Archive for December, 2006

Like Living On the Moon

December 30, 2006

Living here out beyond the edge of the North American continent has a surprising effect on your brain. If you’re new, and don’t really know anybody yet or have any regular routines, then this place and its geography can really freak you out. You start to see a little further, daydream, and think about connections that were vague and unclear before. It’s an east coast/west coast thing…injecting a little Pacific into this Atlantic cosmology. Face it, staring off across rocky shores out to the tops of Olympian peaks 24/7 starts to stretch your sense of space…Gives you the wider vision. The feeling of being out on the frontier is also palpable, especially for a big city boy like me.

It all came together a little today when I thought how trippy it would be to get this job. The CBC piece notes that geology would be a key skill. (Damn, I picked the wrong degree. Who knew studying rocks would get you a job living on one in outer space. Go figure.)

Anyway, I feel like I’m psychologically preparing for some long space mission these days…Or maybe it’s just the trip I take in my own head. That, and my penchant for finding places that induce mildly euphoric vertigo. They’re everywhere I go…

Because of it all I am suddenly thinking about what the difference is between this rock and the one that has been crisply waxing about 240,000 miles above James Bay this week.

The answer?

Plenty. This rock is green, ever changing, vibrant, soaked in light and water and wind, and full of life. The moon? Not so much. Just thinking in those kinds of basic terms these days. Keeps things in broad perspective. Pacific perspective.

So maybe living on the moon is not in the cards for me…That’s OK…Right now my inner space feels like outer space just plenty. It’s like living on the moon…

Gonzales Hill

December 29, 2006

The rocks beside the old art deco observatory on Gonzales Hill at the edge of Oak Bay has become one of my favorite spots to stop while cycling. It’s a grinding, heartbreaking, but mercifully short, climb to the top, there’s rarely anyone there (at least this time of year…) and it provides a spectacular view of the area…Quaint nearby coves, the beaches leading along Dallas road to Beacon Hill and James Bay, downtown Victoria, and, of course, the ever present majesty of the Olympic Mountains across the strait.

The observatory is now closed, but was used as a weather station for years. The hill just happens to be a high spot near the southernmost point of the Saanich Peninsula, and there are shifting east and west winds coming down both straits. It was, in fact, the site of a few University of Victoria meteorological experiments, and is a place with notoriously good air quality and flow.

Today I went up the hill as the late afternoon sun battled with a few low western clouds seeping into the Juan de Fuca. Every time I go up there the light and clouds paint a wonderfully unique tapestry.

Needless to say, it’s a good spot to just sit, meditate a little, and breathe.

James Brown is Dead

December 27, 2006

The most exhilarating experience of my concert-going life was a free open-air show in Montreal in mid-June (Grand Prix weekend for the initiated) in, like, I don’t know, the mid-90s. The stage was in front of the Place des Arts “stairs”, corner of Ste. Catherine, and at the height of it all, there were, easily, 65,000 people packed into a couple of blocks, never mind the energy in the city. It was freakin’ mind-blowing.

There I was, front row/center stage thanks to my funkadelically psychotic — yet oh-so-soulful — girlfriend, who knew what was at stake and insisted she camp in the baking hot sun for the bloody sound checks and jugglers (or whatever…) at 3:30 in the afternoon. I remember showing up around 5:30, mildly indulging her.

As the setting sun gave way to the cooling night the crowd grew…The first couple of acts were pretty random and by the time James Brown got on stage anticipation was electric. People were chanting “free James Brown” — mostly in reference to the fact that the concert was free…A few, however, were soaked in the iconic symbolism. That and the comedy of Eddie Murphy.

Then it started…Song after song imprinted in my mind (and body and soul) since I was little. Here was a legend, the Godfather of Soul, in the fucking flesh…The dancing, the sweat, the sharp horn lines, the whole package. He played about a dozen songs…Classics, blended together in a beautiful flow, the beat always going. Then the big finish, tired walk-off, cape, and return to the stage. More horns, more rhythm, more soul.

By that point I was dazed and delirious — the heat of the late afternoon, the herb, and the bustle of the crowd all combined to mesmerize me. People were starting to fade as the crush of dancing bodies moved forward and suddenly I was practically the only white guy around. I thought of the fights, brawls and near race-riots that used to be a feature at his concerts, but that was in places like Detroit, in the U.S. This was James Brown in Montreal, mecca of multiculturalism, and it was just a revelry of mad music, bodacious sweating dancers, backbreaking beats and, of course, funk.

