Monday 24 December 2007

Happy Birthday, and Merry Christmas!

Dedicated to you, Mom and Dad, because a light lit and kept with love burns brighter than any other.

I hope you’re celebrating your birthday tomorrow.

Whether or not December 25 is your actual date of birth, and certainly the chances are pretty good that it isn’t, I hope you’ll at least take a few minutes, and hopefully longer, to consider the miracle that is you.

Because, when you were born, a light was born. The string of lights on your Christmas tree or your house, the defiant, eternal Shamash candle in your menorah, the first glint of sunrise after Laylat al-Qadr; each of these lights signals the beginning of something very important, something at once temporal and eternal. That something is your life.

I remember wondering once, given the paucity of written records at the time of Jesus Christ, how it came to be that the early founders of Christianity came to choose December 25 as the date to celebrate what was clearly the most important birth in their own lives. And I remember nodding in understanding when I learned the answer, from the venerable Joseph Campbell. The date, he explained, coincided with the winter solstice, the time of the year with the most hours of darkness in a single day. The solstice, of course, marks the precise moment at which the darkness stops growing longer and starts getting shorter. In other words, it marks the birth of the light.

Whoever said that Christmas was all about the children was right on every count. Our commercialization of Christmas has led us to interpret the most accessible meaning of this, that the meaning of Christmas is reflected in the way children’s eyes light up when they open their presents. This may be partly true, and I confess that I look forward to that very thing tomorrow morning, but children play a far more integral role in Christmas than this interpretation allows. Christmas is about the children, one child in particular, because there is nothing more worthy of celebrating than the continuation of life through another generation. Birth banishes death as surely as light banishes darkness, and therefore the birth of a child, in every imaginable way, deserves the biggest celebration of all.

If you look around you, you’ll see the Christmas story happening all around you, wherever and whenever someone is being born. If you know anyone who has recently given birth, or if you are someone who has, you’ll recognize the long and difficult journey through a wilderness of night (also known as labour) before finally arriving at a place of comfort. You’ll also know that, like the three wise men, those from near and far travel to see the newborn, bearing gifts and praising the child, their way illuminated not by a single star but by all the hope that that new life contains. From whatever nascent bed, be it a manger of straw or a receiving blanket of linen, the beginning of an entire life is an event worthy of a heavenly host of angels.

And those singing angels are all over the place, too, present in all those who stand up in front of a crowd and sing what they really mean. Whether they are singing to God, singing to Jesus, singing to each other, or singing to you, they are raising their voices in song to celebrate the life we all share, your life and mine. Whether they are singing about the life started at their own births, or about the lives that followed from the births of others, they are carolers out to praise the most important birth in their lives. If you can’t hear them singing, if you don’t think that they are singing to you, or about you, it is not because they are not singing, it’s because you aren’t listening.

It’s because you have not yet discovered what they know; that if you’re going to sing, then really sing; in a choir, in a church, in a group, in the shower if you have to, but don’t mumble, and don’t worry about what you sound like to your neighbour, or how embarrassing it is to be heard when everybody else around you is quiet. If the words mean nothing to you, then don’t sing along. If you have addressed a crowd, or even a group, you likely understand how much power there is in saying something, clearly and with confidence, out loud in front of a group of people. Imagine, then, how empowering it must be to sing with joy for those same people. And then imagine how it must feel if you what you are singing is what you really mean, what you really love, and you believe it so strongly that you are burning to sing it so that everyone else knows it.

If you do nothing else this Christmas, if the spirit of the season strikes you as nothing more than veneer brushed over the surface of another inanimate object without any value other than commercial, I ask only that, after reading this, you take just a few moments to identify something about your life that is worth singing about in this way. On the other hand, if Christmas for you is about Jesus, and singing to Christ is empowering, then sign your heart out. Even if Christmas for you is about getting together with your friends and playing Guitar Hero until your arms fall off, then, by all means, let it all out and howl for your life, because your life is something to howl about. Not always the current circumstances of your life perhaps, not the sometimes painful past and the always uncertain future, but the fact of your life, the fact that you are alive. Christmas is a celebration of birth and of life, and the story of the birth of Jesus, the story that moves some to the most powerful song, is the story of your birth.

I leave you with what I consider a beautiful piece of Christmas music, though it has nothing to do with jingling bells or a large man in a red suit. I leave you with The King, Elvis Presley, cultural icon, fountain of charisma, a gigantic commercial success, at the top of his game in 1967, but never all that far away from his own manger of poverty and circumstance. I leave you with him throwing himself in praise before his God for having been given life, in order to appreciate its wonder, and singing a couple carefully chosen verses from the hymn How Great Thou Art. Whether you believe that he is singing into a divine pair of ears, or into a great nothingness, you will have to agree that he means what he says, and that the world is richer for the singing. Click play below, turn up the volume, close your eyes, sing along if you know it, and follow him to where he takes it.

However dim the light may seem at times, however buffeted by wind and surrounded by darkness, however shrouded by disease or disfigurement, the flickering, glowing flame that is life, the opportunity to behold this world of light for even an instant, is the greatest gift of all.

And, as far as I can tell from here, you are alive, and tomorrow is Christmas. So celebrate!

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Friday 14 December 2007

Embroidery As A Social Tapestry – Girl Power in Action

This is written for those in my life who are involved in some way with machine embroidery, which is currently a lot, because a good deal of the work I do these days to earn my living is in the embroidery industry.

Screwing In a Light Bulb
Have you heard the newest version of the old light bulb joke, the one about how many people it takes to screw one in? It goes like this. How many people does it take to embroider a single garment? If you are a machine embroiderer, your first instinct might be to answer “Just one, all it takes is an embroidery machine, an embroidery design, some thread, some stabilizer, and the garment.” To some extent, this answer would be correct, like the answer to the light bulb joke. But to say it takes one person to screw in a light bulb is to really miss the point of the joke, and to say it takes one person to embroider a garment misses a whole series of points, each of which I think is hugely important.

Everywhere & Nowhere
Let me give you some background before I tell you why. One of the things that fascinates me about embroidery is that it is both invisible and everywhere. Perhaps I’m just the type not to notice such things, but, in my experience, embroidery is the type of thing that you didn’t really think about at all as any kind of viable economic or creative force until you actually do embroidery or work in the embroidery business. Then, you take a careful look around and you realize that embroidery is everywhere; on jeans, on hats, on shirts, on towels, on handbags. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about everyone with a certain amount of material possessions has something with embroidery on it. Many industries are like that, of course, but, because I’m immersed in it, I’m going to pinpoint the machine embroidery industry, specifically the part that caters to those who do embroidery as a hobby and not as a business.

Brilliant Designs
What ordinary people are currently doing with these tools that the embroidery business is giving them is remarkable. If you own an embroidery machine, or know someone who does, you already know what is possible. People, regular people who you might not have ever thought of as talented or creative, are able to take everyday items -- from jeans, shirts, tablecloths and towels to umbrellas, Christmas ornaments, handbags, and iPod covers -- and create designs on them limited only by their imagination. Designs can be abstract or can assume forms like animals, letters, Disney characters, flowers, cars, and anything else under, beyond, or including the sun. You might think that to make such creations would require a great deal of training and commitment, but even beginners, with the right equipment, can do it with relative ease.

