Category Archives: Musings on the Meaning of Life

some secondhand thoughts

saving time from what?
what unspeakable evil
is it that besets time
that it needs rescuing so?

time-saving aids are
promised us
as lifelines to
a better life

but what if I should
prove unworthy
and time should
perish on my watch?

The Golden Art

Original artwork by Lorem Ipsum 2014

Original artwork by Lorem Ipsum 2014

I can’t exactly confess to having been afflicted with writer’s block this past year. For instead it’s truer to say I had totally given up on being a writer altogether.

Ironically, however, the circumstances leading to my complete abandonment of my craft, I believe, make for an interesting enough story, on reflection.

After having seen my debut novel sink beneath the waves of global public indifference, it was suggested to me I seek guidance in the form of mentoring from an already established writer.

And as an example of the adage “careful what you wish for”, through a series of seemingly synchronistic events, I soon managed to make contact with one of this country’s more celebrated and awarded writers.

What thrilled me most of all was the fact that this writer in question also claims to have been largely inspired to write by the very same 17th century alchemist I myself have been. Too mind-blowingly cool!

Anyway, now the story gets a little bit more complicated. Because my first real contact with this writer is actually with his wife. An amazing experience in itself. For, literally two or three days earlier, I had quite by chance read the book of poems written for her by her future husband to be, with which he had first wooed her. And now here was this great writer’s muse standing before me — in the hallowed recesses of his writing studio no less — sharing intimate details of the intervening 40 years of their married lives together.

“I think he really is happy at last,” she confessed to me, “now that he has decided to stop writing.”

It was the usual story. There’s no money in it anymore, the dumbing down of the reading public, the all-pervasive curse of political correctness. This is a man after all that can recite whole cantos of classical poems in their original Latin, from memory. I mean, I feel stupid even thinking of myself as a writer worthy of the name in comparison.

So I listen to how this great luminary has finally decided to call it quits and feel all conviction drain from my body. Still, I leave my details with his wife and arrange for a time when it would be convenient for me to make contact with the man I wished to be my writing mentor.

Soon afterwards, I do in fact next have a telephone conversation with the man himself. Although the problem is that I can’t seem to clarify whether he thinks he is going to mentor me as an apprentice alchemist or as a failed novelist. Argggh, it’s all so hopeless! I don’t know what the hell’s going on.

“Look, it’s very hard to talk about these things abstractly,” he says, “but I’ve got a book of essays coming out next month that explains everything. Give me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Read that, and then we can start from there.”

Fine. I’m totally confused. Not least because his wife has just told me he has quit writing, and yet now I’m informed he apparently has a new collection of essays coming out. Also, I don’t know if I’m ready to start an apprenticeship as a real-life alchemist any time soon.

A month passes. Nothing. No book of essays comes my way. Just as I suspected. The whole thing was an elaborate lie to brush me off. Okay, so this writer is no JD Salinger when it comes to reclusive writer types, but he’s not exactly the kind to hold literary soirées either. All right fine. I give up, I think to myself. Being a writer simply isn’t worth it. What’s more, I’ve made a complete golden ass of myself with this whole mentoring debacle already.

Two months pass. Three, four, five. Still nada. I turn my attention to honing my guitar playing skills, swearing to never write another stinking word. Alchemy is for the birds. What delusional world had I been living in? Synchronicity? Oh, brother!

Seven, eight, nine months go by. I haven’t written a single poem, stanza or word. But my guitar playing is off the chart. Woo-hoo, couldn’t be happier.

Ten, eleven, twelve months have now past, when I pull up in the driveway and see an envelope sticking out of the letterbox. I grab the oversized piece of post and open it distractedly in the front seat of the car.

Oh, shit. It’s the book of essays, but I can’t remember their significance. I’m finally happy being just another second-rate guitarist rocking the suburbs. Man, I’ve given up. Like really given up. What the fuck. I feel like someone has just dragged the needle back across the record of my life, and that the back-masked message I’m now hearing threatens to implode the very reality of my new simple, dumbed-down choice of existence.

