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.