Thursday, July 9, 2009

Losing my faith: David and the Conglomerate

Note: An edited version of this article appears on the atheist blog, "Unreasonable Faith".

Early in 2005, I found out that god was in fact, a pedophile. Curiously, this discovery occurred through an expose on the Internet by a British pianist I had met in India several years ago.

David was a staunch devotee then and we had both belonged to the Sai Baba cult. He had grown weary of Western Rationalism and had traveled halfway around the world for less depressing answers to questions about the “meaning of life” whereas I had just stumbled upon the cult by an accident of geography. In the late nineties, David had spent an afternoon at my house in India. He was entirely unremarkable and the only reason I remembered him was because I was told by an uncle that he was an extremely skilled pianist who performed for the royal family. 

With the highest per-capita number of godmen on the planet, India is a (pardon the mixed metaphor) Mecca for spiritual wanderers. Our particular godman, Sathya Sai Baba, had a following in excess of six million (the devotees will quote a hundred million). From an early age the Baba was convinced that he was a reincarnated god and along the way, he had managed to convince a few other people as well.

This fanciful delusion was powerful in a land where few have a coherent idea of what it means to be a Hindu although Hinduism is the religion they profess to practise. As a result, they are extremely susceptible to almost anything that will ease the pain of their existence. This confused polytheistic condition was, I imagine, similar in some small way to those which preceded the birth of monotheism.

On a daily basis since 1940, people have queued up and waited patiently for hours to watch a small man in a saffron gown and an oversized afro wander around while doing mightily impressive sleight-of-hand “miracles”. This phenomenon is called a “darshan” (translated as a viewing).

Among the assembled thousands are wanderers like David, who, if initially dubious, are eventually convinced by the massive spectacle of the thousands of adoring throngs. Over the past half century the Baba’s religious empire, henceforth referred to as the Baba conglomerate, has amassed considerable wealth and power and invested in socially conscious projects while simultaneously defrauding thousands spiritually and financially. The conglomerate has also built up a fanbase – a massive network of influence and power, which they have used ruthlessly to preserve the illusion as well as the illusionist, whose failings have made the occasional murder necessary.

So what was David doing at my house all those years ago? To help you understand, I must reveal my own nefarious history. My grandfather was a self-made wealthy agricultural baron in Andhra Pradesh, India, where Sathyanarayana Raju, later to become Sai Baba, was born. My grandmother had given birth to ten children and successfully raised six. In the late 1950’s, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, she discovered Sai Baba (he wasn’t very far away) and became an instant convert.

Godmen, like most entrepreneurs, need to form powerful alliances, and my grandfather’s influence meant that there were benefits to be had from our support. The Baba himself visited on a few occasions, and many years later my cancer-stricken dying grandmother refused to die until she was taken to the Darshan, 250 kms away where she then passed away peacefully. Since then, however, even as our collective devotion to the Baba grew, the family’s wealth and stature declined, and subsequent generations were pushed down the pecking order of the Baba juggernaut that was turning into a worldwide phenomenon.
From trusted lieutenants, my uncles turned into tour guides and traveling salesmen. Their responsibilities now included entertaining “special guests”. Broadly speaking, if you were white and weren’t a hippie, you were a special guest. If you weren’t white, you had to be a politician, a bureaucrat, an industrialist, a movie actor, or a famous sports personality to qualify as special. Although my father wasn’t involved with the Baba Conglomerate, close family ties meant that his brothers, my uncles, frequently brought visitors. It was during one of these chance encounters that I met David in the mid 90’s. He had just been introduced by the Baba, to his future wife, a wanderer like himself and had seemed, like everyone else, to be completely in awe of the Baba.

The next time I heard of David, it was in dramatically altered circumstances in 2005. He had published a book titled “The Findings” which contained details of his investigations into child abuse allegations against the Baba. His thesis was that the Baba was not only responsible for child abuse but also complicit in murders that had ostensibly resulted from these events. The hydra-like conglomerate that had once cradled him in its tentacles had now begun an all out attack aimed at discrediting him and destroying his reputation.
At this point in time, I was still firmly entrenched in the Sai Baba cult. Upon reading David’s document, I was shaken as a number of loose threads of information began to fit together for the first time. I knew of the corruption within the conglomerate. I had even met the Baba’s nephew, the crown prince to the sprawling Empire his father had built with his demagogue brother’s talents. I had wondered several times whether divinity was genetic and if so, how it was possible that people so closely related to the Baba could be so soundly unqualified.
Everything David had written seemed not only plausible but unmistakably true. I proceeded to be as iconoclastic as I possibly could as I raised a stink within the family about what I had found.

