Saturday, March 27, 2010

I'm An Atheist 2

Both of my grandmothers were religious, and as a small child most of my Sundays were spent in church. After my initial recognition of my lack of faith, I found myself caught between the two of them. I loved them, and I respected them, and I believed that I should do as I was told. This eroded and eventually overwhelmed my early conviction that religion was a fairy tale.

I was told to believe. So I tried to believe.

I wanted faith both out of that desire to please and out of my desire for the numinous. There had to be some kind of magic in the world. I wanted that magic, or a sense that everything made sense -- that there was a purpose to existence. It's not a feeling that can be put clearly into words, that yearning for something more, but if you've felt it, you know what I mean.

I think the contrasts between the two faiths were a great source of perspective.

My Grandma Jean was a Christian Scientist. For those unfamiliar with that faith, it's a cult. My impulse is to say that a cult is any religion that people actually believe in, but I'm trying to keep my wiseassing to a minimum here. The definitions of 'cult' are all over the map. So in these essays, I'll say that a cult is any group that holds non-factual beliefs and is focused on a charismatic figure. I'll include the Marxists in there as well -- there's no shortage of fairy tale stuff in their doctrines.

Anyway, Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, who was flat-out stark raving nuts, and seems to have been quite the little plagiarist on top of that. The basic belief is that God is perfect, God made everything, and so everything's perfect. If you think something's wrong, it is only because of mortal error and you need to just see the perfection in all of God's creation. On this basis, Christian Scientists reject medicine, among other things.

In a way, this was actually a positive influence when the church was founded. Christian Science is a particularly feminine faith, and telling women in the 1800's to stay the hell away from doctors saved a lot of lives. Those dudes were not pro-uterus.

They talk about Jewish guilt, they talk about Catholic guilt, but Christian Science guilt really takes the cake. For someone converted to the faith, this belief system lets you shrug off your burdens and realize that everything is swell.

For a child raised in the faith it's different. If anything at all makes you unhappy, it's only because you're not seeing things properly. So stop being unhappy! Everything's great except for you and your inability to recognize perfection!

Christian Science, as you might guess from the name, prides itself on reason, on rationality -- and that rationality simply does not exist unless you embrace the virtue of faith. Grandma Jean used to drive me nuts by saying, "But it's just logic, like one and one make two."

No. No, it isn't.

My Grandma Knight's family was of Quaker descent, but they're now... I'm not exactly sure as to the specific label, but I've heard some of them refer to themselves as Born Again. The Bible and the figure of Christ are very important to them.

Services at Grandma Jean's churches were quiet, dignified, and rather bland -- very abstract, and intellectualized in a fuzzy-headed way. There was more enthusiasm at Grandma Knight's churches. More drama. Less intellect and more emotion. Grandma Jean's church was about appreciating the inherent perfection of all; Grandma Knight's was intended to make us realize that we were involved in a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil.

I never even attempted to reconcile them.

My Uncle Johnny came from Grandma Knight's perspective. He was someone I admired a great deal. He was pretty much the first adult I'd met who... how do I phrase this. I could see myself growing up to be something like him, and I thought he was really cool. Being around him made me feel as if there was hope for me.

He liked to read the same kind of thing I did, he was interested in a lot of the things that interested me, and he was really, really smart. So I'd listen to him when he defended Young Earth Creationism, and since I wasn't a scientist myself, I had to admit that much of what I believed to be true, I was taking on faith.

And who's to say that one faith is more true than another? (Oh, I'll be getting back to that one.)

Because of the people in my life who were Christians of one kind or another, people for whom I had respect, affection, and a sense of alliance, I tried and tried to accept Christianity. And not just for their sake; on a gut level I was convinced, as I said, that there was some magic in life that was out of my reach, and I hoped that they held the key. I was told to feel God's love, to recognize his perfection. I was told to open my heart to Jesus, and I did.

Nobody ever showed up. Nothing. Zip. Nada. All of my prayers simply went out into the atmosphere and evaporated. I didn't understand. Was there something wrong with me? Were the people I trusted mistaken? This certainly wasn't the most serious issue I faced in my life, but it was a real source of unhappiness.

Interestingly, it was my Uncle Johnny who inadvertently helped me get shed of those conflicts.

