October 29, 2007

Living Like Weasels

"A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go . One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a stubborn label.

"And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton--once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?"

Read Annie Dillard's full essay here. Why should you? Because you will feel better about yourself, whether you're a weasel or not.

We have a thing or two to learn from clams too, it turns out.



October 23, 2007

Build Your Wild Self

Baby Baphomet

T
he New York Zoos website has a program that lets you build an image of yourself and then add animal features to it. [via MetaFilter] I found myself with horns and wings in a blink, and before I quite knew what was happening, I was a Muppet Babies-esque version of Baphomet.

It's possible that no image has been as abused or misunderstood as that of Eliphas Levi's Baphomet, pictured below. Originally published in 1854, it's been burned into the public imagination as a portrayal of the Devil himself, and has been heavily leaned on in movies and shows to indicate Satanism and the most repugnant, bestial depths of evil that humanity can sink to. However, Levi's own description of the icon presents a compelling figure that represents quite the opposite. To Levi, Baphomet is a complete portrait of human spirituality:

Baphomet

"The goat on the frontispiece carries the sign of the pentagram on the forehead, with one point at the top, a symbol of light, his two hands forming the sign of hermetism, the one pointing up to the white moon of Chesed, the other pointing down to the black one of Geburah. This sign expresses the perfect harmony of mercy with justice. His one arm is female, the other male like the ones of the androgyn of Khunrath, the attributes of which we had to unite with those of our goat because he is one and the same symbol. The flame of intelligence shining between his horns is the magic light of the universal balance, the image of the soul elevated above matter, as the flame, whilst being tied to matter, shines above it. The beast's head expresses the horror of the sinner, whose materially acting, solely responsible part has to bear the punishment exclusively; because the soul is insensitive according to its nature and can only suffer when it materializes. The rod standing instead of genitals symbolizes eternal life, the body covered with scales the water, the semi- circle above it the atmosphere, the feathers following above the volatile. Humanity is represented by the two breasts and the androgyn arms of this sphinx of the occult sciences."
I've left the wikipedia notation intact in case you're not familiar with the Kabbalistic terms. The words on Baphomet's arms are SOLVE (dissolve) and COAGULA (congeal), which carry alchemical significance. Levi's description makes any primitive, bestial, or evil inerpretations of this icon almost impossible. It is a meditation on wholeness, a composite of the spiritual human's features as he attempts to approach the divine.

Incidentally, last year about this time, I underwent a transformation similar to today's, only in person. I began working on my costume for our "Horns Only" party, and by the time I was done, I realized that I was drafting my own love letter of sorts to the strange and mysterious Baphomet. I know one doesn't have to wait until this time of year to meditate on or build one's own Wild Self, but it seems important to post a reminder (even if it's just a self-reminder) that in October you get a free pass. Don't forget the horns.

VII

October 12, 2007

The Law of the Jungle

This photo and comment on Muckster's flickr page made my whole day. It's the sheer beauty of NYC's ethical code in action:

banana lady
"She sat down at my table and started eating a banana without asking, so I took her picture without asking either."

October 10, 2007

Notes to the City


Dear New York:


1. I know my bag is open. The reason it's open is that there is nothing of value inside. Currently my bag contains a bottle of juice, a book, eye drops, lip balm, a handkerchief, one kung fu shoe, and a decal that someday I will get around to putting on my window to alert firemen that there are pets in my house. So you can see why I'm not all zipped up and locked down. In fact, I may want a clear shot at that hankie or lip balm without having to grapple tiny zippers with my big crude hands.

2. Do not touch me. When someone on the subway or on the street suddenly taps me on the shoulder or shouts for my attention, I do not assume they are helpful and concerned about the security of my belongings, or that they think that I'm especially attractive. I assume that they are crazed and dangerous, hurling themselves at the bars of the social contract that allows us to play at being grownups together. If I don't know you and you're touching me on the subway, you'd better be giving me CPR, or dragging me out of the tracks. (In which case, you are welcome to the contents of my bag. Perhaps you have pets?) Or you had better be doing something dirty that I can at least shock my friends with in the retelling and then secretly treasure in my heart.

3. Last month after a lunchtime nap in Central Park, a wasp the size of a golf ball rode on the back of my shirt all the way to my office, and stung me in the spine when I sat down in my chair. This means I managed to walk several blocks in one of the most crowded areas of the city with a large venomous alien life form clinging to me, plainly yellow against my black shirt, and not one person stopped me to let me know. So fuck you, New York. Keep your eyes and hands to yourself, I know what I'm doing.


Yours truly,


Tom


PS. I do kind of like it when you point out that there is money actually hanging out of my pocket.

October 9, 2007

Flowers In My Hair

You know you are headlong into fall when suddenly music has the keys to all your emotions again. This new song by Jill Sobule has me dreaming about the impossibility of moving West... someday. Jill's ability to peer into the worlds of anyone she meets is unrivaled, and having gotten my first acupressure massage just last week by a woman just like the one in the song, I feel a special ache listening to this:



Jill's download page

October 8, 2007

The Strength To Live

polar


"In 1897, pioneering Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andrée and two companions took off for the north pole in a hot air balloon. In 1930 their bodies were found, along with records of their expedition." via MetaFilter

Reading the tale of their wondrous and hopeless adventure (and looking at the photos they took) really cast a spell over me. Those last two months together wandering the ice after the balloon crashed, keeping each other company and persisting onward long after you'd think death would have been inevitable-- it's perhaps the best and worst of everything life has to offer a man.

And tonight I am just here, with a book to read and not much else to do, no polar bears to eat or sheets of ice to climb. Life may be too short for our tastes most of the time, but it can also be too long by half.

