Saturday, October 31, 2009

Best of Halloween (According to Me)

So, today is Halloween. Like most holidays, the build-up to it is usually bigger than the holiday itself. The most horrifying thing I'm dealing with today is grading mid-term exams, but I'm still watching some seasonally-appropriate video. Here is a list of some of my favorites in the "supernatural"/scary category:

Ghost Hunters: Season 2, Part 2, and Season 3, Part 1: The show has its ups and downs, but these episodes are seriously the best ever. They include the St. Augustine Lighthouse episode, the Stanley Hotel episode (first one), the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, the Stone Lion Inn, the Crescent Hotel, Leap Castle, and the Lisheen Ruins. Every one of these episodes has stuff happen that could make your hair stand on end. My father always complains that he doesn't like Ghost Hunters because most of the time, "nothing happens". A lot of things definitely happened in these episodes--full body apparitions on tape at St. Augustine and the Crescent Hotel, Dustin getting knocked flat by an unseen thing at Leap Castle, and the weird figures on the thermal imaging at Lisheen. Good to watch over and over again.

Paranormal State: Season 1:
A lot of people have voted Paranormal State's "I am Six" episode as the scariest, but I think that the first season has some of the creepiest episodes. "The Dark Man, " "The Name", and "The Devil in Syracuse" are some of my favorites. (Did Elfie really do an LBRP in the "Dark Man" episode without invoking the names of God? Or did they just edit her piece?) I always get excited when psychic-medium Chip Coffey is on. While the other psychics are fine, Chip tends to amaze me consistently. Michelle Belanger is also very good, though I have to admit I find the whole "psychic vampire" thing a little weird.

The Haunting: This is the original movie made in the Sixties with Julie Harris and Clare Bloom. I had a chance to see this movie on the side of a mausoleum in Los Angeles, at the Forgotten Hollywood cemetery. Great fundraising idea--charge ten bucks to see a scary movie in a cemetery at night. They use the money to maintain and restore monuments in the cemetery. But back to the movie--it has all of the great elements of a scary movie: there are a lot of unexpected happenings after its dead quiet, and the thing that's haunting is very much unseen. It particularly affects Eleanor, Julie Harris's character. Given her history, you get the sense that it's a psychological as well as a physical phenomenon. Psychological horror is the best, in my opinion.

The Amityville Horror:
I don't really know whether this was truly a hoax or not. The movie is a bit over the top (and the sequels were a waste of film), but I did see some of the time lapse footage from the real investigation of the place, and that made my skin crawl. If it wasn't faked, I don't know what the heck was going on--all I know is that this mysterious child with the creepiest eyes suddenly appears in an empty house at around 3:00 in the morning. I hear that the house had no more activity after that time, so it's hard to say just what, if anything, was going on. Still, real-life events, or ones that seem like they really could be real-life, are often the scariest. The music in the movie is really disturbing. For an interesting blurb on how music can affect the atmosphere of a movie, click here.

The Others: This was the movie with Nicole Kidman, living in a house on the Isle of Jersey that appears to be haunted. The twist ending on this was great.

Sleepy Hollow: The Johnny Depp film that features Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. I'm a huge fan of the real Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown area, and while this interpretation takes quite a bit of license with Irving's original story, it's still a cool movie nonetheless. I've seen versions of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow that are very true to the book, and honestly--they're annoying. Ichabod Crane is a truly irritating character. You want him to get his head knocked off.

Bram Stoker's Dracula:
This Coppola film is my favorite Dracula interpretation. Yes, it's partly love-story, but it's just so very well done. I still cringe when they cut from the scene where the vampire Lucy's head is cut off to the roasted pig at the dinner table.

Blair Witch Project:
Yes, I know. You either love or hate this movie. I know that when I saw it, I didn't sleep well for several nights. The wayward cameras are annoying, but it is sufficiently suspenseful--and once again, you don't see the "monster", so it's great.

Paranormal Activity: This one is still in theaters, so if you haven't seen it and like scary movies, do so. I slept with the lights on for a week after seeing this. Check out my blog posting from last week to see my take on Paranormal Activity. Great psychological horror.

Ah well, back to the horror of grading, some Sam Adams Octoberfest, and poetry writing. Happy Halloween! Oiche Samhain!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interactions (Or the Lack Thereof)

Recently I read’s post on “7 Great Occupations for Horribly Stupid People”. The number one item on this list was “Best Buy employee”. Interestingly, the reason they were listed as the stupidest is that they constantly interrupted your shopping with the phrase, “Are you finding everything OK?”

