Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Belief & Volition: Truth, Choice, and Epistemology

NOTE: This post has been cobbled together from several responses I've made on the topic; I'm basically trying to consolidate my entire argument in one place. There may be places where I've sacrificed better illustrations of one point or another in favor of a lesser--but clearer--expression (or vice versa); there are almost certainly places where thoughts are repeated in whole and punctuation is downright confusing. If this is a subject that interests you, however, I believe quite strongly that the argument advanced will reward your patience (regardless of whether you agree with either my premises or my conclusions). I'm considering this a rough draft, and may be editing it up to the point that it receives response (if that's even likely to happen).

In discussions about freedom of religion, belief in [G/g]od(s), and the like, an assertion is often made, on both sides, that belief or non-belief in deity, in received morality, in any metaphysic, is something that one chooses.

I'm here to categorically reject that notion.

I've often compared the way that one can choose one's religion, but no one's foundational beliefs, to the way that I choose the life I live with my wife without actually having chosen to love her. I choose to devote myself to my wife by virtue of the love that I did not choose; I chose to marry her and spend my life with her; I choose to tolerate her annoying qualities and celebrate her amazing ones; I choose to behave differently for her benefit; I choose to share my triumphs and defeats with her, and to share in hers, in turn; I choose to cook her dinner when I'm not in rehearsal.

She wasn't the only one for whom I’ve ever “fallen,” but I chose to make her the one to whom I dedicated myself. I'd even say I choose to nurture the love I feel for her by behaving lovingly even when I don't feel like it (because I know from experience that I will feel like it again, eventually). In that sense, I "chose" her, and she "chose" me. But the thing that made her something to me other than just another acquaintance, that made these choices something other than an act borne of the compassion I, as a Buddhist, am to cultivate for all things, had nothing to do with choice. Rather like I don't choose a plant into existence; I merely water it to keep it alive. Or, more in line, like love, I don't choose my aptitudes; I only choose to foster them into recognizable skills. Likewise, I can choose much about my love--what I do with it, whether it grows or dies, etc. But that it exists at all ... that isn't up to me.

To distinguish between "love" as a noun and "love" as a verb, I'd like to distinguish between "love" and "loving action." What I choose to do is behave lovingly toward my wife--the outward expression, not the inward feeling. By choosing to do these things, I am choosing to behave lovingly towards my wife; I am choosing to foster the love I feel for my wife. Our actions based on love are many things, all of which relate to love. Love itself is the basis for the action; it is the phenomenon that is constantly nurtured by and kept in play by the action. But love is not the action; the action is not, in and of itself, love. Love without action or expression, even if useless, is still love. Loving action without basis in feeling is many things--even many wonderful, positive things--but I would not call it love. Compassion, maybe.

One could argue that true love is forged by the weathering the storms with one’s beloved. This is a poetic truth, though, more than a definitional one; it confuses result with reason. Yes, that weathered companionship is what has enriched and enlivened the love I feel, and it certainly would not have come about without our efforts and choices. But that's confusing what we've done for and with the thing to the thing itself. We oughtn’t confuse attendant phenomena with the phenomena they attend. Through choice, through action, through work & effort, we foster the love we feel, we nurture it, we shape it, we determine its mode of expression. But without something to foster, to choose to nurture, to express, these actions amount to little more than ritual. I've got nothing against ritual, but I'm going to call it what it is. It amounts to the same thing as praying, abstaining from sin, committing good works, and going to church, all the while knowing, deep down, that nothing you know of reality jibes with the notion of theism.

Look at it this way: You could say I've chosen my body, and that would be just as correct (that is to say, just as incorrect) as saying that I've chosen to love my wife. After all, as a physical performer, acrobat, martial-artist, and personal trainer, I've taken a lot of responsibility for the current shape of my body; as a marijuana user, moderate-to-heavy drinker, etc., I can also take a little blame for such; I can even take some credit for its decoration by way of my piercings, tattoos, and shaven head. But it would be a mistake to suggest that I've chosen my body. My body, after all, is the meat to which I have given all this time and effort. That takes nothing away from that time and effort, of course; it only shines a light on how we use our terms.