The Usual Trade-Off
In other words, the barrier to entering this secret world of the sew creative is not expertise. The main obstacle to joining this particular society is usually money. Machines that do embroidery can come as cheap as a couple hundred dollars, but ones with full functionality can run as high as several thousand. It might not therefore surprise anyone that a personal pursuit that requires an investment of both time and money caters to an older clientele. For those with the means and the time, though, the investment is generally a small price to pay for the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies a project well done, or even done at all.

The Usual Result
It is also interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that it is an industry run mostly by men, even though the overwhelming majority of both those who use the tools, and even those who use what the tools produce, are women. So, put simply, the men make the stuff and the women buy it and use it. That is not to say that there is not a significant constituency of women in the industry; it is only to say that the place the buck stops is usually a wallet, not a purse. Depending on how you look at it, this either means that the men have the power, or the women have the power, in this relationship.

Women Drivers?
At first blush, it would seem quite obvious that, if the spoils of victory be measured in the currency to which we seem to assign the most value, namely money, that the men have, once again, come out on top. This would not be the only industry in which men sell to, even exploit, the whims of women for their own gain. Fashion, cosmetics, jewelry, weight loss; all industries in which the vehicle is provided by women but driven by men.

The Eastern Battlefront
My response to that would be to wonder whether the right currency is being used to measure influence. To illustrate my point, I refer to another industry in which I was involved that was also top-heavy (sorry!) with women. Living and working as an English teacher in Japan, and later opening my own ESL school here at home, gave me a different perspective on the battle of the sexes.

The Simple Housewives
Most instructive is one particular instance, where I was assigned by my employer in Japan a class of “housewives”, which many other teachers had turned down as being below their eminent qualifications. Fortunately for me, I accepted the assignment, and this turned out to be an amazing and insightful group. First of all, there is no such thing as a "simple housewife"; each person harbours a complex intellectual life regardless of who she is or what she does. Even by those standards, however, this was no ordinary group. Included among the “housewives” were a lawyer, a scientist, several successful businesswomen, and even a Buddhist monk. They were all ostensibly there for the English, but most of them just wanted to communicate, in any way possible, and to really know where they stood in relation to my culture.

An Entirely Different Latitude
It is commonly held that Japan is a male-dominated culture; the men have all the best jobs, make up the majority of politicians, and have certain actions tolerated that many of their male counterparts in the West might envy. For example, we had during this class a very informative discussion one day about the propensity among Japanese men in a certain age range to cheat on their wives.

Can't Be Helped
With my own cultural sensibilities, I was surprised, one might even say shocked, at the comments from many of the ladies as to how they viewed their husbands’ behaviour. Rather than wrath or scorn, which I thought I was justified in expecting, the pervading attitude was one of disinterested resignation, and often even amusement. In other words, rather than condemning the trait, most of these women saw the compulsion to philander as an inevitable part of being a man of a certain age and at a certain stage in life. They used the Japanese expression, "Sho ga nai", which, translated, means something along the lines of "That's life" or "It can't be helped", and it used to refer to situations that one shouldn't worry too much about because of their inevitability. When I tried to imagine having anything remotely resembling this conversation in a room full of Western women, I found it virtually impossible.

Balance of Power
I naturally thought prudent to ask them how they could possibly turn a blind eye to something that, at least in my eyes, is as fundamental to a relationship as infidelity. Many of them responded in similar fashion. Their message to me: We Have The Power. The more we know about and willingly allow, the more control we have in our relationships. You can cry about something that may very well happen anyway, or you can use it to get what you want.

Shrinking Violets?
On occasions when I have relayed this story to female friends of mine who share my cultural background, the first reaction has been to dismiss this group of housewives as deluded and probably unhappy, perhaps having resorted to justification as a defense mechanism against a sense of being deeply hurt. In the four hours per week that I spent with them over the course of eight months or so, however, this was not the impression that I got. On the contrary, these were very strong and self-assured women, who enjoyed their lives, loved their families, appreciated their marriages, and wanted the best not only for their loved ones but also for themselves. The message that I take away from this is not that I can now cheat on my wife and feel justified in doing so. Rather, it showed me how important perspective is to power.

Who's The Boss?
So, in an industry run by men but enjoyed primarily by women, who would you rather be, the producer or the consumer? Who has the power, or does it even matter? On the producer side, people who run their own businesses hear all the time how wonderful it must be not to work for anyone. My response to that when running my own businesses was always that, while the person saying that might have a single boss, or a couple, I had all my customers, and the chances were pretty good that they were much tougher and more demanding than that person’s boss. I always felt that my customers had more power than I did.

Commercial Charisma
On the consumer side, all of the Internet marketing gurus telling companies how to attract eyeballs and sell stuff and make money now preach the power of speaking to the customer on her terms, because she is so very important. What I find funny about this is that they make it sound like this is a new idea. In fact, it is only new in that it applies to a relatively new medium. Commercial success has always been about the ability to communicate through one’s product, service or message on the most individual level possible, in the same way that personal charisma, the elixir of social success, is about connecting en masse but individually (ask Bill Clinton) with people. Even artistic success is about not much more than attracting anywhere between a small group and a multitude of viewers but reaching each in a personal and fundamental way. It has never been about speaking to the masses, it has always been about speaking to the person. Mass media and the distribution of mass goods just mean there are more persons to whom can be spoken.

Going Places
At the end of the day, I have found arguments about power to be circular, and therefore unwinnable. Some find their own unique threads in life by figuring things out, by tinkering with things and producing things for profit. Others seem to have their paths laid out before them by figuring that, no matter how much they try to figure out, they're only going to get so far, and so, beyond that, they might as well just accept, and enjoy, whatever comes their way. That the currency of our culture rewards the former over the latter, does not necessarily mean that it is better. A consideration of the complexity of it all, and learning how to manipulate your understanding of that complexity into professional gain, will certainly get you places, but the real question remains whether or not those are places you really want to be.

Behind the Needle
Here is where I come back to my variation on the light bulb joke. How many people does it take to embroider a garment? Being in the industry has made me realize that one is the wrong answer, because of how much cooperation it takes to bring us even simple things, let alone complex things. People work full time on providing ways to put stitches together, how much space to tell the machine to put between them, how to limit the number of times the needle must strike the fabric, and then on software that will let the computer tell the machine how to turn that information into an actual piece of embroidery. And then you have the operating system and the computer on which those tasks are performed, the inventor of the craft of using a needle and thread to fasten and all manufacturers since then who have taken raw materials and made them into needles and thread. And then there is the machine to which the computer speaks, and the makers of all the components and intelligence that go into that machine, the transportation companies that moved the components, those who made the vehicles and all the composite parts of the vehicles that transported them, the makers of the dye that coloured the thread, the growers of the plants from which the dye was extracted, everyone involved in isolating and processing the chemicals that make up the rayon or polyester in the thread, the people who cut down the trees for the wood that the spool is made of, the mill that made that wood into lumber, the makers of the tools that fashioned all these parts into the shapes they end up in, the workers that mined the minerals and metals, the engineers that found those deposits, not to mention all the people at all the companies that supply these companies, with buildings, with furniture, with heat or air conditioning, with paper, with coffee, with carpets. Look around you, where you are right now, and think about it for a moment. Millions upon millions of people have collaborated to put you exactly where you are, on the floor where you or your chair is standing, in the clothes you’re wearing, in front of the screen you’re reading.

