Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gaining My Religion

Though I'm never one to pass up another occasion to laugh at Sam, his post-U2 concert fervor reminds me of something I've wanted to blog about for awhile: the religious experience. What is it? And how much does it actually have to do with religion?

It is the considered opinion of Thea, my erstwhile acupuncturist, mentor, and friend, that U2 are in fact exactly what Sam claims--not just a band, but a conduit to a preternaturally transcendant experience (this is doubly notable because Thea is not at all the kind of person you think of when you think, "U2 fan." Then, neither is Sam). No qualifiers or hedging needed: Bono is transmitting the universe, or god, or whatever your favorite word is, from a form that you cannot comprehend or experience into a form that you can. If that's not a religious experience, nothing is.

I think, moreover, that you're having this kind of experience, to a greater or lesser extent, every time you get lost reading a good book, watching film or t.v., or pretty much any time you "lose yourself." That's supposed to be what religious enlightenment feels like, isn't it--the loss of ego to some sense of ecstasy, no self consciousness, just joy? Having the ability to take someone out of themselves with narrative or art is a shamanic skill--most people I know simply couldn't invoke the kind of energy, e.g., to fill an amphitheater no matter how many lights, sound effects, tv screens, microphones, and guitar effects you gave them.

L. said that she never understood Catholicism as a religion until she stepped into a church in Rome. Seeing the art and the sculpture and the gold leaf and the stained glass, she realized what it must have been like hundreds of years ago when life was constantly cramped, dark, and smelly, and then one day you walked into one of these enormous, ornate, echoing light-filled temples. You really would experience god.

For me there's a certain pattern to it. As L. also noted a long time ago, experiencing really good narrative is a lot like falling in love. While you're in it, you just want more, because it's pulling you along, telling you the answers you've always wanted to know to the questions you never knew you wanted to ask. You can't wait for the next episode, or chapter, or tomorrow, to arrive.

Slow News Day

Here's our deep thought from Sunday brunch: one learns in 5th grade that the image of the outside world that ones brain receives from the optic nerve is inverted. The light that comes from the plane above eye level passes through the lens and is reflected onto the bottom of the optic nerve, and the light that comes from the below that plane is reflected onto the top. The reason we know it's not the optic nerve or its connectors that switch bottom to top is illustrated by the film I saw in the same 5th grade science cycle. They took a guy and put this apparatus over his eyes that switched the image he saw with a couple of mirrors--what was being fed to his eyes was already upside down. He wore the device continuously, and a week or two later, his brain adjusted and he started seeing right side up again. They showed him riding a motorcycle to prove that he could see okay. Question: Did his brain just undo the flip that it normally does, or did it flip the image again? Is there any physiological difference between these two things? Sub-question: Why hasn't someone released all of those fifth grade science films from the 1950's on DVD? First, they rocked. Second, it would prove that I wasn't crazy, since nobody seems to have seen this particular film except me.

Anyway, this all struck my ten-year-old brain as impossible. On the one hand, the dude could ride a motorcycle, and that's pretty compelling evidence. On the other hand, it seemed to ten-year-old me that you see from your eyes, not your brain. I didn't even buy that the image from my eyes was somehow upside down in the first place. I mean, I was looking right at it. I could see that it wasn't upside down.

So here's the deep thought. If your brain does something as dramatic as invert the image your eyes receive before you actually "see" it, what the hell else is it doing? What's being received that you don't see? What's not being received that you do?

(Editor's Note: this post markedly more interesting if you are stoned.)

Monday, October 24, 2005


From a paper on Pride and Prejudice, written by a college student, somewhere in America:

"This shows that, though the marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy is the ideal match, it only happens one sixth of the time."

(Yes, he or she counted the number of marriages that take place in the novel).

I just love that on so many levels.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

One Blog A Second

...it's a stat in the Harper's Index™ this month: "Average number of new blogs created each second: 1." Which just goes to show you (and by "you", I mean "me"), you're not nearly as unique as you thought. For those of you playing along at home that's 3600 blogs an hour, 86,400 blogs a day, 604,800 blogs a week, 31,536,000 blogs a year. A large percentage of these must be these bot-created spam blogs that seem to exist only to create Google hits (which, frankly, I can't figure out--it seems like the easiest thing in the world for search engines to weed out. Clearly I'm missing something). Another large percentage has got to be people who say to themselves, "hey, I'll start a blog, that'll be keen," write one entry, and never come back to it. But even if only one out of every ten blogs is actually somebody writing his or her (or its) thoughts on any sort of regular basis...well, you do the math.

