Sunday, July 24, 2011


I was shocked to read about the tragedy in Oslo and nearby Utoeya. Norway is not a country you associate with violence. Their stiffest penalty under the law is 21 years in prison. The worst that police usually contend with are breaking up drunken brawls. The kind of massacre that went on there doesn't seem possible, as though we will all wake up and find it was just a disturbing dream.

In reading the initial news reports, there was an immediate suspicion of "al-Qaeda" terrorism. Maybe that wasn't an unreasonable assumption, given that at least some of the native population was not pleased about the influx of Muslim immigrants, and there have been conflicts about Muslim religious laws versus the laws of the country throughout all of the Netherlands. However, in a twist of fate, the person responsible was not a Muslim, not associated with al-Qaeda--he was, in fact, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigration. You would not look at the suspect's photo and think "terrorist". That should give us reason to pause.

I recall growing up, that I would hear at home and in school about "talking to strangers". Strangers who lure you into their car and then take you away and kill you, or whatever they're supposed to do. People who would put razor blades in Halloween candy. If you believed the movies they showed you, and the lectures in class, anyone who you didn't know, especially if they were "different" or appeared "shifty", clearly fell into this category and were criminals. Similarly, there were assumptions about certain "neighborhoods". To this day, I am continually amazed at the unawareness about perceptions of "otherness". I think of older family members, former co-workers, and others who I know and deal with who work side by side with others in diverse environments every day, with no conflict. Yet, you will still hear them make statements like, "That used to be a good neighborhood until the blacks moved in." And there's absolutely no awareness of the racism of that statement, no understanding that it's not the "blacks" that make a neighborhood unsafe, it's usually the economic and social conditions of the area. We're not talking about neo-Nazis; we're talking about your average nice old man or lady who has lived his or her life in a suburban neighborhood in a very socially "normal" way.

In spite of all this negative mythology, the facts are quite different. It is incredibly unlikely that strangers are waiting around corners to grab you. Statistics show that most child abductions are not committed by strangers, they're committed by family members, friends, or neighbors. Your kid isn't dumb enough to get in a car with a stranger; they are likely to get into a car with someone they know, and think they can trust. Similarly, just as much crime occurs among the "privileged white" segment of society. They're also more likely to be the ones buying drugs; after all, they have the money for it. Boredom plus money usually equals trouble in the adolescent set.

Back to Norway. The latest "outsider" group has been the Muslims. After 9/11, the cultural myth suggested that every Muslim was suspect, they were all extremists by definition and operatives for al-Qaeda. If you don't believe that, you just have to recall all the nonsense and uproar over the "Ground Zero Mosque" or the assumption that President Obama was really a Muslim. (Not that it matters if he really was, but that was something usually included in a laundry list of negatives by his opponents). Again, the fact is that Islam is not a violent religion, and its adherents are not all extremists. In fact, the overwhelming majority are not extremists. Yes, there are violent extremist cells that should be monitored, and are being monitored. But the attacks on Norway show it's not just those who are Muslim with extremist views. It's also those who profess to be Christian.

There is a lot of Christian extremism out there. The most violent of them tend to be associated with white supremacist groups or ideologies. It is clear that these groups do not represent the whole of Christianity, or even the Christian message. But--if you are a Christian--do you want people to look at the Norway events and assume that all Christians are terrorists? The young man responsible was described as being a fundamentalist Christian with right-wing ideologies. And--he was Norwegian. He was one of their own, not a foreign national. (Incidentally--another report says he was a freemason. I don't know which version is true, but I can similarly imagine the ignorant outpouring against "secret societies", and "occultism" that will ensue if that proves to be true).

This case has something in common with the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords; in both cases, the people involved were psychotic. I don't know what the diagnosis will prove to be for Anders Breivik, but there has to be a certain amount of blind paranoia and delusion to take the ideologies he espoused and take them to that extreme. There is a component of humanness missing there, that is a trademark of the sociopath. In short--these are individuals who are sick. And--when these kinds of atrocities happen, it usually centers around an individual who is mentally sick. It has everything to do with the person, and nothing to do with the group they belong to, unless the group openly espouses violence. And still--you can't take the characteristics of that group and apply that to everyone with the same characteristic (e.g., saying Al-Qaeda is made up of Muslims, therefore all Muslims espouse the views of al-Qaeda).

