Thursday, October 28, 2010

I don't know. What are YOU gonna be?

c. David Grim (taken 10/23/10)

Every Halloween it's the same story. I hear about all the cool things to do and I want to enage fully in the spirit of the season. I love this holiday, as I think I made clear in an earlier post. Yet somehow I always get too distracted to put together a costume. I get an invitation to a party that suggests that I don a disguise, yet I end up feeling too lazy to bother. It just doesn't seem worth the effort at the time. Besides, what would I be? I guess I could go out to one of those megastores and figure it out. I could rent a pre-made thing and be done with it. I could even just get a mask. But I never do.

Have I ever worn a costume? Sure. Back in the day I actually gave some thought to what I'd be weeks ahead of time. But other than teh time I was inspired by teh movie "Dead Presidents", I've always been overshadowed. I've had a few friends that have really put a lot of energy and time into making their own stuff to wear. One guy used to use what he learned from the world of stage make-up to create ensembles that would make me retch just to look at them. On one particularly memorable occasion he donned the look of a burn victim, complete with pus-filled blisters that he would cut into periodically with a razor blade when no one was looking. I couldn't even eat M and M's at that party.

Another friend used to regularly make an elaborate spectacle out of himself. He made a suit completely out of bubble wrap and wore it over his tighty-whitey's. Another time he chose a Hawaiian shirt and carried around a jerry-rigged beachcombing device. He had fun putting that in people's faces all night. His most offensive selection was when he chose to be a "special needs" student for Halloween. I'm not going into the details of that get-up. People were either entertained or scandalized by that. There was very little middle ground. It's really a shame that I don't see him anymore. I always miss him especially around this time of the year.

In recent years I have let my reticence to put something together serve as an excuse to skip the festivities altogether. Inevitably, if I show up in regular clothes I end up feeling lame compared with all the folks that made the effort. Then I promise myself that I'll try harder next year. But it doesn't happen. This time around I just went out resolved to enjoy other people's costumes without feeling self-conscious. And I took my camera with me. It turns out that the way I've been shooting the last few years is particularly conducive to shooting subjects with make-up and garish clothing. So I had lots of fun regarless.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tom Corbett is a Sell-Out.

c. David Grim (taken 10/23/10)

I'll freely admit that I don't know a whole lot about the Marcellus Shale deposits, nor do I completely understand all the issues surrounding the leasing of Pennsylvania lands for drilling. To this date I've mostly been keeping my ears and eyes open, and slowly gathering whatever information I might glean about this topic. I have some friends who are active in promoting awareness about what's going on, and I've heard their viewpoints. But I'm not sure exactly how I stand on it all.

The truth is that I would definitely err on the side of caution. I've had a bit of exposure to the documentary "Gasland", that told the story of a cross-country roadtrip taken by filmmaker Josh Fox, who was on a mission to uncover the real deal regarding drilling. What he uncovered is some pretty nasty stuff that I won't try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that there is a very real danger that our water table will be polluted by the activities of the gas drilling companies. Obviously those entities are much more concerned about making huge profits than protecting the health of those who live in the areas that they seek to operate. that should be no surprise.

So why do so few of our local and state politicians seem worried about the potentially devastating effects of drilling? They are being bought off. Tom Corbett, Republican nominee for PA Governor, has received almost a million dollars (to date) from gas drilling interests. He has worked strenuously (alongside his Republicans cronies in the PA Senate) to kill the proposed severance tax increases for drilling in Pennsylvania. He claims that he is acting to ensure that jobs stay here in the state. Of course this is a ridiculous contention, as the Marcellus Shale deposits can't get up and move down South to avoid any taxes that might be levied.

At least Ed Rendell is doing something about this. He has placed a moratorium on opening up new state forest lands for leasing by drilling companies. He has pointed out that every other state that contains Marcellus Shale deposits already has a severance tax above and beyond what any GOP legislator in PA is willing to administer. But the PA Senate has stonewalled, and now their session has lapsed without any action. Rendell's response is at least a symbolic gesture of resistance against the power of the corporations. But the measure doesn't stop the drilling that has already started in PA state-owned forests. And it will be overturned if Corbett wins the election. He is already bought and paid for.

The troubling thing is that NO ONE in power in PA is suggesting that maybe it would be a good idea to follow the state of New York and ban fracking altogether. The only reason to stumble ahead and allow unfettered drilling without a public investigation of its hazards, and a resulting dialog, is the desperate drive for mad profits. The corporations that have come here to do this are from out-of-state, and any profits they extract from our land will be taken out as well. They are even employing mostly out-of-state workers. Most tragically, they are despoiling our natural resources, and Corbett doesn't want them to get taxed? And he seeks to "serve" as state executive? Why not just elect a drilling company CEO instead?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Won't Be Seeing You Later!

c. David Grim (taken 10/17/10)

I'm not sure exactly why, but I have a habit of avoiding reunions. It doesn't really matter what the nature of the get-together is, I just don't enjoy them all that much. Perhaps if it's a few friends getting together after years of absence... that could be alright. Sometimes it's refreshing to find out what people are up to. But organized nostalgia strikes me as just a bit pathetic. If the times and people to be remembered were great, I'd rather just let those glory days live in my memory unsullied. On the other hand if things were bad in high school (and they were for most people for at least part of time), the last choice anyone is going to make is to attend a reunion.

