Monday, November 30, 2009

Art And Perception

It is opening night in the SomArts gallery and the covered walls are still fresh with the first round of energy and enthusiastic eyes that fill the large room. In one particular corner, at the far end of the gallery, are two small pictures covered in glass and surrounded by a thin wooden frame. The drawings speak for themselves, yet they do not have a mouth or tongue or voice. But they do speak clearly to those that see. To those that look with a second’s glance. They speak clearly to those that take in their shape and color and let the lines filter in through the layers of experience and mind and consciousness. They go in, turning and twisting, becoming new things in the subconscious of the viewer. They flow like smooth driftwood in the river of the mind, hitting stones and spinning wildly through tiny rapids. Art speaks through the interaction. Each new interpretation is a communication. It happens with each single person looking at it. Each person, who brings their own world understanding and luggage of signifiers and interprets the drawing in their own way. They don’t even have to think about it, the shapes move in like a quick fire, transmuting before the eye can blink. Just a single glance is needed, the mind does the rest, moving the shapes like a multidimensional Rubik’s Cube and spitting out dreams. And just like a river, the painting is never the same. On first glance, it looks like the same stagnant piece. The men look at the same two drawing as the other couple before them. The image hasn’t moved. There are still two penises, one shaped into a high heel shoe, the other creating the barrel of a gun. Moments later, when the two men leave, the drawings will stay in their corner of the gallery….only…something new will jump when a new set of eyes come to rest on them. It is the nature of art, alive in the perception of it. Born anew each moment through attention. The drawings on the wall switch from moment to moment, from person to person, from eye to mind. Art carries itself, rising up from a piece of paper like a flag blowing in the wind. It is the painting, the image and lines and color that talks without sounds and without a body. It speaks independently of the artist. The long forgotten hand and brush mean little any more. That hand was merely the vehicle for creation, the body for birth. Once finished, framed, hung…it changes. It moves. It talks. It gives over and over. A new meaning, a new word. From body to body, it changes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Jump

A man showed up at my door. He was tall and a stranger. The kitchen light was bright, the day outside even more blue and full than I expected when looking out my wide bedroom windows. He stood leaning against the door frame, bringing whispers of deep color. There was silence as our eyes traveled together. silence as he stood before me, still and calm. The seconds became twisting curls of life until he spoke. “Do you want to go for a ride with me?”

I looked into his eyes, “YES.”

A man showed up at my door. He sat on my faded blue carpet with those long legs crossed. The walls were a carnie’s cage of baby blue. The air held the wafting scent of sweet bread and a winter’s approach. “Do you want to go on a journey with me?” he said with a smile while a slight chuckle dusted his lips. I held my answer. I walked through the night, passing Christmas lights and moving through gusts of cool wind. I walked with a twin, passed muted Victorian architecture and slumping telephone poles. It would be the last time I would see her shadow.

The night faded and then the sun was up once again. I held a small telephone to my ear, feeling the hardness of its plastic, feeling the machinery of its shape. “Did you think about my question?” he asked.


There was silence. I looked into the world of the blue carpet. Long beams of sunlight moved through the tall plate glass windows and caught my arm with a small kiss. “Would you like to know my answer?”

“I already do. I heard it in your voice, the way you said ‘yes.’”

And then the waters opened.
The dark night opened its cloaked arms.
The gusts of wind were no longer tinged with bloody fear.
The lights held more than their fair share of meaning.

A man walked into a crowded train car just as the sun was setting.
And he could have found another seat.
He could have remained silent, upholding the unspoken rule.
But the lens opened. The voice cracked into rainbowed pieces.
The door remained cracked, just enough for a narrow-waisted girl to squeeze through.

And she could not dive. She could barely swim. But she did jump. There was no grace.

She went face first.

Over the cliff.

