Friday, September 24, 2010

Colbert, Stewart, and Political Influence

Today, Stephen Colbert went to Congress to give testimony on a bill for migrant farm workers. He gave his testimony in character, save the last couple sentences of his speech. From what I've read about the speech, it seems that he made his point, even if it was in a satirical manner. I was not surprised that Colbert testified; what surprised me was Congress' response. After being welcomed by the committee chair, John Conyers (D-Mich), he was asked to leave. The reason? Conyers suggested that Colbert should stick to his comedy show, and leave the testimony to real experts.

Colbert did give his testimony. Many Democrats laughed, while the Republicans (whom he frequently lampoons) sat "stony-faced". Tsk-tsk. Bringing in a comedian to talk about serious issues. How unprofessional is that?

Quite frankly, I'm surprised they don't testify more. And I'm surprised at Conyers' remark. Because if our elected officials are too dumb to figure this out, I'll say it here. In all capital letters, so it can be like a conservative blog post: SATIRICAL SHOWS LIKE THE COLBERT REPORT TEND TO REFLECT THE ATTITUDE OF THE THINKING PUBLIC. Anyone who believes otherwise has been living in a vacuum.

During ANY Presidential election year, you will find articles about the candidates paying special attention to Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and other shows that satirize politics. The show skits and commentary are mocking shadows of the candidates, and like many shadow-figures, they tell the candidates a lot about how they're perceived by the public--particularly their weaknesses. No one likes to see that, but paying attention to those perceptions has helped candidates win elections.

Indiana University published a study showing that news items presented on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart are "just as substantive" as regular news programs. The numbers vary by poll, but some have shown that there are people who trust the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for their news over other networks. Polls also show that regular watchers of these programs tend to be more educated. So why would educated people get their news from a comedy show? Sounds absurd, right?

Not really. Most mainstream media these days isn't about real journalism, it's about spin. News sources are either "liberal" or "conservative", and the public trust the shows that best reflect and validate their view of things. They're not particularly interested in facts. Satire provides an interesting compromise. These shows can really say all those things people think--all the things that wouldn't normally be polite in society, or that might be shouted down--and it can all be written off as "comedy". Satire has served this function for years. It is the real trickster of the communication world.

So, on the surface, it's easy to write off comedy shows as being just that--entertainment, with no political impact or value. But the audiences that watch satirical shows are educated, as I've mentioned. So, they read between the lines and "get it". And you really don't have to be a genius; you just have to pay attention, and be interested in sorting out the bullshit spin from the facts. Comedy makes that easier to do, not harder. And if it didn't resonate with people, no one would be laughing.

Comedy shows are often accused of a liberal bias, but that's not necessarily the case. They are just as willing to pick on our Democratic President as they are Republicans. It depends on the issue, and on what's occurred. There are no sacred cows in the pasture of satire. (How do you like THAT metaphor?)

One should also notice Stewart's roster of guests: the King of Jordan, former President Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama (before he was President), Jimmy Carter, Madeline Albright, Colin Powell...the list goes on. But no, these guys are comedians. The show has nothing to say about issues that anyone takes seriously. Right?

Jon Stewart is having a Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (assuming all permits are approved). Even though it is billed as entertainment--and Stephen Colbert will also be there with his "March to Keep Fear Alive"--the numbers of people who show up for this will be telling. If it says nothing else, it says something about how many fans Stewart and Colbert have. And those fans are not likely to be listening to Fox News. Pay attention, Congress.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Free Association. With Spiders.

Last Friday night was singularly unpleasant. I woke up around 4:00 in the morning, to find a spider walking on me—underneath my left breast. Not a huge spider, but not teeny tiny either. Medium-ish. About the size of my fingernail. I threw that sucker across the room, then got up and obliterated it with a large book. No spider bites, fortunately, but not what I would call an ideal start to my day.

I was driving on our nearby mountain late Saturday morning, and I passed a building with a sign in front of it that said “Intergenerational Preschool”. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know how that’s possible. Unless this “delayed adulthood” that I keep hearing about is worse than I thought.

Lately I’ve been seized by a strange desire to drink port. I don’t usually like port, but I tried a really nice one over the summer at Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes. Maybe it’s the Fall weather, or maybe I’m reading too many Victorian ghost stories. (They all seem to be drinking port in those stories, don’t they?) In any case—it’s out of my budget range at the moment, so maybe next month.

I’ve been watching an old BBC series featuring James Burke called “The Day the Universe Changed.” I’ve gotten through three episodes, and it’s a rather interesting take on the history of ideas. And enough footage of Europe to make me wish I was there.
Scott Adams recently noted in one of his blog posts that men frequently die for ideas, but ideas never die for men.

Ideas are a bit like fire—they can be used for good or for ill, but they’re basically neutral. No idea is dangerous unless you decide to do something harmful with it. Ignorance is not necessarily a factor, except with regard to how much guilt or innocence you have with regard to the consequences of acting on those ideas. But even that’s a gray area.

