Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

Sunday Learnin’

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When I first began looking at schools for my son, I used a selection criteria that was pretty much pieced together in an insular vacuum. I had no particular agenda or philosophy other than wanting the best for my child. And when we think of this, I suppose even that criteria is subjective and it could be completely misguided. I had been somewhat aware of the ideas espoused in the ‘Race to Nowhere,’ or other dissertations about modern education and its failings. There is a part of me that simply used my experience as a baseline. I went to good private schools on the East Coast, where the race to nowhere was in full flight, but to proclaim that in the go-go eighties would have been treasonous. This is likely a hard argument to follow even today, because I am not so sure we all agree that nowhere isn’t somewhere. The old somewhere is the new nowhere, apparently. Now’s nowhere is where apparently everyone dreams of going, and in this bubble of expensive private education, the norm is established that these children will go to the old somewhere, and they will more or less kick the shit out of the rest of the people that didn’t do well in school, leading to the conquest of the game of life based on the criteria of acquiring success, money, and power. Yes, sign my son up for that. We certainly don’t want our own children getting squashed on the playing field of life, do we?

One trouble is that we don’t unanimously agree that the aspirations comprising the conventional target are even worthy of ideological challenge. We are still using the paradigm of work hard, do well in school, get a good job (which is fiscally bound, like it or not), work hard, work harder, pay for shit and die. And there is also still a stratification in society based on the individual’s ability to excel in the current system. The more academically successful students go to better places, while those that don’t rise to the top are relegated to other career trajectories. The stratification of society has a long history, no? What is the world we are priming our children for? Will there always be those that employ, and those that are employed? Do you want your kid to win or lose the game of life?

I suppose I could be schooled by many that my perspective on life is extremely skewed, for how very provincial and pathetic is this outlook, and yet I don’t believe I am the only human with these very stringent and deeply rooted notions about society, economy and life. One thing I have found is that these beliefs are deeply ingrained in our minds, to the extent that we don’t even feel they require analysis or review, nor are they spoken of explicitly. And most definitely not in the brochures for kindergarten. They are the quietest assumptions. They are woven into the fabric of routines of parents, in the smiles and the the greetings at drop-off time, in the conversations on the playing fields, in the sports we make our kids play, in the way we parent. There is so much talk of bullying, but are we not simply a bullying culture at the very root? Do we really teach turning the other cheek? Not if you don’t want your kids to end up carrying luggage for the winners in the world. They call Alabama the Crimson Tide.

And Television

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I left a pitch meeting today, where the subject was same as it usually is in these things. Though not identified as such, packaging mediocrity for the lowest common denominator is hard work. There are meetings, and more meetings, email chains, conference calls; sexual favors are usually dispensed, or taken non-consensually. Popular culture is raped, too, for the formulas for successful programming must be exploited and repeated. And these Hollywood clones want something that is exactly what sold well last season, but it has to be unique, visionary, forward. Who are these people? Minions, they are. Minions with a lexicon. Minions with career trajectories. These are people who shouldn’t have any authority at all, so fortunately they work in television, where nobody can really get hurt. Unless of course you count the mental anguish that dramatic sludge posing as entertainment causes to people with too much time on their hands.

The world is divided into three sections here. There is the audience. That’s most of the world. They need to be lulled into a sense of complacency so you can sell them soap and boner pills, anti-depressants and processed cheese products. They like a good hero, and a love story, and sometimes something that gives them a sense of humanitarian wisdom. But not too much, because then they get too scared of reality to buy soap and boner pills. That’s what these meetings are for, to figure out how to lull the audience into being better consumers. But nobody in the meetings knows it. They’ve been weaned on this shit so they just know what to mimic.

Then of course, there is the talent. These are your celebrities. Celebrity is pretty much every fifteen year old girl’s dream. They have no plan to attain it, or any real sense of taking action in general, they just know it would be cool because attention feels good, and when you are a fifteen year old girl, your religion is pretty much solipsism, so there you have it. Actors are incredibly insecure, and they require constant affirmation. They can act like they’re confident, but criticize their performance and they go ape shit. But quietly, inside. Try it sometime. There must be a community theater near you. It’s fun, and you can get laid, too.

And lastly, there are the behind the scenes people. These are the ones that learned quickly that their chances of fame were statistically against them, but they figured if they can light a famous person, or mic them, or write what they utter, or paint the environment they act in, well, that’s real power. This is more power than the executive branch, because nowadays nobody takes government seriously. That is a different form of entertainment. That is designed to stir up rage and hostility so you’ll turn on channel 4 and go to sleep.

But the minions bought it, and I am getting paid. Night night.

