ROXBURY

Bill Halas briefly attended Goddard College in the early seventies, a rather progressive college for that time. It was rather small, compared to the University I’d attended, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Vermont. In this, our first journey to the East after we’d both dropped out of our respective colleges, we stopped at Goddard to pick up a few artifacts that remained from his stay, and then we proceeded on to Boston.

There we met with another Goddard alumni, a friend of Bill’s. We chased him down as he was selling green carnations and flower bouquets on the sidewalks near Harvard Square. With his imposing height, girth, burly beard and wide expressive face, he was a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov. With a performer’s verve he swooped along the sidewalk. Concertina in hand he pranced alongside his basket of flowers. He made barely enough money to eat.

We stayed with him for one night in one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. He’d claimed a small section of the second floor in a ramshackle, unkept three-story wooden house. The house had been abandoned and was now occupied by Bill’s friend and at least two other families. Someone had tapped into the city’s electrical grid by stringing a wire over to the cable on a nearby telephone pole. The place had a sharp stench of backed up toilets. It was one of the coldest nights of a Boston winter and the plumbing had burst. We tried to sleep curled up in our sleeping bags, crammed into a space the size of a closet. The only outside warmth was that of a hot pad used briefly before bedtime for making tea. We stayed up long enough to drink a cheap bottle of wine purchased with the proceeds from carnations, have a short conversation, and try to find a pocket of warmth to sleep in. That night somebody had an argument out front in the middle of the night and someone crashed in a front window while shouting in anger, adding to the cold.

The next day we crawled out to have breakfast somewhere and afterwards we crammed us all into our small compact car. After loading up at the flower store with green carnations we stood with Bill’s friend most of the morning, helping him to sell flowers on the street. We actually raked in a good bit that day. Bill and I collected a small but generous stipend for gas money and then we made our way out of Boston, heading south.

Roxbury is sometimes called, according to Wikipedia, the “heart of Black culture in Boston”. We arrived a decade after the Great Migration, and there were still some remnants of the English, Irish and German immigrants that had populated the neighborhood since the early 20th century when there were opportunities in the local foundries and breweries. Most had fled as blacks moved in and the property was arbitrarily devalued by the city. Eventually the foundries and factories were replaced by warehouses and retail businesses. The aging infrastructure, much of it built in the 19th century, began to seriously deteriorate along with the fading tax base.

Boston was known for its riots, going all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. There were 103 riots between 1700 and 1976. Everyone had their turn. There were riots over food, the British, the Stamp Act, race and slavery, anti-Irish, anti-Union, anti-busing and…you get the picture. When we arrived it was a couple of years after the riots of 1967, and large parts of the Roxbury neighborhood had been devastated, littered with abandoned buildings and homes. The poverty and discontent that had infested communities for centuries had been passed on to the latest group of people that had immigrated into the neighborhood in flight from poverty and brutal oppression where they came from. In this last instance the flight was from this very country and the Jim Crow policies of the South. They were poor, and in this instance most of the rules and regulations were stacked against them by reason of race and thus the opportunities for leaving were very much narrowed.

Before I came to Roxbury I’d skirted the edges of black culture, more or less as an invited guest. My family was poor enough and I was smart enough and ornery enough to be allowed into a government War On Poverty program called Upward Bound, that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the growing unrest and uprising in the black community. I’d previously been considered for a similar privately funded program at Yale, and when I hadn’t made that cut I was offered a similar opportunity much closer to home. The program, which still exists, was for lower income students that had somehow demonstrated great educational potential but, without a major assist, weren’t likely to meet that potential.

Being in Upward Bound meant spending my high school summers attending classes and workshops and hanging out in the dormitories of University that I’d one day attend. Of the 80 or so students in the program at that time, about 65-70% were black. The rest were divided between mostly Puerto Rican and a smattering of white folk like me. Most of the graduate student counseling staff were of a similar mix and the local head of the program, who later took me under a wing, was black.

