Friday, August 27, 2010

Storytelling on Speed

This morning I discovered a website called 5 Second Films. A new film is posted to the site on a daily basis, and most are about 5 seconds (though I saw one that was about 40 seconds). They are very funny films, and I enjoyed watching a few of them. But I do notice that they're part of a trend.

It seems that there has been a significant change in storytelling in the 21st century. There is flash fiction (1,000 words or less), six-word memoirs, horror films re-made in 30 seconds (with bunnies), and books being written on Twitter, which has a 140 character limit per post. In fact, more communication takes place on Twitter these days than on the telephone, on e-mail, or perhaps anywhere else. We are urged to express ourselves as succinctly as possible, without wasting words.

Why is this? Is it a time factor--we no longer have time to sit down and hear or read a long story? Have our attention spans gotten shorter? Or are we just trying to cram as much culture as possible into our ridiculously overscheduled lives?

On the one hand, I can understand the time factor with stories. I know people who take so many detours through a conversation, that you just want to shout "get to the point!" There is an expression for such conversations--"Going from New York to Baltimore via San Francisco". (If you don't know U.S. geography--perhaps "Going from London to Birmingham via Siberia" would be comparable). I remember my ex-husband telling me about a conversation he had with a co-worker that was like this. He was at an office event, and was eating borscht, and the person he was talking to went on for 45 minutes about her family, her entire genealogy, the people on the street she grew up with, and several other topics. What she actually wanted to say was "This soup is good. It reminds me of soup I had growing up."

One might argue that hearing her entire family history might have been interesting--after all, this person did have an interesting childhood. However, when you're at an office party making small talk, such meandering discussions don't really allow you to mingle with others--you're trapped listening to a story for an interminable amount of time. This was an "appropriateness of audience" problem. If my ex had been interviewing her about her family history, it would have been a great story.

So, there are the meanderers, and they are the bane of meetings and office life, where getting to the point really IS essential if you don't want to be trapped for several hours unnecessarily and unproductively. In working life, time management is very important. But what about literature and film?

Many of these really short works are actually quite clever and creative. I don't want to give the impression that they are frivolous or "lazy". To really convey a story in so few words or images takes a lot of discipline and creativity--it's much easier to ramble on.

However, there is a lot that is lost when works are too short, in my opinion. I do prefer short stories to novels, and short films to very long ones, but I do want to see a story unfold. Scott Adams recently talked about atmosphere in good writing in his blog. All of your senses should be engaged when you read something. This is how some authors can get away with pathetic plot--they make up for it in atmosphere. I like richly conjured images--long passages about mundane things that make you feel like you're there. Or a camera lingering on certain details in a movie, certain scenes that seem tangential to the plot. Combined with the right soundtrack, these images can have tremendous impact. Mental Floss did a blog post last year about music in movies. There were YouTube videos of scenes from famous movies, with different background music. It's an excellent illustration of how music can affect the impact of a scene. Those scenes seem entirely different with different music.

If I were to get on my soapbox about slowing down, I'd be a hypocrite. I'm always going, always working on 10 things at once, and perhaps not doing any of them well. I'm from the Northeastern United States, New York metro area, so I'm already geared to hurry, hurry, hurry up to go nowhere. I step back and remind myself of this from time to time, but it's a hard habit to break. I imagine I'm not alone, and I think these trends in literature and film prove it. I know that if someone sends me a YouTube video link that's longer than 2 minutes, I bypass it for another time--I'm usually busy at work, or in the middle of a project at home, so I can't take the time out to watch it. I understand the struggle between one's day-to-day working life, and the need for those literary diversions from that. Maybe this is a means of compromise. But I'd hate to see those short-short works become the norm and standard for literature. I'd prefer that we all slow down first.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Colors of the Dead

Black is not the color of death. Mauve, taupe gray, and a sickly ecru are the colors of death, and of the worst kind—the death of purpose, and the death of spirit. You may notice that most corporate offices are decorated in these colors. So are nursing homes. Nursing homes add bright fuschias, teals, and hot pink colors to the death palette. It is a fraudulent attempt to be cheerful and vibrant in the face of the inevitable. And it takes those otherwise unassuming colors and makes them sickening. They don’t refer to sudden deaths where it’s all over in a minute—these are slow, painful deaths that strip you of your mind, your bodily functions, and your dignity. Your bright, cheery room that reeks of bodily fluids. Even the stark white of hospital rooms is not as offensive. Hospital room décor is inhuman. Nursing home décor attempts to be human, but only reflects the shells of people that are dying there.

When my time finally comes, I hope that I do not end up holed up in one of these cheery monstrosities. I think most of us hope we’ll just go to sleep one day when we’re old, and never wake up. But, given my family history, I am afraid I will have a decline one day, and I’d prefer to be holed up in an ancient house with dark wood and creaky floors, or an old monastery. I would rather blend in with my surroundings—to be as ancient and antique as the building I occupy.

Many of my friends would say, “Yes, Brigid, but you do that already”. And that is true. In spite of the maintenance, I prefer old houses with warped wooden floors, crazy walls built without a level, and lots of dark furniture and stained glass. A benign ghost or two is fine as well. My sister and I were talking over the weekend about our family, and she thought I was probably pushed into adulthood sooner than I would have liked. There were five of us in all, and I was the youngest—my next oldest sibling was six years older than me. So, when I was born, I was born among grown-ups, and wanted to do grown-up things. To this day, I’m not sure if I’m a real grown-up, or still pretending (though it seems that many—or even most—adults today feel like that).