Head first into what was waiting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A college-aged boy in a white T-shirt and jeans stands in front of a crowded room. His round Asian face looks towards the white pull-down screen in the center of the classroom wall. An unused microphone rests in his left hand. The room is dim, the only light source comes from the projection itself, which is a picture of the same boy, in another place, a different time. The boy in the photo is in a light filled greenhouse. His hard city mask has fallen and he beams into the camera, holding a red ripe tomato in each hand. In the dark room, down a windowless hall in the basement of the science building, the boy looks at another self. He cannot recognize himself. He brought the slides, he practiced the presentation, but the face that appears to be his own is a stranger.
Who is that? he wonders. He is without the requisite white bandana and required mask. The boy in the room has been overtaken by death. He stares with eyes blinking. He looks, searching, searching for the self he now knows. Searching for…something. The projected photograph is a sudden flash…something used to be different. For a moment, maybe as quick as the snap of the shutter, he was different. He smiled because of tomatoes. His fingers were dirty and his car was useless and all his friends and family were miles away. He was no one to the soil, no one to the trees. But he coaxed life from a seed. And life was given. Birth happened, and the tomatoes were proof.
The photo which he stares at now with strange curiosity, is a reminder of another life, one that faded the moment he left the greenhouse. A tarot card drifts to the floor. The boy doesn’t see it, he doesn’t feel its subtle wind. It lays facing up, a skeleton in armor tramples all with his horse. The flag of death waves in the red sky. A fallen king lies next to his forgotten gold crown, two children weep at the feet of the white stallion. Are they in the path? Is the horse’s shoe a moment from their heads?
The boy with the microphone does not see the fluttering death flag beside his own head. The stench of his physical death will take years, but this is just as foreign. It’s like looking at his own corpse, except…it is not. His corpse looks at the being left behind. The being forgotten, flowering just for a moment. Open and light-filled and caught forever. Caught for a moment that will always exist, even if it has moved beyond the recognizable.
Death came uninvited. Death came when the boy began to think, when he began to be “himself.” When he returned to life as though nothing had happened. When he got into his car, put on his bandana, and tried to explain his experience. But death happened. A moment of sudden life had exploded out of the rotting experience of a machine, and that moment lives on in the photo. It lives in the dim room, lives in the moment. It is the reminder that flowers can bloom in the mud, that a burst of lighting can cause a fire. But the boy standing with the microphone is a reminder that death is never far away. It is ready, with horse and flag and armor, ready to snatch it all.
The class waits expectantly for the explanation of the photo, the description of his experience and the things he learned. But there are no words for the captured moment. No words that can describe the bliss of creativity and birth. Nothing to explain the smile and the love of two tomatoes and the energy of a being spilling forth. The class is silent, waiting for the unexplainable to be explained.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Black Friday

“Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock, jingle da ta da taaaaaa….”

Overnight the mall has turned into a simulated winter wonderland. The shop windows are built upon beds of soft fake snow, mannequins in sweaters and mittens pretend to play in an eternal moment of cheer. There are pine trees everywhere, green garlands and candy canes and colored lights. It happened overnight. Just the other day was fall. The predominant colors were brown and yellow and gold…and now, just a day later, there is white and green and red. Just yesterday I was eating turkey and cranberries and stuffing, yesterday was another holiday entirely, but now, we are all in a downward slope towards Christmas. There’s the jiggling man and snow and trees and wrapped boxes with bows, all the signifiers of the holiday.
And this is it. The official first day of the season. “Official” according to retail analysts and department stores and consumer groups and the stock market. It is Black Friday. The “official” first day of the Christmas shopping season. And overnight, it has become just that. The food of Thanksgiving is not yet digested, and yet, the Christmas buzz has begun. The ringing of registers, the unmistakable sound of a credit card transaction spitting out a receipt, the bell of Goodwill employees with their red buckets, the Christmas carols in every store with a sound system.
The mall is an oversized ant farm. Families, couples, teenage girls…everyone is here. For the sales, for the shopping list, for the spirit, to ease the boredom of a day off work, out of habit, out of a clever advertising campaign. The mall, spacious as it is with tiled floors and wide aisles is just not meant for so many people, each laden with bags and staring into colorful window displays that depict what we should all strive for: endless styled merriment.
They do it en masse. Millions, all waking up on the same particular Friday morning. All with the same idea, the same plan, the same future just minutes away. The town may change, the particular name of the mall, the dent on the credit card, but it is the same flow, the momentum that propels them out the door, into a car, and into a packed shopping center.
The biggest cloud that coats the brain is the illusion of individuality. They may be singular bodies, breathing and moving independent of each other, but there is no individual thought or plan. Millions of people cannot suddenly wake up the same morning and each have their “unique” idea of how to spend the day. Anything that moves that many bodies to one particular place is carefully constructed. We’ll never see them, those slick men and women with a firm grip on human desires and insecurities. They can move a million people like soft clay bent between fingers. Scared, sad, bored, deeply fearful about the meaning of existence, desperately clinging to any theory that explains life in an easy-to-follow formula. The stores are ready for the masses, those people ignorant of their own fears. The stores are open by 6 am and there is a line around the block. Large women in oversized jackets run to the shelves like they are stocked with the last remains of bottled water and provisions. But there is no war, there is no scarcity. This is the desperation of the satiated, or seemingly so. Another Black Friday begins and end with the illusion of free choice.

“Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock, jingle da ta da taaaaaa….”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Attempt

The school is closed on this early Sunday morning. The imposing shapes of the administration buildings stand silent in the background, and just a vague sense of silenced authority finds its way to the parking lot. On this weekend, as with all weekends, there are no cars in the lot, and the recently paved black asphalt is the perfect floor for an education without curriculum and standardization. This is the self-created flat-land of trial and error. The place where there is only will and peer pressure and broken bones and the decision to try it again.

Two dozen teenagers are gathered on the periphery of the asphalt, close to the sidewalk that wraps around it like a thick barrier. They stand there, patient and attentive, but with their hands on their own skateboards, ready in an instant to step into the sacred space.

In the center of the lot are metal rails and obstacles meant to be jumped onto or over, or coasted against. They have brought them here, carried in backpacks and bicycles, easily assembled and built for the moment. These are self-imposed obstacles, and they’re here to be used. To hit, to land, to wail against.

In the center is a young man. His slim-fitting black pants do nothing to prevent him from attempting another trick. He has tried it over and over, weekend after weekend. Sometimes he gets it. Sometimes he pushes himself with his right leg and rolls over the asphalt gaining speed until he is just a few feet from the metal bar. Then he puts a little more weight on the back tail of the board and uses his right foot to push the wooden board up just a little higher. Sometimes he gets it. Sometimes he makes it to the rail and then falls off. Sometimes he makes it to the rail and grinds the bottom of his board against it till it ends. Sometimes he even lands on the ground with both feet on the board. Sometimes he falls off halfway through. After all the attempts, he has still not got it quite right, not enough to be consistent. So he tries it again.

His loose black T-shirt billows with the force of the wind. This is the moment. The gathered on-lookers watch him, and though he has made it to the rail, nearly to the end, he looses his balance. His arms are still out to the sides for balance, his right foot tilts awkwardly on the board, just about to fall off the platform completely. His right foot is bent and raised slightly towards his chest. He knows what’s coming, and he smiles.

The trick has failed. There will be a fall, he will have to roll as he always does and duck his head, and just as he feels his entire body shifting with gravity, he smiles. Another attempt that has failed. But after the fall, he will try again. There will be a line of guys, they’ll attempt the same trick. And he’ll be standing there, watching them, as they watch him now. As he waits for another turn, he’ll watch their footing, the speed with which they approach the rail, the timing and pressure on the nose of the board. He’ll watch it all, looking for another subtle movement to use and push him along. It’s balance, timing. Above all, it is will. There is so much to remember and execute, he has to do it within seconds. If they are watching him from the sidelines, they’re learning from his mistake, just as he learns from them. He smiles. It was a good attempt, another jump into the unknown, taking all the knowledge he could remember and use. And though he jumped, though he ground the wheels for a few feet, it just wasn’t right. When he falls, the sun will still be shining. The clouds will still be scattered. He will be one jump wiser. If he can just remember it all, he can try it again.

