Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dream of Johannes Chorister - Pt. 1

Emerging from the bleary mist and fog, as if from a trance,  ascending stairs in the dark,  through massive doors I enter into a warm, stately, cathedral-like edifice, and then down along the marble corridor with footsteps echoing along the hall until one reaches near where the concert is to be held. A long corridor with portraits hung of older, serious-minded folk, each projecting looks of somber hope, grim alacrity, austere joy.  The large rectangular windows are eye-catching as well, but in a different way,  with geometrically precise patterns of tinted glass, a more festive aura shedding beams of green, red and yellow light. At the end of this strange corridor, a vestibule, with alcoves and side rooms lit by flickering candles. In one of these cordial voices can be heard reminiscing... Here gather the guests and loyal devotees of the much-venerated Johannes Chorister, teacher, visionary, virtuoso, musical progenitor of life-altering approaches to melody and counterpoint....The receding set of panel doors leads into this grand lobby where a cadre of serious-minded followers have gathered, humming familiar tunes from the Chorister catalog. I make note of their faces - humble, respectable, unsophisticated - everyday, salt-of-the-earth people ...The sign near the table reads - please sign in and join our gathering before partaking of tonight's concert. Embarrassed by the unexpected protocol, I search out the least conspicuous "corner" along the wall, but to no avail. Despite my best attempts at small talk,  the stiff upper-body language betrays a stubborn aloofness. How did you hear about our concert? And have you studied the works of Chorister before? I nod affirmatively not wanting to state the obvious. Who of my age and description had not been immersed in  Chorister music, lore and general conformity?  And have you traveled far to reach us here?  Do you play an instrument yourself?   - Yes more than one, piano, organ, some trumpet here and there...  And do you sing? - Not well, but I have studied music for many years.  -And I have sung in choir... 
United they are, it seems, by a secret pride at keeping "real music" alive, music with a long history, an august tradition, a maze of ritual and pageantry surrounding it, while others fall prey to shallow trendy sound-scapes, lustfully arrange mechanized percussion binges, therapeutic noise, elevator muzak and other false idols... I am as yet  unable to inform them of my patchwork of day jobs,  as erstwhile musicologist, piano tuner, make-shift journalist, concerned friend, amateur private investigator ... made curious by their ostensible obsession with a rarified strand of music, cognizant as to the attrition rate that plagues their lot. The heartfelt testimonials blur within memory.

- Chorister's melodies have taught me the true meaning of music...
- His hymns have changed my outlook entirely..
- It has been six years now since first I heard the joyous "Prelude in E major" of blessed Chorister...
- How different my life became since ....
- I was wandering aimlessly, despairingly for many years, a wretched prisoner of my own dim routine until...

Such heartfelt testimony... How predictable such anecdotes come to sound after a while. But perhaps I am too much a cynic. The glib anecdotes of "visions" and "revelations" -  simple answers to life's great ills falling from the sky as it were...instant cures - for pain, for grief, disappointment, despair - how soon they forget that such "solutions" are nowadays a dime a dozen - one choice among many possible options...The feeling of "serenity" that descends...the "clarity of purpose" that only this music can supply... the magic, enchanted, joyous atmosphere that surrounds one, that guides one's choices step by step...  And yet on a certain level I understand this need, this unquenchable craving for something to fall back upon...a buffet from the harshness and cruelty of existence -  I can hear the staunchest defenders and their rejoinders: What would you suggest then? What do you have to offer us? If not this sublime music, what is there... to live for? ...Perhaps this is not the time to get cheeky with my replies...Don't some people collect paintings or climb mountains...? Don't others amass fortunes...or pursue ill-fated romances... invest in their children's futures or in some fleeting glimmer of fame...? ***Why do I seek to disrupt this quaint gathering - watching as the elder folk sip at their hot chocolate? Who would believe me if I announced as my mission some obscure musicologist's quest for clarification on a thorny issue involving dissonance, half-notes, chord progression, and the theory of harmonic spacings? The mere mention of music, of an interest in music per se would appear to place me in good graces with my hosts - and yet - as has been witnessed so often before - I can anticipate their reactions if I deviate from certain answers when mentioning specific works and composers...It is frustrating to say the least at hitting such walls of narrowness and provinciality on a subject seemingly so universal. It is such rigidity that transforms their "love of music" into a more burdensome passion. And here I hit upon what is perhaps really bothering me under the surface given all my past experiences- and those a few kindred spirits who have fallen away from the pack so to speak if not at all from the true spirit of music...I reflect in particular here upon the case of a promising cellist driven to despair amid such ostensibly cheerful surroundings...  And yet for all this, I see that a real bond has been built up over time among these old people - and their trust in the music is solid, their love of hymns, of song. Is it their sheer complacency that i resist, that on some level I envy? This need for truth at all costs which has been my scourge in life; do I seek to pass on this virus to these happy few -  those who do not spend time over maddening riddles or tragic irreversible mishaps? I am also made aware down the hall of a younger crowd of zealots who seem on some mission to redeem the lost glory of prior ages when Chorister's name was it seemed on every lip... No doubt they will be intent on replying in kind to mockers and skeptics - those who come to fleer and scorn at this solemnity... They will have much to complain about enemies and adversaries, those who have fallen away and those who wander through life aimlessly without the sustenance provided by a  Chorister's melody....

In the middle of these, my roaming thoughts, a young man with flashing red hair and an awkward, ecstatic energy about him sees fit to  grasp both of my hands leading my down the hallways saying: Please join us...Friend, you have a curious look about you as though, like the rest of us, you also were searching for something ... as if you too were alarmed at what is happening to music, chagrined at young people giving in to all manner of noise, perhaps you seek to help us to preserve this joyous heritage, to prevent it all from passing out of existence entirely...May I...May I simply share with you a line for that famous passage from the Chorister diaries, volume 1, chapter 7, verse 18... when Chorister, beset by worries, in the midst of composing his most spectacular B minor symphony, observes: "on your next walk, look for the simplest twig, enfold it within your safe hands, and carry it back through snow and sleet, lay it upon thy table at home and cover it in warm dry cloth. Make it into your strongest element.How oft I have pondered those amazing words! - Do you not hear the remarkable wisdom hidden in those simple lines? Only someone in touch with the deepest mysteries could utter such words as this! Brother - I know you have been led here for good reason... And is it only to hear the concert or do you wish to join our communion? 

