Friday, December 12, 2008

A Curious Phenomenon of Dreams

Today I would like to muse a little bit about a curious phenomenon of dreams which, somehow, I never happened to notice until just recently; which is kind of nice in a way, since it suggests that at my advanced age and stage of mental deterioration my dissolving brain can still, sometimes, find a blind acorn twice a day.

I suppose it goes without saying that these waters are too muddied and too deep for a shallow wader like me to sound, and I trust that the repeated disclaimers on this blog are thick enough that no one who stumbles across it will expect to find substantial answers to anything -- other, perhaps, than the question of just how much damage alcohol can to do a human brain.

But in case you've missed all my sleazy low-rent advertisements (like commercials for Euclid Avenue pawnbrokers broadcast by my local NBC affiliate during Soul Train at 2:00 on Sunday morning), let me say forthrightly here that I don't have any insight or knowledge at all on the nature of dreams: whether they're symbolic phone calls from our subconscious, or the data storage process of the jelly-based hard drive in our skulls, or both, or neither. In my ignorance I have no business speculating, and I know it.

But then again, in the grand scheme of the universe it is an irrelevancy either way. In a very few years nothing will be left of me but some corrupted meat tucked away out of sight and, perhaps, some memories -- mostly less than flattering ones, no doubt -- in the minds of a handful of people who will recall me less and less over time until I am forgotten completely. What will it matter, then, that I sat here scribbling tonight these nonsense pages to be sent forth into the unlistening ether?

But enough of this funereal mood! Divine Bacchus, the most unworthy of your servants beseeches you for the strength to break these sorrowful chains.

So (after a mere six paragraphs of blather) to return to this phenomenon of dreams. It is simply this: why is it, that when we see in a dream someone we know (a parent, a lover, a relative, a co-worker) or someplace we know (the house I grew up in, the house I am living in, my workplace) that, so very often, the person or place does not look anything at all like it actually looks in real life?

Surely our subconscious, or our inner hard drive, or whatever it is that manufactures our dreams, can accurately reconstruct the physical lineaments of our waking hours? In fact we know it can, because there are other times in our dreams when people and places look just like how they "really" are!

What determines, then, whether we get the 'waking reality' version of the object, or the 'dreaming freestyle' one?

One idea that has begun to interest me recently in my dabblings in the paranormal is multiplicity of truths: in other words, the idea that the different types of paranormal phenomena are not identical objects that spring from one single source, but different types of objects whose origins differ depending on the case.

For instance, when most laypeople like me (and even, apparently, some people who put a lot of time into studying these subjects) think of UFOs, we think of them as being mechanical vehicles from other planets, and that's what they are. Or else they're top secret military projects, and that's what they are. Or that ghosts are the spirits of the dead, period. Or demons trying to deceive us, period.

The more I have read and heard, the more I agree with those who think there is some degree of diversity in the paranormal, just as there is diversity in the animal kingdom, and in the plant kingdom, and among our own humble little species. So I find myself thinking that perhaps some UFOs are shadow government black ops, and some UFOs are mechanical extraterrestrial spacecraft, and some UFOs are manifestations of group consciousness, and some UFOs are as-yet-unclassified weather or electromagnetic phenomena, and some UFOs are extra-dimensional entities, and some, needless to say, are misidentifications or frauds.

Perhaps some ghosts are the spirits of the dead; others are imprints recorded on the environment; others are non-human entities of some sort (demons or otherwise); others are temporary chemical imbalances in the brain; and so on.

Alas, the paranormal is a slippery enough eel as it is, and muddying the waters with multiplicities only makes it harder to grapple with, which, no doubt, is why so many people prefer the simple, clean-cut explanations and are so reluctant to consider alternative possibilities. "I know ghosts are the spirits of the dead. Case closed!"

So I wonder if perhaps there aren't different types of dreams? Do we get the "lookalike" dreams from one source, and the "it's not at all like the real thing, but you know that's what it is" dreams from another? Perhaps some dreams are messages from our subconscious; some are data storage processes; some (since I am a woowoo and can believe anything) may be communications received from outside us; some may even be out-of-body experiences.

What purpose is there in giving me a dream in which the house I grew up in, that is apparently supposed to be the house I grew up in (since I recognize it as such in the dream), is laid out differently, and has different furniture and interior design, than the real-world house I really did grow up in? Or in showing me a person I know or have known, very intimately perhaps, and the person looks nothing at all like the real person or, indeed, like anybody else I know?

I fully accept the symbolic nature of dreams (or some dreams). Is there some kind of abstruse symbolic meaning in making an old boyfriend look slight, blond and fair instead of dark, sturdy, and Mediterranean, as he was? Or in putting the kitchen west of the living room instead of north of it? Or in painting the walls off-white instead of the "harvest gold" or "avocado" that covered every wall of the 1970s working class hovel I grew up in?

I've heard it stated by scientists that we dream in black and white. I've always had a hard time accepting this; many of my dreams do seem to have muted colors, it is true, as if seen under a cloudy sky; maybe they really were in black and white. But in other dreams it seems sure to me that there was color -- sometimes very vivid color, as in recent dreams of Cleveland on flame (which did not look much at all like Cleveland, even though it was, supposedly, Cleveland).

In any event, how do scientists know this to be true? Have they somehow managed to dissect the rods and cones in the mind's eye? Now researchers in Japan are claiming to have succeeded in pulling images out of the human brain, but this is a very recent discovery, whereas this assertion that we dream in monochrome has been around for a long time. Or did scientists, as they sometimes do, just declare it to be true to show they're smarter, as they used to declare that pets have no emotions and that silly unscientific pet-owners were simply applying subjective human interpretations to their pets' behavior?

And if it is true that we dream in monochrome -- what does it mean? What is the significance of the fact that the movie theater of our brains is still stuck somewhere in the 1940s, unlike our eyes that have upgraded to the glorious spectacle of technicolor?

Again I am forced to understand just how hopelessly out of my depth I am, and it is quite possible, probable even, that my ignorance makes me perceive sinister glooms and shadows in the sunny light of noon; but in the dull, untutored swamps of my peasant brain I cannot escape the feeling that no matter how you look at it -- and the more we learn about it -- there is something very strange, suggestive, and not altogether comforting about the nature of dreams.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I'm in Love with a Vampire

I'm so paranoid these days that I'm afraid even to use titles like this, lest they become literally true, but at the same time I like having catchy titles (or at least as close to catchy as I can get) so I'll keep it.

Dear reader, be advised, there will be no magical thinking (or any thinking at all, really) in this post! This post is purely about the brain damage end of the business. Not even the gods can be serious all the time; why should we mortals, whose lives are fleeting?

I am feeling unusually happy right now. My dear husband has treated me to a surprise, and I have just had the very pleasurable experience, which I think is really remarkable considering my long history of alcohol consumption, of tasting the most perfect beer of my life: the beautiful, ruby-hued Nosferatu from the local wizards on the mistake on the lake, at the Great Lakes Brewery.

I've tried some of the Great Lakes beers before. They're all delicious (though of course expensive compared to the Natural Lights and Red Dogs of the world, but you pay for quality) and I like the clever names with a local connection. They have a bunch of them:

  • Elliot Ness Amber Lager (my favorite, until I tried Nosferatu). This one is named after the famous Untouchable G-Man who became Cleveland's Safety Director in 1935, only to leave under a shadow for never managing to catch the Cleveland torso murderer;

  • Holy Moses White Ale named for Connecticut surveyor Moses Cleaveland (spelling correct), who, in 1796, came to the mouth of the Cuyahoga, thought it would make a great place for a city, and then (like many another person who has come to the same spot) left and never came back;

  • Burning River Pale Ale to remember the infamous episode of June 23, 1969, in which the Cuyahoga river proved to be so grotesquely polluted that it actually caught fire (but who needs clean water, if business turns a profit and politicians get a cut?);

  • Moondog Extra Special Bitter which celebrates "the 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball held at the Cleveland Arena, what many consider the first 'rock and roll' concert" (explanation stolen from Wikipedia);

  • Edmund Fitzgerald Porter to remember the Cleveland ore carrier, immortalized in the song by Canadian folkster Gordon Lightfoot, that on November 10 1975 sank with all hands on Lake Superior;

  • Commodore Perry India Pale Ale in memory of the hero of the War of 1812, who in a battle on Lake Erie became the only naval commander in history to capture an entire British fleet.

