Friday, December 31, 2010

Blank White

A poem that I wrote at the same time I made two drawings of trees in winter, when I was getting my latest IV drug therapy treatment. Sitting there all morning with a needle in my arm, two drawings and a poem isn't too bad.

The poem started out on the same theme as the drawings: the lone bare tree in the middle of a blank white snow-covered field. It started there, but as often happens, especially it seems with this form I've been writing since this past summer, the inner mental imagery and imagination kicks in, I start making connections, things come forward, and they all end up in the poem. I do think associatively most of the time, as opposed to purely linearly. When I write a poem, when a poem tells me it wants to be written, I just do my best to open myself up to whatever wants to happen, to get myself out of the way, and let it happen.

If anything needs to happen in revision, it's usually about tightening up the poem, bringing it into focus, removing any chaff from the wheat, and making it a little more dense; all of which types of revisions I have already done, here, in transcribing the poem from my journal to the laptop. One or two more changes might ensue, later on, upon rereading after some time has passed.

I don't really like to talk about my poems because I'm not interested in dictating what they might mean; I like people to find meaning in my poems for themselves, not tell them what I think it means. But I'm willing to talk about the process, and the context in which art is made.

Blank White

Outside in gray light, sky the same off-white as fields
drowned in snow after yesterday's white-out blizzard,
feet thick trudging through white molasses, sweat like white
vinegar seeping between toes: outside it's gray and white
and black. A single tree off-center of an empty white field
sharp-edged like black ink on rice paper, even though really
it's gray and brown and tan: everything's high-contrast today.
Dial up the difference, nothing subtle. Nuances lost in snow glare.
Thinning clouds make you squint, and for a moment the tree
shows a thin gray soup of shadow, suddenly not so two-dimensional
as it had seemed. On south-eastern coast, in grey waters sea-lions
line up to dive in and out of the caves. Storm-spray shelters
and splashes thick gray blubbery hides, drenches anyone stupid
enough to stand on trail along overhead cliffs, staring down.
Clouds change now, a quick switch, from featureless off-white to
genuinely silver-edged grey, layered as foam or lace. Bodes a darker
end to the day. Might as well be the desert. No squirrels today.
Normally they scamp up and down trunks, pirates on the mast.
Lone tree too exposed, too isolate. Maybe they're all a-dream.
Or maybe just too Siberian. Pasternak in winter, the ice palace
where Yuri wrote poems of sublime lattice lace, filigreed as pure
as ice cracking the windowpanes. It must be good
to be that lost, snowbound, icebound, trapped beyond the power
of either sleigh or four-wheel drive to get dug out, to get loose.
It must be good to be forced to sit and write even when your fingers
are numbed at the kitchen table in a room warmed only by candles,
by the heat of three candles and a passionate intensity for words.
A winter like that could be worth the struggle if you get one good poem.
Meanwhile the patch of sun fades back to gray, blind and blank.
Shadowless contrast for a moment reveals fading deer tracks,
come and gone, like needles in white linen. White felt.
Everything I've ever loved has gone blank and black
and white.

Labels: , ,

Teaching Myself to Draw 8

A few days ago, I was back in the clinic for another IV drug therapy treatment. Those mornings spent with a needle in my arm that come every two months for now, those days after the IV I am useless for the rest of the day. It wears me out. I'm wiped out not only by sitting there with a needle in my arm for several hours, but also the psychological side of things; this was the same room where my Dad got his chemotherapy, after all.

This time, I angled my chair so I could see out the big picture windows. I could see the lone tree in the neighboring field, stark black on a perfectly flat white field. While I sat there getting my IV, I drew the tree twice. Once in pencil, and once as a stark minimal black-on-white calligraphy drawing, using my Japanese brush pen.

I noted while drawing each time that the tree was strongly asymmetrical from this vantage, with more feathered edges on the right, and heavier branches in the center and left. You're tempted to "correct" what you see, but the essence of seeing/drawing is to give what's there, not what you want to be there. There is no ugliness in imperfection, or in asymmetry. There is beauty, rather, in the way the tree balances itself in the air, despite any fractal irregularities.

Pencil drawing first, made with three different grades of hardness of pencil. Started with the softer pencil, drew in al the main trunks and branches, darkening and filling in as you go. The thinner branches at the ends of the main branches done with a harder pencil, pressing lightly, to suggest the feathering that happens at the ends of branches, smaller and thinner as they grow farther from the main trunk. The thinnest branches making a light halo of grey around the edges of the tree, feathering out to the pure white of the field in which the tree grows, the pure white of the drawing paper as white field. Drawn fast, looking all the while, taking time on the basic forms, then quickly filling in the details.

A calligraphic drawing, simple pure lines of black on a white field, details left out, just the main trunks and largest branches of the tree. Just something simple and suggestive. Drawn as an exercise in how much of the brush-tip meets the paper: starting thick and pressed down, gradually lifting the brush, lighter and lighter touch, thinner and thinner line, till it feathers out at the edge. Discipline of attempting to draw each branch as a single unbroken stroke, following thin and thick of the actual tree with the variance in the line. Drawn slowly, moving the brush on the page slow and steady, taking time to feel the pressure differences and how they change the line.

Just for fun, a superimposition of the two drawings together, pencil and ink overlaid, just to show how the observing eye sees the same basic shapes and forms, the same thick branches, even though there are differences in the details.

Labels: , ,


A week ago, two or three fresh inches on the ground, on Xmas Eve, making for the traditional white Xmas. Deer tracks in the snow in the morning, with reflections from the glass windows on the house, and shadows of the trees.

Two days ago, a thaw began. Warmer weather, even some fog. I just came indoors from the garden. I was planting purple iris and Darwin tulip and Asiatic lily bulbs in the front garden—on New Year's Eve. The lawns are green, there was fog before the sun came out later in the day. It's 50 degrees or more—shirtsleeve weather for those of us who survive these annual winters. Here it is, in the middle of winter, and I worked in the garden for an hour.

Snow will come back, of course. There was a wind today, indicating a change of weather. No doubt in a day it will be frigidly winter-cold again. This is just the usual midwinter thaw. It will only last a day or two. But for the moment, just for this afternoon, a rumor and hint of spring.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sweet Despair of End-Culture Snark

Finally having found and skimmed a copy of David Denby's book Snark, it has crystallized some things I've been thinking about for many months. Here, in no particular order, are some observations, not intended to be snarky themselves, but also not intended to pull any punches. Not that anyone cares, or ought to.

I am not a political commentator, and I don't intend to start. That is not my purpose here. I am going to make some general comments here about political discourse itself, but these are comments about style, about argument, about rhetoric, and are not linked to any given political position or ideology. Although one does feel it necessary to point out that the very values held by the progressive end of the political spectrum prevents most progressives from using the rhetorical tactics employed by some on the extreme right, and in some cases prevents effective rhetorical responses; this differing viewpoint can skew political discourse from the outset, purely on the grounds of style and values.

It's taken me a long time to work up the personal momentum to say all this that I have written here, and now it's done. For my own sake, just to get it off my chest. These are things I've been wanting to articulate for some time now, and now I have.

What truly concerns me here is how the corrosion of public discourse hastens the entropic collapse of the general cultural climate—this collapse itself being something I strongly believe ought to be resisted in every possible way.

1. First, I must disclose that I didn't do more than skim Denby's book before shelving it. Although I admire him as a writer, and have heard him interviewed on NPR with pleasure, and read other interviews with him with equal pleasure, the topic of this book is itself a seeping black hole of internet-cultural negativity. It's not something I intend to go wading in. I dip my toe into the edge of the event horizon, but I don't intend to let myself get sucked in. (The gods know I have had enough personal bad craziness in my life this past year and more, not excluding medical near-death experiences, that I feel permanently cured of going looking for snark and drama elsewhere.) The topic intrigues me; dwelling on the negativity of human affairs does not. The topic intrigues me because it is symptomatic of so many other related cultural phenomena.

Another, perhaps deeper book on this topic, Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture, which I also finally found a copy of, and will also dip only my toe in for the moment, is a more general look at the erosion of civility in public discourse that has been developed in the public arena in the past decade or so. This has happened, specifically, because of the rise of new media, which makes it easier for everyone to get their views in front of the microphone, or on their blog. Including the internet, but also including talk radio as a format, in which opinionated argument based on neither fact nor evidence has taken over public political discourse, this growth of general-citizen media access has created a parallel universe in which people are content to repeat lies as facts, repeating and repeating them until they take on the weight of authoritative truth simply by sheer force of volume. more and more fringe elements step up to the microphone. The shouting ever increases in volume, while listening to opposing viewpoints, much less factual corrections, has not only been lost as an art, but in some quarters is actually viewed as traitorous. As Tannen shows in her book, this pattern of polarized argumentative opposition has infected every form of discourse in our culture, including academic study and classroom debate.

It's no wonder political action itself has become gridlocked. It's no surprise that compromise has become labeled as ideologically traitorous, when uncompromising ideologues control the discourse. The vast majority of observers, especially those who own values require them to be honest about all matters, are disheartened, despairing, and dismayed, unable to find a way out of the gridlock. As Tannen writes:

Staging everything in terms of polarized opposition limits the information we get rather than broadening it. For one thing, when a certain kind of interaction is the norm, those who feel comfortable with that type of interaction are drawn to participate, and those who do not feel comfortable with it recoil and go elsewhere. If public discourse included a broad range of types, we would be making room for individuals with different temperaments. But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse—or choose not to—are likely to opt out.

In other words, those for whom heated argument is not their default mode of communication often go unheard in public discourse nowadays, precisely because heated argument is not their default mode. I place myself in this category: while I am able to speak truth to power, when power is being abused or waylaid by disinformation, I am not a competitive soul. I am not a natural arguer. I don't enjoy it. I find myself unable to keep silence mostly when I run across something that is so blatantly misinformed that someone, anyone, needs to speak up to correct the facts. Most of the time the result of such speaking out is personal attack, ranging in type from verbal bullying to ostracism. When it becomes clear that no good deed goes unpunished, in venue after venue, one learns not to make the effort anymore; no one is listening, so why bother. Of course, this means that those who like to shout down all opposition win in the end. At least in the short term.

2. "Bread and circuses while Rome burns."

Most of the things I see people arguing about with the apparent full force of their fierce convictions are, bluntly, distractions. None of it will matter in a 100 years. Most of it won't matter in a month. Most of what people defend as political or literary Absolute Truth is easily shown to be provincial, personal taste, local and subjective and defended so vociferously mainly because the heat of argument is supposed to get one to overlook its hollowness.