Love, belief, and preference are, as far as I'm concerned, mere reaction to stimuli--material, chemical, neurological responses. A function of the aforementioned meat, if you will: strictly phenomenological. All actions and choices that proceed from that are volitional (or are, at least, apparently volitional, which I'll accept as being actually volitional for argument's sake, though I find Spinoza's arguments against free will rather compelling), but I hold them distinct from their bases, their sources. I can choose to (or not to) take aspirin when I have a headache; I cannot choose whether aspirin does or does not relieve that headache. Likewise, our experience of the universe is largely chemical.

I'm responsible for my actions, not my thoughts or feelings ... because I choose actions. I have loved many whom I have not so much patted on the shoulder; in that sense, I have chosen the terms of many relationships without necessarily choosing how I felt about the people involved. I have learned to appreciate certain music, theater, and cinema, and have chosen to support such, despite lacking--through no choice of my own--any real love for or interest in the art at hand.

I actually came to this understanding over the matter of musical taste. I'm a musician; I had quite a bit of training in classical and jazz before I came to the theater and began to focus more on acting and playwrighting. I've taken more music theory and appreciation classes than some music professors. But here's the thing: While I can learn to appreciate anything, what I like, what I love, boils up, volcanically, from my blood. There's no choice I could make that would make Vivaldi or Ellington interesting to me for more than a few songs; there's no choice I could make that could prevent the sweat from beading on my brow, the pulse from racing, when I hear the opening strains of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," Throbbing Gristle's "Hamburger Lady," or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's "The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion."

As a dedicated aesthete and professional performer and writer--as one who believes that our capacity for art is the ONLY thing that differentiates us from mere bacteria, from flatworms with incidental, opposable thumbs--I don’t see these “loves” as being part of separate discussions. That it's a different kind of love than what I share with my wife, which is in turn a different kind of love than I share with my friends, or with my colleagues, I grant you; that all are love, I do not doubt. Moreover, I believe that, as emotion and knowledge are anthropogenic functions, they function according to similar processes and can be examined on the same bases ... as can faith (which is, after all, arguably just another epistemic system).

Life is composed of the phenomena in which we're stewed and the choices we make about them. It's possible, of course, that our choices are just another among many phenomena, no more "ours" than food that enters our body and exits as excrement, blood, and discarded skin cells. But that's probably another discussion. Suffice it to say that if you walk under a building as an anvil is falling, and it beans you, you did, obviously, choose to walk that sidewalk, that day, under that building. The anvil, though, could hardly be said to have fallen according to your choice.

As applied to belief ... Belief is the assertion of truth, an assertion based on what aptitude applied to appearance indicates is true. We have a certain amount of choice as to that aptitude (we can increase it by studying more) and appearance (by looking at things from another perspective), but what's true is true. I do not choose to believe in gravity. If I claimed not to believe in gravity, I wouldn't be choosing non-belief--I'd be choosing to behave counter to what is readily apparent. Belief is rooted entirely in the appearance of truth; if it is not, it is no more belief than wearing a gorilla suit is being a gorilla. Behaving as though there is a [G/g]od is not belief. I may choose to behave a certain way based on either belief or non-belief; I may choose to study more to challenge or reinforce my belief, or to see how another belief might align itself more thoroughly with the facts on the ground. But I can't choose to believe in [G/g]od(s) for the same reason I can't choose to believe I'm made of cheese. There's enough evidence for my NOT being made of cheese that, while I can say I believe I'm made of cheese, while I can even act as thought I were composed of cheese, I'll never really believe it; what I know to be true about my composition will always contradict that facade.

By the same token, I could say that I believe in [G/g]od(s), but the sheer counter-intuitive nature of the posit--according to my particular epistemic aptitudes, according to what I see--would make any such statement false. I could choose to feign belief, but I could not choose to believe. I suppose we could make a game of it and suggest that one has to, at least, "choose" truth over untruth, but one who deliberately chooses untruth over truth isn't actually exercising belief, but, rather, the facade of belief. To ignore truth is not to believe in untruth; it is only to declare belief in untruth. This distinction matters more where truth is more apparent (say, where we're talking about gravity or being made of cheese), but will matter so long as the appearance of truth is at stake (which is at all levels of belief). Declaration of belief does not equal belief. Choosing untruth is not belief, but self-deception. I can only choose to feign belief in a lie. Unless I'm really, really stupid, in which case my belief is still not volitional, because it reflects a shortfall in capacity.