Great Lakes beers tend to have a higher alcohol content than the usual proletarian swill that dominates the American boozing scene, so they pack a nice good buzz. And Nosferatu is king of the court, tipping the scales with an alcohol content of 8%!

The problem for me, apart from the cost, is that I find them very heavy and yeasty; it's like drinking liquid bread. Not that I mind it -- in fact I like it a lot -- but they knock me right out. I drink a couple of Great Lakes beers and I go to sleep and gain five pounds.

But back to the positives, Great Lakes beers are the only alcoholic drinks I can enjoy these days that still give me a buzz and make me feel happy. Everything else just makes me sick and crabby.

But that's enough of this. I am going to go suck on another vampire. Nighty night!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Alien Dreams, Part I

First an explanatory note: whenever I speak of aliens on this blog, I am using the word merely as shorthand for the various kinds of entities reported by experiencers of paranormal contact or abduction phenomena; I don't pretend to have any insight or understanding of their true origin.

I know nothing is more irritatingly tedious than listening to some fool spew on about their dreams, and I promise I won't make a habit of it here. I only set these two down because I don't recall ever having dreamt of aliens before being repeatedly exposed over the past several months to accounts of contacts and abductions, and because while I don't usually believe that dreams are anything more than internal processes of our brains, sometimes I do -- at least some dreams, and these two, particularly the second, feel to me to fall into that category.

I do understand that the most probable reason for these dreams is simply that I've been listening and thinking and freaking myself out about the subject, and so my subconscious is playing around with it and my deteriorating brain is going haywire on me and that's all there is to it; but at the same time a part of me buys into the statement often expressed by explorers of the paranormal that the more you think and search and open yourself up to these things, the more they will seek out you. Again, I understand that probably the reason they're "seeking" you is just because you've predisposed your brain to interpret everything it perceives in a certain way, regardless of what's objectively there. But then again, I can't share the absolute certainty of psychologists and materialist-rationalists that the things we perceive in altered states of consciousness are mere imaginations of the mind; such reasoning strikes me as fundamentally flawed because it is based on an erroneous assumption: alien entities absolutely do not exist, nuh-uh no way; therefore anyone who sees them has to be hallucinating, misinterpreting, or lying.

Of course, most psychologists and materialist-rationalists, being educated, rational, and brilliant people who wish to appear educated, rational and brilliant, will happily admit that alien entities probably exist all over the cosmos; they just don't happen to exist in the one spot of the cosmos where their presence would be inconvenient for the beliefs of educated, rational and brilliant people.

Oh, if only I could bottle my self-loathing vitriol and drink it in its fermented state, what a happy woman I would be.

Anyway, to my mind it seems just as reasonable to assume (since that's all any of us are doing, whatever lies some people may tell themselves) that these entities really do exist, but that for some reason (and many intriguing speculations have been put forth) we are unable to perceive them in our conscious, waking state.

But I've wandered long enough for now. Onto the first dream, which strikes me as by far the less interesting of the two I've had.

As it begins I am surrounded in darkness, nestled snugly but perhaps a little anxiously in the darkness, and I know I am watching or about to watch a film, though not on a screen, or at least I can't detect the screen; it's as if I'm looking through a glassless window onto the real world. I have a very dim sense of seeing one or two lines of opening credits, though if I did I have absolutely no recollection of what they may have represented: peoples' names or the title of the film or whatever.

It opens on a farm in a rural area at night: ten o'clock, I seem to know, though it feels later. I am looking down upon the scene; low mountains in the distance, perhaps a lake or river, certainly there are many trees; and a starless sky with a pale-bright full moon, to which my eye is drawn. There is a dirt road, a fence I think, a large wooden building like a stable and perhaps a cluster of outbuildings. A house? I can't recall. I seem to remember smoke rising from a chimney, but can't say for sure. The impression is of utter isolation in a sparsely-populated region miles from nowhere; it is so difficult for me to remember, but it strikes me that my feeling was an odd mixture of cozy enchantment (because I'd love to live in a place like this) mingled with an undercurrent of anxiety (because I'd hate to be alone in such a place at night) that seems to be present throughout this dream.

I watch this scene for a few moments. Overall I think I enjoy it, I get a good feeling from it. I like the little quiet place out in the country. And now I am shown that the night wears on by a weird sequence of the moon. You've probably seen the kind of time-lapse shot or whatever it is where you are looking at the night sky, and the position of the moon gradually fades from one spot to reappear in another. In this case something odd happens; the old position of the moon doesn't seem to fade out so much as the moon seems to split itself like an amoeba, or perhaps turns to a box and then fades out and reappears as a peanut shape or as an orb that extrudes something from itself until it assumes a peanut shape. I seem to recall seeing a sharp black line briefly appear through the place where the two moons joined. I can't sort out in my mind now just exactly what happened with it. But in the end the moon became a pale-bright orb again, just a little lower in the sky directly beneath where it was before.

My view drifts down to a close-up of the stable. I have the sense that something needs to be done: a few simple last-minute chores, perhaps, prior to shutting the place down for the night or the season, and there's a sense of peace and completion such as I feel when being the last one out of the office at night mingled with that same underfeeling of unease, as if I want to get out of there quickly because I'm suddenly nervous being there in the dark by myself, or am afraid that someone or something might show up soon, or will show up soon. I seem to have become part of the film now, to be the person who is involved in the plot, but as I think of these things to be done somebody else comes on scene and I split back to being a watcher again; whether she's the star or a minor character I can't tell, but it's Sigourney Weaver, apparently, in a white blouse and cream-colored jeans or riding pants. She is the one who is taking care of these last-minute things, though I don't remember seeing her actually do anything. Maybe she finished up just before coming on, or maybe it gets done behind the scenes as she's there.

She gets in the car. Do I feel that we (she, me?) are now safe, or that we waited too long and are now on the brink of disaster? It's all mixed up in my head. But as she drives along, and I seem to be floating outside the car moving along with it, looking at her in profile as the night countryside speeds by in a blur, I either see or have the sense that now Richard Gere is looking at this scene as film footage frame by frame, holding a small screen in his hands and peering intently at it, and whether I'm him or there next to him or watching him as an actor in a film on my own screen I can't say. As with most of my dreams, the details afterward are horribly confused. But I know, because it seems to be the whole point of the film, that Sigourney is going to encounter an alien; I am watching for it, waiting for it, and sure enough, as I watch the blurry black background outside the car window move past frame by frame, a grayish-white blur pops into view.

There it is! I think, and I may feel exultant at having seen it or calmly assured by what I had known was going to happen, but I'm certainly not scared or concerned in any way. The film slows even more now and I watch as the blur clicks horizontally closer toward Sigourney -- although the car was moving from left to right, and the alien blur, as I recall, did not appear at the right side of the screen and work its way to the left as you would normally expect if she were driving toward something on the roadside; as I recall the blur appeared suddenly in the middle of the screen and seemed to move toward the right faster than the car did, or maybe kept pace with the car. Still no fear. And the film slows down even more, because we want to get a really good look at this alien, and apparently in the mechanics of this dream the more you slow down the film the clearer and sharper the objects it captures will be. I am excited, athrob with anticipation; I want to see the alien!

So the film slows to a stop, and there it is, clear as a bell, staring right into the car, its elongated head and huge black eyes and tiny mouth slackly open like a confused old man's, the neck so thin and short that it's barely not even there, thin as thread, and I think I see a long flexy arm, maybe its right arm stretched impossibly behind its back to reach around on its left side toward the car window, and though I was expecting to see its face and, as I thought, prepared for it, the sudden clarity of it huge and looming at the window scared the bejesus out of me and I burst awake with a scream or some kind of violent convulsion that woke my husband, who is a dead-snoring log sleeper.

Unlike some scary dreams, the fear of this one immediately dissipated as soon as I realized I was awake and had been dreaming. It wasn't until I started meditating over it there in the dark night and conjuring up visions of them trying to get at me through wormholes in the realm of sleep that I began to work myself into a state.

I certainly don't expect anyone to see any usable significance in what is surely just another dream. But for whatever pittance it may be worth, you are welcome to it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why I Keep My Thinking to a Minimum

In my case it's like trying to drive a nail with my breasts. It hurts and the results are unsatisfactory. And now it can even make me fat:

"Caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact that we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic currently observed in industrialized countries," said lead researcher Jean-Philippe Chaput at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada.

Now I don't pretend that I really understand any of that; I tried, but my jeans started to feel tight and it seemed wiser to abandon the attempt.

