Christmas Wishes

It’s Christmas time. I’m not going to be politically correct and state that it’s “the holiday season” or any other such nonsense.
The season is winter, holidays occur throughout the year and everyone from every religion in any country that has in any way been in even tangential contact with western culture knows that it’s Christmas time. It doesn’t matter whether they celebrate it as a Christian tradition, a calendar based sales platform originally set up by Coca-Cola, or don’t even celebrate Christmas at all.Merry Christmas

To me, Christmas is vacation, food and presents. Yes, presents. Friends and family too, they’re very important, but I see friends and family all the time; I only get presents twice a year. On my birthday I throw a party, taking care of drinks and food for all attendants, and with Christmas, I give as much as I get. So it’s actually not really about the ‘getting something’, nor is it about the monetary value of the gifts. At least, not for me. But every year I’m asked again for a list of things I would like and every year I have a little more trouble coming up with ideas for myself.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother asks. Or my girlfriend, or her sister. Surely, it’s great when someone imagines the perfect gift for you all on their own, but that’s rare and we shouldn’t expect that. Nor should we get annoyed at someone who just wants to get you something you actually want.Can't think of anything

“I don’t really know,” I answer, feeling pressured. I would like to ask for something that they would like to give as well as something I would like to receive. It can’t be too expensive, nor too cheap (too cheap can be insulting, trivializing their efforts). The best gifts also tend to be the ones the giver can understand: a gift the giver could conceivably be happy to be given.

“Argh, you’re so frustrating. Isn’t there anything you need?” Damn. Needs. Now my Christmas wish list has dragged me into an existential crisis of weighing ‘needs’ against ‘wants’. I know what I need. I think I know what everyone needs: a supportive social network, the proper amount of sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, emotionally fulfilling vocational pursuits and financial security. I have lots of good friends, I eat well and I exercise regularly. So, all I need is sleep, a job I like and money. I can only really ask for money as a gift.Money

“Ehh, yeah. I need a lot of stuff. But I don’t know, I’ll think about it.” I’m not going to ask for money for Christmas. Sure, it might help me sleep and it would definitely make rent a lot less unreasonably scary, but I’m not going to ask for impersonal, dirty, cold cash for Christmas. Mariah Carey didn’t sing “All I need for Christmas”, nor does the caroling classic sound “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to meeeee: two-hundred and seventy-threeeeee”. I’m not ready to let my needs become my wants and in some way I think that means I’m not ready to let go of my childhood.Sponserberleries

Yes yes, childhood, bla bla. Sentimental bs. But that’s Christmas time: one of the most important times of the year for children, sustained by the good-intentioned lies of their parents. Thinking about a wish list made me think about growing up, about maturing, becoming an adult. How I don’t want to be an adult, how I’m maturing poorly and how I’m not doing too well growing up. It made me think about the wish lists I had when I was a kid.

When I was a kid I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure Fugitoid. I wanted a Lego spaceship. I wanted a sword. I wasn’t getting a sword (yet), but I wanted it. Oohh, I needed it. My want felt like a need. If you would’ve asked me “What do you need?”, I would’ve given you the exact same answer. You could argue that as a kid, I had no real concept of wants and needs. My survival needs were taken care of, so all I had left to myself were my wants. Then again, in her seasonal super hit Mariah Carey also sings “There is just one thing I need”.I'll die

My ‘wants’ felt like ‘needs’. Some ‘wants’ still do feel like ‘needs’, but it’s not the same; it’s all abstract, philosophical crap, like love. As a kid I wanted silly things. I got excited about toys, stuff that would be of the lowest priority in a survival situation. But I knew what they were, what they could do and what they were for. Fugitoid was a fugitive android, home to the mind of Professor Honeycutt and friend to the Turtles. He was fully articulated and had a hollow chest compartment. He was going to take part in epic battles and adventures. See? Clear.Fugitoid

Money is quite clear too: throw it at a problem, problem goes away. If you want to be a functioning, independent adult, you will need money. Implying that you’ll have lots of problems, but I won’t get into that. Sometimes you might think you want money, but what you really want is what the money can buy. And I’m afraid that my ‘needs’ will become my ‘wants’; that my ‘wants’ will be those intangible things that can neither be bought nor gifted, or money, because I need it.

