Friday, July 31, 2009

London Trip, 1st Day: John Foxx at the Apple Store

I'm finally home from London. I actually got home on Wednesday, but I'm only just starting to feel somewhat normal now. My Wednesday flight home was a catastrophe. First, there was a 2-hour delay at Heathrow. No one would tell us anything, and as it turns out, the delay was because of an overbooked flight. As a result of leaving late, we ran into some really horrific thunderstorms on the East Coast in the Newark, NJ area. We had to touch down for refueling in Albany, NY and Boston, MA. Long story short--we were 9 hours delayed getting home. I figured out with all of my travel that day and the time change, I'd been up and traveling for at least 25 hours. When I picked up my car and drove home, it felt like an out-of-body experience.

The great irony of that experience is that it was my first official Continental Elite flight. The only good thing that came out of my Elite status on that flight was that my luggage was among the first to come off the plane. For that many hours on a plane, I feel like I should be in New Zealand or something.

In any case, I did most of my Internet-checking from my Blackberry while overseas, so I did not blog at all, save the brief Friday entry. However, I have written pages of material for blogging, so expect to see quite a few posts in the next few days.

I arrived in London on the night of the 23rd. I had a spectacular headache for most of the flight, and I'd forgotten to bring my ibuprofen. Fortunately one of the flight attendants had some headache meds, so I survived. Looking down over London at night, I noticed how much the Thames looks like a striped snake, and surrounded everywhere by glittering lights. I also reflected on how I was landing in Essex at Heathrow, and had left from Essex (County, NJ, where Newark Airport is located). I arrived at my hotel around 11:00 pm--it was a rather dingy affair in Bloomsbury, but I got used to it pretty quickly. It reminded me of my living arrangements at the University of Reading, though I definitely had a nicer room at the University. I was right near St. Pancras Church, and enjoyed hearing the bells every hour.

Friday was an exceptional day--a few rain showers, but mostly sunny and cool. I went over to Covent Garden to meet my friend for lunch, and then to head over to the Apple Store on Regent Street to see John Foxx's showing of "The Quiet Man" and "Man Made of Shadows" (sequel to the Quiet Man). These are short films that are a work in progress, based on a novel John has been working on for some 30 years. He may seek to publish the novel in the next year or so. My friend and I were running late, and made it to the show about 5 minutes beforehand.

John has shown the Quiet Man before, but this was the first time I had a chance to see it. I loved it--I like the way that he mixes up ordinary daily routines with the idea of living in a film, or in an imagined world. As I said to Steve Malins later on, I've done that very thing my whole life and never thought that anyone else did it. Coincidentally, the latest book I'm reading is Peter Ackroyd's "London : a Biography". Ackroyd talks about the city--how dark it is, how it frequently overwhelms people, swallows them up. In earlier periods of London's history, it was very violent and savage. In the 21st century, it is not quite so savage, but it is very indifferent. Everyone goes about their business without a care for anyone else's. Reflecting on the Quiet Man, which takes place in London (and is based on other places, but London sites are specifically mentioned), it seems like the main character uses his daily regiment and imaginative forays as a sort of buffer against this dark tide of the city. Certainly it is a means of maintaining control of oneself--daily regiments are a means of providing structure amid uncertainty, and an imaginative retreat into film or anything else is also a world one can control with the mind. Quiet Man is still a work in progress, and I do hope that John does more with it on the film side.

I ended up talking to John for quite some time after the set--he was in an excellent mood that evening. John is always pleasant and kind; still, I don't think I've ever seen him smile that much in a 2-hour period. Among many other things, we talked about London and its myriad of streets and byways that go on forever. John noted that New York City is easy to figure out for the most part--the streets are laid out in a regular pattern, Greenwich Village notwithstanding. London is just a maze of random streets with no real plan; he said it took him 5 years to really figure out the streets of London.Which is fair enough, though you could switch that around when referring to the underground trains of both cities. London's Underground is neatly laid out, there are big maps at every station platform, and the stops are clearly laid out and announced. Whereas New York's Underground is a mess--if you don't know where you're going, you're pretty much screwed. At rush hour, all bets are off with signage, especially with local vs. express trains. Your only hope of knowing whether you're on the right train is to ask people already on the train.

Overall, it was a wonderful day, and I was happy to see Gem, Rob Harris, and Steve Malins as well as the magnificent Mr. Foxx. Rob showed me a few things on the Metamatic website, and we were drooling over the extra-large Mac monitors. Karborn was supposed to be at this show, but there were some problems, as Apple PR didn't want him using a PC to do the video in their store. I later found out from him that it was a huge mess trying to get a loaner, and in the end it was just easier for him to make a DVD of the video and let someone else run it.

Incidentally--John will be showing "The Quiet Man" in Hudson, New York at the BCB Gallery, 116 Warren St., on November 7, and possibly 8. If you're in the States, and in the New York area, I highly recommend coming to see it.

Thus ended a very pleasant Friday. Tomorrow I will write about Saturday...

Friday, July 24, 2009

London (Yet Again...)

Just a quick note--I'm in London for John Foxx's reading of the Quiet Man at the Apple Store on Regent St., with visuals by Karborn. Reading starts at 5:00pm, I believe, first come first serve unless you got a reserved seat.

I will definitely be there, so say hello if you drop by...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


People frequently ask me how I manage to fit 2 hours of meditation/prayer into a day, along with my regular job, writing, and maintaining my house. There doesn’t seem to be enough hours to do all of those things well. With regard to the first set of tasks—I get up around 4:30 every morning, and that is when I meditate, for about 30 minutes. (After feeding the cats, of course). I then get ready for work, and leave at about 6:30, by the time I’ve gotten myself together and taken care of all the cats. While I am driving to work, I do my prayers. Yes, that seems odd, but usually I have almost an hour commute to work, and it seems like wasted time to just be sitting there grumbling about traffic. Plus, although you do have to be aware of your surroundings, most morning driving is on “autopilot”, so it’s a good time for mental exercises.

