Sunday, February 28, 2010


Back to work tomorrow. I'm settling down before bedtime with a few episodes of the late 1990's TV series, "Scariest Places on Earth." This had the potential to be a really good show, and I can tell you what spoiled it in 2 words: Alan Robson.

Alan Robson is a radio DJ from Northeast England, who decided to get involved in paranormal investigations. Supposedly he's had some pretty spooky encounters of his own. The man is a great storyteller, and therein lies the problem.

Picture this: you are a psychologist trying to do a scientific study to gather evidence for a hypothesis. A credible scientist would try to filter out as many factors as possible that would taint the results of his or her study. Instead of doing this, you gather all the participants, tell them what results you expect and why, and then say, "Oh, but draw your own conclusions." This is Scariest Places on Earth's strategy for managing paranormal investigations. What they do is recruit families to investigate haunted sites using scientific equipment. The families are always met upon arrival by Alan Robson, whose sole purpose, other than having the participants do some goofy "portal-opening" ritual or voodoo or some shit, is to scare the crap out of the participants before they even get started. He loves to tell them, "You shouldn't be doing this."

The earliest episodes weren't so bad. The Chillingham Castle visits were probably the best ones, in spite of their Robson-ization. But as the series went on, the family investigations just got stupider and stupider. They should have just hired a bunch of screaming horror movie extras. Robson would get the families so worked up they were seeing ghosts and demons every time a curtain moved. This is not entertaining. It's annoying. If the show had any intention of bringing credibility to the notion of the paranormal--well, it was an epic fail, as far as I'm concerned. There MIGHT have been some good evidence if no one had screwed with it.

I also have an objection to Robson using these portal opening rituals. If they're as effective as he claims they are, then you DON'T DO THEM WITH A BUNCH OF AMATEURS, DIPWAD. He even says that a clergyman would tell you "not to mess with this." I'm not clergy, and I'm telling you the same thing. If you don't know its potential psychological impact, then stay away from it. I have the same objection to the show "Extreme Paranormal". Clearly the producers of these shows think it's all BS and wouldn't it be fun to scare a bunch of people. Haha, let's wreck someone psychologically for life, or stir up some bad energy in some place. What fun! It's like the Micah character in "Paranormal Activity" has replicated himself and is producing reality shows. You don't have to believe in demons or ghosts--you're messing with the psyche, and at the risk of sounding redundant, this is bad. Some people can swim in deep water, but (probably most) others will drown. It's just irresponsible.

The worst investigation of Chillingham Castle was the one initiated by the Ghost Hunters International team. I hate to say that, because I really like the GH shows (though I have no interest in the new Ghost Hunters Academy show). But Chillingham was an early episode, where you had Robb Demarest acting like a robot Jason Hawes, and Donna LaCroix and Shannon Sylvie behaving less than professionally throughout the investigation. I was really disappointed, because I would have liked to have seen a real, professional investigation of the place, and GH/GHI are about as good as it will get for television. The new Ghost Hunters season starts this Wednesday, and I hope it's good. I've been a bit let down by Ghost Hunters, namely because whoever is filming it is turning it into the Kris Williams's Boobs show. Yes, she is an attractive young female, but I am sure that all of the paranormal activity is not happening inside her bra. And I've already kvetched about the overly-slick formulaic production of the show as of late, so I won't do it again.

The fact that I don't like a lot of melodrama and screaming doesn't mean that I don't like the suspense and mystery factor. It is something mysterious (assuming it's not a hoax), after all. That's why the Weird US approach doesn't appeal to me, either. Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran are great guys, and they run a fantastic magazine (Weird NJ). The series of "Weird" state books are also amazing--I own most of them. But the TV show, Weird U.S., was a little too flippant about the unusual and the paranormal. One got the sense that the things they were investigating were a joke or a bunch of nonsense. Maybe some of them were. But the rather silly tone of the show also took away from the investigation. I find that I prefer to stick with the books and magazines.

Ah well, time to finish my short story and go to bed. Pleasant dreams.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


At the Old Mill Tavern, drinking what they call "French Coffee" after lunch. It gives a new meaning to the old phrase, "You will be visited by 3 spirits". Really, it is only 1/3 French, as the other liqueurs are Irish and Mexican respectively. But maybe they go heavy on the French brandy. Who knows.

The day is dreary outside, and the snowy landscape reminds me of an Edward Gorey drawing. It would be a fine day to visit an old cemetery or other spooky place, except...well, it's too snowy. For some reason I am mentally transported to a day at my grandmother's house, a day from my youth. It was a day like this one, but it may have been in the Spring or Summer rather than late Winter. It was gray and damp, and I think it was drizzling outside. The scene flips from my grandmother's sitting room to her kitchen, which were connected. On this particular day, her friends came to visit, the Magees. The Magees had known my grandmother since the eighth grade, and they all stayed relatively close to the town of Whippany where they grew up. There were brown leather chairs with wheels around an oval-shaped formica kitchen table. The adult conversation was boring, so I found myself staring at a confection tin that had the "Monday's Child" poem written on it, as though it were a photo of a piece of embroidery with little roses around the edges for embellishment. I had no idea what type of sweet the tin originally held, but now it held my grandmother's homemade fudge.

The living room is cold, and the walls and decor are in shades of pastel blue and green and white. There is one of those large stereo systems that looks like a piece of furniture; my parents also have one, but theirs opens from the top; this one opens in front. The turntable and radio slide out, and there is a place for storing LP records. I recall that my grandmother had electric heat in her house, and only turned it on in certain rooms at certain times because of the expense. I remember that as I sat there, I was thinking of either Alice in Wonderland or the Chronicles of Narnia--some fantastic piece of fiction, though I don't know why. Maybe because my grandmother's living room closet reminded me of the wardrobe in "The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe." And for some reason the whole image is mildly disturbing. I don't think anything bad happened that day, but I had the feeling of wanting to get away.

I drive towards home from Chester, zig-zagging through country roads that are blanketed with snow on both sides. I notice that the snow is higher on the mountainside; the valleys seem to have only half of what the hills have accumulated. I know now what I want to get away from--winter. I am tired of bare trees, yellow grass, rotten vegetation, and dirty snow.

But Spring is coming. There is something present in Nature--a breeze or a scent, or some other unspecified "something"--that can be felt and experienced, in spite of the fact that the Northeast got at least a foot of snow yesterday. I am still sore from shoveling the mounds and mounds of snow. Still, in spite of winter's great show of strength, She doesn't have long to go before Spring pushes her out. The mailman pulled up to my mailbox while the snow was in full blizzard mode, and left me one piece of mail--the Spring Hill Nursery catalog. As I stood there with my shovel, I had to laugh. But there it is.

Spring also means Easter. As the seasons change, I'm once again reminded of childhood rituals. My siblings were all much older than I, so when I was still a girl of 6 or 7, I was the only one left who went to Church with my Mom. My father wasn't Catholic, and never attended Church of any kind. I think he was raised Methodist, but his mother always went to the Presbyterian Church in town. They weren't denominationally fussy, nor were they particularly religious. But my mother and I went to 8:00 Mass every Sunday, and then stopped for breakfast afterwards, before going for the weekly grocery run. I never minded going to Church unless the Mass went on for a ridiculously long time--like the Easter or Christmas Vigil. I have a great fascination for ritual and the language of ritual. I love listening to the recitation of Hebrew prayers at synagogue visits, and the long Vedic chants at Mahashivaratri during the abhishekhams. My mother tells me that I knew the entire Catholic Mass by heart by the time I was only 5 years old. I was born a few years after Vatican II, so I missed the drama of the Latin Mass, though I did attend one Latin Mass in high school, when I was a Latin language student at the Catholic high school I attended. Religious ritual should not be folksy or mundane--it should not be an endless drone of sermons or a social gabfest. I am left cold by Unitarian services, as I am by Hindu pujas put on by local Indian organizations. These are more about talk, and less about the Mystery. When I walk away from a ritual, I should feel a change, or at least a potential for change. I should be reminded of the greater Reality of things and my mysterious connection to others.

