5.20.2017

Yes, No, and Neither: On Preferences, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Getting on with It


I like my cocktails a certain way. While I am no longer averse to a hint of sweet — it gives the cocktail some legs, some viscosity — I find sugar repulsive (as in it literally repulses me, rejects me, makes me recoil). And I don't like my cocktails too sour, either. I want the booze to prevail. Oh, and I usually like my cocktails over rather than up for two reasons. One, the ice adds some much needed hydration to my flailing, failing body. And two,  a cocktail served over comes in a rocks glass which I find less emasculating than a martini glass. These are my quite particular preferences which, too often, I am not shy about explaining to the barkeep with a certain emphatic umph (read: a NY Jewish inflection). 

But what happens when such particularity is not met? When my preferences cannot be, or aren't, served?

Well, I have some options. I can get irritated which itself can take a variety of forms — from rudeness and/or anger towards my server or, as is the go-to for the kids these days, I can write a scathing Yelp review. That'll learn 'em!

I can leave the premises and go in search of a cocktail bar that'll cater to my very precise preferences. This, of course, defers my pleasure and, if with company, becomes a burden for all.

I can say nothing and have the barkeep concoct an inevitably too sweet, too sour cocktail served up and sit there and drink it.

Or sit there and not drink it. (It's a funny thing to me that people feel that, because they paid for something, they are obligated to consume said thing. I have the opposite belief: because I paid for it, I can do what I like with it. I can not finish my meal, not drink my drink, not watch the movie I paid to see. That, alas, is true luxury: the freedom to walk away.)

I can order something else, something that runs little to no risk of offending my delicate palate — a whiskey neat, for instance.

Each of these options is viable. What matters, it seems to me, is not which path I take but how I stand towards my decision. If my preferences keep me from enjoying my evening, enjoying my life, then something is wrong with those preferences. Nietzsche would call this sickness: the things I want make me sick (indirectly, of course).

Now extend this past a cocktail. See your preferences extend into the social. She's smart and cool but I prefer someone taller. He's smart and funny and makes me happy — but I prefer someone who has a real job. Or into the everyday: I don't like being in this traffic! I prefer the road to be clear! Goddamn fuck it all! (This is me, often, in today's suckhole of the city we call San Francisco.)

What, alas, is more insane than demanding life to be different than it is? What is more sick than cursing traffic while being in traffic? First of all, I am not in traffic; I am traffic. I am in and of every situation in which I participate. So hating that situation, expending energy hating that situation, is a kind of self-hatred. And, worse, it's an enormous drain of energy: it depletes without any return on investment.

What I always loved about riding a bike is coasting: I pedal once, twice, three times and then coast for a while. It feels like the most healthy energy exchange possible; I exert a little and get a lot! It's a great deal!  Getting pissed off about traffic while being traffic is a terrible deal, expenditure without return.


Walt Whitman is a, and perhaps the, great Yes sayer.  He says Yes! To everything. He is vor-a-cious! Leaves of Grass is a catalog of things he loves, which is everything he encounters. That is surely one way to go. I love this cloying, sour cocktail in its ridiculous martini glass! I love this traffic! I love this sinus infection! Whitman is beautiful, one of the great souls of this, or any, planet. He is a man without preferences and hence a man without disappointment.


Nietzsche, the great philosopher of affirmation, has a lot of preferences. Never drink coffee, he tells us, as coffee spreads darkness. He likes the air just so; his company just so; his meal just so. And, in the same breath, he says that the key to living well is the affirmation of everything. How can he reconcile this?

Well, for Nietzsche, saying no is not necessarily saying No. There is a no-saying that affirms this body, this health, this life. We have to know our own way of going. If coffee makes you sick, don't drink coffee. But, he tells us, we want to be in a situation in which we can say Yes as much as possible as no-saying expends energy, sapping life.