I have a fascination with cemeteries. (If I sound very “gothic” to you, I assure you that I don’t really fit that category.) I gained this interest from my mother. When we would go on vacations, she liked to visit old graveyards, and that was during the days that they still let you do “grave rubbings” (that’s now known to deteriorate the stone, so it’s no longer allowed in most places). I live across the street from a cemetery, and I think that’s one of the best features of the house—I can look out my bedroom window and see the headstones in the distance. There is another house nearby that went into foreclosure—it borders the cemetery, but has a huge hedge between the house and the actual cemetery. According to my neighbors, most people who sought to buy the house didn’t want it because of its proximity to the cemetery. And recently—there was an article about using Google Earth to look at your prospective home before buying it—and one of the things they said you’d want to watch out for was a cemetery nearby. They treated it as a negative. Why? Have people been watching too many zombie movies? Do they think your house is automatically haunted if you live near a cemetery? (Mine isn’t). Personally, I like quiet neighbors. And they’re a great place to walk and get a sense of the history of the area. Am I in the minority?

If I am in the minority, then that might explain why nursing homes look the way they do. I hate to sound all “Heideggerian”, but I really think people can’t face the idea of death. They want a distraction, no matter how tasteless. I am reminded of Dave Barry’s article about his brown lawn. When the grass died, he decided to take a page from the National Parks Department (which paints its rocks) and paint his lawn. We think that putting a colorful gloss on things makes the “death” part less obvious, but it doesn’t. It’s still dying, and now it just looks like someone threw up on it.

An analogy can probably be drawn to the current situation with the Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan. (No, it is not a “mosque”. And it is not at “Ground Zero”. The next person who says that either of those things are true is going to get beat over the head with a stack of old Sunday New York Times). Those protesting the center are likely a part of the current “Tea Party” movement in the United States. (They may not all be tea-partiers, but their rhetoric is quite similar). If you toss out their argument—which is purely xenophobic and has no basis in fact—you get down to the core, which is that the dynamic and demographic of the country is changing. There is a slow death of what some have taken as “traditional” in American culture—assumptions about race in America, assumptions about religion in America (ideally—white, male-dominated, Protestant Christian)—and those that refuse to accept the death are waging a fierce war of rhetoric and emotion with nothing behind it. It’s always been a fallacy—the only thing dying is the false conception, which is not a bad thing. But those who stake their identity and beliefs on the fallacy can’t let go of it. There isn’t an acceptance, just an attempt to paint over it with tacky images of flag, Mom, church, and apple pie. Hook it up to life support and keep it going, even though it’s obviously dead.

I should be clear that this is an empty reiteration of tradition—most of these people cite the Constitution, and usually erroneously. They’ve never read it. They don’t read history. They read bastardizations of history by people thrown out of universities as crackpots, if they read at all. But it's not about facts, it's about obsolete myths.

However, you can only beat a dead horse for so long, and at some point the inevitable occurs. I like to think that this particular group of Americans (Red-staters? Middle Americans?) are going through a tough grieving process. Acceptance is always at the end of it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Challenging People

Lately I’ve been having dreams of flight. Not actual flying, but hurry-up-get-up-go-don’t-tell-anyone flight. It’s been the theme all week, and I have to wonder what it means.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what you might politely call “challenging people”. We have other words for these kinds of people, most of them probably not repeatable. They are some combination of stubborn, ignorant, angry, violent, obnoxious, and/or “entitled”. Not every challenging person has all of these characteristics—we can be challenged by very smart people. Ignorant people aren’t necessarily angry or violent. Sometimes such a person is merely passive-aggressive.

If you think about it, the real “challenge” is a reflection of your own challenges. Carl Jung has spoken about the basic phenomenon of “projection”. What we despise in others is often what we despise about ourselves, or what we are afraid might be an apparent characteristic of ourselves. (I say “apparent” because all of us have a “shadow” side that has all the qualities we don’t think we have). It’s waking up, not liking what we see in the mirror, and assuming the mirror is flawed. Which is sometimes the case—but often there’s at least a grain of truth to the mirror image.
For example—intellectual pursuits and learning are high on my to-do list, so I tend to value thinking and intellect very highly. I find myself deeply disturbed by people who accept things at face value, without checking facts. Now, we can’t check into everything we hear about—we don’t have time—but we can at least take stories with a grain of salt. Even more disturbing to me is when someone tries to make me feel stupid or ignorant. And I realize that it’s because I don’t know everything (who possibly could?), and perhaps after all of the degrees I’ve taken, I know even less than I think. I have a great dislike of “stupid” because I fear being stupid myself. Sometimes stupid is a relative phenomenon—the apparently stupid person may turn out to be the smart one. Probably most of you can relate to that experience. There is a deeper issue that has to do with responding to the unknown and unfamiliar, but I won’t go there now.

Most human beings are neither “good” nor “evil”—we just are what we are, and we respond to events based on our own experience. However, when someone really stands out as problematic, we tend to see that person as bad through and through—someone to be avoided. And more than likely the best tactic IS to avoid them, but that’s not always possible.

There is a story from Amma’s ashram about a resident who was so obnoxious, volatile, and disrespectful that everyone at the ashram hated him. One day this person got fed up and decided he was moving out, much to the relief of the residents. However, Amma ran after him and begged him to stay, something she does not usually do. Why? Everyone in the ashram is a spiritual aspirant. Any of them can declare themselves peaceful, or still, or patient—but how do they know unless that’s tested? “Challenging” people test the qualities that we believe we have. I also think of Aleister Crowley’s story about meditation—he was vexed at having to try to meditate in a London apartment, with all of the noise and distractions outside. But then it occurred to him that this was the ideal environment for meditation. One has to learn to tune out distractions.

No one really likes to be tested. Another friend of mine had told me about an Amma devotee who was always praying to be tested. Then one day, he realized how idiotic this was—just going through the world day to day and dealing with people can be enough of a test.

You might say, what’s the point? How can you enjoy life if you’re stressed out all the time from dealing with these “tests”? I am no exception to this frustration, though I can intellectualize the answer—it’s dispassion. I think I’m repeating myself here, but happiness in life doesn’t come from feeling what we characterize as “ecstatic”. It’s hard to get rid of the idea of “good” and “bad”, and also of “I” and “mine”. Sometimes you need to step back and get the perspective that life in and of itself is neither good nor bad—it just happens—and everything is temporal, so nothing is really “yours”. Real happiness is an internal state that is not dependent on external events of any kind. That’s the one we’re always searching for, but never find, because we’re looking in the wrong place.

