Tuesdays With Abhorrent Fiends vol 44.

Okay, so I'm not much good at real-life investigative reporting. But I have done more socializing on the internet than in real-life over the past few years. My instincts, by nature and/or nurture, are both suspicious and duplicitous.

So I noticed something today. Have a look at the linked blog's list of followers.

Imagining for the sake of argument that we have no other information, what can we learn from this list?

35 of the 76 followers have blogs. (Including me.) I don't know how to interpret this proportion. To do so I'd have to look at the blogs of other organizations to establish a baseline. If anybody already has knowledge of such matters, I am interested.

Some of the blogs, however, were created within the past three months by self-identified recent graduates of the program. There are multiple examples: see here, here, and here. The first two read, to me, like something the bloggers wrote according to someone else's instructions. The third one seems patently fake, the sort of thing that is created by a ringer in order to grab search engines. There seem to be four categories of people in the followers list:
1. the ones who don't have blogs
2. the ones with very few (less than 4) total posts, whose blogs seem forced, like the three linked above
3. the ones whose blogs are only a title with no posts
4. the ones who are clearly real people updating about their real lives and thoughts

Category #4 has a little over a dozen people. I ought to go back and do a count, but real bloggers are not my main concern.

Category #3 I don't know enough to interpret. Is it common for people to start blogs, but never get around to posting in them? Is it common for people to have blogs where they make all their posts non-viewable except to themselves? Either seems plausible. So I'm mentally tagging them all as real bloggers for the time being.

Category #1 could be ringers. They could be shy people who don't feel like having a blog. There could be some of each. Not enough information to make a meaningful judgment.

Category #2, on the other hand, is the least numerous and most disturbing. Why does it disturb me so? Let me tell you a little story. A true story, about a time when I learned some of the negative assumptions I am now struggling to replace.

Once, when I was a kid, I got into a terrible fight with a neighbor girl. We didn't speak for several days. Mom suggested I write a letter of apology. The first letter I wrote was very angry and sulky. (Think of Homer saying, "I'm sorry...sorry you're such jerks!") Mom said that one was too angry to send. So I wrote a second draft, toned-down and very smarmy. Mom said that one sounded really insincere.

So she offered to help me write one that was right down the middle. She pretty much dictated it to me, word for word. It used some of the language from my previous drafts, but some of it was totally new. Like one part, I remember distinctly, where Mom told me to write that I didn't blame my friend for her mean behavior because she hadn't been raised to have good manners.

Trusting my mom's superior knowledge, I went over and delivered the letter, blissfully believing my friend would accept my apology, she would see that it had all been a silly misunderstanding, and we could go back to the way things were before. To my surprise, instead my parents and her parents were suddenly having an even bigger fight. Forget not wanting to play with each other--we were suddenly not allowed to play with one another.

I was confused, and felt terribly guilty. Despite all Mom's reassurances to the contrary, I was dead certain (for years) that I was to blame for the whole mess. How the matter was eventually resolved has slipped from my memory. I know me and my neighbor later become playmates again, but not the circumstances that led to it.

Here's my point. I have some experience, both then and during later, darker times, with writing and saying things under at least partial duress. I know what it freaking sounds like. I am pretty sure that these Mercy graduates who make these forced-sounding blog posts either don't realize they're being manipulated, or believe it's being done for their own benefit. I can imagine how it might be phrased, even: "Keeping a blog with positive things in it is an important part of your journey towards health! Hey, why don't you start by talking about your positive experience at Mercy?" Heck, the people doing the manipulating probably have themselves talked into a nice-sounding rationale. "Well, there've been so many lies told by minions of Satan in the press and blogosphere, we have to counteract it with the true voices of real people and their positive perspectives."

Hear that, emotionally vulnerable young woman? Jesus is your buddy, we are the best thing that ever happened to you, and anyone who says differently is enslaved by demons of slander and lies.
(then, via telepathy:)
Ok, sweetie? OK! Wonderful, praise the Lord! Let's get started!

Eheheh. Hehe.
Okay, not funny.
Scary as hell.

flame retardant

This is the sort of day when I should not post, and I will explain why by the use of a metaphor.

When you're cooking noodles in a pot of water, there are several distinct stages.

First, tiny bubbles appear at the bottom of the pan. This indicates that the metal surface of the pan in physical contact with the water has reached the boiling point.
Second, bubbles start to form throughout the water. This means that the average temperature of the water itself has reached the boiling point. The noodles start drifting around, bumped and jostled by the escaping pockets of air, and in the increased heat they will absorb moisture and slowly become edible.
Third, the carbohydrates in the noodles will start to boil along with the hot water, and the stream of bubbles will condense into a sticky cloud at the top of the pot. Soon enough, the sticky residue starts to push up the lid of the pot, spilling out over the edges. Left unchecked, the stickiness and the water it carries with it will eventually extinguish the fire underneath the pot.

Now to hook up that image with some referents. Conscious me, including both intellect and emotion, is the water. The drives and desires that motivate me are the fire. The ideas and plans I have are the noodles. My sense of self-preservation is the lid.

How can I keep it all going without boiling over? The best way is to do something useful. That is, to take some of those noodles and eat them. Stretches the metaphor a bit far, but it'll serve. The problem with this is that my unconscious mind's definition of "something useful" is stubborn, vague, and backed up with all manner of contradictory assumptions. If I'm doing one useful thing, taking out one forkful of noodles, there's more six times over left in there that I'm not doing. If I try to do damage control in a mood like this, I'll just end up dumping twice as many noodles back into the pot as I'm taking out, and I'll boil over again even faster. So the best thing to do is chill. Pour in some cold water instead. Slow and steady wins the race, old girl.

I'm not terribly upset about the contradictory assumptions. Can't be helped. As I'm fond of saying: If something is not accessible by your conscious mind, that means it is in constant use. And on important, day-to-day issues your brain usually doesn't trust your conscious mind not to mess everything up. So each little assumption, each little piece of a one, has to be hunted down individually and re-engineered. That is, if you can hang onto conscious awareness of it long enough to do anything with it when you realize it.

Thing about consciousness is, it tries to turn everything into a symbol. Consciousness works best with symbols. Like that metaphor Geds was using the other day--the man with only a hammer in his tool box sees only nails. But once you've taken a hardworking personality component like an assumption and made a symbol of it, you're no longer working with a component of your personality. You're working with a symbol. So you can juggle the symbol around all you like, but it isn't going to change the way your personality functions.

I want friends and a peer group as badly as Geds wants a mate. These assumptions I've gotten close to just recently, ones I've been hunting for years, all have to do with my fitness to be a friend. And their content would probably surprise the daylights out of my few friends for the first five or ten minutes. Then they'd think about it, think about how I act, and then go, "oh, duh, that explains that. sheesh, what a silly thing to believe!"

But for now, all I've got is a sticky, slightly flammable wave of ultimately flame-retardant goop.

christian crack

This was going to be a Tuesdays. but it's 1am Sunday morning and I feel like posting up now. Yeah, baby. Freestyling it.

Anyone who's spent time around Christian symbol sets knows the motif of a person at the end of their rope attending a revival meeting, hearing the story of Christ from a new angle or for the first time, having a transcendent experience of god's love and forgiveness, and walking away a new person, confident and full of hope.

I once had a friend describe to me what it's like to smoke crack. He grabbed a napkin and drew a little line that went sharply up, then gradually down. "The first time you smoke it, it's like the most incredible feeling in the world, right?" Then he drew another line. It went up almost as sharply, but not quite as far, dropped down a little faster and ended up at a lower point. "But the next time, it's not quite as good. Almost, but..." and he shrugged, drawing a few more lines in the same pattern. "It never gets as good as that first time, again."
(I'd like to mention, in credit to my friend, that this person stopped doing crack, has not done it for many years, and offered this description in the midst of advising all present against ever giving it a try.)

My own history with spirit-filled activities dates back to a Bible camp I attended at the age of nine. Back then, prophecy and speaking in tongues were in vogue, while deliverance from demons was the new, untested thing that hadn't caught on for big groups yet. I had my first ever "mountaintop experience", and to my utter jubilation was able to pray using random syllables that rattled out effortlessly. I had done it! I'd become filled with the holy spirit, Jesus was my best friend and I knew for certain I really, truly, wasn't going to hell. The only thing that dented my jubilant relief was another little girl, kneeling next to me up by the edge of the stage. She looked over with a scowl and said, "Quit fakin' tongues." At the time I was so high on Jesus that I shrugged it off. She's just jealous, I thought to myself.

Times like this--what the Pentecostals call mountaintop experiences--I've come to think of as being a little like crack. Gives you a high nothing in the world can top, fades long before you're ready for it to go, leaves you desperate for more no matter what it costs you. You find you can't live without your fix. But it's a fix of reassurance and validation. You need proof that god still thinks you're pretty or manly and Jesus is still your buddy. You're one of the good people that gets to go to heaven, while everybody else growls jealous insults at you from the darkness outside. It is a life-consuming addiction.

