Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Bare Necessities as a Finite Utility: the Core of Conflict

Brief rundown of our last bite:
1) Between birth and death is a life lived in one form or another amidst others of our own kind, i.e. a community that shares some sort of identity.
2) It is the biological prerogative to procreate and for the community to be perpetuated.
3) In the search for meaning, interpreting reality, and determining action, it is a nigh unto being a universal constant that the creation, continuation, and extinguishing of life take on supernal significance, as do the physical substances associated therewith. In case the immortal virility of the Hill of Tera and Pharaoh's milkshake didn't make the point, this snippet from good ol' General Raker, who died in an effort to preserve American purity of essence, should:
Who hasn't had fluoridated water and felt a little more Red and a little less powerful, eh?

Anyway.. Our last serious thought left off at Death, a subject which we will hopefully approach in a more informed light some months from now. Related to it, though, is something more easily approachable, one of deaths cousins: scarcity. As the title suggests, it is scarcity that comprises the core of conflict. This is demonstrated by none other than The Jungle Book - 

The bear necessities of life will come to you - if you have the tools. The prickly pear requires the claw, an evolutionary development that allows one organism to overcome another organism's defence mechanisms, giving Baloo a comparative advantage over the soft-skinned, short-nailed, nearly bare-assed Mogley who exists outside of his community, and therefore deprived of its tools. His community, specifically its expansion, comes into direct competition with neighboring organisms. King Louis recognizes this and wants Man's fire. Shere Khan recognizes this and wants to consume the Man-Cub. The story illustrates a zero-sum game of natural selection, comparative advantages, and scarcity. If not immediate, then anticipated scarcity. The dark-side of Disney goes far beyond their owning the copyright on the Sith. 
..Will struggle with the competition for and division of limited resources... ha..ha..hAAaaa!"

This conflict exists both intra-communally and inter-communally, and the codification of expected behaviors within these social contexts are what make up so much of daily life. As in our first bite, the most pertinent cultural and religious roots rest in the Garden of Eden. 
For as many Western sources as I will surely draw from for examples and humor, my primary academic interest is and will be Islamic in nature.
 From the Qur'an, we learn that Adam and Hawa (Eve) lived an existence that had several key aspects (of which I will give the very short answer for each):
Adam was created from a clot of blood and Hawa from his rib. Humankind is one of four classes of beings - angels, created of light; jinn, created of smokeless fire; and animals, which similar to men, are created of earth. 
Iblis (Satan, shaytan) is an angel. God commanded the angels to bow down to Adam. Satan refused, and was cast out and thereafter desired to mislead the children of Adam.
Adam and Hawa were mortal creatures living in a Garden of unlimited plenty.** The word used here is رغداً, intimating carefreeness and comfort.*** Unlike the Genesis narrative, the commandment given to them was only to forebear from partaking of "this tree," hadhihi ash shajjara هَـٰذِهِ الشَّجَرَةَ, i.e. the Tree of Immortality. Satan did tempt Adam, and they did eat the fruit. Instead of becoming immortal like the angels, they were driven out of the Garden (a land of plenty) and fell to Earth (a land of scarcity).
However, being cast down to Earth made no change in the relationship between Adam and Hawa (being referenced to before and after their sin as "anta wa zawjak"* - "you and your wife"), but it did between them and God. While not dictated by the same constraints as mortal interactions, we learn that actions of created beings have the potential to change our own status with respect to God. For Iblis, refusing to bow to Adam made him a disbeliever,^ and for Adam and Hawa, eating of the fruit made them wrong-doers.^^ Satan was cast out and Adam and Hawa were cast into a world of scarcity.
Since then, the children of Adam and Hawa have formed their own social codes with respect to existing and perpetuating themselves in this world of scarcity - finding better ways to pick the prickly pair, maintaining the upper hand on the tiger, and teaching and protecting the Man-Cub. However, as we see from both Genesis and the Qur'an, God is the One who dictates what those rules should be with which members of society govern themselves, and He has done so from the beginning. 
Our next bite will probably deal with how mankind tries to live God's rules in a world of scarcity and social division.

I swear (mostly to myself as I have NO idea who is or would read this blog other than my family who I implore to do so) that I'm getting to "Paradigms & Intermediaries: the embodiment of social codes through heroes and myth."

Keep it cool and eat a prickly pear.

*as a random note, I'm using my own transliteration system that works around the lack of special characters and the fact that I don't want to take the time to cut and paste them in like I would in an academic setting.

**the Garden is an image which we will return to on a later date with greater emphasis. Like the symbols of procreation, this copious garden is a potent and frequently repeated image.

***The tafsir of al-Jalalayn for 2:35 adds, "and eat thereof, of its food, easefully, of anything without restrictions, where you desire; but do not come near this tree, to eat from it, and this was wheat or a vine or something else, lest you be, become, evildoers’, that is, transgressors."

^ وَاسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ  wa-astakbara wa-kana mina al-kafirin, "and he aggrandized himself and was from the disbelievers," (2:34).
^^ the term being الظَّالِمِينَ adh-dhalimin, "wrong-doers," (7:19). 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Le raison d'etre: procreation, community, and the bare necessities of life


"Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail." - Shel Silverstein, 
Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1974

In keeping with my original intent on focusing on my dissertation, I will lay out the facts as they now stand:
I'm starting my second year of Ph.D. course work majoring in Islamic Studies. I'm currently studying 1st year Kurdish, have completed 3 years of Persian, and taught 1st (and sometimes 2nd) year Arabic. While I will not be engaged full-time on writing my dissertation until my course work is complete in another two years or so, the project is sufficiently intimidating as to have been a topic of meditation and hand wringing for quite some time.
As of this moment, the main thrust of my study is this: establishing meaning and value to shrines in Islamic communities, specifically those in northern Mesopotamia (i.e. northern Iraq, n. Iran, and probably s.e. Turkey). 
More on this later.

