Swimming Against the Stream

Salvaging Reality

What To Do Until Reality Is Rediscovered

… a Few Practical Suggestions

Although I’m just beginning this little foray into the art of the essay, (I’ve committed myself to doing this for at least a year.) nevertheless, if I only critique without providing a few unconventional suggestions then I won’t have given much support for the lone souls trying to piece whatever this means together.

So far the only alternative I’ve provided is puppetry, which is not a simple proposal at all. (See Antidote Art #1 & #2.) Meanwhile there is indeed much more to say. But rather than try to be too schematic I’m going to jump around and present what might appear to be disconnected.

Dancing as a Community Activity Used to be Quite Common.

The first thing that occurs to me is the need to recognize that much that used to be taken for granted has been cast off in recent years. People used to make shoes, make music in the evenings together, grow their own food, make local forms of folk art, invite friends over for intellectual discussion, read together, pass on memories and that’s just what popped into my head rather spontaneously. In other words most of what used to pass for human behavior has been overturned largely in favor of passive amusement intake and rather addictive information gathering. When activity does get the upper hand it is largely inspired by the media we consume, the propaganda we manufacture at every turn or the fear that that our current modes of existence are somehow highly detrimental to our own existence. What used to occur naturally now must happen by choice or not at all.

Consider this: People used to get together and make music. This is particularly important to me, since I have spent quite a while among musicians and studying music history. I am probably a product of one of the last folk cultures in North America to actually just play music with no thought of actually ever recording. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was part of a network of Jesus People communes running from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon that provided a foundation for a unique music style that was at best poorly recorded, if at all. When I came home from work and sat with my friends we naturally played an unusual form of country influenced acoustic rock together. Now I could make quite a few serious criticisms of these Jesus People groups, but the music is not one of them. We took songs of all types and turned them around for own purposes. It was a far more vibrant music scene than most of what has passed for Alternative or Independent music since then. It was eventually supplanted and subverted by the commercial Christian music stealing out of Southern California.

Christian Communal Music 1973 San Rafael California

After I passed on to the next phase of my life, I found myself in the late 70’s in situations where people were actually singing John Denver and Beatle songs around campfires as if they were folk songs. Later I would meet people, musical types, who would in all earnestness tell me that all pop music was folk music. I could only reflect back on what I had experienced in the flesh to know that making real music is a very different idea from the containment of pop consumption. (And the word consumption here is definitely tubercular.) I eventually ended up in New York City in the Eighties and was stunned to find out that the vast majority of my musicians friends never played together except in conditions where they could practice or play at full rock concert level. I rarely heard of any of them just sitting around playing together. (And I don’t mean jamming and all of the connotations that implies these days.) Since then I have indeed met post-Deadheads into “drumming” or other naïve wastrels who seem to be yearning for something more real, yet somehow often moving music further from that which unites people into a culture as they imitate their favorite pop cult examples. So for me making music together is a crucial way to resume the human project. And yet the microphone and amplifiers too often crush the real experience of music. The key to the equation seems to lie in this thought: That music is not primarily either entertainment or art as defined by the 20th Century.

Music used to be connected to work. Music used to truly celebrate the moments that make life meaningful. Life wasn’t about music. Music was about life. And so to even begin to think of ways to integrate music back into life will require much more time than I have here.

Speaking of celebrations: I don’t want to find that when I’ve died someone has cooked up “A Celebration of the Life of Byrne Power”. When I die please mourn my passing. Why are the most important moments in our lives mutating into feel good parties? How many chances do we actually get to show sorrow in public anymore? Please hold a funeral for me. And cry. I don’t mind if you have something like a wake afterwards. But please no slide shows with photos of me as a child. And above all do not play a recording of my favorite song. (Good luck trying to figure that out.) Find real singers, someone who knew me. Get over this positive thinking curse and learn to grieve properly.

Food: Here is a major area of conflict and nightmarish propaganda. So I’m certainly not going to launch into a vegan vs. synthetarian diatribe here. But here is what I have to say: Eating meals is near the top of the list of practical things you can do to retrieve a sense of reality back from the artificial maw of mass culture. Now while I am all in favor of nutrition, knowing the difference between good wine and bad, sustainable living and whatnot, that’s all really beside the point. What matters is finding ways to reconnect with others while you eat at least now and then. What is the point of living in culinary splendor or correctness if your meals are less than human? None at all.

Meals are the best way to help weld a small community together. I have experimented with meals for years as way of bringing people together the like and the unlike, the convivial and the disparate. Here are a few practical personal rules that I have discovered for myself. I really haven’t expected anyone else to follow these rules, but I have discovered that as I apply them others seem to be at least momentarily present at the occasion.

