Wednesday, July 30

Today I read a couple of George Orwell's essays.

It was perhaps twenty years before I saw the significance of this. At the time I could not see beyond the moral dilemma that is presented to the weak in a world governed by the strong: Break the rules, or perish. I did not see that in that case the weak have the right to make a different set of rules for themselves; because, even if such an idea had occurred to me, there was no one in my environment who could have confirmed me in it.

Such, Such Were the Joys

The sanction of the victim again - and I wonder where that realization first surfaced, or if it's been around almost as long as there has been a conflict between what people are taught is right and what actually is.

The question is not whether boys are still buckled into Eton collars on Sunday, or told that babies are dug up under gooseberry bushes. That kind of thing is at an end, admittedly. The real question is whether it is still normal for a school child to live for years amid irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings. And here one is up against the very great difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely.

— ibid.

People should never, ever forget this. Being a child is often painful, confusing, and terrifying. Romanticizing childhood is at best an act of incredible forgetfulness and at worst one of deliberate dishonesty.

There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare's case must be 'not guilty'. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool

Orwell wrote in a world which has since changed immeasurably; his concerns were different and the axes he had to grind aren't mine. Still, it seems good to point out that while the imagery of 1984 and Animal Farm has become a kind of lip-service orthodoxy in its own right, Orwell had a lot of other things to say that would still be worth hearing.

Monday, July 28

shared knowledge

I am holding half an acre
torn from the map of Michigan
and folded in this scrap of paper
is a land I grew in

Think of every town you've lived in
every room you lay your head
and what is it that you remember?

Yesterday I helped situate some extra beds in the house I am renting with my cousin and three other people. We are trying to put up a pair of French biochemistry students for six weeks or so, and it is not going smoothly.

I like the house - it is a two story bungalow, if that's the right word, and it has the good features of that most commonplace of American homes. There are built-in wooden bookcases in the living room, rooms with multiple doors, and a front porch with a swing. The one-third finished basement where I irregularly eat and sleep shows all the signs of its long-term occupation by short-term occupants. It is a good place to be in flux, although it is not precisely a home.

There is a set of places where I feel home - where I can find the glasses and the silverware, turn on the lights in the dark, stretch out on the floor, wander easily through the yard and down to the creek. These are places not really defined by geography, though the landscape and the artifacts are important because they are anchors for so many associations, but by the people who occupy them and what we know in common, what we have together made of the place.

I know more about the five acres my parents own than any other piece of ground in the world. What makes it home is the fact that my family knows most of the same things, and that all of us can exist there supported by that knowledge. It might be that I have had more than my fair share of such places, but I am certain that without them I would never have survived to even the meagre age of 22. My soul would have turned to dust without floors and walls and trees and wheatfields that all meant something.

Thursday, July 24

maybe not, always

Responding to something I tossed off1 the other day, Brent writes:

And I thought...nah.

Routine allows us to navigate a complex world. Without routine, we'd be presented with so many decisions every day that there'd be too much to cope with. I'd rather concentrate on the important things rather than the mundane ones (most of the time).

True, that. My take is that routines are a set of heuristics for dealing with the billion different potential choices of everyday life.

heuristic
1. A rule of thumb, simplification, or educated guess that reduces or limits the search for solutions in domains that are difficult and poorly understood. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not guarantee optimal, or even feasible, solutions and are often used with no theoretical guarantee.

I can not remember having met anyone whose daily routine could be described as a set of consciously designed algorithms. I have met plenty of people who try for this, and some of them succeed to a degree I would never manage, but it's never a total thing. I could be wrong; I just don't think that's how the human brain functions, and even if it were there are too many other influences on our lives.

Which is plenty of generalization for the time being. All I really meant earlier, knowing the thought was incomplete when I wrote it, was that my routine is often dictated by ignorance and becomes confining because of this.

Look at things a different way, and it seems obvious that our routines are awareness, or at least an integral part of it. The right set of heuristics and algorithms can constitute the freedom to move and act in situations that would otherwise be paralyzing. Without them everything would be static.

