Archive for November, 2013

In a Circle we’re always both Going Away and Coming Back

I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s three types of people. First of all, what we all have in common: each of us are born to a group. That group could be our family, our country, or our religion. Usually, it’s a combination of these and more. Regardless, the fact is that we are born to a group.The group then teaches us how to live, how to act, how to everything. We are taught how to BE in the most pervasive and fundamental sense of the word.

We’re taught how to put on shampoo, how to treat strangers; we’re taught how to eat and how to shit, we’re taught how to read and how to lead; We’re taught what’s right and what’s wrong; we’re taught what’s allowed and what isn’t. “Taught” is a nice word. Substitute for it any of these: disciplined, punished, molded, imprinted, conditioned. It’s not like I’m saying parents and authorities are sinister. OK, maybe I am. But I understand where they’re coming from. A baby human is pre-programmed to exist in a world tens of thousands of years old. In a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Of course they’re going to spank us, put us in institutions and school so we have a shot in modern society.

Now, our three types of people. Group 1 more or less goes along with the program. They chase after what society tells them to chase. They avoid experiences society tells them to avoid. They don’t rock the boat. They don’t shock their parents or become jailed for their beliefs. In short, they carry on the legacy.

Group 2 are those who realize that society is a giant charade. And act on it. They drop the beliefs of their elders like a bad hangover. They stop believing in the hell of their parents and create their own heaven. Disillusioned with the lie that was beaten into them during grade school, Group 2 believes the path of authenticity means getting in touch with that pre-programmed infant.

Group 3 realizes the bullshit and like Group 2 leaves it behind. But then- eventually- come back. I know a guy who was raised Catholic. At a young age he knew he was gay, but he really wanted to be a Catholic. For a while he tried to not be gay and to be a good Catholic. You can imagine the results (it didn’t work). So, he left the group he was born to. He joined Group 2. Like the rest of them, he realized the game he was raised to play has broken rules. It’s flawed. Many people who come here never go back. Think of all the queers alientated by a church who, rather than be good little boys and girls and stay in Group 1, leave the church for good.

My friend didn’t do that. Instead, he became an openly gay Catholic. That meant pissing off people, or at the least, making them uncomfortable (but the line between the two is so fine, isn’t it? Thought for the day, I’m getting off track). He joined group 3. He walked away from home, found himself, then came back. He paved the way for others.

Because he had the gall to walk away from home, he was able to bring something back to his community and repay them tenfold for teaching him how to wipe his own ass, tie his own shoes, and all the other forgettable yet indispensable things we’re taught from an early age.

The truth is all of us are cycling through these three groups constantly. There’s days when I follow tradition, then there’s days where- following truth- I walk away. Then other days, I need to reconcile the two. Truth and Tradition. Tradition and Truth. If you think you’re in Group 1, allow yourself to believe and do what you know deep down is OK. If you’re in Group 2, come back for chrissakes.

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Manson, Culkin, and Creative Blocks: How my inner child stopped playing and started preparing

Back when I was a boy I had my very own drum set in my basement. It was loud. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM. BOP. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM BOP. DADA-DADA-DADA-DADA-CHAAAA. Even though I was downstairs and they were upstairs, it bugged the hell out of my family.

Not my mom, never my mom. She was and is my biggest fan. I could rip the drums apart with a circular saw and she’d still hear the musical merit. I love her. But it had to have bothered- if only periodically- the rest of the family.

In fact, I remember coming up after one particularly loud, industrial and maniacal jam session, meeting my sister at the landing. She needed to vent. She said that what I was playing was either redundant or loud or both.

My goal isn’t to resuscitate an old resentment, but to re-visit what happened afterward. After that, I began to feel apologetic every time I went downstairs to play, and sheepish every time I came back up. To avoid annoying my family (or so I perceived) I played gentler, quieter and less frequently. But what became the best remedy was to simply play when nobody was home.

With the whole house empty, I could really unload. I didn’t have to worry about playing too loud. I didn’t have to worry about playing too bad. I made a lot of mistakes- my best mistakes.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t jive with music, it’s being self-conscious and afraid of error. Hell, being afraid of making mistakes isn’t conducive to anything, but especially not music.

It was going well until I developed a brand new fear. While I was down there banging away, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, I couldn’t hear the door bell, I couldn’t even hear lightning strike. I certainly couldn’t hear if an intruder decided to break into our home and make his way down to murder me.

