Monday, October 23, 2017

Each Moment Is A Universe

There is sometimes a good clean feeling of being alive and wet in the rain. Doesn’t matter what age, but if it happens late in life, so much the better. I didn’t think much about being alive in my youth, I was simply alive, simply living, trying to resist some things and experimenting with others, trying to get a sense of what’s good, what’s bad, what’s exciting and stupid, and what’s just stupid. But as an older person, not just older but old, an old person, I think about being alive. Because one, I’m still alive, still doing it, still living and breathing and eating and sleeping and all that good stuff. But two, I’m stuck with all those decisions I made in my youth, and three, there’s not much in the way of destiny at my age.
Destiny is about the future. What happens in old age, what is important in old age, is to stay focused on the immediate, to experience the immediate, squeeze the immediate, hug the immediate, all the while trying to get used to the idea of one’s life coming to an end. The ephemerality of life, its ultimate temporariness, is more acutely felt as we age, and it is both a great sadness and a great liberation. We are brief custodians of a life energy running through us. Our reality is something far greater than the life we encapsulate in blood and bone for X number of years. Not to put to morbid a spin on it, but that’s what’s real at my age. The immediate, the imminent, the actual. The universe at large, of which I am a part, a temporary manifestation of hair and skin, ideas and fingers, daydreams and DNA. “Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,” observes Duke Senior in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “the season’s difference,

………as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’

So going out in the afternoon of a day in late October when the air is honing its knife and getting ready for the real cutting cold of December and January and it’s raining and gloomy and gray and there are still people up on Bigelow hunting down chestnut burrs is a luxury of sorts. I can still move, still run, still get wet. The immediate and actual are large and multiple and keenly felt. Each moment is a universe, reads the title of a book by Sōtō Zen roshi Dainin Katagiri.  
It’s hard to appreciate just how vast the universe is. I can’t. Can’t do it. Can’t wrap my head around it. For one thing, it’s infinite. I can’t wrap my head around infinity. I know what it is, it’s boundlessness. Infinity is forever. It’s beyond time, beyond space, beyond Google. It’s beyond my ability to imagine what forever is. I’m a drop in the infinity bucket. Drops are easy. I can imagine myself as a drop. I’ve seen drops. I’ve seen them on the windshield of our car and I’ve seen them run down the windows of our apartment. But the space outside of the bucket and the space outside of the space surrounding the bucket surpasses the limits of my bucket.
My brain  -  the human brain  - weighs approximately three pounds. Planet Earth weighs about 1,000 trillion metric pounds. I can’t squeeze a 1,000 trillion metric ton planet into a three-pound brain. I can, however, form an image of Planet Earth which will fit nicely into my brain. It’s round, it’s pretty, it’s blue and white, it’s clearly defined against the black of infinite space. That part is easy. Thank you, language.
Some things I can picture, some things I can’t. I can picture Wyoming. I can picture a helicopter flying over Wyoming. I can picture a helicopter hovering over a herd of wild mustangs up north in the Pryor Mountains of Montana but I can’t picture myself floating forever into space. I can picture myself floating, I can even picture space, but I can’t picture endlessness. Is there anyone who can? What did George Clooney feel like in Gravity when he let go of the parachute strap holding both he and Sandra Bullock to the remains of the International Space Station and went floating to his death as he utters his last words to Bullock about the beauty of the sunrise on the Ganges. I don’t mean Clooney, of course, but the fictitious character he was embodying, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. Suppose it was real, an actual catastrophe, and these events actually occurred: you let go of a strap and go floating for eternity in space. Your air supply will soon be depleted and you will die what I hope would be a peaceful death. How long might your body go traveling through space? Would it go into orbit? Would internal bacteria survive long enough to eat the flesh and leave a skeleton in the suit? Would it soon by hit by a rock? Torn to pieces by debris? You see what happens: the mind begins adding details, tossing them into this fiction and avoiding the central issue: infinity. The horror of eternity.
Endlessness isn’t an image endlessness is endless abstraction. It’s a philosophical concept whose appearance might take the form of infinitesimal calculus, a Taylor series, the mathematics of continuous change. The mind needs limits to form definitions, contours, meanings. Meanings require shapes, purpose, infinity signs. Endlessness has no meaning because it exceeds all boundary and zone and the ghosts of departed quantities. The river never reaches the ocean. The ocean never ceases heaving itself onto land and receding back into the infinite undulation that is the living manifestation of its being. Water is being. It’s why it has waves. It’s why it splashes and swirls. And it’s everywhere. Water is everywhere. It’s in me. It’s in us. It’s all above us, below us, and all around us. It’s in bugs and wolves and scorpions and centipedes. We’re all carriers of water carrying water from one form of water to another, boiling it, pouring it, drinking it. Floating on it, swimming in it, squirting it. The transformations of water are endless. The movement of its ripples on a pond parallel the words in a sentence that remain separate in sound and movement but are a coherence of moving pattern that results in meaning and emotion.
Last night at a reading I heard a writer refer to a Japanese scientist named Masaru Emoto who has discovered that molecules of water are affected by our thoughts, words, and feelings. Water exhibits properties of molecular coherence, and is the main carrier of all the electric signals our bodies generate. Beethoven’s pastoral symphonies, played between two bottles of water, produced beautiful and well-formed crystals. Mozart’s 40th symphony, a graceful prayer to beauty, “created crystals that were delicate and elegant.” “And the crystals formed by Chopin’s Étude in E, Op 10, No. 3, surprised us with their lovely detail.” I’m assuming that the better the crystal the better the signal produced, leading to a happier, more profound sense of well-being.
But what about heavy metal? What about the rages and hammering rhymes of rap? The big brass sounds of John Philip Sousa’s military marches?
What about polka? What does water do under the influence of polka? Does it Hoop-Dee-Doo? Do the crystals form licorice sticks and peanuts?
 What if I sing in the shower? Does the water pelting my body alter its crystals in accordance with “Knock, Knock, Kockin’ on Heaven’s Door?” I just hear it as it gurgles down the drain. It is I who feel changed when I leave the shower. Water always has a soothing effect on my body. It’s like music heard by my skin. I feel like I stepped out of Mozart dripping symphonies of water. I dry myself with an étude and get dressed in a bisbigliando.
The best possible place to get wet is in the comedy of your own lilypond.
Infinity hurts the head. It tastes like totems on the Kwakiutl shore. Are mind and body one? This should not be a question. This should be leaves glossed with rain. A name in the mud written with a stick. Trek to the store for butter under a black umbrella. This is the mind in the body in the rain of a soggy day. And this is a piece of infinity discarded by time and secreted by hope.
The slop of water the honeycombs of bees. Halibuts are angels of circumstance. Schools of smelt in the emerald calm of the sound. It’s there, infinity. You know it, you can feel it, it’s what gives life this particular taste, feeling. Because we appear here, we are brought here, through conduits of fluid, and it’s by fluid we go, turn to vapor and cloud, if that, and so what, who wants to hang around forever?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nietzsche's Gnat

