Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stargazing Comix!

I have nothing else to say. My spine hurts.

Edit: Hmm. What does it mean that I have begun confusing funny with sad?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tunes of 2010*

Tonight I will be taking after a friend of a friend and gabbing about the songs which most often found their way through my computer speakers or car stereo during the last year. As a terminally unhip suburbanite who can't tell Yo La Tengo from Yo-Yo Ma and frankly doesn't give a shit about Kanye West, none of the songs I listened to most frequently in 2010 were actually 2010 releases. I feel the same way about music as I do books, films, video games -- hell, practically every commercially-released artform out there -- that is, why rush to listen today's hot music when there's so much old stuff you've never heard before? (I might also warn you ahead of time that my taste in music is notoriously bad.)

So! Let's get this thing started. We'll be looking at twelve songs, which equates to one favorite song per month. These will not be listed in any kind of order.

A Place to Bury Strangers -- Missing You (2007)

You probably have a music geek friend -- we all do -- who keeps urging you to listen to such and such album or suggesting bands he thinks you might enjoy based on the points where your tastes and his intersect. If you're like me, what you probably end up doing is giving the album a few spins and filing it under the Pretty Good or Not My Thing indexes. What I mean to say is that unless someone shares you musical tastes down to the spicule, you are probably less likely to find a new favorite band via a friend's recommendation that by listening to the radio or going to shows and discovering for yourself what resonates with you. This has been my experience, anyway; the only exception I can think of is the day when I was about fourteen and browsing the CD section at Hot Topic (shut up) while chatting with a sales associate and fellow Marilyn Manson fanboy who suggested I check out a band called The Sisters of Mercy.

Well -- that was the only exception, until recently. Sometime around April or May, my friend Dave burned me a tower of CDs, most of which I still have yet to digest. When it came time for me to undertake a two-hour drive to Philadelphia one evening, I grabbed a few albums from the pile to listen to on the way. One happened to be the self-titled release of a band called A Place to Bury Strangers, whom I had heard of once or twice before but never listened to.

"Missing You" is the album's first song. It slammed me into the seat so hard I thought the airbag had deployed on its own. Holy shit, I thought; this is it. This is the album I have been waiting for since two-thousand-fucking-one. It's a little bit early (pre-First and Last) Sisters, a little bitta noisy, and has the flavor of that shoegaze stuff all the kids are listening to these days. In my insignificant and completely unauthoritative opinion, this is the best record to have come out in the last decade.


 A Place to Bury Strangers -- It Is Nothing (2009)

Don't worry. This will be the only time an artist is mentioned twice.
After listening to practically nothing but their first album for two months, I went ahead and shelled out for A Place to Bury Strangers' second album, Exploding Head. I kept telling myself it was a disappointment. I sighed about their easing up on the noise, vitiating the goth undertones, turning down the distortion on the vocals, and taking a much more pop-friendly approach to its composition and production. But it is hard to gripe about any of these things with much conviction when you can't seem to stop listening to it in spite of your own bitching.

"It Is Nothing" is Exploding Head's first track. There are definitely some better ones ("Ego Death" reminds me of the Swans in the best possible way), but putting both albums' first songs next to each other might help any interested readers get an idea of how the albums differ and where the band seems to be headed.


(If you like what you hear, PLEASE BUY THE RECORDS. Especially in this case -- A Place to Bury Strangers just had their tour van stolen in Europe and are hurting financially. Now is not the time to go ganking their albums.)

Pulse Emitter -- Live WFMU set (2009)

This was actually my introduction to the Oregon-based noise artist; I happened to catch this set on the radio while out on an errand last year. I went home and downloaded a bunch of the free tracks on his website (which seems to have changed quite a bit since then), since -- if memory serves -- he only had vinyl versions of his work available at that time. It wasn't until February or March of this year that I thought to track down the live set in the WFMU show archives and found the whole thing available for download in the FMA.

"Minimalist" is an understatement. This is the sort of thing I like to have on the speakers when reading something challenging or trying to teach myself basic astronomical calculations. You don't want to be distracted by lyrics or even a beat or rhythm. This gives you a steady, droning, gradually transmuting sound somewhere between music and white noise. Incidentally, after listening to stuff like this I've come to find even more pleasure in my summer afternoons in the hills. Listening music like Pulse Emitter gives you an ear for these sort of sounds in their natural occurrences -- grasshopper chirrups, crickets' hums, the cicadas' oscillations -- and allows you to zoom in and zone out on them with greater ease.


Electric Tease -- TV Is the New God, Sub 6 remix (2008)

Oh, psychedelic trance. I wish I could quit you.


Sickness -- Point of Infection (2002)

Noise is a tricky genre. My favorite artist is Whitehouse, whose founder and sole constant William Bennett had this to say when asked for his opinion on the state of the noise scene during a September 2000 interview: 

'Noise' music? Very low, I'm afraid. The old longhaired prog rock fans who make the so-called Japanese noise are dead. I think they were always living on borrowed time. That genre totally depended on the then Western interest in exotic Japanese counterculture that was fashionable in the late 80s when it all started. Things like Japanese pornography especially bondage, oriental schoolgirls, the new wave of video games, manga and anime etc, the alternative aesthetic that Japan offers. A Masonna or Violent Onsen Geisha or whatnot CD with their, you know, 'obis' .... [t]he cute little outer covers on the spine with the names in Japanese. I think that's what they're called. Well, and the at times exquisite, even sexy, presentation must look fantastic on any coffee table when heavy metal fans or the like come round to tea. I guess nobody can fail to be impressed with your 100 CD 'Merzbox' with the free 'Merzposter', 'Merzbook', 'Merzmobile' or whatever etc. (luckily it doesn't really matter that your 'Merzrom' or other discs won't play properly) - but then you must think 'what about the music?'. I'm asked about the difference between Whitehouse and all these 'noise' bands. Aside from my own subjective and personal judgments, the one fundamental difference is that people actually listen to Whitehouse. I defy many of these Japnoise fans to look me in the eye and really tell me they regularly listen to that music. Most of them are rock and rollers. Where's the content? The use of extreme sounds and noise can be very powerful utilised as a tool but not as a means in itself other than as I said as a sort of 'coffee table' statement.

I'm not particularly close to the scene, but I get the impression that this is still as true today as it was a decade ago. There are some cool artists out there, but a lot them are just throwing together albums out of screeches, whistles, and grinding static for the sake of making the most inaccesible records and most ear-splitting live shows possible. It's a lot of fun, but it gets tiresome after a while.

Sickness is no exception. I bought I Have Become the Disease That Made Me on a lark after hearing a WFMU guest offer it his most lavish praises, listened to it regularly for a few months, then put it back in its case and returned to my Whitehouse/Wolf Eyes/Hair Police diet whenever I felt a fiending for abrasive arhythmics. "Point of Infection" is my most preferred track, thanks to that piercing finish. I still bust it out now and then, especially when I'm coping with problems regarding the opposite sex. In the past I dealt with heartbreak by listening to music that resonated with my mood, but have lately found noise to be a far more effective mode of palliation. If ever you find yourself pining and crestfallen over a failed or unconsummated romance, surround yourself with speakers or slap on a pair of bulky headphones (it will not work properly unless it is deafening and inescapable) and let this blast you until you stop feeling like a person altogether.


Ground Fault Recordings album page.

Ganga Giri -- Don't Follow the Guru (2003)

Of course, you might have a case of the doldrums and prefer a sweeter flavored solution. So. Brendon Small has "Trust Yourself." I have "Don't Follow the Guru." This song makes me grin from ear to ear every damn time. And yeah, this is as close to pop as I get these days.


