Shantaram – A Book I was Meant to Read

I want to tell you a story – A little more than a decade ago, I was a tanned beach boy living in Hawaii. I met a tourist girl and she was looking for an island romance so she invited me to dinner. I wanted to sleep with her – I thought – so I … Continue reading “Shantaram – A Book I was Meant to Read”

I want to tell you a story –

A little more than a decade ago, I was a tanned beach boy living in Hawaii. I met a tourist girl and she was looking for an island romance so she invited me to dinner. I wanted to sleep with her – I thought – so I accepted her invitation. In those days I was desperate for intimacy but I was under the mistaken impression that meaningless uncommittal sex and intimacy could be the same thing. I was finding a good bit of the former and very little of the latter – to some extent because often when I would find the latter – I would push the former onto it and likewise I missed a good bit of the former by burdening it with the latter.

What I truly sought was spiritual, emotional, and intellectual intimacy but I kept messing it up with sexual intimacy. This isn’t a story of that – it’s just the oppossite. This particular girl was on vacation and she wanted a no strings attached sexual romp but I screwed that up – over dinner I dove into deeper and heavier subjects- loosened with a few drinks I waxed philosophical/spiritual – she had a deeper nature which she didn’t want to share – I dug and pushed and finally exasperated she suggested a moonlit walk down a deserted beach – the perfect last night in Hawaii for her and now I realize she wanted nothing more than to make love on the beach before getting on a plane and going back to her real life. She had opened up to me too much though and I found myself more excited to learn from her spiritual and philosophical insights than to kiss her delicioius lips.

I think she gave up and we sat under a coconut tree in the moonlight talking until it was time to go. I invited her to my apartment but by this point, I had gone too far in finding out who she really was for her to let me see her being someone she really wasn’t. And the next day we left – and we never met again. I don’t remember her name and she most likely doesn’t remember mine. I don’t even remember all that we talked about – but I remember her saying she had started to read a book in Hawaii and was so captivated by the opening paragraph that she had committed it to memory.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized somehow, through the screaming in my mind that even in that shackled bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

It impacted me as well, but to be honest, I didn’t remember the quote or the name of the book, but only the spirit of the quote – so – later, when she was gone with no contact information and I was looking for the book that had so affected her – I was unable to find it. Instead, more than a decade later – the book found me. My aunt, the one who has given me so much thought and spirit provoking literature through the years handed me the book with several others and without comment. It was a large book – nearly a thousand pages and with a 2-year old and the struggle to make ends meet in our new home country – the USA (my old home country, by the way) – I didn’t touch it for more than a year – finally, looking for something to read I picked it up and flicked to the first page and there it was – those words – those powerful, important words.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized somehow, through the screaming in my mind that even in that shackled bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a roller coaster of a book filled with hard won wisdom and insight from a man who has led a life that most people only think happens in movies – not heart warming movies, but powerful movies. This is a novel but there is more truth to it than most novels can claim. Like the protaganist, Roberts escaped prison in Australia and fled to India where he worked with the Bombay mafia and eventually was caught and returned to prison where he served out his sentence and wrote Shantaram.

I am grateful to that girl for priming my brain with his words, grateful to my aunt for delivering the book, and grateful to the universe for finding the right time to deliver it. There was so much in this book that spoke to me – not just the opening line and the theme of forgiveness but also the theme of redemption and the idea that sometimes we can do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason. I could go on – but I won’t. I only recommend that you read it.

Here is a link to get Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

shantaram

Note: I intentionally wrote the above without having read any reviews or looked at the author’s website or even to have read more about the author than his dust jacket bio – now I’ve done a bit of digging. It’s astounding how many people HATE this book – but they have some valid points – none the less – the book is too long, the characters are mostly one dimensional, and there are some serioius prose problems. The biggest reason why most of them seem to hate it though is because of Roberts himself and how he wrote this work of fiction as a way of aggrandizing himself with an alternate fictional history – I make no beef with the valid points – but I only want to add – this is a work of fiction, not a biography. As such, I think it paints those themes of redemption and forgiveness beautifully. I would not want to live the life of Roberts nor the life of his character Lin. I still think the book is a worthy read.

