the island of the week before: archives

category: almost essays
In which there are longer bits, some of which might be polished into something else.

Saturday, June 23, 2001

My dad was a hippie liberal when he married my mom, who was then a pretty staunch midwestern conservative (she's since changed her ways and gone Green — I'm obviously a good influence). I didn't live with my dad after my parents divorced when I was about 15, but whenever we had a chance to hang out, it was pretty obvious that our tastes and thought methods were startlingly similar. So when he told me on the first night of last year's election saga that he'd voted for Bush, it was both unexpected and unexpectedly derailing.

In fairly good humor, I told him that he'd obviously gotten old and stodgy, but I spent the next couple of months reeling from his (also good-humored) assertion that my vote for Nader marked me as young and dumb. He said something about taxes, and about how Clinton was a horrible, immoral person, and that he could never have voted for someone tainted by association.

It was like hitting Salon one morning to find that it had been taken over by the editors of the National Review.

So I did my homework and I thought about why I vote the way I do, and about what my political views and reactions are based on, essentially. And while I've been looking away from the topic, my peripheral brain seems to have figured it out — a few big chunks, at least.

An essential difference between conservativism and liberalism has to do with the size of the group that you identify with. If your home-group is very small — your family, members of your church, other white, middle class Americans — then it makes sense to structure your legislation to protect the integrity and best interests of that group, often at the expense of outsiders. If you primarily identify with a larger group — workers, North Americans, humans — then it makes sense to try to find solutions that are balanced to serve first the larger group, even if that means that certain subgroups may have to (for instance) pay higher taxes. So if your home-group is made up only of people who are economically, socially, and culturally similar to you, it doesn't make sense to send aid to foreign countries who are struggling economically and politically unless there is a direct advantage to your own group (lower gas prices, national security).

The other primary difference that I've been able to define is the amount of fear built into most conservative thought. Fear of difference, fear of others, fear of new ways of life, fear, at the root, of change. The startling conservative rancor displayed over Clinton's ethical lapses (never mind his foreign policy) or over the gay and feminist "agenda," the alarmism that passes for news in conservative sources — these are primarily displays of fear and insecurity.

It's all more complicated than that, but at the root, I want to align myself against fear and with compassion, against insularity and toward openness.

11:05 AM (link)

Saturday, June 16, 2001

This study explores the way that failure to fulfill unconscious goals can lead to sudden "bad moods."

The study's interesting in and of itself, but I have to wonder — one of the methods they used was to pseudo-subliminally feed some of the subjects success-related words. Those reported worse moods after failing to solve an unsolveable puzzle than their counterparts who had been given neutral words.

So what happens when you're barraged by advertising that demands that you constantly buy, consume, eat? Perhaps part of the answers lie with the astonishing numbers of people in the US who have spent themselves into choking debt or eaten themselves into morbid obesity. Or the nearly ten percent of the US population that is clinically depressed.

I'm not Kalle Lasn...I don't think that lame advertisting is responsible for the world's ills. But there's a pretty obvious parallel here. (So if you're feeling crummy, taking an ad break might help more than, say, St. John's Wort.)

06:33 PM (link)

Tuesday, June 05, 2001

I've always regarded fan fiction as a kind of literary pond scum — simultaneously parasitic and slimy. At the root, you've got a group of people who are really attached to a group of already-established fictional characters. The books or comics or tv shows that these characters inhabit don't provide enough of these characters to satisfy as certain audience, so that audience creates more fiction in order to experience more of the characters, or to cause the characters to behave in certain ways that wouldn't happen on the official program. The net's provided a means of exchange, and a community that provides encouragement and feedback for the people who produce fan fiction -- without it, you'd just have a handful of trekkies passing stories back and forth via zines.

