9/28/10

story - The Mural



I don't know where it came from. Walking down that same street one day, I noticed a mural in a side alley. It hadn't been there before. It was a big blown-up photo of a tropical beach, about two meters wide and three meters high, with a palm tree on one side, the yellow sun-drenched sand spread out in the foreground, a placid turquoise sea beyond, and a clear blue sky above. It probably once decorated a cheesy restaurant or nightclub or something. Now it was just there, at the entrance of an alley. It was strange, because around it was all brick, concrete, asphalt, rusted iron, trash, dust and dirt. But amid the gloom and waste, there was that giant fresh gleaming blue and gold gem, relieving all the misery around it. Going up and down that street on my way to work, the contrast always caught my eye and held my gaze for a split second longer than anything else would. Sometimes I'd want to stand there and look at it longer, but I felt I shouldn't. I felt self-conscious. I felt people would think me crazy or high or creepy, so I'd move on.

About a week after the mural appeared I found myself stopping to look at it. Either early in the morning on my way to work, or late in the evening on my way back. Then about a week after that, I began stopping by the cafe that was across the street from the alley with the mural. I would leave the house half an hour earlier than usual to stop by the cafe and sip a coffee while I looked at the mural. Or alternately, I would stop by the cafe on my way back from work and have a beer or a bite to eat, again, just basically staring at the mural. It was mesmerizing.

Once I'd made a habit of sitting at that cafe and gazing for extended periods of time at the mural, I noticed other people doing the same thing as me. One out of three or four who passed by that alley would turn and look at the mural. Some would stop and turn their heads, frozen in half stride - probably because of the same self-consciousnessness that I felt - before moving on. I guess they felt the same as me, that there was a big difference between keeping in stride, which was normal, and stopping and turning to face the mural and gaze at it, which is not normal and even possibly a sign of derangement. But I know that's exactly what I had wanted to do, and actually what I was doing now, thanks to the cafe, where I could camouflage my intentions behind the respectable pastime of being seated at a table, drinking a normal beverage, paying a waiter, uttering normal lines like "thank you" and "coffee please" and "check!" and then being on my way as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And yet something extraordinary had happened, because I'd spent my entire time at the cafe staring at a picturesque mural of a tropical island scene across the street, at the entrance of an alley.

I would do so the next day as well, and the day after. Sometimes I would do it twice a day. The wait staff came to know me and greet me by name. I wondered if they knew that I was just staring at that mural. I wonder if they wondered anything, or whether it was natural and normal to frequent the same cafe everyday, and stare across the street. Perhaps they saw through me. Perhaps they thought I was weird, sitting there like that and staring at a distant wall. And I wondered whether there were others like me, others who were too embarrassed and self-conscious to stand and look at the mural, who just did that frozen half-stride-with-head-turned-and-inquisitive-face thing, or who perhaps even came to the cafe like me to observe the mural secretly, privately, inconspicuously. Maybe they were also wondering the same thing now, gazing at me, asking themselves the same question. "You think that weirdo over there is just here to stare at the mural?" I looked around me but there were no people staring at me and smirking. Then again, maybe they were and they just turn their heads away as soon as I turn to look at them. They might look like they're pretending to read their paper, or write on their computers or enjoy their drinks or food or be engaged in an authentic chat with another person, but who's to say they aren't thinking the same thing? Who's to say they can't see right through me? Then again, if they did see through me, if they did understand me, wouldn't they too be complicit in this mural-gazing endeavor of mine? If anything, only they would understand. They would maybe even sympathize. Maybe there's a whole bunch of us, secretly gazing as we walk by, or pretending not to gaze while seated at this cafe... a whole bunch of us sharing a secret, enjoying a warm tropical scene, even if it is only surface deep.

And what of it anyway? Why do I feel somehow perverted, like I'm at a peepshow or something? Why shouldn't I stand and look? Or sit and look? Why shouldn't it all be perfectly normal?

Two months passed and I came to recognize regulars at the cafe. They too seemed to be there almost everyday, or at least I thought they were. There was the older guy with the scarf and the graying beard and the round glasses. He'd be reading mostly, or scribbling something in his notebook. Last time I was there he got into some heated argument on the phone, just as I got up to pay the bill. Did I imagine it, or did he keep looking at the mural while he was talking? Was he there for the mural? Or was he normal? Was he a normal cafe goer who ordered his coffee and sat at a table and read his books or his papers very normally, and then said normal and accepted things that were never out of place? Did he just say "keep the change, see you tomorrow" or make idle chit chat with the waiter about the weather? Or was he also secretly drawn to that mural? In between the routine and the normality and the expectedness and the overt non-weirdness of everything, was there something inside him that drew him to spending time here at the cafe, time that could otherwise be spent on very normal and relatively accepted things, just to be able to gaze at the mural, just to look at the big blown-up photo of a palm tree, a beach, a sky and a sea, amid bricks and concrete and sirens and cars and people being normal, heads down, going to work, or home, or other normal places? Every time I sneaked a glance at him, he seemed to be doing anything but looking at the mural. He seemed genuinely interested in other things... accepted and normal things.

And what about the others? Day in day out, there, I recognized this girl who looked like a university student. I would see her a few times a month. Others were there too, like those twins, or that really shabby guy who looked like a hobo but could still eat and drink there, so I guess he was some kind of artist or something. What about the lady with the dog? Did they look at the mural? Were they there like me, secretly gazing at the mural? I'd been there so long gazing at the mural that I even started recognizing regular passersby, and I took note of the ones who would look at the mural. But they never stopped to look at it. I wondered if they would come and sit at the cafe instead, order a drink, and look at the mural in an accepted and normal way that would not be deemed strange. But they never did, I guess. At least, none of those people were ever at the cafe when I was there. Maybe they were there sometimes, but not when I was, as far as I could tell.

Then I noticed for the first time a person who was there just for the mural, openly, unabashedly. Not at the cafe, where I and an unknown number of other mural gazers would satisfy our need in secret. This was... well, I don't know if he was a hobo or some homeless guy, or what. He seemed dressed ok enough. He had a scruffy beard but he didn't seem like a derelict. On the other hand, he didn't look too stylish either. And considering the amount of time he would stand leaning against the opposite wall of the alley, and often even just sit in front of the mural, on a piece of cardboard, I could assume he didn't really have any place to be. Sometimes he fidgeted with something, a notebook or a pad or something, but the rest of the time he would stand or sit there looking at the mural. People would pass by and sometimes they'd throw a quick glance at him. In a thousand heads that would walk by the street that day, they would form opinions in fractions of seconds, as soon as they saw a man sitting on a street, doing nothing, staring at a wall... they would form opinions in split seconds that would condemn that man. He was abnormal. There was something wrong with him. How do I know? Because now that the man was there staring at the mural, the passersby who had until then frozen in mid stride and gazed inquisitively at the mural, even if only for a second, didn't do so anymore. It was like the mural and the man were interconnected, and by showing the same sort of abnormally extended and unaccepted degree of interest that the abnormal man shows to the mural, one would be implicated in that same abnormality. The shared act, the shared experience, would condemn the normal to being associated with the abnormal.

Unless of course you could do what I did and normalize the abnormal act by disguising it in a normal one, such as sitting normally at a cafe and normally sipping some normal coffee like a normal person, all as I satisfied my--our?--abnormal interest in the mural. So one day I decided to invite the man to come and share a coffee with me. He looked at me, then looked at the cafe, then at me again. I guess he was trying to decide if I was some kind of weirdo. Then he accepted my invitation with a nod of the head. We sat at the cafe and ordered a coffee each. It was morning, and I still had a half hour to kill, which could be spent staring at the mural. And that's exactly what we did. We didn't talk at all. We just sipped our coffee and stared ahead, at the mural. It seemed like the most normal thing in the world to do. He was as conscious of the fact that I was looking at the mural as I was conscious of the fact that he was. And he seemed to know it too, but paid it no heed. For the first time I wasn't even conscious of myself while I was staring at the mural. For the first time I didn't try to hide the fact that I was staring at a mural. For the first time I didn't care if anyone saw me staring at the mural. It felt normal now. A few minutes later he turned to me, thanked me, offered to pay for his coffee (which I refused), bid me a good day, and left the cafe.

Two weeks later, the mural was gone. The morning I'd noticed it was gone, I still took a seat at the cafe out of habit. Out of habit, I even kept staring at the dirty red brick wall where those palm trees, blue skies, golden sands and turquoise waters had once been. Now there was just a wall. I looked around me and the cafe was empty. The man with the graying beard and the glasses wasn't there, neither was the girl or the lady with the dog, or the twins, or anyone else. I didn't order a coffee. I just sat there by myself, outside in the cold, and stared at that wall in the entrance to the alley across the street. One of the waiters threw me a commiserating look, as if in sympathy. I looked for the man who would sit there by the mural and who I'd shared a coffee with, but he wasn't there either. I really wished he was there.

It started raining. I buttoned my coat, got up, and left.

9/24/10

story - The Visa



He emptied his pockets, passed through the metal detector, removed his belt, and went through again. He proceeded into the waiting room at the consular section of the embassy, took a number, and waited for his visa application interview. They'd given him an interview date and time, and he instinctively sat in the seat that was furthest from other people as he waited for his number to be called. For the time being he would be number 456.

