Archive for July, 2010

Lisbeth Salander and Ladies Who Lunch

July 21, 2010

So recently, a small group of attractive, mature, successful women were sharing a meal, and two themes emerged.  One was that they all were deeply touched by Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larrson’s fierce, warped, self-contained heroine (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, come back next week for a change of topic).  The other was that they had all, in their early years, knowingly married a man they didn’t love, or even like.  The pattern was roughly the same in all cases:  He asked them.  It would have been impolite to say no.  This was the only shot they were going to get.  It would create an unthinkable scene not to go through with it.

And so they did.  Said unions lasted from 3 to over thirty years.  The thing is, all involved also said their first impression of these guys was a kind of inner recoiling.  It was an inbred requirement to be “polite”, above all things, that just clamped them onto a path toward misery.

Maybe this sort of thing is more indigenous to women in my neck of the woods (geographically located in an area where people use phrases like “my neck of the woods”).  Maybe it’s a generational thing, and deservedly dying out with the new generation of women.  Which, BTW, does not identify itself, on the whole, as feminists.

Then there’s Lisbeth.

Part of the fascination with this unlikely heroine is that she is completely unaculturated.  And as such, she reveals to the rest of us the layers of social expectation and indoctrination that we are laboring under.

Salander’s is a kind of primal purity of logic and emotion.  It is raw, but with a steely center of intellectual clarity, loyalty and a surgically-precise sense of justice that is startling at times, but which instinctively respects whatever limits she has come to understand.  And in reading the books (and the first film, the Swedish version), one is somehow thrilled that anyone can go to such deep places and still maintain her footing;  able to operate in the darkness, without ever going over to the dark side.

No one would want to be shaped by the traumas and tragedies of Lisbeth’s early life.   But the real difference between Lisbeth and those women whose tales I share, is not that Lisbeth had sharply honed instincts, and these women didn’t.

No, the difference is that Lisbeth was never taught anything beyond her own instincts.  These women had the same instincts, the same primal, basic reactions to another human.  But they were already drenched in a culture that devalued instinct, that molded them into a cultural identity as women that stressed conciliation, understanding, and that weird, 2-edged sword, “putting other people first”.

Someone pointed out to me long ago, and I’ve heard it repeated many times; when the flight attendant gives the pre-flight spiel, he or she reminds passengers to put on their own air mask first, before attempting to help others around them.  Take care of yourself first.  You can’t help anyone else unless you do.

And as humans, one of our most important built-in systems of protection is that instinct we have on first meeting another.  And yes, I could write another whole essay about how our initial reactions to others are also often tainted with cultural, racial and other confounding factors.

But for now, I’m talking about the most intimate interactions, the one-on-ones, the first dates, the guy at the bar (and guys, you know darned well this works both ways!).   No matter how cool he looks, no matter how lonely and needy you’re feeling, no matter how late the night or how much you’ve had to drink (again, another whole essay), no matter what your girlfriends say…it’s that little voice inside that you should really stop and listen to.  The list of potential disasters is too long, and do-overs, in the real world, are damned expensive.

Lisbeth Salander may never find peace.  Then again, most of us, I fervently hope, will not be faced with the extreme challenges of her life.  In any tricky encounter, if we can just step back from being either “good girls” or “sex kittens” for a few seconds, if we can apply just a little of Lisbeth’s primal clarity, we might actually begin the process of becoming true post-post-feminists:  straightforward, honest, responsible, strong, loving women.   Really, I think there’s a demand out there….

p.s.  The second film is coming out soon, the Swedish version.  American re-makes are in the works, but I have real reservations as to whether Hollywood can capture the essence of Lisbeth Salander.  Read the books.  Stick with the Swedes.

Are you Conscious?

July 14, 2010


Yes, that’s probably the appropriate starting point for this conversation, because the odds are, you aren’t.

But you have been.  And you will be again.  And at some point, you may decide being Conscious is downright appealing.

A few definitions here.  I use “Conscious”, with a capital C, to distinguish from “conscious”, with a lower case c, which is more like the state in which you are not physically sleeping, passed out from the over-enjoyment of various amusing substances, or undergoing surgery while you are reading this.  Which might be more suited for a Discovery Channel special.  Or maybe the National Enquirer.