The first revelation came when he and my Aunt Marie were talking to us about Hinduism. I'd read Alan Garner's short retelling of the Ramayana, but that was about as much as I knew about the subject. They were talking about the myth where all the gods and goddesses use a cobra as a rope in order to churn the elixir of immortality from the cosmic ocean of milk.

"Now, isn't that silly?"

Boom, right then I felt a lot better about everything. Two valuable lessons were learned. One -- people whose intellects I respected dismissed the entire faith of Hinduism -- a scriptural religion with a far more venerable history than Christianity -- because it was silly. If something is ridiculous, you can dismiss it no matter who believes in it, no matter how much effort has been spent on contemplation, study and theology.

And all religions look silly from the outside. I'm tempted to point out the goofiness inherent in Christianity, the inconsistencies in the Bible, and so on. But I don't have to. "Now, isn't that silly?" works for me just fine.

Another time, Uncle Johnny's family was making a hard argument for my brother and I to embrace Jesus and be born again. After an extended discussion, I said, "Well, since this is all based on the Bible, why not read us something from the Bible?"

I've mentioned my distaste for the story of the Passion, the idea of Christ as redeemer. That distaste goes further. I love mythology and folk literature, but there is a lot about the mythology in the Bible that gave me trouble. Much of it reveled in brutality, and portrayed horrible, horrible people as heroic. It took place in a vicious world created by a vicious God.

Oh, those poor people. Here's a tip -- if you want to convert someone to Christianity, don't use anything from the first half of the Bible.

That night we heard the story of Jael and Sissera. Here's a bit of it:

Extolled above women be Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Extolled above women in the tent.
He asked for water, she gave him milk;
She brought him cream in a lordly dish.
She stretched forth her hand to the nail,
Her right hand to the workman's hammer,
And she smote Sisera; she crushed his head,
She crashed through and transfixed his temples.
At her feet he curled himself, he fell, he lay still;
At her feet he curled himself, he fell;
And where he curled himself, let it be, there he fell dead.
Truly, a lovely message -- praises to she who drives nails through the heads of sleeping men. And honestly, she brought him cream in a lordly dish? Even as a kid I had some idea what that meant.

After the story was read, we were all pretty quiet. We went right to bed, and there was no more religious discussion for the remainder of our visit.

I grinned as I went upstairs to the guest room, thanking God for showing me the way out of Christianity.

I'm An Atheist 1

I've had a number of recent experiences that oblige me to make a public statement in support of atheism. This is going to be one of my long, rambling essays -- what can I say, it's spring and my sap is rising.

Before we get much further, let me make it clear that I'm not trying to convince anyone to share my opinion. Yes, at times there will be harsh language used. A big part of this blog is about me writing casually, writing the way I speak, and I am a blunt and vulgar person. If that bothers you, get the fuck out of here.

I have some things to say about religion that a lot of atheists won't like; other opinions will not please the faithful. I will not write with obnoxious intent, though. I am just going to explain as honestly as I can how I view religion, and how I came to these views. Remember -- it is possible to respect a person even when you cannot respect all of their beliefs. Many of my own beliefs are worthy of scorn; I try to address them, but the damned things are like weeds. Leave your mind alone for a couple of weeks and it's covered in dandelions.

I've intended to write on this subject for some time, but I've been hesitant. I have a number of people in my life who are religious, and I don't want to hurt their feelings. And that desire not to hurt the feelings of the faithful has been a great source of confusion in my life.

During the winter, I traveled to Oregon. My relatives up there are devout Christians. During one conversation with an uncle -- a conversation that showed him to be for the most part a man of uncommon good sense and humanity -- my uncle began to berate the ACLU. When I told him that most of what he was complaining about came down to support for the rights of atheists, not an attack on Christianity.

"Well, who cares what atheists think?" he said, with a note of genuine scorn in his voice. I didn't want to turn a productive discussion into an argument -- and I knew that once I got started on this subject, my temper would become involved. Anyone who's been in my presence when I'm angry knows the experience is unpleasant, and my uncle is a very strong personality in his own right. So I bit my lip -- nothing I like more than those moments when one must choose between being an asshole or a chickenshit.