I want to want tangible things for Christmas. I want the innocence of an action figure with death-grip. I want silly ‘wants’ to have the power to make me feel like I need them. I want to look at a Christmas tree and feel excitement, not remember it wistfully. And I want other people to feel the same way. So, this Christmas, or whatever occasion in which you find yourself needing a ‘want’, ask for something silly. If you’ve already asked for money, take some of that money and go do something or get something frivolous. We all need a lot of things, but we can take care of those things during the rest of the year. After all, Santa doesn’t spread maintenance of the status quo; he spreads joy.Christmas tree

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Ninja Snowflakes

They say every face you see in your dreams is a face you’ve seen while awake. Even if you were not aware of it at the time, your brain has taken a snapshot of some face in your everyday landscape and saved it – perhaps the old man with the big nose; the lady with a tight ponytail and huge, blue eyes or the awkward kid with a skateboard and acne. In the dream this unknown person tells you the way to the cinema that’s inside a bathroom with glowing walls where they’re showing a horror film from the eighties that suddenly turns into Harry Potter, and the screen drags you inside so that you’re hit by a curse and suddenly have hair growing out of your mouth.

the_dream_by_P_R_O

Or the guy who drives the taxi you’re in and who spends the journey (although the car is standing perfectly still) picking his teeth with a spatula and telling you that you’re going to be late for school because the prime minister has switched off all the traffic lights and the streets turn into the sea for no good reason. Waking up, you might forget everything quickly or you might remember the story accurately, distinctly recalling every feature, every wrinkle of one of the faces. And you think (at least for a while) “wow, I have such vivid imagination”, when in truth the face belongs to a person with a whole life and dreams of his own.

It is mindboggling to me that all these people may drift into my subconscious like ninja snowflakes and merge with my dreams in such a way that I’m convinced I’ve invented their faces, their voices, their clothes. Like I built them from scratch, rolled and patted every snowflake into microscopic snowmen and women. Gave them noses of carrots and eyes of potatoes and black pebble buttons and bent sticks as mouths, and then filled them with life with the ease of a young child. When I wake up they melt away because my conscious mind is too hot to hold them for long. And then it turns out that my brain tricked me into thinking that I moulded new individuals. That I somehow made up an entirely new person in my sleep. Out there in the physical world somewhere walks and talks and eats and shits the lady whose face my mind put on that awful bint behind the bar who refused to serve me anything but tomato juice unless I proved to her that I was truly a cat person.

What is she doing right now, that woman who (perhaps) sat on the bench in the park resting her chubby legs and who somehow sieved herself through my memory filter, glued herself to the walls and invaded my dream? What’s her life like?

I look at a map and I think that in all the streets in all cities and towns and villages in all countries there are people who dream of people they passed or encountered or observed all the time. Snapshot after inexplicable snapshot, seven billion minds are spammed with sneaky sub-memories of faces with other minds behind them. And then those other minds do the same thing to their owners’ dreams, although the mind behind the face we encounter in our dreams doesn’t match the mind from whence the face was copied. I just really wonder why; what drives my brain to choose one face over another?

Isn’t it absolutely tantalizing that other people may have your face pop up in their dream or nightmare one night, thinking that they invented you – or  wondering why on earth their brains picked your sweaty face for the pigeon salesman who wouldn’t take no for an answer?

Obstacles?

Another piece I wrote this past summer. The setting is no longer relevant, but I believe the development and conclusion are. Let me know what you think!

A friend and I went for a run the other day. We headed down-town to grab a quick cup of coffee and then run back. It seemed a nice day to run, a bit of sun and a breeze. I asked for and expected a leisurely run; something to get the juices flowing and a start to work away three weeks of vacation in the US. I was motivated and feeling good about myself, feeling good about my decision to exercise. But as is often the case, the day turned out slightly different than planned and my brain played catalyst in changing a simple run into something much more meaningful. Or slightly odd at least.

So, this friend is going to participate in the 2012 Urbanathlon in Amsterdam. The Urbanathlon is a 14,5 km. long race with 29 obstacles on the way: jumping over cars, climbing walls, walking over beams, shimmying across ropes, you name it. And on our run he suggested we try to do similar exercises. Make it a kind of parkour-esque run with improvised, obstacle related challenges as we go along. Fun, right? Not at all leisurely, but hey, I wasn’t about to whine.

2012 Amsterdam Urbanathlon

We started running and quickly found out that the breeze was warm and the air was humid. More than humid, it was damn near wet. Before long it felt like we were running in soup and around that time my friend thought it’d be a great idea to run up and down a hill as fast as we can. Three times. And then, we climbed an electrical grid transformer shed. And then, pull-ups in a kids’ playground.

