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Into the Night

We have barred the night from our city. Even when the sun sets and the moon gambols between the buildings, we bring the daylight closer to us. We wrap ourselves in it, children in a radiant safety blanket. It shines forth from every corner now, from street-level street lamps, SUV headlamps, and the ambient glow of business towers. It is a night-light of cosmic proportions, which even astronauts can glimpse from the heavens. They cannot, however, hear the noise. The jackhammers, the bulldozers backing up. The sirens wailing, peppered by motorcycles' angry revs. And accompanying it all, we congregate, filling the air with the roar of human chatter. It is a commotion that soothes us. Like a child held to its mother's chest, we hear the pounding of a collective heartbeat. And in this way, we know we are alive and our city is thriving.

I'm waiting at 5th and Colorado, just three blocks from Austin’s notoriously debaucherous 6th St. Periodically I reach over my bike and ring its bell, shouting to the passersby, “Pedicab!” But nobody approaches me, and I sit back in my cab and watch them cross the street. They’re an attractive crowd. Anywhere else it would seem remarkable to have so many beautiful people crammed into one intersection. But on the weekends, it’s like this everywhere downtown. When the crosswalk beeps again, my eyes casually delight in their faces, their legs. It’s only 10:30 and already the streets are thronging with them. I’m reminded of my grandfather’s Alaska and how the streams up there would choke with salmon every spring. They were migrating to their breeding grounds, he told us, thousands upon thousands of them leaping over each other to get there first.



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In college, I was taught to dismiss Freud and his philosophies.  They were powerful for their time, sparking international interest in a subject that had yet to coalesce into something recognizably "scientific."  Yet since that time, Science has found his theories on human sexuality and development to be lacking--and, in many cases, entirely misdirected.  Sitting in lecture halls with a hundred other Freshmen and Sophomores, I heard again and again how the Oedipus Complex was simply a fantasy of Freud's.  His stages of psychosexual development were likewise unfounded and in many cases based on theories he never bothered to observe in actual children.  Since that time, I have routinely dismissed any statement associated with his name, be it about the subconscious or the power of dreams.  Only recently has this attitude come into question, as philosophers and society figures still refer to him with great respect.  I decided to read his Civilization and its Discontents to find for myself if there is truth in his theories.

There is no doubt that Freud wields a true literary charisma.  Even a hundred years after writing his works, his voice remains as strong and relevant as anything written with a modern tone.  He is precise and seemingly logical in his arguments, and he doesn't distract or annoy the reader with needless fluff.  That being said, his words are still infused with a subtle warmth that I found immediately endearing.  He makes repeated reference to "my friends," giving those close to him due credit in the formation of his philosophies.  The fondness with which he describes these people is immediately evident, and it leaves me with a great deal of respect for him as a writer and a person.  His writing also lacks the haughty quality often found in the theories of famous people, and for his humility, that respect is doubled.  Ultimately, I find Society and its Discontents an enjoyable read.  Even though I have come to take issue with many of his claims, I still hold him in the highest esteem--especially as he was a pioneer in the field and the trails he marked were through unexplored territory.  Even he didn't find the safest or the fastest route, he shouldn't be held in too much disdain for it.

As a true mark of quality, reading over a single paragraph can often lead to cascading thoughts, which is another quality I admire in a writer.  The latest instance came from this:


We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives.  What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it?  The answer to this can hardly be in doubt.  They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.  This endeavour has two sides, a positive and a negative aim.  It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.  In its narrower sense the word 'happiness' only relates to the last.  In conformity with this dichotomy in his aims, man's activity develops in two directions, according as it seeks to realize--in the main, or even exclusively--the one or the other of these aims.


I have heard this claim a number of times, often without any mention of Freud.  I'm not even sure if Freud is the originator of this thought--though, truly, the roots of thoughts are so deeply planted in conversation with ones peers (and consumption of media) that nobody can claim complete ownership of one.  I am less interested in where the thought came from, then how the wording of it is inclined to misdirect the human imagination.  When somebody says that man's sole goal is to strive for pleasure, it summons images that are not in sync with my own experience of motivation.  Although 'pleasure' is a multifaceted word, the first thing it brings to mind is a man lying on a velvet lounge, eating grapes and surrounded by beautiful women.  In essence, sensual pleasure.  After that, I may think of other forms of pleasure, such as the pleasure of doing quality work or the pleasure of a good conversation.  But these images are entirely secondary, little more than the shadow cast by pleasure's first connotation.  This leads to a vision of man that is far too inclined towards vice, heroin still dripping from the needle.  Those of us who lack the means to truly gratify our bodies must find pleasure in other activities, and these are as varied and shadowy as our imagination itself.