I can comfortably inhabit a bar, the stacks of a library, or a Lutheran church service2 partly because I have routines to deal with these places. I would be painfully out of place in Brent's workplace, a dojo, or a mosque because there, I do not. It is related to the way implicit knowledge makes it possible for people to play catch or make love: Shared heuristics and algorithms, an unspoken vocabulary of motion; all of it awkward to explain with words and clear as water when it is understood.

In other words,

bad routines are born of a failure to see beyond
the surface
good routines allow me to penetrate it
it is probably good never to be too sure
that mine are either.

While I'm at it, I will point at a fragment of the Dao which I might or might not agree with as translated here:

To experience without abstraction is to sense the world;
To experience with abstraction is to know the world.
These two experiences are indistinguishable;
Their construction differs but their effect is the same.

Agreement? Am I just quibbling?

1 Read that which ever way amuses you most. (My post is here.)

2 And this is what I mean about the surface of things. I didn't understand the value of a liturgy-filled church service until I internalized its routines. Everything was so much static until the ritual became something I didn't have to think about. I didn't understand how deeply opposed I had become to the Lutheran church's beliefs until I saw through my comfort with those same routines.

Wednesday, July 23

Playing with ways of visualizing things.

Tuesday, July 22

I'm reading "The Prevention of Literature", by George Orwell. It seems well worth the time.

Monday, July 21

I was playing around a little today with scanning things and using the (very) basic image functions I once added to the works, and I decided that if I were going to post a lot of visual content, things around here would need some improvement. There is doubtless all kinds of good free code I could borrow, but I would want to integrate it with the existing system or maybe even build a new one from scratch.

That would mean a lot - relatively a lot - of work that I am not going to do right now, but I do have some other changes in mind. The wiki, for example, has been a mixed bag, but it seems like it has great potential for real-world use. I would like to see what it could become with a tighter connection to the rest of the site and a more stripped down interface.

I think it could be cool, in a bookish, scribbling-things-in-the-margins sort of way. I have always liked the idea of marginalia; there is a part of me that wants to be a monk in a library somewhere, the sort of library with many high, narrow windows designed to maximize all the available daylight, bending over a table piled deep with manuscript, a pen and inkpot close to hand, talking to myself in a mishmash of corrupted Latin and archaic English.

I have thought about spending vast amounts of time quietly and insidiously annotating the collections of the University library. My first scheme was simple enough - I would simply wander through the stacks, pen in hand, pulling random volumes from the shelves, and read them until I found something to which I could usefully add information. Really interesting books I might spend hours with. I could document my textual exploits as I went and create a kind of key to the whole thing, leave references to other books, hide copies of my index around the building - it would be a primitive kind of hypertext, just waiting for sympathetic minds to stumble across its threads. With any luck, others would begin quietly to participate, generations of students would eventually contribute to the hidden pool of our shared knowledge...

Then I thought, well, yeah, certain parties would probably frown on that. I could use a pencil for my notes, which might be less damaging than the ink - and I certainly find plenty of books littered with underlining and the like anyway. But pencil or no, eventually someone would notice what I was up to. And besides, pencil marks smudge and become illegible, which just isn't satisfactory.

So, ok, I could just check out half a dozen books every couple of days and work on them at home. It would be slower, sure, but I could be more thorough and no one would be looking over my shoulder. The only question is, do they actually check books for damages when they're returned? Would my additional text eventually become too obvious? Would some clever librarian or bored, student employee become suspicious and eventually lay a couple grand in library fines on me?

At some point I realized that it would be easy enough to insert loose sheets of paper in most books. I discover occasional pages of notes or bookmarks in the stuff I check out. This could hardly be called vandalism, since it wouldn't constitute physically altering the book. I only hit two problems - stuff would probably fall out too easily, and people might remove it even if it survived the return and shelving process. Besides that, wasn't there some risk of damaging books if the pH or whatever of the paper I used was wrong? I know cheap stuff degrades fast, and it'd be appalling to ruin pages of volumes that might otherwise last for decades.