He sat around bored and listless like everyone else in there. Everybody seemed to share a kind of collective humiliation at the fact that they were there, and furthermore at the fact that they had no choice but to be there. You could tell that through their moping faces, their audible sighs, their irritation at small things and their disdain for the others around them there, all of which was unmistakable as an expression of the disdain they felt for themselves. Just like him, everyone had filled in the appropriate forms in which they had to state whether they were--or had ever been--members of a terrorist organization; everyone had to state exactly where they would be residing and traveling in the country they wanted to go to, and they would have to produce an itinerary as proof of this for the authorities; everyone would have to have already bought their flight there and back, and would have to produce a copy of the ticket; everyone had to show two forms of I.D. along with photocopies of them; everyone had to produce bank statements and account balances to prove they had a sizeable, steady income that would supposedly preclude them from wanting to emigrate to that country, or that they would have the means to get back from it if they missed their flight or something happened to them when there; everyone had to prove they had medical insurance with overseas coverage; everyone had to produce bills to prove they had a home; and many had to produce a letter of guarantee from a citizen of that country who could vouch for them in case that person turned out to be a terrorist, or a thief, or a criminal, or a killer, or anything else that could be expected from these foreigners intent on visiting this country. Finally, you had to pay a sizeable chunk of money for having put the consular staff through the trouble of having to check all your documents, pry into your private life, and interrogate you to see if you were worthy of visiting their precious country.

He'd been told his interview would be at 11:15, but it was already 11:55, and there were still three people before him. He stared at a tourism poster on the wall inviting him to the country he was trying to get a visa for. The smiling faces and gleaming white teeth, the grand monument behind, the blue sunny sky, the catchy little motto inviting you to visit and enjoy, all as if a big fat testament to the most grotesque kind of irony. Finally number 456 came up on the digital monitor next to a number five which indicated the booth he would be interviewed in. There he sat before a junior diplomat who was separated from him by bulletproof glass. The diplomat--who was about the same age as him, in his early thirties--didn't look up to greet him as he came and sat down. He took about another half a minute to finish writing what he was writing before he raised his head with a cold perfunctory smile that was really more of an eye squint accompanied by a simultaneous inward curl of the lips. They talked to each other through speakerphones.

"Good morning misterrrrrrrr Kulutgay? Kutulgay?"

"Kutluay"

"Ok, mister Katloonay... Emre Katlunay. May I call you Emre?" There was something smug about his question, because he asked it in a way that already assumed the answer would be yes.

"No. You may call me Mr. Kutluay." The diplomat didn't seem too taken aback by this.

"Oo-kay then, Mr. Katlooay. Have you ever been to our country before?"

"Yes. I lived in your country for five years, I went to school there. Have you read the form I filled? I was asked the same question in the form and I wrote my answer under the question. My answer there was 'yes' too."

"Oo-kay, that's fine, we have to ask these, so... Have you ever been denied a visa to our country?"

"No."

"Mm hmm... What's the purpose of your trip?"

"No purpose."

"So 'tourism' then."

"On the contrary, if I had to have a purpose it would be to not be a tourist."

"It's just a formality Mr. Katluday. Most of your documents are in order... but I'm afraid we still need a copy of your company's payroll."

"I'm not on a payroll."

"Well then maybe you could bring us a letter from one of your employers... also we need a bill with your name on it..."

"The bills are under my girlfriend's name."

"... and we need the most recent record of your savings account transactions, this seems to be from the previous month."

"I get it. Although I don't see how my private life is any of your business, nor do I understand why you should feel the need to pry into my personal affairs simply because of my nationality, I understand that I must do this to have the right to set foot on the piece of earth that the organization you work for seems to think it owns..."

"Look Mr. Katlugay, I work for the state..."

"That's what I meant..." He wanted to say "criminal organization" but just held himself.

"By the way, do you also interrogate people from..." he was about to say "white countries" here but again just held himself. "...other countries, like Europe, or Australia?"

"They don't need visas to visit..."

"Why?"

"Well..."

"Why am I presumed guilty because of my nationality until I can muster up the documentation to supposedly prove that I'm innocent, while others are presumed innocent because of their nationality and allowed to waltz on through?"

"Look Mr. Katlunay, I'm simply doing my job here, ok?"

"Yes that's what everybody's doing, 'a job'. You didn't write the laws did you?"

"Well no, exactly."

"But you feel comfortable enacting them. That's no problem for you, right?"

"Listen, you're starting to raise your voice and there are other people waiting for their interviews, now if you would like to cooperate, then fine, if not I will have to call security."

"Ok, that's fine."

The junior diplomat's face softened, and then he continued to go over the visa application form.

"Says here you're a musician?"

"Yes."

"Really? What kind of music do you play?" The diplomat seemed sincerely interested.

"Sort of... I don't know... folk-electronic-funk I guess you'd call it... kind of experimental..."

The diplomat's face lost it's previously dour, bureaucratic demeanor and was all aglow.

"So you know the music scene here then?"

"Yes, well. I'm in it."

"I'm an amateur musician myself," the diplomat said excitedly, taking Emre by surprise with his candidness. The topic of music obviously made the diplomat beam. Emre also relaxed.

"Well, what do you play?" He could tell the diplomat was dying to be asked that question even as he pretended to be examining the visa application form.

"Guitar, electric guitar, we jam every now and then with a few other friends, this other guy I know from here, Mehmet, Mehmet Ortu... Ortunkutu... something, do you know..." Emre shook his head as the diplomat went on.

"...anyway, there's also a guy at the Hungarian embassy, he's a pretty good drummer, used to play in this industrial post-punk band in Budapest, we just get together and play sort of rock and punk covers... We're all pretty into psychedelic rock, funk, post-punk, that sort of stuff..."

"Any local bands you're into?"

"Yeah, I like Argo Margo, Kirinti, Duplikas, and then there's also..."

"I'm in Duplikas."

"You're kidding!"

"Seriously. Look..." Emre showed him a photo of the group from his appleberry.

"Wow. I love Duplikas, I didn't recognize you! I saw your show last year at Babble On..."

"Well, listen..."

"Steve, my name's Steve, call me Steve." It was obvious Steve now felt embarrassed about the bulletproof partition because he sincerely wanted to shake hands.

"Listen Steve, we have a concert at the festival on Friday at Kart Rock Arena. We're up after Dum Dum. I can get you in on the list. Get there two hours before and join us for drinks. Come around the back entrance, next to the parking lot..."

"Are you serious?"

"Very. Then you can come backstage later too."

"Wow, thanks... I'm so excited, thanks so much. Can I bring my girlfriend?"

"I insist."

"Wow, awesome." Steve looked like he'd forgotten he was at work, grilling someone over a visa application. He was even chatty. Then he got referred back to the paperwork with some sense of embarrassment.

"Hey, I know all this stuff is a pain in the ass, I hear you. If it was up to me I'd have none of it but that's the way it is..."

"Yes, that's the way it is."

"Listen... Emre, you don't mind my calling you..."

"Sure, that's fine."

"Emre, thank you, there won't be a problem here, these are mostly formalities..."

"Do you still need the..."

"Yes, I'm afraid so. Sorry, that's just beyond me, if you could just get that latest monthly bank statement and that letter from one of your last employers or someone you sent an invoice to or something... maybe just from the owner or manager of Babble On or something?"

"Ok."

"Again, thanks, I'm really psyched about the concert!"

"Good."

"Ok, well, pleasure meeting you, and just send those remaining documents any time. Monday would be great. I have all your personal info here so I'll call you on your cell if that's cool?"

"Sure."

Emre smiled and waved to Steve, who was on the other side of the bulletproof glass, then took a quick photo of him with his appleberry, and left.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Two days later Steve received a phone call. The rendezvous was settled. Steve and his girlfriend would show up before the show as they'd agreed, and they would all hang out.

Steve was excited about the prospect. Like any other young man who'd entered civil service in his late-twenties, he had other dreams. You study what you're supposed to study and pass the exams and work for the public service, and what you get is security. That's the trade-off. But the dreams don't die. On the contrary, the dreams are what make the reality bearable. You continue to write poems and stories, and dream of writing that novel; you continue here and there in their spare time to play music, to devote yourself to something, anything, that could offset the dreary realization that you will probably spend a good chunk of the rest of their youth pushing paper on behalf of people and organizations that have essentially no interest in you on a personal level, that are all oblivious to you. You would be assured of respect, money, status, belonging, and security... and in the meantime the dreams would reassure you that you still mattered, that that wasn't all there was to it, and that somehow there was still hope of something true, beautiful, wonderful to look forward to.

For Steve, the dream was music. He rarely had the time or energy to play guitar as much as it would take to make something of it, but he kept true to the dream, and he kept the dream close by trying to be in the vicinity of music. To hang out with musicians successful musicians whom he admired, listened to and wanted to emulate--that was a godsend for him. It was like a foot in the door in a foreign country where, despite having already been there a year and a half, he still felt outside the society in which he lived, and especially the music scene that he loved and wanted to be a part of somehow. He even felt truly satisfied with his job at that moment, realizing that it would give him the opportunity to meet people, as it had on this occasion with Emre. He always had conflicting emotions about having to become a public servant, but now it had seemed a good choice, and he was proud of himself.

