Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why I'm Not Writing Poems At the Moment

Well, it's complicated.

Of course, that's what one always says. But there is truth to it. I am at the moment going through an exhausting process of getting rid of most of my belongings, preparing to sell my house and move, probably even be homeless for a month or two, and going on from there. It's a big change, and often quite overwhelming. It is so enveloping a situation that I find myself not making much art right now—which is an aberration in itself—and in particular not doing much writing.

This is one of those things that I will write about when it's all over. When, during the course of the summer, I will probably be living in a tent, traveling for a bit, spending some time absorbing and processing what has been happening, and what has happened, and thinking about What Next. I often do much of my my best thinking and writing while traveling. I often write longhand when on the road, poems, essays, journal rants, even the occasional short story. I expect that to happen, this summer, once the dust settles. I really miss not having been able to travel much in the past year or so. Cabin fever has been a constant problem. I didn't get to do a road trip out West in the past 20 months, and I can feel both the spiritual and psychological pressure, and the physical restlessness, that are a result.

Not making art is not good for me. I've been under too much stress and anxiety. So, sometimes I just have to shout. Sometimes you just have to. I have been making some art, in between, but the stress and physical exhaustion of all that must get done has often left me with no energy after a long day or night, and I just collapse. It's not good for me to not make art. It can be worrisome if I'm not getting that done.

And the truth is, I have been in a music-making and visual art mode for several months, writing only scraps of poetry, and shorter personal essays, rather than longer poems and so on. I have been composing a lot of music in the past few years, and that is so very satisfying that it sometimes makes the rest of the art-making go away. Music is still my centre, my core, my deepest source and root. Poetry has never been the primary art form for me—which has been known to piss off other poets, who think it ought to be, or like my poems well enough that they want more. Well, most of them have other jobs, too: so they have no pressure on their writing beyond what they put into it. I am required to use my creativity for whatever trickle of income it generates. So I wrote a short poem when I am moved to: not when folks want me to. It's a matter of focus.

But also of crop rotation. Right now, I'm just not in poetry mode. I expect that will come around again. Honestly, I write a lot of poems, and good or better poems, when I'm not feeling so musically satisfied. The visual art is on its own parallel track, because these days it just goes on no matter what, since even my cellphone has an excellent camera on it. I can always make photos.

Recently I spent some time in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at artwork. It's always inspiring to visit a museum full of paintings and other art. You get ideas. You absorb the vibe. You think about how other artists lived and worked. You feel validated in even some of your craziest. It's always a good day when it's spent in an art museum.

And so, why I'm not writing poems at the moment doesn't really matter. It will shift back in that direction when I'm on the road again, I have no doubt of it. I hope to write a few more songs soon, as I am finally ready to gather enough songs to record a solo album of songwriting. There will be other singers than myself, I hope; singers with better voices, albeit under my producer's direction. I hope to get to that once I'm past this big change in life. Stay tuned.

For the moment, this is just a ramble out loud down the thinking lane towards the garden of forking paths. Who knows what's around the nest turn? I never have known what art I'm going to make next. I just do it, and see what happens. And we go on.

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Fantasy LP Covers

Fantasy LP covers made from my own artwork and photography, and used to both appear in gallery shows, and to promote my own music. Some of these have been printed as 12x12 prints and attached to vintage LP record sleeves found in thrift stores. A couple have been displayed in gallery show openings. At least one was used to promote a new song I have written. Which also gives me the idea to finally record and release an album of my own songs. I'll get around to that soon, I hope, life willing.

This next group of LP covers was made for the opening of a showing of my photographs of Silverwood County Park:

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Solstice 2014

the magic is about
light even in darkness
song even in silence
a promise of sun's return
the memory of trees

for all the dark between stars
is filled with light and song
for every atom vibrates and pulses
in endless song
for even dark matter is filled with light
because all matter is just slow light
that can be ignited by the spark of time

as was proven by the shining
of both sun and bomb
of night's ignition into dawn
of angels' glory sung in the tulips of spring
and the light inside these limbs

Light in the darkness
Song in the silence
Every thing that is alive
Reflecting this glory, this shine
So it is and ever shall it be

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Music is Life

There was never any doubt I was going to be a musician.

I started piano at age 6, as soon as we got home from India, at my mother's insistence. She herself had been a concert pianist, played live music on the radio, taught piano, and got her degree in piano and education, before my parents were married and took our family to India, where my father was a medical doctor. I had my first piano recital circa age 7,experiencing horrible stage fright. Thankfully, stage fright went away soon, and I've never really experienced it again. It was a function of profound shyness, which I still experience but have learned to work through, mostly; but with music performance, I am sure of myself when onstage, due to long experience. I studied piano with Frances Danforth in Ann Arbor; years later, after I had graduated from music school, we reversed roles and I tutored her in composition. I have a few of her solo piano music scores around here somewhere, including Karelian Light, which I remember as being a luminous tone poem for piano.

I did try to go into science in college, specifically geology, which I still love to read about, and look at rocks in outcrops. Nonetheless I followed my bliss and I transferred to music school for composition, against everyone's wishes, except for William Albright, the composition professor who became my mentor and academic advisor and friend.

Most of my career missteps in life have come from listening to "sensible" advice from family and friends who told me I'd never make a living in music or the arts, and that I should get sensible work, pay my bills on time, be an upstanding citizen, and so on—on one level they were right, but most of the years I worked as a graphic designer and desktop publisher in corporate culture I felt unfulfilled and unhappy, except on those rare occasions where I was allowed to use my creativity as part of the job. And let's be honest, that kind of job security was only false security in the long run: after many years in publishing I got kicked to the curb with little to show for it.

The only corporate jobs I ever liked were ones that allowed me to be creative, in whatever ways were available. I did like working for book and magazine publishers as a graphic artist, as I occasionally got turned loose creatively; and I taught myself to become a Photoshop expert during idle moments on the job.

In more recent years, sick and unable to work corporate hours anyway, I've written reams of poetry and essays, been commissioned to write large works of music, written several new songs, and a few new medium-scale compositions. I am writing more music now than I had in years, and almost all of it is getting performed. So I've come full circle from when I was in music school, when almost everything I wrote was performed; in part because I like writing for specific performers, many of whom ask me to write for them. It's not a guarantee of getting a performance, or even a good one, but it is incentive to write.

I have also been singing my own songs: for the first time, I have enough confidence in my own ability to play and sing my own songs, to be able to get onstage and do it. At first there was some stage fright. But what you learn from experience is that courage means being scared to death, and getting up there and doing it anyway. I am gradually gathering enough new songs, which I have written mostly for myself, to record an album. That will come to fruition in the near future, I hope.

Therefore I am always going to be someone who encourages young musicians to keep making music. Even if they don't make it their career, they will be better people, and happier for having music in their lives. As several psychological and medical studies have shown, playing music at a young age has many benefits later in life.

Music is life.

Living is dancing.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Ten Albums That Have Influenced Me

Ten albums that have influenced me (I'm cheating a bit as some artists have more than one album listed, and in some cases their entire body of work has influenced me):

1. Wendy (née Walter) Carlos: Switched-On Bach. Either the first or second LP I ever bought. Wore out at least two copies over the years, maybe three. First, here are modern electronic instruments playing some favorite classical music, proving that it works. Second, this was my introduction to the possibilities of the Moog synth. (I own two at this point.)

2. Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil. Laswell has always done really interesting kinds of music, often ten years ahead of everyone else. HNE is a fusion of hard urban grooves with Americana, West African and Indian rhythms, and Beat sensibility. This is one of my main influences when I pay improvised rock, prog, and jazz. Laswell proved that you can put a dub bassline on almost any kind of improvised music and make it solid. There are several other Laswell albums I could have listed here, yet this is one I keep coming back to again.

3. King Crimson: Discipline. Like so many others, Tony Levin was who influenced me to play Stick. This is just a great and enduring album, light and dark by turns, proving to me that "math rock" at its best is gutsy and emotional, not just cerebral. "The Sheltering Sky" contains a flavor of emotional intensity I had only ever heard before in composers like Bartok, Ligeti, Gorecki, or Grieg.

4. Javanese Court Gamelan, Vol. II: Istana Mangkunegaran (Nonesuch Explorer Series). The whole Nonesuch Explorer Series was very influential on my life, opening the door to world music (long before worldbeat was a pop music genre), and eventually to studying ethnomusicology. This album, from the Mangkunegaran influenced me not only musically but personally: eventually I traveled to Indonesia on a Fulbright and studied gamelan at the Mangkunegaran itself, playing some of the music on this album on those same instruments. For me that was a numinous, thrilling, amazing, near-religious experience. I devoted many years of my life to playing and studying Javanese gamelan, and it affected the way I play improvised music, too.

My immersion in gamelan and world music completely changed how I think about music and music-making. Gamelan was part of my immersion in pattern music: music based on ostinatos, on repeating patterns, on additive rhythm, on gradual process. The next three albums are also part of that experimentation with that kind of music, each from a different direction: jazz, rock, classical.

