Sunday, January 31, 2010

January Snapshot

The afternoon temperatures attempt to make it to the freezing mark. Compared to the last few days, it feels warm outside. I have just returned from a visit with a friend. She has severe endometriosis; a full hysterectomy will be required. She is a single Mom with 2 kids. I ask her when the surgery is scheduled. I will certainly be taking her for the surgery and waiting with her children; she doesn't have anyone else here, after all. Her family is in another country. I don't mind doing what's needed for her; I just hope that the surgery will solve her issues.

I arrive at home, and find my cat snoring away on the sofa. I mutter to myself, "the cat is asleep". He suddenly pops his eyes open and gives an inquisitive meow, looking at me as if he's heard, as if to say, "Nope, I'm awake!" I have re-stocked the wine rack. I never buy wine that is more than 10 dollars a bottle. If this sounds very plebian, I assure you that I've bought expensive wines before, and most of them taste like shoe polish. At best, they are no better taste-wise than some of the cheaper wines I've purchased. I do prefer French wine, Bordeauxs more than Merdocs. Italian reds are delicious but give me terrible headaches. American reds are my second favorite, particularly cabs. recently did a list of the biggest bullshit jobs out there--wine taster was one of them. They pointed to a test, where wine tasters were asked to taste what was actually the same cheap wine, but one had the regular label, and one had the label of a much more expensive vintage. They all rated the "expensive" wine much higher than the "cheaper" wine. Someone told me once that you had to put a higher price tag on things for Americans, or they wouldn't think it had any value. This is certainly evidence in favor of that notion.

I went to put on some John Foxx CDs today, and found I couldn't listen to them. Not because there's anything wrong with them, but because I've realized that there have been no John Foxx events for almost 2 months. I really can't afford for John to have an event before April, truth be told. But it makes me discontent, because hearing the music reminds me of the person, and then I want to see the person...well, in person. John has often spoken about the "ghosts" created by hearing a song on the radio, or seeing a person on TV, or YouTube, or whatever. For me, it's less of a ghost than it is a pointer--just like religious symbolism is not the actually reality, but points you to something greater, so music is the same way for me. Hearing a particular song can remind me of a time, a place, a conversation, a person--even just a feeling of happiness, or sadness, or loneliness, or discomfort. Some songs remind me of particular years in my life, even if they were not recorded in that year. Evoking the feeling when all it will do is create discontent is problematic for me. I'm a deeply emotional person, and need to be in the right frame of mind. So, I distract myself with other things, and save those CDs for a different time.

Last week I had dinner and drinks with a friend I hadn't spoken to in a long time. We talked about the different interpretations of Aleister Crowley. It's almost a universal thing that people with a "Satanic" opinion of Crowley have never read any of his works. However, that does need to be taken back a bit--some of Crowley's works DO imply a black magic, or seem to condone that practice. Crowley never really condoned black magic; he assumed his readership would be able to see the meaning beyond his words, to understand that it shouldn't be taken at face value. Why else would he go to court and sue someone for slander for referring to him as a "black magician"? (A bid he lost, by the way, because he tended to refer to himself as the "Great Beast 666". While he was referring to the overthrow of the tyranny of Christian institutions of that time, it's hard to blame anyone for making that deduction).

The conversation got me thinking about something I term "literary matrixing", though it's probably not so original or special. It refers to the notion that we take out of texts the things that we want and discard the rest. "Matrixing" as a psychological phenomenon involves the mind organizing imperfections on a surface into an image--pareidolia (seeing the face of Jesus or Mary in various objects) is an example of matrixing. If words are symbols for ideas, why can't the phenomenon occur with those as well? I say that it is not special, however, because everything we read, every object we view, is interpreted in terms of our own experiences. It's not a new idea.

(Why does rigati take longer to cook than ziti? Do those ridges in the pasta really take that much longer to cook?)

I have been reading a lot of M.R. James lately. I have one book of his short stories, and then found another for a couple of dollars at a used bookstore I like to visit. The owner of the store looked at the book when I bought it. "M.R. James! Do you get nightmares from reading this stuff before bedtime? I know I do." I told him no, but now I'm not sure. James writes about demonic creatures that are often awakened by opening certain books, or renovating churches, or what have you. I dreamt last night that such a creature fell out of the ceiling and into my room. I was looking for the most expedient way to kill it. So, maybe it does give me nightmares. But I like James--he was a librarian, and knew a lot about my favorite occupation, cataloguing. Cataloguers often figure into his stories. He's also a medievalist, well-versed in Latin, and an obvious expert on Church architecture. All that in a ghost story. What's not to like?

Speaking of ghosts...I was looking at a photo on a Twitter feed, and one of the comments referred to former Ghost Hunters team member Donna LaCroix. I'd talked about that team in a previous post, so I don't want to repeat myself too much. But there were two articles about Donna, who is no longer on any Ghost Hunters show. She apparently was on a radio talk show with two investigators who call themselves the "Ghost Divas". On the show, she proceeded to rip apart the Ghost Hunters operation, claimed there was some fakery, and blasted the production company. She said that she, Andy Andrews, and Brian Harnois got crappy contracts with the spin-off show Ghost Hunters International, and that all three of them had gotten screwed. She then retracted a large amount of it in a second statement. You can read the first post here and the second post here.

First of all, from what I know from seeing posts elsewhere from Donna, this doesn't surprise me at all. I'm sorry that she's made out so badly from all of this, but two things occur to me. One is that of COURSE Ghost Hunters has faked things. Do I really believe that the scenarios of Jason and Grant at their day jobs, or someone walking into the TAPS office to talk to Donna aren't re-enacted and scripted? Of course not. And I've complained about the overly-slick production in recent shows. I would hope that the evidence caught is not faked, even if it's hyped to a certain degree. She does not claim the evidence is faked. There is going to be a certain amount of hype, but that doesn't discount all findings on the show. The other thing that occurs to me is that Donna and Andy in particular were not stellar additions to the team. Yes, Andy is a great debunker, but he didn't really have the personality for TV. Donna was a great case manager, but I'm sorry, she's just not a good investigator. Maybe on private investigations she's better, but on TV, she tended to make me roll my eyes. I can't say much about Brian--I think he provided great entertainment value--but certainly he and Jason didn't see eye to eye, ultimately. And if they don't get along, maybe he should work with another team. He's not a bad investigator. In short, though--the production company and the network will make the decisions that they feel will make them the most money. Sometimes that's good, sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's outright unfair. But it's nothing new. And I agree with the blogger who reported the stories--Brian, Donna, and Andy apparently had a crappy entertainment lawyer. Again, that's too bad, but it's not anyone else's problem. I've had bad lawyers too--and I've learned to read over my own contracts and do as much as I can myself. Hopefully they've learned that, too.

I receive an e-mail from a friend about my 20-year high school reunion. I have to RSVP by tomorrow if I intend to go. It wouldn't be such a big deal, but I'm balking at the $95 per ticket price tag. Yes, I know it's not cheap to have these things, but is it worth it to pay $95? For one thing, I wasn't all that close with anyone in high school. The friends that I did have I already keep in touch with. Other friends from high school aren't in my graduating class. Basically, it would be a hundred-dollar exercise in curiosity, nothing else. Many of my classmates are married with kids, and while that's great for them, I find the married-with-kids lifestyle hard to get excited about. I'm not so excited by people's photos of little junior. Similarly, they may not be able to relate to my lifestyle. So, I might be setting myself up for an evening of awkward conversations. Something I'd be more inclined to do if it cost less. In any case, I need to get off the fence by tomorrow.

Tomorrow! February 1! Where does the time go?...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stephen Colbert Interviews Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberly Academy, January 29, 2010

Around Christmastime, my friend Ann dropped me a note asking if I wanted to hear Stephen Colbert (amazing comedian and host of the Colbert Report) interview Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Director of NYC's Hayden Planetarium, highly influential in American science--best known as the guy who "demoted" Pluto as a planet, though it wasn't just him) at the Montclair Kimberly Academy. The event was free, Montclair is the town of my undergrad alma mater, Montclair State University (where I sometimes teach), and I'm a fan of both Colbert and Tyson, so I was game. The event was actually held yesterday (January 29).

On Wednesday, Ann e-mailed to ask if I was still going. I had totally forgotten about it; fortunately, I was off on Friday and had made no other plans yet. The only difficulty was the weather--it was bone-chilling cold outside (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit, not including wind chill--that's about -9 or -10 degrees Celsius). I ended up wearing 4 layers of woolen clothes to the event, and probably needed 5. After having dinner at a nearby Irish pub, we lined up to get into the event. The doors weren't supposed to open until 7, but fortunately they took pity on us and let us in about 15 minutes earlier. Ann and I had excellent seats. The event itself was amazing--Colbert is a very funny and engaging interviewer, and Dr. Tyson is impassioned about his answers. Stephen's questions to Dr. Tyson revolved around philosophy, science, Tyson's own background, and scientific literacy.