It was Friday and Steve left the embassy earlier than usual. He went home, changed into a pair of jeans along with a favorite psychedelic t-shirt that he'd bought a year ago from a vintage clothes store, cracked open a beer, and put on some music while he waited for his girlfriend to arrive. He listened to a few Duplikas songs, lit a cigarette, played a little on his guitar, even sang a few songs out loud. Then his girlfriend arrived¾Sevil, a girl he'd met at a cocktail about three months ago¾and they left for Kart Rock Arena.

They went around back to the VIP entrance. He told them his name and that he was here as a guest of Emre Kutluay of Duplikas. The bouncers at the door said nothing, but told Steve, oddly, that he had to wait for exactly 40 minutes. Steve protested, although not adamantly, because he was happy to be there nevertheless, and thought that maybe there was something that required him to wait. So he did. When the 40 minutes were finally up (timed exactly to the minute on the bouncer's stopwatch, which seemed odd), his hand was stamped with the number 456 (which also bemused him because his girlfriend wasn't stamped), and he was led into a large open hangar-like area where he saw musicians hanging out with their friends and managers and entourages before the show. Some were eating, some were drinking, some were strumming their guitars or warming up their throats or just generally fooling around. There was a bar and a giant ice-filled vat full of bottles and cans of beer, and there was also a long food buffet. It was a very chill kind of scene overall, and Steve felt instantly enchanted with it. He soaked all of it in, the sounds, the faces, the gestures, the clothes, the smell, the vibes... this was what he wanted to be a part of, he would give anything to be a part of this life. It was like he'd passed through one of those magic gateways in a children's book. There were lots of people around, since it was a two-day festival that featured ten different bands which Duplikas was headlining. As he and Sevil wended their way through, they came upon the table where four of the five members of Duplikas sat. He immediately recognized them and gave them an excited greeting. They all cut their conversation and turned to look at him without saying anything back. He noticed that Emre wasn't among them. Then one of them--whom Steve recognized as the drummer--smiled at Steve and pointed silently in another direction.

Steve looked off to where the drummer had pointed. There were people in front of him and his girlfriend so they had trouble seeing without standing on the tips of their toes. Then, as if having suddenly been given orders by someone, all those in front of Steve parted way and stood aside, revealing a path that led across the room to a man sitting behind a desk on a dais with a microphone before him. He couldn't immediately recognize the man because he wore a strange blue mask that resembled a bird's head with an erect blue crest and a beak over his nose. Then he noticed the massive fanning arch of peacock plumes with the eerie feathery eyes spread out on the wall behind him. Steve and his girlfriend were stunned, because this obviously involved only them. Everyone fell silent at once. The music stopped, the din of chatter ceased, everyone put down their food and drinks, and stared at Steve.

"Sit!" declared the peacock king as somebody placed a chair before his desk.

Steve still couldn't believe what was happening and didn't know whether to laugh and play along with what must be some kind of eccentric antic that would be expected from those involved in the creative arts, or whether he should just turn and flee, which is what his instincts told him to do. But his courage and curiosity got the better of him, and he wasn't going to pull out now. He had to go along with it, and besides, he reckoned, it would probably turn out to be fun, or at least an interesting anecdote.

He sat down before the peacock throne. His chair was low, so that he found himself having to look up at the man in the peacock suit, which must obviously be Emre, he thought. But Steve didn't say anything and decided to play along with what he suspected might all be in jest. He was now feeling a little more at ease, as if he was a part of the joke and not the possible butt of it.

"Name?"

"Steve Casey Gramson..."

"Passport!"

"Passport?"

"PASS-PORT! passport passport passport"

"I didn't bring it."

"Where do you think you're going without a passport?"

"A concert. I don't need a passport to go to a concert..."

"Do you need a passport to go to another country?"

"Yes..."

"Well this is our country and you need your passport."

Steve smiled and shrugged sarcastically, still playing along with the game.

"Well nobody told me I need a passport..."

"Of course not, it's assumed you would know as much as to bring a passport! Tourist brochures don't say 'Come to Happyland, Bring Your Passport!' do they?"

"Uh... ok, whatever..."

"What is your business here? Why do you want to enter our country?"

"Uh... this isn't a country..."

"THIS IS A COUNTRY! This is a land of sound and melody and song and laughter, this is a land of verse, this is a free land, a liberated country, and the vibes of this country are sacred and to be protected from the evil essence of undesirable foreigners lacking spiritual cadence, the rhythmically challenged who might pollute our country with their slave-like obeisance to authority, their denial of the true nature of the human soul, and their avaricious attempt to own a piece of mother nature's earth while extorting a ransom from those who seek their life-given right to walk upon it like the children of Mother Earth who have a right to every inch of their mother's bosom. This is indeed a country, and I am the president! See them worship me!"

The peacock king pointed at those around them and Steve looked back to find that all had indeed bowed their heads in submission. Although taken aback by the peacock king's booming and inspired--albeit ridiculous--speech, Steve still played along, though now slightly more impressed by the earnestness and elaborateness of the joke he found himself a part of.

"I ask you again, vile foreign vermin... PASSPORT!"

"I told you I don't have it" Steve blurted out, feeling a bit annoyed now. But he decided to improvise within the game as well. "Besides, how do you know I am not one of your country? How do you know I don't have the... uh... rhythmic cadent mother vibe thing?"

"Because in our country no citizen has a passport! You said you didn't bring your passport. That proves that you are a foreigner!"

The other people around him all shouted "Foreigner!" Steve felt now that he was becoming the butt of the joke and felt uneasy was once more.

"Also," the peacock king added as an aside in a more mellow and sarcastic tone, "nobody has a... what did you call it? Rhythmic cadent... mother... vibe... thing, was it?"

"Yeah"

"Well nobody has that, it's ludicrous."

"Ok, I got it, but..."

"But what foreigner!?"

"But... you invited me here, Emre!" Steve raised his voice in a pleading tone.

"Who is this 'Emre'? Where is he? Prove you were invited here!"

"You are, you're Emre, YOU INVITED ME!"

"I did not! Maybe you were duped by one of our tourism posters or brochures or something?"

Steve fell back in his chair and looked at his girlfriend. Sevil just stood behind him bemused and not sure whether to be amused or worried.

"But now that you have come this far," continued the peacock king with regal flourish, "now that you have gone out of your way to come here, we will give you a chance. May I see your bank account transactions over the last month please?"

Steve went red. He looked up at the peacock mask with a furious look on his face. He could now see where this was going.

"Fuck you."

Steve got up to leave, grabbed his girlfriend's hand, and made for the door. The peacock king shouted "Guards!" and the bouncers seized Steve and brought him back to the chair. Steve didn't put up a fight, feeling that it was all so ridiculous, such a joke, that fighting would somehow be completely inappropriate... not to mention futile.

"BANK TRANSACTIONS!"

"I really don't see how you could ask for something like that..."

"But I do! You see, I can't trust that you will pay for what you consume in our country. I can't trust that you will have money to pay for the gas your need to drive yourself back to your country. I can't trust you can pay for medical expenses should something happen to you in our country. I must be assured that you have the wherewithal to look after yourself, that you are a respectable and decent person, and not a filthy cadentially and rhythmically challenged foreigner! You need to PROVE to me that you are not SCUM. Because when I look at you, foreigner, I can only conclude that you MUST be scum until you prove otherwise."

"Fuck you."

"Incorrect answer! That will be duly noted when making the final decision on whether you may enter our country or not. Do you have a job?"

"Of course I do, you saw me in the embassy when..."

"PROVE IT! Letter from employer please. After all, I have to know you have a steady source of income, otherwise you may never want to leave my country, because my country is beautiful, my country is golden, my country is better than your country, if flows with music and melody, unlike your measly country... and you really really want to live in my country, don't you?"

Steve was angry and ashamed. He was ashamed at how much he had wanted to come here tonight, how enthusiastic he'd been about it, and how much he'd shown his enthusiasm to Emre. The enchanted space was now a viper's nest and the eyes all around him seared right through his conscious. He was ashamed to be there, and his heart sank and he just wanted the joke to be over.

"Well?"

"Look, you win... you made your point. Just let me go now."

"I don't think so!" said the peacock king, followed by a chorus from those around: "We don't think so!"

For the first time, Steve felt not only embarrassed, but scared.

"So... as I was saying, I will need to see your bank account; also a list of everything you own, especially real estate if you have any; health insurance, with overseas coverage; a copy of a payroll with your name on it; a bill with your name on it; a letter of confidence from a national of our country; a list of everywhere you plan to go, be, stay, eat, piss, shit, fart, breathe in our country..."

"Stop this! I get it!"

"...I will need 52 photos, 63 copies of every document, with size 16 Verdana font, an Excel spreadsheet listing an inventory of all the documents being handed over..."

"Oh my God, please just stop..."