Br. Dayamrita once said that you should look at life as though you were watching a movie. It might be more like a “choose your own adventure”, mainly because you’re not just watching the movie, you’re in it. The movie analogy is apt, because most of the time we’re just acting— we’re given a “scene”, and we improvise. Any number of factors can determine how we respond, though it largely centers around how we’re seeing ourselves. If we feel insecure, we can be defensive. If we’re relaxed and feeling “at home”, then we will be grounded in our responses to others.

So, what does one do when they’re faced with challenging people who actually cause harm to your environment? The influential politician who fights to suppress the rights of others in the name of protecting “values”, the administrator on a power trip who makes decisions “just because I can”, the clergyman who uses fear to take advantage of members of a congregation? The answer depends on how that person challenges you. You can’t respond properly until you can see the difference between your own challenges and that person.

One last thought—a lot of people ask about my interest in Hinduism. It has a lot to do with the relevance of their mythology, and it’s very relevant here. In Hindu myth, there are 3 worlds—the Heavens, the Earth, and the Hells. These are not like the Western ideas of the same terms—they all exist here, and all within our souls. The Heavens are the abode of the devas (gods), and the Hells are the abode of the asuras (demons). If you read the stories in the Vedas, you realize that sometimes demons can do noble things, and gods can do scandalous things. They represent the combination of qualities in ourselves, and it’s much more complex than simply “good” or “bad”. The goddess who creates these three worlds is called Lalita Tripurasundari. “Lalita” is “the goddess who plays”.

Well, enough philosophizing, it's back to watching late 1970s/early 1980s Halloween specials. And this seems like a good day for a shot of absinthe. Happy Mercury retrograde!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Animal Religions and Taylor Swift

I wonder if games are a reflection of our need to meet challenges amid obstacles, to train ourselves for dealing with uncertainty. That IS what a game does, doesn't it? It requires that we meet a specified end by overcoming a series of challenges. These challenges are often random, just like the ones we can encounter every day, and we can't predict the outcome. Religious rituals can be like games--they are a set of words or actions that are supposed to deal specifically with the challenges of sacred space and time, and to bring us to some "goal", depending on the function of the ritual.

In my house, I don't play any kind of video games, and most two-person games are out, unless I have company and that's what they want to do. However, I do own a cat that likes to play games--he likes to play fetch in particular. The goal is simple--I throw him his fuzzy rainbow ball, he hunts it down, and returns it to me like a prize mouse that he's caught. He then waits until I throw it again so he can repeat the process until he's bored. (If the inside of my house wasn't so dark, I'd have caught this for YouTube already. Why can't my cat be as sensational as Maru?). I've learned that the cat has added a rule of his own to the game--NO bringing the fuzzy rainbow ball into the bathroom. If I'm in the bathroom getting dressed for work (and I usually don't bother to close the door unless I have company), the cat will stop short of the door and stand outside yowling until I come out and throw the ball for him. I don't know why he does this. Is the bathroom considered sacred space? Or is it too profane for kitty? I suppose it depends on his attitude towards his litterbox. But does it mean that kitty has some kind of religious or ritualistic impulse? Or am I projecting one onto him? I suppose I'll never know, unless I can teach him to speak English.

Even more speculation--if my kitty has such impulses, do other animals? Our processing supervisor at work once told me that she couldn't kill ants after seeing a bunch of them carry one of their dead away and bury it. And I read an article recently on how squirrels have been observed engaging in "superstitious" behavior, though what was observed may be more like the effect of Pavlov's bell. It seems that the squirrels always acted out in a certain way, because they were often rewarded with food by humans if they acted that way. There was no real connection between food appearing and their action, hence the "superstitious" part. Still, it's an interesting question.

On another topic--I was out for my weekend breakfast on Sunday morning, and having awakened too late for my usual haunt, I visited another cafe that has a consistently good breakfast. Occasionally I have the good fortune to be there when their radio is turned off, but no such luck on Sunday. This particular radio station announces the artist and song immediately after each song, which is helpful in letting me know what songs to avoid, as most of what I hear is awful. I heard a song that day that I've been subjected to many times before in restaurants, grocery stores, and auto shop waiting rooms. This time, however, the artist was announced: Taylor Swift. So, now I can connect the perky-eyed blonde with the crappy music she makes. The song is called Love Story or some such thing, and I was just blown away by its originality--boy and girl fall in love, father doesn't approve, boy talks to father, girl and boy get engaged, and presumably live happily ever after. Gee, no one's ever written about THAT before. And we all know it's true, right? I mean, doesn't it always turn out that way? If Dad doesn't approve of the idiot you're dating at 17, then it's because he just can't understand how wonderful he is and how much you love him. Whereas Dad, who has way more life experience than said "Juliet", already knows that "Romeo" will never hold down a job, will probably get her pregnant, and then take off for a woman with bigger boobs or more money because he is "trapped" and "bored". (And so is she, really). Do I sound a bit jaded? My apologies. But I do get pissed off when I see these artists that cater to teens perpetuating the same mythical nonsense to young girls who buy it hook, line, and sinker.

Ms. Swift refers to "Romeo" and "Juliet" in this love story, which proves that she is among a long line of artists to use that metaphor who never actually read Shakespeare's original play to the end. But never mind that. She has won countless awards for her music, thus proving that the music industry is not only stupid, it's deaf. I'm starting to think I was too hard on Kayne West when he interrupted her acceptance speech, though I don't know if I think Beyonce is any better. (I'm sure I've heard unknown horrors by her as well). In fact, he may not have been hard enough on her.

