Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”

Letter To Graham Allison

To: Graham Allison

From: Ralph E. Melcher

Dear Mr. Allison,

I am one of the two winners of the Belfer/Politico Bet Book prize for predicting the state of the world after almost a year into the Trump administration. It has taken me too long to thank you for the gift of your book, ‘Destined For War,’ along with your very kind inscription and the check.

Your book gave me considerable insight into both the present global alignments and their historical antecedents. It helped me to appreciate the potentials and the dangers of the present from a much wider perspective than the daily dramas that inflict our political institutions. I’ve always tried to be a wide system thinker and have found that history gives us an opportunity to pull back from the apparent crisis of the present and appreciate the landscape of choices and possibilities that emanate toward various futures.

The factors in play between the United States and China are of bewildering complexity. Are we truly ‘destined for war,’ or are we actually already in the midst of one? It occurs to me that our common conception of war, which involves ships and planes and missiles and troops on the ground, has been overtaken on the larger stage of world powers by the tools of weaponized information flows. On this level it appears to me that the ‘next’ world war is already being waged with ever increasing fury. While more conventional ‘proxy’ wars are fought in developing nations that find themselves caught between the boundaries of more powerful actors who themselves are often proxies for bigger powers, the information war could result in more far reaching destruction.

It appears to me that the whole conception of ‘nation states’ is under assault, as the interests of corporate players that transcend all national boundaries has begun to erode the boundaries of language that historically defines the divisions between people’s self-identity as ‘citizens’ or ‘patriots.’ Ironically, as state powers attempt to exercise military or political dominance through the manipulation and exploitation of corporate entities like those of social media, they actually contribute to the erosion of their own identities.

America, the ‘melting pot’ where all national and regional identities are subsumed under a collective mantle based on a set of common principles, may provide the template within which a new world order will be forged. While we generally speak of ‘identity politics’ as a factor at play in racial and sexual relations, I contend that the term has a much wider and deeper application on the world stage. When foreign players interfere in an American election in an attempt to erode the cohesive social agreements to which Americans ascribe, and successfully do so by using the tools of corporate influence and profit, the particulars of national policy and politics can no longer be seen as separate from our ability to define ourselves as a nation apart.

I recently watched a series of Chinese ‘Independent’ documentaries that illuminate the sectors of society that one never sees in officially approved media. What they show are the true conditions of those on the margins of a rapidly developing society, the rural and urban poor, the harsh exploitation of workers, the ‘ghost’ cities, the bureaucratic incompetence leading to tragedies, in short the darker side of the succession of ‘Five-Year Plans.’ As quickly as China has grown, it’s encountering in spades the enormous challenge of maintaining long-term stability in the face of rapid growth. However, through all of the tribulation one has a sense that the Chinese are less challenged in terms of their sense of national identity. At the same time, one can see in the artifacts of popular Chinese culture the powerful influence of American culture. Even in remote communities the walls are plastered with images from American movies and fashion magazines, the t-shirts are covered with American logos and American franchises abound. Significantly, the physical infrastructure of rapidly growing cities and towns dosn’t appear to be much different from that in America.

It’s been suggested that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ can be applied to the corporation, an entity governed and regulated by a set of laws (like algorithms) that determine the parameters of its activity. As corporations grow to blanket the world with their functionality they aggressively reshape the manner in which states relate to one another, weakening traditional boundaries forged by common identity and common language. Indeed, the international order is redefined by a common language defined by business and increasingly dominated by images rather than words.

On the surface, America and China embody contrasting responses to this challenge. As a liberal democracy, the United States opens itself with less hesitation to influence from outside its borders, assuming that this results ultimately in an enrichment of culture and strengthens its influence on other nations. China more strictly enforces the cultural, commercial and technological boundaries that enable it to respond to development and its challenges in a more unified and centralized manner. The advantage of the American model is its encouragement of innovation through the constant creative mixing of disparate elements and ideas. The strength of the Chinese model is in the managed response of the collective to altered conditions. In America the social fabric is continually challenged by conflict between competing social and political philosophies. In China an enormous centralized bureaucracy is continually challenged by internal corruption as its members look for more ‘flexible’ options.