I can now appreciate, though, why legitimate science refuses to so much as consider silly sky fairy subjects like UFOs: what intelligent, rational, level-headed scientist would waste time on a nonsensical phenomenon for which there is nothing more than trace evidence, radar responses, and thousands of eyewitness reports (or, to use the proper scientific terminology: mass hypnosis, delusions and lies, and in any event eyewitness testimony is completely invalid anyway) when fascinating answers to the real mysteries of the ages are to be obtained by watching college kids work on computers and scarf tater chips?

As many a parabnormally-minded person has long known: if only we could make UFOs, ghosts, or cryptozoology as lucrative a pursuit as the weight loss industry, the Jean-Philippe Chaputs of the world would grab their laptops and microscopes and hurl themselves shrieking onto that fabulous El Dorado gravy train in the manner of, as the elegant phrase has it, stink on a monkey.

Not that I have anything against Dr. Chaput or his work; I am sure he's a fine human being and a scrupulous researcher, and of course all scientific discovery is worthwhile. I just like to bitch.

And now I drink a draft of the magical brew from my cup and uncloak my mind for the ravishment of the oracular god. HEAR AS YOUR PRIESTESS REVEALS THE ULTIMATE MYSTERIES WHICH WILL BE PROVEN BY SCIENCE AT THE END OF TIME:

1) everything makes you fat; and

2) everything also causes cancer or otherwise kills you.

The full horrifying article is available here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Because I'm Drunk and Annoyed and Reading the Internets at 2:00 in the Morning...

Dear Forum Poster:

No one has any business taking you seriously if you:
  • use a Greco-Roman pseudonym (on edit: uh-oh -- but then again, I rest my case)

  • treat Shakespeare like he matters more than any other great writer of the past 400 years

  • use the phrase: Wow. Just. Wow.

  • use the word sheeple

  • can't discuss contemporary sociopolitical issues without making references to obesity, waddling, Wal*Mart, sixpacks, etc.

  • can't discuss contemporary sociopolitical issues without making references to Hitler and the Nazis

  • think you're saying something profound by posting song lyrics.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dude, You Just Stepped in Some Bigfoot

As I am writing this, the much-ballyhooed Georgia Gorilla press conference, scheduled for today, has yet to burst its bombshell upon the world; but based on the little commentary I have read, and the pictures I have seen...

I confess that I believe (some of the time) in the wisdom of the people (that is to say, folklore) which acknowledges that tiny bands of large hominids, unknown in the taxonomies of scientists, really do exist in unhumaned places like the white emptiness of the Himalayas and, elusive as the corpse of D.B. Cooper, in the black, shaggy wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Since I accept the verdict of folklore, I believe that it is quite possible, especially in light of the continuous diminishment of the American wilderness, that the body of one of these creatures could eventually be found.

I would love, really love, for their existence to be proven, though in the end, objectively, it would amount to nothing more than the discovery of yet another animal previously unkown to science (I'm aware of a speculation that these creatures may be at least partially paranormal, but personally I don't find that speculation persuasive for no other reason, really, than that I simply don't have any interest in believing it). As we continue to tear up the jungles and probe and poison the oceans, previously unknown animals are discovered frequently enough that we have ceased to be shocked by it. What's the big deal?

And yet "Bigfoot" isn't just another animal. For reasons I don't have the energy to explore, he has long since become wrapped up in the same kind of wide-eyed fraudulent kookery that, accidentally or not (I believe the answer is a bit of both), has long since come to infest and discredit every aspect of the paranormal. Because of this, otherwise rational and intelligent people who don't bat an eye when a new frog or butterfly or flower is discovered, and who would probably lay down money on the odds that more frogs, butterflies, and flowers are still out there waiting to be discovered, lose their heads and become all giggly and illogical at the thought that a large primate could thus far have escaped the net of the zoologists.

Regan Lee has been tracking the obsession that a certain branch of the fundamentalist materialist-rationalist orthodoxy appears to feel for this subject, an obsession which, in my opinion, is rather unwise since it seems to me that of all "paranormal" phenomena the existence of an unknown primate is the easiest to prove, and the most likely to be proven: again, it is simply the discovery of another unknown animal. But because of the heaps of subjective baubles with which we've all loaded this particular animal, its discovery would be interpreted as a mighty vindication of the "Woo" community and an intellectual Stalingrad (in the German sense) for the "Reality-based" one.

The oracle slurred by your priestess: when weaving your security blanket, do not choose the thread most likely to unravel.

If a large hairy hominid ever were discovered, I believe it would be interesting and very instructive scientifically (if you consider psychology a science) to monitor the reaction of certain fundamentalist materialist-rationalists. It is said by them that they would accept the discovery with the same placid equanimity with which they welcome any evidentiary revelation that furthers our understanding of the world we live in.

I don't buy it. Not for a second. It is my suspicion (and I'm willing to wager my drinking of booze on it, so convinced am I that I'm right) that our hypothetical psychologists would be recording not gentlemanly smiles of complacence, but symptoms of depression, denial, and anger. I half expect that, if a Sasquatch body ever really were found, that some particularly distraught reality-based anthropoid would take it upon himself to strap on a pack of dynamite and jihad himself upon the offending carcase, obliterating the shattering of his cozily manageable world in a fiery Jahannam of blended primate parts.

But I don't think he'll need to be joining the Academy of the Illuminated Martyrs just yet. After an initial flush of excitement it seems to me, as to most other people in the paranormal community, that based on what has been released thus far, unless this story turns out to have a super-shocking Twilight Zone twist at the end it can't possibly be anything other than a hoax -- and apparently not a particularly skillful one.

Saturday morning update: press conference "inconclusive"; blood in the water; if these fine examples of the blessings of democracy really do turn out to have a body now, I'll stop drinking. The hoaxing process is fascinating to me, particularly the point at which it gets away from you and stops being fun; the thought of lawyers intrudes, and you have to keep juggling faster and faster to keep the wolves from your door.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Hungry Gods, Part III

(This post is a continuation of The Hungry Gods and The Hungry Gods, Part II)

I distinctly remember reading or being told once, years ago, that human sacrifice developed after animal sacrifice, when someone came to the conclusion that since the life of animals like goats and bulls were desireable to the gods, how much more delectable must be the life of the most precious animal of all? and ever since I've operated under that assumption. But the scholarship in my recent reading takes the view that the earliest sacrifices were human, and that animal sacrifice developed afterward as a way to satisfy the rituals without having to kill somebody. Echoes of this are believed to be preserved in stories like biblical Abraham sacrificing Isaac (who at the last moment was saved by the appearance of a goat), or of the Greek Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia (who in earlier accounts was killed, but in later ones was saved and replaced with a deer).

The author of I, Claudius, British litterateur and reputedly somewhat dodgy classicist (and mushroom-eater) Robert Graves, wrote an extensive explication of Greek mythology in which he sees in nearly every human male who gets looked at crosswise the memory of the ritual murder of a sacred king, in the days before animals were on the menu. My advice to impressionable teenagers and children is to steer clear of this book. It's been nearly twenty years since I read it and I still remember the feeling of sickening horror that seeped into me as I digested account after account of kings being torn apart, beheaded, burned alive, shot full of arrows -- and that's only the first half of volume one. Nor am I the only one to feel this way, judging from the reviews on Amazon and my college classics professor's remark still preserved in my dusty notebooks: It's a nightmare work. It can get to you if you're not careful. It really can!

If human sacrifice really did precede animal sacrifice (and I don't dispute the scholars), to my mind this pretty effectively torpedoes the kindergarten-level rationalist approach I've been trying to use in looking at the subject. It's no longer a case of "here, take some of our wheat and leave us the rest" or "share a meal with us to nourish yourself in the afterlife dear grandfather" or "how can we cadge a mutton dinner out of the tribe?" It's a case of somebody somewhere (and not just in one isolated place either) coming to the conclusion that in order to make things right somebody has got to die.

Even so I cannot entirely abandon my infantile attempts at rationalism. I can imagine cases of starvation, in which cannibalism was a desperate last resort and the guilty or horrified survivors tried to rationalize it with the invention of a ritual -- if early person felt guilt and horror about such things. But then the question is: why continue the ritual when it was no longer necessary? Was ancient person forced to resort to cannibalism all the time? Or did he just discover that, like Alferd Packer, he liked it?