For this reason I also dislike religious services that try to be something they're not. I no longer attend my mother's Church, but she tells me that the pastor (who has been there for a number of years now) is trying to give a charismatic Pentecostal feel to the services, asking people to shout out "hallelujah" and such. She hates it, as do most of the older parishioners in her Church. I have read criticisms of religious services that are "too solemn", but frankly, that's the way Western Catholic ritual works. That approach may be fine for African Baptist Churches, where it is an authentic expression of faith, but it's all wrong in the Catholic services. The Catholic Liturgy is designed to be meditative at best, to make one go inward and meet their God in silence. Any attempt to add these other elements are nothing but cheap showmanship, an attempt to excite a bored congregation with carnival antics. The fact that I know that my mother's pastor is an insincere charlatan doesn't do anything to bolster my opinion of the change. But--he brings in tons of money and loads of new parishioners, so the Church obviously considers him a success, no matter how much of a fake he is. I suppose next he'll open a cafe in the Church and sell Christuccinos, just like the prosperity gospel megachurches. (If you think I'm making this up--check this out). But you can't blame him entirely--he's just giving the people what they want, and it isn't introspection. They want a weekly dog and pony show for their tithe.

I mark some appointments on my kitchen calendar, and sigh. My 2010 calendar was given to me by a local library temp agency, and every month there are pictures of the beautiful Renaissance libraries of Europe. Both the libraries themselves and the books in them are works of art. I would love to work in a building that has the smell of old books, and creaky old floorboards--and the silence that one traditionally associates with libraries. I think about my friend Dan's conjecture about the multiverse. If we really do not have "past lives", but are living all possibilities at the same time, then somewhere in some universe I am the librarian for some old, monastic library. But if all of our possibilities are happening in different "universes", does that mean whatever fragment we are now experiencing is pre-destined to follow some specified course? I tend to think that the myriad of possibilities really aren't separate from each other, and that in theory, anything is possible. I wonder if those characteristics that we are attracted to, the ones that drive our dreams, somehow "bleed" between universes--making us desire the things that we are perhaps enjoying in other places. It's just a thought...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snowball Fight et al.

Today in the Northeast U.S., Nature is having a snowball fight with the humans and (outdoor) animals that live here. We are due for 12 to 16 inches of snow today. The snow is coming down like gangbusters, but it's not really sticking to the roadways--it's too warm. What IS happening is that the snow is piling up on rooftops, tree branches, power lines...and as the snow gets too heavy, it comes down with a great "plop" onto the house, the sidewalks, passers-by. I had no idea that trees could throw that much snow so far. At least the cat is entertained; he's been watching the snow fall in great dollops onto the skylights in my bedroom. Between the snow and the sound of birds chirping on Birdsong Radio downstairs, I'm sure he thinks there is some giant pterodactyl-like bird outside. And he wants to eat it.

Whenever I have an unplanned day off and I'm stuck in the house, I always feel the need to be productive. Frequently I'm not, in spite of good intentions. This is because I try to take on too much in a short space of time, and get so exhausted thinking about it, I think a cold beer and some Ghost Hunters reruns sounds like a better proposition. Today I am trying to take baby steps--only get a few bits of housework done, and more work on my current short story. That's it. Part of me wants to brave going out in the snow, but lately I've found that conditions at my house are not representative of conditions elsewhere. Why a small town with a population of about 1,000 should do a better job keeping its roads than some of the bigger and better-funded towns in the area is beyond me. But that's how it goes. The passibility of the roads after a snowstorm is inversely proportional to the amount of tax money a town collects. For example--I always drive through Morris Township on my way to work. Morris Township has a ridiculous amount of money. The taxes are obscene. Yet, that is the one place out of many others that I drive through that consistently has sloppy, partially impassable roads the day after a big snow event--or even a small snow event. What are the residents of those towns paying for, anyway? Golf courses?

A quick scan of my online resources tells me that lots of athletes are getting injured or dying at the Olympics. I don't think that's supposed to be part of the competition. Either the athletes are ridiculously uncoordinated, under a curse, or Vancouver needs to check their facilities for safety.

I read yesterday that Utah is looking to pass a law making miscarriage "a criminal homicide". I also read about a woman in New Zealand being kicked off a bus in the pouring rain for breastfeeding her baby, which reminds me of another story about a woman thrown off a bus because her child was crying, and she was having difficulty calming him down. Looks like misogyny is alive and well on planet Earth. And that the Utah legislature members are first-class cretins. I can just see it now--a married woman desperate to have a child even though she has fertility problems, ends up miscarrying and going to the hospital, and then is arrested for criminal homicide. Words don't even begin to express how inhumane and evil this is. But clearly the Utah legislators are a moral bunch who are looking to protect the rights of the unborn. Maybe they'll be kind in that case and rule it an "accidental homicide". Or, maybe they'll start genetic testing to weed out the "weak" women who can't properly reproduce. You're thinking, "That's just sick." And it is. They should pass a law making it a criminal act for the legislator who thought up that piece of legislation to have children. Or maybe not, if the old adage about children becoming the opposite of their parents holds true.

Last semester, my religion students handed in papers on various issues regarding religion and society. Of those who addressed gender issues, it surprised me how many--both male and female--said that "women clearly did not have to deal with the kinds of discrimination they used to in this day and age." Generally speaking, women don't have it "bad" in this country, but if you think discrimination is dead, think again. I have been a woman on my own for a number of years now, and I can tell you that I am treated differently when I need to call up male businessmen for various services--real estate appraisals, car leasing inquiries, state auto inspections, home repairs. I'm not going to make a blanket "all men are chauvinistic pigs" statement, because it wouldn't be true--I've dealt with some very professional men in my domestic business. But I've also dealt with men who have tried to be intimidating, insulting, patronizing, and just outright sleazy just because they hear a reasonably young female voice on the other end of the phone. My test of chauvinism is to hang up the phone and let my father call the next day for the same service. He gets the same people, but entirely different, respectful treatment. If said sleazeballs catch me on the wrong day, I will tell them to take their head and their business and stick it where the sun doesn't shine. I have no patience for prejudice and disrespect. The point is, of course, that discrimination still exists. My prediction, given the political environment in this country, is that it will get worse. But the pendulum is still swinging, so things will get worse, then better, over time. At least I hope that's the case. Humanity these days is doing a good job of disregarding evolutionary (and/or God-given) advantages in favor of perplexingly asinine behavior. But maybe that's nothing new.

I switch over to my RSS feeds, and I'm pleased to see that my friend Dan has 2 new blog postings at Mirage Divine--one on reincarnation, the other on Tarot. Both restore my faith in human intelligence. In the latest post, Dan suggests that reincarnation, or the notion of "past lives", contradicts the idea of an eternal Now, which is suggested in much of Eastern religion. He cites the multiverse theory as a possible solution to this and other paradoxes involving the creation of the Universe. (No need for a Creator if all possibilities are possible in many universes). In this view, there could be one idea of a "soul" that is fragmented across many universes. In other words, you are living many different lives at the same time--now. Which would certainly explain why the Buddhists exhort us to be aware in the present, instead of an imaginary past or future. Linearity is an illusory construct of the brain, since it experiences the illusion of linear time.

