Friday, January 27, 2012

Learning To Fly

People who don't know how to travel crack me up.

The efficiency of the security situation at JFK's JetBlue Terminal 5 has been deteriorating in recent months as they struggle to reconcile the time-consuming Backscatter X-Ray with the crush of some of the world's largest traveling crowds. It's irritating, and I have a lot of serious doubts about the utility of the Backscatter, but I also know there's no point in yelling at the badly paid goons working for TSA that it takes too long and your flight will be leaving soon. There's an easy solution - arrive earlier. There's a slightly more complicated solution as well - be courteous and ask them to accommodate you. Being nice actually works.

The other thing that works, apart from making sure that you give yourself enough time is to develop a reasonable tolerance for fuckery. After moving through the disorganized line I made it to my gate on time, and we boarded the aircraft. Once everyone was lashed in the pilot stepped into the cabin and announced, "Sorry folks, we're delayed. It stinks, but there's nothing we can do about it. We're gonna be an hour or an hour and a half. What happened is there's a maintenance issue on this aircraft that won't let us fly when it's foggy and cold. Outside now it's foggy, and also, it's cold. Now normally we'd have just swapped out planes, except the planes we'd have swapped out are similarly delayed on their approach. So, we need everyone to please deplane and we'll get you back on as soon as we can, but most likely that's gonna be an hour or an hour and a half. Sorry again."

Well. When the traveler beside me heard this, you would think that someone had just walked over and baldly stated that his wife was a rude name who also performed sexual favors on livestock, because his face turned magenta, he started slamming things and muttering "fuck" very loudly. Moans from the folks behind me about how horrible, how awful, how this was damaging their day.


Come on, folks, it's the 21st Century, and we're in a fucking space ship that's taking you across a distance that would have taken days one hundred years ago in the space of 3 hours. It's inconvenient, but it's nobody's fault, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's just a delay. As Bob Dylan said, "you will not die, it's not poison."

I stepped off the plane and apologized to the crew for my fellow passengers, which they found extremely funny. As we left the plane a buffet of snacks and sodas was set up to accommodate the wait and my fellow Americans descended like locusts. Magenta face man grabbed 4 bags of chips to assuage his suffering.

I've been traveling professionally for at least 14 years and there's two secrets to it: 1) Don't waste energy fuming about what's outside your control, and 2) Don't be a dick to the people working there. If you're nice, and if you accept that shit happens you'll have a much better time of it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Of Octopuses and Nirvana

Australian radio program The Philosopher's Zone is one of my two favorite podcasts, and recently they ran a show called How Do Octopuses Think that provides a fascinating discussion of animal cognition and consciousness.

Guest Peter Godfrey-Smith on octopi:
It's probably the closest we'll get to meeting an intelligent alien. So as you said a few minutes ago, if we think about the animals that we normally interact with, that we think of as reasonably intelligent and perhaps having a kind of inner life, for animals like cats and dogs, chimps, dolphins also, these are all our cousins really, in evolutionary terms. So they're all - if we look at the common ancestor that we share with those animals, we're going back a fair way, and if we include birds we're going back quite a way to about 300 million years.

But if we then ask about our relatedness to the only intelligent invertebrates, the cephalopods, we're going back much, much further, perhaps 600 million years, really to the dawn of complex animal life. And since that time, our evolutionary paths have been quite independent. If you go back to that point and look in the sea at an animal that is both an ancestor of us and an ancestor of octopuses, it'll be a tiny little grub, swimming in the ocean with a very simple nervous system, nothing like the sort of complex behaviours of familiar intelligent animals.

So you have a sort of forking of the evolutionary path, you have a forking of the ways and down one path you get to us with one track of nervous system evolution, and down a wholly independent path you get this sort of outpost, or this island of intelligence among the invertebrates, which is the cephalopods.
The show goes on to discuss how the centrality of a nervous system influences cognition in animals, access versus phenomenal consciousness, and current thoughts on whether animals possess a feeling or self-awareness of being.

I'm a complete dilettante in discussions of science or spirituality, so any of my pet theories like the one I'm about to describe should be looked upon with the kindly condescension that you afford to the greeter offering you a shopping cart at WalMart.

Yet I've always been interested in the notion of reincarnation as an upwardly mobile activity where the consciousness or spirit is achieving higher and higher states of spiritual being or cognition. And it always seemed to me, in whatever I've seen or read about intelligent sea life, especially the cephalopods, that they represent the higher castes of spiritual being aspired to by the holy folks in those traditions.

If there was a fork in the road in the evolution of spiritual cognition as well as animal biology, I think a story can be spun that the common ancestors you and I share were driven towards a materially motivated consciousness. Whereas the thread that stayed in the oceans evolved their higher intelligence and cognition in a way that resembles the state of intelligent being that is not concerned with material needs. Are the oceans nirvana, or as close as we come in the physical world? Who knows, but I sure get a sense of spiritual awe whenever I see footage of those translucent floating brains living deep, deep under the ocean, or of angry squids attacking an overly inquisitive science documentary submarine for disturbing its reality.

