Making use of the closet

Most people will automatically assume a reference to ‘The Closet’ is about sexuality. However there is another group queuing up for the privilege of ‘coming out’ and I think it’s time we started asking whether the closet has served it’s usefulness. A walk/roll in wardrobe might be more appropriate these days at the very least. Anyway – I am referring to spirituality or probably more accurately, people who have a sense that their spirituality is marginalised by religion or other belief structures.

I’m not sure I want to compare but perhaps there are some parallel experiences of power and notions of normativity and identity that fit. I’d like to explore some of the assumptions that are limiting and what these mean for people experiencing a genuine sense of un-ease.

1: Lets start with language, particularly dualistic structures of language that inform thinking and more importantly understanding. Basically things are either ‘this or that’, you are either religious or Not. Most of the time this is framed in creation versus evolution – people have to pick a side. And it’s more than awkward to try and say ‘neither.’

2: Throwing in ‘other options’ outside the well established dualisms like above is seen as ‘too politically correct’ it sometimes sounds like ‘stop including/pandering/indulging all these minorities!’ We’ve worked so hard to make some things invisible and constructed almost an Orwellian Ministry of Truth like certainty that ‘it always has been this way.’

3: Change and fluidity are definite no-no’s. Identity is assumed to be fixed – whether it be via ‘nature or nurture’ we are supposed to have done all that figuring out by the time we are in our 20’s (more or less) and then it’s locked in!

4: When it comes to declaring you are of a different ‘persuasion’ there can be intense scrutiny and general sense of ‘fair game’ for others inquisitive questioning. Some people have a sense of entitlement and see ‘curiosity’ as a form of inclusion or acceptance. However – questions that start with ‘Do all…’ should be met with an equal ‘Do all…’ and wait for the eyebrows to raise.

5: Linking in with 2 is the quintessential ‘it’s a phase!’ You just need ‘convincing’ – or an exorcism. Panic and freaking out with references to cults, mental illness or some level coercion are implied.

6: A sense of ‘betrayal’ from others who think they ‘know the person better than anyone’ often (but not always) family and friends or close associates. The idea of the ‘essential true self’ affords people the right to ‘know someone’ so the change is assumed to be about ‘hiding’ or ‘pretending to be someone’ an ‘imposter’ – “I don’t know who you are anymore” hurts because it supports this unhelpful view of self.

7: Catastrophising the future sometimes follows 6. Fear tactics are employed via creative exaggerations of how bad/hard/unfulfilling etc life will be for you if are going to be ‘this.’ Large doses of guilt and shame are sometimes included by referring to people or connections that might be lost, broken. If that doesn’t work then full scale ‘interventions’ could be next.

For those who have never been on the margins this might seem a little perplexing. So another way to look at it is through the lens of loss and grief. It doesn’t have to be about death. But any radical change in life suddenly exposes a lot of things we might have taken for granted and the vulnerability while working through ‘what it all means’ might require some form refuge or sense of security.

Human beings need to belong or more accurately to feel, experience and believe they are accepted, valued and respected. Ostracism, exclusion, rejection and isolation undermine all of this. I think The Closet is a realm of consciousness that allows for risk assessment or discerning in the moment what will work best for providing for those important needs. So perhaps The Closet is more like a Green Room, where we see through the curtain at the audience and decide who to put out on the stage.

Spirituality is a deeply personal, intimate experience and is as unique to people as sexuality. Our relationship with life is infused with the delights of both aspects but isn’t always simple. Having a ‘place’ that serves as a form of protection is wise, not weakness. It’s nice to be able to step out of the ‘lime light or spot light’ and while in ‘The Green Room’ embrace, integrate and become comfortable with ourselves.

So get out there and ‘break a leg.’

Lego of me

Plastic is an environmental disaster – unless it is in the form of Lego. My love for brightly coloured bricks began in the 70’s, but Lego has been around since the late 1940’s. Lego has stuck around since then and instead of being pushed aside with technology, has grown in popularity with the digital age adding to its cultural mystique.

Parents might have a different view – particularly if building kit sets with instruction manuals the size of telephone books. Thousands of tiny bits of plastic mathematically also work out to a large surface area of mess and potential soft tissue injury, anyone who has knelt on a piece of Lego will know what I mean.

When I visit my parents I still get a kick out of getting out my old Lego. It really is different to the new stuff. The people were featureless and genderless. Back then the neutrality and ambiguity of Lego wasn’t anything intentional but looking back – especially with ‘overtly gendered’ generation of toys (including new kits), it seems revolutionary and forward thinking. Others have already commented extensively on this change including the facial expressions of Lego people, but I don’t think we need to be panicking about the psychological damage, even the angriest Lego faces are kind of funny looking.