This is just as true in literary-critical circles as it is in the political arena. A poet friend who is now a former poet friend—former because he had a paranoid meltdown precisely along these lines of discourse, ending up by un-friending me—used to be fond of pointing out that the reason poetry criticism can be so very vicious is precisely because there's so very little at stake. It does indeed seem to be a general trend that argumentative viciousness is inversely proportional to its necessity for living. Argumentative public discourse is in some ways a sign of a decadent culture, but its also a sign of a culture of leisure, in which an entire class of people have the free time to argue, rather than attend to more basic needs.

So-called "reality TV" is blatant bread and circuses. Not to mention that it's not very real, since programs are edited to create maximum drama, maximum conflict, even when there wasn't much really. Most of TV is bread and circuses, for that matter, entertainment designed to keep us from thinking too hard or too long about the real problems faced by the world. 500 channels and nothing on.

But what sweet distraction it all is. How honey-rich to avoid having to think about what frightens us. How sweet to feel helpless rather than empowered.

People will go a long way towards avoiding solving the problems facing the world. Sometimes bread and circuses is what people turn to when they feel overwhelmed by the real problems. It is escapism, it seems soothing in the short term. although it is in fact entropic in the long.

Denial is rampant. Denialism is particularly unforgivable when it's in the face of observed and recorded scientific data; at that point it becomes ideological denial, not experimental or procedural dissent. People don't want to hear what they don't want to believe.

3. One must indeed stand up for a good cause when one finds one. There is always good reason to speak out against injustice and hatred, including hate speech; to speak out against bullying; to speak out against those who cite inaccuracies, factual distortions, and outright lies to make arguments, to call them on their shit. As rabbi and mystic Abraham Heschel once said, A prophet interferes with injustice, often by speaking out against it when all others seem afraid to. Talking back to the bullies is sometimes unavoidable because keeping mum is worse.

However, not every encounter requires anger and an aggressive response. You don't have to turn every statement you make into militancy. There is room, in critical discourse and in general human relationship, for conviviality and cohesion, for compromise and agreement. It doesn't all have to be disagreement for disagreement's sake, and it doesn't always have to be stated aggressively from the very start. Civil disagreement is one of the first casualties of the climate of snark in public discourse: being able to say "I disagree, and here's why," and know you'll be listened to rather than vilified merely for your disagreement.

The culture of snark is frankly, blatantly manipulative. It preys upon, and relies upon, emotional reaction in preference to reasoned, nuanced discussion. Shouting down the other guy is considered good form, and ad hominem personal attacks are just tactical. If you can't knock down the other guy's logic, knock down his personal integrity. Go quickly for the jugular, avoiding even the pretense of rational rebuttal.

4. This entire problem in public discourse is deeply symptomatic of late-culture decadence. The old culture is dying: postmodernism is really Late High Modernism, not a new cultural movement but the end of the High Modernism cultural movement, its death throes. This is reflected by how the arts have become mannerist rather than genuinely original.

Reactionary conservatism, no matter what topics it chooses to be reactionary about, is always symptomatic of the dinosaurs fighting to stay alive even when they know they're about to become extinct. They fight all the more fiercely when they know it's too late. They try to turn the tide of change back, stridently proclaiming ideologies both regressive and oppressive. These are the death-throes of the old, not harbingers of the new. The lessons they have to teach us about going forward into the Unknown are, paradoxically, lessons about fearlessness: about how you can't grasp the future with a tightly-closed fist.

5. I have little respect for (post-)apocalyptic fiction, in novels and movies—what my friend Frank Wilson defined as "the pornography of despair," an incredibly rich and useful coinage—which has become so commonplace and popular now that people don't even realize it's a symptom of cultural decline. Movie after movie, novel after novel, year after year, the stories are all the same: the end of the world approaches, and the protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, to stay human while everything falls apart around them. Most apocalyptic fiction is predictable in both plot and outcome. Most of these stories are familiar tropes, recycled again and again.

I began reading science fiction at age 13. There has always been a sub-genre within science fiction of apocalyptic fiction, of post-apocalyptic fiction. The current run of mainstream fiction and movies that are on apocalyptic themes seem manifestly unoriginal and repetitive to me, having read the originals many years ago. Most post-apocalyptic movies and novels these days are original only in their details, not in their grand themes. The classic post-apocalyptic satire novel is Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Cormac McCarthy's much-over-praised novel The Road was nothing but a rehash. (Both Roger Zelazny and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, for example, wrote better-written precursors. And Gordon Dickson wrote more than one novel that serves as antidote, his stories ending not in nihilistic despair but in hope.)

I had a realization in 1973, when in the news yet another small cult had gone up to a mountaintop to await being evacuated by the flying saucers. I remember distinctly sitting in 7th Grade civics class. It was a sunny spring day in Ann Arbor. We were sitting in class, discussing the latest cult going to the mountaintop that had made the news. I suddenly had a brainstorm, a vision, a realization, whatever you want to call it, everything suddenly falling into place and becoming clear to me.

I knew with utter certainty that this latest cultish event was only the ramping-up to the Millennium. It would be followed by more and more similar events, culminating in mass hysteria around the term of the Millennium, and take another 25 or 30 years to taper off and fade away. I gave this overall trend, a few days after having this realization, the general name Millennial Fevre. (Yes, I made that phrase up myself; I've since heard others use similar phrases to describe their similar insights; although I must add that most of the discourse of any clarity on this topic has come from science fiction writers and the so-called futurists, social scientists engaged in speculation about large historical trends.) (By the way, I don't give a fig if anyone disbelieves this narrative of realization. It's in my civics class notes and journals from that time. So I know it to be accurate and factual, but if anyone wants to disbelieve it, feel free.)

The many little millennial and apocalyptic cults and small-time cultural crazy fads going on in the early 1970s were the first slope up the peak of a curved hill, a perfectly curved Gaussion-distribution hill, centered on its peak at the turn of the Millennium, and would take just as long to fade out on the other side. Millennial craziness was going to get worse before it got better. And it would take a long time to fade away.

I do not claim to be a prophet (although Rabbi Heschel's quote has become deeply meaningful to my personal life as an anti-bullying activist) but I was right on every point: things have gotten a lot worse, even though there are already signs that they will get better. We are already on the other slope of the Gaussian distribution—we just have to get through a few more manufactured and overheated Millennial predictions and events. The changeover of the Mayan calendar from the Fifth World to the Sixth World in 2012 is just the next in the Millennial Fevre sequence, following on the heels of the apocalypses predicted for Y2K, etc., none of which actually were the end of the world. There's already been a disaster movie blatantly titled 2012 made to titillate the masses with more pornography of despair, so that they remain entertained while Rome burns.

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean collaborated on a brilliant graphic novel in the 1990s titled Signal:to:Noise. This is one of the better novels of its decade. Gaiman and McKean dealt directly with the coming Millennial Fevre in this graphic novel, which depicts a film director dying of cancer, who begins to write his last movie script about the end of the world that was predicted for the year 1000. The lead character says at one point in the novel, and this is a quote worth inscribing permanently in your memory: "There is no big apocalypse. There is only an endless succession of little ones." Every personal death is a personal apocalypse. Gaiman managed to write here, in my opinion, a potent antidote to the pornography of despair: there is no big apocalypse, only an endless series of little, personal ones. That's serious food for thought. It is an empowering thought, because it frees us from fear of the end of all things by helping us realize that everyone faces the same end, in their own time.

This graphic novel introduced me to the concept, and the word, apokatastasis, which has become central to my own personal cosmology and spiritual belief system. Apokatastasis is the opposite of apocalypse: it is the realization that there is nothing, not one thing, that cannot be redeemed, given enough time. It is redemption, at the end of all things, not destruction.

There is an entire literature of apokatastasis, which serves as an antidote to the pornography of despair. This is a profoundly anentropic literature, rejecting both despair and hopelessness as erroneous choices.

J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings is not an apocalyptic story, as it has often been misunderstood; it is in fact a story of apokatastasis. 20th century novelist, mystic, existentialist, poet and playwright Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a manifesto of apokatastasis in his short poetic book The Saviors of God, and also in his play Buddha. Fantasy and science fiction author Diane Duane's entire cosmology, represented in many novels ranging from her Young Wizards series of young adult fantasy novels, to her lyrical and uplifting Star Trek novel The Wounded Sky, to her adult fantasy series that began with the novel The Door Into Fire, is explicitly and openly a cosmology of apokatastasis.

So, you see, indulging in the pornography of despair is a choice for entropy, for death and dismal hopelessness. It is a luxury that we can't really afford. The pornography of despair is explicitly and implicitly bread and circuses, because its message is that all we can do is stand by helplessly while Rome burns and the world winds down. It encourages us to do nothing. The message is: Don't form a bucket brigade to put out the fire. Bliss out on your daily dose of distraction, of soma (as in Aldous Huxley's dystopian satire Brave New World). Don't try to fix things, because all the problems are insoluble, and too huge to be solved anyway.

And this entropic lassitude, this encouragement to do nothing, to stand by and watch the world die, is why the pornography of despair is, to be blunt, a force for evil.

6. One excuse that is often trotted out for snarky public discourse is that we live in the Age of Irony, that public access to the revelations of the processes of political and social power, thanks to 24-hour media reporting on it, has made us all cynical. But cynicism is an excuse, not only in the artistic arena, but even more corrosively in the political arena. Cynicism is not a default state of being, it is a choice. Cynicism is entropic because it's easy: it's easier to be cynical than optimistic, because cynicism is like sliding downhill, following the pull of gravity, while optimism requires you to keep walking uphill.

Ben Lewis writes in his important article on contemporary artistic mannerism, "The dustbin of history":

Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these [mannerist] faults [in postmodern art], but invoke in their defence a critical attitude towards their material. Yes, [Jeff] Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, [Damien] Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism.

This is despair presented as process. It is cynical in its self-recursive presentation of meaninglessness: art is meaningless, so we're going to mock you for knowing that by presenting meaningless works of out. Postmodern vacuity. Despair about not having any point to art-making—as Yeats wrote in his great early-Modern poem The Second Coming, "Things call apart, the center cannot hold. . . ."—leads to cynicism about the entire art-making project. We have nothing to say, therefore we'll pretend that everything we make is about not having anything to say.

It's not hard to analogize this mannerism from contemporary art history to contemporary political and social discourse. A sense of failure, of hopelessness—and of high expectations that generate more despair and anger when promises of hope are not instantaneously gratified. Never mind that change takes hard work, and can take some time: we as Americans are addicted to instant gratification, and this is fueled by the media.

We get impatient and surly when our politicians make promises that take time to enact: we retaliate by "getting rid of the bums," voting in a whole new crop of new bums who can do no better, and may know even less about governance. Impatience with the political process breeds amateurism—which is not necessarily good for the body politic in the long run. Amateurs ignorant of the process may be quick to resort to ideology rather than negotiation, because it's all they know, and all they are familiar with.