The prayers happen to be very specific chants—the first is the Sri Lalita Sahasranama Stotra, the second is the Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotra. Lalita Sahasranama translates roughly to “the 1000 names of the Divine Mother”. Amma stresses that devotees should chant this daily. It takes about 30 minutes to chant the Lalita Sahasranama, and it’s all in Sanskrit. I have recited it so many times over the years that I almost know it by heart (some sections I still stumble over), but I also have a CD of Indian pundits reciting the chant, so that I can “chant along” while I’m driving, and not refer to my book. If I screw up, at least the folks on the CD are saying the correct thing. The Khadgamala Stotra (translates roughly to “necklace of swords”) only takes about 5-6 minutes to recite, and I have that on CD as well. I include that one because it is a meditation on the Sri Chakra, which is a very powerful symbol for me.

While reciting to myself this morning, I was thinking about the idea of “devotion”. Amma has said about both meditation and prayer that if they are performed with “devotion” they are useful. Another Sanskrit term frequently used for this is “shradda”, translating roughly to “having faith” or “having attention”.

So what does this mean? That they’re not useful unless my mind is completely free of other distractions? That isn’t even possible for the vast majority of people. Even if I’m reciting in a group, my mind is always wandering to other things unintentionally. That is probably true of almost everyone, unless they are a swami/swamini, saint, or, well...Amma herself. And the former two probably have focus issues at times as well.

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and I’ve heard different answers at different times. “Shradda” has a lot to do with purity and sincerity. Devotees are always questioning how much shradda they really have, especially when we’re also wrapped up in day-to-day concerns and relationships. Do we really care enough about what we’re doing?

I tend to think in similes and metaphors, so it’s helpful for me to think about it this way: When I meet people, I can always get a sense of whether or not they have an “agenda” regarding their interaction with me. This particularly happens in organization interaction—at work, in a religious community—any kind of community. Sometimes I am warmly befriended by someone who raises “red flags” for me. All appearances are good, they seem kind, sweet, sincere—but somehow I know that this person is using me to get something else or to further their own end. There is a political stench overpowering the sweetness of their interaction. People get very surprised when I terminate such associations quickly. “That person is so nice, works so hard, you’re just being unreasonable.” Then, later on, the ugly truth rears its head. I always trust my instincts on this, and so far I haven’t been wrong. It’s why I avoid politics and political people like a contagious disease. If you're being political with me, you also don't really respect me. I'm an object to you.

It occurred to me that this is similar to the idea of shradda with respect to sincerity. If one shows excessive devotion for a materialistic end or to gain some kind of power, then they’re not sincere in their effort. The person who occasionally gets bored or distracted but still keeps up their practices could run the risk of repeating empty rituals, but may also get to real shradda through repeated effort. Regardless of religion, almost all the accounts I’ve read from saints and holy people indicate that they went through periods of “spiritual dryness”, where they couldn’t care less about anything at all. At those times it’s easy to give up, to feel that you’re being insincere, but those are really the times to keep trying.

In this age of religious extremes, one might ask why a rational person would bother with such prayers at all. I can only speak for myself, but I do believe it makes a difference in how I am able to respond to life. I don’t meditate or pray with a “goal” in mind—that’s not the point. I find that being more alert, productive, and compassionate to others is a side effect of regular prayer and meditation. You focus on the ultimate just long enough every day to put everything else in context. Life is a series of ups and downs, and I would prefer to find my way to detached equanimity. Happiness doesn’t come from feeling ecstatic.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Food Taboos, or, Enforced Healthy Eating

Yesterday I was reading Scott Adams’ latest posting to the Dilbert blog. Recently he has been discussing a theoretical capitalistic communal society called “Cheaptopia”, where people could choose to live to save expenses, as well as having other benefits. Among the other economic and social policies of the community, he mentioned and quickly discarded the idea of mandatory vegetarianism. He stated that he is personally in favor of that, but that it was too controversial for inclusion.

The remark was more of an aside, but it got me thinking about vegetarianism. I am most certainly not a vegetarian, and would die if someone tried to mandate that. But it goes beyond vegetarianism for me—I eat hardly any vegetables at all, and the ones I do eat belong more to the starch family.

This revelation always comes as a shock to people, especially if they know that I have Hindu beliefs and that I am a strong advocate for animals and animal rights. It can make going out to eat at certain places somewhat awkward, as most places that serve sandwiches and salads are “right out” for me. I wouldn’t touch anything like that with a ten foot pole.

The inevitable follow-up question is always “why?” The assumption is that adults who don’t eat their veggies are somehow overgrown children, not mature enough to eat “proper” food. It’s amazing how much of a social stigma that can be at times. My friend Liz, who is very similar to me in this respect, once noted that the people who criticized her for not eating vegetables were the same ones going out to bars getting wasted every weekend, something neither of us does. Her question was, “How is that any healthier?” In short, don’t be critical of someone else’s health lifestyle when yours is also in question.

We’ve also pondered the relationship between food and sex. People seem to react with the same Puritanical vehemence against aberrant food choices as they would against licentious sex practices. What is so taboo about food?

In any case, it may surprise you to know that in my family, my grandmother and both of my sisters also maintain the same distaste for vegetables. (My grandmother lived to be 89 years old). We were certainly made to eat vegetables growing up, but none of us eat them as adults. My sisters both have children, and have made some compromises in the interest of balanced nutrition, but they still don’t eat veggies themselves.

Over time, what I’ve realized is that it’s not particularly the taste, but the texture of vegetables that is repulsive to me. Consider: I would eat tomato sauce on pasta, or on pizza, but I’m sickened by the thought of eating a raw (or cooked) tomato slice. Why? Because tomato sauce doesn’t have the same texture as a whole or sliced tomato. The crunchy texture of most veggies is a turn-off to me—I could never contemplate eating a salad. And you can forget about beans—lentils, peas, lima beans—the very thought makes me wretch. It’s like eating sandpaper, only more disgusting. The only way I can eat lentils is—you guessed it—if they are ground up into a bread.

The second inevitable follow-up question is, “well, what about fruit?” I can eat a piece of raw fruit, but I don’t like most fruit in desserts and such. Fruit pies are disgusting, though I can eat raisin scones and blueberry muffins. What does that get back to? Texture.

