My Next Life as a Cat

If the Buddhists are right about reincarnation, then we all live many lifetimes on our way (one hopes) to spiritual perfection.  Some of those lifetimes are human, some animal, and some even insect.  If I get a choice in this process, I want to come back next time as a cat.  Of course, I want to be a cat that lives with people who call themselves “pet parents” (so long as they don’t dress me in undignified costumes).  Being a cat otherwise probably would be interesting, but I might as well be comfortable, if I have any say in the matter.

This lifetime as a cat that I’m fantasizing, would be a sort of “r and r,” rest and relaxation, from being a human living in the world created by human rules, assumptions, opinions, and beliefs.  Mark Twain once pointed out that cats are completely indifferent to the principled and moral constraints of human civilization.  Humans may think it’s terrible when cats have loud amorous encounters in the alley, but cats aren’t troubled by human opinions.  That’s why I want to be a cat, not so much to be pampered as to have a cat attitude—cattitude, if you will.  What I’m really looking forward to are the behaviors and attitudes toward life a cat enjoys or gets away with just because she is a cat.

As a cat I could exercise my curiosity without seeming intrusively nosey.  “That cat is always following me!”  Of course, the “always” probably refers to trips to the kitchen or the bathroom.  Following a person with opposable thumbs into a kitchen with a cabinet full of food seems obvious.  The bathroom is less obvious, but, as a cat, I’m sure I would discover the appeal.

In spite of their size, cats think they own whatever their paws can reach, which is pretty much everything, including a human’s dinner.  Unlike dogs, however, cats rarely beg.  They expect you to surrender some of your dinner peacefully.  And if you don’t?  Well, expect the unexpected.

However, as a cat, I can be a finicky eater, putting my nose in the air if I don’t like what I’m being served.  “Poor kitty.”  My pet parent would rummage in the fridge for something tastier or perhaps even serve me something from his own dinner instead.  Human beings might indulge their children that way, or they might decide the child needs to learn a lesson about frugality and being satisfied with what one is served.  Some cats seem to be willing to starve rather than lower their standards.  Consider how much care a pet parent might put into finding the cat food that meets my tastes.  That person might get exasperated, but she can’t treat me like a human adult or child who should “know” such demands are unreasonable.  I’m just a cat.

As a cat, my finicky behavior can extend to other situations.  For example, I won’t have to socialize if I don’t want to.  I can retire to the cozy dark under the bed and not have to make polite conversation with people I don’t particularly want to be around.  Being a cat would be an introvert’s dream!  If kitty doesn’t want to come out and greet guests, well, she’s just being a cat.   And I wouldn’t be worried about what anyone else thinks of my appearance.  Yes, cats groom themselves frequently, but it seems to be more for their own comfort than for the approval of anyone else.

Not that cats don’t want attention.  Why else do they sit on the newspaper or book you’re reading or stretch themselves across the keyboard you’re typing on?  Cats want attention but pretend not to.  In their view, they’re thoughtfully giving you a break by sitting on your paperwork.  This interruption from a cat is considered charming.  In a human being it would be infuriating or disturbingly neurotic.

Being a cat, I would be expected to sleep 16 or more hours a day.  My only movements for hours on end might be to follow a spot of sunlight from one side of the room to the other.  A human who did that would be criticized or despaired of as having no work ethic, no sense of purpose in life.  Whereas sleeping 16 hours a day is part of the known purpose of a cat’s life.

Speaking of purpose, as a cat, I could practice “pure” science, that is, scientific pursuit just for the knowledge it provides.  Human beings rarely get to do that.  They have to be seeking something useful, like developing a product or solving some sort of problem.  However, cats can test thrust and gravity for the sheer pleasure of observing what happens when they knock pen caps and other objects off desks and counters.

For all that cats seem to be self-focused, they also seem free of the socio-cultural complexity that binds human beings.  As the poet Wordsworth said about the materialistic part of that complexity, “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”  Cats don’t spend, they are spent on, even when indifferent.  A cat may seem demanding but he or she can be happily satisfied with a cardboard box to play in.  A cat values the basics, like food, comfort, affection, and a little entertainment.  Cats are literally and metaphorically light on their feet.  Gravity seems to pull down on humans harder.

Yes, I could look forward to being a cat—except for that part about horking up hairballs.

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Why Not Funny-Ha-Ha?

 

“Depression is a funny beast.”

I wrote that sentence at the top of a clean page in my writing-ideas journal.  But I hesitated and then added “not funny-ha-ha.”  I was trying to keep my train of thought going, but the train had already jumped the rails.

I was hung up on “funny.”

One way or another, words have been my business for many years, so finding the right word to describe or express something is almost a compulsion.  The first replacements that came to mind were “strange” or “odd,” but those words imply a context of normalcy in which other things aren’t strange or odd.  What would that context be for depression?  Daily life, states of mind, mental illnesses?  Clearly, I was on the wrong track.  I kept trying.  Depression is an interesting beast?  Too neutral and not what I wanted to say.  A surprising beast?  Closer, but the connotation is too positive.  An intriguing beast?  Not personal or emotional enough.  A disturbing beast?  Too emotional.  Other than funny, what kind of beast is depression? Gogo and Didi2

I tried to change the sentence completely, asking myself even if “beast” was the term I was looking for.  Actually, “beast“ works pretty well, both as a potential reference to something dumb and ox-like or possibly to something metaphorically demonic, such as an incubus or succubus.  (There’s truth to the titular metaphor in Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.)  I couldn’t let the sentence go, so I tried a different tactic.  Why was the word “funny” the first (and seemingly most effective) word I could come up with?  What did I mean by “not funny-ha-ha”?