For the brief moment, he is suspended, not quite the victor, not quite the fallen. He knows his mistake. He smiles and waits for the crash.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Without A Body

Those little fingers move, picking up a pen. Nubby pink toes grasp the air as they move her forward, keeping balance on the large globe beneath her feet. She turns her head to the right, her eyes searching for the bright flash of red that just blinked out of existence. She is a body. A moving, flesh covered body. She walks, breathes, talks, I see her jumping on a bright green hillside, her arms swinging wildly as the soft whiteness of her moves through space. And I see her as real. She sees herself as real. For what can be more real than a body? It is the eyes she sees through, the vessel that takes her from supermarket to concert to warm bed. Is it the body that defines life? I breathe, therefore, I am. I take four steps, therefore I am. I sing a little tune, therefore I am. If she stays still. If for some reason, her body no longer responds to the command of her mind and she sits in a padded chair, unable to dance, jump or walk, is she still “here?” Her body exists, we can see it. I watch it remain motionless as four small black wheels guide her through wide city streets, but what does she feel? Is she trapped? Made powerless and motionless by the body. She can see, perhaps she can talk, but what is still inside? What is it that looks out through those eyes, what is it that still questions? Maybe the being. Maybe the still sleeping machine without mobility. I remember having a sickened feeling as I watched a man in a high-tech contraption. His head was held upright by metal poles, a tube and ventilator helped him breathe. I though to myself, “I could never live like that. Wouldn’t it just be better to die?” Motionless, still except for, perhaps, an active mind. What are we without a body? Maybe this motionless woman paints the picture of what we will all soon be without a breathing, carbon-based body. Trapped? At the mercy of something else? Is this woman with shriveled legs and skinny arms more prepared for the black spaces of the Bardo? Will she more easily recognize the falseness of the body? The illusion of the self? Or will she travel the chambers, looking for something to enter, looking for someplace that she can be “herself” again? How do we determine existence? How do we extract it from the void?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Balancing on Trains

The subway rattles along its track. We are underground and the interior lights wash us all in a yellow haze. In front of me is a man standing close to the double doors. He is at least fifty years old, maybe a little more. His hair is completely white and his skin would be considered white by many people on first glance, but it is actually a deep shade of pink, almost red. He has on a pair of khaki pants and thick white tennis shoes. A loosely-fitted red T-shirt is untucked from his pants and revealed by his unzipped light white jacket.
There are plenty of seats on the train, it is Saturday and just a little after 3pm. I have left the hordes of tourists above ground and the commuters still have another day to relax before the cycle begins again. Instead of taking a seat, the man stands close to the double doors. His feet are spread wide apart, not horizontal and parallel to each other, but aligned vertically. His left foot reaches out a couple feet from his body and his right is extended behind him. His knees are bent slightly. Instead of holding onto the silver railing that outlines the door, he has his hands raised out to the sides, nearly halfway to his shoulders. His body sways back and forth, moving as the train does. His arms oscillate up and down, providing balance as the cabin wiggles forward on the tracks. His eyes are fixed on something low to the ground in front of him. His light colored eyes are open wide, nearly mesmerized by the object providing him a sense of stability.
The words that come to mind are “crazy and postal and bug-eyed,” but they pass quickly through me and I watch him with a small smile on my lips. I am the only passenger that has a view of his face, the rest of the half dozen people sit behind him. A couple of steps away from his wide stance are two middle aged Latin women. I watch them as they laugh and joke with each other, each so comfortable and happy. One sits slouched into the seat, the other sits a bit taller, but they don’t seem to think about their bodies, their shapes are now merely habit. They focus only on the face that laughs beside them. They each look at the man occasionally, but they do so as they talk and their bouncing conversation does not stop. I study their faces to see if they are talking about the man, but their expressions and body language do not imply that they see anything strange. There is a portly Latin man a couple of seats behind the women. He is dressed in dark slacks and a white button-up dress shirt. The other people are a blur, forms with no distinction.
I look to the man. His eyes as wide and focused as if he were watching the whole world crumble. I take a bit of comfort in imagining that no one else sees him, just as I knew this morning that no one saw the tears spill across my cheeks. The train had been crowded, but no one saw. Twelve hours later the world has changed, but it really hasn’t, and we stand alone.
The train lurches and the pink-faced man looses his balance slightly and stumbles to the right. He smiles and then after a few seconds, yells, “DAMN!” He looks at me with a smile and says something, but the noise of the train drowns his communication. I smile back, somewhat shyly. A little shocked at his loud outburst. He refocuses and opens his eyes and raises his arms. His hands are nearly parallel to his shoulders. The other passengers are watching him now. The women keep talking and laughing, but now they look at him differently, with the faintest hint of suspicion. He is not doing anything particularly odd, he’s just trying to balance, as he would on a surfboard, but given the place, given the norm, it is unusual. It is so unusual that he might as well be dressed as a clown and singing off-key. It is completely other.
Three years ago I saw a man practicing what seemed to be Aikido moves on the train, but besides him, every other rider I have ever seen walks immediately to an open seat, and if one is not available, they grab a rail and hold on. How can a man simply not holding onto the rails or taking a seat in a nearly-empty train seem so odd? Just this slight difference in body posture means the difference between “normal” and “weird.” Practicing balance. The man is practicing balance. No matter what is beneath the feet, no matter how the body is thrown, he works to maintain balance.
Before the sun had risen I looked at the tarot card of the moon. But it was not just a moon in the dark sky, the shape of the moon was yellow and embedded within the round shape of the sun. Below the moon/sun was a long path, on either side of which was a dog and a coyote, both had their tails and heads raised to the sun/moon. All morning and afternoon I had held the image of balance. It was a balance and merger between the conscious and the subconscious, between the dreams and waking life. The unification of the spectrum and the long path that led beyond the mountains.
I watched the man practice his balance. He used his time differently. Much different that anyone else around him, much different than me. The train came to a stop and the man stood a little straighter, the double doors opened and he looked at me, “Have a good day now!” he said cheerfully as he walked out the doors. I smiled at him and the train continued on.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Power of the Secret

