Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Yes, Mr. Duke, I would like a ride! Where are we going?"

For a long time, I had a pretty good idea of what Hunter S. Thompson without ever actually reading any of his books. This was a guy who was all about drugs, guns, insanity, weirdness and of a very particular authorial voice. Maybe it's because I grew up reading Doonesbury and was familiar with Uncle Duke. He also seems to be a sort of hero to a certain kind of hipster male, the type with whom I often associate. Whatever the cause, I felt like I knew Thompson pretty well already, knew exactly what I was getting into when I finally picked up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last week.

I want to say that I was utterly surprised, that there were things about Thompson's persona and style that the general cultural effluvia hadn't yet revealed to me. Unfortunately, I can't really do that. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and FaLiLV is pretty much exactly what I thought it would be- a drug-loaded travel book written in an expansive, splattery style that meshes perfectly with the Ralph Steadman illustrations that accompany it.

I read the book in two days, and I think that's a good sign, usually, if you read a book and have no idea where the pages are going. The action clips along fairly rapidly and one thing I have to say for Thompson is that he isn't boring. He is very, very not boring. Thopson's voice is his strong suit, his ability to inject his own brand of energy and insanity into whatever's around him. His voice is meaty, big, and ravenous. At no point could you ever mistake it for a book by someone else, at no point is Thompson generic or anonymous. He stamps each sentence as his own.

I love authors who can do this, but they also leave me occasionally unsatisfied. FaLiLV doesn't really have a plot. Well, it has a really thin plot wherein Raoul Duke (Thompson's literary persona) and Dr. Gonzo (his attorney) are supposed to cover a motorcycle race and DAs' conference, but that's more of an excuse for the whole jaunt. Thompson gets by almost entirely sheer charisma, strength of voice, and sheer power of his prose. There's no real drama, plot, or character development- just the sheer power of Thompson's Gonzo Journalism.

I'm reading Tropic of Capricorn right now, and Henry Miller is much the same way. So are Joyce, Kerouac, and Woolf, for that matter. I love these authors, I love their fantastically beautiful use of words. If I could write a third as well as any of them, I'd be ecstatic. But, I want to experience books as more than just aesthetic things. I want to be intellectually stimulated. I don't just want wonder and beauty, I want something interesting to think about.

When I read, I can't help but look for those things. When I read Mrs. Dalloway, as much as I enjoyed it as a beautiful and wonderful work of art, I couldn't help but think about World War One. With Thompson, I had a similar experience. I kept looking for something to think about in the book, some core idea or ideal. As much as I enjoyed the balls-out wildness, I was needed something social, cultural, and political to relate the book to.

Fortunately, I think Thompson was, too. I don't know how drug addled he was when he wrote the book, but interspersed with all of the decadence, vomit, and weirdness, Thompson has a much larger point on the death of the Sixties. Reading the book in San Francisco, I couldn't help but think about the Sixties, hippies, and everything radical and weird that rose up with my parents' generation.

Thompson reminisces about his experience of the Sixties, of San Francisco, and while sitting and reading in that same city this particular passage (which I later learned is the second most famous section of the book, after the intro) struck me:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

He just summed it all up there. The Sixties were significant and revolutionary, yes, but also facile and naive. What kind of values are "Peace" and "Love," really? Such generalities are unassailable and unformed, and one might as well support "Food" and "Water." As much change as there was, the overall mindset of the hippies was one lacked a coherence and depth. Popular opinion did change America dramatically, but at the end of the day plenty of the old paradigms and demons were still around. What happened was social change, not ascension or mass enlightenment.

The drugs, of course, were part of that. Or rather, they weren't. Duke and Dr. Gonzo spend the book in various states of inebriation. But it's only that. Their debauchery and excess is only debauchery and excess. None of the various drugs bring them close to some kind of Timothy Leary style epiphany. Thompson even calls Leary out on that directly at one point. As much as FaLiLV may glorify or glamorize drug use, Thompson repudiates the idea that the things are a shortcut to some kind of grand cosmic understanding. To him they are depraved and perhaps enjoyable things, but, at the end of the day, simply chemicals. There is no road to Nirvana in a tab of acid or pill. There is only visceral pleasure and excess.