My friend Ann writes for the Colbert fan site, The No Fact Zone. You can read her excellent take on this interview here. What follows is my own memory of the event. It's not very chronological, as I got home from the event and jotted down what I could remember in the order I remembered it. For what it's worth, here is my take:

Stephen asks--is it better to know or not know? Tyson says yes, always. Stephen brings up Oedipus Rex--was it better for Oedipus to know the truth? The guy put his eyes out when he found out the truth. Tyson continues to insist that it is better to have the information. People can choose ignorance, but then they give up the chance to participate in new discoveries.

Scientists make discoveries by taking what has already been learned to apply it to new things or (in the case of Newton) invent a whole system (differential and integral calculus) to explain what they discover.

One should not accept something at face value or reject it out of hand--both are equally lazy. One should ask questions, get particulars about how something works. This is what keeps us from becoming victims of charlatans. It also allows voters to make informed decisions about science policy. He gave the example of someone handing you 2 crystals and saying they will cure you. He said it is equally lazy to accept that they will cure you and to reject it as nonsense without any inquiry. You need to ask questions, at which point the claim is likely to break down. Stephen replied, "Look Neil, if you don't like the crystals I gave you, just say so."

Colbert asked about the notion of beauty in truth, and what beauty Tyson saw in science--what was the most beautiful scientific concept? He said without hesitation, "E=mc2", because it explained so many complexities of the universe, and yet was so simple. Tyson's definition of beauty in science had to do with simplicity--anything overly complicated, so complicated that he couldn't explain it to you--was a problem. The idea that we are made up of the same stuff as the stars is another simple idea that is staggering to think about.

Tyson talked about the notion that physics, especially particle physics and quantum mechanics, are questioned for their relevance to things that are important now--why are we looking out there rather than right here? He points out that things that don't look so important now can have a huge impact later. He gives the example of Farraday, and how he could pass his hand over a wire and move the needle on a meter (electrical response). When asked by Parliament what use this toy could possibly have for the British Empire, he said, "I don't know yet. But in 50 years, the government will tax it." Of course, Farraday pioneered our modern use of electricity.

Colbert questioned the Higgs Boson, and asked why it even had to exist--if you have 2 houses built side by side, why do you need to join them? Tyson replied that historically the link has always proven to be there. He gave the example of neutrinos and electromagnetism (electricity and magnetism used to be considered separate things).

Stephen asked about how Tyson got interested in astrophysics. He mentioned being a kid in the Bronx, where one could see about twelve stars at night, and then taking a trip to the Hayden Planetarium. He thought the vision of the sky was pure fiction, until he looked at the sky in Western Pennsylvania. And, in true city-kid fashion, he thought, "Wow, that looks just like the Hayden Planetarium." He felt destined to work in astrophysics after that, once he realized there was such a thing.

Colbert asked about science fiction, and whether or not Tyson enjoyed it, or was too busy poking holes in the science to enjoy it. Tyson replied that he could enjoy science fiction as long as it didn't claim to be "scientifically accurate". As long as it had some basis in science, he didn't care if they made up the rest. The movie Titanic really pissed him off, because it claimed to be scientifically accurate. The layout of the ship and the details involved couldn't be proven by anyone but those who had seen the submerged ship through a camera. But when Kate Winslet is on the plank looking at the night sky--not only is it the wrong sky, but it's actually a mirror image of the same sky. This annoyed Tyson, because it was a simple thing to verify in a movie that claimed to be accurate. He brought it up to James Cameron twice--the first time he mentioned it as a "post-production" thing, the second time he mentioned how much the movie grossed, and said, "Think how much more it would have grossed if I had the right sky." Nonetheless, when an anniversary edition of Titanic was being put together with new footage, Tyson got a call from Cameron's post-production manager, saying, "I hear you have a sky for me." He then stood up and did a victory dance.

One girl asked in the Q&A if it was possible to tunnel through a black hole via quantum mechanics. Tyson replied he that he needed to know if she planned to get somewhere or was satisfied being dead. When she said the latter was fine, he spoke about the memory of black holes--they retain the memory of everything they've ingested. Using Stephen as an example--if a black hole swallowed up Stephen and nothing else, if two particles came together out of that black hole (via E=mc2), they could pull out and reconstruct correctly every particle that was Stephen--and the black hole would evaporate. Tyson found that to be "spooky."

He was asked about recent scientific discoveries that he thought were important, and he mentioned finding water on the moon, and finding methane on Mars. The latter was more important because it suggested the presence of bacteria that didn't rely on oxygen, and hence, some kind of life. Methane, other than laboratory production, can only be produced under very special circumstances (usually in the guts of farm animals). This prompted Stephen's remark, "So you're saying that there are farts happening on Mars? Isn't that what you really want to say?"

He was asked about what he felt needed to be done to promote scientific literacy, specifically with an eye to policy making. He mentioned a two-fold approach. The first was at home--allowing kids to be curious and messy. His remark, "you had the kids, now clean up after them!" was well received by the audience. Keeping them from certain kinds of play because they might make a mess was hindering their curiosity. He felt that schools needed to encourage this as well, and not measure achievement so much in terms of rote facts--while memorizing facts can be important, it is more important to know how to figure things out. From a policy standpoint--he felt that NASA should not have to go to the government with its hat in its hand. Using the example of Farraday speaking to Parliament, he pointed out that much that can be gained from scientific study will be in the future, not in the next economic quarter or election cycle, and we needed to think beyond that when considering funding. He also pointed out that we are not throwing all our tax money into the space program--only 6/10 of a penny of every tax dollar goes into space exploration and related ventures.

Someone asked about the notion of a "brown dwarf" headed towards the Earth, alluding to one of the 2012 catastrophe theories about a "Planet X" heading for collision with the Earth. His response was that no such planet existed--all gravitational sources in the solar system were known and accounted for.

Stephen had asked about negative perceptions of science--creating the atom bomb, or, in fiction, creating viruses or making bizarre mutations of creatures--the notion of the "evil" scientist "tampering in God's domain" in popular culture. Tyson replied that behind every scientist creating something harmful is a politician funding that project. Science is neither good nor evil--how it's applied depends on the society. He drew a parallel to the iron age--should men of that time NOT forged iron into weapons and other things just because one might get cut with the weapon?

A woman in the audience asked about Tyson's "demotion" of Pluto as a planet, and whether or not, as an ice planet, it would eventually evaporate out of existence. Tyson pointed out that he wasn' t the only one who made the decision on Pluto, and to "not shoot the messenger" (though it was mildly amusing that Tyson once referred to 9 planets, and then quickly retracted and said 8)--and that Pluto was not demoted per se, but merely reclassified--it fit in better with other ice planets like itself. Stephen made a remark I didn't entirely catch about him sending Pluto "upstate to the farm, so you can be with others like you". Tyson then said, in answer to the question, that no, Pluto would not disappear, as it was much too far from the Sun to ever have its icy surface melt away.

He spoke about things in science, particularly quantum mechanics, that are hard to swallow because they don't "make sense". He pointed out that they don't make sense because we're not living in that quantum world on those terms--if we were, it would make sense, and the world we live in now wouldn't. Nature "is under no obligation" to follow our laws of logic. They only refer to the world we experience.

Someone asked about parallel universes. He said probably not, as the idea of the multiverse was gaining prevalence. He noted that it was another step away from the notion that "we are the only ones" or are the center of things--first realized we're not the only planet in the solar system, then we discovered we weren't the only galaxy--so why should we be in the only universe? However, in different multiverses, the laws of physics work differently, so if you were to enter one, you don't know how your atoms, attuned to the laws of physics in this universe, would behave--you might implode or grow three heads, for instance.

Stephen's last question to Tyson was the old Modern Philosophy exam question, "How do you make something out of nothing?" and asked him to respond in 10 words or less. Tyson managed to do it--I don't remember the exact words--but it was something to the effect of, "Some questions contain words but are not questions at all."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Politics As Usual

I feel sorry for Barack Obama.

To a certain extent, I feel sorry for all politicians. Even a little bit for George W. Bush. Why, you may ask? Because politics is the ultimate Mephistopheles deal--promises of having real power, being able to enact significant change. And then one gets into office and that illusion disappears like a puff of smoke, and some little demon is laughing somewhere. Trying to enact changes and get legislation passed is about as easy as going for a long swim in drying cement. On the other hand, someone has to do it--it's one of the inevitabilities of democracy. So, our leaders are more like human sacrifices.

