December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Author: Brian Vandenberg (page 1 of 3)

Songs From The Crib

Долпхин

What in the world is this?

If you have recognized that this might be a word written in a foreign language, you have made a huge cognitive leap; recognizing that bizarre shapes can stand for letters that, in turn, stand for sounds that, when combined, can create the sound of a word that, when spoken, has a shared meaning with others.1 We forget just how strange, magical and shocking written language is. Or how difficult to learn.

Literacy is not natural, does not come unbidden like spoken language; it is a cultural invention, not a biological imperative. It is a tool, not unlike the wheel, that aids mental rather than manual labor. Like all tools, it extends human action in ways that take us beyond our biological capacities. It becomes an extension of ourselves, deeply altering ourselves and our community.

Literacy is the key for entry into the hallways of our highly complex, highly technological culture. It requires many, many years of hard labor, sitting in a chair, stationary, in deep concentration for hours at a time—another unnatural imposition on a body that is biologically primed for movement, action and activity, especially so during the critical years for gaining the foundations of literacy; from 4 to 10 years of age. We frequently overlook this topsy-turvy upending of biology, as school has replaced the natural world as the environment requiring adaptive responses; survival in today’s world means survival in an environment scribed in print.

The reach of literacy in our lives is so pervasive and profound that to be illiterate is to be bereft of significance; to be consigned to a life of ridicule, hardship and a dead-end future. Publish or perish, describes life in academia, where failure to have an authorial presence in the scholarly community is to cease to exist as a meaningful entity within that community. This phrase can be altered to Read or die, to encompass the significance of literacy in the broader culture.

Oral and Literate Cultures

One of the consequences of literacy, and the intense, prolonged training it requires, is that music and dance have been relegated to extracurricular, after school activities. The placement of these activities embodies the transformation from oral to literate cultures. The segment occupied by literacy in the long arc of human history is quite brief. The first written language appeared only 5500 years ago, and of the 3000 languages that have been identified, 78 have had writing.2

Unlike literate cultures, music and dance are the foundational axis of life in oral cultures—the predominate form of culture for most of human history. Lacking writing, these cultures use song and dance to remember, recount, recreate history, and preserve tradition; to celebrate important ceremonial events, evoke the presence of gods and spirits, conduct rites of passage, and enact rituals of religious significance. Music and dance are the repository of culture, which is inscribed, not in a book, but in the body.

The environment of literate culture overlooks the primal power of music and dance in human life, and can lead to the conclusion that these are “after school” activities; auxiliary endeavors, with little importance or evolutionary significance. Indeed, this is the conclusion of some noted cognitive neuroscientists.3 But music and dance make their appearance, developmentally, long before school starts, providing essential scaffolding for the emergence of speech, language and the attainment of literacy.

Songs From the Crib

Music and dance begin in the crib. Human neonates are the most helpless beings born into this world and, from the first moments of life, are beholden to others for the most basic needs; to be fed, clothed, moved, sheltered, protected and soothed. These urgent needs, requiring immediate care and attention, are expressed in urgent ways that are clear and unambiguous; through vocalizations, bodily movements and gestures.

Neonates are exquisitely perceptually attuned to the presence and response of others. They make remarkable discriminations in human speech sounds (e.g., distinguishing ‘p’ from ‘b’), orient toward the human voice (especially female voices), and can identify the voice of their mothers. Neonates are primed to orient toward the human face, can discriminate and imitate facial features of another, and are capable of expressing recognizable emotions through vocalizations, most notably crying, and through facial and bodily gestures. These abilities are quickly elaborated as infants become capable of nuanced, complex, extended communications.

Attunement is mutual. It should not be surprising that adults of a species are especially sensitive and responsive to the signals and cries of their newborns. Adults, without training or experience, understand the meaning of infant cries, distinguishing hunger cries form cries of pain, and also discriminating cries of healthy infants from those at risk for various developmental difficulties.

