Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hallowe'en rant #2

Continuing with a line of thought I started mulling over many years ago and first began to expound in writing last year (because, you know, once I get an idea in my head, I can't put it down until I've beaten it completely to death):

A (really) brief history of Hallowe'en: Samhain, Celts, harvest, darkness, evil spirits, costumes, candy, Madison avenue, blah blah blah. The details have been written in fine detail elsewhere, so I won't repeat. The important point here is that for better or for worse the holiday has undergone an evolution, thanks to the twin forces of Christianity and capitalism. It's easy enough to bemoan this fact and lament the change, but it's occurred to me that perhaps some element of the original meaning hasn't been lost. The day was originally an opportunity to look directly at the darker side of culture, the chaotic forces which threatened to destroy a society; now it seems to be an innocent chance to play dress up. But look at what we choose to dress up as. Young women, almost invariably, seem to prefer costumes better suited to street walking than to casting out demons. We give ourselves a chance to dress up as anything this one time each year, and I think it reflects a poorly hidden desire of the collective unconscious that a substantive part of the population choose to parade as hookers. Hallowe'en is still an opportunity for the darker parts of our culture to rear their heads. You just need to know how to see them.

Tangentially, I love this time of year. Slate grey skies, forests a sea of orange, yellow, brown, burnt umber. Wind, rain, flurries. It's beautiful; but not the gaudy beautiful of early fall or the manic beautiful of spring. Sombre, rarified beauty.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few months. I don't believe in astrology, but I read and mull over my horoscope monthly. I don't believe in god, yet I pray and sometimes even chant the names of Hindu deities. I don't even understand what is meant by the words "spirit" and "soul," but I devote a large part of my life to a practice that would be no more than fancy gymnastics if not for its metaphysical underpinnings. Am I just hedging my bets? No. I don't have any lingering doubts about astrology; I don't even have any curiosity about the existence of god. As for spiritual matters, I tend to think that the work we do is what matters in life. Why the inconsistency, then? Why do my actions and beliefs not gel?

Maybe the question is wrong; maybe there is no underlying inconsistency. There is value in prayer even if it goes no further than the person who is praying, because it focuses and calms the mind. Same is true of chanting. Astrology is a bit harder to explain... maybe I just like the idea of getting vague advice that I can interpret through the lens of my own perceptions. The mind is a curious beast; you can feed it garbage or you can feed it gourmet, and either way what it chiefly wants is to make sense of the meal.

It does appeal to my DIY/punk ethos to explain these schisms away as taking the trappings of various and sundry belief systems and putting them to my own use. I guess it worries me that the difference between being punk and being self-delusional is so fine. And it worries me that I do not think of myself as a materialist, yet I'd be hard pressed to prove that I'm not.

H'mmm. Maybe that's the point.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"cold and drunk as I can be"

So, a few years back I decided that I wanted to bag all of the fire towers in the Catskills. I had already hiked Overlook a few times, and the next tower I set my sights on was Hunter Mountain. I tried it. Really rough terrain, lots of elevation. I didn't quite make it to the top. Tried again. Another failure. Again. Again. I gave up. So it goes sometimes.

Well, yesterday I finally did it. Unfortunately, my sense of accomplishment is tempered by the fact that I beat the shit out of my knees on the way down. They're a lot better now, but I'm still concerned. I was treating this hike as step one in a training regimen to prepare me for a NOLS trip to the high Arctic that I've been thinking about taking next summer. That's not going to happen if my body isn't in decent shape. In addition to my knee issues, I also have a shoulder injury from years ago that never really healed, and which makes it difficult to carry a pack. Plus wrist issues that have been plaguing me for the past few months. Plus... the courses I'm interested in have an average participant age of ~20, more than ten years my junior. How much would I enjoy a month in the company of the summer-break-from-university crowd (even if it's in the Arctic, the place I want to see more than anywhere else)?

I applied for (and was accepted to) a NOLS course once before - sea kayaking in Prince William Sound in 2000. I didn't go. The weird thing is that I can't for the life of me remember why I didn't. I was in pretty lousy mental space at the time, and that must have had a lot to do with my decision to back out, but I remember none of the specifics. This was when I was living in Beltsville, MD. Three days after I would have left for the month long course, I came home after work to discover all of the utilities turned off and a note of foreclosure on the front door of the house where I was renting a room. The landlord (who much to my surprise was not the owner listed on the foreclosure notice) was nowhere to be found. That was one of the worst weekends of my life. I had no one to turn to, so I called my father, who I hadn't spoken to in six months. He put me in contact with some relatives who were living locally and who kindly put me up for a few weeks. I was humbled by their generosity.

Sometimes, still, I lie awake at night and wonder if it wouldn't have been better for me to have gone on the NOLS trip. I would have returned to MD to discover that my apartment was no longer mine (according to the foreclosure notice, the house was to be sold at auction in two week's time, and I had no lease). What would I have done? Panic was my usual response to stress back then. Would NOLS have changed my outlook on life? Is it possible that I would have just shrugged my shoulders and calmly worked through the situation? Hard to say. Revisiting the past is always tricky business. I wonder, though.

Well... I'm in a different place now, geographically and emotionally. All these memories do come up for me, though, when I think about NOLS. Most of the draw of next summer's program is my fascination with the far North and my desire to see it before it all melts, but I know that some of the appeal is the possibility of salving memories from this sore spot in my past; proving to myself that I can, indeed, do this.

I have plans to do some more hiking later this week, assuming my knees are on the mend by then. I guess I'm going to go ahead with my training regimen, unless/until it becomes apparent that physical limitations are going to make a NOLS trip infeasible for me. In which case... I don't know what I'll do. That would be quite disappointing.

Oh, and regarding the title of this post - I'm neither cold nor drunk now, but I've wanted to use that Gordon Lightfoot line as a post title for quite a while, and I figured I'd better use it now or else I'd waste it on some horribly maudlin diatribe, when I am actually drunk.