I wish we had come across this

Now, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was around that third obstacle that I had totally forgotten about my intentions for a leisurely work-out and the pain coursing through my entire body. And as far as I can remember clearly, it was somewhere between the third and fourth obstacle that a strange realization hit me. Was it due to light-headedness? An over-abundance of endorphins making me high? I’m not sure, but as it’s wont to do, my brain went the way of the (not entirely necessary) philosophical. Stick with me now, because I need to elaborate just a little bit more to illustrate how I got to where I’m going.

Sadly, this one is closer to the mark

Alright, it’s no longer about the run, nor the different obstacles we tackled on the way. As soon as the click hit me it was all about the search for obstacles. As we were running along, I kept pointing at things and panting out the accompanying question: “Obstacle?”. Some we tackled, some we passed by, but I kept on saying it. Exactly the same way and with the exact same intent. Imagine saying it – “Obstacle?” – between breaths, exhausted, with that characteristic questioning lift of tone at the end and, most importantly, with hope. Or maybe not entirely hope, but something akin to gleeful anticipation. Just something that exemplifies the expectation of something good in the near future. The opposite of an obstacle.

Bam! Paradoxical random morning exercise brainstorm! Alright, calm down, it’s not that great a revelation. But at the time it was an epiphany to me. That contradiction of concept and intent provided me with a never before experienced level of understanding of the age-old mantra ‘life is what you make it’.

After a short bout of irrational self-loathing for thinking like a hippie and a bit of food and rest, the thought and understanding solidified to a clear, if somewhat convoluted, idea: life is indeed what you make it, but the tools you are given with which you must construct that life are not always tools that you would choose, nor are they tools you would necessarily know what to do with.

I kept on looking forward to encountering an obstacle. My focus on future opportunities was laced with positive feelings, yet the word I used is a quintessentially negative one. The word ‘obstacle’ is actually used to indicate difficulties and problems and not just physical, but emotional difficulties as well. Who hasn’t heard a self-help guru bandy about the phrase “overcoming life’s obstacles”?

The overly ambitious goal…

Maybe I should have used the word ‘challenge’. ‘Challenge’. A word fraught with opportunity. An obstacle that holds the possibility and expectation to be overcome, to be taken on and conquered. But I didn’t. If I did, then nothing about that run would have been special, philosophically significant. To some the word ‘challenge’ can be daunting, but it is inherently positive. It implies development, growth, victory. It wouldn’t have sparked that feeling of dissonance I had as I used the paradoxically positive use of the word ‘obstacle’.

So as I write, I realize that my convoluted addendum to ‘life is what you make it’ could be made more concise: rather than ‘life is what you make it’, how about ‘life is made by you’.

…and the pitiful, but fun, reality.

Concerns of a Modern Housewife

A couple of thousand cups of shelves filled with plastic boxes in loud colours; ten times as many tablespoons of stressed – bordering on mentally unbalanced – primates in suits or slacks (the latter group is the largest) running around with little suitcases dangling behind them; plus a few hundred pinches of kids of different ages – but with a very similar migraine invoking straining of their vocal chords. Add to this a handful of smiling faces with dollar shaped pupils; mix it all into a writhing pulp and shove it into a concrete box of umpteen cubic metres. What are we baking? Third world war’s a good guess. It’s not far off anyway. I can hardly claim that I’m an expert on the human psyche or anything (even though I did take one of those introductory psychology courses at Uni, and I go to a wonderful zen meditation lesson with a real guru every week), but when the Tax Free on Heathrow has turned into a helter-skelter of manically material Homo Sapiens who don’t know how to control themselves, I quite simply cannot keep my head from shaking disdainfully.

I sigh heavily and attempt with increasing futility to inch myself away from the thickest crowd without stepping on anyone’s shopping bag and risk getting murdered. Suddenly I’m standing in front of a platform with a pancake flat, red “Lamborghini-something-Italian” written on it, surrounded by about forty-odd boys aged four to fifty, who are all quite literally drooling. It’s enough to make a strong stomach squirm. Truly, I am contemplating if I shouldn’t seek out a toilet as there is a risk that my breakfast soon makes itself known in my mouth for the second time. This place already smells of wanton waste and extreme extravagance. I take a long, brooding sip of my organic white tea (brewed on recycled leaves with ginger root and vanilla). On top of that they squeeze in one of the world’s greatest pollution problems and thereby make sure it is forever worshipped by half of the planet’s population (the greatest problem is cows, apparently, but no worries there: I’m a vegetarian).