I talked before about how, given a large demographic sample, you can make acurate behavioral predictions that are impossible to make about an individual in that group. I started a blog for a reason that, I imagine, is relatively atypical (though given 31 MILLION blogs a year, if only one in a thousand blogs are started as a project for school, I've got a lot of company anyway). After I'd been doing it for a month or two, I discovered a bunch of my friends were also blogging, and I sort of joined their club, and modified the things I blogged about, and so on. In other words, from the perspective of my little brain, the reasons I write a blog are rather nuanced and complex and seemingly unique. From the perspective of, e.g., the dude who compiles Harper's Index™, the fact that I write a blog is neither remarkable nor particularly surprising.

All this is by way of making an "it's a map, not the territory," argument. I can predict, for instance, that if you're reading this right now that you either, a) own an iPod, or b) are married to me. Well, I'm right, aren't I? And yet it's a strangely unimpressive inference. It's factually true, yet says almost nothing about the incredibly complex process that went into you deciding to (circle one) buy an iPod/marry me (if you're reading this blog and you neither own an iPod nor are married to me, well, who the heck are you? Leave me a comment or something). The model of the universe in which you are merely the sum of your decisions and actions, in which you are an actor in some mass market or abstracted closed system, is a useful model for making generalized predictions about the behavior of you and others who are in some way, "like" you. And it's a model that says nothing about how you, blog reader and iPod owner/spouse, got where you are, where you're going, or what's going on in your little brain right now.

Harper's Index™ is a registered trademark. Oh yes it is.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Slow Foods

Mark, of bachelor party fame, now reads this blog from time to time, so in the theme of writing letters to people via blogging, this missive is about something he brought up the other night. He and Adrienne just returned from their honeymoon in Italy last Friday. That is to say that she returned last Friday. Mark lost his passport and had to wander the streets of Milan, and then Copenhagen, for two days while waiting for a replacement passport (nobody who knows Mark is remotely surprised by this story. Such things are part of Mark's Essential Nature. Mark has fully accepted this part of his essence; when it pops up, he nods to it by saying, "Don't worry, baby. You're on the Cooper Train." Being on the Cooper Train means that something is about to go very, very not-as-planned).

They had us over on Tuesday for a post-wedding fiesta, during which we did absolutely nothing for four hours but cook and then sit around and eat. It was a four course meal wherein each courses had multiple sub-courses, and between each course were small breaks wherein we stopped to prepare the next thing we were going to eat, and also did some digesting. During the course (ha!) of all this, Mark brought up the Slow Food Movement, whose stated goal is to preserve food and the culture that goes with eating from, well, modern life.

I try to avoid, on principal, diatribes about how modern life is bad, because it really, really isn't. Modern life is pretty freaking awesome--not for everyone, obviously, and it should not be inferred that I'm advocating complacency because things are okay for you in particular. I just think there aren't many major truths that can be divined from statements that start "'X' ain't as good as it used to be" (or, frankly, the contrapuntal, "The advent of 'Y', will surely foment a revolution that creates a new utopia for all Mankind!" That really hasn't been true of much since the printing press, and even then, it's not like it ended war or world hunger). (As to the invention of the internet, see: printing press, the). And, I don't think that the rather unhealthy relationship we (very broadly speaking) have with food these days, about which I'm going to talk briefly in the next paragraph without making any definitive argument on the subject, doesn't have as much to do with "modern life," whatever one takes that to mean, as we probably generally think it does.

Jesus H. Ted, I use a lot of words.