It seems to me that preferences are not only inevitable but good. It is what differentiates me from you. But when these preferences prevail in the moment and become demands, there is only madness. Sure, you might shape your life to fit your preferences — only go to certain bars, date certain women, talk to certain people. Or do what I often do and just stay the fuck home, alone. But this is a strange strategy as it's doomed from the get go. At some point, you will be in a situation you can't control, that doesn't conform to your preferences. It's not a matter of adapt or die as much as it's a matter of accept and get on with it.

I've always taken pride in my preferences, fancying myself a discerning man. But this discernment becomes an escape from the flux and flow of life, a moral code that dictates from on high, trying to make the inevitable unruliness of life obey. My preferences become my own private fascist, trying to force life's meandering cadence into a military march that conforms to me and me alone. This is when preference is no longer a matter of health and self-sustainability but a matter of sickness, denial, and living death.

A few weeks ago, I was in Golden Gate Park (in San Francisco) with a friend. It was a rare sunny, warm, Spring day and the field was filled with all sorts of 20-something sporty types throwing objects and drinking beer. We sat on the perimeter, as is my preference (I've always sat in the back of the bus, the classroom, the movie theater as crowds displease me). At some point, my friend wanted to refill our water bottles from the water fountain located over yonder and — ahhhh! — through the crowd. Without thinking, I started walking with her when, all of a sudden, I noticed myself in the middle of this swarm of bodies drinking, tossing, shouting, cavorting. I stopped short and immediately scanned for my escape: there, a path that winds outside of the throngs! My friend looked at me and, without skipping a beat, declared: Don't look for the exit. Just go with it. And, with that, I relaxed and together we strode through the sea of bodies, balls whizzing by our heads, sweaty frat bros hollering this and that. And all — all — was good.

5.12.2017

The Energetics of Being


Cuteness is a power, an exuding of energy. We can transact with that energy in different ways.

When I was younger and would see a cute thing — say, a kitten or bush baby— I'd grit my teeth as a certain seething would surge through my body. All I wanted to do was take the cat's face and squeeze it, hard. Maybe eat it. It was a painful experience, even if pleasurable. I'd be exhausted afterwards. When I finally owned a cat — o, I miss my Metapuss — my life was nearly destroyed, the cuteness an endless tax on my being. (The cat was no better for it, either.)

We all know this: a cute thing has the power to determine the behavior around it. To wit, poppa bear usually doesn't kill baby bear. That little useless sack of cuteness exudes a power, an energy, that can make a two-ton beast stand down.

Cuteness is a source of energy. It moves and controls bodies. And, the silly brute I was, I didn't know what to do with that stream of energy. I'd gnash my teeth. I'd begin to crawl out of my skin. That stream came to me and, rather than finding it a source of fuel and vitality, it became an exhaustion of my reserves. I could have stored that energy. But instead I expended my energy to fuel its power. Which is absurd! It has enough power.

From one perspective, life is an economy of energy, a constant series of transactions, expenditures, and transferals. Think of food, sex, money, conversations, plants, relationships. We eat and experience different amounts of energy distributed in different ways — sugar, caffeine, protein, fried foods, LSD, and so on. Every meal at once fuels us and demands fuel to digest it. The same goes for human relationships: each person and each exchange involves a different give and take of energy. Some people leave us drained; the best leave us infused. And of course we pander or defer in various ways that exhaust us, regardless of the other person. Now apply this to all things — taking care of plants, what they give and take; music; art; work (which demands so much and gives little in return); and so on.

For Georges Bataille, all of these things — and more — are intertwined into a more General Economy of energy exchange that includes the sun, thinking, cosmic winds, eroticism. Nietzsche played with this idea, too, of course. Life is all transaction of energy. The ethical question for Nietzsche becomes: How do you maximize your energy, your vitality, your life? It's not a matter of a moral right and wrong but a very practical matter of: What saps you? What fuels you — materially and metaphysically?

