PessimOptimism

Graphite drawing: Self-Inflicted“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.

I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.

Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?

As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.

Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.

Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.

I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.

A Faraway Look

Daydreaming is amazingly useful. No matter what teachers and bosses and impatient parents may have said over the years (never to me, of course, wink-wink), that pleasant fugue state of seemingly purposeless internal wandering is where a great deal of terrific, very purposeful invention and problem-solving happens. It takes us to inner regions where we are unencumbered by rules, editing, and logic, and can let the what-ifs of experiment and hope play together until, sometimes, they produce brilliant results that endless hours and years of study and labor might never have fostered. How can we expect to engender anything grand if we don’t aim for the seemingly impossible?Photo: Faraway

Consistent study and labor are, of course, quite necessary if we are to be able to even conceive of what exists and how we intend to alter it; to begin with no facts, no tools, no notions of probability or potential will inevitably leave us puzzling fruitlessly for ages before we ever approach a fantastic and outlandish idea, let alone a useful one. But once the seeds have been sown, we can’t assume that there would be no purpose in additional time and imagination spent on divining what to do when they begin to grow as well. The dreamers of the world have nurtured at least as much meaningful and helpful stuff as the mere scientists and scholars and brawny-brained geniuses have done, but with less hoopla, and it seems to me that we should be wary of working too hard to bring fantasists down to earth too soon.Photo: Fruition

Assume, when you see me in an apparently abstracted slide toward the comatose, that I am in fact inwardly journeying toward a dazzling insight or earthshaking invention or two, and leave me in peace. I shall emerge, in due time, bearing the harvest of this grand exploratory trip. Or at least I’ll have had a refreshing nap. I’ll happily leave it to you to determine the value of the difference, if any, between the two eventualities.

The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

Leave It that Way

How irksome that constant tension between the urge to grow, move and change and the undoubtedly more natural desire for stasis! Isn’t good-enough good enough? Can’t the ol’ universe cut me a break a little more often? I like it when I get something done, especially something I’ve really wanted or needed to finish, and most especially when it turns out well. But I can’t say I’m crazy about the long slog from here to there. Most of the time it’s just work. Drudgery. Laborious, effortful, tiresome and irritating, endless to-do lists of work.digital illustrationThat, as you know, is the unwarranted whingeing of a privileged, well padded and wilfully late-sleeping creature. I am the human equivalent of a Slow Loris, desiring fervently that the world would slow down to my own pace and let me seem to catch up with it—that is, if anyone as lacking in will and momentum as I am could be called fervent. But like the Loris, I am masking with my ever-so-slow progress through life a fair quantity of deliberation, because I do indeed have wishes and plans. They tend to be so vague and changeable that it’s useful to move at the slowest possible pace in order that my ideas will catch up with my motion before I need to act or make any significant alterations in my trajectory.digital illustrationThat’s how a person with seemingly no ambition or energy or intention of doing anything whatsoever that is not forced upon me can have, in quiet reserve, a fair treasury of plots and plans, ideas and inspirations all waiting for the right moment when I decide to take them up in the public view. Like seeds and bulbs, these unfold into leaf and then, as leaves, transform from season to season. Like artworks, they begin as the meeting of a barely formed thought with a pencil mark or two and gradually evolve into drawings that in their turn can change to other kinds of drawings or paintings or parts of collages. That’s how a little book that took about a decade to get from the slightest inkling at its inception to publication can have in its wake another ten books or so that will seem to spring fully formed from the printing press in relatively short shrift because they too were being built and tended, ever so stealthily and quietly and ever so slowly, all the while I’ve been creeping and plodding along.

It may not look like anything’s happening yet, but don’t worry; unless I’ve stopped breathing, I’m still moving imperceptibly and you can safely leave it that way for now.

I’ve Forgotten Your Face, but I can’t Look You Up in the Pictorial Directory, Because I’ve Forgotten Your Name, Too

I won’t deny that the memory diminution that comes with aging is a pain in the neck, if not regions well south thereof, but it’s particularly annoying when that faculty was fairly faint and whimsical from the beginning.photoI seem to have always had a mind less like the proverbial steel trap and much more decidedly iffy—more like, say, a somewhat loosely constructed sieve. It’s pretty good at catching and holding on to big chunky things: that air can be walked through but concrete walls cannot, or that elephants are large and mosquitoes are much smaller yet probably more dangerous in general. But so much slips right on through where I had hoped to store it that sometimes I think it’s a miracle I managed to remember to wear clothes when leaving the house, or to use deodorant rather than shoe polish under my arms. Not that shiny taupe underarms wouldn’t be a wonderfully glamorous fashion statement on anyone.

Perhaps it’s a contributor to my innovative and playful artistic soul, this having a mind so ill equipped to deal with quotidian and purposeful information in useful ways. When I can so seldom remember anyone’s name, let alone his birthday, or what appointments I made with which doctor, let alone what the dates were, it forces me to do some clever detective work and further develop my problem-solving skills, so maybe that’s just nature’s way of keeping me on my toes. In any event, I hope no one takes too much offense for too long that I keep asking them to repeat their names and hope that they’ll drop some hints about the context in which I am supposed to know them, when I think it’s a major feat of memory and deductive reasoning on my part to have realized that I might know them at all.

