When You Sleep

Winter sunrise

AI generated image from DreamStudio

I’m writing this in December, which generally means Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, New Years Eve and probably a bunch of other holidays I’m ignorant of… are about to take place. It’s the end of the year and the preparation for a new one. In the west, most people are either pulling out their favorite Christmas tunes, or putting on their earmuffs so they can avoid having to listen to them. For me though, in my neverending quest to establish a soundtrack for my life, I’ve decided that Christmas songs should not only be strictly for December, they should be relegated to only the second half of the month. Mind you, I’m not against hearing the occasional Christmas song earlier, but I’m not quite prepared to take an aural bath in the holiday season until it gets a bit closer. 

So what then should be the theme for the first half of December? I would say there are two main themes of this time of year. One is questions, as in “what the heck was that year we just had all about?” and the other, somewhat related, is wonder, as in “wow! That year was a trip wasn’t it?” and “Holy crap it’s cold” and “Snow! Yay!” or “Snow! What a pain!” So with those admittedly general themes in mind, I put songs together into a early December playlist (called “Questions” you can find it on YouTube). This year, the song at the top of my list is “When you Sleep” by the band Cake.

psychedelic hands

AI generated image from DreamStudio

“When You Sleep” is a delightful song. It starts off with a bunch of plucky stringed instruments frolicking around a simple base melody that rises and falls in pitch in a steady ebb and flow. The only percussion is an infrequent sibilant brushing. This all evokes the breathing of a soundly sleeping person. 

The first line of the song is “When you sleep, where do your fingers go?” And that’s just not something you generally think about, but it’s an intriguing question. Fingers are about grasping things, working with things, and also feeling…in a tactile sense of course, but more metaphorically in a visceral sense. If you can grasp something, you can understand it. You are able, to a degree, to take some ownership of it. But where does this ability go when you are asleep? What can you do? What can you accomplish? What do you feel? And what can you understand when you’re sleeping?

The answer isn’t “nothing.” We dream, even if we don’t always remember the dreams we have. Whatever we may strive for in life, there is something under the surface that we all reach for. What is that?

As the song explores some of these questions more instruments join in, notably the trumpet (played by Vince DiFiore) which plays above the established melody like some winged creature taking flight over the water. 

The lyrics continue:

Do they tremble on the edge of the bed

Or do you fold them neatly by your head?

Do they clench like claws against your own skin

When you’re living your day all over again?

What kind of person are you? What are you going through?

The chorus repeats and now there’s a call and response thing going on with the other band members yelling out “When you sleep!” after the lead singer says the other parts. We are fully in the realm of dreams now, what was hidden is now in full view.

Do they play guitar in a Latin bar?
Are they strangers or lovers?
Do they drive your car?

There are a lot of Cake songs about driving and cars. Cake is a great band to listen to on a commute for precisely that reason. Probably their most popular song is “The Distance” which expands on the metaphor of a race car driver (among other forms of conveyance) that keeps going after the race is over. There is also “Satan is my Motor,”  “Carbon Monoxide,” and “Long Line of Cars.” Even the song “Dime” has a stanza that describes a dime sparkling among roadside trash under an overpass with afternoon commuters. This fixation on cars probably has something to do with Cake being based in California, which is notorious for its car traffic. Their home base is Sacramento, but of course anyone in entertainment ends up in LA a lot and that’s a city where there’s a lot of driving. Of course people drive in other cities too. I haven’t done any statistical research on it or anything, but there was an Oscar-winning movie (Crash) about how the only way to meet people in LA is to get into a car accident with them. So presumably it’s a thing. 

I would say for McCrea, cars are representations of the ego, although a complicated version of the concept. In the song “Satan is My Motor” he talks about how he has “seats that selflessly hold my friends and a trunk that can carry the heaviest of loads,” but that “under my hood is internal combustion power.” So there’s a little id in the idea too maybe. Or at least there is an acknowledgment of multiple facets of being. A car for McCrea, and probably for most people to an extent, is a representation of one’s identity. So are you yourself when you dream? Or are you someone else?

Are they swimming submissively

Sex acts of life

Or just cutting through jello with a very sharp knife?