But perhaps I'm the idiot here. We should give music awards to people like Ms. Swift, because, by some miracle, she sells a lot of--albums? (Do they make albums anymore?). Well, she sells a lot of something. I also think Francine Pascal should get the Nobel Prize in Literature for her Sweet Valley High series. And I hear that Lindsay Lohan is a fine actress. They should give her an award too.

It does make me wonder why the music and film industries are so revenue-driven when giving awards. Of course, in the film industry, if a director makes a crappy film, he or she also ends up making some really good films as well. Film directors aren't packaged and sold in the way that actors or musicians are often packaged and sold.

I went to a discussion of Joseph Campbell's lecture on the "Conversation between East and West" in myth and religion on Sunday. A woman in our discussion group wondered about why people can't "live and let live", why religions have to be right. I think my answer there has some relevance here--because people, as individuals, can be brilliant, tolerant, wonderful people. Put them into groups, and they behave like idiots. That's how mass marketing works, and that's the only explanation for why some of these things become so prevalent in our culture. It's all about packaging to the masses.

To wrap up, here's an Onion article from last year. Because no one says it better than The Onion.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I am finished teaching my summer class.

I have put so much energy into this since May, and I am finally going to celebrate the fact that my brain cells can focus on something else besides the thing I do at work all day. Well, OK, one of the things I do at work all day. And not every day.

Naturally, there are one or two last-minute things to take care of--a paper not handed in, etc. But I don't really care until next week. And it's not going to take all my time and energy.

So--my brain, now freed of the confines of thinking about AACR2, RDA, MARC records, and the machinations of WebDewey and ClassWeb is on a bit of a free-for-all. As if it's just hit the lottery and doesn't know how to spend that big payout, so it does a bunch of things at once. (I have no practical experience with the lottery part, unfortunately. I just imagine that's what would happen).

As a result, this blog posting is going to bounce around like a ping pong ball in a clothes dryer. And will be full of bad metaphors.

First up: food. I was amused to see this article on bacon fat and longevity. Yeah, it's anecdotal, as the guy says--but I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who notices that the self-righteous health-conscious folks don't necessarily outlive those of us who eat what we want.

Speaking of smug self-righteousness--being environmentally "green" is now officially a religion. How do I know? Because there are self-righteous idiots who can post articles like this one. You know you've reached religion status when you can talk about being "greener-than-thou".

How connected are honesty and truth? Honestly? Is there such a thing as an honest lie? Can truth be dishonest? Talk amongst yourselves.

The XANITY Twitter feed announced a special place in Hell for those who correct grammar and spelling on Twitter. I think there should be a special place in Hell for people who don't know the difference between their/there/they're, your/you're, and lose/loose. Dante never mentioned that. Probably because he spoke Italian.

Here is some Cat Safety Propaganda from Allie Brosh. Consider yourself warned, grabby humans.

I believe in astrology, ghosts, and a number of other strange things. But I'm not big on UFOs. Still, this Cracked article is interesting.

Some incredible orange and black images from the Halloween Tree. You're ready for Halloween, right? I've been wanting it since at least June 23.

Turns out that old books may make you hallucinate. That may explain most of my life.

Check out this awesome piece from Spacedog. They did this when I saw them in London last month. Phenomenal.

Along with the Tea Party Movement, Justin Bieber fans, and botox, here's more proof that we're not intelligently designed.

There is an unwritten rule that all random blog posts must end with a reference to cats. So here it is.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rethinking Time

This morning is the best one to view the annual Perseid meteor showers. Unfortunately, it is cloudy outside, and nothing can be seen. The air is very thick, as it has been for weeks, with only occasional breaks. It has a metaphorical tone, echoing the lack of clarity and constant sense of heaviness that seems to pervade everything these days.

Yesterday morning, in addition to some other errands, I was at home looking for some readings for my Fall class. I found out that afternoon that my Fall class was canceled due to lack of enrollment. I don't know if the registrar's initial error in advertising the course as 2 nights from 8:15 to 10:45 was the turn-off. In any case, as my friend J.R. said, it seems like the universe is clearing the way for something. I've probably been too focused on finances these days, and need to get back to what's important. Money will always be a problem, unless I decide to get re-married a rich man or hit the lottery. Neither is likely. But usually I have no summer work, and I'm busy as heck during the Fall. This year things happened the other way around, and that's the way I have to look at it.

However, yesterday's excursion into the works of various philosophers, theologians, and thinkers was not wasted. In thinking about ideas of Nirvana and Moksha, I turned to Alan Watts's book, "The Supreme Identity". I realized after reading it that yesterday's blog posting had a fundamental error--the notion of time and progress. Watts talks about the how the finite is within the Infinite, and the two are not incompatible. We tend to act as if we are moving from the finite towards the Infinite, from having ego to not having ego. The fact of the matter is that there is no real time except now, and you already are what you are trying to be now. The past and the future are mental constructs, the mind grappling with and filtering what it experiences. And naturally, this is why the guru would call for that change now, regardless. When else are you going to make it? The world as it is will not suddenly disappear.

The more I observe the apparent passage of time--in my personal life, in the community, in the country, in the world--I start to see how screwed up it really is. I was listening to some Joseph Campbell lectures in preparation for a meetup in New York this weekend, and Campbell talks about theories of human progress a la Spengler and Frobenius. Both men attempt a chronology of human civilization, and both suggest we may be in a "civilized" era that is actually the beginning of the end. Some of their constructs are useful for thinking about how cultural forms gain prominence and then suddenly drop off--but then potentially gain prominence again. (Campbell was specifically referring to the resurgence of interest in Eastern thought---as a thousands of years old system is more relevant today than the archaic social forms we've touted, but are disassociated from). But I'm not sure I buy the idea that we're progressing towards anything. Things behave in a more "karmic" fashion (referring to the consequences of actions)--we keep repeating the same errors over and over again. You could say it's cyclical, which may be more accurate than linear, but in reality it seems to have no pattern at all. Probably because our experience is so complex--for whatever "advances" we make in one area, we "regress" in others.

