Monday, December 15, 2014

Skin Like Iron

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.  The Lord said to Satan, where have you come from?
Satan answered the Lord, From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.
-Job 1:6-7

For some of us the road is more important than anything.

More important than money. More important than careers. And as guilty as we feel about it when we lay awake at night--more important to the people who are nearest and dearest to us.

"Have you considered My servant Job?" the Lord asks, and we think: Job? Who gives a shit about Job? What is there to consider about some faithful, well-to-do family man?

Take your Job and shove it, man. What can a Person of the Road learn from somesome citizen. I want to know what Satan saw going back and forth.

I want to roam around too.

Our road can be literal--wrestling, comedy, or music. It can also be a metaphorical road such as the pursuit of truth, science, or the secrets in our own heart.

Either way, we cant not follow it.

But there is, as with all things, a price to be paid.

The road forces you to face yourself, and thats a hard thing. Not just a thing thats hard, but a thing that hardens.

Townes Van Zandts Pancho & Lefty is a song about cowboys, courage, death, life, and regret. But its also a song about the road, the choice to follow where it leads, and paying the price.

Heres the story: Pancho and Lefty are presumably bandits who terrorized the Mexican countryside in spite of the attempts of the hapless Federales to bring them to justice. Eventually, they catch up to and hang Pancho while Lefty flees to Ohio. It is strongly implied that the only reason for Panchos defeat was that Lefty betrayed him to the Federales, likely because he was bribed (*).

In any case, we have a few characters in our story.

Pancho, the man who fought.

Lefty, the one who fled.

And the Federales, who didnt do anything at all.

The song contrasts Pancho and Lefty, but for me, the real contrast is between the two protagonists and the Federales. While the two men made different choices and reaped different consequences, both of them made choices.

The Federalesnot so much.

The Federales claim credit for successes and rationalize failure, but they never take action. They defeat Pancho through Leftys actions, not their own. The only things the Federales do in the song is talk about what they could have done:  We could have caught Pancho anytime we wanted. We let Lefty goout of kindness.

And for what? The song starts out talking about All the Federales but by the last chorus there are only A few grey Federales left.  Their bold talk, their self-righteousness, their caution, their lack of action gains them nothing.  They are as subject to death and aging as Pancho and Lefty. The only difference is unlike the songs protagonists, they remain nameless and faceless, greying and dying while talking about things they could have done.

Pancho chooses the road and dies on it. Lefty starts along the road and turns back. The Federales refuse to step on the road at all. And as a result, from the beginning of the song to the end, they never change

It would be easy to judge them for it.

But as we learn from Pancho and Leftys respective fates, choosing the road is no guarantee of successful travels. Like Pancho, we can strive fully and still fail, with no one to listen to or care about the things we most want to communicate. Like Lefty, we can quit and bury everything we once strived for and spend the rest of our new lives frozen with regret and wondering about what could have been.

We romanticize the road. As the unnamed narrator cautions us in the first verse, we think it will keep us free and clean. Whatever our dream, we believe we can sink into it and it will keep us from harm, that the righteous armour of our commitment to a cause  is the only protection we need.

We find out this is not the case. We learn things about the world, about others, about ourselves that we might not have wished to discover. We find failure, rejection and disappointment. We experience betrayal, sometimes at the hands of others, sometimes due to our own shortcomings, insecurities, or expectations. Our victories dont bring us the things we expect; instead of an end to the road, we find it now stretches out further than we ever dreamed. Sometimes instead of a clear path, the road becomes murky and hard to follow or expands into a labyrinth.

As a result, we harden ourselves. We find ourselves wearing our skin like iron. We will not let what weve seen, what weve felt, what weve learned hurt us again.

But in doing so, we becoming something other than what we were. Its never talked about in the song, but I wonder if on the morning of the Day of the Dust, Pancho or Lefty ever looked in the mirror and wondered what had happened to them, how the pursuit of what they loved had turned them into something they no longer recognized.

Something to mull over.

I started this post talking about Job (**). Hes an interesting case. He never wanted to be on the road. But the road found him anyway. God brought it to him.

That sometimes happens. None of us are safe. Some of us choose the road, but sometimes--through tragedy, adversity, or the unexpected--the road chooses us.

(*)Not everyone agrees with that assessment. At least one writer points out that there is no textual evidence in the lyrics that Pancho and Lefty EVER EVEN MET EACH OTHER. Which is mind-blowing and textually true, but still feels like a reach to me.

(**) Which is weird, because spiritually speaking, the Book of Job doesn't do much for me. I'm an Ecclesiastes man to the bone.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Slaughter & Vinnie Vincent Invasion

The thing I remember most about Slaughter was how likable they were.

