We Are Flying Monkeys

There was no way I could leave San Francisco without having some kind of a supervegan meal and so we found a religious commune of sorts full of beaming people serving dahl with zing and chick peas with zang. Dicky got into a healthy rant about the fact that we are all Monkeys and I gleefully fed it with my own philosophies on the subject. Yes, we are all monkeys chewing on bananas, but once we have food we discover that throwing feces at one another, making scads of money and talking about nuances of artistic expression are all equally valuable pursuits.

Maslow’s Hierarchy keeps coming up lately, perhaps because whenever I talk about my recent trip to India where I was surrounded by people with real needs, the Americans around me uncomfortably check their fussing about music or complaint about modern art. I keep trying to point out that just because some people don’t have the luxury of spare time and energy to devote to philosophy doesn’t make its pursuit any less legitimate. It’s what we do. We’re monkeys.

Flight out of San FranciscoSomething that always astounds me about air travel is that, well, we call it “air travel”. We forget something amazing… it’s flight! I look out the window and suddenly we’re rushing along the ground at incredible speed, and then there is a jerk and we are pulled up into the air! We’re flying! Beside me a guy in a business suit is trying to get coffee and a hipster is futsing with an iPod. Can’t they see that we’re experiencing something incredible?! This is a moment humans have dreamed of for thousands of years! They jealously watched birds overhead and dreamed, planned, and fell off of countless cliffs in desperate attempts to join them. Now we complain about peanut allergies and turbulence.

Of course, once I got over the fact that I was in a two ton tin can floating over the earth, I had time to study Go and the chance to meet a cool actress in the seat next to me. I really appreciated her deliberate approach to her craft and we talked about the similarities between the mental states required for writing and acting. When I write fiction, I often have the experience best described by Ray Bradbury. He would go to sleep thinking about his characters, and when he woke up they would all be talking in his head and he would write down what they said.

While I don’t always have this immediate an experience, stories and characters always take on a life of their own. The better I get to know them and their stories and voices, the more they take over and tell me what they will and will not do. The story wanders off in new directions and I have to be open to where it wants to go, and to craft it into a coherent tale once I’ve felt it out. In many ways this process involves becoming (in the method acting sense) these characters for a while. It also requires the very immediate, open, empty mind of the improv actor who responds immediately to each new idea or change as it occurs. Because each new fact that is revealed changes the context of the story, it can’t be written out in any one actor’s head beyond the current moment. (This stems from the “yes and” rule of improv.)

And so I’ve returned to Austin, another flying, philosophizing monkey typing furiously in the dark in hope that other monkeys will nod or spit out some kind of emotional response to my analysis of my experience. There are certainly worse things I could be doing with my time.

SF v Austin Way of Life

Many San Franciscans seem to believe that one of the things that makes San Francisco so much better than Austin is that there are so many things going on all of the time. This amazing DJ here, that incredible artist there. The thing is, I feel like I have the same complete over saturation of cool events in Austin and so through a series of conversations I teased out the difference.

To make sweeping generalizations, San Francisco seems to foster small, tightly knit groups of friends who have insane numbers of choices to make about which events featuring high profile artists to attend. In Austin I have a huge community of people, and while there aren’t as many big names in the events here, I am overwhelmed by the number of opportunities to spend creative and social time with my large group friends.

While in SF I met a lot of people who had trouble making friends there despite the number of people packed into the city. One had, I believe, the best theory: that everything is so full that it creates an extremely competitive environment. You have to complete for all of the basic resources like parking, apartments, and jobs. You have to work hard just to be able to afford to live. This then leads to competition for people’s time and friendship as well. People are less likely to invest until they know someone is a “sure thing”.

In Austin it’s a lot easier to survive, and it’s still a small town here at the center of the city. The growth, instead of being dense, is primarily sprawling out into the suburbs and filled with people that never enter the city and certainly don’t compete for time and attention. I still walk though this place like it’s my living room and will happily drop onto the sofa to chat with anyone who walks past.

Got Church

I stood in line for a few minutes before a big friendly tough looking guy with wild hair and soft eyes asked me if I was Kai. His name was Blue and he had the other half of a ticket. I picked up a Macallan 12 and a single cube of ice and followed him to the far front corner of the little club known as the Rickshaw Stop. I appreciated that they’d gone so far as to park a crude bike hacker style rickshaw in front of the place, although I still haven’t seen one in actual use anywhere in the city.

Within minutes of arriving I started to spot the various people I’d seen during the day in the Haight. They were scattered throughout the crowd that was quickly thickening as people were poured in like Kuzu to a sauce. I was either in just the right place that night or this was some kind of regular ritualistic gathering for everyone in the surrounding area.

The first few songs were a great mix of west African style riffs, gospel choruses, folk pop and nicely built psychedelic digressions. The lyrics were about bears seeking honey over the mountains. One guitar player had a beautiful hollow body Gibson and wore a headband under his long hair and beard, syncing up beautifully with the tie dyed American flag draped behind them. The one closest to me looked like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (He was apparently a guest musician from the Dodos.) They wrapped up the set with a warning and a request for extra water, as though we should be preparing ourselves for what was to come.

