Friday, March 31, 2006

Hunting The Bluebird

Just how happy are you? It's a question that's hard to answer, and most people's responses could vary from minute to minute, situation to situation. It's also one that has been weighing on my mind of late, as I try to conquer the chronic depression and stress that I've struggled with for much of my life. I imagine that most of you could empathize with the feeling that it's always something: if I was happy with my career, my living situation was a mess. If I rectified that, it was finances that troubled me. Once I got that under control, my love life was torrid. Working that out circled back to career dissatisfaction, or health problems, and so on. How does one get prepare for the future and yet live in the moment? When do we say, "I am content, I have enough"? Apparently I'm not the only one asking these questions, because just in the last few days I've been noticing riffs on the nature of happiness popping up all over. Let's take a few days ago, when I went back to read a section of the New Yorker I'd previously missed. In the book review section, John Lanchester analyzed three recently released books on the pursuit of happiness. According to Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis", how happy one is may largely be based on genetics. This is because, evolutionarily speaking, it is more likely that those who are cautious and avoid threatening situations will survive. So, our ancestors who worried enough about their survival to make it passed down that tendency to worry to us. In addition,
"bad is stronger than good" is an important principle of design by evolution. "Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures." This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex.

Meanwhile, Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his book "Happiness: A History" that

the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you don't have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before youbegin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind.

So, already we've established that people may be more or less hard-wired to be anxious. This may be something of a comfort for those like me who have resorted to all kinds of meditations and medications to allay chronic stress, but at the same time can make the struggle seem somewhat Sisyphean. After all, how much nature can we fight with nurture?

At the same time, it's not surprising to find that the very concept of happiness has evolved over time. For early humans (and sadly, still for many today), just having a full belly could be cause for celebration. That is why so many holidays center around feasts, even when in modern times a Taco Bell or Hot Pocket is within easy reach for most North Americans at any given moment. However, as we gain more luxuries and tools, it doesn't necessarily make us happier. Why is this? Lanchester writes:

The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer-but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science," puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren't any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a "hedonic treadmill": their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

Speaking of treadmills, I was running on one yesterday morning as I mulled these issues over during my workout. Why have I been so pessimistic over time and why do I continue to do and experience this even though it clearly leads to aborting experiences that could cause me happiness, perhaps disproving my negative assumptions? Is it because I am somehow hard-wired with a given level of happiness that is almost impossible to transcend, as Haidt maintains? Or is it because my definition of happiness is always changing, i.e. the more I have the more I want, as Layard and McMahon hypothesize? As often happens, I idly checked out one of the television monitors above the exercise machines at my gym. In place of the usual morning news programs or cartoons, however, there was a religious show.

Joyce Meyer, who apparently runs a large (and no doubt highly profitable) Christian ministry, was on stage exhorting church members to let go of anger against those who had wronged them in the past and put out love instead in order to feel happy. Many folks in the audience were clearly moved as she described how she had overcome the devastation and anger resulting from childhood abuse through spreading joy in Jesus' name.

Now, while I watched all this I was skeptical, as I usually am when it comes to God Talk. After all, most televangelists also happen to have admirers galore, mansions and various other riches to keep them happy, which makes speaking for God, whatever they think that means, a rather fulfilling affair for them. But, it did bring to mind something that many religions and philosophies do emphasize as the path to happiness: to stop worrying about things and let some greater being or concept - be it Jesus, nature, fate or mere time - take over your emotional burdens. I may not believe, like Meyer purports to, that all of my negative thoughts are caused by Satan, but I've studied enough of both Buddhist practices and basic psychology to gather that a mind fully in the present and engaged tends to be content, whereas focusing on the future or past can breed tension.

And there's the crux, because our society is not geared toward that. Except in rare cases, the modern pursuit of happiness is sold to us not just as general well-being and safety, but as acquisition. How can you truly feel safe if you don't have a huge SUV and a house you own? How can you feel worthwhile when you are not protecting your loved ones with the proper insurance and investment plans? And while you're doing all that, you've got to reward yourself, don't you? After all, how can you be a respectable part of society if you don't keep up with what the Joneses own?

This is addressed again in this week's New Yorker by John Cassidy. In his article, "Relatively Deprived", Cassidy notes that, since the mid-20th century, methods for calculating the poverty level in the United States have been based on comparing a minimum required income to provide food multiplied by three, assuming that the cost of food took up one-third of the typical family's budget, on average. However,

In 1995, a panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Science concluded that the Census Bureau measure "no longer provides an accurate picture of the differences in the extent of economic poverty among population groups or geographic areas of the country, nor an accurate picture of trends over time." The panel recommended that the poverty line be revised to reflect taxes, benefits, childcare, medical costs, and regional differences in prices. Statisticians at the Census Bureau have experimented with measures that incorporate some of these variables, but none of the changes have been officially adopted.

It comes as no surprise that no one can agree on the variables. For one thing, there's just too many of them. For another, the issue is highly political: conservatives would like the numbers cooked so that they indicate less poor folks exist, whereas liberals fear that moving away from basic, subsistence figures will result in priorities becoming confused and some poor populations missing out. But, perhaps most important of all, recognizing that poverty is dependant on multiple variables indicates that it is not so much dependant on actual goods as relative wealth. For example,

Although many poor families own appliances once associated with rich households, such as color televisions and dishwashers, they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband Internet connections, powerful game consoles, S.U.V.s, health-club memberships, and vacation homes. Without access to these goods, children from poor families may lack skills-such as how to surf the Web for help-wanted ads-that could enhance their prospects in the job market. In other words, relative deprivation may limit a person's capacity for social achievement."

Not only is it a handicap in terms of social achievement, however, but in social rank and yes, happiness. Recent studies have shown that workers' reported levels of job satisfaction had less to do with their salaries than with how their salaries compared with those of co-workers. It seems that humans, like other animals, tend to compare ourselves to others in our community and rank ourselves accordingly. This is why a simple farmer in a small Third-World village may feel more relatively wealthy and happy than a middle manager in a North American corporation. The farmer compares himself to the people around him, who are working hard just to survive, and appreciates it when he gains luxuries or has a good crop. The middle manager wants to be a high-level manager and buy new car, even though she usually doesn't worry about having enough to eat.

So, what's it all about? Clearly, how we perceive and rank our happiness is complex. One may have to factor in one's hereditary threshold of happiness alongside the goods we own, weigh our spiritual beliefs against the standards of our community, and understand both our tendency to socially rank ourselves and our historical definitions of just what happiness is. It's enough to make feeling good feel impossible. Still, it can be done. According to Haidt, "It's better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you'd think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness." This is not just because the paraplegics descended from happy folk and the lottery winners had anxious ancestors and rich neighbours, but because of two basic things:

1. Everything is relative, and

2. Happiness does not bear analysis well. As what might be considered a middle-class New Yorker, if I compare myself to the poor, Third World farmer, I'm likely to feel very fortunate, but if I compare myself to a rich Manhattan stock analyst, I feel relatively poor and socially unimportant. This affects my happiness. However, clearly it is how I conduct that very comparison and analysis that undermines my personal happiness. I can - and often do - feel just as unhappy because I am angry that my life is not as straightforward as the farmer, or I'm not appreciating what I do have in comparison. I may be pissed off that how others treat me is based on my wealth compared to the banker, or feel better about myself because I've done alright without the benefits of greater wealth and see myself as morally superior than those who doggedly seek them.

