Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Representative from Corwood

Jandek. It's a name I've heard many times throughout my dalliances with music. The story of Jandek, while interesting, is not one I'm going to detail here. The wikipedia entry seems fairly thorough, and is worth reading, because his tale is quite unusual, nearly surreal at points, and is one that can be appreciated without ever having heard Jandek's music. In fact, for reasons I might be able to articulate here, the story very well might be a better one if you never do seek out an example of his music, instead just imagining it from the descriptions that are given.

Having heard the name Jandek tossed about in music discussions, equally subjected to great praise and great disdain, I finally decided to do a little research. I read up on the man, particularly the details of the handful of live performances he had given in the past several years. I was struck to find that there were many musicians I was familiar with, even greatly impressed with, that were combining in interesting combinations to form Jandek's backing bands whenever he made a live appearance. These groups included names such as Richard Youngs, Alex Neilson, Chris Corsano (of Six Organs of Admittance, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, among many others), Loren Mazzacane Connors, Heather Leigh Murray (of Charalambides), Matt Heyner (of No-Neck Blues Band), Liz Harris (Grouper), Alan Licht, and John McIntyre (of Tortoise). For those unfamiliar, most of the musicians are heavily involved in improvised music scenes, be it drone, free jazz, or various forms of improvised blues and folk.

Upon seeing such lineups, I decided: maybe it's time I listened to some Jandek. Knowing his discography to be difficult, I assumed that the best place to jump in would be recordings that had musicians I was familiar with, because to some extent I could expect a certain caliber of support from their like.

I'm not sure how I feel. And that's probably just what Jandek wants. It really could go either way: he could be an extremely competent musician looking to stretch the definition of the art that most are comfortable with, or he could be a fraud, a genius hack that has perpetuated one of the longest practical jokes in history. Towards the middle of the live album Glasgow Sunday, there are a few tracks that sound nearly identical, mid-paced angular atonal blues with half-spoken lyrics and no repeating forms, yet after each, there is uproarious applause and fanfare from the audience. A few people enthusiastically whoop and shout, clearly enthralled by what they just heard.

Honestly, I had a hard time taking it all seriously at that point. I had to listen to something else. Looming in my mind was this image of the ever-serious Jandek, quietly chuckling in his head as people cheered, utterly fooled by his joke. Jandek, the great ascetic, with the longest Poker Face in Texas. For a brief second, I even saw the other band members, musicians I respect, caught up in the legend, believing earnestly that they are part of some great moment in the history of experimental music, ignorant to Jandek's silent exploitation. It kind of hurt. Maybe I'm over-thinking the whole Jandek thing, and maybe those musicians really are a part of something unique and seminal. The hard part is, it is impossible to tell.

And by the very nature of the Jandek mythos, it is doubtful anyone will ever know for sure just what the representative from Corwood meant for his legacy to mean.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Hub

Yesterday Freddie Hubbard died. Already today, both in writing and in conversation, I've tried to articulate just what it was that made Freddie so incredible, and the task has proved to be difficult. Certainly much of it has to do with the way language always seems to fail in accurately describing music (something I experienced firsthand as an excited, and then a disillusioned music reviewer), but some of it also involves the way language has been bastardized in modern times. It's an issue that I briefly touched upon in my ramblings after David Foster Wallace's death. He himself struggled with it for his entire writing career.

The problem is in invoking words which, by their standard definition, capture just what you'd like to describe, but by their standard application are relatively hollow and trite. Words like "inspire," or the aforesaid "incredible." If I say, "Freddie Hubbard was truly inspiring to me," there is no way to effectively communicate that what I intend is for the reader (or listener) to completely set aside everything about how the word "inspire" has been constructed for them throughout their lifetime of hearing it in less-than-sincere or not-entirely-appropriate contexts, to go back to the truest, most pure definition of the word, outside of history and all of its forces, and to then parse and consider my statement and its implications when "inspire" is understood to evoke the powerful and complex emotions it was originally intended to convey. Aside from such lengthy sentences, there is no way to guide how someone will handle my use of "inspire." And while some people may need no explanation, or may not even be cognizant of the issue at hand, the fact that I myself am aware of the potential cheapening of my words is enough to stop me in my tracks. And so I'm stuck.

It's frustrating. A loop, where language isn't enough to describe how language isn't enough. Ad infinitum ad absurdum. Today, I feel like maybe the only way to accurately capture what Freddie Hubbard means to me is in song. But what music could I ever devise that would set the right tone? Freddie was the man, man, and I'm whining about semantics. All I want is to aptly illustrate just how much of the man he was. And I want people to know I mean it.

Tonight I'm going to blast Ascension. It is the only tribute I deem fitting. To those spiritually inclined, the album has an apt title, but more importantly, it is the spirit of Freddie. One of the many, many instances of his spirit left for us to absorb, and one of the freest and most dangerous at that. He exists within the heart of its unbridled outpouring of life, and when we speak of the soul of Freddie Hubbard, it, glorious music, is the only soul there is to speak of.

Rest in peace, Freddie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Anxiety and Eternity

For as long as I can remember, I've had little anxiety about death. I feel as though I came rather quickly into acceptance of death as inevitable (as Coetzee would say, as the very thing that defines being alive), and for the entirety of my adult life, I've lived with the conviction that the very most important thing about life is that the time that comprises your life is all you are given, and that in many respects you are responsible for how that time is spent.

At times, these two attitudes seem incongruous. Shouldn't the fact that one's time is so severely limited produce even greater anxiety? Wouldn't the fear of death become nearly overpowering when one realizes that at any time they may be wiped from this Earth, perhaps without having sampled as wide a range of experience as they had hoped? I feel as though such a reaction is missing the point. The point is not to pack one's life with a variety of experiences until it is bloated and exhaustive (or exhausting), but to find ways to appreciate those experiences we are privy to, and to always try to understand how the things that have happened to us shape who we are and how we will approach the things that have yet to happen. In many ways, this applies even to one's attitude about their impending death.

If the reasoning seems a little circular, it's because it probably is. Maybe that's why so many people struggle with death and the ways it seems intent on spoiling their plans. How do you break into that circle, the one that allows you to feel comfortable with your impermanence, and thus allows you to appreciate every day on which you wake again, to find good reason why its events serve as evidence that your impermanent state is precisely what makes your time alive so very meaningful and special?

Immortality is something men have yearned for since the beginning of their existence. Yet, how utterly meaningless would an infinite life be? How could you ever be satisfied (or disappointed or anything) with how you've spent your time when you essentially remove time from the equation? Even beyond this worldly existence, what good is sticking around for eternity? I've always been a little confounded with such religious approaches. What sort of exhausting, haunting reward is endless existence? People toss their whole lives away on want of some promised eternity. It is this that makes me anxious. The thought of never being proud of an accomplishment, of never being molded by an experience, of never sharing a limited, sacred bit of your own time with someone you care about. With an infinite amount of time, no accomplishment is noteworthy, no experience is limited and unique, and your time becomes the most meaningless of gifts.

Would I mind if I died tomorrow? Being alive, now, I would say "Yes." But tomorrow, should I die, I won't have any idea that it has happened, and cannot be upset by it. Would I be happy with the sum of my life at this point should it be suddenly cut short? Most certainly. Every day I find it a little bit easier to adhere to the principle of amor fati, though fate (and Nietzsche) really has little to do with it. But how do I begin to explain? I hope to live a long, storied and profound life. As I see it, worrying about just how long will only get in the way.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Briefly On Jury Selection

The selection process for jury duty is perhaps the most mind-numbingly boring thing an American citizen can be asked to endure. While I'm sure actually serving on a jury panel and hearing a case will be very interesting, re-shaping your ass on a terrible wooden bench for 8 hours most certainly is not.

Maybe it was just that I had no conflicts of interest, and therefore never had to approach the bench and get questioned by the judge and/or lawyers. To someone who apparently knows no one on either side of the county-level criminal justice system, doesn't have major crimes committed against them, and generally feels as though they have enough control over their emotions and reasoning faculties to be able to give an impartial reading of the facts (read: me), the first day of jury duty becomes little more than a grueling exercise in exhaustively cataloging every possible seated position one can shift into without crossing the line into offending/injuring/arousing the rest of the folks in the courtroom.