Given that all the women in my family (except my Mom) have the same trait, one wonders if there’s anything genetic about it, but it’s difficult to know for sure. One thing I am fairly certain about is that one’s nutrition and health situation is unique. My own observations about health, food and longevity among my relatives suggests that one’s food choices have little to do with your health and mortality in the end. Sure, you should eat moderately and stay away from too much of anything—but it’s not necessarily going to prolong your life. Some health problems, like diabetes, do require a lifestyle change, but it’s often a genetic illness and isn’t fully curable. What I have observed is that some people strive to eat “healthy” their entire life, exercise, stay away from fats, sweets, etc.—and end up dying in their mid-fifties. Others drink Scotch straight from the bottle, eat nothing but fatty foods, and live to be one hundred years old with no serious health problems.

It’s exactly this sort of thing that annoys me when governments try to legislate what people should be allowed to eat. Banning trans-fats in cooking oils, trying to ban “runny eggs” (that didn’t last long), and other idiotic measures that Congress is wasting its time bringing to the table—leave my frigging food alone, please. Anyone with half a brain knows that food is going to be higher in calories and richer when eating out—that’s what you’re paying for, isn’t it? If I want to eat low-fat, no-sugar, no-taste whatever, I can stay home and do that. I don’t need to pay money for it. But those who do want to eat out and eat healthier—many restaurants offer those options now. And the ones that don’t—well, then don’t choose to eat there if that’s not what you want. What if the tables were turned and vegetarian restaurants were required to serve meat because people don’t get enough protein? It’s all silly, really—we have so many choices in this country. There is no need to make all restaurants conform to some “preventative health” standard.

Another trend I’m seeing is trying to legislate what school children can eat because they’re all becoming obese. Let me tell you something. When I was a child, I ate rich foods, baked goods, fast food and did not become obese. Why? There are at least a couple of obvious reasons. One is that children today do not spend as much time outside playing. We always rode our bikes, played kickball, hide and seek—we would go out after school and not reappear until suppertime. We went a lot of places, and Mom did not care where we went, as long as we were home at the appointed time. Today’s children are kept on a tight leash—parents seem to be more afraid of, I don’t know what. I do not believe that “things are worse now” than they were before. But kids have their playtime measured very carefully, and parents are often too busy to do anything but leave their kids in front of video games, or something non-exercise related. The other change is that parents are too busy to be at home to cook, so families order out or eat out very regularly, often for more than one meal. Less exercise plus more high-calorie food means fatter children. I don’t need to be a doctor to tell you that. But making restaurants change is not the answer. Simple moderation is good enough, and paying attention to your body. If you are craving something, or repulsed by something, your body probably needs the former and not the latter.

So, please stop picking on those of us who are not veggie eaters. Vegetables are not the panacea for good health; that’s like saying one medicine can cure all ills. Balance and moderation are the key to good health. And dietary needs are different from person to person.

I leave you with Lewis Black’s hilarious and very true commentary on the issue. (Fast forward to about 7 minutes and 40 seconds into the clip):

Monday, July 20, 2009

Three Events

In the interest of being sure that I write every day even when I’m busy, I’ve been making a point of adding something to this blog every day. This weekend was the exception, as I spent a total of 16 hours sorting through everything in every closet, cupboard, and cubbyhole in my house. The end result was 6 bags of garbage, at least 8 boxes of stuff for “goodwill”, and a huge pile of items waiting for our town’s autumn cleanup day. I drove all the way to Trenton and back yesterday to donate aforementioned goodwill items, and I feel pretty good about having all this stuff out of my house. I still have a box of things that are collectible and therefore sale-able, and I will deal with these in August.

I’m off to London yet again this week for two more John Foxx events. One is at the Apple Store on Regent Street in London, where John will be doing a reading from his novel, “The Quiet Man”, along with visuals by Karborn. The other event is the launch party for the DNA Exhibition at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. That is a private event, though the exhibition can be viewed at the Horse Hospital from July 28 to 31. DNA is an exhibition of works by artists and filmmakers who are influenced by the work of John Foxx. It sounds like a great presentation, so if you’re in London I recommend you check it out. I’m sure I will have a review of it as well when I return.

I was talking via e-mail with a friend about meeting up in London before the Apple Store event, and we ended up talking about the paranormal and “supernatural”, namely because she had read my blog posting on the Ghost Hunters series. I do have an open mind about such phenomena, though I don’t think everything put forward as a “haunting” is necessarily a haunting. There are probably rational explanations for most things. I don’t believe in the idea of “supernatural”—all phenomena are natural to some degree, even if they are “extra-ordinary”. Additionally—I don’t think that the occurrence of certain “paranormal” phenomena in a location necessarily an indication of a haunting, or even of regular paranormal occurrence.

By way of example, let me share a few things with you that have happened in my own house. My house is fairly old by American standards; it was built sometime in the 1850s. I live across the street from a cemetery, and from a house that more than likely has some kind of residual activity due to a father murdering his wife and children and then killing himself there in the 1960s. However, I have never felt that my house is “haunted” or is a magnet for paranormal activity. The three events I’m about to share don’t change that opinion in my mind.

The first event happened a couple of years ago. I currently spend about 2 hours per day on meditation and Hindu prayer, but a few years ago I also performed pujas (ritual worship) at least 3 times a week, if not daily. The pujas were usually to Ganesha, Shiva, and (mostly) Kali. At the height of my Kali Puja practice, I would lie in bed at night and hear footsteps in my living room downstairs, along with the jingling of anklets. My cats would hear it too—they would sit up, ears perked up, and watch the staircase, as the footsteps would inevitably head towards the stairs and on their way up to the loft where I sleep. I never saw anyone connected with those footsteps. It didn’t happen all the time, and I wasn’t afraid of it. I do think of it as a side-effect of doing extreme puja—it’s like something takes form and walks around the house. Since I’ve stopped doing regular puja I no longer hear the sound.

The second event happened a couple of weeks ago. I was sleeping, and having a strange dream, when I was suddenly awakened by a set of arms patting me down, going up and down my sleeping form. I was under the covers and saw them move with each arm stroke. I finally said, “leave me alone”, and it stopped. I had a distinct tingling sensation all over my body afterwards. I looked at the clock, and realized it was just past the time the alarm should have gone off—it wasn’t set properly. Weirdly enough, it was as though someone was trying to wake me up.

