Monday, May 30, 2011

under the weather-ization

My boyfriend used to be in the energy business and a while back, he mentioned the word weatherization. The what? I responded.

Weatherization is the process of protecting a building from sun, wind, and rain, of retrofitting it to decrease energy consumption and boost efficiency. Typical services in a weatherization procedure include: sealing of doors, windows (and other cracks and gaps); replacing old windows and drafty doors; insulating pipes, floors, and sidewalls; installing appropriate drainage and gutters, etc. Weatherization is different from building insulation because that is only one aspect of the 'whole-house' approach of weatherization. The house itself is a system and its performance needs to be considered as such. In the United States, buildings are a prominent sources of energy usage (up to 2/3's of all electricity usage) and thereby they produce massive amounts of pollution. The use of buildings produces approximately 50% of our carbon dioxide output. Looking more broadly at a building's 'energy footprint,' there are the following to consider: the resources and energy expended during construction; the daily service of occupants and maintenance of the building once erected; the energy required to demolish and rebuild on the same site... and the list goes on.

Well, apparently, we create our own weather. And then we weatherize against it. We move in circles, it seems, always. Perhaps spirals, if you are more optimistic.

Usually, though, we consider ourselves at the whim of weather... mother nature's kind. The summer thunderstorm. The wintry blizzard. The oppressive sticky heat of late August. The thick veil of fog wandering in from over the ocean.

Homi Bhabha writes about the nation as narrative construction in his powerful essay, "Dissemination." After exploring the metaphorical realities of time and landscape in the stories that create our social cohesion, homogeneity, and 'otherness,' Bhabha speculates on the weather:
To end with the English weather is to invoke, at once, the most changeable and immanent signs of national difference. It encourages memories of the 'deep' nation crafted in chalk and limestone; the quilted downs; the moors menaced by the wind; the quiet cathedral towns; that corner of a foreign field that is forever England. The English weather also revives memories of Africa; the tropical chaos that was deemed despotic and ungovernable and therefore worthy of the civilizing mission.  (Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994), 169)
White Cliffs, Dover, England
Weather, as a collective memory, becomes a tool for the solidarity of Anderson's 'imagined community,' a tacit discourse that "produces its collective identification of the people, not as some transcendent national identity, but in a language of doubleness that arises from the ambivalent splitting of the pedagogical and the performative. The people emerge in an uncanny moment of their 'present' history as 'a ghostly intimation of simultaneity across homogeneous empty time.'" (159) Of course, Bhabha's additional insight was that the timeless metaphors we use to invent a national historical past that subsumes our present and 'presence' also create a 'slippage' -- a thirdspace beyond the doubleness, beyond the weather of England merely invoking the weather of Africa, wherein those who have been 'erased' through particular signification or placed 'under the weather' always re-emerge, in a very real way, as subjects within that nation.

But it is the weather that directs, guides, and shepherds us to understanding. Why do we say we feel 'under the weather' when we are ill or out of sorts? Weather is beyond our grasp, its powers always out of our control... despite the fact that we have 'mastered' so many other aspects of nature and the environment. All we can do with weather is watch... and track... and historicize. We use instruments to follow and predict and understand the patterns of weather. But we are still only addressing the question of 'what' and the question of 'why' always eludes. Ancient peoples always had gods relating to weather. We analyze; they mythologized. Is there a huge difference, though? They are both stories... ours more scientific... but as Pi poses in Life of Pi, it may not be a question of facts, but a question of which is 'the better story'?

And our stories our not so clear and distinct as we may like to believe. When it rains suddenly and heavily, we still say that 'the heavens opened.' Weather is still one of our gods. We are under the weather because we recognize our powerlessness, our transience, our inability to lift out of the atmosphere. Or perhaps we are stuck on a ship and, feeling ill, slink down to huddle under the weather deck. Under the weather is suffering. Under the weather is the pain of love lost. Under the weather is "simply irrational weather. I can't even hear myself think." Under the weather is KT Tunstall lost and alone. Under the weather is why Bob Dylan was 'tangled up in blue.'

Under the weather is Goethe's Werther sinking in forlorn, lovesick fever, mired in sturm und drang, witnessing the paling of his own life as his paramour becomes increasingly distant:
October 30: One hundred times have I been on the point of embracing here. Heavens! What a torment it is to see so much loveliness passing and repassing before us, and yet not dare to lay hold of it! And laying hold is the most natural of human instincts. Do not children touch everything they see? And I!

November 3: Witness, Heaven, how often I lie down in my bed with a wish, and even a hope, that I may never awaken again. And in the morning, when I open my eyes, I behold the sun once more, and am wretched. If I were whimsical, I might blame the weather, or an acquaintance, or some personal disappointment, for my discontented mind: and then this insupportable load of trouble would not rest entirely upon myself. But, alas! I feel it too sadly.... I suffer much, for I have lost the only charm of life: that active, sacred power which created worlds around me -- it is no more. When I look from my window at the distant hills, and behold the morning sun breaking through the mists, and illuminating the country around, which is still wrapped in silence, whilst the soft stream winds gently through the willows, which have shed their leaves; when glorious nature displays all her beauties before me, and her wondrous prospects are ineffectual to extract one tear of joy from my withered heart, I feel that in such a moment I stand like a reprobate before heaven, hardened, insensible, and unmoved. Oftentimes I do then bend my knee to the earth, and implore God for the blessing of tears, as the desponding labourer in some scorching climate prays for the dews of heaven to moisten his parched corn. But I feel that God does not grant sunshine or rain to our importunate entreaties.     (Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774))
Werther is under the weather when his surroundings do not mirror his emotional state. The pain of dislocation. He becomes even more isolated because the weather is not his weather. And he is under a different sort of weather... her weather... her 'active, sacred power which created worlds around' him... He lives in her weather, her atmosphere without her presence. The wind of memory minus the source of the memory's joy. The remembrance without the being. The weather without the season. The breath and flurry and flutter of erasure, of absence.

And so we search for meaning... in the landscape... in the weather. We construct a crystal palace to enclose and embody and illuminate, but perhaps in the melting rain that falls upon its former site, we find both a memory and a cleansing... for "it is the mystery of the quotient... [and] upon us all a little rain must fall."   (Led Zeppelin, "The Rain Song")

Crystal Palace, Great Exhibition of 1851, London

Thursday, May 26, 2011

knowledge is power?

What do I know? And what does it bring me? Knowledge is power, we tell ourselves. Our personal power? Or a general shared power? Perhaps just as knowledge itself is shared... or is it?

What we know is filtered. What I know comes through me by my unique perception, my particular outlook, my previous experiences and understandings. One reason I have loved teaching high school English is because of this very fact. Students, especially younger 9th or 10th graders, think that there is something 'out there' called "knowledge." They all want it. They all feel they are competing with each other to master it. When we discuss novels -- and when we use them more broadly as a jumping off point for philosophical dialogue -- they begin to recognize that, while there are external commonalities and that we can share erudition, our knowledge is individualized. Knowledge is not that separate body of facts, truths, and realities, but our acquaintance or familiarity with those things. Thus, knowledge is a step removed from the state of a matter... a step that involves the percolation of what is abstracted from us through our being and the synthesis of that 'stuff' into what we already know, feel, are. My students and I spent a good 45 minutes yesterday discussing the part from Life of Pi where Pi talks about how people commonly assume happiness to equate with total freedom. From what he has observed about animals in a zoo, he disagrees with the previous premise. He finds that animals seek safety, security, protection, territorial and hierarchical order... and that it is within the context of these boundaries that they find "happiness." I would not attempt to argue that what animals feel is the same kind of happiness that humans feel, but we speculated on this question of happiness and lack of boundaries if applied to humans. The opinions of my students varied wildly and the discussion was lively and eye-opening. And so the first logical question is: what do we know?

