June 2011

Post image for How to See Straighter by Crossing Your Eyes

Then she started screaming, and that’s when I asked myself what I was doing there at all. It was someone else’s idea, but it was either that or stay home Saturday night.

Horror movies were never my choice. These days I don’t like them because they’re just not very good movies. But when I was a kid, before I became preoccupied with their vacuous production values, I didn’t like them because they scared me.

Back then too, I would never see a horror movie out of my own volition. But you know how peer pressure and sleepover politics work when you’re a pre-teen. You do things you don’t really want to do, and I’d occasionally end up in front of one.

“People like to be scared,” was the stock answer whenever I’d ask why the hell anybody would voluntarily sit through something like Slumber Party Massacre II, but I don’t ever remember enjoying being scared, at least not then.

So in those early years, before I lost my ability to lose any part of myself in a bad movie, those occasions were almost guaranteed to be unpleasant experiences. But eventually I figured out a cure.

It was so simple, and it worked for so many other unpleasant bits in life. Enduring horror movies effortlessly was the least of it. Later I would use it to get through boring speeches without looking at my watch, sit through embarrassing moments (think marriage proposals at public sporting events) without cringing, and eventually to discover who I really was and what it really means to be human. But I’ll get to that.

The trick

The technique didn’t come to me right away, it evolved in a couple stages.

The most obvious way to get through a scary movie was to do your best not to watch it. Any time spent getting Tahiti Treat from the fridge, or making sarcastic remarks (until you get shushed) was time not spent actually watching the movie. But this technique isn’t always possible, tends to annoy others, and it’s pretty obvious to other people what you’re trying to do.

So one time, I happened to be wearing a baseball cap, and I put it low enough on my head so that the beak of the hat drooped over half the screen. It still looked like I was watching it fearlessly, but I was only seeing people’s legs, which wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t always block the nasty bits of the image, because sometimes a butcher-knifed delivery boy would drop into view, but it still broke the effect of the movie almost completely. By seeing only half the screen, only about 10% of the scariness made it through to me. Totally manageable.

But I didn’t always have a hat, and it still would probably look pretty conspicuous to anybody who bothered to look. Then one day it occurred to me — a way to watch the movie without being affected by watching it.

I would go ahead and watch the movie, and whenever I was getting a bit freaked out, I would cross my eyes just slightly enough to blur the scene, and the scariness was gone, instantly. It’s like it sucked me right out of the psycho-clown world and back into the unthreatening basics of the moment: an unlit living room with some other kids, watching a low-brow movie for kicks. Read More

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Post image for Ten Ordinary Moments Away From Home

***

In whatever dream I was having there’s a crash above me, and my body jumps and wakes me up. It’s pitch dark. Philip said there are monkeys that play on the roof at night. The generator must have gone off because my fan is dead and it’s sweltering inside. I’m being bitten all over, so I fumble for my keychain LED and click it on. To my horror the mosquito net is untucked and I’m exposed. I must have forgotten when I went to the bathroom earlier. I tuck it back in and scan around me with the flashlight. I’m sitting in a cone of white mosquito netting and in the faint light I notice the inside is dotted with hundreds of mosquitoes, all fat with my blood. For an hour and a half I stay up, scanning with my tiny light, until I’m sure I’ve killed every single one.

***

The sun is gone by the time we start rolling out of the station. I’ll be sleeping on the upper bunk. The train picks up speed and I’m watching the big buildings of the inner city give way to apartments, markets, parks and temples, and finally shanty houses. They’re built out of corrugated steel, and they back right onto the tracks, most of them open to my view. They shoot past me by the dozen and I can see figures moving in them. Mattresses. Decorations. Kids. A few of them are illuminated by a lamp bulb somewhere inside. The train is clipping along now and these little lightbox dioramas are flashing by me, several families per second.

***

Eight of us are sitting on our boards and the first set hasn’t come in, but nobody’s getting impatient. It’s probably not even 6am yet, there isn’t a lick of wind, and the east horizon is beginning to glow. The water is so warm it feels like the air. Normally we chat out here between sets, but talking right now would be absurd. I lay back on my nine-footer and I’m surprised to see the stars haven’t quite disappeared yet.

***

Three hours ago I didn’t know a soul in the whole country, and now I’m perched on the back of an Israeli girl’s motorbike, gripping the seat behind me with both hands as a pack of twelve of us tear through the Old Town. Large stretches of the town are closed up and dark. It’s raining a bit but it feels awesome. I don’t remember where they said we’re going, but I’ve been assured it’s not in the guidebook. Read More

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Post image for When the Power Goes Out For Good

On Sunday the power went out, and it was so great.