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to "World" magazine which came with a fold-out poster in each issue. One week it was a bush baby. Oh, man, I loved that thing. With it pinned to the wall, I'd just stare at it. Thinking of it now gives me a certain thrill, almost erotic in nature. Why? Because it was a source of power, a quiet but steady hum of energy that would permeate me, lift me, carry me. And what is life other than this? What more do we want? (I knew a guy, an "art collector," who had a series of Francis Bacon prints hanging in his bedroom. Ask yourself: What kind of being enjoys that exchange of energy upon sleeping and waking every day?)

This is the case of all images. Which is to say, it is the case of all things (pace Bergson who says matter and image are synonyms). Things exude and take in different proportions and with different intensities. This is what life is: an eco-system of energy exchange. On a day to day basis, we give and take. We negotiate energy exchanges. For instance, cuteness is so taxing we partially denude it — we hedge its power — via kitsch. Rather than gritting our teeth, we take a little cute kitten video to help us get through the drain of energy put on us by jobs, traffic, the bombardment of modern life.

Starbucks and kitten videos: this is what keeps us hanging on, just. Without them, capitalism would exhaust all human energy reserves and then there'd be no one to produce and, worse, no one to consume. We think the energy crisis is about fossil fuels. Nope: it's about a fundamental skew in the energy economy that has human energy being depleted at a dizzying pace. This is why we're obsessed with zombies: how can we make the dead productive?

We all know too well the correlations between sex and violence: Make love, we say, not war. What allows us to say this, to make this substitution? They are both modes of energy expenditure. Louis CK does a bit about bros at the club who, after not getting laid, you find afterwards at some pizza place beating up some nerdy passerby.

But off course not all energy expenditures are the same. The great thing about a certain mode of sex is the give and take. Yes, it's an expenditure but the other person gives you energy back creating a beautiful cycle, a transference of this energy for that energy. Violence, on the other hand, tends to be terribly inefficient, all expenditure without return.

Sometimes, this kind of expenditure is necessary. For instance, when I was younger, I'd have an excess of energy, as youths are wont to have, and so would put on some rockin' tunes and dance like crazy in my undies. I'd burn that energy, releasing that excess, allowing my body to relax, to flow more steadily, more evenly. An excess of energy can be quite disruptive (any manic knows this well).

Aging involves, and perhaps is, a decrease in energy production. At first, this is disconcerting, to say the least. What's wrong with me??? my head shrieks in panic. I see this in friends and acquaintances. Why am I so tired? they ask as they hit 44 and are working 50 hour weeks and then hiking on the weekends and worrying about rent and their future and their kids. It's astounding that they don't know what's happening to them. It's astounding, and humiliating, that I didn't know what was happening to me: I was getting older but still expending energy as if I were 27.

I spent much of my life as what Jung might call the clown and I call the jew clown. I'd do shtick relentlessly, pandering to the crowd (even a crowd of one). It nearly killed me.

A key part of the maturation process is adjusting one's energy store and spend. Rather than lean forward in the social, prattling on and doing the jew clown shtick, I now lean back more and more. I let the social unfold as a more collaborative effort, even if that collaboration is failing to produce, is falling quiet, is disintegrating. The benefit of maturity is knowing that this doesn't matter. That all of life is an ebb and flow of energy — and hence there's no need to expend energy to revive the dying fire of a social encounter. There will be more fires. (Or there won't.)

And so now when I see cute things or feel a flood of love from another, I don't go immediately towards expenditure. I don't grit my teeth, do a jig, try to eat the face of the kitten. Rather, I let the energy pervade me, let it flow through me, infusing my cells and soul with vitality. I store up so when it's time to give, I can.

5.03.2017

Holding Tightly, Holding Lightly: Thoughts on Love & Relationships


Romantic love is seductive. Like any good drug, it enraptures. It takes you up and carries you away. Your heart beats faster; your veins course with joy itself; you're giddy and smiley and all is right with the world.

