Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spiritualist Commentary

I once visited Lily Dale,View Link in New Window a spiritualist enclave nearby Buffalo, where I now live for the moment (I absolutely adore the English ambiguation machine; do I "live for the moment?" Am I in Buffalo temporarily? Or do I live at Lily Dale?). I had high hopes that something might be triggered there. I was looking for some even slightest sense that there were insights beyond the ones I find through reading and a bit of academic study. I even got myself a "reading."

In the event, it was clearly something to be gotten over with for each of us. The "reader" must have seen that I am opaque and impenetrable. I knew that he wasn't seeing anything. It would be pretty much like some poor doctor trying to diagnose a hypochondriac. Better to go through the motions and get him out of there as quickly as possible.

I was disappointed. Or more likely I mean "I wasn't disappointed." The experience was and remains hardly surprising; pretty much what I'd expected. I'm as proof as they come against spiritualist anything. Like I wear condoms on my gullibility.

Maybe I'd wanted to see if someone would see something in me; something to pull me away from my prideful deficiencies. Or maybe there's just not that much which would surprise me about me; there's not that much that I would be looking for them to tell me, and so it all felt like being a tourist in one's home town. I think I was actually open minded, though. I wasn't looking for negative affirmation.

Around here, in Buffalo where I live again now, temporarily, we often get the chance to take visitors to Niagara Falls, and each time, we also get to see the falls anew. Lately, trying to steer my body in a new direction, I take long walks and see the city in a way which I never could while driving a car. In general, I am the only walker.

Sometimes one is most blinded to the familiar.

I've lately started participating in a local spiritualist writersView Link in New Window group, a bunch of people who sense that there are realities which have not been let in to our common discourse; for whom the evidence is too strong that there is more to reality than can be told. But who try to tell it nonetheless.

I have met a Native American medicine man there; I re-met an astrologer I already knew; there are poets, and ordinary folk for whom things have happened which don't fit in to the ordinary narratives of life. Hell, my whole life looks like a bizarre improbability to me, so - apart from the never seeing ghosts part - I should fit right in.

The narratives of these writers would all be extraordinary - hard to believe - except that lots and lots of people follow astrology, even in the highest places. Lots of people believe in and see ghosts. But not everyone wants to tame what they know with words. Almost everyone is secretly skeptical, unless they've seen something themselves. Which I haven't. But I'm not really skeptical, except in ways that I'm perfectly open about. Like, I'm skeptical about the skepticism which powers scientific inquiry, for example.

I never will either see ghosts nor guide my life by the stars, but lots and lots of people will. Still, I am a writer, if I am a writer at all, who writes at that very same edge of sense. Words from others have driven away the mysteries for me. Ghosts have been rationalized to my satisfaction as the reification of what's only "in the mind." But words also take me over the edge, to where only metaphorical is real. Except, well, metaphor is far too limiting a figure.

For me, what's "out there" (fun ambiguating machine again) really is starting to look more and more as though it came from inside my mind. Hard reality is collapsing beneath something else that much more powerful. And reality is pretty darned powerful if you ask me. How strange would it be if the stars did not have any influence on our lives. It only depends how large your frame is allowed to become.

I resist any and all certainties. I therefore risk insanity of the most basic sort, of course. My personal and written narrative often goes off the rails. But, in precisely the manner of this authorView Link in New Window I recently heard on NPRView Link in New Window, the frame within which the various authorities would box me not only doesn't seem to fit, but would seem positively to keep me from myself, as if there could be a me divided from myself by prison bars.

I land in the hospital, but no cause can be found. Or rather, no cause for the cause. (Do accidents always require causes? Or is that just an escape clause the insurance policy writers use) The most important connections in my life are the ones which have been made far beyond my control. Random. Easy to miss.

I'm almost certain the same is true of you, unless you're filthy rich, in which case you're likely to credit your own intelligence and cleverness. It's only human. As if these also weren't matters of good fortune. So, you'll credit yourself with intelligent and clever deployment of your intelligence and cleverness. You see where this is going.

Among the authorities I simply must resist, I would have to include the astrologers, the ones who already know all about ghosts, as well as the usual suspects; the scientists, the doctors, the academics - all the ones who have worked so much harder than I ever will for answers.

