Archive for December, 2009

Monsters Under the Bed

Monday, December 28th, 2009

My older brother and I used to worry about the snakes, not monsters, under the bed. We’d take a flying leap from the doorway onto our beds so the nasty poisonous snakes couldn’t bite us.

While many childhood fears (monsters in the closet, monsters under the bed, etc.) don’t seem to be related to the everyday world, this particular fear may have had its basis in reality.

We spent summers at our grandparents’ house in the Texas Hill Country, where scorpions, brown recluse spiders, and fire ants are known to share your living quarters. We found, for instance, that it was the wiser course of action to check our shoes for stray spiders and scorpions before putting them on. It’s not that far of a leap from scorpions in your shoes to snakes under your beds.

When I was in third grade I was convinced a ghost followed me up the stairs to my bedroom. I used to run up the stairs, hair standing on end, feeling the ghost chasing me. (Never caught me though. I was a fast runner.)

I used to think that childhood fears wane as one grows older. Now, I’m not so sure. I suspect that what we fear changes, but that we still fear.

For a while I used to worry about flying on airplanes. Although I’ve flown all my life, there was a period in my twenties when I made sure I’d updated my will before flying. (The items listed in my will were all personal effects–who gets the 2nd edition Webster’s dictionaries, etc.)

As many people are happy to tell you, there is very little likelihood you’ll die from riding in an airplane. We’re much likelier to die in a car crash than from air travel. Yet I’ve never considered writing a will before hopping in the car to run to the post office and go grocery shopping. It simply hasn’t crossed my mind.

What then makes my fear of flying any different from my childhood fear of the ghost that chased me up the stairs or the snakes under the bed?

The Red Shoes, Revisited

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

For Lisa

When she was born, her fairy godmother gifted her with a pair of red shoes, for when she was grown.

Her mother died when she was a toddler. Her father remarried.

Her father died a few years later, and her stepmother remarried.

After years of unhappiness, she ran away from home. She fled to a distant town, where she apprenticed with a dressmaker. She learned the trade and did well. Met a young man and married. Kept working as a dressmaker. Was happy. Had a baby, then a second. Happy.

Yet something was missing.

She returned to the village of her birth and went to her old house. Her stepmother, an old woman now, recognized her immediately. “I suppose you’ve come for the shoes,” her stepmother said.

“Yes,” she answered, not knowing what her stepmother was talking about.

“They’re not yours anymore, fairy godmother or no,” her stepmother said. “I took care of you when your mother died. I took care of you when your father left me behind. So they’re not yours, they’re mine.”

“I want to see them,” she said.

“Well all right, but they’re not yours.”

Both women knew you can’t hold a fairy gift hostage. They always find their way to their rightful owners.

The stepmother brought out the dusty shoes. The red was faded, yet they were finely made, with fur-lined leather and a sturdy heel. They looked just her size.

“I want to try them on,” she said. She took off her scuffed, misshapen shoes and stepped into the red shoes.

Immediately three memories came to her. First, she remembered her mother, holding her and singing to her. Second, she remembered her father smiling at her as he picked her up and swung her around. Third, she remembered the coldness that had settled in her heart after her parents had died.

Her stepmother fidgeted. “Take them off. They should be mine.”

“All right,” she said. She took off the red shoes and placed them in her stepmother’s waiting hands. She put her shapeless shoes back on, turned away, and began the walk home.

She didn’t look back, and she didn’t see the red shoes crumble to dust in her stepmother’s hands.

As she made the long walk home, she began to hum her mother’s song, smiling.


Monday, December 14th, 2009

A number of years ago I had the great fortune of spending three weeks in Ecuador to learn Spanish.

While I was traveling the countryside by bus, I noticed a girl of about ten years old standing by the side of the road with her mother. The bus stopped as some people boarded and others got off. The girl and her mother stayed where they were. Perhaps they were waiting for someone.

I watched as the girl picked her nose. Quite obviously. In public.