5. John Klemmer: Touch. Before late high school I had had no interest in jazz, rock, pop, or anything but classical and avant-garde music. This LP got me into jazz because the music was ostinato-based themes treated as jazz heads. I still find it really appealing, as well as still being outside the jazz mainstream. From here, all of jazz opened its doors to me, although I remain most strongly drawn to the jazz avant-garde, the more "outside" music like "free jazz" or the composed complexity of Ellington. And I could also list Brubeck's "Time Out" as a key influence here, too.

6. Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells, Hergist Ridge, and Ommadawn. I remember having an argument in the van on a free afternoon when I was studying geology in Wyoming, when a bunch of us college students were stuffed in the van listening to the Jackson radio station. "Theme from The Exorcist" came on, and everybody was into the music, but nobody but me knew it was excerpts from Tubular Bells. Oldfield built layers of melody and harmony over gradually built-up musical patterns. All three of his early album-length recordings were influential on me, but Ommadawn is in my opinion one of the greatest works of the 20th Century. People don't realize how much folk music influenced Oldfield, and as an ethnomusicologist I can hear that influence all through here.

7. Steve Reich: Drumming (DGG 3 LP set) and Music for 18 Musicians. Gradual process music, which is actually the opposite of "minimalism," a term Reich has never liked. Small repeating musical patterns change gradually, and expand and contract, creating layers of interacting sound. This music influenced me as a composer, certainly, as well as a listener. Music for 18 Musicians is one of the greatest works of classical 20th Century music; and this is proved in part because it is now being played by talented high school groups, too.

8. John Cage. I've always listened to lots of classical avant-garde music, or "experimental" music. I can't pick a particular Cage recording that was a major influence, because his entire body of work has been a major influence on me. Maybe I could single out on the LPs of the Variations. I've performed a lot of Cage over the years, as well. Probably the 2 LP set of Indeterminacy (Folkways) is what I would have to single out as an important influence, as it combined music, "noise," and words together. This led me towards text-sound poetry, which of course had a lot to do with, which is the use of the spoken word as a musical element.

9. David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London: Music of the Middle Ages and The Six Wives of Henry the VIIIth. Munrow was one of the leading lights of the Early Music revival scene in the 1970s, which was a both scholarly and popular revival of Medieval and Renaissance music performance on original instruments, that continues to this day. Munrow's 3 LP set of Medieval music was my first introduction to the very modern-sounding music of the 13th and 14th Centuries, which still sound avant-garde. This was my first intro to Perotin, the great composer of organum. And Munrow also did the soundtrack, period music on period instruments, for the hit BBC TV series about Henry the VIIIth, which my family avidly watched together as it was first broadcast on PBS. Medieval studies has had almost as big an impact in my life as has ethnomusicology, and in similar ways. Munrow was who opened that door for me.

10. Joni Mitchell: Hejira. There have been a lot of singer-songwriters of the "folk revival" who have had a big impact on me as a songwriter, but Joni Mitchell towers over all of them. This is not only an album full of great songs, it's also musically adventurous and was ahead of its time. Mitchell took a lot of flak for always evolving her sound, rather than staying the little waif with singing autobiographical songs about love, and jazz was a huge influence on her, culminating at one point with Mingus. It's all there in Hejira, though, combined with the appeal of being a musical road trip full of vivid characters and scenes. Some of the songs on "Hejira" have not only influenced me as a songwriter, they have at times seemed to be the narrative of my own life.

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Letter to Orphée

Thinking of a lyre of wood and wire and earth,
an earth lyre, I think of an elemental music,
a music made of earth, metals and woods
and stones of earth, played by wind howling
outside the house this dim, blustery day. The clouds
last evening, and pale light this morning, look like snow coming,
not rain. Rushes of sound, wind blowing across
the housetop, reverberate down the chimney.
Orpheus picks up a strangely curved branch of fallen
wood off the forest floor, strings it with copper wires, and plays.
His lyre summons spirits of the air, voices hiding behind
wind and mist, his singing voice, his poetry, becomes the telling
of seasons, days turning the planet under stars.
An elemental voice describing a concerto of ever-changing forces
and spirals in the sky. Spiral wood beams struck by lightning
embrace a pale white stone from anywhere but here.
Perhaps an ancient sea. You cannot be unaware, Orpheus,
that time and change take us all, that these stones eroding
to dust and leaves in this interstellar wind were once
a shallow sea, or that the peak of our tallest mountain
is made of shells of sea creatures that died millions of years gone
to fall to deep ooze and be pressed into rock
by the pressures of what came after. My home
is a temple of standing stones. Red and gold sandstones
form a shelter around whose curves the wind howls. We work
these metal flakes, gold bright and soft copper green, into veins
of the lyre of Orpheus, seams in the wood, ore seams in the earth.
Its copper strings gleam with forged memory. Its curve
is a memory of birds nesting in the crook of an ancient bole,
a tree much older than any bird, once fallen forgotten
by the descendants of sparrows and robins who once it sheltered.
Birds nest in the hair, the ear, of Orpheus, and dictate their songs
to his receptive tongue, his voice which forgets nothing,
not even the oldest groan of the planet giving spontaneous birth to life.
It's tempting to believe that those who refuse to hear these spirits
singing have themselves no souls, but we must not judge, we must
leave room for revelation. Everything connects. Webs and orbs
and lyre-spiders who weave them. Atoms of everything, whirling
in apparent silence within these fossiled stones, glint and spark
in light cast by the voice of the son of dreaming. His torn limbs
cast upon waters and forest floor. Orphée retrieves his own bones
and sinew as he picks up another fallen treelimb to weave
a newer lyre. Look, will you not: gold leaves glow
in the last rays of afternoon, below this hillside meadow,
and behind that is the whirling sparkle of molecules dancing,
and behind that the velocity of a shining planet, an orb
hurling itself into silence. We are the cliffs we jump from.
Our naked flesh breaks the laketop shimmer as we fall,
we disappear forever into that water mirror, then placidity returns.
Low hum of oceans singing in the blood, wind in the copper wires
of a sacred city, a lyre strung above dark streets the moon guards.
A forest of shadows grows within oil slicks reflecting streetlights
and trash bins. But in time, deep time, this forest made of bricks
will be overeaten and digested by new forests, returned and ink-vined
along borders of papyrus leaves woven into sheets of sand
by the lyre's unending song. The lowest string on a harp
of air and ice, the lowest tone that, struck,
can shatter crystal mountains. Wind strokes
the highest strings into humming.
Orpheus takes breath, opens his mouth to sing again.
What comes forth
shapes wind-blown broken sandflakes
back into mirrors full of starlight.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Are you an Artist or a Maker?

I tend to think of myself as a "maker," because "artist" carries a lot of baggage around what people assume an "artist" to be. This is as true for artists as for non-artists.

(Point of order: Not everyone makes "art" or "fine art," or even "arts and crafts," but everyone has creativity as their human birthright. We are all creative in little ways, and in other ways, even if we do not "make art.")

Although I can call myself an Artist, because I have made "fine art" that has hung in galleries and walls in homes, and I do practice several artforms and art skillsets that are recognized as being "fine art," including music composition, poetry, painting, photography, multimedia, and so on, I tend to prefer to use "Maker" because it's a more neutral term. I make stuff. Some of it is art, some of it is just stuff that a creator makes, or a gadget engineer, or an artist making a sketch.

A lot of the baggage that "Artist" carries is cultural stereotypes and hoary romanticized clichés: you have to suffer for your art; artists are lonely, tortured souls who alone in starving squalor; artists are inherently disorganized and incapable of managing their lives; artists are depressed or suicidal drunks; and so on. Note how many clichés about artists are negative rather than positive: that's the cultural narrative since the early Romantic poets, and it's a narrative that's never been more than 25 percent true. For one thing, if artists really were that tortured and depressed all the time, they'd never actually have the energy to make their art.

Even the associated cultural narrative of "the artist's heroic struggle against the world dragging you down, to produce your masterpiece" is more myth than fact; because even artists like myself, who work more from intuition rather than intellect, still make art as a daily prctice, as a mode or way of being. Part of making things is just to make them, every day, as an ordinary activity. Like going to do your job.

For me, making art is a very positive thing, not a negative thing. It's not work I have to force myself to do, or fight to achieve. Making art is as necessary, and as easy, as breathing. It's not a heroic struggle, not even when I'm struggling against physical ailment or depression. You can view making art as therapeutically balancing or expressing life's many problems (glass half empty), or you can view it as transcending and overcoming life's many problems (glass half full). The truth is, making art is what you do, whether you're having a bad month or a good one; you just keep making art, no matter what. It can be your everyday salvation, it can give you reason to go on living, it can be the routine, the one constant in your life while everything else is falling apart.

Ironically, even though there are many "positive thinkers" out there who probably think I'm negativity personified (probably because I reject their simplistic aphorisms in favor of more nuanced and realistic overviews), in truth I'm very optimistic and positive about the benefits of expanding creativity in one's life to the utmost. I do think it's good that we all make art of some kind, even if no one but you ever sees it or knows you do it. The purpose of making a painting isn't to become a famous painter, it's just to make a painting; fame is often quite accidental, and capricious. And fickle. I make a lot of sketches and other little things that no one ever sees; they're not good enough to share, period. (The only reason you'll ever see early drafts or sketch versions is because I'm interested in the creative process for its own sake, and I sometimes like to examine a piece from inception to completion to see what happens during the process.)

