The Perils of Good Storytelling

(or, reactions after seeing M Night Shyamalan’s highly-recommended new film Lady in the Water twice in one weekend):

The problem with good stories is that we cannot always live in them (barring the “good story” which is hopefully and supposedly the whole of our life–but right now I’m talking about good fiction stories; the kind that make you wish they were real). The problem with the best stories is their singularity of message: “Good stories are real! Believe in them!” And of course, they’re not real either, strictly speaking. There are no narphs and scrunts lurking round small ponds in my hometown, waiting to magically awaken greatness in me via some ancient link.

Even so, the problem has rather more to do with their truth than falsity. When I look soberly at reality I don’t find the details of Lady in the Water or The Silmarillion or Le Morte d’Artur, but on the other hand I do suppose that I believe reality really is something like those stories, at the end of the day. Reality involves things other than what we can see; reality involves hidden purposes and identities meant to be discovered; reality involves the endowing of normal human beings with abilities that, to someone from a different world, might seem magical.

No, the problem is not with the absence of “magic”–the problem is with my inability to see everything around me for what it really is (magical). And so I leave a good story feeling a sense of indescribable, desperate longing for something more exciting, more adventurous, more exotic, more epic, more fantastic, while steadfastly refusing to consider that if I were in one of those other worlds, I would be wishing the exact same thing, and a great bard of that place who told a story of Earth, her creation, the way that life springs from the very ground, and so on, would inspire me to dream great things. So the question becomes: how can we re-enchant this world? How can we de-familiarize ourselves from the radically “magical” events taking place around us always? It is not easy, and that is why we tell stories–to keep that sense alive somehow. But the result is that unfortunately I begin to desire the reality of the stories more than the reality of the real, based on unfair judgements of the real!

Alas, for now, I will keep running off to hear stories of marvelous and far-off worlds just to remind myself that such things are worth holding on to; but I hope that, instead of becoming depressed after hearing a good story and mourning the “death of the miraculous” in modern culture, I would learn to perceive the miraculous more easily all around. Clearly there is a tension here with my deeply-embedded scientific impulse to categorize and define; to resolve it I hope to be able to know both what a thing is and what a thing means. (In other words, the problem is not with any kind of scientific impulse per se, but rather the presumption of saying that knowledge of a thing’s true identity and significance can be adequately captured by scientific experimentation).

Nonetheless, we should re-establish frequent storytelling as a way to convey the deep truths of reality, even and especially if the best way to convey those truths is to speak of things like magical lands and mythical beings. Remember one of the most powerful lines from V for Vendetta: “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians cover it up”.

On the storyteller’s end, let us become adept at using such “lies” to tell the truth of a wonderful reality, but on the listener’s end, let us be adept at loving not the “lie” in virtue of its brilliant and captivating colors, but rather the even more brilliant and more captivating truth it (hopefully) conveys. For those like myself who love to live in the imagination, that second part will prove to be the harder of the two… But I personally hope the other side of that coin leads to an increased ability to tell the truth in story (the first part).

The Longest Distance Between Two Points

The sun stared, lidless and relentless, down at the dust and sand I slowly traversed. The town that baked there was hardly deserving of any name connoting civilization, much less that desert wayfarer’s dream-word, “oasis”. No waving palm trees; no pools of cool water to waste on dry and cracked feet. Still, to anyone like myself who had somehow survived even a brief stay in the arid deserts (in the quest for companionship), the low huts that provided shade were as welcome as Eden itself.

I sat down against a wall in the center of the town. No one moved about in the heat of the day; for all I knew, the entire town had been wiped out by a sandstorm. I lowered my head and fell instantly asleep.

Continue reading “The Longest Distance Between Two Points”

Tesseract’s End

We had a sort of “dudes’ retreat” last weekend (as staunchly opposed to a “men’s retreat”, of course), full of celebration and adventure (two words which aptly describe wandering around San Francisco on St Patrick’s Day) and much borderline-appropriate behavior. Most importantly though, we set aside a good bit of time to delve deeper into our artistic selves and lay bare our current souls via poetry and song. Needless to say, I was shocked and impressed at the quantity and quality of art that was produced, and the honest ways in which it was delivered. Various pieces from that time will probably float around the e4 weblogs soon enough.

My main contribution was a song I had written the day before the “retreat”, but I will save its lyrics for the time when I have a recording to go with it. I also wrote a short poem while on the top of Mt Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, where we had all gone hiking on Saturday. From Mt Tamalpais there is a glorious view of the SF bay, and this apparent division of the world into air and water, juxtaposed all about by land, inspired the poem, which I am calling “Tesseract’s End”:

Rugged shoulders to spines on back
A strange animal I traverse
Its own life an undefined breath
Overlooked substratum of heaven on earth

I walk sometimes up, sometimes in
Phase shift accomodating forms that
Disregard boundaries of texture--
Oh that my soul felt the same!