I've never been a quote person, but I'm readjusting the way I look at the practice of quoting others. I chose the opening quote purposefully. Dissertations are large, scary, and can swallow up large segments of your life. If I'm going to do this, it's going to be in manageable bites. 
So for my first post (bite): Community and religion.
Were you to take a Religion 101 class, one of the first topics of study would be "what is religion?" Several Webster's dictionary quotes and personal opinions later, you arrive at something approximating a system of beliefs that organizes or positions one's self within the bookends of birth and death and the cosmos. The first two weeks of reading would consist of articles describing humankind's search for meaning and surveys of the oldest belief systems in recorded history. All of these would boil down to one thing: people have a deep, insatiable need to have a purpose. Even in the most primitive circumstances where hunter-gathers worked full-time to meet the bare necessities of life, people assigned meaning and value to the actions involved in their fulfilment. Many of the oldest relics we have of this search for meaning reflect these basics: eating and procreation, the bare minimum for perpetuation life. 
Even as people organized themselves into larger social units, these themes persisted. The aptly named "Book of Genesis" tells us that God gave the first Man and first Woman two commandments: 1) multiply and replenish the Earth (procreate), 2) do not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (also being the first commandment relating to what food is or isn't consumed).* Of the ancient holy sites which I have had the privilege of visiting, many of them dealt with these same topics. For example:
The Lia Fàil on the Hill of Tara, the spot for crowning kings and a very obvious symbol of male virility (--> procreation --> perpetuation and control of community; themes we will return to many times). While my wife and I have a picture next to this, it's not available on my computer and I'm using this stock photo instead:

These from Karnak, Egypt (which come from my personal photos):

In the first Pharaoh is drinking from the breast of Isis, and in the second is one (of many) portrayals of pharaoh's erect penis. 
Far from the phallic scribblings on a bathroom stall or spray-painted mammaries on the side of an underpass, these depictions are all deeply symbolic when viewed within their respective cosmologies. While we will not delve too deeply into those religions or their symbolism, it suffices to say that these symbols are universal in conveying the importance of the perpetuation of life, community, and identity, and that these have been considered central to that purpose for thousands of years. Until the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent shifts in societies' uses of technology, the vast majority of mankind lived out their lives in some variety of a hand-to-mouth existence. Communities and their perpetuation were central, and safeguards to these were built into their codes and the way they approached their realities and understanding of purpose. 
Integrally tied to the subject of fertility is death, and quite naturally, whether death is the finality of being. This Fall I'm taking a class on Death, and will probably have more thoughts on how it might enter into my research at a later date. My next bites, however, are the following:
Pardigms - Jesus, Muhammad, and intermediaries (saints)
Then: Leadership and Charisma, with some help from our friend Max Weber (1884-1920).

For future treatment: intermediaries and death

*For the purposes of full disclosure, this reading comes directly from my own theological background as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; many other Christian sects interpret these commandments less literally, and in some cases take the act of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit and discovering that they were naked to mean that they had sexual intercourse, which act was the real cause of their being cast out of the Garden of Eden.
However, more to my intended direction of interest, the literal view more closely aligns with the Islamic interpretation of events.

Preamble to Reboot

While I have written other blog pieces in the past, my titling this "Post 1" is part of an effort to start a new chapter in my life with respect to the trajectory it is taking. This is not to say that I am disappointed with the way in which I have conducted myself thus far, but a recognition of the 'facts of life' as a PhD student are being unpackaged, analyzed, and put to work. In the past I considered blogging more of a past-time or a soap box for one particular rant or another. What I aspire to do now is transform this into yet another tool to help me navigate and succeed in my objectives. 
The object with which my attention has been wrapped of late is my dissertation, the ultimate purpose of my education, and where it will take me professionally. Heavy stuff. 
While this will entail a good deal of long-winded postulations and opining, my design is that it will fulfil two main purposes and a few minor ones. The first major purpose is simple: practice. There are astronomically few things that we do perfectly the first time, which leaves everything else in the bin marked 'in need of refinement and guidance.' I cannot expect to write a dissertation that effectively transfers intended concepts and meanings without having done it (or at least made great efforts to have done) many times previous. While academic papers fill in a large portion of the requirement gap, I believe that self-motivated, non-requisite efforts will do me well in the long run.
The second major purpose is to flesh out ideas. When it comes to academic knowledge, I have come to the unfortunate realization that I fall into the Henry Jones category of memorization: "I wrote it down so I don't have to remember," (see the awesomeness that is Sean Connery in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"). In my case, I frequently need to have my memory jogged before I can make a full recollection, even if I've studied the subject at length. Unless I've been reading or writing about it recently, I need a nudge or two. Usually that's all it takes to be able to tap into my knowledge reservoir, but it's an annoyingly consistent problem. The one exception to this is the most frivolous things in my life - namely film, tv, and comic books. This is not something I'm proud of, but it needs recognition if I'm going to improve. Thoughts, inspiration, and potential trajectories of exploration will come, but the tidal waves of stimulation that come in the form of other requirements and escapes such as work, social interactions, the effervescent media, and other physical needs and desires constantly threaten to pull potentially valuable items out to sea. If I can put some of these down where they'll stay put, perhaps I can use them for later. Even if those thoughts serve no direct purpose, ideas that don't work are one less thing to occupy myself with, and therefore the effort was not without utility.

For the purposes of making this as much of a "single-serving" format as possible, I will wrap it up here. Next post: leadership & charisma. 
خوا حافز

Saturday, August 11, 2012

First short story for family game

So while on our way out to Indiana, my brothers and I discussed the possibility of starting a tradition wherein one of us named a topic or idea and we all made short stories centered on this theme.  Our inspiration was listening to the Drabblecast, a podcast of some of the greatest weird short stories around.  I've been an avid listener for several years, and while tempted to try my hand at a short story, never got around to more than making a Drabble (100-word long story) until now.. So here's my first attempt at a shorty, the topic of which was if the people in your dreams were sentient beings and if they wanted you to break up with your significant other.
I'd say the most interesting part was how the story changed directions several times as I wrote it.  At first I was leaning it towards a funny direction, then a Twilight Zone/H.P. Lovecraft direction, and then ultimately came out with what I've got.  I admit, this isn't as great as the stuff I listen to on Drabblecast, but it was fun to write.