For those of you who ‘don’t get the Lego thing’ and are even more baffled by those Adults who dive into it as much as children do let me share my experience – don’t worry – its not contagious.
When I sit down with a pile of bricks it is like the world disappears. All I am thinking about is what I am building. It’s this effect and the challenge of creating as many cars, planes and space ships with ever decreasing pieces that is satisfying and strangely rewarding perhaps best summed up in a statement like, ‘ha! see – I made the millennium falcon out of just 15 pieces – I don’t need the 800 piece kit!’

But its ok if you still don’t get it. Lego has transcended itself, it is no longer inanimate – IT LIVES. Yes thanks to stop motion camera work Lego has made it to moving pictures. Things are funnier when done with Lego, even those who are already funny such as comedians can have their work lifted to another dimension with plastic bricks and people. Probably better to give an example:

And there is of course The Lego Movie! I have just one warning about this movie, the theme song will get stuck in your head and one word will be the trigger for full replay whenever you hear it. I’ll let Batman convince you its ‘awesome.’

There are so many reasons to love Lego, except when you get bits stuck together and you really need that one piece then it is all out frustration and broken nails. That aside, the simplicity of Lego is it’s success. I think it has its own wisdom so I’m going to have a crack at writing my own Tao of Lego – not being an expert in Taoism I realise this might be considered an act of hubris rather than humility. So I will tread lightly and hope the essence comes through.

1: Each block has a purpose a place everything fits
2: There are as many ways to build a space ship as there are blocks
3: The best way to build is without the instruction manual, it limits the natural expression of creativity
4: If you desire the perfect end product at least enjoy the process as much as the end result
5: Let go the need for comparing your space ship to others – they are all cool
6: The perfect state of Lego is broken, building moves away from the natural state – small children are masters of returning Lego to this
7: Don’t look for the right piece – reach into the pile and allow the piece to find you
8: It is what it is – whatever it is
9: We are all made of the same stuff – trees, people, spaceships
10: A thing of beauty does not need to be complex and detailed, there is wonder in a single geometric shape joined with one other.

Piece be with you all.

Animal Instincts

I am of the David Attenborough generation of natural history documentaries. My ‘education’ of the natural world, the idea of instincts and virtually all things seemed to be infused with some version of Darwinian evolutionary certainty. Learning about the ‘birds and bees’ was just birds and bees because we got to see how Mammals did reproduction and it wasn’t ANYTHING like pollination or egg laying.

We love a good comparison to the animal world, especially if it makes us (humans) look good. Far from being a realistic or even ‘natural’ version of the animal world my sense is that all documentaries aim to construct a preferred version of things. Think I might have just felt some of you do a sharp intake of breath as science is objective and neutral right? I am critical of all things claiming a single version of the truth, history is written by the winners – and most historians accept this idea to varying degrees. Less so is the idea that the story of the natural world might also be somewhat ‘made up.’

My angle on this is really how we have used the animal world to justify, reinforce and solidify particular ideas about ourselves as a species. We have selected evidence of our superior abilities and relegated the animal world to some object of curiosity that reassures us we are ‘better than them.’ It is interesting to note however how often ‘mating for life’ is celebrated, even marching long distances to find food and reunite with loved ones after suffering over many months apart. No prizes really for guessing what relationship is honoured here as ideal and monumentally over represented. We are not Penguins people!

Up until now we have been at the mercy of documentary makers who are human and will have something they ‘want to show.’ Not all of this has been intentionally deceptive but it has limited our understanding of the complexities and diversity of all life, including our own. Welcome the age of the internet and the plethora of cameras capturing this. The awkward bit is the alternative evidence that animals might not be so ‘animalistic’ and humans could actually be the ones ‘lacking’ genuine compassion, empathy and intelligence. These images are ‘shocking’ to us because of the monocular perspective presented by traditional documentaries.

Here are a few to dive into if you haven’t already come across them via Facebook or another medium (this is a one of the few ‘likes’ I have for FB):

1: National Geographic Camera Man and Leopard Seal trying to save ‘useless human by feeding him penguins.’

2: Dolphins recognising themselves – very existentially challenging

Good to know vanity has crossed species as well.

3: Understanding loss – love – grief (have your tissues handy)

4: Joy and Gratitude – skip to 6 minutes if you get over the ‘beast in speedos.’

5: Unusual animal partnerships that ‘defy’ nature

6: Recreational pursuits – don’t stone the Crows – give them a lid and they will surf!

6: For ‘big’ cat lovers – some serious kitty love and a genuine message about habitat loss (14 minutes but well worth it).

You might have seen better examples, the list is endless and they all have one thing in common, defying our assumptions about the natural world and what might transcend the boundaries of predator and prey. Some of the commentaries are direct about the wondering this provokes and I agree and hope science can embrace some of these challenges without dismissing them as peculiar, simple ‘imprinting’ or deviations from the norm.

