Peanut butter manifesto

The coffee shop I frequent was out of peanut butter cookies today, again.  This may seem a minor issue to you, but there’s a backstory.

When I was very young, I put my trust in all the usual stalwarts of society – the used car salesman, the insurance company, the heroin pusher, even (against all my instincts) the priest – only to see my hopes crushed one by one, until all that remained was a bitter shell of a man.  I became a cynic, and believed that not only was everyone just out for personal gain, and to hell with everyone else, but they actively sought and enjoyed the experience of disappointing others.  Worse, I thought they had tumbled to my instability, and banded together to make my personal life miserable.  I would hear of a terrific sale, only to find that the price had doubled once I made an irrevocable order.  Or I would attend a formal affair, and find that, not only was my fly open, but the zipper was irreparably broken (I still don’t know how they did that).  Worst of all, whenever I would start buying something regularly, it would disappear from the shelves.

I know what you’re thinking.  That’s just crazy paranoia, and I should get over it, trust the used car salesmen again, get on with life.

Well, that’s exactly what I did. It was a tough, grueling road, fraught with traps and pitfalls, but with perseverance and, yes, positive thinking, I began to see these coincidences for what they were.

Then I started going to a small local coffee shop, just a hole in the wall, really, but with a friendly, quirky vibe.  They had a display case with a variety of munchies, including which were, regularly, peanut butter cookies.

Now, a peanut butter cookie is the perfect snack.  Fist of all is the delicious flavor, along with that unique and inexpressible texture, which together make for un unsurpassed snacking experience.  As if that weren’t enough, the thing is made of peanuts, a small amount of sugar, and eggs.  Nutritionally speaking, you couldn’t find a combination that could provide a better fuel for a human.  So I started buying one regularly with my breve.

It started slowly.  I would go in one day, and they would be out of peanut butter cookies.  No big deal; it happens, and the next day all would be well.  But it started happening once a week, then twice a week, until, now, I rarely find the cookies available, ever.  When I ask, I’m told the last one was sold just moments ago; once recently, they even went to the lengths of pretending their oven was broken, and they sold only funky looking things that looked like gravel encased in polyurethane.

Yeah, right.  If the oven was broken, how did they make the gravel cakes, hmm?

But this time, I’m not giving in.  I’ll never go back to the life of paranoia that I so narrowly escaped.  I know exactly what to do.

As God is my witness, I will never eat another peanut butter cookie as long as I live.!

That should get them back on the shelves in no time.

Saints preserve us!

Pope Francis has put two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, on the fast track to sainthood.  Well, alright, for all I know, they were fine people, and maybe deserve some recognition.  Setting aside for the moment the question of all the millions of other fine people who were their contemporaries, but not popes or even Catholics, I have a major quibble with the reasoning here.

According to the ancient rules of such things, to even get this far (beatitude) there has to have been an attested miracle.  This can vary widely, from healing the sick to simply not rotting in the casket.  In the case of John Paul II, there have been two alleged miracles, both involving inexplicable cures from incurable medical conditions after praying to him (while dead, of course) to intercede with God on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Here’s what’s weird.  Presumably, had JP II not been in heaven, all those pleas for intercession would have been for nothing, and the women involved would still be sick today, if they hadn’t died first.  But according to the Church, God is perfectly just.  The whole thing seems to resemble a lottery, in which your health depends not on medicine, or even on your personal faith or the extent of your prayers, but on whether you guessed right as to the eternal disposition of some dead person.

Of course, this is just a minor quibble, in the face of the idea that God, presumably the creator of the universe and hence all of the laws of physics, will suspend those laws on the request of someone from earth.  And not do it for anyone who doesn’t ask nicely, or even for the vast, vast majority of those who do.

Mysterious ways, indeed.

Into the wild

IMG_1011

Today, while wandering through the beautiful campus of Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, I had the rare privilege of stumbling upon a herd of bicycle, gamboling on a hillside.  I quickly snapped a photo; I apologize for the focus, they were gone in a flash.  Still, I was able to notice a few thing that might be of interest.

As you can see, unlike their domesticated cousins, wild bicycles all have the same distinctive markings; I didn’t see any exceptions.  In addition, there was no size differentiation, such as we are used to seeing.  This is not really surprising; compare dogs and wolves, for example.

But the most notable thing was their joyful abandon, capering through the campus.  I wish we could re-instill that feeling in the domestic bicycles we all love!

Writers, unblock!

The good news is, I’ve figured out writer’s block.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look a blank page in the eye.  Worse, not even the frequent notes to myself, made in feverish wakeful nights, have elicited more than a yawn.  Lost sleep for nothing, dear friends.

In the morning, I read my scrawls, trying vainly to recall what “Res. wh. whump!” could possibly mean.  Or why the revelation that people have two of everything but probisci might be of interest to the bloggerati.  Having failed, I hereby donate both ideas to the writing public; I would love to read something they inspired.

I tried all the usual antidotes, including the oft-prescribed stream of consciousness ramblings.  Sure enough, they proved to be ramblings.  Consciousness, I’m not so sure.  My streams seemed clogged; too often for comfort, in a terrifyingly relentless dwindle, I found myself repeating one or two words over and over.  Drowning in a sea of – well, not even drowning, not even that, which would at least have been tragic.

One wearisome evening, I gave up early and shut my computer down.

“Installing important updates,” it said, “Please do not log off or power down your computer.”

Brilliant, I thought, can’t even give up properly.  Then it hit me.

My brain had been sluggish lately, reluctant to follow my commands.  Just like my computer.  I needed to install important updates.

Forget writing, forget blockage.  Start the shut-down process.  But how to download the necessary updates?

