Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Subjectivity of Taste

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has an interest post up about guilty pleasures.  As she points out, we can't have guilty pleasures unless we have rules around what we believe is acceptably pleasurable.  We can figure out our own rules (often obliquely concealed from us) by looking at what we believe doesn't fit.  The question becomes, "What are you slightly embarrassed to admit enjoying?"

She and others focus on music, books, TV shows, and films.  I don't actually have any that I feel awkward about, so it would appear that I have no rules around them.  I have preferences, but no obvious prejudices.  My little one loves Justin Bieber.  I find the music monotonous and hard to listen to, but I don't think less of anyone for liking it, and I wouldn't hide it if I was a fan.  Shining a light on my CDs or films doesn't cause me to cringe even when people make fun of some of the selections.  They're just acting superior.  There's nothing wrong with liking the Three Stooges.  Or Sarah McLachlin for that matter.  The Bay City Rollers had their day, and so did Nicholas Cage.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Meander Through Summer Viewing

I’ve seen a ton of excellent movies this summer, many new releases, but also some films I’ve missed over the years too. There are three in particular that affected me in such a way that I felt I was a slightly different person having seen them.

It all started with the first, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which has Owen Wilson about to get married to a mundane, superficial woman when he more or less finds a portal to the past, a place rife with passion for art and architecture and literature. When I left the theatre, the street looked different to me. The film reminded me to notice little things: how some old chairs were arranged on a porch, the slant of a roofline, initials scrawled on the corner of a brick. It reminded me of the importance of paying attention to aesthetics in our everyday life (further emphasized by this article yesterday). It also reiterates that we should never settle when it comes to marriage.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Ritual Work

It might sound flaky or religious or new-agey, but cultivating ritual ceremonies isn't necessarily any of those. It can be a dramatic way to cut through to the core of an issue affecting us and help us through significant transitions. We already do graduations, funerals and weddings (which we don't always do very well, often focusing more on the dress and cake than the union), but there are other transitions that we could use some help getting through. Jung wrote about it, as did James Hillman,

Years ago, an old boyfriend and I, our relationship on shaky ground, went to a therapist. She took us through a ritual to help us end our dying relationship, and I was fascinated by how powerfully the ritual affected me. So in grad school I sought out courses in Ritual Studies to learn more. Then as a teacher, when I got to the anthropology unit of my Challenge of Change in Society class, I started including a section on ritual work.

By chance, one of my ritual studies professors had two children who ended up in my class. I was a little nervous teaching them about ritual work since they were sired by an expert in the field. But he assured me that, at the time, they had no interest in reading any of his books, so they got all their introductory knowledge from me. Yikes!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On House Cleaning

I cleaned my house, so I took photos to document the rare event.  I have a hard time cleaning, but there's lots to take from Taoist and Zen writings about it.  It's all about the moment, and not the final product.  Years ago I watched a film called Enlightenment Guaranteed about two brothers who stay at a Zen monastery for a while.  Their days are filled with meditating and chores.  The one actor was also in the film Men! which I saw decades ago.  It's about a guy who uses an alias and moves in with the guy who's having an affair with his wife.  I tried it in a philosophy class once to discuss ethics.  Reactions were mixed.

Back to Enlightenment:  One message they learn is that it doesn't matter that someone walks across the floor right after you just cleaned it.  The point was in the cleaning not in the having it cleaned.  That helps.  Because it's never over, it seems fruitless.  It helps to consider that the purpose of housecleaning is something greater than just to have the house clean.  But it is nice to actually see the rooms and not the mess.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Being Jack Layton

I cannot believe how deeply affected I am by the death of Jack Layton yesterday though I've never even met the man.

