Monday, November 15, 2010

Streaming video is a dubious luxury

The phone rings. It’s Madeline. She’s left her white t-shirt and bobby socks in the dryer. The same white t-shirt and bobby socks that I washed for her at eleven o’clock last night, when she informed me, in a panic, that she needed them for the dress rehearsal of her high school musical today.

She wants me to deliver them to the school for her. It’s only a dress rehearsal, for christ’s sake – what would she do if I wasn’t home? But I am home, and so I drive the clothes over to her school, rehearsing a response to her inevitable dismay when she finds out that they’re still damp – “Well, if you’d gotten them out of the dryer this morning, they’d have dried in your locker.”  I’m annoyed to be interrupted in the middle of the afternoon, when I was busy watching The Human Centipede on Netflix.

She meets me outside, and thanks me profusely. “It’s alright,” I say. “I wasn’t doing anything important.” I go home and watch the rest of the movie.

It’s morbid curiosity that makes me do it. Three people joined, mouth to anus, by a mad doctor – who would make a movie like this? By the time it’s over, I don’t care. It’s an awful movie, and not in a good way. Its badness is utterly banal. There are inept attempts at escape, lots of over-the-top mugging by the mad doctor, and interminable periods of keening and weeping by the captives, all interspersed with long, ponderous shots of the boring interior decor. It’s not shocking. It's not suspenseful. It's not even interestingly gross. Three people joined by their digestive tracks – so what? The only thing I find disturbing about the film is that some viewers might get an erotic charge out of it. I feel embarrassed for the actors. Who would appear in such a movie?

But I can’t unsee it, so I get busy convincing myself that it’s a clever critique of capitalism, a wry metaphor for trickle-down economics, surely unappreciated by unsophisticated audiences. It ought to have screened at Cannes.

The absurdity of this is comforting.

I’m looking forward to the high school production of Bye Bye Birdie later this week.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Meditation Retreat - Part Four

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Day 9 – In Which My Inner Child Gets It

It’s another all-day meditation day, but from the time I wake up until 2pm, my mind is a neurotic dog, waiting for its owner to come home, gnawing the fur off its flanks and pacing, pacing, pacing. By the time it finally settles down, the rain has stopped and the sun is breaking through the clouds. I put the clothes I washed two days ago back on the line, hoping they’ll dry.

There are numb areas on the left side of my face, along my cheek and around my eye. I have vertigo, and my cognition is choppy, like my brain is skipping. It’s a migraine, but a painless one. No headache.

We learn metta practice. We’re instructed to develop a feeling of lovingkindness in ourselves, towards ourselves, and then to direct that feeling toward all other beings. I try to stop my mental griping and go along with it. Goenka intones, “May all beings be haaaaaapppppppyyy. May all beings be peeeeeeacefuuuulllll.” This makes me giggle, which makes lovingkindness easier.

Everyone in the meditation hall seems to be farting. Blow-hole girl next to me lets out a poot-poot-poot, and exhales hard through her nose. The knuckle-cracker and the cushion-rearranger are still at it. None of this bothers me.

At the break, I approach the assistant teacher. “Is the chanting designed to drive us crazy?” I ask. He looks pained. It’s Goenka’s way of doing metta, he says. It’s meant to calm and sooth us.


Debi brings me walnuts again. They’re delicious, but I worry that she’s not getting enough to eat.

Another cold night. I use the blow dryer to warm up my toes and the inside of the sleeping bag before I crawl in. It’s freezing in the cabin. I want to leave, just get in my car and drive until I’m home. I talk myself out of it and count the hours until the retreat is over: 34.

I sleep, and dream that I’m strangling a little girl. In the dream, I realize that she’s me. She doesn’t seem to mind that I’m strangling her, but I stop anyway.

Day 10 – Noble Chatter

The group meditation ends at 9am, and Noble Silence is officially over, though men and women will remain segregated until the following morning.

People leave the meditation hall and go to the washroom or to their cabins, not speaking. I go to our cabin. Debi comes in a short while later. We sit quietly together, talking, as we’ve done for five days. Outside, the chatter begins. Debi and I listen. As the minutes pass, it grows in volume and excitement, punctuated by giggling.

“I have no desire to go out there,” Debi says. Nor do I. “We could be the shy recluses,” I say. “They have insecticide for those,” she says.

Lasagna and apple crisp for lunch. I join in the chatter and apologize for my incessant coughing. The girl who sat next to me says that at some point she realized that she’d begun exhaling loudly through her nose. She worries that it bothered people, that she’d become “The Exhaler” in everyone’s minds. I assure her that this isn’t the case, thus breaking the fourth precept. Another of the women dismisses my coughing as not particularly annoying, because she knew I couldn’t help it. The cushion-rearranger and the knuckle-cracker, however, really pissed her off.

I like these women more than I intended to. They’re bright and funny and full of life. Many of them are world-travelers. One who doesn’t know my name calls me Juniper, the name of my cabin. “You just seem like a Juniper,” she says. No one has caught my cold.

During the evening discourse, Goenka reveals that we have been living as renunciate monks and nuns for the last nine days, observing the five precepts, being housed and fed through the charity and care of others. I wish I’d been more in tune with this, because if I’d been viewing myself as a nun, I’d have been more at peace with the process. Instead, all I’ve been able to think about are the goddamn rules and the relentless misery.

I take a shower before bed, thinking I’ll avoid the morning rush. When I get out, five of the women are engaged in giddy conversation by the mirrors. The Exhaler is tells a story about her star-crossed romance. I wait for her to finish before drying my hair. It goes on for forty-five minutes.
I get into my bunk for the last time, and think, Why can’t I just leave? The course is over. What’s the difference if I leave now or in the morning? But I’ve been here for ten days. What’s twelve more hours?

Day 11 – Breaking Camp

In the morning, we get Goenka’s final discourse. His tone is very schoolmasterish as he urges us to continue meditating for two hours a day once we leave. This guy really over-delivers. He says, “Your liberation is up to you. No one can do this for you.” I almost lose it. I want to stand up in the meditation hall and scream, “What do you fucking think I’ve been fucking doing for the last ten – no, eleven – no, TWELVE fucking days? Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck you!” But I don’t.

We have a final meal together. I mention to the assistant teacher that I’ve been angry a lot of the time I’ve been here. He thinks this is great. Abe comes up behind me and wishes me a happy birthday. I respond in kind. He cracks his knuckles. The other women at the table wish me a happy birthday. “I turned 46,” I say. No one says, “Wow, you really don’t look it!” Clearly, they’re not prepared to break the fourth precept.

I introduce Abe to Debi, and he bombards her with questions about the massage school, interspersed with lots of self-deprecation and a variety of inappropriate remarks. She shoots me an amused look over his head. “He’s a puppy,” I mouth back at her.

It takes a long time to get everything cleaned up and put away. Debi and I decide we should eat something before we get on the road. Leaving the camp, I realize my eyes are not quite ready for driving. Ten days of having them closed much of the time has dulled my vision, and despite my eagerness to get home, I’m glad when we stop in Ketchum, the town nearest the camp, for a late breakfast.

Over eggs and Canadian bacon and elk sausage – and coffee! – Abe talks non-stop, jumping from one topic to another with a rapidity that leaves Debi and I awestruck. “Oh, look – a squirrel!” I say, teasing him. “Do you know what movie that’s from?” he says. “I don’t remember,” I admit. “Up,” he says, pleased with himself.

On the way home, I put on Nick Drake, which makes the aching in my chest worse, but it mellows Abe out. I try to pay attention to the sensations in my body as I drive, but it’s a relentless ache that will only leave me once I’m in my front door.

I’ll probably do this again next year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Meditation Retreat - Part Three

Part One
Part Two

Day 7 – Rainforest

2:30am. Three hours seems to be all the sleep my body wants, so I get up to take a leisurely shower while the other women sleep. I’m washing clothes in a bucket when they start to wander in at 4am. I ring out my sweatpants and t-shirts and hang them on the clothesline, pleased that I’ve laid claim to the scarce supply of clothespins before anyone else, but before long it starts to rain, so I take the clothes inside.