“Read that, and then we can start from there,” my would-be mentor had told me almost exactly a year ago.

Start what? I can’t remember what it was I wanted so badly. Let me go back to my Wild Turkey and amplified heat haze. Fuck this, I was happy. I was happy for having quit.

I crack open the cover of the book, searching for answers. But it only gets worse. My mentor has handwritten notes to me in the margins of his own book. His tone is jovial and self-deprecating; his handwriting impeccably informal.

Don’t make me go back to being my old self, I beg the Fates. It’s too hard to contemplate. I’m a fraud. A master alchemist will see right through me. I’ve forgotten how to turn words into a golden phrase. I have fallen out of love with all language and it with me.

But still I hold this invitation in my hands.

the best things in life

Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Photo courtesy of wikipedia

the best things in life

there’s always something
else to spend your money on
a new car house underwear
the latest must-have
staking its claim on you and
your future happiness (of course
let’s not forget contentment also)
but what’s it all for when
air water sunlight all remain free
the essential ingredients of a rainbow
because if you care to think
about it maybe there’s your cauldron
of faery gold right there

“And I Had Done an Hellish Thing…”

The title quote comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, for those of you not familiar with the poem, these words are how the Ancient Mariner describes his killing of an albatross.

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert about this poem, not even for a minute. In fact, like with a lot of poetry, I tend to let the words simply wash over me and then form an impression of the poem based on what stays with me after I have finished reading.

Granted, it’s probably a fairly imprecise way of dealing with poems, but I am far more interested in poetic appreciation these days rather than deep contextual analysis and interpretation. Suffice to say, I’m content to leave such tasks to academics and their PhD students.

So, with that understood, I wish to now talk about what the title quote means to me, personally. Because I admit to currently being obsessed by the idea of having done “an hellish thing”, for which one must next do penance.

I can’t explain directly why this concept should fascinate me as much as it does. I mean, it’s not like, for instance, that I’ve done anything particularly hellish myself ever. Well, not in this lifetime, I’m pretty certain.

However, as a case in point about my obsession, when it came to my writing a novel, I chose for some undefinable reason to write about the defunct Antichrist’s search for a personal moral compass and eventual redemption, in a world long gone to hell. And, surely, there exists no more hellish figure than that, obviously other than Satan himself.

So, do I identify with this figure, then, somehow? This most evil and unforgivable agent of the apocalypse? Is that what is going on here? For why else would I have spent all those hours writing a novel about such an odious character?

And, I suppose, therefore, the answer to these questions must ultimately be, “yes”. Essentially, I see something universal about the figure of the Antichrist. There is something of the Antichrist in each and everyone of us, I would suggest. But let me explain, first, before you object.

OK, for me, then, this is the meaning behind the Rolling Stones’ lyrics to Sympathy for the Devil, where Mick Jagger sings,

‘I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me’

You see, we all carry the burden of guilt for hellish things that are done in the world, even when those things are done ostensibly by others. If there is evil in the world, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to identify our own individual share in this evil.

Women and children are being killed every day in foreign war zones. And if you live in a Western democracy you must accept that a certain percentage of these innocent civilians are being killed in your name. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. Even if it’s happening on the other side of the world, in a country you can’t find on a map. It is a sickening fact you can’t truthfully deny.

Whether we like it or not, we all carry this guilt, just like the Ancient Mariner, who had the body of the albatross he killed tied around his neck, as penance.

And you know what? It stinks! Sure, some of it is simply middle-class guilt, I’m describing. A privileged form of despair, if you will. But, deep down, anyone with even a scrap of conscience must concede that our lives are ultimately built on the suffering and exploitation of others.

I understand it’s not a pleasant message I’m putting out there. But I honestly believe it to be the truth. Likewise, with the novel I wrote. It may not have the most pleasing literary style or even a heart-warming narrative, but it seeks to tell it like it really is. Not how we like to think things are, but how they are below the sanitized surface of political correctness.