It isn't just my students. It is quite common to correlate knowledge with what we learn in a school setting. Lloyd Dobler is a character (from the 1980's film Say Anything) who questions this connection. In two scenes from the movie, Lloyd addresses the question of what he wants to do in life -- career-wise. First, in responding to Diane's father he says:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed... or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that. So, ah... my father is in the army... he wants me to join, but I can't work for that corporation. So, what I've been doing lately is kick-boxing which is a new sport, but I think it's got a good future. As far as career longevity, I don't really know because, you know, you can't really tell.... You have to be great, but I can't really tell if I'm great until I've had a couple of pro fights. But I haven't been knocked down yet. I don't know. I can't figure it all out tonight, sir. I'm just gonna hang with your daughter.
What comes through from Lloyd's monologue -- besides his dangerously brutal honesty -- is that he is more aware of what he doesn't want and doesn't know than what he does. His unorthodox response and career plans shake up the family. The members of Diane's family sitting at the dinner table as Lloyd pontificates on his skepticism about where traditional education or career paths will take him appear highly uncomfortable. They squirm, they force smiles, they look away, they wait in agonizing silence for his commentary to end. Why are they so troubled? Is it his lack of 'knowing' what he wants to do? Or is it the implicit rejection of what he is supposed to want to do? "I am looking for a dare-to-be-great situation," Lloyd tells his guidance counselor in another scene. He may not know what exact path he wants to take, but he knows more about his own character and principles that most do. His guidance counselor pushes him, suggesting several potential careers post-high school, but Lloyd resists. His argument this time is widened to include what his fellow classmates are blind to in their determination to become a nurse, a lawyer, a guidance counselor:
How many of them really know what they want, though? I mean, a lot of them think they have to know, right? But inside they don't really know, so... I don't know... but I know that I don't know.
His knowledge consists of an awareness of what he does not know. Is this his power? Is this the reason he is considered by some to be "a new kind of folk hero, a high school student with no convictions but true love, certain only of his uncertainty"? (Sarah Hepola, "Being John Cusack," The Austin Chronicle, Feb. 24, 2003) If so, this 'certainty of uncertainty' takes us all the way back to the Greeks. Socrates' most famous quote is often translated as: 'All I know is that I know nothing...' but alternate translations have it as: 'I am wise insofar as what I don't know...' Wisdom, for Socrates, begins with questions... and continues thusly. Further, it is not the amount of 'knowledge' that one attains that matters, but the awareness that there is so much more out there... and that, of anything that we can ever know with certainty, we can perhaps only be sure that there will always continue to be the unknown out there. And so philosophy continues to rest on his credo: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And I repeat all the time: 'The more I know, the more I know what I don't know." Learning opens our eyes to new worlds and the worlds multiply endlessly. We become smaller. The knowledge grows and expands until all we are aware of is that it is impossible to 'conquer.'

Why then, do we call it a 'body' of knowledge? Does this relate back to the fact that our only 'truth' is that which is processed and embodied in our very being? We envision the knowledge that is 'out there' as somehow also corporeal, fleshy... a being that we encounter... a being that breathes into us and perhaps is always separate from us. We cannot fully understand or take in another body, another being. We can do our best to grasp its essential qualities, to listen to its words, to sit with it and hear its heartbeat. Just as with another person.

Jainism is an Indian religion based on becoming more and more conscious. Knowledge assumes a place of supreme importance because it embodies rationality and the path to liberation is understood to be built on just such rational conduct. And yet, the Jain religion sees this body of knowledge as possessing a soul. "There can be no knowledge without soul, and no soul without knowledge." It is in erasing our delusions and becoming more conscious that we attain higher 'soulfulness' in the context of this religion. Thereby, knowledge is again connected to awareness... not facts themselves.

To return to Socrates and 'the unexamined life.' As are so many of our famous soundbites, this too has been separated from its context. In 399 B.C., Socrates was put on trial for what he was teaching to the youth of Athens. Socrates had become a perceived threat to Athenian values and democracy. Many of his pupils were involved in revolts against the existing government. We like to view him as selfless and as a bringer of open and free thought. But the reality may have been that Socrates had little faith that Athenians could think for or rule themselves. This sat at the heart of what people critiqued about his teachings and, with all of the bloody uprisings that were occurring, he was finally charged as a criminal. In his defense (recorded in Plato's Apology), Socrates pleaded:
If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the gods, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear my conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for me, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.
And clearly he didn't as he was found guilty and drank the deadly hemlock poison.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
While the official charges included introducing and encouraging youths to obey new deities, it seems that revolt and threat to democracy were the primary concerns of Athenians. But, as Socrates sets out in his final defense, what does it matter if what he says is 'true' when he will not be able to convince anyone of its truth. Was his knowledge a power?

Certainly it seems so. Power was the threat. I used to think that 'knowledge is power' implied that the more one knew, the more opportunities he had, the more paths opened to him in life. I feel differently now. There was an interesting article in the May 9 issue of New York magazine about the current value (or lack thereof) of a college degree. When we think of knowledge, it is this sort that we all probably tend to conjure. And most have accepted hook, line, and sinker the belief that a college degree is essential to making more money, having more opportunity, and, in general, doing 'better' in life. Well, apparently, there are many now who beg to differ. What kind of knowledge are students gaining at college? And is this knowledge related or transferable to the real world? The article refers to a book by two sociologists (from NYU and UVA) in which they reveal that half of college students don't take any courses which require over 40 pages of reading a week or more than 20 pages of writing. Well, they are not reading or writing. What are they doing then? What kind of knowledge are they attaining? One of the strongest critics of the current college degree, James Altucher, discloses that what he learned at Cornell was how to drink and talk to women. Important skills, of course, but perhaps not those that will lead young people into the promised land. (Another NY Times editorial on the topic.)

If universities have changed from "rigorous scholarly communities into corporate-minded youth resorts, where some presidents command salaries of more than $1 million and competition centers on out-doing one another in acquiring high-end amenities (duplex-apartment dormitories, $70 million gyms)..." ... then where would one go to find the sort of knowledge that these institutions used to (or are presumed to) provide? Or is it that the sort of corporate, competitive, and networking knowledge that students are gaining in college is the more critical sort in our contemporary society?

I don't know. You see, it always seems to return to this. If we return to Socrates, we understand knowledge as questioning that which is accepted as true or real. The Socratic method... fire question after question at the student. Similarly, in a more modern context, Foucault connects knowledge with power in a more nefarious way. Power can be obtained, according to Foucault, through the simple observation of others. Thus, power of this sort comes from knowledge as the 'eye', knowledge that comes by controlling the perspective. Big brother sort of knowledge... and power. Knowledge, in this context, is not the erudite collection of facts, but is rather an instrument of control. In this case, you don't have to 'know' much at all really. You only need to be in the right position behind the monitor in the central tower with a view all around the Panopticon.

I remain reassured by Lloyd. Perhaps it is his alternate belief in love, somehow overpowering his desire for knowledge or need to understand even the simplest of things -- where his life is going. He is a dreamer, an idealist amongst a sea of cynicism. According to a post on NPR's "In Character" blog, Lloyd embodies a particular sort of American faith. For he is "every person striving for dreams and holding faith against the odds. He is the American idea of hope. Undaunted, he made do with very little, remained true to his being, and shared the only thing he (or you and I) could give: love." Knowledge may be power. Knowledge may be a smokescreen. Knowledge may always be filtered and thereby distorted... and later, often manipulated. But our ability to say "I don't know" remains another kind of power. The power of self-awareness, of recognizing the infinite nature of the universe and our very small place within it, of accepting limitations... of perhaps even acknowledging the power of belief, faith, and love over the power of 'facts'. And thus the power of the mystery. "As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious." (Albert Schweitzer)

Question knowledge. Question the question. Expand your perspective. Examine your own filtering devices. Explore the unexamined. Remain in the mystery. Find peace in that place of 'I don't know.'

Monday, May 23, 2011

motivation... reverse the rapture

We are all familiar with those motivational posters with which our co-workers plaster their flimsy, 6x6x6' cubicle.

But, honestly, does your colleague really look like he's ready to conquer Everest? Is that poster really going to make you the top dog at your company? Shower you with bling? Rake in the billions? Bring you to total and complete world domination? I thought not. Despite fighting cynicism with purity of heart, generosity, devotion and all sorts of other sorts of integrity, I find that cynicism fights back... and often wins. And often is funny in the process. So maybe it motivates after all. In that vein, here are a bunch of alternative motivational posters... just in time for you to ponder as you wonder what the hell to do with your life now that the world didn't end.


Friday, May 20, 2011

materia prima, the elixir of life

Whatever you have planned for tomorrow, you may not have considered laboring over the 'Great Work' that so consumed alchemists from Geber (8th c.) all the way to Isaac Newton (17th c.). For centuries, these chemist-philosophers sought to discover the correct formula for what was known primarily as 'the philosopher's stone' (though there were numerous other aliases which we will come to momentarily...) This substance, if identified, was said to have the power to transform cheap metals into gold. Further, it was also whispered to possess the ability to heal all manner of injuries and illnesses... and even to extend life into immortality. Anyone who found a way to make the dry powder, this materia prima, would then be assured of spiritual elevation, purification, ability to alter substances and situations, panacea for all manner of malady, enlightenment, bliss, life everlasting. Not too shabby!

