Q: How many lead guitarists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: 20 -- one to change it and 19 to stand around and say "I can do that."
Some people seem born bearing a gene for occupation, as if one could dispense with vocational counseling and just run them through CSI or something in kindergarten and then on to their brilliant careers. They end up as examples of dedication to one's profession, twelve foot tall posters of their smiling arterioslerotic faces borne aloft at rallies for The Way Of Work, icons of knowing what you want to be from the age of three or whatnot.
Good on them. For the sorry rest of us, the real answer to the old old oldie old older than dirt question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is "solvent." We take what we can get, and if we don't like it, we take what else we can get. Dad's old admonitions, the dualing cliches of "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life" and "There are things you're good at and things you can make money at and if you're lucky, they're the same things," get stuck in the attic along with your high school diploma and whatever other remnants from your childhood you're too lame to shitcan. The concept of one-life-one-job is roadkill under the barreling wheels of the SUV of corporate gluttony, and great-granddaddy's twelve hour day of grinding (but steady!) toil have been replaced by eighteen of commute, unpaid overtime, negotiation, retraining and the endless quest for the boss from anywhere but the lowest circle of Gone Fishing.
The decomposition of the employer/employee model of monetary distribution has left a buttload of folks high and dry, lacking not only the life skills but even the worldview to cope with a landscape of Who Cares that the progressives in their innocence thought was abolished in 1932. The fat bastards who crack the whips may have been beaten back, but while we slept content in our little beds the Shadow took a new form and grew again. Eternal vigilance is the price of job security.
Like most of my contemporaries, I was born into the perceived entitlement of employment that was so rudely shattered by recession and downsizing and outsourcing and all the other dirty tricks that time and jackals with the tongues of men can play. But I was never all that eager to embrace the velvet strait jacket of My Good Paying Job. It wasn't nobility or good sense or even mule-headed recalcitrance -- I just couldn't make up my mind. It's one thing when you have to choose between the shiny red fire truck and the cushy seat in the corner office. In my case, I was told over and over again that I could pretty much do anything I liked. While I did feel a clear calling at an early age to paleontology, by the time I was in junior high I was being drawn and quartered in a dozen directions by stampeding horses of contrary impulse and ability, and while I did great on tests, I never figured out what I really should be.
The consequence of all this dithering stands before you (okay, sits) a full grown ball of confusion, still torn by the traction of his several interests. But one of the numerous doors that men over 40 learn to close softly at the Hotel New Hampshire is the one leading to the shiny red fire truck and the cushy corner office and all the other dipshit dreams of youth. I'm no longer nearly as likely to ride one of those torturous draft animals off in search of some booby prize of obscure desire. I've busted my lance on plenty of grail hunts, thankee kindly. Is there another ride in this amusement park?
Last week, my sweetie and my sweet self were enticed by the gods of coincidence and show biz (together again!) to catch a performance by old buddies the Flying Karamazov Brothers. One of the perks of living in Seattle is their penchant for throwing (haha) their shows together here before taking them on the road. This time, the gang of four, frequently the victims of their own eclectic tendencies, managed to get their teeth and clubs into a subject worth examining, namely the finiteness of human life and all that it implies. Naturally, as neovaudevilleans the boys pursued the matter with somewhat less piety and sober intent than, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, spouting existential wisdom in the form of Rules of Life, as in Rule One: Everything is juggling. Rule Two: Everyone drops. Hilarity, as they say online, ensued.
While I always enjoy their defiance of the three laws of motion, I'm frequently of divided spirits after a Karamazov show. In the past, my own egotism and lack of direction left me a little bruised and deflated after witnessing yet another gilded triumph by the throwing muses, the crapulous demon couldashouldawoulda squatting on my shoulder cackling insults in my ear. I defended myself with the moth-eaten security blanket of my own wack history and the strange triumphs and motley comforts thereof, and with the muttered contention that if I really wanted to I could... Yeah. Right.