An Outdoor feast – Haines, Alaska 2005

First: The television should never be left on. This seems to me to be almost obvious and insulting to point out, except that I know from too much first hand experience that far too few people even know what I mean. A meal is essentially subordinated to the screen, especially during holidays that require the presence of a turkey. Yeah I know what about the game? Exactly what about the game? Why is it so important? If the game is so important to you, then just watch the game. But try not to confuse eating a real meal with grabbing a few people to watch the game. In my house I try to never leave an active screen on when real humans are present, unless the point is to watch films. It sucks the life out of anything. Ditto screens that fit on your teeny phone.

Second: Meat. (Okay if you aren’t into meat please skip this…) Yeah meat. Meat is important for getting people together. The real feast always hovers around meat. I’ve been invited to endless potlucks with casseroles and organic get-togethers. It’s never special until you throw the sacrificial animal down on the table. (See the story of Cain and Abel.) And I’m not simply talking the big turkey meals, which are often too clichéd to ring true. I mean goose, duck, rabbits, goat, moose, an entire freshly caught sockeye salmon. Someday I hope to have suckling pig for the second time in my life. I could go on an on here. I’ve seen it work every time. Three times last summer and fall I had an entire haunch of goat (which I killed and butchered myself). Each time automatically became a memorable moment. Ask anyone who was there. Good meat, rare meat, expensive meat makes people talk. The conversation begins and that is the real point of the whole meal.

The Crab Signifies at a Meal – Haines Alaska 2007

Third (and last for now): Don’t invite people over a meal at the same moment that you expect to eat. Get them there at least an hour earlier if you can. Leave some of the cooking unfinished. Let people work together prepping the food in the kitchen. That’s when people really start talking. When I cook a special chestnut dressing that I learned in France I always wait for the guests to come over before I start the boiling process. Then I assign one or two of them to boil the chestnuts and to peel them before they get cold, which always burns your fingertips. But no one has ever really complained because the final product is so tasty and the process of scalding your fingers actually provokes much needed laughter.

There are so many other ideas related to food and the practicalities of life that can be done to help people recover enough of their human essence to open up the path for dialogue, real discourse. And that, my friends, is the point. I will return to this subject in due course.

Meanwhile conduct some experiments in conviviality…

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
4/15/11

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9 responses

  1. Byrne,

    I enjoyed this essay more than the last one, I chuckled thinking of the poor sods that burn their fingers, and the happy folks who finally got rid of the stubborn goats.

    Meals. I like sitting down with friends or family to partake and talk, but I’ve rarely thought about what makes a good meal. For some reason I’ve always liked the following if meal had them.

    1) quickness–if it takes a long time for the meal to occur, sometimes I get angry at the whole process.

    2) easy to clean up–it seems like the older I get the more dishes I have to do, the more disappointed I get when the various serving dishes start to pile up around the table. I suppose that’s the appeal of the sandwich–it doesn’t really require a plate or a utensil.

    3) Connecting with others. I like when everyone gets to tell a story about the week, the day, or the way things used to be.

    4) Warm feet. If I’m eating a meal and my feet are cold, I don’t want to sit around very long. Our house is cold on the floor, so if I have my warm socks on and my slippers, I’m much more likely to stick around for all the stories.

    5) A movie after the meal. I like it when there is something fun to do after the meal like watch a new movie. The other night we had ‘Tangled’ just-in with Netflix and I looked forward to the meal and the post-meal movie all day–all week actually, as I knew it was coming.

    6) being together. The best part of a good meal is being with those you love.

    7) a satisfied feeling afterwards. I hate it when there is not enough of the good food to go around and I’m forced to down a large pile of plain rice or a banana or glass of water to trick my stomach into thinking it’s happy.

    8) I like it when someone has prepared the meal who really knows how to show they care by making a good tasty meal. It makes me feel loved and cared for and like it’s all going to be okay in the end if those that love us still care enough to make a good meal.

    9) The Olive Garden–I’ve never had a bad or forgettable meal at the Olive Garden. I love the breadsticks!

    April 17, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    • Thank You Matt for providing a wink and a somewhat contrary opinion. I really wouldn’t expect any less. I think for the quick and dirty of daily life it probably matches the habits of most of us. (Minus having to watch “Tangled”. Thank God!)

