August 30, 2010

It's a laughing matter

I used to hate the dentist.  Childhood experiences with a short, goblin-voiced, hairy-handed pediatric dentist who once drilled my sister's tongue left me scarred.  To the point that, once I was past my mid-teens, I adamantly refused to visit the dentist for a number of years.  By the time I reached adulthood and realized that perhaps I had developed a few oral issues, the dread was deep-rooted (no pun intended).  My first few treatments did nothing to dispel it-- one appointment even included me bursting into tears as the dentist applied a topical anesthetic and then only moments later raised the fearsome Novocaine needle suddenly into my line of sight.  He was not pleased.

But then I found a dentist who used nitrous oxide before administering Novocaine.  Oh, glory be and hallelujah!  I was saved.  Unfortunately, this same dentist chose to discuss the financial aspects of my treatments while I was under the gas.  An enamel crown applied to my very last molar, where no one will ever see it but the dentist, and that will cost me $600 because my insurance won't cover it?  Suuuuure, go right ahead!  Let's put a another one on the other side while we're at it, make it a matched set!

My current dentist is not only calm, gentle, and gives me precise explanations of what he's going to do and what it's likely to feel like, he saves treatment discussions for when I'm totally coherent.  Visiting him is a pleasure, no matter what barbaric tortures are in store for my delicate mouth.

The nitrous kicked in quickly today. Within only a handful of deep breaths, I felt that familiar rushing feeling, and then the weird woobly ringing began in my ears, like some strange sound effect from an early 70's sci-fi movie. Once that subsided, I went into out-of-body mode. The thing about nitrous is that you don't think you're high while you're on it. It just gives you the ultimate sense of detachment. The Novocaine takes care of the pain, but there is still sensation. I'm fully conscious of all the sounds, tastes, and pressures of what the dentist is doing in my mouth, completely aware that I'd be writhing in agony if not for the drugs, and at the same time, passively curious about what's going on. If the dr were to tell me that he was going to insert a metal hook up through my nostril and pull out my brain loop by loop, my response would probably be not only "Wow, how cool", but also "Can I help?".

When he was done today, I actually caught myself thinking that it was over way too quickly.  As he reached to pull the nitrous mask off my face, for a brief moment I wanted to clutch at it and fight him for it.  To a very small degree, I think I understand how people become addicted to such mood-altering substances, and why they'll ruin themselves to get the high that they crave.

The drive home was quite a trip, too.  As both the nitrous and the Novocaine began to wear off, that lovely stroke victim feeling began to set in, in which you feel that you have absolutely no control of tongue, jaw, or lips, and that all three are drooping somewhere between your chin and shoulder.  And then those prickly sensations begin to set in, little jabs in the tongue letting you know that it's coming back to life, even though you're still convinced it's nothing but a slab of meat between your teeth and you couldn't move it if your life depended on it.

To help shake the last few cobwebs out of my brain, I cranked up The White Stripes' Icky Thump.  An excellent choice.  There's nothing more appropriate than listening to a few Jack White dentist's drill guitar solos on the way home from having three cavities filled...

The best moment, though, was driving past a sign outside of a Methodist church that was meant to be reassuring but that had a very different effect on me:  
Don't give up! Moses was once a basket-case.  There must've still been some residual nitrous flowing through my system, because that set me off and I chortled and guffawed (as well as I could through numb lips) the rest of the way home.

August 27, 2010

Random babblings: Tasting the water

A week or so ago, I began a thread at a message board about the recent devastating floods in Pakistan (nothing gets my attention like a flood, it seems). The first person to respond was of a sort that I've found at every message board I've frequented-- Of a philosophical bent, focusing on abstract elements of situations of this sort, rather than the human element. Seemingly more intellectual than empathetic. So instead of a conversation about what the people in Pakistan are dealing with and how they can be helped, the thread veered immediately into a discussion on the place of evil in the world. The idea that got the ball rolling was this: "Evil and misfortune exists in order to bring about opportunities for us to express compassion......otherwise, life would be meaningless." Other folks immediately threw down the bullshit flag and the debate was on.

