Monthly Archives: March 2010

Snakes & Ladders


David Lodge [one of my fave English authors] begins his 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? with a 1950s university student weighing the pros & cons of attending a mid-week evening church service. Aside from the expenditure of Therbligs, and forgoing more frivolous diversions with less conscientious college friends, there is the danger that holier-than-thou self-congratulation will result in a Net Guilt Gain! The author likens this hazard to the children’s game of Snakes & Ladders. Just when you think you’re ascending to the Moral High Ground, oopsie-daisy, your Pride occasions a Fall from Grace. Nar’mean?

When he chose this metaphor, I wonder, did David Lodge know that Snakes & Ladders is based on the 11th-century Hindu game Moksha-Patamu, devised to teach children how to express the 5 Virtues (while avoiding the 12 Vices), in order to reach Nirvana? [No, not the band.] Note that in the original game, there are more than twice as many “snakes” [ways to fall] as “ladders”; whereas in the UK and American versions, the ratio of “snakes[or “chutes”] to “ladders” is 1:1. [Think 7 Virtues & 7 Deadly Sins.] Wanna know the Vices the Hindu version features? [They are listed in this order in several sources. Could it be, from venial to mortal?] “Disobedience, Vanity, Vulgarity, Theft, Lying, Drunkenness, Debt, Rage, Greed, Pride, Murder, Lust.” Guess you wanna hear the Virtues now, innit? “Faith, Reliability, Generosity, Knowledge, Asceticism.” [Reminiscent, somehow, of Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Spheres model, from the post, “Crime & Punishment.”]

Now, back to real snakes. In the Fall of 1984 we were living in Holden, Massachusetts [near Worcester, about which, don’t get me started; talk about ambivalence (mine), talk about a sense of moral superiority (theirs)]. “We” being self, husband Chris, 9-month-old Baby Girl, and the gifted hunters, Stella [Ciotogach-looking one] & Stanley [with the white goatee]. Chris was off being a [jolly good] Fellow @ UMass Med Center; Baby Girl was napping; and I was doing laundry in the basement on a rainy day, with Nobody’s Fool Stella keeping me company. I gathered that Sodden Stanley had popped through the catflap, because I heard a dong! as he landed on the dryer. Also, I felt his wet tail wrapping around my bare ankles. Hang on. There he sat, staring into middle distance, on the dryer…while the black snake he had brought in ascended my leg.

So, limbic system on Full Alert, I screamed, shook the serpent off, ran upstairs and donned my Wellies, ran back downstairs brandishing a golf club [no, I am not Swedish], onto which I “charmed” the snake, and thence threw it into a wicker basket, which I deftly flipped over, thereby trapping it. Unabashed Stanley was clawing at the basket, wanting to play with his “prey,” so I grabbed him and ran back upstairs to call Chris, “insisting” that he come home “right then” and “deal with” the snake. “But, you’ve already dealt with it,” he quibbled. “Just keep the cats out of the basement, and you’ll be fine.” “Nooo!” I wailed. “I’m afraid the snake is going to get out, climb up the stairs, and hurt [the baby]!” [I may be part horse.]

Having clearly exceeded the speed limit, Chris arrived shortly, flipped the basket over, bashed the snake with the golf club, saying “There!”; hopped back in his car, and returned to the hospital.

Poor old snake! Wrong place at the wrong time. [In Stanley’s line of sight on a wet Wednesday.]

Chris and I both lost many karmic points that day. Yet, search as I may, I can’t find my crime on the Hindu list of 12 Vices. I can identify what Got Up My Nose, though. Intrusion of an unexpected creature [not even a furry one] into my home and onto my person. Fairly far-fetched fear, that the snake would glide up the basement stairs and under a closed door, to strike at my baby [even though it had been so gentle with me, that I mistook it for my cat]. But, most shame-making, the humiliation of not being taken seriously by my husband. As if I were some [gasp!] Drama Queen, or something.