Since the subject's been on my mind lately, a recent post over at Against Biblical Counseling got me to thinking. John brought up how exorcism is portrayed in television and film. The sexual power dynamics, he notes, are usually dysfunctional and tend to involve a possessed female being successfully cleansed of evil by a sympathetic, dominant male. My attempt at a comment ran long; sexual power roles and exorcism are two things I've thought a lot about but rarely put next to each other.

I'd say the film industry is far from the worst offender here. Exorcisms in movies tend to draw their images from other movies about exorcism, other images of it from popular media. Which are a far cry from the way exorcisms and "power encounters" are more often practiced today. Movies, far as I'm concerned, only do a disservice in that they reinforce dramatic and scary ideas people already have about what it means to be demon possessed.

Geds just linked to a great Rolling Stone article where the journalist went undercover to a power encounter-type retreat. The event follows the classic spiritual retreat paradigm. That is, it slides gradually from entertainment and self-help slogans into brainwashing and mass hysteria.

Exorcism as a means of expression for repressed sexual desires is absolutely overt in the type of event this article describes. But in movies and television, it's either cartoonishly overdone (with a sexy Satanic priestess maybe?) or handled with so much symbolic gobbeldygook that you have to analyze it a bit before the power dynamics pop out. It's kind of ironic, because most people I know who are into real-life "deliverance" would never watch those movies or shows.

I would tend to argue that the kind of dominance deliverance ministers exercise over their flocks strongly resembles sexual domination. Whether they're consciously aware of it or not. I spent a lot of time being embarrassed about the shame I felt during intense "spirit filled" events. It most closely resembled sexual shame, the shame of a kid who's had something yucky done to them but isn't entirely clear on why it happened or what it meant. But because the coercion was all mental and emotional, it seemed wrong or presumptuous to feel violated.

That shame, though, is one of the strongest ties binding the uncertain to the charismatic movement.

Exorcism is entertainment, yes. Popular depictions of exorcism, however, are a far cry from the thing called exorcism that is actually practiced in the Christianity I knew. As far apart as Playboy photo shoots and actual sex. And the entertainment value is, in a twisted sort of way, for the participants themselves.

Everybody turns off their intellect, subsumed in emotional sermons and songs with simple tunes and repetitive lyrics. Everybody knows, expects, believes, that intense physical reactions to the spiritual warfare going on inside are the hallmark of those who have truly opened themselves to God and participated in something supernatural. Everyone who does this enters into a wordless pact: "What we are doing is not crazy, is not ridiculous, is not to be doubted or mocked, because we do it together." To doubt the authenticity of one's experiences is to doubt the experiences of the group. To admit--even just to think it aloud!--that one's own experiences were self-willed, hysterical, fake, is to have betrayed the group's trust and spit in the face of God. That is the essence of the pact. "Either you are with us, and believe as we believe--or you are against us, and believe we're a bunch of stupid crazy idiots whose deepest emotions are worthless."

In my exploration of the topic, I've come to believe that one's sense of personal identity is formed by perceiving and reacting to one's identity in the mind of the people one trusts. The mountaintop experience, the power encounter, these are the kind of intense, emotional interactions through which people can form some of their most powerful bonds. When one's bonds with a trusted person or group are broken, the aspects of one's identity which were formed through those bonds can be totally destroyed.

There's a joke Demetri Martin tells, about going clothes shopping. The checkout girl shows him to the dressing rooms and says, "If you need anything, I'm Jill." And Demetri replies, "Wow! I've never met anyone before with a conditional identity. If I don't need anything, who are you?"
Lots of truth in that joke. Our identites are, like all of the beliefs we carry, a set of linked value judgments, forged in the crucible of our experiences. And like any value judgments, those which form the sense of identity are, to an extent, conditional. "Who am I?" is a much less urgent question, in real life, than "Who am I to you?"

Sexual abuse and sexual coercion are evil. I doubt I'm going to get an argument on that. But what is it about them, I rhetorically ponder, that makes them evil? Perhaps it is because they take something that should be a source of wonder and joy, should be a way that people can learn to love and trust each other, and turn it into an instrument of destruction and subjugation. Take something that is potentially an avenue of love, in the case of sex literally a source of life, and make it a source of shame and fear. The power sought by the abuser or attacker is to make the victim's choice for them, to say, I get to decide what happens to you, you can't have this part of yourself except to give me what I want.

The emotional coercion that happens in spiritual power encounters tampers with people's identities, with their ability to form emotional bonds with other people, in just this way. It is usually a coercion imposed indirectly through a group, rather than individually. Those who are in it for the power get a more diffuse boost, but can convince themselves quite easily that there is no coercion involved. The enforcement of their will is done collectively by their followers, for the most part, and furthermore is done in the name of Jesus. And, I mean, really. A person in spiritual authority stealing emotional energy and trust and reverence intended for god? That's not a crime, like sexually abusing minors while one is supposedly instructing them in faith. Or embezzling money from the church coffers. The only thing getting hurt is feelings! That's not illegal.

Just evil.

Today I still think of that day when I was nine as the day when I first got in touch with something holy. But I think the words of the girl next to me, rather than the nonsense I was spewing, carried the message I received that day. What I was being taught was fake, and I was making myself into a fake because of it.

At every event like this, there is an attempt to evoke a spirit of camaraderie and goodwill. To get everyone thinking, "we're heroes, warriors for good, it's us against the world, we belong together, we belong to Jesus, and together we can storm the gates of hell." That's where most of the high comes from, the best and noblest part, that gives your shiny little good-kid identity a place to call home. When I decided to deconvert, I started out thinking that I was giving up that feeling forever. If it came from God, you see, and He only gave it to His servants, then as one of the heathen I was accepting separation from the fellowship of saints.

And yet, when I was at a naughty, makes-baby-Jesus-cry rock concert, and lost my footing in a mosh pit, there were a dozen hands helping me to my feet and half-a-dozen voices asking if I was okay. There were people who didn't know each other all screaming out the same words, jumping up and down in unison. People voluntarily turning off their intellects, letting their emotions run wild, being vulnerable to one another. There was fellowship--but without speeches, without promises, without threats, without scrutiny. Without shame. Part of the thing I thought I'd lost, stripped of the thing I'd been willing to abandon it to escape.

There's more parts of it I still haven't found. I'm not part of a community, in the sense that a church is a community, anymore. Most of the problem there is in me, a problem of fear and trust. I find myself asking, "Is this group of people really the one I want giving me an identity?" Whenever a friendship gets too close to that line where friends of friends start to intermingle and the boundaries of social groups start to realign, I get scared. I pull back. My conscious intent is overridden by my abiding fear. I start doing stupid things like not calling people back, getting lost on the way to a much-anticipated rendezvous. Breaking off contact. Is it stupid? Hell yes! Is it rational? Hell no! But it is a reflex based on a part of my identity, a part of my identity I won't be able to change until I can do again the thing that still scares the bejesus out of me:


Musical Monday vol 5: envy

And oh, as I fade away
They'll all look at me and say
they'll say, "Hey look at him--
I'll never live that way
But that's okay
He's just afraid to change"

~Blind Melon

If you love a mirror build a statue.
Your friends will admire you.

If you love a statue build a mirror.
Make room for new friends.

~Richard Brautigan

I started coming up with words to go along with music when I was five. I know, because there is proof! Mom very likely still has a tape somewhere, with my reedy little voice belting out something jubilant and garbly. Maybe sometime I will ask her to look with me through old boxes of stuff from when we were kids. It would be something positive to bond over. Even if we don't find the tape, I can still remember it: toddler me singing a song about how much I liked horses, making it up as I went along. Song for the sheer joy of it. It was adorable, but I still get embarrassed every time I think about it. I could sense dimly that it wasn't up to the musical craft level of the other songs I knew, but at the time I didn't care. Just being able to do it was too much fun to let anything get in the way. Let alone something as silly as comparing my song to those of other people.

But now? Lately I care, even about what I did when I was five, as much as if I'd done it yesterday. I am embarrassed that five-year-old me didn't write with the same grace and power as twenty-six-year-old me, even though I know that's totally irrational. I still think it's silly to compare--but I also can't stop doing it. Comparing what I hear to my own stuff has become an inseparable part of my listening experience. I hear the beat, the melody, the internal harmonies, the words, with an ear half appreciative and half analytical. Critical. Are mine better than his? hers? theirs? Is my version of this immortal musical template more effective than this classic rendition? Worse? Does it do something different? And the last, hastily suppressed, underlying question: Am I better? As good?

Here is the emotional logic of the thing. You see, the musicians of today and ages past have worth as people because of their music. They brought it into the world, refined it, and got it out there for people to hear. Audiences heard, and judged, and did not find wanting. Therefore, the joy those people have in their ability to bring music into the world is valid. Allowable. Real.

Something in me changed, between five and twenty-six: I changed for the worse, in this way at least. Where I once had a source of pure joy, I am now hampered by envy.