Not only are adults attuned to infants expressions, they also sensitively adjust their communications in ways that maximize infants attention and involvement. Adults exaggerate and pace their vocalizations creating rhythmic, periodic, tonally heightened expressions. These exaggerated expressions, called motherese, are non-conscious engagements automatically used by adults and children across cultures. Similarly, exaggerated facial and body expressions serve to heighten the salience of communicated meaning.

The resulting communicative exchanges are ballets of sound, movement, gesture and posture. Infants’ communications, such as a cry or smile, possess their own unique body/sound signature that are distinctive, obvious and unmistakable. And powerful. They compel a response—a response that is distinctive, obvious and unmistakable.4

Music and dance, grounded in our bodies from birth, possess the power to sway, to enchant, to entrance, to overwhelm.5 Oral cultures are the natural outgrowths of these biologically given forms of human communication. Although literate cultures relegate music and dance to “after school” status, we are, to the core, creatures of song and dance.

If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it…6 7

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The Time of Our Life

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    St. Augustine

We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.

Physics of Time

This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.

Psychology of Time

The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time.  Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.

Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of ‘past, present, future’ helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.

Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes and fears, and how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. Change my goals, aspirations and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.

Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process, influenced by attention, expectations and under constant reconstruction and renovation.

Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2

Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing and forging new expectations and anticipations).

The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.

Being and Non-Being

Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a ‘human being’, a noun, but we also are ‘be-ings’, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.

We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    

Songs of Habit Amidst Chaos

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Habit and Time

The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing, riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another, competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual, must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit forestalls chaos.

All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.

Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at Time 2 that was  adaptive at Time 1. The perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines, establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate, wavering, spider-thread of life.

Habits of Differing Time Scales

Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.

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This definition need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically, without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance”. From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits.  What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.

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Culture adds yet another layer of habits. Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January 1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back; school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.

Songs

Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms; the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life, the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances, and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.

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We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly expressed in music:

Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2

An inclusive testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBVkYGLEUpg

Jurassic Skies

Birds. No terrestrial creature is more fantastical, more bizarre, more varied or more beautiful than birds. Birds, trees, gems, fish, coral, butterflies and flowers are the primary sources of color in our world. The list is short, and life on a planet without them would be drab and depressing. Color shocks and, not surprisingly, all of these galvanize a large following of enthusiasts. None are more passionate, or as legion, than birders.

Bird watchers are commonly noted for their fanaticism and often viewed, with some amusement, as oddballs. There is an obsessive, competitive, know-it-all subspecies of this flock that is notable on closer viewing of their collective habits. Most are gentle souls who delight in a “walk-in-the-woods.” What animates them all, at the deepest level, is wonder. Birding is a treasure hunt. A speck in the sky, an almost undetectable sound in the thicket, a camouflaged rustle in the reeds, a hole on a tree—or a cactus!—that flicks with movement, suddenly transformed to a bejeweled presence  when sighted through the lens of a binocular’s magnification. From mundane to miraculous by merely lifting the glasses.  What could be more thrilling?!

It is a measure of the numbing effects of routine and habit that we travel our days largely unaware or uninterested in these creatures in our midst. Language, one of our most precious attributes that joins us together, also anesthetizes. This was dramatically demonstrated to me on a summer visit to a new place, when, surrounded by the novelty of the unfamiliar, I heard a raucous, rowdy, insistent call of a bird. I was able to spy it through binoculars and was stunned by its exotic beauty. From behind, it shaded from an indigo blue at its head through azure, finally ending in almost aquamarine at the tip of its tail. The wing and tail feathers were ridged in black stripes, etched with contrasting splashes of white. A white chest and neck lead to a face with black stripes through the eyes that connected with a ring of black that circled from under the chin across the crown of the head. And, atop the head, a crest. I called to Sharon: “Come, quick, see this!”. She did; she said: “It’s a blue jay.”

Bird Without a Name

For that brief moment, I saw this remarkable being, free from the encumbrances of language, habit and routine. It exposed the power of naming, which domesticates the world, providing us handles  and footholds that allow a measure of perceived control, intimating understanding and thereby assuaging the anxiety, fright, and wonder of being in the world, naked, without a fig leaf.