Around on the other hand, I could (re-re-re-)read the Bible and follow all the commandments (though people are always sketchy as to which ones matter; there are over 600 pronouncements in Mosaic law, and some say that they're all cancelled [or, in some nebulous way, fulfilled] by Christ, and that only the big 10 matter, which is odd, because most of them still have problems with homosexuality, whcih doesn't show up in the big 10 at all . . . but again, another argument); I could proclaim faith in the risen Christ; I could pray to the deity described therein. But this is the end of what is volitional. I can't choose to believe that the historical evidence for the resurrection (or even for the life of him resurrected) is convincing to me; I can't choose to believe that the universe appears, to me, ordered in such a way that it was likely to have been designed.

 We accept truth on what basis? Even the most avid theist will insist that they believe based on apparent evidence. The nature of that evidence may vary, and one might say that we "choose" an epistemology . . . but even then, we "choose" the epistemology based on its apparent reliability, which has recourse to the phenomena that happened to transpire in front of use, the causes and effects which we have witnessed, and, again, our general capacities.

I distinguish between a belief system and a belief, between following a religion and believing in its premise. I choose to be a Buddhist, but I do not choose to believe in the eternal corporeal/eternal incorporeal, in fundamental unity; the evidence at hand (whether empirical, anecdotal, or intuitive) wouldn't allow me to believe otherwise, anymore than the evidence at hand would allow me to "believe" that gravity is not a functioning phenomenon. I choose to chant in front of the gohonzon, but I don't choose to believe that doing so serves a positive function in my life. I chose to devote myself to Nichiren Buddhism ... based on the pantheistic beliefs that I did not choose.

So far, then, as religion is a practice, a lifestyle, then yes, one "chooses" to live according to those tenets. But in a faith-based religion, much stock is placed on holding unverified events and assertions as literally true. This ignores that believing in truth is a matter of how the data adds up. You "choose" how you pursue the data, I suppose, or who you believe and who you don't, but even those choices will be predicated on the information made available to you, innate intelligence, level of exposure to contradictory ideas, etc. From an epistemic perspective, in addition to the "rules" and philosophical posits within any given religion (from which one can borrow, cafeteria style, if one doesn't assume that the metaphysical assertions or historical narratives of the religion are true), there are also arguably falsifiable assertions of truth. That is to say, there either is a god or there isn't; either Christ is the messiah, or he is not; either his crucifixion atoned for our sins, or it didn't. Since I don't believe in an anthropomorphic deity, in the resurrection, or in the historical veracity of the Bible per se, I have no objection to your "borrowing" elements of the Bible that suit you; after all, I believe that Christ was likely a bodhisattva, given that he obviously had enough charisma and influence to have a whole movement built around his purported philosophy (the catch being that, according to the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, we're ALL bodhisattvas, so his particular distinction becomes a little less monumental). But I'm not sure most Christians would agree. And that's where I take issue--for if we are held morally accountable for what we happen to think is true, then what is deity's obligation to make truth apparent? And if there is none, then what fealty can we possibly owe to so capricious a beast?

My interest here is to toss something out that asks us to question, for a moment, our assumption that people can be argued into accepting our viewpoints as true. One can't simply choose to reach the conclusion her opponent offers; at best, she can be convinced by an argument that makes sense within the framework of her own epistemology, her own experiences, her own desires. We're all practicing a kind of evangalism by debating or expressing. For whatever reason (none apparent, in some cases), we all believe that our views, and/or our mode(s) of expressing them, are compelling, convincing, powerful, amusing, what-have-you. Some of us may even be right about that. But we could all afford to learn better when to shift arguments to make sure we're even talking about the same thing, to abandon arguments that proceed from hopelessly different foundational premises (because all foundational premises are ultimately articles of faith, so far as they are active premises and not merely assumptions held arguendo for lack of anything better). After all, as unreasonable as some individuals' beliefs may be, they didn't choose them--they grew into them. And so far as there's any utility in trying to disavow them of such notions, you'll only do it by appealing to the paths by which they received them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gone Girl - Sex, Marriage, and the Perils of Capital

