Sunday, May 27, 2012

Permaculture, proselytizing, power problems

So I just completed a short-term intensive course on permaculture, which I got to do for free as a perk of this retreat gig. My moitvation for enrolling was a desire to stir up my own intellectual beehive, but getting a certificate and résumé padding out of it was a pretty sweet bonus.

I went into the thing expecting an exclusive focus on agriculture, but permaculture's scope is more expansive than that. In a way, it's like systems theory for beginners with an emphasis on ecology. Taken broadly, it might be a lifestyle blueprint, a movement that began as the brainchild of a couple of Australian horticulturists/engineers/environmentalists (David Holmgren and Bill Mollison) who advocated dropping off the grid, moving out into the country, and living in self-sufficient homesteads. Taken more narrowly, permaculture is the methodology devised for designing and arranging the components of this homestead -- or farmland, garden, residence, etc., or any devices they might employ. (My project involved a chicken tractor and movable chicken enclosures specifically designed for the elevated beds at this place's biointensive garden. If chickens relentlessly eat greens and leave dung everywhere, why not put them to work in the fallow beds, managing the weed population and fertilizing the soil?)

Most of the books about permaculture tools and philosophy enjoying high circulation today were penned by Holmgren, including the one used in this course: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainable Design. I can't say it's a bad read -- it's informative, well-argued, and very thorough -- but it often gets on my nerves for the same reason cited by the Amazon reviewer who gave it its only one-star rating: Yes, Mr. Holmgren, you can be a male Western scientific materialist and still want to create a sustainable environment and society for your children. Unless you're already fond of literature with a pompous New Age reactionist tone, you're gonna get rankled. And as you'd presume from a book whose back cover blurb reads "do mainstream concepts of sustainability dodge the critical issue of global energy peak?" there's a lot of fire and brimstone.

But it's to be expected: composing such a comprehensive and persuasive guide to a set of intellectual principles and methods requires that one not only be an adherent, but a hardliner. When Holmgren writes about the necessity of readjusting the global lifestyle with concern for sustainability and ecological neutrality, he doesn't play tee-ball. Do you drive a car on a daily basis? Pat yourself on the back, jackass -- you're part of the biggest problem facing humanity. Do you eat red meat? You stupid, selfish pig. Are you the type of person who throws out plastic cups without a second thought? Fuck. You.

Well, Holmgren doesn't actually castigate his audience like that -- but it may certainly seem so if you're the kind of person who's always driven a car, eaten beef, and thrown plastic cups in the trash, and doesn't see any urgent need to change his life in order to live up to a set of standard imposed by some pedantic Australian hippie he's never met.

I mean, yeah -- trust me, it irritates me as much as you. It hits that same grating, holier-than-thou pitch as the people who whine at me about my smoking. If you're a smoker, you know exactly what kind of person I'm talking about: that preachy fuck with the nasal voice squawking "oh smoking is so stupid, why would you ever start to begin with? and it's such an expensive habit!" like you're not aware of how much a pack of cigarettes costs and how much more easily you're running out of breath than before. But what the hell business is it of theirs? Why should you have to explain yourself to them? And when you try to explain to them that you're aware of the risks but enjoy it too much to quit, they either look at you're scum or otherwise start pitying you: "oh it's really so sad to to see someone so young and bright and nice do something so awful to themselves for no good reason." But you have reasons! You have lots of reasons! Is there one single thing that smoking doesn't enhance? When hasn't it made your day to life easier and more delicious? How would you ever get through your day without its help as a stress reliever? What's the point of coffee and beer without cigarettes? If you've got the same predilections as me, you wonder how the hell you'd get any work done without cigarettes -- writing while smoking causes the most brilliant and fitting words to jump out of the pen and onto the page without you even asking them to. Think of how much your working habits would suffer if you quit, and how long the disruption would last! And when you finally admit that yeah, you're planning on quitting eventually, the implacable fucker still isn't shutting his noise hole. "Why not now? Quit while you're young! Smoking ages you, you know that?" Blah blah blah bitch bitch blah. Like they're on some kind of mission. Like his own happiness depends on his successfully persuading you to give up something you enjoy.

