least I'm not smoking crack or going to the bathroom every half hour to cut my genitals. (Or am I? Think about that next time I excuse myself from the table at the restaurant.) But one of the several major compulsions that absorbs a great deal of the time I could be putting to better use by—oh, I don't know—curing cancer or bathing the homeless is the compulsion of movie-watching. 

It isn't just a diversion, you know. I often choose to watch movies that I have no interest in and know I won't like simply for the sake of crossing it off a checklist in my head of all the movies that should probably be seen if one is to consider oneself a film buff. It certainly doesn't help that a number of my friends seem to be compulsive film-viewers as well, which adds a sort of shameful competitive aspect to the sport. (Someday I will overtake them all and rub their noses in the shit of my wonderful, essentially useless accomplishment! Evil laugh!)

I'll give you an example. Maybe six months ago, I felt an overwhelming urge to watch Joseph L. Mankiewicz's notorious 1963 cinematic disaster Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, a truckload of eye shadow, Richard Burton, and (my nemesis) Rex Harrison. (I'd have to devote another blog entry to my hatred for Rex Harrison.) The current home video version of the film is slightly over four hours (!), so viewing the film was not an inconsiderable investment of time—especially for a film reckoned so universally to be bloated and mediocre. After all, Cleopatra is usually included in the pantheon of monumental cinematic failures, along with such legendary flops as Ishtar and Heaven's Gate. Adjusted for inflation, it still remains one of the most expensive films of all time—and there is nary an explosion or blue CGI alien to be seen in the finished work.

Truth be told, Cleopatra wasn't a horrible film; its renown as a failure derives largely from a cost vs. quality calculus and the reputation of its stars, I'm sure. Nevertheless, I went into it without any desire to see a four-hour Hollywood epic about ancient Egypt. My only desire was based on the accomplishment of just seeing it. 

Unfortunately, there is a very limited number of what one might call 'classic films' out there, and I would have to guess that I've seen at least 75% of them... This leaves me with a rather lackluster inventory of films left to see. Only the other night, I barely survived the pious 1940s anti-Nazi movie Watch on the Rhine, featuring three of the worst child actors I've seen since the 1980s Nickelodeon teen soap Fifteen (which included the very unpromising performance of a young Ryan Reynolds) and more soulless platitude than a Words from Unity PSA. Whoever calls it the golden age of cinema is probably not thinking of clunkers like Topper or Christmas in Connecticut, of which I can only remember one positive attribute: that it ended.

Like I said, this isn't the worst compulsion around, to be sure, and yet it's a time-consuming one. If I had redistributed the hours spent in front of the television (and the devotion these hours entailed) to more worthwhile goals, I might now be a tremendous success at something —possibly even in the film industry. Maybe I'd be the screenwriter for the sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop or the foley artist on the next Jerry Bruckheimer film or the head of a prestigious craft services department! 

I know it may not sound like much, but it's somehow a more respectable answer to the question 'What do you do?' than 'I, um, watch movies.'

Annie (1982): "Let's Go to the Movies" by QuoteUnquoteSir

27 April 2013

down with happiness!

Trying to be happy is the dumbest thing you can ever do. Now I can't prove this scientifically, but I'd be willing to bet that if most of us thought long and hard on the topic we'd have a difficult time deciding what happiness even is (or what might bring it about, if it's a thing worth experiencing at all). 

First off, it's worth mentioning that 'happiness' is an abstract noun—meaning that it serves a name tag for a concept rather than a material object. As such, abstract nouns are always conducive to (what I will call) slippage; in other words, the word cannot adhere to a secure meaning because so many different people with so many different frames of reference bring their unique spin to the concept.

At the risk of sounding like Celine Dion, let's talk about love—as a sort of momentary detour. What is love? (Baby, don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. No more.) Well, Merriam-Webster's first definition is 'strong personal affection for another rising out of kinship or personal ties.' Do you see what's interesting about this definition (other than its general vagueness)? It uses another abstract noun (affection) to describe love. Not surprisingly, if you look up 'affection,' you get yet another abstract noun ('feeling'). And if you look up 'feeling,' you get another abstract noun. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum. 

There is no objective or material anchor for this interlocking network of abstract nouns, so the individual is forced to bring his interpretive skills to bear in deciphering what these words mean with respect to his or her own experience of the world. 

