The red apple

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.

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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.

The need to survive

Just some musings on the sentiments of needing a purpose:

 

The survival instinct was once the thread that connected one day to the next, weaving together sunsets and sunrises into a seamless experience that is a human life. But in its absence, there is a need for something just as powerful to hold our days together. We are now missing something that once drove man to fight against wolves with his bare hands, just to have meat to eat, and to weather the most brutal pain just to see another day. And that is a powerful thing to miss.

Our need for a purpose is a vestige from our need to survive.

But is survival really no longer needed? Our crusade for something more has driven us to the far fathoms of technology and science, to grasping the universe and pulling it all close. It is pushing us to new world and nearby galaxies. The survival instinct has pushed us amongs the stars, and beyond.

Something I heard recently is that our generation is unlike any generation in the past, in all of human existence. For as long as humanity has been around, change has been slow, and progress was a tale that took several generations to tell. You could count on each generation of people to be much like the last, and that culture, traditions, and values would be passed on, just as before. But in what seemed to be a blink of an eye, our world completely changed during our generation. Almost everything we have ever known has changed, and change has accelerated to a blinding pace. And for this reason alone, we face a tomorrow that is more unknown than any generation has ever faced before. We approach a cultural and technological singularity, driven by the search for meaning and purpose. And in searching for God, we slowly clamber into his throne, unknowingly slipping on his crown and grasping his scepter. Thus by mastering survival, we have ended evolution, and reached a plateau of biological evolution, and instead we are on the precipice of a new singularity: The technological singularity. As Ray Kurzweil predicted, our lives are hurtling towards a new reality, one where human evolution has become obsolete, and that technology is the next evolution of humanity.

Are we then, as Carl Sagan once said, just a way for the universe to know itself? Are we a math formula that can solve itself, a machine that can improve itself? Our “need” for purpose, the drive that connects our days, is simply the electrical impulses of the universe’ neurons firing into universal synapses. Is that what we are as humans, neurons and synapses of the Universe? Is the universe some grand species so majestic that even the components of its mind are sentient and aware, in awe of creation while creating, spiritual and physical?

The need to survive is such a simple one, an instinct that compels an infant to place food in his mouth, that can then reach through a generation of humans to propel a space program that builds a fundamental knowledge of Earth, the planets, and the solar system. The existential need to survive is a force unlike any other, that takes the form of love, of hate, and ultimately enslaves the human race towards an infinite future, instead of blessing the universe with our untimely demise.

Grasping the chaos

I’m listening to the song “Do you feel it” by Chaos Chaos on repeat. And for a moment I think I caught a glimpse of what it really is. It’s the moments of youthful disregard for everything. This song perfectly captures the wanton sentiment of the utter and absolute meaninglessness of everything. The reckless abandon that is the true heartbeat of life. To embrace the absurdity and emptiness, the hopelessness of it all, to celebrate it, is the only control we have. With the desperation, the acrid sting of loneliness nipping at my heel like winter air at my bare skin, I still dream of running away, of falling in love, of fantasy.

The driven moments of youthfulness, where every second seems to be a risk, a race to the edge. Where every breath is a tempted kiss, and every glance is forlorn and wistful. Vitality is in the risk, is in the disregard, is in the loss.

I’m finding myself again, feeling control again in the strangest way.

“Some days I’m built of metal, but not when I’m with you.”

 

This song is about the existentialism and nihilism of our universe. The understanding that none of it matters, the reckless abandon that is creation, the chasms of space and reality, the infinite fibers of our decisions, ultimately don’t even exist. The absolute horror and chaos of our universe, of all creation, is contrasted against the only hope, that if we accept it, embrace it, then we can laugh about it. That we can live it, sail into it, like the unknown seas of another horizon.

 

Can you take me now

I want, I want to real

Are you afraid of me now?

Do you feel it? Do you feel it?

Do you feel the pain in your heart?

I want to feel, run away with me now.

 

In this song I see the cleanest and brightest horizon, the impossibly white surface of a new tiled home at daybreak, the glimmering sun against a foreign sea. The feeling of wanting, and being wanted.

Don’t leave me.
Never leave me out

The tender fabric that is life, that is existence, that is feeling, like a skin stretched taught, surrounded by absolute nothingness. This is the feeling of being in control. This is the feeling of embracing pain. Of accepting the raw edges of sentiment, of letting blood course its way through. Of knowing that this life is far too short for the numbness of comfort, and that the excitement of uncertainty awaits.

Wind in my hair.

Cuz I don’t care

Baby run away with me now.

In grasping the chaos, in embracing the absolute meaninglessness, we are stating that we don’t care. That it doesn’t matter to us, just as we do to the universe. And in our microcosm of existence, in the infinitely small cell of our reality, we find meaning in each other. We care, because nothing else will, and nothing else does.