7. I used to be an activist for LGBT rights. I co-founded an organization in Madison, WI, in the late 1980s, titled Madison Bisexuals & Friends. We gathered in part because of the very first Pride event, a march and public gathering, that was organized in Madison. (The history of Madison Pride events is checkered. I've become involved again in the past two years, but Pride events themselves were sparse in the intervening years.) I was active for some years. Eventually, about the same time I moved West from Madison, I changed my activism to be more artistic than political; following the model of certain other queer poets, artists, and musicians, I made social justice and social change priorities in my artistic life. i joined the gay men's chorus of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and later the famed, original chorus in San Francisco; moving back to Wisconsin a few years later, I eventually joined the gay men's chorus in Madison.

Now I find myself becoming an activist again, specifically on the topic of bullying, hate crimes, and the suicides of young men and women who have been bullied and attacked forced into suicide simply for being different. Young people committing suicide because they have been bullied for being different is something that raises my ire. I take it very personally, because I was bullied for many years, myself, when I was young. I am getting involved with anti-bullying and anti-suicide organizations and movements as time permits. (I am still coping with a serious chronic illness, so my energy has limits. I do more by writing than by marching, therefore, at the moment.)

This is necessary activism.

Not only because kids are committing suicide, but because the cultural environment promotes tacit support for those who hate them. The cultural climate of snark in public discourse is a default state of bullying. Think about it: public discourse based on yelling at each other promotes, guess what, more yelling at each other. So those who feel empowered by the argument culture to publicly voice their every prejudice, bigoted opinion, and hateful speech will feel no constraints. Idiotic televangelist Pat Robertson, who has a long track record of hate speech and parallel-universe illogic, has managed to blame in his own mind the post-Christmas blizzard that crippled the East Coast in 2010 on gays and lesbians traveling to have decadent holidays in Florida. People of like mind feel empowered by such examples to not only verbally harass others merely suspected of being gay or lesbian, but also to physically bully them. if you can blame a blizzard on gays and lesbians, it's only a small step towards stringing them up on a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming.

The verbal bullying of public discourse that hates and fears the Other creates a climate in which the Other is attacked, just for being Other. The psychotic fringe is always empowered by such rhetoric. Timothy McVey was no Islamic terrorist, the new boogeyman of those who need an Enemy to fear: McVey was home-grown, and his rhetoric closely paralleled the rhetoric of the current politically ascendant Tea Party. Think about what that means.

So anti-bullying activism is more necessary than ever.

8. Now, notice that the rhetoric of cultural bullying is symptomatic of end-times panic. Notice that artistic mannerism is closely parallel in its tropes and patterns to political despair. Notice that literary reactionary conservatism and verbal bullying share the same rhetorical language.

All these topics I have raised in this essay are not disparate, they are in fact all linked at root level. That's because they are all based on the same emotion: fear.

Fear. Pure and simple.

Fear of the future. Fear of the past. Fear of personal responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.

Fear of change, fear of what the future might bring, fear of having to be held accountable in the future for one's current selfish choices and actions—these lie alike at the root of reactionary conservatism, of the denial of global climate change, and of the pornography of despair as expressed in apocalyptic fantasies.

Xenophobia, the fear of people who are not like us, fear of the Other, fear of people who are different—these lie alike at the root of hate-crimes, of bullying people who are different from the cultural stereotypes of what is represented as "normal," and of political ideologies that promote conformity and intolernace at the expense of liberty and diversity.

Xenophobia and the fear of the implications of liberty together combine to ignite fascism. That which threatens must be repressed. That which exhibits manifest otherness must be made to conform.

Fear of one's own helplessness, fear of being ineffectual, fear that is really overwhelm—these lie alike at the root of the pornography of despair, of bread and circuses (and Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burns), and of the choice to avoid addressing both social justice issues and environmental issues.

These are all the same at root.

And they are all a choice.

A choice which can be rejected. Even if the Universe must eventually wind down to nothing, finding a deadly entropic equilibrium, we are not required to be complicit. We have the choice to resist entropy, to choose to bring more life into the Universe rather than let what life there is drain away to nothing.

We don't have to let that happen. Living with fearlessness is possible. It takes some courage, certainly. But mostly it takes the stubborn refusal to let the hateful, fearmongering, anti-everything, anti-life bastards have the last word. Speak up. Life needs you.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sacred Music

This image means a great deal to me. It's from the 1920s or 30s. (I don't have a full attribution for it.) It's an image of the great three-faced image of Shiva from the caves on the island of Elephanta, in India. Seated at the base of the sculpture is a sarod player, a young master musician, who no doubt went on to have a full career as performer, teacher, musician. I found this image in a book about Elephanta, and when I turned the page and saw this photo, it stopped me cold. It says everything I want to say about music, my relationship to the numinous, the Divine, and how these are essentially One.

I've said it before, but let me say it again, because it's true, and because I really mean it:

Music is sacred to me.

Of all the arts I practice, and there are several, music is the most central to the core of my being. It's the one that means the most. It's the art that is a sacred art, one could even call it a religious art. Although I am in no sense traditionally religious, music is what links me to the religious sensibility, the religious aesthetic. It's in music that I share common ground, along with many other musicians, to the numinous, the liminal.

Bach wrote at the end of each completed score of music, Deo Gratias, "To the glory of God." I understand the impulse to say that, I understand the feeling behind it. It's not language I would use, but it's language I can feel, and support.

Visual art is something I really love doing, but I'm always pushing at it. It doesn't always satisfy me on a deep level. Sometimes it feels disconnected, the imagery too mental, too imaginary. It can be virtual, rather than fully sensual. That's partly because our entire culture is dominated by a bias towards the visual—over the other senses, and also as a learning channel—and so visual art is both accepted and easy. People accept my photography and digital art more readily than any other work I do. We have a visual vocabulary, a very rich and complex one—and it contains things we can't always put into words, symbols that resonate on a deeper level. At its best, for me, my own visual art activates the archetypes, and creates resonances beyond the purely visual. There is a hum of the Divine in its presence, when it takes on its archetypal aspects. The best visual art is shamanic—not necessarily in terms of imagery, but because it seems to open into worlds that are visionary, transcendent, and full of emotional and spiritual resonance.

In my visual art, in those pieces that mean the most to me personally, there is often something mysterious, inexplicable, archetypal to be sure, but not always obviously so in terms of imagery or style. I find myself drawn again and again to certain images that for me are very alive, very powerful, that seem to evoke the Mystery, and the gods. This photograph of Shiva with a musician at his knee is one of these images. I've made more than one photograph I've made of statues of Shiva dancing into an archetypal icon of my own.

In my written arts, in poetry, in essays, in writing in general, I have often admitted that words fail me when it comes to trying to describe the numinous. The closest I can get to evoking—not simply describing or reporting, but evoking—the Divine as I have experienced it is in visionary poetry. I've written more than one poem that is a record of a visionary experience, a waking dream, a moment of gnosis—whatever arbitrary label we want to use, that allows us to box the Mystery into a convenient and unthreatening categorization—and while such poems are records of experiences, the use of poetry as the language of recording seems essential, since poetry itself is heightened language, more than ordinary words or talk-talk. Poetry can raise language to the sublime.

Nonetheless, words often fail. They just can't contain everything we want to contain in them. In the end, words even betray us, by making something ineffable seem ordinary, in the inadequacy of telling about it. Our culture is dominated, in the linguistic domain, by a bias towards linear narrative, towards straightforward storytelling—and against the sideways or nonlinear pull that poetry can bring into consciousness. This is one reason, obviously, why prose narrative is far more popular than most poetry, which even in linear narrative forms tends to be incapable of being fully tamed. Poetry is always a bit wild, even when we try to domesticate it. It keeps seeping out around the edges, keeps flickering in and out of the light and going to hide in the shadows.

My own poetry, at its best, is not at all tamed. I don't want it to be tamed. I want it to remain wild and unpredictable, even to me. Some of my own favorite poems surprised me: I had no idea where they came from, and what they said was so unexpected that it was a new idea, even to me. Far too many readers of poetry, and even poets themselves, try to pretend that poetry is predictable, and manageable; formalist poets in particular carry around the totally-unsubstantiated idea that all poems are planned, intended, intentional, and created at the will of the poet. Wiser poets, based on the reading that I have done in poets' essays and memoirs about their art, seem willing to acknowledge that they don't always know what's going on, that they cannot always manage their poems, as though they were tidy little boxes that could be stacked and sorted in the warehouse of memory.

My own favorite poems that I have written—although, to be blunt, it often feels as if some part of the Self was in charge of the writing that is not the "I" of the ego-personality—or that have emerged from my pen, are those poems that take my out of myself, and into something greater. In ancient Greece, poets and dramatists and other artists spoke of being possessed by their daimon, their dark spirit, or of being possessed by their god, and speaking truly, as an oracle, for that moment of creation. That's an experience I've felt, being taken over by something greater than myself. I marvel at some of the writings that have emerged at white heat, when I've felt taken over, or as though I was merely a little hollow bone for Spirit to blow through. I marvel at those writings in part because they don't seem like they're mine—rather, that "I" cannot claim ownership of them without sounding arrogant and egotistical to myself—and in part because things were said that in some cases were brand new to me, as well. Writing like this is not purely self-expression, nor is it a deliberate attempt at expressing an existing thought or opinion. Some writers have said that they don't know what they themselves are thinking about a topic until they write about it—I can relate to that, although what I'm discussing here goes deeper. I'm trying to avoid collapsing into the usual clichés about writing, while at the same time trying to discuss what is numinous and liminal about the experience of having written something that surprised even yourself. There is indeed something special, something spectacular, about witnessing even your own writing, when it gets to that numinous level. When you're in the flow, in the groove, writing at white heat, feeling inspired—whatever label we want to give the process to try to box it into some unthreatening categorization—it's an amazing feeling. It's beyond rewarding: it's what we live for, as artists.

(Language capable of supporting discussions of the numinous and liminal does exist, but it's more likely to be found in the literature of mythological and anthropological studies, and in the literature of psychology, than it is to be found in the literature of either literary criticism or poetry criticism. The literature of literary criticism has become particularly anemic about discussions of the soul in art. Lit crit has turned largely towards the head, and away from the heart, and lost all sense of enchantment.)

Having said all that, I must return to the essential: For me, whatever numinous experience I might attain from writing, or making visual art, music is even more so. Multiply everything I've said so far about writing, about art-making, and for me, music is even more so.

I'm lucky in one sense about my music: I've made my living from it occasionally, but haven't really had to compromise much to do that. I've made much more of my living doing visual art, doing commercial illustration and design—as a result that's both why I can be egoless about it, when a client asks for a change in an illustration or design, and why I sometimes feel like my visual art isn't as meaningful, is more detached somehow. When I'm doing commercial art or design, I long since got over any pretensions that it was anything more than art made to spec, for clients or art directors, and not fundamentally mine. At the same time I was doing commercial art, I was doing my own fine art, on the side as it were. Occasionally there was overlap, but mostly those domains stayed separated.

