Emulating God On A Budget

Dave Winer says: “…all creative people must have some right to the work they create, or else, truly, the incentive to create will disappear. ”
Now, I have no dogs in the fight, as they say, when it comes to copyright and the creative commons and Lessigophilia and all that revenue-generating jazz. I have no creative works, despite decades of making things because it amused me, either of words or pixels or pencil and ink or the ongoing ballet of the moments of my life, that are making me any money at all. More’s the pity, I guess.
And I must admit that I have little but contempt for the law. I live the way I choose according to the dictates of my conscience, and where my choices conflict with the laws in a place I’m currently living, I make as an informed a decision as I am able as to whether conforming to the law in a given situation is something that it’s more sensible to do from a strictly utilitarian perspective. Jail sucks. I know. I’ve been there. Ironically, it wasn’t for breaking any laws, though.
For the most part, I am a law-abiding citizen, but not because I have any innate respect for the laws, or for those who made or enforce them. Where my choices do not conflict with the laws of the land, no worries. That’s the way things usually are, because many laws, if not most, are relatively sensible. I understand some may find this kind of stance offensive, or sophomoric. I am unconcerned, if respectful of their opinions.
I regularly break laws by downloading copyrighted material. I have my reasons.
My argument with the phrase I’ve quoted from Dave above, finally, the one that a fortuitous combination of a good sleep and strong coffee has roused me from my customary lethargy to make, is this: I believe what he said is only correct if we alter ‘the incentive to create will disappear’ to ‘the incentive to create things for money will disappear’. I risk going all broken-record, here, I know. But this fits mortise-and-tenon with some of the things I’ve been saying recently, about money, about monetization, and about what some (most?) have been doing in this textspace of ours.
At the risk of committing the unpardonable sin of accidental synecdoche, I think that the phenomenon of weblogging, and the ways in which it has changed in the past couple of years as The Stupid Money rushed in to coca-colonize the new frontier, gives us our perfect example. Of the hundreds of thousands — millions, if Technorati tells us the truth — of people who have jumped all over this, and who are using the tools to do any of the heartcasting human constellation of different activities that we’ve drawn together under the ‘weblogging’ umbrella, only very recently have more than a tiny handful of them done it for the bucks.
Some are retrofitting revenue streams, sure. That’s their prerogative, of course. Some people wear clothes with company logos plastered all over their chests, unironically, for free. They aren’t as stupid as they are greedy and clueless, in my humble, but that’s just me being a playa-hata, or whatever it is the kids are saying these days.
See, what I’m saying here is that most of these people had no ‘incentive to create’ other than the burning gods inside their foreheads, clawing to get out. Or merely the mundane urge to share photos of their cute kitties. Or their travel anecdotes. Or their code. Or their jokes or dreams or fantasies and half-baked ideas. Or links the neat websites they’ve found. They did it out of loneliness, or love of craft, or anger, or the carefully buried ludic urge we all share. Out of a desire to emulate their god. Because they wanted to.
I challenge you to think about the creative output of artists and artisans whose work has touched you. Think of your favorite books, your favorite paintings. That piece of handmade furniture or that gloriously handtooled little application. The music you listen to or the writers-on-the-web you read because they get into your heart and fill you with the ineffable, simple joy of being alive and having a mind. I wonder how many of them would have done their work whether or not they eventually got paid for it. My guess is ‘most’.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be paid. Hell, if I could get paid for making the things I make because there’s something inside me that impels me to do it, I’d be thrilled. It’d be a dream come true, by crikey. But I do it, regardless. And so do you, probably, if you’re reading this.
Money is a very useful thing, but then, so is defecation. Or, if you prefer ‘How anal sex got to be THE ticket to blogging fame and fortune I don’t fully understand…
Take away the money, and you will still have people who are driven to create. This is what it is to be human. And, I’d submit, we’d have a lot less soulless sticky media poop clogging our minds and our souls if all of the hacks out there who oxymoronically ennoble their paid efforts by calling them ‘creative product’ would just do something useful instead for those sweet dollars. This is why I am in love with the idea of the ‘mass amateurization of nearly everything‘, and it’s why I push back against those who are snapping like bloody-snouted hyenas at the weblogging carcass in their unseemly urge to Get Noticed and Go Pro.
If you make money by selling the things that you are compelled to create — writing or music or design or code or ceramic ashtrays or whatever it may be — then good on ya. I’m genuinely happy for you. But if you would stop merely because you couldn’t make a buck at it, well, tough shit. We don’t need you. This is probably an unpopular opinion. Ah well.
The incentive to create will never disappear. But I would hail the departure of a world in which the incentive to create (for some) is predicated solely on one’s ability to sell those creations, sure I would. When those who were left standing were there because they did it out of love, maybe they’d get a few more bones thrown their way.
And that’s all I have to say about that, for the moment.
[Update: OK, that’s not entirely all. This is interesting, and most definitely on-topic.]

Messin' With The Pod People

I’m sicker than a gut-shot monkey on the set of a Russ Meyer titty-spectacular, I’m boreder than a glory-hole sander at Bar Sinister in Amsterdam, I’m queasier than Buzz Aldrin chokin’ down the buzzcut nitrogen punishment in orbit.
Whatever. I’ve been infected by self-important look-at-me wanktards* spurting their goofy podcast jism all over the blogobucket, so I got hammered and recorded my last post for posterity.
*of which I am one, or else why would I do this?
Update: My old good friend the mighty Bearman

Barry - Paris sunrise - edit.jpg

has taken the audio and backed it with some of his superb piano playing. The web is so damn cool. Thanks, man!

Bird, Mountains

Here’s a story.
I’m smoking a cigarette, sweating, panting a bit, buzzed. I’m looking out to the north towards Horseshoe Bay, sorta leaning against my seat, straddling the bike, after climbing hard a-pedal most of the way up the hill from Spanish Banks to UBC.


Out on the edge of the cliff, at the end of a little trail half a dozen metres from the road, in the bushes, private-like. The same place I usually stop for a smoke after doing the Big Circle. I’m… what? 21? Strong, young, full of juice and big ideas. Spotty, callow and dancing perilously close to full-blown alcoholism, too, but the world is my oyster, by god. You can fuck right off. I love you.
I’m wearing my Walkman, of course, because that thing has changed my life. I’m listening to Elvis Costello’s King Of America, and he’s singing

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake

and it’s the album that I love, right now. Women.
The sky is smeared with grey goth-lipstick clouds, as usual, but the blue is showing through, and I feel magnificent, looking at the mountains and the wrinkly sea, smoking my Player’s Light. Fully oxygenated blood, full balls and, if not full volume, and least plans for full and frantic Friday night.
A raven — big, black, alive — lands with a thump and clink on my handlebars.
No shit. A fucking raven. It’s like a foot and a half high, and it’s right there, wabiggety baw!
I’m in that place, though. In that moment. I’m in the place that drugs only rarely managed to take me over the ensuing years, much as I tried.
So I calmly look the raven in the eye as it jinks around on the handlebars until it’s facing me. It looks me in the eye. No, it fucking does, I’m serious. Not straight on, but with its head tilted a bit to my right, so it can really lay the eye on me. I don’t know what to do, exactly, so I do nothing.
It checks me out, takes a minute or two, looks me up and down, jerkily, from crotch to crown, then flies off. I think to myself ‘well, that was pretty cool’, drop my earphones down around the back of my neck, pull out another cigarette, and think about the trickster god of the Kwakiutl and Haida and all the rest, their totem poles stolen and replanted just a few hundred metres away at the museum.
There’s a rustle, another thump, a sudden grip and weight on my right shoulder.
The raven is back. It’s perched on my shoulder. It’s perched. On my. Shoulder. I turn my head slowly, and peer as best I can through the corners of my scratched, smudged lenses into the little black eyes. It sits on my shoulder, gripping tightly, and looks back at me.
I don’t know what to do, exactly, so I do nothing.
And I turn away and look at the mountains again, and love the place I’m in, the body I’m in, the life I’m living. The raven stays with me for a few more minutes, enjoying the view, and then it leaves. Its wing flicks me in the right ear as it launches itself out into the void, over the edge of the cliff.
This really happened, in 1985 or so. I woke up this morning remembering it. It makes me proud, although I’m not exactly sure why.


I can’t stop thinking about this guy.
He’s dead now, this guy.

From news.com.au: 'Doomed ... The man struggles to keep his head above water as he is buffetted by the currents. His body was found a kilometre away / Hellmut Issels'

Look at him, so calm, amidst the fury. But the water looks so clean, doesn’t it? So much like the pure salt surf that I’ve always loved. Who was he? Did he make his living from the sea, there in Phuket? Was he a dive instructor, or a bartender? Did he rent umbrellas and chairs on the beach? Was he a tourist himself, from somewhere else entirely?
He looks so calm.
I’ve always had a relationship with water. My brother died in the water, and I spent all the years after that, in my subarctic hometown, snorkeling back and forth in that same water from a couple of weeks after the ice broke up until well after the leaves had all fallen. Looking for something.
I almost froze to death, on purpose, naked out on the ice of that same lake in the snow, one stupid teenage New Year’s Eve long ago after I’d fought with my girlfriend, who I thought I loved enough to die for.
I’ve always been drawn into the water, in the sea, wherever I’ve been, from Wales to Fiji, when the waves were big. Stood there, always, pounding my chest, literally, and shouting into the teeth of it. Challenging it. You can’t kill me, I was saying, every time. I love you, you can’t kill me. Your power is my plaything.
Maybe this guy felt the same way, as he rode the chaos, as the tsunami washed him over the pool, across the grass, into the focus of some tourist’s camera. Confident, exhiliarated.
But he died.
Him and what, today? 60,000 80,000 120,000 150,000 other people.
Words are.
Update : Apparently, he’s alive![login:vanitas password:vain]
Mike Diack gives us more information inside. Thanks, Mike! It’s silly, but somehow this guy became iconic for me of the whole incomprehensible tragedy. Holy sh-t. He’s alive.

Maxell XLII

This stopped me in my tracks this evening, while a flood of rock and roll memories washed over me.
This :


I wonder if the sight of that piece of molded plastic ramps up in you the same welter of blurry, beery, hormonal reminiscences that it does in me. If you’re pushing 40, and rocked out with your [insert gender-appropriate appendage here] out, and spent long nights at the stereo making offerings, making entertainment for your friends and lovers, thrilled by the fact that you could actually tear songs from those big black frisbees and rearrange them any way you wanted, if you spent weeks and months, years of your life swapping one Maxell after another into the cassette player of your patient buddy’s Datsun F10, wiping off the rye you’d spilled, dropping your Player’s Light on the carpet again, waiting for the hiss that marked the end of the leader and knowing to the 10th of a second when the first kerrang of that fuckin’ kickass tune dude was going to swoop down and tweak your heart, if you remember that one night with a thermos full of vodka and pink lemonade as the snow fell like magic out of a sky that was so close and black and solid that you felt like the air was getting squeezed out of you, wearing red and white Santa gloves in the back seat of that big black fast ’65 Barracuda with the first girl you’d ever really loved, the girl you still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to tell, being tossed laughing to and fro as the car whipped around corners slick and roaring, if you remember shit like that now, then you know how I feel tonight.

Thanks to project c-90, via Mefi.

Anger Is An Energy

Shelley says over here that ‘there’s something impersonal and dispassionate about anger.” I know how well she writes, and how carefully, and so I’ve been turning over what she wrote, looking at it from different angles, trying to puzzle out what she meant. Can anger really be dispassionate? Is that what people mean when they talk about ‘cold anger’? Could that be a bad thing?
I’m pretty sure anger is an energy, cold or hot. I remember being an angry punk, once upon a time. Well, more of a drunken yahoo of a punk, perhaps. Angry though, in between episodes of skipping around like a loon shouting about ‘joy’. Regardless, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel rage welling up in me the moment I stopped to think about the glories of our civilization, and the wonder of our achievements.
Call in the airstrikes.

I could be wrong I could be right
could be wrong
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be white I could be black
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
Walk through the valley
The written word is a lie

Still, I’ve always been the eternal optimist, sifting through the dung looking for a diamond, and I wandered all around this planet, wide-eyed, pushing myself to be childlike and unangry. A real hippie twat, basically. Trying to see the god within each and every person I met. Failing too often, succeeding far too rarely, flying my freak flag high. Peace, love and vegetable rights, man. Anger? Love! Rage? Peace!
That worked pretty well for a time, but the drugs probably helped more than I cared to admit.