I have had other disorienting encounters with birds. Rounding a curve in a path, I came face to face, eye to eye, with an owl. Two piercing yellow eyes that peered directly at me; unlike most birds, its eyes are not on the side of its head, but fronted, like human eyes, in a direct, unnerving stare. Human-like consciousness was intimated in this locked-gaze encounter, but a disconcerting difference was signaled in their alien yellow color.1

Great Blue Heron

Then there was seeing a great blue heron in a marsh near the LA airport. This huge bird, 4 feet tall, taking flight, with its long neck leading to a pointed head with fierce war-like coloring and a crest, ending with a dagger-stabbing bill, majestically lifting off on a 6 foot wing span. Suddenly, I saw a dinosaur—a  pterodactyl, in my midst. Dumbstruck, I realized that progeny of creatures from the Jurassic age fill our skies.

Pterodactyl

Birds are everywhere. Hiding in the bush, stealthy stalking in the glade, plunging into the lake, gliding in the updrafts, bobbing in the water, scurrying across the desert, skimming the water’s surface, dodging the in-and-out ocean wash, burrowing in the sand, hunting in the tundra, swooping and diving, darting from flower to flower, marching across ice flows, roosting in the tropical canopy.

Meadowlark

They fill our world with their voices: mourning, crowing, peeping, chirping, quacking, squawking, drumming, hooting, whistling, warbling, cackling, cooing, screeching, “drink-your-tea”2, and larking. Life-music signaling, saying, singing their urgent desires of warning, mating, and “calls of contact”.

Birds can be found day and night, in all seasons, in all locals. Their flight underscores that we are inelegant, lumbering bottom feeders. The wide universe of their shapes, colors, and strangeness are beyond what we are capable of dreaming; they are an alien presence alerting us to this uncanny world that is our home.

Birds “brain” us, club us into the miracle of this moment. They are just outside the window, beaconing…go forth and birdwatch, bird-listen—without words, naked.

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Church and State

Agrarian Legacy

Church and state—inseparable since the beginning of civilization, when Homo Sapiens first developed agriculture, exchanging hunter-gathering for a settled life in large communities. All of the early, great civilizations, from China to Egypt, Inca to Sumer, as well most others, were characterized by a typical organization structure. Peasants, who cultivate the crops, tended the livestock, provide the food for survival and the labor for buildings and projects. Soldiers, who collect taxes and tributes, enforce order, and protect the community from outside attack. Priests and spiritual leaders, who serve as emissaries to the sacred realm of gods and spirits, seeking their favor, divining their intentions, offering sacrifices to appease and please, and performing religious rites and ceremonies. And royalty, who rule with the authority to orchestrate, organize, and command, providing the leadership that enables a large community to cohesively function. Peasant, soldier, priest, and royalty — interlocking pieces, held together by their scared beliefs, rituals and practices.

Agrarian cultures, because they are dependent on the food provided in large, cultivated crops, and dwell in large settlements with people living in close proximity to each other and their domesticated animals, are especially vulnerable to droughts, fires, floods, earthquakes, storms, plagues, crop failure, illness, and disease, as well as attack by nomadic and warring neighbors, any of which can bring dire consequences. This chaotic, turbulent, calamitous cosmos is under the sway of the Gods and spirits. The priestly class, imbued with powers that partake of the divine, are especially important for the survival of the community. Royalty, too, are divinely touched, conferring special powers, potency, and force. Priests and royalty—united by their shared privilege of being agents and messengers of the divine.1

Religious practices and cultural beliefs, everyday life and legal order, church and state, are of a single piece, woven seamlessly into a cultural tapestry. The hierarchical social order—that some humans have higher value, possess special powers and attributes, and should be conferred special positions and privileges as their birthright—is assumed; an obvious consequence of a divinely-given hierarchical cosmic order.

