playing chess with Schadenfreudians

playing chess with Schadenfreudians

San Francisco, California
October 30, 2012
227 days until the Arctic Circle journey

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

There’s an expression about futility that says “one shouldn’t play chess with pigeons”. The idea is that it’s an exercise in folly to attempt a refined, strategic interaction with an opponent who will simply scatter the pieces and shit on the board. But what about when you’re not attempting chess, but just reading the news, or looking for a used couch on Craigslist, or watching cute animal videos on Youtube?

Lately, the internet makes me feel like I am playing Halo with a bunch of 12-year-olds (which I’ve been actually doing lately). Only the random 12-year-olds I end up playing video games with are in general, kinder, gentler folk than those who seem to be posting relentlessly, fervently, and with greater and greater overt nastiness, disguised as “comments” on the internetz. And not just on sites where it might be expected.

Take the following examples of “commentary” from a very popular tabloid in the United Kingdom, on an article about recent devastation from hurricane Sandy.

“Of course nobody will correlate this storm with the recent antichristian blaspheming ‘art shows’ held in New York City.”
Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz, Tijuana, 30/10/2012

and

“GOD decides it’s time for a wake up call to New Yorkers….”
Beachboy, Penang, 29/10/2012 21:27

Now consider another “response” posted by Richard Dawkins, considered by many to be a champion of rationality, and whose website, Foundation for Reason and Science, says its mission is to “support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering”:

“Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

Sadly, Dawkins’ response is as intolerant as the commentary he would deem superstitious in the first two quotes. Mudslinging is not new, but it does feel as if participating in it has lost its context of shame. “Stooping low,” seems to have become status quo. When I was growing up, there was a common idea(l) that showing tolerance was a measure of good character, and that there was more shame in being egged on to retaliation than in a reflexive act of self-defense, as exercising self-control and tact takes both a certain level of discipline, and encourages the growth of empathy.

Of course, being a “cycle-minded” person, I always hold in suspicion the idea that any human behavior is “new.” But also being “cycle-minded,” I wonder if people do really seem to be delighting in one another’s pain more than they did, say 50 years ago, and if it has become more culturally acceptable, even amusing, to spew vitriol at strangers?

I want to believe, that like all behavior, there is some influence from nature, and some influence from nurture. I don’t think that there is less native empathy in the world, but I do think that there is less reinforcement out there to learn and model it. Why has this changed? I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I can point to some contributing factors:

-A growing loss of the idea of boundaries, and shared space: for example, I regularly enter the women’s bathroom at the university where I work, and hear a person talking on the phone while taking a dump in the stall next to me. Judging by the conversation (to which I am forced to listen), it is not an emergency being discussed.

-When I was in sixth grade, the bullies had a territory– school. Sometimes, they would lay in wait after school, which was a whole other barrel of joy, but at least when I went home, they weren’t waiting for me on my facebook page, or texting me, or taking videos of me without my knowledge and sending them around school.

-Work used to be where you worked. Home was where you homed. Now the bus is work and vacation is work and home is also work.

-Answering the phone was not an obligation. You could even take it off the hook. Turning the phone off was, until the last decade or so, not an exercise in self-control.

These are all issues of boundaries. Personal boundaries, and social boundaries. Not all boundaries are bad: take levies for example, or the earth’s atmosphere, or skin. Without them, there would a not-so-fun result.

We seem to be living the consequences of too much loss of social boundaries. But why is it that the nastiness emerges, the unthinkingness? Partly because it’s easy to be mean. It takes very little effort to destroy. Lashing out is rudimentary.