Slaughter rose out of the ashes of Vinnie Vincent Invasion when singer Mark Slaughter and bassist Dana Strum got sick of Vincents bullshit and quit his band to start up their own.

They seemed like really good guys in interviews. I wanted them to do well and I supported them to the point of writing the name and logo of their first album Stick It To Ya on the back of my denim jacket in magic marker over what was supposed to be a heart with a knife through it, but ended up looking more like an apple.

Which was an odd decision on my part, because even back then, I didnt think Slaughter was very good.

Vinnie Vincent Invasions  All Systems Go is a better album than  Stick It To Ya in every possible way. I would go so far as to consider All Systems Go as the platonic ideal of late eighties pop metal--shiny production, catchy hooks, high pitched lead vocals with shouted or harmonized backing vocals, fast, technical guitar work and sex-obsessed lyrics (Come together in serenade/Pull the pin on my love grenade). Meanwhile, visually, Vinnie Vincent & Co. were all leather and denim and hairspray. Hair metal doesnt get any hair metal-ier.

Vinnie Vincent Invasion never really caught on though. Slaughter on the other hand--well, nobody remembers them now, but Stick It To Ya made its mark in 1990 with the songs Up All Night and Fly To the Angels. Along with Ugly Kid Joe, they were one of the last bands to break out into the mainstream from the metal genre. Their next album, The Wild Life was better, but by that time, hair metal was making its last stand, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of the rise of grunge and the commercialization of Country & Western.

Im not sure why. Like I said, their songs werent very good.

I guess we just liked them for some reason.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Privilege and Karma are like Captain Mal Reynolds: They Do Not Exist...And They Are Also Totally Real


I was reading a discussion about privilege on the internet between people who subscribe to that particular theory and people who don't.

It probably comes as no surprise that communication was breaking down.

Talking about privilege, I think, is a lot like talking about the Buddhist concept of karma in that in order to have a productive conversation on the subject, everyone involves has to be able to wrap their head around the paradoxical fact that something can not exist, and at the same time be totally real.

Let's a less political or religious example.

Consider Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Mal Reynolds doesn't exist. He was never born and never had a childhood. Nothing happened to him between the Firefly TV show and the Serenity movie because there is no 'him' for anything to happen to. He's nothing more than an actor with a different name saying words a writer put together wearing a costume someone in wardrobe designed on a set a production designer built.

At the same time, people have a real experience of Mal. The writers in the writer's room asking "What should Mal do here?" are asking a real question. The tailor measuring Nathan Fillion's inseam for Mal's costume is having a real experience. The worldwide assembly of fans and self-proclaimed Browncoats who were inspired by Mal's "thrillin' heroics" and were broken-hearted by Firefly's untimely cancellation are feeling real feelings and having real experiences.

The THING is not real. The EXPERIENCE is.

Syrio Forel is neither alive nor dead. Nothing happened when Arya fled the scene leaving her Dancing Master facing off with the Kingsguard knight. There is no Arys Oakheart or Syrio or Arya or King's Landing. Words on a page and the images they conjure in our imagination is all there is.

Yet the exeprience of Syiro is absolutely, unequivocally real. We have opinions about him. We have feelings towards him as a character. His existence touches our lives.

Concepts like 'privilege' and 'karma' fall into this same category. They are things that don't exist independently of our ability to experience them. We can't measure them, take pictures of them, or carry them home in a bucket. But we CAN experience them and they do have an effect on us, the people around us, and the world.

We need to understand this contradiction if we're going to have meaningful conversations about these concepts. We also need to embrace it if we're going to work with them effectively.

People who ONLY take the position that they don't exist struggle because their lives and those of the people around them are affected by these ideas. They are cutting themselves off from something that is a reality of human experience. And yet they continue to reject it because they can't see, touch, hear, or smell it like people denying the existence of elephants just because they've never seen one in real life.

People who ONLY take the position that these concepts are real struggle because they start to believe that privilege is something that exists in the world of reality instead of the world of ideas, concepts, and explanations. As a result they burn themselves out. You can't 'smash the patriarchy' or 'exterminate racism' any more than you can 'win the war on drugs' because your opponent does not exist to be fought. It's heartbreaking watching good people exhaust themselves to tears swinging baseball bats at ghosts.

Things don't have to be real to exist.

Things don't have to exist to be real.

Only by making peace with this contradiction can we hope to have meaningful conversations,  take effective actions, and find lasting peace of mind.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Portrait Of An American Family

For all of it's trappings of Cold War politics, 80s settings and technology, and espionage, at it's core, season one of The Americans revolves around one central question.

