Thursday, 31 December 2015

Coffee and Donuts, a short story

Coffee and Donuts, or, the Love Song of Julius Artemis

At nine I get restless and go out into the city to walk and brood. Mine is an energetic kind of brooding. I take my earphones but I don’t put them in.

In the stairwell of my building is a stroller which has been abandoned there for months. I can never avoid noticing it. I think it’s a metaphor for something, but if so, it’s something I don’t want to know. I let the door close behind me, and move along.

At the station I pass a group of children. Adults, really, but children nonetheless. I don’t want to dislike them, but I have no choice.

I board a train as six thousand loud people get off. They seem confused about the way transport works, or perhaps just too happy to care. I have never been that happy, but I have been that drunk. Or is it the other way around? I hate them because they are loud. No. I hate them because I am not drunk.

As I get off the train a man stands, talking to a woman. Or rather, she talks at him. He is writing on his phone. Over his shoulder I can make out the title: New Year’s Resolutions.

I leave the train and walk through the heart of the city, the boring part without any pubs. There are policemen on horses. Do the horses aspire to this work? Or would they rather be eating hay in the countryside. I envy a horse’s sense of simplicity, its easy happiness. Maybe one day I will buy a dog, and get high off its happiness.

I miss clubbing, being out, getting drunk, getting loud. I don’t miss the cold waits for buses, the sore feet, the sore head the next day, the empty bank account. But I miss the high, the sense of euphoria, the girls I sometimes talked to, the energy of dancing.

I walk up past the Duke of York Monument, into Piccadilly Circus. It’s pretty on the way, but so what? A set of buskers are drowned out by people singing Hare Krishna. I could never be like them. It seems the key to happiness really is ignorance. But don’t tell the Buddhists.

I go in and get donuts and coffee, and take the last seat left, a stool by the window. I watch a drunk man holding two cans of Carling try and talk to people. I consider talking with him, in the part of my mind which permits such things. I mark it down as curiosity, ignoring the truth. Someone has grafittied the window, and the paint drips down in bars, and I look through them out into the world. Girls walk by in short dresses.

Coffee and donuts£7.32. Worth every penny.

The dark lights of Soho. The strip clubs and dirty bars. I consider going in one, but I am saving money. Hell, I’d do it just for the human touch, but I am saving money. I am always saving money. But one day… When did I become that man? I turn away from the door, pull my hat down and walk away. Outside, girls stand around talking to the bouncers. Are they the dancers, or are they clubbing? It’s hard to tell the difference.

I like the girls except when they talk. Some of them are beautiful, but just so inane. A horrifying combination. Do I tell myself I could have picked up more, if the conversation were better? I doubt it, that’s not the art. And I was never an artist anyway. Do I sound like a prick? I guess I am one.

I walk on through the racketing streets, stop and pretend to be lost, move on; in and out of lights and shadows. I head into the tube, where’s it’s warm and bright. A couple on the platform embrace. Her dress is bright blue, her legs long, her hair blonde. I try not to stare, and then the train arrives.

The trains are dirty, but you get used to it. I could say the same thing about myself. I follow the train home, and enter the stairwell. You know what. It occurs to me that life is a series of trade offs. Opportunity cost of living. If it’s the best we can do, it’s the best we can do. Maybe there’s value in decision, but tonight it’s hard to see.

I hate this city. Or is it just the people? All the good people have left or are leaving, and I am still here, walking the streets. Heading for donuts and coffee. It’s an event. What a joke. I am the man I used to pity.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Karma police

Karma, as it stands, has two main definitions, the first being some kind of autonomous cosmic principle which rewards or punishes people in their life according to good or bad deeds in a previous life (one already begins to wonder what the fairly neutral first life would be like), and the second being roughly the same, but without the bother of previous lives. I had an interesting discussion around this recently, which stemmed from my observation that those who profess to believe in karma, and who comment on the misfortunes of others with reference to it frequently, both with a sadistic glee when things are going badly for others, or a similarly gloating promise of misfortunes to follow; well, these said commentators aren’t so quick to admit that they deserve whichever misfortunes befall them or their loved ones, and instead will often blame the vicissitudes of fate for their problems.