But worry not! I will find out just how interesting trial service can be:

The bastards picked me for three out of the four jury panels that were assembled today!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Nearly Deaf, Muttering Octogenarians

Today was augmented by a rare sighting of one of my favorite elderly customers. This may sound a little cruel, but she's not a favorite because she's sweet or kind or seems sincerely concerned with me and my state of affairs. She's one of my favorites because she's absolutely hilarious, and is completely ignorant of the fact. She has no idea at all that every time I encounter her, it takes all of my willpower to hold back a deluge of giggling.

Most of her humor value is related to the fact that she's extremely hard of hearing, but doesn't seem to realize it. Firstly, this results in her speaking very loudly all of the time. Sometimes startlingly loud. Secondly, often when you speak to her, she'll grunt "Huh?," as though she didn't hear you (well, not "as though;" she really didn't hear you, she's nearly deaf). When you lean in to repeat the question a little louder, she assumes that you're leaning closer because you can't hear her, and subsequently shouts even louder. This happens in every exchange with her, and for some reason, understanding just what it is that is occurring ignites a giggle fuse somewhere deep within me, and I struggle to stifle those gurgling, roiling giggles for the remainder of my time with her.

The last straw, however (and what has actually caused audible giggles to escape on one occasion), is the fact that she has a tendency to mutter under her breath like some folks are wont to do. These mutterings are usually the result of some trivial difficulty, such as a check that won't tear easily out of her register, or the fact that her automaton husband is not unloading the shopping cart according to some bizarre, unarticulated set of standards she has established. Anyway, because she speaks so loudly all the time, what she believes are whispered exclamations actually result in her shouting "Jesus!" and "Shiiiiiit" loud enough for most of the store to hear. This also has a tendency to be startling to some, who generally don't expect to be met with alarmingly loud profanity when standing behind a five foot tall elderly woman in the grocery line.

I don't doubt this woman is unknowingly offensive to many. She always seems to make my day, though.

On Whatever It Is That Stirs My Mind At This Ungodly Hour

I struggle daily with trying to understand just exactly what the hell my brain is doing. Not from a biological standpoint, mind you, but more specifically: why on earth does my mind jerk itself around and around when it seems like it could be so easy, so relaxing, to just settle down somewhere. Anywhere, really. Get to business, mind, or get out. Tonight, that's the message my mind has for my mind. What a stupid paradox.

Just moments ago, I was nearly asleep. I was hanging, uncomfortably, from the edge of my bed, barely able to focus on the screen of my laptop, which was resting on the floor. This is usually where it ends up at night, because by the time I've dragged the laptop to my bed to work in a more supine position, there is already little hope that I'll muster the energy to actually lift the damn thing back up on to my desk. It's an odd ritual I've developed, really. The first thing I do upon waking up is pick my laptop up off the floor and restore it to its more traditional desktop locale.

This is all besides the point. Which in a way, relates to the point, which is: my brain is a friggin' mess.

The reason I mention being nearly asleep is that, at the time, what I believed was going to be my last waking action was a brief check-in on this blog, from which I've been absent for an embarrassingly lengthy period of time. But then I started reading my old posts. As I read, I began to recall the various states of mind that produced those entries, and how the one consistent quality of those multiple mind-states was that I really enjoyed articulating my thoughts on the topic at hand. I enjoyed the experience of writing. And so here I am now, well past my arbitrary bedtime, writing.

I often find during the course of the day things will occur (ha, what a stupidly ambiguous proclamation; what I mean is 'specific, noteworthy things'), and my brain will exclaim: "that would be great to write about!" Yet without fail, I've usually completely forgotten whatever so stimulated me after a few minutes have passed. I am almost certain that I went through this process earlier today, but I have no idea at all what the catalyst was. What sort of twisted bastard of a brain would produce feelings of euphoria during the act of writing, actively identify topics or events or themes that would likely engender such feelings of euphoria by instigating an act of writing, and then, in one fell swoop, destroy those very seeds? And, on top of that, be enough of a bitch to allow me to at least remember that there were in fact seeds at one point?

My brain is that sort of brain.

Well I've got news for you brain: I'm on to you! And although I've said this many times before (in writing, so I have tangible evidence), I'm going to do my best to thwart you. I'm going to try to breathe some new life into this stale and lonesome blog. But I'm also going to shift the approach a tad. The way I've been approaching things hasn't been very true to the essence of blogging. I've been preparing mini-essays at times and posting them, rather than leaving a record of my in-the-moment, somewhat unfiltered responses to the things that get my gears turning.

I'm throwing consistency out the window. Maybe even coherence. I'm going to create a true log, a web log, of what I think about whatever I'm thinking about. If no one's listening, that's fine. It'll be an instructive experience, and it will help me to illuminate the very ways in which my brain is currently being elusive and somewhat of a bitch. It'll track the evolution of my thoughts and opinions, and it will provide future interested parties a clear and frightening picture of what is surely to be my descent into madness.

Mostly, it'll be an accomplishment, however meager. It will be the willful corralling of my brain, and it will be a glorious thing.

And now, now I am tired.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On the Tragic Loss of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

I've always had a difficult time trying to fathom what sort of mental state one has to be in to not only be willing to consider taking one's own life, but to actually go through with the task. When this life is all the time you have, I can't understand why a healthy individual would ever want to cut it short. Lives are necessarily bumpy rides, and I've always felt that the joys of life combined with the very fact that you have a life to be living should in nearly all cases outweigh the low points.

But I have only my own experience as a frame of reference. As much as I want to be justified in my anger, as much as I want to judge, I have no place. It's a frustrating problem that has beaten back many a philosopher for thousands of years; there is simply no way to know what it is like to be anyone else, because you can never step outside of your own consciousness, can never adopt a perspective outside of your own unique perceptual boundaries. If ever I were some particular suicidal individual, I'd be that suicidal individual inside of Dan, and I would still be just as perplexed.

On Friday night, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, hailed by many as one of the greatest American writers of the past 20 years, hanged himself at his home in California. All day I've had flairs of emotion, ranging from grief for the loss of a rare human being and an extremely potent talent, to anger over his doing something so seemingly foolish as committing suicide. His reasons are unknown, and will perhaps always remain elusive. I profess to know little about Wallace's private life, though I have always felt that the person that shone through in his writing was sharp and sincere and playfully alive in a way that seemed to be lacking in the majority of people I encountered, through writing or in person. Then again, all readers feel like they have some special view into the minds and souls of the writers that most capture their attention, insights that are usually quite naive but form the basis of a connection that can truly be profound. It seems cliche to talk of a certain writer "speaking" to you, but there is truth in the remarkable way that the minds of a gifted few writers can bring out the best in the minds of enamored readers. I know that Wallace's attention to detail and irony and his constant struggle with capturing a satisfactory picture of the immensity of one's own consciousness have inspired me, have changed the way I think about things and the way I approach my own writing.

There was a moment today where I wanted to feel robbed, because I operated within a worldview where David Foster Wallace was still writing, would still produce books every few years, would still delight and amaze me with his prose and acumen in the art of human nature and modernity. But I stopped myself. I read again about him, about his life, considered what he stood for and what he seemed to be most concerned with, and I realized that the selfish, narcissistic streak that runs through us all is something that always scared Wallace about himself. A tribute to Wallace that appeared on today sums up his view: "he wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism -- because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing" (Miller). It becomes easy to take advantage of heroes, to slip into the mentality that people like Wallace were placed on Earth to inspire and entertain you, rather than to acknowledge how truly kind and selfless it is for them to have shared their gift at all, how they were (are) acting out of a much opposite interest than that which makes the rest of us feel so entitled. We are not owed by, but owe the people that inspire us most (and here I'm referring to true, dictionary-definition inspiration, a word that Wallace himself struggled with, afraid to invoke its widespread, cliche connotations).

Still, it all seems a shame, largely because the gene pool was never enriched with his remarkable code. But while Wallace may not have left any children behind, he certainly planted seeds in the minds of those lucky writing students who had the fortune of being able to interact with him on a more intimate level than the rest of us.

And we readers have his catalog, not necessarily prolific by many literary standards, but formidable and engaging like few other American bibliographies. Ironically, in the past two weeks, I had just taken to rereading several of Wallace's essays from his collection Consider the Lobster, so he was particularly in the forefront of my mind at the time of his passing. I know that, as I have in these past several days, I will greatly enjoy revisiting the work he did leave for years to come. For that I am sincerely thankful.

Rest in peace, David Foster Wallace. You are profoundly missed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Questions or Something Else?