It truly isn’t that I don’t care; I simply find that getting a memory and keeping it where it can eventually be retrieved intact are not necessarily related, nor are they either one fully functional facilities in my would-be Taj Mahal of a memory palace. Of course, it’s hard enough to try building a memory palace if I forget what one is, or that I meant to try it, too. Apparently the elephants-who-never-forget have long since sashayed out of the place without me.

Leave the Lights On!

digital illustrationWhile I’m closing out an old notebook that I kept in blog form a number of years ago, I found yesterday’s post and this companion one. So what the hey, I’ll share this one with you, too.
It’s Thanksgiving Day [2005!] and I am particularly thankful this year for having celebrated a whole year of emergence from clinical depression. For anyone out there who has been mired in it, or still is, I send out a fiercely made wish for your recovery and new joy in life, along with this meditation I wrote after realizing not only how far and how long I had been away from my true self, but the cultural setting in which it is possible to get there without realizing it or even having others see it clearly.And with deep thankfulness that it is possible, with help, to be revived.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s stop all this rubbish about Depression as a romantic notion.

The myth of suffering being necessary to ennoble the spirit or, more commonly, to shape creativity and artistry and the personalities that foster them, is an inaccurate and unhealthy construct that belies the potential power of sanity and contentment. The idea that much of the great art that has sprung from the work of troubled or diseased artists throughout history would have been impossible, or the artists Not Themselves, if they’d been well or happy is simply a gross assumption of the inflexibility of the human spirit at best, and an insult to mortal intelligence, invention, and character at worst.

In a telling moment of literal as well as figurative turning-on of the lights, participants in a 2004 Canadian study on Deep Brain Stimulation as a possible treatment for otherwise-untreatable depression noted that the world became a visibly, physically brighter place when “area 25”, or the central zone of depression response in their brains, was stimulated to relieve depression. Many of the patients described a distinctive, even poignant, instant of pleasurable shock when the electrode stimulation, suitably placed, flooded them not only with unaccustomed sensations of contentment and ‘rightness’ in their world but also a clearly discernible brightening of their visual perception. It was as though, one commented, he had suddenly remembered a whole range of colors and values and sensory impulses and emotions that had been locked away for decades.

Nowhere in this was there any indication that the participants in the study experienced a negative change in their self-concept when their depression was eased. No mention is made of the patients losing their creative impulses or intellectual depth. Not a note of regret or sense of personal diminution.

The breezy optimist, on the other hand, is not by definition dimwitted or shallow or uninspired. While cultures that have embraced a darkly Romantic mythos of the suffering genius tend to dismiss brilliance that emerges from happier sources as a fluke or as slick, glib cheapness that won’t withstand the value-test of time, many stars and their accomplishments defy those definitions.

Yes, depressed, manic, even twisted and tortured souls with the deepest of psychological, physiological, or chemical-addled warps and wounds have been the vessels and sources of high art and equally high drama, but they are far from alone in that. To say that they only achieved their greatness because of their damaged state is a cruelty, an insult, and a cop-out that says we all could not be greater than we are, if not equally “gifted” with darkness. If being let off the hook ourselves is what we seek, then let’s just be honest and say we don’t relish the burdens of effort and experimentation and get on with other things. I have a suspicion, as it is, that if there’s a notably higher percentage of mental illness among persons who could be classified as particularly ‘creative’, then the cause/effect relationship is one of persons being used to having to problem-solve their way out of unusually difficult circumstances on a regular basis, and so developing stronger problem-solving (read: creative) skills.

Meanwhile, cheer up! Look at the dazzle that being joyful brings. See the energy and wit that, when not wasted on grief and moroseness and morbidity, can be devoted to pursuing greatness instead, and run after it with childlike delight.

Hot Flash Fiction 5

The Duchess was inordinately fond of animals. Though her courtiers would never dare say so to her face, they imagined she ought to have been born a zookeeper, or at the very least a farmer. This idea was strengthened, especially, by the fact that it always fell to the housekeepers and servants to make the palace tidy enough for Her Ladyship’s dainty passage through life and to freshen the air when the royal menagerie had pranced, prowled or otherwise paraded through its rooms and left unseemly gifts along the way. The Duke, who was as allergic to all things animal as the Duchess was attracted, considered for some time whether he oughtn’t to have a team of expert taxidermists and artisans solve this problem once and for all, creating a large display of preserved zoological beauty that might be both lower maintenance and less powerfully scented than the living creatures populating his estate indoors and out, day and night.digital collageUnfortunately, the Duchess’s sisters who lived in the east wing of the palace did not support the Duke’s enthusiasm for the design, making noises of disapprobation at least as loud as the Duchess’s favorite dogs’ barking or donkeys’ braying. Perhaps, the Duke thought, he had been a little incautious in discussing this artistic concept with his secretary while within earshot of the sisterly ladies-in-waiting, for they both appeared quite ready to dash off squealing with rage to their unsuspecting sibling, or at the least, to imitate the household fauna in some other impolite fashion.digital collageAs it fell out, the Duke, however incautious he may have been in heat of the moment, was not without the wit born of hard experience. Working swiftly with his retainers, was able to resolve the situation quickly and suitably merely by shifting the subject of the new art to a slightly different one featuring the Duchess and her sisters. As an added benison of this resolution, it was discovered that he wasn’t allergic to winged or four-legged pets after all. The palace staff found maintaining the menagerie surprisingly less onerous afterward as well, even with the added curatorial duties of dusting off the Duchess and polishing her sisters from time to time.