The thing about gambling is that it’s an optimistic occupation staffed by bottomless characters–an endless supply of soldiers with unlimited reserves.
That time we found our kinfolk, running down a meadow still soft with folded grass as the daisies chained themselves into a crown.
That time we snapped our fingers, and they didn’t make a sound but the sight of the attempt was something so much more profound.
That time when life was simple, and things were sorted out in kind.
When time was just a concept that we paid no mind.
I read for knowledge, I read for clarity, and the perfect paragraph(s) has always had the same impact on me as the perfect song–keeping in mind that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Often, I’ll select a volume to read from my stacks of dusty books that were purchased and then forgotten for months and years. Why that volume strikes me then, at that particular time, I do not know because it picks me, and then one or two or three chapters in I realize it is the precise book I needed at that moment. The words cut deeply, the plot lines are too relevant, and I leave the book behind a little more determined in my course of action, a bit more comfortable in my world view: an energized person. If music marks moments, then literature (fiction and non-fiction) makes them through contextualization.
This has the case with Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes and every poem I’ve ever read by Charles Bukowski (as messed up as that sounds), and has happened most recently with a book by Czeslaw Milosz titled Visions from San Francisco Bay. In the first chapter, Milosz outlines his intention for the book and it electrified me so I thought I’d share the lighting strike. Hopefully it hits home for you too.
I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said–you begin with those words and return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other and in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.
I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my member, and all I now assent to, dissent from. However, in pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks other will understand. There are, however, time when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of the shame and being to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am no wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgement of one’s own limits, which, mysteriously, are also limits common to many others; and aren’t these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?
I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas. To borrow their language can be helpful in many ways, but it also leads imperceptibly into a self-contained labyrinth, leaving us in alien corridors which allow no exit. And so I must offer assistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experience on my own, what I myself have touched. I cannot invent a new language and I use the one I was first taught, but I can distinguish, I hope, between what is mine and what is merely fashionable. I cannot expel from memory the books I have read, their contending theories and philosophies, but I am free to be suspicious and to ask naive questions instead of joining the chorus which affirms and denies.
Intimidation. I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say. Then the feeling of individuality and a unique role begins to weaken and the thought of all people who ever were, are, and ever will be–aspiring, doubting, believing–people superior to me in strength of feeling and depth of mind, robs me of confidence in what I call me ‘I’. The words of a prayer two millennia old, the celestial music created by a composer in a wig and jabot make me ask why I, too, am here, why me? Shouldn’t one evaluate his changes beforehand–either equal the best or say nothing. Right at this moment, as I put these marks to paper, countless others are doing he same, and out books in their brightly colored jackets will be added to that mass of things in which names and titles sink and vanish. No doubt, also at this very moment, someone is standing in a bookstore, and faced with the sight of those splendid and vain ambitions, is making his decisions–silence is better. That single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work. However, here, now, I have the courage to speak, a sort of secondary courage, not blind. Perhaps it is my stubbornness in pursuit of that single sentence. Or perhaps it is my old fearlessness, temperament, fate, a search for a new dodge. In any case, my consolation lies not so much in the role I have been called to play as in the great mosaic-like whole which is composed of fragments of various people’s efforts, whether successfully or not. I am here–and everyone is in some ‘here’–and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.
These dreams dropped into real-time and took root;
So taken, as they were, with unreality turning tricks to see the morning come.
Here I am, a plaintiff in a sea of stories treading water to stay afloat:
Finding current in a song,
Strong and Ready,
Steady as I cook a fix;
Sturdy with conviction as I learn to WRITE in FLIGHT.
To travel down a bustling city sidewalk and hear church bells is to be pulled into the past; As if to say, “This time is GODLESS, but at least we have each other.”
I frequent the same coffee shop every morning on my way to work. This addiction means I’ve developed a rapport with the staff, particularly a young kid from Mexico City who has an earnest sweetness to him. This morning, the morning after Father’s Day, he asked me “Did you call your Dad this weekend?” I replied, with an uncomfortable chuckle, “Uh huh, no. I didn’t. My Dad’s dead,” as I scurried to the other end of the bar and away from the eager customer behind me, jonesing for java on a Monday morn. When I turned the same question on him he told me he didn’t know his father. Never did.
I bid him good day, and walked out to my car. Sliding into the driver seat of the VW my Dad posthumously purchased for me, I took a moment. I set my latte down, tossed my piece of illicit crumb cake onto the passneger seat, and rummaged for a CD from the glove compartment to realign my professional comportment. Fish, fish fish and found it–Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America.