Indeed, this highly regarded (and perhaps protected) secret is not just (or foremost) a fictional creation of J. K. Rowling. Geber, an Islamic alchemist more commonly known to his peers as Jabir ibn Hayyan, approached his analysis of metal through the lens of the Aristotelian elements -- earth, air, fire, and water. Of course, as these stories (a.k.a. "history") tend to go, these were not, in fact, sprung from Aristotle's mind, but from an even earlier philosopher, Empedocles of Acragas. Born in Sicily around 492 B.C., Empedocles was born into an aristocratic family that gave him the freedom to explore ideas, to write poetry, to expound on the meaning of life, and to generally loaf around and go on to establish the foundation for modern Western science. It is not that we still believe that all matter is composed of the aforementioned elements, or that, like Geber, we should explain other metals through their varying degrees of hotness and coldness or moistness and dryness... but rather that the complexity of the world can somehow be simplified. That matter must have smaller and commonly shared elements. And, perhaps even more significantly, that all should align with lex parsimoniae... Occum's razor... the law of succinctness...the simplest explanation should stand until we have proof to lift us to a theory of greater complexity.

But back to Geber. His idea was that if all metals were variations on these basic elemental themes -- hotness, coldness, dryness, moistness, then one metal could be transformed into another by rearranging or recombining these elements. And if that were true, then there existed some intervening substance that would incite this metamorphosis. Thus, the search for this elusive powder, the 'philosopher's stone' began.

Out of Geber's Islamic world, but not attributed to him, came the Emerald Tablet. Though this tablet -- said to be molded out of a single jade crystal -- has various origin stories, it first appeared in republished (and more user-friendly book version) in a treatise of advice to kings. Somehow, between 'rule with an iron first' and 'produce robust male heirs' was hidden the secret formula for the philosopher's stone.... the wind of the belly, the taile of the Dragon, the water of wise men, the spittle of Lune, the Red Stone, the fifth element, the "Father," the living gold, the quintessence, the holy grail, the white stone by the river, the sword in the stone, Adam, Antidotus, Dominus philosophorum, Frater, Chaos, Panacea salutifera, the master of whisperers, the king of the reach, the game of thrones... oh wait... scratch those last three. I got really excited for a moment about episode 6 of Game of Thrones which is going to be on HBO tonight!!!

This Emerald Tablet, containing most powerful secrets and potential powers, has been translated by numerous alchemists -- both masters and dabblers alike. The variations amongst translations make the search for the elixir ever more confusing. The first line alone has been translated as both: "This is true and remote from all cover of falsehood" and "I speak truly, not falsely, certainly and most truly." Most truly? Mostly true? Hmmm. Nonetheless, it doesn't seem to be much of a formula but rather a collection of cryptic word puzzles. Perhaps what it comes down to is belief without evidence... what we tend to call faith. This is one of the fundamental aspects of accepting the occult. The skepticism so inherent in modern science and, indeed modern thought, runs counter to what is needed to discover the philosopher's stone. Its secrets come at once from man and from above. It is sort of like the emperor's new clothes dilemma. Are you to be the one who believes in his most elegant, most luxurious clothing even though it appears invisible? Or are you to see through the charlatan's trickery, approaching all with suspicion, skepticism, and question after question? Was Lethbridge writing science fiction... or alternative archaeology? According to the British explorer, if we could get beyond our stubborn need for logic and proof, if we could approach everything with a more open mind, then the secret principles of the universe would be within our grasp. He felt there were two kinds of people, those who are willing to believe in 'the odd' and those who resist:
The reader is perfectly at liberty to believe that my wife and I imagined all this, but, if so, there is no point in reading this book. It is for people with wider knowledge of what anthropologists call 'the odd' and this is found in all groups of humanity everywhere in the world. It ranges from 'couvade,' when the father of an unborn child feels ills before its birth, to the 'pointing bone' of the witch doctor who by this kills his enemy. Those who have had dealings with the odd are not interested in the disbelief of those who have not. Actually research with the pendulum [something that Lethbridge was working on at the time of his death] shows that many who cannot, or will not, appreciate the odd frequently have something lacking in their nervous system. Their bodily bio-electronic potential is too low and they are actually incapable of experiencing it. It is similar to being colour-blind or tone-deaf. Colour-blindness affects about one male in ten; odd-blindness about one in three. Perhaps therefore one person in three can never see a ghost, experience telepathy or work a pendulum or divining rod. For some reason this often turns them to frantic denial of the existence of the faculty. It is probably subconscious irritation at not being completely human! (T. C. Lethbridge, Legend of the Sons of God, 1972)
So there, you zombies! We have all witnessed some variation on what Lethbridge addresses above. For me, it was when I was hanging around with my cousins and one of them had a book of autostereograms which were so popular a few years back. If you aren't familiar, these books contain pages upon pages of optical illusions... pictures which appear as a flat mass of dots and blurry mazes and zig-zagging repetitions and flat chaos....which, if you stare at long and hard enough, will suddenly transform in front of your eyes into a 3-D picture that makes sense. Et voila! A tea-time ready table appears with cup and saucer and petite spoon and petit fours! Really, they are quite a cool experience. That moment when all transforms from chaos to clarity in full depth and you feel like you can enter the image is pretty amazing. However, my uncle just couldn't ever seem to get to that point. We tried working with all of the 'instructions' to get him there. Try to see through the image as through a window. Don't focus on any one part. Let your brain switch from normal to stereoscopic vision without trying to force it.

Well, he still couldn't see anything. And, in his utter frustration and sense of deficiency, he argued that none of us could see anything and we were all just in cahoots as part of a big conspiracy. As it turns out, he was right about his inability, but wrong about the conspiracy part. Much as Lethbridge predicted, there exists a rather significant portion of the population (from 4-10%) who cannot see in 3-D. Some doctors argue that this inability is a treatable medical condition. With the aid of "graduated methods and physical aids (lenses) as 'training wheels,' ... people can eventually learn how to 'point both eyes to focus on the same space.' It's like riding a bike. Once you learn, the training wheels come off and you can't imagine not doing it." (Rafe Needleman, "Why I can't watch 3D TV," CNN Tech, Jan. 15, 2010)

This all takes us back to the philosopher's stone... sort of... by way of digression... and faith. Is believing in what we cannot yet see a choice? Or is it built into our DNA, a lack of our nervous systems for some of us? Are we smart to be skeptical? To see this magic elixir as just another hokey con with a long history of mass deception? Or is there something there? And will we be the ones to unlock the secret?

Meanwhile, we have to decide. Because the invisible abounds. Christopher Brosius, who immersed himself in the understanding and history of our sense of smell ("We think because we smelled!") and who has produced cult fragrances such as 'Gin and Tonic', is now concocting an 'invisible perfume.' Because, like 3D vision, some people can detect particular smells to which others are immune. Others still suffer from anosmia, a condition in which all sense of smell is lost. Eating must really suck as so much of our sense of taste is wrapped up in the experience of odor molecules. And what about memories? We speak of memories as being redolent with such-and-such... but the definition of the word redolent is first and foremost, odorous, and then, reminiscent. Scents inform our experiences and later trigger those very memories.

But, I am sure you have probably been reading this entire blog entry while distracted by one essential question. Why 'the philosopher's stone' if it is in fact a formula for a powdery substance? Well, the reason is that the word stone is meant to imply the four universal, fundamental concepts of ancient philosophy. Further, the notion of a stone enables the representation of this magic potion into a geometrical form (shown above in two diagrams.) While the circle encapsulates the cosmos and the male and female aspects, the square represents the four basic alchemic elements (earth, water, fire, air)... and these all exist within the triangle of mind, body and spirit... thereby connecting the material to the spiritual world. Allegedly, it is within the balance of this duality that lies the secret of the stone. When the mind unites with the heart, enlightenment is achieved. Perhaps we do not need the stone or the secret formula after all. Perhaps we can find our perfection and immortality in the simplicity of a shared 'aum' -- the sound of light itself. Namaste.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Tomorrow's theme is... tomorrow! This means we are skipping ahead of ourselves twofold. This theme will test our endurance, our anticipatory set, our willingness to lean far far far over the chasm's edge.

And so we begin with a contradiction in terms.... Rio's forthcoming Museum of Tomorrow -- an archive of the expected, predicted, afterward and ere long. Part of a waterfront revitalization project at Port Maua, the museum will be environmentally-friendly and 'sustainably-focused'. It will integrate seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, alter with changing atmospheric conditions, and take its architectural cues from nearby historic landmarks such as the Monastery de Sao Bento.