I’ve got my GoreTex and my fleece, and I know rain. I can do rain. I stroll the path between the dining hall and the cabins and smell the trees. The aspen have gone to gold. Their leaves twist and clatter in the wind. They’re dwarfed by the towering lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. I walk on the soft carpet of needles, hold my face up to the sky, marvel at the height of the trees, at the rings of cloud encircling the mountains. I stop to examine the resin-clotted bark of a lodgepole pine. At its base, I recognize the shiny dark leaves and blue berries of a salal bush. I’m back in my rainforest. Home. And now I’m longing, aching for Vancouver, which I’m not supposed to be doing. Clinging, clinging, clinging – dukka, dukka, dukka.

Below the cabins I hear water. There’s a stream down there, but the plastic ribbon prevents me from exploring. The squirrels have been putting up their winter stores since we arrived, and the weather doesn’t slow them down. One drops pine cones from sixty feet above, scampers down the trunk, races across the trail at my feet, and climbs on a stump to chatter and squeak at me, the interloper.

In the meditation hall, a bowel chorus plays. The moaning and sighing of the other students’ GI tracks sounds like whale song. Apparently Debi and I aren’t the only ones having trouble with the diet.

For a moment today, I get a fleeting glimpse of freedom. Just enough to shore up my resolve.

At the tea break, I have some hot-spiced apple cider along with my tiny glass of milk. I’m essentially fasting for 19 hours a day, and it’s fine. I fantasize about hamburgers and pizza when I’m lying in bed at night, but I don’t feel like I’m starving. If I really can’t bear it, I could always sneak out to my car and get the protein bars and almonds I’ve got squirreled away, but it’s very cold tonight, and wet. I lie in my bunk willing my feet to warm up and the cold from the window singes my face. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and drift off, wondering about carbon dioxide poisoning.

Day 8 – Daddy Issues

We’re supposed to maintain a meditative focus all day today, no matter what we’re doing. During the morning session in the hall, Goenka’s chanting is driving me mad. It seems louder – so loud, in fact, that it’s causing me pain. It’s a vuvuzela chorus, designed to make me suffer.

It’s still raining. It seems like everyone is coughing and sniffling. One guy to the left of me rearranges his cushion again and again. The buckwheat stuffing makes a hissing sound. Someone else cracks his knuckles. This, during the time when we’re supposed to be as still as statues. I’m sitting with my eyes closed, but the noise is bothering me. Another sound starts up on the men’s side, like someone is popping their lips open. Is someone really doing that? I listen for a while, and then in exasperation, I turn and glare in the direction of the noise. The men’s liaison is standing by the door. His eyes are open.

More chanting at the end of the hour, and I’m about ready to scream. When we take a break, the men’s liaison approaches the assistant teacher, says something to him, and points at me. They both look at me. I look back. Just try me, fuckers.

And then I realize that it was water. The sound that drove me into a rage was dripping water. But it was so loud. I must be getting a migraine.

Back in the cabin, I’m left to face the feeling of being trapped while someone drones at me on and on, and the helpless fury it evokes. Where does that come from? I know where it comes from. Funny that just yesterday the smell of the forest and the rain brought back a faint memory, and I thought, “I’ll have to call Dad and ask him about that time when…” He’s been gone since 1989.

I sit on my bunk, on my cushion, my sleeping bag tucked around me to keep out the cold, trying to calm down, trying to meditate, and it occurs to me that this may the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s surgery without anesthetic. Quitting drinking, quitting smoking, running a marathon, getting a divorce – none of those caused such acute discomfort as this.

After lunch, I discover a handful of walnuts wrapped in a napkin on my bunk. Debi. She’s been eating nothing but yogurt and honey for a few days, and now walnuts, which she’s sharing with me. Last night we agreed to go back to Noble Silence for these two days when we’re supposed to dedicate all our time to meditation. We last until 4:30. Debi comes into the cabin and says, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” I laugh.

During the evening discourse, Goenka says that tomorrow we’re going to learn a new meditation practice. He says that over the past eight days, we’ve created a deep wound, and this practice will be like a balm on that wound. Later, for a moment, I feel the world drop away. I’m sitting at the back, and everything in front of me becomes insubstantial. I become transparent. The room disappears. The floor isn’t there. I panic.

I walk back to the cabin, slowly, meditatively, and there’s an animal standing by the door, quite still, staring at me. At first I think it’s a lynx, then it turns its head and I see the long nose. A coyote? Then it runs, flashing its bushy tail. It's a fox.

Later, when I’m returning from the bathroom, it’s there again. It lies down in my path, hops up, bounces around, and takes off into the trees. A playful fox.

(To be continued...)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Meditation Retreat - Part Two

Part One

Day 4 – Further Insults

I wind my blue cashmere-and-silk scarf around my neck and go to the morning meditation. For the retreat, I’ve given up makeup, perfume and cute outfits. The scarf has become my comfort object. It’s not a “bodily adornment” if I cover my mouth with it every time I cough.

My buckwheat hull-filled zafu is like a rock under my bruised tush. My neck is still giving me grief, and my back is a symphony of twinges and twangs. It occurs to me that repeatedly eliciting a vow not to leave before the ten days are up should have been a clue that they planned to torture us. I want to leave every day, and every day I talk myself out of it: I gave my word. It will upset other students. This may be a waste of time, but given the countless other days I’ve wasted, what’s ten more? Stretching after every session helps with the muscle aches. I’m going to be very limber by the time I go home, with much-improved posture.

At breakfast, I discovered hidden amongst the green and herbal teas, the Pero, Postum and Inka, a jar of actual instant coffee. It tastes like dust from a Mayan burial chamber, but with a little brown sugar and a lot of milk, it’s drinkable. Ah, caffeine!

During morning instruction, Goenka lovingly imparts the Vipassana technique. Three days of focusing on the little patch of skin below my nose has sharpened my awareness to the point where I can feel thousands of sensations every second, and now we’re to apply that awareness to the whole body, remaining detached, not identifying with the arising and passing away of each sensation. Equanimity of mind. Liberation within the framework of the body. This makes perfect sense to me

Goenka goes on. He repeats every instruction two, three, four times. Every day, the same instructions. On and on. Who needs to take notes? I’m listening, trying to do as he says, going over my skin inch by inch, being aware of heat, cold, pressure, numbness, tingling, pain, etc., etc., etc. It’s not easy for me to divide my attention, listening and following directions, but I’m trying, I’m doing it, I get it, I’m there, and still he goes on, repeating anicca, anicca, anicca, over and over, until…

MURDEROUS RAGE. Shut up shut up shut the fuck up can’t you ever stop your braying you tiresome old donkey!

I go back to my cabin to continue practicing. It’s a good thing I can’t talk, because I’d be screaming curses right now. It takes me a long time to calm down.

Goenka as a donkey makes me think of Nasreddin Hodja, which makes me think of Gregor Samsa, which makes me smile.

Day 5 – In Which My Right Leg Achieves Liberation

More torture. Today we have to sit through each hour of group meditation without moving. I settle onto my zafu rock, prop my knees up with pillows, and resolve to hold this position until the hour is over. Goenka chants us into the meditation, and then in the quiet, I scan my body for sensations. After 40 minutes, my right hip is throbbing. The pain radiates over my right buttocks and down my right leg. I do not move. I focus on the pain. I do not identify with the pain. I pay attention to the variety of sensations within the excruciating, throbbing pain in my right hip and leg – anicca, anicca, anicca. Sensations are impermanent. They rise and fall, form and dissolve. They become like musical notes – the music of the body – and I can listen without shrinking away, without suffering. Equanimity.

When Goenka starts chanting at the end of the hour, my concentration is destroyed, and the pain is just pain again, not music – but I did it! I sat through the whole hour, in pain, without suffering. I am very proud of myself. I’ve learned a new skill, and what a variety of uses it will have! I’m impervious. I’m unshakeable. I’m a ninja.

