28 April 2014

Choices -- We Have Them We Make Them The Consequences We Take Them

The sky is clearing and the night has gone out The sun, he come, the world to soften up Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on - - From the song Carry On by Crosby, Stills and Nash
And the ink blank darkness of night envelops at midday and I am left to the wrenching ache of the putrid soul. Somehow the efforts to persevere are rendered meaningless as the true horror of living tortures the remnants of my soul. It all can seem so empty even ugly in those times when despair rules.

The unknowing and ignorant manage to be blissfully unaware while we with minds and ideas are left existentially tortured and certain only of creeping death.

There are fragments of my life scattered throughout the past. Of course the past is no more than a notion of events and times that exist only in memories and old photographs. It is nothing I can touch or feel or experience outside of my mind.

Now I cling to those gone years when I was in the fullness of happy youth and believed myself indestructible and eternal. A perfect being who could do anything anywhere at any time and for whom fun was an end unto itself. Fun was what I lived for and damn the consequences -- those could be well enough sorted later.

I seldom had plans or goals. Just hopes dreams and vague aspirations. Riches and fame awaited and all I need do was to stick around until they were proffered. There were plenty of women and always would be and all were at my disposal. Love was to be felt today and required neither commitment nor consideration. Women were in some ways abstractions.

I’d do what I wanted to.

I maintain a firm grip on these bygone days. Looking back they provide a reflection that is not always pleasant but always interests.

Today I have the benefit of experience which is naturally accompanied by wisdom. I am therefore “wise.” How nice for me. I am still tangled in my own mind but at least have some clarity about the futility of pursuing immortality. We all become dust sooner or later and for many there are years of aging which precede. When our bodies and mind slow down. When our faces sag and wrinkle and unadulterated fun seems such an effort and one not entirely worth it. We also stare into the abyss fully aware that most of our time on Earth has passed and what remains may be taken up in large part by the vagaries of aging.

But we get up. We look back and wonder where the years went. We face the coming day. Like walking in a snowstorm we lower our heads and forge ahead mindless of discomfort. Determined to reach our destination. Sure that it is out there. Somewhere. We remind ourselves what day it is because we have reached the point that we need to.

Yet we are not unhappy. Not much anyway. We know enough to enjoy as much as we can. There are great joys to be experienced but they now come with an understanding that it is all temporal. The joy the pain the understanding the confusion the boredom. Nothing lasts.

It’s important to keep moving forward to be doing things to not give into the feelings the oppressive weight of sorrow. It can overwhelm and confine us to places we don’t really want to be that are so hard to get out of. If we once used drugs and alcohol to stay out we at least should know that answers and comforts must come from within and through the love of others not by stimulating or dulling our minds artificially.

The journey continues and its always nice to be on it, I suppose.

22 April 2014

And it's One Two Three What're We Fightin' For? Don't Ask Me I Don't Give a Damn Next Stop is Vietnam

"Hell is the impossibility of reason." - From Platoon directed by Oliver Stone
The prologue to my life was World War 11 which ended nine years before I was born. It informed my childhood its memories still crisp in the air. It was the war in which the US vanquished German fascism and Japanese imperialism. There was no question but that we were the good guys. World War II came to be known as the good war. Who could argue with that?

But as my teen years approached, there was a conflict in Vietnam in which the US had become embroiled. As a child I accepted the government's explanations for the country's need to be there risking American lives. It was far away and death and dismemberment were abstractions not given much thought. But increasingly there was an unease about this war. As I grew up the war grew also and so too did cries that this was not our fight that we should bring our soldiers home and should be pursuing peaceful methods to solve conflicts whenever and wherever possible. Anti-war sentiment soon became part of the hip youth culture with -- for example -- The Beatles themselves calling US participation wrong.