For this, FaLiLV stood out for me as not only an aesthetic experience, but also as a critical response to the Sixties from someone inside the counterculture. Thompson does not repudiate the hippie generation because he's against them, his issue with them is that so much of what they believed turned out to be nothing but air. It was like a whirlwind that swirled everything about, ravaged the landscape and jostled it. But, the wind dissipated. It wasn't solid. What's so funny about peace, love and understanding? They're so general and open-ended that you can't build anything coherent on or around them, that's what. Thompson recognizes the energy and wonder of the Sixties, but he does not pretend that there was no shortage of vacuity and unfounded idealism, innocence just waiting to be crushed.

Later, when Duke and Dr. Gonzo attend a DA's conference, that naivete is shown in reverse. This time, it's law enforcement who has no idea what anything means. The presentations that they attend about how to identify "dope fiends" are clueless and dated, on par with Reefer Madness. Just as the hippies and flower children see nothing but sunlight and happiness, the DAs only see whacked-out rapists, chronic masturbators, and murderous psychopaths when they look at the so-called "drug culture." No one perceives moderation. Not even Thompson, really. The conversation is starkly uninformed on all fronts, to the benefit of no one.

I was happy to finally spend a bit of time with the father of Gonzo Journalism. He (or at least his literary persona) seemed depraved yet extraodinarily intelligent. Weird, and three steps away from ranting at pedestrians in front of a Safeway, saved by his inner articulate nature. I'll probably revisit him- his book about the '72 Presidential campaign is supposed to be a noteworthy political tome. Mostly, I want to hear him talk about Nixon in that stupendous voice of his.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"It Seems To Be Some Sort of Internationally Recognized Landmark..."

That Robert Frost poem is really misinterpreted. The Road Not Taken isn't about rugged individualism or how wonderfully shiny self-expression is. It's sort of an ironic poem, really, if you bother to read the whole damn thing and not just take the last bit and paste it on a Hallmark card.

Yet, there seems to be a certain breed of snob out there who take that shit literally, who blanch at the idea of seeing a tourist site, who shudder at the thought of going to any place that's going to swarmed by families with cameras and baseball caps. I'll cop to having a little bit of this attitude in me. Even as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a place I specifically wanted to go, my inner hipster-snob-asshole voice said "Oh god, we're tourists now." Once the thing reared up on the skyline, though, once the great orange towers reared up against the sky, I was duly impressed with the thing, and able to shove the annoying inner voice down into a mental oubliette where he belongs. We got out of the car and there were indeed several families with cameras and baseball caps swarming about- khaki shorts, sweatshirts, minivans.

The contemptuous arrogant bastard was safely in his damp little hole, though, and I was determined to be a tourist and enjoy it. I like being a tourist. People who say, "Oh, I love traveling but I hate tourists," or "I'm a traveler, not a tourist," are hypocrites. I like the sense of renewed perception that comes from being in a new venue, and I like seeing what the place has to offer. That includes places that are staggeringly famous and overrun with out-of-towners. While I do like wandering about on my own in the non-famous parts of a place (and did plenty of that in SF) there is a certain feeling of niceness that comes from going to a place that is absolutely, unmistakably famous. Iconic and symbolic. Somewhere or something that encapsulates its city, region, or country.

Every time I stood at Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, I sensed that I was somehow taking in an abreviated version of Tokyo, a kind of concentrated, focused bit of the city's zeitgeist. I felt the same way about the Shanghai's Pudong skyline, an image that fired rapid development into the the night sky. Chicago's Lake Shore Drive is like that. Driving down it you think, "Yes, there are the Big Shoulders, right there. There's the unmistakable something-ness of this place."

The Golden Gate is, of course, a symbol of San Francisco. It's also a symbol of everything that San Francisco represents, and that's saying a lot. It's also a big damn bridge. I love seeing the functionality of these places, knowing that this thing that's a symbol of so many amorphous things is also part of someone's daily commute. That's great. Walking across the bridge, I loved seeing the road signs. This thing that gets imprinted on so many cheap gifts and duplicated in so much media is a living, workable thing, and you would be an asshole to try a U-turn on it.

I was sort of pleased to see, though, that there really are rather prominent anti-suicide signs on the bridge. I guess that's one other thing that the bridge is famous for- the dramatic ejection of people and things into the San Francisco Bay. One of my high school English teachers claimed to have angrily thrown her engagement ring from the bridge. Seeing the signs though, I wondered how big a drama queen you'd have to be to kill yourself by jumping from this thing. What a cry for attention. What a final, pathetic "hey, guys- lookit me!" act. You'd have to have a weird alchemy of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement to actually do it.

I loved it, though. I loved that it was crowded and covered with camera flashes, the feeling that somehow we were participating in something significant just by walking across a sizable piece of urban engineering. I loved that it was crowded with bicycles and people shouting, plenty of people walking along and making use of this gigantic, significant and beautiful bit of metal and concrete. Yes, I thought, this is the Golden Fucking Gate Bridge and I'm experiencing it right now. I'm on it. I'm on top of this thing, that whose image I've seen, but now my experience is unmediated.

One last thing- I was lucky enough to be with three friends from Japan, people with whom I was very pleased to see again. Six months ago I left, and wondered what my relationships with people there would be like in the future I wondered if the connections would hold. Here, they did. My friendships, it seems, can take a bit of abuse and estrangement, which is an encouraging, when you think about it. We looked across to the Pacific and waved to our erstwhile home. "Hi, Japan!" we said, jumping up and down with utterly appropriate overenthusiasm. Seeing them was excellent and I feel that this picture is utterly representative of them.


Recently got back from a trip to the lovely Bay Area. While walking through downtown with some friends we happened upon a fountain that had been unexpectedly and frothily filled with bubbles.

Foam was pouring out of the thing and bits of it were getting carried all over the square by the winds. Kids were running after bits of it and a nearby outdoor yoga class continued on despite the artificial snow that was pelting them.

I thought for a minute "Is it supposed to do that?" and asked a nearby security guard what the deal with the fountain was. "Someone poured detergent into it," he said, smiling. He didn't seem bothered by it at all. Maybe the fountain wasn't in his security-guard jurisdiction, but he seemed to be enjoying the casual vandalism as much as anyone. I wondered if the perpetrators had been inspired by that one guy who threw red dye into Trevi Fountain a few years ago.

This is why I love the West Coast. From San Francisco to Seattle there seems to be a prevailing feel for this sort of thing, this kind of verve and life. I remember reading Ecotopia in high school and encountering similar ideas in Nine Nations of North America later in college. In both cases, I thought the authors made for too much of regional differences. However, I don't think their ideas were totally unfounded. There is an identifiable aesthetic and way of things here, one that I love and appreciate. People complain about Portland being overrun by "hipster douchebags" (a phrase anymore that is a collocation) but I know that they're coming out here for this sort of thing- flurries of mischief and joy, with amused security guards looking on.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Joy of Lacunae

Late last year, I thought to myself, "You know, I really should watch the original Dracula." This thought came pretty much out of nowhere, but I acted on it. Short review: Dracula is pretty good, except for the guy who plays Johnathan Harker. He sucks. Other than that, give it a watch.

One of the things that bothered me prior to watching it was that I was familiar with so many of Dracula's peripherals: Bela Lugosi in the cape, the accent, the one-liner "I don't drink... wine." I had read the book twice, but so much pop culture ephemera and effluvia (from Count Chocula to Anne Rice) has been influenced by the movie that I felt like I had this glaring, weird hole in my pop-culture education. So I watched it, patched up that hole, and saw where so many of the cliches come from. It felt good to do, and I've spent a fair amount of time filling these gaps, these lacunae, in my knowledge/experience base.