Bad Eggs - (Second draft)

“How’re your eggs?” Tiera asked in a neutral voice.
Jim shook his head slightly as if dazed,
“Oh.. they’re fine..”
They weren’t.  Tiera’s eggs were always terrible.  Even if you liked your eggs tasting like a salt mine, the amount of Tobasco sauce she added would make even the most southern of southerners squint and proclaim “Oh hon, you’re drowin’ them!”  Jim had often wondered how he was going to broach this with Tiera, and felt somewhat settled on waiting a month or two after they had been married.  Granted, they hadn’t set a date, first because work was just too hectic to schedule anything, and the proceeding fall Tiera had just too many clients to be able to work anything out until at least late spring, because this coming spring just had to be slower than the last couple of months had been.
In any case, this morning the effect that Tiera’s eggs was having on his cardiovascular system in the long run and his digestion in the short run was the last thing on his mind.
He’d had another weird night of dreaming.
This time it was about work.  He dreamt that Tiera had somehow frozen his alarm clock in a giant block of ice, and that he woke up only after the giant block of ice melted its way off the bedside table and onto the floor with a massive crash.  Being late meant that he had to go to work without getting entirely dressed, and for some reason the easiest part to forgo was his pants, and instead of driving his Corolla to work he had to run down the street where his neighbors made cat-calls, “Run, Jumpy Jimmy Legs, run!  You’ll never make it work!”  He hadn’t been called that since his first year in football, but in a world where running to work without pants on is the best way to keep from being late, it made as much sense as anything else that old Mrs. Kazowski would know to call him that as she grinned with a mouth filled with too-fake looking dentures.  In any case, he had to keep on running.  He ran so hard and so long, his eyes started watering and his nose was burning, burning..
The dream ended, and Jim flared his nostrils as he realized Tiera was cooking eggs again.  For the past six months it’d been like this in one way or another.  Last night it was the frozen alarm clock, yesterday night he’d dreamt of accidentally hitting the neighbors dog with Tiera’s ‘02 Mustang, and the night before that with him somehow getting married to Tiera and her cranky, old bitty of a mother through some mix up at the altar.  The rest of the dream played out with Tiera laughing at him and her mother saying he was little more than a flaccid codfish with no business fouling up her daughter’s life.
            Still, not that all of his dreams of late had been bad, he’d had a few that were quite memorable for how good they made him feel.  Last Wednesday, he’d gone to bed after a particularly long day at work and dreamt about Lila Patterson.  He hadn’t seen Lila since that fateful prom night, in spite of which he had checked up on her every once in a while when he was in the mood.  On Facebook, she was married with a kid on the way (“It’s a boy J !” – a thread which elicited no less than 34 comments), but in this dream it was as if no time at all had passed, and that night hadn’t ended with her face smeared with mascara as she cried herself to the front door and he with his feeling of self-respect.
When he awoke the following morning, he looked to his side half-expecting to see Lila, but found Tiera instead.  After work he had decided the best way to shake off the feeling of the dream was to get Tiera especially drunk, an idea she readily assented to, and they spent the evening carousing and finished half a full bottle of Jim’s favorite wine before they finally passed out on their bed. 
That night he dreamt of falling into dark hole, over and over.
He woke up naked and sweaty, with a headache to match any he could remember.  Twenty minutes later he bought a self-help book entitled “Shaping Your Dreams: Being the Boss of Your Subconscious Self” on Amazon for 50% off.

Jim shook his head again, cleared his throat, and asked “Are you free for lunch today?”
“Oh, I’ve got clients from noon to 8 p.m. today, I’m absolutely swamped,” she replied without looking up from her smart phone.
“I’d be good for an early one,” he offered.
She gave him a look that Jim’s inner-face made every time he woke up to the smell of eggs and Tobasco sauce.
“You know I’ve got to eat on a schedule – plus I’ve got spinning class at 10:00 and I don’t want to have a big lunch after my workout.”
“Oh, ok,” Jim trailed off, both verbally and mentally.  He’d been wanting to try this new Asian-fusion restaurant that opened up on 2nd street last year, and for whatever reason they were never able to make it.  Besides, he knew it was a pipe-dream to think that she’d ever go for any non-American food-chain locale as “you never know what kind of mystery meat a foreign food restaurant could be slipping in, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly care for pig anus.”  This was an argument that could never be won by Jim, no matter how many FDA certifications he looked up for her.