Politely, I stand back, slowly explaining my humble agenda, paying homage to Chorister's reputation as a composer of compellingly simple, elusive melodies that have acquainted themselves with me since my earliest youth;  I recount my obsession with classical music, with the standard ensembles, trios, quartets, choirs, etc. along with my compulsive habit of frequenting the meager concerts that find a hungry, if diminishing audience.  I share my curiosity as to the spectacle that has grown up over several decades attaching itself to Chorister and his music. From humble beginnings the movement had for a time caught fire with the popular imagination embedding themselves into the yearly calendar with feasts and processions and groups of adoring pilgrims migrating from one venue to the next, only to find in recent years, a precipitous falling off of enthusiasm...people for various reasons distracted away from Chorister chorales, from music in general, for that matter, toward what some might see as shallower pursuits: fascination with more plastic arts, more tangible pleasures and gadgetry of all kinds.  Even as I stare at this rag-tag remnant of some former glory, it occurs to me that they have been drawn here as much by an aversion to more worldly pursuits as by the sheer sensuality of this music, a sensuality they would deny themselves in every other respect. A good part of me shares perhaps their desperate obsessional need to escape from the chaos of the world outside, to find a sense of order and even predictable morality amid these ritualistic gatherings - to huddle next to other, like-minded misfits, those bearing scars of cruelty and neglect, for whom other outlets of connection seem overshadowed by sinister worldly interests and self-destructive habits. (I can myself recite at least one famous passage from the Chorister journals: "Consider this, brethren, the very essence of music: deliverance from all fears, fear of pain,  fear of death...") Among his acolytes, Chorister, has remained that often-invoked name, like Rembrandt or Shakespeare - a figure so associated in their minds with the word perfection, a word so rarely attached to human endeavor, a tenacious adjective used to separate him from other illustrious composers of note; behold his perfect tenor voice,  his perfect ear, his perfect technique, his illustrious teaching method, his unmatched humility, etc. etc. This quixotic quest of theirs, somewhat ridiculous in the earnestness of a shared secret wisdom that to outsiders must appear inane, tedious or else completely redundant... is for them a crazily plausible lost cause worth fighting for. And yet, even early on I admit to a feeling of being overwhelmed by these somewhat loopy strangers, accosted and exhausted by the onslaught of well-wishes, their incessant repetition of helpful admonitions,  oft-quoted verses, and welcoming gestures - which I fear may turn less auspicious [a provisional form of acceptance based on the expediency of growth...]. Here again I am brought back to the strange elaborate ceremonial brocade that had come to surround the simple music-making that once had characterized the original students of Chorister's music. Complaints had been heard again and again about the obsessive fervor and over-wrought sensibilities of the more recent adherents...and for so very long I had made excuses on their behalf until a series of incidents made me question this level of devotion to a music whose very significance in the grand scheme of things was slipping from my grasp...it had almost been a necessary step for me to let go of this established ancient paradigm of melody in order to expand my understanding of music in general - to re-ask a set of simple questions involving melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation and all the rest of it....And then - almost as an after-thought, he time comes for the actual concert...We enter the hall together, sitting in endless rows with wooden chairs, our attention drawn forward to the vast stage that seemed to float and rise before us,  and upward, noticing mural with musical notations at every turn and the massive wood beams above us and the high, majestic ceiling. The full sensual appeal of it all was brought back to me by such a setting.

But within minutes, almost oblivious to the people still entering the chamber,  the concert has already commenced, without fanfare. the music simply begins perfunctorily out of nowhere with one (?), two (?), three (?) soothingly slow, soaring, piercing orchestral pieces followed by an omnipresent choir singing all-too-familiar Chorister songs and cantatas - and with audience members invited to join in at certain places, some of whom chose to sing or hum along with the entire production. A goodly number held spellbound by the mesmerizing spectacle, others approaching it with a sort of business-like stoicism. Afterwards during another reception, people mill about chatting. The conversation is more subdued than before but more than a little predictable - with most alluding to the superiority of the Chorister melodies when compared to contemporary trends dismissed as either painfully out-of-touch "elitist-composer noise" or the "purposeful therapeutic elevator music" - cloying, sickly-sweet, prepackaged sound manipulations - the working of ads-men, hucksters, manipulators of enlightened opinion. I find occasion then to strike up conversation with a few about the actual music itself, with references to time and key signatures - Choristers seeming preference Eb and F#, Gmin and Cdim chords - but to my surprise almost everyone seemed offended by my intentions - as if to discuss these matters were a subtle way of poking fun or stumbling upon dangerous lines of inquiry.

Afterwards, a goodly number of folk stream out into the cold; many are tempted to linger, to greet and recruit the stragglers such as myself... It has dawned on them now that I have a reason for being there other than mere concert-going. Am I a potential devotee of this music that I seem already so familiar with ...Understandably they are suspicious of my motives. Am I a typical "nay-sayer" - another disenchanted soul  come to mock and fleer at their solemnity...? The small talk turns every now and then to such mistrust of outside nefarious forces  - the media and others doing their utmost to discredit, to ridicule the antiquated aspects of their approach - if not to music per se - then to the arts in general... My host - the ebullient greeter - is most intent upon discerning my connection to the composer and his work. I inform him of my musical background, my interest in theory - western harmony, counterpoint, etc. - and the controversies swirling around Chorister and his use of the "jarring discords..." - strange unexpected disruptions sewn amid otherwise simple and accessible chord progressions - especially  in the larger orchestral works. - Ah yes - you and everyone else these days seems fixated on that thorny subject, but really you should not let that be your stumbling block.  - And along with that - I persisted - the question of the original editions  of particular scores - the debates over which version of Chorister is to be performed and in what manner - Yes, my friend and this two perhaps relates to what people call the discords... And of course the famous diaries...From behind his smile, i could begin to discern no small amount of annoyance... It is clear to me, friend, forgive for sounding cynical, but your standoffishness suggests that you are either a scoffer, someone who hath come "to fleer and scorn at our solemnity" or else you are a journalist here to sniff out a scandal. It is the latter option i admit, somewhat sheepishly - you have found me out.





Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Halloween Night

The day had begun just like any other with my black cat scratching on the mattress at 5:30 a.m. and making her endearing little squeaky noises,  rousing me from slumber on a typical Thursday. "Halloween..." - I teased her "is that your favorite holiday, kitty?" Outside the window, the last few leaves of deep crimson and amber were clinging to the otherwise bare trees. School was already an afterthought. The day would race by in a blur with the usual kids in costume, traveling in pairs or packs, munching their candy in the hallways, and trading stories about their favorite scary movie. It was to be the last year of trick-or-treating for our nerd posse who were, as per usual, venturing out in our slovenly, ill-conceived, makeshift costumes. Opting for simplicity, Aaron decided to go again as a "dust-pan ghost" with a gray and dusty bed sheet he had pilfered from his basement.  Russell went as a make-shift sorcerer/magician with a droopy wand, a black cape and purple boots. Will wore a polyester shirt and disco pants. I wore a worn football jersey passed down from my big brother and an old Rams helmet with floppy horns attached. The sketchiest haunts in town were up and down a neighborhood called Edgewood perched on a hill where rows of old maple and oak trees lined quiet blocks with a minimum of street-lights. There were old houses there, many of which had been turned into to multi-unit apartments; but the people were generous, gave away lots of candy, and seemed to revel in the scare-factor of their enclave. Pumpkins glowing by candle-light could be seen up and down the blocks, whereas the usual artificial illumination was lacking. It was a weird feeling going from house-to-house, as it had been the year before, because we looked so out of place, still young of course, but awkward, and getting too old for this kind of thing, almost like people were expecting us to start pulling pranks in dark alleyways, egging pedestrians, smashing decorations, lighting fires or stealing hubcaps as a random alternative to the most innocent routine of gathering up hordes of candies in our pillow sacks. There was this one house in particular that Aaron wanted to visit because of a girl named Marcie who lived there; she was a field hockey player and Aaron wanted to tell her that he had been to her game and watched her score a goal and that he admired athletes who weren't stuck up. Russell thought this was a tedious plan and said so; he offered to show us the glowing neon house inhabited by the aging hippies that we had heard about but had never seen because we weren't sure where it was. Wills was voting with Russell which left me with the deciding vote. I saw that Aaron was giving me a look as if to say that if he didn't find a way to rendezvous with Marcie in some inanely casual sort of way, that his life would be over, so I proposed that let Aaron have his moment of glory before venturing down to see the hippie house with the ghouls in the front yard...But soon enough Aaron began back-peddling and getting cold feet.  I just want to see her, briefly, just to confirm a hunch. I don't necessarily want to talk to her - yet. I don't really know her all that well. Just need to see if she's with some other guy, etc. etc. We gave him grief about that. And so...we went up and down a few streets, letting Aaron engage in his lost puppy routine, until Russell put his foot down and demanded that we check out the hippie house, remembering the splendid weirdness he had encountered from a year before, with a "headless hippie" driving a motorbike through a makeshift "cemetery" on the front lawn.  It was all kind of dream-like on that "final" Halloween outing - the night when I really felt an unsettling transition taking place, not just like when your voice becomes all bent out of shape during puberty and your limbs hurt and you start bumping into furniture, but an actual saying goodbye to childhood, a moment after which I would not have a full excuse by claiming that I was "still a kid" and could get away with being clueless and unaccountable for my actions. Even during that nocturnal trek, I could feel a weight of added responsibilities being piled on my back as my oversized football costume began to feel unduly fake and ridiculous.  With Russell leading us in tow, and Aaron resigned to losing out on his fateful rendezvous with Marcie, Will emerged as the lucky recipient of female attention - in part because so many eyes were drawn to his funky disco attire. I noticed him walking behind us at one point after having been whisked aside by an enthusiastic trio of admirers - each one dressed up as felines (lions, tigers, cheetahs) of one sort or another. He seemed to have disappeared for a full ten minutes until somehow miraculously re-emerging near the front of the hippie domicile just as we were finishing our climb up the hilly street. He gawked at us with his goofy smile and pointed to the side street he had used as a short cut, then proceeded to give us the run down on his three new friends and the one who had been flirting with him the most. It was sort of awkward and irritating for the rest of us that we weren't sure how to react to his success; part of me felt like certain rites of passage came easier for Wills, that he wasn't quite one of us, the maladjustment factor just wasn't there for him. His boyish charm, his love of Monty Python movies and Steve Martin comedy routines allowed for a plenty of banter between us, but his jaunty confidence did not jibe with our dark insecurities and our sometimes barely-concealed, erratic self-loathing. This night would perhaps represent for him a rapturous beginning of a long string of success; he would no doubt break ties with us in the coming months, unintentionally, good-naturedly, almost as an after-thought. Our paths simply would not cross once he and the lioness began dating. In his stead, we would invite Larry or Leonard or Ben to "hang with us" late on Friday and Saturday nights from the ever-present repository of young, hapless, somewhat spacey, under-achieving,  wall-flowerish males-in-waiting. At a certain point in the evening I looked inside my pillow case to count up my candies, noticing how many of the "goodies" I had previously relished only a year ago, seemed dated and stale now to my aging taste-buds. I wasn't sure that this loot-in-the-bag had any real value except for the sheer bulk that I had accumulated. The way people stared at us when we said "Trick or Treat..." with our strained, half-husky, half-shrill voices was beginning to grate upon my nerves. Even the hippies juggling their citrus fruit and putting on their make-shift ghost theater in the drive-way failed to leave me mesmerized and enchanted, the way I once had been, the way I once had responded to the smallest of gothic decorations adorning porches and front laws in late October. Aaron was becoming exhausted; I could tell he wanted to quit early. He gave me one of his looks that it was time to take leave of Russell and Will; we would head back to Aaron's early for a quick count of candies and then watch some lousy late-show horror movie on channel 9.  I can't do THIS anymore he said to me. My heart's not in it. We're done with this routine, my friend...  and despite all the banalities that Aaron was known for spouting, I felt that truer words had never been spoken. We were both the type that did not look forward to the future. The idea of progress had not been hard-wired into our DNA.  To the contrary, we were looking for ways to stem the tide, to move backwards, to stop time in its tracks, to make believe that each change of seasons was identical to the one before. This shared melancholy was a secret bond - but even in this regard I felt that I possessed it more than either Aaron or Russell or Leonard, if we decided that Leonard (although younger) should prove worthy of our company. Walking down Rosewood Place, a shiver came over me and I was brought back to the time - a mere five or six years prior - when those menacing oafs Dan Powell and Evan Rhodes had jumped out of the bushes and sprayed us with vinegar, defacing our costumes, snatching our candy bags, calling us "losers" and "dorks" - which in retrospect was pretty tame, but at the time left me twitching for weeks on end with panic. What a crazy year that had been, filled with my superstitions about lucky and unlucky shirts destined to bring blessing or misfortunes;  the year Aaron and Brett and Guy and myself formed our secret society against the world, before Brett's abrupt departure in 6th grade and Guy being sent away for special help because of certain emotional difficulties. He had bragged to us that he broke down crying every day - he had counted he said - that the random (and, as we ourselves witnessed, sometimes ridiculous) crying spells broke out something like 565 days in a row, and when his parents finally discovered the streak, they sent him to another school and we never saw him again.) I had always loved this street because of the rose buds and orange blossoms of early spring, but now a certain grey house and its prickly hedge retained the aura of past trauma. For old time's sake, it seemed, Aaron purposely took us down that stretch as if to show our victory over time, to underscore for me that the spot where this sad, visceral encounter had once transpired was no longer that same spot, only a barren square of sidewalk next to an untrimmed hedge near a flickering autumnal street light. It was eerily quiet on this residential block from which the other treat-or-treaters had already fled;  we walked in the middle of the street and felt the weight of so many similar walks to and from school.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Career Search #237