But yeah, these assholes are absolutely right. Smoking is a toxic habit.

Those environmentalist douches who announce "I DON'T OWN A CAR I RIDE A BIKE" at any conversational mention of automobile ownership and take every chance to ruin your mood with all their gloomy doomy peak oil talk? They've got a point, too.

Impertinent fuckers. All of them. Doesn't make them any less correct, though.

Need we belabor this analogy with more words about how smoking cigarettes as harmful a habit to maintain as the proliferation of the affluent, oil-dependent "western" lifestyle" is dangerous to the long-term tenability of global civilization? Or could you have just inferred that's where we were headed?

Before I go looking for sources to cite, would it be pressing your patience to mention how the smoker's tobacco habit is really only deadly to himself, and then point you toward some statistics about the average United States citizen's carbon footprint, the correlation between global (over)population and oil consumption, the concurrent rises of India and China's GDPs, consumer cultures, and emissions rates, and the effects of atypical regional temperatures on agricultural output?

Alright. Sorry, sorry...I'll stop. Just sayin', though.

Of course -- as someone who still drives his car two miles to the convenience store and still smokes, who am I to prescribe your business?

For the record, though, I've had three cigarettes in the last fourteen days. Three months ago that number would have probably been somewhere between 100 and 140.

Shit. I'm still doing it, aren't I?

On a totally unrelated note, my on-and-off battle with calculus seems as much as a losing fight as ever. If anyone can give me step-by-step instructions for solving the following problem, you will have my profound gratitude. I'll even mail you a drawing of a chicken, if you'd like.

(All I think about anymore are chickens.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

And the beat goes on. . . .

Busy -- which means this will once again be something of a status report and an effort to sort out for myself all the nonsense I've got going on. In addition to everything else I got myself talked into taking an intensive course in permaculture that occupied 26 hours of my time last week is demanding 30 hours of my time this week. The whole thing culminates with some sort of design project, and I seem to have elected to draw up (and maybe build) a chicken tractor.

Education is tiring.

So, what's on my plate for the next few weeks?

1.) Book. You see that little panel off to the right? The one that says "check out my book?" Right now my primary focus is figuring out how to get more people to do that. I'm sending out emails. I'm trying to find some events I can attend where I can place it in the hands of willing readers. At this point I'll give anything a shot.

If you've already read and enjoyed The Zeroes, why not tell your friends about it? Or better yet, why not leave a review on its Amazon page? Think about it: would you be willing to pick up a book you've never really heard of by an author with whom you have little to no familiarity unless other people had good things to say about him? A few more reviews would really help me out.

2.) I've written a short story designed to worm its way into one of those literary magazines you keep seeing in your English professors' offices. Guess I'll need to send that one out sooner that later. Pitch letters are a pain in the ass to write.

3.) Comics. I know I keep saying this, but Comics over Easy is going to start getting updated soon, and I've hopefully got enough backlogged material to keep it going for a few months. It's kicking off with a couple of strips starring a certain delusional redheaded eccentric, and it'll have the usual "cube" strips you've come to expect. And I'll also be debuting a new comic I've drawn on and off since last summer, but never really posted anywhere. It's apparently good enough that it already has a few fans, and one of them actually made a little felt pin representing one of the main characters:

What a cutie! The little fang was an especially nice touch, if you ask me. (Thanks, Michelle!)

4.) Short novel. Rough draft is at about 85%. This is gonna be a weird one. It's either going to be really effective and really unnerving...or just weird. I guess I can't fault myself for not trying anything different, though.

5.) Wait. Wasn't I supposed to write something about EarthBound?

