Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Drinking The Mortal Brew: You Can't Always Get What You Want

"Necessity is an evil; but there is no necessity for continuing to live subject to necessity." -Epicurus, Third Vatican Saying

As Mick Jagger so wisely observes: 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need'.

Often, what we need is to realize that we never needed what we thought we did to begin with. One of the important concepts of Epicureanism is to reduce your desire down to its basic components so that there's less stuff out there to be enslaved to, and thus, less stuff to need. By having our false needs thwarted, we discover our real ones.

Thank you Mick Jagger, for being a good Epicurean.

I am lucky to have very few regrets in my life (so far! there is always time to add to the collection...). There are plenty of things I wish I had never said, or wish I had said differently. There are a few people that have passed through my life that I wish I had been more helpful to. But these regrets are common; I am an imperfect animal, and can't expect to always live up to my full potential. Such is life.

But let me tell you about two different ways in which I have encountered the truth of this Vatican saying. Both pertain to regret.

For years, I fantasized about becoming rich and famous. Rich and famous as a baseball player (ages 9-14), rich and famous as a rock musician (ages 14-18), rich and famous as a stand up comedian (ages 18-19), and, finally, rich and famous as a writer (ages 19 to, oh, about 25). I'm 29 now, and I have spent most of my life fantasizing about that winning lottery ticket. The rich part is easy to explain. Becoming independently wealthy provides an individual (to paraphrase John Updike) an escape hatch out of the need to be A PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF SOCIETY. As a person with a mild authority complex and a strong desire to do whatever I feel like doing, working a little harder on the front end so I could escape on the back end (or perhaps halfway through) was very appealing. The famous aspect of it...I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I have spent most of my life needing loads of outside validation. I have gotten better at validating myself (or 'carrying my happiness around on the inside' as I often phrase it), but that's the case. Insecurity + Aimless creativity + Desire to not become the kind of guy George Carlin spent his life making fun of = my artistic ambitions.

That shit made me miserable. Of all the artistic parachutes I've fashioned for myself, writing turned out to be the one I liked the best, and it's the one that I start to feel shitty about if I don't do it often enough. It clears things out, it's fun, and I'm pretty good at it. But until I came to terms with the fact that it would probably only ever be an outlet and hobby-horse to ride, it caused me anxiety.

I needed to get published. I needed to write a book. I needed to be paid for my work. At first, so that I could get the validation (and money) that I needed to function the way I wanted to. But as I discovered how wonderful it was to have a family, I incorporated them into my escape fantasy. We would all get out.

But the fantasy wore on me. I became disillusioned with it, and kind of burnt out. I kept writing though. Even though I had given up the fantasy, I kept writing. I think the best analogy would be to someone who realized they were unable to lose weight, yet kept working out. I laughed at myself for a minute, but then I realized that writing had become an end unto itself for me. Writing makes me happy, so I do it. As Banksy so aptly put it, 'You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit'.

Blogging, I have discovered, is even better, because it comes with the opportunity to exchange ideas and form relationships with people you otherwise would have never met, and it can be done as much (or as little) as you would like, at your own leisure.

What's better is that I've abandoned my escape fantasy too. I am fully intent to live the life of a family man (I think I'm a good one), read books,cook, write blogs, hang out with my family, play the occasional game of racquetball, and work at a homeless shelter. It's not a bad life. It's not what I have spent most of my adolescent and adult life thinking was necessary, but then, I am not required to gratify fanciful necessities.

the second way in which I encounter the truth of this saying comes to me courtesy of my appetite. I have a very weak will when it comes to the more sensual pleasures. Eating especially. Doughnuts are very hard for me to resist. The saying that alcoholics use that 'one drink is just right, two is too many, and three is never enough' could be applied to me and doughnuts. I know that I don't need them. I lust after them, however, and usually hate myself about halfway through one. God forbid I get to a second one! The guilt that I feel about my relationship to sweet pastries must be very similar to the kind of guilt an addict or adulterer has after engaging in their misdeeds. I go to the gym, I drink lots of water, but goddammit, the doughnuts have me by the balls. I regret this aspect of my personality, and see how it enslaves me.

So, we can see the wisdom in this little nugget: make the target area smaller, and it will be harder to hit. If pleasure is the ultimate good, overindulgence is surely the biggest perversion one can indulge in. All of the fundamentalists and fanatics will tell you 'THOU SHALT NOT!', but Epicurus just says, 'hey, take it easy'.

you knew this was coming:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Little Troxell's Tattoo Parlour

My boys were drawing tattoos on each other with a big black sharpie the other day. doing tattoo work is a respectable way to make a living. If they want to go that way, they might as well start practicing now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's Worse Than You Thought! (Confessions of a Woody Allen fan)

I am an 'out' atheist and welfare state liberal living in conservative Cincinnati. Yet these are not the most controversial aspects of my identity.

The most controversial aspect of my identity--if measured purely by response--is that I am an enormous (enormous!) Woody Allen fan. The expressions of disbelief and quick condemnation cuts across religious and political divides. Almost universally, my character clearly becomes questionable to many who learn this factoid about me, and, frankly, it leaves me jejune.