To swim or run or fly between
The lines that slice the diff'ring spheres
A hardened wire of surface tension
That feels, from altitude, as rock
(on it I fall, and am crushed)

To be of wing or fin was given
To marvels of motion and muscle
But lightspeed travel twixt high and low
Alone can I exhibit
--if only I could breathe at Tesseract's end

The Amnesiac Shipbuilder

Last night at community dinner, we did an exercise which was meant to replace/augment the normal process of sharing with one another how each of us is doing, what we are thinking about, how we are feeling, etc. Usually we’d just go around in a circle and have each person contribute whatever she feels like about herself, but last night we decided the contribution needed to be slightly more formal: we each took roughly 45 minutes alone with pen and paper, and wrote, either in poetry, prose, or a mix, the answer to the questions “where are you?”, “how are you doing?”, and “what are you feeling?”.

The idea was to imbue some more constrained object (a few paragraphs of prose, or a haiku, or a rant) with a more focused, albeit artistic, answer, with the hope that this presence would be actually a more meaningful way to share than just saying verbally whatever would have come to mind. Indeed, I was very surprised at the level of depth I felt we were able to achieve, seeing as we were working with a significant economy of words; in fact, when we came back together and read what we had written, we had enough time to go around twice, in order to further understand people.

Hopefully at least a few of us will post what we wrote on our weblogs here–I’m going to start with my work of the evening, entitled The Amnesiac Shipbuilder. It’s a story.

Land, that once felt safe and so sweet
Now a detestable spit of sand
What gave life and surety to feet
I'd banish if I thought it would heed a command

Water to drink is no good if it keeps
Life alive but alone, incomplete
Fruit follows suit, it belongs in the deeps
If health is all that there is in this heat

I have in the wreckage a thousand tomes
Whose wisdom's satisfied a thousand men
But my adventure lies not at home--
Useful a shipbuilding book would have been!

Resignation is my lover at night
With whom I wrestle sensuously
But her charms are not even close to delight
And in daylight, I spurn her contemptuously

Laziness would no doubt have been my bane
If I thought effort could affect
But helplessness never gave one gain
Unless him for rescue did God (or fate) select

Either one would be fine.

Life in the Ocean

Some random experiences from a few days in the Bahamas (from which I am now in the process of returning) spawned this poem, which spilled edit-free from my pen yesterday:

Shapes in clear water when moving
are blurred and the fuzz provides fear
For unknown says death's always seeking
and will in the end become near

So sun and life soon are forgotten
if only for a space of seconds
Heart and mind illusion-smitten
propel the soul back to the sands

From the shore heartbeats are slower
Embarrassment looks like the heat of the day
The water is clear, it seems fear need not tower
O'er a reckless rejoining the fray

But horizon reveals, dark symbols appear
Omens or fins? both blacker than sky
Recklessness checked, the imagined is here
It seems a more rational soul would have died

iPod Culture and the Weight of Consumerism

Since around October, the relentless marketing machine at Apple had been hammering away at the (admittedly thin) walls of my financial restraint such that, a few weeks after Christmas, I decided I absolutely needed a new iPod–a video one. My then-current 60gb iPod, with a color screen and the ability to show photo slideshows just wouldn’t cut it anymore. So when I got back to California, I began once again a charming love-hate relationship with craigslist SF. You see, however much I knew I needed the $399 video iPod, I knew that I should be able to get it cheaper. A few days of monitoring craigslist via keyword RSS confirmed this, and I was flooded with ads for new-in-box video iPods, all between $300 and $380. Of course, a large portion of these are scams, and a larger portion are sold within 25 minutes of being posted (supply of unopened and unwanted iPods was high because of recent gift-exchange-based holidays having occurred, so the prices were pushed very low). Nevertheless, a few days and many failed deal attempts later, I found someone willing to meet me somewhere in the east bay to trade a still-shrinkwrapped 60gb video and agent18 case for a price which, when all was said and done, would save me about $100.

Continue reading “iPod Culture and the Weight of Consumerism”

Christmas by Splendour Hyaline

As a gift for all of our friends and family this Christmas, my brother David and I (who comprise Splendour Hyaline) recorded a 3-song Christmas EP, inexplicably called “Christmas”. Here it is for download in MP3 format (make sure to right-click and Save Target As):


(cover art by Chris Nyffeler)

(for those of you using iTunes, you’ll see the album art is already attached to the songs. Otherwise, feel free to copy the image from this page)

NOTE: Songs are now considered to be the final mix.