I allowed that this person had made a valid point. I've read this idea over and over in my exploration of philosophy and religion. But I think I responded too quickly because I don't really agree with that. There's certainly the possibility that this is the case, that we need the contrast of misfortune in order to fully appreciate good and beautiful things in our lives and to spur altruism and compassion. But do they really exist for this purpose? That smacks of a grand design, and that's something I'm definitely not sure I believe in. Later on in the same thread, I went back and pointed out that perhaps this idea is just a coping mechanism for people who can't accept that there isn't always a reason for why things happen. As I put it then, nature and the world are indifferent to all of our theories about them, yet still we feel compelled to quantify them for our own comfort.  We assign concepts such as 'good' and 'evil' to occurrences like sunshine and floods, as if these things happen for us, and not merely around us.

And then a couple of days later, NPR posted an article about a new "Gradations of Evil" scale created by Columbia University professor, Michael Stone, and my thoughts shifted to human, as opposed to natural, evil. As a forensic psychologist, I suppose it makes sense that Stone would focus on murderers but, really, that makes the title of his scale misleading, implying as it does that evil only takes extreme forms.  Of course those are the most obvious, and the majority of us would probably immediately summon up the likes of Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer if asked to name an epitome of evil. But is its extent really encapsulated only within the spectrum of violence and cruelty?

I can't recall now where I read it (within a book by the Dalai Lama, perhaps, or Brad Warner...?) or even if I'm remembering it correctly,  but the idea is stuck in my head: something about "evil" being defined as a lack of awareness, an obliviousness, or even a callousness, to how our actions affect others. That would be pretty all-encompassing, making Stone's scale frighteningly inadequate. Anything from a careless insult or a disrespectful lie all the way through the most psychotic torture would fall within the scope of such a definition.

My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them...
- Jack Keruoac

But surely there is a difference between simple self-centeredness and the outrageous compulsions of a psychopath. Can we accept that it's a matter of degree? The question to consider may be-- just how far removed are we, really, from psychosis? Is there a level of socio-pathology to the simplest act of manipulation or dishonesty? Or are these merely acts grounded in ignorance?

In Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Roy Baumeister begins with an anecdote about a woman rushing to get a snack in an airport before boarding her flight.  She grabs a package of chips and a drink and sits down next to a man reading a newspaper.  As she reaches into the package, pulls out a chip, then eats it, she notices that the man is suddenly staring at her menacingly.  To her shock, he reaches down and helps himself to one of her chips.  Her first impulse is one of fear, but instead she remains seated and continues to eat her chips and drink her soda.  As she does, the man continues to wordlessly reach into the bag and help himself to chips as well, staring at her the entire time.  Her nervousness accumulates, she becomes more and more sure that he's some weird psycho.  Finally, her flight is called to board and, heart pounding, she gets up and walks toward the gate.  As she reaches into her purse to pull out her ticket, her hand closes on the bag of chips she had bought and then forgot that she'd put away.  She'd been helping herself to his food.  So who was the psycho?  As Baumeister puts it, sometimes evil is in the eye of the beholder.

A more zealous example can be seen in the recent case of an Iranian woman accused of adultery.  Puritan New Englander's in the early days of the United States would have slapped a big red A on her chest and ostracized her.  The judicial court in Iran has instead sentenced her to death by stoning, which consists of her being buried from the shoulders down and pelted with rocks.  Imagine how long this would take and how it would feel, imagine waiting for death in such a position.  And yet the Iranian court has determined that her unproven act of infidelity is evil enough to warrant such an execution.  Who is the criminal in this case?

How far along the evil scale could any of us go?  How many of us have ever really considered such a question?  I proposed the idea once on another message board somewhere--  If you found yourself in a situation in which there would be no reprisals, none, at all... could you kill another human being?  The answers didn't surprise me.  A certain number of people responded with emphatic no's, under no circumstances could or would they take the life of another person.  And then there were those who said a gung ho yes!, but with an obliviously conditional "if" that included the defense of self, loved ones, or country.   I don't recall that a single person replied that they might possibly kill out of a condition such as rage or even, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevky's Crime and Punishment, out of a bizarre curiosity to know whether they could.

