28 May 2011

Inside Of It All

About 18 months ago, my two eldest boys were really into learning about the planets and space.  They were 6 and 4 at the time.  My eldest would read all these books to his brother, and they had videos and other materials to learn about the solar system and the stars, and like many young kids spit out these ridiculously long dinosaur names, they would talk about types of stars and galaxies and the various properties of the planets.

One night we were driving home from a dinner out, and the six year-old said something about "living on Earth", and the other boy said, "No!  We live IN Earth, not ON it."

This comment really struck me as an incredibly profound observation.  Of course, it is true.  Just as a fish lives IN the sea, we "terrestrial" creatures and plants live IN the "sea" of the atmosphere, which is every bit as much a part of the Earth as the ground or the water is.  But it truly changed the way I thought about myself and about humanity as passengers here on Spaceship Earth.  Not that it was the first time I'd had a though about our interconnectedness to all that surrounds us, but to look at myself as a creature not walking upon the planet, but swimming within it, made me feel as if I were just a mitochondrion in a terrestrial macro-body, something of deep insignificance, and yet part of a larger living whole.

I am not an individual.  I am a member of a species, and not even really a "member" as most people understand the term, being one individual in a group.  I am a part of an interconnected whole that is Humanity.  And Humanity is just a part of the larger biosphere of the planet, just as all of the bacteria and microscopic bodies that float within us and around us are a part of us and thus the larger biosphere.  If you had a powerful microscope that could see all the way down the atomic level, you could eventually focus down to a level where you would not be able to discern the atoms of your skin from the atoms of the air that surrounds you.  Nor would you be able to discern the difference between the vast amounts of "space" that exist between the nuclei of atoms and the vast space that exist between the stars, based on their relative sizes.  It's all One.

To me, knowledge is a puzzle.  Each fact learned has a place it fits in the big picture of understanding.  The more you know from learning, the more you can figure out from recognition of the patterns you've already built from your knowledge to postulate other ideas, which leads you to think about where and how to find the facts that will either support or refute those theories.  "Thinking" is the process of acquiring the pieces and putting the puzzle together.  "Knowledge" is what is built.  The more you know, the less you have to think.  The more things you know, the closer are you are to knowing the One.

I've got a couple of idea projects that I've never really put the effort into that I once thought I might.  One is to rewrite the U.S. Constitution for the 21st Century, attempting to preserve as much of the original central ideas and flexibility as possible, but allowing for changes that we have learned in the lessons of 200 years.  Some 15 years or so ago, I did a similar thing with a much smaller subject, The Ten Commandments.

The First Commandment, as written in the Bible, reads, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," or something very similar.  I wanted to make it more universal and less tailored to the ancient Hebrews, so I shortened it to, "I am the Lord your God."  Still, I felt that was cumbersome and loaded with language that has too much cultural baggage, words such as "Lord" and "God".

"I am."

Simple, basic.  God speaks and says he exists.  Right back to the first meeting at the Burning Bush.  "And Moses said unto God,  "Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, 'The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you'; and they shall say to me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say unto them? "  And God said unto Moses,  "I AM THAT I AM " and he said,  "Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel,  "I AM hath sent me unto you. "  "I am" is also the key phrase for Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac and the sign most often associated with the God of the Old Testament.

But that seemed somehow incomplete, at least in my philosophy.  I believe that the greatest philosophical gift given to the world by the ancient Hebrews, and carried on by the religions of the Western tradition, is the idea of the "One God".  The greatest problem this idea has created, the greatest misinterpretation, is "One and only One God".  The unitary deity is profound and speaks a deep truth, however the idea of "one and only one" implies an "other", be it another competing inferior god, or simply the existence of something that is not God.  NOTHING is not God.  God is One.  God is All.