But why? Why would I intentionally set out to remind people about what miserable wretches we all are? Why, indeed…

Well, anyway, let me tell you why. Because I have done an hellish thing, and this is my penance.


The Writer’s Art and Learning How to Read People Like an Open Book

I had a brilliant exchange of ideas today, with a regular visitor to the Missing Zero Facebook page. Now, look, I know from reading other authors’ blogs here at WordPress a lot of you don’t know what Facebook offers. And usually I would wholeheartedly agree with you.

But recently I’ve started to get some good interactions happening. Sure, there’s still the odd, drunken interloper who types random, semi-coherent comments about all sorts of bizarre stuff. However, the slightly surreal nature of the Missing Zero page probably lends itself to these kinds of agents of chaos dropping by. My bad.

Anyhow, as I was saying earlier, this regular visitor to my Facebook site and I got into quite a prolonged exchange, whereby we ended up covering a whole range of different topics. Which got me to thinking about how, quite literally, everybody’s got a story to tell.

You see, the thing is, as writers, it’s easy for us to forget that telling stories is not the sole preserve of we wordsmiths alone. Everybody has something interesting to say, ultimately, sheerly by having experienced this precarious condition of what we term being alive.

For instance, this guy I was messaging backwards and forwards with began telling me about some experiences he’d had with the supernatural. I can’t divulge too much, unfortunately, because I haven’t okayed it with him first. Yet, let me just say, though, it was some pretty eerie and thought-provoking stuff. A messages-from-the-beyond type of thing. Believe me, it made the Sixth Sense seem like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Well, I was fascinated (if also a little spooked), and it struck me this guy’s story was better and more intriguing than anything I’ve ever read that dealt with similar topics. Essentially, I guess, it was a case of truth being stranger than fiction.

But the larger lesson, for me, I believe, was the realization that I need to look more to real life (and, in particular, at how real people tell the stories that make up their lives), as a way of learning more about the art of storytelling. Instead of reading yet another scholarly handbook on the writer’s craft, that is.

If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Next time you’re thrown together with someone you don’t know, trust in the fact that they have, at the very least, one amazing story they’re just itching to tell you, should you only just let them. And take my word, it’ll be better than anything you could ever possibly come up with, even if you were somehow capable of channeling both Edgar Allan Poe and Dostoevsky simultaneously. Consider it my money-back guarantee!

A copy photograph of the portrait painted by O...

A copy photograph of the portrait painted by Oscar Halling in the late 1860’s of Edgar Allan Poe. Halling used the “Thompson” daguerreotype, one of the last portraits taken of Poe in 1849, as a model for this painting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reality Fatigue and the Truth of Why We Read What We Read

While thinking about the purpose of fiction today, I came up with the idea of “reality fatigue”. You see, I’d been following this chain of logic about how reading books is a form of escapism — escape from reality, that is — and I started to wonder what was so dreadful about the real world.

After all, most of us who actually have time to read works of fiction mustn’t be too badly off, surely? Our housing, clothing and food needs are obviously being adequately met. So what is it we book-loving, world-denying types are seeking to escape? Boredom?

Yes, to some degree, boredom or ennui is probably partly the reason we try to lose ourselves in the pages of a book. Also, isolation or alienation from others might explain this retreat into fictitious worlds of the imagination. Unhappiness due to heartbreak or loss might similarly be a motivating factor to read.

Whatever. I suppose, my conclusion was all of these various states of being could be labelled under the blanket term of “reality fatigue”. And, as it happens, I believe I was suffering today from exactly that.

My day wasn’t particularly arduous or stressful; in fact, I had nothing pressing to do and all my needs were satisfactorily being met. Yet I was on edge somehow. Real life was making me feel claustrophobic. There was a sameness to everything: my thoughts, my social interactions with others, those nagging doubts I’m habitually plagued with etc. It was all too familiarly familiar.