I can imagine someone, an outlaw or outcast perhaps, or maybe a stranger, perishing or being killed and left to lie on the ground. Perhaps the corpse has seeds in its stomach or in a bag, and as the body decomposes and springtime comes the seeds sprout; or perhaps it is left to lie in a patch of some wild food plant and the fertilized plants grow better where the body lay; or perhaps carnivores or scavengers come after it and are harvested by the hunters; and so people come away with the idea that the death of a man produces food.

Perhaps food is scarce and somebody is making himself obnoxious, complaining about being hungry or stealing food from others. Someone else flies in a rage and kills him, perhaps unintentionally, but now there's a bit more for everyone else to eat and the tribe is saved.

I am sure you can imagine more scenarios, but the scenarios are not really the crucial point. The crucial point is to resolve two big questions:
  1. Why would human sacrifice perpetuate itself?

  2. Why would human sacrifice perpetuate itself everywhere?
It seems to me that human sacrifice can only perpetuate itself if people believe they are gaining something from it. It seems to me also, from the very little I know of "primitive" peoples, that they don't make a habit of killing themselves off on a regular basis, apart from possibly extracting very little ones from the mouth pool during lean times Of course everyone is perfectly happy to kill off folks from other tribes, and maybe this is what fed the earliest sacrifices -- though I wonder, in those ancient times, if there were really all that many different tribes crawling over each others' feeding grounds.

If, as in my second and third scenarios, people believe that killing someone produces food or leaves more for others to eat, you can see why sacrifice would perpetuate itself. People need to eat continually, and so someone would have to die on a regular basis. But wouldn't there have been a time beforehand when the people could remember plants growing and animals being caught without somebody needing to die? Wouldn't they, as hunter-gatherers, ever migrate to richer pastures in which they had spilled no blood, but were none the poorer for it? Maybe once you've stared starvation in the face and are miraculously saved by a corpse you forget everything that comes before or after, and as an evolutionary tactic with your god-gene brain adopt the idea that inventing a corpse produces food.

But then this begs the question of how you move away from human sacrifice once you've been practicing it for a while. If you've come to believe it's producing food for you, or doing anything else of importance for you, who'd be the first one foolish enough to say, "hey, let's try just killing a goat instead and see how that works?" And who in the group would go along with that? "Sure, let's take a chance on angering the god and STARVING TO DEATH!"

It also begs the question of how the god gets into it, or indeed where gods come from at all. Would early person, completely integrated into nature, concoct a fantasy that some invisible sky being made plants and animals for men to eat? Would he not be more likely to assume that plants and animals were just there? I have a hard time remembering much of my very early childhood, but I don't recall, in playing outside amidst the grass and the trees, or in looking at the sun or the moon or the snow or the storms, ever having the idea that anybody made them; they were just there because that's how the world was.

Granted, if you're taught something as a child you'll grow up believing it and will propagate that belief to your own children -- unless, of course, you take the other traditional course of indoctrinated children and rebel utterly against the belief. But whatever course you choose, someone, somewhere, still must have originated the belief that was passed on to you, and the belief must have been deemed acceptable by a large enough percentage of the community to be worthy of passing on. I doubt early people were any keener to buck the consensus than their 21st century descendants.

But I confess I have a hard time believing that early people, out of whole cloth, just stitched together the idea of invisible superheroes in the sky who made things work. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which one person might do it; maybe he's schizophrenic and sees things. Maybe a whole tribe eats a bunch of whacky mushrooms and sees crazy things flying all over the place. But we're still left with the question of how belief in the invisible supermen spreads itself to human tribes everywhere. Are we to assume that missionary work went over better in those days than it's ever done in recorded history? Even if you have mind-blowing mushrooms to distribute? (well, okay, the mind-blowing mushrooms might persuade some folks, I mention no names).

My personal theorizing over this is hopeless bunk. I know nothing about it. And while I can't claim to have read about the subject in detail, I feel justified in saying that, of the little I have read, about 99% of it is also hopeless bunk. So why am I even bothering? I should just shut up.

But I can't shut up just yet. One theory does appeal to me very strongly. I first saw it raised in conjunction with some comments on the strange visual descriptions in Homer (the author apparently not buying into the old tradition of Homer being blind, which might account for strange visual descriptions); it has since popped up once or twice elsewhere. I'm ignorant of everything but the shallowest shape of it (perhaps the reason it appeals to me so much, since I need most things to be shallow):

The brain of early person worked differently than our brains work today. His way of perceiving the world was constitutionally different from ours.

Like I say, I don't know whose idea this is, or anything about the argument really; but even the sketchy outline of it rings true to me -- and it offers a solution to the questions over which I've been chasing my tail. The concept of gods and spirits could have developed universally early on, could have called forth serious responses like human sacrifice, because early person, as far as his mind could tell, was literally experiencing gods and spirits as a reality as concrete as the herbs he ate, the deer he chased, or the rain that fell on his head.

Most of us nowadays do not hear the voices of burning bushes or see shades coming up from the underworld because our brains do not use the same filters that were given to early man.

Of course this does not necessarily mean that gods and spirits are real (although I do believe, usually, that the numinous exists, and that it can still be perceived by at least some of us, at least ephemerally); it only means that early man's brain was forming certain impressions of the world around him -- impressions that may be beyond our reach today.

I think it is likely that our rationalist-materialist approach to things may well have been beyond the capabilities of early man, try as he might to grasp them. The filters are different. Why would science and technology progress but slightly for thousands of years, then suddenly shoot into the stratosphere over two centuries? Although it is fashionable in some quarters to attribute the technological stagnation of the past to a belief in sky fairies, belief in sky fairies is no inherent obstacle to the employment of science, as is proven by the works of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (please remember that I am reined in by my western bias, I do not mean to slight anyone elsewhere).

But then again, who has a better understanding -- a more visceral, instinctive, and intimate understanding, a real understanding -- of the world we live in?

The naked savage who is a part of it, who lives, eats, drinks, sleeps, poops, mates, and dies in it? Who has to learn every detail of it, to recognize every hint of benefit and every whisper of danger, or he dies right quick?

Or the modern feeble thing in a sterilized lab-coat, festering with allergies and neuroses, sitting in an ergonomic chair in a climate-controlled flourescent chamber, peering through spectacles into a microscope for twelve hours straight and letting a box of plastic and silicon do nine-tenths of his thinking for him?

The modern feeble thing asserts that he does. Sometimes he gets really angry, pathologically angry, if you suggest there's anything he can't understand.

I've been around modern feeble things when the air conditioning broke. My impulse is to side with the howling cave painter.

I think the modern feeble thing lives in a magic bubble of Newtonian corn syrup and ego. I think he is one poke away from disaster. Some people think a great big poke is coming soon. I hope not, because I'm a modern feeble thing myself and don't want my cozy little bubble to be popped.

At first I thought I was rambling again, hugely rambling, but now it feels like somehow or other I've gotten to the place I needed to be, because after three long incoherent posts on this subject I've finally managed to stumble upon the core premise with which I should have begun.

At times it is -- depending on my mood -- my suspicion, belief, or even intuition (or perhaps just varying degrees of wishful thinking) that early person was tapped into the raw existential truth of life on this planet in a way that we cannot begin to conceive. I believe early person, while he almost certainly lacked the capacity to explain it or reason it out, had a much deeper awareness of how humanity and the rest of the planet interact with each other. Without understanding the details of their arguments, I tend to side with those who speculate that the evolutionary advantages in the development of the human brain involved more than just the ability to invent tools and language. I believe the human consciousness may hold, or may once have held, gifts and powers that millennia ago were chained up in a chest and shoved under a pile of junk in the attic. Perhaps the contents of the chest moldered away long ago and it is not possible now for us to recover anything more than the empty chest, or at most a lingering whisper of the fragrance of whatever was in the chest.

It is my suspicion (some of the time) that early man did not invent gods and spirits out of whole cloth, but that he was describing and reacting to something that really was there for him, something that he could perceive as solidly as the herbs, the deer, and the rain. I suspect (some of the time) that all of the mess, nonsense, and fraud that man has been heaping up in his religions since long before the reign of Akhenaten originates not from further elaborations on a fanciful conceit of the cavemen, but from a loss of understanding and involvement with the entities or energies that glided around caves and groves but were either shut out from or chose not to enter irrigation ditches and the stone halls of palaces.

In short, I am proceeding from the premise that early person developed and perpetuated the concept of sacrifice because something was there to accept the sacrifice.

