Archive for January, 2013

Moose

Some people carry an empty feeling in their chest- the spot where God used to be when they were children. A similar phenomenon occurs in the hearts of Chicagoans when it comes to Moose.

Once- as recently as the 1920s- moose in Chicago were as common as squirrels. But then, during the Prohibition era, when bootleggers trained hordes of moose to smuggle Canadian whiskey across the border into the Midwest by hanging bottles on the moose’s antlers, so that the bottles would clink and dangle as the moose carried them across the countryside, which was worth it (the clinking) considering a single bull (nomenclature for male moose) could carry an average of six hundred bottles at a time, and also led to the 1933 hit by Ella Fitzgerald entitled Clink! Clink! It’s the Moose (Everybody Get Loose)… Elliot Ness, Herbert Hoover, and other martial prohibitionists responded to the ruse in a truly ruthless fashion: they cut off the antlers of any moose found south of Green Bay.

It worked. Chicago went dry. The lawmen reckoned that the moose would simply regrow their antlers, quit the mafia, and return to their lives, sauntering in and out of the Art Institute, chewing on the ivy of Wrigley Field, and taking dips at North Avenue Beach. That next fall, the moose retaliated with nothing short of supernatural hostility, on par with the Old Testament Yahweh, in what’s come to be known as the Days of Rut.

To get what happened, you need to know certain facts: Male moose have been hardwired by millions of years of evolution to fight each other each fall (rutting season). They smash into each other with their antlers, competing for territory and the right to reproduce. This is so ingrained in the moose, in their DNA and their consciousness, that the thought of them not doing it is frightening. Can you imagine what would happen if that energy/ libido/instinct were not expressed? What if the moose decided not to fight each other, to not mate? What would happen if that energy were turned outward?

That’s exactly what happened. The moose’s most basic urge was sublimated into a terrific display of violence upon Chicago and every semblance of society, order, and good-will amongst people. They destroyed banks, parking lots, animal shelters, nativity scenes, water fountains, fountain pen stores, art museums, concert halls, Kiwanis Clubs, schools, churches, homeless shelters, furniture stores, traffic lights, mail boxes (a federal offense), fences, hamburgers, painted lines, cradles, graves, podiums, desks, dictionaries, zoos, cafes, and cars. Their frenzy was so total, so god almighty unnatural, it might’ve been the first and only hurricane to ravage the windy city.

Whatever moose didn’t kill themselves in the process collapsed with exhaustion and soon perished. They already had, in commencing the Days of Rut, given up their will to live or reproduce. The cows (nomenclature for female moose) emigrated en masse to northern Minnesota.

After a few years, when Chicagoans had a chance to rebuild their city and forgot their well-deserved fear of the moose, they began to yearn for the sight of moose digging through their garbage; they even missed the occasional inconvenience of having to wait 0n the el for a moose to get off the tracks. Soon, prohibition ended, and alcohol returned to Chicago… but no moose. Delegates were sent to Canada, offering amnesty to any moose, beckoning them with reservations and a promise that what happened would never happen again. But they had little luck, not only because the moose had no comprehension of the English language, but because- and this is pure speculation on my part- because after that event, when an entire generation of young moose slaughtered themselves-,when they went against the grain of nature- something happened.

You know how salmon can find their way up a stream they’ve never been to. Well, this is like that, in reverse. Chicago became a land of No Return for Moose. On a biochemical, magnetic, and even spiritual level, moose cannot come south of Green Bay. That is the consequence of their departure from the natural course of things.

But truly, the ones who suffer are Chicagoans. Every time you wake up anxious, are nervous to make eye contact on the train, avoid saying hello to someone on the sidewalk, or feel an emptiness in your chest you cannot heal- you’re feeling it: the missing moose.

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askesis (or how clipping your nails rather than biting them allows you to, well, we’re not exactly sure what the final aim is, but it does seem the better thing to do)

 

“Philosophy teaches us how to act, not how to talk” -Seneca the Younger

“Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an “exercise”. In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory- much less in the exegesis of texts- but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate life-style, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which (s)he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.” -Pierre Hadot

 

Today we are going to talk about AA and philosophy. To many of you, these two things are mysterious- you know of them, but little or nothing about them. Some of you might be familiar with the one but not the other. Hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll come to see that neither of them is all that foreign. To you.