Praga Khan -- City of a Thousand Sins (1998)

Another track from a Dave-recommended album. Listening to Pragmatic makes me intensely nostalgic for the gritty, rock-inflected "techno" of the late 1990s and irked by today's overproduced and club-ready electro-sludge. My hope is that after ten years of paying homage to the Eighties, we'll see a similar ressurection of Nineties-style music in the decade to come. (I'm counting on it, actually; I've already invested in baggier pants.)

Fun fact: you might recognize the musician behind Praga Khan (Maurice Engelen) as a member of The Immortals, the duo responsible for Mortal Kombat: The Album. TEST YOUR MIGHT


Irukandji -- Whales Street (2005)

I am almost as much a sucker for ambient psy as I am easily sold by songs about whales. I'm sure Herman Melville is to blame for one, but have yet to decide upon a suitable scapegoat for the other -- perhaps the aforementioned club-ready electro sludge?


Fever Ray -- Morning Keep the Streets, MaJiKer remix (2003)

Actually, maybe this is as close as I get to pop. I don't know what it is about this song. There was a week or two in November when this was the only thing I wanted to listen to. It evokes that sense one gets when peeking out the blinds at three in the morning and finding that an unanticipated snowstorm has radically transformed the world -- a sad sort of wishing that everything could stay so immaculate and quiet forever.

Hmm. I should really give The Knife another shot.


Solar Fields -- Sol (2009)

On my twenty-third birthday we got really twisted and then cooled down by watching a NASA Channel feed of a satellite-mounted camera at four in the morning. It was sublime. You really had to be there, but this song takes you pretty close.

Oh, hey. Looks like Solar Fields composed the soundtrack for Mirror's Edge. Imagine that!

Capsula -- Ride the Wave (2005)

More ambient psy. This is the last track on a podcast mix I listen to when conking out in the evening (or very early morning). It's really not that special a song -- how hard is it do lay a recorded voice over a couple guitar loops? -- but it possesses a kind of melancholy fascination for me. The title and content remind me of my two favorite passages from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and strike a chord with my own personal experiences. It makes me think of being in my early twenties and trying acid for the first few times. It reminds me of going to Camp Jam and midnight drum circles with Jason and Caroline and hanging out with all the stoned, tripping, beautiful and foolish kids between eighteen and twenty-two. When you're that young and experiencing something so powerful for the first time, it is hard not to believe that you're really on to something, as the Leary/Love Generation did. "Ride the Wave" evokes the mood of a hangover -- of waking up in the morning after a festival and watching the heaps of trash blow across the deserted fairground, or suddenly realizing you've become too old and poor to afford idealistic leaps of faith.


Implant -- Surface Tension (2005)

I really dig Anne Clark. She was busiest during the 1980s and 90s and did fairly well, but never quite made the leap into commercial success. Over the last decade, the electronic dance music scene has made extensive use of her lyrics and voice across a profusion of guest contributions and remixes. If you habitually listen to trance, industrial, EBM, progressive, etc., or visit places where they get spun, you have definitely heard her voice at least once.

My favorite Anne Clark performance is on a song by Implant (and remixed by Electric Universe) called "Tune Up Your Chips and Circuits," which takes everything I like about psychedelic trance and smashes it up with the elements I always enjoyed in futurepop/EBM. I reckon it among the ten or so songs I've listened to most frequently in the last five years, which is also how long it took me to realize it might be worth seeing if she collaborated with Implant on anything else. This brings us to Surface Tension: whales and psy ambient. It doesn't take much. (Some supplementary reading for you, so that you might understand why I feel as I do about whales.)

* * *
Looks like that's that. Between now and the 25th, I will only be listening to one thing: Crom Tech's Xmas album, the one set of holiday tunes that doesn't make me want to rip my own eyes out.

Happy belated Winter Solstice, and KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES.

That hand belongs to Ryan.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

America, Devil-Defined

The Devil's Dictionary, a.ka. The Cynic's Word-Book (Ambrose Bierce, 1842 - 19??) has the distinction of not only being my fondest bathroom companion of 2010, but also being the best book I've ever found lying in a pile of rubbish on a Manhattan sidewalk. Tonight I would like to share some entries with you, selected along the theme of their relevance to contemporary United States politics.

* * * *

Administration, n. An ingenious abstraction in politics, designed to receive the kicks and cuffs due to the premier or president. A man of straw, proof against bad-egging and dead-catting.

Alliance, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.

Amnesty, n. The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.

Capital, n. The seat of misgovernment. That which provides the fire, the pot, the dinner, the table and the knife and fork for the anarchist; the part of the repast that himself supplies is the disgrace before meat. Capital Punishment, a penalty regarding the justice and expediency of which many worthy persons — including all the assassins — entertain grave misgivings.

Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.

Compromise, n. Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.

Freedom, n. Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint's infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly. Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.

Labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

Multitude, n. A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman's adoration. "In a multitude of counsellors there is wisdom," saith the proverb. If many men of equal individual wisdom are wiser than any one of them, it must be that they acquire the excess of wisdom by the mere act of getting together. Whence comes it? Obviously from nowhere — as well say that a range of mountains is higher than the single mountains composing it. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish.

Nominate, v. To designate for the heaviest political assessment. To put forward a suitable person to incur the mudgobbling and deadcatting of the opposition.

Opposition, n. In politics the party that prevents the Government from running amuck by hamstringing it.

Patriot, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Poverty, n. A file provided for the teeth of the rats of reform. The number of plans for its abolition equals that of the reformers who suffer from it, plus that of the philosophers who know nothing about it. Its victims are distinguished by possession of all the virtues and by their faith in leaders seeking to conduct them into a prosperity where they believe these to be unknown.

Presidency, n. The greased pig in the field game of American politics.

Radicalism, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.

Republic, n. A nation in which, the thing governing and the thing governed being the same, there is only a permitted authority to enforce an optional obedience. In a republic, the foundation of public order is the ever lessening habit of submission inherited from ancestors who, being truly governed, submitted because they had to. There are as many kinds of republics as there are gradations between the despotism whence they came and the anarchy whither they lead.

Suffrage, n. Expression of opinion by means of a ballot. The right of suffrage (which is held to be both a privilege and a duty) means, as commonly interpreted, the right to vote for the man of another man's choice, and is highly prized. Refusal to do so has the bad name of "incivism." The incivilian, however, cannot be properly arraigned for his crime, for there is no legitimate accuser. If the accuser is himself guilty he has no standing in the court of opinion; if not, he profits by the crime, for A's abstention from voting gives greater weight to the vote of B.

Un-American, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

Wall Street, n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke. That Wall Street is a den of thieves is a belief that serves every unsuccessful thief in place of a hope in Heaven. Even the great and good Andrew Carnegie has made his profession of faith in the matter.

* * * *

The whole satanic lexicon can be found in e-form right here.

On another note, I was recently pointed toward a review of The Social Network (which I'll see someday, I promise) that touched on the same topic as the articles from Adbusters and n+1 that inspired the last update. An excerpt:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing:
Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?

I think it's about time I took a walk. Near-full moon tonight. Later this week I'll have a post made up of my own words instead of other people's.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seasonal Affective

I found a link to this article waiting for me in my inbox a few mornings ago. "Thinking about you," the message said.

"Sad as Hell." It's a roundabout review of a Gary Shteyngart novel written in the style of a Pitchfork Media critique -- the book itself doesn't get so much as a mention until the ninth paragraph. It's really an essay about Internet generation malaise dressed up as a review of a book about Internet generation malaise. Some excerpts: 

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM....

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation. That’s why the Facebook newsfeed is no longer shown chronologically. Refresh Facebook ten times and the status updates rearrange themselves in nonsensical, anachronistic patterns. You don’t refresh Facebook to follow a narrative, you refresh to register a change—not to read but to see.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does. I deleted Twitter and Tumblr off my phone about a month ago. For a few weeks, I felt empowered, proactive, “refreshed.” But addicts are sneaky! Soon I was circumnavigating my own artificial restrictions, checking via Safari....