Another reason? I think because in our online interactions, we are are less “real” to one another. I once had a person cut me off in their car and then flip me the bird, just to let me know that not only did they not care they almost caused an accident, but they reveled in it. It turned out that this same driver was on their way to the grocery store where I was headed. Having forgotten me completely, they didn’t notice that I parked nearby and was not far behind them in the store. Later, standing in line at the checkout, this same person (still not recognizing me), saw that I had only a few items to buy, while they had a cart full, so she offered to let me go ahead of her in line. Not all people who give in to their lowest urges are like that all the time: it’s behavior of opportunity and context. When you are out driving, a person in another car is not really another person– they are another car. Another person on the internet, behind a blog, or on a message board, is not really a person– they are a blogger, or “some jerk.” They are not a person, but an idea we “interact” with. At least, this is the way we are teaching ourselves to think.

In a strange sense, the loss of boundaries that wireless, bodiless communication creates, also tends to blur what makes us real to one another: facial expressions, context, tone, body language– the deeper emotions that arise from physical cues that drive our behavior, like affection, protectiveness, patience, courtesy, and sympathy.

I’m hoping that we’re in an awkward stage in adapting to our breathtaking new inventions. I’m hoping that eventually, an equilibrium will be reached, where we keep the perks and break the bad habits. The only problem I see is that someone needs to model this behavior. Who is going to raise the new people with the idea that stooping to someone else’s inconsiderate level is, in fact, stooping? Who is going to teach all these brand new people that the game of becoming a better human is worth playing well and fairly, rather than scattering the pieces with our gorgeous wings and unthinkingly shitting on each other?

HMS Bounty lost at sea

HMS Bounty lost at sea

San Francisco, California
October 29, 2012
228 days until Arctic Circle journey
HMS BountyI would like to devote today’s post to HMS Bounty, lost at sea today off the North Carolina coastline when it encountered hurricane Sandy en route from Connecticut to Florida. As of the time of this post, 14 of sixteen crew members have been rescued by the coast guard, and two are still missing.

UPDATE: Another survivor was found, unresponsive. Bounty’s Captain is still missing. Please send your hopes/prayers/thoughts for his safe rescue.

HMS Bounty was built in 1960 at at Smith and Ruhland Shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, as a replica of the original HMS Armed Vessel Bounty (originally the coal ship Bethia, built in 1787) commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh. Fletcher Christian, Bligh’s sailing master, led a mutiny on board, taking control of the ship on April 28, 1789. Bligh and those loyal to him were cast off in the ship’s boat and after 47 days and more than 3,500 nautical miles, made it to the Dutch port, Coupang. The mutineers, in fear of being apprehended by the Royal Navy, dropped several men in Tahiti, and then, (according to a crewman’s diary) sailed without warning with several Tahitian women and men still on board, to Pitcairn Island, where they burned Bounty to erase any trace of her. launch after refitting

The replica ship, HMS Bounty, was originally built for the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris. It was built from the original Royal Navy plans, but sized up 30% to hold camera equipment and the movie crew, in addition to the regular crew. After filming, and a tour with MGM, Bounty became a tourist attraction in St. Petersburg, Florida until 1986. She was then purchased by Ted Turner and used to film Treasure Island, starring Charleton Heston, donated, and finally purchased in 2001 by HMS Bounty Organization, and was refitted and refurbished for a voyage around the world. Since then she has been used to teach square rigged sailing and seamanship.

It is difficult to describe what the loss of this vessel means. She was a physical, real, connection to our not-so-distant history, and to understanding innovations and knowledge of craftsmanship that are still very much at the heart of everything we engineer. We build vehicles to take us places, to explore, to look at a horizon and then to find out what’s beyond it. A ship is literally a traveling reflection of our attitude toward the environment and ourselves. If we build ourselves as individuals and as a community with foresight and attention, as works of art that are also shelter and home, we can last a long time, contained by something we are proud of. The forces that power us- wind and time- will also eventually sink us, but while we are alive and sailing, it should be in our best form.

when all directions are South

when all directions are South

San Francisco, California
October 26th, 2012
231 days until the Arctic Circle journey

It occurred to me that most of my life has been lived on a grid. A grid has four cardinal directions: North, South, East, and West. And each of the directions has a character, informed by associations and affiliations.

