Vineyards of Devastation (My Poetic Manifesto)

Attila, the Scourge of God, by Ulpiano Checa

Attila, the Scourge of God, by Ulpiano Checa

In 451 AD, the Roman Empire became engaged in one of the bloodiest and most legendary battles in ancient history. The ferocious Attila and his forces (The Huns, Ostrogoths, Rugians, and several others) were making an attempt to invade Roman-controlled Gaul, and a sense of doom presided over the rusting empire. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, as it has come to be called, was a fight on a titanic scale. Estimates peg both sides as having between 50,000 to 80,000 men each. While Rome did win in the end, the cost of lives lost was beyond count. Maybe even worse is that, despite victory, this was one of the last wars that gasping empire would ever win before falling apart anyway a few decades later.

I bring it up because modern historians believe that it took place in the Champagne region of France. Yes, this patch of land, home to the most famous wine in the world, also happens to be one of the most battle-scarred regions on the planet. It seems that not just Attila, but everyone from neighboring Burgundy in the Middle Ages to the Germans in the 20th century had some sort of horrendous conflict in the fields and woodlands of this province. Authors Don & Petie Kladstrup observe nicely in their book on the subject:

“The greatest irony of all…is that Champagne, site of some of mankind’s bitterest battles, should be the birthplace of a wine the entire world equates with good times and friendship.”

Perhaps if you hold the Champagne grape up to the light you can see still the pain, the suffering, the simple seed of devastation that
floats in the core of that tiny fruit, that floats in that frothing goblet of liquid laughter. Within the beauty of every sunset, there is a greater, creeping darkness that takes the embers of the day out with the tide.

Chehalem_pinot_noir_grapesSo now you’re probably wondering what all my negativity and cynicism has to do with art at all. What virtue could there be in remembering a past that, arguably, has no effect on the taste of champagne? The answer is this: acknowledging the simple devastation floating in the wine of life leads to an intense, emotional connection with the world on a daily basis. It is so easy to go a day without feeling anything at all. Get up, drink your coffee, go to work, make small talk, watch some TV. We like to reserve intense emotion for falling in love and for being born, for funerals and for Friday nights. We ignore the taste, the tone, of sound and color. Nuance fades under an ever-present background noise- layers and layers of dust over the boxes of old Christmas gifts, new antiques, fossils that were never even unearthed. The use of our senses doesn’t bring us to a heightened state- instead we choose to use them to pacify, stuff ourselves with food and drink that lets us sleep and forget the existence of pain, doom, and death. What a life to live.

There is a sublime yet subtle devastation to all things, one that we are taught to ignore. The ghosts of the battlefields, both of antiquity and yesterday morning, still call to us on our daily commute, whisper to the stone and trees, and make their palaces in the innards of our sewers and subways. We, the wandering seas of being, choose to cover these aching volcanoes with a single color and a single taste for fear of them. These tombs can be paved over, yes, but like cavities in teeth they ache whenever any sweetness touches them.

There is a romance in the ordinary; there come times when you are able to fall in love at just the smell of air or the warmth of coffee. But it comes at the cost of shaking hands with the ghosts of the future: the inevitable decay of beauty, of love, of taste and sight. So the small things become very large, and take on gravities all their own.

That all said, this is my manifesto:

I will make my wine from the vineyards of devastation,

for such deaths were always mine to die. 

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Mental Health Week #3: On the Couch

This is the 3rd post in a three post series for Mental Illness Awareness Week

There’s an episode of the show Hey Arnold! I especially love called “Helga on the Couch.” This episode (posted above) addresses a lot of the issues and problems that people have with getting professional help for their illnesses: fear that others will stigmatize them, unsupportive families, fears of secrets being revealed and used against them. Those issues aren’t just kid problems though- they are also issues that adults face as well. I had some of those problems myself going in.

But it’s important to realize that I was the one who made the decision to go in. It took me a long time to go in as well because of what my family thought of psychologists. The first time I had actually sought refuge from my feelings in the school psychologist, the school called up my parents and I was yelled at and sent to talk with my pastor instead of a professional (not that religious leaders can’t be helpful, it’s just not their field). This event caused me to put off seeing anyone for years because I feared something horrible like that would happen.