Work was no different than usual, and even though he should have been used to having his days tainted by strange dreams, he had a vague uneasiness that was so palpable he felt he could almost see it in his peripheral vision, sneaking past his desk like a little mold-colored dwarf.  It was not so much the dream itself, or the way that particular dream had made him feel, but the colossal oddity that was the grand summation of these nocturnal disturbances.  He’d all but made up his mind to go see a shrink, and had even written down the name and number of a promising looking psychiatrist with a genteel face and slightly graying beard.  But at the end of every day – which in his mind was always demarcated as “the day [that he was going to do it]” – he’d look at his cell phone, make a mental note that it was far too late to call anyone in a normal line of business, and got into his compact car and drove off.
For most of Jim’s life he had been tall (some might even say ‘lanky’) with a slight build, and while not considered overly handsome, he nonetheless felt approving of his general appearance.  On Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, he made it a habit to play a few pick-up games of basketball at the nearby clubhouse.  All of this was true up until the last five months.  After a month of the dreams and a full two weeks of looking at his cell phone and deciding against calling Dr. Genteel Graying-Beard, he’d resorted to cheaper methods, substituting the fog of drink for whatever clarity he might have gained from a soft leather couch in an office painted the color of coffee with cream. 
            Now, Jim rarely drank to drunkenness, at least to the kind of drunkenness that leads to a small cot patrolled by an annoyed looking officer, or the kind of drunkenness that drove battered wives into shelters or courtrooms, but it was not so rare a thing for Jim to make his way home by some other means and return to the bar the next morning, disheveled and even more uneasy in his mind, to pick up his car.
            Today, after Jim’s colleagues had dispersed after lunch break, Jim looked down at his stomach in a dissatisfied way.  His growing beer belly was starting to test the tensile strength of his lower shirt buttons, and his pockets were sticking out at odd angles as his legs filled up more space than he was used to.  He’d had a recurring daydream that one day he was going to be typing at his computer or meeting with a client and there’d be a sharp plink and a shirt button would be rocketing off his abdomen, cracking his computer screen or smacking the client straight in the nose.  He’d usually just shake his head and do his best to refocus on whatever it was he was trying to do.  While no one had mentioned anything to him, he knew that his increasingly steady habit of after work drinking wasn’t doing him any favors.  After ignoring the psychiatrists phone number on his phone yet another time, he got into his compact and drove straight home, purposely missing the turn off to Jay’s Sports Club and Bar.
            Tiera came home much later than 8pm.. so late that Jim decided he might as well just head to bed and call it a day.  He went through his normal ablutions and spent extra time in the shower, leaning against the shower wall while the water tumbled and trickled down the curvature of his body.  By 11:05, he was in bed, cracking open a novel he’d been trying to read but had never quite gotten through for the last several months.  He read a page or two and decided he was fighting a losing battle.  He set the book on the small bed stand and turned out the light.

Jim hadn’t been in bed for more than ten minutes before he noticed something moving out of the corner of his eye, though how he could have seen it with his eyes closed was something Jim didn’t think to consider.  He sat up and reached for the light, finding instead a cold, painted brick wall.  He looked around, suddenly being surrounded by an unnatural luminescence, the kind of light unique to poorly funded office buildings and high school locker rooms.  Jim was in the latter.  Then he noticed the man in front of him.
“Hey there, Little Girl.”
If Jim were only a little less discombobulated, he would have cursed to himself and wished he’d had more forethought than to have ever picked up a football between the age of 15 and 18.
Coach Harrison was a mountain of a man who made it a point to be able to scare the piss out of a high school senior as easily at age 56 as he could at when he was 26.  If Coach Harrison was here, then this was definitely going to be a nightmare.
But instead of instantly running him through lung crushing drills and telling him he shouldn’t bother buying a jock strap ‘cuz they don’t make them for little girls, he just stood there, hands on his hips, as if he were waiting for him.
“Jimmy-Legs, sit down, we’ve got to talk,” he said with increasing emphasis on each word.
Suddenly they were both sitting in the Kamber Elementary school library.
“Jimmy, you’ve always been a numbskull.  Never understood the play no matter how many times we went over it.” He was toying with his whistle, a habit that always meant someone was going to start sweating very soon.
Jim stood up and looked around.  Sure enough, they were right next to the Dr. Seuss section, his favorite for the first two years in school.  He had never felt good about reading out loud, but had loved to just go through the pictures and look.
“Yeeeah, this wasn’t my ideal place for a meeting, but I got overrided by your kid friend and Miss Prissy over there.”
Jim looked over his shoulder and saw Jose Ortega, his best friend from 2nd grade all the way through the beginning of high school, and beside him was Sister Mandy from St. Joseph’s Catholic School.  Now that he’d thought about it, he’d recently seen both of them in his dreams.  Jose was trying to help him from falling off a cliff while Sister Mandy shook her head as he failed to grab their hands in time before he was falling into an interminably deep blackness.  He had been so panicked during the fall that he never really noticed too much about them, just that they were there and every time he tried to grab their hands, it was suddenly raining, pouring, gushing water from the angry sky and his grip turned into rubber and he inevitably fell out of control into the abyss.
He shuddered at the memory, shook his head again, and looked up at his old friend.  Jose was a good kid, always had been – the kind of kid that made Jim’s mom always say “that Ortega kid is a good seed, quite the example of what a young man should be.” Despite how much he loathed his mother comparing him to anyone else, he couldn’t help but love the guy – everyone felt as much.  He looked at Jose, and while he saw the same joviality that led him to be the most liked and least picked-on kid in school, there were traces of worry in his eyes.  He smiled and waved good-naturedly.
“Heya Jim.”
Out of impulse Jim waved back, realizing that even with Coach Harrison staring him down the way a lumberjack looks at an untouched forest of hardwoods, he didn’t feel at all embarrassed.  It was then that he remembered that Sister Mandy was also there.  She met his eyes and gave him a weary smile.
He’d seen this smile before, seemingly every day for three years as he struggled his way through St. Joseph’s all those years ago.  Except this time when Jim looked at Sister Mandy, he didn’t just see the Catholic nun that had scolded him as a boy – it was something more.  It didn’t stop with the time she had brought his parents in for a talk about the language he used in the playground, or even the many obscene gestures he had made behind her back.  Even in this bizarre dream where she kept her diminutive height of five foot three, she was so much more.  She seemed to tower over him, and grow disproportionally larger in defiance to optical law, the same way she did as he fell and fell and was whipped by the rain all those nightmares ago.  She was every test he had ever cheated on.  She was the six-pack of Budweiser he and Simon Pratt had stolen from the 7-11 in Derbyville in their freshman year at college.  She was the look in his parents’ eyes when he first told them that he and Tiera were moving in together.  She was his shame.
He was too shocked to blush, and in that strange dream-state where you can simultaneously see yourself from a first person view and from the outside, he knew he looked just like he did during that meeting with Sister Mandy and his parents.  He even had that stupid red and black striped shirt he’d held onto until it finally fell apart in the fifth grade. 
“Hey.  Eye on the ball, numbnuts.  This meeting took a long time to arrange and you’re not going to screw it up this time.”
Jim blinked.  Sister Mandy was still her normal size, but if he looked too long he’d start to notice that unworldly largeness.  He shrank against his seat and decided his best bet was to work with Jose, or even Coach H-bomb before this tiny nun.
“Ok.. ok..”
“That’s a little bit better.  Now, do you know why you’re here?”
Jim, now more Jimmy than Jim, shook his head woefully.  Coach Harrison leaned back in exasperation, looking now more than ever like he was getting ready to blow.
“Ok, what do you remember about what we’ve talked to you about the last six months?” Jose said.  While his voice was the same as it was before puberty, it seemed too grown up to be coming from his tiny boy’s body.
“Jose, we haven’t talked since you went to Georgia Tech and I went to work for my uncle that summer… I don’t know what..”
“What do you MEAN you don’t know!..” Coach Harrison was standing now, his whistle gripped so tightly in his meaty hand it was practically a part of his body.
“What they are trying to get to,” Sister Mandy said with a meaningful look to Coach Harrison that made him sit with a grunt, “is that what you’ve been experiencing the last several months, and far before that if you were able to recall, is us trying to get through to you.  Needless to say, it has been difficult.  We thought the dreams were working, but then you took to drink, and while our job become doubly difficult, we worked twice as hard to break through.”
“My.. dreams?  All those weird things that I’ve been having the last six months?  *#&@, I thought I was losing my mind!..”  For the first time since this bizarre meeting started, Jim started to get angry.  He stood up and looked for the exit that would at least get him outside and away from this insanity.
Sister Mandy shook her head, “It’s that attitude that keeps you from hearing us properly.  Come back, sit down.  We are not finished here.”
Jim sat back down. 
His anger drowned down to irritation, and from there to a point where he could think as reasonably as possible in this bizarre environment.