A Memento of Henri Bergson – Christopher Nolan’s Memento

A Memento of Henri Bergson

by Vago Damitio

You may think that you are free, but you are not. You may think that each action you take is an unrestrained choice, but it is not. You ( and everyone else) are incarcerated in a prison that controls every action you take and every decision you make. Even the decision to be reading these words was already determined before you had read the title of this article.

You can stop right now….but obviously that is not a decision you were able to make, because you are still reading. I don’t want you to harbor any illusions, I am just as much a prisoner as you are. As I write these words, a series of circumstances have led me to a point that cannot be returned from. The sum total of my associations and memories combined with the intensity of my feelings about them have led me to this moment, as I sit and write these words, and while it may feel like this is voluntary, the truth is that I really have no choice in the matter.

How can this be? Just as you can stop reading, I can stop writing…but we have not. We have not been able to stop even though the idea was suggested to us both. We continue on. I am not alone in suggesting that memory has a much stronger hold upon the actions we take in the present than most of us care to admit. Philosophers have debated the case of free will. Thomas Hobbes and David Hume suggested that if one were not being coerced by an outside agent that one was exercising free will. This is a just and necessary argument. It is just because, as John Locke suggested later, if one can pause long enough to think about the effects of one’s actions, one is able to make a choice. It is necessary because if individuals are not held accountable for their actions, there is no basis for order in any society.

Necessary and just…agreed, but are they correct? What if the judgment that is made in the pause Locke speaks of is influenced by the perception of the individual making the judgement? What if even the ability to pause and consider an action before making a judgement is predetermined within the individual by the way that the individual views past experience and current events? If this is the case, than, just as you are still reading these words and I am still writing these words, other actions by other individuals may actually be predetermined and potentially mapped out by the most fascist of all prison wardens….memory.

The philosopher Henri Bergson said in his book Matter and Memory that

It may be said that we have no grasp of the future without an
equal and corresponding outlook over the past, that the onrush
of our activity makes a void behind it in which memories flow,
and that memory is thus the reverberation in the sphere of
consciousness, of the indetermination of our will.

Consider that for a moment, since you are reading this. I will do the same, since I am writing this. I am not certain, but I think that it implies that not only are we influenced in our current decisions by the events of the past, but that we let current events reshape the events of the past, thus, the past that we are basing our decisions upon, is actually variable. This confounds the issue even further. To return to the situation that we currently find ourselves in, are we reading/writing this because of past events or reshaping past events to justify our reading/writing of this essay? In either case, who is actually in charge and making the decision to read/write this essay?

At the risk of disappointing you, I must confess here, that I do not have an answer. This whole series of events has been conjured up by a viewing of a film directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento. In Memento, such questions are suggested and because of an earlier exposure to the works of Henri Bergson, they have come to light in this essay. Memento is the story of a man who seeks to avenge the rape/murder of his wife. This is compounded a condition he has called anterograde amnesia which does not allow him to build new memories. His memories are fixed in the past. Or so he thinks.

The film starts from the present and traces events backwards using the point of view of the main character, Leonard, a man who uses notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos to remember what he is doing and who he meets. Things are not as they seen for Leonard. His condition makes him vulnerable to exploitation. In the end (which confusingly is actually the beginning), Leonard is forced to confront the fact that things may not have been the way he thought they were. He is forced in short, to ask himself if what he thought was the past which had driven him to the present, was really what he had thought it was. He is forced to consider his actions and whether they were justified based on his memories. Leonard, is lucky though, he only needs to remember to tattoo a justification upon himself and it becomes reality to him.

Can you find justification for your actions?

Amazon’s Amazon Coins are No Play Money – Exploring Virtual Currency

amazon coinsThe world of virtual currency is nothing new. However, Amazon.com just unveiled a new virtual currency. It will be coming in May and lots of people are excited about it…but not everyone.

I remember hearing about this phenomenon a few years ago. I laughed, I thought it was a media sensation, I pretty much forgot about it. The whole idea was just too ridiculous to take seriously. However, in the first three parts of Play Money by Julian Dibbell, he gives enough background, enough empirical data, and enough of an introduction to the real people who are making real money in MMORPG’s (Massive Multi Player Role Playing Games) to bring the idea from the realms of the ridiculous and into the realm of the real, albeit with a certain surreal quality to it all. Amazon, of course, is going one better and making it very very real.

Several things jumped out at me from these sections of Dibbell’s Book 1) The population of the virtual countries that serve as the backdrop for the games he describes is often in excess of the population of real countries, i.e. a game like Ultima Online has more real people in it’s virtual confines than a real country like Tonga has real people 2)The gross domestic product per capita is actually higher in a game like Ultima (in real world dollars produced) than it is per capita in a real world country like Russia and finally 3) That a worker in Mexico or other less industrialized nations can earn more real world money through playing an MMORPG than through labor or other forms of real world work, that is, by producing fake ingots of fake gold and selling them on a real dollar ebay, a worker can earn more real dollars than by digging ditches, picking fruit, cleaning rooms, or cleaning schools. Unbelievable, and yet this is the reality that we are living in.

Another aspect of this phenomenon that Dibbell blew my mind with is the idea of scarcity and value. Using real world economics and virtual world statistical data, Dibbell shows that given a choice between a garden of Eden ease or a dog eat dog world, people will choose the dog eat dog. His examples of online world’s where people could have anything they want for free that lie unpopulated while online worlds that incorporate real world values of scarcity fill up with more and more people shows that we value what we have to work for. It shows that we don’t want the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve probably left the garden willingly and have never really wanted to go back. Why would you want to simply pick the fruit you want to eat when instead you can find the seed, dig a hole, water the dirt, tend the tree, protect it from predators, and finally, pick the fruit you want?

One has to wonder if perhaps the string of necessary steps in the real world is artificially lengthened in order to make our lives feel more satisfying. Do we all go through massive numbers of extra steps to achieve a sense of purpose? For instance, if we want a new car, is it really necessary to get a degree, get a job, pay off loans, build credit, get another loan, test drive, set up a payment plan, get insurance, and finally drive it off the lot? Or have we simply created all of these steps to keep us occupied, locked up in our own little virtual world of mining fake ore to make fake ingots to buy fake armor, to get to the next artificial level? It’s only one example, but it is definitely worth thinking about on a greater scale. Is Eden still all around us but we choose not to see it?

Jumping ahead to parts 7 and 8 of Play Money Dibbell cranks up the intensity meter as he gets serious about meeting his financial goals in the virtual world and doing it by any means possible. At the beginning of part 7 he is feeling confidant and has even started to make more money in an easier fashion. He takes this mental break to delve into the realities of real world taxes from real world money for virtual world income. He doesn’t find answers yet, but explains the totally bizarre concepts that he is thinking of in regard to his new vocation and the tax consequences thereof.

In the meantime, he is facing ethical dilemmas as he considers whether to make a profit from a virtually stolen ‘bone crusher’. He is ultimately, okay with fencing the item, mainly because it is within the rules of the game. Also, Dibbell is taking huge strides in the virtual world’s and even acquires the tower he described in the beginning of the text! None the less, Dibbell is becoming desperate to meet his self imposed goals and does the math to see how far he has to go…it is not looking like he will make it. His desperation leads him to start dealing in manufactured gold from notorious gold farmers. His profits go up…a lot.

