Saturday, September 29, 2012

Andre Gide's Gratuitous Act and the Movie Spoorloos (The Vanishing)

Young missing woman from the movie Vanishing

Warning: The following post contains a few spoilers in case you have not seen the Dutch-French movie The Vanishing (1988) (there is also a Hollywood version by the same director, which is deemed inferior to the original I am discussing here). But be assured that I am keeping my spoilers to the utmost minimum; if you have read the synopsis and have heard what the movie is about, then the information presented here should not deter too much from the enjoyment of the movie. Anyhow, I am not giving away the ending; I am, for the most part, providing a character analysis.

My focus here is the depiction of its psychopath Raymond Lemorne and the relation to André Gide's gratuitous act, a concept best exemplified in the novel Caves of the Vatican (aka Lafcadio's Adventures). Although the movie Spoorloos has its share of weaknesses in terms of film-making, I was rather impressed with its script by Tim Krabbé (based on his own novel), particularly the dialogue involving the psychopath's train of thought that discloses his perturbed state of mind.

There are few psychopaths that scare me or give me the creeps. Both Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates are amusing in comparison, and I would not mind having tea with them in a crowded public location, that is. Nonetheless, here is one that I would never want to run across. At first, Raymond Lemorne seems to have walked straight out of the stained pages of a French novel. He seems a bit odd and rather stiff in his demeanor, but we can tell he is highly intelligent. He is a chemistry teacher, a family man and, yes, as he admits himself, we may find him classified in the dictionaries as a “sociopath.”

It all started, according to him, when he was a teenager. He was on the balcony reading when he suddenly had the urge to jump. He says that many think about it, but few actually do so. In fact, in terms of predestination, most of us are destined “not” to jump. The voice of reason, at least, urges him not to, but there is a nagging feeling that wants and urges him to commit the deed.

It is important to note that there is no particular underlying reason or motive for any of this. It is not out of pain or suffering nor heartache that he wants to jump off the balcony. He just wants to disobey his common sense; he wants to do something utterly absurd if not stupid to prove that he is not only free from the constraints of logic, but that he has, in fact, free will. Perhaps it may be due to a genetic abnormality or a chemical imbalance in his brain, but be it as it may, he actually jumps...

He survives with broken limbs, but with the realization that he has done something others are too much of a “coward” to actually attempt. He has managed to defy and rebel against reason. He has managed to do “otherwise,” to choose the option that was not to be expected of him, hence a counterpoint to his personality and existence.

One might claim, however - and this is when the issue of free will becomes tricky, not to say downright complex – that he thinks or he is under the illusion that he had a choice to begin with, but in fact he could not have done “otherwise;” in that case, his “not” jumping would have been more surprising when considering and taking into account the characteristics of his mind and personality.

Later, he has another experience, this time as a family man. His daughter points out a drowning girl and without hesitation, he dives into the water and saves the girl. In his family's eyes, he is a hero. But here his train of thought completely derails. He says to himself, if I am truly a hero, I will not be able to commit atrocious acts. If I am capable of evil deeds, then I am definitely not a hero. And to find out, he would have to test himself, to put himself in the midst of the stream, to see how far he can go without flinching.

As a result, he comes up with an uncanny but methodical plan to abduct a random woman. As a rigorous scientist, he leaves nothing to chance but plans everything out. He uses chloroform (remember he is a chemist) on himself and just before nodding off he clicks his stopwatch. The moment he awakes he will know exactly how much time has lapsed with that particular amount of chloroform. Everything is calculated with mathematical precision. He even takes his own pulse in different situations to see if he has the nerve to go through with the whole act.

Here I will not give away his eventual method, but will only say that the abduction itself will go thanks to the “laws of chance.” He calls it destiny. In other words, his own carefully planned method fails, but suddenly he is presented with an “opportunity.” And he is fast enough to jump (!) upon it and on its unsuspecting victim. Was it then coincidence (le hasard), a random event of chance or destiny? The movie may side with the second option due to premonitions and dreams of the aforementioned woman.

I find this character of Lemorne in its meticulous yet faulty reasoning both fascinating and extremely unsettling. It reminded me of André Gide's gratuitous act, which means that a hideous deed, a murder, for instance, is undertaken for no particular motive whatsoever. There is nothing to be gained from this act, no rhyme or reason to speak of. It is, as it says about itself, a completely gratuitous and morally vacant act.