Most people didn’t care if it was true. They had already committed themselves to disbelieving it. Some seriously warned me to “stay out of trouble”. These were very powerful people I was dealing with, and I was related to some of them by blood. The few doubters were reluctant to actually acknowledge that their fears had been accurate. There were consequences to free speech that I was ill-equipped to understand, they said. This was also quite possibly the first time my family began to think I was crazy.
David received thousands of letters, some of which detailed similar abuses, and others that confirmed the credibility of his findings. He also began to attract death threats, as well as slander and defamation aimed at discrediting him. The “devotees” who had sworn by the Baba’s slogan “Help ever hurt never” were now coming after the pianist in droves with pitchforks in hand. The recrimination was bad enough to force David and his wife to move to an undisclosed location in France.

The Baba conglomerate also decided to pursue alternate courses of damage control in the form of “debunkings” of David’s argument on their official website as well as extensive manipulation of Wikipedia content. I can only imagine business had suffered, otherwise it really is horrible PR to put such damning information on an official website. Some of the essays and comments posted by the “debunkers” are fascinating for the insight they provide into the lengths people will go to to protect their crumbling understanding of the universe. Interestingly, the articles on the official website are color coded to let you know what information you should believe and what information you should not. I wonder whose stroke of genius that was.

Without the powerful shackles of blind faith, my fidgety mind was free to graze on other questions as I wandered away from the Sai Baba problem. I had seen a real-life example of how mass hysteria can perpetrate itself and how people can be completely powerless to discard false but long-held beliefs. It seemed completely plausible for such a process to occur on a much larger scale, particularly if it weren’t crippled by such a flawed idol.
This radically altered perspective led to several spells of depression and considerable substance abuse along with the occasional moment of clarity. I found that rational thought was staggeringly powerful but simultaneously ridiculously depressing. Escapism comes in many flavors, and religion just happens to be one of the more addictive and mentally damaging ones.

The Baba himself is now a decrepit old man. My father has attempted to convince me there is no way the Baba is still molesting children. “Think about it”, he said, “Do you really think he can get it up anymore?”. Perhaps not, but there are other forms of abuse. And what of the hundreds that have already suffered that fate? Or the many that were swindled of their life’s earnings? What about those that were murdered? These aren’t easily rationalized moral conundrums. The universe cannot possibly be a moral place. Any actively involved guardian or intelligent “supreme being” must either be completely inept, or one sadistic sonovabitch to tolerate the horrors committed by the false idols in his name.

There is, however, pleasure to be taken at the state of disarray in which the conglomerate finds itself. Now that the deity is nearly dead, the hunt is on for a successor to replace him. Viewer ratings are almost certain to decline since crucial cast member changes can often be difficult to stomach for an audience. But the producers are hopeful and there are several subplots to the Baba saga that are likely to be compelling- Is the new Baba going to keep the Afro? Is he going to continue the tradition of wearing saffron gowns? And what of the powerful blood-relatives of the Baba? Can they logically be related to the new Baba? And if not, will they keep their position of prominence? And finally, what about the gigantic empire of self-interest that they have assembled over the years? How will it adapt? Will it splinter and die or will it evolve, and perpetrate an even greater hoax?
It seems silly now to even contemplate the existence of a god. The term itself is so distorted and is such an amalgam that it has no real meaning. “God” is merely what people choose to call their psychoses, which are occasionally manifested as an imaginary friend they need to talk to in order to remain sane.

BBC Documentary on Sai Baba

Recommended further reading (Updated)

Here is some more information that might be useful to those actually interested in ascertaining what the truth is. You should be warned-none of this information is pleasant and some of it is downright repugnant. Now I will admit that a number of these websites are small scale, DIY type operations, but that doesn’t make them nutjob conspiracy theorists either. They did what they could with the means at their disposal. The fact that the BBC concurs with them should go some way towards establishing legitimacy. Every one of these people has been vilified by the conglomerate at one stage or the other so make sure you’re at your most discerning when parsing through this information. Without the benefit of an editor, these people may certainly be guilty of a little bit of exaggeration. But how much?