At first glance, “not funny-ha-ha” would seem to be the opposite of “funny,” right?  So, if funny means amusing or laughter-provoking, “not funny-ha-ha” should mean something like “serious.”  Then is depression a serious beast?  Yes and no.  Depression is certainly serious, but that isn’t the idea I wanted to explore.  Why funny/not funny?

Theories of humor and laughter are surprisingly complex, or perhaps have been construed as complex by the scholars and philosophers who study humor and laughter.  For years I taught a course on “The Politics of Comedy,” which was about humor and comedy as an assertion of power in drama.  Preparing that course, I learned that the three most dominant theories of comedy and laughter are Incongruity, Superiority, and Release.  Other theories abound, but they don’t have the historical weight of these three.

Fifth-century B.C. all-star Aristotle said we laugh at people who are inferior, weak, or ugly because we get a kick out of feeling superior.  That’s Superiority Theory.  People who favor Release Theory, which is about laughter as the release of tension, might say that laughing at others is really about the anxiety we feel that others will see us as the inferior, weak, or ugly butt of the joke.  Sigmund Freud pretty much agreed but saw laughter mainly as a release of physical tension, which, of course, he assumed was fundamentally sexual tension.

Our first experience of funny in life is likely incongruity-type laughter when we are toddlers.  Little kids think potty humor is hilarious because they have been taught that talking about such things is taboo or definitely not approved by mom and dad.  By the time people hit their teens and early twenties, potty jokes have morphed into or expanded to include sex jokes, which some people never outgrow.

A mechanistic theory of humor seems to be a variation on incongruity.  One ancient and still common example of mechanistic incongruity is the annoying consistency of common human traits, such as being persistently boastful, flirtatious, self-centered, or foolish.  Socrates, via Plato, said that the ridiculous is characterized by self-ignorance, a human trait that always causes trouble.  Think of a few sit-com characters on television, and chances are they’ll represent common types of human frailty.  What makes Homer Simpson funny is the persistent selfishness and foolishness of the character.  His behavior is predictable (mechanical) but all too human.  And that contradiction brings up the issue of irony.

Early Twentieth Century French philosopher Henri Bergson explained funny as something mechanical imposed on the living.  One appropriately French example is Jaques Tati’s film Mon Oncle (1958) which contrasts what Tati saw as the rigidity and sterility of Modernism with the fluidity and fallibility of human life.  The rumpled, bumbling main character Mr. Hulot seems out of place in the busy, angular, sleekly modern world he lives in.  But we understand Tati’s film is ironic, and that it is Modernism that is inhuman and out of place in the larger context of a natural, unpredictable, lively world.

The inversion, contrariness, or intentional understatement of irony certainly inclines to humor and laughter.  By the word funny, do I mean, then, that depression is ironic?  Maybe, but not exactly.

Perhaps the most common “use” of laughter, in my opinion, is to bring something down to size.  Laughter or making fun of something is a means of managing our emotions or restoring order to a chaotic or threatening situation.  We mock an abusive boss or teacher (out of his hearing) in order to reclaim our sense of dignity and equality.  Or, more negatively, we may bully someone by belittling them and laughing at them in order to establish our superiority and control.  Funny isn’t always nice.

Stage comedy, from Aristophanes to the present, often depends on either gentle or biting satire, which mocks people or behavior in order to correct those things.  Let’s face it, we like correcting other people.  British philosopher Thomas Hobbs identified laughter as “sudden glory” at the failure or fall of someone else.  Therefore, is my supposed insight about funny depression the “sudden glory” of putting it in its place?  Is calling depression funny a sarcastic put-down?

Eh.

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Depression is a funny beast.  In other people it may look like what we expect it to, or it may appear as if nothing is wrong at all.

I suspect most of us think we know more-or-less what depression is, even if we have no personal experience with it.  We probably would describe a depressed person as someone who is sad and perhaps lethargic.  If that person is a teenager, we may perceive him as moody or sullen, lazy, and “not working up to ability.”

But the actual experience of depression may or may not be any of that, from person to person and moment to moment.  It can be both inaction and impulsive action, time stretched out endlessly—and yet with the unbearable tension of a frayed rubberband.  It is cynicism, sadness, despair, self-hate, ennui, numbness, and perhaps suicidal ideation.  A depressed person can actually show moments of happiness, but at the same time be making a tremendous effort to keep going and seem “normal.”  This pleasure may be expressing gallows humor, black humor, or cosmic humor, but it may also be a genuinely happy moment.  Unfortunately, that moment can make the darkness seem darker.  While she is putting a good face on it, a depressed person may neglect friendships and family responsibilities, eroding the support system she needs so desperately.  Sometimes, depression looks like a happy-face mask, a constant but mindless smile.  For the sufferer, depression is like trying to walk normally underwater at the deep end of a pool.  And that person may not know just how deep underwater she is.

Gogo and Didi1
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot*

When I first read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in college, I absolutely did not see anything funny about it.  Talk about depressing!  But in performance, the play can be quite funny.  Gogo and Didi’s banter and physical comedy bits can be the brightness that makes the darkness darker.  I believe the laughter is necessary to the existential theme of the play.  Exploring similar themes, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead uses comical, even silly, wordplay in the context of something larger and darker than the characters can handle or even grasp.  The disquieted audience laughs.

One of the assignments I would give my students in that literature class was to find a joke they really like and then write an explanation of why it’s funny.  It was an unsettling assignment because, of course, explaining a joke sucks the funny right out of it.

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This piece was published first on my second blog, Ten Minutes With a Friend.

In Praise of (not so) Small Things

This morning I was putting away the jam after breakfast and, as I grabbed the refrigerator door handle, I hesitated as I felt a tiny frisson of fear. That hesitation represented the surprisingly thorough adjustments in behavior I had made while our power was out for two days.