Now I must pause and regroup. More to come!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hungry Gods, Part II

(This post is a continuation of The Hungry Gods)

First an explanatory note: whenever I speak of gods on this blog, I am usually using the word as shorthand for some kind of numinous (or at least a "not-like-us") presence. I don't pretend to have a clue as to what that presence really may be: supernatural or extradimensional beings, extraterrestrial or cryptoterrestrial visitors, a unifying energy force or cosmic consciousness, an advanced human civilization, a hallucination, or nothing at all.

So many mysteries lie buried in the depths of time. How can anyone determine at this late date how the first stirrings of religion made themselves felt in humankind? In my last post I assumed that the ritual of sacrifice was developed by the earliest people, but this may not be true. Perhaps sacrifice is not conceived until society develops some small system of food surplus, through the pastoral herding of animals or the rudiments of agriculture. Perhaps it isn't conceived until the city priests see a way to extort food and treasure from the nameless masses who aren't known to them and before whom (and behind the swords of the temple guards) they don't feel any guilt about amassing wealth. In any event, once someone hit on the idea, how did it spread? Is it something that each tribe discovered on its own in its own time, or did it travel by word of mouth, or did one of those strange telepathic broadcasts occur similar to which, as I've read, a successful new behavior in one bird seems to be instantly adapted by the rest of its species in the area?

Who can say? I think it is extremely difficult to discover the thought processes of the earliest people. I wonder sometimes how close even the most insightful and rigorous professionals can come. The concept of living as early person did in perfect animal union with nature is completely and utterly alien to our minds. At bottom we are supposed to be the same product -- but perhaps not, for who knows how the parings of natural selection and the influence of bizarre meddlers like toxoplasmosis have messed with the recipe over 200,000 years or more? Perhaps even the last remote stone-age persons discovered over the past century in the jungles of the Amazon or the South Pacific are significantly different from original person. But even if we are identical chemically to him, certainly our psychological and intellectual configuration (at least in everyone who is not an isolated stone-age tribe) must diverge significantly from his by the tens of millennia of cultural accretions and transformations that human beings have made in the way we understand and interact with our environment. Surely the compulsion to eat must be a fundamental human instinct, innate and unchanging regardless of when and where one lives; yet I have to imagine that the brain of a cave painter or a Bushman or a Pottawatomie, who deep down in the core of his being never knows where his next meal is going to come from if it comes from anywhere at all, interfaces with his instinct in a profoundly different way from those of us here in the illustrious and enlightened West who deep down in the core of our being cannot conceive of our next meal not being a 5-minute drive from the supermarket or the Burger King.

But as usual I am rambling everywhere except where I meant to go. Whoever is responsible for evolving the idea, the original intent seems clear: sacrifice must have been conceived originally as some kind of payment, compensation, consideration, or the like, to a mystical power who could not be compelled in hopes that the power would be persuaded to do or not do something; just as in our own time struggling shopkeepers pay protection money to strongarm men, or 90% of a sheepflock is sheared to the bone in winter to support the 10% who own 90% of the pen and control the wolves. I make these comparisons because the usual assumption, at least among us laypeople, is that early person, with his unenlightened childlike booga-booga mind, must have feared the inscrutable, ineluctable, arbitrary power of the gods he imagined infesting the world around him. But this may not be so.

I admit I don't know much about "primitive" person, but from the little I have picked up the suggestion is that cultures who are much more attuned to the natural world, like pagan barbarians or 17th century American Indians, feel rather less surprise and dismay over nature's harsh surprises and realities than do people who have started to move themselves out of nature. Also I have read numerous commentaries from antique whites who interacted with the unconquered peoples of the Americas or the Polynesias and were amazed at the equanimity shown by the darker people in the face of death. Not that the native people wanted to die, but they did not feel the irrational terror of it that civilized folks do. So I think it is possible that perhaps early person was perhaps less frightened, or at least more accepting, of the powers of the gods than we may give him credit for.

Perhaps too the first gods were not lords of terror and destruction blazing down off the mountain the way they do now to massacre everyone they can get their hands on, but helpful little approachable gods who didn't try to pass themselves off as omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent but who could be counted on to help you out to the best of their ability; the same kind of gods whose echo is heard in the spirits of the ancestors, in the lares and penates of the Romans, and in Catholic saints.

In fact now that I am on the subject I recall reading once (probably in a long-discredited work by an anthropologist who himself has long since been gathered to the bosom of his fathers) that the earliest numinous presences to whom humans paid homage were not gods but the spirits of ancestors. And now it becomes clear to me. Probably my earlier assumption is wrong. In the beginning sacrifice was probably not conceived as a bribe, but as an act of love and duty, in the same way that (as one example) modern Mexicans, still honoring the ancient traditions of the Mesoamerican Indians, bring food and gifts to the cemeteries on the Day of the Dead.

Certainly, by far the majority of sacrifices that I've come across in my reading took the form of food. In part this could be because at the lower stages of human development food was about the only commodity available to give. But probably I'm trying to think too much, and that never works out well. At bottom it's probably no more complicated than the simple recognition that the numinous, like babies or old folks or pets or flocks, needed to be fed.

So what do the gods like to eat? If they're cooking for themselves, says Homer, Ambrosia and Nectar. But humans can't make that, so when humans do the job the gods have to be content with human food. Occasionally the old books mention libations of wine, milk and honey, beer perhaps; occasionally they mention shewbread, grain-offerings, cakes. Personally I would be the wine and cake kind of goddess myself. But far and away, when the gods gather to feast at the table of man, they are going to be dining on meat. Over and over and over again the folks in the Mediterranean world (which I base my thinking on because I am most familiar with it, though I realize people elsewhere may have done things completely differently) go on record as offering up bulls, heifers, calves, rams, ewes, lambs, kids, doves, and so on, to satisfy the hunger of the gods. Sometimes parts of the animal are burnt and the gods are believed to feed on the savor of the smoke; sometimes the blood is spilled onto an altar or allowed to soak into the ground and the gods are believed to absorb that. I've read some commentary that the difference depends on whether the presence inhabits the sky or the underworld, but if memory serves the accounts themselves are not consistent: sometimes YHWH gets smoke, sometimes blood; and the same is true for Zeus or Apollo. I could be remembering wrong, or maybe the difference has to do with the ritual in question, or maybe I'm just not understanding it right.

Sometimes (depending on the ritual) humans are permitted to share the meal, sometimes not. But the god is always getting fed.

In the biblical story of Cain and Abel the point is explicitly made that grain offerings just don't cut it. YHWH, apparently, prefers to be a carnivore (which is perhaps not surprising, considering his Old Testament behavior). I see no reason to argue against those who say this story symbolizes, or mythologizes, a conflict between agrarian and pastoral peoples; it rings true to me that it does. But at the same time, everything is so layered that I am not sure it is right to discard a more literal interpretation. I admit I am making assumptions for which I have no good grounds, but my assumption is that, usually, a myth or symbol, rather than being invented out of thin air, attaches itself in the human subconscious to an actual object or event, though of course in the telling the original object or event may become exaggerated or distorted; and so, because of this assumption, I proceed on the idea that this mythologized account of farmers and herders at odds is affixed to the memory of an actual incident in which a farmer killed a nomad, or one brother killed another in a fit of passion, or (since I can believe almost anything) a god evinced some sign of reacting better to a bloody banquet than to a vegetarian buffet.

I suppose the life force of an animal is judged (at least in the consciousness of us fellow animals) to be more potent than the life force of a plant, and thus more invigorating for the god; and that is why animals are deemed to be a more effective offering. If plants perceptibly screamed and writhed when they were cut, perhaps there would have been no difference in the olden time between offering the gods a salad or a steak.

I was going to suggest that maybe meat was harder to get or more expensive than grain or drink, or perhaps people liked it better, so it was preferred because the ritual allowed the celebrants to have a justification for eating it; but the fact that in some rituals the celebrants were not to touch the meat weakens this idea.

Suffice it to say that the gods must eat, and we humans must feed them.

We humans must feed them.

Something literal and horrifying emerges from these words. Listen closely: do you catch that little whisper? It is the whisper of a darker truth -- the echo, centuries old, of the shrieks that once pealed from Tenochtitlan's bloody heights and the abominable vale of Ben-Hinnom.