May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong I could be right
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be black I could be white
They put a hot wire to my head
cos of the thing I did and said
And made these feelings go away
Model citizen in every way

I’m still expatriate, of course, and I still am unfailingly kind to people, until they cross me. Then, well, then I puff up and turn all the colours of a sunset, and browbeat them until they submit or go away. And then I get quickly unangry again. I’m like that.
I have never stopped being angry at hypocrisy and hate and stupidity and cupidity, either. And yeah, angry at the sinner as well as the sin. Turning the other cheek’s all well and good for the meek, but I’m not going to be around to inherit the earth. I just don’t have the patience. So, model citizen, me, right? Going around with a big red ‘W’ on my chest, fighting for the common man, righting wrongs and kissing babies.
f–k no. But the other thing that Shelley said, that ‘anger is the ultimate camouflage for what’s really going on in our heads and our lives’ doesn’t make sense for me, at least. Anger is the the natural and consequent reaction to taking a good hard look at our lives and the lives most of us are shoehorned into, through our own weakness and through the strength of others and through random dumbf–k chance, and realizing that we’re going to die. Much too soon, each and every one of us. Ashes or wormfood, or, if maybe scraps for the birds to tear at. In anger, we reveal that we know there can be more, and wish for more, for better, for ourselves and others, and we also reveal that we are too bound by our own chemistry or history to do more than pound the bones and screech like apes before the monolith.
But that’s OK.
Because the coin of anger rotating in the air, reflecting those glints of sunlight, has an ouroboros head as well as a tail. There is no anger, for me, at least, that is not backed an impulse similar to the one that some buddhists express when they perform a wai — palms pressed together, fingers pointing skyward, with a shallow bow. I acknowledge the god within you.
Anger is peace, thwarted. Love, unrequited. The face of god, almost touched. The heartbreaking awareness that you (and so, all) just might not get there, wherever there might be. And ranging as it does in denomination, like our coin flipping up there in the air, the anger can be fire banked against the coming night, or a bolus of flaming tar catapulted at those who thwart the good.

Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong I could be right
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be black I could be white
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
Walk through the valley
The written word is a lie

But what the hell do I know? The written word is a lie, and it’s possible that I’m just stringing together justifications for my rage, popcorn-garlanding words, holding up another mask, more for the fun of it than from any necessity. I found my own path. Quite possibly not the right one, but it’s the one I found, and so that f–ker is holy to me.

May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong
They put a hot wire to my head
Cos of the things I did and said
They made these feelings go away
A model citizen in every way
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
May the road rise with you (Hey)
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy

There was a time when I was one of those Seekers After Truth that the hip, ironic-McDonald’s kids tend to laugh at, often with good reason. Looking for some kind of truth outside myself, raging against the machine. Now I’m a model citizen, older and less convinced that any truth that could have any meaning for me lies anywhere outside myself and the threads that bind me to other people.
But I remain angry, and I maintain that that is the outward sign of my attempts to be honest with myself. It’s my honesty with the rest of the world, and it’s both personal and passionate.
I only speak for myself. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. That’s cool.

Away Team

We spent the last couple of days AWOL from the Corporate Disneyland where we live, and ventured out into the Real Korea for the first time in a while. Jesus tapdancing popsicle-stick Christ, it’s scary out there! Everything’s dilapidated, dirty or broken, and that’s just the stuff they bother to slap a new coat of paint on every decade or two.
On the upside, I’d forgotten about all the attractive young females — not many of those around here in Chaebol City, Arizona. She Who Must Be Obeyed did notice my noticing, but by the time I regained consciousness, the wounds had already been stitched up, so it’s all good.
A couple of chapters from the Modernization for Stupid People™ handbook that exemplify for me — this weekend at least — the Timeless Wisdom of The Korean People:
1) Build condos in one of the most beautiful places in the country, nestled deep in fragrant woods that in October begin to assume such a magnificent symphony of colour as to take the breath away, beside a lake, in the mountains. Then proceed to allow those condos to become filthy, dim animal caves, poorly lined with stained, grafitti’d wallpaper, reeking and unkempt. Ensure that nothing works, and that the cigarette burns in the cheap plastic bog-standard yellow floor-covering are unconcealed by any furniture, other than the lumpy bed in one corner. Make certain that the rooms, while being as depressingly drab and horrible and dirty as possible, cost more than US$100 per night, because you know the f–kin’ proles got nowhere else to go. Laugh and laugh until you piss yourself, as the lucre rolls in.
2) Build tawdry eyesore asphalt chancres on the most attractive bits of coastline, buttress them with kiloton sprinklings of concrete tetrapods, and festoon the pleasure palaces gaily with buzzing, flickering neon and bellowing signage. Make sure there is plenty of opportunity for the whores to earn their trade, and make sure that tinny speakers howl out 24/7 the cookie-cutter ’80s K-pop that gets the housewives a-rockin’ while they’re getting drunk and trying to forget what their husbands are doing. Because this is the coast, and the view is spectacular, build a raw fish restaurant underground, and make of the walls vast aquarium tanks, into whose murky depths you can peer, hoping to spy the algaed, parasite-riddled beast that will become your lunch.
A moveable feast, Korea, a moveable feast.

Taking One For The Home Team

So, I was at the bar on Friday night. This is a sentence that, in my dotage, is far less likely to pass my lips and fingertips than it once was, back when I was positively dripping with vim and vigour and fluids of a more bachelorly nature. But nonetheless, there I was, gazing somewhat blearily at myself in the mirror through the bottles, propping up the fake-mahogany with my buddy J. There was an impressively long line of empty bottles neatly lined up in front of us. I think the Korean guys like the empties left in front of them as a display of their alco-power, but that conspicuous consumption display tends to backfire when me and my equally thirsty drinking buddy, the livers who walk like men, come onto the scene. Shrug.
The gaggle of young women behind the bar are paid as much to be decorative as to actually sling piss, and station themselves right in front of you, whether you want them there or not. Orders. I tend to ignore them, after an initial smile to show I’m not entirely ogrish. It’s pretty clear, at least when it comes to old bastards like us, that getting pole position in front of the foreigners is pulling the short straw. The ladies do tend to make a valiant attempt to be hostessy with their few phrases of English, but the time is long, long past when I much enjoyed talking pidgin with bargirls, no matter how attractive they might be. Not to say that I wasn’t young and foolish, once. Thousands of young men around the world would be pouring over my seminal textbook, ‘Bargirl Bricolage and Soju Semiotics: The Ineluctable Modality of The Boozehound’ if I’d ever written the damn thing.
So we were tanking up, smoking, talking sh-t, enjoying the once-a-month concession to our younger selves our wives allow us. At the outer edge of my OB Lager-induced tunnelvision, I noticed a group of 4 guys sit down beside us at the bar, but J and I were deep in discussion about how cool it would be to be first on the ground when the Kimchi Wall comes down, as writers or otherwise, and I didn’t notice much other than that the guy beside me was Korean. He didn’t say anything to me, so I assumed, as one does, that he didn’t speak English, and ignored him after giving a terse nod.
Not long after, though, J announced that it was time to break the seal — I, as usual, had been peeing like a racehorse since the first friendly whissht! of escaping beer vapour — and wandered off to the toilets. Turning to me, the Korean guy said ‘How’s it goin’?’
In those few syllables, I knew not only that he spoke English, but that he fluent, and that he’d lived overseas for a time, or was maybe even a returnee. My English Radar is strong. Well, that and the fact that the three other guys sitting with him were all foreigners, and pretty clearly not the English teacher type.
So we started in to talking — and having a conversation in idiomatic, natural English with someone new is such a rarity for me that I was almost giddy with the strangeness of it (nutty expat syndrome ahoy!) — and I learned that he was the language liaison for the other three, who were Americans, a couple of soldiers and a contractor, and here at the deep water port in Sunshine City to expedite the transhipment of tons of US military equipment from Korea to Kuwait.
That may have been classified information, but we were all pretty drunk.
I was right, both about his English and his history. He’d lived in America and gone to both high school and university there. I asked him how he’d liked it, and he told me this : he went to high school in Illinois, university in Los Angeles, and he hated America. Those were the words he used. I suspect saying so wouldn’t have gone over too well with the guys he was with, but they were busy clumsily and loudly hitting on the waitresses, who, in the Way of The Korean Bargirl, tittered fetchingly while failing to hide the look of abject panic in their eyes.
I asked him why he would say such a thing, and he told me that while he was going to university, he worked to make extra money, in a relative’s liquor store. And that he’d been shot during the regular hold-ups. Twice.
This boggled my mind.
When he was in hospital, he said, he’d decided that he was leaving America as soon as he finished school, and not coming back. Not surprisingly. Now, I’ve been around the world a few times in the last 15 years. Been in war zones, been in all the worst places in dangerous cities all over the map. Even LA, one mad weekend on my way down to Mexico, when I heard gun shots in my friends’ Hollywood neighbourhood as we stumbled around, indestructible Canuck style, at 4 am. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who’s been shot. And this guy, this mild-mannered Korean whose parents sent him over to America to get out of having to do his military service, he’d taken a couple of bullets for the home team.
And now he was back home, getting paid to translate the crude pickup lines of his military colleagues to the girls behind the bar.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, a twisty-cruel just-so story, I imagine. I leave it to you to tease it out, if you’re so inclined.

Comedy Gold

Man, I love them Americans. They feel so strongly about entertaining the rest of us with their comedic stylings, and we are all in their debt for keeping us laughing. The chutzpah, the testicular fortitude that they collectively show, out there on the world stage, walking the tightrope between hilarious self-parody and a collapse into a light-gobbling singularity whose gravitational gradient is so steep that even irony cannot escape. Bravo, I say!
The tension they so skillfully build in all the rest of us who hang on every faux-drunken swerve and stumble of their political machine is breathtaking. Those rapscallions. Teetering up there on the democracy highwire, introducing ramshackle, insecure electronic voting systems built on Microsoft™ Access© while they so nobly and selflessly impose American freedom and democracy on the Afghanis and Iraqis? Oh, eek, I can’t watch! Putting their dear leader up there on stage to praise the 10 million voters registered in Afghanistan, when only 9 million are eligible? The showmanship is breathtaking, and The Funny is debilitating.
Trotting out a frothing villain like Zell Miller to inflame the stupid, while retaining the option of distancing yourself (‘He’s not a Republican!’) should the spin from the assembled stenographers of the press turn ugly? Pure comedy gold! Did you see the look on that old bastard’s face when he felt the carpet being pulled out from under him? Classic, backslappin’ American pie hijinks!
Oh, you wacky yank bastards, how I love that you’d totter so close to the abyss to entertain us all. I wake up each morning frothing in my urgency to fire up my old PC and find out what new japery you might have unleashed.
The subtleties of the ways your leaders use words, my friends, while merely appearing to wield them like a simpleton’s club, claiming that they ‘don’t do nuance‘… simply magnificent. The way that you can collectively turn on an ironic dime, and allow a man whose family connections excused him from serving his country to shine the character assassination jocularity spotlight on a man who actually did. And the way that that fellow and his supporters let their foes just do it. Oh, it’s belly-laughin’ time, right there!
You Americans kill me. No really, you do. Not as dead as the 10,000 (30,000?) Iraqis, or the 3000 Afghanis, or the 1000 Americans, or the 100 ‘coalition of the willing’ (oh, dear, that’s a nugget of comedy pyrite there, too) members. (And never mind those 50,000 Komedy Korpses in the Darfur. They’re not dead from the hilarity apoplexy!)
A pretend cowboy President whose horses are rented? A constitutional amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage in a nation where half of all marriages end in divorce? An inner powerbroker circle of oil company gassholes and oil prices at all-time highs? A leader who claims to receive instructions from his god (or from ‘beyond the stars’, whatever that means), making offhand remarks about crusades? Invading a country that posed no threat, while the Norks built more nukes and threaten to turn Seoul into a lake of fire? Talking about corporate responsibility and pumping a few billion into your vice-president’s old company? Contracting out your warfare needs to the lowest (or best-connected) bidder? Running a gulag in Cuba, of all places? Torturing children in Iraq while proudly (if spuriously) proclaiming ‘no child left behind’ back home? Reducing the taxes of the richest, then making populist proclamations like ‘there’s no point taxing the rich because they just dodge their tax bill anyway‘? Osama bin who?
Your A-material kills, my friends. You rock.
You gotta take your show on the road.

