Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Sacrifice

"Had to sacrifice all to earn favor" 
            - Ka, "Eye of a Needle"

One night back in March of this year, I was struck by a vision about sacrifice. I was laying in a hammock in my backyard, looking up at the stars. Soaking in the pleasures and privileges of my existence, appreciating my comforts yet realizing that I was not at all satisfied with my life, I was aching for something new. 

At that point, I had accumulated everything I could have ever wanted in life---I owned a house on a nice big piece of property, with a canopy provided by a dozen oak trees, the property peppered with colorful flowers and paddle cactus plants, succulents, and a big vegetable garden. The backyard was renovated, spacious, peaceful, comfortable. Inside the house I had a library full of books, walls covered with art, comfy couches to sit and read on, a fireplace to sit next to with my dog, and a desk to do my writing. I had a big, playful puppy, a pittie-German shepherd mix who always kept me feeling safe, whose energy always brought me joy. And I had a woman who I'd been with for many years, been to hell and back with. I had all of that and yet I felt completely unsatisfied with this life, felt myself becoming obsessed with a new craving for adventure and exploring the unknown. I was feeling like the creative energies in my life had become dulled and dormant. Felt like my life and whatever youth I had left, was slipping away day by day. I'd been depressed for a while after three of my friends passed away unexpectedly during the pandemic lockdown. Then that night in March, I started thinking about Tarkovsky's 1986 movie The Sacrifice

I had seen The Sacrifice a couple years prior when a friend, who's a devoted scholar of Tarkovsky, brought me to a screening at the Austin Film Society. I remember being totally awed by the film's visionary qualities, impacted by the scenes of the house rattling from warplanes overhead, the scenes of stillness and nature and especially the famous scene of the burning house. But after seeing the film I didn't have much of any appreciation for what it meant, what it was conveying. That is, until that night back in March when I was overwhelmed with thoughts about the meaning and importance of sacrifice. I started replaying scenes from the film in my head and I read synopses online and I realized that the main character was stricken by a feeling that the world was out of joint, that he needed to sacrifice everything he loved in order to restore peace. I started dwelling on the meaning of sacrifice---as in, a sacrifice to God or to the gods or to the universe, in order to earn favor and fortune and restore creative energies. To bring balance to the universe. The more I dwelled on it, the more it made literal sense to me. The notion of sacrificing what you love, renouncing possessions, giving up what makes you feel secure and comfortable in order to, in some symbolic way, feed the creative fires of the universe---this mythical, primitive idea suddenly made sense to me on a deeply personal level. The meaning of sacrifice felt real. 

That night I realized the only way I could fix my aching depression and dissatisfaction with life was to dismantle and demolish the life I had built, to sacrifice it all and plunge into the unknown with the faith that things would all work out for the better, that the creative energies of my universe would be restored by my sacrifice and guide me to a new, more fulfilling life. This was a terrifying realization because it meant I would need to give up everything that made me feel secure and comfortable. I would have to endure the suffering of separation from what I had become attached to, which was a feeling of security. For ten years I'd been living in tiny apartments until finally I'd been able to buy a nice big house, then over several years we invested so much work and energy into the house to make it comfortable. Then we added the big puppy dog into the mix and the house became his home too. And now I had reached the realization with certainty that I needed to give all that up to go seek happiness in the unknown. I knew then that to restore balance in my life I needed to sacrifice everything that made me feel secure to instead go off alone, in Joyce's phrase "wandering among the snares of the world." I had to destroy the life I had built so I could eventually rebuild my life in a better way. 

