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Not Being Here Now

A few nights ago I watched a fascinating program called “My Life As A Turkey”, about a man named Joe Hutto. Hutto is (amongst other things) a hardcore method naturalist, and this drama-documentary detailed a period back in 1995 when he lived as the 'mother' of a brood of endangered wild turkeys — an experience he wrote about in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on order) but the documentary was spell-binding, an hour in the company of a rather extraordinary man.

One of the most striking things evoked by his experiences was how, while he was fully-integrated with the brood and operating as one of them, it was as though Hutto’s entire environment (the flatlands of Northern Florida) unfolded and opened up to him — as if the other creatures basically took the turkeys’ word for it that this tall, denim-clad dude was, effectively, a turkey, and behaved as they would as if a human wasn’t around. Deer played in his presence, larking around with the young turkeys. From glimpsing a handful of rattlesnakes a year, Hutto started running into them every day. By removing himself from humankind and going wild turkey, he stepped through a hidden door into another world, as an equal.

When the brood eventually split up and moved away, this passport was rapidly withdrawn. The other animals faded back into invisibility, once more shunning man as the animal-who-is-no-longer-an-animal. There was something heart-breaking about this process, and you couldn’t help believing that mankind as a whole was once more like this, integrated with our ecosystem and environment — living the kind of lives we hear of in legend and dismiss now as fantasy: and that our myths and old animal gods and modern bonds with pets speak of a deep and wistful yearning for when the whole world was this way.

The other insight Hutto focussed on was how the turkeys lived in the here and now, rather than ‘betraying the moment’ (his phrase) by casting their consciousness back or forward in time. This a far more commonplace observation (humankind’s tendency not to live in the moment is well-documented, and addressed with varying degrees of failure by a very large and profitable self-help industry) but it struck me for the first time how there’s now an added dimension.

We don’t just betray the moment any more. We betray place too.

Living out of time is an ancient human trait, probably the one that got us where we are today (for better or worse). It’s part of the educating and socialising of children from a very early age, after all — encouraging them to endure present tedium for alleged future benefits. Grill a five year old about their day at school and they soon learn to mutter a meaningless ‘Fine’, knowing a response is expected but unable to comprehend why anyone would care about something that happened somewhere else and at another time. Virtually everything that happens within the education system after that (and in the workplace, and life in general) is a sustained exercise in moment-betrayal. Living in somewhere other than our present locale, however — at first very occasionally through the written word, and then the telephone, and now continually via email, tweet and status update — is a more recent gift from our technologies (themselves a function of transcending the moment, the realisation that ‘it would be cooler tomorrow if we could...’), and one which takes us a dramatic step further from authentic existence.

From being in the here-and-now, we are headed toward forever being there, and then... and arguably this does not constitute ‘being’ at all, at least in the old sense. We are twice-dislocated from reality, bedded neither in time nor place.

When we experience the moment or thought, we’re being: but as soon as we start to compose the tweet describing it, we’re doing this other thing. If our minds are continually on what we’re doing in ten minutes' time, or with the utterances of distant strangers... then who or what is actually left here, in this space taken up by our bodies? Will there come a point when it is more convenient to simply park them somewhere comfortable while our consciousness flits across space and time, inhabiting every spot in creation except for the one where our corporeal form waits, experiencing the here and now quietly by itself? I realise this is a time-worn science fiction trope, but I’m not talking about sf. I’m talking about the way things are, right now. The future never presents the way stories say it will. We have no doors that briskly swish-thupp as they slide open and close. There are no hover cars overhead, nor robots with amusing insights into the human condition. We have laptops and smartphones instead, and actually leaving this ball of rock in a physical sense will merely be a matter of degree. We’ve already left the planet behind.

And that’s okay, and many fine things may come of it, but it’s also strange:

Goodbye, body, farewell — I will always be elsewhere now. But don’t worry, I’ll let you know where I am via status update, email and tweet: virtual postcards from anywhere but here.

Anyway. My point is that I’m going to compound this trend in my own small way by starting another Tumblr while I’m in the US — for stuff encountered while at large in Northern California. It will be found here, won’t start until the second half of August, may be brain-meltingly dull...

... and if you’d rather ignore it altogether and talk to the person next to you instead, you have my whole-hearted support.

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The Sound of One Man Spamming

This morning I was alerted by the ever-vigilant automated elves within my Wordpress install to the danger that I'd received possible spam on this blog. I went to check it out — anything to avoid work — and discovered the following:

“Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your website and in accession capital to assert that I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently rapidly.”

I think that's really rather beautiful.

It’s also something that I could never hope to have written myself, trammelled as I am by familiarity with the ways in which you use the English language to communicate meaning. Perhaps it’s this very otherness and randomness that attracts me to it. When I was in my early teens I was rather interested in Zen, and spent a worrying amount of time letting handfuls of twigs fall to the ground and admiring their happenstantial beauty. (Yes, this was before I discovered sex).