Chris would no doubt say that he displaced his Rage [at my intrusion on his workday, and possibly the humiliation of being regarded as a hen-pecked husband by his fellow Fellows] from me, onto the hapless snake. No wonder, 25 years later, he helped the young snake on our driveway to live another day. After all, if reincarnation is true, that could be you or I, Next Time.

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, lesser of two evils, limbic system

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing


Early last Fall Mahmood, our termite “experimenter” [as my NYC reference group ironically referred to exterminators] came up to my husband, holding a medium-sized black snake which he had just killed in our yard, saying “I know I’m here to see to the insects; but in Morocco, where I come from, all snakes are bad.” [Ooh! Maybe he comes from Casablanca! How Poetic would that be?]

A few months later, over Thanksgiving, Chris encountered this spiffy-looking young specimen on our driveway, took its picture, and gently placed it back in the leafy undergrowth. Unlike Ireland [which is snake-free, t’anks to St. Padraig, so the legend goes], Maryland has its fair share of venomous serpents; and our visiting daughters were Not At All Happy with their father’s sudden display of ahimsa. After all, this is the guy who routinely [if inadvertently] trampled-while-pursuing the skittering chipmunks and similar fauna, with which our cats stocked our basement in Michigan, like a small wildlife preserve. So, why spare this snake?

He gave them two reasons. Because it was outside [not in our basement]; and because it “looked so little and harmless.” Thus, it did not provoke an aggressive response through intrusion or fear. This snake, it could be said, had Benign Semiotics…at least, to Chris.

Now, having grown up with Burrack, and Dusk and Owen, our girls knew that Benign Semiotics are in the eye [and species] of the beholder. All horses regard all snakes [even little ones] as alarming predators, and will often spook in a “highly inconvenient” way, if they are the first to spot one nearby, before the rider can redirect their attention. Indeed, many horses [including my uncle’s Arab gelding…hmm…a desert dweller, like Mahmood] tend to err on the side of caution, and spook histrionically at undulating garden hoses, lead-lines being gathered up, or even long cloth banners fluttering in the wind. If you are the rider, taken by surprise [and possibly thrown] by your horse’s sudden shying away from a snake-like “threat,” you are more likely to fear & loathe snakes [even little ones], through Classical Conditioning [or even One-Trial Learning]. This is how Malign Semiotics get started, nar’mean?

Chris e-mailed his snake picture to the University of Maryland Extension Program, and was informed that it was a juvenile Black Rat Snake, not venomous, and actually quite useful for natural rodent control around rural property. Mother Nature outfits the young ones in a camouflage motif, which gradually darkens to a solid black at maturity, like the one which Mahmood killed. [Yes, it might well have been “Bambi’s mother.”]

Next time you find yourself [or your horse] recoiling in alarm from a creature whose Semiotics are Malign, why not do a bit of psychological detective work? “Is the threat real, or is that outlandishly coiffed, dressed, bedizened, or named individual only the signifier of a potential threat?” To make this exercise a bit more real-world, imagine that you are standing in the security line @ BWI, behind Mahmood the Exterminator, who is trying to fly back to Morocco to see the folks from his “home place,” over Thanksgiving.

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Filed under ethology, limbic system, semiotics

The Holy Ground


True, full-time Hibernians [not youse who are bein’ Irish just for today, to honor St. Padraig] will know that the so-called “Holy Ground” of the old song [also referenced in a second song on Mary Black’s album of de same name] is not a religious place at all [like, God-save-us-all, East Jerusalem, or Mecca], but the red-light district in the port town of Cobh, in County Cork, from whence set sail many of our immigrant forebears, from the land of green fields and not enough food, to the land of green beer and food galore.

It is, thus, an ironic [Poetic] figure of speech, capturing both halves of the ambivalence which the Irish diaspora feel for their country of origin. For centuries, Eire was [as Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Scotland], “a grand place to be from.” In Mary Black’s song, “The Loving Time,” [the first line of which is, “Reads like a fairytale, cuz that’s what it was.”] it connotes the power of sentimental, romantic love to [temporarily] blind a couple to their [possibly irreconcilable] differences: “…and the Holy Ground took care of everything.” Spoiler alert. The last verse of this bravely wolf-acknowledging song begins, “It didn’t come true in the end. They went their separate ways.” Rather like Old Mother Ireland and Her then desperately hungry, later desperately nostalgic, children.