Fortunately there has been a big boom in scrapbooking as a hobby market, or at least the people selling scrapbooking supplies would like you to believe there has. I know you can get paper that claims to be "archival quality", and art supply places should sell the kind of double-sided paper tape (you have to wet the adhesive, like you used to with a stamp, except that licking it is probably a bad idea) that I've used before to matte pictures. It would be pretty workable to cut and tape little inserts in most books with plenty of room for notes. Give me an electric typewriter or the patience to position things using an inkjet, and they would probably even look official enough to pass a casual page-flipping sort of inspection.

more: kite simple

Today is July 20th.

"Ooh, and if I do it just right, you can see my navel ring too!"

Wednesday, July 16

Want to write something here, don't really have the time. About to spring out of here for parts if not unknown then surely less well worn in their familiarity.

Decided the other day that routines are most often born of a failure to penetrate the surface of things, a general lack of awareness. You order the same thing every time at the coffeeshop because you don't know what else is on the menu. Decided this is a key thing to remember. The world is infinitely deeper and more complex than floating along the top would ever suggest. It's like the optical effect when you use a glass (or like we did as kids, an open ended milk carton wrapped in plastic) to look beneath the surface of water.

We only skitter along the surface because we got the idea somehow that this is safer. Safety is always an illusion.

tuesday, july 15

a quiet plea

to the good folks of the united states
of america:

i know it's a lot to ask,
but what if we could
stop giving so much money
to the manufacturers of awful beer?

Monday, July 14

never ever saw the northern lights

There was this guy at Wayne State we called Huey. I have no idea if that was his real name, and I never had much desire to find out. He was big, loud, and every few seconds he would make this nauseating snort. The kind you make when you're about to hock a big, fat loogie. Schloooorp. It had kind of an expletive character, and the way it punctuated his conversation would have been fascinating if both it and the conversation hadn't been utterly disgusting to begin with.

I avoided Huey when it was possible. We learned quickly to shut the door whenever he was meandering through our hall, but I do owe Huey one thing, and it is almost enough to make me remember him with fondness: The first Phish I ever really heard was the studio version of "Farmhouse" rolling out of his open door. I loved it instantly, and Phish have occupied vast space in the peripheries of my musical universe ever since.

Thursday, Jeremy and I are heading down to Bonner Springs to see them play. Memory is faulty, but it seems now like they were the first show we ever talked about wanting to see, and so this feels like a culmination of sorts, or maybe like a marker along the road to somewhere.

Friday, July 11

up!

Thursday, July 10

plenty to go around

Eric writes a a screed with which I am in some measure in agreement, and yet...

I suppose this is as good an occasion as any to voice my basic problem with self-declared liberals who take on issues of faith, sexuality, and politics:

they give the bible too much goddamn credit

I do not dispute that extremist religious fundamentalism, as expressed in the most diseased corners of the American political spectrum and the bottomless pit of vipers that is "Christian" radio, is a distortion of moderate Christianity and the better part of its scriptures.

What I have a problem with is the repeated assertion, often from people I respect who are clearly working from real knowledge, that it does not support the ugly interpretations, the murderous and despicable things done in its name. No matter what we may wish, this is not really true. The Bible, as with so many worthwhile written things, is as much a mirror as it is anything else. It can show you a great deal, but it is nearly certain to reflect what you have brought with you, or what you were seeking when you came. Those who come seeking justifications and reinforcements for bigotry will find them, and there is little to guarantee that they will heed the context or the admonitions to better things which negate their assumed righteousness.

The Bible that nearly all modern Christians accept, even leaving ever-multiplying translations and reams of apocrypha aside, did not begin as a monolithic document, and any assertion to the contrary is a denial of all of the available knowledge about its structure, content, and vast array of purposes. In real historical terms, the Bible is not one book; it is many. This matters, but it does not change the fact that the Bible is treated as a monolithic authority by many, many people.

And the truth is that parts of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, do support the beliefs and the deep, gut-level hatreds and revulsions which fuel bad laws and worse ideologies.

We can not afford to wall paper over this. There is much in the Bible which is worth seeing holy and taking repeatedly to heart. There is also much that is simply wrong, and to pretend otherwise is ultimately damaging to everyone who believes, even a little, and to everyone we share the world with.

