Thursday, April 23, 2009

Begin Counting The Hours

People who know me might find this hard to believe, but I don't really think of myself as a complainer. Along those lines, I don't see this blog as the forum for airing what complaints or woe-is-me's I do have: that's not why this blog was created and it's certainly nothing I'm interested in perpetuating.

Having said that, this has been a shit week and I, for one, will be happy to see the end of it. When did it begin? When my mother called me last Saturday to inform me that she has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and that one of my sisters was going into the hospital for surgery? When I learned that J. G. Ballard, one of my favorite writers, had died of cancer? How about when I was yelled at at work for doing my job? I had not been yelled at like that, like I was a child, in such a long time I can not remember the previous occurrence. One of the advantages of not having a girlfriend is that I don't have someone yelling at me on a regular basis, so I've sort of forgotten what the experience is like.

Those were the various beginnings to a bad week. It continued: work was very busy, I felt almost punch-drunk at night, my sister had her surgery (I was concerned), I saw a friend go through a tough time, everything and everyone seemed to be suffering from a pre-spring neurosis or upheaval. A co-worker and I joked each day about having a liquid lunch and even though neither one of us did (to the best of my knowledge), it was a comforting thought.

So I'm counting down the hours until the week is over and I can just stare into space this weekend, hit reset and hope that next week is better. We'll see. Tonight in a bar I overheard two asshole businessmen make fun of the idea of working for a non-profit. I know that's sounds trite and cliched, but it is true. On the other hand, while walking home, I saw a toddler in a stroller get excited when he saw a bus. Happily, his enthusiasm was contagious.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Forty


Not Graffiti Murals, But Drawings On Paper Plastered On Walls In My Neighborhood

Sadly, even more transient that graffiti murals.

The other day, my boss' wife was in the office. She walked over to my desk and said "I hate orange shirts." I nodded, a little confused because no-one in the office was wearing an orange shirt, but said "oh, yeah." She repeated herself "I hate orange shirts!" I kinda shrugged, and while I agree, I couldn't understand a) why the bothered her so much and b) why she was telling me. She then presented a number of receipts and medical forms, and I finally understood that she was in fact saying "I hate our insurance!"


Hope you've enjoyed this Lenten season. Sunday, I get to begin cursing again.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Nine

If life's for living/ what's living for?
from "Oklahoma, USA" by Ray Davies

One of my pet theories, as far as I know unproven, though I really haven't done the research on that point, has to do with the way human beings will create meaning for their lives as a mechanism to keep existing. To wit: the reason we create reasons to live is so that we will continue living. I don't believe this is a conscious decision but something wired into our brains by years of evolution, a psycho-biological feedback system. It's as if the brain realizes that without a reason to live, the entire organism (the person in question) will fall into despair and eventually die. An individual can die from depression or despair if they neglect eating, sleeping, or bascially taking care of themselves. To prevent this, the brain will create meaning, even if it is harmful or a complete lie, so that the individual will continue to eat, sleep, breathe, and continue the fundamentals of life. Anything will be believed so long as it keeps the person functioning. What matters is keeping the individual alive; the belief systems or personal mythology their brain creates to keep them living is secondary.

This explains why people can live for years with outlooks that might seem self-defeating or negative. It's not what their values are, only that they have values that keep them functioning. The bitter man who lives only for revenge, the alcoholic who lives only for happy hour, the soldier who is willing to die for his country: all their minds have adopted belief systems that may eventually destroy them, but until then give them a reason to continue living. As I said, this mechanism isn't conscious. People think they believe things because they have thought about them and determined them to be true. But I say that people would believe things anyway: that the mind creates belief systems, narratives and personal myths just as sweat glands produce sweat, as a way of regulating behavior and ensuring continued existence. The mind creates meaning to keep the body functioning, which in turn provides the material that keeps the mind alive. The goal of all this activity is simply to keep existing for its own sake. Or, more likely, exist until you produce offspring, then protect and provide for them until they are old enough to produce their own offspring.

