A blog about nothing.

Monday, December 12, 2016

EVERYTHING'S INTENTIONAL


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There is no such thing as screw-ups.

Case in point. My excellent friend Deej comes over to help me beautify the garden. He immediately dives in, crouching down on his knees and weed whacking with his bare hands. Before I can say yay or nay, he proceeds to remove a huge clump of daisy greens from the oblong patch of Earth adjacent to the driveway. The area instantly looks bare. Like the back of Woody Allen's head. Smoothing out the soil and shaking his head Deej mutters to himself "I fucked it up!" over and over again. We try everything. Planting succulents in the daisy's place. Covering it with rocks. But still the area looks barren. And every time you water it the water trickles down onto the sidewalk in the absence of roots to hold it in place. It's getting dark so we go back inside. The next day I return to the spot with a clear perspective and remove all the other daisies, leaving only rose bushes and the succulents that DJ planted, and depositing 10 bags of mulch. It takes all day, but the yard looks ten times better than it did before DJs "mistake." The screw-up he berated himself over was actually a necessary step in where we needed to go. His rash act had given us a glimpse of how the garden needed to be. Peering, as it were, pointing a dirty-nailed finger into what needed to be done. My hat's off to the good man. Lovin' you, Deej.

Have you ever done something which at first you thought was in error only later to realize that it was essential to your success? How about putting your foot in your mouth and saying something which at first seems foolish only to turn out to be true? A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is a mistake in speech that reveals subconscious feelings and shows what the speaker is truly thinking. There are many popular examples of Freudian slips. Once Senator Ted Kennedy cupped his hands in the air and told his audience that "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast" when in fact what he meant to say was not breast but "the best and brightest." Far from mistakes, Freudian slips give insight into the deeper workings of the mind, i.e. the unconscious.

The unconscious sees everything and acts from pure awareness of totality. It is the conscious mind that labels things black or white, good or bad, the conscious mind that classifies, judges, celebrates or condemns. Dropping glasses, falling and breaking a leg, rear ending a car. I've done all of this. Not intentionally, at least not consciously so. Because the conscious mind avoids repercussions and ramifications. It seeks peace and self-preservation. The unconscious is alive when the sleepwalker gets out of bed, dresses himself, walks the dog and refreshes his thirst with a cool glass of milk. The conscious mind remembers none of this, and would have much preferred lemonade! 

To some extent we sleepwalk through life, because we are aware of merely a minute fraction of all the sights and sounds in our surroundings, and even fewer of the impressions these have in ourselves, the thoughts environmental stimuli give rise to and the feelings they engender. We can only focus on one thing at a time, even when we are trying to do two, like watch Sunday Night Football while writing these words. When we attempt to do more than one thing at once, we do neither well. So off goes the tube. 

But the unconscious mind, the witness, perceives everything, and desiring nothing, yet ensuring the good of the whole over the preservation of the individual, it does things that the conscious mind views as wrong as they may inconvenience the individual or put her at risk, or even things that the individual dreads or avoids or condemns. And yet the results are always for the best. 

Of course we can't put this truth to a perfect test. We haven't yet the benefit of a time machine to take us into an alternate version of the past in which the glass doesn't slip from our hypothetical hands. And in life we are conditioned from an early age to get things right, which is to say do as we are told. We are raised and disciplined and taught to mark the one "best" answer. And so we pass or we fail. We are told not to be a dumb-ass. We regret our mistakes, especially when condemned or corrected by others. If only we could see how life might have panned out had not our mistakes and first impulses been corrected. But we do! Look back at your biggest mistakes in life and see what came out of them. You'll find things always work out in the end.

Every first draft is shabby, said one writing professor. Yet the philosopher Voltaire wrote the classic Candide in three days. Essentially a first draft, the short picaresque novel has stood the test of time, entertaining millions around the world, and me just the other day. RL Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in twice as many sittings, which amounts to 10,000 words a day. It's spawned at least a half a dozen movies. I on the other hand write 2,000 words each morning and call myself prolific. I'd better get up to speed! But the author was on speed when he wrote his famous book, in the form of cocaine. I've tried the stuff. It makes me much too paranoid. And besides, I have other things to attend to, like cleaning up my dog Max's pee. Because every day without fail he urinates just to the left of the wee-wee pad, narrowly missing the mark. By mistake, you say? Naw, just to spite me!

In our dreams we get it write the first time - that's a Freudian slip, since I meant to write "right," but our dreams are so like compositions I suppose both words are right, I mean write. In our dreams we fashion an entire universe in the blink of an eye and put ourselves at the center of the action. If the dream were a book, then the dreamcatcher himself, Stephen King, who in his memoir, On Writing, dispenses advice on the time required to pen a 100,000-word epic, would say each dream requires 6 months to create. And yet we spin several in the span of a few hours of nightly shut-eye! We're all prolific authors in our own right or write.

So I've made it a habit of watching things unfold, whether asleep or awake. I often do not think these essays are going anywhere - like right now - and then voila they somehow wrap themselves up, nice and neat. I wake up each morning with little more than a rough outline of how the day is to proceed and by sundown I've astounded myself at what I've managed to do or not do. Because often rest is best. That's living freestyle. At parties I listen to myself talk, watch myself interact, and rather than edit my actions I'll just let them happen, just let life be lived. And everything works out just fine. Would that I could have been raised this way! Instead I learned to second guess myself. As a youngin, I practically majored in self-doubt. It wasn't until medical school that I learned that the first answer, even if it is a guess, is usually the right one.