Running his hands over his face and through his hair, he tried to take stock of his situation.  Of a few things he was absolutely sure; first that this was a dream.  Vivid, upsetting, and deeply personal.  Coach Harrison. Sister Mandy. Jose Ortega.

“But why are you all here?  I know some of you know each other, but seriously.. this makes no sense.”
Sister Mandy exchanged a look with Jose, and for a moment everything blinked out.  The next thing Jim registered was a kaleidoscope of images – all whirring in and out of focus like a Vegas slot machine gone mad.  His day at the beach with his parents, his Aunt Fran bantering on about colon cancer, the cute girl that checked him out at Six Flags, TV icons, by-gone world leaders in black and white news reels, his favorite hat he lost in fifth grade, his third roommate arguing with him on why Pluto should still be considered a planet.. dozens of new friends, hundreds of old friends, a thousand faces and names and places and events..
It was… massively disorienting.
Jim grabbed both sides of his head and squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could.  The images spontaneously ceased, and after a moments hesitation he tentatively opened one eye, finding himself back in the school library with his three visitors.  They were all looking at him expectantly – Coach Harrison like an angry lion in a cage, Sister Mandy with that same weary smile, and Jose with his small boy’s grin.
Jim hated this feeling – everyone looking at him, everyone knowing him to his core, seeming to have more control over what was happening than he did.
“There is a reason for all of this, and we know that you know what that reason is,” Sister Mandy said, maintaining her quiet air of expectation.  For Coach Harrison, the fish just wasn’t biting fast enough, and the clock, which was ticking with an irksome frequency somewhere in the room, was running out.
“*#@# it, kid, this is an intervention,” Coach Harrison barked.
Jose interjected, “Normally, you are supposed to come up with your own conclusions, but with all of the time and energy that has been expended on your behalf, things simply needed to progress faster.”
Jim looked puzzled.
“Are you all some kind of Jimmeny Cricket?  Am I Scrooge, supposed to change my ways or something before Tiny Tim bites it?”
No one said anything for a moment, watching Jim very visibly stew in his own juices.
“Am I going to die?” he finally croaked.
The laughter nearly knocked him out of his chair.
“I think the real question is whether or not you’re a real boy!..” Coach Harrison continued to chortle, “If we are just a bunch of grasshoppers jumping around in your head, how would we know all this crap about life and death?”
“Whether we are the witches from Macbeth, Pinocchio’s little friend, or something else altogether is unimportant.” Jose said less sardonically.  “What’s important is that you make this count when you wake up.”
Jim sat still for a while staring at the floor.
“Fine I get it.  I’ll cut back on drinking.  The chemicals probably are giving me these insane dreams.”
Even Jose started to look a little exasperated.
“Regardless of your hapless mix-matching of causalities, yes the booze is killing you… figuratively, speaking.  But more important than that.. do you recognize any common string linking every night together?  Tieras freezing your alarm clock, hitting the dog with Tiera’s car, the ruined wedding with Tiera..”
“Finally!  You’ve caught the ball!” Coach Harrison ironically raised his arms in a silent ‘Hallelujah!’
All of it.. about Tiera?”
“Oh, yes, yes.  They are all of ours.  Everyone’s, really, not just the three of us you are seeing.  A rare moment of unity,” Sister Mandy said, looking pleased for the first time about her situation.
“All of it, start to finish.  Really vivid, weren’t they?  My favorites were probably last month, when you started off in your office and it was turned into a flea market..”
“Ok, ok, doing that once was bad enough..”
“Tiera. Not a morning or evening person, maybe an afternoon person..” Jose offered, not looking one hundred percent convinced of his own words.
“But since you’ve never put your foot down and had lunch with her, you wouldn’t know, would you?” Coach Harrison said with open derision.
“What we’re sayin’ is that you really screwed the pooch on Tiera.  Literally.  Girls a dog and you’re wasting yours and our time.”
Jim recalled an incident his junior year when the captain of the football team was caught sneaking off with the head cheerleader during practice.. the ensuing ‘conversation’ between Coach Harrison and the handsome quarterback was burned in his memory – he gripped the poor kid by the helmet and yelled directly into the facemask, “You could be dating the Great Whore of Babylon for all I care, what I care about is that you don’t do anything that wastes this teams time!!  Today son, you are going to sweat!”
For as little sense as it made for Coach Harrison to give a rip about Tiera, this latest pronouncement came down like a hammer.
Jose gently cut in, “What we’re telling you bro’ is that we are all here for you and that you’ve got so much you could be.  Remember how you wanted to be a spaceman when you were a kid?  I mean seriously, be the first one to go to Mars, how cool would that be.. but they shut down the space program and you’ve got to be Russian or Japanese or something to even get to go to space.  So you re-plan.  There are other cool things to do.. you may not be a spaceman, but you liked your astronomy class in college, didn’t you?  Should’ve ignored that counselor of yours who told you accounting was where you’d fit best.  So lame..”
When Jim finally opened his eyes, he saw that Lila was sitting between Sister Mandy and Jose.