"Also, have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization? Do you have any prior convictions?"

"Of course not!"

"Well we'll need proof of that, make sure to bring us a document from the Justice Ministry stating that you have no prior convictions and are not a criminal nor ever have been. We'll also need a list of everything that's crossed your mind in the last 24 hours, because we need to know if your thoughts are as pure and harmless as you make them out to be. The list must of course be notarized so we know that you weren't lying. You will need a mind reader under oath..."

"This is absurd, stop it."

"Are you a man?"

"Just stop it..."

"ARE YOU A MAN!?"

"YES YES, I AM A MAN! I AM A FUCKING MAN!"

"Well then we'll also need a photo of you naked so we know that you are a man as you claim to be. Remember that both your face and your testicles have to be in the same frame so we know those testicles belong to that face. It also should be notarized so we know you didn't just Photoshop your face to your dick."

"Fuck you, asshole."

"Oooh, your violent words will be duly noted when making our final decision!"

"I don't want to be in your fucking country."

"So then why did you come here? Have you been wasting our time?"

Steve now had his head in his hands in desperation. He was losing it.

"Stop this torture, please, Emre, I beg of you... just let us go."

Somebody came and handed the peacock king a document. The peacock king looked at it, shook is head gravely, and then looked at Steve.

"Shit, what now?"

"Oh no, I'm sorry Mr. Grandson. It seems that you have lied to us. We have proof that you are--or have recently been--the member of a terrorist criminal organization."

He produced a blown up photo of Steve at his booth in the consular section of the embassy. It was the photo Emre had taken with his appleberry after their interview.

"There, in the background, you can unmistakably see the flag of the organization you work for, along with the standard uniform of that organization, which you are wearing with a big grin on your face, like you're actually happy and proud to be there! Our country lists your organization as a terrorist organization responsible for the past and ongoing invasion of foreign countries; of genocide to the displaced and slaughtered local inhabitants; of the enslavement and brainwashing of its own citizens--presumably, from what I see in this photo, you included; of having stolen, killed for, hijacked and wrongfully appropriated a piece of earth and denied others access to that land on random, racist grounds based on background, nationality and ethnicity; and of having made otherwise free and normal people spend their lives having to wear ridiculous costumes while doing soul-crushing work for the sake of hollow and meaningless ideals..."

"Jesus Christ, you sound like a college freshman on a 3am rant after way too many bong hits..."

"So you're also familiar with drugs! That's not good! Now I'm afraid your request for entry into our nation has been denied for lack of the appropriate paperwork and documentation, and also now because of your suspicious familiarity with illegal mind-altering substances. You will have to fill out this form to leave."

Steve was relieved when he heard that he could leave. He eagerly took the form and read over it. It made no sense whatsoever to him.

"Remember Mr. Grimsonny, you have to answer all the questions!"

The form consisted of three nonsensical multiple-choice questions. Steve felt like he was in a fraternity hazing. One question read "You have become sick in our country. Do you a) apply for citizenship to our country to freeload off our superior healthcare system, b) demand our doctors treat you before treating one of our own citizens, or c) burden us with all your medical bills that our taxpayers have to pay for?" Another question read "If you commit a crime in our country, do you a) run away from the police, b) contact your embassy and seek their protection, or c) claim that our laws don't apply to you because you don't recognize our laws or our moral standards?" Yet another question read "As a dirty, deceitful, thieving foreigner, should we a) strip-search you every time you enter or exit a shop when in our country because we know that your kind of people could probably do that sort of thing because it's in your nature, b) allow you to become a citizen of our country because you'd like to take advantage of our generous social welfare system and make money doing nothing while there because you are a lazy no-good foreigner by nature, or c) try and act like we respect you because we should believe that prejudice is the real crime here and that we're the ones guilty of 'othering' you because your ethnicity, name, nationality, culture, language and clothes differ from ours?"

"Just answer the questions Mr. Grimbo, and you are free."

"Fine."

Steve quickly circled the first answers to the first two questions, and then circled "c" on the third question, thinking that might at least be to his favor, before disgustedly throwing the form back at the peacock king.

"Hm, as we suspected, had you not lied to us about having been a member of a terrorist organization you'd still have had trouble explaining this form. According to this you would apply for citizenship to our country to freeload off our superior healthcare system in case of illness and run away from the police if you commit a crime in our country. These are both unacceptable I'm afraid. As for the third question you answered that we should try and act like we respect you because we should believe that prejudice is the real crime and that we're the ones guilty of 'othering' you because your ethnicity, name, nationality, culture, language and clothes differ from ours. Unfortunately this would make you a hypocrite, because I have a here a form of the list of countries from which the terrorist organization you work for demands visas, and a list of the countries it doesn't. You will see that citizens of the countries culturally, historically, ethnically, politically and socio-economically similar to yours are all presumed to be good and innocent until proven guilty because no visa procedure, interrogation, background checks, and prying into their private lives is required in any way. These people can come and go as they please and you do not need to see their bank account balance, you do not need to ask them whether they have ever been members of a terrorist group, you do not need them to come up with a sponsor in your country, you do not need them to pay money for the permission to enter your country, and you do not ask them to produce a copy of their payroll or state how much money they earn, where they work, where they live and produce a list of the real estate they may or may not own. On the other hand those countries that are dissimilar to yours in the same way do have to go through those procedures, effectively being treated as guilty until they can prove themselves probably innocent."

Steve was on the verge of breaking down. He just wanted to crawl into a hole now and never come out again.

"As you can see Mr. I-can't-bother-to-learn-how-to-pronounce-your-foreign-name-properly-because-it's-so-strange-it-cannot-possibly-have-a-proper-pronunciation-anyway-so-any-way-I-pronouce-it-will-work-just-fine-for-me, if there is one thing we cannot stand, it's a hypocrite. Mr. Gramson, your visa has been denied! Now, FUCK OFF!"

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

On Monday, Emre was back at the embassy and he took a seat opposite Steve. Neither said a word to each other and Steve never even looked at Emre's face. Emre handed him the missing documentation. Steve took it and said coldly while examining them that his visa would be ready within five working days. Emre got up and left.

When Steve looked up he saw the peacock mask lying on the counter before him, on the other side of the bulletproof glass.

9/23/10

The Realities of Turkey*



We Turks have one simple argument to justify bigotry, racism, hypocrisy, illogic and irrationality. It's called the "The Realities of Turkey" argument.

Let's give an example:

Let's say you argue that Kurdish citizens of Turkey should be able to freely learn, speak, read and be educated in their own mother tongue (alongside the official language of Turkish of course), because citizens of Turkish origin already have that right so it only seems natural that everybody should have that right. It would seem illogical to answer "No. People whose mother tongue is Turkish should be able to learn, speak, read and be educated in their mother tongue, but people whose mother tongue is not Turkish shouldn't." Illogical, irrational, hypocritical, right? Wrong! Because all we have to do here is whip out this little gem and proclaim unabashedly: "Normally you'd be right, but you have to consider The Realities of Turkey. In Turkey the official language is Turkish, and even though we all come from different backgrounds, we all speak and learn Turkish, therefore everyone should only learn Turkish..." etc. etc. And there it is. The "The Realities of Turkey" argument basically states that things are the way they are because they are the way they are so we shouldn't change anything because that's just how it is and it suits us fine, so there.

Often the answer to that question will include another question like "Then should everybody be able to speak and learn and be educated in their own language if they want to? Should Circassians, Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians, Georgians be able to speak and learn their own language freely?" The answer you would think would be "Of course, Turks speak and learn their own language so then so should others no matter what their ethnicity because it's the most basic inalienable human right to proudly preserve, learn, speak and flourish in your mother tongue." But your answer would actually be wrong once we flip out this little bad boy: "The Realities of Turkey"! In the "The Realities of Turkey" version of the answer to this argument you get to be able to say with a straight face "Normally you'd be correct, but you have to consider The Realities of Turkey." Those realities are of course that Turkey is for the Turks and everyone else can go fuck themselves. If you don't believe me then check out the motto of the country's leading newspaper, Hurriyet, the one "enlightened" Turks read: "Turkey belongs to the Turks".