Still, ideas come from thoughts, and thoughts come from just about anywhere. They breed like dandelions in your pristine lawn, and it’s just as difficult to root out the original culprit. Osho once said that if you took a tape recorder, and spoke aloud to record the stream of thoughts in your mind, then played it back—it would be nothing but garbage. The mind makes a lot of random associations and gibberish. Kind of like this blog posting.

I had a discussion with my friend’s son about meaningful coincidence. He is quite skeptical, and suggests that people see connections where there aren’t any because they don’t understand how probability works. Mathematically, the odds that certain “random” yet similar occurrences will happen is much higher than anyone thinks.
But the brain is all about connecting dots, making correlations. We need to make sense out of everything, even if it makes no sense. This is why we have gods and conspiracy theories. We can’t imagine something existing that isn’t a “thing”. And we have to assign labels to things. For instance—this weekend I was baking, and didn’t open the oven door wide enough when removing something from the oven. As a result, I ended up burning the back of my left hand against the oven door. It no longer hurts, but the burn mark looks like a Rorschach ink blot. I think it looks like a bunny. Or maybe Jesus, if he’s a stick figure doing something funny with his arms.

Thinking about the God argument—East versus West—do ideas have a “substance”? In the West, it is assumed that God is Infinite, Unknowable, and Beyond Time and Space, just as “God” is in the East. But in the West, there is the added condition that God is of a different “substance”. My question is, “Why?” Like Stephen Hawking’s assertion about a creator of the Universe, it just seems unnecessary.

Another spider has lowered himself onto my writing desk. I smoosh him with my New Jersey Homestead Benefit application. Notice it says “Benefit” and not “Rebate”. We get no money back, just an alleged lowering of my property taxes, maybe an extra deduction at tax time next year. An “idea” that is not likely to translate into real action. I look at the smooshed spider next to the words on the envelope, and realize I’m looking at a great metaphor for the idea. In this case, the spider represents the New Jersey taxpayer.

Now that I’ve come full-circle with spiders, I think I’ll have a glass of red wine, and imagine it’s really port, and that I’m drinking it in some drawing room in an old European house.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Relativity and Validation

I saw an article the other day in the New York Times about a 57-year-old woman who was laid off 4 years ago and hasn’t been able to get a job since then, and not because she hasn’t been making the effort. I usually avoid the online comments section, but this time they caught my eye. The first comment was from a young man who said (paraphrasing) that no one should feel sorry for her because she made $80,000 and didn’t save her money, nobody was crying for him while he made a salary in the 20K range.

The young man mentioned that he was in his twenties. It doesn’t say where he lives, who he lives with, or what his financial responsibilities are. I imagine they are not the same as a 57-year-old woman. In fact, finances is the one area where it’s very easy to be judgmental of others. Looking down on people who spend money in a capitalist economy that demands you spend money to thrive. Looking down on those who use credit cards and carry debt, when that is the only way to gain enough credit to get a loan. Looking down on people who may make $30,000-$40,000 a year more than you as having “more than enough”, when after taxes, they probably make almost the same amount as you, and may or may not have more deductions for things like health care. And if you own a home, forget it. Even a reasonably inexpensive house that is in good shape can cost you thousands of dollars if your furnace goes, if you need a new roof, or you have plumbing problems. I can tell you that a few years ago I was debt free except for my mortgage, and the first two things on that list set me back $12,000 immediately. If someone has children—well, kids are expensive. I don’t think I even need to go through that list. So what should people like this do? Sell their house in a market where they probably can’t pay off their mortgage? Put their kids up for adoption? Sell their possessions on eBay when no one is buying?

My friend’s father is a minister, and he told the story of a man who prayed to be relieved of his burden. An angel appeared to him, and showed him a rocky field. There were rocks of all sizes, from tiny pebbles to large boulders. These, said the angel, were the burdens of different human beings. He could choose any one he liked. After some looking, the man chose a small pebble. The angel informed him that this was the burden he had just put down.

The moral may be obvious: no matter what your troubles, someone else always has it worse. What’s not always obvious is what my friend’s mother used to say in response to this story: “Stop minimizing my troubles!”

Another friend asked to borrow one of my Amma books recently. Before I gave it to her, I flipped through it, and my eyes fell on the page about charity. She talked about people who would go into the temple and make an offering, and then kick the beggar outside. “They will say ‘his suffering is his karma.’ What do you know about his karma? If it is his karma to suffer, it is your karma to help him.”

This is where Einstein comes in. Seriously. I was reading a recent blog post by Phil Plait rebutting the “geocentric” view of the universe (in the medieval Biblical sense). He starts out by explaining that one CAN have a geocentric view. In one sense, we all do, because to us, the center of the universe is the Earth. But as Einstein’s theory of relativity showed us, the center of the universe is relative—it’s center is the point from which it is being observed. A little like the concept of Axis Mundi in Black Elk’s vision—every one of us is the Center.