He woke up frightened. His chest was a rock of fear and his arms were covered in a glossy sweat. Someone knew what he had done. It had been many years, but now someone knew. The deed was out in the world. It swirled in the light of the sun and then found him in his dark apartment in the layers of night and dreams. How the rock had been turned, he had no idea. But the worms were exposed and a wind had drifted towards him and disturbed his still body.
The note had been left on his car. Such a small innocent piece of paper, no different from any of the other pieces of abandoned trash that coasted down the street until finally drifting to the sea. Only this one was not lost. It had not fallen out of a blue trash can on an early Tuesday morning. It had been folded with care and written with a precise hand that revealed black block letters. It was for him. And it found him. It began with his name and was attached perfectly to the side of his car. How he wished that a strong wind had shaken it loose and sent it running through grass and cityscapes, but it didn’t.
He grabbed it with curious eyes and slightly shaking hands. It was on his nightstand now. A small white innocent piece of paper, only its message was a demand.
“I know what you did. I want two million.”
He was over forty. He had done many, many things he was not proud of. Things he would never tell his mother. He had lived a wild life for many years. It was the consequence of money and fame. It was the consequence of being a male. It was the consequence of abundant energy and the pursuit of the unknown and the love of a female body. He had been ripe and he had stepped into the world wanting to lick it all.
As he sat in bed in the early morning light, the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen, he knew there were some things he would not repeat if given the chance. They seemed fun, they seemed okay at the time, at least some of them for a few minuets before rationality and consequences caught up to him, and although he tried not to live with any regrets, still there were some things he would not repeat. There were some things he didn’t want exposed. He was a public figure, he needed to fit, at least partially, into what the majority of his audience viewed as “appropriate.”
What did they know? Was it that one time on Christmas Eve? Or that one comment he said while intoxicated. What did they know? Which secret? There were a handful, some he didn’t want to think about.
His mind went to his family. He thought of their faces bunched in disappointment. He winced, his chest hurt. The walls began to push against their wooden supports, it felt like they could crumble. His skin glistened.
He looked within and suddenly he knew what they knew. His body was still wet, his heart still raced, but he knew. And now, he had to reduce its power. The secret, the deep, deep hole in his chest that spun like a wild storm would have to be revealed. His mouth would bring it forward. His words would expose it and turn it over and over until there was light. Until the eyes of the world judged him. He would tell them all, and he would drain the secret of its power. With each sentence, spoken live and slowly, he would let the flashlight of a million eyes do their work.
It was only a secret if no one knew. It only held strength as long as he locked it up in fear. Blackmail could work only if he held tightly to the moment, if he clenched and gritted his teeth and pushed the rock further into the moist dank earth. It was only a source of power if he kept it hidden in the closet of memories.
There would be no money. There would be no dark well within his chest anymore. Tonight he would expose himself, he would reveal his secret, he would tell them all and they would reject him or laugh, but the secret would be drained. The power of that little folded note would be worthless, because they would all know. And the secret would die under the sunlight. Such is the nature of secrets.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Brian David Mitchell