When it finally occurred to Q that it was his turn to speak, after listening to the career counselor drone on for what seemed like an eternity, he realized that he had missed his golden opportunity to refute her supercilious jabs, in which he found his ego sliced and diced into a dozen neatly-arranged geometric shapes. The phrase that stuck with him, perhaps the only description that really sunk in and did damage the way hydrochloric acid does to skin, had something to do with his "lack of affect" his annoyingly opaque, inscrutable countenance. The face was a problem. The stiff head attached to rigid neck, shoulders and body. Did he ever smile? Did he ever laugh? It might be one thing to be "in a mood," but at some point you had to put your game face on. Yet another hapless male. She was getting burnt out "helping" people who inexplicably could not or would not receive it. Three hours worth of tests and inventories, plus one cognitive-skills test that Q was unable to finish in the allotted 15 minutes. The counselor, a Ms. Piero, was politely unimpressed by the limited options indicated by the logarithm on the computer screen. This was for her another chance to lift an underachiever up by his boot straps and send him on his way except that her obvious frustration was seeping out through a veil of encouragement. You show very little affect. It is as if you are not responding to stimuli in a timely manner, failing to bring appropriate gestures, smiles, nods, guffaws to a particular interaction. In a typical job setting (with competitive salary mind you) you will need to be more transparent with feelings, more politically attuned to other people and their point of view. Am I reaching you? Are you hearing this? It's hard to tell because of that blank expression on your face. She scribbled a few notes, but mostly was scanning her computer screen in search of a diagnosis. Yes, she said conferring with her laptop, I can see from the answers you've given in the personality inventory. You are a definite follower. I might even say a dangerously impressionable follower-type, with a repressed skeptical side that you feel the need to suppress at all costs. Again puzzled and miffed by Q's quizzical look, she inquired: Is any of this registering with you? Are you following me? Q spoke at last: A follower. Well, I can see that. - You can see that? So you agree then? Yes - I can see that. How you arrived at that... - How I arrived at that... But do you agree Mr. Dennison? I can see that, but what about my job choices, my career path, I'm not sure how - Oh, well that is very complex. There are definitely certain professions I would entirely advise against. For example, I would stop even considering any sort of self-directed job such as doctor, lawyer, engineer, pilot, architect, business owner, CEO,  pro athlete, fashion designer but of course....(laughter) ... you haven't been thinking in this direction, have you? I've boiled it down for you, Mr. Dennison...How to put this. Yes, what is absolutely essential for you is order, structure, routine, repetition, following a firmly established rote protocol - not having to deviate from a set of guidelines. How do you feel about such an arrangement? I mean, given your personality type, this may sound draconian, but it's really quite necessary. - I can see that. - Is that so? Really? You can see that? Well then, assuming that you're not being sarcastic. I can't tell from that hyper-subdued, poker face of yours - I'm going to recommend for you any kind of low level bureaucratic position - possibly a job for some local or state government office. Maybe a clerical position, maybe something at the DMV. Does that sound in line with your...uhm...your....what's the word I'm looking for...your ambition? - Is that really how I appear to you? I can see that. - Yes, Mr. Dennison, you are giving off an aura of inwardness that is really not what today's job market is looking for. - I can see that. - You keep saying that, Mr. Dennison, but are you really sure what I'm trying to tell you. You look like someone who's not really interested in working. You don't wear any kind of enthusiasm on your sleeve. Do you think an employer wants to hire someone who is already "checking out" during the job interview? - Right. I see what you're saying. - You can see that. That's good. So - ah well - our time is up for today. Perhaps we can schedule a follow-up appointment. Would that be alright? - Shall I write you a check for ... The fee for today is $100. Debit cards are fine. How about next Friday at 10:00 a.m. I think we definitely need a follow-up. So...for this coming week, I'd like you to investigate these four employment opportunities and see if any of them appeal to you. Can you handle that? - Sure, said Q.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Original Conversation

