Stephen Kahn

Archive for the ‘Hard to tell’ Category

Sensitive post

In Hard to tell on March 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm

One of the common characteristics of Transition Whidbey (and Transition Towns in general) is a concern about “sensitivities (more commonly known as “allergies”). Many of the people who come to meetings, and quite a few who don’t come to meetings because they say something at the meeting place, no matter how carefully chosen, “triggers” their sensitivity, whether it’s a scent, or a food substance, or a dust, or whatever) talk about how they suffer from their sensitivities.

As with everything else, this issue is a complicated mash-up of truth, confusion, injustice, and blackmail. Many people do indeed have sensitivities, some of can be detected and confirmed by “objective” means, and some of which cannot. The issue of sensitivities also provides a splendid scope for liars, scoundrels, and manipulative martyrs.

When I was a child, I often had allergy attacks. I thought they were the result of pollen (which they surely were). As my family always had cats, I did not realize my attacks were also the result of allergies to cat dander. When I first started going with my wife, she sarcastically suggested that my allergies were psychosomatic.

All my life I had eaten seafood. At the age of forty or so, halibut started to make me throw up. After some cautious experiments, I determined that I can steal eat cod and salmon (and mother other fish). I avoid halibut now, just to be on the safe side (and I am sure, must to the relief of a few fish).

Now that we are in our sixties, my allergies to pollen and cats have diminished (though not disappeared entirely). My wife has developed allergies to cats and pollen, so she has switched her pet affection to chickens. I avoid suggesting that her sensitivities are psychosomatic, as I know which side of the bread my marriage is buttered. I have also developed something of an allergy to Transition Towns, so I have stopped attending their meetings.


In Hard to tell on March 14, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Almost by accident, I began attending some Transition Whidbey meetings. After a few innocuous sessions with ecological and agricultural themes, I began to suffer an uncomfortable feeling, something like what I feel as a person with mild allergies when hay fever season begins or a cat has been sitting on my lap. As the meetings became more “touchy-feely” and “New Age,” I realized I was having (in a very mild way compared to a person who has undergone real combat or some other traumatic life and death situation) a kind of PSTD reaction. The people I saw participating in Transition Whidbey reminded me uncomfortably of the people I had encountered at Cerro Gordo decades ago.

In my days of involvement with Cerro Gordo, I perceived many of the participants as vulnerable to a leader who struck me as something like a cult leader and something like a scam artist, but not quite fitting either profile exactly. In the Transition movements, I saw what appeared to be similar personality traits, including:

  • optimism – normally an admirable trait, but carried to the point of wishful thinking and lack of sensible alertness and wariness in many cases
  • striving for peace and tranquillity – again admirable qualities and goals, but also rather counterproductive when edging into traits such as denial and head in the sand foolishness.
  • aversion to conflict, again an issue of striking a reasonable balance between hostility and aggression and passivity and timidity on the other hand.
  • religiosity while denying any religious belief. This is a tricky issue. I am an utterly irreligious person (something like Christopher Hitchens in this regard – though obviously not as smart or informed); however, all my life I have maintained fairly good relationships with quite a few very religious people. One of the traits I find exasperating in “New Age” groupings, such as Transition Whidbey, is that they simultaneously say something along the lines of “We are not religious” and “We believe in God, and we are very spiritual.” I can accept and mingle with non-sociopathic and tolerant religious believers, but I now find that I prefer straight-forward, unvarnished, unflavored religious belief. I drink both coffee and tea. In both cases, I drink them “straight,” without sugar, cream, or a lot of fancy flavorings.

[to be continued]

The New Age Ecology Cults (#1)

In Hard to tell on March 10, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Another cultish group I participate in is Transition Whidbey. My participation in this group provoked a bit of a flash back for me, because it reminded me of a group I participated in over 20 years ago called Cerro Gordo, located in Lane County, Oregon. My wife and I were tired of living in the city, and dreamed of having a “homestead” in the country. While I was team-teaching (on ecology, oddly enough) at Tigard High School (located in a suburb of Portland, OR), I attended a fair about ecological living at the local Mall (named Washington Square). I met a group of people who had set up a display promoting their rural community, which they called Cero Gordo, and described as an “eco-village.” My wife and I began to participate in Cerro Gordo, regularly traveling about a hundred miles from our home in Portland, OR to visit their “gatherings” where people collected on weekends to talk about how wonderful it would be to live an unspoiled life style in a rural area. At first, my wife and I were quite attracted to the community and its founder’s ideas and plans, and we pitched in with unskilled and ignorant enthusiasm to help it may come true. Although the exact details are not the same, there is quite a bit of resemblance to what went on at Cerro Gordo to T. C. Boyle’s fine novel, Drop City.