Self Evident Truths

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This famous line in the Declaration of Independence is NOT self-evident, especially at the time of it being penned. Indeed, it is a manifesto of revolution and rebellion, announcing its radical intent for a new order. And in this new order, each individual, not just special privileged classes, is divinely consecrated. Hierarchy and the privilege of rank are tossed overboard, replaced by equality and unalienable individual rights.2

The rending of Church from State was an especially important outcome of the Revolution in a new country composed of immigrants of various religious sects, many fleeing persecution for their beliefs. This separation is historic, and essential to establishing a new order based on secular, civil authority and laws.

Profits and Rebellion

In 1776, the same moment as the Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary book was published: The Wealth of Nations. This is no coincidence. The Industrial Revolution was creating upheavals in every corner of British culture. The Wealth of Nations, the first systematic treatise addressing economic philosophy and practices in a market economy, provided guidance to prosperity in this bewildering time. It is still oft cited, chapter and verse, as if Biblical scripture, to justify and support contemporary economic policies.

America, and its Revolution, is a child from the loins of this new economic order; money, business, and profit shape our origins, our Revolution, our laws, our culture, our selves. The founding of New York City, the heart of the American colonies, and a place of primary influence to this day, bespeaks this history. Originally settled as New Amsterdam by the Dutch, it was not founded by the Dutch government, but by the Dutch East India Company.3 New Amsterdam was a corporate trading outpost.  And a very profitable one that passed into the hands of the enterprising British, for whom the entire New World, including the New York, became an engine of imperial wealth.

The American colonists became very British, who, in very British fashion, protested when Parliament pinched their pocketbooks. The American Revolution was ignited by taxes; by injustices perceived by the merchant class, whose income was threatened by the tax levies. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were prominent, wealthy merchants and businessmen, and the Revolution was fueled by Britain’s violation of the rights of the enterprising class to earn the profit they thought their due.4

Entanglements

Church and state were separated after the Revolution. A new entanglement, however, perhaps as invisible to us as the Church-State entanglement was to earlier civilizations, has emerged. Money, business and profit, the DNA of this new order, accelerated post-Revolution. Individual rights, a foundational belief for our democracy, was extended to African Americans by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, it was extended to…corporations!

What kind of twisted logic could render an Amendment for enfranchising former slaves to include conferring rights to a fiction that derives its existence from a legal contract? Answer: A logic that is “reasonable” within the cultural DNA of money, business and profit. It is an analogous “logic” to that which gave coherence to early civilizations, whose foundations were tethered to the divine. The absurdity of our logic is less visible to us because we are less aware of our foundations.

The consequences of our cultural DNA, and its resulting “logic,” are far reaching, pervasive and profound.  Corporations possess freedom of speech and religion, and have the right to refuse goods or services on religious grounds. When they break the law, nobody goes to jail—because there is no body.

Unlimited “dark money” campaign funding by corporate-backed groups now fuel a politics that is unconstrained by libel, lies or scruples. Lobbyists swarm legislators, plying them with milk and honey in exchange for legislative favors; there are 23 lobbyists for every member of congress, spending over $3 billion. Lobbyists are routinely appointed to government posts that oversee the industries they lobbied for (the current administration has appointed 187 former lobbyist to government positions). And, lobbying is the single most popular post-retirement career choice by Congress members. The revolving door spins, and the line between public and private interests fades.

Is bribery a crime if it is called lobbying?
Is extortion criminal if it is called “soliciting campaign contributions”?
Is a government auctioned to the highest bidder corrupt if it is called a democracy?

How easy the transformation from criminal to legal when meanings are reconfigured to align with axiomatic cultural logic. ‘Church and State’ has been replaced by a new, double helix entanglement: Corp. and State.

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Truth and Trust

Compelling memories of something I am sure happened to me—there was little doubt because the recollections were so vivid and detailed—have proven to be wrong. My memories inaccurately conferred a reality to my experience that was false. I know my memory was faulty because others, who were privy to relevant information, informed me I was wrong. The reason for these errors was that, while I may have vividly recalled the particulars of an experience, I failed to remember the context of it; whether somebody told me it, I thought it, or I dreamed it. We can ascertain the veracity of our recollections by consulting independent sources to confirm if, in fact, it really occurred, and if it occurred as we remember it.