I am reminded of Joseph Campbell and his claim that human nature is filled with instinctual artifacts.  He tells us of how baby chickens will flee in terror if the shadow of a hawk passes over them.  So ingrained in their nature is the fear of birds of prey that they will flee from shadows without truly knowing what they are.  This is not the product of experience, but of instinct.  A newly hatched chick will flee from the shadow as surely as one that has actually seen a hawk.  Interestingly, they will also flee from the cardboard cut-out of a hawk, as long as its shadow soars over their head.  This leads one to wonder, what if thousands of years from now hawks were to go extinct.  Would the deeply embedded fear of their shadow linger?  If a farmer fortuitously waved a hawk-shaped tool in the sky, would they still flee in terror?  How bizarre their behavior would seem to him!

Within the human unconscious, there are undoubtedly deeply buried impulses of a similar nature.  Our fear of monsters in the closet could concevably be based on real world terrors that would ambush a sleeping human in the jungle, especially if he were alone--as many people sleep today.  Likewise, our compulsion to create orderly lawns harks back to our ancestral homeland in the Savannah.  These vestigial drives are subtle and pervasive, and one can easily overlook them and the effect they've had on modern society.  This leads me to wonder, how would I behave if I followed these impulses completely?  Many of them seem so deeply buried beneath cultural indoctrination that I doubt I will ever find them.  But still, what are the core human drives?  What are they trying to shape us into?

Emu

 I must have been volunteering at Treasure City just a moment ago, because Cory and I have decided to take a break together and now we're walking down the road.  It's a warm day.  Hot enough to make everything fluid and lethargic, like melting butter I guess--but not so hot that we're miserable.  Nearby, some emu are running alongside a barbed wire fence.  The males remind me of peacocks this season, with colorful tufts emerging from their tails.  It's almost like something I'd see in a Dr. Sues book.

Turns out that Cory knows the woman who manages that property, and in a moment, she's joined us.  I didn't catch her name, but I immediately like her.  She's long and lanky, wearing jeans and a button up work shirt.  Reminds me of a farmer I know.

We cross a bridge, and as I come down the other end I start running.  After gaining some momentum, I leap and start traveling through the air.  After I've gone an incredable distance, Cory shouts that I should be careful, and suddenly I realize that I could get seriously injured if I don't break my fall somehow.  I grab at the branches of a nearby tree, but they're bald and rotten--and each one snaps as I tug on it.  Fortunately, though, I'm not really hurt when I hit the ground.  I look around, and not far from here is a mall.  It's sitting on the horizon, imposing in its square shape.  Immediately around us, though, is a creek and lots of trees.  The emu have joined us over here, too, and I watch them running through the water.  It's really delightful, and I chase after them, splashing and yelling.

Cory and her friend are talking about the emu, too.  Apparently the guy who owns the farm is a real jerk, not unlike the landlord at Treasure City.  I go sit on the bank by them, feeling awkward and a lot younger--but somehow that's not too important.  It's like being in the company of my older sisters.  I don't entirely understand or even care about what they're saying, but their presence is enjoyable.  Comfortable.  Undemanding.

Nahla

The first time she saw a man, Nahla still lived in the desert of her birth. It was a place of endless sand dunes, where the sun made the horizon shimmer and dance like steam off the tip of a candle. No trees or flowers grew there, and only the hardiest creatures survived the long, hot days. Even a djinn like Nahla struggled, and to protect herself from the deadly heat, she remained always within her tiny oasis. Barely larger than a thimble, it was just the slightest puddle of water, but to Nahla, it was home. And whenever a stray grain of sand tumbled in, she dutifully dove to the bottom of her pool and rolled it back out. For a creature of her size, this was tiring work, but once she was done, she could float atop her waters or sink to the bottom where she was as comfortable as a salmon in the arctic.





In Search of a Fairytale

I did not idolize my parents. I did not want to be them, to wield their power, to wear their masks or to tell their stories. I followed my older sisters, instead. Because I had seen a wondrous world in the dim flickering light of the movie theater, and they seemed to know its secret. They seemed to know the path there. So I followed them. I followed them, and that choice has lead me deep into the woods. And I may never find my way out.

Each of my sisters has become lost herself, and she settles now on toadstools and stones. This is not the kingdom of the flickering light, though, and so I keep wandering. I wander past waterfalls, past groves of ancient elm, past deer, past wolves. And eventually I find myself in the darkest neck. The shadows hide most things here, and the life is starved and twisted. Yet I do not fear their desperation. My greatest fear is that I will join them, that my hair will grow thick and matted and my teeth become like fangs and my back contort until it can no longer hold me upright. My only hope is the kingdom, and I have never lost sight of it. Even here I can sense it over the horizon. So I walk on.