Finally though, in my junior year of college, I decided it was time. Everyone I knew was moving on in different ways, yet I wasn’t. I was still stuck feeling the same way I did in high school. I told my parents over an email about my feelings and they got out of the way and let me take over my own treatment, which was nice. My doctor prescribed Cymbalta, which did help me focus more, but made me really drowsy. Meanwhile it took me four calls to find a psychologist who was actually accepting patients.

A lot of people think psychologists are master manipulators designed to brainwash you, but it’s simply not true. My experience has been very positive. One of my misconceptions is that the doctor would do most of the talking, when in fact that was my job. I was also under the impression that I would go to therapy and I would come out in a few months magically better, no work required. In fact though, therapy is a lot of work. You have to work to change thought patterns so that you’re not trapped in the cycle of your own depressing thoughts. By telling the psychologist what’s going on in your life, positive and negative, you learn to examine situations from a more objective perspective outside of your mind and work through them better. It may not sound like much, but it’s really help me to get better- even more so than the medication.

So that’s where I am now. After seven years, I’m finally starting to look at the world in a new light. Granted, I still have my issues, but I have found some very supportive friends willing to sit with me though them. I just hope that this has helped anyone dealing with similar issues. I suffered because I was too scared to get help and of what other people would say. Don’t be afraid though! Do it for yourself, for the future you, for the rest of your life. You’ll be much better for it.

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Mental Health Week #2: Dealing with It

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This post is the second in a series for National Mental Illness Awareness Week

When I got to high school, things went from bad, to worse. Though I didn’t know anything was wrong with me, I could feel it. In middle school I had been stressed out because of the work, but in high school the work just got more frequent, and more stressful. My days felt overloaded. I would get up early to catch the bus and spend the whole day bored and stressed, only to get home and sleep for a few hours before trying to get things done while pining away for a childhood I felt had finally left me. I still don’t know how I did it. It didn’t feel manageable.

Which leads me to another problem many people face with mental illness: a lack of understanding. Some people will fail to see anything wrong with you and deny that you have any problem at all. I have had many people fail to understand why I just couldn’t suck it up and deal with it. I’ve been called lazy and unmotivated, despite the fact I managed to pass all my classes with a mental illness on my shoulders like a screaming monkey. They can’t see anything wrong with you on the outside, so they think you’re just being lazy or something. Those words still stay with me.

I began to think I had a mental illness after I watched the film A Beautiful Mind for the first time. The thought had never occurred to me until then. Heck, I was never actually taught about mental illness until my senior year of high school, so I’m starting to think maybe it should be taught earlier. After that I spent a lot of my lunches in the library looking up various mental disorders, trying to find one that matched. The problem was, I never did find one that totally did. I had bits of depression and bits of anxiety disorders, but not enough to make a totally clear diagnosis. But I desperately wanted there to be something wrong with me because if there was, then it could be cured. I didn’t want this feeling to last for the rest of my life.

I actually didn’t find a match for what I have until just this year. It’s called dysthymia basically a form of depression with less severe symptoms than someone with major depressive disorder (Diet Depression, if you will). Dysthymia’s symptoms are a lot subtler than other types of mental illness and because of this, sufferers can go diagnosed for years without finding treatment and they just start to assume that’s how they are.

But we are not our illnesses. There is a person underneath all that that loves and cares and breathes and wants to live life to the full. Mental illness is just a stain that we have to clean up if we want it to go away. Which, after seven years of suffering, is what I finally did this year.

Part 3 Tomorrow

Mental Health Week #1: “Why Can’t You Just Get Over It?”

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This is the first post in a series for National Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Not to brag, but I’ve had a relatively secure life. I’m a white, Protestant, middle class, male for crying out loud (my people haven’t exactly had problems with inequality). My grades are good, I have friends. My parents are both alive and together. I get along with my siblings. No drug problems, although a bit of heartbreak here and there. There is really nothing in my life to complain about (unless it’s how taxing it is being alive, which we all do at some point).

So why depression?