Alas, science has its own version of ‘survival of the fittest’ its called publish or perish. Whilst other areas such as physics appear to have embraced uncertainty – quite literally (Heisenberg), the natural world of biology has remained relatively unscrutinised and almost wrapped in a protective academic bubble. There are many in the field of biology willing to stick their necks out but they do so at great risk from within the establishment, much like other strong social institutions. The tide will eventually turn and I just hope many of them can cling on long enough. Again, perhaps publishing online and via alternative avenues will enable more radical ideas such as plasma life forms to be made available. It literally could be ‘life Jim but not as we know it.’ Life definitely might be stranger than science fiction.

As evidence comes to light there have been monumental shifts towards accepting the animal world as more or less equals. I find it painfully ironic that one of the countries leading the way has been India. They have declared Dolphins ‘non human sentient beings’

At the same time they decided to ‘recriminalise’ homosexual relationships, no death penalty just life in prison – the national ethics committee decided not killing people for being gay was ‘humane’ – thank you George Orwell we now have the Ministry Of Love for real. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Love
As for what has been happening in India, do bother to take a look.
But this has serious implications for our Cetacean friends. What about all those gay dolphins then who are not allowed to be held in captivity anymore? Ethical conundrum there.

Perhaps it comes down to something incredibly simple, yet profoundly important. Animals do not hide their emotions, they are authentic beings. They show us exactly how they feel and they express something few human beings do – unconditional love. We have relegated emotions to things that get in the way or need suppressing, something I believe has not advanced humanity as a species. Animals are beings of pure connection unclouded by ego or narcissism and perhaps reflect a ‘higher’ state of consciousness.

So lets not ‘do it like they do on the discovery channel’ and acknowledge animals are conscious sentient beings that we must stop exploiting for our own gratification. And please, can we get over using avian and insect reproduction processes to cover our ridiculously self imposed shame about sex!

Free the birds and the bees please!

What to do with the ball – kick it or pass it?

It’s that time of year. The detailed planning and preparation has begun. Research into the competition, ruthless conditioning and contingencies accounted for. You might be forgiven for thinking I was talking about the winter sport season of rugby and netball if you’re from Australia or New Zealand. It is school Ball season or Prom if that term is more familiar. A tradition New Zealand schools have tried to drag into the 21st century with mixed results.

I had a ‘small town’ experience of the ball. It was held in the school hall with a few decorations splashed around, mirror ball, local band, and formal dancing expected. I wonder how many ACC claims from that era reflect broken toes and sprained ankles from attempts at waltzing.

New Zealand is currently in the throws of serious ‘cultural angst’ about our young people and how they are growing up. A lot of this centres around sex and alcohol. Throw in an event that is a virtual ‘dress rehearsal’ for adult relationships and hey presto Cinderella is outa that ball dress at midnight, into the party bus carriage and Prince Charming doesn’t care what shoes she is wearing! Her fairy godmother has also organised an after-ball function so the magic can go on.

What is the Ball? Some call it a ‘right of passage’ into adulthood. I agree but it is a certain representation of adulthood that is ‘righted’ so I’m giving that definition the quintessential Kiwi ‘Yeah…Na…’ and providing an alternative – but you might want to take a deep breath first. I will call it what it is, a socially sanctioned, ritualistic normalising of heterosexuality and clear gender identity, wrapped up in large dose of nostalgia and parental voyeurism…and breath.

That doesn’t sound quite so romantic now does it. I’ll be somewhat unapologetic about that because we really need to ask why we are hanging onto the Ball as a significant and important function schools perform. I think we have drifted along for some time with this one hoping it will morph and evolve naturally with the times. Well that has been about as smooth as a first driving lesson…and other ‘firsts’…enough said.

Lets ‘quick step’ through some of the questions I want to pose so we can stop being side tracked by the well worn dialogue around alcohol use and sex which seem to dominate commentaries in this area.
Who is the ball for? I’m going to suggest that although we proclaim the Ball is for young people, I believe parents are just as invested if not more. Recently, when there have been suggestions of phasing it out, a lot of the outcry and desperate pleas to continue have come from adults, especially parents. It could be that the Ball acts like an anchoring experience, an intergenerational touch stone, that allows parents to join with their children at a time when they start to feel pushed out and excluded. They have something to offer and share in the experience whilst taking their own trip down memory lane.

What is the main difference? I’ll tentatively put this out there and hope it makes sense, but I feel there has been a change in sense of ‘intimacy.’ I’m surprising myself mentioning this, but notions of intimacy have all but evaporated like cheap aftershave. It’s perhaps easier to explain by looking at some of the changes that have taken place. I apologise in advance for mixed metaphor’s and cliché’s.

