Archive for September, 2010

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

An Oklahoma school kid left this note at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science”

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

The "rev" outside the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque

The museum offers a nice timeline of evolution as it relates to New Mexico.  It’s a good combination of the “bigger” story with our natural parochial interests.  It’s an attractive museum, with a dramatic main hall where you can “…see two super giant dinosaurs locked in mortal combat as Seismosaurus (New Mexico’s longest dinosaur) and Saurophaganax (the largest Jurassic meat-eating dinosaur) once again roam New Mexico!”

You can see the Bisti Beast, a new holotype of a “local” tyrannosaur recently discovered in the San Juan Basin (and the partial Tyrannosaur jaw found on the shore of Elephant Butte Reservoir in Central New Mexico).

The museum also houses the DynaTheater and Planetarium, as well as exhibits on the Age of Volcanoes, New Mexico’s Ice Age and Seacoast, Space Frontiers, Minerals and a view into the Museum’s fossil preparation lab.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.  Access and parking are pretty good, and admission prices are $7.00 for adults (and less for seniors and kids).

(The Museum is also just across the road from the road from the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and Explora!)

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Burden of Narrative” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

On a Fall morning some twenty years ago, I was in my canoe on the Chatahoochee River at the northern edge of Atlanta.  I paddled upstream, away from both the sight and the sound of the crowd on the bank where I’d launched the canoe.  I soon found myself in a side channel, surrounded by trees shimmering with bright yellow leaves.  The sun warmed my face and out of clear blue sky October sunlight sparkled upon the surface of the placid river.

For a moment I was completely lost in the moment — a body feeling the sun on its face, the cool air on its skin, hearing the chirping, rustling and burbling that surrounded it.  Then the other part of my monkey brain spoke up and queried — innocently enough — “How will I describe this moment in words?”.  Like a junk-yard dog lunging for the postman, I was yanked back from reverie by a short steel chain of “thought”, and was painfully aware of having just put an abrupt end to the (then) rare pleasure of self-forgetfulness and intimacy with nature.

My description is a bit severe, yes, but at the time I was still early in my struggle to deliver myself from the tyranny of my noisy brain (the “committee” as one friend called hers) and it was a rare achievement to find myself in a state of real presence in “the moment”, free of my analytical mind’s ceaseless commentary.  So I was mad at my brain for butting in, and bargaining away my sensory experience for a concise tale to be told.  It was then that I had a bit of a revelation: that for all it’s power, beauty and utility, verbal language is (by it’s very nature) reductionist.  In short, words will never be up to the task of capturing the breadth and depth of any human experience, transcendent or pedestrian.  How could they be?

A few years earlier I had stood on the snowy crest of the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, unsteady on cross-country skis, as swiftly-moving patches of cloud would in one moment envelop me, in another reveal a glorious vista of a craggy mountain face dappled in light and shadow.  I pulled up my camera to “capture” the scene and looked through the viewfinder to frame and focus my shot.  I soon lowered the camera in despair and recognition that whatever picture I could possibly make would contain but a fraction of what I was experiencing in that moment, and, frankly, whatever fraction I caught would not be worthy (even as a reminder) of what I was seeing right there, right then.

There came a time, then, when it seemed that I had a clear choice to either continue to experience a moment OR to document it with a camera or words.  It seemed a terrible paradox that only animals were truly completely present in their experience of life (assuming that they had no words that their analytical brains could use against their experience), while us human animals could not now escape our verbalized brains (which would appear to be the cost of re-entering a truly full-being experience of living).

(In my case being an “artist” only added to my sense of being an “observer” of life: condemned to having only enough occasional “real” experiences to feed my creativity, like a dog grabbing a bone only to run and bury it for later).

Over time, however, I worked to shift the balance between experience and documentation, experimenting with it.  I began to develop an antipathy toward the camera and the story, choosing as best I could the experience of the description of it.  (My brother Bill once quipped that “There’s no such thing as a bad experience: only a good story”.  But I gradually came to the decision that no bad experience is worthwhile only for a story).