I suppose it's time to look up chicken tractor designs. Or find people who should be sent advance copies of The Zeroes. Or compose pitch letters for the short story. Or move towards wrapping up the short novel draft. Or sort through my EarthBound screenies and try to remember what I had to say about them.

Or, hell -- maybe I should just get some sleep.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The other Walden, the Videogame

Savvy reader Adam points out that Walden, A Game is not the first attempt at a Thoreau video game and directs us toward Transcend, a no-budget app game by Chris DeLeon (who calls it a "notgame," which is evidently now the video game counterpart to the ten-minute student art film). Not that you're necessarily going to like this any more, but this did affect me in interesting ways, writes Adam, and just like that I became obliged to investigate Transcend.

The "game" is simple: using the touchscreen, you guide your character (represented by the letter "A") along a procession of screens representing such diverse, immersive environments as "field rendered in ASCII characters," "underground path rendered in ASCII characters," and "cave rendered in ASCII characters." Along the way you encounter three companions (each represented by a different letter of the alphabet) who blurt out a greeting, follow you around a while, and then peace out when you reach the beginning of the next "level."

Transcend is an inane, clunky, sub-bush league game that's no fun to play and can be completed in less than fifteen minutes if you're able to blunder your way through the more arduous screens. But the whole thing basically exists to feed you Walden quotes (which appear onscreen as a deliberate voice reads them out loud) whenever you cross from one screen to the next:

Our life is frittered away by detail.

“Is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.

I am eager to believe that DeLeon is the most brilliant troll to haunt the "art game" scene, but his website and all the text in Transcend that wasn't extracted right from Walden suggest he might have acted with the same oblivious, totally unironic earnestness as the academics working on Walden, A Game. But either way, he's managed to design and put up for distribution on the App Store a game that actually berates you (though indirectly) for wasting your time on it while you're playing it. Adam writes:

It made me angry. I played it on an iPad I'd just gotten as a gift, and it made me hate myself for using the thing, angry about my job, etc.

I never used it again after that, quit my job the next week, and gave away the iPad a few weeks later. And some time thereafter actually picked up Walden at the library.

This is a Walden game I can support (even though I'd never play it again or actually recommend it be played by anyone else). By trying to render the "world" of Walden as an expansive pseudo-environment where the player is made to spend minutes or hours virtually tending his virtual bean patch, foraging for virtual berries, observing virtual chickadees, and other narcotic Harvest Crossing XI-type activities, Walden, A Game overreaches and becomes something totally contrary to the principles argued for in the very book on which it is based. Transcend, on the other hand, is a piece of shit game designed for an inessential electronic toy/status symbol that repeatedly tells you that you'd be better off doing more worthwhile things with your time. If Thoreau were sufficiently alive to appreciate the irony (whether intentional or no), I think he'd be positively tickled.

Well played, Mr. DeLeon! (Or notplayed, as it were?!)

(Before anyone asks, my own relationship with video games remains complicated. That might be a talk for another time, though.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stuck in My Craw File #429520: Walden, the Videogame

The Onion, America's finest satirical journal, has been really spot on for the last couple of years. Remember that piece about the grotesque new MacBook? How could you forget it? The one about the new Six Flags rollercoaster based on a miserable codependent relationship with a woman named "Deborah?" Priceless. And what about the story about a bunch of University of Southern California academics receiving $40,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to design a video game based on Henry David Thoreau's Walden? Har!

Oh, wait. That last one wasn't The Onion. It was TIME.

Well. Let's talk about Walden, a Game. It's the only way I will be able to get over it.

Composing a more substantive response to this news than ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING was a greater challenge than I thought it would be, likely because the incongruity between what's written in Walden and some fan's idea to make a video game about it should be so searingly obvious to anyone who has so much as read the book's back cover, and in so little need of explanation as to actually defy explanation. But as I am of the belief that one is better off not holding any convictions unless he can articulate and account for them, I suppose I'm obligated to scrutinize the anatomy of my knee and its peculiar jerkings.