I believe that all political change is driven by cultural change, and that cultural change arises out of technological innovation. The world of nation states arose out of the technology of print and the ability to communicate through a common language. The new world is emerging out of a digital revolution in which the language of sound and image transcends the limitations of the printed or spoken word.

The wars of tribal and national identity that characterizes the struggle of civilizations since long before the Greeks is perhaps being overshadowed by a new struggle. The increasing dominance of artificial intelligence in the form of international corporations and their structural links is a growing challenge to state systems that aren’t able to adapt to the new international environment.

War is the most rapid driver of innovation. While some states find ways to weaponize parts of the new structure, in response those weapons are modified and weaponized by their enemies. The effect is a steady state of degradation within the familiar international order. Meanwhile a new order is relentlessly emerging and most of the wars raging in the world are the result of cultural resistance to this emergence.

Well, this turns out to be a longer ‘thank you’ letter than I originally anticipated, but I’m happy to take the opportunity to give a glimpse of the thinking to which your book has contributed.

With deep regard,

Ralph E. Melcher
Santa Fe, 2018

In Defense Of The OSCARS

One of the most prominent features of OSCAR season is the sheer volume of snarky commentaries by everyone from the film snobs of academia and the New York media to the ideological ranting of political junkies on Crooked Media podcasts. Now, I admit I’m a film junky if there ever was one. I fell in love with film in High School and watching Jean Luc Godard movies in college. I’ve been to film festivals. I even helped to get a couple off the ground. I subscribe to MUBI. I live in one of the best little towns in the USA for viewing the full range of diversity in the world of film. I’ve rubbed shoulders with filmmakers and with the snarky elite and have myself been among the snarkiest.

Every year we read and listen to dozens of movie critics complaining about the terrible choices the Academy makes in terms of the ‘art’ of film. Traditionally, reviewers focus on how the nominees are chosen more on the basis of popular taste and promotional hype rather than on true and timeless artistic value. They point out that the awards are more a self-congratulatory celebration of the mainstream industry than a tribute to true quality. More glamour than grit.

Fair enough. The awards are after all a mainstream Hollywood event, and the voting is been done by predominantly male and mostly white industry insiders. The spectacle of wealthy Hollywood royalty in gowns and tuxedos frolicking on the carpet brings up for some a bit of class resentment. Yet, for anyone who enjoys the movies on almost any level the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. (It’s a long ceremony and I confess that I just watch the highlights on YouTube the next day.)

Notably in the past couple of years, and this year in particular the selections have been deliberately widened to include a bit more diversity. In the top categories are films directed by women and minorities, films including both spectacular Hollywood extravaganzas and more modest independent productions, films by old Hollywood hands and first timers, films about both gays and straights, and even that touch the edges of politically sensitive subjects.

But in the year of Trump, to venture into politically relevant waters is to open the doors for even greater explosions of criticism and pent up resentment directed against an industry that has done much to support and maintain a status quo that we’ve all grown uncomfortable with. The movies and television after all are the mirror and lens through which a culture sees itself these days and most of us are addicted to the screen in one form or another.

This is one of the years when I actually managed to see most of the films nominated for major Academy Awards (7 out of 9) and enjoyed all of them to various degrees. Of those nominated for Best Picture my personal favorites were ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Shape of Water.’ My favorite performance was Sally Hawkins in ‘The Shape of Water.’ This isn’t what I want to write about.

When I opened my ‘New Yorker’ app the day after the ceremony I came across what struck me as a bitter diatribe against the Oscars by their film critic, Richard Brody. I confess that I found it mostly appalling, and now It’s my turn to snark back. Brody’s essay to my mind appears to abandon an appreciation of the art and spectacle of film to replace art criticism with ideological rant. It struck me as little more than an ideological tantrum filled with invective and spite, perhaps triggered because the author’s choice of best film didn’t get the prize, or maybe it was just part of the collective hangover we all have after a year of Trump, looking for a convenient outlet for letting off steam.

