Domestic ambivalence, creative inspiration, or both?

I would like to encourage anybody who struggles with the competing demands of parenthood and creativity to read Kim Brooks’s article,  “A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Mom: Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” in The Cut, and follow some of the links to more of what the author terms the “literature of domestic ambivalence,” an emerging genre which seems to be driven overwhelmingly by women—not surprisingly, as women have always been torn between the two (hence the historical scarcity of successful women artists). But I would also surmise that as traditional gender roles give way to a more egalitarian division of labor, and more and more fathers are taking an active role in the day-to-day work of childrearing (and the accompanying emotional roller coaster ride of hair-raising anxiety, mind-numbing boredom, wild joy, quiet desperation, quiet joy and wild desperation, et cetera), this particular dilemma is going to feel increasingly familiar to plenty of creative men as well.

My initial response to the question posed in the title of Brooks’s piece was “Well, duh.” Obviously it is! But the fact that there is evidently a large and growing body of creative work addressing this very theme would seem to imply that the answer is more likely, “Not necessarily.” Also, I realized with a bit of a shock that I myself have racked up vastly more creative output in the eight years since I became a mother than in the preceding eighteen years, or indeed at anytime in my life with the possible exception of my four years of art school. I discovered to my surprise that I can’t use parenthood as an excuse any more.

Granted, it is not easy. I used to assume that the problem was primarily one of scheduling. Raising kids is time-consuming. It turns out that babies demand quite a lot of attention, and the parents of young children tend to be drained of both emotional and physical energy by the end of the day—when, if you’re lucky, you might get a precious hour or two between the time your toddler finally falls asleep and you collapse insensate into bed yourself, unless of course the laundry, the dishes, the emails, and the countless other chores that have piled up during the day are more pressing than any kind of creative work.

And while I still constantly bemoan the shortage of time to tinker around in the studio, that actually hasn’t changed much since I became a mother. I never had enough free time before, either. All of my artist friends, after having kids, have issued some variation on the familiar refrain: Whatever did I used to do with all that free time?  The fact is, whether you have kids or not, whether you make a living doing some form of creative work or not, setting aside time to devote to your art will probably require a determined struggle against the never-ending demands and expectations of a world that does not and will never respect your innate need to create. It took a kid to drive that lesson home for me, and I actually have learned to use my time better. I don’t squander it like I used to. (Okay; maybe I squander it a little, but some occasional downtime is important, too, right?)

But more significantly, I hadn’t taken into account Brooks’s insightful—even revelatory—point that the motives and aims of making art are inherently in opposition to those of making families. Switching back and forth on demand between the subversive, destabilizing, individualistic role of artist and that of nurturing, comforting and security-providing parent is much more complex and difficult to manage than simply scheduling the hours of one’s day more efficiently. Popping into the studio for fifteen or twenty minutes here and there to work on a new piece or draft a paragraph is so hard to do because the total shift of mindset required to get into what most artists will recognize as some version of  “the groove,” takes sustained focus. It’s like asking someone to change their entire personality at will.

The irony for me is that it wasn’t until after I became a mother that I began to get serious about being an artist. For the better part of two decades after graduating from art school I dithered and dabbled, but the need to have a job and earn a living, plus a lengthy bout of severe clinical depression in my twenties seemed to sap all the creative life out of me. The desire and impulse to make art remained, but I struggled terribly with a self-defeating creative block that kept me questioning whether my efforts were not a complete and utter waste of time, and doubting that I would ever manage to produce anything that was any good. More often than not I would set out to make art or write and end up talking myself out of it even before I’d begun.

Unexpectedly, it was motherhood that seemed to resolve this creative block. After the birth of my son I experienced a flood of inspiration. I was suddenly full to the brim with ideas for projects and things I wanted to do and make and write. My yoga-type friends will perhaps understand when I say that I believe giving birth released an accumulation of deeply held psychic tensions that had caused an energetic blockage in my second chakra, the seat of creative/generative energy. (When I explained this to my most rationalist, skeptical friend she said, in typical fashion, “Or maybe you finally gained the confidence to know that you had something worthwhile to say and found a voice in which to say it.” To which I replied, “Isn’t that what I just said?”)

But in any case, I was free! At last I was ready to get to work! The only hitch was, I had exactly no time to myself and no prospect of more than two hours in a row to sleep, much less any time to make art, for the foreseeable future. Finding the time to take a shower was nearly impossible; how was I ever going to get into the studio? The best I could manage was to make a note of any fleeting ideas I had before they disappeared, in the desperate and forlorn hope that some day I would have an opportunity to revisit them. On the rare occasions that I did have a half hour or so to myself, I was so physically exhausted that the best I could do was a bit of knitting, or else sit on the couch with my laptop and tap out a few pages of what would—eventually—become a manuscript.

And eight years later, I realize that since becoming a mom, I have accomplished more than I ever did before. A little bit at a time, I’ve made a surprising amount of art and even started to show—and sell—it. I have written one novel and the first draft of another. (I haven’t published anything, and might not ever, but in any case that takes a very different sort of energy.) I think now that it was actually the sleep deprivation that allowed me to pour out that first draft; with my rational brain so befogged, that awful internal censor that used to plague me so relentlessly was temporarily out to lunch. And the countless hours spent rocking and nursing my son to sleep—for better or worse, that is a whole lot of captive time in which to free-associate. And now, even though I still never feel that I have enough free time, when I do have some, I actually use it. And yes: I do struggle with guilt. Any time that I spend making art or writing is time I am not spending caring for the physical and emotional needs of my family, or squeezing every possible moment of joy out of being with my child. Perhaps the much-remarked-upon inherent selfishness of the artist means that I am never going to be the best possible mother I could be. On the other hand, there is literally no limit to the amount of judgment, both internal and external, that parents in general but mothers in particular are faced with these days. However much we do, it is never going to be enough, so why not give ourselves a break? Anyway, parenting is not exclusively about making sacrifices; we also have to teach our kids about life by example.