The other day while I was browsing in the Philosophy section of Barnes and Noble, I was approached by an odd-looking (and possibly slightly disturbed) old man who asked me if I was "looking for the answers." Now, the trainwreck of a belief system the old man was to expound upon for the better part of 30 minutes is another story, but to his initial inquiry I responded in the negative. Later, I wished I had had the presence of mind to shoot back: "No, I'm looking for books." But it was a conversation with a friend about the encounter that produced the best answer, though it doubtlessly would have been lost on the old man. The response should have been, "no, I'm looking for questions."

And I am. When I read back on a lot of the things I've written here, I find many of them are peppered with questions. Many of them may be rhetorical, but that's alright. The point is, they're being asked, and whether they require no answer, have no answer, or have many answers, they all serve to stimulate the minds they're being posed to. Our language-filled world is rife with moral ambiguity, and often the only way that one can traverse the fractured, delicate social landscape is to pose questions, which help to illuminate ours and other's intentions and desires, as well as the occasionally murky chains of cause and effect and the consequences of potential courses of action.

And while I may always be looking for questions, that does not mean that I'm unconcerned with answers, only that the answers one uncovers should be viewed as a means, not as the end. This may seem like a backwards way at approaching the question/answer dichotomy. This is where a lot of people stumble, I believe, and why a lot of people fall into close-minded routines and ill-informed systems of belief. Many people stop at the first seemingly coherent answer provided to their inquiries, and depending on the context, this can be a dangerous practice. Many religious beliefs and social and economic ideologies are supported by steadfast adherence to just-satisifactory answers, and as a result, tolerance, understanding, communication and mutual respect often rapidly break down. And rest assurred, I'm by no means attempting to issue some sort of "final answer" in my ramblings here. I can't say for sure that the methodology I place my faith in (yes, in the protean realm of human consciousness and its place in the universe, even logic and science take a measure of faith) is the best path to the "truth" we all seek to varying degrees, but I've found that it has helped me to become a more informed, well-rounded, and high-minded individual. Questioning the world is never a waste of time, and the best answers will clarify the topic of your initial inquiry and instigate new lines of questioning.

It is true that you may not always find answers for the questions you have. It is also true that even in considering questions with elusive answers, the multitude of intuitive systems in your brain are shaping your opinions and options and helping you to become a broad and logical thinker. A little healthy skepticism and an inquisitive nature has never hurt anyone. Some revelations may be emotionally or philosophically disturbing, but few intelligent people should find themselves asking to be returned to their ignorance regarding issues that effect them so personally. One could argue that the occasional frightening discovery in the course of dedicated question-asking is likely only to help one in future considerations, and having many tiny bubbles burst throughout the course of one's lifetime is surely preferable to letting a single, vulnerable bubble grow and grow until someone or something finds the desire to stick a pin in it irresistable.

And so on and so forth. What's the point of all this musing you ask? Well, that's a question. I've already got you started. And what's the answer? Just an attempt to understand why I ask so many questions. Already I've stumbled upon some ideas during the course of this relatively stream-of-consciousness bout of pondering that will likely produce more questions. And maybe you don't agree with some of what I've had to say. Good. It's your right (and arguably your duty) to question it. It'll only help you to articulate and refine your own position. And however different your opinions and whatever you discover on your way to developing them, I'm hoping that at least on this point you'll agree with me:

There is nothing more important than uncovering and understanding what it means to be you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Giddiness Regarding the Impending Collision of Particles

Over the past few days, I've encountered several really interesting things that I know I should be writing about, but for some reason have been having trouble mustering the ambition to do so. As such, I've got a backlog of topics I'd like to consider here, and hopefully in the days coming I can bring myself to elucidate these strands of the otherwise hectic, whirlwind-style operating mode of my conscious brain activity.

The thing that's grabbed me by the lobes today (brain lobes, mind you) is the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion particle accelerator that has been built beneath the Franco-Swiss border. It is the collaborative effort of over 8,000 physicists from 85 countries. The collider basically is a massive, highly-magnetized, 17-mile underground loop that scientists will shoot opposing streams of protons through (at 11,000 revolutions per second!), smashing these particles together and hoping the results will illuminate our understanding of the forces of the universe. On Wednesday, scientists will turn it on for the first time, and, provided everything operates in the intended manner, the results produced by experiments within the collider could provide the hard evidence for a variety of hypothetical concepts with key roles in present-day models of physics. Conversely, they could also shake modern theories of physics to the core.

Some of the plausible results of colliding particles on such a large scale seem straight out of science fiction: the unveiling of alternate spacial dimensions (Now Coming to You in Astounding 5-D!), the creation of micro black holes, and, according to a few overzealous apocalyptic types, the end of the very world as we know it. Of course, the latter option shouldn't rightfully be included in a list of "plausible" results, but such histrionics should certainly be considered when gauging just how charged the scientific atmosphere is around this momentous event. It is truly exploratory science, and many physicists are steeling themselves, preparing to potentially have their understanding of physics torn to shreds. While the main focus of the experiments conducted within the LHC will be to finally produce tangible evidence of particles called Higgs bosons (something I researched briefly and won't even pretend to understand, though apparently essential in the Standard Model of particle physics for explaining how massless particles can combine to create matter that does have mass), scientists also hope to gain a better understanding of the origins of the universe by creating situations similar to those that existed immediately after the Big Bang.

Even with a less-than-lay comprehension of modern physics (especially astrophysics, to which the LHC seems particularly relevant), I've found myself giddy with excitement all day. Wednesday will mark a momentous occasion in the history of science, and science always (well, usually) makes my day. I only lament that the publication of results from LHC experiments will probably take considerable time.

A final thought on all the doomsday trappings that are attached to the operation of the LHC: some of the more extreme opponents of the project have hypothesized that the LHC could produce a black hole large enough to result in the accretion of the entire planet, and a few have gone so far as to file lawsuits in an attempt to prevent the LHC from being turned on. While this possibility seems to be of almost no concern to those scientists operating the LHC, its consideration from an imaginative standpoint produces some interesting questions. What if a significantly large black hole was produced by the collider? Obviously one large enough to swallow the Earth wouldn't allow us to react to (or even be aware of) the disaster (another thing interesting to ponder, because those claiming it as a legitimate possibility would never discover they were correct should they actually be), but what about a smaller black hole that consumed less than the entirety of the planet's matter? Where exactly would the hole exist, and how would it effect people? How would the world be informed about a black hole disaster when so little of the world has any working understanding of what a black hole actually is? In the realm of speculative-science-become-nightmarish-reality, who becomes the authority on just how to inform the world of the situation, let alone devise a method to address the problem? How do you cordon-off a black hole when one can never know whether they've crossed the event horizon (that being the point at which you can no longer overcome the black hole's gravitational pull and escape)until it's too late? What does the process spaghettification look like (that is, before a person/thing is reduced to an imperceivable strand of elementary particles)? Even with a painfully amateurish grasp of the bare basics of quantum theory associated with black holes, starting to ponder such things is near migraine-inducing. I can almost understand how some overly paranoid, astrophysics-distended naysayer might actually convince themselves that the LHC is the ultimate, terrible expression of the purest form of nihilism. Blah.

My lobes hurt.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On the Human Response to a Recent Tragic Event

The morbidity of human nature can be alarming. I recently read that at least 12% of the reduction in traffic speed at the site of an accident is directly attributable to people slowing down simply to stare at the carnage. Two days ago, there was a terrible head-on collision almost directly in front of my place of employment. The front parking lot and the main road that runs past the store were blockaded by emergency personnel, and the eerie scene that was presented whenever one stole a glance out the window was that of flashing lights, reflective vests, and uncountable pieces of vehicle detritus strewn across the landscape.

The only talk that occurred within the store regarded the accident. People asked what happened, were the victims local, how badly were they injured, did you hear it, did you see it? They commented on the tragedy of car accidents, on the foolishness of modern drivers, on the proliferation of accidents in recent weeks, on the unsafe road and the types of individuals that take advantage of it. No one really had any answers and no single person had any better connection to the events than the rest of the people that milled about the store. Rumors that someone died surged in and out of circulation on that day and in the days since, and still no one really knows besides the rescue workers, who aren't obliged to share any information. At times people became visibly agitated when their claims of a fatality were met with skepticism, as though being robbed of the ability to drop such weight on the less-informed was a tragedy in itself. Anyone who claimed to have information was in a position of power, and the occasional struggles between those with conflicting stories were both pathetic and alarming.