Standing before you in the ethereal, egg-shelled waiting-room are two nondescript, if impeccably dressed, celestial functionaries, both attired in business black, conspiring to open a single brief case overflowing with papers and manilla folders; they smile as a nurse or health-worker of some sort wheels you into the room. Your body seems more amorphous, inchoate, smaller than normal. Is that a baby pram they're got you in? Or perhaps an incredibly cozy, combed cotton blanket that you find yourself snuggled up with, the fabric clinging seamlessly to your gossamer epidermis as if your very person itself was welded to these surroundings; you listen as some underlings bring out charts and graphs and start consulting with you about your future life down on earth. You seem to be on the highest floor of a large skyscraper, the room surrounded by windows on all sides looking out onto misty clouds and some kind of sprawling, well-lit metropolis below. Sleek, modern furniture in the room, fresh-cut flowers, paintings on the wall by artists you've never heard of, pastoral scenes of stoical women spinning, measuring and clipping thread. The faint sound of harp music plucking from a nearby elevator. Despite your lack of mobility, your dazed curiosity, and your reduced size, you feel about as wise, focused, clear-headed and perceptive as you've ever been. It appears as though you are preparing for a momentous event. This is the moment before birth, it seems, the gestation of ego, of experience - a time for negotiation and for prolonged explanations of what awaits you. This is that first conversation that you've heard tell about, that perhaps you have imagined in day-dreams or had hunches about,  the one that gets the ball rolling for you, the conversation that supposedly will justify wherever it is you will end up on the planet. As it turns out, the two angelic "reps" want some feedback, before assigning you to a particular destiny. There is some initial banter about geography. Sort of like an ice-breaker. Do you have any interest in exotic locations. Siberia, Nepal, Chile, western Australia, the Sudan, Madagascar - for example? You mumble a reply and they begin taking notes. Life in the big city or out in the country? Shall we place you on a farm? Near a factory? In a bustling suburb perhaps? Near an ocean, lake, river? Do you mind long winters? Hot summers? Do you envision lots of autumn color wherever you end up? Do you fancy a nomadic, itinerant sort of existence perchance? You have to wonder at this point: How much of a choice do I really have in this matter? The conversation moves away from geography to the question of family life, language, culture, religion. Any penchant for a particular language: Mandarin? Italian? Portuguese has a lovely ring to it...As far as cultural settings, well the world is more unified than ever before. A global village as it were. Secularization continues apace. So the question of "which religious upbringing?" allows for some flexibility given that people often drift in an out of religious traditions, sampling as they go, maintaining convenient-if-tenuous bonds with whatever faith they were raised with. Bottom line: from out of any situation lies  a "path to salvation." Here the "reps" nod in agreement at their own insight. Family life is quite a thorny issue, however. A proper familial placement is what we really need to decide upon...Some sort of "middle child" issuance used to be quite common of course, but with the birth rate declining in various western countries, it might be a matter of simply "older" or "younger" sibling. Then of course, "only child" status is always a possibility. The "reps" begin to confer privately, whispering heatedly. Words and phrases trickle out... references to "parents,"  "guardians" .... "dominant influences" ... "Something about "degrees of domestic security" weighed against "other challenges of youth"… The question of influence: mothers and fathers, identity issues. The state of the parents' relationship is quite crucial - one of the reps declares. You might see (all too frequently) a lust-laden, whirlwind romance yielding unexpected offspring to a young couple woefully unprepared for child-rearing responsibilities or otherwise a more prolonged courtship settling down into a somewhat staid routine. It's difficult to predict with all the ebbs and flows of human sexuality. Add to that the question of whether people take marriage seriously... And then there's the issue of doting vs. overprotective vs. domineering vs. indifferent parenting strategies and all of the gradations that kick in along the continuum. Maybe it's time for a break. One of the reps says she needs a hot cup of tea. The other rep goes to the window and stares downward, seemingly in search of a particular domicile. When the conversation resumes - a somewhat ironic description in that you have not said much yet -  the reps try to cut to the chase as it were. What really matters in all this is YOU as an individual - i.e. your temperament, personality-type, underlying outlook, attitude, sensibility, mindset - along with your physiological endowments and general comportment. Once again - a seeming infinity of possible permutations arises - in need of sifting through… An awkward question, but let's get it out of the way: How much of a premium do you put on external appearance? Do you real care how you look in terms of …. let's say… eye color, girth, shoe size, skin pallor? One of the reps could not restrain herself: Ah, yes beauty and physical prowess. Besides beauty, the reps explain, strength, stamina, flexibility, vitality, general health - all these enter into the picture as well. What is absolutely crucial, they inform you, is how much suffering you can handle; this is no doubt a wide-open category. What do you mean by suffering? - you ask. Well - you know - they reply - a rough-and-tumble kind of life. We're very interested in determining precisely how much pain (physical or mental anguish) you could conceivably endure "stretched out on the rack of this tough world" - as Shakespeare said. - What if I said I don't think I can handle a large portion?- Ah - portion!  Yes - it's all about portion allotments. Very good of you to say portion! -More shuffling of paper...  Some muffling coughs. A valet arrives with a tray of some sort of miniature doughnuts. He offers you some, but eating seems too sophisticated a chore to undertake. We would nevertheless encourage you to be receptive...try to cultivate an open-mind with regard to...uhm...to ah....the issue of pain. Think of it more as a widening of life-options. What we are about to show you...