At the same time, it is out of the blue and completely unexpected. The only driving force might be curiosity, our darkest desire to see what would happen should we do the unthinkable, to take someone else's life. But in contrast to most psychopaths, there is no sexual gratification in this cruelty and violence. It is rather an intellectual exercise or cerebral form of ecstasy.

The movie makes us uncomfortable with this character that appears respectable and common on the outside, but is hiding the voice of the beast in his head. It is reasoning and intelligence used for the wrong ends and purposes. And to boot, and this especially makes this whole thing so untenable, is the fact that there have been and are many serial killers, Ted Bundy, for example, who are very intelligent and even personable but are channeling their creativity and talent into morally unsettling back alleys, the hidden caves of human existence.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A New Mindset for Piracy and Downloading in the Digital Age

An antique mechanical typewriter

Go with the flow is one of my favorite sayings to keep at heart and to live by whoever and wherever you are. Times change, and whether we like it or not, we need to adapt to them. Traditions are all fine and good, but when you swim against the strong currents of time and against reality, you will be washed away to a far-away deserted island.

By this, I do not mean that one should throw all traditions and old-fashioned ideas to the wind, but the digital age is creeping up behind us; we could be staunch and adamant and go against technological progress Amish-style, or we can see its many benefits and embrace its practical side, regardless of our own ideology.

I will give a concrete example here. For the longest time, I withheld, or at least tried to withstand, the onslaught of technology. I saw it as a threat to my romantic and idealistic beliefs. I held hard and desperately onto my mechanical typewriter; I resisted the urge to sign up for a credit card and stayed away from any other technological gadgets in use and the fashion of the times.

When I was slowly and ardently typing away on my heavy-set typewriter, I felt a strong connection with writers and poets of the past. And then I would get upset over my lack of attention, coordination or communication between mind, eye and finger leading to a more than occasional typo in my text. Out comes the white correcting fluid, which I disliked using.

Soon enough the whole page would be riddled with white, so there went another page crumpled up in anger into the brimming paper-basket. When you make mistakes on typewriters, no matter how good your liquid, it shows. The whole writing process slows down significantly especially when your keys sometimes get tangled up or, God forbid, become unresponsive or even break.

Then I switched over to the word processor, where I can do these amazing things like delete words without anybody noticing, and copying and pasting paragraphs to my heart's desire. Spell-checks and the thesaurus are your friends not enemies, and you save paper and physical space by saving all your files on your computer. Everything tidy in one place under its own marked folder. Thank you, computer, how could I ever manage to live without you!

I realized along the way that cellphones are useful as they help me communicate with loved ones anytime and anyplace (as long as there is reception) and that credit cards make it much easier to buy stuff over the Internet; at the same time, I can start building my credentials and ratings with possible future mortgage lenders.

I am aware that I am still quite far behind as I do not have the comfort of i-phones where any answer is only a click or touch away and where I could check my emails more often than I do anyhow. And I do feel that I am falling behind already as my nearly four-year-old son is probably more proficient with his iPad than I am.

To my defense, not all technology is a good idea and time has given some gadgets the slip. It is with glee that I remember a pretty useless invention that I withstood at the time, namely the beeper. You pay money to know that somebody somewhere called you, so now off to the phone to see who it was and what they wanted. Some friends would show off; with hindsight I laugh at any person who ever owned such a worthless device. Sorry if I have offended anybody here.

No doubt, technology has come to define us and our way of thinking. Nowadays children and youth take these inventions for granted and think their world without these gadgets unthinkable. Their minds may be more easily distracted, but they are also shaped with certain skills that we never used in the past. Where we used to struggle to log into our email accounts, the kids these days can do acrobatic things with technology, something that gains and deserves my full respect. (I am also impressed with the young hackers out there that manage to breach security procedures set up by “adult” professionals).

