Predatory Assumptions

This article in the Guardian (and a story on 60 Minutes from two weeks ago) remind me of a Star Trek episode. In it Captain Kirk is aghast that citizens of a planet go willingly to death chambers when each country is virtually attacked by the other. (I think Kirk was kind of in love with a woman on the planet, but then again, when was he not?) While it’s not a really ‘tight’ analogy, the point was and is that violence and warfare had lost their meaning. It was a cautionary tale, one that science fiction does better than any ‘realistic fiction’ could.

Apparently violence has lost it’s meaning to Americans, so long as it is perpetrated against other people. It’s just absolutely surreal to think that we’re training more video jockeys these days than actual pilots. The surreal nature of it comes when I watched the 60 Minutes story in question. In it the Air Force officer was talking about how great his job was, that he could kill and maim people–couched in the rhetoric of self-defense, of course– while sitting at his desk all day long, in essence playing a video game with real world consequences and then be home in time for dinner. He even said, “I hope I never have to fly again. It’s too dangerous,” or something to that effect. It was horrifying to me to hear this kind of talk from an officer in our armed forces. Are we that lost? Are we so enamored of our supposed technological superiority now that the real world consequences of death and destruction are nothing but an afterthought, a pang of guilt best washed down by a Budweiser, while at home eating a meal with the wife and kids?

Here’s what’s even more scary: this kind of training–and warfare–assumes–dangerously if you ask me–that we will continue to have air superiority for the foreseeable future. It’s absurd and complacent thinking. One our children will quite possibly rue. We may be at the top of the heap now, but the day will come when a coalition of powers grows weary of our unilateralism and defeats us–or worse, some minor power gives us another bloody nose like 9/11 that sets off another round of vengeance-seeking wars with no point and no end that rips apart a regional equilibrium and creates even more violence. I really don’t know which one would be worse.

That smaller powers coalesce in order to defeat or contain a larger power is an immutable fact of geopolitics and the schoolyard. I don’t know when it will happen, but I know it will. It’s only a matter of time.

Up The Mountain, Continued

Sean Paul yelled at Seamus over the din of the blizzard near Mt. Kazbek’s summit. “Remind me again what we are doing here,” he asked? ”

Blinded by the raging Caucasus snows and the howling winds racing across the cold schist stones Seamus replied, “I’m here to see the eagle!”

“The eagle?” Sean Paul asked. “I thought we were meeting Prometheus up here.”

“You thought wrong.”

Up To The Mountain

Sean Paul dropped his jaw in a fit of bemusement. “You’re taking me where?” he asked Seamus.

“Mt. Kazbek. A friend up there has something for me,” said Seamus.

“You’re friend wouldn’t happen to be Prometheus?” Sean Paul asked.

“Not quite, but Prometheus is involved.”

Sean Paul just groaned.

Escaping The Siren

Sean Paul clawed his way across the rocks, clothes ripped to shreds, hair tousled in knots, unshaven and thirsty. He’d eluded the Siren’s seductive song for almost a week when he reached the portal to the netherworld and cried out to Seamus for water. “Only got whiskey here,” said Seamus. And then Sean Paul collapsed.

Trapped

Sean Paul was trapped. The guitar failed. The siren had him.

Unlike Odysseus he had no crew to tie him to the mast and howl away his madness. But howl Sean Paul did.
Seamus opened a portal from the netherworld, earplugs firmly in his ears and pondered his next move.

The Never-Ending Narrative

Sean Paul recoiled at the siren’s almond-eyed glare.

His trusty homonculus, Seamus, stood at his side shaking his head muttering under his breath, “tis not gwan end well Sean Paul.”

Seamus backpedaled slowly at first.

“Hey, you imp, abandoning me now, are you?”

Running now Seamus said, “I have a date with a pretty Irish lass in ta nethworld tanight. I’ll let you deal with the siren, hope you brought your guitar.”

Travel Writing In The Era Of Social Media

In July, on the advice of a friend here in Austin, I submitted a panel idea for SXSW Interactive 2010.

The good people who review such things for SXSW informed me today that it’s qualified for the final round in the decision making process.

The final round is up to you. Voting will commence Monday, August 17.

This is something I would very, very much like to do.

So, come Monday, get your clicks ready. Tell your friends. I will need all the votes I can get.

A Thanks, Long Overdue

Escher recently wrote to me about Buddhism that “termites build mounds out of dirt; humans build ours out of thoughts.”

Food for thought, no doubt, as I wasted several days on a Mexican beach and then a long mid-night drive across the coast of Michoacan to Ixtapa.

I may be poor. And a struggling writer at that. I may never see the success I hope for. In the end, success is ephemeral, anyway, which is something I remind myself of every morning when I wake up and ask: are you having fun?

