Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More place holders


The above image is from Wikimedia Commons.
I keep wanting to provide the Chapter on Buttons. The previous post's question was in anticipation of that. However, like Tristram Shandy, the more I put it off, the harder it is to get around to doing because, like him, other things occur to me instead. If I decide not to write them, because I want to write the Chapter on Buttons, then that just makes us wait around with nothing, thereby losing the interest of the few readers I gathered in November.

So, while I'm waiting for the energy, time, and interest to write on buttons, I have just two quick things.

  1. All the time that I was a very young boy, I dreamed of the ability to become a bird. This is not an unusual fantasy. In fact, it is a cliche or an archetype, one. However, like all humans everywhere, I dreamed of becoming a noble eagle (not Don Henley or Joe Walsh, then), or a sharp winged hawk. I have now changed my mind. If I were a bird, I'd be a buzzard.
  2. I have decided that, all things considered, left-hand drive is the superior configuration for cars.

As for #1, I wrote last year about how eating is murder ("For whom the dinner bell tolls"), how this is an unresolved moral equation for any one, whether ancient or modern. Well, I was thinking that buzzards have a great many advantages over eagles and hawks. In addition to no one ever naming a rock band or literary society after them, buzzards haven't very much competition. You don't hear of other animals working for a day and a half for a chance to eat a buzzard. In fact, vultures in general can land in the middle of a crowd of feeding lions and be ignored. (Probably the lions are wrinkling their noses and complaining about how ugly the vultures are.)

Additionally, they get to eat and breed and nest without any guilt. They wait for things to die on their own and then go clean up. They do a service to all the other animals.

Even the subject of their grotesque features is overplayed. Yesterday, I saw a flock of buzzards overhead. I had never before seen more than six buzzards on the wing, but I saw a supercolony of buzzards circling. There had to be more than two dozen. Say what you want about how thin their necks are, how wrinkled their faces, how vile their eating habits, buzzards are actually beautiful on the wing. The stringent V of their wings, the effortless soaring, and even the powerful flapping are all quite pleasing.

Cars?

Well, the left hand side drive is obviously superior. By pinning the driver's left arm against the door, left hand side drive allows the driver to swat children, repel or explore passengers, and fish for dropped CD's with the right hand. Imagine having to do all of that with the left: the children would be bratty, the passengers licentious or chaste, and the fumbled lighters and CD's would pile up on the car floor. It's a horrible thought.

(Oh, and the chapter on buttons is actually going to be, eventually, a discussion of the neurotic codes of nudity and cloud cuckoo land of empiricism gone mad that bedevils contemporary culture.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pop Quiz


This is in anticipation of my next post, a single question.

Instructions: Answer the following questions on your own paper. Please skip lines, write legibly, and use black pixels. The questions are closed book. Do not use any reference work or notes to answer.

1. What song was Janet Jackson singing at the Super Bowl when she experienced a "wardrobe malfunction?"

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Curious questions

Oh, good heavens, some people are on the BBC just now trying to employ the evolutionary model to ideas. "The good ideas survive, and the bad ones do not," the speaker says, only to be interrupted by a literary critic who says that the "good book" is not the one that sells and that culture doesn't work this way, and then another speaker wants to apply infant analogies. Whee!

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change." - Charles Darwin

So, "survival of the fittest" <--> "fitness is health" <--> "health is strength" <--> "fitness is the strength" :: "Survival of the strongest is evolution." Thus does "evolution" mean the opposite of what Darwin said it meant, mean more what Hitler said it meant.

What a bunch of galloops. The book or idea that flourishes is the one that most nearly satisfies its cultural moment. On this, the Darwinian and Marxist and Hegelian analysts would agree. Thus, the idea that flourishes is the one that responds most nearly to what the cultural vaccuum is.

I didn't want to write about that, though. No. I have a dearth of e-mail and friends right now, in my time of need, and so I convulsed about what I heard on the radio instead of any matter of genuine concern.

My last got no readers at all, so my blog is definitely heading in the right direction. If the trend continues, this will actually get some unreaders, and that's what I want to ask about.

I grew up in the Watergate generation. This is an important thing. While, since then, there have been other opportunities (the Iran-Contra generation, for example, or the Alberto Gonzales generation), the Watergate generation is that time when aware and yet gullible young people, say ten to fifteen years of age, could watch television all together and see the President lying, stealing, and pilfering for the slightest political advantage. It was a moment that marked all of the intelligent and aware of my generation with either superior cynicism or furious faith.

I was, therefore, one of millions who learned early on the philosophy of realpolitik. Knowing that states act always on matters of gain and interest, rather than belief and philosophy, has served me very, very well. It helped me realize, for example, that Edward Teller's funding pipedream of the x-ray laser (aka the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka "Star Wars") upset the Soviets because the thing absolutely sucked as a missile defense but was an absolute beauty when it came to vaporizing people from outerspace. It helped me see that Iran-Contra was itself a burp, where philosophy dominated interests and thereby screwed up both the philosophy and the interests. It helped me realize how the invasion of Panama might well be more in line with The Panama Deception than the saving of a Navy captain's wife from harassment.

It has failed me, though. My cynicism and my analysis have failed me entirely, however, with the invasion of Iraq.

What I want from the Obama administration is an explanation of why we did it. I'm serious. I have been waiting for six years for an explanation that could survive a third grader's analysis.

What has infuriated me is how outrageously flimsy the explanations have been. It's not that they're lies: we expect lies when it comes to a causus belli, but it's that they're so obviously lies that they beg us to supply our own reasons, and no one has been able to supply one. Panama deception? No. Misdirection? No. Oil? No. To sneak up on Russia or Iran? No.

What is infuriating about the invasion of Iraq to me is not that it was foolish, disgraceful, immoral, and disasterous, but that the proferred reasons don't make sense, and even the most cynical and sinister conspiracy theories don't make sense, either. In fact, what I want to know is why we invaded, because there actually is no reason at all for it. Tell me that we wanted an outpost for Aramco, and I'll feel better. Tell me that it was to enrich Dick Cheney, and I'll feel better. Tell me even that it was a plot to kill poor people the world over, and I'll feel better.

Please, President Obama, don't leave it as it is, where there is no reason at all for this sacrifice, this disaster, this atrocity, this corrosion of all that we hold dear about ourselves and all we want to protect in our collective soul. Even a paranoid reason would be better than lies and nonsense.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

In Memoriam

My last blog post got exactly one reader, so this one will be another ray of sunshine.

This is a guilt trip town I'm in. I'm quite susceptible to guilt, but not usually of blame. I am a teetering mass of guilt, but always about failure, not crime. There is a difference. If you tell me that I've done something badly and I don't agree, I won't be bothered at all. However, if I, myself, think I did something badly, then you will be unable to convince me not to feel guilt.