Fallout from the Blog Bomb

Is it anti-communitarian of me to say that I’m wryly amused by all the ‘bloggers’ jostling like wee piggies for a nipple at the Democratic convention? That jockeying for pole position in the anecdote-race to be the first to fellate the rich and powerful is a teeny bit distasteful to me?
Will I get in trouble (again) with all those otherwise good and smart people who are all a-twitter about the fact that they really really matter now? Now that they’re inside the chalk borders of the pentagram? I mean, it’s cute, all right. Sure. Like the wallflower become belle of the ball. And having them tell themselves, and us, in public, how it’s a sign that the heavy elements of democracy are sinking through the clouds of the blogosphere, like the glittering dusty fallout from the Blog Bomb, back onto the heads of the Common People? That a change is a-comin? That’s precious, and may even have a kernel of truth to it. More power to ’em. But.
But I’m still waiting, and still looking, for one — just one! — who has the bravery and the cockeyed gonzo ballsiness to rip a few new assholes in the purveyors of all that sanctimonious ‘America The Great’ autowankery, and, say, fling an empty Royal Reserve bottle at the stage while Joe Lieberman does his coattail ride into obscurity. Metaphorically or otherwise. And then write about it. In realtime.
How I wish that there were a few writers there splashing their talent (and cocktails) all over the web. Not just permalink patriots and also-ran digerati, but mad bloggy bastards who’d give me some stank, some snark, a few laughs. How I wish Rageboy could’ve gone and kicked out the motherf–king jams, or dong_resin, or Golby the crazed. Whoever. Just somebody whose panties don’t go all damp at the idea of getting spattered with John Edwards’ sweat.
I don’t want to see digital snapshots of you posing with some other blogerati dildo or fawning over some Real Celebrity, framed with a bit of Commentary Lite, damn it. I want you to write something that will make me laugh and weep and want to go and break a bottle over someone’s head (or laugh and weep and give somebody an equally random big ol’ kiss on the lips), then dance like a tarantula-bitten gypsy. Something to fire me up a bit! I want a Hunter S Thompson, by god, a Mencken, somebody with a bit of rage and a bit of juice in ’em, with too many damn words and a talent for juggling them. Someone who sees the opening, seizes it, then drives a juggernaut of text right through the quivering greasy middle of it, while lesser mortals scatter in fear for their lives.
Hell, maybe there are bloggers out there doing that at this convention. If so, point me to them. If not, well, get me a plane ticket and a pass to the Republican Clusterf–k, and I’ll do the damn job myself.
Never send a blogger to do a wonderchicken’s job.
[Update : Well, OK, this is pretty damn cool. But I’m stickin’ to my knee-jerk contrarian guns, damn it!]
[Update 2: Well, besides the Mighty Fafblog, even if I do have my suspicions that Fafnir and Giblets aren’t actually there. Still: fafferrific or faffelicious? You decide!]
[Update 3: Oh, crap. Me and John Freakin’ Dvorak. I’m turning in my decoder ring.]
[Update 4: f–kin’ A, Tutor, my old nemesis.]

A Political Dream

I had a dream last night. A glorious technicolour dream. A political dream.
In my dream, Candidates Kerry and Edwards realized that Dim George and Snarling Dick were going to pull Osama Bin Laden out of their asses at some opportune moment before the election, and crucify him on the White House lawn. Plant the cross in a pool of scented oil to keep the saudi cooties from spreading, invite the bloodclan and Fox News and Dad, and rouse the tribes to a tumescent, frantic headline-crawl apogee of Republican vote-lust. But in a tasteful way, with very little mention of anyone having to go and f–k themselves.
My dream-representation of the light dawning in the Johns’ minds was a tableau of them making cute anime ‘O’s with their mouths while rolling their eyes upwards toward a shared thought balloon in which Dick Cheney was holding the severed head of Osama up by its hair, letting the blood drip onto a Diebold voting machine. It was way cool.
So Franken-John and Pretty-John decided to go proactive. Winning, Kerry declared in his endearingly halting, tone-deaf way, is as much about kicking… some… mother…f–king ass as it is about proactively leveraging mission-critical paradigms in a time-sensitive fashion. Edwards popped up in front of him to declare that the only way to make America strong, to unite America again, and to preempt an October Suprise that would make America unstrong and disunited, was if the two of them were to hunt down that bastard OBL themselves, and beat the chickenhawks at their own game.
Yeah! said the crowd. Woo!
And so, enlisting the aid of a bionic monkey named Limbaugh (because robots and monkeys are funny, and a robot monkey wins by default (until the bionic monkey pirate shows up, at least)), the two boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and departed from an undisclosed location into the free and democratic mountains of America’s Newest Ally, Afghanistan. This wasn’t just any helicopter, mind you. This was way better than the Campaign Bus they figured on using off the get-go. Yes, this was a stealth chopper, and its shiny new Kerry/Edwards vinyl appliqués were replaced with other shiny new ones, ones shouting stuff like ‘Death To America!’ and ‘Jihad or Bust!’ (but with barely-legible disclaimers underneath in tiny little print, just in case somebody got the wrong idea). These guys were clever, canny combatants, and they had good media advisors!
With Lurch resplendant in Ramboriffic headband and shiny plastic nippleless muscley-torso, and co-John working his best assets and looking simply stunning in his floor-length silk gown, they combed the arid hills of the Afghan-Pakistan border in their OsamaChopper, setting down each evening as Allah’s sun sank into the dusty haze to lay traps for the Bad Guys. Candidate Breck Girl strutted his silky stuff while bandolero-strapped Candidate Kerry lurked in the shadows with Limbaugh and waited, guns akimbo, frowning for the film-school interns with the digital video cameras. Waiting for their quarry to strike the bait.
Waiting, and drinking whiskey, because that’s what men do when they’re hunting outlaws with a bionic monkey at their side.
That’s when I woke up with a start, all sweaty and disoriented. I hope I never have to see that look on my wife’s face again.

Blue Water Virgin

It’s late December, 1992. I’ve been living a life of madness and booze, sex, drugs and slightly dodgy rock and roll for months now. La Passionata is the name of the boat, and Marina de La Paz, or, more accurately, the anchorages just off it between the mainland and the mangrove offshore sandbar called El Mogote, has been my new stomping grounds. La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico.
La Paz Clouds.jpg
How I got into this life of drinking and sailing and drinking and sailing and drinking a whole lot more is a bit of a blur, but burned bronze and blonde-streaked, skinny and intent on squeezing as much random fun as possible out of every glorious day, I’m happier than I have been in a long time.
But I can also feel my personality disintegrating, or at least that’s how I phrase it to myself in my saltwater- and beer-stained journal. Maybe the sun and the booze and the whippets and speed and the untrained scuba dives, the days out at Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida hunting fish and lobster and cooking them for the women we’d picked up at the Barba Negra the night before, and the nights back at the bar again running up our tab with the long-suffering owner, Jose, have taken their toll, finally.
Looking back on it now, I don’t know how I could have gotten tired of it — sometimes I’d give my left nut to be back there again, careless, happy, exalted and gloriously befuddled, swimming with whalesharks and flirting with vulpine German tourist girls, being lulled to sleep by gentle motion of the hull in the swell and the quiet slap of warm water against the fiberglass.
I’m tired of waiting in port, looking at the charts of all that crinkled Pacific coast running down all the way to Panama, I’m feeling the effects of all that recreational chemistry, and I’ve been offered berth on a boat so much bigger than La Pass — 71 feet of waterline! my own cabin after sleeping in the salon and getting my head stepped on by whoever else crashed aboard on any given night! — that I’ve made the decision to jump ship and head across the blue water with Elmo’s Fire. And the boys on La Passionata will meet up with us down the coast, they promise. Probably in Vallarta, in a month or so. A little time away from the 24-hour party people will be good for me, I reckon, and so I move my single bag over to Elmo, and dance around a little in my own little two-bunk cabin, up under the bow, before I get to work.
Gran Baja From El Mogote.jpg
Elmo’s Fire’s been tied up at the pier in front of the Hotel Gran Baja for years. It is averred by most that Michael, the hard-boozing but indestructible Englishman who’s been living aboard since the owners disappeared — one dead, one in jail for trafficking, one lit out to parts unknown, it is said — is really the black sheep Viscount Ashley, and survives off a yearly stipend from the Good Family in exchange for a promise to stay the hell away. Whether that’s true or not I don’t care — I’ve heard enough tales tall and wide in the past months to last a lifetime, and I don’t care much whether they’re fiction or not, they are such glorious mythical water in which to swim. Michael is a good man, and kind, if scatterbrained in the boozer cruiser way, and universally acknowledged to be a fine sailor, veteran of several TransPac races.
A few days later, less than a week before Christmas, and we’ve picked up a new crewmember at the Barba Negra, which, with Michael’s squirrely girlfriend, makes four of us to manage this Ocean ’71. The weather has come up — Chabasco weather in the Sea of Cortez is like hurricane weather over in the Gulf — and we’re riding anchor, tucked safely into the south-facing Bahia de Los Muertos south of La Paz, waiting with nine other boats to make our break for Mazatlan. Nobody’s moving. Michael’s getting itchy. I’m scared sh-tless. ‘Bay of the Dead’ is not an auspicious name for the departure point of my first bluewater sail, not when the wind’s howling down from the north at 40 to 60 knots.
Finally, about 9pm, Michael snaps, calls the rest of the cruisers on the open channel cowards, and tells us we’re making sail.
I’ve spent the last few hours working on the SatNav, and it seems to be working as it should (for the first time in months, apparently), and I tinkered with Iron Mike, the autopilot, earlier in the day. With only a few months experience on the boats, that’s about all I can do, other than follow orders, and cook dinner. We motor out past the headland, into the swell, Michael points the pointy end into the wind, and we do our deckmonkey thing and haul the mainsail up. The swell rolling down the Sea of Cortez is huge — it feels like 8 metres, but it can’t be more than 4 or 5, probably. That’s enough. I’m scared. The night is young, and very dark.
Michael is standing behind the wheel grinning through his scraggly white beard now, and as he brings us around to the east, the mainsail catches the wind, and Elmo heels over, hard. The lee rail is buried in wake, and in a matter of seconds, we’re flying along east-southeast ahead of massive following seas. Dale and Lenore go below, and I sit with Michael in the open cockpit, and he teaches me some of what I’m going to need to know. My watch will be 4am to 8am, and the weather could get better or worse between now and then. I sneak the occasional look over my left shoulder at the waves towering over us, and it’s even more sphincter-tighteningly scary than the foam and black water coursing along the deck where the rail on the lee side of the boat is well and truly underwater. I concentrate on his lessons.
It’s a few hours later — after midnight — and the weather has gotten heavier. The SatNav tells me that we’re well and truly out in the blue water now, but it’s the same dark, foamflecked and howling maelstrom of wind and wave it was when we were mere minutes offshore. The difference is that I know we’re many many nautical miles from land now. It’s the first time for me.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared, but my sailing (and drinking) adventures in the last few months have gone some way towards acclimatizing me to functioning while terrified. I am taking some small pride in my impassive mien when particularly hard gusts push the boat over further, or rogue waves wash through the cockpit. This is going to be OK, I think to myself.
This is when Michael, who’s been letting Iron Mike steer for the past hour, I find out, and just resting his hands on the wheel, decides he might as well have a drink. Michael never has just one drink. Neither do I, if truth be told, but then I’m not the f–king skipper on this little passage.
There is one rule that my friends back at Marina de La Paz, most of whom are boozers of an intensity and dedication I’d rarely seen before — and this is saying a lot — have drilled into me. You drink in port or at anchor; you do not drink while under way. You do not do it.
Michael cracks his first beer. My eyes go round, my sphincter goes loose, and tightly-wound escalates to underwear-staining. Brown Alert! It doesn’t take long to figure out that other than Michael, I’m the most experienced sailor on board. And I don’t know sh-t.
By 3am he is pissed, semiconscious and prone, wrapped in a poncho on the downwind bench of the cockpit. Beer cans are rolling around, awash, in the cockpit. Our other two crew members are below, sleeping, presumably. I am behind the wheel, and the seas are getting heavier, to the extent that the autopilot whines and chatters in protest as it struggles to bring the bow around in the wake of maybe one in five of the huge waves that are sliding beneath us. I disengage it and take the wheel.
For the next 3 hours, I steer that massive boat through the storm. My only time before this behind the wheel of Elmo’s Fire has been a couple of hours running before the wind from La Paz down to Bahia de Los Muertos, before the winds came up. Er, yesterday. I’m way out of my depth. What Michael told me before he passed out — that to jibe the sail in these winds would snap the boom — keeps running through my mind, and though I try to keep our course as easterly as possible, the crash and rattle of the sail when we come down off the peak of some of these waves hammers at my confidence.
Still, although there are perhaps one or two gusts or monster waves per hour, enough to make me jump and struggle to keep the boat under control, I begin to get used to it. Michael snores away, through spray and hull-slam, and I try to keep the cigarettes I’ve been chainsmoking dry, and begin to understand that I have not failed, and that we probably won’t die. I realize that this night may have been the most important test of my mettle so far in my young life, where I had to rise to the challenge and master it, and that I was doing it, by god.
The horizon begins to lighten before 6am. I’ve never been so happy to see the sun before, and as the skies begin to grow bright, the winds fall away, and the swell begins to recede. Or that’s what it feels like, at least. The monsters that loomed out of the dark shrink away, and in the light of day, fear seems silly and unworthy and unmanly. In instant retrospect (just add sunlight), terror gives way to adventure.
By the time the full disc of the sun detaches itself from the eastern horizon, I can see land, a bumpy darker line above the dark water. Tempted by the memories of too many pirate movies as a kid, I shout, only a little maliciously, ‘Land ahoy!’ Michael starts into wakefulness, squints at me, nods, creakily limps over to the rail and pisses, then relieves me of my watch. I light us a couple of cigarettes, pass one to him, and move over.
Soon there are sounds below, and the smell of coffee wafts up from the gangway.
We’ll be in Mazatlan by sunset. And then we will sail south.

