Sunday, July 31, 2011

Twisted Poplars

Consider these lilies

What would you conclude if you were exploring a remote forest and found an acre or two of poplars that were bizarrely twisted like cork screws while those in the rest of the forest had trunks as straight as hydro poles? There exists an anomaly like this an hour’s drive from here. An art work based on this phenomenon is currently on display at the Station Arts Centre where I work.
         Two couples traveling through stopped for lunch yesterday and I got into a conversation about the twisted poplars with the two men. One of them opined that since it was not a normal earthly occurrence that poplars should grow this way, the logical conclusion would be that it was the result of extra-terrestrial interference—an alien visitation in other words. His friend scoffed at this and offered the biological, rational explanation as follows:
          We are constantly bombarded by cosmic rays that pass through our bodies, through plants, through everything around us. Occasionally, a cosmic ray will strike in such a way that a gene is damaged; in this case, the gene that regulates the shape of the tree as it grows.
The flying saucer man was skeptical: “but why, then, isn’t this characteristic passed on through the seeds scattered from that first, mutated tree? Why is the twisted-poplar phenomenon confined to a discrete couple of acres?”
Like a crop circle? I thought.
“Simple,” said his feet-on-the-ground companion. “Poplars populate by suckering, not through seed. Cloning, in other words. All the twisted trees are really only one tree popping up at various places through the root system.”
 His listener wasn’t convinced.
          Hello! I thought. Are you two traveling in the same car? That should be interesting!
               . . . As the world itself is interesting, populated as it is by people who see the unexplained around them as manifestations of planning and execution by an unseen outside force (let’s call them religionists) traveling alongside others who rely on science and logic to find answers to the riddles of life (let’s call them rationalists.) The rationalist in our conversation was asked by the religionist why he was so sure of his “cosmic-ray theory?”
        “Because it’s the truth,” the rationalist replied, raising his chin just a tad.
‘Twas ever thus, eh?
         “Huh!” said the religionist.
          Thereafter, they had a jovial and companionable lunch with their wives at the best table in the house—by the big, sunny west windows under a prairie landscape by Darrell Bell, a landscape awash, apparently, in cosmic rays.
          This is not a sermon. If you can find a metaphor in this story that illuminates anything for you, help yourself.
          As for me, I recalled how someone said to me when my daughter died tragically at fifteen: “Perhaps God took her to save her from something horrible,” and I said: “No, she neglected to fasten her seat belt.”
          Twisted poplars.              


Sunday, July 24, 2011

If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you . . .

 Money, money, money
Coleus, coleus, coleus
I’m a bit preoccupied with money these days. Oh, I know; “a bit preoccupied” is an oxymoron. I should say that when I’m at work, I’m preoccupied with money matters and when I’m at home, well, I’m enjoying the relief of not thinking about that for a while, except that the news tends to intrude. 
Let me explain:
*     I do payroll for the actors and crew in the production currently running for 31 performances at the Station Arts Centre. Our core is made up of actors who belong to the Canadian Actors Equity Association, a professional union. Others are not. They are paid differently and receive unequal remuneration for doing, basically, the same job. None receive a fair living wage when the blood sweat and tears they throw into the work, the working hours, the itinerant nature of their profession—they’re always job hunting—are considered.
*     We are silently auctioning a donated painting by a talented local artist at the Station. The bidding has gone from $200.00 to $350.00 so far. A painting in our gallery was purchased recently by a patron for $3,000+.
*     What’s the right price for a great dinner out? How much is a ticket to Jasper Station or a Canadian Tenors concert worth? The dollars patrons pay for the entertainment product we provide is seldom enough to cover the cost of producing it. What happens when cultural grants dry up federally—which they probably will under the current balance-the-budget drive?
*     A commentator on the East African famine said that there was food to be had in Somalia, but with increasing prices, the majority of people simply hadn’t the money to buy any of it. Should we help people in this dilemma by sending money? And if so, how much would be fair? Will one child live who would otherwise die if I send a hundred dollars? Five hundred? 75 cents?

