Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Poem: Not So Vacant Lot

This poem is from my book, Escape From the Orchard of Wheels.  It was also published in American Poetry Review.  I think it's more about people than ants.

I wrote a poem yesterday or so, the first in about a year and half.

Best to All,


Not So Vacant Lot

ants stream from a nipple,
blur of apricot roan.

no psalm binds them,
no sergeant-at-arms yells stop.

they scatter like drams
of fiery milk, curdling

as they go, gnashing emeralds
that skew in their mandibles,

and hounding nature
with snicks of flame.

a slyphid trips, blunders,
gets torn to gobbets,

each the size of a
matchstick head.  the ants

ply their conga all day,
milling in droves, whirlpooling

to stuff their spoils
back down, into the adored



Monday, August 22, 2016

Anger and Emotional Competence

More often than not, we are told anger is a bad thing.  There are plenty of examples where anger has terrible results, elides care, or serves ignorance.  Things are even worse when rage is considered.  Horror movies and worst-case-scenarios come to mind.  Anger?  Awful.  Rage?  The ultimate fail.
 But such blanket condemnation is wrong.  Should anger appall us like some rabid animal, even when justified?  The bias against anger extends to passions in general, whose expression is consigned to certain forms, at certain times, under the imperious rules of an onerous etiquette.  These proscriptions, built into the cogworks of daily life, delimit an acceptable zone for conversation, especially at the levels of power.  It is a rather grey and formulaic space. 
I watch the babblers on the news, glib yet clad in the soporific tones of normalese.  Their phrases blur into so many dried out husks, eroded into a shuffling mass by the windspeak of their faux objectivity.  Without emotion there is no color, only the colorless numbness of the norm.  These talking heads not only reduce news analysis to sound bites between commercials, not only add their spins, slants and fallacies, but also imbue the tenor of their presentation with an insensitive nonchalance, or worse, the merest touch of saccharine concern.  After watching for a while, the speakers’ jaws seem to go wooden, like those of puppets, and their routines start to paralyze the soul, that seat of dream-riled inspirations.
 Shallowness is good fodder for the mind control of the masses.  It is good for consumerism.  It is good if you don’t want people to think too much about lopsided wealth curves, about the sweatshopping of the weak, about the nuclear threat to life itself, or ecosystems smashed on the nihilistic anvil of avarice.
Passion in service of justice, in contravention of the puppet show, isn’t shallow.  It doesn’t dull, deaden or oppress.
            Western tradition has a long history of placing the ‘rational’ above the emotional.  If a newscaster or pundit dares to show emotion they have lost their ‘objectivity’--and then, wow, nightmare, debacle, castigation (this applies to serious topics, involving money, military, law and politics, but not the cutesy sideshows).  In Plato’s writing, Emotion is the bad black horse, always in trouble unless strictly reined in by Reason, aided by the good white horse, Willpower.
The grand problem with this ancient worldview is that, ironically, it fosters ignorance.  The ‘smarter’ conquering people are superior to the defeated ‘savage’ peoples.  Men are ‘clearly’ superior to women, as they are more ‘logical’.  Conqueror over conquered, man over woman, human over animal, these oppressive splits draw from the false, enduring dual frame. 
The result has been a more-than-poignant history of atrocious sagas.  If the mechanisms of oppression continue, world collapse is imminent, brought on by the Narcissism of the Masters;   Greed sucking us all down into its gold-toothed, war-hawking gyre.  The oligarchs, no matter how many trophies they accumulate, seek fix after fix after fix.  It is accelerative, addictive.  No empathy.  No concern beyond the immediate grab (“We must maximize profit this quarter!”  “We must win this election!”  “We must defeat our competitors!”). 
Civilizations have died from top-heavy egoism.  Given our global interconnectivity, the next iteration of such pathology will take us all down.  As I say below, this is why we must evolve our emotional competency or perish.  If we do, it will foment a true breakthrough in the understanding of the self. 
Here’s what psychology tells us:  reason is an integrated process.  It involves many parts of the mind, interacting complexity in an ocean of memory/experience. The brain’s neural nets trellis as we go along.  These dendritic vines shape our interactions with the world, even as they shape us back.
           The sophistry of the status quo would have us belittle and box our anger and other passions.  But these sprightly forces are integral to the mind’s grand holistic schemes.  Its magical fractals of neurotransmitted sparks.  Passions are not alien to the pyrotechnics of cognitive expression.  They are players within its multidimensional spotlights.
           In a reflection of my Western bias, my first impulse, when drafting this essay, was to consider passions as being much like instruments in a mental orchestra.  But this metaphor is just another version of Plato’s Chariot.  The 'rational' charioteer imposes harsh objectifying control, keeps taut the reins. 
Passions are much more than instruments leashed to scores or scripts.  They are different than horses.  They are manifestations of voices within a greater sentience ( note that even the self is a player in the greater arena of the mind, as we can see in our dreams).  Imagine instruments and conductor so entangled as to be fused into a mutuality, one that thinks, lives and performs together. 
Importantly, it is not as if the instruments merely absorb the conductor’s will, or become living mirrors of the conductor.  They each bring their own voice to collective.  Carl Jung broke critical ground when he introduced an intrapsychic pantheon of archetypes.  Autonomous or semi-autonomous presences within the greater psyche.
            On this picture, if you segregate passions from the overall performance, and try to bridle them like a horse, or control them like a musical instrument, you not only diminish the music but also the ability to compose and orchestrate.


