Saturday, December 12, 2009

On Catholic Autopilot

Richard Dawkins was right that getting brought up Catholic constitutes a kind of child abuse. Rote gets substituted for understanding, so that men can use you for their purposes. Guilt is built up until it feels inborn. You deviate, you cringe. And here in Buffalo, the most Catholic city in the country, it is almost guaranteed that you can't start up something new. The certain response is mockery; a kind of sure, yeah, go ahead and give it a try, but you'll be back working for your dad soon enough. Buffalo is the place were dreams meet reality!

This is how abused people must respond. Free thinking is scary. Around here, good enough really is good enough, and maybe that's how it should be. The more we talk excellence, the more it seems another hail Mary pass for what at best is snow-bound and mediocre. Suicide in Buffalo, after all, is dramatically redundant.

And yet somehow there remain theatrical productions of almost every sort nearly every night of every week no matter what they do in the Big City. My very favorite is having a kind of NPR-style might-go-out-of-business fundraiser tonight, where I hope to see you. Live music and a reading from subversive Santa!

The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Another Christmas Song

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor
U.S. Speedskating

Urban farming takes root in Buffalo too - and I even heard about an urban fish farm, taking advantage of the fact of basements, no matter the condition of their wooden cover. Why not, right? Water holds incredible quantities of heat, and can be charged up when everyone else is driving. Sell the fish and pay for the heat! We sure have lots of water.

I'm writing on Catholic autopilot now too. I have a simple mantra, and I can't seem to find any way to say it better, so I just recite it over and over like counting my rosary beads. Eventually, my I is expendable even to myself. That's the trouble with having an agenda. Or the hope.

Without any agenda, in my dreams, I was loved just for my being. That time so long ago now that I can't even project myself there, when I had no sense of shame and no need to perform on any level. Before the zits could make me insecure, such were our worries in the suburbs. Before there was any need for comparison shopping. Before even Mom had hopes for me. I've been beside myself for love, but never could do anyone quite proud enough. I've been oppressed by me.

So, as you know, I've fixated on a spice rack, my agenda for yesterday left over from the day before. I have no room now in my cupboards for all the junk I've mashed into this apartment. I'm too tired to throw any more away. I found some hooks to put coffee mugs outside the tiny cupboards. For those, I had to take a walk into my color-blind spot; the other way in my cognitive map of this post-modern urban landscape. Underneath the rainbow style of my own neighborhood, lurk cool divides which still tend black and white.

My ears were bitten from the driving snow, and I had to drive myself in any case to larger shops farther afield. My car's heater core is as old and clogged as my heart, and as expensive to replace. I became a Tibetan for a day then, on my Xanadu quest to find a spice-rack without resorting to the Internet. My excuse was that I had to stop by to fix my daughter's car, which was too far away to walk. And the subway - not quite on my cognitive map either - passes by no likely spots for spice racks.

Tibetan quests are always the goal they seek, where what you learn along the way provides relief for the vacancy of the goal once accomplished. The nothing after the layers of the onion get peeled. The fact that I could easily have assembled lumber, screws, and paint to build my spice rack before burning all that gas, in a fraction of the time it took to search.

I need more space for food in my cupboards, and I can't see cinnamon from pepper flakes up at eye level behind the rest. Cinnamon tastes really weird on pizza, trust me, and would never make it out of Buffalo like once-garbage chicken wings did.

Driving then, absurdly around cars sidelined by the inevitable bent fenders of first snow, my ears perked up when NPR Science Friday did a radio show on patenting genes. Genetic defectives who need to know whether to lop off their breasts must pay a company which owns that patent to find out if they've got the patented gene.

This is serious business, and people wonder out loud if there's any charity left in the world. Or if the only way there is to harness greed. Or if greed is just motive, and no trouble with that, except what ever happened to research motivated simply to true our understandings with reality? Is saving lives the same as selling widgets?

Like all such things, the point is reduced to minuscule punning differences among meanings. What is nature and what is artifice, what is science and what is art, what is discovery, what is invention? What is the difference anyhow between natural law and laws of nature? Perhaps the only difference is when a claim gets staked. Eureka! I've deciphered the code of nature, and now I claim it for my own.