To begin Brody goes after the winners for being ‘flashy’ and ‘showy’ and “flaunting design…and drama.” This represents to him “…the Academy’s brazen self-celebration of the old-school pomp of classic moviemaking, as well as the Academy’s general obliviousness to the moment.” I wonder exactly to what ‘moment’ he is referring, and what, beside ‘design and drama’ is the missing element by which we should judge these films. Movies, after all, are artifacts of design and drama that attempt to evoke feelings of empathy and emotion and maybe a little intellectual awakening. These are the elements of a visual medium that differentiates itself from unpolished ideological bluster. As a popular art form, like opera or theater, it avails itself of whatever formal means is at it’s disposal. Even a director like Godard, who attempted more than anyone to blend film and political discourse, understood that his audience comes to be entertained as well as enlightened. No matter how modest the production value or unpolished the performance, film is an inherently spectacular medium when seen in a theater where the lights are low and the figures on the screen are 15 feet tall.

In his next paragraph Brody credits the Academy for honoring those in the industry that have been subjected to sexual harassment and violence, and then criticizes the presentation for “…keeping the tone of the proceedings cheerful, optimistic, and, above all, commercial.” Then he dumps on Kumail Nanjiani’s “…exhortation of Hollywood professionals to pursue diversity not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s profitable to do so.” The real crime of Hollywood is “…the intersection of doing good while getting rich.” When reading this I thought of one of Sam Rockwell’s comments about being in a lot of ‘indie’ films and being happy to have been in one that people actually come to see.

So now we get to the nitty-gritty of Brody’s objections: Hollywood is corrupt because while it may tell some valuable stories, it makes money while doing so.

After praising Francis McDormand for her acceptance speech and tribute to women in the industry, he goes on to dump invective on the film she starred in, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which he characterizes as “…cavalierly, brazenly racist, not because it depicts racists but because it treats the very subject of race and the political effect of race on black individuals as a mere backdrop for the personal growth of white characters.” Yes, the film was a drama about angry white people in Missouri, and black characters, although treated sympathetically, were marginal to the plot revolving around three white central characters. Is this now the criteria for ‘blatant’ racism in film? Have you ever been to a small town in the Ozarks?

Then he goes on to stomp on The Shape of Water, which won the Best Film Oscar.

“It’s a movie that struggles, by means of ludicrously and garishly overwrought decorative and narrative complications, to endorse an absolutely minimal baseline of recognition of the “other.” It’s exactly the sort of wan and impotent message of bland tolerance that gets Hollywood to join hands in a chorus of self-congratulation.”

This is to me exhibits a degree of obliviousness to the actual nature of the film medium that I find astonishing. Brody attacks the director, Guillermo del Toro, essentially for his style of addressing current social issues through allegory and fairytale, claiming that this adds a level of sentimentality that avoids the seriousness of real issues. The writer is so wrapped up in his ideological cocoon that he apparently isn’t able to actually see the film he’s watching. The ‘fairytale’ elements of this movie, instead of obscuring the issues, make them more universal and timeless. The ‘sixties’ in this film are a stylized version of the film images of that time, not of the ‘real’ sixties, and by juxtaposing romantic images of our film memories with characters and situations that would not then have been portrayed so plainly del Toro subtly ‘tricks’ us into a fresh way to view the present. And aren’t all movies in some sense ‘fairytale’ reconstructions of real life?

Of course to Mr. Brody this summons a vision of that ‘classic’ Hollywood filmmaking that he apparently abhors. This is a style that approaches its themes much like Opera, incorporating elements of fantasy, stylization and pure emotion in order to construct something that conveys universal feelings and values and stands up to time. He criticizes del Toro’s film for being a ‘surrogate’ version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is somewhat ironic given that the movie on the top of his own ‘year’s best film’ list, Gordon Peele’s Get Out pays deliberate homage to that very film, portraying the situation of an interracial relationship, albeit with radically different consequences.

