8097150301_48d39d4b9c_bMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post was originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

Introduction: This little piece is a lightly structured meditation on aspects of the past and clarification of intentions concerning the future.  It appends my previous statement of intent from four years ago (posted below).  Although there is some continuity of concern, specifically around the nature of the demands that playing a role or roles in society places on the individual actor, and some continuity of theory through the continued influence of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, hopefully there is some new material and new thinking as well.  I should acknowledge a debt to several writers whom I have read intensively over the past four years: most especially this piece bears the fingerprints of Carl Jung, James Hollis, and Dane Rudhyar, and many of the ideas here would not exist, or at least not be as fully articulated, without their assistance.  I should also acknowledge that I have been experimenting with different means of writing, different approaches to producing a text, and to the extent that anything herein bears traces of the spirit I can claim no credit.

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“I wanna dedicate this to someone out there watching tonight, I know she knows who she is.”

Bob Dylan, spoken introduction to “Oh Sister.”  From the bootleg record “Songs for Patty Valentine.”

Today I feel as if I stand at the edge of a new world.  The journey through early adulthood has drawn itself to a close, in stages, over the past several years, and I am alive to the fact that a new journey must now be set out upon.  In order to face any new journey properly, with intelligence and intention, we are called upon first to recognize the altered nature of the landscape we will make our way across in the new phase.

The longer I live, the more I understand the words of Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.”  Each era of our lives, each season, sometime even each week or set of weeks, seems to take on a certain coloring and certain characteristics that differentiate it from what came before, just as each zone of time seems to require different things of us.  The strength of our intention and will, as well as the quality and effectiveness of our reactions and decision making, are forever put to the test in small ways, and large ones, and we are forced to define, if only to ourselves, the nature of our relationship to our surroundings, our community, our dharma, our fate.

When we are young, time seems to stretch on almost indefinitely.  The summer of my eighth year, for example, was experienced as a vast expanse of almost undifferentiated time; two or three weeks would pass in a barely conscious haze of biking around my parent’s property, hiking and collecting stones from quarries in the area, or sitting on the roof in the sun, a child in the flow of nature, without “problems” of his own.  Looking back on such a period today, it indeed has a coloring of a kind, and this coloring is so loaded with low-grade nostalgia and barely remembered circumstances that my memories exist not so much in the form of events, rather in the form of a “feel.”  I have a sense of what it felt like to be eight, a sense of the patterns into which life energy fell or was collected, pooled, also a sense of my budding interests, which would in time round into what we are pleased to call “personality.”  There was nothing specific that I was “up to,” and I never had the need to think more than a day or so in advance.  The expression of my energy was essentially aligned with the desires of my heart as much as at that age we can know these at all–or perhaps that is just the point, in a state of primitive unknowingness we are naturally and effortlessly aligned with the desires of our heart, and only when we begin to have to analyze or ask after these do we begin to lose connection with them.

As we grow, the process of socialization begins to crowd in on us, and no person, no personality, is wholly free from the pressures of socialization, of collective expectation, of the reactive categorizations and projections of the always slightly behind-the-curve zeitgeist.  Depending on our own type and manner of apprehending the world as it appears to us, we react and position ourselves in some relation to, at some angle toward, the categories and projections that surround us.  Indeed, both the conformist and the rebel define themselves in relation to and reaction to “the system,” and in many ways their respective positioning is far more similar than otherwise.  Dane Rudyhar makes this point clearly, as do, in more elliptical and elaborated terms, Berger and Luckmann.  Even those (myself for example) who purport or imagine to be able to live outside of collective expectations, to create their own life and write their own script, yet define themselves primarily through the categories that the zeitgeist makes available–it takes work, huge, lasting work, to even begin to transcend one’s era and circumstance in even the smallest part.

