Archive for November, 2008

Love That Robot

November 25, 2008

Ten years ago, I was deep into a study of consciousness in animals. (To see my conclusions, read the chapter called “Consciousness Explained” in my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.) I was especially curious to know what scientists thought. One thing I found was a near constant frustration with what they saw as “anthropomorphism” in lay people.

One day, during my period of greatest preoccupation with the issue, I was listening to the radio and heard a scientist announce the “death” of the two Mars probes Pathfinder and Sojourner. I think it was someone from JPL. It had been a highly successful mission, and the scientist ended the announcement by saying in a voice that was drenched with exaggerated solemnity, “So, from all of us here at NASA to Pathfinder and Sojourner: Thank you…”

Progress Report #2

November 23, 2008

I’ve finished the second draft of Chapter Four—working title, “The Far Side of the Ocean”—of my new book Street Song. I’m working on Chapter Five now. Working title: “Marmalade Skies.”

Complaint Department

November 19, 2008

Now that I have a blog, I have to think of things to write about. That’s not difficult. I have plenty of opinions. But I’ve been having a problem in that nearly everything I’ve been wanting to say is in the nature of a complaint, which is tiresome. They’re not complaints about my personal circumstances, which are fine, but about this country. I’ve been constantly appalled by conditions in America ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, when right-wing ideology began its relentless drive toward the dead-end we find ourselves in today. I have some hope that change might be possible now. It’s not that I think Obama is the messiah or anything, but with the forced retirement of the right wingers, if we’re lucky, we’ll see an ebbing of the ruthless materialism of the last 28 years. That’s an absolute necessity if we’re ever to find a sane approach to life.

The Vow of the Boddhisattva

November 11, 2008

For several weeks I’ve had some half-remembered commentary by Stephen Gaskin on the Vow of the Boddhisattva running around in my head. I finally looked it up.

The deluding passions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them all. The way of the Buddha is unattainable, I vow to attain it. Sentient beings are innumberable, I vow to save them all. The truth is impossible to expound, I vow to expound it. By the time I get this far, I generally lump them together as, “I vow to shovel shit against the tide forever.”


Progress Report #1

November 10, 2008

I’m working on a book, and I aim to make occasional progress reports on it in this blog. Its working title is Street Song. I started writing it a little over two years ago, and I think I have at least another three to go. (Someone asked me why it’s going to take so long. My spontaneous reply was, “Because it has a lot of layers, and I want it to be good.”) It’s difficult to say what this book is about—although I know very well what it’s about. It’s just difficult to say it. I usually tell people that it’s about the years that I spent living on the streets in North Beach, which is a neighborhood here in San Francisco. But that’s only one part of it. If I had to sum up the book in just a few phrases I would say,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

There are two works by other writers that serve as inspiration for this book. One is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and the other is the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. At the front of Tropic of Cancer, Miller quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. 

That passage fascinated me. I was twenty years old and a big reader who at one time read nothing but novels. I’d wanted to be a novelist, but had become dissatisfied with the form. I didn’t think novels were true enough. Emerson made me wonder why anybody should write fiction when you could write creatively about real life. If only you had the courage—and a real life…I liked Miller’s attempt at putting Emerson’s idea into practice. I was especially impressed by his decision to abandon everything and descend penniless to the street, making his way solely by his wits. It seemed a courageous thing to do. Today, I find Tropic of Cancer difficult to read. I don’t like his contempt for other people, nor the crudeness of his lust—both of which I think were exaggerated. But I still find his vision for the book strong.

I discovered Astral Weeks around the same time as Tropic of Cancer. For a long time, it was my very favorite work of art. (I prefer Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems now.) I loved the vividness of the world Morrison created. It was both real and poetic in a way that made me think he had actually seen beneath the surface of reality. I loved the story: the movement of a boy out onto the streets and his maturation. And I loved the theme of romantic love taken to the level of mysticism.

