That pain in my head

September 17th, 2014

Here’s one of the latest scientific ideas: consciousness is the attention you pay to your own internal monologue. It ‘happens’ because you’re aware of the meaning of words, and you have sensations attached to them. You pay attention to plenty of things, of course – what you see, what you hear, or that rumbling in your stomach. But these can’t become ideas until you put words on them. Once you put words on them, they undergo the fantastic mathematics of multiple permutations and associations – and you’re a ‘thinking’ being.

The idea is, when somehow some mutant ancestor first articulated a couple of audible noises that her boyfriend understood (“not now!”) – she produced in his mind a set of provocations which he controlled himself. His brain was fully equipped to synthesize and coordinate, but external objects were stubbornly intractable. Suddenly, here was a set of objects (words) he could not only perceive but rearrange – and the rearrangements became new objects as well. All by himself, he could think, create, and express new meaning (“now! now!”).

His expressions seemed to exist by themselves; to cause events. He taught them to his kids. And we were off.

The science is about decoding what’s called the ‘interface,’ the place where all our external stimulations are transmuted into that exquisitely personal sense of ‘I am feeling this.’ Most of us begin and end with ‘I am feeling this,’ without paying attention to the fact we’re largely replaying recorded word arrangements inherited from someplace else. Apparently it’s quite revolutionary to modify these arrangements (that first dialogue remains an important one).

So am I really feeling – this?

I recall Sam Clemens’ observations on what people call ‘work.’ He noted some folks claim writing books is work. He differed, and I agree. Digging ditches is work. Writing books is something else.

So perhaps with pain. Physical pain hurts. I get that. But emotional pain? Sure, it shares a lot of conscious distress with the physical stuff, but it’s never clear it means anything. I might as well have made it up. Maybe I did. Or maybe it was just handed to me.

I don’t say this lightly. Unless you are truly on the fringe, I’ve known as much inward suffering as you have.

But still, until a hundred or so years ago, the basic fact of everybody’s physical life was physical suffering. Maybe not for a few almost artificial years in youth, but usually even then. It was just fucking hard to live. The fact of life really was physical suffering. So you find out a lot of the ‘truth’ the culture hands to us is just that: the ‘truth’ of suffering. But is it the truth? Really?


The center of the universe

September 10th, 2014

Once, when I was a boy, there was a rainstorm. It rained for days and days. The roadside gutters filled up to my neck and I swam in them. Behind the house, through a ravine choking its course through brush and tree trunks, a thin waterway appeared. I discovered a floating log big enough to carry me a few yards downstream.

Later, I was on a fishing boat in an agitated sea. Swells crashed over the bow and buried the gunwales as we lurched up and down in the wind. Recklessly, I climbed outside the cabin into the weather, clinging with my hands to a cleat. I just lay there grinning as the boat bounced around and the foam poured over me.

I tried to write a book, and took long winding walks on dirt roads through deep country. A few steps into some berry vines, as if I needed privacy, I peed into the weeds. As my stream weakened I focused across the brambles to meet the eyes of a standing black bear, some dozen yards in front of me. ‘OK,’ I said, took a couple steps back and effected an indifferent saunter into the distance.

My friend got me very drunk and brought over a pair of pretty prostitutes. That was scary, so I went out on the street and fell into a taxi. I managed my way out of the cab and up the long flight of stairs to my apartment. Where I fell down. I enjoyed exquisite clarity. The keys were in my pocket, my hand upon the floor, and the door knob in the haze above my head. I coordinated these elements, with some commentary and over a few moments, with as little body motion as possible, until the knob yielded, the door swung open, and I rolled inside.

Core drama

September 6th, 2014

‘For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.’ (Yusuf Islam)

How can I try to explain? (ibid.)

I’m not like you. I’ve looked into it. There’s research available on this stuff. The few of you who are, you’ve got therapists helping you get better.

I’m raising a kid now and it’s like being shouted at by myself. I’ve figured it out, though. He just wants me to be fearless, kind, and curious. He wants me to experiment with myself. He wants me to explore. Is he nuts?

Beautiful nuts. I look at him and just pant for life.

How can that kid who was me have turned into this guy’s dad?

If he only knew. I am so with him. I am so with him. I am so with him he’s under house arrest and I’ve got him a therapist to help him get better.

I’ve figured it out, though. Our kids are flush and healthy and bored with their infernal contentment. They’re drawn to sorrow, and alienation, and pain – because it feels like something’s happening. They get into it, too. The real thing: ‘I just want you to hurt like I do.’ (R. Newman)

Not me. Please God, do not let any other person hurt like I do.

So I bow my head and I endure and I look for happiness in the little places I can find it. I tell my boy to keep his pants on and his nose clean, so he can enjoy what I’ve got someday.

