Football Friday vol. 4: Of towels and men

It's time for the last Football Friday of the year, before it becomes Futility Friday in honor of my beloved Cubs and their glorious 101-year streak of irrational optimism in the face of inevitable doom. I do not say this doom has been inevitable because of a hokey, made-up curse that sells a lot of t-shirts and glossy-paged coffee table books. Rather, because of the entirely human ability to come right up to the edge of a difficult feat, stand at the brink of a greatness to which one has dedicated talent and training and sweat and tears and millions of dollars, and then say to oneself, Wait a minute. I can't really be doing this, can I? Why me? What makes me so special, so gifted, so lucky, so different, when all the great-hearted, talented folks who came before me have failed?

But there will be plenty of time for that later. My prediction, if by some odd coincidence one of my non-Dave readers is interested in it, is down below the image.

Tonight I will be talking about football. In football the opportunity for a man to second-guess himself seems usually to be obliterated by the split-second reaction times necessary to play the game without getting horribly mangled by the big, strong men who are paid to hurtle towards him with the sole object of slamming him into the ground. Even those whose job it is to slam others into the ground are in constant jeopardy of themselves being thus slammed, in order to prevent them from accomplishing same. But football is a sport beloved both for its (carefully controlled, but still impressive) violence and for its statistical unpredictability.

Very, very few statistics in the game of football have any meaning, even in the broad sense in which any statistic can be said to have meaning. It's a point that's been done to death, and I've typed out four or five similies to express it just now and erased them, because none could add any new insight to that bald statement. Statistics describe generalities. Sporting events are celebrations of the particular. The man who's spent all year on the sidelines but comes off the bench in the big game because the star player got his ankle crushed in a freak accident, and carries his team to glory. The man whose name has been on every sportscaster's lips for days, whose ridiculously expensive replica jerseys adorn the backs of thousands, who inexplicably forgets where he is for a crucial split second and loses a game that everyone had thought was a foregone conclusion. It is precisely this that excites hope and fear in the heart of the true sports fan, because the fan can see in the game the mirror of real life. We may understand the rules, calculate the odds, plan as best we can for every eventuality we can imagine, but in any particular case, when it's your ass on the line, success or failure may have nothing to do with your knowledge or your talent or your plans. Shit just happens.

Let it be said again that I'm not a true sports fan. I respect those who are; I think it can be a psychologically healthy outlet for a human being's need to belong, to fully invest passion and identity in a group and a cause. Healthy, because it's less susceptible than a lot of groups and causes to being twisted into an instrument of oppression and hate. Because no matter how much a person wants to weep or break things when their team suffers a heart-wrenching defeat, at the end of the day it's only a game. But that part of being human is something I'm frankly afraid of--afraid to do, afraid I'm not quite as able to do as other human beings. To the extent I've got it in me, I'm going to spend it on my family, or on things I can participate in personally. I don't have enough identity to spare to give all that much to a sports team.

(Yet another reason the Cubs are the perfect match for me. And the extent to which a lot of Cubs fans are like me is, to my eye, a big part of what's wrong with the Cubs, as an organization and a cause. But I'm getting off topic again.)

I predict that the Steelers will win, but will not cover the point spread.

In terms of strict football, Dave has described to me the matchup of these two teams as an example of the irresistible force meets the immovable object. The Steelers are the immovable object. Their defense has led the NFL is a couple of meaningful stats across the course of the season. The Cardinals are the irresistible force. They have a couple of receivers whose ability to dodge the knocking-down guys and lay hands on the ellipsoidal object are truly astounding, and a quarterback who excels in arranging his team's players on the field in a manner that allows said receivers to lay hands on said object with impressive frequency. So the second thing is the part of my prediction I'm most sure about. Whether I'm wrong and the Cardinals win, or I'm right and the Steelers win, neither will do so by 7 or more points.

But I'm putting my metaphorical money (not even my imaginary money! that's for next year!) on the Pittsburgh Steelers. I do not back this prediction up with any reasons, statistics, or facts. That would be useless and a distraction from what I consider to be the real story surrounding this game. It involves towels.

The late, great Douglas Adams has said the one should never hitchhike the galaxy without a towel. Towels can be used to baffle certain predators, to provide a handy resting place when sunning on psychotropic alien beaches, and, in a dire emergency, to dry oneself off after bathing. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is a symbol of their identities as member of the Steelers franchise and supporters of their quest for victory in the game of football. This is more than is usually demanded of a towel, true enough. But since it is an emblematic towel, a spiritual towel, and more importantly, an officially licensed souvenir towel with many thousands of copies sold throughout the land, it seems to be up to the challenge.

Recently the mayor of Phoenix and an officially licensed mascot of the Arizona Cardinals demonstrated their disrespect for said towel in front of cameras and a crowd. This reportedly infuriated the Arizona Cardinals. Who, being professionals themselves, understand something fundamental about the game of football: success and failure have as much to do with emotional and mental state as they have to do with talent and skill. The men who play in the NFL are all of them near the top of all the statistical bell curves that measure strength, agility, and the particular kinds of intelligence necessary to process the tactical data of football plays in real-time and react to them appropriately. What sets one team apart from another in any particular instance, what enables one group of incredibly gifted and highly trained athletes to overcome another at the game for which they have sacrificed their adult lives, often comes down to the attitude each team carries with it onto the field.

And the "desecration" of their symbolic towel gives the Steelers a huge spiritual advantage. They are now able, thanks to the magic of caring, to take on the role of righteous victims. Their honor has been insulted, and with true hidalgo vigor they will tilt at the windmills of injustice until they have won the true heart of honey-voiced Dulcinea.

(Wait, that's Don Quixote. My big sister, whose taste in books is excellent, found a site where you can get the full text for free and emailed me the first chapter. I haven't been reading much of late, not since I finished that cool book about Amish people she lent me, but for my next reading fix I think I'll definitely go for the Don.)

There are a few psychological transformations a person can undergo which allow them to commit all the resources of their personality towards the accomplishment of a single goal. Each comes at a terrible price in terms of personality construction--consider a person who undergoes a transformation in the service of an unjust cause, or as a result of some desperate self-delusion. I'm not at the point in my study of personalities where I can list them or give tutorials; perhaps the information is already out there, and I just haven't pieced it all together yet. Heck, maybe there's twenty-two of them and I've been staring the codex in the face for years.

However, as I said earlier, football is one outlet for the human capacity to undergo such transformations that is less likely than most to result in horrible tragedy and death. So I don't have any ethical problem with it, myself. But the Cardinals understand the reaction this act will elicit in their opponents, and if they contemplate the event with some chagrin, it is understandable. By making fun of a magic towel, the mayor of Phoenix has symbolically challenged not only the Steelers' skill at football, but their strength of character, their manhood, their very right to exist on the face of this universe.

So that's why I think the Steelers will win.

We are all set for Super Bowl Sunday. We don't have the money to get Metra tickets to go out and spend it at Dave's mom's place, so we're going to stay at home. I will make burgers, me and Dave each have a tube of Pringles, and our cable bill is not yet sufficiently overdue that we have to worry about missing the game due to lack of payment. For a rarity, I, the nerdy chick who is maniacally determined not to care about football, am actually looking forward to a football game. Wonders never cease.

Lost the day (ye new poem)

Crunchy new content. Mmm, content. Edits may follow. Wanted Thursday to have something on it that was a little bit less of a downer. This counts, n'est-ce pas?

The sun will get here any time
and you're still not in bed:
too tired to spin a decent rhyme
or process what you've read.

Go nosh a stalk of celery,
or brush your stupid teeth.
Go shower 'cause you smell, or see
what's wadded up beneath

that wrinkled rug you call a brain.
It's borne your feet this far.
It makes the naked truth less plain,
and props the door ajar

when nothing else will do the trick
(well, nothing that you own).
You stand there, wishing for a stick;
a simple, solid stone.

But all you've got's a stupid mat,
a fridge that's sparsely filled,
a floor that lies there, cold and flat,
while light brims past the sill

of one broad doorway you can't shut,
and also can't step through.
Don't moan you've lost the day if what
got in your way--was you.

True Story Thursdays vol. 3

What brings a man to face the sun
One morning with a loaded gun?
A faith in truth, a faith in lies
It matters not--the soldier dies
~my father

So. Suicide.

The View From Hell just linked to an interview with a man who had attempted suicide. The guy's best friend came to visit him, put a mic on him, and they just had an honest chat about why. What he was feeling, what his thoughts were. The man later did kill himself, but thanks to his friend, his words are there for us to hear.

Listening to that interview was a surreal experience for me. It didn't make me sad, exactly. I could empathize with Brian, could wish that there had been some way for him to transform himself, find a new way towards life and love and happiness. But each person has to find their own path to happiness in life--and since this man couldn't, and I wasn't there, who am I to say that another way was open for him?

It's hard for me to write about this, and not only because of Dad's death by suicide last year. These are the kinds of emotions, the kinds of thoughts that I usually can only express in poetry or lyrics. I recently attended an open mic with my younger sister, where we both performed songs that came from that same creative pain, the need to take our feelings of loss and hurt and separation and give them some kind of external form.