This is the time to take solace in philosophy, but it's hard.  There's Epictetus' "death is nothing dreadful" path, but this isn't about my own fear of death, or death itself being a worry.  It's about the death of this one specific man.  It's not really about coping with death at all, but coping with loss, and not just of a person but the loss of hope that we've got riding on him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Fear

A bit of Montaigne,
Such as are in immediate fear of a
losing their estates, of banishment, or of slavery, live in perpetual
 anguish, and lose all appetite and repose; whereas such as are actually
 poor, slaves, or exiles, oft times live as merrily as other folk.

When we fear losing our stuff or status, we can’t really enjoy either. And isn’t that a waste. Epicurus agrees that we can only really enjoy pleasures when we’re free from worry.

There’s an old Zen story about a great warrior who had a favourite teacup. He almost dropped the cup, and was shocked by his own fearfulness and anxiety over it. He had faced thousands of armed men, but never did he feel so frightened as when he almost broke his cup. So he smashed it and lived happier for it.

I think the same story could be told of a leader fearing his loss of position.

Monday, August 8, 2011

On Mindfulness

On yet another urging recommendation, I finally read The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.  But I didn't read it well.  I'm a picky reader.  I can immerse myself in difficult philosophy readings, but this was a struggle.  I happily read all about Montaigne's thoughts on mindfulness, but I was trying to read this mindfully instead of expediently.  I found it repetitive, and ended up doing much of the reading in front of a movie just to get through it.

He cautions against following philosophical doctrine:
 "If one clings merely to a system of concepts, one only becomes stuck.  [Instead we must] penetrate reality in order to be one with it, not to become caught up in philosophical opinion or meditation methods....The finger which points to the moon isn't the moon itself."  
Uh oh.  That's totally me, stuck following doctrines instead of... doing that other stuff.

Okay, I'm still not there.  I really appreciate contemplating on Taoist and Buddhist thought, but I can't bring myself to set aside the time and attention necessary to live it as thoroughly as this book suggests.  Even trying to do breath-work for a minute a day is a struggle for me.  And I hate yoga.  Part of the reluctance might be that I was really into it all as a teenager, so doing it now feels like I'm trying to be a kid again.  I feel like I should be past all that now.  But I still got something out of my superficial reading of the book:

The whole book and theory is about maintaining awareness of the present.  If you're not present right now, then you're not really alive right now.  There was a Tolstoy story that I loved.  The moral is that the most important time is now, and the most important people are whomever you're with, and the most important thing to do is to bring joy to the people you're with - even if it's your enemy.  In the story, the person learning the lesson ends up saved by unwittingly helping an enemy.  It's similar to other Tolstoy stories.  Don't bother with revenge, just don't add any more evil to the world.  

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we don't look at life divided into parts that you give to others, at work, with kids, etc.  Each moment you spend with others is your own time that you get to spend with others.  You have unlimited time for yourself.  It's all for you.  That's a useful perspective to keep in mind when I feel like people are draining me because I have something else I'd rather be doing.  I'm impatient whenever I'm not really here right now.

It's all a matter of perspective.  When my kids were babies and up all night sick, as I'd walk the halls jiggling and patting the little one, I'd tell myself that this is a great opportunity to hug my kids.  When they're older, they probably won't let me hold them for hours and hours (and hours).  It really helped me to appreciate the time instead of becoming bitter or complaining.

Once I took my then 3-year-old to the dentist.  She wanted to walk, so we left the stroller at home.  On the way back home after a stressful afternoon of waiting and all the excitement of a new experience, she wanted to be carried and promptly fell asleep in my arms.  While I carried her the many blocks home, I imagined I was running a marathon with fans cheering me on at the edges of the sidewalk.  That fantasy helped me carry on, to feel strong, proud and grateful for the exercise I got instead of miserable from the burden of a heavy child. It was a useful delusion.

There was a good little parable about lettuce.  If the lettuce doesn't grow well, we don't blame the lettuce.  We blame the sun or rain or soil or rocks or bugs or rabbits.  We should be as compassionate with people when they "are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others."  And we should have compassion for ourselves too, of course.   Take "care for one's self, not being preoccupied about the way others look after themselves, a habit of mind which gives rise to resentment and anxiety."