The resulting fiction is frequently pretty terrible, but if you separate the consistently dismal quality of the fiction from the concept, there's something interesting going on. Copyrighted characters, sure, but the audience, the typically passive viewership, actively expanding and customizing a fictional reality? Kinda interesting. Readers creating a series of alternate paths for fictional characters — no more ownership, but no more reader dissatisfaction — it's customizeable lit.

I had to reassess the genre when I encountered these fan-fic-esque versions of Greek myths. Rewritten fairy tales (frequently badly rewritten) are so common that they're becoming a cliche, but they're generally rewritten by authors, established writers — in much the same way that StarTrek has a licensed series (or possibly several) of novels that are essentially publisher-approved fan fiction.

At the root, is restaging a scene from Buffy or the X-Files for a newsgroup much different from rewriting a Greek myth for a major publishing house? There's a quality difference, certainly, but there's also something populist and massive and kinda interesting about the interactivity and community intrinsic to fan fiction. Big media companies just keep miserably failing in their attempts to create interactive television or feature films, but there's a whole movement just under their radar — and their upturned noses.

09:45 AM (link)

Sunday, May 27, 2001

In 1991, excavators digging a foundation for a new Federal office building in Manhattan discovered a slave cemetery that covers five city blocks just 20 feet down. New York’s City Hall and the US Courthouse rest on the graves of 20,000 African slaves.

A few blocks down the street from my bedroom, the curb wraps around a gravestone that marks the burial place of a battalion of British soldiers.

In the grand tradition of human civilization, we’ve built over our own mistakes. There’s an official history in the cemetery at Arlington, but the streets of Boston and New York (and Miami and Detroit and Los Angeles) cover older, unmarked graves.

Despite our cultural preoccupation with the near future and the almost-present, we are drenched in the lives of the people who’ve gone before. The most banal strip mall rests on dirt that used to feed a forest. The forests were cleared by farmers whose lives came out of the earth and whose bodies were finally folded into its layers. The American West is scarred just under the surface by the violence done to build a new empire, and by the battles of civilizations grown old long before my ancestors found these shores.

This parking lot was once a school. This valley was a river. These are the layers under this sidewalk, and when you’re gone, the next centuries’ victors will build over your bones and lay new foundations where you first fell in love. It’s not history, it’s connection, and you are part of it whether you want it or not.

There is a moment here when the air is yours. If you step into this river, you can slow down time. We are all contained and supported by an invisible world that’s just below this surface. (We are not separate from anything despite our insistence on lines.)

What is buried under this boardroom? How many hearts were broken under this roof?

Walk down your street. Smell the asphalt and the ozone? This breeze started in an undersea current that moves across the ocean floor from Sweden to Africa over a thousand years.

Lay your face against this wall. Let these echoes into your head. And take off your shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground.

This CSM article on Manhattan's African burial ground details the discovery and significance of of the slave cemetary under Manhattan. (more on the archeological and sociological significance of the disinterred skeletons here.)

New York Undergound: National Geographic's cross-section of the land under New York City with photo and audio tours and lots of well-organized, wildly interesting stuff (including a brief mention of the cemetary).

Lyrics for Ani DiFranco's "Fuel."

09:13 AM (link)

Friday, April 27, 2001

I can barely see your tiny, hairsprayed head over the massive steering wheel of your giant Suburban Utility Thing, but I can see your stiff, white-knuckled fingers and see the fear in your eyes as you barrel across an intersection, narrowly missing a resident on a battered bike. You might as well tattoo your vulnerability on your forehead and stencil "PREY" on your seven-minute ass. The syrup of your fear and the framework of corporate marketing have congealed into a shiny carapace to protect your rattley bones and form a plastic-and-steel bond between you and the alienated children who won't look you in the eye. You're a self-made wire mommy, a woman of flesh intentionally caged to protect you from any sudden contact with the moist, unpredictable masses streaming around you in beat-up Rabbits and on bikes and in boots. In your quest for sterility, safety, and other popular myths, you're more than willing to spend a fortune on gasoline and make the world far more hazardous for those people who walk by (or under) your bumpers. You've announced to the world that you're afraid, and you might run over a couple of Volvos on your way to the multiplex, but honey, it'll come back around. (You know what happens when a dog smells fear.) You can't stay in your car forever -- not quite yet -- and when you climb down, the monumental carelessness and insecurity of your decisions will be waiting for you. (What will your children breathe when they're 30? Who will repair the damage that steel does to soft flesh and delicate bones? How long will it be before your fear separates you from your family as neatly as it's separated you from your community and leaves you alone and without strength or defense in your giant, empty shell?)

