Saturday, July 31, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part I

You may have noticed that I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front these days. This is due to 2 things--teaching online classes that take up inordinate amounts of time, and heading off to the UK for a conference in Oxford from the 23rd to August 1. The trip was bracketed by visits to London (in fact, I'm still there). This is the first of several postings about that trip.

The thing I hate about travel is that it can be unpredictable in bad ways. For instance--we were delayed flying from Newark to Heathrow by a seat belt. I kid you not--someone's seat belt was jammed in first class, and they had to call in 2 maintenance guys to fix it before we could take off. I had switched my window seat for another window seat 2 rows up, so that a mother and son could sit together. No problem. However--I was sitting next to a hipster couple, who were actually nice enough, but also personal friends with one of the flight attendants. So--this attendant waited on them the whole flight, bringing them champagne, etc. Which is fine, except that the other flight attendants would walk by, see them with food and drink, and assume that I had everything I needed as well. I really don't appreciate having to flag down a flight attendant for basic things like drinks and food.

Nonetheless, we arrived in London on time, which was kind of unfortunate, as I had a lot of time to kill before checking in to my hotel. I was staying for 9 days, so my luggage is a tad heavier than it would have been if I'd gone for just a weekend. Plus, I had my laptop with me, which tends to make the carry-on a wee bit heavier, and the results of lugging it around will probably make some chiropractor rich. But I found ways to kill time before I was able to check in. I had difficulty sleeping on the plane (surprise, surprise), so I was really exhausted by the time I got to my room.

But there was no time for dawdling--once I got myself together, it was back to Paddington to get the tube to Oxford Circus, and then to the Apple Store on Regent Street for the Electricity and Ghosts event sponsored by ArtHertz. I ran into Steve Malins there, who was pleased to be watching an event, and not involved in organizing it. I didn't know what to expect from this event, and was pleasantly surprised. Sarah Angliss was there with her band Spacedog, and they did a number of songs using synths, bells, a theremin, and a robotic talking head. They were a bit spooky in nature (as you might guess by the title), and it was a fitting prequel to the still-planned Battersea Power Station event, which focuses on the response generated by the power station and electricity by the general public. John Foxx once pointed out that modern telecommunications and uses of electricity came out of attempts to communicate with the dead. So, there is an attempt to merge those themes.

One piece they did was called "Who is this who is coming?" That rattled around in my brain, and it bothered me, as I knew I'd heard the phrase somewhere. Then I realized it was from the M.R. James story, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad". A university professor on a golfing holiday in East Anglia is asked by a colleague to check out the nearby remains of a Templar church. When he does, he finds a small metal tube, that turns out to be a whistle upon later examination. On the whistle is written the words "Quis est iste qui venit?" (Who is this who is coming?). What happens with the whistle--well, you'd have to read the story, which is quite worthwhile. Sarah mentioned in the Q&A at the end that she was influenced by M.R. James, so it did make sense. I also really liked their "cover" of "Please Come" from the Wicker Man movie, which was mixed up with other voices manipulated via the theremin. The visuals were by Roger Spy, and had a fittingly creepy feel to them.

Afterwards, I said goodbye to Steve and went in search of food, and then went to bed fairly early that night. I've learned that 4-star London hotels now have a system where you must use your room key to get the lights to work in your room. Not that anyone at the desk told me this. Fortunately, I was astute enough to figure it out on my own, in spite of how bleary eyed I was.

I might as well tell you about Saturday, as the most interesting content of the trip occurred during my week at Oxford. Saturday I spent the morning in the same place I am now--the British Library, trying to read through the papers for the conference I was attending in Oxford during the next week. Some papers were very long--after an exhausting month of reading student papers and assignments in Library Science, I really had to focus to get through papers that were anywhere from 17 to 70 pages. I did manage to get through everything by the evening, stopping only to get an early dinner near the hotel. I found myself quite interested in some of them, and recoiling at others. It ended up being a telling preview of the conference itself. But I will discuss that in the next few postings...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things That Can Kill You (i.e., Everything)

My mother and I had an argument today. This is not all that uncommon--we always start off well enough, and then she manages to say something that pushes my buttons. I was at a business lunch the other day, and somehow we got on the topic of families. When I described my conversations with my mother, everyone at the table agreed that we probably have the same mother. Which means Mom isn't telling me everything.