It is a bit disconcerting how convincing our sense of truth can be, how real it seems, and how wrong we can be. Trusting our experience, exclusively, can lead us astray. Ascertaining truth requires additional, independent corroboration. Of course, this is not always possible, and of course, we need not doubt every memory. But the possibility of these misattributions alerts us to the need, when circumstances arise, to trust other sources to confirm the reality of a situation.

The relation between truth and trust runs much deeper than the veracity of our personal memories. It is the foundation of virtually everything. Is the earth flat? A surprising number believe that it is, indeed, flat. Why? Because they do not trust the sources of the information that support this truth. They rely on direct, personal experience, which reveals that the earth is obviously flat, as anyone reasonable person who has observed the sunrise or sunset over the straight-edged horizon can attest. 

Why should we believe otherwise? Most of us do so because a large body of scientific knowledge, astute deductions, and many practical activities (i.e., oceanic shipping, air travel, etc.) proves otherwise. We trust other sources of truth outside our own immediate experience. But what if we don’t trust them? After all, most of us are not scientists and would be hard pressed to provide the facts proving the earth “round”. Even if we could, the argument would rely on secondhand information; facts that we, ourselves, have not directly collected but derived from trusted sources.

Is global warming occurring? Doubts arise when the supporting sources for this conclusion, scientific evidence, are challenged or dismissed. Many believe that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by liberal elites. If the sources are not believed, then these doubts are not eliminated by simply providing more facts. If a single individual, with little cultural authority, disbelieves, they may be considered misinformed, misguided, or perhaps, delusional. If disbelief is voiced by someone with cultural authority, like the President, or groups with access to cultural power, like the Koch brothers, Mobile Oil, or Arch Coal, then the source of the facts becomes the focus of dispute and the argument turns, not of facts, but on, “Who do you trust?”. And “Who do you trust?” turns, not on facts, but who we believe will protect us, understands us, shares our values and our moral universe.1 2

When not only critical scientific findings are challenged, but the foundational sources of a culture’s authority, embodied in fundamental institutions—-those governing order and law (Department of Justice and Federal courts), managing our fiscal integrity and security (Federal Reserve and Security and Exchange Commission), protecting our collective security (FBI and CIA), insuring food and water safety (Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency), and providing disaster warning and assistance (National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency)—-then we face a deep, ruinous crisis of faith.3 When these sources are challenged by a leader with the cultural power to hold sway, then the leader can become the oracle of truth and the savior of a nation in tumultuous times.

If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Puzzlement, and condescension, often occurs over how an entire culture, especially a highly educated one like the Germans, can come under the sway of a despot; be swept into in a collective delusional frenzy of madness and violence resulting in an epic, world-wide catastrophe. How can this possibly happen?  We Americans, champions our own exceptionalism, are experiencing how.

Between Sunlight and Darkness

We find ourselves in the place where the life-giving source of all, the sun, appears daily, yet we cannot bear to look at it for more than a few heartbeats; a truth so strong that it blinds. We are also shadowed by the event that will end our existence, forever. Death. There is no escape. It will happen, and could happen, any moment, without warning, looming over us—the promise of no-more.

We carry on as if these elemental, pressing weights do not exist. We live a dream, travel along our everyday paths, oblivious to these existential truths, elevating the mundane to pseudo-cosmic significance. The soporific effects of habit and routine confers regularity, familiarity, and banality to our daily round. We do not do this alone. We are born into the ready-made world of culture that confers established meanings, practices, rituals and rites to stabilize the flux. These group habits, which exist before and beyond any single individual, provide comfort and assurance that our world is mastered, that all can be explained, that there is ground beneath our feet. The rhythmic incantations of habit and culture arrest time, confer predictability, and provide a home in an uncanny universe. Our eyes are diverted from the blinding light of being, and death is forestalled, moved to the cheap seats in the balcony, while we play-out our predictable days. And this must be so, for to be alive to the truth of existence with every tic-tock would be a frenzied, paralyzing, madness.