The desk at which I’m sitting along with the computer on which I’m composing could be sold for more than the average two-thirds world farm family is “worth.” Should I sell them? do my writing at the kitchen table with a pencil? send the difference to Africa? Should I at least feel guilty about my good fortune?
    One thing seems clear to me in all this. Inequities—whether in the area of arts & culture or in the availability of food—are systemic. They are symptoms of problems of policy, the failures of national governments and international monetary systems, the rapidly-increasing control of multinational corporations over the marketplace. To try to patch up the symptoms with band aids is one thing; to insist that the policies change to prevent the next famine takes the real courage. Have I got it? Have you?
    Two actions we can take now. Send $500.00 for Eastern Africa to MCC or a similar organization that you trust. You can find it. Write letters to your MP and your MLA to tell them you favour keeping the Canadian Wheat Board in place. If it dies, the most vigorous hurrahs will come from Cargill and the other mega-corporations that are determined to control all the world’s food resources for profit.
    You may be thinking: what a crass subject for a Sunday morning. If you’re headed off to church today, though, one facet of the worship service will undoubtedly be the passing of the offering plate. Yet one more money decision: do I put in a tooney, a twenty or a two-hundred dollar cheque?

Have a relaxing Sunday . . . anyway!   


Sunday, July 17, 2011

What is Man, that Thou art Mindful of Him?

 There shall be . . . tomatoes

"The problems for humankind begin when myths are taken literally. In fact, one might go so far as to say that if myths and legends were not taken so literally, there would be far less trouble in the world." - Robert Buckman

               We’ve long known that there are areas of the brain that arouse us to action, and there are areas that moderate our actions, that say, “Hold on, mister. This is neither the time nor the place to submit to that urge!” We know the names of these parts of the brain and because our research tools are becoming more and more sophisticated, we are getting better and better at observing the anatomy of various human actions. We now know which areas of the brain are active during sex, during anger, during periods of peaceful well-being. We can observe the effects of hormones and pheromones on behaviour with a precision that is still relatively new. For instance—as Buckman points out—we have found through measurement of brain activity that the right temporal lobe is active in both ecstatic religious experience and in aggression. As Buckner points out, this proves nothing by itself, but does demonstrate our ability to view human behaviour in a much more specific manner than heretofore.
               My interest in this area of research arises partly from observing the mess Christianity has made of its dialogue on sexuality. Determined to describe this significant human behaviour using terms like sin, lust, fornication, adultery, and a whole host of pejoratives, Abrahamic religions have tried to cope with the reality of sexual lust and its potential danger to family, culture and community without one important piece of information, namely a precise and observable description of the biological functions inherent in human sexuality and the differences from person to person. Spiritual and cultural models of sexuality on their own just haven’t been able to reach a satisfying understanding of what it means to be sexual human beings, remarkably similar in this wise to monkeys, donkeys, lions and rattlesnakes. We’re shocked by the news of priests molesting children, evangelical pastors addicted to pornography, incest in conservative Mennonite communities, as we should be. But until we broaden our discussion and our views to include the current research on the biology of sexuality, expect the mess to get worse and worse.
               We’ve got to stop enforcing ignorance as a defense against doubt and apostasy. So let’s think of ourselves in broader ways for a change. For instance:
1)      Varying thresholds are observable in the human limbic system. Simplified, it means that Jake is more quickly aroused to anger and aggression--and also to fanatic highs--than Ben.
2)      The control system varies from person to person. Simplified, it means that Ben’s frontal lobes are bigger and more active than Jake’s and insert a stronger influence on his limbic system in times when “busting out” is a danger.
3)      Jake grows up a handful in school and later, is abusive as a husband. He is repeatedly repenting in tears and ashes, but falls into the old trap again and again. Ben is a gentle, amiable man, a valued church member.
4)      Describing their differences in spiritual terms without reference to their biological makeups opens the door to injustice and silly solutions.
I certainly don’t want to leave an impression that we are what we are because we can’t help it--end of story. Jake has got to stop abusing his wife, period. For him, a combination of sensitive counselling with a therapy that recognizes his biological weaknesses and builds his coping strategies might be the ticket. Altering the thresholds that trigger aggression with drugs may be standard therapy in the future, but for now, anger management classes might also be an answer for Jake. In any case, rejecting the biological side of our natures for some fantasy of what we would rather believe we are can’t be good in the long run.
               If God made us, he made all of us: biological included.  If nothing else, Buckman can help us take another step in understanding what that might mean.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