The point of this recognition is that you can only see your own experience and circumstances. You can’t always meaningfully compare your circumstances to others. To judge someone else’s life and problems based on your own experience is flawed. Problems are never simple and straightforward, and you probably don’t even see the tip of the iceberg with regard to factors involved.

I no longer do much in the way of public service—aside from part-time teaching, my job is behind the scenes. But I can tell you that the success of someone in a public service position has little to do with how much they know. It has everything to do with how much they listen.

In my days of working the Reference desk full-time, I had a woman come in several times to ask me questions. I did my best to help her, but we were unable to find satisfactory answers to her questions much of the time. One day I was working in a different library in the County, and I saw the woman. She pointed at me an exclaimed, “I want her to help me. She is the best librarian I have ever met.” That surprised me more than anyone, given that I hardly ever got this woman the answers she needed. But she liked me because I really listened to her questions, and didn’t give her a blow-off response. Many people don’t ask questions because they feel stupid. It’s even worse if you make them feel stupid. I’ve noticed that the most belligerent patrons we ever had who did not have problems needing medication were people who seem to have been treated as stupid or worthless in just about every other area of life. These are people clamoring for validation. When you give it to them, their attitude changes completely within minutes.

One of my favorite restaurants always has a line out the door early in the morning for breakfast, in spite of the fact that there are at least three other breakfast places within walking distance of this one. Certainly the food there is good. But people don’t just go for the food. They go because the waitresses there know everyone on a first name basis, remember what kind of coffee you like, how you prefer your eggs, and what kind of toast you usually want. They will also inquire generally about how you’re doing, and will remember what you told them the last time you were there. You get breakfast and a validated existence. It's hard to put a price tag on that.

Of course, there are people at the other end of the spectrum, who thrive on victimhood and attention. If you encounter one of these people, you will probably spot the trend pretty quickly, and distance yourself appropriately. That is not a beast that should be fed. But it should not be assumed that everyone is like this.

You may have terrible problems. They may be worse than anyone else’s that you know. You may meet people with much worse problems than your own. Your problems will not mean as much to someone else. But the bottom line is that everyone is suffering in different ways and varying degrees. When you show respect for someone’s suffering, even if you don’t understand it, you make them suffer a little less.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


On Friday morning at work, I headed out to the photocopiers to make a copy of something I had to send to another department. One of the machines was in use by a student--a sophomore, Jewish, looking to be a math teacher one day. I learned all this about her in about 7 minutes of standing there, waiting for the other copier to warm up. She was very perky, and was willing to talk nonstop to anyone nearby who looked friendly. I was unprepared for conversation, but I smiled, and listened to her, and wished her luck on getting her homework done on Yom Kippur weekend.

In the grocery store on Saturday, I had a young lady as a cashier who reminded me a bit of the woman I spoke to on Friday. She was smiling, enthusiastic, and telling me all about people who had come in that day, how much she loved her job, and how much she liked talking to people. She didn't understand people who complained about their jobs--and in this economy, it was good to have a job.

At home, I have a neighbor who loves to talk. When I first moved in, my father was getting rid of a pair of cedar trees inexplicably planted right in front of the front windows of the house. My neighbor came over, and talked to him for 45 minutes nonstop, during which time he learned pretty much everything about her, what she did, her family, her ex-husband, and her current problems. My father is polite, but not much for conversation, so he mainly let her talk while he dug up the tree roots. I have had many conversations with my neighbor since then. She is also a Pentecostal, and frequently when discussing her troubles, she'll say, "I talked to the Lord about it yesterday," and proceed to tell me what she told the Lord. As natural as if she'd knocked on my door and told me.

These three people have something in common. They are what you would call ingenuous. They have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, and talk innocently about everything. In social situations, they often make others uncomfortable. After all, there are some things you just don't discuss with others, and most people put up walls when it comes to personal information. If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, talking to an ingenuous person could set you back, as it's hard to get a word in edgewise. Yet, they are so friendly, it's difficult to be outright rude.

In spite of these perceived social shortcomings, I have to say that I greatly admire the ingenuous. These are people you can trust--they are not out to screw you, you can lend them money and you will get it back, you can let them look after your house when you are away and nothing will be stolen, and if you need help, they will give it cheerfully and usually selflessly. If they, like my neighbor, are ingenuous in matters of faith as well, then they represent their faith well.

She and I were talking one day. Her children frequently tell her she talks too much, and a lot of people make fun of her religiosity. I can tell it hurts her feelings. And that's another thing--when someone like that is hurt, I feel hurt for them. It's like kicking a puppy.

"I don't understand," she said to me one day. "Why are people so against Christianity?"

I thought for a moment. "Well," I said, "it has more to do with what people have done with Christianity, than about Christianity itself."

"Like what?"

"Oh, like using it as a basis to discriminate against others--gays, divorced people, people who have children out of wedlock, people who aren't Republican...."

She looked puzzled. "I haven't read the Bible, but doesn't Jesus say you're not supposed to judge others? If they hurt you, you pray for them, and leave judging to God?"

I smiled. "Yeah, actually it does say that."

"Then why do people do that?"

