Friday, March 30, 2007

The Goldfish Has a Vision

I woke up this morning with the image (some would say vision) of a small ball which soon grew into my entire conscious universe. Although the image was of a ball seen from outside, it seemed to be something happening within myself. The experience was that everything I was conscious of, everything that would be in my awareness when I opened my eyes and got out of bed, was created within in this expanding ball.

The sensations that accompanied the image were a confirmation that something within my Self is the creator of my universe, that my universe was getting ready for my new day by unfolding around me like a giant balloon of which I was the center.

As usual with such an experience, it can’t be described in words. Any description is going to seem trite – “Oh, that again.” To me also the words seem unoriginal and unrevealing, which is frustrating, but I’m sure that all of us have had the experience of reading about some psychological or spiritual or emotional concept again and again, and thinking, “That sounds true,” but not really comprehending it until we’ve lived through the experience ourselves – after which we feel when we read it, “Now I know!” This morning I my brief experience enabled me for the first time to live and comprehend the meaning of words I’d read many times before.

At this point I must confess once more the inexplicability of our existence, the impenetrable mystery of what we call reality, and free myself of the notion that anything I might write on this fine day will “explain” anything. I am still the goldfish in the bowl laughably trying to describe the entire universe based on what I can see from the table where my bowl is placed. But I will say that my “vision” dramatized the finding of philosophers and brain scientists that it is impossible to prove any existence external to our own perceptions. Yes, we feel that we are here and there’s a separate world out there (Dr. Johnson exasperatedly kicking the stone), and our bodies seem to be mechanisms for collecting and interpreting data from outside themselves, but we cannot prove or know whether there is any reality which is not subjective. At this point I think of Leibnitz’ statement, “The monads have no windows” – a monad being, in a sense, the sealed universe of an individual – but I know that what gave me the gift of my experience this morning was a poem by Rumi, the great Persian poet of the 13th century, which I read last evening thanks to a comment by Naj about “The Perfect Solution” on my other blog. I will always be grateful that this poem was brought into my life.

(I couldn’t help thinking of what I’d written on this blog about the goldfish when I read of Rumi’s “bee in a jar”.)

‘The Dome of the Inner Sky’

The Great King is within me.
He is my dearest friend.

Don't look at my sallow face,
Look at how I stand with legs of iron!
Always turning toward that one
who gave me life.

I am the glorious Sun,
the ocean laden with pearls.
Within my heart is the grandeur of heaven,
Outside, the lowly earth.

I travel in this world like a bee in a jar.
But don't listen to my woeful buzzing
My house is filled with honey!

O heart, if you want to join us,
raise yourself
to the dome of the inner sky
Enter the fortress that no one can break.

The vast and mighty waters
move the grinding stones of heaven.
I am that great wheel,
crying so sweetly,
turning with the flow of rushing water.

Men, demons, and spirits all follow my command.
Can't you see that I am Solomon,
With a shimmering seal on my ring?

Why should I be weary
when every cell of my body is bursting with life?
Why should I be a donkey's slave
when I ride upon a magical horse?
Why should I be less than the Moon
when there are no scorpions at my feet?
Why should I stay at the bottom of a well
when a strong rope is in my hand?

I've built a place for the falcons of my soul
Fly this way, O birds of spirit,
for I am surrounded by a hundred mighty towers!

I am the rays of the Sun
dancing through the windows of every house.
I am carnelion, gold, and rubies,
even though this body is made of water and clay.

Whatever pearl you seek,
look for the pearl within the pearl!

The surface of the earth says,
"The treasure is within."
The glowing jewel says,
"Don't be fooled by my beauty
the light of my face
comes from the candle of my spirit."

What else can I say?
You will only hear
what you are ready to hear.
Don't nod your head,
Don't try to fool me
the truth of what you see
is written all over your face!

Translated by Jonathan Star, from ‘Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved’

(With thanks to Naj and to PRETTY MOONBEAMS )

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It is springtime here, and my computer desktop is bright with yellow tulips photographed from ground level.

The glowing tulips reach up on slender stalks toward the sunny blue sky as if stretching on tiptoe toward the source of all light.

My eye is immediately drawn to the beautiful flower at the top of each stem, almost ignoring anything else. The stems are inconspicuous and seem almost incidental in comparison to the beauty of the yellow tulip cups overflowing with sunshine.

For some reason I asked: Which of us, given the choice of being the flower or the stem, would not spontaneously choose to be the flower?

Then I thought, each tulip blossom depends on its stem to convey nourishment up from beneath the soil, and the homely stem depends in turn on the unseen parts hidden in the dark earth.

We might choose to be the tulip blossom, but the blossom could not live without the stem, while the plant could live without the blossom.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

We Are Thrown into Existence Without a Rule Book

In refreshing my memory about Existentialism this morning, I came across this:

In “Repetition”, Kierkegaard's literary character Young Man asks:

“How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it? Why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn't it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?”