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

It reminded me of my first time reading a similar piece about the hikikomori phenomenon in Adbusters last winter. After finishing "Private Worlds" I shut my browser and took a few minutes to allow it to sink in. Then I threw on some shoes and a coat and went outside by myself. It was one two in the morning and maybe fifteen degrees. My steps took me away from the street lamps, down the hill, and into the park -- fifteen minutes, wading through half a mile of snow, to stand by myself in the middle of the woods and let the cold chew at me.

I did the same thing upon finishing "Sad as Hell." It was eleven in the morning and just below freezing, but sufficiently cold and windy to freeze the feeling from my fingers and set my ears to burning and aching. I stood on the river bank and allowed myself to feel it.


The most obvious answer is probably the most correct. I wanted to feel something that was real -- and the cold is as real as it comes. Reality is taxing and unpleasant. The Earth was not designed with human beings in mind. Scarcity, discomfort, disappointment, and longing are what you pay for the privilege of being alive, being on Earth. The digital world offers such a compelling alternative to the chillier, less user-friendly one. Unlike Earth, the Internet was designed for us, and is infinitely more accommodating. Socialization without the dashed expectations and drama attached to intimacy. Travel without expense or effort. Excitement without exertion. Engagement without effort. It is hard not to be consumed by it. The wired human starts thinking of himself less as an organism and more of an abstraction; a mind existing within the network. (I speak from experience: throughout my teenage years I felt my Internet handle was my real name and my online identity my true self. If memory serves, the time that this began to change corresponds with the period when my brain's THC receptors first became active.)

It's great, it's fun, it hits the brain like a narcotic -- but none of it is real. It's not cold enough to be real.
Ever since an incident that occurred in March 2007, I have had a penchant -- even a sort of reverence for the cold. A couple of buddies and I went on a camping trip somewhere in the ten-thousand mile (by my reckoning) wasteland between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. None of us were expecting or really prepared for a cold snap or the two feet of snow on the ground. If it weren't for Greg B. and his Eagle Scout wisdom and skills, all five of us might have died. On the second night, I came pretty close when my foot got soaked. (Did I step in a creek? I don't remember.) It was anywhere between five and minus five degrees Fahrenheit after the sun went down. My foot was bleeding heat. I removed my boot and sock, set them by the campfire to dry, and tried to warm my foot back up, but it was no use. The air was simply too cold. My foot went totally numb up to the ankle. The cold spread up my leg, across my torso, and through my other limbs. No matter what I did, I couldn't get warm again, couldn't stop losing heat.

I went into shock. My mind partially shut down and I staggered, as though sleepwalking, back to the tent, where I agonizingly shed my outer layers and buried myself in a sleeping bag and a blanket. For the next twenty minutes, before the pocket of bio-heat formed within my insulted cavity and my perceptions reverted to normal, I was convinced I was going to die. All panic ceased. Every thoughts about the past and future was eradicated; nothing existed beyond this remote and icy now. I was here, and here was all that there was. I was here and I was freezing to death. And I was perfectly okay with that. If it had to be, then what could I do but abide it?

That night was one of the most seminal experiences of the last decade of my life. Reflecting on it afterward, I felt as though I had somehow come upon a crucial discovery, but the ran into the oldest problem of the mystic: the state of mind that pushed me towards the threshold of revelation precluded my capacity to recall and articulate precisely what I found there. But nevertheless, I have always looked forward to winter since then, and make a point of going out into the cold on a regular basis as a sort of spiritual observance.
But we were talking about something else before, weren't we?

If reading either of those articles up there hit a little too close to home or put you in a crestfallen spirit, I have an experiment you could try. It might help.

Next Friday night, don't make any plans. If you already have some made, go ahead and cancel them. Wait until after midnight, then shut off your phone and power down your computer. Dress warmly, but don't insulate yourself fully: you don't want to be overexposed, but is important that you feel some appreciable measure of discomfort. Forgo that extra layer, leave those skiing socks in the drawer, keep the scarf on its hanger. Empty your pockets; all you need are your car key and driver's license. Nothing else.

Now. Get in your car and drive as far as necessary to find a forest spanning at least two square miles. (If you don't have a car, get a cab, ride a bike, take a train, twist a friend's arm into dropping you off.) Leave the car on the shoulder and and go inside. Don't worry; your eyes will adjust to the darkness before long, and it won't even be necessary if there is snow on the ground. Walk for at least fifteen minutes; the farther, the better. Walk until you cannot see any artificial light or hear any traffic in the distance. Find a spot that comes as close to complete darkness and total silence as the setting allows.

Now stop.


Don't speak. Don't even whisper, not even to yourself. Stand, listen, and wait.

Wait until your toes start losing feeling and the wind blasts your face raw. Wait until it feels like needles are pressing into your fingertips and your lips dry and crack. Wait until you are so bored from standing around and doing nothing, from lack of conversation and companionship, and from experiencing no pleasurable or distracting stimulation of any kind that you become half-crazed to march back to the car, turn up the heat, crank the radio, and drive home to thaw under a blanket with a MacBook in your lap, the TV set to "surf," and a phone pressed to your ear as you tell your girlfriend on the line what you just did and how silly it was, and what on earth could have possessed you to think it might be a fun thing to try, anyhow?

Keep waiting.

Count backwards from one thousand.

(This is not mediation, mind you. To mediate is to subdue the mind and drift along with the flow of things. What you are doing now is standing against the flow, feeling it push against you, but not letting it carry you off.)

Mind the unfurling of your thoughts; the inward shrinking and sharpening of your awareness. Feel the stinging cold bring your animal body to the forefront of your human awareness; appreciate the full width of the division between yourself and the external. There is only you and the incommunicative, unmovable silence and cold. And this is the true face of things. This is what remains when the lights go out and the wheels stop turning; when the batteries die, the cords are cut, and the chatter ceases. This is a distilled, terrestrial sampling of what's above the rooftops and radio towers, suffused throughout some 845,942,640,970,650 miles (at least) of existence beyond civilization, beyond Earth, beyond Facebook and TMZ. It is a dim, blurry glimpse of the heat death at the final destination of All That Is.

What could be more true than this?

This is Reality -- the great and awful thing from which we go to such deliberate lengths to insulate ourselves. Cold, darkness, and silence are the ineluctable facts of The Human Situation. They are the canvas upon which all other objects of existence are superimposed. To stand out alone in them, beholden to them, isolated within them, is to become closer to what you really are. When you peel away all the piddling little games of the mind -- abandon abstraction and distraction, forget what you think you are and what others say you are, lose sight of your own image, forbid yourself the luxury of vanity, toys, boasts, titles, and trifles -- this is you are left with. This is the real you; the one that gets buried beneath the bullshit. If you are religious (lord knows I'm not), this might be closer to the you that will stand alone before the Father on the Last Day.
I usually turn around after an hour or so, retracing my steps back to the electrically-lit street, back up the hill, and into a temperature controlled building to sit down, warm up, and lose some of myself again through idle web browsing, email, video games, and silly YouTube shorts that don't really amount to anything but keep my mind where it is most at ease. And I am comfortable and content.

We all have to come out of the cold sometime.

Every winter I find that I take more walks. I stay out longer. There a few obvious guesses as to why this is, but for now I will only cite the most optimistic of them: I go to remind myself, so I am less inclined to take all the wondrous things of civilization for granted, and to remind myself that everything on the computer monitor, television screen, and radio speakers are ultimately just pretend.

I think that I am all the happier for it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

We are experiencing biological difficulties

Meant to update this thing a few days ago, but was seized unexpectedly by The Sickness. Verbiage to come when head cold goes.

In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph, courtesy of Mr. J.F. Contrary to what you might suspect, it is not a photograph of yours truly (though the resemblance is uncanny).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sins of Omission

I write poetry. There, I said it. I am not ashamed.

