Sunday, December 17, 2006


Return to the Beach

There seems little point in being creative when the larger point of my life has utterly failed. If I have to turn the planning over to God, well, of what worth am I?

Perhaps that's just God's way of letting things fall apart that never should have been built in the first place. I had patches on the patches. What part of my life did I ever live for myself? Most of it was done just to keep other people off my back. Protective coloration.

Sand sculpture was a real thing in the interstices between fogs of phoniness but my own ideas were so befogged I didn't really understand. Everything slid downhill and I didn't see any point in arresting the descent. God kept me from following the rest of the wreckage but I had no idea why. I waited.

Some things might be coming clear. What do I care about? Good question. Even creativity was more of a bridge across empty time than any truly satisfying act. If it had been satisfying I'd have torn it down and thrown the pieces away. I had to do sculpture while remaining unaware of the meaning, so I couched it in terms of simple physical pleasure and the active intellectual balance of engineering and art. Walking a knife edge, and I fell off.

God knows no limit to kindness, though. Day by day he just held onto me so that I didn't do anything... final. Waiting.

So, today came up sunny and cold. I have done two sculptures this year, both casually done while walking home along the beach. The first of these, in July, was very quick. The tide was rising and in a few minutes I raised a pile of sand and carved a small arch. Then the tide reclaimed the area, dissolving it. Still, it was completed. A few months later my accidental timing worked out better. The tide was going down so I had time to build a much bigger arch. All I had to work with was my hands. It was a little lumpy but still the elegant shape came through. Today the tide was low and I deliberately set out to do a sculpture.

I picked up two small tools and walked out. Unlimited sunshine from a blue sky. Classic southern California winter. Winter also makes sand unpredictable, and the good sand I'd used a few weeks previously was gone. Still, one-day-beach sand sculptors learn to run what the sea brung. I built a pile in accordance with the sand available. In other words, short and small. The water comes out too fast for anything big to stick.

Small tools work well for small sculptures. I trimmed here and there, smoothed things out and then started carving detail. The result was nicely braided and perforated. A delicate touch is needed with this stuff. Free-piled coarse sand is very weak. Kind of like me on a bad day. Don't prod me or things will fall off, just as I did at the top of this piece with a misdirected cut. Oh, well, the lack becomes part of the design.

A sign of better things coming? Or taking a break? Or just a nice little thing to do on a sunny afternoon? I've been beaten up enough that I have no confidence in the future... except for God's continuing hold on me. My feet still dangle over an abyss, but I think I see hints of new ground filling in the space down there. I don't have confidence, but God does. Time is His, and one thing I know is that I don't begin to know everything that God can do. He's much more interesting than I thought.

God, caring about one man? Amazing.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


More Music Player Notes

One day while looking for a way to play music at bedtime I ran into a new concept: the Network Music Player. Of the various available devices, the Squeezebox seemed the best fit with my needs. Its server software handles Windows Lossless files. It got good reviews. I finally bought one and it arrived yesterday.

Hooking it up was no problem. I bought a long cat-5 cable and strung it along the ceiling with the Christmas lights. It found my PC. I introduced the server software to my scattered music library and I was in business.

This all started years ago with a Sony portable CD player. I kept it by my bed, with a stack of CDs that would grow until they started to fall off. Then I'd remove that stack and gradually build another. When the neighbor broke in and stole the CD player I bought another and used it until it wore out. The replacement clicked between songs as it turned the amp on, which was annoying.

Over the years I've tried various headphones. The original Sony MDR-CD7 set got stolen with the first player. Those were no longer available for the replacement, so I bought Sony MDR-CD6. I still have those but they're old now and the earpads aren't available. I tried some Etymotic ER-4S, which have wonderful sound if you get them installed correctly. They have to fit just right. Too much hassle, so I kept using the CD6. I tried the noise-blocking headphones I use for live recording but they aren't comfortable. I tried a Sony MDR-V600 but their sound wasn't as good as the CD6. Then, in looking at other things, I started reading about Shure's E500 triple-driver "in-ear monitors." I decided to try them. They turn out to be outstanding: sound better than the Etymotics, easier to use, and less cable noise. Everything that's in the music gets to my ears.

This actually has turned out to be a problem because they show the deficiency of the source audio. There's a lot of talk nowadays about headphone amplifiers, and you can spend a lot of money for one. It turns out that my Archos AV500 portable music player has a good headphone amp built-in, and using that device with the Shure headphones is a real treat. Except for the hard-disk spin-up noise. Thus, the Squeezebox.

I plugged the Shure headphones into the Squeezebox and the first thing I heard was noise. Hiss. No disk drive noise like that of the Archos, but a constant hiss. Well, maybe the music would cover it up. That didn't work. In this age of digital recordings and 90-dB signal-to-noise ratios I'd pretty much forgotten about hiss. This thing sounded like an old cassette player.

Not only that, but the amplifier has no guts. Bass just wasn't there. I'm not the kind to want to rattle the windows--in my head or out--with bass, but music needs bass to be fully formed and this device just didn't do it.

Well, OK, maybe it's the headphone amp in the Squeezebox. I got out my Sound Devices headphone amp and hooked that up to the Squeezebox's line output. This solved some of the noise problem, and also has real bass, but the midrange sounds as if it's coming from a cardboard box. The Sound Devices amp is designed for field conditions, and loud is more important than accurate.

I know there are many ways to fail in other aspects of life, but... bedroom music? I really don't want that much. In the old days it was easy. CD players just played CDs as if they were records. No clicks, no pops, no smart switching of an amplifier. Now everything tries to think for me and all they do is mess things up. Maybe I should just move the turntable to the bedroom and play records.