Jump in the car, take a drive.  Read billboards.  Stop for coffee.  Buy some paint at Lowe’s.  Or just look at paint, and decide not to.  Talk to a human, any human, preferably one you wouldn’t normally find interesting.  Go to a public park.  Go to a museum and look at art.  Get out among people, the more, the better.

Do this for a while; it can take days to download these updates.  Just don’t think about writing.  Eventually, just as you’re heading out the door to go grocery shopping, you’ll realize you need to write something down first.  It will end up taking much longer than you thought, and you’ll have to eat out, since you will have forgotten all about the groceries.

Update successfully installed.

The bad news, of course, is that none of this is any different from what you’ve been doing all along.

"Ainava," Konrads Ubans

“Ainava,” Konrads Ubans

Ringo, God, and art

Ringo Starr, it seems, got up in the middle of the night to feverishly write down the lyrics to “Back Off Boogaloo.”  He even attributed the inspiration to God.  It just goes to show you the bankruptcy of the whole idea of the artist interview.  It’s like interviewing an athlete following the big game.

“Tell us about that homer, Biff.”

“Well, you know, it was a hanging curve ball, and I saw it real good, and just took it the other way.”

Thanks, Biff.  That cleared up a lot of questions about baseball, and life itself.

It’s easy enough to understand that athletes might not be able to articulate exactly what was involved in a spectacular performance; they may not be aware of it themselves.  They might think it had to do with wearing their hats backwards, or eating only broccoli the night before.  It’s the classic distinction between knowing how and knowing what.  But you’d think it would be different with artists.  You’d think artists would start out with something specific in mind, make decisions about how best to convey whatever it was to their audience, and proceed according to some rational plan.  And they do.  Sort of.

“Tell us about that painting, Jackson.”

“Well, you know, the paint was real wet, and I saw the fan, and just spilled it over the canvas.”

That may be what we want to hear from Biff, but it won’t do from Jackson.  Why?

Because we think Jackson Pollock’s painting has some meaning, some value, beyond its physical self, even beyond its immediate context the way the homer does in the baseball game, even if that meaning is just a deeper realization that there is no deeper meaning (Oh, yeah, admit it, we do think like that).  Or at least we hope it has.  And so does the artist, and that’s the problem.  Because everybody’s invested in this idea that something not superficially apparent is going on with the painting/poem/song, we feel it needs explaining, in case some of us may have missed something, and who better than the person who created it.

Except the person who created it is not necessarily the best source.  The main reason for this is that great Freudian frontier, the subconscious mind.  Because of the way our silly brains work, what we’re trying to say is often not exactly what we think we’re trying to say; it could even be the polar opposite.  It’s the infamous Freudian slip, and art is its Baby Huey, the great bouncing 200 pound infant crashing through all the fine china we’ve so carefully laid out for the guests.  Ringo’s God turns out to be his own damn self after all, but not the self he’s used to playing with in public.

Unfortunately, it’s not much help when the artist being interviewed is a bit more self-aware.  Robbie Robertson , referring to writing The Weight, gives an excellent description of the subconscious process:

“I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there.”

But what did the song actually mean?  Well, ahem, symbolic… blahh… Buñuel… surrealism.. that is, ahem..  Not sure, exactly.  It does mean something, but asking the artist isn’t much help, and in this case, at least, he’s up front about it.  At least he doesn’t insist it’s about a bender in Buzzard’s Butt, Arkansas, when everyone else is insisting it’s about the ultimate futility of human existence or something, or vice versa.  Not that it might not be both of those things, denials, affirmations, and ambiguities notwithstanding.  It’s all complicated, you see, by the fact that, once a work of art is released into the wild, it means anything anyone wants it to mean.  Ultimately, art is feral by nature, and there’s no getting around that.  Ask Frank Stella about St. Louis, Mo, and the Grand Pissoir.

Of course, there could very well be a real meaning, in the sense of something that motivated the work, whether that something was understood by the artist or not.  My own poetry is sometimes explained to me in ways I never imagined while making it, but which are entirely plausible to me on reflection.  It’s this ambiguity which is at the same time so enticing and so frustrating.  It’s not that there’s not a real meaning, it’s that there can be several real meanings, even contradictory ones.

If art were unambiguous, who would need it?  We already have sport.  Biff is never going to insist, “Homer?  That was a sac fly!  I hit the damn thing, and I don’t care how many idiots think it’s a homer!”

How to write a poem

Sit down.  Write the whole damn thing.  Look at it.  Sit back in your chair and read it from there.  Get up and pace.  Sit down and read it again.  Think: Shit, this is brilliant!  Print it up.  Go get some coffee/beer/wine.  Tell everybody you’ve written your best poem yet.  Go get it from your desk and read it.  Realize it’s actually the most god-awful pretentious crap ever committed to paper.  Crumple it up and throw it away.  Erase the file.  Sit and feel humiliated and stupid.  Decide that no one has ever written a really good poem about feeling humiliated and stupid.  Write a stupid couplet about what a schlumph you are.  Realize nothing rhymes with schlumph.  Go get some more coffee/beer/wine.  Get mad at your stupid self for being such a sissy.  Start another poem.  Have absolutely no inspiration whatsoever.  Decide, what the hell, Hemingway couldn’t write worth a damn, and look how far he got.  Start writing one-syllable words.  Remember a couple of lines from that sorry excuse of an ink-waster that you wrote earlier that actually weren’t so bad and look for the file.  Remember you erased it.  Curse loudly, alarming your spouse and spilling the dregs of your coffee/beer/wine.  Go reassure your spouse by lying that you had just stubbed your toe.  Go back and clean up the mess, discovering the crumpled paper with the poem containing the not-so-bad couple of lines.  Start reading it and realize that, actually, with a little work, it could be a pretty good poem after all.  Go to bed about midnight, feeling tired but great.