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Tag Archives: John McPhee

The Chaos of Others

What rough beast … Slouches toward Bethlehem ? — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Pittsburgh opened its arms, er paws, last week to the Anthrocon convention. The Furries came to town in rags, tags and velvet gowns. The event was a testament to the region’s diversity and tolerance. It also brought in a ton of money.

Ten years ago, the same week as the Furries’ arrival in Pittsburgh, terrorists’ bombs went off in London. Fifty-six people on subways, trains and buses died. Hundreds were injured. All to defend religious belief and identity. 

Open a newspaper or a website and chaos arrives at your virtual doorstep: news from nowhere and everywhere. The world is a scary, confusing place filled with sound and fury (as well as furry). One week it’s a misguided young man in Memphis shooting folks at a church; the next refugees fleeing Somalia. 

We work hard to convince ourself the world is orderly nonetheless. We tell ourselves stories in order to live — myths to impose structure and meaning. We cannot help seeking the sermon in the suicide, wrote Joan Didion (who also wrote an essay inspired by Yeat’s poem.)

We seek solace in technologies that allow us to control nature1 while subverting our better natures. People stare at their smartphones on the bus or subway or while driving as if gazing into a Delphic oracle. In a high-tech society where we purport to make rational, scientific decisions based on statistics and datamining, online fantasy games and graphic novels about magical worlds are increasingly popular.

Given the above, the fact that people pursue drugs like marijuana and heroin as a pathway to an alternate reality is no surprise, though no less pernicious.

Or, one can live in a part-time fantasy world, dressing up in costumes, uttering spells and engaging in strange rituals with others of similar beliefs. Religious dogma offers consolation with the condition that we buy into whatever story is told by those in authority that reassures us we are among the elect.

Soccer, baseball and other sports fans know this as well. Pittsburgh Steelers football fans dress in black and gold and go tailgating.

What if some people deal with the chaos around them and in their own lives by impersonating cats, dragons and other creatures and wearing a tail?

Personally, I’m a fan of humor. In the film Duck Soup a country (not Greece, but just sayin’) goes to war to pay its debts. The Marx Brothers turn the considerable chaos and danger of their 1930s world of Hitler and Mussolini and fascism on its head. Look, they say, this silly stuff can’t hurt you. Look how absurd. Shakespeare does that in plays from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Twelfth Night.

Illustration by Erin Fletcher. For more information please go to http://erinsartportfolio.blogspot.com/2014/02/pandoras-box-illustration.html

Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams open the Pandora’s box of our identity (with the emphasis on Id) and allow us to peek briefly at the darker angels of our natures2 — little Grendels aching to get out and smash the world or blow it up. Dancing on the knife edge of sense and nonsense led each of them to the edge of sanity and beyond. Do we forget their loss so cheaply?

What is mental illness but a mind overwhelmed with chaos? Maybe depression, schizophrenia and other maladies are alternate stories a desperate mind tells itself to make sense of the world.3 Our treatments address the damaged neurochemistry or faulty wiring while still ignoring the suffering spirit. The rest of us may be deluded, or stupid, or heavily medicated, but we manage to keep our suffering – and that of others — at arms length. Compassion requires entering, or at least acknowledging, the chaos in others. This is uncomfortable and scary, because it echoes the potential or actual chaos within each of us as individuals and societies. But if we fail to do so, chaos grows, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates evil. Like terrorists blowing up subways, trains and buses, or shooting strangers.

If the alternative is dressing like anthropomorphic creatures and strutting around town, I’ll serve the FriskiesTM. — CDL

1See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature

2 Not to say Weeping Angels

3 Read Susan Sontag’s llness as Metaphor

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Learning to Master the World

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently provided $3,447,740 USD to organizations in the U.S., including one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The goals of the award are to:

  • Create engaging learning experiences
  • Support the role of museums as community anchor institutions
  • Enhance collections stewardship

The local recipient in SW PA plans to use the award to ‘conduct a research study of family participation in museum-based “makerspaces.” As one staff member told a colleague, “Basically, we are going to use the award to research how children play and learn.” The organization will work with academic researchers at Carnegie Mellon University “to design tools that recognize and measure productive patterns of family participation and their associated learning outcomes in these spaces.” Most likely this will involve the use of computer technology. Every hammer must find its nail.