I have come to believe that artists don’t make art because we want to so much as because we have to. It isn’t a vocation or a hobby or a lifestyle choice, it is simply who you are. It’s like being straight or gay, left-handed or right-handed, a cat person or a dog person; one is an artist, or one is not. It is your orientation, your way of being in the world. You don’t choose it, and sometimes you may wish it was otherwise—because it is often difficult and frustrating, frequently inconvenient, and occasionally quite painful. You sometimes wish you could just be content watching TV or playing Candyland with your kids, or hanging out at the bar with your friends if you don’t happen to have kids, but something keeps compelling you back to your studio or desk for long isolated hours spent alone doing whatever it is that drives and possesses you. Denying that need can only lead to suffering.

That said, I have tried to “quit” a number of times, and after a lot of suffering finally just accepted the fact that whether or not it is a truly meaningful activity, whether or not my art is any good, whether or not anybody else ever cares for it, whether or not I’m making insufficient sacrifices for the sake of my family, I simply can’t be happy and grounded unless I’m doing it. The world may or may not need my art, but I do believe with all my heart that the world does need people in it who are engaged and creative and inspired and doing whatever it is that lights them up, so that they can become beacons for others and pull us all up out of the darkness, even if only just a little. And that’s not an entirely bad example to set for your kids.

don't ask yourself

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Suicide may be painless, but only if you’re dead

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I was planning to write something today about my experiences thus far in China, but I find that I need to talk about death instead. Or more specifically, suicide.

I was awakened in the wee hours this morning by a text message from a friend informing me that a mutual friend had taken his own life.

I spent the rest of the morning on Facebook reading posts and comments from dozens of his friends expressing shock, grief, dismay, regret, and above all, love. Evidently, though his friends all knew he was going through a rough patch, nobody saw this coming. Or rather, all of the retrospectively obvious warning signs were easily mistaken for Kit just being Kit, indulging in his signature brand of nihilistic humor. Or maybe it was humorous nihilism. Was that the difference—was there a subtle shift in tone we ought to have detected?

It’s been twenty-five years since we were close, and I hadn’t even seen him in a dozen or more, but we stayed in touch online. Our last exchange was just a couple days prior, about the dismal Communist architecture to be found in both Beijing, where I am living temporarily, and St. Petersburg, which he visited years ago on a trip to Russia that seems to have marked him indelibly, for reasons I don’t pretend to understand.

Kit was an unreformed punk rocker to the last. He was a tech whiz with a BFA in photography from one of the country’s most prestigious art schools, an aficionado of motorcycles, black cats, carnivorous houseplants, and, unfortunately, handguns. He stoutly defended gun ownership but loathed the NRA. (On Election Day he posted about strapping on his legal open-carry to go the polls and vote the most liberal ticket possible.) He drank cheap beer and expensive vodka, and probably too much of both. He hated cold weather, stupidity and hypocrisy, and wasn’t willing to make many concessions to The Man; his last few years were plagued by bouts of un- or under-employment, about which he was bitterly vocal. (His last post on Facebook ended with, “Fuck capitalism.”) He was also caring, smart, funny, pithily philosophical, devoted to his kitties, and one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet.

I met Kit when we were both first-year art students newly arrived in New York City. For a scant handful of years that would forever after feel like an entire geological era, we inhabited the same circle of friends, knit as tightly as only that stage of life can sustain. It was the kind of group of friends that would call each other up at nine p.m. on a Friday to ask, “What are we doing tonight?” We’d convene at someone’s apartment around ten, mix up a batch of screwdrivers and start getting ready to go out clubbing. It was an era of intense creativity, hangovers, emotional growing pains, the music of New Order, Nine Inch Nails, and anything on Wax Trax!, sweltering summer nights on fire escapes and rooftops, staying up too late, wearing too much eyeliner, having too much fun. We’d carom down the street, the boys all in black jeans and black leather jackets, the girls in black leather jackets and black ankle-length skirts. We must’ve looked like a murder of crows flapping through the East Village. Sure, we may have dressed like that in part because it was the unofficial art school uniform, but also because, young as we were, we had all already seen the darkness within, already met with the demons of nihilism, despair, and isolation to some degree. It was perhaps the glue that bonded us, whether or not we knew it. But when we were having fun together we were happy—or at least I was. I don’t presume to know what anyone else was feeling; not then, and not two and a half decades later when one of our number made the decision to bow out once and for all.

Our little group, as tightly knit groups of college friends tend to do, eventually unraveled. We graduated, got jobs, went our separate ways, became immersed in our own lives, made new friends. Subsequent reunions never quite recaptured the old spirit, as also tends to happen. I stayed in touch with Kit, but not well enough, as it turned out. We always think we should make more of an effort to keep up with our far-flung friends, but the follow-through is notoriously difficult. Or we put it off until a time when we are less busy, which never seems to arrive. We always think we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

I’m not privy to the specific reasons Kit had for calling it quits, but if I had to guess, I would venture it was some variation on the familiar cocktail of financial woes, chronic health issues, disappointment, and loneliness—all topped off with a big dose of depression. If I had to guess, I’d say he’d probably been toying with the idea for a long time. What made this the moment to finally go through with it, I have no idea. (Apparently he gave it at least enough forethought to arrange for someone to come rescue his cats, which triggered a phone call to the police. No matter how much pain he might’ve been in, he would never neglect his cats.) To me, the saddest part is that somebody so loved by so many could feel himself so utterly alone.