You might counter all that nonsense with the argument: "Ok, Turkish is and will remain the official language, just as English is the official language of the U.S. or Spanish that of Spain. But why can't people learn other languages and use them freely as well? People can go to Hebrew schools and learn Spanish in the U.S., people can speak Basque or Catalan in Spain, and even use it in local government. So why not in Turkey?" Here you get a standard The Realities of Turkey response that mystically declares "The indivisible unity of the state", as if speaking your own language would disunite the country, as if the banning of Kurdish for eight decades hasn't led to greater disunity in the country than would have occurred if we'd respected people's right to use it, allowed it to be taught, and protected it as if it were a fundamental duty to protect the inalienable cultural and human rights of our citizens regardless of ethnicity. But the The Realities of Turkey argument isn't interested in the fact that there is a 30-year war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, or that the loyalties of the majority of our citizens in the southeast of the country are, to all intents and purposes, lost. What matters is that what has been engrained into our brains since childhood, all that nationalist dogma with flags and maps, remains intact. That our world view doesn't change. That what we know to be true stays true. The people can die, starve, be massacred, driven from their homes and villages, denied their rights, be treated like dirt and vermin, and their own children can be sent to fight and die in a senseless war for nothing. But the nation must remain "united". If you do actually maintain the above point of view, you will be dismissed as having been "educated abroad and thus ignorant of The Realities of Turkey", as if you have to have had a foreign education to be able to maintain a logically tenable argument! (which, actually, maybe you do)

The Realities of Turkey argument always comes with these kinds of memorized cliches that have been dogmatically hardwired into Turks' brains since childhood. It almost always includes some reference to the Turkish War of Liberation from 1919 to 1922 against the occupying powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. The one who flips out the The Realities of Turkey argument usually mentions how all of us, regardless of ethnicity, fought and died [sic] to free the country and create the Republic of Turkey. You would think that this would logically segue into an argument for the cultural rights of those other than Turks if they fought and died side by side with Turks to create Turkey. But no, those aren't The Realities of Turkey. They fought and died to create a state that didn't recognize their existence or their rights if they happened to be unfortunate enough to not be Turkish, which is just fine. Shedding your blood for the motherland is fine, just don't expect any respect or recognition in return unless you agreed to renounce your ethnic and cultural identity. Those are The Realities of Turkey. That's why you will always be confronted by the "Every citizen of Turkey is equal, regardless of ethnic background, even presidents and prime ministers have been Kurds!" defense at some point, without it even occurring to the utterer of that absurd position that people are only equal regardless of background as long as they accept they are Turks in the foreground. That little point somehow always slips through.

Another favorite argument repeated by the defenders of The Realities of Turkey is the belief that the Kurds just need to develop economically, that it's all an economic problem, and once they're as wealthy as us all their desire to be Kurds and speak their language or seek autonomy will magically disappear! The arrogance of this view aside, it's the illogic of it that is particularly troublesome. After all, Catalans are plenty prosperous, as are Basques, or the Catholics of Northern Ireland, and yet they are no less adamant on their cultural rights, and all harbor strong local independence movements. But the The Realities of Turkey argument states that Kurds are uneducated and poor and are thus vulnerable enough to be duped into defending their cultural and linguistic rights by foreign powers, although they would never espouse such ludicrous beliefs if they were healthy and sane. After all, the The Realities of Turkey argument always assumes that people don't really want to speak their own language but are tricked by foreigners into believing they should. It argues that they are puppets at the hands of foreign powers who instigate and provoke in these people a false sense of pride in their mother tongue and ethno-cultural identity, and who--without that foreign provocation and meddling that takes advantage of their lack of education and poverty--would be happy to just renounce it all and be good humble little servants who have no interest in being anything other than what the Turkish establishment wants them to be.

Provocation is a key word here. In Turkey when a person or a group of people stand up for something you yourself are against, you immediately claim without any hesitation whatsoever that they must have been "provoked" into thinking and acting that way. The use of the word provocation assumes that people who think otherwise to you cannot possibly be justified in those thoughts, but only espouse them because they are actually weak of mind, deluded, ignorant (of The Realities of Turkey), poor, and thus mindless and helpless pawns in some other greater sinister enemy power's hands--a power that, surprise surprise, wants to destroy everything you cherish, love, and hold sacred.

And so everyone's provoked, except you of course. Your thoughts are sacred, true, and completely the product of your own free will. If you are a pro-establishmentarian secularist, then the Islamists and Kurds are being provoked, misled and brainwashed; if you're an Islamist then the secularists are being provoked and misled and brainwashed; and if you're a Kurdish nationalist, the secularists and the military are being provoked and misled and brainwashed. But the interesting fact here is that every side believes that the others are being provoked and misled and brainwashed by Western powers, namely the U.S., Britain and France. And so what lies at the root of the The Realities of Turkey argument is really a deep inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West, which is supposedly constantly trying to stymie and scupper Turkey. It assumes that the only reason why the West is so far advanced is because they've always tried to keep us down by turning us against each other, and that if those sinister weasels wouldn't meddle at all, we'd be right up there with the best of them. If only those no good rascals didn't somehow make Kurds think they should be proud of being Kurds, everything would be fine! If only they didn't support the Islamists against the military and the secular establishment, the Islamists would just sit back and accept things the way they were! Or from an Islamist point of view, if only the West withdrew their support for the secularists and the military, everyone would go back to their natural Islamic roots, cover their heads, pray to God, and believe in angels and prophets and jinns and heaven and hell the way they're supposed to.

And there you have it, the illogical, irrational Realities of Turkey. We're talking about educated and often not unintelligent people upholding very stupid and logically untenable arguments. For example, point out how under the regime of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria in the late-'80s the Turks were forced to use Bulgarian names, how Turkish was banned from being taught in schools, and how Turks were put through a policy of forcible Bulgarianization, and the average Turk will call "Genocide!" (as indeed our government at the time did). But then mention that Turkey for 80 years applied exactly the same policies to the Kurds and other nationalities, and things are magically different! "But Turkey is Turkish", they will say! Why? Because you have to consider... The Realities of Turkey! That means that reason takes a back seat, hypocrisy is considered the least of our worries, and the only thing that matters anymore is what we want the truth to be, regardless of whether it's tenable, moral, ethical, logical or realistic, and regardless of whether it continues to cause death, misery, injustice, oppression and hate.

* In Turkish: "Türkiye'nin gerçekleri"

9/1/10

How can we be hopeful?



There is an instance somewhere in greater happy moments when, beyond the elation, we sense the dread fear that everything is pointless, fleeting, meaningless, and absurd. When we hear the chorus of our favorite song, or share something special with others, or enjoy a good meal, or feel happy on a beach or at a party or in a conversation, there's some nagging semiconscious realization in some corner of our minds that however special our feelings at that moment may be, they are ultimately futile and doomed. We know the moment passes, and the end comes, and the overwhelming boredom and suffocation of existence resumes where it left off, in the guise of routine and duty and a resumption of the fear that binds our life with others; the fear that we are or will be unsuccessful, unsatisfying, unattractive, unhappy, lagging behind, not doing everything we could do, and just generally worrying that we will never be who we need to be or want to be. If anything, our lives could be considered a series of foolhardy attempts to defeat that existential dread and paranoia, only to have it always slink its way out in the end. The sun always rises, the song always ends, and the boulder of emotions we painstakingly rolled up to some wonderful new summit always comes tumbling back down again.

And yet we all try and do the best we can. We all try and find some kind of comforting thought system that will somehow take those passing moments of happiness and weave them into a greater, more durable ideological tapestry. We try to trick our minds into finding some kind of permanence to happiness, in a world where it's always gone as soon as it's there. Some of us take to religion or pseudo-religious spiritualism with which we create an imaginary purpose in life along with the promise of permanence after death in which some kind of eternal element (soul, spirit) within us lives blissfully forever in a magic place somewhere where all moments forever are blissful moments, like that moment when we kiss someone for the first time, or dive into a cold crisp sea in July, or when you've had that second drink and you and your friends are laughing and loving each other's company early on in the evening when you have the whole night to look forward to. We all want to prolong that moment eternally, to make that moment the rule rather than the exception, yet don't know how, and despair at this. In fact, that's all we all look for in our lives, constantly, unceasingly, sometimes consciously, mostly unconsciously. Those who don't go for ready-made packaged fantastic feel-good religiosity instead seek a concatenated repetition of intense moments with which to create a never-ending chain of brief elations that somehow give the illusion of permanence and constancy. Addicts do this: drug addicts, alcoholics, junk food addicts, sex addicts, shopping addicts, friendship addicts who can't bear to be alone, or even music addicts who go from song to song, concert to concert, hunting down that feel-good moment when the music and the mind and the company merge magically, magnificently for brief crescendos that last a few seconds before they're gone again, and you're left hunting them down again, trying to capture them somehow, again and again and again.

Some of us try to find a hope for happiness in love. Biology both helps and hinders us in this way. It helps because we need to meet people and meeting a person you want to have sex with is naturally a happy moment, because if it weren't happiness-inducing then we might rather eat ice cream instead of procreate, which means the human race would all soon be a big fat mass of rotting corpses. It hinders us because ultimately love, too, is fleeting and impermanent; it lasts until you have kids, at best, and then both people are done with each other and they only care about the kids and their relationship turns into some kind of inescapable codependence trapped in two sagging, aging, graying, withering, weakening, yellowing, flabbening bodies.

So then where is there hope? It seems the problem is hope in the first place. How can we hope for that which the universe is fundamentally against? Why do we greedily, hungrily, desperately try and clutch at happiness in the hope of some kind of permanence? How can we stop the brutal onslaught, when the very laws of thermodynamics are ranged against us? We're addicted to elation, to happiness, and we're unhappy because of it, because it's always so unsatisfactorily short-lived, and we're always afraid that it's somewhere where we're missing out on it, somewhere we always have to travel to to find it, somewhere where others have it, but not us.

