Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Getaway



February, 2004. Hong Kong. I was hiking Lantau Island when the trail unexpectedly brought me to a beach. No other people, not a footprint. No boats on the water nor any other manmade structures in sight. The Pacific like a still, breezeless lake under the overcast sky. A scene of sublime inactivity.

Seeing now that this was my destination, I took off my backpack, used a rock to dig a butt-sized hollow in the sand, planted mine in there, and reclined against the pack. For an hour I didn't move. Just my eyes panning the ocean, reading the horizon like the most important poem ever written...

There was only one return bus to town and not much time, so I sat up, brushed off, and continued along eons sooner than I wanted. I've gone back many times in my imagination, though: that boundless refuge where no distance is too far, our passport is always valid, and touchdown is just a thought away. During the hard times especially, our mind's eye sees us through. When the windows of the world let in the harsh lightworkplace anguish, imploded love, a fatal diagnosiswe can pull down our eyelid shades and take respite in whatever setting we conjure. For me, it's that incidental shore at Lo Kei Wan. For you?

We can't ignore reality either. The longer you spend inside, the more force the outside world amasses against you. Bills pile. Disappointment turns to depression. The tumor doubles in size. You've got to take care of life before it takes care of you.  

In doing so, you enable the next beautiful moment to retreat to when ugliness returns.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Gorbio Cats




Felines are notoriously aloof and elusive souls, which is one reason I adore them so, and why I take great pride in my cat-whispering abilities. When I'm somewhere they're likely to be, my first order of business is to make contactthe Holy Grail being to romance them into getting scooped up and letting me press those warm, underneath pad parts of their feet ageeinst mah face! I switch into my most charming, reassuring catspeak, and they know that I know: they come chirping and blinking in approval, weaving vigorous figure eights through my legs with almost involuntary affection. (I have the opposite effect on dogs.)

Still I wondered if my game would be enough to impress the strays of old Gorbio, a medieval seaside town in the mountains of the French Riviera where I visited one summer. Across the Atlantic, wandering that twelfth-century village near the clouds, part of me was expecting “different” cats. Would these old-world French felines be extra snooty? Into cheese and smoking? Or unapproachable, feral vagrants ready with flesh-shredding violence should I dare to put the moves on?!

The first encounter along my toura grey-and-white tabby, who not only let me hold her but then bouncily pursued me into a rustic churchallayed any doubt. Deeper into the damp, overcast alleyways, a blind orange one with cloudy blue eyes remained remarkably calm as my approaching voice progressed into petting; in the absence of mutual sight, our essences connected.

I gather this primal-spiritual communication would be the same with cats in Italy, Australia, Afghanistan...

As with the people around this vast rock.

Not so foreign after all.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Evil in the Attic


Some constructs are universally creepy, others innocuous. A couch is never unsettling. Though you may toss and turn on a lumpy one crashing at an after party, no one's losing any sleep over campfire tales of a possessed sofa. But a creaky rocking chair? An antique doll? An old full-length mirror stored in a basement corner? The doll in the rocker facing the mirror? No way I'm hanging out in that room.

Diabolical typecasting in horror movies surely influences such reactions. A shower was just a place to scrub your armpits before Alfred Hitchcock killed a chick in there. These films also reflect our preexisting associations. There's a reason why the victim in The Exorcist is a little girl versus a middle-aged cabby, why the invincible demon car in Stephen King's Christine isn't a Volkswagen Rabbit, and why The Amityville Horror would be far less scary as a haunted yurt.

Some boogeymen lose their edge through overexposure. Zombies are just fun at this point, appearing in videogames, comedy, even romantic roles. We've seen so many five-year-old pirates on Halloween that, by the time we fully processed the threat of a real one, we'd already be kidnapped, duct taped, and halfway to hades in a human trafficking barrel.

What will be the next iconic scare? Maybe something happens to make electric hand dryers chilling (but probably not). Perhaps it'll be stink bugs, abandoned malls, or hoarders. A condemned mall, infested with stink bugs and overrun by the feral colony of the world's craziest cat lady!

In any case, the perceived threat will be a harmless illusion compared to the pitfalls of everyday living. Blood pressure spikes at the thought of a rabid clown or terrorist sleeper cell, but a person is more likely to get junk-food diabetes, become an overprescribed opioid addict, or die of a meaningless, grinding job than to be alien abducted.

No emotion so misplaced as fear.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Today's Special



Eating is as intimate as it gets. The ingesting of organic material through the middle of your face down into your deep physical core to become temporarily one with the consumed massit's even more penetrating than intercourse. 