The world doesn't inspire meaning within our brains. Our brains naturally generate meaning and use the world as its raw material.

Monday, April 06, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Eight

I know that I skipped a few days, or rather, had three days in which I was unable to post. Spirit willing, but flesh is weak and all that. Actually, the flesh wasn't weak, but my internet connection was. I was staying at a friends' country house for the weekend, and didn't feel like writing and posting on my iPhone. This past weekend was about relaxation and hanging and re-hanging and re-re-hanging blinds.

Happily, this year is one of those years in which Lent runs longer than 40 days, so I will be able to make up the missed days before Easter. With that in mind, here's a nice picture of the Martyrdom of 10,000:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Seven

Lake of Fire

I recently watched Lake of Fire, a documentary about abortion in America. The movie takes pains to be balanced, though in my biased opinion, it's not hard to side with those who admit that, unfortunate as abortion is, it would be worse to remove the control over her body from a woman and insist that she carry a child she doesn't want to term. The pro-life side in the film seems close-minded and controlling (why are all these single men so obsessed with telling vulnerable women what to do) and while the pro-choice side completely disregards the fact that it is a human that they are terminating, at least they acknowledge that it is a bad situation without any easy answers.

Yes, it is a human that is being killed. There are some graphic abortions in the film (thank God the director used black and white rather than color) and despite pro-choice propaganda, what comes out of the mother is not just a clump of cells. In fact, the doctor has to piece together the aborted child to make sure it is all there. Otherwise they need to remove whatever is left in the mother's body. So we see scenes of arms, legs, part of a head with eyes being reassembled in a metal pan. It is horrifying, which is the point. This is basic mammal biology: big things prey on and kill little things. It's not fair and it's not nice, but as Noam Chomsky wearily points out in the film, it's hard to take the opinion of those who obsess over unborn babies seriously when they don't seem to have the same concern or compassion for the suffering of other human beings who live in poverty or political repression.

I think woman have an interesting relation to abortion, which is that it is unfortunate, but it's just one more d*mn thing that they have to put up with in this world. This is brought out in the final sequence in the film, in which a woman goes for an abortion, admitting that it is just not the time for her to be having a child. After the procedure, she confirms that she made the right decision...and then breaks down and cries. But it's the men who are actively pro-life that amaze me. They don't just seem to worry about women having control, though there is part of that. Listening to the men in this film get emotional as they talk about how they have to save the babies, and obsess over the innocent babies, a different dynamic seems to be present. The men seem to be hung up on being heroes - life has given them little other opportunity to save anyone or make a real difference, so by preventing abortions, they think of themselves as having saved human lives. Trying to help others is certainly not a bad impulse, but the fact that it is so misdirected (not to mention misogynist) is truly tragic, especially when it manifests in murdered doctors and destroyed women's health clinics.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Six

More About The Forever Family

In this post, I mentioned The Forever Family, one of the cults found in my hometown in my youth, along with my parents' reaction: "stay away from them!" In the comments, my sister Erin admitted she wasn't aware of them (she's lucky enough to have been too young) but said that a google search turned up the following article from Time Magazine:
Where Are the Children?
March 1, 1976
For several years they have been a fixture of downtown Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the old hard-coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania. They wear pins that say GET SMART, GET SAVED. Abstemious, straitlaced, pushy in their missionary piety, they work the streets, buttonholing teen-age passers-by with provocative zeal.