Now, when I use the word ‘fun’ I’m not talking about an everlasting party—although there has been some of that lately; it’s hard to begrudge a guy two weeks on a beach in Mexico, no?

But that’s what I ask myself every morning when I wake up. And it’s a question first posed to me by Master Ma in Singapore long months ago.

I greeted today affirmatively. “Yes,” I thought to myself sitting up in my small bed, tossing the covers off and shivering in the ice-cold AC. “I am having fun and I am also grateful.”

Gratitude is something Master Ma had an easy time coaxing out of me. I’ve always been a positive person, even in those moments of depression, grinding out the days, struggling just to function. The reality was always that it could be so very much worse. But I was reminded of his calm smile and balding pate this morning, as I meditated on the word and what it means to me.

I entertain an endless list of things for which I am grateful and in recent weeks it has only grown longer. Reconnecting with old friends. Falling in love with my family all over again. Learning to love their peculiarities, unique characters they all are. At some point my father and I will patch things up too. And the simple knowledge of such potential is enough to smile. I have a career I enjoy, after all, how could one not enjoy writing for people, arguing on the radio, seeing the world and sharing it with others? Sure, it’s not a career choice many people would make, especially due to its utterly un-remunerative nature. And yet here I am.

As pondered gratitude this morning I realized a large ‘thank you’ was long overdue to some of the most important people in my life, many of whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting.

Things have changed around here in the last year. My focus has changed and with it, this place. People change and hopefully they grow. Perhaps I have as well. But, I have been horribly remiss in not thanking you all. Just for being here. For the constant irritations. The questioning of what I saw while traveling, for the criticisms, the judgments, the corrections and the steady hand you provided, helping me to find the way. Were it not for you all I doubt I would have walked away from the job in Singapore and set out into the world. I knew that where ever I went you would be there with me. Laughing with me. Laughing at me. Sending me kind notes when I was down and swift kicks in the ass when I needed them. All of it mattered. And I never thanked you. My gratitude for you, this morning, is endless.

As for Escher’s comment about mounds? If I’ve built a termite mound this last year it’s gold plated. I know that much for sure.

“The Stillness To Which All Returns”

I hate these days. I hate it when I feel the press in my chest, the pounding of my heart and the sinking in my stomach. There must be a better way to describe it than ‘a sinking in my stomach’ because it’s so cliche.

So, I write. That’s what I do. I write, therefore I am.

I write.

I am a writer.

This is one of those days when I wish I could feel the “stillness to which all returns.” Nay, I wish I could be “the stillness to which all returns.”

The cursor blinks and the white page stares back at me, glaring, defying me to write. Defying me to be. I can feel the horripilations rise on the back of my neck, a tingling in my arms. The pounding of a drumbeat in my ears. And in these moments I want to be carried back to the river—maybe the Mekong, or the Oxus, better yet to trod in the hithermost regions of Alexander along the Jaxartes. Or maybe back to Lake Toba, sitting, doing nothing, becoming the “stillness to which all returns.,” perhaps to hear, relive that night of howling agony when a mother lost her son. A sound that has no synonym or similarity with any other—a semaphore catapulting reality across all languages, places and times: the sound of a mother in grief, for the life she carried in her selfsame womb has passed, died, moved on. Did it move on to the “stillness to which all returns?” I don’t know. I can’t calm my mind long enough to return to that place.

“Why would you want to?” the voice of attachment asks.

“All places have their lessons—and this one I’ve left unexplored, untouched by a fearful heart—for death is the ultimate ‘stillness to which all returns,’” I reply.

I did write about it when I was at Toba, but it was only in a descriptive fashion; detached, moved but unmoving.

One of these days I will write more about death—exploring what it might, or might not, mean to me.

“Maybe now would be a good time,” I hear Master Ma tell me.

“Okay.”

It is interesting to think about a Bukowski quote regarding death. He once was asked if he thought about death much in his sunset years.

“Not as much as I did when I was 17,” he replied.

I read this quote when I was about 23 or 24. I remember the day clearly. I was sitting on bench on the grounds of the University of Houston, a ground squirrel was looking up at me while I read the magazine with the interview. I wasn’t obsessed with death at 23. But I did think about it an awful lot.

As the years rolled by I thought less and less of death and more and more about life. How better to live it. How better to lead it. How better to improve it. I came across the quote again a few months ago. And it dawned on me that I think very little of death anymore.

When I do, I immediately push it out of my thoughts—at least until Master Ma forced me to sit with the images of my pending decay, imagining the worms weaving their way in and out of my sinuses as my body slowly decomposes. I imagine—or at least try to—what my skull and bones would look like in the dark gloaming dirt. Would Hamlet look at me, query my mortal remains? Would I?