I saw Get Out and liked it. It was an outstanding film, particularly as a first film written and directed by director Gordon Peele. I didn’t think it was one of the best movies I’d seen all year, though I particularly liked the performance by actor Daniel Kaluuya. (I first saw him in the Fifteen Million Merits episode of the series, ‘Black Mirror,” one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the small screen.) “The predatory destructiveness of white people’s self-love for their good feelings…” may indeed be the subject of the film, as Brody claims, challenging white folks inherent sense of privilege and an inability to see the humanity in the “other,” but at the same time it avoids taking itself too seriously. I would also add that by the writer/directors own admission it’s an homage to the Hollywood tradition of Grade B horror films that he grew up with.

We come back to the problem of the movies themselves. “The history of Hollywood is, in part, a history of depredation, of abuse, yet the celebration of Hollywood’s traditions and the assertion of continuity between the classic era and today’s movies was on view in the ceremony from the outset…” Well, yeah. The history of Hollywood is also the history of the evolution of an art form and a mode of storytelling that involves whole communities of artists, technicians, promoters and business people. As with every business in America, there has been and continues to be abuse and injustice, the disenfranchised having to struggle for rights and representation, and its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. There has also been progress, not only in the world of film but in the world that it attempts to mirror.

Finally, Brody refers to the real root of all this resentment, which arises out of “the…shock of life under a depraved new Administration…” and what he perceives as Hollywood’s weak and misdirected response to the depredations that we all now face. Instead of making films that are a direct assault on all of America’s failings and injustices it continues to make movies with the intention of making money. “Ultimately, the self-deception that Hollywood fears most involves the box office, which dropped six per cent in 2017.” The “most frightening foe” for Hollywood, he claims, is Netflix.

True, the structure of the industry is being radically challenged. Streaming services are threatening the Multiplex and the mainstream theaters are seeing a decline in attendance for everything but the cgi blockbusters. At the same time more movies are being made than ever before on every scale and are being seen by many more people in many formats, both inside and outside of Hollywood. The long form of extended television series has given actors and directors a whole new narrative structure to explore. The transport and projection of movies is evolving exponentially. Some aspects of the business will fail and some will thrive, but the people who love and make movies are creative and resilient and what inspires them is a uniquely human endeavor, the telling of stories, and this will always endure.

So if the people who make the movies indulge in a little ‘brazen self-celebration’ in between telling our stories, and they try and entertain us in the process, I don’t begrudge them. Tomorrow a lot of them will get up early and start setting up the lights, the cameras and the magic.

Hollywood’s Brazen Self-Celebration at the 2018 Oscars

Thumb Diary – Part One

I’ve decided to reduce the time I listen to most strictly political podcasts for a time. It’s a kind of voluntary (probably temporary) fast for the sake of good health. For a while there will be less “Pod Save America,” “NPR Politics,” “Quorum Call,” or even “Lovett Or Leave It,” not because they aren’t entertaining or informative or deliver the dopamine rush that allows one’s brain to rejoice in the knowledge that there are others in the ‘Resistance’ out there. I’ll probably stick with “FiveThirtyEight” for now. I appreciate the skeptical approach coming from a standpoint of statistical analysis rather than partisan cheerleading. It helps to ground me.

I’m certainly not rejecting my interest in politics. I’m aware of the headlines and these days they pretty much tell most of the story. I’m doing this semi-fast in order to curb an obsessive attention that leads inexorably to a narrowing view of the world. I guess this is the definition of an addiction: the obsessive narrowing of view.

What I’m concerned with after all are the changes we’re all navigating as the speed of technological innovation continues on the up ramp. Changes in technology drive changes in culture and so the revolution inexorably rolls along. Politics get pulled along at the end of a thin cable, making lots of noise generating thick smokescreens and never truly leading, only reacting and usually falling further behind. The government of today struggles to legislate the changes of yesterday. Getting fixated on politicians and their dramas is like getting lost on a back trail leading to nowhere, a passionate defense Of realities that are already fading away.

America will never be the place it was again, great or no. It will either become a seamless part and no greater than the rest of the world, or it will be overcome and reformed in the hurricanes of global change.

And then there’s the thumb.

