What Makes Us Fittest

4 06 2013

lastApeI just read Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter, because I was interested in the variations of human subspecies and how they might have interacted. This book had some great stuff on that topic, but I ended up being much more captivated by what it has to say about the roots of human evolution; in particular, neoteny. What is neoteny? It is the persistence of youthful traits in an organsim. You can read all about it here, but in a nutshell, having the longest childhood of any ape means that homo sapiens has years of life with a still developing brain. That allows us to learn far more than any animal, to develop unique skills and quirky personalities. It’s why we developed self-awareness, and all of our fabulous cultural and technological achievements.

I find this notion to be a wonderfully refreshing refutation of social Darwinism. What I mean by social Darwinism (and this may not be strictly accurate use of the term) is the idea that a person’s innate value is relative to how well they could survive in the wild unaided. Meaning, a person who is physically able to hunt for food and withstand the elements is a better human being than one who is weak or slow. In our society, the concept is more generally applied to economic status. Those with the capability to get rich deserve to, those without it don’t.

I confess, I’ve been susceptible to social Darwinism myself. I’ve always known it was wrong, because that’s what I was taught, but it makes a seductive sense on an intuitive level. The problem with social Darwinism, as Last Ape Standing so aptly illustrates, is that humans are strange animals. We are not like tigers or sharks or eagles. We did not get to the top of the food chain by being the strongest or the fastest. On the contrary, half our tribe was always in this extended childhood that made them completely dependent on the adults and rendered the whole group more vulnerable. But that apparent weakness is precisely what lead to us becoming the one species that can willfully alter the environment, and thus change the rules of the game.

Social Darwinists would have us let the disadvantaged fall away. But with evolution as our guide, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. We got where we are today by caring for the weakest among us. We are made powerful by imagination, curiosity, compassion, and shared effort. To expect us to find our roles in competition like a pack of baboons is to completely misunderstand what it is to be human.

Chip Walter’s website allthingshuman.net has more.

Fed Up With The Guns

13 12 2012

My reaction to the recent shooting in Clackamas Town Center (about 13 miles from where I live) was first shock, then sadness, then exhaustion. I’m worn out by the frequency of mass shootings, and the same fruitless arguments that happen after each one. But the more I try to put my thoughts in order about this whole thing, the more I’m overcome by anger. I realize my anger is counterproductive so I’ll do my best to keep it under control, but honestly, the fact that people get gunned down in public with automatic weapons is outrageous.

After the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora (about 20 miles from where I grew up) the consensus among my Facebook friends was don’t make it political, let’s just let everyone heal. But that only makes sense from one side of the argument. If you feel,as I do, that mass shootings are a direct result of the  over-accessibility of guns, then every shooting is political. And there will be no healing until we address the issue in a meaningful way. And if you’re offended by someone bringing up gun regulations in the wake of tragic murder, I invite you to closely examine your reasoning and ask yourself if you feel at all responsible.

I do. It’s irrational, but I feel responsible. That’s why I get so angry. I feel like I’m not doing enough to stop it. There’s not much I can do, but I can at least speak my mind, which I haven’t very much, because everyone hides behind the tragedy and claims it’s too soon to “get political.” Hence, this post.

So here’s my view: automatic and semi-automatic weapons should be banned outside the military, period.

Following are the arguments I’m aware of against my view, and my refutations. Spoiler alert: they all break down when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.