The first part of life is necessarily a struggle to find one’s footing in the swim of society, to demonstrate value, usefulness, and the ability to check whichever boxes one is asked to check.  Occasionally, we meet someone who in significant ways seems to have wrenched herself free of some of this static at an earlier age, but even such persons habitually define themselves in terms of existing categories and remain to some extent still a prisoner of them.  For most of us, the child turned young adult, buffeted by external events and demands, adjusts herself over a period of years by applying her core characteristics, tendencies, and abilities to the game as it seems to present itself, and in the process slowly relinquishes immediate touch with that inner voice that provided direction to the child of nature who knew instinctively what was and wasn’t good for her, what was and wasn’t desirable.

At the same time, the goals that one identifies for oneself in youth are not to be lightly dismissed.  They do often provide a symbol sufficient, to borrow Jung’s phrase, to drive libido up a gradient steeper than nature; one learns to accomplish “work,” and to appreciate both the material and ego-related satisfactions that comes from this accomplishment.  Jung says as much when he tells us that it is essentially heathy and necessary when a young person becomes “entangled with fate” which “(involves) him in life’s necessities and the consequent sacrifices and efforts through which his character is developed and his experience matured.”  This dance with fate leads us into a variety of positions and stances, some of which we may carry out with grace and ease, others of which require contortions which we preform without a clear sense of the relationship between the presented or required form and our ability to functionally engage with that form.

Under the pressure to make something of ourselves, to build a career, a business, an image, a body of work, to make more of time by trying to subdue it, we may come to feel that we have found the game, we are on the fast track, we are properly situated under the stage lights, playing the part as it is supposed to be played.  A little light, a little attention, these things classically and nearly inevitably lead to a degree of what Jung calls “inflation,” the expansion of ego-consciousness and the over-identification with the product of one’s work in the world as the summum bonum.  The small still voice of the spirit recedes, or expresses itself through fantasy and other forms of idle ideational free association–fantasies of setting out to sea, of starting over with a new name in an unknown land, of being orphaned and having to fend for oneself, intriguing as these dreams may be they most often serve to cement through counterpoint the existence we actually live out and the style, or lack thereof, in which we do so.

My favorite singer, Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent has a song called Los Angeles where he describes the deeply ambivalent relationship one can have toward one’s accomplishments in the world.  He sings:

The road is alive/ And everybody’s all here/ I’m closing my eyes/ Till the colours appear/ Oh me oh my/ Ain’t it funny up here/ To stand in the light/ Said I ain’t come to Los Angeles just to die

They told me my eyes/ Would never be clearer/ To hold on to mine/ Make good money out here/ They told me those lies/ Just a grinning from ear to ear/ They said ‘here is our offer, ain’t it fine’

Are you getting a lot of attention now/ Are you bleeding in every direction now/ Are they covering you up with affection now/ Are they giving you a lot of attention now…Said I ain’t came here to Los Angeles, baby, just to die

I know, in exquisite and painful detail, exactly what Houck means (or I know exactly what he means to me, which is all the audience can ever really claim to know).  He means that when you bring your interior goods, your art, your vision, your beauty and light, out into the public eye and when some part of that is seen as having value or serving the purposes of established interests, an offer is made whereby your specific value, your original genius and spark, is rewarded at the same time as it is strangled, rewarded through exposure and compensation, and strangled as established interests nearly always (but perhaps not absolutely always) want and need to tie you to a set of projections and definitions that have already taken external form and are recognized as valid, and therefore commodifiable, categories.

At the same time, the singer in this equation is not without culpability in the narrowing of his own genius.  He knows that the kind of attention he is getting is dangerous for him, that it threatens to bring out his worst tendencies, his tendency toward excess, and to distance him from the source of his own art, but he is getting a little addicted to the attention, to the light.  The paradox, or trap, turns out to be that it is very, very difficult for a younger person in the first flush of ego-development to stand in the stage lights for too long without beginning to mistake this external light for the light inside.  Although the singer is trapped, he recognizes the trap, recognizes that he is dying out there, and the song remains hopeful, hopeful that the singer will be able to relocate the reasons for coming to Los Angeles in the first place.  After all, if he didn’t come all the way to Los Angles just to die, he came for some other purpose.