For my recent art installation, "The Temple of Deep Time" (one of ten corn crib installations at Silverwood County Park), I had an overall conception, an early and immediate vision that I had when I first visited Silverwood, and saw the spiral tree rounds and the corn cribs there, and the end result was in fact very close to the original vision, and written proposal. And in order to get to completion, I had to use almost all of my skills as a creative person (the use of combinations of which is the very definition of "multimedia"), including: graphic design, computer work, photography, drawing, carpentry, math skills, a little bit of programming (in collaboration), getting up on ladders and doing construction, weaving, lighting design, electrical wiring, laser and solar technology, research into weather and solar annual variations, music composition, recording studio production skills, illustration, typography, paper arts, woodworking, calligraphy, and more. Even with this list, I've probably left something out.

So all of that went into making this art installation. And I did it all in about six or seven weeks, from inception to completion. (With a few details added later.) and last night I spent several hours doing long-exposure night photography (which I have taught) and HD video, to document the night-time aspects of my art installation, The Temple of Deep Time. The piece is about time, in multiple ways, on several layers, from past to future. Every element and aspect of the piece is a meditation on time, in some way. That is why I included a laser light show, and a music playback system: music is a timebound art, it has duration, then it ends. Music is an artform you cannot experience without time. It's only appropriate that it both in or porters time-bound arts as part of its design, and also requires being documented over time, using time-shifting as well as time-bound technologies. I will at some point do a time-lapse video of the installation, as well.

To make this art installation I used many skills beyond those (assumed to be) reserved for fine art. In truth, I don't draw a strong distinction between making things and making art.

All of this is why Maker seems to suit what I do better than Artist. If we must have labels or titles or categories. Honestly, labels and categories are for theory, which serves to describe what has been made. But I don't think about any of this when I'm making. I just Make.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Thoughts on Memorial Day

How about we do this, on one of the first Memorial Day celebrations since the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell? How about we remember another group of honored soldiers I still don't hear anybody talking about in the usual patriotic buzzword-filled emotional Memorial Day speeches? How about we remember those other fallen heroes many would still neither honor nor claim?

Let us pause in memory of those many LGBT men and women in uniform who silently served and silently gave their lives for our country, who remained closeted while they served, because until now they could not be proudly out and proudly serve.

Let us honor those living LGBT veterans who wanted nothing more than to serve their country, but who were denied their right to do so, and were discharged early and dishonorably when their sexual orientation was discovered.

Let us honor those LGBT soldiers who gave everything they had for their country, even while their country would not give them equal rights at home.

Let us honor those other veterans who died when they returned home, some by their own hand after being hounded throughout their service and their lives by prejudice, some by neglect because ignored and invisible, those for whom it is too late to offer living honors, for whom all we can give now is a wreath. For some of these, let us bow our heads in the knowledge that that they took their own lives once discharged for being gay or lesbian, because they could not lead the only life they loved, and could make no other life for themselves. Let us remember these lost ones, so that no future veterans may be driven to such extremes.

Let us honor and remember all of these good veterans, who also served out of love and duty, even when it was hardest. They gave honor even when it was not given to them, these genuine, true, proud warriors who put others before themselves, who chose to put duty before personal honor, and who sometimes sacrificed everything just so they could serve. They served valiantly and courageously, not because it was easy but because it was hard.

Let us remember their service with pride and with some small amount of shame, for they were poorly used. When they were dishonorably discharged for being gay and lesbian, it was not they who had no honor; it was those who discharged them, for no other reason than their being LGBT, who showed dishonor. Let us remember this not to cast blame, but so that we never treat them, or each other, or ourselves, so poorly again.

Let us honor these great men and women. Let us remember their sacrifice. Let us never forget.

never forgotten
those who served so silently
because forbidden

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day 2014: Flags of Memory

Flags of Memory

A short film depicting flags that are on display from Memorial Day till Fourth of July, Veterans Cemetery. This is an annual tradition that I love, evoking memory in a beautiful and affirming way.

Video and still photography in color, B&W, and infrared, & editing by Arthur Durkee
©2014 AP Durkee. All Rights Reserved.

This short film is my Memorial Day tribute to veterans and soldiers, fallen and living alike. This is one day we set aside to remember service and sacrifice: let us not forget these things during the rest of the year.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Harvey Milk Day

Happy Birthday to Harvey Milk, and also to his legacy.

A couple of years ago, I was inspired, and I'm sure I was one among many, by the anniversary of Harvey Milk's death, to write a piece of music based on his words, and in his honor. I chose to set to music, for a capella male chorus, words from his famous late speeches and recordings. The music was premiered approximately one year ago, in concert.

I share it here in continuous celebration of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk.

Words by Harvey Milk
Music by Arthur Durkee
Performed by Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, Madison, WI
dir. by Ken Forney

You Gotta Give 'Em Hope    

I know that you can't live on hope alone.
But without it, life is not worth living.
And you— and you— and you gotta give 'em hope.

Hope will never be silent.

I cannot say enough what these words means to me: Hope will never be silent. I set these words to music, more than any other, in my piece. It is the refrain. You gotta give 'em hope—hope will never be silent. That is the message of the music. If I am at all a good composer, I hope that I have made the words come alive for you.

I am not by nature a positive thinker, a deeply hopeful person, or a Pollyanna optimist. Despite what many people who know me think, I am also not, therefore, a person who is by nature a negative thinker, or a cynic, or a pessimist. I am none of those. What I am not, however, is blindly or thoughtlessly optimistic, or a positive thinker who ignores reality. If you look at the record of history, you can see that hope is one of the most important dynamos of change. But it is not blind hope, it is activist and effective hope. It is the kind of hope that Harvey Milk embodied: laughing hope, refusal to despair, willingness to speak out in opposition to oppression, even thoughtless and ignorant but otherwise unintentional oppression. He could have despaired. He did not. He never gave up. He inspired many to keep fighting for what was right, past every obstacle, even past threats of death, and actual murder.

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.
Burst down the closet doors once and for all,
and stand up and start to fight!

Harvey Milk continues to inspire me. For me, his words are a beacon of hope. And I struggle with hope. Hope doesn't easily to me—because all too often the kind of hope that is presented to me is toxic hope, built on fantasies and expectations, that in the end leads only to more disappointment and suffering. That's not the kind of hope Harvey Milk teaches me to follow: he teaches me to follow difficult hope. Earned hope. Hope that has been earned by struggle, and by an occasionally stubborn unwillingness to give in to all-too-available despair. I often struggle with this. Despair comes all to easily to someone who has been through the dark night of the soul, and who is (hopefully) intelligent enough to observe and report on life as it is, not just as we wish it was. Harvey Milk teaches me clear-eyed hope. Hope that is real because it acknowledges suffering, and is built on experience rather than fantasy or ideology. Harvey Milk gives me hope.

This is why I wrote this music.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Oracular Advice of the Morning

The oracular advice of the morning recommends that I slow down, take a few deep breaths, and not try to do so much. The irony of this, for me, is that I constantly feel like I'm not getting enough done, because it takes me so much longer to get things done than it used to, and than it does for everyone else. But then I have to remind myself, and struggle to be patient with, the context.

When I was in Arches National Park in Utah last year, there was a strenuous hike on a challenging trail that I wanted to do. I couldn't do it, even though I wanted to. I got halfway along that journey, then I had to stop and rest for awhile, and turn back. I very suddenly ran out of steam, which can still happen. I sat in the shade of a dramatically wind-shaped tree (which I later made photos of, and even later painted a portrait of) for awhile, feeling sorry for myself, while both younger and older hikers hurried past me in both directions, in the 106 F degree heat.

And I imagined a dialogue with a younger, stronger, healthier man—perhaps from that couple in their 20s going by right now, perhaps a younger aspect of myself—in which I had come to some sort of peace with my journey. The younger asks the older if he can make it to the top, and the older says no, go on without me. The younger, who expresses concern, asks if that's really okay. The older man, who realizes the truth even as he speaks it, says: I was sick for over twenty years. I almost died. That I managed to hike this far up this mountain, even though I didn't get any further, is a miracle. That I'm here right now, even this far up the mountain, only halfway along this trail, is amazing. I am amazed that I have come even this far.

And that's true.

I constantly deal with feeling impatient about how little I can do, compared to my friends. I still have days of suddenly having no energy, for no reason, like I used to when I was sick. (Like I did yesterday.) I still have to remind myself that I might now at last have the strength for "normal" activity for a few days in a row, but then I must rest. Oracles aside, today has to be a rest day. I don't have a choice.

Yes, my garden looks ragged (any friend who wants to come visit and help me with that will be treated to a fabulous meal as reward), yes I have some paperwork and other mentally-engaged work to do this week that takes me twice as long as anyone else to get done, and so on, and so on. Ironically I am being told to take a break, and all I can do, despite brain fog, is worry about what I am not getting done.

Yes, I know, waste of energy. But before you throw more new age positive thinking aphorisms at me, well intended perhaps but clueless and ignorant of what I've actually experienced, just remember: YOU don't have to deal with the aftermath of a lifelong illness that almost killed you, so shut up about what you think I should be able to do. That I'm here at all is a miracle. That I've climbed even this far back up that cliffside trail towards something you call "normal life" is nothing short of miraculous. (I say this not only to the well-intentioned friend, but also to the voices in my head.)

