Thursday, December 31, 2009

Predictions for 2010

It's New Year's Eve, and all over the Internet, I see people making lists. Lists not only of the Top 10, 20, 100, whatever for the year, but also for the decade--2010 marks the beginning of a new decade--sort of. I think we technically have to get through 2010 to get to the next decade. But people said that about the year 2000 as well, and it's still regarded as the beginning of the millennium, so--whatever works. I am not going to produce another list.

New Year's as such is an arbitrary choice of day in our measuring of time. We've passed 12 or 13 moons (13 this time, I think) since the last time we did this, and that time, I was in London with the flu. This year will be much quieter. I'm not for partying on New Year's Eve--every time I have, it's somehow managed to be a huge letdown. Never mind that the roads are crawling with cops, looking for anyone on the road who may have been drinking at all. Given that drinking on New Year's Eve is almost a given, having to drive home afterward is just asking for trouble. And anyone who heads into Manhattan for New Year's has to be insane. I'm all for a good party, but standing in Times Square with wall-to-wall drunks in the freezing cold just doesn't strike me as a good time.

One of the things I do like to do for fun is make my predictions for the next year. This may surprise you, as that sounds very much like the realm of activities for psychics. I don't profess to be a psychic, but I do have strong intuition, and I'm always watching patterns in our culture. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I do function a lot on "illogical" judgments that are purely intuitive. 2009 has also been an interesting year as I have had more dreams and waking visions of people and encounters before they've happened. This could be because I've been heavier into meditation practices, and meditation can quiet things down enough for you to see and hear outside of your own ego and identity. I certainly don't think there's anything "supernatural" about it. The collective psyche, and individual psyches, are vast territory, largely unknown. So, nothing surprises me.

Okay, enough of that. I usually make predictions for myself, but this time I'm making a few about life in these United States in general.

The Economy--no miraculous recoveries this year, though I do think things will improve financially for the nation as a whole. I do think that the business of bailing out industries and other failing ventures is going to stop--it's going to take more traditional cost-cutting measures and more conservative approaches to economics to straighten out this mess. I do think that such a change is forthcoming.

The President--Barack Obama has had an ambitious agenda for his first year in office--he's had some wins, and some failures--and some apparent victories, like health care, on which the jury is still out. I think he's going to be a lot less ambitious in 2010--not that he's going to do nothing, but he may be a lot more cautious this year in his decision-making. I'm seeing this as a year of re-evaluation for him, and he may take some time out for that. His relationship with the Public at large will still continue to be a roller coaster.

The War in Afghanistan and Elsewhere
--I'm also seeing a more passive role here. We've been sending more troops and bolstering our involvement, but that will wind down in 2010. I don't know that it will end, but we will begin to limit our involvement.

The Job Market/Unemployment Rate--this is interesting, because I still see a lot of grief, but things may not be as bad as they look. There is still a lot of fear and uncertainty ahead--and still fallout from the results of people being unemployed--but things may be better by the end of next year than they look at first glance.

The Real Estate Crisis--I see definite change here, in fact, I hear the phrase, "getting unstuck", which suggests that we may start to rebound from the downward spiral we've been in with home values and foreclosures. I don't want to suggest any miracles here, but it does seem like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Corporations and Business--I'm seeing some unexpected changes here, and changes for the better. Whether this means finding newer, less greedy ways of doing business, or if it just means that failing businesses will start to rebound and flourish, I'm not sure.

Health Care--surprisingly or not, I don't see a lot of changes this year, even with the promises of Obama's health care bill. On the other hand, I don't see anything descending into chaos, so that's a good sign. I get the sense that current changes, while they won't fix many things, will turn out to be a reasonably good start.

Overall, I see us moving away from the anxiety of this past year, towards more stable ground. I don't think everything will be solved this year, and there will still be losses, but 2010 should end on a much better note in these areas than 2009. And frankly, a step in the right direction is better than no progress, or more backsliding.

So, those are my predictions. We'll have to take a second look in about a year to see if I was anywhere close to being on the mark, or just full of shit. Usually after I make my predictions, I forget about them. After all--the only time that really counts is the present, and there's no sense in focusing on outcomes. In the meantime--be safe, and have a happy new year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Did you...

Did you...

* ...ever experience someone's creative work the way you experience a swim in the ocean? For me, low tide would be a metaphorical distancing, pleasant enough to be able to immerse myself in the work without too much disturbance. It is more of an enjoyment than a challenge. But works that feel attached to for whatever reason--this includes writing, art, and music, and any attachment to the creators of those works--are more like a choppy high tide. I find myself cautious about entering the water, or only enter it for short periods of time before I need to recover. The emotional experience invoked by a story, a work of art, a song, or a film can pull me "off course" for days. This is not a bad thing--such work should challenge you, should shift your perceptions, keep you from getting too comfortable in one place. But if your day to day life is already stressful and you want a break, such excursions might only create more stress. Sometimes you're ready for the challenge of swimming at high tide, sometimes you're not. Some of my friends are incredulous that I can really like a particular artist or musician, and not be totally familiar with their work after an extended period of time. This is why. I don't know if this is my own peculiarity or if others experience this as well.

* ...ever notice that getting involved with a man (or perhaps with a woman, I don't know about that) is a bit like trying to adopt a feral cat? The cat develops an interest in you--or, more likely in something you have (probably food), may sit on your porch and hang around your property--but if you get too close to it, it runs away. It basically wants you to leave the food, not make eye contact, and leave it alone. Eventually, with time, it will allow you to get closer and closer, maybe pet it a little, and at some point it might become part of your household. But it's a long, arduous process.

Recently I was out with some friends and we were discussing self-help books for relationships. Some women find these helpful, but honestly, I think they're irrelevant in context. Women think more about things like whether or not the man is insecure, whether he's commitment-phobic, whether he's had a bad childhood, whatever. I suspect that men as a rule don't care about these things, and get annoyed and/or uncomfortable when women bring these things up. Maybe it's cultural, maybe it's biological--either way, they just don't look at things the same way, and it's a bit of a waste of time trying to figure it out. I always think of humor columnist Dave Barry's book, "Dave Barry's Guide to Guys". He has the chapter on men and women and communication, and gives the "Roger and Elaine" example, one of the funniest things I've ever read. It's worth reading for yourself, but the basic summary is this: Roger and Elaine are a couple who have been dating for six months. When one evening, driving home from a date, Elaine suddenly says, "Do you realize we've been going out for six months?" This is followed by silence. Dave then proceeds to show you what he is thinking during the silence, and what she's thinking. Basically--she thinks she's perhaps being too forward, frightening him, trying to corner him into a relationship, make him her white knight on a horse, etc., and imagines the pain he must be feeling. He is looking at the odometer and realizing he hasn't changed the oil in 6 months, and then angrily remembers the last idiot mechanic who screwed him over. When she suddenly blurts out, "I'm sorry Roger--there is no horse!" he is bewildered, confused, and tries to say anything that he thinks might be the right thing. Afterwards, she goes home weeping and calls her friends to analyze every nuance of their conversation for the next thirty days. He goes home, opens a bag of chips, and watches a tennis match.

In my days of cataloging for a book vendor, a book came across my desk one day called "The Art of War for Lovers". I didn't read the whole book, but it did have one paragraph that I thought was interesting as I flipped through it. It gave the example of a man and woman in a relationship, and while things are going great, the man just suddenly decides not to call, decides he needs his "space", starts laying out boundaries with regard to involvement/commitment (usually, "I'm not really ready for a commitment."). Contrary to most other self-help books, this one told the woman to say, "Okay, fine", and walk away without giving it a second thought. This is hard if you've started to develop an emotional attachment to a person, but this is also why you can't rely on others for your happiness--it will make you functionally manic-depressive. Like the feral cat, if you reach out and they run away, the best thing to do is just walk away and don't get angry or become unfriendly, just focus on something else, leaving the door open if you're still interested. If they're really interested, they'll eventually come around. If they're not, then you're probably better off.

*...ever notice that the more you plan for something, the more likely it is to get totally screwed up? This seems to be proportional to time--the longer-term the plans, the more likely they're going to get screwed up. Let's say you've spent a lot of money, have a lot of bills, and make a plan to pay things off. You look at your income, and you see how you're going to take any extra money left over each month to start paying down a debt. You may even take on a second job or extra work. Inevitably, something major will happen--if you own a house, some major thing will happen (like the furnace dying or the roof leaking), and suddenly all that extra money is swallowed up in dealing with the catastrophe. You may even end up in more debt than when you started. This is not limited to the world of finances--it can happen with anything, at any time. I've gotten in the habit of making all long term plans tentative, if I make any at all. You never know what will happen tomorrow. And there's no sense in worrying about it.

You might remember that when you come up with your New Year's resolutions.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding Truth in the Past

Just around Christmas, my friend sent me an article that she had published on the perception of the Normans in English history. What caught my eye in this article, among other things, was the notion of translatio studii, "the art of rewriting". Early histories are not objective reportings of fact, but rather a cobbling together of the literary and the historical to create "a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts". She is referring to Anglo-Norman historiography, but it is also evident in earlier histories. In reading old Greek and Roman histories, we were often cautioned about the author's "tendency to exaggerate" the facts. Even poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that are considered largely mythical, are often mined for nuggets of historical fact. Do I also need to mention the Bible here?