New things are easy to experience. Friends may want to go see a new movies with you, or recommend a new book. There will be plenty of buzz about a current television show, but not much about one that has passed. Older things you have be cognizant about, you have to seek out. I've been doing just that, and it's fun.

For example: I recently read A Brief History of Time. The book, the title, the cover, the personage of Stephen Hawking are all instantly recognizable. It's an icon. (That said, I think that most people would probably be at a loss to explain what the books about. Maybe they'd say "black holes" or something to that effect.) I enjoyed reading A Brief History not only because it's a well written survey of astrophysics, but also because I was conscious of the fact that I was digging into an icon while I was reading it. Going into something whose peripherals, image, influences, and cultural place you already know is weirdly satisfying. All of the ornamentation and latticework around the book was already apparent to me, but it was ornamentation that stood on air. Reading Hawking's book filled that in, provided a core to a cultural construct that I was already familiar with. Seeing the contours of popular culture fill out and define themselves before your eyes is a particular kind of "ah-ha!" moment.

The downside of this, though, is that once you start thinking about all of the holes in your cultural repertoire, you get into a dilemma articulated by everyone's favorite pederast, Socrates. "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing," said the bearded kiddie-fiddler. Socrates was exaggerating a little, but was expressing the frustration of trying to be a generalist. He was a really smart guy, but he realized that he couldn't actually be an expert on, or know, everything. I'm not given over to to such emo-laden statements (or pedophilia) as Plato's tutor, but I can share his feeling. Trying to be well-read, as it were, can be frustrating.

Another example: I also read Notes From Underground a while ago, and was happy to do so. This was a seminal work of existentialism and while I'm a big Camus and Sartre fan, Underground has slipped by me. It was okay, but that's beside the point. Reading it, though, alerted me to the fact that there are huge tracts of Russian literature with which I'm unfamiliar. I don't think it's fair to say that I've "read" Dostoyevsky, given that I've only read one of his books.

Similarly, at the end of A Brief History of Time, Hawking has something of a lament about the distribution of knowledge in the modern world. When a Grand Unified Theory of physics is finally articulated, he says, there will probably be perhaps a dozen people in the world who completely understand and appreciate it. That, he says, demonstrates how wonderfully powerful and knowledgable specialists are, but it also demostrates the difficulty of being a Renaissance man/woman. Back in Newton's time, says Hawking, intellectuals were expected to be conversant in a variety of topics, from mathematics to literature to biology to ethics. (To be sure, this is probably an idealized version, but let's go with it.) That's not the case anymore. Being really, really good at something is what get's you places. There is no place for generalists.

(At this point, I'm getting a little self-conscious about the high-falutin' nature of my examples, so I'll give another: Half Life. I hadn't played through the Half Life games until recently. I loved them as objects in and of themselves, but was also aware that I was finally getting around to experiencing a key bit of geek iconography. Back to the matter at hand...)

At the crowded, dusty bookstore where I used to work, though, I derived no small amount of joy form the stacks and piles of tomes all around me. There are too many books here to ever read, I thought, and new ones are popping out all the time. Every day. I will be reading, finding things out, until I'm dead. That's a wonderful thing to realize. The "ah-ha!" moment, the feeling of epiphany and satori, that is the goal. I adore understanding things, but when it comes to knowledge and experience, getting is just as good as having. There will always be things that I don't know, books I haven't read, cultural icons that I haven't explored, and that's great.

Unlike Socrates who lamented his inability to know everything I say: Wonderful. I'll take joy in the lacunae, be excited about the gaps. Intellectual and cultural completeness is simply not possible, and one would do well to enjoy that. I will always try to understand more, to patch up the holes, to reach an ideal, but I know I will never get there. Which is fine. More than fine. When I finish a puzzle, give me another, when I walk out of a labyrinth, tell me where the next entrance is, when I close a book, I go to the shelf. Gaps and holes abound. Let them. Socrates lamented his ignorance, but I don't want to run out of ignorance to obliterate.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Verbing "Placebo"

About twenty minutes ago, I had a headache. I took some pain relievers, and it's gone now.