Honestly, though, it bugs me that as a rational adult, I will explode at my mother over things that I would be tactful and diplomatic about with everyone else. More than likely it is the bond--when you're a child, you need your mother to manage things for you. As an adult, you want to manage things on your own. My Mom loves to help out, which is very generous--but she frequently overdoes it, and it ends up grating on my nerves. And I look like a jerk, because my sweet mother is "just trying to help". But I'm an adult, and wouldn't look kindly on a friend taking that kind of control, either. But she's Mom, and I can't tell her to bugger off. Hence, the fireworks.

Today's argument was about my cat's litterbox. Seriously. I have a waste receptacle upstairs that doesn't have a proper lid, but is still covered, for cat waste, and about every other week I replace the bag in it and dispose of the full one. My mother thinks it is not covered well enough. I told her not to worry about it. She responded by buying me a new receptacle for waste, and then insisted that she only wanted me to "look at it", and was not imposing it on me. But let's get real--if you bought it, I'll look ungrateful if I don't take it, right? In the end I agreed to take it, but not before we had a stupid argument. I think I get more mad at myself for getting caught up in the whole thing.

Here is the gist of the argument--if there's a trash can with cat waste in my house, then I am undoubtedly breathing in those fumes, and one day they will give me lung cancer, or a horrible disease, or injure the unborn child I'm not (and never will be) carrying. I reminded her that having a litterbox in the house at ALL exposes you to fumes, but she insisted that I was wrong, and having a box with a better lid was going to make all the difference in the world. It won't, but whatever.

It does lead me to today's topic, though, which is spending half of your life worrying about things that might kill you. Now, to be fair, man has a basic survival instinct--all animals do. We have automatic responses to situations that are designed to keep us alive. But we live in a culture that is particularly obsessed about health. We worry about diet, about exercise, about the environment, and about stress. While it's good to be sensible with regard to these things, and there are a certain number of things we can change--in the final analysis, it really doesn't mean squat.

I recall a conversation with a colleague of mine who is a microbiologist, and is a very pre-planned person, right down to the last second of his day. Last winter we were discussing the shortage of flu shots. I have never gotten a flu shot, and never plan to do so. My colleague said to me, "Oh, but I thought all intelligent people went for flu shots." I guess I was flattered that he counted me with the "intelligent", but the conclusion was amusing. I said to him, "I've never needed one, and people who get them tend to get the flu, or have a perpetual cold that keeps them from getting the flu. There's nothing wrong with getting sick, and one day we'll all die when we're supposed to, so I'm not worried about it." I think he was rather scandalized by that answer.

I feel this way about food and drink, too. I'll eat and drink whatever strikes my fancy--I usually pay attention to calories, as I don't like to exceed a certain number every day, but beyond that, I don't really care. I don't care about fat content, about carbohydrates, about sugar--whatever. If I stress myself out eating nothing but rabbit food, I'll be dead sooner rather than later. I do believe that stress plays a bigger role in illness than any conventional wisdom on food. Most food is preserved by suspicious chemicals, and those that aren't are half eaten by suspicious bugs. So, all of our food is suspect. Additionally--the air we breathe is bad, the water we drink is problematic--and my question is, what exactly do you propose to do about it on a daily basis? Stop eating, drinking, and breathing? Ironically, that would achieve the result you're fighting to avoid--death.