Gem points to the old French term estoire, which can mean "history" or "story" (not to mention the modern French word for story, "histoire"). What is fascinating about this to me is the expansion of the idea of historical truth. I couldn't point to a place on a timeline, but I'm thinking that it was sometime post-Enlightenment that we developed the idea of objective fact reporting. There is nothing wrong with this approach, except that our culture has come to expect it from texts that don't have it.

I've seen a lot of examples recently of scientific (i.e., purely fact-based) approaches to mythical subjects. Here are three examples from the last year:

Physicists prove that vampires don't exist

Scientists determine that angels can't fly

Scientists cast doubt on the existence of Santa Claus

I see a lot of this as an absurd extension of the religion/science debate in our culture. Religion is about myth, and religious writings are often a mixture of historical fact, fiction, and guidelines for a community. Anyone who thinks they can read religious scriptures as historical truth in our modern "objective" sense is misguided at best. The scientifically minded who try to take on religious belief on this basis are equally misguided. Certainly there are those who think that they must believe religious scriptures literally or else face punishment from an angry God. I suggest that those individuals read this.

But even beyond this, there is the whole idea that we can objectively come across something known as "truth". I've talked about this before, but this is a particularly interesting spin because it is commonly believed that we can obtain "facts" about things by looking at the past--the whole notion of causality (cause and effect) is based on this idea, and at least part of how we make predictions about future events and behavior. When the past is mostly allegory that points to something rather than stating it directly, then finding "truth" is as much of a scavenger hunt as it is with present uncertainties. The absurdity of human attempts to "know" the past from archaeological documents and historical writings is obviously illustrated in this mock historical documentary on the Beatles from 1,000 years in the future. But even with recent history, where documentation methods are considered to be more sound, there is still room for deception, and there is still the whole problem of subjective spin.

Perhaps, then, truth is not to be found in documented collections of "facts". Facts are meaningless outside of context, and context will be interpreted differently by each person.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Thoughts

I've finally finished reading "Beyond Tolerance" by Gustav Niebhur. His father is famous minister Reinhold Niebhur, who made great strides in the area of interfaith cooperation. Gustav has been a religion reporter for many years. "Beyond Tolerance" is his discussion of how religions overcome obstacles to work together and recognize each other as human beings worthy of respect. It is not enough to be "tolerant", because that still suggests a hostility between opposing groups that remains unaddressed. One only "tolerates" that which annoys them. In the wake of the September 11 catastrophe in the U.S., there was much discussion of fear, hatred, and xenophobia. 9/11 isn't the only documented instance of backlash against certain religious groups--it's been an ongoing problem in some parts of the country. Yet, Niebhur suggests that the negative has been more than adequately documented, and he wants to focus on the positive--the people who worked together and supported each other from very different faiths in the wake of catastrophe, ignorance, and religious tension.

Religious tolerance between Christians, Muslims, and Jews is not as difficult as one might imagine. After all, all three groups are monotheistic, and their scriptures all stem from the same source--the Jewish Torah. What I found surprising, though maybe I shouldn't, is the difficulty that Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have theologically with the Western monotheisms. On the more superficial textual level, the differences are obvious. Pope John Paul II made some very negative comments about Buddhism that were not well received. His criticism was that Buddhism was essentially "negative"--they believed in an uncreated universe, they didn't believe in the idea of a "soul" as Westerners do, and felt that their whole system condoned inaction and a lack of social justice.

I find this incredible because I love to read the Doctors of the Church--St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, Therese of Liseux (forgive the lack of appropriate diacritics). When I read their works, the first thing I see is Hinduism--Teresa of Avial talks about the "magnificent refuge inside you" where God lives, which is not different from the idea expressed in the Sannyasa Sukta--the "Lord" that dwells in the lotus of the heart. While Teresa talks about this God in personal terms, the Hindu sannyasis--and the Buddhists, it so happens--prefer not to use such a term. The Pope saw Buddhism as negative because of language that says you are "not this" or "not that". The idea that everything is from "nothing" sounds nihilistic. But it isn't.

The problem is with language. "Nothing" doesn't mean non-existence--it means "no thing". This is perfectly in line with monotheistic teachings--the First Commandment in the Bible says that Yahweh does not tolerate "graven images". We can interpret "graven images" in many ways, but the bottom line is that you cannot associate the Ultimate, which is beyond time, space, language, and mental understanding, with a fixed object. This is necessarily blasphemous, because it suggests that you can limit "God" to a set of humanly-determined images or characteristics. One might argue that Hinduism has many deities, but these deities don't represent the Ultimate--they are symbols that help our minds relate to what we perceive as the qualities of the Ultimate. It is necessarily complicated, and in no way all-encompassing. In the end, one must discard all images--and Hinduism does teach this. As Carl Jung appropriately said, "Religion is the final obstacle to religious experience". While Scriptures, theologies and guidelines can be helpful (or not), in the end, it comes down to the reality behind all of that--one that we can't understand. It's a great mystery.

Science, believe it or not, supports the idea of the great Mystery. Everything quantum mechanics has revealed to us suggests that each individual is the point of reference for the entire universe. The idea of the "multiverse" suggests that all possible outcomes for one's life are indeed possible. At the same time, there is evidence for the idea that the entire universe is a hologram projected off of a 2D surface out in space. If everything we experience is an illusion, than "reality" becomes more mysterious than ever. Neti neti.

It is now Christmastime, and while it is a happy time for many people, it is also a very depressing time for some. We may come together with our families and friends, but we also remember what may have been lost--families, friends, relationships--even the loss of financial position or a home. There is a decided spike in suicides during the Christmas season. The trouble with tradition is that it evokes the past--we tend to wax nostalgic on such traditional holidays, which can open old wounds. In spite of everything the Christmas holiday represents, from the Yule idea of the sun now waxing towards summer, to the nativity of Jesus, to the general revelry before the heart of the winter season, in the final analysis it's just another day. Gains and losses are just part of the perpetual cycle of things--if you lose some things, you gain others. On some level, you don't have any of it, or at least it doesn't last forever. If we think about the mysterious nature of reality, you come to realize at least intellectually that no time really exists but the present. Your life is made up of a set of "nows". This is also a very Eastern concept. However, anyone who has had a very deep meditative experience or spiritual epiphany, regardless of religion, realizes what this means. When you really tune into the great Mystery, you realize how amazing life is--with both the things we think of as good, and all of the things that are bad. The fact that the game is afoot in the universe, and that we're playing it, is astounding. Everything just "is". And, at the risk of sounding subjective--it is all "good".

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thoughts As Things

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen a fascinating trend in the media regarding the topic of prayer. There are fairly regular reports of Christian ministers and conservative evangelical Christians praying for someone’s harm or demise, usually a political figure that they hate (dislike is apparently too weak of a word when you’re moved to wish them dead). Here is the latest example that I saw on HTMLGiant this morning.

The most obvious first thought about this phenomena is “wow, how un-Christian”. It’s exactly this sort of thing that gives Christianity, and by association all religion, a bad name in popular culture. The media does not focus on the positive things that groups do to build bridges between communities—they tend to focus on this sort of thing. And from their perspective, why not? Outrage over hateful acts is more interesting than stories of people getting along, at least in our culture. Though the media doesn’t really know how to handle the latter effectively—whenever there is such a positive story, it ends up coming across as sentimental and sappy. But I digress—

The second thought that I have about this use of prayer-to-do-harm is how ironic it is, given that these same churches are very opposed to anything “magical” in nature. The logic of praying to harm your enemies is the same as the logic entailed in casting a spell. There is an assumption that your intention can become a “thing.” Regardless of whether you cast a circle and summon some elemental spirit, practice some nature magic ritual that draws in energies towards your intention, or sit with your hands folded and say, “please God do this for me”, it all amounts to the same thing. You are petitioning the Whole for your small part.

You may scoff at the idea, whether labeled prayer or magic. It’s a hubris-laden absurdity to think that you can make something like that occur just by praying for it (pride is still one of the seven deadly sins, isn’t it?). However, the idea is not as far-fetched as you might think. I am not suggesting that such prayer techniques will actually work, but there is some merit to the idea of a thought as a thing.

When I was younger (20 years younger, come to think of it), I was fascinated by the idea of thoughts-as-things. I used to play around with creating these sort of blobs of concentrated energy that were focused on a specific purpose that I’d created myself. Interestingly enough, they worked—and the thought became so real at some point, you could reach out your hand and feel the ball of energy. The problem is that they require a lot of energy, and often generate little return. In short, it’s as much of a waste of time as sitting around trying to move stuff with your mind.

People can create such “thoughtforms” without even realizing it. My own mother has done this, though she’s in denial that this is what she’s actually done. For years and years now she has been plagued at night by some “thing” that hovers near her bed. You can actually hear it breathing or making a popping sound—I got to experience this once. I could tell right away that this is what it was—it follows her from place to place (we were in North Carolina at the time I heard it), and it only centers around her. My mother is an Olympic-level worrier, and what I sense is that it’s basically this composite of all the negativity she projects on her sleepless nights. You may say, “Oh, but all mothers do that.” To a degree, yes. This happens to be an unusually high degree. And the psyche is a powerful and mysterious thing.