More to follow, I hope.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Hungry Gods

The other day I was listening to Todd Sheet's Nightwatch podcast. The guest, author Chris Ebert, was talking about Voodoo; early in the conversation he mentioned that an associate of his was a Voodoo priestess, and that she was also a member of PETA and didn't sacrifice animals. The first thought that sprang into my head (since I am completely ignorant of Voodoo, along with just about everything else) was, how could her rituals possibly be effective without a sacrifice to propitiate or otherwise engage the services of the powers? I know that asking that question shows I am relying on a number of assumptions -- all of which are probably wrong -- but, to rework the aphorism of the old duke, one of those incompetent toy soldier aristocrats whose fumblings in realpolitik ruined his king, bankrupted the nation, and butchered oppressed and impoverished peasantry by the hundreds of thousands, you think things out with the brain you have, not with the brain you wish you had.

Mr. Ebert went on to say that the decline in animal sacrifice is general, and that many Voodoo practitioners nowadays will ask for a sacrifice not of animals, but of money; not necessarily as a payment for their services (though that may be partially the case), but for you to prove to yourself, to the priest(ess), and to the spirit power that you are serious about your request: for in the 21st century, what is rarer and more precious to most of us than money or time? This was a novel thought to me, one that I'd never considered, but it rings true: If I had a goat or a pig it would be a considerable inconvenience to me and I'd be glad to get rid of it; but when I'm forced to give up an hour of drinking or vegetating time, that hurts!

But the reason for this post is not to talk about Voodoo, but to muse a little over the idea of sacrifice. I know others must have gone as far toward finding answers as it is possible to go: scholars, anthropologists, students of religion and who-not must have devoted countless hours of time and thought to investigating the origin and purpose of sacrifice in religion; if I really wanted to inform myself on this issue I could read them. But I did not come here to be informed, but only to talk things out to myself in an effort to provide some therapeutic stimulus to my too-long atrophied mind.

Looking at it from a purely rational standpoint, I suppose the argument goes something like this: early humans, with their childlike outlook on the world, couldn't understand scary and destructive natural forces like storms, floods, earthquakes, lions, and so forth, so as a coping mechanism they anthropomorphosized them, thinking of them as sentient beings who acted from some sort of motive and who could perhaps be reasoned or bargained with. I remember reading a dramatization of this idea in the caveman chapter of James Michener's The Source, in which the cavewoman who had discovered the rudiments of agriculture was faced with a flood sweeping toward her wheat field; she started grabbing up handfuls of wheat and tossing them into the water, screaming out that if they gave the flood some of their food maybe it would be satisfied and leave the rest alone.

As the millennia roll on civilization matures and primeval magical thinking develops into organized religion. We've all heard the saying that man makes the gods in his own image. The savage forces that bedeviled the children of nature give way to kingly superheroes dwelling in thronerooms in the sky, their power descending earthward unto man just as edicts and officials descend upon the populace from the palace in the city. The idea of sacrifice is retained: the gods must still be placated, just as taxes must be sent to the city treasury -- withhold either and mighty beings become discontented with you. Then too, the priests themselves must heavily encourage it; after all, there's no sense letting all that good mutton go to waste after the thighbones have been burnt, and the offerings of gold and silver have to be looked after by someone. What a sweet thought for a priest to discover that his own well-being and richness shows honor to the god!

But it's not just childish thinking and greed. As the levying of a cash fee in Voodoo suggests, sacrifice triggers the magical thinking gene to provide psychological stimulation: by offering up something so precious you are conditioning yourself to believe that weighty matters are at stake and that big mojo is being invoked on your behalf; you will then be more likely to accept your situation and keep on keeping on in this cruel hard world whatever the deity decides. Of course you'll get a big boost if your prayers are answered; but even if they're not, despite your disappointment you'll still believe at bottom that everything is fundamentally okay: the power is still there, it can still be invoked for you, it's just that it didn't happen to pan out this particular time.

On the surface this rationalist explanation, which I'm sure I've simplified to the point of absurdity -- and probably gotten wrong from the beginning, since my smattering of anthropological reading dates from books written during the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) and it seems like much of the theory from those days has since been discredited or superseded -- on the surface this rationalist explanation makes a lot of sense, and I don't think any honest person can deny that it has to be pretty close to the truth -- on the surface. But at the same time I think that on questions like this rationalists are content with scratching the surface and behaving as if the gouge they've made constitutes the entire answer. Of course you can't blame them: as far as they're concerned the question really is solved, because the surface is all that there is. There are no gods, no magic, no mystic forces. Religious experience is an empty skin of paint with nothing underneath.

Perhaps it is. Probably it is. Yet I wonder (because I have the mind of a greedy child who needs security) if the nothing-to-see-here explanation doesn't rely on some unfounded assumptions.

Throughout history examples may be found of individual disbelief or crises of faith. In civilized societies, with large numbers of unconnected citizens and an entrenched religion, these individual experiences don't have the power to overturn the entire system of belief. But in the tiny confines of an ice-age nomad tribe, in which everyone knows everybody else and authority is honorary and ceremonial rather than a function of sociopathy and armed might, does the day never come when someone realizes that no matter how much wheat you throw into the flood, the grain still gets swept away? Or that no matter how many times you dance for rain or deer that the rain and deer don't come? Or that no matter what kind of hoodoo convolutions your shaman works up, the person who dies remains dead? Does the day never come when the great original atheist hero doesn't arise and gather all his friends and relatives around the campfire and grunt out, "Listen, I've been doing some thinking about things and all this magic we've been pouring our time into just isn't getting the job done?" and somebody else grunts back, "you know, now that you mention it...."

Is it reasonable to assume that these early people who had to be so perfectly attuned and observant of the natural world in every other way would turn into blind chuckleheads who kept throwing precious food away with no return on their investment? It seems to me, contrary to what smart people are looking for in this brouhaha about the proposed God Gene, that the natural world most definitely does not reward baseless magical thinking, no matter how fervently you believe in it. Once you get into cities you have some cushion, perhaps. You have farmers and silos. You have some amount of surplus. Perhaps you can afford to get a little screwy in your notions about what goes on in the sky. But can you afford it on the glaciers of Beringia?

There is more I want to say -- in fact I haven't even gotten to what I wanted to talk about when I started -- but this post is long enough for now. More to follow, if I don't get distracted.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Weird House, Post 1

I've gone back and forth in my mind as to whether I should bring this up at all.

From one angle I suppose it doesn't really matter; most people who care enough about the paranormal to spend time hashing it out on blogs probably have already joined one of two predetermined camps: either they refuse to admit its existence at all (in which case everything I say will be ridiculous) or they wholeheartedly believe in it (in which case stories like mine will seem perfectly commonplace). In any event, it's certainly not like anyone is beating a frenzied path up the mountain to base their viewpoint on the latest oracle from the Staggering Priestess.

At the same time, though, I think that for any of us -- even for superficial dabblers like your hostess -- who believe that the paranormal is a legitimate field of inquiry that deserves to be taken seriously, more is at stake than simply the issue of whether we're preaching to the choir or proselytizing amongst the damned.

Between the two armed camps of no-there-isn't and yes-there-is lies the great mass of society at large: the undecided, the open-minded, the (gods, I feel my IQ dropping to the level of a network news anchor, and with my mangled brain that's saying something) swing voters, whose "hearts and minds" (another IQ drop) are still in play and whom we on our side should be fighting to win over: not so that we can take a vote on the validity of the paranormal, and not to deprive the no-there-isn't people of their civil rights or force them to start wearing yellow question marks or anything like that, but to bring public consensus over to the idea that paranormal occurrences are not just a bunch of hoo-ha kookery, misidentification, and lies but valid phenomena produced by something that can be investigated and for which, hopefully, some explanation can eventually be found.

If the subject is respectable, investigation opens itself to many more serious people whose training and expertise might be of great value but who at present won't go within ten miles of the paranormal because it is fatal to reputations. And not just in laboratories and academic cloisters.

Of the people I know, most do believe in at least one aspect of the paranormal: religious experience, ghosts, UFOs, cryptozoology, or something. Most of us have no problem with the idea of the paranormal at all. But once we enter the circle of public consensus we all become skeptics; we all toe the line. Regardless of what we may privately believe, if someone in a public environment starts talking about seeing a ghost in the attic or strange lights over the expressway or a hairy giant on a camping trip, our group reaction tends not toward "wow, that's intriguing, tell us more!" but "uh-huh, okayyyyyyy...." because we are conditioned to react as if anyone who publicly confesses to a paranormal experience has a little screw loose.