Expand your awareness. Understand why it is that you do and say what you do and don't do. You will be amazed at how right you are. Earlier in this piece I wrote the word oblong to describe the shape of my garden - without even knowing that oblong meant rectangular, which is what I wanted to say. I didn't consciously know it, but my unconscious mind had heard the word before and registered the meaning. Ya see? Everything happens for a reason.



So since we have all the answers, let's address the question about the broken glass. What would have happened had it not slipped from your hand? Perhaps had you not been cleaning up the mess you would have burned yourself at the stove. But that would be the unconscious mind intending for you to get burned - so that while visiting the drugstore for a bandage you'd meet the love of your life. See, not so accidental after all. King himself confesses to writing books without even having an outline. Just throwing himself into the first page and seeing where events lead. One of his book is called Everything's Eventual. I say Everything's Intentional - even though you don't know it. The trick is to find out why.

When you know the truth, you'll see that each moment is perfect, whether it is perceived as such or not. In the grand scheme all is how it should be. As Leibniz proclaimed and Voltaire satirized centuries ago in his Candide, we live in the best of all possible worlds and everything is just right. I'll be sure to remind myself of this the next time I scrub that soiled rug.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

I PREFER CHOCOLATE


"Man is a perpetually wanting animal." This is a quote by Abraham Maslow, 20th century American psychologist and mystic. And it goes for women too. Ah, the days we could be unabashedly sexist. Maslow was best known for his theory of psychological health. And to a much lesser degree for dying of a massive heart attack while jogging in Menlo Park at the still tender age of 62. He wasn't sexist at all, though he did marry his first cousin when he was twenty, and they stayed married until his coronary. Probably because they were related before relating. Or because they didn't have kids. My  bad: they had two.


Maslow's theory, called the hierarchy of needs, is cleverly dubbed as it is based on the fulfillment of basic human needs. These needs, among which are physiological needs (such as food and water, and arguably sex), the need for safety and love as well as the need for self-esteem, culminate in what Maslow called self-actualization. Each yearning, once satisfied, gives way to a new and "higher need." When there is plenty of food you are free to devote your attention to such pursuits as writing sonnets, buying a house, studying psychology and getting married, perhaps not in that order, if at all. Until a basic need is satisfied you cannot climb the ladder, so to speak, which is why starving artists are never literally that, since if they were perpetually ketototic or catabolic, to borrow medical terms, their waking hours would be spent procuring foodstuffs rather than painting portraits. 


Part of the safety need (stage 2) is for undisrupted routine or rhythm. We all share this desire as babies, and are so innately satisfied with "a predictable, orderly world" furnished by all-powerful parents that the common notion of the ideal society is one which makes its members feel safe enough from wild animals, harsh weather, criminals and tyranny so that its citizens can concentrate on sonnets, which nobody writes anymore. But falling in love has not yet gone out of style. 

From the desire for safety spring such modern inventions as tenure, health insurance, retirement and the trusty savings account. Even religion, with its attempt to organize the world into a meaningful whole, is aimed at providing us with security, which is safety with one extra syllable. Watching the news may trap you at stage 2, since your world view becomes whatever the media presents to you, which is a planet dominated by violence and bloodshed and social unrest. I prefer sonnets. But the neurotic does not. The neurotic, like the obsessive compulsive not to mention our fictional starving artist, is stuck at the lower motivational levels and is so preoccupied with these more basic drives that love seems far-fetched, fanciful and completely unnecessary. For the product of romantic union is a usually a child, and who would want to bring a kid into such an unsafe planet, where there is not even enough food to go around! I need to watch less news. And if sonnets are not your thing, love comes in many shapes and forms, notes Maslow. In fact, a desire for an ice cream cone is often just a thinly veiled desire to get busy. Both can be sweet. If only ice cream existed in Casanova's time, we wouldn't have his memories. Wait, it did!

Of course love is not synonymous with sex, which unlike cookies 'n cream is calorie-free. Love often exists in the absence of coitus, as between friends, or first cousins, or the longly wed - but not always. And whether platonic or no, for its perfect fulfillment love must be reciprocal. It may be better to love than to be loved, but it's best to do both. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too, especially when dessert actually makes you hungry again (at over 400 calories an hour, I wonder for what position).

We all desire self-esteem and the esteem of others, which is the penultimate need. That is to say we want to achieve something great, and to be appreciated for our efforts. Either one on its own does not quite satisfy. What use is it to write the perfect essay if nobody reads it but me? (And yet I continue to try.) Conversely, universal praise for what the starving artist knows to be derivative garbage falls flat. Although with the hefty payday he can at least fill his fictional belly with ice cream.

Maslow was aware that even with the satisfaction of all these needs, even with a full stomach, safety, a stable relationship and financial success, a new discontent invariably follows, and restlessness soon develops. Why? Because we are wanting creatures, like the man said. But we are also creative creatures. And even making boatloads of cash will not cut it if your job does not really fulfill you. You must do what you are meant to do. What a person can be, he must be. The writer writes, the painter paints, and the performance artist does whatever the hell performance artists do. Self-fulfillment lies in actualizing what exists in you in potential. I'm beginning to sound preachy. It's not me! It's my man Mas, who makes a very good point when he says that people who are satisfied in the basic needs are basically satisfied people, and from them comes the highest art and creativity. But here's the rub: basically satisfied people are the minority, perhaps accounting for 1 percent of human beings. And so most of the what's out there passing for art is rubbish. Or as a writing teacher of mine used to say, it's mulch. Mulch is actually pretty versatile and inexpensive, and it really brings to life the garden, as I've recently come to find. Another matter, I mean mulch. Maslow actually believed that he could judge from a piece of art how fully the artist had satisfied his basic needs. That is he could gain insight into the writer's soul by reading his words. I know I can. How about you? What does this piece say about me, I wonder.