I particularly feel sorry for Obama, because whether you like the man or not, you can't deny that he came into office with the earnestness of youth. He wanted to change things, and he really meant it. He really does want what's best for America. You may or may not agree that he knows what that is, but you're dead wrong if you think he doesn't want it. Some politicians lie to get into office, and then exclusively serve special interests rather than the people. Obama may turn out that way as well, who knows. But the reason I voted for him in the end was that he really did want to make things better, and he might get off to a running start, accomplishing a few things before that cement dried.

People who are disgusted with Obama and the Democrats for not bringing about swift change are people who are naive to the ways of politics. Not totally naive, I am sure, as most of us get the idea that there's a lot of shady dealing involved. And we know that both political parties have their faults--we really do need a balance in Congress, so that the worst traits of both parties can be kept at bay. I always believed I understood politics until I got a political job. By the time I (barely) escaped with my sanity, I realized that it was much more complicated and much worse than I ever could have imagined.

In my case, it was not an elected position, but a highly visible job--I was responsible for a system migration for 37 municipalities. It was a highly controversial appointment--I actually wrote a soap opera about the whole thing at the time, that I don't dare ever publish for fear of being sued. This is laughably small potatoes compared to the Presidency of the United States, but it certainly presents a microcosm of all the forces at work. This is what they are:

1. Public Opinion and Media Spin: These two things go hand in hand. "Media" could be as simple as word of mouth between institutions, or as big as the actual national media. If general public opinion is that you know what you're doing and can get the job done, you will be able to accomplish your work much more smoothly. But never is there 100% agreement on this, and those who believe that you're the wrong person for the job will do everything that can to spin this message to the people, making them doubt your abilities. Some will stick by you, others will be plunged into doubt, especially as factor #3 in this list comes into play.

2. Who You Know: Do you remember being in the sixth grade, and kids you used to play with in your K-5 school suddenly started forming cliques? Do you remember how you would be labeled as part of a group, and if you were part of one group, you couldn't be friends with someone in another group, unless they had something you wanted/needed, in which case you pretended to be nice but stabbed them in the back? When you became an adult, did you think that was finally all over? If so, you've never worked in a political job. Who you are friends with and how much power (i.e., popularity) they have makes all the difference in the world. Your actual ability to do your job does not. In the bipartisan world, a member of either political party could find a cure for cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, and bring back a booming economy, and members of the opposition party would still find a reason to label them incompetent.

This also means that you don't piss off your allies. They can turn on you as well. Hence the reason many "decisive" politicians may be hesitant to act.

3.Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt, or the FUD Factor: This is especially a problem in technical jobs, but it's really a problem everywhere. Things descend into firestorms and chaos because things get chaotic, and people want things to be orderly, and become desperately afraid to hinge their hopes on the person elected to put things in order. As much as they disliked what came before, it was "the devil they knew." So, panic ensues, as every little thing the elected person tries to do is brought under scrutiny. The elected person's opposition will use this opportunity to increase distrust in this person, to such a degree that nothing can get done as everyone becomes filled with doubt about what constitutes right action. Even your allies may start to turn against you, because no matter what you do, it's wrong to somebody.

4. The Past is a Cancelled Check: Most major problems are inherited. That doesn't matter. If you're the person front and center now, you're the target if things are screwed up. Don't bring up bad decisions made by past administrators. Somehow everything is your fault. Your predecessor could be Hitler, and somehow they would find something favorable to say about him compared to you.

5. Every Man (or Woman) for Himself (Herself): No one cares if a change will help the majority of the people. If they think it won't help them personally, then it's bad and must be stopped. If it doesn't fit into their particular worldview, or suit their particular organization, than it shouldn't happen, period.

This, sadly, is politics as usual. None of it may be surprising, but the force with which a vocal minority can take someone down for no rational reason is so absurd we just can't believe it really happens among thinking people. But it really is a bit like we fool people into getting elected so that we can get our rocks and start stoning them in the name of democracy. I'm all for dissenting opinions and debate--that's the cornerstone of good democracy--but more often that not it's just a savage brawl with a cacophony of voices.

I try to think about why this is, but then I stop. Human nature is what it is, and group dynamics can often be frightening. As sleazy as politicians can be, they're really just fighting to stay alive in this arena. As for me, I'm happier being a worker bee and actually accomplishing something--I'm pleased to leave high administration to someone else. Politics rarely leaves one feeling accomplished.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


2:30 in the morning. I am awake for no good reason, and now the cat is awake, too. This is bad, because it means the 2 hours of sleep I’m still entitled to will be constantly disrupted by a 15-pound feline circling my head, pulling at my hair and clothes, and knocking things off my nightstand, like my alarm clock. Cats are beyond time. They just believe that when you wake up it is obviously time to feed them, and they don’t need to know anything else.

I manage to stay in bed until 4:30, but I feel like half of me is still in bed, and half is getting ready for work. Naturally this happens on a day when I have many things to take care of before work, so I end up running late. As I drive in, I notice how bright it is outside. Tuesday is Brigid’s Day—the goddess or the saint, whichever you prefer. Aside from Brigid being my namesake, it also marks the middle of winter. I like the periods of gradual increase or decrease of light. Winter light doesn’t last long enough, and tries to convince my body that it needs to go to bed at 5:00 pm. On the other hand, summer days are so long, I find myself looking at the sun at 8:00 at night and thinking, “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

There has been a lot of discourse on the imaginary as of late—on my blog and other blogs. But if something can be imagined, can it also be un-imagined? If imaginary things have a reality of their own, can that existence also be taken away with a thought?

A few weeks ago, there was a Paranormal State episode called “Dead Legends”. It featured a hotel that appeared to be haunted by a tragic woman in white, and a man who looked like a chef, who liked to throw knives in the kitchen. They brought in psychic Chip Coffey, who had no knowledge of the hotel, but picked up on the presence of the woman in white and the man chef—he also picked up on their temperaments. But here was the kicker—in researching the hotel’s history, the legends surrounding these 2 ghostly figures could not be proven—in fact, it was proven that they never happened. So, what was going on?

Ryan Buell came up with the theory that the legends had been re-told and believed so many times that they took on a life of their own (kind of like the thoughtform idea). The owners of the hotel liked the lady in white, but the knife-throwing chef clearly made them nervous. So, Ryan suggested that they will him out of existence—for the group of them to come together and formally state that he no longer existed. They did not do the same with the lady in white. Follow-up reports showed that the man had stopped appearing, but the lady did still appear from time to time. So, it appears they were successful.

This seems to suggest that you can stop believing in something, and it will stop existing. That may be well and good with ghosts, but what about more embedded ideas? Dan mentioned ideas like the Economy, or the Will of the People in his blog posting. And what about God? And—if existence is totally illusory—what about other solid living human beings?

I heard the sound of his voice on the phone from 300 miles away. “Do you ever think about me?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Though I do have nightmares from time to time that you’re still here. Does that count?”

I am teetering dangerously at a philosophical precipice—to ask such questions is to ask what existence is, and if we’re still debating it after hundreds of years, it’s likely that we really haven’t pinned it down. A friend posted this great clip from Robert Anton Wilson the other day—if you can get to the end, you can hear his point clearly:

Robert Anton Wilson on “What Is Quantum Physics?”

I have forgotten people. Does that mean they don’t exist? I’m sure there are people who have forgotten me. Does that mean I don’t exist? Well, not to them perhaps, and that is the crux of the matter, I think. Immortality is predicated on being remembered. (And, “remembering” is just what it sounds like—re-membering. Putting the dismembered back together). Being forgotten is a form of death in a universe within a multiverse. Living people are dying in this way all the time.

Monday, January 25, 2010


You really are going nowhere.
I wish I was going with you
(Gary Snyder)

There is a certain insincerity in cleverness. In writing, in interactions with others, in public presentations—we always want to be “clever”, we want people to be astounded by our wit, wisdom, and overall sophistication. The more education you have, the worse it gets. Standing in a room with lots of educated people becomes an intellectual pissing contest. Everyone wants to look smarter than everyone else. Because everyone is so insecure about where they fall on the “smartness” scale, they lie. Or maybe “lie” is too strong—they “exaggerate” how much they actually know.

Socrates was put to death for exposing the “clever”. Ask enough questions about someone’s alleged knowledge of something, and they’ll eventually be revealed for what they are—full of shit, or at least not as all-knowing as they claim. The reason for his death sentence was “corruption of the youth”. Honesty is a social liability. We all claim to want honesty, especially from our elected officials. We act horrified when we realize they’re not honest. As if we didn’t know.

Lest this turn into a rant against the socially dishonest, I would point out that everyone does it without even realizing it—myself included. The unconscious urge to be part of society, to be accepted by a group, is usually stronger than the urge to be honest, especially about ourselves. Ironically, we look for group acceptance by asserting how individual we think we are. We want to be part of the crowd, but also stand out from it. The urge towards conformity is directly proportional to our own feelings of self-confidence and insecurity. The more insecure we feel, the more desperately we need to fit in.

