Perception is reality.

Darwin

Charles Darwin and his ancestor.

Every day I see a drama played out in the media, and on social media in particular.  Group A present their reality.  Group B present a counter reality.  Group A argues on science.  Group B argues on pseudo-science overlying blind faith.  Group A is constantly baffled by the inability of group B to grasp reality.  Group B is constantly baffled by the inability of group A to grasp reality.  Group A say “that is not reality – it is perception”.  Group B say “I know what reality is”.

Group B is right.  They do know what their reality is.  Group A ignore perceptual reality at their peril.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was a child I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family.  Seven kids of which I was 6th.  As if the house was not full enough we also, until she married, had my Aunt Phyllis living with us.  I was about 5 when she married.  I was supposed to be the “train bearer” but her bossy bridesmaid, would not let me bear the train.  What I remember about that wedding is the cold.  It was a red raw cold Easter wedding.  In the main group photo you will see me retreating from the church steps to escape the wind by going back into the church.

Phyllis was, to my young mind, the living embodiment of Mary Tyler Moore living in our house.  She was cool, sassy, grown up and not a parent.  My two oldest brothers are over 6 ft tall.  Phyllis is about 5′ 3”.  To my young mind she towered over them.  They were teenagers.  They are my brothers.  She was an adult, they were kids.  She towered over them.

My oldest brother, Jerry, is a Solicitor.  Second oldest, Fergus, is an Architect.  Both well educated professionals.  Phyllis was never a professional.  Mostly she was a mother and housewife.  When she married and moved to Swords in North County Dublin my younger brother and I used to cycle out to visit her quite often.  She would feed us and then send us home.  We loved it when she baked a cake that flopped.  She let us eat as much of it as we could before it went into the bin.  In a family of 7 kids cake is a luxury, flopped or not.

So here you have this short woman with no pretensions to a fantastic education.  Beside her you have my two oldest brothers, towering over her, wielding university degrees.  If I have a need to seek advice on an important philosophical matter who am I going to ask?

Phyllis of course.  In the reality of my 5 year old mind she is the adult.  They are the teenagers.

I know, in my 50 something year old brain that my 60 something year old brothers are well capable of addressing deep philosophical issues.  I know, rationally, that they are well educated, highly experienced adults.

This is the point at which Group A and Group B fall out with each other.  You can prove, without a doubt, to the adult mind, that Jerry and Fergus are the more qualified mentors.  You can absolutely convince me on the evidence that I should ask them for advice.  I will absolutely agree with you, and then I’ll go consult Phyllis.

Vaccination protagonists present all the science to anti-vaccination people, who read it, internalise it and refuse to vaccinate their kids.  Astronomers present incontestable evidence to flat-earthers who nod and smile and go back to live on their flat earth.  Democrats present cast iron evidence that Republicans are exploiting the working man and the working man reads it, shakes his head and votes Republican.  Atheists disprove God again and again.  People of faith can’t argue back, but they know what they feel, and they feel they believe, and in belief lies salvation.

Evidence, statistics, facts, research, proof, they are all good.  They are all worthy valuable pursuits.  But they don’t necessarily change our innate perceptions.  Our reality is founded on our perceptions, not on the cold hard realities of the world.

Again and again Group A think they can win by arguing reality.  In truth they will only win by changing perceptions, and that is a far harder task.

Martin Luther challenged the reality of the Christian Church in 1517.  By the 1960’s the church had, for the most part, altered it’s perception, with the enactment of Vatican II.  That was a hard won victory, 450 years and counting.  Charles Darwin postulated the theory of human evolution in 1859.  That took only about 100 years to gain widespread mainstream acceptance.

Changing perception takes time.  It does not take weeks, months or years.   It takes generations.

 

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Living with Dementia

100-Year-Old-Man-Who-Climbed-Out-A-Window-Robert-Gustaffson-skinheads

100 year old man who climbed out a window and disappeared

For anyone who has been through the rounds of dementia or alzheimer’s with a parent the poem by Louise Cole below will strike a chord.

The internet is full of warm cuddly fluff such as “Do Not Ask Me To Remember” by Owen Darnell.  That may help us feel all compassionate for five minutes, until you get a bang on your arm from your mammy’s crutch.

There are moments of comedy and pathos in those visits but they are few and far between.  For the most part you are faced with a parent who is a shadow of the person they used to be.  This is all the more cruel because parents are larger in our lives than other mere mortal adults.

You see them deteriorate both physically and mentally.  The first day you realise they don’t know who you are is a hard one.  My mother was a brilliant actress so she fooled many of the family for years that she knew who they were, but the signs are there if you really want to see them.  Imagine the confusion if you woke up and recognised nobody in your life?  However hard it is for you it is ten times harder on them.