Of course, most "normal" people are partially satisfied in all their basic needs but also partially unsatisfied. Who wants to be normal? I say strive for that one percent. Strive for perfection. The fortunate few who have realized their true potential have "no sex needs or hunger needs, or needs for safety, or for love, or for prestige, or self-esteem, except in stray moments of quickly passing threat." Why, because they are fulfilled, if not transcended. It is possible to do without, especially if in the first 2 years of life you had great parents who saw to the satisfaction of your every craving. I think my mom and dad did fine. I just can't remember. So, transcendence is the key. 

Many sages have been noted to bypass the fulfillment of many needs, for example choosing celibacy over matrimony (stage 3) and taking up the begging bowl and walking stick in lieu of practicing a more traditional profession (stage 4). And yet these exemplary individuals are regarded as great beings and revered throughout history. I'm talking about the reluctant founders of the world religions, Christ and the Buddha and the like. When you think of how integral a part of our security religion can be, you are really grateful for these saints, who in exposing themselves to the harsh elements and jeopardizing their personal safety added so greatly to our own; and in declining the fame and fortune that their talents may have won them had they been so like their egoistic peers, their selfless deeds and simple ways have become celebrated for centuries after their death and earned them the recognition of ten Bruce Lees or Muhammad Alis. Doesn't life work out just right all the time?

Now, the popular version of Maslow’s hierarchy is based on his early work and includes only the five aforementioned levels. But his later work and private journal entries point to a sixth motivation. This zenith or high point for which we all should strive is, you guessed it, self-transcendence. This higher octave of self-actualization lies in giving yourself to some goal bigger than yourself, such as altruism and spirituality. Altruism is universal over individual; and the aim of spirituality is to experience the unity of all being. Maslow's highest need therefore, the one all lower needs pave the way for, is to sink our ordinary consciousness into some ineffable whole and perfect truth, whatever this truth may be.

To quote Maslow in an article entitled "The farther reaches of human nature," published in 1969 in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and later expanded into a book: 






You do not live by bread alone. That being said, eat, drink, sleep, be safe, have sex and make a name for yourself. But when it's all done know there's something bigger than you that awaits you. To find out what it is, look inside your heart. If you are not guided by your inner light, then help others find theirs. For as Maslow concludes his Theory of Motivation, the sick person is the frustrated person, and frustration of one's basic needs is made possible only by forces outside the individual. That is, by society. A sick individual is therefore a product of a sick society, and a healthy society is one which permits our highest purpose to emerge by satisfying all our basic needs. If that's not an argument for ice cream, I don't know what is! But I still prefer chocolate.



Friday, December 9, 2016

THAT NAMELESS THING



My second favorite John L. MacDonald potboiler is A Bullet for Cinderella. And if you aren't acquainted with this fine author's oeuvre, I suggest you start with the 1958 novel The Executioners, on which both versions of the excellent film Cape Fear were based. In the former quick and satisfying read, which is obtainable on Kindle for the reasonable price of under a dollar, one restless character says to another: "I've always been looking. Like that game where you come into the room and they've named something but you don't know what it is and you have to find out. I've been looking for something I don't know the name of. Ever feel like that?" 

The other character answers in the affirmative. 

"You don't know what it is, but you want it. You look in a lot of places for it. You try a lot of things, but they aren't it. This time I know I'm going to find it."

If you have ever looked for the car keys only to find them in your pocket, or rummaged through the hamper for a favorite shirt only to catch your mirror's image reflecting it back at you stains and all, or frantically ransacked the house for your designer sunglasses until you stop dead in your tracks and feel them on your head, or like me all of these, then you know the feeling of desperately seeking what you already have - or even, what you already are. This is so common we can go so far as to say it is part and parcel of the human condition. 

And so we live our lives striving, always seeking and never satisfied, at least not for long. Because who still wears his favorite shirt from high school, or those sweet Oliver Peoples shades he swore he'd never give away, or for that matter still owns that dope ass Jeep he tooled around town in when life couldn't get any better. Not even a minimalist like me. Tastes change. We want something new. We come restless for stimulation. But everything feels so tired, and we feel tired too. And we sing to ourselves, "Ho hum, it's all been done." And just like that we're the lyrics to a Marilyn Manson song. Which is I suppose better than being a character in a MacDonald thriller.


Because at the end of the novel the needful character, whose name is Antoinette, gets brutally killed. Shot in the face at close range. In the author's books as in our lives, death is the ineluctable end. As Tal the protagonist stares at her lifeless body, he wonders if bodily demise "could have been the nameless thing she sought. But I guessed that had she been given her choice, she would have wanted it in a different form. Not so ugly. Not with ruined face and cheap clothes."

What can we learn from this? Two things. First, that such childish behavior is actually quite common in adults. The other day my friend told me that while sharing a meal with his son, the boy who is seven was more preoccupied by the dish between them than he was by the food already on his plate. We so often look elsewhere. We "keep up with the Kardashians." The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. And then, after spending our lives in the enervating accumulation of possessions and experiences, with weary limbs and bleary eyes, and possibly empty pocketbooks, we seek death as a cessation of striving if not an escape from creditors. We want "eternal rest," or "lasting peace," to borrow the designations assigned by pastors to the recently departed at memorial services everywhere. And we believe that with the death of the body comes the death of the mind and all its willy-nilly whims! 