Mysterium Conundrumz

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I think sometimes in an effort to amuse ourselves, it is very easy to lose sight of what truly inspires us to come to the circus in the first place. Even as I undertake to write about today’s subject, I am treading the border of deadly earnestness and the urge to ridicule. It’s so easy to ridicule, especially when you get to work with the kind of material I like to use. Let’s start with Mickey Hart, who could be laughed at for all the wires he hooked up to his head, and for all the drums he likes to bang on, or for his enthusiasm for music and rhythm and life. I don’t know why it is that passion is somehow fodder for ridicule, but it is. I know that for me, I am afraid of my passion, so I undermine it. I think I do that because I’m afraid to risk all that exuberance on something truly meaningful to me for fear that someone spits on it. Or worse, laughs at it. So sometimes I live a quiet life, and I invent false passions just to test the waters. And I make fun of other people to protect myself from potential attacks. So when I trot out Mickey Hart, you can be sure that I have thrown caution to the wind, and I am going to unleash.

mickey hart, neurology, grateful dead

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart wires his brain to see the music in his head

Let’s forget for a moment that Mickey has an actual alter ego for the stage named Drumbohead, and he wears a red nose and gets near children. Let’s bypass the fact that he would insist that he learn to play ashiko, bendir, bhodran, djembe and dhol drums (my favorite) in their native habitats with only the masters. Let’s give him some latitude when he’s wiring his brain to an Imax theater so senior citizens can watch his thoughts. He’s an artist. They’re supposed to be eccentric. Let’s just allow a man to have passions without denigration, however amusing it might be.

Mickey Hart impressed me when he donned a t-shirt that said, ‘God Is Sound,’ which makes even more sense if you are a drummer, because they are really loud and make the ground shake. It is likely the first known musical instrument was the human voice, and the music created from it was linked to man’s effort to imitate the sounds of his environment—to literally sing along with life. After the voice, the clapping of hands was introduced to affirm rhythm. Music is born of the human urges to assimilate and pay homage to the whole of creation, to find its rhythm and play with it. The cultural, anthropological and spiritual significance of music is worth your awe. Drums are the oldest instruments around, dating back to about 165,000 years ago, while the flute didn’t come for over another 120,000 years. The drum, after it evolved from beating on logs with sticks and bones, became a crafted instrument where a membrane was stretched over a surface, and these were animals and round structures, suggesting both the primal and the intellectual evolution of man. The beating of drums was an expression of dominance, a means of communication, a tribal function and a shamanistic endeavor. We have killed food. We will go to war. We are dancing in our tribal village, for the mating rites of spring are upon us. A child is born. An elder has gone to the great beyond. We need magic for the harvest and hunt. Beat the drum.

It is this knowledge, more born in your blood and heart than in your mind, that Mickey Hart carries with him. The beating of a drum is a sacred and simple thing. The notion that we can tune into the pulse of life, and listen to creation, is often lost in the hook of bubble gum pop, but it does still circulates through our culture nonetheless. Mickey has decided to listen to the sounds that are around us, and the heaviest of these rhythms is the One, the sound of creation, the Big Bang. In the digital age, sound and waveforms are reduced to binary data—ones and zeros, compiled in a certain way to produce audio output. We are able to listen to the sounds of anything that can be interpreted as a data set, and Mickey Hart has taken the data from the light and electromagnetic waves in the universe that scientists know to be the echo of the Big Bang, when all of our known world was essentially puked into space from an infinite void. This sort of thing sparks in me the urge to find meaning in life, to find order and structure in enormous chaos and entropy, and to reconcile philosophically with It. When you sonify something, the resulting waveform will either be noise, or it will possess some form of musicality. The human ear is adept at finding patterns and order in sound. So, does the Big Bang have an order or pattern or melody? The Big Bang has always, thanks to people like Mickey who put odd truisms on t-shirts, called to mind the act of creation from Genesis. It was a story I made my mom tell me over and over as a child, because as I discover with my own child, we are naturally curious about the origins of our world, and we are equally baffled by its design. The idea that God spoke from the void, that he created light from darkness, that he divided the firmament, and then added earth and a dude with one missing rib—these are certainly tales that offer some attempt to explain creation and the design of creation in a way that addresses our natural inclinations to be curious about the phenomenon of our world. As I developed a taste for world religions and comparative literature, I was always struck by the similarity of these stories and beliefs. If we follow the Christian trip, the Septuagint offers the logos, or word of God as the beginning of everything. The word was made flesh and here we are, digging our internet and fighting for ideological dominance. There was once nothing but darkness and silence—and this Being spoke, or sang, or chanted Om, or busted out with some cosmic dervish dance, or beat on a cosmic hollow log with an equally cosmic stick—and all that lies before you was made real. The Big Bang is as close as scientists can come to this idea, or at least we can all be in the same neighborhood. So when Mickey Hart wants to listen to what that moment sounds like, and maybe beat his drum to that rhythm, that first beat, he isn’t someone I would make fun of for it.

