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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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The Jaws of Perspective

Perspective is the magic wand that makes some objects small and some large, although in reality they are all the same size. It is a doubly edged sword though and tampering with it can be hazardous to your spiritual well being. Like fire, perspective is a good servant, but a bad master.

On the one hand, it adapts our viewing window so we can feel outright dizzy when the Giants win the Superbowl, although in the greater scheme of things it is as relevant to our lives as fluctuation of Basmati rice price in Eastern India. Yet this lack of gravitas doesn't prevent us from completely immersing ourselves in whatever little spectacle life (or Eli Manning) throws our way. It is perspective that recalibrates the perceived magnitude of events and lets us smell the roses however insignificant they may be.

On the other hand, perspective can play pretty nasty tricks on us when it blows relatively trivial mishaps out of proportion. So much so that it can completely jam our internal hierarchy of priorities. The grip of its jaws is relentless at times and its sharp teeth will crush all that is standing in its path. Perspective can turn a temporary distress into a little dictator methodically removing all other contenders for our attention.

The only antidote against particular aspects usurping the whole playing field of our mind is experiencing life on different scales. Interacting with people from different backgrounds. Only under a constant barrage of their assorted problems can we perceive the true magnitude of ours. Loosing perspective is a little bit like hiking in the mountains. One moment you are on a ridge and see all the surrounding peaks for comforting reference, and the next you disappear into a gorge or a narrow valley and completely lose your orientation. In such situations having a variety of friends is like having a personal GPS. Priceless.

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International Day of Jerks and Germs

There is a reason why we exercise: our muscles need to be flexed, otherwise they atrophy. No, that doesn't mean they'll win a shiny cup, "atrophy" is just a scary word for becoming very lazy, dysfunctional and eventually non-existent. Lifting weights hardly ever qualifies as fun, unless you are a Rambo or a Rocky, but our bodies need to break some sweat in order to stay on top of their game. When it comes to muscle tissue, it is use it or lose it quite literally.

I think of germs as exercise machines for our immune systems. We have a sophisticated body police, but without having an opportunity to patrol some really tough neighborhoods where they would have the opportunity to fight shady and unseemly microcharacters, its alertness steadily decreases. Eventually, without sufficient stimuli from the outside, the immune system turns on itself and starts fighting phantom menaces, producing a whole range of pesky allergies. Avoiding germs is like trying to defend your country with an army that spends all its training days in bed. Our defense systems atrophy.

I also think that jerks provide similar service to our emotional responses. They keep us on our toes. They help us flex our social muscles. The vexations they inflict on us are like controlled brush fires, making sure our psyche never becomes a blazing inferno later on. Bottled anger has a way of blowing up or decomposing into stinky puddles of grudge, so jerks should be lauded for providing a safety valve for our internal pressure.

Living in an artificially sweetened world of Disney has its pitfalls. People lose the ability to resolve conflicts. The smallest hint of adversity short circuits their minds into a seizure mode and leaves them searching frantically through their playbooks, which - statistically speaking - have a fairly poor record of foreseeing life's little twists. Sometimes you may be able to put a band-aid of forced smile over a disagreement, but only a jerk can teach you how to handle it with aplomb.

Life is not fair - at least not on this planet. We have to choose whether we want to become finicky orchids growing up in a carefully controlled glass house, or hardy plants that can endure any whim of weather. If your only experience with adversity is sobbing in a movie theater after Johnny Depp gets his pinky toe brutally stepped on, you may be slightly underprepared for inclement weather. Viciously spraying your kitchen counter top with industry strength disinfectants and wiping out anything that has a strand of DNA in it won't help your natural defenses either. To some extent, jerks and germs are essential to our well being. They are our sparring partners in the great fight of life.

To recognize the hard work of these unsung heroes I would like to propose that February 2nd be declared the International Day of Jerks and Germs. On this day we'll seal off the area under the kitchen sink as a "demilitarized zone" and when asked how we are doing we'll retort "None of your bloody business, buddy!". That will be our tribute to the critters that keep our immune and emotional emergency response systems fully operational.