This began as a response in a conversation in a Facebook comments thread. Felt like I needed to preserve it. That's why it has no beginning, and no real end. I may come back and do some rewrites, but if not, know that it's just meant to be a rejoinder in a discussion on the deeper meanings in Gone Girl, hopefully traveling beyond treatment as a mere thriller or questions as to whether it's sexist, and on to its messaging regarding the society in which it is set. I think Gone Girl, to its credit, is about something even more pervasive and abstract of which relationships and their trajectories are only a moving part, and this is where it reveals itself as a companion piece (if we can agree, at least to a point, that an auteur like Fincher can reveal themes that are either outside the realm of its source material or are implicit in other source materials the director utilizes to such a degree that they become the themes of the cinematic auteur as well as that of the literary author) to Fight Club. To me, the realities of being with someone over a significant period of time cannot help but be influenced by, and are influenced in toxic ways by in Gone Girl, currency, capital, and the roles that marriage as an economic arrangement, a contract, pressures us to play. The second a hookup turns into a relationship, the economy is already in bed with you; everything from tolerating each others' preferences to embracing or critiquing the others' clothing styles or shaving habits is about how we earn or spend our currency or how we create and manage our public personae so as to make ourselves marketable. Even child-bearing becomes a way to keep up with the Joneses, a status marker that says you are who society wants you to become. The bad economy exposes weakness in a relationship because the way we tie emotional relations to economic ones, of necessity, in capitalistic society is the elephant in the room of ALL attempts to build a household. In a way, this is just the inversion of the romantic comedy formula, wherein women are asked to be the guards and keepers of the patriarchal/capitalist formula--that men are immature apes who waste their will-to-power on video games and meaningless sexual escapades until a wiser woman, who has internalized the codes of our occidental, anthropomorphic-monotheistic-turned-empirical-social-constructivist culture, shows him that his real duty is, as I pointed out above, to tuck his shirt in, breed, get a job that the current economy considers worthy of reward, and start feeding that money back into the economy by buying a house and car and get on with hiring some help. I don't think we can dismiss that, in this story, the man IS a psychopath, and the woman a sociopath, but I think this is no more literal, thematically, than Buffy being a slayer of Vampires and Angel being her vampire-with-a-soul lover who loses his soul when he experiences a (hot, sweaty, naked) moment of true happiness with his one true love. That is, I think psychopathy and sociopathy are fantasy devices illustrating who we are asked to be, and how that turns to poison when the structure fails us. The expectations on men that twists their love and their contractual promises into assertions of dominance, lionization of self, and acts of brutish violence unleashed upon the world at large; the expectations on women lead to subterfuge, acquisitiveness, and an anxiety about her empty nest, her empty womb. I think that Harris's performance reveals a certain creepier left turn that programming could take when a male combines the two lessons, using subterfuge and violence hand in hand, building his own nest, his own den of sterile trinkets and misdirected fantasies turned into grim sadomasochistic fantasia. So in a weird way, I think Fincher, despite his clinical, cynical outlook, is concerned with some of the same things I am, though from a perspective I'm inclined to call "masculist"--not so much sexist or misogynist as deeply and unrepentantly macho (a position to which I can relate, have at points in my development adopted, and which now simultaneously intoxicates and terrifies me when faced with it, which is why I watch Fight Club at least once a year while wondering if it's really healthy for me).

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Blank Slate: Time, Narrative, and the Body