I would say that poetry gets a bad rap nowadays, but that would be incorrect in that it implies that anyone gives poetry a sliver of thought. The causes for the craft's beleaguered reputation (or lack of one) in the 21st century can be attributed to a number of causes.

  • People don't read for pleasure as much as they used to. Obv.
  • In order to sustain itself, poetry has become inextricably tethered to academia. This has the same effect you might see in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: it's still alive, but it's sick. A huge chunk of today's poets are either MFA students or creative writing professors, and they are all writing poems for the approval of other MFA students and creative writing professors. Hence, modern verse's reputation for insularity and inaccessibility, and the very reason Robert Pinsky gets on my nerves so much.
  • Conventional wisdom: anyone under thirty who writes poetry who isn't an MFA student must be either a hipster or a goth. Neither is very popular.
  • Hip-hop. And I'm not talking about Kayne West and Lil' Wayne and whoever else, but practitioners of the more underground and intellectual strands. Talented wordsmiths are opting for a scene with a little more vitality, and who can blame them?
  • Related cause: there is no market for poetry. Not that there ever was one -- you'll notice that all of the most renowned English-speaking poets were either well-off to begin with (Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth, etc.) or otherwise broke, laden with debt, and/or borderline insane (Whitman, Poe, Shelley, etc.) -- but most creative types embark on their careers hoping for one or both of two things: money and recognition. If there was any time when writing poetry could possibly earn you one but not the other, it ended with the Beats. These days, you're practically assured of getting neither.

But the cool part about this, and one of the reasons I enjoy reading modern poetry (at least the stuff that isn't overacademized and deliberately impenetrable), is that you know the people who still write this stuff must be both passionate about what they're doing and writing precisely what they want to. Hard to approach a project with a cynical, market-driven mindset (like you frequently see in fiction, nonfiction, comic books, television, film, music, video games, etc.) when there simply isn't a market to cater to. Poetry ain't dead. There are a lot of people doing some very cool and interesting stuff -- it's just that nobody is paying attention.

In any event, I am not a frequent poet. Every month or two, I'll find myself finishing a new piece. It's not something I can will or force; it just happens on its own. But now I'm sitting on a stack of work that's never been published (though, as usual, not for lack of trying) or presented to an audience, and have been thinking it's about time I got it out there. And this was why I headed to Brooklyn last Sunday for an open mic in Park Slope.

Open mics are always a crapshoot. All of the people who come to perform are there because they can't get invited to perform anywhere -- which doesn't necessarily mean they are awful, but in many cases it does -- and most of the people who come to listen arrive with the performers. But hell -- a free show is a free show, and an audience is an audience.

So I headed into Park Slope with Eszter and a stack of printouts and found the place without too much trouble. It was a little bar/cafe with a lovely atmosphere: red walls, low lighting, and a laid-back soundtrack. Pretty much what I expected. We arrived late. I was about twelfth on the sign-up sheet, so I took a seat, slurped on a Hot Toddy, and consulted Eszter on which of the six and seven pieces she thought would be best to read.

At 7:30, the first performer came on: a middle-aged man who strummed a guitar and sang off-key ballads about drinking and seasonal depression while a sunny-faced kid of about eighteen or nineteen accompanied him with a bongo, eyes shut, smiling, swaying from side to side like he had taken MDMA at a summer drum circle. Certainly it was a little ridiculous -- but it is hard to just earnestness too harshly, especially when you yourself cannot even coax a guitar into twanging out "Jingle Bells."

Next up was a diffident young rapper of about twenty or so. Tonight was obviously his first or second performance before an audience. You could see how nervous he was. He introduced himself louder than he rhymed, and he kept his feet rooted in one spot, but he never missed a beat. And he was sincere -- which, despite what the sneering Simon Cowells of the world will try to convince you, does count for a lot.

Meanwhile, I had ordered another drink and was eying the rest of the crowd. There they were -- a disparate group of twenty-somethings, sipping coffee and scribbling a couple of last notes into a pocket diary. Poetry fags, one and all. I was eager to hear what they had to say, and for them to listen to me in turn.

The next act was introduced. He shut his notebook, slid it into his pocket, and approached the front with a loose swagger. "Good to see you all tonight," he said, snatching the mic from the stand. "Give yourselves a hand!"

Mild applause. I raise an eyebrow.

"So, uh, anyone excited about the McRib? The McRib is back, man! Sheeit. What kinda rib is that? What animal is that from? Musta been some abomination, some kinda horrible abortion of bestiality or something. Right? Am I right? Sheeeit."

Eszter and I looked at each other. Okay, I thought. The flyer specifically welcomed "poets, musicians, and comics." So we have some lousy standup on the bill. Cool. Just a little airy levity before one of these young Keatses or Kerouacs takes the mic and astounds us with his clarity of perspective and keen precision of craftsmanship. It's gonna happen. Just wait for it.

Applause. The next act approaches the front.

"So, uh, I was out drinking the other night and I started talking sweet to this bartender chick, but her -- she won't have any of it. 'I don't date meatheads,' she tells me. So I say back to her, thinking I'm clever, 'but I'm a vegetarian!' So she says, 'I don't date faggots either.'"

BA DUM CHING! Laughter.

And so it unfolds. One after another, the comedians take the mic.

"You know what's weird? You ever think about how different it is to take a shit and give a shit?"

"I bite my nails. My girlfriend keeps telling me 'that's such a disgusting habit!' I say, 'you know what else is a disgusting habit? Being an annoying bitch.'"

"Now I'm no racist, but..."

"I never ask a chick if she's pregnant. I just sorta hang around and wait nine months and see if a baby pops out. And when I don't see a baby, I get pissed, you know? Means I just spent nine months hanging around with some weirdly-proportioned fat chick."


The crowd cackled with laughter. I go over my own material again and again. The poem about a bird. The poem about frogs. Oh, and that goopy love poem. Christ -- I brought a ukelele to a knife fight. I gave Eszter a nudge and nodded toward the door. It was time to leave.

It was the sensible thing to do, really. Neither of us were having any fun at that point. The stand-up acts all sucked; I'd take doofy poetry over artless jokes any day of the week. Eszter was seething over a misogynist jokester who left -- arm in arm with his girlfriend, no less -- two minutes after he put the mic back in its stand. But it wasn't them so much as the crowd that compelled me to quit the place. They loved these guys. How was I supposed to impress them -- follow up a routine about getting fingered in the ass the first time having sex with a piece about a blue heron? The crowd wouldn't be into it. I'd be wasting my time and theirs. So we left.

And yet I feel infinitely more foolish now than I would have had I balled up and presented my work to an unreceptive audience.

Not only because I sold myself short and copped out -- but this whole thing might have been a better story, something more worth remembering and repeating, had I swallowed it and made it happen, for better or worse. Anything is better than an anecdote that goes nowhere. Any memory is more worth retaining than "that night I was going to do something, but I didn't."

The greatest writers became what they are because they didn't lose their nerve, even when it meant standing naked before the world.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tired and/of Trolls


Busy busy busy. Busy.

I think I really need to stop reading the news. I just can't cope with it anymore.

No -- what I need to change is when I read the news. Ordinarily, the first thing I do after shutting off my alarm clock is sit down at the computer, open up my RSS feeds, and inform myself about the world while waiting for my brain to get readjusted to being in it. This now seems very foolish to me. On any given weekday morning, the very first information I consume is invariably a collection of headlines going like, GLEEFUL, AGGRESSIVELY IGNORANT LUNATICS SEIZE POWER IN AMERICA; SUN TO SWELL INTO RED GIANT AND GOBBLE UP EARTH BEFORE UNITED STATES ECONOMY RECOVERS; HUMANS AND BEDBUGS TO BE ONLY SURVIVING ANIMAL SPECIES BY 2030, BIOLOGISTS WARN; CHINA OUTSIDE, PUTTING BOOT ON YOUR CAR.