In this realm of the human. In this society we understand filled with cars, TV, politicians, ads, churches, movies, restaurants, laws…in this realm, in this American culture, there are shared symbols. Each single person will look at the same advertisement (or a thousand other things) in a different way based on their own upbringing, knowledge, memories, etc., but there is a basic shared language that exists between the bulk of the population. The shared collective symbols of right and wrong and beauty and ugly and funny and colors and laws is what allows millions of people to interact with each other through language and action. We can look around and see people behaving in generally the same way as we do, this we consider “sane.” Millions of people in America share the same “symbolic order.” The symbolic order are the words we use to explain our human experience. Words to describe our emotions, to describe our experience, words to describe our actions and understanding of events. Because of a general consensus that there is a God in the sky that created life on earth, because a majority of people share this “symbolic order,” (they use words like god, heaven, hell, creation, bible, etc) they all consider themselves normal and sane.

When there is a disconnect, when a minority of people (or perhaps one person) has a symbolic order (a collection of words used to explain their experience, etc) that does not fit within the larger symbolic order, there is conflict. These people are considered “insane.” They understand and explain the world with different words.

Brian David Mitchell believes he is a man of god. He was a street preacher in Utah in early 2000. Many people would have regarded him as a semi-delusional zealot who believes he can hear God. Many people pray to god. They talk to him, some think they hear answers, all of this is considered sane by the majority of the American public. But when a man does nothing but stand on the street and preach and shout and lecture to the passers-by about the word of God and Jesus, the majority, even the church going people, think that the mind has slipped.

Brian David Mitchell had constructed a world around himself, as we all do, to explain his existence. In his world, God speaks to him, God commands him. In his world, his symbolic system, men may have more than one wife. Men may do what they want with their women as long as they are married. Within his symbolic order, he believed that people must be humbled. They must experience the low-human state so they can one day experience a higher one.

There was one family that did not believe he was completely insane. The Smart family of Utah hired him to help repair their roof. He worked at their house for five hours one day. One night, he cut a hole in their screen, broke into their home and kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, the 14 year old from her bed in the middle of the night. He took her to the woods. His wife gave Elizabeth a robe and told her change to change into it. A small ceremony was performed and Brian David Mitchell proclaimed Elizabeth as his wife, he raped her afterwards, as he would many times afterwards. When his first wife complained that he was having sex with Elizabeth too often, he began to rotate between them. Elizabeth was found nearly a year later. "Anything I showed resistance or hesitation to, he would turn to me and say, 'The Lord has commanded you to do this. You have to experience the lowest form of humanity to experience the highest.”

Brian David Mitchell and his first wife are in police custody. They are both declared mentally unfit to stand trial. It is Mitchell’s explanation that the court sees as unstable. Although many people in this country pray, when God is used as a reason to commit a crime (actions the collective accepts as “wrong”) the general consensus of the explanation is “insanity.” This explanation is not shared in the symbolic order of the larger society.

The writer of a particular article about the Elizabeth Smart case used words like “horrific and sick” to describe Brian David Mitchell. This is the conflict. One man believes he is doing what God wants him to do. He is humbling a young woman so that one day she can reach a higher state. This is what he actually believes. This is how he actually understands the world. The police, the criminal justice system, her parents, neighbors, journalists, the Americana public see this act as the raping of a young girl by a crazy zealot. One deed is thought of as righteous, the same deed is seen by others as evil. Both are words used to describe an action.

Even in custody and in court, Brian David Mitchell continuously sang hymns to himself until he was removed from the courtroom. Perhaps the world around him seemed crazy, full of evil men who had no contact with god. Perhaps he sang to remind himself that he was the one with the truth. He was the one with God on his side. He had to sing to protect his world. He sang to protect his symbolic order, the world he had built for himself, the only world that still had a place for him.