By “Conscious”, with the capital C, I am referring instead to a state in which you are perceiving the world around you, and yourself in that world, through eyes undistorted by culture, outer identity, and other lenses of received knowledge and “wisdom”.  In such a state, there is nothing but a sense of wonder and seemingly irrational bliss, which in itself is a pretty good rule of thumb for determining whether you’re “there”.

You all know what I mean.  You’ve all been there.  Not some woo-woo, goofball, spacier-than-thou thing.  Just a moment of joy.  For no apparent reason at all.  Very cool.

Here’s another distinction:  Conscious is not the same as Mindful.  Mindful is good, too.  It means you’re paying attention to the main task at hand.  Do not, for example, try operating a chain saw without fixing your total attention, mindfully.

But being mindful, as the word implies, involves the Mind.  Wheels turning.  Sensory inputs engaged.  And the Mind, which is quite full of itself, is behind the tendency to “multi-task”, because once those wheels start turning, it’s such a buzz that, surely, more is better?  And the fact that you were able to arrive at work after simultaneously driving a car, texting your BFF, eating a breakfast burrito and maybe even painting your toenails, well, surely, that makes you queen (or king?) of the Mindfulness universe, right?

Actually what it makes you is momentarily… lucky.  Not cool.  Stop it.

Mindful means tending to the One Thing you are doing.  Not fragmenting your attention until there’s not enough attention left on any one thing to do that thing well.  And if you’re doing so many things that do not require deeper attention, your life is really superficial, my friend.

I used to know someone who always insisted that the devil is in the details.  By this, they meant that one should get down into the level of detail, which in the case of that person, meant, for example, days or weeks comparison shopping, both before and after a purchase.

Then again, this person also defined “5-ish” as meaning “any time within the clock hour between 5:00 and 5:59”, which made scheduling social events a little dicey.

Another interpretation of the devil is in the details is this:  that the real and perilous temptation lies in letting our attention get sucked out as we obsess about little things.  Things that Do Not Matter.  Consciousness always lifts one out of the specific and into the global, even though, paradoxically, it is often something specific that sparks the moment, like really seeing some bit of beauty in nature, or in some everyday interaction with another human being.  It’s only in those conscious moments that we are not only free of fear, but astoundingly clear as to how to live our lives and conduct our affairs.

Of course, then you crash down to earth again.  Welcome back.  We missed you.

Details are necessary, of course.  If your accountant is too fond of using the phrase “whatever”, you could have a problem, and maybe you need to tune into your own details.

But between the detail-microscope in the lab, and the infinite-universe-blowing-your-mind telescope looking out into the vastness of space, there are those little moments when we see it all, head in the stars, feet on the ground, nothing occupying our own space but compassion and understanding.

Consciousness is what happens when you fleetingly lift your boots out of the muck of what we think of as “normal” perception.  It’s that moment of sexual release, when there’s nothing but the … whoosh!

Nothing but the smile.

Have you been conscious lately?  Even though these moments are fleeting and often far between, you know another one will sneak up on you sometime when you least expect it.  Very cool indeed, huh?

The View from 2020: ’10 Oil Spill started it all

July 9, 2010

Although nobody saw it at the time, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 was, in retrospect, the tipping point.  The grand scale of the universe was finally tilted the other way, so that what had been up began to go down.

The change was imperceptible at first (it often is), but surprisingly swift once the momentum took hold.  After a while, it was just one damn thing after another.

Back in ’10, people began by bemoaning the lack of fresh seafood and unspoiled beaches for their summer vacations.  It did not immediately occur to these people that, with the economy already on its own sly slide, they did not have the disposable income to spend on either of those things anyway.

As the Gulf was essentially rendered lifeless, swarms of unemployed fishermen, oil rig workers and service sector employees migrated northward in desperation.  The term “illegal immigrant” started being used in the Midwest to describe native Louisianans.