This is the first of many confusing misconceptions when it comes to depression: people think they need a reason for it. When they can’t find one, it makes them feel incredibly guilty. I mean, how dare I feel this way? There are people starving and homeless and uneducated and in much worse situations than I am, and all I can do is feel depressed? So self-indulgent, so pathetic. So, the truth is, depression strikes people not just who have had horrible life experiences, but also those who haven’t any at all. In fact, scientists don’t really know what causes depression at all- all they know is that when certain levels of brain chemicals are changed, moods can be improved or worsened. Treating depression is the Schrodinger’s cat of psychology.

I started to feel depressed when I was in middle school. My friends and teachers noticed a palpable change come over me, but a lot seemed to just accept it. Middle school is the era of the first great change in a person’s life. It’s normal for kids, as they become teenagers, to become hormonal and weird and a billion other complicated things. Instead of maybe asking me if I wanted to talk to a counselor about my feelings though, most of my teachers were in two camps: they either made light of it (my nickname in middle school was Eeyore) or they just flat-out implied I should get over it, and I was being a bad Christian if I wasn’t being joyful. One of my teachers actually looked straight at my glum face one morning and had the nerve to write “Choose joy, choose Jesus” on the board.

I couldn’t though. Soon enough I forgot what joy was, and I didn’t realize maybe I had a problem until years later.

The author Andrew Solomon, in his book “The Noonday Demon,” says depression is a disease that can only be described in metaphors. I think this is one of the great barriers that healthy people have with empathizing with the mentally ill. I can tell you what it’s like, but you will still be unable to comprehend the feelings that motivate a person to act in such a way unless you have been there, done that, got the t-shirt. I’ll attempt though: it’s like a seagull stuck in an oil spill, like living on a planet where gravity pulls harder on you.

This was my life for a few years: wishing I would stop feeling so bad all the time for no reason and feeling guilty because I didn’t have a good one.

Part 2 Tomorrow

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Why I Don’t Like Christmas (A Defense)

Charles Dickens: Thanks for Nothing

Oh boy, Christmas is back. At our house, it was back within an hour of the end of Thanksgiving dinner. This seemed like overkill to me; I mean, is Thanksgiving really that unimportant to us? I’m pretty sure that at some point in the distant future, the holiday will be abolished so that the Christmas season can be longer.

I seem to be the lone member among my immediate circle of friends who hates Christmas. Which, surprise surprise, makes Christmas even worse for me.

For example:

You don’t like Christmas? What is WRONG with you? Don’t you like fun? Don’t you like the presents? You never complained when you were a kid! You’re just a Scrooge.

Every year I get something along those lines from family and friends, and now I would like to justify the reasons I don’t like Christmas (SIDE NOTE: do you realize when you call someone a Scrooge, you’re also implying that they don’t care about the poor, think child labor is a good thing, and that they are destined for hell? Yeah, Scrooge actually had other character flaws besides hating Christmas. Go figure).

Fat Bearded Men are So Magical

1. The Hype: What I fail to understand sometimes is why people seem to love Christmas so much. If I were to say I hated Easter (the colors make me want to throw up too), Valentine’s Day (S.A.D. Par-TAY!), or the Fourth of July (How can we celebrate freedom when OBAMA IS TAKIN AWAY MY CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO HAVE NO HEALTH INSURANCE!?), people can sympathize with me. Christmas though…if you don’t like Christmas, it’s like you just told someone that their child is a lizard-faced harpy who is going to grow up to be the Antichrist.

So what makes Christmas soooo different from other holidays? The hype. At this point, Christmas has been hyped up to be not just about Jesus Christ, Santa, or even family: it attempts to capture a mood, a feeling, a different time, a kind of unattainable perfection, an impossible dream. I guess people want to believe that there is still some sort of magic in the world, and that only at Christmas can miracles happen. Christmas is not just mere nostalgia: it has actually elevated a certain set of ideals.

The thing is though, it’s not magical. Christmas often leaves me feeling incredibly sad and lonely. I see the ideals that are put forth by Christmas (peace on Earth, good will to men, true love, a belief in the magical, etc.) and then I look at the world, THE REAL world, and nothing has changed. It seems like this…lie that people trick themselves into believing every year. Millions of people actually tell their kids a lie about a fat guy who leaves presents because they want it to be real and it is not. Christmas is just a holiday with a good marketing team and a cherished history. I don’t think I am soulless for seeing the gap between the ideals and the reality .