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Legend of Damien Starchild

Damien Edgar Hosanna Starchild was born into a traveling hippie commune during the late 1960s, a lanky street urchin with shaggy dark hair, known at various times for riding his bike up and down the strand in Santa Monica, selling frisbees down at Laguna Beach and Newport, skateboarding at Cow-Cow Corners in Corona Del Mar, playing volleyball at Seal Beach, napping on nearby golf courses, loitering in smoothie bars and yes, taught from an early age to play bongo drums and strum ramshackle acoustic guitars while sitting on orange crates, camping out near where the tourists spend their money, earning his keep via make-shift performances with minimal rehearsal time, subsisting on so-called veggie burgers (stuffed with real meat) and egg burritos, scarfing down ramen noodles with M&Ms for lunch or breakfast, a brooding iconoclast drawn to bright colors and supple textures (an OCD issue, ditto to hoarding tendencies), preoccupied with all manner of pill bugs, butterflies, logos, buttons, bottle caps, marbles, seashells, flower petals, box tops, and given over to stuffing his random "street findings" into a bright red-rainbow backpack, having forsworn all manner of illicit drugs, having rebelled against the dominant paradigm of free love, disco dancing and souvenir-vending - educated by the wind and the streets with help from his part-time protective mother-mentor, Martha Belle-Agnes-Louise ("spiritus liberatus") who signed him up for all manner of tennis lessons and poetry seminars sponsored by the local park and recreation department. Having endured for years on end the deprivations that all-day frisbee tournaments and raucous hippie craft fairs can induce, Starchild grew into a brooding adolescent; lacking a definite career path, and having few good options to choose from, he settled upon the metier of a make-shift performance artist, causing a scene among his fellow non-conformists with a nod to the obvious and the predictable, and so, after watching multiple re-runs of The Brady Brunch and The Partridge Family, decided to jettison his long curly hair, using a cereal bowl and his own pair of left-handed scissors (how they teased him about that!); he took to wearing muted tie-dye shirts with matching dark socks. His plan worked to the extent that people took notice and could not help but gawk and gasp at his egregious fashion choices; he became a creature out of no-man's-land, secretly proud of his "mismatched threads" and his outlandish blend of faded neon and neutral colors, which his fellow hippies deemed as "drab" - "square" - "reactionary" and "tasteless". D.S. reveled in these epithets. And, wanting to push the envelope even farther, he taught himself how to be austere and serious, how to saunter around like a fop, how to tilt his head skyward like a snob, how to wear dark sunglasses, exhaling slowly, how not to smile his goofy smile in the midst of the typical "peace and love" greetings that he was so tired of receiving from every Biff and Buffy and MoonUnit that he came across.  Oh, he was quite the confused sad-brooding sack, alright, but in California it takes decades (sheer decades) to mature, as they say...And so, he became, like many another ex-hippie, runaway Amish child or disgruntled Scientologist, intense but not scary-looking, always staring, dazed, preoccupied with the tiny little details of life in the glamour-ville, Lotus-land demi-monde of the oh-so beautiful people. (Perhaps the real issue was simply that he had become near-sighted and needed glasses.) He would often walk backward or sideways just to be contrarian; he collected campaign buttons from the 1950s, bounced around the Sports Arena before Springsteen shows, became a devotee of dime-store comic books, old Life magazines and obscure Rosicrucian philosophies.This same Starchild, as you have also heard, was witness to a terrible crime many many years ago, on a day where something went terribly wrong out of the blue, without warning, one of those otherwise perfect days on which Damien saw something transpire on the idyllic side streets of a residential neighborhood near Santa Monica which changed his life forever. Leaving work early with a mega-large smoothie in his hand, he found himself counting flower beds and sidewalk cracks until he stumbled upon a weird scene: two men in the midst of a fierce argument in a driveway: two guys, one waving his arms saying 'What about the shipment???", the other, holding his head with both hands, wailing, "It got lost, man, I told you fool - it's overdue..." Something about "shipment" and "stash"  and "Manny don't play that way!" then a car speeding by and noises like firecrackers and then the two men lying prone on the ground - with Starchild smiling his goofy smile, not realizing what had happened. And then, in shock over the sudden chaos, the carnage. a few neighbors peeping their heads out of windows, with no one emerging (everyone knowing more than they would later admit) and Starchild making his way over toward the crime scene...It became an instant blur; he seemed to walk in slow motion. A dog was barking behind a fence. A woman motioned to him, shaking her head. No. No. Don't go any further. And then, suddenly, without warning, the figure emerging from a side-gate at the house next door,  an elderly man with a gray mustache, using a cane, his strange, foreign-sounding elocution or enunciation (whatever that's called): slowly repeating, almost hypnotically: It's time for you to leave, my friend. It's time for you to go. I don't like what I see, mi amigo. And I don't want you talking to no cops.  And then, having mentioned the police, the man let forth a stream of crude expletives not worth repeating, pausing only to cough up a long rattle of phlegm. Damien noticed a steel-eyed glare behind the fake smile.  You have seen too much - eh mijo? Now is NOT a good time for you to be here. In fact, I don't EVER want to see you around here, my friend. In this area. In this city. On this street. What-ev-er you think this is, what-ev-er you think you saw... NEVER HAPPENED! Can you dig it - little hippie boy? Damien had enough street sense to realize, even during such an incredibly awkward moment (and there were many more to follow), that his only option was to run like he had never run before - which he proceeded to do - through side yards and over fences, through garages and sewer pipes, heading eastward across the overpass until he could see the campus of UCLA hailing him in the distance.  In the span of a few hours, he had became a marked man. There's a lanky little frightened hippie boy...yeah, man... just "some weird dude with a tie-dye shirt,  dark socks and a rainbow visor - and a nervous goofy look on his face" hiding in the bushes somewhere, wishing that cell phones had been invented. It was not so much a matter of placing a call, you see, as it was a matter of finding safety on one's home turf. But that sense of safety had now been shattered, and Damien found himself shivering in the 85 degree heat. When the squad car eventually pulled up beside him, he was climbing over some ivy bushes trying to find his way to the 17th green on that favorite  golf course of his in the town of D_______ (which shall remain nameless)...That had always been his sanctuary...But the cops had need of some "eyes and ears" and Damien was their man. He soon found himself in drab, austere, uninviting, nondescript, icy-cold interrogation room - ostensibly a basement warehouse of sorts  - being mulled over and prodded by two ever-so-calm-and-patient detectives, who sat there sipping their coffee, grilling him for hours on end about "what he knew and when he came to know it..." Fortunately, for the cops, Damien was an easy-sell, as long as they brought in junk food contraband such as Dorrito chips, bubble gum and Mountain Dew. He had nothing to hide. He just sat there wondering: when are these grey suits going to let me get back to my "restless, peripatetic, itinerant routine...?" as he called it. But that hoped-for return to the beach, the strand and the comic book stores was, alas, not in the cards for poor Damien. He realized the awful truth at the moment when Detective Zygote asked him if he had ever visited the "snow belt." Snow belt (?) - as in where those people on television in places like Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota spend all of January, February, March and sometimes April digging out from an onslaught of white, fluffy powder droppings from the sky? Yep. That's what we're talking about...  "Hey kid, you interested in seeing what a long winter is like - heh, heh, heh? Would you like to make a little foray to Blizzard Springs, North Dakota - heh, heh, heh?" Damien brought out a note from his doctor that he always kept in his organic wallet, a withered parchment palimpsest with faded scribble markings all over it advising against exposure to "inclement weather" and "oppressive climates," and signed by Dr. Quag.  Zygote took one look at this obvious forgery and cackled: "Inclement weather...that's a good one. Look my man, let's get real for a moment, shall we? Are you trying to tell us that you've never dealt with cold weather before!?!" "Well actually sir," Damien began, using his best sotto voce young-hippie-lost-in-a-basement routine, "I'm not supposed to live more than 20 miles inland of any coastal region on account of A.) my allergies B.) certain metabolic irregularities involving digestion and respiration C.) my vertigo and related balance issues operative at altitudes exceeding 500 feet above sea level and D.) a hunch I have that hippies or the offspring of hippies are not so entirely welcome in the heartland of the Midwest portion of these United States." Zygote put a stale cigar in his mouth (yes, there was a time when stale cigars were still used as props) while his partner, Detective Benza, a man known for his sharp bristly crew cut, five o'clock shadow and bulging neck, started scribbling his own set of copious notes on a legal pad (breaking four pencils in quick succession) before looking up and glaring at Damien very abruptly and very intently, exhaling stale coffee breath into the young urchin's face followed by a stream of carefully chosen words. "Now look," he began, "we need you to start dealing with this very real situation - Mr...ah...Mr. Starchild, is it? What we're alluding to in these proceedings is not simply a change of venue, if you will,  i.e. of make-shift domiciles in various undisclosed locations. What we're talking about here is a change of identity - for your own protection - y'understand. You're going to require is a new name and perhaps a new direction in your life - if you can handle such a thing? Are you up for the challenge?" Damien stuttered a cough along with a shrill wheezing noise such as he was used to making when overwhelmed by stress, fatigue and general despair. "May I please call my lawyer, Phil" - he begged. "He'll know what to do."