However, what the singer maybe does not recognize is that sometimes a death is necessary in order for life to begin anew.  Most ancient cultures, perhaps all, practiced sacrifice, and the idea at the heart of sacrifice is precisely this–new life follows inexorably from the exhaustion of the old.  The ancients, being literal minded and without the ability to metaphorize as fully as humanity has since learned to, could only see this sacrifice as taking physical form–thus human and animal sacrifice entailed actual bloodletting.  The story of Issac in the Bible, as well as the story of Job, are in fact kind of metaphors for a psychological hinge point in the development of consciousness among the people of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, a development which eventually led, among other things, to the dwindling of the use of such literal forms of religious sacrifice, but the core idea remains in our present culture in all sorts of places.  (Indeed, much of the Old Testament deals with the development of what we call “consciousness” and the alterations in the character of the Old Testament god mirror alterations in the fundamental psychological character and mentality of the swim of generations over a period of several hundred or a thousand years leading up to to the birth of Christ.)  That is kind of another story, so let us just say that all nature seems to be structured around cyclicality, not so much linearity.  From the ashes of the old comes the living spark of the new.

The above outline of the first flush of adulthood and its inevitable compromises is not original to me, and those who have looked honestly and hard at the development of the human life have set out this process much more precisely.  James Hollis puts it this way: “What I have called the middle passage arises from the collision of the provisional personality–that group of behaviors, attitudes toward self and other, and reflexive responses which the child is obliged to assemble and manage its relationship with an all powerful environment–with the insurgency of the natural, instinctual Self (…) The passage is experienced as an enervation of the former way of seeing oneself or of one’s functioning in the world (…) The exhaustion of the old is the occasion for the advent of the new, though we are seldom pleased to suffer that death which is necessary for older values to be supplanted.  In fact, one may wander, alone and afraid, for a very long time in the great In-Between before a new psychic image will arise to direct libido into the required development channel.”  Enervation means weakening, loss of vigor, and what Hollis points to in his description of mid-life is a kind of inflection point that I think actually occurs periodically through life, a juncture where one is obliged to examine that agglomeration of the “provisional personality” and the diminishing returns it may be receiving.  Once again, constructing an effective set of behaviors and approaches to the work of life turns out not to be a fully linear process, rather it seems to be cyclical and to necessitate periods of emptiness and exhaustion as well as periods of zenith and culmination.

The last three years of my own life have been but stages toward the exhaustion of this provisional personality.  A character from the television show “The Wire,” explaining to another character that when he says he is ready he means it, says something to the effect of: “you have no idea what I had to do to get to where I am today.”  To the extent that I have embodied and carried out my statement of intent from 2010 (see post below), I can with some justification say the same.  Being in a position to say this is not necessarily the most pleasant place to be, and I cannot really recommend my process and progress through the proverbial belly of the whale to anyone, certainly not to anyone with a faint heart.  However, along the way I have been blessed, there is no better word, to have met extraordinary people who have given me essential clues as to from where and in which direction my second journey would launch.  I have also been fortunate beyond all measure and worthiness to have received several “big dreams,” and if this indeed characteristic of the stellium in my astrological ninth house (Rudhyar writes that a ninth house person will be drawn to “whatever expands a person’s field of activity or the scope of his mind–long journeys, close contacts with other cultures and with foreigners in general, and (…) ‘great dreams'”) I will take it.  Finally, through periods of intense work and strain which have combined, sometimes combustibly and unpredictably with both great people and great dreams, my consciousness has pulsed or rippled open a fraction, in the process integrating to some extent my inferior functions, first feeling, and then, more challengingly, sensing.

Coming to terms with one’s inferior functions is an essential part of coming to terms with one’s limitations, as these are much the same thing.  However, in some mysterious way that I can barely begin to name, I feel as if I am carrying, and trying to pay off, a larger karmic debt of some kind.  To be honest, I don’t even know how to begin to write about this.  Two years ago, in the autumn, I consulted a humanistic astrologer based in the United Kingdom.  Very well known in her field, she turned out, over Skype, to be deeply learned as well as deeply open and generous.  Her reading was strong, interesting in every respect, but still it was a reading–she has a professional method which she applied with ease and confidence.  Except in one respect–twice during the reading she stumbled, paused, lot her train of thought and said that she couldn’t put her finger on something.  The first time was when she said that I was on the verge of leaving behind an ancestral inheritance 500 years in the making.  She didn’t know what this was, but said it was in my bloodline.  Thirty minutes later or so she cycled back to it, saying she couldn’t make it out but that I was poised to see something or break out of a way of reacting or thinking that had held back my ancestors for generations.  Her reading took place a few months after my inheritance dream, which occurred in the summer of 2011.  Here is the dream:

My father is due to receive an inheritance, and his acceptance of it somehow enables others (his extended family) to also share in the inheritance.  My mother is telling me this in a darkened bedroom with my father outside the door.  She doesn’t want him to hear that she is telling me this, and keeps lowering her voice.  I get the impression that my father’s portion of the inheritance is relatively small, but somehow his taking of it is key to everyone’s access.  While at first I think that it is only a medium sized inheritance, suddenly the television comes on and begins to give more backstory.  It turns out, according to the program, that my father is attached, in a roundabout way, to one of the largest fortunes in the world, and one that is intimately connected to shadowy political power in some unnamed European countries (perhaps Germany, Austria, but spilling westward as well).  The program is a fairly typical expose of networks and hidden hands behind the throne, but nonetheless absolutely riveting.  There is a single male figure at the center of this network, shown briefly in the dream standing behind a spokesman who is speaking into a microphone.  This takes place on a lawn in front of a large and well-to-do house, but both the male figure and the house appear relatively normal and not obviously terrifying or malevolent.  My father’s reluctance to take up his inheritance thus represents a reluctance to involve himself in the political power networks, but the program makes clear through implication that failure to take up the inheritance poses a danger both to himself, and perhaps to my mother and myself.  Much or all of the action in the dream takes place indirectly–through implication or (literally) through a screen.

Humankind being a pattern seeking animal, of course I immediately connected the two data points with a third, the moment in which Ruth Van Reken, the author of “Third Culture Kids” and basically co-founder of this field of study, told me in a hotel lounge in Singapore in March of that same year that god had a mission for me, and a fourth, a quiet but persistent inner voice telling me I had a gift that was not being fully given to others, a gift I was holding inside, that I had another gear, that perhaps I hadn’t come to Los Angeles just to die.

What, in hindsight, I was dealing with and trying to make sense of was in fact Hollis’ insurgent self, a self which was seeking a new psychic image, a new core myth around which a fresh tapestry of charged energy could be woven.  I was living Jung’s individuation, or it was living through me.  This quest was apparent as the subtext to the inheritance dream, and many others of that period.  After writing down the inheritance dream I commented as follows:

There is a lot of context for the dream, best summarized as a fluid and somewhat wild/ chaotic/ noisy social night scene.  This kind of backdrop is quite common in my dreams, so much so I am inclined to refer to my ‘long night dreams’.  These usually take place over several ‘hours’ and spill late into the night or early morning.  They generally build through escalating events/ imagery and crystalize in a single memorable and stirring image.  The dream about an inheritance is in this larger category, but the specific incident in question feels broken out of its immediate context and stands alone in the dreamspace.

Another memorable long night dream from a slightly earlier period culminated in a scene where I came upon a group of revelers around a bonfire, deep in the forest, swinging in hammocks or dancing unrestrainedly some hours after midnight–maybe two in the morning.  Although I was not, knew I was not, of them, I longed to join in their joyous communal frenzy.  This image of a revelry around a bonfire possessed an energetic charge that animated all that came into contact with it, in other words this image, the image of the inheritance, and other images buried late in these long night dreams, were presenting themselves as possible material for my personal myth.  I can imagine a life founded on the idea of an enormous inheritance or a communal dance just as the grail image has, as Robert Johnson convincingly argues, served as the founding myth for western masculinity for a thousand years.