Suggested reading: Tom Hayden’s [yes, that Tom Hayden] historical and autobiographical book, Irish On the Inside.

So, here’s the point of this post. Any piece of real estate which holds powerful intimations [both sweet and bitter] of actual or legendary happenings, can become “the holy ground” for an individual, a couple, a family, or a tribe. In the Fall of 1957 my father drove through Gate 3 of his alma mater, the Naval Academy, and parked [illegally] in front of the Chapel for long enough to run into the Admin building and report for duty. My usually Stoic mother burst into tears. Was she afraid the Jimmy Legs [the Yard police] were going to ticket our car? Or was she overcome by the sight of the Chapel, where she & Rosie were married in a tiny, wartime service? Turns out the Chapel was a mere synecdoche for the whole USNA mystique, which, to one degree or another, our whole family [along with many others] have come to regard as “the holy ground.” In 1958 my mother dramatically fell ill with MS while walking on the Academy grounds; yet I found myself inexorably drawn back to live and work there, in 1976 and in 2000. And it’s not because of all the rollicking fun to be had there [especially, this last time round]. It’s because of the memories of the good and bad times I had there with The Now Departed [my parents], whose presence [I believed] would feel more palpable there, than anywhere else on earth.

It was, do you see, a Transitional Object [like a Teddy bear, or Alfred the dog, or Ciotogach the cat], that helps one to feel closer to “the ones that we love true,” to paraphrase the song.

How randomly can a place become “the holy ground”! Not for its intrinsic beauty, or bounty, or balmy weather, or enlightened folkways; but because it is the repository of memories, of Us interacting with [ambivalently] loved Others. When you’re in it [as I learned early, in my peripatetic Navy childhood] it’s often hard to believe that you’re going to look back on a place with nostalgia. I spent my first two months in England [now, the holiest of my “holy grounds”] squinting at ViewMaster reels of the Naval Academy and weeping for what was lost. Who could have imagined that, one day, I would be using Google Maps to take virtual rambles round my beloved English “home place” [as the Irish say] of Stoke D’Abernon, where Ying Tong the cat was regarded with such ambivalence [mostly, negative] by all the neighbors.

Speaking of rambles, I am wise enough to know that the South River woods [in which Lili once again warned me of a suddenly-falling-but-this-time-without-audible-warning, 30-foot tree trunk, not 20 yards ahead of us, on today’s walk] will be added to my list of “holy grounds” [if I am not struck down by falling lumber first].

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Filed under ambivalence, pragmatics, semiotics, transitional objects

Laissez-passer


In NYC in the 70s I had not one, but two, reference groups so devoted to the 1942 film Casablanca, that they [we] had memorized every line of dialogue. Start me anywhere. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the storyline, you will recall that it’s all about which two lucky people in the Nazi-controlled city of Casablanca will ultimately get to use these travel documents [les deux laissez-passers], permitting them to hop a DC-2 to Lisbon [and thence, escape to America, which was still officially a neutral country during the filming of this movie, which is regarded by some historians as the most persuasive piece of anti-Nazi propaganda ever made].

So, anyway, all these decades on, laissez-passer [literally, “Let (to) pass.”] means a “guarantee” of a safe passage, through a perilous time or place. A get-out-of-jail-free-card, as it were. Or, in my case [I hope], a respite from the freakish weather that has made trekking through the woods “highly inconvenient.” I know, I keep banging on about this as if it were as onerous as this season’s earthquakes, tsunamis and lethal flooding elsewhere in the world. It’s just a metaphor. A synecdoche, even. The Poetic use of a small, particular thing to represent the bigger thing. Nar’mean?