Usually the effects of thoughts are cumulative over time. If you have a goal or wish, you may see the fruits of that wish many years later, partially through effort (as the saying goes, you can’t expect to win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket), and partially through the thought process that can form the wish into a reality. You may be skeptical, but I’ve seen it happen enough times to be satisfied that this happens at least some of the time. If underneath it all reality is just a unified energy state, and what we experience is an illusion or hologram dictated by our point of view (see “Smoke and Mirrors” post on how we “create” the universe), then why wouldn’t we be able to shape the nature of that illusion to some degree?

In the Hindu religion, there is no such thing as a prayer for an individual. If someone dies in your house and the swami comes to pray for them, the swami will pray for the whole world, not just the person who died. Why? Because everyone is connected to everyone and everything else. To say “I’m going to pray for you, but not you” makes no sense, because on some level, there is no difference between “you” and what you perceive as “not you”. We also talk about the idea of “karma”—one’s good or bad actions (or inaction) having consequences—though it’s not a unique idea to Hinduism. Even Christianity suggest that you “will reap what you sow”. What I have found is that if one is going to dedicate a lot of brain space to a goal, it is best to do so with some humility and consideration for the rest of the world. What might be good for you might be harmful to someone else. In the end, going with the flow will still get you farther than such mental gyrations—some part of you already knows where it’s going, if you just pay attention.

So, I fail to understand supposed Christians who spend any part of their prayer life trying to harm others. It’s a little like Monty Python’s “Palestinian suicide squad”—they say “take that!” and proceed to kill themselves. (“That really showed ‘em, eh?”) If your actions come back to you, it’s not particularly smart to expend your energy trying to harm someone else for your selfish concerns. You’re probably not going to affect them, though you are likely to screw up your own life. But you have to be pretty screwed up, or at least not particularly bright, to consider such a strategy in the first place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Today I was cruising the Fark website and generally causing trouble on the Interwebs, when I came across an article about an author who went on a rampage responding to negative reviews of her book on Amazon. Apparently she posted almost 400 comments responding to the negative reviews, and even threatened to go to the FBI with the comments of negative responders. It is probably safe to say that this woman has a bit of difficulty accepting criticism.

As ludicrous as her response was, I wonder how many authors aren’t tempted to do the same thing. After all, when you put a creative work out for public view, it’s a bit like having a child. You’re emotionally bonded to the work, and have some level of personal investment in it. Having someone tell you that your work sucks is a bit like having someone tell you your kid is ugly. (I don’t have kids, but I imagine this would not provoke a happy response). No matter how well you take criticism, it’s hard not to take such things personally, even though your rational mind tells you it’s not really about you.

Criticism of creative work is a funny thing. While criticism can be helpful to someone trying to hone their skills, it is a mostly subjective phenomena and should be taken with a grain of salt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up books, even ones with good reviews, and put them down, bored to death after 2 pages. One’s point of reference is crucial for context, especially with literature—someone with an M.F.A. in creative writing is likely to look at a work of science fiction (for instance) with a different type of critical eye than someone who enjoys reading mass market science fiction. But for some, reviews may be a determining factor in why they choose to buy a book or not.

For the author, more is at stake than just sales. Regardless of how little something you write reflects your real life, there is still some piece of you in creating it—there are your imaginative ideas, if nothing else. It is often less personal than people think, unless the author specifically states that the writing is autobiographical. People will interpret your fiction writing in terms of two things—what they know (or think they know) about you, and their own life and issues. Things that resonate with our own life situation or the things we contemplate are going to be more appealing to us.

With regard to autobiography, I can use myself as an example. I had a story published to Writing Raw in September. A lot of people read that story, and said they couldn’t believe I wrote it. As one friend said, “I had no idea you were such a kinky little girl.” The fact of the matter is that no one actually KNOWS if I’m a kinky little girl. They just assume that if I can imagine such things, they must also be part of my interests. If you think about it, this is absurd. You might think about something because of another story you’ve read, or something you’ve seen in the news, and it may get fictionally interpreted. That said, there must be some part of you in the story for it to be authentic, even if it’s not autobiographical in the strictest sense.

Once the story was published, I realized that one of the first things I did was attempt to distance myself from it. There were two reasons for this—one just had to do with my audience. When I posted the story link to Facebook, I felt I had to be respectful of the fact that some of my friends have rather conservative viewpoints—on Facebook, I’m friends with everyone from Satanists to nuns. I didn’t think the more religious folk would have appreciated being confronted with that story without some warning. But there is another reason, which is that I like to keep people guessing. I have spent my life keeping people guessing. I hate labels—don’t tell me I’m this or that sort of person. I like to reinvent myself on a daily basis. I don’t like to be limited by any kind of societal role—if I want to do something badly enough, I’ll do it. So, I tend to leave people scratching their heads, because I do things that don’t fit in with the image they have of me. Making a foray into writing and making my work public therefore becomes extra dangerous. People look at what I’ve imagined, and imagine that they can definitively label me based on what I write. But I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as any specific kind of writer—sometimes I write thoughtful, academic things, other times I write erotica, other times horror or science fiction—and sometimes I write stuff that’s just plain stupid. But I don’t want to be forced to choose from those things, and I don’t want to shy away from ideas just because they’re controversial in some fashion.

It may come down to persona. Whatever image you want people to have of you is what you’re protecting when you get defensive about your public creative work. And like any image, it’s all bunk. You're protecting something as fictional as the stuff your writing. No one has any idea what the “truth” is, they only know what they can relate to in your work. If others don’t see your work the way you do, it really doesn’t matter much in the final analysis. The ones that do matter are the ones who take something useful away from it. Everyone else—you can’t please everyone. Don’t try.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Driving Metaphors

I spend a lot of time driving. With the number of miles I cover each week, you’d think I was either a regional salesperson or a trucker. I know I’m not unique in this way—a lot of New Jerseyans can’t afford to live anywhere close to where the jobs are (i.e., Northeast NJ and New York City), so we’ve all hiked out to the country and bought houses there. My one-way commute from home to work is about 38 miles. If I have to teach, drive to a doctor’s appointment, stop off for errands or at a friend’s house—the likelihood is that I will end up putting 100-200 miles on the car in one day.

Driving in New Jersey is an adventure at best and a headache at worst. I know that there are places with worse driving conditions—Massachusetts is one of the worst states I’ve ever driven in with regard to driver courtesy, though it still doesn’t hold a candle to the driving habits of Europeans. I’ve driven in New York City, but I avoid it as much as possible—there’s enough public transport available, never mind the expense of the tunnels and parking. But even without New York, driving every day is typically a challenge. And perhaps it is because I spend so much time on the road that I tend to wax metaphorically about how that relates to life in general. Here are some observations.

For one thing, nothing objectifies other humans more than driving. When we are driving, other vehicles are obstructions or problems of some sort. We are either annoyed because someone is pushing us too fast, or annoyed because we are behind someone who is too slow. Most of driving is navigating your way through lanes of cars moving slower than yours. We never think about the drivers of those cars—why they might be going faster or slower, though it may be obvious in some cases (e.g., trucks tend to move slower just because of their sheer mass.) The humans driving the cars are mere extensions of the vehicle.

I’ve observed a similar phenomena in crowds, and I think it boils down to impatience. We are in a hurry to get somewhere, and others are in the way. Who knows why we are in a hurry—we could be late for work, a date, or an appointment. But much of the time we are in a hurry to go nowhere. No matter how at ease and unhurried we may have been when we got into the car, for some reason once we start driving, we just want to “get there”. Again, there may be very legitimate reasons for this—outrunning a snowstorm, or just being very fatigued and wanting to get to our destination.

In this age of reducing carbon emissions, I wonder—does anyone go out driving for the fun of it anymore? I’ve always liked going out for a drive to places I haven’t been before, though lately I am so pressed for time that I can’t do that. I also like to just meander around—sometimes I discover something new driving down a street I’ve driven down a hundred times before. If I leave myself enough time in the morning, I like to drive to work via what I call the “long short way”. It takes about an hour to get to work, but it’s fewer miles—about 33—and goes through the mountains and the scenic farmlands of Northwest Hunterdon and Western Morris, through the Mendhams and towards Jockey Hollow. I love watching the sun come over the mountains when I drive, or looking at the scenery for a particular season. And while I always do the requisite 50 miles per hour, there is always someone behind me who wants to go faster.

Naturally I can’t resist a metaphor, though this may be a bit more literal—are people’s driving habits reflective of their own daily habits? Driving is a very unconscious thing when you’ve been doing it for a number of years—we function on “auto-pilot”, as it were. And either we ourselves or the drivers around us are anxious to get somewhere, and I think we do that with our lives. We push for the next milestone, to complete the “next thing”. Then what? Keep doing that until you’re dead? There’s not much awareness, no reflection of what’s going on, or what’s around you. It’s an excellent illustration of our own unconsciousness—we’re not really thinking about what we’re doing, and we’re rushing to get to nowhere ahead of everyone else. We are hardly ever in the present moment when we drive—I know that when I drive to work in the morning, I’m frequently thinking about what I have to do that day, what I’m doing after work, who I have to contact—but rarely about the fact that I’m driving, and what’s around me while I’m driving. Did you ever have the experience of someone asking you about a store or restaurant that you pass daily on your route to work, and you have no idea what it is because you’ve never looked?