But if we accept there is no hope, if we accept that happiness is by nature fleeting and impermanent and that life, despite some brilliant moments, is generally boring, meaningless, pointless and hollow, we could achieve a kind of tragic heroism where we stand strong in the face of the horrible and inevitable truth, firm and resolute, despite the futility of it all. That's the appeal of tragedy in art, that's the appeal of Aeschylus and Euripides and Sophocles and Homer, of Byron and Beckett and Rimbaud, of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. If we take the right philosophical outlook, we too can become tragic and gain a perverse sense of happiness in adversity, thereby making something positive and fortifying out of it, rather than try and find that decadent and unsatisfying kind of bovine happiness in mere pleasure, bliss, ease, comfort and security. This isn't to say that life shouldn't be enjoyed and great moments experienced, but we would be much less unhappy when not experiencing those great moments by keeping in perspective the realities of existence, rather than flailing desperately to avoid, deny or put up a quixotic fight against them.

We must also use logic to our advantage. After all, we could say that if happiness is fleeting, then conversely, so is misery. Why only dwell on how the good and happy times eventually fade? Why not gain a sense of happiness in knowing that other good and happy times will come, and that if happiness is fleeting and ephemeral, then so is the feeling of sadness, loneliness and despair that make up the other moments in existence when we're not busying ourselves with gadgets or sports or work or hobbies or movies and other stuff. Of course, one could argue that existential despair is rather permanent, that sometimes we can ignore it or drown it out with meaningless endeavors, but that everything always gets sucked back to it eventually. And that's where we assume the aforementioned tragic stance. That's where we become a philosopher on a mountain or a poet on a rocky cliff, if only (though not necessarily) figuratively. We become conscious of and then reinternalize the emptiness and the void, we own the void, we choose the void, we master the void, and we take pride in a lonesome, mighty, futile stand, as we turn it into something greater: art.

Art is no answer or resolution in itself. It isn't some cheesy attempt to deny the meaninglessness of life with trite ideals and empty promises of eternal bliss or immortality of some sort. Art is hijacked for those purposes by religions, but only the kind of art that is shorn of its meaning and essence. Only the technical, aesthetic dimension of art is utilized, and without it, without the paintings and the stained-glass windows and the music and the choirs and the beautiful architecture, religion would be unappealing. But pure art is the process through which we come to terms with life, the truth of life, shorn of all the bullshit. It's a direct gaze at something incomprehensible and terrible, and yet the very act of creation it entails acts in itself as a remedy to inaction, which is one of the gravest (and most feared) consequences of the realization of the meaninglessness of life. So rather than despairing and staying in bed and not being able to do anything because everything seems meaningless, you can affirm that tragic meaninglessness and make something of it, something that demands effort and labor and energy and thought and creativity, all of which finds renewed vigor and an outlet through art. And although the artwork seems meaningless, it has an aesthetic dimension, it has a technical aspect, it was created by your hands and, most importantly, it was inspired by the meaninglessness itself. After all, art is the pursuit of exploring our existence in a world we don't fully understand, a world where meaning is missing (as opposed to the religious world which has meaning, albeit a flimsy band-aid of a meaning). Art is therefore always a kind of representation of meaninglessness, which actually - paradoxically - infuses it with meaning. In fact, the artwork is the only thing in life that acquires meaning, that transcends its mere thingness or use-value. Nothing is not nothing any longer when it becomes a word that represents nothing, because "nothing" then represents something. By the same token, meaninglessness is no longer meaningless when it inspires and elicits a creation that represents it, thereby making it meaningful... if not exactly hopeful.

Of course, we could also shun art as mere child's play and still deny the meaninglessness and sadness of life by immersing ourselves in half-baked and semi-thought-through spiritualist philosophies or "serious" religions that do give concrete answers (which are really just ornate lies) and that seek to hide the truth from our eyes, to deny the pain and anguish as believers try instead to keep fooling themselves with feel-good pap. This is the way for most people. We fill our lives with fake meaning, or just fill our lives with trivialities that occupy our minds and time, like politics, football teams, cars, nationalism, games, the endless acquisition of things, and generally that which is fed us as being the accepted way of doing things by agents of authority. But none of that is important or acceptable, and nobody should ever respect any authority.

Then again, why should we worry about any of this at all? Why not just ignore the fleetingness of the good and happy moments, and just bite the bullet and deal with the painful realization of the latent monstrosity of existence? When you're young and things are tipped in your favor, this is usually the case anyway. There isn't too much reason or time or need to face reality, to look inside and confront the void in us and in everything. When we're young, our life is too full of stuff. But that stuff gets spent up and lost along the way, things thin out, excitement and novelty fades, people slowly disappear from your life, choices and opportunities lessen, and there are generally less things to shield our eyes from what lurks beneath and beyond. When things are in our favor we could take on all the gods ever created by the human mind, but things are not always in our favor, and they gradually become less so as time goes on. That's when the stoic, tragic, heroic, artistic philosophical stance can come to our rescue, and we can at least tame those disheartening feelings and moods with the whip of reason, by accepting rather than trying to obfuscate the vacant truths underlying existence. Furthermore, beyond (and in fact, despite) reason, through art, we can turn those feelings and moods into meaningful and beautiful creations, in spite of the void. And we can also take heart in the fact that bad times are also fleeting, and that while they may be fewer and farther in between as the years wear on, there will still be more good times to come.

This isn't to say we shouldn't keep busy, read books, listen to music, fall in love, and travel to new places and enjoy the wonderfulness of life either. We should. But if we don't also grant ourselves the necessary philosophical armor for life, we risk feeling depressed that we might never enjoy any of those things truly, deeply, fully, anymore. We will become desperate, vain, narcissistic exhibitionists, trying to squeeze meaning and more from moments that simply can't give us what we want, that simply aren't fertile enough, as we strive to find a sense of self-worth and importance and recognition and beauty in trivial things and events that we become addicted to, that we need to keep chasing down and recreating so as to maintain that concatenation of feel-good moments that we mistake for substance, happiness and constancy. To find hope in such a wasteland as that is futile. The armor should always be within, like a backbone that gives us strength, rather than comprised of a patchwork of brittle and exposed superficies behind which to cower and hide.

Once we lose hope, we can gain everything back, we can enjoy everything once more, and even the pain and the meaninglessness and the futility of existence can become for us a source of joy.

2/25/10

Does everything happen for a reason?



Left: Is there any reason for this?

The belief that everything happens for a reason is popular because it meliorates pain, loss and misery in life by asserting that that which is bad is not gratuitous but necessary, unavoidable, and will - ultimately - be for the best possible good, if not for us immediately, then in terms of the big scheme of things.

But the first problem with the belief that "everything happens for a reason" is that reason is always ascertained retrospectively after a phenomenon has already occurred. The fact that something happened is considered to be "proof" that it had to happen. This is not only shoddy logic which inverts laws of causation so that cause follows from effect rather than vice versa, this is also basically a useless belief, because it can never tell us anything new, expand our knowledge of ourselves or the world, or even prove that the proposition that "everything happens for a reason" is reasonably true. It's the question of whether we can ever know the truth of a Kantian synthetic-a priori proposition that neither follows from a posteriori sensory experience, nor offers a predicate that is contained in the subject ("reason" isn't necessarily implied by "happening" or vice versa). But how could that ever be the basis for knowledge?

Let's take the deterministic stance and assume that it were possible to know that "everything happens for a reason". If reason is that which is logically consistent to the mind, then we could somehow interpret circumstances to correctly predict what should reasonably and rationally follow from them (by finding causes from effects and then using those inverted causational patterns to correctly predict new causes and effects), and we could then say that everything does indeed happen for a reason. Not only would this enhance the quality of our lives and improve our knowledge and understanding of life, existence and the universe, but it would actually prove the proposition itself that things happen for a reason. But this could only happen if the proposition became instead an analytic-a posteriori proposition in which the proposition is both observable and evident in the universe and also that the predicate justified the subject. But as far as we know, this is not possible (* read footnote on why). Instead we're left with the paradox of having to believe in the inherent reason of the universe, which is ridiculous, because reason is something apparent and clear to the mind, since it must by definition be logical. If its truth cannot be ascertained logically but only through mere belief, then it's no longer reason. It's basically just a watered down version of religious belief and remains a synthetic-a priori proposition that is impossible to prove (and is thus actually useless for knowledge, contrary to what Kant might say).(**)

Many of us mistake cause for reason and use these terms interchangeably. As far as we know (or can know), everything is the effect of a cause. That which exists is the effect of accumulated causes and those effects themselves become causes for later effects, and so on. This we know - or rather, what we know can only be known by this (because we don't know if there may or may not be things in the universe that may exist without ascertainable causes, as in, perhaps, a quantum universe or in black holes or other things we don't really understand). But to say something doesn't just have a cause but a reason to its existence is to say that there is a meaning and a purpose and even perhaps an aspect of universal consciousness (some god-type thing) to all causes so that they not only produce effects, but produce effects that must exist, effects that are indispensable for the overall picture, effects which therefore must be good because their existence is dictated by reason. In other words, to believe in reason is to believe that all things happen according to a kind of teleological script in which - for mysterious reasons beyond our knowledge - everything has a purpose so as to help bring about a denouement to that teleology. The key word here is "for". To say everything happens "from" or "as a result of" a reason is virtually the same as saying it results from certain causes. That's fine. But to say things happen "for" a reason means that that which has happened must have happened because its existence is dictated by reason and must therefore be the cause of future effects that also must exist. In short, you must believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that all that happens must ultimately be good, because it all follows a reasoned script.

