more lessons about life from punk rock, movie critics, and Sinclair Lewis

The French cinema critic Andre Bazin said that when reviewing a film one must ask whether it was “made for the cinema or the audience”. I think this is an excellent statement of the punk view of music. Is it made for the cash, or because the artist/band is “honoring the music” as Kristin Hersh has said. It is also why so many punks seem to have turned to Buddhism and other ‘alternative lifestyles’, such as organic farming and homesteading. One of my favorite new Facebook pages is ‘Punk Rock Homesteading’. Life is about authenticity, which really has become some a cliche. If not that, then what?

Maybe honesty is a better word. Believing that we are in it together, all together, and living in such a way that improves everyone’s lives without regard to reward. Or at least doesn’t make them worse. It seems strange that such a thing would be an alternative movement, but such is the nature of things these days.

What brought this thought on was a letter posted on the “Letters of Note” blog written by Sinclair Lewis. He was turning down the Pulitzer Prize, and explained to the committee why. The letter is linked above. One of my favorite quotes:

“All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee.”

I think that is an excellent statement of the punk ethic in regards to music. I think it can also be applied to life. Don’t live like you need the praise of others. Live the best way you can; do what makes you happy, not others. Live honestly.

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Speaking of Kristin Hersh (which seems to be inevitable to me), I wanted to share her latest blog post as well. Amazing writing.

Also; Cat and Girl seems apropos.

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quick hit

This semester is proving to be a busy one. As you go further up and in to a degree program, not surprisingly there is much more work to do. Of course life does not stop just because you have three chapters of Human Behavior to read. Our dryer stopped working today, prompting a call to the big-box store we bought it from, and an ensuing argument over the protection plan we thought we had.

My grandbabies have also moved back from Okinawa. As if that weren’t exciting enough, it looks like they will be moving in to the second floor of the house we’re renting! We’ll get to see them on a regular basis from now on. When we picked them up at the airport I let out a breath of relief that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding for five years. The only wrinkle so far is that my son-in-law is still not completely separated from the Marines, and is not due back home for a week or two. The kids miss their daddy terribly, on top of all the other things and people they left in Japan.

Oh yeah; hospital visit…there was that, too. Long story short; I have GERD, and have to watch what I eat from now on. The plus side is that I’ve already lost a few pounds!

Did I mention we moved? The house still ain’t sold, but there’s a(nother) offer. We just need to wait on the bank. In the meantime we’re renting the first floor of this nice little house across from a lake and down the street from a pond. The yard is much bigger, and the landlord has given me permission to garden, so I’ve already started plans for next year.

I have one or two posts that are almost ready to go, but I’m not sure when I will have a chance to finish them. I am buried in reading this week, and have to start working on papers already. One will be a comparison of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’ and John Huston’s movie version.

So sorry for the long lag time, and the less than pithy post. Unmentioned in this has been my trips to the Providence Zen Center and how amazing they are. If and when I have the money I’ll be joining and signing up for retreats.

Until next time!

gate-gate-paragate-parasamgate-bodhi svaha!

there is a time

there is a time

This summer I am taking a ‘practice class’ for my junior year as a social work major. I am working at an elder services agency, and have been assigned a client of my own.

I met him the previous week, taking advantage of the meals-on-wheels delivery to introduce myself. He invited me into his house, which needs work he can no longer do himself. We sat at the dining room table to talk, and his cat wandered over to inspect me. Finding my presence acceptable, the cat proceeded to rub his cheeks against my hands and arms. I spoke with the gentleman for about half an hour; just enough to explain who I am and why I came. ‘Building rapport’. “I am a student, Mr….I’m here to just talk with you for a while as part of my program.” We agreed that I would come by the next week and talk some more. He wrote the date, time, and my name down, and was genuinely excited to have someone new to talk to. He does not receive many visitors.

He waved me out the front door, and I walked to my car giddy with the positive result of the meeting; my first solo with a client.

The next week, I knocked on his door. After several moments he answered, and looked blankly at me, unsure of who I was or why I was there. He had no memory of the previous visit. I did not mention that we had a meeting scheduled, but instead introduced myself as if I had never been there before. It does no good to point out a failure of memory; it would only confuse and possibly anger him. Hurt his dignity.

The gentleman has ‘Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type’, and I understood that there was every possibility this could happen. He has good and bad days, but appears to have started the quickening decline. Once a very vital and energetic man, he is now facing continuous and accelerating loss of independence. His mind will not allow him; can no longer allow him, to process the grief appropriately. He may become angry at times and lash out at his family or health workers in frustration because all he will remember is what he used to do, and no longer can. To him, locked in increasingly older memories and unable to be in the present, he will expect that what is a memory of vitality to be the actual truth, and will not understand why his body will not respond.