The second round started out slowly. Another solid stomp tune got the whole place clapping and moving, until one song ended and the continued rhythmic clapping or snapping became the bed for the next. I found myself swept up in the rhythms and when they stopped, singing out the choruses in harmony with the rest of the swaying, grinning crowd, only to return to bouncing and leaping when the music kicked back in.

The audience and the band began to feed each other in a loop. The exploratory breakdowns grew longer and longer, becoming an evolving dialog between the crowd and the performers, unifying us all until our emotions rose and fell as one. The lush crimson drapery surrounding us made sense and bouncing against the people around me became communion instead of aggression. I felt like I was moving and singing and pulsating with the crowd almost against my will, beyond the point where I was an individual who had a will, beyond the point where I cared to have one.

The band slowly left the stage one by one with the crowd singing, in harmony, “If the window wasn’t dirty there would be so many colors”. Every throat vibrated with this chorus and continued on unbroken until the band began adding small bits of quiet horn or shaker, weaving them in and out and around the chorus that fell and receded against the stage again and again like saltwater waves to the beach outside. No one wanted it to stop and so it continued, rising and falling, some snapping or whistling around it, but none breaking it up or stopping the flow in any way. We continued on like this for at least fifteen to twenty minutes.

In the south, they would say that we “got church”. To some this probably sounds like a cult gathering about honey bears. An American plains Indian would nod in understanding.

Despite being well past 2:00AM, Zikk started IMing with his father back in Texas, who is apparently up at such random hours. Zikk was explaining that he’d been to “church” and his father refused to accept this. “In order for this to be church there has to be an object of worship. I worship the son of God.” Zikk tried to explain how experiencing great feelings of shared love and light can themselves be worship, and the experience can only be called spiritual. The discussion ultimately broke down over a long standing chasm of understanding.

What we call “church” and what we call “culture” are equally interwoven. While there is always room for any large group of people to argue about which music, writing, or art constitutes a given group’s “culture”, few would argue that these are threads from which the fabric of culture is made. For the people in that room, sharing that experience, there is no question that this music and this experience were culture just as much as another might say the same about classical music hundreds of years old, much of which was originally written for liturgical use.

At the same time that this seemed a profound fact to me, I had a corresponding thought: were not these musicians, magicians, scientists of the emotion really just extremely skilled manipulators of the human brain? Trance music, and its power to move people in a deep way has been used by countless cultures and while modern Americans have tucked it away in warehouses and southern churches, it remains no less powerful. As Jill Taylor described at TED, despite being a brain scientist and being able to analyze what was happening during her stroke, she was no less moved by the awe she experienced when she was suddenly enlightened by a severed connection to her left hemisphere.

The bottom line is that if you get a chance to see Akron/Family live, check it out, and when you find yourself in your church, just breathe it in.

Dicky on Dicky

Morning in San Francisco arrives at around 11:00 AM. The apartment was already empty as I awoke at noon to scavenge for food, the artist residents out doing their collection of odd jobs counting pedestrians and planning parties in the desert. “The towel on the door is mostly clean, it just has a little paint on it,” I was told via cell phone as I tried to assemble a morning routine. “Hey, did you count the girl with the storm trooper helmet as crossing the street twice? Gotta go…”

After poking through the dusty camping gear and santa suits that fill any burner household and coming up empty handed for towels, I decided to hit the street. I managed to find a french cafe I remembered from years past and ordered up a plate of avocado sandwiches. A pick up artist tried to work on me by talking about Tesla, but he had forgotten to google him first. His knowledge ran out long before his enthusiasm. Spring is in the air here, and hormone levels are high. Walking to the supermarket there was a lot of checking out going on before I ever reached the register. San Francisco is a beautiful city and I’m glad she appreciates me.

Last night was the long awaited viewing of The Dicky Box by Logan and Dicky himself. I’m pretty happy with the latest cut, or as happy as I’m going to be, and so it was time to face up to how I’d represented my friends. We rolled out a screen and cranked up the DVD. I would have made sure that everyone had beer, but they were way ahead of me, nervously cracking open bottles of Pabst. I teased them a little but, as Dicky said, “has anyone ever made a feature length film about you?”

I felt a little like I was introducing Dicky to the character Dicky that I had created from a brief time in his past. I wanted the two Dickys to get along, and learn from each other. I chuckled nervously at the silly over-the-top sequence of the kiss, and Dicky was appropriately mortified. “I mean, has anyone ever filmed you making out with someone?! In slow motion?!”

Talking afterwards, Dicky realized that he swore a lot more than he thought he did, and apologized. He also saw for the first time what made the project, and his role, what it was: how much he was both a truly emotional person and yet completely unwilling to admit to or share his emotional experience.

Logan was primarily concerned about his bad hair and strange comments. More than once he had to ask us, “what did I mean by that?” He was very generous, though, about the film I had created, and felt it was a fair representation.

It was a relief to me that the comments weren’t overwhelmingly negative. The things that made either of them uncomfortable pertained more to their own actions and hairstyles, and not the angle I provided. Dicky’s concern about font choice aside, I don’t feel the need to make major revisions now. I have some interest from a sales agent and I’ll be sending her a version very similar to this one when I get back to Austin. It’s time for this project to get some exposure and time for me to move on to the next story.