Exhibit A-i: The Findings, by David and Faye bailey

Exhibit A-ii: Letters from the victims
(same content as exhibit A, except broken down into sections)

Exhibit B: A phone conversation with David Bailey

Exhibit C: Responses on the official website
(the fact its even on their official website is, in my opinion, a tacit admission of guilt)

Exhibit D: Information on Sai Baba Propaganda activists
(Lisa deWitt is featured prominently on CO2000’s website, as is, oddly enough, Michael Jackson):

Exhibit E: Additional literature

And that’s excluding all the circumstantial evidence I have been privy to over the years. To give you two examples ,I know someone who was abused at the Sathya Sai Baba school and he did his very best to keep his little brother out of the holy man’s sight for fear that he might demand that he be brought for an “interview”.

I also have an uncle that went to the school and ended up getting kicked out. He never talks about it, but despite his parents’ fanatical faith, he will never go to see Sai Baba (He’s plenty religious otherwise, and believes in all sorts of merry godmen and swamis).

Then of course, there was the execution of the former students who tried to murder him. It was common knowledge in India that it was a stinking cover up. Many of the believers in my family had their faith jarringly shaken but it was nothing a fresh round of brainwashing couldn’t fix.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

For Music and Beard Afficionados

Cat Stevens/Steven Georgiou/Yusuf Islam was on the Colbert Report last night and performed an amazing rendition of his new song Roadsinger. I listened to Cat when I was younger, and had great appreciation for his gravelly yet melodic vocals...he was like Mark Knopfler, but his range exceeded Mark's three notes. The next time I heard of him, I was told he was an Islamic extremist with an agenda of hatred. Now he's back, and seems surprisingly peaceful. Importantly he hasn't lost the old touch, or the beard.

As soon as I had heard his song, I wandered excitedly onto the internet to find a pirated version I could appropriate. I got what I deserved, however. The actual record was nowhere near as good as his performance. It seemed like a rush job, which is understandable given the rest of Yusuf's commitments. But if he had the time to practice for Steven's show, it seems like something he would have had ample opportunity to do while recording.

Listen to me castigate Yusuf Stevens for hasty recording when my own music sounds like its coming through a toilet bowl. The Hypocrisy! In my defence, I just have greater expectations from Cat Islam than I do from myself, which is perfectly in line with my general defeatist attitude. Anyway, if you haven't done so already, watch the video...its a beautifully naive little song.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Anti-Australian Manifesto (Introspection)


Expert Columns

Simulacra: Conquering History

Dr. Prakash is Lead Scientist at the Electromagnetic Exchange

I am thrilled to announce that we have succeeded in our attempt to preserve minds on magnetic tape.

Experimental subjects were selected from several casualties of recurrent revolutions and strife in the city of Sedition. Criteria for selection included the condition the subjects’ brains were in as well as drug use. Habitual smokers of manna leaves had hippocampi that were far more developed than is normal. These well developed hippocampi allowed us to obtain memory signatures even after the death of the individual. Memory signatures correspond to particular patterns of neuronal connectivity as well as the order in which these neurons fired. Patterns were obtained by probing subjects' brains for residual electricity.

Despite our best efforts, not all subjects were amenable to this analysis. Several subjects’ brains were obtained in damaged condition and the residual analysis could not be performed. Even the brains that lent themselves to this procedure could not be probed completely. While several memory signatures were obtained from healthy corpses, the number captured is only about 0.005% of the total number possible. In many cases, fragmentation poses another problem. Vital explanatory information is often absent and the lack of context makes interpretation difficult.

Within each subject we have a collection of memories but no map to navigate them. When the subjects were alive, they knew where they were going. We did not have that benefit. This made the implementation of a simple algorithm necessary.

On the basis of neuron morphology, impulse strength, and patterns of connectivity, we estimated the probability of one memory being related to another. This gave us a series of probabilities from which we constructed a matrix of weights upon which we then conducted a random walk analysis.

At this point, it is useful to think of the individual memories as islands in the ocean. Some of them are connected to each other by bridges while others are isolated. We don't know which islands are connected by bridges but we have a probability associated with the existence of such bridges. Now imagine a goat who starts on one island and begins walking, at random until he reaches another island. If he repeats this process millions of times, he will walk some bridges repeatedly while never frequenting others allowing us to estimate which bridges are likely to actually exist and which are not.

The interrelationships of the individual memories help us reconstruct a simulacrum of the individual's mental landscape although it should be emphasized that this process is not free from error. Simulacra are often inchoate but they provide us with snapshot accounts of history, in a manner that is free from intentional bias. The simulacra have significant overlap since the subjects were mostly contemporaries, and resultantly share a similar process of socialization. However, this overlap is not absolute. Differences in perception can cause two individuals' memory of the same events to be divergent from each other and recent research indicates that memories of events can be altered by changes in a person’s perspective in a feedback-loop mechanism. In summary, the Simulacra, though illuminating, cannot yet be taken literally and will require significant vigilance and effort to interpret. We are optimistic about what the future holds for our endeavor to elucidate the past.