An interesting dichotomy presented here. Another Cake song “Italian Leather Sofa,” which is mostly a fun romp about a rich couple’s lack of F’s to give, has the lines “she’s got a serrated edge that she moves back and forth/  it’s such a simple machine, she doesn’t have to use force/ When she gets what she wants, she puts the rest on a tray in ziploc bag in the freezer.” Using a knife is being neat and controlling. Everything in its place and organized. Contrast that with swimming submissively, being immersed in emotions or troubles.

McCrea has conflicting feelings about knife wielders, I think. As much as he seems to mock them in “Italian Leather Sofa,” and perhaps “You Part the Waters,” his description of his ideal girl in “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” includes that she “Uses a machete to cut through red tape.” A knife seems to be analogous to control. Are you out of control and passionate in your dreams? Or do you dream of things being easily manipulated?

As if to answer this question, the song then launches into the bridge:

Now Zeus was a womanizer

Always on the make

But Hera usually punished her that Zeus was one to take

At this point I just want to step back a bit and say that there just aren’t that many songs out there that incorporate Ancient Greek mythology into their lyrics. There’s this one and “I’m Your Venus” and that’s about all I can think of. I’m sure there are some out there, but I don’t think any of them are that popular. Thinking of things like Pandora’s box, Icarus and whatnot it seems like an untapped resource.

But anyway, what are we to make of this? How does this answer the question or explore it further? There are a couple ways to interpret this. For one Zeus and Hera could be thought of as two aspects of the same person. That there’s a passionate, boundless aspect and a more controlling, restraining aspect. Similar in a way to the idea covered by Nietzche and other philosophers about the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects. Apollo represents the light and righteousness, but also rules and order, while Dionysus is darkness and subversion, but also freedom and passion. It also fits an Eastern idea of yin and yang, or the Native American idea of the two wolves in the soul

Another way to look at it though would be that the singer (which is to say, the “speaker” of the poem of the lyrics and not necessarily McCrea himself)  is like Zeus, having his way with women, while the particular woman of the song ( the “you” here) is plagued by some emotional backlash, the “punishment” unleashed by Hera for Zeus’s misdeeds.

Or it could be that the “you” in the poem is like Hera herself, planning revenge against the singer’s exploits.

There’s a prolonged harmony of the question at this point and a musical interlude with more wordless vocalizations.  Also, there are some bells in the background, which are a little jingly? Almost Christmas-y. Which is another reason why I think this song fits December. Finally the lyrics continue:

Are they pulling out weeds from the dusty soil

But then never rewarded with the fruits of their toil

Are they scratching their nails on the chalkboards of death

Only seeking attention when everyone in the room has left

I love the instrumentation here with some distorted piano(?) sounds plinking in as if to represent the weeds getting plucked, and then later descending in pitch to incorporate the darker thematic tone of the end of the stanza.

Hera on a chalkboard of death

AI generated image from DreamStudio

Frustration seems to be the common thread here. I find the “chalkboards of death” line particularly poignant, though. When I first hear it, I think of a Grim Reaper teaching a class or or something, but it’s not Death with a capital D. It’s regular old death. The chalkboards don’t belong to Death, rather they are representations of death itself. A black, blank void. And your fingers, representation of your struggles to feel and understand, are scratching against it. Fighting it desperately. But scratching nails on a chalkboard is something immensely irritating and it’s something you do to get attention. Only there isn’t anyone around when you’re sleeping. You are screaming against the void and no one can hear you, but more than that, you don’t really want anyone to hear you.

In another nuance, it’s not really “you” who’s doing this, but your fingers. So if there’s no one in the room, who are your fingers seeking attention from? That would be…you. Your desire to feel and understand is struggling against the void of death and begging you to pay attention. 

Or is it? Maybe you’re just having a good time, flying or being naked or whatever. 

The song goes back to the first question, of whether the sleeper keeps their hands folded or if they tremble on the edge of the bed. It’s as if we’re coming back to reality from the world of dream. 

Just a great song. 

Anyway, these are just my current thoughts. I could be way off base on some things. I hope your December questions lead to beautiful and wondrous answers.

 

Redneck or Hillbilly?