What is it about the misfortune of others that piques our interest so? Upon finding out that the accident involved no one they knew, people either launched into even more prodding lines of questioning or seemed to completely lose interest in the event all together, even as it continually threatened to usurp one's attention, unfolding mere yards outside the door. It was as if one type of person were requesting permission to further explore their morbid curiosity, and another type of person found the anonymity of the event not nearly morbid enough. Either way, it seemed as though very few people had a reaction that seemed entirely appropriate.

But who am I to judge the proper response to such an event? I was the one who spent the day chiming in time and time again, answering the questions as they entered the highly charged air.

Friday, August 15, 2008

There's Nowhere You Can Be That Isn't Where You're Meant To Be. It's Easy.

It seems likely that a person would be nauseated if they could be presented with a physical collection of all that has been written about human partnerships since the inception of language. Such a collection would constitute a small-scale Library of Babel, and if one could ever read every tome that lined the shelves of its lengthy halls, they wouldn't have any better understanding of love or commitment or partnership or humanity itself than they did before they undertook such an epic task. It's a terrible irony that we can spend our whole lives looking for something we are unable to define, and that given as many chances as we are to try to satisfy our desires, we often die without knowing whether what we had during our lives is what we had intended to gain all that time.

It is a law of the universe that people are irrevocably social beings. Though general ideas of love and happiness have changed drastically over time and across cultures, people need to be with people. It is one of the true blessings of our existence, and it is also one of the most painful things we must endure.

And having sampled the highs and lows of love and commitment, which should a person let win out in the inner battle that ensues when it's time to start over: the steely, jaded mind or the leaping, idealistic heart? And which does a person usually end up following? What terrible games we must play with our souls.

What do you do when you feel close to another person? Do you pursue romance, so that intimacy can be amplified to lovely, dizzing heights, or do you maintain some form of distance, so that you never have to be afraid of crashing from those highs, of damaging your bond and opening a rift that might never be bridged? How does one ever know which is the right answer? And how frustrating is it that we can never really know whether our gamble paid off, because we can never see what lies down the other road once we've passed the fork?

And time, it's always fleeting. What do we do about time? It often feels like it spends us with cold indifference, and there is so little of us to spend. How painful it is to feel as though you might never be satisfied with the amount of time you have left to spend with someone you care about, be it weeks or years or your whole natural life. But paradoxically, how wonderful it feels to have someone who so strongly stirs your emotion.

I've had to catch myself, because this all seems nearly pessimistic. It's not hopelessness or negativity, though, just thoughtful consideration. I don't know that I could ever be convinced that it isn't worth it to give yourself over to someone you care about. I know that I'm always at my happiest when I have someone close to share experience with. I merely struggle with finding ways that seem sufficient to let them know how important they truly are.

Sometimes it seems an impossible bit to swallow, but it's true: all you need is love. And at times, maybe a little patience, too.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Following the Stream of Consciousness

Prior to 1668, it was generally accepted that maggots "spontaneously generated" from rotting meat. If you left your steak laying out on the counter, you'd better believe it would give birth to a healthy assemblage of lovely, wiggling rice-lings. After the 17th century, people smartened up a smidge and realized that maggots don't arise from decomposing flesh. No; they arise from the waxed cardboard boxes that meat products are shipped in! The incredulous need only to take a gander at the cardboard dumpster behind my local grocery store. The meat cutters threw a bunch of empty cardboard boxes in early in the day, and by nightfall, the whole perimeter of the dumpster was crawling with infantile insects! And the dumpster for garbage? Not a single squirming maggot. If that doesn't prove my hypothesis, let me remind you that evolution is only a theory, and for that matter, so is gravity. Suck on that, Francesco Redi!

Take a moment to imagine: A dirty old man, pants pulled up to his man-breasts and suspendered securely in place, with an enormous chunk of chocolatey waffle cone stuck to the front of his t-shirt collar, just hanging out, obscured from his geriatric awareness and skills of detection, screaming out to the rest of the world like some cruel joke at the expense of the elderly, probably at one point delicious, likely to fall off at some future moment, doubtlessly right before he slowly eases into his chair, now mashed messily into the ass of his pants, where it will be seen by an all new group of snickering people when he goes out tomorrow.

You know what's disgusting? Bezoars. Apparently a good way to form one is to either eat your hair on a daily basis, or eat way too many over-ripe persimmons, which turn into a disgusting, gluey substance when exposed to stomach acidity. Personally, I prefer the second option, because it allows you to create a bezoar out of whatever materials you'd like. Just eat a sizeable quantity of your sculpting material before you eat persimmons and you'll get the bezoar of your dreams (after coming out of surgery, of course). Anything goes: your collection of movie ticket stubs, handfuls of paperclips, or all that beautiful, smooth sea-glass you laboriously collected on your vacation last summer.

It's currently raining. Many people will claim that their favorite smell is the earthy scent that fills the air after a brief rain. Almost none of those people know that the name of that smell is petrichor.

Combos are the official cheese-filled snack of NASCAR. It seems to me that they could have had the entire "Official NASCAR snack" market cornered, but they screwed up by electing to be very specific. Hypothetically, at any moment there could be a massive proliferation of various snack-types that NASCAR could sanction, and the official cheese-filled snack would be lost among a sea of official creme-filled, official lightly salted, official kettle-cooked, official hand-molded, and official whatever snacks ad infinitum ad absurdum. Really, it's too bad, because Combos are pretty gross, and while NASCAR fans are pretty indiscriminant about what they shovel into their sweatpants-straining paunches, this character trait will also work against Combos when additional official snack-types begin to crowd the stage.

And what the heck? I thought Batman Begins was supposed to be good.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Past 24 Hours as a Brief Series of Vignettes

  • A modern tragedy, though hardly of Grecian proportions: Gritty Baguette, or Did The Goddamn Filling On My Chipped Tooth Just Fall Out Again, performed recently as a monologue in Panera Bread.

  • A man with a long, hooked stick, having just delicately placed letters on the marquee beneath the Senator Inn's bold road-side sign, packing up his materials and walking off, the words "INQUIE'R WITHIN" emblazoned in red for all to see (or be oblivious to). Me, dying of an aneurysm at a remarkably young age.

  • An over-ripe banana with a pinched wound in its flesh, spewing countless fruit flies like blood cells, or tiny benign hornets wrested from their hive by some awful, instinctual compulsion.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On the Night, Which Ideally Should Involve Sleeping

Would you say that driving at night is a lot like having a near-death experience? The deliberate reduction and intense focusing of your field of vision, the world-at-large jetting through your periphery, too dark and muddled to perceive? The tunnel of light that directs you to your destination? All with some heightened state of alertness, some drive towards awareness that paradoxically seems to slow everything down and draw it out like so much spindly thread. And you're alone. Even when with passengers you're alone, their faces falling back into the darkness at the fringes, their haunted voices echoing into the tunnel from somewhere outside in the muffled world. And like planets or blazing stars, streetlamps and porch lights dart by, ambiguous markers in the universe as you make your way through it.

On a night drive I see a black garbage bag on the side of the road, and I wonder if it contains dismembered limbs. It is late and the thought troubles me, even after the bag has been whisked out of my narrow tunnel of light. How does such an association become formed in one's mind? I've never encountered a trashbag of body parts before. It's one o'clock in the morning, and a man sits in a chair on his front lawn, alone, poking at the tiniest of campfires. On a darkened gravel road, a tremendous lunar moth, blanched in the high beams, wheels up into the night and then comes crashing to the dirt, over and over, as though its only wish is to inter its ghoulish form.

Something about the windows down, about the wind. Something about tires on road.

In the intensity of the headlights, the yellow lines produce lonely epileptic patterns, become hypnotizing, but only until the brightness of a passing car pulls your eyes away. You know you shouldn't look, but you always do, as though the blinding whiteness is the very end you seek after moving for so long through your obscure tunnel. Still, you press on.

The tunnel allows you to feel your movement through time. The present is forced upon you, while behind you, the night consumes the past. No glimpse in the rearview mirror can ever afford some image of the rapid succession of moments that have just careened through the illumination of your headlamps. A set of feline eyes glow on the shoulder, a cat that only exists in the narrow sweep of your light.

When I pull into the driveway, sometimes I just sit for a few minutes and listen to the summer frogs. The world is dark and my tunnel has dissolved. I listen to their cries, and they almost seem to be cheering, telling me, "we're so glad you made it, welcome home, welcome home."