Jim shifted backwards in his chair, inexplicably making the same noise as the leather seats in his old ’87 Plymouth.  He’d been so upset by that last night with Lila that he got rid of that car altogether, and ended up getting a job with his Uncle Tyler in order to get a new means of transportation for when he did have enough funds to go to college.  That all of these people knew about that, and had some hand in the dreams he’d had… He closed his eyes again, opening them only after he’d pinched himself for probably the 100th time since he found himself sitting next to a copy of Cat in the Hat.
Lila looked almost as uncomfortable as Jim did.  Her reddish-blonde hair caught the light from the small library window, instantly making her the center of everyone’s attention.
“It’s kind of like Lila here,” Jose continued, “sure you goofed up on prom night – which, by the way, wouldn’t have happened if you hung with us at prom.  Me and Salina had a blast man!.. anyway, Lila will always be ‘the one that got away,’ same as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the one in Houston will always be the dream that shut down.  That’s always going to hurt, but seriously hermano, you can’t just ignore the stars just because the G-Man’s rockets stopped going up.”
By the time Jose stopped speaking, he was the Joseph Ortega that graduated with honors from Georgia Tech, with the impossible cow-lick in his hair beaten by the short haircut he had adopted in his first year in grad school.
“So what then?  I break up with Tiera and you leave me alone?”
“For starters..” said Coach Harrison, leaning in close with a new seriousness in his voice.  “However you want to see our arrangement, the bottom-line for the time being revolves around appeasing the greater good.  We are the fascia to your muscle – you may do all of the acting and moving for us, but we hold you together.  Just count yourself lucky we haven’t given up on you.. because if we did.. Poof!”  He raised his arms, and let his pulsating fingers them fall to his knees in an imitation of falling snow or dust.
“Oblivion,” Sister Mandy averred.
“A complete coup de ‘etat is what happens to people who get institutionalized.  Sometimes docs call it schizophrenia, other times split-personality disorder, or any number of synonyms for ‘not well at all in the head’.  I think we can all agree that such action would be in none of our best interests, but it is important for you to know what cards are in the deck you are playing with,” Jose said.
Jim swallowed hard as he looked from face to face in the semi-circle surrounding him.  Even Lila.  Sweet Lila.  He knew she would be one heck of a mother someday, and it tore him up to know that the child she had carried and now went grocery shopping with and outings to the zoo was not his, a hole that couldn’t be filled with any amount of hard liquor or wild nights with Tiera.  He’d known that from the start, but knowing something intellectually isn’t always the point. 
Despite himself, he started to tear up. 
Not in front of these people.. no, not here.
The first tear fell with a soft tapping noise onto the silky fabric of a tuxedo cummerbund.  The second and all that followed were mixed on his hands as he tried to collect himself.  The night was cool for so being late in the year, and the sprinklers left a cold dew on the windshield of Jim’s ’87 Plymouth.
After about half a minute Jim sat up with a choked laugh,
“I can’t remember how many times I’ve thought about this moment, wishing for everything that I could change things.”
Lila was sitting in the passenger seat with her orange dress and the little flowers that decorated her ornate hair.  Now, as then, she didn’t laugh at Jim, which in either case would have broken him completely.
“I know,” she replied softly, setting a compassionate gloved-hand on his right knee.  “Believe it or not, this isn’t how I wanted things to end either.  Not that things would have been that much different, but this is a chapter ending neither of us wanted.  I still would’ve gone off to college and probably wouldn’t have come back.  You know how things were when I left, this was just one of several last straws.  You were fighting against a current that was out of your, or any of our, control.”
“Things would have been different for me,” Jim sniffed as he wiped his eyes.
“Perhaps.  But really, this car would have given up the ghost soon anyway..” Lila said in an awkward attempt to lighten the mood.  She was always doing that, trying to redirect awkward conversations to someplace less emotional.
Jim gave Lila a weak smile.
“Yeah, I know.. even in your dreams I am the same as I’ve always been..  If it’s any consolation, you can imagine how irritating that must be for Rick.”
“I don’t want to talk about the guy that replaced me.”
“Why do you see him that way?  What you and I were, what he and I are.. two different things entirely.  You may get snarky about me dodging emotional issues, but you have been blaming too many of your decisions on what happened here.  I know this and you know this.”
Jim slowly nodded his head.
“Jim.. are you ready to get out?”
He turned his head as he noticed a movement from out of the trees.  The sprinklers had stopped and the rest of the library gang was standing near a park bench.
“Come on, let’s go,” Lila said as she unbuckled her seatbelt, leaned over, and opened his car door. 
“Where are we going?”
“Don’t know, just make it a surprise,” Lila said as he took off her high heels and jumped out of the passenger side of the car.
Jim looked down at the dash and noticed that the odometer hadn’t registered nearly as many miles as he’d remembered on the old station wagon.  He brought his feet out and onto the moist grass carpet of the park.
“It seems like you’ve made up your mind then,” Jose said, leaning against a tree.
“Or your mind had you made up,” this one from Coach Harrison.
Jim grabbed the hand-rail and lifted himself from the squeaky leather seat.
“Oh, and grow some balls and tell her that her eggs make your nightmares have nightmares.”