How much can I trust the person I share a bed with?

Spycraft and marriage have things in common. Theyre both games of trust, of making decisions in the face of uncertainty and ambiguous evidence, games where reliable information is the most valuable currency.

Phillip and Elizabeth have been together over 20 years. But things keep coming up from new developments to old flames. Passion ebbs and flows.

And the questions keep coming up:

To what extent can one of us make unilateral decisions for what he/she believes is the others own good?

What is the statute of limitations on old lovers and the road not taken?

Can a lie told 20 years ago be used against us today?

What are you telling people outside our relationship about us? About me? Do those people have our best interests at heart?

Do the years we spent together count for something when things arent working now?

In a relationship where both of us are having sex with other people, what counts as a betrayal?

What do we tell the kids?

Perhaps the biggest question is this one:

What makes a marriage a marriage anyway?

Phillip and Elizabeth have made no official vows, gone through no ceremony.  Their commitment is a professional requirement, not a personal commitment. They report to different bosses, have different priorities. They sleep with other people.

On the other hand, they live together, raise their children together, work together. Officially, they are married. They live a married life.

Is their marriage real? Some days it seems like it is. Some days it seems completely false. There are times they both believe what they have is realbut they dont always both believe it on the SAME days.

Like Syrio Forel, theirs is Schrodingers Marriage, not a lie, but not completely true either.

Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings spend their lives being pulled in many different directions. They are constantly trying to serve the demands of multiple masters from their bosses, to the other relationships in their lives, to each other, to the demands of their own conscience. They are two individuals trying to make their way in the world, juggling and balancing their needs with the conflicting needs of those around them.

And theyre trying to do those things while both depending and being dependent on another person who is walking a parallel, but different, tightrope of their own.

Which, I suppose, makes it as real as any other marriage out there.

Thursday the 12th

The axe was an old friend, and Jason spent the morning with it, chopping firewood until his shoulders ached. He stacked it neatly by the cabins and when he was finished, he lay in the sun on top of the picnic table. When the sun got high enough and bright enough that he could feel it even through his closed lids, he draped one arm over the eyeholes of his hockey mask to shield his vision.

It was a beautiful day.

His favorite time of year was the week before the counsellors arrived. He had the camp all to himself. There was enough to do to keep him occupied, but not so much to do that he ever had to rush. He could work leisurely and enjoy the stillness, the solitude.

In the afternoon he went through the campsite, testing the light bulbs. When he was done, he put the new bulbs on a shelf in the supply shed, as close to the back as possible.

As he left, he noticed the door wasnt closing right. He inspected the latch, the frame. A rusted hinge was the culprit, he decided.  It needed replacing.

He tested the door again. It was okay, just a little sticky. Good enough for this summer, but he made a mental note to look at replacing it next year. As he rose, he stretched out his back, circled his shoulder a

He spent the rest of the afternoon wiping down surfaces, taking special care to with the kitchen. When he was finished, he put his cloths and bucket away and went through the camp, gathering up any dirty dishes he might have inadvertently left, washing them and putting them carefully away in their place.

With nothing to do in the evening, he sat on the dock with his machete on one side of him and his battered copy of Birds of North America on the other. He dangled his toes in the waters of Crystal Lake and watched the sun set. On the other side of the lake, loons warbled.

He watched them land on the water until it was too dark to see and then he rose, picked up his boots and machete and stretched out his back before lumbering towards the woods. It was still early, but he wanted to get a good nights sleep , for tomorrow, the counsellors would arrive.

It was going to be another beautiful summer.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Game Of Life

With my team ahead by two with four point one seconds remaining, I'm fouled.

If I make these two free throws, the game is out of reach. We win. I get my win bonus AND a hefty performance bonus besides.

We need this victory. Our team is at .500 and in the loaded Western Conference, we can't afford to fall further behind. It's been a frustrating stretch, but we're in position to win this one.

All I need to do is make my free throws.

Free throw number one hits the rim and takes a couple hopeful bounces before tumbling away from the net. Clunk.

I rush free throw number two and this one isn't even close.

The Rockets take possession. They need a two pointer to tie, a three to win.

Improbably, they make the three. Game over. We lose.

Defeat from the jaws of victory. I'm first stunned, then infuriated.

I take a breath, manage to stop myself from slamming the controller down with frustration, and with a slow calm that I don't actually feel, I reach out, turn off my Playstation, and go to bed.

Where I lie seething.

