See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Fundamental Alchemy

That's Ed and Al and Scar, some of the main characters from Fullmetal Alchemist, one of my favorite anime series. I've often regretted the absence of an anime presence on this blog, because it's become important to me and is one of my main joys these days; if you were to examine my Netflix cue, a good two-thirds of it is anime. I haven't done any blogging on anime because it's very hard to talk about to people who've never really experienced it, kind of like zazen; people walk around talking about it with no real understanding at all. But if you want to watch some good intelligent anime, this series is a really excellent place to start.

In fact, I think for the most part this blog grossly understates the value in my life of really good fiction; I'm dying to talk about some of my favorite fiction writers, especially William Gibson and Kathe Koja. But those articles are going to take a little time, and I just wanted to spit out this thought that's been occurring to me through the wee hours of this morning while the rest of you are sleeping, and Fullmetal expresses it as well as anything: the Principle of Equivalent Exchange, the fundamental law of alchemy.

Alchemy has really gotten a bum rap. It is of course, a false science and a myth. But it was the primary obsession of Isaac Newton's life (there are some great history pieces on this, none of which I feel like digging up at the moment, but for a fascinating historical fiction treatment, read the best fiction epic series of the last ten years, read Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle) and the driving force behind the creation of chemistry and modern science. And compared to some of the other really stupid things people believe these days, alchemy is a real prince of a belief system. Most people think of alchemy as the attempt to turn base metals into gold, but it ultimately was a quest to turn the base metal of humanity into eternal life, in line with another familiar myth of the last two millenia. And it has some very basic and true premises, the most fundamental one being the law of equivalent exchange; the fact that for everything taken something must be given, and that for everything gained, something is lost. Ed and Al forget this when they try to bring back the dead. Most of us forget it every second of our lifes.

If you went to high school back when they used to teach science there, you should remember from first-year Chemistry the necessity of balancing chemical equations. In every chemical reaction, you must have the same amount of stuff (or stuff plus energy, when you get a little further in) on one side of the equation as the other, or before and after. This comes from alchemy and is a fundamental rule of existence. Isaac Newton knew it, Einstein knew it, why don't you know it?

You may think you do but you don't. It comes down to what Brad Warner (and every other decent Zen teacher, but I just like Brad's style) keeps saying; the fundamental delusion and cause of suffering in human life is the desire to end suffering, to get to that next stage where one little thing is fixed, so that everything will be better and you will live happily everafter. You probably know that with your mind, but you don't live that way; it's the not the fundamental color of your mind from second to second. You just think, if I could get that girl, if I could get that job, if I had that car, if I just didn't have cancer of heart disease or gout everything would be perfect. You know better? No, you don't.

It occurred to me many years ago, that no matter what my circumstances were, and by extrapolation your circumstances, I was going to be happy and unhappy about the same amounts of times. Live as a rock star has its ups and downs, as does life as a prisoner. Some of the best times I've had, subjectively, were in the best parts of some of the worst circumstances. It's got more to do with your brain chemistry than with your external circumstances. One of the most basic things I've come to realize in the last couple of years is that nothing is going to make things better on a personal subjective level, and nothing is going to make things worse. You just think they will.

"Nothing is better, nothing is best. Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest." - Bob Dylan and the Band, the Basement Tapes.

And that from my point of view on this Thursday morning has everything to do with living our lives as they are, not as they wish we were. It's all perfect because it's all there is, and it's the only way it could be. The fundamental cause of unhappiness is the quest for happiness. But you can make yourself happy in this moment. Go watch some good anime.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Whole Beast

I've been reading and commenting on Brad Warner's last article on the Suicide Girls sight. If you haven't checked out his stuff written for that site, you should do so; it may seem like an odd place for a Zen teacher to be posting, but it fits in quite well, and if anything I think I like his articles there even more than the ones written for his regular blog, probably because on Suicide Girls he's writing less for insiders. You don't have to be a member of the site to read the articles, and there's a link to it in my directory to the right.