It’s autumn. The air is electric with death and the paper folded in my chest pocket echoes the existence of the rivers and trees that entered into its making.
Some of us ask, what do we really mean by the word ‘Being?’ And some of us answer: sage. Weight, movement, the smell of things. This rose. This thorn. This paragraph I’ve written. This scar, this bruise, this swollen foot. Gaudy swans on a scraggly lawn. A ball of muscle beating in a surgeon’s hand.  
The sky speaks to us through the bright red stems of a Pacific Fire vine maple. It gives us words that we don’t understand. We must first awaken an understanding of skin. What is it trying to communicate? Is the world on the other side of my skin, or is my skin imbued with the world? Everything I am made of comes from the world. I am the world. My eyes are the eyes of the universe contemplating itself. My skin is the world feeling itself. My skin is the world feeling its textures, which are a text, a scripture of desire. The world is written in the history of my skin. The world is written in wrinkles and scars. The soft burning of a muted trumpet.
The indefinability of Being does not eliminate the question of its meaning: it demands scrounging. Spending some time in the closet. Looking at a willow. Adjusting to the rigors of winter. Viewing the vagaries of night through a pair of infrared goggles.
70 mph on the freeway at night can offer an enhanced view of things. Particularly if there is suddenly a number of lanes closed for repaving and there are lights flashing and a row of orange barrels forcing the flow of traffic into one of several lanes and the perceptions formerly lulled into quiescent attentiveness while sitting in a dimly lit restaurant among friends are now fully awakened and frantic and consciousness is a radical cloud of unknowing.
Do I want a Being that is impartial and above it all, or a Being so immersed in the fiber of the universe that it continually begins beginning itself? Do I have any choice? How much am I actually involved in the Being that is me? Isn’t there a general all-encompassing energy of Being in which I’m a part, a partial expression, a fleeting concentration? Should I speed up and pass this truck or fall behind and move to the right lane?
I feel like screaming in my head. The world is burning down. Fires in Portugal, Spain, France and now northern California, wineries and homes and vineyards scorched and melted. 600,000 people displaced. It’s obvious what’s going on. Yet nobody dares say it. The planet that brought us into being is now in jeopardy as a habitat. Which is to say the planet will be fine. It will go on being a planet and orbit the sun until one day the sun bloats into a red giant and vaporizes the entire solar system. Until then, the planet will continue to provide habitable conditions for microbes and insects. The future looks good if you’re a cockroach. But the planet of green meadows and grazing cattle and swimming pools and Hollywood and football is doomed, and quite possibly doomed within our lifetime. It’s an ugly scenario. One can surrender to the luxuries of nihilism or one can continue to revolt and make art.
Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being, says Pessoa.
It sure does. One might be living in a pile of shit and believe oneself in paradise. And one might be living in a luxurious mansion and believe one is living in a hell of meaningless junk. The world appears differently according to each identity, each set of sensors, each sentient creature, each nerve, each antenna, each finger and touch and organ of perception. And each entity, each identity, feels itself to be at the center, the very core of the universe.
Consider Nietzsche’s gnat: if we and the gnat understood one another, we would learn that the gnat swims through the air with the same pathos and “feels within itself the flying center of the world.”
The truth exists in interrelation. I know that sounds pompous. But it’s true. Come on. You can’t argue it.
Well, you can. Let’s make that clear. Of course you can. In fact, I encourage it. We should continuously argue about what truth is. It means we’re looking. It means we haven’t settled on any one thing. It means anything living and moving and hungry is experiencing the world in a manner similar to, but different than, our experience of the world.
And yet, thankfully, we human beings know that when a traffic light turns green it’s time to step on the accelerator and move on down the road.
We have traffic lights and language.
What then, is the truth? According to Nietzsche, it’s a “moving multitude of metaphors, of metonymies, of anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a notion fixed, canonic, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.”
There are truths that we agree upon: red means stop, green means go. Love means I like you, I like you a lot, I want to have sex with you, I like you well enough even when you’re a pain in the ass to continue sharing my life with you, I like you because you brought me into this world and provided me with food and shelter, I like you because you wag your tail and lick my face. It also means pushing someone to do something they’re frightened of doing but doing whatever it is that they’re frightened of doing will benefit them in the long run and so you push them to do it even when they get pissed because you love them. And vice versa: someone pushes you to do something. This may be someone who loves you, but it may also be a boss, or asshole. Most likely the boss is pushing you to do something because you’re getting paid to do something, fix cars, fix brains, ring people’s groceries up. This is not love, this is capitalism. It is important to distinguish capitalism from love. Capitalism does not love you.
Would life be a simpler as a gnat? Probably. It would also be a lot shorter. And this life, this human life, is pretty damn short.
And you can’t even fly. Except Superman, who is a fiction, invented by Jerry Seigel, who did the writing, and Joe Shuster, who did the artwork. They were high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio in 1933. The world was a pretty bleak place in 1933. It’s also the year that Adolf Hitler was appointed the chancellor of Germany, President Roosevelt began his fireside chats and prohibition in the United States ended.
So imagine swimming through the air as superman instead of a gnat. The truth will appear differently to you. The truth will be as simple as good and evil. You may want to wear leotards and a cape. You will be a humble servant of the people in your Sears Roebuck suit and tie but a veritable god when you take to the air.
For such is the power of art. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Along For The Ride