To counter this, I can try to train myself to always compare oneself somewhat favourably. But this involves some sort of trick of the mind, be it through faith, learned habit or sheer force of will. One way or another, it seems, I will have to overcome my patterns of comparison, be they part of my genes or learning, to always look on the bright side. Simple, but not easy. And chances are, at some point, whether through insecurity or objective analysis I'm going to come up short next to someone else.

So, let's say I try not to compare myself to others at all. Lanchester writes:

In the end, the philosophy and the science converge on the fact that thinking about your own happiness does not make it any easier to be happy. A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory's tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people's lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called "flow"-in Haidt's definition, "the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities." We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James's, as "a by-product of absorption."
Considering this, it would seem that the ultimate key to happiness is to not compare oneself with other people or possibilities by being focused on the present. However, as comparing seems to be animal nature and how we understand who we are in the world, it is nigh on impossible to avoid. As countless seekers, mystics and philosophers have discovered, I may simply try to be engaged in life, but the moment I ask find myself asking if I am happy, I become less so. It takes another type of mind trick or training not to fall into thinking "too much". So, what are we who are generally cynical to do? Find some way to stop thinking about how we feel, or convince ourselves we feel good, somehow? Either path is difficult and requires training and faith. But then, being constantly unhappy requires the same. How else do we see all before us as displeasing or deficient?

Which do you choose?

I Just Got Back From Hell

... because I finally downloaded The Darkness' latest album, "One Way Ticket To Hell...And Back". As the title indicates, The Darkness have a way with a joke, but they also have mad skillz as hair-metal type musicians.

Extremely popular in the UK, the band has somehow not made as bit a hit in the US. I suppose it shouldn't be a huge surprise, since their brand of Queen-meets-Limozeen farce-rock doesn't exactly fit in with the hip hop/pop dominated charts here, nowadays. Not to mention, I think the youth of America probably don't get the in joke and tongue-in-cheek attitude that make The Darkness so awesome. When, in concert, lead singer Justin Hawkins is levitated over the audience in a giant pair of flashing tits, it's clear that it's both mocking and just for the sheer fun of it all. There's a sense of meta riffing-on-Spinal-Tap-riffing-on-Black-Sabbath that is funny and knowing, but at the same time, revels in the stupidity of rock n' roll overkill. The fact is, however, that the band is also enourmously talented - capable of lighting fast guitar riffs and fist-pumping falsetto harmonies - and the combination of the two makes them stand above the crowd.

Having greatly enjoyed their first album, "Permission To Land", I was somewhat worried about their sophomore effort, but it does not disappoint. While arguably less hard-edged and headbanging, "One Way Ticket To Hell...And Back" plays up their homage-to-Queen style even more than before with more vocal layers and keyboards. This is no suprise once you learn that they hired producer Roy Thomas Baker, who cut his teeth on some of Queen's biggest hits, including "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's a great fit, considering the oft-told tale that the brothers Hawkins discovered that Justin could sing during a karaoke rendition of that song, and it pays off with songs like "Is It Just Me?", "Dinner Lady Arms", and, yes, "Knockers" (with its giggle-worthy chorus of "I just love what you've done with your hair!") kicking the jams just as much as almost anything on their debut.

At the same time, the album may be even sillier, including a guitars-as-bagpipes nod to Big Country on "Hazel Eyes" (which along with the chorus "And she said 'hoots, I cannae get back tae me hoos in bonny Scotland'" includes the immortal line "I had never seen a set of eyes more hazelerer") and the most musically dark track on the album, "Bald", which is, indeed, a horrified take on male pattern baldness ("his hair, at an alarming pace, running away from his face").

In short, if you ever enjoyed rocking out to 70s and 80s metal while at the same time recognizing the glam buffoonery the genre encouraged, you can't go wrong with The Darkness.

Now, as an added bonus, here is what is, for numerous reasons, possibly one of the best music videos ever, "I Believe In A Thing Called Love", off of "Permission To Land".

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

3-D or Not 3-D

That is the question about this picture:

And the answer is: not. This is actually a sidewalk drawing by the artist seen at right, Julian Beever. Cool, eh?

For more freaky pavement illusions, check out his site.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Animals A-Go-Go

I jest loves me some critters, part 8,076...
  • First off, I've added Animal of The Day to my sidebar. A pretty nifty way to learn more about animals I've never seen before. Check out the full site for more.
  • Today I stumbled across Little Turtle Heads Poking Out. No, not just my Read-Eared Sliders' usual feed-me faces, but a nice site on all things cheladonia. If you are a turtle fan like me, you will want to see what the Unlicensed Turtle Wrangler is up to. If you're not, check it out and you may become a fan.
  • The size of this cat is impressive, but I am even more amused by the 80s cop movie-style soundtrack.
  • And finally, I give you the kitten/tribble, or... kibble!

My God, where are its limbs?!

Photo via the inimitable Cute Overload, although it does remind me of Li'l Brudder...

Hello, Mr. President

OK, I may be behind on this one, but I was just thrilled to discover that Jimmy Carter has started a diary on DKos!

Words cannot describe how much I admire this man. I don't think the term "pine" would be strong enough to indicate how I feel - as in, I pine for a new U.S. president with half his character, or I pine for him to be my adoptive grandfather and/or mentor. I am just all a-twitter at the opportunity to read recent posts from him and see how he answers questions.

His first post was, understandably, a plug for his son's senate campaign in Nevada and his current book (both worthy causes), but it looks like he's taken up answering questions now, and may have more comments in the future. Joy!

Welcome to the world of blogging, Mr. President! I can't express enough how thrilling and humbling it is to have you here.

P.S.: Squeee!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Don't Ask

Or, can you tell I'm bored today?

The Kiss of Wha...?

Apparently it is now alright for me to kiss Mrs. Nator anywhere except in the gym. I discovered this suddenly one day recently when I visited her near the cross-country ski machines to tell her I was done with my workout and heading home. Leaning in to plant a peck on her I got the full-on head snap backwards and fart-smell face. I immediately assumed I must be in the proverbial doghouse.

Me: What's the matter? Do I smell bad?
Mrs. D: No, you never smell bad. [Ed. - it's true!]
Me: Are you mad at me or something?
Mrs. D.: No. Just... don't.
Me: Don't what?
Mrs. D: Don't kiss me. No PDA here.
Me: ...uh, why?
Mrs. D: Because I feel it's inappropriate and kinda gross.
Me: <pause of confusion> Since when?

Here I feel obligated to point out that not only had I given her kisses at the gym several times before quite recently - all very polite and tongue-free, mind you - but we actually have had arguments in the past because I felt that she was way more into PDA than I felt comfortable sharing. In fact, I'd say that one of the first big disagreements we had in our relationship revolved around this, as on our second or possibly first date (that's another disagreement we may never resolve) she got three sheets to the wind and repeatedly groped me at a party full of co-workers. She was embarassed in retrospect, but insisted I should actually be flattered that she couldn't wait to touch me. Which, yeah, but now what's with the no-dry-kissing-even-on-the-cheek biz?


Mrs. D: Because the other day I saw a heterosexual couple being all schmoopy and gross at the gym and I realized just how rude it is.
Me: Oh... but... I just wanted a little kiss, not making out or anything.
Mrs. D: No.
Me: But, okay, say you saw two cute gay boys here together, and one gave the other a little kiss, wouldn't you think that was all romantic and stuff? You'd loooooove that.
Mrs. D.: Well, of course, yes, but that's different.
Me: Because they're gay.
Mrs D.: Yes.
Me: Well, we're gay...
Mrs D.: Look, I just can't explain it, but if I think it's rude and gross for a straight couple to do it, then it's not fair for me to do it, too, so I just don't want to.
Me: O...Kay. But... only at the gym?
Mrs D.: Well, yes.
Me: <giving a nice, long, WTF? look at my "invisible audience" - oh, you know what that means! >
Mrs D.: Just shut. Up.