1: What happens before the Ball – or ‘Pre Ball’ This used to be the realm of the ‘Lions Den’ for young men, where they would arrive to pick up their date. The visual and verbal dressing down given ensured the ‘law of the jungle’ was spelt out and the unspoken was ‘don’t you dare even think about doing anything to my precious daughter.’ You could say it’s like ‘walking down the isle’ as poor anxious boy waited for his date to emerge in her dress, a princess in all her splendour, to be greeted and marked with a corsage.
You might be wondering ‘how is that intimate?’ The ‘couple’ is acknowledged as significant and meaningful, the light is shone on ‘them’ and whether you agree or not, it weaves a story of responsibility and expectation around respect. Intimacy develops through carefully crafted situations that allow for specific interactions and Ball/Prom protocols have certainly delivered on this aspect in times gone by.
Taking a date has become more optional, sometimes partners do not even know each other, but simply ‘match up’ through friends because the underlying ‘couple experience’ is still there. I’ve seen this awkward set up and hope we can move on from the pressure to take a date. Groups of young people sometimes choose to go together which seems to at least on the surface to counter the ‘take a member of the opposite sex’ theme. So we are stuck in a kind of ‘limbo’ (not the dance unfortunately) with a tension in expectations. The interpersonal and social location of the ‘couple’ has enabled the outward rituals to be more important than the connections to people. Teens are ‘tied’ and ‘frocked’ up and sent stepping through the social norms to ensure there is some ongoing familiarity providing reassurance that everything is ‘normal.’

2: At the Ball – Learning to formal dance was something many of us went through. Clumsy and embarrassing as it might have been for many, classical ballroom steps and routines guided young people through physical closeness and being in another’s personal space with permission. Young people could safely hold each other and feel how they felt in the comfort of ‘shared discomfort’ and co-ordinated stumbling around in circles. Why is this important? Navigating physical closeness is like learning to drive in a safe environment before taking to the open road or race track. Without this we are effectively bypassing and devaluing a whole spectrum of intimacy. With formal dancing relegated to ‘uncool’ getting physically close to someone is an ‘all or nothing’ experience.

3: After the Ball – the advent of the ‘don’t talk about The After-ball’ generation signals a shift in the relationship schools have with their community. In effect the intimacy associated with being part of a ‘school event’ is countered by the polarity of the ‘After Ball’. For a start, this has become it’s own event, and an expectation. The clandestine planning and secrecy warrants some scrutiny I feel. You know something isn’t quite right when schools are having the Police in to ‘lecture’ students and letters are going home to parents to discourage organising After Ball’s.

What has stayed the same? Gender expectations and the inevitable pressure to fall into line and play the correct part for the ‘parts that you have.’ When people refer to ‘Tradition’ and even ‘traditional couples’ the weight of heteronormativity becomes explicit. I’m heartened however to see schools grapple with this and adjust accordingly.
But change hasn’t come easy. Some New Zealand schools persisted for a time with requiring ‘declarations of sexual orientation’ if students wanted to bring a same sex partner. Justifications for this range from avoiding gender imbalance to worrying if there was formal dancing then other dates might be poached – oh the horror! Having to ‘out yourself’ by taking a letter home for your parents to sign does nothing to celebrate and embrace diversity. In fact it does the complete opposite. Bi-sexual and intersex students would perhaps have the biggest dilemma. The day someone brings ‘one of each’ gender with androgynous attire will signal an epic shift in genuine acceptance of diversity.

Ultimately I believe ‘dropping the ball’ could help us decide what game we are actually playing and whether the rules really fit for 21st century concepts of identity and diversity. It could be a real game changer.

Colouring outside the lines

There is something profoundly beautiful about children’s art. It is free and unbound by self-consciousness. Art wasn’t something I was encouraged to appreciate or take seriously and a part of me feels robbed at a deeply spiritual level of artistic pursuits. I envy children they are perhaps an insight to how stunted we become as we age. The ‘rules’ and restrictions permeate our awareness shaping our understanding of how things should be so we live ‘within the lines.’

Watch very young children with a colouring in book and they don’t notice the lines. But put an older child beside them and watch things change and the bringing forward the idea of ‘getting it wrong’ and making a mistake and shame. From then on colouring in the lines is the aim. The pictures offered get more and more complex but the aim is the same – to stay within the lines. The spaces get smaller and the detail more precise so the stakes get higher – one small slip or wobble and the perfect picture is ruined.

We can do better raising creative confident young people. There are really clear ‘pictures and lines’ youth are encouraged to see as successful, worthy and desirable and our education system supports this. I salute all those pushing beyond the lines, who are challenging young minds to see more than just two dimensional possibilities. Scribble with them and play alongside them and laugh at failure as it is just a line – it can be erased, moved or ignored.