There's a point in the interview above where the suicide's friend says something like, "it was then that his pain ended, and ours began." Maybe that's how you know you're still alive, still gasping for breath against the tides of fate and time. Even when you can't tell the difference between the pain the comes with new growth and the pain of destruction, as Dad used to say, "pain is a message." Part of that message is that there's still something alive in you, something alive enough to grow, or to be destroyed.

I've held on to two kind of contradictory mindsets ever since it happened.

The first is the rational, up-where-I-can-reach-it part that says it was the pain that was too much for him, pain I couldn't take away, that no one could have.

There was physical pain. From worsening diabetes, from years of smoking, from the buildup of stress that took its toll on an aging body, and from old injuries, both minor and dire. A fleshly testament to "things that never happened" that very much did happen. A kneecap, for example, shot off by an agent who never existed, who'd come to Chicago in 1968 to distribute lethal weapons to the student protesters at the Democratic National Convention. The body of that agent--a few fractions of a second slower on the draw than my father--was disappeared, the weapons confiscated, the protest went on without a massacre, the midnight hospital visit chalked up to a "range accident" in the wee hours of a night when all the ranges were closed. He didn't mind about the secrecy, wasn't proud of the fact that on that night it took killing to prevent more killing. It was work that needed to be done, it got done, and that was enough. But Dad limped for the rest of his life.

There was emotional pain--from being squeezed out of a life-changing business deal by corruption in the organization he was trying to improve, from a bitter decade-long divorce that left him and Mom both bankrupt and us girls with a laundry list of emotional scars that he either failed to prevent or helped to cause, depending on which incidents you want to look at and how you want to look at them. There was an apartment full of research sources for projects that never got finished--a series of novels, a better bullet, a recoilless rifle barrel, a painstakingly-crafted theory on the role human life might play in the larger universe. But there was always something more pressing, more urgent, something driving him onward away from those things. Always, there was that something inside that wouldn't let him stop, take a deep breath, and focus all that brainpower on creating the things that really moved him, rather than just thinking or talking them out.

I tell myself, have been telling myself, that these were the reasons. That stroke that took away his half his range of motion, left him to painstakingly type his final emails one letter at a time because his hands weren't steady enough to write them out, that was just the wind knocking over the first domino in a long, straight line. They'd been stacked up and ready to go for a long time, and there wasn't a damn thing any of us could have done about it.

But the emotional part of me is still sure, deep down in there, that it can't have been that simple. That there had to have been some magic words I could say, some magic set of actions I could stumble upon, that would have helped him jump across the gap in his mind, to escape that thing that inexorably drove him. He said often that he didn't fear death. What he feared, and didn't talk about as much, was the people he cared about not being prepared to face life and meet its challenges.

So, say my nagging emotions, I could have given him more of a reason to stay. Could have made him feel like I still needed him, like I wasn't ready to go out and face the world on my own yet. Could have sat for four or five hours every night and listened raptly to all his stories about the adventures that never happened, the inventions that never got built, the extravagant, world-changing schemes we would embark on "if I win the lottery, or the deal goes through."

But it wouldn't have been honest. The stories and schemes depressed me and made me feel inadequate. Here I was at the age of twenty-six, having accomplished, in my own eyes, nothing special, where he at the same age had already had more exciting, action-packed adventures than you could fit into a long-running TV series. When he talked about what could be done to change the world given vast resources, I saw his experience of having had them, of seemingly being able to conjure them out of thin air, of knowing which people to ask and how to ask them, how to get everyone moving in the same direction. I was just feeling my way into the idea of getting all of myself moving in the same direction. It wouldn't have been right to turn my whole life into a sham in a desperate bid to convice him it wasn't the right time for him to die if he was bound and determined that it was.

Reminds me of a scene from the novel Komarr. This doesn't spoil a major plot point for this novel, but if you haven't read the series, trust me, Lois tells it better. The protagonist, Miles, is a short fellow with a helluva limp whose forceful personality makes up for what he lacks in size. Years back, in another novel, he helped engineer a mass escape from a prison camp. As the shuttles were taking off, packed to the gills, one of the prisoners who'd wedged herself in the doorway next to him fell out. He reached out to try to grab her hand as she fell, but their fingertips just barely touched, and he couldn't grab ahold of her. She fell to her death, while Miles and everyone else was lifted to safety. The memory haunted him, appearing in nightmares, and he tortured himself with the idea that if he'd just reacted a fraction of a second more quickly, he could have pulled her to safety.

In one scene in this novel, Miles and another character are walking near a riverbank in a park, and she slips and starts to fall toward the water. Flashing back to that horrible memory, Miles grabs her arm, determined not to relive the other woman's death. But because of the difference in their size and weight, what actually happens is that Miles is pulled down into the stream right along with her.

It's a metaphor I use surprisingly often, both in my own thoughts, and in talking out difficult emotional experiences with other people. If I had turned myself inside out trying to pull Dad back from the brink, most likely what would have happened is that he would still have died, but I would have been left to face his death emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I can't know what would have happened if I had acted differently. But the thing I most regret, the thing I grieve about, isn't something I did. It's something he did. Something that was his decision to make. And I can't let myself take that decision away from him, even inside my own mind.

In some circumstances, taking emotional responsibility for things beyond your control can empower you to change your outlook on them. You look at something that happened in the past, or that was the result of actions that other people didn't intend to turn out the way they did (and hence aren't sorry for), and you take the blame on yourself because you haven't got any other place to put it. Once you've done that, you feel like you have power over the memory, over the experience. It's not accurate--assigning blame never really is--and it's probably not the best strategy, but sometimes that little edge of feeling like you have control is all you've got to pull yourself away from a toxic stew of emotional backlash that threatens to consume you. Once you've gotten a little bit of distance, it becomes possible to sort out all the real reasons why things happened the way they did. It becomes possible to reposition your anger and disbelief a little bit without totally cracking up or acting out against someone else--someone who's maybe hurting just as badly, or who couldn't handle the weight of your feelings without cracking up themselves.

Here, though, I know I can't hang on to that responsibility forever. Dad did what he did for his own reasons, and though I think I've got a pretty good idea of what they were, I can't go through my whole life never letting myself be angry with him because I think I know exactly what he was thinking. I can't make up an imaginary Dad (even if it's composed of, say, 78% of what real Dad was thinking) and mourn the fact that I didn't say the magic words that would have made him change his mind.

All I can do is live. Pull myself up out of every hole I find myself in, and try my damnedest not to paint myself into any corners. Live well, and grow, and change. Live so that whenever I face death, whether it comes to me or I go to it, one thing I won't leave my mourners is a long list of deeds undone.

Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 16: Practice makes permanent

Back in high school, I used to look over people's shoulders and notice them writing out the lyrics to their favorite songs. The first couple of times this happened, I'd think "oo! other people obsessively writing poetry, just like me!" When I realized this wasn't the case, I was a little disappointed. Still, there was something comforting about it. These were young people who, like me, sought refuge in the magical power of beautiful words. But instead of floundering around trying to cobble together words of their own, they went and got the best, most moving words they could find, and wrote them out from memory. Took the guesswork out of it, I suppose.

Earlier this wake-time I had to go online to look up the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" so that I could write them down to help me memorize them. I've recently learned how to play it on the guitar. But since the complete song isn't in the Dylan songbook I got for Xmas, and I want to memorize it, I needed to copy the words out by hand. It was kind of a trip down memory lane to those old high school days, since I haven't written out a set of song lyrics I didn't actually come up with in a long, long time. It got me thinking about the power of reciting things or writing things down, rather than just listening to them.

You may have run across the psychological factoid that writing down information improves memory retention. I forget where the exact percentages fall, but it's lowest for something you heard or saw passively, next highest for something you wrote down or repeated after hearing or seeing it, and highest of all for something you then explained to a second person. As a psychologist who recently did some work on the topic put it: "The act of retrieving information actually improves memory because you are practicing a skill. And that's the exact same skill you are going to need to retrieve that information again and again."

So writing down something you know, even something you've got memorized, is the mental equivalent of muscle memory. Retrieving certain bits of information in a certain relationship to one another becomes a habit, more firmly encoded in your synapses with each use. The habits of thought that allow me to remember the words to a song I know aren't too different from the habits of muscle memory that allow my fingers to switch positions from one chord to another on the neck of the guitar. Of course the particular neurons getting worn into a groove by these habits reside in different locations in my skull, but they're undergoing the exact same kind of process.

But here's where I get a little teleological, and venture into metaphor.

I choose to train the muscles in my fingers to take up particular positions. Then, once those habits are established, I train them to move back and forth between one set of positions and the next. Once I get one sequence firmly embedded in muscle memory, I'm eager to move onto the next set, and the next after that. I do this because I want to use my smart little fingers to make particular sounds with the strings of my guitar. The more muscle memory procedures I've got encoded, the more sounds I can make. And, as with any muscular system, the more I make use of the muscles in question, the stronger they become. My body feeds them more nutrients to keep up with their increasingly demanding workload.

So let's say that my classmates in high school were doing something similar. They wanted to train their minds to follow a pattern of ideas the way I'm trying to train my fingers to follow a pattern of positions on guitar strings. The analogy isn't exact, because the ideas exist entirely inside the mind, while the fingers are being trained to the shape of an instrument which lies outside the body.