Of course I am not the first to make these observations (I admit openly that nothing on this blog is original, I am not that deep a thinker). Many have commented before on the way our great national brainwashing machine deals with paranormal subjects. But, as usual, I have wandered far, far away from the subject of the post. When I started I just meant to say that I am hesitant to talk about my own experiences because, while I know my efforts can't aim very high, I still feel an obligation for the sake of the field at large (oh so pretentious!) to treat the subjects discussed here sincerely and do them as much justice as I can; and I feel I can't do that properly, or at least not as well, if I present myself as an experiencer. And yet, I should question that assumption. But that's a subject for another time.

So here is the experience I was going to share. If you're expecting a good story I warn you: it's uninteresting and utterly banal. The main reason I bother to tell it at all is so that I can start documenting these occurrences, because this is not the first time something like this has happened. I wish I'd had the idea back when it started, because by this time my memory has jumbled the earlier events into one big slush. But there's no use crying about that now. Maybe later I can work on summarizing them. But enough yapping.

It happened on the morning of Tuesday, May 27. My husband had returned the afternoon before after being away for the Memorial Day weekend. I mention this only because it's the one out-of-the-ordinary detail I can recall. Maybe his absence for a few days had something to do with it. Anyway, over the weekend while he was away I noticed that he had left a bottle of Windex on the kitchen counter by the coffee pot, so I put the bottle on top of the refrigerator, cramming it in among all the other junk he's stashed up there over the years. I distinctly remember doing this.

Apparently he wanted to use that bottle of Windex on Monday night, couldn't find it, and was going around the house looking for it and asking what had happened to it. He told me this the next morning; I was sealed up back here working on something and didn't see or hear him, so he never managed to find the bottle and couldn't finish whatever he'd wanted it for.

On Tuesday morning he came into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and yelled "where did this come from?" I asked what he was talking about and he gestured at the Windex bottle, sitting on the counter by the coffee pot again. I'd made the coffee earlier that morning and while I couldn't recall if the bottle had been there I certainly knew that I hadn't put it there.

This is not the first time an object has appeared to relocate itself. About a year ago my husband's primary set of car keys went missing only to turn up a week later in a basket in the back of the pantry. I vaguely seem to remember one or two cases of things disappearing never to be found again, but my memory is too foggy that far back for me to be sure. There have been other instances of items seeming to disappear and reappear within a few minutes, but these, I suspect, are due to us being hasty and just not seeing something that is lying in plain sight.

I know, drunks are proverbially unreliable witnesses. I still have enough functioning gray matter left to be sure of what I did and did not do with that Windex bottle.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Are Answers To Be Had?

Now that I've purged my system of the question (still unsolved, but I don't feel like beating my head against the wall over it any more) of whether there exists a curse on zero year presidents, I'd like to spend a little time stumbling over what I'd originally intended to talk about before the willful Muse carjacked my rusty little Ford Pinto of a mind and drove it into a tree: what the mechanism underlying such a curse might be.

For the purposes of this reflection I am assuming that the curse does exist; although "curse" isn't really the right word. Curses convey the idea of a spell of misfortune deliberately brought down on someone by another human, like a witch doctor, the priests of Amon, a wizard, or a pissed-off Mediterranean woman or something. I guess some people might say curses can be leveled by a god or demon, but that doesn't seem quite right to me; there must be a stronger word for the kind of magic such supernatural beings can excercise, but if so it slipped through a hole here and I am too lazy at present to get the Thesaurus. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say, then, that I'm assuming some process other than mere chance is at work.

Not that I'm deluding myself that I'll find any answers. I know I won't. I'm not sure it's even possible to find answers, since a whole lot of people, many of them brilliant even if they were magical thinkers, have been working on questions like this for thousands of years and have yet to find a definitive answer to any of them. Can you imagine the countless hours of contemplation and debate that have been spent trying to figure out the gods since the first troglodyte sensed something unseen moving in the swamp or the dark of the cave? Yet to this day we have little more than disparate and contradictory scraps of perception, that, because they are fragmentary and unconnected and self-negating, are probably as worthless to the understanding as the various conceptions of the elephant worked up by the gropey blind men in the famous fable.

Perhaps trying to find answers is part of the problem. Perhaps it hinders us because it makes us concentrate too much on looking for something that is beyond the reach of our sight. On these subjects perhaps modern humankind, despite the advances we have otherwise made in science and technology, are no more sophisticated than the ancient Epicureans who had to explain the nature of the universe from a few wisps of observation and their own imaginations. Amazingly, with these humble blocks they succesfully constructed the general principle of the existence of atoms, although the world had to wait 2200 years to develop the measuring devices to prove it. When they tried to go beyond general principles to reason out the details, however, they fell into error because they had no means to test their hypotheses.

It might be that the general principles are all that are within our grasp, and the details will elude us no matter how hard we try to pierce them out. Never let this discourage you from the attempt, though, if that's the goal you've set for yourself -- all breakthroughs and advances are made by someone at some point, and you may be the Copernican or Newtonian giant on whose shoulders later pygmies will stand! But my own limitations are such that I can't dive deeply: I have to stick to shallow waters or I'll drown. Over the next few posts I'll be doing my puddle splashing on the possible mechanisms behind the 'presidential curse'.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Presidents and Patterns

I know Big Cosmo better than you do. Yeah, people are always bitchin' about him rolling too many sevens. Usually after he cleans their clock. Ha, ha, ha. But he's just lucky. Not that there is such a thing as luck, if you listen to them Vegas eggheads. It's all just dumb chance. Ha, ha, ha.-- overheard at the Domino Bar and Grille

When I was little my mother, who as a high school student had been traumatized by the murder of President Kennedy and as early as I can remember worked on transmitting the momentousness of that event to my tiny mind, opened my first window on the genuine weirdness of the world, by which I mean the weirdness that happens in real life rather than in books and movies (which even as a child I vaguely understood somehow not to be the real world, even though I thought the actors were tiny people inside the TV screen and was scared to death by the "money shots" in the old Hammer horror films that seemed so often to be showing at our house long before the creation of DVDs, Blockbuster, or even TV remote controls).

But I'd better find the thread again before I become mired in sorrowful contemplation of my age. Sometimes when weaving her recollections of that shattering day in Dallas my mother would mention a strange little quirk of American presidential history variously known as "The Presidents' (or The Presidential) Curse", "The Curse of the Zero Year", or (since in America nothing even remotely unusual can be permitted to occur without some country-fried raconteur dragging in dime-novel Native American hoodoo), "Tecumseh's Curse": the fact that U.S. presidents elected in years ending in zero (like 1840) do not finish their terms but die in office.

This "curse" hasn't afflicted every eligible president since the founding of the Republic in 1788, but it has hit more often than it's missed. As of this writing (2008) it will take another 52 years for the number of survivors to balance out the victims -- assuming, of course, that everyone from George W. Bush onward makes it out alive (and assuming that 52 years from now U.S. presidents are still being elected). I'd put the roster here for your convenience but I can't get the table to format right, so here's a nice concise summary from Wikipedia.

Of 11 eligible presidents, 7 have been stricken, all during the 120 year period from 1840 to 1960. Some people try to milk the phenomenon for maximum effect by including Reagan as number 8 on the grounds that he was nearly killed and if he'd been shot before contemporary medical advances he would have died, or that the wound accelerated his Alzheimer's disease and left him effectively brain dead before the expiration of his term. I suppose you could (very tenuously) shoehorn John Quincy Adams in as well, since after leaving the presidency he pulled the unique stunt among presidents of going back into the minor league of the House of Representatives and did die in that office, died in the Capitol Building in fact. If Bush II finishes out his term, as I suspect he will, one could point out that he was not technically elected in 2000. So by Enronning the numbers in this way you could say that the curse has stricken 9 out of 10 eligible presidents, with the tarnished sage of Monticello being the only one to escape; but given the circumstances of Jefferson's death when it finally did come, perhaps in him the mystical workings of the universe had other fish to fry.

Personally I think the curse, if there is one, has run its course, but that's for another post.

When I was younger and had not yet started busting holes in the wallboard of my brain I used to believe very strongly in this baleful spell on the presidents, because it is so obvious! Not even the most jihadist skeptic can deny that all seven of the stricken presidents were elected in zero years and that every one of them died in office, one after the other, like a row of dominoes. On that bet even the Amazing Randi would lose his million dollar shirt. Proof positive, Punkin!!!