But what if this is not the case? What if the mind outlives the body and with it the endless yearnings for "something other," be it sense pleasure, distraction or preoccupation? And what if like the ghosts of drunks who are said to haunt their favorite watering holes, we are doomed to an eternal itch we cannot scratch? What a nightmare this would be!

But what if it were possible to die while still alive. To die to the desires which seize your breast seemingly at random, which is after all what willy-nilly means. To be content, come what may? This death while alive brings new life and lasting peace. Once you see the merry-go-round for what it is, desire leading to striving leading to temporary satisfaction leading only to new desire, once you realize you are going around in circles expending a lot of energy and incurring a lot of frustration but never going very far, you can consciously decide to step off. An option which suits me to a T. Even as a child I've never been one for carnival rides. 

Newsflash: that nameless thing has a name, and it's called I. It's what I call myself, and you call yourself, and what unites us in this crazed rat race for lasting equanimity which we can never know until we stop our rodent running. Sitting in stillness you realize that you already have everything you desire, because you are everything, or all that matters. Pure, crystalline consciousness. Timeless, ageless, without boundary or limitation. The medium through which all is experienced, without which nothing could ever occur! You, my friend, are an endless breath of fresh air. And you smell so sweet! Ahhhh.... But still, you say, wanting things and getting things is so much friggin' fun!

Which brings us to lesson number two. Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

SIMPLY I(RRESISTIBLE)

As a child growing up in an atypical American household, I was taught to eliminate the ego, or at least to be very suspicious of it. But what is the ego? A glance at the dictionary indicates that this word has many meanings, not all of which are synonymous. 

The ego can be a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance. Which is healthy and not to be eradicated, lest you become a yellow-bellied, spineless, mind-benumbed basket case. Sound like anybody you know? One would hope not. 

In psychoanalysis, the ego is "the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity." Again, not something we'd want to do without in daily life. Personal identity is important, or else we'll find ourselves in the post-apocalyptical world envisioned by Ayn Rand in her prose-poem, Anthem. A world in which individuality is replaced by collectivism, where the word I is struck from the vocabulary and replaced with the all-embracing word We. A world where "it is a sin to think words no others think," where "there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone." In this world, the slogan is "we are one in all and all in one. There are no men but only the great WE. One, indivisible and forever." 

It's weird how the most laudable feelings can be twisted and employed for devious ends. For isn't "all for one and one for all" the celebrated slogan of the Three Musketeers, whereby they are united in brotherhood, putting individual gain aside for the good of the team? Isn't this what teamwork is about? There is, after all, no I in team. Thanks, Coach. 

But yes, all good ideas, like tools, can if used wrongly lead to suffering and death. Like the notion of slaying the ego. I get that we should de-emphasize the lower self, the ego-based consciousness that views itself as separate and in antagonism to others, and so it focuses on self-aggrandizement and winning rather than losing. But what if the individual's gaining translates into a greater loss, for the community, the planet, for posterity? Isn't this what happens when we seek to get rich by polluting or pillaging the environment, as big business has done in the centuries since the Industrial Revolution? Not to point fingers, but as Prince would say, if the shoe fits... And so maybe individual industry and invention should be tempered by a consideration of what such invention and industry may lead to, in the big picture. Just one person's take on the subject.

But there is a deeper meaning to the word ego. Or at least it is more fundamental. For the ego, in philosophy, designates a conscious thinking subject. This is what you are, or should be. The word itself is Latin, and literally means I. And the I is the very word that the Hindus use to refer to the Self, or the Lord, or the Awareness that is the Source of all. In Sanskrit it is proclaimed, Tat Twam Asi. All that there is, I AM. In the Bible when Moses asks the Lord who it is that sent him, the Lord's reply is "Tell them I AM sent you." It's a confusing world in which the term you use to refer to yourself, I, is the very term designating all that there is, the entirety, which is I as well. Confusing or revealing. Because maybe they are one and the same. The individual and the totality. Like a drop of water and the ocean from which it is distilled. The essence is the same.

We cannot slay the essence of our existence. I've tried, and I've just wound up indecisive, lost and confused. But not anymore, because I've learned that what we can do is to allow the pure consciousness to envelop the small, opinionated, often petty and self-centered point of view that seems to dominate our day and age. We can be conclusionless, expecting nothing while being prepared for everything, open to all possibilities. And in that state of abeyance, floating like autumn leaves in the gentle and even not-so-gentle breeze, we are truly free. Did I say we? Excuse me. I mean you and me. Or for the sake of brevity, simply I. You'll find, as do I, that the I is irresistible!

Because, as Ms. Rand writes, "Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me, the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.... My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose." Yours too. So, let's be happy! Whatever loadstone means...


Monday, December 5, 2016

INDIVIDUALITY IS EVERYTHING


Individuality is everything. When I die, put these words on my tombstone. But before you do, be sure I'm cremated.

Ah to be a kid again! Remember those worry-free days? As a child, my thoughts took the form of daydreams, heady imaginings, idle fancies, call them what you will. I remember in the seventh grade, my most persistent concern was how to wear my hair the next morning, whether to blow-dry and spray my bangs in place or part to the side with gel. But then something happened. Actually it happened before I was 13. As a fifth grader, the teacher began assigning us homework. Suddenly our after-school focus was no longer exclusively on fun but had to make room for the 2 hours of busy work including grammar, algebra, essay-writing and Bible studies we were made to do each night before bedtime. How could I enjoy myself even while at soccer practice when I had a test the next day? But at least as children most of us get the basic tasks done for us. Our meals are prepared, room is cleaned, we are practically dressed and taken to and from school so we can spend our childhood without these cares. 