Waking up in the morning -- especially this time of year -- is already hard enough. Why would the first thing I do upon getting up be something that compels me to go back to bed?

No -- that's not it, either.

What I really need to stop doing immediately is finishing a story on the Washington Post or New York Times and clicking on the "comments" tab.

In the old days, before journalism went digital, I imagine it was possible to put down the paper after reading some heartbreaking article about the latest environmental catastrophe, egregious act of ignorance and injustice, or foreign bloodbath, eat a few Prozac, and assure yourself that the cleverness, generosity, and fundamental decency of the American character would bring about a righting of wrongs, a promise that the mistakes of yesterday would not be repeated, and an example set for the rest of the world -- even if it might take another few months, years, or decades to see it happen.

And then the Internet appeared. And then the Internet Goober Gallery came along and destroyed my faith in the American populace.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. We certainly can't blame the Internet if the people take advantage of this unprecedented age of instant global communication to demonstrate how fucking awful they are.

Over the last few minutes I've browsed the comments sections of a few Washington Posts pieces pertaining to the economy, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Afghanistan, and race. Let's see how the public feels about these difficult and multifaceted issues:

I have zero doubt that the failed 0bama administration orchestrated this. The pitiable part is that even if she knew that as a fact she would still vote for 0 just for his melanin content.

* * *

After 9 years of trying to bring Democracy to these ungrateful savages they have given US very little in return. I would suggest that we withdraw our ground forces to Pakistan and employ our much underused B-52's. Carpet bomb the entire Afghan region until every last one of these maggots are dead and leave their carcasses for the motherloving rats and buzzards. These people want a fight US than we'll blow them straight to hell. Once all is said and done with we can use their mineral resources to pay off the cost for all the time and money that's been wasted trying to help these cave dwellers.

* * *

Observation...Why is it that females seem to be so much more tolerant of homosexuality than males???? Soft Values have been the root of decay in numerous societies in the history of the world. Why should we embrace soft values in our society???

* * *

I don't hate the sob. I simply "don't like him." I wouldn't hurt him. But, I wouldn't recommend that he be allowed in presence of our Soldiers, when they're armed.
O'bama "cannot" be as dumb,as he appears. He went to school, and graduated college. Can he be dumb enought to believe that we, or any Nation, can borrow itself out of debt, or spend it's way back to prosperity? Even Jethro, of The Beverly Hillbillies, could Cypher, better than that.
So, if he's not dumb, that only leaves deliberate intent. He doesn't know how to "feel" or to "be" American.
He's living his Father's, and hid Grand-Father's dreams. He's still figting, and opposing Imperial Colonialism.
He's getting even with European Anglos, who had, at one time, imprisoned his Paternal Grand-Father.
His aim, is to destroy America.
It cannot be accidental. You're hoping that he Succeeds???

* * *


* * *

look, I'm not a racist, I try to be tolerant.
But this is our country.
They are right.
America is our country. Americans are mostly caucasians, and some blacks, who of old fought with us in the revolution, and in the Civil War and later wars and some mexicans we adopted later, and some native americans we adopted, and everybody was integrating, if especially slowly in the case of the blacks.
So yes, there is just one America. Our America. In this case, if almost no other, I will stand and fight with Palin and Beck.
The rest are unasked for but tolerated immigrants to our country. You can always go home, if we offend you.

* * *

It is us against you and you are losing big time. Make no mistake about it, I would not give you or any other liberal the time of day if your life depended on it. In fact, I would run ahead of you and destroy clocks just to hasten your demise and then laugh about it. I want you and people like you crushed and utterly destroyed, just beating you is not enough. You greatly underestimate the hatred many, many of us have towards anyone who supports the Marxist in the White House.

It's bad enough reading about how much worse off the world is today than yesterday -- that the barbarians are crowded round the gates, putting ever more chinks and cracks in the wall that stands between enlightened civilization and a new dark age -- but thanks to the Internet, I am also discovering every day that another sect of barbarians is inside the gates, hammering away at the walls from behind.

To me the Internet is seeming less and less an engine of education and community than a propagator of demagoguery and non-information. Perhaps Tolstoy wasn't completely bats when he derided the printing press for promoting ignorance and self-assuredness.


And I guess that concludes my Internet blog post about how clever I am for observing everyone else's silliness. Sheez. I'm going back to bed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


If you want to help a brother's brother out, please visit my friend's Shutterfly page and help him sort out his photographs. He's got 180 snappies and he's trying to determine which are the best. For now, all you have to have to do is visit the Photo Tournament section, decide which ones you like the least, and drop him a line telling him so.

Most of his photographs fall within three categories: photos of Manhattan graffiti, documentary photos of protests, and snapshots of security cameras. (He feels that if somebody is taking pictures of him without his permission, he should be entitled to the same liberty.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

November doldrums

November is a lousy fucking month. All I have wanted to do lately is lie in bed and play Final Fantasy Tactics. It's a good thing I can't do both at the same time.

Before I arrive at a proper answer to the question I posed in the last post, I'm going to have to do a little research in conjunction with my ruminations. Before going into exile, my father left me with a copy of Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid. Once I finish it, I hope to understand enough about the act of reading to arrive at an informed idea of how it most differs from the dominant media of the day and what books can give us that television and video games cannot. I will begin reading as soon as I finish taking notes on Plato's Theaetetus. (Probably could have found a better dialogue to start with; this one doesn't even arrive at a bloody answer to its own question, but it wanders through some interesting places.)

As I finally begun picking up steam again with the Lotus Eaters, another rejection slip for The Zeroes arrived in the mailbox this afternoon. The more times you are told that "our decision is not an indication of the merit of your manuscript or your ideas," the harder it is to believe it.

Well, back to Tactics.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hey! Whatchoo readin' fer?

I have not been updating this gentleman as often as I would like or had originally intended, so I apologize for any nights you may have stayed up feverishly clicking your brower's reload button, hoping, praying, fiending for a new transmission from bitspace. This new prose project has been occupying most of my free time lately; it is probably hopeless as a novella, and will likely end up being another novel (though probably only half as long as the first -- which I still can't get anyone to publish, thank you for asking). If I can finish it by the end of the month, I have promised myself an Xbox 360. And if I don't? Well, I guess I'll just have to keep spending my spare change on tumor-growing pleasure sticks instead of downloadable brain corrosives. (But given the choice, I'd prefer to hunker down with King of Fighters 2002 UM and Rez until the days start getting longer again on December 21 or so.)

As I work on this new project (the title is "Lotus Eaters;" whether or not a "the" will get stuck at the beginning is still under deliberation), my doubting and cynical self is chiding my creative self for acting foolishly and wasting his effort. You can't sell the first book; what makes you think you'll have any better luck with a second?

He has a point. I see this project meeting with about as much success as the first (zero), and even if it did get published -- somewhere, somehow -- what would it matter? Nobody would read it. Nobody gives a fuck about fiction anymore. Why don't I just resign myself to writing nothing but video game commentary for the next twenty years and at least being assured an audience?

It saddens me that the wider public doesn't read fiction for pleasure unless their arms are twisted into it. And I'm not just saying this own my own behalf, either. People are seriously missing out. Yesterday I reread Herman Melville's "Benito Cerino" before sitting down to start a new game in Final Fantasy Tactics. As I looked back on what I did that day, which do you suppose seemed the better use of my time?

If you've followed my work for any length of time, you've noticed I like to ruminate on the aspects of DIGITAL INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA that set it apart from the classical -- or at least older -- modes of entertainment/expression. It is true that video games can do a lot of things of which non-interactive and non-visual media, such as prose, are simply incapable. But now that video games and fiction have reversed positions -- the one that once struggled to validate its existence is now one of the most lucrative, widely consumed, and analyzed of our pastimes, while the other is practically hanging by a thread, slipping further into irrelevance as public interest and corporate profits dwindle -- I think it is worth backpedaling a bit and looking at what makes fiction what it is. What can fiction offer us that new media cannot?