So he yells at me.

If that kid only knew. I want to rip off my shirt and scream at the moon. I want to live on the street. I want to die drunk.

Isn’t anybody out here crazy besides me?

When there used to be heaven

September 4th, 2014

I grew up with heaven as the good place where good people go when they die. As I grew older and its believability faded, I held onto the idea because it gave me a comfortable way to think about relationships. I got hurt sometimes. Real people hurt me. And boy oh boy, have I slugged a few stomachs in my day.

Heaven is where we all met again. Just as we were (perhaps a little younger). In lawn chairs under afternoon sunlight maybe, recollecting scars and grudges like pranks we played on each other; recalling anger and regret like odd outfits of clothing we put on to entertain ourselves. Stories of being human. All forgiven.

I have a big, open heart. It goes cold and heavy, but it’s never stayed that way. I got wounded sometimes. I struck some mean blows. I would look at the others and imagine them laughing with me. ‘In heaven,’ I would think, ‘we’ll all understand.’


School day

August 13th, 2014

It’s his first day of high school so I drove Evan, for the first time, up to the campus. He was grumpily uninterested in me, but he’s been polite these days. I let him run pretty free this summer. Run he did. And we reined him back to find him more comfortable with himself; less angry. He’s learned something. He’s accommodating us, now.

These pages (you may have noticed this) are ‘saying this about me.’ I feel (I really feel) like a tremendously creative, vital, overwhelmingly attractive presence in the world – yet I am only a mediocre, middle-class man barely glib enough to bumble through a business meeting. I sit behind my ‘raw, subjective experience,’ and I want somehow to be first and best at displaying what I perceive – to a large and adoring crowd. But I can do only this. I cannot show you any of the real stuff.

At Evan’s birth our midwife talked a bit about raising children, sharing her thoughts our parenting difficulties often coincide with those ages our kids reach when we, ourselves, got troubled or broke down. For me, of course, that was most of all of it, but middle-school was rough and it was hard on Evan, too. Hard on me. I’m a clueless parent. I had no instruction.

The other day, I read a high-brow academic’s claim that – aside from genetics – parents, in the end, have no effect on the adults their children turn out to be. This led to a wonderful moment in which I realized I’m not raising an empty mind to become what I intend – I’m helping myself to become what is possible. I know something about doing that.

I want so much to be seen (I will travel far, indeed, looking for people who might recognize me). But I don’t know how to show myself. Evan is a musical performer, and a remarkable one. He’s one of those astonishing kids I thought we only read about, aware of his purpose and practicing it, hours and hours each day; living to get up on the stage. And he gets up on the stage. It’s like watching a soul split open. It is, literally, listening to a man simply be. Loudly. In public. And he gets to do it.

So here’s that profoundly parental sensation: Evan hops down from the truck in front of the high school. I say ‘I love you’ and he says ‘yeah.’ He heads off toward the complex and I see me walking away into life, but this time able to live it. I am so, so¬† pleased to let him go.

Bonds and war

August 8th, 2014

The world really is moved by money, just not by much. It’s hard to understand things when, in fact, we think largely the same way our closest circle of friends does. I grew up in painful and destructive financial circumstances, and the world looked cruel and unfair to me. Everybody around agreed. Now, I’m having trouble understanding the national chorus of complaint. My friends eat organic food and fly to Europe and the unemployment rate is falling – what’s the problem?

I’ve been criticized for spending too much time thinking about money. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you do, too. Indeed, all our best and brightest do. They play games with ‘financial products’ called stocks and bonds, according to rules they set themselves, with currency printed up by bankers they often sleep with. The world looks good to them indeed.

There’s a point where reality intrudes. I woke up this morning to find the US is dropping laser-guided bombs into Iraq, while Russia proceeds with genuine territorial ambitions in Ukraine. In the old days, war had a material effect on bankers, because occasionally armed men arrived and shot them. At such times, rather than frittering it away on their customary sex-and-travel pastimes, they would loan their money to powerful governments and beg for protection.

So today, despite overwhelming inflationary pressure and a host of game-board positives, folks are buying bonds again – as if war might still matter somehow.

Satan and justice for all

July 29th, 2014

Satanism became attractive to my son so I looked it up. It’s a remarkable religion with some history and depth – not to be confused, it turns out, with most of what any traditional monotheist might ‘instinctively’ suspect. ‘Devil-worshippers’ are scorned by Satanists because all deities – the devil included – are a joke. My not-so-lengthy review of the literature describes a sort of promiscuous self-worship. Without the name ‘Satan’ attached I imagine it could disappear like any other brand of atheistic hedonism. But with the name!