I’m happy to report that I finally reached a state of being where — instead of the constant internal commentary being occasionally interrupted by self-forgetfulness — the interruption of my enjoyment of my own physical presence in time by my noisy brain is the rarity.  If I shift my internal focus right now (as I am doing now just to check) I can almost hear the hum of my brain running behind my forehead.  I’ve heard it called the lizard brain, the dry brain, the survival brain — it is that analytical part of my “mind” that uses comparison, logic and memory to prepare plans for any potential danger it might encounter.  It’s the part of the brain that is instantly supercharged when our lives are threatened.  It is the thing that has made it possible for you and I to be here right now, alive in this moment (in no small part because it kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce!).  But the inescapable burden of having the big human brain our ancestor’s evolved is that this pulsing biological, chemical machine in our craniums has no “off switch”.

And our challenge is how to live with this machine in an age where we are no longer facing danger at every turn.  Which, in essence, comes down to re-calibrating our ice-age-appropriate fear response.

Another thing our brain does is construct narratives — short stories about the how and why of our experiences.  Every animal does this on some level (whether we call it “instinct” or learned behavior) so we hominids were probably doing it before we developed verbal language.  But in a way our memories don’t exist before language (try remembering your first year of life, or the day of your birth).  Language is what allows us to store and transfer information.  The scientific revolution would not have been conceivable without it.  Some researchers have proposed that it was the human adoption of verbal language that led to the “Neolithic Revolution” some forty-thousand years ago when the heretofore just-another-band of hominids made the leap into “modern humans”.

But just like the agricultural revolution, we have paid a price for our progress.  In the process of Evolution, nothing is ever gained for free (we walk upright, but we have weak backs and stretched abdominal muscles, and our internal plumbing is often convoluted and tricky).  We can talk and write and read and communicate with total strangers with a certain degree of efficiency and accuracy, yet we have large brains that have over-developed certain capacities while taking resources from others.  We are highly visual creatures — and as such have lost a great deal of our olfactory capability.

I don’t think any of us would suggest returning to walking on all fours and grunting just to be more “one” with nature (were such even possible), but it’s worth noting the “loss” for the understanding it offers for our frequent discontents and inability to relax and enjoy life.

The combination of a large brain and our highly social nature means that we are burdened (in a real sense) by our need for narrative  — the need to write the story of our own lives, to tell to others, to tell to ourselves.  I wonder if this propensity isn’t being exacerbated by our steady diet of movies, reality television and newscasts that process and package the “human interest” story of individuals struggling to overcome some tragedy or disadvantage (proof that the world is fair and God is just and that we, too, might have our story told in a similar way).

This state of active brain, verbal language and story is so completely common to us all that I find nothing in it to seriously criticize or demean.  I do, however, think it’s a good thing to recognize.  On some level we all understand the limitations of verbal language, even as we experience it’s tremendous power.

As out of fashion as poetry seems to be these days, it is the poet who comes closest to bending words to living reality and their best echo of the richness of our “animal” sensory existence.  Poets use words and phrases as evocations that slip past the dry analytical mind and reach us in a more musical place.  Perhaps that is why music is so ubiquitous in modern culture, pumped out from every electronic orifice we can muster.

But the power of language is often the power of a hammer more than a scalpel, and we are endlessly left to wonder if what we’ve meant to say is actually what the other person heard and understood.  Or, for that matter, whether what we wanted to say is really what we wanted to express, or whether a shriek or a howl or a roar of deep delight would have done a much better job.  For sometimes there really isn’t a story to tell.  There are not always words.  Sometimes there is only our animal body and mind wrapped up in the overwhelming sensual embrace of air, sun, water, sound, sensation.  Sometimes, there is only life.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Street art or evangelical outreach by the "rev"?