It was in the years between 1965 and 1968 that I attended the program. While there I was given a crash course in everything I couldn’t learn back where I was from on the West Side of Cleveland, one of the most segregated cities in the north. I soaked up literature, history, art, music and dancing, hair straightening, getting drunk and getting stoned, making movies, talking without being afraid. I was introduced to the sounds and words of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X and The Temptations. I participated in debates about civil rights strategies and black culture. We were all trying to determine our places in the world. In 1967, I sat with my friends, black and white, and watched from our dormitory windows a horizon filled with flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were silent, filled with a stunned awe at the sheer immensity of the burning. In days after we watched the jeeps and personnel carriers of the National Guard enter and claim the campus, which was surrounded by the ghetto. At night we watched them leave the campus in convoys sent out toward the burning. On our way to classes we passed Guardsmen in the Student Union, some lounging, one playing beautiful Gershwin on the grand piano in the reception hall.

During the school year I’d take all of this back to my almost all-white high school in the western suburbs. Surrounded by fences and barbed wire and rules, I was slotted into a college prep channel and got to hang out with the nerds. I was pretty comfortable with my fellow nerds, but it always felt like I had a secret life and a secret identity born of unique experiences, that I’d never be able to truly convey to anyone.

The next years, those spent in college, were a blur of education and rebellion and drugs as the awareness and protests against the Vietnam War eventually merged with the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Like two rivers meeting, they fed a new level of interchange between races and cultures. The divides between black and white music fell down, fueled by resistance and protest and beautiful passion, accompanied by floods of psychoactive chemicals and a rising ecstasy of imagined futures. During those years my ‘secret’ identity was submerged or merely merged into the template of my upbringing. Although many of my black friends attended the same school, I found myself pulled more and more naturally and irrisistably onto the track of white privilege. There were simply more doors open for me, and I went through without much thought.

My chief nerd friend, Bill Halas and I, after we missed out on being sent to Vietnam via the lottery, decided that what we’d seen of the world rendered it difficult to just ‘follow the program’. We both dropped out of college and decided to take a trip together in his small compact to visit various friends on the East Coast. Thus, on a particularly cold night of the year, we came to Roxbury. Where we stayed was where the fires had burned back in 1967, here, there and everywhere. This was the damage and the aftermath.

At the end of 2019, while black men and women were being publicly executed by police and during the aftermaths of grief, protest and more police violence, an HBO drama vividly opened with a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of black citizens in Oklahoma in 1921. ‘Watchmen’ traced the lifeline of a survivor of that massacre to a sort of poetic justice, ending where the descendants of the perpetrators of white supremacy and their army of thugs meet their just rewards. Whatever else that drama did, it brought into the conversation one of the biggest racial crimes of the last century. More satisfying and more challenging was another drama on HBO, ‘Lovecraft Country,’ which takes place in the 1950’s and brings the viewer deep into the visceral horror that lurks behind the day to day commonplace of being a black American and a black family in a racist culture. Most recently the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was produced and displayed by Netflix, offering a raw portrait of the passion, the creativity and the rage that fuels the black experience.

I see all of these productions and so many more as having cracked open the doors of memory so that more of us can face the sins and crimes of our history and begin to make amends. They bracket a particular period that began to incite conversations that can either lead to a national resolution or become the basis for a nation’s further fragmentation.

I’m told that Roxbury’s still the poorest section of Boston and, like in every northern city, the symbol of a segregated culture, but that there are efforts to revitalize the district with access to rail lines and shopping districts and revitalized housing. I hope that’s the case. During this long cold pandemic, however, when I see the statistics on joblessness, homelessness and increasing poverty my memory summons up that cold night in an abandoned house, with a family next door, surviving in almost impossible conditions on the edges of America.

AN INVITATION

My Publishing Career

When I was in elementary school I was given for Christmas a small printing press  that could make stuff the size of business cards or raffle tickets. I started a number of membership organizations among my classmates that could be activated simply by asking for a card: ‘The Hoppity Hooper” Fan Club,’ ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Fan Club,’ and our final, three color masterpiece, a membership in ‘Camp Palumbo’ along with a small certificate of the official currency, the ‘Pazzuza.’ 