An irrational fear, I know. But where did it come from? I have some theories. First of all, the bogey man. We were raised to always lock the doors, whether we were home or not. Even if it wasn’t explicitly spelled out as to why, my imagination would start coming up with its own ghastly explanations. And even though we lived in a rich suburban home, we were still vulnerable. In fact, we were more vulnerable because we were in a rich suburban home- with broad living room windows and ample distance between our house and our neighbor’s. Add to that Macauley Culkin and Charles Manson, and we’ve got a recipe for nightmare.

Erhh. I need to explain… The movie Home Alone was a goliath, early 90s blockbuster hit. Everybody saw it, or at least every boy my age did. Here’s a refresher, for those not familiar with the plot: a young, impish yet innocent white suburban boy is accidently left behind in his white suburban home while his family goes away for Christmas. They don’t realize his absence for quite some time (it’s a large family and he’s lost in the shuffle, which is the emotional subplot of the whole film) and so he’s left “home alone” all Christmas. Now comes the main plot- two burglars are determined to break into this house and steal the family jewels, sort of speak. They count on it being empty… but it it’s not. Little Kevin (Macauley Culkin) is there and is required to defend his home against these two violent criminals.

The combat between our young protagonist and his bumbling foes is pure vaudeville. Hijinks and slapstick, 3 Stooges meets the cat burglar. The violence of the film is rendered harmless, yet it’s still violent. The intruders are burnt, electrocuted, bludgeoned, tarred and feathered, and pierced through the feet with metal spikes- all by the clever ingenuity of Kevin. Quite frankly, it’s fucked up, now that you think about it. But as a kid, it’s fun.

And still. It’s real. It fuels the imagination of a young boy who, trapped and armed with only his own resources, imagines how he’d defend himself and his family’s home. In short, I always had a plan on how to defend against intruders. Whether it was using my bebe gun, kitchen knives, or balancing a can of paint precariously above a doorway… I was ready. While drumming home alone, I kept it simple: I left a hammer on a TV tray right next to my drumset. Just in case.

But I was still terrified because I was so vulnerable. I couldn’t hear a thing outside of my own drumming. If there was an intruder he would be able to get all the way down the stairs and even across the room before I saw him. To protect myself against such a situation, I was hyper-vigilant. While I played.

If I thought I heard the house stir, I stopped playing. If I thought I heard a door open upstairs, I stopped playing. Just to make sure, I stopped playing. Like a deer frozen in a clearing, listening for the predator’s footsteps, I breathed and staid still and, sadly, stopped playing. I lost the rhythm, the pace, the fun, the flow. Even worse than playing self-consciously, I played disjointedly, afraid of being home alone.

These days, it’s not that bad. For one, I’m an adult. And two, the city is safer than the suburbs. Or at least it feels that way. You don’t have big windows that can be broken into and neighbors aren’t out of range of a desperate cry. You have one door in your apartment through which things go in or out, and that door has several locks and a chain. It feels safer.

But now I have neighbors. Lots of them. And when I play the new metal drum instrument I just bought, I’m nervous that I’m bothering them, that I’m bad, that I’m going to be interrupted by one of them making a noise complaint. It makes me want to rent a space to practice, because playing quietly and carefully isn’t an option.

Oh, I almost forgot. Charles Manson. It’s my theory that the reason Home Alone was such a hit was that, thirty years prior, Manson (or his followers) broke into an idyllic home and slaughtered those inside. As effectively as Vietnam, this event shattered the belief in a secure and sure American Home. The trauma of this event was pushed to America’s subconscious during the 80s, emerging only again in the perverted, sublimated form of a kid’s movie starring a seemingly magical boy who overcomes the bogey man once and for all. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM BOP. DADA-DADA-DADA-DADA-CHAAAA.

Happy ending: there’s a church down the street from my new apartment that houses a public drum circle every Friday. Sweet!

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Speculative Autobiography

Has anybody ever asked you: where do you see yourself in ten years? The question is a pain in the ass. I can speculate, I can hope, I can dream, but the exercise is ludicrous. It reminds me of those maps people used to draw of North America before everything was actually figured out. At best they look incomplete. At worst they look absurd and naïve.

 

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other map

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I don’t know if there’s a name for this phenomenon (the making of a map for that which is unknown). A preliminary internet search brought up the term ‘speculative cartography’. That works. Any answer to the question ‘where do you see yourself in ten years?’ is also speculative cartography. Hell, what will happen tomorrow is questionable. My knowing what my plans for 2023 is like Columbus charting a route through the Rocky Mountains from Havana.

However, we give it a shot. We draw a map. We begin with what’s at-hand, what’s known, what’s most immediate. For the early map makers, this meant drawing a map of the Eastern Seabord. This part of their map is outstanding, intimate and detailed. In my case- my Eastern Seabord- I work at a tea shop. I write. I practice meditation. I like talking with people about ideas and the shit we go through.

