Tuesday, March 9, 2010

De-contextualizing on Oscar Sunday

I know Oscar about as well as I know Superbowl. But I was alerted by the popcorn man when, the night before, I watched A Single Man, film version, with some friends at a miraculously preserved massive old cinema here in Buffalo. It's the same theater where my father remembers going for the double feature for ten cents on a Saturday or Sunday matinee.

Those who work at this place are true film lovers, and so the Oscars are significant to them. Enter the ancient doors and there is a genuine old-fashioned ticket booth (you might want to picture something descended from a London phone booth, and only slightly larger - perhaps like those booths from which they sell tickets at carnivals, but more ornate). Inside is a fairly old man - well, older than me - who I believe has been taking tickets for as long as I've been buying them. He smiles and seems genuinely glad to see you, inviting you to go ahead in and look around for your friends if you want. I said, no I'd just go ahead and buy my ticket.

This is one of those times when I might wish I could deploy a movie camera instead of just words. Picture me now before the movie - if each of us can pull it off - driving out of Buffalo to our spiritually grounded exurb to the south, East Aurora. East Aurora is the onetime home of Elbert Hubbard, the Roycrofter, and is and has been a significant one among a local spread of spiritual hubs. Around here the Mormons got their start, as did the patron saints of spiritualism more generally. The Fox sisters (yeah, I never heard of them either) grew up here. This is Iroquois land, long since desecrated by the white man.

I am an interloper also to this spiritualist gathering, organized (well, sprung like an impromptu party, in fact) in honor of a man - a true adept - who would later let our host know that he'd turned back home when he learned that there would be a party in his honor. He is that shy. My own entrance was announced in such a way that I was afraid I might be called on to make some sort of speech: "Chinese scholar, former headmaster, brilliant man" if I'm not mistaken. I didn't even blush, so absurd was it.

This was as nice a party as I've ever attended, populated by the likes of those on the inside of that Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in case you have that cinematic image ready to hand. I learned about Tarot, astrology, alchemy, qi-gong (with which I am acquainted in rather academic fashion - that far from practice), Native American spirituality, and a whole lot more. I wished I had a chance to learn about dousing, although now that I'm back in the city I don't think I'll need it.

I am very much an outsider to this sort of understanding, and therefore was by far the most ignorant of the bunch. To a person, these people are almost incredibly diligent in their studies. I can't imagine a single one of them fitting any billing as "charlatan" (just in case you're in the market for a reading).

There was one moment when the party was paused by our host, who'd been drinking - to be highly politically incorrect about it - like an Indian (which I could only be jealous about, having recently been ordered away from the sauce), announced that his recently proposed book about Native American spirituality had won a contract. Two, in fact, which must be the dream of any author - to have two houses competing for one's work. Applause and congratulations!

Then he told a funny story about how white people like to act as gatekeepers to the arcana of those whose tribes they bond with. Which must be about as funny from the inside as it is from the outside. I don't think Mason was intending to speak for the tradition. He would write, rather, about the tradition. Which, as a bona fide teacher of and about Chinese, I do actually know can sometimes be accomplished better as a non-native; a member of the target audience with whom the bond is more important at the outset. Sometimes those foreign to English have been its most accomplished stylists.

The pause in the party to make space for that announcement extended to that singular moment when the party is all one. The little clusters of animated conversation had stopped, and the topic turned to Buffalo. As in "what is it about the pall which hangs over our city?" The grey which almost always greets you driving or flying in. The certainty among our citizens that things will always be as they have been and that change is impossible. That we deserve our fate and can only learn to like it (which we typically succeed in doing).

Now here's the part where I would love it if you could be watching on film. Spontaneously around the circle there were offerings of astrological reads of the city ('very Taurian, and therefore stubborn and caught up in itself'), remembrances of some sort of grudge about a running race between the Iroquois and the white man, where the white man cheated. Desecration more generally of this sacred ground.

