Archive for February, 2009

I Am Not Myself

February 27, 2009

  That’s Swedish singer Karin Dreijer Andersson in When I Grow Up from her Fever Ray project.  The video was directed by Martin De Thurah. DJ Dirt McGirk introduced me to the piece calling it stunning and mesmerizing.  I agree.

  From an initial brief placidity, the music quickly lets you know that something’s awry in suburbia.  Rounding a corner we see a disheveled waif atop a diving board facing away.  With contorted steps backward, she gathers strength and begins to writhe and sing as if possessed.  The water initially trembles with potential, but soon roils to her incantations.  She turns and communes with the water beast which displays its spiritual tumescence.

  At the peak of the tumult we briefly see a man through glass darkly – a minder, intermediary, sacerdote there to make sure things don’t get out of hand.  He’s like dark energy, the 70% of the universe about which we know nothing and looms large for the fact.

  Spent, our shaman folds her wings and the water calms.  Even though she did all of the work, it was good for us too and we’re newly invigorated.

  Clearly this is not just a “silly little love song” or anything else we’ve previously seen or heard.  (Well, at least not this 56 yr old technophobe.)  And more than any other video  I’ve seen neither meaning nor valence can be teased out of the lyrics alone. Here’s the first verse:

When I grow up, I want to be a forester
Run through the moss on high heels
That’s what I’ll do, throwing out boomerang
Waiting for it to come back to me.

  It’s oracular.  Like, say, the I Ching.  Jung wrote in the introduction to the Wilhelm translation that “The heavy-handed pedagogic approach that attempts to fit irrational phenomena into a preconceived rational pattern is anathema to me.”  Let it sift for a while, let the other side of your brain kick in.  What does it mean to me

  Indeed, Andersson says that “half of what the songs are about is the subconscious… A lot of it is like daydreaming, dreaming when you’re awake, but tired.  I try to write when I’m in that state.”

  The piece brought immediately to mind African maskers – dancers wearing those beautiful/grotesque wooden masks seen in museums.  They are fascinating and often spectacular objects in and of themselves, but purposeful and part of a larger whole in their use.  Wearing one, a dancer says “I am not myself” meaning he/she has become the evocation of a spirit. 

  Perhaps enabling a rite of passage in this case.  Try something out.  Throw something out there.  Wait for feedback…

  Masks in museums are shorn of much decoration attendant to them when in use such as raffia, textiles, animal hides, feathers, leaves etc.  Their makers say that “their work actually came from the spirits who revealed themselves in a dream or vision…”*


  Joseph Campbell wrote in his incredible Hero With a Thousand Faces that: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation”.  I know Jung would agree, but probably also would an African dancer and Andersson herself.

  There’s lot’s at stake.  Close to the end she sings:

On the seventh day I rest
for a minute or two
then back on my feet and cry for you

  Perhaps she needs our help.  Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek wrote in his The Saviors of God “Gather your strength and listen: the whole heart of man is a single outcry.  Lean against your breast to hear it; someone is struggling and shouting within you.”

  At the very least, as the author of a tome on African Masks** says of them, cultural myths, and Fever Ray also “represent part of a larger cultural ethos”. 

  That old zeitgeist again.  Where, exactly, are we?  To enjoy one’s stay here it is important to be comfortable living in that question.

*African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection

**Andersson is the mother of two young kids and all I know is that if I had seen my mom (or my kid’s mom) acting like that I’d think that she’d had too many of what the Stones called “mother’s little helpers”.

*** I once heard Kazantsakis’ widow speak.  She said that he’d held that humankind’s biggest problems were the comforts of life and syphilis.  The former, at least, seems to be taking care of itself these days…

Heh, heh, heh…

February 20, 2009


  Not long ago (well I guess you can see when), I was seated at a table with a bunch of crusty old (and not so old) farts discussing an important community development project.  A lot of money was involved and so were therefore complexities, hidden agendas, and outright misguided prejudices.

  Sometimes during such meetings I work on needlepoint or origami as sorts of insurance policies.  They ensure that the time spent is not a total waste.  To be fair though – the measure is usually not necessary and often my own contribution amounts to little more than a stupid joke.

  Both needlepoint and origami bear certain similarities with an arcane subset of mountaineering called ‘bouldering’ which consists of short routes of extreme difficulty.  All demand intensely personal – essentially solitary – commitment and creativity to engender any hope of real success. 

  They also help sharpen ontological acuity.  Paradoxically, acts of concentration such as these awaken a broad and deep sense of awareness.  I actually did most of the bit you see above while visiting my brother for a week some months before he died of cancer.  I remember every stitch I made, breath he took, and drip from the roof during that uncharacteristically wet Marin February.   

  Anyway, during the above referenced meeting I could tell by their furtive glances that several of my colleagues were discomfited by my silent activity. 

  Several times Mr. Curmudgeon fired a question at me to check for my attention.  Reminded me of grade school when I was the best day dreamer in class and loved to look out the window while we were taking turns reading aloud.

  The teacher would break order and call on me because she figured my mind was elsewhere.  She was right of course, but alas for her wrong too.  I’d pick right up where the last had left off without losing a beat.  Heh, heh, heh. 

  I nailed Mr. C’s questions, but nonetheless later was asked, anonymously, to leave my “stitchery” at home or the office or wherever.  In the end, the series of meetings wound up with nothing solved and no real purpose served, but the above project found its first incarnation as the cover of a graduation present/address book.

  Heh, heh, heh. 

* Above L-R: Sun over surf; an Iowa farm; and mountains.