If you’ve read FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS and its comments, that must sound just a bit familiar.

Prize Offer! If you supply a correct answer to one or more of Young Man’s questions, I’ll send you a nice prize. The decision of the prize judge is final, and there is no appeal. . . . Hmmm, does that remind you of the subject of Young Man’s lament?

Friday, March 23, 2007


Having just written about blogs, I want to add that I hate the word “blog”. “Blogging” is no better, and “blogger” is even worse. “Blog” is an ugly word, bringing to mind “blob” and “blot”. “The Blog”: A horror movie. “Blogger”: Something nasty in a swamp.

I’m not the only one who feels that way. In fact this modest post was prompted by an American swimmer in Australia for the championships who said: "I just don't like that word – blog. It was a year before I even knew what it meant."

I could have said the same thing six months ago. I really was so put off by the word that I didn’t want to learn more about it. Finding out that it meant “Web log” or “Weblog” didn’t help. “Log” sounds boring unless it refers to something written by an Portuguese maritime explorer or a pirate captain. Ship’s logs contain more statistics than excitement. Individuals write diaries, but who writes a “log”? What misty-eyed teenager ever wrote, “Dear Log. . .”

Where can the romance possibly be in a “log”? Maybe that’s why every blog I’ve seen has been devoid of sex appeal. They might as well have been written by Carmelite monks. And I can’t claim to be an exception, even though like most males I think about females and sex at least once every two minutes. (It used to be once a minute, but now I’m a lot older.) Why is it that people who are willing to offer their personalities and thoughts to the entire world like a Christmas turkey would be reluctant to mention the sensual aspects of human relationships?

But, as usual, I’ve strayed: I hate the word “blog”. Is it too late to do anything about it? And can you think of a better word?

In terms of time, this has been a nice week with some substance to it – not one of those weeks when the days skipped by like pebbles skimmed on a pond. Some weeks I realize that it’s Friday and think, “but wasn’t yesterday Monday?” This morning I happily realized, to the contrary, “It’s only Friday! There's more of this week to enjoy.”

Psychological time is involved, and the depth of the impression of ordinary experiences. Sometimes actual time moves faster or slower – but because everything slows or speeds up simultaneously you can’t detect the change except by an instant of intuitive sensing, in the way that your body senses that a train is slowing down a little even though everything looks and sounds the same. And of course psychological time – as contrasted with the “real time” I was just talking about -- also moves faster or slower, depending on whether one is waiting for a late train or rushing to finish a job before a lunch meeting.

This week I am valuing the perception that real time has moved slower, allowing me to savour the days. Not that anything special happened this week. In fact one of the nice things about it was the absence of things hanging over me, the absence of appointments with dentists or doctors or veterinarians, the lack of mechanical and electrical breakdowns, the dearth of domestic crises.

The things I count on the good side were mild things: The vernal equinox and the contagious enthusiasm of Iranian Web essayists about Norooz. A visiting fleet of UFOs – tiny flying insects, reflective bodies mere specks of morning sunlight, hovering motionless in small groups, an individual occasionally darting out and back or away with incredible speed. What are they? What are they doing?

The weather has gradually grown warmer, so that I was able to go swimming yesterday and will be even more comfortable today. The sky is sunny, the breezes are frisky, and flower buds are appearing everywhere. When I saw that the two orange trees are covered with white buds I set up a sprinkler. One year the citrus blossoms failed to develop because of drought, and so this year I’m supplying the rain. The lemon tree is already in full lavender bloom, and so I gave it a drenching too. Only the grapefruit lags. Will it blossom? It was the most fruitful tree of all last year, and now it sits bloomless. Maybe, as I am finally learning, it needs to accept gladly Nature's cycles of indolence and productivity.

So, that’s how this nice week has gone – good health, good food, good energy, good sensual pleasures, good swimming, a moment of equilibrium in the solar system, and a sense of personal creativity replacing a period of dormancy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Who Reads Blogs?

I started blogging about four months ago. I often heard references to blogs and became curious to experience what blogs were and what was required to start one. At the time I had one wife and two friends I hoped would read my blog. I had never read a blog until I prepared to begin one. I was never a blog reader before I became a blog writer.

As I looked for blogs to read, I found that I was lost in a vast sea of blogs, millions of miles of blogs, more blogs than the waves on the sea, and no means of navigation. (One thing which will result from the Big Bang of the Blogosphere is surely a demand for a really useful, fine tuned blog search engine.) As I looked at blogs and discovered the nature of them, I began to feel, “Bloggers, bloggers everywhere, and not a blog to read.” I found the “washed my hair this morning and here’s my grocery list” blog; the “must take Fido to the vet, and here are five dozen pictures of him” blog; the “blurry photographs of the Rats concert last night – sorry about the column between the camera and the stage” blog; the “pictures of the office party refreshments” blog; and of course the popular “OOOOOEEE, EGEAIGAE gotta do homework before Mom gets me, C ya” blog. More than anything else I found the blogger who lifts quotations from the day’s news and columnists and makes a few smart alecky remarks designed to mislead the reader into thinking that the blogger has some kind of inside knowledge and contacts.