Speaking of people named Dan--a former MSU student named Dan recently posted to Facebook that Syracuse University closed on account of snow. Given that Syracuse is in a major snow Dan's words, "this...could only be the snow brought on by Nyarlathotep". Who is the messenger of Azathoth, if you read H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos stories.

Hmm...good idea...go read some H.P. Lovecraft. And if you haven't seen the trailer for the upcoming Lovecraft Society film, "Whisperer in the Darkness", watch it now:

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I have been around libraries forever. My mother and grandmother read me stories and told me others from memory. By the time I was two, I had many stories memorized and could recite them word for word. If my grandmother retold any of those stories and left out so much as a preposition, I would remind her of it. I started reading on my own at the age of four, and it was then that my mother took me to the library for my first library card. At that time, the County Library still issued cards to municipal residents, and I remembered getting the little blue Gaylord card with the metal tag from Marguerite, a little woman with short dark hair, who was wearing a white outfit, with matching skirt and vest. (Don't ask me why I remember these things.) The card had a number "12" written on it in thin marker. Years later I would work with Marguerite in the Circulation department of the County Library during my last year at university, when I had just returned from school in the UK. She died a number of years ago.

My mother has worked at that same County Library for the last thirty years. She had always worked until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, so that she could be home when we (myself and my siblings) came home from school. Frequently, she would come home with a stack of books for me, as I was the one who liked to read. She worked in the Shelving department, and would pick up things that she thought I might like. Usually they were stories of witches, ghosts, or other supernatural things. This is probably where I got my interest in such subjects. Some authors I remember well, like John Bellairs, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Margaret Mahy. I now own many of the series put out by those authors. If I like an author enough, I will re-read their books from time to time, when I just want to enjoy a well-written story and not slag through a longer novel.

This afternoon, after writing another short story of my own, I took a break and picked up one of those old books. It was a Bellairs book, and I read it in an hour. Perhaps it was because I had been questioning my own use of characters and plot devices that I began to question those used by Bellairs. His protagonists are usually boys around the age of 10 who are brainy, Catholic, and not very strong physically. They usually live with a relative, because their parents are dead, or at war, or some such thing. The plot usually revolves around their interest in magic or magical objects, and they always manage to get themselves into a heap of trouble. Why? Because they are looking for a magical talisman to solve their problems--bullies at school, or whatever. The books are fascinating because Bellairs was a Latin scholar, and was very well versed in ancient history. There is always a bit of ancient history or legend in every story.

My brain went off on a tangent at the mention of talismans. In magical stories, frequently someone is looking for some object that will miraculously solve their problems. I think of the notion of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, and the idea of "the good old days". We always think that somewhere else there is something better, in another time, another place--and if we just got our hands on that one important thing, or completed some ritual, everything would be all right, back to "the way it was," perfect. Back to my mother again--she is the resident bookie at her job. She runs the lottery pool. Whenever we talk about money issues, her own and those in the family, she always says, "When I win the lottery, I'll take care of everyone's money problems." I also find myself thinking about people who want a pill for every ache and pain. Why should we suffer?

At first glance, this sounds like a wonderful thing. Wouldn't it be great to have all the money you need, anything you want, and nothing in your way? However, there is a small problem, and I think the Buddha summed it up best: All human life is suffering. Humans can't really live without a challenge or a purpose. Death claims all of us eventually. And if we did not have days where we were down and depressed, we'd never reflect on any of our actions or think about anyone else. We're selfish enough as it is--the notion that we could sustain that with no consequence is crazy.

In the study of religion, there is a branch of inquiry known as "theodicy". Theodicy deals with the problem of evil. Theodicy is only a problem when you believe in Being called God who is Good. The question posed by philosopher David Hume was (roughly): If God is not able to eliminate evil, then he is not omnipotent. If He is able, but unwilling, then He is malevolent. This was the conundrum given to religious scholars, and has sparked much thought over hundreds of years. How can a good God allow evil? One response to that question was an idea known as "negative theodicy". In short--how will you know good if you don't experience evil? How would you know it was daytime if you didn't experience night?

"Evil" is usually a subjective term. I think of it as a total lack of conscience--the condition where one would only manipulate and prey upon others without regard for their well being, and only with regard for their own. Everyone is selfish and self-preservationist to some degree, but evil is a step beyond selfish. The person who tortures and kills with no feeling or remorse. The person who uses another as a scapegoat for their own criminal activity and is amused by the destruction they cause. However, for many people, evil is an adjective used in disapproval of things they don't like. Smoking, drinking, and sex have all been branded evil at some point or another. Money can be considered evil. And--if everything is going wrong in your life--clearly some evil force must be at work, yes?

Actually, no. Sometimes everything goes wrong in an effort to show you how you need to alter your thinking to make things right. And as for the moral vices, many have the potential to be harmful when used in excess, but none are "evil" in and of themselves. Obstacles and limitations are not evil, either; they are challenges for us to overcome, and what is required to overcome the challenge depends on the situation. One thing is always clear--if you find an easy way out, you probably haven't learned anything, and will be presented with the same challenge again. For instance--if someone always bails you out when you have money trouble, you'll never learn to be responsible with finances, and will soon be in debt again.

People would be happier if they would embrace their suffering rather than trying to escape from it. I know, easier said than done, and no one likes to feel pain. I don't like it any more than anyone else. But in my experience, I have found that the more I have struggled with something, the more I fully understand what needs to be avoided or done in the future. Magic, like anything else, isn't evil. And any magician knows that any talisman that purports to solve everything is suspicious at best. There are no shortcuts, and the lesson of most stories about talismans is that they often create more trouble than they solve. Indeed you will meet the Devil again, as he lives up to his name (diabolos--one who obstructs your path) and presents you with the same challenge again and again until you face it. That isn't evil. That's spiritual growth.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Morning. Still winter, it is dark and cold, and I am reluctant to get up, even though I have no reason not to face the day. Some people can't bear the thought of going to work. I have no objections, but I always feel as though half of my body is under water, and is perfectly content to stay there. The cat ensures that I don't indulge in the luxury, though he ends up taking the brunt of my grumbling and complaining. He never minds, as long as he gets fed. His memory is short.

I step outside to feed the cats that live in my root cellar. The walkways are icy, so I throw down some ice melt. I wonder if it's good that I hear a hissing sound as it starts to work. It sounds like pop rocks, and is probably as good for the ground and walkways as actual pop rocks are for your stomach. Not much to be done about it now. I open the iron doors of the cellar, and set the food down in front of the two cats. I can't help but notice that Whiskers has doubled in size since winter started.

Opening my e-mail, I see a Yahoo article--"Tiger Woods--I Was Unfaithful." No shit. I had no idea.

At work, I pop on Pandora Internet Radio for background. I have come to the realization that I hate "ambient" music that has actual words. I also recall that I stopped using Pandora because I spent more time fast-forwarding through their choices than actually listening to music. And the more I mark items as things I don't want to hear, the more of them I end up hearing, somehow. I have to wonder how they develop an alogrithm that chooses what you supposedly will want to hear based on initially searching a particular song or artist. It seems to me that everything they choose sounds nothing like the song or artist I've chosen. Online bookstores and library catalogs have a fair amount of metadata to work with to match you up with logical "if you like this, you may also like this" choices. I don't know what sites like Pandora are using--how do you write metadata for feelings or atmospheres created by music? Maybe that's the next challenge. I don't think it's feasible, though. Such things don't fit into neatly labeled keyword categories.