Monday, June 23, 2008

On the Weather, and Its Propensity to Make Me Whine

I don't recall ever being as affected by the weather as I am now. Maybe it's all part of some process of adjustment I'm currently working through, perhaps just below consciousness, or maybe it's the inevitable result of aging. I'm not the same person I was, I won't be this person forever. Today I feel bored and melancholy. I feel like the gray sky and I feel like the dead weight of the moisture in this humid air. I feel like there's little to do beyond letting the wet, warm world slowly suffocate me. Still, I lash out, I try so desperately to breathe.

I ran this morning, but I feel like going for a second run. I feel like sweating out the vague anxiety that's been hanging off of my heartstrings lately, purposeless and heavy. I'm a little afraid today. I'm alone, and it's strange. It's not so much that I can't bear to be with myself, but that I've come to realize I really enjoy sharing myself. Sharing what I've read, what I've heard, what I've discovered. The things that I assimilate and constantly refashion into some fleeting picture of "Dan." I endlessly seek information, and I really hate that I have so few interested parties to share it with, and that, today at least, they all seem to be inaccessible. I hate being excited about something, but having to bottle it up for so long that when the time comes to share, I've forgotten it, and then it is lost even to me.

Occasionally I wonder if I'm a difficult person. Not someone who is unbearable, drawn to strife, or needlessly complicates the lives of others, but someone who is composed in such a way that others have a hard time forging a deep connection with. Most days, I feel like people don't want to engage me on any challenging level. It's certainly their right, and I can't say I really blame them. I want to be eccentric and weird, and I want to be intellectual and thoughtful. I want people to realize what a great combination those things are, and I want them to join in, too. I want people to riff off of, I want explosions of the absurd. I want highbrow inside-jokes and secret romantic signals.

I want someone to appreciate and respect. And someday, someone who can bring themselves to extend such things to me. I want connection and sincerity.

I wish I was a blinding summer's day. I wish I was a turbulent thunderstorm. Today I'm a muggy, overcast smudge on the calendar. Today I am a victim of meteorology.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

On the Deep Psychology of Certain Advertising

It's pretty bad when I almost never watch television, but every time I turn it on I encounter some commercial that either sends me on some deep, bizarre investigation or completely perplexes the hell out of me.

Yes, I'm aware that commercials have a long and storied history of being stupid, fairly obnoxious, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure that whatever product they're pushing is messily branded somewhere on the hide of your cerebral cortex. And yes, I'm aware of the fact that incessant, irritating commercials are just as likely to goad buyers towards particular merchandise as funny or touching ones.

What perplexes me is some of the examples of human behavior that are exhibited in commercials with the intent to appeal to some aspect of the viewers' very nature. I guess the ones I'm thinking of the most right now are the Time Warner Cable commercials with the smug dudes that say things like: "I'm all about buy one, get one free. I like what I like, and I want it when I want it, etc," as though most humans were some impregnable id that remorselessly grabs life itself by the fistful. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't give humanity as much credit as I'd like to, but are the collective masses really that infantile? I always believed that people left such extremes of ego-centrism behind with their pampers and binkies. Do the vast majority of individuals really have such a monstrous mentality of expectation? And are we really to believe that if people do choose to act in such alarmingly neurotic ways, that a major corporation truly "likes the way [they] think?" When has consumer narcissism to the detriment of corporate profit and feasible delivery of goods ever been a sound business model? Don't invite us to be the bratty Freudlings we all have the capacity to be unless you're ready to put your money where your mouth is.

Because I want free high-speed internet that beams directly onto my retinas and can be activated and deactivated by sheer force of will. And I want it now. Actually, I want Time Warner to pay me to use their services, because without me, they wouldn't be serving anything. I want the ability to create my own TV channels, and to be able to choose who must watch them. I want a Time Warner Cable company truck and 401K. I want to know if God exists. Tell me, Time Warner, or by potential-God I'll take my business to the friggin' dish network.

Actually, I could get used to this. I suppose those commercials really did cut right to the core of me. Hmm. I wonder how much their basic cable/internet bundle is? I love saving money.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Storm Euphoria

What is it about the storm on the horizon? All of the earthly hues become dulled, desaturated, as though their vibrancy was tapped to fuel the roiling darkness in the sky. What is it about the ebb and flow of the wind waves, the way they tousle the trees and leave them shimmering with nervous energy? The leaves struggle to right themselves, to hide their pale, exposed underbellies. Then a flash in the clouds; brief and bright, diffusing through the sky like the firing of some Godly synapse. What is it about the slow, low crescendo that sounds seconds later, the guttural, escalating rumble that never fails to catch one by surprise? Car windows are rolled up, fans are taken out of windows, children are ushered indoors. What is it about the pleasure of anticipation? The delight of an impending summer storm? What is it about the cerebral tickle that such empyreal foreplay affords?

And why, like some fleeting spirit, must it vanish when the first drops make their violent contact with the earth?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

On Space Disasters and Disbelief

I had a rather strange experience today, and after reflecting on it for a few minutes, I realized that it was actually pretty frightening.

I was reading the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic, entitled "The Sky is Falling." The article addresses some of the recent concerns of various astronomers regarding the number of potentially hazardous space objects that are in Earth's vicinity. Some new considerations of evidence of past strikes by space objects, coupled with new methods of locating hard-to-see objects near the Earth have led some researchers to believe that we are in a lot more danger of getting hit by a careening asteroid or comet than we previously thought. After presenting the evidence, the article spends most of its length addressing the fact that NASA has no interest in diverting any funds into researching this risk, let alone to develop methods to better track space objects or attempt to divert them should they make a b-line straight for our planet.

Now, the frightening experience I had regarding all this is the fact that I caught myself scoffing in skepticism at the article. As I read it, I found I had a really hard time taking it seriously. Then suddenly it dawned on me: not only is all of this obviously very possible, but the very attitude I initially reacted with is the attitude most people seem to be displaying, including those in the best position to actually study and/or plan for such a disastrous event. Currently, the number of people on the planet that are concerned about the very real possibility of a decent sized object hitting the Earth or exploding in its atmosphere is very small, and these folks must be extremely frustrated. I'm not sure if movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact have had a negative cultural influence, if people just can't comprehend such a thing because it has never occurred in a historical context most people can grasp, or if humans in general have developed too much of a feeling of invincibility. Regardless, were scientists to discover tomorrow an asteroid that will likely hit Earth within the lifetime of most living people, it's doubtful that anything could be put in place in enough time to have any impact on the course of events. That's pretty frightening. But even in realizing that, it is still very difficult to grasp.

I think people in general avoid getting too deeply involved with things regarding the greater universe because they are so complex and humbling and nearly incomprehensible that people feel immensely uncomfortable. Space is too large a reminder of our finiteness and our insignificance, and space disasters are hard to take seriously because they've always be relegated to the realms of science fiction and big screen cinema, and almost always involve gross oversimplifications of astronomical concepts and objects. There is no way for a layperson to grasp the subtleties of our very solar system, the forces that are interacting within in it, and the objects with which we share a common space without investing a lot of time into research and contemplation. There's also little chance for the common man to gain an understanding of the diplomatic complexities involved with even orchestrating an effective defense against rogue space objects without accidentally spurring international disputes or even physical conflicts. The whole situation operates in a realm far above what the average person likes to consider in their day to day life, and so long as officials who are in a position to know and act are content with maintaining working relationships that only insure a constant money flow, the threat of an Earth impact will remain quite distant from the concerns of the public at large.

Or maybe it's a mistake to even assume that we have the capabilities to divert such a disaster. There are limits to our power, however immense we believe ourselves to be. But pessimism like that doesn't seem to fit right; it's not a garb our nature can wear convincingly. The result then is even more disturbing: we believe that we have the ability to control our own destinies and manipulate the universe, but we lack the willpower or interest or foresight to actually prove we're worth our salt. It seems feasible that we can divert disaster, but we don't want to think about how to do it until we have evidence that such a disaster is worth our consideration.

And sadly, we too often find this corroboration only after the disaster has already struck.

Friday, June 6, 2008

On Self-Inflicted Testicular Abuse and How It Changed Everything

Ever since the early days of America's Funniest Home Videos, the groin shot has occupied a special place in the heart of the country. Whether it be little kids with flailing arms, a mis-step at the pool, or a bike ride gone wrong, it seems as though the TV viewers of this nation have always rather gleefully embraced depictions of men injuring their manhood. Though this fascination seems outwardly sadistic, there is also a decidedly masochistic bent to the ritual, as any man can tell you of the uncomfortable tightening in his nether regions when he witnesses someone else get whacked in theirs.