In the week between Christmas and the New Year, a winter storm, named Goliath by the Weather Channel, marched slowly across the continent. From blizzards in New Mexico and deadly tornadoes in Texas to icy conditions in the Great Lakes, the storm did a fearful amount of damage and killed more than 50 people. Rivers in Oklahoma and Missouri have flooded and continue to rise. Levees and flood gates along the mighty Mississippi are still straining to hold back flood water. Here in Illinois, winter storm Goliath dumped several inches of rain, iced up trees and power lines, and then, with high winds, blew those trees and power lines to the ground. In our part of the state, tens of thousands of people were without power for anywhere from mere hours to days.

Our power was out for nearly two days. I grew up in Oklahoma and I’ve lived in Illinois for decades, so being without power following storms is far from a new experience. But these two days were different. Perhaps my age is making me feel more vulnerable, or perhaps it is the unusual time of year for such weather that is so unsettling. I’ve never been so long without power in such cold weather—which was actually warmer than December in Illinois usually is. By Thursday morning around 3:30 when the power finally came on, the temperature in the house had fallen twenty degrees. Every surface in the house felt icy cold.

The refrigerator, which we did not open for two days, had gradually warmed inside, reaching a point where the insulation in its walls was probably keeping warm air in and cold air out.

Our old bones had had enough by bedtime on the second day, and we realized, as we piled coats on top of blankets when we got into bed, that we were going to have to look for a hotel to stay in if the power wasn’t restored by bedtime on the third day. Around 4:00 a.m. I woke up feeling too warm. I didn’t recognize the feeling at first. It’s strange how quickly one can accept a new “normal” and doubt the reality of the old normal.

I have often tried to put things into perspective by saying that something is relative. Certainly, what we were experiencing was mere inconvenience compared with what others have suffered in weather crises. But the intensity—and boredom—of those two cold, dark days made me think. After all, the comparison of what is relative is created by the world within the mind.

I am well aware that we live in a world structured by thought and unconscious assumptions. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called this the “educated imagination,” although a more appropriate term might be “trained imagination.” We are trained by parents and others to see the world as they see it, to value what they value, to understand things as they have understood them before us. As we get older, our own experience may alter this to some degree, and, if we’re lucky, our education may offer alternatives that give us choices in how we understand the world.

For example, while the power was out, we chose to see some things as victories. The heavy rain let up by the end of the first day, so my poor husband’s effort to bail water from the rapidly refilling sump well in our basement gradually eased. By the middle of the second day, he could leave the basement for 2 or 3 hours at a time without worrying that the sump well would overflow and flood everything we had stored there. On that first day, when I went out searching for a place to recharge my cell phone, I discovered that, fortunately, the nearby shopping center had power. So, I plugged in my phone and ordered carry-out at Panda Express. It seems small now, but my appreciation at the time was profound. Small victories.

The worst frustration of the whole experience was the power company’s web site, which was supposed to keep us informed about the outage and give us an estimate of when it would be repaired. The idea was that we could enter our address so the web page’s database tool could tell us when the repair crew expected to have our house back online.

First, the web tool told us the repair would happen early in the afternoon of the first day, then later in the afternoon, and then later in the evening. When that deadline also passed, the site merely reported the estimated time of restored service was “not available.” We went through the same hope-building and frustration with the web site on the second day. By that evening, we were thoroughly discouraged.

The web site was intended by the company to keep us informed and give us reassurance, but instead it repeatedly offered false hope—and ultimately a sort of hopelessness. If they had told us it would be two days, we would have complained but prepared ourselves for that length of time, which would have been far better than having hope frustrated over and over again.

Pleasure, difficulty, gratitude, and frustration are all relative. Hot food from Panda Express looked mighty good relative to the cold electric stove and unopen-able refrigerator in our own kitchen four days ago. Today I am grateful for light and warmth, but in a few weeks—or probably a few days—I’ll forget the relative pleasure of something as simple as pulling open the refrigerator door with confidence.

Like Any Other Day

                            The brain is wider than the sky.
                            For, put them side by side,
                            The one the other will include
                            With ease, and you beside.  —-Emily Dickinson

What is it about the holiday season that stirs up the mind? Memories are at the base of it, of course, that and the way memories are made. Like many people, my memories come to me in short or long flashes linked to emotional experience. Emotions intensify experience to imprint it on the brain. In our culture, the holiday season in particular generates emotion for children, and those memories return to us over and over, no matter whether the emotions were joy or disappointment. We’re likely to run through many of them again every year. Of course, as we get older those memories spin off thoughts and ideas inspired by the context of this moment in our lives.

Last week I was in Michael’s, a craft supply store, picking up yarn for a crochet project. As I was leaving, the glass doors slid open and the light inside struck the threshold and sidewalk outside just right, so that I saw a faint trail of multicolored glitter leading toward the parking lot. It made me think of a messy Christmas candlestick craft project we did in Girl Scouts when I was nine. I remember the project involved whipping warm wax and glitter to a froth and using it to frost candles.

Whatever sophisticated people might say about glitter, I had to smile at the sparkly trail, thinking about the hopeful craft projects, decorations, and gift wrappings that had crossed that threshold on the way to making someone happy. Of course, the someone made happy might only be the crafter or giver and not the recipient, but I like to believe the glittery something, whatever it was, made both the giver and receiver happy.

Inevitably, especially as I get older, happy thoughts like that are challenged by less happy thoughts during the holiday season. Perhaps that is simply because the longer one lives, the greater the number of both warm and cold memories and the closer we come to mortality.