But our burden, and our gift, is that we can be aware of our plight. We grasp the fundamental truths of our existence in a primordial way: fright, anxiety, angst, as well as wonderment, awe and bewilderment. These are the wellsprings that urge us, compel us to find our way between sunshine and darkness. Bestowed with consciousness, we are creatures of the in-between. It is terrifying and thrilling. Our challenge: to avoid being pulled beneath the waves by the under-toe of habit; keeping our heads above the surface so that we may sing our song, reveling in finding ourselves here, now, alive in the jaws and splendor of life.

Haiku Potpourri

summersaults, baseball, balloons
gravity
at play

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in sleep
she mumbles
my name

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old records
familiar tunes
songs from the dead

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...hea...mur...rt...mur...

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3 AM hard rain
beats on the roof
of my brain

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city rhythms
horns, sirens, shouts
urban rap

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blown from their perch
autumn leaves
dance1

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summer solstice
empty classrooms
thresholds

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privileged 
to observe
my decline

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eclipsed sun
stars appear
aging

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Bridges and Tide Pools

Movement

Movement. New York City is MOVEMENT. Swarms of people animated by the most primal forces of modern life: Money. Capital. Goods. Information.  Indeed, New York is emblematic of modernity, birthed and fostered in the New World at the dawn the modern world by the two nations at the vanguard of this new world order.1 Founded as New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company, one of the first modern corporations, it was the port of entry to the vast, uncharted territory possessing untold potential for trade, profit and wealth. A blank slate, free of the historical and cultural encumbrances of a past, New Amsterdam was created and built for the sole purpose of commerce; an outpost of an emergent mercantilism and a founding site of nascent capitalism.2 New York remains true to this founding mission.

A trading port, New York shares the characteristics of all great trading centers; a cross-road of cultures, customs, peoples, all seeking goods and profit, requiring collaboration for barter and exchange. Traditional norms, social mores, and moral strictures are swept aside by the onrushing flood of commerce. Unburdened by a settled past, New York, in a New World, made for an especially dynamic, unfettered hive of activity; a New World Sodom and Gomorrah, where capitalism, and unconventionality, glow white hot, side-by-side.  

The movement that is New York may not appear obvious to those unfamiliar with the city. The towering forest of skyscrapers give the appearance of landed stability and permanence, but this is an illusion. Mostly consisting of banks and structures dedicated to commerce, they are, actually, relay stations; nodal points in a dynamic system that appraise, assess and transfer. And they all are located on an island. Indeed, New York is actually an archipelago scattered across river and ocean. Four of the five boroughs—Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens—are located on islands, and the fifth, the Bronx, is separated from most of the rest of the mainland by a mighty river, the Hudson.3

The Bridge

Throgs Neck Bridge
Connecting the Bronx and Queens

Water is the life-blood of the city—the origin source and a propulsive force of New York’s movement; arteries of trade and transportation, which also constrict landed trade through a capillary network of bridges and tunnels. Anyone traveling by wheels in to, out of, or within the city is acutely aware of these chokepoint on movement that are a source of raised ire—and blood pressure. Over thirty-three bridges and tunnels connect the New York City area; none more iconic than the one to Brooklyn.

Everyone loves the Brooklyn Bridge. Everybody. I, of course, knew of the Bridge long before I ever visited it, but its appeal puzzled me. I love bridges, especially modern ones, whose clean, spare geometric lines compose stirring visual harmonies; soaring expressions of the mathematics of gravity-defying suspension. But the Bridge is old. Old bridges are, perhaps, worthy of historic notice, but they often are chunky, Lego-blocks of inelegant functionality, frequently serving railroad transport. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed almost 150 years ago, in 1883, after 14 years of arduous, dangerous labor.4 It was the first steel suspension bridge and also, at its time, the longest. It welded the bustling metropolis of Manhattan with the growing suburb of Brooklyn, leading to their political union 12 years later.