I've noticed a tendency among young graduates from design school, who are full of great ideas but don't much real-world experience yet, to believe that what they're doing as commercial artists has a higher Purpose, is in fact Art. But it's not. I read, in the literature that designers write about what they do, many of these same pretensions: that what they're doing has some higher purpose, that great design can change the world. Mostly it doesn't. Mostly it's commercial work for clients. Mostly it doesn't have the opportunity to Change The World. (Occasionally it does, but only rarely.) Designers have the chance, every so often, to create an idea or iconic image or logo that permeates the public consciousness, that is "viral" in the sense that it spreads and self-replicates and keeps popping up in places beyond its original purpose or intent.

But remember that most such viral ideas had a single purpose at their inception: to exercise the imagination in order to get you to buy something. Even Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, as abstracted and iconic as they are, contained an inherent, unavoidable commentary about consumerism—precisely because the image evoked the commercial product. That was deliberate—and subversive, when it was first done. now, post-Warhol, when you see this maneuver done in postmodern art, do you think more about the art, or the product?

I'm lucky in one sense, therefore, that my music has rarely been dominated by commerce. Not that I never got paid for my music—I've sold my share of CDs—but that I wasn't required to modify my music to suit the tastes of the buyer. I've had the artistic luxury, with my music, most of the time, of not having to give a damn what anybody thought about it, and could just do what I wanted to do.

(This may be about to change in the near future. More on that later. And it's why I'm thinking about this today.)

I've heard a dance master, a man who is both accomplished dancer and choreographer, opine that you can't hide in dance. It's too revealing of the self. You can try to act, but in the end, you're always naked. I think the same is true of music. In poetry, and perhaps even more in prose, you can hide: you can present characters who are not you, who are nothing like you at all, yet who are real people to those who encounter them. Dance is done with the self. It leaves you very vulnerable and exposed. Music is the same. When you are on stage, performing music, or performing music you have written, or improvising on the spot, you are incredibly vulnerable, incredibly open, incredibly naked to the world, to the environment, to the feelings of those around you. That is music's (and dance's) great joy: that living connection with others, in the moment, in live performance.

It's also music's great challenge, and great obstacle. Some very private people have been master musicians. In some cases they have talked about how painful it is for them to perform, how they felt too naked on stage, too vulnerable. More than one biography of pianist Glenn Gould has suggested this was one reason he quit performing concerts at the peak of his career. Gould's technique as a pianist, and his radical ideas as a composer and radiobroadcast producer, were stellar, probably even on the level of true genius. But he had many personality quirks and eccentricities; he fought with feelings of isolation, with depression, with disconnection. His musical work was magnificent; I think his radio work for the CBC was equally brilliant with whatever he did at the piano. Nonetheless, he himself said in an interview that playing music onstage was sometimes too painful to endure. He was, I believe, torn between his need to express himself musically, and his strong tendencies towards being an eccentric hermit, a complete isolate.

I don't suffer from Gould's distaste for the audience. When I'm performing music before an audience, I love the connection that happens on the best occasions, when it feels not as if they were passive receivers of your music, but as if all of us were taking a journey together. Taking a journey—together. I might be driving the train, but no one is left behind who wants to come along. That's a kind of performance "natural high" I enjoy every time it happens. When I've given improvised music concerts, I've been known to explicitly thank the audience for taking the journey with us, the musicians.

When you are immersed in making music, you are very naked.

And that is what makes music a sacred act. It is not merely that you are naked and exposed, in yourself and to yourself, or to a living audience. It is also that you are naked to that Immanence that lives in everything, that in sacred space you can see lurking in the backs of the eyes of everyone you have ever loved. You can see the Divine very close to the surface, then, very close to breaking through all the masks and filters, to make direct contact. That Immanence, or Mystery, which I have no good label for—but for which the word "God" is inadequate and misleading, not least because there is so much cultural baggage around the word that isn't what I'm talking about here—sings back at you, when you are singing. It becomes a duet. I've experienced this numinous duet many times in concert.

(I know plenty of writers who would deny this happens, or is even possible: but most writers don't ever directly engage with an audience. Writing itself is a solitary act, in a way that music never is. Most poetry readings seem structured to avoid performance natural highs, and so rarely approach the level of musical performance. People stay in their heads, mostly. It's interesting what writers try to avoid, ennit?)

Music, because it is made up of organized sounds in time, is an environmental medium. It is not safely removed, it is not easy to keep your distance from it. It can never be only purely mental, because sound itself is an immersive medium. We live within a planetary atmosphere, a dynamic fluid medium through which sound-waves propagate in all directions. A sound produced moves outward spherically. Sound is also non-linear; it reflects back on itself, and affects itself depending on its environment. Acoustical physics must account for sound reflections in the spherical domain of resonance and reflection, not only those sounds that come directly from the source. Music is environmental, and immersive. We experience music in our bodies, not just with our ears. Some sound frequencies are more felt than heard, while others can be heard via transmission of vibration through our physical bodies, not just directly into our ears. We feel sound in our bones, in our blood. Big bass booms from a stack of huge speakers at a rock concert shake the air and liquid in our lungs, in our guts. We feel music, we don't just listen to it.

There are those who try to avoid knowing this, of course. They prefer music that stays in the head, and doesn't affect the lungs, or heart, or bone marrow. Of course, music that shakes the lungs has a profound emotional force—and many are those who are afraid of powerful emotions, of whatever type. Ecstasy, to them, is as suspicious as anger, as grief. There are those—many writers I know fall into this group—who would prefer it if life were not so messy, so chaotic, so immersive, so very visceral. They do their best to keep life at a distance, to keep it from affecting them on any deep emotional levels. They want to stay in control—of themselves, of their feelings, or whatever—and will go out of their way to avoid the personal letting-go that is ecstasy, that is dancing, that is a loud music concert. Apollo wants to avoid Dionysus—although both need each other in order to be whole.

But music, like dance, makes you naked. And music is sacred. Not because I say that music is sacred, but because every culture has always said so, everywhere in the world, since the beginning of human time. The greatest, most sublime sculptures of Shiva, carved from the living rock of a cave on an island in the Indian Ocean, sculptures in which the god smiles serenely in perfect tranquility, perfect equanimity, perfect enlightenment, showing us the way—these same sculptures also show us Shiva as dancing, as being in continuous motion. The musician down in the corner of the photograph is playing for the god, to be sure, but also as the god, as an Immanent aspect and mask of the god he is seated beside, as another face of music, which is sounds dancing in the air. The musician is playing for himself, for us, but also for and as Shiva, as the voice and face of the god. Every time he plays his sarod, he is evoking the god seated next to him, behind him, within him, the god who never ceased dancing, who never ceases playing. Each act of making music is a sacred act, both an evocation and reflection of the Divine.

I have always known this to be true. It's just that in some venues you can't talk about it. People don't want to hear it. Talking about it is always a risk, not only of being misunderstood but of being hated for speaking the truth. But in my own music, I am always aware of it. It's always present: music is a sacred act.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, December 27, 2010

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 3: Gifts

Two papier-maché bowls made specifically as gifts for family and friends for Xmas. I've already given these two bowls away, although I forgot to sign them. They were made after some thought about what to give as gifts, after a year in which I had made a lot of art but hadn't made much money. I like giving hand-made gifts for the occasions in which one gives gifts: there is something personal about making one's gifts, something special especially when one can give of one's artistic self. A lot of family and friends appreciate this. I like receiving such hand-made gifts, too.

Bowl of Type II

A refinement of the first bowl made of images of typewriters and type. I made this as a gift for my sister, who is an artist and book-binder, and who this past autumn took a class in setting type by hand. This classical skill, which I value highly, spawned a couple of typography-related gifts for my sister, including this bowl. The outer skin of the bowl is made from my own laser-print photos of my collection of vintage typewriters. The inside of the bowl is paper strips with random typewriter impressions printed on paper.

I like the end result here. I think it's one of the better bowls I've made so far. I particularly like the shape of this bowl, it feels very classic.

Bowl of Music

A larger bowl, made of various kinds of paper, cut with scissors into both triangular shapes and long strips, all with musical notation printed on them. These papers have been collected by me over some time from various craft stores in their scrapbooking departments. One particularly interesting paper was translucent vellum printed with gold music notation. I made this bowl for my friends in Chicago who run a recording studio, where I sometimes work as well as record, and since it was gifted during the annual studio Xmas party, I filled the bowl with chocolates and Xmas ornaments, and a few other little goodies. The last photo here shows the bowl filled with gifts, to be given as a gift.

The construction of this bowl is looser, even a little random, and deliberately sloppy. The mold was a large square plastic salad bowl. When I removed the piece from the mold (it came out easily because I used plastic wrap to line the mold) it had not yet fully dried. So even though I kept the base flat while it finished drying, so that the piece would stand properly, I allowed the side walls to deform as they dried, and did not try to preserve the perfectly square form. As a result, the bowl is oddly-shaped, neither fully square nor fully rounded, with some paper fragments shooting up along the sides almost architecturally. One or two connecting structural pieces in the bowl's base had to be reglued after the bowl was completely dried, as they had pulled apart meantime.

I tried to use the scrapbook music papers in an interesting design pattern, both inside and out. I also used two small prints of Photoshop pieces I'd made earlier, on opposite sides of the bowl's exterior rim, each one symbolizing music in some way. One image contains my photos of New Mexico, with cave art, including Kokopelli the flute player, superimposed. The other image involved a piano, and other musical symbols. Perhaps the music bowl will end up in the studio, holding chocolates or other snacks for those late-night recording sessions; that would be fitting.

I am discovering that some concepts for art bowls work better if I cut the paper into strips with scissors. Torn paper has a different look. This is about finished appearance more than papier-maché technique. The paper is soaked and assembled using the same papier-maché mold techniques, so far, regardless of how the strips are prepared beforehand.

In the case of an illustrated bowl, with a specific theme and imagery, like these two bowls here, sometimes the torn paper look detracts from the images themselves, which look more like pure collage if cut with scissors. For bowls made purely out of paper that is itself of aesthetic interest, such as fine-textured watercolor paper, tearing the paper into strips, rather than cutting it, softens the look of the finished piece, makes it look even more hand-made, and provides interesting textures and patterns in its own right.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, December 25, 2010


winter inches along
low hills blued in twilight—
the blur of trees

redblue rush cold road past black silhouette bare treestands downswept in dusk
chill wind whistle past window road of tires on wet asphalt spun sidelong and spun
through clear to next town next road next county next intersecting line of woods
banner my heart three-pedaled fevered thrash past infinite spacecold icebricks
softened thrum redblue blur far hills come close and burst on windscreen ice
eye the eye of seeing bloodfever past hellpain headache blare downdale downhill
furious trees of the frozen heart forested bent and brittled by night oncoming
relentless netbrown barebranch treeshudder redblue shadow of headlight on road

long driven dusk chilled ever more compact and frozen
by the at last arrival of homeatands offering of barebranch hand to dusk

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tree of Light 2010

A small Christmas tree this year, on a table in the living room, with the fireplace in the background. I put mostly star ornaments, and musical instrument ornaments on it, this year. I have a terrific collection of very detailed musical instrument ornaments, that look completely real and playable, only in miniature. I really enjoyed getting these out this year, as it has been a good year for me musically, and next year promises to be even more so—so the musical ornaments are on the tree by way of celebration.