The other point about driving has to do with respect. Perhaps it goes back to George Carlin’s law of proximity—the level of “being an a**hole” is in direct proportion to the distance the person is from you at the time you discover this flaw. When we are driving, we only see vehicles, not people, even though we know there are people driving them. While we might restrain ourselves from cutting in line or shoving past someone or walking too close on the street, we have no qualms about doing that while we drive. Road rage is very common, and a lot of it stems from the basic disrespect that drivers show to each other every day. What I also see occasionally is a disrespect stemming from some kind of vehicle snobbery—the BMW or Mercedes driver that acts as though everyone else should get out of their way because they feel they have a better car. (And the drivers that will immediately get out of the fast lane if they see one coming). It becomes a microcosm of the frustration that we already feel rushing off to work and whatever else life throws at us on a daily basis.

However, it’s not all disrespect. There are respectful and courteous drivers—even the most rushed drivers can be respectful and courteous at certain times. And, interestingly enough, this is usually when traffic is stopped or significantly slowed because of an accident, construction, or just the rush hour. People will slow down and make a space for you to enter traffic, mainly because there’s nowhere for them to go anyway. As much as we suffer through things like traffic jams (and yes, some people do freak out and do crazy things), there is a sense of resignation, of handing over our illusion of control because we have no control. It’s fascinating that this tends to be the moment when people remember their civility towards other drivers, and relinquish their need to get ahead. I wrote a piece a couple of months ago on the function of depression—and it is a lot like stopped traffic. You need to slow down to become aware and think about what you’re doing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Logic of Illogical Judgment

Last night I visited a good friend, and we were talking about a recent incident involving some individuals in an organization in which we are both members. A particular woman in this organization was now the focal point of everyone’s conversation—she had caused such ill-will, suffering, and strife for so many people, and had driven so many people away, that she garnered attention at very high levels.

I remember the first time I met this particular woman. She was very nice to me, and I was to work on coordinating a project with her and another woman. She was warm, friendly, and obviously very committed, as she had many tasks on her plate that she was doing on a voluntary basis. As nice as she was, I had a distinct sense of unease—like a knot in the pit of my stomach. It was as though a little voice said, “Don’t trust this woman any farther than you can throw her.” When I expressed this to some other people, they chided me for being “judgmental”. She was clearly a kind and selfless person, and I was unfairly judging her.

At first I thought that perhaps they were right. I gave it my best try, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling, and was extremely cautious in all of my dealings with this person. In time, every single thing I suspected she might do to stab me in the back came true. Fortunately, I had already covered myself, which just made her angry. She went around telling people that I hated her “and she never did anything to me.” I’d never said anything of the kind, and had never been rude to her. But she wanted control of me and didn’t get it, so she resorted to other kinds of manipulation. I have a policy with people—I’m friendly to everyone, but if they try to manipulate or control anything about me, who I’m friends with, or what I do—then they’re not friends, and I couldn’t care less if I ever see them again, or if they ever do anything for me again. I don’t need friends with agendas. And I don’t apologize for it.

This is not the first time I’ve had an experience like this. What has me thinking about this subject is all of the recent discussion about persona, identity, and “knowing who someone really is.” I argued previously that if you go by external behavior only, you will never really know anything about a person. What I have found is that when I meet someone, I immediately experience a sensation—I don’t know quite how to describe it, to call it a “vibe” sounds a tad new-agey, but it’s something like that. I know almost immediately whether I should spend my time cultivating a relationship with that person, or if I should stay away (or at least keep a polite distance if I must deal with them). It doesn’t sound terribly logical or fair, but I rely on that feeling anyway, because it’s never been wrong. When I have ignored that feeling, I always end up regretting it.

The question I have is—what exactly is that “feeling”? Is it a “psychical” thing? Certainly it’s intuitive. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can easily measure in any kind of study, because it’s entirely random. It goes beyond first impressions of people. I had an experience last weekend where I walked into a room, watched people interact, and it was almost as if I heard a voice in my head saying “This is not what it appears to be.” I say “almost”, because I think what my brain interprets as a voice is really just an attempt to verbalize and make sense of the feeling. What I have noticed is that the frequency of those occurrences has increased since I took up meditation. If you can stop your brain from chattering and just be quiet and observe, there seems to be a lot of information available to you about situations and what to do about them.

If you take this a bit farther, you realize that a lot of the “truth” of situations is not in the external presentation, but in the subtext. If you combine that intuitive feeling with observations about body language and choice of words in many cases, you can decode what is happening in a confusing situation. But you may not know until later on that your interpretation was correct. So, it all becomes very mysterious. But it is the cornerstone of good judgment. Relying strictly on external factors and data is deceiving. Take the example of marriage. Many women seek to marry men who have a certain social standing, or make a certain amount of money, or have some other external identity feature that is socially approved. In my early twenties, I married a man who, by all accounts, should have been perfect for me—logically everything fit—he was intelligent, creative, good-looking, had some depth of thought, and when we were engaged, he was set to have a good career taking over his father’s business. But that “vibe” was very strong for me, and the message was, “don’t do it, it’s a mistake”. I ignored it, and found out the hard way just how big of a mistake it was. If, as I said in my post on Smoke and Mirrors, we can’t be sure about who others are, or ourselves for that matter, then it’s not unlikely that we will deceive ourselves about our motives in such situations as choosing a partner, or even taking a job. Without that flash of intuition to help us out, we’re just walking around blind.

Monday, December 07, 2009

John Foxx at University of Bath ICIA, December 5, 2009

This past Saturday, I took a weekend trip to Bath to see John Foxx perform “The Quiet Man” at the University of Bath ICIA, an event followed by a conversation between Foxx and novelist Iain Sinclair. Since October 2008, this is my sixth time seeing John, so I’m really racking up the frequent flyer miles. I used to think Elite status for an airline was just pretentious, until I achieved it and got to bypass long check –in lines, security lines, didn’t have to wait to get on the plane—and my luggage was always the first off the conveyor belt at baggage claim. Needless to say, I am now a fan.

My weekend began on Friday afternoon, when I went to the airport for a late flight that ended up in London at 7:00 in the morning on Saturday (London time). From Heathrow I took the trek to Paddington, and from there to Bath Spa. I booked a hostel in Bath, as I was only staying for a night and saw no reason to pay a lot of money for a hotel. I had enough time to dump my things in my room before running back to the train station to meet my friend Gem at noon.

Bath was very crowded that day, with market stalls set up (apparently for Christmas stuff), and it was pouring rain to boot. Gem and I went to lunch, and then spent some time walking around Bath, but it just wasn’t the best day for it. So, we found a pub in the center of town that wasn’t totally packed or a gay bar, and went in for a drink until about an hour before the show.

We finally got a taxi to the ICIA, which no one at the University has ever heard of. To make matters more complicated, there are signs everywhere for something called “ICIA”, and about 6 different buildings on the campus map that “might” have been the ICIA. We ran into some other fans looking for the show, and eventually, through collective brainpower and questioning, we found our way to the venue. It was pretty busy—a very large crowd. We saw Brian right away when we entered the waiting area, and got to chat with him for awhile. Tessa and her husband also showed up, though it was crowded and difficult to chat the longer we waited to get in.

Around 7:30, Michael Bassett, the music coordinator for the ICIA (and native of Troy, NY—one of those places, we agreed, if you pass it on the Thruway—you should probably just keep going) appeared to tell us that the start of the show would be delayed due to “technical difficulties”. By 8:15, when they finally let us in, the room where everyone was waiting looked like the holding area for the Colbert Report before taping. (Those of you who have gone to a show taping know what that’s like. Everyone is so packed in, you get to be intimate friends with people you never wanted to meet.)

John and Karborn came out right away, and did a magnificent set. They showed 3 films—“The Quiet Man,” “A Man Made of Shadows,” and a live VJing set by Karborn that included bits of “Shifting City” and “Cathedral Oceans”. Foxx played the piano throughout all the film sets, and the live video set was fantastic. They skipped the post-film Q&A, and John announced an intermission before his conversation with Iain Sinclair. You can see some of the film and video events here and here (courtesy of Brian).

At about 9:30, the conversation with Iain Sinclair began with Iain getting the ball rolling, as he said John had done the bulk of the work thus far. He discussed his own impressions of John’s work on the Quiet Man. I’m wishing I’d taped the event, or taken notes, as my memory of the conversation in order is rather shaky. Part of the problem is that I’m not terribly familiar with Sinclair’s work—John had his copy of “London Orbital” with him, which is a book of observations about walking along London’s M-25. What impressed Foxx about Sinclair was how he tended to write about the present, which is more difficult than guessing about the future, or trying to recall the past based on some set of facts. Foxx also alluded to his recent posting on media ghosts, on the things that we believe exist without ever seeing them—only through the media. He kept bringing up the President of the United States—how everyone says he exists, but he may not. (As an aside, I will say that several people I know HAVE met the President, or at least been in the same room with him, as he visited our University at the end of October, while campaigning for New Jersey governor Jon Corzine. We are fairly certain that the police would not shut down the New Jersey Turnpike for a fictitious being. But you never know.)