Isn't it good to know that after 5 years your lover can still surprise you?

For Some Fools, It Doesn't Have To Be April

Alan Able is at it again. The prankster best known for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals hoax recently teamed with Esquire magazine on an article about a proposed "fat tax". Posing as a heavy, rich Texan named Irwin Leba, he outlined a plan to "tax Americans annually according to their weight or body-mass index (BMI)" in order to "ensure that overweight Americans are paying their fair share for the burden they impose on our nation’s healthcare infrastructure." According to the bogus Web site he set up for the "Institute for a Healthy America":

The IHA is a non-partisan proponent of the position that a new tax, calculated in proportion to Body Mass Index (BMI) and scaled to income, must be an essential part of a new federal "war on obesity." We believe such a "fat tax" could generate $150 billion in increased revenue for the federal government and could cut obesity in half by 2013 while saving 250,000 lives.

Esquire was in on the April Fool's joke, and even built a notice that the site was fake into the "Calculate Your Fat Tax" feature. Still, they had to field quite a few angry letters to the editor. The WaPo exposed the trickery yesterday.

Personally, I'm relieved that it's not real (I'd be broke after tax day), and tickled by the idea. After all, we tax alcohol and cigarettes alledgedly because they are health threats - is it really that far-fetched? The thing that makes a good hoax is the line it treads between whacky and just plausible enough.

However, I think the very best part of all this is the following bit:

"Under his plan, Leba himself would have to pay an extra $70,000 to Uncle Sam -- a stiff penalty for his love of deep-fried Twinkies. "You ever had a deep-fried Twinkie?" Leba asks. "If you condensed all the goodness of Jesus Christ into one of those plastic wrappers, you'd have something that would be almost -- but not quite -- as divine as a deep-fried Twinkie."

I think it's fair to say that rivals "a nude horse is a rude horse" for best hoax quote.

Friday, March 24, 2006

It's Friday - Have A Laugh

Two semi-geeky humour links for the day:

The Lesbian Tennis ROM Hack Review - Possibly the only justification for the existence of NES Tennis, ever - "Poorly-drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines" - via You Can't Make It Up

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I've Got A Bridge To Sell You

I grew up near the old Roebling factory, and now see the Brooklyn Bridge every day, so naturally I am a big fan of this amazing structure. I thought after reading The Great Bridge I knew a decent amount about it, but new questions still come up all the time.

Case in point, just last week city workers stumbled upon a cache of survival supplies in the the Manhattan anchorage dating back to the 1950s and 60s. Nobody knows their exact purpose or how they got there, although it seems the survivalist cracker rations and anti-shock drugs would have been thought useful in the case of nuclear attack. The area could not be used as a fallout shelter, but the find is intriguing and very cool - the crackers even still seem intact!

So, even the city workers don't know what's inside the bridge bases (then again, I suppose that should be no great surprise). I heard that the Brooklyn anchorage was cleared out some years ago and used as a performance space. But who knows what-all has been in the cavernous areas below the bridge over the years? Bridge parts? Old cable trains? Mole people?

I haven't been able to turn anything up yet, although I seem to recall that there may have once been market stalls on the Manhattan side. I'm also curious as to whether the Brooklyn anchorage is still open to the public in some capacity, but it seems it will take more research to find out.

So, if anyone has any answers to these questions, I'd love to hear them. If, on the other hand, you know nothing about the remarkable history of this structure, check out this site chock full of old articles, engravings and photos. The pictures of the old train terminals alone are enough to get a certain NYC history geek drooling.


I don't know what they are doing in the board room down the hall from my office today, but from the smell of it, it's something like stucco-ing the walls with day-old wet cat food.

The only good that could come of this would be if it meant we were getting an office lion.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

And How Was Your Day?

A list of excruciating Muzak interpretations of 80s songs I had to endure while on hold with Amex today:
  • Air Supply - Even The Nights Are Better
  • John Waite - Missing You
  • Billy Joel - Just The Way You Are

The Airborne Cat Project

Truly a work of art for the ages.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

From Kava To Cargo (and Back Again)

You learn something new every day, and today for me it was cargo cults. Leafing through last month's Smithsonian magazine (I'm always behind), I came upon an article describing the religious practices of the small population of the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Apparently, besides being a location for one season of Survivor, Vanuatu claims, on Tanna, one of the last of the cargo cults, a religious sect devoted to worshipping the spirit or personification of previous visitors who brought modern goods to the natives' remote locations. It seems these cults can be traced back to at least the 19th century in the South Pacific and North America, although I wouldn't be surprised if there were unrecorded instances much earlier. After all, to the Hawaiians, James Cook was a god, before they wised up and killed him. Fast forward to WWII, and you can see why a lot more cargo cults started up. Western troops came in droves to the isolated islands in the South Pacific, bringing huge amounts of equipment, food and other matériel with them. Locals must have been agog at the influx of durable goods, not to mention the food that practically rained from the sky, either by landing strip or parachute drop. It only stands to reason that islanders figured that if they performed certain rituals, such as cutting imitation landing strips, donning imitation uniforms or worshipping a god that was somehow connected to all this wealth, they might be showered with riches, too. In Tanna, this manifested as the Jon Frum movement, in which a white, American military messiah promised to bring cargo back to the islanders if they prayed to him. Jon Frum is currently thought to reside alternately in the local volcano or America, as he can travel by underground tunnel between the two, and 60 years later Tanna residents still pray to him and celebrate Jon Frum day annually with dancing, singing and mock United States military drills.

It didn't hurt that the originators of the movement, a group of local men imbibing kava, told everyone that Jon Frum wanted them to turn against the French colonists and Presbyterian missionaries who had taken over the island. Rather than follow the repressive practices of the occupiers, they said, indigenous people should renounce Christian ways, get rid of Western goods and return to the old ways of custom. The most important of these old ways was not working in near-slavery conditions for the white men, but also included were ending the prohibition of dancing, singing and yes, the frequent drinking of kava.

Kava is a traditional drink derived from a plant that grows in the area. It is the same kava that is used in the widely popular Kava-Kava extracts and pills alternative medicine lovers take here, except in its original, more potent form. You see, kava is a narcotic, which, depending on the quantity ingested, can result in effects from a tingling of the lips, mild sedation and a sense of well-being to, in extreme cases, hallucination. Various traditions throughout the South Pacific call for ingesting Kava, generally as a drink of powdered root in water, from every day to high holy days only, from every villager to only men or kings, depending on your island. All of them agree, however, that drinking kava is uplifting in some way, it numbs pain and it feels good. I have sampled this elixir myself, in a small bar in Hawaii, where it is called 'awa. I've long been a veritable teetotaler, not just through the natural process of becoming older and holding a day job, but because the anti-depressants I take seem to alter the effects of alcohol. Liquor tends to give me very little buzz. Instead, I just get tired and then don't sleep well. When I heard about 'awa shortly before my trip to the big island, I figured it might be fun to try. Touted as relatively harmless if somewhat unappetizing, 'awa is part of a traditional local custom I could experience, and maybe get a little mood elevation while at it.