So I am calling out to all those who have a connection to children and young people. Be prepared to guide and support and even ‘draw on experience’ but if they ‘brush you off’ smile and know you have given them the greatest gift, a blank canvas.

The hair essentials

Hair has to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the human body. It defines us in multiple ways layers and even across species. We have strange rules, rituals, fears and hang ups based on where it grows, doesn’t grow, colour and length. My Mum is a hairdresser, and so was her mum but I broke that chain and to be quite honest the world is a safer place for me not having taken up the trade.
I would work in the salon after schools sweeping the floors and doing the perming rollers for her. She would listen to customers talk through personal difficulties, while deftly snipping away. The regulars were like family, many of them watched me grow up. When she branched out to waxing and tinting it dawned on me just how hair defined our sense of self.

Every permutation of human identity can be defined in some way by hair. This is by no means and exhaustive list but serves as a bit of a provocation to notice. Aside from ethnicity where biology (genetics) plays a big part in the ways hair grows we have:
Babies – sometimes born with lots of hair or no hair.
Puberty – Hair appearing in interesting new places, to be celebrated or removed depending on what gender you are identifying with.
Adult hood – hoping hair will stay in places it should be and not migrate to places it shouldn’t be.
Late Adulthood – hoping hair doesn’t do a vanishing act on head and trying desperately to keep its original colour.
Golden Years – giving up the fight and embracing the grey – or back to no hair – full cycle.
Women – femininity defined by length of hair, intelligence – colour of hair.
Men – masculinity defined by facial hair and body hair – to some degree, perhaps more so 20 years ago.
Length of hair for women and the removal of hair from body parts. Men – how groomed their hair is – no matter where it is on their bodies (if they have it on their bodies).
Religion Just a couple of interesting examples to demonstrate intriguing relationship to hair.
Sikh – nature knows best, hair is a gift and if it isn’t a hindrance shouldn’t be tampered with.
Brethren – if a woman doesn’t cover her head she should have her hair cut off. Seeing as it is ‘shameful’ for a woman to have her hair shaved or short – keeping it long and covered is the usual outcome.
Hindu – hair on new born babies is associated with past lives so is shaved off. There is also a belief that shaving stimulates proper brain growth and the ‘tuft’ at the crown of the head protects memory.

There are some other interesting expressions of diversity running parallel such as ‘sub-cultures’ of belonging. For example relating to music (punk spikes, reggae dreadlocks) ‘hippie’ locks, the ‘mullet'(think ‘MacGyver’ or the 80’s in general). Skin colour, age, gender and ethnicity might be our most common default starting points for locating someone socially but I would argue hair features just as strongly. If your hair seems to contradict any of the above criteria it can put a bit of a spanner in the label works. Bring it on! I’d love to see more people in their 80’s or 90’s sporting silvery dreadlocks.

Most of us have played games growing up pretending to be someone else. Escaping ourselves is fun and if we want a ‘quick change’ wigs often work effectively to propel us into an alter ego. But radically tampering with your own ‘do’ can come with some unforeseen social fall-out and I’ve had some close encounters with this phenomenon.
I remember my brother shaving all his hair off at university. When you see cartoons of people getting such a fright they get airborne – that was me when I saw him sitting on my couch. I got dreadlocks and really do think that was the better choice given we were studying in Dunedin. Much warmer having a wooly locks when it is a toasty 3 degrees celcius in your flat. We both encountered a change in perception from others. I got lots of attention from other ‘dreadlocked’ folk of all walks of life – people who probably would never stop and talk to me. My bro – well – sadly for him the ‘skin head’ look came with connotations of ‘white power’ hate groups. When he went into shops women would go out the back and get the manager to serve him. Needless to say he was happy when his hair started growing back. Then there are pranks such as shaving peoples eyebrows off. It’s not a lot but boy does it change how a person looks.

Going down the rabbit hole now, hair possibly has a ‘supernatural’ and spiritual connection to life. As science pushes further into the realms of the invisible and explores subtle fields of energy our understanding of what is real and what defines our world grow and evolve. So what about the possibility that hair could be a form of ‘antennae’ that taps into these unseen forces? Think its the realm of science fiction – Avatar? Well, maybe truth is indeed stranger than fiction:
In short, during the Vietnam War the US Government went looking for ‘talented scouts’ and went to the Native Indian community. Once recruited they would be given a standard military ‘buzz cut’ (bye bye long locks) and hey presto – no more ‘6th sense.

All of us have a relationship with this fibrous structural protein that is captured by multiple meanings from the functional to the fashionable and even the freaky. But there is one place hair should never be, and that is in your food. Just one tiny hair and that’s it – meal ruined.