The objection is almost always couched in disapproval of Woody Allen's 'lifestyle', i.e., his marriage to Soon Yi Previn. If it's the age discrepancy, I'll tell you that my favorite uncle--and one of the nicest and most moral men I've ever met--was thirty when he married my aunt, and she was thirteen. He died recently, and I'm not kidding when I say that theirs was a noble and inspiring love story. If the objection is to the fact he married his girlfriend's foster child, all I can say is that I don't know enough about the context of their relationship to judge it.

The controversy doesn't stop there: I am even more controversial among my fellow Woody Allen fans, because I rank some of his most recent work among his best.

It's popular for folks to opine Woody Allen's most recent work, and to long for the days of Annie Hall. While I agree that Annie Hall is a great movie (among his undisputed movies, I watch Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, and Crimes & Misdemeanors about 10 times a year each), I think Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, Whatever Works, Cassandra's Dream, and Melinda & Melinda are just as good, and I revisit them almost as frequently.

There have been duds, sure; Scoop, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Hollywood Ending come to mind right away, but I would say that since Anything Else, Woody Allen's been on a roll.

His humor is as clear as ever, and his perspective has remained unique. I love the characters and the plots of his films. I love the dialogue, and appreciate his general approach to philosophy. Folks who are not offended by the fact that I admire the work of a man who married his girlfriend's adopted daughter are invariably thrown into a state of shock when I tell them I think Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just as good as Annie Hall.

When I am sick, or when I am in a rut, I can count on a Woody Allen film to put me back on track. When I tried to be a stand up comedian the summer after high school ended, I spent a lot of time reading Without Feathers and Getting Even (maybe that contributed to my failure as a stand-up, but it was my point of reference).

Not only is Woody Allen great, but he turned me on to jazz music and Humphrey Bogart too.

So, burn me at the stake. I have committed the excusable sins of atheism and liberalism, but alas, I am a Woody Allen fan in Cincinnati (and a deviant among Woody Allen fans to boot!). I can't renounce my crime, and I don't want to.


"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" -from The Crucible.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: Run On for a Long Time...

this is part of a series I am writing on Epicurus's Vatican Sayings. To view other parts of the series, click here.

 "It is difficult for a wrongdoer to go undetected; to remain assured that he will go undetected is impossible"- Epicurus, 2nd Vatican Saying

"What is done in the dark will be brought to the light". "The truth will out". "A wrong visited on another will be visited on the perpetrator three times over".

The theme that we all 'get what is coming to us' is very popular, and very comforting (to a certain extent). It's what gives some of us hope, but it's also what causes some of us to bite our fingernails.

But I don't believe in karma, and Epicurus didn't either. The beauty of this Vatican Saying is that it's not a promise of some kind of karmic woo-woo, but a practical observation: 'Yeah', it says, 'there's a chance you will get away with whatever it is you have done wrong, but if you do wrong, you have to live with the possibility that someday your deed may be uncovered'.

It doesn't say that the wrong will be uncovered. It says that it might. Once you act in bad faith, you must be ever vigilant that your transgression isn't discovered, and that you've always got the script--rationalizations you offer your self and others to justify your actions if they ever need justifying--down. Just on a meat-and-potatoes level, doing wrong is an exhausting prospect.

Belief in the inevitability of justice is bad for the same reasons that belief in saints is bad. The idea that 'someone else will take care of it' is the lazy road to apathy and inaction. Once you have been consigned to hell or promised heaven, everything in between is just filler. The brilliance of Epicurus's observation is not that it promises justice: it's brilliance lies in the understanding that a) in the end, sinning requires far too much work, and b) it's harder to reconcile yourself with a crime that you may not ever get convicted of than it is to receive a deserved sentence.

So, all ye evildoers, remember the exasperated refrain of the killer from Poe's 'Tell-Tale Heart' as he boards the bus to crazy town: " is the beating, the beating of his hideous heart!".

Who needs a hell in the afterlife when we are perfectly willing (and able) to construct private ones for ourselves, here on earth?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Drinking The Mortal Brew: Send the Pain Below

 [this is the first part of a series I am writing on The Vatican Sayings Of Epicurus. For the introduction to the series, click here.]

"All bodily suffering is negligible: for that which causes acute pain has short duration, and that which endures long in the flesh causes but mild pain." Epicurus, 1st Vatican Saying.

Anyone who has decided to skip that after-work martini or that second slice of pizza knows the truth in (at least) the second part of this saying. I certainly do: there are certain kinds of appetites that invite a dull ache into our lives simply by our acquisition of them. The mild pain that is caused by the absence of any of life's various narcotics is one of the underlying themes of this blog;  it's also something that can be lived with if it is understood.

Desire can cause mild pain, but sometimes it's a pleasant ache: I look forward to seeing my kids at the end of the day. I look forward to asking my wife how her day was, and I look forward to laying in bed and reading a book before I fall asleep.

There are other kinds of mild pains that are pleasant: there is an anticipatory ache during sexual encounters that is profoundly pleasant. Aches for familiar people and scenery, and aches for food and drink* can also make the reward of finally experiencing them heightened and satisfying.

There are other kinds of mild pains that are tolerable. Epicurus--who struggled with chronic disease for his whole life--must have been a master of this subject. As a person who suffers from ulcerative colitis, I also am aware of pains that can be put up with. I often have a vague string of pain that climbs up my intestine, and due to often being anemic from my condition, I experience bouts of fatigue. Sometimes it's necessary for me to work through them in order to find a greater pleasure. Sometimes they have to be indulged, and I can find pleasure lying in bed too. Constantly pursuing peak highs with no lows will make you miserable. I've discovered that--at least for me--it's important to be something of a connoisseur of experiences: there are subtle shades and bright colors, and all can be appreciated for what they are, and if they cannot be appreciated, they can (at least in some cases) be endured. Suffering is part of life, and like all parts of our life, we must have a meaningful relationship with it.

This brings me to the subject of acute pain brought up in the first part of this post.  I spoke to a young man the other day who suffers from bipolar disorder. He was deeply upset about a mistake that was made by the social security office that might end up affecting his housing options. He was off his medication, and was visibly very disturbed. Although he began by talking about throwing himself in front of a bus, and punching a table that sat between us, the act of talking through his predicament calmed him down.

Now, even as a person who does not have bipolar disorder, I can understand the anxiety that must accompany such a situation. Clearly, talking helped him navigate his feelings, just as talking often helps me; but as someone who has never experience mental illness, extreme disease (like cancer), or the tragic loss of a close family member, I feel uncomfortable talking with certainty about the endurability of certain forms of acute pain.

I do have guiding lights I can look to in this matter, however, who seem to validate Epicurus's thoughts on the survival of acute suffering.

Malcolm Varner is a person who blogs about his own experience with mental illness, and the various ways in which a person suffering with bouts of what I can only refer to as 'dark nights of the soul' can thrive. I have experienced despair, doubt, fear, and the whole range of human emotions. Yet I am conscious that folks who suffer from bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses experience these emotions in much more acute ways than I am capable of conceiving. And many folks--like Malcolm--learn to constructively deal with them. This gives me solace.

And then there is Christopher Hitchens, who is not only dealing with stage four cancer with a bravery (and realism) that is utterly breathtaking and inspiring, but has managed to live a very admirable life after experiencing the great personal tragedy of losing his mother to suicide. I know it's risky to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, but his decision to not 'move on' or heal after this event--he wants the wound of the suicide to remain because it is real, and is a kind of memorial to his mother--tells me that even if it cannot be overcome, acute pain can be survived, and possibly even transformed into a mild pain that can be integrated into who you are.

*The difference between the mild pain that is caused when you forgo that after-work martini or slice of pizza is worlds away from the mild (pleasant) pain of anticipating a nice glass of beer at a festival, or a plate of your mom's walnut chicken: one kind of ache is due to a desire to escape experience, and the other is due to a desire to fully inhabit an experience.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: Epicurus In the Medicine Cabinet

The philosopher I find myself going back to most often these days is Epicurus. His philosophy was at root simple and good, and I am at root a simple person (and I often try to be good).

Here are the basic precepts of Epicureanism, via Wikipedia:

"Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His determinism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood."

I stumbled onto Epicurus while I was in high school. After reading a little bit of Anton Lavey--as all teenagers of a certain variety must--I discovered that there was much in his philosophy that seemed silly and gaudy, much that seemed stupid, and a strain of thought that was very appealing. The silly and gaudy stuff was the rituals and theatrical language. The stupid stuff was the Objectivism and Social Darwinism, and the appealing stuff was the Epicureanism, which didn't really seem to belong with those other things.

It has stayed with me. Decrease suffering, increase well-being. It seems like a simple calculus: Sometimes you forgo a trifling pleasure in order to earn the greater pleasure of self control and greater health. Enjoy the people you love. Be helpful to them. Don't make misery holy, and don't waste time storing up treasures in heaven; There are treasures all around us.

It's a good worldview in my estimation.

What I propose to do over the coming months is to dedicate at least one of my weekly posts to a meditation on one of Epicurus's Vatican sayings. It will be hardly academic.

The reason I am doing this is that I have found that when I look at the world through philosophical glasses, I am happier than when i am just lost in the barrage of events that is life. Writing about philosophy will--i hope--keep me focused.

Our lives are often very busy, and very hungry. It's important to remember that everything we desire may not be good for us, and that much of what we're busy at may be frivolous. I live in a (mostly) capitalist country, and am immersed in the culture of 'get some!'. I know it helps me to remember the following Epicurean advice:

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Happiness is often only a perspective-shift away.

So, in short, if you don't enjoy watching strangers publicly masturbate, this blog may not be for you for a little while. If, however, that is your thing, grab a box of tissues and join my epicurean circle-jerk: the more the merrier.

read more here.

Thursday, February 3, 2011