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time in CCD Class

It all goes back, I suppose, to that guy in CCD class with the half-goofy smile, half-quizzical look on his face, an avuncular, inattentive fellow with freckles, big teeth and a clean-cut head, on the verge of growing his hair out long, this being the early 1970s; he was your typical teenager-in-waiting with no discernible interest in religion, theology, philosophy or spiritual matters in general and no intellectual curiosity extending beyond what the snack would be on a particular Saturday, but he did have a way of "getting a rise" out of people so as to garner his daily fifteen minutes of negative attention. And so on this routine occasion, like a patient monk chanting a single mantra to charm an obstinate brick wall, he kept asking the nun who was substituting for our regular teacher, in the midst of a discussion of the most important event in human history next to the creation itself: How do you know? How do you know? What if it weren't that way? How do you know for sure? -  How do we know? repeated the nun with bemused incomprehension. Yeah, said the kid. How do you know that all this stuff really happened? The nun was beginning to reach for the answer to the easiest question ever asked, when Bobby Blaylock preempted her: It says it did in the Bible, stupid! said Bobby. He had no patience for fools. But how do you know for sure? We just do, Timothy. Trust me...we do, said Jean Anne. She was impatient for the art project to begin. And in truth, the art project was usually the best part of CCD class. I just want to know, Timothy declared, how we know that someone could die and then be alive again and then never die after that. And then...I mean because of that, we wouldn't have to die either. After we died the first time. How does anyone know that for sure?-  They saw it with their own eyes, Timothy, Jeanne Anne said. Really. Who had time for this nonsense? It was bad form somehow to drone on about such settled pieties. The point was to just deal with it. Chin up. Smile. Put a brave look on life. God has a plan for you... She was almost giggling at this male tendency to pick apart unbroken objects, whereas Bobby B. simply could not restrain himself: Hey genius... there were witnesses....Okay? They saw Jesus, knew him, hung out with him, saw him rise from the dead; they wrote it down, moron. It's all there in the gos-pels. We got four of them, is that enough evidence for you? Bobby was indignant. He couldn't stand questioning-for-questioning's sake. The nun told him not to call other people morons. Timothy knew somehow that he was on a roll. But what if....he paused - let's just say they didn't see it for themselves...what if they just heard it from other people. Then would it still be true? - Then wouldn't some of the information get garbled or something? He was almost being shouted down at this point, but the nun had found a teachable moment. I think perhaps what Timothy is telling us is that we need to have faith. We may not know (with absolute mathematical certainty if you will) that this or anything else in human history actually happened, but we have a strong sense that it did. Timothy did not make any more comments. Someone in the back of the class said, I forget who, raised his voice somewhat anonymously and declared to no one in particular: that faith might start to feel pointless if not enough people saw the reason behind it. The nun was beginning the art project at this juncture and I was the only one who heard the comment that has been haunting me ever since. Flash-forward to what I remember as the last CCD class I ever attended at the end of my 8th grade year, when I was embroiled in a conversation about the perfection of the universe with the leader of the guy clique...Much like a typical doubting teenager, he was taking the bold (if well-worn) position that the universe was - to all appearances at least - hopelessly flawed and seemingly random in scope, with no apparent goal or design...and that this made it hard not just to conceive of a Supreme Being, but feel obliged to commune with such a power, with any kind of feeling of gratitude, obedience,  reverence or humility. I was arguing the point that human nature was so "messed up" and "self-centered" that we were not in a position to accurately judge of the status of evil in the grand metaphysical scheme of things. The mixture of good and evil was necessary to maximize the dramatic potential of our individual destinies and to bring out the absolute best in us through a series of mysteriously-planned but precisely calibrated hurdles and challenges. My opponent's name was Gus - who had his peanut gallery backing him up, Gus who gathered minions around himself, Gus who wore well pressed shirts with big starchy collars, Gus who just laughed in my face as if I was spouting outdated science. Our teacher at that point was a former hippie, quasi cultural Catholic, and part-time Buddhist who had an open mind and couldn't resist a good debate.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Tyranny of Cool