I thought about everything that happened that night — and what James Brown meant to me — for a long, long time. It was life-altering — imprinted into my psychic pop-culture paradigm like few other things. So it is that this Christmas — already somewhat somber and isolating for me — took on a slightly darker cast when I heard the news that James Brown is dead.

And yet, through his music, and the impact he’s had on millions (if not billions) of people in his more than half-century as the consummate entertainer, he will remain ever vibrant. His is a legacy that will, if there is any meaningful purpose in this universe, continue to resonate across the modern musical landscape.

And James Brown will still be very much alive.

Orwellian War

December 21, 2006

“The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all the others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all the records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Ah, memory. What a wonderful thing. I wonder if we, the human race, will remember the end of December, 2006?

Probably not. The mid-term election went to the Democrats and there’s a cry to find a way to end the war, but how loud is it being heard in the corridors of power, let alone the boardrooms? War, after all, is good for business. Again there’s talk of increasing troop strength — Bush wants 30,000 more — and the Army is bulging, but sending out baseball hats and DVDs to anyone willing to hear their pitch. Who knows, there may eventually even be a draft.

The point is it doesn’t even matter what the people want, because these things — these enormous, bloated, wasteful, mad, and yet ever so necessary wars are a key component of the modern American economy. That’s what Eisenhower meant when on the way out of the Oval Office in the late 1950s he said, “oh, and by the way, there’s this thing growing in the belly of the beast and the heart of the empire…I’ll call it the military-industrial complex…you’ll call it business as usual.”

Vietnam was already in the works even then. A quagmire, they called it. Ten years. From troop ramp-up in the mid-60s to the fall of Saigon in 1975…

How quickly we forget that these things stretch across time, a tragic tapestry coloring day-to-day lives. The conflict in Iraq goes back to the early 90s, but was stewing before then. It will be 2007 in a little over a week. Slowly the drums of war roll towards new horizons — Iran, North Korea.

Maybe it’s because it’s the shortest day of the year (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Joseph Stalin’s birthday) and I’m a little moody and reaching for idols and idealism, but I dream of living in a world that doesn’t feel, sometimes, so hauntingly like a satirical totalitarian state. It’s as if we’re all like Boxer in Animal Farm. I look forward to not hearing vague promises about solutions and strategies and working groups while people keep dying at the hands of a strange shambling mass of excessive firepower.

In other words, I hope for Peace-on-Earth this holiday. Or the closest we sad, sorry moderns can get in this never-endingly-war-torn-world.

It’s frustrating that we can’t get out of this distopian cycle.

If you could see me now, I’d be frowning about it…


December 20, 2006

My sources have led me to an interesting video of a recent seminar in New York given by Douglas Rushkoff and Daniel Pinchbeck, two of the leading edges of the new psychedelic movement…Despite differences, I find a resonance in what these dudes are saying…

Mill Hill

December 19, 2006

After the insanely windy storm at the end of last week, the weekend ended up being fairly sunny, and, though chilly, was nice enough to walk and ride the bike. Climbed Mill Hill on Saturday afternoon, a pretty spot. Then went to see the eagles at Goldstream…They’re really big birds.

Synchronicity: Or…The Occult, Daniel Pinchbeck and Me

December 15, 2006

Like many others, I occasionally watch The Colbert Report. The other night, he interviewed a guy named Daniel Pinchbeck. This may shock some of the literati and hipster types out there, but I’d never heard of him before. Obviously he was promoting his new book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, in which he claims to be in communication with ancient Mesoamerican Gods and sees powerful hallucinogens as a route to a new harmonic consciousness. Apparently, judging by some early reviews, the main thrust of the book is apocalyptic. Like a perfect neo-romantic archetype out of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Pinchbeck perceives modern rational capitalist and materialist values as the problem, and encourages shamanic (his word), intuitive and instinctual ways of seeing the world. He is searching for alternate states of consciousness, and also heavily advocates the use of drugs as a means to achieve these states. He appears like a fusion of Carlos Castaneda, Timothy Leary, Oswald Spengler and Woody Allen.