Categories. I've spent a career putting things into categories, only to find myself betrayed. I have difficulty marketing my stories because they don't fit neatly into any category. Some are "literary", but some are "genre", though I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly what genre they are. I've heard of the term "slipstream", which represents works that cross genres, but when I look at slipstream markets, none of them seem right. I feel like a really tall person with bizarre proportions trying to find a pair of trousers that fit properly. Very little of my writing fits into a mainstream literary category. But then what is it? Science fiction? Not exactly. Erotica? Some of it, though that's not really the focus of the story. Fantasy? Horror? No, not really--merely disturbing and thought provoking isn't really one of those. "Dark", maybe. "Psychological", maybe. But try finding any markets that are really looking for those kinds of stories. And yet I know I'm not the only one who produces this kind of work.

This difficulty has made me contemplate finishing my collection and looking for a press to publish the collection, instead of trying to market individual stories. I might even consider self-publishing and marketing. I haven't decided yet. In an age where individuals have more control over their content, I find that I have to get over the old mentality that there is only one way to do things. I just want to choose the way that's going to expand my options in the long run, not limit them.

Do categories represent limits or boundaries? One has to focus somewhere, but perhaps we can over-focus. In academia, one must start with a focus; research papers and theses need to have a specific thesis statement. But creative work can be starved by focus. Sure, one can do a writing exercise that focuses on a particular topic. And publishers and presses are looking to market to a particular audience. Readers tend to be fans of certain genres. I just have a hard time with the limitations on genre, and the "snobbery" of the literary category. Why does every story have to be laden with the task of carrying the zeitgeist with it? Can't you just tell a good story for its own sake? I've heard various answers to that question, but I still think that if a story is compelling enough to draw you in and elicit an emotion (or several emotions), it's worth telling. I've read a lot that's considered "literary" that leaves me cold. And yet, I'm not particuarly a genre fan, unless you count ghost stories, which is no longer a genre in the 21st century. At least it doesn't appear to be a genre; I'm hard pressed to walk into a bookstore and find a good collection of ghost stories that is not horror or science fiction. That type of writing seems to have died by the middle of the 20th century.

I suppose my complaint comes down to the same complaint I have about scary movies. They're more about blood and gore, not about those unknown anamolies and disturbances that can keep you awake at night wondering. There's nothing left to wonder about--the monsters are all created for you, with no room for interpretation. They play purely on fear and action-movie type suspense.

Home from work, I take a sip from the top of a still-cascading Guinness, and start chopping some red potatoes and herbs in preparation for dinner. A friend is visiting my house tomorrow who has never seen it, so I need to straighten things up. The last burst of orange from the setting sun spreads across the kitchen while my shadowy cat snakes his way around my feet, wanting my attention. I turn on the living room lamps, and their stained glass patterns shoot across the walls. All wood and wine and dusty literature.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evaluating The Unmeasurable

It's understood that the notion of true "objectivity" is difficult, if not impossible. Still, we like to measure reality by as much reason and rationality as we possibly can. It's also understood that there are many things not easily explained through the methodologies of reason and rationality. You can take the reliance on such methodologies to an extreme (i.e., logical positivism). The stock responses to things that are not easily explained are coincidence, hoax, or delusion.

I would submit that such a cut and dried response is flat out wrong at worst, and unsatisfactory at best. I suspect that a lot of dismissal of unexplained things has its roots in fear, namely the fear of uncertainty. The mind has a predisposition to putting things into neat categories. When something doesn't fit, we want to believe it somehow isn't "real".

When it comes to the shadowy and uncertain world of the mind, many attempt to explain away things by citing mental illness or delusion. In the realm of the psychic, much is dismissed as a hoax. I've heard it said by scientists that in all of the years of such supposed phenomena, not once has anyone been able to prove that it happens. But what is proof? As I've said before, anything presented that is empirical--a recording, a photograph, a video--is immediately dismissed as not conclusive enough, as a possible or probable hoax, or a misinterpretation of data as a result of "matrixing". The bottom line being that there is no real way to test such things. They're not orderly by nature, and they don't perform on cue. Therefore, there is no lab experiment that can be designed that hardcore skeptics would ever accept as providing real evidence of anything.

What is interesting about this very narrow scientific perspective is that certain branches of science are showing us that the nature of reality is very different from what we've taken for granted. At the very least, you would think science would take a second look at such phenomena in the light of new theories and discoveries about the nature of matter and the universe.

Most of us probably don't think much about these things on a day to day basis; after all, they are out of the "ordinary" to some degree. But what interests me are the things that DO happen every day that we frequently ignore, or are taught to ignore. To a certain degree, I would bet that most people have some kind of intuitive foreshadowing of events in their life, or "coincidences" that seem meaningful in some way. How does one evaluate those things? On the one hand, you could simply ignore it as "imagination", but you may be ignoring cues from your own psyche about issues you've managed to sublimate, and are not dealing with effectively. On the other hand, it's probably not prudent to read everything as a "sign" of something else--some measure of validation should take place. But what should it be?

Let me give some examples from my own experience. First--I find myself planning my travel (given how expensive it is) around John Foxx events. Between now and the end of June, three major family events are occurring, two of them out of state. I found myself getting a bit nervous, because I didn't know if I should commit to any or all of these events. As I was looking at the invitations, suddenly I heard inside my own head, "The first two are okay--but don't go to the last. You'll be in London." The last family event takes place on June 5. A week later, I got the announcement that John Foxx would be playing the Roundhouse in London on...June 5.

So, how do I evaluate this? First of all, there had to be a verification--if I had the thought and nothing came of it, then it's just a thought. Second, one should consider the chance of coincidence--out of 3 possible dates, I had a 33.3% chance that there might be a Foxx event on one of those dates. Of course, there is the broader context of 365 days in a year (or however many are left for 2010), and the probability that an event would fall on that one date out of all the possible ones in the year. But I wasn't exactly making a "guess". Where did that information come from? And how did I know I'd be in London, and not somewhere else?

In my own world view, I tend to think that we're all connected in some unconscious way, so that if we just listen to ourselves, the information is already there. Our connections to some people are stronger than others at times, for whatever reason. I don't think there's anything "supernatural" about it. But--a skeptic would suggest that this is a coincidence. My subjective worldview is meaningless in that light. But what variables would make it meaningful to a skeptic? Aside from what I've mentioned, it doesn't follow any "testable" pattern, and any definite conclusions based on that evidence would be unsatisfactory.

Let's take something more complicated--a string of related events. There are a couple of levels of "meaningful coincidence". One might consist of thinking about a person and suddenly seeing or hearing that person's name everywhere--perhaps mentioned in conversation, on a social network, or in a news article. One could argue that this is a sort of "mind matrixing"--you're thinking of the person, so your brain is more sensitive to picking out that bit of information. Easy enough to explain. But what about someone you've not thought of in years, and then suddenly you see their name everywhere--and later get a piece of important news about that person?