In those moments the racing fear of an anxious mystery disappear. Master Ma is wise, although I frequently don’t listen.

And when I put myself there–where Master Ma suggests–I am no longer scared: what could be more natural? After all, it happens to each of us, I come to know in the quiet reality of a calm mind.

But then the voice rises up, that yelp, an imprecation to action: “fight for your attachments,” it cries.

“What of the soul,” the voice of attachment howls?

“I don’t know,” I reply with the patience of a parent, “I only know that today I am incapable of experiencing the “stillness to which all returns” and that my aim remains the attainment of just that.”

Someday, that is. For today it seems I will remain a prisoner to my attchments.

Why I Read Big Books And Why We All Should

The sun beats down on the sand. Waves crash in and roll back out. After a week of surfing I’d realized there are limits to a 38 year old body, even one in reasonably good condition. My body was telling me I needed rest. I heeded it. Physically tired, but mentally alert I sat down under the thatched room of my favorite palapa, ordered ceviche with a Fanta and set about to read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Yes, I know that’s heavy reading for the beach, but I don’t do things by halves.

As the sun rose in the middle of a cloudless, desolate blue sky, climbing down through the minutes and hours of the tropics my mind joined with another in three dense, intellectual chapters of masterful literary criticism.

But first a digression.

Several weeks ago I went out on a date with a well-educated young woman. A stunning, tall brunette with dark, penetrating eyes, a nip of a nose and a warm smile. Being the avid reader I am the topic circled around reading and books, the internet and modern communications. Sadly, while the young woman in question was bright—and educated—she was far from literate. (I know that’s a smug judgment, but I’m the one dating, not you!) In the words of LA Times book editor she had bought into the ideal that “it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”

“The last book I read was on an airplane. Something I picked up in the airport. I can’t remember what it was,” she said.

This is a woman who probably makes $100,000 a year, but what poverty? I wanted to ask what she’d take to the grave, but that’s on the cruel side (and glum) for a first (and last) date. Of course, she does read. She talked about the blogs (mostly liberal and feminist) and websites, newspapers, magazines she read and the books she listened to.

“Listened to?” I asked.

“Yeah, you know, audiobooks,” she replied, looking at me as if I was from outer-space. I knew what she meant, but couldn’t divine the “why” of it. I don’t want to listen to a book. I want to inhabit it. I want the writer to take me off into her world. I want to have congress with his mind. Isn’t that why we read? Not to “be in the know” but to know, to feel, to become? Alas, if reading is a lost art—as Ulin says, I’ve made damn sure I at least know when to ask for directions. For without books I would be lost.

And so I sat on that beach and read, first about Bocaccio: Frate Alberto and his misadventures, presaging Casanova in Venice. Prose filled, in Auerbach’s words, “with malicious little thrusts at the preaching friars” of his day. Clearly little has changed, I think, as I consider the pecadilloes of American preachers and their bountiful harvest of bimbroglios.

Then came a chapter on Antoine de la Sale, writing with a verve and realism, movingly so about the loss of sons to mothers during war. One can read the New York Times any day of the week with its grim statistics of lives lost in Iraq or Afghanistan, some insurgency in Africa or civil war in Asia and never know of true loss: the kind of loss that carves out a hollow cavity in a mother’s soul. But pick up a book from the ‘canon’ and reality is right there, staring at me, defying me to disagree that little has changed over the last five hundred years.

And then comes Rabelais and Pantagruel. Auerbach’s chapter is a long, discursive essay on the giant and the comic adventure. Now here was something I could relate to: present company included. Barton and Reyes are no Pantagruel or Gargantua and I no Alcofrybas. But my time in Mexico was nothing if not comic. And, like Alcofrybas, I have in the last year discovered, if not a new world, at the very least a new self. Whence I was once far too serious I am now, in Auerbach’s formulation, “more protean, more inclined to slip into someone else’s shoes.” In a very real sense I attained a level of empathy I never knew I was capable of. I’d much rather live this way, mocking myself—and the world with me than be stuck in “thick headedness [un]able to adjust” full of “one track arrogance which blinds a man to the complexity of the real situation.” Or, to reformulate Auerbach’s comment on Montaigne to my own purpose (which Montaigne would appreciate): I may often contradict myself, but I never contradict the truth.

The wind crackled up the beach. A coconut thumped into the sand. I sat with what I had just learned, eager to find a book store and read more, the original—with the vain hope that one day I would read something other than Caesar, Cicero and Virgil in the original.

This is why I read. This is why I sit down and make quiet hours for myself. A blog may provide a momentary distraction or a pungent sound-bite. But our lives, such as they are, are best mirrored in those works which will never die. It is the ideas which inhabit them, truly hoary but verities none the less, that I turn for solace and understanding. These ideas make the human condition bearable. And to them I always return.