How does all this affect our society? I will discuss two ways here. First, the point I made earlier. If you keep resisting the winds of change, you end up isolating yourself and you lose out. Everything is becoming digital and you are referred to websites for forms and applications. Your cashier at the store or library is now a computer and when you call for assistance, help or information, you will most likely stumble upon automatic recordings that lead you to a website (Where is the human touch in all of this?). 
The second point is the mindset on an issue that is becoming a thorn in the back of the music and film industry, the issue of piracy and illegal downloading. They have tried to stop this activity by shutting off sites like Napster and yet similar sites are popping up all over the place. The new laws that target piracy are greeted with downright hostility by the general public. In the modern mind, piracy seems a normal and commonplace thing to do, the same way pirate radios used to be the answer to the stale, sanitized and highly controlled radio programs in the past when rock 'n' roll was considered a vice.

I do believe, at least theoretically, that piracy is an unethical practice. The reason is that it comes with a general disregard for intellectual ownership, property and copyrights. A writer, musician or film-maker spends a lot of time and effort on their work and to see it downloaded without receiving a dime for their efforts must feel frustrating, to say the least. It is a form of stealing, to take that which is not yours without giving anything in return, despite the fact that after downloading, you are technically “sharing” your files with others.

But in reality, there are other things to consider as well. Why does illegal downloading exist in the first place? Sure, there are many freeloaders and parasites out there, but that is not the full issue here. In the past, I used to save up a long time to be able to buy a CD or DVD. It used to be a significant event for me to come home with new music or the most recently released films.

Yet I believe that it was indeed quite expensive. A CD or DVD could cost me as much as 50 dollars and considering a minimum wage of 7 dollars that is quite a bit (more than five hours of work!). That is my complaint against the music and film industry that their prices were unreasonable, unrealistic and unfair.

Back then, they made a lot of money from us consumers. I look at my CD collection and think how much money has been spent every year on music alone. So now that there is the option of downloading music, or specific songs for free, most people take advantage, and supposedly in Canada we are number one on this list, at least on a per capita basis.

Now it is the music and film industry that need to adapt to the times. This is the digital age and things have changed. So it is necessary for them to adjust and perhaps offer legal downloading. To an extent, Netflix has been doing that, and they have been, to my knowledge rather successful. Yet when I look at others like iTunes, the costs for songs and movies are still very high. Because of this discrepancy, most of us will throw ethical considerations to the wind and prefer to save money instead. I am certain that once the price is reduced and becomes a more reasonable rate, more people will jump aboard and away from those black-toothed pirates.

Let us now look at the arguments against illegal downloading. The entertainment industry claims that they are losing money. That is a true and obvious fact. DVD rentals have shut down. Many businesses that used to bloom are suffering as a result. No business can last forever and it is time for them to jump ship and turn to more profitable business, as demand has changed. Beepers have gone out of business too, and nobody is crying over a loss of income in that case.

Another consequence and case in point is that the artists will not get their cut and are suffering and losing out in this process. This is a more resonant and stronger argument, but it overlooks some crucial facts. First, struggling musicians have and will always struggle, with or without piracy. Record companies have notoriously paid them as little as possible.

In fact, illegal downloading actually benefits those struggling musicians. They can get their music out at no cost for the consumer. It is easier to check out music that is free than having to think twice about paying money for it. In that way, their music will be heard, and if people like the band, they will consider seeing them live perhaps.

When it comes to movies, the situation is slightly different, but again my sympathies lie with the downloading public again. The costs are too high still. And I am not so much worried about actors that can make anywhere between five to twenty million dollars per movie. In order to decrease the loss of the movie industry, why not cut down on their salaries or, on the part of actors, why not accept a pay-cut and do it for the love of the industry?

A similar issue can be raised with the current NHL lock-out. With all due respect toward the players bargaining for the best possible deal, just accept a pay-cut - it is not like they get starving or low wages - and simply agree to play for the love of the game. In the end, those who suffer and lose out the most are the loyal fans and viewers. They are the ones who truly embrace and love the sport and are willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on their favorite teams.

Here is my advice for all involved. Let us be fair. If the film and music industry make a true effort to offer reasonable prices, the public ought to refrain from illegal downloading and instead buy and pay for the original products. Tighter laws, fines and sanctions will only make things worse. Taking YouTube videos down for copyright violations only aggravates the public more; these means are like putting out fires here and there temporarily. But since these measures will not address the root of the issue, others will start the fire, and piracy and illegal downloading will never rest in peace nor be a thing of the past.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Intelligent Design and Evolution in Relation to Diet and Exercise

Front window of bakery with distortion of photographer

Leibniz once famously stated that our planet is the best of possible worlds and that, by extension, life on Earth is the best form there is and there possibly could be. Well, Leibniz was sharply attacked thereafter by a host of philosophers and writers on the grounds that life is not that rosy since there is no shortage of suffering to go around.