Honest people are often viewed as simpletons or idiots. Playing poker and showing everyone your hand. Walking around the streets naked. No one wants to expose what lies underneath their persona. We consider our hopes, dreams, fantasies, feelings as precious cargo. If we expose them to others, we risk them getting damaged or torn apart. That poor art student at the Met that nearly destroyed a Picasso is an apt metaphor. She got too close to something valuable, and almost destroyed it, though it was accidental. Most people hurt us accidentally, not willfully. And we think that if we let others get too close to what we value, we’ll lose it forever and have nothing.

So, being clever is one of many social tradeoffs that we make to protect ourselves. “A defense mechanism”, to use psychoanalytic lingo. It seems to be perfectly natural, but what’s odd is that our “inner” being is probably much stronger and more desirable than the image we present to others. The most interesting and desirable people are the ones that act naturally without pretense. Pretense is about as attractive as a Tammy Faye Baker makeup job. But we fool ourselves into thinking we look good with it.

I am bored with cleverness and clever pretenses, especially my own. Mine are incredibly artificial, as I am frequently no better at being clever than I am at doing Calculus. But maybe my act isn’t so bad, as no one seems to be able to figure me out. Or, they can’t figure me out because they’re not used to anyone laying it out for them honestly. They think that I can’t be telling the truth, because no one does, but my lies are not contained in what I say, they’re contained in what I don’t say. A friend once told me that omitting details does not constitute lying. That’s pure bullshit, but I like to believe it anyway.

The other part of my trouble with cleverness has to do with respect. If you’re too concerned about how you appear to other people, you’re not giving the other people enough credit. They may not think the way you do, and it’s not likely they view you the way you view yourself. People will either accept you or reject you based on how you fit in to their own perception of the world and themselves; it really has nothing to do with you at all. And I’ve noticed that people like you best if you don’t shove your own worldview on them. It is possible to respect someone even if you don’t agree with them, or even necessarily like them all that much. But if they don’t like you, that’s nothing to worry about either. We can’t like everyone, and not everyone is going to like us. If that is your goal, it will be a frustrating one at best.

The social reality is that many of us hope to “get somewhere”, to be noticed. But, like everything else, there’s nowhere to really go. You move from one imaginary position to another, and you’re never satisfied with where you end up.

I think I prefer to go nowhere. There isn’t anywhere else, after all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mirage Divine and The Rumpus's One Year Later Event

Sunday morning. Massive storms are due later today. I'm even hearing about thunderstorms. Who ever heard of a thunderstorm in January?

I am excited about a new blog that has come out, written by my friend Dan:

Mirage Divine

Dan is one of the smartest people I know, and I love spending time in conversation with him and his wife. His most recent post, "Imaginary People" reminds me of a conversation the three of us were having at St. James Gate just before Christmas. We were discussing some of my previous blog posts, as well as some of John Foxx's ideas about the real vs. the illusory, especially in the context of the media (i.e., the "media ghosts" idea). Dan argued that these "ghosts" are just as "real" as any other part of a person's identity, and the fact that a person has grown older, or changed paths doesn't mean that image of them becomes a falsehood. When I read the above post, I realized that this makes a lot of sense. You should read it, too.

On another note, Annalemma Magazine posted a review of The Rumpus One Year Later party in Manhattan on Thursday night. I was at this party, though I couldn't stay past the intermission. I left at 9, made it back to Penn Station by 9:30, and caught the train back to NJ--getting to my stop takes about an hour. Then it takes another 40 minutes to drive home. Which means--leaving at 9--I don't get home until almost midnight, if I catch the right train. When I think about how relatively close I live to Manhattan, this seems idiotic. But the alternative is driving, and that's more expensive and just as time consuming. So, it's the price I pay for living out West.

I enjoyed the party--I arrived early, as I had a meeting downtown, stopped for dinner, and then headed over. I was waiting in the bar, which was downstairs, for things to start. Stephen Elliott came over and introduced himself when he came in. I'd also met him last June at another Rumpus/McSweeney's event, but it's not likely he'd remember me from that. Seating was odd--Broadway East is more of a restaurant than a proper "venue", so there were lots of round booths, and a few tables in the middle. Lots of people ended up sitting on the floor. I wound up sharing a booth with 5 men I'd never met before--mostly aspiring writers, a couple of NYU students as well. Everyone was very nice, though one man I was talking to apparently thought that having a conversation constituted interest on my part, and was forward enough to send me a blog comment suggesting that we either were dating or going to date (I can't quite remember--I just remember being stunned by the comment). And that was AFTER he'd read my post for the romantically perplexed, which apparently wasn't clear enough. A little tip--if I chat with you but don't give you any real contact info, I may think you're a nice person, but I'm not looking to date, thanks. I do resent not being able to go out by myself without people assuming I'm looking to date or hook up or whatever if I talk to them. At the same time, the ugly fact is that this is the general assumption of the culture, so it's hard to blame anyone for thinking it.

I only saw the first half of the event, which was great. There were readings by Justin Taylor, Tao Lin, and Stephen Elliott, and music by Diane Louvel. All of the readings were excellent--Tao Lin seemed the most uncomfortable at the mike, but it was obvious that he had something going on--cold, sore throat, sinus, don't know--that was affecting his reading. It didn't affect my enjoyment of the work though--after hearing him read, I'm definitely going to buy his new book, "Richard Yates" (He's also written "Shoplifting From American Apparel"). Justin and Stephen's works also were intriguing, and will likely invest in those as well (the titles are "Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever" and "The Adderall Diaries", respectively).

I love readings. Frequently I walk into a bookstore and develop instant commitment-phobia. Books are like people--you never really know what they're like until you meet them face to face. Reviews are no better than your friends or family telling you, "I met this great guy who's single, you'd just love him." They might be right, but there's a good chance that they're not right, at least not for you. Author interviews are a bit like what I imagine online dating to be like--they're marketing what they consider to be the best assets of their work, as the work itself can't "talk" to you, sell you on its worthiness. Readings are better because it's like meeting with no pressure of involvement--you just enjoy the work for what it is, or you're bored senseless and glad you don't have to be further involved. Yes, you could also look at the book in the library, or look at some of the pages on Amazon if they're available, but that requires a time commitment, which can be more expensive than a money commitment. It's a matter of individual taste, but the fact is that readings sell me on more previously unknown books than anything else.

Speaking of--I would like to spend the afternoon reading. Which means I have to spend this morning finishing domestic things. And we know that according to relativity theory, weekends are shorter than weekdays, so I'd best get cracking...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snippets from an Aries Moon

I’ve noticed that often when people talk, others don’t listen. I’ve also noticed that often when people write messages, others don’t read them. This should not be an epiphany.

I go to Yahoo to open my e-mail, and see a featured article on “How not to feel humiliated when dining alone.” Whoever wrote the article should be humiliated. “Tip #2—Try the bar.” Sitting at the bar sends a message, namely, “I’m looking to hook up with somebody here.” And tip #1, “Be bookish (i.e., bring a book)” doesn’t stop anyone from talking to you at the bar. And you don’t “people watch” at a restaurant the way you might sitting on a park bench—that’s just creepy. The whole article is patronizing. It says in a pitying way, “you like to be alone, and that’s different, but being different is OK!” in that cheery fake tone that makes you want to strangle the person speaking. If you’re so insecure about going out without having a babysitter everywhere you go, that’s your problem.

I recall a 4-hour conversation with a friend on Monday. One of the things we talked about was class distinction in the UK. As an American, I’ve never “gotten” the idea that how much money you make or what kind of job your parents held should have something to do with your worth in society. It shouldn’t matter if someone is the Queen or if they’re waiting tables somewhere, they’re still people and worthy of respect. Apparently, though, class distinction still holds weight in British consciousness. I mentioned this to my hairdresser the other day, and he probably said it best: “Some people buy a thousand dollar pair of shoes like some of us buy a pack of gum. And they hang out with other people who do the same, because that’s normal for them. I get that. I what I don’t get is how having that much money gives you the right to disrespect anyone else.”

There are days when I can ignore patronizing behavior successfully, even though talking to a patronizing person makes me feel like I’ve just taken a bath in the sewer. I’m thinking today is not one of those days. In general, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I’m in the face of that kind of fake nice behavior. I must have been an archer in a previous life, because when I see the target set up, my reaction is to shoot at it.

