Stuff I Believe

2 01 2017

Right after the election I read a blog post (now lost to the mists of the internet, my apologies to everyone) about how to prepare to live under a fascist regime. The author, who had spent time in fascist nations, suggested writing down what you believe in. Because fascism works by causing you to question and then forget your own humanity.

I don’t necessarily think we are about to find ourselves under a fascist regime, but the possibility is far stronger than it should be. And we are living in the golden age of disinformation, gaslighting, and doublespeak. So here is what I believe in, or at least a first step in identifying and laying it out.

I believe that our greatest strength as human beings comes from protecting and nurturing those who are most vulnerable.

I believe that hate binds people together as surely as love. When you hate someone, you attach yourself to that person. When you hurt someone, you create a burden that you carry afterwards. Different people are more or less aware of these truths, but they are true for everyone.*

I believe there is a bright line between right and wrong, but it’s different in every situation. There are no absolute guiding principles; yet if we have the strength to be honest with ourselves, we can always tell what’s right.

I believe we are all in this together. I am very upset about this election, I totally disagree with supporting Trump, and I plan to resist everything he represents. But we in this country still have to live with each other. And I believe Trump supporters and Trump opponents are all decent humans who fundamentally want the same things.** In a larger sense, the same goes for the rest of the world.

*Except for those with certain mental illnesses, i.e. sociopaths.

**Those who support Trump out of overt bigotry…to be honest I still think they are decent, under a mountain of psychological damage. But also honestly I have no patience and no tolerance for their shit.



Daredevil Season Two

29 03 2016

All the buzz right now is about Batman vs Superman, which I have not seen and don’t plan to see. Being familiar with Zach Snyder, the critiques don’t surprise me at all. They say the story doesn’t make sense, the characterizations are all wrong, the palette is muddy and dull, and the whole enterprise is buckling under the weight of moral profundity, even though it’s not profound, or moral really, or interesting at all. This is superheroes for grown-ups done all wrong.

No one is talking much about season two of Daredevil on Netflix. Everything wrong with BvS is right in Daredevil. Sean Collins is recapping the episodes and is a far better writer than me, so I refer you to him for the details.

Unfortunately, superheroes for grown-ups done right is making me question all my life choices as a fan of the genre, probably more than seeing it done wrong ever could.

It’s hard to remain a fan of someone who routinely beats information out of people. The esteemed Mr. Collins sees the show as grappling with Daredevil’s questionable morals, and I don’t disagree, but by the end of season two the show seems to have thrown up its hands. It makes me think that the only way to tell a philosophically consistent super hero story is to make it completely self contained and finite, á la Watchmen. Daredevil does so well with the real-world implications of powered vigilantism, the philosophical flaws of the setup become unavoidable.

Nobody wants me to drag politics into this, I’m sure. But in the current climate of terror attacks, mass shootings, and candidate Drumpf legitimizing bigotry, bullying, and worse, I can’t watch a show and ignore the implications regarding violence and the use of power.

Maybe DD season two is setting us up for a more thorough wrestling match of morals. There is certainly a lot more to come, with Luke Cage in the works, and Iron Fist, and the inevitable massive crossover event. I will watch all of that stuff. I hope I can watch and enjoy with my whole brain.

Time To Earn That Privilege

11 12 2015

(for my fellow white straight dudes)

5 months ago I started a post along these lines: it’s not enough for us straight white dudes to avoid giving offense. Bigotry is real. “Not all men” might be true, but “Some men” is also true and they are a real problem for people less privileged than us. “All lives matter” might be true, but it’s an offensive petulant whine coming from a white dude. Non-white, non-male, non-straight, less-able people struggle every day in ways we cannot appreciate. So we need to do more than not offend. We have a duty to recognize our privilege and become ambassadors for equality. This can be pursued in small, simple actions, such as noticing your attitude at a four-way stop or entering a public building. Because I noticed, to my unpleasant surprise, than in such situations I often felt entitled to go first. Not out of any sense of biological superiority– most of the time I can’t even see who’s driving the other cars– but just due to the habit of getting my way. It’s less pronounced, but the same impulse that leads to things like manspreading. So now I hold the door for someone else whenever I get the chance, regardless of who they are, as a way to break the habit and embody common courtesy.

That was five months ago. Since then the chaos erupting everywhere hit home on several fronts. The tension between police and African Americans keeps boiling over. A close friend lost someone when an aggressive driver plowed into a crowd. If he’d had a gun instead of a car it would have been tallied with the increasingly commonplace mass shootings. White supremacists in Minneapolis fired into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, in no small part because a major presidential candidate is giving space and permission to violent bigots. It’s been terrifying. My little draft about resisting white privilege suddenly seemed pathetically naive.

Then there was this incident of Deepinder Mayell being intimidated by a white dude at a Vikings game. Here’s the takeaway: “But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn’t know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded. It was the type of silence that emboldens a man to play inquisitor. I thought about our national climate, in which some presidential candidates spew demagoguery and lies while others play politics and offer soft rebukes. It is the same species of silence that emboldened white supremacists to shoot five unarmed protesters recently in Minneapolis.”

Five or six years ago, I was on a bus in Portland, sitting near the front. The driver stopped the bus to aggressively yell at a young woman who he felt was speaking Spanish on her phone so loudly that he couldn’t concentrate on driving. I was sitting right across from her. I should have spoken up. I could have politely told the driver that his attitude was uncalled for. Anything to let the driver and the woman both know that his belligerence was his alone, and that she was among friends. But I didn’t do anything. Eventually people toward the back of the bus did speak up and shut him down, but not me. I’m disgusted with myself over this memory. I hate sharing it, but I feel I have to if this post is going to be at all honest. I sat there, safe in the safest cocoon there is; straight white dudedom.

Despite the title of this post, the kind of privilege we white straight dudes enjoy can never be earned. But still. We are the ones who don’t have to fear being arrested, beaten or killed for the slightest provocation. We are not the ones dismissed as hysterical when we say there’s a problem. We are not the ones receiving violent accusations of being terrorists (or terrorist refugees, as if that made any sense). We are in the position of power. We have the least at risk when we stand up to the bigoted ass-clowns. If we don’t stand up to them, we might as well join them, because our silence props them up and threatens everyone else.

Bigotry is out in the open again. We have to fight it. And holding a damn door open is not going to cut it.

Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.

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 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