  • It’s a slippery slope. If we ban assault rifles, next we’ll be banning all firearms. Okay, no one can say with certainty what legislation will or will not pass through congress in the future. But it’s quite a leap to go from assault weapons to handguns and hunting rifles. Sure it’s a risk, but it’s a very small risk when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. I suggest the NRA alter its mission. Instead of pushing for more guns in more places forever and ever, they should adopt a position of reasonable limits and bend their considerable power to preventing the slippery slope scenario from happening.
  • It won’t solve the problem. No, gun regulations will not end murder or cure mental illness. That’s no reason not to mitigate the problem as best we can. If a crazy person has a handgun instead of an assault rifle, there will be less of the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. The less the better.
  • Guns make us safer. If only everyone carried a gun, the crazies would get gunned down the minute they started shooting. Oh my god, where to begin with this one. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s an infantile wild-west fantasy. An armed populace will no more end murder or cure mental illness than gun regulations will. Personally, I do not want to live in a society where gun battles break out in public places. If that appeals to you, there are plenty of places in the world you can go to find it. I prefer the mostly peaceful, marginally civilized society that generations of our ancestors have suffered and died to create for us. Anyway, just because someone owns a gun does not mean they will take the time to learn to use it skillfully. Or have good judgement when assessing threats. The “arm everyone” scenario is just a recipe for more hails of bullets, more dead, more shattered families, more traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.
  • Without high-powered weapons we are vulnerable to tyranny. This is the argument of survivalist militias, preparing for the day that government forces kick down our doors to do…something. Take away our freedom. Take away the guns that are needed to stop them taking the guns. If this is your argument, we’ve got nothing to say to each other. I know I’ll never change your mind. But here it is anyway; the government doesn’t want your guns. They don’t care about your guns. Tyranny in the modern world is not military, it is economic. You should be more worried about the bank foreclosing on your compound. Do you plan to hold them off with guns? There’s no way that ends with you staying in your home. You should worry about your stagnating wages, or being shut out of the marketplace if you’re self-employed. Taxes? That’s the least of economic tyranny. If you really want to meet your oppressor on equal footing, sell your arsenal and go get a degree in finance.

Bottom line: people are dead. Families are shattered. Lives are ruined. Ended lives, ruined lives. These trump all of your principled arguments about the 2nd amendment. If you’ve got something to say about guns that doesn’t directly, concretely reduce the numbers of dead, shattered, and traumatized, I don’t want to hear it.

Update 12/14: The day after I wrote this, the shooting in Newtown CT happened. I cannot even process the multiplying sadness, outrage, exhaustion and disbelief. I’ve got nothing more to say, but I refer you to this article that offers some hard numbers and expresses the problem with the “don’t politicize” cry much better.

Aikido is Timing

19 10 2012

I wrote a couple of weird posts recently about my attempts to make use of ki when practicing Aikido. In fact I’ve made a lot of vague attempts at ki manipulation over the years, but it’s never helped me on the mat. Only in preparing for my Nidan* test (happening tonight!) have I begun to understand why.

I can’t remember now exactly when or how this concept crystallized. Somewhere in the instruction I’ve received, the notion of timing shifted from an abstract concept to something very specific. That is, as nage I must meet uke at the optimal time, when uke is compromised; and in the optimal shape, with my body aligned and balanced.

Timing and body position accomplish everything I’ve always attributed to mysterious ki. If I meet uke before there is any strength behind his attack, it doesn’t matter which of us is stronger. If I am in a position of leverage, it doesn’t matter which of us has the longer reach. If I can seize the initiative in the encounter, I can take uke’s balance.

This is a major shift in my thinking, and I’m still trying to internalize it. This is energy. This is ki. I don’t counter strength with invisible force beams, I counter it with strategy–by being in the right place at the right time. The right place being out of the line of danger, at the fulcrum of the encounter, with my body in the appropriate shape. The right time being before uke’s attack has built up momentum. Still, the right place and the right time are not enough without the right intention. In other words, there has to be commitment behind my movements, honesty in my utemi, a lucid assessment of danger, compassion for my attacker, trust in my training partner, ownership of my own space; a clear, motivating energy behind everything.

This is something concrete that I can practice. I still believe there is value in visualizing the flow of energy in various ways, but ki does not have to be mystical and mysterious. Ki manifests at the junction of a particular physical action and mental focus that I can construct and reconstruct. Energy flows through every technique and every blend, not because someone is doing magic, but because that’s the nature of techniques and blends.

Basically I just need to do all the things my teachers have always been telling me to do. Enter, move my center, relax, extend energy, keep one point, weight underside. Catch the timing. I don’t know why it took me this long to make sense of timing, but I’m hopeful that it will improve my Aikido and empower me elsewhere in life. Lots of people’s success is attributed to being in the right place at the right time, as if by accident. By adding right intention, perhaps we can generate opportunities rather than just wait for them.

