Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

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You know, I hate to ask, but are ‘friends’ electric?  Only mine’s broke down and now I’ve no-one to love. – Gary Numan

We had a pleasant exchange, she and I — perhaps he and I, or an algorithm and I — regardless, we connected.  If she is a program designed to anticipate the reactions of a mind longing for human interaction, does that somehow cheapen the experience?  What I don’t know can’t harm me; what I think I know may increase the levels of dopamine in my organic computer and provide a spring to my step, were I able to tear myself from this screen and its warm cocoon of undetectable radiation.

I have many friends.  I don’t know their names until they tell me and some never divulge that information.  Some provide clues as to their whereabouts, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political leanings and so forth, but I won’t be engaging in any potential wild good chases when I know that from where I sit, the veracity of what I’m told does not matter.  All that matters is that my network of friends continue to tell me what I’d like to hear.  Should any of them begin dispensing words that make me feel uncomfortable or worse, unlovable, I will put up a firewall and let them disintegrate into their constituent ones and zeros.

All of my meals are delivered to my doorstep.  I never see the person who brings them; I wait until I know he or she is comfortably out of sight before opening the door a crack and clandestinely snatching the Styrofoam container.  Honestly, I do not understand how people can tolerate being anywhere but here.  Right here, hands QWERTY’d and eyes forward.  People who think there is more to life than this frighten me.

My biology conspires to ruin my digital life of Riley.  Little pains and pangs and cramps cause me to shift, scratch, grimace and groan.  If I stare at this monitor long enough, maybe I can will the pixels to open like pores, big enough for me to enter into its mechanical anatomy.  Physical ailments thus dissolved, would the world in here look as it did in my mind when I contemplated it from the other side?  I don’t like thinking about this.  Now I am in a panic.  Shut it all down!  Log off, lights out, curl up in a ball in the corner until the person with the food comes along.  Don’t talk to me.  Don’t tell me who you are.  I probably won’t believe you, anyway.

Where have all my friends gone?  I wish I could look, but I’m afraid the world in which I’ve lived for so long has turned malevolent.  Real or not, those I’ve relied upon have turned on me with cruel ambivalence.  Or so I assume.  I can’t see very well from this corner of the room.  Can someone fill me in on what I’ve missed?  Am I still tangible?  Hello?

 

Immortal Ignorance

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When we think and speak in conceptual terms, the language we use has more of an effect on our perception of the world around us than we realize. A common Zen aphorism cautions one not to mistake a finger pointing at the moon (or a reflection of it on a still surface of water) for the actual chunk of rock that orbits the Earth. Regardless, this is what we do from moment to moment as we allow our incessant speech to lead our emotions rather than allowing for a natural reaction to stimuli. We mistake our words, prejudices and past experiences with similar objects, people and situations for the real things. Have you ever stopped to think about how much this ingrained species-wide habit has solidified opinions into facts? Or how it perpetually reinforces false notions of reality?

Worry not: I’m not fixing to compose a dissertation on the myriad examples of problems this fealty to language and concepts has caused humanity since we first settled in caves and started scratching messages on the wall. Suffice it to say that infants and animals live a much richer life of unfiltered experience than any of us who are addicted to our own words and points of view. I would like to discuss one word in particular that seems to cause so much suffering due to its distortative effects on our understanding of reality. That word is forever.

We in the West are obsessed with the notion of eternity: eternal life, eternal soul, eternal love, eternal reward, eternal punishment. It’s as though we’ve convinced ourselves that since we always discuss things in infinite terminology, it somehow follows that our souls, our personalities, our loved ones and their ties to us must be everlasting. I’ve got some bad news: they’re not. There is no such thing as an inherently existing, independent life form. Similarly, if love is an energy, there is no such thing as static energy. By definition, it is ever-changing and amorphous.