The rise of Jackass saw an unusual (and somewhat alarming) intensification of the drive towards injured family jewels, with individuals not being unfortunate victims of testicular misfortune but active and willing participants in premeditated and outlandish methods of genital abuse. At times these antics extended into quite perverse realms, arguably even blurring the lines between mere adolescent pranksterism and the homoerotic. In a way, it is easy to understand why countless teenage boys would flock to graphic depictions of other men's genitals when the ultimate purpose was to watch those very genitals get injured in bold displays of fearlessness and impulsivity. Male nudity could be forgiven, even embraced, for the sake of such seemingly profound statements of rebellion and the unbridled spirit of manliness. Literally seeing your hero's balls as he applies electric shocks to them only reaffirms that he does indeed have the balls to do something so brazen and taboo. And so it seems that in many young minds, the level of bodily abuse that can be absorbed has a direct correlation to the strength of that body, and from this, one could argue that the amount of pain one's balls can endure says a lot about just how big one's metaphorical balls are when it's time to measure courage.

This could explain the proliferation of home-made videos of testicle injury that have spread across the internet in the years following the Jackass explosion. All across the web, teenagers can be observed leaping onto banisters, taking hits from see-saws and spring-loaded playground animals, or imploring their friends to take as many free shots as they'd like. Absent the above Jackassian explanation, such videos seem to defy all logic. What compels a group of youths to film each other actively attempting to injure the one part of their body no male in his right mind would want to have harmed? Who is this document for? Many times, these videos are shot in unpopulated areas, where the performer and the cameraman are the only souls present. What sort of tragic psychology implores someone to undertake such a freakishly impressive feat when there's no one around to witness it? Sure, the video makes a permanent document of the event, but even to those who enjoy watching such senseless film-making, the implications of smashing your balls for no audience and for no good reason doubtlessly spur some strange stabs of confusion or pity, if only subconsciously.

But these videos are feeding two different sets of desires in two different sets of individuals. First, they serve to reaffirm the impulsive and outward opinion-driven adolescent of his masculinity and his autonomy. Not only does he have the balls to hurt his balls, but he has the choice to hurt his balls, and he has chosen to hurt them. Second, the videos pander to the omnipresent show of morbidity that is the American fascination with testicle smashing. People still love to see other people get injured in truly heinous ways, but only if those ways are not gory and can be easily recovered from. It's sort of like laughing when seeing someone trip, providing the tripped person's head isn't bashed open.

A weird cycle is then formed, in which the parties contributing to the continuous motion of the cycle aren't even consciously aware of their participation. The people smashing their balls aren't showing others the video tape of the event because they think people like seeing hurt balls, but because they think people will be impressed with their recklessness and display of strength. Likewise, the people that actually just find it entertaining to see people get hit in the nuts don't think that those hitting their nuts are doing it to reaffirm their manliness, but only because they know people will find it humorous. Both parties still get what they want, despite having erroneous beliefs about the motivations of the other party. Such a loop couldn't exist in the days of America's Funniest Home Videos, because those experiencing scrotal injury weren't actively seeking it. Things were more straightforward in those days: everyone seemed to recognize that people just liked seeing hurt balls, so if someone happened to hurt their balls on film, it made sense to share it with others for the humor value. And yes, on the surface it does seem that simple still, but as shown above, the intentional injury factor actually changes the dynamics quite a bit.

But really, it all just boils down to the endless obsession males have with their own privates. Apparently, sometimes it's alright to extend that obsession to other people's privates, too. But in a way that's totally straight. Totally.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Really, Really, Really Bad Ideas

Tonight I came across an article about a business deal cut between Staples and a company called Flexplay. It seems Flexplay dabbles in an interesting market: that of self-destructing DVDs. Apparently, Flexplay produces movie disks that are rendered unplayable 48 hours after being removed from their packaging. This is due to a chemical reaction between oxygen and an adhesive agent the disk is produced with. According to one source, the idea is to offer movie rentals that don't have to be watched immediately and don't wrack up late fees.

These Flexplay discs are going to be sold for 5 bucks a pop. Five dollars for a DVD that you can probably only watch once, and then must be thrown away. What sort of deal is that? The cheapest Netflix plan costs five dollars and it'll get you two movies per month, which, when spaced across that time frame, also removes most people's worries of late fees or making time to watch a film. And with Netflix, you return the movies and they can be used again. You can be a film buff with a clean conscience, because you're not producing hugely uncessesary, non-biodegradable waste.

And let's consider it this way: DVDs are almost pure plastic. And we all know that plastic is made from petrochemicals, which means they all involve oil. This is an aspect of the oil crisis that people don't often consider. It extends far beyond the gasoline we pump into our cars. Do we really need one more utterly disposible plastic product being produced? Christ, even plastic bags can be reused multiple time before you are forced to discard them, but these DVDs are only good for one viewing, and then they're good for absolutely nothing. Except sitting in a landfill for the rest of eternity. What is the point?

I'm just baffled by the whole thing. By the number of people involved in orchestrating the production and introduction of a product like this, none of whom seem to recognize that it's just a tragically moronic venture. You can go to WalMart and buy movies for 5 dollars these days. Permanent, enjoyable, re-watchable movies. Not that I want to concede even a little bit that any of this makes sense, but 5 dollars for a self-destructing rental (I find it odd to call it a rental, too, because afterall, you do own the useless piece of garbage after you've left the store with it)? What about one dollar? If you're going to make something that disposable, why not make the price worth someone's while? The fact that they have to charge a pretty unreasonable price (likely to recoup production expenses) should be enough of a hint that this is a really bad idea. That, and the fact that a company already tried this nearly a decade ago and was driven into extinction within months.

It's not that they're not trying, though. A visit to the official Flexplay website yields this message:

"All Flexplay discs are recyclable and no different in their environmental impact than regular DVDs. Polycarbonate is a fully recyclable plastic and the proprietary chemical and technology used in the limited play DVD conform to applicable EPA standards for health and environmental protection.

And of course, a Flexplay No-Return DVD Rental completely eliminates the energy usage and emissions associated with a return trip to the video rental store."

Hmm. I guess yes, technically, they are no different in environmental impact than normal DVDs, besides the fact that you don't throw away your other DVDs after watching them once. In fact, I don't know anyone that throws away DVDs ever, unless they break or become too damaged to function (which actually takes quite a bit of effort). Most people just keep them, give them away, re-sell them, anything. And are they honestly suggesting that they're actually benefiting the environment in the long run by reducing trips to the rental stores? I wonder how embarrassed or pathetic they feel for even venturing that suggestion. Sure, some emissions are being prevented, but is it really enough to offset all the junk DVDs that will be thrust into circulation? Unless of course lots of people frequently drive semi-trucks to rental stores many miles away from their homes. I bet there was a lot of debate over whether or not to let that one lie or if it really might be better than not addressing environmental concerns at all. Netflix has them beat on this one too, and badly. Walking to my mailbox produces no emissions (unless I have an upset stomach) and results in no plastic-y trash. And don't even say the mail deliverer's vehicle is replacing the emissions that I'm avoiding by not using my vehicle. They were coming to my mailbox either way, smarties.

I don't know. The more write and the more I think about it, the more nonplussed and grumpy I get. Honestly, haven't we arrived at the point yet where we realized how screwed we are?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

On the Pool of Profundity, and Why One Shouldn't Always Dive Right In

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of diving into a body of water, only to have it be far more shallow than you were expecting? If so, hopefully it didn't paralyze you, and hopefully you'll agree that it's terribly unpleasant. I recently had this happen to me while driving behind a vehicle in Augusta.

I should add that this was a metaphorical dive into a metaphorical body of water, and that the injury was no so much to my spine as it was to the well-being of my mind.

The springboard of sorts was a bumper sticker. You see, whenever I read something that has even the slightest chance of being interesting, my brain leaps upon it with a ravenous hunger. As I came to a stop behind this vehicle at a traffic light, one bumper sticker jumped out at me. It said:

"If you can't change your mind, are you sure you still have one?"

And so my mind mind sprung into action. The result, as I've indicated above, was very similar to diving into the shallow end of a pool. If the pool of profundity can be said to have a deep end, that's the one I feel most comfortable in. If this bumper sticker could be said to have been floating in the pool of profundity, it most certainly was floating by the steps in the shallow end. Maybe even half-draped out of the pool.

