Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reason #115 Why I Live In Arizona

There has been a hot air balloon hovering over South Chandler every morning this week on my way in to work; and it's about that time of year for the hundreds of hot air balloons that take off every spring just north of Phoenix on the I-17 on the way to Flagstaff.  I personally like the one with the giant saguaro on the side.  

Monday, March 30, 2009

Post today is hosted by my good friend Nalin over on Hartog's Den. He is, by the way, looking for contributors for the site. I think perhaps the perspective from, say, Cairo might be kinda interesting. Just sayin'.

I went to visit him in Lancaster, CA over the weekend, and man, is that place beautiful. With any luck I can convince him to let me post some of his (really wonderful) photos up on this site...whaddya say, Nalin? Got any throwaways you could donate?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kant or bust!

I dislike utilitarianism for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, in its pure form, without a number of caveats, it permits the sacrifice of one for the good of the many (“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and, my father tells me, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” are prime examples of what I am talking about). Utilitarianism’s tagline is that the moral action is the action that provides the greatest good for the greatest number. There’s been a lot of haggling over the years in philosophy about what exactly constitutes the greatest good and how you’re supposed to calculate such a thing, but what makes me uncomfortable is that it tends to allow the equivocation of different types of human suffering, or human happiness. Death is not the same for everyone; and everybody sees something different behind the door of room 101; how can you take this into consideration when deciding on your own actions, without full knowledge of other people’s perception? Some utilitarian thinkers have tried to account for this objection, however; and there are many ways in which utilitarianism is much more palatable than a moral system based on individualistic principles.

But there was a particular moment when I decided that utilitarianism was something I could never accept: I was reading a book for a global studies class—I believe it was One World, by Peter Singer (a very intelligent, careful utilitarian philosopher with a good heart) –and the book raised the question of whether it was necessary that everyone be a utilitarian in order for utilitarianism to function properly. An answer was posed that it might, in fact, be best that some people were not utilitarian, not for the sake of variety or raising questions, but so that a uniform utilitarian code could be developed and implemented by utilitarian leaders.

It’s taken me years to figure out exactly why this bothers me so very much, and exactly what principle it is that I hold so dear that this seems to violate. The answer stems from a number of different areas including my political beliefs and my religious inclinations; forgive me if my ability to form the argument is still lagging a bit behind my emotional response.

I’ve always been very uncomfortable with John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The country, to me, is not an entity in itself that requires the service of its people; it is there to serve the people, to unite them under a set of governing laws and an infrastructure in order to make life pleasant and simple and safe for every single person. I believe it is the individual people of this country who need the protections that a government can offer them; the country itself is simply an idea that does not need to be defended. The country exists for the benefit of the people and not the other way around.

I also believe that morality exists for the benefit of individuals. Morality itself is not an institution that needs to be protected or supported; whatever moral system a person chooses, it is a rational tool to use in order to make decisions that benefit people. One does not do things for the sake of a hammer.

One should perform an action because one thinks it is the right thing to do; not because of the outcome. Similarly, one should choose a moral system because one thinks it is the right way to behave towards others, and not for any particular outcome of adopting that system. “The greatest good for the greatest number” in and of itself is a system concerned with outcomes, and this was made clearest to me when someone was able to envision a world where people were actually discouraged from believing in a moral system so that other people could implement that moral system for them: a moral dictatorship, of sorts.

More on why action for action's sake is important later this weekend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Crash course

Am contemplating a more philosophical post for later this week that requires a conversation with my father, so for now, an anecdote:

Ex-boyfriend #6, hereafter to be known as Isaac for referential purposes, had a dog. A 95-pound full-blooded male American Bulldog I’m going to call Skeeter. I hated this dog; he was a very nice dog, somewhere underneath all the jumping on you and slobbering on your clothes and shoving his face in between your legs at the dinner table and eating everything in sight and barking incessantly and mauling animals smaller than himself.

Technically, Skeeter was Isaac’s parents’ dog—Isaac was living at home while he was in school. What Isaac did have was a car, and six years of payments, which was slightly overwhelming for someone with a full-time course load and a part-time job. So Isaac decided he wanted to sell the car, and one day he took his dad to lunch to have a man-to-man with him about his financial situation and his desire to sell the car and buy a used one instead.