I was trying to figure out a story that’s told by one of the characters in Ozark about a hillbilly and a redneck This is the script for that part of the show:

A redneck and a hillbilly are strolling along a country lane, talking about the Garden of Eden. The redneck, drinking whiskey as he walks, believes that Adam and Eve had every right to take that apple for, if God were kind, why would he forbid them from partaking in that delicious fruit? The hillbilly listens and nods. Then the redneck finishes the bottle and throws it onto the path. When the hillbilly frowns, the redneck says, “Judge not,lest thee be judged.” When the hillbilly frowns again the redneck says, “You judge doubly, you sin twice.” Whereupon God smites the redneck dead. The Hillbilly, forever silent and diligent digs the redneck’s grave and fashions a humble tombstone from the empty bottle, and walks on. That eve he witnesses the most beautiful sunset ever ‘fore made.

Here’s a link to a youtube video of the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8B-bNrOLj0

The point of this parable seems to be that the Redneck has the wrong attitude about life and the Hillbilly has the better one, but I’m not clear on where exactly the two types differ. They both seem to agree on the apple comment (even though some would argue this should be “fruit” since in the original language Genesis was written in, the fruit of the the tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn’t of any specific variety.). So both seem to think that the knowledge of good and evil is a good and wonderful thing and that God, being kind, actually wanted mankind to take the apple, which runs counter to about 97% of Christian doctrine.

Now it’s possible that by nodding the Hillbilly is merely being polite and placating the Redneck while disagreeing, but if so, this isn’t made clear by the narrative. Let’s take the assumption then that they both agree on this odd assertion. The first point of disagreement seems to be when the redneck finishes his bottle and throws it on the path. The Hillbilly frowns. Why? Is it because the Redneck didn’t share the whiskey? Is it because the redneck was littering? Is it because the Redneck didn’t appreciate the path?

As a secular taoist I like this last interpretation the best, but it still isn’t exactly clear. The Redneck says “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” quoting Matthew 7:1. The bible verse later says that you will be judged in the same manner that you judge others. As far as context goes the quotation is meant for those who worry about the specks in other people’s eyes when they have planks of wood in their own. So it is a tad incorrect to use the quote when someone is merely frowning at an act of disrespect.

Is the Hillbilly committing an act of greater disrespect? No, not as far as we know. Also, the Redneck is being rather judgmental himself by saying this.

The Hillbilly frowns again, I suppose at the hypocrisy of the Redneck.

The Redneck says “You judge doubly, you sin twice.”  Now, no one ever said judging was a sin, just that judging invited reciprocal judgment. Still, after the Redneck says this, he is struck down by God. So first, God definitely exists in the universe of the parable. Second, God is of the opinion that the Redneck is wrong. So I suppose we can take the interpretation that the Redneck is being ironically hypocritical each time he uses the phrase “judge not lest ye be judged.”And it is he who “sins twice” as it were.

Still, this seems like a complicated moral stance for a story about a redneck and a hillbilly. Another idea might be that God strikes down the Redneck because the Redneck is saying a bunch of stupid crap about things he doesn’t understand.

This interpretation is buoyed by the  bit afterwards about the Hillbilly being silent and diligent. However, there is the larger context to take into account. The story is told by a Drug Dealer to the Owner of a strip club. The Drug Dealer was using the strip club to launder money, but the Owner sold the deed to the strip club (or more precisely took money for the deed after it was taken from him and he was arrested). The Drug Dealer told the story to the strip club owner as they were drinking lemonade. Then the Drug Dealer’s wife sticks the owner in the neck with a syringe full of heroin. As the Owner is dying, the Drug Dealer calls him a redneck. So the Owner of the strip club is supposed to be like the Redneck in the story, and the Drug Dealer like the Hillbilly.

So perhaps the whole problem is that the Redneck didn’t consult the Hillbilly before finishing the whiskey? And then got indignant when the Hillbilly was upset about that? But then how does that relate to the part about the apple and the garden of eden? And what about the judge doubly, sin twice part?

So here’s my own interpretation, developed from trying to get some sort of consistent meaning out of what is likely an unimportant string of dialogue whipped up on the fly to work as something cool to say before killing someone.  The knowledge of good and evil (the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden) is a wonderful thing. But knowledge of good and evil is only worth something if you use that knowledge. That is, if you use judgment. If you use judgment, you have to be prepared to be judged in turn, but not using it isn’t a moral option either.