And then I stumbled upon a book. It was a collection of ghost stories, of all things. A genre I would usually avoid. However, my reality fatigue ran deep, and so I began reading the tales of horror contained therein, in spite of myself.

Well, in truth, I only read one such tale. Because that was all it took to change my day. The story I speak of was neither particularly scary or suspenseful. Okay, it was sort of suspenseful. Nonetheless, I felt I had lived through something by the time I’d finished reading it.

I’m not going to get into how the writing achieved this effect on me. My only interest, here and now, is to observe that the story recharged the coping mechanism within me that helps me deal with reality. The story cured me of my reality fatigue. Which makes me think reading, for me, isn’t strictly speaking a form of escape, but rather a way of replenishing my spirit. I believe the two concepts are quite different, although you might not agree?

On the flip-side of this idea, there is something interesting to be said about the role of us writers, then, when seen in the context of my experience of reality fatigue and its literature-based cure, I would argue.

As is usually the case, though, a much earlier thinker/writer than myself has distilled this idea down into a pithy phrase. And here ’tis:

“A tale, however slight, illuminates truth.” – Jalaluddin Rumi

In light of which, by reworking this phrase into slightly different words, I would put it to you there is literally no escaping the truth through the so-called “escapism” of reading. For even a tale told by an idiot signifies something, if it should connect with another, true?

There’s No Success Like Failure And Failure’s No Success at All

I’m probably not the first person to argue the fact that fear of success can easily generate the same crippling level of anxiety, in the mind of any given individual, that fear of failure can.

The trappings of success stand to ensnare us, just as equally as they have the potential to liberate us from our mundane ordinariness.

Which makes me think, as artists, we writer-types are oftentimes supreme masters of self-sabotage. I suppose, what I’m really trying to say is that we set ourselves up to fail. Almost as a method of self-preservation, I’d put it to you.

Because how else is it that what we create doesn’t succeed? Once the basics of grammar and structure are grasped, what makes the work of one writer outshine that of another? I mean, there are only 12 or so different storylines in the history of written language. In fact, Shakespeare himself, for instance, failed to come up with a single original plot throughout the duration of his much celebrated career.

So, therefore, I suspect, success actually equates with unshakeable self-belief. And this is what is meant by the idea that somebody is not yet ready to step up to the plate, as a writer or artist, to claim their rightful place amongst other successful luminaries in his or her field. It means they don’t believe themselves to be worthy yet.

But just how is this feeling of unworthiness expressed in unconscious acts of self-sabotage, exactly? Well, the simple act of repeatedly not meeting a daily word-count goal is a simple example of this.

As is my wont, I have found a counterexample to this kind of self-defeating thinking, from within the world of music and musicians. And I often reflect on the message that this counterexample contains, when contemplating my own lack of success in my creative life. It’s basically a quote from legendary guitarist Carlos Santana, in which he says that one day he simply realized he was too good to be washing dishes for a living.

I think he’s long since proved his point, wouldn’t you say? And I’m hoping I’ve also succeeded in making mine somewhere along the way within all this. “Oye Como Va!”

Idle is as Idle Does — A Book Review of Sorts

Today represents something of a first for the Missing Zero blog, as I undertake my inaugural attempt at a book review. In my usual way, however, said review will not necessarily conform to the standard format for such things.

The book under review (I think) is called How to Be Idle. And is written by the well-known exponent of the “slow movement” Tom something-or-other.

Now, at the outset, let me point out that I’ve been so influenced by the title in question’s call for universal idleness that my review is in essence merely an idle exploration of the book’s various merits, be they literary, philosophical or otherwise.

So it might be best to think of this review as being a kind of verbal plug one of your friends might make for a book he or she has read a year or so ago. For indeed that is the length of time that has elapsed since I first read this work of nonfiction currently being reviewed.

Anyway, from what I recall, the book is divided up into chapters that correspond to the hours of a single day. Within which, examples are given from throughout history as to how various practices of idleness have been observed down through the ages.