I'm happy to announce, though, that this time the juggler envy was short-lived. While I may never be a Broadway star, I've finally concluded that my own personal-pan life, in all its cat-herd chaos, is okay. I'm not breaking any laws, I'm good to my wife, I'm cranking out crank missives and smithing songs and fixing houses and occasionally even playing music for money. I'm an artist and I pay the bills. What's not to love?
In a world of infinite choice but finite resource, what you get is what you get, and the wise man salts his ambitions with acceptance. And that slam you hear in the distance is my wife's wheelchair ramming the studio door. So there.
Here in the green riot of the vernal equinox, I'm trying to find the center of my spiritual perception, lost or mislaid somewhere in the midst of this era of politic travesty and personal challenge I seem to be all unwillingly trudging through. Such remnants of my youthful gimcrack visionary period as remain have become increasingly precious to me in my all-too-material middle years. I rosin up the bow and crank out a ditty or two on that old saw about This Too Passing, deedle deedle dum bum. Yee haw. Frankly, I prefer theremins.
But yes dear friends, it's the height of the rite of spring it is it tis, and having donned my sacred aboriginal design teeshirt, I spent the holiday in pursuit of sacred copyright violation.
Like most suburban seekers, I picked up my woowoo the old fashioned way, out of books, generally paperbacks, generally used. But I devolved in adolescence, as so many of my contemporaries did, into the consumption of chattel fantasy fiction as an alternative to the dreaded Big Eye, or even worse, Big Reality. While I never particularly rolled around in the boggy quagmire of Unicorn Lit, I was a chapter and verse quoter of Tolkien, a name that had a modicum of class before the new crowd arrived. Deedle deedle dum bum.
Mostly, though, I read SF, the usual Asimov -Clark -Bradbury -Heinlein run. I first encountered Ursula LeGuin in that context, as a contender for the crown of Coolest. SF. Writer. Ever. And she definitely held her own in that arena. It wasn't until the early 90's, during our Second Road Period, that I read her not-a-novel-say-what-is-this book Always Coming Home while staying with dear bookworm friends in Santa Cruz.
ACW is a weird amalgamation of narrative, poetry, history, utopian speculation, postmodern deconstruction and audience asides straight out of Falstaff. In other words, it's an experiment, not the kind that leads to new pharmaceuticals, more like those performed by wild-eyed and -haired reprobates of dubious authority in lightning-illuminated garrets at midnight. But it's also the only work of fantasy that I've encountered in my (admittedly limited) readings in that field fit to grace the shelf next to my hardbound boxed edition of Lord of the Rings.
As any hobbit-head knows, Tolkien approached his monumental (and now monumentally revised) work from two traditions, those of fantasy and philology. The connection with 19th and early 20th century imaginative literature is fairly clear -- Tolkien's use of made-up historical background and his kyping from medieval and classical court intrigue is par for the Lord Dunsany course. But his scholarly pursuits in the origins of language may have been the source for what is truly memorable in his fun little story. Unca JRR started with the tongues he invented, and his love of speech and its evolution formed the foundation for everything he created. This is arguably the source of LotR's undeniable quality of palpable existence, its engendering the illusion that it isn't a mere made-up thing but a work of some unaccountable interdimensional journalism.
That quality pervades LeGuin's book as well, and to my eye for a similar reason. Tolkien grew his world with words, little fragments of sound and meaning that twined together to imply the culture that engendered them, as all languages do. LeGuin takes the same approach, but from a very different scholarly basis, that of anthropology and archeology. Her work is a puzzle too, what she terms more than once an "archeology of the future," in which she applies field techniques to bring to light a people of a time far past ours. It's a method comparable to the physical reconstruction of people of the past. Not content with language and history, she presents fragments, artifacts, chunks of physical culture, shards and chants and rituals and rude humor, building them up into a powerful presence with a compelling liveliness.
