The red apple

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Ways of the West

I was reading about the critical reception of a new tv show, Westworld after binge watching the first season so far, and I read a line that was oddly resonant with the message of the show. The line, which I found on wikipedia under the section detailing the Audience Viewership, simply said:

“The U.S. series premiere attracted 1.96 million viewers, with 0.8 million in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

What caught my eye was the fact that the 18 to 49 year old demographic was “coveted” by advertisers. But it makes sense. That’s the age group that matters most to advertisers, the age group where people begin buying the most things. The age group of disposable incomes, of needs, and desires. They are the consumers. In a sense, they are the newcomers, the ones who ravage this wasteland with their uncontrollable desires. The ones for whom the unknown gods shape the land, and cater to their savage whims.

But in another sense, for these people in the 18 to 49 demographic, how much of their reality is governed by these unknown gods of advertising? All for the sake of a purchase. How much of our social interactions are crafted by another ad man who has to make a sale so that he can pay next month’s mortgage? And how much of our life is a spectacle, a performance? To feed the narratives.

Just a thought. Maybe we are all both god and man, and ours is a world where we selfishly create the godliness and manhood in each other over and over. Maybe the gods in our world know not that they are gods over others, and reign selfishly, like a man, and for this, other men suffer, and in their suffering become gods. Maybe in our search for authenticity and meaning, we usurp the role of god over the lives of others.

Creation shapes the creator, just as much as the creator shapes his creation.

Once More at the Shore

If I were to tell my story, it would begin with loneliness.

Loneliness that drove me over the hills and the valleys, searching to feel anything but numb. Praying to a god that I never heard, cursing myself for not speaking to strangers, and returning to a home that wasn’t mine. The loneliness plagued me to no end, like a sickness that I felt to the bones. My spirit atrophied, and the wilted soul that I was limped through the coming and going of empty processions.

And in this journey, like with many stories and adventures, I found companions. A merry band of wanderers, who like me had no where to be. So we reveled, and we spent many late nights out on the road. And in those golden years I traveled to so many cities and places. In those years we stumbled through tragedies and sorrows, excitement and wonder. Loneliness was no where to be found.

Eventually we were trapped by the many facets of this world. We fell in love with women, and grew encumbered with bills. We posted ourselves to cubicles and desks, and learned the language of spreadsheets. We went on date nights, and romanced our women.

Now, once more at the shores of our friendship, I can’t help but to notice the fleeting water’s edge. What a pleasant trip it was, across these tides together, over the seas of uncertainty. What fellowship we offered one another, taking turns to row. Yet here I stand once more on sandy shores, and as I gaze over the dark lands I can smell a faint aroma wafting through the chilled air. Like the distant fires of pine and cedar, it is a familiar scent, sharp, quick to sting the nose. The scent of loneliness hangs still in the air, like a man strung from a tree after too many hours. Loneliness is here once more to greet me.

So here I recognize, at the end of such elusive journeys, having spent nearly another decade of my life, that perhaps loneliness is my muse. It is my madness, my sacrosanct. It is my curse, the conflict of my plot line, the fire of my mind. It is my meditation, my will, and my voice. It is inevitable.

As I age, the loneliness seems to take less the form of an empty room, and more the spirit of the empty room. It becomes a familiar presence, the silence and stillness, which quickly fills with the nostalgic sentiments of my past. The emptiness suddenly bubbles with the memory of being lonely, as if the loneliness stopped time, and connected all the times in my life that I sat in an empty room, feeling the silence. It is on the loneliness that I am able to project myself, and thus for once, see myself for who I am. And as I age, that image of myself becomes more welcome, as is the loneliness.

Perhaps because I know that one day, when I leave this world, I will be alone, like all the others who have left this world. Like I was when I entered this world. So I acquiesce myself with that familiar scent, the smoky air that unfurls from the distant dusk. And I can only be happy and sad at the fleeting memories as they leave me, knowing only that it was well spent.

And thus, you, the reader, realizes that the main character of this story is not me, it is the blank face of Loneliness. Like a rhythm drifting over a wall, like a shadow at the end of night, he was there when I began, and as I twirled through his hands, I ended. I was but an accent of his, nothing more than another volume in his collection. I, a word in his chapter, a chapter in his book, saw nothing more than was destined for me. I was but company to this character, to accompany him, and to fill his pages.