An example might be, for instance, that 6.00pm has traditionally been associated with the cocktail hour. And snippets of poetry and comic observations of celebrated wags like Oscar Wilde will be mixed together with anarchist sentiment to explore and celebrate the golden age/hour of the gin sling and the vodka martini.

Believe me, I’m not doing Tom-what’s-his-face enough justice with this example, though, because his style is both very British and superbly droll, in an educated-at-Eton, English-public-school-kind of way.

I suppose, the main thrust of his book’s central argument is that it’s completely crazy to accept that as human beings we must work from 9 till 5 everyday, when historically this was most certainly never the norm. Agricultural laborers, he points out, for example, traditionally worked seasonally and spent their down time mostly drunk, waiting for harvest time to again come around.

In fact, he says his own inspiration for founding his literary career came from protracted soaking sessions in the bathtub, where he just spent time simply loafing off and idly musing about whatever took his fancy.

Tellingly, his biggest beef seems to be with Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote which states, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. What proof is there, the book’s author indignantly asks, that this oft-quoted phrase even has any validity whatsoever?

But there really is much more to commend the writing than these few examples. To wit, the entry on the dying art of the long business lunch was a particular favorite of mine, along with the similarly extolled virtues of learning to look forward to (nay, even love) the morning-after hangover.

In conclusion, while confessing that I never bothered to finish reading How to Be Idle, I readily identify it as being a formative text in the creation of my personal philosophy on life. If I had to give it a score, I wouldn’t. On the grounds that reading is not a sport, wherein points are awarded for goal-scoring activities and the like.

Suffice to say, if a copy of How to Be Idle should drift your way, at some time in the future, be sure to idle away a few hours within its deceptively illuminating pages. It just might change your life…


A Questionable Philosophy?

I was taken aback yesterday, when a young child, quite out of the blue, asked me what my philosophy was.

After doing a sort of double-take due to the impromptu nature of the question, I then tried to think whether I even have a philosophy as such. Sure, I’m always going on and on about a whole bunch of imponderables. But I tend to drift between whatever interests me, at any given time.

Anyway, not wanting to seem foolish in front of a child, I decided I really needed to come up with something fast. So I did. Because, apparently, unbeknownst to me, I do have my own personal philosophy floating around inside my mind, which (on reflection, I’m inclined to argue) guides me in how I generally view the world and others.

And here it is:

“Everybody should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t interfere with anybody else.”

Slightly anarchic, I guess. But something I’m happy to stick with, until something better should come along. Interesting, though, that it took a child’s innocent question to put me in touch with this guiding principle I’ve been unconsciously living my life in line with, all this time. Oh well, from the mouth of babes, I suppose…

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

The interpretation of dreams is something that has fascinated me for most of my life. The fact that for as long as I can remember I have had at least two or three dreams a night, I suspect, probably goes a long way towards explaining my fascination with dreams, more generally.

Anyhow, I recently read an interesting idea that stated certain dreams serve as a kind of inoculation. By introducing the dreamer to certain concepts, within the safe context of a dream, the unconscious is able to prepare an individual for events that could prove to be otherwise psychologically traumatic, if experienced without any kind of prior warning.

While not always prophetic in nature, these dreams often foretell something we’re not necessarily able to predict with our conscious minds. An example of this was the story someone told me, not so long ago, about how when he was a young man he dreamt his fiancé broke up with him, saying she was leaving to travel abroad. Sure enough, the next morning he received a phone call exactly to that effect.

In recalling his story, the man telling me this laughed at my incredulity. But what really struck me more was how totally at peace he was, with what could have easily resulted in a lifelong psychological wound.

What’s even more interesting again, though, is how many people report similar experiences to this, once you start asking them. Which is, I guess, the true purpose of this post, ultimately. Because I’m wondering if any of you who are reading this can recall having had dreams of the kind I’m talking about? And, if so, whether you’d like to share your story?