I live near the mountains yet I rarely go there. I don’t know why. Mountains are beautiful when they’re not on fire. The mountains have been on fire a lot lately. Life on planet Earth is getting weird. When the rain comes it is long and aloof and the rocks rise to greet it. But when it doesn’t everything becomes dry and dead and archaeological. Holes play openly on my chin. Let’s roll the weekend out and spend some time exploring our true hunger, which is both a homage to Matisse and furiously contrapuntal. There is a syllable soaked in its spit that tumbles in fidgets of imposition and lights the world with iron. This would be clumsy if it weren’t diphtheria.
I’ll be honest: I like rich brown gravy on my mashed potatoes at night. That’s how strong my love is.
The people of Earth have gone insane. They wrap everything in plastic. Everything. Including knives and language.
I’m wrapped in skin. My body goes walking down the street with me in it. I’m just along for the ride. I sit and rub snowflakes on the carpet while Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica wails “Just A Feeling.”
There are no seductions without conjunctions. Heaven is a library open all day and all night. The noises of the street are expensive to heat, but sometimes they help counter the elegance of liniment, and we let them into our elevator. Drugs are more lighthearted. Think of me as a vagrant with a valuable insight.
Perceptions change. This we know. Everything discharges an aura of worry until a combination of spirit and pizza placates the rustle of tinfoil.
I want nothing but bonfires at the border. Intensity frightens people. A police car in flames, for example, or the chronology of toast.
It will not be necessary to hibernate this year. Buttermilk translates the organs of the thermostat into the dictums of a dynastic dimple. Dirt gets tired. It needs nitrogen and equilibrium. We can set up an experiment in a basement laboratory. I endeavor to create a rebirth of everything drooling and friendly. The hypotenuse of a jackrabbit brims with silver, yet there is nothing that I can do about the interior of the retina, which reverts to reverie, and trickles rolls of crime tape. I need better rituals.
The moon is rotating on its mercury pool. Look at this. I made a tradition that I can soak in triangles. The rain stumbles around selling hats. It’s miscellaneous and rude. But who am I to make these judgments? The rain just does what it does because it’s rain. And that’s lunch, essentially, gossip enlarged by smell.
I want to explore the holes surrounding a delay in glass. The great comet of 1577 just went sailing by as if nothing mattered except the private secretions that occur deep in the forest at night. I make my muscles bigger by lifting weights. I live in a place of aggression and temerity, darkness swarming with furniture. There is always that feeling I get when I’m at the airport. I carry the sanguine face of the eclipsed moon. I’m building a truth of igloo breath. We are losing our trees to disease. And sometimes we’re just plain losing. There is no gloss to loss but the floss of its moss when the sauce is boss.
Beliefs are sometimes incidental to the rumor of invisible powers. They stir in the grass. They bloom in the intellect. They become books. They become adjectives.
How many people are in this sentence? I don’t want it to sink. Not under the weight of anyone’s eyes. Not when the world needs dragons.
Writing a poem is like wandering the halls of a hospital at night. Ganglions press against the walls of the skull. Balloons and philodendrons fill one’s peripheral vision. Heart monitors bleep. IVs drip. Perceptions and meaning assume the sensual mass of sage at twilight.
What makes people rich? I mean, it’s not money. How could it be? Money is paper. It’s not even paper anymore. It’s debt.
My experiences bicker among themselves. Meaning is something you have to make. Perceptions can be twisted or stretched and multiplied. You can bang the heart with a spoon until the moon drools wheels of pretty light or create metaphors that punch their way into writing like the redwoods of California. An iron wound of Texas oil splashes its muscle into the engine of a train rolling its fire under the stars out on the prairie at night and that, too, becomes a song for the cash registers of late capitalism. Metaphors drip from the incisors of a blue dog. 
Why does time move forward? Diamonds welcome the foundry tattoo. Molecules show how mass dreams it’s a creek. Rocks, mud, bubbling water. Things like nails and wood that happen in the brain when thinking turns to dreaming and dreaming turns to building.
Time is willowy. It’s not really clocks. It’s more like sparrows. Time tries to escape space by creating Texas. It’s a pretty good solution. Art must be art in order to be art. Texas is where nothingness goes to die. And when that happens the dawn comes crawling over the horizon with another basket of grazing cattle and the cycle renews itself at the pump. A religious feeling opens like a cabin. There is the smell of soot and moose antlers over the fireplace, messengers of asymmetry. I have a pet emotion named anger. It’s a constant companion. It doesn’t get much in the way of religion, but when a little religion comes around, a frog acquires a haiku.
There are large offers of heat in the morning and aromatic oils to ward off insects. Some of us carry gravity heavily and surely whereas others avoid it completely by sitting in a chair, or lying down on a blanket and joining the driftwood in a trance of canvas and salt. The surf moves in and out leaving its brocade in the sand. And this is what time looks like when it’s wedded to space in a handful of words anyone can lift with their eyes.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