There are elaborated sets of terms, and manuals of usage, to guard the way in to any advanced discussions. Citations which can and must be made to true these words and get at what essentially has already reached some point beyond absurdity. But you would never know it without a life's worth of study. So go, and be the first, and for a time you'll own it. You'll be filthy rich before the courts catch up. Before the side effects take hold. Before the Ponzi scheme that is life's perpetuation falls apart.

Still, I was compelled to listen since I've been following this discussion for quite a while. I moved Ira Flatow over to my internet-connected phone so I could continue listening even while connecting the battery charger to her car so that my daughter has some independence after I bring her home from college. I have no memory of what I did, and so when her mother called to wonder if it was I who hooked the car up, I could only conclude that it obviously must have been. Would someone else have done it?

Perhaps it is natural that Buffalo provides a center for Secular Humanism. We are among the most churchgoing and religious cities in the land - for some reason, I think we're at the very top. Perhaps it is inevitable that a scholar at the center of these debates about patenting genes should have gotten his start here, as my student at a school with Catholic roots; at a University with aspirations to aspire to greatness but where good enough is still good enough. And as executive director of that center for atheistic rationality. I also, did I mention, am not nor ever have been Catholic.

Apart from the snow, I know that driving during the shopping season is a dream here in Buffalo. I know that the traffic is infinitely more slight than wherever you live. And yet I had no patience at all to navigate and negotiate parking, to wonder from which side the hit might come; the slide; the crash. Walking across parking lots rather than to commit the absurdity to move my car from big box to big box, and realizing that once inside the car, the drivers no longer see those of us walking as real.

I had no patience, and so I entered a dream state myself, detached from the car, detached from my frozen feet and ears, marvelling that anyone could find anything they needed among the endless shelves overstocked with want. Spice racks galore, though most came intact with certified-sanitary jars full already. I could find nothing that I needed, and only things that I might want but have no room for. Bizarrely, some of these over-elaborations cost half the price I would ultimately spend for simple racks to hold the jars I already own for free when paying, supposedly, for their contents.

I finally found my spice rack at a local hardware chain store. This one's a holdout from just before national big-box, but just after the local stores got destroyed. They somehow cling to their niche by remaining small enough to navigate in a single bite, but large enough to overlap the really big box places. A sort of convenience store for between Home Despot forays.

Where people follow you and wonder what you're looking for in imitation of the old days. My old friend of a friend Danny Nevearth used to advertise them on TV. He was king of radio in Buffalo once, when radio was king. He turned out to be nearly as engaging on TV ads.

Now there's someone else who preserves his moves for those TV advertisements - I imagine Danny became too expensive? I wonder if he gets a royalty from those moves, or are there still things you can't patent? I saw a Julia Roberts look-alike on an Internet ad (you can see her too, just above, and see if you agree). Maybe it really was her? But, no you can't imagine she'd stoop to that. I wonder what the laws are for impersonation?

Well, I impersonate a real person most of the time. Or maybe all of us just simulate a time when something seemed more real. Maybe we're all just acting out by rote, behaviors which once were real. As in my writing, I just rehearse my stupid mantra. There's no one here anymore. There's only rote.

Or. Well, I've got to go now and see how the battery charged on my daughter's dormant car. I'm the energizer bunny. I'm on autopilot. There is a drug now which can be administered just as you are exciting memories, and which will selectively destroy them. It shows promise for traumatic stress syndromes. White-out for your disorders.

I also learned - on the radio of all places - that there is evidence that simple rote learning of phonics actually does build "white matter" in the brain for kids with trouble reading. I taught for a while at a school for dyslexic boys - I think that term's fallen out of favor - where we all learned to drill like that. That was when whole language was in and out of favor, and everyone was gifted.

Gosh, I remember trying to write a paper for a graduate course in Progressive Education, to qualify the certainties of "whole language". No wonder I always sound the fool - the science isn't there yet.

So, maybe rote will bring Jesus back down to earth after all. Maybe the very words will be made flesh, like white matter in the brain. Maybe if we just white out the guilty remains of magical thinking that if you break this chain of spam. And maybe with practice the brain can be reconstructed, and the sense will come back in to the words. Maybe we've just forgotten how to read. Maybe not.

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