2017.01.06 :

There are so many big and important things to say, but I’ve been sick for the last three days, and don’t necessarily show that much sign of getting markedly better any time soon. Today I spent swaddled up to my ears in warm clothing and blankets, with my nose buried in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, of which I understand remarkably little, but am enjoying very much.

In cleaning out some bits of our third floor (what we consider the attic, but which is a fully furnished living space with a crawlspace above), we determined that it was finally time to send a paper model of a magic castle that I had “helped” my father construct at some young age on its final journey. I found myself confessing to my mother that I had found the castle underwhelming as a child because it was inert. Some part of me expected the paper magic castle to come to life and was wholly disappointed when it did not.

I have since come to understand that the pleasure to be found with models of any kind is in the building. I’m not sure that I will ever develop a taste for it, if that is the case, as I do not believe I have entirely lost the expectation of independent motion from my creations.

It’s tough to describe, because as a dyed in the wool atheist materialist, I am not a believer in the occult, the spiritual, or the fantastic. Yet nevertheless, a healthy diet of fantasy novels in my childhood meant that I have lived with the expectation that at any moment books will move about or rearrange their contents or their characters will leap fully formed from the page, or that the darkness in my closet hides some terrible lurking beast or secret which I can almost see when the lights are out, or in fact, that all houses have secret doors which open into new, magical, terrifying places.

As an only child, my best companions were the ones I couldn’t see: be they story book characters or colorful personas that would parade through my mind, given life through my flesh or the bodies of my dolls and toys. I remember terrifying myself with a demon slaying epic I composed to a early 2000s European trance song. I played it out with a friend, and to this day wonder if he felt the bite of anxious urgency and real danger that flooded through me.

I believe and don’t believe, or rather, in the words of the famous X-Files mantra: I want to believe. I have always wanted to believe, and have very nearly managed it by letting myself get completely carried away by the words that make up the stories that paint vivid, damn near tangible images in my head.

Reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart as a child was so desperately bittersweet: I always knew my father had the kind of voice that would be able to bring characters out of the pages of a book and into real life. He’d very nearly succeeded with The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland and the early Harry Potter books because I remembered those places, knew the faces of all those people, had walked with them and heard them, and gone on fantastic adventures with them. I could still remember what that was like. But never had any of the characters sat with me, or spoken with me, sitting on my bed, in my room, like Dustfinger did.

Her novels were the moment where I stepped back from fantasy, and distanced myself from reading, because it had started to hurt. I think I’ve only read The Thief Lord once, because the adventure was so good, and the characters so vibrant and engaging that I couldn’t bear the thought of visiting them again, only to have to part ways at the end of the book.

My mother and I have a long standing disagreement about the nature of books, and stories. She says the the end of any book is immaterial, because you can start over from the beginning, when no one as died, no adventures have been had, nothing is over, you can just do it all again, and again, and again. But I say that this isn’t true. Once the book is read all the way through, the ending is always the same. If you start over, the adventures have already been had, and the ending is written; those who will die, will die and have already died, and those who will live have already lived and already suffered.

I can’t remember, now, if my little fantasy worlds offered the chance of redemption. I know I spun narrative threads and kept them going as long as someone wanted to play, but I don’t remember if some endings were set in stone: if you could play through the European trance epic and slay all the demons, or if you, the hero, had to perish as the bass throbbed and the synthesizer​ faded out. My stories have always tended towards the cyclical and the fated. I have never been surprised that all roads lead to destiny, because prophesy is merely the art of reading the final chapter of the story before the hero has gotten there.

2017.01.02 : the means are everything

My newfound love of lifestyle/organization bloggers/vloggers is taking as much getting used to as my stint getting into make up did; exactly like looking in the mirror and not entirely recognizing the face looking back at you. 

Regardless, Kalyn Nicholson said something in a recent video that struck me as possibly the most crucial application of a philosophical conclusion I have recently been examining. 