This changes in adulthood, for some earlier than for others. For me it was in college, actually before. As a high school senior I got a job waiting tables. Soon I began chipping in with expenses, making and buying my own food, cleaning up after myself with a thoroughness that would have impressed our housekeeper had she not moved back to Guatemala. Suddenly there was so much stuff to do. And still I had my schoolwork! The phrase used to be "I think, therefore I am." This is by the French philosopher Descartes, who must have had a lot of time on his hands. The motto in the harried modern world seems to have become "I fret, therefore I exist."

Something else happened in elementary school. I went to parochial school, where students wore uniforms. The boys dressed in blue corduroy and white collared shirts and the girls wore plaid skirts. We had to sit in rows and recite in unison at the teacher's prompting. We had to memorize poems. If there is a better way to make a child not appreciate Robert Frost than by making him commit "Stopping by Woods" to memory and regurgitate it on command as he stands in front of his snickering classmates, I have yet to come across it - though I'm sure the nuns will devise a newer brand of torture if it exists. "And miles to go before I sleep" indeed.

As my worry grew, my individuality was taken from me. And individuality is everything! One of my favorite passages in all of literature reads: "There are those who barter [individuality] for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life's bittersweet route."

The morning star is the planet Venus appearing in the east before sunrise. It is also used to designate Jesus, and ironically, Satan. Hey, both dudes were consummate individuals.

How many of what we do is conditioned by society, influenced by others? All the pastimes and pressing engagements. What we eat for breakfast, the clothes we wear. Our political beliefs, and morality. We watch the shows our friends watch, raise our kids as our parents raised us (despite our efforts to the contrary). Chances are you got your hairstyle from a magazine or celebrity, whose perfume you've also made a mental note to at least give a spritz (I've thus far resisted Johnny Depp's Sauvage but don't know how much longer I can hold out). You read what the tabloids tell you is a must-read. Maybe it's LA, but everyone around town seems to drive either a Range Rover or a Mercedes, as if these were the only two vehicles on the planet. Every guy is pasty, exercises in ill-fitting athletic Ts, and sports a paunch. And what chick under the age of say 40 isn't trying to mimic Kardashian's unnaturally full lips and bulbous backside?

Does individuality even exist anymore or has everyone resigned themselves to a cookie-cutter existence? How to live authentically in an age of mass-hypnosis and the relentless assault of our attention by marketing schemes? How to be truly who you are meant to be, the best version of yourself, without cutting yourself off from others completely and being like an island isolated at sea? This is the question of all questions.

Start by ceasing to think what others want you to think. It all begins in the mind, and ends there as well. Don't watch the news. Yesterday my father sends me this e-mail, its title: "example of mainstream media distorting news coverage." Beneath it my father writes: "The media have their own agenda so they will distort their coverage accordingly. It's called 'mind fucking.'" 

Not the most enjoyable topic to consider on a Sunday afternoon. Indeed his words gave me indigestion. 

Without clicking on the link I wrote: "Because it sells." 

Dad's reply: "The liberal media have an agenda and damn the facts which conflict with their agenda. In this case, all but Fox News were against Trump. To show a black woman urging the rioters to 'take it to the suburbs' would demonstrate the potential that blacks are a threat to middle class suburbanites thus influencing the vote of both white liberals and educated blacks who vote Democrat."

To which I wrote: "The media airs what appeals to viewers, that is, what titillates. And this is usually violence and controversy. Since news shows overemphasize shootings and bombings and catastrophes, they give the false impression that these unfortunate events are all that occur when in fact tragedy constitutes a small fraction of the events of everyday life. This coverage, skewed to what evokes one’s fight or flight mechanism and activates stress hormones, gives a distorted picture of reality. Fox News especially, since all they seem to feature are blustering hotheads talking about some version of how the sky is falling. Until programs such as these devote at least a portion of their coverage to such things as people lending a hand to their neighbors, trying to be better individuals, dealing with personal travails and other such seemingly non-noteworthy features, which actually form the bulk of daily life, they can justifiably be accused of distortion. Such coverage as I see it is really not worth the sane and healthy person’s time. Which is why I do not watch the news."

And neither should my dad, because though he'd never admit so much, the media was definitely activating his stress response by making him afraid. Race riots is the fear du jour.  (I'm not afraid. And neither should you be. Because we're all black. We all hail from Ethiopia, so many sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, or Lucy if you believe anthropologists.) News and shows and the advertisements that bracket news and shows and are interspersed throughout, sometimes subtly via product placement and a casual line of dialogue endorsing a convenience item, are subtly and not so subtly conditioning you on how to feel, how to think, and how to live your life. Leaving aside the fact that being stressed by catastrophes is unhealthy, and purchasing whatever you are told to purchase can quickly leave you without a pot to piss in, who in her right mind wishes to be a follower? 

Have some originality, for Godsakes. God knows I try. I listen to Sarah McLachlin. Heard of her? It's unlikely, if you're a heterosexual male. I run 30 to 50 miles a week. I did not grow up with anyone who ran this much. I picked up the habit on my own for the health benefits, the challenge, the enjoyment. I run barefoot without having any barefoot running friends. I have written a half dozen novels. I do not know anyone in the literary field. None of them have sold, likely because I do not know anyone in the literary field. Or because they all suck. I wear my hair long and use hoop earrings in each ear despite the constant urging of friends to quit being stuck in the 80s. (Actually, I started wearing hoops in the 90s.) But I look like a heavy metal reject because I feel like it, because having short hair requires too much time and maintenance, and maybe because I simply do not wish to fit in. Your appearance is a statement to the world. I'm not saying I'm perfectly original. Everything I think or do has been inspired or influenced by others, maybe not in my immediate social sphere but via what I read or (yikes!) what I see on TV on the rare occasion that I watch it. But I'm aware of this influence and conditioning as it happens, and so I can choose to adopt the next fad or, far more frequently, leave it for the sheep. May you not be among them.

