Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Scoffing at the sacred cow

I enjoy ambivalence. Immensely. With this being the case, I recently compiled a list of ideas I held with certainty. First thing on the list: evolution!

Now, I don't know anything about evolution. Genetics? Nah. Intro to Biology? B+... easy class. And yet, I believe in evolution.

Not. anymore I don't! Now, I am thoroughly ambivalent. I am neither in or out. I float about.

How'd I do it? I read about sex. Not a picture book. Not a how-to (I have that pretty. well. covered.) Rather, why sex? In the sense of: lifeforms didn't always go bump in the night. Asexual reproduction (apparently?) once ruled the day. And then? Sex! Lots of it.

Here's what I really like: sex and reproduction... totally different. You see, reproduction is when one becomes two. Sex... however, takes two, and becomes one. And the explanations I've skimmed can't account for this at all... evolution doesn't know. It goes meh. Enter ambivalence. Lovely.

How about the turritopsis nutricula, or immortal jellyfish. It doesn't die of old age. It just doesn't. You, for instance, are probably living in a body that isn't keeping up with repairs. You are aging. It will kill you. This jellyfish doesn't age in one direction. It cycles. From maturity to immaturity, or, it goes from pre-to-post puberty... round and round. Hilarious, right?

So why isn't this a common biological move? What's the deal with aging? Can evolution account for that? Nah. At least, not particularly well.

I'll stop now, but I'll finish with this: I've noticed that, as I age, I keep sneaking towards certainties. So I must be on guard. I must actively combat this inertiatic move. And it's fun.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Allow me to answer your absurd question

I hate Canada. I hate you. Very different, right? Because with the latter, its so obvious what I'm talking about. I'm talking about you, shitbird. But the former, that's a mess. One definition of Canada is the way it is posed on a map. There is it, a jabillion square miles of land outlined on a paper or basketball-sized globe. But, to say "I hate Canada" is most certainly not a claim to my feelings about the land itself.

Instead, the claim of hating a country is a fantastic example of identifying something that really doesn't exist outside of yourself. The Canada that my example hates could only live within me. It's a feeling. Not a thing.

This morning I didn't have to work, and the weather wasn't amiable to gardening, so I took to the computer. I enjoyed some nonsense I found on Slate, a wonderfully silly online periodical (silliness example, from an article on spanking children: "So what’s the deal—are slaps on the tush OK if your children deserve it, or will it screw them up for life?" Oh gawd... is it okay to hit your kid on the ass if they deserve it. I love Slate, so sincerely idiotic).

The article was from a column called The Explainer: Answers to your questions about the news. And the headline's question was: Why did Hugo Chavez hate the United States so much? Before I say more, I'll say this: I don't know anything about Hugo Chavez, and I'm not interested in what he may have hated, or why. Here's how The Explainer commences:

Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president famous for anti-American rhetoric, died Tuesday. He referred to the United States as “a bad person,” “an assassin,” and “a violent invader.”

As an aside, I love that the explanation begins by saying he's famous for anti-American rhetoric. It's a lovely arrangement of what is important. First sentence. What's he famous for? Anti-America. Hilarious.

And then the quotes. Oh, these are good. According to The Explainer, Chavez called the United States three things, and I'd like for you to conjure an image for each.

1) United States, bad person, please conjure an image.
2) An assassin, image please
3) A violent invader, image

For the first, I can't really get much of anything, at first, but then Ronald Reagan pops in my head. Aww, sorry Ron. That sucks. Of all the images, I get Ron Reagan. A shitbird, for sure, but to be the banner image for "America, bad person"... that's rough. Number two, I first came to a man in desert military fatigues crouching behind a big ass rock, giant sniper rifle in hand. Number three, I pictured a man who my brain labeled a rapist. He was probably 30ish years old, not fit, white guy, looked like shit (when I know perfectly well that a well-dressed fit-freak is just as likely to rape... goddamned appearance prejudice! Fuck!)

Ron Reagan, military sniper, rapist. Or, a high ranking politician I personally find to be unsavory, a paid killer, and the worst of the worst, the rapist. Thanks Hugo Chavez, I hate America too, now that I see what it really is.

But wait, says the astute reader, the United States isn't a person! Every image you just conjured was of an individual man. What the fuck are you talking about? Okay... okay...