George Carlin once said, "He's just like us - He's a cool guy, that's all God is, a cool guy. That's what all the religions told us:  "'He's like us, He's us.' That's what all the big ones, all the big religions said,  'Love yourself, Love your God, Love your neighbor, because you're all basically the same person.' We just don't have uniforms yet, that's all."  And that is what I wanted to build into my new First Commandment.  I am You.  We are One.  We are God.  God is One.  God is Everything.

I am You are One is All

And that's it.  It does not matter who the speaker is.  It could be God, or me, or you, or Aunt Edith, or a creature from Omicron Perseii 8.  It's all the same.

Strangely, I can't really remember where I went with the remastering of the other Ten Commandments.  I remember that I reinterpreted the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy to mean that it was important to "count the days" and keep calendars and holy days, but as for the rest, it's lost to some notebook in a box somewhere.  Perhaps it speaks to the centrality of a FIRST RULE, like The Prime Directive of Star Trek, or The Golden Rule, which I tried to incorporate into my First Commandment by implication.  Once you have the most basic rule of ethics, all others are merely derivatives thereof.

 So, I'll close with a song from They Might Be Giants.  This is from their children's album Here Come The 123's, but I find this expression of the "One=All" philosophy to be as well presented as in any text or adult music.  My wife and I are taking the boys to see a TMBG "family show" at the Iowa State Fairgrounds this Sunday.  I can't wait.

EDIT:  As Lauri said in the comments below, Neil should be in here. 

Neil Young's 1997 live album Year of the Horse opens with a heckler yelling out "They all sound the SAME!"  To which Neil famously replies, "It's all ONE SONG."

Indeed.  It is all one song.

06 May 2011

Parting Ways

Does anyone else have music that they love, but for one reason or another it's really hard to listen to it?

I've got a bunch of it.  Mostly, it has to do with nostalgia of one kind or another.  For example, I've got several albums that I listened to A LOT in the fall of 1993, that I so intimately associate with that time in my life, that I find it very hard to listen to them without taking myself back there.  Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream is one, along with The Posies Frosting On The Beater and to a lesser extent Pearl Jam Vs. (the latter not as much, because I was a huge PJ fan for so many years that I don't associate the album with that particular time so closely).  That was a good time in my life, I was 20 and a junior in college, and had a great group of friends both at school and at home, and the world was really opening up to me and so much was possible.  Still, it's not a place I like to go in my mind, and I'm not completely sure why, although I've always felt sad about my lost past and simpler times, from the time I was a child and first felt the burdens of responsibility.

The Posies - "Burn and Shine"

There are other beloved albums that I have associations with that are more negative, the most striking being Soup by Blind Melon.  Blind Melon was my favorite band, and for those who only know them from "No Rain", let's just say that every one of their other songs is better than that.  This was a great, great band, where each musician was very talented, and they played together in a fluid way that all bands wish they could and few do.  In addition, it's really the only band that every one of their songs resonated with me in a personal way.  At that time in my life, they were where I was at.

Their second album was my most anticipated album release to that time, perhaps ever, and when it came out in August 1995, I listened to it over and over and over again until I knew every note.  I have strong associations with listening to it in a hotel room alone in Montauk, where I was fishing with my dad for a week, waking up at 5:30 every morning to go out on the boat, and just crashing out after dinner to this music.  I really loved where this band was going with this second album, and I was already eager to hear where they would take it next.  They obviously had so much more to say.

And then Shannon died.  I have never before or since been as hurt by the death of someone I didn't know personally, perhaps because I felt like I did know him. 

So, I find it very hard to listen to that album now...

A couple days ago, I heard a song on my mp3 player that struck me in that same way, but for a totally new and different reason.  The song was "Given To Fly" by Pearl Jam.  It's far from my favorite song of theirs, but it holds a special place in my heart, and now I think I understand why.