However, ideas in a person's mind do have an effect on that person's brain, which in turn has a sometimes profound effect on what is happening in the body. When a person's emotional state transforms, it does so through a shift in the balance of chemicals and hormones that determine how the body regulates itself and responds to its environment. So instead of fingers touching strings that produce sounds from a guitar, we have ideas touching emotions that produce changes in the brain. Just as repeated practice sharpens muscle memory into habit, and habit into reflex, repeated practice sharpens recall into habits of thought. And, eventually, into mental reflexes, in other words--beliefs.

This is the reason behind teachers telling misbehaving students to write out sentences on a chalkboard, the reason behind the rote prayers or call-and-response segments in religious services. A simple statement can carry a profound weight of emotion behind it. Repeated often enough, the statement becomes a habit of thought, and the habit of thought can become so reflexive the mind perceives it as fact.

But unlike a guitar, a personality makes music only its inhabitant can truly appreciate. Two people standing right next to each other may attach different emotions to the same words. The same prayer recited by one person might be the emotional equivalent of a Bach sonata, while the other person might be experiencing the emotional equivalent of a snarling, woeful track by Alice in Chains. It's easy, far too easy, for me to assume you're getting out of my favorite set of words the same ideas, the same emotions that I get. You might be getting a jolt of meaningless static, nothing at all. You might be getting nails dragged down a chalkboard. The only way I can have any idea is to ask about it--and even then, unless we both step back and discuss what we mean by the words we are using, we might be talking about two different things the entire time.

dream log: prison break

I debated over doing another one of these, since I'm trying to make my blog a little less introspective and a little more focused on user-friendly content these days. However, I'm going ahead with it anyway. Dreams can be entertaining, and who knows, maybe some of my dream-interpretation technique may be useful to someone.

Also, the one I want to tell you about started out with my "dream camera" looking at me while I said, "Hey, I had the craziest dream, and I wanna tell you about it." If my unconscious self could possibly send a clearer signal that this was a dream that would do me good to write down, I can't imagine what it would be.

A parenthetic note, on a different dream: This very sleep-time I had a dream where I found a dagger. It was quite possibly the most excellent little knife I have ever seen. I want to rave on and on about it and go into great detail, but since it was my dream, the details probably don't make a difference. The important thing is, unconscious me now has access to (but is not actively carrying, even in its special belt-mounted sheath) whatever personality component is symbolized by the most perfect and wonderful personal edged weapon that could possibly exist. This counts as a very encouraging development, since in the past I've had a lot of dreams where I didn't have a weapon when I needed one, or found things that ought to have been weapons but were flimsy or broke easily. Hooray for unconscious me!

The one I want to tell you about happened three sleep-times ago. (I say sleep-time instead of night, because I tend to sleep at odd hours, especially on weekends or, as now, when I'm not working.) To recap some of the basics: My dreams, when I remember them, come in three acts. Each act is located in a dream landscape which represents a progressively deeper area of my personality. So what happens in the third act would refer to something much less accessible to my conscious mind than what happens in the first act. Light levels in dream areas are also an indication of conscious accessibility: a really dark place would represent a part of myself I either don't think about, or for some reason can't think about.

Act One.

After the little introduction bit described above, I found myself standing on a narrow stone ledge in an underground chamber with very, very high walls. The walls and floor were made of dark grayish-green stone blocks, like a castle or fortress you might see in a videogame. Light shone in, from the room I'd started out in, through something like slit fortress windows. But the ambient lighting in the place was just dim enough that I mentally tagged it "spooky ambience". I didn't feel spooked, but I knew I was supposed to. As I stood there on the ledge, metal bars extended down from the ceiling on either side of me. They would have trapped me there, but I saw them coming and moved quickly out of the way. As soon as the bars clanged against the ledge, jets of flame came down from the ceiling, right where I would have been. I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for the quick thinking.

Then I was down on the floor, walking around in search of an exit. The dungeon was composed of several hallways, with no apparent pattern to their arrangement. Every so often, when one of the hallways dead-ended, there would be a large metal structure extending down from the ceiling to the floor. These machines looked a bit like square ventilation ducts painted dark grayish-green, but much sturdier and more massive. They were widest at the bottom, twenty or so feet across, and narrowest at the top, maybe ten feet across. Each machine was "on", though there weren't any visible lights or dials or anything. I hoped there might be an exit on the other side of one of these, so I grabbed ahold of some lever near the bottom of the mechanism and pulled it up. It lifted easily, like a massive metal door with a counterweight. But instead of an exit, there was a prisoner inside, up on the ledge--a dangerous prisoner. Like Hannibal Lecter, but without the good doctor's cultured refinement and capacity for restraint. Still hoping there was a door in there somewhere, I kept going around the halls and opening up the machines, releasing prisoner after prisoner. Eventually I stopped, since I realized I was getting nowhere and there were a few too many dangerous lunatics around for my taste. So the last couple of machines never got opened up.

There was a weird scene here at the end of Act One where I stood near a door in the top of the wall that opened into a place I thought of as "Iraq", where the sunlight was blinding. I talked with some guy on the other side of the door, but I knew for some reason it wasn't an exit, that it was a fake place and it wouldn't do me any good to go that way, so I decided to stop wasting time and get on with the search.

Act Two.

All kinds of crazy, dangerous prisoners were wandering around. Fortunately for me, one of them was the wicked awesome hot fascist lady who'd outwitted me back in the pointless dystopia dream. (Long story short, she is either my inner self or spirit guide or some other thing that I'm as yet too boneheaded to recognize. I spent most of my life being terrified of her, but her dream-repesentation has gradually evolved, from a big, scary spider into a scary super hot lady.) In this dream she looked a lot more butch--short cropped hair, nondescript gray clothing, face not pictured--but I was immensely relieved to see her. For the rest of Act Two I followed her like a devoted puppy, and felt completely safe.

We went to get prepared to get out of there, which for some reason meant putting on shoes. In dream logic, this makes perfect sense: shoes are a symbol not only of your most basic level of interface with your surroundings, but also what type of role you're taking on. I dug through a huge pile of shoes, none of which were pairs. Many were inappropriate for fleeing, many were ugly or uncomfortable; some would have been perfect if I'd been able to find a second shoe. Finally I found a pair of well-worn, low-heeled red leather knee-high boots. Wish I had those things in real life, although I can't think of a single place I'd wear them!

Everybody then ran and got onto the prison bus, which was actually a school bus. My butch ladyfriend got in the driver's seat, I sat in the very front seat on the passenger side behind the door, and the other crazy prisoners (there weren't really that many of them) sat elsewhere in the bus. There was some nervousness because we were being pursued and needed to move out secretly. We drove out across sunny meadowlands, where there was nary a road or building in sight. It rendered oddly in my perception; on one level I was seeing grass and trees and slow, rolling hills, while on another level I saw a pop-up map that showed our location and nearby monsters and terrain features. Exactly like in a videogame, except since the perspective was first-person the two were superimposed. Apparently I was the bus for awhile, or at least seeing our surroundings as though I were. I understood from my ladyfriend (she didn't speak--speech is rare when I dream) that she'd been following a slow downward descent, as though the bus was just naturally rolling down the hills, rather than being driven. This would help confuse our pursuers somehow, make them think it wasn't actually us.

I saw the monster as a monster icon on my mental map subscreen first--then we rounded a grove of trees and I saw the real monster. It was several times larger than the bus, red and scaly and armored, with a big mouth full of sharp teeth. Strangely that is THE most detail I can give about it, since it didn't render visually, hardly at all. Even when we were right in front of it, I mostly saw the icon on the map. It opened its mouth, perhaps to roar or spit fire, and she drove the bus right into its maw.

My view stepped back a bit: I still had the subscreen, but now my outside view was of the monster's flank, with the bus on the other side. The bus apparently had a flamethrower, because my ladyfriend was firing it at full power at the monster's belly from the inside. After about half a minute of this, the monster exploded and the bus drove out again, totally unharmed.

Act Three.

Full-on first person perspective; I was alone again, and thought of myself as myself. If that makes sense. The plot context from the first two acts had fallen away, is the best way to put it. I was in an extremely dark place that I thought of as the basement of the house I grew up in, even though the rooms I started in were mashups of various rooms from upstairs with nonexistent rooms. Even though there wasn't any light, I could see everything perfectly, still in color. (That's been the case since the tower / turkey dream, where I put on some glasses.)

The first room was a bedroom. It was a mess. Dirty clothes strewn everywhere, furniture pushed against the walls any old how, half-empty drawers hanging open, random objects scattered. It looked as though it was simultaneously the home of a deranged packrat and an abandoned room that no one had set foot in for months. I spent most of my time in there looking at particular things and thinking particular thoughts about them. Which I'm sure would give me a wealth of personality construction info if I could remember it, but almost all the details are gone. The one detail that did stick around came right before I left that room. There were two closets with clothes, for a wonder, up on hangers. I looked at them and thought, "I've got too many of my clothes in Dave's closet; I really ought to move them."

The second room was a kitchen. It was, if anything, an even bigger mess than the bedroom. (Freudian typo slip there: original typing of that sentence read "I was, if anything, an even bigger mess than the kitchen.") There were no less than four refrigerators, but none of them were plugged in. I knew without having to open them that they were completely empty. Every shelf, countertop, table and any other flat surface was piled with objects, some half-used, others broken but never opened. I remember seeing eggs lined up on a shelf and feeling guilty and annoyed that they weren't refrigerated and were going to spoil. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes, dishes that toppled over and spilled the dirty standing water in them on the countertop when I leaned over the faucet for a drink of water.