Later that day Isaac came over to my new apartment—he was helping me move in, actually—and, backing out of the covered parking spot, scraped the left front bumper against the metal support pole, causing roughly $400 in damage. He got out, inspected the damage, took a couple testosterone-infused kicks at the pole, called me, and came back into the apartment. I gave him a strawberry popsicle to make him feel better.

Finally, he called his dad to tell him the news about the car; his dad took it pretty well but after they had discussed insurance deductibles and collision repair shops, his dad said, “Hey, Isaac?”

“What’s up, dad?” he asked, sensing a change in tone.

“Look, I really need you to keep a lid on your garbage can so Skeeter can’t get in there,” he said. “I’m glad you’re having safe sex, but I just found a condom in his poop and had to pull another one out of his ass.”

So much for our untimely attempts at adulthood.

Reason #341 Why I Live In Arizona

Today I was driving home from work down the B-line and, in a pasture that sits in between a strip mall and a U-Haul rental location, right up against the fence, there was a gorgeous chestnut mare and her brand new foal.
Arrow straight through the heart.
I love this place.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rolling stones and tires and such

I like Kings of Leon because (and this may be the best compliment anyone is ever likely to receive from me) they remind me of Bob Dylan. The two are nothing alike really; I suppose you could draw allusions between both Kings of Leons and Dylan’s “unusual” vocals and tendency towards circular guitar riffs, but what I mean is that Kings of Leon make me feel the way Bob Dylan makes me feel: like I must go out and do something immediately, like the world is out there waiting for me.

Matthew Followill is some magical combination of George Harrison and John Fogerty: like Harrison, everything he does is simple and clear and understated, but still he maintains Fogerty’s dirty repetition and energetic style. The result is an absolutely solid foundation for Caleb’s voice; a dry, cracked metallic miracle of a voice that should strike terror into the heart of every daughter’s mother.

Because of the Times starts off with the eight-minute long song “Knocked Up”, which still feels too short sometimes; it feels like tires rolling, like a jaunt on the freeway, and half the time the drive is so much fun you’re sorry to get where you’re going. The harmonics just propel you forward into the rest of the album, and it only gets better. They sound like Dobermans behind a junkyard fence, gagging at the ends of their chains to get at you; they sound like that rhythmic thump that occurs at high speeds when you’ve only got one window open; they sound like three o’clock in the morning coming down and the crash of beer bottles in the street.

Lyrically, they’re not Dylan; and holding them anywhere close makes them look like a three-legged dog trying to race Jesse Owens, but then everybody looks like that next to Dylan. But they get the message across: they’re going somewhere better than here, and you should go, too. “We ain’t even been to the ocean, we’ve been running barefoot through streams,” they announce at the end of the song “Ragoo,” only to deliver you straight into “Fans,” which I think is the peak of the album, the unloading of the cooler at the oceanfront, with a feedback wave crashing into the rhythm guitar part. “And those rainy days, they ain’t so bad when you’re the king-the king they want to see,” or, alternatively, “the king they want to be.” This song is the rejoicing at arrival and the stretching of numb limbs.

It’s their recurring theme of going somewhere that reminds me of Dylan; particularly I am talking about Dylan's songs “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” which I always play back-to-back because I think they belong together.

There are entire books written about the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” and at one point the damn thing had over sixty verses, but for recording purposes it was condensed into four, with a play time of six minutes and thirteen seconds. It took me a long time to get the hang of “Like a Rolling Stone.” At first I thought it was about somebody in particular, a historical piece, but that didn't ever seem quite right, because the language was too metaphorical, and Dylan's historical pieces about Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evars' murderer and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter are all very specific. Then I began to think it was about Bob Dylan himself, which seemed a lot better, until I correctly heard the lyric, “You've gone to the finest school, all right, Miss Lonely, but you know you only used to get juiced in it.” Then I realized he was talking about me. Or everybody, really, but the subject is “you,” the listener, and she is female.