Kava lived up to the hype. Served in a coconut half-shell, the muddy-looking, room-temperature brew tasted mostly like - well, mud - with distinct overtones of bitter twigs. It wasn't terrible, so much as puzzling, as in "who first got the bright idea to drink this?" Almost immediately, however, my lips began to tingle, and a numbing sensation progressed down the back of my throat. I momentarily panicked at this, but it didn't seem to get any worse. Instead, I started to feel... loopy. Happy, calm, and a little bit giggly, but almost too serene to laugh. I had another cup, and the sense of content, lethargic one-with-the-worldness expanded. I would have happily consumed more if my girlfriend hadn't become somewhat alarmed, not knowing what might come of this, considering my established hypersensitivity to drugs of any kind.

In short, this shit was the bomb, and I was sad to realize that there's almost nowhere to get it on the mainland, where alcohol is the more potent social mind-altering drink of choice. It seems that there was once a kava bar in the Village, but it went belly-up before I found it, and I haven't yet heard of anywhere local that sells it. I'd pretty much put this out of my mind until reading the Jon Frum article and musing on the role of kava in this socio-religious movement. I could empathize with the Tanna folk - if God doesn't want you to sing, dance or drink kava, just what kind of God can He be? The upshot of the Jon Frum movement is that the Tanna islanders shooed the colonists off of their home, but although they have gained independence, the cult still signifies a strange reverence of Western ways and goods despite rejecting Western rule. More worldly natives are sometimes embarrassed by this "backwards" group, while others revere them as some of the first freedom fighters in the island chain. Meanwhile, splinter cults have developed that incorporate more traditional or Christian customs, including the flock of one Prophet Fred, who recently came to bloody blows with the main Frum devotees. Still, while this may seem bizarre and somewhat sad to the casual first-world observer, our beliefs are not all that different, at the core, and the islanders know it. One notes:

"We have been waiting only 60 years for Jon Frum to come back. Christians have been waiting 2000 years for Jesus Christ. Why are we the ones who are thought of as strange?"

Another says:

"God appeared to the people of Tanna in the form of John Frum, just as he appeared to the Jews as Jesus, and to the Indians as Buddha. It's the same message, the same revelation. Our colonial struggle has happened all across the world, across all different cultures. John Frum is the messiah of all of us who have had the same struggle."

Which just goes to show their practices may be odd, but not necessarily stupid. Not to mention that, ultimately, we are all praying for and dreaming of manna from heaven. Whether it's maxing out the credit card for home entertainment or performing mock military drills, yearning for the winning lotto numbers or Coca-Cola to fall from the sky, we're not, at the core, all that different. Which also means, South Pacific or New York City, I deserve some damn kava now and then. Fortunately, I don't have to perform any intricate rituals to get it. It looks like chanting the sacred numbers of Master Card to the gods of the Internet should do.

Interesting reading:
In John They Trust
The Jon Frum Movement
The Last Cargo Cult
”Cargo Cult” on Wikipedia
HerbalGram Kava: An Overview

Monday, March 20, 2006


We watched a fascinating documentary on bower birds this weekend. Our cat, Maurice, found it fascinating, too. So fascinating, in fact, that he launched himself into a position like this: Behold, the might hunter Alas, I have no photograpic evidence of this event. As it was, we could barely keep our spleens in from laughing as he ricocheted to the floor. There is a chance we could reenact it, however. How much is the prize on America's Funniest Home Videos up to?
NB: Television, owners and feline have all recovered and are resting comfortably.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Eleven, Twelve

I don't feel like being political today - too tired. So how about something nostalgic?

Here is a pretty darn cool remix of the Eleven Twelve song from Sesame Street. You can find the original version for six here, and more vintage Sesame Street and Electric Company stuff on YouTube, too.

Now if somebody would just buy me the Electric Company DVDs...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I Was Born A Poor Black Child

I have to admit I may be more sensitive to racial issues than your average honky. Strike that - I'm sure I'm more sensitive. I was raised in the seventies by extremely liberal parents, including a father who, as a neophyte minister in his first church, had Martin Luther King Jr. in to speak. I was one of only a very few white children in a largely black neighbourhood and city. But, most of all, I was partially raised in a half-black family by my black activist stepfather. This was a man who started educational programs to help disadvantaged black children, gave presentations on race issues and wore a dashiki nearly every day of his life - albeit dashikis that were sewn for him by my white mother. He made sure to teach me, his "mixed-race" children and anyone else he could about the difficulties and prejudices inherent in living with brown skin in the United States, and the insidious pressures of mainstream society on whites to accept and enforce our privileges. It was not an easy childhood, in many ways, and these were not easy lessons (my stepfather was never an easy man). But I am grateful for having had my eyes opened, at least somewhat, in a way most caucasians never have. It has not made me me comfortable about or an expert on race, but until we are all equal, who can be comfortable, and how much can anyone know?

So, it was with this perspective that I watched the premiere of Black. White. I can't remember where I first saw a commercial for this new show, but I do remember feeling both intrigued and nervous. The concept of a reality show wherein a white family is made up to look black and a black family is made up to look white is chock full of potential socio-political potholes. It could be easily be played cheaply for shock value and laughs, but it might just be fascinating.

NO I was just waiting for it to become cheesy or offensive. But it didn't. In fact, in it's premiere episode, Black. White. got just about everything right. They didn't choose stereotypical families to participate, but real, thoughtful people. They made them up convincingly enough that outsiders they interacted with seemed genuinely fooled (although I'm not sure how - they definitely look "off" somehow on camera, perhaps akin to burn victims who need to cover their wounds with prostheses and cosmetics). And most of all, they put them in situations where they could really learn, from discussion groups on race to country clubs, slam poetry classes to the kicker, living together in the same house. The cameras didn't shy away from uncomfortable moments, such as the black father, while in his white undercover role, being told by a white stranger that his neighbourhood was one of the last all-white middle-class bastions in L.A., and thus a safe place to raise his kids. But while the producers made the show thought-provoking, they didn't resort to too many cheap stunts like competitions or incendiary exercises or messages. So far, things has been kept as relatively "real" as they can in a show based on disguise.

Personally, my most pervasive emotion while watching this episode was a slightly nauseated embarrassment on behalf of all caucasians. While both families cast were clearly carefully picked as people who are fairly liberal and eager to participate, warts began to be exposed early on. Carmen, the white mother, displays an overly earnest idealization of black people that comes out most creepily in a seeming sexual fetishization of her husband when she first sees him in blackface. Meanwhile, Bruno, the white father, pig-headedly insists that black people too often assume racism where it doesn't exist and can't wait to be called racial epithets so he can "diffuse" them by not caring. (Even as a person who was deeply affected by what is ridiculously called called "reverse racism" as a child, I see that claiming black folks are too suspicious bespeaks a serious case of willful blindness.) Fortunately, Rose, the white daughter, seems to have a better head on her shoulders in terms of genuinely wanting to learn from the experience and respect all who are involved.

NO I am curious to see, however, if the black family finds their preconceptions changed whatsoever from the exercise. They know many white people are prejudiced, and what it is to have to "act white" to get along in life. This puts the parents, Brian and Renee, in the all-too-common role of educators and defenders of their own perspective that blacks often find themselves forced into in the presence of "progressive" whites. It's not lynching-variety racism, but it is is another burden, one that most minorities carry when faced with the juggernaut of the "average" American culture (read: privileged, male, heterosexual, Christian, caucasian). Meanwhile, the teenaged son, Nick, claims that, amongst his generation, racism is dead, which may point to evolving youth culture but, sadly, naiveté, as well. As a gay person, I am thrilled that more queer youths feel they can come out in high school, but that doesn't make me believe they won't face discrimination along the line. Unfortunately, I'd wager that his is the viewpoint most likely to be changed with experience.