Anway, in the latest article, Brad writes of how the recent death of his mother led him to look at his place in the world and his responsbility to it differently, and to appreciate the value of each moment of life. When my mother died almost four years ago, I fell apart and went crazy for a while, but when I came back to myself a year later, I felt the need to define myself in a new way. As long as your mother lives, you have a mediator between yourself and reality, but with her death, you face the great unknown head-on for the first time, and it becomes necessary to do so clearly. In my case, it led me back through various forms of Buddhism to Zen, which as you all know by now is where I started in about 1981.

I always have a dissonance with all the Buddhist writers who talk about Zen or Buddhism as a way of saving the world. First, as my friend Gareth has pointed out, Zen will never be a majority religion in the country, and I think that the reason for this is most of the Zen teachers in America, as opposed to what has happened at various times in its long history in Japan, have tried to keep it pretty true and honest, avoid all the mythologizing and devotionalism that tend to inflate popular religions and make them acceptible to the masses. I'm not against the other branches of Buddhism, mind you, but I think that for the most part they are what Buddhists talk about as skillful means, or as I might rephrase it, expedient means.

The only way to get to a real understanding of Zen is to burn out all of the shortcuts and easy answers that your brain will try to give you on the way to an understanding of the truth. I try not to talk about Zen too much (except for its history and a listing of my activities) because it ultimately can't be talked about; words always fail, by definition. The only truly accurate map of the world is a the world itself, but we have to have less accurate maps because the world is hard to fold up and put in the glove compartment. John Dewey's discussion of mistaking maps for territories was one of the valuable things I brought out of my undergraduate education in psychology into my adult worldview. This is how all the books and speeches on Zen compare to the real thing.

So in other words, I think the people who have come to Zen in America are the people who have come through the games of philosophy with its ulimate message: that the mind is limited and cannot grasp reality. They have come through conventional religion and seen that it is a delusion. If Zen were taught to everyone, if it were a mass religion, it would have a lot of deluded adherents. Maybe I'd feel differently if I liked in California or somewhere with a lot more Buddhists; there are fools in every crowd.

My point to all this is that the completion to my understand and acceptance of where I stand in relation to the universe came when Jim Lydecker began hitting me with his Peak Oil stuff. Oh, and The Omnivore's Dilemma was the other part that completed the whole. Realising the influence of petroleum and post-WW II surplusses in ammonium nitrate on the modern food industry, one finally has grasped enough parts of the elephant's body to realize what the whole beast looks like.

And what it looks like is the end of civilization. We are already in the beginning of the Oil Wars, and I believe we will never see peace again. In pursuit of the Carter doctrine that the U.S. is willing to go to war for oil, with no intention of reducing our consumption, we will have to fight the rest of the world for the rest of our lives to feed the burgeoning monster that is America. And it's not just us; the rest of the world will have to do the same. In one sense, the Bible-thumpers will be vindicated; the End Times are coming, and I think those in my generation will see by the end how lucky we will be not to see them through to their own bitter end.

I tend to agree with the thesis of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, that my parents' generation, who grew up in the Great Depression, fought and won WW II and turned America into the greatest power in the World, was the greatest American generation. It appears also that they drove the final nails in the coffin of world civilization, although they did so with the best of intentions. Ironically, I think it will the revolution in food production which occurred in the forties, fifties, and continues, which will be the death knell of humankind. Peak Oil has always been inevitable, but it is the mindless and ridiculous expansion of human population, which Paul Ehrlich pointed out in The Population Bomb in 1971, resulting from literally forcing food out of the ground with petroleum fertilizers, which have made it occur within our lifetimes. Maybe fifty years ago civilization could have been redirected in a way to let us and our children and maybe the next generation lead decent lives, but it's too late now. Life for children born now will be hell by the time they are middle-aged.