The Explainer goes on to say that Chavez, as President of Venezuela, was unhappy with George W. Bush because of a rift over trade policy. And then its explained to the reader that:
Although Chávez and Bush made weak attempts at reconciliation at the meeting—they told each other they wanted to be “friends” on the summit’s final day—the meeting showed Chávez that his surest path to global significance was as an opponent of the United States. Chávez repeatedly claimed that the CIA was trying to assassinate him and that the United States attempted to oust him from office in 2002.
Friends?! I'll show you friends!

And that's it, the explanation compares Chavez to Fidel Castro (they've both been to Yankee Stadium, me too!). And... take it to press. Explanation. Complete.Why does Hugo Chavez hate America so much? Because he broke-up with George Bush. Your absurd question has been answered.

To the comments! Obviously, a bunch of smarty-pants comments told The Explainer how flawed the explanation was. Thanks for nothing! They seemed to say. What about this and that! Does the name Marcos Perez Jimenez mean anything to you, dummy!

Against all good sense, I jump into the comment pool. I have a goal. I want to nudge the comments that suggest "we" have done all these terrible things, causing Chavez's so-called hate. Example: Impulse725 writes: I'm sure our habit of organizing coups, assassinating leaders, and destabilizing South America didn't factor into his dislike at all. 

And I say something like: Our habit of doing all that? You assassinate leaders and organize coups?! Holy shit, that's fucking wild. I'm sipping whiskey and watching Iron Chef, I want to party with you, continent de-stabilizer. 

In the effort to explain why, oh why, non-Americans dislike "America", the answer is already decided. The basic rhetorical move, question the question, isn't made. And seemingly well-meaning people say absurd shit because they're working with a broken premise: that something called "The United States" is capable of action. Not only is it capable of action, but it is also me! It isn't, obviously. Sure, people act, and the little people are taught to identify with the big-man... and voila, you asked why some guy hates something that doesn't exactly exist, I gave you an answer that followed its own bizarre logic, and we've confirmed it: Chavez hates America so much. So much.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What kids will likely learn: Kill the right people

I'm watching the Superbowl! Whoo-hoo! Perhaps the most predictable spectacle imaginable, it's awesome.

Ray Lewis is very obnoxious. I just watched him explain how, since he is an instrument of God, he couldn't have been the one who killed a couple of guys. But, killing your enemies is not exactly verboten, rather, its thoroughly celebrated, sometimes. Had Lewis murdered a bunch of Afghan Madrasa students, well, that'd be pretty great. He'd be a hero. That's what kids are somewhat likely to learn, while watching the pre-game stories.

So wear a uniform, kill a foreigner (one opposed to global neoliberalism) and you can be a token hero. Kill a guy in a fight which smells of "gang" activity, and white people will sit in their living room and call you a thug, and ask you questions about it forever. Kill the right people, America.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Today disavowed yesterday

Driving on a dark back road, I was puzzled by the leaves. Are those leaves hopping? No, not leaves. Frogs. Like, uh, a million of em'. In January. The air busied itself to 73 degrees (6 degrees higher than ever recorded in this town) and a half inch of warm rain fell. There was a tornado warning. As the weather was typical for May, the frogs, understandably, came out of their pseudo-hibernation.

I was fixing new latches onto some of my greenhouse windows, today. It started to snow. Wind whistling. The work required dexterity which gloves blunt. I hurried my ass up so I could get inside before the pain in my finger tips became too much.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Magic in a Gesture

An exhilarating, emotional event is not always a good story to re-tell. Even if the event was full of drama and joy, like so many good stories. Because those moments that seem so special often operate by the logic of magic. And magic only works with incomplete understanding. If only we could leave it at that.

Tee vee programs specialize in presenting the angst surrounding virtues (vices too) in a story-form. Viewers tune in for their serial drama or comedy, where one or two virtues is confronted, circled, poked at, misunderstood, re-considered, and then wrapped up. It works well. Competent actors under the watch of writers and suits. The viewer knows this, and then somewhat intentionally forgets it, and that is, more or less, that. Its a good little trick. But there is another trick that the tee vee attempts, with much less success: to recreate what feels good about a "feel good" story.