During the eighteen months between when my grandfather died and when my grandmother followed him, she was often depressed. Prior to one of the Christmases in that period of time, my mother asked her what she wanted to do at Christmas. My grandmother replied with a shrug and said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a day like any other day.”
Technically, she is right of course. No one can actually say with certainty what day—or even what year—Jesus was born. Many people who, nevertheless, believe in Jesus’ message doubt that he was an actual person. So, my grandmother was right: December 25 is just a day like any day. But the ancient church leaders settled on that day, and they made it into the celebration that can move us so deeply today. Let me correct that. They initiated the celebration of Christmas, but we re-make it every year.

Sometimes how people make Christmas is appalling. Pushing, shoving, and fistfights at “Black Friday” sales (which now begin on Thanksgiving Thursday) to me represent the worst of what people make of Christmas. However, I did see one woman interviewed on the nightly news who said she found the exciting chaos and competitiveness of Black Friday to be necessary for her to “feel like it’s Christmas.” To each her own, I suppose.

Even if they don’t participate in the sales melee, parents must put real effort into making Christmas for their children. They buy gifts, yes, but they also wrap them, decorate the house, bake cookies, watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” yet again, and attend Christmas plays and pageants at their churches to see their children participate in ritual and the many stories we have created to convey the meaning we find in this time of year. When their children are grown and the nest is empty, parents may lament that Christmas isn’t the same. They made Christmas for their children, but the children’s anticipation, excitement, and, one hopes, spiritual discovery (as well as their being delighted by gifts from Santa and Mom and Dad) made Christmas for the parents.

We string Christmas lights, decorate with tinsel and shiny ornaments, and light candles at this season to make the darkest time of year bright and hopeful, to sustain ourselves symbolically through the rest of the cold winter in anticipation of renewal, whether seasonal or spiritual. We make Christmas.

Although my grandmother found no meaning in that one lonely Christmas, she lived a long life in which she and my grandfather made many happy Christmases for themselves and others.

So, I hope you’re progressing through this holiday season leaving a trail of glitter. And I hope that someone you love gives you a strange candlestick made with Styrofoam, whipped wax, and glitter—or the symbolic equivalent in your own life. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your faith or lack of it, I wish you joy.

Getting Back Up on the Hobby Horse

When I was about 5-years-old, my typical fashion statement consisted of scuffed tie-shoes, droopy anklets, skinned knees, a dress of the sort typically worn by little girls in the 1950s, a holster holding a cap gun, and a painted straw cowboy hat (red, with a chin string).  Not having access to a real horse, my steeds were either a stick horse for outdoors or a rocking horse in my bedroom.  The only cowgirl role model I had at the time was Dale Evans on the Roy Rogers Show.  She hardly ever had any fun, and I’m pretty sure I never saw her handle a pistol, much less carry one in a holster.  She rarely even got to ride a horse.  It was tough being an adventurous little girl in those days.

Those memories came to mind as I was looking online to see if I really understood the term to “ride a hobby horse” before I used it in a post.  I know how I’ve always used the term, but I wasn’t sure the rest of the English-speaking world used it the same way.  Definitions I found ranged from etymological references to an extinct Irish horse breed and tourney-horse costumes worn by English morris dancers, to the “particular obsessions” of Laurence Stern’s character Tristram Shandy, and, inevitably, to use of the phrase as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Of course, almost any word or phrase in human language can be or has been used as a euphemism for sex.  Sometimes I wonder if human beings developed language specifically to give themselves euphemisms for sex.  The definition that came up most often was that riding a hobby horse referred to pursuing a favorite activity or pastime: thus the word “hobby” as we hear it most often.  The implication is that a hobby, like a hobby horse, doesn’t get you anywhere.

The way I’ve used the term is to refer to my own particular obsessions (other than my hobbies) that don’t get me anywhere.  For contrast, one of my hobbies is crochet, which sometimes does produce a colorful afghan or throw, even though the results tend to go a bit off.  For the most part, the hobby horses I’m referring to are my opinions about politics and social issues.  Metaphorically, I have an attic full of well worn old hobby horses that never get me anywhere.

If you read my last post (thank you!), you saw a couple of paragraphs listing many of my hobby horses.  A few years ago, someone I know suggested I start a blog as an outlet, “because you’re certainly opinionated.”  Fortunately at the time, I fought down the impulse to protest, “I am not!”

So, I may sometimes warn you that I’m about to climb onto one of those hobby horses.  If my hobby horse riding annoys or bores you, then please feel free to go bacRide em cowgirl (3)k to researching the scholarly article you’re writing, checking Facebook, or googling old classmates to see how much less successful they are compared to you.

And, as you may have figured out from my opening paragraph, I may just get up on my feminist hobby horse once in awhile.  Sometimes my cap-gun trigger finger gets itchy.

[This post was originally published on my new blog, “Ten Minutes With a Friend.”  More of my future posts will appear only there.  I’m saving Wandering Hare for when I feel a serious rant coming on.]

Roaring for Our Humanity

Cecil
Cecil the Lion. Photo source credithttp://leftfootforward.org/images/2015/07/Cecil-the-Lion-BBC-800×450.jpg

The lion—alive—was magnificent. When I saw photographs and film clips of Cecil, the lion killed recently by an American trophy hunter, I was struck by the animal’s beauty and power. If I were the sort to look at the world as a matter of dominance and hierarchies, I could see why the man who killed Cecil wanted to do so. Taking the head of this glorious animal to stuff and hang on the wall is an assertion of power and dominance unlike any other. It is primal—and pointless.

Luring a lion out of an animal refuge to be killed in an arranged “hunt,” is the epitome of cowardice and weakness, no matter how “legal” it may be. It is offensive to our humanity and an offense, I believe, to the Divine. What we feel about the death of that beautiful African lion is unambiguous. In the Natural context, Cecil was an innocent, living his life according to the rules of his world. The human hunter unnecessarily intruded into and disrupted that world. That isn’t dominance, it’s violation.