I'm just going to sit here for awhile, sip my tea, and enjoy the view.

Maybe I will never get to the end of that trail. Maybe I will never be able to see the view for myself from on top of the mountain. Maybe all I will ever be able to see is the view of the opposite cliff from my vantage halfway up the canyonside trail.

And that's amazing. Look at those rock shapes! And see over there, you walked right past those windflowers and petroglyphs on your rush to get to the top! I'm stopping and taking ten and looking around me right now. I might never get to the top of this mountain trail. And someday I might. Just not today, maybe not for a few years more.

Meanwhile, the view is pretty amazing from right here.

Now, hike on, and leave me in peace, right here, right now.

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Gathered Leaves

Recent journal entries of varying profundity, somewhat at random:

One of the most important, yet unnumbered, rules of wizardry:

You are required to leave the world a finer place than it was when you found it. Always work to make the world a finer place.

Your constant adversary is entropy. That long slide into the dark.

As one wizard once said, Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

Someone, perhaps someone who doesn't even know you, gets it into their head that you're an asshole.
So they start treating you as if you were an asshole.
They act like an asshole towards you.
In self-defense you start responding to them like an asshole, because they're acting like an asshole.
Then they point their finder at you and shout, "Look! I said you were an asshole, and you are!"
Because now they have pushed you into acting just the way they expected you to act.

The name for this process is:

Self-fulfilling prophecy.

And that, dear friends, is the danger of having expectations in the absence of experience or data.

At some point I suppose people will figure out that merely stating the obvious does not constitute an actual revelation.

That doesn't mean it's not a personal epiphany to the person who just had it. And when said person takes their epiphany to their spiritual master, who then laughs, "well, duh," then a certain amount of humility is in order.

Because what's really toxic amongst seekers after personal growth and/or enlightenment is spiritual ambition and spiritual hubris. And most of the time we don't even know we're doing it.

As the Zen masters have said, Ambition in seeking enlightenment will prevent you from achieving enlightenment. Just sit there!

In India, there is a Hindu tradition that comes out of the belief that the Divine exists in all of us, in everything, in everyone, all the time.

A person who needs to talk to the Divine, who just needs to be heard, for whatever is bothering them, will go up to a stranger, and ask "Will you be God for me?"

Which means, that the one asked will sit and listen, standing in for that person's God, as the person pours out their soul and heart to their Divine. (Its not always out of desperation or something bad, by the way.) This is always meant to be a temporary job, not a permanent one. The person is asking to talk to their God through a channel of another person, since the Divine Immanence is in everything and everyone.

We all sometimes need a Face of God that we can personally connect with. Most people connect better to an image of the Divine (what Joseph Campbell called the Masks of God) that they can relate to, that they feel they can talk to directly, and be heard. Westerners who discover this tradition in Hindu India are often amazed; but if you think about it, this isn't radically different than praying at the foot of a statue of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The main difference is that in the Abrahamic religions God is thought to be transcendent, while in India God is thought it be immanent and transcendent.

As the stand-in for God, you don't have to do anything but listen, and listen with your heart. The gods behind all of reality, behind us, will hear. When the person who asked you to be God for them are done, you bless them, as God. If they ask God for advice, all you have to do is get yourself out of the way and let the Divine speak through you. Speak from your heart, and it will be true.

Anyway, this tradition always seems to work, and the person gets what they need. After the speaking to God is done, both people get up, feeling blessed, and depart, probably never to see each other again.

Any attempts to ascribe simplistic explanations of cause and effect to events in dreamtime are doomed to equivocacy.

First, because in dreamtime, time itself is neither linear nor narrative. Second, because in dreamtime, spacerime is malleable and non-relativistic. Third, because simplistic explanations of anything are usually just wrong, anyway.

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Friday, April 25, 2014


Rain on the tin chimney cap, pebbles falling on a black slate seacliff.
Everything is so hard. It all takes longer than it should, longer
than I remember it ever taking before, than i want it to. A wish is not
a promise, not that sudden spring storm that takes breath away.
A mug of tea in hand to light the keeper's soul. These rocks, this island.
Rain on the pebbled path, shattering light in ripples and shards.
The world won't pull itself into shape anymore. I've lost whatever way
I once had. It just falls apart. New paths haven't coalesced. The fog
just sits there, luffing the sails, becalmed. Fog and wind never share.
When my mind fills with fog I make no sail. Even this harbor fills
with ghosts.

        Here I am alone at last. Again and again. Do you see
where the waters meet, surge, blend, change color, finally merge?
Where green and brown become blue, and sink to ancient seabed,
slow limestone forming from the deep rain of falling plankton shell
and skeleton. Limestone is the graves of millions of sea lives.
The same layer and rind of calcium that is the mineral shine
of human teeth. Not mine, which are more than half fake, product
of a childhood spent away from treated water. Lifelong battle till my
minerals flake and fall away, leave gap and gouge in jaw and skull,
holes where pirates put gold, once, when they could.
But I have both eyes.

         And strange cavitation of sea-driven screws vortexing deep waters.
Dark shapes pass close by in the invisible rain and unsilent dark.
In the rain, in another world, I would be warm and naked under
a warming sun. But not yet. Not here. Prophecy is mere
vision that skips across an inner eye like sunlight, starshine,
bad clams. It's as corrosive as it is demanding. Skip ahead,
wild-breasted daughters of sunlit terraces on Mediterranean islets.
Let the wild boys chase you, not knowing you will tame them
once they've caught you. Who owns this trap? Its jaws full of light.

here I am slunk again in immobility. A broth of lassitude that verges
on desperation. I'm not saying I don't already know. I wish the news
were something that would save me, but it's a perishing blast of ice.
There's a blade of Antarctic iceshelf broken off and floating north,
an island of ice larger than your splayed-out hand from low orbit.
When it grounds and melts, or where, no one can guess, but there will be
hell to pay, a guaranteed disruption and dismay. Prophecy that.
For someone. I'm spinning in polar current circles, as this ice field,
touched down nowhere, frozen and lumbering along. No certainty here,

      It's been awhile since I knew what shape to take to match the world's.
Every certain thing fallen away. Again and again. From first
void-filled vision to slower cracking, a splint on splintered world,
effect preceding cause. We know what caused the plane to fall,
but what caused the plane? What caused falling? It's remote. Iced over now.

         Stone axe shattering years between years. Blue red
stone shining when held just so to sun. Slickness of stream-bedded
quartzite sheens like water but doesn't lose shape. Polished sand
that once was river mouth filling the ocean plain below, now
sandstone and glinted mica shale, melted, reforged, made ever harder
beneath the pressure of a world's living, now glass. Still we can see
ripples that lay under river's glint and gleam. Glass-clear trout ghost
across memory of mountain sands that now rise up mid-lake
after being washed and ground to ocean, rippled in waves, crusted,
sealed, frozen, polished, reflecting sun again after long sleep. The memory
of water glistening stone surface as though an ancient river still flowed.
Under time-bent starlight, still, it does. There's no peace in this falling-apart
world, but the long breath of deep time, starlight on wet stone,
at least reminds us how short these few breaths are.

             Your hair
has not spread over my pillow in eons. Will we meet again, in a million years?
Perhaps these atoms, in your bones, in mine, will once again mingle,
making teeth in a future we cannot imagine. Perhaps your stone heart
will indeed be fossilized, preserved between beats as a clenched fist
in concrete sands.

         I cannot wait. Rain on galvanized tin grows louder, steady, still
circling all these eons. Rain wash me away. Rain wash all this to sand.
But the body, breathless, clings, and worries, and wants to go on,
even when we know it never could.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tango and Milonga

Over the past winter I wrote a pair of instrumental pieces to be performed with dance, and they were premiered live in March, with wonderful dancing. I have listened to and enjoyed tango for many years, although I had never written in the genre before this. The process of analyzing (yes, we do use that music theory we learned in music school, sometimes) and figuring out what I wanted to write was a long process, with several false starts and blind alleys explored before I reached that point where I often write my best music: the feel and style of the genre becomes internalized, and I write by following my ear rather than from an intellectual outline. Once I had done that, these two interlocked pieces appeared, one a fierce, fast tango, and the other a slow, inward but still darkly passionate milonga. Part of my loves the milonga form above all, because of its inwardness, its passion and melancholy, and the feel of a very late night after you have survived something dangerous, exhausted and sad but still glad to be alive.

When we premiered the tango and milonga live, with dance, I thought it went very well, and I got some good feedback about it. This is the kind of music I love to play, to accompany dancers. I've played a lot of live dance concert music, some of it improvised, over the years, and the excitement of live interaction never gets old. So everything went well. But we didn't get a very good recording, mostly due to my errors of mic placement; well, it was a new unfamiliar room to perform in, and I guessed wrong. So a few weeks later, we set up a living room recording live session, and made some good recordings of the music. These videos are from that session. The live music vibe is still there, I think, as we recorded live to two-track from the room sound, and I didn't try to over-produce or over-control the session. We just set everything up, turned it on, and played each piece several times till we felt we had played it well and made a good take. I edited that session down into these short music videos. I may at some point edit down the premiere performances, with the dancers; that will happen if I can get the audio to a place where I like it well enough to share. So stay tuned.

