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Oz and the Bonsai | Spiritual Materialism

“Where the men are masked incarnations, often shamanistic, being possessed by the spirit whose name they bear.”

The existence of a spirit is self-evident, because people die. The only difference between life and death is the loss of the spirit. A lifeless body exists materially, but the spirit is gone. (a name fades into the aether).

In a Marxist conception of political economy, materials are measured algebraically and metered out in relation to each other, in quantitative and qualitative flux. x barrels of crude = y bags of gold = z shipping containers of tea.

That a spirit can grow is self-evident, because morality is a vertical, bilateral measurement that traverses good and evil.

Materials don’t disappear from the planet earth unless they are launched into space, or converted into forms of energy that escape our atmosphere (such as light, spaceships, heat energy, etc). There is x amount of gold on the planet. There is a y amount of water. There is z amount of bread. A person eats x amount of bread, and it becomes y amount of person. A person makes a shirt, and X amount of bread that become Y amount of person, was converted into Z amount of energy and becomes A amount of shirt.

The work of capitalism has traditionally been to convert x amount of dirt into y amount of food that becomes z amount of objects to make “life more comfortable.” “What makes life more comfortable” is often determined by marketers, bizarre shifts in group psychology, or political will. Often dictators will announce that to make life more comfortable for X group of people, their nation needs to direct the energies of capitalism into creating weapons to slaughter Y group of people. If every individual on the planet developed a wholehearted belief in skateboarding as both a lifestyle and moral imperative, then we would be turning the earth into skateboards, skate rinks, and skateboarding goods.

Right now, we’re converting the earth into plastics, guns, clothes, metal, glass, concrete, etc. Soil is soft and cool. Many of the materials we’re converting the earth into are hard, metallic, poisonous, or generally inhospitable to life. The result is that the composition of the earth has changed in cities into a form that has an exoskeleton of hard stone (concrete), with bony, metallic protrusions. The exoskeleton layer of a metropolis makes a space that is very hospitable to human life, because it brings people together through the act of exchange, which is necessary for the spirit, for culture, and for sustaining life efficiently. Nature is outsourced into vast swaths of rural land. For the most efficient arrangement, it’s ideal to keep people together as much as possible, where they can share resources, and allow Nature as much space as possible. Trying to maintain an absolute balance (suburbia), is very inefficient, because then each person requires vastly more personal infrastructure than they would in a city, which is bad for the environment and not an effective distribution of resources.

    I digress!

The point is, just as a material never disappears, it’s only converted into a different material, so the spirit passes into new forms and finds new material articulations for its music.

exchange of spirit / spectres
A spirit can’t disappear. In friendship, you pour your heart out into the spirit of another, and in doing so, exchange and grow your spirits. Marcel Mauss was known to carry on the work and research of his dead colleagues, assuming their subjectivity before his own in order to articulate their intentions.

 

Mikey
Laurel wanted to exchange mixtapes with Mikey. She had met him for the first time at a dinner party hosted by Perry. She had bought an olive-green wrap dress at Goodwill recently, and wore it with some espradilles. She stopped on the way to pick up two grapefruits and a box of dates, and arrived at their house in Echo Park. Parking was limited, so she ended up on a hilltop, and walked a few blocks to the party through the cool evening air.

Laurel stepped into the house, and the vibe was very chill. Irie, mellow, warm. Perry is a good cook, says Alicia. He’s known for his pizzas. Perry gives a small, practical nod, as he places broccoli florets onto a small crust. Laurel hand over the dates, joins the group clustered around the coffee table in the living room, and begins peeling a grapefruit. Mikey and Laurel both had dining-room chairs, arranged around the coffee table, facing their other friends who were on the sofa. Laurel immediately get him. They have a kind of magnetism and start talking about music. Mikey has a Bad Brains tattoo on his upper arm, which Laurel thinks is hilarious and super charming. He also speaks quickly and articulately about any pop culture topic ranging from where to see a movie for $2 in Pasadena, 80’s New Wave, and the art of DJing. Somehow they get into talking about the materiality of substances.

I noticed recently that I can tell the difference between turpentine and water in a jar by the way it moves, Laurel says. Turpentine moves more quickly because it has ever so slightly less viscosity than water. I mean it’s really wild. I feel like a shaman or something whose spiritually connected with my materials.

Yeah, says Mikey, not in a way that he’s agreeing with her just to be agreeable, but somehow really connecting with her on a meaningful point that they both understand. I’m that way with my vinyls. (I DJ), he explains. I can tell different records apart by the way the grooves feel.

Wow. That really blows her mind.

Another few guys join the party, and somehow, they get into talking about one guy’s cholla mom’s tattooed eyebrows, which sparks a conversation on cosmetics, and body modification. Mikey says something about his nose.

I like it, Laurel says.

She does like it. That he is self-conscious about it jerks her heartstrings, and she wants to give him a hug.

He asks her to go to the two-dollar-movies, and she says maybe so, let’s exchange numbers. She's very tired and goes home early. They don’t hang out again until he comes to her show of paintings in June. She's always busy, or working, or something.

It strikes Laurel that Mikey has a materialist conception of the world, because he has a self-quantifying bent that’s evident in the way he engages with people and compares himself to other people within a group, and an escapist tendency, to lose himself in art as a way of disengaging with his own reality.

Laurel has set up the painting show, and is lurking around in the gallery space, manically chatting with people she hasn’t seen in years, and acting like she is just like SUPER HAPPY, and not extremely exhausted. Mikey arrives in a velvet tux jacket with a frilled shirt, and a carnation in his buttonhole. He has a blonde date. Laurel is super delighted that he’s there, but she is caught in a conversation with someone and they don’t talk much.


They exchanged mixtapes right before Laurel left the country. He said, I need a theme. She said, if he’d make her one of Nicolas Cage’s snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart, she’d make him one of Glinda the good witch’s magic wand. It was a bit of a tease about Mikey acting so invulnerable all the time, and about his self-romanticization that was both charming and difficult. The reference to Glinda reflected her desire to heal Nick, to ease his problems, to be able to just say, don’t worry, everything is going to be okay.

The scary thing is, Laurel later felt like the mixtape exchange tapped into this Orphist bent of material transcendence or detachment from the body through material, or a detachment from the gravitas of the world around them. She intended for the mixtape prompt to be expressive of their personalities, or generate some greater self-awareness through the act of sonic portraiture, but she didn't recognize the sort of painfully metaphoric nature of the prompts until much later.

 

Laurel wasn't doing that well emotionally at the time, honestly. She was making jokes on Facebook as a zen exercise in positivity, with punch lines like,

“I wish I had a bonsai buffalo, I’d build him a little bonsai prairie to chill in. Though diminuitive in form, he would retain the spiritual vastness of his ancestors, and tacitly communicate as I combed his tiny mane, assuring me of the gravitas of our small lives here.“

jokes that obviously reflected an Edvard Munchian primal scream relationship to her own body, a view that her present circumstances were a struggle to transcend, and that the world was but a reflection of the spiritual realm, a mirage she was passing through until real being in a world of ‘heaven’ or ‘salvation’ occurred- a theme of bonsai cultivation as well as Christian ideals of the dualistic nature of the body and spirit. But as Rivers Cuomo says, salvation lies within. how was I supposed to know the ABCs of love?

At the time, Laurel was also not drinking at all. She’d recently been at a downtown art gallery's Christmas party, and her sort-of ex sort-of boyfriend Z was there, and, as usual, not speaking to her / pretending she didn’t exist. She kept trying to talk to him, and he would brush her off like a fly on his shirt-sleeve. It felt like a knife in the heart, and this was like, a pretty routine thing with the two of them. She was trying to act normal, but ended up getting *very* drunk at the party, assuming this persona of basically a loudmouth boy with a huge ego (a mask constructed to function as a thin veneer over her vast, shimmering pool of insecurities), and sloppily trying to roll a joint on the pink table, but mostly just literally getting nuggs of weed stuck on her clothes and scattered on the table. Honestly, it was mortifying, and profoundly uncool.

She met up with Alicia and Perry at a deli downtown the next day. I am mortified, she said. I have to apologize to (Z). I’m so embarrassed. I can’t drink anymore. Perry told her that the Silverlake AA meeting was a good one to go to. Later she realized it’s a good one to go to if you want every musician in the greater Los Angeles area to know 100% of your beeswax within 48 hours of your first meeting.

Anyway, she started going. Her life really improved. She was healthier and happier, and more able to focus on the important parts of her life (work, forging real relationships), instead of feeling compelled to go out drinking with a bunch of artists who weren’t her real friends, didn’t respect her, and never would.

What she hadn’t expected to encounter, was a lot of hardcore drug addicts who had some seriously disturbing stories, and didn’t all seem like they were making the right steps toward recovery. It was pretty intensely horrifying, and if you ever want to get scared straight and remember that drugs will ravage your soul, destroy your body, harden your heart, and then kill you dead, that’s where you can hear those stories.

She was very upset by the experience obviously, but she also had a lot of emotional empathy for individual people she saw who were suffering. She wanted to clean them, she wanted to heal them, she wanted them to be well. Laurel had a studio near Skid Row in LA, and she'd also started writing poetry about the people she saw dying in the streets. She started to fully understand the term ‘anti-drug’, and how profoundly real it is that people need personal infrastructure, moral infrastructure, and forward volition in their personal, professional, or artistic lives to keep them from falling through the cracks, or, to quote Jay-Z,

Lights is blinding, girls need blinders
Or they can step out of bounds quick, the sidelines is
Lined with casualties who sipping life casually
Then gradually become worse, don't bite the apple Eve


She went on a roadtrip shortly after that, which was very much about running away- running away from the negative scene in the art world, running away from the negative energy at the Silverlake AA, and searching for positivity and spiritual clarity.

Mikey was a good man at the heart, but he had a spiritual disease that was killing him.

She couldn’t be around that.

It's important to date, or get to close to, someone that you wouldn't mind becoming more similar to, because that’s what happens. She wanted to heal Mikey, but she didn’t want to get close enough for his problems to rub off on her.

Anyway, Mikey and Laurel exchanged mixtapes and she left the country.

the day Laurel came back to LA
Laurel went to Scandinavia to get some rest and relaxation after the endless cacophany, daily struggles, excessive heat, and total lack of Nature that she was dealing with in Los Angeles in order to produce her show.

She did her work in Finland, and decided that she would not be returning to Los Angeles. It was not a good place. She was not going back. She decided to go to Chicago. She’d left her car at Alicia’s, and went by to pick it up. Emily came over that night, and Laurel gave Alicia and Emily gifts, two small faberge-looking eggs that she had found sitting next to each other on a shelf at the Scandinavian thrift shop. Alicia’s was pink with a little daisy inside, and Emily's was blue with a little shell. She spent the night at Alicia’s house, and left in the morning.

Buddy Holly mixtape
Laurel was listening to a Best Of Buddy Holly mix on the way to Chicago, but she had a bad feeling about the song That’ll Be the Day That I Die. Maybe because she was travelling that day, and she knew that she was going to be on the highway for the next 8 hours, and two more days after that. Roadtrips are dangerous, and traffic accidents account for a high percentage of deaths in the United States. But mostly it was emotional. She just didn’t feel good about it. So she skipped that song every single time it came on, for hours. She checked into a motel room that night by the Grand Canyon. The lady at the front desk gave her a family-of-military discount, and she brought her things into her room and locked the door. She opened up a web browser and clicked through Facebook, and saw a ton of posts about Mikey. She messaged Alicia and Perry. Mikey had died of a drug overdose. She felt like kneeling down and smashing about a thousand pieces of fine china. She was in intense pain. She was powerless to help Mikey. She knew that he had problems, but she couldn’t change him. She couldn’t save him. She was angry. She needed his friendship. He threw his life away. It wasn’t fair.

The Way You Look Tonight / Unforgettable
Later on in the trip, Laurel's music got stuck on Tony Bennet’s The Way You Look Tonight. For five and a half hours. To fully understand the profundity of this statement, you literally have to listen to Tony Bennet sing The Way You Look Tonight, for five and a half hours. She was focusing on driving, iTunes was stuck for some reason, so it was either Tony Bennett, middle-American Christian gospel radio, or full-on country music. Honestly, it felt like Mikey’s Last DJ Set. The Buddy Holly, five and a half hours of The Way You Look Tonight, and then— right as she was pulling off the highway onto the street that was now going to be her home, Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable.

that someone so unforgettable
/ could think that I’m
unforgettable too.


And there you have it, folks. That was the entirety of her relationship with Mikey, and now it was over. She felt that he’d chosen her at the end of his life, to be the person he would fling his heart at in hopes of being understood, remembered, memorialized. She wrote a piece of poetry about him, but grudgingly, because she resented him for wasting his life when he was so needed and so loved. Her concern with perpetuating stories about unhealthy behavior is that it could in some way romanticize that behavior, or create a microeconomy around which people do stupid things so that someone will write about them. It was stupid.

Laurel did not share Mikey's values. However, she acknowledged that he had many great qualities that were, and are, worthy of celebration and perpetuation:

Mikey valued a commitment to craftsmanship and subtlety in his art, to the artist as a sartorial icon and public persona, and in generosity. He was generous with his time, and generous with his friendship. He cared deeply about things, and made the effort to show respect for others by dressing well, granting appropriate pomp and circumstance to every occasion. Sometimes he took these things too far. He needed to focus on himself more, and set boundaries. He was the iris leaning out the cathedral windows like Leonard Cohen’s children of Suzanne.

A world of diamonds, if that’s what we believe
Social exchange washes the windows of the mind. We learn to recognize good and evil in each other, choose to carry on the best aspects of each other’s work, and achieve a greater self-awareness through communion and exchange.

the harp string, plucked, generates a sound
The materiality of the form determines the sonic character of the music. Likewise, the material realities and culture of a given geographic location in many ways determine the character of the people who come from there, like the grooves on a record that give rise to its music. Care for the physical body, because that's where love lives.