And there's not much you can do it; if it makes you feel good to try to save the world, by all means do so. Jim is still upset up the end of the world; I'm not. The same human drives and human nature that build civilization have led it to its almost inevitable end. I accept that, and I thank Zen for that acceptance. No, Zen is not fatalism. In my case, it is the tool that enables me to perceive clearly and apply what I feel is appropriate effort to the world around me. I would like to promote Buddhism, and ultimately, Zen, as my own particular kind of compassion; I feel it is a tool that may enable those about to walk into hell to endure it as well as possible. And none of your delusions will help you with the walk through hell.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Shawna Potter and AVEC

This video was included in my last post as a link, but for those of you too lazy to check it out, I've put it front and center here; when I found it, I was just looking for anything featuring Shawna Potter, formerly of Fair Verona, here with AVEC, but I frankly didn't expect to find anything this good. My question is, why hasn't everybody found this?

As I understand it, AVEC is formed of Texans who have relocated to Baltimore, for whatever bizarre reason. Personally, my acquaintance with this band came through my being a fan of Shawna Potter, through her first band, Fair Verona (the links are in the previous entry, people). Fair Verona was a victim of a combination of young musician innocence in contract-signing and corporate greed, and had to cease to exist, much to the dismay of Nashville rock fans. The members went their separate ways. I have no idea what happened to Leah, the bass player; maybe Shawna will fill me in. Beth is now in a band called Forget Cassettes, a band I'd truly like to forget (Shawna tells me they just had a bad night the one time I saw them, and they're apparently making it big, relatively speaking, so what do I know?). Shawna linked up with AVEC and moved to Baltimore, and at first I didn't think the band was a good enough showcase for her talent. Apparently I was wrong, or the band has gotten better.

A lot of things have gone wrong in America in this century, more bad news than I could have thought would happen in six years. An evil moron has been elected President twice, by evil moronic people. America is on the road to becoming a totalitarian state, although some slight resistance has arisen (too late?). But the music! Listening to pop radio is now a Hellish experience, almost worse than TV. I listen to NPR or jazz radio or my IPOD linked through the cassette deck.

In the late 90's, rock was on its way to becoming the best it's ever been, largely due to the female influence. Prominent on my IPOD are Julianna Hatfield and the Blake Babies, Bif Naked, and lots of others I don't want to digress into at this point. I went to the first two Lillith Fairs, being one of about 5 percent of males in the audience. One more digression: if you've never seen Shawn Colvin perform live, you've missed out on what acoustic live music should be. As Stan Lee would say, 'Nuff said.

Anyway, that was probably the milieu that gave birth to Fair Verona, and I'm glad it did. When I saw them live, I was drawn to the voice, guitar and sheer persona of Shawna Potter. I think Shawna was 17 when the band started, the youngest of them. When I saw her play, I swear I saw the future of rock and roll. I still think that. Who was to know that rock and roll had no future? The music on the radio is shit, and if I sound like an old fart saying this, let me say that I have no stomach for "classic rock" either. My music in the early seventies was Bob Dylan, John Lennon, David Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople; when punk broke, it was Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. The eighties was a long dry period, but when the new rock era broke in the 90's I thought there was hope. But the vapid slush that composes pop music today is in keeping with the times -- hopeless and doomed.

So, when you find a band like AVEC, support them. Follow the link; they're very hard to Google, because you get every French site ever put up. Buy their CD's and when they come to your town, go see them, support them. Shawna says they're gonna be touring this summer or fall behind a new album: I'll post or link to the schedule. Go see the alternative present of rock and roll. This is the world you should be living in.

Friday, March 02, 2007


No, this post is not about this band, as interesting as it is. The band I guess is called Nouvelle Vague, and according to their website, is a group put together by some French guy to do these cocktail-lounge version of what they call post-punk music. You gotta love their version of "Guns of Brixton." This version of the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck" was the most refreshing thing I found on You Tube yesterday, so I thought you had to see.