Envy is not like shyness. Shyness comes from a fear rooted in uncertainty: They might like or dislike me. I hope they like me. Oh, if they dislike and shun me it will hurt! I don't want to be hurt and shunned. Perhaps I can hide and not have to find out? But envy is rooted in a kind of certainty. No amount of encouragement, praise, or positive feedback will effectively counter it. The certainty that someone else has something you cannot obtain, that some flaw in you prevents you from truly enjoying it even if you were to possess it. Even if I had a dozen albums go platinum, even if I packed stadiums with audiences as big as Pearl Jam's or had a lasting impact on lyricism and culture like Bob Dylan, it wouldn't make a bit of difference. As long as I envied, I would still feel inferior, still feel cheated of that joy I had in music as a child.

What makes envy toxic, then, is that it is a form of despair.

Dad had a great speech on the subject of despair. Although he'd come at it the other way around, from an argument about apostasy, also called blasphemy against the holy spirit. Apostasy, in Christian lingo, is the only sin that actually does get people damned to hell. All other sins are either gateway sins leading up to it, or symptoms following from it. And what, he would ask Socratically, is the essence of apostasy? What makes it that which it is, and without which it would not be? To become apostate is to reject god, to turn away from him, all he offers and all he represents. What sin is most primal, then--which is the act of turning away itself, and not its forerunners or results? Arrogance, viciousness, cowardice, gluttony--and envy too--are all the spiritual equivalent of shouting insults or sniveling excuses into your personal phone line to god. But despair is the certainty, the absolute certainty, that one cannot be redeemed. That no matter what hope whispers at the bottom of your soul, it too must be a lie. It is hanging up the phone on god.

Envy, like all the rest of the seven deadly sins, comes one step after that.* To envy is to say, I can never deserve or truly possess this good thing. All hope is lost, so it will never be mine, even if I appear to possess it. But I want to keep it near me anyway, so that I can more vividly remember the hope that I have lost. While that is ridiculous from a logical standpoint, it can make perfect and horrible sense on an emotional level. Emotions are more like chemistry than like math. You can't convince or prove your way out of an emotional assumption, any more than you can add +1 to N indefinitely to make the scent of oranges. You have to replace it with a different assumption.

Because the thing, whatever it is, isn't the actual target of the envy. Rather it is the happiness you associate with possession of the thing. The ability to experience happiness is the prerogative of the hopeful, not necessarily the skilled or the wealthy or the talented or the strong. Those things can all provide different and exciting ways to be happy, provided the person who has them is also filled with hope.

So what is it, this magical assumption that can replace the belief in despair, and pull a person back from the brink of unforgivable sin?

The best way I know to answer is this: To believe that you are loved.
What news will shine at just the right angle into the dim and frightened corners of your soul? What evidence will you find yourself able to actually believe? That I can't tell you.

Maybe it's a little gesture by another person. Say they notice something that's making you sad, offer to help you fix it, and when it works, their happiness at seeing you feel better is as big as your happiness for having a source of sadness removed. (Thanks for the awesome Xmas present, dave!) Or maybe you read or hear something that resonates in some empty place inside you, lets you realize that somebody out there understands and accepts the way you feel, even if you and they may never meet. It could be a matter of happenstance; maybe the wind blows an ad against your foot that says "never say never!" when you were just ranting in your head that things would never change. It's silly and sometimes--to logical analysis--nonsensical. But as long as it works to get you through the emotional transformation from despair back into hope, I say it's legit!

Here's a song fragment. May finish it, may not, but I thought it up while writing this post, so it gets written down here.

there's a hole in the ceiling of my soul
lets in the light, lets in the cold
I pray that it may never close

*There are those who say pride actually comes before despair. And in terms of logic their arguments make sense. But not in terms of emotional states. Search your own remembrance, you who have known the worst moments a living being may know! Does not the false and sneering pride come only after one relinquishes hope? Is it not a mere form of resistance to one's desperate urge to take up hope again?

oh, mercy me

First some chitchat, then I'll get down to what I want to talk about.

Xmas is coming, and with it come all the reactions people have to Xmas.

Street people and shoppers flood the shopping districts. The building where I work has live musicians performing downstairs, soothing all the hardworking businesspeople, and me as well. TV and internet news sources compete for airtime about who's angry that who's messing up whose experience of the holiday. Mom gets clingy and begins to draw any possible source of emotional support slowly towards her like a half-awake octopus that isn't entirely sure what's tangled up in its tentacles but is quite convinced that part of it has to be delicious.

As for me, I have been a little tense and suspicious and growly. I have been reading more things about things that happen in real life, which make me angry. In contrast to all of Pournelle's Jupter novels, which Amber has thoughtfully provided for me through Baen, which all make me feel better and more empowered and such. And Dave has finally gotten me to the point where I can pay attention to football without getting angry--I told him the other day I'd achieved a critical mass of knowledge. Meaning that at some point in the future it is inevitable that I will watch something footbally happen on a screen, understand it immediately, and react to it just like a sport-caring-about person would. :D He is so cool, I don't even feel like a hypocrite for it. Just havin' my mind expanded, is all.

And then there's this, which I found posted on Sean the Blogonaut's old website. Please, watch, enjoy! I've already emailed it to Meg, since the rant is the sort of thing I can picture her laughing her ass off to. Eh, Amber will probably also like it, since the guy gets in a potshot at just about everybody and ends with a spirited "Merry Christmas!" Dave doesn't usually go in for random internet people talking unless it's about sports or Magic, but again, who knows.

On to the meat of the post!

I read Sean the Blogonaut and John Weaver's blog, Against Biblical Counseling, because their principal issue of concern is an organization called Mercy Ministries. It gets financial backing from Hillsong church and Gloria Jean's coffee stores. This place bills itself as offering Christian psychological treatment facilities for young women with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, or who are recovering victims of abuse.

But in fact these centers offer only a cookie-cutter set of exercises on the Restoring the Foundations model, all led by bible students rather than psychological professionals. Seriously, just read the RTF cant in that link. Then try to imagine you are a teenage girl struggling with anorexia, and having bible students not trained in therapy and not much older than you are trying to passive-aggressively bully you into following the steps they need for you to follow in order for them to feel successful and get petted and praised by their mentors.

I most emphatically never was in a Mercy facility. Never been in a mental treatment program of any kind myself. Although I'm not sure whether to be proud of my own sneakiness in avoiding crossing that magic line where they'll send you, or annoyed at my caretakers over the years for not giving me the opportunity to go. From what I've heard from friends and relatives who've been, a lot depends on the way things are structured at an individual place, and what kind of human beings are running it. The personalities of the people around you make the difference between a useful Purgatory and a living Hell at the best of times. How much more so when it is one's own personality which has turned into an enemy, instead of a means of exploration and expression?

But there is just something about the Mercy situation that captivates and holds my interest. Because I have had a not insignificant amount of experience with the Pentecostal spiritualist crowd. And yes, they are spiritualists. I have come to recognize that whether you stick a Jesus fish on the side of your wrench, it is still a wrench, and all kinds of people have all kinds of tools and use them in whatever ways seem good to them, regardless of nominal creed. There was the whole range of human kindness and human wickedness--at all the different churches we went to as kids and teens, the now-defunct Pentecostal grade school where I did grades 6 through 8 and Meg did (I think) 2 through 4, the various prayer meetings and camps and retreats and things I've been to over the years.

In greater and lesser degrees, all the sprawling arms of the charismatic Christian movement has little pockets like Mercy in it. Where some deep-in-denial demagogue like Nancy Alcorn has put themselves in charge of someone else for a purpose they believe is right, using methods they have convinced themselves must be sound. ("It worked for ME, so it HAS to work for you, or else the problem is with YOU!") While in reality what they are perpetrating is a mockery of the principles of their religion and a hideous cruelty.

Once you start to say, "Oh, it's all right, they're religious, we don't have to hold them to the same standards as a secular psychological treatment program", you start to blur the boundaries between socially agreed-upon beliefs and facts in external reality. There is a difference, of course, between the primarily psychological harm wrought by organizations like Mercy, and the kind of atrocities where Christianity's ideas and words are used as an excuse for out-and-out torture and mass hysteria. But I believe the difference is only one of degree, and is entirely circumstantial. If times got a little harder, if people were a little less willing to investigate and sue, if survivors were a little less angry and honest, it could get much worse. So very quickly.

Which brings me back to Xmas.

As I was reminded by the Big Bang Theory (one of our favorite sitcoms these days), Christmas as a midwinter solstice fesitval evolved out of the Roman tradition of Saturnalia. As one character put it: People would bring evergreen branches into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic to encourage the return of spring. Saturn, who was Kronos in the Greek version, was the grandfather of all the gods. Temples to Saturn were the original banks. He represents the inexorable forces in the world, limitations like time and death and gravity, against which people must eternally struggle.

I haven't read too much on the subject, but the symbolism of the festival gives me an idea. The true meaning of Saturnalia is that ALL things have limits--even limits themselves. The things which bind us also give us shape. Death comes--but only after life. Without life, there could be no such thing as death. Without existence, the threat of nonexistence would have no power. Winter always returns--only to leave again. Gravity drags us down--but also holds us together. Gravity cuddles the oceans against the earth, wraps the air around the oceans. The gravity of the moon tugs against the gravity of the earth. Without it the earth might well have become a dreary wasteland like Mars or an endless storm of ammonia and nitrates like Venus. Yet in the dynamic balance between two sources of limitation, a little pocket, teeming with possibility and hope, springs up in the midst of a lifeless void.

