Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Self Confidence

“You are all wrong.”

Werner Herzog, in response to booing crowds at the Berlin Film Festival’s showing of Lessons of Darkness [1992]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Be Grateful When The Moment Chooses You

Yesterday night on my way home from work, I witnessed an accident. I was driving down one lane, and a car was approaching me in the other lane, going about fifty miles an hour. For a brief moment I saw a man stumble into the headlights of the car in the opposite lane. Media reports have confirmed that he was intoxicated. The only thought I registered before he was hit was the realization—I don’t even know if I could call it a thought—that he was about to be hit. The car hit him, and he flew up in the air. There was the sound of screeching tires and a sickening splattering sound as his body hit the sidewalk. I whipped my car into a nearby driveway and ran across the street to see if everyone was okay. The man was laying faced down in a puddle of blood that was pouring from his head. He was motionless. I assumed he was dead, but I checked his pulse anyway. I didn’t notice anything. I went to where the car that had hit the man had pulled off of the road. A woman nearly fell out of the driver’s seat into the road, already hysterical. I guided her to the side of the road as she wailed, horrified at what she had done. I called 911, told them what had happened, and stayed with the woman. I rubbed her back and held her hand. She said she couldn’t live with herself and collapsed on the ground. When the police arrived, they took over with the woman. I gave a brief description of what I saw and went home.

I was very calm during the event. In emergency situations—so far—I am remarkably calm. My mind takes over, and I jump into action. Who do I need to tend to? What do I need to do? How can I make the best of this moment and limit harm? I am as grateful for this trait as I am surprised by it.

 Afterwards, I begin to shake. I cry. I need to recount what I saw and felt to someone. I have a tendency to lapse back into viewing the situation objectively while I am grieving that is frustrating: I’m aware of the fact that I need to express myself emotionally, but stoicism sets in. It leaves me with a feeling that I need to do something, or fix something. It’s very hard to describe.

I’m glad that I was available during the accident last night. I have experience as a bereavement volunteer with hospice, and have experienced tragedy in my own life. I tend to view life as a struggle, so my mind is never far from considering tragedy. Mentally, I am usually on a war-footing. I am comfortable in the presence of death. If it had been someone other than me there at that moment, I can’t be sure that they would have remained calm, or would have known how to interact with the hysterical driver. If no one had been there, I don’t know what would have happened with the driver. When she came spilling out of her car, she practically collapsed on the road herself.

I don’t understand a person’s tendency to curse fate when they are present in a critical moment. I understand it, I guess, but it doesn’t resonate. What I feel now, and began to feel not long after the event is a sense of gratitude that I was able to be of some small service at an important moment in the lives of two people. Much more challenging moments have come to other people, and many more people have risen much farther than I could ever hope to; but life requires so little of us so often, and our actions (and inactions) are often ambiguous at best. It’s good to be able to say that I did all that I could have done.

We’re not entitled to live a life unmarked by tragedy, or to be left unaware of what is ugly or unfair about this world. Moments will come for all of us, and when they do, we have to respond with what is best in us. Be proud of yourself if you are able to tap into some inner reserve of calm or bravery when you are tested. Carry the knowledge that life will test you around in your heart, and never pass up an opportunity to show yourself what you are made of. When the moment chooses you, be grateful for the challenge. Let it sharpen you.

As of an hour ago, the local news outlets have the man who was hit as being in critical condition in a local hospital.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Currently Reading

The demon has left me alone for the past couple of days. I wrote up a little community organizing piece for the shelter on Friday, and yesterday I wrote a paragraph in a memoir that promises to take a long time to finish. Other than that I've been reading.

So far this year I've read Hitch-22, Tropic of Cancer, and The Dreams at the Witch House. I am currently reading The Map & the Territory by Michel Houellebecq.

Houellebecq turned me on to H.P. Lovecraft about 10 years ago. I read an article about Houellebecq while I was working at a book store in the early 2000's, and went online to find a small piece of his to read, because he interested me. I found H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, and it transferred my curiosity from Houellebecq to Lovecraft. Houellebecq made Lovecraft into an interesting character, or at least highlighted what was interesting about him. I usually don't read 'weird' or horror fiction, so Lovecraft and I were unlikely to cross paths unless someone intervened.

So I am finally getting around to Houellebecq. I like this book. I've already ordered a copy of The Elementary Particles, which I might read after I finish The Map and the Territory. If I don't do it that way, I might finish reading Hunter Thompson's The Great Shark Hunt, or maybe Moby Dick first. Either way I'll get around to it eventually, probably sometime this year.