The thing is, this is a guilt trip town, and by that I mean that drivers tailgate.

If you drive a car and there is traffic, you might feel as if you are walking along a sidewalk. You have to get around people who are wandering, have to avoid making eye contact with bullies, and all the rest. Inevitably, though, you feel the constant pressure. There is a pressure from people behind you, people beside you, to move, to go faster, to go slower, to change lanes, to stay put, to stop, to go, to go from the redlight more quickly, or not so quickly. Traffic gets on our nerves because of all of those expectations. We're all always being looked at and urged. There are only two choices on the road: press or be pressed. If you are in a hurry, and all of those idiots are in your way, then your anger and assertive reactions are aimed like rays of hatred out at all the other people. You glare, glower, and grimace as you go. If, though, you achieve your ideal speed (the speed you would go if no one else were around), then you feel pressure. All those people are hating at you, and it's not nice.

When I lived in North Carolina, the characteristic driving habit of the entire state was to get into the middle lane, if there were three, or the left lane, if there were two or four lanes to choose from. People got onto the highway and immediately went to the left lane, and there they stayed. "The left lane was good enough from grandpa, and I reckon I'll stay until God calls me home," they'd say. It was an article of faith for each and every driver that left lanes were "normal" for people going 45 mph and 95 mph alike. The middle lane mania, on the other hand, was for people going a "normal" speed. The people who thought they were middle class whether taking home $25,000 or $400,000 a year also thought they were "middle" drivers, neither fast nor slow.

Where I am now, though, the defining characteristic is tailgating. I'm not exaggerating when I say this, either. Whether it's a teen or a senior, the driver follows at 10' or less. Furthermore, it is not, as you and I might have expected, a matter of speed. On a commute, I get to a passing lane. Since I drive five miles per hour over the speed limit, I feel like I'm in no one's way, and yet I customarily have two or three SUV's (or, as they were recently called, "FUV's") riding each other's, and my, tail. When I get to the passing lane, I feel a sense of relief: they will pass me and go about their busy days without threatening me. However, they don't pass. They stay there, tailgating, because that's "normal" for them.

The effect of being tailgated all the time is to feel the weight of another person's anger all the time, to feel in the way, all the time, to feel hated, all the time. I do not respond to that person's criminalizing gaze, but I do respond to the anger and come away agreeing that I'm all alone, despicable. It's a guilt trip town.

Along the state highway, there is a very, very large field. It is perhaps 20-40 acres of furrows, usually growing peanuts, I believe. For months, I had seen two stray dogs out in that field. They would play the way that only two yearling dogs without owners could play, with utter joy. I would drive by, and they would be within ten yards of the highway, jumping in the air, twisting their necks as if catching a Frisbee, and play biting each other.

Yesterday, I was driving down the road, and there was the dandruff of cotton boles all along the median, as the autum crop had been taken in. The leaves are down, now, or falling, and so there are pixels of color amid the brown and broom sage orange of the fields, and the soil's shoulders switches from the cut pumpkin color of the northern half of the state to the sandy gray of the coast, and there, at the edge of the road, was one of those dogs, dead.

I cannot blame the drivers, nor the people who abandoned the dogs a year ago. The dog had been annihilated by the strike, and so it is extremely unlikely that he had much suffering to do. Instead, his death had been most probably as sudden as his life, but it's a town of guilt, of sadness, and of raw cut death, and I remember and mourn that pair of strays.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Footfalls


So, what has been going on? Well, I have been having a back ache from the cold butter knife Death has been jabbing me with, and I have made the transition from a blissful and busy worker to a very, very unhappy one, all with a single day's belch of miasma in my direction. I'm rather weary of egos that are like the thing that may never be filled (Proverbs 30:15-16).

I spent a good amount of time, or rather a bad amount of time, sorting through the horde of wrongs I had done and the reasons I had for suffering, thinking that the solution would be the grand quietus, but, of course, that is not satisfaction. That is cessation. Satisfaction is in going from comfortable and collegial to surveilled and disconcerted. The problem, of course, is in knowing or even speculating upon what it is that is doing the accounting. If it's just me, as the OT VIII's would say, then to Hell with it (get it? that's clever). If it's some cosmic compter, then I'd like to know when, exactly, meekness will pay off or why I'm not enjoying the payoff, or if that failure to enjoy the fruits is itself another debit in the column. If the frame of reference is grander and more intelligent and loving than that, then I'm in the world I know. In the divine realm, suffering is neither good nor bad. It is irrelevant, by itself.

That's right: I said that suffering is irrelevant, and so is death.If you think about things, then you really don't have any alternative but to think that death, and consequently its presagements, are neither good nor bad. I do not mean that they lack value. They certainly have both value to the one doing the dying, suffering, and grieving, and they have meaning, but they cannot be moral. Morality requires free will and choice between that which is obedient to the good (or God) and that which is not. One thing we know very well is that not a blasted, blighted, benighted one of us has the least choice in ailing, perceiving the ailment (suffering), and dying.

I could extend this to an imitation of Donne's Thoughts upon Emergent Occasions and paint suicide and suicidal behavior in the shimmering light of over-analysis, but that would be as illogical as believing that death is a special act. Donne understood death better than we do, I think, for he never protested it nor welcomed it. Life builds up, and death takes away, and so each death is a reduction until the final reduction. By that time, one needs to have a new lease elsewhere, a new home. However, at the same time, every creature is born to a death sentence. Logic is enough, even in such darkness, to illuminate one fact: nothing can be special if it is shared by every creature that is or ever has been. It does not actually come sooner to the good or the bad, and disease certainly does not care about the virtues of its hosts. There are things we can do to make this event more or less likely at a moment, but the fact is that we are all driving or driven by a machine whose wheels are about to come off.

If you are at peace with these facts or raging or wailing or smiling, it makes no difference. It is simply a topic that does not welcome or even allow thought. Thinking about your own individual extinction on earth is almost impossible. It is like trying to remember a pain you have felt: you can summon up the fact of the pain, but not the experience, and, just so, you can think of and acknowledge the fact of your death, but not think about it. This is how nature made us, and it shows the hand of the divine.

Think about this. If we cannot imagine zero or infinity, either one, then the instruction is to live, and in living to accumulate life. What is it that makes us live? That which is most lively, is, no doubt, loving, but so is pleasing and being pleased. This has been my thought, anyway, my philosophy.