My difficulty with writing has always been the opposite of my difficulty with life in general, or maybe it’s a mirror reflection of it. Once inspiration strikes it flows until encountering an automatic tendency to scale up my vision to include everything to which that particular idea might be connected. The natural flow of particulars gets lost in the wandering tangents and complex bayous of a Big Picture. Having started with a clear and solid inspiration I’m too easily distracted by the scenery, losing sight of an ultimate destination.

The situation became worse when I switched from handwriting in notebooks to keyboarding on computers. At first this led to rambling overwritten pieces that took way too long to say too little. Then came a phase of over editing and ‘word processing,’ moving phrases and paragraphs around like puzzle pieces until I got bored with the puzzle.

When I began posting on Facebook I confess that I rarely read anything’ that anyone else posted. Crossing the long dark abyss of 2017, when feelings of acute anger and disappointment allowed for little that wasn’t a primal scream, I found social media to be the perfect vehicle for exercising passion and angst without excess wordage and a minimal of discipline. The fact of having a small and growing audience was a bonus.

I also found that writing on an iPhone size tablet requires attention on the level of word and letter rather than paragraphs or pages. It inhabits more directly the stream of thought as it flows from letter to letter, word to word, idea to idea. It’s harder to get lost or so far ahead of myself that the words never catch up. The thumb can only move so fast.

Starting with slogans and captions to articles or short summary phrases, I gradually found myself extending comments into longer paragraphs and then into short essays. At some point I realized that I’d become as comfortable with the thumb as I’d ever been with pen and paper.

There’s also the question of ‘style.’ Most of what I have to contribute has already been said many times over. How can I say it differently, or if not, what’s the point? When you’re as self critical as I am and so easily influenced by the voices heard all around, this can be a major hang up. When I look at my writing and see all the elements I’ve pirated from others it can stop me in my tracks.

The thing is that no matter how I’ve been influenced I’m writing in this moment out of my own experience, no one else’s. The trick is to keep focused on the moment, moving forward, hearing the words as they come. The trick is to have a little faith and to take chances. There’s not much else that makes the effort pay off.

There’s actually a place in the head where the words come from, like a river that constantly flows in consciousness. Writers put an antenna into that river and transcribe the voices they hear. If you listen real good the words and phrases never stop and they’re almost always clear as ice. Writers love to swim in that river, it being the place where they feel most alive.

Nowadays there’s a little bit of arthritis at the base of the thumb, a reminder that I’ve seen substantially more than a half century of back and forth, and it’s taken me this long to find the right instrument to talk about it.

Writing is a little bit like talking to yourself, and the act itself fosters a condition of loneliness. When I find that I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room, I realize that the fact of loneliness and of talking to myself is likely to be on the increase.

When I was about 24 or 25 a friend of mine who was a writer and had already published a book told me that I’d better get on with it…time doesn’t wait. “You haven’t got so much time…if you want to get your ‘literary’ Jones on you’d best be at it.” So here I am still caught in a writer’s dream of unattainable perfection, barely fulfilled, and almost seventy.

Nothing left to do but to bare my thumb and speak.

II’ve decided to reduce the time I listen to most strictly political podcasts for a time. It’s a kind of voluntary (probably temporary) fast for the sake of good health. For a while there will be less “Pod Save America,” “NPR Politics,” “Quorum Call,” or even “Lovett Or Leave It,” not because they aren’t entertaining or informative or deliver the dopamine rush that allows one’s brain to rejoice in the knowledge that there are others in the ‘Resistance’ out there. I’ll probably stick with “FiveThirtyEight” for now. I appreciate the skeptical approach coming from a standpoint of statistical analysis rather than partisan cheerleading. It helps to ground me.

I’m certainly not rejecting my interest in politics. I’m aware of the headlines and these days they pretty much tell most of the story. I’m doing this semi-fast in order to curb an obsessive attention that leads inexorably to a narrowing view of the world. I guess this is the definition of an addiction: the obsessive narrowing of view.