After lunch, I stretch myself out on a rock and feel the sun lift the last traces of my cold up and out of my body. In an act of liberation, I remove my scarf and leave it behind in the cabin with my other clothes. I skip my afternoon cold medicine.

Afternoon meditation in the hall. I practice the technique, and feel the right side of my head acrawl with bugs – hundreds of them. Either the bugs are in my imagination or they’re not. Both of these possibilities amuse me. I begin to think of them as Schr√∂dinger's Lice.

In the cabin, I sit on my bunk meditating and Debi approaches me with a tube of ointment held out before her. She points to it, points to her knee, and hands me the tube. “Thanks!” I say.

Oops. So much for Noble Silence. I put the ointment, a homeopathic liniment, on my knees even though my knees don’t hurt, because it seems rude not to, and because I can’t bring myself to pull down my pants and apply it my aching butt. When she’s back on her cushion, I go ahead and put it on my butt. The pain goes away almost immediately. I walk over and hand the tube back to her, bowing in thanks. I turn to go back to my corner of the cabin and strike one of the bed frames hard with my knee. Debi and I burst out laughing.

Some time later, I come into the cabin and the look on Debi’s face is so pained that I ask if she’s alright. It’s the diet, she says. It’s giving her tummy trouble. I empathize. I tell her not to be shy, to just let one rip if she needs to. She does.

We compare miseries. I’m feeling regret over some events in my life. She’s thinking about her relationship with her sisters. “I’m glad you’re my roommate,” she says. “I liked you right away.”

At the evening meditation in the hall, my cold symptoms return. I’m not wearing the scarf, so I sneeze in my hair.

Day 6 – Purification

Today is much like yesterday – waking after four hours sleep, tanning on a rock in the sun, practicing the technique for an hour at a time without moving, right hip throbbing – except with more chat and more tears.

I’ve decided that Guatama Buddha was more of a scientist than a spiritual leader. There’s nothing remotely spiritual about this practice. It’s entirely material, reality-based, practical. Everytime Goenka says “mind-and-body”, I want to correct him: It’s body-and-body. Only body. Nothing but body. He mentions sankharas a lot. These are the formations in the mind that arise from craving and aversion. Habit patterns. It’s these that we seek to overcome, to dissolve. Goenka would not have heard of neuroplasticity when he recorded these teachings 19 years ago, but that’s what we’re working with: the malleable nature of the brain and its responses, the music of the body. This excites me a great deal, and not just for its implications in pain management. To overcome habitual reactions of craving, aversion, suffering – dukka, dukka, dukka – seems to me a very rational path to liberation.

“I wonder,” Debi says, “if my body is taking this purification thing too far. I just lost one of my genital piercings down the plumbing.” Like Abe, Debi is a former Mormon from Ogden. She’s also a massage therapist. She went to the same school that Abe’s going to later this month. I decide I should introduce them. For days I’ve been fantasizing about the massage I’ll get when I get home. Hmm. Debi’s a massage therapist. But then I remember we’re prohibited from physical contact with other students, and there’s that Seinfeld episode. I offer to share my Beano with her.

I can’t stop thinking about my friend Leslie. She’d been a Vipassana meditator for fourteen years when I met her over a decade ago. She might be the wisest person I’ve ever known. She was an unfailingly kind and good friend to me, and I haven’t talked to her in three years, because of my own carelessness with friendship. I don’t normally feel this – or much of anything, really – but all I can do at the moment is feel. I have some tears over losing Leslie, and over other things that I’ve lost through similar defects of character. I’ll write Leslie a letter when I get home. Maybe she’ll forgive me.

I realize some things about my body, such as I tend to rest most of my weight on my right hip, which engenders the throbbing, and I have a subroutine running in my head that makes a musical loop out of ambient noise. In the past few days, I’ve heard electronic groove, 70’s pop, ragtime jazz, Indian, and house music. It’s entertaining, but I can’t make it stop.

I decide I’m glad of the sheets that keep the men and the women from seeing very much of each other. In the meditation hall there are no sheets, but we have to be disciplined, which precludes gawking. This spares me the trouble of preening and wondering if any of them are looking at me. It’s a kind of liberation.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meditation Retreat

Day 0 - The Last Supper

I wake up sniffling and coughing at 6am. After getting a flu shot and taking Vitamin C crystals for weeks to make sure I’d be healthy for the retreat, I have come down with a cold. The website asks students to stay away if they have the flu, but says nothing about a cold. Still, how unpleasant will it be to sit through ten hours a day of meditation and sleep in an unheated cabin when I’m sick, not to mention the certainty of passing the virus on to others? I consider canceling, but I’ve been preparing for this for two months and I don’t want to back out now. Kirt goes to the drugstore and brings home several boxes of cold medicine. I’m going.

I pick up Abe at his house in Ogden, an hour away. He’s tall, blond, good-looking, and very young. It’s his second time on this retreat. He asks me what made me decide to do it, and I tell him it’s my 46th birthday present to myself. “Me, too! When’s your birthday?” The 30th. “Mine’s the 29th.” He’ll be 21.

Abe is a talker. He confides that he’s been diagnosed with ADHD, Tourette’s, and Bipolar Disorder, and that he was taken from his home and put into foster care at the age of 12 when his younger sister made allegations that he’d sexually abused her, which he denies. He was in foster care for five years, but is now back with his family. He’s an ex-Mormon, but his family is still involved in the church. He dislikes porn and sluts (like his sister), and he tells me in all seriousness that the Obama administration is paying people to kill off elderly citizens. He wants to marry an Asian woman, because he believes them to be more loyal than American women. He’s starting school to be a massage therapist in October. Despite the prohibition against “bodily adornment” for old students, he’s wearing a do-rag with a skull on it. I assume he’ll take it off once we get to the retreat. Other prohibitions for old students: no food after the 11am meal, and no sleeping in “high or luxurious beds.”

Four hours later, we arrive at Camp Sawtooth and check in. Megan, the women’s liaison, will be the only person to whom I can speak freely for the next ten days. She directs me to a cabin called “Juniper”, in which I’ve already been assigned a bed. I’ll be sharing it with three other women – eight less than I anticipated. I’m given a form to fill out which asks me, among other things, to declare any non-prescription medications that I’ve brought with me. I tell Megan about my cold medication. She says she’ll have to check with the assistant teacher to see whether that’s permitted. I explain that I’ve brought hand sanitizer, and plan to be very careful with my germs, but I’ll go home if I must.

I keep filling out the form. It asks about the general state of my family life. “Sublimely happy,” I write. It says, “Please do not begin this retreat if you cannot commit to staying the full ten days. Can you commit to staying the full ten days?” I check the box for “yes.” I sign and hand in the form.

We’re instructed to finish unpacking, and to move our cars to the long-term parking lot further away from the camp. I unload my backpack, sleeping bag, and the bag containing my zafu and pillows. I chill out in the cabin until 5pm, when we’re to return to the dining hall for orientation.

The orientation consists of a review of the rules: No cell phones or mp3 players. No reading or writing materials. No tobacco products. No food. No talking to or making eye-contact with other students once Noble Silence takes effect. No leaving. The men and women will walk on separate paths, and sleeping and eating areas will be separated by sheets hung so that we cannot view each other. We’re to stay inside the designated areas of the camp, and not venture beyond the pink ribbons that have been strung along paths and behind cabins. Megan asks us to turn in any personal items or contraband, or to put them in our cars for the duration of the retreat. She invites us to turn in our car keys. I decline to turn in my keys, and I return to my car to stow my writing materials and my e-cigarettes. I sit in the car smoking. Leaving these behind is going to be hard, but I have a supply of nicotine patches. It’s the pen and notebook I’m really struggling with.

The last dinner we’ll eat for ten days consists of vegetarian soup and salad. Because I’m constantly wiping my runny nose, I’m using the hand sanitizer often, but I forget to use it before I pick up the soup ladle to serve myself. I sit eating my soup and imagine my cold germs spreading to every woman in line behind me.