“Supposed to” is one of the most despicable phrases in the English language. There is respectful social behavior, and then there’s just ridiculously stupid convention that betrays anything resembling honesty and integrity. Carl Jung talks about the Shadow archetype. One explanation of the Shadow is that it is all of our repressed thoughts and feelings. Typically, whatever one “thinks” they are, they are also the opposite, and that can make one deeply ashamed. I’ve often thought about my Shadow. I flip flop back and forth between thoughts, feelings and self-concepts so many times, sometimes in a single day, that I start to think I’m a hypocrite. But then I remember that everyone, by virtue of being human, feels both ways about everything. I like to think I’m more honest about it. Still, I’m sure my Shadow will trip me up one of these days. Or my cat, who thinks he’s my shadow.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Revisions, Reposts, Randomness--and a Word on Seeing Through Illusions

After a night full of bizarre dreams, I've at least got one thing going this morning--no headache. And I've got a second thing going, too--no work. I plan to spend today at home, relaxing, reading, maybe going for a walk later. True to form, I'm going to be a bit lazy and not write a "real" blog posting. What follows are links to some things that might bear re-reading, as they've slipped down the old archive list and out of sight to all but the intrepid explorer of these pages. And I'm throwing in a few random things just because.

First--I've met many new people virtually and in-person, and visited many new places in the last few months, and have gained a wider readership of this blog. While this has many positive attributes, it's also led to some awkward communications at times. So, I will re-run for you a slightly revised:

Guide to Brigid For the Romantically Perplexed

John Foxx hadn't been blogging for awhile, but now he's posting to The Quiet Man blog again. This is one of his recent posts on the microphone, Frank Sinatra and crooners in general, and the illusion of intimacy generated by singing into a microphone--and the close-up photo.

Frank Sinatra...and the Close Up

I notice a trend these days in John's writing--the theme I'm seeing has to do with how illusions are created and how they impact others. The other message I get from his writing and public speaking these days is that one never really "knows" someone with celebrity (presumably himself included)--we only know the outer illusion that makes us think we know. Well, if one hasn't met said celebrity in person (and by that I mean having a conversation, not just being in the same room), that would certainly be true. On the other hand, I would suggest that even the most well-crafted illusions and disguises are not fool-proof. There are two ways to see through illusions--one involves intuition, the other observation. Mind you, this would be an in-person observation, not something you could tell from any broadcast source. Maybe I should take a couple of paragraphs to explain.

First, intuition. I can only speak for myself here, but when I meet anyone in person, I get one of two sensations--a warming over the heart area, or a knot in the stomach. This has nothing to do with attraction, with what I think I know about the person, or anything else. The first sensation tells me I am dealing with a good, trustworthy person--not the type to stab you in the back when you turn around. The second sensation tells me I'm not, and should probably avoid this person at all costs. There have been cases when I've met an apparently good and kind person, and gotten the knot in the stomach. Later, it comes out that this person is indeed NOT trustworthy, and naturally everyone is shocked. Conversely, I've met people in a terrible mood, but if I have the first sensation, I know that it's only a terrible mood, and my next meeting will be better.

Second, observation. Kinesics is a much-neglected field among just about everyone but fake psychics. It should not have such a sordid reputation. Everyone presents what they consider their best face to the world, or at least the face they want people to see. Kinesics are those unconscious body movements that we make, that tell more about what we are thinking than the smile on our face or the words that come out of our mouth. It could be a look in the eyes, the position of one's arms, whether someone steps towards or away from you--and even more subtle things. If you're not convinced, consider that magician Aleister Crowley could cause someone to bend to his will (e.g., causing a man walking down the street to suddenly fall down for no reason)--not by "magic", but through a superior understanding of kinesics and the workings of the unconscious psyche. Words can also give someone away--the proverbial "Freudian slips", and other things that we say unintentionally when our guard is down for whatever reason.

OK, enough about that. (And just for the record--I've had the "first sensation" over the heart area when I've met Foxx, Steve, Rob, and Karborn. They're all good folks.). For more on illusion and deception, you can re-read my response to another of Foxx's postings:

Smoke and Mirrors

And now for some randomness:

Speaking of broadcasts, has this amazing post on unexplained broadcasts:

Five Creepy Unexplained Broadcasts

Here is something that confirms my life-long beliefs about the stock market (and perhaps everything else):

Monkey Outperforms 94% of Russian Bankers on Stock Portfolio

This is why printers suck:

Why I Believe Printers Were Sent from Hell to Make Us Miserable (from The Oatmeal)

This is my cat:

This is a LOLcat. My favorite in the last 2 months:

Thank you, and have a pleasant day.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Breakfast Reading, and "Inversions"

Breakfast out on weekend mornings is usually about more than just getting food. I usually make my way to my favorite spot in Frenchtown very early--around 7:00 in the morning, because the place is usually filled by 7:15 or 7:20. In the wintertime it's a little quieter, but not much; in the summertime, there are lines of people waiting outside to get in, even though I could count at least three other breakfast places within a half a mile--two of them in the same vicinity as the cafe. There's something special about the place--some combination of good food, ambiance, and service. I took my sister to visit this place when she came from Los Angeles; when we left, she said, "I can see why you make the effort to come here." Even if I don't talk to anyone while I'm there, I somehow feel like I'm among friends. It's a bit hard to explain.

The breakfast trip always requires reading material if I'm not meeting anyone there. I usually haven't been awake for very long when I'm getting myself together to leave, so I'm often staring at the bookshelves with bleary eyes. Lest you, like some folks, think I am odd for heading out to a restaurant on my own with a book--if I stay in the cafe long enough, I find myself looking at a row of people at the counter having their breakfast--all with books in their hands. It's hardly a unique phenomenon. I also see couples do this--they get a table, pull out the New York Times or Philadelphia Inquirer, and start going through the Sunday paper. No eye contact, no conversation. But I imagine this is what they do at home. Isn't that what many families do at home? You sit around and read the paper with your coffee on Sunday morning, debating over who gets what sections first. Why not go out and let someone else worry about making breakfast?

This morning, I can't decide if I want to read something fictional, something poetic, something non-fiction, something serious, or something light. Lately I don't read the same book two weeks in a row; I start one book, and the following week I decide it's too much for a breakfast visit. Like Jungian Psychiatry by Heinrich Karl Fierz--interesting book, but I can't delve too much into that kind of theory before I've eaten. I don't want anything too light this morning, either. I decide on a nifty little (OK, not so little--464 pages) volume called "Inversions" by Burt Alpert. I discovered Inversions via an old "magazine", typed and glued together on pretty paper, called Booklegger Magazine. It was a little renegade librarian's journal from the early 1970s; I discovered it while I was helping with a serials consolidation project where I work. When I saw it, I had to sit down and go through the issues; they just don't make magazines like that anymore.

Booklegger had a review of Inversions that was so compelling I had to try to locate the book. I was fortunate to find it on Amazon for about five bucks. It's all typed, and very long, and I will confess I have not gotten all the way through it. I am sure as I make my way through it, you will hear more about it on this blog.

According to the author, an "inversion" is the transformation of reality into irreality: when we call a relaxed person "lazy", an easygoing person "sloppy", a self-assertive person "uppity", a spontaneous person "impulsive", someone perceptive "paranoid...also, when we call repression "temperance", rigidity "order", ritual "etiquette", and compulsion "efficiency". He feels our whole consciousness as a society is an inversion against what is actually real. I'm already fascinated by the idea, so I read on. The first chapter is his argument that "dropping out" (as in "tune in, turn on, and drop out", a common notion in the Sixties) is actually a sign of commitment, not the opposite, as young people of that time were sick of living "dead" lives. He is also opposed to the heroic idea, and the notion of sacrifice--why, in order to live, does one have to resist, to embrace some kind of death?

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree that most people are walking versions of the dead--they are only interesting in making money, having material things, perhaps having a family--and that's all part of what we've been raised to believe our goals should be. The revolutions of the Sixties didn't do much to change that, and it's hard to know which way the pendulum is swinging in our current economic state--will we become more compulsively materialistic, or less materialistic? I am in favor of the notion that life is about more than these things, but the sad fact is that you need money to live. Alpert doesn't mention the fact that a lot of those who "dropped out" in the Sixties came from wealthy families--if you're still living with your parents and they're still paying your way, it's very easy to drop out, though your parents may not like it much. It's more of a challenge to make a living and live at the same time. I think living has more to do with your passions--you should be able to dedicate yourself to the pursuits that are the most meaningful to you. But I don't think anyone who is not independently wealthy has been able to avoid the experience of working in dead-end jobs, or uninspiring jobs, just to make ends meet. The good news is that you do have choices, and if your situation is desperately awful, there is always a window somewhere to get out. It may not open right away, but if you are determined to find it, you will. People are either unmotivated with regard to looking, or they just don't know where to look, or that they CAN look.

