Friday, August 17, 2007

Summer with the Square-Headed Boyfriend

(Written 8-16-07)

You know it's the middle of August when the best thing on live television is a Rob Schneider double-feature. Seriously, FX is showing "Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo" and "The Hot Chick" back-to-back tonight. I thank you, DVR inventor, and I love you more than you will ever know.

Actually, it hasn't been a horrible summer for television.

"Rescue Me" is, as usual, fantastically snarky and stylistically arresting. A couple of weeks ago, the episode started with a real-time rescue that went very wrong. The scene went on and on . . . smoke, screaming, no visibility, bodies carried out one after another. A woman tossing her toddler out a 4th storey window. After awhile I started to squirm, thinking it was going on way too long, and did we really need to see this? And then I realized, when the credits kicked in, I was holding my breath. It was possibly the most "real" rescue footage I've ever seen; not only that, it was integral to the plot (which also made me squirm), and not in a mechanical, procedural way. It was an ugly and painful and draining scene, the very definition of a bad day for these guys, and you felt the ramifications right along with the characters. Unfortunately, Denis Leary won't win an Emmy this year, either. Not until the show starts to suck, cause that's the way it works.

I'm getting into "Mad Men" on AMC, too; it's sort of pastel and alien and chilly. Everybody looks so sharp and clean and slightly drugged, and they all smoke like, well, like people used to smoke. They actually keep special bowls full of cigarettes on their desks! And drink scotch in meetings! The men sport sharp black suits and slicked-back hair and flirt with their secretaries, and the red-lipped women rock really sweet ballerina skirts and fabulous hats whilst drinking cocktails and stabbing one another in the back. Tres cool.

I was also one of the seven people who actually dug "John from Cincinnati," David Milch's much-critiqued post-"Deadwood" project. Granted, "Deadwood" left a pretty big footprint, and many fans were bitter about Milch's exchanging horses for surfboards in midstream, so the show faced some serious hurdles out of the gate. But say what you will about the high, nonsensical weirdness it offered every week, "John" never failed to be interesting. I'd have to say, as cryptic, quasi-apocalyptic, foul-mouthed, drug-addled, insane, elliptical fever dreams go, well done. I watched with furrowed brow and open mouth, marveling at the storm of language and the stark visuals. (And I gotta cheer the oblique reference to John Dee in the freak-out inducing symbol created by the titular Johnny Monad.) But I'm not sure anybody "got it." I enjoy things that feel like puzzles, but I guess most people just aren't into that kind of open-ended nonsense. And, since HBO cancelled it the day after its season finale, I can stick to my illusions and imagine it just wasn't given the chance to reveal its secrets. We'll never know, and I won't need Botox just yet.

Last thing for tonight: it's the household furnishings sending messages today, but they're getting mixed:
Couple discovers image of Jesus in kitchen cabinet
A Manchester, Connecticut couple is convinced they have a very special piece of woodwork in their kitchen. Malynda and Eric Smith say they noticed last Friday that one of the cabinet doors has an image of Jesus Christ in it. The couple says they have lived in the house for about a year and never noticed anything different about the cabinet. And they say it may be hard to believe, but everyone who looks at it sees the image.

Now, here's what they see:
And here's what I see (in a detail of the forehead area):

Everyone sees the image? Talk about subjective!

I Want to Be(lie)ve

(Written 8-14-07)

I expect I was probably too hard on Mrs. T last night; in this wacky ol' world people should find their comfort where they can.

It's just that stories like that have a nasty way of suggesting to one she consider some of her own weird ideas, of which I have more than a few. I'm certainly too open-minded for my own good. But my dad (a hardened skeptic if ever there was one) taught me to believe that ideas are like pretty strangers at a party: go ahead and dance with them, flirt with them, even take them home if you so desire. But make damned sure you spend some quality time together before you decide to marry one.

Apparently, I mock Mrs. T's eggplant because it's just not my type. Sometimes I present as a skeptic, but I'm really just a mystic with a wicked inability to commit. It's probably not a coincidence I'm single.

So, in light of my current need to overcompensate for my own sins by making sport of other people's faith, I decided to return to a book I read back in the late 90s, when we were all strung out with pre-millennial crazies of one sort or another. Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, reviews a series of foundationless and/or disturbing memes which were afflicting the public consciousness at the fin de siecle. Some, such as the "Satanic" ritual abuse and recovered memory panics, are all but forgotten (except of course by those whose lives were turned upside down by them). But others, such as "Intelligent Design" and Holocaust denial, persist and grow and continue to menace decent logical thought today.

All the essays deserve a read, and Shermer's analysis of how ideas go wrong is illuminating. But what grabbed me was that Shermer, in his first 20 pages, furnishes a believable theory answering my "Why, why why?" cry of last night.

In short, Shermer asserts that the human mind developed the ability to see patterns in the world around it as a part of our survival mechanism; i.e. "That critter ate my woman, and then it ate my dog, so there's a good chance it could eat me, too," or "Last time the bread turned this color I had to battle giant spiders, so . . . ," etc. But along with the perception of meaningful, repeatable patterns comes a downside: the tendency to also seek patterns and meaning in occurences or actions which have no repeatable, measurable effect on the physical world. The two processes are inescapably related, and it's up to our advanced logical capabilities to sort them out.

Interestingly, though, Shermer confirms that magical thinking -- wearing your "lucky" pants on a first date, or seeing a comforting message in your eggplant seeds -- has been shown to function positively to reduce anxiety in stressful situations. (As a corollary to this, he points out that times of intense cultural stress can engender widespread magical thinking.)

