On Ramon Rivas II, and Fame

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy

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Ramon Rivas II is in town doing a show at the fringe.

We had him over for brunch on Saturday, and when he walked in, it was like being in Cleveland again.  We ate pancakes and potatoes and sausage and hearty foods, and talked about the midwest, and Los Angeles, and how we met, and people we knew in common, and eighty thousand other things.  Old friends are always gorgeous, and it is amazing to think that someone I’ve known for years is being paid to travel around the world now doing comedy; that people put him on television, and put him up in hotels, and he gets to fly on planes and people pay for it, and he’s just this kid that I ate Mexican food with a few years ago; he hasn’t changed, really, but now he’s getting recognition for all his hard work.

His show is about a lot of things, but the main thrust of it is that people are changing, relationships are changing, and he’s trying to remake himself, to figure out what he is about and what he wants to be about in his relationships, if not his life.  I’d read about the show before he came over, and with him being, well, kind of famous now, and having a Comedy Central show, and doing gigs all over the world, and me being off social media, I had an unrelated, but kind of related, thought:

Throughout history, people had to recognize that they were…well, not all that important, in the grand scheme of things.  While they may have wished for worldwide fame, glory, infamy and immortality, almost everyone had to face the reality of near-total obscurity.  People in the past had to focus on a small horizon rather than reaching others around the world; their experience was limited to a very small geographic area, and very few people.

But today, in the west, there is social media, and social media celebrities, and those social media celebrities are not all that different than us, just more famous around the world, and everyone can get light-touch positive feedback on everything we do from people we don’t know and will never meet or see.  That possibility of international fame and influence, however slight it actually is, creates a need for activity, for action, for busyness, all in the search for social proof and support.  We seem to feel the need to be constantly doing things, constantly craving attention, and we’re uncomfortable when we don’t get it.

And in thinking about social media, I wondered: the constant need for the support of strangers that we experience in social media…is that what it’s like to be famous?  And, if so, is there a pressure that results from feeling that need for light-touch feedback – and is that the overwhelming psychosis of our time?  Is that affecting how we see ourselves, how we act, how we are?  Is part of the problem with social media that we end up feeling a bit famous, and is that dopamine hit with each like the sort of thing that famous people feel all the time – and claim to hate, but of course really love?  Is it what they both crave and flee, and is that what makes them act apparently irrationally; is it what we see when they act in a seemingly entitled way, or a psychotic way, and we watch them from afar, perhaps not liking it, but giving them the attention that is like a Like – and is that making everyone now, today, a bit…crazy?

At brunch, I talked to Ramon about this, and he seemed to be thinking along the same lines.  And while we were talking, I realized: What’s great about Ramon is that he is so completely focused on working hard.  Comedy, for him, is a calling, a career; he’s not just doing it for a few years to have fun and meet girls.  He was late to brunch because he was able to pick up a few minutes at someone else’s set to perform a few jokes, and he left early to go hand out fliers for his own show at 10 p.m.; he did his show after a ten-hour workday, and then went to another venue to perform again at midnight.  I think that if he didn’t absolutely have to sleep, he would be working 24 hours a day to get stage time, to write and try out new jokes, to hustle.  And that’s not just for the Fringe – he does this every single day.  The fame and recognition he’s getting isn’t about the soft touch support; that support is just a tool to help him get better, work harder, to reach more people, to push the envelope more.  It’s not part of the psychosis of fame; fame is a tool that keeps getting refined.

And that’s why he’s going to succeed.

Anyway, it was great to see Ramon, and to know that someone I know is sort of famous now, and to see him in action on stage again, and to laugh with (at) him, and to be inspired.

Morning Light and Chairs and the Shadows of my Breath

Color, Edinburgh, Photography, Scotland

Every morning, I wake up at 5:50 AM to meditate. The light is different every day, and I am learning to recognize the patterns played by the the rising sun. A month ago, the sun was rising an hour earlier, and it seemed like it never actually set. Recently, the sun has been rising later, and sometimes filters through the clouds differently. When there are no clouds, and it hits the objects in our living room, it can sometimes create magical patterns on the walls, as happened with these chairs.

In the presence of the final mystery

black and white, Color, Portrait, travel

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“Culture, in the deeper issues, is no smooth, placid, academic thing. It is no carefully arranged system of rules and theories. It is the passionate and imaginative instinct for things that are distinguished, heroic and rare. It is the subtilizing and deepening of the human spirit in the presence of the final mystery.” John Cowper Powys

Portobello Blues and The Dharma Bums

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Photography, Scotland, travel
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Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland

I hated Hated HATED The Dharma Bums for the first seventy eight pages.  But then, on page 79, I realized that he was disenchanted with California Buddhism as much as anyone, and I suddenly realized that he was ridiculing ALL of society, both the people gladly caught up in conspicuous consumerist culture and the people who rail against that consumerist culture and then, as soon as they get $300 in 1955 dollars in their pockets, will spend an entire day spending it, exulting in what they are able to buy, and then write an entire chapter on it, un-self-consciously hypocritical.  Oh man, did I end up enjoying it.