When dinner is over, we’re allowed to talk to our fellow students (of the same gender only), and discuss cabin logistics. Afterwards, we’ll go to the meditation hall for the first sit, and Noble Silence will thereafter take affect for the duration of the retreat. I meet two of my cabin mates, Debi and Jen. The third has not appeared. I explain that I have a cold, that I considered staying home, but that someone was depending on me for a ride, so I came. I promise to be very careful with my germs. They confess that they snore. I have earplugs. We work out that I have the only alarm clock between us, so I’ll be responsible for the 4am wake-up. They seem nice enough, but I fear they will not like me.

In the bathroom before the meditation, a woman abruptly sticks out her hand and introduces herself to me. “She’s terrified,” I think. Perhaps I’m projecting.

At the meditation session, more rules. Or rather, the same rules over again. We’re asked to repeat the vows of refuge, and some other stuff I don’t remember. And NO LEAVING!

It’s 9pm. Bedtime. I toss and turn for an hour and a half, and then, against the rules, I take the single half of a sleeping pill I’d brought with me.

Day 1 – Lifeboat

I wake up at 7am. My alarm didn’t go off. Jen and Debi and I pull on our clothes and make a frenzied dash down the forest trail to the dining hall. Breakfast was scheduled for 6:30am, and we’d been instructed not to be late. I have oatmeal with stewed prunes and fresh fruit, and green tea. If my cabin mates didn’t dislike me before, they surely do now.

8am in the meditation hall. I sit cross-legged on my cushion in my assigned space at the back. The recorded voice of the teacher, Goenka, directs us to focus on the breath, being aware of the sensations in the nostrils. I look across the room for Abe. He’s wearing his do-rag. I focus on my breath, the sensation of air moving in my nostrils, but my coughing every few minutes distracts me. And everyone else, too, I’m sure. After the formal meditation is over, we can stay in the hall or go back to our cabins to meditate for another two hours, keeping our attention on the breath. We’re allowed to shift positions as needed, the teacher says, and to lie down during meditation in our cabins, but only for five minutes, so as not to drift off to sleep.

9am, back at the cabin. I lie down. After ten minutes, I’m dozing. I dream that I’m on a lifeboat. Attached to the bow is a long, thin bungee cord. There is a pen tied to the end of it. I find a notebook under one of the benches. I wake up and climb back out of my bunk to sit on my cushion. Jen is across the cabin, sniffling, sniffling, sniffling. She’s caught my cold. They’ll all hate me. I want to leave.

11am, lunch. Lentil soup and salad, steamed vegetables and rice. I put tamari dressing on everything. After washing my dishes in the pans at the back of the hall, I approach Megan, explaining that Jen has caught my cold, and I would like to share my cold medicine with her, but don’t know how to do this if I can’t talk to her. Jen, she says, has left the retreat. She did not seem to have a cold. I mention waking up late. “A lot of people did,” says Megan. The person ringing the morning wake-up gong didn’t come to the doors of the cabins, as he was supposed to. Later, I’ll learn that this was Abe. It comes to me that Jen was not sniffling because she’d caught my cold, but because she was crying. What a relief!

Back in the cabin, I look at my high bunk and decide it might also be luxurious. I pull a mattress off an unused bunk and place it atop mine. This gives me eight inches of foam. I try to meditate from 1 to 2:30pm as I’m supposed to, but this contemplative environment seems to have opened the floodgates, and my mind whirls with memories, memories, memories, ideas, plans, memories.

2:30 pm, meditation hall. “The mind is a wild animal,” says Goenka. He chants for several minutes at the beginning and end of each meditation. He has an awful voice, like a chorus of frogs. My mind is a terrified moose, careening along the highway, dodging cars.

3:30 to 5pm, meditation in the hall or in the cabin. I opt for the cabin, so my coughing will not distract others, who all, I’m sure, hate me.

5pm, snack break. Fresh fruit and ten. I have a banana, half a peach, an orange. I will come to regret this.

6pm, meditation in the hall, followed by the evening discourse from 7 to 8:15, and then meditation again until 9. I have several knots in my back from sitting in meditation posture for so long. I adjust my posture, only to have new knots form. My insides spasm and rumble. The diet does not agree with me. There is a video recording of Goenka from 1991. He’s gray-haired, with plump, droopy cheeks that merge into jowls, a rubbery bottom lip that juts out beyond his thin top lip, baggy eyes and a baggy neck. He has a lilting Indian accent. I dislike him. In fact, I dislike everyone.

In the bathroom, preparing for bed, one of the other women is washing her face. She has terrible acne. Before I can stop myself, I think, “Pizzaface! Haha! Pizzaface, pizzaface, pizzaface!”

I’m as appalled as you are.

Day 2 – Desperation

Debi has acquired an alarm. It goes off at 3am. I jump out of bed, turn on the lights, start dressing, and then look at the wall clock. I turn off the lights, go back to bed, and commence coughing for an hour.

At the 8am meditation, Goenka says, “Begin with attention on your respiration,” but what I hear is, “Welcome to your desperation.”

I’m tired. I sit on my cushion, but I keep falling asleep and tilting over until my inner ear wakes me and I jerk upright. I have a succession of short dreams. In one, I’m on a train traveling through farmland. From behind an oak tree, Gladys Knight and three Pips emerge, singing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” In another, a girl crawls toward me along the floor, around the other meditators. She pushes a stainless steel bowl at me. It’s filled with pages of notes and crude pencil drawings.

After lunch, I march back and forth along the path between my cabin and the dining hall until I’m sweating. 235 steps. I meditate in my cabin when I allowed to, but when I go to the meditation hall, the warmth makes me cough and cough. Several others are coughing and sniffling now, too. I’m Typhoid Mary. I leave my cold medicine and ibuprophen on one of the bunks near Debi’s with a note inviting her to use it if (when) she catches my cold.

3:30pm Meditation is impossible. My mind is a hamster on a wheel – spinning and spinning, going nowhere. I recall things that Abe said on the drive down, and plan how I’ll rebut them on the drive back: “Obama is not paying people to kill the elderly,” “Women should not be referred to as sluts.”  I think about how I will argue with this poor, deluded boy. I wonder if Abe is dangerous. Is it even safe to be in the car with him? What if he has a knife? I become very afraid.

My neck, which I strained last week lifting weights, sings with pain. My shoulder aches. My guts are churning. I’m bloated with gas. Despite all my preparation, all my careful planning to avoid discomfort, I’m in misery. I want to be at home, sitting on the couch with Kirt, watching a movie and eating popcorn, with Sweet Pea purring in my lap. Instead, I sit on the toilet and try unsuccessfully to not make noise.

I forgo the fruit at 5pm, have a small glass of milk and tea, instead.

6pm in the meditation hall, I feel something crawling in my hair. A bug. Two or three bugs. On my way to bed, I brush my hair vigorously. I find a bug. Lice? I consider setting my hair on fire. I run outside in my pajamas to find Megan, telling her that I got lice from the mattress in my cabin. She asks me what it looked like, and I describe it: black, shiny shell, half a centimeter long, teardrop shaped. She says it sounds like a deer tick. I ask if she knows what lice look like. She does not. Neither do I. She takes me into the bathroom and sits me down on a bench, going through my hair layer by layer. She finds nothing. I guess we’ll know in a day or two, I say. I go to bed.

Day 3 – In the Belly of the Whale

TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!!! Debi’s alarm goes off at 3:30. Jesusfuck. My ass hurts. For breakfast, I leave off the fresh fruit and the prunes, try peanut butter and yogurt and brown sugar on my oatmeal instead. No gas, but I react to the peanut butter. I’ll switch to tahini tomorrow.