Scientists say that the unconscious mind, the part of your psyche that you are not aware of, perceives everything. Every license plate number you encounter on the road, every word uttered in that crowded restaurant, every product placement item in that show you binge watch on Netflix. The more you expand your consciousness by becoming aware of your surroundings and your inner environment, the more you become in touch with the subtle forms of conditioning ever-present around you, and you finally break the mold. Then, when you give in to societal pressure, you do so consciously, which is to say, of your own free will. Thus you maintain your individuality and authenticity even while seeming to fit in and be like everybody else. 

Whatever you choose to do or not to do, I strongly advise growing your hair as long as you can and going without shoes as often as possible. I promise you'll thank me.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

GET THE MOST OUT OF VICE

A vice is an immoral or wicked behavior, often involving criminality. Which begs the question, what constitutes immoral behavior? Immorality does not conform to the accepted standards of morality. Morals are principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. A particular system of morals is held by an individual or society. Which means morality is subjective, and there are as many opinions as there are people to hold them. 

For example, you may be against cigarettes, calling them cancer sticks, but are okay with a hit or two off a doobie. The tobacco smoker may take the high road, calling you the druggie, since carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding, at least cigarettes don't alter one's consciousness, slowing reaction time and in the parlance of a friend of mine, merely making the user "horny, hungry and tired." I can see his point.

Drinking a bottle of wine and then driving your kids across town gets classified as immoral behavior in practically everybody's book because it involves the twin faux pas of child endangerment and drunkenness. Fine. But to the Christians in the house, having a glass of wine, perhaps even two, is acceptable behavior since it is endorsed by the Old Testament (God made wine to make men "glad") and accords with the habits of the Lord and Savior. Jesus Christ after all gave wine to his disciples, saying "Take this all of you and drink it, this is my blood, which shall be given up for you." I recited that from memory. Old parochial school habits die hard. 

However not all religions hold spirits in such high esteem. To the Hare Krishna a mere taste of any intoxicating substance, be it wine or beer or even coffee or tobacco, is strictly forbidden. And it goes without saying that drinking blood in the literal sense is pretty much unacceptable to all - excepting our vampire brothers and sisters, of course. We must remember, however, that morality is less about what goes into your mouth as it is about what comes out of it. If you speak softly and sweetly and practice kindness, then you are at liberty to defile your personal temple in whichever way you see fit. Or at least until it is no longer fun. Because enjoyment is everything. And too much of the good life can make you say stupid shit. Dope is aptly named.

Just my educated opinion, borne of observation and experience. Because let's face it. So called bad behavior is its own punishment. After a bender I don't fear fire and brimstone as much as I do the next morning's hangover, with its pounding headache, puffy eyes and leaden limbs. Cancer is an almost inevitable consequence of the injudicious use of tobacco, and the result of indiscriminate promiscuity is venereal disease, or can be. So pursue these pleasures at your own risk.

But let's allow for the sake of discussion that the common physical vices - those which people are the most vociferous and divided over - are drinking, smoking, caffeine, meat and sex. What place should these behaviors, if any, be accorded in your life? If your wish is to derive the most enjoyment out of existence with minimum damage to your physicality, can you indulge in these pastimes without harm and even more importantly, without the guilt? We are conditioned to feel guilt. About our naked bodies. About our pleasures. It is indoctrinated in school, and by religion and our parents and our elders. And once you hit adulthood, by your peers as well. There are so many goody-goodies! At some point almost every brand of fun is labeled bad, to be avoided, or at least moderated. Food, Internet, TV, porn, smart technology. Even so-called healthy addictions like exercise and sleep and reading, if indulged in excessively, quickly become too much of a good thing.

But can you be a little vicious without endangering your life or making yourself feel bad and pathetic? I think so.

If you drink, choose low alcohol varieties. I'm talking beer and wine. This is what the Bible speaks of when it says to drink and be merry. Higher alcohol content (40 to 50 percent alcohol or more, which is ten times what is in beer) results from distillations of potatoes and mash as found in the hard liquors, whiskey and vodka and their like. The strong stuff did not exist in biblical times. In modern times these spirits lend themselves to abuse, drunkenness, and the irresponsible behavior that arises, like driving your kids around town or getting busy with your neighbor's wife. I am not speaking from experience, because I lay off the hard stuff. And a little alcohol has a lot of benefits. Beer can safeguard your heart, boost your immunity, make you more creative, protect your bones, and more. Provided you are moderate. The expansive feeling and heightened well-being and confidence generally disappear after more than two drinks, maybe one if you're female. So make ETOH work for you rather than be its slave. For me drinking was always a test of manliness, a chore to get through. Shots! Or, a keg. Something to be overcome. By the time my friends and I did, we were sloshed. The fun was gone. Don't be like that me. And if wine is your brand of poison, take heed: red leads to heavy head and limbs like lead, while white is light and bright. Like you, if you have a glass.