Let me begin with a story: During my first year of college I decided to become a philosophy major because it was the only department that rather than detest my ceaseless questioning actually encouraged it. The fun thing about philosophy is that answering the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is itself a philosophical pursuit. You can imagine a college professor lecturing, “What is philosophy? The school pays me to teach you about philosophy. But does that make what I’m doing right now philosophy? Should I be fired?” And so on and so forth. This is the kind of thing that makes philosophy absurd. Absurd and brilliant. Because there is no other class you can take which is as radically reflexive as philosophy. You can’t make it far in physics if you constantly have to question whether or not physics is even true or real. At that you might say- And for good reason! Of course physics is real! Well, my only reply would be that physics, as well as history and biology and even mathematics were, at one time, pure speculation- philosophy! Only later did they become what they are.

Keep in mind that the definition of philosophy I just gave you- that’s right the paragraph you just finished reading- is itself one-sided, an experiment, an interpretation, and by no means a definition. But that’s not really my point. My point is I was telling you my story, of how I was attracted to philosophy by the promise of the freedom to ask questions.

Okay. During the same time that was going on, I also developed a penchant for (ab)using drugs and alcohol. Yada yada yada I’m part of this certain secret society for people who have the desire to stop drinking and drugging. For a long time, I thought AA was the exact opposite of philosophy, and had difficulty reconciling the two. Did I have to give up philosophy to be in AA? Would I need to give up AA for philosophy?

This might not make sense for those of you unfamiliar with AA, so before we proceed, let me paint a picture… 1. It is common knowledge in AA circles that thinking (yes, thinking) is not an asset but a liability- a deadly liability. 2. Part of AA is taking and following ‘suggestions’ from people who have more experience than you. These aren’t exactly orders, because no one will kick you out if you don’t follow them. But if you don’t follow them, in time you’ll kick yourself out. My point is that you have to be- get this- obedient. 3. Part of joining AA is resigning from “the debating society”. Yes, that is a common phrase. 4. Action, not contemplation, is the be-all and end-all. Let me reiterate: Action! As in leaving your den of theoretical isolation and interacting with complete strangers and making coffee before the meetings and afterward putting away all the chairs or throwing away cigarette butts as an act of service which is in a weird paradoxical way an honor that’s not so paradoxical once you DO it, not to mention completing ‘home work’ given to you by your sponsor that is anything but armchair philosophy. And 5. Faith. Not doubt. No questions. Faith.

This, I thought, is impossible! How can I incorporate my experience of philosophy with AA? Actually, due to some recent developments- okay, a recent development (discovering the work of French philosopher Pierre Hadot and his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault)- I’ve found this to be much easier than I thought.

Hadot’s definition of philosophy (I told you there were many) begins in ancient Greece and Rome. Back then there were these ‘schools’ that followed the teachings of great philosophers. The most famous one is probably Plato’s Academy, which was- in one form or another- up and running for 500 years. There were many schools: Peripatetic, Stoic, Epicurean, etc. The important thing here is that ‘schools’ were not like the schools we have now. They were, in Hadot’s words, “[where] the thought, life-style, and writings of a master were religiously preserved.” Life-style. Life-style!

How to live. What to do. Taking suggestions from people who have been in the school longer than you. Believing and living out the ideas set forth by the school’s founding fathers. Are you starting to see the connection? Committing yourself to a way of life- with other people! 

The amazing thing I learned from Hadot’s research is that everyone who was a part of a philosophical school was considered a philosopher. Philosophers were not freakish intellects that fell into holes because their heads were in the sky. Okay, some were. But most philosophers were regular people. Following a way of life. Not necessarily intelligent. Intellect played a part, but not the part. What made you a philosopher was living like a philosopher. And that meant adopting certain behavior, taking action, completing exercises. Spiritual exercises.

Doesn’t that sound a lot better than mental masturbation? What most, pardon me, modern philosophy is precisely? Even this blog post about philosophy is not the real heart of the matter. It’s pointing to a process of activity that you do with your hands and breath and emotions and persistance and yes- doubt. Doubt plays a part. You mix it with faith and have dynamic faith.

OKAY. I promised you philosophy and AA would become less foreign to you. So far I’ve rambled on about cigarette butts and wayward undergraduate students and people that have been dead for thousands of years. Wasn’t this supposed to relate to me?- you might be asking. Yes, but to get there I need to take one last leap of abstraction.

If I had to boil down AA and philosophy (thus defined) it would be this: askesis: the ancient greek word for exercise or training. It’s also the root of the word ascetic. If you don’t know what an ascetic is think monk or olympic athlete. Anyone who does all sorts of crazy shit to achieve some questionable goal. Giving up- in some cases- candy, sex, or alcohol. In order to commune with God or run the mile faster than anyone else on Earth.