this is a haiku how do you know it has a frog
leaping out of it Mallarme’s muzziness
used to bug me now I like it everything
is shaded by giant pines and Bobby Darin
singing “Dream Lover” as a crippled
old woman hobbles out of the drugstore
holding a broom and digs into her pocket
for her car keys she’s wearing a Seahawks
jersey and is seriously overweight but
that’s not what this is about this concerns
the composition of the universe which is
mostly dry wall and plaster a black plastic
fork on a concrete step and an armadillo
tattooed on the forearm of a blues guitarist
did you know that earthquakes taste like zucchini
if you treat them right shake it up baby
every day that there is food on the shelves
at the grocery store is a miracle I have a broken
clock keeping dead time in a pink ribbon
sauerkraut emanates folklore this is proof
of nothing comes of nothing the light
tonight is hospitable I have five hours
or more to convince you I’m dragging an eye
through a cafeteria the appeal of food
is self-explanatory the stubborn sorbet
of words carouses in England exults
in the camaraderie of the kitchen
I like books do you all the surgeons
are absorbed in thought as they bend
over the patient whose heart beats
back the night and the sunlight
at the mouth of the cave gets
brighter and brighter

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The World's Dumbest Poem

here it is what you’ve all been waiting for the world’s
dumbest poem watch it crawl
toward David Lynch eating breakfast
in four hundred metal shoes
experience is a job
for a faded rose
it amazes me that shaving cream keeps coming
out of the shaving cream can and that’s
what makes everything stupid
and irritated it is always a pleasure to think
like this on an airplane
made of agreements and parlor talk
I should have test driven it now it’s
too late the poem is outdoors selling
real estate to a chopped mahogany face
hope prolongs the pain of aspiration
which is an opinion based on rubber
think of collage as your sister
swimming in warm fathoms of thought
being finds its trajectory in jazz
the sigh of water through old pipes
this is proof
of nothing but my own predilections
I feel like James Stewart doing dishes
in a kitchen in the old west while also
trying to read law books so that I can put
Liberty Valence in jail
everybody is naked under their clothes
but me I wear the hem of a hemisphere
and all the sunlight at the mouth of the cave
held together by buttermilk pins
sudden is a pretty word I should use it
for something but it’s too sudden
to use it now I’ll wait for the next bus
to Reykjavik