The third event happened yesterday, and could have a rational explanation, but it’s still puzzling. I have a root cellar underneath my house that needs to be accessed from a separate set of iron doors outside. My washer and dryer are down there, so frequently on weekends I yank open the huge door, and walk up and down the concrete stairs to bring laundry up and down. I have 2 cats that live down there, and they love to go out on nice days, so I leave the iron door open while I’m doing my wash in the summertime. I don’t close the door until it starts to get dark, and I’ve shooed both cats back into the cellar. As it was getting dark yesterday, I went to put the cats back in the basement—and found the door closed. I was home the whole time, and know I did not close it. If someone had come around back and closed it, I would have heard it—it makes a terrific creaking sound when it opens and shuts. It is possible that in my haze of doing 50 million things at once, I closed it and didn’t realize it. But my unconscious habit is to leave it open, so if I did, that would be really strange. My neighbors have no reason to come into my yard and close the door, and my next-door neighbor working outside would have noticed if someone else had been in my yard. So—there could be a logical explanation for it, but it was strange. The closed door did turn out to be a good thing, as a neighborhood stray cat was looking for a way in to get at my cat’s food dishes in the cellar, and those attempts often cause fights between the cats.

So, those are my three occurrences. You can make of them what you will. As I said earlier, I don’t think that the events are evidence of a haunting of any kind, as they are so circumstantial and spread apart chronologically. They are a bit on the “unexplained” side, but they are not frightening. They just add to my conviction that not everything has an immediate rational explanation and doesn’t necessarily need one.

Friday, July 17, 2009


It's interesting how many people pay attention to--and even worship--the phenomena known as "pareidolia". Pareidolia refers to images that appear in ordinary objects. The ones that really get attention are the ones of religious figures. One might see the Virgin Mary in a cloud, or a tree trunk. Jesus has been seen in a huge variety of bizarre objects and places. Sometimes non-Christian deities are seen (such as the Hindu Ganesha), or even deceased celebrities (cue the recent rash of Michael Jackson "paredolias", often called "Jackodolias").

Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine, has a whole section devoted to this phenomena. Phil is a hardcore skeptic--I agree with a lot of what he says, but he truly dismisses anything that smacks of irrationality as completely false, and I don't always agree with him there. Just because some things don't measure up to scientific inquiry doesn't necessarily mean they have no merit. Basically--I am totally with Phil with regard to Creationism and the anti-vax movement. Some other things--ghosts, psychic phenomena, astrology--well, I guess I'm not as skeptical, and reserve judgment. I think the lines between believers and non-believers will always be strictly drawn there.

Back to pareidolia--with credit to Phil, here are some interesting pareidolia links:

Virgin Mary in a Marmite Jar Lid (or maybe it's Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap)

Virgin Mary in a Pancake Griddle

Jesus in a Piece of Toast (and Satan on the other side?)

Jesus in a Kit-Kat Bar

Jesus in a Meteorite

Jesus in the Skull of a Catfish

Virgin Mary in Bird Droppings

Phil has another post about randomness, and the mind's desire to see patterns in things, which is a very good summation of what happens not only happens with this type of pareidolia, but also explains images seen in many "ghost" photographs.

Recently I had a discussion with my friend's son about randomness and patterns. He pointed out that most people who find patterns in random events are unaware of probability and how it works. (Fair enough in my case--they never even covered probability in math class. I'd love to understand it). But the psychology behind it is what is fascinating to me. We do look for meaning in things--maybe that meaning is really there, some kind of "message", maybe it's just a coincidence. But I tend to think that even if something has a "message", it's a message from the unconscious mind. When we try to unravel questions in our minds, when we don't have enough information to make a decision, sometimes we do unconsciously know the right thing to do. In the same way that you might have a dream about something that challenges you, you may start "seeing" patterns in different places. They are probably meaningful to no one but you in that moment. But it's funny how our unconscious minds work to get our conscious attention.

I think the pareidolia phenomena reflects people's desire to have concrete, visible affirmations of their faith. I can't imagine any other reason why someone would pay $28,000 for grilled cheese sandwich that someone says looks like the Virgin Mary. (OK, to be fair, a casino bought that one as a piece of pop culture. But still...). No one would pay any attention to it, otherwise.

One of my Facebook friends made the point that Jesus and the Virgin Mary seem to appear everywhere but in Church. An excellent point, which I think adds credence to Jung's assertion that religion is designed to keep you from religious experience. God isn't meant to be found in Church.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

1979, and a Word on Visual Association

I’ve written before about finding patterns in events. Sometimes the patterns seem to be meaningful, or are meaningful in retrospect; other times they’re not. Meaningful patterns are probably better defined as “synchronicities”, the Jungian term that is defined as “meaningful coincidences.”

In the last couple of months I’ve had a string of coincidences centered around the year 1979. I was 7 years old in 1979, and hadn’t yet had the first “squelching” of my imagination and spirit. (I like to think I’ve regained most of it). For whatever reason, I had a vivid recollection of a particular day. I was at my best friend Cassie’s house. At that time she lived next door to me. Her mother had been an art major in college, and also had impeccable and eclectic taste. Their house and yard was amazing—rooms with oriental furniture, plush velvet sofas, a Zen garden out back, and regular gardens with exotic flowers. A wooden bridge stood between their back patio and their yard. I had a pretty happy childhood playing in that house and that yard.

In my recollection, it was an October day, and Cassie, myself, and her sister were in the basement of the house. The basement had the old-style wood paneling, and there was a wicker daybed and an oversized leather chair in front of a TV. A sectioned-off laundry area was on the other side, and on the wall behind the TV area was a tremendous psychedelic mural painted by her mother, that glowed under black lights. The three of us were watching a Halloween special on the TV. I recalled that it had something to do with the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and offered an adaptation of the John Bellairs’ novel, “A House With a Clock in its Walls”. I remember being very engrossed in the program, and actually got the Bellairs book from the library later that month after watching it.