But then we're left with an absurd situation in which the most unconscionable crimes of history, like the Holocaust, must have happened because they happened for a reason. If it had never happened, then that reason behind it would never have been satisfied. An essential piece of the universe's ultimate purpose would never have been in place and therefore if no Holocaust had happened, this would've been a bad thing. So the Holocaust had to happen, because that which has reason cannot not exist, since it's part of the overall mysterious way of things. Therefore, if you believe that everything happens for a reason, then you believe that it's good that the Holocaust happened. And slavery. And Hiroshima. And Pol Pot.

After all, if everything happens for a reason, reason must be good, since we cannot believe that that which necessitates the existence of all things could be bad, because all that exists - including ourselves and our precious little lives - is born from it and is a part of it. Therefore life cannot be bad, considering how valuable it is to us and how much we cherish it. It's all we know, it's all we are, therefore it's all that is of value to us. Even that which we consider bad is defined by all that is antithetical to life and existence (what we define as bad is that which leads to death or pain, which is basically a step toward death). Therefore existence is good ipso facto. So then if reason is thus necessarily perceived as good, this brings up the question of whether unspeakable bad can form a part of the good (and a pretty hefty chunk of it at that)? Can there be reasonable acts of violence, oppression, torture, pain, suffering, misery, death, destruction, injustice, malice and evil? What is this edifice of reason built upon? If that which is good can harbor so much bad, then that which we consider bad mustn't be bad in essence, since it all serves the good. But then that means I shouldn't consider Hitler or the Holocaust bad. And yet I do. This leads to moral nihilism by which everything is equally good or equally worthless (which means all that you cherish, the love of and for your family, the importance and value of your life, your belief that everything happens for a reason, etc., is also worthless). So ultimately, the idea that everything happens for a reason - and the idea that there is an inherent moral value of "good" or "bad" in the universe - seems in fact unreasonable.

Why do so many of us then have difficulty accepting that things may not happen for any reason whatsoever, that there may well be no purpose or meaning to any and all actions, and that all phenomena are random, coincidental, gratuitous? It's basically just a new form of the age-old Fate vs. Free Will debate. Belief in fate absolves you of responsibility for your actions, and all actions. It gives you the comfort of believing you live in the best of all possible worlds, and it instills an optimism toward life in the belief that everything - including all the bad things - are ensuring life and the universe improve in steady increments as everything nears closer and closer to its teleologically perfect end state. Because, ultimately, a belief that everything happens for a reason is a belief that there is one great reasonable state toward which everything progresses and at which all the icky stuff will have long ended and fulfilled their part in the playing out of a reasonable universe which supposedly needs the Archduke Ferdinand to be shot, that film you watched last night to be made, and those icebergs in the Bering Sea to float at a southwesterly direction at a rate of 6 nautical miles on Tuesday morning.

Furthermore, fatalistic belief not only reassures you that the mistakes you made were unavoidable, that you had no choice in the matter, but it also expiates monstrous deeds and absolves the criminal of his or her crimes. Maybe you feel comforted that whether you think you should have taken that job offer or not, you ultimately had no choice in the matter, and it happened for a reason, and so it was good you didn't take it because that's precisely what had to happen because some other good will come of it instead, therefore you can let your mind and conscience be at ease; but that comfort turns sour when you apply the same principle to Josef Mengele. What good could you believe would possibly eventually come from systematically blinding, torturing, mutilating and crippling children through some of the most monstrous experiments ever committed? You wonder then who wrote this reasoned script and whether it has any merit worth dedicating belief to, let alone respect.

Beyond philosophy, quantum physicists already seem to have found that a reasonable structure to things is not possible - or at least not within the grasp of our knowing. Take the slit experiment that shows how light quanta act paradoxically like both particles and waves (so that a photon seems to occupy more than one space at the same time, something for which we don't even have the linguistic tools to express or understand), or Schrodinger's Cat (alive and dead at the same time until the box is opened and a witness enters into the experiment, demonstrating that there is possibly an infinite number of parallel universes that we can never see), or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (you can only know either the position or the velocity of an elementary particle like an electron at any one time, never both, indicating that we can never know exactly how the elemental building blocks of the universe do, did and will act). There are things that seem they can never be known, factors that can never be detected, and therefore a reasoned and rational complete model of the universe that can never be attained.

So instead, we'll continue to believe in the morally repugnant and logically shoddy belief that everything happens for a reason, so as to satisfy our selfish complexes, mollify our regrets, ameliorate our insecurities, and decorate our ignorance.

Is it more reasonable then to believe the universe is random? Chaotic? A result of chance? And if the universe is random, then does this make Free Will possible? Can there be any moral framework to such a universe? Would such a universe mean that we would be savage animals all lustfully pursuing our own selfish interests - as religious people and other fatalists believe? This topic will be next.



* Let's assume that everything does happen for a reason. So if a lizard ran out from under a rock to catch a beetle and was then pounced on and eaten by a bird of prey, this wouldn't just be a case of cause (sighting of beetle), effect (running out from safety of rock to hunt it) which then becomes the cause of another effect (bird of prey swooping down for the kill). This scenario would instead be: beetle must be seen by lizard which then must come out from under the rock so the bird of prey must eat it because the phenomenon of the bird of prey eating the lizard happens "for" something else that must happen (as dictated by reason). If we were to believe this then we end up with a kind of Zenoan paradox so that every single factor must have yet more countless numbers of preceding causational factors dictated by reason, and each one of those factors must have yet more factors that multiply exponentially with every step back. And then every step back must have another intermediary step in between those steps and then other intermediary steps between those intermediary steps ad infinitum so that if the universe were dictated by reason, knowledge of that reason would be impossible because it would forever bring up more reasons behind those reasons and so on all the way down to the levels of how the rain that fell on Manila in 1683 and the envelope that was opened by Tsar Nicholas II in 1897 and the comet that passed by in 13,000 B.C. all had an effect on not just the lizard and the beetle and the bird (and everything else in between the lizard beetle and bird - the sunlight, the shadow, the bacteria, the air, the wind, the position and movement of every grain of sand, etc.), but on everything else as well, all the way down to each and every cell and molecule and atom and even all the elementary particles like quarks and leptons (to which Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies) involved in how everything at any given nanosecond plays out, all of which is beyond knowledge (as far as we know). So the entire history of the universe - everything that ever happened down to a virtually infinite regression of factors and events - should have culminated perfectly in the lizard being eaten by the bird of prey at that particular locus in space and time and that particular locus with the beetle and lizard and bird interacting perfectly with everything else in the universe at that time. But then the same Zenoan paradox comes up in relation to time: how do you measure the exact time of an occurrence down to the seconds and milliseconds and nanoseconds etc.? What is that moment, and how can you establish any one instance in which everything/something happens at once? Furthermore, don't the laws of relativity tell us that our perception of time is relative to the speed of light, and that what one person sees differs from the other, depending on their speed and position and movement at that particular "moment"? So a "now" of mine might not necessarily be your "now" and what you see may be totally different from what I see at any given point. This might not be too significant a factor at low speeds at which a lizard and a beetle and a bird move (even though it is still a factor, albeit minuscule), but it is a huge factor when dealing with massive (cosmological) and minute (quantum) phenomena. In short, there would be no mind or supercomputer powerful enough to ever figure out all of the variables involved, because they would be virtually infinite and any polynomial equation would take virtually an infinite amount of time to figure it all out. Add to all this the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, which makes knowing the position and velocity of an elementary particle literally impossible. And if you can't figure those most fundamental factors (like the path and behavior of leptons etc.), then knowing whether everything abides by reason is impossible as well.

** But the elenctic inversion of this argument could also be applied to maintain the truth of the proposition that "everything happens for a reason" by inductively claiming that because all factors haven't yet been discovered, the truth of this proposition is not disproved but only (and eternally) delayed until it is proven by the discovery of all the factors at some distant hypothetical moment in time! It's like saying that until you can disprove the universe exists in the belly of a giant pink unicorn, the universe could conceivably still exist in the belly of a giant pink unicorn. This logical loophole (born of the fact that our knowledge is incomplete) is essentially where all religious belief exists.

2/21/10

Rules of Conversation



We need to establish some ground rules for conversation because people are getting away with murder out there. Here are some basics to abide by.

- The conversation should start with a smile and end with a smile. But it has to be a real smile, the kind where your eyes smile along with your mouth, not one of those insincere condescending fake upside down grimaces.

- You don't have to look at me when you're talking, you only have to look at me when I'm talking.

- Even if you're only pretending to listen to me, please at least nod from time to time when I'm talking. I know you're probably only thinking about what you're going to say when it's your turn to speak, but if you want me to act like I'm listening to you when it's your turn, then you have to act like you're listening to me too.

- Also please just ask me a question or two every now and then so it seems like you care. Then you can go on talking about all the tedious shit in your life that I don't care about either.