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Problem Of The Uncanny

There is a miniscule dent in the nail of my right index finger. How it got there, I have no idea. I don’t remember hitting my finger with a hammer or anything. It just appeared. I’ve been watching as it grows out day by day. I will soon trim that nail, and the little dent will be gone. The mystery of the dent will be history, its origin forever unanswered. And then it seems to me that there are so many things in my body that I know very little about, or power to affect. I don’t grow my hair, my hair does that on its own. I don’t digest my food, my stomach takes care of that. I didn’t invent me eyes or lungs or legs or thumbs. I don’t have a patent on kidneys or blood circulation. I can’t take credit for a single item or process pertaining to my body. The question is therefore obvious: who am I? What am I? Am I my body? How can I be my body if I didn’t do a single thing to participate in its creation?
It seems to me that my mind is separate from my body, is it not? Because it sure feels that way. It feels like I’m up here in my head looking down at my hands as they scamper across the keyboard of a laptop typing these words. I’m looking out of a pair of windows called eyes and processing sounds called music and feeling the weight of my body enjoy the support of a chair accompanied with a little muscular tension in my back. I am somehow in my head, this person to which I attach the pronoun ‘I.’ It’s a difficult phenomenon to describe as it is simultaneously identified with this body and yet somehow separate, somehow transcendent and incorporeal. I am a walking talking contradiction, a paradox of neurology, experience, and hair. On the one hand arms and fingers and feet and on the other nothing: a spirit, a soul, a mind. A captain in his bridge looking out upon the ocean that is the world.
Is there any validity to this sense of identity independent of my body, or is it an illusion? Is there a spirit that inhabits my body but is not my body, and is this spirit, which has a personality, the continuing narrative that is me, me? Am I the spirit? Does the mind have reality?
These questions become increasingly pertinent as I age. Because the body is mortal. When it gives out, I go with it.
Or do I? Is there a soul? Was Swedenborg, right? Is there an afterlife that is similar to life on earth? Will there be houses and balloons and suppositories and wallets? Will I have to retake a driver’s test in heaven in order to get my license?
Is there a world beyond ours, a world of spirit and vision, a universe of waves and auras, spiritual energies unencumbered by matter? Is the mind an essence, a phenomenon independent of empirical reality?
Last night I watched six men stab a man to death. The man was Julius Caesar. The six men were friends and colleagues in the Roman senate: Publius Servilus Casca, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Marcus Junius Brutus, Decimas Junius Brutus, Gaius Metellus and Gaius Trebonius. The stabbing was a fiction, part of a drama written by William Shakespeare, who was fascinated by ghosts and wandering spirits. His plays abound in spirits. Fairies, witches, ghosts, prophecies, hallucinations, sylphs and sprites. He seems singularly obsessed with otherworldly beings.
Shakespeare must’ve had a pretty acute sense of unreality during his life. He describes the state so forcefully, particularly in The Tempest, in which everything that occurs on the island has a feeling of enchantment and dream, in which the division between empirical reality and vision or hallucination is an on-going segue, shifting back and forth with the ease of a shuttle on a loom, concluding brilliantly with Prospero’s speech about unreality:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Reality just isn’t what it used to be. I’m not even sure what that means. Reality hasn’t been the same at least since I first dropped acid in 1966. But am I speaking for myself, or countless others?
I can’t speak for others, no. But there are others out there who share my obsessions. Neurologist Donald Hoffman, for example. What is the relationship between consciousness and brain activity, he asks. How is it that irritating nervous tissue results in consciousness and a sense of subjectivity? And, most importantly, do we see reality as it is?
No, we don’t. What we see is an abridged version. We see what serves our survival. We construct our world. We construct what we need in the moment. Or, more accurately, we re-construct our reality, and we do so according to however much the accuracy of our perception provides an advantage to our survival.
Except that it doesn’t. It has been mathematically demonstrated that the species that perceive reality with greater accuracy tend to go extinct, whereas species that do not see reality fully but use tricks and shortcuts to discover what is needed at the time in their environment, do better at the game of survival. A lot of reality gets filtered out. Not perceiving reality as it is, is useful.
Is that not strange?
Evolution has given us an interface that hides reality and guides adaptive behavior. Nature has given us representations (venomous snakes, high cliffs, speeding trains) that we need to take seriously, but their appearance is not the equivalent of their literal reality. We get by because we’re blind to our own blindnesses. Brains and neurons do not cause our perceptual experiences and behaviors. They’re symbols, or “life hacks.” Once we let go of our massively intuitive but massively false assumptions about the nature of reality, it opens up new ways to think about life’s greatest mystery.
I’m completely with him, until (I jotted a lot of this down from a TED talk), he says “perception is not about seeing truth, it’s about having kids.”
Suddenly, everything he has said until now (which I do find fascinating and tend to agree with) gets reduced to a stupid Family Circus panel in the Sunday papers. What about those of us who have never had the slightest urge to have kids? What about those of us who are moved by the sublime? What about beauty? What about our sense of awe? What about ecstasy? What about Hamlet, and corrupt kings, and scorned women, and the eyes of dead men?
Last night I listened to a podcast on France Culture radio of a show called Les Chemins de la Philosophie (the roads of philosophy), hosted by a vigorous young (30-something) French woman called Adèle Van Reeth. She speaks rapidly and exuberantly in a double register, her voice going way down then going back up and becoming soft and nuanced. Her personality exudes charm and enthusiasm. Her guest for this particular episode was Dylan Trigg, author of a book titled The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror. Trigg, an Englishman, was translated into French during the interview. His premise is fascinating: he takes phenomenology as it has been represented by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas, and adds the element of horror to it. He says he was frustrated by what he perceives as a misunderstanding of phenomenology as a veneration of the body in harmony with its world, as a vessel of concord and unification. It is, instead, a conflictual relationship with existential implications. He sees a duality of experience, a subjectivity experiencing the body as something other than us, an alterity we inhabit with feelings of strangeness and dissociation. He refers to several movies and works of literary fiction, chiefly H.P. Lovecraft, to underscore this theme. He is particularly taken by John Carpenter’s The Thing, I presume the more recent 2011 remake of his 1982 rendition, which was itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s 1951 The Thing from Another World, starring James Arness (Gunsmoke’s marshal Matt Dillon) as the “thing.”
I’ve only seen the 2011 The Thing directed by Dutch director Matthijs van Heijiningen Jr. I enjoyed it, although it was not a critical success. Movie critics all agree that Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing is superior. The story is simple: in 1982 an alien spacecraft is discovered beneath the Antarctic ice by a scruffy team of Norwegian scientists, with a dead alien aboard. The alien is helicoptered to the base in a block of ice and put in a laboratory. When the team is downing brewskis and celebrating their find (one can’t help think of a bunch of rowdy Vikings in the mead hall partying it up before Grendel arrives and rips them apart) the alien bursts out of its encasement of ice and begins imitating their bodies. This is how it tricks then devours them.
The alien is a pretty cool looking object of horror. I liked how Roger Ebert described it as a “hideous and leaky smorgasbord of palpitating organs, claws, teeth, crab legs, lobster tails, beaks, snaky appendages and gooey dripping eyeballs. It doesn’t say much for life in the universe that with whole galaxies to choose from, that’s the best body it could come up with.”
Maybe that’s why the creature is so eager to assimilate other bodies. It’s a matter of vanity, and appetite. Imitate a body, trick one of its buddies, eat the buddy. Scientist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has to keep performing tests to verify whether people are human or not.
Trigg’s take on this is that it dramatizes not simply the horror of the body, but the horror of matter itself. “The problem of life,” he observes, “at heart, a problem of the uncanny, centers