As soon as I can manage it, I take a hot shower and blow-dry my hair, almost burning my scalp a few times in my zeal to discourage the bugs. I wonder what will happen if I really do have lice. We’ve taken vows to follow the Five Precepts for the duration of the retreat, which include not killing any being. Megan said that people going to and from camp can bring things for the students, if necessary, but how will they justify killing the bugs? Because others will catch them? I don’t plan on shaving my head as part of my practice here. Will I have to leave in order to avoid breaking the first precept? I decide that I’ll enjoy presenting the organizers with this conundrum. I become philosophical about the bugs. They’re just bugs, after all. I picked up worms when I traveled in the Middle East, and had legions of bedbugs feasting on me almost every night – in a hotel room in Cairo I counted 19 bites on my face, alone. I survived. I can live with lice for a while, if I have to.

In the meditation hall, I notice that the woman next to me exhales vigorously and noisily every so often. Right after I have a coughing fit? It seems like it. She sounds like a whale expelling air through her blowhole. She’s doing it to shame me, I’m certain of it. Bitch.

At 5pm, I have milk instead of fruit again. This, plus avoiding cruciferous vegetables and taking Beano before I eat my lentils and rice seems to have solved my GI distress. Everything about this retreat seems designed to make us suffer. Including the food, including Goenka’s hideous chanting. They want us to be as miserable as we can possibly be, with no escape, no comfort, no relief.

In his talk, Goenka makes a joke about torturing us. Everyone laughs. Tomorrow, he says, we’ll learn the Vipassana technique – the key to our liberation. I can’t wait. Meditating on my breath and the sensations on the patch of skin between my nose and top lip for the past three days is about as much fun as staring for hours at a black spot on a wall. Today, Goenka reminds me of Yoda. He has a voice like Yoda, espouses wisdom like Yoda, in a vernacular not unlike Yoda’s. I decide that Yoda was modeled on Goenka. This makes me like him better. Now imagine Yoda intoning at the low end of his range, in language that sounds like gibberish, and you have a sense of what the chanting is like.

(To be continued... )

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poltics as Art

Several things I have read lately (plus one movie), all fantastic, converge around a central idea: the thrust of 20th century art was to blur the distinction between art and everything else. The details of each are a bit beside the point, but here's the list:

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film by Banksy, a graffiti artist most famous for a series of images he painted on the wall between Israel and Gaza, but also renowned for inserting his own work onto the wall of the Tate Modern.
  • Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book about the California artist Robert Irwin, who began at some point creating installations that were as much about ordinary life as anything else. Lately he's been doing landscape design as well.
  • Alex Ross's article about John Cage in this week's New Yorker. The piece speaks in particular about a Cage composition that is 4 minutes of silence.
  • Andrei Condrescu, The Posthuman Dada Guide. Rules on how to be Dada, except that to be Dada is to reject rules.
More stuff, too. The list, as I say isn't what's important. It's just the stain of thought that separating out some stuff and calling it "art" is a mistake -- that really the idea of art should implicate everything we do.

This idea leads me to a question for which I have no answer. How is politics art? What way might there be of handling ourselves, making decisions, and the like would result in a process that was aesthetically pleasing. Failing that, isn't there a way of doing things that is not nauseating? Every time I hit upon what passes for "debate," I'm only a degree or two of separation from somebody saying something at best stupid and at worst noxious. Surely there is another way, and given that other models have failed, why not art?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Buddha Camp

Next Monday I’m leaving for a ten-day Vipassana retreat at Camp Sawtooth in Sun Valley, Idaho. Following are excerpts from the Code of Discipline that students are advised to study prior to attending the course, and my notes on those. I’ve taken some liberties with the text, bringing related parts together where it made sense to do so. (A pdf of the document can be found here.)
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
I’m all for seeing things as they really are, but what if they really suck? Does “observe the changing nature of the body” mean I’ll have to sit in the half-lotus while my legs go to sleep? I want enlightenment, but I want to be perfectly comfortable and happy and feeling terrific while I’m getting it, too. I got knee pillows to go with my zafu.

Ten days is certainly a very short time in which to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there. Continuity of the practice in seclusion is the secret of this technique's success. Rules and regulations have been developed keeping this practical aspect in mind.
Can I "to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there" if I spend the whole ten days arguing with myself about why some rule should be forfeit to my comfort because I’m special and different? I don’t know how I’ll resist breaking a rule or two – sneaking off to grab a shower when everyone’s supposed to be meditating or ignoring the 4am wake-up bell because the temperature in the cabin is hovering around the freezing mark and my sleeping bag is nice and warm – so I’m going to try very, very hard to not break a single stinking rule. I’m probably already breaking a rule. 
Students must declare themselves willing to comply fully and for the duration of the course with the teacher's guidance and instructions; that is, to observe the discipline and to meditate exactly as the teacher asks, without ignoring any part of the instructions, nor adding anything to them. This acceptance should be one of discrimination and understanding, not blind submission. Only with an attitude of trust can a student work diligently and thoroughly. Such confidence in the teacher and the technique is essential for success in meditation.
I’m not supposed to break any rules, but I’m not supposed to submit blindly, either. This is a trap. What if I’m so warped and rebellious and just plain bad that I’ll dissect every rule in my head and have an on-going conversation with myself about how it’s wrong and unfair and it doesn’t apply to me, and the only way for me to not break a rule is to just submit to the stupid rule? Bam! I am already breaking a rule. And what if a rule, such as attending every meditation session (ten hours a day, total) runs athwart another rule, such as "abstaining from killing any being"? What if I’m getting ready to go to the hall to meditate, and there’s a spider in the cabin, and instead of killing it, I have to navigate around the bunk beds in the tiny cabin I’m sharing with eleven other people to catch the spider and deposit it outside, in a place where no one will accidentally step on it?

A student will have to stay for the entire period of the course. The other rules should also be carefully read and considered. Only those who feel that they can honestly and scrupulously follow the discipline should apply for admission.

People with serious mental disorders have occasionally come to Vipassana courses with the unrealistic expectation that the technique will cure or alleviate their mental problems. Unstable interpersonal relationships and a history of various treatments can be additional factors which make it difficult for such people to benefit from, or even complete, a ten-day course.
An item on the application form asked that I list any medications I’m presently taking. I indicated that I take Ritalin and Celexa, but said I was entertaining the idea of discontinuing them prior to the course. They called me and said, “Please, DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICATION.” Okay. Then can I bring coffee? No coffee. I’m weaning myself off coffee.

Dress should be simple, modest, and comfortable. Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn. Sunbathing and partial nudity are not permitted. This is important in order to minimize distraction to others.
This describes nearly my entire wardrobe, but the real dilemma here is underwear. I hate underwear. Underwear ruins the whole experience of wearing clothes. I’m devoting a lot of thought to the problem of how to get around wearing underwear and also avoid distracting my fellow cabin mates by flashing them while I’m changing into my pajamas. And speaking of discomfort, I should note here that I’ll be having a migraine, PMS, and all the rest while I’m at the retreat. I’ll also get to try out my Diva Cup for the first time, the instructions for which include the phrase, “Do not panic”. Maybe I should run the Diva Cup past the management?

All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. It is important that throughout the course there be no physical contact whatsoever between persons of the same or opposite sex. Take great care that your actions do not disturb anyone. Take no notice of distractions caused by others.
There will be up to 100 people attending the retreat. I’ll be sleeping in a small, unheated cabin with eleven other women, and I can’t look any of them in the eye, nor exchange a single word, nor touch one of them on the shoulder if I need to pass by. The appropriate arrangement of the face is soft features, slightly downcast eyes, with a ghost of a smile indicating harmless mild amusement. I’m good at ignoring people, so I don’t see a problem with any of this.

No outside communications is allowed before the course ends. This includes letters, phone calls and visitors. Cell phones, pagers, and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management until the course ends. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.