It's a simple problem. Why do I get the feeling that I'm swimming against the current all the time?

Friday, December 08, 2006


The Claws Can't Reach

Write a little, pay a lot. That last post nearly cost me my sanity, from my point of view anyway. God's view is different. As the Soul Whisperer he sits calmly and spreads his hands around the burning soul to prevent utter self-immolation. When the calm finally penetrates far enough to make a difference, then His Voice can be heard again.

Grow up with brutality, it seems the normal way. If you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, beat yourself until you do. If that doesn't work then the claws come out in punishment. Never do that again! And one more soul backs into a corner, weeping where no one can see. Well trained. You can't lead any kind of expansive life back there, though, and God's Light calls from out there in His green grassy field. "Wouldn't you rather live out here, run, jump, enjoy? I made you for pleasure, you know, and I'm pleased when you enjoy life."

There are levels of brutality. Some is obvious in physical scars. There are apparent emotional scars too. Better to keep them hidden to prevent phony sympathy and the platitudes that come from no desire to understand but rather to remove a source of pain. In a perfect world everyone would grow up with their needs met and we'd learn how to deal with each other as equals. We'd learn how to live well.

I've always wanted to live well. The problem has come in figuring out what that meant. It's not a trivial question because there are so many opinions. Millions of gurus and generations of gods all with advice on how to live well. An answer imposed from outside doesn't work very well, at least for me, and I've stuck to my own counsel. I've seen this as a weakness.

In some ways it has been, and still is. It's very hard for anyone to get to me, to even see me. I'm quite skilled in obfuscation and living amid self-defensive shadows. But as a friend of mine pointed out last year the results haven't really been that bad. Her statement was a real surprise. I'd never thought about my history in terms of anything but ongoing failure. She said I'd done pretty well, beyond just having a decent job and a place to live. I had some freedom to express myself and in that was interacting and enjoying some other people. And I was still here, when so many had been torn down by the conflicts.

How have I survived? Not, as I've always thought, by any particularly well-managed skill. I'm an opportunist. Others make long-term plans. I just drift in the river and when I arrive at an opportunity I choose to take it or leave it. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. I've been to college three times, failing all three. You're supposed to have a plan for your life, right? If so, then how come I'm still here? Here's an example.

In the fall of 1976 I was doing some hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. The sun was near setting behind the Continental Divide and I was putting my equipment back into my old VW Bug. A woman walked up to me and started talking about hiking. Eventually she got around to her point: she wanted a guide up Hallett Peak, which we could see from where we stood. It's a walkup. All the ranger-led hikes were done for the year and she had only a couple of more days. We met the next day, early, and started hiking. It was a glorious day. We got back around midnight. We stayed in contact and she invited me to visit her in Los Angeles. Last place on Earth I wanted to live but in 1982 I, having nothing else to do really, went out to visit. She leaned on me to take a Civil Service test with the City and, to keep her happy I did so. The job was Warehouse Worker, and given the competition it was no big surprise that I was at the top of the list. But I was on my way back to Nebraska to go to school again. I declined the job offers.

Two years later I flew back to Los Angeles, having failed the third school attempt. With nothing better to do while deciding if I wanted to stay in L.A., I assembled a simple sand sculpture kit and headed for the beach. Ultimately, weather and impecuniosity combined to cause me to put my name back on the job list. I was already here. Staying for a couple of years to pay bills seemed like a good idea. I got hired in early December 1984. The relationship with the friend blew up a month later and I moved to a place of my own. The failure of another relationship in a year started me thinking there wasn't much point in continuing but before taking that dive under a train I looked for professional help.

Note the pattern here: no real decisions. Just solving problems as they come up. No planning. There's nothing to be proud of here, no great demonstration of skill in living on my part. I'm like a pinball ever going downhill, just choosing between this bumper or that.

Whence comes self-respect? I really don't know. I don't believe the usual stories. All that crap about men conquering the world and such. Our world is conquered to the borderland of Hell, and how the next few generations are going to make it I don't know. No, there's something else out there to live for, some reason to get up, but it's nothing normal.

Who am I for believing such nonsense? I'm like an egg with a shell of prickly diamond and a marshmallow interior. I believe in the soft part of life. Not everything needs to be beaten with a club. Why not sit still and let the sunset come to you, washing with its golden light the world we all live in? Why would God permit me to hold onto such stupid beliefs?

Well, maybe He gave me the ability to believe. I've been drifting, not doing much guidance, but the river is God's. Maybe he's the one who gently guided events as they needed to be, and I simply grew up with a kind of gut-level faith that despite all the thrash and brutality that everything would work out in the longer haul. It did. It has. There is no call for pride in my life, but pride is another misunderstood idea. I can't stand on a hilltop and point to all the magnificent things I've built or done, the people I've influenced to do even greater things.

I'm not sure what the rest of this story is. All I know is that I woke up early this morning and was poised for some serious self-excoriation. The claws were out. I heard this little voice. "I love you." This has happened before. I've wondered whose voice it is. Mine? God's? This time, at least, it was God's voice. Quiet, small. He wrapped me up and wouldn't let the claws scratch. They don't do a damned bit of good anyway. Self-punishment never accomplishes anything but it's still a hard habit to break.

OK, I'm not only a mystic. I'm a creampuff. A papier-mache' lion. Look at me cross-eyed and I run. All wall, no interior. Look in the eyes and see vacuum. Soft. Not suited to this world at all. Better people than I run to seek adventures that I stand aside for. God seems to have other opinions on these events and I am in any case forgiven. In the forest of self-judgment it's hard to walk after the hart of new life. The trees may be imaginary but they're no less obstructive. Cutting them down doesn't work. All I can do is, with God's help, quit fertilizing them.

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