So, about being meek. I am not meek. I've never been meek. I've given up, though, on struggling against the deeply seated manias of others. There is no reform possible, when what they are doing is born out of their needs rather than their reason. Thus, the ego that may never be filled is best avoided, like an event horizon. Thus, if someone has plans for every other person to do this and that and this other thing to glorify his own shining heart of gold, then the best thing is to be invisible. Once spotted, sucked, dragged, and crushed, though, there is nothing better to do but try to find the comfort, no matter how cold. Look up. Look down. Look somewhere, but try to find the thing that is still living.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Txtme l8tr

"You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
Knock as you please, there's nobody at home." -- Alexander Pope

"All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone." -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lotos Eaters."
People speak idly of the importance of the computer. The computer, they say, has changed our lives, and they are correct. The computer has changed our daily lives profoundly. Imagine how frequently one interacts with a computer without knowing it. The obvious computers are in our mental inventories of daily life, but there are dozens a day that are hidden inside cars, cash registers, inventory systems, telephones, televisions, radios, stereos, security tags, and toys. Most of these computers do in a smaller or faster form what had already been done by other technology before them.

It's amazing to me that folks don't automatically grasp the unmistakable and unshakable truth of Marshal McLuhan's thesis on technology. If you don't have it in your mental hands, then click that link and read. The store dick's eyes are replaced by the security tag, but the function is the same. The car has a chip that does what the garage's gauges and meters did, and those did what the eyes and ears formerly did. The chip makes the doggie toy articulate in a way that is less expensive and more reliable than the clockwork did.

The obvious computers are another matter. These do "new" things (well, somewhat), but not because of what they achieve. The obvious computer -- the one you are sitting before right now -- lets you read my essay. Reading an essay is something you could have done with the old analog magazine. Afterwards, you may flip through the stacks of other magazines and call it the web, or you may use e-mail and replicate mail and the telephone. If not, you might decide to play a game, but the game is going to be, at its most revolutionary, a replication of Dungeons and Dragons or some other pen and paper extension of imaginary play.

". . . the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions. . . . " -- Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
What's interesting about the obvious computer is the way it does things. It is the technology itself that is the change, not the destination or action of the technology. The screen, the mouse, the keyboard, the speakers, the track ball, the super-duper extenso-glove... these are the things that are different. Even though each of these is as clearly as it can be an imitation of the body, each is distinctly a layer of intervention and reorganization. These things change the human brain and the neurology of communication. People fret about how these things are goinig to affect children, and they should be worrying as much about how these things have already affected each of us in the Computer Age.

All the worry is misplaced. You want to worry? Worry about the cell phone. The cell phone is both more ubiquitous and more dangerous than the computer, when it comes to reprogramming the human animal. Steve Jobs can show his two-year old playing with an Apple and figuring it out, and that youngster can grow up to be cognitively secure, but what about the cell phone?

The telephone doesn't mean anything to me, much. It's fine. Bell is good. However, the cell phone says that you are always at home. It says that you must always be home. It interrupts anything, and thereby it creates a new foreground activity. Instead of being the object that you use when you want to reach out to someone else, its constant presence and constantly-on status means that the cell phone is your job, and your job is an interruption. Because it might go off at any moment, it is always, in your brain, ahead of any activity you are engaged in.

That cell phone is not an extension. It inverts McLuhan's paradigm, because you are its extension.

Am I exaggerating? Well, think about the text message. "Texting" is now not only a greater addiction than Keno, but it's more of an infection than the Spanish flu. We know that a train driver killed twenty-five people because he was texting, but he is only famous, not unique. Ok, so people have done the Cassandra act about texting while driving, and now Cassandra's keening has been ignored by the at risk, but let's be serious about it. I have not only been tailgated by teen drivers in SUV's, but I have been tailgated by brain damaged teens who were composing text messages and reading them. Look in the rear view mirror. See the hands perched on top of the wheel? Hit the gas as hard as you can and try to put miles between you and it, or make the next turn and wait for ten minutes. It won't help, of course, because the next driver behind you will be doing the same thing.


I worry about my safety, of course, and I worry a bit about the cancer risks, but what I really, really worry about is the brain inside that benumbed skull back there. Think about what the text message does.

I can testify in court about its effects on language. i can say tht u are rly messed up by it. I have seen students actually hand in for a grade papers with "u" in them. I'm through with seeing "thru." These shortcuts are not orthographic reform, and they are not a "new language." While the "emoticon" has some claim to being a linguistic feature, "LOL" and "ROFLMAO" and the like have become nervous ticks, not communication.

More, though, I am concerned about this metacommunity that is in the foreground. It is an actual hivemind without any thinking being done. The text message is hostile to thought. One cannot actually work out a full proposition in a format that only allows a few pricey characters, and one cannot have intellectual precision in a medium that punishes vocabulary. As Americans have reduced their working vocabularies to a mere ten thousand words, the text message reduces that further. Hence, what the constant text does is not enable a constantly communicating mentality, but a constantly "in touch" community.

When my dog was a puppy, she used to lie in bed beside me. Dogs do not like body-to-body contact the way that humans do, but they do have to touch, and my dog would sleep next to me with a toe nail touching my leg. She had to have contact, but no big mushy hug. That's what the cell phone has done. It has sacrificed, if not obliterated, communication, and it has enforced a constant touch. It is somehow fetal, somehow regressive, and it is, I think, addictive precisely because it allows for an undifferentiated ego.

I'm sorry that I've gone so long on this. I'm bored, so ttyl.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sentiment and Sentimentality


I'm writing today because I'm sick and tired of looking at my McDonald's grumble. It may be well written, but I've gotten all the notice I'm ever going to get. Another rose petal tossed down the infinitely deep well of the Internet, and I have yet to make a splash.

There are topics (topoi) that the old Rhetoric classes used to teach. I'm currently teaching a very elementary writing class, and so I've been reacquainted with the concept of the "prompt." The "prompt" is what the topos became, only with a great deal less poetry and metaphysics than in the past. Where students used to write on, "What is a just war?" or "What is the difference between the naked and the nude?" or "Does the citizen have a right to rebel?" (I know no one ever clicks on any links, but that last one is very tricksy, as it is Melville bragging about a particularly illegal naval battle), we now ask them to write about "What makes you happy?" and "What is your favorite room?"

When I went off to seminary, to become a priest of geeks, and when I stood in the antechamber to the tabernacle, I noticed that there were many there with me, and these persons, having intelligence for piety, were judged fit. However, I regarded them as loathesome. They were in their mid-twenties and obsessed with being cool for once in their lives. Having been the oblongs and conic sections in their high schools, and therefore being robbed of being fit enough, manly enough, pretty enough, or smoothe enough, they had a lack they carried about with them. They needed to be cool now. Now, the competition was similar people. Now, they could open the cover of their chests and let the vaccuum of their egos go at full blast.

We all agreed, or had it agreed for us, that the contest would be aesthetics. Who had best taste won. Who had the coolest stuff won.

These people were, I thought, on the verge, at any moment, of giving one another swirlies. (Don't believe me? Look here, and you can see someone actually agreeing to have one in order to be cool.)