According to Wikipedia, this was one of the reviews:

“Don’t read Kerouac when you’re too young. Read him as you join that long death march called steady employment. Then look back. Look back to all the people you knew, those people who went here and there, those people who knew odd patches of philosophy and poetry. They fucked. They doped and boozed in desperate self medication. Look back at yourself. Jack travels here and there. He knows people with Odd Knowledge. They have plumbed the breadth and depth of human existence. They get laid in the era before The Pill. They doped and boozed. They had the Knowledge. Read Kerouac and look back. And then it occurs to you. It’s all been done before. None of your old pals will ever be quite what he once was in your memory. And you’ll know Kerouac for what he was. And you know that amidst all the lies, he told the truth. The truth with a little ‘t’. He wanted to fool you, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t in him; he hadn’t the talent for it. He had only enough to tell you the way he had wanted it to be. How he wanted it to be when he looked back on it.”  John Suiter

I’m going to enjoy re-reading this regularly now that I’m no longer in my youth.  If anything, it’s making me far more sympathetic to people; I certainly realize how intolerant, how incomprehensibly and unacceptably intolerant, I have been, and how I need to change, and how so much of the time we have the same goals and just go about it from different angles, or, as Bob said, me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint; we always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view, and

There was a wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.  You’ll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everyone in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips.  Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye.  But neither was Japhy…

On being American abroad, and having no traditions

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Last year, when we first moved to Edinburgh, there were fireworks every night from the castle on the hill.  When I lived in San Diego, there were fireworks across the bay every night during the summer, so at first I just though that it must be part of Edinburgh’s sunlight celebrations.  Alice quickly realized that it was part of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the largest and most famous of its kind.  We looked into tickets at the time, but they were absurdly expensive, and we weren’t really committed to going, with Alice starting work and me trying to learn to code.

But this year, we got tickets through the Royal Scots Club – half-price, with a big dinner beforehand.  I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be an incredible cultural experience.  Countries around the world sent teams of performers to participate; each country had the stage to themselves for a show, all of which seemed to emphasize some aspect of their cultural tradition.

But as wonderful as it was to see so many countries celebrating their heritage and music, the whole thing made me a bit sad.  As an bi-racial American and a Southern Californian, I grew up with comparably little sense of tradition, or perhaps I just didn’t realize at the time what our traditions actually were.  Any singular culture we might have claimed existed was a blend of every other culture we encountered.  Come to think of it, with every new encounter our traditions changed; heck, Southern California was constantly reinventing its traditions and culture, and how can you claim a consistent culture when culture is adopted and discarded with each season’s fashions?  But perhaps it is one of America’s greatest strengths to allow people to opt out of tradition should they wish to.  At the same time, to not have anything to anchor us to the past, and nothing that we might hope to pass on to the future – it feels like there’s a void where we have no truly singular national identity-

But actually, I take that back.  Every other country that was represented at the tattoo had a stereotypical display – the African girls, singing and dancing during a honey harvest, and the Scots with their kilts and bagpipies, and the Mexicans with bright dresses and tassles and Mariachi, and the Czechs in solid colours, dancing in ordered pairs, and the drummers of Switzerland, precise as clockwork.  The Americans had the only display that brought tears to my eyes, though, and elicited gasps from the audience – first, a troop of pipers, dressed in Colonial regalia, marking the Revolutionary War, and then the Navy, twirling rifles with fixed bayonets, even more precise than the Swiss drummers because the potential damage from twirling blades is so much greater than the potential damage of dropped drumsticks.  The leader of the Colonial band was African-American, too, and many of the pipers were women, and the soldiers were of every hue and color, while the other countries were…well, relatively monochromatic.  And the only moment I got goosebumps was at the end: every performer from every country lined up for a final display on the parade grounds, and every other country’s performers were moving, swaying, dancing, playing, except the American soldiers.  They were in tight, orderly rows, stone still at the front, staring straight ahead, unaffected by the pandemonium surrounding them, nameless soldiers, faces hidden from view, here to do a job, nothing more, to follow orders and then go home after their work was done, just as their predecessors did in World War II and The Great War before that.  Everyone else on the parade ground was there to perform a sort of fantasy of their historical tradition, but the Americans were there as part of their past, current, and future – as performers, but not for entertainment.

That made me shiver in awe, because perhaps that is our culture – to do the world’s great work, and hold up its highest values.  Maybe the greatest American traditions are dressed in work clothes and transported around the world in our heads.

And it also made me nervous, because are we doing that now?  Are we the beacon on the hill, the light showing the way for others; are we fighting evil, or embracing it?  And if our leaders are grovelling before the darkness, am I doing enough to hold up my little light and spread good in the world?  Am I worthy to bear that flag; to be an American?  And most important: even if there’s no traditional dance, or music, or theatrical art, am I doing enough to uphold the traditions of duty, honour, loyalty, freedom, and all of the other glorious ideals that we like to preach about, even if we don’t always perform them?

Because even if the fashions change, America does have traditions; we have ideas and ideals that we espouse that don’t change.  Those are the traditions I saw in those soldiers; those are the traditions that we have to show the world.  Our political leaders will pass; new ones will come, and they will be better, because they will hew to our traditions.

At least that’s my hope – that no matter what the fashion of the time, we’ll participate in our traditions and be worthy of them.