All sorts of whirring and buzzing, which I had not really been aware of, stopped. My drapes were open, and the sudden disappearance of artificial light made the blue, sunny day outside extremely obvious.

I had forgotten about outside. Suddenly listless, I figured I’d go out for a minute and at least see if it was the whole world that had ground to a halt or just the inside of my apartment. I put my hat and shoes on, momentarily surprised that they still worked fine.

The outside world was the same as I remembered it. The world hadn’t shut off, it was still running. The familiar clichés of “outside” were all there: people walking, birds chirping from somewhere I couldn’t see, signs, overhead wires, buildings, clouds, all playing out over an orderly quilt of concrete and grass, and all of it underscored by countless layers of droning internal combustion engines. No stillness here.

I probably spent less than two minutes out there before I realized that I only went outside to make sure the world hadn’t ended. That mission accomplished, I went back inside. I sat in the weird quiet for a long half-minute and then the power came back on. The computer fan roared to life. The fridge resumed its stubborn hum. Whatever unidentifiable rumblings, hisses and buzzes that normally go in on this building — there are probably dozens going at any one time — jumped back into my head like they barely left.

Six weeks earlier I’m sitting with a couple of friends on someone’s deck having a beer on what we all inwardly recognize is the First Real Nice Day of the year. The conversation had petered out naturally for the moment, which is fine, because there is absolutely nothing missing. One of us is probably about to say “Isn’t this nice?” when a lawnmower explodes into life on the other side of the fence.

It’s at these sorts of moments when I begin to wonder when we as a society decided that as long as there’s something we want to do, it’s perfectly reasonable to fire up a deafening machine in order to do it faster or more easily. Read More

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Post image for Our Lives Are Not What We Think

Last week I asked the readers a simple question: Where are you right now in your life, at this exact moment? I tried not to lead people to answer in any particular way, just to share the moment they’re in and how they felt about it.

I was blown away by the response. So many colorful little corners of time and space. Right now there are 140-some and counting, not including a few dozen sent in email form.

A lot of people said that it hadn’t really occurred to them to ask that very basic question (where the hell am I right now, exactly) and that it was quite a catharsis to take a minute or two to do just that.

Let’s get something straight

It’s hard to really observe the moment without its apparent context pushing in on it, that context being the rest of our lives, before and after. So the present moment’s apparent value is conditional on what it seems to mean for the rest of our moments.

We often can’t help but view the present moment in terms of what it means for other moments in the “chain” and for the character that needs them all to go a certain way. We forget that the only real fact to be had is the present moment, no matter what we think it is halfway-to, leading away from, or supposed to be.

So most of the time, we’re not really perceiving the physical details of the moment, we’re perceiving a sprawling mental map of what we think of our lives, of which the present is a small part. It feels like life is made of millions of moments like this, linked by cause and effect, extending each way from here and now. This leads to two huge problems: 1) a preoccupation with these imagined non-present moments, and 2) an astronomical devaluation of the present moment.

Of course, there are no non-present moments. Let’s get that straight before we go on: life is the present only. The past is thoughts in the present. The future is thoughts in the present. You can argue all you want that the past “existed”, but the notion of something having existed is also just a thought in the present.

The present is composed of experiences only. You can experience sights, smells, sounds, sights, feelings and thoughts. There is nothing else. This is life: the experience of the present moment, whether we’re occupied with the thought aspect of it, or the sensory aspect of it, or some of both. In most people, by adulthood the thought component takes over the other parts of experience. Contrary to how we normally experience life, our lives are not what we think.

Thoughts are completely useless except in how they suggest we act in the present moment. We know intellectually that the present moment is our only way of experiencing life, yet we let thoughts about what we experience become our primary experience, most of the time. Bad habit. Tragic really. But it’s normal.

About three years ago I had a bizarre experience during a family dinner which I now realize left me different forever. I won’t quite call it a Pandora’s Box effect, because it wasn’t evil that came out of the box (the opposite, really), and the box flops shut all the time when I get worked up or preoccupied. But let’s just say I could not go back to the same way of looking at ordinary moments even if I wanted to.

I published an article describing that experience and the insight it left me with, back when this blog had an audience that could fit on my couch. But as with so many of my articles I feel like I ended up taking a potent idea that could change a person’s life, and reducing it to a kind of neato thing that you might think about and forget by the weekend. Read More

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