            Adrienne Rich was eulogized by the New Yorker as a poet of “towering rage.”  This was not pejorative.  She stepped out bravely in the face of inveterate social inequality, the sort that  lurks unacknowledged yet ubiquitous.  Entrenched.  Imagine a broken  light bulb, shattered in its socket , shedding no light; and yet suppose the people around it all say it is glowing.  You challenge them, “The bulb is broken,” and trot out the evidence, already feeling like you are in Wonderland, because it is ridiculous to have to explain:  the brokenness is obvious, immediate, empirical.
But the group gets angry.  They call you a liar and worse.  If you resort to anger yourself, you discover it is a prerogative of the in-group.   Their anger is just fine.  They are, at the core, ‘rational’.  You, on the other hand, are branded as ‘emotional’, an exile-worthy stigma.  If you are a woman, like Rich, your ‘emotional’ status validates the prejudice that women are ‘weepy’ and ‘weak’.   The group might suggest you ‘stay in your place.’  If you are a male, your ‘emotional’ status might be taken to validate another stereotype, and get you labeled as gay.  For them, homosexuality is an abomination.
This light-bulb allegory only hints at the viciousness of the counterattack that activists confront.  From the ramparts of the denialists, there is simply no controversy.  The broken light bulb is glowing.  The white race is superior.  Men should rule.  LGBT is evil.  And on and on.
This sort of reality-bending has a term in mental health jargon, “gaslighting.”  Gaslighting is used to describe an abusive person (in the full criminal sense) who manipulates and threatens so much that the victims snap.  They embrace the implanted, false picture.   If the abuser says the light in on, it is certainly on in the eyes of those mentally (and often physically) battered.
Indoctrination into society as a whole is abusive this way.  Citizens get gaslighted from all sides--media, commercial, family, government.  This assembly line of acculturation is backed by an omnipresence, the Panopticon as Foucault would say.  Young children are the ones who often point out the contradictions and cruelties in our ways of living; that is, before they themselves get molded into walking echo chambers of the loud, standardized scripts.
            The subconscious, interlocking reinforcement mechanisms of our canons and institutions, the citadel-like strength of the Panopticon, cannot be easily defied.  Immense honesty is necessary, the sort that fueled Rich’s “towering rage.”
Such rage is natural if you don’t hide from the truth.  Republican leaders dismiss global warming as a hoax, even as evidence piles to the contrary.  They call it a hoax despite an extreme consensus among climatologists.  Similarly, Republican leaders don’t seem concerned by the current mass extinction event, or the unprecedented pollution and overtaxing of the Earth itself.  They balk at racism even as they hammer racism into the hearts of their followers with paranoid, delusional rhetoric.  They employ homophobia and  misogyny as recruitment tools, couching them in insidious ‘dog whistle’ references.  Their shortsightedness reveals the danger of passion imprisoned, passion harnessed by deception.