I waited for her mother to speak to her and tell her to stop picking her nose in public.

The mother turned to her daughter and said nothing. Instead, she began to pick her nose, too.

Which just goes to show that whether or not it’s appropriate to pick one’s nose in public varies from family to family and from place to place.

Peace, Pacifism, and Nonviolence

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Earlier this week, the president announced that he will be sending 30,000 more troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. As some journalists noted, there was a certain irony to Obama’s acceptance of the Peace Prize as he was engaging even more heavily in a war.

A common understanding of peace parallels the Wikipedia definition, that peace is “an absence of violence”. However, my understanding of peace is more closely aligned with Merriam-Webster’s definition: “a state of tranquility or quiet”.

(Wikipedia’s definition is semantically problematic. As I learned in fourth grade, it is inadequate to define a term by what it is not. Saying that peace is an absence of war or an absence of conflict does not tell what it is, only what it is not. Merriam-Webster defines peace in the positive, which is more effective at communicating what it actually is.)

Obama’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize made me begin to think more about peace. Although I’ve aspired to be a pacifist, I haven’t been able to answer questions from friends about just what exactly I’d advocate doing if my own home were under attack. Would I still profess pacifism and nonviolence, or would I acknowledge that violence in self-defense is acceptable?

When asked, I’ve only been able to answer, “I don’t know.”

We have a modern example of pacifism in face of invasion: by and large, Tibetans have not resisted the Chinese invasion of their homeland militarily. And where does that get them? Invaded.

Whereas one could argue that nonviolence “worked” for Ghandi–his nonviolent leadership helped bring about an end to British rule–it doesn’t seem to “work” for Tibet–China doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The question becomes, which is more important, protecting one’s loved ones, one’s home, one’s welfare, or practicing nonviolence?

I think only if we have a concept of salvation or enlightenment can we make an argument in favor of nonviolence when facing a direct threat to one’s loved ones, home, or welfare. Only if we have an idea that there is some numinous or nirvanic essence beyond our immediate understanding of the world can it make sense to abdicate one’s sense of self-preservation.

On the other hand, there are arguments in favor of nonviolence that suggest that since the cost of conflict (in terms of human life as well as resources) is so high, there must be a better way to effect resolutions. Wikipedia calls this “pragmatic” or “consequentialist” pacifism. Pragmatic pacifism seems more economic in its approach, rather than stemming from a moral or spiritual foundation.

Proponents of war often argue that a “just war” is defensible. If killing a few people now will save many, many people being killed later, isn’t that the better thing to do? Isn’t it better to act now than to have the future deaths of many on one’s hands? How can we sit by and do nothing while others are slaughtered for want of our involvement?

Radiolab has a podcast (entitled, “Killing Babies, Saving the World“) that puts the question to us: would we kill our own infant in order to save an entire village? This question takes the line of reasoning of the “just war” to an extreme.

The problem I have with the concept of the “just war” is that we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. If I conclude that Person A is going to harm… one person, one hundred people, one thousand people (whatever the number is that warrants triggering a “just war”), and I kill Person A, I have now removed from the Person A the ability to make a choice.

In some ways, this is a greater violence, because I have prevented Person A from being able to choose a loving path, to choose not to kill.

I understand that x times out of x+1 times, Person A will kill. But if I kill Person A to prevent them from killing others, I have eliminated the possibility that they will be able to make the choice not to kill on that x+1st time.

Additionally, I have killed. I have made a violent choice. In my effort to keep someone else from killing, I have performed the very act that I condemn. This is strange.

In her book All About Love, bell hooks suggests that if as a country we choose love, great things can happen. I believe this, too. However, I also acknowledge that there is a danger in believing this. If we are to give people the opportunity to choose love, that means they also have the opportunity not to choose love. And if someone chooses violence instead of love, there are consequences, sometimes tragic consequences.

