Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

ReflectionsRecently I said it’s a great time to be a David Lynch fan, and since the announcement of its return, I’ve only become more optimistic. It’s a long road to 2016 and many fans have begun re-watching the original series. But if you’re looking for more, I recommend Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes.

Dukes conducted and compiled interviews with about 90 people, ranging from television executives and agents to actors and crew that worked on the short-lived series. Co-creator Mark Frost gives significant contributions as do Angelo Badalamenti and several of the series’ directors. David Lynch, notoriously silent about his own work, is not to be found in Reflections. This is not surprising, but his absence is felt.

Fans of the show will be quickly swept up into the germinal stages of the project. It’s exhilarating to read about the hundreds of tiny pieces that had to fall into place for Twin Peaks to air on ABC. From the scripting stages, enthusiasm for the project was fiercely contagious, and just about everyone involved seems to have understood they were part of something monumental.

This book may give newcomers a sense of the cultural impact the show had in its time, and a better understanding of how that impact has spread out across television to this day. But I recommend some familiarity with the show and its players; putting faces to the names on the page brings out the colour and significance of many of these interviews.

Unfortunately, the demise of Twin Peaks wasn’t pretty, and Reflections gives a thorough account of the attendant frustrations and disappointment. As optimistic as everyone was in season one, political pressures, creative troubles and declining ratings left many of the players cynical about Twin Peaks. The hopefulness felt in the book’s opening chapters slowly gives way to the harsh realities of network television, and we as readers are along for the ride.

Reflections offers great breadth of opinion about the television series, but aside from a few disparaging remarks, it almost completely ignores the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While this movie is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, Fire Walk With Me is in my opinion the keystone of the series, and provides a crucial (and horrifying and beautiful) endnote to the creative efforts behind Twin Peaks. Although Frost was not involved in the movie, nor Lynch in the book, there are more than enough voices to cover the topic, and Reflections suffers for the omission.

Otherwise, Dukes has done a beautiful job of curating the material. He allows the interviewees to tell their story, giving his readers a backstage pass to one of the most important television events of the 20th century. Reflections is also a beautifully produced book, with gorgeous cover art and exclusive (B&W) photos on nice paper. It makes a perfect addition to the bookshelf of any Twin Peaks fan.

How To Argue Badly And Fool People

In the last few months I followed a handful of Twitter accounts about neuroscience. Occasionally I’ll read a post that is intriguing, offering the latest insights into the mind and the workings of the brain based on scientific evidence. But recently @NeuroNow posted an argument that disturbed me. The writer of the article was the millionaire New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.

In the article, he criticized “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael S. A. Graziano, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. He says Graziano’s post will generate conversation, and he wanted to contribute. When I read the contribution, I was frustrated and decided to add my two cents to Chopra’s two cents.

Chopra writes: “[Graziano] states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science.” Quite falsely, he says, so surely Chopra must have a better explanation for consciousness, and surely he will cite this explanation to refute Graziano’s point.

Wrong. And this is Chopra’s appeal; he uses authoritative-sounding language to hide the fact that he has no explanation at all outside of his hodgepodge of pseudo-mystical solipsism. Let me show a handful of examples so the next time you think of taking Chopra seriously, you can avoid his little traps.

Graziano says that human beings are not a special act of creation, but a twig on the tree of evolution. Chopra writes, “Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig.” The word “actually” makes him sound really authoritative doesn’t it?

Saying our nervous systems make us unique in evolution is nonsense. Our nervous systems are similar to other primate nervous systems. Also, one could argue that every species is “unique” in evolution. The fur, ears, incredible sense of smell, loyalty, and limited intelligence make dogs unique evolution too. Being the apex predator of the sea makes sharks unique in evolution. All of this is meaningless, yet the sentence makes him sound like an expert while sidestepping the real issue.

Graziano’s position, roughly, is that electrical and chemical activity in the brain forms experience, and that what we experience as “mind” is the actual electro-chemical activity and not some metaphysical observer. We know that chemical or electrical changes in the brain manifest in experience because we can test this. But Chopra says this is wrong, and says that Graziano’s argument is like solving the question on gender equality by saying that women don’t exist. Yes, he actually wrote that.