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Zuhl Collection”

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Oviraptor egg nest at The Zuhl Museum

There is a little gem of a museum tucked away on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Only a short distance from the corner of Union Avenue and College Drive (right next to the NMSU Police and Parking Departments) is The Zuhl Museum, which houses a stunning collection of minerals, petrified wood and fossils.  Though you can also find some dramatic pieces on display in the Zuhl Library on the main campus, the Museum is easy to reach at any time of the day (and parking is not a problem!).

I get the sense that the University built the Museum as a condition of the large donation from the Zuhls that resulted in the re-naming of the Library, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer quality of the pieces on display there.  It’s a modestly-sized space, but it is well-lit and arranged, and densely packed.  Definitely worth a visit.

As a side-note, there are also a few fossils on display in the hallways of Breland Hall, and a complete skeleton of a Minke Whale hangs from the ceiling of the entry atrium of the Biology Building on campus (where you can see the vestigial bones of what used to be the whale’s hips when it was still a land-dwelling quadruped).

Minke Whale skeleton in the NMSU Biology Building

(From the NMSU website) The Zuhl Museum is housed at the NMSU Alumni and Visitors Center, 775 College Drive, near the northwest campus entrance. Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00p.m. Monday through Friday excluding holidays. For more information please call 575-646-3616 or 575-646-4714.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Three Threads” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

(NOTE: Las week I promised “The Burden of Narrative” for this week’s Sermon.  With apologies, I’m delaying that one a week to bring you this one.  Thanks!)

It’s been a week of near religious enlightenment (fear not — I am speaking metaphorically), where — to multiply metaphors — the furnace of reality has burned away a bit more dross, and I find myself in a place of new-found clarity.

Of the several threads that have woven themselves together of late (boy, I’m pushing the whole metaphor thing here), the first has been this:  I have wondered for some time what the possible impacts on the quality of my life would be from the release of the last vestiges of my “spiritual” thinking.  (Though no actual intervening presence was being banished from my life, I had considered that there may nevertheless be practical, material effects of “belief” that I would no longer benefit from).  To frame the question in another way: “Would prayers to a non-existent god continue to be “answered” if one stopped believing in that God?” (since clearly, in such a case, whatever was “working” was working independent of any actual “god”).  Or to put a finer point on it, would the positive phenomenon associated with belief continue unaltered by a change in belief?

Confusing?  Yeah.  It kind of twists the brain.

In my case I was long past belief in god (so I already knew that the sun would still rise and food would still taste good, etc.), but I was still sorting through the concepts and notions (or “truths about myself”)  that I had picked up over the years since my primary declension from faith (including a few ideas from a post-Christianity psychic).

After all, it did seem as if my own intentions would sometimes create events and opportunities in my life (I think of Joe, Joe shows up at the coffee shop that afternoon, for example).  So as I began an actual list (I called it my “purge” list) of the various ideas I had carried around about who I was and what made my life “work” (with the intention of making each of them re-apply for their jobs, as it were), I wondered if I would see a decrease of happenstance, serendipity and “luck” in my day-to-day life.

Of course the obvious thing to say is that there is no empirical way to tell if any of the things that seemed to “work” in my life were truly effective in the first place (my own confirmation bias remained ever willing to do the heavy lifting for any belief that seemed to work enough of the time — see last weeks Sermon for more on that notion).  So perhaps what I was facing more a loss of a perception that has, it would appear, added to my general level of happiness.  Though unwilling to continue irrational beliefs just to pump up my mood, I nevertheless didn’t want to weaken my happiness if I could help it!  But I wondered if that was going to be the decision I’d have to face.