Oh, here we go! A grinning man on the platform is announcing how the car can be won. The poor blokes. As if they weren’t brainwashed enough. After all, millions of these things drive on the roads daily, and in addition to that, the boys are looked down upon if they don’t know which hub covers are the most “awesome”; how a V16 engine works compared to a V8 or which GPS system is the best one (what does V16 even stand for?)

Men and cars! It really is a phenomenon. If you’re a man, you like cars. Full stop. If you love them it’s even better, and if you worship them, why, then you’re really one of the guys. Is there even an equivalent to the relationship between a man and his car? The wife is, of course, rather useful in certain areas (I chuckle to myself), and the TV is nice to look at, sure, but nothing quite surpasses the car – or his “girl” as he likes to call it. For cars, like boats, are always female. Jeremy Clarkson can stand there for hours talking about her bottom, and sweet-talk of the kind “Let’s go fer a ride, baby!” is daily routine for most proud, male car owners. No wonder we women are charmed to our knees by some macho man we meet at the pub; he’s simply serving us all of his best car-love one-liners and appears to be the most charming, attentive man. We are selected, seduced and seized, and before we know it we’re in a three-way relationship with him and his real baby. An aeroplane lands smoothly out on the landing strip. I wonder how many of the passengers have cars. My car is electric. My husband didn’t think it was powerful enough of course, so he cruises around in his huge Audi. No thinking outside the box there. He is such a typical man.

Who was it, by the way, who invented the abhorrence? (The car, I mean; not the man – apparently he popped out of God’s index finger or something.) I probably ought to know, but it must have been a man with an unbelievably bad ability to think ahead – or a woman with an incredibly sadistic sense of humour. What was wrong with horse and carriage anyway? My guess is that humans were happier some hundred years ago – men in particular. I’m having a hard time imagining, for instance, that they used to crowd around a carriage because it’s hub covers were so awesome.

To be fair I guess we need to go all the way back to the Stone Age and yell at whoever it was that invented the wheel – and those are rather handy sometimes. But not when the box they’re rolling spews out poison! You know, I’d be fine; just fine! with being a Stone Age female with hair growth in the most awful places so long as I wouldn’t have to worry about my species ending the world or something in its infinite stupidity. I sniff derisively. No wonder Mother Earth gets sick when millions of our growing kind buy up to several metal lumps with eight-cylinder engines because we need them. Imagine having to live side by side with an animal that has the intelligence to state “I think, therefore I am”, and at the same time is so half-witted that it gives its own basis of existence a death sentence. If I were an endangered animal I think I’d sooner become extinct, actually. I don’t believe cows are the number one problem after all (oh! how witty they’ll think I am at work when I just throw that out during lunch tomorrow!)

But which men care about things like these when they buy their penis enlargers? I nibble thoughtfully at my Organic Multi-grain Fair Trade Low-fat No Sugar chocolate bar and come to a realisation. Men just can’t allow themselves to think of nature, quite simply due to social norms. If they do care, they’re gay. No mercy. I’m getting positively giddy from the witty depth of my insight. It starts in kindergarten, you see, where the boy who doesn’t enjoy playing with toy jeeps is considered strange. When he goes to school he is a freak because he doesn’t like to play at war with guns and tanks, and by middle school he is forever branded as gay because he doesn’t have posters of car babes on his bedroom wall. It is, in other words, not easy for the poor men to escape from the vicious circle of the car producers. Car Magazine, Top Gear, General Motors, The Fast and The Furious, car video games, toy cars and car races are only a small part of what the market cleverly uses to remain in control over men’s brains. It is easily achieved, it seems.

I get shivers from watching the admiration shining in the eyes of the males around me. Like so many puppies wagging their tails at a particularly grimy tennis ball. I look at the car, and I simply do not get what it is they see in it that I don’t see. Is it the colour? In that case they might as well be staring at my top (which is brand new by the way). No, it must be the brainwashing. When a group of teenage boys nearly push me over in their eagerness to gaze at the marvel, “oooh”-ing in a very manly way, I remove myself quickly from the scene. Honestly, how happy am I that I’m not a man, obligated to be so spellbound by a material object that everything else is forgotten! It is positively absurd.

A jumbo jet takes off at that moment (gosh, how noisy the thing is!) as I walk over to a shop and critically consider their exhibition. I don’t want my son to be bullied and branded as gay, and my husband would most likely leave me if I tried to give the boy books, so I go inside and buy the toy jeep with pursed lips and an attempt at a scornfully dignified expression on my face. What don’t we women suffer in order to please the world’s men?