At the oppressive party made more unbearable by the surrounding cadre of extroverts effortlessly chatting away through yet another round of spontaneous merry-making, Simon made his way around the large room, picking up random objects - little trinkets, souvenirs - twirling them about in his hand; when that failed to assuage his anxiety, he would sample the available chairs or stand perched in a corner taking in the dimensions, half-hoping to not drawn attention to himself and half-needing Terrence and the Old Soul to stand guard nearby. It was a typical Saturday night affair, the effete young crowd feigning energy and excitement, fervently gesturing to one another as they gossiped about professors and other local celebrities, dawning those affected voices that drove Simon crazy, so needlessly advertising their rarefied intelligence to anyone who would listen. Did you hope to take Dr. Werner's seminar on modern warfare? You really should. You really must. But then, of course, you'll want to do his sequel course on power-dynamics and peace-making in the age of terror. You'll be hooked - but don't go near psychology - it's  ticking time-bomb with the present chairperson...I've got an internship for the summer (how about you all?) and after that I'm doing a semester in Rome...Actually the three of us are...If you have the chance, do come see us at our summer retreat in Vermont - will you? There's a killer band playing tonight down in P-town. I went shopping today as best I could, but it's nothing like New York. Oh look....someone should really introduce those drips to a controlled substance or two. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Yes and ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Holding court as usual amid all this chatter was someone named Drew or Drake or Donald or Dudley - one of those dashingly forward individuals always at the center of attention and who seem to have the last word or the punch line for otherwise tepid banter. The big D could be heard, at various intervals, dispensing advice, issuing edicts, making snap judgments on education, style, fashion with his nothing-if-not-glib, off-the-cuff remarks: Oh don't take that course - it's a dud. You should really hang out more with Ken - he's just your type. Everyone needs to stop wearing purple as of now. Yes, doll, I'll have another shot of that. Ha. Ha. Ha. After about an hour and a half of such boorish, faux-raucous conversation and canned laughter, having foraged to excess at the the appetizer table, while sipping and spilling punch, Egg had planned a delicate exit - like an photographer whose camera (in this case a psyche) has reached its limit - yet, inexplicably, he found himself stalling, half-paralyzed, for fear of offending Olivia - a girl that he secretly sought to impress through his powers of endurance - i.e. his ability to withstand unbearable situations such as others would think completely harmless. Olivia was one of the few there who were able to convey a genuine sincerity even when seeming to agree with the inane/recycled/predictable opinions that the cool ones saw fit to bounce around. But Simon (nickname: Egg) refused to join in - making a point of being off in the corner sulking with his supposed coterie of like-minded dissidents. Before dissecting the male specimen that was sucking up so much of the air in the room, he made a point of referring to a disturbing trend that he had once again noticed while searching downtown for a rarefied poster of an Andre Derain landscape.... So first I go to Brewsters Prints and they DON'T have any Andre Derain....not a single landscape or portrait or harbor image....And no they can't order one ....And no I can't order one online because such a poster has never been made and does not exist. Can you believe it? -  You've have a rough day - said Terrence quietly.  - Yes a rough day, but to make matters worse here I am ambling from shop to shop in search of any late-impressionistic work to hang on my wall and I walk past not one, not two, but five (count 'em) five women of substance - you know... beautiful, vibrant, charming, intelligent, attractive, well-groomed females paired up with absolutely degenerate, bummy, loser guys. -Oh, said Terrence, absent-mindedly. That's..........not good. - You're finally catching on? - C'mon Egg - you're sounding quite melodramatic with your idealized angelic women on on side each paired up with a devilish male.... -  Sure...you can laugh if you want to...where do you think this beauty and the beast stereotype comes from? Huh? Huh? - The beast must have something special to offer her... said Terrence. - The beast is an illusion - a sham - a walking travesty - that anyone can see from a mile away. Why does it bother me so much? - Because you wish you could be the beast. - Fie. Fie. Don't be ridiculous. - Because you want what the beast has.  - No. No. No. That's not it. This cutting-edge specimen of manbeast has nothing to offer - that's my point.  We're talking ratty, disheveled, arrogant, egotistical males of the type that will drag anyone they meet into a large black hole. - Oh - that kind. - Yes - that kind. -Well - I still think your missing the key insight - said Terrence. - Terrence - are you really going to try to sell us on your bizarro-universe concept of love? - No Egg. You're forgetting the wildness factor. These male specimens as you call them offer up danger and mayhem in doses that guys like us can never hope to achieve due to our self-repressive, civilized tendencies. -So because they have "reckless" and "irresponsible" written all over them - that's enough to trump any of the regular common human decencies that someone else might bring along? - Basically, yeah. - And to make matters worse - here we have Exhibit A holding court across the room - and hoodwinking even the smartest of the bunch people like Oliv--- Oh I don't know said Terrence,  with his usual contrarian streak - he has a certain energy to him.  -Yeah - he's quite charismatic, chimed the Old Soul. - I take that back - said Terrence. - What? - Well - what I just said. Let me revise that somewhat. It's the wildness quotient + the fantasy. It's both of those together. - The fantasy? - Yes - people seek the danger as part of their fantasy....they crave the adventure that can never be - the one-sided scenario that ignores the complexity of things.... ....they chase after this flame - which seems to promise the fullness of life but in reality a desire for self-annihilation. - -Back to your theories Terrence! Guys your torturing me! - Bottom line is - cautioned Terrence - the women love him....And this is going to sound weird to someone like yourself Egg - but what they love about him is the chaos factor... -The chaos factor?  - He's the wild horse they all want to ride upon.... the freight train they want to chase after... the cheetah that they seek an encounter with... -Argggh! - Stop with the metaphors - please Terrence! - It all taps into the fantasy - which requires that a person chase after death.... Do I make myself clear? - Not really said the Old Soul - but I think I understand you. - Well it just goes to show you said Egg - how Mick Jagger is responsible for this complete degradation - this utter farce - the tyranny of cool. - Mick Jagger? Is that what you just said? - Well - who else would you blame? Casanova? Jagger - he's the one who started this ball rolling - as it were - with his decrepit degenerate example.