He’s an occultist, of course, and has written about alchemy and magic. Further, he’s participated in primitive rituals involving transcendental states in Africa and South America, and explored the modern manifestations of mysticism and shamanism at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Judging by some of his written work (including a host of articles in Artforum), he has also extensively studied the eddies and backwaters of the Western tradition. He is, for lack of a better term, a student of the weird.

I, too, am a student of the weird. Actually, I’m not just a student — more a historian (as the chair of my old department once said…”the weird needs its historian”). The deep tradition of Western mysticism and other associated alchemies is familiar to me: The Hermetic Corpus; Asclepius and Hermes Trismegistus; the eleusinian mysteries; Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism and Gnosticism; Plotinus, Iamblichus and the Islamic neoplatonists; early Kabbalists; the Albigensians, Cathars and Knights Templar; the mythical medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus; renaissance thinkers like Pico della Mirandola, Ficino and the Florentine academy; Paracelsus and Van Helmont; Giordano Bruno; John Dee and Robert Fludd; the Rosicrucians (and Descartes); Newton (and his obsession with alchemy); Louis Claude de St. Martin, Swedenborg and Mesmer; the Illuminati and Adam Weishaupt; freemasonry; Eliphas Levi; the symbolists and Gerard de Nerval; Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Arthur Edward Waite; Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner; Wilhelm Reich and the Orgone, etc, etc…

This, however, is a more historical mode than I believe Pinchbeck operates in. His is a thoroughly modern cosmology shaped by the influence of “scientific” symbolism in the occult, a world colored by skepticism and doubt. The twentieth century path is a winding one. The odd amalgam between the physical and psychic sciences and the rise of holistic thinking (something Pinchbeck is also clearly tapped into) in the interwar years were merely seeds which germinated in the dark and shady soil of the Cold War, mutating into new political and cultural forms: paranoia, “alien-nation”, mind control, the CIA and LSD. This last is somewhat rescued and saved, oddly, by one of Pinchbeck’s major influences, the drug-guru himself, Timothy Leary. Still, the dark corners of the post-war American esoteric scene (cf. Anton LaVey) are clearly not alien to him…

And, of course, neither are aliens. Pinchbeck is deeply immersed in what I can only call the X-Files cosmology (UFOs, little green men, crop circles, cryptozoology, alien abductions, etc…). I suspect this is born of a close reading of the cyberpunk/cyberculture scene, with a little of Jung’s Flying Saucers thrown in for good measure. For him, I’m sure some of the c-punks were mystics in mirrorshades. No wonder, since this whole fringe theory edge-of-science, pseudo-science world is rife with esoteric speculation and bad behavior. Among the golden age writers like Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury, the father of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was just a hack. ‘Nuff said.

Truth is, the history of medicine and science, taken from a certain point of view, is an avenue into all these fascinating esoteric currents, and is the one I took. Pinchbeck sounds conversant with these themes too, speaking of the scientific enterprise like a careful reader of Feyerabend’s Against Method. He sees science as merely one form of myth-making among many. In an essay in Artforum on an obscure early 20th century Italian occultist named Julius Evola, Pinchbeck — in a moment of arrogant elitism — notes that Evola’s “…perspective will only make sense for those who have discovered for themselves that the scientific rationalism of our materialist age is not the whole story.” Really? Who knew.

And yet he adds a level of crazed and earnest lunacy to his claims, pushing ontology well beyond the bounds most philosophers of science would be comfortable with. As one commentator notes, Pinchbeck “outed himself as a crazy fool.” Their discomfort, like anyone in academia who tries to push boundaries, is invariably a function of their need to concern themselves with tenure-review boards and other forms of censure and gatekeeping. Pinchbeck comes to the occult from the more direct route — as a writer, a bohemian, an outsider and an intellectual. No wonder, given his background.

Judging by his biographical details, the Beats were clearly in his blood. His mother dated Jack Kerouac and is a writer and poet in her own right. Pinchbeck’s parents were part of an “outsider elite,” and, perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have rebelled all that much. In this sense, Pinchbeck’s experientialist ideology, and his willingness to let his freak-flag fly, is old news. Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, written in the mid-1950s, provides an archetype that would require little tailoring to fit Pinchbeck.