I want to know where such Best Buys exist. There is a Best Buy that is a relatively convenient distance from where I live, and I used to go there to purchase electronics. Not anymore. For whatever reason, New Jersey Best Buys are staffed by hibernating bears. I will inevitably see some of them lumbering around, awake from their naps, when I enter the store. There is someone to greet me when I come through the door. I will find what I am looking for, which will be inside a case created for one of Houdini’s original escapes, and requires approximately 4,750 keys to open. My only hope of getting at the product I need is to locate a salesperson. At this point, the salespeople can detect that I need help. I can imagine an alarm going off in the employee lounge, that says “Alert! Customer needs assistance! LEAVE THE PREMISES IMMEDIATELY!” The whole store suddenly goes quiet except for whatever inane music they are playing, and the staff suddenly vanish. The ones who are not so quick to leave avoid eye contact and try to scurry out on their hands and knees to the nearest exit. You think I’m kidding.

I’ve discussed my “Best Buy” experience with other Jersey folk, and they have encountered a similar phenomenon. You might blame the drinking water or the mafia, but I suspect this is an East Coast thing. Best Buy employees that seek to help you are clearly working in the Midwest, or perhaps down South. It’s been years since I’ve been out to either part of the country, but from what I recall, everyone who worked in retail in Missouri or in Alabama was so nice that it made you suspicious if you weren’t from there. (They’re also really slow, but that’s another matter). When my brother moved to Austin, Texas from New York City, he was alarmed by his first grocery store experience, where they not only packed your groceries, but took them to your car for you. And they actually made pleasant conversation and thanked you for coming in. When I was traveling through Ohio and Indiana, every time I stopped at a store, restaurant or hotel, they acted like customer service was actually of personal interest to them, in spite of the fact that they were being paid 5 bucks an hour. You’d think you’d landed in Disney World or something.

On a minimally (OK, barely) related note, Facebook has changed their interface yet again, presumably in the name of improving our “experience”. I’m not as angry about the changes as some folks (I’ve stopped caring, truthfully), but some of the changes have had rather comical results. For instance—they’ve always had those annoying “friend suggestions”. They’re always helpfully suggesting that I friend people who are ex-boyfriends, stalkers, and other folks that I have, at some point, tended to spend some energy avoiding in my day-to-day interactions. Below the friend suggestions they now have this “new” thing to get you to “reconnect” with Facebook friends you haven’t interacted with in awhile, or to suggest friends for people who don’t have many friends. Some people who don’t have many friends do so by choice; others I look at and say, “Really? They actually HAVE 10 friends? In real life and not just Facebook land?” I can’t really help those people. I allowed them to friend me, even though I probably have little to do with them in day-to-day life, but perhaps they were a colleague, or someone I knew years ago. While I don’t hate these people, I do recognize there is a reason why they don’t have friends. (Sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s just a sad fact sometimes).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Paranormal Activity

I had the day off today, so on a whim I decided to go to the theater and see the new and hyped "Paranormal Activity" movie. Touted as the "scariest movie ever", I was more curious about the plot and its potential to be a great film without idiotic, expensive special effects. I make a point of avoiding Hollywood-made horror movies, because they leave so little to the imagination, and often overdo the blood and gore.

While I wouldn't call it "the scariest movie ever", it was still pretty scary, and lived up to my expectations. Here are some of my thoughts on the film. Bear in mind that the movie is a work of FICTION; there has been a lot of Internet hype suggesting that it's a real documentary, or based on a real story. It's not. However, from what I've heard from specialists who work on demonic cases, it's a reasonably accurate depiction of a demonic haunting (though I don't think the ending is particularly accurate).

The story centers around Micah and his girlfriend Katie, who live together in his house in San Diego. Micah is a day trader, and Katie is still at university, where she majors in English literature. The characters are played quite well; Katie is your typically sweet college girl, and rather naive. Micah is probably a fairly average guy himself, but he is also controlling, selfish and arrogant, three qualities that are trouble in this film. Katie will argue with him, but rarely has the will to stand up to him. We learn that Katie is plagued by some kind of weird activity, and has been since she was young (either 8 or 11 years old, I can't exactly remember). When she moves in with Micah, weird activity starts to occur, and he decides he is going to be an amateur ghostbuster and try to capture audio and video of the disturbances. He claims to be doing so to help her, but he's really doing it because he gets a charge out of seeing "cool" stuff on camera. He tells Katie to do things to provoke whatever it is (which she refuses to do), and he tries to provoke it himself. More than likely, he is afraid of what he doesn't understand, and tries to respond by bullying it or making light of it. But he makes things worse.