When I straightened up, I spied a delicious cholocatey dessert treat on the counter near the sink. It was misshapen and had toppled over a bit, itself, but hadn't gotten any dishwater on it. And somehow was still fresh; the whipped cream center peeking out from under the chocolate looked like it had been just made. I snatched it up, furtively, as though I was stealing something that I wasn't allowed to have, or would get in trouble if anyone caught me taking.

A note of description here. In the basement of the house I grew up in, the furnace room, and the little workshop room behind it, were the second scariest and darkest places in the entire basement. Other dreams have established that for me, when I'm dreaming, the workshop room symbolizes some very important personality construction functions. I have, as yet, only a vague understanding of what these functions are: I understand it in terms of emotional states, but I haven't sorted out what's going on well enough that I can put that understanding into words without totally misrepresenting the process. The workroom was a place where, in my early childhood, Dad kept guns and ammunition and other things best kept away from the reach of children. It was a place where interesting stuff happened, but dangerous interesting stuff in whcih I was not allowed to participate. But the furnace room, with its deep, dark cobwebs, its single ineffectually bare lightbulb, and its scary secret corners tucked behind grimy pieces of machinery, was a place both of uncomplicated fear and ironical refuge. You hide in the back of the scary place, because no one would want to look for you there, see?

So next thing I knew I had flung myself, prone, onto the floor of the furnace room. It was completely empty, clean, stripped; nothing but the painted cement and the lightbulb. And there I devoured my delicious chocolatey treat. And oh, let me tell you, it was extremely delicious.

Then I woke up.


As in any dream, the most important events here were the parts when I, in first-person mode, physically interacted with my dream environment. I'm'a try to set down some thoughts on those events and what they can tell me about where I'm at right now.

When I take the symbol of the machines that had dangerous prisoners in them, and put that next to the imprisoning bars and jets of flame that almost caught me right at the beginning, I think I get what those things represented. Kinda. The bars and flames were the start of another machine, like the ones I opened, "growing" down out of the upper parts of my personality into the area I was then exploring. The fact that one of them (who knows which one? maybe the one that turned out to have that weird bright fake doorway into a war zone behind it?) also had my ladyfriend in it is another clue.
Meaning: those crazy inmates were personas or roles of mine, which I consider dangerous and keep very carefully locked down. I could unlock them easily, and they didn't come after me, even before I met up with my ladyfriend. They, too, were principally looking for a way to escape from the dungeon.

The shoes might possibly be as significant a symbol as the knife from my more recent dream. These boots are made for walkin'...or in this case, escapin'. Like the glasses, which changed my unconscious relationship with the act of perception, the shoes could signify a change in my unconscious relationship with the act of locomotion. Further thought and observation are needed!

The bus ride and monster fight are tough to interpret. I'm still on the fence about the meaning of the "me plus ladyfriend, who's driving, get into vehicle and drive across boundary" meme. The last time that happened in a dream, I was sore tempted to say that this indicated unconscious me was going outside my personality in the dream state. Personally I do believe out of body experiences have some reality to them, but I'm not prepared to say what kind. Not enough data. I know and have known people, whose judgments I trust, who have had some pretty interesting experiences of that type, both in natural sleep and meditation-induced trance. But with what aspect of reality do such experiences enable a person to interact? Not enough data! However, in terms of my personality alone, I am willing to conclude this much. Whatever else the monster represented, it also represented something that was keeping me away from the parts of myself represented by the messy rooms in Act Three. Since as soon as it got blowed up real good, that's where I found myself.

The messy rooms are of course the richest and most personal symbols in the whole shebang.

The fact that I thought "aloud", that is, in words, about having too many of my clothes in Dave's closet, means unconscious me really wanted to draw attention to that idea. Somewhere in the bottom of my mind I've got assumptions, identity beliefs, characteristics of myself that I have been projecting onto Dave. I've been expecting him to think or react or desire in the same ways I do--out of pure solipsism. That is a bad Fiat who has let such a thing stay so messy and confused, and been a boorish solipsistic girlfriend because of it. Now, as soon as I can figure out what those things are, I can stop projecting them. But the task should be easier now that I've recognized, unconsciously as well as consciously, that it needs doing.

Now, a word about mana. In the Bible, the original manna (trans: what is it?) was magic food God rained down on the Israelites to sustain them while they were crossing the desert. In games, mana is a mystical energy that mages use to cast spells. It's kind of the same energy as the Force from Star Wars, though different systems source it in different aspects of nature. Some fantasy authors have it that mana can be found in blood, or in the ethereal life essence of living things. Some games source it in the mental energy of a character. In Magic: the Gathering, it is produced in fixed quantities by lands.

In my lexicon, mana is what you are using when you pay attention, put forth effort, emotionally commit yourself. Freud called it libido, the essential energy that the personality runs on. It just feels more natural for a nerd like me to say "I've got a lot of mana tied up in this belief" than to say "I've got a lot of libido cathected to this belief." And something I've noticed, when listening to other people's dreams and studying my own, is that everybody's unconscious mind has its own symbols for mana. For my sisters, it's often money. I've heard a couple dreams where the symbol was weed. I had one once where it was books.

But in this one, there were two: water and a delicious choclatey dessert treat. And I extracted both of them from a potentially very useful area of my personality that has been sadly neglected and left in a mess. One of them, the chocolatey delicious, was something I needed so badly and yet still don't (on an unconscious level) feel I deserve to have that I had to flee to a dangerous hiding place before I could actually consume it.

So hey, more mana for me. Whatever is represented by super cool shoes. A means of becoming less of a jerk. And possibly a knife! I feel rich!

I'm'a go apply for unemployment now.

Football Friday vol. 3: Dogs and children

In the first Football Fridays, I mentioned that it's a rare thing for people or animals to be killed as a result of anything having to do with football. There was new news this week about one of the more famous exceptions to this: superstar quarterback Michael Vick. Vick was convicted a couple years ago of having run a dogfighting ring for several years, after having lied to both NFL and law enforcement officials about being involved with it. (I won't go into a long diatribe against dogfighting, but it is a despicable practice that has results like this.) He is about to finish up an 18-month stint in prison during what would have been the prime years of his career in the NFL, and his return to the football field is eagerly anticipated by many people who love to see football played well.

The more recent controversy involves PETA's reaction to the possibility of Vick's return. PETA had approached the athlete about the possibility of doing a public service announcement about how dogfighting in particular, and cruelty to animals in general, are wrong and not something people should do. Vick and/or his representatives were interested in having PETA's support for his return to football, and the public service announcement seemed like a good trade for that support. However, PETA first wanted Vick to submit to a psychiatric evaluation which included a brain scan. He was unwilling to do this, and PETA withdrew their request for him to appear in a PSA.

After digging around through various articles, trying to make some sense of why this all was such a big deal, I found a really good discussion on this podcast from the Michael Irvin show. The first few minutes are mostly Irvin's co-host sputtering with outrage at PETA's presumption--what Alan Alda referred to, in his latest book, as "doing a Thomashevsky." The actual informative discussion starts at about 7:35. Basically, PETA was worried about the possibility that Vick perhaps doesn't regret anything, isn't sorry, and might possibly (though hopefully not) get caught dogfighting again in the future. If he recorded a public service announcement that said "Don't get involved in dogfighting, kids at home!" and then went out and did it again, the effect on the kids at home would be the complete opposite of what it was supposed to have been.

Now at first, the shock and dismay of football partisans I've read, watched and listened to on the subject confused me. Why was everyone getting so huffy and worked up about this? "He's been punished enough, leave him alone!" "Why is PETA beating a dead horse like this?" "You can't go after him forever because he made one mistake!" Sure, athletes who commit crimes routinely walk, get reduced sentences, have their reputations smoothed over afterwards by a sympathetic media. Characterizing several years of running a brutally violent gambling ring as "one mistake" is part and parcel of the same bias. The bias that, for example, kept Randy Moss out of jail after he drove (relatively slowly) into a traffic cop, and kept going for a couple blocks with her on the hood of his car. While smoking a blunt.

But then it occurred to me:
Football fans are upset because they feel they've been punished enough.

Vick's potential on the football field (so I am told) is truly awe-inspiring--and the fact that he was imprisoned for committing crimes deprived the football-watching public of access to his talents. Getting angry at the athlete for committing the crimes that got him sent to jail would be a big, whopping load of cognitive dissonance. If you idolize him for his talent, you can't hate him for choosing to act in a despicable way off the field. This is another example of how "love the sinner, hate the sin" is not usually something people can do in practice, which Worlds & Time discussed eloquently a week or so ago. So instead of getting angry with the beloved-because-talented athlete, they get angry with the people who persist in pointing out his non-football related flaws.

Yesterday Dave mentioned to me something he saw on ESPN's bottom line: that some of the dogs Vick had involved in the fighting were his own family's pets. I wasn't able to find any articles that mentioned this tibit, so I don't know where the information came from. But it got me to thinking about the sometimes enormous disconnect between the celebrity as object and the celebrity as human being. How are we supposed to wrap our minds around this?