Of the many intoxicants (drugs) out there, caffeine and tobacco have been used for centuries for their stimulating effects. The coca leaf as well, from which cocaine is derived. I've become a connoisseur of caffeine. I've had it in as many varieties as exist. Coffee and its incarnations as espresso and cold brew. Various energy drinks and sodas. I can say that the best buzz, the clearest, least jittery and without the lull that comes with adrenal exhaustion, is to be found in teas, and in yerba mate, a Brazilian holly which provides "the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate." Sold yet? You should be. These substances have compounds such as theobromine, which works synergistically with caffeine to produce euphoria and also mellow out the buzz. My favorite these days is a couple tea bags (green and black) brewed with cocoa powder and stevia, or 12 oz of yerba mate made in the coffee machine. The caffeine content is about half what you'd find in coffee, but the buzz in much cleaner.

As for tobacco, I've tried it all. I smoked cigarettes for a time in college, but hated the lung burn and the difficulty breathing that ensued. I'm a runner, and so anything that prevents me from running fast and long is anathema to me. I have smoked a lot of cigars in the succeeding decades. They are all-natural and you don't inhale. But cigars can be expensive and they don't taste as good if they go out and are relit. So you are committed to a one-hour smoke, which is a lot of time seated on one's behind. Recently I've experimented with a pipe. After the initial purchase of said pipe, the habit itself is quite economical. For $5 or $10 you can get a bag of good tobacco that can last for several weeks. You can pack your pipe loosely or densely, depending upon how long you wish to experience it, and if it goes out, as it often does when you are in intense conversation, as you'll often be while smoking your pipe, you can always relight without sacrificing flavor. There have been many famous pipe smokers, from Einstein to Doyle and many other writers besides. And remember our Native Americans with their peace pipe. An Indian proverb goes: "A pipe is to the troubled soul what caresses of a mother are for her suffering child." Which is why I sometimes find solace after my mother's death in the pipe she once bought me.

If you eat meat, and I currently do not, at least don't eat mammals. They are too human for my taste. And hair and hooves are not exactly my idea of appetite stimulants. Stick to fish, and the eggs of mammals. And eat these infrequently and in moderation. The world's oldest lady, who is 117, attributes her longevity to eating 2 raw eggs every day. Be like her but in the interest of taste and salmonella avoidance, just be sure to boil your baby chickens first.

Gambling is never a good idea, as the odds are always with the house. If you do take a risk, play the game of life and always bet on yourself. Sex with strangers is always a gamble. You never know what you are going to get. True love, fatal attraction, a night to remember, or a pesky rash? It seems that with sex, as with a lady's nether anatomy, the elusive sweet spot varies with each individual. Which is fitting, since the conception of morality does too. Lest we forget what the hell we're talking about. I adopt the advice of anti-aging expert Norman Shealy, MD, and suggest you do too. The good doctor suggests that we make an effort to orgasm twice or thrice weekly, which is really no effort at all, it feels so damn good. And if you're currently unaffiliated, be like me and engage in self-love frequently. To those in search of visual stimuli, this pretty package is gender friendly. Because who doesn't appreciate a firm behind? And it comes pre-wrapped. I always love when Christmas comes early.


Friday, December 2, 2016

YOU CAN CALL ME A CAB

My friend was trying to convince me to get a smartphone. I'm one of the 30 percent of American adults without said technology. But I do own a cell phone - a trusty 2006 Blackberry without Internet capabilities - I just never use it. Or only when I leave the house, which is rare, and only in the event that I need to make calls or send texts. Mostly the only calls I receive are from telemarketers. Each voicemail they leave robs me of one of my minutes. Which peeves me, because I pay as I go. I don't like plans. (How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.) Nor do I like monthly fees. It works for me.

My friend's argument was this. If I were her only lifeline, her emergency contact, and she got mugged and needed a Uber and called me, I wouldn't be able to rescue her without a smartphone, so I'd have to call her a cab, that overpriced throwback that smells like smoke and never comes on time. Imagine failing to come through and in a matter of life or death! Never mind that this scenario is as unlikely as it gets. She has more of a chance of getting mugged and being left with her smartphone than she does of getting struck by lightning while she is swimming in the ocean during a shark attack. In other words no chance. And never mind that the day before I had tried to call this friend, and emailed her as well, I didn't hear back until the evening. When I reminded her of this, she said she hadn't gotten the message. She had been working on a project and had turned her phone off so as not to be interrupted. Even with her fancy device she had been unreachable. So if I had been the one mugged and she was my only hope I'd have been shit out of luck. She later confessed that she had gotten my morning message when I had left it but had chosen not to reply. Catching her in a lie didn't do a great thing for our friendship. I'd expect more from a human. Not even my computer would leave me hanging.

We broached the topic of cost. Her cell phone costs $800 and with planned obsolescence built in she will need to replace it next year. Thanks Steve Jobs, you mf. Planned obsolescence is his legacy, a model that many other companies are following. If you don't believe me, have a look at our growing landfills, filled as they are with last year's Christmas gifts. Which is why I don't give them. I heard that with the new model of some phone, the battery is not replaceable, so after it dies, after I think 700 hours or something, the phone itself is worthless. My friend's way around this fee is to put only half down and pay the other half in installments, then to cell the phone (get it?) after the year is almost up and purchase the newer version. Who would want to buy a year old device? This implies that there are many users unlike herself that don't want the latest model. And $75 a month for unlimited minutes and text and data seems like a lot to pay. This is in addition to her $50 monthly Internet fee, and she doesn't even get TV. I tell her I pay $100 for Internet and a land line, which is $25 less than she pays, and I at least get basic channels so in the event my friends come over and want to watch "the big game," I can oblige. May that day never come.

