10/5/13

The Eyes Have It


Age-related macular degenerationThis summer my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration. There is no cure. It is irreversible. It simply progresses. Science has some hope for future cures, and has some treatments to slow the progress, but a cure likely won’t come soon enough for her.

At 93, one expects that the body will fail, that organs and parts won’t work as well, will lose efficiency, will fail. But this is particularly tough on her. It was clear during our visit today that this diagnosis troubles her.

My parents were both voracious readers, and they passed along a love for books, reading and learning to me from an early age. Reading mattered, reading was important in our family. They shared that with me, it was part of our family DNA.

My father passed away eight years ago and my mother, in her nursing home, still reads every day. She reads for entertainment, for company, for relaxation, for amusement, and for learning. Or rather, she did, until this summer when the problem manifest itself and her reading was curtailed.

Now she struggles to read. She has to use a bright lamp over the book, and has taken to large-print books to still be able to read. But it’s a temporary solution as the AMD spreads inexorably.

She does crossword puzzles too, to keep her mind sharp. They’re harder to do now, because she can’t see the page as clearly. AMD affects the centre of the retina, spreading outwards.

She can see her TV screen if she sits up close, but the laptop screen is that small amount too distant, and besides, she can’t make out the keyboard very clearly. It was hard enough trying to peck out email messages with one hand. Now the computer sits unused.

Losing her ability to read easily is a blow to someone who has lived a tough life, suffering medical problems that have left her wheelchair-bound for the last decade. She certainly didn’t need any more complications.

Yet, despite all her trials and tribulations, her mind is still as sharp as a tack and her memory is remarkable – better than mine. She can recall details of her life, of her childhood right up to recent events, with astounding clarity. I envy that.

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09/23/13

The Moral Compass


Wheel of the dharmaI have a laminated card beside me, wallet-sized so it can be carried around easily. I made it at my shop a few years ago; just a simple, two-sided business card with some text. It’s part of my personal moral compass. We all benefit from some guidance, at times, something to remind us of the higher things.

I look at it frequently through the day, as a reminder when I find myself in Dante’s dark wood. Every problem, every concern, every moment of doubt can be worked through using these basic principles, if you step outside the flow and think them through.

One side has the Four Noble Truths. These state the core beliefs of Buddhism in a simple, non-theistic manner.

My card says:

  1. Life means suffering. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things, and the ignorance thereof.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. It can be achieved through the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment.
  4. The end of suffering is through a gradual path of self-improvement described in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between extremes of self indulgence and self mortification.

Suffering isn’t always what you associate with the English word. The Pali word is ‘dukkha”  and it can also mean anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, unease. A range of emotions. Wikipedia tells us:

Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, it how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not pessimism, but rather objective realism that informs this view. We all have anxieties over jobs, money, love, dying, sex, health, politics and more. They cause us stress, they cause us to suffer, to agonize, to hate, to conspire, to hurt.

“Life,” as this BBC page on the Buddhism says, “is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.”

So true. And we live in a culture where happiness is a marketable quality: we are brought up to believe happiness can be bought.

The Buddha also recognized happiness, but like suffering, he also knew it is impermanent.

We become happy when we get a new toy, a new car, a new pet, a new spouse, a new cell phone or computer, when we get drunk, when we get laid, when we watch a funny TV show, when we hear a good song on the radio – but suffering returns because the new becomes the old quickly. We become disenchanted. Happiness wears thin.

We always want the new, sparkly, shiny things. The newest model, the latest game, the puppy or kitten when the other pet has grown up. We want the emotional surge that new stuff gives us. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

We also get a surge of pleasure when we win a game, when we triumph over another, when we sink the ball into the basket.

Some feel pleasure when they hurt others, too. Suffering makes them angry, bitter, lonely. Frustrated. They attack others in a vain attempt to relieve their own distress. But it doesn’t work. They need to keep attacking and hurting to try to keep their suffering at bay. Hurting others alleviates their own pain.

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09/13/13

Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy


Empire of IllusionI don’t know whether to feel vindicated, delighted, frightened or depressed as I read through Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Much of what he says reflects many of my own observations and opinions. I started reading this book in part as research for my upcoming conference speech on social media, but it has kept me mesmerized, like seeing a train wreck before your eyes, something you can’t quite turn away from.