This 17th century Benedictine monastery displays a plain, harmonic exterior which belies its ornately gilded and delicately carved interior where Gregorian chants echo out across the harbor. The museum is planned to stretch out into the water, a pier of its own, its roof cantilevered like a bridge or balcony... or any other broad, wide, projecting horizontally-focused construction (such as Wright's Fallingwater.) Yet, what will be in this museum or what its futuristic focus will be is shrouded in mystery. The impetus for its creation is largely due to Rio's upcoming hosting of the 2016 Olympic Games. Its creation will also be rooted in destruction as favelas will be wiped clean and residents ousted. Highways will take over these former skid rows, tomorrow existing as much in erasure as it does in imagination. Native Spaniard, Santiago Calatrava, the primary architect on the project, has the following to say about the undertaking:
Brazil's magical ambiance radiates through Rio de Janeiro's rich past and cultural heritage, the vast forests, beautiful landscapes and most of all the spirit of the people... Rio de Janeiro has captured my imagination and through the expression of space and forms, I am excited to begin this journey.

Indeed, tomorrow is a journey. Yet, it is a journey that echoes with reverberations of a resounding past... a past with a 'radiating ambiance', a past rich with other stories, other forms, other expressions, and other people. Is our imagination 'captured' -- at least in part -- because of this hold that yesterday has on tomorrow?

Tomorrow is the material of architects and urban planners. Le Corbusier's City of Tomorrow bore almost no resemblance to the existing Parisian entity. Probably because Corbu's futuristic notions existed too heavily in imagination and not enough in the extant, it remained there... a chimerical city forever dwelling in image, fading as we near actual tomorrows like a misty, vaporous daydream. And while Corbu's most quoted proclamation is probably: "A house is a machine for living in..." ... he also said of architecture that it is "the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in light."

Tomorrow is glimpsed in glints of light, rays cast upon a storefront's glass window, flickering towards and darting away... teasing us with possibility and impulse and approaches... reminding us of what may shine and then be swept away into the shadows of a darkening capricious sky.

Tomorrow inspires. It promises of what can be. It is the possible, the dream, the fulfillment of our potential, the attainment of aspirations, the becoming of what we will become. Tomorrow realizes our dreams. Tomorrow dreams and dreams and dreams with and then for us.

Tomorrow frightens. Tomorrow can be the recognition of all that is futile, inevitable, declining. Tomorrow will always portend of death. Tomorrow exists in guesses, but can also be "smother'd in surmise." (Macbeth, Act I, scene iii)... where the blood that we have released is an ever-spreading stain. Tomorrow is a prophecy and an omen -- but of good or ill? And always, "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day." Tomorrow is marked by time and is a marked time... imprinted with our footprints, our blood, our scars. Tomorrow is utter despair.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth, Act V, scene v)
We never reach tomorrow. Tomorrow is our projection, our outlook, our perspective over the ensuing road. For better or for worse. And so Faulkner sees through Macbeth's fatalistic eyes, perhaps seeing, perhaps blinded:
I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. (William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, June Second, 1910)
Tomorrow is full of conditionals -- could be, would be, should be. Tomorrow moves forward, always ahead of us, always slightly out of our reach. Tomorrow is either hope or hopelessness. Tomorrow is the battle yet to be fought, perhaps never to be won. Tomorrow is us... only magnified by the expansiveness of the future. And always, we must face it... enter it... become it. We can reshape the past, numb ourselves in the present, but we cannot avoid tomorrow.

Tomorrow can be haunted -- for Macbeth, for Quentin. Tomorrow can be fresh and empty -- for Corbu. Tomorrow offers lessons we can still learn. Tomorrow offers time we can still fill. Tomorrow is when we will see each other again, even if it doesn't seem that way right now.
Jeff: When am I going to see you again?
Lisa: [angry] Not for a long time...
Lisa: ... at least not until tomorrow night.
(Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window")
Tomorrow will be will be. It will be tomorrow. Tomorrow can be maybe; tomorrow can be always. Tomorrow is a choice. Tomorrow is an intention. The past whispers a lullaby with softest music. Tomorrow calls with a booming voice. Tomorrow beckons. Tomorrow will be our question:
If not now, when? If not today, then?
What happens tomorrow? What happens tomorrow?

(Melissa Etheridge, "What Happens Tomorrow")

Monday, May 16, 2011

65 things to do while not sleeping

While hysteria was the neurosis of the 19th century, insomnia is the affliction of our times. However, the same stresses of modern day life that were once believed to transform women into bizarrely theatrical creatures now affect us with anxiety and incurable restlessness, causing us to wake at 2am and not be able to return to slumber.

And what are we to do? Charlotte Perkins Gilman encapsulated the dilemma of the Victorian woman in her famous story, "The Yellow Wallpaper":
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression -- a slight hysterical tendency -- what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites -- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
(Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," 1899)
Damned if she is, damned if she isn't. The narrator in Gilman's tale was prescribed Dr. Mitchell's 'rest cure' which forbid excessive mental and physical exercise and apparently also often involved a force-fed diet of blood and fat. Hysteria was a 'female' malady, a sickness of the womb. Thereby, treatment soon came in the form of the very first vibrators... the idea being that this impaired organ needed to be properly stimulated. Of course, the experience was not to be one of pleasure and self-indulgence, but a cold, clinical medical regimen with sessions conducted in the doctor's office. The Victorians may have admitted that women do have orgasms; nonetheless, they believed a 'trained professional' needed to administer the 'procedure'. California's own Dr. Swift was at least nice enough to make house calls. What a selfless guy!

The vibrator was finally introduced for in-home and 'doctor-less' use in 1902... interestingly, about a decade before appliances 'necessary' for the true domestic, such as the vacuum and the iron.

The list of symptoms that could potentially diagnose one with hysteria were legion. One particular physician, George Beard, established a veritable tome of symptoms. At 75 pages long, he still considered it incomplete. All manner of nervous conduct were attributed to hysteria -- fainting, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite, and even 'a tendency to cause trouble.' The aforementioned and most famous Dr. Mitchell wrote that the cause of it all was "the daily fret and wearisomeness of lives." (Dr. Mitchell quoted in Laura Briggs, "The Race of Hysteria: 'Overcivilization' and the 'Savage' Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology," American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2 (June 2000), p. 254) Briggs has re-termed Mitchell's 'daily fret' as 'the instability of affluence...' We haven't changed much, it seems... perhaps only in what we call and how we categorize our constant anxiety. This makes one wonder if we worry simply because we really don't have anything significant to worry about. Going back to the entry on zombies, our generalized anxiety may be rooted in fundamental survival requirements. We worry as a protective function... biologically. Yet, nowadays with over 40 million adults each year suffering from diagnosed anxiety disorders, one wonders how well adapted we actually are.

But that is all besides the point... sort of. The point is that you don't really care why you are up at 2am in the morning, tossing and turning, all manner of thoughts racing through the billions of synapses in your brain. You just want to get to sleep... please... finally. And, of course, when you try to make yourself sleep, sleep will only evade you that much more. So, in honor of insomnia... and in commemoration of an entry I wrote back in April (65 things to do while watching TV), here are 65 things to do while you are not sleeping.