GTF was the lead single from their 1998 album Yield.  The single was released in January, about a month ahead of the album release.  I had just started using the internet that previous fall, and it was mostly because of Pearl Jam, and my search for rare recordings after hearing a low-gen tape of songs from my friend Gary that I'd never heard before, and I thought I was a hardcore fan, with bootlegs and b-sides and all that sort of stuff.  The internet was still relatively young, and mp3s were the new big thing in music, as for the first time there was available a format that could keep most of the sonic integrity of a CD and could be downloaded on a dial-up connection in less than a year, and stored on the tiny 1 or 2 GB hard drives that were the norm back then.  Plus, there were fan communities and news websites beginning to show up, and suddenly I was "plugged in" to my favorite band with breaking news and inside information as never before.  It was all very exciting, and GTF and Yield were the first new release of this era for me.

One thing that was very cool about this release, and it is something that could NEVER be done today, is that there was a "secret" b-side on the single.  Everyone on the internet knew about the first b-side, "Pilate", which it was also known would be an album track, but it wasn't until people started picking up the album in stores on release day that anyone, even those supposedly the most "in the know", found out there was a second b-side, "Leatherman", which incidentally has never had any other release besides this now rather rare single, and which holds some personal significance itself due to the subject matter.

Yield became, and continues to be, my favorite Pearl Jam album.  It was around this time that I started collecting their concert recordings, and I saw them live twice on their tour that fall.  They firmly cemented themselves as my favorite band, but (from as objective a place as I can speak about this) they also reestablished themselves as the greatest rock and roll band in the world at the time.  And I felt like I was a part of it.  The Beatles were not only the biggest band of their era, they were also the best, and at that moment in the late 90s, Pearl Jam was approaching that sort of status.  Not quite as big as they'd been five years earlier, but definitely better, and those of us who really knew the band knew that we were experiencing an extraordinary time in rock music history.

So why do I feel weird about "Given To Fly"?  It really has more to do with my relationship with Pearl Jam's music and the band in the time since 1998.  For me, 1998 was the band's peak, and all bands that last have a peak at some point where they never quite reach that level of greatness again, however you may measure greatness.  Their next album, 2000's Binaural, left me kind of cold, but at the same time the band was doing what was perhaps the coolest thing any band had ever done.  They announced they would release every show from their 2000 tour, unedited, on CD, and also announced that they didn't really care if you traded them with your friends.

Unfortunately, every subsequent album has left me feeling colder, and each business and marketing decision by the band has left me feeling further from the band that once seemed to truly care about their fans more than any other.  It's hard to believe that I have soured on Pearl Jam to the extent that I have, considering how devoted I was at one time.  It's not that my life has changed so much that I can't still be a huge fan.  I'm still just as devoted to my Neil Young fandom, and in fact much more so, it's that Pearl Jam has ceased to be the band that was so important to me, and to which I felt a closeness.  I've changed, they've changed, and we've grown apart.  So, like seeing an old friend who you once cared deeply for but who has somehow drifted away, it's a little painful to hear a song that epitomizes the time when you were at your closest.

This year, Pearl Jam is celebrating their 20th anniversary.  I'm just not feeling it.  I didn't buy the reissues of the first three albums that have been released in the past couple years, and even though I did download the new Vs. and Vitalogy special editions, I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to them yet, or even to put them on my mp3 player.  It's strange to feel this way.  I'm even questioning whether to renew my Ten Club membership, which expired today.  I've got a pretty low number, being that I've been a member continually since 1999, but since the band hasn't played a show within 4 hours of my home since 2003, I haven't even been able to take advantage of my seniority for fan club seating.

Fittingly, this performance is from Benaroya Hall in 2003, which is about the last time I felt the closeness.

Behind her eyes there's curtains,
And they've been closed to hide the flames. 
She knows their future's burning

But she can smile just the same. 

And though her mood is fine today,
There's a fear they'll soon be parting ways.

Standing like a statue,

A chin of stone, a heart of clay. 

And though he's too big a man to say,

There's a fear they'll soon be parting ways.

Drifting away. 

Drifting away. 
Drifting away. Away. Away.
Drifting away. 

Drifting away. 
Drifting away. Away. Away.

I'll always remember how it was, even if I don't really want to.  Thanks for the music.