Just so we're clear, the genesis of my thoughts here was this article regarding Renee Zellweger's "new face." I really didn't want to post anything about this, because, on the one hand, I don't think anyone's face or body should be up for our judgment. But I realized, as I was typing a response to a friend's link (on Facebook) on the subject, that I had an awful lot on my mind about the subject, so I thought I'd bring this here. First, some thoughts from the article by Frances McDormand: "Something happened culturally," the proudly wrinkled actress, 57, recently raged to the New York Times. "No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face. . . [My husband] literally has to stop me physically from saying something to people — to friends who've had work. I'm so full of fear and rage about what they've done." So I bristle a little when anyone carps about people dressing like teenagers, since I'm still fundamentally mistrustful of people who tuck their shirts in as a matter of course, or who shave every day; being willing to age doesn't mean you have to give up advertising what sets you on fire. But her point, by and large, is spot on. We don't want our bodies to tell our stories anymore. Look ... the only appropriate response to what appears to be (though I grant it may not be) conspicuous cosmetic surgery is to ignore it, because to acknowledge the event is to feed the machine that makes the event possible, probable, all but necessary--the machine that says we are our appearances, and that the appearance of people in the public eye, and most especially women in the public eye, is our business. Even the frightened assertions that it looks "nothing" like her (and I do, it must be said, have a hard time recognizing the Zellweger I have seen in the relatively few of her movies I've viewed [because I really only ever kinda sorta liked her acting]) seem to imply, perhaps without meaning to, that she has an obligation to remain recognizable. Surely her agent prefers that, but I'm not sure that it's our business. And yet ... well, let me re-gather, re-phrase. What I mourn is not a face, and certainly not anyone's youth. And as someone who is adamantly for body modifications like tattoos and piercings (I'd be covered in all of the above if I had the money and no casting concerns), I have to be a little careful about how I look at modifications. I do feel, though, a twinge of regret that we, as a culture, no longer let these flawed and inevitably degenerating bodies tell our stories, that the miles don't get to settle into our skin and bones. Modifications that augment the story or add "supertext" strike me--perhaps arbitrarily; might make for an interesting discussion of its own--as different from those that actually seem designed to cover the narrative, to cover the tracks that time and life have left across the body. Realizing that I speak from a place of white, male privilege, I'm not sure I could abide a body that didn't carry some history on it, that didn't wear, somewhere on its surfaces (though maybe not on surfaces that everyone will get to see) the history of my martial arts and performance and exercise and stage combat; my adolescent self-mutilation or my post-adolescent suicide attempts; my postpunk/post-punk, late-Romantic, [G/g]nostic, Celtic, pantheistic obsessions as expressed in my ink; and so on. I wish we could give ourselves the gift of a paradigm of public life wherein crones and shamans and lunatics could flaunt their mileage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Accidental Platonist

It could be said that I wouldn't be writing here at all were I not suffused with some sort of melancholia, but feeling robust enough that I could bother taking it public. But rather than plumb the details of this melancholia (the origins and nature of which are probably as elusive to me as they might be to you), I'm instead going to focus on something that's striking me just at this moment: that my dissatisfaction with myself implies that I do hold some idealized notion of what self is; that my dissatisfaction with the world, with art, with friends (or shortage thereof--not to discount those who remain loyal, supportive, and ever at my side), with religion likewise implies an ideal world, a perfect art, a perfect notion of [P/p]latonic friendship to which the real should conform (though it may never actually attain such heights).

What interests me, here, is that as a self-proclaimed nihilist--even a self-proclaimed ethical nihilist--I've essentially denied the existence of Platonic ideals (though not all small "p" platonic ideals; hence the grammatical chicanery above, wherein I allow both the existence of platonic friendship--that is, friendship without eros--and, grudgingly, of Platonic friendship, or perfect, ideal friendship). Good and beauty have no objective existence; they're constructs we impose on what is. And for good reason: What is will not likely organize itself into what's useful and edifying if we don't impose our "arbitrary" limitations on it. But once you assume that good and beauty exist independently of what we feel or agree is beautiful, or that love is something other than a collection of responses, agreements, and sacrifices, you assert, by default, that there is theos, or deity.

I'm not necessarily holding this out to any of my Christian readers (I do have 'em), though I'm not exactly withholding it from them either; it's safe to say that they would answer, "Well, YEAH!" Not that they'd admit to being Platonists (they tend to hate it when you suggest that Judeo-Christian conceptions of God tend to combine Greek pantheism with Greek anthropomorphic theist mythology), but they'd suggest my "accidental Platonism" is some whisper of the divine in my ear. Indeed, I may not be looking for an answer at all. Hell, I don't even know what the question is.

What I find interesting, I guess, is that for all my claims, I am still both driven forward and held back by the notion that there is a better me--gentler, kinder, more consistent, more potent, less selfish, less frantic, less insecure, a better artist, a better husband, a better son, a better mentor, a better student, a better friend, a better being--and that this better me will live a better life--more edifying, more focused, more altruistic, more moral (whatever we take that to mean). Driven forward because the desire to improve, to reach these ideal conditions, gives me reason to function (because function, when I'm down, is very, very difficult); held back because I have a blinkered view that keeps me from seeing alternate paths, alternate states or conditions that might be equal to, even preferable to, the notions to which I've chosen to devote myself.