These conventional frames are all fully fleshed out now, and so there's nothing left there for me. Which doesn't mean, in any of those and many other cases, that I'm feeling superior to the sense that folks inside them can make. I'm not. There's just no sense there for me. My body's healthy, my mind is strong, the only thing I have to fear is fear, and I'm working on that one too.

* * *

I have a headache today well beyond the power of doctors to diagnose. But it's origin is trivial. Nothing to be alarmed about. I had to get a new "smartphone" because the old one would no longer connect to the Internet. Verizon had sent me five, count 'em, five new ones in fulfillment of the warranty I pay for. I asked them, please, to look a little more deeply into the issue before sending me another one. Each time I set a new one up, costing my precious time and attention, I am a little less confident that my work will last. I told the guy I didn't want to feel like I was driving a Toyota. I think he took my point.
They obliged me, they brought in their big guns, but in the end offered no other resolution than to send me yet another refurbished identical phone. It seems merest coincidence that the timing of this series of escalating failure rates coincides with the termination of my contract, and the ability, therefore for me to claim a new phone free. Honest - I think it's random. Well, OK, as much as anything is random.

Naturally, I had wanted to hold out until the newer cooler ones come out. The Verizon folks helpfully advised me that there's never a good time to commit with these things. There's always a newer cooler one just around the corner. And it's no real surprise that among the diminishing number of people who ever bought this particular defunct phone in the first place, there should be some kind of crescendo of trouble. Verizon's cost in PR and technical expenditures for a remedy would be impossible to justify.

I caved. They offered me an extra fifty bucks off. (Just now I got a coupon in the mail for a hundred bucks off - I guess the guy was really stretching himself out for me!!) I miss my old phone, though. It was a kludge, a terrible compromise between touch and buttons and Windows' seemingly pathological design-by-massive-terrified-of-the-boss-committee-consensus approach about including the kitchen sink. The very antithesis of the iPhone. But I'd learned to make it work, and especially liked its slide-out keyboard.

Now, I'm sure you're wondering how and why I can afford an Internet-connected smartphone, being out of work, and dissing technology the way I do. Well, I pretend to.

But as you can see, I practically live up here in the ether. It's how I present myself. I have no fixed geographic address, and so I require cellular technology just in order to be findable by friends and family. I swear I don't really want to be reachable at any moment. I extol the virtues of staying put, even of going back to the old ways. But just like Al Gore, I make some kind of exception of myself. I guess.

Well, not just like him. He's rich and growing and I'm poor and shrinking. Divesting myself of fat and other accumulated stuff. But I do find extravagant hope in certain of the new technologies. I watched that Afghani reporter embedded with the Taliban,View Link in New Window and like lots of others, I awoke to the evident truth that they could not coordinate their activities, plant their bombs, nor even detonate them were it not for the cellular network. One wonders why "they" don't just turn it off. You know, the other "they."

Clearly, as with credit card companies who would rather we not know precisely how much money they lose to fraud and identity theft, there is far more to lose by shutting down the cellular networks, than there would be for "them" to gain. A few hundred or a few thousand soldiers a year is a perfectly acceptable price. It's commensurate with lots of other costs, like the cost of mayhem on our highways, for instance, or in our hospitals where "preventable" is the single biggest cause of death (OK, I think it's third, but I know it's up there).

The true cost for public admissions about what's really going on would be our lost confidence in the structures which sustain us.

I don't like these Taliban any better than you do. I might like them a lot less, since I also see them as very similar to our own teapartiers. Angry at everything and nothing in particular, so target the biggest thing around. The American government. The US government is acting very big so far.

But I find lots of hope in the terrorist cells' ability to use the technology of wealth to frustrate its power. Poverty stricken people around the globe can now have phones where once the cost to get on the grid was prohibitive for all but the privileged classes.

There is very nearly no limit to what a company as large as Citibank, say, will do to protect your confidence in them. How much of your fees pay for the invisibility of rampant fraud? Do you ever wonder? And still they want to put a tax on top of what they aren't telling you, against your fear, by selling you identity theft insurance. Fear and greed make a charming couple, don't you think?