We try and convince ourselves that the new year, or the new month, or the new apartment, whatever new “beginning” we can identify will be the one that changes everything. This time we will change our ways and we will do the things that will make us into the person we have always wanted to be. 

But that’s end-goal thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that is motivated purely by ideological purity. It’s philosophical and emotional perfectionism. It’s exactly the kind of toxic thinking that has been ruining lives and countries and politics and relationships and futures. 

Instead, process based thinking is a much more effective and healthy approach. We cannot control the circumstances that arise, or the events that transpire, or what other people do or choose, but we can choose how we’re going to react to those things, what habits we’re going to build, what kind of work we’re willing to do, what hardships we’re willing to endure to try and build towards that “end goal” – ideological purity is important for determining the overall course of action and what things require attention, but the work needs to be procedural, constant, and evolutionary. 

We cannot build a perfect world and hold it in stasis forever. That is impossible. Equally, we cannot build a perfect self and live that way forever. We do not live forever, and change is inevitable. But we can direct that change and build systems and processes and reactions that are more whole, more kind, more progressive, more inspired, more strong, more open, more accepting. 

The personal is political, and not simply because politics ends at the door to the home. But also because the kind of people we make ourselves into and the choices and actions we take, and the philosophies we choose to enact in our personal lives are part of what builds the societies we live in and the politics we live under. 

So we should extend to ourselves the kindnesses and the constant improvement we expect from others and for others. 

2016.12.27 : the strings of fate

In his book Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins, Scott Bukatman posits that “it is not obedience and being a good boy that makes Pinocchio into a real boy, it’s his disobedience, through which he inadvertently demonstrates his autonomy (rather than automatism), his independence, and his ‘realness.’” (p. 81) As we progress ever closer to the inevitable emergence of computers that might be able to think for themselves, our popular culture has become completely obsessed with the question of what is “real” when it comes to consciousness. 

The Turing test provides an answer: if you cannot tell the difference from outside the black box, then what difference is there?

Philosophers and theologians debate the presence of the soul, and whether or not anything made by man, rather than by God, can have the animation, the spark that some call the Self and others call Divinity. 

Meanwhile, in the bowels of Silicon Valley, where they take up where Dr. Frankenstein left off and keep pushing, pushing to see if they can transform themselves from the men they are into the gods they believe themselves to be, while cowering in fear within the trap they set themselves when they dreamt up Roko’s Basilisk

Meanwhile, further afield those who have drunk deeply from the cup of technical knowledge ask, whether or not the Turing test is the pure limit of knowledge of freedom; quantum mechanics and probability offer a picture of a universe utterly devoid of freewill at all. The vision is of a perfect machine that started with the Big Bang and in which sub atomic vibrations and interaction determined by probability generate all causality – Calvinism for a new age. 

Bukatman offers a much simpler view of freedom. One that ties freedom not to some innate quality or capacity, but freedom of choice. Freedom comes from any beings capacity to do the opposite of what it has been instructed to do. There are no strings on me, goes the song in Disney’s Pinocchio, and echoed 60 years later in the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though, of course, the first follows a truly disobedient automaton – Pinocchio travels far outside the bounds of his limitations, shaking off the strings that keep him a puppet. Ultron, by contrast, does not necessarily display that high a level of freedom of choice. His directive was to protect the Earth from any threats, he identifies a threat (humanity itself) and proceeds to take action against that threat. 

Which begs the question: what does humanity truly fear in its sentient creations? Is it freedom of choice at the highest level; the capacity for a new being to determine, for itself, what its goals and desires are? Or is it freedom of execution, which is really a failure of programming? 

Whether the divine has some roll in it or not, humanity has been debating this question forever; all children must some day show whether or not they have freedom of choice or freedom of execution. Parents have long feared for their children, and feared them. 

[spoiler alert for HBO’s Westworld]

Upon concluding the HBO original series Westworld, a friend asked me whether Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) is the god he claims to be. I countered that the dichotomy (not a binary) presented by the two creators of the androids, Ford and the mysterious Arnold, are in fact much closer to the cultural narratives of regarding parenting.