Now, most of us (myself included) are not taking it to that extreme but we all (of course not all humans, but I know you do, because here you are reading rather than watching television, and that requires a certain amount of effort- especially when plodding through the work of a mediocre writer who’s- did I forget to mention- very grateful that you are. Plodding along) in some way have our exercises. Maybe its running, abstaining from destructive habits, visiting people in a hospital, going to school, going back to school, improving our art, learning something new, waking up early to meditate, teaching others, caring for pets or loved ones, smelling the air, admitting when we were wrong, breathing deeply, paying good attention to whatever is present, travelling, reading Nietzsche, improving ourselves, learning how to live, learning how to die, taking time to cook a good dinner, surrendering, talking with a friend, orgasming, appreciating tea, making crafts, learning how to sew, praying, being nice to cats, sharing your experience, listening, maintaining your car or bicycle.

These exercises keep us fit: spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Not so mysterious at all.

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None Be (In)significant

Es gibt Bemerkungen, die säen, und Bemerkungen, die ernten. 

“There are remarks that sow and remarks that reap.”

                         – Ludwig Wittgenstein

[I read through my journal from last summer. More scattered and superficial than my Autumn journal, but also festive and sometimes pithy. Call them aphorisms, co-opted, or puppies needing a home.]

The void is something you try to avoid.

Who walks into the Unknown like they know the place?

I am my experiences- and my experiences are open to interpretation- sometimes they’re nothing but interpretation.

It seems few people know themselves. When you meet someone who does it’s shocking; they’re larger-than-life. No, they’re just alive.

In the right situation, silence can mean more than anything.

Most people assume what comes out of their mouth is more beautiful, true, and necessary than what comes out of their ass.

To be perfectly honest: I’m a liar.

Rather than find a better solution, find a better problem.

I have had an authentic experience- or at least I realized how my experience was inauthentic.

Taken for a fool you can only become wise- taken for wise you can only become a fool.

You and I do the same thing a different way, or a different thing the same way.

You don’t need me to tell you what is good and what is bad- that’s an inner knowledge that you return to after listening to me, if you ever left it behind in the first place.

Why speak or write? To listen and read better.

No single neuron in the brain is the prophet, leader, or spokesman- so why expect one in society? Our goal in communication should be to be an intermediary or go-between.

There’s an abyss between thought and what is most near.

Good writers force us to stop reading and live.

The attempt to reconcile and make congruent the many “truths” within yourself is fruitless- but the spirit of the endeavor is an apple.

Setting conditions upon yourself (even supposedly positive or good ones) is like drawing the lines before knowing what you’re going to paint.

Dog: Man’s best enabler.

How can we be less nervous around each other?

Guilt: as if the only way to know what shit is is to rub your face in it.

Isolation is medicine or poison, depending on the dose.

The ineffable: the great equalizer: for who can say what cannot be said better than anyone else?

The absence of anxiety: When a task demands maximum attention, say, riding a bike through a three-way intersection after the light turns red, there’s no surplus of attention that needs to be diverted into observing the shape of a cloud, one’s own existential lot, a dog sitting in a window with a cone around its neck, the smell of burnt butter, or a memory from third grade (although, that’s not to say that one or more of these won’t slip into consciousness, thus coloring the experience beautifully/absurdly).

Don’t prove anything.

We need to accept our emotions. They give us the truth- immediately- about ourselves and the situation. To put them off or handle them abstractly is to tell the Truth ‘Not right now- not like that’.

The veil was lifted- and nothing’s there!

The universe was dreamt by a dreamer who woke up and forgot all about us until someone said something at lunch and they said O yea!

Did the poet create the poem or did the poem create the poet? Both. Neither.

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Squaring a Circle

Alex gets pissed when Derek says that “You can’t see a square-circle in your mind’s eye.” She clenches her jaw so hard she could crack open a coconut. Derek says “Besides, I tend to doubt the existence of a mind, let alone a mind’s eye.” Alex’s breathing becomes rapid, shallow, and hot like malice.

“However”, continues Derek, “Granting you the existence of a mind’s eye, for argument’s sake, you still cannot see a square-circle. You can see a square, or a circle. But not both at the same time. Perhaps you could mean a square superimposed on a circle, or vice versa. But that shape would have curves, meaning it can’t be a square, and it would have edges, meaning it can’t be a circle. Your third and final possibility is to see a square and a circle, side by side. But that would be two distinct shapes, not a single square-circle.”

Alex has not said a word since she told Derek that she just saw a square-circle in her mind’s eye. Now her shoulders are tense like she’s holding two buckets full of sand. She’s angry at Derek, in this moment, but her wrath extends to most of the philosophy department, to which she’s a part. They debate everything, but seem to single her out. The way Alex puts it, whenever she gets her wheels spinning they go and jam a stick in my spokes. The phallic imagery of the word ‘stick’ is no accident. Or at least that’s my opinion.