Common Threads
In some measure, each of these people forms a part of your life. No matter how much we may individually lose or give up the ability to properly consider complexity, and how much work goes into even the simplest function we take for granted, we know when we reflect that it is still all about cooperation. Whether the common thread of which I speak starts from those who figure out and prosper, those who work for them and help them execute what they have figured out, or those who just enjoy the results, that thread runs long and in very complex patterns.

Circular Distances
There are great economic distances between people, to be sure, but when a tool, like an embroidery machine, is built by some to allow and indeed empower others to create something in their own right, then the whole thing comes full circle. You can be sure that the one who built that machine, a creator of some sort in that part of his/her life, is a consumer in most other parts of things that others have created. If you stop to think about it, there is simply no getting around the fact that we are all cooperating with each other to make each other’s lives easier.

Bright Idea
Of course, easier does not necessarily mean better, but it certainly can. Having made each other’s lives so much easier, our task is to figure out how to go ahead and make each of those lives better. I’m pretty sure that an important part of that is learning to better recognize everyone else’s contribution. That starts by realizing that it not only takes a community to raise a child, but even to screw in a light bulb.

Atomic Bombshell
One great passage in a book I love speaks of the durability and ubiquitous nature of atoms. For example, in the acts of living and dying, each of us contains or comes in contact with an immeasurable number of atoms, so it has been calculated that every single living human contains atoms that once belonged to every other living human being who lived more than 60 years ago. In other words, on an atomic level, each of us contains pieces of every major and minor historical, religious, royal, or commercial figure there has ever been, prior to about 1950. This is interesting on any number of levels, and I love what it means, but I don’t think it’s true only of atoms, which are so very difficult to imagine on any meaningful level, and I don’t think you have to be a scientist to apply the lesson. I think it also applies to tangible, measurable things that our minds and our hands have created.

Untangling the Web We Weave
If something as simple as embellishing a towel with embroidery requires millions of people, imagine how many such actions each one of us performs in a day, and how many people had to cooperate to make each of those actions possible. Whether putting on clothes, taking a shower, eating breakfast, going to work, or watching a movie, almost everything we do we are able to do as a result of a receiving blanket woven from an immense matrix of intersecting threads of cooperation. If with our own creations we can reproduce even a pale imitation of the tapestry created by the threads of our cooperation, we will have created something of great and eternal beauty.

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Thursday 22 November 2007

The Crazy Canuck - Adventures with Perfect Strangers

This post is dedicated to you, Sarah, because I do take requests, and yours was a good one.

Times Have Changed
It all seems a bit tame now, compared to what Sasha Baron Cohen has done lately with Ali G and Borat, but it sure felt pretty cutting-edge at the time. I'll never forget how validated I felt about it all when I got a call from a producer at BBC Two, wanting to include me and my show in his weekly television series. Perhaps if I had taken him up on it then, I might be in a different place now. But, when I got the call, I had already made up my mind to leave England, on what at the time I clearly felt to be a greater mission.

One In The Oven
I think I first thought of the idea out of little more than simple frustration. I was living in London, working some evenings as a barman in an Irish pub in Tottenham, and spending most of the rest of my time trying to give birth to a novel. I use the birth metaphor in a fondly nostalgic way; one of the regular punters in the drinking establishment where I tended bar was a former writer himself, or at least fancied himself as such, and he used to jest, in his mischevious rural Irish brogue, that I was looking a bit piqued, being, as I was, pregnant with a novel. He was the same kind soul who had advised me, correctly as it turned out, that the only conceivable way to get a tip out of an Irishman in London, was to learn the little trick o' the wrist that would produce, in one pour, a shamrock in a head of Guinness. From then on we'd had an understanding; he'd help me get better tips, and I'd occasionally forget to ring in his drink order.

Sing For Your Breakfast

In any event, my weekly barman's wages were barely enough to pay for the occasional full English breakfast indulgence I favoured at the local cafe, so I was attempting to supplement these wages with another, very newly learned, talent. Had I not been so fortunate to be lodging in a place where the rent and bills had already been paid, I would never have even been able to afford to explore this potential talent, though it is probably unfair to my then host and still dear friend John to condemn him to infamy for having allowed me enough latitude to pollute the world with that talent. Talent probably wasn't the word for it; it was more like willingness, or gumption. You see, to raise my station, I had resolved to begin a shadow career as a busker.

A Star Is Born
Ever since I had first stepped off a train platform and into the rich, warm world of a subway tunnel filled completely with the sweet breath of a tenor sax, I had held the busker as one of my most envied icons. I had never had any training or experience as a singer, not before or since I had stood on stage in a grade school production and sung what may have been a perfect, unaccompanied solo before a room full of awestruck parents, but I was pretty sure that I could sing, and completely sure that I wanted to. The fact that I couldn't play more than three chords, badly, on an old acoustic guitar, with a broken golf tee holding in one of the strings, was not an impediment in the least. It was a phase in my life where everything new and exciting was worthy of pursuit, though, in saying that, I suppose that some who know me would contend that that is a phase from which I have yet to fully emerge.

The Perfect Complement

My busking companion, Dave, had the opposite problem. He was, by all accounts including mine, hopelessly talented, and could with his guitar and accompanying voice hold the spotlight like the most seasoned performer, at least among a small circle of friends. Anyone lucky enough to hear him had been telling him for years that he could make more than enough busking in the tunnels of London's Underground to support any number of his many vices. Nobody seemed to know for sure what had always prevented him from taking that advice, but, until I arrived on the scene, prevent himself he had, but would no longer. Perhaps he saw in my appearance an opportunity for the perfect experiment; my guitar playing was so bad that it could only highlight the quality of his own, and my voice was loud enough that, if an attack of nerves did strike his own vocal chords, it likely wouldn't be noticed among my high-pitched squawking.

Tunnel of Love

Most London buskers knew that there was only one place to be if you wanted to serenade The Tube's commuters in style, and that was smack dab in the middle of the long tunnel running from Green Park station. There was something almost mythical about the acoustics in this particular tunnel; it added fullness and richness on the low end, and clarity to the high end of the sonic spectrum. We happened also to be blissfully ignorant at the time that there was a code among buskers as to who could pitch up in that tunnel and when, so we resolved to set ourselves up there every chance we could. Whether it was our lack of harmony, my early lack of showmanship, or just a general lack of interest, we ended up making very little money. Still, we had a great time doing it, regardless of whether or not anyone was actually paying attention.

Pretty Vacant

It was the paying attention part, in fact, that I found most interesting, and subsequently inspiring. Anyone who has boarded public transit pretty much anywhere in the world, with some glorious exceptions, knows the wooden stare worn by most passengers as relates to their fellow travellers. It was with some surprise however, and a little chagrin, that I learned while busking that this extended well beyond the train and its platform. It was one thing, I thought, to avoid the eyes of the guy sitting across from you by pretending to read the same advertisement for chewing gum over and over, over his head. It was quite another to pour out one's soul through music or banter and receive an almost identical reaction. My problem with this while busking was not that I came to resent this type of reaction. Rather, it was that, apart from a few examples, I was sure I saw, underneath the veneer of disinterest, a yearning among many people who passed to participate in some fashion, but confusion of how to do so for fear of embarrassing themselves by doing something even the least bit out of the ordinary.