*Nidan: second degree black belt
nage: the one doing the technique
uke: the one attacking and being thrown
utemi: a counterstrike made by nage in the midst of a technique

Magic is Real, in the Past

17 10 2012

I recently listened to an old episode of Radiolab about memory. I was struck by the capricious nature of memory as described in the program. Remembering something, they say, is not like playing back a tape. It is actually a a reconstruction of the event being remembered.

This is a weird concept, especially in the digital age, when we take for granted the capacity to record and play back any visible or audible event with perfect accuracy. We expect our memories to work the same way. Even when memory is suspect (we’ve all forgotten things, or remembered things differently than someone else) we can compensate by externalizing memories. We can look at old photographs, read old journals, re-watch movies, and virtually re-live past experiences.

But what did memory mean to cultures with no photography, and no mass literacy? How does a society conceive of the past when all their histories are maintained by oral tradition and abstract art?

As any art historian will tell you, pre-modern artists were not too dumb to paint in a lifelike way; they just weren’t interested in doing so. One might say they understood the folly of Pygmalion (which my drawing teacher Joseph Mann was fond of citing). The map is not the territory. A work of art is a representation, not the thing it represents. So if a culture doesn’t care about lifelike recordings, what is their understanding of the past?

I’m speaking in wooly generalities here, but it’s a blog post, not a dissertation. Ancient cultures had a wide array of myths and legends– magical tales. Today we intuitively understand the universe to be predictable. It can be dumbfounding, sure, but it works according to rules that can be understood through study and exploration. It’s hard for us to imagine someone truly believing in magic. But if we had no records to go on apart from stories that had been passed down for generations, stories that had been imperfectly copied from one teller to the next, stories that inevitably alter, perhaps growing ever more colorful and outlandish…wouldn’t those stories seem as real as our photographs? Even if we’re aware that the stories change over time (again, ancient people were not idiots), they are our best tool for understanding the universe. And if our best tool is fluid and abstract, we might sense that it reflects a fluidity in the universe. Unlike a photograph, which reflects concrete, predictable reality.

Or–this is even better (and it’s really where the Radiolab thing comes in). Suppose you live in this world with only fluid, mythic histories, and you have an outlandish experience, like, say, being struck by lightning. And every time you recall that experience, you recreate it slightly differently, until it becomes an encounter with a monster or a spirit. That memory is just as real and reliable as the weight of a rock in your hand at the present moment. And then, you hear a story from someone else about magic elves. Why wouldn’t you believe it?

Magic cannot happen in the present, but it can happen in the past. For ancient peoples, magic was constantly going on in the past, as evidenced by both personal and ancestral memory. Boom! All ancient mythical stories are now true. You’re welcome.

Waters vs Nugent

25 05 2012

I mentioned last time that I went to see Roger Waters perform The Wall, and that during Mother they had an animated CCTV camera looming over the stage, and it crystallized the connection between the personal and political in the performance. It also threw me into a tailspin, because the image of a goverment camera playing the role of overprotective mother made me think “nanny state,” a term which is generally used to denigrate social programs like welfare, medicaid, and public education.

Oh no, I thought. Is Roger Waters a libertarian wacko like Ted Nugent? Is he saying that the gummint needs to butt out and let everyone live their own lives? It kind of makes sense; all these monstrous meddlers are attacking Pink and forcing him behind his wall, and if they’d just leave him alone he’d be okay, right?

No, actually, it makes no sense at all. The whole point of The Wall is that we don’t do well all by ourselves. I guess it’s one more testament to the power of the performance that for a moment I was prepared to take all the fascist/xenophobic satire literally, and afraid that I was already in the belly of the beast. As I try to recapture those thoughts now, they seem ridiculous. I guess I was more absorbed in the show than I thought.

Anyway, it got me looking, as I often do, for some overarching, anchoring principle to identify right and wrong. I figured out in high school that there is no such thing, life is too complex for a single anchoring principle that holds up in all cases, but I keep looking for one anyway.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand the meaning of left and right in politics. Now I’m just about ready to give up on the whole left/right terminology. Probably because on top of the traditional lack of adherence to the spectrum in America, our whole political discourse has become a joke. What used to be right-wing fringe is now mainstream, and what used to be centrist is now tarred as fringe-left radicalism. So, under the gaze of The Wall’s animated nanny-state-cam, I went looking for an underlying motivation that could identify Waters as an ally.