08:57 AM (link)

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Rebecca Mead's profile of an eight-year-old girl's regimented, clock-and-calendar life in the Upper West Side (from the New Yorker) has a familiar part of my brain stirred up.

Required background: I was raised in the country in Indiana and Montana. I grew up with horses and dairy goats and lots of time. In the summer, my mother and I would load up the horses and go to a horse show every few weekends, and I had riding lessons once a week for a few years. In the winter, no schedule at all except the daily requirements of small farm life.

Even my education wasn't scheduled; my parents decided when I was about three that I'd get a better education at home, so I didn't attend school until I was 12. Most of the time, I read the stacks of books we picked up on our weekly-ish trip to the local library. Every so often, my mom made me sit down and do math. Beyond that, I learned what and when I pleased. My assessment of the benefits of such an unconventional education deserves its own space, but my early experience of time was certainly tied to my lack of academic/institutional structure.

So I had time — as much as I wanted — and I've never really recovered. I begrudge time spent using inefficient processes. I recklessly cancel plans and decline invitations so that I can decide for myself what I will do with that extra hour and a half. I hoard time even when I have no definite purpose, even when I'm as likely to play Zelda for an hour as clean the house, improve my mind, or get extra sleep. And in the end, I'm unrepentant.

It may be that my less time-greedy friends are better suited for the facts of modern economic life than I am — but they're also probably not nearly as adept at circumventing social and corporate obligations to steal a little thinking/lolling/playing time.

10:40 AM (link)

Friday, April 06, 2001

Stories fascinate me.

I watched Hans Christian Andersen last night — it's an old Danny Kaye musical that I hadn't seen since I was about six. The visuals and most of the plot were completely new to me, but I remembered the songs almost perfectly — I'd been humming some of them for years without knowing that they were from the movie.

There was a fairly clumsy point in the movie about children learning easily from stories, and that, combined with my unexpectedly clear memories of the songs, started me thinking. It's always made sense to me that a lot of oral traditions were passed down via song or rhyming poetry or both — our brains obviously like those connections enough that they make excellent mnemonics.

The parables of Christ were by far the most interesting thing about the new testament when I was in Sunday school. The old testament was full of complicated, gory stories that I rather liked, but the parables, while a bit clumsy, were among only good stories in the new. It turns out that parable-style stories are also at the heart of the Hasidic tradition. (Readers of Buddhist enlightenment narratives may find these stories a bit familiar.) There are a number of theories that deal with the reasons for and genesis of Hasidic sacred stories, but I found this one particularly interesting:

The "lofty and hidden concepts" found in tales other people, be they Jews or Gentiles, tell are parallel to the "holy sparks" that fell into the created world at the time of the cataclytic act of creation.

The tales themselves underwent a process similar to the Lurianic "breaking of vessels" at the time of creation; they are therefore confused, ruined, disorderly, and their original meaning has been lost.

The inspired zadikim, in this case the Besht, is endowed with the power to reveal the holiness hidden in the stories by restructuring them according to their original, proper order. In this sense the zadik "repairs" the story.

Once the story has been repaired, it assumes enormous religious, even theurgic power and a zadik like the Besht can use the story to "unite the unities," that is, to reunite the sefirot (tiferet and malkhut), which had split asunder in the act of creation.

(See previous discussion about the broken vessels and the repairing of the world.)