On board Pilgim in Marina De La Paz.

On The Turning Away

It’s hard to get your balance these days. Turn over a bucket, hop up on it, perch there precariously, look around as the cascade of chitinous black beetles surf in on surges of liquid shit. Pull up your pantlegs as the wave breaks around you and the brown spatters fly, squeak a bit, pray that the bugs (and the rats whose glowing eyes you see in the murk around you) don’t know how to climb.
Which is a melodramatic way to say that I don’t quite know what to say. Got some outrage? Get in line, sucker. Got something to say about rapin’ and torturin’, about beheadin’? So does every other Right Thinking Citizen, and by crikey, they’re making sure that those somethings are heard.
Let’s roll. Stay the course. Bring it on. Cut and run. Never forget. I’ll be back. Duck and cover.
Wait, that last one doesn’t fit in, does it? At least not yet.
It’s getting hard to stare unflinching into the actinic glare as the doors of hell swing open these days. The impulse, even after we’ve been bombarding ourselves with images like goatse and tubgirl and Daniel Pearl and Michael Jackson’s face, graveyard-joking all the while to show how tough and desensitized we are, is to turn away. To stop tattooing those horrible pictures on the sensitive cauliflower folds.
But each new iteration exerts its sick fascination, and the rays of doomlight — shining from Lynndie England and Nick Berg, from Madrid and Kabul — glitter over our mental horizons, lighting up the whole mediated clusterfuck as it whips itself into ever-bloodier froth. The tender-fleshed, bright-eyed Friends-consumers we were only show up in the quietest moments. Our shell-shocked outrage-fatigued palimpsest faces are hanging out in the wind, just like our asses. Can’t really make out the old stories of who we were on our faces anymore, and can’t make out the new stories either, scrawled in blood and filth, littered with copyright and trademark symbols and viagra ads and homemade porn and watermarked photos of piles of naked bodies.
Not piles of corpses. At least not yet.
The impulse is to turn away. But we tell ourselves that it’s weak and unworthy to avert our gaze. We’ve been told that it’s our ethical responsibility to bear witness, to see with eyes clear the evil that’s done in our names or otherwise, to understand and remember it, to prevent it ever happening again. Possibly at the risk of losing the chance to stop it, but pay that no never mind.
We love freedom. They hate freedom. We love liberty. God bless America. Down with the Great Satan.
We’re gonna shove democracy up their asses until they love us, just like Mike Tyson.
But not turning away can lead into an addictive room of mirrors. Bearing witness changes from a duty and a rite to a habit and a vice. The feed only gets notice when we unhook it, and we’re not fed the world by our umbilicals, we’re pulled further out of it. Schroedinger’s cat doesn’t die unless we see it happen, but if we’re watching it on video, it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. Kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out.
So we watch. We stagger from table to buffet table, dyspeptic and enervated, mildly turgid under our loosened belts. We snap and grin with our cams and camphones, and our photos are products that refer to themselves, not us. Our kaleidoscopic images proxy the world, and let us maintain the illusion that we aren’t really a part of it, and that the bad things are happening over there. That those chants and tribal signifiers that make us feel so good and so strong and so right actually mean something other than ‘go team’.
Smoke ’em out. Read my lips. No blood for oil. Support the troops. Rock the vote. Not in my name.
It becomes easier when everyone else is Them. We didn’t saw off poor Nick’s head, it was those scum, those vermin, the evil-doers, those others. We didn’t stick blunt objects up prisoners’ asses, either, or rape them or set dogs on them, we didn’t rip those kids apart with our amusingly-named ordinance. That was other people, a few bad apples, and they’re not us! We’re consumers of the images, don’t you see? We didn’t make this world! We didn’t maim that boy! It was them. Them! We didn’t slit Daniel Pearl’s throat, we didn’t knock over the gravestones, we didn’t fly airplanes into the World Trade Centre! We didn’t sell arms to Saddam, we didn’t sell arms to Iran, we didn’t ask for the double-anal pissporn, we didn’t do any of that shit. We are watchers. Watching makes it real, and watching keeps it separate from us. Watching is a noble act, at least until it gives you a hardon.
The basic truth gets obscured. What’s the difference between Osama bin Laden and George Bush? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between that fucker Amrozi who set the bomb that killed my friend Rick and me? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between the animals that sawed off Nick Berg’s head and the animals that beat prisoners to death at Abu Ghraib? There isn’t one. Between the Pope and Saddam? Between that old lady in front of the TV in a trailer in Alabama and that old lady digging up roots in a field in Kazakhstan?
We are one. We are all meat and electricity. And if there is more than that, we are all equally a part of that divine More. Or none of us are.
These ones go to 11.
I remember standing when I was maybe 14 in a circle of faces in the icy parking lot of the only arcade in town, out in front of what used to be Sonny’s hardware store. It was snowing, and I was in my shirtsleeves. Someone had yelled fight! and we’d all tumbled out past the steamed-up windows, out of the humid warmth into the snow. I can’t remember the names of the two combatants, but I can remember their faces. And I can remember the faces of the people watching. They were avid. Grinning. This was different from the clumsy, reluctant pecking-order school fights I’d seen (or been a part of) before. This was the real thing. One of the two was already down on the ice, on his back, eyes unfocused, by the time I took up a position on the outer edges of the ring of spectators. He was clearly finished. That didn’t matter, apparently. The victor hauled back his heavy winter boot and kicked the prone one in the head. I remember most clearly the sound, and the way that the head moved on the slack neck, and the colour of the blood on the ice. One kick, two, three, then someone at the front of the ring stepped in to stop the fun.
The look I saw on many of the bright tight faces was disappointment. That was the first of many fights I saw in my violent little hometown over the years, and the pattern was never different, except that in later years the fights were always fueled by alcohol. You go down, you get boot-fucked. It was a thing common enough that we had created a special name for it. Some people died, some needed reconstructive surgery, some were barred from entering the village limits. Being big and strong and stronger still of liver, and having good friends around at all times, I never got bootfucked. Being me, I never bootfucked anyone, though lord knows I there were times that I wanted to. In a legendarily violent town of 3000 people, you quickly understand the rules of retribution and revenge.
When I was in 17, I read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It hurt. It put images in my head that I didn’t want in there, that are still in there more than 20 years later, and I hated him for it. The abstraction of brutality, the matter-of-fact articling of such utterly transgressive violence twisted my melon and started me wondering where it might lead.
Well, now we know.
Even back then, even as a callow teen, I defended his right to have written it, though I was inclined to want to punch him in the face for having done so, were I ever to meet him. Growing up media-starved (and smart, drunk and angry) in a town where you could choose between two CanCon television channels, where there was no movie theatre, no bookstore, only a tiny library and not even the dream that such a thing as the internet might ever exist, it was a rapid education I received in those three years between my freshman witnessing of my first bootfucking and the graduation ceremony of reading Ellis’s deadpan fantasia of dismemberment and death. The first lessons stay with you the longest.
Today I can find movies and photos and paintings and stories of the same and worse, three clicks away, without even breaking a sweat. And as often as not, these things really happened.
My impulse to turn away usually wins out these days. This may be the wrong thing to do. When a puppy shits on the floor, we rub his nose in it (or at least we used to, in less kind, gentle days) for a reason.
But I guess I realized at some point that there is something I can do about a man who starts a war, perhaps, but there is little I can do about a man who kills and dismembers another person, unless that person is me. And there’s still less I can do about a man who aquires money or fame writing about it.
Or, you know, a woman.
I also realized somewhere down the road that whether it’s fiction or photo, documentary or gore-flick, fake or genuine, no representation of violence is anything like the real thing. Our frisson of revulsion, our predictable and pointless anger at the perpetrator, our self-serving hollow vows of ‘never again’, our demonization of the other who would so transgress those ethical standards we hold out as self-evident, our self-congratulatory conviction that we‘d never do anything like that, and our complacence in the face of the indisputable fact that everyone, everywhere seems to be doing it anyway…. well, what are you going to do? Cheer the killer monkeys on? “We are nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothink!” Been there, done that, and it’s a dead end too.
I haven’t got any answers. But I am pretty sure that regardless of whether you have nightmares about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or the Jesus Chainsaw Massacre) or the horrors of Abu Ghraib, no matter how accurately and horribly that fact or fiction is captured and portrayed for you, these things are to the real experience of violence as American beer is to the real thing. fucking close to water.
No wait. I mean – ‘a weak approximation’.
But the killer monkeys just won’t stop. And sometimes, you just have to turn away, all the while realizing that if you haven’t got the stomach for the imagery, you would be destroyed by the reality.

Echo and the Bunnymen

You’ve got to be joking. Honestly, I think my brain’s going to explode. I was ready to leave this behind, and now I’m not so sure.
First, David Weinberger writes an essay that quite ably argues that although there may be echo chambers per se, at least in terms of politics (which is a very minor slice of the whole pie, of course), on the web, there are in fact a multitude of them, and as a consequence we are able both in principle and in practice to expose ourselves to a greater range of opinion and interpretation than we might otherwise be. The space (if it can be well-described in spatial terms, a discussion long-past and best left buried under the azalea bush out back, perhaps) as a whole isn’t an echo chamber, he argues, if I understand him correctly: it is a vast concatenation of echo chambers, varying in their vehemence and level of groupthink, and thus benign. A metachamber, not ringing with echoes at all, but with the grand hubbub that is the sounds of the little echo chambers (occasionally with a population of one) singing into the void.
I’d argue that this is saying precisely nothing. I would argue that the weblog world is getting topheavy with pundits and supastars and, heaven forbid, leaders, who may (or may not) have gotten there from sheer merit, I admit, but that this trend is making thinking about the medium taste more like top-down pearls before swine than I’m entirely comfortable with.
I would argue that it is a tautology that the internet is a group of groups, and those groups, as a result of human nature, tend to organically accrete around shared common interests and beliefs, just as they do in the real world, and further that it is easier on the internet to be mobile between groups, sometimes radically different ones. This, I agree, is one of the great things about our digital lives. Unfortunately, unlike in real life, it is also far easier for participants to express themselves in ways more extreme than they might do in their ‘real lives’, and the echo chambers where there’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop of — shall we say — excessive zeal can turn evil or stupid or both very quickly indeed. But this isn’t what Dr W is talking about, I don’t think.
He says

We believers need a chance to get together, too. Sure, BloggerCon permits contrary points of view, but it’s distinguishable from the “Pro or Con” conference in tone and topic. And that’s a good thing. BloggerCon helps build community and advance thought by letting us be passionate, without having to back off, argue for fundamental principles with which we already agree, and persuade others of the legitimacy of our enthusiasm.

And I’m not entirely sure that I agree. Why is it a good thing, exactly? I suggest that the less writing (isn’t that what this is all about, out here in the ASCII (sorry, UTF-8) world? the writing?) and the more self-congratulation that goes on, the less relevance personal websitery seems to actually have to anyone, including its practitioners.
Next (and I don’t mean to get all up in David’s face, but he started me on this) Dr W anticipates a second Bloggercon and mentions that Dave Winer is planning to “ask each of the moderators to work ‘Nuking the Echo Chamber’ into the discussion”, and notes that Winer asks “How do we methodically and systematically overcome the tendency for echo chambers to form and self-perpetuate?”
Ahhhhhh-hahahahhaha. Stop me before I kill blog again.
Am I losing my mind here? Is Dr Weinberger not a weblog-writer (brilliant and talented, intellectually grunty, fiercely sexy, all that, sure, OK — I’ve nothing but respect for the man even when he’s as wildly off the mark as I feel him to be on this) who is among that gang of Usual Suspects that show up at all of these blog conventions and conferences and so on and then tell us all about them (blogging about the talking about the blogging, which is often blogging about the blogging in the first place), whether we’re interested or not, who is a shaper, most certainly, of both the weblog universe’s thinking about itself and the old media’s perception of webloggers as well, is this fine fellow pointing to another of the Usual Suspects — this one even more of an 800 pound gorilla in the field, and one who’s running yet another of these conferences, at bloody Harvard no less — and praising a decision to have panel discussions at another blog conference about avoiding echo chambers ? With a straight face?
Am I insane, or the last one left who isn’t? Is plain old irony supposed to make me laugh this hard?
I wouldn’t care, honestly, if it weren’t a matter of many of these folks guiding and shaping so much of our thinking about weblogs and web writing and all the various activities that fall under the ‘blogging’ umbrella. The echo chamber in which Dr Weinberger unapologetically places himself, I submit, is the only one that is truly dangerous to our Happy Fun Shiny Weblog World at all, because it is the one from which so much of the thinking we take as common currency trickles down to us mere, bits-only mortals. Or is it only me that thinks that the Usual Suspects have an overly strong influence in the way we think about this stuff, that their frequent meetings in the world of atoms consolidates and extends that influence, and that sometimes it feels as if there really is an emerging Cabal™? Is it only because of the corner of the metachamber in which I find myself? Am I missing all the constellations of new voices who haven’t gotten linked as a result of what they write rather than who they’ve met?
Honestly, I’d really appreciate some help figuring out if I’m talking complete bollocks here, and developing unhealthy signs of compulsion in my semi-demented criticism of blog conferences. Is it just sour grapes because I’m poor as a church mouse and live half a planet away from all the action? Shouldn’t the tyranny of distance not matter any more? Is it only me?