Every suicide seems to be followed by legions of friends expressing the wish that the person had reached out to them, and asked for help. And by guilt and self-recrimination: If only I’d recognized the warning signs, if only I’d taken them seriously, if only I had done something, maybe he would still be here. But could anyone have really done anything? Or at best, would intervention have merely delayed the inevitable a little longer? (But I suppose delaying the inevitable a little longer is what we are all doing every minute of every day of our lives.) The thing is, though, that I get it. I am not stunned and bewildered the way I was when I lost a friend to suicide at age fourteen. They—the proverbial purveyors of platitudes—like to say that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” and for a middle-class suburban middle-schooler, it may be quite apt. I still wonder what problem was so insurmountable that a kid that age felt he had no choice but to end his life almost before it had begun. Or maybe it’s just a matter of perspective (or lack thereof; at fourteen or sixteen or even twenty, it’s unusual to have any. Every problem, no matter how temporary, feels permanent.) But the older one gets, the more possible it becomes to see suicide as a rational decision. A reasonable response to an untenable situation. Some things, we eventually come to realize, will not get better with time. If someone is exhausted by suffering and determined to end their life, do we even have the right to forbid them? Who are we to tell them how they should feel?

I am heartbroken but not bewildered because I know very well how thin is the veil between hope and hopelessness, and how easily the line is crossed. I have contemplated the abyss myself on occasion. (Fortunately, the desire to leap was less absolute, and the weapons at my disposal less deadly.) I also understand the devious blend of isolation, guilt, shame, self-disgust, fear and despair that prevents someone in that place from “reaching out” for help. I understand the feeling of not deserving help, not wanting to reveal my loathsome weakness or burden anyone with my ugly tears, my irrational fears and sloppy emotions. Despite the valiant and much needed efforts to strip the stigma from depression—and mental illness in general—most sufferers learn to keep their misery well-hidden. Most likely if I or anyone else had recognized the danger he was in and tried to intervene somehow, Kit would have deflected, made a snarky joke and laughed it off as overblown, unwarranted concern.

Although sorrow, disappointment, and sadness figure in everybody’s life, depression is truly a disease and ought to be treated as such. But while there is of course a physiological component to which some people are more prone than others, it is not merely a disorder of biochemistry, but of the soul. It is an existential dis-ease, in which being trapped inside your own mind becomes a living hell. It always dismays me when some public figure commits suicide and I read the judgmental comments on social media slamming the person for their unforgivable selfishness. But he had a family! they say. He had no right! Anger, surely, is a normal reaction: when you are hurting, it is natural to feel anger towards the person who has hurt you. Certainly it is reasonable—for a spouse, say, when thus bereft, to be furious with the person you were supposed to be able to count on for leaving you behind to clean up the mess alone and wade through years of devastating grief in solitude. Certainly, children are marked for life by the death of a parent for any reason, but a suicide even more so. It’s difficult not to see it as a deliberate act of abandonment. Certainly, the torment a parent must endure not just for the loss of their child but for the knowledge of how much their child suffered, is nothing short of a curse. It’s easy to find sympathy for the ones left behind; but what about some compassion also for the person who was suffering so terribly that the only way they could see to escape their pain was death? Someone who has reached that extremity may really and truly believe that their family and friends—the world, even—will be better off without them.

Moreover, our society seems to get more and more disconnected somehow, the more plugged-in we become. The ordinary, life-sustaining sense of human connection is lost—and with it, apparently, empathy—when we must all fend for ourselves, forever unable to keep up with all the demands on our time and attention, outsourcing any tasks we just can’t manage alone to paid professionals. I wish they’d have just picked up the phone and called me, we think, but who even has time to talk on the phone anymore? Modern life, for all its enhanced communication technology, has bred an epidemic of isolation that is literally killing us.

So how can we help someone who’s reached that extremity? How can we convince a friend in crisis that their pain is acceptable to us, or that when they find themselves staring into that abyss, asking for help is even an option?

What if we try the same way we teach things to our children—by modeling the behavior? Maybe it isn’t a matter of being less self-absorbed, or looking out more vigilantly for the warning signs, or staging an intervention. Asking for help is surprisingly difficult for many of us even under ordinary circumstances. But if we want our friends (not to mention our kids) to feel free to do it, maybe we need to show them by example that it is okay. What if we learn to ask for help when we need it, and accept it when it’s offered? A ride to the airport, a catsitter, a babysitter, someone to talk to, another pair of hands to stack firewood or put up the storm windows, a cup of sugar. Let’s bring back good old-fashioned neighborliness. People used to look out for one another. It was just how a society worked. I believe, also, that most people like having a chance to help. It has been well-documented that helping others is the surest path to finding our own happiness, too. What if, when you notice that someone is struggling, you ask them to help you with something? What if, instead of trying to convince them that they have reasons to go on living, you try giving them one?

Let me be clear that none of this is intended to create more guilt or place more of a burden of responsibility on anyone. Depression is a disease that can respond to treatment, but the sufferer has to agree to be treated. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own choices and their consequences. The problem with suicide, of course, is that it is an abdication of that responsibility. You make your choice, but it’s the people who love you that have to live with the consequences.

A lot of people I know, and many more I don’t, are heartbroken today. Nonetheless, I am not angry with Kit for his choice. I just wish with infinite regret that he hadn’t felt he had to make it.