And now, to my point. With regard to the weather, or tectonics, or “unexpected” acts of aggression carried out by individuals who were [inevitably, reportedly] held in high esteem by their neighbors and/or colleagues, there are no guarantees. Some major irritant seems of have gotten up Mother Nature’s nose, and she is smacking Earthlings on the snout, Big Time. Also, as you know, civil servants, just trying to do their lawfully mandated duties, have come under attack. Talk about synecdoche! The [attributed] on-line ramblings of these domestic terrorists seek to justify their lethal assaults on individuals, who, they believed, represented disagreed-with government policies. In a much milder form, as a Naval officer in the 70s, I experienced this part-whole confusion at the hands of brick- and bottle-hurling young Townies, when walking the the streets of Annapolis in uniform. The ridiculously simple laissez-passer that I “wrote” for myself was to change into civvies and take my hair down, as soon as I got home [2 whole blocks outside of Gate 1, big whoop]. It taught me to resist judging human “books” by their “covers,” as well as to be hyper-aware of the semiotics [subtext] of my dress and behavior, as perceived by others.

So, what gauntlets do you have to run this week, without the guarantee of a safe passage? I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m giving you credit for your bravery; and encouraging you to notice what steps you take, to “write” yourself your own “laissez-passer,” that increases your sense of security.

I find, prosaically, that practical footwear helps me feel safer. Note the state-of-the-art “Bogs” boots, plus “Yak-Trax.” I only slipped once Saturday [the day this photo was taken]. To paraphrase Casablanca, “I came here [to Annapolis] for the [mild winters]. I was misinformed.”

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Filed under aggression happens, semiotics

"Stuck in a Moment"


This meditation on the U2 song, which David [“Bono Vox”] Hewson has called an after-the-fact, imagined suicide intervention for his late friend, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, is dedicated to everyone who has developed a de novo case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this winter. [More snow forecast for this evening in the DC area, tra-la.] It is also about the Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker’s concept of functional fixity, which Corsini defines [in The Dictionary of Psychology, 2002 ed.] as “the opposite of…creative thinking.”

Consider the not-awful-just-highly-inconvenient intrusion of this prolonged spate of foul weather on Lili’s customary, daily ramble-in-the-woods. Until this weekend, the snow in the forest has been up to 3 feet deep, swallowing up the feet [and legs] of all but the snow-show-clad. The first time this happened to me, I was alone with Lili, who was off-leash but skittered over on the frozen surface, merely to bark her encouragement [impatience?] at me; and I began to fear that I would be Stuck in the Moment until the Spring thaw.

Resisting a $100 investment in snowshoes, I began searching for alternative venues for Lili to run, which were both [relatively] safe & legal. When school was canceled, the plowed parking lots were viable, except for some tricky, hard-to-see patches of ice. A couple of days we slogged through 2 feet of slush on the paved path in a local recreational park. [By the way, why all the empty parked cars in the lot? Surveillance or shenanigans?] One day we bored ourselves silly, running up & down our own cul-de-sac street, incensing all the neighbors’ penned-up dogs.

A few brilliant, but not-really-legal venues occurred to me, such as the covered parking lots @ work, the Mall, or Whole Foods. I reconnoitered them with Lili in the car; but the hostile semiotics of the security guards were discouraging. One evening at the almost deserted medical center parking structure, the golf-cart dude pulled up and asked me, “Is there a bomb scare, or something?” [Lili’s semiotics aren’t all that benign, either.] To avoid further humiliation, if not actual arrest, I loaded her up and drove slowly away.

So, there you have it, from one who prides herself on her non-linear, out-of-the-box problem-solving skills. Apparently, my amygdala has been so freaked out by the logistical challenges of this unprecedented spate of snowy weather, that it has hog-tied my hippocampus. [Note the paucity of posts in February.] Finally, this weekend, with a partial thaw and Chris at my side, we ventured into our beloved woods again. It wasn’t easy or pretty, but it was a necessary journey. It restored limbic balance, as well as hope, that “this time will pass.”

And even if Bono didn’t get to save his friend’s life with this song’s belated argument against despair, he has helped me “get myself together” this winter. Now there’s a guy not much given to functional fixity, d’ya know?

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Filed under limbic system, semiotics, what's it all about?