But I know that's bullshit.

I know that pain relievers take longer than that to kick in, and the only reason I really feel better is because of the placebo effect. I don't mind the placebo effect. It's great, it tends to work okay, but I wish that I could get the results without the placebo.

Take, for instance, tea. I love tea. Every morning, I make a cup of it and drink it with breakfast, and I always feel way more awake with that initial sip of tea. But I also know that caffeine takes upwards of 45 minutes to really get going in your system, and that that little sip does nothing, really, to my body chemistry. Yet it works.

What I'd like to be able to do is tap into that feeling, that phenomena, whenever I like. I'd like to be able to trick my brain into getting the placebo effects of, say, caffeine or pain relievers without having to lean on the psychological crutch. Ideally, I'd just be able to "placebo" myself (to coin a verb) out of no where. If there is no real change in body chemistry, then you could theoretically summon up the effects without the focus, right? Could we placebo ourselves by sheer force of will?

If someone hasn't done science about this, then they really ought to. I want to hack my brain to instantly get that "first-of-tea-okay-I'm-awake-now" feeling. It would come in handy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Advocatus Diaboli

Last night, I got into a rather inconsequential argument with a friend of mine, the details of which are not worth repeating here. A few minutes into the argument, I realized that I wasn't truly behind my position. Intuitively, I knew my friend was absolutely right. I didn't want to prove her wrong though. What I wanted, was this: I knew that she was right in an intuitive matter, but that didn't satisfy my curiosity. I wanted her to explain her position in a more convincing and intellectual fashion, and to do so I was pelting her with a series of questions and accusations that sought to test her contentions. She did, finally, explain herself to my satisfaction, and throughout the course of the conversation I had the thought goddammit, I'm doing it again.

I am a skeptic. This is not just a facet of my character- I sincerely believe that skepticism and inquiry make us into better humans. Believing something for muddy, emotional reasons, I think, has a certain whiff of irresponsibility about it. We all do it, yes, but I believe that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to believe things that are true, and the truth can stand up to scrutiny.

This is all well and good, yes, but sometimes it can really annoy the shit out of people. An example from my own experience: drop handlebars.

I love drop handlebars. Riding a bike without them seems a little weird, actually. But, a little over a year and a half ago, I remember railing against them, asking all kinds of questions about their utility and ergonomics and such. I was out with my ex, an avid cyclist, and I was in the market for a road bike. I said that I found the handlebars awkward and wondered why anyone would prefer them. I pelted her with questions about them, tried to poke holes in her argument about them and she, rather understandably, became extraordinarily angry with me.

What she didn't understand, though, was that at no point did I actually disagree with her. I wanted her to prove her point. I didn't want to get a new kind of bike just because it was "better." I wanted the reasons for its superiority outlined to me in a coherent manner. This, however, occasionally had social costs. "Why do you always argue things that you don't believe?" was an exasperated question often levied at me.

I try to moderate it. I really do. I know that such concerns, accusatory questions, and general poking and prodding are not everyone's idea of a good time, and many people seem to regard my persona of a devil's advocate as something hostile or nihilistic. It's not. I'm not skeptical because I want to tear down people's beliefs. Really. I'm skeptical because I want people to have a coherent outline for their positions, because I believe that such rigor improves the quality of people's arguments and principles. My questions and criticism, I hope, are forces for good. I also play devil's advocate with my students on a very regular basis, with great results. In the classroom, though, such a thing is more anticipated.

It's difficult, though. Mind you, I'm not asking for pity or pats on the head as I explain this. This isn't a fucking livejournal. I just felt compelled to shed a bit of light on this sometimes (perceived) obnoxious aspect of my personality, in light of my conversation last night. I advocate for the devil, yes, and do so with all of my abilities. But it's not because I want him to win.