We tend to want to blame groups in such cases, as the attack of the psychotic is so random, so unexpected, it preys upon our worst fears. We start to study the psychotic individual, and his characteristics, and our sense of self-protection makes us wary of others with similar characteristics. We think we can protect ourselves from such future events in this way. But it is a fear response; it does not represent the reality, and usually creates more conflict and violence.

There are components of this that make me think of the "critical thinking" discussion occurring online where I teach, which I still plan to address. For now--just remember those who are suffering in Norway, who have lost loved ones, have been injured, or are traumatized from being there. It's a sobering reminder of how one person can do so much damage, and also of the sad fact that so much good could have been done with that passion instead. Humans have great potential for both.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


It is 3 am, and there are piles of books all over my bedroom floor. I have finally finished a draft proposal for a textbook, which has taken me much longer than expected due to publisher submission requirements. The heat index is supposed to hit 105 degrees today, so I have turned on the air conditioners already to cool the house down before I go to work. I am conscious, but cognizance comes slowly.

While I am pleased with this writing milestone, it is only a beginning, and I still have 3 articles to reformat and write abstracts for in at least one other language besides English. In addition, I have to put a proposal together for my fiction collection as well. So, life has been busy, and needless to say, blogging has fallen by the wayside.

During my researching binge this past week, I stopped in a restaurant very near to the library where I was working to get some dinner. For some reason it seemed there were a lot of children in the restaurant that evening. I think five or six of them belonged to a blonde woman who appeared to be in a Xanax-induced haze. They swarmed the area around their table like vengeful locusts, while she was the picture of Stillness, staring into space with perfect detachment, blissfully unaware of her brood. But the locusts could not compete with the wailing I heard two tables over. Turning around, I saw an Indian family--a young woman, her daughter, her mother or mother-in-law, and her baby son. It was the latter who was wailing like a goete. I expected spirits to appear from the underworld momentarily.

Seeing the family suddenly jarred my memory with a thought. I recalled being in Hindu temples, and at pujas, and the way I was treated when I walked in, looking decidedly out of place in a sea of colorful saris, chanting and ringing of bells. Even when I am dressed accordingly, I still look out of place. I remember sitting for Shiva puja, and an older Indian gentleman leaned over to me. He said, "I don't mean to sound rude when I say this, but--what are you doing here? Are you Hindu?" "Yes," I replied. "Ah. Then that would be a good reason for you to be here." He then asked me many questions about why I would embrace Hinduism, which is what usually happens if I appear in such places. There is a certain fascination that a "foreigner" would be interested in their religion. They are not unwelcoming, just curious.

"Otherness" is usually associated with a kind of xenophobia--a suspicion of strangers. The Devil is always the stranger who sweeps into town, and people seek to eject him and protect themselves. I have discovered, however, that there is a strange kind of reverse discrimination that goes on in many cases. When I mingle with traditional Indian families, they always ask if I am married. When I say I am divorced, they nod and say, "Are you going to get married again?" I tell them probably not. They will then nod vigorously, "ah well, that is good then." By contrast--I have Indian friends who are divorced. When they enter these communities, they are shunned like lepers. I noted this discrepancy to a friend of mine, who replied, "No offense when I say this, but it's because you are white. They worship white people." She was not the only one to tell me this. A friend's daughter in Dubai told me that I should go there--it would be easy for me as a white American to get work. It was the natives and Indians who were shunned for the high-paying jobs.

So, it is a case of the foreigners having elevated or exceptional status in the community. It is as though a deity has swept in, and is exempt from the normal social rules. I wonder why that is the case. Perhaps the long-standing effects of British colonialism? I didn't think that was too well received, though I've also been told that British-style education and culture is the norm in parts of India; the British are gone, but their cultural impact remains. It may be a financial thing as well--there might be an assumption that white Americans are wealthy. I don't really know. But I find it peculiar, just as I find their treatment of their own communities peculiar at times. But human nature is the same regardless of nationality.