Next, we move on to what’s partially known. Maybe it’s the general outline of a mountain range or the Mississippi. I know that I’m travelling to Europe next summer. I’ll be visiting my cousins’ herbal tea farm. I might, while I’m out there, fly over to China and visit my friend who’s living in an ancient tea growing district. All that stuff having to do with tea and different cultures will connect somehow either with the work I currently do or my proclivity for writing or both. That’s not as distinct as my present circumstances, but it’s still tangible.

Now, moving onto Alaska. That nebulous blob that may or may not even be there. If it is, who knows what it’s like or how far it goes. The uncharted territory of five, ten years from now. I imagine myself running a center in Chicago where I sell tea from Austria and China through relationships I developed in my travels and host events like yoga, group therapy and philosophical discussions. Now we’re talking. In ten years, that’ll sound absurd, but possibly an element of it will be true.

Try it for yourself. What’s your eastern seabord? What’s your heard-of-but-not-seen Rocky Mountains? What’s your Northwest Territory, your Unknown?

PS

I didn’t even talk about all the important stuff. All that focus on my ‘career’, I didn’t stop to think about who or what I’ll lose and gain. Who’s going to get sick or die? Will I get sick or die? Who’s going to pop into my life? A new friend, a new love? What beliefs will I come to adopt, which will I abandon? That is really unknown.

It’s best to draw this map in pencil. To use the newly drawn borders as guides rather than limits and inhibitions. Ready to be erased or expanded as the case may be.

Closing thought: the details of today, the intricate lines we take to be so important. Right now they’re blown out of proportion, because it’s all we know. One day, standing on the other side, they’ll be indistinct, distant and vague. A friend said it right the other day, Don’t sweat the small stuff. Oh! It’s all small stuff.

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Heaven is Earth

 

I believe in everything- nothing is sacred.
I believe in nothing- everything is sacred.
Ha Ha Ho Ho Hee Hee
– the goatman, from Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Today at my new job I knew I was in the right place when my colleague said that what we do is a kind of animism. What he was referring to was how we don’t just grab a bag of tea, drown it in boiling water and throw it out when we’re done.

We set up a scale. We weigh out six grams of tea leaves with a ceramic spoon, being careful not to crush any of the leaves or drop them on the floor. We pre-heat the vessel the tea will be brewed in and the cup the customer will drink from. We set it all on a wooden tray and walk it out to our guest. We explain the tea and where it comes from. It’s a ritual, it’s an exercise in respect, in this case, respect for the tea.

That’s the animism. “Animism” stands for the worldview that sees everything, both living and dead, as having a spiritual essence. Rocks, trees, and mountains have spirit. Even things like hand-made quilts and carvings have spirit. Hell, even your laptop has spirit. Everything does.

This is opposed to the typical “western” view that sees only living beings as having a spiritual nature (and what’s more that only humans have a spiritual nature). The worldview that sees non-living beings as mere dumb matter. A rock is just a rock, who cares if it’s shattered?  A mountain’s just a big rock, who cares if it’s stripped layer by layer until it’s nothing? (There’s coal down there!)

And from here it’s not a long leap to the conclusion that humans are just mountains of flesh, so what if we extinguish them as well.

This entire western/scientific/Cartesian worldview is summed up by the phrase “pathetic fallacy”. If you know what this is, skip ahead. But for those of you who don’t, a pathetic fallacy does not mean to make a pathetic mistake. The root here is pathos or feeling. To make a pathetic fallacy is to attribute pathos or feeling to inanimate objects. To things which are supposedly unable to feel.

I think the phrase pathetic fallacy is itself fallacious. Things feel. Trees empathize. Furniture responds to being positioned carefully. Art radiates energy. Trash radiates energy.

But it sure doesn’t seem that way. Not most of the time. Most of the time we are tired. We don’t have time to weigh tea out carefully. We don’t have time to look at our front door, the same front door we’ve opened and closed for years, but this time to really look at it, I mean look at it, seeing it for the first time, as with new eyes. That takes energy. It takes attention. It’s no wonder the word attention comes from the word tension, which means thin. We’re spread thin by so many distractions, we don’t have the wherewithal to notice how magical the most mundane things are.

That’s why I feel like my new job is a good fit. It’s slower paced, meaning emphasis can be placed on Care. We don’t scald the tea, demanding it release its flavor. We coax it in a warm bath, while performing a ritual not unlike what goes on at the altar during Mass.

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