They had big hierarchies of cool bands and uncool bands, and they had huge arguments of how awful particular things were. One of the things they hated was Simon and Garfunkel. A person couldn't listen to that. On the other hand, Nick Cave was cool. Don't even mention Harry Chapin.

Well, you know, I think it's time to innoculate people and revive the topos tradition. There is a vast difference between sentiment and sentimentality.
"Gazes mournfully at trees
And barely a sound until tomorrow" ("See Emily Play," Syd Barret)
Those lines are phonetically brilliant, and they're also very pathetic. The "cool" Syd and the sentimental are married in one there, if a person has ears to listen. A person can make fun of Paul McCartney all he wants (and he wants to quite a bit), but the man who wrote "For No One" while in his twenties has more soul than any detractor. "Eleanor Rigby" is supposed to be saccharined drivel, but it sure as hell isn't.

What is the difference, then, between sentiment and sentimentality? Sentimental writing plays up easy emotions and is coercive and achieves commonplace emotions. An artist should write "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd" concepts, but if it's commonly expressed as well as commonly felt, then the result will be sentimentality. A good author hits either complex emotions (ambivalence being the top of the pyramid and poignancy being just below that) or finds an emotion that we feel but which we don't know we feel.

Is "Eleanor Rigby" a common emotion? It evokes loneliness, yes, but it also evokes despair and wishes that the world weren't so cold. It combines two lonely people with their fates, and it mourns the fact that they never had connections. Certainly it's not the only time that sentiment has been expressed, but it's not common. No song, and hardly any poem, though, has hit the complete sensation of a person whose girlfriend is crying as she's completely over her love for him as compactly as "For No One."

Even Harry Chapin's "Cat's Cradle" isn't commonplace. It's coercive because it's a narrative, but the sentiment it aims for is not unalloyed. Yes, the speaker is rueful and full of regret, but he also couldn't help it. "Taxi," which is often cited as Chapin's most egregiously sentimental, sins only by its recourse to the silly "flying when I'm stoned" imagery. The situation it evokes is plenty complicated. Yes, the man is sad that he lost his girlfriend, but the situation he is in is uniquely emasculating. He is now her servant, and so his regret is tinged with an utter loss of manhood, too.

No.

Leave me alone. I'm not that far from the fourteen year old who thought that "The Sounds of Silence" was the deepest poem ever. I still think its evocation is deft and its language is precise, and I still think that "Eleanor Rigby"'s tombstone is worth fresh flowers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Marmor McDonaldiensis

Warning to the reader: the following was written on August 5, 2008, and I had just received a big dictionary of names. The prose is purple, even by my standards. I understand if you skip it for the much better one before.
In other words, even by these standards, it's pretentious.
"The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith." -- T. S. Eliot


"From the cradle to the coffin, underwear comes first." -- Bertolt Brecht
This morning was I morning’s minion, dashing from place to post, bashing against a to-do list as if it were an enemy on the field below. Thus, I had voted in a run-off election to deny its inventors their malicious designs, paid for taxes, renewed special permits with the county, gotten bird seed, milk and cream, bananas, and a double cheeseburger meal before eleven-fifteen. Such was the frenzy that my thoughts dragged in the water behind my actions like a skier, screaming for help.

Then I began to look out upon the world, and especially its women, as is the wont of men my age, with the desperate look of a toothless man in a steakhouse, and I began to look at the traces they made and prophesy.
"The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not." -- George Bernard Shaw, Parents and Children
From the fecund swamp of becoming to the fetid soup of been, we dimly perceiving humans live in and by expectation. We circle back with many fewer questions of “What happened?” than we propel forward, lurching and toppling as we go, with boasts of “Hey! Betcha it’s going to....” “Ecce homo?” This is the expecting animal, moving in advance of life and adjusting. When enough of our trials are not errors, say by the age of fifteen, we animals erect ourselves to prophecy. The teenager sees where things have been for that short span, and from twelve years of data points, it projects the line out to infinity and announces that the world sucks.

However, at nearly the same time, the unpredictable arises and reduces the hit rate and tames the annoying little jerks. They find that the opposite sex, and then the same sex competitors, are formulating rules and expecting expectations, too, and the permutations swarm like black flies, leaching out the certainty and draining the leisure time sport of damning the world. Years pass, and the waters deepen and still, and it is time for the more accurate and much more useless predictions of the middle aged and elderly. They have found algorithms for the unpredictable other sexes and agents, and they announce fates from their perches on Rascal scooters weaving through Wal-Mart aisles.

There, then, at my own mid-day early bird meal, I sat like a prostitute in the window of the McDonald’s. We window sitters are alluring the way that gargoyles are, not like bare flesh, but we are as much solicitous. Ours is the bare rictus of withered age or the bald neuter of obesity or poverty. We perch to see lives and bodies, for we dislike our own. Even though I have found that age only means that my pants and pill box get larger, when I look out, I feel the space between the shell and the core of my life, and I am compelled to ease that pain by longing or dismissal.

There was an Armelle. Her precarious beauty was constructed in layers of anxiety. When I see her, or when I see Solveig beside her, both striding in training heels and spinning about like debutantes at the ball, cell phones extended before them, both balletic and hieratic, I can make my predictions. I see their beginning, and I can extrapolate. If these two bodies remain in the same motion on this same course, they will collide with this Muta and that Gerda. This butterfly goes into chrysalis to produce that ... productive member of society. Similarly, if that raw-shaved boy, that Uiseann, with those embellished arms and jeans (his emblem and shield) takes up the present space for long, he will descend into that cologne-dipped Chamber of Commerce booster, that Peli. His buddy (good buddy), with his scalp reddened by sun and his cuffs frayed by sneaker heels, hurling his hands forward like pistons, grinning like a malevolent spirit with a freshly claimed soul in its teeth, will metamorphose from Vernus to Torbjorn. Older, he will no longer have a head that looks like a blister, and he will trade the overpowered pickup truck (the gas pedal of which he works with his imagined phallus) for an under-occupied SUV, colored rigor mortis blue in a concession to budget, and he will achieve independent importance at last.
[Ed. note: I am going to stop linking at this point:
it takes time and probably doesn't add anything.
If you miss them, let me know in comments.]
"We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed." -- Thomas Fuller
There is nothing wrong with these transformations, and none of these paths of inertia is meaningful by itself. The gargoyle doesn’t have any verdicts. It isn’t about that. The teenager wails that life sucks, but the gargoyle just stares out, wishing that life were still a verb. If there is anything the prophecy does not do, it does not warn. Youngsters, bulbous and fractious, ossify into hortatory masonry, too, after all, but there is one thing only left to say.