So it was nice to run across an article on a study on “luck” done by a British psychologist.  The gist of the study was that people who considered themselves “lucky” did, indeed, have better “luck”.  But the finding is not what it at first blush seems to be.  It is more a case of how a different way of perceiving the world enables self-described “lucky” individuals to notice details and opportunities that those that consider themselves “unlucky” will miss.  The “lucky” also tend to re-frame setbacks into positives (in the sense of “it could have been worse!”).  Of course, “unlucky” people take things in the darkest possible way.  Far from a call to irrational belief in a magic called “luck” (or some version of positive thinking) for its positive impact on our life, the article on the study seemed to me much more a testimony to the actual material, potentially beneficial effect from our own subjective perception of things as we encounter an un-caring, non-responsive reality called “life”.  In short, this reminded me that there is only reality and our interaction with it.  There is no third party.  But it did answer a bit of my nagging question about the actual “power” of positive beliefs.

I immediately thought about research a psychologist I know was conducting on infants that showed three basic types of responses to novel situations, which shook out to: 1) un-exited = un-interested; 2) excited = highly engaged and; 3) over-excited = too frightened to engage.  (Personally I’ve worked a lot over the years to view what used to be sheer anxiety as excitement, and found that I actually enjoy challenge and surprise to an extent I would not have imagined true when I was younger).

In essence, I had found the last piece of the puzzle on this issue I’ve been prattling on about:  there is an effect that flows from perception, but it is not a magical, mysterious power.  It is about being engaged and attentive, as free as possible from bias.  A realistic perception of reality is not going to be pessimistic, nor, frankly, optimistic.  In my case, I’ve exercised into health my own impulse toward making the best out of what I have, and cultivated a respect for my own valuation of my experience of life.  It looked like I’d be okay, belief or no.

Another thread was my continued engagement with TEA Party types.  On Facebook, for example, I would jump in on wildly-fringe-conspiratorial-anti-government posts with evidence and argument (which was pretty much like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest).  Along with these “debates” (much too high a term for the quality of discussion happening here), I had written a series of op/eds for the local paper where I took my basic stance in support of rational thinking and reliance on evidence and applied it to the TEA Party movement specifically and politics and culture in general.  And although I’d received a great deal of supportive comments from friends and strangers, it was an adjustment seeing my name being dragged through the mud in print and on-line by the intellectually aggrieved.  At the time, I absorbed the shock of it, and kept right at it, believing that the least (and best) I could do for my country and species was to stand up for reason and evidence against this tide of ferocious ignorance.  I was not completely comfortable with it, however.

But then — a couple days ago — a man I know asked me a serious question regarding this effort of mine on the local opinion page (which included attending the big Tax Day TEA Party Rally): “Was it worth it?”, he asked.

It was a thoughtful question, and I answered it in that spirit: “In the aggregate, yes”.  I had found a certain satisfaction in standing my ground while remaining reasonable, humane, and open to genuine dialogue.

But over the next days the impact of his question spread, and I told a friend (who’s running for political office) that I was re-considering the value of engaging in “debate” with people who don’t accept even the concept of evidence (as we would understand it); of minds that are so fearfully reactionary that I was spending all of my time swatting away wild untruths (that swarmed like flies over a trash can).  In short, I was swinging at things so far removed from an actual issue or thoughtful question that it was putting me in the precarious position of batting fastballs while trying to perch on a high, thin branch.  Sure, it was satisfying to make contact with one, but there were always five more coming.  My politician friend remarked, simply: “What’s the point?”

What’s the point, indeed.

Then, finally, this morning, as I was creating a painting in pastels on the street at the Farmer’s Market, a man I recognized (but didn’t really know) came up to me and spouted out some semi-profound quote about “Truth is the bully that everyone claims to be friends with!” and then promptly walked away.  What the hell?  I figured he’d read my op/eds.

And that’s when the threads came together for me:  I’m an evangelist, yes, but I’m not a missionary.  I have neither the time nor the energy to try to educate (against his or her will) a nativist, xenophobic, young-earth creationist evangelical (for example) on, well, the vast reality that surrounds him or her and which he or she dogmatically resists.  That is the work of a missionary.  A long-suffering, martyrdom-prone missionary.

And then I thought of “the church of bob”.