A Different World

I was almost certainly spoiled. Having experienced not that long before the colourful social extravanga of riding a bus in, say, Kenya, I had come to expect that the natural state of a human being in such a situation was not to close oneself off but to open oneself up. Countless hours in crowded buses throughout Africa, though often uncomfortable, had produced the most incredible array of social bonding opportunities, from singalongs among strangers and games of pass-around-the-cute-baby to live chicken fights and impromptu mini-picnics. I had to believe that, even here in less tropical climes, with all the layers of clothing and headphones and packages that separated people from one another, there had to be the same simple attraction somewhere under there that pulled them together. My revelation, as I searched often vainly for real responses from those to whom I was singing, was that, if I didn't have the talent to strengthen that pull musically, there had to be something I could to show these people how much fun a Kenyan bus could be, or at least how completely ridiculous it was to be all alone in the midst of a whole bunch of interesting people.

Birth of an Idea

As it happened, this notion coincided well with my lack of financial success as a musician, which meant that those breakfasts I cherished were fast becoming unattainable. So, necessity as mother and insight as father begat invention, a little being that believed it could rise above it all by taking me, its willing sibling, deeper underground. I wondered what would happen if, rather than a couple guys playing guitars and singing, those streams of living organisms that passed incessantly through the Tube were given something to really startle them. How would they react? What would it take to break through those barriers and touch the people behind all those blank expressions?

All Downhill From Here

So, with hardly any idea as to what I was going to do, but knowing that it was going to be some kind of show, I created an act and named it after a great Canadian ski-racing team, renowned in the previous decade, and managed to get "Crazy Canuck Tube Theatre" listed for free in the Fringe Theatre section of Time Out magazine. All that was left to do while I waited for the phone to ring was to figure out how, when, where, and with whom I would carry out my shenanigans. To my delight and subsequent trepidation, I did not have to wait long at all for the first phone call. I hadn't considered that paying customers might actually have questions before they purchased, so it isn't surprising in the least that I scared away at least the first three or four prospective customers who called, owing to my utter cluelessness as to the details of what I proposed to do to justify the 10-pound ticket price.

Reconnaissence Mission

On the plus side, the calls I was getting at least told me that there might actually be people out there who might pay for this type of thing, so I wrote out a list of prospective antics, bought a day pass, and spent seven or eight hours in the subway system scouting stations, platforms, and a possible route that would allow me to accomplish what I wanted to in a time span brief enough to hold the attention of my audience but long enough to let them feel they had gotten enough value for their money to recommend the show to their friends. It would turn out that I was woefully unprepared for the logistical manoeverings that it would take to execute such a show, but, if nothing else, my tour gave me enough information to be able to answer enough questions to convince others that this particular form of entertainment was worthwhile. I also managed to convince myself it was do-able.

On With The Show!

My pitch proved sufficiently refined that I managed within a couple days and only a few more calls to cobble together a group of eight audience members, which I thought would be the perfect number for my inaugural show. After taking down some availability information from each member of the group, I gave everyone a time and place to meet, let them know how they'd be able to recognize me, and insisted on only one hard and fast rule that they would have to follow in order to guarantee a successful show. In order for the show to work, it was imperative that nobody in the vicinity of where the show was taking place could suspect that it was in fact a show; my audience had to pretend they were regular commuters. That meant they couldn't give any signs that they were together, and they definitely couldn't reveal that they had any connection whatsoever to me. Even in our initial meeting place, they would know me by what I was wearing but they could not acknowledge the beginning of our show. Each swore, often while chuckling, to uphold this cardinal rule, breach of which would mean immediate banishment from the show.

The Fool Rushes In
And so it came to pass that, on a chilly afternoon in November on which rain soaked the streets above, I donned my disguise in where else but Green Park station, and made myself conspicuous in our pre-arranged location. My audience found me sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed, dressed only in a makeshift loin cloth, on a common space just inside the turnstiles, chanting a particularly fashionable Buddhist mantra. I was freezing, pathologically nervous, and completely unsure of what was going to happen next. It was extraordinarily exhilarating.

Quick Change
When I was sure that my audience was among the hundred or so people gathered around me, I opened my eyes, calmly got to my feet, reached down into my bag, pulled out some track pants and a University of Toronto sweatshirt, got dressed, and headed toward the escalator. When I reached the train platform, I put my hands together, smiled, and bowed Namaste to anyone who insisted on staring at me. When the train came, I stayed on the platform without boarding, deducing, correctly as it turned out, that those who remained on the platform with me would be my audience. Quickly and quietly, before others started arriving on the platform, I collected the ticket price from each member of my already captive audience, reminded them to spread out and eventually rejoin me so as not to acknowledge that they were with me, and made a couple further wardrobe changes. By the time the platform started filling with people, I was ready for my next scene with a fresh set of onlookers.

Put Your Head On My Shoulder
When we got through the doors of the train, I looked around immediately for the toughest-looking young man that I thought would stop just short of beating the crap out of me for what I was about to put him through, and took a seat next to him, hoping that he'd be on for at least the next two stops. I don't remember much about that particular guy, but I remember enough to know that he was not someone of whom my parents would have approved. As soon as the train started moving, I began to pretend to nod off, letting my chin drop slowly to my chest and then pulling my head up abruptly, as though resisting the urge to doze completely. As I was doing so, I also began to lean slowly toward my surly target, and he began to shift in his seat a little uncomfortably. On one of my chin droops, I slumped further to the right and let my head fall more quickly until I felt it hit his shoulder. Almost instantly, he shrugged abruptly to dislodge my head, and I sleepily motioned an apology that I had disturbed him. I'm sure it didn't help either that several of my audience were giggling audibly, although, as he likely frowned disapprovingly at having his personal space so invaded, they were also shaking their heads in feigned sympathy with him, doing their part to keep up the ruse. In fact, seeing the couple across from me on the verge of wetting themselves as they struggled with repressed laughter, it was all I could do to keep my concentration and not join them.

Falling, Asleep
I then resumed my dozing sequence until the train came to the next stop, hoping that my neighbour wasn't getting off, and leaning away from him to make sure that he wasn't so perturbed that he'd change his seat. When we lurched into motion again, I let my head fall back and began to snore loudly. I believe even my victim found this funny, as I heard him chuckle, which was good because I was about to really test the limits of his tolerance. After a few more loud, rasping snores, I dropped my chin back down toward my chest, took a sidelong peek out my right eye to determine my position in relation to my prey, steeled my fraying nerves, and fell over until my torso was horizontal and my head was resting in his lap.

Car Crash
I can only imagine what the look on his face must have been, but I can attest factually to his physical reaction. The first thing he did was to raise both his hands into plain view, likely to let everyone in the train car know that this was not an action that he had solicited or welcomed in the least. This was a mistake on his part, for it gave me an opportunity to execute the second part of my plan, which was to reach as if in a dream for his left arm, pull it towards me as I murmured happily, and start snuggling it the way a sleeping child does with a teddy bear. This was, of course, too much for the poor fellow to take, so he stood up hastily and forcefully and I fell to the floor with a thud.

Mind The Gap
Either my planning had been very good or I had been very lucky, because the timing ended up being almost perfect for the purposes of continuing the show. We were less than a minute from the next scheduled station in my tour, so I used the subway pole to pull myself to my feet, apologized profusely, and skulked sheepishly over to the door. It was important to the reality element of the show that I look as anxious as possible to leave the whole incident behind, but I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that wearing the appropriate expression wasn't much of a stretch. The train car stopped, and I scampered out, followed by my audience and a few other random passengers.