This is a crude attack, meant to turn you against Graziano and blind you to his argument. I mean, how could you listen to someone who says women don’t exist? Well, Chopra’s analogy is an immoral ad hominem attack, that to my mind, has no logical connection with Graziano’s actual argument and merely aims to paint Graziano with a broad brush of sexism for no reason other than the fact that Chopra wants to refute him. This fact alone should let you safely cross Chopra off your reading list forevermore. Chopra seems so sure Graziano’s opinion is wrong because he really, really wants it to be. If Chopra had a coherent, alternative Theory of Mind, he would present it with evidence. But he doesn’t. Battling science with emotions and slander, however subtle, is just distasteful.

Graziano argues that a computer and camera can determine that grass is green, and that what we perceive as green is similar in principle (recognizing contrasts in the spectrum of light). Chopra states this is “flat wrong.” He says that the experience of colour is dependent on a human nervous system, photons have no colour, and that a camera and computer have “no perceptual ability whatever.”

This is a favorite manoeuver of Chopra’s: to retreat into solipsism to refute empirical evidence. He’s basically saying that experience only exists to human beings, and if you push him on this point, I suspect he would stand firm. He is of the type who believe a tree makes no sound if it falls in a forest with no observer.

This is another semantic trick. What we call “sound” is a human experience, filtered through a human nervous system, and it’s called “sound” because we’re the only species that uses human words. So what we call “sound” is technically a human phenomenon, translating vibrations in the atmosphere through the ear into internal experience.

But if a tree falls in the forest with no human around, the tree still falls, and the atmosphere is still disturbed. The vibrations still ripple out across the woods, and it’s those vibrations that become “sound” to our ears and minds (should we be present). The fact that there isn’t a human present to call it sound doesn’t mean the phenomenon we call “sound” isn’t going on. It obviously must be going on, and we know this because of our huge and expanding knowledge of the physics Chopra tries to ignore.

And to say a camera and computer can have “no perceptual ability whatever” is the same argument. Chopra thinks that “perception” must only be a human being having a subjective experience. But the light still goes through the camera’s lens, and the computer creates a representation of the external world for processing. Chopra here suffers from the same species-centric chauvinism as before; he seems to support the idea that humans are the only species to have real experiences, and everything outside of the human experience isn’t real. This is a bad argument of definitions and philosophy, not science, and certainly not neuroscience.

We can confidently infer that light from an event travels through a lens and can be interpreted by a computer, recreated in detail, and we know the information is in the computer. But Chopra refuses to acknowledge that this has happened until a human puts his or her eyes on it, and then he attributes the phenomena to some vaguely miraculous human perception. This is not science, it is fairy magic, and I’m disappointed and troubled that a so-called “neuroscience” article would print such an anti-scientific, ill-considered worldview. Like so many of Chopra’s ideas, it is purely an argument from ignorance.

To Graziano’s claim that we should be skeptical of the validity of our inner feelings, Chopra cites Sam Harris as a defender of subjective experience. But Chopra has almost never agreed with Harris in the past. Harris is a materialist and a (real) neuroscientist, and I bet he would gladly tell Chopra that the mind is a product of the brain. Appealing to an authority he has never sided with in the past—one who seemingly has the exact opposite worldview—shows desperation.

Graziano says the brain builds up models about items in the world, and the models are often not accurate. Chopra says this point “is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable.” Chopra seems here to believe the brain is not a product of evolution, subject to flaws, trial and error, and so forth; that the brain is a special and perfect gift from heaven. He can’t really believe this, can he?

Both human eyes have a blind spot (which is easily proven with visual tests) yet we never notice it. The visual information in the blind area of each eye is picked up by the other eye, but even looking through one eye we don’t “notice” it unless we know how to look for it. Our impressions of the world are incomplete without us even acknowledging this. Also, as Dennett points out, the mysterious affliction known as “blindsight” shows that brains unreliably report the world.

And what about light and colour? We know (from scientific testing) that light comes in different wavelengths we call colour, but our eyes cannot see this fact. Instead, our perception adjusts to the context of light to give us a general “best impression.” This is the brain inaccurately representing the external world and should be all the proof we need that our brains can be unreliable. Also, dreams. Also, any time someone has ever made a mistake.