Anyway, I'm mainly writing this post because I feel obligated to write something at least once every couple of days. Writing is the only way to keep alive, really.

'In the course of an investigation, as he always said to his student at Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d'Or, it is fundamental to take notes--at this stage of his expose he would take out his own notebook, a standard 105-by-148-mm Rhodia pad. You should note, he insisted, even if the fact noted seemed to be totally lacking in importance. The rest of the investigation would almost always confirm this lack of importance, but this wasn't the essential point: the essential point was to remain active, to maintain a minimum of intellectual activity, for a completely inactive policeman becomes discouraged, and therefore becomes incapable of reacting when important facts do start to manifest themselves" ~ from 'The Map and the Territory', by Michel Houellebecq.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Getting Small

My thinking tends to be somewhat grandiose. Even when troubleshooting small problems in my life, you might be surprised to learn how high suicide ranks on the list of possible solutions. ‘The grocery store is out of vitamin D milk. I should probably order a cyanide capsule from Amazon’. Of course I’m just joking about that. Amazon doesn’t sell cyanide capsules.

There are certain common things that people spend time thinking about that I have trouble focusing on. I used to take pride in this, but now I see that my ‘big picture’ thinking is often a huge deficit in day-to-day living. There was a time when I thought people who worried about things like investing a portion of their paycheck, keeping their clothes updated, their house spotless, or understanding the inner working of their car’s engine were hopelessly terrestrial. Those were little things. Philosophy was the big thing. Art. The arc of history and our place in it; those were the things that mattered.

Well, surprise, surprise, it turns out I have very little impact on the ultimate fate of mankind, and the odds of me contributing a significant theory to philosophy, or a moment to history, or a great work of art to humanity’s creative canon, is slim. The odds of me needing to be able to change a tire or balance a check book—on the other hand—are quite high.

They say at the end of his life, Mark Twain just laid around in his bedroom, smoking cigars, rarely changing out of his pajamas, and reading, and writing. With the exception of cigar-smoking, this is the life I think I am inclined towards. Unfortunately, society at large feels it would be more appropriate for me to occupy other stations. So be it, I guess. Who am I to shirk the will of the people?

Living is a humbling experience, especially for those of us who need to be humbled. ‘You fools!’ I said under my breath to everyone around me who deigned to be interested in anything practical. ‘All of this will pass away! Only the life of the mind matters--Only the liberation of the spirit.’ What an asshole. 

So here’s to doing the dishes and washing the laundry. Here’s to changing the oil and taking out the trash. Here’s to cutting the grass, ironing the pants, and weeding the garden. Here’s to doing the taxes, here’s to vacuuming the carpet. Here’s to cleaning the toilet bowl and walking the dog. Here’s to investing in your 401k, and purchasing low-risk stocks. I am terrible, terrible, terrible, at every one of these activities, and I tip my hat to everyone who was humble enough—and had enough foresight—to pick these things up when they were in their teens and early twenties. I may be fun to have a conversation with every now and then, but when the zombie apocalypse finally arrives, you will be the folks who survive.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Proust Questionnaire

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not being ‘up to’ an important task. Knowing I have failed at something that could have helped others.

Where would you like to live?

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
debt free, good people to talk to and go on walks with, able to write, read, and think.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
I’m always sympathetic to people who try to take on more than they can handle. I understand the impulse, and think it’s noble (even if it’s shortsighted). It’s far superior to waiting around for a hero to deliver you.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Who are your favorite characters in history?
Josephine Baker, Vladmir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Christopher Hitchens

Who is your favorite heroine of fiction?

Your favorite painter?
Vincent Van Gogh

Your favorite musician?
Leonard Cohen

The quality you most admire in a man?
A deep respect for me, and an appreciation for my sense of humor and many charms.

The quality you most admire in a woman?
See above.

Your favorite virtue?

Your least favorite virtue, or the one you think is most overrated?
Respect for authority

Your proudest achievement?
Whatever role I have played in raising my children (who are some of the most interesting and basically good children I have ever met).

Your favorite occupation?

Who would you have liked to be?
Myself. Because if I was someone else, I would have liked to be someone else still. Better to stop this violent cycle before it starts.

Your most marked characteristic?
Selective enthusiasm.

What do you most value in your friends?

What is your principle defect?
Periodic existential despair.

What to your mind would be the greatest misfortune?
Causing some irreparable harm to my wife or children.

What would you like to be?
Effective at everything I do. Barring that, I would settle for being happy.