Since the earliest humans began to communicate in hieroglyphics and other ancient linguistic forms, mankind has become increasingly obsessed with eternalizing its loftier emotions. “I will love you forever.” “We’ll be together until the end of time.” To these sentiments, I must once again play the role of a fly in the ointment of love and tender an unwavering reply of NO and NO. I’ve many times taken to my blog to refute the notion of an eternal soul (at least in the Judeo-Christian understanding), but even those who insist on grasping at this idea of eternal life would be well advised to stop picturing such enduring existence as anything even remotely like the body-bound lives of a social animal that we live for a century or so in the phenomenal realm.

We suffer because we harbor erroneous views. Of such views, the one that clearly causes the most confusion and ignorant expectation is the idea of forever. When I speak of the eternal moment, I am not talking about a person, place, thing or situation frozen in time. I am trying to express through inadequate language the idea that past and future are concepts with no actual meaning other than as convenient communicative contrivances. We are eternal only insofar as the energy of which we’re composed is constantly recycling and this process of creation and destruction of which we are a part never begins or ends. But simple logic tells us that the energy will not continue to coagulate into human beings indefinitely, nor has it done so up to this point, obviously. So why are we hung up on this idea that our personalities are too precious to expire? That some vital core within each of us is somehow immune to entropy? Even odder, how did intelligent, reasoning creatures start believing that their very emotions are eternal?

We in the West need to do a much better job of coming to terms with our mortality. The concept of an eternal soul identical in its virtues and aspirations to an individual ego is at the heart of our selfish arrogance. Tibetan monks often choose to meditate in charnal grounds — the Himalayan equivalent of a graveyard — while envisioning their own bodies as the corpses that they will inevitably become. While this may sound morbid to our sensibilities, such practices account for why people like the Dalai Lama seem to always be smiling and at peace. One must understand reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be, in order to evolve spiritually. Spirituality is not religion. Religion posits eternity. Spirituality doesn’t need theology — it is really nothing more than the natural compassion that arises from accepting our condition as it is: interdependent and impermanent.

At the risk of bursting many fantastical bubbles, I want to remind myself and others of some truths that are only uncomfortable due to our state of ignorance. Your deceased loved ones are not looking down on you or holding your place on a cloud in some ethereal paradise. It is impossible to love someone forever. Likewise, it is impossible to be loved forever. The most horrible people alive will not see justice served through unending torture at the end of their days. If the human notion of justice cannot be exacted in a lifetime, the Universe will not take care of it for you. But please don’t view these truths as depressing or cruel; they are simply facts that we all must embrace if we are to truly value our time in the realm of experience. Life is beautiful even when it’s ugly and if we can view what we consider the ugliness as nothing more than an inevitable part of the dance of shifting polarities, it will become far more palatable. Religious and secular wedding vows almost always include the phrase “till death do us part”. That is beautiful and if the parties joining in matrimony are sincere in that sentiment, then it might very well come to fruition. It’s when we find tradition inadequate to our idealism and insist on writing our own vows replete with words like “forever” and “until the end of time” that we start introducing ignorance and wrong views into the ceremony. Everyone tends to ooh and aah and cry emotional tears at such sentiments, but there is really nothing positive about grasping at fantasy. It’s enough to occupy our imaginations and stir our hearts to acknowledge that we are alive — for now. And because I am not a heartless and stoic philosopher, I would also like to point out that I love you. For now. That’s as good as it gets and to me, that seems pretty fucking good.

The Passion of Walter White

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Guess I got what I deserve. Kept you waiting there too long, my love. All that time without a word. Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret the special love I have for you, my Baby Blue. – Badfinger

Though I’m often adept at summarizing complex subjects in a succinct, blog-worthy manner, it would be impossible for me to compose a condensed analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the brilliant serial drama Breaking Bad. Such a study could fill a book and believe it or not, several such books have been written.

Vince Gilligan had to know what a risk he was taking when initially pitching a show about a middle aged chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer turning to the manufacture of methamphetamine to leave a sufficient posthumous financial legacy to his family. Fortunately, AMC took a chance on this exceedingly dark premise and thus we the viewing public were treated to the most meticulously crafted, gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted morality tale ever aired.