I also enjoyed considering koans — those little nuggets of didactic strangeness that Zen masters would use to tease enlightenment out of their pupils — the most famous example being the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Eventually I reached my own interpretation of these spiritual zingers — that their purpose is to demonstrate that you can construct perfectly grammatical sentences which nonetheless do not mean anything, thus proving that language (for all its benefits and strengths) is an artificial and arbitrary system which cannot hope to grasp the reality of the universe.

Seek not the truth in words or argument therefore, my friends, but in... um, something else.

This interpretation of koans may be widely understood, I don’t know. My point is that the piece of spam above seems to fulfil nearly the same purpose. It’s a statement in English... but it's also not. It’s a collection of reasonable-sounding words that doesn’t mean anything, but which nonetheless fails to mean something with a zesty pizzazz which is actually rather invigorating.

It’s not grammatical, sadly, which brings it below the level of the koan — but maybe we’re witnessing the early days of a covert metaphysical campaign being waged by hidden adepts, or a gradually-awakening group consciousness amongst the computers linked by this thing we do call the interweb. Perhaps these pieces of neo-nonsense are being sent to us in order to awaken our slumbering souls and urge us onwards to godhead.

Or maybe it’s just another example of the relentlessly annoying fuckwits out there in the ether wasting our time with yet more crap of indiscernible purpose.

You be the judge. But consider this — if a person blogs, and no-one reads it, have they blogged at all?

Oh, yes, of course, obviously they have. Sorry.

I think I’m too old for Zen these days.

Or still too young.

 

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Absence

Near the end of our recent vacation, my wife was flicking through the photos I’d taken on my iPhone and at one point muttered: “Now that is a classic example of the boring pictures you take.”

During the ‘discussion’ that followed, she clarified/refined/backtracked this remark to claim that while she simply adored the landscape pictures I took (and, much better still, the ones with members of our family in them, preferably smiling and wearing nice clothes and with their best side to camera), she was far less drawn to the ones which were devoid of people, obvious points of interest, or indeed signs of life. I attach to this post the picture that incited the observation, and fair enough, it’s not everyone’s idea of a holiday snap. (Many further examples of this non-human-interest school of photography can be found in my Tumblr, here).

I’ll admit that I do take a lot of pictures without apparent life in them. The vast majority of them are this way, in fact. I prefer to take pictures of stained concrete down the backs of buildings. Nondescript alleyways. Patches of rust on panels hidden from the street. Doors that have been haphazardly fixed a number of times by different people. Empty underground parking lots in the early hours. Stairways of motels that have seen better days, and very little love. I’ve been fascinated my whole life by ruins, too. Falling-down barns. Abandoned houses and boarded-up stores. The tilting remains of wooden piers or concrete jetties, falling into lakes or lurking on the non-presentation side of the less popular Florida keys. Disused roads, best of all — I will always remember the experience of driving along a two lane highway somewhere in Virginia, catching glimpses of a nearly parallel but overgrown road off in the forest, a previous thoroughfare that had been superseded and left to crack and fade (I believe there’s a reference to this in my second novel, SPARES. But I may be wrong.)

Why do I love this stuff? Because nothing says more about what it is to be human than evidence of our absence. A restaurant with no-one in it, or that's closed down; a pier that was once worth the time and expense of building but which for there eventually was no need, the commerce or revelries it housed canceled or moved elsewhere; a road that led to a place, but now does not. Except they do still lead somewhere, of course, those roads — they lead to environments we once built and lived in and cherished, but do not any longer: and it’s that lack of cherishing, this turning away of affection and attention, that’s fascinating to me. Why? Because these ruins are us. Why did the restaurant close down? Because the person who owned it died, or moved on, or else their clientele did. Why? When? How? Things happened to do with people, and as a result the world changed in visible ways. These are human stories of the most simple and direct and compelling kinds. It’s the same with the pier and the road. We were once there, and we cared and needed and worked and strove, but now we do not. In this absence, in leavings and abandonment, lies everything that being human means.

The difference between a place when it was new and functional, and the way it is now, is us. In the gap between a bustling hotel bar and one that’s empty but for a bored waiter staring out of the window, lies us. Sitting in the mildewed remains of chairs in every collapsing house down Midwest country roads in twilight... is us. These places make us apostrophes. We are what’s missing in them, and by being absent we enable a fleeting glimpse of who we are.

It’s so hard to see ourselves when we’re present, just as it’s difficult to sum up your native country while you’re there, and impossible to gain perspective on your life when you’re in the throes of it. One of the reasons that vacations are so enlivening is that while we’re away from home, we’re not there. Our life is bereft of us, like an office building in the dead of night, all the pens and paperclips and chairs left askew. On vacation, and in ruins, we can look back and see our footprints in the sand of the places we’ve left behind — and out of the corner of our eyes, for just a moment, we may even glimpse the ghosts of ourselves.