If you hail from North America, in general, the word “North” reflects somewhat blue and tastes like snow. It is the place from which the monster storms descend. Even though we live on a sphere, North is undeniably, uphill.

If you scrape away that layer, North will give off a bloody, metallic scent with an edge of gunpowder wrapped up in a carpet bag. This is the civil war layer and it is still fresh. North has hard edges, and is, as far as humans go, moving at speed and doesn’t have time for you to catch up. North is a merry-go-round being pushed by the big kids.

Beneath and uphill of that North is a very still, very deep wilderness. People North gives way to Creature North, and creature is not necessarily animal. This North is where big mystery has a big house with a big door. Big enough for redwood trees to be potted plants. In the North, the unnameable still covers more ground than the named.

South, at first glance, is warm and welcoming. But it is ruled by water: either too much or too little. The deserts are so quiet that the wings of ravens passing overhead sound like laundry drying in the wind. And the wind is an ear that places itself against the ground and listens to everywhere. The South, and it is always referred to in that way: the South, is balmy and temperate at its shores, but is mostly vast, dry ocean bottoms veined with lava floes inhabited by kangaroo mice, and horned toads, and scorpions, and small, nimble owls. In this South, when it rains there is a glorious, momentary springtime of two-inch-high flowers, and plants that bloom once a decade. Tortoises climb the gullies with their transparent neck-skin stretched taut, letting the raindrops fall into their eyes.

There is also the South of hollows, of dry flies and potato bugs. This south has a green sky and stinks of wet horses and ozone. It is full of chiggers, and tastes like orange soda. This South is full of old, old rivers, with old, old catfish singing in the mud. No amount of weather sealing will keep the crickets out of your garage here. In this South, dirt devils wander the back roads, and gypsy moths shroud the willows, and when it rains the sky and the water swell into one another, forgetting that things that need to breathe air live between.

Beneath that layer of South is a throat full of story. Every creature there knows the story and sings the story at the top of its lungs: during the day the bumblebees fly the story from rose to weed, and the parking lots are jammed full of orderly stories, and the traffic lights keep the flow of stories moving. But in the evening, the story glides back out into the dusk. Then the cicadas pass it from tree to tree like a cigarette, and the fish take deep gulps of it from the surface of the rivers.

There is still the East, and the West. The Occident and the Orient. The traditional and the edgy.  The uptight and the flaky. The barbarous and the enlightened. Rivals (seemingly) in attitude and approach. These are the stereotypes of East and West. (The implication being East versus West.) Maybe this is because of that invaderly tide over the past 200 years, against the counterclockwise spin of the earth, to push West, to push to the new and far edge. Westward movement is deliberately hopeful, while Eastward movement is to return. West tastes like dust and is piercingly bright. East is the smell of thunderstorms and asphalt.

None of these descriptions will ever be enough. My directions are not everybody’s directions. My directions are my directions, but these sensory maps do have overlap.

When I take my journey to the Arctic Circle, there will only be one direction: South. And all that I have described will be contained within the place that I am not. I don’t think I ever understood the idea of exploration the way I understand it now: it’s not so much about going where you haven’t been, but about seeing where you were.

lj moore performing “wrecked” at quiet lightning litquake show

lj moore performing “wrecked” at quiet lightning litquake show

San Francisco, California
October 19, 2012
236 days until Arctic Circle journey

photo by Sean Gabriel McClellandOn October 8, 2012 I was given the honor of performing “wrecked,” a piece from digital gothic, my book in progress, at the Quiet Lightning Litquake show inside the conservatory of flowers alongside an amazing group of readers. Please check out the video, and if you’d like to read along, here is the text.

If you don’t know about Quiet Lightning, now is my chance to tell you about a literary rennaissance that is taking place in San Francisco. Quiet Lightning is a monthly reading series with an uncommon format: submission is free, entries are always judged blind (meaning new writers and estabished writers all have equal opportunity to be accepted, because the judging is based on the merit of the work and not the name on it), and here’s the amazing part: all of the accepted work for each month’s show is published in a book, Sparkle & Blink, featuring cover art by a local artist. These books are available at the corresponding show, so the writers get published, and the audience can read along and take home a copy of the amazingness they have just experienced.