The world of the "Establishment"(to use the author's term--funny how that term has gone out of vogue) is never going to be the "answer". But you can't run a society without a structure--the more people that are in it, the more the natural human tendency to develop hierarchies and power structures (and to struggle for power) takes over. It sucks, but solving that would mean changing our basic human nature, and that's not likely to happen anytime soon. There will never be a perfect job--even in jobs where you are fortunate to have good, competent people in charge that you enjoy working for, there is still the OAIEO principle to deal with (One Asshole In Every Office). You're always going to face at least one difficult person. So what do you do? Quit your job? And go to another one where there will be another resident asshole? Maybe more than one? You're not going to solve your challenges by walking away from them. They'll just come back to get you somewhere else. That said, if you are very stressed out by your work and don't enjoy it, then you need to look for something else--there is no need to ruin your life for a job. It may take time to find another job or career, but that doesn't mean it will never happen and you are stuck.

I'm not giving up on this book based on any mixed feelings about the first chapter. While some notions may be able to be discarded, that doesn't mean everything should be discarded, and if I recall my last attempt to get through this book, he does have a lot more to say on different subjects, so I will keep plodding on.

Outside, the weather is quite warm, at least compared to the brutal temperatures and winds we had previously. If I could ditch the sinus headache that's been plaguing me for a week, I think I'd feel much better, less distorted. If you could see the screen of my mind right now, it looks like a program on an old TV set with rabbit ears that is more static than program because the signal is not being clearly picked up. But maybe that's not a bad thing. I think too much--I could probably use a bit more static.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Being Two Opposite Things at Once

Sitting in the doctor’s office. It’s time for my weekly allergy shot. The nurse comes in, flips through my chart, deciding which arm she gets to stick this time. It’s the right one. I turn my head away as the needle goes in. The job done, I now have to sit for twenty minutes to be sure I don’t keel over and die, or face some similar outcome from having allergens injected directly into my muscle tissue. Or, maybe it just makes me feel like I’m getting owed time for my $26 weekly fee.

Usually I bring a book for such visits, but today I don’t have one, though I notice an “I Spy” book in the magazine rack. I am nuts about puzzles and things (in case anyone wondered why I became a professional cataloger), so I grab a hold of it and look through it. I scan the pages trying to find the objects—5 bats, 6 squirrels, 12 birds, whatever. Damn, this is hard. They give this to kids?

I have vivid memories of going to the doctor’s office as a child. The office was decorated with that light brown paneling that seemed to decorate everything in the Seventies. The benches were the obligatory blend of brown, green, avocado--I mostly remember how the place smelled. Can you have a visual memory of a smell? I think it was a strong antiseptic smell, but I just associated the smell with that office, that paneling. The examination rooms smelled the same way. Their walls were decorated with pictures obviously made by other patients, Sunday newspaper cartoons, and a really scary looking rug-hooking of Raggedy Ann and Andy. I can remember reading what were at that time new Peanuts cartoons, in particular the new year’s day one for January 1, 1980. The doctor would come in, smiling, a short round woman with a red face, no neck, a shock of red hair, and a stethoscope around her neck. She smelled like everything else there. I remember her scolding me once, in the fifth grade, for being 5 pounds overweight. This may have been my first obvious experience of hypocrisy. Or maybe not. From the reports on child obesity, it sounds like pediatricians don’t bitch enough at kids about their weight.

I think a lot about hypocrisy. I live such a strange and apparently incongruous life that I sometimes wonder if I’m not hypocritical. I have very stereotypical “good girl” traits, and just as many stereotypical “bad girl” traits. But that may be the rub—the “stereotypical”. Do I want to be stereotypical? Not particularly.

Hypocrisy has more to do with judgment—if I judge others for doing the things I do, that would certainly make me a hypocrite. I don’t think I really judge anyone, not even the mentally ill. I remember a guy who used to come into the library I worked at, and he would frequently get into arguments—sometimes even fist fights—with someone who wasn’t there. If he got out of hand, I’d go over to him and say, “Both of you knock it off!” I figured, heck, just because I can’t see the other guy doesn’t mean he’s not there. What do I know?

I do question behavior that I find disrespectful, insulting, or hurtful—to myself or to another person, so perhaps I judge in that way, though that has more to do with communication, and perhaps discrimination (the good kind, not the illegal kind). I don’t think it’s possible not to do this—I just may be very over-analytical about it. More than likely, though, I’m responding to people’s criticism that I can’t be two apparently opposite things at one time. I think, “Gee, maybe I can’t. Or shouldn’t. Maybe I have to choose.” Then I laugh, and go louche some absinthe.

My 20 minutes are up, and I still haven’t found the 12th bird in this damn picture. The nurse looks at the welt on my arm, pronounces it “normal”, and I am free to go. As I drive home, I notice that it is 5:00 and still light out. I am encouraged.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Inverted Pentagrams

Recently I saw the much-touted Paranormal State episode, "Darkness Falls", produced by Penn State Paranormal Research Society's Ryan Buell. The episode was about PRS's visit to West Virginia State Penitentiary. Ryan had been there investigating on his own with Chad Calek, and had a very frightening experience. Deciding that he couldn't walk into families' homes and talk about their fears without confronting his own, he returned to the sight he ran from, and brought his team. All of them experienced moments of isolation in some of the scariest parts of the prison, and all had some strange experiences. Ryan then decided to reveal to them what he found in the Warden's Tower of the penitentiary--an inverted pentagram built into the architecture.

Ryan very accurately states that the pentagram has many benign uses and symbolisms among groups, but that the inverted one is also used by many groups, most notably devil worshippers. How the pentagram got there is unknown. If its representational intentions were good or evil is also unknown--I agree with Ryan that the latter is likely. This post is not about the meaning of that particular pentagram. But it does make me think about what the inverted pentagram actually represents, and it's quite complex.

First, let's talk about the upright pentagram, or pentacle--a 5-pointed star in a circle. It's is generally accepted that the 5 points represent 5 elements--fire, air, water, earth, and spirit. In symbolic diagrams about man's relationship to the Universe (or "God" if you like), the 5-pointed star is embedded in a 6-pointed star (think of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram--"for about me flames the pentagram, and in the column stands the 6-rayed star"). What this symbolizes is man's place in the Universe--a microcosm of the macrocosm. We are but a small, self-contained piece of the Whole.

What the inverted pentagram represents, in Doreen Valiente's words, is "Spirit hidden in Matter." This has a very "loaded" history. We need to go back to the early Christian Church, and the Gnostics. Gnostics believed that the created world was corrupt--the Universe was continually created out of pairings called "aeons". However, one of these Aeons, Sophia (Wisdom), decided to create something on her own--and what she created was a being called Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth is synonymous in Gnosticism with Yahweh or Jehovah. Since this Being was unable to see the wider Universe, he assumed he was the only one in the Universe, and created our world. When Sophia saw this, she tried to intervene in the form of the Serpent--to show us that we really had Divine origins--but Yaldabaoth squelched that. Christ came along later to try to redeem us from the influence of Yaldabaoth.

From this belief system came the idea that all Incarnation in this world was evil. The extreme extension of this was what is now known as the Cathar Heresy--that all matter is evil, and that all human beings should refrain from procreation. Naturally the Orthodox/Catholic Church was against such a proposition (it would wipe out the human race if we all believed it), and condemned it as heresy. But from this notion came the idea that matter is evil.

Now--if we go back to the inverted pentagram--it represents Spirit hidden in Matter. So if all Matter is evil according to this way of thinking, then the inverted pentagram represents some great evil, namely the possibility of Incarnation, or descent into Matter. This is also how the Devil (from the Greek word "diabolos", meaning, "to put an obstruction in one's path"--very different from the idea of ultimate evil) came to be represented as this goat-headed figure. The Knights Templar, a Catholic religious order later accused and prosecuted as heretical, were said to worship an image called Baphomet, very much in line with our modern visual idea of "Satan" or "the Devil".

But if you look at the Baphomet image--it is both human and animal, both male and female, and has images of both day and night. Baphomet is a zoomorph--it represents all possibilities for incarnation. According to the Cathar Heresy, it would then be representing Ultimate Evil, since evil is the result of Spirit being degraded to Matter. But, as we've said, this is a heresy according to the traditional Church, and while I can't agree with them on all heresies, this seems pretty legit. Life requires incarnation. Yet somehow we've retained this notion of "evil" in our collective unconsciousness.

It may not be totally wrong for Satanists to identify with inverted pentagrams. After all, people who follow an organized "Satanism" are usually hedonists--they live exclusively for their own pleasure, and therefore they live for the strictly material. But there is a lot of what passes for "Satan worship" that is probably totally unaware of this connection. Certainly it behooves non-Satanists who may be called upon to recognize the unintended (or intended) consequences of such beliefs to understand the origins of the image.