Jim opened his eyes to the smell of Tobasco sauce.  He sat up, the details of his dream so sharp that he would’ve sworn on a stack of Bibles that he just been about to step out of his car into Rosemary Park.  Slowly, he got up, forgoing his routine bathroom visit, and went straight to the kitchenette.

For however much copious amounts of Tobasco sauce burned Jim's nose, it was nothing compared to what it felt like to have it in his eyes.  Between bouts of eye rinsing at the kitchen sink, he heard and more or less made out Tiera’s form moving rapidly between rooms, gradually accumulating more and more mass until there was an enormous slam from the front door that knocked the remaining dishes out of their cupboard and onto the linoleum floor.
“Well, glad I went cheap and bought the plastic kind,” Jim mumbled to himself after the pain had subsided and his vision returned to a manageable state.
Jim left the kitchen and slumped into the living room love-seat, a freeby, courtesy of a neighbor that was evicted and never returned for their belongings… that bums-rush on the curbside goods also yielded a flat-screen T.V., which Jim now noticed was no longer on the mantle.  He shook his head in dismay and pulled out his cell phone, staring at his speed-dial list. 
Realizing that his rent essentially doubled, Jim grimaced.  He looked at the phone number again, and then saw himself in his minds eye with unkempt hair, straightjacketed, and confined to a padded room.  He grimaced again and put his phone down.  He noticed that all of the books were gone, save one – a biography on Lincoln.  The title of the was “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand: A Glimpse into the Mind of Abraham Lincoln.”
Jim cursed to himself.
“Abe, you are so not my favorite President right now..”

Any thoughts or critiques?  Thanks!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Y'know she's got you whipped when..

Everyone knows someone whose spouse has them whipped - maybe it's your friend or just someone you know peripherally, but everyone has seen, known, or simply sniffed out with one of the few animal instincts that we've managed to keep through centuries if there's an alpha-dog in the pack. It can be pretty easy to spot. Don't take me wrong, I'm no misogynist and I believe that women and men are intellectual and spiritual equals and that it is wrong to act otherwise.. in any case, when a guy is truly whipped to his woman, there's an unconscious ritual performed in the minds of his brethren wherein he is presented with a skirt, or in cases where they feel the need to continue to honor their friend, a kilt.. slightly more dignity, though a brisk wind will result in the same Marilyn Monroe pose to keep their netherlands from catching cold as their beskirted companions.
I do my best to be a good husband - I cook, clean, and do all other household labors as much if not more than my wife. Distribution of chores is based on availability rather than gender, and while we've got a few 'I really don't like doing this, do you mind doing it?' items, they're discussed and agreed upon together. From an LDS perspective, I feel pretty good about where I stand - I do my Priesthood duties but don't feel the need to micromanage when it comes to who says the prayer, or how many verses each person should read during scripture study, or other supercilious items that some Priesthood holders consider their God-granted function in the home, justified by 'preside and provide...' I could go on and on, but basically I do my darndest to be a considerate spouse.

- Now to my point -

Today I looked down and to my great dismay found myself wearing the figurative skirt. It had lacy ribbons. And pocka-dots. And my initials embroidered on the hem - BP -
Aaah crap.
Today is my second day of complete and utter bumdom - a transitory period between my being a student and being a full-time working gotta' wear my big-boy pants and lacquer my hair adult in the non-academic world. This transition is proving to be pretty weird for me, but I'm allowing myself from December 16th to December 17th (yesterday to today) to not worry about any of my responsibilities.. kinda' haven't been doing that, as I ended up doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen up before the wife got home.
When she gets home from work I greet her like a pleased little puppy with the news that I did something good - I cleaned the kitchen! - again, this isn't an irregular thing, but I like having validation for my efforts, even the routine ones -
"I did the dishes, cleaned the counters, I threw out that dead plant, and I.."
"You threw out the plant?!"
"Which plant did you throw out?? The one that was coming back to life?"
"You'd better not have thrown that out!"
"How 'bout you check to see if we're talking about the same thing?"
Down the stairs we go.
"Aah! I was just getting that thing back to life! That was the plant that the flute studio gave me after Nattie's funeral! I can't believe you did that! Why did you throw out the plant!?"
Now before we pursue this somewhat comedic conversation any further, let it be known that this plant, which was in a small pot SURROUNDED by dead leaves and the tell-tale gray-brown leavings of a vegetative growth that is on its way out of mortality, was in turn was next to an empty package of crackers which she left there since Monday, an empty box of cereal which she'd left there since Tuesday, and a number of other used items that can be accurately be labeled with a "which she left there since fill-in-the-blank".. this sucker was one more bit of clutter, and an organic one at that - as a result, it was my enemy for the afternoon..
So in the garbage bag it went.
Naturally, I tried to explain this, to which I received several iterations of the aforementioned verbal barrage amounting to "You're fired!" By now the loud sounds of Dani's agony over the plantish refuse and my counter-arguments had drawn down the rest of my family (yes, we live in their basement.. a fact that bothers some people, which in turn makes me shake my head in slight incredulity at their frequently judgmental suppositions) and I at first believe that they're reinforcements!
"Ok, so I need some back-up guys...."
I explain the situation, which makes them laugh and head back upstairs..
"Well I saved the pot, hon."
"The little plastic pot that it came in? I want the plant!"
I pick up the slandered pot for examination - it's got some metally-bits in it and worth saving..
I head for the stairs.
"Are you going to throw the pot away too!?"
"No.. just cleaning it off.."
So I head outside, pull up my sleeves, and into the garbage I go after the remains of the sickly little plant that had a better chance surviving the winter at a landfill than another three weeks in our kitchen. By the time it had reached its final destination, it was looking frailer than ever - all of the dirt had been separated from its roots and it lay on top of a styrofoam left-overs box, naked and quivering ever so slightly in the wind.
I stick it's lousy excuse of a second-chance into the pot.. the bow that came with it was smeared with something that was a mix of dirt and everything else I'd thought to throw away. I'm hoping it was grape jam.
Back into the pot.
Since it looked so pathetic and flat by itself, I dug through the rest of the garbage for what dirt I could separate from the rest of the junk.. My Mom bailed me out with some extra potting soil, and here I am again, coming down like a puppy (this time, a scolded, naughty one) with pot in hand with the expectation of "Oh honey, thanks for doing that!"
I get a comic frosty look that warns me "not to do that again."
We decided it'd be a lot easier to not throw it away if it had a name... something 'second-chance at life'-ish.
"What is that guys name again? Jairus?"
"No hon, you're thinking Lazarus. No, I wouldn't want to throw Lazarus away."
So my wife, Lazarus, and I return to the now clean kitchen to place the pot back where it was. I asked what we were planning to do with it while we were in TX for the next two weeks. She talked about my sister taking care of it and I jokingly mentioned that Lazarus was a goner.
"You're fired!"
I was then alone to survey the clean kitchen and the newly re-potted plant.
I looked down, and there it was - that darned skirt.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