Celebrities as objects serve an important function in society. They give us templates for behavior and appearance. They give us ways to discuss aspects of being human without having to refer to any of the individual human beings actually participating in the discussion. This week's episode of The Office, for example, had almost the entire cast of characters involved in an episode-long debate over the question: Is Hilary Swank hot or not? I loved the entire side of the episode centered on this debate, because it ran through all the stages that any argument will go through, online or in person. From people taking the results too personally, to people disagreeing on defining the original terms of the debate ("Would I make out with her?" is not the same question as "Is she hot?"), to people getting frustrated in the middle and declaring that "no one ever changes their mind, we all just get more firmly entrenched in the views we already had."

At what point, as individuals who want to be socially responsible, do we have to separate the object from the person? When do we have to tear our minds away from Vick's incredible potential awesomeness on the football field and start thinking about him as a human being? An untouchable sports idol who indulges in dogfighting can feel, in your mind, like a light and not very serious thing when weighed against the great emotional force of a lifetime commitment to football fandom. You want to forget about it, to avoid the cognitive dissonance between the object you love and the person whose actions you can't condone. So you focus only on the object. But moved outside of that context, a real human being who would take his family pet and make it fight other dogs to the death--or, if it didn't die in the ring, electrocute or drown it for the audience's viewing pleasure--gets put way, way down on my shit list.

To provide some perspective, here's a Bill Simmons article about his family dog which recently died. That's what I would consider a normal American view on how one should think and feel about domesticated dogs. The "object" version of every public figure in America feels this way about dogs. TV shows, movies and most media-based role models try to teach the children of America to feel this way about dogs. This is admirable.

In the first Football Fridays, me and Dave both ended up changing our perspectives on the Titans. This happened because the real life person Jeff Fisher, their coach, is an unabashed supporter of Mercy Ministries, an organization that pretends to offer psychiatric care and professional counseling to young women but actually has untrained Bible students lead them in prayer and give them exorcisms. The undeniably talented Michael Vick actually mutilated dogs. Not in the facetious way, where you say to your friend, "oh, so-and-so's a bad guy; he like, kicks puppies." No. Actually did it. Actually mutilated dogs and killed them. For fun and profit. And is not sorry.

So the only reason I can think of that people would still defend him with such vehemence, still want to root for him, still have this entirely positive view of him, is that they have completely objectified him. There is no concept of a real human being attached to the words Michael Vick in these football partisans' minds. There is only the legend, the skill at football, the jersey, the name.

To me that is just as sad, just as stupid and ridiculous as objectifying nude models and porn stars. Yes, objectifying men and women who can or will do awe-inspiring things can make us feel good. No, I don't have a problem with the objectification process itself. It can serve useful functions--whether in social life, as in the debate mentioned above, or in personal life, as a way of more clearly visualizing an ideal of beauty or swiftness or joy. But when we cannot separate the ideal from the idol, the person from the thing that person represents, then the results can only be bad. Whether it's sexually harassing a waitress 'cause she's got a huge rack, or looking the other way when a famous guy hurts puppies.

that good seed (final version!)

Hungry days and dry, when the bottle's empty.
Plodding 'cross the sky, oh, the slow sun lingers,
seems to prophesy the return of plenty.
Count on your fingers

days till winter ends, and the trees awaken.
Sober now, the sap in your skull is rising.
Slow your steps, look back at the roads you've taken.
Is it surprising

now, when all you've hoarded is drained and eaten--
now you've drowsed long months in your hibernation--
now what's left, when grief is at long last beaten?

Mulish as your dad, you refused tomorrows.
Years he knew you had, and he had to lose them.
Schemes you toasted with him, his dreams you borrowed--
bitter to use them.

Fix your red-rimmed eyes on a new horizon.
Stir your aching thighs; run to meet the season.
Spring comes, brings new roads to perhaps grow wise on.
There is a reason

you live on. All winter you did not know it.
One was buried, dead to your beating heart's need.
What sustains you now, you will learn, you'll grow it--
sprung from that good seed.

Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 15: Keep it real

An invisible friend is you!

You're not invisible, I know. But since I've never seen you, you are in serious danger of being made into an invisible friend. By me--though I will try my damnedest not to!--or by anybody else out there who thinks like me.

Here's how it works.

I want to feel like I have friends. But--I am terrified of the emotional risks involved in keeping actual friends. In person I'm a pleasant and fun companion; the initial making-friends part is easy for me, and more often than not people would prefer that I stick around once they've gotten to know me. I've made a few friends worth keeping, even a few that I've put in some effort to try and keep. Once we get to that point, though, I get jittery and lose all faith in myself as a worthwhile companion. Eventually my willpower breaks down and the fear gets the better of me. When the ball is in my court to stay in touch and keep the relationship going, I just flake out. I don't call, don't call back, don't initiate contact, make a rendezvous but end up breaking it due to some unconscious self-sabotage. So I go on the internet and do something that gives me the feeling I crave without the risks. A forum, a blog, a chat room community: I have done all of these things. Currently just a forum and blog. Sometimes even those are too much for me, and I leave one internet hangout in search of another, less uncomfortably personal place.

No matter how heavy my emotional investment has been in a person or place, I never seem to have any trouble cutting the cord and fleeing when the panic finally rears its grinning plastic head. It feels like something just and inevitable. Like I'd been defrauding the other person or people involved in some way, and my absence will allow them to cut their losses and get on with making real friends and having a real life. I get this weird feeling of relief. Weird, because I usually miss the person or people and am saddened to be without them, a little more drab and empty. But relief, because I feel freed; the portion of my identity wrapped up in that relationship deflates and all its metaphorical lights go dim. It's been scrapped for parts, turned from active persona into mere information, leaving a whole bunch of emotional energy and mindspace unfettered and blank, ready to be filled with new selfparts. Whatever happened between those friends and me, the feeling seems to say, was just practice. Practice for them, in learning how to recognize not-real people and in future avoid forming unnecessary bonds with them. Practice for me, in learning how to trick people into thinking I'm real people so well that one day, maybe (yeah, right), it will stick.

Where does this belief, this fear, this creeping dread, this absolute certainty come from? I'm not sure. It's one of the central personality construction problems that I've been trying to get a handle on for years. I have some inarticulate belief, too deeply buried for conscious access, that says I'm not worth having as a friend, and anyone who mistakenly thinks I am is in for a world of disappointment. So I keep living out a stupid self-fulfilling prophecy whose origins are obscure to me and whose mechanisms I have yet to untangle from the rest of my personality.

The comforting thing about a blog is the invisible audience. In my mind, somewhere out there is an archetypal Perfect Reader who is even more interested than I am in the things I type, is in a perfect position to make good use of any insight I have, and is delighted by any creative work I manage to come up with. The Perfect Reader is of course completely passive. They have no thoughts or blog of their own, they never comment, they never point out my embarrassing craptasms. But they are always there, in the back of my mind, soaking up my every byte and thereby validating my existence. Giving me the boost that feedback from friends can provide, without the panic-inducing muddle of attempting to make, and keep, real friends.

Which is why over the past period of time I've been making an effort to get real readers. To dispel the myth from my mind, to keep me mindful of what it's like to write for real people. People with their own blogs, ideas, interests and fears. People who will say something when they have something they want to say, and won't when they don't.

The danger there, though, is the temptation to start pandering. Pandering accelerates the "fraud" feelings enormously. Just earlier today I caught myself going over past posts to see which ones generated the most comments. Maybe, I caught myself thinking, if I write more of the kinds of things that got people to comment in the past, maybe then they'll comment more in the future! But this is not the way I want to run my blog, or myself. Right now it is not a good thing for me to do. Because I would in fact be trying to turn my real readers into living, typing replicas of my imaginary Perfect Reader. In accordance with my stupid unconscious self-fulfilling prophecy.

In most circumstances, a person who's trying to give good value for their readers' time ought to be willing to present what they've got in a reader-friendly way. They know what they've got, they know what they're interested in and want to write about, they know who they are. All they need to do is take what they've got and make it really engaging and fun. By studying what other people will react to, a contributor can change the form and style of their contributions to maximize the kind of reactions the contributor most wants to get. If they do their job right, others who are interested in their topic will say "hey! that's the best source of XYZ I've seen in awhile, this person really understands XYZ and makes it fun, I'm going to get my XYZ here from now on."

However, I'm not yet at that point. Because in a sense, I don't even know what I have. Won't know, is maybe a better way to say it. Using just the rational, intellectual parts of my mind, I can rattle off a long list of interesting things I can contribute. But emotionally, I've got to fight against the certainty, the absolute conviction that the things I'm interested in are boring because I'm interested in them, the things I care about are useless because I care about them, the things I want to say are stupid because I say them.

So if I took all my cues from my readers, if I only blogged about things in the hope of getting comments on them, all I'd be doing is building a persona to match what I perceive to be my readers' desires. I wouldn't be taking the things I care about and presenting them to real people in hopes their interest would move them to validate my opinions. Instead, I would be using my perceptions of other people's interests to manipulate them into giving me the validation I crave. Everything I said might be from the heart, everything I wrote about might be something I'm genuinely interested in, but as far as my personality was concerned, it would still feel fraudulent. Would still be fraudulent. The distinction is subtle, but it is the difference between pandering and contribution, between concern and concern trolling, between asking for an opinion and fishing for a compliment.

Man. Keeping it real is hard.

Football Friday vol. 2 (belated)

I'm backdating this to Friday, but I'm actually writing it on Sunday. Since I haven't posted otherwise since Tuesday, though, I don't think it makes much of a difference.

