- Journey From Night
- A Debt to Pay
- Dead Man’s Hat
- Bare-Assed Messiah
- Atomic Punk
Release date: August 1.
Available at online bookstores and direct from the author.
Release date: August 1.
Available at online bookstores and direct from the author.
Most people would agree that 2016 has been a horrible year. The number of famous people who’ve died seems far out of proportion to any other year, and the political climate, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, has been extremely bitter and hostile, leading many to fear what comes next. The world situation seems just one misunderstanding away from igniting into a major conflict on many fronts. On a personal level, 2016 has been very trying for me as well. I’ve lost family members, had very little success with my writing, my health has been questionable, and my “day job”, which pays all my bills, has been on shaky ground since July. Many people, myself included, will be happy to bid farewell to this lousy year.
As U2 reminds us in their song, New Year’s Day, however, not much actually changes when we make the arbitrary switch from one year to the next. Companies which operate on a calendar year may have more resources at the start of a new year, and therefore are in a better position to hire or expand, which can definitely affect individuals, but if it’s cold and rainy on December 31, it will most likely be so on January 1, and if one has a lingering illness or pending financial commitment, it’s unlikely to go away just because the calendar changes. However psychologically comforting ending a year might seem, the reality is that time itself, and, by extension the calendars it yields, is an artificial measurement created by people. Time is a tool, developed to help distinguish one collection of days from another. It’s ironic that so many people stress over deadlines and schedules, when the very time underlying it all has little to no meaning outside of its given context.
At one point in history, calendars were often measured in accordance with important events. Roman time was usually marked in accordance with the reign of a given emperor, such as fourth year of the reign of Augustus. This tradition continued among the monarchs of Europe after the Roman empire fell. The Western calendar once marked time from the estimated birth of Jesus, though most scholars now place his birth before the start of the current calendar. At some point, as the Western calendar became more prominent throughout the world, the religious trappings were removed to give us “before common era” and “after common era”. Jews maintain their own calendar, in addition to using the Western one, as do Muslims, and other nations, such as China, measure the years differently than those in the West.
It is said that, in writing, the best way to increase tension is to start a countdown, and consistently worrying about the passage of time certainly increases a person’s tension and stress level. For most, time serves as just this sort of stress inducing catalyst, with as many people hating the pressure imposed as there are folks who feel motivated by deadlines or the sense that “time is slipping away”. As with most human-made constructs, there is a great deal of absurdity inherent in creating a method of marking time, only to realize we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we need to do.
Many Eastern philosophies speak of existing “in the moment” and this is, perhaps good advice for us all. In reality, we all exist in the Eternal Present. While we can remember times past, and have the ability to envision a future, what we experience is the here and now. True, there are times when we may feel the passage of minutes and hours, usually while trying to meet some deadline, but it’s also very easy to lose track of time if one is engaged in some endeavor, like reading, writing, or having a stimulating conversation. Just as we often feel enslaved by the clock, we have the ability to turn off our sense of time, as many do by “unplugging” when camping or otherwise on vacation. Oftentimes, when people plan vacations around events, or scheduled activities, they come back feeling just as stressed out as when they went away.
Despite the precise measurement of days, hours, minutes, and seconds provided by the clock and calendar, most people mark time by the events they experience. Most people alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination can relate exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the Challenger explosion. Personally, we recall births, deaths, marriages, divorces. In such instances, it’s not the calendar which governs the moment; instead, it serves its purpose of being a marker documenting an event. My mother used to remark on how unbelievable it was that so much time had passed from some event she recalled from when she was younger. I’m sometimes amazed when I look back on events like the Olympics, and realize how far I’ve come.
For better or worse, time is a constant in our lives. It serves the purpose it’s intended to serve, but, for many, it can also become an impediment, forcing us to rush toward some imaginary goal, sapping our energy for other, more desirable activities. We should never become so caught up in the so-called “rush of time” that we allow it to dictate our lives. Always be sure to steal a few moments away for oneself.
I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2017.
Can you see the real me?
