Monday, April 27, 2015

The Sunken Soul

Any city that you travel to, and stay for any given amount of time, you will say "People in Townsville do not know how to drive!!" And you'd be right.  People are so preoccupied with their own lives that they just let the whole "driving thing" become a subconscious act.  Cell phones, make-up, talking and making wild gesticulations with hands and arms, braiding long strands of hair (somehow), dealing with the ill begotten children imitating Tasmanian devils in the back seat, reaching for that last french fry that left the container and is hidden among the napkins, or better yet, the action that will ultimately kill me and be on my obituary--trying to get the pickle off the cheeseburger.

And yet, as I walk around the city of Dallas, I notice that people here aren't those kinds of distracted drivers.  The ones I see are those that are totally engaged in driving their car (or land beast, a large charging bull of metal and gasoline) and determined to get to their goal three seconds faster than anyone else, resulting in someone imitating Tron's light cycle (I wish I had one).  Swerving in and out of traffic, only to be stopped at the next light a foot in front of the person they just sped past.  Then, to make up for some inadequacy of their own, attempt to break inertia laws and speed off with their lack of mufflers roaring like a pride of lions feasting on an antelope.

Even this I can understand, especially if their sugar levels are low. Never drive when you're hungry, unless it's to get something to eat.  The true monsters of the freeway appear after it rains.

Dallas is particularly bad after it rains because of the refusal of officials to repair side streets prior to building the ornate bridges high over their fair city.  Thus, potholes and dips become small oceans after a thunderstorm goes by.  And being a simple pedestrian, just trying to get to the bus, I worry little about the rain coming from above, but rather the sloshing of water coming from the roadways by unaware drivers, or, as I suspect, by people who deliberately speed up (as I've witnessed first hand) to soak the walker before he can get his umbrella down parallel to the street.

The cartoons we watched as a child, they are full of illustrations of people getting splashed with rain water.  Movies as well.  It's a symbol of someone down on their luck, or more accurately, a depiction of the depravity of the human soul. It's the same monster that shows up in the "comments" section of most any internet article, the bully who mercilessly picks on the twitter account of a celebrity or, honestly, anyone, because they can, and they will get away with it.  For that driver is basically a troll, an anonymous face behind a window that drives off, never to be seen again.  Chances are the soaked pedestrian didn't get the tag number, nor the cyber-victim the IP address of the person who posted.  

What really ticked me off was a simply search on Youtube for "splashing people with a car."  There's a ton of them.  All people who decide to film themselves splashing people with rain puddles, on purpose, and then putting it on the Internet for everyone to see.  Because it's funny!! It makes you Cool!!  Well guess what, it doesn't.  I'm not going to put an example on here, as it will drive up their views, but you can go look if you want to.  If you want to put your sunken soul for all the world to see, go right ahead.  I will be wet on the sidewalk, but my soul will be on solid ground.  It will be yours that will be drowning.  I know Someone who can save you, if you will let Him.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Journey of a Thousand Steps

Wearing something on my wrist to tell me how far I walk is absurd, for me at least. Why should I let a number dictate to me how I live my life? And yes, I realize that you'll say "how about your Blood Pressure, or Cholesterol, or Weight?" Or how about even the years I've lived? How do pure facts, empirical data, control my every move? 

I see commercials telling me that my cholesterol is too high, but with this new medication, Xenatoleratrapine, or something, it'll be lower, but just watch out for all these disastrous side-effects that will probably make that number feel much less important.  And "feel" is the key word here.  Do you go about living your life, filled with medication, hoping that it would do you some good, and then spend that same amount of time wallowing in misery because of what the treatment is doing to you? What have you gained? 

But let's look at why this is the way it is.  I found it very interesting in Weber's Safehold series that one of the main keys that the lead scientists banned from the culture was Arabic Numerals. The anti-technological society created didn't know about the decimal for 800 years.  That, of course, was exactly the point.  With numbers comes technology, because there's a way to measure things, to take data and analyze and utilize and mold and shape it into man's own image.  At some point, however, numbers become the master, and human beings become controlled. 