City Skyline

And as I sat and watched the organic city I realized I have not heard the thrum of a helicopter as it circled city skyline in a very long time. It was a rhythmic melody that I had not been around recently. Melancholic acoustics of the blade beating the thin sky like a drummer rattling the skin of a snare. Oh the distinction of the sound. The infinite reach of the pattering. Perhaps in the past this thrum in the air may have passed under my ears as the simple droning of a mumbling city. Under the veil of complacency I failed to notice the ever present throb of the helicopter, the dragonfly of industry, above the city. And when it fades, when skies are returned to the realm of silence and airplanes, the constant pulse can still be heard in the mind. And then I realized I hoped that this city with its cells of apartments units and veins of streets, would thrive with the vitality of any living thing. To bear the vigor of existence and to shrug off the burdens of death. This thing that had a heartbeat which could be heard from time and time again, this thing that laid its foot step on nature as any creature does. This thing that reaches for the skies and yearns to know its maker. A city that struggles to understand the sum of its parts and the parts themselves. And as the Sun circled the Earth before there was knowledge, so circles the heart around the rising man that is a city.

Chasing fragrance

 

The air outside was cold, even for January. The front door of the TJ Maxx store was stuck in the open position. It was an automated door that opened and closed for customers when they stepped near. But this door stayed open, welcoming in only the winter night air.

Inside, the speakers in the ceiling softly played the billboard top 40’s. They seemed as infertile as the bright fluorescent lights and the reflective plastic department store floor. Bright and sterile. People slowly swirled around the clothing racks as aimlessly as the snowflakes drifted around the trees outside.

Under the bright fluorescent lights that could be mistaken for those from a 80’s hospital hallway, he stopped his wheelchair at the women’s fragrance aisle. A clean green beret capped his wispy long hair. His hair, dirty blonde with streaks of natural gray, was tied in a loose ponytail. He must have been in his late forties, a fact accentuated by the scowl and scruffy beard that covered his face. He was missing his left leg, somewhere around the knee, his pant leg was tied. His layers of coats and disheveled hair gave him a rough appearance at first glance.

He was by himself at this discount store, carefully opening and breathing deeply from each women’s fragrance, before contemplating, and replacing the box of perfume on the shelf.  He did this patiently down the aisle, sampling each fragrance as though he were chasing a moment, a memory. As if he wasn’t sure which scent would bring back that moment. As if the intangible smell would somehow transform into a presence, the company of someone at his side. As if he knew what she wanted, and had to find the exact fragrance. He patiently opened another box. Breathed deeply with the bottle in one hand, then read the name of the fragrance from the box in his other hand.

Was there a time when the wind tugged at this man’s hair, and his clean shaven face smiled? Was he ever as close to the inner chaos as he was now?

Into the blistering cold night he pushed his wheelchair. I never saw him again.

 

 

Normandy

I’m looking at a picture of Normandy beach. Machine guns rattling, peppering the shore with small blasts from their thirty caliber bullets. Czech Hedgehog anti tank blockades line the beach, and fragments of platoons scramble for the scant cover that the metal beams provide from the machine guns. Bodies cover the beach, still, lifeless, and as constant as the waves.

And I think to myself upon the glory that is that moment. The victory that comes with surviving such an event. The courage and fear mixed into the air must have been more toxic than the smoke from the burning boats. Those men who once faced death and briskly pushed as they walked past Death’s skeletal shoulder.

They seemed to be immortal, the men who walked through a wall of bullets, the men who marched under a thousand sniper scopes. These men who dodged artillery and mortars, forcing their way into tomorrow like an unwelcome guest. And on they lived.

But now, 71 years after the invasion, another battle line is drawn, and the same men now stand with toes to a line, facing another tide. These same men, now stand with all their peers to face the wall of time. And though they once dodged bullets and bombs, what they now face is inescapable. The breath begins to leave their stories, groups of men at a time, not one by one. And one day, we will wake up and the Normandy beach invasion will be just a story, not a memory.

And so goes life and history, glory and courage. You can make daring escapes, and fight tooth and nail for a good life. But once Death comes to collect, there is no weapon forged in this world that can slow him down, or retaliate. Death collects what is his, and sometimes we forget that we all belong to him.

Missouri Rain

There was no cliche tick tock sound pulsing from an office wall clock as I sat at my desk, reminding me of every second of my life that slipped away. Clocks these days were much quieter, and we all checked the time on our cell phones.