We all have difficulty at times facing transitions in our lives. Some are more difficult than others; some are more organic than others. There are transitions we choose; job changes, places we live or go to school. Then there are those that simply happen; the changes of aging, of being human. It may sound trite, and it seemed to me as I wrote this last paragraph that it is an obvious point.

But it really isn’t.

We take these changes for granted; they happen to others. It is only when we face them ourselves that we understand: what you have now will end, and then what will you do?

What will your old age look like? Most people do not understand the process, either the aging itself or the financial questions involved. When we are young we see the process of aging from the outside; people slow down, they go into nursing homes or hospice, and pass away. It is an emotional time for most family members, none more so than the care partner*. Then we forget about it. Put it out of our minds.

As a Buddhist, I have meditated on the idea of impermanence many times. As someone with Bipolar, I have lived with the idea of my own mortality daily, as if it were my shadow always following me (as Loudon Wainwright sings; “life’s a job you’re fired from, unless of course you quit…”). Working with elders, I am confronted with a new level of impermanence every day. Meeting my client for the second time and having him not remember me at all was shocking, despite my expectation that it could happen. It is one thing to know something intellectually, another to experience it.

So I ask again: what will your old age look like? Many of us expect our children to care for us. Take us in and house us as we did for them. For many of us this will not be the case. Not because our children are ungrateful or bad, but simply because life won’t allow them to. They may have small children and no room, or work full time, or move far away, or any of the numberless other reasons beyond their control.

This is not a commercial for 401k savings plans, or a rant about Social Security benefits. You can research those things on your own time (or maybe I’ll end up writing about it someday anyway; I am a policy wonk, after all).

The financial calculation is this: there is a sharp line drawn between who is eligible for subsidized benefits, and who has to pay for them out of pocket. That line is not as high as you might think, and it continually gets lower. For most of us who imagine ourselves in the middle class; we live on a bubble. We have too much money to receive assistance, and too little money to pay for it ourselves.

“What will your old age look like?” is also, then, a political question+. What do we owe each other? For those of my friends who believe in limited government; what picture do you have of the end of your life? It is important to keep in mind that changes to government programs and spending cuts, however well intentioned, have impacts beyond the stated goal. This is not to say they are wrong out of hand. It is a serious question of belief and vision. There is also an imperative in America that we leave something behind for our kids. The reality is that more often than not that something gets spent. It has to. A nursing home can cost up to six figures a year. A good nursing home even more. Staying in your house saves money in the short term, but you will still likely pay for everything until the money is gone. Then you can get help.

It is not a comforting scenario, and I apologize for its bleakness. What R and I have realized in talking this out is simple: when we can, we will. That means rather than waiting for the inevitable decline that age brings, we will live in this moment. Save what we can, and enjoy it as we can. It makes little sense to save it for a tomorrow that will not come, or save it for a time it becomes a liability. We have this moment to live.

__________

(The music for this post is a traditional song performed by Uncle Earl called ‘There Is a Time’. It has been on my mind for quite some time, especially when I sit zazen and contemplate impermanence.)

*I use ‘care partner’ instead of ‘care giver’ to denote that the care involved is a two-way street. The client, patient, loved-one is not a passive receptacle of charity, but a reciprocating human being.

+I tried to avoid political discussion in this thread. I even made a promise to my Face Book friends that I wouldn’t make this a political discussion. After trying several times to end this, I found that it could not be avoided.

Echoes of Past Lives II-Bipolar Unannounced

Anticipation. Morning, for once, is welcome. Barely sleeping for the fourth day in a row, I am ready to go even before coffee. The tingling in my brain, and the knowledge that this this will be an excellent day. I race through the morning. There are no barriers to hold me back. I pull others in my wake, sweep them up in my mood. Like a virus, I am infectious. The day will only go up from here. I pick up three friends and we drive. We stop at the first place that seems to invite us.

Imagine a day when you can see everything clearly. Not just as a beautiful day, but a day when you are completely relaxed and there is nothing but the moment you are in; now.

The sky is light blue, and there are spots of white clouds that dot here and there. The breeze is light as well. The grass beneath my feet is vivid green. Lush in a summer where the spring rain was abundant. Heightened awareness anticipates the tactile sense of each object. I am almost overwhelmed.

This is a cemetery, the graves spanning centuries. The markers range from the large marble of the recently deceased to the thin dark slate carved with winged cherub faces from the 1700’s. These all stand out in my vision as well. Everything is in focus. Everything seems a perfect form. These are not simply things named ‘stone’ and ‘grass’ and ‘sky’; they are the perfect representations of each. Archetypes.

The world opens up. Embraced and held like a child, and a butterfly passes. Holding out a finger as a perch, it lights for a second and flies on. What is not perfect today?