I really wasn't sure how to explain it to her. "Because people aren't interested in the teachings of Jesus. They're interested in using the Bible, and the respect people have for it, to push their own agenda."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"No, It doesn't."

"How can they call themselves Christians?"

"A very good question. But that's how the non-Christians in this country see Christians."

I could have explained some of the history and fights over doctrine, and the whole notion of the scientific worldview clashing with literalist views, not to mention the whole mytho--psychological structure. But there was no point. She was confused enough by that one aspect. Her faith was uncluttered by all of this other stuff, and had no pretensions. I was sad the day she decided to buy a study Bible, and was going to try to read it. Most of the time I feel people should be educated in their Scriptures, but I felt she already understood the highlights well enough to fulfill that fourth function of myth (psychological guidance). Reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was likely to freak her out. And I think it did. She put it away soon thereafter and didn't go back to it, as far as I know.

In many ways I envy the ingenuous. I've spent years studying, reading, getting degrees, teaching others--and I still feel like they, who often are not very educated--are better at being human beings than those of us who have become cynical about the ways of humans. They've retained the best parts of childhood, and I don't mean that derisively. It's the part I wish I could recapture for myself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


May 2002. I’m on the 7 local train from Queens to Manhattan. It’s fairly late, and I’m going back to Penn Station to go home. The car stops at Queensboro Plaza, and three tall, young African-American men with obvious gang regalia get into the car with me. We’re the only 4 people in the car. I’m reading a book, but I glance up at them and smile, as is my habit with everyone. One of the young men nods to me, then looks out the window.
He shakes his head. “Some crazy shit going on these days. I don’t know what’s happening with this world.” It’s pretty clear he’s referring to the still rather recent September 11 event.
I nod my head in agreement. “You never know what will happen tomorrow,” I say.

“That’s for damn sure. People just don’t respect each other like they used to, ya know?”

I nod again, and sigh. “Oh yeah, I definitely know.”

He then asks me if I live in Manhattan, I tell him no, I’m heading back to New Jersey.

He and his companions reach their stop. They get up to leave. “Take care,” he says to
me. “Get home safe y’hear?”

I laugh. “Thanks. You too.”

June 1993. I’m a college student, working at the Circulation desk of the public library. The desk staff chats about various things between check-outs. As we stand there chatting, a 16-year-old girl with a long blonde braid approaches me at the desk.
“There is a man in there, right near where I’m working, and he’s looking up this woman’s dress, with his pants down. I am so disgusted, I can’t work there.” She is clearly shaking. As she is speaking to me, the librarian in charge comes out of the main collection room. I call her over, and ask the young lady to explain to her. The librarian listens, and asks the girl if she would be willing to file a police complaint.

“Hell yes, if I have to.”

She goes with the librarian, and makes the complaint. Not ten minutes later, the police come through the front door. We remain at our station, but are curious as hell as to what’s going on. Later, we were told that the police caught the man in the act. (“Um, excuse me sir, what are you doing?”). We did see them bring out the salt-and-pepper-haired businessman in his respectable suit and tie. Of course, everyone looked at him as he was led out. My supervisor gave a derisive grunt. “Just what he wants. Everyone staring at him. What a creep.”

Clothes don't always make the man or woman. Neither does their lifestyle. Consider this question, which has been sent to thousands of e-mail addresses in the last 10 years. You may know this question already:

It's time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three leading candidates.

Candidate A - Associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two Mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

Candidate B - He was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

Candidate C - He is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife. Which of these candidates would be your choice?

Almost everyone wants to choose C, as he seems to be the most scrupulous. Then people are surprised to learn that Candidate A describes Franklin Roosevelt, Candidate B describes Winston Churchill, and Candidate C describes Adolph Hitler.

As Aleister Crowley once said, “It may be yonder beggar is a King.” We like to use social norms and expectations as a means of interpreting the world and our interactions with others. Social norms are usually based on xenophobic thinking and shallow judgments. Better to treat everyone with respect and an open mind.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Autumnal Media: TV Shows

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, they say. I’ve spent less time going out and more time at home these days. Part of the time I’m working on projects, but when I’m not, I’m revisiting the comforting and the familiar, the all too-human thing to do when stressed by limitations. If I can’t afford to go out and do new things right now, might as well wander through the mental (and Internet) archives, looking for the old.

I had a post a few days ago about Halloween books. Now I’m thinking about Halloween films. Not movies per se, but television specials and documentaries. I’m not going to re-hash my old lady rant about how they “don’t make ‘em like they used to”, because really—I don’t like the current ones, and the old ones don’t always live up to the reputation of memory. But here are a few that I remember seeing when they came on television. I owe a lot to The Ghosts of Halloween Past blog, where the majority of these have been featured.