On today's games me and Dave were even: he had the Steelers over the Ravens, and I had the Cardinals over the Eagles. I think I might be developing a mild affiliation for the Ravens, but we'll see how it goes. Even as a lifetime northside Chicagoan, my Cubs fandom is little better than halfhearted. I don't think I'm cut out to be a true fan of any team. Probably a personality construction thing. But it's further evidence for the hypothesis that prior knowledge about the teams playing in a particular matchup does not correlate, or may even be negatively correlated, with the ability to correctly pick the winner when two teams play.

I had a great idea for something me and Dave could do next football season, so I'm posting it up now so I don't forget. (Before Football Friday becomes Futility Friday for the baseball season and I use my text space to talk about the Cubs, and futile but desirable pursuits in general.) A fantasy gambling game!

Here's how it would work. We'd each start out the football season with, say, ten thousand imaginary dollars. Each week we'd be required to bet at least one thousand of those dollars on the outcomes of that week's games. The bets can be distributed among the teams playing in any way we choose. Imaginary winnings and losses would be determined by the appropriate Las Vegas gambling information, though I still haven't figured out whether fantasy gambling bets would have to take the points spread into account. The last player to lose all their imaginary money would be the winner. Unless by some bizarre coincidence more than one person were to end up with more than nothing, in which case the player with the highest total would be the winner.

It would be cool to have more than two people in on this game, but we'll see what happens when next year's football season starts. As it always does, just as the baseball playoffs are heating up and getting really interesting. Football will slime its hideously overmerchandised way back onto the airwaves and suck up all the attention and facetime that should rightly belong to the glory that it October baseball. With all of its hideous merchandising.

Dog, I hope America's influential and powerful people figure out how to get their domestic companies back on track, producing something other than "financial services" and entertainment. At least I live in Chicago. A city of lawyers, accountants, and corporate headquarters is not likely to stop needing upbeat, intelligent clerical workers with most of a bachelor's degree any time soon. As long as I don't have any major medical issues that need addressing and have no plans to try to get into real estate now that the market has crashed and burned, I should be able to sit here on my cheap DSL connection and wait out the economic crisis with good cheer.

Er, and go Ravens. Bears suck worse than the Cubs, even though they've both been rather good lately and I love those chokey blue bastards. Who may soon be in the market for Jake Peavy! I can't wait to see what'll happen to him if they trade for him. (Key words may include: ligament, elbow and freak meteor shower.)

Tuesdays with Abhorrent Fiends vol. 46: Calvinism!

So. Calvinism.

I ran across this quote over at Rhoblogy. Taken completely out of context, I agree with it:
If there's no law, there's no depravity. Or commendability. There just IS.
But Rhoblogy's making a point about predestination. The idea that some people are saved and others damned without having a say in the matter, as I read him, isn't supposed to make us feel surly or resentful. Rather, we should be astonished that any are saved at all. That way no one has any call to puff themselves up with pride at their accomplishments. All human effort is worthless anyway, and it is only because of the astonishing and uncalled-for mercy of God that He has chosen to spare some from the fate which all unquestionably deserve.

Put that way, I can see how belief in predestination can be used to set up a very stable emotional homeostasis on the subject of the worth of persons. "I do notice," says predestination-believing Fiat, "that according to X standards of measurement, you are a much, much more valuable and important person than me. I don't need to be afraid of you, however. Because these are human standards of measurement, and you and I are both, by divine standards, totally screwed." Or, in a different situation; "I am aware that according to X standards of measurement, I am a much more important and powerful person than you are. However, I have no reason to make that role a part of my identity, nor any right to snub you because of it. By God's standards, you and I together are both totally worthless." In either case, I could merrily conclude, "But since there's a tiny chance that God may have taken pity on us and allowed us to be redeemed even though we don't deserve it, let's be friends!"

I think existentialists must have riffed off of Calvinism there, perhaps without realizing it. Both play a neat trick of turning our natural animal us-against-them instincts inside out. A person who constructs the belief dynamic properly in their minds is left with a permanent feeling of "us, together, against unbelievable odds, with a hope whose chances of fulfillment we cannot know." Which state of mind often brings out the best in a human being. It is either the attitude that helped us defeat the dinosaurs to fulfill God's mandate to fill the earth and prosper, or the attitude that helped us fight our way out of the trees and to the top of the food chain.

Either way, it IS a neat solution to one of the knottiest personality construction problems out there: identity versus ego.

In order to understand the power dynamics of your social environments, you need to be able to constantly compare yourself to everyone else around you. This information allows you to understand your identity as a member of each group. However, if you take what you observe and plug it immediately into your ego, your sense of self-worth becomes extremely volatile. The weight and substance and passion you allow yourself to experience becomes dependent upon the social status given to you by others. Wearing more "goodguy badges" on your brain than the next guy? Feel ten feet tall and ready to take on the whole Empire yourself. Not entirely comfortable with the values and beliefs of those who are superior to you in the hierarchy? Feel small and squishy and always in everybody's way. (And woe betide you if the people above you in the hierarchy are, themselves, insecure. They WILL take your discomfort and lack of adherence to their value set as a personal attack.)

What a belief in predestination allows you to do is the emotional equivalent of finding a common factor to two terms on either side of a mathematical equation that cancels out both of them. The emotional value loads drops out, leaving behind only information. You can then take a step back, look at what you know of yourself in a social context, and compare that with the internal structure of values which are the core of your identity. The thing that makes your personality tick. Your place in the social hierarchy of a group you've chosen to join becomes a piece of information that you can weigh and judge. It only needs to be used to alter the core beliefs of your personality if you find it matches up well with the values you've chosen to take to heart.

However, this is extremely hard work. As one of my favorite poems has it:


bright metal melts away.
Attention is the hardest thing
to pay.

Not many people feel there is sufficient reason to keep paying attention to this process, this separation of social information from internal beliefs, to continue working it out on a day-to-day basis. The values of one's chosen social groups stay the same, right? One's internal values don't need to be questioned and re-evaluated for every single crisis of conscience or conflict of honor, right?

So in practice, we build ourselves little shortcuts. Little DIY beliefs which substitute for the laborious process of comparing belief against action, idea against practice. For use in those tough real-world situations where making a snap judgment of someone's character will show you how to behave toward them without bothering to learn what they are really like as an individual. We want to be able to tell at a glance if someone is depraved or commendable, and so we take a working summary of our beliefs where they intersect with the values of our communities, and make them into laws in our minds. Arbitrary laws.

Let's take the example from last Tuesday of a football team whose players have a fad going for Valentino suits. Guys who wear "our brand" are good guys, have good judgment and fashion sense and are generally cool. Guys who don't are less cool and may be taken less seriously, unless they prove themselves to be "goodguys" by adhering to other values shared by the team, ones with a heavier emotional weight attached to them.

How might a Calvinist assemble such an arbitrary law in his mind, if he felt a shortcut was necessary for the economical use of his attention and emotions?

Let's go back to Rhoblogy:
"Regular" 5-point Calvinism teaches that God uses means to accomplish His will, like missions, leading a godly life as a witness to others, sharing and explaining the Gospel, etc.
Then, later, refuting a point in the NY Times article that sparked this discussion:
"being a persecuted minority proves you are among the elect."

No, it doesn't. It proves you're among a persecuted minority.
Adherence to God's Word and repentance and faith in Jesus are among the proofs that one is among the elect.
A perfectly fair critique. Rho is talking about a hypothetical Calvinist who is thoughtful and thorough in living out his beliefs; Worthen was talking about a hypothetical Calvinist who has built himself a shortcut based on the sentiments of his social set.

The thoughtful Calvinist would say to himself, "Others mock and deride me for my beliefs; according to God's law, we are all sinners and equally worthless. But if I am among the elect, these attacks will not deter me from accomplishing God's will. And if those who mock me are among the elect, they will eventually see the truth when God moves in their hearts. So I must neither stop, nor despise my adversaries."

The shortcut-taking Calvinist would say to himself, "Others mock and deride me for my beliefs; I can take this as evidence of where we each stand spiritually. I am being persecuted for doing God's work; therefore I am saved. They are persecuting me for doing God's work; therefore they are damned."

So anyone I meet, no matter his professed belief set, might have some arbitrary shortcuts such as this assembled in his mind. He might have several of them, dozens, a horde of emotionally-satisfying but logically absurd assumptions. These may seem to him to match up with the doctrines of his supposed religion. But in fact, he may have so constructed his shortcuts that they unmake and nullify all the beneficial personality transformations which his religious system is meant to wreak.

This is why I try, to the best of my ability, not to build shortcuts. Or if I must build them, I try to take them apart, check what other beliefs they're based on, make sure the emotional re-routing going on is not blinding me to important information about myself and the people around me. Personality construction is an art (not, alas, a science!) we all must practice. It's part of being a person. Yet the least little mistake is bloody freaking dangerous! Someone can sell you a diamond, and as soon as you buy it, you without any outside prompting can turn it into a turd. And then go waving your turdly behavior around at everyone you meet, causing them to conclude, "Well, I guess whoever that person was dealing with doesn't have any diamonds."