–The Who, Quadrophenia
We all have secret sides to our personalities that we keep hidden from those around us — thoughts we never share, opinions we never state, fantasies we never reveal. Each individual carries around multiple perspectives inside his or her mind, a unique vision that no one else can imagine or share. Artists tap into this reservoir to bring their views of reality to light, and often, in creating fiction, shine a spotlight on the truth.
Jack Henry Abbot gained fame in the early 80s when his writing was published with the assistance of Norman Mailer as the bestselling work, In the Belly of the Beast. Critics praised his writing for its raw and powerful depiction of prison life. The recognition led to his being released from prison, and not long afterward, he murdered a man in an altercation outside a restaurant, returning him to prison. One might wonder how such a violent individual could craft words with such intensity. The reality is that Abbot was both a brilliant writer and a hardened criminal. The aspects of his character which made him a violent felon also fueled his more poetic side. The tragedy was that he was never able to find a way to reconcile both sides within himself. He eventually took his own life behind bars.
We’ve all heard stories about people who hid aspects of their characters, the church deacon who was secretly molesting children; the homeless person who was a covert multimillionaire; the shy store clerk who no one knew could sing like an angel. Writers who publish under assumed names are often nothing like the characters they create. For every story of someone whose hidden side was revealed, there are hundreds of others who never reveal who else may be lurking inside their heads.
The question is, which one is real? Are we the faces we present to the world or the compendium of voices which issue forth from our subconscious minds? We’ve all had moments when our actions astound even us. Confronted with a situation, we can imagine the absolute worst way we could respond, then proceed to do just that without being able to explain why. The question of nature versus nurture also looms large in our experience. Are we the people we imagine we are or those we’ve been conditioned by circumstance to be?
The Internet has given rise to a similar phenomenon, quiet, unassuming people becoming trolls and cyber bullies online. I once knew an individual who inhabited a news group I frequented. In the group, he posted under his actual name with a superior and insulting tone toward those who disagreed with his opinions. Whenever I’d bring up his online endeavors in person, however, he’d become defensive and wouldn’t talk about it. He probably viewed his online persona as detached from his “real life” without recognizing how much a part of his character it was.
The truth is, we are whoever we define ourselves to be. It’s common to see artists behaving in a manner that seems outside society’s norms, but really, we all have people we’d like to be if certain constraints were removed. How much time and effort do we invest in being who we think others want us to be instead of concentrating on who we’d rather be?
People think of absurdity as someone acting irrationally, or strange things happening to an otherwise normal person, but often the heart of absurdity comes from people rationalizing behavior which defies explanation. My stock portfolio just tanked; now’s the perfect time to buy more! Whenever our instincts conflict with our intellects, we’re often at a loss to explain the discrepancy and grasp for whatever explanation seems to best suit the situation, regardless of how convoluted it may be. Writers such as Albert Camus have explored the absurdities of human behavior, the struggle to find meaning in an otherwise chaotic universe where events often seem random and arbitrary. For Camus, the ultimate absurdist act was suicide, particularly in reaction to the perceived meaningless of existence.
The human compulsion to create rules, only to search for ways to bend or break them provides endless examples of absurdist logic in action. While the tendency to make inexplicable decisions sometimes defies common sense, there is, often, a logic to absurdist reasoning, even if the reasons defy convention or otherwise seem contrived or arbitrary. A good source for examples of this is the Bible, in particular the book of Job in which Job must endure numerous hardships including physical maladies and the deaths of loved ones for no other reason than God has made a bet with Satan on how righteous Job is.
On the iconic television show Seinfeld, the absurdity sprang from the fact that the main characters knew their method of dealing with life often hurt them, but were unable or unwilling to change. Other commentators have pointed out how unlikable the characters were: Jerry the self-centered perfectionist; Elaine the insufferable intellectual snob; George the pathological liar; Kramer the bumbling n’er-do-well who often succeeds in spite of himself. What is most apparent about each of these characters is how often their problems are caused or escalated by their refusal to alter their behavior, even when that behavior was shown to have negative consequences. This was best highlighted in the episode entitled The Opposite, where George started doing the opposite of what his instincts told him, and soon found his dream job, an attractive girlfriend, and the success which had long eluded him.