In light of their common scholastic mode of origin, the books share many features -- extensive footnotes, charts and tables, glossaries, alphabets and dictionaries. But in one area at least, LeGuin kicks Tolkien's geeky old Cambridge professor butt: ritual. Mythic components are nearly as basic to Tolkien as his linguistic ones, but unlike his graceful and gorgeous-toned Quenya and Westron, his divinities creak and teeter between reconstructions of greco-roman pantheons and the gnarled speculations of the Gnostics. OTOH, LeGuin takes her cue from the matter of fact, everyday spirituality of tribal peoples and the ways in which manners, civility, ethics and religion interweave within a healthy culture. Her people, the Kesh, take their practice both seriously and lightly, but their entire society is infused and imbued with it, right down to the physical layout of their towns.
LeGuin even went so far as to collaborate with an experimental composer and singers to produce a cassette of more or less sacred music and song of the Kesh. For years this album was an elusive personal Grail until, thanks to the endless interweb and the equally endless Powell Books, I finally scored a copy. It has a certain quaint, homemade air about it as befits an independent production from 1985. But despite its reliance, to my discerning, 20-years-in-the-future ear, on relatively cheap, primitive synth patches to mimic LeGuin's fantastic instruments, the music stands the comparison with the literary land of its origin and passes as a well-crafted faux ethnomusicological field study, complete with scholarly liner notes on a studiously underdesigned insert.
Devotions imagined on this level of detail are more than just ideas, they're magickal workings. And in my admiration for the primal taoist kindness of the Kesh and their practice, I'm doing my bit to help the mambo along. I've ripped a fair-use copy to CD and I'm in the final stages of laying out the notes with illustrations from the text to go with it. I'd rather the cassette stay in its form-fit case up on the shelf next to Tolkien, safe from the travails of uncertain tape decks. Digital is forever.
The government has been accused of many crimes over the years, everything from oppressing the poor to oppressing the rich, from self-indulgent obfuscation to international adventurism, and always, always of not doing its job, whether that be defined as lining the pockets of corporations or providing cradle-to-grave protection from reality to its citizens.
While I have no more confidence that the government is doing its job than anybody else, I have no illusions about either its venality or its nobility. In the grim greasy cheesy real world, the real purpose of government (herewith delimited as "the guys with the guns that most folks think should have the guns") is to maintain public stability. In a previous, mercifully strangled -in-crib tg I imagined its genesis as the conspiracy of all the little lairds to keep the Black Baron, magnificent and despicable master of warfare that he was, from running roughshod over everybody else. Whatever its origins, government functions in society as homeostatic systems do in the human body, keeping vital services and structures from drifting away from their centers.
In pursuit of civility, the Great White Father sees fit to reward certain behaviors and punish others. In the purview of its proper purpose, it makes sense to imprison, fine or otherwise harass such disrupters of harmony as thieves, muggers, murderers and others who engage in activities which harm citizens and impinge upon their sense of security. It also makes sense to reward activities which improve life for citizens and increase their general peace of mind. This latter policy is reflected in the laws governing real estate and home ownership.
Of all the big-ticket activities available to Joe Wageslave, none are remotely as favorably regulated or potentially enriching as owning your own home. Taxes, credit privileges and leverage are all slanted in your favor. It's not at all coincidental that the standard method by which the little guy becomes a middle guy or even a millionaire is through judicious real estate transactions.
Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. There is widespread bitching from the Left against the cult of property that stokes the fires of the endless war between tenant and landlord. But the compelling reason for coddling those who sell out by buying in is simple and practical: householders make better citizens. They're more likely to hold and keep a job, even try to move up the ladder. They're better sheltered and better protected. Their desire to improve their holding increases the prosperity of their neighborhood and even township. It's a virtuous circle with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (ork ork).
It's clear that a similar reasoning holds true in the governmental sanctioning of marriage. As a cornerstone of the institution of the family, marriage has a powerful and positive role to play in the stability of society. Certainly without children there would be no new taxpayers, but families also ease the government's task by taking on much of the burden of socioeconomic support that would otherwise fall to various incarnations of Welfare.