Standing back a little, and thinking about how it is that I have the courage to face a new journey, certain steps, some fairly conventional, others rather more esoteric and specific, have been necessary for me to face the future with confidence and with nerve, to lay the past to rest, to open a new channel to life.  Life, sounds, smells, textures, colors, spill into me and swirl around as never before, and a multi-year process has certainly reached exhaustion, and cleared the way for a realized rebirth.  Rudhyar writes revealingly about the ending of a cycle: “Any person who has had to improvise a speech after a dinner party knows how difficult it is to bring his talk to a convincing and significant end.  When coming to the close of their speech many speakers fumble, repeat themselves, go from climax to anticlimax, and perhaps let their words die out wearily and inconclusively (…) The composer of music, the dramatist, and the novelist often find the same difficulty when confronted with the obvious necessity of bringing their works to a conclusion.”  He goes on: “the natural end of everything is exhaustion–one gets exhausted and so do the people around you.  The speech or the individual himself, dies rather meaninglessly of old age.  Unless the self, the spiritual being, takes control and, binding up all the loose strings of the great lifelong effort, gathers the most essential elements into an impressive and revealing conclusion, there is danger that the great moment will become obscured by the settling dust of the struggle.”

Here, Rudhyar seems to be talking about the end of life, but a little later it becomes clear that he is actually talking about all acts, all events: “The art of bringing every experience to a creative end is the greatest of all arts (…) What this art demands first of all is the courage to repudiate the ‘ghosts’ of the past.  It is this repudiation that is also called severance (…) One must have the courage to dismiss the things unsaid, the gestures unloved, the love unexperienced, and to make a compelling end on the basis of what has been done.”  In other words, a graceful ending acknowledges that there is a great deal more that could have been done, and nonetheless strives to encapsulate and put into perspective that which was done.

With exhaustion of the old comes, as we have seen, the first breath of the new.  In what areas, to what purpose, and up which gradient ought I to apply my newfound energies and intent?  I suspect that the paying off of whatever karmic debt I am holding is a necessary feature of taking up whatever inheritance is to be assumed.  Once again, Rudhyar gives us a hint when he writes of crossing the threshold of rebirth: if the individual “has absorbed and assimilated the darkness represented by the ‘Guardian of the Threshold’–the memories and complexes of the personal and collective Unconscious–then the Tone of the new cycle can ring out clearly.  The individual, conscious of his true Identity, is able to use for his purpose of destiny whatever conditions have been inherited from his past and the past of his race, from his parents and from humanity” (italics in the original).

I love this phrase, “the Tone of the new cycle,” capitalized Tone, (by which we could also understand to mean “style”).  If indeed I am saddled with some sort of baggage from centuries past, an idea which I do not advance lightly in the least, then clearly it is my duty as a future directed individual who simultaneously “believes” in cyclicality as a basic principle of human and natural operations, to transform the elements of this baggage, this ragged tune, into a new tone which can ring clear to anyone who might benefit in some way from hearing it.  My listeners, my audience, are those smart kids who, blessed and cursed with preciosity, struggle to make sense of the terrain of their own mind which, in the immortal words of Gerard Manly Hopkins has mountains, O the mind, mind has mountains.

In order to reach authentically another I need then to perform in my own style.  Arriving at an original style is the first great challenge for any artist; in the arts formally this generally entails assimilating the style of others with one’s own insurgent urge toward expression such that the resulting product is recognizably your own and resonates with your inner sense of what you are about.  The effort to live one’s life with style, to make of one’s life a work of art, is harder still, for instead of working toward a finished product, a song, a novel, poem, or canvas, we are instead seeking to infuse each moment, each encounter, each event pocket, with creative intent and energy.  This effort requires attention as well as imagination, and here attention and imagination exist in a delicate and precise balance. Without attention the mind quickly loses itself in projection, in maya, the mist of illusion and fantasy.  However, without imagination attention may be overly focussed in the immediately apparent and explicable.  Hollis quotes Gaston Bachelard: “Psychically, we are created by our reverie–created and limited by our reverie–for it is the reverie which delineates the furthest limits of our mind.”  The courage to imagine, to wander, and to bring back to and integrate into diurnal consciousness the imprints and impressions of our furthest wanderings, this is the courage we may need in order to live at the highest levels of creativity.