What I’m concerned with after all are the changes we’re all navigating as the speed of technological innovation continues on the up ramp. Changes in technology drive changes in culture and so the revolution inexorably rolls along. Politics get pulled along at the end of a thin cable, making lots of noise generating thick smokescreens and never truly leading, only reacting and usually falling further behind. The government of today struggles to legislate the changes of yesterday. Getting fixated on politicians and their dramas is like getting lost on a back trail leading to nowhere, a passionate defense Of realities that are already fading away.

America will never be the place it was again, great or no. It will either become a seamless part and no greater than the rest of the world, or it will be overcome and reformed in the hurricanes of global change.

And then there’s the thumb.

My difficulty with writing has always been the opposite of my difficulty with life in general, or maybe it’s a mirror reflection of it. Once inspiration strikes it flows until encountering an automatic tendency to scale up my vision to include everything to which that particular idea might be connected. The natural flow of particulars gets lost in the wandering tangents and complex bayous of a Big Picture. Having started with a clear and solid inspiration I’m too easily distracted by the scenery, losing sight of an ultimate destination.

The situation became worse when I switched from handwriting in notebooks to keyboarding on computers. At first this led to rambling overwritten pieces that took way too long to say too little. Then came a phase of over editing and ‘word processing,’ moving phrases and paragraphs around like puzzle pieces until I got bored with the puzzle.

When I began posting on Facebook I confess that I rarely read anything’ that anyone else posted. Crossing the long dark abyss of 2017, when feelings of acute anger and disappointment allowed for little that wasn’t a primal scream, I found social media to be the perfect vehicle for exercising passion and angst without excess wordage and a minimal of discipline. The fact of having a small and growing audience was a bonus.

I also found that writing on an iPhone size tablet requires attention on the level of word and letter rather than paragraphs or pages. It inhabits more directly the stream of thought as it flows from letter to letter, word to word, idea to idea. It’s harder to get lost or so far ahead of myself that the words never catch up. The thumb can only move so fast.

Starting with slogans and captions to articles or short summary phrases, I gradually found myself extending comments into longer paragraphs and then into short essays. At some point I realized that I’d become as comfortable with the thumb as I’d ever been with pen and paper.

There’s also the question of ‘style.’ Most of what I have to contribute has already been said many times over. How can I say it differently, or if not, what’s the point? When you’re as self critical as I am and so easily influenced by the voices heard all around, this can be a major hang up. When I look at my writing and see all the elements I’ve pirated from others it can stop me in my tracks.

The thing is that no matter how I’ve been influenced I’m writing in this moment out of my own experience, no one else’s. The trick is to keep focused on the moment, moving forward, hearing the words as they come. The trick is to have a little faith and to take chances. There’s not much else that makes the effort pay off.

There’s actually a place in the head where the words come from, like a river that constantly flows in consciousness. Writers put an antenna into that river and transcribe the voices they hear. If you listen real good the words and phrases never stop and they’re almost always clear as ice. Writers love to swim in that river, it being the place where they feel most alive.

Nowadays there’s a little bit of arthritis at the base of the thumb, a reminder that I’ve seen substantially more than a half century of back and forth, and it’s taken me this long to find the right instrument to talk about it.

Writing is a little bit like talking to yourself, and the act itself fosters a condition of loneliness. When I find that I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room, I realize that the fact of loneliness and of talking to myself is likely to be on the increase.

When I was about 24 or 25 a friend of mine who was a writer and had already published a book told me that I’d better get on with it…time doesn’t wait. “You haven’t got so much time…if you want to get your ‘literary’ Jones on you’d best be at it.” So here I am still caught in a writer’s dream of unattainable perfection, barely fulfilled, and almost seventy.

Nothing left to do but to bare my thumb and speak.

A Strange Year

I was laid off once from a computer software company with the boss saying to me, “You’re kind of a liberal arts sort of guy.” He had a point, and it was true that I didn’t really fit in with the climate and culture of the place. What he wanted was more on the STEM side of things. More about numbers and programs and accounting and less about words and magic. I’ve always had trouble with numbers but have never veered from a fascination with the hidden underside of things.

