Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Song is You

In spite of an overall very positive series of events lately, I sometimes still feel like a guy who's had a bad fall. I wander around for a few minutes getting my bearings back. At some point, tunnel vision opens and I notice that my shirt's ripped and my arm is a bit scraped up. These things happen. Change the shirt, swab the arm. In disaster movies, you've seen the placid faces of the injured: there's no pain, no injuries. Often you can see or hear the fugue playing in their head, those phrases or gestures grow poignant as they're done again and again. Later comes the panic of realization that some parts were bruised and torn and might be in peril.

I've spent my life smacking myself about when I've fallen short of my expectations or tried to exceed them. The process isn't as severe as it used to be thanks to a lot of work over the years. But it was in essence my fugue state. It's ironic that there's something so loud and constant that is difficult to hear. Luck put me onto my own background noise and assumptions. Meditation helped me hear and clarity these harsh voices and strident themes. Since I'm basically as tough as a donut, I thought I needed a less destructive atmosphere, a healthier backdrop. For the past years, I've worked on softening the monster shouting in my ear. Among the various tricks in therapy, it's possible to replace destructive voices with ones that love you. You might find it amusing that one voice (and face) who helped out initially was that of my midget league basketball coach, no kidding. (I do think that's what the league was called back then.) The voice inside has been altered and there's a healthier burble about doing better, doing my highest work That's good to have rumbling around inside. My coach's thick face sometimes pops up and nudges me toward what I know is the right thing when I don't deliver on a promise to myself. Of course I want to please that nice, disappointed man.

Trying to communicate what I see and feel has always been important to me. I'd like to let others see what I see but I've locked myself down. It's a waste of time to do anything other than unlock myself as tempting as Understanding might be. No one else sees why I'm so in love with so many things in the world. What that has meant is that there are have been too many people who could only guess at what I felt, too many who hoped I loved them rather than know it from me. Some do know I suspect but have still waited patiently for more of me to emerge. Patiently.

That's ultimately what I've been trying to fix, that paralyzing inner fugue and anything that sustained it. At some point, the responsibilities of health seems more attractive to me than the responsibilities of injury and limitation. It's a hell of a thing being injured. It's worse when you sustain and accommodate the injuries in your life because you have some twisted sense they'll serve you better than wholeness. That rancid tune repeats and becomes your song, your background music, the only music you hear.

I am working on rooting out what's not me, what I've taken on out of fear, confusion, weariness or habit. I like to think that I'm not torn or shattered. That I'm aware enough to assess what I experience and not be subsumed. Everything that life has to offer does not lead to injury. You've seen this elsewhere as I've tried to work this through here. The dusty themes that had been protecting me, blocking me from my life have gotten so quiet, that often I hear something simple and unbidden, building and rising, a loopy birdsong of surprise and delight- my new music.

Monday, February 01, 2010


I despise cutesy titles like this but that's exactly what I'm going to talk about so I have to suffer through it.

You three loyal readers know that I've been working on what the aisle in the bookstore calls "self-improvement." Or more accurately, that wishing space where the habits and deficiencies of mind that afflict me might not be defects. For those of us who spend a lot of time conflicted about most things (Instant Oats! Steel-Cut Oats! Why Lord why?), the dingy fear is that it's us. It's not our training, not our biology, not some trauma. We are inadequate, broken or missing the original parts. Not a happy picture.

While I'm not going to ask you to invert your frown, I would like to take a moment to tell you, Billy Mays-style (no, not really) about a couple whispers that I've overheard. In a previous blog, I prattled on about how meditation had helped me understand the crazy device in my head known as my brain. That led to some half-baked ideas about changing my relationship to writing: Less force, more listening. Which lead to some half-baked ideas about changing my relationship to everything: Less force, more listening. The part of me who's watching my life's clock has been wondering whether the large investment that I'm made in selfish pursuits has been worthwhile or even makes sense. Nothing like reaching perfection then keeling over alone.

So I'm saying that it's worthwhile. I am not perfect and on some days I simply hang on. On most days, I am different than I was. In part because I have a new respect for what I used to ignore or browbeat into quiescence: whispers. Subtle little words, voices, pictures, acts where I seem to be telling myself something. It's a bit weird but I think ultimately sound.

For example, I've had this nagging suspicion that I've been missing something in my cognitive toolkit. It's not just a simple lacking feeling brought on by people thinking that I'm smart while I don't feel smart. As much as I am a self-deprecating fool, I do understand that I have some considerable skills, some abilities, some intelligences. It's the ease with which many folks understand and talk about complex processes. Recently I have had this little voice telling me that I was missing an ability that I thought was more hard-coded than learned. The voice has been saying, you just don't know how to do it. At some point, you'll identify it and figure out how to do it.

Thanks Voice! You da man! What nonsense.