Tango of the Knife Fight:

Milonga of the Time of Leaves:

Daniel Atwater: Accordion
Brian Schultz: Piano
Arthur Durkee: Chapman Stick

Written, Produced & Engineered by Arthur Durkee. ©2014 AP Durkee. All Rights Reserved.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

winter's cycle, bitter rain and wind

something like snowfall and secrets blue in twilight indigo shadow
hoofprints in fresh drifts under a tree red with bitter gall cherries
red glow of eye and breath steam along woods trail hidden in thickets
too cold to feel beyond this circle of candle lantern light
blue beyond the script table edge where words fail and music begins
feet cold sore fire to fire their warmth restored
no place between there and here no way to fathom the gulf
abyss of contradiction valley of shadow and remembrance
clamshell of dreams made secure in illusion
no way this horse can step on the same red anthill twice
a rose called betrayal but bittersweet and wine red in the heart
there are six hours of circles in this beaten grass a haystack religion
in the prairie rain closest under the eaves of bluff and front range
rain on sandstone fat snowflakes sticking melting not quite safe

and then there's no winter but red rose turns to white
simmer and shimmer of sign on wood stone sky cloud earth
come rising prophet come rise and see this promised land
sunflowers in the lee of storm hill and treason gulch
burn green fire in blue wolf and sun cry
circumnavigate this braised suspicion
it's all words only words and hung upon the night's edge of a fabric shroud
and into something like snowfall and secrets blue in twilight indigo shadow

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New Short Film: "Brush on Wood"

"Brush on Wood"
AD, images, words, and music
©2014 AP Durkee. All RIghts Reserved.

The brush poems and painted segments in this short film were calligraphed by hand on iPad.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Winter NIght

it's so silent
as I go to sleep
there has been music
in my mind for days
now still and quiet

in the bitter silence
past frost-laced windows
an antlered god plows
moon white meadows
huffed breath wind-muffled

some still breath fogged
with snow makes white mist
on white fields, and I, waiting
sleepless, start at every sound
the house ticking in night's cold

an owl at the window calls
the brow horned dark velvet
lifts eyes and waits unmoving
silence deepens, becomes all
this unlined roads blues into

a greater, colder Road

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cabaret 2014 Banner

Just finished designing and illustrating the poster and web banner for the next musical event that I will be part of: Cabaret.

This began with a photo shoot with members of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, I then used several different digital painting methods in combination, to make the main illustration. The titling were made in Illustrator, where I usually do logos, or titling that needs special effects work.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving Day Gratitudes 2013

Almost ten years ago I began writing Gratitudes instead of New Year's Resolutions. I find New Year's Resolutions to be incredibly toxic, since most people habitually set up unreasonable expectations and goals for themselves, which they can never meet, then beat themselves up when they don't live up to them. It can all seem rather masochistic. There are a few things in life which I am most definitely not: sentimental; nostalgic; masochistic. What I definitely value is honesty, and clarity, and accuracy.

I was asked by some friends, some of whom have now taken up the practice of Gratitudes themselves, to write down how it works. So here's a little "how to" essay I wrote to answer that request: Writing Gratitudes.

Now here we are near the end of another calendar year. Northern hemisphere Winter is creeping up to slap us down again. There's snow on the ground, I've just spent Thanksgiving Day alone at home, mostly resting after overdoing it for the past few weeks, and so I watched a bit of a movie marathon (I do not give a tinker's damn about televised sports events). I am sitting in a mostly darkened home, candles burning here and there, a fire in the fireplace, sipping another mug of good hot tea. I'm enjoying the near silence of a cold winter late night. The fireplace makes a dance of light and soft sounds.

I'm genuinely happy for all my friends who had big joyous wonderful family dinner reunion feasts for Thanksgiving Day. Bless all of you, and best wishes to you.

And my own head is in a different place, this year. I spent Thanksgiving Day alone today. That was mostly by my own choice. No one (well, almost no one) invited me to celebrate with them today, to join their family or family-of-friends feasts. I chose not to reach out and ask to join anyone for the day, as if you have to ask you can never be certain that an invitation is sincere or made out of guilt. I am not unhappy about that, nor do I feel lonely or whatever. I realized a few days ago that I've been burning the candle at both ends for awhile, and I've been feeling overstimulated, and wasn't sure that I had the strength to spend the day with a wonderfully loud group of fantastically convivial friends—in other words, to be even more overstimulated. We introverts need our silence and solitary times with which to recharge. I would have liked to spend the day with a small group of two or three friends, that would have been fun, but it didn't work out that way, and I don't mind. And most of the people I would have chosen to spend the day with are all at least an hour's drive away from me, if not clear across the country. No regrets.

I began the practice of Gratitudes several years ago, and it has been a good practice. And I'm really struggling with it right now. I'm not feeling very grateful, or thankful. And I'm not going to pretend to be what I'm not, just to please others. I know I keep talking about how almost dying a couple of times really has changed my perspective on many things in life, and that's really true: life is just too short to waste time and energy on things that don't matter. One of those things that doesn't matter anymore is editing myself to please you: you can count on me for continuous honesty from here on out. Not that I've ever been known for anything but blunt honesty. It's true that I value honesty and openness more than almost anything else, now more than ever. And I am actually very good at diplomacy and tact; I just prefer to use them when it's appropriate, rather than by default.

I know I have many things to be grateful for, and I am genuinely grateful for them. A small circle of best friends, who are equally honest with me. A larger circle of friends who are not as close to me, perhaps, as my inner circle, and who I nevertheless am very glad are in my life. I have a roof over my head for now, enough food to eat, and enough money to pay most of my bills. I'm not afraid of the same things that many others are, because life has taught me that I can survive those, because in many cases I already have.

And yet I am still struggling with Gratitudes this year.

Because, to be honest, I feel really dumped. The past ten years have been a continuous saga of feeling like I've been ratfuck pissass bullshit orogenically dumped on by the Powers That Be. I've been homeless in the desert, I've lost both parents, I've lost more than one close friend, I've been through some medical hell including almost dying twice, I am now apparently permanently disabled, and I remain under the threat of losing everything I own and spending all of my remaining savings on paying off medical bills. It just keeps going on and going on, and even though there have been amazing wonderful awesome great positive moments in all of this shitstorm, it's really wearing me down.

The fact is, I'm tired. It's been an uphill struggle for a very long time now, and I still am nowhere near the end of it. I've been hard on the "positive thinkers" lately, even when I agree with their basic message, which I often do, because what I need now isn't cheerful platitudes but genuine support. I still need help with getting through all of this, but it seems I still have to get through all of it on my own. Which is an exhausting thought when I've been working hard to overcome it for so long, battling uphill into a headwind, when I've been dealing with surviving a chronic illness that stole all of my endurance, strength, and stamina, and that may never all come back. I'm doing better, but I'm not well yet, I'm not healed yet, and I'm still exhausted easily. It just gets overwhelming. Everything still takes me much longer to get accomplished than anyone imagines. It can take me four days to have enough energy to get finished tasks that those have never been sick think nothing of getting done in a single afternoon. I still have to rest more than exert, most days. I do have good days, when I have almost the same energy available to me as is daily available to someone of my age who has never been chronically ill. I can even have two or three of those kinds of days in a row now—but then I have to rest almost as many days afterwards.

And yet I can't really talk to most people about it any more. They don't want to hear it, they can't deal with it, and they don't know what to do about it. I don't blame them for that. Well, actually, sometimes I do, a little, although I tend to squash that impulse and not tell anyone about it—expect that I promised to be honest herein. It's all too easy to feel like no one really gives a shit. After awhile you stop asking for help.

And after enough of this endless cycle of feeling held back every time you make even a little bit of forward progress, your sense of being grateful can get lost in the overall static. There's a lot of noise covering the signal. (If you think I'm so unaware of my own self that i don't know that the source of most of the noise is internal, you're wrong.)

i get really pissed off, sometimes, at the shallowness of some people, who seem to think that platitudes alone will cheer me up enough, or that somehow all it takes to fix everything and overcome all your problems is an act of sufficient willpower. Two problems with that: one, if all it ever took was an act of will, no one would ever get stuck, but we all do, so clearly willpower alone is not sufficient; and two, what makes you think that sufficient strength of will can be generated by someone who was sick for twenty-five with an illness whose main effect was chronic exhaustion and a depressed immune system? What's offensive is how clueless people can be about that very thing. Well, I don't take it personally anymore, and neither do I feel any need to tolerate it patiently. Recently, I've run into numerous examples of people who seem to think that, because I'm no longer being dragged further down the drain by an ongoing illness, I am suddenly "all better now" and available to take care of their needs as well as my own. Seriously. Is it that they don't understand, or don't want to? The fact of the matter is, I have a strong, very well-trained, very determined will—and it still wasn't enough.

I am not rehearsing grievances by going over this once again. I am not a victim, amateur or professional. All I am doing is laying how difficult things remain for me. There are still many challenges. It could all still fall apart again. And so I find it hard, in all of this, to find Gratitudes.

So here I am.