If that weren’t enough, the format of the reading is also unique: each reader gets 5 minutes. No banter and no introductions are allowed. It is a literary “mix tape” where the focus is not on the writers, but on the writing itself. Judging by the growing popularity and dedicated base of returning fans of this reading series, this format works.

Quiet Lightning is driven by volunteers, and brings new voices and new visions to the ears of new audiences. For new writers, getting your work seen and heard is nearly impossible (and expensive!). The norm in literary publishing today is contest and fee-based. Very few magazines can afford the staff to fairly evaluate submissions, so unless they are tied to a university, or are helmed by a trust-fund heir, many have resorted to only accepting submissions when they offer a contest, which usually costs $15 to $25 to enter. Most literary journals are also extremely specialized, so matching your work to their described aesthetic can feel like throwing spaghetti at the ceiling.

Getting your work heard can be equally intimidating and demoralizing: many reading series are based on a “featured” reader format with an open mic afterward. People come to see the headliner, and then either leave, or stay to chat while the open mic readers try to make themselves heard. It’s hard enough to get up there in front of everyone, but when it feels like no one gives a shit… well that’s just shitty.

Quiet Lightning’s answer to this has been a genius idea straight from the heart: offer a fair judging process, publish the writers, and give them a chance to be heard in person. And do this every month. The generosity of everyone involved is mind-blowing. And so is the work you are going to hear when you check it out for yourself.

And if you can’t come in person? Every show is recorded and shared FREE online. So if you live in Svalbard, or Oakland, or Detroit, or Amsterdam, or wherever you hail from, come hang out in San Francisco and hear what we’re writing about.

magical thinking in unmagical spaces

magical thinking in unmagical spaces

San Francisco, California
October 19, 2012
238 days until Arctic Circle journey


There is a patch of ground I cross on my way to work every morning about four blocks from work. It’s a triangular patch, with some scraggly pines and twisted, leaning eucalyptus trees, at the edge of Kezar Stadium. In an aesthetic sense it’s ugly: an irregular patch with a dirt path bounding one side, a crumbling dead-end road on the other, and a bike path completing the third arm of the triangle. A loud, dirty, and very heavily-traveled thoroughfare runs next to the bike path: this is where Lincoln Avenue snakes through the panhandle and becomes Oak Street.

This little stretch of brown is usually scattered with garbage. The fall of pine needles and eucalyptus leaves, along with the permanent shade beneath, stifles the growth of anything but foxglove, nasturtium, and a few weeds. It’s an urban transitory space. Like a semi-colon in a sentence, it’s a place you pass on the way to somewhere else, not a conclusion in and of itself.

But almost every day something out of the ordinary, sometimes even magical, happens to me in the five seconds it takes me to pass through this area. Two weeks ago, I was walking along the dirt path and noticed a movement out in the dead leaves. It was a thin, tall weed, and it was shivering, and then jerking back and forth. When I stopped walking, it stopped. When I started walking again, it started again. So I walked really, really, slow, not taking my eyes off it.  Over the course of about 45 seconds, the weed got shorter and shorter, and finally retracted into the ground and disappeared. I didn’t have time to get my phone out and film it, I just had to watch. And when it was over, I had this swelling sensation in my chest and jumped up and down and felt a totally unexpected flood of joy.

Yes, yes, I know… a pocket gopher was eating it from beneath the ground, or turning it into an origami chandelier. The magic is not in the fact that I didn’t know what was causing it. The magic is that I knew what was happening in front of me, and it was happening… in front of me! This is something I have difficulty explaining, but that I feel is so inherent to discussions of how we seem to treat things with less significance when we think we’ve got them figured out.