            “Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.” – Michael S. A. Graziano

Chopra says, “neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.” This piece of incoherence, when you strip it down, is just a juvenile, terrible argument. He’s basically saying that molecules can’t do much, so how can something made of molecules get anything done? Think about that. His argument goes as follows, by analogy: I need a car to drive to the store, but molecules can’t drive to the store, and my car is made of molecules, therefore my car can’t drive me to the store.

In the final paragraph Chopra revisits his human-as-center-of-all-experience argument, saying “information” requires a mind. This is a squishy, semantic argument only, even if it sounds authoritative. Any data about a tree is “information.” But the attributes of trees exist even without humans around to call that data “information,” and so much of Chopra’s argument uses this obfuscation that it’s shocking.

I literally can’t tell if Deepak Chopra is maliciously trying to confuse the point to promote his brand, or if he’s genuinely, absolutely confused. Either way, it seems wrong that he’s allowed to call himself a doctor, and it’s especially shameful that he and his religiously addled ideas should be promoted by a Twitter account allegedly supporting neuroscience. There is nothing scientific about the man or his theories, and just because he’s found out how to word things strongly doesn’t make him right. After my first read of this article, my thought was that he’s flat wrong. After reading it again, and checking to make sure my quotes were accurate, I’ve come to believe he’s “not even wrong.”

Year of David Foster Wallace

I recently finished Infinite Jest and can easily place it in my top five favorite novels (the strange dream I had didn’t foretell the story, by the way). In the world of Infinite Jest, years are no longer numbered (i.e. 2014), but instead take the name of the top corporate bidders in a system known as subsidized time (i.e. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.). So far, my 2014 has felt like the Year of David Foster Wallace.

It was February when I first picked up Oblivion, and since then I’ve read 1761 of his pages and I’m still jonesing for more. By my calculations I have 2815 pages left to finish off his whole catalog. This is fairly normal for me, as I frequently obsess over one artist for an extended period of time. Even now as I try to broaden my reading to help my writing, the genius of David Foster Wallace is just too compelling to stay away.

It’s safe to say that every year from 1994 to 2000 could have been called my Years of David Lynch (my longest, deepest obsession to date). Since then I’ve had several Years of Stanley Kubrick, two Years of Andrei Tarkovsky, one Year of Philip K. Dick, a Year of Barry Gifford, a Year of Tom Robbins, a Year of Lars von Trier, at least one Year of Thomas Pynchon, and it would only be fair to call 2011 the Year of George R. R. Martin.

What happens is that I read or watch or listen to one artist’s work for the first time, and I get such a surge of pleasure I usually acquire the rest of his/her oeuvre all at once like an addict, working through it with only a few odds and ends thrown in for contrast. Fortunately, it’s rare to find an artist that turns all my cranks the way Wallace does, so I rarely have to binge this way. But when I do find a new addiction my interest in other entertainments seems to drop off.

And this tendency is exactly what’s explored in Infinite Jest. Our culture’s addiction to different forms of entertainment is exploded into view; from oral narcotics to professional sports to lethally indulgent movies, Infinite Jest explores the cravings we have to abandon ourselves to something greater, something potentially more meaningful than our own thoughts and self-reflection, something that offers us self-transcendence.

And I did get lost in it. I was fairly heartbroken when it was over. I had come to love these characters; when they were bummed out, I was bummed out for them; when they were in trouble, I was worried; and when I turned the last page, I wanted somehow to slip inside the world of Infinite Jest to see if they’ll be okay.

The book’s title, like A Clockwork Orange, is taken from a work of fiction within the work of fiction. The Infinite Jest within Infinite Jest is an experimental film so compelling, once people have caught a glimpse, they’ll give anything to keep watching it. They’re locked in; they forget to eat or go to the bathroom, and when it’s all over, they’re willing to do unspeakable acts for another viewing.

David Foster Wallace has managed, with Infinite Jest, to create a work of fiction just this side of dangerously compelling. His prose has all the audacity and skill of Pynchon’s, and his ability to create flawed, idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters is second to none. And since Wallace is so culturally aware, and his writings so replete with artistic references, I imagine it won’t be long, once I’ve finished the rest of his work, to find a new addiction.

Sometimes the easiest way out one addiction is to ease into another, less absorbing one. Feel free to recommend any artists I should check out.

Only Lovers Left Alive

The following review is one giant SPOILER.

There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.

His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.

Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).

Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).

But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.

Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.

With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.

Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.

Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.

The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.

About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.

In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.

Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.

It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”

High Maintenance

Between HBO, AMC, and Netflix, I’ve apparently been missing out on a whole world of web series. But thankfully, I’ve finally been turned onto one good enough to recommend. High Maintenance is a short web series based loosely around a pot dealer in New York, and it brings a refreshing, masterful touch to a “genre” that suffers from, for lack of a better word, stupidity.

After getting up to date with their 15 short episodes (between 5 and 15 minutes each, with more episodes to come), I browsed a few reviews of the series online. While most reviews were absolutely glowing, I noticed a striking similarity with respect to the authors’ (and presumably society’s) preconceived notions; almost all the reviewers had low expectations.

Pop culture has fed us a consistent diet of stoner stereotypes; from the indelibly bad stoner-face of Jim Breuer in Half Baked, to the inept goof-off James Franco played in Pineapple Express, the popular opinion of pot enthusiasts is that they’re inevitably lazy and incompetent.

Being inundated with these stereotypes seems to have paralyzed people into an Anslinger-era position on the evils of cannabis. Take this ridiculous opinion piece from The Windsor Star, for example. Devoid of facts (or any relevant information, for that matter), this article is full of nonsense and media-fed stereotypes. The article’s author reinforces the outdated and false picture of pot smokers with a confidence only ignorance can provide.

I’m so bored of clichés, as we all should be. I don’t want to watch a show about black people “acting black,” or gay people “acting gay.” There is more fodder for storytelling in treating black people, white people, gay people, pot smokers, etc. as real people who have more going on than what gets dreamt up by lazy writers.

Which is what makes High Maintenance so great. It’s hilarious, moving, awkward, and irreverent because it focuses on the various individuals that cross paths with this pot dealer (who is himself so likeable I’m thinking of calling him up). Each episode is a little slice of life, brimming with authenticity and originality. Creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld step outside the expected tropes and in each episode round out a great narrative.

Watch High Maintenance on Vimeo.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Ontario Beer “Facts”

Ontario Beer Facts PamphletHave you seen these pamphlets yet? Apparently, somebody thought about privatizing alcohol sales, and then there was a murder. It opens into a tryptich display of a woman being robbed at gunpoint. They say that safety comes before profits, eluding that good, clean, wholesome people should be very afraid of privatization (but disregard public safety when it comes to cigarettes sold at convenience stores). Then the pamphlet directs us to www.ontariobeerfacts.ca to learn more. It tells us to get the facts.

For a pamphlet from a group that call themselves Ontario Beer Facts, surprisingly, this pamphlet contains no facts. Not one. I assume if privatization led directly to crime, there would be piles of statistics, figures, anything. But there isn’t. So, on to their website.

The website claims Ontarians pay some of the lowest prices in Canada for beer after adjusting for tax rate differences. Vague fact, maybe, but we’re getting close. They then claim that the average price per case of bottles is $32.08. So if you’re an Ontarian who regularly shells out between $36 and $45 dollars for a case of beer, realize that you’re actually paying less than that through the magic of tax adjustment!

They urgently claim that prices will rise with privatization, as they did in Alberta when the province privatized, failing to mention that prices rose in Ontario as well during the same time period. There is a tedious study that first claims how valuable it (the study itself) is, then goes on for dozens of pages but fails to realize that everything sold at convenience stores is marked up because we pay for convenience. Happily.

What about selection? The Beer Store sells 420 brands of beer. But sadly, they follow up that stone cold fact with the line, “space-constrained convenience stores and gas stations would have little space for local and craft brands.” This is not a fact, nor is it even an intelligent opinion. When Alberta privatized alcohol sales the selection of brands blossomed many times over.

My favorite fact from the website is at the very bottom, in significantly finer print than anything else on the page. It reads: “Ontario Beer Facts is brought to you by Canada’s National Brewers (CNB), a national trade association representing Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries Ltd.”

Now look back at the pamphlet. Doesn’t it strike you as the sort of symbolic scare tactic you’d see coming from the mob boss of a huge drug cartel? “Eh, <sniff> I really hope nuthin’ terrible happens to your family this weekend if you even think of privatizing.” In fact, considering the direct appeal to fear, and the complete lack of information, I’d say a scare tactic is all it is.