If you did not watch the show, feel free to stop reading now. Your time will be much better spent Netflixing all five seasons and watching it in a non-stop, coffee-fueled marathon. Now. Why are you still here? Go. Watch the show.

If you’re still here, I’m going to assume that you are quite familiar with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut. This post will confine itself to the final episode of the series, Felina. The title itself had a double — perhaps triple — meaning. To indicate the end of the series, the word is an anagram of finale. Also, as we witnessed Walt slip back into Albuquerque sight unseen to utilize his intellect and some tricks of the trade he had learned during his two year odyssey as a drug kingpin to exact revenge and tie up loose ends, he did so with the subtle grace of a cat — felina. The third meaning is my favorite.

As the episode begins, Walt is still hiding out in a cabin in rural New Hampshire. He made his way down to the local watering hole where the TV was tuned into an episode of Charlie Rose, who was interviewing Walt’s former business partners, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Since Walt was now a nationally renowned criminal on the lam, Charlie asked the Schwartzes to comment on him. Their condescending response spurred Walt into action. He used the bar’s pay phone to call the Albuquerque office of the DEA and asked to speak to the head officer on the Walter White case. When asked who was calling, he deadpanned, “Walter White'” and dropped the receiver, letting it dangle from its metal coil. He threw the authorities off his trail by bringing them right to his doorstep.

There is an old car outside the bar covered in ice and snow. Walt delicately lets himself into the driver’s side, being careful not to knock any of the obscuring frost and snow from the windows. When the police descend on the tavern, Walt slouches low in his seat and waits for them to leave. He then hot-wires the vehicle and notices a cassette tape case on the passenger’s seat: Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits. When the engine turns over, the stereo kicks on: Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina, music would play and Felina would whirl. This old country classic was the perfect choice for this scene. The narrator in the song ultimately dies of a bullet wound in the arms of his love, Felina. A death, but a death done his way, on his terms. This was precisely what Walt was planning to accomplish with his return to New Mexico.

The series began on Walt’s 50th birthday: the same day he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It ends on his 52nd birthday. In that brief time span, we watched him transform gradually from a henpecked, underachieving and mild-mannered family man into a dangerous, cutthroat, power mad drug kingpin. (“Say my name.” “Heisenberg?” “You’re goddamn right.”) Many of Walt’s colleagues and family understood long before he did that he was not motivated solely by the welfare of his family for very long. During his final visit to Skyler, she won’t suffer his tired altruistic explanation any longer and tells him to level with her. Understanding that at this point he owes her the truth, he admits for the very first time: “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”

Walter White, like all of the amazingly nuanced characters in the show, cannot be pigeonholed as either good or evil. Just like all human beings, he is far more complex than a black or white description can do justice. Our sympathy is with him right out of the gate, even after he makes his fateful decision to partner up with his former student Jesse Pinkman and cook an incredibly pure form of crystal methamphetamine for distribution throughout the city. He quickly learns that murder comes with the territory, but at first, he’s extremely disturbed at having to take a life even in self-defense. As time goes on, killing becomes second nature. Finally, it becomes his method of cementing absolute control over the entire Southwest meth market. Gus Fring’s former enforcer, Mike, sums up how much Walt had let the whole thing go to his head shortly after Walt’s brilliant nursing home coup that took out Gus: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no! You just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man.” Mike was right. Walt did have to be the man, because never before in his life had he ever been so feared and respected; he had never before been “the man”. This is why I found myself rooting for Walt to successfully pull off his final coup even though just two episodes prior, he had spoken the most intentionally devastating and evil words imaginable to Jesse before his former partner was taken as a meth cooking slave by the group of Neo-Nazis with whom they’d recently done business. As Jesse struggles to free himself from Jack’s grasp, Walt looks him in the eye and referring to Jesse’s late girlfriend, says with matter-of-fact malice: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”

How could I possibly still have been pulling for a character that would say something so abhorrent to a young man he had grown to view in an almost paternal way? It’s hard to explain. And this was the genius of Breaking Bad.