Let me give you another example: today as I walked through the patch, I saw a bunch of leaves flying inexplicably into the air, but only a few inches above the ground. Then I realized that a sparrow was perfectly camouflaged there, flipping dried eucalyptus leaves into the air, looking for seeds, or insects, or leprechauns, or governmental micro-drones. And also taking a dust bath. When I stopped to stare, the bird stopped to stare at me. When I started walking again, it started flinging leaves and scratching the dirt. When I stopped, it stopped.  So I walked really, really slow, and it flipped leaves really, really slow, and we did that until we couldn’t see each other any more.

When we figure out how things work, why is it that we think that cheapens them?  If I am a complex array of genetics, and biochemical signals, does that make me a “mere” complex array of genetics and biochemical signals? Why do we believe that naming something is taming it?

I do acknowledge that my definition of magic is not one you’d find in the wiktionary. But it’s a poet’s sense of magic: things are not creepy and wonderful and beautiful and arresting because I don’t understand them. They give me the heebie-jeebies and make me jump up and down because I do understand, because I see, and for a terribly short moment, I am part of them.

If I am sitting out on the roof, which I was last weekend, and two ravens fly over my head and catch an updraft and hang there, and then roll and put their feet together and lock claws and barrel roll down the wind together, and someone tells me, “oh that’s just this behavior or that behavior.” Why is the word “just” involved? Do people really believe, (or want to) that knowing what something is, or why it happens, means we own it?

Maybe it’s that a thing that becomes familiar gets taken for granted. But the most familiar thing in the world could be this ugly little patch of ground I pass through every day. And it isn’t me that makes it come alive… it was already alive. The trees make all kinds of noise when I’m not there to listen.

how to drive around with a tiger in your car

how to drive around with a tiger in your car

San Francisco
October 13, 2012
244 days until the Arctic Circle expedition

It was my intention from the start to write every day in the days before the journey to the Arctic Circle, and yet I should have known I would fail at that from the get-go. I’ve never been a good journal-keeper: I’ve tried numerous times, but I have this perverse rebellion against approaching things as chores. If I tell myself I have to do something, I instantly don’t want to do it. In the world of obligations, I simply override that rebellion with an act of will: I have to go to work, and sometimes I don’t want to go, but I go anyway. Sometimes I don’t want to go for a run, or to the gym, but I go anyway.

But creativity, for me, is only partly harnessed through discipline. Strike that, it is never harnessed… it’s not the kind of animal that can stand to live in a cage. Take a cat for example. A cat in a cage is simply a bad idea: while some animals might recognize a cage as a home, like we recognize a large wood and plaster box as an apartment, a cat sees a cage for what it is: an act of hubris toward it’s nature so unforgivable, you may as well have declared an outright war.

A cat is only ever pretending to be controlled. Really, what it is doing is tricking you into believing it does what you want it to. This is how it gets what it wants. This is creativity. You must love it, feed it, show up every day after work and even though you are exhausted and just want to drink a glass of wine and read a book or play Halo 4, you must pet the cat first, until it is done with you. The cat will crawl up and sit in the middle of your book. It will head butt your controller and make you screw up and die in your game just when you were about to get past a level you have been trying to get past for months. And when you give in and put everything down and finally give it the attention it demands,  it will still bite you, show you it’s ass, or hide under a bed and growl if you come anywhere near it. Sometimes it will run away and pretend to be someone else’s cat for awhile. This is creativity.

But don’t despair. I have an idea for you that has saved me in the past few years. It came from a Roger Miller song. It is a song about what you cannot do:

1. You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd.
2. You can’t go fishing in a baseball pool.
3. You can’t change film with a kid on your back
4. You can’t drive around with a tiger in your car.

It is because of listening to this song, I had a revelation about the nature of cats, (which are just slightly less deadly versions of tigers) and of my own relationship to the untameable nature of creativity.