1. Turn on the TV.
2. Refer to list of "65 things to do while watching TV" which should keep you occupied for a good few hours.
3. Read the really long, difficult book that you have been avoiding... or just haven't been able to finish... for me, it's Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. At best, you will finally finish the book. At worst, you will be put back to sleep. It's a win-win!!
4. By the way, you have just broken a fundamental rule for alleviating insomnia. Don't read! Also, don't turn on the lights (which I assume you have done in order to read.) Rejoice in the fact that you are a serious medical rebel!
5. Have a 'self dialogue.' Actually, this is a recommendation for those who can't sleep. The thinking behind it is that you will be able to direct your unfocused random train of thoughts and perhaps can release some of the stresses that are keeping you awake. Uhhhh, good luck with this one.
6. Speaking of stress, #51 it!!! (See the TV entry if you don't understand this critical code.) Of course, I am assuming that you have someone to #51 it with... or at least can make a booty call. Or as a last resort, well, there are other solutions. Thank you, Dr. Mitchell.
7. Put on some tunes.
8. Analyze lyrics of said tunes. For example, Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town..." Dive into the dark recesses of your mind and ponder the 'hearts and thoughts that have faded away...'
9. Enough self-indulgent pathetic wallowing already! Be proactive! Get online and facebook poke those who have 'faded away'... or those who you never really knew but are somehow close 'friends' with... yeah, them and 800 others as well.
10. Take some FB quizzes. Come on. We all know that you love them... even though you will swear to anyone who asks that they are inane and you wouldn't waste your time on them. Waste your time! What else would you be doing? Sleeping? What a waste!
11. Rank the 'hotness' of all of your friends. This is sure to piss off a lot of people, especially if you are in a relationship and rate your ex-girlfriend #1 and then post it to your current girlfriend's wall.
12. Text current girlfriend some sweet nothings... just in case you pissed her off. Let's keep things status quo, please. You are just trying to amuse yourself while not sleeping... not incite drama and relationship chaos.
13. Text something a bit dirtier. That oughta wake her up... and maybe you will get some pictures in return.
14. Pictures arrive... need I say more?
15. Remake the bed.
16. Study the periodic table. Try to name as many of the 103 elements as you can... in alphabetical order...with the correct atomic weight and number... and the abbreviation...
17. Learn how many protons, neutrons, and electrons make up an atom of the various elements.
18. Get your chemistry on! Make a model of an atom of one of the elements. Here's how to make a model of a nitrogen atom.
19. Get further down to the level of quarks and gluons. We are seriously getting somewhere here! It's good not to sleep. We are delving into the microcosmic interiors of the universe! Your life has meaning!
20. Speaking of quarks, rewatch Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in Roxanne. Now, when you get to the scene where Roxanne, the Ph.D. astrophysicist, is explaining quarks to Charlie, you will quickly recognize that she was wrong! Ha! There are no "top" and "bottom" quarks, but rather "up" and "down".... where was she earning her degree from again? University of This Ain't Rocket Science?
21. Earn more sessions by sleeving...
22. Do a little research to find out whatever the heck happened to Daryl Hannah. You may discover that her new career is protesting sex slavery and being arrested for chaining herself to walnut trees... or some such shenanigans... and also having (or having botched) plastic surgery... because that fits right along with the mission of saving the planet and all of humanity. In-between (god, where does she find the time! she must NEVER sleep!!!) she is apparently still making movies... at least made-for-TV movies... quality, of course. Come on, you haven't seen her in "Whore" or "Kung Fu Killer" or "Shark Swarm" or "Final Days of Planet Earth" or "All the Good Ones are Married"... or... do you really want me to keep going? Anyway, you should be doing the research.
23. Speaking of 'whatever happened to...', uncover the mystery of whatever happened to Alanis Morissette. People are really curious... or at least one person that I know is... Plus, he assured me that I'd get hella blog traffic if I even mentioned her name on my blog. Well hell! She's released a new album in... oh wait.... uhh 2008, "Flavors of Entanglement." But hey! You outta know! And anyway, she has more important things to do... like care for her 6-month old, Ever Imre Morissette-Treadway... And if you go to her website, you will find that she is gathering our stories prompted by very important questions like, "What part of your astrological sign really nails your personality and why?" She is also generously 'twittering' on her very own webpage. Amongst love notes to her hubby are gems such as the following Rainier Maria Rilke quotes: "...but your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.."
24. Game of Thrones!!!!!!! Catch up on the new HBO series.
25. Go back to George Martin's original series. Start reading A Game of Thrones... then A Clash of Kings... A Storm of Swords... etc. etc.... You will discover the TV deviations from the novels and you will then become embroiled in ruckus concerning altered scenes... such as the 'consummation' scene between Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen where the answer to "do you know any other words?" went from 'yes' (book) to yet another 'no' (series)...
26. Back to Rilke. Were you aware that he wrote a book of poems called Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned)? So appropriate... or inappropriate since dreaming is exactly the thing you are not doing. He also said, "I live not in dreams but in contemplation of a reality that is perhaps the future." Deep... seems he wasn't sleeping much either.
27. Amend your definition of what you are doing and what you are. You are not an insomniac... you are a seeker of the philosophic sort who is 'contemplating a reality that is perhaps the future...' And that is a lot more important than sleeping.
28. Since, at this point, you are getting tired and still have over 30 things to go on this list... look up some solutions for insomnia. Attempt some of them... for example...
29. Keep your eyes open. While we all know that you are already doing that, this is also a 'mind-trick' to get you back to sleep. As Scott Young writes in his "Insomniac's Guide to Things to Do When Failing To Sleep": "You can probably remember boring lectures or meetings where it was painful to keep your eyes open. Watching your ceiling fan will probably be a better sleep inducement than anything your high school math teacher could have come up with."
30. Speaking of teachers, close your eyes and fantasize about that hot teacher from back in high school. Maybe it was your math teacher. Most likely, it was your English teacher. What could be hotter than imagining yourself to be heroic Odysseus or steadfast Elizabeth Proctor and saving or romancing said teacher. Swoon!
31. Eat, read, watch TV, and worry in bed... all at once... all thumbing your nose in the face of insomnia. You will not sleep! You don't need sleep!
32. Go online and purchase some new pillows. A body pillow. New, fluffy and yet still supportive pillows. Pillows to support your knees, your back, your spine, your neck. Pillows for sleeping on your stomach, on your side, on your back. King size pillows. Memory foam pillows. Hypoallergenic pillows. Anti-pet dander pillows.
33. Speaking of pets, go to and get yourself a pet. There is nothing better to do with sleeplessness than to cuddle with a new puppy.
34. If you want a real companion, consider getting a wolfdog... but only if you are prepared to completely devote yourself to this animal as you would to your very own child. As Gudrun Dunn writes on his Wolfdog resource page:
People "own" pets, but you can never "own" a wolfdog... NO they do not make good pets. They make companion animals. There is a big difference between those 2 concepts. A companion animal is an animal such as a horse. It still has basic instincts, and interacts with man on its own terms. You can break its spirit, and have a fear-based relationship, or you can meet it halfway and be respectful of its nature and the rules by which it lives.
To die, to sleep --
No more -- and by sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep --
To sleep -- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (Hamlet, Act III, scene I)
Be glad you are not dreaming. Be glad you are not contemplating suicide. Be glad your uncle has not killed your father in cold blood and then married your mother. Be glad your life does not imitate a Shakespearean play. But be glad, also, for Shakespeare. And if you were ever going to memorize a soliloquy, this would be the one!
36. Speaking of dream speeches, reread Mercutio's Queen Mab speech.
37. Beware the fairy queen in whose voice Percy Shelley wrote: "I am the Fairy MAB: to me 'tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep;
The secrets of the immeasurable past.
In the unfailing consciences of men...
And it is yet permitted me to rend
The veil of mortal frailty..."
38. Consider names that we never hear anymore: Percy, Susan, Linda, Patricia, Cordelia, Erasmus, Fletcher, Rush, Royal.
39. Face the fact that you are probably part of the sleep pattern cluster, 'Sleepless and Missin' the Kissin'...
40. Wake up your partner and stop 'missin' the kissin'... this is actually a different activity than 51-ing it. Softer, tenderer, and more cuddling.
41. Remake the bed... again... yes, it got a little out of hand.
42. Do laundry. I know... probably not your first choice. Probably that's why it's down here at #42... but at least you will wake up in the morning and discover a pile of lavender-scented neatly folded clean shirts and work-out clothes.
43. For that matter, grab your clothes and go for a work-out. 2am gyming it. Nothing betta! You are growing muscle while the rest of the world is snoozing in flabby fleshiness. Suns out, guns out, my foot!
44. Then go to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy or supermarket. And people watch. Even better, interact with some of the other 3am aisle-crawlers. What the heck do they need at this time of night? There is always something really strange about discovering that other people are alive and going on about their lives in the middle of the night when it seemed like all the world was yours and yours alone.
45. Rent some movies that deal with dreaming. It's probably better to know what you are not getting yourself into. Inception deals with dreams as a thriller. The Science of Sleep with them as romance and self-analysis and nostalgia... and confusion... and the indistinguishable line between waking and dreaming. I mean the main character, Stephane, falls in love with Stephanie... and this is just the tip of the iceberg of disorientation...
Stephane: It's like touching your penis with your left hand.
Stephanie: I don't have a penis.
Stephane: But you have a left hand.
46. Realize that you are asleep... and that this has all been a dream... and that I just used the biggest cliche of a lazy screen or novel writer. Sigh. Yes, I too am tired.
47. Consider how you would build a table. Yes, it is harder than you might think. A slab and four legs, yes, but what about types of wood to use, attachments, finishings, size, height, proportions. Hey, maybe you should start thinking about some chairs... and a family.
48. Get back in bed and chill a bit after so much table-work. As you lay there, still awake, make anagrams for your friends' names. For example (and for blogging purposes, I won't use a real friend)... but how about Alanis Morissette... 'List it as seer, moan...' or 'Moan as seer; list it...' Yeah, this game should definitely put you to sleep.
49. Consider what will happen to me when Alanis Morissette googles herself and finds that I've posted about her twice already... and then sends me a cease-and-desist letter. Answer: post the letter! Here's hoping! (Thanks, Alec.)
50. Bake a pie. I have the best apple pie recipe. It requires caramelizing the apples and including thyme. It's sooooo good. I promise you. You can have the recipe... if you stop by my place in the middle of the night while I'm not sleeping either... on second thought...
51. Was just thinking.... about going to the gym in the middle of the night... make sure not to get mugged. Whatever gym you are going to that is open in the middle of the night might not be in the safest of locales.
52. To quote a friend: "Just keep on doing what you are doing, but keep it funky..." oh, and he just reminded me that he was already quoting James Brown on that one...
53. Go back to sleep, you crazy people, so I can stop writing this damn list! Actually, scratch that. I'd prefer that you are here... reading my blog :)
54. Podcasts! There are so many cool things out there that you have no idea about... but you will soon... and others won't... so there!
55. Write a novel. Seriously, you have the time. Think about all the time you spend not sleeping.
56.Word! When did 'word' become an expression of agreement and favorable affirmation? Find out!
57. Bed gravity! Phrase of the day on urbandictionary... and I quote: "An irresistible force that draws you back to bed, or toward any mattress, couch, or other soft horizontal surface. Usually stronger when one or more persons are already on said furniture.
EX: Mom: Time to get up for school!
Son: Must! Fight! Bed Gravity! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ"
58. Let's 51 again. Why not?
59. Uncover the forces of bed gravity. You need them.
60. Figure out what superhero you would be and what your superpower and super item would be. These must be consistent with your existing personality. I always carry floss, so, yes, that is my super item. I hear you laughing... You really don't know what can be done with floss, though. Rest assured.
61. Let's 51 again.
62. Let's 51 again.
63. Let's 51 again.
64. I know, I know... but I think this might be the best solution to get us all back to sleep.
65. We made it! And we are still awake! Scratch list and start again. Or try, just try, erasing all that sh** out of your brain and just relaxing and getting some zzzzz's. And hey, there is even an authentic German Riesling wine called Relax. You can always pull a bottle out of your fridge and take a few swigs. That should do the trick. Or just call a friend. Have the gumption. I realize that makes no sense. That friend I called told me to try and work the word gumption into this damn list somewhere. Oh well, at least I succeeded at something.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