Do you see where the trouble arises? We all bring our own monogrammed baggage to our understanding of love, until one day we experience something and we decide for ourselves, 'Oh, this thing that's happening to me right now...? This must be what they all mean when they're talking about love.' (Or, alternately, we go through life without experiencing anything that we feel comfortable calling love. And we die, loveless and alone.)

Of course there's no yardstick against which to measure our particular experiences, so who the hell knows if what I feel when I say I feel love even roughly resembles what someone else feels when she says the same thing? Since feelings can't really be measured or counted or eyeballed, perhaps it's incorrect even to speak of a 'sameness' of feelings at all. And more to the point, does it really matter if our understandings of love are similar—because, after all, if I believe I'm in love, then I am in love. I create my own experiential reality. 

Okay. Let's take a step back. This is getting a little too theoretical. If we start thinking too rigorously in this fashion, we'll feel psychologically estranged from every word we hear or see in print, and this makes finding our exit on the highway difficult.

So let's return to the initial argument—where we discover that Merriam-Webster, very unhelpfully, defines 'happiness' as a 'state of well-being and contentment; joy.' Three abstract nouns for the price of one. 

Sometimes I instinctively suspect that what we generally understand as happiness is merely the absence of misery. In other words, it is defined negatively, rather than bringing any positive experiential content of its own to the table. It's true that 'misery' is likewise abstract, but conceptually we all have a better handle on what it is to be miserable. Whether we're being stabbed in the buttocks by a homicidal maniac or going hungry because we don't have any food or sitting through a Ron Howard movie, we can readily identify the many precipitators of misery. I might even venture the hypothesis that most of us are experts at misery. How much more frequently do we complain about our unhappiness than do we sit in satisfaction, with our hands down our pants, admiring our own feeling of happiness? No, we're usually too busy to notice happiness—or else we're not quite convinced that this thing that we're feeling is really and truly happiness. After all, maybe happiness is something more transcendent and celestial. Maybe it's a much bigger feeling that these little momentary satisfactions would lead us to believe.

I think one thing can be generally agreed upon: whatever we aspire to in this life, we aspire to based on the expectation that it will ultimately bring us happiness (whatever that might actually be). In this sense, might not the word 'happiness' only be what we call the perceived ideal of our lives? If I have always wanted to be a porn star and I subsequently become a porn star and I am satisfied in this vocation, will I simply create a new ideal which will recede farther on the horizon and promise me a new, more authentic happiness that the one I've grown either used to or tired of in the here and now?

Happiness seems like more trouble than it's worth if you ask me. I know you're thinking that's a preposterous thing to say, but you should remember that the word 'happiness' isn't the thing itself. Here's a question I want you to really think about for a minute or two: Would happiness even be a possibility if the word 'happiness' had never been invented? Or do abstract nouns effectively create the things they are meant to describe?

Now you probably think I'm nuts. And you're probably right. But bear with me here...

I'm not saying that we couldn't enjoy a roundabout feeling of well-being or contentment (as Merriam-Webster describes it) if the word 'happiness' didn't exist, but I am speculating that those feelings would be different if we hadn't given them a name which distinguishes them from other things.

When we name an abstract thing, we are like gods, I think, because in a sense we have created it. (Maybe in the biblical story, the Judeo-Christian God created mankind only by differentiating it from the rest of creation—or, in other words, by giving Adam and Eve names.)

What really makes my mind reel is the thought that there might be countless psychological and emotional phenomena that I am not fully experiencing right now merely because they haven't been given a name and thereby set apart from the massive tidal wave of experience that overpowers us at any given moment. Maybe like love, happiness, hope, and melancholy, there are other things that might be called prungliness, hernwoll, wune, and gubb. 

There is so much experience we may be missing out on because we haven't created it yet. It kind of makes you wonder how—when elementary language was first coming into being—abstract nouns even originated. What a novel thing it must have been to name a thing that wasn't actually a thing. What a profound and almost mystical technological advance.

That's the word I've been searching for all this time. Abstract nouns like happiness take on an almost mystical quality to the extent we share them only approximately and experientially across the whole of humanity. The only other thing that I can compare this to is the communal experience of 'god' or the spiritual world—which I happen to think is a bunch of hooey but which possesses a undeniable reality—because it has in fact been defined. I'm not saying that god or the spirit world is real, but the feelings of the millions who share in their concepts is aggressively real. After all, it still unfortunately shapes American society to this day.