Fortunately I was growing up in Berkeley which in my early youth had much of a bucolic Anytown USA quality to it replete with picket fences ball fields and parades down main street. By the middle of the 1960s those parades were anti-war marches. As I grew into adolescence it became increasingly clear that the government was not necessarily to be trusted. They were wrong to continue the war in Southeast Asia just as they had been wrong for so many years -- it was now clear -- not to ensure the rights of its Black citizens and to do enough for those in need. The US government, I was learning, was far from perfect.

Long hair rock music drugs and rebelling against the government went hand in hand. I was at the right place at the right time. Power to the people. One of the first questions you asked someone back then was: "are you for or against the war?" It was a litmus test. People for it were not only wrong but they were hopelessly square unaware and enemies of love peace and understanding.

If the nobility of the US rescuing Europe and Asia during the second world war set up my childhood then it was the ghastly mistake of the Vietnam War that ushered in my adulthood. Here was a terrible tragedy in which the United States had not just been fighting the wrong enemy -- as Daniel Ellsberg said -- but had actually been the enemy. Moreover this was a war that my generation had fought in. Almost anyway. I was about two years too young to have ever served in Viet Nam. But that was close enough for me to experience a form of survivor's guilt that afflicted many of my generation. I dreamed about being in combat in the Nam repeatedly over the years and those dreams were never heroic and were usually horrific.

Vietnam has come to be known as the first televised war which is one of the reasons that it has left such a powerful impact on my generation's psyche. There were the moving images often in living color of napalm being dropped, of soldiers entering battle or recovering from it, or coming home from it in caskets. Even then the full devastation on the war -- particularly as felt by the Vietnamese -- was unseen. But in large part due to the war's unpopularity there were the stories of the men who served. Many now came home adamantly opposed to the war they fought in. But still some of the true terror of the war caused by the US remained largely unknown. Films like Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979) gave but a hint and cinematically at that.

I did not really begin to understand the war until a week ago when I started reading "Kill Anything That Moves" by Nick Turse. It is the story of the countless atrocities committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians (including women children and the elderly) ranging from My Lai type massacres to individual killings rapes and torture to indiscriminate artillery and bombing that devastated villages farms animals and innocent human beings. It is a fascinating and depressing read. Clearly any notion that Americans are nobler than anyone else -- were one foolhardy enough to think so -- would be dashed by this recounting of the horror US soldiers visited upon the innocent. Turse's accounts are based on documentary evidence including interviews with witnesses and even participants and government documents some recently declassified.

Sadly it all rather fits in with American history. Slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, atrocities in the Philippines, Japanese internment the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, drone strikes in the Mid East that kill innocent civilians, are all part of the litany of slaughter and torment that the US has brought almost exclusively to people of color.

In the US itself great memorials and soaring tributes and impassioned speeches and dedications are made when any Americans are victims of an attack on US soil. Last year's Boston Marathon bombing claimed three lives with 264 injured. For this there was endless praise for the strength and fortitude of the people of Boston and determination to not forgot the victims. Of course the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks has brought us years of ribbons flags and phony patriotism -- not to mention a war in Afghanistan that still endures today and part of a pretext for the war in Iraq. Americans are so accustomed to victimizing that when they are the victims they howl ceaselessly.

So anyway I watched Platoon on Sunday for maybe the sixth or seventh time but for the first time in several years. It is one of those rare Oscar winners for best picture that actually deserved the award. Charlie Sheen (his dad Martin had starred in Apocalypse Now) starred as Chris Taylor a young private arriving in the Nam in late 1967 to serve with a unit which sees action near the Cambodian border. According to people who have served in wars in general and Vietnam in particular, Platoon captures everything up to the smell of being part of a unit in combat. For those of us who've been fortunate to avoid the military it seems real enough. The contradictory isolation and camaraderie the fear the deprivation the discomfort the permeation of death and the desperation. In war your "buddies" became everything. You live together you fight together you protect one another and depend on one another.