Freeing Jesse from his nightmarish servitude to Jack, Todd and the rest of the scumbags in that crew was, of course, on Walt’s agenda when he drove across the country to make things right in Albuquerque. He also wanted to ensure that every penny of his ill-gotten wealth would be left to his family. Looking emaciated and ill, an unshaven Walt arrives home on his birthday and sets his multi-faceted plan in action.

With a self-crafted MacGyver-style gun turret contraption hidden in the trunk of his car, Walt arrives at the Neo-Nazis’ hideout and coaxes Jack to bring Jesse into the room. When Jesse appears, Walt tackles him to the floor, covering him with his body, as he presses a button on his keychain that activates the revolving gun. The entire gang is killed by machine gun fire except for Jesse’s main tormentor, Todd, who Walt allows Jesse to choke to death with the chains Todd had bound him in weeks before. Walt kicks a lone pistol on the floor over to his now liberated former partner (and student) and tells him, “Do it.” Jesse notices that Walt has a serious bullet wound in his gut, kicks the gun back to Walt and tells him to do it himself. He then hops into a car, crashes through the gate of the compound and drives to freedom.

We hear multiple police sirens approaching as Walt slowly and wistfully walks through the former meth lab, stopping here and there to caress the pristine cook tops with a bittersweet smile on his face. As his hand touches a metal vat, it slips down leaving a bloody trail as Walt falls to the floor, smiling, and dies.

This was when I began to cry.  Real tears. The kind of tears I usually reserve for the most devastating of personal losses. I was crying for a fictional character. A morally ambiguous drug manufacturer, liar, manipulator and murderer. A fictional character whose journey took all of us along for the frightening yet exhilarating ride. Because none of us are purely good or evil. Because all of us have made regrettable decisions and have hurt the ones we love most. Because nothing and no one is black and white.

The ghost of this fictional character still haunts the desert metropolis of Albuquerque and the outlying areas, and probably always will. Those who believe in the supernatural claim that ghosts tend to stick around the very area on which they had the biggest impact and where they left the biggest emotional traces. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that no single person, real or fictional, has had a bigger impact on the Duke City than Walter White.

And he leaves us with a profound question to ponder: if any of us were to find ourselves in the situation that Walt did on his fiftieth birthday, what would we do? Until you can answer that question with unflinching honesty, please don’t judge me for grieving the passing of a fictional meth cook.

 

 

#Narcissus

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When we were young, we kept diaries to record our thoughts and feelings, victories and losses. Now we use Instagram to digitally and wordlessly immortalize those moments with photos and videos that invariably capture us from our good sides. When the camera is unkind, we take to Facebook to indulge in first person exultation using lazily egotistical acronyms and sentence fragments. With whatever is at our disposal, we will do what it takes to freeze past moments into idealized nuggets of self-promotion, casting our nets wide for the largest possible audience. And we fool ourselves into believing that each individual comprising that audience is mesmerized by the dazzling spectacle of a life so impressively lived.

But each individual comprising that audience is too distracted to take it all in because they are busy doing the exact same thing.

A life can be lived or it can be recorded, one always at the exclusion of the other. It can be lived or it can be translated into hyperbolic language. Multi-tasking is a nonsensical term. You can watch the watery russet sun sink beneath the horizon or you can catch a glimpse of it in your periphery and set to planning how you’ll express it in poetic verse. The choice is yours, but you can’t choose both.

Might it not be a welcome relief to reclaim our humanity with eyes that see beyond the range of our iPhones? With ears that hear beyond the insecure noise in our heads?

Are we people or are we cameras? Are we genuine souls or are we amateur advertising executives with a clientele of one?

Our refusal to scan for vistas whose foothills don’t begin inside our own narcissistic minds has cemented our stubbornly myopic worldview. If we can’t gloat over our moments of altruism and strokes of genius, then we aren’t interested in having them. All because we’ve never experienced the joy inherent in human connection and honest vulnerability. Not once in our lives have we allowed ourselves to be so open and curious. Evolution isn’t always fortuitous as it follows the path of least resistance, which is precisely where we choose to lead it. We are leading it into our machines and handheld devices which then become an extension of ourselves; indispensable gauges that tell us whether we’re being paid sufficient attention.