Question one: what's this Walden book about, anyhow?

In brief: this guy Henry David Thoreau, a sort of libertarian hippie type, believes that there's too much bullshit in the modern world ("modern" meaning 1840-1850) and its outstanding effect is a population that's widely unhappy and dull. Thoreau posits that a happier and richer life would be one lived with a minimum of unnecessary bullshit, and to test this idea he goes out to live by himself in a little shack in the woods by Walden pond, where all he has to worry about are securing and maintaining food and shelter. He finds that when one lives deliberately and severs as much "civilized" nonsense from his life as possible, a kind of lucidity follows, tuning him in to the essential sublime brilliance in all things, et cetera et cetera.

So from the beginning: this is a piece of literature whose main argument is that people would be happier shedding the trappings of technology and engaging more directly and personally in their transactions with the world. And now there are some people, people who have presumably read this book more than once, who want to turn it into a video game. The NEA is giving them $40,000 in taxpayer money to do it.


So I guess my question is what's the bloody point? I'm imagining something like Animal Crossing (the most depressing game in the world) without the cutesy visuals, and with snippets from Thoreau's writing wedged between the completion and assigning of fetch quests. My personal hope is that players who manage to achieve a 100% (or 200% as the case sometimes may be) completion rate in Walden, a Game are treated to a special message à la Guitar Hero à la South Park: "GO OUTSIDE."

On that note, may I suggest a substitute to playing Walden, a Game? 


Of course everyone should spend time in nature; but not all of us are able to set aside our lives for the time it would take to conduct an experiment like Thoreau’s, says the game's lead designer.

Fair enough. But do you suppose Thoreau would prefer that those interested in his ideas and legacy spent five, ten, twenty hours hunched before a computer screen indoors, following his pretend footsteps in a pretend forest; or that they tore themselves away from all the screens in their lives for just a few minutes and went outside? Found their own special places? Thought their own thoughts? Experienced their own moments of revelation?

Would anybody truly be willing to argue that someone who goes outside for half and hour and practices a deliberate mindfulness of his surroundings experiences less of nature than he would by playing a video game about experiencing nature in his sterile, climate-controlled, artificially-lit bedroom or cubicle for the same amount of time?

Walden, a game [sic] posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience. While traveling the virtual world of Walden, the player applies themselves to both daily task of maintaining the basic aspects of life at Walden Pond, as well as having the opportunity to focus on the deeper meaning behind events that transpire in the world. By attending to these events, the player is able to gain insight into the natural world, and into connections that permeate the experience of life at Walden.

I don't think you can gain real experiential knowledge about nature and the world through pseudo-experience. That's not how it works.

You want to talk about the great outdoors? It reeks.

Nature is full of awful stenches. Nature is uncomfortable. Nature is mud and hairy coyote shit and vomit balls with fractured rodent bones poking out. Nature is rotting logs, grubs, maggots, and mold spores. Nature is a cloud of flies jumping from a half-decomposed animal carcass to a dung pile to your cheek. Nature is walking into spiderwebs face first, sap and evergreen needles stuck between your fingers, tripping on tree roots, and falling into poison ivy. Nature is blackberry seeds stuck between your teeth, trees with four-inch thorns protruding from their trunks, gnats flying into your eyes, poisonous snakes, ticks buried in your skin, and bears taking your food. Nature is sweating, shivering, bee stings, briars, and wet feet in the winter. Nature is pissing against a tree, shitting in the bushes, and wiping your ass with leaves.

The first step toward achieving that transcendental wonder for the wild world is to appreciate the fact that the living part of planet Earth did not make itself with any regard for you, your comfort, or your capacity to comprehend what it is and what it does. This is not something you can really know until you've been out in the thick of things (I never really grasped it myself until going on a camping trip that very nearly killed me), and the thick of things cannot be conveyed by a virtual "environment" that only communicates to your visual and auditory senses.