What I love about Christmas trees are the lights, at night. Lighting up the darkest time of the year, setting the night aglow. Of course that's the original pagan purpose of the tannenbaum, or tree of lights: a winter solstice celebration of the returning of the light. From now on, the days get gradually longer, even though winter itself as a season has just begun.

The light in the darkness also makes me think of a poem I wrote two winter solstices ago, a poem that's been on my mind lately, which one or two poet-friends liked very much at the time, and which otherwise went unregarded: Evangelismos. It's a poem of annunciation. I could not get out of my mind Rilke's phrase "Every angel is terrifying," and what it must be like to be spoken to by an angel in its glory: which I imagined as a continuous explosion of light and sound, overwhelming and overpowering. I wrote from the point of view of the shepherds in the hills, being herded themselves by the angel, down into town, to witness a miracle.

I always like to put a few Christmas books under the tree, mixed in with the presents. Appropriate titles, such as Dickens, here, and Clement Moore's famous poem. I have a friend who decorates his entire house for the season with thousands of ornaments, garlands, and decorations. He also places a lot of classic Christmas books under the tree; it's always fun to pick one up and thumb through it. The books I usually put under my small tree here all Peter Pauper Press editions, which I have collected for many years; I particularly like their older books, many out of print now, from the 1940s through the 1960s, which are often beautifully typeset and simply yet elegantly decorated with woodcut illustrations. For example, I have a very nice PPP edition from 1965, with illustrations, of John Greenleaf Whitter's poem Snowbound.

Labels: , , , , ,

Season's Greetings

(Click on image for larger version.)

It's snowing lightly outside, which it has been doing since noon; another inch or two in the forecast than before, making everything white and blue and beautiful. There's something extra-special magical about snow on Christmas Eve.

I'm sitting by the fireplace, which has mellow flames licking upwards with flickering light. I roasted a large turkey this afternoon for tomorrow's celebration. The house is still full of beautiful, warm smells. I still have to make the drippings gravy, make myself some dinner, and later this evening bake a key lime pie. But for the moment, I am resting, enjoying the snow falling in the blue dusk, the sound of the fire in the fireplace, and carols quietly playing on the stereo. For me, to create the right mood, I need to play carols from King's College, Cambridge, on the stereo.

After resting a while longer, feeling very mellow this evening, I'll get up and go back into the kitchen for awhile. For now, sitting and resting is ambition enough.

Here's a small rendition of an ancient English carol, recorded this afternoon by myself on orchestral bells. Just a little something for the dark night, the solstice, the return of the light, and as a small gift from me to you.

God Rest Ye Merry    

(Click on image for larger version.)

Labels: , ,

The Aliens

About ten years ago, just as a fun exercise, I designed some classic "alien abduction" imagery, just as a practice illustration. I ran across it again recently, and it made me smile, so I'd thought I share it here.

I was working at the time with the publishers of a monthly magazine that specialized in the Unknown and Unexplained, occult studies, crypto-science, etc. They had a great sense of humor, and of course we were all science fiction fans. So I made this fun illustration on spec, just as something to do one afternoon. It was never used in the magazine, but laser-prints of it appeared as mini-posters all over the office. It was a popular piece in-house, then, even though it has never before been published.

This illustration is made from a few pieces of clip art, with the overall shimmering acid-green field, the textures, and the gradients made as custom processes in Photoshop. I particularly like the subtleties of the texturing used in the large iconic alien "face" (really more of an icon, in this day and age) in the background.

I found an old laser-print of this piece when I was looking through my old art and photo prints for material to make into papier-maché art pieces. This illustration still makes he smile: that is one surprised-looking cow! "Moooo?!" Part of the humor of this illustration is that, here in the Upper Midwest, there is all sorts of folklore about alien abduction, about cow-tipping, and other weird unexplained events. Rural Wisconsin has many tales of people being abducted or influenced in ways no one can explain; I myself have driven down some dark unlit Wisconsin rural roads off the beaten path late at night in remote regions, where there developed a feeling of spooky electric anticipation in the air that could make one almost believe in such tales of strange events. Who knows?

As a designer and illustrator, it's always good to fool around with your materials, just play, and/or make illustrations for no reason for books that don't exist. Every so often I get inspired to create an entire identity system for a project or design company that doesn't exist. It's like five-finger exercises on the piano: it keeps the mind fresh, the wit sharpened, and hopefully you enjoy yourself during the practice process.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 2

More fine-art, completely impractical but pretty, papier-maché bowls made using the gluten-free paste formula of one part white glue to two parts water. I've been experimenting with different kinds of paper. A few of these bowls are made from my old laser-prints, pulled from my archives of old prints. A few others are made from heavy cardstock or other kinds of paper. The precise mix of glue to water is variable, and somewhat flexible; in experimenting, I've found that heavier paper stock needs a higher ratio of glue to water, such as 1 part glue to 1.5 parts water, while the lighter papers do just fine with a more dilute paste. It depends a bit on paper weight, but also on how firmly you want the papers to adhere. In a couple of experiments with heavier paper, I have found that I had to glue a couple sections when the piece was dried. Just touch-ups, to be sure, but had I used more glue originally, it might have stuck together better.

I've discovered that the best way to work with molds for making the bowls—whether the mold is a glass bowl, a cheap plastic salad bowl found at the dollar discount store, or another kind of mold such as a vase—is to use plastic wrap. Vaseline leaves a residue that is hard to get off the paper, and using no lining of the mold can mean that the paper affixes itself to the mold too readily. You line the mold with plastic wrap, then make the papier-maché form around or within the mold. When the piece is dried, the plastic wrap makes it much easier to remove the finished piece. I tried making a bowl using one of the cheap plastic salad bowls, and the paper stuck to the mold rather too well. It also made for some odd textures on the finished papier-maché, a few areas of high polish that don't look very good.

The tall cylinder was made by wrapping a thrift-store vase with plastic wrap, then wrapping that in papier-maché cardstock. It needed to completely dry before I could unwrap it from around the vase. Also, the plastic wrap around the lip had moved, so the paper was glued to the glass, and I had to use a knife to unseat the paper piece before it would come off cleanly; which it did immediately after running the knife edge around the lip.

I actually really like this tall cylinder made from the vase mold. I think it's a unique shape, and has some real possibilities for future projects. It might even be interesting to combine the tall cylinder with a more typical bowl shape, in a grouping, or as combination pieces.

I am also thinking about what series I can make using the same shapes but different papers, different images. variations on a theme; or conceptual variations that tell a narrative over several bowls in sequence.

watercolor paper bowl

I tried making this bowl using heavy watercolor paper, with the intention of drawing or painting on the bowl after it is formed, or doing brush calligraphy on it. In other words, as a blank form for future art-making, in bowl form. This paper was rather hard to work with. It required longer soaking in the glue-water mix, before it softened enough to be formable. When dried, the bowl made from this paper is incredibly firm, stiff, and strong—much stronger than most of the bowls made from other kinds of paper.

fractal paper bowl

Made from laser-prints of fractal art made in Photoshop. I've made several kinds of fractal art in Photoshop, and have designed some wrapping papers using fractals in repeating tiles. For example, here's some older wrapping-paper design I made some years ago using fractal art:


I plan to make a larger bowl, eventually, using a wider range of fractal imagery. It might be a little hard to look at, though, when it's all done.

These are still "sketches," for the most part. The bowl I think is the most lovely is the one made using the blue and gold-threaded decorative paper. That's a finished piece, compared to most of the others.

Decorative paper bowl; the best one so far, I think. (I need to find more of this rare and beautiful paper.)

Labels: , ,


Opening your prophet's lips to speak truth to silence,
to power, to whomever seems unjust in their judgments,
it's not exactly a popularity contest. It brings on the bricks.
Although the bricks they throw at you are enough to build on,
make a temple's foundation, make a platform to stand on.
A flashbulb makes red spots persist in your vision.
I can't find myself in these pictures. I always seem to be missing.
Mom told me years ago to take a few pictures of myself when I was
out West, visiting those mountains and canyons, to prove
I'd been there. I had to be in the picture to be believed.
There's a saying about prophets never being heard in their
hometowns. I guess the photographic record makes it more real.
They push you to the margins, whenever they can. it's a way
of ignoring what you have to say, of making it smaller so it can
be discarded rather than stumbled over. The prophet's job
is to throw bricks in the machinery of complacent self-congratulation.
I guess the bricks are more or less real. Certainly they litter the road.
I've tried everything else. The best bricks seem to be made of
music, some photos, a few drawings scattered here and there.
The prophetic words are the most easily dismissed. Still, they linger
around the margins of the garden, bad unwelcome guests waiting for the gates
to open, so they can trudge in and track mud on manicured carpets.
Badly behaved, every one. Somewhere along the roadside there's a poet
who can't or won't shut up. He keeps spilling prophecies from his trenchcoat
pockets to molder in the gutter with the cigarette butts and stale banana peels.
Nobody loves a poet. Might as well find that rope, fling yourself
over the parapet into the village square far below. Why do suicidal poets
always seem to find their exits in the city? Probably bucolic vistas
make them forget their purpose, give them pause, or a little too much balm.
Far easier to be wraith-driven, angst ridden, in the capitols of narcissus.
Only the most self-regarding candidate for the rope could be unmoved by
these snow-bent woods, perfect aliens in the ice fog. First it snows, then everything
goes out of resolution and pixelates to grey, grey, grey. Something like a halo.
Nothing I say can ever get through. It won't be heard. You end up talking
mostly to yourself. A geometric divider laid across a keyboard. A compass
sitting on the piano, where the music draws circles of Lux aeterna
and other celestial roads. Something like a word rising from the wounds,
but not a word. Nothing so ignorable. Nothing quite as vapid.
What wanders across the still burden of the figured bass
is a coelocanth skimming an icy ocean trench. SIlent intruder from deep dark down.
Cling to your lover, even your temporary lovers in this passion play, desperately
cling and be marginalized. Nothing lasts, not even the electric bodies.
Find something like a choice, lying like a brick in the road,
to be picked up, turned over and over, and tossed in the nearest window.
Reflections of the grey-blue sky shatter as your words spit through.
Tablets of stone names under heaven. The cold fish-eyed regarding gaze.
Intimate words in a mountainside cemetery, late at night, as chill fog rolls in.
Fish swim red in grey waters under reflections of bare black treebranches.
Passing trucks spit steam and rain spray high, not far above the sea storm boom.
I already told you it would end this way.