I also stumbled on an occasional intelligent and thoughtful, or purely entertaining, blog. In blogging, as in novels and short stories, the author does not need some special knowledge or exotic material in order to be interesting. A blog about the events in an apparently uneventful life can be very absorbing if the blogger is sensitive, observant, and gifted at writing. For my taste, the best narratives are most often those which deal with the everyday lives of ordinary people – as in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “Cross Creek”, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon tales, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield, and scores of others – and so it is with blogs.

My point here was supposed to be that I did not begin reading blogs until I was preparing to start a blog. The next point is that after I started writing blogs I found myself with little time to read other people’s blogs. I suspect that the same is true of other bloggers; they are more occupied with what to write next, and with writing it, than they are with reading what other bloggers have written.

I don’t know if what happened to me is typical, but I did soon discover, among the millions, a couple of blogs I enjoyed, and through their links and comments I discovered others. I left comments on blogs, partly because I hoped that would lead people to look at mine. Nobody wants to write without readers. Yes, I wasn't content with my three captive readers; I wanted more.

When I find a comment on one of my blogs from someone I’ve never heard of, it means the system’s working. I’m thinking that the best process of exploring for blogs is starting at a single point and working outward through links and comments, rather than using some kind of search engine that combs the entire sea, especially since Google’s blog search seems to search the whole Web rather than just blogs. The few blog visitors that seem to have found me through Google key words have been “watchdogs” looking for politically incorrect enemies to attack.

So, the blogger expands his circle of friends and tries to keep up with their blogs and to leave comments, thus keeping the system flowing – but it seems to me that devotion to one’s own blog writing keeps the active circle from getting very big even if one is keenly interested in reading the other blogs. Maybe that explains why people who were regular readers of my blogs, people who showed enthusiasm and often commented, have disappeared after a few weeks. Of course you can say that it might be because I’m boring, but that doesn’t explain why they remained so interested for a number of weeks. I think they are simply too absorbed by their own blog writing to keep up with mine, especially if they’ve been exposed to fresh blogs they want to read. All things considered, one can read only so many blogs a day.

Which leads me to wonder how many blogs most bloggers read. Not very many, I’d guess. One measure might be the comments. Some blogs amaze me by almost immediately getting 30 or 40 comments on a new post, while other blogs, which may be more deserving, are lucky to get 2 or 3. I’ve seen brilliant blogs with almost no comments, and crude blogs which cause stampedes of readers competing to post their comments first. In the case of the stampede, however, most of the comments are puerile and inane – on the order, “I was first!” or “Hugs and kisses”, or “Screw everybody.” Still, they got there somehow. I don’t know how. I'm guessing that most bloggers don't read more than a dozen other blogs regularly, or at most twenty.

At last, my big question: Bloggers don’t have as much time to read blogs as non-bloggers, and so is there a big blog-reading audience of non-bloggers out there? Are there many people who look forward every day to reading blogs, but who don’t write a blog? I’m guessing (just guessing) that the relative number of people who read blogs and don’t write them is much smaller than the relative number of people who read books and don’t write them. The number of authors of published novels and other books is, and always has been, miniscule in proportion to the number of people who read those books. In the printed paper world a writer is a rarity and readers are everywhere. In the blog world it’s just the opposite. The writers probably outnumber the readers.

Where can such a system lead? Blogging feels like a big wave of the future, and we’re told it is becoming more and more important, but without a big wave of readers, what mass effectiveness will it have? As far as I can tell, we bloggers are clustered together in very, very small tribes gathered around millions of separate campfires which have little communication among them. What can come of that? Maybe the answer is that blogging will remain more a form of self-amusement than of communication to a large audience.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Moment of Pure Consciousness

Have you ever waked up in the morning and experienced a moment in which you were no longer asleep but not yet remembering anything? That state is like the “pure consciousness” or unconditioned consciousness, consciousness without content, described by mystics.

It is a serene state of consciousness with no perceptions. Then the memory circuit lights begin to flash on and you remember who you are, where you are, and all the things you have to worry about. For a timeless moment you simply are, and then you become somebody thinking, “Oh my God, I was fired yesterday”; or, “Why do I feel so angry? Oh, yes, I’m having a terrible fight with Mary”; or, “Oh, no, it’s this morning I have the exam.”