Comedian Lewis Black seems to share my view on this; he did a very funny monologue about the oldest living man in New York. (I haven't fact-checked this one, but he swears this is a true story). This man was 115 years old, in perfect health, and had all his senses about him--no dementia, or anything like that. He was interviewed by the press, and inevitably, the question came up about his diet. He said from the age of 93, he had narrowed it down to bread fried in fatback, and a quart of Thunderbird wine a week. When they asked him why he didn't fry his bread in bacon fat, he said it was too lean. Lewis Black also went on to point out--and I would agree with this--that if the man went to a doctor and told him his diet, the doctor would say he was crazy, to stop eating that and get on a diet of fruits and vegetables. And the man would have listened, and would have been dead within a week.

I'm not advocating gluttonous or ridiculously unhealthy eating. But I do think that every person is different, and your body tells you what it needs. You will crave the foods you need to get the nutrients you need. You can't make blanket statements about what is going to make a person healthy. As I've noted before, I would die if I was forced to become a vegetarian. I have a serious aversion to most veggies.

In general--I think the more focused people are on avoiding death by trying to live according to conventional wisdom about "healthy", the sicker they tend to be overall. If something seems out of whack, I'll see what needs to be done to correct it, if anything can be done. But otherwise, I'm not going to live my life worrying about what I'm eating and breathing. As another colleague once said, "What happens if I skip on that piece of chocolate I really want and then get hit by a bus?" Worry about living your life--it's going to end whenever it's going to end, and you can't do a damn thing about it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Debunking the "Traditional"

I have always struggled with tradition. In many ways, I am very conservative and traditional. In others, I would be considered liberal at best. A myriad of articles I've read over the last week and conversations I've had with family and friends has made me re-think the topic of tradition.

First--not all traditions are bad. Sometimes we follow a tradition--and don't know why--but it still leads to a positive effect for the person and the community. It is harder and harder these days to find true "community" traditions--maybe in very small towns. For instance, at the beginning of winter, there are a number of religious holidays celebrated, and there is frequently conflict when community wants to cater to one of them--or all of them. It's an interesting study in community dynamics, and the "need to belong". Emphasizing one group implies non-acceptance of others, at least to those who are complaining. In this era of individualism, we still want social acceptance. This is true among our friends, our family, our neighborhood, and then the world at large. But it is not unreasonable to assert that the larger the community, the more care has to be shown when following tradition. Nonetheless, many of us have our individual traditions that we follow--even if no one else does.

But where does tradition come from? Inevitably, it comes from myth. When I say "myth", I'm not talking about Greek and Roman gods--I'm talking about everyday mythologies--the stories we believe about the way things are. When one follows a traditional pattern, it could be nostalgic (i.e., "we always did this in my family"), but more often than not, our everyday myths come from the social stories we believe, or are pressured to believe. There are a few examples that I want to take to task.

First--the myth about women's worth. For all of the advances women have made, for all the intellectual achievements she may have, for all the good she may have done for the world--she is still judged on her attractiveness and ability to find a good mate, above all. While a woman's single or divorced status is not such a scandal anymore, she is still subtly reminded of this fact regardless of anything else she's done. I look at Eleanor Roosevelt--there was a truly accomplished woman, and yet I still hear, oh, poor Eleanor, Franklin always cheated on her and she just wasn't that attractive. (Which adds the additional sub-myth that says if your man cheats on you, it's because you're somehow undesirable). I go through this regularly myself, even though I went through a bad marriage and learned the hard way. Some days I look at myself and say, "Well, Brigid, you're probably not good looking enough, you're probably too intellectual, which men don't like..." And then I have to shake myself and tell myself to stop being such an idiot. But the point is no matter how reasonably I approach the issue, it still manages to affect me--and since it's part of the collective unconscious, it sneaks up on me to torment me when I least expect it. As much as I love being a free and independent woman, social myths, and therefore tradition, don't allow for that. So, I'm forced to struggle with it now and again.