Montaigne suggests we maintain mindfulness by writing about what's happening right now, and just by really paying attention to what we see and hear.  That's doable for me.  It's a start.  But I'm still going to mentally multitask from time to time, still going to think about life and ideas while I do dishes instead of just doing dishes.  And that's okay.  I can try to really be with people when I'm with people, but the dishes are less affected by my attitude.  And I like to think.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

On Good Role Models

If you haven't heard the story of Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen yet, these two heroes were camping and heard shots coming from across the lake on the Island of Utoya in Norway where kids were being targetted by a lone gunman.  They got in their boat and made several trips in order to save 40 people who were trying to swim to safety.  They were shot at and found bullet holes in their boat, but they kept going back to save more lives.

Many people questioned why this part of the story wasn't made pubic sooner, and concluded that it has something to do with the fact that they're both women and a married couple.  That messes with our idea of what a hero looks like.  It's also bizarre how much of the immediate media was filled with claims of ties to Islamic terrorists. Now the killer's being branded as not a real Christian.

We like to distance ourselves from anything disagreeable.  But that is to deny the reality of any group of people.  An individual is a microcosm of a group.  We each have potential to cause harm - maybe not murder, but certainly meanness.  If we deny that's part of us, we risk acting on it all the more because we're only allowing ourselves to see our sparkling persona.  It seems like it's almost necessary for evil to be acted out somewhere.  Are there any pious groups without at least a trickster in their midsts, or a liar or manipulator?  We can only try to be virtuous as often as possible.  We'll always be drawn into the fray surrounding us from time to time.  Like the priest in this video:

According to Montaigne, and the Stoics, and Epicurus, and Aristotle, and the Tao, one way to try to stay on the straight and narrow is to find good people out there and follow their lead.  I think, because of the potentially nefarious nature of humanity, we can't blindly follow one person's lead.  Some people do wonderful things, but aren't always wonderful.  As exhausting as it may be, we still have to think for ourselves all the bloody time!

Some people follow Jesus or Muhammad, but they stray from the original words and stories to following other followers who are misleading at best, and horrifically cruel at worst.  Both of these prophets generally suggest we should be nice to one another - mainly, but the metaphorical stories makes the details a bit muddy.  So people have used religion to back up their own nastiness for centuries.  And everyone likes to pick and choose a bit to determine the philosophy that fits them best - as they should.  A friend once commented that Islamic doctrine is clearly more violent than Christian doctrine, but I suggested she forgot about some of the claims made in the Book of Revelation in which Jesus will judge and wage war and strike down the nations and all that jazz.  She said, "My church doesn't really believe in that part of the Bible." Just as well.     

There are plenty of examples of virtuous people who walk among us like Dalen and Hansen, and we should follow their incredible courage and persistence, but yet if we follow all their acts believing they are the Good incarnate, they're bound to stray and lie or act thoughtlessly or something from time to time.  It happens.  We have to consciously follow the right actions and attitudes, not the right people.  And this particular instance makes it clear that we shouldn't just look for virtue in the typical places.  Our stereotypes around who is likely to be good can really throw us off the mark.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Entertainment and Cruelty

While I was in the middle of re-watching season one of Arrested Development yesterday, someone came to my door wanting a donation for an initiative she was creating.  This happens every other day or so.  I'm often very patient listening to people's plea for financial help with their new business or for me to buy their service that they claim I can't live without.  It's the new version of the door-to-door salesman. But yesterday?  Not so much.  I interrupted her with, "Sorry, I'm just not interested," and walked away.

I felt badly afterwards, but rationalized that her intro was just too long for sustained attention.  She needs to get her pitch down to two-minutes tops!  Also, there are many people on my street that will listen to her at length, so I can free-ride on their kindness.  If my reaction upset her, I know the woman two doors down would build her back up.  Right?