First, there’s It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown:

I don’t think there’s a single person who has grown up in 1970s America who hasn’t seen this—and if they haven’t , then their parents kept them in a box under the bed. Not a very spooky story—in fact, something of a religion metaphor (and Santa Claus mix-up), with Linus’s fervent expectation of the Great Pumpkin arriving on Halloween night to bring toys. I did have to wonder—if he waited every year, and the Great Pumpkin never showed, what was the problem? If the Great Pumpkin could only appear in one pumpkin patch (the most sincere one), then what about all the other “children of the world”? I mean, it seems like he should have gotten presents even if he didn’t appear. But I do have a tendency to overanalyze things, so...moving on...

Disney’s Halloween Treat

Link to Part I here

I’m surprised to see this one on YouTube, as Disney is so strict. As long as it lasts before takedown, here is the link to the first part of this special, which originally aired in 1982. I’m not fond of this special overall, though I’ve always liked “Night on Bald Mountain” (which is the first piece after the introduction), and the background music and effects for the autumn storm piece with the windmill. Both should be in the above clip.

The Red Room Riddle

This is another one of those CBS specials that I saw while watching TV in my friend’s basement. It came out in 1983, so that must have been the year. Parts 2 and 3 follow on YouTube. Given when it was made, this one isn’t half bad, though the main characters are kind of annoying.

In Search of—The Amityville Horror

This was the old series with Leonard Nimoy, and this episode was made in 1979. I’ve written enough in the past about the Amityville Horror, so I won’t reiterate the story and my thoughts on it. I can say that the first time I read the book, it scared the heck out of me.

The other series about paranormal and strange stuff in the 1970s was “That’s Incredible”. I remember this episode well, about a ghost in a California Toys R Us:

I thought at some point the Vincent Price special I’d mentioned in another posting, “Once Upon A Midnight Scary”, was now posted somewhere, but all traces of it seem to have vanished on the Internet. I was hoping to include that one, but no dice, unfortunately.

Enjoy the items I’ve posted here. If I think of more, I’ll have a follow-up post.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cultural Aikido

I went to bed after writing last night's blog posting, and woke up thinking about "chi" (or "ki", in the Japanese).

Ki is the energy that moves everything, and is in everything. Rei-ki is universal energy (and Reiki is the practice of balancing that energy), Ai-ki-do is the martial art of avoidance--the way of not resisting energy. And it was this latter aspect of ki/chi that I was thinking about.

I took karate for many years (shito-ryu). Occasionally our Shihan would teach us something outside of that form, and one thing he taught us about was using chi or ki in a defensive situation. Try this sometime--stand opposite someone, and put your hands up, palms facing outward. Now, you and your partner should push against each other's hands.

What's the first thing you do? It becomes a reverse tug-of-war, you just keep pushing, trying to push them back. Stop doing that. Instead, feel out where their force is coming from, and yield to it. What happens? Your partner falls to the ground. This might definitionally be considered "aikido"--you overcame your partner by not resisting his or her energy.

This applies to any energy application, not just physical combat. It applies to mental and emotional energy. And it goes against our survival instinct, and our sense of reason. When threatened, we automatically defend by pushing back. When we read something that angers us, we lash out equally in anger. Force is seen as equal to strength, and those who yield are perceived as weak in our culture. This is why most of our public forums have turned into angry, threatening shouting matches. Everyone gets hurt, and no one wins.

So how do we "yield" when confronted with that kind of craziness? Some might argue that you have to get angry and stand up--and sometimes that is the right response, as long as it's followed by productive and beneficial action. But the rhetoric is like a fire, and the more you feed it, the bigger it gets. You yield by not feeding the fire. Some crazy idiots on a street corner hurling racial epithets, talking about burning Qu'rans and blathering about our "totalitarian" government? Yelling back does nothing. They should be allowed to say their piece, and no one should do anything about it. The media shouldn't cover it, we shouldn't get excited about it. Unfortunately, we usually do the opposite. So, things that should not be given credibility end up getting center stage. And more people get whipped up into a frenzy, feeding the fear machine.

There's a lot of fear these days. The Republican party has been taken over by people so crazy that George W. Bush starts to look moderate, and the Democrats are cowering in their corner, or running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everyone is shouting "The sky is falling!" And, just like the Chicken Little story, the sky isn't falling at all. The response on both sides is motivated by fear of change.

What causes fear? Pushing back. Defending ourselves against our unseen enemy. Or, picking a scapegoat and calling that the enemy--easier to fight something you can label. The only way to stop the craziness at its root is to stop being afraid. Of life, of change, of different things happening. You notice that I didn't say "bad" things, or "good" things. There are only "things" that happen. Whether they are good or bad depends on how you perceive them.

But we can't avoid media. Even if you don't watch television, it's in your face when you turn on your computer. It's everywhere. And if a headline catches your eye and gets you worked up, now you are in the fray, you are pushing back. All of us get sucked in at one time or another. It's the automatic response.

Words are powerful. Journalists know this, governments know this, salespeople know this. "Spin" is an art. "Spin" moves this thing we call an economy--an effective spin will convince you to buy things you may not need, and put money into the marketplace. It can also be used to breed fear. If you want to stop being afraid and confused, try stepping back instead of getting angry the next time you read something you find frightening. Don't fight it, observe it, and move on your way. If it concerns you enough, research the facts. Most of these sensational things thrown in your face aren't true, or are barely true.