I find it hard to believe that I'm alone in that latter category.  No, beyond that, I refuse to believe that a large percentage of us don't have that possibility lurking in our nature.  The vast majority of people seem to not want to look at that part of themselves, to dig that deeply.  But wouldn't this explain the popularity of a television show like Dexter?  There's certainly a level of unconscious projection going on in our admiration of a character who looks and acts just like any one of us, but who then lives out the fantasies we don't even know we have... or won't admit that we have.

And what about a film like Seven?  If ever there was a perfect exploration of this subject, that would be it.  The triad of characters in that film sums up much of what I've babbled about here--  Where on Stone's Gradations of Evil scale would Mills and Doe each fall?  Mills, who wants so badly to be good but whose passions control him, and Doe, whose seeming passivity belies intense hatred.  Somerset is then balanced against them both to represent those among us who recognize the existence of this part of our natures.  By doing so, by accepting that this shadow is part of who we are, he alone is able to control it. (Spoiler alert for that link, for those of you who haven't seen the film)

What does it take to uncover that part of us?  Does it require a level of insanity to step over that line?  And wouldn't it be wise to know whether it's there, so that we can take steps to moderate it?  After all, is it the impulse that's evil, or the acting upon it?  Is it our passions, both conscious and unconscious, or our control of them that separates us from the examples on Stone's scale?  Do the gradations end where he specified, or do they continue on until we have to squint to see them?

As is so often the case, I've got questions here but no answers...

I drank some dirty water
Shook evil hands
I've done some bad things
They get easier to do

Then I wrote a nasty letter
And I sent it to the Lord
I said don't you dare come
And bother me no more

I had a good friend
I could only destroy
And lovers I loved less
Than anybody could afford

Yes, but this old rocking horse
Just nods his head
And he's gonna rock back and forth
The way that he always did

Baby, don't you bother
Tasting the water
And baby, don't you bother
Coming closer to me

Can you see my eyes?
They're half the size
And I'm not able
To look at you

August 16, 2010

What's behind the (screen) name, part II

 After explaining the second half of my name, guess I might as well cover the first also...

Kali (Sanskrit: काली, Bengali: কালী, both Kālī), also known as Kalika (Bengali: কালিকা, Kālikā), is the Hindu goddess associated with eternal energy. The name Kali comes from Kāla which means black, time, death, lord of death, Shiva. Kali means "the black one". Since Shiva is called Kāla - the eternal time, Kālī, his consort, also means "the Time" or "Death" (as in time has come). Hence, Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence. Various Shakta Hindu cosmologies, as well as Shakta Tantric beliefs, worship her as the ultimate reality or Brahman. She is also revered as Bhavatarini (literally "redeemer of the universe"). Comparatively recent devotional movements largely conceive Kali as a benevolent mother goddess.

Kali is represented as the consort of Lord Shiva, on whose body she is often seen standing. She is associated with many other Hindu goddesses like Durga, Bhadrakali, Sati, Rudrani, Parvati and Chamunda. She is the foremost among the Dasa Mahavidyas, ten fierce Tantric goddesses.

Kālī is the feminine of kāla ("black, dark coloured").[2] Kāla primarily means "black," but also means "time." Kālī means "the black one" and also "time" or "beyond time." Kali is strongly associated with Shiva, and Shaivas derive her feminine name from the masculine Kāla (an epithet of Shiva). The early Sanskrit dictionary, the Shabdakalpadrum, states: कालः शिवः । तस्य पत्नीति - काली । kālaḥ śivaḥ । tasya patnīti kālī - "Shiva is Kala, thus his wife is Kali."

Kali's association with blackness stands in contrast to her consort, Shiva, whose body is covered by the white ashes of the cremation ground (Sanskrit: śmaśāna) in which he meditates, and with which Kali is also associated, as śmaśāna-kālī.