More recently, on a blog I follow, a simple exchange regarding science and art was interrupted by a comment from an anti-atheist individual who referred to the Kristallnacht in a fashion that made it unclear whether they were accusing my friend and I of being complicit in it -- or if he wished that we would suffer the fate of the Jews in Germany. Context strongly suggests the latter. This person (probably a dude, but it might have been Ann Coulter) was clearly deranged, but still representative of a strong hostility toward atheism in the US, a hostility that joyfully encompasses violence.

So I want to make it absolutely clear to these people that I am an atheist.

A materialist, to be specific -- I see no reason to believe that there are supernatural forces at work in the universe.

My first clear, conscious memories began when I was about three. There is a certain connection between them -- in my mind they are so inextricably linked that I can't write about the one of them that is specific to this subject. Together they explain the roots of my worldview. As you read, consider that I was not a normal child. I was much too smart to be healthy. I thought of myself as an adult, and for the most part the grownups in my life treated me as such.

Let the rambling begin.

I remember lying in my bed at night. My mother had made a banner for the room I shared with my brother; on the side facing his bed was a lion, on the side facing my bed was a toy soldier of the Nutcracker variety, which I thought was bogus and a rip. The lion was way cooler. Anyway, I had to pee -- but I was frightened of the monsters that lurked in the dark. So I wet the bed. As the urine cooled, I felt as though I had betrayed myself. There was no control or dignity in my action. I was scared of the monsters, but I decided never to do that again.

I remember sitting on the dark, unpainted wood of our back porch, looking at the ivy-covered fence and playing with our dog. My cousin came out the back door. She carried a styrofoam tray with raw bones on it. She put the bones under my dog's head, and when the dog tried to get them, my cousin pulled them away and set the tray on top of the dog's head and giggled. "Don't do that," I said. "That's mean." When the dog started growling, I said, "Don't do that. She's getting mad." My cousin was laughing now. I didn't know what she thought was funny.

The dog jerked her head up, scattering the bones, grabbed my cousin by the face, and shook her as she screamed into the dog's mouth. I don't remember if I called for help or ran to get the grownups or just stood there staring.

What I do remember is my emotional state. I was distant from the scene, shocked by the simple fact of violence. I understood that we were all in the jaws of the world. I was crying, but I wasn't scared -- and I felt no sympathy for my cousin. She had acted like a fool, and I knew my dog would pay. I was three, I loved the dog, and I didn't really know my cousin.

(I don't know how badly my cousin was injured, but she did have plastic surgery. She grew into a lovely woman and a good person. We have never discussed this incident -- she's a little younger than me and I don't even know if she remembers it.)

And the third memory...

Our house was on the same block as the Christian Science church my grandmother attended. I was sent to Sunday School by myself, with a quarter for the collection plate. I had a suit that I only wore to church, charcoal gray with pinstripes and short pants. I did not like the suit, and I did not like church. The people were nice, they were polite, but they made me feel as though they didn't respect me.

I tried as hard as I could to figure out what Sunday school was about. They would tell us what were obviously fairy tales, about people who lost their strength if you cut their hair, or talking snakes, or a boat so big that a pair of every kind of animal in the world could live aboard it.

I loved fairy tales, but there was a problem here. These people told me that their stories were real. And when I asked questions and tried to understand why they said that, the answer was always the same.

"You need to have faith."

The story of the Passion enraged me. I knew that I would never, ever want someone to be punished for things that I had done wrong. And I also knew that unless I had actually done something wrong, then punishment was unjust. To be told that I somehow had misbehavior built into me and that a kind man had been nailed to a stick because of it?

Someone was yanking my chain. There was no way anyone could really believe that. It was just a way of making me feel bad so I'd do what they told me to -- and I was already doing that. But I wanted to be in accord with the people around me. I wanted to know the secret. There must be something they weren't telling me, something that would make it all make sense.

One day as I was walking out of church, I had an epiphany in the parking lot. When they said I needed to have faith? What they meant was shut up. They did not have any real reason to believe the things they said were true.

Grownups also played make-believe -- they just played it more seriously, and for higher stakes.

I still feel that moment -- it was my first intellectual orgasm. I didn't get a rush that good until I learned subtraction. But it wasn't just the sense of things clicking into place, of doing something properly.