Thinking back now, I realize I am beginning to forget how the office looked. Memories tend to slip like notes written in ink under a rainstorm, the longer they linger, the less that remains. Were the windows floor to ceiling? How far was my desk from the windows? I never did spend enough time looking out that window, that magnificent view, six stories above the canopy of trees and suburban neighborhoods, with the Arch vaguely on the horizon. A historic monument, barely a speck on the panorama that was our workspace. But I do remember the feeling I had knowing that just on the other side of that (possibly) floor to ceiling window was the Missouri air, damp in the summers, and dry in the winters. Knowing that I was in an alien place, a foreign space. When it rained, I felt like the hiss of raindrops against the ground was this ghostly static that imbued all the history of this land. The soldiers who marched through, the men who have lived, loved, and loathed. The children who played here, the mothers who wept here. I saw in my mind’s eye Lewis and Clark under the rain battered canopy, searching for a trail. See, that’s the thing about the rain. It is the same today as it was two hundred years ago. It pummels us with the same indecent fury it did on the first pioneers who waded through these woods. And so in a way, the rain is this passage for me through time.

A typical day at that office felt like we were all passengers on a ship bound for a distant planet. We knew we would get there eventually and we knew we had no other place we could be. The older ones in the office knew the name of that distant planet to be ‘Retirement’, for it was green with the lush fruits of ‘Pension’. As one of the few people there under thirty, I had no idea why I was onboard. There was no need for me. The general air towards me was one of affection and disdain, knowing grudgingly that I would be the next generation to carry on their work, while at the same time letting me know that I haven’t seen as much of the world as they have. In their aged eyes was a shadow of jukeboxes and Chevrolets. In their eyes was a faint glint of civil rights, and rock and roll. But the voice in me wondered if they know what a dubstep drop feels like, and if they’ve ever savored the flavors of a Sushirito, a sushi burrito. They wondered if I worked hard enough, I wondered if this work meant anything. As one of the few younger employees, I couldn’t help but to feel that this distant planet, while a destination for them, was merely a layover for me.

As our spaceship traveled through space, with the rain splattering against what was maybe floor to ceiling windows, while going absolutely nowhere, we all sat at our desks; answering phones, typing reports, analyzing numbers. The distant planet drew closer, while the vague past faded.

Pain, pleasure, and something worse

For ages, mankind has only had to deal with pain. To avoid it, to understand it, and to cope with it. Pain has been the shadow of life, the poison in our well. It taints every life with the loss of death, every adventure with the suffering of injuries, and every year with the agony of aging. Pain is everywhere, and like black against white, it is all we have known against the brilliant light of pleasure.

But in the modern age, we’ve stumbled across something far worse than pain. We’ve not only discovered it, but turned it into a commodity, and mass produced it. We’ve turned it into a pill, into a lifestyle. And that is nothingness.

Far worse than the crucibles of pain, far worse than the pinnacles of pleasure, is mediocrity, the absence of any sensation is what we should be feared  most of all. Yet it is the definition of a modern life. As we go mad working these 9 to 5 jobs, under fluorescent tubes, between gray cubicles and minuscule windows, the soul withers. The mind crunches away like a calculator, getting a stipend to feed the mouth, which produces energy for the hands and feet to continue going to work, to continue producing reports for the corporation, but deeper than the sinews of flesh and streams of blood is a soul that withers away. We have turned this into the standard life, the human tale, the modern portrait. We spend the majority of each day, the majority of every week, and majority of every month working with people we know very near nothing about, and can only tell about things that would follow a Human resources codebook.

We’ve discovered a flavor of life that strips the humanity out of a life, and standardized that. And when men and women lose their minds, we feed them pills to sedate them, and enable the sinews of flesh and streams of blood to continue benefiting the corporation, while the soul inevitably whimpers as it is restrained, to wither some more.

Pain is no enemy. It, like pleasure, is just one side of the coin that is life. Just one color on the palette of the human experience. A much needed color. Embrace pain, for it’s an even stronger reminder of what we all once had, a soul.

Should we ever evict pain from our lives, it would be replaced by the nothingness of existence. And that, my friend, is a terror that should be reckoned with.

Cycles of pain

It seems in this cycle of life, that nature has meant for men of every generation to be broken, and live out the rest of their days in despair. I think this because of the calloused way that nature intends for all men to live, with the passion and pursuit of youth, only for us to then carry the burden of our fathers’ mortality. And for those of us who meet that mortality, for those of us to have been blessed with love and fatherhood, to then be shattered, and never repaired. It is this cursed design, in which our lives are bonded to those that will never be in sync with us. Our mothers and fathers will almost always pass before us, and we before our sons and daughters. We marry people who are younger or older, and hold cards of fate that will never match to the day.

This damned design, almost guarantees that pain will be in our life. But just as we see in the natural world, pain is in everything. In the jagged rocks, the splintering wood. In the chilled water, and blazing fires. But in all of this we see also a beauty that justifies our climbing over the jagged rocks, and climbing through the splintering trees. Swimming through the icy waters and building the flames. Pain is in the design. Pain is in love. Pain is in beauty.

And so all we can do is ask for our share of pain, and savor the beauty that comes with it.

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