Of course all days aren’t that worrying. There are mornings when consciousness fills with happy thoughts akin to “I’m getting married today!” or “It’s Christmas morning!”. I’m guessing that on most days for most people it’s a mix of pleasant anticipations and only minor worries, like “Where shall I have lunch?”, “How am I going to spend that bonus?”, and “How will I get that report ready by five?” But the contrast between the blissful state of pure consciousness and the content supplied by the awakened brain is most easily recognized when one goes from contentless serenity to the realization that you have something serious to worry about.

Of course it may be only I who worries in that way, or only I who experiences that moment of unburdened consciousness. How can I tell what goes on in the heads of other people? I’ve always been a worrier, which may be a price I pay for all the good fortune I’ve had in my life, but I don’t know whether other people worry in the same ways I do or not. When I wrote, “Have you ever waked up in the morning and experienced a moment in which you were no longer asleep but not yet remembering anything?” I asked myself, what if nobody else ever wakes up that way?

One of the many difficulties of being human is that we are never sure whether our feelings and perceptions are the same as other people’s. We used to have discussions around the bicycle rack at my high school about the impossibility of knowing that what I call “yellow” is the same as what you call “yellow”. Sure, we can point and agree that this flower is yellow and that dress is yellow, but how can we ever know if our inner perception is the same? Can you describe “yellow” (without examples) in a way that is guaranteed to create a mental image of yellow in another person’s consciousness? Could you enable a person blind from birth to see "blue" and know she was not seeing what you call "red"? To go beyond that, how often can you be sure that another person is going to perceive and respond to scenes or events in the same way you are? I took it for granted that nature untouched by man produces the most sublime emotions possible, but then I read a passage by a New York Jewish woman journalist who wrote, “Nature is something I have to get through between my taxi and my apartment building door.”

The admirable Dr. Leo Walder, the only psychotherapist I’ve ever known to actually help somebody, used to ask me when I’d talk about some attribute or trait of mine, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” To me it seemed obvious that it was good or bad, but not to him. He may have had a client the previous hour who had the opposite feeling about the same thing. We get into a lot of trouble assuming that other people have the same reactions which we do. To one person a home stuffed with dolls and knickknacks is comforting, to another it is suffocating. I knew a professor who kept two kitchen cabinets crammed with cans of Campbell’s soup because when he was a child his family was poor, and soup meant security; to me it meant, “Let me out of here!”

The unpredictable difference in individuals' responses is an obvious reason why it’s so important for people who live together to communicate clearly and often. What makes one spouse seethe may seem to the other completely innocent or even pleasant. Communication can prevent a wife exclaiming after thirty years, “But all this time I thought you LOVED cabbage!”, or a husband saying, “Why didn’t you tell me that doesn’t feel good? It feels good to me. How could it not feel good?” We tend to assume that our own feelings are “normal”. What other handy measure of normality do we have?

At the oppositve extreme, we sometimes discover that we underestimate the amount that we have in common with others. Instead of assuming that our reactions and tastes are the same as other people's, we just as incorrectly assume that in certain respects we are vastly different from other people – so different that it would be embarrassing if they knew what our feelings and thoughts were really like. Particularly when we believe that our faults or shortcomings (as contrasted with our strong points) are unique are we one hundred percent likely to be wrong. If you find yourself thinking, “I’m the only person who feels this way,” or “Only I would be so awkward in that situation,” you are surely incorrect.

Humans seem to get pleasure from finding out that others feel or think the same as they do. There’s a sense of relief and a desire to smile. People enjoy reading something in a novel that's "just like me!" People falling in love are entranced by how much they have in common. “Oh, you feel that way TOO?” And a staple of stand-up comedians is, “Have you ever noticed how hard it is to. . . ?“ or “Do you ever get as nervous as I do about. . .?” Comedians get laughs just from describing common, everyday experiences, with no punch line -- making the audience think, “He feels just the way I do!” Maybe it’s a kind of “I’m not so alone after all” reaction.

In this essay I’ve wandered from pure consciousness to differing perceptions and reactions. I want to come back to the original subject and suggest that after the moment of clear consciousness comes, and the flood of daily concerns fills awareness, it’s a good idea to work on trying to control the content of consciousness.

First, if there is something foolishly self-tormenting, like jealousy or fear of getting sick, use Dr. Walder’s “thought control” .

Then, if you still insist on worrying (the only activity that gives absolutely no benefit), distract yourself as a mother distracts a child by saying excitedly, “Look at that cat!” Concentrate on the most pleasant things you can recall or imagine – ecstatic romantic moments and sensual joys, creative triumphs, vocational successes, the perfect buffet, pretty faces. Imagine filling a compartmented display box with things you like.

But who am I to give advice? Here we are, back to the questions raised in the middle of this post. Does everybody already know everything I could possibly write? Am I too far from the well-traveled road to be understood? Are there any other people who have worried as much as I have in my life with so little worth worrying about? Are people smirking as they read this, or are they saying, “Ah, this sounds like me!”

To quote Philo of Alexandria again . . . "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

We just don’t necessarily know what the battle is.