The Age of Mediocracy

Our political system is labeled "Democracy", the rule of the people. But when you look closer underneath the veneer, you realize that apter name for our system of governance would be "Mediocracy", the rule of media. Under normal political circumstances, the news outlets would spend a few weeks evenly reporting on all presidential candidates, people would then mull it over and after some deliberation cast their vote. What the media do instead is choose their darlings - those perceived as most beneficial for the business of their biggest advertisers - and then spend the whole year relentlessly massaging the unsuspecting public. The game plan is very simple: put out a few flattering articles, bump up candidate's poll numbers by creative use of statistics and then exclaim in feigned surprise: "Oh my goodness, this candidate is rising like a meteor - we better cover him some more!" And the gullible electorate will swallow the bait with the hook.

The incessant fawning over the chosen ones knows no limits. At the height of the Iowa campaign, I looked up an article about Mike Huckabee to see what he is all about. The piece must have been written by a recently laid off Britney Spears paparazzi. Instead of dissecting his positions and his past, the article served an account of his chat with a woman whose Mom couldn't keep up with her medical expenses, followed by a thrilling narration in which he personally poured a cup of coffee for a voter. Wow, the guy knew how pour a cup of coffee all by himself! I just wished I could have run to the closest ATM and donated at least one thousand individually framed one dollar bills to his campaign.

Similarly, I would much rather hear what John McCain has to say about our overexposed banking system that watch him hoist a scaredy kid into the high air for the umpteenth time this week. But that, of course, might be much less ingratiating, especially since - according to his own admission - he doesn't really understand economy all that well. These touching vignettes remind me of the communist propaganda machine, which was bent on popularizing the sport of "child lifting", while brushing off the deteriorating realities of the Soviet bloc.

On the other end of the mediocratic machine there is a big silence for those that try to expose the status quo of the booming power-broking business. Which sort of makes sense - I mean the media must preserve their precious cash flows from ads and commercials so at the end it all comes down to: Grease our wheels or else! In the most recent installment of this comedy, the ultra-conservative Fox Network figured that Ron Paul had some nasty things to say about the warfare-welfare state, so without much ado they simply banned him from their TV debate, thereby giving the fair and balanced coverage a thick middle finger.

Media plays their "Ooops - we forgot to mention Ron Paul again" game so skillfully that most of bigheaded burgervores won't ever find out who he is and those who do assume that he has already dropped out. Newsweek recently mentioned that Huckabee raised 8M in the fourth quarter - a "best effort among Republicans" - conveniently glossing over Ron Paul's 19M. Not to be upstaged by a competitor, the TIME Magazine quipped that Republican candidates won't be happy about the NIE report as they were ALL engaged in significant saber-rattling against Iran. Naturally, there was no mention of Ron Paul's opposition to any unprovoked war, Iraq, Iran or otherwise. There used to be time when solid research was a prerequisite for journalism. TIME magazine's journalism is either sloppy or slanted.

The media's resolve not to cover Ron Paul is so consistent that it almost seems orchestrated. And there would have been plenty to report on. Dr. Paul cured tens of thousands from political apathy. Some of the people churning up hundreds of signs in their homes didn't even vote in previous elections. He has nearly 1500 self organized MeetUp groups, he has a Vegas festival - "the Paulapalooza" - dedicated to him, his chocolate bust is being auctioned off on eBay and he has his own Blimp - a promotional stunt conceived and paid for by his grassroots supporters. But you wouldn't know about it from watching the Old Media. They are too busy providing an in-depth analysis of what might Rudy Giuliani have for breakfast tomorrow.

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Edward Hopper's Last Room

Edward Hopper has an interesting style. He never abandoned realism for the trendy abstract tomfoolery, and for the duration of his life stayed faithful to reflecting reality rather then blurring, transforming or fragmenting it. But there is a twist to his reality. There is a certain level of detail, certain section of the palette, that seems to be deliberately omitted from his artwork. It is like listening to a symphony record with a whole frequency band completely eliminated from its spectrum. His paintings seem to be suffused with simplicity which reinforces the ground mood and doesn't distract the viewer with higher frequency non-essentials.