I suppose we like to read books that reinforce our world view (those of us who read, that is – literacy in Canada is declining)*, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have those nagging doubts about the decay of society made public by someone else. Having another say it or write it seems to confirm our darkest nightmares. We all sometimes think we’re the only ones who recognize the issues, who see the fly in the ointment, but Hedges makes it clear we’re not alone.

And, yes, our wildest fears are true: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least that’s the way Hedges plays it, to my cynical and jaded eyes.

It’s hard not to agree with his argument. He thinks our culture is dying, driven from its heights to an abyss of reality TV, celebrity watching, contrived spectacle, self-exposure, self-indulgence, corporate greed, gossip, the lack of critical thinking, and crass self-interest.** He is a modern Virgil, guiding us through the Inferno of Western culture towards the inevitable Ninth Circle of moral, economic and political collapse.

Hedges writes,

The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.

Cheery stuff. But hard to slough off as mere pessimism. Just turn on the TV. The schedule for the “Discovery Channel” – a channel ostensibly about science and technology but instead is crammed with “reality” show, anti-intellectual dreck – is a good example of the extreme dumbing-down and trivialization of TV.

Or read the comments on any national news website. Or a local blog. Our sense of entitlement makes us believe that everyone has the right to comment, that every opinion is valuable – and technology gives all opinions the same apparent value and weight, even when many are simply digital noise that confounds, rather than contributes to, the conversation. No wonder we see the rise of superstition, pseudoscience, emotion and gawking over fact, science, respect and common sense. The wheat and chaff are irrevocably mixed online.

Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.

This doom-and-gloom is hardly new. The imminent implosion of modern culture has been described and predicted at least since Socrates, who griped, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

My parents lamented my generation’s irrevocable slide into a moral and social morass when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. It was confirmed when they heard the Beatles. Their parents fretted over Rudy Vallee and Ruth Etting, then over talking pictures. In part this is the natural gap between generations, the difference between youth and middle age, between the new and the old.

Civilization did not collapse, despite the dire warnings from each subsequent generation. But that was then, this is now. Things have changed, and changed so rapidly, so deeply that society has not had the time to adapt effectively. We’re on a rollercoaster now, not a walk in the cultural park.

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08/3/13

The Thousand and One Nights


Arabian NightsI had no idea it was this sexy. The Thousand Nights and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights, aka The Thousand and One Nights – it’s really wonderful, steamy stuff. Every tale is a cliffhanger and you keep wanting to read just one more to see how it turns out. Of course, that was the point of the collection.*

The backstory is rather complicated, but to simplify it: the Sultan beds a virgin one night, then kills her the next day. When  Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks for her sister to be able to say good bye. Then she begins to tell her sister a story. It doesn’t end that night, so the Sultan keeps her alive another night to hear the ending. But that story leads to another, and another, and so on. So for three years she keeps up a series of interwoven, intricate tales. In the end, he lets her live.

It’s like the 10th-century version of the TV series, 24. Sex, violence, evil, cunning, violence, murder, betrayal, seduction, magic, demons… it’s all there. In written form, of course, not video.

Yeah, and it’s violent, misogynistic and full of superstition and the supernatural. But you have to give it some laxity: some of it dates back from the 8th century CE. And it’s from a culture that, even today, is remarkably, embarrassingly misogynist. But then, Shakespeare wrote in an age of similar misogyny – although he managed to soar above it, by creating strong, intelligent and witty female characters. The Arabian nights has a few of them, too, albeit not usually in the forefront (and not like Shakespeare’s women).

You probably think you know some of the stories because you’ve seen a Disney cartoon or some Hollywood movie: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin and His Lamp. Sorry, but they were added to the collection by later European translators. They’re good stories, mind you, just not part of the original collection.**

I know, that disappointed me at first, too. But after a few pages into Powys Mather’s four-volume translation, I was hooked. The tales are curious, intriguing and compelling. No wonder the Sultan wanted to hear the next part.

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08/2/13

Hell 2.3


IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
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07/27/13

Hell 2.1, a small update


Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

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