I would suggest that those are two of a kind--a series of "symbols" points you to someone, whether it's because you're thinking about them, or because something intense may be happening to them. But there is another level of meaningful coincidence that is more puzzling. Here is my own puzzling example:

I have a Facebook friend who I didn't know personally when I friended them, but met them later on. About a month before I met them (and I didn't know I was going to meet them), I was puttering around my house when suddenly I had a vivid image of talking to this person--I was sitting in a room on a windowsill, and there was a bright light behind me. This person made a very specific statement (which I won't repeat here). The image then faded. I thought it was weird, took a mental note of it, and moved on.

The day I met this person, I expected it to be a short and quick meeting, but it ended up being longer, and we talked for quite a bit. About 3 hours into our conversation, this person suddenly made the specific statement I'd heard in my waking vision--and as it turns out, I was sitting on a windowsill with a bright light behind me. I had that moment of deja vu, which stunned me for a moment, but I didn't say anything.

Two months later, I had e-mailed this same person about something, I had a question that needed an answer. A month went by, and I heard nothing. I had a dream one night that I was walking with my guru, and in our conversation, I mentioned that I hadn't heard from this person. She replied, "Oh, don't worry--you'll have a message waiting tomorrow morning." I then had a strange vision of this person at home, in an angry mood. There was a woman there, who spoke to me about it. I later recognized the woman when I met relatives of this friend. I had never seen her before. And, by the way--I did have an e-mail from this person when I woke up.

Fast forward a few months--I had another dream about this person, that they had posted something to a message board, and it was 2 lines--almost like a poem. I don't remember the exact words, but it had to do with not realizing what could go wrong when things were quiet. As I was waking up, I said to myself, "Oh, I didn't realize that _______ had broken up with their significant other," and "I didn't realize they were still upset over their parents' divorce." I had no reason to believe that either of these things were true, but later that week, I had verification that both things were true--unsolicited verification.

I find this kind of chain of events puzzling. I like the person in question well enough, but they are not a "significant other" of mine, nor are they particularly close to me. Why would my psyche home in on events happening in that person's life? I don't have any valid reason for knowing why this is the case. Yet, it all seems much less coincidental, because I'm getting very specific information, and I'm not necessarily even thinking about this person. To what end, I don't know. Does there have to be an end? Am I trying to impose order on something that may not make a whole lot of sense? I am inclined to feel that some sense to the whole thing will eventually show itself. But again, that's just a feeling. How do I evaluate this highly irrational but nonetheless strange series of events?

In the end, there's not much you can do with such things but observe them and see where they "take" you, if anywhere. But my point is that not everything can be neatly explained and put into labeled packages--and that doesn't mean it's a figment of one's imagination. Neil deGrasse Tyson had made the comment that other "universes" are not obliged to follow our laws of physics, logic, or anything else. It seems that there are things in our own universe that don't follow our own "laws" of logic and rationality. But to my mind, it's further proof that reason and logic only go so far, just as feelings and experiences only go so far. You need both to give you a picture of the universe you are creating.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I've been off for 3 days now, and I'm convinced that I should be getting up and going to work tomorrow. I'd probably get into less trouble if I did. When I'm home I tend to develop two bad habits: thinking weird and illogical thoughts, and cooking too much food. This time is no exception. Fortunately I will be heading out tomorrow and Sunday.

I see my reflection in the window in front of me. I'm making a rather sour face, and anyone who came to visit right now might think I'm angry or in a bad mood. In fact, I have one of those headaches that localizes right over the left eye, and down to the neck, which is causing me to make some pretty awful faces right now. I'd take medicine, but it probably won't help.

Of course, my screwed up sleep schedule doesn't help. Last night was Mahashivaratri, the Hindu festival of Lord Shiva. The myth is that the Ocean of Compassion (karuna sagara) was poisoned by a demon, and Shiva saved the world from the poison by drinking it up himself. The gods stayed up all night with him to be sure the poison did not harm him. Hence, on Mahashivaratri, devotees stay up all night, usually attending abhishekams (pouring of libations and giving offerings to the Shiva Lingam) or doing Shiva puja. I went to a friend's house for puja, and then stayed up until about 4:00 in the morning. Which wasn't too bad, given that I usually end up falling asleep around 1 am. I always take the next day off, as I know I'm not going to be able to work after a few hours of sleep.

I'm sure all of this contributes to the weirdness of today. So, in honor of today's weirdness, here are a few weird things:

First--apparently it is possible to be bored to death:

Bored To Death?

I have to agree with the findings. Nothing spoils the brain like an overdose of ennui. I imagine this is why lottery winners end up going back to work. Eventually the novelty wears off and you get bored, and have to find something to do to keep you from drooling and imagining your neighbors are conspiring against you.

In honor of Valentine's Day this Sunday, Found Footage Festival has put together their own guide to finding "that special anyone":

How to Find That Special Anyone

If you have a special someone, you might question your readiness for marriage. Mystery Science Theater 3000 provides you with the answer (in 2 parts):

Part 2:

Recently the Republicans had another "Tea Party" convention in Nashville, which is a "grass roots" movement protecting American "liberty", allegedly in the same spirit as the colonial rebels against the British tea tax. From what I can tell, it's more of a convention of old people who listen to country music protecting their right to use taxpayer dollars to build country clubs (no relation to country music), and not waste it on things like healthcare for the poor. Or something like that. In any case, it apparently cost about $350 a person to attend, and they had Sarah Palin as their speaker. I need say nothing more about this, because Stephen Colbert already has:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

I'm a sucker for stupid cat videos. I can't resist sharing this one. I'm sorry. I tried.

OK, enough for now. I promise to do better when I have less of a headache.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reflections on Amityville Part 2--Psychopathology

Well, we had the promised blizzard yesterday. I've put my back out shoveling a foot of wet, heavy snow. They closed my office again today, and I already had Friday off, so my weekend has begun early. I also got some good news today--John Foxx is doing a "30th anniversary of Metamatic" show in London in June, and I bought my ticket this morning. A nice start to a long weekend, shoveling casualties notwithstanding.

Today I want to finish up my remarks on the Amityville case, and take a break from the "paranormal" topics for a bit. One of the specials aired by Biography Channel this past weekend was a recent interview with Ronald DeFeo Jr., the man convicted of murdering his entire family in the Amityville house, before the Lutz's "horror" began. DeFeo was 55 years old in this interview, which would place it around 2006 or 2007--he was 23 when he was convicted of the murders.

DeFeo was interviewed by a forensic psychiatrist. I saw an earlier "City Confidential" episode on the DeFeo case, and Ronnie was clearly a troubled child. He was shooting heroin, and in constant trouble with the law. He dropped out of high school, and had difficulty keeping a job. He ended up working in his father's car dealership in Brooklyn, and his father gave him money and cars to support his lifestyle. Lest one think his bad behavior started in Amityville, there was an account from at least one Brooklyn schoolmate who said he was a bully--everyone was afraid of him. To be fair to DeFeo, he had an excessively dysfunctional family life. One woman gave an account of how his father smacked his son's head against a folding chair when he was crying at one and a half years of age. Abuse was common in the DeFeo household; there was an account of Ronald DeFeo Sr. punching his wife in the face as she came up the stairs with the laundry, sending her tumbling down the stairs. He then closed the door and walked away as if it were nothing. On another occasion, Ronnie dropped his napkin at the dinner table, and bent down to pick it up. When he sat up again, his father asked why he left the table. Ronnie said he hadn't, he'd just bent down to pick up his napkin. His father then grabbed him and beat the hell out of him for several minutes until he was bleeding, and then sat down at the table and ate again like nothing had happened. This was par for the course in the household, and it was known that the two older children, Ronnie and Dawn, hated their father enough to want to kill him.