The story would then end where it began, with Loneliness, in an empty room. But damn that was a good story.

 

Living forever

Do you know the feeling you get when you start a new job? The excitement, the rush. The longing to learn it all, to excel, to savor mastery and competence, and earn the respect of your peers? Do you also know the feeling of having done the same work, over and over, for ten years, no longer learning anything new, no longer trying new things. Having reached the end of your wits and will, being depleted..

Perhaps the reason we cannot live forever is because we were only meant to experience the dulling of a blade so many times. A knife can only be re-sharpened so many times before the blade disappears completely.

There is one thing that is universal, and that is the spark felt from a new experience. Our reaction to new experiences is primordial, primitive, natural. If one were to live forever, then there would no longer be a spark. Everything would have been felt a few times at least, everything seen, everything tasted. Instead of life being a series of sparks, there would only be a monotonous consciousness as long and drab as it is dull and silent. Calloused against the changing of the colors and the seasons, of the coming and the going of empires, the societies and the supernovas. Regardless of the tragedies and the ironies, of the humor and the savagery, of the bitterness and tenderness of this world, nothing will move it. In silence this life, this consciousness that has begun to live forever, will hum in stillness, losing any need to move and think. It will lose all need to interact, and influence, as there is nothing to gain from being known yet again by those in the universe, because every reaction has been experienced. It will lose all thought, for there is no new formulation of ideas, no new stimuli, and no new assembly of concepts to consider. All thoughts have been thought of, at least 5 trillion times in the past, in every variation. It would lose touch with life, with people, and with the world. Living forever would make one all knowing, because one would become the steward of all that this universe has for humans. And as we are driven by the spark of things that are new, this individual consciousness, living forever, would lose its drive. It would lose the need to know and learn, as it has seen the rise and falls of a nearly infinite number of species. It would become god. Forever, all knowing, and detached from the creation.

You will die, or you will lose your taste for life. One of these two can occur.

Distances

Long distance is the certainty of not knowing. Of never knowing. Long distance is a decision singed by the heat of regret. Long distance is wondering if the sun will rise again on your single body lying on a neat bed tomorrow. Long distance is wondering how many more squares are left on the calendar. Long distance is imagining the colors of a wilted flower. Long distance is a prayer to a foreign god.

Long distance is the memory of her face fading into a series of emojis in text messages. Long distance is scheduling your affection in your calendar. Long distance is remembering her as a blurry image, frozen by the slow internet at peak hours.

Long distance is not knowing if hearing her voice over the phone is the same as feeling her words breathe into your ears. It’s speaking affectionate words into a lifeless phone. Like prayer, it’s uttering your longing into the vastness of a sky, hoping that the dark canvas of the night won’t stifle it.

Long distance is surrender. It’s the resignation to uncertainty, and the whispered hope of an architect in the cosmos. Long distance is knowing your impossibly small place in the universe, and knowing how impossibly far everything is from everything else. Long distance is the ambition and arrogance of believing that you can make two stars collide, that you can drag two cosmic bodies across the infinite void.

 

Blackjack

It was 9:30 am, and I stood in the hallway next to the breakroom, clutching a paper cup of instant coffee, listening to my coworker tell me about his new pet dog. He told me about how he and his wife had spent weeks discussing it, weighing the pros and cons, and finally decided in a moment of triumph to go and adopt a dog. They needed a small dog, because a large dog would be too cramped in their small apartment, even though it was just him and his wife, no kids. They chose a small breed, that was obedient, and quiet. They were ecstatic. He spent hours over the weekend playing with the new dog, training him, taking him to the dog park. But then he discovered his wife had allergies. This dog was a long haired breed and shed frequently, triggering her insufferable symptoms. So with a shattered heart he had to return to the shelter, and give the dog back. They picked another one out, one that his wife could live with. And that was the highlight of several weeks of his life, outside of work.

I smiled and sipped my shitty coffee.