Why I recalled this particular day, I have no idea. I did go as far as to try to research the name of the TV program. I discovered that it was part of a program that aired on October 1, 1979 entitled, “Once Upon a Midnight Scary”, and featured Vincent Price as the host. (I’d forgotten that detail). Amazingly, someone did have a brand-new VHS copy of the program available via Amazon. It wasn’t terribly expensive, so I bought it. It was actually a bit of a disappointment—what I found really engrossing as a 7 year old I found to be a poorly-acted piece of crap as a 37 year old. Vincent Price was fine, but the actual adaptations of the stories were dreadfully overacted, or just plain wrong. I had a real distaste for the Bellairs piece—that is a really EXCELLENT children’s/young adult book, but the adaptation was hardly like the book at all. In fact, save the character names, it was nothing like the book at all.

That was the start of the 1979 business. The next thing I knew, references to the year 1979 were everywhere I looked, culminating with my trip to Liverpool, where I learned that the film “Awaydays” was set in Northern England in 1979. In yet another one of my blog postings, I mentioned a vivid memory I had of coming home at sunset and hearing strange music that I couldn’t place. I recalled that this also happened in 1979.

Whether this is a meaningful coincidence or not, I don’t know. I know that it was basically a happy year for me. I’ll have to keep you posted as to whether or not it turns out to have a retrospective meaning.

On another brief note—I was watching the new Ghost Hunters International episode last night, and I’m really liking the show a lot. They have a new investigator, a friend of Robb’s called Ashley. I don’t know that I have a strong opinion of her yet—she seems pretty grounded, if not a bit stiff, though I’m sure that’s probably a matter of adjustment to TV. However, my first instinct about her was negative, and I questioned myself as to why. I realized that she looks a lot like someone that I dislike. I’m sure she doesn’t know the person I dislike, or have any relationship to them at all. We have lots of “doppelgangers” out there—I am frequently told that someone has seen someone who looks EXACTLY like me in various places that I’ve never been. But it did make me wonder if this is why I like certain investigators and not others. It may have nothing to do with them or their presence/personality at all. And if I do it, I imagine others do it too. Visual association probably has a lot to do with our immediate judgments of people. There’s probably a study about it somewhere—I’ll be sure to share it if I can find it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Worship vs. Reverence

Worship (v.): 1. To honor or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing ; to regard or approach with veneration ; to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies 2. To honor, to regard or treat with honor or respect 3. To invest with, raise to, honor or repute ; to confer honor or dignity upon

Reverence (n.): 1. Deep or due respect felt or shown towards a person on account of his or her position or relationship ; deference 2. A gesture indicative of respect ; an obeisance ; a bow or curtsy 3. The condition or state of being respected or venerated ; 4. “At the reverence of”—out of respect for, in honor of, for the sake of a person (verb form is “to show respect, obeisance, etc.”)

(Both definitions taken almost verbatim from the Oxford English Dictionary, 1933 edition)

The other day I found myself thinking about religious rites and doctrines, and in my train of thought I started to wonder about the difference between “reverence” and “worship”. They seem synonymous at first glance. But I think the subtle differences in meaning are reflective of the subtle differences in our beliefs. One can profess to be a Christian, Hindu, Muslim or whatever—but no two Christians believe the same thing, no two Hindus believe the same thing, and so on.

As the definitions above show, “worship” seems to be reserved more for the sacred, and “reverence” for the profane, at first glance. And in spite of what is shown, both words can be nouns or verbs (as in “performing the worship” with the former).

Let me back up for a minute and look at the different views of “God” or “deity” in general. In Western, monotheistic religions (typically Jewish, Christian, and/or Muslim) God is seen as a separate being, an intelligence behind the creation of the world, the universe, etc. In Eastern, monistic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) God is seen as immanent—part of the world, part of the universe, and part of every person. The perceived separation between humans and their God is an illusion. Additionally, as the great Joseph Campbell noted, for Western religions, “God” is the “source” of everything. In Eastern religions, a god is a vehicle for the source, but not the source itself. The Source cannot be grasped by the mind, so it requires a vehicle for us to wrap our minds around it.

If one behaves with “reverence”, it implies honoring and respecting another person. One might show reverence to their grandfather, for instance. However, one would not go a step farther and claim to “worship” one’s grandfather. If one looks at the guru—in my case, Amma—I treat her with reverence, but do I “worship” her? In India, deities are worshipped by offering flowers, washing feet, and performing aarti (the waving of a flame). However, those same rites are performed when an honored guest or family member comes to the house. There is a thin line between “reverence” and “worship”, at least in the external sense. In our society, the distinction is much clearer. “Worship” only takes place with regard to sacred things, “reverence” is reserved for priests and ministers, or perhaps an exceptional person; we don’t tend to talk about having reverence for regular, average people.

I think this demonstrates the difference in attitude quite nicely. When God is seen as part of you, the line between reverence and worship is thin. When God is seen as something external and far away from the world, there is a very strict line between reverence and worship. Furthermore, if “reverence” implies “respect” and “honor”, and we don’t show reverence to ordinary folk, it suggests that some folks are worthy of respect and some aren’t. Which in turn would imply that some folks are “lesser” than others, and can be treated as “lesser”...

Perhaps that’s going a bit far, but I still think it’s interesting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Defining "Writer"

I like to write. I do a lot of technical writing for my job, I write items for this blog, and I also write short stories, even parts of a novel or two in the works.
I’ve only recently started submitting work for publication. While I’ve not heard from all parties I’ve sent material to, I have had a number of rejections already. I don’t find that discouraging, because the odds of getting rejected are absurdly high. There’s no point in taking that personally.
But I wonder—if I haven’t published anything yet, but I write constantly, does that make me a writer, or doesn’t it? I talk about “wanting to be a writer”, but is that what I’m doing already as a sideline? Certainly writing doesn’t pay the bills for me—I have another job (or two or three) for that. Is money a criterion for being considered a writer? I suppose we connect these occupations with money—I’m thought of as a librarian, or as a digital archivist, or a professor, because that’s how I get paid. But I don’t particularly think of myself as fully identified with any of those things. I would think most writers are in the same boat.

