That thing in my head

An adjunct to the previous post:  this thing called consciousness.  The first question humans are faced with when considering this thing, this ability, this function: are we special?  Not a question anyone seems to be at ease with.  There seem to be varying forms of consciousness in many animals, and judging if they are “like” us, and how much alike, is difficult and definitely a value judgment as well.  But we can ignore this aspect, and simply revel in consciousness- for lack of a more nuanced definition, the awareness of self in the world- and still find that it is quite an amazing thing.  The human cognitive power to imagine, to see one self in the mirror and know it is the “I” (a classic test for consciousness), to rotate objects in our mental space, to predict, to hypothesize, to consider the past, to synthesize our senses and interpret meaning, to understand absurdity, to laugh, are all quite amazing really. 

 I will not oversimplify the vast work of so many philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, and religions.  They are all there for you to explore if you take the concept of consciousness seriously. 

 But today, again I am reminded of the sheer variety of ways humans react to this knowledge- which is amazing as well.  What strange and creative patch-works Scientology, all stripes of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hindu, Shinto, and all the rest makes if we consider them reactions to the knowledge of self in the world.  No one really seems to like the hard core Atheist position- it inspires such fear that many even equate it with “evil”, they are so unable to respect that it is actually a valid position given the evidence in life because of the fear that it might, just might, be right.

 I come down on what I think of as the Bill Maher point of view- I don’t know, and you don’t either (an old-school agnostic saying).  His film “Religulous” is a fun exploration into the strange and oddly self destructive about organized religions that offers little more than extreme fantasy for people to buy into in order to avoid a fear of death.  If taken as simply complex reactions, instantiated throughout long periods of time and tradition thus offering some comfort when faced with existential questions, if one can be that detached and rational about observing, then there is a lot about these responses to consciousness that can be interesting.  I don’t get into the angels-on-the head-of-a-pin arguments anymore, because the premise always demands a. agreement that god exists, and b. that my idea of god is better than yours.  I start my questions a bit further back from those assumptions.

 I am not arrogant enough to say I have answers to the great existential questions posed by consciousness:  Why do I exist?  Is there any part of me that exists after death?  What goes on?  Why?  Is there a god (I have made peace with definitions of moral, ethical, and spiritual that work for me, and apply to being alive NOW, or functionally)?  What is reality?  Forgive me a little blurring of philosophy here- I tend toward more psychological groupings.

 It seems so much of being human is to be fascinated, to be curious about other humans, and ourselves (in the extreme, this can make for solipsistic, or narcissist driven people).   We put humans at the top of the food chain, and all our narratives are about humans, or anthropomorphized humans (applying human characteristics to animals or other objects in order to tell a story, or attempt to understand them, or ourselves).   We have lives made up of responsibilities, needs, wants, desires, actions, and when we take a moment, just a moment, to draw aside the demanding curtain of all these and look around, think, feel, and consider ourselves- our consciousness turned to consider itself- I think them we have a chance to, as the current Dalai Lama has said, really see.  There is fear and comfort both in this act of considering, and it is not a paradox. 

 My first reaction is always to laugh.  For example: while I know so much about adornment is to achieve explicit and implicit satisfactions, to communicate, to clothe, etc.  Looking at this one feature of humans continually strikes me as funny; to look at how people adorn themselves.  Everything from tattoos, to shoes, to hair, the cloth used, so many levels of analysis possible! 

 John Berger wrote “Ways of Seeing”, a book (based on a series of TV episodes) that has become something of a piece of the “canon” on this topic, particularly as it applies to art (but subtly as it applies to all seeing, or learning).   I find his focus on the necessity, while also the impossibility of detachment in this process useful.  We can’t ever get away from who we are, this thing that is “I”, the filter for everything we experience (loads of philosophy on this one), or the contexts that bound us, but we can be aware of ourselves, or what is called the “meta” self, the conscious awareness of being human, in all our specific idiosyncrasies, contexts, and be self critical about how that filters our perceptions, creations, knowledge, and beliefs.  At its best; I think this is what post-modernism offered philosophy.  At its worst, post-modernism can be badly reductive and extinguish the joy, the fascination with consciousness to an existential dead end.  One has to work with this dialectic to get into what comes after, and it’s been a fractured affair at best in the past 40 years, a patchwork of resurrected modernism, structuralism, and contemporary ideas to suffice for a trajectory into consciousness and all the related issues, and sub-topics.