But as I see it, there is no other way. There can be no possibility, no opportunity for us to live fully loving lives if we preclude the opportunity for everyone to make loving choices. When we choose to kill, we forswear peace.

Serendipity, Freecycle, and Kinkade

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Two days ago I posted about my affinity for Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at my Freecycle account and saw that someone was offering a Thomas Kinkade puzzle!

Years ago my family adopted a friend’s holiday tradition of putting together a puzzle over the winter holidays, and I had been thinking about finding a puzzle for this year’s holiday gathering. Now I had no need–if I were the first person to respond to the offer of the Kinkade puzzle, all would be taken care of.

Freecycle is wonderful that way. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an open-membership group in which people give away items they no longer have a use for. As you might guess from the name, the item is free. It’s a good way to reduce, reuse, recycle within your community.

In any event I was the first person to express an interest in the Kinkade puzzle (lucky me), and I have just returned from picking it up from the giver’s porch.

What propitious timing.

Embarrassing Tastes

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Although I would like to think better of myself, I have been known to play the snob occasionally.

There are at least two dangers with being a snob: one, the ridiculousness of pretending to like things you really don’t and, two, the ridiculousness of pretending not to like the things that you really do.

As I walked by a few shops the other day, I saw a painting which reminded me of the work of Thomas Kinkade, who calls himself the “Painter of Light”. I felt two things almost simultaneously: a superciliousness toward Kinkade and a twinge of regret.

Among some of the people I mix with, Kinkade is not much respected as an artist. His work is too saccharine, too formulaic, and too “commercial”. (I begin to wonder if the charge against those who cry “commercialism” isn’t correct, that only those who’ve been untouched by financial success are so quick to decry it in others.)

I’ve heard that he doesn’t really paint his images himself. Instead, like a 19th-century master artist, he hires people to do most of his paintings for him, only applying a brush stroke here and there so that there is some veracity to the claim that it’s a “Kinkade painting”. I haven’t any idea which of the complaints against Kinkade may be true.

But I do know one thing–I really like his pictures. I especially like his series of cottages set in gardens or in the forest. I like the glow of the windows, which make the cottage seem inviting, as if it’s waiting for you to come home, hearth aglow. As if happy times are to be had once you step over the threshold.

I must not be alone in my appreciation for the lighted windows. Else why would he have the moniker “painter of light”?

My mother and I saw one of Kinkade’s paintings about nine years ago in a San Francisco art gallery. I stopped to admire it. I remember telling my mother I would like to have a painting like that one day.

Several years later, my mother and I were together again, looking at art. We were with a friend–one of my friends whom I considered sophisticated and, although we were close, whom I wished to impress.

My mother noticed a Kinkade painting again, and pointed it out to me, “Look, there’s the painter you like.” At first, I didn’t recognize the painting or painter, since I hadn’t seen much of Kinkade’s work in the meantime.

Then, I did recognize his painting. And, I lied. I turned to my mother and said, “No, I don’t like this painting.”

You see, in the intervening years, I had learned that Kinkade was not respected in certain circles, especially among people who consider themselves “cultured”. I’d like to consider myself cultured, so I committed one of the great sins: denial.

I told my mother and my friend that I didn’t know or like Thomas Kinkade’s work because I didn’t want them to think I was unsophisticated, that I could be “taken in” by something so packaged. The long and the short of it is, I lied.

What’s most awkward about this lie is that I was so caught up in my desire to maintain a certain appearance, I didn’t pay any attention the fact that I was lying. I was running roughshod over what I believed and liked.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve overcome this weakness, that I am now ready to proclaim my affinity for Kinkade’s work, but it wouldn’t be true. I do like a lot of his work. But if you and I met in a social situation, I probably wouldn’t tell you that.

Of course, my discomfort at liking Kinkade was nothing compared to my teenage mortification upon realizing that the somewhat sporty car my parents drove that I’d welcomed with open arms as a refuge from the extremely embarrassing (to a teenager) station wagon they drove was actually the worse of the two cars! Who knew the Ford Pinto had such a bad reputation…?