On a holiday of giving thanks, when everyone is supposed to gather in family groups and have a feast of gratitude and convivial argument over cultural affairs, I find myself confronted with not wanting to do any of that. I actually chose, by default, and by not being asked to join anyone else's celebrations, to spend this holiday alone. In part to rest, because I needed to, and in part because when I am this tired I find big groups even more exhausting than usual. So call it self-defense.

And there's more. I'm finding it hard to be grateful, when what I see all around me as thanks-giving seems somehow phony. I mean no offense to anyone who might read this. it's just that, once again because almost dying changed my perspectives, I have become allergic to expectations about what we are "supposed" to do on holidays, especially when the rituals and expectations actively distract us from the original, deep meaning and purpose of the holiday. We have accrued all this baggage around the holiday, and I feel that many of us have lost our way towards genuine gratitude.

It's supposed to profound. It's supposed to come from deep within the self and soul. It's originally meant to be simple, and plain, and honest.

It's easy to be grateful when you're at a feast. Yet if you can find something to be grateful for when there's a famine instead of a feast, that's when it really counts, and counts for something more. I am scrounging for things to be thankful for, right now, because I know that if I can come up with even one or two, they do count. It's hard work, and I don't feel like I'm doing a very good job.

I don't want to set aside just one designated day to be grateful, and have that be an excuse to forget about it the rest of the year.

I am struggling with Gratitude in general right now. It's not that I have nothing to be thankful for, it's that it can be overwhelmed by not having time to reflect.

I've been living from crisis to crisis (some of them literally life-threatening) for far too long, and it has worn me down. I wanted to take this holiday of giving thanks to reflect, mostly on my own rather than in a big room full of terrific yet loud people. I want to recapture recall what it is that I am genuinely grateful for. This holiday is a chance to rediscover the real purpose of Gratitudes, and not be easy, superficial, or "supposed to" about any of it.

Infinite gratitudes for the small group of friends and family who never left my side during this long descent into near-death and the long return, and who never pushed me away, or took themselves away, because they could not deal with it anymore. I know I'm not the only one who got burned out by these past ten years of actual continuous crises. Some of my friends still have no real idea. I am grateful that some of them will never have to know any more than the little I've told them.

Infinite gratitudes for the tears that cleanse, for the release and healing of weeping, when I can't go on any more, i can't cope even one more day, and I just can't see any end to any of this. I have been scrapped raw of most of the armor one acquires during a lifetime of learning to cope with a sometimes-hostile world and not become too wounded or jaded. My emotions are if anything more free-flowing and available than ever before. So I do sometimes let myself weep over a stupid feel-good movie, even one with a predictable cathartic plotline I saw coming by the second act, just because the release is good.

Infinite gratitudes even for the shitty days. This is bottom-basement lowest-level gratitude, it's nothing remotely worth being proud of oneself for. Because it looks like this: even on my worst days now, I am still grateful to be alive rather than dead. Even when it sucks to be alive, I'm grateful for it. (Why don't more people get this one? It's so incredibly clear. Well, maybe you have to come close to death to learn how to really value your life.) I did almost die. I have a powerful and unignorable awareness of my own personal mortality now. I have an incredible amount of things I still want to do in this lifetime, and I know better than anyone that our time here is limited. So even on the days I wake up feeling shitty, and sick, and weak, and not at all like I can cope with even one more thing, I still somehow manage to be grateful that I woke up at all.

Infinite gratitudes for the lessons learned about human nature that have come from this entire experience of high medical drama in my life over the past ten years. I include what I learned from my parents dying, from being their live-in caregiver, and then from myself being diagnosed with a chronic illness that had been there a long time, unknown and unlabeled.

Infinite gratitudes for the eventual diagnosis of my chronic illness, and the post-surgical confirmation of it being ulcerative colitis. Because for the first time in over 25 years I could comprehend that my life wasn't all my own fault; that I wasn't just a lazy slacker who lacked ambition; that I wasn't an aimless wanderer through life; that in fact many of the problems I'd had in not being able to sustain a career over recent years was not because I was incompetent, but because I was sick. I was SICK, you sons of bitches. Father, you never thought I was competent to handle finances or deal with life, you always thought I was weak and lazy and fucked up—but in fact, father, I was SICK. Getting the diagnosis of my long-term illness took an enormous weight off my back: a weight of guilt, of self-doubt, of poor self-esteem and confusion and suffering. I am still recovering from the psychological impact of years of being labeled a failure, even though I know that it wasn't all my fault, I really was SICK all that time. So fuck you if you still want to blame me for any of that.

Infinite gratitudes for finally being forced by illness and recovery to sort through all the mental drama and psychological bullshit, so that I could realize anew what I had known as a child, but which I let my birth-tribe's anxieties and neuroses about survival beat out of me: that, in fact, the reason I was put here in this lifetime is to make art. To be an artist. To Make, in all the creative modes that I know how to do, and in those modes new to me that I keep discovering and trying out. I was put here to be creative, to be an explosion of creativity. Everything else is secondary. Making art is what I am best at doing, and it's what I'm FOR. The Goddess made me for this. I regret spending so many years believing otherwise. And I do my best to let go of that regret as quickly as it arises.

Infinite gratitudes for also finally understanding that making art is what I'm best at doing, and I'm really not very good at doing anything else. I'm a good composer of good music. I no longer doubt my purpose in life, and I no longer lack self-confidence about it. I know I can do good work, sometimes even great work. It's what I'm good at, and it's what I'm for. And I'm really not very good at doing anything. And that's good enough. That's okay.

Infinite gratitudes for the soul-deepening and self-expanding that these years of hard pain and suffering have made happen in my Self. It has often sucked, and sometimes it still hurts, and a shallow person I am not. I'm still working on being patient and tolerant with shallowness and stupidity when i encounter it—but I'm not working that hard on being patient, because sometimes what people really need is a kick and a slap. This is why the Zen master slaps you with the stick when you start to fall off your meditation cushion.

Infinite gratitudes for that truth that, having been myself through the crucible, the refiner's fire, the forge of making, I can recognize it when I see it in others, and know what to say to them when they need encouragement or direction, should they come to me for that. I am grateful for the insights into people that have been given me, learned the hard way, by going through all that myself—even though sometimes people are afraid of me, or intimidated by my being able to see right through their bullshit to their truest selves.

Infinite gratitudes for somehow having received a push to force myself to do this writing, tonight, when it would have been so much not to. Procrastination, thy name is avoidance. I know it goes on and on, I'm just dumping it all out because I promised to be honest, and clear, and accurate.

Infinite gratitudes for wine and sex and song. Not to be indulged in to the limits of dissipation, but as the things in life that bring us together and make us feel alive and give us reason to go on.

Infinite gratitudes to Perfect harmony Men's Chorus for singing all of the music that has been pouring out of me and written down over the past few years. I am incredibly lucky to be "playing in a band" again where I get to write new music, and hear it performed. Music is the core of my life. Destroy everything else, and there remains an unkillable song. A melody that rises out of the Void, unquenchable, unending, as fluid and continuous a line of music as the vines that grow from the Greening each spring. Where such music is rooted in the Greening of veriditas, it is undying, endless, renewed.

Infinite gratitude for the exaltation and ekstasis of kenosis, kronos, and kairos. The process of emptying that leaves a void in you which can only be filled by the One. "If the only prayer you ever said in your life was "Thank You," that would suffice." —Meister Eckhart

Infinite endless gratitude for this unending creative force that flows through my life like an underground river of sparkling black water that rises up to endlessly fill and overflow the wells and springs of my life with music, art, poetry, and every blend and mix and remix of creativity that is, as I have remembered, my purpose in this life. The black water that fills me, that sustains me, that is the power under life, that which holds me up and gives me reason to go on, always. To go on, even when I don't want to, when I'm exhausted and unable and want only to sleep the long sleep, to go on anyway. "I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on." —Beckett

And so it goes. We begin in despair, and somehow we work our way around to ecstasy, to remembered joy. Because life is nothing if not the quest to remember the joy and light from before we were born, and to which we must all someday return.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 5: the Dark Night

It's entirely possible to be someone who has gone through the dark night of the soul and at the same time do one's best to be a positive thinker. To wish to live in the light, and to share the values of most of the positive thinkers.

It is, however, not possible to have survived the dark night of the soul and still believe that positive thinking alone is enough, by itself, to get you through. It's not possible to be a Pollyanna wishful thinker. It's no longer possible to ignore that bad things do happen to good people.

It's no longer possible to pursue the light in denial or rejection of the dark, because you know the dark personally. You've become good friends. You've even moved in together and been roommates for awhile.

Sometimes it feels like at least some of the positive thinkers are infected with some kind of willful denial, a rejection. It just doesn't seem realistic.

Maybe it's because I've been through the dark night, or maybe it's because I was bullied a lot when young—one of the key lessons of that being that you know how people often conceal things even from themselves—and I cannot help but feel, sometimes, that some positive thinkers I've met are hiding something from themselves (or us), or suppressing it or denying. Or perhaps it's that people who have not survived the dark night—and I have met many just like this—really just have no comprehension of the more shadowy sides of life's colorful palette. They just don't get it, because they haven't experienced it. I don't know. I just wonder sometimes.