Food is so personal that we judge others on their meal choices. Order something gross on a first date, and it could be your last.  The fifth grader with the strangest brownbag lunch gets picked on most in the cafeteria. Americans find Southeast Asians offensive for eating dog (even though we eat large dogs called cows, which makes us seem ignorant to Hindus). 

Shrimp greatly upset me because of their pinkish-orange, fingernail-like shells and poop veins. So, when I lived in Shanghai, it probably took a month off my life to catch a glimpse of my Chinese officemate aggressively stuffing entire prawns into her mouth until the ends of their shockingly long antennae disappeared into her satisfied expression.  In the process of devouring them, she became prawn-likeand I'm sure she’d feel the same about the scrapple I chowed down as a Pennsylvania native.

Seeing an animal feed can bring on the same revulsion. The sickest thing about opening a trashcan swarming with bugs isn't necessarily the insects themselves, but that they think it's delicious in there. In the moment, that itself justifies the swatting; if you are what you eat, then those flies are rot-filled maggots unwelcome in our space!

One person’s haggis is another's honey. Taste is pure subjectivity. Whatever a "mangoon" is, it's out there somewhere, it's awful, and it's hot, sexy dinner for some ravenous mouth that can't get enough.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Nobody Special



Fame is a national preoccupation. We chase after recognition like it's the last train out of Camden. Playing the game isn't enoughyou've got to dunk on ESPN. Getting elected to office requires raising at least as much image as money or ideas.  Even inanimate objects get famous: when Hostess stopped making Twinkies, the public reacted as if we'd lost a legend.

As pack animals, it's natural to want some form of social embrace, an identity within the group.  Clearly, I strive to be noticed or you wouldn't be reading this; joining act and audience is emotionally nourishing and completes the creative cycle.

Ego is a potent element, though, and becomes quickly poisonous like as much chlorine. Self-confidence might drive a ballplayer to the majors, but the team loses when he comes to value home runs and sponsorships over the pennant.  Some of our representatives enter public service with service at heart, only to have years of self-branding so thoroughly convince them of their own campaign slogans that they lose track of their policies' greater impact. 

A measure of humility must balance self-worth, or else competition exceeds cooperation, and  the ship sinks as everyone fights to be captain.

That said, as a high school teacher, I want my students to be proud and determined, to innovate, to lead.  Of course.  At the same time they should be aware that, however brightly their individual interest burns, it's a pixel in a larger screen that affects everyone's picture, and there are times when the integrity of a task is more important than taking credit for the result. Furthermore, if attention is what they're after, posting shirtless selfies or skateboarding off a clock tower is a counterproductive way to get it.

Periodically, we need a break from ourselves as much as the greater good needs respite from our ambition.  It's an act of liberation, really, to relinquish title and be no one in particular.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Explorer




At ten, his family moved to a bigger row house in Northeast Philly. No longer rooming with his older brother, he was free to investigate the radio without quarrel. Near the end of the dial he found a classical station. His interest piqued, he began tuning in regularly, often listening through the night, until the fourth of Beethoven's Fifth took hold of his soul and ushered him into a sustained passion for the great composers. He started taking the subway to free monthly concerts at The Philadelphia Academy of Music. There, keen in his seat with the orchestra before him, he was a sonic adventurer in pursuit of the next grand crescendo, the next earthshaking finale. 

As a teenager, his curiosity expanded from sound to the solar system. An introductory astronomy text called Stars found its way into his hands, and the information on celestial bodies sent his imagination into orbit. Soon, secondhand descriptions weren't enough, so he saved money from odd jobs for a telescope through which he could verify Jupiter's four moons and Saturn's many rings with his own two eyes.

Around the same time, he happened upon a second book, the one that would most decisively focus his inquiring temperament: Lemkin's Chemistry. Its pages described the visual magic of certain chemical reactions, which quickly converted him from armchair tourist to young, experimental chemist. He was in the basement precipitating colors or heating ammonium chloride to see it smoke like crazy. Or out on the front sidewalk igniting test tubes packed with flammable powder and attached to train-set wheels to make mini-rockets (that left major potholes when the mixture proved too flammable).

Because there was so much knowledge available, organic chemistry was the perfect subject to satiate an intellectual appetite, so he continued digesting it into adulthood with a fellowship at Penn, a Ph.D., and a career in research and development. There were also personal experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide along the way, some internal chemical exploration (an inquisitive mind is a gateway drug).

Music, science, psychedelicstheir unifying allure was the charged anticipation of what awaited in the next moment, the rush of dramatic unfolding, the promise of new and evermore curving pathways of experience. 