The pressure is enormous. One mistake can cost a life or lives one of which may be your own. Rage boils below the surface and the victims of that rage are not always the enemy. Sometimes -- often in Nam -- it is the innocent. It can also be those "buddies" you are otherwise so protective of.

War is both a natural and total unnatural state for man. As boys we are conditioned to compete and often fight but the insanity of war in which the competition and fighting are constant and death is ever present twists and bends the mind in horrific ways. The greatest torture of war is to the human soul which never escapes unscathed. This has become especially true during modern wars where the bodies are the same as they've always been but the weapons of destruction so much more lethal. Add to that situations where the identity of the enemy is so ambiguous and you have a recipe for acute psychological destruction.

Platoon not only accurately depicts combat but also the terror that Americans brought to villagers. Anyone could be a suspected Viet Cong and thus subject to summary executions not to mention torture.

Ultimately Platoon's story of Chris is an allegory for what young American lads like me went through. Dedicated to the cause, believing in the rightness of the country, only to yield to bitter disillusionment and anger in the face of the reality of a wrong war. Chris was not even a draftee or from a poor family. He was that extreme rarity  -- a volunteer who had other options. He enters a crusader and leaves bitter.

Platoon is one of those films that is so good it transcends genre. There is plenty of the action that typifies war films but it is neither gratuitous nor exciting. It always feel like what it derives from and causes: fear desperation and death. Mostly Platoon serves as another way for Americans of any generation to look into our collective souls and wonder at what this country has wrought and if it can ever tame the wild beasts that lurk within.

19 April 2014

I Buy Groceries With the Missus I Run Eight Miles and I am Happily Baffled by Under the Skin -- A Saturday in the Life

This morning started like most others in that I woke up. Always a good first step. Went to the grocery store with the missus which I somehow always really enjoy unless the aisles are overrun by voracious college students buying up everything in sight. But it was early enough to beat the crowds. Indeed early enough to give the crowds a good thrashing. No screaming toddlers either. No bumping carts with people on cell phones we were just filling up our basket. Lovely.

It is a satisfying feeling to come home with bags of groceries and fill up the fridge and cupboards with sustenance to last the week or more. It must be a primal instinct to store food and doing so must release endorphins of some kind.

With the food put away I preceded to take some back out for purposes of filling my belly. This was especially important as I had a trip to the gym planned and never dream of going without having eaten first. Actually maybe I have dreamed of working out on an empty stomach but it would have been in the form of an involuntary nightmare -- not that there are ever voluntary nightmares mind you.

Youngest daughter is in town for the weekend having made the hour train trip from university to hang out here and enjoy her mom's cooking and -- I like to think -- her dad's company. She could do worse.

By late morning I was off to the gym where I ran on the treadmill for eight miles which took me a scant one hour one minute and 23 seconds. My best time since I was a young whipper snapper (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Upon completing the run I felt as though I could run another eight miles or at least one or two. But I really couldn't afford the time. Maybe in a week or so I'll go for nine.

After a hot sauna and a cold shower I enjoyed a pleasant stroll home. The walk provided a post run cool down and more time for contemplation retrospection rumination and out and out fantasy not to mention wool gathering. Back in the abode I made one of my patented fruit smoothies then sipped -- okay slurped -- away while catching up on world events via the magic of the internet. Then I was off again to the movie theater and a look at Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.

In her previous film Scarlett Johansson mesmerized without being seen in Her. In Under the Skin she mesmerizes with nary a word uttered. She is -- suffice to say -- an amazing actress. As for the film itself...

I'm always amazed how sometimes the second a film ends when the credits have just started you can sometimes hear someone turn to the person they're with and ask: so what'd ya think? When the missus and I see a film together we usually wait at least until we've left the theater before discussing it. In the case of some films it can be a few hours. I could wait days and still not be ready to talk about Under the Skin. Yet here I am trying to write about it.