The response on the Internet has been dramatic. Since the report of the killing, we have seen an amazing out-pouring of grief, from anger by vigilante-wannabes to a flood of charming photos of cats and kittens anthropomorphically asserting, “I roar for Cecil!”

All of this attention, unsurprisingly, has been followed with complaints from people who are outraged that so many “roar” for Cecil while appearing to ignore the horrifying police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. or the shameful neglect of U.S. veterans, too many of whom end their own lives. Indeed, we should feel outrage about deadly racism, ideologically driven violence of all kinds, and shameful neglect of our responsibilities to veterans. Humanity has no shortage of hideous behaviors that should be stopped. Now.

The fact is, we live in a new era of brutality. Perhaps I’m being unfair to call our actions brutality, since the word implies animals (brutes) are more savage than humans. We know this isn’t true, even though a definition of the word “brutal” is “inhuman.” Usually, we apply the word brutish to an insensitive or crude person, someone irrational, someone showing a lack of intelligence. We humans do consider ourselves intelligent. But, clearly, we merely have the capacity for intelligence, with less and less encouragement to use it. It is as though the characteristics we once assumed were human and those we assumed were animal have been reversed. This is not the trajectory or destiny humanity once believed it had.

Although some people tell us overt violence has decreased statistically, socially tolerated brutality has increased to the point that we must force ourselves to be aware of it. It’s “just business.” If we look, we can see it all around us. News outlets batter us with sensationalized stories that are more about attracting “market share” than about relaying important information. Vicious cyber-bullying is responsible for increasing anguish and child and teen suicides. Employers no longer have a sense of responsibility to the people they employ or to the country whose opportunities have made them rich.  Anti-intellectualism and financial self-interest have led to climate change denial and the gradual destruction of a liveable environment. The social safety net is being ripped to shreds by privatizing and a relentless demand for tax cuts and smaller government. Teachers are being humiliated by union-busting governors, and public education is being sold out to profiteers. Students trying to better themselves are crushed by debt. Higher education is being sold to donors and ideologues, who want to bend the truth to suit their own interests. More and more children are being cast into poverty with little hope of escape.  Soon-to-be senior citizens are being told they should work more years and receive less support from the Social Security insurance and Medicare they’ve paid into all their working lives.

Our politics and social allegiances are so polarized that even the way we talk to each other is brutish. And how often do we tacitly approve of ruthless business practices, admiring whatever rapaciousness it takes to get ahead, to win, or, better, to get rich? In our elections, we reward vicious personal attacks and slimy, misleading commercials by not taking our disgust with us into the voting booth. We brutalize each other and ourselves by not being serious about the responsibilities of citizenship and community.

This is why I hope more and more people are moved to roar for Cecil. When we deplore this killing, we confirm that we still know right from wrong. If the death of this beautiful lion breaks our hearts, then we know we still have hearts that can feel pain for other beings and righteous anger on their behalf.

If I could speak to those who are trying to shame the people that seem to feel more compassion for a lion than for fellow human beings, I would tell them we can’t allow compassion to be degraded into a contest, like the contrived, winner-take-all conflicts of “reality” tv . We don’t have to be that way.

To fulfill the potential of our humanity, shouldn’t we stop dividing up everything to create winners and losers? What if we let our grief for Cecil awaken us and inspire empathy for all God’s creatures? Our culture as a whole has been so dehumanized that it teaches us the only option in life is to establish superiority, to dominate, not just our enemies, but anyone or anything we can subjugate or force into inferiority. Grieving, even for a single murdered lion, is a tiny crack in the concrete built up and hardened around our hearts. Compassion is like love—or it is love—which increases as it is given.

I believe we should encourage people to roar for Cecil. We should all roar our hearts out for Cecil! And, at last, we can begin to return to feeling compassion for each other, as well as righting so, so many wrongs. This is within our power as human beings.

Roar for Cecil!

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I am publishing this post on both Wandering Hare (where I’m inclined to climb on a soap box) and on my new, more casual blog Ten Minutes With a Friend.

My Strange Addiction

I am right

Although my “addiction” isn’t nearly as strange as that of a woman on tv who felt compelled to lick walls (or a particular wall, but I don’t remember the details), my addiction and its origins are still a bit odd.

I have become fascinated with cats and confess an addiction specifically to LOL Cats, those hilarious little feline madcaps on the Internet who communicate with such cute mispronunciations and misspellings.  What makes this especially strange is that I’ve never owned a cat, and my spouse’s allergies will likely prevent me from ever owning a cat.  So, how did this happen?

If the genes for becoming a cat lady come down through the maternal line, then genes don’t account for my new proclivity.  My mother doesn’t like cats; she considers them sneaky.  She prefers dogs, proving my theory that everyone would like to have at least one sycophant in his or her life.  I know I certainly would.  But that too is prevented by my spouse’s allergies.

My grandmother had little use for cats.  She was a pragmatist who grew up in hard times.  As far as she was concerned, an animal’s value was determined by its contribution to family survival.  She tolerated barn cats, but warned us kids not to play with them or feed them, because it would distract them from their work as rodent exterminators.  And she certainly didn’t want them showing up at the back door expecting to be fed.

So, my attraction to cats (or “kittehs” in LOL-speak) isn’t genetic, even though it hit me at roughly the same time as menopause—making it seem like my biology had somehow pulled a genetic trigger.  However, I’m not entirely giving up on biology as a culprit in my attraction to cats who say things like, “Wer owt ob parakeets. Yoo goan to teh stor?”