At first it was only true illegal aliens who were willing to stay on the coast and take the dirty jobs, like shoveling out the blobs of oil that coated Bourbon Street in New Orleans after Hurricane Gordita, so nicknamed for its unprecedented size, and tendency to devour everything in its path.

However, having escaped the worst of the hurricane season, the Mexican economy continued its slight but real improvements.  The major drug lords of Mexico, never ones to let a business opportunity slide, began to expand their reach.  Cannily reading the restlessness of the Mexican people, and bored themselves with the drug violence, they struck an accord between the various cartels and quite easily put up a vapid, attractive candidate for president in 2012, winning handily.  With the on-going infusion of drug money from the U.S. (as the U.S. economy sunk, more and more people sought the solace of drug-induced escape) the cartels had found in politics a new and more amusing way of exercising power, and by 2018, Mexico was starting to claim its place in the pantheon of first world countries, while the U.S., having had its debts called in by China (who needed the money for their own expansion), saw its financial standing go through a shocking slide.

The U.S. economy received a big boost when Mexico bought the entirety of the border fence, to prevent the upsurge in baby boomers tryin to move to Mexico for cheap prescriptions.  It was the biggest real estate deal since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and don’t think there weren’t people in Washington regretting that move, either.

The second (or was it third?) wave of the recession hit in 2015, when half the Republican senators and about 20% of the Democrats, were found to have taken huge stock options in several of the banks that were “too big to fail”.  The resulting scandal not only took down those politicians, but the banking industry itself.   Emergency legislation was rammed through and what had been branch banks on practically every corner of every city were turned overnight into independent “home town banks”, with government bailout money, for the only time in history, being shared more or less fairly among them all.  Some thrived, some failed, but there was a mini-boom in the printing of new business cards and stationery.

Meantime, practically all of the “greatest generation” passed on, due to a combination of old age and cut-backs in Medicare, apparently taking their “can-do/make do” spirit and know-how with them.

Young people in their 20’s, who had come of age with an ingrained and total faith in the internet, and their own pre-ordained fame and fortune, at first continued to seek answers online.  Unfortunately, with the shaky economy, all the major internet search engines were forced to start on-line usage metering in order to keep operational, since they were no longer able to make money by advertising.  No one was buying anything.  The 20-somethings were befuddled until the most forward-looking of their generation began to strike out, putting on coats and ties (a curiously unisex ’70’s fashion throw-back) and hitting the bricks to job-hunt face-to-face.  Others, of course, followed.  Many were stunned to encounter humans of other age brackets, who, however inconceivably, seemed to have something to contribute that might be of use.

The period was hard on everyone, as the new reality was still sinking in.  We had lived in a culture where constant new technological advances were eagerly anticipated, and people regarded every new gadget as a life necessity.  Therefore, everyone was bewildered, unnerved and depressed when the flow of these new products slowed to a halt.  Third world countries began to horde the valuable minerals and rare natural resources required for production, so that, over time, used cell phones, MP3 players, laptops and other items, became of greater value, and an unanticipated business grew in technological repairs.

Like Cuba, after the 1959 revolution shut the country down, and old cars were kept going for decades, so now were iPhones and iPods kept alive by “shade-tree techies”, so named because, with the periodic power outages and the rising summer temperatures, more and more people took to moving tables and chairs outside to do their work.

One upside of this was that the obesity problem began to dissipate.  Abruptly un-tethered from their devices (power outages), and from their cars (gas shortages), the hypnotic addictions of the first part of the 21st century were broken, and at least the strong survived.

Of course, this survival of the “fittest” had already begun, in terms of technology, as so many people had been killed crossing streets or driving while fixated on their “smart” phones (not so smart after all).  Another side effect of this shift was that, denied access to constant communication, more and more people came to a shared conclusion, which was that they really didn’t like or care about most of those other people anyway.  A mini-boom in body-language expertise rose to meet the demands of newly-discovered non-virtual communication.

And since life had slowed down so much, there was even less trivia about their lives worth sharing.  Who wants to read a tweet that says, “still sitting under the tree…”?

On the other hand, actually sitting under a tree didn’t turn out to be so bad.
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