Katie asks a man who she refers to as a "psychic" to come in to give his opinion. This struck me as the most unbelievable part. First, the man is supposed to be a respected paranormal investigator, but he starts the whole thing by interviewing Katie, something a psychic would not do. They would get their impressions first, tell the client what they are, and then interview them for more info, not the other way around. This psychic identifies the entity as demonic, and says he's not qualified to deal with it, but gives her the name of a colleague who is a demonologist. Micah, who has spent the whole visit taunting and making fun of the psychic, tells her she should not call the demonologist, that he would figure out a solution. He suggests using a Ouija board, which the psychic flatly tells him is a bad idea, as he will be giving this thing an open door. Katie is dead set against the Ouija board, but Micah ends up bringing one in anyway. He doesn't actually use it, but its presence is enough to cause trouble. When the same psychic returns later, he won't even walk in the door, and tells her she will have to "wait" until the other expert comes back in a few days. Anyone called upon in an emergency situation who walks out like that without helping--especially someone who supposedly has a big network of paranormal investigators--well, it seems as incredulous as the idea of an EMT who won't help a dying person because they're not sure they properly remember a particular aspect of first aid. But I suppose the eventual lack of help is part of the story. I noticed that you could tell when something was about to happen by the sound--it sounded like a subway car coming, from the perspective of someone at the street level.

I don't want to give away any more of the film, especially the ending. As someone who is somewhat familiar with the subject of demonology and evocation, I found myself cringing at Micah's cretinous behavior. Clearly he doesn't believe in the phenomena, or thinks he can control it. If he had left well enough alone, and left it to the experts, all probably would have ended well. I can't help thinking of shows like Fear Factor and Extreme Paranormal, which basically dare people to try spirit communication or demonic rituals. I've already stated my opinion that most demonic activity is psychological in nature. That doesn't mean it can be controlled--it's actually harder to control. Just look at a simple example--the old "don't think of pink elephants" and you can't help but to think of pink elephants. It also doesn't mean that you're not dealing with something physical, or that can affect the physical. If you're not prepared for such things--and most people are not--then you're just asking for bad trouble. If you want to suspend disbelief and pretend this is a real case, Micah is really behaving evilly because his macho, arrogant behavior isn't just hurting him, it's destroying his girlfriend, who he professes to love. Of course, part of the whole thing may be the demon affecting his actions as well. It's hard to know.

In any case, I thought it was pretty well done for a low budget film, and I appreciated the fact that it was low on fancy special effects and left more to the imagination. That makes it much scarier to me--the scariest monsters are the unseen ones. The actors were very believable in their roles, and didn't overdo anything. There was a great buildup of suspense, especially when the camera was on the couple at night--you just knew something was going to happen, and you were never quite prepared for what. The ending was a bit shocking, though not entirely surprising, and not the least bit unjustified. If you like good horror flicks that are not gory, I highly recommend this one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Positive Thinking

I was alerted to the publication of a new book this week entitled “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. I have yet to read the book; it seems that the author’s premise is that the concept of “positive thinking” (something you wouldn’t need if you trusted in a good outcome anyway) has often made us put faith in ideas that are dubious, harmful, and/or just plain wrong. Thinking positively is a very American trait, and tends to make us think we’re the greatest even when we’re doing something very stupid.

I don’t want to comment further on the book until I’ve actually read it. But the idea is intriguing, and it addresses something I’ve believed for a long time. When the book “The Secret” came out a couple of years ago, I cringed at its message regarding the Law of Attraction. It may be a generally reasonable guideline to assume that a positive outlook attracts good fortune. But the idea that your puny rationalizations can overcome the psyche are naïve—often the mind controls us, rather than the other way around. Trying to use the mind to control the mind just doesn’t work. The mind is much bigger than you think it is.

Let me give an example. A couple of days ago, I had a post entitled “A Week in the Life”. In that post, I discussed all of the things that occurred during the preceding week of my life. If you read the post, you’d realize that nothing happened that was so awful or cataclysmic. I realized that too—I realized it all week. Yet, that entire week, I was anxious, drained and edgy, as though I was fighting some major battle or dealing with some overwhelming catastrophe. I kept telling myself, “Get a grip—none of this is a big deal.” Did that help one iota? No. Feelings can take you over like a tidal wave, and all you can do is swim frantically and hope that you don’t drown.

Eventually I did get myself on an even keel again; not through positive thinking, but through meditation. The point of going back to regular meditation after falling off schedule was to re-center myself. The re-centering allows you to deal with ups and downs as they occur, not to pretend that there are no downs.