 But I wander.  That’s also a feature of the human mind.  I have not met a truly creative person yet (and I have known many, in all arenas of formal activity) who did not know themselves to have a “wandering” mind.   My favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, that I used to keep on my office door and still have in my home office, has Calvin looking at his mom saying, “I let my mind wander and it didn’t come back”, to which she replies “I thought you’d lost your mind years ago”.  As a mom, I’d change the last line to “Really? I thought I’d lost my mind years ago”.

 I don’t believe anyone can truly be creative and not consider the issue of consciousness from time to time.  I’ve said before curiosity is a core feature of creativity, add the freedom from fear to consider consciousness.  Not to be without fear, but to be able to be free from letting it control (but perhaps still motivate) the consideration.

 If nothing else, it pulls us out of the everyday and offers us a chance to take a breath, survey all that we are doing, and laugh.  I know, I know.  The dishes won’t get done by themselves, as much as some sci-fi writers have created visions of reality where they could.  Sci-fi as a reaction to awareness of consciousness is another thread worth discussing, call me if you are in the mood for some wine and shared blather about it.  For now, there are the dishes, and the ever-present cat somewhere in the steel box that will never be opened.

Waiting for the Plumber

Nothing to be done.

He should be here.
He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
And if he doesn’t come?
We’ll come back tomorrow.
And then the day after tomorrow.
Possibly.
And so on.
The point is—
Until he comes.
You’re merciless.
We came here yesterday.
Ah no, there you’re mistaken.
What did we do yesterday?
What did we do yesterday?
Yes.
Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when you’re about.
In my opinion we were here.
Well?
That makes no difference.
You’re sure it was this evening?
What?
That we were to wait.
He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
You think.
I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
(very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?
 It’s not possible!
Or Thursday?
What’ll we do?
If he came yesterday and we weren’t here you may be sure he won’t come again today. 
 
Let’s go.  Yes, let’s go. 
 
My apologies to Sam Beckett.  But he had it right about life.  He also had it right that in the pathos, there is comedy.  
 
We met with the plumber.  We needed to take down the cabinet.  When did he say he would come again?  I thought you were supposed to call.  No, I think we said two weeks.  No, I think he said we should call this week.  We still need to take down the dry wall.  Yes.  Let’s take down the dry wall.  We can’t go camping if he comes.  No.  We need to make clear when he is coming.
 
Yes.  This was a real conversation with Husband.   Completely unintentionally parallel.  Oh, Beckett.  We hardly knew ye.  But we know of what you write.
 
A first weekend in July, 2011.  We wait for babies to be born, a brother to become a father, a father to become a grandfather (again, if he does not pass before), myself to be an aunt; the tomatoes to ripen, the sun to set and temperature to fall.  A plumber who said he would come.  We can not leave, we dare not leave.  We do not leave.  The waiting is all. 

Winter

I don’t think the group Yaz (Alison Moyet) was being ironic when the lyrics to “winter kills” were being written (as in “that comedian just killed tonight”).  Nor do I think they were referencing the terrific work of Richard Condon.  It’s not an obscure Shakespeare reference either. I’m not sure why that particular piece of music comes to mind right now, but for the fact that we are in that part of the winter that seems to be dragging on a bit too long; the air in the house is too stale and dry.  There seems to be no end to the run on days of too cold to do much out and about, and the general malaise that has set in does not seem to lift.  I don’t know how people in Norway or Finland do it.  Live so high on the map, under the influence of cold.  I’m not one for heat as I have said before, but I get my fill of extreme cold as well.

I sat in the car with the engine off after dropping the wee one at school.   I sat in the driveway, looking at the garden space.  I sighed at all the work that needs to be done once the ground has thawed.  Once spring begins to creep back in.  I visited my grandmother’s grave a few days ago.  They have not properly filled in the site, what soil was laid down has sunk and more needs to be added.  But the ground is so hard right now.  I wonder when they will get to it.  I also wonder when they will set the marker.  I wish I could just plant a hardy rose bush there instead.

I did not master canning the past two years, and I wonder what I will do with the fruits of our garden labors this year.  I would like to do as my great grandmother did; have rows of green beans and bacon pieces, tomatoes, and pickles of every type in Ball jars on cool basement shelves.  The priceless leavings of summer to act as a palliative to winter blues.

We seem to have spent this winter in a 30×30 mile bubble zone, free from precipitation of every kind while all around us winter raged.   It has gotten so strange Husband joked that we must be in a weather experimental control zone.  What small amount of snow we had quickly disappeared. The wee ones lament the lack of snowmen, forts, and sledding they remembered from last year.