      Nevertheless… (see above)

      April 17, 2011 at 1:05 PM

  2. Bob Nozawa

    Thank you for this recipe that would no doubt add quality to a life… the passive consumption of pop culture corn syrup definitely has a bloating effect on the collective consciousness and over time becomes pure cancer… hope your staying warm up there, boboxox

    April 17, 2011 at 9:41 AM

  3. Thanks Bob. I appreciate the concurrence. I think many of us are looking for a way out of the syrup. It does prove to be easier said than done. But to surrender to it is probably the worst of all choices.

    Yes it is quite pleasant now through October.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:55 PM

  4. Ayajoellah Komeini

    We are in the tight grip of a surge of technology. For thousands of years humans lived in a primitive manner, but ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have been bombarded with progress. Our primitive minds are having a difficult time catching up, so instead we are being consumed. The garage door is shut once we drive into our homes, and we never see our neighbors. Most promoted music (that of the top 40 contingent) means absolutely nothing, and the meal for many is an even more processed version of soilent green. Reality in its true form is evermore becoming harder to hold onto. In the vast wasteland of Americana this rings true for me everyday. I have enjoyed my meals at your home Byrne, and hope to have more in the future. Thank you for your acknowledgement of our modern predicament. I look forward to the meal when the sacrificial beast is industrial society, in which case I will gladly scald my fingertips for the proper dressing.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:20 PM

  5. “They stab it with their steely
    knives, yet they just can’t kill the beast.”

    Spitting out the transistors and electrical wire probably won’t make for the tastiest meal. We’ll eat something a smidgen more savory next time you’re up in the neighborhood.

    Meanwhile A.K. keep it as real as you can.

    “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” – Raymond Chandler

    April 17, 2011 at 7:48 PM

  6. SoiDisant

    The television? Left on or off? What is this about television? There isn’t one in our house, at all. I would not mention this, even as a boast, except it seems germane to the matter of the essay we find here.

    (Instead, we have a big stack of board games and a tall shelf of books. Yes, there is recorded music, too, but even that gets quite a bit of a different emphasis than might be seen as typical.)

    We do have laptop computers to do our writing. That said, we have laptop computers as much because THE LID CAN BE CLOSED ON A LAPTOP as for their portability.

    Our internet connection at home? Dialup. That means no streaming video or much in the way of streaming audio. (When we go to town in the normal course of our activities, and to the University with its high-speed connection, then we do the broadband things we need or want to do. We do rent Netflicks DVDs, but sometimes that doesn’t turn out to be such a good deal for us, because we don’t often watch three in a month, some months. What is our main recreational activity? Talking. Conversation. We talk. We exchange meaningful words in an interactive flow of exchanged sentences. Strange, I know.)

    The point about TV (and all the rest) is this: Almost everyone we know, even the most ardent and articulate critics of an increasingly “mediated” and dehumanized society, still choose to own and watch TV. TV seems to be a sacrifice that most people cannot make, even devastating critics of it.

    Yes, I agree. For godsake, Don’t have the TV on during any meal. But don’t stop there.

    (By the way, just as suggested in the essay, we cook meals and eat together, like people used to do. Not just feasts, but ordinary, every day, one-pan peasant food–eaten together in company.)

    April 21, 2011 at 1:55 AM

    • My dear Soi,

      Thanks for supporting the main point of this essay even if, in your own inimitable manner, it is couched in a somewhat feisty attitude. I do believe that the “we” in your story most likely doesn’t represent a majority of the people of our society. Therefore my remarks about the television and other screens probably weren’t completely out of place. (I did mention that it might almost seem insulting… which should have quelled any suspicious that I was unaware that there were a few folks trying to live differently.)But thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Byrne

      April 21, 2011 at 8:05 AM

  7. Daniel

    .”In other words most of what used to pass for human behavior has been overturned largely in favor of passive amusement intake and rather addictive information gathering…”

    This has occurred to me when I do an inventory of my time management. I have many hobbies that I do on my own/in a group setting but I wonder how far advanced I would be if I didn’t have a TV and computer. I personally do try to do/prefer physical(meaning not digital) activities even if mere amusement for the simple social experience ie reading a physical book/not a computer article/ playing a board game/cards or going to a gun range (yes I live in the south/and carry a gun for a living so this can be and is a social experience of several hours)

    It becomes very evident when the power goes out and I’m ashamed to say my first thought is ” Oh great..what do I do now?”(meaning can’t use a screen to pass the time)

    The meal thing hits home recently as I’m messianic Jewish and passover was this past few days…The passover seder is a several hour long ritual meal in which one is forced to interact with people I don’t know well from my synagogue/other synagogues as the night wears on..and that is awesome.

    April 21, 2011 at 11:01 AM

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