If positive thinking worked, then diets would be successful long-term, all of our endeavors would have the outcome we wish for, no one would want for anything—just as long as they had the right attitude. But it’s a little like the rationalization for prayer (and by prayer, I mean petitionary prayer).If I pray to God, and don’t get what I want, then God either doesn’t love me or doesn’t exist. It’s the same idiotic nonsense. Life isn’t about getting everything you want. In fact, life—to paraphrase Joseph Campbell—is primarily killing and eating, on its most basic level. Life itself is suffering. We don’t suffer because we have bad attitudes. We suffer because that’s the way life is. But, as it was once said, “be sure you are not suffering over your suffering”. It’s our response that makes the difference. Frequently we can’t change our state of mind regarding something, but we can change, or at least limit, our actions. You could be angry enough at someone to want to pummel them, but unless you like getting arrested, you probably will restrain yourself from doing it.

Today I was re-watching the episode on myth from Joseph Campbell’s “Power of Myth” series. Campbell suggests that the basic myths of the Orient versus the Occident really affect how a culture develops. The primary myth he discusses is the idea of God being part of creation/nature, or being separate from it. In the West, we tend to believe we are separate, that nature is somehow “corrupt” (the idea that one must be baptized to get rid of original sin reflects this idea). Once you have that separation, you now have “right” and “wrong”—one must strive to do what’s right, and avoid what’s wrong. But that’s less of an issue in the Eastern worldview. Everything simply is, and it is “good” in and of itself—even the “bad” things. Life is a game, and you play it, whether you’re dealt a good hand or a poor hand—you just try to play fair.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pointless Debate

A lot of recent events in the news, most of them political, have me thinking about the virtue of debate. Debates begin with the assumption that there are at least two opposing sides to an issue (with a variety of viewpoints in between), and the idea is to look at the facts supporting the opposing sides. Putting formal debate-team work aside, the intended goal of a debate is to reach some kind of conclusion about the most fair and correct response to the issue in question.

The news is full of discussions about health care, the war in the Middle East, Obama’s Nobel Prize, gay rights, and the economy. All of these are potential subjects for a healthy debate. However, I would submit that a healthy debate (i.e., one that actually accomplishes the goal of reaching a conclusion regarding fair action) would require the following prerequisites:

• The parties involved in the debate would to some degree have a tolerant and open mind.
• The parties involved would have to be “reasonable”—i.e., the debate must center around facts and logic. While one may feel emotional about a topic, that should be secondary to determining a solution.
• The parties involved in the debate will have done some authoritative research on the facts surrounding their viewpoint on the issue.
• The parties must accept that “winning” the debate on either side may never happen; frequently it’s the case that a debated issue has valid points on both sides, and a compromise may need to be reached. This would call for some humility.

In most “debates” on contemporary events, none of this happens, or not enough of it. Debate on an important issue more closely resembles WWE wrestling match than reasoned arguing between reasonable people. Quotes are taken out of context and facts are skewed just so one side or the other can claim a victory. There are no ground rules; it’s a dirty fight, and sometimes actual force is used against opponents.

It leaves me with two questions: What happened to our country that it no longer can function like it has some level of sanity?, and If this is the future of debate, is there any value in it anymore? As I’ve discussed previously, journalism is mostly dead. There is an article in Atlantic magazine by Mark Bowden that looks at “journalism in action” with regard to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. It’s a good example of how sound bites and quotes heard third-hand spread false information—and how those spreading it don’t care, as long as they gain a point “for their side”.

At a time in history when many barriers to communication between groups has disappeared, it becomes important for people with different backgrounds and viewpoints to live together peacefully. There is no need to take on every person with a differing viewpoint—it can be draining, disrespectful, and arrogant. Before I owned a house and a washing machine, I had to go to the laundromat regularly. There was always a Jehovah’s Witness lady there who kept trying to start debates with me about my beliefs. Of course, it wasn’t real honest debate—it never is with those convinced of the absolute rightness of their viewpoints. In the end, I told her to go f**k herself and leave me alone. Sound harsh for someone who is a professor of religion? Perhaps, but it is a case of the pointlessness of that kind of debate. Nothing I say or do will make this woman think beyond what she’s already decided, and there is no way I will ever believe what she believes. Not to mention the fact that when I’m trying to do my laundry, I don’t want to be bothered by strangers. Which brings up another point—our views are private and personal. We don’t necessarily want to debate them with everyone.

De Tocqueville once said that democracy requires eternal vigilance. Frankly, it seems that we have an overload of stupid lately, and those with intelligent reasoning are getting too exhausted to respond anymore. What is the point of fighting people who won’t engage in intelligent, honest debate—who aren’t even PREPARED to do so, or would rather use force that facts? The great irony of Obama’s vision of America and his inclusive politics is that the barbaric and ignorant attitudes of many Americans are now exposed. Turns out they didn’t go away when Bush left office.