But really; change my mind about what? I can think of plenty of instances where not changing one's mind about something is a perfectly reasonable attitude. In fact, I can think of circumstances where the only reasonable stance is that of steadfast adherence. Would the maker of this bumper sticker really say that a person who refuses to change their mind regarding the necessity of pants in public might very well be lacking a mind? Or what about a person's opinion on the permissibility of murder? I'd say that if someone is convinced that it's probably not a good idea to senselessly slaughter innocent people, then it's actually a little rude and stupid of you to insult them by suggesting that their unwillingness to budge on that point suggests some sort of mental deficit. And I'm also fairly sure that the person who changes their mind to decide that jabbing their finger into their own eye every few minutes is a good idea is the person who maybe should be unsure as to whether or not they still have a mind.

The sad thing about the fact that such a bumper sticker exists is not so much that a company employs enough dim people to let something so obtuse slip through to production, but that there are individuals out there who think that the quote it contains is profound enough to warrant slapping it on the back of their vehicle. And last I checked, bumper stickers, when left on for an extended period of time and exposed to the elements, do this lovely thing where they sort of fuse to the back of your vehicle and help drive its value down. Especially really stupid bumper stickers. Which, incidentally, also help to drive down people's opinions of you.

In sum, I refuse to change my mind when it comes to entertaining such a bumper sticker as something with any value whatsoever. If that means I've lost my mind, then haul me away.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On Sexual Compulsions and Restless Legs

If you watch network television on occasion, you've probably seen advertisements for medications like Requip or Mirapex that are marketed as a treatment for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a weird, creepy-crawling feeling that usually occurs at night and makes sufferers feel as though they must constantly move their legs to attain comfort. Particularly severe cases can greatly disrupt sleep cycles or even lead to insomnia. Now, if you're like me (shut up), while watching these commercials you've probably wondered why some of the side effects listed include "intense gambling or sexual urges or other impulsive behaviors." What could these things possibly have to do with disorders involving involuntary motor-functions? My first reaction to encountering these weird side effects was a vague sort of dread regarding our forays into altering brain chemistry. Just what exactly is Mirapex tweaking deep within our cortices?

Turns out ropinirole (Requip) and pramipexole (Mirapex) are members of a class of drugs known as dopamine agonists, which means that they attach to dopamine receptors on various brain structures and mimic the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine. (As an interesting aside, these drugs are specifically non-ergoline dopamine agonists, which means they do not involve ergoline alkaloids, a class of drugs that includes the infamous LSD and other hallucinogenics). Now, dopamine agonists are primarily used to treat Parkinson's disease, and ropinirole and pramipexole are no exceptions. In fact, they were originally created to treat Parkinson's disease, and are merely provided in smaller doses to treat RLS. Apparently, the roots of RLS may be very similar to those of Parkinson's disease, although on a much smaller (and apparently non-progressive) level. Here's where the fun brain science begins.

Parkinson's disease is caused by a decrease in dopamine production in the substantia nigra, a portion of the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is an extremely important deep-brain structure and is responsible for far more brain activity that can be discussed here. What's important is that the dopamine that is normally produced by the substantia nigra usually binds with dopamine receptors on the striatum, another portion of the basal ganglia. There are four types of dopamine receptors, and it seems that D2 and D3 are the most directly related to Parkinson's symptoms (this info will be important in a minute). Though it regulates other things (which we'll touch upon shortly), one of the main functions of the striatum is the planning and regulation of movement. A Parkinson's afflicted brain isn't producing enough dopamine to activate the striatum sufficiently, which in turn results in decreased activation of the motor cortex, producing erratic, unintentional tremors, muscle rigidity and a variety of other motor problems. So on a smaller level, a similar dopamine disruption is responsible for RLS, and the dopamine agonist medications act to stimulate the receptors in the striatum that aren't being activated through normal brain chemistry.

Ok. So the striatum is also involved in some other sneaky stuff that is really pretty far removed from motor function, and this is where dopamine agonists can start to alter behavior in ways that at first seem quite random. It seems that the striatum also regulates a lot of processes related to something called "executive function." Executive function involves things such as planning, abstract thinking, selecting sensory information, and, getting closer to the core of our inquiry, selecting appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate ones. It is also largely involved with processing stimuli involved in reward. It seems that the striatum is activated when a person is presented with stimuli that are new, aversive, unexpected or particularly intense. We can now start to see how sexual compulsions, strange gambling urges and things like overeating are related to subtleties in chemistry in this particular region of the brain. Problems with impulse control are also frequently exhibited in people with Parkinson's disease. These issues are clearly related to feelings of reward (the extreme gratification of orgasm, the experience of winning or the exhilaration of taking risks, the pleasure of indulging in certain foods) and are also highly likely to involve stimuli that could be classified as "novel," "intense," or (depending on how depraved you are) "aversive." These functions appear to be closely related to the D3 receptors on the striatum. And of the two related receptors that Requip and Mirapex bind to, guess which one they like the best? You got it. D3.

So it would appear that if you screw with the dopamine receptors on the striatum, some sort of weird, screwy feedback loop can result, where people have less ability to inhibit their actions, which frequently results in the sorts of behavior that actually greatly stimulate the striatum in the end. This seems to be due to the fact that dopamine agonists like Requip and Mirapex actually decrease the sensitivity of the dopamine receptors over time. Logically, this increases the symptoms associated with the striatum. A really sucky situation can develop where an individual not only cannot produce the required dopamine, but also cannot accept dopamine (or agonist medications) in areas that it is required. It seems likely that, in the cases where an individual is taking a dopamine agonist for RLS and experiences odd compulsions, the medication might actually be altering the dopamine receptors' ability to bind with neurotransmitters, including what dopamine they are still naturally producing. Ah, the joy of medication!

Some other uncommon side effects also tie in closely with the functions of the striatum: hallucinations, confusion, paranoia, memory loss, abnormal thinking, abnormal dreams, and decreased sex drive.

And that's pretty much it. Does it ease my feeling of dread? No, not really. But it is interesting to see how trying to target one problem in the brain can inadvertently effect so many other areas of cognitive function. It also speaks to the mystery of our own brains when investigations such as these show how one small part of the brain can be responsible for such a diverse array of functions. Immensely cool stuff.

Anyway, I think I'm going to stick with aspirin for now. My brain doesn't need any more help being bizarre.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Unintentional Hiatus

To begin things truthfully, I'll admit that most days I forget all about this blog. I'm not sure what pulled me back here today, but I can't believe that the two-week frenzy of writing represented below was way back in January. It seems like yesterday, and the realization that so much time has actually passed stopped me in my tracks.

A lot has happened since my last post here. Unfortunately, some of the larger events have not been good. I feel like I'm probably at the lowest point I've ever been in my life. But I also feel like maybe it isn't very low, after all. And I'm thankful for that. A lot of people see me as overly sarcastic, judgmental, and maybe a little too pragmatic and realistic. A pessimist more than an optimist, someone that bashes a lot of idealism with the heavy hammer of skepticism. And maybe that does describe much of who I am. But one thing that I've always been, despite the ups and downs of my life thus far, is largely happy and fairly even-tempered. I have my meltdowns on occasion, but for the most part, there's just too many interesting things to do and see and hear and experience to be anything be glad that we have what time we do here on this planet. And this is it. Our life is all the time we have, and I think somewhere, maybe more subconsciously than anything else, my philosophy is to love it, no matter what's thrown at me.

It's strange, because several years back I sort of ran into this philosophy in a more fleshed-out form, and it actually took me a while to recognize that it was very congruent with a mindset that I had never really noticed I possessed. The philosophy is Nietzsche's amor fati, a "love of fate" of sorts, the feeling that no matter what happens in your life, you wouldn't change it. That you would be content to live that life over and over again if given the opportunity. It seems a near impossible task. And I'm sure that a lot of people can never bring themselves to feel that way.

A lot of messed up things have happened in my life (or so it seems to me, but I'm aware its not nearly as storied as many other people's), but when I think about all those events, I wouldn't change any part of how things went. A lot of things that seemed terrible at the time actually set me up for some really great things in my life, things I can't imagine ever having gone without. And things I'm afraid I might be losing at this very moment have likely changed me in ways that will have an important bearing on how I live the rest of my life.

And today, yes, I feel pretty awful. But somehow I still feel happy, too. I have so many things to get better at, so many events ahead of me, so many memories that are waiting patiently to be made and so many already tucked away that I never want to lose.