Street Song will be nothing like Tropic of Cancer or Astral Weeks. Back In the days that I lived for art’s sake, the two works pushed me in a certain direction. From there I took off on my own. I expect to do three drafts. I’m currently on the second draft, chapter four, which is about a solo trip I took to Europe when I was seventeen.

More some other time.

A-Bloggin’ and A-Rantin’

November 8, 2008

I’ve been somewhat hostile toward blogs and blogging. It has seemed faddish to me, I guess. I tend not to like made-up words, like blog and vegan. I’m doing this for a bunch of reasons. One of them is that I don’t hear many people saying what I want to hear said. So I have to say it myself. As I begin this, I don’t feel that I’ve found the right voice. I feel stiff. Although I’ve never been enthusiastic about the Internet, due to my work as a writer, I use it every day. I’m currently learning HTML and CSS, and I use Photoshop and Word. But I tend to believe that, overall, the Internet and computers have done more harm than good. More and more people are abandoning the real world and real community for a vicarious life of sitting in front of a monitor. How can that be good? I can’t imagine anyone writing poetry on a computer. One of my goals for the future is to be in a position where I have no computer and no telephone—just a regular old mailbox. I read an article in the New York Times about a writer in Maine, Carolyn Chute, who lives at the end of an unpaved road with no phone, no fax, and no computer. I admire her. Technological development is not the purpose of life. I don’t have a cell phone, and I never will. I think they’re intrusive, and nobody has ever convinced me that they aren’t a danger to your health. I wish they would go away.

End of rant.

The Poverty of Our Language

November 8, 2008

One of the difficulties in trying to discuss anything in this country nowadays is that most of our words, especially those in political use, have lost their meaning. They’re all code and connotation. Like the words “liberal” and “conservative.” They’re not states of being; they are modes. There are times when one can be liberal and times when one must be conservative. But to say that one is “a liberal” or “a conservative” is wrong-headed. What do they mean? Stands that were considered moderate when I was growing up are now considered far left. During the election I often read about people who were “too conservative” to vote for a black man, as though racism were a conservative value. These days when people use the word conservative I think that what they really mean is “looking out for number one” and screwing anyone who gets in the way. During the Reagan era, conservatives often invoked “family values.” It sounded wholesome enough. But everybody I knew was extremely hostile to the term. I don’t think many of them stopped to ask why it angered them, but I think everybody knew—instinctively, at least—that what it really meant was “father knows best,” and simply because he was the father. That’s not a conservative value; it’s egotism. If there had been a real discussion of what family life was about, what it could be or should be, “family values” might have had some usefulness. But there was never any intention of that. Its sole purpose was its use as an emotional weapon in the so-called culture wars.

During the last twenty eight years, and during the last eight years especially, I’ve often felt that America is heading for some kind of civil war. No one can ever win such a war. It’ll only bust up the country for good. Americans need to have some real dialogue. But we’ll never even get a start on one until we stop abusing the language and start saying what we really mean.

The Election

November 6, 2008

I was especially interested in the outcome of three contests: President, my neighborhood representative to the city government, and California Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition. Most election years, I tend to bat around 1 for 3. This year I went 2 for 3. I was happy with Obama’s win, as well as that of David Chiu, the candidate for Supervisor here in San Francisco District 3. I was dismayed that Proposition 8 passed.

A lot of people are exulting over the end of the brutal eight-year-long reign of Cheney and Bush. I take a longer view. My hope is that it turns out to be the end of a 28-year period of darkness that began with Ronald Reagan. (More on that eventually.) My wife Judy and I don’t have a television, so we’ve heard Obama speak only a few times. Frankly, I hadn’t been all that impressed. But the speech he gave at Grant Park was remarkable. I thought he was much more truthful than politicians generally allow themselves to be. I have little doubt that I’ll experience disappointments with Obama. Once you’re in power, everything changes. But I anticipate that, on balance, he’ll be a decent president.