As to how we became the way we are, the way we look and the way we live, there are two distinct proposals. The (more) scientific of the two we often refer to as the theory of evolution, that life evolved through a slow mutating process of uncountable trial and error experiments to give us the shape we are now. It is also linked with the idea of “survival of the fittest.”

The second proposition goes back to the notion that we were created by a highly intelligent being, generally referred to as God and that it was His idea and craftsmanship to make us the way we are. I will show how both views are equally misleading and wrong by looking at my present physical and medical condition, something others may or may not identify with.

Let us start with Intelligent Design. So we were designed by a higher power that is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. In other words, we were created by a perfect being who took about seven days (which are more than seven days for us Earthlings) to make sure everything is as good as it can be.

And there is also what psychologists would call meta-awareness or -consciousness; in fact, God is checking His own work, while each and every time He is pleased with what He has done. So this was not a rushed job, hobby or side-project; He took this quite seriously and we humans were created in His image, the same way a writer deliberately delineates and projects her own traits onto the main characters.

Of course, the original pair of humans rebelled against Him, and humanity was expelled, kicked and cursed, while death became a concrete and pending reality. We have been given free will to choose right from wrong, and evil exists because we choose to stray from the divine path and so on.

All of this is quite well, but I have a specific complaint at this point: Why did He make our bodies the way He did? I mean, like a watchmaker, He is ultimately responsible for the clockwork, more so than the aforementioned novelist is accountable for her (fictional) characters.

At this point, the problem of evil and the existence of suffering is not an issue here. I am looking at the fact that He decided to create physical bodies with physical necessities. We need food to survive, and we need to watch what we eat, or else our cholesterol will rise sky high and we can end up not only fat but dead. This body is indeed so fragile that a fall can break bones or give us concussions that may lead to brain damage. Our diets and lifestyle can lead to a number of lethal problems and diseases.

And most of the time, we are not even able to multi-task in this competitive dog-eat-dog world; we get tired quickly and need breaks and sleep; we make errors more than we are willing to admit (to ourselves or others). Then we are constantly tempted by fatty foods that are bad for us; we easily fall prey and can get addicted to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. In one word, we are very vulnerable.

My question then is this, what is so particularly intelligent about our design? We cannot fly, for example, but can at best run, and if we do not exercise regularly, we can't even do that well. I am writing this at a time where I need to watch what I eat and make sure to exercise on a doctor's order, and I think why is all of this really necessary if we are created by a perfect designer.

Nor am I defending evolution. Supposedly we are the “cream of the crop,” a process that has selected the best qualities for survival since predominantly the fittest have been able to pass on their genes to the next generations, so the same issues apply.

Why did we not evolve so that we can eat air? Why do we not automatically absorb unlimited quantities of fat so that there are no obese people? Since we are evolving and I expect perfecting ourselves, why not be able to sleep only two hours a day, which would make us not only more productive, give us more time to make money to survive, but also, again evolutionary speaking, be able to be on the lookout for danger because no target is easier to attack than a sleeping one?

Why is it that I am not born with muscles already instead of having to work for them? Or do they mean by fittest that our only manner of survival is to hit the gym on a regular basis? Why is it not enough that my forefathers worked out; why can that information not be passed on to the next generations via gene transference? It seems rather that we are all starting on square one and are vulnerable from day one and especially dependent on others for our very survival.

We can see that neither view addresses the fact that our bodies are fraught with pitfalls and weaknesses. I have to limit what I eat and increase my level of exercise and I often wonder why. Could it be that both theories are wrong and a third one needs to be proposed? That our creator is perhaps relishing the fact that we suffer from a host of issues, including unhealthy diets and lack of activity, since gluttony and laziness seem more natural states than healthy diets and hard work?

And that this creator enjoys to put us to the test with delicious cakes and ice cream and pizza and hamburgers knowing full well the damage we are doing to our bodies and ourselves? Or are we just randomly thrown onto this plane of existence, into this dog-eat-dog world, just like Jim Morrison sings, “like a dog without a bone”?