what the....??? misheard song lyrics

It's okay to be confused in life. In fact, that is probably the most common state of existence. Camus had baseless nausea. Holden couldn't figure out how to save all the children from becoming adults, including himself. We all misinterpret Nabokov's tragicomedy Lolita to be an erotic novel rather than an unsolvable riddle as Nabokov himself described: "She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle -- its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror of the other, depending on the way you look." (Vladimir Nabokov, Playboy interview, 1963)

We mistake sex for love. We confuse desire with necessity. We get lost in cities laid out on a grid system. We mix up our priorities and then soothe ourselves with distractions to further displace the disorientation. We still believe even when we don't want to. We exist in commotion, bewilderment, and perplexity. The path is never clear.

And that is okay. Because that is life. But it's not okay when we are dealing with song lyrics. Yes, we all know there's not a bathroom on the right... ("There's a bad moon on the rise...") or do we? There is no "Olive, the other reindeer..." And though Robert Palmer might be annoying, he probably didn't comment of himself: "Might as well face it... You're a d**k with a glove..." or maybe he did. One of my childhood friends used to belt out: "I want a new truck!" until her father let her on as to what the Huey Lewis song was really about. Here's an entire list of misheard song lyrics, a.k.a. mondegreens.

More broadly, has a list of the top 10 misunderstood songs. Included on this list at the #1 spot is the Boss's classic, "Born in the USA," which people still think to be a patriotic song "when in fact it was a political message about the Vietnam War. Those that listened to the passionate and catchy chorus of 'BORN IN THE USA! I'm a cool rockin' Daddy in the USA,' ignored the embittered verse, which went: 'Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man.'" Speaking of the Boss, he wrote the often misheard song more famously recorded by Manfred Mann who, probably because he was "blinded by the light," ended up "wrapped up like a douche in the middle of the night..."

But here's a fun game that I am borrowing from Am I Right which is an entire website devoted to misheard and misunderstood songs and their wacky lyrics. The game works as follows. Take a song whose title is a question. Then answer said question with a completely different song. The permutations are endless! To make the game harder, you can require that the band that answers one question become the following question. Here are a few of mine:

"Who let the dogs out?" (Baha Men).................................."Baby it's you" (Ke$ha)

"Who's next?" (Ke$ha).................................."Parasites will be so excited when you're dead" (Modest Mouse)

"Birds vs. worms"? (Modest Mouse).................................."The bird and the worm" (The Used)

"It could be a good excuse" (The Used).................................."Yes, she is my skinhead" (Green Day)

"Why does it always rain on me?" (Green Day).................................."Because of you" (Kelly Clarkson)

"Why you wanna bring me down?" (Kelly Clarkson).................................."Bitch I'm special" (Rihanna)

"What's my name?" (Rihanna).................................."A boy named Sue"(Johnny Cash)

"Why do you punish me?" (Johnny Cash).................................."You hurt me" (Jagged Edge)

"Where the party at?" (Jagged Edge).................................."Bend over" (Lil' Boosie)

"Where would I be?" (Lil' Boosie).................................."Where the streets have no name" (U2)

"With or without you?" (U2).................................."You can't win" (Lil' Kim)

"How many licks?" (Lil' Kim).................................."Almost there" (Alicia Keys)

"How come you don't call me?" (Alicia Keys).................................."Lost in the supermarket" (The Clash)

"Should I stay or should I go?" (The Clash).................................."Follow me" (Usher)

"Can you handle it?" (Usher).................................."My poor brain" (Foo Fighters)

"What if I do?" (Foo Fighters).................................."0% interest" (Jason Mraz)

"Did you get my message?" (Jason Mraz).................................."I've been away" (The Who)

"Who are you?" (The Who).................................."I'm a slave for you" (Britney Spears)

"Why should I be sad?" (Britney).................................."Oops I did it again" (Britney)

Yeah, Britney can answer her own damn question. Life imitates art.... as always.

Friday, May 13, 2011

zombies part II: our monstrous zietgeist

It is only fitting that I feel like a zombie as I write this entry. Part of our fascination with zombies emanates from the fact that we so closely identify with their stumbling, infected automatonism. Thus, the metaphorical side spawns the reanimation and reproduction of tales mirroring our uncomfortable realities -- these undead thoughts lurk, lurch, and lumber towards us in unremitting, allegorical hordes.

Like many monsters, zombies -- as an irrational fear and morbid preoccupation -- attack our brains in the amygdala. The amygdala is situated in the limbic system, the second brain to evolve, lying above and around the ancient reptilian brain. This part of the brain is the fear center. Interestingly, this reptilian brain also houses the cerebellum and controls movement and animal instincts. It inhibits us from processing "normal" and ubiquitous sensations, such as the feeling of clothing against our skin. It would be incredibly distracting to be aware of our underwear all the time! The inner part of our brain withholds such sensations from registering in other parts of our brain, thus our inability to comprehend how hard we are hitting another person -- just the reverse of Britney's adage: "Give me a sign, hit me baby one more time."

The reptilian brain also manifests in the following behaviors: obsessive-compulsiveness; ritualistic acts and reenactments; slavish conformity to established practices; automatic, instinctual responses and ardent obedience to these; advancing an agenda at all costs... might is right! The reptilian brain is isopraxic, meaning that members of a species repeat and copy behaviors impulsively... thereby, the individuals become a parroting mass... "the simultaneous head-nodding of lizards, the group gobbling of turkeys, the synchronous preening of birds..."... the spontaneous hand-clapping of an audience, the like-minded embrace of fashion trends, the mass rallies, the violent headless collective behavior of the crowd. (Center for Non-Verbal Studies) Sound familiar? "We eat BBBBRRRAAAIIINNNSSSS!!!!!" The reptilian brain both contains our very 'zombie-ness' and our fear of zombies (and everything else for that matter.)