When I was a boy barely knee-high, I often stopped on the way home  from school when it rained to watch water flowing from a downspout. Left to their devices, kids are naturally little physicists. They try to figure out how the world and people work. Perhaps it is easier to understand the function of dark matter than plumb the mysteries of the human heart. When children play, they try different roles. They cast pieces of wood adrift in mud puddles. They build forts outside. They get messy. Sometimes they do things that result in conflict, bruises or tears. This is how they learn, have fun and practice being human. To do this they need a balance of structured and unstructured (read, unsupervised) time.

Of course childhood may be viewed as an invention, a construct of society that become possible since about the eighteenth century when one in five children stopped dying before the age of three and the rest were put to work in coal mines. Now that children are our future, they have been turned into a preoccupation (if not fetish) of society and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Parents and adults in positions of self-appointed authority feel compelled to direct the efforts of children to make sure they are equipped for our dubious future. Many of these efforts (and the money invested) involve applying new technology to create learning environments and products. They take the form of initiatives to promote literacy and early learning. Millions of dollars are invested by schools (and parents) in technology to address the so-called digital divide.

One product advertised on TV allows a child to draw in different colors on a digital tablet. This offers an advantage over a pad of newsprint and crayons or water colors in that it’s less messy. There is no danger the child will express his or her creativity and fingerprints on the walls or furniture. All the child’s efforts are neatly packaged within the digital environment for the parent to save and admire and post on Facebook — ensuring John or Judy fifteen minutes of fame before the age of five. The company that sells the device has occasion to hire programmers, designers and marketing personnel, and turns a profit to create an artificial environment for children to play in.

Are we doing children and ourselves a favor by creating such adult-designed, carefully circumscribed  ‘spaces’ on their behalf in which they can develop their 21st-century skills and practice social interaction (presumably learning to type with their thumbs and talking to themselves while crossing the street)?

After thousands of years human beings have still not mastered the control of nature or ourselves. Despite our remarkable advances in technology and prognostications for the future, our creations will  inevitably reflect our imperfections. We spend our brief time on this earth futilely trying to impose our will upon the entropy within our souls and in the void without. We can choose do this in enlightened or idolatrous ways.

Our freedom to play may extend into our adult lives and at least elements of our jobs. The Wall Street trader plays Monopoly with other people’s money. The CEO organizes and runs part of the playground by his or her rules and gets others to play their game. In creative pursuits such as the arts we can try on different roles, write our own stories, leave our fingerprints on the wall where none have been left before. But we still need to pay the bills, pay the piper, make a living by putting our fingerprints in the service of someone else (or the public taste). When play becomes indistinguishable from work, the fun of creation may be lost in drudgery despite employers’ attempts to make the workplace a barrel of laughs and convince employees that work/life balance means dedicating one’s life 24/7 for profit.

Children play in the present with every ounce of their being. Becoming adults means making a transition to building sand castles on the beach knowing that eventually the ocean will overwhelm our creation. We persevere, living our lives in the midst of joy and sadness until we exit this confused, confusing, unfinished world leaving behind whatever contributions or depredations we have made.

The seductive promise that technology and the marketplace seem to offer to us is to become creators of our own reality; either controlling the world to suit our whims and desires, or divorcing ourselves from it to live in our own cocoon of virtual reality. The legacy of this may be to deny (or spare) future generations the pleasures and frustrations of discovering how the world works alongside their own limitations and possibilities. What kind of future will it be if human beings are arrogantly devoted to controlling what they don’t understand and remaking the world in their own egotistic image, or retreating  into an alternative world restricted to rules and possibilities devised solely themselves? — DA

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