2. The History

The Christmas Tree has its Origins in Pagan Tradition

Something else that comes to mind every Christmas for me is the idea that I just might be a heretic. I mean, Christmas is a Christian holiday, so isn’t it sacrilegious for me NOT to like it? I don’t think so.

I will admit, I do enjoy going to Church during Christmastime. The story of the birth of Christ is one of the all time greats, but I enjoy it even more when the sermons focus on Christ’s return, which we Christians believe will ultimately bring about eternal joy and peace- values that Christmas espouses.

The only problem with this is that Christ was not born at Christmas: he was probably born in the spring or the summer. The whole reason we have Christmas in December revolves around the idea of Christianizing the pagan winter festivals. So, does that make Christmas Christian? It seems like the holiday was invented as a compromise instead of actually celebrating the birth of Christ.

But nobody told me this. FOR YEARS. For me, finding out that Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday and actually doesn’t have Christian roots in the first place was more devastating than finding out Santa wasn’t real. Why don’t we ever learn THIS history in Sunday school?

3. Consumerism

Yeah, it’s clichéd at this point: Charlie Brown told us about how depressing the commercialization of Christmas was almost 50 years ago (yes, you are really that old. Bask in the glory of your wisdom). It still remains true though. Black Friday sales just keep getting earlier and earlier, and Christmas remains a powerful economic force, especially in this time of recession.

But how many Christmas gifts will it take until you are satisfied? When will all the want fill that void inside you? I can’t remember my Christmas presents from two years ago, can you?

There are times I wonder if Christmas would be as well-loved as it is without the idea of presents. The naive idealism of the holiday seems to suggest that this would be the case, but still…I think if we got presents on Groundhog Day, it would be a lot more popular. Some people say Christmas is a great holiday because it encourages giving, even connecting the idea of overconsumerism to Christ’s gift of himself for the salvation of humanity. The other side of the coin though is that with the art of giving comes the art of receiving, and with it a sense of entitlement.

I’m not saying we should boycott the idea; I’m just saying maybe we should reflect on it more and consider scaling it down.

And there you have it: why I don’t like Christmas. Simply put, I feel like a phony, heretical, greedy child every year. Nothing big or anything. Please tell me there are others like me who prefer their holidays quiet, simple, and not quite as grand and over the top.

Apologies and Giant Ground Squirrels

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Yeah, be afraid

I know, I know: it’s been three months since my last entry. I have a good excuse though. You see, for past three months, I have been fighting a race of giant ground squirrels from 1965.

Yes. Yes, really.

No one knows where they came from, why they’re albino, or have tails the size of Buicks, but there they were, stampeding over land and sea on everything from Model-T’s to Jet skis and SOMEONE had to go stop them.

Well, yeah. Enough of THAT boring story.

I’ve actually been locked in a class struggle. And by class struggle,  mean that I’ve been taking simultaneous summer classes that leave me with very little free time to come up with creative ideas for blog posts (Shakespeare stole MY SOUL and handed it back to be stuffed with “thous” and “nunnerys” and such other marvelous words).

I think though I am going to take a scholarly approach to romantic comedies. Have any favorites?

Poetry Awareness Month

According to what the libraries have been murmuring, it’s National Poetry Month! I’m kind of psyched because last April, I had almost no taste for poetry.

In school, all we learned about “poetry” was the poetic forms like sonnets and villanelles. Then we had to try to imitate those kinds of forms with our feeble eighth grade writing skills. I didn’t learn about free verse until I got to college, and I immensely enjoy the power, beauty and structure of it all. Which is why I think National Poetry Month is such a worthwhile endeavor: it educates people who think poetry is all form and no fun about how wonderful and enriching just reading poetry can be.

More posts covering NPM to follow!

Official Poster from Poets.org

East Meets West: A Romantic Opera Fad

Author’s Note: this post was first published on my old blog, Jerseyvania!

Fads have their place in every art form. There is no way to avoid them. No matter what anyone does, it will always be fashionable to go with the flow. An entire century of new, dissonant music was born out of composers’ desire to distance themselves from romantic tradition. At least they didn’t have to deal with Beanie Babies, Pokemon, or Furbies (creepy things). My point is that fads themselves are timeless.

