The Pleasure at Being the Cause

Lost Art Mural Painting® Open for Business

For six days I was original. I played a game thought up by another, and didn’t care if I won or lost. I was old and very young, mentor and devotee, committed and indifferent, one of the freest members of my species planted in this habitat, sheltered from storms and in dire straits.

And I began the study of breath and meditation.

Let me rewind to May Day and the last time I ate bread until I became free. The cardiologist wasn’t listening. I went into the practice seeking advice on rejuvenation and came out a trudging invalid on the fast track to cadaver. She said I had something bad and I ought to take this to help that, but that might react to these, and those to the unwanted thing, and you know, that heart don’t skip beats because it’s happy dancing. You’re about twenty years closer to the grave than your spouse who eats hard cheeses and red meat like a French cowboy, and there’s really nothing you can do for your heart besides let it break or attack you.

She wrote out more prescriptions to drugs with side effects ranging from death to the last erection I will ever know. Then she asked me to lose weight if I could, and I told myself, yes, and I’ll do one better. I shall go cold turkey on the drugs that are lessening me, and will my body-mind to live awake and alive like I always had before modern doctors in society told me I should not.

I have lost 23 pounds and have been off all heart medications (besides blood thinner) for two weeks. It wasn’t easy. During the first few days of drug freedom I experienced several bouts of low blood pressure and extreme weakness. Besides infrequent lightheadedness, I have been symptom free for well over a week. During this time I read a book on proper breathing and spent six full days painting a mural on the exterior wall of an Italian imports grocery store, eating nuts and rice cakes, and drinking nothing besides water and beer.

Painting the wall was Mike’s idea. Earlier in spring he walked into the store and told the proprietor he’d like to paint her mural. It was faded, mossed, and mildewed, and from the outside, mirrored the dilapidated state of north side, Syracuse. Inside, however, was a direct culinary connection to one of the top cuisines of the world. Wonderful pastas, condiments, polentas, lentils, cured meats, aged cheeses—refrigerators and freezers filled with homemade raviolis, lasagnas, cavatelli—a taste of Italy maintained with passion and perseverance for two generations. At least on the inside. Perhaps it was time to freshen up the outward expression of a delicious inward grace.

Outside Lombardis was textbook Broken Windows Theory. Inside Lombardis was a joy for the senses, and reserved for regulars, decades-long customers, foodies, word of mouth converts, and those rare seekers (Mike) who could spot a diamond in the rough from a daydream away. The majority of pedestrians in the neighborhood, (poor whites and blacks) however, walked right past Lombardis, morning, noon and dinnertime too, even though the foodstuffs were affordable and delicious. A striking example of the deep racial and economic segregation that has existed north of Chattanooga, Tennessee post reversal of Plessy vs. Ferguson. I don’t know why it is, but it just is. Six days of observing two worlds existing in the same spot is good testing ground for sociological study, if not undeniable proof of string theory.

The proprietors, Gina and Dom, agreed to Mike’s terms. They would pay for paint and boom lift, and we would put in 100 man hours for $500 worth of store credit. If that sounds like working for food to paint an enormous wall with creative verve and vigor, then welcome to the poetry of innocence and what I am about to relate to you.

I began reading another book entitled Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. One chapter defines a gift economy and compares it to the “market” economy we’re living in now, which is insane. She used wild strawberries as a metaphor to help convey her meaning:

In material fact, strawberries belong only to themselves. The exchange relationships we choose determine whether we share them as a common gift or sell them as a private commodity. A great deal rests on that choice. For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just a story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.

And this:

Refusal to participate is a moral choice.

More about the game we played.

We began on Wednesday morning and finished by Monday afternoon. I drove an hour each way to Lombardis practicing my breathing—no radio, no music—just my breath in the present moment. I “Om’ed” through the hectic traffic, and repeated thought mantras while on cruise control. I needed to relax to offset the imbalances caused by cold turkey of prescribed drugs. I cut back sodium 75%, and eliminated sugar and refined carbohydrates from my diet. I also reduced my caloric intake by a third, yadda, yadda, yadda, people get old and die.

The boom lift rental company left no one to train us nor instructions to operate it. There was an owner’s manual that didn’t offer instruction, only switches on the chassis and in the boom box bearing decals with arrows to show which arm moved out, up or down. Nothing else. A learning curve off the charts for mental poets like Mike and me.

It turned out that a couple necessary controls weren’t functioning from the boom box, and in order to pinpoint the box to the area of wall needing paint, one of us had to operate the lift from the ground. Which meant work faster to remain on schedule. We alternated painting and paint mixing duties all week long. Our goal was to finish in five days with a protective clear coat applied and and extra effort touching up the colored lettering below. We were to keep the feel of the old design, though we had artistic license to make food look more edible than what got left out for forty years after Armageddon.