So tell me—is there a value in debating these issues? Has an ugly reality eclipsed the ideal of reasoned debate? And if it has—then what are the alternatives? When the door-to-door missionaries show up, I can tell them to go away. When it comes to national issues, neither the President nor Congress can tell everyone to go away. But what do you do when civilized debate fails? “Decisive” leadership is seen as tyranny (and sometimes it is). The only other alternative seems to be backing down from hot-button issues and doing nothing, or doing something that will amount to nothing in the long run. Am I right about this? Please say no.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Irrational and the Undead (or, Halloween Hermeneutics)

Halloween will be here in about 3 weeks. I love Halloween. October is when I have outdoor fires, bake lots of goods with cinnamon, apples, nutmeg, cloves--all of the Fall spices, drink lots of Irish coffee and hot chocolate, and read ghost stories. I used to watch a lot of television around Halloween time; there used to be lots of specials about ghost stories, "true" hauntings (presented in such a way as to make you question their veracity, but fun nonetheless), and other programs about the supernatural and such. Over the last ten years or so, I've given up that tradition, and restricted myself to specials I'd bought or recorded years earlier.

You may wonder why. There is no shortage of Halloween programs on certain channels at this time of year--SciFi (now SyFy--can you hear my eyes rolling?), USA, Fox Family, all of the major network channels, all of the movie channels--they are all Halloween geared during October. So why don't I watch them?

The main reason I shy away from mainstream television at this time of year is that the subject matter of Halloween-ish films has changed. I can't say for sure if this change came about because of movies like "Halloween" (all iterations), "Friday the 13th" (all iterations), "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and/or "Dawn of the Dead". But it seems to me that all Halloween-related movies are now about serial killers and zombies. The more blood and gore, the better. Scary stuff, I suppose. But is Halloween really all about being "scared" in such ways?

You could argue about the origins of Halloween, but I would suggest that Halloween as we know it comes from the Celtic New Year celebration of Samhain. Samhain was the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter--and the time when the veil between the worlds was thin. One could contact their ancestors at this time of year. Indeed, many traditions like dressing up (usually gender-reversals in the ancient Celtic tradition) and bobbing for apples came from the old ceremonies celebrating the opening of the gates of the spirit world. Boundaries were thin, so the apparent roles and routines of the community were up-ended as well. It was part of the regular cycle of things, and the ancient Celts celebrated accordingly, and tried to reap the greatest benefit from the holiday by appealing to their ancestors.

You may or may not believe the bit about contacting one's ancestors and the "veil between the worlds" being thin. But that was the point of Halloween (a Christian naming of Samhain, meaning All Hallows Eve, as it's the day before All Saints Day), whether you do or not. It seems appropriate that one would contemplate life after death, would listen to ghost stories, and prepare for the coming winter. What I'm wondering is where the heck zombies and serial killers fit in to all of this. Okay, so they have to do with death, or states of un-death. Certainly vampires have become part of this "Halloweenish" lore as well. But mass media images tend to be a reflection on the culture, and so I say: Why these images?

Zombies are hugely fascinating to modern culture. Note the proliferation of zombie movies, the best-selling status of the Jane Austen knockoff called "Pride and Prejudice With Zombies"--even had a post on "Why you secretly hope for a zombie apocalypse." Out of all types of ghoul, why this kind?

One could never say for sure, but I think the zombies and serial killers have something in common--they represent solid flesh and blood (as opposed to a ghost one can't see), and at least one (the serial killers) could realistically be a threat. The odds are probably against it, but deranged, psychopathic people certainly do exist. It's less impossible than some of the alternatives.

In our culture that values science and scoffs at religion, that values reason and what can be seen and touched over what is pure speculation or perhaps fantasy--or with the paranoid religious that believe anything that smacks of the otherworld is "satanic" and should be avoided--I think we are gravitating towards the ghouls that can still scare us, and are a reflection of the current collective psyche. No one is unaffected by secular culture, even those who rebel against it. It seems to me that such frightening creatures are symbolic terrors of a secular society. One represents the deranged person that cannot be controlled by reason. The other represents a state of animation, but with no life--a frightening commentary on humans who are either controlled by their myths or have none at all. Movie zombies aside, how many people walk through life and never really are alive, never "live"? I would suggest that there are more people like this rather than less.