All this writing / speculating has made me hungry, so I will have to grab another snack.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Philosophy and the Science of Consciousness: A Review of Daniel Bor's The Ravenous Brain

Book Cover with white Russian dolls in black background

At the beginning of his book The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor talks about having been at the crossroads between science and philosophy during his university years. In other words, it was the choice between an empirical and concrete versus a rational and abstract approach. He chose the former and became a neuroscientist.

Two thoughts (or sets of firing neurons) went through my mind (brain): One, he should have chosen philosophy because of its more speculative, hence attractive and less rigid nature, and two, this book was going to be a real challenge for me as my brain tends to have a hard time understanding neuroscience or practically anything rooted in or associated with biology. (Strangely enough, it loves astrophysics though on a very basic, dummy-kind of level).

From the onset, I noticed a fallacy at work here. Science is the quest for patterns (due to how our brain is wired for “chunking” or combining incoming data) and for a fact-based truth that can be tested and retested with a pronounced focus on statistics and numbers. It should then come as no surprise that there are even serious-minded, albeit heavy-handed attempts at measuring consciousness with numbers.

Philosophy, however, is less interested in the question of what (content) or how (process) but rather in its provocative cousin of why (reason and purpose). So patterns may be useful and may give us vital information about the nature of existence, but they still give us few clues about the reason of our being here, its raison d'être. The root problem of science is the assumption that their observed and observable facts (seeing is believing) is able to override the philosopher's mainly intangible or speculative thoughts and ideas.

The dilemma Bor proposes in the first pages is one I have struggled with myself. I have no problems accepting and embracing evolutionary psychology; in fact, I find that topic fascinating and have and will continue to write and post about it, but I cringe whenever anybody tries to reduce human thought, behavior and consciousness to the common biological denominator, the floating jelly- and walnut-like substance in our heads.

This problem goes back to Descartes who exposed the physical parts of existence, that we are complex biological machines, but who struggled to infuse his view with a “soul” (apparently located somewhere in the pineal gland). This futile and desperate attempt is often dubbed the “Ghost in the Machine.” Bor, in fact, claims that our very consciousness, the “I am, therefore I exist” part of each of us, that chattering voice in our head is not only an evolutionary by-product but it can be deduced to certain areas and parts of our physical information-processing brain.

The evidence sides with the neuroscientist. Brain scans reveal essential information about which parts of the brain are used when consciousness is at work. Brain damage to certain areas diminish awareness and may lead to a vegetative state or a coma. And in other cases, brain activity in the prefrontal parietal network (I am simply copying and pasting this word from Bor's book) can be increased through medication leading to a heightening of consciousness levels. All these observations have come to be factual and are generally stable and consistent.

Put differently, our brain not only controls our behavior, but our personality to boot. If I think of a certain subject or have an idea, a specific part or rather a complex network of interactive areas of my brain will be activated; if I take drugs, other parts will be influenced and affected and all of these cause changes in my sensations and thoughts. It leads to the conclusion that we may be nothing but our brains, the “most complex lump of matter in the known universe,” which is our master and commander, according to Bor.

I have difficulty swallowing that because it does not feel “right” and it would reduce notions of spirituality to nothing but physical processes. For example, we can look at a spiritual or even enlightening drug experience in terms of brain chemistry. We can analyze the feelings and sensations and break them down into biological processes. But that still misses the qualitative, subjective relevance of that experience, something that science is trying to come closer to but has, up to now at least, generally failed to achieve in a satisfactory manner.

My next point why it is difficult to accept the fact that our brain is running the show is that I simply do not understand its workings and mechanisms too well. Here I admit to two personal shortcomings followed by a pretext: I lack the knowledge of how the brain works because I find it difficult and confusing and because I am rather prejudiced against biological processes. My pretext: that is how my brain is wired.

Fortunately, those factors did not stop me from reading on. Although I still hold onto spiritual and metaphysical truths, I have now, significant thanks to Daniel Bor, a somewhat better understanding of (and yes even appreciation for) our brain.

And that is indeed no small feat. Although this book is delightful for novice and expert alike, Bor's style, images and examples will make the most biologically-resistant, -impaired and -challenged (I am talking about myself here) see and understand the whats and hows of the brain. Neurons are compared to staff emails of large companies with its different departments, including those of security and management, while our brain is depicted as the noisiest (and perhaps most dangerous) part on Earth with all its chatting and shooting (and gun-toting) neurons.