I guess this kind of relates to the point of the post, which is that I saw American Hardcore last night, and it's a great documentary. Brad Warner reviewed it in his blog last year, and did a damned good job of it, which he should, since this is his millieu, not mine; for those of you who haven't read even the into blurb on his site (first, shame on you), he was the bass player for ODFx, an Ohio hardcore band, long before he was a Zen web pundit. But this is not my music. My era was earlier; I loved all the pre-punk bands, especially the original punks who started the whole thing, the New York Dolls. Seeing them last year here in Nashville, even with only two original members, completed my concert-going experience. The Nashville "alt-rock' scene was fairly interesting a few years ago, with bands like Fair Verona around to demonstrate that a (then)17-year old girl like Shawna Potter can riff with anybody; although I'm admittedly out of touch now, except for Be Your Own Pet, who are not to be missed and rarely grace Nashville with their presence anymore, I don't see anything else that holds up.

Anyway. I find the music in American Hardcore barely listenable, but I gave it five stars on Netflix because the movie was so inspiring. The story of Hardcore music, the bastard stepchild born when punk died and morphed into New Wave around 1980, is the story of punk all over again; young kids with no money, no connections and only moderate (at best) musical talent, doing their own thing, with no hope of transcending their environment. Dead end at its best. It was played with no publicity in mostly illicit venues throughout the country; the film puts its run at 1980- 1986. If you're 15, you get together with a bunch of your friends, misunderstood misfits who are learning to play their instruments onstage; you pick a good name, dress in whatever rags you can scrounge, rent the Ukranina polka club for the night, trash it, and then go find another innocent landlord and do it again. Advertising is flyers and word of mouth.

Some of the best of these bands, the Dead Kennedys (who started) earlier and the Circle Jerks were around in San Francisco when I was there 1980- '83, but I never saw them. Not my scene; I was too old in my early twenties, though I built up the nerve to brave what was left of this scene and its legacy years later when I was much older. I do remember the flyers, though, and the band names. The Snap-on Tools come to mind (this was San Francisco).

The flyers are key, though; the art was sometimes great. In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Keith from the Circle Jerks shows how the band hand-made the sleeves to its EP's, thousands of them in that pre-CD era. If you wanted to start a Hardcore band, there was no momma-poppa record company, no Svengali manager or agent; you booked your own venues, paid for your own bus trips (Henry Rollins discusses a two-show road tour with the Teen Idles), and did your own thing.

The inspiration for me in a movie like this, about a music movement which produced little if anything that was (to me) listenable, comes in its subtext message: Do It Yourself. Which is not so much, do your own work, but create your own thing, even if no one else listens to your music or understands or appreciates what you do. When I was young, I wrote and drew quite a lot of really bad comic books; later I wrote some decent songs and accompanied them with some fairly poor guitar playing. Lately, all this web stuff is strictly DIY on my end.

The point, is, it's your life and you'd better do what you want to do and do it now. I fail to stick with this even now, sometimes, even as I approach 50 and should know better. I am extremely dedicated to my Zen practice, and I love anime and I really like writing these blogs and trying to teach myself to build a website; I am quite attached to my cat and to my Rufi. I am extremely glad I never married or had children; I cherish my time alone. I don't like housecleaning, no matter what Zen says. What else do you want to know?

The mistake I make is in expecting anyone else I know to share any two of my affections. Most of the Zen community consist of affluent educated people who will never understand my musical tastes or my interest in anime, manga or cyberpunk (I apologize in advance to William Gibson for using that term, but I'm trying to be terse). I intentionally took myself out of the "professional" community a long time ago; most of the people I work with watch American Idol. Yesterday there was a huge in-house sale on cheap Prada sunglasses. Do you see?

So, the message of American Hardcore for me was: Do It Yourself. Build your own life, even if no one else wants it. I probably wouldn't want yours either, but for today, mine is exactly what I need.