I forwarded through to Track 6, “He Did,” which accompanies this post in video form despite it delivering no video (not my preference, but it’ll do the job in a pinch). I default to music in times of (let’s say) stress without a second thought, as compulsory as an irregular heartbeat, because music makes memory move and marks moments; it heals through submersion since feelings felt fully are the ones that will eventually form a scab. While it probably made other customers uncomfortable, the exchange with my beloved barrista reminded me that while the void is very deep, still, in spite of passing years, at least there is a hole to fill. A path to find. A row to hoe. And an empty page to fill. It reminded me of how it feels to be my father’s daughter, alive like this.
For if nothing else, I am my father’s daughter.
Take Aim, Noriega
If regrets were like pellets packed into a barrel,
My aim would sharpen as my heart swelled—
The tears to tear a hole in the target,
An end brought to bear from a trigger,
With the air cleared in a crash of smoke.
In truth, the shots we took solved nothing;
We were so young we couldn’t steady the sight.
So now I strain to make the music set it right,
For the hunt to find a harmony in amnesia,
And the night to bring the cool of anonymity.
Let’s call a spade a spade. A writer’s promotion of his/her writing is an incredibly narcissistic act because it signals their belief that their opinions are worth merit, worth your time, worth a permanent place in type set into mankind’s artistic chronicle. “I am a delicate snowflake, here is my flurry; you’re welcome” could be the dedication of many books, particularly those of an autobiographical nature. That said, I am a reluctant blogger. As a freelance writer of the 21st-century it’s the best tool to expand my “brand” by showcasing my ability to use words good, defining my artistic eye and promoting my sense of music in conjunction with Twitter and Instagram. However, by expanding my online presence I’ve exposed my unique insights to copyright infringement and plagiarism I’ve not the resources to combat, and unintentionally invited internet creepers to send me emails in which they call me “Little Girlie” and ask to view and share lewd photos (a real thing that really happened). The internet is as disgusting as it is enlightening, as much a resource as is it a source for distraction and is also the ultimate manifestation of narcissism in many ways. Facebook, Foursquare, Google+, Path, Pinterest, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Vine: nobody is interesting enough to create and divide content on that many platforms.
Part of my beef with blogging is the preponderance of uneducated and uncritical posts. To clarify, I don’t use “uncritical” to mean lacking in criticism but rather to pinpoint synthetic contributions to the stream. Generating blank content such as uploading a photograph or inputting a quote without context or discussion only adds to the barrage of unexplained crap on the internet and serves as yet another superficial layer through which one must sift in order to find something worth reading or viewing. Too many sound-bytes, not enough polyphonic sound. Perhaps a more disturbing trend is the democratization of the role of critic. Whereas I’ve clearly benefited from this, I’ve also often said any asshole can have a blog, and in lieu of credentials many bloggers feel the need to savagely attack whatever it is they’re reviewing. Be it music, literature, art or movies, they break their subject down to build themselves up, mistakenly assuming a soap box and an authoritative tone produce the sum of a critique. I ask, for what purpose? I don’t want to read about an album or book that sucks, I want to be turned on to works that will give me chills and send me reeling onto the next thing inspired and engaged.
This opinion was solidified after watching a friend’s band solicit album reviews from music blogs. One such blog (which shall remain nameless) would review any band that paid them with writers who were “hired” merely because they left 100+ comments on the site. This band was given a review that was artless, cruel and untrue–that went through the album song by song to note why each one sucked, and gave no further information on the artist outside of that one album. In addition, the site made no mention that the review had been written in exchange for money. That is not a review, it’s an un-researched 3rd Grade essay without a hypothesis that conceals its ulterior motive. Clearly I’m biased towards and protective of my buddy’s band, but I’ve also reviewed albums semi-professionally and know a farce when I see it. This type of jury-rigged scholarship void of professionalism is described perfectly by Noam Chomsky in his observations on Twitter from the recent book Power Systems: “If you look at [tweets], they have a fairly consistent character. They give the impression of being something that someone just thought of…If you thought for two minutes, or if you had made the slight effort involved in looking up the topic, you wouldn’t have sent it.”
I’ve attempted to counteract (or at least not add to) these problems with this blog in a few ways. First, this site offers no paid content. Just as James Franco recently quantified his own process at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, I merely attempt to understand certain forms of art through other forms of art–literature as an instrument of music, philosophy as a photographic lens, and so on and so forth–as a holistic approach to understanding my world, offering no answers merely unpaid observations. Second, I’ve added a brief biography in the margins to note an academic background and provide professional footing. While this makes me vulnerable to the aforementioned creeps, content written in anonymity engenders no confidence from the reader. If nothing else, I want my relationship with you, kind reader, to be genuine so the trade-off is worthwhile to me. Third, I do not write negative posts. The blogosphere and more traditional media outlets are already screaming with negativity and I see no need to turn up its volume; instead, I want to change the channel to something that has tickled my fancy and hopefully will do so to yours. At the core of this is the fact that I am neither a musician nor a filmmaker, not a baker, not a painter, and far be it for me to identify flaws in a song or a bundt cake I couldn’t dream of making.