A forerunner of the absurdity implicit in Seinfeld was the legendary British show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which introduced the antics of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam to American audiences, and befuddled numerous Silent Generation parents. The absurdity of Python often derived from distinguished people doing silly things; proper British upper crust individuals acting like idiots. With Python, it was common to establish a theme early in the show which keeps recurring throughout, such as a segment on identifying trees that only seemed to highlight “the larch” or having characters randomly say, in utter confusion, “lemon curry?” Seinfeld also had such themes, such as when George gets in trouble for saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Jerry proposes replacing the phrase with, “You are so good looking,” establishing the running gag for that episode.
One of the most famous sketches on Monty Python was The Pet Shop or, as it’s better known, the dead parrot sketch. In it, John Cleese portrays a disgruntled customer returning to a pet shop with a parrot he purchased there which he’s discovered is dead. The outright absurdity of the customer trying to convince the shop keeper of the condition of the parrot is compounded by the revelation during the skit that the bird was apparently dead when sold to the customer. What is instantly recognizable is not only how ridiculous the situation is, but how true to life it is. Who among us has not had to deal with a know-it-all salesperson whose eye toward the next sale overrides his or her concern for customer satisfaction. Is Cleese’s indignation at being “had” any different than a shopper’s ire over being sold a substitute pair of shoes that do not fit properly or shoppers learning that the advertised deal which lured them into a store is not available and most likely never was?
What often made Seinfeld so interesting was how densely packed it could be. In the episode called The Pothole, each one of the main characters had storylines, and even Newman had a subplot related to the main action. Jerry accidently knocks his girlfriend’s toothbrush into the toilet, and she uses it before he has a chance to tell her; George loses a key chain given to him by his boss; Elaine tries to devise a way to order Chinese takeout despite living on the wrong side of the street; and Kramer adopts a highway. In this episode, the worst tendencies of each character were fully on display. How else could it end than in a fiery cataclysm?
For centuries, it has been the province of drama and literature to point out the foibles of human nature and thus hold a mirror up to the behavior of individuals with an eye toward instructing them in proper actions. The Greek tragedies were filled with the consequences of failing to heed the will of the gods, and medieval morality plays featured characters often led astray by their baser instincts. In Job, his three friends try to convince him his fortune will improve if he’ll only admit that he’s not as righteous as he claims, while Job protests that he’s done nothing wrong and the reader knows he’s telling the truth. Throughout, Job’s pronouncements have a decidedly sarcastic ring to them leading one to believe the writer’s intent was to be darkly humorous. If Job doesn’t represent the actual birth of absurdist literature, it’s certainly one if the earliest surviving examples of it.
Even the most absurd situations have a logic to them. In my sketch Got Your Goat, a man named Harold comes home to his high rise condo in Midtown Atlanta and asks his flustered wife, Agnes, where the goats are. After a bit of conversation back and forth Agnes confirms that Harold isn’t crazy, they really do have goats. While the surface situation is absurd, underlying it is the logical premise that Harold has a familiar ritual in his life which brings him solace and when it isn’t there, he doesn’t accept the loss easily or well. The sketch ends without a coherent resolution but with one which further deepens the absurdity.
Whether it’s the contrived silliness of Monty Python or the situational absurdity of Seinfeld, the humor presented resonates with audiences from one generation to the next. Perhaps the impact of Seinfeld was its instructive nature, displaying the petty and superficial actions of its characters as a mirror on the narcissistic and self-serving culture of the nineties as a warning against becoming too self-involved. As with previous generations, tracing back through the morality plays, the Greek tragedies, and the book of Job, it’s a lesson people need to be reminded of again and again.
My collection of essays, The Cheese Toast Project (ISBN: 978-0-9848913-4-4), is now available in print at online booksellers, and in print and Kindle versions at Amazon.com.
The essays are about family, writing, music, drama, religion, politics, and history. Early drafts appeared on my blog, Raised by Wolves and have since been revised and expanded.