The cold drives people inside and life is dormant on the other side of the window.  The few squirrels and birds that do pass by find nothing to feed them and move on.  The chill in the house was impossible to shake today, and no warm bath or cup of tea could keep it out of the air or off exposed flesh.  The wind shook the trees and howled.  The house held its breath, but could not keep the cold out completely. I read the national weather service forecast for the week, and it may get into the high 40’s in a few days.  One must hope.  I can’t shake the cloudy sky in my head right now, and all I hear is “winter kills” playing in a far off room.  Spring will come, and the sun will warm everything it touches.  Soon, soon I tell myself.  Soon.

On death and dying

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne: Death be not proud.

Death is a fact.  Dying is an act.  After actively witnessing close up the acts of dying my mother and (most recently) my grandmother have participated in, I have come to a few conclusions.

Dying is ugly.  I will probably, like most, see back through jellied lenses at what I know and instinctively find ways to convince myself that it was deep.  I will make meaning of chaos.   But truly, dying is ugly.  I believe those who convince themselves otherwise are avoiding the issue or finding ways to be right with it.  That’s fine.  But at present I can’t escape the knowledge of smells, sights, sounds, textures, and smells that linger as tastes.  I can’t escape indignities, of the body fighting itself and the process of decay.  I can’t stop struggling to hope for more grace, a quicker route than I have seen pass. 

There are those who enact hospice, who find fascination with dying as well as defining themselves as enablers of peace.  I do not admire them, but know them to be useful to others.  So be it.  We have lost our rituals of dying; so that many of us are left to act as best we can, making it up as we go along, stumbling, hoping for better.

I despise funeral homes.  There is nothing, nothing at all, more fake than a funeral home (what home is this?).  The fake condolences, the fake fluids, the fake box.  The fake spaces, which never seem to be completely clean and always a bit shabby, tacky, and inept.  The only thing that is not fake about a funeral home is the stark black on white of the legal document agreeing to fork over very real cash, large amounts of it.  If one reads the fine print (and I did),  it is a laundry list of fake services no one needs.  If one takes a mental red marker to the list (and I did), what you are left with is a huge base charge for people you do not know to carry away your dead, pump them with chemicals, and display them for view.  The rest are add ons of every sort meant to balloon the profit margin for a business that has successfully lobbied over the years to take over our ability to mourn, to process our dead.  The strategic shame game when being offered boxes, the subtle sliding of more services to customers addled with grief, the “oh you should discuss that part with your pastor/priest” for the things they do not want to handle, and the awkward organizing that’s left is all just fakery. 

What I and my father know, what we have done to help our dying family members, looms large beside what we did not get to do.  We should have been able to complete the process we were so intimately a part of.  We did the dying, and were denied the death.  The last steps for thousands of years- the washing of the body, dressing, building a simple box, digging the hole, putting the dead in (or burning, if that is your tradition) then covering over- it should be our right.  It is the end, and to have experienced the rest and not the end is unfair.  It is wrong.  It is a step, an essential step, left out.  Once in the ground there is silence.  Others who came, leave.  Then it is time for bills to get paid, letters written to cancel services.  Clothes get donated, the room cleaned.  A once vital, well loved human finishes becoming memories. 

I know I was loved.  I know, however fragmented, I was understood.  I know I loved in return.  They are gone, two of those who loved me most.  Two of those whom I loved most.  I am left with a smaller circle of care, of family, of those I love and whom know me in return.   Death be not proud, but ugly.  Inevitable.   Now let us be about our business, those of us who witnessed and enough of fakery.  We know what has passed, and what is lost.  There is no end to the loss, just fact.  The act is done.

Goodbye beloved mother, grandmother.  

Why we need the fly over

Amidst all the flash and bang, the sturm and drang of what passes for news, entertainment, and the gripping social scene of the U.S., there are vast swaths of what the glitterati like to call “”fly over””.  We won’’t discuss how many of those glitterati actually grew up in the fly over and departed for the flash (usually in their early 20’’s), or the good reasons they had for doing so.  But it is curious that many of them who later became successful got known and labeled for their “Midwestern-ness”.  Some say it disparagingly, as Bret Easton Ellis did of David Foster Wallace (something akin to suggesting “he has a fake Midwestern sincerity”, but really- if he calls DFW fake, then I question if he knows what sincerity is at all).  Some say it with a slightly charmed, slightly condescending expression, as if to say “isn’’t that so cute, so naive”.  Some say it with camaraderie- “They remind me of myself at that age, so earnest and hard working””, and on rare occasions, “”I’’d only hire a former midwestern kid.  They are the only trustworthy ones in the lot””.