I know and love a lot of people who would be deeply wounded by what I have just written, but I also know and love a lot of people (many of them the same) who have already been hurt by what is wrong in the word we are told is holy, and by the license it gives to things which are basically evil.

Ayn Rand, whose writing has sometimes angered me as much as anything I have ever read, had a term for this. She called it the sanction of the victim. She and I might have disputed the identity of many victims, but in this much I wholeheartedly agree: Those made to suffer by the twisted assumptions of others must not be willing to accept those assumptions for themselves, or feel the guilt those assumptions would impose on them. For many of us, ignoring what is wrong with a document like the Bible is dangerously close to sanctioning the false guilt that neither we nor the people we love should ever feel.

Rather than use footnotes, I think I will use my wiki page for this date as a sort of appendix to these scantly supported paragraphs. You should find more verbiage there from Eric and myself.

Wednesday

Who says my poems are poems?
My poems are not poems.
Only when you know my poems are not poems,
Then can we begin to discuss poems.

— Ryokan

tuesday, july 8

something noticed

people like to be written about
they like to be part of the story that's being told,
or the picture that's being drawn
people might hide from the camera
but they look for themselves
in photographs

i have my guesses why —
it feels good to be remembered by people
and to be told things about yourself
that say you matter

it feels good to be big enough
a part of someone else's life
that when they try to set down a piece of it forever
your presence seems like it lasts

it means something
to be in someone's dreams
or we want it to.

but if you are someone who writes
for other people to read
long enough
you get careful of this
not too careful, probably not even careful enough,
or your words lose all their honest shape

but

you learn that memory is by no means fixed
that words can alter what they set out to make last,
force shapes onto moments that were fluid when they were born —

and some things are sacred.

Sunday, July 6

The current incarnation of Pedro the Lion are playing Sokol auditorium in Omaha tonight. I am probably not going to be there, but I would like to be, and if you have the chance, maybe you should go.

Saturday, July 5

Here are some notes about writing and things, copied here so that maybe I will remember to turn them into something. They are a mess, but there is the seed of a pretty decent essay somewhere here.

more: history

Friday, July 4

Falling asleep in front of the television is a time-honored American tradition, one that by now is literally generations old - a distinction it is hard for many things in American life to lay really solid claim to. It is not a tradition I have ever had much use for. Something in me rebels at losing consciousness while meaningful signals are still pouring out of some object in the room; it has not seemed to matter much that the television is seldom signalling anything meaningful. For a great many people, that particular drone of insistent sound and flickering light offers something comforting or lulling. It seems pretty likely that they are more tuned into the nervous system of modern civilization than I am, but even good television has never had that effect on me, and most people do not watch good television.

The last time I fell asleep to the TV was the night war started in Iraq, and the sick nightmare drone of endlessly repeated, endlessly useless coverage filtering through my dreams made me want to claw my way out of my own skull.

Right now it is July 4th, and sitting on the front porch of a house shaped like the one I lived in when I was six, I can hear small explosions and smell sulfur. The lights of a baseball field are visible from here, and the railroad tracks that run through town. A loudspeaker is trying to implant a canned chant of we will, we will, rock you in a crowd I cannot hear. Some little shit across the way is tearing around with enough neatly packaged gunpowder to blow himself to kingdom come, and there are spent bottle rockets in the driveway. One of my neighbors just rode past with lit sparklers all over his big faded yellow bike.

Today, because she is sick, I drove my girlfriend to her grandparents' house some thirty miles East. On Interstate we saw a dozen of the kind of cars that show up in small town parades and car shows. Halfway there, on the Westbound lanes, there was a wreck - ambulances, fire fighters running for something, people clustered around the destroyed minivan windshield and someone stretched out on the grass, dead or damn near it. I knew that I should feel something more than detachment, but I had no idea how. We are detached from all of that, or we pretend to be.

When we got there, I had black coffee and BLTs, tomato fresh out of the garden. Her grandpa was watching TV.

The small explosions are growing more frequent, and for once I am content just to listen and watch.

tuesday

the sense that you have been operating under false assumptions
is a constant in the study of history

i start to wonder
if it is just a constant in life