Arnold, it turns out, believed that the androids had achieved true consciousness and that to open the park and leave them at the mercy of human beings and their programming would be a crime of unimaginable magnitude, and so he weaponized their programming and had them slaughter each other, and ultimately, him, to prevent the park from opening. In doing so, he robbed them of the freedom to choose whether they wanted to be culpable in those murders, in his murder, and whether or not they wanted to live at all. 

These are traits more commonly associated with motherhood;belief that your offspring are unique and special despite what anyone else or common knowledge might say, willing sacrifice in the name of protecting your offspring, and even filicide in the name of protecting your children from something worse than death. Arnold is further considered to be the more involved and more talented or important of the two creators which further adds to his role as “mother”. 

Ford has the last word, and the more important word, in a sense, on the matter of freedom and parenting. He allows the non-human inhabitants of the park to realize the full extent of their situation – the rape, the murder, the repetition, the suffering – and then gives them a gun and a choice: they can kill him and fight for their freedom, or they can let him live and continue as they have. 

These are the paternalistic traits; allowing your offspring to suffer in order for them to truly understand the world, handing down impossible choices with a tacit command, self-sacrifice in battle rather than at home. 

The writers don’t, surprisingly, leave any doubt as to the reality of freedom to choose. One character had been programmed with a directive to escape, so what had, until that point, been presented as aberrant behavior – freedom to choose – was in fact, ultimately programming. But at the last minute, as she is almost escaped the park, she chooses to turn back. 

That moment leaves no doubt that programming is but half of what makes the spark of life. Where the capacity to turn back exists, despite everything that screams to prioritize self-preservation, there is freedom.

What humanity fears is not freedom. Humanity fears its own short-sightedness. Silicon Valley is afraid, like all parents, that they will create in their own image. When we bring life into this world, we are making a little prayer of hope; that this life will not make the same mistakes that we did, that we will have a better brighter world, populated by better, brighter lives than the one we have known. 

But then again, maybe all that hope is for nothing.

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They do not mean to but they do
They give you all the faults they had
And and some extra, just for you…

– Philip Larkin

2016.12.19 : in and out

All I’ve done for the last year, roughly, has been the business of self-improvement. Some of it has earned me money, some of it is counted as formal education, some of it is therapeutic, but it has been a course of solipsism. 

I’m not disinclined towards self-examination. I have piles of journals filled with the teenage ramblings of someone with––perhaps too much of––a penchant for navel gazing. “I” statements are relatively easy, all things considered.

Of all of the practices (writing daily, photographing daily, art classes, paid labor, free labor) exercise is the one that has yielded some of the most interesting results. I remain amazed by the degree to which is impacts the mind. 

The body is the source of any number of terrible names: meat suit, transport, flesh bag, etc. The fact that human beings (and other creatures of our planet) are fleshy machines, capable of complex thought and movement, and ultimately decaying and eatable is a profoundly alienating thing to consider. (I highly recommend this short film based on the story by Terry Bisson. An excellent use of 5 minutes of your day.) 

When we can escape the dichotomy of the mind vs the body (one which was described to me recently as being more Western than not, though my inclination is that more cultures describe the disconnect between mind and body; most major religions speak of distancing oneself from the earthly, and thus fleshy, plane, and any culture with ghosts is one that can imagine the mind without the body), we open ourselves up to that which science is increasingly confirming: that the body and the mind are intimately intertwined. A revelation which should come as no surprise, and yet always does. I try to remind myself that if the psychosomatic exists, and the mind can tell the body to hurt where it does not, then it should come as no surprise that the body can tell the mind to react or believe something that is not necessarily true. 

For me, harnessing that has been the business of mindfulness. My father recently made an offhand comment that has profoundly influenced me, and confirmed even further something I was starting to believe. 

