Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Befriending My Demon

Some time after my parents passed away, my family gathered at my parents' home, our childhood home, to divvy up their belongings. When we were finished with the more obvious items, we combed the house for anything else one of us might want. Searching a drawer in the basement, I came across the little guy in the picture. We were all surprised; no one remembered seeing him while we were growing up. Later, a little online searching would reveal that this bronze figure is a devil or satyr fireplace damper pull--it would dangle over the fire on a chain from the damper and glow red as it heated. But at the moment we saw him, no one had any idea what he was.

When I was little, the basement was a spooky place, especially in the dark--I couldn't run up the stairs fast enough. Sometimes I'd have nightmares about little demonic beings coming up from the basement. As I grew, my dream demons were replaced by an invisible, disembodied but menacing evil presence. When I married and started a family, I no longer felt personally endangered by the demonic presence, but I'd have nightmares in which it threatened my wife and children.

I had my first lucid dream when I was about 14, and from then on, I had spontaneous lucid dreams once or twice a month. I enjoyed becoming aware in my dreams. Lucid dreams were always vivid, feeling almost more real than waking life, and sometimes, I had amazing experiences. When I was in my 50s, one night I dreamed I was in an brightly lit white attic. Suddenly, I felt the invisible evil presence gather at the opposite end of the room. This time, the presence triggered lucidity. Realizing this was a dream and nothing bad could happen to me, I decided to accept whatever would happen.

As I stood there, the presence coalesced into the form of a teenage boy, someone I'd known, a pariah, not one of the cool kids. I remained present with my sense of dread, and I consciously relaxed. He walked across the room, stood in front of me, and reached out and hugged me. As he dissolved into me, the sense of evil dissipated, and I felt almost overwhelming compassion and acceptance.

As time passed, I could tell that the dream had changed my relationship with the demonic presence. I still would dream of it occasionally, but now, it felt lonely, eager to be accepted, as if it were a puppy. I wasn't afraid of it anymore, but instead, I felt affection for it. I sensed that it had been trying to protect me, probably from very intense subconscious material. In another dream, I went down to the basement again and felt the presence. But the dark, frightening basement of my boyhood had changed into a walk-out basement, with windows and a door to the outside, filled with light. The wall opposite the exterior was lined with filing cabinet drawers. I opened one, and I knew that all the material in every cabinet was now available to me.

So, years later, when I opened the drawer in my parents' basement and came across the damper devil, I felt an immediate sense of recognition. I asked if anyone else wanted him, and when no one spoke up, he was mine. Back home, I cleaned him up a bit and placed him on the bottom shelf of my meditation altar. I feel a deep, compassionate connection with him. He's a tangible reminder of the path we're all on, the journey to recover the parts of ourselves that we've lost.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Remarks on an Unremarkable Brain

I had an MRI last week, to diagnose a partial hearing loss, nothing horrible, especially at this stage of my life. My ENT gave me a copy of the report, and I'm drawn to this sentence: "The enhanced and unenhanced MR appearance of the brain is unremarkable."

I know that were Mom still alive, she would disagree. Mom was all about the brain, and she was sure that each of her sons had a remarkable cerebrum. She raised us to be smart. I don't know how many timed math and spelling tests she gave me after school, right in the door, before homework or play time or anything else. Mom even wrote and self-published a book about how to raise scholars, Hey, Grandmaa source of much embarrassment. I was a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist--I always tested well. But a scholar, no.

Mom would be chagrined to learn that the family ear trouble has touched me. Mom's side of the family had a history of ear problems, some of which have trickled down to my sibs and me. Mom had Meniere's disease, and besides nearly total hearing loss, she suffered from balance problems and vertigo. Tough Nordic farm girl that she was, she insisted on her independence, pulling her arm away from an offered hand and weaving her way over uneven sidewalks like a drunken sailor.

While I am relieved that the MRI report tells me that "Ventricles are appropriate size" and "The orbits, sella, and vascular structures appear within normal limits," I still come back to "appearance of the brain is unremarkable." Mom would take umbrage. Sorry, Mom.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Time to Get Ready

Evidence is mounting for future catastrophic effects of climate change and resource depletion. We need to get ready for the coming changes.

To limit the change in global average temperature to 2° C, the world must rapidly reduce and eliminate fossil fuel consumption. In fact, we have waited so long to make meaningful cuts to fossil fuel use that now, the cuts we need must happen so quickly that the effect will be similar to a collapse. But the phase-out of fossil fuels by itself will not achieve the goals of the Paris Accord. We also would need to quickly develop, test and deploy some new technology to remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Neither major US political party has demonstrated the will to either cut fossil fuel use or to develop and deploy carbon-removing technology. It seems inevitable that global average temperature will shoot past 2° C. Some climate scientists have predicted a change of between 7° and 10° C, changes big enough to endanger the survival of the human race. One "optimistic" scientist has said that change will be limited to 4° C, because civilization will collapse, limiting further greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is only one part of the larger, more general problem of overshoot. In 1972, the Limits to Growth predicted collapse due not only to environmental problems, but also the finite availability of resources. The study was largely dismissed, but a recent look at how the predictions from the Limits to Growth have fared has shown that the world is still on track for global collapse. In fact, according to the study, we are in the early stages of collapse.

So it's time--probably past time--that we begin to ready for collapse. There are three broad issues that we should address.

First, we need to prepare to deal with refugees. Millions of people will be fleeing increasing heat in the south and flooding along the coasts. In fact, we already have absorbed Katrina refugees from Louisiana. This problem will accelerate. We need to have a plan in place.

Second, we need to plan for less and less help from outside our area. Federal, regional and even state resources will be stretched to the breaking point. We should assume that we'll be left to our own devices to cope with local problems. Already, the Federal government has proven inadequate to deal with major disasters. We should inventory our strengths, what we have locally that will help us or be available for barter with nearby communities, and we need to account for our weaknesses, needs that will be difficult to meet. Then we should plan ways to mitigate weaknesses and build on strengths. For example, we're fortunate to have a university with a pharmacy college that can synthesize drugs, at least on a small scale--that's a strength. We lack local sources of energy--that's a weakness.

Finally, we need to make plans for an orderly out-migration of the local population, should it come to that. The area may eventually be unable to support its population. We need to identify areas that could accept refugees and develop relationships and assets along potential migration routes.

Unpleasant as the topic is, we need to start talking about collapse now, the sooner, the better.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome and Me

Not long ago, I got a phone call from someone who read one of my blog entries.  He's a young man suffering from chronic pelvic pain syndrome, or CPPS.  Listening to his story, his frustration and grief, took me back to the point in my own life five years ago when I started experiencing CPPS symptoms, to when I received my diagnosis and was told there's no effective cure or treatment.  The isolation, the anger and shame and depression and hopelessness--it all came back to me.  I truly did experience helplessness at that time.

I muddled through the pain and the emotions, and somehow, I felt my way into a set of practices that slowly but steadily gave my life back to me.  Feeling very fortunate, I put up a couple of web pages about my experience, in hopes that it might help someone else.  So I'm very grateful to this young man, and to the handful of people who've emailed me about CPPS.  I very much appreciate your feedback.  As a result, I've revised, updated and expanded my CPPS web site--it's here.  Thank you, all of you, for your helpful comments and questions.

CPPS is isolating.  At the worst point, my CPPS kept me from traveling more than a half an hour by car.  I had trouble sitting through movies.  I didn't feel like going out.  The isolation fed into the sadness and hopelessness.  So, when I hear from anyone who has CPPS, I respond as quickly as I can.

If you're suffering from CPPS, please take a look at my CPPS web site.  I hope you find something there that helps.  At any rate, it's free, and it's the best information I have available to me at the moment, based on what works for me.  And if you have a question or just want to communicate with someone who's been there, please write me.  You should be able to find my email address on my blog.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What is the Alexander Technique?

In India, sadhus (ascetic students of yoga) sometimes practice austerities, committing themselves to difficult, long-term observances.  One example is hand raising.  A devoted sadhu may decide to raise his hand and never lower it.  We in the West look at a practice like hand raising and wonder how a person could do that.  We would never choose to deliberately contort our bodies for years at a time.

But in fact, like the hand-raising sadhus, we do practice bodily austerities.  The difference between us and the sadhus is that they consciously choose to practice mindfully.  But we develop our bodily contortions unconsciously, mindlessly, seldom realizing what we are doing to ourselves.

As young children, we are taught to sit still for long periods of time, often in chairs or desks that don't quite fit our growing bodies.  We learn to focus our minds and ignore bodily sensations.  At home, we learn how to slump on the sofa and watch TV or play video games, remaining out of touch with our bodies as we lose ourselves in the sounds and images.  We learn how to deal with tension and unwanted emotions by holding them in our bodies.  We graduate and take jobs that demand continual repetition of bodily movements, maybe on an assembly line, maybe at a desk.  If we have a career devoted to abstract mental tasks, we sit for hours at a time in poorly designed office furniture, working with our minds and ignoring our bodies. 

In our 20s and into our 30s, our youthful bodies can adapt remarkably well.  Somewhere in our late 30s, however, our bodies most likely begin to try to get our attention--a little twinge here, a small ache there.  By the time we're in our 40s, after a couple decades practicing the Western equivalent of hand-raising, our bodies raise the volume of their protests.  The aches and pains are more intense and last longer.  We might have a sleepless night once in awhile or miss a day of work now and then.  Pain relievers and sleep aids begin appearing in our medicine cabinets.  A chiropracter or massage therapist might find a place in our address books.

And then one day, our bodies finally demand our undivided and complete attention.  The pain reaches a level of intensity that cannot be appeased, and it does not go away.  We discover that the medical community has no good answer for our suffering.  We wonder how this happened, and we begin searching for a way out.

If you are as lucky as I am, you may find an Alexander Technique instructor.  The Alexander Technique has been a very important part of my way out of chronic pain.  An instructor can see unnatural patterns of muscular tension and knows how to help the student perceive them, too.  She gradually, patiently guides the student to release muscles that have been held dysfunctionally for years.  Instead of trying to teach an idea of correct or good posture, which really is just another form of bodily holding and rigidity, she instills the idea of ease of use, of the body as a dynamic, ever-moving system.

Much about the Technique seems counterintuitive or just plain wrong at first.  The Technique is a form of undoing, of unlearning, of breaking habits, of changing the way the body is felt and perceived.  When the instructor first helps the body release into an easier state, it often feels odd, or even wrong.  Many times, my instructor has had to show me in the mirror that, no, despite the sensation that I'm leaning to the left, that I'm tipping forward, that my legs are bent, in reality, I am standing more nearly upright than I have in a long time.

The Technique can be an emotional as well as a physical exploration.  The body can hold anger, fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt.  Releasing the body can be like opening a shaken bottle of emotional soda.  The emotions can bubble up, memories can gush into consciousness.  The enhanced bodily awareness I've received from the Technique also is an enhanced emotional awareness.  When I feel my left abdomen tensing, I know I'm becoming upset.  When I feel my lower back become rigid, I'm aware that I'm feeling embarrassed.

The Technique is an ongoing education.  The lessons continue out in daily life.  I learn something new about my body and emotions nearly every day.  The Alexander work has given me a sense of curiosity about my body and its relationship to my mind and the world around me.  I'm feeling a pain in my jaw?  That's interesting!  I wonder what would happen if I invite my shoulder to relax?  I'm feeling tension in my hip.  Fascinating!  Could it be related to this deadline I'm working under?  What would happen if I took a short break and breathed deeply for a few seconds?

After a couple of years of working with my Alexander instructor, I am free of the chronic pain that led me to her.  But I continue the work.  As each layer of tension, each pattern of holding, peels away, I find a new layer underneath.  Lifting away the pain reveals new possibilities of a visceral joy and ease.  I can't wait to see what I'll find tomorrow.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mortification in 12 Items or Less

I enjoy grocery shopping.  I usually run into someone I know and have a chance to catch up with them.  The grocery store is a great place to practice mindfulness and patience.  I'm rarely in a hurry when I'm at the store.  It's a good opportunity to tune into the fact that everyone shopping is trying to feed a household, trying to make sense of the huge selection of foods, trying to balance quality and taste and budget.

Yesterday afternoon, I went down to the store to pick up a couple of items we needed for dinner.  As I made my way through the busy parking lot and entered the store, I patted myself on the back for remembering the tote bag.  I grabbed a basket and walked the aisles, patiently waiting for people, picking out the few things I was searching for--milk, bread, jelly--adding a couple things I knew we might need that weren't on the list--some granola bars, a pound of hamburger.  I rechecked the list and headed for the check-out lines.

The store was busy, and all the lines were full.  I counted the items in my basket--eight--and headed for the express line.  The express line is served by two check-out stations, each with a sign hanging overhead that reads "Express line--12 items or less."  I stopped behind a woman waiting her turn.  To my left was a girl of about 12, pushing a cart that was sort of in the nearby line, but kind of angled into the express line.  I looked at her.  She smiled and said, "I'm with my mom," and nodded at the woman ahead of me.

That is when I heard someone's voice blurting out, "That's 12 items or less?"  My voice.  The woman ahead of me turned and looked at the cart, looked at her daughter, and looked at me and said, "No, you're right, we're in the wrong line."  It seemed to me she spoke those words less than enthusiastically, with a smile that seemed a bit on the icy side as she maneuvered her daughter and the cart to the back of the nearby line.

As the cashier rang up my items, I had time to feel into what had just happened.  All kinds of thoughts flew through my head.  Despite all my midwestern nice-guy upbringing, I had corrected this mother in public, in front of her child.  Sure, I was right.  But I was in no hurry.  I could have waited a couple minutes while her groceries were checked out.  But I was right, damn it!  I hadn't been nasty about it.  But how would I have felt if someone had scolded me, even nicely, in front of my children?  I let go of the train of thought as best I could and felt into the emotions running underneath, a rich stew of embarrassment and defensiveness, and even some compassion.  Ah, mindfulness practice!  So easy to do when things are simple and going well, so hard when I manage to insert my foot deeply into my mouth.

At that moment, in this busy store, somehow, the express line emptied.  I was the only person at the express counter.  The efficient young cashier at the next express register called out to the person at the end of the next line, "Ma'am, I can help you over here."  The person at the end of the next line happened to be the woman with more than 12 items.

"Oh!" she replied loudly--very loudly--"but I have 16 items!"

"That's okay," said the cashier.  "I'll check you out."

The daughter was grinning at her mom as she wheeled the cart up to the next register.  I quickly picked up my tote bag and gallon of milk, sidled by, and headed out the door.  The bag seemed a little bit heavier, what with the extra helping of mortification the universe had tossed in at the last minute.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Joy, Ambivalence, and the Quest for Rational Household Wiring

It all started when our HD TV began misbehaving.  A couple of years ago, Di and I bought a 32-inch Westinghouse LTV32w6HD LCD HD TV.  It's a fine TV, doing exactly what we'd hope a TV would do:  reliably display TV-signal content.  Or at least it did, for quite awhile.  But last year, it began having trouble displaying a stable picture.  The problem went away on its own, but returned again this year.  At first I thought the jitters might be related to a poor cable TV signal.  But I noticed that the problem appeared immediately, while the set was warming up, and also when trying to watch DVDs from our DVD player.

So last weekend, Di and I looked at HD TVs on the web site of a big-box electronics store, found a couple we thought we might like, and drove to the local outlet.  We chose a Sony Bravia KDL40EX400.  We brought the new set home, moved the Westinghouse downstairs pending disposal, and installed the Sony in its place in the family room.  I fired up the Sony, did an autoscan, and life was good.

Or so I thought.  But on closer examination, the Sony had missed several HD cable channels that the Westinghouse had found.  And occasionally, the few HD channels it did find were as jittery as the picture on the Westinghouse.

I began to suspect our home's TV cabling.  We'd had trouble with our cabling before, when we'd had the cable company install broadband service.  Much of the cable in our home was actually outside our home, run along the foundation and up the siding, from splitters near the point where utilities entered the house.  I knew splitters were evil, so I disconnected all the exterior splitters to give the best possible signal on the cable we would use for broadband service.  The cables off the exterior splitters all went to the bedrooms on the topmost level.  Since we never watched TV in bed, this was not a sacrifice.  We still had a cable signal to the two outlets we used, one in the basement and one in the family room.

But the cable installer told us the signal at the outlets was marginal for broadband, even after he cleaned up several issues with the cable plant leading up to the house.  He was sure that there were several splitters buried inside the drywall that were causing the poor signal.  He finally installed a splitter in the utility room, right after the point where the cable entered our home, and ran a new cable from the splitter to the cable modem.  That worked.  We had Internet service, we had a cable TV signal, all was well.

But now, I knew that our cable TV signal was marginal for HD service.  I had two choices:  Rewire the house, or try a cable amplifier.  Rewiring the house seemed like an expensive, laborious process, and would probably require punching several holes in the drywall throughout the house, and then drywall patching and painting.  An amplifier seemed like a much more reasonable solution--if it worked.

A little googling led me to the Radio Shack 15-2505 Bidirectional Cable TV Amplifier.  At $32.99, it would be much cheaper and easier than rewiring.  I went down to the local Radio Shack and bought one, and bought a couple of probably overpriced patch cables and a power strip.  I drove home, went down to the utility room, plugged in the power strip and the amp, ran the patch cables, and presto!  We had HD TV on the Sony.  I did another autoscan.  The Sony picked up all the HD channels and had a great picture.  Success!

On a hunch, I plugged in the Westinghouse in the basement and turned it on.  The jitters were gone!  My best guess is that the poor signal affects the Westinghouse right at power-on, even if the input source is set to something other than the cable input.  This makes the Westinghouse extremely sensitive to signal quality.  But with a good signal, no problem.

Time to sit back, pop a cold one, and bask in contentment from a job well down.  But...  My sysadmin ethos would not let me relax.  Not yet.  Not with a rat's nest of cable and an amp and power strip sitting loose on a shelf down in the utility room.  Long had the technophile half of me dreamed of some kind of elegant structured home wiring system--a beautiful home-run phone-cable TV-data plant centered around a panel in the utility room that would house some kind of phone distribution center, an Ethernet switch, and a cable TV amplified splitter.  I'd fantasized about how to pull cable into various hard-to-get-at locations around the house, without breaking out the drywall.  I'd spent lost hours googling for equipment, staring at the structured wiring center at a home improvement store, doodling cable runs on pieces of scrap paper.  Yes--I admit it.  I am a geek.

Here was an opportunity to do something along these lines, to clean up the mess in the utility room and create some tiny beginning, some small seed, of a sensible home wiring system.  I grabbed the step ladder and a tape measure, headed downstairs to cries of "What are you up to?" from Di, took a few measurements, and headed out.  First stop:  Nagle Lumber, where I found a scrap of plywood just the right size.  I bought some other items I needed--screws and some plastic cable clips--and headed home.  Down to the basement again, and an hour or so later, I had the power strip and amplifier mounted on screws from the plywood bolted to the wall.

The patch cables hung from plastic clips.


At last!  Time to sit back and enjoy the fruits.  But a couple things about this adventure diminished my contentment.  For one thing, I like to spend money at locally owned businesses, but for various reasons, Di and I had bought our Sony at a big-box store--we hadn't even looked at a local appliance store.  Slager's is the only one that comes to mind.  I did go to Nagle's, a locally owned home improvement store.  But that was depressing--it sure looks like Nagle's is not getting much traffic.

I'd tried placing the cable amp near the TV, in hopes that if it worked, I could put the power brick for the amp on the power strip for our home entertainment center.  We like to turn the power strip off when no one is using any of the audio/video equipment, to eliminate phantom loads.  The amp doesn't need to draw current when no one is watching TV.  But putting the amp near the TV did not produce a usable signal.  For the best signal, the amp needs to be placed before the splitters.  This means the amp will be on all the time, even when the TVs are off.

Finally, all my effort produced a better TV signal.  But is that necessarily a good thing?  Now all the reality TV shows, the political mud fests, the stupid pet tricks--all that is now available to me in HD.  Great.  Okay, I do get a beautiful HD picture on our PBS channels, too.

I'm reminded of a passage from Shikasta, by Doris Lessing.  She describes a typical middle-class mother in a developed country going about her daily routine, shopping for groceries and making a meal--but unlike mothers in ages past, her satisfaction in providing for her family is tinged with doubt and anxiety.  She knows that maybe the food she's serving her family really isn't all that good for them, maybe it's laden with pesticides, maybe it's tainted, maybe it was produced in a manner that contributes to the destruction of the ecosystem.

Oh, but, hey!  Look at that!  Madonna is on The Marriage Ref!  Honey, could you get me another brewski?