For the best answer, please consult The Curtain, by Milan Kundera. For my answer -- which will probably be very similar to Kunera's, albeit shorter, less erudite, and far less eloquent -- well, sit tight a few days. I'd like to think it over a few minutes. In the meantime, I would be interested in knowing your thoughts.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Autumn poems by Po Chü-i

Today was the end of daylight savings, a date which has all but formally replaced the equinox as our occasion for marking the shifting seasons. To celebrate (or mourn), tonight I am posting a few pieces from translator Dave Hinton's collection of Po Chü-i poems. Enjoy or else.

* * * * *

Autumn Thoughts, Sent Far Away

We all share these disappointments of failing
autumn a thousand miles apart. This is where

autumn wind easily plunders courtyard trees,
but the sorrows of distance never scatter away.

Swallow shadows shake out homeward wings.
Orchid scents thin, drifting from the old thickets.

These lovely seasons and fragrant years falling
lonely away -- we share such emptiness here.

Cold Night in the Courtyard

Dew-stained bamboo seems like jade,
and blown curtain-shadow like waves.

As I grieve over falling leaves, bright
moons in the courtyard grow countless.

Ch'in Song in Clear Night

The moon's risen. Birds have settled in.
Now, sitting in these empty woods, silent

mind sounding the borders of idleness,
I can tune the ch'in's utter simplicities:

from the wood's nature, a cold clarity,
from a person's mind, a blank repose.

When mind's gathered clear calm ch'i,
wood can make such sudden song of it,

and after lingering echoes die away,
song fading into the depths of autumn night,

you suddenly hear the source of change,
all heaven and earth such depths of clarity.

Autumn Pool

My body's idle, doing perfectly nothing,
and mind, thinking perfectly nothing,

now more than ever. In this old garden
tonight, I've returned to my autumn pool,

shoreline dark now birds have settled in,
bridge incandescent under a rising moon.

Chestnut scents swell, adrift on a breeze,
and the cinnamon's a confusion of lit dew.

So much solitude in this far end of quiet,
an isolate mystery no one finally knows:

just a few words haunting a far-off mind,
asking why it took so long coming here.

In Answer to a Letter Sent by Liu Yü-Hsi on an Autumn Day

Grateful to escape such grave illness,
I'm happy to wither away at the root,

let this lamp gauge darkening eyes,
my belt measure this thinning waist.

On a day of frost turning leaves red,
in a time of hair gone white as snow,

I may grieve over old age coming on.
But once old age ends, I'm grief-free.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Rally to Restore Something Something

I almost neglected to mention that I attended Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity last weekend. This wasn't for absentmindedness or dawdling -- I deliberately refrained from wasting any time straining to find something worth adding to the thousands of photo albums and post-event reports on Facebook and the professional blogosphere. If you already wanted to know how it went, you probably already have a good idea.

For my part, I had a pretty good time. I couldn't see a goddamn thing and was just barely able to hear, but the outing as a whole was rather fun and I don't regret going.

But I couldn't help being bothered by something when I was there. It was a thrill and a great relief to see the putative "Million Moderate March" come to fruition (the turnout was higher than anyone -- even the organizers -- anticipated), but something about the scene made me uneasy. I had a difficult time putting my finger on it, until star political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson brilliantly illustrated the matter herself:

Yeah -- Tea Party is a bunch of frothing, anti-intellectual, latently racist, and easily-manipulated dolts who want to drag the United States back to the 18th Century while China, India, and Brazil go full steam into the 21st. But at least they're taking their shit seriously. We're playing for fun, while they're in it to win it.

First, from Gallup:

Next, from the Center For American Progress Action Fund:

Forty-one percent of voters in this election said they were conservatives. That’s quite a bit higher than in recent elections. Only 34 percent of voters said they were conservatives in 2008, and just 32 percent in 2006. Even in 1994, only 37 percent of voters were conservatives.

The high conservative turnout came at the expense of moderates. This group was actually smaller than conservatives as a proportion of voters in 2010—39 percent compared to 41 percent. By comparison, moderates were 44 percent of voters in 2008 and they were 47 percent of voters in 2006. And in the 1988-2004 period, the percent of moderates never dropped below 45 percent.

Thanks, guys. Way to act like the stoned slackers Bill O'Reilly says you are. Enjoy the time warp to 1785 and remember that you could have prevented it.

(Of course, I suppose I am as blameworthy as anyone else. Come 2012, I'll be knocking on doors and dialing numbers instead of wistfully hoping the electorate might provide its own motivation on election day.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More amateur astronomy!

Last night I had the greatest thrill I've experienced in quite some time, and it might illustrate how boring I'm becoming in my old age. But hear me out.

A couple weeks ago, my grandparents in Delaware sent me home to Jersey with a small gift: a pair of binoculars that had been sitting unused in one of their closets for a number of years. They're by no means the best binoculars I could have in my pocket -- actually, most opical engineers would say they're quite lousy -- but they can still magnify an image, and the price was right.

Between ten and eleven last night I bundled up and ventured outside with the binoculars in one hand and an autumn star chart in the other. It took a bit of time, doing, and numbness of the fingers, but I found it: Messier Object 31, a nondescript grayish smudge in the sky between the triangle formed by Cassiopeia α, Pegasus α, and Pegasus β.

I'm not an expert on the history of astronomy, but I do know a thing or two about 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier. His primary objects of study were comets. Loved them. Wanted to find as many as he could. And more often than he would have liked, he'd fix his telescope on a part of the sky and think he'd found a new comet -- only to discover, after tracking it for a few nights, that his latest candidate didn't move at all like a comet, and therefore could not be one. Messier began to catalogue these objects in a kind of cosmic junk index, so as not to make the same mistakes twice and to mark them out for future comet hunters.

It is truly astonishing how the real fruits of our endeavors are sometimes evinced in the things which we mistake as being incidental -- or even obstructive -- in our progress towards our intended aims. Messier's catalogue is now regarded as his single greatest achievement and contribution to science.

In the 19th century, most of these Messier Objects were identified as nebulae, which I am sure you are familiar with. M31 was no exception -- at least not at first. The closer astronomers looked at it (thanks to improvements in telescope design), the more irregularities they discovered. For a while they believed it was a supernova. Then they decided it must be a newborn star or solar system forming in the center of disk-shaped accretion of gas. Both ideas had to be scrapped following a couple of further discoveries -- one of which had to do with M31's distance from the Earth.

The classical method of calculating astronomical distances is really quite ingenious and elegant. Imagine you have two circles, one inside of the other.

Let's say that at the center of both circles is the astronomical object (let's say a star) under consideration.

Now. Let's take a chunk out of this imaginary larger circle and assign it a value. This is our baseline. Point A is an observatory somewhere on the earth's surface; Point B is an observatory some miles elsewhere that is looking at the same star at the same time. (A greater distance between Point A and Point B makes for a more accurate measurement.)

Now. In a nutshell (and skipping a few steps), the ratio of arc AB to the circumference of the greater circle is going to be equal to that of the parallax angle to the 360 degrees of the smaller circle:
(AB/2πx) = (parallax/360)

But what's parallax, you ask? That's easy. Hold your index finger close to your face and shut one eye. Now shut that eye and open the other. Notice how your finger seems to change position with regard to objects in the background? That's parallax. When observing stars, astronomers consider the observed parallax as an angular measurement and plug it into the equation. From there, all that's left is to solve for X (the larger circle's radius, and the distance from Earth to the distant object). For the planets and some stars, it works great. As the distance to the observed object increases in proportion to the baseline (which cannot exceed the width of Earth, unless we're using some kind of wacky satellite array), the accuracy degrades.