That’s about the long and short of it, although it’s not always that cut and dried.

Laughter is the best medicine, unless its not

I have a Friday night ritual that involves sitting down and watching TV with the sole/soul purpose of laughing. It’s my preferred choice of intoxication. We all laugh, in fact laughing is our first form of communication, we laugh before we can speak. It is interesting when you find yourself doubled over in hysterics and the person beside you staring incredulously with a look on their face that reads “what is she on?”

Well actually I have been prescribed an ancient Greek remedy! The word humour/humor has its roots in Latin and is related to the ‘balance of fluids’ that control human health and emotion. I have to agree, if I have a good laugh I feel amazing, but too much of a good thing and I lose bodily functions I would rather not lose control of – breathing and bladder control. Seriously, there are genuine physiological benefits such as increased endorphins (natural happy buzz chemicals) and a reduction in stress hormones.

Not everyone has the same taste in what tickles their funny bone. Going back and watching old TV and movies reveals how socially and culturally constructed humour is. I often chuckle at personal adds where people declare they have a Good Sense Of Humour (GSOH) – according to who? But I suppose it is a valued quality – so why? Why do we care if people can laugh?

I think it’s a bit of a shortcut to knowing someone on an intimate level. For me this is the ultimate form of intimacy. The psychological, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of self are revealed through laughter – you are essentially fully naked. It is honest and cuts through layers or labels of identity that don’t really matter in terms of ‘who we are’. I see it as an energetic experience that is felt at a very deep level, we become closer to the other person and less guarded. They ‘get it’ – they get you.

But it’s not quite that simple unfortunately. You see,
humour requires a degree of harm ‘wrongness’ or offense. Or exposing either of these. Sad but true and hilarious. In Stranger In A Strange Land (Robert A Heinlein), the main character Valentine Michael Smith, is a human raised on Mars. He has NO sense of humour when he arrives on Earth and does not understand laughter or why Earth raised humans laugh. When he finally works it out he announces:

“I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”
“I had thought — I had been told — that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok* it is a bravery . . . and a sharing… against pain and sorrow and defeat.”
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok

Smith is an intense character but as fictional as he is, the observation is spot on and rather revealing about the level of consciousness we are at as a species. Smith although biologically human, had never laughed because; if a ‘Martian’ ever invoked any of these in another they would ‘discorporate’ themselves…hard to explain just read the book (it’s not a movie – yet – so you can’t cheat!).

I’m also not so sure about particular cultures of humour within professions that develop as a way of dealing with difficult and distressing events and trauma. Terms such as ‘surgeons humour,’ are a bit of a contradiction and whilst could be seen as healthy ‘off-loading’ has the potential to dismiss and minimise peoples experiences who might be involved.
My line of work is inextricably linked with this sort of phenomenon. So I understand people need to find a way to be less affected by horribleness but sometimes wonder about the effect of this in terms of anethetising ourselves too far and forgetting we are dealing with people. When it is that sad, hard and difficult – just let it be that! Laughing it ALL off denies a healthy balance of sensitivity and respect with a need for self-care.

Laughing at ourselves we could do more of. I know when I’m doing this my ego gets a bit of a spring clean. It goes back to intimacy and to be in touch with our own frailties, idiosyncrasies and a willingness to explore these without a sense of shame.

So if I was to put a personal add in with ‘GSOH’ I might qualify that by indicating – I think I am very ‘punny’, like candle lit dinners in shrubbery’s and ‘always look on the bright side of life’.
If that makes sense then you ‘grok’ me.

Yes laughter probably is the best medicine, and could be prescribed more – it might just depend on what the ‘dis-ease’ is and the dose.

Same puzzle – different pieces

Dinner party conversations can go from cacophonous to complete quiet in the blink of an eye (that could also be a disparaging wink in disguise). While people are processing what to say or how to respond – a loud voice booms out in a mocking tone “so you’re a conspiracy theorist” followed by rocking back in their chair and eyeballing the innocent participant who has just realised they have met a skeptic.

Chances are the conversation will slip back something more mundane, but if the awkward pause continues it could be that dessert will be served with a cup of hot posturing. Time to volunteer to do the dishes? Or place bets on who will win. But what might appear on the surface as a ‘healthy debate’ or ‘robust arguing’ in actuality represents ‘drunken boxing with a cobra’. Or something like this:

Not everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, views about sensitive or controversial themes. It’s kind of like stripping in front of your grandmother. But others find it a bit of a sport to toy with those daring to step outside the usual or more commonly accepted ‘truths’ of the world. I grew up with a few in my family and learned very quickly when to exit the scene before getting bitten. It left me questioning my beliefs and it wasn’t until I stumbled upon this little gem on skeptics linguistic ‘slight of hand’ that creates the illusion of knowing what they are talking about:
That I finally felt confident to become a ‘snake charmer’ – although I would still rather avoid them if possible.