I am not suggesting that secularism is bad. But it's an indication that having nothing but reason in the face of uncertainty and death is not sufficient. Everyone has a question about the bigger picture. Neither religion nor science is providing a good answer for people, at least in Western society. That leaves the vast majority afloat in a sea of uncertainty, when the only things that are supposed to be of value are their bank accounts, their jobs, and their social status. A lot of people suspect there is more than this, but what can they do? What passes for religion these days (i.e., literalism--we're talking mass media here) is so absurd that anyone who thinks can't accept it. Yet the mystery still remains, but without any context, the speculation is scary. So, many people choose not to speculate at all--they live the lives others tell them to live, and shut out anything they don't understand. In short, they are zombies themselves. Hence, the attraction to the undead and the irrational at a time when speculation about uncertainty and death is at its yearly height.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Week In The Life

It's a beautiful Fall Sunday, the kind that makes me want to go outside and do a million things and stay in bed at the same time. Fall is a gorgeous double-edged sword; beautiful weather, but more dust, mold, and allergens to give me a perpetual headache or sniffle. And that's with allergy shots, though I haven't had any in a couple of weeks. Even worse than headaches is the sensation that your head has the density of a bowling ball, and you can barely stand up or keep your eyes open. If it's happened to you, that's also allergies. It's exactly like taking Benadryl without taking Benadryl.

So, I am going to be more optimistic than I have been all week, and get myself outside today. Not that I haven't been out all week--you have not heard from me on this blog because my schedule has been screwed up more times than you can imagine. Here is a brief run-down:

Monday: Worked two jobs--taught my evening class in Religion, where my students seemed slightly more interested in the material than the week before. What irks me about my religion students (and I'm not picking on this group--it's true of EVERY group I've taught) is how uninterested they are in the Campbell/Moyers discussions. I usually show one or two episodes from the nine-part series in class--each episode is only forty-five to fifty minutes. They are absolutely frigging FASCINATING--even if you don't think much about religion, there's just so much to the discussions. My students always have the same reaction: "What do I need to pay attention to for the exam?" To be fair, I'm sure I was like that in some courses as an undergraduate. But it would make me feel vindicated if just one person showed an iota of intellectual curiosity about the subject. I know, I know--I expect too much from a gen-ed course.
But at least they could PRETEND. I'll settle for faking it.

Tuesday: Went to a class on prosody in Manhattan. This is an eight-week course on prosody that I have chosen to take even though I don't primarily write poetry. Believe it or not, I do write some poetry, but I think most of it is not very good, even for free verse. When I read about the poets who write good poetry, even the Moderns, they all had training in the discipline of prosody. I think that writing in meter and making use of literary techniques and devices can improve any kind of writing. The course is taught by David Yezzi, the former director of the Unterberg Poetry Center, who has his own body of published work, and has edited The New Criterion as well as other poetry collections. So far, I like the class, and the assignments are not daunting. We seem to have a mixture of people who are comfortable with disciplined meter writing off the cuff, and those who aren't. David is very good at working with the various skill levels in the class, so I think it will be an enjoyable eight weeks.

Wednesday: After a very productive day at work, I was looking forward to going home and relaxing. However, I came home to find a note from United Parcel Service on my door--they needed to deliver a package that required my signature. Long story short--the vet decided to have my cat's ashes mailed directly to my home rather than to them. I realize the vets are very busy and pressed for time these days, but this upset me. I would rather go there to pick up the remains than get them from the UPS guy. (Would you prefer to have the undertaker mail the remains of your loved one? Think about it). After a fruitless trip to the UPS facility (one used to be able to pick up packages when the trucks returned--no longer), I made arrangements to pick up the box the next day rather than have them deliver it. But it had effectively destroyed my plans for a quiet evening.

Thursday: Was on the run with work and errands (including picking up cat remains) until about 6:30 in the evening. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? No, except that I have to go to bed early during the week--I have to get up by 4:30 am for work each day. And I had to cook when I got home--I'd reached the point where the pantry has gotten low enough that I had to make a mess of dishes and cook something, rather than just throw together something simple. This would not be a problem on the weekend, but when I'm starving after a long day on the road...

Friday: I was really, really tired by Friday, so tired that I felt almost like I was on drugs. You force yourself to be very energetic and up, but it doesn't take much to make you totally crash. On Friday it was announced that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I intended to blog about this, but it never happened. The war over the Nobel Peace Prize took the rest of the energy that I had for the week--it absolutely raged on Facebook. My friend Chris has pointed out with regard to the debate that "every rose has its prick." I wanted to reply that I'd had enough pricks for the week, but someone would have doubtlessly interpreted my weekly activities differently if I'd said that. So, on that subject, I will say: Good for Obama. Yes, he hasn't done much of anything. Yes, I know the argument that one shouldn't give prizes based on potential accomplishment. Really, I saw the whole thing as a middle finger from Europe to the Bush Administration, but also as a statement to Obama. It's as though they're saying, "Okay, Obama, we're standing behind you and your promises of peace and cooperation. Now make it happen." The Cosmic Variance blog has a posting by Daniel that sums up his take on the prize, and I find that I agree with him. Rather than me restate what thirty thousand other bloggers have already discussed, I'll just point you to his excellent post here.