What's the point of all this? Well, M31 has no parallax. This means that is very far away; somewhere behind pretty much every other visible object in the sky. This carried some profound and startling implications for 19th century astronomers: namely that it could not possibly be a star, a nova, a nascent solar system, or any other stellar object known to man at that time. If something that far away could still appear in the sky with the same angular (ie apparent) size of a small "local" star, it had to be unimaginably massive.

There were great debates in the early 20th century as to what M31 could possibly be. Thanks to perpetual improvements in observational technology, breakthroughs in the measurement of stellar distance, and many, many, many hours of observation and number crunching, astronomers concluded that M31 -- formerly known as the Andromeda Nebula -- was an entirely different galaxy; a stellar system existing trillions upon trillions of miles (something like 40,233,599,999,999,998 miles, to tack an actual number to it) beyond everything that astronomy had for thousands of years believed to represent the entirety of the cosmos. The realization that Andromeda was a galaxy was more or less the discovery of a new universe. This was some Silent Upon a Peak in Darien business times ten thousand.

So! That's what I saw in my binocular lenses last night. I'd seen Andromeda before in textbooks and on computer screens -- all very lovely pictures, all much clearer, crisper, and infinitely better looking than the dim grayish blob in my vision -- but this was my first time seeing the genuine article for myself. It was kind of incredible. The 2.51 million-year-old radiation from a trillion suns actually tickled my optic nerves. However briefly and however faintly, I was directly experiencing the distant touch of another cosmos.

I really do wonder why more people aren't into this stuff.

Fun fact: Whereas most of the cosmos is expanding away from Earth and the Milky Way, Andromeda is actually HURTLING TOWARD US.

(Image at the top ganked from Astro Nut.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marital Bliss Comix!

It's been a few minutes since I've indulged in aimless wackiness. Let's give it a try!

(The comic preceding this one can be found here!)

Tune in next week for more half-cooked metaphysics!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sons of bitches

And I had a lot of hope for this one, too.

Hello from Soft Skull Press.

This is a form letter to let you know that as of the end of October, 2010, the Soft Skull editorial office in New York will be closed. This email address,, is no longer in use. Soft Skull's parent company, Counterpoint, will continue to publish under both the Counterpoint and Soft Skull imprints from Counterpoint’s main office in Berkeley, California.

Going forward, Soft Skull's submissions policy will conform with Counterpoint's policy:

- We cannot consider unsolicited fiction submissions unless they are represented by a literary agent.

- For nonfiction submissions, please send to Soft Skull c/o Counterpoint a one-page description together with a sample chapter and any other supporting materials. You can learn more about Counterpoint at Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with what Soft Skull has published in the past, as that is the best indication of what Soft Skull may find of interest going forward.

- We are unfortunately unable to consider poetry, children's books, or genre fiction.

Thank you for thinking of Soft Skull Press for your work, and please accept our apologies both for the form letter and for the delay in our response to your submission.

All the best,
Soft Skull Press

So, in short: "sorry, but the manuscript you sent us last month is being transferred from the 'incoming' pile to the incinerator." Righto. Thanks a ton, guys.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cities and Stars

(One of the problems with forcing yourself to keep a weekly blog is that a week will pass and you will realize you are a day late with the latest update and have absolutely no topic in mind. Today we will be winging it.)

I grew up and still live in the New York City satellite suburbs of North Jersey. At night you can see some stars, but Manhattan and the local shopping centers cast a sort of transparent opacity across the sky that makes it difficult to see anything but the most prominent constituents of the most famous constellations. In September you might spot Vega, but cannot glimpse the rest of Lyra without squinting. After midnight in October you can locate Orion, but will probably miss the dim little star beneath his leftmost belt loop and have very little chance of glimpsing the M42 nebula within his rhombus-shaped warrior's kilt. A month or two ago I spent twenty fruitless minutes searching for the M31 galaxy astride Andromeda's tresses. Last night I looked up and saw the Pleiades, but could only account for five of the seven sisters.

The situation is hardly ideal for someone with an interest in stargazing, but it could be much worse. But this is one of the reasons I have no interest in relocating to an urban setting. About half of my friends are currently living in New York or Philadelphia, and about all of them think I am insane for not wanting to join them.

A couple of my New York friends were born and raised in the boroughs, while the rest hit eighteen, got accepted to SVA and NYU, got the hell out of the suburbs, and stayed the hell out. Most of them are true New Yorkers after the John Updike fashion: believing that anyone who would live anywhere else can only be kidding themselves, and would pack their things and scour Upper West Side real estate listings if they would only come to their senses.

It is hard not to fall in love with a city. For all the glamor and gritty mystique we attribute to our urban centers, a person's attraction to the city is most firmly rooted in biologics. We are wired so as to be very interested in ourselves, and the city is a portion of the planet redesigned in the image our our interests. The city is safe, orderly, and moves at an artificial pace better-suited to human business; easy access, straight lines, solid surfaces. Homo sapiens has evolved as a diurnal organism, so the city bathes itself in its own light from sunset to sunrise. Homo sapiens is a gregarious species; the city is a place in which loneliness is practically impossible, provided one is not fastidious in choosing his companions. Homo sapiens prefers a temperate climate; the city's hotel and restaurant awnings radiate heat onto the February sidewalk, and its boutiques blast air conditioning into the August streets. Man's proclivity is to admire his own cleverness and ingenuity; the city streets are lined with all sorts of places where he can study and obtain objects that are built by man for the purpose of stimulating man. And even in the city, man retains his affinity for the natural world; thus there are parks, tiny, tamed swathes of nature where he can enjoy the green without hazard or uncertainty (barring the occasional mugger or rapist).

Of course, establishing such a hermetic human-friendly environment comes at a cost: it must conscientiously expel any elements that man feels is detrimental or irrelevant to his immediate comforts and concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than the sky over Manhattan. Not long ago I was out on the streets late at night with a resident friend and pointed out the Summer Triangle to him: that is, Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They were not difficult to find, as they were practically the only visible stars. He nodded and said "neat." And that was that. Stellar objects are not things towards which New Yorkers dedicate much thought. (No place else but the city; no thing else but man.)

This past weekend I got in my car and drove to Fenwick Island, Delaware to visit my grandparents and spend thirty-six hours deflating. After September, the place is practically a ghost town. If you ever think to visit a beach in the interest of relaxation, Autumn is the time to do it -- but I digress.

On Friday, I got a late start and crossed the Memorial Bridge between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. At around two o' clock, nearly precisely between Dover and Rehoboth Beach, I had to veer off Route 1, park the car on a grassy shoulder beside a soybean field, step outside, and take in the sky. The sight was incredible. For all our singsong odes twinkling stars, I would bet that fewer and fewer of us regularly see a night sky that perceptibly flickers. On Friday night, I saw the sky blaze. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse flaring like orange torches from some 382,110,649,256,934 and 3,762,320,238,837,508 miles' distance (respectively). All seven sisters accounted for in all their modest splendor. Cassiopeia skirting the banks of the visible (although dim) Milky Way. I could keep waxing romantic, but I am doubtlessly losing your interest. I will only say that those twenty minutes I spent standing at the edge of a soybean field in Delaware staring up at the sky are worth more to me than entire weekends I have spent gallivanting around Manhattan and Philadelphia.

It is crucial to remember that the universe does not begin nor end with us, and to give the realities beyond our artificially lit, climate-controlled little bubble their proper consideration. Any mammal is capable of eating, playing, copulating, sniffing his neighbor's rear, and barking at its own reflection. Man is unique in his capacity to acknowledge the infinite and attempt to answer the ineffable questions it poses. The faculties that fire up in us when we take in the unobstructed sight of eternity -- though what we see is really only a fraction of a moment of it -- are precisely what make us such unique animals, and we should engage them more often, lest we forget what and where we are by way of a near-idolatrous self-interest.