The potential for those sublime moments of peace and truth is always there, but you can't really receive them without first exposing yourself to the grime, stench, and discomfort. Supposing your can get the full taste of one without sampling the other can only be called shallow and shortsighted. It's the difference between diving into the pond and wading at the edge with your trouser legs pulled up to your shins. It's the difference between the living, growing, respiring thing and the mass-produced polystyrene image of it. It's the difference between doing something and playing a video game about it.

If you want to learn about nature, go outside and pay attention. You don't even need to be out in the middle of nowhere to do it. Nature is everywhere. The planet you're standing on is nature. Find a public park, a vacant lot, or really any place where the weeds are pushing up  through the concrete, and just pay attention to what's going on around you.

It might take a few minutes. It might take a few visits. But it's happening.

If you want a kid to understand nature, take him outside. Don't make him play Going Outside: the Game.

If you want a kid to read Thoreau, make him read Thoreau. If he is incapable of absorbing ideas that aren't being delivered through a video game, then Walden probably isn't for him anyway.

What we have here is a video game that's probably not going to be much fun, replicates something most people can do without a computer (going outside), and is designed to convey a set of ideas that you can simply go ahead and read without any intermediary Animal Crossing nonsense. It's basically pointless. And given that it's based on a book admonishing humanity for all the inessential nonsense it lugs around with it, Walden, a Game seems doubly pointless, and doubly demeaning to the spirit in which Thoreau wrote it.

The NEA grant is just insult added to insult -- Walden, a Game ain't a $40,000 idea, and with so many austerity hawks in Congress looking for programs to cut, the NEA picked a very bad time to endorse such a ridicule- and publicity-prone waste of treasure.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

NPM: Song of Napalm

We have some unfinished National Poetry Month business. I intended two more updates, but it looks like we're going to leave off on the first of the two. My apologies for slacking, and I have two words in my defense: nicotine withdrawal. It's worse than I imagined it could be, and it's somewhat disrupted my other habits.

Anyway, closing out this year's National Poetry Month, we have a couple of pieces from Bruce Wiegl's (1949 - ) Song of Napalm collection. Once again, here is a poet about whom I know next to nothing -- only that he is a Vietnam War veteran and that he's got quite a lot to say about his experience.

Experience. Jay Parini called poetry "a language that is adequate to our experience." The stereotypical experiences of the poet are usually moments of love, heartache, or the perception of the beautiful or the sublime. It is just as effective as creating a language that comes close to conveying ye liveliest Awfulness, to borrow a phrase from HP Lovecraft. (Sublime moments of beauty and wrenching existential panic attacks, I think, are two variations of the same essential experience, and the line between them sometimes appears very tenuous indeed.)


With sleep that is barely under the surface
it begins, a twisting sleep as if a wire
were inside you and tried at night
to straighten your body.
Or it's like a twitch
through your nerves as you sleep
so you tear the sheet from the bed
to try to stop the pounding spine.
A lousy, worthless
sleep of strangers with guns,
children trapped in the alley,
the teenage soldiers glancing back
over their soldiers*
the moment before
they squeeze the trigger.

I am going to stay here as long as I can.
I am going to sit in the garden as if nothing has
and let the bruised azaleas have their way.

* I really wanted to transcribe it as "shoulders," but the book says "soldiers." Hm.

Surrounding Blues on the Way Down

I was barely in country.
We slipped under the rain-black clouds
opening around us like orchids.
He'd come to take me into the jungle
so I felt the loneliness
though I did not yet hate the beautiful war.
Eighteen years old and a man
was telling me how to stay alive
in the tropics he said would rot me——

brothers of the heart he said and smiled
until we came upon a mama san
bent over from her stuffed sack of flowers.
We flew past her but he hit the brakes hard,
he spun the tires backwards in the mud.
He did not hate the war either
but other reasons made him cry out to her
so she stopped,
she smiled her beetle-black teeth at us,
in the air she raised her arms.