I must conclude this with a poem which often comes to my mind:

"Richard Cory"

"Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

"And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

"And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

"So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head."

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More on Manners and Women's Liberation

When I wrote the previous post my intent was to give a lighthearted account of my own obsolescence, which resulted mainly from the U.S. Deep South social milieu in which I was raised. Based, however, on some reactions I’ve received, I apparently came across to some readers as criticizing the women’s liberation movement.

It was myself that I was making fun of, and not women who were trying to improve their status in the culture. Pink Ginger’s comment gave me the key word for understanding the “women’s movement”: Independence. Women wanted a new level of independence, and so they went about achieving it in various ways. To me, there were important ways and unimportant ways, and the merely symbolic ways relating to male/female etiquette and manners seem to me relatively unimportant, even silly, and it was manners that I was smiling about.

I have no ambition to analyze the facets of the phenomenon here, and a woman could do a much better job than I could (and is invited to do so on my blog if she wishes), but the most important way to achieve independence, obviously, is to make your own money. Thus employment and entrepreneurship must have been the main goals of women’s liberation from the traditional need to turn to a male for money.

As I said, not entirely jokingly, many men would consider having a job to be more a form of bondage than of liberation, but women saw it from a different point of view, and apparently many of them felt that the work they did at home was more burdensome than the work that their husbands did at the office. I would not agree with that, based on watching my mother spend her days at home and with friends, compared with my spending often miserable or stressful or boring days in offices, but I’m not a woman. And when you add children to the mix, the traditional woman’s role of being at home raising offspring from infancy through the horrors of teenagery might indeed seem more akin to galley slavery than do the torments of the average office. And yet some women still say that they LIKE raising children.

Based on watching people I know, what I don’t see is that being a mother (especially a single mother) and raising children while earning an income at an office is any improvement, in terms of work pressure, over the mother’s role in the old-fashioned family, where she had to do the same work at home but didn't have to earn money outside the home.

Admittedly, if a woman doesn’t need a man to provide the money, there isn’t much else she needs a husband for! And if she doesn’t have children or a husband, she’s as free as any male ever was, and she has reached the Promised Land. No wonder society has changed fast.

As a result of something -- whether it's women's liberation or something else -- we see current statistics about families, and single parent homes, and marriage and divorce which would have seemed shocking, unimaginable, fifty years ago. Things have changed faster than I have, I must admit it, and not just in terms of manners. Emotionally, I am not happy with a number of things that have happened to society in that past half century.

I have always liked women better than men, and have enjoyed the company of women more than the company of men, and from the beginning I’ve wished women the best in their quest for improvement, in particular in their quest for equal employment opportunities. That doesn’t mean, however, that I feel that all the results of the quest for liberation have been desirable as far as effects on children, women, men, and society as a whole are concerned.

Yes, I’m getting older, but I don’t think it’s fair – and I never did – to say that older people always think things were better in the past, and so their evaluations of present vs. past can be ignored. Although the narcotic of nostalgia can indeed bathe the past in a pleasant glow, it is possible that sometimes the past actually WAS better than the present. One of the great fallacies of our time – fed by government and the popular media – is that our present day values and standards and politically correct beliefs are a great improvement over anything that has come before, and that most of the past belief-system and culture, even a generation ago, was comparatively benighted and shameful. Populations of nations tend to be taught that they are better off than any other people past or present, but that doesn't make it so.

I’m still wondering why, “Honey, I’m home!” is the subject of scornful jokes. Well, I can figure it out, but it still has a pleasant ring to me. Actually I don’t think it was ever said except on a TV show.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Changing Manners

Emily Post

On March 3, Pink Ginger wrote about an experience that made her happy. It triggered my idea for this post.

Pink Ginger was invited to lunch with a male friend, their first lunch together. His office was across the road, opposite her office building. He suggested a restaurant behind his office. Because Pink Ginger would be passing his office to get to the restaurant, she prepared to walk over to meet him in his building's lobby.

He called just as she was leaving her office to say that he was waiting for her in the lobby in her office building. She was impressed. She hadn’t expected him to come over. She was even more impressed when, after lunch, he insisted on walking her back to the lift in her building’s lobby. The distance between the buildings was so short that it usually would not have been considered necessary for the man to pick Pink Ginger up or drop her off.

Pink Ginger’s pleasant experience is easy to explain, of course: She is probably the prettiest woman in Singapore and should get over being surprised when men go out of their way to please her. But was her happy reaction to what she considered an unusual act of courtesy which reminded me of how “good manners” have changed during my lifetime in the United States.

I grew up a long way from Singapore and from Pink Ginger’s Chinese culture, and so I’m not able to compare her world with Florida, where I received my etiquette training as a boy in the mid-1940s and early 1950s.