That's been going on for about a year now. The kicker is that I now think that the voice is on the right track. I could spend A LOT of time describing the kind of thinking that I'm talking about and the cool evidence that backs me up. It's tied to the ability to comprehend complex information and process it verbally, logically. That's been nearly impossible for me. I see a path to that way of thinking now because I've been listening to that voice, that whisper and following it step by step. While the path might be revealed, I don't think that this will be an easy fix, but that's okay. I don't mind.

Little things like my decision to discontinue drawing or painting have their own internalized cartoon battle. This morning I was looking for a pen in my briefcase and found five art pencils and pens. How in the fuck did that happen? I had no memory of doing that. Maybe that's more a gesture than a whisper but you get my point. There's something for me to understand here that's deep and true. There's often something to understand from a quiet source. I always want to make a joke like "Yeah, understand that you are a twit and need the right things for work" but I know it's not like that.

You know when it's not like that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Digital Real Estate

I do like to read about man-made disasters and anticipated collapses. Every now and then, when my mind's fresh eager, I try to follow the thread of a trend through to real world consequences. If I were any good at this, I'd be Warren Buffett. Who in their right mind would prepare for our Star Trek future by becoming a railroad baron to haul coal, our nation's energy future? Which century did our time's odometer just flip to?

Collapse is a better word to describe what intrigues me. For instance, my latest interest is about how we're going to reclaim the gazillions of square feet of retail space now obsolete because of zeros and ones. Both because of products that are turning digital and shopping on the interweb.

Electronic readers like the Kindle and the Nook have fired my latest round of wondering. Without considering changing reading habits which is a whole nother topic, where is the tipping point for big box bookselling?

How much retail space is devoted to selling new books? It's simple math if you know how many Waldens, Barnes and Nobles and Borders there are out there. Oh, and book sections in Target, Walmart, Costco and Sam's Club. Just a matter of total square footage. The retailers threatened here are the books-only stores, others can repurpose those sections. Even with the plunge in real estate value, it's hard imagining the all of the above booksellers hanging on and remaining the same.

But it's not just books, videos are screaming toward a flaming death as well. Ironically, the film industry should like that idea. So the Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos are walking corpses, right? How much more square footage is that? Factor in the Mall real estate market which has been staggered by the downturn and we're talking about many millions of square feet.

(Note that I'm not thinking about crushing impact on jobs here. It might sound a bit cold, but that's not as interesting to me to think about. We're all caught in this vice so don't think me too heartless.)

It's not just traditional media (newspapers eek!) of course. Best Buy isn't far behind Circuit City (crappy retailers). Think calculators here. Every electronic device produced is affected by ever cheaper manufacture. Ever deepening pricing pressure. It is stunning to me that many devices that I might buy have so little profit for the sellers.

But really, my interest here is all of the real estate that can be affected by retailers drying up. Will there be a slow transition or a big bang like when Circuit City went belly up? That was the largest single abandonment of real estate in our history. Will there be an advantage to being a tenant for the first time in a long time? I doubt it. Other than food and trinkets, what is there that we will sell and buy at prices that rival internet prices? There are only so many high-end, frou-frou shops that can thrive.

Craig's List has moved the yard sale mess online. I doubt that there's much incentive in turning these spaces into giant barns of second-hand crap. I'd like to see a mandate that turns ghost property into something good for a community: gardens, play grounds, some other predictable lefty option. Pay the landlord some dollars for providing the space.If we can subsidize some questionable agricultural practices, we could subsidize this.

Note that I don't have a solution yet. Maybe there's not going to be a problem. Yeah, all economic indicators are a go! My favorite solution is to shutter any business that's gone belly up. Or at least a few stores if it's a large chain. Don't sell any inventory, just wall up the place and turn it into a time capsule.

My other favorite idea. In one hard hit area, take all the ghost stores, all the suburbs, all the city and infrastructure (poor Detroit is dealing with this kind of city death right now) and turn the lot into a national park. People can live out their lives there if they wish but no new citizens. (Prevent vandalism by some magical means. Hey, this is why I'm writing here rather than writing policy.) Tourism will take a few generations to kick in, but at some point, our kids will marvel at how we lived. Either it will be an awe-inspiring visit into a past where hearty ancestors got by without teleportation and other basics or an awe-inspiring look at a time when an entire people lived like Gods. Right now, I'm hoping that the future will lean more toward the first option but am uneasy that we're sliding toward the second.

Monday, January 04, 2010


I've always seen myself as a bit of an information pimp although mostly pimp emeritus at this point. Scholarship is too much work as much as I admire that bent. Hell, expertise is too often out of my range. But I do like to graze in the information fields, snuffle out a juicy bit.