I have no excuse for myself.
I sat in that man's jeep in the rain
and watched him slam her to her knees,
the plastic butt of his M16
crashing down on her.
I was barely in country, the clouds
hung like huge flowers, black
like her teeth.

Snowy Egret

My neighbor's boy has lifted his father's shotgun
  and stolen
down to the backwaters of the Elizabeth
and in the moon he's blasted a snowy egret
from the shallows it stalked for small fish.

Midnight. My wife wakes me. He's in the backyard
with a shovel so I go down half drunk with pills
that let me sleep to see what I can see and if it's
They boy doesn't hear me come across the dewy
He says through tears he has to bury it,
he says his father will kill him
and he digs until the hole is deep enough and
the egret carefully into his arms
as if not to harm the blood-splattered wings
gleaming in the flashlight beam.

His man's muscled shoulders
shake with the weight of what he can't set right no
  matter what,
but one last time he tries to stay a child, sobbing
please don't tell. . . .
He says he only meant to flush it from the shadows,
he only meant to watch it fly
but the shot spread too far
ripping into the white wings
spanned awkwardly for a moment
until it glided into brackish death.

I want to grab his shoulders,
Shake the lies loose from his lips but he hurts
he burns with shame for what he's done,
with fear for his father's
fists I've seen crash down on him for so much less.
I don't know what to do but hold him.
If I let go he'll fly to pieces before me.
What a time we share, that can make a good boy
  steal away,
wiping out from the blue face of the pond
what he hadn't even known he loved, blasting
such beauty into nothing.

The Last Lie

Some guy in the miserable convoy
raised up in the back of our open truck
and threw a can of C rations at a child
who called into the rumble for food.
He didn't toss the can, he wound it up and hung it
on the child's forehead and she was stunned
backwards into the dust of our tracks.

Across the sudden angle of the road's curving
I could see her when she rose,
waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
wildly swinging her other hand
at the children who mobbed her,
who tried to take her food.

I grit my teeth to myself to remember that girl
smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
She laughed
as if she thought it were a joke
and the guy with me laughed
and fingered the edge of another can
like it was the seam of a baseball
until his rage ripped
again into the faces of children
who called to us for food.

The Soldier's Brief Epistle

You think you're better than me,
cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only
imagined as you leaned over the crib

or watched your woman sleep.
You think you're far away from me

but you're right here in my pants
and I can grab your throat

like a cock and squeeze.
And you want to know what it's like

before I go. It's like
a bad habit, pulling the trigger,

like a dream come true.
And he did not hide well enough

I would tell his family
in a language they would not understand,

but he did not cry out,
and he was very difficult to kill.

And I guess we're done!

Apologies to Jeff for not closing out with Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, like he suggested:

I decided while celebrating NPM with my class that you should write about children's poetry in your blog. I have a whole list of reasons why, but mainly because it's clever and holds up better than prose when you go back to read it as an adult. Seuss and Silverstein are a great place to start and my personal favorites. Let me know if you want to do this, or want me to give you the in-depth version of why this is a good idea.

I haven't even begun to think about posting poetry throughout next April -- I have no freaking idea where I'll even be next April -- but whatever happens, I plan on kicking off the festivities with some Silverstein.

One last thing.

If I go down to floor below me and stand more or less under my room, the scene looks like:

I live directly above a library. It's a luxury I'll be very reluctant to give up.

Most of the stuff posted here during the month came off that shelf against the wall. It's unlikely I would have discovered these collections and authors otherwise.


I was planning on giving a pedantic little speech about why libraries and stores selling a wide spectrum of printed books are such a valuable resource and how they perform a service that their digital counterparts cannot yet adequately match, but instead I think I'm going to pace around, drink a lot of water, and try not to think about cigarettes.

'Til next time!