On the other side of the hall is another shop.

Oh god! They’ve got a huge discount on Louboutin!

Well, obviously, you know: one mad, material monkey to or from doesn’t really change all that much. And besides, shoes don’t emit CO2.

Writing As We Read

Just as a tree that falls in the forest does not make a sound if nobody is there to hear it, just as Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive (or neither/nor) until someone opens the box to check, likewise does a closed book not contain any meaning or message of any kind unless, until, it is read.

And when someone does read it; every single time somebody reads The Great Gatsby a new version of the book is written as it is read. The text inside two copies of any novel may have exactly the same form, but the form of a text is not what truly creates it. It is impossible for us to read and see the form only, because the form always seduces us to suggest, feel, think, deduce, debate, assume, accept or understand. Neither the letters of a word nor the arrangements of words, sentences and spaces are, in their strict visual sense only, anything more or less than collections and chunks of lines and doodles upon a contrasting background. However, text never works in an objective manner, for the text is but a tool for conveying ideas, insights, fancies, stories. The most objective words are those which have only been created and never read – and even then they are the product of a subjective mind.

It is the same with colours. You and I can easily and eagerly agree that the colour of that lady-bird is red, but we both have a great amount of associations tied to the colour, and they may differ so much in so many directions that there are two or three or several reds. This is, of course, basic perception theory, and thinking only in terms of perception would, in the end, lead to rejecting the notion of one “absolute” world, as every perception is unique. I shall not go down that crooked, mind-boggling path. But think then, about the endless quanta of texts that exist and will exist and have existed; all those stories and songs and poems and blog entries and chat messages and commercials – they exist again and again in new shapes in all the minds that have ever encountered them. Every text has an innate ability of being created afresh, infinitely, as if the original is an imperfect mirror that reflects a different image every time. But it is not merely a reflection: words are there to connect and interlace thoughts and thinkers.

The text is the quiet bridge between minds, and you cannot read without crossing the bridge. It was designed, created for crossings, by another mind. Although the bridge has been built and stands there in front of you, seeming solid and unalterable, it will change the second you take the first step to cross it. And it will change and continue to change – for you only. I am the architect of the bridge you are crossing as you read these lines. But the architect of a mind bridge is dead the minute the bridge is built. There is nothing more a writer can do once the manuscript is sent to the publisher, except maybe read the text aloud to an audience. And even then the author can only do so much in order to sway the receivers, because they are each experiencing their own subjective versions of the story; writing their versions of the text; making the final adjustments to their bridge and anchoring it – for a short time – to the borders of their minds. Re-reading the text means that the bridge is altered again: maybe less dramatically, maybe more. Even though I am waiting (impatiently!) for the next novel in A Song of Ice And Fire, and I know (hope!) that George R. R. Martin is writing it at this very moment, his persona will not be present in the text as I start to read. I will be the engineer of Martin’s architextual masterpiece, and when I read the architect; the author – quoting Roland Barthes’ famous words – will be dead. Or at least in a coma.

The architect is comatose and the engineer must finish the bridge. Every time a book is opened. The bridge may continue to stand for all eternity, but its span between minds depends upon the presence of a mind on the other side. Thus the architect designs a bridge which in all sense and purpose is finished, but it may span from the borders of one mind and forever end in thin air – connecting to nothing but a bleak assumption. The architect must assume that the bridge will be crossed and, if it is, it will be crafted again and again every time someone crosses it. So the building of a bridge – the writing of a text – is a more or less conscious collaboration between the architect and the engineer; the writer and the reader.

Sometimes the bridge may be wobbly and shaky; its foundations unsupported and poorly made. This may be the fault of the architect, who has failed, to some extent, to build a bridge that is easy to traverse. However, the architect could be well aware of the difficulty his bridge presents to a traveller, intending for it to be challenging. Maybe it is steep or full of barbs and traps and potholes. Or maybe the obstacles are only experienced by some walkers and not all – maybe deadly thorns grow out of the bridge when one particularly troubled mind struggles across. The same bridge may for another mind be an arc unprecedented; magical; surrounded by falling feathers; beautiful to behold and when crossing it, the sound of a triumphant orchestra ripples through the pages.

Think of the magic that a talented architect and an imaginative engineer can create together – without ever having met or spoke or shared sketches!

This I believe is what makes reading so wonderful and so addictive to a lot of people. We write our own stories as we read any story. No text exists only once, and only our own minds set the limits for the stories that a text can communicate and toward what strange, sombre or silvery horizon the bridge will take us.

– G