Limitations only throw into sharper focus that something exists to be limited. Something must once have begun in order for an end to come, and something is always beginning.

Crazy people lie and cheat and do harm--first to themselves, and only afterwards to everyone they can get into their clutches. But they make themselves miserable, and turn their entire life histories into litanies of shame. When there is no one left who will believe them, no one left to whom they can exploit, it is to their own victims that they must always turn for mercy. Because nobody else even cares that they exist.

Happy monkey everybody! A fiercely determined Saturnalia to all, and to all a good night.

Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 14

"Today I was going to stop being so superstitious, but all the omens were bad."

With a few rewrites, maybe a concrete image, that could be a great sigquote.

Superstitions aren't the only beliefs I'm wrangling at the moment--they just happen to be the easiest to write about. The others aren't so much weird or esoteric as they are achingly self-referential. Such as: subtle changes to how I think about thinking about myself, or how I react to reacting to how others react to me. Each mildly different emotional state and social situation has its own whole set of parameters and needs its own finicky nudges. None of which, as a general rule, ever even get to the point where I consciously "think out loud" to describe what I'm doing. I just do it, and notice it only to the extent that it does or doesn't feel right, does or doesn't fit with the broad outline of my aims.

Thus, they would make really terrible reading. I would likely only confuse myself further if I were to attempt to describe the rebalancing of emotional forces that goes on when nudging a belief out of an old alignment. And if something I write is ever confusing to me, then I can be pretty sure that to other people it might as well be a picture of a bowl of squid chowder. Complete with smells!


All of the things on my list of superstitions have happened today. (Except for the bus one, which happened last night on my way home.) Which is very polite of the universe, riffling them all past me like flashcards so I can remember to forget them.

Except it isn't very polite of the universe, is it. Because reading motives into the perceived patterns of random event is...superstition! Man. Most of these things grew from emotionally satisfying hyperboly into de facto animism so gradually I hadn't even realized how bizarre some of them had gotten. D'you know how many times today I had to remind myself that file folders did not, in fact, feel sad and rejected when I chose to throw them in the recycle bin, to be replaced by newer, less wrinkly file folders? I had to actually think at myself, in the mental equivalent of the tone of voice used by sergeants to point out blindingly obvious things to privates who are standing more than twenty-five yards away, "Those are your emotions. You are projecting them. You don't need to do that."

What's going to be an equally interesting challenge is trying to pay an equal amount of attention to patterns of random events without trying to read meanings and motives into them. Unless the patterns came about as a direct consequence of the actions of a manifest being or beings, in which case the motives or indifference of those beings can be considered. Manifest in this case meaning a thing the existence of which is objectively provable. Which brings up all sort of interesting cases. Can a corporation be said to objectively exist? A religion? An academic "school of thought?"?

One of my favorite things to do when I'm bored is to imagine myself pontificating about something at a captive audience. The imaginary audience never speaks; I just imagine their shifting levels of approval, disapproval, bordeom, etc. In this case I was trying out different phrases of pithy advice on an imaginary young person (not pictured). Apart from the "bad omens" one above, this here was my favorite:

You are not finished--with anything!--until you reach the point where you have to throw everything away, and start again at the beginning.

Tuesdays With Abhorrent Fiends vol 43.

I highly recommend the following story:

The Things That Make Me Weak And Strange Get Engineered Away by Cory Doctorow.

It's scifi. It's set in a classic "totalitarian dystopia" future. But! It's also a lighthearted romp with an endearingly bumbling main character who actually manages to use his enormous brain properly from time to time. He is a monk in something called the Order of Reflective Analytics.

Which Order, were it not fictional, and all other things being equal, I would have been standing in line to join since a week before the doors opened. In fact, I would willingly be a participant in three consecutive episodes of Fear Factor if such was necessary to be allowed to join.* They spend all their time analyzing things and making sure they maintain good mental and physical health, plus a set percentage of time they spend noodling around with whatever hobby strikes their fancy.

I really, really like analysis. Especially self-analysis. The continued existence of this blog is more proof of that than anyone deserves to have inflicted upon them. My brain, she is like one of those scammer aliens from Bender's Big Score. The ones who have a sprunger in their neck which becomes engorged in the presence of (mmmm) information.


(The scammer aliens, for those who haven't seen the movie, are the ones on the right. The not even vaguely hot ones. The at least vaguely hot ones are Amy and Leela.)

Self-analysis, simply put, is a convenient dump for all that attention and mental energy I have to be paying to something. Me is always where I can get at me to think about me, so whenever I get bored, I end up self-analyzing more than usual. Which from time to time has led to some really bad feedback loops between boredom and sadness. But not today! So we'll not discuss that further just now.

Today, something highly reflective occurred to me. Lo, in the midst of my light clerical labors, whose chiefest occupational hazards are papercuts about the fingers and knuckles, soreness of the neck, back and shoulders, and extreme boredom of the kind which does not preclude rational thought if one is moved to engage in it.

Consider all those superstitions I listed in Tuesday 42. Consider that I hold each and every one of them in my brain at any appropriate time, and use them as an analytical sounding board off which to bounce my initial and subsequent observations of the events I experience. In the case of "ironic commentary" superstitions, any appropriate time is all the dogmanned time. Because irony, as we know, never goes out of style.

Now, why, on the face of it--why on Earth would I do such a thing?

The practical reason (in Aristotelian, the efficient cause) is that this system of superstitions replaced something else which was worse for my mental well-being. Namely, a system of similar but more negative superstitions I'd picked up haphazardly from my years in Christianity. All of which had to do with the relative morality or immorality of every little event I happened to notice, and the varying degrees of unsufferable disgustitude with which I was meant to react to a truly astounding number of things. Now, I know that no single human being, or even a group of separated individuals, would ever have wanted or consciously intended to put such a thing into my brain. However, it was my misfortune and lack of wisdom to absorb and mimic various structures of value judgments as I perceived others to apply them. So me becoming superstitious, in the sense of my previous post, was actually an improvement in terms of my mental health. This is because I was replacing something built blindly, by instinct and reaction, with something built fumblingly, through half-understood methods for reasons which were still nebulous.

However, the structural reason (aka: formal cause) why I must have something which serves that purpose in my brain is because I crave information. Sure, we all do! A constant stream of information about what things mean and what they all have to do with one another is essential to our survival. Furthermore, without that information, consciousness has nothing to work on, and eventually goes all wacky and shuts itself down.

And what occurred to me today is that without a structure of value judgments to put things in context, all the random little minutia of my day are just data. Not information. Like if the wind blew the letters on a sign off into the street. Your conscious mind can't do anything with data unless you have a context in which to process it. Value judgments and the beliefs which give them an overall shape and structure provide that context. And I want to process lots and lots of it all the time, certain types of it especially. If I can't get information of the kinds I want in the amounts I crave, I will eventually get edgy and twitchy and eventually freak out in the exact same way that I freak out under sensory deprivation. It is like depriving a non-vampire bat of both the smell and sound of tasty fruit nectars, or a bear-shark of its inalienable right to eat fish. Making stuff up to think about is way preferable to suffering the effects of boredom.

Point is this. Self-analysis, superstition, whatever direction you know how to point it in, every personality has a certain amount of attention which must be spent on something. And in order to do that, the person whom the personality expresses must believe in a set of value judgments. Because the essence of a value judgment is that it determines which things are most (and least) worth paying attention to!

Therefore. The value judgments in which you choose to believe determine (final cause!) which aspects of reality will provide you with the most data. Belief shapes the avenues of perception; perception provides data which can be turned into information once filtered through the lens of belief. I ended up with a cobbled-together group of wacky, vaguely new-agey superstitions for value judgments because they happen to be a decent fit, symbolically speaking, for the types of events I enjoy noticing.

This seems to confront me with a conundrum of fictionally difficult proportions. How am I to determine which value judgments are best for me, when the value judgments one possesses and the aspects of reality one notices exist in a causally dependent relationship to one another?

Or maybe it's more like Dave was telling me last night, while we were both getting drunk. If you are worried about many things, pick something you feel good enough about to make a decision about, and decide. Then all the other things will seem easier.

*By the fourth, I would start rationalizing myself out of it. Deep inside my brain I would weigh all the shiny biofeedback charts and times of quiet reflection against the necessity of having to eat another bug, and the bug would probably win. In terms of me wanting to not eat it, I mean.

Musical Monday vol 4.: the sound of the streets

Yesterday was an unseasonably beautiful day, so it was with a light heart that I took the bus down to State street. My goal was to get all my major gift shopping (which consists of books, books and more books) done in one fell swoop. The shopping for minor gifts I can take care of a little closer to the holiday. Me, actually buying gifts to give to other people for a change! Parts of turning slowly into a grownup are kind of fun. :)

Of course, I was not the only one who had that idea. State street is a tourist destination even for locals, as landmark businesses put up gaudy Xmas-themed display windows so that people from out of town or parents with children in tow can have something shiny to photograph one another standing in front of. In theory I suppose the displays also entice people into the stores to buy things, but I've never been so enticed myself, so I can't be sure.