There was no way he could see that I was reeling with existential horror from listening to his story. He couldn’t see the lines my mind was drawing, between the dog and him. Who was the more domesticated one? Who was neutered? I couldn’t get past how he had created such a fragile world for himself, a paper castle made with the tissue thin walls of comfort. The apartment, the wife, the job, the khakis, just towers in his castle of tissue paper. And this dog, this dog was his message that he accepted it all. He relegated himself to the symphony of silence.

My parents once apologized to me, for not leaving me a lot of money like some of my friends’ parents did. But that’s not a problem. If I had nothing, then I could do anything. But I have just enough in life. I had gotten an education, and worked and saved up a little money. Enough to where it would be stupid to risk it all. It would be stupid to risk getting anything on my rap sheet, it would be stupid to quit a job before getting another one. It would be stupid to not invest in a 401k, and stupid to not invest in property. I have just enough, so that my fate is dictated by it-would-be-stupid-not-to’s.

It’s like drawing a sixteen in a game of blackjack. You know the book. You know the statistics. You know sixteen isn’t likely to beat the dealer, but you also know that asking for another card could very well mean the game ends, and you lose it all.

So what do you do? Do you stay, or do you hit? Do you count it as a loss anyways, give the rest of your chips to the waitress as a tip, and walk out the door?

I slurped my coffee a little too loudly. My coworker was still talking. He said something about the dog. I nodded, and told him it was good to see him again, and walked back to my desk. As I began typing again, my necktie began to feel a lot like a leash.

 

Weary traveler

Hello again, old friend.

I visit you once more through the portal of the night, ‘twixt the gates of exhaustion and despair. It seems as though the long nights are the only windows through which you can see eternity, and time falls slower like snow on a white laden land. Where thoughts wander through like weary travelers on a lonesome road.

The cabin of your mind seems to be adorned with a special kind of loneliness, lacquered against these beams and walls. Impossible to remove, despite all who pass through here, and caress their hands along the tendril-ed grains.

What do you see against the stars tonight? Do you see the north star, or the trinity of Orion’s belt? Or do you see a message from the heavens, an echo of your discontent? Is the silence the only song you count as familiar, the only tune in this worn record of a soul?

Do you welcome me as an old friend or a new foe? Am I invited to drink deeply from your favorite bottle of whiskey, or should I dine at the door, bearing the brunt of your belligerence? Do you grant me a bed and blanket, or do I make your porch my tawdry respite?

This whiskey stings, friend, and this blanket is coarse. But I hope you forgive me on account of the time it’s been since we last spoke. I dare not trouble you, old friend, but I would sooner curse myself for not passing you these doubts. You see, these shadows that flicker on the wooden walls, the darkness that dances beyond the night, they are made of the same things.

The bottle is done! The whiskey is gone. But there is no need to cry, companion! Come, bottles can be had for nothing more than an hour’s wage. You can replenish your stores, and refill your heart. Why do you fear?

Be still. Know that pain is the heart of god, and anguish is the tongue of angels. But perhaps god is formed from the strands of our ignorance. Here, you are desolate without knowing such, but even if you did, you would not leave your god.

Sleep now, rest well, dear old friend. Let the flames dance against the backdrop of your body, and may they perform well this night. Listen again to my tales of trouble, and don’t let them disturb you too greatly. Let my questions fill you, and my voice cloud your compass. May the road be forever muddled, and no path sane.

I visit you now, only as a man meeting a mirror. Your tears trickle down my cheeks, and burn my lips.

Sleep well, dear friend. For tomorrow we will once more be foes.

Missouri Storms

A Missouri storm always announces its presence. Before the peals of thunder, the walls of raindrops, there is a presence. The air grows heavy. A silence spreads through the land before the storm, like the hushed silence that ripples through a crowd as their king steps out among them. Mosquitoes find shelter, birds cower in their nests, dogs sit like a contemplative mute. Then the wind begins, like an overture to the grand performance that is the Missouri storm. It tickles the streamers and flags that hang above closed doors and empty patios, causing them to writhe and dance against the stubborn pull of wind. Loose screen doors bang as if in protest of the coming occupation, and tree branches creak. Leaves rustle in the trees, and those that are fortunate enough to break away scramble to find shelter in ditches and storm drains.