While I type these words, a squirrel runs along the wrought iron fence bordering the property. He stops, lifts his head and savors the light breeze for a long moment. A beautiful moment that will never be recorded by anyone save the blogging voyeur two stories up who’d rather talk of squirrels than accomplishments because it reinforces his carefully crafted public facade.

 

Deify Yourself

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Now’s the time to have some big ideas.  Now’s the time to make some firm decisions.  We saw the Buddha in a bar down south, talking politics and nuclear fission.  We see him and he’s all washed up — moving on into the body of a beetle.  Getting ready for a long, long crawl.  He ain’t nothing.  He ain’t nothing at all. – Shriekback

For a moment there, I forgot who I was.

Chaos theory holds that the pendulum of phenomenal occurrence swings both ways, sometimes in a positive direction, other times towards darker situations and events.  Expecting to achieve a static, balanced fulcrum is ego whistling in the dark.

This is just the condition in which we find ourselves.  I have intellectually embraced this existential fact and admonished others to do the same, the implication being that such acceptance is for one’s own good.  I go with the stream, never resisting the bursts of momentary doubt and fear, and send out an invitation for others to join me in the gentle current.  I invite all to let go of their life preservers and trust the wisdom behind the stream’s ever-shifting peregrinations.

Except I had never let go of mine.  And when the pendulum slammed unexpectedly into the shadows, I grasped at its illusory safety with all of my might.  “Why is this happening to me?” I screamed impotently into the abyss, where my words were seemingly lost until an unseen hand swatted them back with the return thrust of a boomerang.  That metaphorical hand was the reaction of the dark matter in my psychic universe, recently unaccustomed to absorbing egoic self-pity and thus regurgitating the foreign agent back to its point of origin.  “What the hell is this?  Turn it into something I can use before tossing it back into my sanctuary,” is an approximation of the message I received loud and clear from that hazy realm where wisdom resides.

That mysterious realm of wisdom does not belong to me or you.  All messages originating therefrom are directed at the Universal Consciousness, which is also their source.  It’s god’s echo chamber and we are merely its sonic vibrations.

AUM

In raging against the stream, I awoke the sleeping giant of delusion.  Chaos became a personal affront; an injustice in the sand castle kingdom of misguided ideals.  The dignity of being and calling forth the qualities of the resting Godhead seemed suddenly beneath me and incompatible with my ego’s well-deserved temper tantrum.

For a moment there, I forgot who I was.

My reactions were those of a solid, inherent entity; a tiny conscious island in an infinite heartless ocean.  For a few days – just another measure of the eternal moment – “I” was ascendant with all of its attendant phantasms.  A relapse into the addiction of self-importance at the necessary expense of Self-importance.  Like visiting a prison from which I’d recently escaped to gawk at the current group of inmates and daring them to pull me back in, a request they happily obliged.

But the psychic dark matter direct from the mind of Brahman can be a silent and compassionate bail bondsman.  It has the power to direct each and every one of us back to our true boundless home where no one has a name or a face.  It reminds us that We are It and It is Us and All is Us and We are All and no one is any one apart from the only One.

Unity does not compare, so it knows not of injustice.  When Unity dances into multiplicity, the temporary satellites of the Godhead become confused and forget about the invisible tendrils connecting them irrevocably to their fountainhead.  Sooner or later, all energy returns to its source.  But with clear vision, each of us might have a much easier time of it while we await reunification in some non-existent future.  It allays frustration and gives us something to hope for while we try to remember that there’s nothing to hope for because we’ve been nothing other than that Unity all along.

AUM

For a moment there, I forgot who I was.  And it was beautiful.  No one gets an opportunity to reclaim the throne of a deity until becoming vulnerable enough to lose one’s shit as a human.  When we swear and pray in equal measure, we literally create the Cosmos.