The Cerro Gordo eco village, in our opinion, went very astray, in ways involving a lot of disputed money, land, and broken dreams (including the alleged suicide of the founder’s wife). Although my wife and I had not lost a lot of money, we felt a lot of harm was taking place that needed to be stopped. As we had legal standing because of real estate investments and contributions to a non-profit organization, we brought a lawsuit which turned into a fairly spectacular affair, lasting three weeks (a long time in the trial business) and eventually being upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. Not only had we not lost much money, we eventually gained a fairly substantial amount of money through winning the trial, a result which left us feeling rather uneasy about the morality of the whole thing. Which is a lot like a T. C. Boyle novel, if you think about it.

Many years later, here on Whidbey Island, I accidentally came into contact with a very informal, anarchistic, mostly below the horizon line group of people known as Transition Whidbey, part of a larger anarchistic group originating in the British Isles, known as the Transition Towns movement.

(To be continued)

The Library Cult

In Hard to tell, Humor on February 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm

When I was about 6 years old, I wandered down the hill to the Echo Park Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.  (Apparently the library I used as a child has been replaced.) Even then, I thought in all those books in “stacks” (as library shelves of books are called”) contained some essential answer to the puzzling questions and frustrations of life (#1 Belief in something you cannot see or prove exists).

As a moderately unhappy child in a moderately unhappy family, I used books as my drug of choice by which to escape reality. I am sardonically amused as a long-time user of many libraries and eventually an employee of one to see how enthusiastically this particular cult preaches READ READ READ READ READ READ to its acolytes. Indeed, reading provides many virtues and benefits, but as with any substance, overuse and misuse can be harmful. I don’t recall attending any library “story-times” as a child, but most libraries today do introduce children to the reading cult by telling them and reading them stories in groups.

There are many interesting contradictions and paradoxes in the library cult. As the song “Marian the Librarian”  coyly captures, a librarian (at least in earlier incarnations) was a demure woman, something like a nun, who eschewed the dress and mannerisms we normally associate with female sexuality, thus turning her into a very desirable woman.

On top of this, at some point in their evolution, libraries became ardent defenders of “freedom of speech” and ardent opponents of censorship. In plain terms, this means that libraries defend their right to include dirty books and books telling you how to overthrow the government and commit terrorist acts. For example, I just checked the catalogs some of the libraries I use for books once controversial and often banned because of explicit sexual content, finding in their catalogs books such as Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov, My Life and Loves by Frank Harris, and The Happy Hooker, by Xaviera Hollander. One of the most notorious books for people who wanted to learn how to construct bombs, perform assassinations, and engage in similar types of terrorist activities was titled The Anarchist’s Cookbook. In case you harbor similar inclinations, the library for whom I used to work includes this manual in its catalog.

On the whole, the people who work for libraries are very modest and well-behaved members of society. I worked for a library for over 10 years, and most of the time, I was not particularly excited, aroused, or frightened by my colleagues. There were exceptions, as far as the demure image. One librarian I knew, engaged in a week-long “job swap” with a Las Vegas dancer. After a little “crash training,” the librarian danced and displayed her body on a stage in Las Vegas for a week. After a little crash training, the dancer checked out books and answered reference questions in a library for a week.

Libraries do attract some interesting “patrons,” [library-speak for customers]. During my time working for a library, I encountered on a regular basis at least half-a-dozen people who struck me as seriously mentally ill, although I did not feel threatened by any of them. As repositories of information, libraries attract many people pursuing their obsessions, trying to research questionable ideas. I encountered one gentleman who asked for assistance with an extensive document he was writing about his experience with being abducted by space aliens. A woman earnestly explained to me that the library computers were spying on her, and asked me to alert the library system’s data processing department to investigate these sinister activities. However, only one person struck me as dangerous; a colleague of mine (in teaching computer classes), who behaved so erratically and disturbingly that he was eventually fired. One day after his discharge, he came to work, walked into the system headquarters, and started fixing himself lunch in the microwave. [I wasn’t present the day of his bizarre return.] It sounded like a prelude to a violent workplace rampage episode (such as you read about in the news). However, a supervisor, encountering him; politely asked the ex-employee to leave; and without causing any difficulty, he peacefully left the premises.