Later on my neighborhood friends and I, all bing in the same Boy Scout Troop, would take each issue of the Official Boy Scout Magazine paste in alternative headlines and captions cut out of other publications and turn Boys Life into what we thought was a hysterically funny parody inspired by Mad Magazine, a publication we really took seriously.   

In high school, myself and my high-minded friends published and repeatedly got in trouble for a series of independent journals printed via mimeograph machine and silk screen press at our local Peace Movement Offices. I continued this though college and after, until moving to Santa Fe, when I got a bit more seriously embedded in the writer’s world. 

In 1984, after attempting to convert reams of handwritten notes, poetry, short stories and essays into a publishable form into typewritten documents (a frustrating process) I took a class in the new Word Processing technology at the local community college. About midway through the course the teach came into class entranced by the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. I don’t remember what he said but his trance was somehow infectious, and before the end of the year I’d acquired my own machine and the accompanying laser printer.

For a number of years I published articles and reviews in ‘The Journal for Humanistic Psychology,’ ‘Annals of The Earth’ and ‘Shaman’s Drum’ magazine. 911 happened. I was not particularly surprised that it happened but that didn’t make me less angry. So, I started a blog, called ‘The Arclist,’ which continued view email and website for the next 20 years. After the 2016 election the list pretty much was reduced with short headline introductions to various news and resistance links and very little else. Meanwhile the host site and software became contaminated and obsolete and harder to manage, until a couple of weeks ago I decided to abandon the list in email form and rethink the whole thing. 

I was diagnosed with cancer. This marked an opportunity to rethink everything. I went though my existing contact list and entered them into another email client service that I’d learned to navigate through as a business application. More up to date and flexible and easier to manage in creative ways, I’d like to take advantage of this by setting up a new version of the Arclist, more in the tradition of a Journal that accommodates creative ideas, creative projects and creative discussions between interested folks. I think we are all somewhat anxious to move beyond obsessive focus on the disasters of this past year and turn our attention to future possibilities. Perhaps this could provide an opportunity.

I have a list of names that I’ve gleaned from my contact list. Many of you were part of the previous mailing list or were listed as a ‘friend’ on my Facebook page. Some of you might have gone away for any number of reasons. Some of you may not wish to hear from me ever again. Before engaging the new list I want to send a formal invitation for you to respond, either positively of negatively, and I will then formally activate or delete your membership. If your answer is ‘YES,’ and I hope it is, I will begin sending out my creations, or forwarding others, on some semi-regular basis.

Meanwhile, I’ve attached to this invitation a sampling of the sort of stuff you might expect to receive on the New ARCLIST. Should you wish to subscribe and get the material on this site in our email just send a reply to remelcher@arclist.com, or leave a Reply at the bottom of this page.    


My Favorite Podcasts (Current) 12/13/20

Not included are podcasts I’ve favored In the past but I’m no longer following regularly (this American Life, Masters of Scale) or podcasts that were short form or serialized or no longer being produced (‘Studio 360,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy Balls’). By ‘current’ I only mean current, and this list will continue to shift from day to day as I get turned on to new podcasts.

History

Throughline

One of NPR’s Most Popular Daytime Shows, this hour long documentary style delves into all of the corners of history we are never/rarely taught in school. To fully understand the present events in the context of historical realities the show is unmatched. The two hosts are from first and second generation Iranian and Palestinian families, which may give a clue  to the unique depth of their approach to telling stories.

The United States of Anxiety

A little scary but enlightening as it focuses on the areas in American history that indicate the conflicts that have split the body politic from the beginnings of the USA.

This Day in Esoteric Political History

Somewhat oddly named, focusing each day on a single event (many of which I’d never heard of) at a particular moment in American History, a lively and educated discussion of the event’s historical environment and its influence and indications in the present.