It's no particular secret we're obese as a population, and it's no particular secret that there seems to be a fair causal relationship between that and the fact that we eat processed foods in large quantities and in short amounts of time. I think another problem, as I've mentioned before, is how far removed we've become from the process of actually acquiring and preparing our food. The only next logical step is to remove us from the actual eating of it, and I offer this, a breakfast item they sell in the cafeteria at my work, as evidence that this particular inconvenience is being worked out as well. Again, I'm not arguing for the return of The Golden Age of Sustinance Farming here, I'm arguing that removing ourselves from the actual process of gathering, preparing, and eating your food is actually tangibly harming our health. I'm not saying you gotta go out and hunt the stuff (though bully for you if you do), but I do think you have to pay attention. And jeez, might as well enjoy it too, while you're at it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Meta-Letter To Greg

Another reason I started this blog, besides the ostensible reasons, was to collect my thoughts on a particular subject. It's not clear what the particular subject is, something about why I'm pursuing a career in acupuncture and what I think it's all about, or whatever. One of the assigned texts for my first year in school was called Essential Spirituality, it's a 250-odd page book with a thesis that can be summarized thusly: Surveying the world's major religions (which the author selects for us, though no suprises amongst them either), one discovers they have some essential tenets in common. His argument is that you can infer from this how you should approach your spiritual life.

I thought that this book was highly dumb, because a) it should have been about ten pages long, and b) Okay, so one should chill out, treat everybody how one wants to be treated, and get rid of ones material attachments. Sattva enlightenment ensues. That's not so much the question. The question is how you do those things. It's not that this book is without advice on the subject, it's just that the advice looks like this:

Relax. Take deep breaths. Meditate. Empty your mind. Focus on loving kindness for all living things.*

*Offer valid only if you are upper middle class, pretty much don't do anything with your day, and don't have to spend time worrying about anything, such as money, food, a daily commute, buying or selling anything, politics, the environment, religious fundamentalism, the state of the world in general, or coming into contact with anyone who might, say, not want to focus on loving kindness for some reason. Offer not valid in territories, protectorates, the Continental U.S., Europe, Capitalist Nations, Socialist Nations, Communist Nations, or countries or collectives bound by laws or communal social contracts of any kind. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball. Attempting to achieve inner peace may cause passers-by to gawk and small children to poke at you with sticks. In the vast wide history of time, enlightenment has only been achieved by a couple of people sitting under trees three thousand years ago and some dude the Romans ended up nailing to a cross, so good luck with that.

Anyway, I thought: you know what, I could write this book. Only I could write it such that it was, a) actually useful, and b) entertaining enough that people would want to read it. I bring all of this up...(this sentence, or ones like it, now litering the discourse among the Three Weblogs of The Apocolypse)...because of Stonesthrow's last post about doing...stuff...with/in your life. I, too, tend to be an incredibly lazy ass, most of the time. Or that's my perception of myself, and probably everybody feels this way at least some of the time--the sensation that one should be doing 'x', but is not doing 'x', and instead playing solitare on the computer (or maybe that is just me).

One of the theses of this imaginary book I'm at least pretending to write is that I tend to think this phenomenon is some sort of a denial of ones true and essential self. If, for instance, you smoked and really, in the true and essential sense, wanted to quit, you would just do it. I don't mean to say that if you can't quit smoking you're weak-willed or nothing (there is that thing about nicotine being as physically addictive as heroin and all), more that your true and essential self really wants a goddamn cigarette, and that's the thing that needs to be addressed (if I can get a functional way to help quit smoking, or turn off the tv and instead paint your house, based on this idea, then I'll really have something). Greg pretty much sums this up, in the context of writing, when he says, "...I decided that I was just a procrastinating writer, and to suck up and deal, (but) I am perhaps too willingly accepting this."

I've thought about writing some sort of long narrative (many people are just referring to this concept as a 'book' these days) for years, basically since college, and every time I sat down to try it, I found I just couldn't make myself write. I thought for a long time I didn't like writing, but in fact I like writing a lot--e.g. I used to write letters with an obsessive focus. On the other hand, it turns out that I like blogging, it seems to be something I want to do, so I've tricked myself into writing this way. Or, in the above-described model, I've discovered a particular thing about my essential writing-self and I'm trying to work with it.