I have found footsteps in the mud. There are places where the leaves are parted, and I suspect others have tread here. These forerunners, these trailblazers. Yes, I have come to know their mark. I see their words and their actions scrawled across the tree trunks and embedded in the rocks. These are my new older brothers and my new older sisters. I follow them carefully and wholeheartedly. I recite the words of their poetry in the dark. And I am learning to scratch the wood with my fingers, and now I leave their mark.
Last Friday--just before midnight--two friends and I went to The State School in East Austin (just east of 183 on MLK).  It's long abandoned, but while it was functioning, it served cognitively impaired elementary and junior high kids as a hospital and boarding house.  Stories of kids being left in their own feces, others being stripped and hosed for their daily "baths" broke into the press a couple decades back and the building was shut down.  At least, that's the story I heard.

We went there expecting a creepy experience.  Not ghost creepy, none of us believed in ghosts really--but creepy because this is where thousands of mentally handicapped kids lived and suffered.  When we arrived, we discovered it wasn't a single "hospital" at all, but row after row of featureless brown-brick dormitories.  There were probably over 15 buildings in total, and acres of lawn.

They were all in disrepair, and when we pulled over, we saw that the grass grew waist-high.  My friend got out of the passenger seat and started to scan the scene, and I did the same.  I was the only one with a flashlight, though we scarcely needed it.  The moon was full just two nights earlier and still cast a lot of light.

I noticed that my friend was pointed at something in the grass.  "What's that?"  I turned my flashlight to get a better look, and just above the waist-high grass was a small black lump, no larger than a bowling ball.  I had noticed it earlier, but didn't bother to focus on it.  With the flashlight on it, though, something seemed wrong.  It was too dark still.  Darker than anything outside the scope of the flashlight.

I took a step closer to try and figure out what it was.  In response it slid away, falling down the side of the grass.  I rushed closer, as did my friend, and we saw it moving across a barren spot of land toward the boarded-up door of one of the dorms.

It moved oddly, though, and my friend started shouting things out.  "Oh my God!  I can't believe this!  What is that!"  It looks like an octopus, probably about a foot long, with a bulbous head and flailing legs.  (It was hard to focus on its legs--if that's even the right word to use--and I still struggle to figure out exactly what that part of its body was doing.)  The oddest thing about it, though, was that it didn't move with the land.  Most animals are affected by their terrain: they bob up and down a little as they step on high and low points.  But this just glided in a straight line.

When it got beneath the awning of front of the door, it stopped.  I was shining my flashlight all around at the point, making sure there wasn't anything behind us or to the side.  And when I turned back to look at the octopus, it twisted its body and raised up.  It seemed to be about as high as my thigh, and although I didn't see any eyes, I got the distinct impression that it was looking at me.

At that point, I ran back to the car.  (Our driver was still there.)  My other friend shouted for me to return.  He wanted to know what this was and he couldn't see clearly enough without the flashlight.  But when I got back, we only glimpsed it retreating behind some pillars.  And we never saw it again after that.  (We looked for two hours.)  Still, for the rest of the night, he insisted that he saw it walking--for that final stretch--on two legs.

Have you ever seen anything like this before?

Aug. 21st, 2007

You will regret your choice.

You will look back on today and you will wonder why you quit.  You will reprimand yourself, think that you caved into a fleeting unhappiness, tell yourself that everything would be better if you had just stayed on the path.  You will blame your unhappiness on this choice.

When that day comes, and you know it will, return here and read this.  Remember your computer and how you stared at it for eight hours on end.  Remember how numbed you felt by the end of the day, and how the weekends could restore you.  Remember the obligation to appear at the office every day, even when there was nothing left to do.  Remember how frustrated that made you, especially when there was so much to accomplish outside of those walls.  Remember how every line of your proposal was be revised.

You had reasons to leave.  Many of them.

There's a lot you will miss, true:  your coworkers, who were as lost as you -- who you loved because of the hours and months you spent together and the meaninglessness you confronted as one.  The back patio, which offered daily respite from the air-conditioned office, with its constant computer hum and music you had no control over.  Mostly, though, you'll miss the opportunity.  You'll miss the dream that you once fostered of an easy life, of being a grant writer and surviving without effort.

But every day you spent there was a joke, a nasty joke directed at the very value of your time.  When you appeared at that desk and squandered eight hours every day, you allowed your obligations to laugh at you, to tell you that life really is cheap enough to waste.

Quitting this job is a statement, a very simple one:  Your time is worth something, and you value this opportunity to live.
Broken glasses
And trees painted by the hand
Of Monet
Young queen
You still wear your wings
Like a wedding dress
Without a home
You fly away with every breeze
Autumn leaf