In the Mahanirvana-tantra, Kali is one of the epithets for the primordial sakti, and in one passage Shiva praises her:
At the dissolution of things, it is Kala [Time] Who will devour all, and by reason of this He is called Mahakala [an epithet of Lord Shiva], and since Thou devourest Mahakala Himself, it is Thou who art the Supreme Primordial Kalika. Because Thou devourest Kala, Thou art Kali, the original form of all things, and because Thou art the Origin of and devourest all things Thou art called the Adya [primordial Kali]. Resuming after Dissolution Thine own form, dark and formless, Thou alone remainest as One ineffable and inconceivable. Though having a form, yet art Thou formless; though Thyself without beginning, multiform by the power of Maya, Thou art the Beginning of all, Creatrix, Protectress, and Destructress that Thou art.
The figure of Kali conveys death, destruction, and the consuming aspects of reality. As such, she is also a "forbidden thing", or even death itself. In the Pancatattva ritual, the sadhaka boldly seeks to confront Kali, and thereby assimilates and transforms her into a vehicle of salvation. This is clear in the work of the Karpuradi-stotra, a short praise to Kali describing the Pancatattva ritual unto her, performed on cremation grounds. (Samahana-sadhana)
He, O Mahakali who in the cremation-ground, naked, and with dishevelled hair, intently meditates upon Thee and recites Thy mantra, and with each recitation makes offering to Thee of a thousand Akanda flowers with seed, becomes without any effort a Lord of the earth. 0 Kali, whoever on Tuesday at midnight, having uttered Thy mantra, makes offering even but once with devotion to Thee of a hair of his Sakti [his female companion] in the cremation-ground, becomes a great poet, a Lord of the earth, and ever goes mounted upon an elephant.
The Karpuradi-stotra clearly indicates that Kali is more than a terrible, vicious, slayer of demons who serves Durga or Shiva. Here, she is identified as the supreme mistress of the universe, associated with the five elements. In union with Lord Shiva, who is said to be her spouse, she creates and destroys worlds. Her appearance also takes a different turn, befitting her role as ruler of the world and object of meditation.[10] In contrast to her terrible aspects, she takes on hints of a more benign dimension. She is described as young and beautiful, has a gentle smile, and makes gestures with her two right hands to dispel any fear and offer boons. The more positive features exposed offer the distillation of divine wrath into a goddess of salvation, who rids the sadhaka of fear. Here, Kali appears as a symbol of triumph over death.

All text in this and the previous post was lifted from Wikipedia.

What's behind the (screen) name

A gentleman over at Tumblr just posted something highly relevant.  Every now and again I'm asked for an explanation of my intarwebs name.  I kind of hate to dispel the mystery, but for anyone who's ever wondered yet not asked, here's part of it.  But before you go thinking that this is how I grandiosely see myself, allow me to clarify-- These goddesses are symbolic references for me.  They are examples, not identifiers.  