Indecent Descent
The next step was to transition into my next stunt, which didn't actually require any change of clothes or even the removal of witnesses to my previous antics from the audience. I had planned a transfer to another subway line, which was a long escalator ride down from the level to which we had exited from the train. Walking in the midst of the members of my little entourage, I stepped onto the escalator, and, as it carried us down, I began to exhibit signs first of anxiety and then of outright panic. About half way down, I gripped tightly onto the moving handrail and began yelling that I did not want to go down any further because I was extremely concerned about what kind of creature was living in the subway's deepest depths. At about two-thirds of the way down, as my audience continued to the bottom, I mounted the handrail and climbed onto the steep median between the up and down escalators, still shouting, and took hold with both hands of one of the knobs that populates such medians, so that I was left hanging on the median like a man clinging to a cliff face, in a state of extreme stress and discomfort.

Unlikely Angel
Reactions to this spectacle, as one might expect, were mixed. As I half expected, the majority of people did their utmost to seem completely oblivious and pretend to notice nothing, clearly not wanting to get involved in any way with such a raving lunatic. Others shook their heads and muttered to themselves about how people like me could be allowed to roam London's public places or, for that matter, even afford a subway ticket. However, as always, the reactions of a select few helped to restore my faith that, somewhere in that crowd of onlookers, there were traces of genuine humanity. One person in particular sticks in my mind from that first show, a portly middle-aged man, clearly working class, who, without fear of being embarrassed or injured, rode the escalator down to where I was and, once there, made it a point to keep stepping in place up the down escalator next to where I was hanging. I didn't know who he was or what he was about to do, but he completely caught me off guard when he craned his neck to make eye contact with me and then started offering me kind words of encouragement to coax me off the median. In spite of being in full adrenaline-fueled show mode, my eyes almost filled with tears when he put his hand gently on my back, and uttered the following words:

"Mate, I don't know what's down there either, but I'll go down with you and whatever it is, we'll give it a right old go."

The Real Performer
I think for a moment I actually forgot that I was acting, as I climbed back on to the escalator and, with his arm around my shoulder, we rode the moving stairs down into the abyss. A small crowd had gathered at the bottom, and as we stepped together off the escalator, several people began to applaud. I wasn't sure what to do next, as I was genuinely affected by the man's grace and I couldn't bear to string him along further in my charade. Spontaneously, I threw my arms around him, gave him a big hug, expressed my profound appreciation, and told him that I was feeling much better. After numerous reassurances to convince him and everyone else that I was going to be fine, he and everyone else left me sitting on a bench at the bottom of the escalator, surrounded only by the members of my audience, shaking their heads at what they had just witnessed.

To Be Continued
I am going to end my account of that day's events there. In total, I ended up doing only three shows, the final one ending with my being taken into custody by the police during my escalator routine. Explaining to London's finest exactly what I was doing and why I had done it while trying to prove that I was neither inebriated nor insane is a story in itself, but I won't relay it here.

The End
I end it here, because, in almost every way, with that one individual, I found what I had been unable to find in the moment the whole bizarre notion first visited me. Yes, I did it partly for the money, and it certainly bought me some breakfasts, and yes, perhaps I did it partly for the attention, for who would do such things, or even conceive of them, without craving some significant sort of attention in some significant manner? The soul of the matter though, resides in the instant it first struck me, while singing to passerby at Green Park station, that, even in the midst of a buzzing swarm of people, so many individuals could seem so utterly unattached. Whether those faceless strangers reached out and touched me, or just somehow reached out to each other, I was really just looking for signs of life. And in that portly, middle-aged man with kind eyes who gave an important piece of himself to me in the London Underground on a chilly November afternoon, that is exactly what I found.

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Sunday 11 November 2007

Lest We Forget - An Open Letter to the Unknown Soldier

Dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the service of others.

To You Who Is Forever in Our Thoughts,

As your mother, I will always remember you the way you were when we were closest, when I could feel your head rising and falling against my chest. When you told me with glowing eyes of your accomplishments, and when you could not contain how much you hurt and the tears that welled up in those eyes spoke most of your need for me to soothe your pain. I cannot stand to think of the terrible things that have befallen you since the last time you were close to me; what you have seen and what you have felt would almost certainly break my heart, so I tell myself that, in those times when you were all alone and afraid, you could feel my closeness. I was there with you, and I still am. I would still give anything to feel that closeness with you just one more time, but my dreams still allow me, from time to time, to feel the warmth of your presence so intensely I'm sure I can feel your breath and smell your hair. Those are the moments that I cherish.

As your father, I remember the pride I felt when you began to think for yourself, and started to become the person you did, even as I knew that it would, in some way, begin to take you away from me. The day you left was almost unbearably difficult, with my wanting to tell you everything I'd never had the chance to, but knowing that to do so would be to risk telling you that I was giving up hope of ever seeing you return. I've tried since you've been away not to make it about myself, to avoid dwelling on the all the joy that I've been robbed of by not being able to watch you grow. There was so much I wanted for you that you never got to experience, and so much you've experience that I never wanted you to. All I can hope for now is that, before you left our lives, you got what you wanted.

As your sister, I feel this huge sense of responsibility to fix something that I know I never can. Not having you here has changed us all completely. Whenever we sit down all together for a family dinner, or gather in smaller groups any other time, there's this awkward compulsion that we have to acknowledge your absence, as we always do, but the more earnestly we do so, the more painful it becomes, so we probably don't acknowledge you like we should. I keep hearing that that's just the way things are, until one day it all just becomes another thing we do, like an oft-repeated prayer whose words no longer mean anything. But I won't let that happen to you, even if I have to keep open wounds from becoming scars. Your absence is a wound I won't let time heal.

As your brother, I wish I could have done something to protect you, to take you back to our days when every battle had as its counterpart a scar to be worn like a badge, and every wound had as its companion a good story that we'd look back on someday and laugh about. I know everyone says this, but, in so many ways, I wish I could trade places with you; I wish it would have been me. You seem so much better now than I ever was. All I can seem to remember now is those times I wished you ill, when I treated you badly just because I could. I sure hope that's not how you remembered me, because it would kill me to know that empty frame of guilt was a part of your last moments. I tell myself instead that you thought of the times we laughed so hard it made everyone around us laugh too. For your sake, and mine I supposed, I hope I'm right.

As your love, I remember how your presence filled the space we were in, the way a body fills a bed or a smile fills a face. I can still feel you touching me, not just with your hands and your lips and your skin but with your eyes and your spirit. Now it seems I have to force myself to feel things, to put effort and will into squeezing something tangible out of any attempt to reach me. I remember when you hurt me, and when I hurt you, when we said and did things to each other that made us so mad at the time, but I know now that the hurt that comes from your absence is so much deeper, and lasts so long. It's the one thing that can reach through and touch me when everything else is numb. Sometimes I think that if I reach back, blindly through that space that your presence no longer fills, my hands might find yours, and we'll draw together in an embrace.

As your best friend, it doesn't seem fair that I'm the one sitting here reminiscing. Remember how easy it was not to take anything seriously, and to leave all that bad stuff behind and just have a good time? What happened to those effortless days? It used to be that all we had to do to make the world go away for a while was to get together, and anything was possible. It's not like that now; you're never there when I turn around, reminding me sometimes that, for some things, there is no second chance. There's no chance to even talk about all those things we wanted to do together, let alone actually do them. Sometimes I wish you'd leave me alone, sometimes I even say it out loud, but then there are the other times, when I realize that you are with me, following me around like some shadow I can't see, and maybe it's not so bad having you with me, because you remind me to do my best with every moment because everything may change in the next one.