Campbell speaks about the four functions of myth-- 1. to relate you to the Mystery of existence, 2. to present a total (and up-to-date) image of the Universe, 3. to validate and maintain social order, and 4. to carry one through life crises. He notes that 2 and 3 are now handled by secularism in our society (though the picture of the Universe presented in the East thousands of years ago is more up to date than our Western religious idea), and 4 by psychologists. All that remains is #1, and we're still grappling with that in a very unconscious way, for the most part. I sometimes call it the "atheist on their deathbed" syndrome, but really, one faces the Mystery every time there's a major life change--especially an unpredictable one. The realization that you are not in control and don't have all the answers can be frightening if you've invested too much in rationality. You can explain everything down the the last elementary particle, and you still haven't explained the Mystery of why existence occurs at all.

Time as we experience it flows, and, as it has been pointed out by physicists--it doesn't necessarily flow in one direction. There's always the entropy factor, and if we use that metaphorically, that chaos is equivalent to our experience of the unknown (though the latter is obviously less measurable). We spend a lot of time worrying about what comes next--whether that be with finances, job, career, love life, home--and the reality is that you really don't know and can't predict with any reliability. I don't make serious 5-year plans because they're ridiculous. You're not on schedule to reach a "goal". You just are, and need to trust that you are where you need to be, whether that's perceived as good or bad.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cycles of Anger

I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness these days, for many reasons. That part of me that believes in astrology thinks the recent Cardinal Cross may have something to do with sudden outbursts of crazy behavior in people, and maybe it's as good an explanation as any. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there has been a sharp increase in my sense of feeling manipulated, used, neglected, and just plain disrespected these days.

My usual strategy in such cases it to simply shrug and say, "Life is like that, suck it up and deal with it." Then I got a call from a friend last night, who has been going through a horrible month at work. She was tired of being disrespected. When one works with the public in a non-profit capacity, the sense of entitlement that people have is often staggering. People are astonished that they might have to follow rules in a public place, or God forbid, consider someone else's needs. We talked about the latest customer service model of society. What kind of limits should be set by the person providing the service? Usually, angry customers can be placated simply by having someone listen to them sympathetically. That is because they're looking for validation--which is another way of saying they would like to be treated with respect, as a subject, not an object. But some people don't treat anyone with respect at all--they don't even pretend. And when that someone has to be told they can't do something, or that they are breaking rules, what is a legitimate response if they jump up and start cursing you out? One might excuse the mentally ill for not having the faculties to handle social interaction. However, these are often people who are not mentally ill; they are merely self-centered.

In discussing this set of episodes, I've thought about the way in which social attitudes have changed. One thing I find scary is the "customer service" model of higher education. Many students feel that professors need to serve them, the way a waiter or concierge might serve them, because they are paying for education. And some schools are actually backing this model. This is a huge mistake. University classes are challenging. Sometimes students have to take classes they don't want to take. But the requirements are in place for a reason--they are there to teach you basic research, writing, and critical thinking skills. I see more and more articles on ROI (return on investment) in education, and you have to wonder what exactly is being quantified. Is it about how big of a salary you make when you graduate? That seems to be the measure these days, and it's totally off the mark. I read an article at work recently about student evaluations, and the weight placed on them by administrators. I've never had bad evaluations, but I still think it's a bad idea to use them as a measurement of a professor's work. If a lot of students complain, a department can investigate, but it should not be the only yardstick in measuring performance. Now they ask students if they think that their class "is going to be valuable to them in the future." How the heck would they know? Often students will write back 5 or 10 years later, saying how they disliked your class at the time, but now realize that what they learned is helpful to them. In our drive to objectively quantify everything for outcomes assessment, we forget that some aspects cannot be meaningfully quantified.
This recent graduation speech by valedictorian Erica Goldson has hit a national nerve, and it's not difficult to see why.

Returning to my original topic--another friend of mine spent time with our guru this summer. She told me a story about three girls working together on the tour. Two of the girls disliked the other girl, considering her to be rude and aggressive. One of those two girls left her station, and sat down to pray near the guru, thinking about how much she couldn't stand the other girl. The guru looked straight at her, and beckoned her to come. She then said, "go, and bring back the two girls you work with." The girl did as she was told--and the guru told the three of them--"if you don't like one person--if you think they're rude and aggressive--then you think of that person as Amma (i.e., the guru) and you serve them. And stop thinking negative thoughts about them."

I thought a lot about this story. It goes back to the notion that it's easy to love your friends, but not your enemies. It did occur to me that I have a problem with this story. Angry people are hurting people--they have been trampled, invalidated, disrespected, or at least feel like they have. When someone repeatedly injures you, it's very hard not to be angry. Even if one agrees that you should be detached and not be concerned about how others treat you, this is much easier said than done. To say that one should simply serve the offending party turns the anger back on the person who was wronged. Now you are not only angry, you feel like a bad person for getting angry--and this makes you angrier. There is a word for anger turned inwards. It's called depression.

I have a very long fuse with people, but when they blow it, the fireworks usually aren't pretty. It takes a LOT--I shrug off a lot of disrespectful behaviors, but I do get fed up after awhile. Even knowing that I should forgive and move on, it's very hard to do--it's hard to rebuild your house when the fire is still raging. It has to die down first. To say that I shouldn't get angry in the first place--if someone stabs you repeatedly, you're not just going to smile and take it--a survival instinct kicks in. Perhaps the guru is noting that the only thing being destroyed is the ego, which--on the path to liberation--is a good thing. However, we have egos for a reason--it's our game piece in life. We need to focus more on playing the game fairly than on throwing the game piece away, unless that is our greatest desire. And like all games--sometimes you move ahead to the next round, sometimes you go back seven spaces. I think a lot of people on spiritual paths are often angry, frustrated, and ill-behaved because they forget this very basic thing. While we strive to rid ourselves of such attachments, they don't go away overnight. And they shouldn't.