John Foxx made a comment in a recent interview about his career, and he says that he got into music because he knew he wouldn’t be an artist. “There’s no such job.” I would agree with that, and I would also suggest that there’s no such job as being a writer. Sure, you might be hired by someone to produce artwork, or to write articles for a publication. Making a living at either of those things is pretty uncommon, especially in the "personal/creative" sense. Stephen Elliott recently shared some interesting thoughts on this in the Rumpus. There’s a difference between creating what you want, and being paid to create something.

My former husband used to (and for all I know still does) write poetry. He wasn’t bad at it, actually. Prose was difficult for him, unless he was inebriated. I don’t mean that derisively. He would get way too self-conscious about his prose, and it came across that way. The stuff he wrote when he was drinking was much better, very entertaining. He did manage to get a few things published. However, most of the time he was either looking for a job, or doing some kind of clerical work that really didn’t match his intellectual abilities. He was another person who “wanted to be a writer”. In spite of the fact that he had published a few things, I still didn’t consider him a writer. Why not? Because he hardly ever did it. He would write in spurts, and then not write anything for years.

Publishing is another gray area. If I publish a story to my short-story blog, does that count as “being published”? From a rights perspective, yes. Most electronic journals consider publication of a story to a personal blog as your “securing of first electronic serial rights”, and they will consider the item previously published. The Internet and Web 2.0 has created huge changes in the writing field, from journalism to traditional book publishing. Does one need to have a physical “book” to be considered “a real writer”?

It seems that “being a writer” involves some kind of financial exchange for the writing, actually getting something published (perhaps by someone other than yourself), and involves that you write often, not just occasionally when you feel like it. It may also involve writing things you don’t like. I think there are three basic types of writing: technical, journalistic, and creative. You are likely to find jobs and get paid for the first two (well, maybe not the second in this day and age), not so much for the third. So are all creative writers therefore non-writers, unless they manage to get published and noticed?

It’s a tough question. So few authors hit it big and become bestsellers, or even make enough to cover their life expenses by writing alone. Certainly for me, I’m not quitting my day jobs anytime soon. And I do like to think of myself as a writer—maybe soon I’ll be what’s considered a “traditionally published” writer.

Monday, July 13, 2009


The last few weeks have the odd distinction of being totally action-packed with the feeling that I've been doing absolutely nothing. Probably because almost everything I'm doing is so mundane--cleaning out the house, dealing with bills, taking care of my gardens and the outside of the house generally. There have been a few trips here and there, and I've been absorbed in various books now that I am on an American literature and history kick. (Don't ask me why. I honestly don't know).

I've been so busy that I've even cut down on social networking (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc.), though I still check in each day. One thing I haven't given up is my daily viewing of my RSS feeds, and of course

Here is a compilation of the "interesting" items I've come across in the last couple of weeks:

1. House Cats Know What They Want and How to Get It From You

Well duh. As if I needed a science blog to tell me that.

2. Troublesome spirits? Don't call TAPS. File a lawsuit:
Family Sues Genie, Alleges Harassment

3. Speaking of lawsuits:

Wells Fargo Sues Self, Hires Lawyers to Respond

This sounds like that old joke about the Beatles (used in the Rutles), where they all sued each other and one sued himself accidentally. Only it's not a joke. All I can say is that I'm glad I sold off my Wells Fargo mortgage 5 years ago...

4. In religion news--this is VERY cool, I can't wait to take a look at it:

Oldest Known Bible Goes Online

5. Since we're talking about Western religion, we should balance discussion of God with that of the Devil. Of course, these are all literary and film devils:

A Mashup of Devils

6. And some science thrown in, oldies but goodies:

More Richard Feynman Explanations

7. Swearing apparently relieves pain. My Dad must be in a lot of pain when he drives:

Why the &*^% Do We Swear?

8. Lastly--what could be better than a cat and a physics joke?

I'm in yr space-time...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Amma in New York 2009

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, I went into New York City to see Amma. As I've mentioned in other posts, Amma is my guru, by virtue of her giving me a mantra and a name. I've been going to New York every year since 2002, when Amma was still coming to Columbia University. That was her last year at that venue; since then, she's come to the Manhattan Center every year. However, from what I've heard (and can obviously see), the Manhattan Center has become too small for her events. There is talk of holding it at the Jacob Javits Center next year, which is immense.

Every year that I come, it is different. That first year I was skeptical of what devotees told me about Amma, and eventually was able to see for myself what she was about. For several years I worked at the program, doing various sevas (i.e., service). In 2007, I had a very bad experience with one of the national tour coordinators while doing what I was instructed to do with my seva, and have not volunteered for seva since that time. The problem was not someone yelling at me, or a misunderstanding--I can handle both of those things. The problem was that I was told to come back in 20 minutes to help the coordinator, as she was doing something else. When she spoke to me, I never saw such contempt in a human being's eyes before. When I came back with the group I had to do the work, she'd already started the work with a different group and totally ignored me. This really got me angry, especially since I was the designated coordinator of that seva for New York. If she wanted to work with another group, she should have just said so--instead, I was standing around for 20 minutes when I could have been helping another group with Devi Bhava setup. That and the completely unnecessary level of disrespect completely turned me off. I realize that this kind of stuff goes on at various levels all the time, and I'm usually willing to put up with it--but don't waste my time and the money I've spent on hotel rooms to stay in New York to then not have me do any work at all.

So, between this and some of the other vicious politics, unctuousness, and general mud-slinging type sleaziness that goes on in the satsang groups over sevas, I've sort of given up. I realize that I've harbored a real bitterness towards the local groups. I did not attend satsang for almost 2 years, even though the New Jersey group was not the crux of the problem. Part of me understands that this sort of thing goes on around Amma. You would think that being around a spiritual master, people would be peaceful and behave better. In fact, the opposite is true. It's not limited to Amma's organization, nor to our particular satsangs. It is a human problem. Knowing this, I should just shrug it off and not let it concern me. But it's very difficult.

This year ended up being very different from all previous years for me. But before I get into that, I should explain a few things about Amma. I know I've talked about her before, but the subject comes up over and over again as to why so many people come to see her. She is called a "saint", a "humanitarian", a "hard worker", and a "very kind and compassionate lady". These things are all true, but they don't even scratch the surface of what Amma actually IS.