As your daughter, I miss being able to count on you when I needed to be loved and accepted without question, whatever I had or hadn't done. Whoever took you away from me couldn't have known how good you were to me, how you took care of me. People tell me I'm strong, and independent, and everything that a woman these days is supposed to be, and I suppose they're right to some extent, but they don't see what you saw. For you, I never had to perform, even though I always loved doing so. For you, I never had to prove anything, I just wanted to. I know there are people in my life that understand that, and really try to give me that, but you never had to try. That's just who you were. I guess if whoever took you had known that, that's who you'd still be.

As your son, I wanted to know you so much better. I wanted to hear about all the things you could never tell me because you knew I'd have never been interested. I wish there was some way that I could tell you that I'm interested now; I'm interested not just in hearing but in understanding what it was that made you the person you were. Most of all, I wanted you to see me grow into the person you always knew I could become, and see the pride you felt watching me put into the practice the best of yourself that you gave to me. I hear all the time how much of you there is in me, not just in how I appear but in how I do the things I do. Those who knew you well even say that, at times, the way I move through the world helps show them that you are not really gone at all. That's a nice thought to hold on to sometimes, but I wish I could hold onto it for longer, because when it fades, I'm left missing you that much more.

As your victim, I think this whole thing is completely unfair. Neither of us should have been there, doing what we were doing. Why did circumstances have to put us together like that, at that precise moment in time in that exact place? If you'd been from where I was from, we could have been family, friends, neighbours, or even just strangers. Either way, we both wouldn't have had to lose everything that we've lost, and to cause so much hurt to so many others. Maybe I'm supposed to hate you, but I don't hate you; how could I, I don't even know you. What I hate is whatever brought us together under those circumstances. I don't care whose fault it was, or who was right and who was wrong. I just hate that it had to happen at all.

As the one responsible for your fate, I know that you're not all that different from me, but, as you more than anyone can understand, it was something I just had to do. You know as well as I do how complicated it is, the frame of mind you're put in by the preparation you go through with those like you, and the comraderie you feel with them, and the need to step outside yourself into some heightened state of awareness. You know what it is to become someone other than yourself. You have to, or you'd never last even for a day. Of course I feel bad about all of it, I think about it all the time, but I'd never last a day either if I thought about it too much. If you didn't understand that as well, I'd probably feel much worse, but I know you do. We can't be that different.

When all is said and done, it hardly matters why you were taken from us, or what you were doing when you were. It's about what you meant to us when you were with us, and what you continue to mean to us now. The talk around this time of year is of valour, and service to a higher good. That must be important, but it is not uniforms and trumpets that, for us, embody your particular sacrifice. Neither is it the tangible sadness, nor the unfillable emptiness that memorializes your affect on us all. Rather, it is the ghost of your presence, refracted into manifestations everywhere by some barely discernable strand of light, that winds through and around us when we speak, when we act, while we live and love, and joins together our whole experience of you like the first ray of sunshine that parts the clouds, illuminates the earth with all its inhabitants beneath, and heralds the rainbow.

Yours eternally,

Those Whose Lives You've Touched

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Sunday 21 October 2007

The Blog - An Instrument of Truth & World Peace?

Dedicated to the misunderstood.

Where It's At
I want you to listen to what I'm saying. This blog, this medium, this computer, allows you to do that if you want, and it allows me to talk to you if I want. When we stop to think about it, that is truly an incredible thing. That someone as far away as you are from me, in distance, in background, in personality, in economic circumstance perhaps, can actually sit down and share thoughts, ideas, opinions, and stories. Forget e-mail, that we can only send to those whose addresses we know. Forget instant messaging, where communication in real time doesn't give us a chance sometimes to collect our thoughts, or take back what we've said. The blog is where it's at.

Move Over, Kings
When else in our history could you sit down comfortably, in an environment of your own choosing, and talk to your whole world? There have been people in the public eye -- queens, kings, and priests through to politicians, artists, athletes and champions of industry -- who have been able to command large and captive audiences, if they knew how to and had jobs that allowed them to. Some of them have even been great. But now, with a computer and an Internet connection, everyone can do it. Now that we have this incredible tool to speak to each other directly, what will become of those people, this open cabal of illuminati, whom we once needed to show us all that life could be, to interpret its elusive pulse as a rhythm that we could understand and, if not follow, at least dream of following? Could this capacity to speak to the masses that each of us now has available mean we can all be great now, that we the loyal subjects can step in front of those used to owning the platform and enjoy our day in the sun? Among those of us for whom communication is the key to life, isn't that the ultimate aspiration, to live like those golden children whose work, whose day job, is to simply live their lives communicating through their chosen medium? To blog as a calling, to play as a living, to sit comfortably on your choice of throne and write basically what you want, is just about as good as it gets. As more and more people figure that out, and figure out how to do it, there are going to be a lot of changes in those of us doing it and those of us reading it. With the amount of people this implies, that means changes in the world.

Wisdom of Crowds

A hundred ten million people can't be all wrong any more than they can be all right, but they must be on to something. There are blogs about everything from daily instances of unnecessary quotation marks to blogs not only about but by cats. There are blogs about blogging, even blogs about blogs about blogging. Bloggers complain regularly that they forego important life pursuits, such as family, work, exercise, and even sex, as they hunch over their keyboards broadcasting their own unique take on things to the world at large. But if, in fact, the medium is the message, and it is the existence of blogging itself that is worthy of consideration, what message is it that we can glean from the birth and subsequently explosive growth of the weblog? Have we stepped back to wonder about what the messsage the existence of the blog as an entity can teach us? Even if the medium isn't the most important message, and what we say is as important as how we say it, it's a safe assumption that just about anything that anyone has to say about anything in the world right now has probably been said, or is about to be said, on a blog. That, in itself, is pretty important.

The Envy of Plato
As a living work of expression and personal discovery, the blog has no equal. At its best, the blog is an open-ended narrative that can help you work through and perhaps even validate everything you know and believe. It can allow you to explore, discuss, hear criticism of, and then refine your ideas on a scale that Plato would have envied. Even at its worst, when it is used for pursuits we would rather not even think about, let alone read about, it is a window into worlds that our paternal cultural guardians, so concerned about our brittle sensibilities, never allowed us to see. Anything anywhere that we want to know and is currently known by people is now reachable in the space of a few coordinated hand movements, so that we have everything we need to teach ourselves enough to support, and improve upon, any of our opinions. This doesn't mean that we do know everything, but it does mean that we sure can try.

Meet Me in the 'Sphere
If you are new to blogs, you will be both encouraged and discouraged to learn that the blog allows a person with little or no technical knowledge to build a personal or professional showcase that, only a few years ago, would have cost a month's wages, invested either in a computer science diploma or a web designer's services. If you are a veteran of blogs or social networking, you know that a well-aimed feed reader makes you ten times more informed about just about everything than even the most committed newspaper junkie. Both communities, those for whom a computer is an instrument of enslavement and those for whom it is an instrument of discovery, have developed blissfully separate from, and sometimes even superior to, each other, but they are coming together. That meeting point is the blogosphere.