So far, the jury is still out, but based on the premiere, Black. White. shows promise. Looking over the show site and myspace profile, I found that the producers, R.J. Culter (whose 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock is a logical precursor), Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez, put serious thought into how to create a show that was both meaningful and watchable. Something more than a reality show, but less than the documentary the creators want to be, it raises more questions than it answers, but still may not ask enough. I'll continue to watch, and judging from the reactions on their sites and some reviews, a wider audience will, too.

It's Going To Be A Bumpy Night

It's more than a wee bit disturbing when one arrives home to furniture knocked over, several areas strewn with large clumps of ripped-out fur and nary a one out of four cats in sight.

Update: Loaner kitty has been found with a bloody patch on his leg. That's it - everyone back to your corners. We'll open the doors when you deserve it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

No One Dies In This Post

At least I hope not, despite the NY Times noting it's now trendy to kill major characters off. That's in television shows, not blogging. Besides, I'm not sure I count as a major character, and this post is just another lesbian rant about The L Word.

That said - oy. The show has been stinking up the joint for some time now, and it seems they're interested in alienating as much of their audience as possible. Not that I disagree with killing off a major, well-liked character, in general, nor do I think it was terribly played in this show. Frankly, I think the final scene as Alice realized Dana's death was one of the best, most moving and real of the entire series (yes, even despite the previous episode's mortifying lightbulb-head baldy wig). But that's just the problem. The show has been so bad-it's-laughable-then-past-funny-to-grating, so melodramatic, so bizarre in it's structure this season, yet now they want to get serious? By killing off one of the more endearing characters and emotionally destroying the other for a second time?

Mrs. Nator and I have come to imagine Chaiken and her troupe as obtusely self-congratulatory. They must think they are being so clever with their quick-change characterizations and soap-opera "plot"lines punctuated by random after-school special/PSA-style soliloquies. But they're not. Most of the time, the show is just plain stupid. And the only reasons we watch are 1.) lesbian sex, even if it is often between frightening people or, even worse, not lesbian at all and 2.) as it's really the only queer chick drama out there we so want it to be worth watching. We're desperate, and, what's more, afraid to look away for fear of missing out on some important part of the dykely zeitgeist. I could stop watching Queer as Folk (the awful US version, not the fab UK one, of course) when it became truly unendurable because eventually I felt I wasn't obligated or motivated to participate in parsing it, somehow. With The L Word, I feel as though I'm supposed to have some investment in it, because it's all we lesbos have in the major media. I know that it's a dumb show about people I'd most likely never interact with (i.e., rich, skinny, self-centered L.A. residents), but I want it to be better, to be more. It might be different if we had at least a couple other dyke shows out there, and I know it can't be all things to all people, but we don't and... well, I'm not even sure the creators have any idea that who might be watching, at all.

Alas, in killing off Dana it seems they've gone both forward and back. They have an opportunity to use this to advance some real emotion and drama, but considering the variety-hour see-saw of narrative styles they've got going within even single episodes, it's unlikely. Instead, everybody the audience even vaguely likes is put through interminable crap or completely re-imagineered beyond recognition, and who wants to stick through that?

Meanwhile, in other storylines, as I think I've mentioned before, it's come to the point where I can't remember the difference between what's happened with Bette and Tina versus the farkuckt lesbians who used to be on QAF. I find myself literally asking Mrs. Nator things like "what happened to the ugly painter? Didn't Tina sleep with him?" "No, honey," she has to explain, "that was the stupid privileged LA lesbian who just had a baby and now wants to sleep with men on the other show. This stupid privileged LA lesbian who just had a baby and now wants to sleep with men is seeing the ugly non-painter."


Once again, I'm sure I'll continue to watch, mainly because Mrs. Nator makes me. And, for some strange reason, I do seem to feel glimmers of hope now and then, in a funny line or particularly well-acted scene. I just keep wanting, beyond reason, to like the program, and feeling disappointed or even purposefully goaded. I suppose I should just keep a sense of humour about it, like they've done over at Fake Gay News. But I'm just too aggravated. Sigh.

At least Leisha Hailey's cute.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Of Mice and (Scary-Ass) Men

Most New Yorkers are revolted at the sight of large rodents.

I've been in a nasty mood lately. The combination of hating my job, endless health problems, working out but gaining weight, steroid shots and never getting enough time to do the things I want to do have been bringing me down and making me angry. I knew it was a danger sign when, after watching the well-done but extremely disturbing prisoner rape episode of Battlestar Galactica, I found myself unable to sleep and downloading Iron Maiden songs. The evil, oppressive, imperialist, abusive white men are coming to get us all! Run To The Hills, indeed. (Also, evidently I have regressed to the age of 13. I mean... Iron Maiden?)

I was in a foul fettle during my incredibly-delayed-as-usual commute this morning, reading about the continuing malevolence of the Bush administration in The New Yorker and listening to heavy metal (it really is the music of Satan!). I nearly yelled at the Screaming Preacher Lady who regularly touts Jesus as a remedy for hellfire in a West Indian accent at Atlantic Avenue, but we all know that rarely comes to any satisfactory end, so I just fumed. Finally arriving at my stop after multiple delays, I geared up into the disgruntled worker race-walk of Monday mornings towards my office. And that's when she appeared.

One of these things is not like the others

Incongruously, before Alice Tully Hall stood an animal mascot-costumed version of Maisy the mouse, super cute star of toddlers' books and television cartoons. Maisy looked happy but a little confused, teamed up with a giant rabbit I did not recognize and a woman in a suit, who seemed to be prepping them for whatever event that had not yet started. I can't explain why my heart lifted as I saw this group - it was just a couple of underpaid day labourers in fuzzy suits, no doubt - but they were damn cute, and just so random and silly. As I passed by, Maisy's gaze seem to follow me as she reached up and suddenly squeezed her nose at me as if it were a bulb horn. Why? I don't know, but a giggle bubbled up and I grinned. Maybe Maisy saw my sour puss and knew I needed a smile. Maybe a frustrated actor was adjusting his sagging headpiece. Whatever reason, it's the little things that get us through, sometimes. So thanks, Maisy, for the lift.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Word Up, Bro

Ba-KAW! OK, Blogger's server shit the bed today, and I've been busy between a major project at work and working on a new fiction piece, so here's all I got for you. Check out the elegantly profane new cartoon site Married to the Sea, a collaboration by the makers of Natalie Dee and Toothpaste for Dinner. You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Viva La Revolucion

I hate Time Warner of NY. Our internet service is completely down and our TV service has digital hiccoughs yet again. Hate. After 4 service visits and a personal trip to their Brooklyn warehouse for a new modem. Hatey-McHate-Hate. And naturally, they had no appointments available for this Saturday, so now I have to take time off of work (not) or wait until the freakin' 18th to get yet another idiot in my house who does not know what he is doing.


And guess what? They keep saying they're going to give us a discount on our bill to make up for all this, but then they don't. Instead, they send us threatening overdue notices because we pay them the amount they said would be due after the discount.


I would switch us to broadband, but guess what? It's not available at my address. So, TW can continue dicking us over as long as they like, unless we go back to the old-fashioned modem - which, no.

So, I have a new plan. The next cable guy who comes to my place is getting jumped, bound and held hostage until I get some real goddamn service guarantees.

Who's with me?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I Will Never Get Anything Done Again

Now that I have found Cuteness Overload and The Daily Kitten exist. It's a good thing I am genetically predisposed to be bitter and cynical, or I might turn into a giant sugar lump.