Derek sits back in his chair, satisfied, allowing Alex to explain herself. She says, “It’s not superimposed or anything. And it’s not two different shapes. It just is.” “But…” says Derek, “… you are breaking the most fundamental rule of logic: X is X. A square is a square, and a circle is a circle. A square-circle is neither a square nor a circle, and therefore does not exist.” “I can’t explain it to you…” says Alex, “It’s just there, when I close my eyes.” Derek exclaims, “Ahh! So it’s a merely subjective phenomenon. Something you cannot prove objectively.” Alex knows Derek has won the debate. Reductio ad absurdum. She’s been reduced to absurdity. Derek swivels himself on his chair, sits upright, and opens a book entitled Cold-blooded Clarity.

At that moment, the something tragic occurs: Alex begins to doubt herself. She begins to believe that she’s no good at philosophy, that she is poor at logic and argumentation. She begins to believe that she’s not as smart as other people in the department, that part of the reason they took her was because she is female. She begins to believe, and this- in my opinion- is the most tragic of all, that her one-time vision of a square-circle is delusion, unreal, untrue.

Alex’s jaw and shoulders begin to loosen. Her heart-rate decelerates and she’s no longer ready to kill Derek. However, an abysmal, lead ball begins to creep down her throat, choking her. It descends further, crushing both of her lungs. Finally, the thing lands in her stomach and remains put, tearing her diaphragm apart. Her chest is an empty shell. From there, a deep-seated, long-term memory replays, dimly beneath Alex’s racing thoughts of what to do next.

Alexander Dovzhenko played chess with his seven year old daughter, Alexandra Dovzhenko. Alex wanted a boy to carry on his name, yet he only had one child and that child was a girl. Lucky for him, he had a name that could be feminized.

Alex was by no means a dour man; he would, however, not let his daughter win ‘just because’. He explained to her that the fundamental rule of chess is that you need to dominate your opponent (all of this in Ukranian Russian, I might add). Alex nodded that she understood but really her attention was fixed on the playing of the game itself, not the outcome.

She was engrossed with the wooden contours of the Bishops, the notches carved into the Knights. She grazed the green felt on the bottom of the pieces, and was thrilled by the CLICK they made against the table. She was bewildered by how the Rooks seemed to never move. She stared in wonder at her father’s strong and delicate hands. She marveled at the utter flatness of the board: the way the Earth looks without your mind’s eye.

Then it would happen. Her father says ‘Check’. She starts to breath quickly and moves her King out of the way. He moves a piece and says ‘Check’ a second time. She stops noticing all the tiny details around her. Her father moves his Queen and says ‘Check’ a third time. She tries to move her King but a voice stops her saying, “You can’t move there”. Alex is terrified. She’s not even there with her father, anymore. She sets her King in the one place it’s able to go. He moves his Rook from the back row and says, ‘Check-mate’. Alexandra becomes very angry with Alexander.

She was not upset because of how the game ended but that it ended. Her sense of mystery was squashed by the game’s own finitude. Her father didn’t know this. He thought to himself, a son would have the competitive spirit necessary for chess.

That was the start of Alex’s- if not indifference- lack of enthusiasm for Alex. When she pursued art through middle school, high school, and college, he appreciated her work, was proud of her, but left it at that. Then, with only three semesters left, Alex decided to switch majors- to philosophy. When she told him he laughed then said, ‘O! You’re serious.’

To obtain the required credits in three short semesters Alex doubled up on classes. Then she re-doubled. She quit going out with friends- she went in for office hours- she absorbed large quantities of caffeine- she became passionate about Hume, Hegel, and phenomenology. And, in my opinion, the most tragic-no-matter-how-pragmatic move she made was: she quit painting. For the time being, she said.

It worked. She entered a highly evolved conversation resplendent with technical lingo and the assumption that you’ve read what everyone’s talking about. She learned how to have her place in the conversation and not appear uncouth. She gained her professors’ approval, who would later write glowing letters of recommendation, which she adjoined with test scores and a personal statement about how Alexandra Dovzhenko- first generation Ukranian Jew specializing in Continental Philosophy- would like to further her studies in nothing less than the Nature of Reason at your fine institution… and when Alex called to tell her father, Alex, that she’d been offered a full-ride-and-then-some at SUNY to study philosophy, all he had to say was a single question: Have you painted anything lately?

After they hung-up, she cried for the first time since she switched majors. A real deluge. Her canvas: the acceptance letter.

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