Since I believe my approach to life is somewhat intellectual (or I have that illusion), I have to consider the possibility that my cat-fascination is an age-related sign of cognitive decline.  How else to account for my emotional response to anthropomorphized cats?  On this point, I’m a little comforted by my related addiction to the Animal Planet series “My Cat From Hell.”

This is a “reality” show that follows the day job of a cat behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy.  As Mr. Galaxy’s name may indicate, he has a night job as a musician.  Based on his appearance, his music of choice might be funk, but I haven’t tried very hard to find out.Cat Daddy2

In each show Galaxy applies his vast knowledge of feline behavior to solve the problems of hellish cats on the verge of exhausting their owners’ patience and getting booted out the door or into an animal shelter.  Most of the time, the biggest problem in the situation isn’t the cat, but rather the humans’ assumptions about- and reactions to- the cat.  Galaxy spends as much time retraining the humans as he does working with the cats.  I tell myself this interest in the study of cat/human behavior is a viable balance to a fascination with LOL Cats, at least in terms of anthropomorphization.

Tell me I m cuteDepending on how you look at it, LOL Cats is a pretty light weight addiction.  I’ve had (or have) worse compulsions.  (I’m lookin’ at you, Sonic Cherry-Limeade.)

 

 

 

Images are from    http://jacksongalaxy.com/

and http://www.lolcats.com/

Non-Resolutions Redux

Crayons

Almost a year ago, I wrote my first real blog post.  It was on the topic of New Year’s Resolutions.  I challenged the intention of resolutions, proposing they are often based on demoralizing self-criticism and self-disgust—and therefore doomed to failure.  At this point, I should say that I was wrong to make such a sweeping assertion and that, indeed, some people use these resolutions to better their lives in the long term.  Just because I’ve never met anybody for whom this has happened doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

This year I’m still not making any resolutions.  I can find lots of reasons for self-flagellation without adding more.  This year, I’m making some loving invitations to myself for things that will be immediately rewarding, as well as good for me in the long run.  Oh, and I’m freeing myself from make-or-break consequences.  I have all year to implement these suggestions—again and again if necessary.  The only way to fail is not to try them.

  1. At some point, or perhaps several, I’m going to take Dr. Andrew Weil’s suggestion of a “news vacation.”  Since I’m a bit of a politics junkie, this won’t be easy, at least at first.  However, Weil has convinced me of its value.  As someone who has wrestled with depression himself, he recommends a one or two-week hiatus from reading about or viewing news about the conflicts, violence, death, destruction, disasters, and “must have/do” trends, as well as the resulting anxieties, fears, anger, and frustration.  I expect this action to be hard to do, because it means  breaking strongly entrenched daily routines and concerns.  But I also expect to feel the positive effects almost immediately.
  2. I’m going to practice “earthing” for 10-20 minutes a day (I hope) once the weather warms up a bit.  I read about this in relation to weight loss, but it’s reportedly good for a lot more than that, including inflammation and chronic pain.  I’m a bit suspicious of the glowing reports on a couple of heal-yourself web sites, but I did locate two research articles in a quick search.  I’ll read these and look for more.  Basically, earthing consists of literally touching the earth—wet grass, sand, soil—with bare feet or bare skin somewhere on the body.  It’s got something to do with the natural electrical charge in the body.  I’ll let you know what I find out.  It’s intriguing.  I know I used to find gardening very relaxing some years ago, and when I’m upset being outside (mindfully) is always a help.  It can’t hurt.
  3. In a research article I do trust, the results showed that a combination of art therapy and meditation had a strong positive effect on anxiety.  Since I know that art (or creativity) and mindfulness meditation each have well-researched advantages for a number of health issues, from depression to hypertension, I figure I can’t go wrong with trying both at the same time.  I also read a study which claims that mindfulness meditation improves creativity.  Perfect!  My specific goal for the time being is to set up more-or-less regular times for art and meditation.  I’ll try twenty minutes at a time for the meditation and much longer for the art (when I studied art in college all our classes were 2-3 hours, which seemed to be the minimum for realistic progress, including set up and clean up time).  I’d like to do the meditation daily, but art sessions may only be 2 or 3 times a week.  And if I can’t seem to make myself do both, I’ll rely on the “flow” of creative focus to be my meditation.
  4. I want to expand my repertoire of tasty vegan or vegetarian meals.  Even if I cook only one that I’ll cook again, that’s success.

I would like to add some yoga to the list, but I failed at that resolution the last time I tried it.  That doesn’t mean I will never try yoga again, it just means that it comes with history and attitude-baggage I don’t want to deal with right now.

So those are my loving invitations for 2013.  None of them involve fault-finding or setting goals I’m unlikely to reach.  In fact, I can’t wait to get started.

The Dangerous Rich

People with a lot of money don’t impress me–at least not because they have money and rarely for any other reason.  Wealth doesn’t impress me because it can be acquired in many less-than-admirable ways.  It can be inherited, of course, which is no accomplishment. Money can also be acquired through criminal acts, as with mobsters, the so-called “smartest men in the room” at Enron, Bernie Madoff, and drug pushers.  Even when money is acquired through legal means (technically speaking), that acquisition can violate the Golden Rule (if you are religious) or fundamental fairness (even if you’re not religious).

But that isn’t why I wanted to write about the dangerous rich.  I had intended to write a piece about the research showing that wealthy and powerful people can be less compassionate, more selfish, and more unethical than people with less money.  My concern is political.  The rich are powerful at any time, but now they are on the verge of what can only be called a coup.  So I started gathering the original research articles to make sure I understood what I was writing about.  I’ve listed the ones I gathered below, some with quotes and my own emphasis (sometimes using the popular press headlines to summarize more succinctly).