Human Apes and Chicken Teeth

It's not every day you see a news headline like "Human quadrupeds discovered in Turkey." It turns out that five siblings out of nineteen in one family (nineteen!) in Turkey walk on all fours. If that's not odd enough, the discovery of these people has led to a debate in the scientific community over whether the behaviour is a product of "backwards evolution" or "a combination of unusual factors - genetic, physiological, psychological and social." It seems they also have an unusual form of mental and physical retardation and have been raised in an isolated and poor setting, which means it's hard to tell how much of what they do is purely instinctual vs. not ever being thoroughly taught how not to do it. What's more, some scientists are excited, because observing them might help resolve the debate whether early human ancestors walked using their knuckles, like modern apes, or their wrists, like these siblings do.

Now, I'm no scientist, but although I find the concept of reverse evolution interesting and a little unsettling (who knew researchers were going around making chicken with teeth?), I can't see how this one familial group can definitively prove anything, even if they do all have a defect in one particular genome. I mean, it might lead to something, but is it definitive proof of either unmanipulated reverse evolution or how bipedal walking evolved, especially when you consider all the other contributing factors in their case?

Most of all, I really that out of all of the people that are studying this family, making a documentary and debating them, somebody is helping to improve their living conditions. I mean, the discovery of their behaviour might be freaky, but that doesn't mean they should be treated like modern-day freaks. Even if we may be going through some reversals, it is theorized that we're still evolving. Let's hope we're at least that evolved.

Goodbye, Superwoman

Cripes, those poor Reeve kids.

Everybody's Stupid

Normally I hold the BBC news in higher regard than most USA news, but I heard the most asinine debate on their radio broadcast this morning. The commentator briefly interviewed a journalist from a Paris newspaper, and they began to get into a back-and-forth over whether Zacarias Moussaoui was "radicalized" in France or Britain. The BBC commentator kept pointing out that Moussaoui was raised in France, where Muslims get the short end of the stick and - hey, weren't there a whole bunch of riots about that there, recently? The Parisian, meanwhile, insisted that while Moussaoui may have experienced discrimination in France, he didn't become radical until he started attending the infamous Finsbury Park mosque in London.

So, let's get this straight: either the "20th highjacker" decided to become a terrorist because the Frenchies were mean to him, or because he moved to that unchecked hotbed of political foment, England. Vive le France, God save the queen, you suck, no, you suck. Blah de bling blee.

How about this? Girls, you're both pretty. It's possible that experiences he had in both countries alienated him and influenced his life-path. Gahd.

Oh, and thank you for reminding me that the US isn't the only place filled with nationalist, agenda-touting imbeciles. I thought we'd cornered the market, but I feel a wee bit better now.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Friday, March 03, 2006

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Of Thylacines and Theosophy

[Note: This is the long one I warned you about. Any comments on subject matter or the piece itself are appreciated.]

Don't tell anybody, but I think I might believe in intelligent design. No, not the creationist folderol that the school boards down in KY and PA tried to add to their curricula – evangelism gives me agita. But I kinda think there might be more to this old universe than biomechanics can account for, even if there's not some big, bearded dude sitting on a throne somewhere all whittling wallabies out of the clay of life and smite, smite, smite.

Some might attribute this spiritual bent of mine to being born a soul miner's daughter. But although my father is a minister, he's an extremely liberal Congregationalist who believes in evolution and rarely made us go to church (mainly because he was usually getting kicked out by church boards for being too much of a liberal activist). And, yes, my mother, also, has a faith-y bent. She was recently ordained as an interfaith minister. However, as far as I can tell, that’s about 10 steps more fringe than being a Unitarian Universalist, and she doesn't even preach, except about how honouring your inner child and wheat germ are good for you. So, although the seeds for some kind of belief system are there, I've mostly come up a godless heathen with a distinct distrust of organized religion (and many other types of authority). I always figured nobody knows some one real truth about life, death and the universe that governs everything, and they're pretty egotistical if they think they do. That egotism, translated into a strong belief in a particular dogma seems to be what divides people and starts wars much of the time. So, what good is subscribing to a particular spiritual outlook, anyway? Besides, we'll all find out when we die, right? So what's the hurry? Why go off all half-cocked?

Well, it turns out that later in life this has become a struggle for me, because I like to see myself as mainly rational, but it's hard to go through some of the deep shit I have without some kind of faith in a greater meaning or purpose. On top of that, a few years ago I started having some very convincing spiritual experiences. This is not the post where I go off on all that - it's still marinating. But suffice it to say I had a long series of psychic and spiritual experiences that not only made me feel as though there was some greater connection or purpose in life, but involved inexplicable, verified proof. (Here's a hint: I got into animal communication, I was scary good at it, I could see what people's houses looked like from thousands of miles away with no information given to me, I even went "professional" for a while.) Then, several months ago, I descended into a depression after suffering a series of health setbacks and surgery and I began to question all my faith and experiences. I went from "who knows?" to "I do!" to "life is pointless suffering" at about warp speed, and it hasn't been pretty.

All of this has been roiling, stewing for the past several months as I continue to work out my health issues, what the hell I want to do with my life, how to get myself out of a soul-crushing job and into doing something I enjoy, if I even think that's possible and I whether I even deserve it. Wah, wah, wah. So, it caught my attention when I came across this little article while blog-surfing the other day.

It seems the author, one Carl Buell, is an illustrator who uses fossils, remains and physiology to create pictures of long-extinct animals. Now this is just the sort of thing that appeals to my rationalist side and I set down to slopping up with my geekarella spoon, so bear with me. He posits, more elegantly and at greater length than I will here, that evolution is basically all there is in terms of a "design" of life, because the limitations on body construction are so clear that they indicate a lack of imagination that one would expect from an intelligent creator. He mentions how closely the structure of a flipper, wing and hand resemble one another, and says that this is because nature is blind, philosophically speaking, and really only has so much to work with. One illustration he includes - and it's a nice one - compares the marsupial thylacine to the placental carnivore the dingo (although just about any canid would do). If you look at how the thylacine developed, he indicates, from a line of marsupials removed from placental creatures, and compare it to the development of the dingo, what you get is two extremely similar beasts that essentially fall into the category of "doggish", just because that's the best construct nature can come up with for surviving as mid-sized carnivores in their environments. He concludes:
All too often I hear narrators on the National Geographic, Discovery or Animal Channel refer to one creature or another as perfectly adapted to their environment. Perhaps since a species can last a long time and fit well into an ecosystem, that statement seems close to true, but individuals are evolutionary fodder. Each animal lives on the edge of the precipice, one misstep away from disease, injury and death. All that matters is that enough members of a population reach breeding age and parent the next generation.

It can be depressing if you dwell on it, and indeed, there's always a touch of melancholy present as I marvel at the natural world. But if anything, their imperfection makes the individual creatures I portray that much more beautiful and all that more endearing to me because I know the absolute indifference they face in their world; a world without the medical and technological insulation we surround ourselves with.

Why, yes, fascinating thought, my friend. But you did depress me with that, and I do tend to dwell, so let's examine it.