It was a sense of relief. I didn't have to wrestle with all that crazy stuff anymore. I didn't have to play the game on their level. I could just, you know, make believe. Go to Sunday school when they told me to, listen to the stories, sing the hymns, give 'em the quarter. Like getting up in the night to pee, it was unpleasant, but I was going to do it.

There was consolation. When I got old enough? I wouldn't have to do it anymore.

That's about as sane as I've ever been in my life. Too bad I wasn't able to maintain those beliefs. Once I lost my way, it was a hard road back.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The current work in progress -- because nothing says Manlihood like a lavender seascape with butterfly wings.

My distaste for males began when I was a child. As a tender sprat of an oaf, I thought that men were too big and too loud. They were ugly and smelly and pushy and drunk and gross and they had a horrible tendency to hit things. Things like me. The way they talked about women was absolutely repulsive. I wished there was some way to have them fixed, like dogs. The best thing you could say about them is that they were easy to fool.*

Imagine my shock when I came to one afternoon to find that I was adjusting my nuts, guzzling beer, and talking about pussy -- and I gotta admit, I'm pretty gullible. I hadn't just turned into a man. I'd turned into the kind of loud-mouthed vulgar brute I hate the most.

I'm not going to go into how this happened, because it happened to all of us and we all know it was horrible. (A brief moment of reflection on the universal miseries of adolescence.) Instead, please, allow me to contemplate the state of my manlihood.

See, while I hate men, I wouldn't be a woman for all the drugs in Berkeley. I mean, vulnerable adorability as a survival trait -- who the fuck came up with that one? Look, I am pro-breast. When I worked at BookPeople we used to carry a volume called Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, and every time I put a stack of 'em on the shelf, I could hear the voice of a small boy call out from deep within me, saying, "Me too! Me too! I love breasts too!"

But in a world that is primed to explode into unspeakable violence at any moment the last fucking thing I need are tender cushions of sweetly scented flesh attached to my goddamned chest. I have no idea how you people live like that. (Yes, what you say about the penis and testicles, that's very true. I am not making claims regarding the safety or dignity of my junk, but I've learned to live with it.) And shall we discuss the horrors of reproduction? Let's not.

I must confess, red-faced, to a certain pride in being a fairly masculine kinda guy. It's disgusting, I know, but there it is -- or is it? I have some fairly serious reservations as to whether or not I can legitimately regard myself as a Real Man.

The Argument For My Manlihood

(In which my boasting will make you sick.)

1) Let's get the obvious out of the way. For the record, that's a standard doorway. You certainly wouldn't want me to fall on you. I almost never wear those kinds of clothes, though. Typically, I wear jeans and a T-shirt that says something like 'Dolomite,' or 'You're The Reason Baby Jesus Drinks.'

2) I grew up in a working and shirking-class city, and a lot of my schoolmates lived in the projects. From second grade through my junior year in high school, people wanted to beat me up all the fucking time. (The racial component to this was far to complex to go into here. Maybe another time...)

I went through an extended phase of non-violent protest, inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. that came to an end when I realized that some folks were regarding my behavior as freak show stuff. "Hey, professor, can I show my friend? Look, I'm really hurting him and he don't do nothing!" Then one day as I was walking home and two of my classmates were throwing rocks at my head as they followed me, something snapped. I realized that the effectiveness of non-violence is strictly situational and that it never works on assholes. That, under certain circumstances, Gandhi-style non-violence made you feel superior while encouraging others to behave badly.

So I started fighting again. I fought and fought and fought and fought until I was a senior in high school, when people didn't want to fight me anymore, because it hurt too much. The abuse continued, but it was furtive and crafty hit-and-run stuff.

While I haven't had to fight as an adult, that's because if disrespected or threatened, I flip the fuck out -- and that tends to make people back down, believe it or not. I've had a few run-ins that have made it plain that I'm endangering myself with this behavior pattern -- but it's not a matter of conscious decision-making. I come down from the rage-rush, and think, "You've gotta cut that tough-guy horseshit out, Oafboy."

3) I once stood down a Hell's Angel. This was during the month when I lived with a coke-freak who had a bunch of junkie friends who'd come over and shoot up. The Angel in question was a coke-freak too, and he'd settled well into the psychotic phase. He was under the impression that I was a deaf-mute, and if I said something, it was Satan speaking through my voiceless mouth. I had no idea he was a Hell's Angel. I just thought he was a squirrelly asshole.