Dr. Satyamurthy Prakash

The Anti-Australian Manifesto (Page 1)

Reclaiming the Oceans

Destiny or fool’s errand?

In the year 3099 AD, the oceans began to recede, yielding more land to claim. But this newly exposed land is mostly marshland with high salt content, and is unsuitable for sustenance. Nevertheless, the presence of an Absurdist government makes it likely that the people will spread into these lands, bypassing population density rules, therefore getting an opportunity to multiply.

Critics argue that this will only result in the overpopulation of those lands as well, unless the government amends the population density laws. However, this is unlikely to happen, especially since expansion was one of Mayor Ivan’s key campaign promises. The Scientists are spearheading an effort to reclaim these lands and desalinize the water. The people seem optimistic and the Mayor enjoys unprecedented popularity but he is only in the middle of his term.

The previous Atavist Mayor Whitehead was extremely popular at this juncture of his Mayorship too, mostly as a result of his sweeping population control measures that solved the Crisis of 3076. Then celebrated, he was soon reviled for his oppressive surveillance and punitive measures after the crisis had abated. In 3085, he lost his bid for reelection to the current incumbent Ivan and was decapitated in the revolution that followed. As many of you are aware, this was the year we lost a beloved friend and an excellent journalist here at the AA- Michael Nambuta. He died before he saw the fruits of the revolution he had dreamed of his entire life. Will Ivan meet a similar fate?

His latest efforts in collusion with the scientists, have drawn whispers of “building sandacastles”. If the ocean were to return, there would undoubtedly be catastrophe. The scientists insist that this will not happen for another millennium, but admit that their calculations could be off by an order of magnitude. Nonetheless, the people are excited about having the opportunity to finally reproduce.

The proportion of individuals of reproductive age in the current population is a staggering 75% and may explain Ivan’s meteoric rise to power on this platform of social change. The means of multiplication also remain unclear. Debate rages in the halls of power as to whether this should occur clonally, as is customary, or whether sexual reproduction should be revisited despite its obvious dangers, evolutionary compromises and crippling disadvantages. The question on everyone’s lips - is variation necessary?

Said an older gentleman yesterday “The problem is that they think life is a gift.” A younger neighbor offered a rebuttal “It is all there is, isn’t there? I just want to bring more of it into this world. Is that such a crime? I’m never going to be rich, talented, or famous. I must leave something behind.”

It is still too early to guess which of them is right. They have both been vindicated at various junctures in recent history. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those that had the courage to multiply and we would likely have been dead if the foolishly optimistic breeders had not been restrained by the jaded elders.

In any event, one thing is clear - we must prepare ourselves for the vagaries of nature. I, for one, am buying land in the marshes while it is cheap but you can be certain I’m not giving up my cell apartment in the city.

Writing Sedition

Writing Sedition (January 2009)
2803 words

ERNST: …I’m beginning to lose faith in my ability to make decisions….. I feel like a programmed robot.
DR. PANG [spitting out his nicotine gum]: How long have you been feeling this way?
ERNST: I don’t know. I just think lately I haven’t had any control.…
ERNST: I feel like I haven’t been involved…you know… like I’ve been missing everything that’s supposed to happen.
DR. PANG: Maybe it’s the pot.
ERNST: No, I feel like the pot helped me wake up to the realities of my life…to my …[laughs]..utter mediocrity.
ERNST [with his eyes closed]: When I was younger, people said I had potential…. Nobody says that anymore.
DR. PANG [rubs his temples]: So you’re worried about how people perceive you?
ERNST: Its not about that.
DR. PANG: What is it about?
ERNST: Sadness…
DR. PANG: Depression?
ERNST: No…..despair. There isn’t much to feel good about.
DR. PANG: Really….
ERNST: The sadness feels true…
DR. PANG [pauses to light a cigarette]: what if it wasn’t, would you still want it?
ERNST: I don’t know…. Maybe
The local Australians proudly covered the child blessed with two heads, and (necessarily therefore), the burden of two consciences. Miraculously, the Scientists had been able to socialize each head independently of the other. They obtained the finest sound isolating material, constructed a wall from it, and every few months, they expanded the central cavity, a hole through the middle, to match the size of the growing boy’s head. After he had put one of his heads (always the same head) in through the hole, the remaining space around his neck was vacuum sealed for the duration of his lessons. In this uncomfortable manner, the child was given the benefit of simultaneous Absurdist and Atavist upbringings.