One year at the program, I was chatting with a Buddhist monk who had come to see Amma. He told me that out of all the saints and gurus in the world, there was maybe only one other person like Amma--she was an absolute rarity. This is not to say that there aren't other saintly people who show others the way--it's just that Amma is different. How?

A new video has come out of Amma's visit to Kenya to open an orphanage and provide educational scholarships to the children there. Dr. P.L.O Lumumba, who is a human rights activist, gave a speech at that visit, in which he says, "I know that all religions believe in Avatars of God, I suspect Mama (Mother) that you are such an avatar." To be clear, he is not talking about the cute little icons people make for themselves on forums and IM programs. An Avatar is a God incarnation. To the Hindus, Jesus Christ is an avatar. Amma said once that "an avatar is like a great ship that can carry many souls to liberation. A saint alone cannot do this." In short, as far as I'm concerned, Dr. Lumumba is correct--Amma is most certainly an avatar, and I'm convinced more and more of it every year. She doesn't care whether you believe that or not--she has no opinion about what anyone thinks of her, she just sees the best in everyone, and attempts to help those who seek her help. But Amma is an avatar of the Goddess Kali, so the way can be fraught with chaos, difficulty and uncertainty. That said--it is still far easier under Amma to achieve liberation than it would be on one's own. She makes things comparatively easy. There is a Hindu belief that to simply be in the room with such a person can erase as much as 80% of one's past karma. And then to have this person physically embrace you...when you think about it in context, it staggers the mind.

So, that sums up what I believe about Amma, and as I've said before, I'm pretty skeptical and cynical about spiritual leaders. This year, I came to receive Amma's darshan (i.e., her hug) on Wednesday morning, and I arrived very early for that. I also came Thursday afternoon around 3:30-4:00 to hear Amma's talk and participate in the Atma Puja, which she performs with those gathered for the peace and harmony of the world. I brought a book with me both times, as I knew I'd be waiting on line for some time.

When I entered the hall on Wednesday, I saw some of the folks that I didn't not care for straight off. Somehow though, I felt a stillness settle over me, so I had no strong feeling about their presence. Suddenly I felt a great rushing in the center of my chest, which is the seat of the anahata (heart) chakra. It felt like a tornado was driving through the center. I alternately felt peaceful and sorrowful--I found myself crying for no reason on and off. I wasn't the only one--I noticed several people around me similarly affected during their meditations. Amma's darshan was long--she was talking to someone while she was holding me, which is what everyone hopes for--it gives you a bit more time than that 30 seconds with her. She never looked at me, though I've learned not to be concerned about that.

Thursday I was standing on line again, and was reading Ambrose Bierce, of all authors. Bierce is known for his bitter cynicism, and as I was reading, I was aware of how bitter I was in general. It almost took me by surprise, and caused me a lot of physical pain in my chest. I felt like crying again several times, though I was standing outside, so it would have seemed odd. Standing next to me on line was a woman I recognized from satsang, whom I hadn't seen in a long time. She was coordinating one of the sevas that I'd coordinated about 3 or 4 years ago, and it's one of the most difficult. She started talking to me about how difficult the politics were, and how uncertain she felt about whether or not it was the right seva for her to do--perhaps she didn't have what it took to do it. As we started talking, I realized that a lot of how she felt mirrored how I felt about the whole seva business. It made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. When we got into the hall, that sense of a great force rushing through the anahata chakra started again. By the time I left that night, a lot of my bitterness had evaporated, and I felt equanimity for the first time in a long time. I called my mother the next day, and found that a lot of the bitterness I've felt towards her for various things had also evaporated. That's no small thing. I was physically ill when I got home, but that is not unusual--it's like a massive purgation of bad stuff happens in the presence of the Master, and it happens every year.

So, Amma certainly did some interesting things for me this year, and as usual, they happen subtly, not overtly. During her talk, she said two things that stood out to me. One was that to achieve liberation, one had to develop dispassion. By dispassion she doesn't mean not caring--it means not feeling any attachment one way or the other to things of this world. There are 3 kinds of dispassion--temporary, gradual, and intense. Temporary is what we feel after an event gets us hyped up to "give up everything", but a few days later we go back to the way we were. Gradual is what most people on a spiritual path experience--not sufficient for liberation, but good nonetheless. Intense is really giving up everything and focusing only on God. I imagine that's the hardest--there are so many attachments...

Amma also spoke about our obsession with our bodies. She says the body is like a rented house--you should try to keep it clean and in good order, but you're not going to invest your life savings into fixing it up. Amma definitely has a way with simile and metaphor, and I like this one a lot. People spend way too much time on the exterior--if they focused more on their interior, they would automatically look better on the outside.

Well, back to my work at home, before this post gets TOO long...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ghost Hunters and GHI Re-runs: Observations

Money has been tight lately, so I've been spending more time at home, or at least doing things locally. Among the myriad of projects I have found for myself at home, I have also been watching the DVDs and iTunes downloads of my favorite TV shows. As I've mentioned previously, these are Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State.

I have Seasons 1-3 of Ghost Hunters in its entirety on DVD, and some episodes of Season 4 on iTunes. As I go through these, I can't help but notice that I really like some investigators and don't care so much for others. I'm not entirely sure why. I suspect it has something to do with talent in one area not necessarily translating to talent in another area. For instance, someone with a Ph.D. may be a bona fide expert on a particular subject; that doesn't mean that said Ph.D. is also a good teacher, even if they make their living as a professor. Pedagogy involves separate communication and organizational skills. Similarly--just because one is a scientifically-minded and meticulous ghost hunter does not mean that they will have television skills. Some people are awkward in the face of a TV camera, even if they're not stammering and fidgeting.

With that in mind, I'm presenting my opinion of the Ghost Hunters who have been on the program so far. I'm not including Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, as they obviously wouldn't be where they are today if they didn't have the right stuff for television. I'm also including some folks from Ghost Hunters International, as there is some cross-over in investigative staff. Bear in mind that I don't think I would necessarily do better than the people whom I consider the "weaker" links in the program. I feel very awkward in front of cameras of any kind, so I'd probably suck at it big time. So, I am not suggesting that I could do "better"; I am suggesting that observed over time, perhaps these folks just don't have the right fit for TV, even if they are excellent in the field.