The article written about him in Rolling Stone portrays a character I can well imagine having met a hundred times hanging out at the university or the newest hipster bar on the main. His is a circle of Brooklynites who are, superficially at least, little different from the people I know. Disgruntled intellectuals, some pseudo, some not so pseudo, soured and aging graduate students in a race against advanced alcoholism, flakes of all description really.

The difference is that his scene is New York, and it’s the U.S., not Montreal, an aging French provincial outpost turned city of sin out on the very periphery of the empire. Pinchbeck is the most high-end form of scenester there is, pitching his own brand of drug — Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful hallucinogen that provides the out-of-body experience he uses for his shamanistic travels — and trying to get in the pants of any pretty girl that will give him the time of day.

Pinchbeck, you see, is a bit of a notorious letch. This born perhaps of his early life as a big nerd — playing chess and dungeons and dragons before he finally broke through to new horizons. The man is notorious for badgering, begging and whining until girls eventually capitulate to his “charm”. Here he and I differ significantly. He wrote an article in Esquire, for example, entitled “Hey Mister, Can You Dunk” about his experiences learning to play basketball properly in his late 20s! I was always more of a jock than that, and at 16 and 17 used to play pick-up basketball all over the city with guys twice my age. Pinchbeck and I definitely grew up on very different sides of the tracks and his effete qualities are the kind of thing that would have gotten me in more trouble than I was willing to fight my way out of. That is if it ever occured to me to act that way.

Perhaps this is the seminal difference between Pinchbeck’s somewhat fraudulent, self-aggrandizing, media-hungry approach, heavily immersed in a discourse of hedonism, literary elitism and egotism and my more hermetic and stoic search for meaning. I don’t have Pinchbeck’s melodramatic flair, but I don’t think I’d want it either.

Truth is, occult and esoteric knowledge has always been peddled by charlatans, montebanks and frauds of all description and in this regard the 21st century is no different. Anyway, Pinchbeck’s overall message is important — and one that may be crucial to our physical and psychic survival as a species. Here I do agree with Pinchbeck, who, in one of his essays, quotes Malraux to get his essential sentiment across, writing that “The twenty-first century will be mystical, or it will not be.”

Indeed, Mr. Pinchbeck, indeed.

Storm Watching

December 14, 2006

The weather has been pretty dynamic out here the last couple of days…very high winds, occasional sideways rain and also some lovely, warm, sunny spots. The clouds move so fast and rainbows appear here and there in the sky fairly frequently…weird. There are lots of downed trees, blown over by the wind after all these heavy storms and thier moisture have weakened the root systems. Power outages are de rigeur.

Last night around eleven, as I felt the whole apartment shake from a gust of wind, I decided it was a good idea to drive (about 5 minutes) out to the point off Dallas Road beyond Beacon Hill Park to see what the water looked like. Wow. There were swales with 8+ ft. peaks crashing into the rocks and the wind must have been blowing, no word of a lie, in gusts near 80+ km/h. There were a whole group of other vehicles besides ours, and we were, unbeknownst to us, participating in a typical BC storm watching experience. Getting out of Betty was an effort, pushing the door ajar against the wind. The salty surf blown into your face at that speed is kinda painful…like getting some sea salt spa facial treatment sprayed through a high-pressure nozzle. Exhilarating is the only word. The wind was really difficult to walk against, and if your ran with it, it would be impossible to stop. I turned my back to the water and leaned into the wind, which held me up on the backs of my heels. It was windy and wet, but shockingly, not cold.

After a couple of minutes out there we needed to jump back into the truck, and just sat mesmerized by the huge, awesome waves crashing up on the rocks, lit by the lights from a line of three or four fellow storm watcher’s vehicles. When gusts really picked up, the whole truck wobbled uncomfortably. Soon, people started to leave, and as we were left almost alone except for the daunting power of the ocean, I thought long and hard about the whole surfing thing. Haven’t given up, mind you. In any event, no surfer could have survived that powerful, dark and incredible sea. That storm last night was strictly for watching.

These storms are one of the most amazing things you could ever witness, I think. It’s hard to believe they’re even more dramatic and powerful on the west coast of the island. After last night, maybe a weekend of storm watching in Tofino is in order for early in the new year…


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