     We understandably fear anger in such cases because it resembles a powder keg.   But artists and poets, like Rich, effectively work with intense anger.  They are alchemists of emotion, wielding pen or paintbrush.  Anger wedded to honesty opens the mind and stimulates thought.  It is liberatory, cathartic and cleansing.  It motivates vigilance and seeks evolution of the collective consciousness.
Much of what I’m saying relates to the academic discussion of emotional intelligence.  “The [Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence] helps people build effective emotion-regulation strategies, equipping them to transform powerful emotions like anger into action that targets unjust systems.”  This is a vast step in the direction of saving humanity.  I would go so far as to say that humanity will either persist or crash depending on how far we can evolve our relationship with our intrapsychic forces.
We can no longer afford  a planet where sociopaths take center stage, pushing the anti-virtues of fascism on susceptible masses, even as they seek to usurp the right to choose  how and when we go to war.  If psychological maturity overwhelms bigotry, the malice of  demagogues who seek power for ignoble ends will be readily thwarted.
The problem I see with the Yale Center’s philosophy is the talk of  'transforming' anger, as if it were a mere stage in an hierarchical process.  Obviously anger, and all passions, need to coexist with wisdom.  The artist hurls paint at the canvas, the writer hurls words onto the page, the protesters yell chants or cover themselves in fake blood.  They don’t throw rocks.  If the voices of anger are allowed to speak, the mind might be cleared for moods of peace.  Organic experience will be cyclical, not hierarchical.  It’s not as if one passion is better than others, or that peaceful moods are superior.  All participate in actualization.
As the contexts and stories of our lives change, so do the cognitive weather patterns within our brain lobes.  If some ‘rational’ tyrant of an ego imposes shackles on the stormy emotions, it has tremendous consequences.
Wise relationship with the forces within the mind, a sort of respectful, mutual management, is hard.  It requires acceptance.  Purging.  Dealing with wounds and shames.  Heroic effort goes into working with anger and other passions.  But the honesty, the truth, the raw wonder and release that leave one feeling quintessentially alive; the soulfelt urge to heal this world and strive for love not hate, compassion not greed, these are no mere perks to be acquired, no mere trophies for a shelf.  They are liberatory centers of action with many offshoots, many implications. 
By marrying truth and ethos--the science of psychology and also the most noble concepts we can discern, such as human rights--we can live deeply and well, and strive to navigate the perils of the current age, of doomsday weapons and extinctions, despots and wars-- and confront the very gaping curses, not yet begun to heal, forged from the awful, monumental genocides, starting with the invasion by Columbus.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Poem: The Stars

This poem was inspired by my brother, whose name was Elisha, but we called him by his middle name, which was “Gudger.”  Affectionately, he was known as “the Gudge.”

I wanted to write something that wasn’t gloomy, wasn’t weighed down by human violence and abuse.  I asked Gudger for inspiration, and so emerged the draft of this poem.  The last line is based on a phrase he was considering for his own novel, “Fly Envious Time.”   


The Stars

the stars,
so rich in seeds that grow our minds.
we blossom because the universe
blossomed.  that vast great garden
nurtures our gaze.
in our hearts dwell the fierce burnings,
strong because of our wonder.
ancient the candles perch,
cradling our trust. 
in the gleam of our awe
they lift us, among ballets of galaxies,
the many peaks our dreams to refresh.
how lucky yet brief our eternal
bridge of sleep, chasing such ecstasies
beyond the envy of time.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trump and Psychological Werewolfism

The Trump phenomenon has evolved my view of the human mind even further.  We are masters not only of deceit, but also of self-deceit.  We actively work against the truth by spinning the most plausible yet specious arguments possible.  The implications are almost impossible to bear.  Ordinary, functional, everyday citizens are capable of balkanized brains that foster division, delusion and denial.  This is not an outlier situation, but rather a pervasive norm.

These conclusions are based on the phenomenon of millions of Americans bowing down to the ignorant, lie-spewing, messianic bravado of Trump.  They accept it as fact.  They are throwing away the ideals of their country, democracy and freedom, and even pushing the risk of world war, while chanting for the construction of a great wall, and the banning of all Muslims.  These are people who, outside the context of politics, are kind and funny, hospitable and giving.  They are you and me.  And they are also the muscle working to foment a great catastrophe.

How can the soul-splitting power of fear and hate be neutralized?

As a lad, I thought it was as simple as using reason.  Reason, I believed, was efficacious; that once things were explained in transparent terms, people would ‘see the light’ and alter their behavior.  Although I must have been disabused of the pure notion relatively quickly, I clung to the postulate that rational arguments could win the day, if presented in earnest, at least in relation to most people. 