One can make onesself do things one doesn't really want to do. Sometimes one has to do this, but on the other hand, it sure isn't fun, and one surely is miserable while it's going on. So you: want to quit smoking/can't get yourself to write/don't want to paint the house/get off your ass and make the world a better place/etc. That seems to be step one. Step two is recognizing that an essential part of yourself needs nicotine or doesn't like painting or whatever. It's not that I don't believe in laziness, I believe that laziness is a symptom of trying to make onesself do something one doesn't want to do, or doing it in a way that one doesn't want to do it. I don't have step three formulated yet. I'm working on it though, because goddammit Greg, you've got to quit smoking.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Take Your Dog To Work Day

The oft-referenced unnamed e-commerce giant for whom I work has a couple of odd holdovers from its days as a startup. One is that we all work on "door-desks", which are fashioned from a birchwood door you might buy at a hardware store, four two-by-twos, and some corner braces (and which, when our founder famously built them by hand when the business was headquartered in his garage, were surely cheaper that buying office supply desks. Now that we've got 50,000 of them, I imagine they aren't). Another is that they allow dogs in the main corporate offices, so on every floor of the Pacific Medical Building in Seattle, there are four or five dogs roaming the halls.

We are the proud owners of a very intelligent, very neurotic border collie (the fact that she knows the word "neurotic" about sums it up) named Calli, and until Friday, I'd never brought her in to work, reasoning that she doesn't play well with other dogs, and likes people a little bit too much (so much so that she'll readily jump up on somebody who appears like they might pay her some attention). Also, not everybody likes dogs, and even if it's already part of the corporate environment, you never want to add to the annoyance of someone who's already having to suffer the hostility of a dog-ridden place of employment.

Unfortunately, the "Not Everybody" who likes dogs has lately included the people who live in our building, who have started complaining to us that she's barking all the time when we're not there, and since we're never ever ever ever going to find a house, it seemed like a good idea not to anger them all. With me working and L. teaching full time, Calli was spending a lot of the weekday alone, so on Friday I brought her in to the office for the first time, with not a little trepidation that she might freak out in a new environment. She is, after all, almost completely neurotic.

I believe about dogs the same thing I believe about very small children, which is that they are pretty much reflections of the energy (substitute for "energy" your favorite word that encapsulates the concept I'm about to outline) that's in their environment, filtered through their own dogness, or small-child-ness (actually, I believe that about people, too, it's just that dogs and small children don't have spoken language, and that makes the phenomenon more interesting). (Okay, what am I saying, I believe this about everything, animate and not: a topic for a future post, no doubt). A barking dog is reflecting stress in its environment, a crying child reflecting sadness in his or hers. You could argue that the dog is barking because the dog is stressed, the child is crying because it is sad (or hungry, or whatever), but like the Buddhists and a fair share of philosophers, I argue that such an isolated self doesn't exist (or, I should say, this model is less illuminating), that there is no barrier that distinguishes between the self and the non-self, just one long slippery slope (again, post for another time). And it's funny, but I think being a dog owner is the thing that solidified this concept in my mind.

Calvino: Whoa! Hold on there. Are you about to make some point about how your dog is some essential and inextractable part of your own self?

The Stoat: Well, actually, this was supposed to be a post about how Calli came to work and was an incredibly good dog and everyone loved her. But it, like everything else that ever appears in this blog, has devolved into a mass of Existentia. Anyway, yes, I would make that point.

Calvino: This is your dog you're talking about, right? Your pet. The thing that obsessively fetches tennis balls and is terrified of bugs?

The Stoat: And spends hours lying on the floor, idly chewing on her own paws, yes. That dog.

Calvino: You are one weird dude. And I'm pretty sure "Existentia" isn't a word.

The Stoat: Whatever. Language doesn't work that way.

I don't know if I meant this entry to be a Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul, Lessons-Our-Dogs-Teach-Us story (as reflected through the Odds Are One's metaphor for being, whatever that is), but I brought the dog in on Friday, she met the other dogs and the other people and settled right in. She curls up on the floor or wanders through the halls into other people's offices (so that they can pet her, natch)--a coworker said to me, "You should bring her into work every day, it's so relaxing to have a dog just walk into your office. You can pet her for five minutes and then go back to what you were doing." I felt like a proud parent.