Neil Postman called this phenomenon Technopoly. Quoting Neil Postman (and since my copy is buried under a mountain of books right now, I'll quote from Wiki, and assume that their quote is right):
Postman defines “Technopoly” as a society which believes “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.” (p. 51 of Technopoly)

We live our lives based on cold equations.  Everything we analyze becomes quagmired in numbers... and the start of the baseball season is a prime example.  For each team could be digitized and computerized into it's basic parts, and each players could become a strain of numbers called "VORP" and "WAR" and hundreds of other values that it takes specialized experts to determine and say "You have Chosen Wisely" to those about to start their seasons.  And more often than not, the numbers are wrong.  The Braves were widely panned this year as being mediocre at best. Then they started out 4-0 and suddenly those same analysts were trying to say, "well, we were right, but we didn't take into account this..." When the numbers turn on the analyst, one must use the numbers to lie, leaving us to wonder if those same numbers were being truthful to begin with. In fact, the veracity of numbers in any subject is crucial, as it is vitally important to the rulers of this world that they be able to control the data coming into our minds.  The data must be right.  The Number Is God...

So when we put on our Athletic Apple App, and slap it on our wrist like some handcuff chaining us to the chair in a holding cell, we are essentially telling the controllers of the data harbinged inside the computers that we will abide by anything they say, no matter how accurate, because whatever it is, it is the truth.

I am not saying that whenever I take my blood pressure with this cuff device that my brother got for my mom prior to her dying by having blood pressure over 200/whatever it was, that I don't take those numbers seriously.  Truthfully, I am thrilled when my efforts, and medication, have resulted in a normal number here.  I just think that it shouldn't be the king of our world.

One of my friends on facebook (actually, several of them) have decided that taking 10,000 steps a day is a goal for fitness and healthiness. And who am I to think they're wrong.... except... when that number forces them to doing whatever it is they do to fulfill that number, no matter how torturous and mind-numbing it might be, then it's not worth doing.  Because the number, in my opinion, isn't important, it's how those steps are achieved. Playing hopscotch with your kids? Definitely! Walking down the local nature trail, hearing the birds, and watching the squirrels eat without concern on the
trail beside you? Absolutely! Walking on a treadmill or around a circle someplace with a whole bunch of people like cattle? I'd rather drink Lysol.  It's the feeling of doing it that makes whatever it is you're doing worth it.  I will not stand to be miserable for one minute of my life trying to obtain a goal from a doctor who says "This is where you should be," or some Health Care Insurance Carrier says, "You scored X on your Health Questionnaire."  I won't do it.  But walking for miles on a path less traveled, or eating healthy foods, either through my kitchen or from a restaurant like Sweet Tomatoes (which I'm going to in a day or so), I will do it in a second, and I will rejoice all the way.

Is it enough? To deny the power of the doctors and their numbers, and enjoy instead the journey down a road without speed limits, without deadlines and measurements? Do I ensure myself a life as long or longer than with obtaining those same goals through the numbers reported to me on Fitbit? I don't know, nor do I care.  This is the point where the doctors and I differ.  How long do you want to live? Is that important, to live the quantity of life as the sole achievement? That a person turned 90 or 100 living in a nursing home without any knowledge of who or where or why? Is that the apex of our civilization?  Or is it the better knowing that, given the balance of happiness, fullness of life, and the enjoyment of the life that, we would just as soon live to be 70 and die, then turn 90 and be miserable? Or 60? Only a half-century?  You see, there is a balance, one that, frankly, I don't know the answer to.  God knows... and, with the life that God gave us, is He expecting us to have a long and miserable life, or a somewhat shorter one, and live it with all the joy that is around us?  It is certainly still possible to enjoy life and still be in step with the journey God has in store for us.

I am probably the most conservative Epicurean to walk the planet, as the joy that I get from this world has nothing to do with drinking, or smoking, or sex, (maybe a little gluttony of food, as everyone has weaknesses, but that's for another time) but if it makes me happy, and it's worth it, then I'll do it, or won't do it, as the case may be.

Since we're talking about eating... an example.  We sell protein bars at the college bookstore.  Truly foul things that, to me, tastes exactly like chocolate mixed cardboard.  However, they are extremely popular with those of the athletic mindset, and they pay $3.50 a bar for them, and go off and work out or run or whatever. And while I realize that, given the ideal circumstances, they could potentially go play professional sports and make millions of dollars a year to make themselves as happy (or not) as they desire, I think that if you're going to eat something, even to get protein or energy or whatever, that it should at least taste good.  But it's something they can wolf down and forget about, portable, as forgettable as the seconds it took to eat it.  Then multiply that by the number of forgettable minutes, hours, days, and then ask yourself, "Have you really lived your life?" 