*   *   *

"As soon as I emerged from a self-made prison
My own ambitions made way for the decision of a lifetime, of a lifetime
It ain't sit right with me that I might die
No, I can't go, I got work to do
The never-ending life cycle, how a circle do
This is personal
This is personal"
              - Navy Blue, "Light"

During the peak of the pandemic lockdown, some of my friends died unexpectedly. I wrote about this earlier this year. Adding to the pain of those sudden losses was being unable to process their deaths properly with any sort of wake or gathering to memorialize them. The shock of those deaths made an impact on me that eventually changed my life. I found it especially difficult to process the death of my old friend and coworker Scott who was the same age as me and had been in good health, only to be found dead in his apartment one night in late October 2020. After that I began to develop a craving to get out and see the world, to go try and fulfill my dreams and dream big, to no longer defer any of my ambitions into the future but to try and live life now since it had become abundantly clear to me that I could die at any moment. Scott was a deep philosophical thinker, a passionate mind with a love for literature. We often talked about life and death, he loved getting into heavy discussions. Feeling a bit of guilt over his sudden death, I also developed an ambition to live big and embark on exciting adventures in his honor. He (along with many other friends of mine) had insisted for years that I go visit Ireland because of my love of James Joyce's art and because Scott had been there once before and felt it was a special place. So, when I was at the beginning of my recent overseas adventure and found myself getting drunk on whiskey while hanging inside a stone tower built in 1804 on the coast of Dublin, I was toasting to Scott and communing with his spirit. 

A recent NYRB article about Dostoyevsky discusses how the Russian novelist was sentenced to a Siberian prison camp as a political prisoner and while he was there, was the victim of a "mock execution." He and the other prisoners were condemned to death, given their last rites, taken outside to face a firing squad, and at the very last possible moment the execution was called off. Some of his fellow prisoners went insane in reaction to this and never recovered while Dostoyevsky went on to compose some of the most profound novels ever written. One of his biographers posits that the experience of the mock execution left Dostoyevsky "with a completely different view of time and ethics, which Frank calls 'eschatological [apocalyptic] apprehension.' Dostoevsky concluded, he says, that 'every instant takes on a supreme value,' and 'each moment of the present is when a decisive choice has to be made.'" Although I did not experience anything nearly as harrowing as Dostoyevsky, the death of some people close to me left me with a similar feeling about the importance of each instant. I became increasingly uneasy about wasting time. I felt whatever youth I had left was being wasted in the exceedingly comfortable yet quiet existence I was living at my nice house with my ex-girlfriend and my dog. I was consumed by an urgent need to get out and experience the world. 

So I made the decision to give up everything I had, to downsize my existence, donate or sell off most of my things and place all my books into storage, pack up a couple suitcases and go off into the world. Originally I planned to drive around the United States visiting everyone I know in different states, but once I was out of the house and away from my dog I found it too painful to be anywhere near my old place, so I decided to go faraway and flew overseas to Ireland. There I was blessed to meet a Brazilian girl, a lawyer and a deep, passionate thinker who I connected with on a level that made it seem like she'd known me for a long time. Eventually she brought me to meet some of her extended family in the South of France and it became one of the most incredible adventures of my life. When I was dismantling my previous existence, moving out of the house and putting all my stuff into storage, I felt a strong sense all of that, even though it was painful and difficult, was just a preparation for a future more exciting than anything I'd previously conceived of. Months later, when I was zooming around the Mediterranean Sea in a boat with Brazilians, diving off the boat into pristine waters off the coast of a small town near Marseilles, floating in the sea, drinking lots of champagne, staying in a penthouse in Cannes, visiting the Picasso Museum in a 14th century castle in Antibes, driving through the mountains of southern France, drinking the best wine in the world and eating like a king at a restaurant in a small French town on some Anthony Bourdain shit, I knew then that my earlier visions and realizations about sacrifice were meaningful and important. I knew that my premonitions about taking a daring leap into the unknown had manifested, my determination had paid off. My new future was being constructed and it was indeed more incredible than anything I'd ever imagined. 