And so my answer is no. No I will not get a smartphone. No, neither should you. And if you have one, use it less than I do my computer. Because I check my laptop practically every hour for emails I hardly receive. It's a compulsion, which would be compounded by having a handheld device to check as well. And those unwieldy things look so bulky in one's pocket. Can they really fit in one's jeans? If so, are you packing a piece or just glad to see me? Yada-yada. And if you do cherish your technology, which you simply cannot live without, as it's tied to your business, then at least make your employer pay for said phone, which is nothing more than a silicon leash. It's what my friend does. And if you are that employer, write the thing off. 

Now I know that more and more people are in a relationship with their phones. Sleeping by them in bed. Checking them when they have sex. If you are such a person, don't be that guy or gal. But even if you long for the day when your device will be implanted beneath your skin so that you merge with your technology, having all this data, knowledge, processing speed not merely at your fingertips but on the tip of your tongue, on the top of your head, please oh please: preserve your humanity. It's the one thing you have that the computers never can, because they are not human. Our computers are already smarter, faster and more longevitous than us (longevitous really needs to be a word, for how else to say longer-lived?) They are better at math, more efficient at problem solving, better able to focus for long periods without getting distracted by Facebook/Twitter/Instagram or Reddit/Snapchat/Netflix/Amazon/Hulu not to mention the ads on these sites and video games besides, with memories far more reliable than yours or mine. But they are not human. 

And what does it mean to be human? For one thing, it means frailty. Because I can get sick, break a bone, be helpless, I know that you can too. And when you do or are, I can be there for you. Unlike the phone that freezes or whose battery dies at precisely the most inopportune moment in time. Unlike the friend who wouldn't take my call. The friend who may need a lesson in humanity to really be the friend I need. And don't lose your ability to laugh. Even Siri has a sense of humor, or so I hear.

Because haven't you noticed how serious many people are? Especially the younger generation. That is, younger than I, who am 40ish. It's as if they mistake talking fast and hording facts for intelligence and expertise. It's not. It just makes you sound like you're on crack, or are manic, or have OCD. Because flight of ideas and pressured speech can be hallmark signs of all three. Sweetness is something that Siri, or Cortana, or Google Now can't manage. And Amazon Echo doesn't take offense when you bark orders at it. But people do, so don't be so curt and monotone with me. Remember your Ps and Qs! Please and thank you.

I think the more time we spend interacting with nonliving things that more and more seem living, able as they do to speak and almost to relate, the more we take on those nonliving characteristics ourselves, the more our intelligence morphs into some inferior version of the very artificial intelligence that we spawned to serve us. It gets so under my skin when I interact with people who with their lifeless eyes and flattened affect seem more like automatons, or like the clinically depressed. Maybe too much Ritalin is getting passed around. I've taken enough of amphetamines both legal and not to know they make you live in your head. Seriousness should not be mistaken for smarts. A quick reply is not always the correct one. Einstein was reported to have waited hours or days before getting back to people, because he really mulled over what they had said, and his replies were well thought out. I leave a more terse term to the top of your head, or your word search. And some of the most brilliant people in the world are also the funniest. So don't mistake levity for lack of smarts. Mark Twain, or Einstein's twin, has written some of the wittiest stuff under the sun. 



Be kind. Judge yourself by your capacity to love others, your tenderness and willingness to feel. Stop finding fault, correcting, being pedantic. Leave these traits for the unfortunate OCDers of the world. A preoccupation with detail is a sign of this personality disorder. With your furrowed brow and straight face you can seem very efficient but ultimately you get nothing done. This curious phenomenon, mistaking the appearance of efficiency for actual efficiency, is ego-syntonic. Appearing smart or quick is consistent with one's ideal self-image, which makes it very difficult to dispel. But we are not always what we pretend to be. Ego-dystonic refers to behaviors which are in conflict with the ideal self. And spending so many hours on your device is precisely that. It is not fun, it is not making you smarter, you are not getting things done. You are wasting time, ruining your vision, and building a bigger behind. In a word, don't. 

Permit me a speculation. Why is autism on the rise? I asked my friend who is a clinical psychologist. Is it due to the greater prevalence, or to more sensitive methods of detection? was my query. Both, is his surmise. At least he didn't implicate vaccines or the entire restaurant would have joined us in heated debate. I preferred the food on my plate. But here's a tidbit to test your palate. Consider the characteristics of autism. Little eye contact, minimal acknowledgment of others. These poor buggers are losing their humanity as a result of spending too much time in front of screens, raised by parents who do too much of this themselves. Reluctance to being touched? How about because mommy and daddy are holding them less? The cure for this condition and so many others is love and tenderness. Try it. I am not a child psychologist, so this is only my opinion. If Google told you this you'd believe it, so why not believe a humble guy with an MD?

You are not your device. You will never be. Even if it is implanted in you, you will always remain separate. Its processing speed and storage capacity will remain foreign and unfamiliar, even if they are under your skin. But you will always have your humanity. It's something you're born with, like your breakable bones and my brain farts. Your ability to empathize is uniquely human, as is your creativity and capacity for non-linear thought. Next time you hold your phone, it cannot feel you. Unable itself to feel pain, your handheld device can never put itself in your place. So leave the cold rationality, the insensitivity, to the overpriced 2 dimensional screen you feel obliged to carry around with you and check impulsively mainly because that's what everybody else does. But know that there are still some of us who do not. Have some humanity. You are 3D. That third dimension is where all the fun is at. And surfing Facebook really isn't such a good time, is it? It's hard on the eyes. As is reading this. So I'll stop for now.

Oh and if I ever need a Uber to come visit you, you can always call me a cab.