This rule is my Waterloo. If I can’t take notes, how will I recall funny and stupid things I and others did to tell you about later? Or what if I take notes, but only in my head? Is taking notes in my head like when thinking about committing a sin means you’re committing a sin? This seems like another trap. But alright. I give. Besides, with lunch being the final meal of the day, I’ll probably forget about this other stuff and spend all my time thinking about my next “simple vegetarian meal” (note to self: don’t forget to pack the Beano).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great American Novels

I was reading Ted Burke's insightful thoughts on Franzen, and it occurred to me that Franzen is not the only novelist I haven't been reading. Chabon's fiction, Nathan Englander, Jonathan S-something Foer, Nicole Krauss, David Foster Wallace, Jane Smiley,Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galken, Annie Proulx -- I haven't read any of them. I've only read a few candidates for Great American Novel at all. The ones that I have read and enjoyed are not really comparable to one another: Middlesex, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Man, and Jazz.

Even making the lists bores me.

I like big social novels of ideas, I really do, and I would like to read most of the authors on that list (just not Foer. If I am ever locked up in interrogation, the way to make me crack would be to dangle a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in front of me). I just think the whole enterprise of setting out to write a great American novel -- or worse, The Great American Novel -- is at heart empty in the same way I find nationalism empty.

I'm repeating a sentiment offered here, but I think my critique is a little different. Laura Miller thinks the practice is old and tired. I think the practice was never all that interesting to begin with, but sadly seems to linger in the imagination of many of the folks who have been christened as the next generation by the likes of Granta or The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Political Landscapes

There are a lot of clichés of American politics. The best writing (Joan Didion on California) upends these the tired topographical truisms, which are as dull a feature of current political discourse as, well, the rest of it.

At a certain level, politics is aesthetic and irrational, and the terrain that plays the greatest role in shaping my own is surreal. Literally. I could write at great length about the beauty of Virginia, but I think it's senseless to try to translate the Blue Ridge or the Tidewater flats into some meaning. My psyche, on the other hand, bends time and space, and in the resulting bleak dreamscapes I think I can make out something of how I think.

Seattle is one of my favorite cities, but in my dreams it is a dark place, its streets rising ominously and its rain a bit more sinister than the real deal. I think I must be recalling a couple of moments of terror I felt in the city when, biking downhill in the rain, I realized my breaks were not working, and I had to choose between wiping out now, wiping out later (only much faster) , and hoping to make it to the uphill. Seattle is a dilemma. In my dreams it is also a frequent setting for elaborate, probably fruitless plans spun in coffeeshops. More optimistically, it can be the scene for a kind of pan-out -- I've never dreamed about the sweeping vista of Mt. Rainier, Cascades, Mt. Baker, Olympics, all looming over the Puget Sound, but I often feel the breathless sense of release I used to get in Seattle when I'd make it to some high point on a clear day, the sense that one could take in a wondrous whole.

North Carolina's Outer Banks also tend to loom in my dreams as an expanse of dooms lowering to the ocean. I have an entire genre of nightmares, each relying on my different position in this world for its particular plot twist. Sometimes I am on the top floor of a house and the ocean surrounds everything, almost peaceful if not for the implication of loneliness and devastation. Sometimes I am right where the shore meets the water when I realize I am facing a gigantic wall of water. Sometimes I am father away, trying to rescue something. Various people have told me the best way to handle the fear in such dreams would be to enter the water, but this has only happened once: in my one view of a benevolent ocean, I could breathe underwater and play with friends as the wave rushed overhead, and the feeling was half jacuzzi, half surfing.

I want a politics of optimism. I want not to be ruled by fear. How I get from these fairly raw emotions to particular policies is, of course, always chancy, and often my reactions are prior to any sort of reasoning whatsoever. Tell me we are caught in a great wave of history, and I will recoil. Tell me to shoot at something, and I will assume it has as much effect as shooting at a tsunami. Tell me to overcome my own anxieties and limitations, to leap in or rise up, and I am likely to sign on. But mostly I would love to see again a politics that accepts how surreal at root so much politics is.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

On Being Boring

My previous post is very boring. Not only are lists boring, but within moments of posting this one I had echoing in my head the speech the Jack Black character makes about some list that combines standards with a few curves thrown in just to make you seem slightly original. Polythene Pam, you expose me.

I was born in Heidelberg in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Beatles (after Abbey Road and just before Let it Be). I was unaware of the extent of the tragedy of John Lennon's death, even after my pacifist elementary school teacher had us all study the lyrics to "Imagine." I liked the song just fine, but a ten-year old boy's interest tend toward (I can't honestly remember what... I think Blondie). I didn't listen to the Beatles until my buddy Chip brought over the White Album. I remember him with a big grin on his face mouthing "Bang bang, shoot shoot" on "Happiness is a Warm Gun." We were sitting in an odd part of my old house, a narrow sort of wing off of the living room which featured mostly bookshelves, my parents' record player, and a smallish bar. For months thereafter I listened to cassettes of Sgt Pepper and Rubber Soul and Revolver, and discovered to my delight that my parents (whose collection was otherwise disappointing) had a copy of Abbey Road.

Probably my peculiar sense of the passage of time, of decades and of eras, has as much to do with those months as with anything else. It turns out, according to Billboard, that the number one song of 1970 was "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

A small coda: a little before I latched on to the small, sad youth culture of John Hughes movies, the Violent Femmes, and others unimpressed with Morning in America, and it may have been a matter of months, I was at a dance somewhere. "Hard Days Night" came on, and I danced, leaping up and down alone. It gave me a way to make it through to college, a little bubble to ride out adolescence. Thinking of it now, it's not the same as nostalgia. It was a tool, and that tool gave me a particular sense of history, one that skewed some things and clarified others. It was very interesting to me, yet now seems banal in the telling, a lot like my list.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beatles Top 10 (or so)

Rolling Stone magazine has a list of hundred greatest Beatles songs. Here's my top ten (based on the songs I most want to hear at any given moment):

1. Norwegian Wood

2. Got to Get You into My Life

3. Across the Universe

4. Hard Day's Night

5. Polythene Pam

6. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

7. Get Back

8. Day in the Life

9. She Came in through the Bathroom Window

10. Helter Skelter

The songs that came closest to making the list were "Come Together," "Blackbird," "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," and "Getting Better." Rounding out my top twenty would be a couple of more Abbey Road tunes ("Here Comes the Sun," and "Her Majesty"), "Help," "In My Life," "Eleanor Rigby," "Rocky Raccoon," and "Day Tripper."

Here's my favorite cover.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I have been treating, somewhat nostalgically, the sixties and seventies as a time of greater acceptance of progressive ideas, and wondering what happened. Keif and Dawn suggest a slightly different approach to history, one in which patterns, coincidences, and commonalities play a greater role.

Indeed, this approach has already born fruit. There is a longstanding tradition of mocking liberals for being fruity, overly earnest, self-righteous, self-serving and humorless. Here's Henry James, writing in 1886:

Since the Civil War much of her occupation was gone; for before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether , in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.

I would have thought that it would be hard to take the piss out of an abolitionist, but apparently it's cake.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Elections Revisited

Some time ago on the Fray, Gregor tried to get me and others excited about what he saw as a paradox at the core of democracy: in general, different election methods can give widely different outcomes, and some of the ones that seem most fair can in certain circumstances lead to ludicrous results. His post is here. See also Concorcet's Paradox. If a fair election is a theoretical impossibility, and a "free and fair election" is the minimal requirement of democracy, what's left?

I thought then, and I think now, that voting has as much to do with rituals of power as with fairness. Failure to vote is an issue less because your vote is likely to affect the outcome, but because it's a kind of ritual impropriety, a poo-pooing of politics, like insulting the bride at a wedding.

Turns out democracy has a lot of problems tucked into its elaborate mythologies. The guy who writes about them most lucidly is Raymond Guess, whose History and Illusion in Politics is a handy primer of bogosity. Voting is but a small bud in an elaborate bong. Why in the hell did I ever think the contract theory of government made sense? What kind of contract is this -- I'm part of the contract from birth, and if I decide I don't like it, I can go to jail. Does tolerance make sense? What is a human right?

Guess writes with incredible clarity on these and other matters. I had been wondering how it was that institutions that I felt were the cornerstones of our democracy have been tumbling so easily. Part of the reason is that most of us never understood what they were doing in the first place.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Glee Annoys Me

It didn't at first. I'm a sap, and I enjoy a good song and dance number. As premises go, the show seemed no more stupid than Fame. But as I have followed it on Hulu this summer, I have gotten annoyed.