…on the knowledge that one’s own body (to use a phenomenological idiom) signals a collapse not only in the experience of self, but also in the cosmos itself. For it is in the privileged expression of the human body that the strange facticity of matter gains its clearest expression.

It’s a compelling premise, but I don’t buy into it. Not all the way. I buy some of it. My body, at age 70, while still resembling what I think of as “me,” is beginning to show signs of its inevitable decay. A rather crepey look to my skin at the crook of my elbow when I bend my arm, hair growing out of the rims of my ears, bushy eyebrows that need constant trimming, a hypertrophic prostate that halts the flow of my urine. Stuff like that. Strangely, at present I am the most athletic I’ve ever been in my life. I run a minimum of three miles per day, do 50 push-ups, 20 sit-ups. My body is trim. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear a swimsuit at the beach. But I also know it’s ephemeral. It’s a sinking ship. And the sense of me, the ultimate sense of me, cannot accept being merely matter, skin and blood and bone and muscle. I feel somehow separate from my body. But I also know this is illusion. Or is it?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Oyster In A Low-Cut Gown

Imagine what you could do with hooves. Mountains and rivers without end. Five women standing in front of a door. Everything is connected by elbow. That odd feeling you get when you go underwater for the first time after going a long time without swimming. That odd quiet and sensation of floating.
My glasses were assembled in Nantes. I say this because numerical instability can occur anywhere there are bad roads and swirling mist. But things eventually settle down. It’s raining so hard, looks like it’s going to rain all night. Here’s another new feeling: the warmth in a shoe someone has just worn.
Cerise asterisks forged in a kimono.
I adhere to the profligacies of coffee. I’ve got a bunch of change in my pocket. I always do. I feed it to the parking meters. It eventually diminishes, like ice in the sun.
Dishrags have faces. I’ve seen them smile. They smile when I rinse them out. The smile appears in the fold, where smiles generally appear, softly imbuing the face with a consciousness of ineffability and beatitude à la Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or showing all the teeth in a blare of maniacal glee. Now imagine a rag doing that. And hanging it on the faucet, like a delinquent Dasein, an improbable eidos of empirical intuition.
That is smiling at you. With all its teeth in a row.
That is one goofy rag, my friend. Not everything in a submarine is modified to limit noise.
I’m often amazed at the ability of people to sing. The creaking of wood in a medieval mill. The color of thought. Anything analogous to horsepower, or weekends.
Language is a carnival. It has to be that way. Because space is so huge. You know?
There’s a big old chair in the arroyo. The Grateful Dead on the radio in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
I enjoy eating. That must be it. That must be why the electric guitars sounds so good. Like clay between the fingers. You have to love all those rocks. I see Picasso everywhere.
The moon has its subtleties. Demi Moore shaping a phallic vase. How can you not be in love with the ocean? With ghosts? With electricity illuming the city with so much color?
Never underestimate the fertility of a blackberry vine. The logic of the blackberry vine is indistinct. There’s so much of it. I could make a comparison to the fertility of language. The head of a seal emerges from the water now and then, confirming my suspicion that there is life in the water, and that it is hungry, and that some of it is translucent, and jelly-like, and much of it is quick and supple, and has weirdly led to the evolution of creatures on land, creatures with hair, and limbs that enable them to walk upright, gazing at the water as if it held an answer to the riddle of their own existence.
Right now I’m building a rocket ship. Planet Earth is dying.
Can a pain be ugly or beautiful? I once saw an oyster in a low-cut gown. It made me get in a car and drive. I was mad with energy. I had to tell people. I had things to share. Sensations and feelings, oysters and gowns. I listened to CBS Mystery Theatre under a full moon on I-5 between Redding and San Francisco. I didn’t know where I was headed. Not really. There were friends in San José I was eager to see, sure. But not my overall direction. I was lost in the mystery of my life.
Our cat has an inexhaustible appetite. The tyranny of hunger is enough to bring a government down.
And sometimes I see Mississippi catfish dark and editorial.
This poor old planet has been trashed beyond repair.
Here’s a smear of poetry on a glass side: little microbial words create sugar. A sweetness for the mind. Hormones propel us into trouble. It’s amazing, all the ways the world might enter your head and assume a presence there. The leathery smells of a shoe repair shop. The smell of the sea. The feel of the sky. The labyrinth of halls in an insect. Ever stick your hand in a bucket full of minnows? Anywhere you go nature goes. U2 in Las Vegas, the brushwork of Vincent Van Gogh. The roar of the sun in a turbulence of gold.
People define themselves by what they buy. These charming lights around me are proof of sandwiches. Bubbles in a cave. The whole idea of death, which is prevented by sweaters, and iPods.
The hills of West Virginia are lush and beautiful. Everything else pales by comparison. I can’t get excited by anything in a jewelry store. How do ants manage to work together so flawlessly, to work with such deliberation and drive? What drives ants?
My life is a response to the dramas of the sky. I want to be a hit song in your jukebox. There is a strange kind of quiet that comes with autumn. I think it’s because summer is so noisy. It’s all fireworks and barbecues. Autumn is solemn. We see the return of the sublime. I’m fascinated by the footage of the sunken Titanic. The firmament repeated in your hair. The hypnotic movement of ocean swells. The funny contrast of textures when you’re walking barefoot on concrete and then a thick carpet.
Society is mostly hallucination. Tempers flaring in the Caribbean.
Our apartment is full of books. I have eyes like aquariums. Ecstasy isn’t just a drug. The soil around here insinuates rhubarb. And yet I got stung by a wasp. Should that matter? Is it part of a pattern? Where is Alan Watts?
The world of mushrooms is complicated, like the prostitutes on Aurora. Balloons in the rain. The politics of the fairy tale. One thing I know for sure: there is sublimity in music. The perception of distance is in the stars, the flicker of ancient beginnings, the timeless string of the yo-yo.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Arc Welding For The Truly Mad