Eventually, the child with two heads came to be seen as a symbol of unity within the political establishment. He was sought after at political meetings where both Absurdists and Atavists sought to label themselves “centrists”, making sure he was situated behind them as they made their speeches, so the cameras would capture them with him. The two-headed boy was the sole novelty the town possessed and the source of all of its visitors. The hitherto non-existent tourist industry flourished despite the fact that Sedition was a barren wasteland that had historically never attracted visitors. This too was significant. Historians concur that perhaps the Seditioners should never have drawn attention to themselves.

When making appearances in public, each of the two-headed boy’s heads wore a scarf that was the appropriate party color: either pink or magenta. The heads smiled and grimaced when appropriate and often appeared to be animatedly debating each other.
At 27, he was appointed mayor of Sedition. He was groomed for this role for many years and won a landslide victory over his rival Mr. Whitehead IV, the teetering veteran of Onewaydamage Subconflict XVIII.

HELEN: Did you write this?
[ERNST nods.]
HELEN: Does it have a happy ending?
ERNST: Its not finished yet.
HELEN: Are you high?
ERNST [smiles]: A little, maybe. Its hard to tell these days.
HELEN: And what does that mean?
ERNST: I’m lonely here. The weed helps.
HELEN: We didn’t have to move.

The World was a small place. There were too many people and far too little space. This problem was particularly severe in Sedition. The residents of the town lived in cell apartments in high rise shantytowns. Many never saw the daylight. Particularly incongruous then, was the coexistence of the Hopes, a small tribe of idealists who kept their population small and their existence an open secret. They had adopted the seemingly unworkable principles of a defactobenigndictatorship, with each leader nominating his successor. Surprisingly, they flourished within their reservations where they were free to do as they pleased. They worked fiercely all day, gathering and planting their crops, tending to their livestock, and celebrated by moonlight with fireside orgies. Their existence was not without controversy since the surrounding townsfolk were bitterly envious of the lavish spaces this small group occupied. It was the two
headed mayor’s responsibility to ensure the peaceful coexistence of the Hopes with the rest of the inhabitants.

But the local populace was particularly afraid of offending the Hopes since the traditional texts wrote, in great detail, of their underground arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. The source of these weapons is disputed but legend has it that they were procured from Naziland after their defeat in Internecine Conflict II during the course of which Charlie Chaplin terrorized the industrialized world.

Many years before the advent of the two headed mayor and the Hopes, the town was a corrupt pit. The green collar workers were paid little and lived in abject poverty. They complained bitterly about the lack of social welfare programs. But they didn’t pay their taxes so it didn’t matter. They hadn’t paid them since the Atavist government squandered the taxpayers’ money and implemented so called “five-year-plans” that demanded the continued bondage of the greens’ children.

Then, the People had sought to unseat the cruel mayor Sir. Whitehead II, but had been suppressed by the might of the military they had helped construct. Still, they refused to pay their taxes and that was sufficient to eventually throw the government into unrest. It was into this atmosphere of unruly chaos that Ivan laid foot.
In his former career as a clown, he had been unusually bitter, and had taunted children to tears, while reportedly laughing horrifically in their faces as he did so. For his transgressions against future generations, he had been banished from the neighboring pirate town of Key West by the usually amiable mayor, Mr. Wysee.

As a leader, however, Ivan was unparalleled. In subsequent years, he would lament the irreplaceable “years of service” he had lost while “pursuing the lucre of the stage”. Unlike the Key Westerners, the Seditioners loved him. He was a star from the moment he stepped up to a megaphone and inquired “Hello, is this working?” The women swooned and the men were overcome by an as yet “difficult-to-categorize” admiration. Shy and retiring in private, Ivan was everyone’s idea of the perfect man.

Till date, scholars argue that his sex-appeal had as much to do with his ultimate ascendancy, as his keenly analytical mind and ability to debate both sides of every issue, a skill that later came to be known as flip-flopping.

Opponents of this theory point to his continued popularity despite the rapid alienation of lustful female fans after he announced near the end of his inaugural speech that he “had no interest in women” and that “the female body is fundamentally unattractive.”