I think even a radical individualist must be a Platonist, to some degree. Once you've defined the ideal condition of "individualism," you've already lost the battle. If, as an ethical nihilist, I believe that we must invent our own ideals (being presented with nothing but raw chaos, punctuated by random pockets of order, by the universe itself), then I'm suggesting that we must still, like Plato himself, hold that there are conditions transcendent to the real to which the real should aspire.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

American Wulver

Just thought I'd share a few shots from American Wulver, the solo show I've been working on over the last several months. I performed a 9-minute cut therefrom at Bumbershoot in September, which is where these pics were taken (by the wonderful Vince Vonada at Acappella Wedding and Family Photography).

Yes, I could probably afford to drop about 15 lbs. Duly noted. :(

If you missed Bumbershoot, it looks like I, along with others, will be performing at Balagan Theatre at 11:00pm on Friday, October 17th. The event will be free (though, being as it's a theater, donations will be more than appreciated).


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Little Big Town

This is brought on by the political tension in the air, but this isn't about politics. This is a rant on something that, I think, transcends (yet underlies) politics. What interests me right now is a certain current underneath the rhetorical tide, something that seems to speak more to the notion of "two Americas" than mere red & blue, liberal & conservative. Rural and urban is definitely part of it, and is probably where I'm gonna start, but I think it's something far more insidious than that, since that's just about where one lives, which grows, often as not, from the field in which one works and/or what one values.

This might be about the difference between those who deal in numbers and those who deal in letters, or those who handle objects and those who handle cultural commodities. I don't think it's about who works with hands and bodies vs. who works with the mind, because I find that division is the most facile of all (painters and sculptors work with their hands as surely as do farmers and mechanics, who use their intellects brains as surely as do professors and physicists; the physical, generative theatre I do demands that I read as astutely as a copy editor and maintain the physical condition of a professional athlete).

I suppose, in the end, the manufactured division I see is that between "the elite" and "hard-working Americans." As far as I know, most everyone here, if not everyone I could possibly think to ask, would claim to be the latter. So if we're all hardworking Americans . . . who the hell are the elite?

I've seen a lot of complaint in the last week or so from conservatives about liberals "talking down" to the rural voter, to "small town" values, and thus, presumably, to the "average voter." And while I've seen more conservative complaint than I've seen example of that about which they're complaining, it would be disingenuous to a degree beyond my capacity--I being an honest, if cheeky and evasive, sort--to suggest that I haven't seen a few people showing a lot and a lot of people showing a little of the kind of condescension being described.

Of course, we're talking about this now because we Sarah Palin--Alaskan, Christian, conservative, hockey mom--is on the national stage. How quickly these defensive, hard-working small town residents and their equally hard-working apologists forget the years (at least) of contempt leveled at urban, liberal "elites," and dismissal of their (okay, if I'm being honest--OUR) values as decadent, effete, out-of-touch with "hard-working" Americans . . . as though no one ever called us to ask about that rent check we held onto, waiting for a paycheck to clear; as though we never had to figure out how to make the same rice & beans we'd been digging into for a week look like a real meal, maybe even a marginally different meal than those rice & beans represented same time, day before; or had to take a second job to pay off the uncovered portion on our (okay, MY) wife's 4th throat surgery in the last decade while still slogging away at old student loans, medical bills, and business investments.

I use my personal story to illustrate because the notion of hard-working Americans and elites is a matter of personal narrative; and in everyone's narrative, he or she is the hard-working citizen, and the people who just don't get it are elite. When I sit in my one-bedroom apartment--the rent for which is over half my monthly income--with my wife, an "elite" is a jug-eared Texas millionaire with a vacation home; when I'm onstage or on the Fray, with my tailored diction and fondness for grammatical (de)construction, mocking the way that same millionaire says "nukular", well, apparently I'm elite.