I finished grading for my summer course, and I'm starting to notice a new trend, not specifically with these students, but over all of my classes. There are a rising number of students who are clearly very smart, but believe they can pass a course without doing any of the work or reading. They are cultivating the art of bullshit. I have to confess that this is a useful skill in the world; no one knows everything, and sometimes you have to appear as though you know. So, you "bullshit", and some people are more convincing at it than others. Politics is a career based entirely on bullshit. So is television journalism. Unfortunately for these students, I don't do "bullshit". Call us elitist if you will, but in the academic world, I need to see that you understand what I've taken the time to teach you. Even if you just understand a little.

In checking my faculty e-mail, I noticed that there was a long thread of discussion about teaching critical thinking to students, and how you know you've done it. I'm still making my way through the discussion, which is quite interesting.

But now, it is time to go to work, and brave the heat, humidity, and bloodthirsty bugs outside. I'll write on critical thinking tomorrow if I haven't melted or been drained of all my blood.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I have been spending my "relax" time doing something not very relaxing--working on a textbook proposal. Textbook proposals are a lot of work--not only do you have to do your market research in terms of other similar texts, but you need to put together sample chapters (some publishers only want one, most want three--the one I'm querying wants three), and you have to have other peripheral documents like a curriculum vitae (fancy term for resume) and a list of potential reviewers. None of this is unreasonable, but it is a lot of work, especially considering that most publishers don't want you to query them with a finished product. They usually want to be involved in the process.

Writing the chapters has been tough, because I am limited in the amount of sources I have available in my home library. For all the books I have in this house, there are some topics where my holdings are sparse. Having most of the academic libraries around here closed or on limited summer hours doesn't help, especially since I have to write in between taking care of my household tasks, and I have to work full-time during the week. Since I am not writing the final product, I just want to give them an idea, but I also don't want to over-rely on one text, or inadvertently regurgitate the work of another author. This is especially true in cases where I only know a little bit about the person I'm writing about, or when I've only had access to a few of their writings.

This raised a question in my mind--how much "knowledge" of a topic is enough? What makes you an "expert"?

On some grand scale, we never really "know" anything. There is the old saying that a wise man knows that he does not know. Much of the method of Socrates demonstrated this fact; he would question the "experts" to get to the root of a subject, only to find that they really didn't know very much at all. This made him decidedly unpopular, but it's an ugly fact for the ego--there is only so much that you know.

For every book I've read on the subject I'm working on, there are probably ten I haven't read. My reading list could fill a football stadium right now. And the books I have read already might come close to filling a football stadium. Compared to other scholars, I start to wonder if I've read the "right" books. I comfort myself with the notion that other scholars must do this as well.

Pierre Bayard wrote a book that I actually read a few years ago, entitled, "How to Talk About Books You've Never Read". He notes that the great writer Umberto Eco has said that you don't even have to hold a book in your hands if you pay attention to what others have said about it. I'm sure a lot of this goes on in literary circles. In any event, Bayard argues that we don't read books to memorize their content, and we certainly can't read everything that's out there. We should understand a book's place in our library, as the books we choose speak more about ourselves than about the book, its author, or the author's intent.

Maybe this says a lot about the acquisition of "knowledge". We seek to know about things that tell us about ourselves. We become passionately interested in topics because they relate to our own inner life, the thing that we know the best. If this is the case, then "expertise" tells us more about the expert than about his or her subject. This makes learning much more subjective rather than objective. There isn't a single person out there reading this (or not) who hasn't had to slog their way through some assigned text that they have no interest in. In such cases, nothing is ever remembered about the book--except the title, maybe a line here or there--and I would bet those lines are remembered because they were mentioned by a professor in class.

As a professor, I want everyone to be interested in my subject, and to make it interesting. But, to use the old expression, we can't all "tap dance and spit nickels" for our classes. Even a basic understanding of many subjects requires effort on the part of students outside the lecture hall (and a fair amount of attention inside). And what I find fascinating someone else might find utterly boring. And vice versa.

There has been an unpleasant trend in universities in recent years, allowing the students to grade the professor. While there are some truly awful professors out there, I would say that overall this is a huge mistake. Students will declare a class "bad" because it was "too hard" or "not interesting enough". Yet you hear many stories about how years later, the person suddenly realizes the value of the class. In short--students don't know enough to know whether a professor is good or not, unless the professor really falls down on the job.