I found some studies that may in part explain the 2008 economic collapse:

“Share Traders More Reckless Than Psychopaths, Study Shows.” Der Spiegal, 9/26/2011. Report of research at University of St. Gallen in Switzerland by Pascal Scherrer (forensic expert) and Thomas Noll (administrator at a Swiss prison).      http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/going-rogue-share-traders-more-reckless-than-psychopaths-study-shows-a-788462.html

Quote from Der Spiegel article: “Particularly shocking for Noll was the fact that the bankers weren’t aiming for higher winnings than their comparison group. Instead they were more interested in achieving a competitive advantage. Instead of taking a sober and businesslike approach to reaching the highest profit, ‘it was most important to the traders to get more than their opponents,’ Noll explained. ‘And they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents.’”

Buckholtz, Joshua W., et al.  “Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits.”  Nature Neuroscience 13,419–421(2010) doi:10.1038/nn.2510   Published online14 March 2010.  Reported in “Psychopaths’ brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences.” Vanderbilt News;  Posted Mar. 16, 2010 — 12:42 PM  http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2010/03/psychopaths-brains-wired-to-seek-rewards-no-matter-the-consequences-109865/

DeCovny, Sherree.  “The Financial Psychopath Next Door CFA Magazine.  March/April 2012, Vol. 23, No. 2: 34–35  (doi: 10.2469/cfm.v23.n2.20)

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. By Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.; published by ReganBooks, http://www.harpercollins.com (Web); 353 pages.

Marshall, L.A. & Cooke, D.J. (1999). “The Childhood Experiences of Psychopaths: A Retrospective Study of Familial and Societal Factors.”  Journal of Personality Disorders, 13, 211-225. [Reported in Bennetto, Jason. “Q: What’s the difference between a politician and a psychopath? A: None.” The Independent. 04 September 1996.]

While most of the bankers and traders who brought down the economy are indeed rich (at our expense—which I will address later), they are actually part of a “perfect storm” of uncompassionate conservatives, including the religious right.  Consider this study….

L. R. Saslow, R. Willer, M. Feinberg, P. K. Piff, K. Clark, D. Keltner, S. R. Saturn. My Brother’s Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137

These studies of the ethics of rich and high status people should inform and alarm us in relation to the massive campaign donations allowed to the rich and the conservative ideology that favors the rich:

P.K. Piff, D.M. Stancato, S. Cote, R. Mendoza-Denton, D. Keltner.  “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118373109.

In two tests, researchers found that upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other cars and pedestrians at crosswalks. The researchers used age, vehicle make and appearance to assess drivers’ social class.

In another series of tests involving undergraduate students and adults, researchers found that those who considered themselves “upper class” were more likely to take valued items from others — including candy, even after they were told that whatever was left over would be given to children.

Others exhibited a greater willingness to lie during negotiations and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

The authors of the study said the differences in ethical behavior can be explained, at least in part, by the upper-class participants’ more favourable attitude toward greed. [As summarized in a report appearing in The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/27/rich-people-less-ethical-study_n_1304800.html?view=print&comm_ref=false

Jennifer E. Stellar, Vida M. Manzo, Michael W. Kraus, Dacher Keltner. “Class and compassion: Socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering.”. Emotion, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0026508  Reported in“Lower Classes Quicker to Show Compassion in the Face of Suffering.”  Published online inScienceDaily (Jan. 5, 2012)  A more thorough report is available from U.C. Berkeley at:  http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/12/19/classandincome/

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the study, is quoted as saying in a press release. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

“Rick Santorum:  ‘I Have No Problem With Income Inequality.’”  The Huffington Post, 12/20/11.

Association for Psychological Science (2008, December 23). “Are Power And Compassion Mutually Exclusive?”. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/12/081217124154.htm

M. W. Kraus, S. Cote, D. Keltner . Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy. Psychological Science, 2010; 21 (11): 1716 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610387613  Reported in “Upper-Class People Have Trouble Recognizing Others’ Emotions.” ScienceDaily (Nov. 23, 2010)

Quoting from an article by Max Abelson (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-20/bankers-join-billionaires-to-debunk-imbecile-attack-on-top-1-.htm) on the Bloomberg web site we can see that the wealthy seem to want empathy and compassion even if they’re not able or willing to give it:

If successful businesspeople don’t go public to share their stories and talk about their troubles, “they deserve what they’re going to get,” said Marcus, 82, a founding member of Job Creators Alliance, a Dallas-based nonprofit that develops talking points and op-ed pieces aimed at “shaping the national agenda,” according to the group’s website. He said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters.

“Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co, was another financial leader quoted in the Bloomberg article: “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.”  You may remember JPMorgan Chase & Co has been in the news quite a bit lately.  In an article titled “JPMorgan Chase’s 11 Biggest Problem” by Mark Gongloff (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/jpmorgan-chase-lawsuits-probes_n_1764194.html), Gongloff outlines a few of the issues:

[Dimon’s] bank, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest bank in the U.S., unveiled a long list of lawsuits and regulatory probes in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday. One of the most noteworthy was the fusillade of subpoenas and lawsuits hitting the bank from around the world as part of its alleged involvement in the manipulation of Libor, a key lending rate.

But Libor is far from the bank’s only problem: It is being sued and investigated for everything from its $5.8 billion loss on crazy credit derivatives bets to its alleged manipulation of electricity markets.

Normally I would summarize and explain all these articles myself, without just listing them with a few quotes and comments.  However, the more I gathered and read the research, the more depressed I got.  I was reading all this against the background of the nightly news reporting on the effects of the Citizens United ruling on campaigns as well as reporting on the Republicans’ successful voter suppression efforts in most of our 50 states.  It was depressing, very, very depressing.  I found myself trying to combat the depression with methods I’ve used before when humanity seems completely horrible and doomed.  As the methods began to work, I decided to abandon writing about the dangerous rich and instead write about the things that make me feel good about humanity.