When Evan first mentioned Satanism I started humming, ‘if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao…’

Something cool has happened. In its burgeoning enthusiasm to promote a theocratic state by judicial decree, the Supreme Court has declared corporations tantamount to real human beings, and designated their professed faith as sufficient to disregard secular law. A lawyer I know responded, ‘the flood-gates are open!’

Indeed they are. There’s an obnoxious legal imposition known as ‘informed consent,’ which in some states requires women desiring abortions to first meet with professionals who try to talk them out of it. According to the Satanists, this amounts to a violation of religious liberty for all those whose devotion entails a commitment to serving their own opinions alone. Presumably, if you’re a Satanist, you can legally think what you want.

At least according to the Supreme Court.

Steady state

July 24th, 2014

The news from Iraq seems familiar somehow, even though the story’s told differently. It sounds like the people are intractably violent and hateful. That’s what it sounds like. But I think it’s just a story. It doesn’t seem sensible so it’s probably not being reported accurately. I remember it being reported a decade back, when we went in and started shooting people ourselves. It was a big deal. As if winning and losing mattered. Today I guess we’re content with our fracking.

From here, the whole world seems impossibly placid. Advertised mayhem is getting boring. Every day I go to work. We all just do. And people remain bizarre. They’re downright outraged that immigrants still come to this country. They’re furious about health insurance. But not really. Just like Iraq, it’s a story. It’s not a report.

The higher ups seem like they’re out to lunch, but maybe they’ve finally got it figured. If you know how economies work, you know everything in ours is impossibly ‘over-valued.’ Nothing is worth what’s being paid for it, and usually before now things would have collapsed. But it’s the only game in town, so we’re just printing free money and playing with ourselves. Thing is, when absolute power is genuinely absolute, maybe it really can go on forever.

I’m hearing the story about Israel. It sounds bloodier than usual. I don’t think it’s supposed to sound so bloody. Like the money people in this country, the Israelis are supposedly invulnerable masters of their own situation. Never mind the old saying about nukes in the Middle East – ‘if you drop one on Iran, in the morning it’s Iran; if you drop one on Israel, in the morning it’s gone.’

And Jesus descends through the clouds.


The warm gun, mama.

July 21st, 2014

I’ll be auditing an on-line course called ‘the psychology of happiness’ at Berkeley in the fall. Happiness relates to consciousness in this country because we have something of a cultural mandate to ‘pursue’ it. It’s one of those ideas, like ‘consciousness’ itself, I find most people don’t like to look at quite directly.

Scientists, of course, look at it quite directly – measuring multiple dimensions of ‘subjective well-being’ and objective comfort. I’ll bet they come up with a number. Who knows? My happiness is a 6.2. Yours is a 7.9.

Somebody used some such numbers to color a map of the U. S. the other day. Oddly, blue states were happy states, red states unhappy. It was a remarkable map because the colored regions seemed well-aligned with the famous red-blue maps of political party representation. Politically red states (Louisiana, Mississippi) are the happiest. Politically blue states (New York, California) are bummed out. Maybe San Franciscans are down because their opposition is so content with itself. Of course, these are self-reported surveys. It’s likely everybody’s lying.

Wondering if everyone is lying, I quickly searched for color-coded happiness maps from other sources and, behold! There are plenty of maps on which the colors are reversed. Which reminded me of global warming, because even though politicians announce ’97 percent of scientists agree’ on the phenomenon – for some reason, if I search for ‘global surface temperature’ all the top responses claim it’s either flat or going down.

Furthermore, I read an optimistic piece by some NGO the other day, predicting global absolute poverty can be eliminated by 2030. If everyone is fed and put in a house, the whole unhappiness thing starts sounding like sour grapes.


The mortal coil

July 14th, 2014

I’ve been home with Evan for a couple weeks while the other half of the family visits Europe. Evan didn’t want to go and, well, I’ve been to New York. What else is there?

I’ve been reading so hard in neuropsychology it’s hard to think anything exists outside my own brain. I have new explanations for my general snobbishness. The social result is the same.

I must exercise our dog, or she becomes impossible. I take her to the ‘dog park,’ where I sit on a bench while she dashes back and forth. A woman sits down next to me and asks, ‘isn’t it amazing how they all descend from wolves?’

I don’t know what to do with this. She isn’t sexually compelling and it isn’t that amazing. So she asks, ‘isn’t it amazing how much corruption there is in government?’

I begin looking for a lesson here. I imagine her thirty years from now in the nursing facility, asking, ‘isn’t it amazing how corrupted all the wolves are?’

Not really.

In the garden, there’s a ‘giant pumpkin’ vine. Only the female flowers turn into pumpkins. The bigger the vines are, the bigger the future fruit is supposed to be. I’ve been pinching off the females while the plant grows, so all its life flows into its leaves. I’m told I should let one female survive on a vine, and keep pinching off the others. That’s the way to get a really big pumpkin.