My mother is up from South Carolina for the Thanksgiving holiday, and we’ve had a lovely time with her, essentially hunkering down inside the house since Northern winters (even the early, mild parts) don’t work well with Southern immune systems. (She got pneumonia after a Christmas visit up here a few years ago). I was intending to add some distinct Southern touches to the Thanksgiving dinner, but I couldn’t find any fresh okra or collard greens last weekend, so I settled instead for doing a good Sausage Stuffing. Who needs celery and raisins and other icky water group items in their stuffing when they can have nice crispy bits of Jimmy Dean sage sausage drifting about in their gravy instead, right? It was greasy and wonderful, and we ate it two nights in a row. I used up all the white meat leftovers Friday night by making a nice creamy turkey noodle casserole, but the bone-gnawers in the family (my mother and my daughter) still opted to suck the gristle and marrow and dark meat off of the bits of carcass that survived the first meal. (I have to admit that that’s one of the few Southern traits I’ve abandoned since moving northward). Marcia also made her signature pecan praline pumpkin pie (yes, it’s pecan pie and pumpkin pie . . . all in one pie!), so we’re all well-fed, sleek and glossy as the weekend winds down. I’ll do two trips to the gym tomorrow to atone. I need it at this point.
I grabbed my eMusic downloads for the month a few days ago. An interesting blend this time around.
Marnie Stern‘s annoyingly titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That was first into the car stereo. It’s a real sick and spazzy mess of guitars and drums, and I mean that as a complement. It’s one of the spikiest, most angular albums I’ve heard since, hmmm, maybe since Robert Fripp and Barry Andrews’ League of Gentlemen discotronics experiment back in the late ’70s/early ’80s. At its best, this record is very, very good indeed. Unfortunately, it occassionally falls into flash for flash’s sake instrumental histrionics, and weird for weird’s sake time signature changes, and Stern’s voice can be really Chipmunk-irritating at the higher end of her register. I’m still listening to this one pretty regularly, undecided about whether it’s going to fall on the “keeper” or “nice try” side of the fence. That title doesn’t do it any favors, just for the record.
The Secret Machines self-titled new album really grabbed me through its first five songs, which infuse an arch ’80s new wave vibe into long-form, prog-style songwriting. Think Cars + Marillion. The beats are big and the synths are squishy, and the total impact is appealling and engaging. The album lags a little bit in the middle, before winding up with a big, sprawling meltdown closer track. With a little judicious editing, this one could have been titanic.
I downloaded two albums from Sweden’s Dungen: the new 4 (which is their fifth album, go figure), and 2007’s Tio Batar. Both records find a really great halfway point between the experimental and the accessible, with a wide range of stylistic approaches all generally, roughly fitting under the “psychedelia” umbrella. I actually listen to a lot of Scandinavian music, so the Swedish lyrics don’t trouble me any, since I’m used to hearing the sounds of words, if not understanding their meanings. Sometimes, that makes the music all that much more evocative, because you hear the voice as an instrument, not as a conduit for information. Good stuff, for sure.
I have a good friend who’s from way up in the northern praries on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, so I’ve developed an affinity and appreciation for the culture up there. Hometowns, by The Rural Alberta Advantage, provides some wonderful snapshots into lives built around farms, cold, oil, snow, cold, farms, family, friends, ice, cold, snow, farms and oil. And cold. The music is spry, ragged and engaging, reminding me of the Weakerthans from Manitoba, a couple of provinces to the east, but like Alberta, minus the oil. I always appreciate songwriters who write about the real places and people who shaped and inspired them. Hometowns has a real heart to it because of that. It keeps it real. Real cold. And I like that.
Finally, Abalone Skeletone from Utah’s Tolchock Trio offers an appealing blend of generally noisy, guitar-based post-rock. There’s nothing particularly unique or unusual about what they offer, if you’ve spent much time dabbling around in the indie rock pool inspired by the likes of Wire or Sonic Youth, but they do what they do very, very well, keeping my attention consistently engaged throughout their album’s run. And I appreciate that, I really do. Recommended.
Scientists announced today that the Hubble Telescope has apparently captured the first visible-light images of an extrasolar planet, a massive gas giant orbiting the star Fomalhaut. See the picture below at right (courtesty the Associated Press) to see what Hubble shot, and how it moved over the course of a couple of years. Fomalhaut (the star at the center of the dust cloud) is relatively close to us, a mere 25 light years away. It is the 18th brightest star in the night sky, and now we have glimpsed its robust planetary system.
While this is cool for space nerds under any circumstances, it gets even cooler as Fomalhaut is clearly, easily visible these days in the part of the world where I (and many of you) live. Go out pretty much anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard around 10 PM at night and look South: there will be a very bright star to the south-southwest, about 15 degrees above the horizon. That would be the Fomalhaut system, with its planets, its spectacular dust cloud, and its class A star at its center.