A central tenet at the heart of many philosophies and religions is the notion of free will and how much it guides our daily existence. Are we free to choose our own course in life, or have our lives been written ahead of time by some unseen heavenly entity and we are merely following a script created before we were born? We must also question the idea of free will within the context of human behavior and the extent to which it is guided by our instincts rather than our intellect. The survival instinct, common to all creatures on earth, has two imperatives, survive and procreate, neither of which is dependent upon the higher brain functions necessary for the exercise of free will. Earthworms, for example, don’t appear to contemplate the existence of a higher being, yet have managed to survive, largely unchanged, for several million years.
One aspect of free will arises from the struggle between our instincts and our intellect, and the instincts have several billion years head start on the intellect. The instincts are like our autopilot, telling us, among other things, to eat, to sleep, to run away when there’s trouble, and to seek a suitable mate when the time is right. In most cases, when one finds himself or herself acting in a manner which can’t be explained logically, the instincts are often the culprit. Humans choose to view themselves as rational beings, guided by logical reasoning when, in reality, we’re driven by an instinct to survive just like every other creature on earth; find shelter, find food, eliminate the competition, and insure the survival of our genetic heritage at all costs. The effect humans are having on the environment and other species demonstrates how adept we’ve become at following this script.
At the same time, humans have built a civilization based on laws which attempt to curtail the animal instincts and insure all people have the opportunity to benefit from the earth’s resources. Such laws often rely on compromise, and, in many cases, coercion to keep people in check. While these laws are founded upon the belief humans are essentially moral beings, it’s been my observation that humans are not huge fans of artificially imposed rules and regulations, and what stops many people from acting badly is the threat of legal retribution from society or moral retribution from a higher power.
When the established order is overthrown, even temporarily, people are capable of hideous atrocities. We see evidence of this in riots following sporting victories when fans take to the streets for the flimsiest of provocations and create significant chaos and loss of property. When the stakes are higher, such as when people are fighting against social injustices, the reaction is even more violent, yet even when the cause of the initial conflict is justifiable, individuals still use the resulting chaos as a cover for crimes unrelated to the cause of the initial violence. Humans are opportunistic beings and look for every opportunity to turn off their higher reasoning even for a few hours. If one were to ask these people afterward why they behaved as they did, they most likely would not be able to offer a logical explanation.
For Christianity and its predecessor Judaism, Genesis, chapter three, tells of the fall of man which led to the acquisition of free will. In this account, the god YHWH has created a paradise in the form of a garden, in which the man and woman, sometimes identified as Adam and Eve, live happy lives, totally devoid of all the frustrations that accompany higher consciousness. They are given just one rule, don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. YHWH is so adamant about this rule that the stated punishment for disobedience is death. A serpent tricks the woman into sampling the fruit and she convinces the man to try it. Both immediately gain awareness, signaled by the fact they realize they’re naked.
From the account in Genesis, it is clear that YHWH does not know that the man and woman have eaten of the tree before observing their behavior and questioning them. It is also obvious that YHWH had no foreknowledge of what the man and woman were about to do and simply relied on the threat of retribution to keep them away from the tree. This portrayal of God brings up a crucial factor in whether or not humans are free in cosmic terms to chart their own course in life, that is, whether or not our destinies are known or determined by a higher power.
It would appear that the notion of free will is at odds with a belief in an all-knowing and all-seeing God. Such an entity is said to know us better than we know ourselves, which presupposes that this entity already knows the decisions we will make. If so, the concept of free will is simply not feasible. For those who will attempt to refute this argument, the question is, can God be surprised by our actions? If not, this implies our actions are pre-determined by God and we do not have free will. If God can be surprised, then God cannot be all-knowing and all-seeing.
If everything is predetermined by God, as many religions and philosophies hold, then we can conclude from this that everything is already working the way God designed it. All the debates about God’s will are irrelevant because we’re already living according to God’s plan. The outcome is already programmed into the equation and nothing we do will change it. If, as I believe, the outcome is not predetermined, then God is neither all-seeing, nor all-knowing, and humans have the free will to determine their own course in the universe. The entity we call God is just as uncertain of how it will end as we are.