Even though I had a reasonably pleasant experience starting around the end of tenth grade, I wouldn't be anxious to go to any gatherings of alumni even if that were a possibility. Apparently the treasurer of "our class" embezzled all the funds we had saved up, and the president was in prison until recently (now I hear she might be dead, or maybe I have everything reversed somehow). That makes it extremely easy to pretend that I'm not even from my home town. I never have to go back now that my entire family has moved outside the city limits. Good stuff... no temptation to trip the light fantastic with the grown up versions of folks I didn't really like once upon a time.

And college reunions just seem completely beside the point. Do people ever really attend those things? I do get the opportunity to visit my old fraternity house once a year around homecoming time. I've only done it like twice in the last fifteen years. I'm not like most of those on the arts scene who deny ever having had truck with conventional culture. I enjoyed my time in the fraternity a lot. Indeed the experience helped me reach out to a group of people I likely would have never associated with in any other case. In turn that exposed me to a world of ideas I wasn't aware of. But that doesn't mean I need to revisit those who joined me on that path. I'm NOT that curious about how everyone is doing, and in the instances where I might care... I have Facebook to get my answers from afar.

This past weekend I was even invited to go to a reunion of folks who worked on a large sculpted head of a stag in the Rankin steel mill. I would have no doubt had fun and seen plenty of artists that I knew. Still the only involvement I had with the building of that monstrous thing was the clandestine commando raid a couple of friends and I made years ago to photograph it. I enjoyed that... it was impressive and all. But there was no reason for me to go to any reunion. I was happy to let those who were actively involved reminisce without obstruction from me. It's too bad I missed out on any refreshments, and that's my main regret.

When it comes down to it, I don't want to talk too much about what I've been up to recently anyway. It might sound like a litany of complaint, and if it did, I would feel ungrateful. My life isn't bad. In fact it's a damn sight better than I had any reason to expect it would be coming out of college. So it's not like I wouldn't have anything to crow about. Still I tend to focus on my deficiencies, and I'm not all that adept at receiving compliments. That combination makes for a very awkward approach to reunions. It's better that I simply continue to avoid them altogether.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Strange Death of Harvey Pekar.

c. David Grim (taken 10/23/10)

This past July I was saddened to learn of the death of Harvey Pekar. He was a crucial figure in the development of "art comics"- one of the most dynamic and exciting of all modern-day mediums. Perhaps it's because there are still so few people who know that these works exist outside of the mainsteam of crap that they are exposed to day in/day out, but it's true that so many of the best creators within the field seem down-to-earth and accessible. They aren't (for the most part) getting rich on their efforts. They aren't (generally) celebrities. So they often live lives that fly under the radar.

Harvey Pekar wasn't like that. Hell... he made multiple appearances on David Letterman, even getting into a genuine feud with the talk show host over his corporate sponsors. And a movie was made documenting his life and work. He collaborated with R. Crumb, perhaps the most famous comics artist alive today. Still, he lived a working-class life, and often made that milieu the centerpiece of his art. He told quotidian stories, and employed some intensely talented cartoonists in order to illustrate them.

But what's the deal here? Why am I bringing up this man, months after his unfortunate final demise? It's because of something I read recently on (of all places) the Onion AV pages. Apparently Pekar died as a result of "an accidental overdose of antidepressants". In July the coronor in Cuyahoga County ruled that he died of "natural causes". Now the story has changed, long after the fact. The official record now says that Pekar's death resultyed from an "improper combination of fluoxetine and bupropion, better known as Prozac and Wellbutrin". How does that happen, anyway?

I've got PLENTY of friends currently on a spectrum of maintenance drugs prescribed by their respective psychiatrists (and sometimes on the advice of physician assistants). Unlike the entirety of history up until the last couple decades, chemical solutions to psychological ailments have been well-accepted by the majority of the population. Many even take their efficacy for granted. I'm neither rabidly pro- or anti-pharma. I've known people that have (according to my own best judgment) received noticable benefits by being on a regimen of one antidepressant or another. But I can't help wondering nowadays if no one really knows where we are going with this trend.

Have you ever heard of death by antidepressant overdose?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tis the Season to Haunt,

c. David Grim (taken 7/13/08)

Does the fact that I sometimes feel like going to haunted houses make me immature? I'm beginning to fell like it might, mostly because I don't know anyone else my age who'd want to go to one with me. I swear it's just the season that puts these thoughts into my head.