God give us the unequal force. These pathways are extensions, and these graves I describe are now just divots, and they come to pass only if there is no unequal force, no blow, no collision, no random factor, and let us praise the entropy that makes life unpredictable and that pries the figures from the wall, chisels down the bas relief, and tilts the table.

We’re not all individual, not all different, unless we get just a bit confused, confounded, and jarred.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Career Day

Every year, there is a day when various members of faculty and others gather together to discuss things with prospective and present English majors. I'm not sure why we talk to the present English majors, except as reassurance, but we have some version of the classic "What can you do with an English degree" talk.
What can you do with an English major? Aw, heck, who knows? That's not really an appropriate question to ask professors, after all. They have a number of answers, perhaps, but they all revolve around one quality: "something boring, and then you can teach, and that's not boring."

". . . it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet -- no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armor should be an advocate and no soldier." -- Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry.

There are a lot of ways of looking at the subject of "career." We use that word for "progress" and "path" alike -- the career of the Fool and the career of the rowing team -- and it's the idea of progress that makes us all miserable. I'm a Christian, as my long time readers have puzzled out for themselves, and I'm from the South, and so I've grown up with a particular trope that was so often repeated that its clutch on the mind was tighter than a tick's: The Call. Have you heard The Call? Are you following God's Plan for your life?

This concept is now fat with my blood, and I have tried my best to shake it off. I read aKempis and his argument that God's will for your life simply is done without your intervention, if you do not disobey. That conditional, though, has left me just as terrified as before.

The other day, as I was driving my car, I had an ill vision, one that scared me like the She-Wolf of Incontinence (yes, she's really called that; an English major wouldn't giggle), but instead of writing the Divine Comedy, I'm writing this. I imagined my afterlife. There I was, being accepted into the limbo of suicides (an English major would already know Paradise Lost, of course) or the outer fringes (obfuscatory link, there) of heaven, and I saw that I had missed the point. Divine omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and free will had intersected such that God had intended a good path for me, and I had taken another (not evil, just not blessed). There had been a point, you see, when I could have chosen Law School, Divinity School, or aimless stumbling like a moon with too little mass through various graduate studies in English, and I chose the option that didn't require knowing what I was doing (the last).

I saw, in my vision, a lovely, if not stunning, young woman with a wry sense of humor, a quick wit, and great devotion who was sitting in the library of the Theology school. She sat at a table by herself, having not been perfectly pleased with her company. I was to be there. Had I been, we would have met, married, and gone to have a combined life of eventfulness and purpose. However, I wasn't there. I was working at an insurance company out of fear of making a bad decision, and I was about to go to graduate school, trying to steer my life and only crashing on the rocks.

It was shocking, this vision, but, after I guided my car back off the side walk, I tried to compose myself in the present. My career.... Careering? Careening?

These questions all impose what I call "naive teleology." "Naive teleology" is the historical impulse. It is the attempt to answer "How did I get to this place?" My father works diligently at genealogy. I have never understood why. I suppose that it is important, if you want to know why these people over here are coming to visit, and those people over there, with the same name, aren't. Then again, genealogy is a popular sport. Is it that the past is a component of the present, and not merely an explanation of it? At any rate, I have been more American than that. I have insisted more that the past is past, that history is not "bunk," but quaint and other. For me, the past has been an object to be dissolved, precipitated, weighed, recombined, and otherwise analyzed, and when I have realized that I was trying to explain the present, I have turned the telescope around and tried to use the traces of the present to explain the past.

As an English major, you can work at... Well, you can work at nearly anything, but nothing will be a use specifically of your skills or desires. At best, you can forget yourself. At most common, what you will do is serve two masters: the poem and the post, the novel and the job, the romance and the love. You will work as an actuarial, as I did, and read heavy stuff on your lunch, or you will read memos with the searing attention of literature. If you do the latter, you will go far. If you do the former, you will find your studies growing numb with time and the days of reading Sidney taking on increasingly peppermint and naphtha aromas, increasingly golden and pink hues, and a magical time in your memory -- one you mean to get back to soon.

The truth is that English majors are the Bondo of the employment world. We are not designed for any existing job, but we fit in as well as a custom made part and soon become so much a part of the body that no one can tell what we are. English majors can work nearly any job, from landscaping (as my friend on TV does) to art design to book keeping to wharehouse supply management. The other workers will note the analytical skills, fear the withering articulateness, and never think to ask, "Did you get a business degree?"

English majors can do whatever.

Think about that joyfully, in your hearts, you liberal artists, and celebrate, and then stop a moment and let the darkness of that statement sink in. An English major is an existential major. Because you are ill suited to everything and well suited to everything in the same measure, whatever it is that you do will be your repsonsibility and your fault.

You, friend, will sit in this chair, soon. You, my reader, will have to answer to the tick in your mind. You will have to ask about your purpose and admit that, whatever it is is whatever you've done, and you'll have to find a way to live with yourself after that.

Please let me know how.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lost and Found

Normally, death is nothing to speak about. No, not for dread, but because it is the one thing about which there is absolutely nothing to say. It is the veil, and we all know a veil. Because we cannot speak of it, through it, or around it, we pull feints of language, and we say that "we lost" a person. Death rings his dampened bell, and we come out swigging.

You can lose your mind, lose your soul, or lose your life, but it is always "we" who lose somebody. Then there is finding, which we can do also of souls and peace of mind and living, but which "we" can never do of a person. I remember some of our losses in the public sphere, and I do feel sometimes that we found a new spirit in the form of Barrack Obama.


Today, though, we have "lost" Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms, the man whose hand Paul Wellstone would not shake, and with good reason. Jesse Helms, the man who favored extraterritorial laws. Jesse Helms, the man who said that AIDS was God's vengeance on gays. Jesse Helms, the man who poured money into lung cancer research to hope for the day when cigarettes would be safe. Jesse Helms, the man who reportedly whistled "Dixie" when a Black senator got on the elevator. As the BBC says, "His death was reported" today.

Today is the 4th of July.

If he died today, there is something wrong, or right. First, it means that we probably will have our first Black president (according to the "one drop rule") over his dead body, and we will have a president who is the product of "miscegenation." When Bobby Kennedy was shot, Jesse Helms, then a right wing blowhard on television, said that that's what comes of "mixing the races."

Perhaps there is a fitting note, in that a particular type of fear and self-righteousness is quite American, quite as American as enlightenment and progressivism. If it dies this July 4th, then perhaps there is short term hope. Jesse Helms was personally amiable, personally gracious, personally charitable, personally friendly with gay, Black, and all others, but he ran and acted as an agent of intolerance. When he retired from the senate, it was good riddance, but his death offers nothing, symbolically or substantially, except the passing of the last of the Dixiecrats.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pat Pending and the Trademark

Speaking of great bands, "Pat Pending and the Trademarks" is still unused, except that, by typing it above, I have it copyrighted.