Brooklyn Bridge

My puzzlement disappeared with my first strides onto the Bridge, when I discovered that it not only spans a river, it unites medieval and modern architectural beauty. Its massive stone pillars echo the cathedrals of 12th and 13th century Europe, and include huge, arched stain glass windows—without the glass!— that confer a soaring grandeur to these bulwarks of stone. The curved shapes of these ‘windows’ also echo the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Oz, in all its muscular, angular, glass-shimmering beauty, beckons through the stone portals of the Bridge. Attached to the medieval buttresses are the cables, wires and structural webbing of modern bridges. These impose a grid on the skyline that echos the geometric shapes of the buildings on the shore, and the cables that swoop to the top of the pillars reinforce the urgency, and the promise, of journeying to Oz. Augmenting this beauty is the rumble and hum of cars, trucks and busses that run on the deck below, reminding that New York City, from its inception, is a hub of commerce. The Bridge has been the object of obsession for many artists and now is also for me. My favorite image is one by Joseph Stella (one of many by him).

Joseph Stella
Brooklyn Bridge

Subterranean Carnival

Coursing unseen, underground, is another river of movement. The New York subways are noisy, crowded, grimy and disorienting, reflecting the city itself—gritty, bold, and ebullient. It is a world unto its own, a subterranean conduit channeling the bustle and surprises of the city that delight, disorient, disconcert and captivate; all available for a mere several dollars entrance fee.

Be prepared for anything: buskers of great talent and virtuosity, drummers, singers, dancers, upright pianos, brass bands, acrobats and gymnasts cavorting through car isles, hawkers of everything imaginable (and some beyond imagination), preachers, prophets, doomsayers, beggars, desperately needy sprawled next to pinstriped Wall Streeters, mutterers, drunks, school children, concert goers, construction workers, the mad and crazy ranting while librarians read, and the speech, dress, and skin tones of every country in the world. And much more. This may seem a dangerous place, but it is remarkably safe, as is much of New York.5

A Tide Pool

Traveling in a subway car evokes the experience of tide pooling, where the receding tide leaves vivid micro-cultures of arresting creatures who have been trapped in the residual pools of water. As the tide cycles, the inhabitants are washed out to sea, replaced by a new constellation of life.

Similarly, each car is a human tide pool. At each subway stop, some arresting life forms are carried away in the outgoing tide of riders, and a new micro-culture is created by the incoming surge.

Subway Reflections6

The subway is also a fun house. I like to sit at the end of a car and look back at the windows where multiple reflections make it difficult to discern whether going forward or backward, whether the images are from this car or another car, from the left or to the right. Changing speeds, and trains running parallel or in the opposite direction, furthers the experience of vertigo and a thrilling disorientation of movement and images.

This embodies the spirit and experience of New York City: The thrilling disorientation of movement.

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Freud was Right!

Sigmund Freud

Freud was Wrong!

No, Freud was not right! Many basic tenets of Freud’s theory have been completely disproved. To name several: Psychosexual stages. The Oedipal complex. Belief that repressed memories from the first year of life can be unearthed. Sexual fantasy about intercourse with a parent is responsible for hysteria.  Even more damning, his methods and procedures cannot be called scientific, his evidence lacks scientific credibility, and what is offered as evidence was sometimes fudged, if not outright fabricated. Not surprisingly, Freud is absented from contemporary psychological pedagogy, theory and research. Claiming, “Freud is right!” is akin to shouting, “Long live the king!”; historical curiosities, both.

Key features of Freud’s theory, in addition to being wrong, are repugnant to modern sensibilities. Misogynist perspectives are integral to the theory and to the man. To name but a few of the more egregious: Penis envy. The moral inferiority of woman. Only psychosexually mature women can achieve vaginal orgasm, while orgasm by clitoral stimulation is evidence of stunted development. “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.1

Cash Value

And yet…and yet…Freud’s influence is pervasive, profound and enduring. This may appear misguided and misinformed given the systematic disproval and pervasive disregard of his work. But his influence is deep, personal and subterranean—dare I say unconscious— insinuating itself into our daily thoughts, beliefs, decisions and conduct.