My roommate and I were conversing in a parked car, when there was a crunch and the car rocked up. The Hell's Angel dude had rammed the car with his pickup truck.

I jumped out and gave him the 'bring it on' hand -- arm extended, pinky and ring fingers folded, middle and index fingers extended. He jumped out and got in my face, screaming, "Jesus wants me to fight you! Jesus wants me to fight you!"

"Then fucking hit me! Fucking hit me!"

"Jesus wants me to fight you!"

This went on for a while, while my roommate sits in his car, frozen. The sight was more embarrassing than awe-inspiring, though. I weighed a hundred and forty-five pounds, and the Angel was about five-six, five-eight. Finally, he backed off and got back in his pickup. "God's going to get you for that!" he screamed as he drove off.

When I got back in the car, my roommate was pale and shaking.

"Jesus, dude, that guy's a fucking Angel! If you laid a finger on him, they'd all come after you!"

Of course, back then I was suicidal, so the idea of dying in a fight with a bunch of Hell's Angels was not exactly discouraging. Later, the guy came to me and apologized, told me he was in Narcotics Anonymous. He was, as Stew once sang, very, very, very optimistic.

4) My roommate back then was in the habit of ripping off everyone around him -- he was at the cocaine stage where he simply did not give a shit about anything but the next needleful of Bolivian confidence. Yes, you told that person you were going to buy them drugs, and yes, you fucking spent their money on coke, but the real problem is who else has money you can access.

So one sunny afternoon when he was out ripping someone else off or shooting up, there was a knock on the door.

"Steve! Steve, get your fucking ass out here! We want our fucking money!"

I got out of bed, dressed in just jeans (remember, I weighed one-forty-five, and my body was a source of pity rather than fear), and pulled back the curtain.

There were six or eight people out there with chains and two-by-fours and objects of that nature. The guy on the porch saw me and pounded on the door again.

"Don't make us come in there!"

So I went to the kitchen and looked under the sink, where I found a can of Easy-Off oven cleaner. Which is sprayable lye. I grabbed it, then went and opened the door, and set the Easy-Off down on the hall table with a thump, then loomed over the dude on the porch. (Looming is one of my gifts -- I should put it on my resume.)

He looked up at me. "Steve fucking ripped us off and we want our money back!"

"Steve isn't here," I said.

"Then we're coming in and waiting for him."

"No, you're not," I said. "I got work in the morning and I've gotta get up at fucking five and there's no way I'm going to get to sleep with you clowns in the house."

"Oh," he said, and turned around to look at his crew. "Uh. Well, tell Steve we came by, will you?"

"Will do," I said, and shut the door. When I heard them leave, I put the Easy-Off back under the sink. I was kinda disappointed; I wanted to know if it would, you know. Work.

5) And so on, until the accumulation leaves you bored and disgusted. Some of these I sure as shit will not post on the fucking Internet.

6) When I was into weight training, I got to the point where I was racking a number of exercises, had to have someone hold me down while I was doing lat pulls, that kind of thing. One day an instructor came up to me.

"So we were wondering." Jesus, I'm a subject of conversation? "What sport are you training for? I bet it's rock climbing."

"Nah," I said. "I just work out for the buzz."

7) I like my beer strong and my whisky neat.

8) When I was a manual laborer, I worked like a ring-tailed son of a bitch. When I left my janitorial position in Santa Cruz, they hired two janitors and a glass-cleaning service to replace me, and the store still went to hell. I've had three bosses tell me flat-out that I couldn't quit because they needed me, and one of them tried to claim that I hadn't given notice after I gave both one-month and two-week notices.

Once when I was working my warehouse job, the one where I lost my discs, I wound up being the only person functioning in my department for about a week. When the other dude who actually worked in the department came back, he said, "So the way they've been talking about you, I was expecting to see a blue ox following you around."

9) I sweat and stink. I huff and puff and take no guff. I am covered in hair. My mighty tread shakes the Earth, or at least the house. Ask the missus about a phenomenon we refer to as the "zone of destruction."

10) Pain does not deter me. As a child, I saw photographs in National Geographic showing Easter in the Philippines (feel free to look it up), and wondered if I could do something like that to myself. So I spent an evening pushing a fat sewing needle through the tip of my thumb, in under the nail and out the other side.