I guess my point is that the things around us that are slow, quiet, and not immediately noticed are often the most important. We probably owe it to ourselves to treat them as such -- but I suppose that could be as potentially disastrous as continuing to ignore them. Our frivolity-based economy would collapse, taking with it society's central support beams. Civilization as we know it would break down. A full quarter of the population would be slain during the widespread riots, and a full half of the survivors would perish from starvation. Those that remained would abandon the cities in droves, striking out for the hill and plains to lead the austere and bitter lives of sustenance farmers. But think of what they would see when they happened to cast an upward glance at the evening sky above their frigid, torch-lit mud fields.

(Next week you can look forward to a silly little comic strip instead of half-cooked metaphysics. I hope.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Irrelevant: words written in an old notebook

if at any point we attach a terrestrial or anthropomorphic quality to our concept of ultimate reality -- "god said," "god wants," "god loves," "god knows" -- we are perpetrating a fallacy. if any aspect of the inconceivable (and surely ultimate reality must be inconceivable; to think otherwise is giving ourselves too much credit and nature too little) is reduced or translated to the conceivable, it ceases altogether to be inconceivable, and what we are describing cannot possibly be god, ultimate reality, or anything worth time exalting. if god or ultimate reality is beyond our comprehension (and it is), then it must be from every angle and in every aspect something we cannot sufficiently fathom or describe. if we say "god said," what we are talking about certainly cannot be god. neither the name we give a thing nor the metaphor we use to understand it must be mistaken for the thing itself. to allow our conception of the ineffable fact to precede the undiluted reality of the ineffable fact is foolish at best and fatally reckless at worst.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Writer's Reality

I recently received an email from an eighteen-year-old college student who is currently studying law, but whose passions lie in writing. He feels that he is at a crossroads and asked me for advice on how he should proceed. I meant to only give him the gist of what he might expect, but the floodgates unexpectedly seized the opportunity to burst. I'm copy/pasting them here in case anyone else finds themselves faced with a similar dilemma and is searching for arguments from either side.

* * * *


I certainly hope you were not expecting me to patronize you with the follow your bliss balderdash my teachers, classmates, and therapists crammed into my head nearly a decade ago when I was in your position. But you presumably would not have gone to the trouble of writing such a long and honest letter if you were not soliciting a long and honest reply. Good. Where do I begin?

Ah. Right.

Being a writer fucking sucks.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You say you are studying law, which is a very sensible choice. There are plenty of careers towards which a degree in law might carry you, and I would imagine most of them pay a good salary, offer decent benefits, and afford opportunities for advancement, travel, prestige, etc. These will be jobs, no doubt about it, and somebody geared towards creative work will frequently find himself wishing he had more time to indulge in what he feels is his "true" calling. Fortunately, he will probably have enough vacation time to bang out a short story every now and then, and ample opportunity to write his novel after he retires (which, with a career in law, will probably be at a reasonable age).

Now. Let us consider what an English major might lead to. Contrary to popular belief, the English degree is not a worthless waste of time. Plenty of employers are looking for people who are accustomed to approaching subjects analytically, can communicate clearly, and possess a well-honed bullshit detector. But I get the feeling your inclination might be to start searching for a gig in the publishing industry as soon you pick up your Bachelor's of English certificate from the framer's. I cannot say for certain how this will play out, but I can venture two guesses:

Best case scenario: you work at a publishing house for several years, climb a rung or two up the ladder, and put yourself on a first-name basis with the suits who determine which manuscripts get published and which get the paper shredder, earning your book (whenever you get around to writing it) a somewhat better chance of landing in somebody's inbox instead of the slush heap.

Worst case scenario: you discover that the publishing industry does not give two shits about literature, authors, or books, which siphons all joy from writing and dashes your hopes of every seeing your magnum opus (whenever you get around to writing it) in print.

Let us envision a third scenario: one in which you graduate college with a degree in English, get a low-paying, low-maintenance job that barely covers your expenses but affords you the time needed to get any serious writing work done, and dedicate the greater portion of your time to your craft. Here is some of what you can look forward to:

1.) Not getting published -- unless you are a personal acquaintance of a literary agent, an editor, or a famous author.

2.) Having to put off things like buying a new car, moving out, traveling, buying nice things, etc. because you will not be able to afford them.

3.) Feeling like everyone else in the world is having more fun than you are. After punching out from work, your friends go out, get drunk, go to parties, and have sex with people they just met. You, on the other hand, go home, sit by yourself, and stare at a word processor for nine hours.

4.) Not getting published. I cannot emphasize this enough. If the idea of receiving two-hundred rejection letters and not a single "we like it!" note frightens you, spare yourself the irreparable damage to your self-worth and stick to law. (I should also mention that you will not actually be sending anyone the manuscript. Agents and editors are not interesting in touching a manuscript unless they are first intrigued by your one-page sales pitch, two-page plot summary, and sample chapter. They will read the sales pitch, notice that you are not already a famous author or celebrity, and mail you a form rejection.)

5.) Dealing with literary agents. If you ever want to try making it in publishing, never forget that the keys to the gate are in the hands of people like this. (Scroll down to the comments section and gawk at how many unpublished writers kiss her ass and call it "networking.")

6.) As the years go by, you will watch the people in your graduating class scoring promotions, getting married, and buying houses. Your prime achievement will have been getting a couple of short stories published in some quarterly periodicals printed by some Midwestern state universities whose entire audience consists of creative writing professors and other struggling writers.

7.) "When are you getting a real job?" You will get sick of hearing this real fast, and they only ask it more often as time passes.

8.) Seriously considering saying fuck it and crapping out a teenage vampire novel on Labor Day weekend. It will likely have a better chance of seeing publication than whatever project you are pouring your heart into.

9.) Realizing, after five years or more have passed, that you have made an idiotic choice and need to find a more sustainable career. By then it will be too late. Your half-decade career at Walgreen's is résumé poison. Nobody in any field in which you are interested will want anything to do with you, as you are not an unpaid undergraduate intern and have spent the last several years earning experience in an irrelevant and/or useless field. Can you afford graduate school? No? Get thee to a temp agency. Have fun working up the desire to write after eight daily hours of data entry. If you have not yet taken up smoking, now might be a good time.

10.) Not getting published.

Being a writer -- the kind of writer who is uninterested in writing hack vampire romances or vapid crime serials -- requires having a near-religious devotion to your craft, or otherwise being totally out of your fucking mind. Nobody but the faithful or insane would conscientiously opt for such a lifestyle. Writing is something you do because you are irresistibly compelled, in spite of all reason and good judgment, and something at which you persevere because you are ultimately too stupid to quit. The good news is that you will be living for the sake a passion, while most everyone around you is living for the sake of a paycheck. The bad news is that this in itself is the only reward you can expect to get out of it.

I am afraid I do not have a short answer for you. I do not know which choice is best, but studying law is definitely the smarter one. Do what makes the most sense to you. If you decide to follow your bliss, please know in advance that it will be unbelievably difficult, and nobody will want to spare you any sympathy.

Best of luck.

- P

* * * *


I showed my reply to a close friend and was castigated for sending you what she called a bratty rant. Okay. Maybe she has a point. Let me put it a different way, then.

Imagine you had asked me for relationship advice instead. Say you are powerfully drawn to a very intense (borderline insane) and beautiful girl whom you alternately adore and despise. Any long-term relationship with her is sure to be tumultuous; there is little certainty of it lasting or ending well, but you cannot imagine living a life without her at the center. Do I tell you to follow your heart and go for it? Or do I advise you to break it off with her and start courting some Irene Scheerer instead?

Again, the smart choice is obvious. But you must decide for yourself if the smart choice is really what you want.

- P