When I was growing up I remember checking out all kinds of crap- especially once I hit my tween years. The smell of Fall makes me think about waiting in long lines waiting to see one or another scary seasonal attraction. I can almost bring back the anticipation I felt, wondering what kind of creepy delights awaited me at the head of the line.

Growing up on the East Coast during the early and mid-80's, I imagine the commercials for local Halloween destinations like Brigantine Castle had to be virtually inescapable. That place was like the Holy Grail for kids in smelling distance of New Jersey. It was billed as an extremely scary haunt... the type of place that would expel the cowardly like an allergen. No boy wanted to be the one to have to leave before making it all the way through the tour.

But we didn't have to drive for an hour-and-a-half to check out a scare-fest. Sometimes the stuff put together by local clubs was the best. The rickety nature of the constructions, and the amateur quality of the projects made them extra unpredictable and thus much more anxiety-inducing. The workers in some joints would even make physical contact with those going through... this, of course, before they made such things illegal. And the times were much less commercialized, so you weren't inundated with trendy movie tie-ins. People actually had to be creative.

Anyway, I'm really not trying to be the "old guy" carried away by long-lost memories. I'm sure that kids nowadays have their own special scary experiences for the holiday that they will remember someday with much pleasure. Hell, I know that rural youth tend to invest a lot of time and energy trying to find spooky barns and corn mazes inhabited with ghouls and spectres. And meanwhile city kids have their own spectrum of fearsome phenomena. Perhaps in a few years I'll be checking that kind of thing out with my son, and I'll have another set of memories to be nostalgic about.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flea-Tique at the Mine.

c. David Grim (taken 6/12/04)

Weird. No matter how long I spend in this city, I'm always finding out about spots in the region that are worth visiting. You'd think I'd have about exhausted the strange sights around Pittsburgh. But apparently this stuff runs both broad and deep. Have you ever heard of the Tour-Ed Mine in Tarentum? I don't understand how I've missed this over the years. It's billed as Western Pennsylvania's Premiere Mine Attraction (!). Check out the site HERE.

The funny thing is that I ended up on top of this abandoned mining operation for reasons entirely unrelated to taking a look at the vast underworld of long-gone work. It was an odd coincidence that I found out that you could actually take a ride below the surface. I was there to check out Flea-Tique, which is held on the third Sunday of the month, May through October. I ran into a guy I know named Dino at a party, and he told me that he sold his freshly-made bread at the event. He described the place in a way that made it seem worth a visit.

Even though my friend and I didn't get up until after 10AM, it was still worth making the trip. I can get a bit uptight about making a late start for these sales, so when I got a call closer to noon than my ideal starting time, I was doubtful about the entire proposition. But it turned out that in the case of Fleatique you don't necesssarily have to be the first one there. Part of the reason that is true is because of the sheer mass and diversity of the offerings. There are rows and rows of tables with items you might expect to see, and a lot that you probably wouldn't. Even if you don't intend on buying much, it can be a lot of fun to look around.

Also, the vendors at Flea-Tique generally know what they have and what it is worth. You're not going to take someone unawares... not in this age of the Internet. If you get a super deal, it's probably not because you are smarter than the dealer, but because he/she is sick of toting it around. I imagine this especially applies on the last sale of the season. I went home with some old postcards of the Jersey shore and a children's book about a family of bottles. My buddy bought a chaise lounge at a very reasonable price, and we went home satisfied and willing to return again next year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Virtual Trip to Atlantic City in its Glory.

c. David Grim (taken 6/16/07)

After a spat of science-related reads, I recently picked up "The Last Good Time" by Jonathan Van Meter. It tells the story of the first century of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like several other Northeastern corridor urban centers, I remember AC as a place for my parents to bemoan and avoid in the 1970's. It was clearly a scary place to drive through for a family with young kids. Later on I remember going to the 9th National Sports Card Convention on the Jersey Shore in 1988. My dad and I stopped by at a McDonald's on the way and I had an egg McMuffin and some orange juice. Unfortunately I got food poisoning and spent the day puking up orange material. I didn't even get to check out the displays I had anticipated with so much pleasure.

The last time I was in Atlantic City was a few years ago when my father rented a beach house in Ocean City so my brother and his family could come north on a visit from Florida. When a father-son night trip to the casinos was planned, I tagged along to take photos on the boardwalk. It was surreal wandering around by myself close to midnight on a week night. As I explored the scene I wondered what the resort town must have looked like when it was one of the premiere beach destinations in the nation. To discover that i would have had to go back in time four or five decades.