I've lived through a winter with an untreated broken jaw (a gift from a couple of classmates, I'll tell you about it another time), feeling the ends of the break grate against one another every time I chewed. Didn't want to bother my mother; she was having a rough time that year. I've punched out freight elevators and lost, medicine cabinets and doors and won, and then gone on to do serious labor with my injured hands.

Sometimes I'll whack off a chunk of myself and not notice until the missus complains about the blood.

11) A number of other things that I am not going to fucking talk about on the internet.

12) I dig emergencies, and when the situation calls for leadership, I look around. If nobody else steps up, I roll my eyes, sigh wearily, and take charge.

13) I've never had sexual feelings toward another man. Attraction to men baffles me -- honestly, I think that at some level, gay men and straight women are out of their fucking minds. Especially women -- how could you possibly be attracted to an animal that could beat you in a fight? Are you people crazy? Being with a man is like having a pet lion or a pet chimp. How can you trust them?

The Argument Against My Manlihood

1) I've never had sexual feelings toward another man, and the manliest of manly men -- the real men -- have rejected femininity completely. I will never be a Spartan.

2) And it ain't like I've got an impressive record with the ladies. I once thought I asked a girl out on a date, but it turned out that I was mistaken. I didn't hold hands until I was twenty-three. I've only been with two women in my life, and only in the context of a committed relationship. Both of them made the first move. I'm almost completely ignorant regarding boys and girls together. Beauty tends to scare me -- it's way too powerful; I'm attracted to intelligence, humor, and ability.

3) I hate sports. I've had conversations that have let me understand what people see in them, and I can understand the fun of playing them, but I have never deliberately sat down and watched a sporting event and probably will never do so. That shit is dull.

4) I listen to Gilbert and Sullivan, I like Vince Guaraldi, I like Gilberto Gil, I like Ella Fitzgerald, I like Cole Porter. I find the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow touching, and I like the Judy Garland version as much as the Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version. That's probably enough to end the discussion right here.

5) I've never driven a car. The one time I tried, I became absolutely convinced that if I drove, I'd kill someone. So I don't drive.

6) I cook and eat vegetables every day. I clean the kitchen.

7) I take care of children. I will change diapers. (I did find an odd example of sexism in my diaper-changing practices -- if I'm going to be passing a baby on to a guy, I check the diaper first and change it if necessary, because I don't trust 'em to do the job.)

8) I don't like bossing people around. I avoid positions of power.

9) I hate competition. I do not want to be in a position of superiority.

10) The most important influence on my writing has been exerted by M.F.K. Fisher. I think Norma Ephron wrote some damned good casual essays. I have a vague crush on Dorothy Parker. And so on.

11) I have never made a life or taken a life. I have never been in the military or prison or been a cop or a sailor or a fireman or an astronaut. I probably won't be president.

12) I have never said, "Get me a beer and a sandwich," and I doubt I ever will. This leaves me feeling somehow cheated.

And, most crushingly,

13) I will ask for directions, I will ask for instructions, I will admit when I'm wrong, I pick up my socks. I put the seat down even when the missus is out of town.

Fuckit. That settles it. I am a total girl.

* There were two series of children's books that had horrid and pernicious effects on my behavior when I was wee, because I regarded them as challenges to my intelligence, which was the only fucking thing I had going for me at that point. The Great Brain books by John Dennis Fitzgerald convinced me that the signal mark of intellect was the ability to take money from people.

Since I had two younger siblings and my parents and their friends were drunks, I had considerable success in this -- but when I realized that being a creepy little con artist was a loathsome thing, I turned my back on money. You can ask the missus how that worked out for me... I'm currently trying to convince myself that making money isn't reprehensible.

The behavior inspired by the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald J. Sobol was much worse. Each volume featured a series of short mysteries intended to be solved by the reader, with the answers in the back of the book. I would read these in the living room, and at the end of each chapter I'd loudly announce the solution to the mystery -- "He's lying because ambergris floats!" -- and then turn to the back of the book to check the answer. When I was right, which was the vast majority of the time, I'd say, out loud, "I knew it! I was right again!" When I was wrong? I'd plunge into the depths and sulk for days.