Another related myth is one I encountered watching some old 1950s educational films. They talk about the girl who is obviously snooty and maladjusted because she wants to date the boys she likes (who may not be available to her, or interested in her), not just anyone who asks. You may say, "Well, that was the 1950s," but Yahoo recently ran an article on a similar subject (Are you single because you're too picky?). What I get from this is that I should just settle for anyone who asks me, even if I already know in my gut it's not going to work, and the guy's going to be angry with me for "leading him on" and then rejecting him. But I shouldn't reject him, right? Even if there's no chemistry? This is a myth that really irritates me. I'm sure there are women out there who are gold-diggers and status hounds--they're only interested in what status the man can give them. (Please see the first myth above). But I cannot do that no matter what--there are lots of men who I think are fine people, who are not ugly, but I'm just not feeling it. Is it better to date them and then drop the bomb, or divert their attention from that end and just stay friends? Which is kinder? Which is more honest? I can't pretend to be attracted to someone I'm not, and that doesn't make me "snooty".

And speaking of snooty--there are myths about status. This is not as much of an issue in the United States--sure, there are very rich people who have an air of superiority, but they're regarded more with amusement. People may choose to hang out with people of their own status because they understand each other (e.g., a person who struggles cleaning houses for a living may have a hard time moving in social circles with people who routinely drop thousands of dollars on clothes). But that doesn't mean they can't respect each other for what they have to offer. However, when I'm in England, I see the myth of status has a really strong grip. As an American I tend to fall outside of the whole structure--but there is a sense that, no matter what you accomplish in life, you will be judged by the social status you were born with. Men and women born into working classes may try to marry or partner with someone above them in social class--not only for money, but somehow to unconsciously prove their worth. Making money alone is not enough, though having money is a sign of being "raised up" in such a myth. I actually despise this myth, maybe more than any other, because it is an attempt to validate what Erik Erikson called "psuedospeciation"--the notion that one group of humans can some how be superior (or inferior) to another. This is the basis of all hate and prejudice. You can justify cruel actions towards someone who is "lesser", because somehow they are "less" human. And yet--the working class folk are the honest-to-goodness humans in many cases. To say that working class folk are always trashy, and upper class folk have, well..."class"--has often proven to be untrue. (Paris Hilton, anyone?)

John Foxx actually has a song I dislike intensely, called "A Million Cars". Technically and musically it's a fine song, but lyrically--well, it's all of the above. I'm not sure if John really buys into that myth (living in Britain, it's hard to imagine he's not affected), or just poking at the absurdity of it. Either way, the myth pure bullshit. Money and status doesn't raise you up from anything--you were never "low" to begin with. Being a good and decent human being to everyone--regardless of status--is what raises you above others. But it's another example of how a social collective myth can affect someone.

Switching gears, I want to mention another myth--the myth of perpetual happiness, or--the myth of not ever being sad or angry. Did you ever notice that if you have a day when you're angry or sad, people feel the need to "fix" it? On the one hand, this can be driven by the best of intentions--friends and family are there to support each other, after all. But sometimes, you need to--have the RIGHT to--be angry and/or sad. We act as though this is unnatural, and if it happens, we should move to stifle it at all costs. I'm pretty even-tempered most of the time, but I have days when I'm overwhelmed, and I feel terribly sad. And I don't want anyone to "fix" it. Leave me alone. If I don't feel it and deal with it, it will just sneak up on me again at an inconvenient time. There's no need to push things into the realm of unconsciousness--then it will probably affect others when I lose my temper at them. Own your own anger and grief when it happens. No one wants to feel pain anymore--they want to numb it out. But allowing yourself those feelings in a space that doesn't hurt others can be very helpful.

Finally--related to the above--the myth of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but it's not what most people think it is. Forgiveness is not saying that someone's hurtful actions are okay--it's saying that you are no longer angry. Anger doesn't go away overnight if you are really hurt by something. So, you have to be angry. You have to envision yourself smacking the offender silly, or telling them which level of hell to go roast in. That doesn't mean you should ACT on your anger and hurt someone else. But you have a right to be angry--and anger is a process. Eventually the sting will lessen, and you will be able to forgive, even if the relationship is not repairable.