Saturday, December 5th, 2009

I was thinking about distance today, wondering how far an ant can walk. Which led me to learn more about ants.

Did you know that ant colonies are superorganisms? As are a number of other insect groups, including bees.

Oddly, there are two mammal species whose colonies are also considered to be superorganisms. They are both rats. You can see the naked mole rat here in Wikipedia. (In the first photo on Wikipedia the naked mole rat pictured looks very like a young ROUS from The Princess Bride.)

A superorganism is a group of animals (usually insects) that work together consistently for the benefit of the colony. One could argue that any group of social animals fits that description, but the distinction of a superorganism is that the individual animals fulfill a role that is specifically designed to support the colony. Members of a group that is not a superorganism may or may not participate in a way that works to the benefit of the group.

According to the Wikipedia article, some scientists make the argument that human beings are also superorganisms, pointing out that “a typical human digestive system contains 1013 to 1014 microorganisms”. Since these microorganisms collectively have many times the number of genes we humans have, we’re kind of outnumbered by our stomach critters.

That’s humbling. Maybe we’ve evolved only in order to support the survival of these stomach microorganisms. Maybe we’re just the host… There’s nothing like science to put things in perspective.

The Rabbit Hopped

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Some years ago my employer’s husband was telling me why he’d stopped smoking pot.

One evening he’d gone to bed in an altered state and experienced profound dreams. He awoke suddenly, gripped by the knowledge that one of the secrets to the universe had been revealed to him. Scrambling for pencil and paper, he wrote down the revelation and returned to sleep.

The next morning he was devastated to find that all he had written was, “The rabbit hopped.” Embarrassed that he could have thought that a rabbit hopping was a key to the universe, no matter what his condition, he resolved to stop wasting his time with mind-altering substances.

I’ve held onto this story fifteen years, because I think it holds at least two lessons. The first is the one my employer’s husband took from the events: be wary of messages scribbled in the middle of the night.

But I think there is another lesson.

Why, I wonder, is the sentence “the rabbit hopped” necessarily unimportant? I understand that rabbits hopping is prosaic: everywhere there are rabbits, they hop. The language isn’t particularly uplifting: “the”, “rabbit”, and “hopped” are common words. In fact nothing in the sentence grabs attention, other than the fact that at one point one man thought it the key to the universe.

What is interesting to me is that when we have a profound experience, in order to describe it we must make use of the very same set of words that we use for everyday occurrences. In English, we don’t have a mundane language and a sacred language. When something profound happens, the words we use to describe our transformation are the same ones that we use without thought on a daily basis.

It’s kind of like breathing. We breathe while important things are happening, and we breathe while unimportant things are happening. Breathing and words accompany us through our entire, dull, daily lives.

Most of  us are lucky enough that we don’t need to think about breathing in order to breathe; it just happens. Although we can control our breath to a certain extent–slowing it or quickening it, shallow breathing or deep breathing, holding our breath or releasing it–fundamentally it remains an involuntary process. We breathe while we sleep. We breathe while we are distracted with other things.

Although there is an aspect of breathing that touches upon the divine (to wit, “inspiration”), it’s generally a pretty regular, everyday kind of event. Just as the words we use are everyday kind of words.

Perhaps therein lies the difficulty. What if everyday objects occupy the everyday world as well as the world of transcendence and transformation? What if we, who occupy the everyday world also occupy the world of transformation and transcendence? Is it possible that the implication of regular, everyday objects having a sacred aspect extends to ourselves? That if a rabbit hopping is indeed a profound experience, then there is a spiritual aspect to the most boring of our activities–say to vacuuming.

Perhaps it’s not that “The rabbit hopped” is a silly sentence, but rather a dangerous one. If rabbits hopping represents a connection to the divine, then none of us is safe. We just might all be an aspect of transcendence, just like rabbits that hop.