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).