Let's face it. Holiday shopping can be fun to do, but it is extremely boring to read about someone else's holiday shopping. Or even read about somebody else watching yet a third party's holiday shopping. So instead, I'm going to write about the people who provide the real sounds of the season--sounds that last all winter and all summer too, if you're in a place where they can be heard. People who need gifts as much as or more than anybody, but for whom we are all unlikely to get them. Because however many we bought, it would never ever ever be enough.

Much more interesting than the shoppers down on State street were the street people. Whether slurring the same sentence over and over to ask for money, making beautiful music to ask for money, or anything in between, downtown Chicago has a sound as distinctive as its skyline, in part because of them. Many more than you'd usually see even on a weekday, these folks were there to get what they could from the shoppers the same way the shoppers were there to get what they could of the sights and stores. Firstly, there were the drum kids. These are four or five young men with drumsticks and upturned buckets who usually perform on the sidewalk near the Art Institute in summer. They are awesome at drumming, and I did regret not having any cash to give them. There was also a guy with a trumpet playing carols. Who had been replaced, by the time I left the store, by a guy singing them in a surprisingly classical-sounding tenor. Another man, on a different corner, tried his hand at Xmas music with a saxophone but wasn't quite as good. Then there were four or five people begging, either sitting cross-legged on the ground or sitting in lawn chairs with blankets wrapped around their legs. They would hold up signs bearing crudely-written messages like "JUST HUNGRY" or "please help - God bless", or by calling out their message repeatedly; "please help me out with a couple dollars, I got no place to stay, please help..."

Normally, downtown on a winter weekday during business rush hours, you'll find one person begging per two-to-three square block area. Street performers, that is, those who play instruments, sing, or drum on upturned buckets, are less common. They occur maybe once in a six-to-seven square block area, and are most likely to be found on the east side of the river--basically where someone coming from the financial distract would have to cross a bridge in order to get to the Metra station. In fact, the heaviest concentration of street people is always between the most populous office buildings and the major mass transit stations. I assume that people who take Metra (the trains that go out to the suburbs) have looser pockets than people who take the CTA (which stays inside the city limits). This could be because people who live in the suburbs, on average, make more money than whose who live within the city limits, or maybe that street people simply think they do. Then again, if a significant portion of your living comes from begging, you probably can't afford to have illusions about that sort of thing.

My favorite of all of them is a man me and Dave call "bridge guy". (I'm not counting Bernie, since he's not a performer; he's more like a kind of a friend I don't see very often anymore cause I don't work in his neighborhood. Man, I hope he's okay. Weather is evil today and he's not getting any younger.) Bridge Guy works the Madison street bridge by the Lyric Opera center like it's his regular job. Over the years, working at different places and passing the bridge at different times, I'm pretty sure he sits on the bridge Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, morning and evening rush. Doubtless he's got another gig somewhere else in the city on the other days. Weekends I think he may follow other events around the city. The first time we saw Pearl Jam at the United Center, he was outside with his drums, going ba-ba-badadada-dum "Pearl Jam!" Alas, I didn't see him on State street. Who knows, maybe he was there Saturday, and I missed him.

The concentration is higher overall in the summer, but the ratio changes too. That is, in the summer, you're more likely to see a guy playing a tamborine or a saxophone, or just calling something loud and repetitive to get your attention. The "pay to make the guy go away" principle is used differently by different people, but in the summer everyone is a little more casual and more innovative because they don't have quite as much to lose. Whereas in the winter, you're more likely to see a lady all bundled up against the cold, holding an equally bundled-up toddler, calling out loudly in front of a retail location from which people are likely to emerge holding change or small bills. There, the presence of the child is supposed to guilt you into giving, because who wants to see a child have to be cold or hungry?

It's an ecological thing, when you think about it. There's a certain amount of money that people are willing or able to part with on sight. There's a greater number of people who desperately need that money in order to obtain food and shelter. And a much, much greater number who don't necessarily need it to keep from starving or freezing, but would be able to reduce the hardship of their situation slightly if they had it. The people who need it less desperately are able to ask for it more convincingly, and so get a greater proportion of the total charity dollars available at street level. But the thing to keep in mind when you're out on the sidewalk in winter (or summer) is that you, the non-street-person, really have no way of knowing who is which.

When I first started coming downtown on a regular basis, back in the day, I couldn't say no to anyone. Couldn't bear to. How could I possibly hold back something somebody else obviously needs, when it won't make my life all that much worse not to have it? What kind of a horrible person could say no? What if I was in their situation, and I had to watch me say no to me over and over?

Those feelings never really go away. They just get shoved backwards, covered over.

First by distrust. Say you give some money to a lady who says she needs it for the bus, then she drags the kid a few steps further along the street to have her ask the next person the exact same thing. And the one after that, and the one after that too. Then you think about it, and you think, "well, if she'd asked me for $80 to take him to the doctor, I wouldn't have had it, and maybe she's got to lie in order to get people to believe her." Or maybe she's already got a job and just goes around begging for extra money for booze or whatever. Eventually you realize that no matter how creepy somebody looks, they could very easily be using their begging income for totally legit purposes. And no matter how honestly distressed they look, they could be using that money for something you'd disapproave of. So you can't use your preferred ways for them to spend the money as a reason to give or not give, not really. Because you're only human, not omniscient, and you have no way of knowing. If your conscience won't let you allow the possibility of them spending it on something you'd rather they not have, but also won't let you do nothing, you get them food. A lot of people do this. Me, I like giving 'em money, when I give. Because I figure a person needs a lot more things than food in life, and if I'm giving them enough of the benefit of the doubt to give anything, I'd rather let them choose and hope for the best.

Second by habituation. You get used to seeing street people around, until you stop really seeing them. They become part of the landscape, as much as the cars on the street or the trains on the tracks. So you don't feel them tugging on your conscience because you don't see people, just stationary objects to be avoided. A certain amount of this is unavoidable. But at the same time it is the most dehumanizing for everybody. It's bad enough when you're part of a stream of people all heading from one place to another, ignoring one another out of politeness. Day after day of that and it does make you kind of lonely, just another face in the crowd. But in that situation, if two people bump into each other, they both apologize and smile at each other before moving on. Or if someone drops a glove, three people will say, "hey, sir/ma'am, you dropped this!" and pick it up for them. But a street person in the middle of a crowd of commuters might as well be invisible. Which, if any of my much milder experiences with social invisibility are a baseline, is probably fun for about the first three minutes, ironic for the next seven, relentlessly soul-crushing for the following eight to twelve hours. After which the soul-crushing continues but you are too angry or numb or exhausted to notice. And yet, if you, me, the non-beggar individual in question were to give money or food or something to everyone who asked for it, we'd be broke very quickly. Maybe not to the point where we were out on the street begging ourselves. But definitely to the point where we or the people for whom we have accepted responsibility would be deprived of things we actually did need.

All of which to say, if you're in a situation where you think you can strike up a conversation with a street person but also have a reasonable way to end it when it gets uncomfortable, do it. It is important to be alert, though, even though it's a rare beggar who will actually do something crazy. Just like it's a very rare regular commuter who will actually do something dangerous. I think the proportions aren't as far off as people seem to think.
Beggars are generally pretty lonely people. Lonely and very proud, in a brittle sort of way. It takes an immense pride or a grudge, somewhere in there, to be able to ask strangers for money every day and not crumble under their mass mute rejection. Add to that the hope buried deep in the mind of every human being that every person we see who seems better off than ourselves is secretly a super-rich benefactor who will shower us with wealth and take away all our problems if only we can ask in the right way. You see how this can make for some extremely sticky situations if you haven't planned your conversation exit strategy in advance.

A dollar or two bucks or whatever is good for a start; it normalizes the situation so that they're not left hanging thinking you're going to give them something when you actually aren't. So do start the conversation off with some money, or a sandwich or whatever your conscience lets you give. Unless they're your local neighborhood bum and you and they both know that you see them all the time and you're totally going to hook them up next time, in which case it's not as rude. (Provided you actually DO hook them up next time.) Because even if somebody makes their living begging on the street, it's important to occasionally be able to talk to someone who looks you in the eye and treats you like a human.

As for when you should give, conversation or no conversation, that I can't tell you. Everybody's got their own strategy. When I worked in Bernie's neighborhood I'd give him a dollar or so every time I saw him and had it on me, and didn't give other people squat. Now I work in a neighborhood where we don't so much have a regular guy, so I give more haphazardly, to whomever's around and catches my eye when I happen to have an extra buck on me. Or not. I figure if I behave randomly I'm not altering the economic homeostasis too much. That is, I by myself am not driving out anyone who was there already, nor am I drawing in anybody who wasn't going to be coming in anyway. All I can do is keep an even keel, be nice to people when I get the chance to do so, and hope the tiny amounts of assistance I provide go where they are most needed.

But man, sometimes Xmas is depressing.


So here's a little story.

One month and four days ago, I spent a long, long time on the phone with Ticketmaster's automated ticket-purchasing system. I was attempting to purchase tickets for an Oasis concert which is tonight. Somehow I hung up the phone with the impression that I had purchased these tickets and everything was fine.