In terms of Christian mythology, Adam and Eve were naked and shameless before they ate the apple, but afterward, they had to cover themselves up because they had shame. God, being a omnipotent and omniscient, but having granted humans free will, would have known that they would eventually eat the fruit, so it’s possible to believe that it was a gift to humankind, but one that came with consequences. For the Redneck to say that knowledge of good and evil was a wonderful thing and then subsequently perform a wasteful act (finishing the whisky and throwing the bottle in the path carelessly) is hypocritical. Then for him to disparage the  judgment of others, is doubly hypocritical. Using the quote from Matthew is ironic, because it would be the Redneck with the plank in his eye. The Redneck shows no shame when he should know better and so God strikes him down. So the moral of the story is “Don’t pretend you don’t know better, when you do.”

Or at least that’s the best I can come up with.

I did a brief search for other interpretations. My favorite comes from Popmatters.com in an article titled “An Ozarker Considers Netfix’s ‘Ozark'”. The author doesn’t really analyze the parable in any real detail, however he does reveal that, much as one might expect, the terms hillbilly and redneck are not really all that distinct, even in the Ozarks. Both are pretty much insults, but ones that may be embraced by certain groups as cultural identifiers. Furthermore, the Ozarks portrayed in the show are really a fantasy version of the real place made up of previous stories and memories of the area from the seventies. In short, the parable here is a tale made up by a made up character in a made up story in made up version of a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. Its possible relevance to the world at large is remote at best. And yet I still find it oddly fascinating. Way to hack my brain, dude or dudette in the writers’ room who came up with this thing.

Interesting fact: I learned a new word from the wikipedia entry on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: merism. A merism is a combination of items of a set of things to indicate the entirety of that set. For instance “the long and short of it” or “sword and sorcery”. Yay vocabulary!

The Meaning of Good

What is the meaning of “good”?

That’s a question I’ve been struggling a little with lately. I’m not concerned with “good” in a moral sense, that question has its own difficulties. I’m just talking here about “good” as in “that was a good book I read.” Or “that was a good movie.” So, okay, this is a subjective thing. You either like something or you don’t. If you like it, it’s good, if you don’t like it, it’s bad.

Hold on. That’s overly simplistic! There are some things I like more than others. That doesn’t mean some of them are all good and some are all bad. There’s a spectrum. Some things can’t even be called good or bad; they’re just “okay.” So there’s a region on the spectrum where things are bad, and a region where they are good and an area where maybe they’re just okay. I can even assign a number from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 indicating how good I think something is.  I can assign a rating, and so can anybody else. Putting a large number of ratings together into an average, then can give an indication of  how good something is to most people.

Okay, but, let’s face it. Most people are idiots. All of us have probably felt the frustration of not liking something that was extremely popular. In my experience almost every book or movie that made it big had some major flaws in it. Lord of the Rings was full of unneeded exposition and involved a long trek that could have been avoided with much less bloodshed if Gandalf had pulled out the rocs earlier. The system of magic in the Harry Potter universe has no logic to it. Curses and other bad magic things happen, and then other people poof it away.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation as to why some things work and some don’t, which is fine in a fun YA romp, but becomes a bit frustrating when situations become more dire. How fast, for example, does an avra kadavra shot fly from a wand? Is it instantaneous or can the victim dodge? Is there another spell that can block it? When Voldemort and Harry are dueling with their wands, what governs who beats whom? Is it sheer will? Is there some skill or strategy involved?  In the Twilight books you have sparkly vampires. The Hunger Games is has a scene or two where someone is about to commit suicide. You might disagree with me on some of these problems or that they’re problems at all, but the point is that, assuming for the moment that these issues exist, why are these books popular when there are other books that don’t have these problems that no one seems to know about?

Okay, so maybe it’s a matter of luck. Maybe some of the authors had good publicists or the right people read the work and liked it. Maybe I’m a weirdo and these problems don’t really exist. Then again, it could be that the factors that govern whether something is popular are different from those that govern whether something is good.

