Sunday, December 06, 2015

Packing Heat - How Handguns and Air Conditioners Only Make it Hotter.

Another mass shooting? I'll just get a gun to protect myself.

It's rational to seek out ways to defend yourself when feeling a heated threat but sometimes such defensive reactions provide only short term psychological respite followed by greater threats. How you choose to cool off might be the thing that makes it worse for everyone in the long run, including you.

There is always a tension between what's good for one and what's good for the whole. Sometimes our instinctually driven responses to fear seem irresistible in the immediate frame but only make it worse in the long run. The reactionary forces within us refuse to look at the radical structural changes required and instead focus on short term offensive decisions to quickly turn the tables. 

Imagine this: It starts to get increasingly hot inside a room so people start getting personal air conditioners to cool themselves. The exhaust from the AC's greatly raises the temperature in the room which started heating in the first place because of all of the personal AC's in the room. Simple calculus and thermodynaics; If you open the fridge door to cool off, the room will become hotter, not cooler. More air conditioning introduces more net heat into the system, more guns create more net gun danger. If your reaction is to introduce more heat into the system in order to cool the system then it's doomed to ultimately fail.

This is a feedback loop and very similar to the structure of an arms race. Such arms races are disastrous for everyone involved, except those selling guns and air conditioners. 

The individual personal logic is not completely unsound. It might make you feel better in the short term to get your own AC to cool off or a handgun to temporarily cool your fears but perpetuating an environment in which there are more and more elements contributing to heated and heating levels guarantees that it will only get worse for everyone unless we decide to open the windows, throw out the AC's and maybe design buildings so that the air flows better and very few people feel the need to get their own saving device in the first place. 

The decision to pack heat to cool things off may or may not protect you (nearly all sober investigations show that it almost certainly won't and will more likely harm you or someone close to you). Your fear is real and your reactions are rational but we have to try to look past our personal bubble. If we continue to overreact to danger we will continue be in ever greater danger.

Much reactionist posturing is based on personal fear, the insidious perpetuation of fear by politicians and corporate media, and the resulting self-defeating over-reaction to that fear by the citizentry. 

Just because there are violent crazed outliers, hot sticky rooms or extremely rare adverse reactions to preventive medicine doesn't mean I should react in a way to make it worse for everyone, including myself in the long run simply because I feel a need to douse my immediate fear. Avoiding reflexive selfish action based on fear is that which allows us to work together to make it better for everyone. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Go Gentle

I was probably four years old when my mother and I went to visit some relatives who used to live on the edges of Istanbul. It was a ranch of sorts with chickens, a large vegetable garden and a goat (more about the goat in another post).

We were sitting on the veranda when some neighbours ran through the yard in a panic telling us to hide from terrorist gunmen. We all ran into a small shed and shut the door. There were about eight of us cramped inside. I was in the front left of the shed with my mother trying to cover me into the corner and telling me to be as quiet as possible. One of the neighbours was quite shaken. She was praying and saying something about dying. Someone else told her to be completely silent if she didn't want to die. 

I remember feeling a sudden burst of fear and drawing in a quick breath to try and hold it. It became clear very soon that it wasn't going to be practical to hold my breath. My mother was stroking my hair and whispering something. We heard some people run by frantically and everyone seized up. 

I remember deciding that I had to do what I had to do to remain calm and suddenly seemed to have a mastery over my breath and nerves. I closed my eyes and entered what I now might consider to be a psychedelic state. I was peaceful and confident and felt like I was floating. The sounds around me started to present themselves in my mind as colours and moving shapes. This is my earliest memory of a synesthesia that I experience when concentrating on music. It often presents itself in a more pronounced way when I'm under the influence of a psychedelic. 

I was able to transform and manipulate the sounds around me into a swirling kaleidoscope. It gave me access to an infinite calm. I was, in retrospect, in a trance or perhaps a dissociative state. I had perhaps triggered a defensive survival mechanism in the face of what I perceived to be mortal danger. Some say that at the instant of death the human brain releases DMT, a very strong psychedelic. Maybe it's a last ditch effort of the body to save itself or at least go peacefully off this mortal coil and gentle into that good night. 