There are many kinds of fears. The most basic is instinctual -- the fight of flight panic that all animals experience as a survival mechanism. Apparently, there exists a psychological theory which correlates fear with our strongest self-awareness...
"specifically, when we feel threatened by a force external to our bodies. Quite simply, fear heightens out awareness of ourselves as individuals because our individuality is endangered in life-threatening situations. Nowhere is this drama more acutely embodied than in the model of the zombie attack: for the zombie is an antisubject, and the zombie horde is a swarm where no trace of the individual remains. Therefore, unlike the vampire, the zombie poses a twofold terror: There is the primary fear of being devoured by a zombie, a threat posed mainly to the physical body, and the secondary fear that one will, in losing one's consciousness, become a part of the monstrous horde. Both of these fears reflect recognition of one's own mortality and ultimately reveal the primal fear of losing the 'self"; however, in the figure of the zombie, the body and the mind are separated antinomies. The zombie is different from other monsters because the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost. Like the vampire and the werewolf, the zombie threatens with its material form. Whereas the vampire and even the intangible ghost retain their mental faculties, and the werewolf may become irrational, bestial only part of time, only the zombie has completely lost its mind, becoming a blank -- animate, but whole devoid of consciousness." (Sarah Juliet Lauro & Karen Embry, "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism," boundary 2 35:1 (2008), pgs. 88-89)
This fear of loss of consciousness gets at what most would consider to be a fundamental -- perhaps the fundamental -- condition of being human. "I think therefore I am," said Descartes. And to be aware that he could think was an equally essential part of the equation. Further, the zombie seems to represent our particular historical moments and our self-reflective fears of what we might already be. Cultural theorists such as Horkheimer and Adorno suggested as much implying a sort of 'capitalist zombie' -- one who is a slave to the capitalist system but, in his delusions, thinks that he is free. Pessimistically, the zombie is "our current moment... where we feed off the products of the rest of the planet, and, alienated from our own humanity, stumble forward, groping for immortality even as we decompose." (Lauro & Embry, pg. 93) Or as Horkheimer and Adorno describe: "The individual is entirely nullified in face of the economic powers. These powers are taking society's domination over nature to unimaginable heights. While individuals as such are vanishing before the apparatus they serve, they are provided for by that apparatus and better than ever before." (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1969) How can any of us rebel against the insidious, invisible zombie horde?

The zombie consumes. The zombie infects. The zombie acts mindlessly. The zombie is absorbed into the mob. The zombie loses his individuality and his consciousness... and, relatedly, his morality. Aren't these are very modern fears? No wonder we are obsessed with zombies.

There is perhaps too much realistic cross-over too. Zora Neale Hurston claimed to have witnessed zombies and Ph.D. candidate Wade Davis claimed to have discovered the African 'zombie poison' imported to Haiti that could induce a numb state mimicking the zombie-like trance we all imagine and see in movies. It was all really a ruse to force a criminal or voodoo recipient into slavery. After being administered the poison, "a victim of zombie powder poisoning could lapse into a state of such low metabolic activity that he might appear clinically dead. This poor soul would then be buried alive, only to be rescued hours later by a sorcerer who digs up the victim, feeds him an hallucinogenic paste, and then sells his newly minted zombie into slavery..." (William Booth, "Voodoo Science," Science, New Series, vol. 240, no. 2850 (April 1988), pg. 275.) Sounds very Poe-esque... "It is the beating of his hideous heart!" But also so mind-warpingly capitalist... as we are sold repeatedly into what we buy.... perhaps even brainwashed. What virus turns someone into a zombie? What mind manipulator turns us into unconscious beings?

The whole consciousness question brings zombies to the discussion table of philosophers. Like it or not, they endlessly debate whether zombies are possible, conceivable, or explicable as a way to materialize the debate about whether consciousness is inherent in our physicality as humans or requires some other property to arise. These philosophers conceive of all kinds of thought experiments to argue the question. For example, imagine
...a team of micro-Lilliputians who invade Gulliver's head, disconnect his afferent and efferent nerves, monitor the inputs from his afferent nerves, and send outputs down his efferent nerves to produce behavior indistinguishable from what it would have been originally. The resulting system has the same behavioral dispositions as Gulliver but (allegedly) lacks sensations and other experiences...

[Alternately, imagine that] a population of tiny people disable your brain and replicate its functions themselves, while keeping the rest of your body in working order; each homunculus uses a cell phone to perform the signal-receiving and -transmitting functions of an individual neuron. Now, would such a system be conscious?" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Perhaps this is why zombie video games of the 'survival horror' genre are so satisfying. Whilst actively fighting the living dead, we still maintain our own consciousness and individuality. In fact, there is a sort of "hero's perseverance -- and sheer brutality -- in the face of relentless enemies and seemingly overwhelming odds." (Irene Chen, "Playing Undead," Film Quarterly, vol. 61, no.2 (Winter 2007), pg. 64.) In the movie theater, we watch helplessly. Here, we zealously combat. Taking control, being proactive, asserting our very agency... all are part of the 'game.'

The game can become ugly, though, when it seems too closely to resemble a barely veiled racism or xenophobia. Historically, zombie films have functioned as just such propaganda, especially during World War II when there seemed so many unclear but alarming threats. In a review of Revenge of the Zombies (1943), Lillian Bergquist observed how the black characters were "presented as a strange, uncivilized and superstitious group of people living in a world quite apart from that of other Americans. They are either comic servants, zombies, or in the case of Mammy Beulah, a voodoo-ist... [In short, the film] serves to confirm Japanese propaganda which tells dark-skinned peoples that under fascism they will receive fairer treatment than under democracy." (Bergquist, quoted in Rick Worland, "OWI Meets the Monsters: Hollywood Horror Films and War Propaganda, 1942 to 1945," Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pg. 53) In this case, zombies become the 'non-persons' against which poisonous prejudices are set.

Zombies can enslave others as much as they can enslave ourselves. And they continually seems to reflect our self-enslavement... and our oblivious lack of awareness of such. Which brings us back to the brain. Are we always running from the instinctive reptilian part of our brains? From the part of ourselves that is beast, that always seeks to be "lord of the flies"? It is in our modern brains that we confront uncertainty and make decisions. Emotions, on one level, can be considered a response to just such situations. Or "having feelings is being conscious that something is happening to me." (Jack Presbury, Joe Marchal & Ed McKee, "Must the Tin Man Have a Heart? The Qualifications of Personhood and Self-Ownership," The Personalist Forum, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1999), pg. 310) What is fundamentally disturbing is not being aware in this way... of feeling disembodied, disowned, and disconnected. Thus, Nathaniel Branden wrote of 'the disowned self." And we all share in this experience to a point... Seinfeld would describe it as making an entire sitcom about nothing...
We engage in stultifying daily routines, mindless diversions, and occupations that demand we monitor our behaviors so that we manage the impression we make on others according to social expectations. Because all this leads to a feeling of ontological insecurity, we attempt to manage the sensations that accompany the insecurity by turning down the rheostat. By reducing our conscious experience of these feelings of insecurity, we concomitantly reduce our feelings of enthusiasm and joy for living. Numbing ourselves is the instinctual way we have of reducing sensations of pain or overwhelming stimulation from the environment... Going into emotional shock when something bad happens is a normal reaction. But spending our days only partially alive, walking around like zombies, being numb when we don't have to be, is probably not good for us." (Presbury et al, pg. 318)
So, for tomorrow, let's de-fascinate ourselves with zombies for a bit. Let's stop the numbing and experience joy... and even pain. Or, if you want to indulge in zombie-mania, at least do so consciously... always remaining fundamentally human... always retaining self-ownership and participation in the very alive and awake and animated world of humanity. Waking up... even if 'the signs are interior.'

from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:

JIM: You're going to be out of a job if you don't wake up.
TOM: I am waking up --
JIM: You show no signs.
TOM: The signs are interior.

Monday, May 9, 2011

we eat brains!

If zombies eat brains, then there are certainly zombies among us. Our brains are infested!! Much of our present time and brain-work is engrossed by the comings-and-going, doings, and oozings of the living dead or potentially undead. Our movie outings, literary expeditions, and TV watching choices currently consume our own brain matter in pursuit of understanding and avoiding the immanent threat of a zombie take-over.

Jane Austen has been snatched and turned into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. "The Walking Dead" has infected the minds of AMC viewers. Zombie movies continue to abound. There are zombie video games. There is zombie porn. There is even zombie haiku. Here's one of my favorites from the Zombierama page:
I hunger for your
delirious cerebellum.
Where's the ice cream scoop?
Because of the vastness of the topic and the fleshy nature of the reanimation, tomorrow's and the ensuing day's themes will be that of the zombie.