Well, I started out this little philosophical meandering by claiming that trying to be happy was the dumbest thing to do. And I hold to it. We get too preoccupied with the concept which serves primarily to confuse us, disappoint us, and distract us from practical objectives and momentary pleasures of life. It's a total bait-and-switch. When we get to the end of the road, 'happiness' makes us think, 'Is that all there is? This is what happiness was all along?' But I can't be more emphatic in my protest that being happy was what you were actually doing when you weren't trying to be happy at all. 

26 April 2013


I'm tempted to ignore the Boston terrorist attacks on this blog altogether because so much of what I would have to say about it has already been said in other posts about mass shootings and such. I'm not saying that a random shooting by a deranged so-and-so and an act of political and/or religious terrorism are equivalents—except possibly in the net effect: death, destruction, and fear—but the reaction of the public is similar in many ways.

If I were a victim of this terrorist attack myself or if I were the friend, family member, or even casual acquaintance of someone who was, you can be sure I'd be asking why. There's something almost dizzying and existentially vertiginous in the realization that—of all the billions of people on this planet—fate has selected you (or someone you love) to be blown to bits or crippled by a capricious act of malice like the Boston bombings. You could have been anyplace on earth, but you were there. And the Tsarnaev brothers could have picked any number of sites, but they picked the Boston marathon. This frightening contingency makes me wonder if some of the injured or dead perhaps almost didn't attend the marathon or were persuaded to attend by someone else. Because we are the subjects of our own stories, these seemingly little choices take on an appalling significance.

On the other hand, when we live across the country and have no personal relationship to the city, the event, or the victims, how entitled are we to the question of why? I know, this seems like an odd phrasing. How are we not entitled to ask any question we wish? Or feel any way that we happen to feel? I guess I'm speaking of some other kind of entitlement—perhaps an ethical entitlement, but I'm not exactly sure.

Do we have a right to be shocked or outraged when we are bombed, given that we have been bombing the Middle East rather indiscriminately for years now? Right wingers insipidly call this kind of questioning 'blaming the victim' or, worse, justifying the terrorism, but that isn't it at all. It's useful to remember that when our innocent civilians were killed by terrorists, as in 9/11, our public seemed to cry out for a quick, haphazard military retaliation, which in turn caused the death of other innocent civilians in other countries. 

To be surprised or outraged by this terrorist act (in the abstract) seems obnoxiously naive. Our actions as a nation—whether right or wrong—have consequences. Unfortunately many of us today don't even possess an elementary understanding of global politics or the thorny involvement of the United States therein. Nor do most of us have an interest in the troubled history that got us to this point. Despite all that the U.S. has done, we choose to view our nation as victimized by misinformation and irrational prejudice. The facts tell us, however, that many countries' resentment of our foreign policy is all too rational. We ourselves would never stand for being treated as we treat other nations, with an impunity fortified by the electorate's ignorance and our confidence that might ultimately makes right.

Does any of this justify the terrorist attack in Boston? No, certainly it doesn't. But it's curious that not many people seem to fret about the justification for our nation's own acts of terrorism across the globe. Many might balk at my use of the word terrorism here. How can it be terrorism when it's perpetrated by a national military with 'moral right' on its side? Well, the very first definition I consulted for the word terrorism called it 'the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.' In this sense, is there any greater terrorist on earth at this very moment than the U.S. government? Many innocent civilians (who are far too poor and immersed in the struggle for mere subsistence to have a clear ideological agenda) die because of the decisions made by old white men in navy blue suits and U.S. flag lapel pins. These people are representing us. To the extent that we do not speak out against them or vote to remove them, we share in the moral responsibility of their actions.

We often react to terrorist attacks on the U.S. with an indignation that is incompatible with the truth. Without any curiosity about or even suspicion of a history which informs these acts, we are affronted beyond all measure. In my estimation, this is the most frightening reality of all. Because of us, people suffer and die, and we are complacent and even bored by it all. We choose not to even know what's really going on in the world because it's so much easier to believe in the discrete moral categorization that the government feeds us. We understand the bombings in the way we are intended to: we have been violated by the enemy. But we're too busy with reality television and sporting events to wonder how we arrived at that moment a week and a half ago when two young man wanted to kill us indiscriminately, viewing us as a homogeneous enemy similar to the one we see when we look to the Middle East.