Anyway, this podcast isn't about that, but it inspires thought on the philosophical nature of animal consciousness and how we fit into that spectrum that can open a door to this kind of spiritual speculation if you want it to. It also is fun science if you're not into any of this hippy mystic shit. Either way - good listening.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Profane Sacrament

The lights dim, and the scent of incense wafts into the hall as chanting starts to rise within the room. At the back of the stage is a triptych of banners all resembling the stained glass of a cathedral, but depicting pagan iconography. Five masked hooded figures step out from the wings and take their instruments upon the stage. As the chants reach a crescendo and die off towards silence a keyboard sounds a tune, its frequency reminiscent of a church organ. It lingers, playing a vaguely baroque arrangement, and then modernity sets in -- the other hooded men join the keyboardist with electric guitars, bass and drums. The tune approaches its spooky conclusion and a figure steps into the center of the stage. He's dressed in a bishop's vestments, but upon closer inspection, the crosses are inverted, and his face is adorned with corpse paint. He swings a thurible bellowing incense into the hall as the guitars commence a melodious 70's rock hymn. The singer raises his disconcertingly angelic voice to sound a paean to the majesty of Satan. This is metal at its most theatrical and transcendent. This is Ghost.

Last night they kicked off their "13 Dates of Doom" tour at the Bowery Ballroom in New York and I was fortunate to be among the initiates. Ghost is one of the brighter lights in current heavy music, delivering a pleasing melodic sound that stands at the crossroads of Thin Lizzy and Pentagram. They pair the 70s rock sound with a theatrical sensibility that descends in a straight line from Alice Cooper, through King Diamond, and out into the present day through A Nameless Ghoul. Oh yeah, A Nameless Ghoul is their lead singer, and the rest of the band, those hooded figures, they're all anonymous. According to the band's publicity bio:
Ghost is the name of a devil worshipping ministry that - in order to spread their unholy gospels and, furthermore, trick mankind into believing that the end is ultimately a good thing - have decided to use the ever so popular rock music medium as a way to achieve their ends. .... Standing motionless and anonymous beneath the painted faces, hoods and robes which their sect demand, the six nameless ghouls of Ghost deliver litanies of sexually pulsating heavy rock music and romantic lyrics, which glorify and glamorise the disgusting and sacrilegious, with the simple intention to communicate a message of pure evil via the most effective device they can find: Entertainment.
Foreknowledge of the catchy melodies behind the Satanic lyrics, or of the band's singular stage presence via their abundant YouTube footprint still doesn't adequately convey the full strength of the experience of being at a live Ghost performance. Through the extraordinary use of costumes, make-up, lighting design and props like the priestly incense and stained glass backdrop, the band taps into a sense memory of Catholicism and distorts it through the gleefully sacreligious prism of rock music and blasphemous lyrics. This is augmented by the skillful acting of A Nameless Ghoul, whose understated gestures resemble a pastor at mass leading his flock. Except this pastor will occasionally gesture with smug and self-satisfied grins at the sinful exclamations of his flock, and make subtle filthy sexual gestures with his hands while conducting the voices of his choir.

Ghost swept me into a rapture I haven't experienced at a concert since I was much younger and much less worldly. They stirred ancient and long buried remnants of my Catholic school upbringing, where first Friday mass was compulsory, and washed them in the pure fun of great rock n roll in a room with hundreds of others feeling the same joyful song. Several times I felt my face making a wide, surprised glee-filled smile, most especially at the show's conclusion where A Nameless Ghoul performed the kind of transubstantiation ritual that could bring hilarious closure to the journey taken by any recovering Catholic turned Athiest.

Don't take my word for it. Get their album, watch their videos, and if Ghost comes to your town, buy the ticket and receive the sacrament. You will be purified. You will be redeemed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

First Night

I was glad to see 2011 go, and watching it slip away at a subdued cartoonist party in Brooklyn where only one person was paying attention to the time and called out, "Uh, hey everybody, it's midnight" was exactly perfect. No anger, no disdain, no celebration -- it's gone and it's time to move on to the next thing.

Bill Kartalopoulos hosted a small group of us at Cartoon House, where he and Austin English and some other Brooklyn creative folks live. There's a neon sign reading "Cartoon" that faces out onto the train platform on Broadway in one of the last ungentrified stretches of Williamsburg. Comics are piled up everywhere. It's one of the only old-school bohemian feeling places left in this city.

Bill made my night by giving me one of the Yeast Hoist beer bottles by Ron Rege, Jr. Ron's a huge inspiration and this was one piece that had eluded me. Thanks for being generous with that Bill - it enjoys a place of honor on my writing desk.

Around 1:00 I took Jeff Newelt and Brian Heater across the street to Duff's, the great metal institution. It was a similarly subdued scene, albeit filled not with cartoonists, but with overweight dudes in faded Iron Maiden t-shirts with sad looks on their faces. Thank god I didn't wear my Final Frontier tour shirt - while I am part of the demographic represented at Duff's last night, I sure didn't want to be identified with them. Because I wasn't sad at all. While Brian and Jeff plotzed about the bar's astonishing horror & metal decor, I went to the bar and took in the majesty of the sound.

Speaking of Maiden, around 3 "Wildest Dreams" came up on the juke. Dickenson bellowed:

I'm Gonna Organize Some Changes In My Life
I'm Gonna Exorcise The Demons Of My Past
I'm Gonna Take The Car And Hit The Open Road
I'm Feeling Ready To Just Open Up And Go!

And I Just Feel I Can Be Anything...
That I Might ever wish To Be
And Find Myself Just Where I Wanna Be
Make My Wildest Dreams Come True!

That's about as good an anthem for a new year as one's likely to get.