I return again to the Tree of Life image. The Tree of Life is lighter at the top, and heavier at the bottom--heavier at the bottom because it is encased in Matter. But we need to remember that it is One Tree--it is all Divine, not just the "Spirit" part. Technically, we shouldn't separate it out at all. What is apparently separate is really unified. We shouldn't invest too much in the temporal (i.e., the material) because it dies or goes away after awhile. But that doesn't make it evil. Evil is something different--it comes from a total lack of respect for the "divinity" of others--if you don't like that idea, at least the idea that all humans are made in "God's Image". As Hannah Arendt put it (and I'm paraphrasing) -- true evil is what happens when you knock on the door of Conscience and nobody is at home.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Monday afternoon—the work day is over, and I am making an unexpected excursion to Manhattan. Sitting on the train, I watch the scenery fly by, and feel myself being jolted from side to side due to the sway of the double-decker cars. The sun is not quite ready to call it quits at 4:00—a sure sign that we are headed towards Spring.

I am re-reading Huston Smith’s book, “Why Religion Matters”. This appears to be a newer edition--a chapter I’d read in an earlier version on Islam and worldview is no longer there. The book is Smith’s defense of what he calls the “traditional” worldview. Smith is not opposed to science and its discoveries; he’s opposed to “scientism”. “Scientism”, according to Smith, gives science two corollaries: first, the scientific method is the only way to gain truth, and second, that material entities are the most fundamental things that exist. His complaint is that these two assumptions are not proven, and yet they are simply accepted a priori as the point of reference for understanding “truth”. He gives examples of how scientism subtly makes itself seen in our culture—the New York Review of Books choosing a scientist to review a book by a theologian, for example. (As he put it, imagine if a theologian was asked to review a science book). Books that are critical of wholesale scientism are dismissed as anti-science and therefore unworthy of any attention.

I find myself thinking about this as the train pulls into Newark Broad Street station. It puts the fundamentalist vs. secularist battle in an interesting light. Smith is looking to be a moderate in the debate, though forceful in making his point. He is moderate in the sense that he’s not going to either extreme—neither the “real” (hardcore scientific) nor the “ideal” (hardcore religious). There’s that continuum between the material and the mysterious again. And more sideways figure 8s. Douglas Adams was wrong—the answer is not 42. It’s 8. The infinite loop.

I get off the train at Penn Station, New York and head over to the 1 train to go uptown. Stopping in Times Square, I head over to my favorite restaurant. Surprisingly, it is 5:00, but the New York streets are not crowded. It’s probably right around the freezing mark—relatively warm given the bone-chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures of the last couple of weeks—but it somehow feels bitterly cold. Not even the tall buildings and gray cloud cover seem to be able to keep it away. Walking into the restaurant, I head over to the bar area, which is thankfully still relatively empty. Melissa, the bartender, comes over to say hello, and ask me just how cold it is outside. “All I see are people shivering and pulling their coats around themselves”, she says. “My shift is over soon, and I’m dreading going out there.”

I ask myself—is the experience of life like a straight line or a circle? The straight line implies that there are 2 extremes, and that one is closer to one end than the other—the old “swinging pendulum” model. The circle implies that we are on a Ferris wheel and keep going around, and around, and around, doing essentially the same stuff and getting dizzy while we do it. With a straight line, one needs to move in a loop—an infinity loop, a sideways figure 8, because you’re not better off at one end or the other, but you need elements of both for balance. When in a single loop, one needs to stop looping and go to the center where it’s still. Of course they’re both metaphors, so it may not matter which one you choose. Maybe they are both relevant—how else can we “be still” and “go with the flow”?

Leaving the restaurant, I head back to 42nd Street to resume my journey uptown on the 1. Now Times Square is swarming with people. I look down the stairs in the station, and can scarcely believe the sea of people in front of me. But the trains are arriving every 2 minutes or so, so I don’t have to wait long. The first train fills up and passes, and suddenly it’s like watching the Red Sea part—a huge gulf emerges in the middle of the platform. I arrive at the 103rd St. station. Upon reaching the street level, I encounter someone trying to decide if the subway entrance on this side goes downtown or the one across the street. “Either one,” I tell her. “It doesn’t matter.”

Indeed it doesn’t, I think, as I walk towards 102nd Street.

P.S.--Here are some more circles. Fantastic.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I sat by the fireplace this weekend, sipping hot tea out of an earthenware mug. I stared at the roaring fire, and then looked at the mug. Can a mug make you feel happy and secure? This one was brown with a shiny glaze, and with a slightly curvy shape, wider on the bottom to fit more coffee, tea, or whatever. I was reminded of the mugs that used to be standard in all night-diners—the diner-car diners, not the pseudo-diners with their flashy entrances and too-bright d├ęcor (usually some variety of hot pink or turquoise). The diner cars always feel more authentic, more home-like. The regulars seem to know each other, the food is comforting, and the coffee is good.

I open my purse to look for something, and come across a gas station receipt that says “Jutland Shell”. I recall where the station is—is that Jutland? Why is there a Jutland in Northern New Jersey? It sounds like it should be in Western Pennsylvania, or maybe on the Canadian coast. I see it on the exit signs on Route 78, but it doesn’t seem like a real place. I’m still not convinced it is a real place.

The roaring fire is starting to dwindle, and the Sisters come along to re-stoke it. I am sitting in a retreat house in the Watchung area. No one speaks, as it is a weekend of silence, save for spiritual direction appointments. Every now and again I sign on for one of these weekends, as I will never be silent if left to my own devices. This particular place, Mount St. Mary’s House of Prayer, is my favorite place to go as the Sisters are hospitable and have an infectious kindness, the house is comfortable, and the spiritual direction is excellent. Usually when one comes for spiritual direction, they are working on some specific thing. While no one is there to solve anything for you (how is that possible?), they usually offer very good advice, or at least very good things to think about.

This weekend I am full of questions about boundaries. What is the difference between unconsciousness and ignorance? What is the difference between control and discipline? How do you open yourself up to others in friendliness without sending the wrong messages, especially to the opposite sex? Can a woman live alone and go out alone without that state of aloneness being treated like something that needs to be fixed? How does a perfectionist forgive themselves?

Sister Eileen and I share many words on these subjects, and she is a patient listener, good at helping connect the dots on the picture. I have found a book in the library there, a Jungian interpretation of Jesus’s sayings, a fortuitous synchronicity, given my love of all things Jung. What I take away from the book is that “sin” has less to do with disobedience or “sins of the flesh” than it does with unconsciousness. Errant behavior occurs when we lack awareness. Which leads to my question about unconsciousness versus ignorance. How can someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing be held responsible? But it goes beyond “right and wrong” to the idea of suffering. You can only learn to love through suffering and making mistakes. I thought Luke 7 was quite striking—“He who is forgiven little loves little.”

Home again. After an initial outburst of frustration, I find that I am feeling more centered. Simple tasks are the most enjoyable—putting away laundry, washing floors, doing the weekly grocery shop. There is something deeply meaningful about all those activities, though I couldn’t express to you what it is. But it has something to do with awareness. I just wonder how long it will be before I lapse into unawareness yet again. Awareness is a gift.

Morning. I take a deep breath and prepare to go into the business of my job as I fight a sinus headache—reports, questions, budgets, digital files. Then I let go of the idea of being prepared. I drive to work as a sliver of the moon still hangs in the sky, with the deep blue that just precedes sunrise.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


I’m wearing purple this morning, and was pleased to see the sky coordinate its outfit with mine, violet clouds streaked with orange as I was driving to work, great pillows arranged against a blue-ing sky.

Someone wrote, I can’t remember who, that some animals, like ants, are able to accomplish stupendous feats in groups, while the opposite happens with humans. This is strangely true—with all of our brain power, we ought to be able to come together harmoniously to do great things. I suppose we do sometimes. But if we are left to average human behavior, the bigger the group, the stupider we get. This may be one of the downfalls of individualism—everyone wants to be in control, and eventually in a group, someone will emerge as more powerful than others and become some sort of a leader. Very charismatic leaders can achieve great things in groups, and also can cause people to behave very stupidly and/or dangerously. Since we value individualism so highly, this state doesn’t last forever, and probably not for a long time—someone will be disaffected and fight against the leader. It may be “good” or “bad”, but it’s more likely a combination of the two—goo-ad, ba-ood, goad, bood— or perhaps neither—but rarely is something absolutely good or bad, and if it starts to become that way, something will come along and give that wheel another spin, turning things around. So, individualism is a double-edged sword. But why can’t we just work for the common good and drop all of the other unnecessary politicking? We just don’t seem to be able to do that in large groups.