I've told my story of being bullied (for being gay, for being smart, for having grown up overseas, for just being different) to some of my friends who are dedicated to being positive in all aspects of their lives, and some of them just don't seem to get it. They're politely accepting, but you see it in their eyes, in how they won't look at you with real focus or conviction, like they really don't believe you, or maybe just don't want to.

This is not a criticism of any of my friends. It's just something you notice from time to time.

And when you tell someone you've been bullied, and they clearly don't believe you, even if they are polite about it, what are you supposed to do with that? It's looks too much like the people who didn't believe you when you were being bullied as a kid, and who did nothing to stop it, and often were in complete denial about it. When you've been bullied, one of the lasting effects is a distrust of figures of authority, because they were either clueless or powerless to stop the bullying, back then. When people deny that this happened to you, they sound a lot like the bullies themselves, who are really good at denying to the authority figures that they've done anything wrong, even when they're caught doing it. It creates substantial cognitive dissonance.

This all comes to mind because one sees the media talking heads right now asking how a big tough rookie football player in Miami could possibly have been bullied by his teammates. Neglecting to mention that they're just as big or bigger than he is. Or that rookies always get extra shit from the rest of the team. And then of course there are the comments that it's just boys being boys, roughhousing, hazing, all that stuff that serves as the usual excuses not to believe that bullying is going on, or to stop it. It's all just fun and games and you shouldn't take it seriously.

But that's the denial line. That's the rejection line. It's very odd to hear that line coming from someone who declares themselves to be a positive thinker. It makes you wonder if there's a man behind the curtain. It makes you wonder if there's denial.

One thing you learn from the dark night is just how common denial is. You don't learn this from the dark night itself, because what the dark night does is strip away illusions and denials and suppressions, leaving you naked and alone in the desert of your spirit. You learn about the commonness of denial when you return to and re-enter everyday life, when your experience has changed you and given you insight into what people do and say, most of which no longer seems real or substantial to you, after the dark night, but itself illusory. And then you try to articulate what you've been through, and no one wants to hear it. It's politely rejected, and denied, and ignored. Probably it makes most people uncomfortable. Which is all fine and good, until the moment their discomfort leads them to try to deny your experience. Incomprehension, cognitive dissonance, denial.

So, there are no answers here, just some observed realities, some speculations.

I'll say it again, just to be clear: I think positive thinking is great. It's just that it doesn't always ring true. If it's in denial of the darker shades of experience, it becomes shallow and one-sided to be believable. You can't really see Heaven till you've been standing in Hell. And that's how the dark night deepens the light side of experience. It gives it dimensionality. It gives it depth. And that matters, if you want to be whole.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Thin Waters

Yeats, the bardic lord, foretold the condition
of modern poetry when he said, "Things fall apart,
the center cannot hold." He was foretelling the breakdown
of the centers of civilization, but it was really
as always about poetry. I've read enough
Gertrude Stein now to realize that she was right
in her self-assessment that she was shallow actually.
Words glorious words about nothing much at all.
If you get under the surface of her plays, they're parlor
plays with little drama. Still, a good pun is a good pun.
A phrase well-turned, she is the darling of the language
that that nothing poetic to say except about itself.
There's a golden maple outside my window, blown
in bleak gusts, half its leaves on the ground
shed like words or worlds, its branches still
half-leaved. It's not that shallowness is bad, unless
there's no center to hold, but that these word players
glory in their inanity. They don't even want more meat.
Robert Duncan, whose word tangles were at least as
exotic never lost the center of his purpose, which
was bardic. Bards, skalds, tellers of the insistent news
of other lands, travelers between small kingdoms
more cultural than geographic, small minds in large halls
firelit with retellings of the oldest Anglo-Saxon epics,
lust and battle and pointless deaths albeit monstrous.
Put that in your meerschaum and scribe it. I wish,
as everyone probably does, that life had some kind of
meaning or purpose, even an invented tradition rife
with accumulated verbal fossils. These vintage lake beds
are very shallow, many layers but all very thin. Not enough
time to compress them to solidity. Word-play is no bad thing.
It's just that like Duncan meaning lurks below the scintillation
of the surface tension. To glory in one's tepid ordinary,
no mass, seems shale. I keep looking for the dark matter
hidden behind the facade of words, but telescope not
wit nor jot. A list-poem of fashionable name-checks even Whitman
would reject. I ramble incoherent, here myself at play with words.
More leaves fall like words in the wind. Apples and maples all fall.
I find I cannot go along with embracing pointlessness as being
the point. Some part of me yearns for dragon's teeth in the warp
and weft, handspun yarn uneven and clumped, not perfect
but dangling with threads of connection. Go to, young language.
You can be small-scale, explore domestic mysteries, or overblown,
making a life mythic because resonant with archetypes. What else
is "Beowulf" but a cautionary tale of hubris and self-deceit?
If I name-check other poets it's to weave them not deceive them.
My own word-hoard is darker than you think.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Narrows

Here's a load of tripe, committed to destiny
rather than memory, a burden of a round
that goes to ground, unsung, unsingable.
No one wants to hear it now. A solo
for late night wineglass and solipsist.
Resources running low, worries running high,
disappearing starts to appeal. Just run away
from everything, become unknown, become
nobody anyone wants to know. Out there's
a desert not only of conception, but fact.
Sunflowers glazed in heat shimmer. Black rocks.
It's worse on darker days with no visible sun.
Heliotropes, confused, don't know who to follow.
Here's an intruding message from the mail,
reminder that no one gets away with anything.
You pack up all your worries with you. No motor
fast enough to outrun shades you don't want
to look at that lurk in the angles of any room.
The dead use a different kind of geometry.
They can ignore most walls, they run in circles,
although the worst of them, become demonic,
can only move in straight lines, and have to back
up, unwieldy tractors, to truck new angles
at the temple door, again and again. It's alright.
The sacred precincts are all out in the wilds,
all god's buildings erect by men are just decoys.
Nothing in there but field recordings. You can't expect
your weaker congregants to climb that mountain
every time. Little revelations come from littler gods.
It takes a real mountain to make a restless soul
into a rooted, deeply sourced well. Eventually
you run out of metaphors, left with just the facts
of change and worry. Don't expect to unpack
those bags too soon. What's learned can be
unlearned, but hangovers outlast a binge.
My scars remember every wound I'd forget,
if I could. Can't run too far on legs that limp,
muscles cramped and clenched on the past.
Time's required to undo each knot, time first
to crawl before you fly. Down in the arroyo,
long narrow passage dark before a waterfall,
shoulders curve under time's old weight, but
the rocks themselves support you, little gods
made of sand and time. The passage is too narrow
to allow for slouch. Stand tall or get stuck.
Even if you want exhaustion's weep,
there's no room. The geometry of surrender
is all upright. Then you're released, on your
knees again, but the air's fresh, wet and bracing,
here's a waterfall, let it do your weeping.
I don't know how to end this round, it's all
a circling intensity, a spiral labyrinth,
light and shade spun in a textured mist.
Go to ground, begin again. Silent song,
secret song, snow and stone, sung around.

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Happy Helloween from Spooksville

Happy Helloween from all the deadbeats down in Spooksville!
Just a quick vid for all the spooks on All Hallow's Eve.
Video brewed and soundscape decanted by Arthur Durkee 2013.

Just some gratuitous spooky fun. . . .

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Aubade of the Ghost of Loss

Some perilous joy, algorithm of loving,
of conscious geometry of tide and thigh and sand,
delicious salts of ecstasy,
sunlit, triple-mooned, quivering, solid,
this strand of pearl and praise, islets
adrift and melting, chocolate into ocean.

I quiver at our mutual agony, memory.
But you, you killed me, again and again,
fear creating you into what could not companion.
So lost, that room with one bed and three windows,
so lined with blind curtain and Venetians.
There was a time I wanted you or nothing.

Now this echoing re-emergence, so unfair, immaculate
resonant wipe out everything that ever happened.
We worked hard to retrieve forgiven mutuality.
It doesn't mean to work, this quiet mistrust silenced
and obscured. It means to forget, as though moving,
water like a brush on papyrus and wood, on.

Make it never happened. Make it gone. Demon lover,
I cannot let you back into my life. As though nothing.
It's the morning of a midnight just past. Dark, cold,
mysterious with spirits moving across the face of water.
How can you come back, once given and quit,
except to haunt, this night of a morning unasked.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Novels Are Not Non-Linear Enough

(This rumination was inspired by an essay by Jim Murdoch on how long it should take to write a novel.)

I love reading novels, although I think the ideal length for a novel is the novella, and most of what we get these days is pretty bloated. I read and re-read certain authors on a regular basis, and many of these are authors of novels. I'm pretty much always reading at least one or two novels at any given time. I read faster than most people, I have discovered, so I can read a lot more than many people do. I read broadly, with no loyalty to any genre of novel-length fiction except that which excites, illuminates, stimulates, and surprises.