Which brings up another point--a lot of the time, when asked to give presentations or lectures, the presenter will be nervous that they'll come across sounding stupid or foolish. The fact is that most of the time, the audience knows little or nothing about the topic, and anything known by the presenter comes across as a world of knowledge. It's like the phenomenon surrounding parents and computers. Even if I only know a little about computers, the first time I figure out a problem on my mother's machine, I am suddenly an "expert", and will receive a call about every difficulty she is having with the Internet, with her Excel spreadsheets, with her e-mail. Usually they're questions I can't answer until I come over and look at it. This is because the knowledge I have is not a memorization of every program--it's a basic knowledge of how the computer works.

That's probably true in scholarship as well. I once heard that in library science, 80% of peer reviewed articles were basically re-writes of other studies; very little of it was original material. People will write what they have to for tenure, and they'll likely stick to something "safe" (something already well researched). So, if you're familiar with core readings, you don't need to know all of the peripheral material to get by.

In any event--I have to remind myself that there's no need to scale Mount Everest, knowledge-wise. Almost no one else has done it, either.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I've mentioned before that my cat has a habit of waking me up at 4 am. He's now decided that he wants to eat at 3 am, and my refusal to feed him until at least 4 means that the 3:00 hour is a decidedly unsettled one, full of yowling, pawing, and being frequently nuzzled by a wet cat nose. He's going to be awfully traumatized when I go away for 2 weeks to the UK. My neighbor won't feed him until at least 8 am.

In any event, I don't know yet whether these early feline wake-ups are a curse or a blessing. I'd like to have a full night's sleep, but I also find that early morning is the best writing time for me. Last year I wrote about a Sylvia Plath documentary from the Voices and Visions series. In the documentary, A. Alvarez mentioned the last year's of Plath's life, when she was writing intensely. He said she would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, work until the kids got up--and then she was a Mum, looking after the kids, and looking after the house. By nighttime, she was likely too exhausted to write anything. In this scene in the documentary, you see a woman portraying Plath, opening her shutters to a London sunrise, looking over the rooftops, the outside sounds dominated by deliverymen making early morning deliveries. The woman glances out the window, then picks up her tea, and heads for her typewriter. I was reminded of this scene once when I was staying in an old Bloomsbury hotel in London. I opened the curtains at around 5 in the morning in late July, and I had this view of the London rooftops with all of the pastels of an impending sunrise. I looked down, and there were very few people about--just trucks making deliveries. And, I was sitting there with my tea, taking in the morning air. While I would never compare myself to Sylvia Plath in a literary sense, I can definitely understand the charm of those early hours looking over the city, and why one would want to write at those hours.

Besides the atmosphere, the other thing about early mornings is that I've usually just woken up from REM sleep. This means that I'm fresh from dreaming, and my mind is filled with those thoughts that occur before the conscious ego has entirely taken over. Lately my dreams have been coming from the collective rather than the personal unconscious. It may be because of daytime conscious thoughts--I've finished my fiction series reflecting on various archetypes, and I've been confronted with both the Child and the Trickster archetypes in dreams. I also had an insight about a character that I created years ago--back in the mid-1980s. This character doesn't appear in any of my published writings; she is the focus of a novel I've been writing for some time, and a character like her is in the story "Animus". While the story of this character is not my story by any means, I recognize that the character's myth is also one of my own driving myths.

"Myth" is a frequently misunderstood term. I sometimes use the word "narrative" instead. I remember a conversation in New York with John Foxx during the same London trip mentioned above, when he told me there was nothing "mythical" about his work. This is because he and I are not using the same definition of myth. The work of the writer and the artist is by definition "mythical"--that work is storytelling work. Whatever imagery is used, with paint, words, photos, music--some narrative is being related. Much is made in literary theory about "intent"--there is the author's intent, and then there's how readers interpret a work. In short, the author created the piece with his or her own unconscious myth, and others viewing, hearing, or reading the piece will relate it to their own unconscious myth. Or, I should say, one myth of our many myths.

