Month: April 2016

Playing Gatekeeper

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Never before in the history of the world have so many appliances conspired to steal our attention. It’s a wonder any of us can do more than stumble through a haze of conflicting impulses. It’s like being stoned all the time, wondering why you walked into that room. Was it to brush my teeth or make a cup of coffee? Is this early-onset Alzheimer’s or merely run-of-the-mill Facebook addiction?

 

I alone am the Gatekeeper of my mind. In my struggles to master and memorize simple Baroque keyboard compositions, I am reminded of the prodigious and profound output of both Bach and Handel. These two German musical contemporaries were a study in contrasts. Bach, the humble choir director, had a large family to support and was always scrambling to make ends finish that Sunday’s oratorio, while Handel, probably a homosexual, arrived in the lap of luxury the moment he arrived in England. Each cranked out several pieces a day, all of which were wildly successful.

 

How were these men able to maintain focus? No matter how talented you are, composing music takes diligence. In a time before copy machines and computers, it also  took the ability to sit down with a pot of ink, quill and paper and to not only compose but copy the final manuscript.

 

I was not born untalented, but seem to have squandered an awful lot of that talent as well as my time on this planet by chasing illusions. In my twenties, creativity seemed second nature and I was rewarded for tossing off this or that, while now I struggle for hours to get anything accomplished. Even running a few errands seems like a full day’s work. I can’t imagine being employed again, and thankfully, neither can any of my potential employers.

 

 

If I had any advice to give those who are still young, it would be this: life is shorter than you imagine, and what you allow inside your head takes up space. If reading the stupid things Ted Cruz or Donald Trump say truly delights you, then by all means, wallow in Facebook’s meme mire. But if you hope for more for yourself, now is the time to batten the hatches. Allowing yourself to be constantly distracted by entertaining illusions is a bargain you make with the devil.

 

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No Arguments

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When you first become romantically involved with a person who doesn’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs, you learn that language isn’t as important as you thought it was. “Relationship experts” are always talking about the importance of communication, and blaming the divorce rate on its lack, but verbal communication is far down the list of ways in which couples can interact.

 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a poet to realize how to take care of someone else. When they are hungry, you feed them, when they want affection you give it. When it’s reciprocated, you notice and are grateful. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Eventually, you develop a common vocabulary you both understand, but those words could be made up, and sometimes are.

 

I’ve been with Wipa for a year now, and she knew almost no English when I met her. I had studied Thai at the local YMCA, but knew very little. A year later, I still don’t know much. Can’t read or write Thai. My progress as a Thai speaker has been glacial. After a few years of trying I got to speak pretty good Spanish, but I don’t predict the same level or rate of success with Thai. It’s just too damn hard.

 

When I try to help her learn English, it’s amusing to see how difficult it is for her, and I must conclude that my attempts at speaking are likewise almost incomprehensible. We speak a mixture of English and Thai at home, probably so heavily accented that anyone listening in would have a hard time understanding what was going on.

 

The great gift of not being able to communicate verbally is that you can’t argue about abstractions. If you’re restless or irritable you can’t take it out on the other person by baiting them into an argument about intimacy or responsibility or a toss around psychological terms used as weapons.

 

You simply take care of each other and it shows.

 

What Passes for Discourse Nowadays

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When I was a kid I used to turn on the TV so early that they hadn’t started regular programming yet. They used to show Industry on Parade newsreels. “Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife.” Even back then I knew what this was. It was propaganda. Advertising created by someone who would profit from selling aluminum pots and pans.

 

Then, when I went to grade school, we kids would buy bubble gum packs that came with baseball cards. We would then trade these cars on the playground. We guessed at the relative value of each card, and privately gave them value based on the inferred personality of the player. I’m a Don Drysdale kind of guy, but Billy over there is into Curt Flood. Again, we weren’t creating these cards, we were purchasing them and then imagining that this process would help us become like the men people pictured on the cards. Sympathetic magic.

 

College kids hope that certain bands on their playlist will attract the right kind of friends or mates. My record collection was more important to me than anything else I owned, because it expressed who I was, in case anybody cared to know. On the first warm day of spring I placed my speakers in an open window and blared out Crosby, Still and Nash singing “Four Dead in Ohio!” I was the kind of guy who hated Nixon.

 

Nowadays, on Facebook, people share political memes that attack certain candidates. We think of this as self-expression. Sure, the recipients of our posts are our “Facebook Friends,” so it’s basically preaching to the choir, but that’s OK. Sharing pre-manufactured memes that come our way is no more an example of creativity or self-expression any more than is collecting baseball cards or downloading other people’s musical output. We are buying into the idea sold to use by product manufacturers and their agents, advertising agencies, that we can be defined by our consumer choices. I’m an Apple person. Me, I’m strictly Microsoft. I’m better than both of you, I’m open-source Linux.

 

But what do any of us really know about these things we do not create but simply share. Remember, Facebook was created as a social tool to help college students find like-minded friends. So far all this sharing of “news stories” from various sites is neither research nor essay writing. These sometimes powerful and clever memes are not being produced by amateurs. They are the work of paid writers and graphic artists.

 

When we share a post that says “Share if you’re proud of your son,” or comply with the command “Share if you love Jesus, keep scrolling if you don’t care that he died for your sins,” we’re endorsing an ugly form of literary bullying. Someone is benefiting monetarily from our blindly playing along with this. This sort of activity has largely replaced reasoned debate and considered discourse. We never had a surfeit of those to begin with, but I’m afraid that today one ugly picture of Hillary scowling on Facebook could matter more than anything she may or may not have done or said.