"Mission Accomplished" was precisely what got done by the shock and awe campaign against Saddam Hussein. We shouldn't have made so much fun of Georgie Porgie in his jump suit. The whole point of our going in there was to cement the fear we all must have of ignorant people willing to fly planes into buildings. No cost is too high to validate the fear in a kind of super high stakes triumphalism. A massive cheer for the winners. It's like a heroin hit to the collective psyche.

There was and remains quite literally no limit to what must be spent to own and to control our enthusiasms. (And you thought the "war on drugs" was about your kids??? Well, in a way, of course, it is. They must be kept in training!) Even though the cost to the lives of "our own" (not "us" but, you know, the ones too poor or ignorant to understand how their enthusiasms are gamed) now far exceeds the harm "they" ever did or could do to us.

Never mind the collateral damage, or the meltdown to our economy, which was the only thing which could, even conceivably, trump the cost of war. The War. The perpetual war of one name or another.

Oh, but what might have could have probably would have - depending on who you listen to - happened had we done nothing? I guess about the same things that happen every day over in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those parts of town where your family would never let you live, but people still live there nonetheless. They do. Are they not afraid? Is terror only reserved for those whose daily life contrasts enough?

I caved against Verizon, and my new phone - which I chose because it had the largest brightest most apparently durable and readable screen, plus the promise of a better way to input text - is an even bigger kludge than the last one. I miss the buttons; no keyboard anymore, it's all swipe and gesture, in the direction of, and with a silent bow toward, Apple.

But Apple, I learn today, is suing Google nowView Link in New Window for ripping off certain of Apple's patented intellectual property. These people have got to be kidding! They're protecting their right to profit from ideas which quickly become something anybody could do a hundred different ways. Should something like a wheel really be patentable? Is there no commons leftView Link in New Window??!!!

I have, apparently, purchased the least popular of the smartphones; certainly the least cool. It's running Microsoft's latest Mobile OS, which not a single tech guru praises. And to top it off, the manufacturer, Samsung, has hobbled plenty of the design aspects built-in by Microsoft, all in the direction of a better "consumer experience" I'm sure.

And on top of that Verizon has famously pushed the whole thing way over into the direction of an entertainment device, all for a fee, and all also in the direction of keeping you from putting your own hands on the device's locked away "features."

In the end, I'm happy enough. The browser beats Apple's in most ways. Text can actually be entered more rapidly than by either Apple's or anyone else's methods, or especially by a tiny keyboard with my thumbs. After a headache-inducing learning curve, in the end I think I got what I wanted. I won't be able to type so fast as I'm doing now with keyboard, but that might not be such a bad thing. Hell, I could give a damn for cool, and even hobbled, this beats the alternatives for me. Bizarre how Microsoft now is in the middle, stodgy, between the battling titans of cool.

So, I will deploy my technology precisely as does the Taliban. But I hope I'm a bit more enlightened than they are. I don't feel any anger toward those who screw me in the name of my own good. I'm sure not about to blow up myself or anybody else. I feel no need to be trimmed for Allah. But I do think that there's important work to do.

I sure can see how we have earned the Taliban's anger against us. As certain as I can be of anything, I'm certain that the way to win has nothing to do with guns or money (when the money's not in the form of relief aid). Just as the way to good health has little to do with the powers of medical technology, except when one is truly ill. The technology we need for good health is good information, good sanitation, public safety and housing, and an absence of fear and food insecurity and guilt; as though we cause all of our problems ourselves.

The large corporations now are all doomed to go the way of Toyota. There's not a single one of them which doesn't have the same sort of secret they'll spend any amount to keep from transforming into a generalized loss of faith.

The healthcare industry, collectively, is terrified that we won't be terrified anymore of dying. They act as though they too find the escalating costs out of touch with reality. This is a ploy folks. The more money goes through their hands, the more profit they can make. (Along with my Verizon coupon, I just got another denial of coverage for a blood test. You'd almost think they are trying to alienate me)

And if we stop being terrified, the evident magic will be that, collectively, we'll be that much healthier and better off than we ever could be on their drugs and surgical and genetic interventions when these get deployed as if every deviation from some norm were a cause for emergency response.

