The Return of Light, 2021 Edition

The Judgment: Returning. Success. Going in and coming out without error. Friends come without blame. To and fro goes the way. On the seventh day comes return. It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

This hexagram is one of the twelve calendar hexagrams based on the coming and going of the light of the sun in the course of the year. Here the single line that has entered the hexagram at the bottom represents the first increase in the altitude of the sun since the winter solstice, hence its name, “Returning.”

The Sage defines the theme of this hexagram as returning to one’s original nature, and to unity with the Cosmic Whole, through splitting apart from the ego.

Returning also indicates the direction in which the path of development leads: back to the person’s original nature. It does not lead forward, through cultivating virtues or becoming something we are not, but is a process of continuous subtraction of what we have falsely added, thus to allow the true self to resume its path toward maturation. Each step on this path leads to increasing light and relief. One takes this path through ceasing to look outward for the solutions to problems, to look inward instead, to the choices that have been made.

I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way
Carol K. Anthony & Hanna Moog

The Obits

Sometime in the last few years I went through whatever life change it is that makes a person interested in obituaries. A well-written obit is a capsule biography that takes you through a whole life — often one lasting 90 years or more — whilst you drink your coffee of a Sunday morning. In this way I have learned about a bunch of very interesting people that I’d never even heard of before.

Today I thought I’d share three recent examples. For each one I’ve posted a few key paragraphs along with a link to the full obit. Only after the fact did I notice that these are all portraits of, shall we say, non-conforming women; make of that what you will.

I may make this a regular feature of the blog going forward. You have been warned.

(Note: If you run into the New York Times paywall whice trying to click through to any of these, let me know; my subscription lets me gift articles to people directly, which I’m happy to do.)


Jakucho Setouchi

In her 99 years this woman wrote over 400 books, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist priest and feminist author who wrote frankly about sex, entertained audiences with her insouciant wit and rendered one of Japan’s greatest classic works into a readable best seller, died on Nov. 9 in Kyoto, Japan. She was 99.

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Water, Dust & the Wild Kindness

Last week, for some reason now forgotten, I happened to bethink myself of the Silver Jews album American Water. So I looked it up on the Spotify and listened to it, and then listened to it again and again. I’m listening to it right now.

According to my rating system it’s their best album — and by “they” I mean David Berman, who comprised the Silver Jews along with whoever happened to be around at the time. In the case ofAmerican Water that included his college friend Stephen Malkmus, leader of Pavement and musical genius of the first order.

Berman himself, though he made quite a few records, was more of a poet who sang than a musician per se. So the combination was a fortuitous one. You can drop the proverbial needle almost anywhere on American Water and strike gold. Take for example “Federal Dust,” the first Jews song I ever heard — a typically cryptic number that lopes and lurches along for a couple minutes, then ascends into the clouds. (Or maybe gets sucked down into a whirlpool? It’s hard to tell.)

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State of the Philter Address

I wrote one of these for another blog recently, and with the holidays upon us and the new year just around the corner, this seems like a good time to check in and share updates on some of the ongoing obsessions.1

  • I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Morrison lately, for reasons having to do more with the alphabet than anything else. (I’ve also been listening to Monty Python, Morcheeba, and the Monkees.) The early stuff is so beautiful that it’s hard to believe he’s turned into this cranky geezer who writes songs about Facebook and “who owns the media.” My official policy is that I am not going to let Old Van ruin Young Van for me. I’m not sure about Middle-Aged Van; it seems like there’s some good stuff there, but there’s a mountain of material to sift through and at the moment a lack of will to tackle it.
  • The pile of unread books has shrunk a bit, thanks partly to a newfound willingness to abandon disappointing ones. David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue wasn’t doing it for me, so into the neighborhood free library it went. Likewise Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet, a gigantic tome that came highly recommended but turned out to be clichéd Seventies nonsense. (I rarely trade things in at the bookstore anymore; at this age I feel like haggling over two or three dollars is beneath me. Sometimes a book will go into a cafe with me but not leave, and I always feel like I’m getting away with something.) The major obstacles still remaining are three large biographies — one each of William S. Burroughs, Albert Einstein, and Werner Herzog — and gigantic books of stories by J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, and H.P. Lovecraft.
  • I haven’t written much in the last couple years about my beloved Golden State Warriors, for whom this has been a period of adjustment. From the lofty heights of going to the NBA Finals five straight years and winning three titles, they tumbled to a dismal 15-50 record in the 2019-20 season, devastated by a series of defections and injuries. Last season was better, with My Personal Savior Stephen Curry again playing at an all-world level, but they became the first victims of the NBA’s new “play-in” format and barely missed the playoffs. This year things gave been going almost alarmingly well. Bolstered by the development of young players, some canny free-agent acquisitions, and Steph somehow finding a new level to his otherworldly game (including vastly improved defense), the W’s are tied for the best record in the NBA. And one of these days, probably sometime around Christmas, Klay Thompson will return from a two-year injury exile. If he’s in good form — and he’s been looking strong in practices and scrimmages — the league is in trouble.

And finally, as long as we’re here, do you want to hear the same song being covered by David Bowie and Rowlf the Dog? Of course you do.


The Wrong Elevator

Recently my friend Sam and I compiled a YouTube playlist of Roky Erickson/13th Floor Elevators (and adjacent) music. I think we found some great stuff so I thought I’d share. Most of them have video as well; for those that don’t, might I suggest some healthy calisthenics, a yoga pose or two, or brewing another pot of mushroom tea?


The Light Was On

Norm Macdonald made me laugh a lot over the years, though I didn’t always feel good about myself afterward. Some of his bits were senselessly cruel, and he wasn’t above making you giggle by repeatedly miming himself giving a shoe salesman a blowjob.

But since he died I’ve watched the notorious “Moth Joke” many times, and I never get tired of it. The punchline isn’t what gets me, though the punchline is perfect; it’s watching him get there that’s the point. Like “The Aristocrats,” the joke is really just a framework that allows for endless improvisation. Legend has it that Conan suddenly needed to fill the last segment on his show, and so Norm tailored his delivery to fit on the spot.

My favorite part is his smirk as he toys with the audience. He knows that the premise was set up in the first seven words and that the punchline is going to kill no matter what he does; his only goal is to stretch things out long enough that you forget where he started. And so even the stumbles, awkward pauses, and intentional butchering of Russian names serve a larger purpose.

This, my friends, is how you tell a joke.


Play On, Mr. Music

We’ve lost a lot of legends this year: Charlie Watts, Ed Asner, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, The Gift of Gab, Biz Markie, and Shock G, just off the top of my head. And Michael K. Williams, fucking Omar, and now Norm, it never ends….

But no departure has mattered to me as much as that of Lee “Scratch” Perry, whom I truly believed to be immortal. In 2011 he told GQ:

I create immortality — never grow old, never get cold, never tired, never weary. I am my music. My music refuse to die, my music refuse to be an adult, my music will be a baby for all the time.

How could you not believe him? All the evidence seemed to back him up.

One of Scratch’s defining characteristics was an insane productivity, especially during the Black Ark period (1975–1979), when he had the tapes rolling day and night. Robert Palmer (yes that Robert Palmer, Power Station Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer, but also, lest we forget, “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” Robert Palmer), who recorded at the Black Ark, described the atmosphere this way:

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Peace Like a River

I don’t think I ever heard this song — vintage 1972 — until a few weeks ago. I did a double-take at this part:

Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans were changed

Trés now, no? Life remains full of surprises.

The Rumor

Continuing on the theme of old songs that seem especially relevant today — this one came up on shuffle in the car recently, and I was struck by how much it resonates with our current climate of misinformation and mistrust. The only part that seems out of step with 2021 is the hopeful tone of the ending. But as music is wont to do, it will make you feel hopeful for a moment, even if you know better.