My job is not to convert the willfully ignorant masses (though they may yet overthrow every advance reasonable men and women have made):  My job is here, with all of you and anyone who is thoughtful, open and reasonable.  And though it was good to find I could play the role of a small-town Christopher Hitchens or political writer, I think my more effective strengths lie elsewhere.

So even as I work to re-focus public attention on the visual art I produce that actually (most of the time) pays my bills (and recognizing the risk of taking on another “truth about myself” that may come up for review in the future) I feel as if my “calling” to this “church” has been re-affirmed and refined.  It’s almost Biblical.  Or — dare I say it — “Boblical”?

It’s so nice to talk to you.  Thank you all.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Come on in, the water's fine!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Lives of Others” (1986)

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

I’m working my through a dense (and thick) book on European history since 1945.  It has been a very interesting corrective to all the bluster from the TEA Party and the like about America’s precipitous decline into Socialism to read about genuine, historical declines into Communism in post-war Eastern Europe under Stalin.  And so, knowing I would not finish the book any time soon, I decided it was time to finally see this Oscar-winning German film about life in East Germany in 1984.

It was a perfect choice.  The director (Florian Henckel von Donnersmark) did extensive research to recreate the world of the life of artists under the ever watchful secret police.  We see the rampant corruption of those in authority who use the idealism of anyone beneath them to do what all abusers of power have always done.

But this film is also a love story between an actress and the famous (and “approved”) playwright she lives with.  Into this story is inserted the corrupt head of state security (who lusts after the actress, and is ready to use his power to get her by any means) and a former state interrogator who is given the task of finding a reason to ruin the playwright.  The way these lives intertwine is the heart of the story, and it is through them that we see the mind-blowing repression that government-enforced ideology creates.  It caused me to wonder how people managed to survive in this kind of soul-crushing society.

Of course, many didn’t.  And the issue of suicide (and East Germany’s decision to stop collecting data on domestic suicides some years before) forms an important subplot of the film.

There is real terror in this film, and real beauty and humanity.  And for all it’s darkness and foreboding, there is life, after all (as two “codas” to the story show us at the end).

I recommend this film highly!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Who Cares if the Universe Cares?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Here’s the deal: despite what every preacher and psychic has ever told me, I do not have any special powers to influence events.  I cannot bend reality to my will.

Of course that hasn’t stopped me from valiantly (or foolishly, as the case may be) banging my head against that wall for all of my adult life.  I have — at times — paused, rubbed my sore head, and taken a different tack or looked at it from a different angle.  But always — belief rekindled — I’d bang away some more.  And in the end, reality won.  What surprises me (at this point in my life) is just how long it took me to realize that reality always wins.

We do not live in a universe that “cares”.  Our general human response to this notion is abject depression.  Not (at least not completely) because we therefore believe the universe to be against us, or malevolent (though we think that too!), but because, deep down, it’s extremely difficult for us social animals to deal with someone (or some thing) that — literally — takes no notice of us at all.  There is nothing about the way our decidedly social hearts and minds work that would make such utter non-responsiveness tolerable.  And so, despite all the evidence, we will continue to bang our collective heads against that wall.

In our rational minds we know this.  We know how silly it is to believe in a personal God that occupies the heavens (or a spirit that resides in a tree or a stone or directs us through a Tarot card).  If we sit down and cast a dispassionate eye upon all of the religious stories that have come down to us through the ages (both the extinct and the currently active) we can’t help but be struck with the stunning similarity among them all: the telling human details (of the kind of personalities we either wish — or fear most — to encounter in the dark night of the soul); the tinny fantasies of material wish fulfillment (be it streets paved with gold, rivers of milk and honey or a tent-load of willing “virgins”); or the validation of our deepest wish that there is someone out there who is all powerful and wise and righteous that thinks that we are okay (or, more satisfying still: precious).

In short: none of us wants to be alone in a cold, un-feeling universe.