In HinduismDurga (Sanskritदुर्गा, meaning “the inaccessible”  or “the invincible”; Bengaliদুর্গাdurga) orMaa Durga (Bengaliমা দুর্গাma durga, meaning “Mother Durga”) “one who can redeem in situations of utmost distress”. Durga is a form of Devi, the supremely radiant goddess, depicted as having ten arms, riding a lion or atiger, carrying weapons and a lotus flower, maintaining a meditative smile, and practicing mudras, or symbolic hand gestures.
An embodiment of creative feminine force (Shakti), Durga exists in a state of svātantrya (independence from the universe and anything/anybody else, i.e., self-sufficiency) and fierce compassion. Kali is considered by Hindus to be an aspect of Durga. Durga is also the mother of Ganesha and Kartikeya.  She is thus considered the fiercer, demon-fighting form of Shiva’s wife, goddess Parvati. Durga manifests fearlessness and patience, and never loses her sense of humor, even during spiritual battles of epic proportion.
The word Shakti means divine feminine force, and Durga is the warrior aspect of the Divine Mother. Other incarnations include Annapurna and Karunamayi (karuna= kindness). Durga’s darker aspect Kali is represented as the consort of the god Shiva, on whose body she is often seen standing.
As a goddess, Durga’s feminine power contains the energies of the gods. Each of her weapons was gifted to her by various gods: Rudra’s trident, Vishnu’s discus, Indra’s thunderbolt, Brahma’s kamandalu, Kuber’s Ratnahar, etc.
According to a narrative in the Devi Mahatmya story of the Markandeya Purana text, Durga was created as a warrior goddess to fight an asura (an inhumane force/demon) named Mahishasur. He had unleashed a reign of terror on earth, heaven and the nether worlds, and he could not be defeated by any man or god, anywhere. The gods went to Brahma, who had given Mahishasura the power to be the invincible conqueror of the universe. Brahma could do nothing. They made Brahma their leader and went to Vaikuntha — the place where Vishnu lay on Ananta Naag. They found bothVishnu and Shiva, and Brahma eloquently related the reign of terror Mahishasur had unleashed on the three worlds. Hearing this Vishnu, Shiva and all of the gods became very angry and beams of fierce light emerged from their bodies. The blinding sea of light met at the Ashram of a priest named Katyan. The goddess Durga took the name Katyani from the priest and emerged from the sea of light. She introduced herself in the language of the Rig-Veda, saying she was the form of the supreme Brahman who had created all the gods. Now she had come to fight the demon to save the gods. They did not create her; it was her lila that she emerged from their combined energy. The gods were blessed with her compassion.
It is said that upon initially encountering Durga, Mahishasura underestimated her, thinking: “How can a woman kill me, Mahishasur — the one who has defeated the trinity of gods?” However, Durga roared with laughter, which caused an earthquake which made Mahishasur aware of her powers.
And the terrible Mahishasur rampaged against her, changing forms many times. First he was a buffalo demon, and she defeated him with her sword. Then he changed forms and became an elephant that tied up the goddess’s tiger and began to pull it towards him. The goddess cut off his trunk with her sword. The demon Mahishasur continued his terrorizing, taking the form of a lion, and then the form of a man, but both of them were gracefully slain by Durga.
Then Mahishasur began attacking once more, starting to take the form of a buffalo again. The patient goddess became very angry, and as she sipped divine wine from a cup she smiled and proclaimed to Mahishasur in a colorful tone — “Roar with delight while you still can, O illiterate demon, because when I will kill you after drinking this, the gods themselves will roar with delight”. When Mahashaur had half emerged into his buffalo form, he was paralyzed by the extreme light emitting from the goddess’s body. The goddess then resounded with laughter before cutting Mahishasur’s head down with her sword.

All text in this and the following post was lifted from Wikipedia.

August 14, 2010

Precursor to autumn

After a record-breaking string of 90+ degree days (including many that were 100+) accompanied by a drought that brought local rivers to depths of less than two feet, capped off by one day of thunderstorms of biblical proportions, the mid-Atlantic region got a break this weekend.  Today was supposed to be mostly sunny with periods of clouds, and temps in the 80's.  Instead, we had consistently cloudy skies with a cool breeze.  Normally that sort of sky turns me lethargic, but the cooler air was inviting so I stopped myself from thinking of things like easy chairs and coffee shops and books, and instead directed my body to mindlessly go through the process of getting bike and gear ready to go.  

Considering that today was Saturday I expected the rail-trail and towpath at Hancock to be packed, but the lowering clouds apparently had the sort of effect on everyone else that they normally have on me.  There were few other cyclists to dodge, which was a pleasant surprise that helped me to quickly get into a smooth rhythm.  

Now, while I love a good equinox as much as the next person, I'm convinced that the seasons don't follow the earth's rotational phases as much as they do the human-defined calendar.  Autumn is September, October, and November, which means today was the beginning of the end of summer.  The air was the sort of temperature that you don't even feel against your skin.  And the trail was gorgeous under the dim light of the cloudy sky.  Without the glare of a blazing sun or the haze of humidity, the surrounding trees were softer yet at the same time more distinct.  Added to this was the rustle of leaves under my tires, though these leaves were drought-deadened and knocked to the ground by the recent storms, rather than autumn-turned.  The effect was the same, though, summoning that feeling of transition, one season ending as another begins, both exciting and melancholy at the same time.  That simple, wonderful feeling I've gotten at this time of year, every year since I was a kid.

Though could someone please explain to me why I always end up riding through mud the very next day after I've cleaned my bike?