So I figured I'd post this since I spent so much time (more than I needed to) writing it.. it's a homework assignment about political cartoons about the Middle East.

This is a nice little pic I found by simplly googling "Middle East Political Cartoons," and many of its counterparts were similar in their content and direction. This is a clear shot at perceived US efforts/biases with respect to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the nuclear arms issues in Iran. Netanyahu is shown as being passive, putting up no fight as his country is presumably blown away by what looks like a missile large carrying either a massive amount of explosives or nuclear material. This is one of those pics that falls under the 'preaching to the choir' category. If you're under the camp that believes that Iran is intending to destroy Israel off of the map, then this is just another patch on the banner rooting for the squashing of Iran. To me this was made by Israelis or Israeli sympathizers even more conservative than Netanyahu and would take even greater steps to secure Israel. Personally I feel that this is a very misleading image... Taking political speaches and rhetoric at face value is a mistake when it comes to international politics, and when Iran's current (emphasis on current) president, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, stands up railing against Israel and the U.S. and threatening to cover Tel Aviv in fire (or other references to a nuclear strike), there are two ways you can take it - 1) is reflected by this cartoon. Disaster, friendless Israel will be demolished by Iran. 2) is to examine the angles - primarily what those statements mean with reference to local Iranian politics, regional politics with reference to its neighbors, its region of immediate influence, and in the international stage as a whole. Does the Holocaust denying Ahmedinijad have to power to single handedly send a nuclear warhead on its way to attack another nuclear power (let's not forget for one instant that Israel has had nuclear capabilities for several decades)? No. Does he represent all aspects of Iranian politics, or are there others that pull the bigger strings? The growing rift between Mr. Ahmedinijad and the Supreme Ayatoallah Khomanei is influenced by the amount of isolation and pariah treatment that has resulted from Mr. A's rhetoric and poor international stage presence. Many experts expect him to be replaced by a more ameniable personality. Does Iran have nuclear capabilities, and could it reasonably (both politically and physically) make good on its threats to destroy Tel Aviv? Not sure about the first issue (I haven't read anything confirming a fully developed nuclear weapon), but the second is requisite for any rational person to consider - a nuclear conflict has not taken place since the surrender of Japan in WWII - this is particuarly interesting given the Cold War and the immense buildup of nuclear stockpiles in the Soviet Bloc and in the United States.. Why didn't it take place? Why, despite Pakistan and India's turbulent relationship, no shots have been fired? Because no one wants to use them (look up "brinkmanship" and "MAD"- mutually assured destruction.. or just watch "Dr. Strangelove," oh Peter Sellers, you are my buddy). This is the most elementary lesson in nuclear deterrence, a lesson that the world has either forgotten or conveniently ignored for political reasons. It is a capability you own one with the purpose of never having to use, it is the trump card which prevents foreign troops and the VIP card that allows you a certain military credibility not afforded otherwise. North Korea uses this card brilliantly and has extorted millions for its efforts without having to deploy a single missle in a real military situation. Convince the other side that you are crazy enough to use these weapons and appeasement is how the world will deal with the situation. So in answer to the question of nuclear strikes being a realistic option for Iran to rid themselves of Israel, no it is not.. it's worth reasking the question if the regime were invaded by foreign troops and were on the brink of annihalation, but that situation requires quite a bit of other situations to exist which are still a desperately long way off for any U.S. administration. What an Iranian nuclear bomb would mean is that the U.S. and other countries currently adverse to Iran can no longer apply certain strategies, particularly military options against Iran itself or its proxy/affiliated organizations throughout the Arab world (first name coming to mind being Hezbollah - though their relationship with Iran deserves continual observation as time goes). Would the Arab world rally around Iran if it launched a nuclear strike against its foe of sixty-five years?.. Examine first the physical fall-out accompanying a nuclear strike against Tel Aviv. Israel is a small country, so hitting it anywhere with a massive amount of radioactive material will affect the entire country to some extent - this means Jersusalem, the money pot that makes the Holy Sites worth fighting for (being a religious hub of three major world religions makes it a destination for millions of pilgrims and tourists and is the money vein for all of its residents). While many Arabs may have a knee-jerk reaction of cheering for any measures taken against Israel, a nuclear strike would bring down the ire of the entire world against the offending nation. I haven't met any Arabs that like Israel as a country, but it's a silly thing to claim that they have the same opinion when it comes to policies dealing with the problem (particularly when that policy involves the destruction of millions of lives). The Saudi Arabian royalty views Iran as a snake whose head they have pleaded the U.S. to cut off. Turkey's prime minister Erdogan has made repeated overtures to countries effected by the Arab spring holding up Turkey's Islamic democracy as a viable alternative to the Iranian model, and in the last decade Turkey has put more investment into the region as a ally.
I could easily write double what I've already got here, but I'll spare any readers by saying that I do not appreciate the cliff-notes, ideologically driven approach to political analysis that many political candidates and broadcast pundits display. Black and white is an easy way to approach many situations, but accuracy isn't in its DNA.