Well then. After some discussion, John opened up the floor for questions, which is usually a good thing, but ended up being a mistake this time around. First—after all of the fascinating discussion about cities, and places, and people’s identities within such constructions, what do you think the first question was? If you guessed, “Will you ever get back together with Ultravox?” you would win a prize, if there was one. I wasn’t sure if this man was planted in the audience just to play a prank. He said he was a fan of John’s for thirty years; shoot, I’ve been a fan of John’s for only about a year and a half, and even I know the answer to that one. His friend persisted in the Ultravox vein, when John politely suggested that questions should be for both himself and Iain, and moved on.

Someone asked a rather interesting question about how the ideas of cities as “hives” fit in with other ideas they mentioned about individualism. The answer to that question can be seen here (many thanks to Brian for posting, once again). Then, as Brian suggested, things “got lively”. During the conversation, a man stood up in the back, turned around and started yelling at some students that were apparently creating a disruption. He then turned and apologized to John and Iain, and the conversation went forward. Apparently those five students were ejected from the venue—no one down in the front knew anything about it, until the fellow who asked the last question raised his hand. He asked a long winded question that ended with him telling John about the five students ejected, and acting as though John had some responsibility for this, or was some kind of hypocrite for allowing it happen. John simply said he had no idea it had happened, and he really didn’t know what the young man wanted him to do about it. The young man persisted rather belligerently, and someone stood up and told him to shut up, as he’d never produce half as much in his life as those two men did. Which was probably not the best thing to say, but a rather understandable knee-jerk reaction to the absurdity of the whole thing. Finally, Michael came down front and formally ended the conversation by thanking Iain and John, and everyone involved in the program. You can see Brian’s clip of this event here.

So, between the technical difficulties and bizarre audience behavior, it was quite an event. There was some discussion of the disturbance afterward, probably best summed up by one among our company who said that the student who asked that last question “was being a twat.” According to Rob Harris, the show almost didn’t happen because of the technical difficulties. Karborn said, “well, we knew Brigid was coming for this, so we had to make it work.” (I’m sure he was kidding, but it was nice of him to say that.)

Afterward, John had arranged a little get-together in a pub a couple of miles out, so I went with Rob and his friend (also called Rob) and Karborn, and we had a rather amusing excursion around Bath trying to get to the pub, as Karborn was the only one who knew where it was, but he’d only been there on foot or in a cab, and giving directions to someone driving is another matter entirely. We got there just at the same time that John arrived, so it all worked out. I stayed until about 1:30 in the morning, when Steve called and got me a cab to go back to my room at the hostel. The cab came much quicker than expected, so I had to dash out without getting to say goodbye to anyone except John and Rob. But it was an interesting evening, to say the least. I met Steve’s wife Isabelle (hopefully I’m spelling her name correctly), who is a really lovely person. (I also learned that Steve’s nickname is “Fluffy”—something which, perhaps because he’d been drinking, he said he wouldn’t mind if I mentioned in my blog, so now I’m mentioning it.) If you’ve ever gone to a wedding and experienced the one table at the reception that is somehow louder than all the others—I think that was pretty much our table at the pub. I did bring holiday cards for the folks I thought I’d see there (Karborn, Foxx, Steve, and Rob). Foxx had ordered champagne for everyone and was toasting the new year, so I didn’t feel quite so premature with my cards. And I won’t see any of them now until 2010, so it’s not untimely. Fortunately, 2010 is not far off.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Love, Sex, and Eroticism: Thoughts on John Foxx's Thought Experiment, Pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote about John Foxx's concept of "media ghosts" as discussed in his blog posting entitled "Thought Experiment: Unrecognised Effects of the Media". Today, I want to look at another topic he discusses--love, sex, and/or eroticism.

John points to the porno magazine as the height of deceptive irony. They are frequently purchased as a male sexual stimulant (i.e., to look at during masturbation, and God knows what else), and yet a colored piece of paper is no substitute for the touch, feel, voice, and responsiveness of a real woman. He accurately notes that an animal, relying on certain "tests", would reject such an object as untenable for sexual arousal. Additionally, if sex serves some reproductive function, a picture in a magazine can't serve that function.

I saw an article in Yahoo news the other day about a young man in Japan who married a video game character. If you get past the notion of publicity stunts and legalities (how do you "marry" a fictional character in any real sense)--even at the symbolic level this is pretty pathetic. Just how removed do you have to be from living life to fall in love with a simulation of a real woman? We're not talking a photo of a woman--we're talking an anime-type character--something that never even WAS a woman. The video game is called LoveSim, and is some kind of simulated dating game. Good Lord. That's like saying you've traveled the world when all you've done is watch Rick Steves videos.

But maybe I shouldn't judge this kid too harshly. While the notion of "marrying" a video game character may be extreme, certainly men have been aroused by images of women in all types of media. Women may also do this, but I think men in general are a little bit different here. Men tend to be more aroused by visual stimuli than women. While there are women who get off looking at naked men, I would suggest that the percentage of men who get off looking at naked women is significantly higher.

One theory about why this is comes from the Eastern chakra system. The chakras refer to seven major energy centers in the body that rotate like wheels. When they spin too fast, or are stuck, physical and emotional problems associated with the chakra can manifest. A lot of Eastern medical and meditative practices are based on the chakras. The male sex organs lie in the muladhara or base chakra. This is the chakra that is associated with primal instincts and basic survival. Women's sexual organs are located in the svadisthana, or solar plexus chakra, which is associated with security, confidence, settling down, "nesting". Following this theory, the result is that men's arousal tends to be more associated with a biological need or function, while women see it as a function of "nesting", or settling down. (Girls--how many of you want to clean and organize every fucking thing in the world during or just before your period? That's the hormonal "nesting" instinct.) So, it is not surprising that men may be more interested in a quick means of "getting off", or having a brief one-night hook-up, while women tend to view sex as an indication of a relationship--and why more women may want a commitment. Mind you, this is a theoretical generalization, and you will find cases where the reverse is true.

Of course, hormones are not the only thing that influence relationship behavior. Experience and environment are big ones--how many successful relationships you've had, how often you've been betrayed or rejected, what your parents' relationship was like, the attitudes in general of your friends and family, etc. One also must consider the fantasy factor--one's "perfect" image of the perfect man or woman is often projected onto a living man or woman. This is dangerous, because you may mistake the real human being for your fantasy figure. When the person doesn't match up in real life, you lose interest if there is no other basis for the relationship. And, just like the "media ghosts"--that's another image that one can never live up to, ever.

A couple of illustrations of the fantasy factor--first, I recall an exchange I had with a female friend about a man she had a crush on. "I hope he never asks me out," she said. I was surprised. "Why not?", I asked her. "Because my image of him will be ruined if he does," was her reply. While I disagree that one shouldn't attempt a relationship because of that risk, it's interesting to think about. The other has to do with my own relationships. From what I can gather, I project a "strong" image to men--I can take care of myself, and I don't act "needy". For all the complaints that men have about women who act like helpless appendages, you would think this is a good thing. Not necessarily. What has happened is that I meet intelligent, capable men who are, in some fashion, lazy. It's not that they're stupid or incapable--they just want to be carried through life with as little suffering and effort as possible. What they want in a woman is a perpetual mother, or a female "savior" figure--someone who will come in, clean up after them, put everything in order, and basically make them happy. So, they meet a woman like myself who they view as not needy and self-sufficient, and figure I'm a good candidate for fulfilling their wish. I refer to these men as "parasites", and there are an alarming number of them out there subscribing to this female mother/savior myth. In my own relationship life--if I may carry this through with a bad metaphor--I tend to stay out of the water because there are too many leeches.

At the end of his post, John asks-why are there only images of violence and suffering in the media, and none of relationships that are both loving and erotic? Well, violence has to do with tearing things apart, sex and love has to do with bringing them together. It seems that people identify more with the idea of being torn apart, and the media rallies around that. Portrayals of healthy, loving relationships don't generate as many ratings. But does anyone know what a real, healthy, loving, respectful and sexual relationship looks like? If you have one, how would you explain it or portray it to others? I imagine it's difficult at best--it's like trying to explain what "God" is.

The situation is not helped by society's treatment of sex. How can something be the "most sacred thing" (i.e., religious ideas of sex only within a sanctified marriage) and a filthy, base thing engaged in by "whores" at the same time? Sex, like any force, can be on one end of the spectrum or another, but children are raised with the idea that sex is one thing or the other. If you are taught that sex is purely functional, then it will make eroticism awkward. Eroticism is treated like a taboo. Try to remember your early puberty days--physically awkward, insecure, and drowning in a sea of hormones--and think about how you had to navigate the sexual/erotic landscape. In the book "Female Chauvinist Pigs", Ariel Levy gave what I consider one of the most succinct summaries of the portrayal of sex in the media and in education: Be sexy--show it as much as you can, be as raunchy as you can--but don't have sex. And somehow, attempts to portray loving, sexual relationships come across as embarrassing or silly.

We ought to go back to having secret society rituals for initiation into sexuality. Because let's face it--making it all work together is a great mystery, and no one is comfortable talking about it. You can't learn from your parents, because most people are grossed out at the idea of their parents having a sex life. If your parents are very open with you about their sex life and such from a young age, they risk being arrested for child endangerment. It's the forbidden thing you can't know about until you're some social definition of an adult, and by then it's too late. You've already been screwed up by the multiplicity of contradictory images, legends, and myths surrounding sexuality. Even if you figure it out, good luck finding a partner who's figured it out.