It was hard labor that I’ve needed for a long time, and felt real good. After work each day I’d follow Mike around Syracuse to one of his choice pubs for a beer (or two). Then an attempt at driving meditation for the return trip home. I would cook a quick dinner for my wife and me, then sit on the couch and read from Bull Shit Jobs by the recently departed David Graeber. A page or two before exhaustion and need for sleep. Perhaps it was no coincidence that I opened to the pages about freedom and art.

Graeber writes about the findings of early 20th century psychologist Karl Groos who studied infants and their delight after figuring out that their actions could cause predictable effects. For instance, the observable thrill expressed by babies after manipulating the path of a toy by randomly moving their arms, and then repeating the action and getting the same effect:

Expressions of utter joy ensue. Groos coined the phrase “the pleasure at being the cause,” suggesting that this is the basis for play, which he saw as the exercise of powers simply for the sake of exercising them.

Before Groos’ study, the majority of economists and social scientists believed humans seek power because of “an inherent desire for conquest and domination”. 100 years of repeated experimental evidence proved otherwise, that aggressive suppositions like Nietzsche’s “will to power” were unfounded. Human beings love play and seek fulfillment through self expression, not domination. I quote at length:

Groos himself was primarily interested in asking why humans play games, and why they become so passionate and excited over the outcome even when they know it makes no difference who wins or loses outside the confines of the game itself. He saw the creation of imaginary worlds as simply an extension of his core principle. This might be so. But what we’re concerned with here, unfortunately, is less with the implications for healthy development and more with what happens when something goes terribly wrong In fact, experiments have also shown that if one first allows a child to discover and experience the delight in being able to cause a certain effect, and then suddenly denies it to him, the results are dramatic: first rage, refusal to engage, and then a kind of catatonic folding in on oneself and withdrawing from the world entirely. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Francis Broucek called this the “trauma of failed influence” and suspected that such traumatic experiences might lie behind many mental health issues later in life.

Groos posited we exercise our powers as an end in themselves, even if the situation is pretend, which reminds me of another keen observer of humanity, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote:

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Tying his work to the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Groos suggested that this is all that freedom is. For instance, the desire to create art “is simply a manifestation of the urge to play as the exercise of freedom for its own sake as well. Freedom is our ability to make things up just for the sake of being able to do so”. Those who are denied (or deny themselves) the personal power of make-believe suffer openly as literal prisoners and slaves, or privately by the self-imposed refusal to implement their innate powers of freedom.

Whoa. Heavy stuff. Very revealing. So what do I have to say about that?

I say more art, more freedom, more “not giving a damn” as long as there’s food, water, raiment, shelter, and fuel to be had. I say age well, throw in the towel, walk out the door and head west, breathing in “I am happy”, and breathing out “I am happy”. Look for newness in nature, art and relationships. Do more than feed the cat. Play with her. Open a window, sing her a lullaby. When the kids visit, talk to them about the blue moon out last night. Don’t let them re-fool you that careerism was something worthwhile after 40 years of duress and theft. Practice the art of cookery. It only needs time and pretend to be good. Walk about with no destination. Experience the flow of nature with your solar plexus. Build a fire. Play an instrument. Play it soft, not hard, breathe in, breathe out. Make up the next game and play it until you’re bored. Repetition of boredom is insanity. Idleness is a blessing, never a sin. After youth and school what happened?

We abandoned our pleasure at being the cause.

“Why didn't they leave us to wander through buttercup summers
Why didn't they leave us to wander when there was no other”

—Van Morrison from “The Master’s Eyes”

Or David Bowie, who at mid-life, must have read Groos while writing “Young Americans”:

“We live for just these twenty years
Do we have to die for the fifty more?”

Obviously I have a penchant for poetry in rock n’ roll. In fact, listen to the lyrics in the following song to remind you of what I was trying to convey on that beautiful summer morning when the birds called me out to play.

Some more pictures while you listen:

Lost Art Mural Painting®, open for business.


Some housekeeping…

I am changing the name of the newsletter to The False Consensus Effect, which if you recall, is a concept in psychology where an individual thinks wrongly that the majority of people share his or her own characteristics, likes, dislikes, and philosophy. I must quit the weekly newsletter. I suspect that this year the summer and fall will get really p.o.’ed if I leave them alone outside. Likewise, I believe it’s a disservice to gracious readers if I force a weekly creative release when I’m not really feeling “it”. I wish to step out more often. I still desire the writing give and take. So please hang in there with me and I’ll post regularly, just not every Friday morning at 6:00 a.m.

Thanks for reading!

Ron