Take for example me and my wife (please). We don't have kids, we never had kids, we never intend to have kids. Nevertheless, we have a dependent, S's infirmity. As a subject of Full Press Disability, S receives some considerable aid from the state, both in cash and in health care, and gawd bless the state for that, I do declare. But none of that aid is officially directed at me: as the spouse, I am virtually the only person on the face of the earth, barring convicted criminals, who is not allowed to receive any stipend or wage for taking care of my disabled partner. The state derives considerable benefit from my actions: without me, S would undoubtedly be confined to a longterm care facility, at far greater public expense. But legislation specifically prohibits my receiving any reward for that benefit.
Back when we first got on this A ticket ride from doubletoothpicks, I referred to this as the Homewrecker Rule. If S and I got divorced, I could go to work as her caregiver for pay without any problem. Does the state of WA desire to break up our happy home? Probably not specifically -- the Homewrecker Rule had its origins in a number of cases of horrific spousal abuse of invalids, and might even have a certain protective value, people being what they are. But in the end, it amounts to the same thing. Authority wants me to choose between earning enough to pay my mortgage and staying married. In typical contrarian fashion, I continue to do both. Why? Because that's what married people do -- take care of each other. And that's why marriage is so valuable to society, and why the government slides it the perks it does.
And that's also precisely why the government has every obligation to extend those same perks to gay marriages. People committed to one another are no less valuable when they're gay than when they're straight. Giving incentives to people of alternative sexual persuasions to become economically interdependent is not only fair (duh!), it's also socially and economically beneficial, not just to the parties involved but to everyone. And attempting to deny those benefits isn't just an act of oppression against innocents in love, it's an insult on the body politic, and at the very least an act of political irresponsibility if not outright aggression.
America needs gay marriage every bit as much as straight. It may even need polygamy and group-contract marriage. What it doesn't need is bigotry disguised as simpering self-righteousness, mindless neurotic revulsion raised to an article of law. In their own way, the southern politicians who railed against "legislating morality" in the 1960's had a point: unless it involves a compelling interest of the state, rewriting law to reflect one or another arbitrary moral system is not only a waste of good legislative energy, it's durn near suicidal. And frankly, we've had quite enough of that already this administration.
The Bible is a bunch of ink on paper. That's the physical description of any book. Overt observation in the realm of the senses can detect no functional difference between it and a copy of, say, Naked Lunch. Ink. Paper.
The fun starts when you actually try deciphering the ink and placing it in, uh, context. The usual term for this is "making sense" of the information, parsing it into passages with some semblence of meaning. After that comes the meta-process of fitting these passages together and finding a more or less coherent whole in them, applying such literary categories as "history," "philosophy," "fiction," "memoir," "pornography," and so forth. Only then can the tedious and thankless task of ranking the work as "true" or "false" take place.
Like many books, the Bible is difficult to classify. Portions of it resemble history, poetry, philosophy, prophecy, social criticism, fantasy, propaganda and so on, an entire library between one set of covers -- as, of course, befits its origins as a great number of separate texts bound together for religious use. And there are any number of interpretations of these combined volumes, from the secular and scholarly to the inspired and even bibliomantic, all of which take a different tack in determining its veracity.
Movies, by contrast, are media of an entirely different order. Primarily aimed at the senses of sight and sound, they intentionally attempt to create an illusion of reality, of an event from some disparate quarter taking place in the presence of the observer. Because of this, there is one categorical judgement nearly every observer makes in the presence of a detected work of cinema, at least after the age of about 5: "Bogus horsehockey." Knowing the difference between movie real and real real (to paraphrase, ironically enough, a line from a movie) is a necessary life skill among inhabitants of civilized countries. Unfortunately, a cleverly made motion picture can cause even the most jaded and cynical viewers to succumb to the dreaded Suspension Of Disbelief Syndrome, at least temporarily.