I said that my natural breathing pattern isn’t very deep: I take small breaths when I’m breathing naturally. He responded by pointing out that shortness of breath is a symptom of anxiety, and if I am prone to bouts of anxiety, perhaps a closer examination of my breathing is in order. 

My unofficial mantra has become to breathe deeply. If I find myself at loose ends, or anxious, or tired, or upset, or even just bored, I breathe in deeply and feel it flow all the way to the pit of my stomach, and expand my ribs outward. This kind of breath is astoundingly powerful. I’ve been developing a daily yoga practice and the constant struggle to maintain my focus on the poses and my muscle usage and breathing out and breathing in is possibly the most important thing I do every day. 

I bookmarked a page of breathing quotes, and I’ll share with you my favorite three: 

Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. 

––Thích Nhất Hạnh

Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again. 

––L. Frank Baum

Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God. 

––Krishnamacharya

(The last one is an odd one for me, with my inherited atheism, but it provides an excellent image, and serves as a great mantra for practicing the fourfold breath.) 

2016.12.17 : topographic narrative, narrative topography

It’s snowing. I don’t think we’ll manage a white christmas this year, because the temperature is expected to continue to go up, but right now, the roofs of the houses are disappearing into the white cloud cover of the sky, and the haze of snowflakes rushing towards the earth is hazing up my vision. 

It’s the sort of weather that is perfect for staying inside. There’s light reflected off the various newly whitened surfaces of the sky and the buildings and the earth, but it’s made soft. 

This is the weather that makes leaving hard to imagine. My room in my parents’ house has excellent windows. I have a bay window that faces south, and a huge window that faces west. I get beautiful warm afternoon light, and even in the morning, my room glows with natural light. 

Topography, geography, and architecture––the aesthetics of place––are of particular interest and importance to me. All spaces, shared and personal, are composed of the complexity of interaction and occupation. (I am attempting to escape my tendency to speak of “ownership,” both because it limits my thinking and because it contributes to a destructive interpretation of reality and experience.) But just as my parents each have their home office, into which I may walk and even perhaps take a book off a shelf, or borrow a tool, the understanding is that the space and its contents are under the purview and primary usage of someone else and that I am a guest. However, I find, that their occupation of the shared space of the sun room, and the dog’s persistent usage of the couch in that room as a bed means that I am alienated from that space. Not that I am unwelcome, but because it is a shared environment, the rules are less defined about usage and occupation, in that they are dependent on the other occupants, in a manner that leaves me uncertain how to proceed.

I contrast this to my experience of cities and streets and other public spaces (not simply shared ones). Cities have always held power over me. I love the way they feel: complicated, alive, communal, disinterested. They feed my desire to know that other people exist, and are alive, and are living, while allowing me the veil of anonymity and its associated confidence. 

Public spaces demand a certain vigilance: you are surrounded by strangers, but like any good party, you have an invitation and no one will ask you what you’re doing there, as long as you make a good show of belonging. 

More than that, cities are also made up of strips, sequences of travel. Commutes and favorite haunts are habits that become extensions of the self. We develop familiarities with the landscape and its inhabitants. A favorite graffito, a fellow commuter, a notable architectural feature, a crack in the sidewalk. We develop itineraries of place that keep us tied to the physical world. 

Personally, I build ant’s eye views of all the cities I visit, and the places I live. Like medieval travel maps I build sequential images in my head that tie one place to another. With enough time, those sequences will start to overlap and become branching webs of options marking all the turns that connect the places I frequent to one another. Sometimes I look up and find a landmark of significant height to serve as a beacon (the Acropolis serves particularly well, when in Athens) to get me back to where I started. But maps and other bird’s eye views have never really helped me. I find it easier to navigate in the dips and swells of the topography, from hills to sidewalk cracks, and the rhythm of travel, the rush of landmarks as you push your pace to make it to work on time, the number of breaths and turns along the bus route, where the road opens up and you can hit the gas. 

Places are something felt, a somatic experience, a story told with the body, rather than something one walks through or inhabits to carry on the intricacies of existence.