Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Drum in a circle at Meridian Hill Park (Part I)

LOCATION: Meridian Hill Park, upper level (W-ish st between 13th and 16th; follow the sound of happiness). WHEN: Sundays, starting in that afternoooony time and ending when everyone is exhausted. NOTE: The Meridian Hill drum circle is nothing like the tepid Dupont-based ellipse which hosts a straggle of bucket tappers around the same time.

WHAT TO BRING: Yourself. DISCOURAGED FOR DANCING: Your self. OPTIONAL: A jingly silver chain for your belly, which is hopefully similar to a heap of wheat set about with lilies, and has a navel like a round goblet which wanteth not liquor.

The day rose so elysian that I yearned to get me to the mountain of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense,

Yea, though DC (for all its fun things to do) has no such place, but the Meridian Hill drum circle is a close second;

I took off my shoes when I entered the garden, and two brothers were sploshing each other all down the tiered fountain;

And shaggy indie boys were kryptoniting bikes and twitching nervously in the sunshine;

And the ground resounded the sound of heartbeats elaborated.

They were dancing in a circle; the men were leaping and their noble dreads were as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead,

The women were leaping and their breasts were as clusters of grapes,

And the grins that were traded were good, and solid, and given for free,

And the battered bum did grin at the crisp collared lawyer, and the lawyer grinned back (although he caressed his palm pilot for a bit of comfort),

And a dancer after his handstand flung his purely gleeful shirt to the winds,

And the drums did echo the beat of our hearts did echo the drums right back.

(apology kisses to the Song of Solomon http://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/www/Bible/Song_of_Solomon.html)

Ode to the barbed wire protecting the cemetery on 30th and R

Don't worry
I'm in

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Attend a World Premiere at DC9

LOCATION: DC9, 1940 9th St. NW (just below U St.)

EQUIPMENT: Yourself, ID, $ for cover. OPTIONAL: cute pagan friend

This story starts at Kramerbooks , where I stopped by on my way home one night to read literary tea leaves. (Note: A friend from Iran once told me that people like to use the poetry of Hafiz as a kind of I-Ching; if you're suffering from an existential problem, you open up "The Gift" to a random page which will surely have philosophical relevance. My most recent try: "No More Leaving: At/ Some point/ Your relationship/ With God/ Will/ Become like this:/ Next time you meet Him in the forest/ Or on a crowded city street/ There won't be anymore/ "Leaving."/ That is,/ God will/ climb into/ Your pocket./ You will simply just take/ Yourself/ Along!" This practice can be extended to the whole poetry section at Kramerbooks. It works particularly well if it's late and you're tipsy.)

As I was feverishly copying down words by the miraculous Denise Levertov in my journal, I overheard a conversation. ("You haven't read 'The Prince'? You should. It will help you understand those lying bastards in politics..."). I butted in ("You're being unfair to Machiavelli...") and we ended up chatting for a while in the park outside Dupont Circle.

One of the men, Jorge, told me about his band which would be playing at DC9 on Monday. He said that they were a mix between progressive rock and the ancient rhythms of Greece. He said that they took the vision of Zeppelin one step further. He said that when I listened to them, it would feel as if the top of my head had lifted right off. He said that it might well change my life. He said that he was not afraid of being famous. He said that it was going to be his first show.

And my heart swelled with a sort of helpless protectiveness - like when you watch a fellow human walk the circus tightrope, netless, from the nosebleed seats.

So I came to DC9 on Monday with the lovely Syreena to hear Aulus Conversi Onis de Pulchritudo (the name of Jorge's band. No, I don't remember how to pronounce it). It's a nice venue, with the bar on the lower level and the performance area up top. Like the Velvet Lounge, it has a strong community feeling - as Syreena and I were nursing our beers, a guy at the bar called out, "Hey, has anyone seen 'I, Robot'?" It seems that the area around 9th and U is where many of the people without day jobs live.

Jorge came up to talk to us. He thanked us for coming. He thought it might very well be a full house. He had personally invited about a hundred people. Well, he'd called them or left messages. There were about thirty who had promised that they would be there - and the rest, well, who knew. My friend Marcella was definitely coming, she had told him for sure. He told Syreena that she was in for a special time. He said that he blended modern passion with ancient Greek rhythms. He said that she would probably feel the top of her head lifting off. He said he thought his band had some great material, but that they should probably tour for a while before they signed with anyone. He was rubbing his hands quickly up and down his arms. He said he should probably be off to scope out the space upstairs and make sure everything was fine.

We looked around. We were the only people sitting in the bar. "The thing that sucks is, if we're the only people up there, we can't leave," Syreena said.

One of my favorite things about DC9 is the tiny side room upstairs (to the left after you come up the stairs.) It's cozy, dark red, has good pictures on the wall, and incredibly comfortable black couches that make you wish for someone to straddle. So it's an ambiance extravaganza, improvable perhaps only by painting a lot of different kinds of eyes on the ceiling (Syreena's suggestion). And you can still keep an eye on the stage when you're sitting there.

By the time Jorge's band was up, it certainly wasn't a full house, but there were enough people in the audience to make it feel like a show. "Hi," he said. He adjusted the microphone. "Hey," he called to the bartender. "Can you get them to dim the lights? No, dim them more. More."
The music was so young, but it was actually very powerful and emotional. And Jorge did indeed have that thing - that thing that makes you want to get on a stage and grab onto the invisible strings that connect you to your crowd, that thing that drives you to share your vision of the world with people, that thing that makes you perform. I was dancing involuntarily.

I'm sure that he was disappointed after it was over. He loved his own music so much - and although the crowd was supportive, nobody was falling to the floor in astonishment, nobody was fervently shaking his hand and telling him that he'd changed their life. He came up to thank us afterwards and to get our names for his band's email list. "I think I still have a lot to learn about performing," he told me. He's playing again this Thursday at the Velvet Lounge.

Good luck to you, Jorge. I send you my love. And to everyone who aches to create something, to everyone who dreams of breathing life into a bit of dust yes even the silliest of fake Inuit artists - to everyone who keeps a candle burning in the hideous darkness - all my love, all my love.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Spoof the Church of Scientology

LOCATION: The corner of R and 20th St, right across from Cosi on one side, and Le Tomate on the other.
EQUIPMENT: Yourself, a sense of irony. OPTIONAL: A friend, wigs, painted-on track marks.

This unassuming building is the Founding Church of Scientology, established by Ron Hubbard in 1955! They are open quite late - until 10pm most nights - and offer free tours (anytime) and video screenings (hourly) every day. You can learn more about the history of the Washington DC Church of Scientology here.

I'm fascinated by cults. So I wandered in with my friend Rikhil one afternoon for a tour. We were welcomed warmly by a rosycheeked doyenne and told to wait for our guide. It felt like a quaint old museum in there - you know, wood banisters, well-preserved furniture, dark red tapestries, black & white framed photographs. There were also some colour photographs of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Scientology's founding, held on five gigantic yachts. "These guys are loaded," Rik muttered in my ear.

Our sparsely-moustached guide was perfect for our malicious purposes, since he was weak and wishy washy but very friendly. "I've been feeling down recently," I told him, regarding my interest in the Church. "Lonely and depressed and dirty."

"What do you do for a living?"

(Note: At the time I was a strategy consultant. It was a strange career choice, considering my personality, and even when I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it I had a tendency, when asked, to mumble "Consulting," with a downward inflection, apology already in the voice. And since nobody knows what consultants actually do (including many consultants), this led to annoying conversations about what consulting was, why I was pretending to enjoy it, etc etc. So then I would overcompensate, with great confidence and chin in the air: "I'm a strategy consultant." Picture the hipster waitress at a family restaurant chain who knows the management surveillance cameras are taping her: "Hi, I'm Zoe and I'll be your server tonight!" Except that the only surveillance cameras were in my own silly psyche.)

So: "I'm a strategy consultant!" Chin up, shoulders back.

In response - I swear to Hubbard it's true - our tour guide rubbed his hands together and smiled. "Veery nice. I bet that's a pretty lucrative career."

"It certainly is," as I elbowed the suddenly quivering Rik.

Our guide showed us around the first floor: ole Ron's memorial office, where he wrote some of the seminal Dianetics texts, with bookshelves brimming with leather textbooks and his garish pulp science fiction novels (they always keep the lights on there to honour him); the sitting room, with those yacht pictures and big scrapbooks of newspaper clippings; the bookstore, with a full selection of seminal Dianetics textbooks and pulp science fiction novels.

"I'm gay," Rik told the guide. "How does Scientology feel about that?"

"Well, that is okay," the guide said eagerly. (He'd been remarkably solicitous ever since my career revelation, despite our occasional weirdness and muffled giggles.) "Scientology is compatible with a lot of things: Christianity..."

"Actually I want to be cured," Rik said. "Could you help with that?"

"Oh! Oh, yes. Certainly, we can help you to be normal."

The second floor was much more interesting. They had this room where you'd get interviewed by psychologists. There were all these coloured blocks on the table which the guide said were helpful for illustrating the problems in your life. "Like, this" - and he built a cube of blocks - "could represent a problem in your life, and here's how you could get around it" - rolling a sphere over a ramp.

"What fun! Toys!" I exclaimed, doing a little dance. "When can I get an interview?" Our guide laughed, wanting to humour me but a bit defensive. He started to explain that they were not toys, they were incisive psychological tools. I picked up a trapezoid and bobbed it in front of his face. "Look, it's a train. Choo, choo, choo!"