Bells and Chickens, Armpits and Underpants

Here’s a story of The Young Wonderchicken for you. 1989, I think it was, my first year in Europe.
We’d hated Italy, the Bearman and I, and there was no real reason we could point to and say “That’s why this place sucks, damn it!” The previous month or two of wandering southward from Edinburgh — where I’d been drinking Bulgarian wine, taking long windswept nighttime walks on the Portobello promenade and getting romantically involved with underaged Scotswomen for the past four months or so — without agenda or schedule or much in mind beyond cherchez les femmes and cherchez le booze, had been glorious and, if not precisely successful in the femmes department, had at least been steeped in liquor and spontaneous goofiness.
Italy had been a bust, for some reason. I remember writing about the ‘little bastard pasta-pounders’ in a letter to our amigo Rick, a level of (comedic-) vituperation that back in my more peaceable days was unusual, unless I was three-sheets a’ranting. Torino, Pisa, Roma. We just couldn’t seem to find any pleasant people. Or get into the rhythm of it, somehow. The highlight had probably been our unexpected discovery of a bottle of Seagram’s VO in a dusty little booze shop in Rome, after a long day of Vatican-seeing and footsore street-wandering and clumsy pre-pubescent pickpocket away-shooing. It remains one of my clearest memories of that time, seeing that ridiculously underpriced bottle sitting there, a beam of sunlight cutting through the dustmotes like the finger of god and illuminating the golden elixir within as the bleedin’ choir invisibule of liquor descended and sang tinny little hosannas in our ears. Perhaps a holiness hangover from Pope City, which, though impressive in a crenellated, gilded, retro-poofy kind of way, left me with a feeling more Disney than Dante. We took that bottle back to the slighty hostile hostel, and drained it in the basement lounge in the company of a batsh-t insane Tasmanian who had attached himself to us when he saw we had some of the good stuff.
So we’d just given up on it, and caught the train straight to Brindisi, where an overnight ferry would take us to Greece. I was hoping that Greece would be The Place. Paris had lived up to my romantically-elevated expectations, and even surpassed them. It had been a surprise, actually, steeped as I was in far, far too much of Miller and his Nin, and Hemingway and his gin, and all the other Americans that wrote filthy hymns to the city. Not to mention the gaggle of gloomy Frenchman that every 23 year-old of a certain disposition takes much too seriously. Our weeks in Paris had been a time of great joy, and our week of detox in Aix-Les-Bains afterwards, down at the western foot of the Alps, had been just the counterbalance we’d needed. But Italy? Well, not so much. And so I had high hopes for Greece. I was all Colossus of Maroussi‘d up, I think I claimed at the time.
We’d been on the boat from Brindisi to Patras a few hours, I guess, when we began to feel a need for some liquid refreshment. Happily, beer was sold, and though back in these days our tipple of choice was good Canadian rye whiskey, our flexibility was much improved by our recent wanderings, and we purchased as many cans as we were able to carry. That turned out to be quite a few more than was strictly advisable, but that’s the way of these things when you’re young, dumb and full of…well, joi de vivre, I guess.
The way of these things also is that our hilarity (and no doubt our beer) smoothed introductions with some of our nearby fellow-seafarers, two guys who turned out to be wandering Eurodrunks themselves, another Canadian and an Irishman. The Canadian was a good ol’ beef-fed Alberta boy, profane and pussy-struck, making us feel rather weedy with his many Tales of Concupiscent Conquest. His main goal in life seemed to be the procuring of prostitutes in as many nations as possible, and he was keen to share his accumulated wisdom on this arcane topic. The Dublin-based Irishman was a skinny, hyperkinetic, weaselly fellow, short and self-conscious, and for a member of the backpacker crowd, where your story-telling is your one universally-exchangeable currency, unusually reticent to share any personal details. Still, after some initial missteps — the Irishman responded to our fanboy-queries about U2 with ‘that Bono’s fookin’ sh-te!’ — we were soon rollicking on the high seas. Our two new buddies purchased and packed over to our corner of the deck a staggering number of cold cans, and, concerned that the small concession that sold the beer might close, the Bearman and I also replenished our slightly diminished reserves as well, just in case.
We played some dominos, and told tales of our travels. The Canuck, an oil worker, had many, mostly involving ‘the ladies’, predictably, the Irishman few. They seemed boon companions, though, thanks in part to the beer, and the odd sense of relief we felt at getting out of Italy. The Bearman and I, newbies at the game, had only a few tales to tell, but made up for lack of quantity with quality — shamanistic firelit Tale Of The Hunt dances and gutteral shouts to indicate, for example, our dismay at the advanced age of the ladies of the evening inside the dimly lit, heavily draped precincts of that brothel in Pigalle, for example. Stories were swapped with increasing animation and jocularity, until about the third or fourth time that a steward showed up to tell us that the ‘Captain is very upset and wishes you please to be silent’. We were pleased that the Captain would take personal notice of us, and asked our long-suffering friend to invite him down for beer. I don’t recall him accepting, sadly.
It all gets a bit hazy at that point, but I do know that we didn’t get off at Corfu, where I’d hoped to stop on the way, enchanted as I’d been by Lawrence Durrell’s Miller-influenced Black Book (and remembering his brother Gerald’s luminous juvenilia from high school, where we’d had to read them for English class). When I woke up it was early afternoon, and I was draped across a couple of hard plastic seats with a rivulet of drool running down into my right ear. The usual, in other words. We were approaching Patras.
The hangover started to lift as we finished going through customs, and the four of us decided, as you do, that we might as well travel together for a bit, at least as far as Athens. We decided too that the wisest course of action was to grab a room and find the nearest bar, in that order.
We found a room with three beds, and I offered to take the floor and pay a little less. More money for beer, I thought, pleased with myself for demonstrating fiscal responsibility. Couldn’t be more uncomfortable than the plastic ferry seats had been, and the place looked relatively free of vermin. We dumped our gear, and as the sun started going down over the sea again, found a taverna. It was bright and crowded with friendly, happy drinkers. There were beautiful women, mugs of icy beer set down in front of us if we so much as raised an eyebrow, and what the Bearman would describe in later years as ‘the best damn chips I ever ate’. I remember turning to him at one point, happy, and saying ‘We’re home!’ And it felt like we were.
Many hours later, I was swimming up out of my alco-coma to sounds that I’d grow used to in Greece over the next 10 months — bells and chickens. It wasn’t unusual for me to wake up, in those wandering days, not knowing with any certainty where I was, or even who I was, sometimes. I quite enjoyed that blank slate feeling, sometimes, to be honest, and this morning I was feeling pretty damn groggy. I’d been having a magnificently erotic dream, involving several of the women who’d been at the bar the night before. The odd thing, though, was that as I started to cross that line from not knowing if I was awake or not, and not caring, particularly, into being quite certain that I actually was awake, the sexy sensations weren’t diminishing. All this only took perhaps 5 seconds, as the gears in my mind caught, slipped, then caught again.
I realized that there was a hand in my underwear. A rather busy hand. ‘Rrrr?’ said my brain. I didn’t remember any particular success with any of the women in the bar last night. There was also a face buried in my armpit. ‘Rrrr!’ said my brain, ‘That’s not right!’ I opened my eyes, and there was the Irishman, one hand down my boxers, sniffing the living daylights out of my left armpit. I was suddenly wide awake.
I smacked him one in the head, and he looked up at me as if I’d hurt his feelings. Although I wasn’t so much angry as I was discombobulated and disoriented and dehydrated, I pointed to his bed with some authority, and tried to say with my eyes ‘get back there or I’m gonna get mad. You wouldn’t like me when I’m mad!’ He slowly clambered back into his bed, and as he silently watched, I moved my blanket over to the patch of floor between the Bearman and the oil-worker, who were still snoring away in blissful ignorance of the absurd little drama, and pointed vigorously at his bed to indicate that I would prefer that he stay there. Then I went back to sleep.
We all woke up a few hours later, ate a greasy, glorious breakfast, and left for Athens. Nothing more was said of armpits or underpants.
So there’s a little story. I wrote it for you because I have nothing really to say about all this gay-marriage brouhaha in America other than it’s criminally stupid that it should even be something that people are upset about, and because the Bearman is going back to Greece in a couple of months with his Cypriot-Canadian wife and I wish I could go, and I woke up the other morning thinking about Greece. I hold no resentment to the Irishman who woke me up by fondling my junk — it seemed a funny way, even at the time, to wake up on my first morning in Greece. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a female backpacker that didn’t have a tale, at least in those days, of unwelcome fondling by some creepy guy in a hostel somewhere.
I’ve never been one to be angry at individuals for their folly and their weakness, beyond an occasional rant or two. En masse, maybe, yeah. I just love to stir up the sh-t, and I’ve done some of that in recent times, sure, but that’s only because it was fun. I’m all about the love, honest. And I loved Greece. It turned out to be one of the greatest places I’ve ever been, and I miss it sometimes.
It has a special place in my heart, if not my underwear.

Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Wonderchicken

I’ll be 40 years old next year, but I don’t, despite my worst fears, feel anything like that ancient. Thanks to my greatly reduced intake of things that are bad for me (from apocalyptic to merely terrifying), I feel physically better than I did throughout most of my 20s and early 30s. Ten years ago, my friends and I were already referring to ourselves as ‘aging punks,’ and possibly the only thing that has changed in that description, for me at least, is that ‘-ing’ has become ‘-ed’. This will become relevant, trust me.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain’t got time for that now
Talking Heads, Life During Wartime

I’ve been casting about for a way to frame my thinking about weblogs and weblogging lately, as I’ve watched with a mild dismay apparently shared by others down the street about the way in which the tang and tenor in our neighbourhood of neighbourhoods have been changing in these post-blogdiluvian times. I hadn’t found the key I needed until this morning, and it was, amusingly, courtesy of Dave Winer.

(Now I have had my run-ins, as have many, apparently, with Mr Winer, for reasons I won’t bother detailing, as I am trying in many ways to be a better man — angry, cantankerous and likely to erupt in spontaneous ranting at any moment, sure, but a better angry man — and there’s no need to re-open old wounds. Suffice it to say that what follows has nothing to do with my personal feelings about Dave. No part of it should be construed as an attack on him, although it is always possible he might perceive it as such. That happens sometimes, I’ve noticed. The truth is that I’ve quite happily avoided thinking much about him, and presumably him about me, since back in October 2002. And that’s just fine. )

I have to thank Mr Winer for dripping that last droplet into my mental beaker, the one that supersaturated the solution and turned it crystalline with a barely audible thwonk!
When I got into the weblogging thing, yaar, back in the year of our lord 2000 I think it was, somewhat late to the party but carrying a few six-packs of the good stuff to ease the trauma of my gatecrashing, I was totally unaware that there were communities of people that had banded together, and who were as taken as I with the promise of it all. I was unaware that there were already stars in the personal-website firmament, unaware that there even was a firmament. I just stumbled onto Blogger somehow, drunker than a cheesetester on good scotch as I recall, and my geek cilia started wiggling, and off I went.

I didn’t know there were people building their own tools to make it even easier to become part of the revolution, to fling open those doors, to take over the world by giving everyone who might have something to say a way to say it and a stage on which to do it, regardless of how or how well they were going to say their piece. Voice, all of that. Access to the internet was the price of entry, of course, but the democracy of it all was breathtaking, even if it was democracy for rich kids, for the most part. That’s always been the way of it, after all.

It reminded me of punk rock. When I first encountered punk, back in 1982 or ’83, after having grown up in a tiny, media-starved and desperately uncool (if green and pleasant, at least away from the sawmills and clearcuts) northern village and having moved to Vancouver to go to university, the proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Thtink, plink. Berserk autodidact that I was, I’d already developed an effective sneer, a deep distrust and dislike for authority and political chicanery, a habit of arguing mercilessly and cruelly if the matter at hand was something I believed in and merely arguing vociferously if it wasn’t, and a nihilistic, risk-addicted, maniacally-boozing demeanor. I had, at the age of 18, though, not yet discovered that there were tens or hundreds of thousands of others with the same sorts of unpleasant societally-discouraged aberrations, and they’d been gathering together and making this mad, loud, ramshackle, gloriously angry music for years already.