William James coined the term Cash Value to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words?”2. Freud’s work is freighted with immense metaphorical— and literal— cash value.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother. Born in 1891, and brought to the United States with his family in the first year of his life, Bernays injected his uncle’s insights into the very marrow and bloodstream of American culture, altering its pulse and functioning—along with the rest of the world. He did so using the unique means and methods of American culture to achieve its most valued end: Cash. Life magazine named Bernays one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

The Darkness that Sells

Dark forces surge through us, compelling us to think, act and scheme to satisfy our primal impulses, all outside the bright lights of consciousness. Reason is a weak voice, easily overwhelmed by our desires, or employed, along with various other means, as a defense to protect us from awareness of the real, base motives that drive our thoughts and actions. This is Freud’s foundational vision of the human psyche. It is unflattering, if not repugnant, and not widely embraced. But it is a vision with inestimable cash value; one exploited by Bernays.

Edward Bernays made his fortune, fame and lasting influence by convincing people to buy things they don’t need, selling harmful products parading as health and beauty, rousing individuals to eagerly embrace slogans, and compelling them to surrender their individuality to the passions of the herd. He is considered to be the progenitor of public relations and is called “The Father of Spin”. He published a seminal book, Propaganda, that became Joseph Goebbels’ guidebook for his many Nazi propaganda campaigns, including developing the Fuhrer cult and orchestrating the genocide against the Jews.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda Poster: “He is Responsible for the War”
US Holocaust Memorial and Museum

Bernays became a highly sought, and extravagantly paid consultant to a number of leading businesses. His many successes include helping the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women, advertising them as glamorous “torches of freedom”; and aiding the United Fruit Company to sell bananas, and after the newly elected president of Guatemala threatened the business interests of United Fruit, Bernays persuaded the CIA and the US government—through rumors, innuendos, and manipulation of the press about a growing Communist menace—to overthrow the his government.

After World War II, Bernays rebranded ‘propaganda’, calling it ‘public relations’, giving it a more favorable spin. However labeled, his intent remained the same:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Bernays; Propaganda

We are more firmly in the grip of the subversive forces of marketing, ‘public relations’ and propaganda than ever. Social media, and the entire electronic universe within which we are submerged, that invades the inner most regions of our mind, are shrewdly engineered using Freud/Bernays-inspired principles to compel our attention, impel us to embrace unexamined and unwarranted conclusions, and propel us to act passionately in ways that exploit our unconscious desires—and, also, meet the explicit aims of the social engineers.3

This is a worldwide phenomenon. We are a mob. Or mobs. Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking, “liking”, chattering, texting, Instagraming, Photo-shopping, rumoring, instigating, provoking, inciting, lying, messaging, massaging, insisting, imploring; “truths” swirling in clouds blanketing the globe, marketed, managed and mined for profit—political, economic or otherwise.

The Darkness that Lurks

We, at least many of us in the US and the West, have lived in relative peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. This, a long quiescence, after nearly a half century of paroxysms of savagery, slaughter, mayhem and madness that consumed nearly the entire human race. A period that has been tamed and denuded of its horror; disconnected from us, neatly archived as World War I, WWII and the Great Depression. But archiving does not eliminate, or even diminish, the impulses that lurk in the human heart that gave rise to this bloody history. The political, economic and international structures that helped establish and maintain this quiescence, as well as the beliefs, routines and practices that buttressed public life and private affairs, are being torn down; tossed overboard. They may presage a growing whirlwind and coming storm of civilizations and their discontents.4

Freud was right…beware.

Hatred

See how efficient it is,
how it keeps itself in shape–
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

It is not like other feelings.
At both once older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another—
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another—
whatever helps it get a running start.
Just also works well at the onset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings, listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
When has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You cannot deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast—between explosions and dead
quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
its leitmotif—the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it is blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

Wislawa Szymborska5

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