So there it is. Mrs. T found the eggplant comforting because her brain was looking for a soothing pattern in a time of stress. So, then, if we know both that and why "God" appeared to her, is it science or superstition to believe it?

I often wonder what it must have been like to live in the heady days of John Dee -- when any idea under the sun was still game for experimentation, shiny and just daring you to prove it. Mr. Dee was the first to apply Euclidean geometry to navigation and the inventor of an alphabet with which to talk to angels; the man who both developed the plan for the British Navy and cast the weather hex that won the war on the Spanish Armada. He did the Virgin Queen's horoscope charts! Ah, a world where one could simultaneously be advancing the course of science and thoroughly bugfuck crazy.

Good times.

Waiting for Gid?

(Written 8-13-07)

So tonight?

Earlier today I was browsing one of my usual haunts for bizarre news tidbits, and I came across a clip about another one of those food-related "miracles." Of course you know I giggled about the Dumbledore toast that sold on eBay a couple years back, and I'd gleefully pay a visit to the Shrine of the Miracle Tortilla; but this one is just kind of sad. The story goes (poor punctuation so not mine):

Holy Eggplant!: Local Woman Finds "GOD" in Eggplant
Felicia T. of Boothwyn says she was preparing fried eggplant for dinner Sunday evening and . . . upon slicing the eggplant she noticed that the seeds contained within one slice appeared to spell out the word "GOD". Felicia told Action News that she recently had family members pass away and it is comforting that "GOD" appeared.

Please feel free to disagree, but right out of the box we have a problem: that eggplant pretty clearly says "Gid," not "God." Am I wrong? It's practically a heart-shaped dot there, hovering over a plump little 7th grade bubble "i."

And it was such a dippy little piece of filler -- the reporter even stooped to note that the dish Mrs. T cooked with the remainder of the eggplant was "simply divine" -- gaaaaaah!

But it found a niche in my brain and it stuck around.

The thing is, while I'm certainly as sorry as a total stranger who will never meet her can be for Mrs. Tesk's recent losses (and stop to wonder momentarily at the plural), I fail to see why this particular seed arrangement might represent comfort to anyone. What does it have to do with the late spate of family funerals? What is the "message" meant to impart to the viewer? And what if it wasn't meant for Mrs. T, but that other hausfrau who decided on veal rather than eggplant parmesan that day? Are there really people who imagine a vegetable might offer them, in their time of grief, a personal condolence card from Jesus? (He was always a poor speller, I hear.) Do these folks spend their days looking for signs and wonders in nose-smudges on bus windows? And the coming apocalypse in coffee-stains on their ties? Are they the same people who expect God to back their business deals and football teams and music careers? How does this happen? And isn't it all just a little weird and solipsistic?

(Hey! What if you found the Virgin Mary in a coffee stain on your tie . . . how could you ever be 100% sure it was a miracle since it wasn't spontaneously generated, but the result of your own clumsy actions? Did Gid inspire you? Or just jostle your elbow on the elevator? Sorry, I digress.)

Anyway, lately I'm thinking a lot about humankind's epic capacity for self-serving irrationality. It's a thing.

Our reach must exceed our grasp, or; What's a blog for?

(Written 8-10-07)

What's on my mind tonight?

Harry Potter 7: Yes, still. Read an encomium to one of the greats from one of the greats (and no hissing, you city of snakes, you) here. I'm an enthusiastic, nay, euphoric Potterhead. And I think. Sometimes even clearly. You go, Jo! Dickens gots nothing on you. And a deep bow to Uncle Steve, too. He's our Virginia Woolf. (Think hard, maybe it will click.)

Quitting smoking: I quit three months ago. But tonight, I drank tequila. Not sure writng and quitting are mixy. 'Nuff said.

Joss Whedon: Can I be you when I continue to refuse to grow up?

Demystifying Scientology: Because I don't care how famous they are, they're just nuts. And people who proselytize bug. I may kick the next earnest Dianetician who tries to give me a stress test. Does that mean I need one? BTW, you can find the questions -- and El Ron's proscribed answers here. My favorite: "Are your decisions swayed by personal interests?" Well, duh.

80's redux: It's still big in SF, and I still keep hoping it will go away. Earlier tonight I was at a bar chock full of just-barely-20-somethings, and I saw more skinny jeans and asymmetrical necklines than ever flew in 1984. It's like a satire, only the actors think it's a straight job. The music, I'll give ya (cause who doesn't love George Michael? Poor stoned thing . . .), but it's already past passe. And still the fashions persist -- why, god, why? Trust someone who was there the first time: teal and horizontal stripes are nobody's friends. (And yet I love me some leggings under skirts. Don't even try to make sense of it.) Below is possibly the ugliest dress ever. What was I just saying about teal and . . . OMG are those GOLD stripes? Oh, fer fucksake . . .

Ugliest. Dress. Ever. Actually for sale. Not cheap, either. I quit.

And by the way . . . you're on notice

Make your own here.

I only went out for smokes!

Oops -- I just remembered I left this blog hanging like two years ago and never returned. I think that's about the time I discovered World of Warcraft. Hehe.

In the meantime, I've moved back to San Francisco -- I never did get zen with that commute -- and into a swingin' bachelorette pad in a tres transitional neighborhood. I can just barely afford it, but it's all mine and the area's got nowhere to go but up. I've also reined in a habit or two (never say "quit"), and decided I needed to go back to writing, if only to clarify my own noisy thoughts. So, at a friend's suggestion I started up on a different blog service. I find that both have their long & short points, so I think I'm just going to start double-posting.

By the way, I find it simultaneously reassuring and depressing that I'm still working on clarifying a follow-up to my last post here.

Stay tuned . . . 2007 entries, coming right up. With even more ranty goodness!