Naturally, this effect isn't limited to the silver screen -- the Nightly News With Dan Blather offers us more opportunities to surrender to the woolen embrace of SODS than a thousand cheap scifi novels. But it is Hollywood that has taken upon itself the task of developing more and more sophisticated Weapons of Mass Delusion in its endless quest to pump yet another popcorn epic through the multiplex.
Of course, the proper purview of such mischief is fiction. But even here, there's fiction and then there's flicks. Peter Jackson demonstrated the way to take a complex, nuanced, deeply detailed narrative and strip off all those unnecessary complications to create a sleek, streamlined commercial juggernaut that will, in the words of the late sainted Alexander King in a similar position, "move its can." If there's something in the text that's subtle and difficult to represent in a two-shot or an action sequence, why, just rewrite that sucker. And hey -- what's the problem with stirring a little oliphaunt-surfing or dwarf-throwing into the mix? That's why they call it entertainment, boy! Lighten up!
Which leads us to Mel Gibson's titanic (in all its meanings) filming of the concreted (in all its meanings) stories from the New Testament of the last day in the erstwhile life of the erstwhile Christ. With professed malice towards none and charity for all, this film claims to be pursuing a goal of presenting as golly-gosh true a reading of the well-worn tale as possible. No expense is spared in authentication of costume, setting, custom, even dialog. While the cgi effects don't reach the heights of, say, The Lord of the Rings, by all indications the ketchup quota gives Kill Bill a solid run for the roses. On this one they pulled out all the stops and installed a few extras to yank besides.
But what, exactly, is this expensive dose of corroborative detail supposed to convey? Despite The Book's worldwide veneration as a source of faith and inspiration, there isn't anything resembling a consensus among scholars, historians, archeologists or theologians as to the veracity of one word of the Gospels. Like the rest of the Bible, they're a grab-bag of self-contradictory, heavily-masticated anecdotes, parables, tall tales and Grand Guignol with virtually no external correlation beyond the existence of someplace called "Israel". This heterodox orthodoxy invites and even demands the much-scorned "cafeteria Christian" approach, where the wary diner picks through the well-tossed offerings to extract such tidbits of wisdom as don't look or smell too seriously past their pull date.
Just setting this confabulated manticore in 70 mm stone is enough to dangerously clarify or even deface the already-suspect original, leaving alone Mad Mel's grinding it down into a blunt bloody stupid instrument of robot literalism or masochistic christovictimology or cryptoantisemitism or, more likely, the International Monetary Conspiracy. Any inherent spiritual connection gets buried in the rubble. What symbolic or transcendent value can the crown of thorns have when it's rendered, dimensioned and custom-fitted with easy-squeeze SimuBlud (TM) ejectors for a total gore experience?
Treating the Savior like a Lethal Weapon outtake neither enhances the quality of religious experience nor ennobles the greasy business of moving pictures. It serves only to point up the fatal fallacy of attempting to render mythology as fact. The inherent falseness of the medium reduces any subject, from topless college cheerleaders to Mahatma Gandhi, to celluloid heroism and sanctimonious pop swill, wringing sentimental crocodile tears that dry before the lights are up and the gum scraped off the seats. No matter how much money gets spent, movies cheapen everything they touch like King Midas in reverse.
Which of the Ten Commandments was it that interdicted making graven images, the one that implies that trying to reduce sacred concepts to mere representations destroys their connection with the Divine? Never mind, I'll look it up myself -- in the original ink and paper. I sure ain't waiting til the movie comes out.
Fear of electricity seems to be well-imbued in the rank and file of the construction trades. Burly men who sneer at third story 4x12 beams or bottomless cesspools blanch and grow silent in the presence of the chained lightning of live circuitry. Stories are whispered of the unholy power of power, the conduit-melting, apprentice-frying menace that is alternating current.