Yes, it's wrong for children to be beaten and bullied -- but I have to admit, I kinda asked for it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Flossing and Art

I'm going to make this fast because I want to get back to work, but Glendon Mellow and Peter Bond have both left comments on my recent post regarding creative productivity. Their plaintive bleats have touched my heart, and I think this is worth putting up in a more accessible place than the comments section of an old post.

Look, this is something I've only been doing for a week. So I'm not all that much of an authority, but here goes.

When my brother died, I stopped flossing for a couple of years. One day I was complaining about it to a friend at lunch.

"I want to. I'll floss for a day or two, and then I'll start blowing it off again. It really makes me feel like I have no real discipline, you know?"

My buddy nodded. "I went through that too. Then one day I realized that wanting to floss is bullshit. It doesn't mean anything.

You either floss, or you don't, and how you feel about it doesn't mean anything."

You floss. Or you don't.

Sounds harsh, huh? But I started flossing that night, and haven't had a break from it since.

Because I really did want to floss -- and I was letting my desire turn the situation into a drama instead of a decision.

Next verse, same as the first.

I let my desire turn the situation into a drama instead of a decision.

And when I stopped? I made the decision.

When I wanted, wanted, wanted to be flossing, that meant that every time I had to make the decision it carried a lot of emotional weight for me. It wasn't just flossing -- it was my sense of responsibility to myself, my fears of the future, and so on, and so forth.

Now? When I'm brushing my teeth, and it comes time to floss? I just do it. And when I'm done, my mouth tastes nicer. Immediate gratification, long-term investment. And if I get lazy and skip a day?

I forgive myself. And I floss the next time. Because it's not a big deal. No one instance is significant if the overall pattern works.

Do not try and make yourself do something because you ought to, and if you fail to do something, don't sweat it. Know that you'll do it when the time comes.

Here's the thing about being a creator. Some people say they hate the act, love the product. Me? I create because it makes me feel good, for any number of reasons. But I do it because I want to. I feel good while I'm doing it, and I feel pride in having done it. And doing what I want to do makes me feel as though I have some measure of control over my life.

If you want to create, do it because you want to. Strip "should" from your internal dialog. Stick with, "I want to."

So I get up in the morning, I've had an awful night's sleep. I'm burnt out and uninspired. I wish I could be asleep.

My habit has been to say, "I'm fucked. I ought to work, but I don't feel like it." And then I'll look for something to kill the time -- a movie, a book, comics, the fucking internet. Because that 'ought to' carries a whole emotional load with it that I want to fucking avoid -- but then it stays with me as I intentionally kill time, and feel guilty about wasting my talent and opportunities.

But I know that once I start working on something, my energy levels will rise. I'll start feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I know this from experience.

If I ask myself, "What to I want to do now?" rather than, "What do I wish I would do?" I get much better results.

Get in touch with your actual desires. Ditch obligation, duty, and responsibility. What we do is fun -- and if we enjoy doing it, it shows in the finished product.

We live in a culture of distraction. The degree t0 which we're bombarded by entertainment is fucking grotesque. And as a result, it's easy to make immersion in media our default behavior; what we do if we're not doing anything else.

I've decided that that position in my life will be occupied by my art.

Creativity is my default behavior. If there isn't something else that I want to do for specific and compelling reasons, I will create.

If there is, I will engage in that activity without guilt or self-recrimination. It's the pattern that's important, not every individual moment.

I will not start work looking forward to the moment when I can quit and go on to something else. The work is what I want to do.

It's simple, it's easy. It's just a matter of, well...

You floss. Or you don't.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go make lunch, finish re-reading my script, and then write a treatment, maybe get some editing in...

Good times, people. Good times.

Evopunk Lives!

One of my great artistic failures -- a life-sized Ceratosaurus portrait executed in ink and graphite. I spent about three weeks working on it over the course of a month and a half, because the amount of time I spent standing threw my back out twice, leaving me bedridden. I had to give it up, just as I finished the neck. Lemme tell you, it would have been sweet...

I'm taking a quick break from working to make this post. Long-time readers may remember the Evopunk posts.

These were drawn from a film script I wrote in 2006. I'm in a narrative scriptwriting class now, and my goal is to revamp the script so as to make it, you know, something that doesn't suck.

I've been terrified of this job, I've wondered how to fix the plot, it's just intimidated the hell out of me.