Another interesting thing about that song is that musically it is a very energetic song, a very fiery and joyous and passionate song, with an opening snare beat that critics typically describe as “a gunshot” and an organ that makes you feel like you're in church, but lyrically it is incredibly depressing (i.e., “Ain't it hard when you discover that/he really wasn't where it's at/ after he took from you everything he could steal” and “You better take your diamond ring/you better pawn it, babe”). It took me a long time to figure out why the dichotomy is there, and what it means.

Finally, and what I feel to be the most important bit of the song, the chorus is a question. It's not a statement, or a piece of advice, or even a story like the folk songs he began by singing. Stories are good for reaching people, for including them, because everybody can relate to some bit of it, but questions are better because everybody's got their own answer. Questions, I think, more fully incorporate listeners than stories do. And not only does Dylan ask a question, he asks the right question: How does it feel to be on your own? This question gets at the heart of what everybody must go through to become who they are.

So if you put this information in front of you—that the song is at once joyful and sorrowful, that it is asking a version of the most important question, and that the subject of the song is you, the listener—you can begin to put the pieces together, lyric by lyric and note by note: this song is about your life. It's about what happens to you when you realize that your life has no meaning whatsoever, but that because of its lack of meaning, you can fill it with whatever meaning you wish. This song is about being everything and nothing at once; this song is about the work you have ahead of you, but also all the debts you do not owe. This song is about your freedom and your anonymity; this song is about defining yourself, about becoming who you are. This song is ashing your cigarette and walking out into the nighttime to do what needs to be done, facing the gunslinger; this song is the Great American Novel.

“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” seems to me to be the flip side of the same coin: this is an acoustic piece where “Like a Rolling Stone” is an electric piece; “Baby Blue” is hollow and wooden and solo where “Rolling Stone” is electric, metallic, and requires an entire backing band. Playing the songs back-to-back is a lovely view into that slice of Bob Dylan's artistic life, and his switch to rock 'n' roll that so many of his fans felt to be a betrayal when, really, it was a liberation. The two songs together mirror his loss of his hard-won fans and his simultaneous embrasure of what he knew he was becoming[1].

“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is about change, about giving up what has turned to stone, what is weighing you down, and moving forward into the unknown and unexplored. This song is less about the jubilation you feel at finding you are free to be whatever you want, and more about the loss of the friends who will not come with you, who cannot see their way through to the other side of the mirror. This song is about the same female “you,” whose male lover, “who just walked out the door,” has just “taken all his blankets from the floor.” It is about the attempt to steel yourself for what comes next, and for the ache of loss that comes even when what you are losing is dead weight. “Like a Rolling Stone” is the celebration of tossing your baggage overboard and the subsequent relaxation of the knot between your shoulder blades, but “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is the hand that reaches automatically into the overhead compartment for the bags that are no longer there.

It is important to play “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” first and “Like a Rolling Stone” second.

And maybe Kings of Leon haven't exactly written two songs that completely encompass what it is to be human, but their albums sure do make me feel like ashing my cigarette and going out to face the gunslinger, so I fucking like Kings of Leon.

[1] To this day, I think Dylan is still known to most people as an integral part of the civil rights movement and a folk singer rather than a groundbreaking example of rugged individualism and one of the greatest rock 'n' roll artists to ever live. But all you have to do is open an issue of Rolling Stone magazine...need I go further? The entire goddamn rock and roll industry still shudders because he put his foot on their stage.

This post could not have been written without access to the book Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Happiness in a cold cubicle world

  I got up this morning with the intention to write an article on happiness when I got home. I had a really great weekend and had been kicking around some ideas on the subject for a couple days; I subsequently had a miserable day at work and came home in a lousy mood.

But it occurred to me that this may, in fact, be a good position from which to write about happiness.  Isn’t everybody’s goal—rather than simply never having another bad day—to be able to accept bad days with grace, to shrug them off, to live in the sort of state where bad days don’t make a difference regarding one’s happiness?

I’m having dating problems; my job is boring, rote, and purposeless; I’ve got credit card debt; most of my friends have moved away or else I don’t consider them my friends anymore; I don’t like a lot of things about the way I look.  There are a lot of reasons I could—and until lately, did—consider myself unhappy.