What I found was compassion. So this is my new overarching principle. Compassion vs self-interest, or to put it in simpler, more new-agey terms, love vs hate. (I prefer to put in terms of Green Lantern’s emotional spectrum, which comes with a cool insignia.) Compassion leads one to consider the well-being of others, to treat those who are different as deserving of respect and happiness, and to act accordingly. Focusing only on one’s own well-being…well, to borrow a metaphor, it puts you behind a wall and worms eat your brain.

So, to bring this post around to some kind of point, in future I will attempt to ignore party allegiance and evaluate acts and policies based on whether they spring from compassion or selfishness. If you are someone who acts only for your own self-interest, you’re not my enemy exactly, but I hope you’ll get some counseling.

Note to Self: Do What I Do

9 05 2012

This sort of relates to my earlier post about style, and is the latest installment of the continuing saga of dragging all my unfinished drafts into the light of day.

I believe an artist should never be completely satisfied with his/her work. There are essential elements of striving and exploration that come from wanting to be better. But at the same time, an artist has to have enough confidence in his/her own work to feel that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. It’s quite easy for me to maintain the essential dissatisfaction, and not always so easy to maintain the confidence.

However it occurred to me recently; many of my favorite cartoonists exhibit stylistic quirks that don’t necessarily add strength to the images, but those quirks become part of the artists’ appeal. Maybe it’s just by virtue of association with the actual strengths of the artist, or maybe the ostensibly superfluous quirk is actually a crucial, personalizing factor. Either way, it got me thinking, the way I draw is the right way for me to draw. It may not be the way I want to draw, it may not measure up to my idols or peers, but how I feel about it is less important than how an audience responds to it. And for me to communicate honestly with an audience, I need to draw how I draw.

I’ve reached a parallel conclusion in aikido; I need to practice aikido that’s appropriate for my physical capabilities. This is another thing that feels like it’s taken me far too long to figure out. Every aikido student hears it all the time: relax, don’t tense up, extend energy, stay centered. It’s the absolute core principle of the art. It’s hard to internalize though. It’s easy to think that the softer, energy-focused aspects of aikido are quite good in theory, but not practical for self defense. And there’s always someone practicing hard, forceful aikido that reinforces that assumption.

Lately I’ve been practicing a lot with just such a fellow. Besides being forceful in his style, he’s much taller and much stronger than me. For a while, like a doofus, I tried to match his strength, which didn’t work at all. I also found myself trying to reach up higher than my arms want to go, which caused my shoulders to tense up and compromised my balance and extension. So I started wondering, can I reach with energy beyond the range of my little t-rex arms?* And that lead me back to Osensei’s four pillars of aikido; relax, extend energy, keep one point, and weight underside. I find if I stay focused on these four principles, which are sort of one principle, my whole body gets integrated and my techniques are much more effective.

Of course they’re more effective. I won’t get anywhere trying to do aikido with a body I don’t have. Just like I shouldn’t try to draw with someone else’s hand.

*In comparison to this one training partner, I have little t-rex arms, but they fit me better because I don’t have the giant t-rex body. If the rest of t-rex was in proportion to his arms, that’s the dinosaur I’d be. Please stop reading this ridiculous digression, and I’ll stop writing it. Deal? Deal.

Notes on Style

24 04 2012

“…we must not force (style) upon our artwork, but rather let it grow of its own volition, from the totality of our influences and abilities (or inabilities, as the case may be). When style is not the natural outcome, the outgrowth, of all these things, we have instead a repugnant, off-putting mannerism. Many beginners, sadly, approach the whole matter “bass-ackwards.” They fret about style long before they master some reasonable drawing ability, learn to handle the tools of the trade, intuit the basics of design and composition, or (worst of all) eliminate affectation and dishonesty from their stories.”

Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of style lately. I read an essay years ago about painting (apologies, I can’t find it and have no idea who wrote it) that talked about “manufacturing a style,” and made essentially the same point that Brunetti states so eloquently. My response was to ignore the idea of style as much as possible, drawing with a focus on communication and expression and letting the drawings assume whatever visual character they want. I’ve had some success doing 24 hour comics this way, but my other projects have suffered from a lack of design consciousness.