*  *  *

Of course that cheating goddamn-it-to-hell CPU will have the Rockets make that unlikely three pointer. Just like they magically steal the ball or have my teammate step out of bounds catching my pass every time I get close to making my goal of a quarter without a turnover.

I hate you, NBA2K12. You're a stupid, too-hard, unfair game and I regret paying ten dollars to salvage you from the previously played bin.

Once my fury at the game fades, I turn the anger on myself.

Why didn't I pause the game before taking those free throws? Why didn't I save the game when we was winning so if I missed the free throws, at least I'd be able to go back and try again? Why the fuck am I lying awake thinking about a damn video game?

I close my eyes and digital players dance along the inside of my eyelids. I'm tempted to get out of bed and play another game to redeem myself, but I know if I do that, not only will I be up until three in the morning, I'll be compounding my frustration playing in this state. When I'm angry at the game I get overaggressive and foul on defense or try and force passes on offense and turn the ball over.

The madder I get, the worse I play. The worse I play, the madder, I get. And the madder and worse I am, the less willing I am to do the one thing that will break the cycle: Turn off the game.

* * *

I suppose I should hate this game.

Certainly there are things about it I hate:

I hate that I suck at it.

I hate that my player in the game starts out bad and needs to improve as he goes, which puts me in the horrible position of needing to play well to improve my player, but in order to play well I need my player to improve.

It's reminds me of comedy. The most difficult shows--the ones with bad lighting and sound or swarms of hecklers--happen at the beginning. So not only are the situations bad, you're at a point in your career where you have the least experience and ability to handle them.

I hate the injustice of play perfect defense for 22 seconds, only to have the faster, stronger guy getaway from me and buries and improbable three-pointer. My grade goes down. No credit for the 22 seconds of awesomeness.

I hate that my passes are so frequently intercepted just because.

I hate the amount of buttons you have to master and how easy it is to press the wrong one leading me to pass to the wrong player, call for the ball instead of screen, pass instead of shoot.

I hate the way it grades you as a teammate. I lose more from failure than you gain from success so I end up paralyzed at the thought of making a mistake, not wanting to touch the ball at all.

So, yes, there are many things I hate about this game.

 But somebody once said, "how you do anything is how you do everything," and if that's the case, NBA2K12 is great training for...well, everything.

The best part is, there is nothing at stake. At any point, I can delete my file and start the game again. Or quit without saving. Even if I couldn''s just a game.

There is no real money at stake. My livelihood does not actually depend on making free throws, real or virtual.

But while there are no real consequences to failure, I still react emotionally as though there were. I get angry. I get greedy. I get fearful.

I get to examine my emotions in a low stakes setting I get to feel frustration. I get to see how I react when I feel I've been wronged.

I get to practice handling those emotions.

After all, the fear I feel when I have to shoot free throws is the same fear I feel when a friend, lover, or co-worker asks me to do something I believe is beyond my capabilities. The frustration I feel when a pass is intercepted is the same frustration I feel when a bus is late. The anger at myself when I hit the wrong button is the same as the anger I feel when I misplace my keys.

This game is training for life.

Just like everything else.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"We All Get Older, Too, And Quieter..."

"There's still so much to see."

Loved this article on the San Antonio Spurs, aging, changing tastes...and Steely Dan.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Defining Gravity: Outer Space as Inner Space

I probably should have chosen a different title for this post. That Wicked song is going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Still, Gravity is a strange title for a movie that takes place in an environment where there isn't any.

Or is it?

The secret, perhaps, is to not watch Gravity as a disaster movie about an astronaut lost in space after debris from a ruined satellite destroys her shuttle.  Instead, we examine it as a movie about psychology...outer space is in fact inner space.

There's a lot we could talk about.

We could talk about the simplicity of the movie. Eighty eight minutes. Very few characters and minimal development of those characters. Long, slow takes instead of frantic cutting. To paraphrase, Dolly Parton, "It takes a lot of complexity to look this simple."

 We could talk about the rebirth motif. Gravity contains two rebirth scenes: the one in the space station where she floats in the embryo like a fetus in the womb and the end of the movie, when she emerges from the water, mud, and plants to stand unsteadily on her two feet, millions of years of evolution compressed into just a few moments. Each of them comes after Stone has reached a point of hopelessness.

We could talk about the focus on talking. Kowalski mentions maintaining a constant stream of communication; he doesn't care what they talk about, so long as they are talking. We see this again later in the movie when Stone's distress call somehow reaches an Inuit fisherman in Greenland (*). Neither of them are able to communicate any meaningful information to the other...and yet, they are still talking.