I loved it. The music, not so much the fashion. I knew folks who went in for the whole ‘punk look,’ and I thought they were a bit laughable, but harmless, as long as they loved the music and the community. Pose(u)rs, was the word, but I kind of felt that those who called other people posers were almost as destructive to the spirit of the thing as the fashion-victims themselves. (Mark me, here. I’ll come back to this.) So I wore a leather jacket, and messed-up jeans, in pretty much my only concessions to the fashion side of the scene, and grew my hair hippy-long, which was anti-punk to be sure; I drank and did scary stupid dangerous things, and went to gigs, bothered my neighbours with bootleg cassettes cranked to the nuts, and papered my walls with gig posters, and made friends with musicians, and ate chemicals, and reviled the nazis, and generally gloried in what I’d been missing in my sh-tty little northern town throughout my teens — a sense of community, and more specifically a community to which I was happy to belong. Not a community of redneck wife-beating millworkers, this time, although it must be said I had many friends back in that segment of society too.

I felt much the same way about the weblogging thing, a couple of years back, especially when my writing began to get noticed and linked and emailed-about and commented-upon by people whose writing and thinking I in turn respected, and I started to understand how many communities there were within the greater world of the webloggers. There was a wild spirit of creativity running through the wires, it seemed to me, and I found myself a part of a loosely-joined (nudge, wink) group of dauntingly smart and well-spoken people, who didn’t seem, for the most part, to object to my more outrageous turns of phrase. I joined Metafilter, not long before it stopped becoming a Name Brand Weblogger Hub and grew into more of a general in-love-with-the-web community weblog in its own right, which introduced me to a whole constellation of bright webby people. It was exhiliarating, in much the same way as the World Of Punk had been as it opened up to me almost 20 years earlier.

It was welcome, too, because having lived the life of a real-world wanderer for the previous 15 years, a sense of community, community less transient than a group of backpackers coming together randomly in a bar in Indonesia or somewhere… well, that was something I was sorely missing. This parallel I felt to the alt-rock scene in which I forged my young identity all those years back was in no small part, I realize in retrospect, a driver for my over-the-top reaction to a nuts-and-bolts piece of writing by Megnut way back when (here, here, here). It was to me, I see now, as if a snide critic — no worse! a punk-rock luminary — had described the essence of punk as ‘play loud, fast and sloppy, behave outrageously once in a while, and throw in some random lefty politics and unfocussed anger, and bob’s yer uncle!’ It felt like the kind of reduction to appearance over substance that has always enraged me, and is something that even today I rail against as a core failing of Korean society, for example. Not that that’s what Megnut was guilty of in any sense, perhaps, but it pushed my buttons, and now I see why.

Anyway. These weblog people I found myself (virtually) amongst had banded together, it seemed to me, in part because people do that when they’re exploring new frontiers, when they’re not entirely sure of how to proceed but are in love with the new potential they see for a life lived in a way a little less ordinary, and when they suddenly find that there are other people out there who are doing the same thing. Out on the fringes, singing their songs.

Of course, bands break up, and personalities clash, and egos swell, and guitar players want to be front-men, and drummers explode, and new bands form, and old bands fade away and re-emerge years later to do farewell tour after farewell freaking tour. It is natural.
The weblogging gangs of old, the ones I felt a part of, well, they still are loosely bound, but the threads are so thin now that they are almost invisible.

It was, for a while, as if we were all fans of the punk, you see, together out there on the floor, drenched in sweat, pogoing, hurling beer cans, singing along, not really caring which band was up on the stage, just loving the hum and the throb and the tribal feeling of it all. Now it feels as if many of us have become fans of various specific bands, or have started our own and are struggling to gather our own crowds, or have decided to just keep it in the garage where it belongs, and damn having an audience. We don’t have time to go to each others’ gigs anymore. When everyone is in a band, there’s no one left to watch the shows.

That almost inevitably leads to irrelevance, though. Survey says. You sell yourself to the record company to try and get a distribution deal, you start to watch what you say, you suck up to the Big Boys, and try to be seen in the right places with the right powder dusting your nostrils. You lose the holy fire, you start thinking in terms of ‘product’, you tell yourself you’re going to ‘change it from the inside,’ but you’re part of the machine now, and it’s too late for you.

Okay, it might be time to try and pull the threads together, here.

Now, Dave Winer said

More proof blogs aren’t parties, they’re publications. If you try to make it social, about friends, and parties, you end up with a party where a lot of pre-adolescent males bark at each other, and a few hawkers try to sell penis enlargers, and no emotionally whole adult would be caught dead at. I been down this path. The road leads to Slashdot.

Aside from being primly elitist, this is just plain wrong from all sorts of angles, but I think provides a decent illustration of what I’ve been trying to say. Again, it helped me figure out my misgivings about the current State of The Blogs, so I thank him for saying it. So, you know, it’s good, even if I think it’s completely wrongheaded.

Let’s look at it – first, the idea that weblogs are anything that can be expressed in one word (like ‘publication’), or even in the air pocket that sits in the middle of a falsely dualistic opposition between two unrelated words (like ‘party’ and ‘publication’), is bollocks. But never mind the bollocks, here’s the wonderchicken.

What really bothers me is that Dave is generally perceived, with good reason, even by those who dislike the man, as an Elder Statesman of sorts. Hell, he’s been anointed by f–king Harvard, right? What else would I expect him to say? That weblogs are like snorting coke off the bellies of teenage hookers? You can’t get much further from the punk DIY ethos than Harvard, right?

I would expect, I suppose, that rather than saying ‘weblogs are not X, they are Y’ that he’d say ‘Weblogs are whatever the hell you want them to be. Go mad with creative ferment, young ones, unleash the furies, rewrite yourselves and the world, make what you will of these tools and this time. Now, my weblog, that’s a publication, not a party, but your mileage might vary.’
Perhaps that’s what he meant.

Look, I agree with Dave Eggers about saying ‘no’ —

No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.

— it’s something that I wrote about in the sort-of eulogy I wrote for my friend Rick, who died after the Bali bomb in 2002, something that he believed, and something I have believed for many, many years too. Say yes, say it again, sing it, scream it, or get out of the way, grandpa. It was not the shouted nihilistic ‘no!’ that attracted me to the ideas underpinning the flowering of punk rock decades ago, it was the implied bellowed ‘yes! we’ll rebuild our lives the way we want them!’ that I loved. And that I mourned, as it became a fashion, a commodity, and sank back underground again. But the lesson never left me.
Weblogs are a party, damn it, and sometimes they’re publications too, or instead, and sometimes they’re diaries, sometimes they’re pieces of art, sometimes they’re tools for self-promotion, sometimes they’re money-maknig ventures, sometimes they’re monuments to ego, sometimes they’re massive wanks, sometimes they’re public services, sometimes they’re dedications of faith, sometimes they’re communities. Always, they are a public face, one chosen and crafted to varying degrees, of the people who write them. They are avatars, masks, or revelations of our deepest selves. They are political or philosophical, merrily inebriate or sententiously sober. Do not listen to those who would tell you what they are not.

These people will destroy your soul. Classification is for insects.

My name’s wonderchicken, and I am a wild party.

It is the rising current of feeling that weblogs aren’t a party (or aren’t journalism, or aren’t a floor wax, or aren’t a dessert topping), that they’re something important and serious, that is seriously harshing my buzz. “Let’s all take this more seriously”, is the message I get from far too many these days, “because then, well, what I do must be Serious Stuff, right? We’re all adults here, aren’t we?”
Stop it, you bastards.

Your $500 blog conferences, your NeckFlex For President consultancies, your sad tawdry whoredances with the old media moronocracy devil, your repetitive linkery to the same tired wanna-be self-declared pundits you met at the last convention, your careful management of a media face that is, in the end, marketable, it makes me want to puke. It kills the spirit of this thing that I was so in love with, and turns it, as avarice and self-regard always does, to sh-t.

I’m not actually saying stop it, when I say stop it, of course. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, and all that. But I am regretful, and resentful, even though I know that it’s inevitable. It is the way things go, in this cashed-in century.

I also know that, as with the music, those who became part of this wild whirlwind, not for fashion or self-aggrandizement, not for power or money (although perhaps for the blow-jobs and free drugs, for which, it must be said, I’m still waiting in vain), but because they had burning gods inside them that were clawing at the inside of their foreheads screaming to get out, well, they’ll continue to create, and more and more they’ll point and chuckle indulgently and ignore the Self-Selected and the Sententious. And the SSS will recede, blithering, from the core of the living culture, until, once again, they are irrelevant. The script-kiddies are right, you see, but only about some of us.

Punk can also be about Wittgenstein. Don’t get me wrong – housewives can be punk, and librarians, priests and, crikey, even known homosexuals can be punk! Can Harvard be punk? Well, yeah, maybe it can be too. Maybe.

Jeneane suggested that the scriptkiddies enjoy more sense of community than us old compatriots do at the moment, and you know what? She’s right. Why? ‘Cause they’re still punk, and our little revolution is being marginalized and co-opted by the climbers.

I’m not suggesting that weblogs should literally be punkrock, right? OK? Geddit? I’m just talkin’ here.

I have no problem with Joi Ito either, although I point at him above — I listened to the Chris Lydon interviews a while back, and he is someone I think I’d very much like to know, based on what he had to say. I haven’t been reading his writing, much (or much of anything blogly until I started again recently, to be honest) although I do plan to start. I found myself nodding as I listened to him talking, and backtracking to listen to some bits again. I rarely do this. I’m not used to people being smarter than me. He represents a new bird, to me, and one that is punk in the best way, in the way I loved the most way back when, in the smart-as-hell Hüsker Dü kinda way. At least I hope that to be true.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter, as the wave of co-optation and consolidation swings through the communities. But what he had to say and the elegance and clarity with which he expressed it was, for example, in stark opposition to the way that Glenn Reynolds, who, although he may or may not be a plodding thud-dullard, certainly sounded like one when he parried an unwanted political observation of Chris’s with ‘No, no, that’s…no. No. Durrrr.’ Repeatedly. I imagined him with fingers in his ears, going ‘nyah nyah I can’t hear you’. (I exaggerate for effect, a little, perhaps.)

We could use more like Joi Ito, I reckon.

Still, there is something he wrote recently and that I am compelled to disagree with that must be woven into my story here. Joi echoed (and Shelley pushed back against) that old chestnut from Rebecca Blood (amongst other ‘write better’ type stuff), and proposed that those who are ‘serious’ about their weblogs should endeavour to write well. I say the hell with that. Write well, write badly, whatever, just create. If you are saying things that stir people, they will respond.

If you can’t write well, write with such passionate muscularity that people stand back and go ‘whoa!’ Make things, reach out to people. If you write well, keep doing it, and get better, and don’t kiss ass for personal gain. If not, just go, bash that keyboard, make a hideous, amateurish squall, one to which, if it has some kernel of glorious truthtelling, people will respond. The mass amateurization of nearly everything is good. If you’re a gifted amateur, the world will beat a path to your, er, door.

But let me return now to my mention, far upstream, of how I had little love for alternato-types who pointed, all j’accuse-y, and called other people ‘posers’, back in the day. It is, and was, almost as lame as calling someone a ‘sell-out’. It may seem that that’s what I’m doing here, pointing the Big Foam Sell-Out Finger, but I’m not. I’m just stirring the pot. Things have gotten f–king boring around here lately, and some egos are way out of control, and who better than the wonderchicken to try for a little reality-distortion-field adjustment?

If David Weinberger (to pick an example) wants to shill for Dean, more power to him, by crikey! I’d give my left nut to see the Bushbot gone, too, of course, but I’m not so sure that Howard Dean is the solution. Armed insurrection, now, that might be a noble cause…anyway, I still love reading what he has to say, when I occasionally swing by JOHO. If Dave Winer wants to ponce around Harvard (as long as he’s not telling me what a weblog isn’t), then I say ponce away! You go, girl! If this guy thinks blogging should be all about ‘creating value’ and ‘return on investment’, well, why the hell not?

OK, on second thought, that last guy needs to be slapped in the head.

Still, my point is that even if you are puerile enough to believe that someone else ‘selling out’ hurts you somehow, well, that’s pretty hard to justify, son. See also : nuh-uh. When someone stops fighting against the current, goes limp, and, you know, gets a hog rectum implanted where their mouth used to be, or goes the full cortical advertising-augmentation route, starts serving the Machine and wiping their chin with toilet paper, well, hey, it makes the rest of us look better by comparison, doesn’t it? Hell, at least I’m not one of those pigbuttmouth people with those creepy whipcord antennas, right?

Another quote from Eggers —

There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a sh-t who has kept sh-t ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of sh-t matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a f–kload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

And that, my friends, is Punk f–king Rock.

Punk got co-opted and marketed and corporatized, and it damn near died, as all Big Ideas do. That’s not to say that small-p punk is not still alive. It is, down in the ditches, where the spirit that drove the rage has morphed and moved on and dropped back under the monkeymass radar. Music and community is being made now that might not fit so easily into the same easy label, but there are folks out there making stuff that builds on and extends the best of the punk alt-rock scene from 20 years ago and more. Some of ’em are more relevant than others, sure, but the passion’s still out there. The anger, the love, the frustration, the woohoo. The party rolls on, even though the faces have changed.