It’ll just be a bright speck when you look at it, yes, but you can ponder the marvels of that spectacular dust cloud in the picture, and know that there are multiple planets plowing through it, including the one we’ve spotted with what counts as bare eyes in galactic terms. Who knows: in that clear area inside the dust cloud, there might even be a little rocky planet encased in a blue and green shroud of water vapor and nitrogen, with some alien space dorks pondering Jupiter and Saturn and wondering what tiny planets might exist within that crazy asteroid ring that our little star wears like a thick leather ’70s belt.
Happy stargazing. Happy planet pondering. Happy awe.
There’s an explanation for why we exist in the form we do, and I know what it is.
We are all about moving little pieces of the ocean from one place to the other. That’s all we are: sacks of seawater that can convert solar energy into locomotive force, so that we can move our little pieces of the ocean around. Unlike most seawater sacks, though, we are conscious of our selves, and this consciousness leads us to question our primary universal role as movers of hydrogen, oxygen, salts and minerals.
Consciousness is an electrochemical process that our particular strain of seawater sacks have evolved. No better or worse or different than a tail, a gall bladder, or an appendix. Because we don’t understand how this electrochemical process works, we use the very same electrochemical process to create mystical, non-biological explanations for its workings.
The lizard brain buried underneath our consciousness tells it that it must survive and endure at all costs. That’s why we use our electrochemical processes to seek patterns and practices designed to make said processes part of a larger cosmos and eternal. But the electrochemical processes are not part of a larger cosmos, nor are they eternal. Only the seawater’s constituents elements may lay claim to such status.
When our sacks of seawater can no longer turn solar energy into locomotive force, they become useless in life’s order, and our electrochemical processes stop, so that the atoms and molecules driving them can be dispersed to build other sacks of seawater.
Seawater will continue to organize itself into sacks that then break up and decay until such time as the universe implodes in the big collapse. There’s no meaning to any of it, it just is. So the best thing to do while your sack of seawater is conscious is to find all the things that produce the chemical process called “happiness,” and do as many of those things as you can.
And then you need to die, and let some other sack have your seawater.
Some may despair at these thoughts, but what’s wrong with being a sack of seawater, really? A sack that can organize and carry itself around, perceive the world and all things in it, experience electrochemical processes that make it feel good or bad, reproduce itself, control and manipulate other sacks of seawater, and (when it is no longer able to locomote seawater from place to place) break itself down so that other sacks of seawater can use its atoms and molecules, for as long as the universe exists? The sheer science of this equation guarantees immortality in far more meaningful ways than any metaphysical religion yet crafted by any seawater sack can offer.
And such science will explain everything that requires explaining, eventually, but we conscious sacks of seawater have only been dabbling in science for a few thousand years, so it’ll take another million or so, at least, before we (or the other forms of conscious seawater sacks that follow us) have even a tiny portion of all the answers. I don’t doubt at all that other forms of mobile chemistry sets have developed consciousness, figured out all the answers, became one with the Universe at the most molecular of levels, and then were extinguished when their stars blew up and turned their planets to cinders, shattering the very bonds between their seawater’s elements, sending them on lonely voyages across the Universe, where, in time, they re-bonded with other sundered atoms, to be assimilated into other seawater sacks.
And I also don’t doubt that those fully actualized, now extinguished seawater sack cultures came to understand their place in the Universe via science, not metaphysics. If knowledge is a measurable product, then the path to knowledge is clear. How much more do we Earth-bound seawater sacks know about science now than we did in 1000 AD? Countless orders of magnitude more. And then how much more do we know about this construct that our chemicals have concocted called “God” after a Millennium? Not one, single iota.
Scientific knowledge grows exponentially, so at some point in the distant future, our particular form of seawater sacks will know everything there is to know, or will be close enough to knowing everything there is to know as to make the distinction immaterial. And when that time comes, we won’t know any more about “God” than we know today.
So we’re just conscious seawater sacks, which is fine, and should not require any mass leaps from “happiness” to “existential meaninglessness.” Of all the organisms evolved to move seawater around, we’re the only ones on our little rock of a planet (that we know of) who have developed electrochemical processes that allow us to wonder what it means to move seawater around. That’s pretty special. It doesn’t need to have any “meaning” or “purpose,” it just is.
I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?
I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.
The Mars Phoenix Mission is over, the polar explorer fallen silent for the past week after fading light, dropping temperatures and unfortunate dust storms. I was hoping it was going to last long enough to watch the Martian ice caps encroach from ground level, but it wasn’t meant to be. Fortunately, the Mars Rovers keep on keeping on. Yay Spirit! Yay Opportunity!
Joe Bell, my fifth and final living grandparent, went to Glory last night.
Joe courted and married my grandmother, Henrietta, after my biological grandfather, Delmas, died. He has been an important part of our family since then. He was a kind and funny man, who grew and cooked the largest, best boiled peanuts I’ve ever eaten.
His health had been rapidly failing over the past few month, so in the end, his passing was a mercy, because his toil here is now finished, and he’s free from suffering, free from pain.
I wrote a short story about him and my Mom a few years back called “The First Year in Fifty,” though I changed their names in the story to protect their identities. While writers are notoriously terrible judges of their own work, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever produced in a lifetime of scribbling.
I share it with you today in Joe’s honor and memory at the link below. He was a truly original character, and he will be missed.