This was a year when all of the lessons I should have learned were taken out of the theoretical realm and brought rather severely to earth. The barriers between the worlds of wishful thinking and the awful realities that threaten our planet no longer held. It was time to put aside hopeful speculation and face down some awful truths.

It was a bad year for dilettantes. From January on it was as if, after the numb horror of events had begun to give way to the appalling normalcy of daily assault, an enormous dark sinkhole had opened in the collective psyche, and absolutely everything was sucked down into its depths so that all one looked at was somehow infected by the dread and anger that issued out of an unavoidable hellmouth, like something in a painting by Heironymous Bosch.

Now that we are past the initial shock and have accommodated ourselves somehow to the steady degradation of our public life we can perhaps leave it to unfold (and degrade) without the need to push or pull. It will unfold anyway, and perhaps someday the dirty tide will recede a bit of its own accord and meanwhile we can take stock of what’s going on in the world that lives inside of us.

I’ve always been compelled to take in everything there is in order to see the links between. To pursue one object or another to the end of its particular tunnel is an activity left to those so inclined, while my own interest is to follow the branches as they lead back from twig to trunk, fascinated less by the fleeting detail than by how it all connects. I could be called a ‘dilettante’ or perhaps a philosopher or something equally ‘iffy’ in terms of consistently reliable income streams. In the long run this generally places me somewhere at the ‘bleeding edge,’ or slightly on the outside of things that occupy most people from moment to moment. I often feel as if I’m looking on, observing with fascination, from some distance this or that quest for particulars and rarely feel fully engaged with those who spend most of their time in the weeds. Instead of attending to the particular I’m obsessed with the thread that connects this particular to another, and anot!
her, along the long and almost mystical yarn that comes from the past and stretches ahead to the future.

In this old year waning and new year dawning I’ve decided to go ‘cold turkey’ in terms of politics, hoping to free up energy for something a bit more connected to larger and longer streams that portend the creative or at least the positive. This past year felt like a full-on war, fought with words and images rather than missiles and bombs. All the words flung back and forth hammering relentlessly at any sense of civility or even responsibility, for the purpose of differentiating ‘us’ from ‘them,’ breaking the branch from the tree. All having a deeply corrosive effect on the bonds that make us feel connected in a way that makes some kind of collective sense. Most of us are reduced to sitting helplessly observing, trying to apply the old rules of civility to a situation where they’ve apparently become irrelevant. We are like mad children in some re-enactment of ‘Lord of The Flies,’ let loose to trample the bonds of the social order like they are brittle fur!
niture left around for us to trash.

I tell myself in better moments, when my mind isn’t so mired in the details of our day-of-horror unfolding, that out of chaos comes creativity. On other days I want to join in with the trashing.

Why should I even care? Even if politics and war are more entertaining than any other sport I could name, its become the sport by which we the people tear each other to pieces. My new thought is that I should stop being concerned or finding myself in any way responsible for the outcomes. My fellow citizens after all, dug this grave for themselves. Why should I not allow them to shit in their own hole and then lie down in it? Even if I must share the hole with them (there is no true escaping in this world), perhaps I can hold my nose and look away toward the sky.

Not so easy this for me, to be mired and yet to turn away as if nothing’s amiss. It’s like a sports addict deciding to turn off ESPN and ignoring the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics. Actually not so hard for me to imagine, as I’ve ignored these things for most of my life, politics being my ‘sport’ and the one interest that ties me to the things that apparently matter to the people around me from day to day.

I’ll turn to my only real audience, which is this presence inside of me, this all-judging voice that measures the world that I see and most of all that measures me. Instead of the usual ‘Politico,’ ‘FiveThirtyEight,’ Pod Save America,’ today I listen to ‘The Paris Review,’ and ‘The New Yorker Radio Hour.’ Instead of Netflix I find myself in books: Jack Kerouac’s Scroll, Haruki Murakami, Dave Hickey. I am edified and entertained, inspired even. I rearrange my apartment, twice.