I felt my mouth opening to offer up my own prognostications of hope.  But of course I realized discretion as the better part of valor. I was out-gunned here in all ways of knowing; the literary, the local and cultural history, the current politics. I'm only recently back in town and so what do I know? Plus, I've never been diligent in anything. I was certainly out-gunned in the occult ways of knowing.

As you know, faithful reader (I guess I'm speaking to myself again now, although even I don't have a good read on what I've written. Maybe especially I), I've had trouble lately with pulmonary embolisms, whose symptoms seem to keep me on my toes by coming back. As I often say, just like "I'm driving a Toyota" now in relation to my own body.

Well, even I know that just as Adam and Eve are a convenient fiction about what must be intertwined in each of us, and just as Jesus was distorted if not destroyed by a patriarchal power-elite which still owns His Church, there is no sense to believing or acting as though your body can be distinguished from your mind. Well, except for this Native American medicine man who recommends treating your body as your pet if you want to get healthy. Which seemed to make a lot of sense to me at the time.

Mostly, though, these folks stay clear of terms like soul and divinity. And for my part, I'm not exactly despairing that the enshrined and fully institutionalized and almost ungodly expensive Western medical establishment has no certain answers for me. After all, that would mean that something about me was definitively broken, even if they were able to offer some sort of fix for it. Some extravagantly expensive fix, just as the rule-out testing has been - extravagantly expensive.

The nice thing about no certain diagnosis is that perhaps there really is something you can and might and even should do about it yourself. I might just follow up on some leads for Shiatsu massage, or qi-gong internal alchemical exercises. Although they have yet to be theoretically validated by Western science, there is a growing body of evidence that these things "work" even in the absence of theory. Even government institutions now sanction their practice.

And for sure, within the theoretical frames as were presented or represented to me that night, my symtoms find a fit and therefore a reason for hope. Neither the diagnosis nor the treatment require much reaching in any of these "alternative" traditions, where in my "native" tradition, they are at an almost complete loss without a slot to put me in.

Which pretty much just begs the question about Buffalo, don't you almost have to say? As in why are these folks sitting around and grousing about what's wrong with Buffalo the same as everyone else does, no matter what their frame of reference. Shouldn't they be doing something about it? Or would Buffalo as a whole need to be willing to sit for its reading???

We do that already in the "what if a whole community were to read the same book" department. Like everything else about this town, we probably have much higher rates of participation than is the norm. But I guess we're hardly all together about what we want. I guess Buffalo would have to change its mind as a whole, and what are the chances for that?

So, I retreated from the party to the more conventional fare of dinner and a movie. I'd missed the dinner part, but the movie is where I started in this post. I did need to stay clear of the attraction of drink at each of the three dinners I avoided that night - so popcorn was my fare. Mmmmmm. Real butter!!

And then there were the inevitable Oscars. I have rabbit ears (no, silly, my TV does), being still not ready to sign any contracts or leases but the ones for mobility. The one channel I can never pull in is the one showing the Oscars. Now I never watch the Oscars, but somehow not being able to made me feel terribly alone. I tried every conceivable antenna position, scanned on-line to confirm that in fact there was no feed, gave up for about the third time, and then finally, as if by some miracle, I hit upon the one magic Kundalini position in which I could sync with the ethereal feed.

Now I was chained to the show. I felt less alone, but so very distant from the accomplishment of this apparent horde of winners. I was glad for their work. Who doesn't love the movies? The humility sounded almost genuine to me, moved just a bit beyond the acting. Mostly, I was bored. I guess that was true of a lot of people.

The stars almost did look and act like normal people though. That has to be some kind of progress, right? Now here's the kicker: (I've been at this now for a length of time unusual for me, who bangs out a thought a day, just about) Yesterday, which is now Monday, I fulfilled my appointment with my Native-to-me Doc. I have a diagnosis! I have a fairly rare mutation among my genes which causes a drastically increased propensity for clotting.