Rain, Taos Plateau, NM, 2004

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Your Annual List of Best Books Doesn't Matter

This is the time of year when everyone involved in literary criticism, book reviewing, and/or simple book boosterism posts interminable lists of their favorite books of the year—and let's be honest, when you see another list of "best books" it's only just the list-maker's favorites. You rarely see someone post a book they hated on such lists, even if they have to acknowledge in other ways that it was an important book. (Along these lines, I think Jonathon Franzen's latest novel execrable; but I would list it as important because its publication instigated a lot of good discussion about the current health of the literary novel form. A few years ago, I would have listed Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road for the same reasons, as generating important discussions—although the novel itself was completely unoriginal, bullet-riddled with cliché, egregiously rude to the reader, and otherwise just not very good.)

This is the time of year when critics strive to make grand summations, to bring into coherent form their criteria for what constitutes great books (and thereby great writing). It's a time for Grand Pronouncements. It's a time for literary canon-making, which is what every Great Books list is really about. Summations are designed to bring order out of chaos, to construct a narrative of literary arcs that don't exist, and to promote a personal critical agenda. grand summations tend to be riddled with general theorizing, which in most critical hands is meant to be more prescriptive than descriptive. (This is how literature ought to be done!) We must look back over the past year in publishing, it seems, and try to bring the fray into some sort of coherent orderliness, in order for it to be understood. We must try to make sense out of meaningless, random existence.

And it gets even worse in the hands of some critics: The underlying tone, and hidden agenda, of many of the more snobbish "high-end" theory-driven literary-critical "best books" lists is that if you don't agree with the list-maker, you're an idiot. You really ought to agree with them, after all, since they're the experts and you're just an ordinary reader, too stupid to make up your own mind. That's pretty insulting, and i think a lot of ordinary readers can sense it—they're really far more perceptive than some in the critical elite like to think they are. Perhaps many "amateur" readers make their own best books lists in response to the hidden insult they perceive on some unconscious level. See, I can do a list just as well as you.

But what is ephemeral remains ephemeral. Little endures. Look back over best book lists of distant decades, and you'll find few recognizable names, titles and authors, that have stood the test of time. Short-term critical judgments, which is what "best book" lists are, very often get it hilariously wrong.

The process all seems rather expected. Maybe it's because review editors like to publish such annual summations; maybe it's because Top Ten lists are as easily absorbed to the busy mental palette as are soundbytes, which reduce genuine content to often misleading generalizations. The habit of best book lists has spread far beyond any compulsory editorial form it may once have been driven by, however. Online reviewers act like making a best books list is a year's-end requirement, a necessity to justify their extensive (often unpaid) time spent on reviews over the past year—not much different in compulsion in kind to all those New Year's Resolutions people make, too, this time of year. Well, I don't believe in those, either.

These lists of "best" books are precisely where objective criticism goes out the window. Justifications abound. Rationalizations get repeated. Sometimes books appear on everyone's best books lists simply because they're on everyone else's lists. A lot of reviewers read other lists before making their own, so they are further influenced towards de facto short-term consensus by the thoughtless application of literary favoritism. Those of us who prefer the sidelines to the center of the fray often find ourselves doing anti-best books lists, which is often just reactionary rather than carefully thought through.

And yet critics keep making these book lists every single year, at this time, as though it all mattered a very great deal, and this year's list will somehow make a difference, change the world, when last year's list was unable to.

A classic, very accurate definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again while expecting each time to generate an outcome different than last time. Yet 2 + 2 will always equal 100 (in Binary). The rigorous, cold equations keep balancing the same way each time, no matter how we wish for a miracle.

So keep your list of best books to yourself. No one cares. Well, maybe the publishers care, because it means more sales. There's nothing compulsory about compiling a "best books" list, not even for avid reviewers. (And don't mistake me: I think every writer ought to write the occasional book review; it teaches you a great deal. But I also think a lot of writers spend a lot more time on the reviewing project than they ought to. I'd rather read what they have to say about life and art then what they thought of a book I'll probably never really want to read.)

Far better, perhaps, to break the pattern, and to privately savor those books you read this past year that you treasured. Those of us on the sidelines, who could in fact present a list of the books we most enjoyed reading this past year, will likely keep our opinions to ourselves, where they belong. I could make up a list of books that have strongly affected me this past year, or strongly influenced my thinking and/or writing, or that meant a lot to me, that I greatly enjoyed—but it would be a personal, subjective list, which no one would ever care about but me. Nor would I expect them to.

I say, save yourself the effort of grand summations, of coherent narratives, or "best books" lists, and just keep reading. Keep reading, reading, and if you write, keep writing. If you want to share something that really got to you, do it as you go along. Post a review while the iron's still hot. Don't wait for the end of the year to put it on some list. Summations aren't necessary, and almost no one asks for them anyway.

Or, if after all this, you do feel moved to make a list, strive to make clear that it's a list of your favorite books of the year, not a list of the "best books" of the year. Make a list of Those Books I Enjoyed Reading this past year, even if they're older books. Be personal with your list. Be enthusiastic. Be outrageous. Have fun! Just avoid the critical pretensions of those who would dictate to you, gentle reader, what you're supposed to think is good, and what is not.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, December 20, 2010


I just went through some really intense physical exertions, this weekend and last weekend, giving a couple of concerts, driving long ways to do so, and so on and so forth—and I'm not as wiped out as I thought I would be. Certainly not as much as I used to be. So I guess I'm getting stronger again, betting better. More than I think.

Isn't that interesting?

Last weekend was the scheduled concert series with Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, for which I had made a poster, and then made another:

(Click on image for larger version.)

I made the second poster on my own initiative, as a way to add to the publicity. This was because we were performing again my piece Weavers of Light, for male chorus, flute, bells and piano, which I had written in autumn 2009 and which we had premiered a year ago. We were giving it a second premiere, in part because I had revised and corrected the score from last year, and also to get a better live performance recording. So I made this second poster, and paid for it myself, and distributed it in as many other directions as I could. The difference between this poster and the other one is that this one emphasizes the premiere of my own music. So call it a bit of personal chest-thumping, of self-marketing, and I won't mind. I don't know how effective it was—you almost never get to know—but it was worth doing. And I'm actually rather fond of the design of this second poster. Another of my photo-illustration posters. By the way, regarding the original concert poster: I have received tons of positive feedback on it, including board members saying they thought it was the best-designed winter concert poster for PHMC they'd ever seen. That was nice to hear.

Last weekend, we did the first concert, and things went okay. My piece didn't go that well, though, and I was not at my personal best for a concert. I am still dealing with chronic illness, and chronic tiredness. So I didn't feel that good about the concert.

But wait! There's more!

A Chorus member had kindly offered to let me stay at his apartment in Madison for the nights in between the concerts, so I wouldn't have to drive there and back twice in a weekend. A major winter storm was supposed to come in on the day between concerts, and then the second concert was supposed to be a clear, cold day.

Well, the storm was late. It started with freezing rain, then escalated to snow, to blizzard, to a storm so powerful for this early in the winter season that it even made the TV news in Europe. I was staying at my friend's place, trapped and unable to get out till the plows came through, as his place is in a cul-de-sac at the bottom of a hill, which I could not get up till it was plowed. Unfortunately, I had a toxic reaction to some innocent use of cleaning chemicals, which meant I had a horrible night in addition to being trapped. It was nobody's fault, although it pretty much destroyed me for the weekend. I did try to get out at night, when it was still snowing, a choice on my part that made things worse, as I got nowhere except to exhaustion. I was so exhausted by morning, when we did finally get out, that even had the second concert not been cancelled on account of the blizzard, I would have had to just go home and not perform, regardless.

Anyway, the concert was postponed for one week. Same venue, different day.

But wait! There's more!

On the drive home, I passed two severe road accidents on the interstate. One of them was when a car had apparently hit an icy patch, skidded off the road, and slammed sideways into a stand of trees. The entire driver's side of the car was crumpled. Emergency vehicles were everywhere, although I could not see that anyone had actually been seriously hurt.

i've been in an accident like that. My previous pickup truck, one winter when I was driving in northern Minnesota, skidded off the road, spun out, and rear-ended into a stand of trees. We were not injured, and my friends were able to help me get a tow-truck out there, 20 miles from electricity, etc., to pull me out of the ditch, after which the truck was okay, although the read hatch never worked properly again. But I had PTSD from that accident for some time, and bad dreams, and a lot of emotions. So I felt for those strangers as I drove by, seeing the side of their car stove in. I wished them the best.

Once home, it was pretty much a collapse scenario. I unloaded, and went to bed early. I thought I'd need a couple of days of doing nothing to recover—but I didn't. I was back on my feet in a day. I did my chores. I made presents to give people for Xmas, and mailed them off. I did some cooking. I set up the small Xmas tree in the living room, although I haven't done much other decorating as yet. Still want to hang some ornaments on the tree. Make things merry and bright.

Then, yesterday, I drove down to Chicago for some time in the recording studio where I work part-time, and the annual studio Holiday party, which meant I get to bed late. (Yes, making of music was involved. Yes, so was a wee dram of good Scotch whiskey.) Then this morning I had to drive from Chicago to Madison for the rescheduled second concert.

We didn't cancel the concert, we postponed it a week. So we did the concert this afternoon, after I had driven in directly from Chicago.

And the concert went very well. The performance of my piece was probably the best live performance we've given it. I was very pleased. I will eventually get a recording of it. Several friends who couldn't make it to the concert have already asked me about the recordings. (More on that at a later date.) The entire concert was very well-performed, in fact, and the audience was terrific. We all received many compliments afterwards.

And so I drove home this evening, very tired, but not as exhausted as I thought I would be. Nonetheless, I am doing nothing about anything till tomorrow. (Have to get the tux dry-cleaned, but I'll deal with tomorrow.) I'm taking the rest of the night off. And I'm not exhausted.

So I guess the IV drug therapy is working. I am, I guess, getting more of my strength back. I am, in fact, feeling better. There's a long way to go, and I'm not out of the woods yet. And I'm also not doing as bad as I used to, so I guess I'm doing better.

We're all much bigger than we think we are. We're all more capable of coping with and managing difficulties than we give ourselves credit for. We're all much more empowered than we realize. We all have more ability and more flexibility than we imagine. The main thing that keeps us from being at our best is some idea we carry around that we can't: in other words, we self-limit because of our attitudes, because of mental/emotional blocks.

I find myself, tonight, feeling pretty good about everything. And especially about this just-completed concert series. I far exceeded my own expectations, this concert, and am pleased with that, because it means that I'm doing better than I had though I was, or could have hoped for.

Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Sometime during the next to last relapse you notice
that blood is not something you're willing to give up easily.
Still, when it happens, it happens. They say: stress-related.
Your last fight with your family over some holiday drama
that you created anyway, by expecting it to be there when
it really wasn't. Some change in weather, some turn of light,
a phrase spoken out of the mouth's side, not wondering
who overhears. Who indeed. When it's cold all the bees
are gone. Cactus freeze too; but then, they never mind, they endure.
When you've got that needle in your arm again, not the needle
that gets you high, the needle that keeps you alive another two
months, there's not much left. If you played guitar, it would
be a strum up, a pull down, a drag along the strings to make
them roar and sigh. If you played guitar, which you don't; never
wanted to do like everyone else, just one more garage hack.
If you played trombone, it would be a slow jazz solo that builds
a ladder to the rooftop, and up into the sky, masoning a long line
of mellow tones making an attitude, a movie, a painting.
Your scalp on fire with music.

Make that needle dance, tap your feet, tap your fingers
on the reclined wheelchair arm. Don't be afraid to feel idiotic. Bombs are
going off. You fall sideways through the drywall, singing.
And there will be blood. The new normal. Are you a writer,
a maker, or just another player, just another garage guitarist.
Blood carbonates in your veins, mixed with new inputs, the machine gun
riff of saline fixative like grout in the walls of new apartments.
Like those half-built condos across the former wheatfield, where
the most important thing to do was climb high up the see-through
stairs, get naked, and press bodies together with the neighbor boy,
a summer of being fully alive, fully present, fully in the pound
of your blood. Nothing on your skin but sweat and sunlight, the blood
in your flesh moving ever faster, ever louder. Its own kind of music.
Make that needle dance. The tape turns on the spindle, echoing back
across a long room of shining lights: be they elven glows, be they the LEDs
of a mixing board, be they candles scented with beeswax and sweat,
they must run, they must turn the wheel. Now pick up the bass,
the real foundation, bass like the steady pulse of the world's heart.
Bigger than anything. Music that runs in the blood.
Now the river runs red again, after the long climb, the cliffs slippery
with blood and rain, and bodies float downstream with noon's tides.
Don't give a damn if the bucket's full of crabs. Make that needle dance.
Somewhere in the absolute far-away voices chorus. Ringing down
long halls, storytelling. What keeps music alive but the love of doing it?
It pumps the blood.

     Play until your fingers bleed on the strings,
slippery, electric hot. Play until you don't care how much blood you shed
last week, days of blues and hurt passing like blizzards and coal.
Play out the long cable, the tubing that puts life into your arm,
pushing metal, pushing skin, pulsing with the blood singing in your temples
as you spend your last ounce on pounding out the chords till dawn.
Spend yourself fearlessly to the end of your blood.
Squeeze out last drops from the wizard's wellstone. Make damp walls drip
with slow throb and ruin. Save nothing for unlikely revivals. Stir it now.
Make that needle dance. The VUs bang against the red line as
the bass pounds through coagulated walls. Slow seep tubing into
your veins thistles with chemical fire. Anything to stop the bleeding.
For two more months you'll be continued; if you miss a date, you're down
the drain with the rest of nothing. So pump the blood. Feel that naked
pulse all through your body, pounding of music in flesh,
in the sibilant, fired blood.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Infinite Gratitudes 2010 (part one)

Every year for the past several years, I have made it my practice to write out my gratitudes at year’s end: those events and situations and other things and people in life, during the year just passing for which I am deeply grateful. (I am not alone in this practice.)

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, as I believe those are usually unreasonable expectations that people use to set themselves up for almost masochistic displays of self-recrimination later on. Instead, I believe in and practice the writing of gratitudes. This practice is rooted in the saying of the great Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever said was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice. Indeed, that is often the only prayer of which I am capable—as I do not believe in praying for Things, nor in intercessory prayer—and I am glad and grateful that one of the greatest of all spiritual teachers affirms that it is sufficient.

This year I have found a lot more than usual to write about. And I do not feel done with it, either. The process continues. I am struggling with parts of what I want to write about, It’s been a very hard year for me, personally, and there are still some feelings I’m trying to work out. Some things happened that really I'm finding it hard to be easy-going about, and find gratitude for—little things, like, you know, almost dying. I want to find some gratitude in all that, and I’m really having a hard time doing so, just yet.

So, this is part one; there will be more later, I hope.

This past year, I lost the entire summer to serious illness. My chronic illness had flared up the previous autumn, and had worsened over time, till it became dangerously life-threatening this past summer. In fact, I did almost die, last June. Thus I didn’t spend as much time outdoors as I normally do, and I didn’t get in much exercise, or travel, or camping. I didn’t get to enjoy the warm weather, as I was mostly trapped indoors, struggling to live. I spent more than one glorious June and July day in the hospital, with a needle in my arm, receiving a blood transfusion or IV drug therapy. On some other beautiful summer afternoons, I was too weak and sick to do more than sit on my porch, exhausted and nauseous, and envy the neighborhood children at their play. On more than one day, I had to cancel all plans I had made, and just stay home. I watched far too much toxic TV, not having even the cognitive fortitude to read, or think clearly, or write much worth the effort of having written. I’m not out of the woods yet, and I am not well yet, and I am not cured yet of this illness; there could be months, or years, to go, before this crucifixion is finally past.

During this time, I learned some very important lessons, all of which I am grateful for, even the harsh ones, even the ones I would have avoided given a choice. Life can be a harsh realm, and leave you gasping for air, sometimes.

A serious illness puts many things into perspective, sorting what really matters from what doesn’t. I have greatly simplified my life, out of necessity. I have been strongly supported by my innermost circle of friends, and I have let many other relationships fall away. Particularly those that were draining or otherwise not life-affirming.

I have mostly withdrawn from the online communities, such as poetry workshops, to which I once gave much time. I have removed myself from the social whirlwind of trying to keep up with most popular culture, with current literature, with the media, with the online world. I’ve chosen to remain detached and uninvolved with social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, which to me seem mostly an incredible waste of time, and which promote shallow connectivity over soul-deep contemplation and community. As if life wasn’t already moving too fast and too shallowly for most people. The only thing I can imagine that Twitter might be good for is exchanging haiku or other short-form poems. Do we really need things like Facebook? No; they’re nice, in many ways, but they’re also unnecessary. Living a full life means stepping away from the screen every so often.

During this period I also, on the other hand, remained creatively productive. I wrote a series of new poems, in part as a self-defensive response to my illness and its circumstances. I began to write some new piano music, and reignited a standing project to make another album’s worth of spacemusic. I made a lot of digital art, a lot of new photographs, and I wrote several essays, journal entries that expanded into essays, poems, and rants. Some days I was physically unable to go out, or work in the garden, but I could sit on the porch and go through photos, and write. I wrote about my illness, my nearly dying, from several angles, in several media. Being creative, continuously creative, literally gave me something to do every day, a reason to live, the strength to go on when I didn’t want to go on, when it was too much effort to go on, when it hurt to much to care if I went on or didn’t. For this apparently bottomless well of creative inspiration and resources, I am infinitely grateful. Sometimes it was the only reason I got through the day, or the night, and the only reason I wanted to.

I am particularly grateful for the 4 or 5 best poems that came out of this summer and autumn, which seem to me to be good poems, at least as good or better than anything else written this past year. Other than the usual spray of haiku falling off the back of the wagon, I wrote very few poems the first half of the year, and the best ones of the year were written this past summer, when everything else was falling apart. Now I’m back to writing fewer poems again, and satisfied that it should be so; I always seem to write fewer poems when I’m musically active.

Because I faced death this past summer, because I came very close to dying, because I almost did die, I have felt deep changes happen in my life, in my attitude towards life. I am grateful for each of these lessons, even the ones that were harsh personally, hard to learn, and hard to grasp at first. Each experience of near-death has been life-changing. I have been through several life-changing experiences in the past six years, some of them personally life-threatening, many others changes coming into my life because of the death of both of my parents, and everything I personally sacrificed to be their live-in caregiver as they were dying. I don’t regret any of that, and I am well aware that I made more sacrifices than I had intended, such as giving up my own career and life-path for awhile; and I am aware that most people who know me don’t really know about, or understand how deep those sacrifices went. I will carry some scars through to the end of this lifetime. I am bitter about none of it. Neither do I really expect most people to understand, or for that matter give a damn.

I have written in some detail in The Anemia Diaries about the experience of nearly dying itself, and its causes. Yet I have still to fully work through the emotions, largely put on hold or set aside in the moment—in fact there was no strength to waste on them—that this near-death experience awoke in me. I am still sorting through how I feel about it all. Just recently I discovered levels of weeping anxiety, of sudden screaming night terror, of fears I didn’t have time for when I was fighting to live, that caused me to curl up late one night on my carpet in a weeping, wailing, screaming fetal ball. I wailed like a child, I made funny noises, I messed up my face with red tears and snot, and I used up a lot of tissues. When it was all done for the night, I was completely wiped out, drained and exhausted; that event must have been wanting to happen for some time, and I felt released afterwards. That it all flooded out now is a good sign, a sign that I am stronger enough now, that I could afford to release it, and let it happen. Some months ago, I literally would not have had the physical strength to sustain the physical effort of weeping and wailing. So I guess I am indeed getting better. For all of this, I am infinitely grateful.

I was lucky to have a friend whom I love with me when this clearing and releasing too place, whose presence in my life I am grateful for beyond what I can put into words, both in general, and also for that night. He held me as I wept, as I have only rarely been held. For my entire life, people mostly cry on my shoulder, then vanish when I need to cry on theirs. There have only been a few friends who I could rely on for the kind of emotional support that I seem fated to give to everyone else. I have spent most of my life feeling touch-deprived, a tactile person who never gets enough physical touch, hugs, skin on skin, lovemaking, or massage. I have railed to the gods at the unfairness of this lifelong imbalance before; and this night some of that was healed, for indeed, my good friend was actually there for me, when I most needed it. For this, infinite gratitudes.

I am grateful for my garden around my house, at both the front entrance and out back behind the porch. The past few years I have planted and designed and added to my garden, so that it contains a range of flowers and flowering shrubs that bloom in sequence from early spring through All Hallow’s.

My original plan was that, since I take regular roadtrips, and might be gone for weeks at a time, the garden could mostly take care of itself while I was gone, and restart itself each new spring. The success of my garden’s intention was proven this summer, when I was too weak to do hardly anything. I got only a little new planting done, and often went a couple of weeks between weedings. Yet my garden was beautiful, rich with color, luxurious with fragrance, explosive with green growth and bright flower, a visual, sensual feast.

I have many planted low-maintenance perennials, which largely take care of themselves, and return year after year. This year I was pleasantly surprised at the return of my chrysanthemum bushes, which I had thought would be annual only, but by this past autumn were profligate and brilliant with color.