If they remember your kids they remember how they were ten years ago as 7 year olds.  This hulking great 17 year old teenager is a total stranger, and very scary.

You see the weight fall off them until they look like skeletons covered in parchment.  They look small and frail and weak, and we want our parents to loom large and strong for us, to be the foundations for our lives, pillars of strength and wisdom.

The days when you arrive at a nursing home to find your mother sitting in her own shit, because the “cleaning crew” have not gotten around yet, those are hard days.  Because today you know you are here, but tomorrow you will be in work when she is sitting in her shit and piss.

Dress your parents well, in good clothes.  Buy new clothes.  Make sure their hair is styled, the men are shaved regularly, their fingernails are manicured.   This may seem a pointless extravagance if they spend all their day in a nursing home.  But know this; well dressed people are treated better than dirty, unkempt or untidy people.  People speak to them more politely, treat them with more respect, and are more likely to shake their hand, give them a hug or do them a small favour.  All those little moments add up.

People who care for the old are heroes.  Anyone can care for babies because they are so cute.  But changing the nappy on a crabby old man who is trying to bash you on the head, that takes the soul of an angel.  Go out of your way to honour the staff who care for your parents, they deserve every ounce of your respect.

As an aside:  the phrase “Fur Coat and No Knickers” is a common Irish phrase used to describe people who are all flash with no substance.  The kind of person who spends money on a fancy car in the driveway to impress the neighbours, instead of fixing the heating boiler and buying new shoes for the children.

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers; by Louise G. Cole

Drawing breath between tales of dead
little brothers and elderly neighbours
moved away, my mother looks inside
a lifetime that’s 92 and counting,
claims no-one’s visited for months,
thinks I’m her cousin Betty
with designs on her fur coat and hopes
of borrowing a fiver.

I try not to mind the care home smell
and wonder what else to talk about when
the devil himself taps my shoulder
suggests I unburden, reveal secrets
never before shared, so I offer a revelation:
I lost my virginity four times
before I was married. She’s never yet listened to me
so it is no surprise she doesn’t hear,
continues with a rattle about imagined walks
in the park yesterday, shopping
trips she’ll make next week.

A carer comes to tuck her in,
brings weak tea and egg sandwiches,
asks if I’d like some,
is relieved when I decline.
I get up to leave and the frail old cripple
who used to be my mother
spills her tea and demands
to know when cousin Betty intends returning
the fur coat, says quietly: ‘I always knew
what a little whore you were’.

 

 

Happy Birthday Clifton Snider

Clifton

The best poetry is painful.  In many cases it carves open the poet, exposing their deepest insecurities to the world.  In certain cases it carves open society and exposes the rot at the core.  When poetry does this it becomes political.

When the Nationalists murdered Federico Garcia Lorca in the Spanish Civil War they said his pen was worth a regiment.  Brendan Kennelly in his Cromwell poems brutally illustrates that violence is perpetrated on all sides in conflict, and rejects the attempt by any one side to airbrush out it’s hand in the bloodletting.

Clifton Snider approached poetry through the lens of Jungian psychology.  In this regard I share an appreciation of his journey as it mirrors my own in some respects.  Snider is an academic who challenges conformity.

He took the US administration to task over the war in Iraq, setting up his own anti-war page. A Poet Against the War

He has been targeted by the Right in the USA for his criticism of the military led, profit oriented approach to US Foreign Policy.  His life has been placed in danger by the right.  When an ultra right wing mouthpiece denounces an academic they are aware that there is a legion of stupid white men out there, wrapped in the US flag and armed with assault rifles who are happy to pull the trigger on any clearly marked target.

An academic who specializes in psychological decoding of the works of Oscar Wilde : duck in a barrel.

But Snider is a fighter.  His poems are not shy retiring allusions or hidden allegories.  They are full frontal attacks, and he names the beast!  I doubt you will hear his poetry read on Prairie Chapel Ranch down there in Texas.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: by Clifton Snider

The woman with a scarf
at the food stand
asked for an ounce of flour:
she had three children
and a little water.

The American leader
squinted, eyes like oil pools.
He shot her point blank
in the temple.

His secretary of state
lopped off the arms & legs
of a soldier, pressed into service
by the sword of antiquity.

The minister of defense
ordered smart bombs to explode
the brains of a man in turban
old enough to remember
the American president
who provided his people arms
to fight their neighbor.

Nominative Determinism

Originally the concept of nominative determinism arose as a humorous feedback thread in New Scientist Magazine as readers observed how authors names reflected their research topics.  Polar explorations by Daniel Snowman,  a urology article by Splatt and Weedon.