- Don't talk about your pet unless you're talking to someone who has the same kind of pet. If you have a dog, and you love your dog and want to tell me about how your dog did the cutest thing the other day, then don't, because I don't have a dog.

- Same thing goes for babies.

- Talking about tits, what you ate, or things we've watched on screens of various sizes recently, is not fit for conversation. It's only fit to be filler for commercial breaks.

- Talking about the weather with someone in the same age range as you is forbidden, unless your life might in any way be threatened by the weather. Otherwise the weather can only be discussed with a grandparent and/or your girlfriend's dad, and even then only if the weather's either really bad or really good.

- Don't use me as a griping board to complain about every little thing that's not going well in your life. I'm not your mother.

- Guess what we're not going to base a conversation on? We're not going to base a conversation on your weight or mine. The conversation will not include how thin or fat you or I looked before, or how much thinner or how much fatter you or I look now. Nor will we speculate on how many kilos worth of more thin or more fat might possibly be estimated to have been lost or gained since last estimation. The only people who care about how they look or how other people look are people who don't have their priorities straight at all.

- You don't necessarily have to look straight into my eyes when we're conversing, just my face. Save the self-righteous Jesus stare for when you need to hypnotize your landlady.

- "How are you?" is not a cue for you to hog the conversation right off the bat and start talking on and on about all the intimate minutiae of your daily life. It's also not your cue to talk about how awesome and happy you are and how everything's going great, because that's just depressing to hear.

- Don't talk so loud. I can hear you, I'm right here.

- Talk up a bit, because no matter how normal you think your speaking volume is, I will never be able to hear you as well as you can hear yourself.

- If you're fidgety and restless then you shouldn't be having a conversation. You should be on a treadmill.

- Can you answer my question again without the sarcasm this time please? Thanks.

- The majority of the conversation should not be about what you do or what other people do, but what you think, see and know.

- Throwing in the odd non sequitur comment is good once or twice in a conversation. More than that can be a sign of derangement.

- Don't talk about things and how much they cost. Nobody wants to have a conversation with a shopping catalogue. Talk about ideas instead.

- If you have nothing better to talk about than the people sitting at the table next to us, then I'd rather try having a conversation with the people sitting at the table next to us.

- ", so..." is not the way to finish saying something, and neither is ", so, you know..." If you must, just say ", so... I'm done now, it's your turn to speak."

- Question: Guess who doesn't care about people who talk about themselves? Answer: People who have to listen to people who talk about themselves.

- Don't cut in when I'm talking. You'll know I'm done when I STOP TALKING.

- Oh hey, also, if you look at your fancy phone one more time I'm going to shove it up your nose.

- You will know that you're talking too much when I've stopped participating in the conversation and you're left basically just delivering a monologue. The fact that I'm still looking at you, nodding and agreeing with everything you say while I continue to quietly sip my drink is basically just my polite little way of saying OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE STILL TALKING.

- Don't say you were kidding. When you have to say you were kidding, it means you weren't kidding.

- Give a slight two-second pause after I'm done talking before segueing from there into your own story. That slight pause indicates that you have listened to me, processed what I have said, and that what I have said has brought to your mind a similar thought worth you talking about and me listening to.

- Follow the logical train of thought of the conversation. When you start jumping to totally different things at random with barely a tenuous link to what came before, that kills the conversation as surely as if it were gibberish and we're both left chasing the fleeing contrail of a blurry point lost in a cluttered maze of unnecessary words.

- If you have to ask me more than twice in a conversation whether I'm listening to you or not, then you've basically got your answer right there haven't you?

- Don't be politically correct. I'm not a magistrate.

- Ok sure, go ahead and tell a story... but not more than one, and only if it's very good, very funny, and short.

- Learn how to make fun of yourself, and admit to your own shortcomings when and where relevant. Conversing with people who take themselves too seriously is like listening to politicians trying to win your vote for how cool they think they are. If you can't talk about anything real or sincere then go away.

- Saying something unflattering about yourself relieves me of the task of having to do it for you, and relieves you of the nervous expectation of anything negative being said against you. This benefits us both by helping us relax.

- Don't smirk.

- Don't nitpick every word that comes out of my mouth. Pay attention instead to the overall tone and meaning of what I say. For example, if I say "Are you really a musician?" then that means I'm just asking whether you're a musician or not, so don't go for a smartassy cheapshot like "What do you mean really?" Just say yes or no, fuckface.

- If an awkward situation arises, do not try and skirt around it. The best way to get an elephant out of a room is to accept that it's there and point at it until it goes away. Make light of all awkward situations.

- Don't roll your fucking eyes. I'm right here and you're not invisible, so if you have a problem with something I said just say so instead of making judgmental faces to yourself like you live in an invisible bubble of your own smugness.

- If I am to know anything flattering and good about you, then I need to hear it from anyone but you. Don't spoil your good qualities with such a bad quality as talking about yourself. Let You speak for itself without you having to speak for it.

- Don't give me any bullshit about how you're enlightened, or have been freed of your ego. Saying something like that is the most self-absorbed and egocentric thing imaginable and induces instant dry heaving in anyone who has to hear it. Remember: you're a human being, you have an ego. If you didn't, you would probably die. Come to terms with it, accept it, make friends with it.

- No cliches please! Also, no quotes, no paraphrasing, and no memorized witticisms. If you have something to say, and you happen to be an adult, then you should be able to say it in your own words rather than sounding like an almanac.

- Don't jump to immediate conclusions and get all defensive over something I say. Give me the benefit of the doubt until you're sure I'm saying something not to your liking.

- Don't take anything personally. Assume you are above and beyond the reach of any and all words, opinions and prejudices concerning you. Keep your mind independent of your social being.

- Don't just talk about what you're talking about, but also what's going on as you're talking. Be conscious of your consciousness, and maintain a part of you that's observing what's happening even while another part of you is a part of what's happening. This brings an added, real-time layer to the conversation. For example, referring to the expression you just made when you said what you did, or how what you said sounded like crap, or how your voice sounded on a particular word, etc. It's nice to spontaneously mention impromptu things and make a topic of conversation out of them, because it keeps things fresh and fun. It also shows that you don't take the sound of your own voice too seriously.

- Don't get offended, get even. People who are offended retreat into a shell of indignation for protection and wish that that which offends would go away because they don't like it and it scares them. Instead, sally forth, draw your sword and lock into battle. Defeat what you don't like; don't just ask it to stop.

- If you think we should "catch up", then there's no point in catching up, because if we gave a shit about each other at all then we wouldn't need to catch up.

- Gossip is a suitable topic of conversation only after you've already exhausted a range of other more sophisticated topics such as a clever interchange of witty socio-cultural observations, a dialogue on a great film/book/building/concert/music/person etc., jointly pondering one or two philosophical problems, discussing an interesting episode or twist of history, sharing some heartfelt existential thoughts, and peppering all of that with some great humor, satire and irony, and also maybe even debating some issue involving your favorite sport. Only after you've already gone through all that can you talk about something as vulgar as people you know, even if the gossip is very juicy.

- Seriously, stop looking at your fucking phone.

- If you have nothing to say, don't just say nothing. Instead, say "I have nothing to say". That could in itself lead to an interesting, funny and sincere conversation about the irony of how you're both talking to someone you have nothing to say to. If it doesn't, then you can just say nothing and move on.

- Drink two, at most three, glasses of alcohol for the duration of the conversation. Same principle applies to coffee. More than that leads to senseless loquacity and eventually just the interchange of repetitive monologues of dubitable cogency. Less than that makes you use unnecessary big words like "loquacity", "dubitable" and "cogency" in the same sentence.

- Don't expect me to keep a secret. Why would I keep a secret if you can't keep a secret? The best way to keep something a secret is to just shut the fuck up and KEEP IT A SECRET.

- Don't ask me if I'd mind if you asked me a personal question if I don't know what the question is that you're about to ask me. How the fuck should I know if I mind or not? Ask me if I mind after you ask me the question.

- You don't have to declare that you're about to say something as if you were proclaiming an edict. Just say it.

- Ultimately, the measure of a good conversation is laughter. The more laughter, the better the conversation.

- The measure of a bad conversation is one in which you have to overtly say how much you both enjoyed it, like when you have to state out loud that it was "really good" or "you really connected" or "you had fun" as if you're trying to convince each other that it wasn't dull. The laughter is the bonding, everything else is fake fake fake.

To make sure these points are adhered to, we must also instigate qualifications for good conversationalism. People must be able to talk at a certain level. Maybe we could even have conversation classes in schools, or perhaps include them as part of a General Culture course. Then we could give conversationalists colored belts to wear in public indicating their level of conversational skill, like in Karate. Because really, conversation is what defines you in society. It's such an important aspect of our lives, who we are, and how we're perceived. To leave all that to chance means leaving good conversationalists at the mercy of bores, and that should be considered a crime because it can lead to such consequences as very interesting people choosing to abstain from any social interaction at all anymore. If only J.D. Salinger or Henry David Thoreau had enough good conversationalists around them, they might not have fled to the woods.

p.s. I'm kidding about the Karate belts. I think epaulets might be more practical.