 How did this all begin? Well, zombies are really just us... but an infected us. Like the plague, the Solanum infection spreads through ticks and rats (or other small mammals.) Basically, anytime there is an epidemic of plague, there is a corresponding outbreak of zombies. According to the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency, the fledgling nation of Australia suffered many a zombie outbreak as its penal colonies created the "perfect storm" of crowded conditions and free-roaming infected rats. Luckily, James Godfrey, a British transplant had the composure and wherewithal to stop a potentially nation-ending explosion of zombies in Botany Bay in 1846. After a guard became ill and was imprudently and hastily buried somewhere near camp, he easily found himself able to dig out of said grave and return to his camp-mates as a newly born member of the undead. Those who could ran for it, but the prisoners who were chained in place found themselves with no possible defense. Completely vulnerable, they began to succumb one by one as the zombie population increased rapidly. Somehow keeping his mind while all around him became chaos, Godfrey was able to reach the keys to unlock his own chains and, so freed, he grabbed a machete and cleaved, lopped, and slashed every zombie within sight.... saving the work camp (and possibly the nation) from a Class 3 outbreak wherein, according to zombie expert and author of The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks, you could expect
martial law, restricted travel, rationed supplies, federalized services, and strictly monitored communication... The initial phase will be one of chaos as those in power come to grips with the crisis. Riots, looting, and widespread panic will add to their difficulties, further delaying an effective response. While this is happening, those living within the infested area will be at the mercy of the undead. Isolated, abandoned, and surrounded by ghouls, they will have only themselves to depend on.
Thereafter, Godfrey was known as "Machete Jim." Despite his bravery and ingeniousness in a tight spot, Godfrey did not take advantage of any of the top 10 ways to kill a zombie... always keeping in mind that, just as they lurch and reach, arms outstretched, jaws chopping and ready, to chomp on our brains, it is their brains that we also must attack in order to finish zombies off for good. Of the creative and sometimes completely inconvenient best ways to kill a zombie, the following are unrivaled:
9. Drop an Egyptian obelisk on them. This is somewhat difficult to do, but will yield great results and will also be a lot of fun. You set up a trap and get several zombies to follow you through a corridor where you have an obelisk set to fall if a wire is tripped. The zombies, being brain dead as they are, won't avoid the wire and will cause the 10-ton stone to fall on top of them. While this isn't a direct attack on their head, it almost guarantees that their brain will be destroyed. Plus, it's a great way to brag to your friends, "Hey Joe, I killed a zombie with an obelisk this weekend. What did YOU do?"

2. Trap the zombie in a pit of concrete. This actually won't kill the zombie, but it's a good game to play with your friends. You'll need a pit of concrete with a depth of about 6 or 7 feet. You'll then coax a zombie or two toward the pit and let it fall into it. It'll sink in and won't be able to get out. The concrete will harden around the zombie, effectively trapping it in place. You can then play all sorts of fun games, like zombie poker or zombie golf.

1. Put the zombie through a wood chipper. This is one of the most brutal zombie kills that you can do and will be great fun. I recommend getting a friend to help you with this because you'll need to literally feed the zombie into the wood chipper. What you'll do is incapacitate it and then lift it up and put it through the wood chipper feet first. There's not much else to be said about this method other than that it's awesome.
I mean, who doesn't like zombie golf?

Zombies are humans -- diseased and infested and dying and, frankly, pretty thoughtless humans with only one thing on their minds (hmmmmm...) but they are humans nonetheless. They are not really the dead brought back to life, but humans brought to the brink of death, transformed by disease, put into a coma-like state wherein the heart stops and brain activity ceases, but life never actually completely desists. In this numb, anesthetized, paralyzed and hibernating state, the human metamorphoses into a zombie as "the virus mutates its cells into a completely new organ. The most critical trait of this new organ is its independence from oxygen. By removing the need for this all-important resource, the undead brain can utilize but is in no way dependent upon the complex support mechanism of the human body." (Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide) Quite to the contrary, we regular humans need oxygen pretty badly. In fact, if you have been keeping up with radical health trends, you are already aware that many of us are concocting and imbibing a drink spiked with hydrogen peroxide in an attempt to increase our oxygen intake. Allegedly, this bleachy ambrosia will improve digestion, circulation, the functioning of your immune system, and cellular function in general. And after you have purchased a couple gallons of the miracle potion and sipped your daily quota, you can put it to all kinds of other uses: bath in it, use it on corns and athlete's foot, do your own enema, spray it in your pits as deodorant, freshen your breath, or do some purging. (I hope this last one comes as no surprise. Otherwise, you may want to also evaluate your current appetite for human gray matter.) Hydrogen peroxide and its oxygen-abundance attacks harmful anaerobic bacteria. Unlike antibiotics which kill off all of our bacterial colonies -- deleterious and favorable -- HP doesn't affect the aerobic friendly bacteria in our guts (and other places.) Goodbye yogurt -- hello bleach!! Just remember: A person can go a month without food. A person can go a couple days without water. But, starved of oxygen, we won't even last a minute before our brain cells start to kick the bucket. I wonder what would happen if you gave a zombie a hydrogen peroxide bath with a chaser of clean, cool Chlorox.

Zombies possess a strong sense of hearing (though this is debated and whether it is strong and then abates as the zombie decays also remains a question) and an even better sense of smell. "Follow your nose" is the zombie motto according to The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency. Zombies can smell humans from miles away and this wafting scent of warm, beefy flesh generates a dopamine release into the zombie brain. Mmmmmm flesh.... even better, mmmmmm brains. Zombies also possess unusually strong jaws -- they can bite through metal! -- and a wicked vice-grip -- perhaps due to the thickening of muscle fibers and connective tissue that occurs as the disease progresses through their bodies. The blood of zombies is black and thick. This 'zombie oil' coagulates quickly and, as those of you who have ever shot a zombie are well aware, zombies rarely bleed to death. Zombies don't feel pain either. Damn these things are a pain in the butt! There is additional debate as to whether zombies retain a sixth sense. They do seem usually persistent and focused, even as their bodies decay and their minds turn to mush. As Brooks explains: "Does this mean that zombies possess a sixth sense? Perhaps. Living humans use less than 5 percent of their brain capacity. It is possible that the virus can stimulate another sensory ability that has been forgotten by evolution." Well, take that, natural selection!! (Also, speaking of the 5% thing... check out its mention in "65 Things to Do While Watching TV...")

I am no authority on zombies... not even close. Nor would I attempt to introduce you soundly to the basics here on Tomorrow's Theme. There are plenty of excellent zombie primers out there for you to check out if you are interested... or if you find yourself in the thorny position of suddenly needing more information. If so, try to keep your wits about you as you surf the web for solutions. As least zombies tend to move slowly (though even that is not guaranteed...) and at least your cerebral cortex is functioning at its full 5% capacity. Fire those neurons! And try to block out the groaning looming, lurking moans that ever-so-assuredly encroach towards you: "BBRRRAAAAAAIIIINNNSSSSS!!!!"

What does interest me is how we might recognize those zombies smart enough to lurk anonymously amongst us. You think I'm crazy? Oh no, it is indeed possible. Just think about your bleary-eyed, grumbling and mumbling co-worker who moronically and mindlessly processes piles of paperwork unreflectively only to have in the back of his mind a consumeristic and information-fevered obsession mirroring that of the more blatantly recognizable zombie. Click, click, click. Can't talk. Don't think. Must consume. Sound familiar?

5 ways to recognize the zombies already amongst us:

1. Your co-worker always glares at you, especially when you wear that sky blue v-neck sweater that exposes a little too much cleavage. Today, though, he mentions that he spotted you across the parking lot when you arrived at work (and the parking lot is approx. 1 mile by 1 mile in area!) "You are some pretty luscious-looking prey today..." he continues. At lunch, he continues his assault by describing how he ran over a possum on his drive home the previous night. "I decided to skip it though... Got you on the brain. That roadkill ain't got nothing on your meaty, enticing badonk!" You take this as his usual sexual harassment... sadly, you are sorely mistaken this time...

2. At the gym, the meaty darrick who you have had your eye on for weeks seems to be moving a bit slower and stiffer than normal. You brush it off and keep taking him in. Then, as he is pushing through his final rep on bench unassisted, he drops the barbell onto his well-chiseled chest. After a few guys lift it off of him, he sits up seemingly unscathed and feeling no pain. Then he moves in your direction. Nothing is going to deter his attack...

3. Girlfriend says she had a nose job and that's why she's wearing the bandage. But, her eyes seem ever so slightly more vacant than usual... which is hard seeing as she is an ardent Britney and Justin fan. "Never say never!" But, she hasn't laughed, giggled, or even smiled all day. She didn't even cry a river when Biebs showed up at your PR agency and asked specifically to be represented be her. ("Justin you can have all my stuff after I kill myself!!!") When she does open her mouth to eat her beef carpaccio lunch, you notice that her teeth look sharper and more menacing.

4. Everyone at work is really hungry. Everyone stumbles around, moving slowly, getting coffee absent-mindedly, moving like robots, eyes glazed like all is drudgery. Everyone is mentioning the upcoming apocalypse. Oh wait. That's just another normal day at the office. But why do they keep mentioning the demise of Ferdinand Magellan, Captain Cook, and Louis Pasteur as being some of their greatest conquests?

5. You have such a craving to go to Casa Mono for dinner and order the sweetbreads followed by the foie gras followed by the tripe followed by the bone marrow, and then to get on a plane and fly to Fergus Henderson's offal palace -- St. John's restaurant -- and cram your mouth with meat, meat, meat, especially brain.... despite the fact that you have been a strict vegan for a decade.

Good luck! Amongst us they lurk... inside us, they infect... and we may never even know...more tomorrow!