The clouds outside part and blue sky and sunshine appear. January has been a month of clearing, Mercury and Mars retrograde, no new progress, get the old stuff sorted out, get rid of the dust, the clutter, clear up the misunderstandings, prepare to move forward again. “When fisherman can’t go to sea, they repair nets.” And if you’re stuck in Newark Airport, you can always have a sing-along.

Arriving at work, I found myself, for no good reason, thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Moose”. The people on the bus, traveling to and from various destinations, the older folk talking about who retired, who died, who had to be put away (“Life’s like that. We know it (also death)”). Then,

Now, it's all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
--Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus's hot hood.

While it is a startling event, it is not frightening (“A man’s voice assures us, ‘Perfectly harmless...’”). It is beautiful and mysterious, like the unexpected gifts and surprises that punctuate the ordinary flow of our lives. Such an event reminds you, makes you aware, takes you off the wheel, even if for just a moment.

I’d made an attempt to learn the formal art of writing poetry last Fall. Iambic pentameter, spondees, trochees, assonance, alliteration—the part of me that likes to be neatly organized and precise felt that my attempts at poetry writing resembled the ramblings of a drunken transient or incorrigible child, and could stand some respectable cleaning up and discipline. But I just couldn’t follow through with it. My academic side has to tolerate this disheveled and disorganized roommate, it seems. Or, perhaps it’s another failed attempt on my part to organize and label something that can’t be organized and labeled—at least not for me.

Some failures are beautiful.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Control, or, Thoughts on a Monday After Vacation

Monday morning. The fierce winds have stopped. Stepping outside in the early morning, I don’t feel quite so cold, in spite of the temperature being way below freezing. Opening the car door, I turn the ignition, and coax my old, tired car into starting up once again. I have been on a long vacation, and now I have to get back to work.

It’s funny how your mind and body respond when you know you have something to do, somewhere to be. I have slept in all week, yet today I was wide awake at my work-day wake-up time, 4:30 am. The cat even looked surprised—his arsenal of techniques designed to annoy me into waking up in the morning were not needed.

As I’m driving to work just before sunrise, I find myself thinking about the notion of control. I have the habit of trying to over-plan my days--listing, organizing, deciding. I get very frustrated when something throws my plans out of whack when I’m in such a mood. Of course, life is like that, and gives you those little smacks to remind you that anything can happen at any time—it’s not in your control. And yet, feeling like I have my own “stuff” under control tends to satisfy me that I’m being productive on some level.

I imagine that like anything, some control is good in moderation, but it’s one of those things that gets quickly out of hand. People tell me, and I tell my friends, when we’re all frazzled, to let go and stop trying to take on so much. The urge to control is tied to the urge to perfect. Part of this perfection involves juggling a lot of stuff and keeping it all in order. Rarely do we perfectly succeed, but we keep trying.

I berate myself frequently for getting into that control habit, but it begs a question for me—where is the line between control and discipline? It can’t be good to have no control at all, at least of oneself and one’s reactions. Discipline keeps us from excesses. But when does discipline become outright rigidity?

The question tires me. I suppose the answer , like the answer to many things, is “it depends”. Can you discipline yourself not to have so much control? Is that a contradiction? When you’re a single woman with no help in domestic affairs or finances, it seems like a higher amount of control is necessary—after all, there’s no one else to fall back on.

I recall a class on Victorian poetry that I took as an undergraduate, with the incredible Dr. William Dell. Dr. Dell has since retired from my alma mater, and I am sad for current students that they did not get to experience his view of literature—and of life. He used to talk about the Victorian dilemma, the balance between (in simplistic terms) reason and emotion, which also looks strikingly like the dilemma between control and the lack of it. We run back and forth across the spectrum between the two, but the real answer, he said, is in the infinity sign—a figure eight. We perpetually flow across that continuum, not in a straight line, but in curves. There is no point at which one should stop.

Control has to do with familiarity and comfort. The most well-adjusted people are those who can feel at home just about anywhere. I like to pretend that I can feel at home anywhere, and sometimes I can—but if I’m tired, moody, and physically not feeling well, I get impatient with unfamiliar surroundings, much like a cranky child. There is a reason my home looks like a cozy old library. I like my old house, with the warped wood floors, open wood beams on the ceiling, and it’s earthy atmosphere. I like being able to make some tea or pour a glass of wine and curl up in my corner on the old refurbished mahogany church pew, reading a book or playing with the cat. When I put my feet down, I like to feel the ground, not to look down and realize I am walking in the air with no support underneath. On the other hand, I get my best writing ideas when I am not so settled, more scattered. You might see me walking in circles talking to myself. The problem is that I can’t focus—it’s the old “sucking an elephant through a straw” conundrum. A thousand ideas like one hundred dollar bills flying around in the wind, and I can’t catch them all.

Detachment is an art. Having a plan without being too committed to it often makes for the best results. Some days I will accomplish a lot, other days I won’t get a single thing done. I can’t help it, even though I want to. I need to stop worrying about it.

I park my car, get my bags out of the back seat, and trudge on up the stone steps to the front door of the library. A new work day, a new chance to fight distraction.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


This morning I heard a sound like a locomotive charging through my yard. Years ago, the town of Hampton was called Junction, on account of its central location for 4 railroads that crossed New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and probably New York and elsewhere. However, all the railroads are long gone, and the tracks behind my house have become a dumping spot for branches, leaves, and other types of compost by the neighborhood houses. The sound I heard was actually the wind--it's brutally cold out there, and lately I can't help feeling like I'm living in the Arctic.

Nonetheless, I got out of bed early, fed all my animals, and headed out to the cafe in Frenchtown this morning. The cafe opens with the sun in the wintertime--7:00 in the morning. Today, the cafe was as cold as the outside. I sat at my usual table near the back of the counter, and Katie, the waitress, hastened to bring me my coffee and take my order. My brain was not quite unfrozen, and I felt like I was talking to her through a fog of frozen breath, though none was to be seen. I held my coffee cup on my leg to feel its warmth. Rosella, the owner, put a space heater on the floor near my seat. "What's funny is that an hour from now, it will be so hot in here, I'll have to turn on the air conditioning," she said. Indeed, the reason I visit the cafe when it opens is because it fills up quickly--on some days every seat is filled by 7:15. Today it is not quite so full, but busy nonetheless. I am pleased to see Bill, one of the chefs, come out of the back to get his morning coffee. While the breakfast at the cafe is always excellent, when Bill is cooking, it is spectacular. He's been here for years, and it's certainly one of his natural talents.

As I sipped my coffee and waited for my food, I opened a brand new book I'd ordered myself for Christmas, Maggie Nelson's "Bluets". I saw a review of this book in the Rumpus. On Twitter, the person posting the link at the Rumpus did so with the comment, "This review makes me want to run out and buy this book right now." Intrigued, I read the review, and felt the same way. And as I sat reading, I could understand the reviewer's passion. It is a book about the author's love affair with the color "blue", and she offers over 200 "verses", sometimes lines, sometimes paragraphs, that reads like a mystical treatise--the words constantly point you to the feeling of blue, the idea of it, without quite touching what it intrinsically IS. But one of the questions offered is, can you touch it? If you love it, can it love you back?

Some of the most striking verses for me revolve around her feelings for a man she's loved and lost. In talking to her therapist, she is told that when she was in love with the man, she was only in love with what she thought he was--she was blind to who he really was. This prompts verse #45:

45. "This pains me enormously. She presses me to say why; I can't answer. Instead I say something about how clinical psychology forces everything we call love into the pathological or delusional or the biologically explicable, that if what I was feeling wasn't love, then I am forced to admit that I don't know what love is, or more simply, that I loved a bad man. How all of these formulations drain the blue right out of love and leave an ugly, pigmentless fish flapping on a cutting board on a kitchen counter."

and then, Verse 53:

53. "'We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object'--this is the so called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there. Not just yet. I believed in you."

I sat with my breakfast, savoring roasted red potato home fries while reading about the erotic, the puritanical, about the sensation of fucking and being fucked ("fucking has a color, and it is not blue")--and also about women who plucked their own eyes out as an act of fidelity to God, but perhaps it was not this but a shame over their own lust. I stop, ironically enough, at verse 69.

I finish my coffee, pay the bill, and after waving goodbye to the regulars, I walk out into the freezing cold, back to my car. As I head on down Route 12 towards my next stop, time feels slower. I look outside at the rosy dawn, with the sun now fully risen, the sky partially obscured by clouds of a mysterious color. I am still thinking about what I've read. It's as much about me as it is about any woman who has loved a man. The clinical dissection of love is a defense against vulnerability. I am hugely guilty of it, as is anyone who has experienced the shattering experience of heartbreak.

Interestingly, reading the verses does not make me sad. It makes me feel at peace with the idea that loving someone is painful. Which is a good reason not to give up on love--anything worth doing requires some level of pain.