I was at Burger King (tm) after church today. My church is not copy protected, but it seems to be falling to bits at times. I saw there that the food chain had a commercial tie-in with the new Incredible Hulk -- the one that is, effectively, a do-over. (The film makers want to pretend that Ang Lee's version never happened, just the way that the people who did follow ups to Highlander decided to ignore #2 for #3.) No surprise, there, but I saw the figurines they were offering to tots, and I saw that...

a company had trademarked...

Dumpster Toss Abomination (TM).

The word "dumpster" is trade marked to start with, so no worries there. I am reminded of how Microsoft attempted to trademark "Internet" in "Internet Exploder." However, for "Dumpster Toss Abomination," how necessary is that trademark?

How many other people are really going to want to use it? How many deceptive practices do you imagine are occurring? My first thought was that "dumpster toss" was another term for vomiting after a night of alcohol poisoning. The "abomination" would therefore be the hangover.

I do not have much to say on this topic, but I feel that it was important to alert all of my readers that, if they were thinking about it, to stay clear of calling anything a dumpster toss abomination: that's taken.

Of course, a dump tossing abomination is another matter, and you're free to do that.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Underfilled Beanbag Chair of Pensiveness

I got the new REM album, "Accelerate." In an interview, Michael Stipe had said that it had "negative ten" mandolins on it. He was telling the truth. The album rocks, as it were. It needed to rock, too, as Steven Colbert's interview implies, because REM had gotten a bit... swallowed up.
I got REM's first single, "Radio Free Europe" b/w "Sitting Still," on Hibtone Records (I can get $131 for it? Wow). Anyway, I then got "Chronic Town," "Mumble," and a few others, but it seemed to me that each album had some good songs, some bad songs, and a few old songs. Then they went acoustic. The results were interesting. That success, though, gave them the golden ticket.

It's normal for bands to go through this, to start off pissed off or exuberant and then slide around in the lumpy gravy of self-importance. Some bands go into it very quickly, too (e.g. Live). Some take a long time. There is a sort of grid you can use to predict when your favorite band will become a navel-gazing colossus of insipidness. To find out when a band will Vanish Up Its Own Butt (Vuob), apply this formula:

((Musicianship - lyric depth)/ (cult-status* prophetic role)) * record sales = Vuob

It's positively requisite that a band vanish up its own behind. I have left out the variable of drug use, because drug use can substitute for Vuob or merely distort it. An early 1970's band would begin doing bigger doses at decreasing intervals, and a metal band would begin drinking more cases in less time, and the result would be pants wetting and infantilism, if not incoherence, but that's not the mandatory self-absorption I'm talking about.

In fact, Vuob isn't even my point. My point is the resuscitation. Bands who go into the world where they fly in on jets to see each other for a month and make an album, having neither spoken nor worked on anything in the months prior, are going to make crummy stuff. Singers who spend their year being prophets and poets and who then jet in with a notebook of really Important ideas are going to have lyrics that few can sing with and none want to. Bands with self-awareness get the idea, sooner or later, from the boy who brings the bagels or the limo driver, that they've lost it, and then they decide... oh, alright... they'll succumb to stupid expectations of stupid fans and try to do a record like the old ones again.

It never works, or it almost never works.

The thing about a bean bag chair is that it's a lot easier to sit in one than to get up from one. In the process of standing back up, you tend to flop a bit. I am here not to condemn, but to praise REM, because "Accelerate" has them standing up again and yet not sounding like they used to. They not only have urgency and friction again, but they haven't gone back to Rockville. It's a good record.

Yo La Tengo did the same with "i am not afraid of you and i will kick your ass." After the last two records, I knew they were in the beanbag chair. They could make a nice largo, and that's what they did, for two records end-to-end. "Pass the Hatchet" makes it clear instantly that they have not forgotten how to do physics and get energy out of electricity.

This particular blog post is a nothing, but I mean to praise those famous men and women who manage the unimaginable: to return to form. Losing form is as easy as obesity or self-pity. Getting form back takes work, and kudos to those who do it, who know what they're missing and work to get back to being completely unlike themselves again. Good for REM, and good for Yo La Tengo.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Miscellany 2: Grave Injustice


We live in a strange world. It is not a strange nation, but a strange world withal. "The Developed World" is peculiar because of how it has been developed.
"What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others" -- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
I was at the local inexpensive prepared food vendor, eating a Big Mess, and the fact that I was began to ring bells in my mind. Earlier, I had been listening to BBC World Serviette, and they had discussed a controversy about the Dutchness of York. She had said that anyone in a council flat could eat properly and that there was no reason to be obese.

Now, for my money, the original Fergie has always been sexy and alluring and beautiful. She has had her gaffes, but she has always seemed somehow more realistic and human than her sister-in-law, whose genetic beauty left little room for human experience and the negotiations of unhappiness. Then again, redheads always attract men.

Fergie's advice to the poor of London is not new, and it really shouldn't even be news, except that she feels that lack of information is the reason the poor eat poorly, while the well born eat well. If you, reader, wish to be fit and healthy, cook at home. It's easy, and it will save your life. Even I know this, and yet there I was, reflecting on how I knew it, as I ate a Big Mess Meal for $4.60.

The truth is that our world is developed because it has gotten structured around one central, misaddressed paradox. For us in the Developed World, luxury goods are cheap, and staple goods are expensive. In the "developing world," luxury goods are unthinkable, and staple goods are the whole concern. These two paradigms -- the emphasis on plentiful staples and the emphasis on plentiful luxuries -- has caused enormous suffering.

In the US, it's common for the bigoted and the resentful to point to a poor person's house and say, "Oh, but he's got a satellite TV!" or "Oh, but he's got an X-Box!" This is because luxury goods like games are cheap, in the US and UK, but the house to put them in is impossible to afford. The super high calorie Ho-Ho is cheap, but the meat and vegetables on a table is expensive. If restaurants with good food ran as inexpensive as bad food, this would be a different world than the Developed. The Developed world is the mass produced world, and nutritious and good food is apparently (only apparently) impossible to mass produce, while preserved and fattening food can go from truck to freezer to fryer in minutes.

The poor are time poor, generally, and skills-poor, as well as cash poor. One of the first things depression and despair will do to you is get you away from tasks like cooking, especially if there is an alternative that looks faster and less expensive. As the developed world dies to get enough agriculture, the developed world has to subsidize the non-production of agriculture, because it has too little demand for that kind of thing.

Good luck, Fergie.

--
My other topic is the grave. Yesterday, I went to a family reunion with a group of people to whom I am only distantly related. Before and after this, we went to visit cemeteries. Not so oddly, we had been discussing, before all of this and afterward, our own ends and final resting places.