I wonder how this might also be related to my inclination to sleep when faced with a heightened emotional state. Is it an expression of the same instinct or is it something I learned to do that day? Maybe the trauma of that experience forever flavored the way I respond to and deal with my emotions which I've always thought of as things to be controlled lest they get you in trouble or maybe even killed. How much of my personal development (functional or dysfunctional) can be traced back to a single stressful event and how I was able to deal with it?

The shed door was finally opened and we saw soldiers with machine guns in front of us. There was a sense of relief as they told us that the situation had been resolved and I returned to this reality. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Perchance To Dream

When confronted with an upcoming difficult or important task I tend to experience a sudden need to sleep. It occurs to me instinctively that a quick nap will better prepare me for the challenge ahead. I wonder if this is how my ancestors reacted when they were about to head out for a long hunt or battle. Perhaps they fell asleep wherever they happened to be, knowing that they would need to remain alert and not knowing when they would be able to sleep again.

This proclivity seems to assert itself whenever challenges lay ahead. I don't have to hunt to feed my tribe or battle to protect them but I have been confronted by exams, public speaking engagements, or first dates before which I have a sudden need to sleep even when I've had plenty of rest and the taking of time for such repose would be highly inconvenient or damming. I'm much more likely to be late for an important rendezvous than a minor one so I have a long history of disappointing and seemingly disrespecting people who know me.

In grade eight I wrote several comedy sketches for the holiday school assembly before the break. The skits weren't particularly original as they were likely heavily influenced by SNL, Second City or the British comedy shows that I watched religiously on TV. The final day was to be just half a day of music and comedy. We stayed after school the day before to rehearse. Everyone was excited and sure that the morning performance was going to be a hit.

The next morning I found myself waking up not before eight as I usually did but at eleven. I had never been that late for school, unintentionally. My mother, not knowing about the day's performance, said she had great difficulty waking me and thought I must be ill so left me to sleep in.

I finally got to school just as the show was wrapping up. I was made to wait outside the gym and my teacher came out to see me. I was unable to explain what happened other than to say that I slept in and was very sorry. She scolded me by saying how I had disappointed her and my classmates. She naturally interpreted it as a sign of disrespect and uncaring. I was crushed. A classmate had taken my place in the skits and one consolation was that they were apparently a big success and a source for much laughter. 

It felt like I had missed my big break. Of course I imagined there would have been standing ovations and calls for "author, author" but even if it was received with slightly less enthusiasm I'm quite certain it would have encouraged me to continue with such things and perhaps I would not have lived with the longstanding regret of not pursuing a creative life. 

More recently this proclivity to sleep in the face of challenges has presented itself in different ways. In times of emotional distress, such as one might feel in the course of long difficult discussions during what turns out to be a breakup, my eyes begin to droop and I feel a need to shut down. It is naturally interpreted as a sign of disrespect and a lack of caring for the import of the situation. Ironically, it is likely just the opposite. Because I realize the importance of the situation I instinctively need rest so that I can continue more effectively in the challenge.

These are perhaps just the convenient rationalizations of a sociopath but some people are known to experience a narcoleptic response to heightened emotional states. It might be a dysfunction of my psyche warranting censure but it certainly feels more like an irresistible physical response bred in the bone of my ancestors.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Kill The Wabbit!

The TV show Frasier and the filmmaker Atom Egoyan lead me to believe that tasteful and intelligent people are supposed to appreciate the art of opera. I always wondered if I was missing something because I just didn't get it. Like most of my generation much of my familiarity with opera comes from old Warner Brothers cartoons.

I've only been to see live opera a few times. On each of those occasions I happened to notice that Atom Egoyan the Canadian filmmaker was in attendance. I assume he must be at every high-brow cultural event in Toronto because I've also seen him at most of the live theatre shows I've been to. Given his creative output he's clearly a tasteful and intelligent man with whom I think I would have much in common. A love of opera wouldn't be one of those commonalities.