Sources in Check
Among those who have not yet fallen victim to its charms, one criticism of the blogosphere is that there are no fact checkers, and that looking for information of readable quality is like searching through the proverbial haystack for that needle of truth. Even once you've found the information you're interested in, the blogger's expertise is often questioned. For the polemically inclined however, who choose what to believe based as much on the quality of the argument as on the authority of its source, dubious at the best of times, the blog leaves no excuse for a weak argument, or at least for a lack of supporting criteria. Bibliographic sources that are a drive to the library away when a book is the medium, or definitions of words that were once the realm of academics, are a click away on the Internet.

True Craftsmanship
For those who see creating as a craft, as something to be practiced and perfected, a blog is a learning organism unlike any other. Unlike a novel or film script, with its beginnings, structure, and endings, the blog does not stop learning the moment its final print run is complete. Show me a writer who would not change at least some parts of even his or her most cherished work. Books may get editions, and movies may get a director's cut on DVD, but the blog post has the luxury of always being the best it can be, at least if its creator is more interested in fixing the argument than holding the opinion that created it. If you are accustomed to listening as much as talking, and recognize that, given equal weight, the two together will balance out towards understanding, the opportunity is there to create something not only truly current and truly wonderful, but also currently and wonderfully true.

Content with Filters
The argument against this medium as a vehicle for a new kind of message says that the finished product that is put away for good once it is complete is a good thing, in that such a product, whether it be a book or a movie or any other creation, must then be taken to such perfect form that the creators only get one chance, and it is a perfect snapshot of a moment in time. Further, the more arduous creative process that goes into building something as complex as a film acts as its own content filter. If something isn't good enough, a whole bunch of people aren't going to spend a whole bunch of money to try to realize a flawed dream. Both points are certainly true, and I'm a huge fan of many of these completed works, as is almost everyone else. I agree and admit to the fact that, even from a point of view of getting to real truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whatever that is, there are many instances where what is popular and what is true overlap.

The Distorted Lens
But, it's also important, I would say vital, to remember that, in order to create that snapshot, many agents were involved. To publish a novel requires researchers, proofreaders, editors, printers, typesetters, artists, and of course (gulp) lawyers. For a film, look at the credits that roll at the end of even a B-movie for a pretty good indicator of how many people it takes to bring together a production of even the most modest scale. Even documentary books, movies, and television, with no commercial ties whatsoever, that aim nobly at truth, are, with a few notably refreshing exceptions, filtered through a cultural lens, which comes further out of focus the more individuals are peering through the lens. In other words, even these valiant stabs at truth start from one step further back of the stance assumed by first-person account of the blog, which is itself only one step back from where we stand with the spontaneous generation of speech from our thoughts that we wield, sometimes like swords, on a daily basis.

Of Dogs & Wolves
Not that the blog itself is immune from this potential distortion of truth. A blog that is written for the purposes of making money is similar to literature or music or art whose main purpose is commercial. This does not mean that it cannot be very good, both in readability and education, but it does mean that, regardless of how good it is or how many people read it, it is to some extent bound by ropes that keep it tethered to the ground where it is obliged to reside, saved for its own good from running off into the wilderness of thought . That isn't a problem if the creature in question is content to be someone's pet, and live the comfortable life that that entails, but it is if the creature is a wolf.

Objects of Love

Then again, everyone has to make a living, right? Everyday life is a balance between truth and economics; isn't it understood that even the truest message may come with an ulterior motive? Though there are always enough stories of brilliant marketing ploys that required little or no investment to keep the content creators from complete despondency, the fact of the matter is that it's pretty hard to get noticed without either compromising at least some of your integrity or parting with even more of your money. As always, those who know how to attract eyes are usually more interested in the pockets into which reach the hands that are corporeally attached to those eyes, whereas those just interested in the eyes are staring into them so intently that they have fallen in love and forgotten all about paying the rent.

Paradigm Shift

What I find amusing, on days when it isn’t driving me nuts, is how much credence is given to someone’s point of view just because someone else has seen fit to publish their work. Don’t get me wrong; I am not taking issue with all published work; there is some fine work indeed out there, more than can ever be measured. It's just that I believe that anything on which anyone has worked hard to communicate is worthy of an audience. I think everything should be published, that everyone should have access to everything. What amuses me then, is how much status and attention we assign to those who have merely accomplished a task like any other, and have been rewarded for it by attention and remuneration. For example, every new author knows and dreads the question “Are you published yet?” To me, this question belongs to an old paradigm, one that was used before everyone could publish and which is no longer particularly valid. With the incredible opportunities now available for developing and distributing ideas, the current version of this question, both more accurate and less likely to provoke dread, should be “How do you publish?”

Freaks in the Shadows

Isn't the real question about blogs or books or movies, or any form of content which aims for truth but has money behind its development, whether the fact that this content feeds someone's kids makes it a barrier to the true pursuit of knowledge, whatever that may be. It's not new news that everything is censored to some extent, some for good reason, some simply because it is unpalatable to one influential pair of eyes and ears somewhere along the long line of production that it takes to bring content to the eyes and ears of a potential audience. What harm is there in that as long as the message doesn't get so commercial that it interferes with our enjoyment or understanding? After all, when you take away the money, all you get is a bunch of kooks and weirdos who have nothing important to say in the first place, right? How can censorship be bad if it keeps those freaks in the shadows where they belong?

Numbers Game

What the blog attempts to do as an institution is to settle the censorship debate once and for all, allowing direct access where before there was just a numbers game, whose organizers were so adept at stacking the odds against us finding something that might truly disturb us, lest we wake from our peaceful slumber. The numbers themselves haven't changed; for every pedophile harming a child, or thinking about it, there are a thousand people disgusted by him and one child advocate or law enforcement officer, hopefully more, working to save that same child. The difference now is that there has been born a direct forum for the pedophile to be understood, other than through his actions. The power and influence of the medium will be decided by whether or not he takes that opportunity and, if he does, what happens to the rest of us when he does.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

I am not saying that, in order to achieve enlightenment, we should all go out and immerse ourselves in all that is distasteful to our personal sensibilities, that we should revel in all the human suffering that is everywhere in this world, or that we should encourage those who are responsible for some of that suffering to start sharing in droves their sordid fantasies. This is not about what should happen at all, it is about what is happening, and will continue to happen whether we want it to or not. And, as it happens, it pays to remember the old saying about the devil you know. What the blog does is to present us with an opportunity to get to know that devil, to explore society's demons, as mirrors of our own, with less interpretative bias than we've ever had before. The uncomfortable truth we may find is that, in the depths of depravity and tragedy, can be found great humanity. It is the humanity in the monster that enables him to understand his victims deeply enough to draw them in, and it is a very profound humanity that makes him follow his compulsions with complete disregard for the condemnation by society and even self that following them will inevitably bring. The question we face when we look that deeply, is whether the violence in our own souls that allows us to judge him with equal wrath is different in its fundamental nature from the seed of his own, and whether it was simply a trick of circumstance that pointed ours in a direction less destructive. With no illuminati to frame the discussion and guide us in the direction they would have us follow, we might even find some light in the darkness of even the most tortured soul.