You get the idea.

Midwesterness is a general category, often used in film and political campaigns to denote the “backbone of America”, the thing that carries everyone along but gets little attention paid, even when it is sending out pain signals.

It is not “southern”; it is not of the “coasts”.  It is not “northwest-like”, and it is definitely not “southwestern”.  It bears a passing resemblance to the crusty, stink eye stare of rural Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine but with a firm, quick handshake and offer of some refreshment.  It goes about its’ business trying not to offend anyone or get in anyone’’s way. 

It is the humor of Garrison Keillor, state fairs, hale cheerleaders, and tractor pulls.  It is high schoolers on dirt roads drinking at 10 p.m. knowing they have to be home soon for family curfews and in time to sleep then get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows.  It is white, but also brown, and sometimes yellow and red- there are more Native American reservations in the Midwest than anyone ever considers, more Latin Americans, more African Americans and more Asians (and not just in the cities). 

It is thrift stores where dust collects on old Ball jars, while cases of new ones sell out of stores every year.  It is Agri-business controlling vast swaths of green seas, and contracting out with cattle, poultry and pork farmers.  It is musty Carnegie libraries with amazing stained glass ceilinged tiny rotundas that kids bike to in the summer to stay cool and read.  It is the wind.  It is quiet broken by the occasional vicious argument over heard from blocks away, usually over money or some subject akin to any country music song on the radio.  It is the twang of the teen learning the electric guitar, and listening to AC/DC in the basement.  It’s churches of brick, stone and wood with interchangeable signs and denominations. 

To have known Midwesterness is to have looked at the sky, to read the clouds, and know the screech of tornado sirens.  It is all the contradictions of passivity and sometimes self-indulgent ignorance, as well as knowing the meaning of loyalty, kindness, and unspoken anxiety always at the corners of life.  It is to know awe; genuine, gob smacking awe at the greens of a dragonfly, the belly of a hummingbird, the taste of a fried tomato, as well as the sight of a Calder or an Oldenburg sculpture occupying the grass.  It is to revel in awe and not be ashamed, and no knee-jerk jump to tying that awe to any sort of god.

It is a built-in patience with many things, and open-faced impatience with that which seems time wasting or superficial, irrational, or especially unjust.  It is also dumbfoundingly strange from time to time; creative, silly, and sometimes pointless.

Belly laughs are considered good things in most venues, and volunteering is a given.

It can be cruel, not doubt.  Punishing as well.  The wheel that grinds souls in midwesterness is not so much about isolation among many, but isolation itself.

It is a quality often recognized, but difficult to describe.

Without it late night comics would have little fodder, and the very groundedness the flash and bang relies upon would be gone. 

Say what you will.  But I know a Midwesterner when I speak to them.  I may come to dislike them later, but for a moment- there is a kindredness of spirit that I appreciate. 

I do not look down on the green, grays and browns when flying from one coast to another and breathe a sign of relief that I do not have to drive.  I wistfully look down, having traversed those roads so many times, and wish I had the time and money to do it again.  Not to discover Kerouac’s dream, not to mourn with Bill Bryson, not to revel with W. Least Heat Moon but because I have already done it and I miss it.  I don’’t know if I could put my muddy shoes behind the door there again, but I miss it and appreciate it for what it is, and what it gives all of us.

Que?

I was listening to Kate Bush today and thumbing through my approximately 30 gig of music (and for the record, I wish I had more).  I remember when ITunes first came out with the data analyzer that attempts to make recommendations based on your library.  It was doomed to fail in so many ways (one because I have enough items that ITunes does not carry that it would be hard to adequately analyze if the case- my collection- has so much data that has to be ignored as unknown), but the errors are an interesting problem.   I have felt like much of my life I have been dismissed as an outlier.  In statistics, it is a convenient way to discard data by saying, in essence, “it does not fit anything we can use and is so far out of our margins of experience we can just throw it out”.

In data mining, eclectic cases could be interesting- but because they do not neatly provide predictive lines of analysis, they are more often than not dismissed as noise in the data.  Think of smoke coming out of your toaster (which is how I thought of ITunes when it tried to send me recommendations.  It was frying itself a little trying to make matches.  And yes, this is a vague reference to flying toasters.  And no, not from BSG).   “Noise” or errors in the data can also be used to refine pre-existing category systems (think when Photoshop tries to delete an object then insert surrounding inferential data to fill in where the object was removed), so that the greater the possibilities of realization of a concept is explored in real experience, it adds to the complexity of how that idea is understood and manifested, or reflected back.