I don't want to get into the story of my character here, as it is complex. But the driving myth comes from the personal unconscious. While I did not have a perfect childhood, it was still a very imaginative one. I held onto it as long as I could. Then one day, I woke up, and everything was different. The kind of play I engaged in was suddenly childish, and I found myself with romantic feelings. This literally happened in one night. I just woke up in the morning, and this is how I felt. Life completely changed after that, and while I could never go back to being a "child", I also didn't like adolescence. Love was a hurtful thing, frequently unrequited, and it was against a backdrop of adolescent social drama. The worst part is that it was largely unavoidable--young hormones do not yield to being tamed. The myth started then, and it has to do with being thrust into the maelstrom of life without any warning or control. Because romantic love was wrapped up in all of this, that has gotten a decidedly unfavorable review from me. There is a sense of past happiness decimated, and the need to stoically keep moving forward, because going backward is impossible.

Of course, rationally I know that all of this upheaval was necessary. One doesn't stay in a single phase of life forever. But the unconscious still plays it out as a betrayal on the part of life--on the part of "God", on the part of society. And therefore, all of the above are viewed with polite suspicion.

I'm not interested in turning this into a personal therapy session, so I think that's enough said. But it is a pretty good illustration of how our unconscious stories drive our life decisions, and our creative output as well.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


There was almost no one on the road when I drove to work this morning. This afternoon, I could only assume one of 3 things:

1. Everyone got over their 4th of July hangover at the same time and hit the road
2. Schools reopened early and no one told me
3. There is some major natural disaster headed our way, and everyone is stocking up on canned goods in anticipation

Seriously, there was an obscene amount of traffic driving home--unusual for highways not pointing at the Jersey Shore in the summer. If you're from New Jersey, you don't go "to the beach", you go "down the Shore". And pretty much everyone is down the Shore at this time of year. I live 2 hours from the Shore, so it's usually dead around here in the summer, except for people swimming in the local reservoirs. Which is fine with me.

I was out with a friend the other day who wondered why you can't walk into a bar or eating establishment and not have music blaring. Come to think of it, you can't go anywhere and not have music blaring--usually music anyone over 30 would hate. There was some psychological study done (there always is), that suggested that loud music causes people to drink more, which is why bars are always blaring loud music. That doesn't work for people like me, and I don't think I'm alone. So, for you entrepreneurs, here's a new get-rich-quick scheme--quiet restaurants.

I remember hating every minute of my wedding reception, even though it was very nicely done. My guests loved it, because we chose to not have loud music blaring. Some of the people invited hadn't seen each other in years. They didn't want to shout over some obnoxious band or DJ. If I ever had to plan such an occasion again, that is something I would not change.

I realize I'm far more sensitive to noise than I used to be. Mind you, I've always been a fan of hardcore punk and thrash--you would think that I'd love loud music. But I don't consider that noise. Unless I'm trying to write, in which case, it's a distraction--but it's still not noise. If there was one thing I could say for the family with 8 million kids that moved out this past year--at least their teenage boys were into the Misfits. I could handle that kind of interruption during the day. In general though, I like things quiet, which is why I listen to more ambient music these days, if I listen to anything at all. Or, I watch re-runs of my favorite TV shows; I don't have to pay attention because I've already seen them.

My big problem with music in public places is that I usually like to go out, have a meal, and either read a book or think about my writing. In spite of meditation, it's really hard to think or focus when you have loud music blaring around you. I wouldn't even mind if it was classical music, played softly. Not soft rock--soft rock is an abomination to the human race.

In addition to having my nerves rubbed raw by loud contemporary music, I really hate soft rock and all the sentiment that goes with it. It sounds terrible, but I find myself cringing at words like love, light, healing, angels, etc.--just as I am irritated by men who sing, in the immortal words of Dave Barry, like they are "having their prostate examined by Captain Hook." I'm not moved by the music of "soulful" women either--I have visions of turning a fire hose on them full blast. Whether it be some New Agey light thing or a smarmy love song about how the guy knows he has cheated on her a billion times but now he knows he loves her and it's forever, I can't help but feeling like vomiting in the best case scenario. (Worst case scenario--I want to punch the person until they stop talking or singing). It's like eating massive amounts of raw sugar--it's sickening. If I'm subjected, for example, to a group like Air Supply, or perhaps to Midge Ure's Ultravox, I feel like I need to listen to Minor Threat or DRI stat.