So here's to maybe the end of this writing hiatus. I won't promise anything, but right now, I need things to focus my mind.

Monday, January 28, 2008

On Beardless Ron Paul

Today Ron Paul came to the State House. I didn't know anything about Ron Paul other than that he's a Republican that doesn't really act like one, and he wants to abolish the IRS. And I think I found a flyer of his in a public restroom the other week that ominously spoke of the imminent fusion of Mexico, the US, and Canada, and declared that we must stand against such horrendous horrors!

I took a stroll downstairs on the pretext of acquiring some peanut M&Ms and got a look at the odd Libertarian/Republican/Politically Confused man, and got an eyeful of his adoring crowd. I have to admit, it was funny seeing a bunch of "hippies" and "granola people" raising the roof for a registered Republican, even if he is certifiably insane (er, eccentric).

After doing a bit more research (a tiny bit), I'm now a little afraid of Ron Paul. He seems to be advocating a political viewpoint that, while not necessarily anarchist in presentation, would probably lead to governmental changes that would result in anarchy. He favors the abolition of income tax, the dismantling of most Federal agencies, breaking with NATO and the UN, and increased rights for gun owners. So, in my grossly politically ignorant reduction: get rid of the government, blow off the rest of the world, and give people more guns. Sweet! Throw in some global warming, and Waterworld starts to look eerily prescient.

And, despite his extreme advocation of individual rights, he's staunchly pro-life (which is an interesting paradox: is he supporting the individual rights of the embryo or oppressing the individual rights of the mother?). He's also largely against any regulation of the internet, which leads to another contradiction. The internet is arguably one of the largest factors in the "globalization" of the planet, something that is directly at odds with Paul's "seal off the borders and locks us all in" super-US-sovereignty stance.

He also touches women in their no-no spots (which may or may not have to do with his being a gynecologist, but seriously...he's probably a creep).

On another presidential note: We have not had a president with facial hair for 95 years (and it was a stupid mustache). 95! That's just pathetic and dangerous. To just what extent can a wimpy, baby-faced man take charge of this nation? What level of respect and formidableness does a smooth-cheeked man command? What sort of bald, juvenile cajones are being harbored in that beardless candidate's slacks?

Just ask somebody: who was the greatest president? I bet you'll find the answer for the majority of your subjects to be damned handsomely-bearded.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On Naughty Satellites

Today it was announced that a large U.S. spy satellite has lost power and will be plummeting to the Earth in a matter of weeks. The satellite may or may not contain hazardous material (read: it does). No one is quite sure where it will land. The whole situation is "top secret," and we are assured that "appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation."

But what is an appropriate agency in this situation? The one that originally launched the satellite? What (or who) exactly was this spy satellite spying on? How hazardous can the hazardous materials in a satellite be, and why are we zipping them around the planet if they're harmful enough to warrant mention? The whole situation is being reported as quickly mentioned, "just so you know" news, when the reality is, this satellite could kill people. Maybe lots of people.

How much responsibility is the US willing to pony up for carnage caused by a satellite no one was supposed to know existed? Does a non-existent satellite make a sound when it crashes into suburbia? Can we as citizens be expected to respect the "top secret business" front that's currently being displayed if it turns out the satellite does cause damage? If this situation blooms into a tragedy, are we to settle with never knowing why this satellite was placed in orbit to eventually plummet to the earth one day? This could become an ethical nightmare: this country faces having to take responsibility for damage caused by a potentially naughty satellite, and possibly having to take responsibility for the reasons that naughty satellite was doing something it shouldn't have been, and the information it gleaned. What's being passed off as not-such-a-big-deal has the potential to take another large chunk out of our already-low global approval rating.

As always, time will tell, and in the mean time, we thrive on such drama. So long as it doesn't come crashing through our roofs, that is.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Life After People

Yesterday, I offered brief commentary on a show a co-worker was speaking about over lunch. Luckily, I had the opportunity to watch the encore presentation of that show last night. It's called Life After People, and aired on the History Channel. The two hour special details how, if all humans were to suddenly disappear, natural flora and fauna would adapt and repopulate and how human constructions would degrade and disappear. The show begins with the immediate effects of a human extinction, moving into the future in increments of approximately 25 years before ultimately winding up 10,000 years past the date of the last human beings.

Having seen the show, I don't retract my initial reaction, which is that it is a decidedly narcissistic undertaking. Narcissism doesn't overtly dominate the special, but it permeates the ideas it is founded upon and, at times, its presentation. This is doubtlessly unintentional, as this implicit, mostly unconscious human-centrism is unfortunately the foundation for a lot of our species’ thinking.

I'll preface this discussion with a disclaimer and an extended quote from hyperbolist extraordinaire Friedrich Nietzsche. Disclaimer first: I am in no way a bleeding-heart, human-hating hippie that wishes for the basis of this show to become a reality for the sake of the rest of nature, and I am in no way writing this with the intention of proving the show is not entertaining or worth watching. This is simply an exploration of a line of thought that was instigated by the show. I rather enjoyed watching it, and my writings here are merely the consideration of new, related avenues of thought. And now Nietzsche:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of "world history"--yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

This largely sums up the idea of the show. The premise is founded upon morbid curiosity. What would the world be like if we all disappeared? The question seems innocuous enough at first glance, but it is based upon the relatively egotistical (although true) claim that we dominate the earth to a large enough extent that our activities and accomplishments are actually planet-defining. It is nearly impossible to separate the "Earth" from the "Earth as affected by human activity." At its most basic, the show acts to remind us of how much power we wield over our home by illustrating how long and arduous a planetary recovery would be in our absence.

Though it could be easily argued that the overall message of the show would be impossible without its central device, it is still pretty drastic to be willing to entertain the eradication of oneself as the ultimate means of reaffirming how real and influential one is. While there is some discussion of the repopulation of plants and animals, the show mostly deals with how human structures will degrade without people around to maintain them. The mechanics of these sorts of breakdowns are certainly interesting, but the extent to which the show focuses on them makes it fairly inane. If no one is around, who the hell cares how long it will take for your house to fall down? Presumably, of all of the things in the Earth's natural environment that would drastically change in our absence, the longevity of our now-worthless buildings seems like the least interesting or essential to the history (and future) of the planet.

The emphasis on human architecture is the result of a somewhat pathetic undertone in the show, which is actually articulated at one point: "Can there be any hope that a permanent mark of our civilization will remain?" The agenda is thus revealed: the show isn't so much a celebration of the incredible natural phenomena and mechanics that contribute to the staying power of the Earth's ecosystem; it's a worried, desperate attempt at a gauge of our legacy.

The show somewhat redeems itself by being careful not lean too far towards either "purely hypothetical" or "inevitable," thereby avoiding a needless, haughty tone that makes the assumption that "no humans" is a largely unthinkable venture, but also avoiding falling into cliché doomsday trappings. But at its core, the show is based heavily on the all-to-human presupposition that human greatness matters to anything other than humans (read: it doesn’t). Now, I realize this isn’t necessarily the strongest argument as far as discrediting the show (if I were actively trying to discredit it), because the same underlying belief is present in many, many things humans undertake. In this way, the show can be used as an illustrative example of how this misconception is manifested in ways we don’t always consider at first glance. Nietzsche sums it up nicely:

One might invent such a fable [the one quoted above] and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer give it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it.

The last sentence serves well to call out Life After People: the embedded notion that the world “revolves around” human activity is what allows looking at a hypothetical world without us to seem so novel and entertaining. A world without people seems alien and depressing, because people view themselves as the one thing that is central to the planet. This is why the producers of the show couldn’t even part with humanity when the whole premise was the absence of it: the show remained focused on how long our achievements would remain standing, rather than on how the planet would flourish despite them. Even many of the discussions of animal adaptation and repopulation are colored through humanity’s remaining influence, focusing on how these creatures might utilize the buildings and creations we left behind. The show is really rather paradoxical: even when we no longer exist, we can’t help but think of how awesome we were when we did. And for that reason, were an alien to land somewhere on the planet, tune in to cable television, and watch Life After People, it would probably find its subtle self-importance laughable and maybe even a little sad.

The show concludes with the narrator stating: "There was life before people. There will be life after people," as if such a statement was somehow profound, or at the very least, not painfully obvious. It serves as a fitting end cap for the mentality the show represents. Sure, people are great.

But only to people.