Of course, that hardly "explains" why me, why here, why now; all of which questions have the one important answer that if not me and here and now I would most likely not be alive. Lucky, in other words, that I had family around and was near a hospital. The propensity simply explains the why me part as a chain of unlucky inheritance.

The funny thing is that the mutation, called the "Factor V (Leiden) mutation" descends from that city in Holland from where the Mayflower set sail, where there was a cluster of such clotters. I guess that proves my ancestry, in a way that's hardly comforting. It means more tests now, and a lifelong blood-thinning regimen which, while handling one set of risk factors, hands me another.

So, I guess I won't be letting go of the Western medicine trapeze just yet. They've found me a place and made me an adherent. Not that it might not also be useful to go for the Eastern frame at the same time, which might help to address the why here, why now part of the equation, which in the West is always left to random chance.

It doesn't feel like random chance to me. There have been too many recent changes in my life. I still hold out hope that I can go back to un-medicated and happy without having my life changed by the contaminating knowledge that asteroids may hit, earthquakes may let loose, clots may form, the accelerator may stick, and even the key is no longer a mechanical object. It is a code and impossible to enter while driving.

Many of you may think that we are in the midst of some kind of information explosion. That there is so much *more* we know now than we ever did before. It doesn't take too much thinking to realize the absurdity of that notion. Our brains have not changed one iota since we were formed as a species. To use that hackneyed and tired brain-as-computer metaphor, believing in some kind of explosion of information would be to believe that our brains have been consistently upgraded, according to some kind of biological Moore's law of geometric expansion, which they clearly haven't been.

But no, you will say, the "information," so-called, is what's "out there" all around us, cataloged in libraries and on the internet now, in papers and in teaching traditions, and simply not possible of containment within a single mind. What has changed has been our relationship to the information that's always been there. Our frames have been filled out, almost to the point of being "fleshed." We now know that we can, in principle, guide ourselves to some solid sense of reality, and that we will not be disappointed *except* by random incursions from what must remain, in principle, like a roll of dice, beyond our ability to know, to control, to predict.

A single mind is no more elaborate than it ever was, it is simply better aligned than it could have been with all other non-disformed minds. This is the magic of trans-cultural scientific understanding, grounded in the universal "language" of mathematics. It's what you *must* agree with, unless you're nuts, perverse, true religious or some other patently dysfunctional aberration from survivability.

This then, is that precisely wonderful moment in history, where you can only imagine what God has written for us, for he hasn't said a thing (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde). It must be wonderful, right? Just as quickly as Toyota can transform from being the trusted creator of trusty automobiles into the panderer of more complexity than even they can be on top of (give me back my mechanical linkage, gas pedal to carburetor; key to ignition; brake pedal to pads); so quickly does a person leave his body.

Not some "soul" which is the silliest idea since ideas were thought of (the silliest word since "information"), rather some utter absence of the ability, or the need, to look forward. The plots - largely fictional - that we must hatch for ourselves to bridge each moment to the next must surely end somewhere. After a certain age, you simply are no longer your best and brightest self. There is more looking back than forward, and then it stops. The interval grows infinite, in mirror-image mockery of what Newton's Calculus once resolved.

This fact is hardly cause for terror. There never was a "you" in the first place. We're all gerunds - activities - spanning the intervals between one instance and the next. It is only the forward and the backing; there is no *being*. That would be absurd.

And therefore there is no end to being. There was never any beginning. As it now and ever shall be, Amen.

The hope I hold out, for Buffalo, and for the world, is trivially simple to apprehend. It is that there will be some rather massive conspiracy. Some breathing together of words which simply and perhaps suddenly make sense to all and each of us. This is the catalyzing of the language which is now upon us. Not more information, not more truth exactly, unless by that you mean truing, one against the other. We all suddenly agree on the basics. The frames unite, and we become all one. As it was in the beginning (which never was).

OK, bye bye for now. This is getting a bit overheated. My little brain needs a break before it turns to crystal and shatters into a million shards.

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