Funny thing is, most of the people I know in my city (or my "Little Big Town," the Emerald City) came from small towns themselves; a lot of us learned our contempt for small towns--and many of us do, admittedly, have some--because we were beaten, bruised, mocked, ostracized, and, in some cases, raped, burned, and assaulted with arms in our little bergs. Some of us were clumsy and weak; some of us had no head for team sports; some of us just had aptitudes or interests in the directions of pretty words, soft fabrics, big ideas. We may have doubted in our churches, or recoiled at the idea of meat. Some of us may never have developed that pubescent interest in the opposite sex, instead gravitating towards our own, or maybe we did a little of both. Or maybe we just liked opera, which made it seem like we lacked "normal" heterosexual desire. Maybe we drew a sharp, astonished breath the first time we heard Sonic Youth, or My Bloody Valentine; maybe dissonance made us feel whole in ways that melody and harmony never could. Maybe we hit our growth spurts late, or early, or we were fat. Maybe we were just too fucking smart, or smart in the wrong ways.

Whatever it was, a lot of us found reasons to move away from those small towns, and for a lot of us--even those who suffered astonishing abuse at the hands of their peers and, mistakenly or not, blamed that abuse on rural small-mindedness, but particularly for those who didn't, or who did, to a degree, but also had beautiful memories of watching the sun set on a lake, or glimpsing a gigantic sturgeon a handful of feet below our canoe, or bowing to a cheering audience, or cupping a breast in the front seat of a '77 Volvo, the sun roof open, thinking even the football players don't have it THIS good--yes, for a lot of us, it was HARD to leave those small towns, where social norms were savagely enforced, but rents were low, competition in our disciplines was minimal, and somehow, no matter how lonely or ostracized we were, everyone who DIDN'T want to hurt us wanted to help us--they knew us, recognized us, knew we weren't right in the head, but, by God, he's Mike's kid, and I'll never forget that joke Mike told at the office Christmas party . . .

So it was hard in the cold hard city, and we had our struggles too. We DO have to hold down desks and counters, stack boxes in warehouses, prepare your food, drive your cabs, even if we spend our nights working a guitar or piano, treading the boards, or leafing through books. Maybe some of us'll get to quit our day jobs, to eek out a living on articles we're only half interested in writing, or slogging through ten Neil Simon plays in the hope that we'll get tossed some Shakespeare or Mamet now and again, or that we'll get to play our original songs instead of covering the fucking Eagles for another fucking wedding. Maybe some of us are programmers, and find good work at Microsoft, or we teach at universities, get tenured, and live comfortably. Or maybe we'll keep those day jobs, and do some art for big money, some for beer money, some for no money, in the hopes that someday, maybe even after we die, someone will look at the work we never, ever compromised and say, "There, there was a hound ahead of his time."

And maybe it's all bullshit, and maybe it's all a waste. And maybe the same goes for your life, your family, your God, your values. After all, we only have the stories we tell about ourselves, and the faith we put in their veracity. Maybe there's a heaven, a hell; maybe I'll come back as a banana slug or a wolverine or a Texas millionaire. Or maybe we're just fucking worm food, pre-soil; maybe the afterlife is the life our death makes possible.

If it sounds like we're making fun of you when we talk about your "guns and religion," well, remember that we sometimes seek our comfort and edification in our foreign cinema and kind bud, or our cheap wine and punk rock, or our transcendental meditation and macrobiotic diets. And you make fun of that, too (or so it looks from here).

If it sounds like I forgot to tell your story, well, remember that I don't know it. My own story--making it, telling it, finding some way to weave entertainment from it--has kept me busy. You worry about what those rap videos are doing to your kids; I'll worry about whether I'll ever be able to have any, or whether existence precedes essence, or whether there'll still be roles for me when I'm a little less young and a little less pretty.

Yes, this has been a ramble. Sorry for the disturbance. If you've made it this far, well, thanks for your indulgence.

If you need a moral, a thesis, it's this: We're ALL hard-working Americans (more or less; don't cloud the issue by nattering on about the drunk asking for change), and elitism doesn't come with a benefits package. I might have contempt for you, but that doesn't mean I don't see you as a brother; it means you have something I wish I had, or you don't have something I can't imagine living without, or I want you to understand me and like me (because I want everyone to understand me and like me), and you just plain don't, and that pisses me off. It's nothing personal . . .or rather, it's strictly personal, and it has nothing to do with what I think about where you live, what you do for a living, how you account for life and eternity, or even how you vote. I'd love for you to believe as I do, because I think it's true; I'd love for you to vote like I do, because then I'll have the leaders I want (or am, at least, willing to settle for); I'd love for you to buy tickets to my shows, especially if I'm getting a percentage of the door. Hell, if we liked the same kind of ice cream, I'm sure it would inspire someone to make more. But in the end, I'm just trying to do what I can with what I've got, wherever I can do it, and to make it all a little more bearable with whatever creature comforts, codes of honor, and spiritual directives appear to me to reflect truth and/or offer the greatest possible utility.