We waited until yesterday (the stipulated 24 hours before the events) for the things to arrive in the mail. They did not, so I emailed customer service. Customer service told me they had no record of any such purchase. I got all huffy and went into my bank account so I could pdf-ify my e-statement and send it to them to prove otherwise. Turns out there wasn't any such purchase. Yes, I really do pay little enough attention to my bank balance on a day-to-day basis that the non-spending of about $120 I thought I had spent could go unnoticed by me. Financially irresponsible as hell, but still unfortunately the case.

So both Geds and Dave, who are both more into Oasis than me, who had been looking forward to this concert for more than a month, now do not get to go either. Because I misunderstood the promptings of an automated phone purchase system and then failed to follow up on my supposed purchase to the extent tat would have been necessary to discover that it did not, in fact, take place.

This is one of those things that sometimes happens which have an extremely negative impact on my general state of emotional well-being.

Oh, and I still can't figure out how to turn off the feature on my phone that makes it attempt to wirelessly sync up with internet and email service. Which it cannot do, because I have never set up the email or internet service that comes with my minutes package. So every time it attempts to do the wireless sync thing, it keeps trying and failing, trying and failing, trying and failing until the battery runs out. Which it did again this morning and I, again, failed to notice this fact.

Here's the ironic thing. I really, really, really want to do some mental-breakdown type stuff and run off and sit in a Starbucks somewhere where nobody knows where I am and cry and write idiotic, angry things on a yellow legal pad until I regain some semblance of cognitive control. Not communicate with anyone until either I have my shit sorted out, or someone comes out and finds me. Then, when I come back, get all surly and defensive and brittle because of my narrow escape from total emotional collapse.

However, to do that would cause undue anguish and distress for the people who care about me most, and is in fact very rude. So instead of doing what my instincts are screaming at me to do, I am going to describe how it tends to happen. Insecure people in great emotional pain who are not thinking very clearly have been stumbling upon this technique down through the ages, and finding it extremely effective. Though it is terribly wasteful and impractical.

It is a form of emotional blackmail. One of those instinctive action-reaction things people move through without conscious intent in their desperate desire to avoid the disapproval of others. This particular process, within its category, is milder than (for example) threats of suicide, but more extreme than (for example) initiating a guilt-trip with "you know what a flake I am, why didn't you make me double-check it?" sort of arguments.

The way it works is this:
-- Hideous feelings of guilt, loathing etc. rise up in me, far out of proprtion to the triggering event.
-- I either perceive these feelings as generally valid because of other, unrelated low-self-esteem issues, or choose to perceive them as valid for other, consciously selected reasons.
-- Having validated extreme, overreactive negative emotions and identity beliefs, I become mentally unbalanced enough to do something stupid, destructive, reckless, or otherwise potentially even worse than the triggering event.

People who care about me and/or who are affected by my reckless actions must then redirect all their attention and emotional energy to those actions rather than to the triggering event. It becomes their responsibility to prevent me from remaining in a dangerously unbalanced state or doing anything else stupid. This means people who would have been angry at or disappointed with me because of the triggering event must tone down or even abandon altogether any expressions of criticism towards me, because getting me back into a state of emotional stability is now their first priority.

Thus can two wrongs seem, on an emotional level at least, to make a right.

This process is also inadvisable because of the "boy who cried wolf" problem. Sometimes a person, no matter what their other issues, will have a serious long-term problem which they are unable to fix, or of which they are not consciously aware. But if they muddy the waters by extorting emotional support out of the people closest to them, then those people become less and less likely (not to mention less and less able) to provide them with emotional support in dealing with their more serious underlying problems.

So I am going to apologize like a big girl, and pay more goddamn attention next time I buy concert tickets, and endure a certain amount of disappointed anger from the people I have disappointed. Because it is, after all, appropriate.

Now I am going to take my stupid dead phone and go eat lunch. Working at the restaurant taught me damn well the consequences of punitively depriving myself of food when I am feeling angry with myself. Unsurprisingly, it makes me feel much worse about myself. So I will not do it.

the phone repairman

I got the chorus for this song almost a month ago, and I had been poking at it almost continuously ever since because my spidey senses (not pictured) told me it was gonna be a good one. It is! I hadn't done any guitaring for like three days, but apparently the break was part of what I needed for this thing to finish brewing. And yes, the second verse contains a deliberate reference to the Peacemakers song "Leaky Little Boat", which I love very much. I also love YOU very much. So there.

People of Springfield! I come to you with a terrifying message of hope...from the future!
~Homer Simpson, in that one Halloween episode where guns were banned

[the phone repairman]

my hat prevents the wind from freezing off my ears
but it still gets into my eyes
my day's spent near accountants talking dumplings
I make sure their shit's alphabetized
show me where it is written
I must demonstrate my competence to be admired
where is the world where everyone will love me
for the stubborn shape of my desire

the phone repairman
ain't been there yet
and I'm callin, I'm callin,
and I can't get get get get get get get
through, through, through

I scrawl out messages, stuff them in bottles
toss them from my leaky little boat
what I fish from the waters and unroll
I never feel completely sure you wrote
we seem to see the same world
when we talk about it hand to hand and eye to eye
but since we both were little girls
we knew that it was possible, was possible to lie

the phone repairman
ain't been there yet
and I'm callin, I'm callin,
and I can't get get get get get get get
through, through, through

I used to feel a pinprick in my conscience
when I stepped inside a big church door
whatever god is never shuts up
most religion's just a way of keeping score
if I do right by you it's cause I love you
I don't need another reason now
true holiness and beauty
always find a way to bring me to my knees somehow

though the phone repairman
ain't been there
I'll keep callin, keep callin,
until I get get get get get get get
through, through, through
to you, to you

Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 13

Senor Burns, Senor Burns
con el corazon de pero
Senor Burns, Senor Burns
el diablo con dinero!

~that one Simpsons where the school strikes oil. may have gotten the words wrong!

should I
save myself
for later
or generously
and do


Saw a rabbit this morning. I said, "Hello, bunny." It just sat there warily as I walked past, which surprised me, since like all rabbits it looked as though it were ready to bolt into the underbrush at the slightest movement.

I sometimes think my dream logs might be the most entertaining things I put on this blog, because they are colorful and action-packed. Like reading a miniature short story with a plot that doesn't make sense, but characters and images which are shiny and leave a tasty residue in the brain.

Oh, a doozy of a dream last night. A doozy! Acts 2 and 3 would make a great movie plot.

However, in order for me to understand what this dream was trying to tell me, I needed the symbolic context provided by an earlier dream. Which, in backreading, it turns out I did not write down.

The earlier one, let's call it "the laser stadium dream":

Act one. My entourage and I were hurrying through the outer hallways of an enormous building which felt like a stadium. It was well-lit and bustling with people (not pictured), its walls made of grey stone. Visible through the occasional archway in the walls (or maybe I just knew what was going on in there through dreamovision?) was a central chamber, about the size of the United Center turned on its side. Maybe a little bigger. In it, partnered teams of humans and enormous, shiny magical beasties were taking turns singing and dancing together; the music was haunting and wonderful and the dances gyrated and pranced all through the empty space. I wanted very badly to go on in and take my turn. One of my entourage handed me a vibrantly-illustrated book, and as I looked through it I realized with a jolt that I had no idea what I/we were supposed to perform. "I don't know the words," I said, stricken. My entourage-person grabbed me by the hand and we took off, flying down the halls.

Act two. We flew up and up around many halls, ramps really, and the light and the color of the stone walls gradually shifted from cool grey to a warm light tan color, like afternoon sunlight on sandstone. At last we came to a square chamber, its walls and ceiling made of large blocks of the same color of stone. Lower down on the walls there were a few round ducts or tubes, one of which we had arrived through. Instead of a floor the walls stretched down into emptiness (not pictured). I was alone. There was a round window or portal, near the top of the wall at the front of the room. The warm light should have been shining through it into the room--and thence, I understood, down into the rest of the building. Instead, there was a complicated and nasty-looking metal device which exactly covered most of the window, and in front of the device a crossbeam of iron or charred wood ran across the length of the room. In the center of the device there was a small pinhole or lens, through which the sunlight captured by the device could be focused and pointed like a laser. I floated, or was gently pulled, down into one of the tubes, and rushed out of the floorless room back down into the building.

Act three. My entourage and I were sitting at a table in a large banquet hall behind the performance chamber in the stadium. Some other people were with us--I think they may have been fictional characters or representations of people I knew, but those details are gone from my memory. The hall was crowded; everyone was eating their meal and talking and mingling. I brought my attention back from looking around at the room, and saw that everyone else at my table had gotten up and wandered off. Then laser beams, three or four of them, fired down out of the ceiling, scoring the table in front of me. I was worried by how close I'd come to being hit, and also quite annoyed.

The symbolism in that dream has come to be very understandable to me as I've thought it over! What I am fond of calling "the machine in my brain", the issues I still have that are what remains of my craziness, are represented by the machine in the window in act 2. They take something that should be wholesome and joyous and make it into a weapon. A weapon which, more often than not, is something that endangers me and drives people away from me, or me from them. The proper use of the thing the machine is sitting on top of and evilly transforming would enable me to achieve some form of awesomeness that I desire very, very much.