On we went. Our guide was explaining about all the valuable community service Scientology members did. They really valued literacy. Blah, blah, blah. I poked my head around a corner and saw a poster with a diagram of the different levels of scientological enlightenment.

Now you see, Scientology is definitely a cult. They think that humans are all descended from the ghosts of gods on Mars, and when you reach a certain "level" (there are MANY levels, all with cute faux scientific names, all of which basically require huge payments to spiritual seminars for you to advance) you're able to astrally project your soul back to your birthplace on Mars. And they are indeed loaded - thanks to all those seminar payments - to the sweet melody of about $500 million, including a 440-foot cruise ship, two publishing houses, a 2,845-acre California ranch, and 45 buildings on 500 acres in Riverside County, California. But Scientology is also good at PR and they don't mention any of these bizarre details until you're already hooked. Instead they emphasize all the anti-drug education and community service stuff.

I asked about the poster: "So how soon could I get to an Operating Thetan Level 8 if I was really, really good?" but our guide, while wishy washy, was fantastic at weaselling out of questions he didn't want to answer.

The last adventure was when he hooked me up to an emotional measurement machine - it looked like something Rube Goldberg would have built to check my blood pressure while toasting a bagel - and asked me a series of questions: was I satisfied with my life, did I feel anxious, had I felt dirty yesterday. There was certainly a focus on purity and addiction (which I have a feeling is a big selling point with Hollywood stars who are jaded by their lives of pleasure).

Then he ushered Rik and me back outside with a parting smile that was a mix of hopeful greed and suspicious befuddlement, and we stood there blinking in the suddenly sane sunlight.

IN CONCLUSION: It's a gigantic bizarre cult and it's right in your backyard! Go on, take a tour, watch a video, take a "purity" test. Waste their staff time. Impersonate bizarre people (try to get them to take you seriously, though).

THINGS TO PONDER: Now, my atheist friends I'm sure will say, "The Church of Scientology is a cult just like any other religion; they're just newer so they seem weird. C'mon, transubstantiation?" I happen to believe that's a facile point of view, but what is the difference between this and a "real" religion? The undignified nature of Hubbard's scifi/Hollywood trappings is just my point of view. And surely it's not just popularity. Love of the filthy lucre? But perhaps that's only a matter of degree, since any organization needs to survive. Lack of true belief among the leadership? But maybe they really do think they're descended from Martian gods... Honestly, I'm not sure, but I know what my tummy tells me.

Germany has outlawed the Church of Scientology. Is this an appropriate reaction to shelter their impressionable citizens or is it overprotective? Should the cash strapped DC government be letting the Church do their volunteer programs at schools and donate books? (What about if the Church did absolutely no proselytization there?) What's the appeal of Scientology anyway? Some seemingly very intelligent people are totally into it. Did anything they said seem disturbingly reasonable? How would you go about arguing with a convinced Scientologist? (Here's some ammunition.)

Why I write this blog

I have been known to complain about DC with my friends. It's not like New York; people are boring here - and it's not like [name of small town]; people are mean here. There are no real artists and everyone you meet just wants to compare resumes and strategize about how you can help their career. Pants are khaki, dresses are a-line, shirts are buttoned up to the neck, and the only way that people can have any fun is to drink copious amounts of booze and indulge their bestial natures with an aching lack of irony. The street lighting is terrible. Restaurants get away with sucking because tourists still come anyway. The weather switches between tropical swelter (minus alabaster beaches and mango trees) and inconvenient snow (uphill both ways).

But we are just being whiny. You get what you expect from a city (or any situation in this mysterious life of ours). If there are worlds in just a grain of sand, think how much there is in DC... And so I want to tell you about some fun things to do here. It's not really a guide book. Some of my experiences are completely irreproducible, because they depend on specific people or circumstances. But it'll still give you an idea of the possibilities.

And maybe some of the motives mentioned by my personal economist are relevant too.

The sound of one hand clapping

"Once upon a time a baby fish asked an older, larger fish about the sea. 'What is the sea?' he asked. 'I keep hearing about it, but I don't know what it is.' 'Why, the sea is all around you, little one,' said the grownup fish. 'If that's so, why can't I see it?' asked the young fish. 'Because it is everywhere. It surrounds you. It's invisible and outside you. You were born in the sea and you will die in the sea. What's more, you yourself are the life of the sea. When you swim, you reveal its presence. It's just because it's so close to you that it's very hard to see. But don't worry, it's here.' "

-Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares, from "One Hand Clapping"

It's not going to happen when you graduate from lawschool, when you finally kick that smoking habit, when you lose that ten pounds, when you find your true love, when you get out of this [boring/overly political/unartistic/gentrified/dangerous] city - if it can't happen right now. And yet that doesn't mean that you shouldn't change. In fact it means that you should change, but that the change doesn't matter, or is not change but an truer expression of your nature...Dear heavens, I don't understand either.

But I presume. Do you understand? If so, please share, O Enlightened One.