On Facebook, I tried to limit the amount of information that could be freely collected by the site and its “partners”.  One of the things I did was put in a wildly inaccurate birth date.  I like messing with data mining.  I purposely have a small friends group too, so anyone who knows me well already knows my birthday and knows my penchant for messing with freeloading data systems.

When one knows oneself, we know the parts that are ridiculously stereotypical and the parts that are eclectic.  The mash up and resulting paradoxes are, I think, just part of being human.  Go figure that one out cognitive science- ok, I know people are trying but really- so many current models are so inadequate or just rehashing problems philosophers and early psychologists have better articulated.

There is something to the notions of innovation, eclecticism, and creativity that is compelling.  I formally studied these ideas long and hard for many years, for altruistic reasons as well as knowing I was a thorny case for the subject.   I found satisfying models and metaphors in work from people like R. Sternberg (the concept of Practical Intelligence), from the bulk of expertise research, the personal musings of many artists, musicians, and writers, aesthetics, and many other sources.   At the same time, there is an element of the wisp of smoke coming from a toaster about the idea of creativity; to try to understand open ended, eclectic thinking is to sometimes burn out the very tools of analysis you are bringing to the subject.

On a practical level, I have enjoyed the research that quite definitely shows if we do not use our brain in challenging and novel ways it will atrophy, and contribute to dementia.  As often as I feel like a complete alien in every culture and subculture I have been in, it is comforting to know my “sideways” way of viewing things may be helping me age better.  But does that also mean we are doomed to always be incomplete, constant learning beings if we are to survive, and survive well- thereby possibly both limiting our usefulness (incomplete, exploratory) as well as making us adaptable?  Ah, to be or not to be (apologies to WS).

We romanticize creativity, but in practice most folks are terrified of things that are different, and skeptical of the new.  I am not an early adopter of technology (one because I can’t afford to be), but I am deeply interested in what objects and processes new technology is applied to. I have been called blissfully naive in my life, and I took it as a put down.  But looking back, it was a habit of not making rash judgments, extending the time to understand someone or something (and yes, therefore putting myself in harms way from time to time) that garnered me that label, combined with a seemingly insatiable thirst for new experiences and stimuli.  I also know that withholding indexing or categorizing, being flexible in how one views an experience, is a core component of creativity.  It is the open-ended question without any one absolutely right answer that fascinates.  Wisdom for folks like me is learning what situations require immediate categorization and what situations can be allowed the extra time and thoughtfulness necessary for satisfactory input.

I don’t think data mining systems have reached the wisdom stage yet, and therefore will continue to emit wisps of smoke when confronted with the eclectic cases; or take so much of what I am and toss it out as outlier that what is left is a pale imitation, a grossly inadequate summary.  I think data mining (and life in general) does this to an extent to all of us, regardless of how predictable we may seem.  Some assumptions that result may be useful and help improve the tools that operate in our lives, both foregrounded and backgrounded.  Others lead to horrible policy and situations like those at airports when checking in for a flight.  In essence, everyone and no one are terrorists.  A complete paradox of institutionalized applications resulting from awful data analysis systems.

Simply using “that” word in this blog selects me out for further analysis in the gross internet search and filter systems of some intelligence programs.  Try and mash up all the topics I have crossed here and see if I am a no-fly—wisps of smoke, then throwing out most of what is written and determine I am not a threat due to inconsequential outliers.  See?  It is useful, right?

If only rejection were always so useful.

Husband recently said with a laugh, “I know WHO you are (and he trusts what he knows), but I don’t know WHAT you are.”   He struggled to explain- and remember, this man is an accomplished artist- that he meant he does not know where I fit in.  Funny, I don’t either most of the time.  But I’ll keep taking those wisps of smoke and the subsequent collapse into absurdity and laughter as the only way other than despair and insanity to synthesize the issue.  In laymans terms, come to a temporary peace.  But as many of us know, it is a peace that will soon be disturbed by the enjoyment of the knotty problem, the hurtful surprise, or the macro-level existential paradox that never ceases to exist in the back of every conscious mind.

So good night all you toasters, running your programs.  Maybe someday that AI will learn how to integrate the errors that lead to melt down or burnt toast; or maybe there will just not seem to be a good reason to mirror us and you’ll leave us alone.