So, while the guru is certainly pointing to the ideal, the reality is that we struggle with vicious cycle of respect--disrespect-validation--anger--forgiveness. And like most processes, it takes time.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part 5 (The Last Part. I Really Mean It).

Okay, this is it--the last blog posting about my UK visit this month. I have many other things I want to write about at this point, but I want to finish up before I become swallowed up by Fall semester preparations...

Thursday was the last day of the Oxford Round Table, and presentations ended at noon. It seemed like it would be a fairly tame morning. There was a presentation on John Donne and the biological/evolution in literary forms. I noticed the presenter focused on Donne's use of dramatic monologue in her discussion. My problem with dramatic monologue has always been that it's a fence-sitting position--the poet, assuming another identity, can claim that the thoughts and sentiments voiced in the poem aren't his or her own. (Dr. Dell would have called it the "cop-out" literary form). I'm not sure that dramatic monologue tells us anything real about Donne or his views. But I didn't get to mention this, as there were many questions and not enough time for all of them.

The presentation after this first one was a doozy. It was given by a woman who is very nice and outgoing, but who clearly has been watching too much Fox News, in my opinion. After giving her paper, ostensibly on religious tolerance, but full of right-wing political conspiracy, many people at the table visibly recoiled--myself included, I imagine. She mentioned her recent retirement from her university, after she published this paper and was "persecuted for her religious beliefs". It's clear that she takes an eschatological view of history, but this is merely opinion and in no way supported by real facts, in spite of the "research" she did for the paper. To put that in an academic paper, along with her blatant anti-progressive politics--it certainly made sense to me why her university wanted to distance itself from her views. Certainly anyone is entitled to their worldview, but in academia, one must be careful. I happen to believe in astrology and many other things, but in no way would I write an academic religious paper trying to credit that point of view. I think a lot of what is going on in our country now is due to a difficult aspect between Saturn and Uranus. Is that my personal opinion? Yes. Is it academically credible? Absolutely not. It's personal, and should stay that way.

The rest of the papers covered Lutheran ministries, views of tolerance from exceptionally conservative viewpoints, and a proposal for a church/state model from an Oklahoma pastor who was trying to find a reasonable ground between literalist views and secularism. Our distinguished law professor at the Round Table pointed out that the things he was asking for already existed under the law, but it was clear that it wasn't perceived to be that way by his community.

I was glad to head to lunch with Pip that day. After a meal at the Turl Tavern (and trying their Summer Ale), she took me inside the gates of New College, where the old Saxon city wall is located. The Round Table had a banquet that evening, the final event of the conference--and I made the decision to visit with Paul and Pip one more time before leaving on Friday instead. We had a lovely Italian dinner, and it was nice to spend some more time with them before leaving. Paul and I also met up for one last drink on Friday, before I got on the train for London. Since I rarely get to see Rob, Paul, or Pip, it was really nice to have that face-to-face time.

I stayed in Oxford until about 1:30, when I had reservation to go back to London. After breakfast I was able to leave my luggage in the college common room, so I could walk around and take some more pictures, stop for some coffee, and have some final chats with Round Table attendees. I spoke with Josh, who was a student acting as a jack-of-all-trades for our conference. He noticed that I was reading M.R. James, and mentioned that he'd done his thesis on James and Victorian ghost stories. I told him about a story James wrote for the Morgan Library, which I came upon by accident in a used bookstore in Morristown, New Jersey. I'd never seen the story before. I also spoke with Chad and his father William again, and Martin Lockley, all of who were waiting to leave. It was nice to have a last chat before heading out. I was sorry to leave Oxford.

Back in London, I checked into my hotel, and was supposed to meet up with Karborn at 6:30, but he was held up at a freelance job, so we were supposed to meet on Saturday instead. There were some complications so that didn't end up happening, but I did spend some time in the Bloomsbury section of London--going back to see what was new at the British Museum, spending some time reading and relaxing in Tavistock Square, and doing some writing in the British Library. I saw some of the manuscript pages of J.G. Ballard's novel "Crash", which is new to the British Library archives. It's amazing how many edits are on the original typewritten page. On this trip, as on all others, I brought a London street map with me, but this was the first time I didn't have to use it. I'm starting to know my way around quite well.

I went to bed fairly early, as I had to get to Heathrow by 8:30 in the morning. I had a relatively painless trip to the airport, and the flight was basically on-time (30 minutes late), but the lines for U.S. immigration were obscene. I think 12 flights must have arrived at the same time. The citizen's line was as long as the visitor's line. While on the line, I saw our university president and his wife, who had just come back from a trip to our university's sister college near Banbury. I thought it was a rather random encounter, and gave me a mental reminder of how much work awaited me when I got back to my office. I did get home in a reasonable amount of time to my hysterical cat, who has finally gotten over his angst at my absence. But that whole first evening, all I heard was this angry mewling, and I literally had a shadow everywhere I went--I couldn't take a step without the cat wrapping itself around my legs.

So--back to "normalcy"--at least until the next trip...

Friday, August 06, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part 4 (Tuesday and Wednesday)

I'm a day behind once again, so I think I will cover 2 days in this post. Life has a funny habit of getting in the way of my writing these days. Now I'm off for 3 days, so maybe things will improve in that arena.


Back to Oxford--Tuesday was the other full day at the Round Table, with another 9 presentations. The focus was most definitively on the science side of the Religion/Science topic. The morning sessions questioned the need for God in this day and age (based on the assumption that God was used as an explanation for things we can't understand), whether there was any empirical, testable evidence for the soul (there's not at this point), a presentation on why theology and the scientific method will not and cannot meet, and a look at evolution from three different perspectives.