Sexual myths and misconceptions go a long way towards damaging healthy sex relations between men and women. For instance, take the myth of penis size. Men seem to be in agreement that the size of their wanker is critical not only to their status as a man, but to a woman's pleasure, and the bigger, the better. This is horseshit. Size has nothing to do with sexual pleasure unless a woman's vaginal opening is as wide as the Holland Tunnel (and if it is, I hope you guys are getting checked for STDs afterwards--that condition doesn't happen by itself with one or just a few partners, unless she's had a few babies). Women's pelvises are different sizes and shapes--sometimes everything is tilted, or shifted in one direction or another, and the man who is considered a great lover is one who can carefully and respectfully navigate that landscape, regardless of size. A big dick on a man who is inexperienced and/or showing disregard for the female anatomy is a bit like a 2-year-old running around with a flamethrower--it's not going to end well, and not without damage. A big dick on a man who is really good looking and knows it is deadly--I would run, not walk, away from such a man. Why? Because such men tend to have an ego that matches their dick size and opinion of their Adonis-like beauty. Which means they don't care about the woman at all--they just think by gracing her with their presence she should erupt into orgasm. In the meantime, the woman is grimacing in pain because her partner is taking that oversized joke of a member and stabbing her repeatedly in the bladder, or some other organ that lies in that part of her body. By the time he's finished, she's rushing to the bathroom to see how much blood comes out from being stabbed repeatedly in such a manner. (Sounds funny, but I'm not even joking about this). In short--that kind of sex is about as much fun as having a corkscrew shoved up your ass. (And if that sounds enjoyable to you--don't call me. Ever.). The man will either be basking in the delusion of satisfaction, thinking that the woman's screams were of ecstasy and not agony--or he will be puzzled at her post-coitus response and assume that she's a frigid bitch. And the cycle of deception goes on. especially if the woman is too afraid to say anything because she wants to hang on to the relationship. Why would she? Because she's a moron. Many women are morons when it comes to relationships. And I'm not exempting myself from that, though if you've had as many bad relationships as I've had, you tend to get jaded and distrustful, which is not good either. (And since you're wondering at this point--yes, I have had good sex before. ) Healthy relationships are possible, just not plentiful.

I'm sure there are many other examples, but I have to stop somewhere. John's points are well taken--and certainly, if there is no healthy image of loving and sexual relationships to look to, then what does one have to emulate? Even religions have images, and those images don't show you the reality of "God" or whatever--they're just ideas. But portrayals of sexual love are so schizophrenic, one wonders if they can be successfully put together, not just on an individual level, but on a collective one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors: Thoughts on John Foxx's "Thought Experiment", Part 1

Well, well well. It's Black Friday in the U.S., and, in keeping with tradition, I never go shopping. I have little patience for crowds, and I am not going to fight people over the purchase of stuff. My intention today was to stay home and catch up on my household and academic obligations.

Then, via the Metamatica site (thanks, Mark), I was pointed to a new posting by John Foxx at the Quiet Man blog. John's been quite active at blogging this week, rather unusual. After reading his post, my plans for the day were pretty much done, or at least severely postponed, as I cranked out about 10 pages of rapid-fire thoughts on the topics he addresses. One of the many reasons I just love Mr. Foxx is that he makes me think. I am going to share those thoughts with you in two, possibly three, subsequent blog posts. This is the first one.

First, John's post. It's entitled Thought Experiment: Unrecognised Effects of the Media, and has about 9 parts to it. I recommend reading the post rather than me trying to re-summarize it here--there's a lot to it.

The first thing John discusses is the trust we have in media. There are many things we accept as being real solely on the basis of seeing images in the media--images that can be faked. It's an interesting point, and a rather frightening one in the face of the fact that media is becoming less and less of a reliable source of facts. There may have been a time when the news might have reported actual news--facts were checked before airing, investigate reporting was done to look at all sides of an issue. This still goes on in some places, but it's buried under 24-hour news shows, talk shows promoting themselves as news when in fact they are purely entertainment and not journalism, and a host of scripted "reality" shows. The line between "real" and "fake" is so blurry these days, I'm not even sure there is a line.

Getting back to John's points--he refers to an appearance he had on BBC's Top of the Pops in 1980. The appearance was only 3 minutes long, but when he thought about how many people were reached by that medium, it would have amounted to about 20 years of live performing without TV. What such appearances on TV, in film, and in photographs do is create a multiplicity of images frozen in time that don't go away, even after the person they represent is long gone--John refers to them as "media ghosts". When the artist, musician, or actor looks back at the image, which no doubt has been glossed over and perfected, it starts to make them insecure, and they may compete with it. There is a fear, a "humiliating" experience of going out in public and worrying that you are a disappointment, that you don't measure up to the ghost image someone has of you. Of course, that image never was "you". But if someone forgets that, they may struggle against time with plastic surgery, makeup, and other such things to make themselves look more like that image. At best, they become a caricature.

John actually hits on one of the reasons I like to meet "celebrities", or people I admire that feature in the media--I don't want to see the faked image, I want to see the real person. If John is talking about himself when he compares the "ghost image" to what he sees in the mirror, he needn't worry--he is astonishingly more beautiful in person than in any photograph or film I've ever seen of him. In fact, with few exceptions, I dislike most professional photos of John. They look like images of actors trying to portray John, not John himself.

But the discourse got me thinking about distortions. In reflecting on the idea of a "media ghost" versus the real live person, it occurs to me that there are 3 levels of distortion and potential deception here, just within individuals:

1. The media image versus the real person: This is what John discusses, so there's no need for me to repeat it. The person singing a song or acting onstage is portraying a certain role or character. Never is the person you see on the TV, Internet, or magazine the "real" person.

2. The persona of the real person: Since John wrote this, and I've met him, I'll use him as an example here. When I was in Hudson a couple of weeks ago, I'd spoken to some American fans who were nervous about meeting him. Part of John's media persona, at least in the past, is something that was pretty accurately described by a friend as that of "icy electronica god". There was a certain look and style to John's photos and videos that suggested that he was cool and unapproachable. American fans, who had not seen him in many many years, still had that image of him in their minds. They were very pleasantly surprised to find that John is just the opposite--very amiable and pleasant, and interested in talking to his fans.

Now, I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time talking with John over the last year. I may "know" him a little better than some of his other fans because of this--or not. All I know is the persona John shows to me when we're chatting during an event, or having a drink after the event. Even if John were not John Foxx--even if he were just someone I met who had no kind of celebrity at all--there would still be a mask that is presented, an "enhancement" during which we show off our best qualities, or look at others and try to show them what we think they would consider our best qualities. Since I tend to be hyper-observant of people generally, I can say I've seen at least 3 different sides of Foxx--angry/stressed but trying not to show it, over-energized and with a touch of bravado, and friendly/relaxed in an almost paternal way. The one common trait that threads through all of them is a polite and gentlemanly composure. Even if he's ready to pop with stress, he'll give a terse smile and say, "Please excuse me", and walk away--he'll never tell you to fuck off. Are any of those the real "John Foxx" or "Dennis Leigh"? Probably some parts, but I could not say which ones, in all honesty. You can say that he's learned his social graces, but they don't necessarily reveal the true person underneath.

3. The unconscious person: To a certain degree, we all deceive ourselves about who we are. This gets really difficult, because just as you can't see your own physical image except via a mirror or perhaps a photograph, you don't know how you really are in interactions except via the responses of others. It's like sonar--you can't see it, you only know its size and shape via the sound waves bounced off the "object" that come back to you. Our own images of ourselves tend to be much more critical than those of others--the old "You're your own worst enemy" bit. But when we solicit feedback from others, that feedback is always tainted by that person's projections and worldviews, and their relationship to us.

Which brings me to something on a much broader scale--truth and objectivity. I teach a liberal arts religion course that deals with the academic study of religion. One of my students told me that it's of no benefit to study religion this way because religion is "subjective"--there is no "objective" truth that one can obtain. My response to that is that real "objectivity" is a myth-- there is no way anyone can escape their frame of reference. No matter how detached and objective you try to be, your own point of view and experiences will always get in the way.

Moving out farther to a universal scale--the January 17, 2009 issue of New Scientist has an article by Marcus Chown about the idea of a holographic universe. (I'd post the link, but it's by subscription only). He starts with a discussion of the GEO600 experiment in Germany, which involves a detector that is looking for gravitational waves. The detector has not found any gravitational waves, but has been plagued by a strange noise that researchers couldn't explain. Then researcher Craig Hogan came up with an explanation--in fact, he said he'd predicted the noise. Its presence showed a limitation in space-time--

"where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into “grains”, just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan. If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: 'If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.'"
(Chown, pg. 24).

This is only the beginning of the article, but the idea is starting to become test-able. If this is true, then everything we experience as physical reality is just a hologram projected off a 2D surface somewhere way out in the universe. No one is entirely sure how this works, but it fits in with a lot of contemporary theory, particularly with the paradoxes of black holes.