While the process has already been rewarding, none of this has been easy. I'm having to figure things out week to week. As I write this, my latest European adventure has recently concluded, I went to six countries in a span of eight weeks and had enough amazing experiences to write about and talk about for the rest of my life. But now I'm back in Staten Island, NY, staying at the house I grew up in, sleeping in the same bedroom I was in since I was an infant. Maybe in some way I'm connecting with my inner child and healing some old wounds. Above all I'm trying to recompose myself and plot a new future while continuing to heal from past loss. I know the pandemic era has been difficult for many people and that my deconstructing of my life to build something new is part of a larger pattern in which many people are quitting their jobs or getting divorced and going off into something new. For anyone who's suffering, I hope you can feel inspired to hold on and to be brave and to grasp at your dreams. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball in the Works of the Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away in March 2021 just a few weeks shy of reaching his 102nd birthday. Last year I wrote about Ferlinghetti in a few places: the James Joyce Quarterly published my review of Ferlinghetti's final book, I also wrote about Ferlinghetti and Joyce at my other blog, then I wrote more about Ferlinghetti and his incredible final book on this blog.

April is both National Poetry Month and the opening month of the baseball season, so as April comes to a close I'm going to pay tribute to the late poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti by looking at how he wrote about baseball in his works. Ferlinghetti grew up in Yonkers, New York (located right above Manhattan Island) and after spanning the globe on manifold adventures he settled in San Francisco right around the time the Giants baseball team moved their home base from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan out to the Bay Area of San Francisco. Reading through Ferlinghetti's books, one gets the impression that baseball was a ubiquitous aspect of his life. His writings on baseball also tend to intersect with his political diatribes, proving once again that you cannot separate baseball from politics in America.

Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" (1972) is the most well-known of his writings on baseball. You can listen to him reciting the poem in the video below. American history and its manifestations in present day contexts often figures into the works of Ferlinghetti. His perspective was that of a fiercely dissident poet yet he was also a WW2 vet who commanded a ship at D-Day in 1944 and later turned into a staunch pacifist following his visit to Nagasaki in late 1945. His "Baseball Canto" foregrounds what truly makes America great, its diversity and inclusiveness, but for Ferlinghetti the gameplay on the field finds metaphorical resonance with the struggles of marginalized people for empowerment and freedom within what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon tradition." Themes of racism, colonialism, and exploitative capitalism are observable in the poem. The umpires become Irish cops overseeing the action. He envisions Willie Mays as "a footrunner from Thebes." Tito Fuentes becomes a bullfighter being cheered by the Latinos in the stands. Sort of ironically, the poet is reading Ezra Pound's Cantos while sitting in the stands. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" opens this way:

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.

Ferlinghetti once published a bizarre little book called Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) where the text is presented in the poet's own handwriting with minimal punctuation. A satirical work, Tyrannus Nix? deploys baseball metaphors to mock and satirize then-president Richard M. Nixon. "Nixon Nixon I'm singing you this baseball Diamond Sutra from way out here in New Left Field in the International League." Nixon was from Whittier, California and Ferlinghetti writes:

This is one national sport we hope is on the way out The Whittier White Sox we hope are all washed up It's time for a new umpire and a new Hall of Fame Throw out a new ball and a new uniform and a new flag too while you're at it and make the flag green this time instead of bloody red and black-and-blue (p. 7-8)

Later in Tyrannus Nix? Ferlinghetti observes, "things are really tightening up out here And there's no relief in sight for you or us although it occurs to me that we are your relief if you'd only admit it." (p. 12) He determines Nixon to be a pitcher wearing a mask and throwing with a deceptive delivery: "But I never saw a pitcher with a mask before What've you got under it That's what I've been trying to fathom ever since they brought you up from the minors Did you learn that windup with the Whittier Quakers It's the most deceptive ever seen in a World Series a windup that gives away nothing and telegraphs nothing so that nobody still knows what's coming We hope not a fast change-up One wild pitch and you've blown it Your windup is so weird." (p. 13-14)