There was also a presentation on the resistance to smallpox vaccinations in the 18th century because of the religious superstitions of the people. I was surprised to learn that people were chucking things through Cotton Mather's windows when he suggested they get vaccinated. Of course, that was at a time when the colony was getting fed up with the "Elect" and the stupidity of the witch trials that were allowed to go on, so that may have had as much to do with it as anything. I mention this one specifically as this is the one where I got to lead off the discussion. To be fair, if the Puritans are watching everyone who gets the smallpox innoculation die instead of becoming immune, they might have had good reason to want to avoid the innoculation. But it brought about a discussion of the modern anti-vax movement, something that shouldn't happen in the 21st century.

The afternoon discussions were about making evolution a theme of the biology curricula of American public schools, a philosophical paper on the common epistemological errors scholars make when arguing on the religion/science debate, and a paper on Robert Frost and his interest in Darwin. Martin Lockley, a paleontologist from the University of Colorado, also gave a presentation on the evolution of consciousness, which was probably the most interesting to me. We chatted a bit beforehand about his research, and I did buy a copy of his new book on that subject, "How humanity came into being : the evolution of human consciousness". So far, it's been a fascinating read.

I will avoid getting into the discussions, which were naturally heated in both directions, as I already mentioned that yesterday. You can bet there was more of that on Tuesday. After dinner, a large group of us went to the King's Arms pub at the corner of Holywell St., for a post-dinner drink and chat. I had an interesting discussion with Dan, who presented on Native American religious persecution--we discussed the kinds of visions and experiences that occur in sacred contexts that simply do not have rational explanations. Not everything does.


Wednesday was a half-day at the round table--we only had sessions til noon, and then the rest of the day was free. The morning consisted of a talk on the German Templars, on logotherapy for dealing with depression, the uses of art in theology, and a history of the Thomist Christians in India. There was also a discussion of language and emotion in evolution, though my suitemate, who is a philosophy professor in Ohio, suggested that the argument was flawed because it contained an error known as the "bifurcation of time"--suggesting that one must either change OR remain static--the fluid nature of time, its stops and starts, are not considered in solving the issue--one must either stay the same OR be in a state of change--or use one to get to the other. His discussion reminded me of Dr. Dell's old realism/idealism continuum in the face of time (which was discussed in a Victorian poetry class, believe it or not). But that's another matter.

After the session, I met up with Rob Harris, who I've mentioned before as the webmaster for, John Foxx's website. We also met up with Paul and his wife Pip--I'd met Paul in Liverpool at the Awaydays VJ set that John Foxx and Karborn did with Dennis Da Silva last May. Rob and I drank lots of beer and talked for 8 hours before Paul and Pip arrived--we mainly talked about families, moving, John Foxx, people we mutually know who also know John Foxx--and I think Pink Floyd crept into the discussion somewhere as well. By the time Paul and Pip arrived, I had a massive sinus headache coming on, so I must have looked pained. However, we left the pub, and took a walk over to the University club, where we had another drink (no more alcohol for me), and talked about an Ultravox (Urevox) gig they attended in Newcastle--which was quite a funny story, though it probably wasn't funny at the time. I also learned that Midge Ure has become a motivational speaker. Funny, the only inspiration I get from Midge Ure is the urge to fling myself out the nearest window when I hear him sing. But, clearly someone wants to hear him speak, or they wouldn't pay him. From what I've heard about his talks, it sounds like you'd be better off setting fire to large wads of cash. At least you'd keep warm. Or could roast marshmallows.

I think I made it back to my room about midnight. Aside from the headache, it appears I've developed an amazing alcohol tolerance, which is probably not good. Still, it's not likely you will catch me drinking that many beers in an evening any time in the near future.

Tomorrow, I will try to discuss the rest of the trip, so I that I'm not dragging this travel blogging on for an interminable amount of time...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part 3 (Roundtable, Day 1)

I woke up Monday morning to the sound of pigeons--something I would hear every morning in Oxford. There were two that liked to sit on top of the chapel, and one liked to hang out in the tree outside my window. I've seen pigeons on streets, in parks, many places--but I've never heard the sound they made. It was a bit disconcerting at first--almost reminded me of an owl. The weather was refreshingly cool; if my trip had been worth nothing else, it was worth getting away from the disgusting, hot, humid Northeast U.S. weather. I think someone needs to do a study on weather and depression/anxiety, independent of seasonal affective disorder.

Monday was the first real "work" day of the Round Table conference. Breakfast was at 7:30, and we were in sessions from 8:30 to 4, with one coffee break and a lunch break at 12. I know the approach to this conference was supposed to be more seminar-like, perhaps more like a think-tank, but I really didn't know what to expect. As it turns out, there are multiple presentations (I hesitate to say "papers", as no one could possibly deliver a long paper in 20 minutes), followed by about 20 minutes of discussion. Sometimes two or three papers were grouped together, with one 20-minute discussion period. Someone is chosen to "lead" the discussion by making the first comments, and/or asking the first question.

On this first day, we had 9 presentations. The morning sessions were largely devoted to religious liberty and law, though there was one presentation on Montesquieu's thought and its application to religious liberty. The very first presentation discussed the difficulties in U.S. policy making due to the frequent overlapping of religious and secular interests. The line between "church" and "state" is not always so clear cut--in fact, it's not clear cut at all in some areas. A later presentation discussed the specifics of Constitutional law as it relates to religion in the United States. I think the paper that struck me the most in the morning session was by Dr. Leslie James, who talked about religious tolerance in the context of post-colonialism. Dr. James was originally from the Caribbean, and found it interesting that all of us ex-British colonists (this would include U.S. Americans) were back at the "center" in the UK, and wondered how religions shape themselves in the midst of Empires. Disintegration tends to prompt a sense of retention--a need to "retain" the previous identity. He questioned how we might get beyond that point.

The afternoon sessions were a bit more--controversial. There were some very good talks on tolerance, and one on the history of Native American persecution in the United States, which is often overlooked. Unfortunately, the discussion of that paper was overshadowed by the very last one, a geneticist trying to shoehorn certain findings about DNA structure and the intelligence of apes into a justification for the Biblical creation story. Many of us were not involved in the "hard" sciences, but those that were said the paper was full of factual scientific errors, never mind trying to apply it to religion.