Of all the things I saw, the grave featured to the right was the most breath taking. The young lady buried there was only eighteen, and there is a small photo of her on her headstone, as well as a replica of her family dog, sleeping beside her. It's very touching, and those two things alone, even without the verse on her stone, are poignant enough to bring tears.
"The breezy call of incense-breathing morn
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. " -- Thomas Gray

It's affecting, and yet what I saw, for the most part, was a general run of stones. Some had clear engraving, some faded, some mossed over. Some were cracked, some were tall, and some had plaster-like figurines nearby.

It was depressing, but not because of the thought that I must one day lie in such a narrow cell. What bothered me was that there would be little to represent me. Most headstones function either for utility or to mark the sorrows of the survivors. The young lady's stone tells us that she was loved, that her loss has obliterated the joys of her family and friends, and the constantly fresh flowers on her grave say that she is remembered now and freshly. It is a monument to her value.

Is there nothing, though, to speak of the person?


" Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief." -- Shakespear, King John III iv ll. 92-7

Why, when we have designers making "clamshell" packaging for iPods and scissors, when we have designers coming up with clever ways to hide cup holders in cars, when we have designers rethinking the t-shirt, do we have the same funerary architecture and monument as we had in 1900? It's not like we lack for examples of style, if we want to look.

Of course, all that old stuff was designed to attest to power or beauty of the dead. A gloriously rococo stonework tells the passerby that the person below was once more beautiful than all others, according to the sextons. A giant spire says that the dead was once mighty. All of these boastful and empty gestures are out of line for we in the developed world, as we no longer expect anyone to come to pass by our markers and be inspired, no longer expect people to be awed, no longer think that we have to throw fear or awe onto the passerby. Those of us who believe in an afterlife seek humility in death, no matter how we struggled against anonymity while alive.

What depressed me was that there was no choice for me. There would be no stone that would indicate to the visitors to other graves that I was once witty, that I was creative, that I sought to explore my world with mind and heart, that I wanted to see every relationship as it was and as it could be. Why, I wondered, doesn't some bright spark at RISD, SCAD, or other design school set down and get to work making monuments that are playful, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and a measure of the person, as well as a frozen record of the regard of the survivors? It seems unjust some way.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wee review


This is going to be short, with nothing significant in it, so I figure that I might as well make sure that the illustration is worth looking at. For those who wonder about my process, it's creating the images that takes most time. Getting links to various sites takes time, too, and coming up with the ideas and the writing is nearly no time at all, but the illustrating takes an eternity, and I'm often not very happy with the results in any case.

T is pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;
A book ’s a book, although there ’s nothing in ’t. -- Byron
First, a book, and then a movie. That's the way of things, after all. All books turn into movies when once they're watered with sufficient money and vanity. The main page article at Wikistupidia today was Battlefield Earth -- a film designed and executed as a war against humanity. Had it possessed any force, it would have qualified as a form of assault. It, you see, was a book. I don't know why it had been a book, except that it required delusions on the part of fewer people to appear that way.

The book I have to review as a word of warning, but slight warning, is Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I bought it on my last paycheck exsanguination, and I did so on the advice of the reviewers at
  1. The New York Times
  2. The New York Review of Books
  3. Times Literary Supplement (link not available).
I did so, and now I have to demur from all of those established, celebrated, and wise reviewers.

One hates to show one's own vainglory, but this one does hope that you readers mine are clicking on the links, as I have made an effort to have them be entertaining and even metaphorical. If you have, then you already have a sinking feeling in the pits of your stomaches or stomae, because you have seen the author's photograph at the Simon Armitage site. It's the kind of thing that can cause fits. As a man of limited beauty, myself, I do not begrudge the Poet his half-face Mesmer portraits, nor his grimace of portent.

I got the book on Friday, and today is Monday, and it is done. What I found interesting about myself during reading was that I spent far less time reading the translation than I did reading the Pearl Poet. I couldn't keep my eyes on the right hand side of the page. I was magnetically drawn over to the noble verse itself. Part of this is because I have read the poem in Middle English before, so the language isn't that much of a barrier to me. However, when I was not drawn to the left, I was often as not catapulted there by the translation.

Oh, there are stinkers. Stinkers are inevitable in any translation. I have to pick on the poor poet some time (although I suppose he is not so poor now that his book is selling like mad, and I think of how Aurelian Townshend died "a poor pocky poet" who would write a century of sonnets for a few pence), so I'll stick in my thumb and pull out something dumb.

Around 2116, we get this:
He's lurked about too long
engaged in grief and gore.
His hits are swift and strong --
he'll fell you to the floor.
Well, "he'll fell you to the floor" kind of sounds dumb. It's not Anglo-Saxon litotes. It fails to undercut enough to catch the spirit of "that was a good king," but it's following on a description of chopping and maiming and clobbering and mincing people. It's the kind of thing that makes you rub your eyes, do a double take, and fly to the left page to see what the Pearl Poet wrote. Was our glaring contemporary being fair?
He has wonyd here ful yore,
On bent much baret bende.
Ayayn his dyntes sore
Ye may not yow defende
is what our unknown poet wrote. Don't ask me to translate it, please. You can pretty much do that yourself. You don't need my efforts.

Oh, alright!

He has lived here for years,/ On doing much grief and gore bent./ Against his sore blows/ You may not yourself defend.

Simon Armitage has decided to go the "fluid" route and avoid the stiffness of previous poets (dunces including W. S. Merwin and Tolkien, we gather) who tried to maintain cognates where possible. Being knocked down just seems a little less fluid and a little more watery. I don't consider it quite the same in force as being defenseless. Never mind, though. Perhaps Mr. Armitage's squire is telling Gawain that Bersilak is a black belt in Aikido or Tai Chi.

What bugs me, though, and the reason I am dissatisfied and constantly jumping to the left, is not a particular weak spot here or there. I commend Mr. Armitage generally on his translation. If his goal was liveliness and a translation into contemporary poetry, he did a fine enough job. What scarred my mind as I tried to read the translation was not any given word choice, but the fact that the alliteration is whatever happens to fit the form and sense for contemporary British English. The Pearl Poet was not a fool, I think we can all agree, nor a shoddy craftsman. Double negatives were still in his language, but they were not at all necessary. The general subject-verb-object monotony of Modern English was dominant for him, too. However, he varies. He chooses which consonants to alliterate, decides when to repeat words, knows when a double negative will be amplification.

There is a muscularity to his preferred consonants. He likes p's and t's when men are being mainly, and he likes l's and m's when ladies are lounging (and lying). The effect is to make the throat work, to make the sound embattled, to create importance with repetition. With Armitage, you can easily miss that there is any alliteration present, but with the Pearl Poet, there is no way you can forget it. His linguistic effects are not pyrotechnic, but they are expert. Form and sense are perfectly married. They're so perfectly married that we sit back and stare, slack jawed, at how one human could have gotten every word right over the course of thousands of lines.