I don't know if I've become a cynical and crabby old lady, or if I'm just good at calling BS when I see it. I don't mind heartfelt emotion, but "heartfelt" is the key word--this isn't heartfelt, it's totally phony. There's something to be said for subtlety.

On a totally different note, in your Cthulhu moment of the day, here are Cthulhu slippers. These are almost as good as Mental Floss' Freudian slippers.

And for the heck of it, because it's my blog--here's a video of a cat ruining someone else's video. Your welcome.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day Post: Eyes

It's 3:00 in the morning. I'm wondering why I'm awake, but then I realized that I fell asleep around 6:30. Rather lame, I know, but I have been ridiculously exhausted from non-stop writing, keeping up with teaching an online class, and several trips to New York. (Going to New York wears me out, because it's a minimum 3 hours of travel each way, mainly because of train schedules). It is the 4th of July, and I can hear music outside. There has been music outside since yesterday afternoon, all of it crappy. I've had the fans in the house on full blast, just to drown it out.

I checked messages on the phone I never answer. Most new messages were hang-ups, but one was a woman's voice saying: "Yes--no. It's just that he's come to himself." Then she hung up. I'm pleased to hear it. Everyone should come to themselves eventually.

My archetype story collection is now finished, and I will be shopping for a publisher this summer. I'm now working on a different book proposal, but I won't bore you with the details. Needless to say, blogging has fallen behind. It's amazing how difficult ordinary things become when you go on a writing binge. Stuff like, "remember to pick up butter at the store" somehow get forgotten, even when it's written on a piece of paper in front of you. I keep wanting to call various friends, and my sister, but I realize that I am in no condition for normal conversation.

Added to the mix--John Foxx is now doing a UK tour in October. There are 8 dates in the UK, and one festival date in Poland. The cities are: Leamington Spa, Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, York, Liverpool, and 2 London dates. The John Foxx and the Maths page has more info--that, and the Facebook page has the most up to date info with links at the moment. Metamatic should have an update soon as well. In any case--I have been scrounging to find money for tickets, as I am going to all 8 shows. (Not to Poland...I hate festivals, and I don't speak Polish).

I look at myself in the mirror, and notice that my eyes are red, and I haven't even been drinking. It's actually the kind of red that says "Hi, I have allergies, probably to the cat that sleeps under my arm all night."

They say that eyes are the windows to the soul. I find that when I look into someone's eyes, I get some kind of associative picture. For example, when I look into the eyes of Michelle Bachmann, I see this:

Her campaign slogan is "Saying what conservatives have really been thinking." I think that's a fair statement. They all seem like deluded, raging lunatics with no regard for humanity these days. I don't think conservatives were always like that--and maybe all conservatives aren't. But the ones that aren't seem to be invisible.

When I look into the eyes of Glenn Beck, I see this:

Glenn Beck is finally off the air--apparently his deranged rantings are causing Fox News to lose too much money. They wouldn't drop him because of deranged rantings--that's most of their programming. But Glenn sort of "jumped the shark", I guess. At any rate, these two sort of prove that eyes are not just windows to the soul, they are sometimes a view of evil, in the Arthur Machen sense. There's something dreadfully unnatural about both of them.

Speaking of eyes--here are 2 creepy sites--

Chicks With Steve Buscemi Eyes

Muppets With People Eyes

I don't know why these sites are so profoundly disturbing, but it goes to show you how much impact eyes have on your impression of someone.

For an entirely different (and hilarious) kind of disturbing--I bring you a 5-foot metal chicken, courtesy of the Bloggess. (If you are not already aware of this site, add it to your RSS feeds immediately. You can also follow her on Twitter at username TheBloggess).

And--speaking of RSS--I'd better go now and catch up on the 2000+ feeds that must be waiting for me, as I haven't looked at them in a week. Happy Independence Day, for those of you in the United States. Remember that we are supposed to be a democracy, not an oligarchy. So, don't vote Republican in 2012 if you want it to stay that way, and don't stand for the kind of nonsense going on in Congress right now (e.g., no taxes for big corporations or the uber-rich, while at the same time trying to eliminate programs like Medicare). Democracy requires vigilance. And--a touch of socialism. Which has to do with looking out for the welfare of people, not Soviet or Nazi-style communism or fascism.