I ain't scared of no electrons, but I am cautious. Very, very cautious. Perhaps, then, I may be justified in having taken a solid six years to finish The Great Electrical Service Entry Change on my house, a project so extended that its origins, shrouded in the mists of time, were chronicled in the original Thaddeus Gazette.
It is written in the pages of that venerable tome how during our first autumn in this, our own little West Seattle Boeing bachelor bungalow, we took steps to increase the functionality of the property by getting a deck built behind the garage. Through neglect or miscalculation, said deck was impacted just about at neck level by the main Power Lines Of Death strung across to the mast at the back of the house.
Our carpenter pal assured us that the power company would just raise the lines. Our carpenter pal was unacquainted with either the National Electrical Code or Seattle City Light. My subsequent quest to move the wires led me to an Edsellent Adventure that brought me as close to becoming an electrical contractor as ever I care to in this life.
The basic problem was that, grandpappyed in though it might be, my service entry stood in strident violation of a dozen regulations which had been added since its installation sometime during the last Ice Age. While the Code in its majesty allows the continued use of obsolete wiring, the moment you try to change anything the gloves come off and everything has to be upgraded.
In my case, I not only had to move my entry, I also had to replace my breaker box, which meant I had to move my laundry room, which meant I had to remodel my house. It wasn't a can of worms, it was a squirming twelve-course dinner buffet, with a daunting pricetag to boot. With my wife and working partner disabled and my income teetering on the brink, it seemed ever so much easier to just, well, duck under those wires -- hey, how hard is that?
All too easy, as it turned out. I first pulled a permit for the entry change in late '97. By the time I got back to renew it, it was 2002. In the meantime I'd been forced to remodel the house anyway, for wheelchair access, and while I didn't have the time, money or will to do the electrical job too, I did relocate the laundry. I renewed again in '03, and my resolve increased sufficiently for me to chop down a tree that blocked the hypothetical new line and pound in the 10' ground rods.
But now came the part where I had to put tap shoes on the elephant. It wasn't enough that I had to do the new service construction, strike plate and weather cap and conduit, oh my -- I had to do it right. The penalty for deviation from the holy writ of the Code was to have City Light politely decline to turn my power back on. Electricity is scary enough. The prospect of no electricity for some unspecified period of time was worse. And I wasn't just trying to placate the hookup boys, no -- in between the cutoff and the powerup, I would suffer the presence of the little man from the Department of Construction and Land Use, the agency which issued the permit and also had some small interest in keeping me from frying myself on the sink faucet or burning the house down around my fool do-it-yourselfer ears.
Fortunately, I was wealthy in expert advice. Both City Light and DCLU were more than happy to answer my stupid little questions as long as I kept my ducks in a row and didn't pester them too often. An electrician I'd done temporary 'prentice service with on a similar job came out and walked me through the installation, refusing the payment I offered him. And the local hardware store was blessed with a former contractor who not only quoted code chapter and verse seemingly out of his head but also coached me on potential gotchas that no one else ever thought of, including the inspectors.
At last the historic Thursday arrived when the power went out and the ugly paleolithic lines came off the back of the house, to my shouted taunts of "You're going down!" I soldiered through the finishing touches, dressed the breaker box like a Martha Stewart dinner party and went to bed late, anxiously awaiting final inspection the next morning.
A final is a final is a final. In this case, though, the only passing grade was 100%. True to his job description, the inspector found a few small imperfections in my work, enough to put off powering up until Monday. I took the blow with what grace I could muster and went out to get parts. If I had to live without 60 cycle hum for the weekend, so be it.
Then Heaven smiled. Upon my return, I had a message from the inspector. Had he left his screwgun? Had he not. I was finishing the last of the revisions on his work order as he knocked on the door. I mustered courage and asked if, since he was there anyway and the fixes were done, could he sign me off?
He could. He did. I was left clutching a pink approval sheet with a big goofy grin on my face. My power was back on by the end of the day. And now I'm happily puttering around in the inevitable cleanup and designing a little thank you button for all the folks who advised me so ably:
It's a good thing.