The ‘smart’ part of the human mind outweighed the stubbornly psychological.  This was my root.  A lot of social paradigms are built on the concept of the ‘rational, autonomous person.’  Democracy rests on the good sense of individuals to make choices that foster the common weal.  Economic theory embraces ‘rational, self-interested agents’.  And so on.  I was spurred in my assumptions by the theoretical paragons of our time.

It’s all a lie.  This paean to human clarity, embodied in our ideals, is hideously wrong.  Trumpism epitomizes what I should have known already.  Even a casual study of fascist states reveals it.  Humans are far more psychological than rational.  They can be drawn under the banner of a “great lie” at certain critical times, when currents of frustration and fear merge into a seething undertow. 

What this means is that the truth can be right before us, even the most basic empirical evidence, and we won’t see it.  We can’t see.  The psychological bends perception and reason to its preferences.  In bland professional jargon: confirmation bias occurs.

Denial of such magnitude takes vast internal machinery.  What I have come to realize is that we are all far more like those with multiple personality disorder than we think.  Minds split into warring internal factions.  Mental balkanization allows us to know the truth but also to lie and embrace, not the truth, but the lie.

It follows that humans can be rational in some ways and irrational in others.  We are selective, subconscious and stubborn. 

There even can be awareness of the contradiction.  The addict knows their behavior is wrong, and yet just can’t stop.  One part of the mind sees a cliff ahead; another weaves counterarguments, injects exemptions--and pushes down on the pedal.

Consider dreams.  The mind spins scenarios much larger than the individual self.  It creates dream people, dream places, quasi-realities and moods.  Dreams demonstrate that the mind is much bigger than the self.  It forms alter-selves, cousins of the “alters” that affect those with dissociative disorders.

It is not that the followers of Trump are stupid.  One part of their mind knows he is a snake oil barker, a narcissist without conscience, a virulent racist, a trafficker in fear.  This part of their mind knows he could start a world war, one likely to end civilization as we know it.  They know all this. But another part of them shuts down this discernment.  It keeps truth out of the spotlight.  It holds the keys to the penitentiary of repression.

The mechanism of this denial is evolutionary.  If fear is great enough, the focus of that fear becomes extraordinarily important.  I suppose this worked well when humans were commonly threatened by sabretooths and cave bears.  It worked absurdly and slaughterously during the thousands of years in which city states and nations warred against each other.  In the nuclear age, it won’t work at all.

Somehow, people have to learn to embrace the truth, even if it is intensely painful.  We have to stop blaming and scapegoating others.  When contradictions are exposed in our belief systems, too often the resultant ‘cognitive dissonance’ fosters prejudice, sweeping self-doubt and self-loathing into the darkest, most untouchable depths.  The sensitive ego flees from the agony of real understanding.

As millions of people line up behind Trump, sacrificing their freedom, dignity, and democracy to his complete lack of virtue, his bottomless and destructive need for attention, his addiction to endless, escalating conflict, it exposes, in a monstrous way, not only the fragility of the human grip on wisdom, but also a propensity to capitulate to fear.  The Trump spectacle is the most tragic example of human folly I have witnessed in my lifetime.

I understand that politicians like Clinton and Bush are incredibly corrupt.  And it is intensely anger-provoking to watch them lie to us with pleasant faces, offering fake assurances, while channeling more and more money to the richest one-tenth of one percent.  Under Bush, the economy crashed worse than it has since 1929.  People are suffering due to entrenched oligarchic avarice.  I’m hornet-hive mad about this.  We all should be, and yet--

The answer is not Hitleresque fascism.

In other circumstances, it would be intriguing to ponder the mind’s plasticity, its ability to split into various houses.  But right now this compartmentalization is a national menace:  the dominant part of the Trumpite mind is immune to reason.  It also thrives on any misery inflicted on liberals.  Fear and hate reign in such a psyche.  That part which could hear has withered like a flower without sunlight.

Although I don’t believe in Biblical Revelation, if there were a Satan, wouldn’t his surrogate be someone positioned at the head of an Empire, someone capable of destroying all humanity by fire?  Someone who lacked any virtue, who debauched hundreds of millions of hearts, co-opting them into a crusade of violence, despair, and murderous abandon? 

I haven’t even mentioned the anti-science of the Republican view that global warming is just a hoax.

I’ve never seen anything like the Trumpian descent before.  I feel I am watching the end unfold quite rapidly.  It’s very sad.