Politics

Hacks On Tap

Political strategists from both sides of the ‘aisle’ toss around their critiques and projections about both parties. Anchored by David Axelrod (Democrat) and Mike Murphy (very ‘anti-Trump’ Republican), with a variety of chummy guests, the analysis is delivered with a good deal of humor and real ‘insider’ knowledge of how political campaigns actually work.

FiveThirtyEight

I’ve been listening to these guys since 2015. A relief from the general alarmist nature of political news and analysis. Sometimes a bit over-the-top ‘wonky,’ I favor 538 for a strictly data-based view of political realities balanced by a crew of mostly contrarians in one form or another. I simply like these guys. As I was about to write this review, unfortunately the departure of Clare Malone is a great loss. Relative newcomer Harry Bacon Junior has brought a similar contrarian sensibility and a much needed black perspective to the panel, Malone brought an equally important feminist and Midwestern (Ohio) perspective. 

The Ticket

One of the better interview shows from The Atlantic. Host Isaac Dovere chooses subjects that are generally slightly out of the mainstream news but closer to actual events. Always new information and insights.

The Axe Files

Long form, one hour interviews of a range of public figures, illuminating their biographies and focusing on their positions in regards to contemporary politics. David Axelrod, currently head of The U. Of Chicago School of Politics and once Obama’s chief campaign adviser, is relentless in his ability to get beyond easy rhetoric to the true nature and personality of his guests.

Amicus

A bit alarmist in the ‘Slate’ style this is the best way to keep up with the arguments, decisions and implications for the future of the Judicial branch of government.

Intelligence Squared

Both sides of every question, thoroughly and respectfully debated. Particularly helpful to those in the habit of considering the ‘other side’ to be totally without brains or merit. (Note: This applies only to arguments that actually apply when a et of common facts are agreed upon.) 

Reporting

The Daily

The New York Times, in its breadth and depth of coverage is still at the top of the media heap. This podcast offers a sampling every morning, with a single news story or interview and a short headline summary. On Sunday an archived ‘feature story’ is read in entirety. I highly recommend checking out the Dec. 6th edition: “The Social Life of Trees.” 

Global News Podcast – BBC

I start the day with this one, as the focus isn’t obsessively on America and it’s ridiculous politics, it’s coverage is delivered with an almost universally cheerful, or at least less apocalyptic stance. Given all of the ‘Brexit’ angst in Briton these days, I suppose several hundred years more of living history kind of levels out ones perspective on the present.

The New Yorker Radio Hour

I wasn’t sure just where to place this since the coverage is as much news as it is cultural commentary. I decided that since the coverage is essentially ‘journalistic’ in approach, this fits.

Business/Journalism

Pivot

Two of the most knowledgeable people on the fringes of Big Tech, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway make a ‘perfect couple’ with their insights into current and future trends in business, investing and the politics around technical innovation and culture. Punctuated by personal banter and good natured kidding these two have been going at it for a couple of years of successful and popular podcasting. Swisher, the journalist, keeps things on track while almost cagily draws out brilliant insights from Scott, the NYU business professor and investor. Guests are featured with back and forth interviews by both Kara and Scott.

The Professor G Show

Scott Galloway’s own podcast (see above), where he calms down while proving himself a capable interviewer, while giving himself some time to deliver, John Oliver style, some incredibly insightful, critical, and sometimes inspiring ranting about ethics in politics and business.

Sway

Kara Swisher’s new interview show from The New York Times where she is featured as a regular Opinion columnist. The NYT is managing a very successful and profitable switch into the digital medium. Swisher is a digital candidate for the Maureen Dowd chair of journalism. Her interviews so far have included a diversity of subjects (from Dowd herself to Hillary Clinton to Jane Goodall).

Science

New Scientist Weekly

Friendly, British, delivered with a touch of humor, the most up-to-date international coverage of the scientific progress on Covid-19, and the latest questions and discoveries in scientific research.

Philosophy

Hi-Phi Nation

Philosophy revealed through contemporary storytelling and interviews that reveal in our present dilemmas their deep roots in philosophical discourse. A uniquely illuminating approach and my ‘great discovery’ of the month.