Although the subject may look “dry” and sophisticated (evolution and brain mechanism explaining the rise and production of consciousness, or in his own words and subtitle: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning), there are pearls of wisdom held together by a witty and playful style (“ravenous” what an excellent, creative and humorous use of a modifier for a scientific book!) and various (though not enough for my literary taste) personal references and vagaries, such as his aimless and distracted walk around the country-side where Virginia Woolf and Ludwig Wittgenstein used to roam or his baby daughter's frolicking walk on the author's back.

There is also a sheer abundance of useful and practical knowledge in this book. I learned that octopuses are the geniuses of the ocean, that hits and blows to the head and concussions often result in low level brain damage and the loss of neurons (hence my staunch reluctance to register my son for hockey in the future), and that sleep and coffee are more than good for you; they can prevent serious mental illnesses, for instance.

Furthermore, Bor mentions the importance of consciousness and its relation to mental health as well as the pitfalls of “chunking" - meaning that the way our brain organizes thoughts and schemata can easily lead to faulty logic or prejudice, if that is not closely attended to (though I still consciously harbor certain irrational beliefs, such as superstitions and religion).

His final reflections on meditation are very helpful but seem a bit rushed. It would have been interesting to see it developed and expanded in perhaps another book (?), a sequel to this fascinating and enlightening investigation of consciousness.

All in all, this book may not have changed my brain, I mean mind (!) but it certainly taught me many a thing for which I am most grateful. My only regret is that I did not read this book (because it had not been written yet) in my undergraduate years of psychology where it would have been an extremely reliable and valuable fountain of information and knowledge.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Ode to Coffee: My Muse and Drug of Choice

A young woman bringing coffee on a tray
The Coffee Bearer by J. F. Lewis (Yorck Project)
What would my life be like without coffee? I cannot imagine nor would I wish to. I mean I had lived without it for many years of my life, but back then I did not know what I had been missing all this time. This is one drug I simply cannot go without. If I happen to miss a dose, my body will surely remind me with the not so delicious combo-trio of throbbing headache, fatigue and bad mood, ensuring that I do not ever miss another fix.

But why think of quitting anyhow? Why fix something that ain't broke in the first place? Coffee is good for you indeed. A cup of Cuppa in the morning boosts my attention span, memory and mood, while alerting and preparing me for the hustle and bustle of my daily grind. This yummy brain juice manages to clear my muddled mind and wakes me up (I am not a full person in the morning).

But also on the weekends. The way I drink it and its purpose are rather different. I savor it, slowly with a hearty breakfast alongside the family. I talk, listen, have a sip and a mouthful or surf the web with my (second) faithful companion by my side (My wife the first, coffee the second, just to make that clear.)

If anybody, doctor or religious authority, should tell me to quit coffee, I would laugh it away ... nervously. In terms of religions I am forced to cross out Mormonism from the get-go (sorry Mitt), while thankfully all the other major religions turn a blind eye to my delicious pastime.

[The question also remains, could I live without pork (ham, bacon, pork chops, cochinita pibil ...)? I believe one's religion should be based in accordance with one's personal dietary preferences, and not the other way around where religion tells us what one may or may not consume. So again I have inadvertently eliminated most (if not all) religions and must embrace, by default or process of elimination, “unorthodox” or liberal Christianity. Q. E. D.] 
Coffee is also the underdog liquid of love. Sure, many say wine is romantic, and that is definitely true. Its luscious, sensual and silky red that swirls in your wine glass like a fluid ruby, the buzz that works like a truth serum and distills information you would not have divulged in a sober state, all make it a desirable drink. Incidentally, coffee was originally referred to as “wine of the bean” in Arabic.

But do not be fooled by appearances alone. Coffee may not look sexy, but it is a drink that increases arousal. That is the main reason why most people have dates over a Cup of Jolt as it stimulates blood flow and conversation and once the caffeine kicks in, the other (significant or not) will seem even more attractive. At the same time, it is not seriously impairing judgement unlike beer after the consumption of which practically anybody looks attractive.