Same Old Same Old

As the blog evolves, that is certainly the future of those who control the apparatus through which our ideas flow. They are already starting to learn, as the governments of the world did long ago, that the possession of certain information is as much a burden as it is a vehicle for influencing behaviour. Too light a touch means anarchy, too heavy a hand means a tyranny, and history tells us that either structure is doomed to collapse. The question of which side to take in the witch hunt, that of the mob or of the witch, will become more and more difficult to answer as the medium explodes. For every argument that expression of unorthodox views and fantasies provides a more acceptable outlet than criminal activity and is therefore benign, there is the argument that those easily led will find a shape and a direction for unexpressed urges that might never have taken form.

The Faceless Foe

I'm on neither side, and both, but I know that, as long as we allow those who bear a faceless similarity to those who may have wronged us to incite our wrath, we will never be able to properly prevent them from deeply affecting us. It is one thing for the parent of the child who has been victimized to want to tear out the heart of the perpetrator, or even to go ahead and actually do so; it is quite another for a listener hearing of such an offense to apply that sense of being deeply wronged to anyone whom he might choose to associate with the perpetrator. Being a parent, I am disgusted at what is done to children, but, if I want to be of any use in the prevention of future atrocities, possibly on my own children, my only hope is to understand why they happen, and therefore understand the people who make them happen. This will equip me much better to prevent this from touching my own life and, even in the event of the unthinkable, to better cope with it if it does.

The Rubberneckers' Parade

When we do not like what we see through one of these windows into other worlds, should we turn away in fear, or should we watch and learn? The answer, once again, is not a question of what should be done. Like motorists at a passing accident, we are compelled to peek at the carnage. If this involuntary urge to wallow makes us dirty, even filthy, to the extent that it even haunts our dreams and channels our emotions, it will also make us wiser, if we let it. We point fingers at our governments, our corporations, and our moral enemies, even as we possess the tools that make hiding the act of doing harm to another person increasingly difficult, especially if the victim can be given the same tools to broadcast to the world. The muck is already washing right off and leaving us with a new understanding of those less nice or those less fortunate.

The Ideal Tools...

What are we doing with that understanding? Well, I know what Jimmy Wales is doing, envisioning an ideal world in which almost all of the traditional barriers to knowledge have been removed. I know what a lot of bloggers are doing, too. Each, in his or her way, is trying to change the world. Our current technological abilities, a previously unimaginable mosaic of podcasts, satellite transmitters, and $100-dollar laptops could, properly wielded, banish such obstacles as illiteracy, remoteness, and immobility. How long ago was the elimination of these barriers conceived as setting up the conditions for an ideal world? With all this capability, do we now live in a world that is ideal?

For An Ideal World

I do not have the authority to answer that question, and I do not have the discipline or memory required to look at this scientifically, as I am inclined to work backward from insight rather than work forward from evidence, but I'm pretty sure that we've never had in our hands this powerful a tool to make it more ideal. The human tendency to reveal oneself and seek to be reached means that we back into self discovery through the blog, sometimes using anonymity to plumb considerable depths, but craving at the same time the personal affirmation that will come from acceptance of our message. The more people discovering themselves and the more people accepting the results of those discoveries, the fewer people there are wandering around with blood in their eyes and guns in their hands. With the sheer numbers both producing and consuming content through the same medium, there is not only a removal of the distinction between the writer and the reader, but also of the victim and the predator. If you used to just watch the news, and now you can report it or even be part of the story itself, your relationship to the entire community has changed.

Tabula Rasa
For those who do choose to be a part of the story, there is a tendency to pour out thoughts about themselves and their worlds that they would never do anywhere else or with anyone else. The uninitiated may wonder how anyone could ever feel comfortable airing such intimate views, even under an anonymous moniker, in this medium, with who knows whose eyes upon you. In fact, this should not be surprising at all. The human animal still has extremely powerful physical instincts, and certain types of human contact and communication are as difficult now as they have ever been, if not more. On the other hand, a screen doesn't talk back, won't judge you, and lets you re-consider how you've expressed yourself, until you have your message just the way you want it.


Those unfamiliar with the medium may also wonder whether there is even an audience for people talking intimately about themselves and sharing their thoughts almost unfiltered with total strangers? Of course there is. You're reading this now, aren't you? At the heart of the matter, what is most personal is most human, and what is most human is most universal. In other words, the most deeply personal messages should have the most universal appeal. If I do not have something in common with what I am reading, or viewing, or hearing, then I will not be drawn to engage with it.

What's At Stake?
All that said, the tragedy of the blogger is that, if you build it, there is certainly no guarantee that they will come. Those of us who invest our time in the pursuit of truth in this medium hold out hope that it is the quality of the content that will carry the message to those who need to hear it, even as we see that the blogosphere is being taken over already by the same forces that captured other forms of media before it. The tsunami of money, sex, and mediocrity, at least two-thirds of which courses through my own veins with some intensity on an alarmingly regular basis, advances daily on the medium and may even seem to some to be drowning it, but the blogger-as-believer does not believe that, for the most part, this wave represents the best that we can achieve. This noble surfer holds out hope that the wave is not yet beyond a well-executed ride and graceful kick out, that the weirdos and witches might yet find a way to mount the steep hill and make themselves heard. Either that, or he is just foolish enough to believe, knowing what we all know and seeing what we all have seen, that the witches, with everything at stake, will finally have their time to stand proudly in the flickering torchlight and address the mob.

Go Tell It In The Village

Perhaps that is not such a foolish impression. Perhaps the speed at which our media creep closer and closer to their initial purpose, attempting to address all members of a community, is beginning to overtake the speed at which our communities are growing. The much-discussed global village, let's remember, is actually a very simple concept of community. If you live in a village, a real village, where everyone knows who you really are, and there are no secrets, you know that, in the village, everyone is a part of everyone else's life. There is little that you can do or say, especially if it is out of the ordinary, that will escape the notice of your community. But what you could once communicate verbally to your community when it was the size of a village, you can now communicate digitally to your larger community, which in essence is your world. With the ability of this medium to translate, reference, and access multiple delivery mechanisms, perhaps we have indeed reached a stage where a message resonant with humanity at large can be communicated globally.

Pipe Dreams

Of course, it is one thing to address the global community in theory, another thing to get enough distribution through any particular medium to actually do it. 1.24 billion people may be Internet users, and a whole bunch of them may read blogs, but I'm pretty sure, with 1.6 million blog posts going up every day, they aren't all reading my blog, or won't ever. Nevertheless, I hold fast to the pipe dream, common among content creators, that the quality of the message will eventually ensure mass viewership. Even if this is only true for those with a lifespan of 312 years, or for those whose luck is as good as their content, I choose to take my stand with those noble artistic souls, even as I know that the delusion brought to life by the pipe's contents usually wears off long before any of us can actually afford to replenish the stash.

Two Kinds Of People

There are two kinds of sentences that start with "There are two kinds of people...". There is the kind that manages to be completely true in a specific sense, when followed by a clause containing a clearly defined group and another clause that is not that defined group, as with "There are two kinds of people, those who have been to Timbuktu, and those who haven't." The other kind manages to be completely false, because it is used in a general sense, when there are no clauses to define the groups, as in "There are two kinds of people". When it gets tricky is when you try to define, in the first clause, a group that cannot be clearly defined, as in "There are two kinds of people, people who are cool and people who are not cool."

Grey Area

What makes the blog a potential instrument of both truth and positive social change can be encapsulated in the following version of that ambiguous sentence structure:

There are two kinds of people; those in your community, and those not in your community.

More than ever before, with the reader as writer, the subject as monarch, the viewer as reporter, and the mob member as witch, these are one and the same.

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