If I like it, it ain't art

 Fire and Ice
Artist and Creator collaborate
I eat my lunch in an art gallery most working days. This month, I’m surrounded by the landscapes of Darrell Bell; last month by the Illuminated Spaces exhibit of artist Carri J. McKinnon. Before that—the exhibits change monthly—I have eaten soup and bread among fabric art, photography, tattoo art, and even some tradigital art, a cross between digital manipulation of photo images and painting. I’m a lucky guy.
               Sometimes we exchange opinions around the lunch table on the quality of the exhibits. The nouns art, craft, kitch, mere illustration and . . . some I won’t mention here . . . occasionally intrude into the conversations. And then the whole question of what, in fact, can and cannot be considered art gets another airing. I’m reminded of Red Green’s summary answer to this question: “If I like it, it ain’t art.”
               Not so long ago we had a display called “Wayne Gretzky’s Last Game.” It was a series of framed, hockey-rink-shaped canvasses on which the artist had traced all of Wayne’s movements in his final game in the NHL with a china marker. One was called “First Period,” another “Second Period . . .:” you get the drift. It elicited quite a few responses in the “What the hell is that??” vein, or “My three year-old could have done that with his foot!”
               One judge in his ruling involving a different sort of “art” is reported to have said, “Pornography may be hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” Maybe all art falls into a similar category? Most of us can look at a painting or photo or drawing and although we can’t be certain that it’s good art—or even art, for that matter—we have an idea whether or not we’re looking at something of quality or not. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.
               Thing is, we look at questions like this backwards. ART is a nominative, a noun, a word that has rather loosely come to refer to a certain human activity and the resulting product. Like abstract nominatives, it represents an attempt to convey in language something that defies clear definition, like love. That activity—which involves a concerted and skilful attempt to create something symbolic and beautiful—has come to be called art. The activity and its product wouldn’t change even if we lost that word and called the activity foop, or dorp, or croot. As the bard said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
               I’m convinced that there’s a whole broader category of human striving that includes art, but also includes exploration, architecture, scholarship, plant breeding, gourmet cooking . . . etc., etc. All are expressions of our longing to fly, to rise above the mundane, the vulgar, the mortal. There are those among us who learn—if haltingly and tentatively—to fly, and taking us by the hand, they lead us to realms above whether through food, through gardens and architecture, through literature or music, through whatever they have created that is new, is pleasing and elevates us—if only for a moment—above the toil and sweat and weeds of our mortal lives. We call them artists. They are pastors and priests, intermediaries and teachers between us and what we long to be. Many of us “don’t get it,” and how can we, when we’ve never been taught to aspire to flight? In desperation, we seek our fulfillment in the pursuit of comfort, money and/or notoriety, in the momentary ecstasies of hysterical religions, in physical and emotional gluttony. The saddest of all are those of us who retire into our private enclaves and make a fetish of gloomy despair.

Jesus, too, was an artist, his object to raise us up from the mire in which we languished. Unfortunately, very few understood—or understand—his art. Like investors who buy paintings and hide them away as a hedge against the market, his art was overtaken by the religious “investors” who substituted a vision of immortal blandness in place of the promise that, mortal as we are, we may soar with the eagles. They convinced us that living forever was the right compensation for wallowing in the muck for three score and ten. They took art and made of it . . . wallpaper.

An Aside: I once took a university half course called “The Psychology of Aesthetic Responses.” In it, I learned what appeals to people visually—statistically—and some theories of why things appeal or don’t. I got the top mark in the class, so if you’re ever wondering if the object you’re looking at is or is not art . . . just ask me.
If you look back at the top of this blog page you’ll find an object titled, Fire and Ice. It’s not art. Or is it? You tell me. Does it inspire you to flight?

Maybe dorp is the appropriate nominative.