Then, of course, there are all the counter voices, telling me, “You’re being irresponsible and arrogant. How can you be so uninvolved when the country is going to shit? You have to be INVOLVED, even if it’s only being aware and passing your awareness on. And I realize there is no way to be uninvolved, as the slippage we all feel is like some gravimetric beacon bending every current and pulling everything toward itself. We are all at some level compelled to respond, as we walk an ever narrowing collective path toward the future.

And of course, all things are political. “We’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Is there no escape? Of course there isn’t. The world moves on and we come around on our endless loops of self-doubt and over-confidence, trying to find that median place called ‘decision.’ We decide, we move on, we face the crisis brought about by yesterday’s decisions.

Amazingly, these two days off without once checking the news beyond the headlines, which are reliably and predictably grim, begin to feel like an actual weekend (even though my ‘weekend’ days these days are in the middle of the week). I realize that for the past year I’ve been living outside of myself, disembodied, a ghost on social media, juiced on the rage I see and feel all around me there, feeding it back in return, almost forgetting that I ever had a real life or that there are real people out there who are just living.

And yet, over the year I’ve written over a thousand words, mostly captions and short comments, an occasional thumb-length essay, and always in reaction to something OUT THERE. You can look at my Facebook page and find a running chronicle of anger and despair that’s book length and illustrated, a veritable museum exhibit of the Year in snapshots. But, very little of what you see goes beneath the armor. It’s merely a chronicle of suffering, as if every move we made was constrained by the straitjackets of fear and rage.

I fell into the very traps I’ve been warned to avoid and have warned others about. In my studies of magic and media and the dangers of astral space (where ideas and images are born and fed) I was aware of the potentials for getting lost in the endless gulf that opens between imagination and matter. Into that gulf is where the ‘enemy’ projects his tricks, his spells, his signals of doom. The tragedy is that we gave him the biggest platform from which he could play his tricks.

So we were played.

On the bright side, I learned to write with my thumb. This was entirely written and edited on my iPhone.

Arclist

Sex and Politics: The Resistance

Fox News is, more than anything else media headquarters for patriarchal resistance and institutional racism in America, just as the Republican Party is headquarters for it’s political arm. In the past few months Fox has lost their former ringleader (Roger Ailes), their leading female commentator (Megan Kelly), and now their biggest moneymaker (Bill O’Reilly) due to a pervasive climate of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.

Given that the prevailing attitudes at Fox and in the Republican Party are basically throwbacks to an era of ‘Madmen,’ which educated and aware Americans have grown out of, but Fox/Republicans and their constituency have not, this should be no surprise. While commentators like O’Reilly rail at manufactured bugaboos under the banner of attacking ‘political correctness,’ women broadcasters at Fox are evaluated according to their measurements and how closely they match some male’s beauty pageant ideal. Intelligence and competence must be overmatched by ample exposure of ‘legs and cleavage’ and the job description should read: Applicants preferred: blond and buxom (and very white).’

When news becomes a front for sensationalism and entertainment and government becomes nothing more than performance art the abuse of persons follows inevitably out of the abuse of truth. We have gone very far down that road, but the dumping of Bill O’Reilly demonstrates that the popular and political resistance in the Age of Trump is mounting and is indeed effective. While the forces of reaction circle the wagons a wave is growing with every abuse, every revelation of corruption and every broken promise.

New York Times: ‘Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out’

The Pipeline Is Rape

In his first days Trump has moved to reboot the Dakota Access Pipeline. His first acts in office have made it clear that his prime motivation has nothing to do with serving the people. He serves only his own threatened ego and intends to take revenge against anyone who challenges it’s dominance.

The Pipeline is an act of rape. The attempt to push it through has little to do with necessity or economy. It’s the clearest effort by an administration of white male supremacists to show their dominance over all the earth and all people. 

This confluence of cultural and historical forces give the struggle rare symbolic resonance. It delineates a spiritual crisis as much as a political one.  

Resistance to the Pipeline will define the political will of a generation, as Kent State defined that of another and the Battle of Little Big Horn and it’s aftermath defined yet another. The ultimate outcome will define America’s image to the rest of the world for many years to come. 

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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