I should note that we had a number of conservative, "anti-evolution" folks at this conference. And while everyone was cordial to each other--including these folks--it was clear at the table that they felt they were at war, under attack. They may not have said too much, but in looking at their faces--their fists were clenched, their face was hard set, eyes bulging, like they would explode. Almost anything said in favor of evolution or hard science was met with a sniping or passive-aggressive response, as if we were there trying to "score" points for one side or the other. It's rather sad, because Christianity can be perfectly valid without all of this literalism--it's not necessary, and doesn't invalidate the value of the Biblical text for believers. It was not ever meant to be read so literally (I've shared my views on that in many blog posts), and I don't understand the need to paint oneself into that corner in the name of "Christianity". You'll notice that Jews, who are the people who wrote the creation stories, all 5 of them, and all different, don't validate this interpretation. But I could go on about that for far too long, as anyone studying comparative religion could, so I'll stop here. To be fair, there were people on the "science" side of the debate who could be equally dogmatic, not allowing for any validity in the religious worldview. It was an interesting continuum.

With regard to the geneticist, I had to mentally compare my own interest in quantum physics, and the theory of a holographic universe (discussed in another blog posting). I could take that theory and say, "This is evidence for the Hindu notion of maya--everything is an illusion." While it's an interesting correlation, it proves nothing from an academic standpoint, and isn't even necessarily meaningful. But it was hard for me to comment on the discussion, without getting embroiled in it. And I have no need to get embroiled in the virtues of the dichotomy, as I don't really see the need for the dichotomy. Religion and science are not incompatible worldviews; any worldview that is narrow, literalistic, and dogmatic, regardless of religious or scientific belief, is going to be incompatible with almost everything else. There's no real room for debate or real conversation there.

After the day's session and dinner, I went out with a group of other participants to the Eagle and Child pub, where the Inklings writing group met in the early 20th century. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were probably the most well-known members of this group, and indeed we sat in the "Rabbit room" where they used to meet. We had some interesting conversations about pedagogy (as many of us were professors), the differences in perspective between men and women, and more in-depth discussions of issues raised at the round table. I think these kinds of discussions are often more interesting and enlightening than the formal sessions. We trudged back to the college after last call, and most of us were wide awake in our rooms, as we were still on American time (i.e., it felt like it was only 7 pm). Needless to say we were a bit less bright-eyed in the morning for the next day's session. But that's tomorrow's post.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part 2

So once again I've been delayed in posting. I've been home for 2 full days now, and apparently life indignantly stops when I leave New Jersey. So, I've had much to catch up on--bills, grading, work, appointments. And of course, the cat spent the week I was away sulking, hiding, puking, and re-enacting the last scene from Anna Karenina. OK, I made that last one up. But seriously, if we had a train around here...

In any case, back to the third day of my trip. I left London on Sunday and took the train to Oxford. It was the first time I'd attempted a pre-reservation for a train, and I was glad I did, because the train was packed with American tourists going on some kind of walking tour in Kingham. Having a seat with your name on it helps on crowded trains. Plus, it's way cheaper.

I arrived in Oxford around 10:45 or so, and was at Harris Manchester College by a little after 11. For those of you who haven't heard of Harris Manchester College--it's one of Oxford's newest colleges, for "more mature" students. In Britain, they define this as someone 21 and older. Apparently the British government hasn't encountered many 21 year olds. I would pay money to meet a mature 21-year-old male. But not to get off topic--I was shown to my room, which was fairly nice, with a view of the old chapel outside. My only problem with the arrangement was that the suite I was in only had a bathtub--no shower. This is a problem, as I really can't take baths, as I'm a bit infection-prone. But I could have made do if I wasn't sharing the suite area with a man. A very nice man, but nonetheless, I'm sure he would be no more thrilled about sharing my germs in the tub than I would be about sharing his. We don't have that kind of relationship. Somehow I muddled through the week managing to bathe without filling up the tub, but I can't imagine how students do this during the semester. And this was not an old building, by the way--it was the newest one. So go figure.

I had time to meander around Oxford before going to the opening registration at 4:00. Naturally I made a bee-line for Blackwell's booksellers, particularly the rare book room. Unfortunately it was closed, being a Sunday, but I could still look at the offerings behind glass. I managed to restrain myself from buying anything, and headed over to the White Horse tavern, for some exceptional food and a Hobgoblin on draft. Really, it seemed life could get no better. And I'm still not sure it could.

I investigated the passages around Brasenose Lane and the Radcliffe Camera--a huge domed building that is currently being renovated. I made my way to the High Street, and discovered Chambers Pub, which has cheap beer (read as: not sold at tourist rates) and a magnificent beer garden out back. I ended up in conversation with a family from Birmingham that was vacationing in Oxford. They were surprised at how diverse it was for such a small city.

Back to Harris Manchester, I picked up my conference materials, and chatted with some of the other participants. Everyone seemed quite nice--some people had been there before. I didn't stay long, as I wanted to wash up before dinner. Dinners at this conference were a formal affair--I had my traditional little black dress with me for the occasion. I met a number of great people at the reception--Tonya, who has an impressive ministry to women in need in Georgia, Mary, who is a Thomist Christian from Kerala, and William and Chad, two Southern ministers (or former ministers, in Chad's case) who would immediately destroy your stereotype of Southern ministers. I found it encouraging to meet people who did not hold such a narrow view of Christianity, and weren't bound by literalism.

After an exceptional duck entree, Charles Mould got up to speak to us about Oxford, and some of the area and college history. Afterward, I retired to my room, and probably fell asleep rather early--I had a lot to drink between the earlier beer excursions and the wine at dinner, so I was happy to get some shut eye. Without the benefit of a cat pulling at my hair.