I like to put words together. I mean, who doesn't, right? How can anyone not enjoy putting words together? Isn't conversation fun? Seriously, what better amusement is there than talking with a friend or two or three about whatever, about books, drugs, music, chocolate éclairs, the God particle, marriage, divorce, the little shits that are younger than us, influences, outrageous medical bills, midnight confessions, weird perceptions,  ghosts, earthquakes, harmonicas, vaporizers, movies, places you've been, places you'd like to visit, the possibilities are endless, and that is it in its essence, the entire allure to speaking: it is endless. It is the closest that we can get to the infinite while still in our skin.
It’s when we decide to make an art of putting words together that things get unwieldy and difficult. Not so much fun. But it depends. Is fun the right word? In the case of art, no, not really. This isn’t to say that putting words together ceases to be fun, but the landscape changes drastically from the quiet pastures going by your train window as you discuss books and movies with a newfound friend, to a rickety scaffolding fifty floors above the street, a swaying rope bridge in the Himalayas, a yawing abyss, a volcanic terrain of steaming fumaroles and chunks of red hot lava unfolding at your feet.
Fun is for kids. Drugs can be fun, but much of their time they’re not. They’re exciting and mind-blowing and akin to fun, but they’re in a different sphere. They’re in the decadent, lurid, La Dolce Vita sphere. They can be transformative, but mostly they’re just cheap thrills. Taking a drug like heroin isn’t fun, it’s dangerous, highly risky, and very much against the grain of mainstream values, which makes heroin a cogent analogue to the literary life. Psilocybin has a lot of good press, pot is a warm poultice for a tired brain, LSD is the NASA of inner space and I’ve heard ecstasy is exquisite for raves and festivals because it makes you fall in love with talking. I’m not recommending heroin, pot, LSD or ecstasy. I just want to reinforce the point about fun. Fun is for amusement parks. Extreme sports are for maniacs. But writing is for the truly mad.
The intent to put words together in a way that makes the words different, that makes them shiny and hard and incandescent is a very strange ambition. It will not make you money.
Let me repeat that: it will not make you money.
Unless you’re somehow able to put words together with none of their inherent magic in evidence because you’re showcasing content, an adventure story, a romance, a sensationalistic fantasy involving vampires and wands, a political ideology or a suspenseful plot full of guns and bloody vengeance. That’s not writing, that’s pandering. This is writing done for a particular market. If you can do that, my hat is off. I can’t. I don’t know why, but every time I begin putting words together it becomes an art, and people like Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein enter my mind. I fill with giddy intent. I want to construct pituitary banjo awnings, cardboard headaches, creamery walks in funny liquid shoes.
I would love to be able to write for a market and make lots of money. I like money. It’s a form of language, like words, only you can buy things with it. Things like clothes and dinner. Real shoes, not liquid shoes. Whoever heard of liquid shoes? Words did, that’s who.
Ok, now that that’s cleared up, let’s talk about putting words together as an art. It is a difficult battle at first because the language is essentially social. The uses that I make are only partly social. There may be ideas I want to express, but they are secondary to my primary intention, which is to liberate the inner genius of words, their realities as living entities.
And right away, I’m slipping. “Living entities” sounds a little trite. Are they, really? No, they’re not. They’re words. Words have histories, words have rules. But they’re not embryos. I can say they’re embryos, and you may picture embryos, but are they embryos? No. They’re sounds, that’s all. Vibrations in the air, vibrations with meanings attached.