Weblogging is also being co-opted and marketed and corporatized, but it won’t die either. The small communities that grew out of earlier days are being diluted and voices are growing fainter, partly because of the natural life cycle of these things, and partly because there are those who are making it palatable and bland for the media moronocracy to digest, and that’s what the media moronocracy wants, so that’s what it gets.

Jeneane said it too, and Shelley echoed it

You see, there was nothing to gain through blogging in the early days. It was my voice informing her voice informing his voice: our whole was greater, but our parts were pretty cool too. There was nothing to lose, specifically, or to benefit from. There weren’t as many pundits and VCs and CEOs and politicians and top dogs playing. WE were all top dogs by virtue of being someplace those types weren’t.

Although its public face may suck pretty bad for a while, and you may need to dig a bit deeper to find its soul, there will always be those in the Fields of Blog who will tell you what they really think, and some of those will move you while doing it, regardless of how well they write. And they’ll do it without having to look over their shoulders. ’cause it’s a f–king party, pops, and you’re invited.

Uncle Fucka Exegesis

After much deliberation, after pondering, both weak and weary, after tugging my beard like the retro-sage in a technical age that I fancy myself to be, after eating a couple of eggs boiled in spiced soy (oh, yeah, baby), I have come to the inescapable conclusion that ‘Uncle Fucka‘ is possibly the greatest song ever written.

A brief reminder of the powerful and affecting lyrics :

Terrance and Phillip
[Terrance:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re a cock sucking ass licking uncle f–ka
You’re an uncle f–ka, yes its true
Nobody f–ks uncles quite like you
[Phillip:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re the one that f–ked your uncle, uncle f–ka
You dont eat or sleep or mow the lawn,
You just f–k your uncle all day long
[farting noises]
[Terrance:] Hmm!
[farting noises]
[farting noises]
[Some Guy:] What’s going on here?
[farting noises]
[Man 1:] That’s garbage!
[Man 2: ]Well, what do you expect — they’re Canadian.
[People:] OOOoooooooooooooh
f–ker f–ker uncle f–ka uncle f–ka f–ka f–ka f–ka
[T & P:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] You’re a boner biting bastard uncle f–ka
[Phillip:] You’re an uncle f–ka I must say
[Terrance:] Well you f–ked your uncle yesterday
[Everyone: (laughing)]
[People:] Uncle f–ka… thats
[Everyone:] U-N-C-L-E f–k you Uncle
[Phillip:] Suck my balls!

From the opening strains to the final testicular injunction, this piece of music speaks of humankind’s chthonic impetus to understand its place in the world, to rend the veils that separate us from a direct apprehension of the divine. Perhaps Terrance and Phillip are telling us that through the f–king of uncles, a sacred understanding may be achieved. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, said :

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plow.
Dip him in the river who loves water.

The road of excess is the road upon which Terrance and Phillip gambol and fart prodigiously, boner-biting their way to the palace of wisdom. Uncle f–kers, yes indeed, they embrace all within the scope of their gaze, with both love and scorn. Their joyous farts and caustic abuse remind us of the Rabelaisian island of Ruach,

They neither exonerate, dung, piss, nor spit in that island; but, to make amends, they belch, fizzle, funk, and give tail-shots in abundance. They are troubled with all manner of distempers; and, indeed, all distempers are engendered and proceed from ventosities, as Hippocrates demonstrates, lib. De Flatibus. But the most epidemical among them is the wind-cholic. The remedies which they use are large clysters, whereby they void store of windiness. They all die of dropsies and tympanies, the men farting and the women fizzling; so that their soul takes her leave at the back-door.

and point with gleeful loathing thereby at our folly and failings. They f–ked their uncles yesterday, our hyperkinetic flatulent Canadian duo, reminding us of the gloomy conclusion of Ivan Karamazov: “If God is dead, all is permitted.”

Is there a god who would allow uncle-f–king? Is the god who would have prevented such things indeed dead, and is all, in fact, permitted? Terrance and Phillip have no answers for us, as they caper and cut the cheese, only questions, questions with which the great minds of our civilization have wrestled for centuries, fruitlessly.

In the end, perhaps, like Neitzche, they hail the dionysian, as the true source of art, and as deliberate affront to the illusory appollonian order imposed by our minds on a chaotic universe.

Either way, as Walter Kaufmann said of Neitzche, so can we say of Terrance and Phillip, our foul-mouthed flatulent flip-top-headed Canadian friends :

[Their] phrases, once heard, are never forgotten; they stand up by themselves, without requiring the support of any context; and so they have come to live independently of their sire’s intentions.

Suck my balls.

Death and Bali, A Year Later

It’s been exactly a year since the bombing in Bali that killed my old friend Rick Gleason and 201 other people.
Is there a statute of limitations on mourning? Should there be? If we stop feeling that skip in the heartbeat and stab in the gut when we think of someone we loved who was killed, have we stopped caring? Should guilt then rush in? Should we try to leave behind our grief, and get on with it? What is left of the dead one, a year after they’ve gone, in the world? What do we learn from their lives, what can we learn? What have I learned?
A year on, I wish I could say confidently that I’ve consciously changed my life for the better after Rick’s death, taken the lessons his life and his sudden death taught me, plowed up some fertile ground. I wish that in the decisions I’ve made in the intervening twelve months, a reflection could be seen of some nebulous tribute to him, and the things we both believed about life. Maybe it’s there, and I can’t see it. When you’re too close to the mountain, you can’t see how high it really is.
I’ve lived my life with death all around me — not in the way that the billions of poor people on this planet do, perhaps, with family members dying slowly in the corner of the shack, or ripped apart under American bombs — but with frequent visits from the reaper, until he became a familiar presence in my life, neither feared nor hated. I have no fear of death, but I resent it, and the curtain it throws around our brief little lives.
My father died when I was about five years old, my younger brother, right in front of me, a few years later. Aunts and uncles, great- and otherwise, died with regularity through my teens, as did my dearly-loved maternal grandfather. The rest of my grandparents were gone by the time I was in my mid-twenties, and then my step-father, who’d married my mother not long after my father’s death 20 years before, also died. I have friends who never lost a family member or dear friend until their mid-thirties, for whom Rick’s death was a shock more singular, and I always wondered how they thought about death. Did they fear it? Do they hate it more now, or less? Do they put it from their minds, and go on with the humble daily things, keeping the stink of terror well hid?
Scars were left on me in the wake of those deaths in my young life, furrows and welts in my brain some of which are even now just working their way into the light. This is as it should be. My great and abiding love for the drink, moderated and benign as it has become in my later years, as much passed on genetically and nurtured environmentally as it may be, certainly has some roots there. My fear and loathing of the very idea of having children, absolutely. My carefully-chosen expatriate existence, yearning contrapuntally as I sometimes do for the deep, cold coniferous forests of my youth. The vigour with which I counter those who I perceive to be attacking me, yes. All of these and more. I have made my peace with the ghosts, made it many years ago, and carry my wounds with awareness and a quiet understanding that what happens is good by virtue of the sheer fact that it has happened, and that to claim otherwise and rail against our experience is to refuse life, and shrink from it. To say no, rather than yes.
But Rick’s death marked me, more than I could have expected. I still feel that weightless skip in my heartbeat, that stab in the gut, when I think of him. One year on, there are more questions than ever, about what my life is to mean to me, and what it has meant. About what is important, what is indispensable, and what is good. About how to reconcile a love for individuals with a deep, heart-squeezing loathing for humanity, and particularly for the sort of people that knocked down the World Trade Centre, that set the bomb in Bali, and that ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. About the preachers and the haters, the ideologues and the god-fearers, the killers and the martyrs, and about how deeply stupid and damaged, greedy and afraid they must be.
And in the end, of course, I’m left with more questions, and I’m left with a rising knot of choking rage and resentment that I consciously push down, squeeze back, and try to transform into something useful, into words and actions that don’t feed the killer monkeys, that keep the bloody chaos at bay, and I’m not usually very successful.
I said this, about 18 months ago, long before my friend’s death :

To regard the death of those you know and love as a natural thing, to turn the painful experience of their loss into something that enriches and strengthens your own life (because, face it, they ain’t got one anymore) – that’s the mostly truly reverant eulogy and memorial one can make. Which is trite, perhaps, but people seem to forget it, again and again.

and I suppose I still believe it to be true.
But Rick’s murder marked me, more perhaps and nearer the surface than any death I’ve lived past since I was very young. I suppose I am a better man because of that mark. I would be a happier man, and one less uncertain and questing, if it had not happened. Would that Rick were still walking around in his loose-limbed way, falling in love at the drop of a hat, laughing and drinking and seeing. Would that he could share a drink with me tonight.
But that is not the way it happened, and I’m still not sure of how to live with that.

Biting Through Meat

The sound that is made when you are biting through your own flesh is a little like that of thick rubber being torn. It’s wetter, and when you hear it inside your head, it’s kind of terrifying.
I bit a hole about the size of a dime deep into the top of my tongue, near the centre, the other day. I don’t know how the hell I managed to do it. I was eating some soon-dae (potato noodles spiced and stuffed into pig intestines, with boiled, sliced organ meat on the side – tastier than it sounds) when suddenly the molars on the right side of my mouth met a bit more resistance, there was that odd sound, loud enough that my wife beside me started and stared, and the hot, salty flood started. No pain, not right away.
I went to the bathroom and let a mouthful of blood pour out — a real Wes Craven moment, which made me once again wish we could afford that digital camera I want — and had a look. Great meaty flap, deep hole, reddish-black blood gushing out. Cool.
I hate doctors, so I applied ice and didn’t eat for a few days. The nub of flesh that pokes up out of the scar and the crater beneath it will be with me for life, I suspect. This is, in its way, good.
The sound that the small bones in your foot make when they break are not so much a crunch as a crack, startlingly loud. About 3 months back, I drove the corner of a doorjamb between my third and fourth toes on my left foot as I walked calmly into the bedroom to get the ironing board. Broke both toes, and a couple of bones in my foot as well, judging by feel. I did the ‘apply pressure/apply ice/elevate above your heart’ routine to minimize swelling, and bound the toes together.
I hate doctors, so I self-medicated, went back to work the next day, and limped around for the next 6 weeks or so while my foot slowly changed colour. I don’t think some of the bones set properly, and the area is still a little tender if I poke or prod it the wrong way. This is, in its way, a valuable reminder to watch where the hell I’m walking.
I’m not sure precisely what led me to my wholehearted loathing of the medical profession, although I do have a few ideas as to the antecedents.
My hometown, an island of a couple of thousand brave and drunken souls isolated in a sea of trees way up in the part of British Columbia where the map merely notes ‘Here Be Monsters,’ was served by an odd, sullen, ragtag crew of medical practitioners over the years I grew up there. Most were South African, and were bound by contract to be there in order to get their residency in Canada. How much our town benefitted from the Immigration Department requirements that doctors migrating to Canada spend their first few years dealing with family violence and alcohol-related injury in the Boonies was debatable, perhaps. Still, they were a novelty, with their funny accents and poorly disguised, simmering resentment.
I particularly remember one Vietnamese doctor who was, in fact, one of my favorites (and a rarity in a town where there was precisely one Asian family – the Chinese folks who ran two of the half-dozen restaurants), and who, thanks to his redneck comedy gold inability to pronounce /r/ and /l/ according to my expectations, precipitated one of the funniest conversations in which I have retrospectively been involved when he handed the 10-year-old me a plastic cup and a small wooden ice-cream spoon and asked for what I swore was a ‘stew’ sample.
One of the various medical mistakes, blunders, and life-threatening f–kups (back before the first thing I did upon injuring myself was Google up some advice) that I was either the victim of or a witness to was, for example, my bottomless prescription for tetracycline (a broad-spectrum antibiotic) as a teenager, intended to combat the Aetna-shaming eruptions that my face and body produced. Not on-and-off, but on, for years, nonstop. My body, strong as it is, is still paying the price for that. And this was in the early 80’s – not before medical thought had come around to understanding that continual massive doses of antibiotics might just have a deleterious effect on the patient overall.
My step-father, who pulled Dad Duty from not long after my father died until about 20 years later, died, I am certain, as a direct result of the interactions in the cocktail of drugs prescribed by his doctors — by this time another ragtag gaggle of Africans, mostly — but not after going quite mad beforehand. Or if not bibbledy-bibbledy mad, so far sunk into full blown paranoid delusions that it was painful to carry on a conversation with him on anything but the most trivial matters.
My current step-father, ‘Ol’ Number 3,’ a tough, boozy, no-bullsh-t ex-cowboy, experienced runaway heart fibrillations and tremors and pitty-patting for more than four months this year, to the extent that any kind of physical labor would sometimes make him lose consciousness. This was deeply embarrassing to him, and made life extremely difficult for him and my mother. He visited the docs over and over again, several times a week, a situation made more difficult by the 140 km of unpaved road between the fishing lodge where my folks live and the nearest town. Bamboozled, they merely scratched their heads in confusion, and ordered more tests. Finally, after months of this, unable to take it any longer, he just stopped taking his meds (including the new ones the doctors had prescribed), and the problem simply went away.
(There are more stories, and I’m sure you have a few too. C’mon – share!)
To hell with doctors. They can keep their pills and their guesswork. Unless I need a limb sewn back on, I’ll be taking care of myself. This attitude draws great chagrin from the wife, who is a big believer in the power of The Doctor, like most Koreans I’ve known, who tend to run in panic to the nearest doctor (and Korean doctors are a worry in and of themselves, let me tell you) if something flies out of their noses when they sneeze.
I tell her that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I’m certain, as she shakes her head in annoyed bemusement, that in her mind she replaces ‘stronger’ with ‘stupider.’
I can live with that.