  1. There's some point when the condescending plotlines about the unseen depths and tribulations of various minorities seem racist. More so when the challenges pale in comparison to the tenderness the show displays to the merely unpopular.
  2. The characters are supposed to be charming, but they lead fundamentally sad lives. So sad that the highpoint will be high school glee club.
  3. I agree with Sue about the hair.
  4. Anytime they put on cowboy hats, I want to shoot them.
I have, fortunately, found an antidote.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I tried to clean up our blogroll a bit. If there's anything that should be added or modified, please post in comments.

Interlinear Commentary on a Few Lines by Michael Chabon

Chabon, Michael.
Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, 2009 Quoted passages are on pages 200-203.

The seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth-century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (
Annie Hall, Nashville, "You're So Vain"). At the time I remember dancing on the tops of tables in the schoolroom to "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever." It was like dressing up (I'm a little younger than Chabon). The Bicentennial was the same way. I went as Uncle Sam to see the D.C. fireworks. Of course I looked ridiculous. To get at Chabon's point here, compare You're So Vain (1972) to I've Never Been to Me (1982 -- actually written earlier, but nobody cared until 1982). Carly Simon is smiling, even now. Charlene Duncan makes paradise sound like the DMV. It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naivete (at the least) to suppose that a straightfaced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. I remember grown-ups doing all sorts of non-silly things in the decade, of course, but those are not the things that became the seventies in memory, the notion that everybody became so self-absorbed that they let the country go to hell while they were tripping over their wingtips. It's just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. Saturday Night Live. Apocalypse Now. Fear of Flying. Free To Be You and Me. All had moments of intense silliness. The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routinized it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. It is amazing to me the number of people who will make total idiots of themselves out of fear of looking like an idiot.

We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule -- a desire that leads at one extreme to the smiling elisions of political candidates and on the other to the awful tyranny of cool -- that this willingness is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. I don't agree with any of that. "Smiling elisions" were as rampant in the seventies as in any other decade, as was the "tyranny of cool," and while I think there is a general reluctance to see things from the point of view of a different person, I'm not sure the seventies the greatest victim of this near-universal solipsism. But I do agree that there is a humorlessness about the hilarity that people find in the decade. In this age of, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves. I've been watching reruns of Saturday Night Live, and this statement describes the humor. Steve Martin's humor depends on the idea that he is a bit of an ass. Ditto Bill Murray's lounge singer. Gilda Radner is more earnest, but the central conceit of her characters is that they are fundamentally silly, and she is brilliant for her full embrace of the lunacy.

Atom for atom, we are made of exactly the same stuff as all the stars and galaxies. I love this essay. It's about Voyager and the seventies. It's called, "Like, Cosmic," and in it Chabon meditates on the recording that is traveling with the Voyager spacecraft beyond the limits of our solar system. It includes whale songs, Brandenburg concertos, heartbeats. It's an attempt to marry science and Crunchy Granola Suite. And it hits the fundamental paradox of the seventies, one that continues to shape the way I see the world -- the tension between the constantly repeated "You are special," and the equally true "You are just like everybody, everything else." That is one of the cosmic, Warlock worthy facts that I learned in the seventies. Chabon's a sci-fi guy. I identify with him, but I imagine he's even more on Keifus's wavelength. Actually, let's see if Keif has found him already. Yup!. If you drop the S in cosmic, you arrive at the understanding that vanity, pomposity, and foolishness are at once communal and individual, like stardust. Million year old carbon. Joni Mitchell, baby! And, while we are on the subject, Blue (1971) and So Far (1974) may be my favorite albums of all time, and saddled me with the illusion that the failure of romantic love is the key to all genesis, as long as you manage to maintain some kind of sense of humor.

I'm skipping ahead a bit now... I might as well say that this essay comes from a collection titled Manhood for Amateurs. Every essay in it was a revelation to me, an account of what had been happening by somebody who found a language that I had been longing for.

What happened in the seventies was that, as at no other time before or since in our history, Americans -- especially American women -- were, for better or worse, free. I'm not sure "free" is the right word here. "More free?" "Relatively free?". Liberated, we cast aside the laws and limitations of the old familiar system to sail like Voyager out into the interstellar medium beyond. You can see it on the album covers of every band of meaty bohunks from Cleveland or Sheffield -- the Raspberries, the Sweet, Aerosmith -- who ever appeared with their hair piled high atop their heads and their masculinity fully, if amusingly, intact. One of the things that shocks me about the original Saturday Night Lives is their totally casual sexism. Carrie Fisher has written about the same attitude on the set of Star Wars, but I can't find the essay. So I don't want to go overboard here. But Chabon's book is largely about how it has been to be male for those of us whose mothers were the first generation of readers of Ms. magazine. We've been trying to figure out how to be sons, fathers, and so forth. And Chabon and I are both aware that we've inherited a lot of the bad of the seventies as well -- Chabon in public, and I in private, cringe at innumerable instances of either direct misogyny or idiotic attempts to avoid sexism in ways that just wind up being both sexist and idiotic. I make no claims to have moved beyond, or learned, or grown.

But look: playfulness is also a legacy of the decade, a kind of playfulness that we thought could resonate The personal was a mantra of seventies feminism, but the spirit of the age, embodied perfectly in the interstellar voyage of Ann Druyan's amorous EEG, might be The personal is universal, or The personal is fucking cosmic, baby! And so now, I find, I am an amateur man. I have, as a legacy of my boyhood, more ways of being male than my father had (You want evidence? Consider the lifetime count of diapers changed. august: about 2 a day for two years, so call it 730. Father of august (and august's brother): 0.) I don't know that this makes me a better person, or wiser, or anything else, except that it has meant that I have had more to figure out, more choice and also more confusion. Part of the equipment I have brought to handle those rolls is a sense of humor. Fatherhood is zany. In my version, it's a lot like Bill Murray's lounge singer, or a Chevy Chase pratfall, or a scene from Star Wars, or a muppet.

Originally I was going to say more about politics and political memory, and about the ways false claims about the seventies support political myths now, but it's hard to follow up on the muppets. One of the most amazing things about Season 1 of Saturday Night Live is how unfunny the muppets were. Also: Franco is not as dead as I would like him to be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jonathan Franzen

I guess having a personal rivalry is a common experience. At least, it shows up often enough in sitcom plots to make me think I'm not alone. In this case, I mean the kind of rivalry where party of the first part is in deep competition with party of the second part, and party of the second part is unaware of party of the first part, or even of the existence of parties. So it is with Jonathan Franzen, who has never heard of me.

I learned of Franzen from my adviser in college, who claimed to have been Franzen's adviser (though I have never fact-checked the claim). Franzen had been a favorite student, a kid with interesting things to say, and he was on the verge of finishing a novel. Well, this Franzen fellow was filling a role I had scripted for myself, and I was nonplussed to find his literary VW parked in my space. The Twenty-Seventh City appeared a bit later, and I did not read it. Nor did I become a novelist, nor a man of letters in any respect save what is evidenced in the archives of this blog.

I must have had other rivals in my lifetime, but I have forgotten about them. This Franzen fellow, though, will simply not go away. He won the National Book Award. He got in a spat with Oprah. Now he's on the cover of Time. I'll freely admit that a Time cover is not what it once was, but still. It's getting to the point where I feel I should read something he wrote.

On another note, the adviser introduced me to Rilke, so he retains a fond-ish place in my memory despite the Franzen mess, but I try not to think about college much, precisely because I felt so adult at the time, but when I examine my memories, it turns out I was more childish then than at any other point in my life, except perhaps, occasionally, online.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Good Fight

The Attorney General for Washington State, Rob McKenna, has enrolled the state in the lawsuit against the recent health-care overall effort. The state's Democratic establishment is, to somewhat understate things, hopping mad. (It's not shaping up to be a good first quarter for Governor Gregoire. The Attorney General isn't the only other elected official who's not being cooperative.)