In other words, embryos. Embryo comes from the Greek, embruon, meaning fetus, which stems from Greek ‘em,’ meaning ‘into,’ and ‘bruein,’ meaning to ‘swell, or to grow.’ Now certainly, when I say a word, I don’t just say it, I put my breath into it, I breathe into it, and the word assumes life, the vibrations produced by my vocal apparatus put it out there, a living breathing entity of semantic import. Ok, but what if I don’t say it, I write it, what’s that? That would be a word formed by pixels on a computer screen, or ink on a sheet of paper. No breath involved, not for the word, or words, whatever it is they breathe, whatever ether propels their little lives forward or backward is the fingers of my hand. Their histories, however, existed long before I got around to playing with them. And in the case of English, this is pretty extensive, because English is a polyglot language, a hodgepodge of all the other languages that have previously existed or continue to exist, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Choctaw, Arapahoe, Sioux. Not to mention French and German and Spanish. Billow, blunder, birth and billow are Norse words. So are dirt, gun, bug, berserk, gust and geyser. Did the Vikings have guns? No (thankfully) but they did have daughters, and the really badass Vikings liked to name their daughters Gunnhildr, a combination of two words, gunn and hildr, both words meaning ‘battle.’
So if you dare to go into a language like English with the intent to make art out of its gusts and geysers, you’re in for an adventure, my friend. You’ll be stumbling around in a lot of history, syntax, grammar, nutty predicates and insane nouns like flibbertigibbet and borborygmus. You’ll be bumping into Vikings and brushing shoulders with berserk motorcyclists named Panhead and Rocky. You’ll be going on expeditions into fabulous realms of mung bean and wanderoo. It’ll be a gas. You’ll get to wrap your mouth around big juicy words like parcheesi and juggernaut. You’ll be slashing your way through fertile valleys of bamboo and liana vines seeking that ultimate treasure, the metaphor to beat all metaphors, a trope so fantastic in its reach and metaphysical in its implications that it will threaten the very fabric of the society in which you live and trigger a chain of never-ending associations. Reality will topple over. A new reality will need to be assembled, quickly, before the neighbors find out what’s happened.
What has happened to me, you will wonder. Why are my friends avoiding me? Why can’t I pay my bills?
All arts require sacrifice. Language above all. Musicians, you may have noticed, occasionally make money. Not as much as they used to. But getting on a stage with a guitar and singing is more apt to garner applause than getting on a stage and reading a body of words calibrated to explode in people’s heads like verbal nitroglycerin. Those glazed looks in the audience are the people who don’t understand that your metaphors are intended to blow their minds and cause them to carry you triumphantly into the street. The polite applause is a hint that you what you’re doing with language on the level of artistic treatment isn’t totally connecting.
There’s no easy formula. You can get so entangled in vocabulary and syntax you’ll need the jaws of life to extricate your ass.
Or, you can keep things simple if you like. It worked for Samuel Beckett. He worked for a time as a secretary to James Joyce, he took language to the nth power in Finnegans Wake, stretched it to its very capacity and reached the fourth dimension, so why repeat that thought Beckett, who went off in his own direction, and wrote with increasingly simplicity and starkness as he aged into the craggy face that not be a more perfect match to the existential bleakness to the writing, and its humor, which is evident in Beckett’s eyes, which are the eyes of a hawk spiraling thousands of feet above the earth in a column of warm rising air. 
It should be mentioned that Beckett did a very interesting thing: he wrote in French, then translated it into English. He lived in Paris nearly his entire life. Yet, like Gertrude Stein and Joyce, however fluent he may have been in French, it was not (as we like to say) his mother tongue. However comfortable you get in a foreign language, it preserves its foreignness. That is a key element. If you begin working with a language in which you have a sense of it being other than you, you’re way ahead of the game.
The people I envy are the first people to begin language, to get it rolling. How did that happen? Who were the first people to look up at the sun, say, and say ‘sun,’ or whatever sound they made when they all agreed that that sound was going to mean ‘sun,’ and the word ‘shine’ was going to mean ‘shine,’ and so on. Jesus I wish I could’ve been there. It’s hard to imagine, hard to remove the word ‘sun’ from my mind and imagine what sound I might’ve made to mean ‘sun,’ at a time when language was both an art and a medium of social exchange. How many years before people lost a sense of its natural foreignness and began taking it for granted? Before it became those tired, meaningless phrases we use at work, or the politicians made flags and wars out of them.