DeFeo has now changed his story in prison, claiming he'd made up his mind to kill his father after he broke a pool stick over his head on the 4th of November 1974, but said he never meant to kill his whole family. He also claims his sister Dawn killed their two younger siblings, not himself, and that he hadn't really meant to kill his parents at that time--just to scare them. He supposedly killed Dawn after a struggle ensuing when he found their younger siblings dead. Psychiatrists and judges don't buy this new version of the murders; it seems more like a way of reasoning himself out of killing his younger siblings, who he apparently cared about on some level.

The forensic psychiatrist that interviewed DeFeo gave him a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder. He probably didn't go so far as to label DeFeo a sociopath because of his violently abusive upbringing. DeFeo has no remorse about the killings, calling them "self-defense", and his manner of speaking suggests that he is a master manipulator. Again, because of his upbringing, it's not difficult to understand how he ended up developing that as a survival tactic. However, he doesn't seem to be entirely without conscience, which would be the case if he were a sociopath. But, he's still one of those people better off in jail, because he doesn't know how to appropriately deal with life on the outside, even if that isn't entirely his fault. He's still responsible for what happened.

One of the supposed stories that went around was that DeFeo was home the night of the murders, watching a show on TV, when suddenly a pair of black hands appeared and handed him the rifle he used to kill the family, and the idea came to him to do so at that moment. I don't really buy that story; it seems more like a fabrication of William Weber's to try to say his client wasn't responsible for his actions, and trying to piggyback on the Lutz's strange events. Indeed, Ronnie never even mentions the idea of a "force" in the house until 1979, well after the events, and around the time the first Amityville movie came out. He hated his father, wanted to kill him, and ended up killing everyone, whether that was his original intention or not. And there was nothing "demonic" about it, except that he was overtaken by his own inner demons (and there were clearly many of them) at that moment. Clearly there was already a motive and an explosive environment for those murders to occur; introducing the paranormal into the equation is unlikely and unnecessary.

So, enough talk of murder--tonight is Mahashivaratri, and though I won't be going to the temple for abhishekam, I will be visiting a friend for puja, and staying up all night as is customary. Om Namah Shivaya.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Reflections on Amityville, Part 1--Parnormal Aspects

It's the eve of what is supposed to be a huge snowstorm, and I have been ridiculously tired and hungry all day. Given the wintry feel of things, an amaryllis that I received as a Christmas gift from a co-worker has suddenly and ironically started blooming with beautiful pink flowers. My Christmas cactus has also started blooming, though one might forgive it for believing it's Christmastime right now. My office has already announced that it's closed tomorrow, so it just remains for me to distract myself and not turn into a glutton over the next 24 hours.

Yesterday I promised the first part of a discussion of the Amityville case, the "paranormal" part of the story. The whole story is very confusing, as it is more difficult than usual to separate fact from fiction.

First, the story in a nutshell: in November 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family--his parents, two brothers, and two sisters, in a Dutch colonial house on Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. DeFeo's defense attorney, William Weber, tried a number of tactics to get Ronald off the hook with just a few years by entering an insanity plea. It didn't work--he was found guilty and sentenced to six consecutive life sentences in prison. There were a lot of intense dynamics in the DeFeo family, which I will talk about in Part 2 of my discussion. But for now, the basic story is sufficient.

Thirteen months later the house on Ocean Avenue was purchased by George and Kathy Lutz, who were newlyweds. Kathy had 3 children from a previous marriage, and the family moved into the house in December 1975. 28 days later they fled, leaving all of their personal possessions behind, never to return. They claimed the house was possessed by something evil, that got worse and worse as the days wore on. Attempts at blessing the house seemed to help escalate events. You can read the details of the haunting here.

Once they moved out of the house, things immediately became confusing--I imagine that was even more of a horror than what they lived through, if that was possible. The Lutzes contacted William Weber first, who was interested in what happened as he believed that proving a demonic possession of the house might be able to get his client (Ronald DeFeo) a re-trial. They also contacted investigator Stephen Kaplan to investigate the house. Both Kaplan and Weber disavowed the events described by the Lutzes, claiming it was a hoax. A bestselling book on the event, based on tapes the Lutzes made after moving out of the house, fueled claims that they were trying to make money off the DeFeo murders. As it turns out, the Lutzes never saw any money in connection with "The Amityville Horror" book, and their account was declared a hoax after they had a falling out with both Weber and Kaplan. To complicate things further, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the house and claimed it was brimming over with demonic activity. Another psychic who was brought in on the case, Alberta Riley, was apparently so shaken up by what she saw in a deep trance that she never did any work with the paranormal again after that. She said, "I don't want to know anymore." One of the creepiest things that came out of the investigation was this time-lapse video. It is possible it was faked, though I've never heard any confirmation of that one way or the other. In any case, it's creepy:

George and Kathy Lutz are both dead--one died in 2004, the other in 2005--but right up until the end they swore the whole thing wasn't a hoax. However, what makes it questionable is that fact that nothing could really be verified. Subsequent owners of the house experienced no activity. Ed Warren claimed that someone from St. Joseph's Shrine blessed the house when the DeFeos lived there due to frightening activity, but the Shrine has officially stated that no one ever went to bless that house from there. There was talk of a Shinnecock Indian curse on the property, but the Shinnecock tribe says that this is false. Famous ghost investigator Hans Holzer was also on the case, and he believed that there might be a haunting based on past property history, but nothing about that history could be verified.

What hasn't really been addressed is the idea that the area was considered to be some kind of "power spot" by the Indian tribes, even if not necessarily "cursed". Whether this is enough with a combination of other emotional factors to trigger that level of activity is hard to say. My sense is that something DID really happen there, but it's really difficult to separate fact from fiction when there has been so much politics surrounding the case, and so many manipulations and claims by people who had ulterior motives for doing so. But why just the Lutzes? I don't really think the DeFeos were affected by the same phenomena. Kathy Lutz once said that she and George had been practicing Transcendental Meditation at the time, and that this opened them up to the activity, but that's a lot of bunk. While there are a lot of questionable things about TM organizations, it's nothing more than reciting a mantra to focus on a daily basis as a practice. There had to be something else going on in one or more of the family members to draw that kind of activity in. The house may have just been the right conductor for the activity at the right time, if it IS a "power spot" (highly electro- or geo-magnetic), plus the residue of the horrible tragedy that occurred, plus anything going on with any of the Lutzes that acted as a gateway to that activity. A lot of the activity centered around the previous DeFeo murders (family sleeping in the same position as the murdered family, etc.), which could mean they were being affected by the residual energy of that event.

I suppose no one will ever know. But if we give the Lutzes the benefit of the doubt that SOMETHING frightening occurred, I would still suggest it was psychological in origin, released externally under the right environmental conditions. The fact that the activity ceased when they moved--and that they still reported some problems after moving--suggests that it centers around them ultimately, and not the house. An analogy would be a lightning storm--the house could have all the right conditions to be a target/electrical conductor, but doesn't necessarily get hit.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Paranormal Weekends

Weekends are surreal, and Mondays become a representation of order after chaos. From the minute I get home on a Friday afternoon from work, it’s as though I’ve stepped across a boundary where normal rules do not apply. While I always have certain tasks I must attend to, I sort of drift in and out of these activities, as I become restless and drop an activity just as soon as I’ve picked it up. “As long as the required stuff is done before Monday” becomes my mantra.