My garden this year was continuously full of happy bees, which makes me happy, too. That I was too sick to do much in the garden didn’t matter. For my garden, and that it has lived up to my hopes and plans, I am infinitely grateful.

When you survive a life-threatening event, if you’re smart you stop and think about it. You put things into perspective. You realize what really matters in life, and what doesn’t. You begin to weed out those parts of life that do not serve life. You make choices about the situations you willingly put yourself into, sorting out the life-affirming ones to pursue, and discarding the situations, and people, that are life-denying, even life-destroying. You learn to avoid certain people and situations, because you come to realize they suck you dry.

I met a former friend I hadn’t seen for some years late this summer, and felt drained after our meeting, literally tired out and needing to sit down; so I know there’s nothing there for me anymore. On the other hand, I met another former friend at another time that I equally had not seen for some time, and felt energized afterwards. It’s obvious which person I would be willing to see again soon. Let’s be blunt: When you come near to dying, you realize your limits, you encounter your personal boundaries, and you must sort out those which help you return to life, and those which drag you down, and must be avoided.

I am grateful for my impatience. Often in my life, I have suffered from feeling impatient, as though it were a vice, cured best by equanimity, meditation, and tranquil tolerance. I have worked hard to be tolerant, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be tranquil.

My renewed impatience is grounded in a new, deep sense of my own mortality. When confronted with your own mortality, you find that it’s okay to be impatient with some things, because they are anti-life. Therefore I have become increasingly impatient with narcissistic drama junkies whose personal lives are a total mess, who have nothing really wrong with their lives, yet just to feel that adrenaline kick, they must manufacture personal drama in order to feel alive. To feel their juices flowing, they create drama in their relationships, in their workplaces, in their encounters with strangers. I have no more patience for people who really have nothing in life to complain about, and who live in a constant state of self-delusion. I have no patience left for those who reject the idea that bullying is a serious problem in our culture: that those who are different remain at personal risk, throughout their childhoods, and well into adulthood. People need to wake up and take some adult personal responsibility for how their actions affect others.

Most drama junkies and denialsits would deny my analysis; or if they accept it as true, only for others, not for themselves. I have no more patience for mindgames and headtrips, for gameplaying in relationships in whatever arena, or for people whose only joy in life is to stir up suffering in others. Life’s too short to play those kinds of anti-life, entropy-saturated games. Move along.

So I am grateful for my renewed intolerance for certain brands of stupidity and irrationality. I am able to appreciate the person, still, as an avatar of the All, yet still have no use for what they say or do. Basically my intolerance comes down to certain kinds of situations in which it seems fair to ask: Why are wasting my time with this, and yours?

I have encountered numerous gay men recently who demand that people love them for who they are. It’s a common plaint. They demand that others accept them just as they are, for who they are. Yet these same men, in their very next sentence, turn around and say some hugely judgmental sweeping generalizations about some other person or group. This makes my head spin. I feel compelled to ask: Don’t you get it? Don’t you comprehend that you can’t demand that people treat you with honor and respect if you don’t act the same in return? Don’t you understand that demanding that you be respected, just as you are, means that you must show the same respect towards others? Are you so personally wounded that you can no longer feel any empathy for others? Have your wounds made you into narcissists? It’s a strange disconnect. Whatever happened to people learning The Golden Rule in elementary school? In the current social and political climate, more and more people seem to want to get and keep all that they regard as theirs, even on the level of civil rights, while denying the same to others. I can only categorize this as narcissism gone wild.

I am grateful for my increasing impatience with the utter illogic of this kind of self-centered thinking. I am grateful that nearly dying has stripped away my ability to waste time rationalizing and justifying this particular brand of illogic, and instead has granted me the grace of intolerance for its pretzel-like self-contradictions.

Now when I encounter this attitude, I mostly ignore it. When you have no energy left over, past surviving the day, you learn to ration your strength, and pick the battles that are worth fighting, and let the rest fall by the wayside. They are either irrelevant, or unwinnable. Most efforts to point out irrational illogic fall on deaf ears. So you learn to save your breath, and not waste your limited energy on anything so pointless as trying to get through to someone whose mind is made up, and is quite sure they’re right, and won’t even listen to or tolerate dissent or contradiction.

I am infinitely grateful for my new (used) piano.

It came into my life so effortlessly, the experience seemed almost magical, and I was transported from purchase project start to finish seemingly before I knew what had happened. I had begun looking for a piano during the summer, knowing that I would need one again, to play, to write music with, to have in my life as a source of musical solace, that I could sit down and play whenever I wanted to. I really wanted a piano. I had missed having one. Nothing happened for the illness months of summer. Then, in autumn, I found an ad for what became my piano, went to go examine it, realized I had found a good, serviceable model, and within four days it had been moved to my home and tuned a week after that. Everything fell together as though it had been fated to happen that way. As I said, the experience seemed almost magical.

And now I have my piano, which still needs more tuning, since it hadn’t been tuned in years, but which I can play anytime I wish to, day or night. On more than one recent evening, I’ve laid down for a nap, when suddenly notes came into my head, and, knowing I wasn’t going to fall asleep, I got up and went over to the piano, played them through, and wrote them down. This joy of composing new music keeps happening, facilitated by the presence of my piano. For this, I am deeply grateful.

I’ve learned to be grateful for my anger, even though its intensity sometimes frightens even me. It’s obvious that it’s not about what’s going in the present moment, whatever triggered the emotion that ranges from annoyance or irritability through to towering rage. It’s obvious some of this anger is delayed emotion, that goes back a long ways. It’s also rooted in frustration and impatience. Frustration with my own situation, and impatience with it; and also impatience about people I see wasting their lives on unimportant drama, when life’s too short, too sweet for that.

I am angry at being sick all the time. I am angry at those people who, it feels like, abandon their associations with me, because they can’t cope with my chronic illness and what it has done to me. These people would make poor nurses, as they flee from depression, doubt, and difficulty. Other friends, perhaps more true, have stayed with me all through this—and I am grateful beyond words for their presence. I know it’s hard to be around sick people, and that you can burn out—but it’s worse being the sick person, when people go away. Think about it.

I am tired of being the Good Patient, stoic and undemanding and uncomplaining or quietly positive. I’m tired of being told to “Think positive!” as though that were a sufficient cure. In truth, while some days you can think positive, other days the most you can do is endure. Other days are better, and some are worse. You just have to get through each day. Some days I still bleed, if I have overexerted myself, or tried to do too much. I am slowly regaining some strength and endurance, and I still have a long ways to go, before I approach anything like what most people call “normal” health. I may go down again before I go up. It’s not a smooth ride, and it’s not a predictable, chartable curve. Setbacks happen, and they take a toll on me, emotionally as well as physically.

People tell me to save up my energy to be used on those days when I need it. But this illness doesn’t work that way: each day is different, and each day is unpredictable. You can’t save your strength for a rainy day, because it might still not be there. That’s endemic to the illness, that unpredictability. You can’t manage it by trying to force it to be what it’s not; and you can’t predict what it will be, on any given day. The only sure thing is that if you do over-exert yourself for too long, you’ll relapse. There will be blood.

I get really angry at all this. I have a vast well of anger that’s there, not far below the surface. It’s always nearby. Most of the time nobody sees it, or needs to. But sometimes my anger at my situation is all that sustains me through the day; it might be an expenditure of energy I cannot afford, but it also gives me determination to survive. I find that most people don’t understand this.

Actually what it is, is a vast well of complex, genuine emotion. It’s not just anger. I break into tears much more easily than I used to, and often for sweet joy as much as for frustration. Actually I tend to cry more for joy than anything else. Actually I have infinite gratitude for this. I’m tired of being stoic, of being a Real Man who holds in his feelings—hot that I ever did that very well, anyway—and pretends to be tough and solitary and strong. I might be laconic some days, but I’m not going to pretend to be stoic.

Sometimes you just have to live your life, and pay the consequences. Even when you know what they will be. I can’t spend any more time sitting on my hands and not doing anything for fear of the bleeding. Some days I simply have to live my life, and pay the price, if I overdo it. I could still die from this, and I refuse to live a crippled life, I refuse to live in fear of this illness, or of dying. I refuse to live in fear, which means not ever having really lived at all. I choose to live. I have to cope with everything, endure the illness, and I have to stop when I hit the wall of exhaustion. And I must also live, so that I can feel like each day was not wasted. I choose to live. Eventually, I will pass through this crucifixion, and come out into another garden. From the garden of death, the place of the skull, through to the garden of rebirth.

So I’m grateful for my anger, which is a double-edged sword. If I overdo it, if I have a real meltdown, I will probably bleed, and be exhausted for a few days. But anger is also fuel: fuel for survival, for overcoming, for pushing through the suffering to find a place of joy.

I am grateful for being able to cry easily. Actually I’ve always been able to cry easily. It’s just easier now. Now, when I read a transcendently beautiful passage in a novel, or a deeply moving poem, or see some part of a movie that is passionately full of genuine love, I often weep. I weep for our strangeness. I weep for our amazing ability to overcome our darkest selves and step into the light.

And I rage against those who continue to choose to stay in the shadows, who reject the light, who give themselves over to downward entropy, who often try to drag others down with them. Evil is a black hole of willful gravitation, which speeds up the death of the universe, rather than slowing it down by bringing more life into it.

And I welcome that. I am grateful for it. I am grateful for being passionate, for feeling life at its fullest, for feeling things to the hilt. One myth of hell is that it’s a dead place where nothing passionate happens, or ever can: a place of ennui, of deadness of heart, of stasis. The dead cannot feel as strongly as we do, even if they get caught up in the take-loops they created for themselves in life.

I am grateful for being a passionate person. It helps me know that I’m still alive, that I haven’t succumbed yet. It helps me stay alive, for that matter. So I’m grateful.

I'm grateful for my winter road trip early in 2010. I was able to spend a month in the Rocky Mountains in winter, and also by the ocean. I made the best photographs I’ve ever made of those subjects, even though I was sick and tired a lot of the time. The travel was tiring but fulfilling. I had a lot of insomnia at times, but I also made it through the long drives okay.

I also made a lot of good new artwork and writing during the roadtrip. I gave a paper at a poetry conference, the first time I’ve done that in over 20 years. I saw the Pacific Ocean in winter, which is dramatic, full of stormy skies and dramatic lighting. I visited my favorite mountains, the Grand Tetons, covered with winter snows, and with blizzards coming through. It was some of the most beautiful of sights and times.

Every time I’ve taken a roadtrip out West these past few years, I feel like my photography has improved radically. It gets better in part because of my practice, and in part because I have such good subject matter. I plan another winter roadtrip soon, if at all possible. I’ll capture what I can. Plans for the near future might make other trips difficult for awhile. So you take your chances when you can, and are grateful for them.

Labels: , ,