So, that's a week in my life. A typical week? Not necessarily. Some weeks have more things going on than others, some are more interesting, some are more boring. In the final analysis, I don't think it's what actually transpired that makes any difference, it's how I respond to it. This week has not been a great response week for me, and I tend to be hard on myself if I let things get to me. Which makes the problem worse, now that I think about it. Sounds like I need time out for some serious meditation or something.

Speaking of anxiety, I'll leave you with this interesting New York Times article on the "anxious mind". When I read the description, I realize it fits me and most of the people I know. Welcome to excessive stress hormone production by an overactive amygdala! No wonder we're all so drained.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


This weekend I started and finished the book, "Seeking Spirits : the Lost Cases of The Atlantic Paranormal Society" by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. If you've read my previous posts about the Syfy show Ghost Hunters (or if you are just a fan of the show), you will know that Jason and Grant are the lead investigators of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), whose cases are the focus of Ghost Hunters. The book is a fairly light read, so I easily finished it in a few hours. I highly recommend it--I couldn't put it down once I started it. Jason and Grant describe all sorts of cases, from demonic encounters to living ghosts replaying past events, to an old woman with dementia who forgot that she called them and threatened them with a frying pan after inviting them into her living room. They describe "human" hauntings, inhuman hauntings, and residual hauntings. But the one case that still has me scratching my head after reading the book was the one about the doppelgänger.

Doppelgängers are described by Wikipedia as a "sinister type of bilocation". One literally sees their double, or others who know them see their double. Traditionally, these are associated with bad luck or death. Supposedly, if friends or relatives see the doppelgänger, it means sickness or danger to the living person. If a person sees their own doppelgänger, it's supposed to mean their death. In neuropsychology, the doppelgänger phenomenon is supposedly explained by a failure of the left temporoparietal junction of the brain. In experiments, the failure of this part of the brain has led to the hallucination that there is a "copy" of the sufferer nearby. But none of this explains what happens in the story.

In the story told by Jason and Grant, they are called to a case by a man who thinks his wife is losing her mind--every time he tells her something, she swears he's never told her. He begins writing down exactly what he tells her, and the date and time. Every time she denies he's told her any of it, and gets miffed at the idea that she needs psychological help. Something occurs that makes him wonder if something paranormal isn't going on, so he calls TAPS. Jason and Grant quickly discover that there are 2 identical "women" in the house, even though both the husband and wife have a hard time accepting this. They try to bring the women together, but when they are just about to, the doppelgänger gets antsy, and takes off for another room, where she totally vanishes. After TAPS's visit and investigation, the doppelgänger stops bothering them, and is never seen again. The spirit could be spoken to just like a regular human being, and would answer, but never interacted with anything--it would never touch anything in the house.

The first and most obvious thought is that it's a hoax and the woman has a twin. But the woman is only seen for about 30 seconds at a time, and when Grant "corners" her in a room--thinking he can finally bring the real and fake woman together--the woman gets shaky, and turns and opens a door in the room to leave. But the "room" she enters is a clothes closet--there's nowhere for her to go. And upon immediate investigation, no one is in the clothes closet. Given how shaken up the couple was at discovering the doppelgänger (the "real" woman refused to believe anything was going on at all at first, and the husband was skeptical when told), it seems unlikely that it was a hoax--especially since the case was never intended to be publicized.

If we can assume it's not a hoax--then what the hell is it? Clearly this is not a failure of the temporoparietal junction--unless it failed in all 4 people involved. That would be logical if only one person was seeing the doppelgänger. If you look at the superstitions, the woman was not sick, or in danger--nor did she die. So, if you're a believer in that idea, that doesn't wash either. Why in the world--or how in the world--would a perfect double of someone appear in their house? Jason and Grant don't have the answer; neither do I. Anyone else have any thoughts or theories about this?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Small Towns

I am sitting at home today, taking care of some things before heading to Manhattan this afternoon. As a follow-up to last weekend's post, Andromeda the cat is now, as my undergrad metaphysics professor once referred to it, "a former cat". All of that pissing was due to diabetes--and very complicated diabetes. Faced with the prospect of a $12,000 hospital bill to flush her system, plus having to come home at the same time every day to give shots to a cat that would rip my arm off before she would let me give her shots, I opted for putting her down. It's weird not to have her here, but the stress level in the house has gone down considerably now that I don't have to worry about stepping in cat piss every morning.