We are all human. We are living the drama of human life, and we have feelings. We should be true to those feelings. But to be an integrated person, you can't ignore the influence of collective myths--and tradition.

Matthew Arnold summed it up well in the end of his essay on Hebraism and Hellenism: "Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life. " Or, more simply--Make your own myths.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


Blue Mill Road is a beautiful example of everything people believe New Jersey is not. As you drive down the road, you encounter old colonial churches, farms, willow trees curving over sparkling ponds, and tunnels of foliage created by trees that have crossed the street at their apices, embracing each other with their branches. I often drive down this road on my way to work, one of many possible ways to go.

Today, I drive into work listening to Richard Einhorn, drinking the tea I’ve brought with me in a travel mug. I’m hoping the caffeine will shake the cobwebs that seem to envelop my brain, mostly the consequence of summer allergies. I hardly ever drink coffee in the morning—there is no use in making a whole pot of coffee and then abandoning most of it when I go to work. I used to stop at KC’s in Chester for coffee, but she is opening her shop later and later these days.

There have been many studies about the health benefits of coffee these days. One study suggests that coffee can prevent rheumatoid arthritis. Another suggests that coffee can stave off Alzheimer’s disease. I’m a bit suspicious of both of these studies, because they draw conclusions based on correlation, rather than hard evidence. Correlation does not imply causation, as the old saying goes. If I eat an English muffin for breakfast every morning, and don’t develop heart disease, that doesn’t mean the English muffin prevented me from getting heart disease. But I’m seeing a lot more “studies” these days that draw such simplistic conclusions.

In our attempt to understand complex things, we often are guilty of reductionism. I recall a British TV show that had a doctor examining the age, eating habits, exercise habits, and stress levels of various individuals, and then giving them the number of years they had to live. This is stupid. Even if all those factors are important, they in no way can account for one’s personal genetics, never mind the possibility of getting hit by a bus on any given day. But assuming that we’re just talking about health—the factors that determine your health are extremely complex, just as your psyche is extremely complex. No self-respecting therapist would have a session with you and then start labeling you based on psychological theory or DSM definitions. Jung himself said that theory was not very useful when dealing with individual cases. Similarly, physical health cannot be fully evaluated and labeled, even with all of the diagnostic technology doctors have at their disposal. This is why, unless you have a specific and easily identifiable ailment, doctors frequently can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. Knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physiology are necessary background, but interpreting individual cases is more of an art than a science—there’s not one answer for a given set of symptoms.

I’m not sure if reductionism comes from human laziness, or just a sense of being overwhelmed by all the factors involved, and needing a quick solution to satisfy the mind. One thing is for sure—it’s not a great idea to start preaching about how bad certain things are for you based on this kind of reductionism. That’s what got the anti-vax movement started; if anyone had bothered to properly peer-review Andrew Wakefield’s paper (and also checked his profit-motives for the study), we might not have new outbreaks of whooping cough and other preventable diseases. It is true that there may be other reasons for these outbreaks, but you can’t ignore the influence of that movement.

Science is a beautiful thing, when executed with integrity. However, in our secular society, science is the new religion, and people often accept it and things that look like it without question (or enough questions). It’s that thing people don’t understand, so if they see these kinds of oversimplified studies—which are not rigorously scientific—they believe them because they think they ARE scientific. They don’t know enough to question it. And they don’t have time. Add the distortion of the media, and you have a different kind of cultural monster.

I am by no means a hardcore skeptic. After all, I believe in ghosts, God, astrology, and lots of other things that skeptics dismiss as idiotic. I tend to believe in things that I find valid by my own experience. However, my own experience doesn’t apply to everyone, and the most logical, fact-based conclusions are the ones that society as a whole ought to rely on, assuming anything can be relied on. Nothing is ever 100% right or guaranteed, but we need some measurable basis for large-scale decision making. This works pretty well, as long as we remember that uncertainty still exists, and individual cases usually don’t fit blanket definitions precisely. Science, after all, is about questioning and re-questioning—and not believing you have any kind of absolute lock on truth.