I am also ridiculously partial to the cat. If I have to wash my bedroom floors, I will refrain from doing so if the cat is sleeping on my bed and looks cute enough. If he’s annoying me, I’ll put on the vacuum just for spite, but most of the time he’s curled up in some obscenely perplexing yoga-like posture and snoring away with little kitty snores. He has me firmly convinced that if I disturb him, I will be struck dead by a vengeful god for daring to mar such apparent innocence. Hence, I look at him and say, “Well, as long as I get the floors done by Monday...”

I’ve been going out a lot less on the weekends because I’ve been cash-poor, and saving my excursions out for visits with friends. While at home, I’m doing a lot more reading and occasionally even watching television, something I hardly ever do anymore. This past weekend I was flipping through the TV listings, and saw that the Biography Channel was having 3 back-to-back episodes on the Amityville Horror case—the murders that took place there, and the supposed paranormal/demonic events that took place afterwards.

I read Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror” when I was still in high school, and I have to say the book scared the crap out of me. I wasn’t impressed by the James Brolin/Margot Kidder movie that came out based on the book—it was nothing like the book, and the sequels to the movie aren’t even worth mentioning. The book raised a huge controversy, and most people consider it to be a hoax, especially because subsequent owners of the offending house have had absolutely no problems while living there.

I’ve always been on the fence about the idea that the whole thing was a hoax. The Lutz family never claimed it was a hoax. Having Ed and Lorraine Warren investigate the house was probably not a good idea, as they tended to find demons lurking in the corner of every house, at least at that stage of their ghost hunting careers. (Lorraine Warren seems to have gotten over that tendency, or at least it seems that way from her Paranormal State appearances). It didn’t give the case much credibility.

On the other hand, I can’t give much credibility to skeptics who simply dismiss the whole thing outright. I agree that not every strange occurrence can be deemed paranormal, and that questions need to be asked, but one can’t simply dismiss things that don’t fall neatly into categories as “hoaxes” or simply as non-existent. Biases can be at either extreme of the spectrum. At least 95% of so called paranormal or demonic activity can probably be explained by natural causes and/or psychological disorders, but there is that other 5% that defies explanation. It is possible that one day there will be an explanation, but until there is, it falls into the “paranormal” category. As I’ve said before, “paranormal” just means “beyond the normal”. It doesn’t prove the existence of a soul, or life after death. Of course, in the scientific world view, nothing will ever prove that. Any hard data produced is immediately assumed to be faked.

Anyway, I wanted to share thoughts on this case over two blog postings, one on the paranormal aspects of the case, and one on the psychopathology of Ronald DeFeo Jr., the young man who murdered his entire family in the Amityville house. I will post Part 1 tomorrow.

What I will say for now is this—the line between the “demonic” and the “psychological” is often blurry. I’ve listened to skeptics dismiss certain activity as “the product of imagination”, but they really undersell the functioning of the human mind. Yes, it IS in your mind. And your mind is powerful in a very scary way that you often can’t control. You’re just riding along in your boat on the ocean, and are encouraged to stay in safe waters by your society and your religion (if you have one). You have to be pretty skilled in self-discipline and have a lot of real self-confidence (not arrogance) to successfully navigate the deeper, darker waters.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Snow Day Randomness 2010 Version

It's been awhile since I've had a "snow day randomness" post. In fact, I'm not sure I had one last year. But--it's snowing pretty hard outside, and I'm in an extremely random frame of mind (read as: indecisive), so, when you put those things together, it's a bit of a no-brainer. I am glad that I am doing this in February, and not March--March snow just pisses me off, especially when it's around the start of Spring. Winter gets far too much of the year, even here in a temperate zone, so it seriously needs to be evicted once Spring starts. Enough is enough.

So, to let the randomness begin:

After writing my previous post on the "Jersey Shore" reality show, Yahoo posted an article about Jersey Shore "guido" fashion making a comeback among teens OK, teens--listen to your old Auntie Brigid who lived through guido fashion the first time--DON'T. Really. It's like getting tattoos in certain places, or of certain things--one day you will look back and say, "why didn't my parents just opt for the lobotomy instead of letting me walk around like that?" As a teen I never succumbed to guido fashion, though I did almost succumb to the big hair look, which I didn't really succeed at because Nature was kind enough to step in and stop that from happening. My hair simply rebelled; if it could talk, it would have said, "You're crazy if you think we're going to stand up like THAT. And you need counseling or something if you actually want us to stand up like that." My hair still looked pretty awful in the eighties, but it could have been worse. And people wonder why I believe in divine intervention.

The Rumpus recently posted some of Carlo Farneti’s illustrations for a 1935 edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. These are absolutely amazing.

Looks like Pope Benedict has more trouble. Last year Benedict created a stir when he made Gerhard Maria Wagner auxiliary bishop of Linz. Wagner has the unfortunate distinction of having much in common with Pat Robertson--he seems to think that major catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and now the Haiti earthquake, as the residents' own fault, because they are "sinful". Wagner did resign as Bishop, but his recent comments on Haiti have just re-kindled a firestorm of criticism against the Pope, who is now accused of bringing the Church "back into the Dark Ages", with Wagner's appointment being the "tip of the iceberg". The latter statement was made by the head of the Catholic lay-initiative, Herbert Kohlmaier. He feels the Church is now more of a "sect" (a term used to describe a group that radically departs from orthodox theology), and people are leaving in droves.

I have to say that I'd regained some respect for the Vatican under John Paul II, who seemed to be very willing in at least some significant respects to be more "inclusivist" than the Church has been historically. (This is not to be confused with "pluralistic"--I doubt the Church will ever be pluralistic, but inclusivist is at least a step in the right direction). Looking at Benedict's track record so far, it's hard to disagree with Kohlmaier. Between Wagner, and Williamson (the Holocaust denier who was reinstated after ex-communication), his questionable statements against Muslims and Jews, his investigation of American nuns (who are the only ones left to give the Church in America a good face after all the priestly pedophilia), and the real kicker--inviting Anglican priests and bishops to "come over to our side" during a major Anglican conference, which was debating the ordination of homosexuals. Benedict may be well versed in theology, but in terms of the world in general, he obviously has been living with his head up his ass. The previous Pope and the Cardinals should have listened to him when he said he just wanted to retire quietly and write a book. He and the world would have been better off. Pope is not a job for everyone, regardless of theological credentials. I think many of these high-ranking officials spend more time writing and reading books than working with people. In the world of libraries--our analogy is the administrator who graduated with his or her M.L.S. and went straight into administration for a large institution, never doing any actual librarian work. Librarians tend to be at odds with such administrators, because they make decisions with no regard for how things really work in their institution. The Church is getting to be the same way (again).

The snow has stopped. It looks like we've only got 3-4 inches of snow, tops. Which means I could probably be out of the house and on the road by noon if I wanted. I shouldn't complain about the snow this year--it's as though Nature is striving to be inoffensive, snowing only at night and early morning, only a few inches at a time, as to provide as little inconvenience as possible--but significant enough to let me sleep in a bit. Of course, my friends in Philadelphia and DC are not singing the same tune at this moment--they had about 2 feet of snow and it's still coming down. Usually the South fares better than the North in the winter--they've gotten the "sh*t end of the stick" this year.

Speaking of the South--one of my fave guitarists who now works for NPR, Carrie Brownstein, recently drove up to New York from DC, and got stuck in...South Jersey. On the Turnpike. Here is her account of that adventure. Just goes to show you that South Jersey is an entirely different animal from North Jersey.