I would not consider Tyrannus Nix? among Ferlinghetti's best books, it feels dated and many of the jokes fall flat, but as a time capsule and example of the prominence of baseball in Ferlinghetti's work it's kinda cool. It's also an especially polemical display of Ferlinghetti's attitude about the poet's role in society, from the same guy who went on to publish the handbook Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007). Ferlinghetti also wrote a two-part epic poem on the history of America, the second part of which is surely one of his best books. In that book, called Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II) (New Directions, 2012), he quotes this line from the poet Philip Lamantia: "Baseballs lost among the Pleiades (quoth Lamantia)." (p. 7) Ferlinghetti made no bones about taking lines from other poets, many of his writings are loaded with literary allusions and borrowed phrases, he liked to celebrate that TS Eliot or Pound tradition of poetry, "summarizing the past by theft and allusion" he called it. Some of his books have helpful notes in the back with sources for these allusions. His last book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), is filled with literary references but does not have any footnotes. I'm hoping there will eventually be an annotated edition of the book, but some lines are identifiable via Google, especially when he provided them in quotes. One that sticks out to me is this sequence from the poem "Truth" by John Masefield which he immediately follows with a baseball reference:

"Man with his burning soul has but an hour of breath to build a ship of Truth in which his soul may sail---sail on the sea of death for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but Truth" and it's three strikes and you're out at the Old Ball Game 

(Little Boy, p. 122)

Little Boy: A Novel contains numerous baseball references, everything seems to return back to baseball. It was his final book and seemingly all the major themes of his previous works are gathered in Little Boy, a densely-packed word-hoard that goes into American history, his own life story, with lyrical escapes into mystical contemplation of the cosmos and the precariousness of life in our present existence on Earth. The latter half of the book often reads like Ferlinghetti's mind swings on a pendulum between despair over the dark state of affairs and ecstasies of blissful poetry about life. Somehow these oscillations often seem to involve baseball. For example, on p. 150 he wonders: 

And so why am I watching baseball to escape the pain or ecstasy of existence and the Reds are beating the Yankees and should I be happy It's all relative and life depends on the simplest things to yield a crop of happiness as if it were something you could harvest (p. 150)

Despair and happiness waver back and forth. One beautiful sequence on pgs 154-155 revels in "the jet streams of light in the upper air of the spirit of man in the outer space inside us Endless rubaiyats and endless beatitudes endless shangri-las endless nirvanas sutras and mantras satoris and sensaras Bodhiramas and Boddhisatvas karmas and karmapas! Endless singing Shivas dancing on the smoking wombs of ecstasy!" and so on and on until just a few lines later his perspective again shifts. It seems like he remembers who the president was at that moment (the same president who was booed at the World Series) and suddenly he's back to thinking about baseball:

and the Man without Shoulders who can't lift his weight in butterflies is now in charge of the world And is there any reason to watch the World Series on TV while this is going on as if the fate of the world were on the Men with Shoulders out there on the Field of Dreams as if a bases-loaded home run could change the fate of the spinning world spinning with a curveball or one-hundred-mile-an-hour fastball to wipe out our enemies and save the world from whatever Yeah play the 'Star-Spangled Banner" and sing about "bombs bursting in air" to show "our flag was still there" 
(p. 155-156)

Later towards the end of Little Boy, there's a dream sequence presented in italics where the poet drifts off into the depths of memory in search of his earliest moments of consciousness, seeking the roots of his existence, the exact place where he was born. The book is partly about Ferlinghetti's difficult childhood, he basically grew up as an orphan who bounced around different homes and never truly had a family. In this dream sequence he's simultaneously dreaming of going to and recalling when he physically went back to find the house where he was born, the address on his birth certificate, a house located just north of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The tiny details recalled of life in that house at that time then summon up more vivid memories:

All at once, an incredible overflowing feeling of happiness surges up from nowhere. Born here!. . . some three hundred yards north of the northwest corner of Van Cortlandt Park. It must have been all country back then. The kids must have played ball in this green park with its worn diamond and its ancient rusted screen behind the batter's box. I can hear the bat hit the ball (perhaps pitched by Pop). And my brother running for first base ended up in Baltimore forty years later . . . Shouts and laughter tears and whispers fill the air. (p. 174)

Little Boy: A Novel is so many things at once, a perfect culmination for Ferlinghetti's prolific career as a poet. It's really more of an epic poem in prose than a novel, plus it's sort of an autobiography. In a flourish of wordplay on page 119, Ferlinghetti describes his project this way: "I unlock my word-hoard of ruminations meditations exhortations celebrations condemnations excitations lamentations liberations and ecstasies plotless as a life." The one precursor to the style of Little Boy (2019) was the novel Ferlinghetti published almost sixty years prior called Her (1960), a plotless word-stream of prose wherein the reader swims from one dream vision to the next, following Ferlinghetti in search of his soul or his muse or his anima. Just as in Little Boy, the visions of the poet veer into baseball themes:

Perhaps I was merely a dumb member of the audience strayed onto the stage by mistake, looking for some printed program he had dropped under a seat. I had somewhere dropped the key that explained the action, and one could not tell the players without a program, for the faces interchanged, fused together. There they moved on their dark illuminated field, playing their curious night-game, bounding after stray balls, winding their pitches on grassless mounds, or squatting behind a batter in their tools of ignorance. I was a world's catcher, I crouched there, wearing my tools, a fat receiver. I received signals, sent out signals to others, squatting with a signal fingers hanging down between my legs, crooking a penis finger now and then, calling someone in. They all moved too far out, other figures ran, white celluloid shadows, as in a strip of film held up to a light, and the film running away with them. I could not catch them, and they ran off through the streets of the world, until only one figure was left, a white clay figure I had started with, who might have been myself. It was not. It was a her. (Her, p. 10-11)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Hypnotic Mountainscapes of Nicholas Roerich

He Who Hastens (1924) Nicholas Roerich


Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian symbolist painter, and a writer, archeologist, philosopher, spiritualist who was born in Saint Petersburg. He developed a deep interest in hypnosis and other spiritual practices and his paintings are known to sometimes induce a hypnotic effect. This past year, when needing to center my focus and un-distract myself, I've spent a lot of time staring at some of Roerich's landscape paintings. He definitely had a knack for capturing the essence of being up in the ethereal realms of high altitude mountains. Last September, we took a road-trip from Austin, TX up to Breckenridge, Colorado and stayed in a cabin situated way high up in the peaks. I'd been to Colorado before but never spent so much time at such high altitude (nearly 10,000 ft). There's a distinct vibe up there and every moment of the daytime it seems there's a unique shade and texture of light reflecting off the mountains that surround you. Staring at Roerich's paintings takes me back there to that quiet sense of tranquility and the mindfulness summoned by staring at the light hitting the mountainside.

At one point in his life, Nicholas Roerich was convinced he was receiving psychic messages from beings living in the Himalayas. So he gathered a crew and set out on multiple harrowing excursions into the Himalayan mountains, where he presumably did a lot of painting while also seeking out the Tibetan Buddhist monks. Read more about Roerich at his Wikipedia page. He's got a really interesting backstory, but besides that I've been enjoying spending time staring at his incredible mountainscapes. There's definitely a meditative effect about them. See more of Roerich's paintings here.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Hunt (1937)

Way to Tibet (1925)

Sword of the Gesar (1932)

Rocks of Ladakh (1933)

Lake of the Nagas (1932)

Message from Shambhala (1931)

She Who Leads (1943)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Baseball 2021 Predictions

The whole world changed in 2020, and baseball changed more than it has in more than a century. 2020 was the shortest MLB season ever, the shortest season of major league baseball in America since the 1800s. Watching the short 60-game season last year, I felt grateful just to have any baseball on TV and the playoff rounds were often thrilling to watch, but it's hard to take the results of the 60-game regular season all that seriously. Now as the schedule goes back to 162 games in 2021, the big question across baseball is how much the load of this innings increase will wear down pitchers. MLB has implemented some new rules, some of which are unfortunate like adding a runner on second base in extra innings and 7-inning double-headers but at least these changes might actually mitigate the innings load on pitchers and lead to fewer injuries. I'll be watching the games regardless, but baseball needs to figure out how to tweak some aspects of its gameplay to make the basic flow of things slightly less boring without further disturbing the sport's core equilibriums. Most agree the problems boil down to one thing: the ball needs to be put into play more, give fielders more chances. That's always the most potently contingent instant of a game when a ball is hit into play and there's a mad scramble around the bases while fielders rush to react. 