I believe the future is being written as we live it and no force in the universe knows the outcome. We are, therefore free to choose our own course, but only if we’re able to come to terms with how much our lives are still guided by our instincts. It has been shown that humans do have the capacity to overcome our basic biological needs when necessary. We can choose if and when we eat, and, when given the proper guidance and resources, whether or not to procreate, and the fact that humans are at times willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of others demonstrates we can even overcome the ultimate biological imperative when circumstances dictate. Still, much of our behavior is controlled by forces often unnoticed or not acknowledged by us and this is the chief argument against free will. We need to come to a better understanding of how our biology affects us and fortunately, we have the capacity to do just that. If we can become more conscious of the forces influencing our behavior, then perhaps we can, at last, truly take control of our destinies.
I have a saying, “Hank Aaron didn’t hit a home run every time.” It’s my way of reminding myself that for every success, there are a thousand less than perfect outcomes. In fact, failure is much more common than success. The term “trial and error” best sums up the practice of implementing a strategy, observing the positive and negative effects, and modifying procedures until the desired results are achieved. The founders of the United States didn’t get things right the first time with the Articles of Confederation, and it took a Civil War to work out issues left over from ratifying the Constitution.
The old saying goes that one learns more from failure than success, but this is mainly because one learns from failure, versus getting something right the first time. Failure causes one to evaluate what went wrong, to examine the process and make improvements, and to “try harder” on the next attempt. In the process the brain gets rewired, and changes in attitude and behavior happen that can’t be reversed. One who succeeds without much effort or “coasts” on talent alone is no better or worse for the experience, whereas the person who fails a time or two (or more) and works on improving himself or herself changes with each attempt, becoming more knowledgeable and better skilled as he or she masters the endeavor. Orson Welles, in his Hollywood debut, produced what has been heralded as the greatest movie ever filmed, and never fully lived up to his potential again, ending his career shilling wine on television. Lasting success often comes to those not immediately appreciated for their talents.
George Washington wasn’t highly regarded by his superiors as a young officer in the Colonial militia, and as a general, his favorite tactic was strategic retreat. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, but, fortunately, didn’t let that stifle his creativity. Penicillin came about because Alexander Fleming used a petri dish contaminated with mold spores. Joanne Rowling was a recently divorced single mother with serious financial problems, who spent her free time in a coffee shop working on the draft of what would become the first Harry Potter novel. Failure and the disappointment that comes with it often makes eventual success all the more rewarding.
The book Rejection by John White chronicles numerous instances where authors, filmmakers, and other public figures have endured times when their work was not recognized by critics, publishers, or the public at large. In one instance, a poet, Lee Pennington, submitted a work to a magazine and received the response, “This is the worst poem in the English language. You are the worst poet in the English language.” Undaunted, he submitted it to another magazine, which published it and named it best poem of the year. Learning to deal with disappointment is the most important lesson one can learn, because we’re more likely to be disappointed than satisfied. Accepting that failure is not the end of the world is often the first step in becoming a success.
That being said, it is, by no means easy to deal with failure, and the grander the scale, the more difficult it becomes to overcome the feelings that go with it. There is a tendency among people to personalize every interaction. Often times, when something negative happens to someone, the first instinct is for the person to wonder what he or she did to cause it. Usually, such feelings have little basis in reality. I was once run off the road by another driver who pulled out in front of me unexpectedly. In the immediate aftermath, I questioned why I had been in the lane I’d been in. After a moment, though, I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, my first instinct had been to blame myself for what had happened. When we fail, it’s always a challenge to keep believing we’re capable of accomplishing the task at hand, but those who best overcome failure are those best positioned to succeed.
Sometimes, failure does result from individual limitations. A person with no athletic ability is not very likely to become a world-class tennis or soccer star, regardless of how much effort goes into the pursuit. Everyone has talent in some form or another, however, and sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing and nurturing that talent. James Boswell, biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, had a talent for bringing interesting people together and chronicling what happened afterward. Learning to be resourceful in the face of defeat gives one the potential to eventually succeed. We’re always going to have difficulties. It’s how we face them that makes all the difference.