That coffee can be misconstrued for arousal I can vouchsafe from personal experience. It is perhaps related to the positive feelings and effects of this black elixir, but I have found girls working at coffee shops especially attractive. So much so that I have written a poem once for a barista who worked at a Blenz coffee shop. I have lost the poem since, but it was something about digging for dark gold and the morning sun goddess that lights my day. Not a very good piece of writing perhaps, and that is what she told me in person. But, at least, I had my coffee and started crying into my cup (of Joe), as a manner of speaking.

I am having another java sip right now so that my ideas flow more freely and I can edit my writing with a clearer mind. Yes, my muse is beside me. I do have to limit my consumption of and my relationship with her though; more than three or four cups a day and I will be speaking in tongues, my hand will twitch uncontrollably, and my sleep will have exited through the back door. Like anything good and valuable in life, including sex, the secret lies in control and moderation.

So there you go, gods and goddesses of the black Ichor of life, may this be your personal ode. I am immensely grateful for and irreversibly hooked on your existence and hope you will stay legal and my companion for all times, or at least until the end of the world (in about three months???). And if inflation inflates you like a disproportionate balloon, I will find a second or third job since a life without you (or my wife) is simply a life not fully lived.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Democracy of Death (and how to deal with it)

A knight is playing chess with the figure of death
The Seventh Seal

There is one thing none of us can possibly escape – death. In fact, it is the most objective and democratic event you can imagine since it affects everyone heedless and regardless of class, race, nationality, creed or sexual orientation. Rich or poor will have to face this eventual outcome. Money may buy you the best treatment options available and the wealthy may be able to desperately and artificially extend their sojourn on Earth, but no amount of money can be used as a bribe for incorruptible Death.

Death is often represented as the merciless “killer” with a menacing look and a swinging scythe. He comes to reap what had been sown from the moment of birth, that first piercing cry that signed and sealed the fateful death sentence. The countdown is on from the instant we see the world; sooner or later you will have to meet this Grim Reaper who will take you down the river of Lethe (forgetfulness) or up to the main lobby of heaven or hell.

Yet most of us believe we can somehow cheat death (we cannot, Max Von Sydow tried his best and simply could not beat him at chess, see above) and so end up fooling ourselves by ignoring or distorting the reality of pending death. Like any unpleasant event, we “procrastinate” in thought, we project it onto the far away and distant future, yet it can creep up on us like a graceful cat.

We try not to take death seriously, as witnessed in the “mockery” celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Or we prefer a future life and world of make-believe, a fairy-tale happy ending version where we impersonate fig-leafed Adam or Eve conversing in perfect harmony with all of nature and its creatures while munching on delicious fruits (stay away from the apples though as they contain the worm of knowledge). And all this time, not a single frivolous thought of anything physical (yes that includes sex).

Or we subscribe to a dark hole of emptiness where we equate death alternatively with the rusty end of this biological machine, the ticker that will tick its last beat followed by the dreamless sleep or the complete merger with nothingness, the extinction of the candle flame. In this case, we either call it the eternal Nirvana bliss (no relation to Kurt Cobain) or simply poof!

Death is also seen as the polar necessity of life, the other side of the coin. According to evolution theory, death occurs because the old needs to be replaced by the new. That can range from people to ideas, from politics to religion. For instance, it is the transition from modernism to postmodernism and builds upon Hegel's synthesis where we abandon a previous thought or practice for a more handy and useful one to the needs and realities of the constantly evolving modern world.

Death is a fact and reminder of nature that everything is running on a clock, the universal second law of thermodynamics that points to decay and chaos, where things break on a regular basis but are not fixed. Seeing that in such a case resistance is futile, we can take two important steps to deal with this ominous shadow. 

First, we need to accept the fact of our eventual nonexistence, as we continuously and awkwardly balance the slippery sword of Damocles on our heads.

The second step is a bit more uplifting. We can unite in the face of death. By fully understanding and realizing that we are vulnerable, by switching on the lights of our humanity in the knowledge and hindsight of imminent death, the experience of our own demise, we have no choice but be kind to ourselves and others.