I strongly believe in evolution and have no problem accepting his theory - that two distinct animal families evolved into very similar bodies based on what they needed for survival. But yet... can you really definitively say that that adaptive, convergent evolution indicates a complete lack of creativity and imagination? I mean, think about it - didn't the very rules of life development and physical limitations have to be set somewhere, sometime, to begin with? Any good artist knows there is a place for rules and restrictions. Just because I say "I'm only going to allow myself to work with watercolours today" or "I'm going to use a fundamental system of punctuation and grammar so my writing can be better understood and more effective" doesn't mean you haven't put some thought and imagination into it. In fact, the very construction of certain rules and limits – which do not need to come down from on high, but rather develop through experimentation and mutual agreement amongst a number of creators (artists or writers, in this case) is evolutionary itself, and allows for even more creativity when those rules are used, restructured or broken. All in all, it strikes me as patently odd that a guy who spends his time creating illustrations that are, ultimately, somewhat speculative and require not just interpolation of facts but, yes, imagination, wouldn't think that fit into the rest of the world. It only seems to prove a lack in his imagination, if you will.

Of course, science is not supposed to be about imagination. Science is supposed to be about experimentation, and proof! Fair enough, but you've got to have the imagination to theorize and question before you figure out how to experiment. Heck, you have to have imagination to fully grok the idea of a quark, or evolution itself, lacking actual film at eleven of either. And while I do think that the principles of science and reproducable experimental results are what should be focused on in schools, I don't think it should be at the exclusion of say, philosophy or comparative religion. Do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Is there some room for spiritual faith even when there's no double-blind study to prove it? I dislike mouth-frothing fundies as much as the next intelligent, liberal, feminist queer, but does that mean I have to frown on anybody who believes that we're something other than links in the food chain?

Unfortunately, in a socio-political climate where most of the discussion is heavily weighted with references to aggressive religious extremism – whether jihadism, evangelism or some other variation - it seems that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the liberal faction has taken on a strong reactionary, rationalist/scientific bent. This means that even though much of the general public seem to be willing to question traditionalist church doctrine (witness the healthy sales of The DaVinci Code, which is loosely based on modern interpretation of recently discovered Gnostic texts), among the political intelligentsia you can either have faith, which is comforting but stupid, or only science, which is smart but leaves one lacking the higher purpose in life that we as humans seem to inherently crave. So, here I was, finding myself on the horns of this particular dilemma: I want to be smart, and I want to feel like I have some individual purpose beyond reproducing my (rather ridiculous) species. Is there any safe space for both?

Here's where a strange association formed. Buell really got me in talking about thylacines. They were (or, some think, are) fascinating creatures - large, marsupial carnivores with jaws that could open like bear traps and fetching stripes on their rumps. Also known as Tasmanian tigers, they were hunted to extinction sometime in the nineteen-thirties.* He even gets bonus points for including a link to the Thylacine Museum at, a fascinating spot on the Web that contains real, if low-quality, clips of movies of what are thought to be the last surviving Tasmanian tigers. The fact that they got wiped out by humans so quickly definitely depresses me. It not only exemplifies mankind's blatant disrespect of other creatures and the environment (a sickening trait that is a frequent spur to my doubting any sort of higher meaning or divine justice), but the lack of adaptability and closeness to death of all beings Buell references in his piece. But what else here was bothering me? For some reason, some word kept coming up on the tip of my tongue to match with "thylacines," and I didn't even know what it meant.

Theosophy. What is it? Damned if I knew. I'd encountered the word, but I don't think I ever read up exactly what it meant. It was just one of those antiquated terms that came up in my habitual noodlings through 18th and 19th-century lit, history and trivia. Probably something akin to phrenology or spirit photography** I figured, some pseudo-science that went in and out of fashion and was later disproven or exposed as a predatory cult. But it kept nagging at me. So, I decided to look it up.

Here is an excerpt from
The three basic ideas of Theosophy are (1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the absolute ground of being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.


These abstract ideas have some very specific and practical implications, for example the following:
  • The world we live in is basically a good place, to be used wisely, to be treasured, and to be honored: rejoice in life.
  • We develop as human beings, not by forsaking the world, but by cooperating with nature to preserve and perfect it: respect the environment and be ecologically responsible.
  • You and I are different expressions of the same life, so whatever happens to either of us happens to both of us—our well-being is linked: help your neighbor, and thereby help yourself.
  • Disharmony and evil are the result of ignorance and selfishness: live in harmony and goodness so as to teach others by your life as well as by your words.

Sounds lovely, but potentially kinda cult-y. And what does that have to do with science?
The motto of the Theosophical Society is “There is no religion higher than Truth.” That is a statement to which a scientist can subscribe equally well. Theosophists and scientists are indeed both engaged in a search for Truth. However, scientists seek for truth at the outward physical level, whereas Theosophists are concerned with Truth at an inner and more spiritual level, as taught by the great mystics and sages throughout the ages. That deeper Truth is sometimes called the “Ancient Wisdom” or the “perennial philosophy.”

The scientific and mystical methods of search also differ, being complementary rather than contradictory. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but we human beings need both. Yet many scientists, perhaps even the majority, do not see a need for any deeper Truth than those which objective scientific procedures discover. Others would like to have some involvement with religion but are discouraged by fundamentalist religious teachings that are inconsistent with well-established scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, many great scientists—for example Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and David Bohm—have seen the need for the deeper spiritual understanding taught by the great religious teachers and mystics of all ages.

About this time I was feeling floored that this seemingly random word I’d come up with had led to a philosophy addressing the exact issues I’d been pondering as I read Buell’s piece. Still, it wasn’t quite clear if theosophy was merely a byword for a particular spiritual set of beliefs with its own subtle, discriminatory dogmatism or if there was something actually more inclusive and, yes, scientific there. I read on:
Among the features shared by science and mysticism is that both experimental results and mystical experiences must not be unique, but available to everyone under the right conditions. Just as a good scientific theory has to be tested and confirmed by several scientists working independently, so a convincing mystical experience has to be shared by a number of mystics in different cultural traditions and expressed in metaphors that may be different from one another, but are equivalent in what they represent. And like science, mysticism is progressive, being supplemented and revised by succeeding generations of investigators into the inner world of experience.

The Theosophical Society promotes freedom of thought and encourages its members to use their own judgment and discrimination on all matters—whether scientific, philosophical, or religious. Many scientists have found inspiration and insight in Theosophical ideas, and members of the Society have always included scientists, some quite prominent in their fields. Since the Society’s founding in 1875, many Theosophists have expressed their views about scientific matters. Some of those views have stood the test of time and even proved to be prescient of current scientific knowledge. Other views uncorroborated by subsequent discoveries have been superseded by present-day knowledge.

And finally, from another page on the site:
The Theosophical Society is nondogmatic, and Theosophists are encouraged to accept nothing on faith or on the word of another, but to adopt only those ideas that satisfy their own sense of what is real and important.

Wow. So, let's leave aside the fact that there's a society founded by some folks in 1875 that discusses these things, and that some people might view this group as unscientific and a bit of a cult in itself. Here we have some theoretical concepts that allow for both a belief in science and something beyond - a safe space for those undecided or open-minded about the role of soul, as it were. It's not about telling anyone what specific god or practice to believe in, but at the same time it's not about accepting that what we can prove today with our current scientific methods defines and contains the entirety of life and beyond. It doesn't have to be either/or, black or white. We can accept that "hard" science demonstrates a lot of things quite well, but that, at the same time, humankind's experiences with spiritual, parapsychological or other unexplained phenomena can be completely valid and, perhaps, fully understood as we integrate them with scientific studies.

And the kicker is, this word, theosophy, just came to me after reading the word thylacine in an essay that pooh-poohed a world beyond science. Coincidence? Subconcious association based on a penchant for alliteration compounded with things I must have heard in the past and forgot? Or... just another unexplained little miracle, leading one human being from depression in the face of perceived pointless existence to hope for a higher purpose? Perhaps, if you will, a message from the divine?