In the evening haze heroes are coming home

February 13, 2009


  Edgar Snow was, I think, the first westerner to interview Mao.  He met with him in the old fortified stronghold of Pao An in northwestern China in 1936.  By that time Mao had already been fighting the Nationalists for 10 years.  Snow recounted this visit and much much more in his classic Red Star Over China which the Economist called “An exciting and vivid account of one of the world’s most important events…”

  His take squared with neither Warhol’s nor my facile conception.  Snow found Mao “gaunt” and “Lincolnesque”.  He sensed a “force of destiny” and was impressed with his breadth of knowledge.  Mao’s reading list included: Ghandi, Nehru, Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Rousseau, Darwin, Adam Smith, not to mention of course the Confucian analects etc and the Marxist philosophers.

  He had knowledge of the “negro problem” in American which he compared unfavorably with the treatment of minorities in the USSR.  He thought little of Mussolini or Hitler, but believed that FDR was anti-fascist and that they’d be able to work together. 

  Interestingly, Snow didn’t think Mao’d fit in with the intellectual elite because he could be found coarse and vulgar.  For example, during a meeting once, he took off his pants to attenuate the effects of the intense summer heat.

  Some thirty-six years later the image registered by Henry Kissinger was much more fully formed:  “I have met no one…who so distilled raw concentrated willpower… His very presence testified to an act of will.  His was the extraordinary saga of a peasant’s son… who conceived the goal of taking over the Kingdom of Heaven, attracted followers, led them on the Long March of six thousand miles, which less than a third survived, and from a totally unfamiliar territory fought first the Japanese and then the Nationalist government, until finally he was ensconced in the Imperial City, bearing witness that the mystery and majesty of the eternal China endured even amidst a revolution that professed to destroy all established forms.”

  Whoa.  Certainly the Chairman was also responsible for untold hardship, starvation, cruelty, misery, and death.  Those did loom largest in the memory formed by my early schooling.  Just as certainly however he was indeed the ‘Great Helmsman’ at the launch and early voyage of what has become modern China.  (Even though if back on the scene today he’d do a double take)

  Mao is on my mind because oldest daughter gave me a book of his poetry for Christmas.  Of interesting insights it is full.  Nixon recounts Zhou Enlai commending a verse of Mao’s: “The beauty lies at the top of the mountain”.  I agree with Mao, Zhou, and our former president, but probably with a far more literal interpretation than might have been theirs.

  In the spring of 1927 (the year my father was born…) Mao wrote The Tower of the Yellow Crane

China is vague and immense where the nine rivers pour.
The horizon is a deep line threading north and south.
Blue haze and rain.
Hills like a snake or tortoise guard the river. 
The yellow crane is gone.  Where?
Now this tower and region are for the wanderer.
I drink wine to the bubbling water – the heroes are gone.
Like a tidal wave a wonder rises in my heart. 

  Thirty two years later he wrote Return to Shaoshan*: 

I regret the passing, the dying, of the vague dream:
my native orchards thirty-two years ago.
Yet red banners roused the serfs, who seized three-pronged lances
when the warlords raised whips in their black hands.
We were brave and sacrifice was easy
and we asked the sun, the moon, to alter the sky.
Now I see a thousand waves of beans and rice
  and am happy.
In the evening haze heroes are coming home. 

  Clothes (or the lack thereof) don’t make the man I guess.  At least not less inscrutable.  Or two dimensional. 

*Shaoshan was Mao’s native village.

High Lands

February 6, 2009


  Daughter and I took lifts to the top of the ski area where we boarded a snow cat which took us up the ridge to a point where it narrowed and steepened.  We got off.

  After the drop off we began the hike up the ridge as it narrowed to a knife edge.  A sign read: “Hazards of back country skiing include death”.  Though wife and I had made this hike and ski descent before and though it is a far sight from the leading edge of this day’s temerity,  I had been sleepless the night before.

  To voluntarily enter a challenging environment with one of one’s progeny can only hope to be a healthy endeavor if accompanied by some degree of expertise, experience, and humility. And voluntary participation.  Kids are all adults now…

  Hiking in ski boots is not natural.  Hiking up a steep trail – actually only a succession of small slots kicked in the ice and frozen snow – focuses one’s attention.  Drop your skis and you’d never seen them again.  Slip, well, you get the picture.  The wind was blowing so fiercely that the contrails from my runny nose froze solid on the left lens of my shades. 

   We reached the top.  Rested a bit and considered best route of descent.  Couldn’t  see over the corniced ridge so to be safe skied down the shoulder a bit and then dropped in.  It was steep and cruddy.  Had to be athletic and assertive.  Perfect for #3.  She knew she’d be back to drop in from point zero.

   From the bottom of the bowl a short trip down a tortured trail to a cat walk and the lift took us to the summit lodge, her mother/my wife  (the real skier) and lunch.

  It is not hard to imagine how humans began to slide down frozen inclines and even began to perfect the activity.  Just watch kids in winter upon the most modest of slopes.  Thinking of kids, hundreds of years ago in Norway a child prince was spirited away from danger upon skis for some fifty kilometers.   Name of biggest cross country ski race in the states – Birkebiener – came therefrom.

  What is difficult for me to understand is how our evolution equipped us to seek, survive, and thrive in the steep cold environment.  Well maybe I can understand the seek part.   Without a thirst for adventure in at least part of the population we’d all still be starring into Olduvai Gorge.

  But the kinesthetic part I don’t get.  Such prowess must be an epiphenomenon related to swinging through a forest canopy.  Now to think of it, that does sound like fun.

  Clearly the huge ski industry is built upon a very wide range of athleticism.  Weighted toward the heavy end.  The fact that couch potatoes enjoy it is interesting.  The fact that a few seek out the steep quick and cold is fascinating. 

  Whatever.  The conviviality on top is a fine reward.  Humans are weird and I’m glad to be one.