What's staggering about this to me (other than that the Hindus are obviously right about the whole "maya" thing) is that it truly makes everything "unreal". What is there to really "know" about ourselves and others? What does "truth" become? What about "reality"? A lot of this ties in with ideas about the "multiverse"--the idea that every possible universe exists and is occurring at the same time. While that is still very theoretical, one thing is known from physics--the frame of reference for understanding the universe is not on Earth or somewhere out in space--it is within each person's frame of reference. In some complicated way, we create the universe.

Media may create ghosts, but are they any more true or false than our daily experiences and perceptions? Perhaps technology just adds another layer of complexity to something that is essentially a "ghost image" already--the whole Universe?

Tomorrow, I'll talk about John's thoughts on love, sex, and eroticism.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Traditional Pre-Christmas Post

I was on the phone with a friend tonight, and she reminded me about my usual pre-Christmas blog posting. It's the day before Thanksgiving here in the U.S., not that this is any kind of starting point for Christmas gift buying anymore. I've been hearing Christmas music since Halloween, and Christmas trees and lights are already going up around the neighborhood houses and businesses. If the trend continues, we're going to start hearing about Christmas in September.

This year, unlike last year, I have been caught up in the pre-Christmas bustle. I am no less busy this year than last year, but I had a couple of weekends where I had some time to do Christmas shopping, so I did it--and finished it. All that remains this year is putting up the Christmas decorations and baking like a fiend. It's a good thing, too, because my schedule is such that I won't have time to do anything in December until the 12th at the earliest. Christmas cards are getting written over Thanksgiving vacation (God bless university shut-down days for holidays), so by the time November is over, I hope to be in good shape for the holidays.

And why not? As I noted in an earlier posting about holidays, most of the fun comes in the weeks leading up to the holiday, not the holiday itself. Christmas Day itself won't be much to talk about--the usual visit to family, opening presents--it will all be over in about 15 minutes. Then winter will come, and it will suck until Spring comes. I have a short tolerance for winter--I like some snow on Christmas, maybe the week after Christmas. By January 1st, I'm ready for Spring. By the end of the first week in January, I want the Christmas decorations taken down, and to be done with the holiday stuff.

The one oddity I've noticed year after year on Christmas Day is the behavior of my animals. Yes, I am one of those whack-jobs that buys presents for my cats. You're thinking, "Why bother? Cats don't care about Christmas." Ah, well, that's the oddity. They DO care about Christmas, or at least about Christmas presents.

Here is the scenario: I wrap Christmas presents about 2 weeks in advance, and put them under the tree. Last year, when I didn't have a tree, I still wrapped presents and left them near the spot where I would usually have a tree. This includes presents for the cats. Naturally, the cats showed a curiosity about these packages when I initially put them downstairs, and may have tried to play with them a bit, but then they usually ignored them. On Christmas morning--and this has been every Christmas morning, regardless of the cat, regardless of the externals--the cats know that something is different. I don't do anything that's different. I get up and make my breakfast as usual. On a regular morning, the cats will pester me until I get up, and then run for their food bowls. But on Christmas morning--and I am not making this up--they run over to the tree and stand by the presents. They look at the presents, and then they look at me expectantly. Even the cats in my basement seem to know--I bring them their food, and they won't eat until they see if I've brought them anything. Normally they will start scarfing down food before I've scarcely had a chance to put the bowl down. It's really weird.

I really don't know what to make of my cats' Christmas behavior. Why they would have any awareness of the holiday, especially when I don't change behavior on the day, makes no rational sense. Maybe it's purely coincidental. I tend to think it's because cats are smarter than we think, and have a greater awareness of the English language than we think (or whatever language they are raised hearing). In any case, it's a mystery.

My cat Shiva is alone in the house this year, so we'll see if he repeats the weird Christmas behavior. In the meantime, I am just hoping that my trip to Bath next weekend goes well (going to see John Foxx--what else?), and that my presentation at the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute goes well on the 8th. And it can't snow. Not til after the 14th, when I give my final exam in Religion. Thank you, Nature, for listening.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Feline Education

I had some good news recently. My neighbor and his pit bulls moved out, and I was looking forward to being able to spend some peaceful time at home. However, my neighbors at the end of the street, who are usually very quiet, have recognized this void in the chaos, and have willingly stepped up to the plate of obnoxiousness. I'm all for kids playing outside, but when you hear nothing but a steady, non-stop stream of screaming for over an hour, it starts to wear on your nerves just a tad. I think I felt a little dip in my intelligence quotient. It may be a plot to make me totally stupid. So far it's working. Right now I'm trying to drown out the noise by watching old episodes of Ghost Hunters. I'll bet Jason and Grant had no idea they were fighting stupidity as well as investigating the paranormal.

Speaking of intelligence, thanks to Mental Floss, I discovered a list of animals with university degrees. Well, they don't REALLY have degrees. They were often test cases for schools that were suspected diploma mills. Someone would sign Toonses up for an MBA, and they would grant it, and claim he had an A average. They would then take the school to court, claiming they were giving fraudulent degrees, because Lord knows Toonses is too busy sleeping to actually show up for classes, online or otherwise. Though come to think of it, Toonses may not be much different from the average undergraduate in many ways.
But it got me thinking that I could get online Ph.D.s for all of my cats. I'm never going to get mine--I have two Masters, and that's it--I have no energy for anything else. The Ph.D. that I actually want would require me to sell my house and enslave myself to an academic department for several years. In the end, I probably will totally overqualify myself for any real job, and will not get a job in academia because I've adjuncted for too long in my career. But my cats could get them, and I could brag about them the way everyone else does about their kids. ("Yes, Whiskers got her doctorate, and graduated top of her class for her dissertation on squirrel migration patterns.")

If I wanted it to be legit, I could look at those programs that give you credit for life experience. Based on their experience, I think my cats could get degrees in the following:

Shiva: Political Science, based on his extensive experience in blatant manipulation.
Joplin: Anatomy and Physiology, based on her experience in dissecting small rodents and leaving their body parts on my front porch.
Whiskers: Communication, based on her ability to specifically communicate such needs as, "I need immediate medical attention. My organs are falling out."

So, I'm going to look into degrees for my cats, or at least fake diplomas, which will still make them more educated than a lot of folks in my neighborhood (no offense to those folks--education isn't everyone's "thing", though I think some critical thinking skills do help.) Whether or not it will help them get real jobs and starting contributing to my income stream remains to be seen. They may be overqualified, and be stuck continuing to get rid of flies, mice, and cave crickets in my house to earn their keep. And alerting me to spiders. That's a big one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Emotions, Awareness, and Creativity

I've been thinking a lot these days about the role of emotions in creative work--writing, in my case. When I am in a no-nonsense, practical frame of mind, it is very difficult for me to write fiction. I can force myself to write in such a state of mind, but when I re-read what I've written later, it seems very inauthentic. I have to be able to empathize, or at least sympathize, with my characters in order for them to come across as believable. And many of my characters present extreme emotional states or disturbed states of mind.

Emotions are tricky. It is the emotional downs--and ups--that lead us to unhappiness. People have often wondered over and over again whether or not it's better to withdraw, and to avoid emotional conflict. But to do so is to avoid playing the game (i.e. life. And I mean your real life, not the board game Life). You never can really avoid emotions anyway, unless you are a master of meditation, and those are few and far between. Many of us can successfully repress our feelings, but that's not the same as not having them. We tend to gravitate towards pleasurable feelings and avoid painful ones. I've noticed that there's a thin line between pleasure and pain, and the price of having a pleasurable experience is dealing with the pain afterwards. I imagine it's like drug addiction--there is that ecstatic high followed by a severe drop into depression. We want to encounter the highs over and over again, but life is cyclical--what goes up must come down. This is why Eastern religions promote the idea of "detachment". This is not the same as repression--detachment acknowledges the highs and lows, but observes them without getting caught up in them. To follow the cyclical metaphor--you sit in the still place in the middle of the wheel, you don't ride on it.

While extensive meditative practice can lead to this ideal detachment, many of us just don't have time for extensive meditation. My own practices are inconsistent, as I have so much going on, and the best meditations I know require at least 45 minutes of quiet time with no eating, drinking, or talking. Before work is the ideal time for this, but if I've gotten in from my evening job at 11:00 in the evening, and have to get up at 4:00 in the morning, I'm not likely to meditate when I get up, and I'm too tired and hungry by the time I get home.

So, we struggle imperfectly with our feelings. But like all things, it's not that things happen to us, it's how we respond to those things. I am a very deeply emotional person, though you might not know it from the surface presentation. I can't avoid the fact that I'm emotional. I can get angry, depressed, and anxious, and at those times I don't think very clearly or I tend to see things in a very negative light. What I've learned to do is take those irrational feelings and put them into writing. If I have an idea for a character that is experiencing an emotional disturbance of some sort, being in an irrational mood helps me to think the way the character might think. If I'm not in that frame of mind, it's more difficult to have any identification with the character. If I can do this, it becomes an opportunity rather than a liability.