This essay is beginning to feel the pressure to make a compelling end.  The other evening, I ran into an acquaintance from an earlier incarnation and we started talking event theory.  He summarized his own view of events in five words: “an event should be eventful.”  The eventfulness of an event depends on both the arrangement and combination of space, time and energy to create an event arc with pockets of luminosity and on the willingness of the participant to experience eventfulness, to happen.  Oddly, happenings are neither entirely willed and created nor entirely received.  Instead, happenings and events transpire in the liminal band between will and fate, writer and muse, figure and ground.  Phosphorescent again: “See I was the wounded master/ oh then I was the slave/ my hands and my mouth, aw honey/ they would not behave/ See, I was the holy writer/ then I was the page/ I was the bleeding actor/ then I was the stage.”  Who are we in our journey through life, around, and back again?  Are we the maker, or the made?  The master, or the slave?  The writer, or the page?  The actor, or the stage?  The happening, or the happened to?  Are we in charge of our own destiny or awash and afloat in a current so much stronger than we are?  Are we all of these things simultaneously?  What is my mission on this new journey I am called to alight upon?  What is the mission of my young friends, a generation younger than I, who face the difficult transition to adulthood in the keening wind of the 21st century?

My deepest wish is simply this, that today’s smart kids may navigate the delicate relationship between their mind and their life during the first half of life in a more graceful and integrated manner than have I, that they receive, if only from a handful of people, compassionate help and understanding to this end, and that the experiences visited upon me may in some small way assist this integration, if necessary as a sort of sacrifice.  Perhaps in the end this makes me too an “established interest.”  However, I hope I have no specific requirements any more than I have specific requirements for myself, no program, no method, no dogma other than the welling hope that when they reach their own Los Angeles they are able to negotiate their own terms upon being asked to stand for a while in the light.

On the last page of Italo Calvino’s masterpiece Invisible Cities, the Great Khan and Marco Polo are concluding their conversation about Polo’s travels across the globe.

Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World.

He said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who worked at Cambridge, once advised a colleague to leave the university as there was “no oxygen” for him there.  Upon being asked why then he, Wittgenstein, stayed, the philosopher is said to have replied: “It doesn’t matter…I manufacture my own oxygen.”  While I am deeply grateful to those handful of people who have gone out of their way to give me space, in some ways I feel as if I have to too great a degree, had to manufacture my own oxygen.  Perhaps the atmosphere of the coming journey will consist of some other arrangement of elements such that oxygen, or whatever allows one to breath there, is made more freely available.  In the meantime, I intend to give the only gift that I have to whichever smart kids might take something away from it.  This gift is simply the truthful and open record of what it has been like for one relatively smart kid to navigate life, relationships, and his own psychology and mentality–a primer on the basic aspects of living the first half of life as a semi-ambitious introverted intuitive living between centuries and shuttling between east and west.  The work will be titled: “Where I’m Coming From: A Straight Answer to the Smart Kids,” and the title itself provides a gradient steeper than nature.

Before any new journey can be set out upon, passage must be secured–I know this because I have dreamt it.  Possessing no riches of my own, the price of the new journey will have to be paid by the brokering of an inscription, a text, of the old one.  This text will necessarily be partial, incomplete, subject to criticism for what it redacts, a map that barely begins to reflect the territory as was the dream text itself, as are all dream texts.  This has to be accepted at the outset; after all even the holy writer is perpetually bound by the constraints of form.  And even as we are writing the record of our coming through that earlier landscape, the greater work of embodying the living word such that the opulent and decorative higher floors of our co-constructed mansion are made manifest through our participation in reverie and revelry, of ascending the far-flung mountains of a new Aeon, will already have begun.

Works Cited/ Referenced:

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Ecclesiastes.

Gerard Manly Hopkins, “Mind Has Mountains (No Worst, There is None).”

James Hollis, Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path.

Julian Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind.

Robert Johnson, He.

Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche.

Van Morrison, “No Guru No Method, No Teacher.”

Phosphorescent, “Los Angeles,” from Here’s to Taking it Easy.

Phosphorescent, “Terror in the Canyons,” from Muchacho.

Dane Rudhyar, The Astrological Houses.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker.