Friday, November 7, 2014

Untying the Knots


Those were the GOLDEN DAYS my friends …of our yester-years


by the High Priest of Prickly Bog

So ends a chain e-mail I recently received, which praises the past for having created a generation of risk takers and problem solvers, and criticizes the modern "namby pamby" practice of allowing all children into the school team — which it claims creates people who "cannot deal with disappointment."
The article is based in (and about those born in) India… but I have heard the same thoughts expressed many times in America and in Europe. (Original article published below this one.)
In many ways I agree with large parts of this article. I do feel that our new generation has gone a little too far into the "safety" zone, and life is becoming less interesting and less challenging. Children are almost completely undisciplined nowadays, to the point of rudeness, often. And I feel sure that many of them will have trouble dealing with the harshness of life as they grow older. Yes, we have become too conscious of every little germ that could give us a sniffle, and we won't take a risk even if the potential reward is meaningful. It sometimes seems that creativity has dried up altogether.

But the author of this article refers to the past of "lead paint, no medical benefits, neglectful or violent parents, and heavily sugared drinks" as "the Golden Days."Well, I'm not so sure that the supposed "Golden Days" were quite as golden as the mythology he or she clings to.

In innumerable ways, we didn't all turn out fine as a result of our parents unconscious and uncaring behaviour. Many of us suffered multiple health and mental problems, and underwent years of therapy as a result. Many of my friends developed awful ailments in their later years as a result of the neglect and bad nutrition of their earlier ones.
40 years ago, I began to change my diet, and my lifestyle and entered psychotherapy as a result of the dissatisfaction I felt in my life. I needed to analyze why I was unhappy with my lot, and what exactly it was that had brought me to this place where I found myself.


 Many of my friends and family members criticized my choices at the time, and expressed thoughts not dissimilar to this article. "We're not crazy," they would say, "we don't need a psychologist. There's nothing wrong that a little drink can't cure… or a quart of ice cream." They believed that eating only natural foods, and lowering the amount of heavy animal fats I consumed was "going a little overboard." They told me I should "just enjoy life." They said I was becoming a "health freak." They'd insist that health food "doesn't taste of anything… you've got to have a little fun in life." And when I tried to discuss family problems in a more neutral and rational way, they thought that I was just trying to stir up things that nobody wanted to talk about. Although, they didn't seem to mind discussing those things (quite loudly) once a big family fight had broken out.

Perhaps what they couldn't understand was that I was actually starting to enjoy my life way more than I had ever done before. By becoming more conscious of the food that I ate, I was learning to eat higher quality foods, which tasted a lot better than the commercialized junk food they were willing to dump into their systems. By learning to discuss my problems, and feel my feelings I was slowly freeing myself of the deeply held traumatic baggage of the past, which had controlled my behaviour subconsciously for so long.

Nowadays when "health consciousness" is a much more mainstream idea, many of them  (at least those who are still with us) might concede that perhaps all those years of artificial sweeteners, and colorings, and heavy deep fried foods, and preservatives, and monosodium glutamate, and BHT and BHA, and sulfites  and nitrates, and aluminum, and Carnuba wax (you read that correctly)… were not actually all that tasty… and certainly not worth the health problems they are facing now."

Many of the physical problems of old age are not to do with age but self abuse.

And perhaps some (of our more honest friends) might admit that we didn't always treat each other with fairness or compassion in the past. And, had we given more of ourselves and taken less, had we valued each other's deeper feelings above our own temporary and minor discomforts… then we would feel greater love flowing back towards us as we approach that final farewell.


Many of the mental problems of old age are caused by our own denial of the truth.


How many of us feel that our relationships with our wives, and husbands, and lovers, and children, and other family members have progressed in the way we would have wanted? Yes, there are some who have maintained their relationships for many years, but most people I know have had countless unrelenting internal family disputes to which there seems no solution. One wonders if those solutions may have been more available had we been taught how to have greater respect for one another,  to compromise more often, to consider the feelings of those around us. Perhaps we would have a better understanding of the concept of empathy had we been nurtured in a more loving way, and made to feel secure, and less like we had to fight for every last scrap of dignity or respect. Surely, these are not things we should have to compete for.

It was not easy for me to overcome the negative lessons of my childhood, and perhaps I never will completely. I have lost two sisters along the way, and seen other family members lives needlessly ripped apart because of addictions and selfishness and denial. And I cannot help but imagine that these event will undoubtedly affect future generations in one way or another. So it is hard for me to think of those old unconscious times — or these ones — as golden days. Don't get me wrong, I'm not making any excuses or blaming the past. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own fate, but I flatter myself that by trying hard to be a really conscious parent, and breaking the chain, somewhat, of our damaging family legacy, I have made success in life and love (at least a little) easier for my own son.

We don't do ourselves or our children any favors by saying, "My parents treated me like shit, but look at me I grew up alright." Because we didn't grow up alright, and we are often living in denial of our own problems, our needs, our inner pain.

I do agree that nowadays things have gone too far to the other side, and I see parents making such stupid mistakes that are exactly and diametrically opposite to the mistakes their parents made. But we need to realize that it is exactly because their parents made those mistakes that these new parents are over reacting in the opposite direction. So instead of feeling smug and self satisfied about how much better everything used to be before… the past needs to take responsibility for what it has created in the present.

To create a false dichotomy between the past and the present is always a trite and stereotyped misunderstanding of the cause and effect of the mechanics of life, humanity, and relationships. More detailed and thoughtful analysis is often required. Simpler times were not necessarily better times.  We need to let go of our emotional ties to what we once believed was the "right" way or the "wrong" way, and start trying to discover new and more functional ways of behaving. Parents do need to be more thoughtful, and create security, and boundaries for their children which do not conflict with each other. "Because I said so!" is no longer a satisfactory answer to your children.  You need to be clear about what messages you are giving, and you need to be clear with yourself as to why you're giving them. It's okay to not know the answer if you can make your children secure in the knowledge that you will work together with them to seek out the solutions they need.

In this way our Golden Days may yet lie ahead.





______________________________________________________________
original article:

This is a must Read if you grew up in Calcutta
or anywhere in India

  
This is about a generation of kids who eventually grew up tough and learned to make it on their own with no government
subsidies, no unemployment benefits, no medical plans, no job openings to apply for, even if you had an education,
no savings and for the most part, no inheritance from our parents. Most families lived from day to day and had no savings.

CALCUTTA CHILDHOOD - HOW TRUE!!!

How true and so well articulated! To the wonderful kids who were
born in Calcutta and survived the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's..........

First, we survived being born to mothers, some whose husbands smoked
and/or drank while they carried us. They took aspirin, ate whatever
food was put on the table, and didn't get tested for diabetes or any
other disease! They were mothers who did not check their blood
pressure every few minutes.

Then after that trauma, our baby cribs and bassinets were covered
with bright colored lead-based paints. We were put in prams and sent out
with 'Ayahs' to meet other children with their ayahs whilst our parents were busy.

We had no child proof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets, and
when we rode our bikes we had no helmets, not to mention the risks we
took hitchhiking or going out on our own.

As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or airbags. We
sat on each others laps for God's sake. Riding in the back of a
Station Wagon on a warm day was always a special treat.

We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died
from this! We would share a bhuta or dosa; dip a chapatti into someone else's plate of curry
without batting an eyelid.

We ate jam sandwiches or pickle on bread and butter, raw mangoes with salt and
chillies that set our teeth on edge, and drank orange squash with sugar and water in it.

We ate at roadside stalls, drank water from tender coconuts, ate everything that was bad for us
from putchkas to bhel puri (fried bread with chick peas) to bhajias (battered and fried
vegetables) and samosas but we weren't overweight because WE WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!

We would leave home in the morning and play all day during the holidays,
we were never ever bored, and we were allowed freedom all  day as long as we were back
when the streetlights came on, or when our  parents told us to do so.
No one was able to reach us all day by mobile phone or phone...... BUT we were OKAY!

We would spend hours making paper kites, building things out of scraps with old pram
wheels or cycle rims, inventing our own games, having pound parties, playing
traditional games called hide and seek, kick the can, 'guli danda', 'seven tiles' and rounders, ride
old cycles and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes.
After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem.

Our parents earned less, never travelled abroad, except, on their vacations back home to Digha,
Gopalpur, Puri, Bandel. Religion was never an issue, everyone trusted and loved each other, and came to
each others aid when needed.

We never heard of or claimed our inheritance, whilst our parents were alive.
We did not look for inheritance after they died too. They made sure we  were alright.  
Never heard of pocket money!

We swam with an inflated tube which we got from somebody who was replacing their car
tyres. We ran barefoot without thinking about it, if we got cut we used Iodine on it which made us jump.

Our parents ran after us, to give us castor oil, once a month!!

We did not wash our hands ten times a day. And we were OK. We did not have Play stations,
Nintendo's, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies,
no surround sound, no mobile phones, no personal computers, no I-Pods, no Internet or
Internet chat rooms, no TV,.... full stop! Listening to music was a gather around!

We did not have parents who said things like 'what would you like for breakfast, lunch or dinner'.
We ate what was put in front of us and best of all, there was never any leftovers. We polished the lot!!!

WE HAD FRIENDS, great friends, whose parents we called Uncle and Aunty, and we went outside
and found them! They too took care of us,  when our parents were away, and without any charge!

We fell out of trees numerous times,  got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no compensation
claims from these accidents. We never visited the Dentist! We ate fruit lying on the ground that we shook
down from the tree above. And we never washed the fruit.

We had a bath using a bucket and mug and used Lifebuoy soap. We did not know what Shampoos &
Conditioners meant.

We made up games with sticks and tennis balls.   We rode cycles everywhere and someone
sat on the carrier or across the bar to school or the pictures, not cinema, or you walked to a friend's
house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just walked in and talked to them, and their parents,
never let us go without a meal or something....

Not everyone made it into the teams we wanted to...........Those who didn't had to learn to deal with disappointment.
Imagine that!!

The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of.......
They actually sided with the law! This generation of ours has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and
inventors ever!......

The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL!

Please pass this on to others who have had the luck and good fortune
to grow up as kids in Calcutta, before the lawyers and the government
regulated our lives, ostensibly for our own good, that changed what
was good into bad and what was bad into worse.......
Those were the GOLDEN DAYS my friends of our yester years. !!........



Friday, April 4, 2014

Look at Me! I'm Dancing!
© Mario Vickram Sen 28 March 2014
reading time 14-18 minutes


I suppose you might call Windsor Court a "C" shaped building— or a "U" shaped building, depending upon your particular point of view. Either way, the front steps rise up the center indent, flanked by the two wings of the building on either side. There are perhaps seven or eight steps leading up to the front door (I suppose after all these years I should know exactly how many) resulting in the "ground" floor being about half a storey above street level. It's a lovely red brick Victorian era apartment block— one of several dotted along Moscow Road, a bustling thoroughfare just off Queensway in the West London area known as Bayswater. Number 3 is a corner duplex apartment occupying the ground and basement levels of the left wing and was, for about forty years, the London residence of the Sen family— that's right my clan. Alas, it is no longer, and shall be sorely missed by all and sundry.

The front steps of Windsor Court
Centrally located, it was the sight of many great family reunions (and also a few great family fights) and it provided succor and sustenance to friends and relations of an international disposition— travelers to and from America... to and from India, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and ports of call too numerous to mention.
My mother had also found it financially convenient, on occasion, to let out a room or two to foreign exchange students who were recommended by an agency engaged in the business of locating just such temporary residences in London for their clients. And so, people were always coming and going, and staying a while, and leaving, and coming back, and leaving again. Sitting in the living room watching the television, or ignoring it; smoking whilst chatting with each other in broken English, conversations ranging from the mystical and exoteric... to the mundane. Sitting in the basement kitchen drinking endless cups of coffee, or endless scotch and sodas, and smoking some more and complaining about the weather, which was usually raining or grey.

Garoomy view up through the kitchen window
"Garoomy!" A student from Tokyo was heard to say one morning as he looked, shivering, out of the kitchen window.

And of all these people— need I even mention it— the vast majority of them remained thereafter a lifelong friend to our family, not merely because of my mother's inherent hospitality, but also because in the end she would become a surrogate mother to each of them, with all the positive... and negative connotations that that may imply.

Amongst the never ending parade of guests at number 3, were included members of such diverse professions and lifestyles as: artists, musicians, doctors, psychiatrists, politicians, chefs, gangsters and even the odd movie star... or two. There were cousins, and aunties, and uncles, and grandparents; friends and strangers; rich and poor; princesses and refugees; famous and infamous. All were treated the same. Same respect. Same contempt.

Of course there were parties. Sure, some of them had ended catastrophically— once the average blood alcohol level of those gathered had risen to the point of loosening the normal social inhibitions towards negative self expression normally required in polite society— but mostly they were wonderful successes of happy familial bonding, whose incalculable value to the vast majority of us who were fortunate enough to have attended one of these shin digs was, over the long haul, more than worth the risk that a small percentage of the time something would go horribly awry.

It is indeed my more positive memories which lead me, finally, to get to the point and recount the event about which I was motivated to scrawl this disquisition: my brother Peter's birthday party— his fiftieth, I believe, in 1994— although the accuracy surrounding the facts of this story is less important than the eternal truths within the feelings of the characters involved, and the great love I feel for them all, and the great love they all felt, and feel still— I would hazard it safe to say— even beyond the grave towards my mother.


In front of the building- Richard, Andrew Mario, Peter, Avery, Star and her great grandson (2003)

 I had just arrived in London that very morning, with my son Avery, and we had planned a nice little trick upon my brother to see if we could induce a heart attack in him. Although, as merry a jape as we thought it might be, we were later to become a tad concerned that we could have ventured a little too closely to that precipice for our, and his, complete comfort.

When he was forty, the family had thrown him a surprise party, also at Windsor Court—and it had been a lovely one. Our grandmother (affectionately known as Honeypie to all) had been there, and our father, and our sister Penny. In the intervening ten years all three had "shuffled off this mortal coil" so to speak, in one fashion or another and, regrettably, would not be with us this day; although Penny's unlikely twin, Barbara, would be representing for the pair. Of course my mother, as ever the star of the show (she had even re-christened herself "Star" when, as a baby, one of my nephews had bastardized her name, Sita) would, of course, be presiding over the festivities.

Gathering in the front hall (1978)
And then there were the usual suspects who would be there: cousins Deepak and Laurence, Rupert, Robert, Ali. There would be Avery, and his two cousins, Richard and Andrew. Perhaps Babette, who lived in the building (and whose clan of offspring had been my dearest friends growing up) might show... or Pat from upstairs. I do not remember now if they did or not. But Errol, who had been my brother's best friend since they first met working at Whiteley's in the '60s, most definitely would. Errol, who used to be the lead guitarist in my brother's band, and whose guitar playing I had idolized as a child, and who had inspired me to go out and get myself one of those electric guitars, with the pickups and the twang bar, and twang myself towards Bethlehem... or Eden... or whatever it was they were calling Heaven in those halcyon days of youth. One way or another we were all looking forward to a helluva jam session that evening.

So... no surprise party then, as Peter already knew that it was going to happen. But what he didn't know was that I was going to be there. I had told him that I couldn't make it to London this time, but would perhaps call him on the phone from New York to wish him well. Now, I'm not quite such an egotist as to assume that my presence would be so earth shattering a bombshell as to make the whole party take on a greater meaning. But perhaps if I were to appear in some sudden or more dramatic way... we may have the makings of a good surprise nonetheless.

The trick was this: Avery and I had to be out of the apartment before Peter was due to arrive late that afternoon. At the allotted hour, around 7pm, we would be at the phone booth about fifty yards down the road from Windsor Court, and put in a call to number 3 to wish him a happy birthday. This we did.

My mother answered, and having recognized my voice, yelled out to him according to plan, "Come quickly, it's your brother calling from America!"

He came out to the front hallway where the phone was located on a little side table, and picked it up. We talked for a while. I wished him "many happy returns" and, as usual, we got into comparing the weather in our separate parts of the planet. He told me it was a beautiful warm day in London (which it usually is in mid August). I told him we were having freakishly cold weather in New York and I wished I was in London (Avery giggled next to me in the phone booth). So cold in fact— I added— that I may have to cancel my plans to go out later that evening. What a shame— he commiserated, totally unsympathetically, by regaling me with how lovely it was over there, and what a wonderful time he was planning to have tonight.

At this point I told him that someone was knocking at my door, and I asked him to hold on for a minute while I go see who it is. I left the phone dangling and Avery and I bolted hot-foot to Windsor Court in about five seconds flat where my cousin Laurence, who was in on the plan, was waiting at the door to allow us to enter smoothly.

Peter was sitting at the phone table looking in the opposite direction as we slipped in quietly. I stood behind him without saying a word. He probably realized that someone was standing there, but it could have been any one of several people who were already in the house. He whistled a little, tapped his fingers on the table in the rhythm of a horse galloping... and then whistled a little more. After a while he appeared to be getting rather irritated that I was keeping him waiting so long.

I just stood there.

At some point he started to complain, "Where the hell has that bugger gone? How long could it take to answer the bloody door?"

As he spoke these words he glanced over his shoulder for endorsement of his sentiment from whomsoever might be standing there. He caught my eye.

"I don't know," I said supportively. He turned back around.

Peter, Joan, Rico (2006)
Suddenly, his shoulders hunched up, and his body uncontrollably started to turn back in my direction, and he did the weirdest googly-eyed double take I'd ever seen by anyone who wasn't Oliver Hardy. His whole face turned completely red, and Avery and I started to laugh like crazy. My brother's jaw started to wobble, and his breathing didn't seem right at all. He looked at me... he looked at the phone. He looked at me again... then again at the phone. His eyes weren't actually rolling around in their sockets, but had I told you they were, it may well have described accurately what his brain was doing at the time. This is the moment where we considered calling an ambulance for him. Everyone in the place had now gathered out in the hallway to witness this occurrence, and they were all having a jolly good laugh. Avery was taking close up photos of Peter's face... only to discover later on that we had forgotten to load the film into the camera. It took several minutes for that unfortunately unrecorded look of horror to die down and start turning eventually into a smile. Words finally emerged from his head as he shook it side to side.

"You bloody got me! You bloody got me!" he repeated several times. And then, in his desperate quest to return reality to its normal location, he continued, "I couldn't understand, how... how could you be standing there? It just didn't make any sense!"

Once we were sure that he had recovered quite well without any medical intervention, everybody laughed some more, and we all knew that the party had officially begun.

Front room - Star, Barabara, Joan (2003)

After a little drinking and eating and chatting in the living room, those of us who wanted to play some music went into the bedroom next door, which was the upstairs corner room of the apartment, with windows looking out onto two sides, and it had been set up with whatever meager rock'n'roll equipment as was available. There was a mike and a couple of guitar amps that had seen better days, but no P.A. system, so the mike had to go into one of the amps with a guitar in the same channel. Anybody who has tried this will know that trying to get a volume level on either the guitar or the mike is rather problematic, if not downright impossible, as whatever you do to the one seems to affect the other. To add to this, there was no mike stand. So the mike was duct taped to the back of a chair and placed in front of my brother's chair so he could sing through it. The only trouble with this was that he had to lean downwards, whilst playing his guitar, in order to be heard through the mike. So some genius amongst us (possibly me... but not necessarily) suggested that we put the chair on top of one of the hard guitar cases that were lying around serving no other useful purpose. This elevated the mike up to a perfect height for my brother to sing through, from his seated position.

Problem solved! Sought of... but not exactly.

Only three of the chairs legs would fit upon the case. You pick, whichever three you preferred, but no matter which way you turned either guitar case or chair, one of the legs was always hanging out, a little bit lonely looking, in mid air. Well, we had always heard that the triangle is the most stable structure there is, so we decided to ignore the slight wobble in the "mike stand" every time somebody walked across the floor, and get on with playing some music.

What's that expression? "Only a bad workman blames his tools." Some might say that it's the bad workman who usually owns the crappy tools. Either way, we had some crappy tools— specially if you include really loud scratchy volume and tone controls on at least one of the guitars, strings that had been put on backwards, so that every time I thought I was tuning
Rupert, Robert, Errol, Mario - at Errol's house (2013)
up... I was actually tuning down; amps that went on and off at will; let's not forget the now infamous "mike stand"; and top that off with a defunct battery on the electronic tuner.
Fear not, young Rupert came to the rescue with his perfect pitch. Just ask him, "What's a G, Rupert?" or "What's an E, Rupert" and he will sing it as close as makes no difference— in rock'n'roll, anyway. Let's face it, we were good enough to deal with it. We must have had several hundred years of music experience right there in the room... or close to that. And we had all overcome these kind of minor hindrances many times in our past and sordid musical careers.

Oh we delivered some classics that night. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Beatles, Beachboys, Elvis, Everly Brothers and Santana were all covered... not to mention Gershwin (Summertime) and a couple of things where nobody knew exactly what it was that we were playing. With Rupert on the bass, Robert on the Bongos, Errol and myself on the electric guitars, and Peter leading the band on vocals and playing some beat up old Eko acoustic that my father had bequeathed him (he won't play anything else, no matter what you give him— just like Willy Nelson).

Peter's 65th Birthday (2009)
As the night wore on, and our racket spilled out onto the street, we started getting standing ovations from the Aussies who were pouring in and out of the Moscow Arms across the road. I don't know why Aussies are drawn to that pub, the King's Head is about three doors down and they won't set foot in it. Anyway, they're a fun bunch after they've had a couple or fifteen pints of Fosters, or whatever the Moscow serves, and they took over the street outside number 3 and started singing and dancing along to "Blue Suede shoes."

At this point, my mother, who had been sitting in the living room knocking back scotch and sodas all evening, and having "sophisticated" conversations with Ali and Babette, must have heard all the noise, and took a look out of the window to see the Aussies partying outside. Once she realized that they were paying so much attention to what was going on in the room right next to her, she probably figured that she was missing out on the action in her own house. In order to correct this situation, she came storming into our room demanding that we play some music that she could dance to. So we did.

Now Robert is a wonderful guy, super intelligent, loyal friend and a generally nice person to everyone. "He speaks very well" was the expression one might have used in the old days to describe his erudite British accent, but slightly and almost imperceptibly tinged with the distant echoes of his Guyanese patois, it renders upon him a unique and recognizable manner. A close friend to my brother and a part of our family since forever, and, although he doesn't drink a lot as a rule... when he does drink— at a party for example— he always drinks until he becomes unconscious. Literally!

There was a time, for instance, when at the end of a party I found Robert fast asleep in a dining chair at the threshold of my bedroom. I carefully dragged the chair, with him still undisturbed upon it, just outside and clear of the door so I could shut it before I went to sleep. When I got up he was still sleeping there quite peacefully. Upon hearing the sounds of people moving around him he suddenly snapped awake, bright eyed and bushy tailed and said to me, "Hey Dhoomki (which is what they all call me) what's for breakfast?

So, as this evening had been progressing, Robert was slowly but surely navigating his way toward that inevitable conclusion. As per usual starting with a little drowsiness, at which point his grip on the bongo drums might relax just enough to allow them to slip towards the floor, and the general rhythm of the jam session might suffer as a result. Normally this didn't bother anyone— it was after all... rock'n'roll. But tonight there was the special circumstance of the "mike stand" to consider. The three chair legs were (obviously) positioned upon the widest part of the guitar case, close to where my brother sat, which meant that the neck was sprouting off at a tangent which ended up fairly close to Robert's feet. So with the bongos resting between his knees, every time they fell from his grip they would bump the head of the guitar case, and cause the chair to wobble around. This in turn would set off some kind of strange gyrations in Peter's head movements as he tried to follow the mike's teetering motions with his mouth. Needless to say this was starting to irritate my brother, as it had already happened a couple of times so far. His response was to curse violently at Robert who would wake up immediately and pick up the bongos and continue playing.

At one point I noticed that the three teenage cousins, Avery, Richard and Andrew— perhaps feeling that they were too young to appreciate our classic songs, or perhaps that we were a corny old load of buffoons trying to relive our youth— had remained out in the hallway, looking in at the scene with some amusement. And every time this little sequence of events played through, which began with Robert dropping the bongos and ended with my brother yelling at him, they laughed hysterically, pointing at us as if we were some kind of entertainment for them… and not the kind we had intended to be.    

Errol, Mario, front room (2009)
Nonetheless, with all the people inside and outside the room, laughing, drinking, singing and shouting... it was turning out to be quite a rave up. I suppose the straw that broke the camel's back was when Robert dropped the bongos and it finally knocked the "mike stand" completely over onto the floor. My brother started yelling at Robert, but as he didn't have the mike in front of him, we just thought he was vamping over the end part of "Black Magic Woman." So Rupert and Errol and I just kept on playing— until, that is, I felt a sharp ungodly pain in the side of my rib- cage as if I'd just been elbowed by someone with, well...very sharp elbows (not to put too fine a point on it).



I turned round to see just what the hell was going on, and there was my mother — arms alternately akimbo and spreadeagled, legs trotting a merry jig, and a grin of ecstatic insanity upon her visage. Her eyes locked onto mine, and through the tumult and the deafening din surrounding us, she screamed proudly, "Look at me! I'm dancing!"

I looked beyond her out into the hallway where the three teenage boys, with tear filled eyes, were simply melting into a pile of hysterical laughter. A moment which I must assume they will eternally hold in their hearts... until hell freezes over... or perhaps until the cows come home... as a memento of the glory days of the Sen family at number 3 Windsor Court.



END 
Avery on the front steps (circa 1987)
 Penny, Barabara, Laurence, Honeypie, Peter, Mario -  in front of the building (circa 1967)


Star, Laurence -  front Hall (2003)

Peter, Star, Mario - front room (2003)

Peter, Errol, Mario - front room (2009)

Star, Babette in background (1980s)

Penny, Barbara, Star, Avery on the front steps next to the window of the front room (circa 1987)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Untying the Knots

Violence & Religion



by the High Priest of Prickly Bog




In the wake of the several recent needless bombings and shootings that have shaken our community, and the ongoing "war on terrorism" that we hear so much about, many people have begun questioning the connection between faith and violence. Last week, Bill Maher stated unequivocally (as is his way) that Islam is the most violent religion that there is. I have several friends who also feel this way, and appear to have the proof to support this claim.
So let us examine this idea, without comparing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… without (for the time being) getting into historical or statistical references regarding the Crusades or other invasions of Christian western imperialist nations into Islamic territories… but by deconstructing what the word religion itself means. I suspect that we shall discover that it is a vague and meaningless term which doesn't really help us to understand the nature of violence, and the reason that it has troubled our poor embattled species since the beginning of time.
I strongly recommend that anyone wanting to understand this subject more clearly reads a book called "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright, wherein Mr. Wright does a wonderful job of cataloging how the belief in a supreme being germinates in both ancient and modern societies, over time, and develops distinctions which are unique to that particular faith because of the needs of the society from which it springs.
He cites also many examples from the Bible and the Koran which reveal just how the layers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have constantly evolved and adapted into widely varying personalities— not just between the religions, but within each of them— depending upon the given moment that we look at them, and the relative situation of the power brokers within them. Let us suffice to say that not only is Islam not a homogenous whole whose exact nature can be agreed upon by all of its participants but, just like every other religion, it is a constantly writhing and churning set of beliefs that in any one generation may seem rather alien to the generation that precedes it, or follows it.
We may arguably say the same thing about politics. What— after all— is a Republican? Is it Lincoln… or is it Joe McCarthy? What is a Democrat? Is it a hood-wearing Dixiecrat of the 1930s… or is it Obama? Perhaps it doesn't matter whether we call ourselves a Democrat or a Republican, a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim. Perhaps those who hurt other people do it because they like to hurt other people, and in order to assuage their natural guilt about doing so, they rationalize their behavior by inaccurately citing a chapter from their holy book or constitution.
We have certainly seen Christianity go through its violent phases, and when we examine such things as the Crusades, Naziism, the Ku Klux Klan… we tend to understand that it was not the word of the supposed "Jesus" that imbued these movements with such horrific violence, but the nature and condition of the people who perpetrated these acts that were responsible for them.
Firstly, there is very little historical proof that Jesus (if there ever was a Jesus) said half of the things he is claimed to have said. The same is actually true for the word of Mohammed, the vast majority of which has been conveyed down through the centuries via the spoken word. Anybody ever played the telephone game? Now imagine that being played over centuries… over millennia. Basically, whatever our religion, we end up believing in what we want to believe. And if we want to believe it is right to hurt others, then we can find that proof wherever we seek it.
Secondly when we view societies through a socio-economic lens, it becomes very easy to predict where the violence is going to erupt, and against whom. Thinking that religion itself is responsible is actually giving it more credit than it should fairly claim. If the West were mostly Islamic, and the Middle East mostly Christian, the violence would still be coming from the same place.

No, religion is not the cause of violence. It might be more accurate to say that violence is the cause of some people's religion.

So what makes us violent?
The answer to that is simple. Fear! And usually it is the fear of violence. So we might say that it is in fact violence that causes violence.
We all have felt the need to be violent on some occasion; the need for vengeance. The need to repay a grievance that we feel was unjustly perpetrated upon us, or those for whom we care. But if you think of it this way— that vengeance is the flower of the seed of someone else's anger— then to commit ourselves to vengeance would be to fulfill the intent of our persecutors… even if by some miracle we could actually get revenge on them personally.
But this is not usually the case. Usually we "get back" at someone else. Usually we punish our children for the sins of our parents. Usually we bomb the poor and innocent people in another country because someone else bombed the poor and innocent people in ours. Even when we get the right person, and we feel we have achieved justice, it is often not actually that particular incident that has motivated us to respond in a violent way, but something long ago forgotten. Some ancient wound that festers within. Or else why would simply stopping the violence of others, not be enough? Why would we then need to injure that person, to kill or maim or punish them in some more dramatic and painful way?
It is clearly an emotional response. It is because the thing that has injured us at the deepest level has not been stopped. It is replayed for us whenever a new incident reminds us of that suffering that we are constantly trying to subdue. It is a thorn in our side that drives us to repeat the same violence that we believe that we hate in others. But that we contain within our selves and refuse to acknowledge.

Most murderers, bombers, terrorists, dictators and sociopaths are people who possess the highest moral convictions… and yet the lowest ability to forgive.

So before we judge others who have committed horrible violent acts, and before we indemnify ourselves from any responsibility for the violence of the world, let us remember that every violent act committed is a seed that goes out into the world, like a dandelion weed, planting itself into the fertile ground of someone else's despair. We exist within a matrix where every event, every deed, every thing that exists affects every other on some level. If we add to the violence of the universe… then there is more violence in the universe, plain and simple, and we have to live in that universe.

Perhaps sometimes violence is called for, but it is a measure of our weakness, not our strength. Let us use it then, only when it is absolutely necessary, and let us learn not to delight in it, or to rationalize it by blaming our religion or the religions of others. Let us realize that when others use it, it is also a measure of their weakness, and perhaps we will learn to fear them less. Let us understand that even though they claim it is condoned by their religion, many of their brethren would disagree. And let us repeat this mantra to ourselves, every day, so that hopefully it will one day become a part of the fabric of our universe— that we will attempt in every way possible to personally lessen the violence that is around us.

PEACE





Friday, March 1, 2013

Untying the Knots

Life and Deathand our perception of reality
by The High Priest of Prickly Bog

As we get older, we all start having thoughts about approaching the latter part of our lives. This essay is inspired by some of the conversations I have had recently with friends and family. For me the subject is not so much about dying as it is about understanding reality to start with. My intent here is to replace the "scary" stereotype of death, and its comfortless and gloomy stigma, with a more balanced and satisfying evaluation of it's true nature.

I have broken this subject down into these following categories

1. How we perceive our life.
2. The judgements that we make about our reality.
3. So what are we frightened of.


1. How we perceive our life.

In order to think of death in the way that most people do, we are usually required to accept the material substantiality of life. Here we all are, our bodies are living solid objects, that breathe and think and have experiences. And although we think of our material bodies as real (along with all those other material things: our house, our car, our country, our army) we do not usually consider the experiences we have as quite as real or material. Love, art, thoughts, ideas and feelings… these things we consider conceptual, somehow… non-material. And we rarely acknowledge that without these conceptual processes we would not be able to experience that which we call material.
In addition, most of us believe strongly that there are such a things as good, and evil. And even though these are really conceptual ideas, we often treat them as if they belong in the "material" category.
This belief system tends to lock us into a view of life that is very concrete and brittle, and doesn't respond well to change. It doesn't allow us to think in a flexible way and live harmoniously with the flow of events that naturally surround us. We have the need to control things that we actually cannot control. We cling to the concepts that have been ingrained into us by our families or our culture, and we find it difficult to accept concepts that we are not familiar with.
For these reasons among others, death – which we cannot help but believe will change every material things that we cling to – is, to most of us anyway, a particularly uncomfortable thought. It doesn't help to know that, in the final reckoning, it is an experience that not one of us will escape.

How could it not be uncomfortable to believe that all these familiar concrete structures that are so much part of our existence will one day come tumbling down, and all the beliefs that we presently hold so dear may stand for nothing anymore? We wonder what will become of us after death. All we have ever known is life. What will we have to hold on to? We imagine a dark place with no material things. A place where we have lost everything and everyone, and where we will yearn for only one thing… to be back here. We imagine that the transition from life to death will be a painful and horrifying experience, or at best an unpleasant one. It is a scary proposition when you look at it that way.

But perhaps there is a different way to look at it.

Firstly, let us agree that it is the way we look at life that governs the way we look at death. And let us examine how we define what is real, what is material, what is conceptual.
Modern science tells us that light is nothing more than a series of vibratory patterns, which do not actually have any visual significance until our brain assigns a value to them. This is also true for sound. So in other words, things don't really look like anything, or sound like anything until we make a subjective evaluation every time we hear a piece of music or look at a work of art. Whoever it was that said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," must have been a scientist.
What about the solid objects around us, then? Are tables and chairs nothing more than a subjective experience? Perhaps. Well, we know that atoms are more than ninety-nine per cent empty space, which means that every solid object made up of atoms must be equally empty. Things are definitely not what they seem.
On the other hand, if somebody takes a swing at my head with a baseball bat I will duck, because if it makes contact I'll definitely have an experience of it. Hmmm… the experience of pain is very real, but my definition of reality regarding the baseball bat itself has been called into question by this "ninety-nine percent empty" thing.

So the perception of the solidity of objects is really very dependent upon our experience of them. We need to be able to categorize the building blocks of our reality in order to deal with them every day. So we create a sort of easily digestible metaphor that simplifies the nature of reality. An operating system, if you will. A Mac OSX, or a Windows, which brings color and graphics to allow a bunch of numbers and codes and wavelengths to be experienced in a more "user friendly environment." Some scientists believe that even the core elements of an atom… the electrons, neutrons and protons, are not solid, but more wave-like in their structure. So perhaps there is no such thing as a solid object.
Yes the pain of being hit with a baseball bat is real, and so is the bat, and so are we… but not material in the way we usually think of it. It is easier for us to see a table than to see a collection of trillions of spinning atoms, and so we create a metaphor of solidity to explain the connection we feel with other things when we touch them. We humans love metaphors, and we have got into the habit of using them, not only to describe events that are hard to understand, but also to perceive every aspect of our lives, including our feelings and our experiences.

In light of these facts, is it so hard to believe that the way in which we look at things is what makes them seem the way they are. Each of us have our own metaphors, our own operating system (no two exactly alike), mostly as a result of how we have been programmed by our parents, our teachers, our friends – and our enemies – to view this life we're in. All the good experiences of life, and all the bad ones are nothing more than a carrot and a stick to drive us in the direction that we are going. A set of rules and restrictions that define the boundaries of an elaborate competition we are striving to win. Yes, it is a game of sorts. A game for which we can see no choice but to play.
But there is a choice.
It becomes easier to evaluate our choices when we can actually witness the game going on around us. There are many ways to do this. The School of Practical Philosophy teaches a method called the "reflective practice" which requires us to sit down and witness what is actually around us. It doesn't break down the metaphor of solidity, but it allows us to just accept what is… without infusing our reality with previously held judgments. It's amazing how different things start to look when we see them with a different eye. Of course other organizations have different meditations on similar subjects, the point being that there are plenty of ways to take ourselves (mentally) out of the game in order to be able to grasp the nature of our reality more clearly.
And if we do take the time to begin shedding some of these pre-existing beliefs we hold, and start to view each moment with an unbiased eye (or as much as that is possible), what we start to see… is that life – just like all the material reality it contains – is more than ninety-nine per cent empty space.
For some people, that in itself is a scary thought because, just like the idea of death, it topples all the structures of our belief, and appears to leave us with nothing to hold on to. But space is actually a great thing to have. It leaves us the room to think in the many different ways that it is necessary to think when reality hits us with its many different baseball bats. It lets us realize that we don't actually need anything to hold on to, that we will be safe floating within the fluid structure of our existence. It allows us the freedom of movement to be agile and navigate the zigs and zags of this game we suddenly realize that we have been playing all along, floating within the constantly changing reality around us. And as a result, we start to see that all the fears, and all the tribulations, and all the competitiveness that we have indulged in throughout our lives were just an unnecessary part of this game that we were led to believe was life.
To  have achieved that awareness is a liberating and blissful experience. No one can take anything from the permanent you. Only the temporary you will change, and that has been doing so all along. Take a look in the mirror. Death is nothing more than the loss of one particular metaphor. You will find many more.


2. The judgements that we make about our reality.

Most of us have spent a lot of time thinking about what we believe to be right, and what we believe to be wrong, we have had those concepts forced into our brains since early childhood by well meaning adults – and, of course, a moral code is a very necessary thing in life for many reasons. But an inflexible morality can become problematic when the reasons for our belief in what is right and wrong are unclear or confused with other subconscious reasons, such as personal advantage or denial of painful memories.
When our judgments are locked dogmatically we tend to believe that right and wrong are constants, that the opposite of what is right must by definition be wrong. But that means we have actually stopped using our judgment. We have given ourselves permission to no longer have to think about it any more. It's all settled, and that's all there is to it!
Trouble is, that like everything else in reality, what's right and what's wrong are very subjective viewpoints, and judgment is a thing that needs to be flexible. It needs to be updated regularly, and exercised and tested as new situations call for it. No two people in the world will agree on everything, and most people disagree on most things. Dogmatic and inflexible judgment is most likely to result in the demonization of others, and quite often in the demonization of ourselves.

Certainly most people are aware of how the dogmatic moralities of certain religious groups around the world cause them to demonize other groups. But demonize ourselves? Why would we do that?
Well, we don't do it consciously of course, but we all do it to some extent. We all have that little voice inside us that was implanted by some moral authority way back there somewhere in our past, who either approves or disapproves of every little thing we do. And needless to say, there are some things we do that are found wanting by that measure. These may be things that we do regularly, but feel conflicted about. We don't want to stop doing them, but somewhere deep inside we believe it is wrong to do them. So somewhere inside, that little voice… which is ultimately our own voice, is making negative judgments about us.
But the trouble is, that by judging our own actions in a negative light, we make it more difficult for ourselves to engage thoughts about our past mistakes. We will often glance quickly at our failures, and turn away just as quickly, because we are worried that if we examine our past too carefully, we might see something that we have a negative judgment about. We might even say this to ourselves, "What I did wasn't so bad… no worse than what others have done," but in doing so, we don't allow ourselves to delve deeper into what we really believe we are capable of. We compare ourselves with the people around us in order to justify behavior that we otherwise may not feel comfortable with. And in this way we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. As a result we get into a spiral of making the same mistakes over and over again, and denying to ourselves that we have a problem with it.
How helpful would it be if we could disconnect ourselves from this outside world of judgment, that has impregnated us so deeply that now our inner world is also saturated with judgment? Worse still… it is unconscious judgment. We don't realize we are doing it half the time, and even when we do, we don't realize why we are doing it. And we don't realize that it keeps us from thinking about things in a fresh and undogmatic way?
Of course, disconnecting from our judgment is a lot easier said than done. We have all had a lifetime of judging things in a certain way, and we know that any real inner change takes a lot of practice and hard work. But perhaps the work is worth the payoff. There is a feeling of bliss in discovering that we don't have to be the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong all the time (that in itself is a terribly hard job – with very little payoff). And now we won't have to hide things from ourselves any more. It is a lot easier to know who we are when we don't make judgments about ourselves. We can free up the internal flow of information and get to know ourselves a little better.
Perhaps we have done things that we don't really want to acknowledge – even to ourselves, but that's okay… so has everyone else. And anyway,we don't have to tell anybody else… just admit it to ourselves – we are playing to a very sympathetic audience. But acknowledging those things allows us to get over the stigma of our own judgment and move on.
There is another advantage to this: if we can learn not to judge ourselves so strictly, we may find that we are not judging others as much either. We may discover that other people are not as bad as we sometimes like to think. Just like us, they are going through their own troubles. And seeing others as much more like ourselves helps to make the world a better place, at least according to our perception of it. And after all, what is reality but our perception of it?

So what all this got to do with death?

Well, I am not suggesting these things from a perspective of morality, or because it makes us "nice people" to behave in such a way. In fact, I am suggesting that we stop thinking about morality altogether, as it tends to make us more judgmental. I am simply attempting to determine the most expedient way in which to perceive reality with greater clarity. The judgments we have are games that the mind has created to distract us from the reality of life and death. Our purpose here is to attain greater flexibility about life and death. My Auntie Koko was a midwife who used to teach her patients a series of yoga exercises during their pregnancy. She believed that greater flexibility ensured a less traumatic birthing procedure. I believe that greater flexibility also ensures a less traumatic dying procedure.
And by flexibility I don't mean playing games with the truth. I don't mean magical thinking. This is not a religious belief system. Quite the opposite, it is about adhering faithfully to the truth… especially the truth we try to hide from ourselves. Remember, life is all about constant change, constant movement. Death is the movement from one state to another. If we cannot let go of the beliefs that hold us here, then death must be traumatic. Whereas if we are flexible about how we see things in life, then there is no reason we should not move naturally and comfortably from one state of consciousness to another.
Letting go of the beliefs we have often entails letting go of the feelings we hold deep inside of us. But we cannot let go of the feelings and the thoughts that we refuse to acknowledge. I know it seems almost contradictory to say it, but thinking the thought is letting it go. Feeling the feeling does allow it to escape. When we don't allow ourselves to feel the painful feelings within us, they are trapped within, and that is when they can do a lot of damage.
So how do we know which thoughts those are? 
That's easy, they're the ones we don't want to think about. 

By freeing ourselves mentally of all the unnecessary burdens that we always believed that we had to carry on our backs, we can allow ourselves to move from one state to another in a more elegant and natural manner.


3. So what are we frightened of?

So this then would be the crux of the whole problem. As F.D.R. once put it, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Why should the state that we move into, be any worse… or any better for that matter, than the one in which we find ourselves? If we are responsible for the metaphor that is our own life, then in death we are simply exchanging one metaphor for another. The reality behind these metaphors doesn't need to change. The only thing that changes is the way in which we look at it – the metaphor… the operating system. If life is nowhere near as "substantial" as it would appear to be, perhaps the idea of the structures of our reality toppling down around us, is also not as substantial as it would at first seem.
Why should it be that life and death are these two completely opposite forms? Just like good and evil, and pretty much every other thing in creation, they are most probably just subjective ways of viewing the same thing from a different viewpoint. It is our own misplaced judgment that draws lines between them. It is no one else but we who create the horrors and the beauty of life. If we could only acknowledge that, then perhaps we would be better equipped to change the things that we can change, to accept the things that we cannot, and most importantly to know the difference between the two.



Epilogue

Each person's subjectivity is, by definition, different from every other person's. We create our own heaven and hell, and if we're being fair about it, life is never fully either one or the other. It makes sense to assume that death will be pretty much the same in that way. It also makes sense to assume that, just like life, death will be yet another temporary form of existence.
Even the term death, therefore, seems to be a misnomer. Just another life, then. Not reincarnation, not the transubstantiation of souls… but perspective change.