Going from a 60-game season to a 162-game season for the first time ever ensures 2021 baseball will be full of surprises. Then you factor in the expected changes made to the baseball in attempt to make it less bouncy and the league potentially cracking down on Trevor Bauer types who covertly use substances to increase spin rate on pitches, plus the impact that could come from the new rule changes. There's so much we don't know about what's gonna happen in major league baseball this year. On the other hand, there are some things we can be sure of---the Dodgers will be really good, the Yankees will be really good, the Pirates will suck, the Orioles will suck. The league has become noticeably stratified with very obvious bottom-feeders, an upperclass of likely power-houses and a group of higher variance teams in the middle. But injuries and your typical baseball weirdness can throw everything askew, this is why we watch. I'll be rooting for the weird and unexpected stuff to happen because that makes it watchable, but some results to consider for six months from now do seem predictable. 

In this post I will share the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection for each team and pick an over/under for each. (Note that the PECOTA projections include decimals in the win numbers, but I'm rounding those up.) More than ever I think nobody has any idea how this MLB season will turn out because of variance and all the new contributing factors but baseball fans always enjoy making their picks before the long season and the same goes for me, so here are my picks for how each division will stack up with my thoughts about the chances for each team in 2021. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Three Interviews with Master Craftsmen on the Art of Hip Hop

Producer Madlib recently appeared on BBC Radio 6 for a lengthy convo with Gilles Peterson, talking about his friendship with MF DOOM, his latest album Sound Ancestors, his crate-digging exploits, his love of Sun Ra and spiritual jazz music, and Madlib even played a bunch of records on the show. 

Producer/emcee Bronze Nazareth appeared on the podcast From the Desk of Lo for an in-depth interview detailing his whole background as a musician, how he linked up with the Wu-Tang Clan, stories of staying with RZA while working on Birth of a Prince, how he heard tons of unreleased Wu material from the early-2000s, growing up with his longtime friend Apollo Brown, and plenty of other interesting stuff here that I have never heard him discuss with this level of detail. They even get into the million-dollar Wu album which Bronze had some music on. Interviewer does a great job asking informed questions. (At the end of the interview Bronze mentions a book project I have been working on with him. It's progressing toward final stages now and I'm excited to get it out to the world soon.)

SkillastratorLO aka Sunez interviewed underground emcee Rome Streetz on the Power Write Show podcast. Sunez is perhaps the most in-depth, insightful, and knowledgeable journalist writing about hip hop these days and his interviews with artists are always intriguing. In this talk they get into a level of detail on the writing of rap lyrics that you rarely hear in artist interviews. I especially dug the discussion of writing in a "concentrated" style, embedding so much meaning and interconnectedness in rhymes that it takes the listener several listens to catch on. They talk about the new album Rome Streetz made with DJ Muggs, the intricacies of Rome's writing process, what it's like to work with a legend like DJ Muggs, how Rome's music fits into and outside of the underground rap genre, how his approach differs from other rap artists, etc. Real informative discussion here.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Album Reviews: Pandemic Era Rap Elixirs Curated

"Ghost Hammurabi" is a new track from Killah Priest, it also feels like the latest installment of the style heard throughout Priest's 2020 project Rocket to Nebula, with a drum-less beat and mesmerizing, evolving tempos overridden by rapid-fire lyricism evoking epic, cosmic scales. It's a track that might take some getting used to, or it might speak to you instantly. For me it was the latter. So it seems like a good way to start off this assemblage of reflections on my favorite rap albums from the past year. 

These are short reviews of some favorite albums from this pandemic era, last year and into 2021. Not exactly trying to provide objective criticism or a ranking of best albums, just giving my opinion on the albums that brought me excitement, enjoyment, or inspiration during the pandemic year. Not listed in any particular order, this is a curated list of rap elixirs I've been soaking in with thoughts on the merits of each. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Life and Death During the Pandemic Era

The last several years I've written annual recap blog posts sharing things from the past year that inspired me (places I traveled, books I read, pieces I wrote, music I loved, etc), but up until now I couldn't bring myself to do so about this past year because, well, fuck 2020.