As a result, we can refrain from any type of violence, of pain and suffering that is unnecessary and uncalled for and instead unite and unify in our fragility. Embrace the other who also has the seal of death on her forehead, let bygones be bygones and use your rather limited time to create love so that, once you are forced to receive that chilling and unwelcome visitor, your memory shall live and shine on ... long after you have left this plane of existence.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why don't we do it in the Road: Restraints on Sexual Expression

Women's dress and fashion of the Victorian era
Victorian Woman

It is rather ironic (but not surprising) that it was during the iron grip of the Victorian age that Sigmund Freud uncovered his psychoanalytic theory to his sexually repressed (and oppressed) audience. Sex had been completely swept under the carpet and even women's fashion became so heavily and carefully layered so as not to stimulate (not even accidentally) the perturbed minds of the opposite sex.

What is not seen will remain out of sight was the theory of the day, and Freud proved them dead wrong. The practices of the morally inspired Victorians backfired by actually funneling sexual desire, which kept smouldering, unfulfilled and unsatisfied, in the dark recesses of the id. In fact, it was a ticking time bomb that had the potential of erupting anytime and anywhere.

Although Freud's theory may have placed too much emphasis on sex, sexual desire is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Supposed tools, such as repression, abstinence or censorship will not work, as it is a deep-seated and coded drive of our most rudimentary instincts. You might as well ask people to stop eating or breathing.

In various parts of today's world, we are free to express our sexuality, yet the puritanical ashes of the past still hamper and make us blush. We rarely talk about it (remember the Salt-n-Pepa song from the 90s?) in an honest and upfront manner. When we do so as men, it is used as a form of bragging or it is anecdotal; in other cases, the lack or nonexistence of sexual activity may zap the energy and confidence out of an otherwise healthy adult. 

Sex, in that respect, has the power to infer social status and standing on men by eliciting a certain kind of "respect" from social circles, while in true double-standard fashion women suffer for it and instead of being considered sexually experienced, other "loose" derogatory terms are used. Imagine the female equivalent of Hugh Hefner and your reactions to such an idea; that shows how ingrained the puritanical aspects really are. 

Furthermore, sexual talk is often avoided like the plague by parents who somehow mirror Victorian attitudes, especially in regards to their offspring. They think that if children are left ignorant, these minors will not engage in sexual activities. Parents may then put all their chips on sex education, which, more often than not, provides too little information and is often greeted by nervous giggles from most of its counterparts.

Some parents prefer to postpone or even avoid the obligatory talk about the birds and the bees and would rather have them learn from other sources; yet they seem to turn a blind eye to the fact that, particularly in the age of the Internet, pornography is not too difficult to come by. And the problem with pornography is that in terms of sex, it is a far cry from reality. Its graphic depiction of always sexually responsive, not to say horny, women at the beck and call of men is not only demeaning to women, but simply untrue and unrealistic.

The parents' lack of ease or honesty toward their children may influence the attitudes of the next generation. Media at the same time, and I am speaking mostly from a North American context, seems to shy away from a true and unflinching look at sex. Whether it is under the banner of decency or morality, free sexual expression tends to be flagged by the authorities.

It is this lack of openness mixed with a steadily burning obsession that makes us, the media as well as its consumers, hungry for any type of sexual scandal. As a result, we prick our ears when there are any juicy bits of news about the sexual escapades by a talented golf-player or the recreational activities on the side by a “bad boy” prince.

We may have had a sexual revolution, but like pretty much any revolution, it has ended up under firm institutional control or it simply made matters worse, like the bloody after-taste of the French Revolution. There is a strong bias in favor of violence, which seems more accepted and acceptable than sexual expression. 

A naked woman is censored and the film is rated R but beating someone to a pulp passes as "harmless" teenage entertainment, i.e. The Hunger Games which blew my mind in terms of senseless violence of and for adolescents.

Just think of video games, for example. Ask yourself the following question and give an honest response (You do not have to be a parent to answer the question, but it helps): Would you prefer your child to play video games of violence or of a sexual nature if given a choice?

As we can see here, there are still visible restraints or shackles both internally and externally on our sexual expression. How an (accidentally?) exposed nipple on national television or a breastfeeding mother on social media can cause such a furor and uproar among the public remains a mystery to me.

The hippies believed in free love (whatever that means) and wished to democratize sex by taking it out of the confines of the bed(room) with their make love anywhere you please slogan; yet they have, for better or worse, died out and become an artifact of the past. 

On the contrary, the Victorian worldview has made somewhat of a comeback it seems. Although we do not dress like them, some of their thinking continues to affect and color our attitudes about matters of sexual nature, and we have become, paradoxically, both a sexually hungry and deprived culture.