My chief worry about the new Calvinism has to do with the nature of shortcuts people are mostly likely to put together if they choose to stop wrestling with the real thing. "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is good advice for anyone of any belief set. Because any belief system, however well-put-together, turns into an emotional minefield as soon as you start making substitutions. As soon as an individual loses the sense of uncertainty regarding their own salvation, their "Calvinism" becomes Nazism. In the broadest, non-racial sense, that is, "People of my group are inherently better and people of your group are inherently inferior, therefore we can do anything we want to you and you have no right to do anything." If a person sets up his shortcuts as a series of proofs for his own elect, saved status, he can quite easily come to believe that he knows the will of God, he knows who is naughty and who nice, and will begin to treat other people according to the beliefs he himself has constructed.

And there is a huge temptation to set up those shortcuts. Uncertainty regarding one's own relative worth as a person is an extremely uncomfortable way to live. Which is one of the reasons it can be so beneficial: those who are able to work through the discomfort can gain wisdom, patience and compassion as they see others enmeshed in the same struggle. The belief in one's own innate superiority is an extremely comfortable one--emotionally efficient, satisfying in a junk-food kind of way. But it is just about the worst thing you can possibly do when it comes to obtaining accurate information, whether about yourself, your social environment, or other people. It's a greasy fingerprint over the lens of the mind that turns your vision of everything outside yourself into a nasty, disgusting blur.

In conclusion, Calvinism done right is something I approve of, and I certainly wouldn't despair at being stranded on a desert island populated only by true and proper Calvinists. I could adapt. But in part because it is such an effective transformation when done right, it is more susceptible than many belief systems to being twisted just that little bit, from a source of great wisdom into a source of great pettiness and stupidity.

hooray poem. grumble stupid monkey poem...

Okay. So I've decided to join a message board. It has poetry on it but is for grownups. Its poetry area is populated, in fact, by people who appear to BE grownups and do not appear to suck at writing and critiquing poetry! When I found it linked over at Worlds & Time the other day I had conniptions. I had palpitations. I lurked and looked and giggled with evil glee, but alas, it was late and I was exceedingly unsober. When I decided to do a quick self-test, see if I could add to the ongoing haiku thread for my first post, it turned out I could not. This led to an old-fashioned round of "oh dog I'm so rusty I probably can't write a poem to save my butt anymore." Which is like the ancient pirate game of insult beer pong, except without the beer or the table or the pirates.

So I wrote a poem on Friday just to see if I still could.

[winter vacation]

it's not just that I miss my job
the quiet room, the steady pace
and I'm not tired of our place
or how we get to live like slobs

but I don't want to be the one
to drag us from this comfy rut
through ash tapped from tobacco butts
and hours of pre-recorded fun

let's just put life on DVR
we'll sleep for six or seven years
fast-forward through the trials and tears
to where our favorite programs are

we'll be two glad automatons
deal out the cards--one subroutine
or cook, and when our plates are clean
drink up till all the gin is gone

what bothers me, my lovely half
is how we've barely changed a lick
or haven't made new habits stick
past when the next thing makes us laugh

the world we've yet to conquer lurks
down sidewalks where we've never been
we'll stumble, rise, plod on again
until we figure out what works.

I'm very unhappy with the ending. Hopefully I will think up a way to revise that stanza so that it no longer seems so...dull and plodding to me. Also I think there's parts in the middle where I need to tighten up the phrasing. So indeed, I am rusty. I am not ready yet to start posting in a place populated by people who don't suck. Hang out, build a presence, the old familiar drill.

The internet allows me to develop a wonderfully unambiguous sense of the proper procedure for approaching and settling into social groups and relationships. Every interaction takes place at a location. The relationship of the interacting parties to the location in which they meet determines their relative social statuses for the purposes of that interaction. And because the default social hierarchy is provided by the structure of the interface, it's breathtakingly easy to sift out the subtext from the frame so as to avoid most faux pas.

Usually. Most of the time. And you don't have to look 'em in the eye even if you are accidentally insulting a time or two. So, hooray for the internet.

In the meantime see if I can remember how to write a good tanka. Those things are fun!

she spilled a coffee
but oh! in wind chill so low
her gasp froze solid
a little bridge so the drink
could arrive where it belonged

Football Friday

I never thought this day would come.

When I started basing my post topics on days of the week, I'd mentally made a note that "Fiction Fridays" was going to happen. One of these weeks, I told myself, I'd finally nut up and write a short story or a scene from the novel I keep imagining in my brain. However, more urgent, pressing matters have forced my hand. And I have only one person to blame:

Nancy Alcorn.

That's right. That little nugget of YouTube's electronic gold is Nancy Alcorn and Mercy Ministries' football playoff special. In case you are at work, pressed for time, or on a slow connection, I will hit some of the highlights from the clip.

Item the first. Nancy is an enormous Tennessee Titans fan. At first I thought this was ironic, since the Titans are Dave's favorite team and have been since he was a young boy and saw them do great things as the Houston Oilers. So I called him over from watching the Twilight Zone so he could share my incredulity.

Item the second. Mercy Ministries has a "Titan Day", where everybody gets to wear Titans stuff and perhaps celebrate in some fashion. There is, however, one person who is allowed to wear another team's jersey: Mandy Pryce, their fitness director, whose brother Trevor Pryce is a defensive tackle for the Ravens. (Later on in the video, Nancy mentions a couple of times how good Mandy looks in her purple Ravens gear, which had me cocking my eyebrow and cracking lesbian innuendo jokes at Dave. Then again, we see innuendo everywhere, so it might just be the eye of the beholder.)

Item the third. At about 1:56, Nancy mentions that Titans coach Jeff Fisher writes Mercy Ministries a check for $10,000 every time the Titans win a game. Dave said, "All right, I'm not gonna wait, it's time to find a new team." He went and got a pad of paper. "Can you find me a random number generator?" I did, and we got to generatin'.
Starting from a list of teams in some order he came up with:
1 in 32:
9- steelers
7- texans
The Steelers he deemed an unfit choice, as they are hot right now and it would be a bandwagony thing to do. And as anyone who's played Mafia on a message board knows, bandwagoning is the surest way to ruin one's credibility as a group member. Same in sports fandom as it is in Mafia. The Texans were a respectable choice, and after some waffling, he decided to stick with that result. Darlin', I salute you.

But watching that video filled my head with a number of thoughts.

The most inane was definitely this: I'm no longer on the front page of Followers. It's most likely due to new people signing up to follow Nancy's blog. Though I couldn't help but feel some imaginary pride at the thought that maybe I'd gotten moved off the front page for being a critic instead of a supporter. Eye of the beholder, eh?

Another thought was less silly. Mercy doesn't have a "football day", where people at differing levels of recovery, who are struggling with different issues, can each support their own teams. If they did it that way, girls at different stages of recovery who were struggling with different things could have something personal to talk about other than their problems. It could be an opportunity for a girl who might see herself in terms of a mental illness, a victimization, an addiction, to have another aspect of her personality validated by the group.

Instead, it is an opportunity for everyone to root for Nancy's team. Sports fandom exists today as an avenue of social bonding. It's about as morally neutral as you can get, suitable for all ages, and except for a few rare cases, unlikely to lead to laws being broken or people or animals getting killed. So there is no rational reason why Nancy would need to use her fiat powers to force everyone in the facility to root for her team, and her team alone. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that it is a means by which to exert emotional dominance. And such, for a person who craves emotional dominance, is never to be passed up. Even if the subject matter is not controversial, even if refraining would have overall benefits for the group.

And for dog's sake, look at how she phrases the thing. The last time the Titans and Ravens played, the Ravens won. They did so (according to Nancy: I didn't watch the game) because Mandy's brother blocked a punt near the end of the game which would have put the Titans over the top. Thus depriving Nancy of the ten grand Jeff Fisher would have given to her. Presumably, on Fisher's part, this is a superstitious way of thanking God for his team's success: "Thanks, God, for making sure we all did our jobs better than the other guys today. Here's a little something. Keep up the good work." But Nancy--only, I swear, half joking!--tsks at Mandy because Trevor hasn't sent Nancy $10,000 of his money to make up for depriving Nancy's favorite team of the win. She even encourages viewers to write Trevor and guilt him into sending her the money.

Leaving aside the icky extortiony overtones, it's very, very likely that Trevor Pryce prays to God and/or is a Christian. A significant proportion of NFL players talk the Christian talk as easily as they rattle off sports cliches, and it's equally difficult to tell who is sincere and to what degree. I recall a recent sideline interview where a player was asked, "What do you credit with your, and your team's, outstanding success today?" and he replied, "Well, obviously prayer." Such senitments are sufficiently common that neither the player nor the reporter anyone else saw anything the least bit unusual about it.

My feelings are best expressed here with a Simpsons quote:

Lisa (as Joan of Arc): God, you told me to lead the French to victory!
Groundskeeper Willie (as Oliver Cromwell): Hey, ya two-timin' spot of light! Ya tol' me ta lead tha English ta victory!

I think sometimes people find it difficult to separate, in their own minds, two very different ideas of God.

There is the God who chooses sides in every conflict and announces his will as the result of armed struggle. That idea fought at the side of crusaders, conquistadors, and colonialists. Its use for football is considerably less harmful, but it is a viciously toxic things to be waving around at the mentally ill or unstable. Or anybody else for that matter. People like Cromwell and Joan all down through the ages, and a lot of people even today, took that idea to its logical conclusion over and over and over again. It leads to violent subjugation, dammit. It is an evil idea.