But even the preceding statement testifies to our (my) propensities in this regard:  We think the position of the UNIVERSE towards us might really matter in some way.  We actually direct whispered (or thought) pleas to an infinite God who is then expected to use invisible forces (angels) to find us a parking place at the mall (for instance).

The reality is that we live locally.  Our lives are played against a distant backdrop of our solar system, yes, and we range across our town or even our nation or globe.  But the nitty gritty, day to day events of our lives (especially those that can materially help or harm us) take place within several feet of our physical bodies.  This is the reality of our sphere of concern: not the incomprehensible “universe”; not the “world” (our concerns for the physical health of our planet, I would submit, are really extended concerns for our quite local, personal environment).

To that end, most of our prayers, wishes or intentions are geared toward those very personal (and local) events or outcomes that we would like to see come to pass.  That makes absolute sense (for — as has been pointed out by others — even our altruistic impulse has a direct beneficial effect on our own feelings of well-being, even though — or because — such acts may constitute a material sacrifice for us).

So why do we care what the “universe” thinks of us?

The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in our brains (not just in us, but in other primates as well) shows that we are hard-wired to respond to each others actions and moods.  (As an example: we watch someone eating a treat, and the same neurons fire in our brains as when we actually eat that same treat).  Even for one such as I (who has been harping on about just how “social” we are) this is a stunning declaration of how very deeply social we really are.  (So deeply that I suddenly feel like we need a new word or amplifier for the word “Social” — maybe we could put it in all caps with an exponent at the end?).

(As an aside, It could even be argued that our impulse toward God is the attempt to satisfy the nearly insatiable hunger in us — the most social of animals — for companionship).

Speaking of our minds, this might be the time to introduce the concept of “Confirmation bias”.  I encourage you to look that one up, but in short it means that we tend to see what we expect to see.  Which in the present discussion means this: we will interpret reality according to what we want that reality to be.  So, if I am praying for someone to get better (when ill), any improvement in their condition will confirm my belief in the intercessory power of my personal prayer to a personal God.  Or, if my psychic says my life has a specified purpose, I will tend to lend more credence to any events or inputs that support that idea, and minimize those that do not.  It means we are supporting our irrational beliefs on selective data.

I once read that we humans only need a strategy to work about thirty percent of the time in order to believe it’s a good idea, and keep using it.  (So throughout human history if the human sacrifice brought good crops one out of three times, that one time was enough to keep the practice alive).  The implication of this is rather startling: “God” would only need to answer your prayers far below the percentage minimums of statistical chance (of 50 percent) to sustain belief.  Like the well-documented “Placebo effect”, our own “Confirmation bias” ends up doing most of the heavy lifting for our mystical belief systems.

The reality is this: most of what counts for answered prayer can be accounted for by confirmation bias applied to random events.  (Of course in practical human terms no event is completely “random” — whatever its actual outcome it is always the result of directed actions by conscious personalities.  No wonder we think of nature as similarly directed!).  A part of this reality, however, is that it is almost impossible for us to completely move beyond our own biases.  But we can try.

Yes, the way we respond to events can have an effect on our actions and decisions: If you walk into a situation scared, you’ll most likely select from the all the available data that which feeds your fear; walk in confident, and you will equally mis-interpret the data (though you may feel a lot better about yourself!); walk in neutral, and you’ve got the best chance of getting a clearer picture of reality.  But none of that is the same as believing that a prayer or ritualized action will actually temporarily alter the physical laws of the universe or the biochemistry of another human being.  That’s just crazy…and completely human.

When you stop looking for signs, what you end up seeing is the mixture of events, opportunities, closed doors, outcomes, false starts and successes of a life lived in the here and now: where we are in time, and who we are in place.  This, I believe, is the only path open to us for a true valuation of our own lives, and the lives of the others we encounter in our short sojourn through life.

t.n.s.r. bob

NEXT WEEK: “The Burden of Narrative”.

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Before I act, I'll often ask: "What would a dinosaur do?"