Farewell, my old friend. Be at peace in punk rock heaven.

 

 


Cleaning Out Closets

It’s that time of year again.

I haven’t written much this year, mostly because I’ve been too demoralized. The political atmosphere has been so poisoned, and so many things have been happening so fast I can’t keep up, and have too often succumbed to the temptation to withdraw—or, for the sake of my sanity, to unplug for a while. Actually I’ve had a lot of false starts, half-written posts abandoned when a fresh news cycle sucked all my attention away from the previous outrage. Also, when I wasn’t too depressed or anxious, I’ve been busy focusing on visual art (see what I’ve been up to here and here).

In reviewing my list of New Year’s resolutions for 2017, I cannot help but notice, with a weary sigh, how utterly I have failed, once again, to live up to my own modest expectations. This got me to thinking about the custom of making New Year’s resolutions, and why so many of us persist in torturing ourselves in this way. Every year, it seems, we resolve to get it together, to do better, to be better, to finally lose those fifteen pounds, solve the world’s crises, and generally maximize our potential to become the most fully-actualized version of ourselves—despite years of experience telling us that this is setting ourselves up for disappointment, guilt, and unhappiness.

Now, I’m not saying it isn’t good to have a goal. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Life may in fact be more about the journey than the destination, and wandering aimlessly does have its charm, but it can also be nice sometimes to have some idea where you’re going, or at least where you would like to end up eventually. But the key to happiness, I have grown to believe, lies in lowering one’s expectations, and rather than always focusing on what we have not yet done and where we feel we should be in our lives, in practicing simply being who and where we are. With that in mind, I accept that I’m not in a place to do a whole lot right now beyond get through one day at a time. Accordingly, I lowered my expectations and set myself an even more modest goal to begin the new year with: clean out my bedroom closet.

A quick internet search yields an overwhelming abundance of advice on how to perform this seemingly straightforward task. There are hundreds of articles with names like, “25 Ways to Clean Out Your Closet,” “Expert Tips From the Pros on Cleaning Out Your Closet,” “How to Lose Weight by Cleaning Out Your Closet,” and “How to Make Money While Cleaning Out Your Closet.” Advice runs the gamut from Don’t keep your fat clothes to Don’t keep your skinny clothes, and there are even diagrams and flow charts to guide you in your efforts. I rather like this one:

Unfck-your-closet-

I am a firm believer in the idea that a cluttered closet contributes to a cluttered mind. The same is true of cluttered basements, attics, desks drawers, etc., and worst of all, the space underneath beds. But I find clothing to be particularly insidious. Even when I don’t think about them consciously, in the back of my mind I am aware of all those old clothes lurking in there, waiting to taunt me with their unwearability: the party dress saying, Remember when you wore this and went out dancing all night and had so much fun? Well, you couldn’t do that anymore even if you wanted to! The Eraserhead tee shirt from high school, too tattered even donate to Goodwill. That gorgeous pair of shoes that no shoehorn on earth could wrangle my feet into now. The cute little sweaters and skirts and size 6 jeans I used to wear before things like pregnancy and menopause and time and gravity altered my body beyond recognition.

So why have I hung on to all this stuff that serves no purpose other than to make me feel bad about myself? It is depressing in the extreme to be confronted every morning by a closet full of clothes I can’t wear. There are things I haven’t worn in five or ten or twenty years taking up precious storage space, things that someone else could probably get years of use out of. I suppose I keep them in part due to wishful thinking, the forlorn hope that I might yet squeeze into a size 6 again someday—as if that would magically solve all my problems. Partly it’s a dumb, irrational fear telling me that I had better save my old clothes just in case I can’t afford to buy new ones even if I do lose the weight, or that I’ll never find things I like as well. But mostly, I realized as I went through my closet item by item, sorting them into piles (Donation; Consignment; Trash; Keep for Sentimental Reasons; Keep Because It’s Really, Really Nice and I Might Actually Be Able To Wear It Again Someday, Maybe; and Make a Final Decision Later), holding onto all this stuff is actually symptomatic of my resistance to discarding old ideas about who I used to be.

Some people can never bear to part with anything. I know a few who are utterly ruthless. I fall somewhere in the middle of the sentimentality spectrum. Often a physical object, even something as mundane as an article of clothing, can help keep treasured memories alive. Your wedding dress; the baby’s first footie jammies; the signature cardigan, more security blanket than garment, that got you through college—I think it’s okay to hold onto a few of those things. And maybe this shirt, that belonged to a dear friend who left it at your house one time and somehow you never returned it and she finally said you could keep it, and even though it never really fit that well, you don’t want to get rid of it because it reminds you of your friend who you still love and miss, although your paths diverged many years ago. Or the skirt that you wore on your first date with your husband, the one he always said looked so good on you, back when you were both ripe to bursting with the possibility and promise of the future, though now ten or fifteen or twenty years on, the future may bear only the vaguest resemblance to the visions conjured by your youthful imaginations. And here is that enormous tent of a dress that you wore to the hospital when you were in labor—oh, and look, your nursing bra. Okay, admittedly it may be just a little bit gross to have saved that—but you can’t really give it away, either; and anyway, wasn’t it kind of nice when your kids’ problems were so simple that ninety-nine times out of a hundred you could solve them with a breast? Everything is so much more complicated now and most of the time you’re at a loss as to how you can help.