Andy Andrews
: Andy has the distinction of being on the first season of Ghost Hunters AND Ghost Hunters International. I don't know what it is about Andy, but I find him terribly annoying. He's obviously a good investigator and debunker. But he comes across with an arrogance that makes you want to smack him at times. I've heard this opinion expressed by others as well. I think he's okay as one of the team, but if he's in a lead investigative position--I don't know, he just doesn't seem to work.

Brian Harnois: For all of the controversy surrounding Brian, I actually like him a lot. Yes, like everyone else, I got tired of the drama between Brian and Steve, between Brian and Jason, but he has a very strong and distinct personality. Having a personality helps, and on the whole he seems fallible yet likeable. He was one of the stronger elements of GHI when its first season opened.

Carl and Keith Johnson: These twin brothers are demonologists. It's hard to get a distinct lock on what they're like, exactly--most of the time they were quietly in the background. I'm not surprised that they dropped off the GH series, as having a demonologist on a team like TAPS doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. I've seen Keith and his wife on Paranormal State, and I think that show is much better suited to their approach.

Steve Gonsalves: I like Steve. He's smart, well-organized as tech manager, and has a sense of humor. I'm sympathetic to his fear of heights, and I had great admiration for him when he actually climbed the St. Augustine lighthouse tower stairs in the dark. I've been in the St. Augustine lighthouse, and I didn't get past the second round of stairs at the bottom--my legs were shaking too much. His phobias, while unfortunate, do add to your sense of him as a person, though it's a shame they have to hinder his ability to do things so much. I actually have the same phobias, with the exception of a fear of flying.

Dustin Pari: Dustin is amazing. I don't know why I like Dustin so much as an investigator. Maybe it's because he reminds me of my nephew. But for whatever reason--the thing that Andy Andrews seems to lack, Dustin has in spades. I was delighted when he replaced Andy as the co-lead investigator on GHI--he really does a lot for that show. He just has a presence that gives him a lot of credibility. He doesn't get overly emotional about things, and when he does get rattled, it's genuine. The Leap Castle episode from Season 3 is a perfect Dustin episode--you should get a hold of it if you haven't seen it. One of those episodes where something ACTUALLY happens...

Dave Tango: It's hard not to like Dave Tango. He's earnest, genuine, and a good Jersey boy. (I'm from New Jersey, so I know what that looks like). His early gullibility and perpetual sense of wonder really makes him very likeable. You've also been able to see firsthand how he's grown as an investigator, which adds to the show.

Donna LaCroix: Hmm. Donna was a great case manager, and seems like a really great person. However, I was not impressed with her as an investigator. TAPS is supposed to be taking a scientific approach to things, but I feel like Donna was often on cases for the production company's hype value. She was more interested in what she could intuit--which is not a bad thing necessarily, but in paranormal investigation you have to be careful. A location can feel very spooky at night, and you can feel like someone is there with you--but most of the time there's no hard evidence for anything. After the first season of GHI, I was absolutely glad to see her go--she was terrible. I'm sorry, I know she left because of an illness, and I wish her well, but her running around screaming and holding up crucifixes did nothing for her credibility. She seems more like she belongs on that Scariest Places on Earth show.

Joe Chin
: Joe is now on GHI, where I think he fits in a bit better. He's very quiet, hard to know too much about his personality. I don't have a strong opinion of him either way as an investigator, though I like him overall.

Kris Williams
: Kris seemed okay when she first joined the TAPS team, but I've not been impressed with her over time. I don't know why the women in TAPS don't seem to fit in as well, but Kris lately seems more like a giggly twenty-something than a serious investigator. I really like Amy Brunei, the other female in TAPS, though she tends to get silly like Kris when they work together. I don't know--like Andy, there's something about Kris that just doesn't work as far as I'm concerned. I find myself getting bored and wandering into the kitchen looking for ice cream while her investigation scenes are on.

and, on GHI:

Robb Demarest: I thought Robb was terrible during the first season of GHI, but I have to say he's gotten 200 times better. I think Robb suffered from the problem of being a normal guy who's a good investigator, but was really awkward in front of a TV camera. He was too wooden looking in the early episodes, too robotic-sounding, and was trying too hard to be like Jason Hawes. When he complimented Donna and Shannon Sylvia for running around screaming like idiots, I wanted to smack him. It was embarrassing--he was finding places "haunted" without much convincing evidence--even the owners or caretakers of the locations were not convinced. However, since Dustin has come on board, and there have been some team changes, things look a lot better. Robb has developed his own style as lead investigator, and I actually like it a lot. He's clearly taken some kind of acting lessons or something, because he looks more comfortable in front of the camera, and the whole show seems less awkward and stilted.

Shannon Sylvia: I'm not even going to comment. Someone just tell me why she called in the Penn State Paranormal Society to investigate her house when she's an investigator herself?

Barry Fitzgerald: The other strong link of GHI, who originally appeared in GH's Leap Castle episode. Barry gets a little strange at times, and his assumptions are clearly colored by his Irish upbringing (there's a strong tradition of believing in the supernatural there), but he's still a great investigator, and adds a lot to the team. He does try new and different approaches and new equipment, which keeps the show from being formulaic. I hope he doesn't leave the show.

Brandy Green: Great case manager, and great investigator. She really works well with this team.

So, that's my take on TAPS. I know there has been plenty out there about how things on this show could be (or perhaps are?) faked, but I still like it better than most investigative shows I've seen, and still feel it has more credibility. I am sure some things are hyped for television, and some things need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, skeptics will always be skeptics, and believers will always be believers--and those that fall in between would have to have an experience that firmly put them on one side or the other.

Currently, new GHI episodes are on the SyFy channel on Wednesdays at 9, and you can see past episodes here:

New episodes of Ghost Hunters will be aired this Fall. You can see recent past episodes here:

Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson are on MySpace and Twitter (jchawes and grantswilson). There is a Facebook fan page for the show as well.