What is your favorite color?
I always say black, but I really think it’s yellow. Bright colors cheer me up.

What is your favorite flower?

What is your favorite bird?

What word or expression do you most overuse?

Who are your favorite poets?
Charles Simic, Guilliame Appollinaire.

What are your favorite names?
Langston, Jack, Spencer, Abby.

What is it you most dislike?
People who ‘tell it like it is’. I like honesty, but people who claim this as a trait are usually stupid, arrogant, vulgar, and cruel. And often wrong.

Which historical figures do you most despise?
Woodrow Wilson, Joseph Stalin

Which contemporary figures do you most despise?
Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad

Which events in military history do you most admire?
Harpers fairy, October Revolution.

Which natural gift would you most like to possess?
The patience to learn a musical instrument.

How would you like to die?
At an old age, in a comfortable bed, with a clear conscience, surrounded by my wife and children, and my brother and sister.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I’m about 50 pounds heavier than I care to be, and way low on muscle mass.

What is your motto?
‘Life is a great balancing act’-Dr. Seuss.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Activist, Know Thyself

While the response to my piece ‘Drop Inn Center Needs Help Now’ in the Cincinnati Enquirer has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few people who took exception to my claim that ‘there is something sexy’ about protesting.

the section in question:
"We receive a lot of support and advocacy from our community. We appreciate it. There is a time to fight big battles, and there is a time to make public stands. When the moment to rally comes, there are always more than enough people available to hold signs and shout slogans. Rallying is exciting. There is something sexy about it.

What is less sexy – but even more necessary – is maintenance. I understand the excitement of starting a new project or fighting a big fight in the public arena. In between these capital moments, however, someone has to sweep the floors. Someone has to pay the electric bill."
In contemporary vernacular, ‘sexy’ is often used as a synonym for ‘exciting’ or ‘hip’. There may be a hint of the reproductive about protest as well, but overall, these two synonyms were what I meant.
No one does anything without ego playing some part in their actions. When the soldier goes to war, she is not just saying ‘I am doing what I need to do to protect my country’, she is also—on some level—saying ‘I am a hero’. When Gandhi was overseeing the salt march in India, on some level he was aware of the romantic image he was cutting in the mind of peace-inclined revolutionaries all around the world. Our self-definitions mean a lot to us, and we derive those definitions partly from the acts that we engage in.

Ego plays a part, and no one gets involved in anything for one motive alone. We are complicated animals; we may not even fully understand all of our motives. But ego plays a part, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. 

So I do believe that there is something ‘sexy’ about protesting, at least in the minds of the protesters. To ‘rage against the machine’ is viewed as heroic. At every ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest across the country, there were countless aspiring Che Guevaras itching to pick up the bullhorn and put their own populist stamp on the national consciousness. There may have been a noble overriding goal to the protest, and the predominant motivation of most occupiers may have been admirable, but there is self-interest at play in almost every decision we make. I also think there is something literally ‘sexy’ about it too, as any honest person who has ever taken a date to a rally—or met a future lover at a rally—can attest.

There are no saints in this world, and I am glad for it. It takes a certain kind of humility to admit that we have various—and sometimes sordid—motives for the things we do. ‘Every saint should be held guilty until proven innocent’, said George Orwell. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’, said Lin Chi. It takes great self-awareness to interact meaningfully with this world, and no person who is adequately self-aware will ever mistake themselves—or the movements they belong to—as absolutely pure of intention. Throughout history, all movements of ‘pure intention’ have led to concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, mass graves, and performance art (all of which are terrible, terrible things). 

If we’re going to be effective in achieving our goals, we don’t need saints and messiahs. We don’t need cults of personality. We need real, flawed, self-aware people muddling through the best they can, with an appropriate dose of fear and trembling to keep them honest.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

'My Family Thinks I'm Going To Hell'

The Thinking Atheist gets into one of the tougher aspects of being an atheist in a religious family:

This is a real issue for those of us with religious folk in our lives. How do you reassure your believing friends that you're not going to burn, burn, burn for all of eternity once the final curtain drops? Personally, the anxiety that my well-intentioned family & friends suffer at the thought of me going to hell troubles me. I would like to be able to ease this anxiety, but the odds of disabusing anyone of their religious beliefs is usually pretty low. It would seem disingenuous to try to convert them to more of a 'love wins' view of the afterlife, especially since it's not a view that I hold (you know, democrats are full of shit, but I think they'd be a great fit for you!).

I don't have the answer to the question, but I understand the problem.