I do live in what I consider to be the most beautiful place in the world—Phoenix, Arizona—and while a lot of people have a lot of nasty things to say about it, I can somehow always see the beauty around me.   I like the desert.  It gets hot, but generally we have only three to four months of really awful weather, which beats the hell out of the east coast, and it’s always sunny.  When it’s not sunny the rain makes a nice change.  There’s lots of hiking—every weekend I get to go out to the biggest city park in the United States, South Mountain Park, and  get a great workout climbing trails through the mountains.  From the highest point there’s a beautiful view of the Valley, and the Superstition Mountain range to the east.

Over the weekend I picked up the guy I’m dating at eleven-thirty at night and drove out into the Superstitions on Rt. 88,  and pulled over on the side of the road for some stargazing.  From where we sat the sky was so large that we could see the edges curling around the curvature of the Earth, and the desert so still that we could hear lizards darting through the dust. 

Sure, there are miles upon miles of tract homes, and clogged freeways, and corporate stores; people say Phoenix has no culture, but really what we have is the white-collar thirty-something culture of sterile bars and dance clubs and restaurant/grills that serve Californicated Mexican dishes and hamburgers.   The people who live here drive sedans and work for corporations and wear button-downs to work every day, and they start to complain about the heat in February.

But we also have rattlesnakes (sounds like a downer, but to a biology major they’re pretty amazing organisms), and coyotes calling at night, and monsoons, and a decided lack of mosquitos; we have sunshine and saguaros that are hundreds of years old.  We have beautifully landscaped freeways and one of the highest standards of living in the country; and we still have dairy farms and agriculture and good ol’ boys driving old Fords around in cowboy hats.  Right next to the place I work is a pasture full of goats. 

I can see all of these lovely things about Phoenix, no matter what people say, and I can’t help but wonder today why I can’t see these same sorts of things about myself, no matter what happens to me.  Why can’t I see my perfect health, my lovely hair, my strong legs and great smile; why can’t I see my intelligence and sense of humor and good singing voice and all the things that I like about myself?

The past year for me has been an upward struggle out of a bad breakup and the black hole of the post-graduation existential crisis, but in the course of said epic battle I have learned two things about myself and happiness. Firstly, my brain tends to impede happiness rather than facilitate it, going round and round analyzing things half to death simply because I am bored.  I have to give it something useful to do in order to distract it from making up problems to dwell on.  This idea is a basic tenet of meditation practice: you give your conscious brain a mantra, something to repeat and focus on, and in this way your unconscious, your feelings and, I guess, your soul, can rise to the surface and sometimes make a connection to something greater than itself.  Humans are capable of the most extraordinary reasoning practices and incredible solutions, and yet most of that goes unused, fed into things like scanning files and trying to pick up a new partner in line at Starbucks.  Our bodies, similarly, are incredibly capable (read: Bruce Lee), and yet most of the day my body at least is plopped in a chair, only my fingers and my eyes doing anything, excepting the occasional bum shift in my seat.

The second thing I learned, a consequence of the first thing, is that I already am happy.  Happiness is a lot more like your car keys than a new pair of jeans: you don’t have to go out and try on all sorts of things and put yourself through dressing-room purgatory in order to find it; you just have to remember where the hell you put it.  

Two people, separately, gave me a word which has been more useful than any other in my quest for happiness: both Bob Dylan and Nietzsche espouse the concept of becoming.   Nietzsche's entire philosophy is built around this idea; Bob Dylan said, and I paraphrase, “An artist can never let himself feel like he’s gotten anywhere; he has to always live in a state of becoming.  There’s always somewhere else he can go.”  And I think that’s true not just for artists, but for everybody.  Growth is the factor here; striving always to be better than what you were before gives you not only a purpose, but satisfaction from the attempt itself, and not from the outcome.  It doesn’t depend on anything outside yourself, or from any achievement; it gives your brain something to do and it distracts you enough for your unconscious to remember where you put the damn thing. 

And these are things that I know, that I have learned for myself, slowly and painfully; and sometimes still I have a bad day at work and come home pissed off and tired.  It’s easy to get distracted from your mantra, but I think all you can do is go back to the beginning and try again.