There is some evidence in general that depression is not something we have to beat down with drugs, legal or illegal. A recent study by an Australian psychologist suggests that depression enables people to think clearly, communicate more effectively, and make fewer mistakes. In short, it increases awareness. I've often heard the expression, mainly from Buddhists, that sorrow is transformative. If depression leads to awareness, then it's easy to see how this could be true. But humans by their very survival instinct try to avoid pain, though the stronger ones have a higher pain threshold. We live in a culture that has no tolerance for pain, and consequently strives to avoid the challenges of life. Beyond the basic avoidance of pain, I'm not sure why this is. I could attribute it to the whole "self-esteem" movement that was big about 15-20 years ago, though that wouldn't account for all of it. The consequences of trying to make people constantly "feel good" has been the avoidance of responsibility, unfortunately. You hear a lot about entitlement and lack of accountability, and this comes out of a lack of self-awareness or self-examination. Lord knows we might not be perfect, and that's a depressing thought. And we certainly don't want to be depressed. And so it goes. I know a lot of people who suffer from perpetual victim syndrome, and my usual tactic with these people is to challenge their victimhood. Some people think I'm unfeeling or cruel for doing that, but I don't think so--to be 50 years old and still pouting because someone mistreated you in the 3rd grade--really now, time to get over it. You might make some of those friends you've wanted all these years if you did. Everyone suffers--not everyone is crippled by it. As I've mentioned in an earlier posting--the highest cure rates for mental diseases that involve a lack of an "emotional skin" like Borderline Personality Disorder came from treatments that involved forcing the person to deal with life situations and not blot them out with drugs.

As if reading my mind this morning, the Onion has come out with a brilliant article on awareness. Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but right on the money.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


In my blog posting on John Foxx's visit to Hudson, New York, I mentioned a particular question that someone asked him, and his answer, that got me thinking once again about the “goal” of religion, and the idea of “perfection”.

In case you didn't read the posting or don't remember the question—someone asked John about the “religious imagery” (particularly angels) in his artwork. John insisted that he does not use religious imagery, as he considers religion to be dangerous. The angel concept is one of perfection or perfecting, as humans are always striving to do. While this can be admirable, it can also be dangerous—if a powerful person or group gets the idea of creating a “master race” and oppressing or slaughtering those who don't measure up.

The first thing that immediately comes to my mind is something that was said by the late, great Joseph Campbell. In the West, and in Western religion, Nature is corrupt. There is the book of Genesis, there is the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden—nature is corrupted by the Fall, and separated from God. Therefore, it is a Western idea that we are born imperfect, and have to be “perfected” again. In the Christian worldview, this would be through Baptism, and/or all attendant sacraments (if you are Catholic). There are similar ideas in the other great monotheistic religions. It was this idea of corruption that prompted Erik Erikson to discuss the idea of “pseudospeciation”--the idea that a particular group of human beings could be better than another, or greater than another. The idea that some human beings are fundamentally superior to others cannot lead to a positive end. Group psychology almost condemns those involved in such a situation to have one person dominate the others—and if that person does not have the qualities that make a good leader, there will inevitably be persecution or ostracization of someone in the group.

By contrast, the East does not have the same view of Nature. We are part of Nature, and should strive to live in harmony with it. Eastern religion suggests that we are already perfect—the only problem is that we've forgotten. The role of the Guru or Master is to wake you up and make you remember your perfect nature, at which point your suffering will end and you will act in accordance with the best thing in you. In an Egyptian magical text, there was an appropriate phrase--”The Aspirant takes his (or her) seat among the Gods, only to find that he (or she) never left.” As Spinoza pointed out, viewing each other as “gods” in this sense is not a blasphemy, but in recognizing the core perfection or “godliness” of another person, and treating them with the appropriate respect. When you are all imperfect and “sinful” by nature, it is easy to start creating hierarchies and to look down on those who are “lesser”.

But all this begs the question—what is perfection? How do you measure or define that? Is it by how successful you are in a worldly sense? Is it about how kind you are to others? Is it about doing everything exactly right? The word “perfect” comes from the Latin “perficere”, meaning “to cease” or “to finish”. For something to be perfect, it has to be finished. There is nothing else to be done—the person has nothing else to learn, nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Think about moments in your life where you've finally finished something successfully that you've been doing for a long time. After you have the satisfaction of a job well done, what's the next natural thought? “What's next?”, of course.

Humans like to feel useful or to feel that they have a purpose in life, a reason for being here. If we were perfect, what would be the point in being alive? The whole idea of perfection is a sham—it's an El Dorado that can never be reached. With apologies for sounding cliche—life is a journey, not a destination. We are never “finished” until we die, and even the idea that we're finished then is debatable. But finishing necessarily implies annihilation, at least of our worldly identities.

Interestingly, John pointed to the image of the angel as the concept of perfection. But angels by definition are not perfect—in fact, they are supposed to be envious of humans. In this way they are similar to deities in Hinduism—to be a deity in Heaven is not the ultimate perfected state. But the perfected state in Eastern religions requires a merging with the Paramatman, or Primal Soul. Merging with the Paramatman is liberation, but it also means you no longer exist in an identifiable way. According to Hinduism, only humans are capable of reaching this perfected state—a god would have to be reborn as a human to attain it. Back to Campbell—he points to the idea of a Unified existence, where everything is One. In order for life to occur, there has to be a separation into Two, and then further separations. To be alive is to be separated, broken apart. Religion is supposed to serve the function of making you “One” again, but much has to be given up to do that. Alan Watts used the wonderful expression “dismemberment and rememberment”--which goes back to the idea of “remembering” our perfect, Divine being.

One of the problems with religion in the modern world is that it acts as a filter. Carl Jung said that one's religion and image of God is the final obstruction to a religious experience. Religion has not served the function of bringing you back to Unity—instead, it has adopted a social function that fragments things to an absurd extreme, at its worst. To be fair, not everyone is psychologically prepared to try to attain that unified state, nor is it always desirable to try. But religion should not pretend to be something it's not—at best, it should be a road map, a set of guidelines for negotiating the great mystery of Life. Dr. Michael Kogan once suggested that God is infinite potential, and evil comes out of trying to limit that potential. There is no one way to go through life, and no religion should claim to have it. The Buddhists have this idea of learning and unlearning—in the face of that Mystery, there are no words, and none of your learning helps you. Everything just is, and it's “good”. One of the most profound experiences I had was a meditative stillness that carried into my working day. I stood in front of a woman who was screaming, pouting and carrying on about something I no longer remember—and I just looked at her and marveled that she was here, how wonderful it all was that any of this was happening at all. There wasn't any anger, just amazement at the presence of the Mystery in everyone, even her at that moment. Life is an elaborate game, and all you can hope to do is to play along, and play fairly—just don't forget that you are playing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Carl Jung's "Liber Novus" (The Red Book)

My recent trip to Hudson was only a couple of days, but you’d think I’d been gone for a couple of months. I’ve had so much to catch up on at home and at work, and I hate it when writing has to take a back seat to everything else. Now I’ve caught up with the essentials, so I’m hoping to be more consistent with my posts.

While in Hudson, both John Foxx and Arthur Price mentioned an exhibition going on in New York City that featured Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, or “The Red Book.” The exhibition is at the Rubin Museum of Art on 17th Street, and it runs until early January. I took some time on Wednesday after work to head into Manhattan to see the exhibition.

Some background on the Red Book—it contains some 35 accounts of experiments in “active imagination” undertaken by Jung while he was developing his psychological theory. After fulfilling many of the ambitions of his youth, Jung had a disturbing dream that led him to feel that he had lost touch with his own soul. These experiments in active imagination were an attempt to reconnect with his soul. The active imagination work is not dream work—Jung undertook this work in his quiet time, fully awake, using his fantasies as a means of uncovering the rich imagery of the Soul. Much of his own psychoanalytic technique developed from this private work. Dr. Sonu Shamdasani, who is the general editor of the new W.W. Norton edition of the Red Book and guest curator of the exhibition, said that this particular book is a critical key to all of Jung’s other work. It provides a context for Jungian theory.

The book itself is beautiful, created like an illuminated manuscript. It is huge—probably 40-48 centimeters in height, and from what I understand, almost 1,000 pages. Jung’s highly symbolic mandalas and other drawings illustrate the book, and it is written in calligraphic script, mostly in German and Latin. The Norton edition provides a translation after the facsimile. Jung created the pages on parchment, one at a time, and eventually had them bound together. He had the manuscript typed up and sent to colleagues for review. It appears that he had every intention of publishing it before he died, but it didn’t happen until now. The exhibition also features some of Jung’s original notes and drawings for the book. There is also a recorded interview with Dr. Shamdasani that is about 8 minutes long, and he offers some background about the book. The gallery is having two other types of events in conjunction with this exhibition—one is an “interpretation” of different pages of the Red Book by famous musicians, writers, and authors paired with a psychoanalyst, and a series of films inspired by Jung’s theories. There is more information about these events at the link given above. I haven’t been to either, but I am hoping to make it to at least one of the interpretation series, and one of the films before the exhibition closes.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that my writing is hugely influenced by Jung—all of the stories I’ve been getting published as of late are part of an interpretative collection of stories based on Jungian archetypes. And while my graduate school days were dominated by Erikson’s thinking (and I’m also very influenced by that), Jung is still quite central to my own worldview. I am looking forward to getting a copy of the Red Book in the near future, at which point I will be able to comment on it further. In the meantime, I highly recommend the Jung exhibit, especially if you have an interest in depth psychology—it’s a fascinating peek at Jung’s interpretation of collective imagery.