Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cities On the Move

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." -Emma Lazarus

I write this piece from a specific geographic area* with its own specific conflicts and interests, but believe it pertains to all of our cities.

We live in a capitalistic society, and capitalism is about motion. Rather than moving towards a fixed progressive goal it is about evolving to meet the tastes and provide services for the monied classes in our culture. The poor and middle class in our society have only a few options in this scenario; find ways to cater to these tastes and provide these services, or get out of the way. Were we living in a socialistic country, the goal would be clear. We would be attempting to elevate our entire society by providing it with equal access to education, culture, healthcare, leisure, and political relevance. But this is not the society we live in. We are capitalists, more or less.

Being that we are capitalists, our cities are constantly vying for relevance, and constantly looking for aromas to send out into the outlying suburbs of each of our urban centers to attract the surrounding bourgouise into our stores and public events. Our cities want patrons, because when it comes to capitalism, it is the law of the jungle: eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest.

This is surely the bottom line, but it's not the whole picture. We need to bring capital into our cities, because like it or not, our system is what it is. But these beautiful cities that we are building hide ugly truths beneath new and renovated architecture; there are large portions of our population that continue to go unserved. Think of them as parts of our collective subconscious that we would prefer not to think about, and instead shove into--to borrow a term from Robert Bly--'the long bag we drag behind us'.

Our society tells us that it respects achievement, yet in order to cater to those that have already achieved (or more likely, inherited) a certain social class, it deprives those who have internalized that message of means to succeed. We are most likely to die in the social class we were born into. This is a fact. So to the impoverished person who grows up worshipping at the alter of success, dreaming of achieving the next level in what she is told is the game of life, the dream is forever deferred. I remember someone once wrote about what can happen to a dream deferred...

From the vantage point of someone who works in the human services, I can tell you the constant evolution and re-invention of our cities brings mixed feelings. While our parks look better, and our businesses are increasing their income, the human services continue to fight for the bare minimum In our shelters, prisons, and hospitals, we see the mentally ill cycling through the system again and again. We see aged laborers whose skills have been made irrelevant by advances in technology seeking public assistance for the first time. We see veterans who ostensibly committed their lives to serving this country applying for food stamps, sleeping in shelter beds. We see GLBTQ youth rewarded very poorly by their families for their bravery in coming out of the closet; they are often kicked out of their homes, disconnected from their families, and forced into our shelter system--and often into sex work. We see women fleeing abusive relationships, often with children in tow, into our shelters. We see addicts and alcoholics who have burned every other bridge, and immigrants stranded without a country due to our convoluted immigration system, unable to get deported, yet unable to receive any services in the united states due to their alien status. There are systems in place to support these folks: non profit organizatinos full of social workers, lawyers, doctors, and faith based organizations who strive mightily to meet the needs of their populations. To go back to Robert Bly, these folks are mere representations of people from across the economic spectrum: mental illness, addiction, and abuse affect individuals from every community. They are just more pronounced further down the income scale, because as the ability to accrue capital deminishes, so to do the resources. The safety net looks very thin to the people who need it the most.

Our cities are beautiful to the person driving through and to the casual visitor in town on a shopping spree or for a concert or some other event, but are our cities beautiful for those who live in them? Are they beautiful for those who serve the 'poor huddled masses', purpotedly fulfilling one of this country's defining principles?

I am all for beautifying our cities. I want them to be beautiful on the inside as much as I do on the outside. The only way to do this is for more of us to awake to the needs of our fellow citizens, and to demand that the services that assist them be properly funded. Not only that, we have to demand equal access to healthcare, education, culture, green spaces, and the political system for all of our countrymen. The law as well has to be applied equitably: Only when the same risks exist for swindlers living in high rises as do drug dealers living in the ghetto can we say that our legal system is just.

More importantly, we have to volunteer. We have to bring our own ideas to the table. Our system is always on the move, and it moves towards no specific goal. It only answer to demand. We have to set the goal. We have to make the demand.

If you have read this far into this piece, I would ask you to consider our system as a whole. What part of it can you impact? What ideas do you have that might make the system better? I have seen citizens with what could be considered very small ideas about improving things make very large impacts. In my city, a woman has decided to make sure the shelter I work at always has fresh cut flowers on the dining tables in our lobby. Another man dedicated the past few decades of his life to making sure our homeless residents had adequate foot care, and new pairs of shoes and boots to help them get through the winter. I've seen recovering addicts and community organizers give rousing speeches to the residents of our shelter that have deeply touched and motivated them. Local teachers come in and volunteer their knowledge, helping our residents with resumes, job skills, and other enriching information to help them help themselves. We see service projects, neighborhood clean ups, 'street yoga' classes, art therapy. Remember too, money talks. All of our local community organizations will always be glad to accept your monetary donations; money is the language of our system.

There are countless ways that your desire to help can manifest itself. But you have to help. You have to be awake. The hardest thing to do in a society whose highest desire seems to be to feed every craving, is to stay awake. It's easy to fall into an air conditioned stupor in America. Please resist this urge. Roll up your sleeves! Let's get to work. Let's make our cities beautiful all the way through.

*Cincinnati, Ohio

Friday, July 20, 2012

Everywhere We Go, We Will Find A Church

My wife is a Unitarian Universalist. She takes our kids to church with her every Sunday, and the church nourishes my family. They talk a lot about social justice topics, inclusiveness, respecting each others' spiritual journeys, etcetera. I have only been able to attend occassionally over the past few years because of my work schedule--I work at a homeless shelter in the city, and homelessness does not take the weekend off--but recently my schedule has changed, and I've been tagging along.

I like it. I like the people, I like the way they embrace my family, and I like the overall message. The Unitarian Universalist church has done a great thing by creating a community setting that allows people to deepen their own personal life journeys, explore their own accumulated life philosophies, and share their experiences with others in an open and unafraid way. I am also very big on the social justice element of their mission.

As I was typing the above paragraph, I could feel the looming 'but' hanging over me. 'I love the UU church, but...'. But there is no 'but'. Not really. What I have learned from the UU church is that I have become a little harder than I had realized, and that the human mind naturally orients itself towards religion.

On my hardness: It was inevitable. All of my life I have romanticized troubled men, and taken exception to things that are beyond my individual control. That's a topic for another essay, maybe. The other part...that the human mind naturally orients itself towards religion, has been dawning on me in bits and pieces for the past few years.

The minister talked to us about how we all carried within us 'the divine', or that we all were 'the divine', or something like that. Ultimately, her purpose was to lead us to a place where we recognized 'the divine' in others, but also, a twin purpose seemed to have been to protect her own need to use words like 'god' and 'religion' in a positive connotation. It was painful to watch a baseless assertion be carried into a formula for doing good. If we cannot deliver justice without a god, we're in trouble, because gods do not exist.

So there was that. People who largely could be described as atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and deists, cloaking all of their good works and their experiences in a language that upon only a little prodding would be revealed to be the currency of myth. There's nothing wrong with poetic language, mind you, but people don't defend mere metaphor the same way they defend literal belief, and when you're dealing with the religious--however liberal--the style of defense seems awfully close to the kind of defense we mount of vulnerable literal beliefs.

I've also been reading about Leon Trotsky a lot lately. I like him. Of course, I always see a lot of myself reflected in the lives of great men, so I identify with him. His story has just the mix of romance, iconoclasm, and tragedy that gets to me. The 'Old Man' of bolshevism could be said to be the farthest thing away from religion that you might find. I know I'm not the first to say it, but Soviet communism couldn't be closer to religion, with it's doctrines, enforcers, icons, and inflexible dogmas. The religion of communism put blinders on Trotsky's brilliance.

John Dewey's final assessment of Trotsky, as found in Bertrand Patendaude's 'Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary':

"Dewey, the pragmatist, was alert to the mutual shaping of ends and means. Trotsky, the Marxist, was guided by his belief in an iron law of historical progress. To Dewey, Trotsky was the prisoner of an ideology. 'He was tragic,' Dewey said in delivering his ultimate verdict on Trotsky a dozen years later. 'To see such brilliant native intelligence locked up in absolutes'."

Which is very close to how I feel about all of my highly intelligent religious friends. Personally, I think much of my own cleverness grew out of the need to defend my own religious views when I was an evangelical. There was never any greater challenger to my faith than my own reason, and my wit sharpened considerably defending against it. This is what I suspect of all of my brilliant theologian friends as well, but that's probably another conversation.

Other people have said it before, but I've always bucked at it. I have been burned by religion, so I don't want to believe it is something that is needed. I'm still not sure it is needed, but it seems to be something everyone bends towards.  For one explanation of why we are this way, check out Andy Thompson's now well-traveled  'Why We Believe In Gods' lecture.

Lucifer is my favorite character in all of literature. To me, he represents rebellion in the face of tyranny, creativity, humanism, reason, and life. He is also the perfect embodiment of the tragic hero. This is the Lucifer as portrayed in the works of Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Milton, and Neil Gaiman, perhaps best embodied in our age by the 'Good-Guy Lucifer' meme, and the dedication to Saul Alinsky's 'Rules For Radicals':

“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer "

Since this has been so, it makes sense that Anton LaVey and I would have crossed paths eventually. There is much to love about LaVey, but there is also much to scoff at. He seems to have shared the same kind of appreciation for Satan that I do, but he also gummed up the whole thing with a lot of stupid objectivism and social Darwinism. I understand now that LaVey, in his heart, was a serious nerd, and that Satanism is, at it's core, a religion for nerds. None of this is more evident than in the current black pope's meditation on time travel*. I am a nerd too, but I've been convinced that I didn't need any kind of religious structure. After sitting through the UU sermon I sat through this weekend, and reading a lot about Leon Trotsky and his secular religion lately, I am beginning to see how the structure of religion pops up in everyone's life in one way or the other, and that LaVey was ultimately right when he said:

"Man needs ritual and dogma, but no law states that an externalized god is necessary in order to engage in ritual and ceremony performed in God's name!"

As with all religious writings, the overuse of exclamation points makes me cringe, but experience seems to bear out his basic claim. Even among many followers of popular atheist bloggers, you see a lot of arguments from authority ("As P.Z. Myers says..."), and heretic shaming (remember when Neil De Grasse Tyson dared to call himself an agnostic?), and mindless meme regurgitation ("science flies people to the moon, religion flies people into buildings.").

Maybe our mind's most pressing desire is to be comfortable. Unfortunately, personal growth requires constant motion and battle--both internal and external. But we need rest, we need assurance, and we need structure.

I'm uncomfortable with religion. I'm uncomfortable endorsing it as a benign thing...but I recognize the inclination towards it in everyone around me, and in myself. I want to say 'this is this way because of this', and 'this is the law', and instead of giving an argument for why 'this is the law', I want to point to the law book and say, 'because it is thus written'. That's what's in my heart, and I don't like it. I want to be happy with not knowing why everything is the way it is, and bravely accept my life as the dwindling flame on a match head that it is, but I am greedy.

It's become my opinion that mankind naturally reverts to religion if it is not diligent. Anton LaVey wants to have his cake and eat it too when he seeks to free himself of religion while chaining himself to man's 'need' for dogma and ritual. Somewhere inside of me I want to follow him, but I don't think that would be the right thing to do.

*The Satanic Scriptures, by Peter H. Gilmore, page 201,'Time Travel: Cheap and Easy'. Scapegoat Publishing, 2007.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Say It To The People That Matter

"Since I arrived here, not once has my poor cock stood up straight. It's as though it doesn't exist. It is also resting from the stresses of these days. But in spite of it, I myself am thinking tenderrly of your old, dear cunt. I want to suck on it, shove my tongue all the way inside it...I will ever more strongly fuck you with my tongue and with my cock." - Leon Trotsky in a letter he wrote to his wife while they were exiled in Mexico. 
While reading this letter it occurred to me that maybe if Trotsky had written letters like this to Stalin, they could have avoided their famous personality conflict.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Come Join Our Hopeless Cause

(re-posted from November, 2011)

"Some men spend their whole life furnishing for themselves the things proper to life without realizing that at our birth each of us was poured a mortal brew to drink" ~ Epicurus, 30th Vatican Saying.
"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." ~ Samuel Johnson

I have a disease that is eating away my intestines. It has spread to my stomach, created great ulcers, and has the potential to eventually form a cancer that will kill me. I'm sorry to bring it up, but it's a fact. There's often a mild pain in my gut that reminds me that I'm not immortal. I'm thankful for it. I may not die from this specific condition, but I will die somehow; this is a fact that can be forgotten as we carry on with our day-to-day business.

In my best moments, I am always trying to affirm life--always reminding myself to appreciate clouds and bright Autumn leaves and the sight of children playing; but it's impossible to affirm life without factoring in decay. After all, clouds dissipate. Leaves fall, children grow into adults, and adults grow old and die.

It's good to remember death. We are all dying. We are all transitioning. We are short, strange bursts of energy, and we are as alone as we are together. It's humbling to realize that one day all memory of us will be erased. These words, and the handful of people who read them, will be gone. There will be a world that doesn't know Shakespeare. One day, there will be no world at all. While we're alive, we're those brightly burning Autumn leaves.

So, if all of our work amounts to stitches in a great fabric that will one day be unwoven, why work? And if our lights will one day go out, what difference does it make when they go out?

Of all the advice I've received on this issue, I think Albert Camus puts it in the best (and possibly least comforting) way:

"The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions ... and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man"

I guess the reason we keep going on is because we can, as an act of sheer will in a mechanical and impersonal universe. We provide the universe with the personal. Our lights will go out, and we will accept the extinguishing when it comes, but until then we will persist, because we can. And we will do good work because there is nothing else worth doing. If we're all residents of the Titanic, what's the point in pillaging the rooms of rich evacuees and transporting the goods they left behind to our own rooms, which are rapidly filling with icy water? The only thing worth doing is good. We will play our instruments as the ship goes down. We will help others to higher ground while there is higher ground to go to. We will value each other as intensely as we can in this moment, because our last moment is rapidly approaching.

for more posts in this series, click here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Life Is Shorter Than You Think It Is

(re-blogged from August, 2011)

“Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world--to the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge? If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits--all things you need a healthy mind for...those are gone.
So we need to hurry.
Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding--our grasp of the world--may be gone before we get there” ~ Marcus Aurelius

In a way, it’s worse than I expected; yes, my life is short (the food is terrible, and there are such small portions), but also,  I may not make it from one end to the other with my essential self intact.

Not only that, I am constantly distracted. I am only rarely fully present in any given moment. My mind is lost in future schemes and fantasies, or dwelling on past injustices and glories.  Or sometimes my mind is nowhere. Is this meditation?

I don’t have any special regard for folks who pursue monastic vocations. Anything that takes a person out of the battlefield of life and into the commentary booth is fine and understandable as a lifestyle choice, but not especially noble. What I’m doing this moment isn’t especially noble. It’s necessary for me--because my brain gets clogged up if I don’t vent my thoughts from time to time--but it’s not special.  I’m just wading out of the current to sit on the river bank for a minute. I’m getting perspective.

It’s better to be in the stream though. That’s where the action is, and that’s where things matter most. But it’s very hard to remain in the current for long periods of time without getting caught up in it. It can be strong and surprising, and it’s easy to lose track of meta-goals. It’s easy to get lost in simply trying not to fall down on all the slippery rocks. Maybe that’s meditation.

Whatever the case, Marcus Aurelius caught me by surprise with this one. What’s the point in prolonging my life if it’s going to be a wasteland of distractions? I need to be as conscious and as aware of each moment as I can be, and when I do need to take a breather on the shore, I need to make it as purposeful as possible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Deconstructing Woody

As part of Daddy School*, the kids and I are watching all of Woody Allen's movies. So far they like 'the older, funny ones' the best (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask), although my oldest says his favorite so far is Midnight In Paris, and he liked Broadway Danny Rose pretty well. Today we started looking into Woody's influences, so I streamed A Night In Casablanca on Netflix. It was the first Marx brothers movie that I'd ever seen, and I liked it. The boys noticed that Woody incorporated a lot of Groucho's schtick into his own persona, especially in his earlier work. It was fun to listen to a 7 and 10 year old dissect a film like that.

After we're done with Woody, we're going to move onto Kubrick.

*Daddy School is what we do in the summer to work on problem areas that pop up during the school year (usually math), and supplement the kids' education with cultural and philosophical material that we think is lacking from their school curriculum. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Still Angry After All These Years

I am an angry man. A few years ago, an internet poet who put more time into his trolling than he did his poetry accused me of being (paraphrased) 'one of those poets that thinks everyone should walk around behaving like perfect little Buddhas'. I hated this accusation, but it was right.

Anger has always felt unseemly to me. To not be in control of my emotions, to need things from other seemed like the height of vulgarity. To speak plainly--or to hear someone else speak plainly--still startles me. I don't know where I got this country gentleman's disposition from, but it's retarded.

It's also phony. As is often the case with those who take on airs and 'protest too much', I am a seething cauldron of anger beneath the surface. Everything makes me angry. Poverty, The Pansy Left, The Proud-Idiot Right, Christianity, authority, bad table manners, cowards, cruelty, myself...this is a severely truncated list, but all of these things get under my skin.

I've tried to embrace my anger, and let it just run through me. I can enjoy this sometimes, but it usually burns me out. I've tried to blot it out and repress it, but it comes back with a vengeance. Today I tried to take the Buddha's advice and view my thoughts as clouds traveling across the sky of my consciousness--observing them, acknowledging them, and letting them pass--and it seemed alright. It felt good in a clean kind of way, but how long can a person stay that aware?

Life is alarming and sharp.We are soft, and want to sleep. We want to seize the day, but only from the safety of a dream state, where we control all the knobs.

That sounds false. Why do I do that? I want to put a cap on every thought. I want to summarize and lecture my fellow primates. I want to impart wisdom. When I'm lying or rationalizing, I usually slip into third person. I wonder why that is?

But I'm angry, and I've got to accept it. I'm imperfect, and I've got to accept that too. Other people are imperfect...are they imperfect, or are they just not like me? I've got to accept all of it, I suppose.

Life feels like a great mountain that I'm always climbing. Pressure builds inside of me, and I need an outlet. Writing these little notes to you is my outlet, and I thank you for reading them. I don't know exactly how the mechanism works, but it does. Do what works! Whatever works. Whatever gets you through the night.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Sentence That Just Blew My Mind

 (re-blogged from April 4)
"It is difficult to believe that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a literary contemporary of Ernest Hemingway." Robert Bloch, from his essay, 'On Poe & Lovecraft'
It alarmed me to read that line. Yes, HP Lovecraft and Ernest Hemingway were contemporaries, but it's hard to think of two more different men.

In Hemingway, you definitely have a man of his times. Not only is he a man of his times, he is also an expression of his times. In Lovecraft you have--if you want to put it romantically--a man out of his times. It's possible that you could say he is a 'man of his times', but only if you consider reaction equal to embrace. Here is the paragraph that precedes the above sentence:
"Nor would a reader find more typically American protagonists amongst the pendants, professors and regionally-oriented recluses of Lovecraft's tales, in which there's scarcely a hint of the manners and mores of the Roaring Twenties or the Great Depression which followed in the ensuing decade. Aside from a few remarks regarding the influx of immigrants and concomitant destruction of old folkways and landmarks, plus brief mentions of the (intellectually) "wild" college set, Lovecraft ignores the post WW1 Jazz Age in its entirety: Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Valentino, Mencken and the prototypes of Babbit have no existence in HPL's realm."
Hemingway was attuned to the zeitgeist of his era. In fact, when you think of that era, Hemingway's face is one of the first to pop into mind. Although Lovecraft was of the same era, he definitely wasn't in it.

Once the shock of seeing two very disparate characters juxtaposed, certain similarities do materialize. Hemingway died of a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Lovecraft carried a cyanide capsule around in his pocket, just in case. Both men chose the same medium in which to project their inner lives onto the outer world. Perhaps that's it. Lovecraft abhorred what Hemingway embraced, and it's hard to imagine Hemingway's mind comprehending Lovecraft in anything like a sympathetic light.

But under a good light, when you look at Hemingway & Lovecraft, you do see two men looking at the same thing. They are two very different men, but there is an important commonality. The shotgun and the cyanide capsule, I think, are key.


A reader called 'entlord' over at Daily Kos chimes in: 
"both of them dealt in myth.  HPL created an entire pantheon of "elder gods" and forgotten rituals to make his own myths.  Hemingway used himself as the raw material of his myths.  For example, Hemingway told the story of how he liberated Paris single handed did not happen as he claimed.
Also both men were plagued by their relationship with their mothers whereby affecting their relationship with women for the rest of their lives."
Maybe the chasm isn't as wide as I had thought?

Another commenter suggested that a Hemingway/Lovecraft team-up might have been fun. I've always thought it would be cool to see Wes Anderson turn 'At the Mountains of Madness' into a movie: Willem Defoe, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum as leaders of the expedition.

Monday, July 2, 2012

You Break My Heart When You Say You Don't Like It.

I can't read reviews of Wes Anderson movies. I take it too personally when critics say his characters 'lack humanity', or that the overall films are 'too precious'. Fuck all that noise. Wes Anderson movies are perfect. "Tell them if they don't get off my boat right now... there's gonna be a major shit-storm." ~ Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson: A perfect man.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What makes America the greatest country in the world?

here. via cock n bull.