WITHERS [publisher, over the phone]: “Hows it coming?”
ERNST: “Its hard to tell, its just fragments at this point.”
WITHERS: “Well, are they beginning to come together?”
ERNST: “Maybe. I really can’t force them together. It has to happen organically.”
WITHERS: “I see. Well, people are getting annoyed by how long this is taking”
ERNST: “I know.”
WITHERS: “Do you need help?
ERNST: “Hemingway says if you didn’t have an unhappy childhood then you’re fucked. As a writer.”
WITHERS: “Well you’re unhappy as an adult. Does that cut it?”
ERNST: “No…”
Cinderella Sighs set the country ablaze for many reasons but especially because it was the work of a man who had been forced to leave Sedition.
In the years that immediately preceded the release of the Record, Ivan ruled with the aid of his Deputy Mayor and rumored bedmate, the bearded giant. Together, they had presided over a violent uprising in which they lost many of the lives they were hoping to save. Nevertheless, the Atavist Whiteheads had been deposed after decades of autocratic rule. The folksinger, however, had been a household name long before the advent of Ivan.
At one stage, he was so popular that the Absurdists began to pressure him to take on a “position of leadership”. In a brief statement to the press, he said cryptically “the cabaret queen is just a man” and left troublesome political considerations behind him forever.

This was when Ivan took the political stage of Sedition by storm, quickly coming to embody the hopes of the Absurdist party. Had he arrived earlier, he may well have been offered the”position of leadership” ahead of the folksinger. Nevertheless, the unfortunate machinations of chronology had caused this to remain a sore spot. Ivan had continued to see the folksinger as an arch-nemesis. After the success of the revolution, the first document he signed as mayor concerned itself with the “necessary and permanent” exile of the folksinger. When asked how he felt about this turn of events, the folksinger replied “Hope is like a shiny black hole. Resurface now…explode.”

The popularity of this new Record was thus particularly vexing to Ivan and his administration. They ordered “perpetual monitoring” of wave stations, gave the local newspapers, the Australians, a list of “subversive material” that was not to be included, and ordered the recommencement of Project Artichoke, a covert operation that had lain dormant since the days of Sir Whitehead I.
They left the venerable Mr. Schrub in charge of this program. He brought with him his poor cretin son, whose greatest aspiration was to one day be normal, like his father.

ERNST [Tossing a vinyl aside]: What is this, a sixties revival?
GUPPY [drug dealer/entrepreneur, dressed in sixties attire]: Would it be so bad if it was?
ERNST: I can’t imagine it would have been much fun for me.
GUPPY: You could have had the opportunity to be inspired….
ERNST [smiles]: Or killed.
GUPPY: I thought you liked Dylan.
ERNST: I do. Just his earlier stuff though.
GUPPY: Don’t tell me. You were betrayed when he went electric.
ERNST: Well no. I heard his electric material before the earlier acoustic stuff….obviously I didn’t grow up in the sixties….its not so much the sound of it. [pauses to inhale smoke]… his lyrics became utter nonsense…. like he’d stopped trying.
GUPPY: So you were looking for some sort of message then?
ERNST: Well no, but without one [pauses to exhale smoke]…. he was a shitty guitar player, even worse at the harmonica and a terrible singer. What was left?
GUPPY: What kind of message were you expecting anyway?
ERNST [coughs]: I don’t know. Dylan seemed so…so righteous, then he just self-destructed.
GUPPY [shakes his head]: He embraced his art, man.
ERNST: But it was meaningless, man.
GUPPY [laughing]: Some nihilist you are.
ERNST: Heh, maybe I need the illusion of meaning.
GUPPY [laughs]: you’re an idiot, man.
GUPPY: whenever you’re ready, there’s some Quixotic greens for you to choose from.
ERNST: Quixotic?
GUPPY [lies down on a sofa]: Yeah, we’re hoping the brand will stick. Fucking imitators man.
GUPPY [from the sofa]: That’s my central problem ….I’m not slumming like some of these other motherfuckers. How do you market something that’s forbidden because of puritanical cocksuckers?
ERNST: There’s a rhyme…. This isn’t the depressive kind is it?
GUPPY [smiles]: Fuck, how am I supposed to know? You’re the only one that ever complains.
ERNST: How’s business?
GUPPY : Ah its alright. We’re opening a new call-center soon.
GUPPY: Hopefully, this one’s going to be slightly bigger scale…. we need catchy names for the toll-free number so let me know if you can think of something.
ERNST: that’s exactly what I want to do with my free time.
GUPPY: You’re a writer man. Free time is all you have.
The bearded giant was caught cheating by the paparazzi. Plastered all over the Jolly Australian, the Glitzy Australian and in particular the Sleazy Australian, were pictures of him with a nubile young lady called Nyna. Ivan appeared contemplative in public, often talking softly to himself, repeating the aphoristic expression “Don’t show them everything, just the funny bits”. Since this was a Keys expression, nobody had the slightest idea what it meant, but sympathized with him anyway.