The album I believe he used the sonification of creation as inspiration for was called Mysterium Tremendum, which is Latin for the tremendous mystery of life. This is the Great Mystery, the thing that inspires so much awe that we are both terrified to go close to it, and yet drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I am compelled to amplify that another reference to the mysterium is used by Carl Jung, whose seminal work about the interplay of opposites and the concept of psychic wholeness was called Mysterium Coniunctionis. His main thrust pertained to the art and science of alchemy, where for him the transformation of base metals into gold was a metaphor for the transformation of the soul to a fully actuated and individuated being. The soul struggles for oneness and identity in a world of dualism, and Jung was interested in the coniunctio, or the union of dualism and opposites. Much like the creation of opposing forces like light and darkness, heaven and earth, the psyche is best adapted when the opposing forces within us are both appreciated, incorporated. The shadow benefits from light, or bringing that which is unconscious to the light of consciousness. The logos as the sound of creation is what brought forth life, as much as it brought forth duality from a silent void. Creation brings forth the interplay of spirit and matter, and the dilemma that such a situation imposes on the soul of man is the basic foundation of the human condition. If you look at it right, that is what Hart is listening for, and he knows it. The more smutty aspect of the logos is now in common use as the identity of major corporations, but the idea is the same. Like man, corporations have a need to be associated with symbols of totality. The quest for identity is an ever pervasive phenomenon. The coniunctio, for Jung, was the marriage of opposites that form a whole. You know, like those t-shirts with the yin and yang symbol. Jung also re-coined from Heraclitus the term enantiodromia, which is the principle that an abundance of one force will tend to produce its opposite. Rich becomes poor. The sacred becomes profane. The symbol of such a concept is embodied by the ourobouros, the serpent that eats its tail. Of further interest is that Mickey Hart claimed that in the Drums sequence at any Grateful Dead concert, the entire purpose of the exercise (apart from creating space to go to the bathroom or roll a fatty) was to have the drumming encircle the arena like the ourobouros. But of course, if you are a self-respecting Deadhead, you know all this already. Coincidentally, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow gave a Ted Talk about enantiodromia in Hamburg. The implications are vast for all sorts of things like monotheism and how we view our world, and for Barlow, how the internet is causing an enantiodromia in the way people are imbued with the right to have knowledge. The abundance of ignorance is bringing about the opportunity to disseminate knowledge, and Barlow is a digital civil rights advocate, to ensure that information is free. For me, the point is all about how life itself, the Mysterium Tremendum, begins with massive creation, but brings with it a separation from the void, creates simultaneously an innate yearning for the divine and insatiable hunger for, and aversion to the awe of all creation—the urge for oneness in a dualistic and separate-from world. But I digress. This is what happens when you stare into the mysterium. But as Barlow evangelizes, we all have a right to know.

The question as to why I would attempt to connect all of these thoughts speaks more about my passions, perhaps, than the legitimacy of my assertions. I don’t want to convey that these ideas are connected without any real foundation. They do speak to my personal trip, and my personal passions, but I do think the relevance is valid and not unreasonable. The coinciding of these ideas, and these characters, is all part of the rhythm born from that first downbeat. In alchemical terms, Jung spoke of the Opus Magnum, or the Great Work of the initiate to create the lapis lazuli, or Philosopher’s Stone (the true gold), a symbol of oneness, and a return to godhead if you will. The efforts of all the aforementioned people have actual practical application. Jung’s Analytic psychology, Barlow’s digital frontier and Hart’s experiments with rhythm all have practical, pedestrian utility. They are not just ethereal abstractions. Hart has taken the concept of sonification and the healing power of music, and put it to work against real afflictions like alzheimer’s, heart disease and other illnesses. When the mind and body is sick with ailments like depression, anxiety, disease, malaise and malignancy, it is a bad rhythm that has taken up a drum inside our souls, beating away. Hart has sonified these things and has heard the cacophony of their music, and has ideas that it might be possible to bring good rhythm to bear on the problem for healing. This is his current opus.

I digress more. We are in peril. If there is any validity to the idea of the enantiodromia, the abundance of forces are heading toward their opposite. Humanity plunges toward inhumanity. Life itself will be fine, but humanity is unconsciously hell bent on its own destruction. It is for us each to perform our own personal opus, and to do so with the intention that these works bring forth light. The sound of creation is singing, and I want to listen and dance and teach my child to hear it, too. These sounds, the ones that you can hear if you listen, can help us get back into the rhythm. Might it be possible to heal if we listen for the secret, search for the sound?

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