So, there is an inconsistency here. My personal belief is that karma lies along the lines of wishful thinking, without any real evidence to support it, like the idea of Gaia, or heaven. The nature of past lives makes any actions therein unknowable, at least by any reliable methods that we currently possess, and so blaming someone for things they may have done to explain what may amount to bad luck seems like an overly moralistic high ground which cannot be defended.

The basic problem with the idea of karma (in regards to the past lives definition especially) is that it is unverifiable. There is no way of telling if it's true because the notion of balance is vague and hard to quantify. One man’s justice is another man’s cruel and unusual punishment. People are often very quick to judge, to dole out punishments such as bodily mutilation for rapists and beatings for those who beat. Do we imagine that some disembodied principle without an understanding of what it means to be human has a better idea of what is right for us than our own justice systems? The idea of a disembodied force being responsible for the workings of human justice doesn’t sit well with me.

Add to this the element, in many cases, of karma carrying over from supposed past lives, and the idea loses all coherence in terms of being a claim that can be tested. I don't think this bothers a lot of the people who believe in it, but that's just my way of thinking.

Even if you believe that we have only the one life, problems remain. We can all think of examples of people who have lived relatively blameless lives, and then suffered terrible catastrophes. Unless the karmic principle acts disproportionately in regards to small sins, and in that case it doesn’t seem that its influence could be considered to be in any way fair, as in generally supposed. Similarly, there are bad people who have committed horrible acts without ever paying for them in any meaningful way. Jimmy Saville springs to mind, as does history’s most infamous example, a Mr. A Hitler. These men used the escape hatch of death to escape from their retribution.

Further, karma as a motivator for morality doesn't really fit with human behaviour, in the sense that, if one finds out a friend has been in a car accident, or is seriously ill, or was robbed, one doesn't immediately think 'well, they probably deserved it'. Rather, one feels sympathy for the person who has been affected. And one sees a millionaire making even more money from a business venture, one does not think, ‘good for him, he must have been really good to deserve all that wealth.’ Well, I know I don’t, anyway.

According to karma, all those people who are poor or starving or sick or in horrible accidents, deserve no sympathy. They deserve it. Isn’t such an attitude a little sickening? A little judgemental?
 There’s also the idea that those who do good are rewarded, similar to the idea of being good and earning your way into heaven. Both these ideas have as the motivation for good acts, the promise of a reward. This seems a little childish to me. Surely the motivation for an act is the right-or-wrongness of the act itself. Blessed are those who help others without expectation of karmic reward in this life or the next.

If karma is real, then logically, nothing that ever happens can be 'bad' in absolute moral terms, because it's all compensation for previous acts. (This then creates an odd cycle of bad behaviour causing bad effects, which often causes more bad behaviour, and so on.) If this is the case, then karma effectively negates the need for its own existence.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who believes in karma thinks this way, but it is the logical conclusion of the belief system they hold. Nor am I saying that many of the people who spout these sayings have not considered the ramifications of such a system of reward and punishment. Humans are wired in such a way that we often assign meaning to things that just isn’t there, or we assume that things revolve around us in a way that they really do not. Karma is another manifestation of the way our brains work, a desire for (what we see as) justice, and a way of bringing order to a chaotic world which doesn’t care about us one way or the other. ‘Bad’ things happen, and ‘good’ things happen, and life goes on. It is all too easy to interpret an action or event in the way that we want to, and as any action or event can be fitted into the framework of karma, the whole system becomes meaningless.

I suppose I could be wrong. I guess if I am I might have some misfortune coming my way. But then again, maybe I was an excellent person in my past life. In which case, pay up, karma. Papa needs a trip to Brazil.