As I fell asleep last night, I was contemplating in some detail about some personality-construction issues that have been bugging me. It is therefore most gratifying to me that my dream-making parts were able to represent the issues with which I am wrestling in the following way! I want to call this "the pointless dystopia dream (with monster)":

Act one. Some confusion of sequentiality here. My entourage and I were hanging out in a house. I had found a seal, or went out and found a seal, who was definitely my friend. It was a happy and playful fellow and didn't seem to mind having to waddle around on land. We went into the living room of the house or were already there. A dog was there, equally happy and playful as the seal, and also my friend. I sat down on the couch to play fetch with them, and wanted them to play with each other. I had some sort of toy that I would throw across the room; whichever animal reacted first ran over to the other end of the room, grabbed it, and carried it back to me, while the other animal sat in front of me feeling miffed. When they continued in this way even after I'd explained to them what I wanted (yes, dogs and seals in dreams can have things explained to them!) I became a little frustrated and vaguely confused.

Act two. Camera pulled way back. Lighting went from midday summery sunlight to temperate darkness and gloom. Same location, different process, that much was clear.

(Interesting thought occurs to me here. I never experience temperature in dreams; it can only be inferred from the quality of ambient light, or more obvious visual cues like snow or fire. Must read around to try and find out which parts of the brain one dreams with. I wonder if the lack of certain physical sensations like heat and cold are due to the same limitations that prevent your body from responding to physical movements you make while dreaming?)

Mr. Burns had either knocked down his own house, or realized that it had been knocked down. He grinned evilly and made imperious gestures, and as he did so, mazelike walls and ramparts and corridoors began constructing themselves. The structures expanded out and out in erratic patterns, to fill the entire landscape. The whole thing was made of plywood which had been inexpertly painted black, like the plain boxes theaters use to make rearrangeable sets. Only here the paint job was bad and the wood looked either flimsy or old or both. Myself and my entourage had to hide in the hollow spaces inside the walls and flee from the place's security guards. Since the place wasn't ours, of course, we didn't belong there and we didn't want to be caught. So the ending image of this act was of us in flight, certain that pursuers were only a step behind us.

Act three. Did not take any longer in subjective time than the previous acts, but was information-dense, so I've subdivided it into scenes!

Scene one. I fled into something like a junkyard or a car scrapyard, still with the feeling that my pursuer was gaining on me. After a few dodges and darts I found an unlocked car and threw myself into the back seat, landing on some crumpled-up plastic. The chief security guard got into the front seat. This was her car. For a single panicked moment I thought maybe if I crouched under the plastic and stayed very still she wouldn't see me. But then she gave me a look over her shoulder and a little smile, and I knew that me finding her unlocked car was exactly the plan.

She looked a bit like Annie Lennox:

only with heavier makeup and one of those old-fashioned police hats. Scary, but rather hot. (Gee whiz, I wonder what recurring dream character we have here? Grr. Whee!) More dreams or movies about dystopian futures should have such a chica as main antagonist!

Scene two. The car was now a tank. There was more light in the sky, and scenery existed in the background. She drove us over to the edge of the scrap yard, where it bordered on the woods, and I saw something like a small graveyard. I recognized it immediately as the graves of my fellow members of the resistance, kept there in (supposed) secret from the guards. The area with the burial plots in it was marked out from the bare dirt by a loose line of pale stones. Narrow pathways marked out in the same way meandered throught the area. Instead of names and dates, the graves were marked with gaudy headstones made of brightly-colored metal and plastic. Even though the paths were extremely narrow and the ground was difficult to see from inside the tank, the chief guard lady maneuvered along the paths with delicate precision, turning with slow care, so as not to disturb anything. I noticed this and realized it for a gesture of deep respect, as between honorable enemies at the end of a long campaign.

Scene three. We moved further out, to the edge of the woods. No longer had the sense of being in a vehicle. It was just about dawn. Behind us and to the right, beyond the scrap yard, a nearly-intact highway stretched out to the horizon. On our right plains and woods rolled out, with some steel-colored old water towers standing lonely in the distance, the paint on them faded beyond legibility. (The old-school shape, like a hat-wearing cup on stilts, not the kind that are all bulbous on top.) In front of us was a wide river, and immediately to our left was a pool of water with a weeping willow leaning out over it. I/we looked around at the river and further out to the woods and plains, and thought, Maybe anyone who was left [from the resistance, that is] fled out there, into the wilderness. Then a flock of pigeons exploded out of the trees, their flight patterns indicative of panic. You know how flocks of birds get all crazy-swirly when there's a bunch of flocks that don't normally fly together trying to share the same airspace? I didn't recognize it till I ran through the images in my mind just now, but that's where I'd seen that before. After the first flock of flocks, more came; the birds were fleeing from every direction except the one from which we had come. And I had the horrified thought: Plague. Here we'd been fighting each other for control, while out there in the wilderness there was coming something that wanted to totally destroy us.

Right on cue, a hideous behemoth came into view in the distance, lumbering down the highway, wide as four lanes of traffic all by itself.

I scrutinized it as best I could from afar. Didn't intend to stick around once it got near. Its basic body type, my brain had clearly gotten from the behemoths in Heroes IV (oh how I miss that game! and the broken laptop all my savegames are on!), but it was distorted or mutated way beyond that. Still had the grey fur and the lumpy physique. Instead of a face-shaped face, though, its head skewed over to one side, so that one eye would have had to be much bigger than the other. (Fortunately the small-eye side was the side facing us.) Its legs were small and stubby, almost vestigial, while its arms were freaking enormous, massive muscley claw-shaped hands nearly as long as the rest of its body. Between the arms and legs it had a mass of wavy tentacles instead of a proper front-of-torso. As it continued down the road towards the scrap yard I saw it (or perhaps another one like it?) glide through the air, using its tentacle mass as a kind of wings, so that its huge grasping hands looked like a giant scoop held out in front of it. It turned right as it came to the scrap yard, and upon closer inspection it didn't look so much like the behemoth as I'd thought.

My companion (not pictured) was now apparently carrying me by flapping with her wings; I could feel the action but was not paying attention to it yet.

The beast was headed towards the pond--not hunting us, just hunting. I looked down at the water and saw the silvery side of a fish, wide as my arm, turning just under the surface. My first thought was, Hey, a fish! Maybe we can catch it and eat it. But then it kept turning and turning--eight feet long, I thought--and I realized no fish could be that long and the still same width all the way down. The idea disturbed me and I discarded any notion of possibly trying to eat OR catch whatever it was. We hovered back away from the bank as the beast approached; it passed next to the tree, brushing back the lower branches as it went by. (This was a very tall tree.) It hitched itself over, with something like a very graceful full-body shrug, so that it could lower itself into the water tentacles down. Seen up close, it was obvious to me that it was also a kind of squid, and its tentacles up close looked a lot more like fish than like part of a furry beast. Long, silvery fish.

Just then, I could feel that the wings that kept us hovering over the surface of the water were laboring harder, that we were slowly beginning to sink towards the water.

At the thought of even touching the surface of a pond with two of those fearsome beasts in it, I felt that old familiar, "well, fuck this!" feeling surge up inside of me, and woke up.

So it'll take me some time to sort out all the symbols in there, but there are some things I can say right off the bat.

The little girl character has become a woman! No longer just an unpredictable young woman whom I love dearly and fear passionately. Now she is a sexy commandant who tricks me into the back of her vehicle, honors my fallen, and then warns me of oncoming peril which endangers us both. Oo yeah. That kicks so much ass.

Mr. Burns is me again. This is like the fourth or fifth time that an active mode entered into by my conscious personality has been represented in a dream by a male cartoon character. The flimsy dingy gloomy maze probably represents a mental state. Of, well, gloomy brooding with undertones of panic. Maybe I turn into male cartoon characters when I do things that are stupid, selfish or immature? That would make sense.

The dog and seal are an interesting image. Tentatively I'd interpret them to be the conscious and unconscious sides of my hat. The dog would represent the conscious side because it is a land creature and because it was already in the house. The seal would then be the unconscious side, because it is an underwater creature and because I just recently became friends with it. So they'll each play with me, but not with each other, and each feels sort of pouty when I pay more attention to the other one than to it. Oy vey. At least they are both friends with me, though!

Yeah, the behemoth squid thing was scary-looking. But the threat it presented was potential, avoidable, rather than immediate and certain. Like keeping an eye on the wasp in the room. All the cues point to it being something not originating from within my personality, as well, which makes it a little easier to be alert against it. Whatever it represents.

What I find most interesting from a dream tech standpoint was the car/tank/graveyard/flapping bird wings thing. Okay. We already postulate that the "wilderness" represented the world of mental experience outside my personality; behemoth came from there, I don't have that many flocks of pigeons in me, etc. Which means that act three, scene one up there either represented (if I was not traveling or there's no such thing) or was (if I can and was) me and my invisibler half moving to, and then across, the boundary between my personality and whatever's right next to it in whatever part of the world we all go to when we dream. Which, assuming the second thing, suggests several items of tech.