A New House and A Walk In The Woods

I learned an important lesson about living in Korea today, and I learned it at the point of a gun, which may just make it stick for a while, for a change.
Most people who come to Korea to teach, whether at a hakwon (the catch-all term for the private-study schools that can be found literally 10 to a city block, catering to the monomania not for quality but quantity of education here in Korea, many of which specialize in English and employ most of the short-termers in Korea), or a university or foreign school, or in-house at a company, or somewhere else entirely… most of them are provided with housing.
This is, few actually realize, mandated by the legislation controlling E-2 (English Teacher) visas. Which is not to say that this legislation is universally obeyed (‘rule of law’ not being a concept that has caught on to any great extent in Korea thus far), of course, but it goes some way to explaining why the feared-and-loathed, almost invariably dishonest and money-grubbing hakwon owners actually do something that does not financially reward them in any tangible way. That is, provide housing for their English Monkeys.
There are some decent private schools around, and a fair number of goodish universities, at least in terms of working conditions, and they do occasionally provide their foreign employees with reasonable accommodation. Some very few go one better, and provide housing that is very comfortable indeed. This is the exception, rather than the rule, naturally.
Back when I was a bachelor in the mighty metropolis of Busan†, I lived for nearly two years — although I was working for one of the better schools — in a 3 metre by 4 metre closet in which there was room for a bed, desk, fridge, (and a few dozen empty bottles, of course), located right beside a textile factory. By right beside, I mean that my one window looked directly into a window on the factory floor, about 18 inches away. Right beside.
[†I liked it better when Busan was romanized as Pusan, and pronounced Poosan by foreigners, ‘san’ being the Chinese character meaning ‘mountain’, and I could thus refer to the city as ‘Poo Mountain’ and actually be able to explain why without being quite as longwinded as I am right now. ‘Boo Mountain’ just doesn’t have the same sophomoric poop-humour ring to it.]
The chatter of hundreds of sewing machines didn’t actually bother me much, as I was too regularly and fully inebriated at that point in my life to care, and rarely at ‘home’ other than to sleep, anyway. Life was good, in a dissipated and decadent, perpetually-sozzled sort of way. It was the last gasp of a bachelorhood that was becoming less amusing, rapidly.
The last couple of years, though, have seen my wife (who I met as I was leaving behind that rocket-fueled lifestyle) in the lap of relative luxury, in Australia, and after our return to Korea, in the two large, brand-new apartments which were provided by the university where I worked until recently.
The other reason for schools to offer accommodation when you take a job with them — the one that people usually assume to be the primary one — is that it is effectively impossible to find your own, as a non-Korean. This is in part a manifestation of the blithe racism that informs much of mercantile Korea’s dealings with us hairy barbarians, and in part a reasonable response to the infamous behaviour exhibited by most GIs and many young, inebriate, wacked-out English teachers (of which I was once one, with a vengeance). Stereotypes exist for a reason, after all. Not what you’d call most-favoured tenant types, most non-executive expats in Korea. If you’re married to a Korean, yes, but alone : nuh-uh, unless you want to rent a room in one of the ubiquitous yogwan f–k-hotels on a monthly basis, which many single guys do.
I’ve known some of them, guys who were capable of ignoring the nasty omnipresent fug of stale semen and cut-rate detergent, the dim green and pink lighting (creating that ambience of a festive abbatoir that just screams romance) and the weekend puddles of pinkish kimchi vomit in the hallway, the drunken screams and shouts from 11 pm to perhaps 3 or 4 am each and every night from the short-timers. Better than we deserve, though, I’m sure.
So when my contract wasn’t up for renewal (for reasons that boiled down to my lack of over-demonstrative lovin’ for the baby jesus™, basically) last month, it was a particularly stressful time, as I was forced not only to look for other work, which would then allow me to get a visa, but to do so before the beginning of September, in order for us to actually have somewhere to live (and put our worryingly large collection of furniture).
The right job didn’t materialize, and in between our chicken-little panic-stricken thoughts of bailing to Canada, or Mexico, or Thailand, or anywhere, really, we decided the cheapest and wisest option was just for me to do a visa run to Japan (Canadians get 6 month tourist visas here, on entry) and come back, and to rent our own house. That sounds blindingly obvious to the good people out there in Normal, Illinois, I know, but being locked into the mindset of job=visa=house, it really hadn’t occurred to us. Plus, I was kind of keen on hitting the beach somewhere, somewhere other than Korea. She Who Must Be Obeyed had predictable thoughts on that idea, unfortunately, and the plan was dismissed out of hand.
So we wandered hither and thither and even over yon a bit, looking for places to live, even as I was going to first and second interviews with likely employers and finding them all wanting, in one aspect or another. Seoul, for those of you who might wonder, is not small. Hither is about 3 hours from yon, and thither is another couple of hours beyond that.
Anyone who’s been reading the ‘bottle for any length of time knows how much I loathed the industrial nightmare of an area where we used to live, nuts deep in garbage and banana-peel-slipping-around on the constellations of comedy throat oysters horked up by the denizens of Gunpo City, south of Seoul, near Suwon. It was true that most of the other places around the city and its skirts that we looked were somewhat nicer, but mostly only in degree. Unpleasant, of course, but less so. Not precisely enticing, particularly when I had been thinking along the lines of Koh Samui or Whistler or Zihuatanejo.
Until we found the area we’re living now. I’m telling you, angels descended and blew their tinny trumpets in my ears (not unlike the appearance of the choir invisible when I first used an electronic bumrocket bidet machine in Japan on my subsequent visa run) when we started looking around here. It is the first place — anywhere in Korea — that I’ve seen that shows evidence of actual urban planning, where things are built on an almost-human scale, neither crowded together like barnacles nor consisting of massive slabs of concrete looming over massive courtyards of concrete, brutalist Pyongyang penile-surrogate stylee. No, this area was clearly designed for cyclists and walkers as well as cars, and isn’t outright antagonistic to its residents, unlike most other places in Seoul I’ve been.
Seoul is a city (like every other urban environment in Korea) that hates its residents.
I could tell this suburb was different, though, as soon as we’d walked around a bit. About as far to the west of downtown as we were to the south in Gunpo, I saw the full bike-racks beside the subway station (something I’d never seen before in Korea, as there are few cyclists in most places, it being simply too dangerous and heavily trafficked to bother) and tree-lined paths winding through each block, expressly for pedestrians. Trees everywhere, in fact, not just on top of the fortunate stubs of mountains that hadn’t yet been leveled to feed into grinders and rise again as the vast human beehives where 70% of the population of the country live. Wide, straight roads. And, astonishingly, people who didn’t perform the ‘oh-my-god-he’s-not-Korean‘ doubletake that had left me so unwilling to dare set foot outside our apartment for the last couple of years.
Even my wife, who’s spent almost her entire 31 years in Korea, said she didn’t know there were places like this here.
So we found an apartment, in one of the newer style buildings that have started springing up all over Korea, geared to singles and young couples, called ‘Officetels’ in Konglish. Basically — and completely unlike the standard, cookie-cutter ‘apart’ concrete beehive family apartment buildings that rise everywhere out the earth like buboes on a plague victim — they’re like western-style apartment buildings, down to the gardens on the roof, the hot-water-on-demand, and the emphasis on sky-light, and air, and brightly lit cleanliness.
We found a small loft, with west-facing 4 metre windows taking up one entire wall, and rather than sucking car-exhaust from the perpetually-roaring highway that was behind our first apartment, or looking straight into the baby-factory slum windows over which our second apartment had a glorious low-rise, low-rent panorama, I can watch the sun go down out over towards the West Sea. I honestly never thought we’d live in such a lovely place, here in Korea. I hadn’t thought they existed, except for the rich in downtown Seoul, and on TV. We gave our huge fridge and washing machine to the wife’s bachelor brother, and left some furniture in the apartment for the new (cheaper and more malleable, more bible-thumping) university hire to use (rather than just chuck it all), and moved on up. To the top. To a deluxe apartment. In the sky-eye-eye.
It’s no Sydney, or Vancouver — hell it’s not even Toronto — but it’s pretty nice.
One of the only good points of our previous university-supplied place, other than the fact that we were first to live there and thus didn’t need to deal with filth, was the proximity of a small mountain ridge, up and along which we (and thousands of others, it seemed) could walk, escaping the apocalyptic vision, if not the all-pervasive noise, of the concrete wasteland that is Gunpo. That was pleasant, and walking there in unaccustomed green along the trail that wound its way a few kilometres along the ridge was enough to recharge my batteries, at least when there weren’t too many shrieking, pudgy children up there too, dragged away from their computers and compelled to exercise by their parents.
The new area, Songnae, has a few wooded mini-mountains within walking distance as well, and I resolved today, after failing to find my way through a military base to a likely trail at another nearby mountain to the west, last week, to attempt to find my way up the even closer megahillock to the south. The wife begged off, and I headed out, with my usual lack of preparation. I crossed the subway tracks – on the surface, this far from downtown – and wandered around for a good hour before I found a trail that led upwards.
The weather has been flawless for a good week after a miserable summer – unsmoggy blue skies, dotted with fluffy cumuli, hot sun cool shade. It was gorgeous today; the sun spattered through the leaves as the wide trail wound its way up to higher heights, at a much steeper grade than our old daily walk in Gunpo. I got past the thundering-heart first ten minutes, and fell into the euphoric groove that exercise almost always brings, when I’m out in nature, senses heightened, brain clear. There were only a couple of people around, trudging down as I headed up. Past small plots of vegetables the trail rose, and soon became almost alpine, studded with those massive, rounded rocks protruding from that tightly-packed, cafe latte-coloured dirt that always make me think of Korea and Japan. The perfume of pines baking in sunlight. I was happier than I have been in a while, and it was good.
I reached the first summit, and there were a number of smaller trails heading off from the glade atop the ridge, wandering off to various points of the compass. Thinking one might lead to a vantage point unscreened by greenery, where I could get a good look at the geography of our new home, I struck out along one of the paths, towards the sinking sun. I realize now that that military base I’d been unable to find my way around last week was to the west, too. You know, the direction I was walking.
After about 5 minutes of blissed-out traipsing along the trail, all Homer-in-Chocolate-Land, and before I quite knew what was happening, there were shouts in Korean, and as I abruptly came back to earth, I noticed in quick succession that: the clearing ahead of me had a tall chicken- and barbed-wire fence along it, that there various dishes and antennae and stuff behind that, and that the half dozen camo-clad Korean men approaching at a trot were all carrying weapons that I could only presume were automatic.
My crappy command of Korean being what it is, I had no idea what they were saying, but from their tone I could infer that they weren’t asking me in for a cup of tea. They were young, of course — just the age of many of my university students, and no doubt doing their two years of compulsory military service and quite happy to have pulled light duty sitting on top of a mountain somewhere. Nonetheless, their excitement coupled with their tendency to gesticulate with their guns was making me a wee bit nervous, I have to admit. In response to what I thought was an inquiry as to precisely what the f–k I was doing, I shrugged, and made the two-fingers-walking gesture, which in conjunction with a goofy grin and vacant swinging of the head, as if communing with butterflies, was what I hope was the universal sign-language for ‘just, you know, wandering around, being a nature-boy doofus’.
They peppered me with more questions in Korean, none of which I understood sufficiently to make any attempt at answering, in sign-language or otherwise, and eventually the eldest, who couldn’t have been more than 25 or so, said “OK” quite clearly, waved the back of his hand in the general direction of the trail along which I’d been walking, and said something in Korean which, near as I could tell translated roughly to “Get the f–k outta here, and you’re lucky we don’t arrest your ass. Sir.”
I got the f–k out, and continued my walk, no worse for wear, up into the almost-alpine and the green, blue and white, being extra-careful to stick to the main trail.
And so, my lesson for the day, one that all Koreans seem to learn at some point: stray from the well-trodden path at your own peril, smart boy. A lesson that came complete with a moderately-sized brown spot in my boxers, for punctuation.