It is a very useful set of observations about the tactics skeptics use to create the illusion of skilled debate without actually offering any of their own thoughts or ideas. It’s also a balanced view. To be fair most people who are skeptical are also open minded, but the closed minded skeptic is definitely not EVER going to agree that the pieces of the puzzle might fit together differently. There is a list of 10 tactics but my favourites are:

1: Continually ‘raising the bar’ on the evidence needed. They ask for the evidence – you give it – they require more – and no matter what – it’s never good enough…like drunken boxing, you know you are swinging but the punches never connect.
2: Defaulting everything to ‘Occam’s Razor’ – that the simplest explanation – that fits all the ‘facts’ is preferred. But that requires the facts to be agreed on.
3: Proof – ‘I don’t need to prove it – I’m not claiming XYZ’ – They assume they can win by default – that doubting the other side is enough. Carl Sagan put it best when he said “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The other 7 are variations on the above as well as, character attacks and the use of body language (sneering). I have a couple of my own to add:

1: The personal is proof – or the ‘I know I’ve been there’ argument. A classic example I have encountered is someone who is absolutely certain (closed minded skeptic) that life ends when you die because when they had a heart attack and they had to be defibrillated – they didn’t see a white light. There is the proof ‘I’ve experienced that – and that’s not how it is’.

2: Shoot the messenger and you shoot the believer – if you discredit the person or the source of the view point (David Ike is a good example) – then the target is also anyone who subscribes to what the messenger espouses. The more radical, extreme and unusual the idea helps here and if that is combined with someone who ‘seems’ a bit weird then to follow that person means that ridicule is as contagious as herpes. Going back to Mr Ike – he was media fodder in the early 1990’s

He has not backed down and never diluted his theories no matter how obscure or ‘bizarre’ they seem to the general public. I respect people who think for themselves and brave the cold social outskirts of respected ideas. We could do well to remember other visionaries, extremists and revolutionaries who were imprisoned and outcast only in later centuries to be revered.

But if we can all find the balance of the skeptic and conspiracy theorist within we might all have richer lives. I suppose it is another form of adventure and some might feel able to travel within their country, others might seek wider experiences – but one doesn’t have to mean the other is less valid. The advent of the world wide web means we can explore all sorts of radical ideas and possibilities. Discerning ‘fact from fiction’ can be tiring and is perhaps the reason why people ‘throw out the alien baby with the bathwater’.

One technique I have found useful is ‘triangulating information’ – that is I wait a few years and see what sources and themes are strongest and how other forms of knowledge might support this. I’ve also realised something can be located in multiple paradigms and this doesn’t need to be resolved. The intersection of spiritual and scientific ideas is a curious place that is worthy of anyone with an esoteric adventurous streak.

So if anyone is looking to spice up their next social occasion – don’t bust out the 1000 piece jigsaw, try throwing in a wild card such as ‘what about the illuminati, and the Queen being a reptilian shape shifter?’ and let the fun begin.

Intelligence is all artificial

A popular theme in science fiction and indeed mainstream science is the idea of AI or Artificial Intelligence. You might be surprised (I certainly was) to know this isn’t a modern concept. In fact this idea goes back to Greek mythology. For example, Hephaetus and his automata and Talos – the giant man of bronze who guarded Europa (that doesn’t sound very sci-fi more another genre…moving on!).

I’m not convinced we really understand intelligence or have a definition that stretches beyond what we think we know about who we are as a species. Part of the confusion I believe is the role of consciousness and awareness and our paranoia about surviving. But there is a double layer of hubris and fear sandwiched between thick slices of narcissism to contend with before we can digest the idea of AI.

So here are some of the basic themes sci-fi has played with over the years to give a sense of why we are stuck with perpetual repeats of ideas but in different outfits, jargon and special effects.

1: Humanity gets technologically advanced.
2: This technology ‘mimics’ thought…problem solving…
3: Technology becomes aware of itself…(stop loading the ‘Descartes-I think therefore I am’ software would be a start I suggest).
4: Now that it is ‘self-aware’ it decides to annihilate it’s creator or;
5: AI struggles with complex ethical issues, receives mixed messages – and goes with its own solution (which is bad for us – 2001 A Space Odyssey)
6: Technology merges with biology (androids, cybernetics/cyborgs) with mixed results (word of warning, if you are at a nightclub with one, do not let it put its finger in your drink…Prometheus reference). Seems these beings freak us out the most as they are so close yet so far away from being human.
6: Death – suffering – ‘poor us’ humans lament their faith in trusting AI.
7: Humanity finds the thing that makes us unique in the universe and ‘wins’ – and its less dark, grimy and weather improves, suddenly the sun comes out in dystopic post-apocalyptic earth/world.