My parents considered courtesy and politeness so important that my two younger brothers and I were given more than a casual introduction to good manners. It was part of my parents’ Deep South heritage (I hope “Deep South” means something to people from other parts of the world, who perhaps have at least seen “Gone With the Wind”), and it was shared by the families I grew up among.

At supper, and weekend dinners, (“dinner” was the noon meal) we boys were taught to stand behind our chairs until all five of the family were at the table – and someone would always pull out my mother’s chair so that she would be the first seated. You might get the idea that there was some stiffness or formality involved in my family, but that wasn’t true at all. (I knew boys who had to address their fathers as “Sir”.) As my father was more fond of saying than I was of hearing, “We’re just plain folks.” I did not want to be just plain folks, but that's beside the point. The dining table routine was considered basic decency, like not talking with your mouth full, and regularly saying “please” and “thank you”. It included being excused from the table rather than just getting up and leaving.

Telephone lessons: Making a call: “Hello, this is Fleming. May I please speak to. . .” (Always identify yourself before asking for the other person.)
Answering the phone if the caller was too uncouth to identify himself: “Who’s calling, please?”

Many were the things I was taught by my mother that would help me please girls when I finally got the coveted driver’s license: Always stand up when a female enters or leaves the room. Always offer her your seat. Always help a lady put on or take off her coat. A lady always goes first. Open every door for a woman and stand back while she enters ahead of you.

When I finally did receive the driver’s license my mother walked out to the car and we went through a little drill of my opening the passenger door and helping her in and out of the Pontiac until I felt quite suave about my first evening out with Patsy Ray. Of course I was coached always to go up to my date’s front door and ring the bell, never to honk the horn.

I assumed when I moved to Washington State at the end of 1959 to begin my first teaching job, that I was now prepared to feel at home as a gentleman anywhere in the world. Boy, was I surprised! And I became more surprised during the following years in the north. I almost knocked a woman from New Jersey down when we both went for the car door at the same time, and it took awhile for her to understand what I was trying to do. If I pulled back a chair for a woman she’d look surprised and might say, “Well, thank you. How nice.” Or she’d be halfway to my car before I could make it from the curb to her front door. In those early years in Yankeeland my manners seem to be considered quaint but charming. A Japanese girl in Ohio complimented me, “You’re the only American I’ve met who behaves like a Japanese man.” A British woman said, “You seem more English than American.” I felt happy about those words. I preferred being thought oddly courtly to being coarse and unmannerly.

But things changed even more. I don’t know when American Feminism happened, but I missed it. Maybe I was too wrapped up in females to notice, or maybe it was because I lived overseas from the late 1960s into the early 1970s. Maybe it was partly because I don’t read newspapers or magazines, and watch as little television as possible. In any case, unbeknownst to me my world of social customs was spirited away and a new set was dropped onto the stage. When I returned to America a woman would not only be surprised when I started to open a car door for her, but would say firmly, “You don’t need to do that”. She might even add, “I’d rather you didn’t do that again.” When I opened the library door for a fellow law student and waited for her to enter ahead of me, she snapped rudely, “If you do that again, I won’t go out with you.” I was stunned. Another woman said, “Okay, I’ll go first this time, but we have to take turns,” and she insisted on opening every other door for me. I was routinely hearing “dirty words” from women’s mouths that I would have been sent home from school for. And for the first time I learned that “girl” was a dirty word when it came from my mouth if I could possibly have used “woman”.

What had happened? Had females gone insane? Why were they demanding to be treated more shabbily? It seemed that women were voluntarily giving up most of their advantages and asking nothing in return except what males see as the very dubious privilege of working in an office eight or more hours a day.

My virtues were now liabilities. I adapted as best I could, cheered by the rare woman who was charmed by my deeply engrained way of behaving. I found “Ms.” easy because in the South we’d used “Miz” for both “Mrs.” and “Miss” before the feminists thought of it. (Not so the awkwardness of writing “his or her” instead of “his” as the general pronoun.) And there were other compensations. For the first time, a woman asked me to go out with her alone on a date, and not in a group. I loved that. After I’d gone out with a woman she might call me up instead of waiting to be phoned. A definite improvement. Occasionally, even, a date would not assume that I was paying for dinner, and I learned the advantages of going Dutch. Best of all, since it seemed that a lot of women were trying to be like men, and men were notoriously lustful and promiscuous, my life became much more pleasant than before. Yes, feminists, hate me! I give loud thanks that I was alive in the era which saw the inception of the bikini, the miniskirt, and women’s sexual liberation.

Just as “Women’s Lib” and the Feminist Movement (are they different?) went right by me while I wasn’t looking, I think something changed as the United States moved through the 1980’s and 1990’s. I stopped encountering women who got angry if I opened a door for them, or who got tangled in their jackets because no man had ever held a coat for them before. One woman even walked up to my car and waited at the passenger door until I opened it. Excellent.