Well, I'm halfway through the script, and it's in much better shape than I thought. I'm not going to have to rewrite it from scratch, I've figured out how to fix the plot, jazz up character relations, etc, etc. I'm getting excited -- and of course, once I get the script written, I've got a lovely template for a novel.

It's fascinating for me to see how much my writing has been influenced by scriptwriting. I've recently been complimented by one of my writing buddies on my strict, "Show, don't tell," policy -- that is straight out of scriptwriting. To tell the truth, right now my prose is more cinematic than my scriptwriting used to be.

And this story is very different from most of my writing -- it's tough-guy action/adventure stuff. Which is really a lot of fun. I need to get a treatment out today, and you know what?

I'm not worried at all.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Paradigm Shift

Here we go. The initial cover design for the next issue of Swill. I tried to sell the last one in a couple of stores in Berkeley. Like an idiot, I designed it as an art object rather than a fucking magazine, and as a result, we sold one copy. This time I'm adding the little things like price, issue number, etc. Thank Globs I don't have to stick one of those horrible zebra labels on it...

So, I've been having an interesting week. I've totally changed my work habits.

I spent most of this winter in a state of paralytic creative malaise. It was fucking miserable. Part of this was, of course, classic self-nagging. "You ought to work. You ought to get up and work right now. You should be working eight hours a day; no, make it ten. Your commute consists of walking upstairs, dude. You should buy a time clock. You should track your hours. Working writers write a fuck of a lot more than you do. You should get your draftsmanship back by sketching every day. You should be learning 3D and photography and start cartooning. Learn some new chords on the baritone uke. Practice your bass every day. You need to study plot, too. You are the luckiest man in the world; you have the time to make art. Get to it."

And so I'd find myself pacing from the living room to the kitchen for hours, unable to decide on a course of action. Or I'd go online and intentionally waste time by trolling around for images of coconut crabs and videos of bug fights and blogs by amusing freaks. Or I'd get drunk and watch TV. (For me, alcohol is the gateway drug that leads to television...)

By an act of sheer will, I dragged myself from the slough of despond and wrote a short story.

But then something changed. Last Monday I woke up too early, as usual. I lay in the dark thinking about my position.

Here's the thing. I've had some terrible, terrible work habits. I'd only work on one project at a time, in steps, and when I reached the end of a step, I'd stop. Or if I had too much to do, I'd stop. Or I'd work until lunch, and then stop -- because a lot of writers are only able to work three or four hours a day. Never mind that I could have switched over to another art form, or another project.

When things were all lined up and I was going on all cylinders, I'd put in a twelve or fourteen hour creative day without even noticing it. I wrote the first draft of my movie script in a fucking week. It's not unusual for me to knock out three or four thousand words on a good day.

As I lay there in bed, reflecting on how good I felt when I was working that way, I realized something. Creative work makes me feel good. It isn't something I ought to do; it's something I want to do. I was never a person who hated work because it was work; I've had lousy jobs, but they were never lousy because of the work I had to do. If I cleaned toilets, I liked the act of cleaning them properly. If I moved boxes, I moved tons of boxes and knew exactly where they were at all times. If I dug a ditch, it would be straight and neat. Because I like to work.

But I've never been able to work for myself with the dedication I've given to my employers.

I got up at five and started working. With breaks for meals and a writer's group meeting, I stopped working at ten in the evening, capping my day off by sending out the new story. (It's a grim little unit, let me tell you, and it makes the reader do all the dirty work.)

Over the course of the week, I wound up getting almost all caught up with my online writers group, worked on three different digital paintings, including the cover above, posted on the blog, sent out the first part of a new writing project, and so on and so forth.

My new rule is that unless I'm specifically doing something else, I'll be arting my brains out. And I'll try and ditch the, "You need to do this, you have to do this," mentality and just say that as long as I'm creating or assisting someone in their creation then I'm working. That my default setting is 'art,' whether writing, visual arts, music, whatever.

On Friday, the missus turns to me and says, out of the blue, "You've been really easy to get along with this week." I know I've been in the best mood I've had in months.

Let's see how long I can keep this up. Man. First I stop hating myself, then I find out one of the secrets to unlocking my work ethic.

You'd think I was starting to grow up...