I am of course generalising, but I think it is necessary in order to get to the deeper philosophical levels of inquiry. That being said, I still love Alien for the sheer ‘s$*t your pants’ factor.

The rollercoaster is predictable for it rests on fundamental assumptions of psychology and biology. Particularly the role of ‘the mind’, of power, control, and popular concepts such as ‘Darwinian’ survival of the fittest. We are invited to take up the moral high ground as a species, that our level of consciousness combined with ethics and values makes us ‘special’ or more able to know deeper/higher/more complex notions of connection (empathy, compassion, love?). Doesn’t seem to stop us getting our asses kicked!

One of the most powerful working assumptions that acts as an accelerant to the AI phobia fire is the ‘absence of a soul’. Our connection to God or an idea of a creative force, with or without Religious doctrine runs deeply and goes largely unquestioned. But this presumes we know what a soul is/isn’t. Much like consciousness, we might just have to revisit the ‘flat-earth’ thinking associated with complex notions of awareness and ‘beingness’. Philosophy, religion and science are still competing for the rights to this ‘truth’…perhaps they should try and bore the circuits of AI with fanaticism from all angles “system failure…B-S overload…shutdown”.

For me the irony is plain to see – as afraid as we are of machines developing intelligence and ‘might’ want to destroy us, that is in fact exactly what we are doing to ourselves, except that we embrace it, call it progress…advancement…whatever helps us swallow the reality that we are the machines – robotic, hypnotically and unconsciously carrying out the programming of mass consumerism. Would be good to have an ‘off switch’ sometimes though – perhaps that is what a sense of humour is.

It comes down to the questionable criteria for intelligence. Intelligence is an invented idea therefore all intelligence is artificial, in that it is a social construction forged by institutional practices and knowledges such as science, religion, medicine, psychology. I think intelligence has been captured by rationalistic, modernistic thinking and could do with an overhaul, or ‘reboot’, because I feel quite uncomfortable with the current evidence of us being an ‘intelligent’ species.

Science fiction helps us investigate, explore and probe (woops, no pun intended) our ideas about ourselves from multiple angles. But please…no more Terminator movies…give us some respect for our intelligence.

So lets all ‘Rage Against The Machine’ – and Wake Up! I’ll leave it over to Neo wrap this one up.

Love science fiction? Abb-solutely!

When I was 5 years old, my Dad took me and my brother to see Star Wars. The sheer scale blew my mind as the Tantive IV cruised overhead followed by a gigantic star destroyer, it was love at first laser blast. My love affair with Sci-Fi has only grown since, but I think those who say they aren’t into science fiction might be missing an opportunity to genuinely explore philosophical, spiritual and ethical ideas this genre offers.

I’m quite protective of this territory as it really does form an integral part of who I am. No – I don’t have cupboards full of figurines, have a storm trooper or Start Trek costume, or attend conventions like Armageddon – It’s about the relationships and ideas that provoke wonder and invite serious questions that matter to me.

That being declared – the ‘sexing up’ of science fiction irritates me. I wasn’t sure if I was watching new (and improved?) The Tomorrow People the other night or had accidently flicked the TV over to an ‘adult’ channel! Attractive young man – chiselled pecs and rippling abs naked between another couple? Followed by same young man tying himself up in leather straps…enough to make anyone blush. Star Trek aside (the original) and perhaps most of what was produced in the 1950’s, I’ve always enjoyed the general resistance of sci-fi to falling into culturally dominant portrayals of gender and body image. Because even though it is fiction the images are real and the mixed messages it sends reinforce our obsession with bodies that are ‘rock hard’.

Now I have a few proposals that would be real game changers in my view:

1: For The Dr (Dr Who) to incarnate/regenerate into a female body as a man – surely an interesting twist.

2: If Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land ever does get made into a movie (and I would be very excited about this) that Michael Smith just looks ordinary and not ‘white’ – like he has grown up on Mars, not working out his entire life and living on a Martian sunbed.

3: In the next Avatar – the 0% body fat of the Navi would leave any human a little body conscious so can we have a humanoid species that is perhaps a little less ‘ripped’?

4: If they do make a 4th Matrix – that Neo stays white and pasty and doesn’t get an extreme make over by the machines.

5: That in the Prometheus sequel the Engineers (again an extremely buff, white group) get some body hair – somewhere!

6: When we finally get to see Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) in the even more anticipated Star Wars Episode VII – they stay old, grey and wrinkled.

So if you are looking to launch into sci-fi and want to avoid the ‘fluff’ – read it! Or at least watch something produced before 2000.

“help me Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”.