I was perusing my usual RSS feeds and, when I came across this article:

Ongoing Highway 11/64 Mattress Controversy

The Fark tagline for this was: "How do you know you live in a small town? When the "growing controversy" in the news that is driving talk radio debate is about a mattress left on the side of the road." Yes, people are protesting the fact that public works has not yet picked up this mattress discarded at the side of the road. It's been a hot topic on the radio for several days now.

Those of you who live in large, interesting cities will doubtlessly be in disbelief that someone would waste air time on something so utterly, banally inane. But I've lived in a small town for 6 years now, and I can tell you that this is no surprise. About three years ago, we had a heated political debate in our town about--get ready for this--the fact that speed bumps were placed along Main Street. People angrily strode into town meetings, complaining about not being consulted, treating it like a corrupt political decision. During the mayoral election that followed, the new mayor was elected (like Dave Barry, I swear I am not making any of this up) on the platform of being "the guy who will get rid of the speed bumps."

I rarely go into the local general store--only if it's snowing, and I can't get out of the neighborhood to go anywhere else and I'm desperate to pick up milk or something like that. The few times I've gone in there, it's like a scene from the movie "Deliverance". I would swear that I even hear people speaking with Southern accents. And we're in New Jersey--halfway between New York City and Philadelphia. They always look at you suspiciously, as though they suspect you are one of those hippie renters in town that they hate.

The other sign that you live in a pathetically small town is the prominence of the fire department. I realize the fire department is very important, and I'm not criticizing them. But the firemen are not out every day putting out fires, they're usually at some local legion hall drinking shitty beer. One's social status in town is connected with whether or not you are a member of the fire department or the ladies' auxiliary. I have had men in this town try to pick me up based on the fact that "they hang out with the fire department." And you people wonder why I don't date.

The main social event is a small town is the fire department's sponsored dinner or breakfast. I have never been to one of these, though I imagine they're every bit as exciting as they sound. I am grateful for my neighbor, who knows the gossip about everyone and everything going on in town, and likes to share the news with me while I'm out raking leaves or mowing the lawn. Her inclination to share local information saves me from ever having to attend some public event to find out just what's going on. Though honestly, I don't really care much about what's going on in the rest of the neighborhood. I only want to know about things that affect me, like changes to my water bill or garbage collection.

Recently, a friend of mine who lives in London posted info about a party he was giving at his flat for someone's birthday. Another friend of his posted video from this party. After seeing it, I had 2 questions: 1. Just how big IS your flat?, and 2. Do your neighbors hate you? If that were to happen in my neighborhood, not only would the neighbors hate you, it would probably spawn urban legends in a matter of days. On the plus side, the only thing the neighbors would actually do about it is make snide comments about you, probably at the local fireman's dinner, which you wouldn't attend anyway. No one has the gumption to actually talk to anyone about anything controversial here, especially if they're your neighbors. To be fair, some of the neighbors are rather strange, so it's hard to blame anyone for not wanting to talk to them, especially if they seem to have a violent streak. Murders and suicides do occasionally occur in this little town, and they're probably the only excitement.

Another characteristic of a small town is the lack of emphasis on education. Sure, most of our tax dollars go into schools, but most kids here do not go on to college, or at least not past community college. Most just want to go into a trade, which is fine. That's one of the perks, actually--if you want something done on your house, just call up your neighbor who does plumbing, or roofing, or whatever. And be sure to tell your other neighbors. This sets up a peer pressure situation; if the said contractor doesn't show up, he will be vilified by the community as doing bad business and lose money as a result. So, they always show up and the price is always half of what a big company would charge.

But getting back to education--there are only a smattering of intellectuals in my town, usually college professors who can't afford to live anywhere else. My neighbor once told me that when we talk, she can't understand half of what I'm saying because I "use all them big words". This is a failing of my own, actually. When I was 6 years old and in the first grade, I was in a fourth grade reading class. I took Latin for seven years, and French. You know those quizzes where you can donate 10 grains of rice to a poor village for every vocabulary word you define correctly? I think I fed an entire starving African nation with my score on that one. I nearly swooned with lust when John Foxx used the word "palimpsest" in a sentence at the London Apple Store event this summer. I love words. I'm something of a dork in that way. I apologize.

So--I'm dealing with a group of basically nice but rather isolated folks. The social scene doesn't do it for me here, but it's nice when I want to relax and be alone. There are lots of places to go hiking and such, and lots of places that make their own beer--really good beer. So, it's not all bad. But right now, I'm off to New York. Look for me in the audience on the Colbert Report tonight.