You don't see it looking at your screen but there's been a rather long pause since I wrote that last paragraph and another will likely follow the completion of this sentence....And there was......I suppose the best reason for the film's title is that it gets under the skin of the audience and into the brains. It wraps itself around the cranium attaching itself, waiting patiently living off brain cells.

It's worth it.

Under the Skin has been classified as a sci fi film. Well maybe. It's also been called -- by critics that is -- artsy erotic a thriller and impenetrable and undecipherable. I do not feel compelled to penetrate or least of all to decipher a film. Movies are not codes to be broken. There is something elemental about being told a story and if the telling is particularly good I don't really need to solve its deeper meaning. Some films are obviously allegorical and bully for them. Others are subject to interpretation and vive la difference. But very few are like Under the Skin which has few things obvious about but a lot that is strange unusual wonderfully different and baffling. Baffle me I'm yours.

Johansson plays uh, er, um. Funny thing none of the characters has a name. Least none we know of. Anyway she plays an alien life form that takes the form of a beautiful woman who travels around Edinburgh, Scotland and its environs luring random young men into her van then to a house where....Let's just say they meet a fate that is undecipherable and impenetrable. Then again so does our main character who by the way is in cahoots with a guy riding a motorcycle hither and yon and he's presumably an alien and later it seems he's got some underlings.

Never mind the damn plot points anyway. Under the Skin works so wonderfully -- well for some people like me -- because it is subject to such varying possible interpretations as I noted when perusing reviews (most quite favorable) after getting home. It therefore demands something of it audience members and that's one of the things I love in a movie and I can say that I honestly loved this movie.

Director Jonathan Glazer just did his darndest to create an interesting story told in a fascinating way and trusted viewers to make intelligent decisions about what they had seen -- or experienced. For one I appreciate it.

So this has been a damn good day and as I write these words it's still got another four hours to it. Cool.

13 April 2014

When it Rains and Pours and When it Pours for 40 Days and Nights You've Got Noah

No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. - Alan Watts.

Saw Darren Aronofsky's Noah today at a plastic temple selling plastic foods and liquids. There were plastic previews of plastic movies about a Spiderman and a Hercules and real live Bears presented in such a way as to make them plastic and unknowable. Plastic ads and plastic warnings about cell phones preceded and followed the trailers and finally the movie was shown. It being a very early showing there were only a few people in the theater many coming and going to dispense plastic waste or fill up on more plastic consumables or answer plastic messages on plastic devices.

The film was interesting and most of my yawns were because of an unsatisfactory night of sleep and not a reflection on what was taking place on the screen. I went in part because I've liked most of Aronofsky's previous films and I was pleased to have learned that this was not a biblical epic selling any religious orthodoxy and in fact had ticked off the religious right which is so often wrong. Right.

The character of Noah (Russell Crowe) comes off as something of a religious wing nut himself ready as he is to kill babies in a misinterpretation of the creator's wishes. That he is complicated makes him real and interesting as humans tend to be. Overall the cast is quite good and I particularly liked Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah who just wants to eat some berries and don't we all. Emma Watson is Noah's daughter-in-law and I've really grown to like her and were I half my age would have the biggest crush on this wonderful person/actress. Jennifer Connelly plays the long suffering wife and suffer she does.

Such a film demands some very special special effects indeed and they are delivered. Pairs of all manner of animal are required and none were used as CGI providing the critters none of which were harmed of course. The flood the dreams the battles were all spectacular and haven't we gotten used to technical wizardry in film? I know I have. It's all about story for me and there is one mixed in with all the pomp and noise -- although I'd have liked more. This one also leans a little bit to heavily on action as films often do with predictable fight sequences. Bible stories are a useful tool for asking questions and pondering meanings. They also should not be taken literally but try telling that to someone who is a believer in every word of it. I was sent to Sunday school as a child and loved the stories. They tickled my imagination quite nicely. As soon as I graduated to regular church at age 14 I lost all interest. It was the Lutheran church which is the white bread of church going experiences. Just as interesting and meaningful. I had a brief flirtation one summer with an evangelical church when I was heavily into booze and drugs. In sober moments I realized what a crock it all was and how foolish it was of me to participate. I've since eschewed religions of all stripes and  consider my current interest in Buddhism to be strictly spiritual and soul enriching and not at all religious.

