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. 

ritual de lo habitual.

Sometimes I can't escape the feeling that we spend the lion's share of our lives just trying to keep the dust from collecting on our bodies. We waste so much time absorbed in the routine maintenance of our minds and bodies that if we were cars we would have been sold as scrap metal long ago. Does our Honda Civic need seven hours off everyday to lie in a dormant state so as to recharge its battery? And even the most remorseless gas guzzler on the road doesn't generally need to be fed two or three meals of unleaded gasoline each and every day.

Like millions of other people the world over, I subscribe to the nauseatingly populist sentiment of hating mornings. Of course one of the reasons is that sleep is so deliciously narcotic that it's hard to go straight. But another compelling reason is that I loathe the rituals that weekday mornings entail. When I have to perform the same mundane tasks—like tooth brushing, shaving, showering—in an identical fashion everyday, I feel as though I am crammed into a very small cage. I hate to say that it's torturous—because in light of terrorist explosions and industrial accidents this seems, at the very least, insensitive—but I cannot deny silently screaming inside my sleepy-eyed body every morning as I (again) fumble through three bottles of pills for my daily doses or stand in front of the same dreary business casual wardrobe trying to decide which uniform of accountancy is the least objectionable. 

In some cases, ritual is comforting. I do recognize this. If you meet up with friends at a favorite watering hole every Friday or look forward to the Sunday crossword with a coffee and a bagel in the same booth at the diner ever week, there's an obvious appeal. But these are rituals that we create with leisure or enjoyment in mind. Meanwhile, flossing one's teeth may provide one with the moralistic satisfaction of a job well done in the service of good dental health, but the process itself is neither interesting nor personally enriching. (There's inevitably going to be some contrarian out there who claims to find the performative act of flossing exhilarating in every respect. You know the type... the borderline sociopath who insists that only boring people get bored. To such a person, I offer my sincere congratulations on his or her enviable feat of transcendence. If one is exhilarated by running waxy strands of  nylon through one's teeth, I can only wonder what an orgasm has in store.)

Morning rituals seem to make inordinate demands on my time while offering little in recompense. They are the roof replacements of self-maintenance. Let me explain... If you are trying to sell your house, there are a number of things that an average home buyer will come to the bargaining table expecting from your house—not as an exceptional feature, but as a fundamental prerequisite of houseness; a few examples are a functioning furnace and a structurally sound foundation and a non-leaky roof. If your roof happens to leak and you replace it before you put your house on the market, you will not impress buyers, who will then joyously exclaim, 'Wow! This roof doesn't leak!' It's what they already take for granted. They may be impressed by your hardwood floors or granite countertops, but they are unlikely to be excited by an absence of metal buckets strategically placed around the living room collecting rainwater. 

The same is true of morning rituals for the most part. It is expected that a reasonably civilized person will have brushed teeth and clean hair and so on. These tasks do not make a person more attractive or appealing than the baseline of what is already expected of him. Now, if some extraordinary morning ritual which—if performed religiously—made me so incredibly hunky and irresistible to the opposite sex that they flung their vaginas at me when I left the house like that insect-like creature that suctions to John Hurt's face in Alien, then maybe I'd feel more motivated and enlivened by the procedure. 

But as it stands, these rituals merely equate to keeping the dust off one's body. They reinstate the default. But that isn't even true either. After we reach a certain age (which, sadly, I've already passed), an incremental deterioration overtakes the human body, so that even the optimum of today is a shade more inferior than the optimum of the prior day. This certainly adds to the demoralizing effect of the ritual... This shaving that I do today reveals a face that is likely less attractive than the face I shaved one year ago. Which leads to the nihilistic question: Why even shave the face or brush the teeth or wash the armpits? Why fritter away all this time on maintaining a machine destined for the scrapheap? 

Rituals don't usually ask why though. The momentum of habit is a reason unto itself. It prods our bodies forward in this march of life, while our minds growl behind the bars of their cages.