So even though I started my membership in the library cult over sixty years ago, I am still a member. I went to a cult meeting a couple of days ago (to talk about promoting a book about crows), and I am going to another meeting today, to learn how to collect arcane information (how to download books for my wife).

Clan Cult (#2 in a series on cults)

In Hard to tell, Humor on February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Among the earliest human social units were clans. Human beings are very social creatures. Even in the earliest days of human existence, it probably was not common to find just Mom and Dad and maybe Dick and Jane and Spot wandering around on the African Savannah by themselves. Probably there were at least a few aunts and uncles in the group as well. When one clan met another, they had to make quick decisions: Eat them? Kill them? Marry them and create in-laws? All of the above?

At some point, as humans began to reason, they began to rationalize and generalize. My clan is better than your clan. If times were difficult – food and water in short supply – vicious predators in abundant supply – they began to imagine better places over the horizon. They also began to imagine worse places over the horizon. (#1 – Belief in some things you cannot see or prove exists.)

“Let’s move over the hill!” Cried some. “Let’s flee over the hill!” Cried others. Eventually a decision was made, and the group – some happy and some not – went along with the clan, figuring there was safety in numbers. (#2 – Feeling of companionship, support …)

As the clan advanced or fled, they said to one another, “Hang on! We’re almost there. I can smell water! I can smell food. The grass is getting greener with every mile we advance.” Or, “Keep moving! I think we’re getting away! I think they’ve lost our scent! Don’t stop now; we’re almost to a cave where we can hide!”  (#3 Sense of purpose…)

Disllusionment and re-illusionment (Part 2)

In Hard to tell, Humor on January 6, 2012 at 7:39 pm

If I am correct that part of the process of growing up for many people is going through disillusionment, I suspect a typical sequence involves them becoming re-illusioned. Given that truth is difficult to discern (aside from the inevitability of death and taxes — and I have always wondered if Hitler and Stalin went through the motions of paying taxes, though even they do seem to have expired, and not a moment too soon), it is difficult to know if such a thing as a life without illusions can be said to exist.

In any case, lots of people do proceed with great energy and cleverness to re-illusion themselves after they suffer disillusionment. I think it reasonable to say, that each of us sees other people’s illusions, but are blind to our own.

Disillusionment and Re-illusionment (Part 1)

In Hard to tell on December 26, 2011 at 9:30 pm

As the world appears to be a bleak place in many ways, adults try to protect children as much as possible. “Preserving children’s innocence,” is a typical phrase. In the past, when the hazards of life were much more apparent – no immunizations against smallpox, no seat belts much less air bags on carriages, and barbarian hordes around every corner, for instance – adults were less concerned about children’s innocence, as illustrated by the appropriately titled Grimm’s Fairy Tales, though as the Wikipedia entry illustrates, even then adults were starting to worry about cleaning up their act as far as what they told young ones about the world

The trouble with protecting children’s innocence is that when the kids start to grow up and discover that the world is a bit cruel and nasty, they get a shock like having the water in a warm shower suddenly turn icy cold. Children do not always take this loss of innocence well.

I don’t remember ever being all that innocent and optimistic. My wife, the youngest of five, encountered the shock of her parents’ divorce, but on the whole managed to live in world of happy oblivion – “I lived in Disneyland” – I think she once said to me. Later in life, she was rather startled to hear from her oldest sister about how much conflict there had been in her family and to realize how much bitterness her sister held against their mother.

As my wife entered her teens, she began to develop an identity of her own, such as wearing black pants and dressing as a beatnik (as her mother regarded her mildly eccentric teenage apparel), and lying about how she met me when we started to date. Her mother did not take this well, resulting in a huge scene and my wife throwing herself out of her house as soon as she reached the age of 18. She got a tiny apartment and a crummy job as a file clerk and a little television of her own. As she began to watch the television news instead of the Mickey Mouse Club, she began to realize the world has a lot of ugly stuff. My wife is not a person to get depressed by temperament, but she went through a period of gloom as she thought about the nature of the world.

While not universal, the process of “protecting children’s innocence,” followed by childish depression and disillusionment, followed by who knows what hi-jinks with alcohol, drugs, sex, religious fanaticism, violence and other crime, is a fairly common cycle in modern life.

The Singularity is Near

In Hard to tell, Uncategorized on November 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm

I just finished reading Vol. 1 of a biography of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Ray Kurzweill, author of The Singularity is Near, is busy working on creating our science fiction future. It’s a big book, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. Will I live long enough read it?

Kurzweill argues that the Singularity, a time when humanity morphs into a new species by merging itself with artificial intelligence, will occur about 2045. I am pretty sure that I won’t live that long. Kurzweill thinks he has a good chance.