I've drawn The Hierophant two days in a row. Apparently I didn't learn whatever lesson I was supposed to learn yesterday...

hierophant

October 3, 2007

Be the Empire You Want To Be


W
hen I was a child, there were two eras in my life: pre-mall and post-mall. The Superstition Springs Mall was built when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and it changed the very fabric of what it meant to hang out with friends or spend time with family. It was a shiny gem on our barren sub-suburban horizon, and it certainly opened my mind to the availability of all kinds of things I never knew I should want. My friends and I memorized its geography and its contents, its people. Later we joined them as one by one we got jobs in this or that Waldenbooks or The Limited. The mall's understated background became the setting for the tepid drama of our lives.

That's why I think I had such a strong reaction to this group of artists featured on MetaFilter today. They found a space near a storage area in their local mall and built a small apartment into it, a bit at a time-- and then they lived there off and on for four years before getting caught. While the story is sensational, their essays about how (and why) malls are designed to interact with us really hit home. Here's an excerpt from their site:

General Growth Properties, LLC, the owner of the Providence Place Mall, as well as 224 other malls across the country, brands its interiors with images that aim to uniformly “define” its consumers with a model shopping identity.
General Growth Properties owns and manages 225 shopping malls across the country, assigning each one an advertising identity that aims to “define” both the shopping experience and the shopper. General Growth has four different themes, each one showcasing a different brand of woman and her lifestyle “needs” - a feminine icon/mall mascot to distinguish an otherwise indistinguishable collection of multinational retail shops and generic architecture.

The inventor of the enclosed shopping mall, architect Victor Gruen, explicitly designed the mall for women (Baldauf 2007). In the context of the post-WWII boom in suburban living, Gruen sought to provide a spatial remedy for “female isolation” by offering housewives a sanitized version of the economically and racially polarized city – somewhere safe where their husbands wouldn’t worry about them and they wouldn’t be afraid to bring their kids. The mall was founded on this principle of giving women a chance “to get out of the house,” and experience the spatial efficiency, climate control, and surveillance, of quasi-public shopping space.

Based on these “needs,” Gruen established a template for shopping malls that has been replicated around the world - two to three department stores anchoring an enclosed ring of inward facing shops, surrounded by a sea of parking (Underhill 2004). The “innocent” pretense of providing women with a pleasant, “public” place to accomplish their long list of household errands provided the perfect cover for the psychological tests Gruen also ran proving that the mall detained otherwise distractible women shoppers to linger longer, and buy things impulsively. The design recipe included escalators, artificial lighting, restaurants and rest areas, as well as decorative icons to provide a hint of location and history, such as clock towers, stained glass, fountains and plants. Women were to be spared the sight of service entries, construction, loading docks, and refuse. Without anything to taint their clean shopping-scape, women would spend more time and money inside the mall, and they would be a captive audience for the advertisements of the shops and mall itself.

It is so easy to confuse public space with private property, especially when that space is tailor-made to make you feel that way. When you spend time there, however, you're no longer starring in your own life, you're playing the role they designed for you. Every possible decision you can make while you're inside has been theorized about and planned for. When you finally decide to leave, plans have been set in motion that delay this as long as possible. To an extent, you are still yourself, but by entering this private property, you agree to have the total amount of possible experiences you can have diminished, to allow other forces beyond your understanding to subtly govern the time and money you spend. Meanwhile, the mall itself contributes nothing of value to your local culture or community, except for the status that it has conferred upon them by its presence-- a status that was invented in the process described in the essay above, to sell more stuff.

Regardless of what you think of the artistic statement made by living in a mall so big that it takes four years for the management to notice, you have to admit that we assume far more benevolence than is wise when it comes to the forces that create these spaces that we spend so much of our lives in. Why don't we question them more, or play with their meaning the way these artists have? These places may be private property, but the way we experience them is as "ours". And yet that experience has been built into them from the beginning in hopes that we would come to the party and never leave.

Every morning, I draw a tarot card from the deck. It gives me something to think about on the train, a symbol or theme to contemplate when I am waiting for the line to move, or the people around me to stop talking so loud. It's a rope-ladder that I always leave dangling, in case I need to climb up into my own head in a hurry. Today it was the much misunderstood Death card, that card that my friend Eric always describes as merely a door that once passed through, can never be returned through again. It is a drastic change in one's world or environment that can never be undone. Even so, it was a depressing sight at seven in the morning.

I thought about it today as I slumped in my chair at work. I thought about it as I waited in the churning line to descend into the subway at rush hour, the escalators having been shut down for repairs and funneling everyone onto the narrow stairs. I thought about it when I woke from my nap unwilling and perhaps even unable to muster the energy for my kung fu class. But in class, I was able to transcend my flesh. And even better, I was still alive, which meant that once the transcendence took place, my body went along for the ride and found itself working harder and more capably than either of us thought possible. As I did chain punches during the last five minutes of class, I thought of what I'd read about malls, about the spaces that are provided for us by people who want our money, and how we grow out of them (hopefully) as we discover needs that the gorgeous, comfortable mall experience doesn't satisfy. I thought of the Death card. On nearly every version of the card, a skeleton rides a horse victoriously, bearing a flag or banner. A thought flashed through my mind: "Death is the final victory in our lifelong battle against not just our surroundings, but our own flesh."

Just because that victory is inevitable doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for it a little at a time, as much as we can along the way. I'm lucky to have my kung fu class to remind me of this several times a week, and I hope wherever you are, there are places you can go to escape the devouring world and taste it yourself.

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