However, in order to get to the place where you could understand my humanity-caused depression and efforts to raise my spirits, I felt that I had to explain all that you’ve read above.  Now that I’ve written it, I’m depressed again.  Maybe I’ll explain my depression-relieving methods another day—providing they work this time.

Photo credit:  http://2bgr8stock.deviantart.com/art/Money-Cash-113445826

You Are Here

Image information below.

 

Most people seem to get through life without worrying too much about who they are.  Their personalities formed in childhood and their identities were granted and confirmed by their circumstances—the daughter or son of Mr. and Mrs. So-in-so, born on a particular day, given a particular name, and addressed by that name until it is inseparable from who they believe they are.  No problem.

Some of us are less certain.  Something has knocked us out of sync with ourselves, like the announcers and actors we see when the tv or movie sound track is a second ahead or behind the words their mouths are forming.  Unlike the people on tv or in movies, however, we’re aware we’re out of sync.  It can be quite troubling.  If we’re not too severely affected by being out of sync, we do continue to function in the midst of our confusion.   We just aren’t very comfortable in our own skins—or psyches.

If this is sounding truly crazy to you, then you are probably one of the blessedly centered ones and should not waste your time reading this piece.

The rest of you know who you are—or know you don’t know who you are.

How did we get out of sync?  Like most of our psychological troubles, the issue probably started in childhood.  Inevitably, it all comes back to “being seen,” a topic I have been trying to make sense of for a while, rather like a cat shaking a mouse to kill the smelly little beast.  This issue is one tough rodent.

What is it that we want other people to see?   The simple (and misleading) answer is that we hope people will see us as we are.  But what is that? And how does this out-of-sync-ness start?

Psychologist and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott gives us the key in his theory of the true self and the false self formed in childhood.  His idea is that the true self develops from spontaneous experience, the simple act of being.  The false self is what we develop to comply with the demands of those around us and to protect the true self in infancy and childhood.  According to Winnicott, “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being.”  Healthy development either heads off the false self or frees the true self by the time one reaches adulthood.

Alice Miller expanded on Winnicott’s idea to reflect a more pessimistic notion–that the child may have no “fully developed, true self consciously hidden behind the false self.”  In such a circumstance, we should not be surprised that the child accepts the false self as the only self, while still having an unconscious sense of its falsity.  In adulthood, this becomes the feeling of being inauthentic, a fraud, an imposter.

Over time, the false self abrades the true self or the hollow core of being, and we slip out of sync.  We know we aren’t who people think we are, but we don’t know what else there is for us to be.

Michel Foucault challenged this idea, saying that “we have to create ourselves as a work of art” or create a “beautiful life” for the self, which he called the aesthetics or technologies of the self.  Some self-help authors have picked up this idea and run with it.

Frankly, I think Foucault was full of beans (at least as his idea is applied by the self-help authors).  We have to go back to the issue of parental mirroring.  If the parent acknowledges or responds to (reflects back or mirrors) only the behaviors of the (parentally desired) false self, then the child and the adult s/he becomes are deprived of the option of Foucault’s so-called aesthetics.  According to Winnicott, the infant or child completely adopts the false self as real and “by means of introjections even attains a show of being real” to her-himself and others.  What happens to Foucault’s aesthetics or technologies of the self then?  Not even self-awareness confers such a reconstructive ability.  And creating a beautiful life for a false self cannot be satisfying.  Hence the need for lots and lots of psychotherapy.

At this particular moment in my life, I think the only recourse for those of us who are out of sync is to just let life happen.  If we try to create ourselves, we run the risk of creating a new false self, someone we think we’ll like better but not necessarily the self we might truly be.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider our values and behave (as much as possible) in accord with those values.  Doing that is at the foundation of being self-aware.

In a sense, what I’m suggesting is that we do what Winnicott says we missed in infancy—going on being. We can’t go back to childhood, and we don’t have a good way of knowing what our “true self” is or even if a “true self” is there.  What other viable choice do we have?

Besides, neuroscientists and philosophical materialists say our concept of self is an illusion created by memory and organizational neurons that have “fired together” for a long time.  Self is merely an organizing mechanism of the brain.  If so, fretting about it doesn’t help.  It just “wires” fretting into our illusory self-concept and we come to define ourselves as worriers.

In explaining why scientists–and, by implication, the rest of us–should never lose “playful creativeness,” Heinz Kohut used the example of the Self:

The self is, like all reality, not knowable in its essence.  We can describe the various cohesive forms in which the self appears, can demonstrate the several constituents that make up the self. . .and explain their genesis and functions.  We can do all that, but we still will not know the essence of the self as differentiated from its manifestations.

Kohut, speaking of science, asserted that “Ideals are guides, not gods.  If they become gods they stifle man’s [sic] playful creativeness: they impede the activities of the sector of the human spirit that points most meaningfully into the future.”  Relating this to his example of the self, a fixed idea of the self (individually or as a concept) inhibits “further joyful excursions” of discovery about one’s self.

I like the Buddhist approach to the issue.  In Buddhist philosophy, life is always becoming.  Change is inevitable, therefore nothing has true continuity.  We are born, grow up, grow old, and die.  So long as we are alive, we change from moment to moment—our cells, our beliefs, our circumstances, our minds.  To define ourselves too precisely is to stop change, to cease to be alive.

So, whoever I am, I guess I’ll go on being.

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[Image information (as far as I could find):  http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_DP5WuVJDyVA/TSY3RHCrssI/AAAAAAAAAHQ/qM6aAiU3cAg/s1600/you-are-here.jpg%5D