And like a war, it begins with a sudden blast. A concussive force that shatters the heavens, reverberating through the hills and valleys, and rolls through the distant horizon. The floodgates break, and as much as it was dry, it is suddenly all very wet. Impassible sheets of water assault the earth, threatening to drown anything it can immerse. The grass, once parched from the summer sun, now grasp at the air like a sailor trapped in a sinking ship. The leaves watch from above like angels observing the fall of man. The blast of thunder is answered by another volley, each more violent than the last, each threatening to shred the skies, the earth, and all that was created. Wind hurls the rain back and forth like bullets across the fields of glory. Men and women sit huddled in their homes, in both awe and fear of the maniacal plans of a bipolar Mother Nature. Gardens kneel against the onslaught of rain and wind, keeled over like the ears of every dog, as they lay on the ground whimpering, glancing at their owners.

And like the storm began, so it ended. A slow delayed explosion, an echoing roar that fades into the silence. The raindrops surrendering, winds yielding. It’s still again, but the land is soaked as every battlefield commonly is. Yet nothing is won in this war of heavens against the earth. Instead, life is given. Lakes, streams and wells are refilled, trees quenched, fruits restored. A Missouri storm is a terrifying ordeal, but such an awe inducing, and beautiful experience.

Art is

Art is the audacity of believing that you have something worth saying.

I had a coffee with a photographer the other day. We spoke of so many things, of vision, of purpose, and of the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. As he told me about his art, photography, specifically headshots, he described his struggle as an artist wrestling with ordinary subjects, in the attempt to bring forward the remarkable within each of them. These people come in for a professional headshot, but attempt to hide their character behind a concerted smile, conceal their large ears with their hair, and veil their tooth gap with closed lips. Yet, as an artist, his goal is to illuminate and capture this very trait, the human elements. What makes a remarkable photograph? It is the snag tooth, the frayed hair, it is the radiant eyes, and forlorn gaze of a broken widow. It is the sadness, the depth of imperfections. These make an image that will cause the viewer to hesitate, to stare a second longer, to ask questions.

The production of wonder starts with an imperfection.

In this pursuit of perfection we’ve all embarked on, we seem to lose our humanity. We trade our scars for concealers, our personalities for acceptance.

So I wonder, what makes a story great? The rasp of a voice, the wavering of a word, the subtle pause and wandering silence. We seldom recognize the strength of a few syllables and silence when it is punctuated with emotion.

Thus with writing, with photography, with art of all kinds, let it capture the imperfection of mankind. Let it embalm the pettiness and agony, and preserve the silence and solace. Art is the study of what makes us human, and not gods. It is the search of beauty in the brokenness.

That is why Art is beautiful.

The human experience

I absolutely love Atmosphere. That’s the name of a hip hop group; a rapper who goes by the name ‘Slug’ and his DJ Anthony Davis. I’ve loved them since I first heard their song back in college.

I was drawn to the clarity of the words, and Slug’s ability to paint those words with the haunting emotions of an ordinary life. Good music, it occurred to me, came from the place deep inside where pain and pleasure is mixed like whiskey and bitters, and is spilled out from the body in the form of sounds reverberating in the throat, or shakes of fingers and limbs across guitar strings or piano keys. Good music is an attitude transposed into physical form, whether it be cynicism, horniness, anguish, depression, hopelessness, or ambition. Any artist can make a sad song, or an upbeat ballad. But Slug? He could spit a line that stabbed your heart with the pain of mediocrity and blasted your world with the agonizing gray that is the average person’s life. He saw and composed the sense of being rejected, of winning one, of taking solace in knowing that the world was stacked against you. Of being passed out drunk on a bathroom floor, thinking about cosmic ideas and the philosophy of being hurt. He’s one of those artists who was able to plug into the very spark of being human. I love his music because it is exceedingly human, and paints the human experience with a certain poetry.

So of course, I was excited when I saw that he was performing in a city I lived in, finally. After several years of shouting the lyrics of his songs at the top of my lungs between the rolled up windows of my ’04 Camry, and after years of watching his music videos on youtube repeatedly, I was going to see Slug in person. I imagined it being this spiritual experience, the music, the people, the unity. Slug, like a prophet would emerge on the stage, and the crowd would chant his chorus like believers who tasted freedom. I asked around with some friends, none of whom even knew who Atmosphere was. I asked my girlfriend, who wanted very much to go with me but would have to attend a wedding out of town that weekend. I wanted to see Slug perform in person so much more than I had wanted to attend my own high school graduation. A sentiment I’m sure Slug had rapped about at some point.