Or so it seems to me, and that’s why I take a lot of really boring photographs. And perhaps it’s also why our species seems keen to toy with self-made armageddon once in a while.

Only when we’re gone for good, will we be able to look back and judge what we were.

 

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Fearful Joys

Santa Monica

Looking at the Recently Played smartlist in iTunes, I can tell there’s a song that’s had massively more airplay in my world than any other over the last couple of months. That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve put it on at random points during the day. I’ve had it on repeat in the background while I’ve worked at a scene. I’ve sneakily put it on several times while people have been over for dinner, and listened to it again after they’ve gone, while tidying up kitchen. The song is Ich Bin Ich, by Rosenstolz.

And the strange thing is that I have absolutely no clue what it is about.

One of the reasons I like listening to European pop (apart from the songwriters being unafraid of outmoded concepts like ‘melody’) is that if I leave my mind off the hook it’s merely a pleasant sound; with lyrics in English the words pick at me and distract me from working. I listen to a bit of French pop too — I like it, so screw you — and with those songs I can generally make some sense of the words, if I concentrate. Rosenstolz are from Austria. With German, I’m totally lost. It might just as well be in Aramaic, or Welsh, or machine code.

I assume the title means something like ‘I am me’ or ‘I am myself’, but I don’t know for sure, and I absolutely do not care, and do not want to be told. Something in the combination of melody, arrangement and performance speaks to me in a manner that sidesteps comprehension. It makes me want — husband and father though I am, and wish to remain — to be running down burning streets with some woman I’ve only just met, escaping from some sense-of-wonder doom which is inexplicable and likely unavoidable but from which you run anyway, because that’s what you do. It makes me want to be turning my head in slow motion outside a European café, shot in high contrast black in white, to see that woman smiling privately before looking up at me, in the last half hour before the disaster strikes. It makes me want to be sitting alone on the curb of a cobbled street in twilight, urgently smoking a cigarette, knowing that something, and something important, is about to happen... some epic adventure that involves love and risk and choices good and bad and which most of all requires being some version of me that always seems to be buried beneath the crushing weight of the everyday but which shrieks in vain to be heard.

For all I know the song could actually be about making sure there’s enough toilet rolls in the cupboard, or an impassioned pean on behalf of a brand of cat food. I don’t want to know. Somewhere between the notes and the emotion that soars from them I’ve developed a response that cannot be to the words, and which doesn’t bear any relation to what I’d really want out of the world. It’s the soundtrack to some bizarre and impossible parallel life that I’d probably hate and screw up and not be man enough to choose, even if I wanted it, which I don't.

Music can do this — sounds alone — and this proves it’s not words which make the real difference in storytelling, at least when it comes to the conjuring of other worlds and lives. This is a harsh lesson to learn, not least as I’m a person who makes his living out of words and cares about them more than just about everything else apart from a few humans and two cats. But words can be like music in this sense too — and this is the thing that makes writing a whole-life commitment, something you will always be learning to do. Emotion can be communicated through the pure sound of the words, rather than their meanings, through juxtapositions between characters, through the spaces we leave between what’s said and what is not. What we say and write and create doesn’t have to make sense — in the mundane sense of expressing something explicable or in tune with contemporary cultural norms — and this is why noir and genre fiction can sometimes be the sharpest shortcut to the real. Sometimes you can read or hear something that bypasses all of the this-is-now constraints and speaks to something far more basic and compelling and vital in the human soul... It provokes an avalanche of emotion. It cuts through the mind into something far deeper and more private and personal. And when you hear it, it’s wonderful.

If you can be bothered, buy the song and put it on loud. I’m not saying it’s the greatest song in the world, note — but see if you get something like I’m describing. Almost certainly you won’t. Probably it’s just me. But if so... that’s actually better. That way it’s my story, my myth, my dream (which is well worth 99 cents of anybody’s money). I’m sure there will be some song out there which will do it for you, though, and if you know what it is, feel free to comment below.

Quite by accident, I’ve just discovered that Oscar Wilder evidently felt the same way (not about Austrian pop, obviously, but on the effects of music in general):

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.” Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

This is exactly what I’m talking about.

So... how does music do this? What is it touching inside? Are these false memories it’s stirring, and if so, what creates them and what does their existence they mean? And what if they’re not actually false? What if we were each to find the song that does this to us, and it turned out these unreal lives we half-remember are connected, and that we are all without realising it engaged in the same huge, epic, romantic struggle, in some parallel world we do not know?

And if I could tell you how to get there, would you go?


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Post up at Mulholland Books

Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz

For anyone who's interested, I have a lengthy post up at the fantastic Mulholland Books site, rapidly emerging as the place to go for opinions and news on suspense, crime, mystery and thriller fiction, with very regular contributions from some stellar writers. Oh, and me.

For the time being, the post is on the front page. Once it scrolls, the permalink is:

http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2010/12/08/a-conspiracy-to-believe/#more-496

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