But of course no one questions the fact that it happened, but only whether there's any mystical import in it happening. A number of smart people who don't believe in mystical import, but who haven't had the opportunity to prove it by popping the back off the cosmos and examining the clockwork, use probabilities or the law of averages or whatever you call it to support their belief that there is nothing to see in the string of White House fatalities. Naturally the arguments vary in skill, cogency, and thoroughness depending on the author, but they all boil down, if I understand them correctly, to this idea: statistically it isn't very remarkable for presidents to die in office, particularly in the medically unsophisticated past, and so there is no curse, pattern, or any other organized process at work. The facts that all of the deaths but one affected zero-year presidents, and that 31 of the 32 non-zero year presidents did not die in office, are an interesting curiosity but a meaningless coincidence.

I can't effectively argue against this because I have no skill in math and no training in statistics. I'm not even sure I want to argue against it because I'm not sure it's wrong. I used to believe very strongly in the curse, but I don't so much any more; at least I don't feel so passionate that it proves anything. But it has always seemed to me -- and I admit quite openly that I have a damaged brain which is configured to think magically and struggles against any other mode of thought -- that the authors of the mathematical analyses devised to explain these things away, however exhaustive they may be, in the end always fail to pierce to the heart of the matter: their entire solution lies in calculating the odds; that done, they see no significance when the outcome keeps skewing one way. Gamblers may find it meaningful when the same numbers come up over and over again, but statistical analysis doesn't.

But what if the universe is playing with loaded dice? Of course rational people discard that idea at once, but to my goblin-infested mind it's as likely as the alternative, and so I can't help feeling that maybe the skewing is the most important part of all because it might hint at a concealed truth or underlying mechanism that casual observation does not perceive: a wax-filled hole, shaved edges, an ace up the sleeve. The preliminary number-crunching of the statisticians is trivia, or perhaps a smokescreen.

So the smokescreen whispers that no meaning lies in the fact that between 1840 and 1960 every one of the seven presidents elected in a zero year died in office, while of the twenty other presidents serving during that same period only one died. It's just the luck of the draw, and if somehow the clock were turned back and the period were run through again maybe McKinley and Garfield would live and Buchanan, Cleveland, and Coolidge would die. I understand the reasoning in this (at least I think I do), but I can't accept it. I literally experience (or at least used to experience, when I was younger and took these things more seriously) a physical aversion to the idea that this is random chance. I suppose it's the God Gene at work, warning my inner cavewoman to flee to the safety of Woowooland.

My big stumbling block, the obstacle I cannot get over, is the fact that, however else the history of the presidents might conceivably have played out, it didn't play out in any of those other ways but in this way. Maybe Harrison could have lived, but he didn't. Maybe Lincoln could have lived, but he didn't. Any of the other zero year presidents could have lived, but none of them did, and given these mortality rates the survival of the other twenty (minus poor Rough 'n Ready) stands out even more sharply. To me the statistics demonstrably have it wrong: it is not particularly common for presidents to die in office; obviously most of them don't do it! unless they are elected in a zero year.

Of course my brain resembles a sodden swiss cheese, and even simple thoughts are sometimes a struggle for me, but it genuinely appears to me that the 'reality-based' argument is fantastic, in the old sense of being an imaginative flight of fancy unconstrained by reality. To my mind my view is the stronger because it is based on the evidence, on reality, on what actually happened. When the rationalist argument speaks I hear it telling me to pay no attention to the elephant in the middle of the room; I hear it telling me that woulda-coulda-shoulda is more substantial than reality; I hear it telling me to forget what actually happened because what really matters is what theoretically might have happened! The rationalist argument, however perfect it may objectively be, seems to me to be counterintuitive, topsy turvy, and just plain wrong.

The rational argument would, if I understand it right, counter with the assertion that my view is wrong because the reality I think I see isn't really there. The human mind is designed by nature to impose order on chaos, to see patterns where they don't exist. The fact that all of the presidents who have died have been elected in zero years is just a fluke.

But what is order? What is chaos? What constitutes a pattern? Nature is full of order and patterns and symmetries imposed by some primordial mechanism, from the formation of ice crystals or the number of seeds in a sunflower to the periods of the tides and the movement of the heavens. No one questions this so long as it merely affects atoms, rocks, plants, waves, galaxies and things like that. But when it becomes a question of human history arranging itself in patterns, or of some cosmic clockwork ordering the movement of individual free will, the orderly, patterned universe suddenly gets hit on the head and becomes random and chaotic.

I have to concede the possibility that my mind is imposing a pattern on something that has no pattern, but it seems to me that the converse has an equal chance of being true: that it is possible for one to deny the existence of a pattern that is actually there, either because one wishes not to see it, or, more likely -- are there evolutionary misfits with a Spock Gene? -- because one's brain simply is not configured to see it, just as a colorblind eye stares at the green petri dish on the test card and cannot see the little pink squiggles in it. You can scream at me all you want that you and your buddies aren't really colorblind and that I'm stupid, simplistic, and crazy, but it's not going to convince me. I'm not convinced that I'm right either. I used to feel certain, but now I just feel confused.

How do you find the tiger in the forest when half of your hunters are hallucinating and the other half are colorblind?

Friday, May 2, 2008


Goddess, I invoke thee with this cup of wine. The liquid I consume; the finer savor of the fragrance is fit sustenance for thy ethereal palate. Draw thou near, sit beside me, and guide my clumsy hands as they fumble o'er this square of cheap plastic junk, mass-produced by the helots of far Cathay. Goddess, sing!

Readers of old-timey books will recognize the above nonsense as an attempt at an obsolete literary device known as the Invocation of the Muse, developed (or at least popularized) by the ancient Greeks and later clubbed to death by the scribblers and poetasters of the literary dark age of the 18th Century. By raising its long-forgotten corpse here do I mean to suggest that I believe in the existence of an external spirit of creative power that can be tempted to emerge from wherever it normally hangs out to interact with humankind? No. And yet, I do. Kind of. At least I believe it's possible that such a thing can happen. But this is to be expected of a feeble mind like mine, because I am a terribly gullible person and I believe in all sorts of absurd trash.

I've never been able to discover why. I'd like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person, but I'm probably not particularly gifted that way, and the pool of destructive chemicals in which I've been steeping my brain for longer than I care to admit hasn't improved matters much. At any rate I have enough exposure to the Weekly Reader version of the scientific method to understand why smart people dismiss all manner of religious experience as magical thinking (when they condescend to be polite), and to concede that they're probably right. But I can't help it.

Some smart people now, trying to find a reality-based explanation for why folks who otherwise seem to be reasonably intelligent persist, right down to our present illuminated age of depleted uranium and GMOs, in believing in demonstrably false delusions like Muses and other such sky fairies, have found the answer in the thaumaturgical toybox of genetics. Magical thinking, they propose, is hard-wired into the brain. It's an evolutionary advantage: in the dangerous hardscrabble world of the Pleistocene, religious-minded troglodytes who believed that a benevolent sky fairy was looking out for them would be more likely to survive than analytical trogs who coolly evaluated any given situation and crafted their response on the facts.

So magical thinking is a process of natural selection, like huge hips you can shove a melon-headed little hominid through or a body that effortlessly packs on adipose reserves for the lean times, and as usual I appear to be a marvel of design. Two million years of survival development have honed my brain to reach out to every ancestor, tree spirit and idol floating between Olduvai and the Fertile Crescent. You can't fight Mother Nature. Why try? I've believed in probably just about every crackpot fantasy or bugaboo on record at one time or another, and although alcohol and the stress of living have mostly deadened the facility now, still at times I continue to believe, or, I admit, to want to believe, that something (I no longer feel I hold any clues as to what precisely) exists beyond the bounds of known reality. I don't know if that thing is sentient. I don't know if humans can explain or interact with it beyond merely perceiving its presence. In fact I don't even know that it is a single entity; perhaps there are many; perhaps the numbers are countless, and each one is a different type.

But the Muse is growing thirsty. Or perhaps I am. If anyone ever reads this, I suppose they're going to be thinking: you invoked a Muse, and all you got was this??? But remember, she's been vegetating for centuries before you were born, without even a Lord Hervey to train on, and the tool she's been called out of retirement to handle is, alas, none of the finest. Who wouldn't feel a little challenged?

I thank thee, Goddess, for thy aid. Let us share another cup of wine, and then I shall release thee to the happier realm of St. Brigid and ibis-headed Thoth.