In the late 1800’s, the heyday of romantic opera, it became hip to write, compose, paint etc. about Asia. Fascination with China was just beginnings after a wave of immigrants began to reach the shores of the United States. Japan also opened its doors to the west for the first time in history around this time period. The West seemed to take an interest in the different customs of the Asian people, and Asian influences took the art world by storm.

Opera was no exception. Les pecheurs de perles, or, The Pearl Fishers, was a 3 act opera by George Bizet. Set in ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka), it concerns the great friendship between two fisherman, Zurga and Nadir. They pretty much promise to be each others BFFs until a beautiful woman they once loved returns, leading to danger, romance, and the testing of their friendship. This aria is sung by both of these characters and is one of Bizet’s most well-known:

Also a French export, Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (The King of Lahore) is set in the Far East. In India, the prime minister Scindia has fallen in love with his niece, a priestess at the temple. Much to his chagrin, the King of Lahore is also in love with her. Chaos ensures for all parties involved (noticing a pattern here?).

Leo Delibes set his opera Lakme in India as well, this time with a more contemporary setting. The opera takes place during the British occupation of India and the culture clash that ensues when a British officer falls for an Indian girl. Let’s put it this way: Lakme’s dad isn’t exactly happy she’s dating this Englishman. Like most opera, it doesn’t end well. The most famous aria from this opera is the well-known Flower Duet between Lakme and her servant:

Last, but certainly not least, is Puccini’s Turandot, set in ancient China. The cold princess Turandot declares that to win her hand in marriage, a suitor must answer three riddles correctly or be put to death. A love struck prince manages to answer all three riddles, but because his love for Turandot is so much, he offers her his life if she guesses his name instead. The Prince declares his confidence in his victory in the aria Nessun Dorma, considered an operatic masterpiece:

What art world fads annoy/fascinate you? Tell me in comments.

 

 

The Mystery of Roden Crater

Turrell's Plans for Roden Crater, from the Official Website of the Project

Somewhere in the Arizona desert lies a nondescript hill. Perhaps it inspires some mild curiosity at the first glance, enough for you to take a picture of it. It doesn’t look extraordinarily interesting. It’s just a hill, you think, and move on. If that hill happens to be called Roden Crater though, you are greatly mistaken. If it is, that makes that hill one of the great mysteries of the art world.

Roden Crater is a volcanic crater that is about 600 feet tall and resides in the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Arizona. It caught the eye of artist James Turrell, who had been looking for a new project on a grand scale. Turell’s art often deals with both light and space, using neutral colors and open spaces to highlight pieces of sky (dubbed skyspaces) as well as the nature of light itself.

Turell had a crazy idea: what if he could turn Roden Crater into a natural observatory? Using the same techniques he used in creating skyspaces, astronomical events such as the winter and summer solstices could be projected in much the same way some archaeologists think ancient monuments like Stonehenge were used. It was a gorgeous idea…one that would require A LOT of money.

"The Space that Sees", an Example of a Skyspace

Obtaining the necessary loans and funding (involving a million dollar loan and support from the Dia Art Foundation), Turrell bought the crater in 1977 and began his work.

It’s 35 years later and Roden Crater is still under construction, making it one of the great teases of the art world. The New York Times, in an article about Turell’s project, told several stories of people breaking into the crater for a sneak peek at what Turrell has been working on this entire time. Not many of them gave up that much information, but seemed to be awestruck by what they had seen.

What strikes me the most about this project is its scope, its beauty and its cost. As an astronomy buff, I love the concept of the naked-eye observatory. What got me though was the cost, not just the monetary cost, but the emotional toll it took on Turrell’s life. In an interview with PBS’ Art 21, Turrell stated that the crater had cost him “two marriages and a relationship”. It involved him taking out a loan of a million dollars, and even after all this time, it still isn’t done. It makes one wonder if it cost too much.

That’s one question I believe only Turrell can answer. Hopefully one day we will be able to see Roden Crater in all its glory one of these days and find out if it was all worth it. How much would you be willing to give up for the sake of your passion? Leave your response in comments.