Listen to the original lines, above. Listen to how the 'you not defend you' acts as a sign of absolute doom, how impossible the situation is as the page presents it. "Knock you down" is not merely an accidental bit of bathos, it's a sign that fluidity has come at the cost of appreciation.

---

Oh, the movie?

Well, I'm watching "The Holiday." Critics were dismayed that it did not do well at the box office last year. One made a bitter comment about how the public had decided, instead, to go see some fart and vomit comedy instead.

Well, I don't know about the latter very much. After all, I watched pieces of "Jackass" on Comedy Central last night and laughed until tears came to my eyes, but I did so with my finger on the "flip back" button on the remote so that I would not see at all any of the bits that offended me. However, I will say that "The Holiday" is about letter perfect as romantic comedies go.

I don't generally like romantic comedies, as my own romantic life is more farce than comedy, and I do not find that the happy ending ever comes. After all, any ending is necessarily not happy, when it comes to romance, and freezing the action at the moment of marriage and claiming that all of time has been soaked in bliss, that the future is only an unending line of joys, can no longer fool me. However, for clever dialog, true characterization, and innovative situation, I have to say that "The Holiday" gets very high marks. Oh, and beautiful people who would never be without suitors have to go through much suffering to find suitable suits. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Sorry to have taken so much of your time today.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What's Brown and Sticky?

Supposedly, the "funniest joke in Britain" was the title to this entry (with the answer being "a stick") one year. It didn't seem very funny to me, but the results have gotten better lately.

It is a mania shared by philosophers of all ages to deny what exists and to explain what does not exist. -- Jean Jacques Rousseau
Our friends in the neurosciences have done much. Their new machines allow them to look at brains in distress, brains at rest, and even brains conjoined in congress. They have looked at the mind of contemplative monks and nuns, they say, although they have really only seen the brain, and they have looked at the mad and bad alike. They have long known that tumors explain religious mania.

In fact, there is a sort of belief lurking in a lot of science that extraordinary spirituality must have a physical analog, at best, or an aberrant physiology to explain it, at worst. Such theories may explain Benedict Joseph Labre, but they may not, too. The few cases of documented religious visionaries who were "cured" by electro-shock therapy or surgery is just another sneaking insult woven into the discussion of religious experience. It's ok. We religious are accustomed to being suspect.

However, it seems to me that this very insult, this very flail used against religion, is a confirmation of it. If there is a part of the brain that says, "This is the voice of the divine," then doesn't that mean that the experience of the supernatural is natural? In other words, if every brain has a receptor for religious experience, doesn't that prove, for once and all, that religious experience is part of the very condition of having a human brain? Doesn't it make the people who deny any possibility of such expression or experience ... well... weird? Doesn't it make them as unnatural as a person who refuses to eat carbohydrates or protein?

Still, I don't mean to offer a lashing to those who are aspiritual. They have my peace and best wishes. I have always hoped that they would stop trying to beat me with this stick, but it's not a big deal if people want to think that my brain is disordered. It probably is.

However, here is the thing that occurred to me today, the thing that has me puzzled. If there are tumors, microadenomas, and brain injuries that can result in people having delusional experiences of the divine, then is it possible that there are similar things that can prevent people from hearing the legitimate religious stimulus? If so, why are we not studying this?

I would advocate only one thing: we change our definition of the human from a creature who apprehends and experiences only natural stimulus to a creature whose normal and healthy operation involves the real or experiential apprehension and experience of the supernatural. In other words, if we look at a person who says that he has never felt that there is anything grander or greater than the natural world and say that this is aberrant, rather than looking at the person who sees "heaven in a grain of sand" and saying that that is a malady, would we not be likely to seek out the conditions that stifle such experience? I do not say that my version of religious intuition or experience is normal, but, when I look through history and mankind from China to Peru, I see people experiencing something.

Perhaps we can turn this stick to a lever. Perhaps we can even prise open our framing metaphors for life.

Monday, April 07, 2008

What I've been doing


I owe my many readers some word of explanation about why I have been absent from these frames for so long. Part of it has been due to lassitude and inconsiderateness, for I have decided that I want my fans to anticipate and thereby enjoy the next post all the more, but part of it has been due to my overloaded extracurricular activities.

You see, I was called upon, by those whom I may not name, to infiltrate and stop a gun-running circuit operating on I-95. This involved spending considerable time drinking absinthe and mescal at The Li'l Rebel roadhouse and tavern while I gained the confidence of the one known as Big Coot. Despite his moniker, Big Coot was not, in fact, my goal, for he was a small man in a large organization of perhaps six. However, with the Big Coot in my pocket, I might be able to gain access to Gemany (pronounced "Gemini"), a two-toned blond with a checkerboard tattoo on the sole of her left foot and dagger ear rings, who was purportedly the leader and chief liaison to the higher ups.

It was as a consequence of a bottle of mescal and a discussion of low pressure weather systems and the movement of air that I found myself in a knife fight with Tim "Leadhead" Jimson, whom I called "Weed," behind the Li'l Rebel Friday night. The local police arrested all of us together, after sending several bystanders to the hospital for unrelated wounds that were discovered during processing.

This led to my needing to rely upon Juan Abigados, the noted loanshark of Blufton, South Carolina, who is deeply connected to the Paris underworld. There was no question of making the "big" with him, but the bail money sent ripples through the Parisian gangland, where my personal asset manager has been worried about my long position in Asian currency markets. He is convinced that the Chinese Communist Party is about to unpeg the Yuan and thereby allow exchange rates to lower in order to increase national market positions in manufacturing. Well, it's hardly worth mentioning how dangerous this would be to my Parisian contacts! If the Yuan falls, the Malay and Chinese gangs will be desperate for liquidity and will dump merchandise, devaluing all assets in the Parisian black economy. That, in turn, will ruin Juan Abigados, and that will make him sell information about my true identity. We can't have that.

Obviously, I had to do something drastic.

Therefore, I contacted Lady Elizabeth Cantrip, my London paramour, and I had her begin a desperate course of action. She organized a "protest" of Chinese human rights policies as the Olympic torch passed through London. This was an ruse, and my only fear was that my former colleagues in MI-5 would see through it too quickly. It was important for my agents to actually seize the torch briefly so that they could implant a small microchip with an RFID device that I had to hastily design and program over the Internet the night before.

Now, when the torch finally reaches Beijing, the Chinese finance minister will read the chip and be sure to keep the exchange rate high, thus keeping my monetary futures secure and preventing the gang warfare in Paris that would otherwise break out.

So far, all of my plans are working out, but I'm still concerned about Gemany and why she refused to go out with me.

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So, that's it.

Well, either that or I've been sick and depressed. You can take your pick of which you believe to be more likely.