Rather like you, one imagines.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Heh, heh . . .

You paid attention during 91% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

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Um . . . That's what THEY think. The only thing I remember paying attention to in high school was a rather impressive cross-section of Helena, MT high school girls (and maybe a few college girls, and at least one teacher).

Confessions of a Churl

The title for this post would be a reasonable title for the whole blog, truth be told. But then there'd be pressure to be a churl all the time, and deep down, I like being a nice guy.

Don't laugh. I'm serious.

Mind you, I'm aware I fail at being a nice guy more frequently than I care to admit. In person, I frequently monopolize conversations, nattering on about music or cinema or, worse, bloviating endlessly on matters of my personal philosophy or artistic ambitions. Worse yet, I can also fall into long, silent funks (sort of like the last, oh, six or seven months, for those of you who only ever see me or speak with me here), that should be a relief from my exhausting loquaciousness, only it too often leads to an uncomfortable air of stewing, of self absorption, or, worse yet, a sort of mute, animal stupidity brought on by too much weed, too much booze, or lingering brain damage wrought by the many, many tantrums over the years in which I beat myself on the face until my vision went fuzzy and my cheeks swelled like I was storing nuts in 'em. I am, frequently enough, sullen, cantankerous, and elitist.

The frustrating thing about falling short of what you desire to be--not what you desire to have (though I've fallen significantly short on that measure) or what you wish to (or think you should) do (another mark I'm not reaching), but what/who it is you would like to look back and say you have been, or look forward and say you will be, or settle into and say, "I AM . . . "--is that it seems like something that should be entirely within your control. Something that extends naturally from your value system, your worldview, your perception and understanding of reality and your place in it. Not being an asshole should be as simple as deciding that you're not going to be an asshole and sticking with it.

I'm not blind to the fact that this dilemma could emerge from my apparently contradictory interests: my disdain for populism in tandem with my radical egalitarianism; my talky and pedantic anti-intellectualism; my burning desire for authenticity coupled with my desperate need to be loved by everyone I happen to encounter (or at least everyone I encounter who, for whatever reason, inspires some loyalty, admiration, or other connection in me).

Thing is, none of this explains how I manage to take an argument from a place like this to a place like this, or how I manage to mangle friendships with fumbled words and misread intentions, or how I become a nearly impossible spouse every time we hid the financial skids (which happens so often that I should start thinking of it as the status quo, and the rare peeks above the surface as the anomalous events). It doesn't really explain why I am, or when I became, the sort of person who becomes so agitated when listening to phone messages that I snap my fingers and pound on my desk when listening to them, hoping against hope that they will speak faster and let me get on with my very, very important task of appearing to be busy while fostering my ever more tenuous social connections on the web, frantically trying to convince myself that I am loved, that I even can be loved, enough to fill this hungry nothing at the heart of my being.

Sometimes I think it's just my Gemini, Jekyll-Hyde thing that makes mere being so bloody complicated. Jekyll is accountable, but congenitally unhappy; Hyde is quite a bit more fun, but those around him must work harder to avoid getting bitten in the ass (sometimes quite literally). Trouble is, as I mature, Jekyll gets stronger, which makes Hyde angrier, which seems only to increase the level of conflict . . . except during those (rare) periods of time during which I am wholly one or wholly the other. Which is not how I wish to live; the uncollapsed paradox, composed of both entities, comprises the central tenet of my being, my raison d'etre.

I have no satisfying conclusion to which to bring this. This post is bourne less of a literary impulse, and more of a desire to post after such a long absence, and to make heard my cry in the dark without the obligation to give it form or beauty. I've been mired in all manner of generative projects for the last year or two, and frankly, I'm tired of form and beauty. Or tired of serving form and beauty; I imagine I'd still be more than happy to let them serve me . . . which makes me wonder if Hyde isn't rising, after all.