This was a build from joke books of my youth.  “The Tower of Pisa” by Eileen Over.  “Legal Jurisprudence” by Argue and Phibbs.  “Treating Tennis Injuries” by Savage, Racquet and Ball. There are lot of those:  Funny books and authors  

Erik the Red, who founded the Viking colony on Iceland wanted to keep the island for his own people.  To dissuade other Norsemen from following he gave his colony an unattractive name.  His son, Lief Eriksson, did the opposite in an attempt to encourage colonists to settle in his new discovery, Greenland.

Some people have begun to take nominative determinism more seriously.  Some pointed to the fact that many names originated in the middle ages when people were named for their trade, and families stayed within a trade.  Thatchers roofed houses.  Wrights made wheels.  Smiths beat metal.  Fletchers made arrows.  Is there a genetic disposition to excellence in a field of endeavour?

A family that has genetically poor eyesight will not survive long in the lacemaking trade.  Do genetic traits in agility, intelligence, strength etc contribute to our aptitude for certain careers?

Then there is the environment.  The child of a musician is raised in a world of music practice, has a learned knowledge of what harmonies work well, grows up playing with musical instruments.  Learning to read music comes easier than learning to read language.  Smiths know the techniques for tempering steel, learned over many generations and passed orally from Father to Son.  Fletchers know how to make good glue.  Dyers know the recipes for pigments that stain cloth but do not fade rapidly in sunlight.  Tanners are used to the smell of piss and shit.

So in the modern world, when we are socially mobile, does our heritage still carry cues to our abilities.  Is nominative determinism a real thing?

For me the funniest example of nominative determinism is given in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.  With a surname of Major a vindictive father stepped in when his wife was comatose after childbirth and named his son Major Major Major.  The child is drafted into the US Air Force in WW2 as Private Major Major Major.  It is only the work of a short time and standard military bureaucracy before the Private is promoted, by clerical error, and assigned as Major Major Major Major.

Miniver Cheevy; by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

 

Chimurenga name.

Bp_ndebelewarrior_1896

Sketch of an Ndebele Warrior by Robert Baden Powell founder of the Scouting Movement.

Chimurenga is a Shona word which translates as “revolutionary struggle”.  The first Chimurenga was a revolt by the Ndebele (Matabele) and Shona peoples of Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe).  The revolt failed after initial successes, and Matabeleland became Rhodesia.

In the 1960’s and ’70’s the revolt of the Ndebele (PF) and Shona (Zanu) against white rule became the Second Chimurenga.  This one succeeded.  Robert Mugabe, leader of Zanu then united the Shona and Ndebele factions into the Zanu-PF party which has ruled independent Zimbabwe ever since.

Leaders in the brutal guerrilla bush war often adopted war names to enhance their ferocity.  Gentle intellectuals went through over a year of tough bush training at the hands of North Korean and Chinese instructors.  They hardened up and so did their names.  They took cues from movies such as James Bond, Cowboy films, from music icons like Bob Marley, from sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, political leaders like Hitler, Stalin and even Indira Gandhi.

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliette from the Shakespeare play.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bart Simpson suggests “Not if you call it a stink blossom or a crap weed”.

Nominative determinism, the theory that our actions or career tend to fit our names, will see a job as a mechanic go to John Wright instead of Fred Taylor.  Do Chimurenga names work?

Who would you fear more?  Someone called John Oboyo or the guy beside him called Commander Comrade Mao?  Would you prefer to be interrogated by Ariston Ford or by Machete Footchopper?

More to follow on this theme.

Can womens clothes drive men mad?

Short answer: Sexy outfits get men interested but there is never an excuse for assault.

Beautiful naked person standing before you in the supermarket, clutching a large knife?

“Sexy fun time” is the wrong response here.

Slut

Misguided outfit choice by Missguided

Extract from article in Guardian newspaper by Dean Burnett:

Original Article

EXTRACT:  So, is it biologically possible for a typical man to be sufficiently aroused by the sight of woman that it overwhelms his restraint? To answer this, you need to look at exactly what’s going on in the brain when we experience arousal.

We’re still far from a thorough understanding, but current evidence suggests that arousal, or perhaps more accurately “desire”, has many cognitive components, beyond the basic physical characteristics. We observe something, our prefrontal cortex – via links to the more fundamental emotional and reward systems – analyses it and determines if it’s sexual in nature, and if so, if it is “sufficiently” sexual (eg we find some people sexy, but not others). If it is, our attention is directed towards it, and emotional and motivation processes are activated via our amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex respectively. It’s incredibly complex in detail, but the neurological systems that regulate arousal and desire do indeed have many potent effects via important regions throughout our brains.