Songs have fingers. Distortion and reverb reach into my brain and activate different neurons, causing me to see music and feel light. Everything seems to glow and pixilate. Then sharpen. It is more than being one with the universe. I simply cease to be an individual. ‘I’ evaporate. The music lifts me utterly, and I am complete. Euphoria has become my essence. Three hours pass this way.

—-

“I have two heads…”

Is this something no one else feels? It is natural to me. Doesn’t everyone see the world this way? Pure and complete. The hill swells with its own breath. I am overwhelmed.

“One burns, one’s sky…”

As high as some thing goes, it descends to an equivalent depth. The day darkens, even before twilight. The sweeping joy that was slowly gives way to an all-encompassing anger. It is thorough and complete. The friends with me sense the change before they see it.

When ships are at sea, and the wind dies to a stop, it is an augury of the storm to follow. The change is sudden, and sailors know they may have only moments to scramble and prepare.

I return to my body. Awareness floods back, leaving me dizzy and distracted, forgetting where I am and why. Everything that came before is lost as well. A sense memory that may or may not be triggered later, never the same way. This is not a pattern I can replicate. This is a part of my mind that controls its own destiny, with the rest of my body along for the ride. The black mood rips me back out of my body, rooting me into the ground. There is no sky.

”I’m two headed

One free, one sticky…”

As sharp as the brightness, the darkness retains this focus. Sharp contours stand out to threaten, contrasts cause fires of resistance from my mind. I hate. I am hate. ‘Why?’ does not enter my mind, just as it did not earlier. ‘Because’ would be the answer in any case. This is how the world is. Everyone must feel the same.

“But is it freedom can burn…”

Alcohol can dull the anger. Blunt it. More than a crutch, I use it to beat back the anger, to separate from the enclosing feelings. Slowly, with each drink, I become more myself again. I inhabit my body alone, empty.

________

Carolyn’s Fingers by the Cocteau Twins always sends tingles through my brain. The song should be played on the loudest possible volume setting. I apologize for the cheesy video.

When I first heard Devil’s Roof by Throwing Muses I felt I understood it on a deep emotional level. Like it was talking directly to me in a language I recognized as my own, and had never heard before. That was an experience I had never had with music before. Even if my meaning isn’t exactly what Kristin Hersh had in mind when she wrote it, I have my meaning. Music, meaning in general, is contextual. We all bring our own meaning to the things we love, not necessarily what the object is trying to communicate to us. The opening guitar grabs and holds me in place, whatever I’m doing. Being able to see them perform it at Stable Sound in Portsmouth was worth more than I could ever hope to repay.

ps; there will be happier stories! these are just the first two that came to mind.

Echoes of past lives

In this life I am twenty three. A father of a two year old son. His mother and I no longer live together, and talk sporadically. I believe my son is better off without me. In some ways, I am correct.

This is a room in someone’s apartment. We are in Worcester, and it is a house party. Music plays in the background, but is generally indistinguishable. We all talk over it.

The wallpaper in the living room is fading, a musty beige color with darker stripes running vertically. In the kitchen, where I sit at present, the floor is white linoleum. The table has a silver metal edging. I am inhabiting one of my personalities; the college-age guy who has seen it all. Life. I been there. I have a kid…you don’t know, man. The girl who lives here passes me a beer. I am charming, the most entertaining person in the room. In the building. She has short black hair. She puts her hand on my neck and smiles. Her fingernails trace the curve of the collar of my shirt.

Words we spoke have long been forgotten, misted by time and evaporated by chemicals.

Passing to a side room, through French doors. There is no furniture. She can not afford to fill all the rooms she pays for, and only opens this room on occasion. This is an occasion; we have pot. Lots of it. I lean against a window with green molding, small panes of glass. The walls here are already disappearing in a cloud. One person rolls and lights a joint. She is Flower; her real name, too, is gone. Flower has one arm since birth, and has spent her life learning to do things with one hand that it takes others two. Like rolling the perfect joint.

Next to me a guy packs and lights a small pipe. There are maybe twelve of us in this room with several more coming and going. The girl who lives here doesn’t smoke, but let’s others use her space. I see her disappear around the corner with a smile.

I am handed a metal pipe made from plumbing material. Someone else is an engineer, and was bored, he says. The weed moves freely around the room. We hear laughter and inhaling, exhaling. We see nothing except a pipe or joint as it reaches us.

Some time later, there are three of us left in the room. I was unaware that anyone left. The joint is gone, but the pipes are always full. I stagger back to the kitchen. I am dulled, muted and smiling. I am content for the moment, finding a chair and another beer, and seeing the girl with the short black hair I turn to talk to her. I mutter into the space between us. She walks away.

This was not what I meant to become. This is a role I play on Thursdays and Fridays. Maybe Saturdays. It is nothing permanent. A stop or pause.