Then there is the God who looks only upon the heart, loves all people with equal divine desperation. The idea of a God who was willing to cram himself into a sack of meat and get jeered and ostracized and hideously mutilated and killed just to prove to his wonderful, agony-laden, thick-headed darlings that he really does understand. That idea of God can be a really wonderful idea. Belief in it can do amazing things to a person. "Oh! I've done horrible things, but I don't have to be defined by them; I can change. God says so. God could take revenge on me for doing horrible things, and he totally could have, but took it out on himself instead because he doesn't want to lose me. I must be worth saving, so I'm going to try and be a better person!"

It is emotionally lazy as hell to mix the two. The bad idea somehow always seems to win out, like dandelions (pretty and allegedly edible as they are) shoving the green grass out of a lawn. It is shoddy, poser-ass personality construction and I do not condone it. But everyone who freaking does it seems to get away with it.

And now one of THEM found a way to besmirch football, which was already besmirched for various reasons, and I barely liked anyway!

Tuesdays with Abhorrent Fiends vol. 45

I originally had a ton of different links up here. A buffet sampling of the world's ills, from a sad story about a young man kidnapped and forced into suicide bombing to a smarmy pastor who preaches what sells, not what (according to his religion) saves. But I'm going to pare it down a little. I'm not making a big, fancy point about the source of all the evil in the world. That's too big a topic for me, and even if I came up with an answer that made for satisfying reading, it wouldn't be the answer.

So here's the story that irritated me enough that I decided to make a blog post about one of the ways people like you and me can talk ourselves into doing stupid, hurtful things. Found the link to it here. It's about a bus full of idiots in Boston.

I have a tendency, sometimes, to think up my point first and then only afterward look to see how the evidence suggests it. Sometimes there's some idea that has been pressing on my thoughts, some emotional or mental state I struggle to describe, and I come to see another person's story as a metaphor for my own inner experience. In this, I am not alone. But giving in to that temptation is dangerous.

Sunday afternoon Dave and I were sitting in the TV room with an NFL game paused. (I'm not a football or sports person myself, but Dave has a way of explaining things that helps me see the math and psychology behind them. And math and psychology are cool!) The jist of the conversation went something like:
Me: Football is like, Olympic-level athleticism combined with intense, action-packed groupthink. Either one of those things is extremely hard to do and can consume a person's entire life all by themselves. I mean, you have to be ultra good at two things. No wonder football players never seem to do anything else!

Him: You know, I have a lot of respect for guys who can leave the game behind, still keep a sense of themselves, and learn to do other things. The biggest thing is, if they can learn not to take the game home with them. Not to respond to every situation in life as though you were defending the same ten yards or so of grass as you do on the field. Cause it's just a job.

Me: Exactly. You can't commit your entire identity to the franchise.

Him: Yeah, I've actually read some interviews recently where guys had a really realistic perspective on it. The team could cut you any time, for any reason, or trade you. Or maybe your contract runs out and they don't want to re-sign you.

Me: So you can't totally emotionally commit to an organization because they're not going to do the same for you.

Him: Well, they might. If you're, like, a transcendently talented player who doesn't have a massive attitude problem, they'd feel like they were lucky to have you.

Me: That makes sense. But the thing I think that happens, when guys can't adapt, is that they've taken part of the team's groupthink--the "we're the best! we're better than they are! we're always gonna win!" part--and applied it to their own identities. Because that's a really seductive mindset.

Him: Right. You've got to separate part of yourself from the team. And most of the players you read about who go out and commit crimes are the ones who weren't able to achieve that separation.

See, when I started drafting this post back on Sunday, I had it all figured out. Here, I thought, was a simple, cogent argument. I could explain how it happens some people get carried away by the hype of whatever it is they've chosen to do. Could explain how others are able to retain a wider perspective, to focus their love and attention on the thing they are doing rather than the way they feel about themselves because they do it.

The crux of the matter, the place where the action really happens, is inside the personality. A person enters into a social group with a certain level of commitment, of trust in the group and its aims and goals and methods. Inside the minds of other members of the group there is a whole spaghetti monster of memes, a mess of value judgments with the dedicated emotional energy of the whole group behind them.

Of course not all the value judgments, not all the beliefs and assumptions, actually have anything to do with the aims of the group or the thing they have come together to do. Like if, off the field, all the players on a particular sports team had a fad going for Valentino suits. They would all agree that Valentino was awesome, and slap their mental and emotional energy down on the table to back up the belief. But that belief, because of the way they came to have it, would be part of their identity as a member of the team, rather than their personal preference of tailoring styles.

Now, a person who was thoughtful about the things he believed and why would be able to separate the suit fad from his identity as a team member in his own mind. He would have a sense of perspective about the belief he'd absorbed from the group, would know it wasn't necessary to the game plan or his own integrity as an athlete. But a less thoughtful person would not be able (to borrow a phrase) to achieve that separation. So, for example, if a casual acquaintance said something critical to him about the suit, he might react as though the honor of his team was in question. In that case he'd be defending the meme about suits--this particular belief of no special importance--with all the same vigor and intensity as he would have defended the source from which the belief came to him--the group identity of his team.

Reminds me of DNA sequences. Every strand of DNA contains many "instructions", that is, sequences of proteins which, when assembled, become the shapes of specialized cells and tissues that permit an organism to grow and function. But in between instructions and the stops between them, there is a lot of static. Broken bits of code, sequences that don't assemble any proteins at all but just sit there, filling space and helping the DNA molecule cohere. Every group's memetic spaghetti monster has a ton of those, whether the group is a legally chartered academy of scientists or an informal group of friends who happen to sit at the same end of a local bar. The "suit memes" could deal with anything from which jargon you use to talk about a subject, to which suits are best, to the moral advisability of smoking, to the immediate likelihood of global thermonuclear war. And it doesn't make a bit of difference. Their sole function is to identify group members to one another, to help hold their sense of identity as a group together. LaVey called such things "goodguy badges", and I think it's a good term for it. It is a belief whose sole function is identification, but which a person who has not thought the matter through will treat as though it were an integral part of his or her identity.

What does this have to do with me, sitting here thinking I have the answers? Or a bus full of idiots who laugh at a drunkard's talk of rape and murder, without ever pausing to wonder if the drunk might not be joking?

I believe we assemble our identities, our working knowledge of who we are as people, from the raw memetic material we get through social interactions. The more intense the relationship, the higher the level of trust, the more beliefs go flying back and forth from one person's mind into another's. Or from one person's habits, instinctive reactions, unconscious prejudices, into the mind of another.

For good or ill, we absorb a lot more information from our environment than we are aware of on a conscious level. Regarding physical reality that's a grim necessity. If you had to read every word on every sign you drove past, notice the shape and texture of the bumps on the steering wheel every time your fingers touched them, you'd go nuts. (You might get more spiritually in tune at first, but in the long term, information overload is a terrible way to go unhinged.) But when it comes to social reality, metaphorically speaking, we all end up swallowing a lot of ideas that can back out of a driveway and sideswipe us when we least expect it.

So here's how I figure it. (Yes, it's scary to realize I'm geniunely and sincerely reduced to guessing about my own motives. I hope, most sincerely, that this is just because I'm analyzing my motives beyond the point which is usually reasonable.) When I started out writing this blog post, I'd been reading around to any blog that struck my eye for a couple of hours. I gravitate to the style of blog where the author picks a subject on which he or she has particular experience or skill as well as strong feelings, and writes about ignoble bastards who try to use something in the blogger's area of interest to defraud and harm other human beings. Maybe I'd chosen, with the arcane emotional calculus we all use to assemble our working identities in the day-to-day, to absorb something the bloggers had never intended to give me. I hadn't absorbed their earnest desire to prevent suffering or their hatred of quackery and swindling, but instead a vague, nebulous feeling: These jerks are wrong. I know what the answer is, why can't they see it?

The moral of the story is: we absorb what we feel we most need. Not what we think we need--this type of decision usually takes place below the level of conscious thought. But if I am feeling small and powerless, I will seek beliefs within the social belief structures available to me that make me feel empowered. If I want to feel wise and superior, I will seek beliefs that support that feeling. If I want to get angry and start arguments with people, I will seek out beliefs that urge me to conclude the world is against me.

This is not to say that you can find anything anywhere if you look for it. You can find anything anywhere, but it won't be of equal quality. If you or I were to travel through time and go back and join the Heaven's Gate cult, and our most earnest emotional need was to feel intelligent and insightful, they could fix us up with some beliefs that did the trick. But if those feelings, and not the reality behind them, were all we were after, then we'd be just as dead as the rest of them.

Which is why those guys on the bus in Boston were idiots. Not because they were disrespectful and insensitive to the women (or men, perhaps, who'd had female friends or relatives raped or beaten or murdered)--that just makes them jerks. They were idiots because they responded to the drunkard on the most superficial possible level, without questioning in their own minds what his motives might be, what he was getting out of it, before deciding whether or not they wanted to encourage him. And any time I spout off about something because I'm reacting emotionally, because I'm looking for a quick hit of self-esteem or self-loathing or whatever emotion it is I need that day, I'm just as much of an idiot as they are.

This post is mostly a note to myself to remember it! Because I very nearly posted something much less useful!