I first started writing when I was too young to know that it would later become an identity, a calling, a vocation, a curse, a “thing” as opposed to an action like crying or running or breathing. When I was a kid, I wrote because I saw things in my head and I was able to capture them before they disappeared by writing them down. When I would lay on the floor and close my eyes and listen to music: the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, or Ride of the Valkyries, I saw birds chasing each other through underground tunnels, jellyfish sailing through the night sky like illuminated lanterns, whole stories of death and shapeshifting and rebirth and flight and pursuit. Yes, I was a trippy kid, but looking back at it, there were examples that led me.  The early Merry Melodies cartoons, which were often fantastical depictions of nature set to classical music. I remember one that was a bunch of workmen (dogs in hardhats with a bulldog as the boss), building a skyscraper, and all the action was dictated by the very industrial composition of the music.

The point of all this, is that the roots of creativity: it was never meant to be about controlling, taming, harnessing. It was not about dictating, it was about transcribing. It was about receiving and repeating. It was about closing your eyes and listening, and doing your damnedest to bring back to the open-eyed world, the things you saw in that other place.

How in the hell is this like driving around with a tiger in your car?

It’s like this: a tiger sitting in the passenger seat of your car, (or maybe stretched out in the back seat, because it’s my understanding that full-grown tigers are pretty big) would be, if it happened, a visitation upon you of the unexpected, the magical, the potentially dangerous, if not fatal. Being told that you cannot do it is an invitation to try, or to at least entertain the idea that yes, that could happen.

That, is creativity. It is an act of conscious rebellion, of daring, but most of all, of listening, and being receptive. You don’t make the tiger get in your car. That would be disappointing, and not magical at all. That’s like trying to make someone love you.

What you can do, is wait for it… wait for it… wait for it, and when you close your eyes and see the tiger waiting for you to get in and drive…. get in and drive.

announcing the release of Shadowed: Unheard Voices, found photographs and poetry

announcing the release of Shadowed: Unheard Voices, found photographs and poetry

After several years in the making, I am excited to announce the release of a beautiful book curated and edited by Joell Hallowell and Meg Withers. I was one of the 28 poets who contributed writing and found photographs to this collection, available in hard cover and as an ebook.

On a personal note, there is a story from my childhood that sometimes gets repeated in my family. I used to save up my allowance to buy candy or toys from yard sales in our neighborhood. One weekend I went to a yard sale down the block, and came back with a photo album. The entire album was filled with black and white photos from the 1940’s and early 1950’s, but it was clear in paging through the album that it was not focused on the people in the photographs, but the dog in the photographs: a boxer. There were no notes in the album, other than names and dates on the backs of the photos, which were affixed to the heavy black paper with cloth tape. In the beginning photos: a day at the beach, playing on the front lawn, posing with various children, asleep on the porch in the sun- the dog was young. By mid-way through the album, the dog, along with the children, had grown older, and finally, one of the last photos was of a gray-muzzled dog with milky eyes, with a young boxer puppy sitting next to her. I remember the look on my stepmother’s face when I brought that album home-: I didn’t understand then why it struck her that of all the things I could choose to buy, that is what I wanted. The book has been lost, physically, since– but it has become a template within me that I carry everywhere. I still feel compelled to collect the photographs of strangers. Especially those of people and animals who are most certainly dead now. This is not a morbid fascination in any way: it’s not about death at all. It’s about life.

The photos I contributed to this book were of strangers. I found these photos in various locations throughout San Francisco: second-hand stores, antique shops, even forgotten between the pages of used books.

A tribute to unknown women, “Shadowed: Unheard Voices” is an anthology of 146 prose poems and 50 compelling photographs. 28 women poets were invited to respond to an eclectic assortment of images from the late 1800s to the 1940s. Delving into the nature of memory and loss, the poets wondered, invented, and conjured the lives of unknown women—those who left no legacy, only a fading image from which to speculate. The resulting book is a collection of imaginative prose poems from contemporary writers under the influence of the mystery and magnetic force of photography.

List of contributors:

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