Basically  I’ve been so set on not falling into the trap of manufacturing a style, I’ve avoided making conscious decisions as much as possible. But that’s ridiculous. Art has to be deliberate, it has to consist of intentionality, or else it’s just noodling. Sometimes that’s enough, but usually it’s not.  And anyway, like the song says, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

I feel kind of silly that it’s taken me this long to figure this out. You probably already know it, so just humor me as I spell it out for myself.  Honest self-expression can come from conscious as well as unconscious sources. The important thing with stylistic decisions is to ask, “Is this best for the story?” (Or the painting or the film or whatever the whole piece is.) Not, “Will this sell?” Not, “Does this look enough like artist X or genre Y?” Also not, “Is this different enough from artist X or genre Y?” Just, does it express what it needs to express in the best possible way? The artist can and should closely examine his/her own work in order to make it the best it can be.

Tree Climbing; The Psychic Method

15 04 2012

I have about 5 unfinished drafts sitting in the drafts section, mostly relating to this one thing that seems worth sharing but that I can’t figure out how to talk about. I want to keep it short and simple but it keeps getting long and inscrutable. Trying again…

Something new and strange and pretty great has happened. I can’t tell if it’s a side effect of aikido, a by-product of drawing, or a sign of growing up. It’s probably all three. Here’s what it is: I find I can look at a high, far-off place, like a treetop, and have the experience of being there.

I relate this to aikido because part of our practice is extending energy, usually to make a non-physical connection to our training partner. The martial application is about taking initiative in the encounter, reading the attacker’s intent, responding with the appropriate timing, etc. I’ve gotten more interested in the energy aspect of aikido, for reasons I won’t go into right now (that’s another languishing unfinished draft). Suffice to say I’ve been practicing extending my awareness, trying to sense my surroundings on all sides, and trying to make a sensory connection across empty space. Much like what’s been happening with the treetops.

I keep referring to treetops because that’s where I can most readily do this,* for reasons which I believe have to do with drawing. Or rather, thinking about drawing, which really amounts to simple observation. I’ve been studying the trees and shrubs every time I walk the dog, in anticipation of scenes in my next webcomic on a crazy forest planet. I’ve arrived at this strange sense of a relativistic point of view. In my quasi-educated terms, nature is a series of fractals. The same shapes and patterns recur constantly at different scales. The five foot bush next to me is composed of the same materials and the same basic forms as the 70 foot tree across the creek. I’m not at the top of that tree, but the top of this bush is the same thing, in a different frame of reference.

I said at the beginning that I have the experience of being high in the tree I am looking at. To clarify, I don’t literally hallucinate the view from the treetop. What I do get is a sense of expansive connection to the landscape, the same sensation I get from actually being in a high place and taking in the view. For many years, as a kid and a young adult, every time I looked at a high place– tree, mountain, roof, even clouds– I wanted to be up there. I’ve climbed a lot of trees and mountains, and a handful of rooftops. I was even lucky enough to climb a 21,000 foot mountain in Nepal, which is as close to walking on clouds as one is likely to get in real life. Climbing and hiking, interacting with nature, always felt much more rewarding than just gazing at stuff. But it’s still not oneness with nature, which I think is what I’ve always really craved when looking at those high places. Now, when I look at the treetops, I don’t feel that longing. I feel deep satisfaction, as if the desire for oneness has been realized. It hasn’t– I’m no enlightened monk or anything. I think it’s just maturity. I think I’ve just had enough life experience to shift that romantic yearning into an appreciation of what is real and accessible.

So it turns out growing up is pretty cool.

*I’ve tried the same thing with distant hillsides, the ocean, and the moon. Results inconclusive.

The Secret to my Failure

31 03 2011

by Dylan Meconis- click to enlarge

I think I’ve figured out why my comics never attract a huge audience. It has to do with levels and varieties of geekdom. I won’t try to break down a whole taxonomy of nerds, but somewhere in there is a category of earnest nerds, and that’s where I fall.