Since I began blogging I’ve noticed more than before how much faster things have changed in the last hundred years than in previous centuries. This is as true of customs and manners and language and social attitudes as of technology. When, as a college student, I began looking for old books at library sales and used book shops, I developed a hobby of collecting old etiquette books. They made me laugh. The rules of etiquette which ruled my grandparents at the beginning of the 20th century (and even the more “modern” rules my mother would have read about when she was married in 1927) were so different from the rules of the 1960s and 70s that they seemed to reflect an entirely different world . . . which they did. (Click on "Emily Post" to see a reprint of her famous 1922 etiquette book.)

So, it gave me special pleasure to read Pink Ginger’s appreciation of a man’s courteous attention, and to know that what I was taught as a boy has not entirely vanished.

Monday, March 5, 2007

From Dreams to Who Knows Where

Night before last I had a series of dreams about three large trays of things that were put in front of me, apparently for me to do something with – to sort out, perhaps? The same trays appeared in turn more than once, but even so the memory faded quickly. I associate the things on the trays with charcoal briquettes, poker chips, fragments of stone, bits and pieces of this and that. “Junk” comes to mind. I felt I was supposed to deal with all those things, but I rebelled and said, “No, just let it fall as it may. Do as you like.” The feeling was that I’d had enough, that I was courageously refusing to take responsibility for all this stuff that was put on my plate by . . . what? A “higher power”?

It was in that context that I had a new feeling of fearlessness that expressed itself in a kind of flippancy in addressing the “higher power”. It was as if I were recognizing a greater power in my own self, as well as a dependable helper which some might call “spirit guide” or “guardian”. . . a helpful power which assists, protects, heals.

My attitude was something like, “Look, I’m tired of this nonsense. I’m part of the stars and galaxies. I’m at home everywhere.”

My disrespect reminds me of the concept that we are gods, as well as an ancient idea I read recently that God was created to serve man and not vice versa.

The traditional Christian religions encourage an attitude of humble fearfulness toward which I thumbed my nose with my defiant flippancy. “A neurotic goes through life as if constantly expecting to be spanked.” Regardless of the pretty words about love, and that fact that one can now see Roman Catholic priests prancing down aisles playing guitars, the traditional idea of organized Christian religions has been: “Do exactly as we tell you and you’ll be all right, but you’ll be in terrible trouble forever if you don’t obey.”

The very fact that the God is addressed so often with the word “merciful” implies that He might not be. Those in a position to exercise mercy are conquerors and despots.

I’m belaboring the obvious, but I want to put my last night’s sense of fearlessness in perspective. If you have read FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS you know that I write a lot about spirit and afterlife in a non-Christian context . . . but in many of us there are still thorns of childhood indoctrination that need to be dissolved and that have not been replaced by any similarly authoritative explanation of how the universe works. My emphasis here is on “authoritative”. We exchange the certainty of paternalistic, authoritative, fear-enforced dogma for unanchored wondering about the endless mysteries of existence.

Don’t misunderstand me: Wondering is the preferable way to go, and fleeing back to authority and dogma would be surrendering to fear. But how fortunate are those who were never inculcated with terrible ideas in the first place!

How is it that the rule of fear and pain seems to have triumphed in so many religions? Is it because fear is inherent in the human condition? Or is it because those who want to dominate a tribe quickly discover the power of frightening people with threats from “supernatural” beings regarding whom the priest or ruler claims some special knowledge and relationship? The strength of a priest or king can be put to the test, but there is no limit to the strength of an invisible, imaginary power.

The core of fear in Christianity has obviously been the fear of hell, of damnation in some form. Which makes me wonder about an ideology like Judaism, in which I understand there is no hell, or even an afterlife. Jewish holy days don’t involve the components of some kind of cosmic “salvation” as much as celebrating historical events in which the Jews’ enemies were overcome or killed. And they have a legalistic aspect, as in the annual Kol Nidre prayer which I just discovered, which is said in synagogues on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement):

‘All vows obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called 'ḳonam,' 'ḳonas,' or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.’

Jewish comedians joke about being guilt-ridden, but what is the source of their guilt? Guilt seems a close relative of fear. Can you suffer much from guilt if you don’t think something bad might happen to you because of what you did to cause the guilt? Society associates guilt with punishment . . . but without damnation, where is the punishment? Is the penalty suffering illness or poverty in this life, or an early death? And if the latter, by what mechanism can priests or their equivalent take advantage of such fears to keep the tribe in line? I think of the Old Testament Hebrew prophets and their frequent warnings that their tribe will be punished if it doesn’t obey the laws laid down by the tribal god. And the prophecies of punishments for Hebrew disobedience came true again and again – but they were earthly punishments, not afterlife punishments. Can the constant threat of earthly punishments be as effective as the threat of eternal punishment in an afterlife? I doubt it.