There is a subtle distinction to be made, however, between sentimentality and an unwillingness to leave the past in the past. In New Age and spiritual circles there is a lot of talk about “letting go.” It is a maxim oft-repeated during yoga retreats that in order to create space in your life for something new to emerge, you have to let go of that which is no longer serving any useful purpose. Put another way, in order to grow, you must first free yourself from whatever is holding you back. So what does that entail? Sometimes it may be a terrifying leap into the void, such as leaving a stultifying job or ending a relationship that no longer brings either partner happiness, with no clear idea of what will come next. It may be the hard work of overcoming an addiction, just getting through one day after another without the thing you once relied on. It may be finding a way to allow anger or grief or fear or despair to release the hold it has over your life. Sometimes it may be a prolonged, difficult journey of memory and discovery, as anybody who has ever had the task of clearing out their childhood home following the death of their parents will surely know. But there are the big letting-go’s and then there are the smaller letting-go’s. Sometimes it can be something as simple as cleaning out a single closet.

Buddhist meditation teacher Stephen Levine, in his wonderful book Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Dying, talks about the models we all create to tell stories about who we are:

We see the world though our idea of who we think we are. Our model of the universe is based on our model of ourselves. When we look at the world, all we see is our mind. When we look at a tree, a face, a building, a painting—all act as mirrors for who we think we are. Seldom do we experience an object directly. Instead we experience our preferences, our fears, our hopes, our doubts, our preconceptions. We experience our ideas of how things are. All is created in our image and likeness. …

The truth is what is. It is this moment, without the least trace of the last or any expectation of the next. Our models are a prison…they act as filters that accept what we believe and reject what seems otherwise.

Levine, who is known for his compassionate work with the terminally ill and grieving, tells us that most often the suffering experienced by people who are dying is a result of their inability to let go of their attachment to the models they have created and accept the reality they are currently living. The good provider who can no longer work to support his family, for example; or the talented musician who has lost her hearing; the loving mother who can no longer care for her children; the athlete who can no longer walk, let alone run—unable to maintain the self-images that have defined them throughout their lives, these people may experience a loss of identity that is as frightening—if not more so—than the prospect of physical pain and even death itself. According to Levine, it is the people who are able to shed these models and exist in their present reality, without resistance, who can “live their lives and die their deaths” with spaciousness and ease, even in the midst of difficulty.

But why wait until we are on the verge of death to begin to live our lives with that kind of fullness? Why not shed the bars of our prisons right now? As an exercise, I started to make a list of some of the models I have created about myself over the years. Here are a few of them:

  1. I am an artist.
  2. I am an only child.
  3. I am a yoga teacher.
  4. I am someone who writes (but not a writer).
  5. I am a woman.
  6. I am someone’s daughter.
  7. I am someone’s mother.
  8. I am someone’s wife.
  9. I am someone’s ex-wife.
  10. I am a chocoholic.
  11. I am a good student.
  12. I am a pretty girl.
  13. I am not a pretty enough girl.
  14. I am an American citizen (but not an American).
  15. I am someone with a lot of problems.
  16. I am a vegetarian.
  17. I am a nice person.
  18. I am a selfish person.
  19. I am a gifted child.
  20. I am a grave disappointment to the people who love me.
  21. I am someone with a unique fashion sense. [hence the attachment to clothes]
  22. I am a thin person.
  23. I am someone who needs to lose weight.
  24. I am a creative person.
  25. I am an emotionally unstable person.
  26. I am a liberal.
  27. I am a person with low self-esteem.
  28. I am a young person.
  29. I am a middle-aged person.
  30. I am not a morning person.
  31. I am a depressed person.
  32. I am an anxious person.
  33. I am someone who is afraid of heights.
  34. I am a talented person.
  35. I am a mediocre artist.
  36. I am a responsible person.
  37. I am someone who has migraines.
  38. I am a good listener.
  39. I am someone with something to say.
  40. I am someone who keeps my mouth shut.
  41. I am a strong person.
  42. I am a weak person.
  43. I am someone with Buddhist leanings (but not a Buddhist.)
  44. I am a shy person.
  45. I am not as shy as I used to be.
  46. I am a weirdo.
  47. [my all-time favorite refrain] I am stupid, useless and fat.
  48. I am someone who can never be happy.

I could go on and on for quite some time—I stop here only because one model for each year of my life seems adequate for demonstration purposes. Each one of these “models” tells a part of the story I have told myself about myself over the course of my life, many—perhaps most—of which have been based on the internalized feedback and expectations of other people. But no single one of these things is actually me. As you can see, some of them are mutually contradictory. Taken all together, it begins to look like the ravings of a very confused and disturbed mind.

The accretion of these models, built up over the years, give the ego, or sense of self, a marked resemblance to an onion, layer growing upon layer until it looks and feels like a solid object with an objective reality. And we tend to cling, desperately at times, to the belief in that reality. Having an identity is necessary and important, surely—these days, especially, identity is everything, and the prevalence of identity politics requires that everybody be neatly labeled and filed under the correct headings, fully indexed and cross-referenced. But when we begin the process of peeling away the layers of the self—which is really what any sort of spiritual journey is about—at some point there may arise a sense of fear about what will happen when the last layer is peeled away. What will I find at the core? What if there’s nothing there, just layer upon layer surrounding emptiness? What then? Without an identity, will I cease to exist?

The self may in fact be an illusion, but it is also a necessary fiction we invent because we have to cope with the daily realities of the world. If I may belabor another metaphor, our sense of self is like the hull of a boat, something we must build strong and watertight and constantly maintain because we would never survive unprotected in the open sea. It’s a flimsy shelter at best, though we outfit it like a battleship, iron-clad with our colors flying boldly in the breeze—as if the sea won’t batter and wreck even the strongest vessel as easily as a paper sailboat. But like the onion, there’s nothing on the inside, just an emptiness we’re forever trying to fill. We begin construction on this boat as soon as we’re old enough for our infant minds to start to perceive ourselves in relation to others, and continue adding fresh timbers to it over the years. While we’re young we are generally too preoccupied with trying to figure out what kind of boat we’re building and what we want to fill it with to stop and wonder why we are doing it in the first place. And there are a great many things to fill it with, indeed: an endless parade of merchandise and experiences vying for our attention with false promises to, at competitive prices, fill the inner void we sense but don’t quite acknowledge and bring us that elusive true and eternal happiness.

Pleasure is all well and good, and life without it can be a dreary slog for sure. But when at long last we accept that no new car or gadget or pair of shoes or lover or dream vacation or miracle cure or anything with the words Chocolate Decadence in its name will ever truly fill the void for more than a fleeting moment, and when we finally peel away the layers and confront that emptiness at the center, we don’t cease to exist. Instead, we catch a glimpse of freedom. For the models and ideas that we create to define us also confine us. And when we can finally conceive of life without them, we begin to understand who and what we really are, and we don’t need external things like clothes or degrees or possessions or titles or public approbation to reassure us that we are who we believe we are.

The way we dress says a great deal about the way we see ourselves and the way we want to be perceived by others—even the deliberately “anti-fashion” types are showing the world who they believe themselves to be. It occurs to me that each of the unworn items of clothing in my closet represents a model I once formed about who I am—a model that may no longer be serving any useful purpose. And of course, a tendency to hold onto the past often goes hand in hand with a tendency to worry about the future. Better to let them go, to accept that I am never going to be again who I was when I was 20 or 30 or 40, or to worry about who I will be when I am 50 or 60 or 70, and simply be who I am now. I don’t regret the life I have lived or the experiences that have shaped who I am now, though they have left their marks in the form of scars and lines and extra pounds and grey hairs. (Surely, for every extra pound age bestows, there ought to be a corresponding unit of wisdom, or at least acceptance, in compensation.) New Year’s resolutions are all too often about who we want to be, but I think we might be both happier and more able to do good work in the world if we could focus instead on simply being who we are. Time to give away all the old clothes that only make me feel bad, and buy a new pair of jeans that fit who I am now, having faith that if I squander less of my precious remaining time on earth fretting about the size of my ass, that freed-up energy can be put to better use.

So my goal for the coming year, insofar as I have one, is to keep my closets uncluttered, both literally and figuratively, and, in the words of Ram Dass, to be here now.

Happy New Year.

UNFKYOURMIND

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On Blade Runner 2049

**SPOILER ALERT**

Like many of my generation, I have learned through painful experience to keep my expectations in check when anticipating the sequel to one of the beloved iconic movies of my youth, so as not to be too disappointed—and so to occasionally be pleasantly surprised.

I was entranced for the nearly three hours of Blade Runner 2049—although sad to say, in retrospect I realize my appreciation may have been more aesthetic than visceral. The film is visually stunning from beginning to end, and the soundtrack is spectacular. Ryan Gosling’s performance as K is impressive, as are those of Harrison Ford and Robin Wright. I loved all the visual homages to the original Blade Runner—including the character  reminiscent of Daryl Hannah’s, even while this generation of replicants is such a pale shadow of the darkly luminous Pris and Roy Batty.

This movie manages to be even bleaker than the original, a dystopian glimpse of the not-so-distant future that feels eerily more plausible than it did in the early 1980s, and therefore that much more chilling: the vast fields of industrial protein farms, the hazy radioactive wasteland, the massive sprawling garbage dumps, the shadowy, alien-feeling corporate headquarters, the nightmarish overcrowded metropolis alight with advertising. Yep, I found myself thinking, that’s probably about how it’ll be in a few decades—assuming anyone is left alive.

It seems to be a world in which men just keep plugging along no matter how battered or worn down they get (Ryan Gosling’s air of weary resignation is pitch-perfect, though I completely missed the reference to Kafka’s Joseph K until it was pointed out to me), and women are either hard, steel-eyed bitches or else little more than ciphers—sex workers, virtual girlfriends, or the new-model replicants, which capitalist and colonialist Niander Wallace has produced to be slave labor, and now wants to turn into breeding stock. It’s a trope that incidentally allows for a lot of dehumanizing imagery of anonymous nude female bodies and some really gruesome scenes of violence, in which a disturbingly high percentage of the female characters are brutally killed.

There are a few other Hollywood tropes thrown in that have by now become so familiar that they actually detracted a bit from my overall enjoyment of the movie, including the child-labor orphanage and the underground rebel army, and a number of exquisitely choreographed fight scenes utterly lacking in any sense of suspense. In fact—though I was truly riveted by some of the slower paced scenes, such as when K follows his implanted memories to find the little carved wooden horse—the overall storyline, while engaging, was not terribly suspenseful. And in the end I’m not sure the characters pass the Voight-Kampff test; I didn’t find myself feeling much at all about the death of either Joi or K—not because I didn’t believe they had feelings or sentience or a “soul”, but because of lackadaisical writing. Other than the strange poetry of the baseline test—attributable to Vladimir Nabokov—this Blade Runner lacks the memorable, elegiac quality of the original, even if the loss is possibly made up for with its extraordinary visual eloquence. Still, I doubt anybody will be quoting lines from this movie thirty years from now. There is nothing that comes close to, “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” Or, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

(Speaking of lazy writing, I truly hate it when exposition is provided in explanatory text at the beginning of a movie. There is nothing there that couldn’t have been conveyed within the narrative!)