His confidantes told the liberal magazine, the Distracted Australian, that it was particularly shameful to the mayor that his competitor was the aunt of the former Mayor, Sir. Whitehead II, from whom Ivan and the giant had seized control (and who was now sweetly senile). It was, to Ivan, the bitterest and most comprehensive rejection imaginable. Betrayal proved difficult to bear. One night he donned a clown suit he hadn’t touched in years and spent hours practicing kind and gentle expressions in front of his mirror. His memoirs would later reveal that it was a terribly messy affair, since he could hardly stop himself from crying and nonrun makeup had not, as yet, been reinvented.

Shortly thereafter, he left Sedition in the guise of a clown. It was rumored that every child he passed on the way burst into tears. It didn’t matter. None of the adults were able to appreciate the significance of this curious trail of body fluid until it turned, by nightfall, into a river. By means of a hand-scrawled note, Ivan entrusted the town to the bearlike hands o f his successor and “darling friend”, the bearded giant. Honorable to the very end, he had even provided a source of irrigation for the townsfolk. This was no small feat in the barren land of Sedition. In those days, it was rumored that Ivan had superhuman abilities but the Scientists recently quashed these notions, calling them “paranormal nonsense.”

“He was merely a capable man-manager who made good use of his resources” they said.
Whatever the truth about Ivan’s superhuman abilities, he was also touchingly human. Somewhat less charitably, underneath the passage that dealt with the transference of his estate, he had scrawled, in thick bloody letters, “I hate your stupid slut”.

The giant proclaimed at a rushed press conference, “I was tired of living in his closet”.
Asked to comment on her newly acquired celebrity, Nyna replied that she liked cows because they were unthreatening and moved so slowly. They weren’t capable of surprising anyone, and she said she found comfort in that thought. She also said she was terrified of snakes, particularly the talking variety.

This last comment was controversial, since each household in Sedition possessed at least one such pet snake that routinely imitated common greetings or the sound of babies crying. Some owners spent a lot of time grooming and training their talking companions and these snakes were inevitably more intelligent, with expansive vocabularies. Others, however, suffered neglect and could only be heard repeating profanities. Some didn’t talk at all, except when they were completely alone.

When you bought a snake, it was difficult to anticipate whether it was going to be a good investment. Everyone wanted a snake as talented as Gilda, the hermaphrodite cobra who appeared frequently on television. He had, however, bitten and killed five of his keepers thus far.
After the most recent incident, there was talk of defanging Gilda, but the townsfolk had risen in protest. Gilda’s vocal cords would almost certainly have to be sacrificed in the process, and then what good would she be? It was common knowledge that it was better to own an intelligent, unpredictable snake rather than a stupid harmless one. The residents of Sedition did not cling to life. They were bored and merely wished to experience something out of the ordinary.

ERNST [talking to a fellow writer]: What is art?
LYA: Expression
ERNST: Well then, what is good art?
LYA: Transcendent expression
ERNST [guffaws]: What does that even mean? What should we be attempting to transcend?
LYA: The mundane, I guess. The ordinary.
ERNST: How is a reader to relate to what isn’t ordinary?
LYA: I always figured if the prose was good enough, there’d be people who want to read it. And it happened…to me, I mean.
ERNST: Do you ever worry about being truthful?
LYA [sipping gin]: Not especially. People are looking for embellishment anyway.
ERNST[laughing]: How much hubris does it take to make a generalization like that?
LYA: [laughs] Whats the alternative? Write about shallow, pithy truths and in poverty and be “highly respected by critics” when you’re dead?
ERNST: So you’re catering to an audience then? If expectations guide your choices, then is it really pure?
ERNST: I mean, its not really unfettered then, is it? Its not really expression if you’re parroting what other people want you to say. And if art is expression….then….
LYA: there are degrees. You don’t get it, do you? Its still expression.
ERNST: It just isn’t voluntary?
LYA: it is if you enjoy it……You know you should have become a reporter.
LYA [mumbles]: Your blinkered vision would be perfectly suited for that sort of thing.
ERNST: That’s unnecessary.
LYA: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.
ERNST: You did…. It’s ok though.
LYA: Have you started writing again?
ERNST: In fits and starts.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Doomsday talk

I met a neighbor downstairs a few days ago. I was smoking my first cigarette of the day and he was hanging out downstairs, waiting for his wife. After the usual pleasantries, I asked him if he'd heard about the impending outbreak of swine flu. He said he had, and that he had considered going to a doctor to get the flu vaccine and a dose of antivirals but was very concerned that he would increase the odds of contracting an infection by doing so. He had a solid point - hospitals can certainly make the healthy sick.