Unchecked content, however, is not my only issue with the internet and its derivatives. In addition to his thoughts on Twitter in Power Systems, Chomsky talks of an “atomization” in today’s society. As we increasingly channel our efforts into online communities, our earth-bound relationships are suffering. We connect better with avatars than we do with the faces that sit beside us on the bus, and we are measured not by what we say in a job interview but by how well our LinkedIn account is formatted. Selfies have seemingly become more relevant and revelatory than the Self outside the computer, which is ironic considering the backbone of online communities is often anonymity as every Tom, Dick and Harry register blogs that thrive on sensationalism and unsupported facts. There’s a name for this: it’s called Yellow Journalism.
These fears are not my sole property. What technology is doing to us and has done to us is widely studied, and the dearth of reputable, intellectually stimulating content in popular culture is bemoaned by every generation from Lincoln’s time to our own. Perhaps it’s motivated by a fear of change, or maybe just the human tendency to bitch about our present because misery loves company. Whatever the reason, poets and scientists alike are fascinated by the fluctuating intricacies of human interaction–hence the writing of poetry, hence the practice of psychology (which are two sides of the same coin, really). The universality of the fears expressed in this piece became more real to me after reading the poem “Emerging” from Pablo Neruda’s Extravagaria (1974):
“A man says yes without knowing / how to decide even what the question is / and is caught up, and then is carried along / and never again escapes from his cocoon; / and that’s how we are, forever falling / into the deep well of other beings; / and one thread wraps itself around our necks, / another entwines a foot, and then it is impossible, / impossible to move except in the well— / nobody can rescue us from other people.
It seems as if we don’t known how to speak; / it seems as if there are words which escape, / which are missing, which have gone away and left us / to ourselves, tangled up in snares and threads.
And all at once, that’s it; we no longer know / what it’s all about, but we are deep inside it, / and now we will never see with the same eyes / as once we did when we were children playing. / Now these eyes are closed to us, / now our hands emerge from different arms.”
This, I suppose, is why I blog in the face of internet stalkers and the stigma of irresponsible blogging. Obviously, there are a plethora of brilliant bloggers and internet entrepreneurs who have used online tools to great effect, and have bettered the world because of it; thank goodness they were given the opportunities afforded by online marketplaces. This post is not meant to discount them, it is merely an attempt to offer my observations, state some of my fears and start a dialogue. For I fear binary numbers are usurping words, and the sterile future this fact implies is very scary to me. When we devalue the impact of words we shatter the importance of language as it’s used to communicate with members of our community–the one in which we move by day and not the one we fabricate by night while in the privacy of our shuttered homes. Anonymity afforded online breeds nothing good, and avatars with unspecified agendas hold no one accountable and bring nothing new to the table. In this vacuum of accountability, the social contract is subverted and we enter a realm fabricated from haphazardly connected content that does not foster ingenuity, which is the product of shared ideas of merit. Instead, it often leads to bickering fueled by a neoliberal obsession with profit in its most potent forms: fame or fortune. God, who’d want to be, God who’d want to be such an asshole.
So…my name is Nicole Meldahl, this is my blog and I wrote this piece while listening to “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse. Discuss.
Here, faithful readers, is a poem taken from a newspaper column in the women’s section of an 1890s San Francisco Chronicle title “Behind The Mask” by Nora Perry–an American poet and journalist who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. It is for the lonely ones who know not what they do.
“‘She speaks and smiles the gay old way
She is the same as yesterday,’
You turn and say.
The same as yesterday, before
The dark-winged angel at her door
Entered and bore
The treasure of her life away;
‘The same, the same as yesterday.’
And as you say
These questioning words with questioning tone,
Apart from you and quite alone
She makes her moan;
She does not dare to trust her woe
To break its bonds, her tears to flow
In outward show,
Lest, like a giant in her life,
This woe should rise to stronger life
And fiercer strife.
So, wearing on her face the guise
Of olden smiles, with tearless eyes
She dumbly tries
To lift her burden to the light,
To live by faith and not by sight,
And from the night
Of new despair and wasting grief
At last, at last to find relief
Even as she stands before you there
With all the old accustomed air,
The smiles that wear
The mirthful mask of yesterday.
She stands alone and far away
She stands alone and quite apart,
With mirth and song her aching heart
Has lot nor part.
The while your criticize her air
Of gay repose, pierced with despair
She does not dare
To speak aloud her bitterness,
To tell you of her loneliness
And sore distress.”