He gets ripped off finally and finds that the authorities don’t take this sort of thing very seriously. Sometimes, this has bad consequences….as he points out that it has led to murder in China. Meanwhile he continues to try to figure out what exactly it is that he is selling. He goes to San Francisco and starts meeting the bigwigs of the virtual gaming world. Dibbell seems to be undergoing an identity crisis as his life is falling apart, his life in the virtual world is becoming more important than his life in the non virtual. Finally, he sets up a Chinese virtual sweatshop and hopes for huge profits.

In these sections, we see Dibbell slowly compromise the values he thought he had and justify his decisions. At the same time, we see him exploring the ramifications of virtual actions within the real world. Violence, death, fraud, and taxes. Sounds like the two worlds aren’t that different after all.

Let’s see if Amazon Coins can make a bigger difference between the real and the virtual world than Dibbels experiments did.

The Time of Rice

Time for Rice. Rice Time. The Rice for Time. Timing Rice. by Vago Damitio

It is easy to forget that time is a human construction. Not to say that things didn’t happen in a way that could be described as ‘time’ before humans were measuring it, but this is a very different thing than the way we think about time. In our world, we think of time as being measured and broken into bits. It has been said by philosophers that the past is always done, the future never arrives, and in reality, all we ever have is the now. Now is also known as the present. Some people even go so far as to say it is called the present because it is a gift. What we humans do with the gift of the present depends on where we live and what we have been taught to value. Throughout the world and particularly in parts of Southeast Asia, rice is one of the most valuable aspects of life. It too, is considered a gift. It is for this reason that many rituals, festivals, activities, and belief systems in this region are connected with the planting, transplanting, tending, and harvesting of rice.

Continue reading “The Time of Rice”

Another Madman Writer: Anthony Mathenia

A couple years ago, my novel Douchebags, Fags, and Hags was in a competition with a bunch of other novelist’s novels. It looked like the winner was going to be me or this fruity guy who was writing a Jehovah’s Witness coming of age story called Happiness and How to Find It. (At the bottom of the interview, you’ll find the links to find it.. :)

anthonymatheniaIt wasn’t what I’d expected as I read his work. It was raw, gritty, sexy, and not at all like something I would expect from a Jehovah’s Witness bible beater more like what I would expect from an alcoholic wearing a wife beater. That’s because the guy who wrote it had been expelled, excommunicated, and banished from his church. Why? Because he’s awesome. The Witnesses couldn’t handle that much awesome. From that competition (which both of us lost to a 15 year old with a million facebook friends and fans) was born a friendship.

You may know Anthony Mathenia from his incredibly entertaining family travel writing on Vagobond.com – Syncopated Family Travel now is your chance to get to know him better through some no holds barred questions from me. Get ready to be shocked.

 

Continue reading “Another Madman Writer: Anthony Mathenia”

The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man

Here is a link to some excerpts from the Geertz essay

Summary of the Main Points of “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” – Clifford Geertz

(summary by Vago Damitio)

In this essay, Clifford Geertz goes to great efforts to make the point that the concept of culture is the definition of man. On page 52 he states this most clearly with the following “ …culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually , one by one, in fact become.“

While the title points clearly to this conclusion, Geertz takes his time with the argument and presents a compelling and interesting case along the way to the conclusion. He begins with a refresher course through cultural anthropology, starting with Levi Strauss and his conclusion that science is not simply the reduction of the complex to the simple. Instead it is, especially in anthropology (Geertz argues) quite the opposite. Geertz goes on to quote whitehead with “Seek complexity and order it”. The point of this and other evaluations of well known anthropologists work and most famous maxims is toeventually lead the reader to the central concept Geertz wishes to present as quoted above.

Geertz explores the history of studying the nature of man pointing out that the enlightenment concept of man with a capital M being a complete animal seeking culture led to the racist concepts of that period and the times that followed (pp35) . Near the close of his introduction Geertz brings the reader to his first important benchmark that

“…men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not, in fact, exist…”. Continue reading “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man”