I'm drawn to Virginia Woolf's least "narrative" novels, such as "The Waves," but also to "To the Lighthouse," one of the greatest novels ever written about the tension between the artist's temperament and the non-artist's inability to comprehend that temperament. I've read all of James Joyce, and most of Samuel Beckett. I've read all of E.M. Forster multiple times. I watch Doctor Who. I read theoretical physics, for fun, and because I'm interested in it and can understand the concepts if not all of the math. Richard Feynman is not over my head, but that's mostly because he was such a gifted teacher and thinker. I've read many of Michael Moorcock's books, including his literary criticism essays. I've read pretty much all of Nikos Kazantzakis, fiction and non-fiction alike, drawn to it because of his courageous encounters with the unknown mysteries that some call mysticism and others call existentialism. I read Peter Matthiessen's novels as well as his creative nonfiction, since he is a master of both. I read all of Jim Harrison's books, finding a voice therein that I feel kinship to out of similar experience and background, who is also different enough that I am stimulated with new ideas and directions of thought.

I read a lot of novels. Yet I don't read many bestsellers, as I find them very predictable. I don't many thrillers, which is what we call adrenaline-inducing suspense fiction written in the very plain "no-style style" of naturalistic narrative nowadays. And I don't read much "literary fiction," the genre of "naturalistic" fiction set in the present day, usually set in The Big City, that defines itself as being the only genre of narrative fiction that is not in fact a "genre" (as opposed to those categories booksellers use to help you find the books easier on their shelves: mystery; science fiction; self-help; etc.). In most thrillers and many mystery novels I usually figure out Whodunit well before it's revealed to the reader; the only time I don't know in advance of the reveal is when the perpetrator is deliberately concealed behind a screen of distractions, as I find most Agatha Christie type of mystery novels to do. I find John D. McDonald's and Raymond Chandler's mystery novels to be far more compelling, because they are character-driven rather than puzzle-driven, wherein sometimes their plots aren't very linear, their heroes and villains neither one-dimensional nor easily predictable. In most mainstream literary fiction, I am drawn to the outliers (Matthiessen, Kazantzakis, etc.) almost because they are considered outliers, a little bit odd, not quite in the mainstream. I was originally drawn to the Beats for the combined reasons that they were literary outlaws, and because several of them were openly practicing homosexuals. We find our (literary) role models where we can.

I do like to read stylistically experimental fiction (William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Brautigan, etc.), and metafiction (Jorge Luis Borges, etc.), but not because it's obscure and difficult—indeed, if I find it to be obscure mostly for the sake of being obscure, a kind of stylistc mannerism rather than form dictated by content, I throw it away—but because experimental fiction uses language poetically, in ways that shapeshift your mind into different ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. (Which is something that science fiction written from an alien species' viewpoint does too, at its best.) I like to experience thinking from inside the alien mind, even if that alien is a human from a different culture, or from a radically different psychology. I like to be surprised, and to experience new ways of thinking, of being.

So I read a lot of speculative fiction—which is usually called science fiction, or fantasy—because it puts your inside a completely different way of thinking about life better than any other literary genre. Speculative fiction is by definition a literature of ideas. Speculative fiction at its best gets my emotions engaged, because it is still telling a human story, even those told at a distance of centuries in the future, which actually is no more alien a territory than the profoundly human stories given us by Shakespeare centuries in the past. I've heard some critics argue convincingly that some of Shakespeare actually could be called science fiction, for the same reasons that Mary Shellley's "Frankenstein" is considered by many to be the first modern science fiction novel: fabulist tales told of incredible and amazing adventures in places not quite real, either in time or space, in which human beings act out the archetypes of story which such gripping writing that we are captivated and find ourselves mirrored in those distant and strange lives. Speculative fiction engages my intellect and sense of wonder, as well, because it is the literature of ideas. Sometimes it can be literally "wow!" mind-blowing, and you finish a novel that makes you think about things in ways you never had before. It can literally "change your mind," if you're receptive and open to that.

I read a lot of "regional" fiction, stories in specific times and places, stories written by writers strongly associated with particular places on the North American continent that happen to be neither New York City nor Los Angeles, the self-involved centrifugal linear accelerators of anointed Literary Establishment mainstream linear narrative novel writing. I like to read stories in places I know well, places I have lived in, places I love; places like San Francisco (which is always a character in any movie filmed there), Wyoming, New Mexico, Chicago, Ann Arbor, the Great Lakes region including Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. Fiction set in places where you nod your head in recognition of both name-checked street names and locations, and the habits and customs of the local inhabitants. Of course, by this criterion New York City fiction is very much a regional fiction sub-genre (albeit often a very provincial one), and so is fiction set in Los Angeles. One of the things that draws me to "regional fiction" is, again, that it is marginal, not in the mainstream of the East Coast Literary Establishment. I have lived a significant portion of my life in the "flyover zone" between New York and Los Angeles, and I find that writers living and writing from within the heartlands of the continent often have much more to say to me than do writers of the New England or Southern California literary circles.

I also read a lot of shorter fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. I probably read (and write) more essay and poetry than anything else.

So I read a lot of novels.

But of all literary forms, the one I am least, LEAST interested in writing is a novel.

Some of that is because I'm not patient enough to want to write something that might years to complete. It's not that I don't work at making art, and work hard at it, and give my complete concentration and dedication to everything I write. It's that I like seeing a project completed, and another one begun. As a writer, the creative process is what engages me, more than does the artistic product.

And there is also the issue of my fundamental mindset: I simply don't think in terms of narrative. I am science-trained and can think very logically and sequentially, but perhaps that's the problem: a carefully constructed linear plot doesn't engage me very deeply because it's too easy to skip ahead logically and figure it out in advance. I don't even think in terms of linear time (between theoretical physics, a lot of reading in mysticism, and Doctor Who, my experience of time hasn't been linear in a very long time), so making a story conform to the norms of a linear narrative simply does not work for me. I liked how Richard Brautigan used to break up narrative into small vignettes, not always strung together in linear sequence. I like Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness in books such as "Big Sur" and "The Dharma Bums," which is more like Virginia Woolf than anything on the New York Times bestseller lists. As a writer, I have no natural "feel" for plot, narrative, or even linear time.

I am not really a storyteller. Well, I am, because every teller of stories is a storyteller, but I'm not a "storyteller" in any conventional meaning of the term. Thomas Merton was a storyteller, so was Kazantzakis, but their stories were told in ways that no one invested in linear narrative fiction would ever really like. The kinds of stories I most like to tell, or to hear, loop around and around themselves, explore ideas from multiple directions, and step "outside" the linear narrative to look at it from a different angle. (Samuel R. Delany's "Empire Star" is a science fiction space opera that does this unlike almost any other, expanding the narrative viewpoint from straightforward linear narration to multiply-layered causal time-loops that drive the original story by making it happen after it had happened.) So when I act as a storyteller, I almost always get bad feedback from people who want easy, linear, narrative stories—I suspect because on one level they're comforting and affirming, a hedge against the chaos of life that gives comfort by giving chaos structure and order and narrative.

Yet Virginia Woolf said, and experience has brought me to emphatically agree: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." E.M. Forster in most of his fiction has some sense of unexplainable mystery, a break in the ordinary plot of everyday life, which often cannot be explained but which always has a profound effect on the people involved, from his "The Story of a Panic" culminating in "A Passage to India." Beckett, well, Beckett is actually very funny, people miss that about his writing; but it's gallows humor, hospital humor, the humor of those who have survived the unthinkable void at the center of destroyed lives and need to laugh because it's better than crying. Joyce experimented with stream of consciousness, but in a different direction than Woolf; some say he went too far into the terrain of the unreadable, and some have tried to come up with pat explanations for why he might ventured off the edge as they perceive it.

I am having some short stories published early nest year in a literary journal. But really they're prose-poems, and pretty nonlinear. That's how I think, that's how I write. Not in any normative traditional linear narrative style.

But I'm an artist. I'm heavily trained in science, and I know how to think like a scientist, and think logically and sequentially, but I am an artist.

Art is not engineering.

Engineering can be creative. My favorite uncle was an engineer, an inventor, a builder; I helped him build a deck on his house one summer, which he designed himself, and the deck is still there forty years later. He had a very creative attitude towards all aspects of life, which manifested as a problem-solving approach to many things, and which worked.

I see a problem when artists start to think that what they are doing is problem-solving first and foremost. (I see this a LOT among designers and graphic artists, who are also very creative people but whose work tends to consist of more problem-solving than inspiration.)

One of the reasons I don't read many mainstream literary fiction novels is that I find them depressingly predictable, especially the ones oriented more towards plot than character. I find many substitute style for actually having something worth saying. I've read Don DeLillo, I've read John Updike, Saul Bellow, and many other darlings of the East Coast (meaning New York) Literary Establishment.

So I'll probably never write a novel. It's just not a form that works for me as a writer.

Well, actually, I might. I have it in me to write a science fiction novel, maybe two. I've had the basic idea and plot in my head for years, and someday I might write it. I've started writing it two or three times over the years, only to leave it unfinished due to other things becoming more urgent and important.

Novels are generally not non-linear enough for me. The novelistic fiction that I am most drawn to breaks those "rules" of "naturalistic" narrative rather than affirms them. Like certain theoretical physicists and mystics, I view that entire form of linear progressive narrative to itself be a fiction. Or as Doctor Who once said: "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but ACTUALLY from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey . . . stuff." Yeah. Exactly.

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