Except when she doesn't return your call for a surprising amount of time. Or when he's acting a bit distant. Or when she not so subtly hides her phone after the telltale ding. Then, like most drugs, the trip takes a turn. You're distraught, anxious, distracted. Your veins course with toxins and nothing is right with the world.

Ah, such is love, we say. The ups and downs. So it goes with passion. It's in our movies and novels, in our songs, in our paintings and poems. It's the price we pay for the beautiful, magical thing we call love.

Only I'm not sure any of that is love. It's something, for sure. And it's something seductive and powerful. But is it love?

Love, it seems to me, is infinitely generous. Love doesn't forgive because it never judges in the first place. Love never says, "I love him but I just wish he liked to travel more." That's not love. That's an all-too-human romantic relationship  — which is rarely premised on love. It's premised on fear — "I'm not lovable" — which is premised on ego which, out of fear, seeks attachment.

Unfortunately, our romantic relationships are built on ego, fear, and attachment. This is what we're taught; this is our discourse on love. "He's mine." "She's my girl." And the problem with attachment is that everything of this world gives way. That's just the way it is. Wishing it any other way is, at best, neurotic; at worst, pathological. So the whole thing is doomed from the get go.

Now, we try to temper this fickle fade of flesh with both the formal and informal institutional prowess of the promise. "I will stay yours forever, even when my attentions turn; I will stay yours even in death." We call this marriage and it's not a bad way to go.

I was married for 14 years. What I loved about it is that all the mundane bullshit is inflected through the infinite. How can something as minor as a fight about a comment persist when seen in the light of the eternal? What are we going to do — fight over it forever?? Of course not. And so, just like that, all the little crap vanishes in the sublimity of the infinite.


I've also been divorced for seven years. But, for me, this is not a failure of love. Divorce is not a failure at all! It's what happens to things of this world — they give way. In fact, the thing I am most proud of in my life is my divorce. I still love my ex-wife. Of course I do. That's what love is! It's infinite! It doesn't stop and start. Lust stops and starts; romantic love stops and starts. But love? Nope. Love persists.

I realize that this kind of divorce is an anomaly. I hear horror stories of how once married couples treat each other. This is truly confusing to me. Because either you don't love each other — in which case, just be indifferent and enjoy your lives. Or you do love each other — in which case, be good to each other. This other option — fighting, undermining — can only come from one thing: ego, fear, and attachment. Someone feels scorned. Someone feels unloved. Someone feels unlovable. Someone feels abandoned. All of that crap is ego and is ridiculous and has nothing whatsoever to do with love.

Love is not attachment. On the contrary, love holds the things of this world ever so lightly so as to let them become as they are. Grab on tightly and everyone gets hurt. Like Lennie, you end up crushing the mouse.

But, damn, romantic love is seductive. I, for one, want to be enraptured. I want that delectable joy to pump through my veins. I want all those deep seated fears to go away just by the way she looks at me. What is sweeter than an embrace that erases that persistent thought that I'm not lovable? That makes me feel safe and desired? Man oh man! It's perfectly delicious. The only problem is that I, like most people, get hooked on the embrace — an embrace that will inevitably end.

Attachment is not love. It's fear. And fear comes from ego. But love is not ego bound. In fact, love erases ego. Love doesn't seek to own or control; love lets things be. Love lets the world happen as it happens. Love is not just acceptance of his not wanting to travel or her complaints about work. Love is a radical affirmation of all things. Including yourself! And the incredible thing which happens is that this love erases the fear of being unlovable which erases self- and other- judgement which erases the need for attachment. VoilĂ ! 

Still, romantic love is delicious. And I'm not sure I'm quite willing to give it up entirely. Not yet. Perhaps never. After all, I am all-too-human. I have fears and doubts. I love to be loved. And so the trick, it seems to me, is to hold tightly and lightly at the same time. To gather her up in my arms and squeeze and squeeze and, in the same breath, to open my arms so she can do as she does, be as she is, go as she goes. Which, alas, may be with or without me.