Take the recent feel good case of Owen Groesser, the dedicated equipment manager for his middle school's basketball team. He has Down Syndrome. His mother asks the coach if Owen might wear the team uniform and play in a game, despite not being a player. The coach agrees, and makes some sort of an arrangement with the opposing coach. So Owen gets to play in the game. He makes a few shots. The crowd cheers enthusiastically. Smiles abound. And then tee vee shows up (via Twitter) to re-tell the tale.

Clearly stated: what was done for Owen was a very nice gesture — even if his mother instigating it makes it a little less cool. But regardless of how nice it was... it is a gesture. From medieval Latin gestura, from Latin gerere ‘bear, wield, perform.’ And a large number of "feel good" stories (hell... maybe most) seek to capture the effects of a gesture. A gesture which often seeks to make the impossible, possible.

So a gesture is a type of performance. Symbolic. A tool. For example: I want to express gratitude to a friend for helping me with something unpleasant. I take him out for a few drinks, dinner, pay the bill, pay for the cab, and my gratitude has been signified with food and banter. I don't even need to "say" thank you, I've signified with actions. A simple gesture. Or, a homeless family can be given a house on national television. Also a gesture.

Owen was unable to make the team. Everybody knows this. It is a "cut" league, serious business, so you don't get to play just by paying your entry fee. You must qualify to pay. And Owen didn't qualify. But the gesture invalidates that truth. Quite suddenly, Owen is on the team! Like magic.

The magic of a performance is easy to mess up. The other actors have to stay in character, and so does the audience — they have to know: this is special. This gesture rearranges normal. We ignore the sense that Owen being on the court isn't right. And then the curtain raises and its already happening. Owen is on the court. He's catching a pass. He's heaving the ball towards the hoop, and it falls in. A boy with down syndrome, who isn't on the team, is on the team, and he's scoring points. You see... magic.

But for the sake of all that is good, don't talk about it! Nothing robs the gesture of its magic like pointing out what is actually happening. So just enjoy it. Don't try to get on ESPN, just be happy it happened, magic doesn't reward the greedy. Because if you talk about it... if you make a big fuss and tell other people... well. The truth. Oh shit. The truth doesn't come out. Thankfully. But something does. And it's a huge pile of shit.

The pile is Amazing! He defies all odds! He's a superstar!

Oh. No. What just happened? Owen made two out of four shots in a middle school basketball game. It was not amazing because... Owen is a pretty decent shooter, according to his father, and the video I saw. The kid can shoot. Did he defy all odds? Well, this is inherently hyperbolic, but while the one-too-many chromosome crowd aren't the most athletic bunch... we're talking about basketball. A put-the-ball-in-the-goal game. 
Eighth-grader Owen Groesser always knew he had what it takes to be a superstar and that’s what he has become. (Los Angeles Daily News)
A superstar? Again, I get that overstatement happens, but in these cases, the absurdity is necessary to avoid the limits of the story.

This video from Detroit's ABC affiliate, the news person says:
The sincere care for this kid, who happens to have Down Syndrome, was unbelievable, and would make anyone witnessing these acts of kindness shed a tear.
The casualness of "who happens to have Down Syndrome" makes this fact sound incidental, rather than essential. The whole idea is that Owen was unable to make the team because of his genetic disability, no fault of his own. And the hyperbole about the crying...

And then from the same segment, a teammate is interviewed:
I think its a good experience for our team and our school, for somebody to show that anything is possible, no matter what kind of disability you have.
Again, while this boy is saying a nice thing, it's also nonsense. Nothing about the evening proved that anything is possible.

I've probably given too many examples already, I'm arguing that a gesture can be really lovely, a beautiful thing. But talking about it, or trying to publicize it, or recreate it, destroys the moment by either:

 A) pulling back the curtain. Explaining exactly what the gesture meant, and that it was a performance. Symbolic. And then the magic is gone.

B) Rather than destroy the magic, a bunch of nonsense hyperbole is presented as truth.

And once you're committed to the hyperbole, it's easy to lose a simple truth: trying to repeat a nice gesture, because it made YOU feel good, starts to look like charity. Owen was back on the court for the next game. Wearing his uniform. Catching a pass. Taking a shot. When Owen's shot failed to go in, the opposing team gathered the rebound, and returned the ball to their opponent. Owen missed another shot. The opposing team returned the ball. Keep shooting until you make it, was the new gesture. No longer could we have that moment of disbelief, when the impossible was possible. And the magic was gone, because everybody understood.