This meandering post is definitely not meant to answer questions, but instead to ask them. I’m hoping for comments.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

An Obsession with Personality Change?

My thesis is that Americans of the present time – and the past 100 years or so – have been more preoccupied with “self-improvement” in the sense of personality change than the people of any other time in history. I refer to Americans because I live among them, but I suspect the same phenomena are seen elsewhere. I think that, on the other hand, during most of history it has been assumed that people were born as they were meant to be and were supposed to make the most of it.

It’s as if life begins in the 20th and 21st centuries with the proposition: “There’s something wrong with me, and I’ve got to get better.” Many individuals do not start with the assumption, “This is the way I am, and so be it”, but rather “How can I change myself to be what I should be?” I’m thinking primarily of personality, but also of the obsession with cosmetic physical improvements. Has there ever been such a time in history before?

In Shakespeare’s time it was basically assumed that you were what you were – period. Shakespeare could, without a suggestion that Cassius improve himself, have Caesar say:

‘Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

. . . he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.’

I doubt that it would have occurred to anyone to recommend that Cassius read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” even if the book had existed. I also doubt that Cassius' friends suggested that he see if a counselor could help him laugh more. Can you imagine his wife saying, “If you want to get ahead with Caesar, you’ve going to have to eat these sweetcakes.”

At the other extreme, Shakespeare’s Falstaff was an alcoholic, hedonistic mountain of flesh who often attracted affection despite his disreputable behavior. I would be willing to bet that if Weight Watchers or the South Beach Diet had been available, Sir John Falstaff would have paid no attention to them. I doubt that he ever sat at the groaning board, lifting a flagon with his friends, talking about how little he’d managed to eat for several days and yet how little weight he’d lost. “Well, John, look at the lard on that beef.” “It’s not the fat, it’s the bread and pies.” “Well, don’t be too sure, I just read that they’re saying. . .” “Anyway, there’s good lard and there’s bad lard. . .”

What I’m writing about really should be the subject of a research study. I’m basing the post mainly on my knowledge of the literature of all the ages; a more learned person might be able to correct me. But for now I’ll say that in most times and places throughout history, it was believed that there were certain personality types (often identified with physical characteristics), and it simply didn't occur to people that an invididual born as one type should spend time trying to change to another. The motto may have been “Know thyself,” but not “Change thyself.”

The zodiac comes to mind as the most ancient and enduring categorization of personality types, and it seems to me that the western zodiac (the one I’m most familiar with) did a good job of identifying the various characteristics that would most often be found within each type. The zodiac as a study of human psychology has considerable merit, but it is an indicator rather than a takeoff point for dissatisfaction. I doubt that any astrologer has ever advised a client to quit being a Pisces personality and start trying very hard to become a Sagittarius type. Instead, the time-honored advice will generally run: “These are the aspects of your personality that can have positive effects; try to emphasize those and avoid the negative aspects.”

When I wonder where the 20th-21st century craze with self-improvement began, Freud comes to mind. I think he was wrong about almost everything, but psychoanalysis and Freudian dream interpretation became a tremendous fad for awhile. It was not just for sick people trying to get well. EVERYBODY was mentally sick in one way or another, and the Freudian hocus pocus would make them better.

Here again we see the supposition of the time: There is something wrong with my personality, and it needs to be fixed.

My mother told me about Emile Coue, of the 1920’s, who had millions of people repeating, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” That verbal baton was taken up by Silva Mind Control. Dale Carnegie fits into this picture, as do a thundering herd of “self-improvement” authors and teachers which include Maxwell Maltz, “Psycho-Cybernetics” (self-image improvement), L. Ron Hubbard (creator of “Dianetics” and an entire religion), Norman Vincent Peale (“The Power of Positive Thinking”), Dr. Phil McGraw (self-styled television psychotherapist), and most recently, the super-hyped DVD and book, “The Secret” (a rehash of advice from other self-help books, whose unmerited success irks me; if you’re going to make a ton of money, do it with something original).

Before I conclude, I want to distinguish what I’m talking about from two other kinds of "improvement":

1) Improvements of one’s physical skills – whether spear throwing or archery or fencing or golfing or karate.

2) Religious and spiritual self-improvement. While religious and spiritual quests may seek personality change (Buddhism has been called a system of psychology), it is for a higher purpose than merely “having a better personality” or “being liked” or “becoming successful” or “feeling better about yourself.” For thousands of years men and women have been isolating themselves as hermits or joining religious orders for purposes of closeness to God/gods/goddesses and finding “salvation” or enlightenment. Some of the worst effects of the Christian protestant movements came from their founders’ fears that they could never be sure that they had improved themselves enough for salvation from hell, or even that any amount of self-improvement would do any good. Those are not the kinds of self-improvement I’m talking about here.

Perhaps the ultimate wish in self-improvement heard today:

“If I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
Everyone would be in love with me.”