Sleep the days away, but if you dream, then those hours have not gone in vain.  It's one of the things I found the most sad about how my mom lived her life, with chemicals directing her physical life.  Her headaches and stresses caused her to take what is generally a tranquilizer to get herself to sleep (and that's another story, one I won't go into here.) But the sad part about it was, she went into deep sleep, and then instantly awake.  She never had REM sleep.  She never dreamed.  What good is sleeping if not for the dreams? Aye, there's the rub.  Give me 4 hours of sleep, but a good flying dream, over rivers and cities like Atreyu on his Luck Dragon, and that's better than 8 with a "late for school" dream thrown in.

But I've gotten off topic.  The point is... I want to "feel" my way through life, even if it's shorter, than analyze and compare and follow a set of numbers blindly.  I want to say that my life counted, not that I counted life.  And if all I can claim about my day is that I've walked 10,000 steps, but can't remember a single one, then there's no point in getting out of bed.  To duplicate that last great ending line,  I'd rather make my steps count, than to count my steps.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: Orfeo by Richard Powers

I'm Hearing the light from the window... 
 I'm Seeing the sound of the sea...  ~Michael Nesmith "Rio"

I've never read a book so in tune with what a musician feels, what he or she sees, when playing symbols from a page, contrasting the diaphragm, sounding the notes which would set angels to attention.  I've never read a book that says what it means to love music, to be enthralled with every passage of sound in one's life.  And never have I read a book that contains in its pages its own soundtrack.  But it's here, and it's here.

I don't think I have to say that any musician will love this book, as the division between someone who simply listens to music while jogging or cruising down the block and the person who hears the music, the notes fill up every corner of the air around him, has never been so aptly described.  I have often said that Mozart or Beethoven would weep and render their clothes asunder if they knew that their most famous works are now used as cell phone tones, heard in grocery stores as an irritant, rather than praises to God, or messages to Life, Death, and Time itself.  I want to grab the earplugs of the people around me and yank them out, saying, "Listen!! The music is all around you." Would they miss the trumpets of Gabriel for the autotuned babble of One Direction?

But this book contains all this, and a story as well.  It is the story of Peter Els, a prodigy child musician (on the Clarinet, no less), and an outcast from the rest of the social order, as he spends his time listening to music and seeing inside of the notes what Kant would have called the Noumenal World.  He sees the notes as the pure Forms, outside the cave, that other people can but dance to, shake their hips and gyrate.  (No, I see nothing of this person in me at all..............) He sees in mathematics the numerical order of the musical world, and in Chemistry, the underlying tones of the Universe.

But, alas, he is torn to choose between chasing after standing on the mountaintops and gazing out at Paradise and real life, love of a woman, and the constant pressures to understand to his professors' ideas of music theory in the Twentieth Century.  The book transitions back and forth between his life story, his past, the events of the 1940's on (reaching the present), and the point where the story begins, where FBI agents raid his home after finding potentially deadly homegrown bacteria.

Els becomes, perhaps, a mirror of Willie Loman, as well as the defiant character found in Faustian legend.  All bound together in a work of literature that may not ever get the acclaim it deserves.

I say this because a reader who is not a musician probably will have little patience with the verbal description of long works of music composition.  The reader will tire of little plot in the present and too much back story.  A reader not familiar with Post-Modern literature will not understand that the journey throughout the book, in time and mind, is the story worth telling.

I've told my own story about singing, about belting notes in my car, where no one could hear, of singing Art Garfunkel's "Skywriter" in the grocery store parking lot, late at night (and this was before the days of iPods and mp3 players, where every bagger is totally deaf to anything going on around them because they're too busy listening to the rot in their brains.) I've told why, even though, to my parents, I had a great voice, but never used it.  And I feel a kinship with Peter Els.  The last thing he wanted to do was to actually publish a work, and he hated every time he did it.  To face the criticism of the expression of the Music of the Spheres as Peter heard them, I wouldn't want to publish them either, but rather hold them close to my chest and hear the notes late at night, rotating around my room, illuminated by the lamp post outside.