One thing that could be said to support the notion that men are vulnerable to being sexually aroused by appearance, is evidence that suggests male arousal is far more visual in nature than female arousal. It does seem that the old stereotypes about men having less sophisticated sexual desires than women (men like porn, women like erotica etc) has some basis in fact. Some might argue that this is because males have evolved to “spread their seed” with whoever is available and desirable, whereas females, who do all the childrearing, evolved to look for more complex, enduring qualities in a partner, beyond just visual characteristics. Of course, this explanation relies on only one half of our species evolving to be monogamous (pair bonding, in scientific parlance). That seems … unlikely. Maybe the whole notion is just reverse engineered from modern stereotypes? Who can say.

There are more plausible explanations for this gender-asymmetry. Perhaps it’s due to the different sex-hormone makeup? Or maybe it’s a result of the fact that our sexual desires and the systems that support them develop along with the rest of our brain, so are influenced by the world around us. And in the world around us, the sexualised female form features so often in almost every medium that it’s essentially a type of punctuation. You could argue that the reason men have a stronger visual element to their sexual arousal is because we live in a world where sexy images for men to see are everywhere, whereas women have tended to need to be more creative, and the brain develops accordingly. Perhaps this is changing too, what with women now being regularly presented with marvels of sexy buff Chris’s (Hemsworth) on a regular basis.

And yes, I’ve decided that the collective noun for sexy Chris’s is a “marvel”, for obvious reasons.

So yes, it’s arguably easier for men to be aroused by a sexy appearance. But does that mean they can be provoked beyond self-control?

Not exactly, no. Sexual arousal may be a powerful thing, but the brain also has many processes that counter it. The orbitofrontal cortex, for example, is implicated in regulating/suppressing sexual behaviour. One of the more sophisticated neurological regions, it’s the part that says “this isn’t a good idea, don’t do it” when you’re aroused or excited by an opportunity, particularly a sexual one, which won’t have great long-term consequences.

The amygdala, mentioned earlier, also seems to play a role in determining appropriateness of arousal in context. Beautiful naked person standing before you in your bedroom? Sure, be aroused. Beautiful naked person standing before you in the supermarket, clutching a large knife? “Sexy fun time” is the wrong response here. And it’s the amygdala that’s believed to work this out.

However, it’s possible for these restraining systems to be compromised. Alcohol can hinder the higher, complex areas like the orbitofrontal cortex while leaving the more primitive urges governing arousal intact. And the amygdala does what it can, but can only work with the information available. If the situation is ambiguous, or uncertain, it may make the wrong call.

Does this mean that men who sexually harass/assault women for what they’re wearing are innocent after all?

No, of course not. A woman may choose to wear an alluring outfit, but it’s still the man’s choice to grope her without permission or invitation. If he’s too drunk to hold back, it was his choice to get that drunk. “I couldn’t help myself” is never an acceptable excuse for things like drink driving, and the same is true here.

Crushed by pressure.

first-step

There are times in our lives when we are crushed into immobility by pressure.  It may be the pressure of too much stimulation, like a soldier caught in crossfire who freezes instead of leaping for cover.  It may be pressure of time and work, like the office worker who faces such a towering pile of work and impossible deadlines that they can’t focus on a single task.  It may be an artist or writer facing self doubt about their personal validity leading to a mental block.

Military special forces deal with situation number 1 by putting recruits through stress again and again until stress becomes their new norm.  Special forces are special because when everybody else is running blindly for cover, or freezing on the spot, they can make rational decisions.  They assess the situation, make a decision and act.

Experienced office employees know you can only focus on one task at one time.  Don’t believe people who say they can multi-task.  Focus on the here and now.  Pick the most important thing.  This may not be the most “urgent”.  Do one thing well.  Complete it.  Then do the next most important thing.

Many people become stressed by the things they cannot change.  It is like a person standing in a room with a burst pipe worrying about global climate change.  You can’t solve global climate change today.  But maybe you can fix a pipe or call a plumber.  Keep it small, keep it simple.

For the writer or artist with the mental block there are a million pieces of advice.  For me what works is the discipline of writing something.  Anything.  This blog.  Lay some words on a page.  They may be rubbish.  They may turn out to be good.  They may just clear your mind.  The simple action of placing words on a page or paint on a canvas, with no motive, can be enough to move you forward.

Robert M Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance described an A student with a mental block.  She had to write an essay about her home town and got stuck.  So he told her to walk to the main street, stand outside the library, count bricks from the ground on the corner and stop at e.g brick number 20.  Then write about that brick.  Once she started to write about the brick she could not stop, and the story of the whole town unfolded.

In Time Management Training they describe their approach to daunting tasks as “Eating an Elephant”.  It’s hard to eat an elephant in one meal.  Much easier if you chop it up into lots and lots of meals.  Then just eat the elephant one meal at a time.  Before you know it you will run out of elephant.

A Grain of Sand:  by Robert William Service

If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
‘Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.

Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.

For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.