And--on a grand scale--none of it is "true". We live in a world of hallucinations and phantoms. It's just a big game, and you figure out what your role is, and how to play it--and remember that it's only a role. The only "truth" is the one you get from yourself, when you've quieted down your chattering mind. It has no logic and no plan, but it mysteriously turns up when you need it--if you pay attention to it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For No Reason

It is true that when things quiet down, you can better hear the universe.

On Saturday morning, I thought about my single state. Wouldn't it be better financially to try to have a partner? I don't make much of an effort—maybe I should make more of one?

Then I went to the grocery store, and as I was walking through the bakery section, I heard a woman talking to her children, playfully saying, “Come on, tell Daddy to hurry to catch up!” The “Daddy” in question was not so playful, told her to shut up, and proceeded to angrily throw something into the shopping cart, making every effort to avoid eye contact with his wife. There was that pouty look of an angry little boy on his face, throwing a temper tantrum. His wife, doing the thing females are taught to do, tried to smooth things over with him, but he would have none of it. She walked away looking awkward and anxious. Remembering my own marriage—and I didn't even have the complication of kids—I felt sorry for her.

I moved on, feeling grateful to be single.

Last week I learned that John Foxx is doing another gig, this time at the Troxy in London, in December. This gave me great anxiety, as I am really quite poor right now, and the thought of buying a ticket for the show, booking a hotel, getting a PLANE ticket—all expenses I can’t afford. But the answer to the unspoken question was “go”, so I bought the venue ticket, and felt I could wait on the plane fare til next month. Money will show up, or I could use frequent flier miles if I’m desperate. The only other thing that remained was a hotel, and I decided to book a night at a nearby retreat center that was also a B&B (and quite cheap). Also, it's a stone's throw away from the Troxy. They were full on the night of the 3rd, but promised to get in touch if there were cancellations. The whole next week I told myself I should make a backup reservation at the nearby Holiday Inn, but that little “voice” I hear when I'm quiet said, “Nah, wait”. So, I dawdled.

I was determined to make the booking today. Just as I was about to book the room at Holiday Inn, I got the feeling I should open my e-mail. When I did, I found a message from the retreat center; they now had an opening on the 3rd, and did I still want it?

Amma once said, “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.”

A friend and I commiserated over the weekend about the appalling economic state of the country, and our own personal concerns in this area. “I have given up,” she said. “What else can I do? I've done everything I can do. What comes, comes.”


And that's the point at which solutions present themselves. You don't find them. They find you. That's how surrender works.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Poetic Disturbances

Poetry, according to Octavio Paz, is the language of the silences between conversations and events. It attempts to convey the unspoken in spoken form.

Out of all of the literary forms, poetry is perhaps the most elitist, at least from an academic standpoint. With fiction, you have “literary” fiction and “mass market” fiction. Who ever heard of “mass market” poetry? Perhaps books of rhymes are considered such. But they really fall into their own category, and are not considered in the same genre as poetry, even though they have a rhyming scheme and a structure. Poems don’t have to rhyme, though they do have to have structure. Even blank verse has a structure.

I’ve thought about the poems that have impacted me. In order to “resonate” with a poem, the words have to evoke something. If you aren’t taken to the emotional space of the poem, then it’s not effective. Here are five poems that had an impact on me as an undergraduate:

The Moon and the Yew Tree (Sylvia Plath)
The Moose (Elizabeth Bishop)
Skunk Hour (Robert Lowell)
In Memoriam, verse 96 (Alfred Lord Tennyson)
Because I Could Not Stop for Death (Emily Dickinson)

I looked over the list, and realized that all of these poems do the same thing—they represent a breaking point. You can watch the poet change while reading through or listening to the poem.
Let’s look at them one by one:

Sylvia Plath—The Moon and the Yew Tree

What follows is my favorite rendering of this poem, by Plath herself. The only problem is that it starts in the last 25 seconds of the first YouTube video, and finishes at the beginning of the second. You can fast forward to the end of the first one—it’s worth experiencing the whole thing:

(at about 9:35, then continued at)

Text of the poem here

A. Alvarez discusses the break in this documentary, if you care to listen to his commentary a little before the start of the poem. What happens is that the old Sylvia Plath, careful about forms, counting syllables, very elegant in her words—suddenly changes to the Sylvia Plath you seen in the rest of the Ariel poems—a woman breaking away from what she’s supposed to be, and becoming what she actually is. The breaking line is, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.”

Elizabeth Bishop—The Moose

The Moose from Voices and Visions (embedding disabled)

(at about 4:11, interrupted with some commentary)

Text of the poem here

Again, I like the fact that Bishop is reading this, I just hate how broken up the poem is with commentary. The breaking point here is when the driver stops because there is a large moose in the middle of the road. However, the moose is a welcome epiphany—its presence is almost spiritual. It takes us away from the day to day life of sorrows and puts us in touch with nature.