The National Gallery for Arts in Washington put a comprehensive sample of Hopper's oeuvre on display, so after getting a tip from a colleague of mine I set out to see one of the great American icons for myself.

The exhibition started off slowly. Walking through early rooms was like getting lost in a lighthouse district. The guy must have had an obsession with shipping safety. Fortunately, the monotony of the portrayed objects was partially offset by realizing that lots fun can be had by watching people watch paintings - their postures, their comments, and their facial expressions provided an ever changing vistas into a human psychology. But this little game lost its appeal once we entered the last room. Here was the true periscope into the soul itself.

I noticed there is a common theme to his late works. In his subdued studies Hopper captured that nearly imperceptible moment when boredom sinks its little teeth into our lives. The autumn of human existence. The Night Hawks drinking silently at a bar, the Primaballerina just past her prime absorbing the rays of sunrise, an Usherette daydreaming in a shadow of a theatre, a Young Lady waiting listlessly in an automat - those were the people whose dreams were no longer horses to saddle but rather little dogs to promenade.

Nostalgia can be masterful. Great blush of time.

Monopoly on Hope

Here is what the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano wrote about the movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel Golden Compass: "In Pullman's world, hope simply does not exist, because there is no salvation but only personal, individualistic capacity to control the situation and dominate events."

The fact that a barely noticeable movie which basically flopped at the Box Office provoked such strong response was rather remarkable. The tone of the review reminded me of the old Soviet satellites, where anyone that dared question Communists' mandate to rule was summarily branded as western decadent and irrelevant outcast, unable to see the eternal light of socialism. To communist regimes, the independent reasoning was a thorn in the hide too. The baleful Magisterium of the movie is but a highly stylized Central Committee of a Communist Party slyly transferring the power from an individual to an opaque, unaccountable and sinister order.

To claim that Hope does not exist in the movie which is steeped in it is like claiming there are no oceans in "Titanic". The Vatican critics completely missed that the individualistic and personal capacity to think and feel is the only possible foundation for friendship between unique individuals which the movie celebrates and juxtaposes to smarmy and servility-based relationships that were wrought surreptitiously in the dim marble hallways of the Magisterium.

But the movie is not really about religion, it is more about a totalitarian state of mind, about monopolizing the thinking process. Whether the little dictators are represented as shifty-eyed bishops or stubble-chinned Bolsheviks matters very little; any ideology, no matter how sweet and well meaning it is at its inception, can be twisted and corrupted in the hands of fearmongers and we should watch carefully for such abuse. Regimes have a way of giving up on a struggle to tell good from evil and become complacent in merely maintaining the status quo. No group of humans is exempt from this lapse.

In their effort not to offend people who hold genuine beliefs, the authors of the movie tried to suppress any explicit hints of a church and left the Magisterium suspended in a vague haze of abstract greed and scheming. It is sad that Vatican didn't reach out to people whose spirituality happens to wear a differently cut jacket and whose sense of belonging to a community gives them just as strong grounds for morality as loyalty to a divine power. Instead they reacted in an offended and jealous way - "It is Our Hope or No Hope" - which is pretty much what the Magisterium would do.

Hope is a universal concept, independent of any specific religious doctrine and no one should have monopoly over it - not Vatican, not Jerusalem, not Mecca, not Kapilawastu and not anyone else. It is an instinctual mechanism that facilitates our survival, an invisible force that aligns our built in moral compass with a belief in a superior entity. And it should be of absolutely no consequence whether that entity takes the form of a hoary wise guy sitting on a fluffy cloud, a pack of demons gathering every midnight in a dark jungle, a mysterious moral force which rewards good and punishes bad or a collective body of humankind of which each of us is a single cell.

Hope is a belief that despite all the adversities of life, there will always be a transcendental principle woven into the fabric of this Universe, which supports selfless behavior. A primitive man in the Pacific has hope too, although he may have never heard of Papal wisdom. It is Hope what sustains us against all totalitarian doctrines and that is exactly why we need it in its pure form, free of any specific ideology.

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