But then I wondered if the T.V. show I was watching wasn't affecting my judgment and subsequent behaviour.

I gravitate to shows with snarky, selfish, morally-corrupt characters like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Weedsand Community.  There's likely something in me that appreciates that kind of humour - maybe it's because I typically repress all that in my regular life, so I like to watch it on T.V.   I think I'll go with that.  But to what extent does watching the corruption affect my behaviour and make me even more corrupt than otherwise?

Does media reflect or affect society?  I think it's both.

An interesting study was done that found that "educational media exposure was correlated with future observed relational aggression."  Researchers looked at the connection between the content of non-violent cartoons and verbal aggression, and found a strong correlation.  Shows like Arthur or Franklin, or Magic School Bus are non-violent, but the content is full of anti-social behaviours:  snarky, whiney kids who complain and tease and berate one another.  Another study found that 96% of all children's programming includes verbal insults and put-downs, averaging 7.7 put-downs per helf-hour, and 84% of the time, there was no reprimand or correction, only laughter or nothing at all.  Even though the final moral of the story is positive, the kids watching pick up and directly copy the behaviours seen throughout.

T.V. producers have spent so much energy on taking out all the physical aggression in shows like Road Runner, or Bugs Bunny, that they didn't see they had replaced it with verbal aggression.  Conflict of some type is integral to a story.  Everyone getting along is boring and doesn't entertain beyond the early years.

That physical aggression of dropping anvils on characters or punching them until they have little birds circling their heads are strongly disapproved of in our culture.  Kids know that.  We watched the shows without copying them - much.  At the very least if we copied them, we did it secretively because we know we'd get in trouble if we got caught.  But subtle verbal nastiness is almost socially sanctioned, particularly if it entertains us in class or at the dinner table.  We might say, "That's not very nice," but with a hint of a smile that suggests it's okay anyway.

We all know hitting and biting is wrong.  But we seem to have forgotten that teasing and belittling and whining is problematic.  These behaviours have become socially acceptable on T.V. shows and in our lives.

But is it immoral to hurt someone's feelings in order to get a laugh or because we're feeling impatient with them?  Is it just an etiquette issue?  Etiquette is much more relative and culturally determined.  We were taught to keep our elbows off the table and never wear a hat indoors back in the day.  Most of us ignore these  rules now with no ill effects, and people who maintain them strictly may be seen as old-school.  But the difference between these examples is the harm caused.

Knowingly causing harm to another for personal gain is immoral.  Often instead of altering our behaviour to reduce harm (by not teasing for example), we try to alter our belief in the effect ("She doesn't mind if I tease her") or the receiver's belief in the effect ("Oh, lighten up!").  We rationalize our behaviour to try to convince ourselves and others that we're not really causing harm simply because it's entertaining to us to cause exactly this kind of harm.  And it's a bit of a power-trip.  Of course sometimes teasing really doesn't cause harm.  But we typically know where that line is, and we often ignore it.

I hate censorship.  And I think that's not necessary for the big kids anyway.  I think we can watch the shows, but perhaps should pay just that much more attention to our behaviour to ensure we're not blindly copying the very funny but very cruel attitudes and actions we're watching.  We can laugh at the fools so long as we don't turn them into our role models.  For our children, it's a matter of monitoring when they're able to think before they act before they should watch such anti-social programming, and then discussing the programs with the kids as they watch.  Maybe they can watch some nature shows until then!

And when Montaigne says we need to work against evil in order to actually be virtuous, he might be happy to know that in today's society those opportunities to consider an immoral act but choose to be virtuous are more plentiful than ever!

AND let's not forget it IS possible to be funny without being a jerk:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Temporary Distractions

When not reading, I like to watch bizarre videos like this one (it's not your typical cat video - and, apparently his cat wrote it):

Then there's this:

And then I got sucked into re-watching season one of Arrested Development.  But that's what summer's all about!