From Wikipedia:

Kurzweil admits that he cared little for his health until age 35, when he was diagnosed with a glucose intolerance, an early form of type II diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease). Kurzweil then found a doctor that shares his non-conventional beliefs to develop an extreme regimen involving hundreds of pills, chemical i.v. treatments, red wine and various other methods to attempt to live longer.

Kurzweil ingests “250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea” every day and drinks several glasses of red wine a week in an effort to “reprogram” his biochemistry.Lately, he has cut down the number of supplement pills to 150.

Kurzweil joined the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company. In the event of his death, Kurzweil’s body will be chemically preserved, frozen in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility in the hope that future medical technology will be able to revive him.[citation needed]

Kurzweil has authored three books on the subjects of nutrition, health and immortality: The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. In all, he recommends that other people emulate his health practices to the best of their abilities.

Knowing when to quit

In Hard to tell, Humor on November 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Did I get your hopes up, you rascals?

I am still reading about and mulling over Robert Heinlein. In Methuselah’s Children, he envisioned prolonging human life, another science fiction prediction starting to come true a bit. My father died at 43; I am 67 and still relatively healthy (having just gone out into the early stages the big wind/rain storm about to hit Whidbey Island, and survived).

As every silver lining has a cloud, extending human lives creates many problems. One problem is that people don’t know when to quit and when to stop. Think of the worst dictators of all time. Hitler was eventually stopped by outside forces, though at the cost of millions of lives. On the other hand. Stalin (arguably even worse than Hitler) looked set to go on forever, a far as holding power goes, but eventually his health declined (unhealthy lifestyle with habits such as smoking did not help), and eventually he did croak. Even so, there are many rumors and allegations about his death, with claims that he at least was “helped along,” by close associates, such as Beria, head of the secret police. In any case, whatever caused Stalin to kick the bucket was probably a mercy for mankind, as one of the last rumors about Stalin was that he was leaning toward starting World War III. As always a competitive rascal, he might have wanted to outdo Hitler in his final orgy of destruction.

In any case, people who get too old and don’t know when to quit are a perpetual problem. Did Saddam Hussein know when to quit? Probably not. Did Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi know when to quit? Probably not. Did Joe Paterno know when to quit? Probably not. Evander Holyfield, now 48, five times boxing champion of the world and still fighting, certainly doesn’t know when to quit, and is quite likely to have a medical incident right in the middle of the ring.

Are there corresponding instances of women who did not know when to retire? Well, there was Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, who ended up being dragged into a messy court battle, right here in the USA. Or, Catharine the Great of Russian, arguably one of the most successful female rulers in history, about whom one web site asserts, “It was the misfortune of Catherine that she lived too long. She disgraced herself by living with her last lover, Zubov, when she was a woman of sixty-seven, trusting him with power and lavishing public money on him.”

Are there people who know when to retire? Or are we all condemned to carry on too long, wreaking havoc on everyone around us? I don’t think I will quit today. Tomorrow is always another day, not to mention another cliche.

Have a good life being strangled by Bianca’s hands at the movies

In Hard to tell on November 10, 2011 at 1:49 am

It’s about time for my new reader, joem, to get bored with my blog and wander away. However, Joe, I appreciate your dropping in.

All my life, I have been much more of a reader than a movie goer. I read much more science fiction than I watched science fiction movies. (My wife is the opposite.)

However, even though I started reading science fiction by the age of ten, my first science fiction traumas were cinematic. I bugged my father to take me to some science fiction movie about aliens; it scared me so much I bugged him to take me home, much to my disgust. It might have been Plan Nine from Outer Space [renowned as the worst science fiction movie ever made]. However, I watched a bit of that movie not long ago and it did not ring any repressed memory bells.

Then a year or two later, I went to see the movie version of War of the Worlds by myself. I stuck it all the way through, but for weeks afterwards I had nightmares about Martian death rays incinerating me

By twelve I could handle science fiction horror movies. My brother and I took our little sister to see Them (a movie about giant ants in Los Angeles) while we were living in Brea (small town in Orange County). We thought the giant ants were cool, but our sister was scared silly and ran crying into the lobby, much to the irritation of my brother and myself.

I can only think of one written science fiction story that really scared me: “It’s a Good Life,” by Jerome Bixby.

Almost as good at scaring me, however, was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bianca’s Hands.” I could not find a print version online; however, I did find a reading by Spider Robinson, though you have to wade through a lot of music and other stuff to get to the story.