He went on to ask me if I was convinced. Puzzled, I asked him "Convinced about what?".

"About God" he said. " I know you said you don;t believe in a higher being"

"I don't" I replied, "And I dont understand what swine and viruses have to do with that"

"Its proof man" he said gravely, "Look at the world. First global warming, then the economic collapse, now a pandemic. Someone's very pissed off with us."

That got me thinking. Not exactly along the lines he would have hoped. I don't understand why anyone would be so anxious to believe in this vengeful deity. If there is a god and he's pissed off enough to want to destroy the world, then surely, your piddly prayers aren't going to change much. Plus, there's a certain degree of shameless subservience in begging for mercy that just doesn't appeal to me.

The neighbor continued "Its true man. All the religions predict the end of the world. Christianity does, and I think Islam does too."

"And the Mayans," I offered helpfully. "According to their calendar, the world is going to end in 2012"

"Right. Thats what I'm saying. There has to be a higher power.Something bigger than us" he continued earnestly.

"I'm not denying that." I said "Forces of nature are certainly bigger than us. Gravity - there's a higher power if ever there was one"

"Thats not what I mean," he said, vexed.

There's an easy explanation for the Mayan myth. Their calendar ends in 2012. There is still considerable debate among scholars over whether that date represents the end of the world, or the beginning of a new age of enlightenment. Naturally, the end of the world is more appealing than enlightenment so this theory has more supporters. The christian end of the world revolves around the rapture, an absurd fairytale added to the bible as an afterthought, a fact I pointed out to the neighbor.

"It came from a vision." He said "Jesus appeared in front of John...or Paul...or"

"Ringo?" I offered.

"You won't be laughing when it happens," he said gravely.

No, I guess I won't. But I'm not laughing now either. It doesn't take a genius to foresee strife, cruelty, chaos and contagion on an overpopulated planet. Any idiot can foresee that, including yours truly. Whats more, I "prophesize" that scientific estimates associated with climate change are probably off by at least an order of magnitude. The finely poised equilibria that are responsible for life on our planet, many of which we are still unaware of, can topple, causing chain reactions that can precipitate radical changes much sooner than we think.

The "end of the world" as we know it is probably closer than we think. But it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, so many of us seem so eager for that to happen, it makes me wonder how many of us even want to be here in the here and now.

Conversely, if life is such a burden, why do we cling to it so. Why not have government sanctioned euthanasia for the willing? Thats a trick question, of course - the answer is simple. Tax revenue would decline substantially if everyone had the option of escaping their crummy lives.

I could share this train of thought with my hapless neighbor, but I choose not to. There must be a reason he has chosen to believe in a fairytale instead. It isn't my job to convince him that vengeful superheroes don't exist.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Coffee and cigarettes

I live in midtown Manhattan, in a tiny hole of an apartment with just two windows and very little ventilation. I'm also a smoker and while I have traditionally smoked inside my previous dwellings, it didn't take much for me to see the merit in my roommate's argument against doing so.

In any event, this forces me to go downstairs to smoke my cigarettes. Our building has no vestibule. Once you step out, you're bang in the middle of the street, in the middle of the constantly moving human stream. Its a great spot for celebrity sightings but it can be disorienting. A middle aged man attempted to pick me up the other night, hastily backing away when he realized I was skulking in the doorway of the building because I lived there, not because I was looking for customers.

Next door is a homeless shelter for mentally ill women, which is visited by the police and the paramedics about twelve times a day. Its fairly common to see these women strolling around, with a cup of coffee in hand, having intense conversations with themselves. Occasionally, as an afterthought, they interrupt their (not so inner) dialog to ask you for money, or cigarettes.

On the other side are a hotel and a bar where a different variety of mentally ill people congregate. The bar is an Irish one, like hundreds in New York City - only kilts make a regular appearance here, as do bagpipes. I guess the owner/manager is having an identity crisis of sorts. New York can do that to you.

My accent, for instance, is more ethnic than its been in the ten years I have lived in the United States and my music, even, has started to betray eastern leanings. My solos in particular have begun to deviate from their carefully cultivated "alternative" rock stylings.

It makes sense, I suppose. I have felt for some time now that I've been regressing. Given how little progress I've made over the past ten years, its hardly the worst thing that could happen. Maybe a little backtracking is in order.

I'm going to make myself a cup of coffee and head on downstairs to smoke a cigarette. Welcome to Sedition.