And, speaking of South Jersey again--and animals (sort of)--I understand that next week's "Paranormal State" season finale is a Jersey Devil episode. I hope it's good. "Scariest Places on Earth" had gone to the Pine Barrens with a group of Devil-hunters, and supposedly they saw something, though Weird NJ later reported that the implications of the episode were "misleading" at best. If you have never heard of the Jersey Devil, here is some background. And here is Weird NJ's take on the Jersey Devil.

Lastly--here is a post on "Dangerous Things Kids Should Do". The fact that Mental Floss even has such a post--and that one could seriously ask, "should you let your kids do mildly risky things?" is mind-blowing. Kids today seem to be fenced in and kept on a leash. Part of it is because parents have been fed this extraordinary bullsh*t about how "much more dangerous" it is in the world today, and part of it is because parents are now much more liable according to child "protection" laws than they ever were previously. So, it's hard to blame parents. But you're not protecting the kids from anything--you're basically keeping them from growing up and being functioning adults. Walking out the door every morning is a risk--get over it and just do it. And always be wary of laws passed in the name of "safety" and "protection" of the citizens. They usually don't protect anything--they just take away your ability to freely do something.

I will leave you on that happy note as I go out to shovel some snow...and the phrase, "Sarah Palin's people". Don't think about that for too long.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Jersey Shore?

I’ve been asked more frequently than I would expect about the reality TV show that’s going into a second season, “Jersey Shore”. People ask me about it because—follow me closely here—I’m from New Jersey. Unlike the entire cast of the show, except for one person.

I have to confess that I’ve never seen Jersey Shore. The clips and descriptions I’ve seen of the show thus far would probably give me acid-like flashbacks to my teenage years at the Seaside Heights boardwalk. These would be decidedly unpleasant flashbacks. From what I can see, the so-called “guido/guidette” culture has only changed in the sense that the girls now have flat hair. Just add the “Heat Miser” look, and you could have had this show in 1985.

Seaside Heights itself has always been a bit of a sleaze pit, even though families frequently bring their kids to the boardwalk there to play games and go on the rides. We went there almost every summer when I was a kid. We didn’t stay in Seaside Heights—we stayed in nearby Lavallette—but at least one or two nights during the vacation week were spent at Seaside. The whole guido/guidette culture sprung up sometime in the mid-Eighties; before that, the boardwalk was populated by young men who looked like they were trying out for the Charles Manson lookalike contest. Whether the later development is an improvement or not is debatable.

Let’s talk for a minute about that culture. Apparently there are many Italian Americans who are irate over the rather non-PC term “guido”, annoyed not only at the term, but at the people associated with it. It’s hard to blame them. I’ve seen Italian men and women from Italy, and they are usually so outrageously attractive, there should be an international law against being allowed to be that attractive. The “guido/guidette” look is not attractive. It involves bad hair, fake orange tans, too much gold jewelry, ridiculous clothes, and day-glo nails for the ladies. The personalities and attitudes of “guidos” tends to be more in line with the commonly held notion of “douchebags”. It’s a very chauvinistic attitude.

I think I’m more surprised that Italian Americans are now irate about the whole “guido” idea. It’s not like it’s exactly a new thing—it’s been around for at least 25 years. And—many “guidos” are not even Italian. Asking a show to be taken off the air for the stereotype—well, like anything forbidden, that will likely only create more demand. Personally, I’m more annoyed that this is a look and attitude associated with New Jersey. NEW JERSEY PEOPLE DO NOT LOOK LIKE THIS. There are some areas and towns where this look is popular, but it’s hardly a Jersey-only phenomenon. Similarly, people tend to think of New Jersey as a toxic waste dump, based on their experience of landing in Newark Airport. NEWARK IS ALSO NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF NEW JERSEY. (Also, Newark Airport is not representative of Newark.) In fact, the industria of East Jersey is hardly representative of the state as a whole. It may surprise you to know that most of the state is farmland and forests. I live out in the Northwest, and I get to see cows, goats, and horses on my commute to work. New Jersey becomes more industrial as it approaches both New York City and Philadelphia, and the north and central parts of the state are very suburban, as they are popular places to live within commuting distance of the city.

But Seaside Heights is not all “guido”, either, though that does seem to be a popular hangout for that crowd. There is an equally large goth population, biker population, and...just average families. Even in recent years I’ve been down to visit Seaside Heights, but usually during the day; the night life is more than I can stomach. Of course, now that this show is so popular, I’m betting that there will be many more tourists to Seaside Heights. While this is good for local business there, it’s not very good for me—I don’t find those kinds of crowds enjoyable. I think I’m going to start visiting Cape May instead.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Old VHS Find

Last night I was going through some old VHS tapes. For whatever reason, I wouldn’t label anything after taping it. Alternately, I would label it, and then tape over it, and not change the label. I’ve taped some really weird things over the years—I even had about 30 Betamax tapes, but I’ve lost the ability to play those, so they went into the trash. I ultimately want to separate my VHS stuff into “worth keeping”, “worth tossing”, and “worth sending to Found Footage Festival”. You never know.

Anyway, I came across this documentary film made in 1976 called “The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena”, hosted by Raymond Burr. It wasn’t half bad all things considered. The portion of the show dedicated to taping EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) was a hoot. I think the EVPs they played were probably a hoax—it sounds like someone whispering into a microphone, and there’s no way you would get sound quality like that with an old Panasonic tape recorder—especially if you’re taping in a cemetery.

But what really got me about this episode was the one haunted house clip they showed. It’s debatable whether or not the house was really “haunted” in the traditional sense of the term. A woman, named as Mrs. Linda Clark, re-enacts a scary thing that happened in her home, while she was home playing board games with her son, and her husband was working late. While they sat playing in the living room, they suddenly heard a strange growl from the basement. Their dog stood up and started barking furiously at the door. She was a little freaked out, but tried to ignore it. Then the sound came again. She got up the nerve to go to the basement door and open it. Seeing nothing, she quickly shut it and went back to the living room. Suddenly it came back again, louder, and it was as though the door was breathing—there was a loud growling and straining against the door. The lights suddenly go out in the house, and she rushes to the phone to call...someone (911? Her husband?). We don’t know who. And that’s it. You can see the clip in this segment of the documentary here:

I found a review of this documentary online where the reviewer expresses the same frustration that I had with that scene. So what happened? Did the door ever open? Did they ever find out what made that sound? Did it ever happen again? I can tell you if I’d been in that house, I’d have grabbed the kid and the dog and fled. It was extremely creepy. But there is no follow-up info whatsoever; it’s as though the director expected us to be satisfied with that.

I tried to find out some more follow-up info on the data in this documentary, but I’ve turned up nothing so far. Pretty much everything in the documentary was a famous case documented elsewhere, so I figure something HAS to be out there somewhere, but I don’t have enough information to find it. I’m just surprised that’s the ONLY clip they had of what is labeled haunted house phenomena, and that they couldn’t document it better than that in a DOCUMENTARY, for chrissakes.

So, if you’re one of my librarian friends, and happen to be reading this post, I would not be troubled at all if you had a slow day on the reference desk and did some research on this one. All the info I know about it is posted above. Seriously. I will give you a prize if you figure this out.

Speaking of creepy and disturbing, I found a couple of weird spider-related things on the web (no pun intended) recently, so I’ll share them with you. Don’t watch the first one if you have a spider phobia. Pleasant dreams.