Into the Zone

An original approach to ideas and storytelling from novelist Haru Kunzru, who focuses on how ‘opposites’ shape our world. While founded in stories from the ‘real’ world Kunzru’s approach is delightfully filled with literary twists and turns and metaphor. I was turned on to him in an interview with ‘The Book Review’ podcast (see below).

Storytelling/Literature

The New Yorker Fiction

I’ve been listening to this podcast for more than 10 years. It’s one of my main links to the world of short fiction. A writer each month gets to choose one of their favorite stories from another writer in the archive and to read it out loud. Afterwards the author/reader discusses the story with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, focusing on how the story inspired and influenced them.

Imaginary Worlds

Being a heavily invested fantasy, sci-fi and comic book geek, how could I miss this one. ‘How we create Imaginary World and why we suspend our disbelief.  ‘Nuff said!

The Book Review

From the New York Times Book Review, but less intimidating. It features author interviews plus short discussions and reviews of some of the latest books out on the shelf.

Poetry Off The Shelf

A refreshing break into the dimensions of pure sound and word. Poems are read, interviews and analysis are delivered. A little Poetry Magazine online.

Humor

Beef and Dairy Podcast Network

I cannot really desgribe this to you. It’s British and hllarious. Every episode begins nearthe absurd nand then carries one beyond…

Mission To Zyxx

By now an old stand-by for fans of imprvisational humor, sci-fi and those with a need to fill the void between space-based intergalactic blockbusters.

Weird Tales

I became dismayed and extremely frustrated the other day when somebody for which I carry a lot of respect and affection parroted to me the same right wing propaganda that constantly proliferates on You Tube and Facebook. Both sources are essentially ‘Rabbit Holes,’ programmed to drive gossip, controversy and sensationalism while selling ads.

Between the paranoia and the propaganda, much of it not even generated in this country, our adversaries have gotten America’s number. We are a society that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Only the slightest encouragement is required to cause us to turn on one another like frightened dogs. Since Americans tend to trust our screens more than our actual experience we are VERY ripe for programming and manipulation. Tell a good yarn and it’s certain you’ll create a following. Provide a cliffhanger or sense of constant crisis and you can, like Trump, create a cult.

A cult functions like a cancer on the collective consciousness. Ideology is substituted for facts, programming takes the place of thinking, Individuals begin to function like robots. People once regarded as intelligent humans begin repeating the currently circulating memes and claims in a kind of science fiction nightmare that features suffocating hordes of mindless clones.

When a sufficient number are pulled into the myriad belief systems and ideologies that offer alternatives to the actual processing and evaluation of information, collective decision making becomes almost impossible. There can be no accord, because every position becomes an absolute. The quest for solutions becomes a battle between religions.

So, here we are America, trapped in our own tar pits of misinformation and increasingly obsessive fanaticism. As a nation we appear to be suffering various forms of mass psychosis, shouting at one another from totally different perceptions of reality.

The anxiety of the final days and weeks leading us toward our fate is that we don’t really know how bad is the disease. We know it’s pretty bad, and it’s spreading in waves, mostly driven by social media and those who profit from chaos. Everyday the stories and rumors get more imaginative and ridiculous, while people huddle in groups formed mainly to reinforce their own fears and premeditations.

Perhaps there are still enough Americans out there who are capable of rational decision making, who aren’t afraid of facts and data, who can make the mental leap to figure out that voting out of fear and insecurity will only lead to more of the same.

It’s hard to tell. Rational people find themselves trying to be heard above the noise, and the noise is everywhere. In the year 2020, with pandemic, racial tensions, climate change and election fever all appearing to peak at once, we will be forced to see more clearly, once the dust settles, just who and what peers back at us in the mirror.

Continue reading “Weird Tales”

Seventy

This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.

Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.

In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.

The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.

For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.

For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.

For this I am deeply aggrieved.

Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.

What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.

* * *

In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.

The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.

Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.

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.

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