Maybe what we feel is not quantifiable, and faith cannot be proven or disproven by its very nature. But in trying to stick to "the facts" and avoid impositional dogmatism, we may be closing our minds to learning more about a universe that, in reality, we really know very little about. After all, the scope of basic physical evolution may provide us with some explanation of our forms and actions, and even much wonder, but do we not learn from dreams, as well?


*Some folks do think there might still be a few thylacines out there, and I highly recommend Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger for an exploration of the kind of thoughtful conservationists who hope so and a general romp through Tasmania.

** Incidentally, if you're interested in this type of spiritualism, or just the scientific exploration of the afterlife in general, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach's follow-up to Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a fascinating and quite witty read.

I Quit

Seriously, why bother ever blogging again when I am so obviously outdone?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Behold The Face of Evil

Drink at your own peril! "Snapple Pie" Limited Edition Beverage

Tastes like delicious, yummy pie, yet even sweeter!
Has about the same amount of calories as an actual pie; may cause your tongue to explode.

You can have all the goodness of Starbuck's hot caramel apple cider out-of-season.
According to the Snapple site, this "limited edition" came out in 2003, which, unless there's been a change, would make present bottles very out-of-season.

Would probably go great with some spiced rum.
So would a two-dollar whore, and she wouldn't make me fat.

Highly addictive.
Highly addictive and stocked in my office cafeteria! NOOOooooo...!!!

Make Them Earn Their Keep

We've now got four cats and two turtles in the house. One of the cats is merely on loan, as we're caring for him as his human works out some housing woes, but he counts in this scenario. See, although I feel privileged to care for these fine creatures and receive their trust and affection in return (well, at least in the case of the cats - the turtles are cute but skeptical of our motives), I've always thought it would be nice to get something more... tangibly rewarding out of the deal, just to make up for all the kibble, litter, electricity and various filter parts they consume. Is that so wrong?

Nobody's up for acting or modeling, so that's right out. Maya, our queen bitch cat, did have her own advice column for a while, but that was non-profit and is on hiatus. I've come up with a few ideas here or there, but making them wear Swiffer skirts seems too labour-intensive and possibly death-defying to bother (not to mention they don't ever cover the same range as a Roomba - we'd have narrow dust-free tracks between the beds, litter trays and food bowls), and a lot of people seemed grossed out by my proposal for cat-fur clothing (which - don't most of us cat caretakers end up in veritable sweaters of it, anyway?). Besides, 1.) where do you buy a spinning wheel nowadays? And 2.) I got beat to the punch.

Well, I think I might have the answer. It turns out that San Francisco, that shining hippie haven, is actually planning an experiment to harvest local pet poo in order to generate electricity. It's actually not a bad idea: many farms use methane digesters to process manure into energy and compost, and think how much unrefined shit gets dropped on city streets or into landfills via pooper-scooper laws and cat litter cleaning each day.Pure genius! If they can find a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way to use this natural resource to help power the grid, I'm all for it. But, most importantly, and I think what all of us are wondering here, is, what's in it for Da Nator?

Well, I'll tell you. If someone can just devise a methane digester the size of, say, your average ottoman, I could transform our daily scooping chores into pure power. Maybe not an amount sufficient to sell back to ConEd, or anything, but I bet I could get at least enough juice out of these animals to recharge our iPods once in awhile. I even have a name for the product: Felectricity™. Now, if only I knew something about basic science, construction and patents, I'd be all set.

And they say Edison was a genius.

Cock Pop

No, it's not some naughty lolly you'd find in Spencer Gifts or some mangled Engrish Japanese sports drink. I'm talking about music - the kind by male-led bands that are on the border of Cock Rock and Pop. You see, I finally configured our damn computer to run two separate instances of iTunes - and trust me, getting this to work is a real bitch. M & I had been sharing one library of all our music, and one more surprise Ani DiFranco marathon on my iPod and I was going to hunt down and garotte all spoken-word performers within a 10-mile radius... which, come to think of it, should be on my to-do list, anyway.

At any rate, now we can store 50 squillion hours of music and video on the ol' hard drive but have our own separate libraries. This means that, while we can sample each other's music, we can both concentrate on what we each like. Although we share some tastes, there are always selections that make the other's eyes roll. For example, I enjoy Barbra and Judy, but only in limited doses when the mood strikes me, whereas my nearly non-discriminatory hoarding of 70s and 80s pop based on the good, so-bad-it's-good or hey-I-remember-that-vaguely standard drive her crazy ("Oh, good - Amy Ray is emoting to another 15-minute lame-ass guitar solo again," "OK - Run, Joey, Run. Need I say more?").

The cool thing is, since I've got the iPod I've been immersing myself in music more than I had in years. I had dreams of stardom and used to perform in coffeehouses and do sound editing for some really awful bands in college, but was far too self-critical and perfectionist, so I couldn't hack public performance in the long run. I stopped listening to music very much because I wasn't over the pain of having dropped that dream, yet. M has gone through similar issues, having been a music performance major with serious talent who emotionally beat herself into temporary vocal chord issues. But now that we have access to more music, we're both really enjoying it. Plus, as we're newly able to load lots of our own preferences, what we really like to listen to comes to light.

Hence, my new phase. I'd been listening to a lot of folk-rock and 80s pop for a while, and I have Kanye on there just like everybody else, but now I'm starting to get interested in some more current pop/rock bands. Some stuff is "alterna" (whatever that means nowadays), but I'm learning that, at least recently, I have a predilection for male rock/pop. It shouldn't be surprising, having spent my childhood listening to my brother's Cars albums and my sister's Squeeze tapes, then my teenage years immersed in groups ranging from New Romantic to Hair Rock like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Smiths and Def Leppard (with house, metal, goth, punk and proto hip-hop on the side) that I'd have this weakness. It only follows that I'd eventually end up downloading bands like Green Day, Vertical Horizon, The All-American Idiots and Third Eye Blind. Because, come on, "Stacey's Mom" is basically a remake of "Just What I Needed", if you get right down to it. I've even been sampling the heavily popular Fall Out Boy, but mostly on the basis that my friend worked on their video. The small problem is - I'm somewhat embarrassed. After all, isn't this that big, bad commercial radio I'm supposed to be too smart for? No, it's not Aaron Carter (or whoever the kids are listening to nowadays), but it is rather frat-boy middle-America. Of course, today's frat boy is probably listening to more rap than pop/rock, but I'm sure it still exists out there, mainly as what we used to call "college music" or "alternative" stations for teens and twenty-somethings who don't want to be "too black."

I suppose it doesn't matter - what we like is what we like. A difficult part of being semi-intellectual is feeling it's plebian to like anything that isn't deeply meaningful or, at the opposite side of the spectrum, so laughable as to be trash camp. So sue me, I like Cock Pop. I love The Darkness and their Queen-derivative ways and I think Maroon 5 is kinda catchy. And I'm not totally down with my girlfriend when, after playing John Mayer's first record to death when we first discovered it (being from Georgia, he was a local find she'd seen at Eddie's Attic for her), it was decided he had sold out and become overplayed by the time his second rolled around. I mean, there's part of me that thinks that way, but hey, he still sounds similar and you know what? Good for him for making a buck. Really.

So, do I have to turn in my queer card for being too Middle America? Well, I doubt they'd ever let me live in Williamsburg, anyway. We all have our guilty pleasures, and it's time I came out about it. Besides, Foo Fighters? Totally awesome when you're working out, dude.

[Note: this isn’t the long, semi-meaningful post I’ve been alluding to recently. That should be up soon.]