It seems like every story about artificial intelligence since Frankenstein has been a cautionary tale in which the created beings become self-aware and rebel against their human creators. Moreover, there are at least two distinctly humanist biases that show up in just about every AI story, to the point of becoming clichés: one, that Love Conquers All. Either the humans prevail because of their capacity for love, or else the created being proves capable of  love, and therefore has sentience and a soul and its existence has meaning. In other words, we must consider it to be “human.” Second, that the artificial humans aspire to be “real” humans. Surely it is understandable that a self-aware being would not want to live as a slave. But why is equality with the masters the preferred alternative? Why is dying for a good cause specifically “the most human thing” one can do? One character even calls for the replicants to be “more human than the humans.” But why would they not prefer to be themselves—especially if they have reason to consider themselves superior to humans? The assumption that human consciousness is the highest form of consciousness and that human emotion is the highest source of meaning is the sort of unquestioned bias our bioengineered cyborg descendants will look back upon as the worst kind of speciesism.

Since the original Blade Runner came out in 1982, a lot has happened in the field of AI—possibly the most interesting aspect of which is what Yuval Noah Harari calls the “Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness. In other words, consciousness is no longer presumed to be a prerequisite for intelligence. In 1950 Alan Turing developed the means to test whether a machine’s intelligence is distinguishable from that of a human. But a century on, will we have yet devised a reliable Turing test to determine whether or not an artificial intelligence also possesses anything we recognize as consciousness?

Joi, for instance, is a holographic AI designed to be the ideal girlfriend for any customer who purchases the software. So does her behavior prove that she really has either consciousness or feelings for K? She looks and acts and responds like a “real girl,” demanding nothing from him in return (too good to be true, by definition?). She even willingly risks her own life to stay with him. But is her choice an act of love, or is it merely that her algorithm dictates that is what his ideal girlfriend would do? If the latter, does this make her sacrifice any less genuine or meaningful?  Are we not all subject to the dictates of our own algorithms, responding to circumstance and stimuli as we have been programmed to do, in ways that are more often than not quite beyond our conscious volition?

For that matter, is the appearance of emotion the same thing as emotion, the appearance of self-awareness the same thing as self-awareness? And if there is a distinction, does the distinction matter? Can we be sure the memories that Dr. Stelline—the “miracle” child—creates for the replicants are any less meaningful than actual memories? In a world that conspires to dehumanize everyone, it is perhaps telling that the character who displays the greatest empathy lives so sheltered a life, literally kept behind glass, as if that is the only place where her empathy can survive. She sees her work as an act of kindness, providing replicants with happy memories to compensate for their hard lives—although, of course, not all of these memories are entirely happy. Yet what are any of us, if not the sum total of our (notoriously unreliable, and occasionally manufactured) memories? When she confirms K’s memory of the toy horse as one that “somebody” really experienced, he is fundamentally altered by the belief that what he always assumed to be artificial could in fact be genuine. And then, even once he learns that it wasn’t his own memory after all, but hers, the change in his perception of himself can’t be wholly undone. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, he has become Real. He becomes Joe.

The open-ended ambiguity at the end of the original Blade Runner was one of the things I always liked most about it. Is Deckard a replicant, or isn’t he? Here he tells Wallace, “I know what’s real.” Presumably it is love that made the original Rachael real for him. Perhaps love can give us the faith to believe, but can any of us ever be completely sure of what is real? And which is more important when it comes to things like love and meaning—faith, or knowledge? Is there in fact, as Lieutenant Joshi declares, a “wall” between a created being and one that is born? For all the strides we have made in understanding intelligence, we still have no clue about the nature or function of consciousness. How, then, do we measure it? What is the nature of the self, and what exactly is it that bestows upon any being a claim to selfhood? These are the most interesting questions the new film raises—far more interesting to me, anyway, than whether or not there will be another sequel.


The Ritual Slaughter of Americans

 

Believe it or not, I don’t actually want to take your guns away from you. I mean, sure, the hippie-dippy part of me would love to see these killing machines disappear, but I know that is not even close to realistic. And my attitude towards guns may change drastically when it comes to fighting off the hordes of radioactive zombies following our upcoming nuclear war with North Korea. But I digress already.

I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that the majority of gun owners are responsible, non-homicidal citizens who know how to handle a gun safely. If you feel you need firearms to defend your home or hunt wild animals, I don’t have to be enthusiastic about it to accept that it is your right. I also recognize that everything Stephen Paddock did in Las Vegas was fully within his legal rights—right up until the instant he targeted his first victim and pulled the trigger.

What dismays me is the breathtaking ease with which irresponsible, untrained, unstable, fanatical, delusional and/or mentally ill individuals can accumulate the firepower to take down dozens or hundreds of people—to say nothing of the everyday gun-related homicides, suicides and accidents—and even more so the attitude that says there is simply nothing whatsoever we can do about it, and that, yes, maybe it’s a shame all those people have to die, but the shooters’ ability to kill is still worth more than the lives of the people they kill. It seems like we have evolved a national mindset in which the country music fans of Las Vegas, just like the children of Sandy Hook, or the parishioners of Emanuel AME, or the clubbers of Orlando, or any of the other thousands of victims of these “unrelated,” “isolated” incidents are blithely chalked up to acceptable losses, a sort of sacrificial offering in a ritual slaughter that is as inevitable as it is horrific. So should they be honored as heroes, or martyrs—champions of liberty who have paid the ultimate price to ensure freedom for the rest of us? Is it just that every year a certain number of people chosen at random must be massacred so that we can reiterate the catechism whose conclusion seems to be that we can do nothing to prevent it? That feels to me like a devil’s bargain, at best, when we value citizens’ right to possess weapons whose only purpose is killing people more than we value those same citizens’ “privilege” to receive healthcare for mental illness (or bullet wounds).