Attorney General McKenna was on PBS yesterday, explaining his position. Of course, he was asked if he's against the reforms. This is to be expected, given that he's an elected Republican. In fact, Democratic fund-raising e-mails are thick on the ground, using McKenna's "rebellion" to soliciting funds. Admirably, the Attorney General refused to be baited, and calmly, if emphatically, explained that he felt that the Federal government calling for an individual mandate for citizens to purchase something from a private company on pain of penalty was simply outside of the powers that they had been granted in the Constitution. All in all it was very interesting, and it indirectly undermined a major Republican talking point - during one part of is argument Attorney General McKenna basically said that part of the reason that the individual mandate was unconstitutional was that it wasn't part of a government takeover of the health care system.

This argument makes perfect sense to me, even though I lack the Constitutional scholarship to evaluate its accuracy. But what I applaud the Attorney General for is not allowing himself to be pushed into the idea that a laudable goal should be allowed to trump the law. We all understand that it's possible to do something perfectly reprehensible while adhering to the letter, and possibly even the intent of the law. The flip side of this is that things that may be perfectly just, moral, ethical and necessary may be patently illegal.

The whole point behind the rule of law is that the rules are the important part - even if they become an impediment, there are rules and procedures for changing them other than the whim of rulers, or even the public at large. Our tolerance for bending or breaking the law when we feel that's warranted or required can lead us to some very bad places, all in the name of the greater good. So as much as the slog that was enacting health care got on my nerves (Is it just me, or can Democrats barely lead a horse to water?), if they have to through it again to get it right, so be it.

So fight on, Mister Attorney General. I don't know that I'm in your camp, but I applaud you for standing up for the rules.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Disbelieve With Me

What really disturbs me about the Tebows, and about many other people who think of themselves as religious, is their facile confidence that when things work out well for them, it was God's idea all along. As though other people don't suffer calamities in almost exactly the same circumstances -- or, worse, as though when other people suffer such calamities, that was God's plan, too. And there are plenty of new-age liberals with the same attitude: "Your cancer is back? Oh, dear -- it must be wrong with your spirituality." People seem unable to accept the world's frightful indifference[...].
William Saletan - commenting on "Focus on Your Family"
Mr. Saletan takes exception to the ease with which many people chalk up the myriad good and bad things that happen in the world to God's plan or correct or faulty spirituality. Fair enough. But this isn't a "facile confidence," it's a central tenet of their faith. Evangelical Christians and new-age liberals alike eschew a belief in "the world's frightful indifference," not because they can't accept it, but because they won't accept it. Their beliefs tell them that it's a patently false idea. One thing that I've noticed about many people's approach to not only faith, but it seems knowledge in general, is that we have an easier time understanding why people don't believe in the things that we believe in, as opposed to the fact that they believe in things that we don't. (In this regard, the supernatural and man-made global warming are in the same boat.) In another example, in this BBC Radio documentary about child sacrifice in Uganda, when the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity refers to consulting with Witch Doctors as "nonsense," Tim Whewell immediately assumes that he dismisses the whole idea of the spirit world, thinking it "made up." Instead, what the Minister is referring to is the idea that one should actually pay attention to the desires of Evil Spirits. When Whewell suggests that perhaps the Ugandan government should tell people that spirits don't exist at all, the Minister is scandalized by the idea that the government would disseminate such obvious disinformation. While the British documentarian doesn't seem to have much difficulty with the idea that people out in the bush believe in spirits, he seems genuinely impressed that the educated minister isn't more skeptical.

To a certain degree, it appears that we have come to expect a certain level of agnosticism from other people when it comes to those things that we don't believe ourselves (especially when we think of them as educated), rather than realizing that people with different belief systems are sometimes (if not often) going to have fundamental differences with us in the way they see (and interact with) the world. Someone who honestly believes that life events are directly tied to divine intervention or the practice of spirituality should be expected to behave as if that were true, and should be expected to espouse that if asked. Why do we expect them to express skepticism about such an idea, simply because there is a potential for people who find it preposterous to be in the audience? As I mentioned before, it's not just the supernatural that triggers this - pretty much any strongly held belief, especially those that inspire people to change their behavior (or not, as the case may be) can be suspect. I've come across religious people who seem to have great difficulty with the idea that anyone sincerely believes in the theory of evolution, for example.

Not being an academic, I find that I have to beat the English language about the head and shoulders to express this, but here goes: There seems to be a widespread, but unconscious belief in the idea that our individual worldviews are shaped by a perception of reality that is clear, objective and perhaps more importantly, shared (if not universal). Therefore, if we ourselves don't believe in something, not only must it not be demonstrably real, but others like us (even perhaps everyone else) must suspect to some degree its fundamental unreality. This leads us to the expectation that people are agnostic about, if not actually skeptical of, those things that we ourselves do not believe; and when people strongly profess a belief in things that we consider suspect, insincerity, denial or delusion must be at play. (Whew!)

The general confidence that people have in their own objectivity makes sense. But so does the ability to dial it back, if not turn it off, now and again. Doing so makes it easier to understand why other people see things in the way that they do, and to understand that they genuinely hold to those beliefs, often for different reasons than we ourselves would.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services.
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf. Entitlement Spending and the Long-Term Budget Outlook.
While I would expect that Director Elmendorf is fundamentally correct, I would offer a slightly different take on his words:
The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the actual costs of the services the people expect the government to provide, and their impression of the amount of tax revenues available to the government to finance those services.
That is to say, that rather than (intentionally or not) being too cheap to pay for the services that they expect (or just as often, deride) from government, the average American can't understand how a pot of money as large as the annual budget of the United States fails to pay for everything they feel needs to be paid for. Therefore, they have trouble understanding why either taxes should be raised or services diminished, and this allows politicians to conscript the old hobgoblins of waste, mismanagement and fraud (a.k.a.: programs that benefit someone else) to rally public anger over funding requests (usually for programs that will benefit someone else).

It's easy to understand why this is the case. Governments routinely deal in amounts that most of us can only imagine, and even that not very well - even if we can imagine quite a lot. For most of us, the concept of one billion dollars is more of an abstraction than a fabulous amount of money. If one heads down to the Sodo (South Downtown) area of Seattle and looks at the two stadiums that stand there, it can be hard to really wrap one's brain around the idea that several hundreds of millions of dollars went into those structures. Somewhere along the line, just as it did when we were children, large numbers quietly fade into "infinity," and we can no longer conceptualize of just how one would go about reducing a number with so many zeroes after it to just plain zero. (Although I'm pretty sure that I could manage to do in a billion dollars, given the chance.)

The game of politics is a large part of the problem. Liberal politicians promise benefits and Conservative politicians promise tax breaks, each with the understanding that when they implement it, it will be an investment that will automagically reap greater rewards than the costs. Aid to the poor will enable them to become taxpayers, and contribute more to the economy than is given to them. Lower tax rates will increase the volume of taxable transactions enough to pay for itself and then some. Both of these articles of faith have their limits, which no-one ever want to test to see if we have reached. But then again, faith only succeeds to the degree that it not subject to tests of proof, and so the myriad failures of such policies to work out the way they were promised through the past are conveniently ignored, chalked up to the viciousness or vacuousness of the opposition or dismissed as lies spread by people somehow brain-damaged enough to have a sincere aversion to wealth and prosperity.

And we, as the overall public, are the rest of the problem. We become attached to entitlements, "sugar cookies," as my friend Curtiss so aptly terms them, and, especially once we start planning our standards of living around them, feel that it would be an unwarranted hardship to do without them. Of course, someone, sooner or later, is going to do without them. The system is unsustainable as it is, and we've started looking around to see who weaker then ourselves can be made to bear the costs, without reaping the benefits. That's unlikely to be a workable plan, and to the degree that politicians advance it, they should be (but likely won't be) roundly punished.

But the ledger must be balanced, and the two sides reconnected. We can either do it for ourselves, or have it done for us. Or should that be to us?