Robert Lowell—Skunk Hour

Interestingly, Lowell wrote this for Elizabeth Bishop. You have this description of a town, of life, of driving out at the hour when skunks are digging through garbage cans. As Lowell is describing the scene, he suddenly shifts: “My mind’s not right.” And then the tone of the poem changes entirely. He is on a hill where lover’s meet, and is alone. “I myself am hell—there’s no one here.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson—In Memoriam, A.H.H., 96

No video link--poem only here

This may seem like an odd choice. Tennyson doesn’t look like the others. But this section of In Memoriam represents a breaking point in Tennyson’s entire body of work. Much of what Tennyson had written up to this point was dramatic monologue. He used it as often as Browning, and as I’ve mentioned in other places, dramatic monologue is something of a literary cop-out. Dramatic monologues are narrated by characters that hide the poet’s true feelings and intentions. I had written a paper a long time ago about this curious break. In Memoriam was written for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death seemed to affect Tennyson greatly. If you know the stages of grief, and apply that to Tennyson’s poetry, then In Memoriam is a movement from bargaining (dramatic monologue) to depression. However, verse 96 represents a move from depression to acceptance:

“He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own”

So, verse 96 represents the end of mourning, and movement forward. Lastly, we have:

Emily Dickinson—Because I Could Not Stop for Death

This is an old poem with a traditional rhyming scheme. It bounces along as the carriage in the poem bounces along. The rhythm remains consistent until she says “We passed the setting sun—or rather, he passed us”. Suddenly there is an awareness of what it means to share a carriage with Death and Immortality. It is an interruption, a waking up, coming out of denial.

I have to wonder why these poems are the ones with the greatest effect on me. Perhaps it is because those shifts and breaking points are so important in real life. They represent different aspects of change, and they are where we find ourselves.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Old Autumn Book List

This is without question my favorite time of year. September has not disappointed me thus far, bringing milder temperatures, beautiful breezes, and clear blue sky (for the most part). Since autumn is obviously coming, I find myself thinking about the things I associate with the season. One thing, of course, is Halloween. It's a curious holiday for me, because I enjoy my memories of it more than the actual celebration of it. Halloween celebrations are very watered down these days, something I've blogged about in the past.

A weekend visit with a friend of mine who happens to work in the Children's room of my former employer got me thinking about Halloweenish books--ones about ghosts, witches, and other such things. She has a book group that is reading my all-time favorite children's story (for kids about age 8 or so and older), The House With a Clock in Its Walls. It is no exaggeration to say that I've read this book 100 times, and still re-read it occasionally when I want something to read that's not total fluff, but that doesn't tax my brain, either. Kids today tend to be fans of Harry Potter, but I identify with a different collection of children's and young adult literature. Naturally, the items that I recall (and still own in many cases) are from the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. So, here is my short list of "supernatural-ish" stories that I enjoyed reading until the age of 12 or so--and some I still re-read to this day.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

I love the original Edward Gorey artwork for the cover, and inside the book. I wish all subsequent books had been illustrated by Gorey, but often he only did the covers. This is Bellairs' very first children's book, and part of a trilogy about a 10-year-old boy called Lewis Barnavelt, who moves in with his Uncle Jonathan after his parents are killed in an auto accident. He discovers that his uncle is a wizard, and that Jonathan's best friend and next door neighbor (Mrs. Zimmerman) is a witch. Sometimes these kinds of stories end up sounding trite and tacky, but this one is excellent. He does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of a Michigan community in 1947.

Witch Water by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The second book in another series that started out as a trilogy, and now encompasses 6 books. Another neighborhood witch story, this one is about an evil witch, or a seemingly evil one--it's hard to tell if it's in Lynn Morley's imagination, or if it's really the case. There's not much doubt by the end of the series. Witch's Sister is the first one in this set, but this one stands out to me because it's the first one I read. One of those stories my mother brought home to me when she was working at the library.

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

An interesting story about a family that has a hereditary "magician" in every generation. Barney Palmer has the sense of being "haunted", and is assumed by the family to be the hereditary magician. However, the story events take an unexpected turn, that eventually reveals the real magician in the family. Creepy, gloomy atmosphere to this one. And Barney's sister Tabitha is so perky, you want to shoot her. Another "witchcraft" story of interest by Margaret Mahy is "The Changeover", about a young Australian girl who becomes a witch. It is interesting to note the different ideas about what witches are in these stories. Naylor writes about a witch from the Isle of Man, and Mahy's witches are Australian. To round that out, we have the next book:

Call the Darkness Down by Dixie Tenny

This is another family witch story, and this time it's in Wales. Morfa Owen is an American who studies abroad in her family's native Wales, and she ends up uncovering some frightening family secrets involving witchcraft while she's there. This was a later read for me--I discovered it accidentally in the early 1980s while browsing the YA Fiction section of the library.