When people use faith and belief to contradict knowledge and empirical fact the world is in trouble and my goodness people do an awful lot of that and have for centuries. There's less of an excuse for it today but there it is and here we are and all the rest of us can do is continue to speak truth and meditate and hug. That Christianity has held such sway in political life in the history of this republic is quite sad and quite detrimental (excuse my adverbs). Especially when many of these religious groups would have us believe that Jesus would condone gun toting venture capitalists.

Aronofsky has proven to be a director who defies categorizing having now made a bible picture to go along with one about a ballerina a wrestler a drug addict and math genius. Can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

12 April 2014

Delicate Balances --Like the Mind and the Wind and the Consciousness

“Are we fallen angels who didn't want to believe that nothing is nothing and so were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?” -- From Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.
Beyond all reason there is hope and if you look around you can see it out there. Often clinging desperately persistently to the shirttails of desire. And I sometimes long for the days that I didn't know this or anything else. When I was a young boy surrounded by my imagination whirling about great backyards and playing fields and parks and play rooms. Seeking not an escape from reality but an entrance to a better world that was not confined by rules and obligations and social norms. Hungrily I sought something I could not name nor even understand.

Today I meditate on this and the incredible gift of being part of this mad whirl. But I also reflect on where I've gone in my mind and how it hasn't always matched where I meant to be. Places are ephemeral only consciousness is permanent.

I ran eight miles today after watching a football (soccer to you Yanks) match on the telly in which my beloved Arsenal emerged victorious. It was an FA Cup semi final match which means the lads are in the final next month. I love/hate sports. Sports are the cause of so much pain/joy/indifference. I am long past the stage in my life when I let the results of an athletic event ruin my weekend but I'm not above letting victory bring me happiness. It has taken many decades to reach this point.

Last night I was at a baseball game. I used to go to two or three dozen Giants games a year. I don't know exactly how I managed that. Today I prefer to go to a play where I don't have to listen to idiot teens cursing or watch as people spend exorbitant sums on nachos.

You know I turned 60 some six weeks ago and yet I'm not getting older. I'm just getting to be someone.  My mind is growing and wondering and searching and causing great leaps of wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile my body is just fine. Did I mention I ran eight miles today? I'm sure I did. I take any occasion to tell people of my running. I'm allowing myself pride in accomplishment while trying to repress ego for self's sake. Delicate balances.

I was saddened though not surprised by David Letterman's retirement plans. He has been a major influence on me as anyone who has seen my teach can testify. That I've enjoyed some success as a teacher while conducting myself in the classroom as a Lettermanesque educator might be baffling to some but there is much to be baffled by in the world today and this should not be the most perplexing notion a person faces in a day. I don't give it a lot of thought myself. I am more now of one who merely does and is. Reflection rumination and contemplation have their places but they are not part of everything.
I is I am I was I will be and always this is true at the same time.

Within a few days it was announced that Stephen Colbert would replace Dave and this has brought me great joy. While I will miss the Colbert Report it is getting time for him to move on from constantly being in character and get to be himself on television. I am certain that we will all be pleased watching the "real" Colbert. He is not only insanely funny but quite intelligent.

I have been studying the Buddha of late and for that matter of early and of now. I find this personally edifying and enriching and wonderful. I could use inner peace in part to prevent innards in pieces. There is a wonderful simplicity to Buddhism that is....

But the study must

Go on.

I'm so excited to have been here to write these words and hope to continue at a later time to peck away at my MacBook Pro putting thoughts on..I want to say paper but this is all out there in some vast untouchable region like the mind and the wind and the consciousness.

I do like being happy. Don't you?