I hope that his journey through fatherhood was as formative and affecting.  

Like it is being his son.

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Roman Road



Every single thing begins d/evolving the instant it comes into being.

Leaves turn color as our skin freckles and loosens, as great restaurants become mediocre, as performers lose their touch, as the rind of industry surpasses the pulp, as civil wars percolate, as the stars dim.

Eventually, an endpoint is reached, and what was is no longer what is.

Leaves fall until the tree itself succumbs.  Flesh dies.  That restaurant goes out of business at last.  Careers retire.  Landfills replace landscapes.  Empires implode.  The largest, brightest star you can imagine becomes a light-swallowing void.

It's easier to accept mankind's inevitable destination than our collective hurry to get there.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Ataritarded



As a child of the late seventies and early eighties, I grew up with the second wave of home videogame systems. One Christmas morning, I entered our family room to discover a fully hooked-up Atari 2600. My parents had left the television on late the night before so that I would walk in on Space Invaders cycling silently through its demonstration mode as the screen changed endless, hideous color combinations.  

Technically, the machine was a moron with a 1.19 MHz CPU, 8-bit microprocessor, and a paltry 128 bytes of RAM that rendered entire cityscapes as featureless, rectilinear clusters, and titanic dragons as goofy, upright ducks. The music and sound effects were equally primitive in their sine-wave melodies, sample-and-hold atmospheres, sawtooth alerts, and white-noise collisions. Ironically, each game came with realistic cover art and an elaborate storyline. The box for Super Breakout showed a stoic astronaut in a jet-propelled suit swinging some kind of space baton to valiantly beat a path through an encroaching force field. When you loaded the game itself, it was pong with a beeping rainbow at one end.  

But these digital rudiments tripped the imaginations of all the neighborhood kids. Those plastic, wallet-sized cartridges opened worlds for us to run,  jump, and fly around in, and in some cases compelled us to become obsessive virtuosos in the art of the joystick. I may have embarrassed myself in gym class, but I earned back respect at the console. I recall playing Missile Command for so long without getting killed that I had to quit before my legs permanently fused Indian-style. I went the distance with Megamania: I was in the midst of the flying-hamburgers board when my score hit 999,999 and the program simply froze. Completed the entire Pitfall coursebackwardsagainst the direction of the alligators' chomping jaws. 

Since those years, the technology of play has exploded into a virtual cockpit of buttons and functions to learn, so it takes five minutes just to figure out how to make your character stop walking around in a corner, let alone advance through the level.  Compared to the droid-like dexterity of today's gamers, I'm entirely inept. Ataritarded. What's more, graphics have become so vivid that there's nothing left for the mind's eye to do. Too much for the hands and too little for the psyche. A taxing, empty investment. 

I retired my controller ages ago to play piano and draw.  

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Max's Turtlenecks



One striking difference between the dirt-poor and super-rich is that people in the gutter wear their agony in plain viewkeeping up appearances is a distant abstraction when your teeth are loose and the kids are hungrywhereas those falling apart on yachts scramble urgently to shroud their pain in silk. Anything to avoid the humiliation of hardship.

But anguish is an amorphous cloud, a wriggling snake: hard to contain; bound to escape.

The uncloakable scandal of the human condition.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Xander's Stenographer

People form strange tribes. No matter how intense or esoteric the interest, there's an established fraternity, sorority, or secret society of its aberrant connoisseurs and practitioners.

Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactors. Plushie fetishists. Freemasons. Nazis. The Mid-Atlantic Conference of Albino Born-Again Vegan Weavers.   

Each organization has a recorder, someone whose role is to be present, document, and distribute information to the group. When a club's charter is ethically questionable, or markedly vile, one wonders how its secretary can so passively bear witness. These recruits deserve our contempt and appreciation: they don't try to stop it, but they amass indefensible evidence making it harder for inhumanity to repeat itself.

Those un-swatted flies on the walls of history.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

No More Breakfast

If you grew up on a farm, you rose to a super-meal of animals and starch.  Eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and bread.  A most digestive way to start the day, but hours of intense physical labor lay ahead and you needed the caloric equivalent of diesel to grind through it.

There are few family farms in the U.S. now, but that greasy a.m. custom remains. It's the oil minus the toil. Folks roll out of bed into automobiles that shuttle them to McEverywhere's, where an arm passes infinity calories through a window.  Instead of dissolving through exertion, the food brick is simply transferred via stomach from car to cubicle where it continues to sit. Others take it to another level of impracticality and go to an all-night diner for the very same "morning" feast.

It's as superfluous as appendixes and wisdom teeth.

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