There is no massive turning which is necessary. There is no massive evil being perpetrated in our  name. There's just a lot of fear, being rendered up into a fairly insane collective behavior pattern.

* * * 

Last night, because my life is just that bizarre, I had a chance to attend the hockey event of the century. I nearly witnessed the Buffalo Sabres' own top goalie at his homecoming from center stage in the final event of the Winter Olympics. Canada won, but Buffalo would welcome home the next in a long line of superstar just-misses. We let him know how much we love and value him.

In the event, the son of the friend who'd offered me the last minute seat which he'd gotten last minute - absolute primo seats - the son invited a friend and so I got bumped.

Now, I'm sure you understand completely that this was no tragedy for me. I'm not the world's biggest sports fan, although I do seem magically to be in attendance at some great Buffalo sports happenings. Or just miss them. But the consolation prize was pretty good - I got to use their pre-empted tickets to hear Margaret AtwoodView Link in New Window in person.

Last minute, I couldn't get anyone to accompany me, so I dropped off two free tickets at the box office, which were then snapped up by some grateful students. So, in addition to feeling lucky, I got to feel generous. Which is a better thing to do than to feel pre-empted.

Atwood, poor woman, devoted her "talk" to answering publicly some frequently asked questions that she, as prominent author, often gets. It was pretty transparent to me that she was warning off those questions in the Q&A session which the format of this "distinguished speaker series" has established for itself.

Despite her sharing some intimate history of Buffalo from a Torontonian's point of view, you could sense this bit of tension between her and this crowd. She's most recently written one in a literary barrage of end-of-the world novelsView Link in New Window.

The crowd wants to know if she's optimistic, what we should do to prevent a catastrophic future. The questions veer just a bit in the direction of questions she's tired of asking. Questions she rolls her eyeballs at. She kept her poise, but the gulf between herself and this audience had grown immense. We felt mildly cheated by her impromptu carelessly prepared and brief remarks. She felt at odds with ill informed and familiar questions.

As a writer, she said, she is and must be an optimist: That she will finish the book, find a publisher, find an audience. As an accomplished author, she has about as much in common with her audience as the health insurance industry does with the ill. Why would she want anything changed? It's working for her. Being darkly pessimistic makes her life perfectly sunny.

I know that sounds like sour grapes, but honestly, it's not. In a way, it was generous of Atwood to give us her time in person. In a way, with the now inevitable mega-sized image of her talking head right over her actual - but too far away to be distinct -  head, it was hard to get the sense of what "being there" really means anymore. A television would be a far more intimate way to hear her speak.

* * *

So anyhow, as you can see I have nothing at all spiritual to offer. Well, except that I have a really hard time finding almost anything at all which is not meaningful. The most random things just fit right in to what I'm thinking about. And I'd say that's just about as powerful as seeing ghosts. Just about as jarring. Not exactly terrifying, unless you lose your mind about it. I wouldn't want to go saying these things out loud, because everyone would just think I'm crazy.

But, in some new-agey spiritualist sense, all that needs to happen to change the world is for lots and lots of people to stop being so afraid. So terrorized. So subject to the narratives pandered by those already rich and famous and powerful. No, no, no, I'm not talking about Margaret Atwood (by strange co-incidence I found out where my long lost copy of The Handmaid's Tale went, but she couldn't use the tickets either). Atwood come to Buffalo, risking her reputation at the same time that our fair city was honoring a hockey player from somewhere else. Oh Canada!

She writes beautiful books full of implied cautionary tales. Stories and poetry which can reveal things about ourselves that we'd never know without the mirror of literature. But she too is asking us to be afraid. I'd say that's at odds with her audience in Buffalo. We have seen the future and it is us. We're only terrorized by what the better off might do. In Buffalo, silly sin-city of Atwood's past, we still sense a chance to turn it around. And if we can turn our city around, anything's possible, right?

Sorry. Way too long. I'm still working on the condensed version. That's a lot harder.


David said...

are you moving west yet, or have you arrived?

David said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lex said...

I bought a plane ticket for my exploratory foray - delayed by a few more health setbacks, plus flying is cheaper and more sensible when the car's got 300K and counting. And I'm not quite ready to burn my bridges back to Buffalo.