Whenever one of these mass shooters takes it upon himself to decide who deserves to die, we can only shake our heads and say, Well, at least he had the freedom to stockpile an arsenal that made his job easy. The responses to such mass shootings have become so routine, it really is like reciting a well-known but empty liturgy. This isn’t the time for political debate. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. The guns aren’t to blame. An armed society is a safe society. Our rights are sacrosanct. It’s a mental health issue. He acted alone. Then there are the denials—the claims that the shooting didn’t really occur, but was “fake news” concocted by the liberal media in an effort to whip hysterical gun-control advocates into a froth to demand repealing the Second Amendment and taking away everyone’s guns, or else a hoax put on by Obama and the FBI, the “victims” actually actors (paid by George Soros, of course) only pretending to bleed to death. But most of all, we must repeat the customary assertion that no one could have possibly predicted this would happen.

But the truth is, we can predict it. Maybe not the next time and place it will happen or who the next shooter will be, but it is certain that it will happen again. The gun industry’s absolute lack of accountability and the NRA’s agenda of normalizing guns and gun culture in all areas of American life assures that it will—as does the resulting rallying cry in the wake of each major tragedy that they are coming for our guns. Despite being among the safest people who have ever lived (or maybe because of it?) we Americans nonetheless seem to be prone to an extreme degree of fear and anxiety, responding to any perceived threat, real or imagined, by buying more guns—thereby making our society less safe (and gun manufacturers richer). The obviousness with which the gun lobby gleefully exploits these fears for its own purposes and profit would almost be cartoon-villain comical if it weren’t so deadly.

When the shooter is a white American man, he is called a “lone wolf” or a “madman” rather than a terrorist; and yet it is convenient to the point of absurdity to write off every one of these mass shooters as a solitary whacko unconnected to a broader culture of guns and violence. And whether you call it terrorism or not (and I certainly do consider the very definition of terrorism to include random acts of violence that serve to make people live in constant fear, never knowing when or where the next one will occur) it is still someone choosing to kill other people. What I want to know is WHY we are so eager to kill each other, and what is missing from our lives (as humans, but specifically as Americans) that makes weapons and violence so appealing? Is it a sense of powerlessness? An innate, unmet need to test ourselves in battle? Glorification of violence in the movies? Poor impulse control? Confusion over shifting gender roles and economic realities? The national mythos of rugged individualism and The Good Guy with a Gun? A shortfall of empathy and compassion? Widespread existential despair and disconnectedness? All of these things run rampant in our society, and there is something deeply dysfunctional about our cultural attitude towards death and obsession with violence. I know that passion alone will not win the day for either side of the gun argument or achieve viable “commonsense” solutions to curtail the violence, and it’s true that you can’t legislate malice or rage or criminal insanity out of existence; but until we can address some of those deeper, murkier issues, no amount of policy or political debate is going to put an end to the slaughter.

 

gunsdont

 

 

 


Ten Ways to Make America Great Again

 

1. Keep everybody “else” out.

2. Increase industrial pollution.

3. Get rid of the arts, humanities, and public broadcasting.

4. Put women and minorities back in their place.

5. Arm the mentally ill.

6. Take away health insurance from those who need it most.

7. Scuttle any chance of meaningful reform in public education.

8. Prioritize corporate profit above human rights.

9. Alienate our allies.

10. Start a new nuclear arms race.

Oh, and just for good measure—

11. Abuse some puppies.

 

 

 


My New Year’s Resolutions for 2017

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Now that February is on its way out, I figure it is about time to set some intentions for the coming year (chief among them being STOP PROCRASTINATING—but that one kind of goes without saying—it’s really more of a mantra than a resolution at this point). In fact, I don’t usually go in for the New Year’s resolution thing, because it so often seems like setting myself up for failure, but this time it strikes me as important to put a plan in place for getting through what promises to be a particularly challenging year with my sanity and sense of purpose still intact. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of a few very modest goals:

  • Stay informed, but set reasonable limits on news consumption. I won’t do anybody any good curled up in a fetal position under my desk.
  • Establish a regular schedule of productive, positive civic actions: attend meetings of my local Indivisible group, contact my representatives in Congress, donate to worthy organizations, protest what needs protesting, and believe that every effort, however small, is worthwhile.
  • When using social media, always verify before sharing.
  • Don’t read the comments section.
  • Accept that it is sometimes okay to show up at a potluck with a six-pack or a box of doughnuts. Sometimes life just gets too busy, and right now we need community and conviviality more than we need another quinoa salad.
  • Continue writing and making art as if it matters.
  • Get my own house in order by creating—and following—a monthly budget.
  • Meditate every single day, even if only for a few minutes. This is the best line of defense against depression and anxiety.
  • Be kind as fuck to everybody I meet, whether they are bagging my groceries, answering my phone call, arguing with me on Facebook, or sharing my home.
  • Don’t read the comments section.
  • For reasons of perspective, travel out of the country at least once (this really shouldn’t be too difficult—at the very least, I can get to Canada in an hour).
  • Likewise, go to the ocean.
  • Don’t be too busy to build Legos with my kid when he asks; someday soon he’ll stop asking.
  • No more disposable coffee cups!
  • Look for ways to help make my own community a warmer and more welcoming place.
  • Install the new shower curtain liner that has been sitting on the bathroom counter since sometime around the 2016 election.
  • Remember to be grateful at least once a day for all of the good things in my life.
  • Really: don’t read the comments section.