We could also note how much dialogue in the movie takes place, as the characters call it, "in the blind"--characters talking but being unsure if anyone is actually listening or hearing. Kowalski to Mission Control. Stone to Mission Control. Mission Control to Stone during the rescue sequence. Stone to Kowalski. Stone to herself.

Is it about prayer? Is it about hope or faith that someone is out there? Is it about how saying the things out loud makes them more easy to deal with? Or do these questions even matter? Maybe it's just speaking to that same part of our psychology that writes in journals and confesses to bartenders in foreign countries--that sometimes the act of communication is more important than whether or not we are actually communcating. 

And speaking of prayer...

 We could also talk about the repeated appearance of articles of faith. Among the dead astronauts and abandoned space stations, we see a lot of artifacts, references to where people put their faith: A Jesus picture and a Buddha statue appear, but so does a photograph of a man's family...not to mention a lingering shot of, um, Marvin the Martian.

Interestingly, we never see any such artifacts among the live astronauts, possibly for two different reasons. Kowalski finds his faith in the moment; he talks during multiple moments about the beauty of the space around him. Stone, on the other hand, has nothing.

In fact, let's talk about Stone. Because it's through her, and through her relationship with Kowalski that we find the pot of gold at the end of Gravity's rainbow (sorry, couldn't resist).

"You're gonna have to learn to let go."

Like many of us, Ryan Stone is a person holding on to a lot of things. She holds on to her desire to fix the transmission card even after it is safe to do so. She holds on to her fear of the situation she's in. She holds onto the guilt and grief over her daughter. She holds on to the fear of loss.

When we think of 'letting go,' we often think of it as a metaphor for death or giving up on something or someone. We rarely think of how it relates to life.

But in this case, it is.

We see this most explicitly in the scene when a despairing Stone prepares to kill herself by releasing the remaining oxygen from her space capsule.

It looks like Stone is letting go, but she's not. She's still holding onto control, this time by trying to control the way she dies.

Earlier in the movie, when Kowalski tells Stone she needs to learn to let go, he's telling not telling her to give up.

He's telling her to let go of the things that keep her from living. No matter how long or short that life may be.

"Where you go, I go"

Matt Kowalski is a handsome. He's an astronaut, an adventurer, and a storyteller. He has brown eyes.

He's also something else.

Matt Kowalski is a case study in the power that comes with acceptance.

He has a bad feeling, but he doesn't fight the badness. Bad or good doesn't matter to him--he treats them with equal aplomb. He brings up the space walk record that he wants to break, but he is  comfortable whether he succeeds or not. He has preferences, but he is not tied to them.

Many of us resist acceptance because we believe that it means submitting to whatever life brings. We fear that acceptance will take away our motivation to act, to defend ourselves, to right injustice. How will I motivate myself if I just accept things? If I'm content with whatever happens, what will get me out of bed in the morning? We confuse acceptance with passivity.

Kowalski shows us how we can accept and still act. If anything, Kowalski's equanimity makes him MORE effective, not less. When Stone is trapped by focused on what she wants to do with the module, Kowalski sees the debris coming and prepares to act. While Stone is rendered ineffective by fear and the gravity (there's that word again) of the situation, Kowalski sees what is possible and acts accordingly.

Yet while Kowalski is pragmatic, he is never cold or clinical. He rescues Stone. He never loses his temper with her or barks orders. He remains gently encouraging throughout. Kowalski is also the one who remembers to look in on the rest of the shuttle crew and makes the decision to retrieve Sharif's corpse.

Kowalski is compassionate, accepting, effective...oh yeah, and he looks like George Clooney.  If we met him on the street, we would think: who can live up to that? But he's not a person. He's a personification of Stone's--and by extension of all of our--capability for finding those qualities in ourselves.

As the dialogue makes clear, Stone has brown eyes too.

Where we go, acceptance goes.

 Three times Stone is saved by this acceptance personified. Once when he finds and binds himself to her. A second time when he shows her how to let go. And a third time when...well, that's a hell of a story.


In the end, Stone re-enters Earth's atmosphere, and for the first time in the movie gravity asserts itself, pulling her landing craft downwards. For the first time, she is being pulled by gravity.

And yet for the first time, she is also free of it.

She is in a dangerous situation, but it is no longer holding her down. She does not know what will happen and there is no Kowalski to save her.

But he accepts her options: burn up in the atmosphere or survive and have a hell of a story to tell. Either way, she says, "No harm, no foul."

She is free.

And after she lands, after she emerges from the ocean and stands on her own two feet, she walks away...perfect in her relationship with gravity.

(*) For those interested, the director's son made a short spin-off film called Aningaaq that shows this scene from the fisherman's perspective.