They are members of the Forever Family, a youth-oriented evangelistic group. They say they espouse a return to a primitive "New Testament" brand of Christianity. With apparent success, they forbid drinking, drugs and premarital sex. Thus far, they may have made more enemies than converts. Their hard-driving proselytizing has led to arrests for harassment and obstructing sidewalks. Lately, they have had vigilantism to contend with as well. On Feb. 12,.four carloads of teen-age toughs invaded the sect's center in Wilkes-Barre and went on a rampage. They tossed furniture, spread garbage, and broke most of the windows in the place. Two days later, other raiders devastated a Family house in Scranton and roughed up Kevin Hoppes, 24, "guardian" (area coordinator) of the group's "lambs" (members). The Family had other troubles. Police hauled in member Steve Gattuso for getting a 14-year-old juvenile offender to stay in the Wilkes-Barre house for two nights without the knowledge of his parents, thus violating terms of the youth's parole.

But all this is minor compared with the accusations of at least eight area couples whose teen-age sons and daughters have disappeared. Like the parents embroiled in battles with Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (TIME, Nov. 10), they claim that the sect has stolen their children from them. The Family says it knows nothing about the missing youths. Leader of the parents is Scranton Salesman Donald Fetterolf, whose 17-year-old son Eric left home last Aug. 21 and is still missing. The latest to disappear is David Harris, 15, of nearby Tunkhannock, whose mother thinks that he joined the Family because he talked of being "born again" and "Roman Catholics don't talk like that."

No Figures. Beset by bad publicity, the Family has changed its name to the Church of Bible Understanding. No one knows how badly the group has been hurt by the attacks. Hoppes refuses to offer figures on the size of his flock, which includes residents in two communal houses and a fluid nonresident constituency. The Family, incorporated in 1974, has centers in 15 cities in eight states and, according to tax records, is headed by one Steward Traillis. Strangely, Hoppes claims he knows nothing about the man.

Reaction of mainstream clergy to the Family is mixed. Leonard Heffner, a United Church of Christ pastor in Scranton, feels that parents these days should be grateful if their kids are involved in a group that concentrates on Bible reading rather than something worse. But Msgr. James Timlin, chancellor of the Scranton diocese, warns youths not to be "taken in" by the zealots' "easy and simple solutions to very complex problems."

A few things about this article I love. First of all, "old hard-coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania." By the time this article was published, the coal mines had been closed for decades. Perhaps I'm being nostalgic, but my memory of the Wilkes-Barre of my youth is that it was, for a small town, a fairly cosmopolitan place. Not compared to Paris or Milan, perhaps, but certainly compared to much of America and the hometowns of friends of mine. Secondly, I love the "rampage" of the "teen-age toughs." They "tossed furniture" ("that ottoman would look better over here!") "spread garbage and broke most of the windows." While unfortunate and annoying and I certainly don't want anyone coming to my apartment and doing the same, the entire passage reminds me of comedian Bill Hicks' comparing American gangs (Guns!) with British ("This weekend, some hooligans knocked over a dustbin in Shaftesbury!"). Finally, I love that the pastor prefers that impressionable kids are involved in a cult that focuses on bible study "rather than something worse." Granted, my opinion is biased, but I think potheads sitting in front of a tv and giggling are less harmful to themselves and society than any religious cult.

The article did answer one of my questions: whatever happened to The Forever Family? Did they decide to disband or just sort of fall apart? No, they just changed their name to The Church of Bible Understanding and continued with their cult activities. I tried to find more up-to-date info, but sadly, the search engine for Wilkes-Barre's Times Leader website is so primitive it doesn't recognize that words within quote marks should stay together, so that searching for "forever family" brings up any article that features either word, including obituaries and stories like "Life Lessons from Mom" and "Feds Urge Prison For Track Coach." The Scranton Times-Tribune has a good article from 2003 about the Church of Bible Understanding found here. Not surprisingly, many of the characteristics of the church and its leader, Stewart Traill, can be found in other cults, whether it is the Lyman Family or the Scientologists.

Two surprising things: one, the Church of Bible Understanding is affiliated with the antiques store Olde Good Things, which I've been to, and it's - uh-oh - a great store. A really great store, actually. Secondly, according to wikipedia, the COBU was parodied on the Seinfeld episode "The Checks,' providing another example of that oft-heard New York expression "it's just like that Seinfeld episode..."