Item the first, sexy scary chick is the person/represents the aspect of me who/which has the ability to direct energy extensions out of my personality. Textev: car belongs to her. Car becomes tank as we approach boundary. Once we cross the boundary, the tank becomes unmanifested, implying that what feels big and bulky when on the inside is like a minimal requirement for movement on the outside.

Item the second, what I refer to as "my entourage" in dreams, whoever or whatever they are, are not of use or do not manifest separately from me when outside my personality. This is the meaning of the graveyard scene. Now, I don't take that scene to mean they are dead or disempowered or whatever. I would be very surprised if they were absent from my next dream. Rather, I think it is location and function-dependent. Like in the card game Magic, when a creature you had in play is put into the graveyard, that doesn't mean it's no longer a factor in the game. There are spells that can bring cards out of the graveyard, shuffle them back into your deck, or that simply act differently when certain things are in your graveyard. So the term, and the image, are pretty fluid for me. But the whole no-entourage-outside-the-ego-boundary implication is pretty unambiguous.

Item the third. This is not a conclusion, only a suspicion. I have seen dream-beasties before which resemble the behemoth squid monster. For lack of a better word, an organism/idea/experience of the sort represented by that dream image is the sort of creature I do refer to as a demon.
(I've talked about this before and at length, but to recap a bit. In common parlance, demons and angels are like anthropomorphized quanta of moral energy under direct control of either god or the devil. According to that system, only the direct (god speaketh!) or indirect (I speaketh in the name of god with his/her permission!) intervention by one of the two ultrapowers will affect their behavior. In my personal made-up lexicon, demons and angels are either A. organisms which don't have bodies, B. memeplexes which seem to behave organically, or C. there is no difference between the two descriptions. Which means they can be treated like organisms; communicated with, befriended/tamed, chased away, eaten etc. My favorite is C, by the way.)
So then. What if, when a thing like our friend Uglybuns over there gets inside a personality but doesn't actually subsume it, part of it can turn into something like the laser-window machine from the laser stadium dream? Like a...hell, hard to think of a good metaphor for this one. Like if a lion tried to gouge out your guts, maybe, and while you were fighting it off a piece of claw got lodged in your small intestine, so that from then on all the food you digested had to move around it, so you got fed more slowly and had diarrhea no matter how much you ate?
Okay, that metaphor sucks. I'm usually better at metaphors. But, dangit, at least half of being good at metaphors is being able to notice when two things resemble one another, even (or especially) in a totally non-obvious way. And those two things did, some way or another, even though I can't possibly show them to you because my brain assembled them out of bits and pieces of sense-memory and shoved them into my dreams to try and get me to pay attention to parts of my personality that need fixin'.

Peter Carroll once wrote something to the effect that even a small ability to change oneself is greatly preferable to a large, impressive ability to perform useless parlor tricks. So even though my metaphorical analysis is gappy as of yet, the goals they describe are clear to me. Metaphorically speaking: I must get to be on even better terms with this dream lady with the too much eye makeup, and/or convince my dog and seal that they really can get along, even if the one doesn't swim too good and the other finds walking a chore. Then I will perhaps open up several new, improved avenues by which to be able to change myself into someone even more fun to be around!

Then, not only will imaginary lava want to be my friend, so will other people maybe! Teeheehee! *tents fingers and tries vainly not to giggle*

That means, "I'm not crazy anymore"--in my made-up space language.

~ Saturday Night Live, one of the Jeopardy sketches

Ach, time to go home from work.

Tuesdays With Abhorrent Fiends vol 42. (superstition special!)

Everyone's got superstitions. Some are expansions from observed obvious things, like how it's bad luck to open an umbrella in the house. Some just help to organize one's emotions, like how knocking on wood is supposed to help remove one's will from behind a statement of possible calamity.

I'd been thinking of doing this earlier, maybe declaring a Superstition Saturday (alliteration anyone?). But there really isn't enough to talk about in the superstition department to make it a regular feature, and besides, I was too busy relaxing this weekend to make it go. Let's see if I can make it happen today!

O: Observed event
I: Intentional action
>: increased likelihood of result
=: direct correlation with result

(I) Buckling down at work without outside prompting.
> I have good luck in matters which involve faceless, bureaucratic institutions OR social events in which tricky timing issues are crucial to success.

(O) I am interrupted while working on a creative, psychological or other thinky thing. Similarly, if I am trying to write something down and my pen keeps drying up.
= That thing being worked on is important, worth doing and deserving of careful thought. More repetition means more emphasis.

(O) The bus is either at the bus stop or just pulling away from it as I exit the door of the apartment building, meaning that I won't be able to catch that particular one as I don't run quite that fast.
> I will experience a frustrating and/or unusually challenging day. (Likely causation factors there involve lateness of wake-time and disruption of morning routine. Actual bus arrival times vary just enough from schedule that I can't always hold myself entirely at fault. Maybe the driver was just running a bit ahead of schedule, kind of thing.)

(O) Lightbulb or appliance light flickers when I walk past, OR I notice birds flying around in a suspiciously apt manner, OR I overhear a suspiciously apt snatch of conversation between passersby.
= Ironic commentary on whatever I was doing or stewing about in my brain, ancient Greek style. Repetition or more flamboyant bird action denotes increased sarcasm or concern on the part of the universe.

(I) I do something nice, decent, or obvious duty-as-friend for closeperson.
> I have good luck or miraculously avoid bad luck in tricky relationship situations or in the arena of personal care.

(I) Play or sing my songs in front of new people who respond positively.
= I get more songs more often, and have good luck in a random area of endeavor depending upon the nature of the audience.

(I) Defer gratification of my whims in order to pay attention to someone else and validate them.
= I am more able to sneak, slack, cut corners or laze about. Especially at work, but also regarding situations when, say, I might want tell two people who don't talk to each other that I'm hanging out with the other one so that I can stay home and sleep. Mostly used for work slacky. (Have I mentioned I've taken up the Kingdom of Loathing again?)

(I) Smoke my last rolled cigarette without having either rolled a replacement or bummed a replacement off of someone who smokes ready-mades.
> I will do something else stupid, like forget to call someone back or leave the house without my keys. (Likely this one's just a correlation, a mental state barometer of sorts. If I'm being lazy and not planning ahead in one area of my life, I'm more likely to do the same in another, ja?)

It's interesting to hear different people give different provenances for why their superstitions work or how they came about. Most positive superstitions get the thumbs-up from God, angels, or in the case of one lady I know, a dead loved one. Negative superstitions can fall under Murphy's law, demons, etc. Though I suppose there are people out there who will blame bad fairies, the government, or terrorists for all their little woes.

Who knows how this stuff works, though? Maybe the universe likes to run in grooves; maybe it's the quantum oberver effect of the person holding the superstition that nudges reality around them to form a correlative habit. Or maybe there are nice angels and bad fairies who get some unknown form of benefit from annoying us, poking us in the rear when we get sulky or complacent, and helping to make sure that if we've been being inattentive to other things, we lose our keys, too.

dead man's blues

Woke up this morning and had this sneak up on me just as I was heating up my morning cocoa. When, oh when, will I stop writing songs about death? Eh, probably never. One of those big themes that tends to characterize a person's work in general. Even though any particular example can be read through a number of different conceits as well.

This one, however, is unambiguously about death. It is also unambiguously the blues! Dave had been saying to me a time ago that it would be awesome if I wrote something else that did the thing that but the ghost does. While that song has things that I don't yet know how to do again (that being the nature of magic), I can write more blues. And I have never yet failed in a songwriting challenge / commission once I have decided to accept it. I am still a little growly and suspicious of this song because the tune is too similar to Pentecostal basement dream. However, if I have to play one and hoard the other up, this is the one I will play. It is the tighter and craftier example, equally Minerva methoded but better revised between breakfast table and desk.

[dead man's blues] 12/2/08

when you get busy dying
you let your buildings go
you open up your heart
and turn them out into the snow
won't fix their leaky rooftops
won't mend their broken glass
you root through your possessions
for a torch that you can pass

what you're afraid of losing
it isn't yours to lose
who's gonna keep on walking
in a dead man's shoes

your bank account is empty
your guns have turned to rust
you look round at your friends
and realize whom you can trust
not to give you affection
not not to lay the blame
but who'll use the right inflection
when it's time to speak your name

you'll break your heart in choosing
what isn't yours to choose
who's gonna keep on walking
in a dead man's shoes

the flowers by the sidewalk
smell much sweeter than before
you catch yourself a' weeping
when the wind comes in the door
you wrap yourself in music
to warm your shivering soul
you tried hard not to abuse it
but you never had control

thought you knew just how to use it
but that was all a ruse
who's gonna keep on walking
in a dead man's shoes

it's like you never paid attention
to what happens every day
now there's a whole new dimension
nothing getting in its way
not who will love you tender
or what they'll put you through
but how will you be remembered
and most of all, by who

shame you can't stick around
to hear the news
who's gonna keep on walking?
that's the dead man's blues.