"I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world." (The Bible, Matthew 13:35)

I really like the idea of stories with power -- not magical power, but the power to circumvent some of the blocks that prevent information from being obsorbed and retained. I also really like the idea of repairing stories and tuning them so that they're most effective in repairing and restoring their listeners and readers.

More Hasidic stories: [1] [2]

08:28 AM (link)

Thursday, April 05, 2001

A horrific crime is committed against a young child. Years later, a jury convicts a man, based partially on the testimony she gives by moving her head and eyes to communicate. The detective who questioned her emphasized her trimuph: "Isn't it great that she is the one who put away the one who hurt her. This is her day."

And yes, in a way, it's great. It's great is if it makes her or her family feel even a little bit safer, or if another child doesn't have to experience something horrible at the hands of the man she condemmned. But this isn't her day, and if this is her victory, it's partial at best.

I am thinking of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and of Lavinia. Lavinia, if you've missed the play, is Titus's daughter. Over the course of the play, she's raped and has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off. She later identifies her attackers by writing their names in the dirt; after Titus has dispatched the guilty parties, her breaks her neck. The logic is brutal, but clear: Lavinia is avenged when her attackers are killed, but she has no future. Titus breaks her neck to free her from her shame and her torment, and perhaps to alleviate the slight her rape has cast on his own honor.

This is how the revenge myth works. Philomela, the earlier victim on whom Lavinia is modeled, gets her own revenge at a bloody price, but when vengeance is complete, she's changed into a nightengale. There are exceptions, of course, but there are few real lives beyond the revenge that ends the story.

Girl X is only 13 years old, and she's not a mythical character quite yet. She's come out of a tunnel of expectation and struggle, and what she does now will remain relatively unscrutinized by a media that covers the physical therapy sessions of baseball players, not of little girls. If she manages to maintain an optomistic outlook and aligns herself with the right religious precepts, she might make headlines again as an inspiration for the Guideposts set -- there's a well-worn media niche for cheery, suffering saints. In between, there are fewer markers and a lot of space.

Her day may exist somewhere in that expanse, if she's lucky, but she'll have to find it for herself.

10:03 AM (link)

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Warning: massive oversimplification in the name of intelligibility.

The sefirot (sephiroth), the tree of life, is a central idea in Kabbalist thought. Isaac Luria, one of the most important teachers in the Kabbalistic tradition, taught that before the current tree of life was formed, there was a previous version (the olam ha-tohu or world of chaos), and that immediately after this first version was formed, there was a cosmic disaster. (More on the sefirot: [1] [2] [3]. More on Kabbalah: [1] [2].)

Without getting in too deeply, this first structure consisted of vessels of solid light which were intended to hold the divine light of God. When the divine light flowed into these vessels, some of them shattered under the spiritual intensity of the divine light. Some of the light from the shattered vessels returned immediately to its source, but some was lost with the broken shards of the vessels themselves. The shards themselves (kelippoth) became the origins of evil in the world. A new tree of lights was constructed, but without the lost sparks of light, the universe (and God) not whole. (More on that.)

The tikkun olam is the ongoing process of returning the divine sparks to their origin and repairing the universe. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hassidic tradition, stated that: "All that man has, his servant, his animals, his tools, all conceal sparks that belong to the roots of his soul and wish to be raised by him to their Source." Methods of raising the sparks vary according to the beliefs of practitioners, but the theme of human-assisted redemption is consistent.

There are some interesting parallels with other traditions -- the insistence on healing the world rings a bit of the buddhist boddhisatva's refusal to enter Nirvana until all other creatures achieve enlightenment. The shattering of the vessels may remind you of the expulsion from Eden or the Big Bang, depending on your perspective. The sefirot may remind you of the chakras, the zodiac, the caduceus, or crop circles. That said, the hassidic movement and its theological basis is a really interesting and beautiful way to approach the problems of human meaning and purpose.

11:59 AM (link)