Comics in America are inherently a geeky medium. But, geeky and cool are not as sharply divided as they once were. There is a lot of crossover between what’s nerdy and what’s cool. For example, Comic Con in San Diego is a huge bastion of cool. Comic book characters in movies are often cool. Much of the art in comic books is cool, even if cool kids wouldn’t be caught dead reading them, except maybe on an iPad.

Some comics are cool enough to gain a cult following. Hellboy, The Goon, and Scott Pilgrim come to mind. In order to be cool, though, comics must have a certain amount of irony and/or cynicism. Irony and cynicism are the absolute flesh and blood of cool. Earnestness is the antithesis of cool. Earnestness belongs to Art, not Entertainment. And there lies my barrier to large audiences.

Lots of people are into escapist genre fiction in all formats– books, video, comics, etc. Some of those people are cooler than others. The people who can enjoy the book or movie or whatever for awhile, then put it down and get on with their lives, are the cool ones. The people who relish the most ridiculous plot lines, atrocious acting, and laughable special effects with ironic glee are slightly less cool. The uncool people are the ones who want to actually live in the imaginary worlds. Some are content to memorize every detail of every episode, and occasionally carp about contradictory occurrences.

Others–the earnest nerds– work hard to believe in imaginary worlds. We suspend disbelief not willingly, but eagerly, desperately. We require consistency in the world’s rules, and life and soul in the characters. When creators toss us ridiculous plot lines and nonsensical action and empty special effects, just because it’s cool, we feel betrayed. It’s a sad and lonely and usually disappointing way to experience pop culture. But when that one fully realized, unironically great story comes along, it’s all worth it.

This is where I’m coming from as an artist. Basically I’m asking my audience for an emotional commitment that most people won’t give to fictional creations, and I’m not even willing to give an outlet for ironic snickering. I can’t change to a more cool approach. There’s nothing less cool than pandering to cool. Anyway I don’t really want to change. But I would still like to reach a larger audience.

I think, to do that, I have to sell you on the earnestness. It’s a lot to ask for, this earnest appreciation, I can see that now. The art and the storytelling have to be high quality enough to warrant it. I don’t know if I can pull that off. I do know I can’t pull off cool, so I guess I don’t have much choice.

Righteousness, continued

10 03 2011

A couple posts ago I mentioned my latest over-generalizing theory: the amount of trust you should place in someone is inversely proportional to that person’s amount of self-righteousness. Allow me to elaborate.

The place where righteousness is really bugging me is on TV. Not just among Fox News’ rabid talking heads, who you should most definitely not trust, but also in the dramas. Specifically, the CSI shows. The CSI cops are smugly, gleefully self-righteous whenever they nail a suspect. Even when they confront someone they have no real evidence on, they make all sorts of snarky allusions to that person’s guilt. This is not how we want cops to act. We are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country. But even aside from legal considerations, that’s counterproductive behavior.

It’s part of a larger pattern in TV and movies. How many times have you seen one character verbally lay into another? We love to see the guilty get righteously told off. (The courtroom drama is often a vehicle for just this cathartic interaction.) But how does that work out in real life? Poorly. If you verbally lay into someone, they do not get all cowed and learn the error of their ways. They get defensive. They most likely dig in their heels and become more committed than ever to the errors you are trying to correct. Yet we are shown over and over again the model of a righteous dressing-down breaking through an evil-doer’s illusions. We can’t help but buy into it after awhile. Not so much in daily life; it’s not easy to declare war on someone face to face. But how much of our foreign policy is based on the idea that there are bad people out there who need to be shown what’s what? And how is that working out for us, muscling into foreign lands and laying down the law? Poorly.

Self-righteousness makes two assumptions: that the self is right, and the other is wrong. We like these assumptions. They are comfortable. They feel empowering. We like them so much, we are liable to ignore reality in order to believe them. That’s why extreme self-righteousness is a good indicator of self-deception.

I’m guilty of it too. I’ve spewed my share of vitriol (see paragraph 2) and I will continue to do so. It makes me really mad what some people in power are doing to this and other countries. One day, maybe I’ll be enlightened enough to discuss such things without flying into a rage. Until then, use your own judgment on how much to trust me.


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