Last week I was invited to watch the opening night performance of Wagner's Die Walküre by The Canadian Opera Company. This iteration happened to be directed by that very same Atom Egoyan so I could not refuse the opportunity. I've seen many clips of opera on TV and I've often been impressed and moved but I've always had difficulty understanding how such an art form has survived and maintained such a level of respect. Is it an example of an emperor having no clothes? 

I went into the performance with an open and tolerant approach. I admit that I've always been known to value the intellectual over the emotional, Apollo over Dionysus, Spock over McCoy. With some effort of my own and through the influence of the women in my life I've made great strides in this regard. I no longer prejudicially consider the emotional to be a failing of the intellectual, a sort of desperate cognitive response to stimulus that cannot be encapsulated within a satisfying intellectual enframing. Having achieved such recent personal evolutions I've noticed that I now enjoy films that I used to consider maudlin and over the top (Carlito's Way popped for me on a recent re-viewing). Wagner seemed to be as overripe and sentimental as anything from Hollywood so I wondered if I might be able to see it now with fresh eyes.

We had excellent seats, a few rows behind the conductor's head, so I was able to see his flamboyant gesticulations and some of the movements of the musicians in the back row of the orchestra. The show started with the curtain down. I was immediately enthralled by the conductor's movements and quickly began to appreciate the music for what it was, a bold and aggressive sonic creation. I closed my eyes and let my synesthesia have its way, seeing the sounds represented by the colours and shapes that ran multi-dimensionally through my mind's eye. The music is pretty impressive. I get how people can find art in the music.

I opened my eyes to see that the curtain had risen and an unexpected set was in my view. An interesting array of beams, girders, and light standards running in jagged and jarring directions. This seemed apt for the music I was hearing. So far so good. Set design, lighting and direction can be sources of artful creation that enhance the music.

Then a few of the singers started belting out the impressive and expressive sounds that can surprisingly come from the modest primate body of a human. It's hard not to be moved by the masterful reflections of human emotions that ride on the waves of air as they move from the midsection of a diva to the ears, mind and body of the listener. So far so good. The singing can be home to art.

This opera is a product of mid-1800's Germany. It is temporally, culturally and linguistically foreign to me. It may as well be traditional Indonesian puppet theatre. I've come across some completely foreign cultural performances, whether they were from Asia or Africa or the Amazon, and I've freely given respect and admiration to such things for their tasteful or moving arrangement of sights and sounds. A Wagnerian opera was such a thing for me. I wasn't sure what they were doing or saying but I dug their talent and commitment. 

Here's where it takes a wrong turn. Opera performances have surtitles running above the stage so you can read the translations of what they are singing. Holy cow! That is some fucked up shit! The narrative contents are chock full of bizarre, misogynistic, incestuous nuttiness. One could perhaps chalk it up to cultural relativity given that it's even further alienated from my experience being based on old Norse mythology.

But it's more than that. One quickly realises that the heartfelt ecstatic singing coming from the diva is often just some dull expository dialogue. A good filmmaker like Egoyan knows how to show rather than tell. So-called high-brow culture is very good at that. This is often what keeps it from attaining mass appeal. Opera seems to be curiously opposite. Wagner's Die Walküre displays what may ungenerously be described as amateurish, on-the-nose storytelling that hits the viewer over the head with broad preposterous over-seriousness. It seems like the fruit of an over-excited 14 year-old virgin boy who spends far too much time playing myth-based role-playing games. The weakest part of the art is at the heart of this art. It's all beautifully composed and executed music, singing, direction and set design but it's all done in the service of a ridiculous and overwrought core of a narrative.

From what I can gather it would be best to watch and listen to a Wagner opera without paying any attention to what it's all about. Perhaps the tragedy of all of this is that Wagner didn't have a writing partner who could match his musical skills with his sorely lacking storytelling skills. I can put up with a lot of silliness and even ugliness in art if it is in the service of a profound message, idea or feeling. I admit it's very likely that I haven't put in enough effort to fully glean the valuable subtext of this work, but it shouldn't be this unnatural and distracting to do so. Perhaps Atom and I could have a drink and chat one day. I'm still hoping that I'm missing something.