I resolved to go by myself.

The day came with little fanfare. I dropped my girlfriend off at the airport, had dinner by myself, got dressed, and headed over to the venue. Slug came on stage close to midnight, after several openers from their record company. And like a titan, Slug stepped onto the stage like Zeus stepped across the clouds. The way he gripped the microphone, the way he stepped, the way he talked and breathed between each line, all seemed to say that he was tired from doing this for so many years, so many shows, but that his heart was still in it, and it still moved him. He did some of his earlier songs from when he first started, and some of his new songs, and some of his greatest hits. The crowd went wild after every song.

The crowd. It was dark in the venue obviously, except the lights that were fixated on the stage. I saw only silhouettes swaying, standing, sitting, jumping. I stepped outside for a second to get some air. The deafening beat and music  fell muffled as soon as the door shut behind me. Under the incandescent showtime sign of the venue, I was surrounded by other fans taking a smoke break. And for the first time that night, I saw a strange kind of reflection. The awkward clumps of people puffing away, trying not to bump elbows. People who had tattoos in odd places, people wearing things I would never wear. People I would never associate with. They all looked like… losers.

And I thought about something, about how I had such a hard time finding someone to go to this show with. The music was brilliant, the stories he told with poetry, the passion. But maybe it resonated mostly with the losers and suckers. And for the first time I saw a reflection that told me who I was. People who made bad decisions, people who didn’t care, people who looked like a mess. So often it seems I love the Christ but hate his followers. These ragged rebels, who reeked of poor choices and lackluster lives. Could it be though that these were the only ones who receive redemption from these bitter ballads? Are they the only ones who would be saved by this doctrine of the damned?

Perhaps only the blind find beauty in blackness.

 

I stepped back into the show, into the darkness, and into the rhythm and beat.

Midnight Ballads

I’m only awake right now for the music. Music keeps playing from my earphones, 90’s hit songs mostly. Songs I haven’t heard in a while. The music is the only reason why my face is glowing faintly from the light of my computer screen at 2am, my eyes lazily fixated on the crosshair on my screen, aiming from one virtual soldier to another in my computer game. Someone in the game server is playing music into his microphone, broadcasting his playlist for everyone to hear. Normally this should be an annoyance, because in this game I need to listen for footsteps, for distant gunshots, for any sign of an enemy around the corner. I normally need to be focused. But I honestly just don’t care right now. The song playing right now is a Bee Gees song and my score is 0. I haven’t killed a single person yet this game, and I’ve died like 11 times. I’m honestly only on right now for the music. And not just any music. For the music that this person is streaming into his microphone. Songs that he’s selected, that he has decided that he likes, and has decided to play. For some reason, being in a game, listening to someone else’s music, makes me not feel alone. I didn’t even realize I felt alone until I heard the music. And then realized that I didn’t want the music to stop. I’m exhausted, it’s the first day of February, and I’m only playing a video game so that I can listen to someone else’s music online. All so that I don’t feel alone.

And there it is. I’m alone again.

The loneliness, the bitter holy water. It baptizes all that I do with desperation, with longing.

Deep into the night is when I’m always most aware of my condition. And I wonder if loneliness is the demon of my soul that will stay with me forever. Will it be there as I lay awake on the night of my wedding, wondering if I made the right choice? Will it be the one I whisper to in the hallway after I tuck my kids in and walk back to my bedroom where my wife is? Will it dig its claws into my shoulder as I spend my time with friends? Will it whisper in my ears when I attend my friends’ funerals? And will it kiss me on the lips as it lays me down for a final sleep?

I hear the final gunshot. The game’s over. I don’t even look at who won or lost. The game ends. A popup menu appears on the screen, with a list of the different maps we can choose to play on. All the players enter their vote. The screen flashes to a loading page as the winning map is being loaded on all the different players’ computers. Players begin dropping onto the map. A countdown starts the first round. The game begins. But there’s no music. There are footsteps and distant gunshots, but I don’t care.

The music has left.

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