My new growing addiction is to thebrowser. There's a bit of everything here. Don't let the Anglofocus frighten you away. You'll find profound infobits like:

Time Really Is Speeding Up
Christopher Caldwell | Financial Times | 1 January 2010

It is particularly discomfiting to play this game with cultural products that are supposed to be, by definition, new, fresh and youthful, like rock music, for instance. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks (1977) is closer to the second world war than it is to the present. The Beatles’ release of “Love Me Do” (1962) is closer to the first world war than to us. Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (1954) is as close to the Spanish-American war (1898) as it is to us. There is nothing hipper than hip-hop, but the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), the first rap song, is closer to Al Jolson’s last hits than to the songs in the rap charts now.

Scary! Scary! Scary! What are the chances that I'd google "Jolson" and "Sugerhill Gang" together and find this?

(I have a crateload of New Year's resolutions this year. One is to switch even more attention to the interhighway for news and information. How many resolutions do I have this year? I started them in November! THAT'S how chock full of resolutions my new year is: I had to add months if I hoped to achieve them.)

Here's another tidbit of a sciency sort:

Carl Zimmer | Science | 3 December 2009
Each baby's DNA carries about 130 new mutations. Most of them have no effect on our well-being. People can pass these neutral mutations down to their offspring without harm, and over time, a small fraction of them will end up spreading across entire populations, or even the entire species, thanks to random luck.

I guess that random mutations are more unsettling than regular old mutations. Here's to having a prehensile tail in the near future! Also by Mr. Zimmer:

Carl Zimmer | The Loom | 24 November 2009
Evolutionary rationale for size of whales. Tyler Cowen calls this "one of the very best short pieces I've read this year"

This led to:

I once wondered aloud if scientists had tattoos of their science. The answer was yes, and this ever-growing collection is the evidence.

I had planned on writing a post of unsurpassing beauty but was once again distracted. Since this wasn't a resolution, technically I can wait another day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The New Me

Don't be fooled by the presidential wave. It is me, as envisioned by a) Anish Kapoor, b) a fly on acid, c) both a & b or d) none of the above.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


What important thing can I say after a year's absence?

The burning item that I've wanted to tell you: I wore mis-matched shoes to work one day.

I'm not saying that I wore a clown shoe and a stiletto. Nobody noticed for the same reason I didn't notice: these were two generic brown shoes. In any city worth its Nordstrom, I'm sure I would have been pointed at. Here in Medford, I passed muster. This post is not a thinly disguised jab at the Mythical State of Jefferson either. Let me say that there are no digs at anyone here today. This is more about the gray mistakes and adjustments I've been making over the past year.

It's been a good year of diving into myself.

Maybe there's a bit of a parable up in here. Or at least a fable about course correction. My tidy stale life needed some changing. So I've removed trying to play the guitar, writing my Old Tired Novel and painting. All fine activities. I'll return to painting someday but it doesn't make sense right now. I am writing.

I had to give up on what I had written because it wasn't working, the monster never roared to life. Once I realized that, it was time to move on. No harm in trying to animate the pile of flesh. But I didn't have the right pieces, the right electricity, at the right time. So I have a stockpile of words in cold storage and I'll start on a new pile. Knowing when to call a hard stop is a new skill. Knowing when to let something percolate vs. when to jettison has always been difficult for me. I no longer want my life to decay because something didn't work and I was timid about loss. Call what I've done a failure, a draft, a fragment or wisdom. But call it finished.

Thinking about heaviness helped me lay the few items above aside. It's simple: does X make me feel heavier or lighter? If heavier, am I rewarded for the effort or does it feel like cleaning and jerking a Volkswagen? If lighter, is it like a satisfying sigh or low blood sugar? I do like to haul me some weight, most of us yearn to: o sexy responsibility! But I have a slight frame, not designed for drayage. Not even a motorized metaphor probably. More like one of those old fashioned three speed bikes. With leaping gearing.

This past year has been about many things. There are so many gaudy bits: my life as an artist (as mentioned above) has been begging for an overhaul. I've struggled (constructively) on how to mend the giant hole in my life. How do I move from feeling separated to feeling whole? Lots of work to do but it's of a different quality now than in the past years. Years have gone by. My career change has provided a salutary spin on uncertainty. I'll write more about that because it's been illuminating some of the corners of my emotional life.

For now, I'm satisfied with making adjustments and pruning where needed. Literal pruning is something that I've done a lot of in my life, I'm shot through with my family's botanical DNA. I've always been much better at pruning plants than myself. Give me a stunted shrubbery, and I can set that thing free! I've had a built-in sense of where to cut, how extensively, to create a healthy, pleasing plant.

While I've had little doubt about how to strengthen the life of a plant through violent, creative destruction, I've been queasy about shaping my own life. I didn't know where to cut. I'd like to think that I'm learning how to recognize what isn't quite right in my life. That's what the past year's been about, moving away from what doesn't work, cutting it free. The surprise is that after the trauma, the organism can turn toward good, sturdy growth, unbound in the clean Spring sunshine.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Touch of Evil

Nothing to do with Orson Wells, I just wanted to take a moment and blog while I was being repressed by the man.

There, I've rebelled.