__________

Songs can become part of our dna. An experience encoded; more than history, more than memory, or even simple emotion. Our relationship to good music can be complicated. It can cause us to smile, react with sadness or anger. We can hear a song repeatedly and it sits politely in the background. Other times we can hear it once, at just the right moment, and it attacks us with a visceral force that sweeps us back to that moment.

Today the radio played ‘Soul Kitchen’ by the Doors. Like many of my cohort (Gen X…and aren’t we tired of that label by now?) the Doors played a significant role in our shared soundtracks. Not a band that I listened to by myself, but they were a symbol, a permission given, to excess at a gathering.

1986-The Year Of Angry Noise Part 2

In 1986 I was working my first regular job at the General Cinema in Brockton. With 5 screens, at the time it was one of the biggest cinemas around. It was also a fun place to work. Our manager when I started was Mr. Body, who was not thrilled with all the jokes and snickering when ‘Clue’ was released in ’85. Break times generally consisted of sitting in the back of a theatre watching a few minutes of a movie with free popcorn (I used LOTS of ‘butter’ back then, until I read the ingredients) and soda.

The worst shifts were the opening matinees of the kids movies. In ’86 there was a Care Bears movie. The parents showed up early to get tickets, popcorn, candy and so on. Within 5 minutes all of the kids were on a sugar high. By the time they went in to get their seats the lobby was covered in ankle deep piles of popcorn.

In July of that year, after the revelatory experience of Black Flag, I went with some friends to the Living Room in Providence to see Sonic Youth on tour with their album Evol. One of the opening bands was Dinosaur, better known as Dinosaur Jr.

The night was a noise-fest. I was swept into a malestrom, and lost myself in a near-perfect euphoria. I did not realize at the time, but the sensation of falling into the music was actually a fairly serious trigger for my bipolar mania. In any event, it was a great night that included some nice bruises from the mosh pit.

We drove home, ears ringing, yelling at each other to be heard.

__________

I just want to take a moment to say a word or two about a good friend who past away last week. In every group of friends, or every good group of friends, there is one person who is the truth-teller. For us, that was our friend Steve Hasomeris. Steve had a way of cutting through the bullshit, either with a sarcastic comment or just straight out. He was kind to a fault, always honest and up-front about everything. He was an excellent father as well, and will be missed by all who knew him.

It seems that those of us in the Gen-X cohort have lost more than our share of friends at young ages. Overdose, suicide, drunk or otherwise impaired driving have been rampant in my age group. In Steve’s case, his heart condition caused his body to give in. In what could be a litany of those we know who have gone before, Steve satnds out for his life and how he lived it. Always honest, always there for friends, and he never let his own problems get in the way of living.

candy or spinach?

To start with; if you’re not familiar with Brad Warner, then shame on you!

Ok…not really. But he is an excellent writer, and his blog makes me think. If you are, or just think you are, a serious student of Buddhism then you should read him. I had read Noah Levine before, and then came across Hardcore Zen while still working at Borders. I thought ‘wtf; a clone? Really?’ I started to read it on break, and I connected to it very strongly. He takes nothing for granted, questions everything, and the tone/humor of the writing sounded like me and my friends. His thoughts on the dharma also echoed a lot of what I have been thinking over the years.

He recently posted his thoughts about a tweet ‘from’ Thich Nhat Hanh. I won’t go in to great detail; you can read the post for yourself. What surprised me most was the reaction he got. People acted as if he had personally attacked Nhat Hanh. In short; some people took it personally. Quite unmindful behavior from people who profess to cultivate mindfulness.

Getting hung up on the idea of personality vs. personality (Brad vs. Thay) to me misses a larger point we can make here. I think the unspoken issue is that of Buddhism as Product. I used to follow a number of Buddhist daily tweeters, and got some daily/weekly emails as well, until it dawned on me that the whole process was nothing more than a way to make the dharma mass-marketable; a new consumable. I’d read the tweet or whatever, and then go about my day and not give it any more thought.

As a punk myself, I think we’re usually more distrustful of what/who ever is popular in the mainstream. Something becomes popular when people don’t need or want to have to think about it. We buy the brand and continue on our way, feeling as though we’re a part of whatever it is because we spent some form of capital on it.

In thinking about this, I remember how Kristin Hersh described her band Throwing Muses: “I know a lot of bands who are candy or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good…for a minute. My band is spinach…ragged and bitter, and no one really likes us very much. But I swear to god we’re good for you”.

I think the daily tweets are well intentioned. But do we think about them, or do we read them and feel better, then forget about them? Are they candy or spinach? Most of what is readily accessible, a lot of ‘mindfulness’ training, a lot of yoga tips, promises of enlightenment and so on would fall into the candy category. They are a way to sell a product and make people feel better about themselves… for a minute. Buddhism practiced with honesty and sincerity is pure spinach.

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