Two Too Many by Nora Unwin

The last book in this list specifically about a witch, this is a cute story with great illustrations about 2 abandoned kittens who are taken in by a large black cat, only to discover he is a witch's cat, and through a series of mishaps they end up accompanying the witch on a grand race over the moon. I discovered this book in 1978, and I still absolutely love it. I mean heck, it has black cats in it. What's not to love?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

This is the classic story that was in Irving's "Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman", and has been portrayed in a variety of versions. This version is an extension of the original story, and what makes it is Rackham's wonderful illustrations. This is always portrayed as a spooky ghost story, but it really is more about a prank played on a superstitious schoolmaster.

50 Great Ghost Stories edited by John Canning

This is actually a collection of ghostly tales from Great Britain--I think my edition has a 1971 copyright. While there are many such collections, this is the only one I recall having an account of the Horror of Berkeley Square. It's hard to know whether or not that story was true (it's alleged that it was), but I do know that 50 Berkeley Square is the current site of my favorite rare bookseller:

(Just an FYI for anyone wanting to visit Magg's--you need to go there with a specific research area of interest, and they will hook you up with the specialist of that area. You can browse with the specialist's guidance, but it's not in the style of a W.H. Smith's or Borders by any stretch. You can visit their website to get an idea of what they offer).

Now, getting away from the prose, there are a couple of children's rhyme collections that I can recall:

Spooky Rhymes and Riddles by Lillian Moore

I still have a rather beaten-up copy of this book, which has a decidedly 1970s style of illustration. The cover of my copy has "Billy" written in pencil on it--a little creepy, as Billy was my brother's name, and he died 21 years ago. Nonethless, it is a cute little rhyme book--here is an example of a couple of the rhymes and their illustrations:

Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky (illustrated by Arnold Lobel)

This book is fantastically written and illustrated. Some of the poems, like "The Ghoul", would probably be considered too disturbing for the often-coddled youth of today. For a fairly complete look at this book, check out this very detailed posting at The Haunted Closet blog.

That's it for now. I'm sure I'll come up with other seasonally appropriate things in the near future. In the meantime, consider these perpetual recommendations, especially if you have a lifelong interest in "supernatural-ish" things.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Driving Optimism

I have a minimum 40-minute commute to work every day, and another minimum 40-minute commute home. What follows are transcripts of my mental attempts to not fly into road rage on the way home, as I am usually tired and very hungry by quitting time.

Every BMW I've driven behind this week has not used a turn signal when changing lanes, or actually turning. This is curious. I wonder if BMW has taken the turn signals out of their newer vehicles. I will have to ask my friend Tim, who happens to be a BMW salesman. I'm almost certain this is the case, as it seems to happen so regularly with BMWs. I would never suspect a BMW driver of being rude, discourteous, or self-absorbed, which is the only other explanation. Maybe?...nah.

Everyone is driving slowly today, in all lanes. It is a beautiful, blustery Fall day, so I imagine everyone has said screw it, what's the hurry? Might as well enjoy the weather and watch the leaves turn various colors. This is a good thing. Also, a lot of people are driving at my speed, as opposed to being what George Carlin defines as "idiots" and "maniacs". Though George Carlin also said you should never trust anyone driving the same speed as you. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Ah, here's a jeep that didn't get the memo about slowing down and relaxing. He is trying to race past me at approximately 100 miles per hour to get ahead of me to get onto an exit ramp. He apparently did not see the very slow car driving almost parallel with me, and he's nearly flipped his vehicle trying to slow down. My pleasure at seeing him nearly get a Darwin Award is probably inappropriate and immoral. Peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Forgive me, Father.

Honestly, I do feel sorry for the Jeep driver, who has been madly dashing from lane to lane, tailgating everyone in his path. But he just can't get around them. The poor man is never going to get to drive as fast as he wants to on this stupid highway. He's trapped. There's almost something Kafka-esque about it all.

There's not too much traffic today, another good thing. Usually school lets out at this time, so the roads are busy. I guess everyone is taking their time getting on the road today. When there is a lot of traffic, and I am thinking about my dinner, I have to play mental games with myself to keep from getting impatient; I need something to pass the time. I usually try naming all 50 states off the top of my head (quite easy), then all 50 capitals (a little less easy, but doable), and then all 44 Presidents. I usually screw up that last one--I always miss about 7 of them. Usually I forget Benjamin Harrison, which is stupid, because I could easily remember that there were 2 Harrison Presidents. And I can never remember William McKinley. I have to brush up on my presidential history before I crash my car.

The last hill before my exit--and no matter how empty the road is, there is always a huge truck going really slow in the right lane. Well, no matter, easy to get around today. Now if I can just survive the merge on our local highway without getting stuck behind an old, blind person or a truck, I should be fine.

Home at last. Now I can make dinner, after I give the cat some treats, scratch him on the head and call him a "good boy" about 638 times, and throw his fuzzy ball for him. The penalty for not doing all those things is getting repeatedly whacked in the leg and yowled at. Pasta tonight, as I have little money and pasta is cheap and tasty. And there is a Sam Adams Octoberfest in the fridge, fitting for a Fall-like afternoon. Life is good.