Hold on a second. That seems obvious, but if you can’t figure out what is good based on popularity how can you tell if it’s good or not at all? We’re back to saying it’s subjective. We tried that line of thought already, but maybe we can come at it from a different angle. Everyone has different criteria for judging things. Some people like Rap. Some people like Rock and Roll. It’s a matter of taste. Okay but there are bad Rap songs and bad Rock and Roll songs and people disagree there too.

So even the people who agree, disagree? Does the word “good” even have a meaning? We’re beginning to veer into postmodernism. The only reason any word has meaning is because a sizable group of people have agreed that a given collection of symbols or sounds should mean a set thing.  If no one can agree what is good and what isn’t, how can anyone be sure what the word means?

Complicating the issue further,  generally people like things that are original. In order for the public to think something is good, that thing must change public opinion in some way.  So you can’t say that just because something falls in line with what the rest of the public usually thinks is good, that the public is going to like it.

Lifted from http://www.songsandsonics.com/category/trick/

So if you’re a creator of some work, how can you judge whether it is good or not? Your own enjoyment may have been in the act of creating the work itself, and furthermore you might run counter to the popular ideals of your time. If you are sure that no one else will appreciate it, then you can keep it to yourself and move on to some more pedestrian project when and if you want to make money. How can you tell if what you’ve done is good in a more universal sense though? I don’t really know, of course, but I feel obligated to come up with some answer, and I think it might be that you have to be true to your own idea of good, but provide a bridge to the popular idea of good.

Maybe you’re in a world where everyone loves dogs and hates cats, and you love cats. Maybe you write a story about a dog that befriends a cat. Or maybe you make art with dogs and cats getting along. I don’t know. The idea probably falls apart if you try to think of making something truly abhorrent, like killing children, popular.

Oh wait…what’s The Hunger Games about again?

Hmm…

(I actually liked the Hunger Games BTW. I’m just making a point)


Myxobacteria are Awesome

Swarming myxobacteria
Image pulled from http://bit.ly/m51q1q

I am writing this post because myxobacteria are awesome, and I think more people should know about them.

You could go through your entire life without ever hearing about myxobacteria. Pretty much everything you need to know about microorganisms in general is that there are things moving around that are so small you can’t see them, sometimes they can help with things like digestion and pollution cleanup, and sometimes they can cause diseases such as salmonella, so you should really make sure to wash your hands, cook your food and  pasteurize things.

Everything beyond that is a detail that you can probably overlook without any serious repercussions.

But what’s the fun in that?

As with just about any facet of science, if you look into microbiology you soon find yourself falling through a magnificent and intimidating rabbit hole of information. It helps to have a specific thing to latch on to to make sense of everything.

Myxococcus fulvus fruiting body
image pulled from http://myxobacteria.ahc.umn.edu/whataremyxos2.html

Even focusing on myxobacteria gives you a lot to take in though. The picture above shows how they move around in swarms or wolf packs. The colors indicate the direction each cell is moving in. For instance, all the cells that are colored orange are traveling to the right. Why do they do this? How do they do this? They don’t have any flagella or cilia (not in the classic sense anyway) They release slime,( myxobacteria comes from the greek myxo for slime after all), but how does that help? I’ll say more about myxo movement in a later post, but there’s more.When food is scarce, myxobacteria start lumping together in visible fruiting bodies, about a millimeter tall,  like in the picture on the right. These fruiting bodies will eventually release bacterial cells with thicker cell walls that act as spores, eventually budding and making more myxobacteria, which then repeat the process.

Well, okay, that’s your basic fungus, right? But the weird thing here is that these are all still bacteria. They don’t even have nuclei! How do they show such complicated behavior?   How do they know enough to organize themselves into a heap to release spores? How is it that the spore cells look so different from the other cells?

Scientists know the answers to many of these questions, but others are still still a mystery. As you go through some of the explanations, you start to notice these strange correlations between how bacteria sense things and how social networks and mobs of people form and behave. You start to wonder about how some professions get more specialized and whether businesses and franchises are fruiting bodies. It’s eerie. And if these dumb bacteria act this way, is it possible that we act in similar ways because we’re in a similar environment? What can we take from that? Are we too much like bacteria, or not enough? What does this say about free will?

Deep, huh?

Like I said, Myxobacteria are awesome.