Jonathan Van Meter has documented one aspect of Atlantic City in his book. He concentrated on the shady dealings of the informal political hierarchy of the town throughout the bulk of the 1900's. The story of "Nucky" Johnson (an increasingly legendary figure what with the success of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire") is Van Meter's prelude to his examination of Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, the locally famous owner of the 500 Club where Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin became nationally famous as a comedic duo. D'Amato's connections to entertainers, politicians and mobsters interweave the tale of Atlantic City's rise-and-fall.

If you like hearing trashy stories of famous figures like Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shorr, Sam Giancana, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell Exner, and the Kennedy Clan, you will find much to enjoy in Van Meter's account. And there is no shortage of personal drama around "Skinny" D'Amato either. Speculation about his purported mob ties is just the beginning of this ripping yarn. The tragic events surrounding the lives of his family are equally as absorbing. For instance D'Aamato's only son Angelo was not just charged, but actually convicted of TWO murders. If the reader feels like Van Meter is getting off-track with his detailed descriptions of AC politics, (s)he mustn't worry- there are no doubt more salacious details about its inhabitants' vices on the forthcoming pages.

For as unwholesome a read as "The Last Good Time" was, I did feel surprisingly edified. Perhaps it just provided the diversion my life has necessitated as of late. I got through it quick and had fun the whole way through. And now I want to make a return to that glittering stink hole on the Atlantic. Even if I choose never to lay a dollar on a gaming table, I am sure that I can find plenty of entertainment to distract me now that I have some historical context to bring along with me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Long-Awaited Trip to the Children's Museum.

c. David grim (taken 10/10/10)

For years I have been curious about the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, but for the longest time I've just had no good reason to go. After all, parents are likely to frown at a guy in his thirties poking around the place without any kids in tow. My nephews don't live anywhere close to town, and I didn't have many friends with children. It didn't matter that I was genuinely interested in what they might include in this type of destination, and that I've known artists who have worked on installations for the Museum. I just wasn't willing to creep anyone out by going by myself. Given my experience this past weekend, I suspect that was all a wise decision.

Every year the Allegheny Regional Asset District sponsors free admission to all sorts of tourist attractions around the 'Burgh, and this past month I took advantage of several of the offers. But it was the Children's Museum I was looking forward to the most, as my son has just about reached the age when he can enjoy something like that (or at least that's what I suspected). We got down to the North Side before it even opened and grabbed a parking space unnecessarily far away. When we got near the entrance we took our place at the end of a long snaking line that went along the side of the building. Fortunately, since no one had to stop to pay admission, we moved through fairly fast.

Once inside we entered a Mr. Roger's Neighborhood set that seemed pretty bland to me. But E. seemed to like the interactive displays there- especially the player piano which he proceeded to monopolize in some crazy-looking charade of early Stevie Wonder. He then got up and sprinted into the next area with me following behind, jostling other little tykes and their hapless parents out of the way. In the next room he threw little stones down a covered, rounded chute with nails on its inner surface, and the resulting sounds approximated a tinkly jingle. And then I helped him spin a large cantilevered disc with sand along its periphery. The action propelled the sand in fascinatingly trippy patterns.

From space to space I tried to keep up with his frenzied movements and distracted attentions. He loved the opportunities to tinker with constructions, even though he didn't understand enough to really build anything substantial. He also liked watching the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that sent large plastic balls along wires at ceiling level. But what he seemed the most excited by was a large metal spiral slide that I discovered (to my chagrin) that he couldn't descend without me accompanying him. It was a bit uncomfortable and I resisted his efforts to convince me to do it again.

Less enchanting was the story-teller in the downstairs theater. At first I thought the guy was a hit because E. was laughing boisterously, but then with continued repetitions I realized E.'s reactions were a mocking mimicry of mirth. It was at that point he decided he was ready to leave and check out his favorite familiar playground. I brought him outside for a bit to check out the large sandbox and the rather enigmatic sculptural effects on the side of the building. Then we exited through an external gate and called it a day. In the end I got lots of photos and about an hour-and-a-half of intense diversion. I'd call that a success. I'm sure we'll be back in a year or so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pittsburgh Weekend Art Events: 10/15-16/10.

c. David Grim (taken 9/25/10)


Lawrenceville has made attempts at an art crawl in the past. Years ago, when Digging Pitt was still open, a few of the neighborhood galleries made a half-hearted attempt to coordinate their efforts on Thursday nights, once a month. Unfortunately proper organization was always lacking. After that the businesses west of the 40th Street bridge got their act together, and sponsored what ended up being a fairly successful series of "Final Fridays". Even the retail stores stayed open late, and people began attending these events regularly. Eventually this too fizzled out, but I am at a loss as to why. Now another opportunity for "after-business-hours" fun along Butler is at hand.

Gallerycycle involves nine venues and starts at 6PM. It's part of what Bike PGH is promoting as a "Car-free Fridays" initiative. It looks like Fe Gallery (4102 Butler), with its "Out-of-Whack" multi-artist opening reception, and Wildcard's (4209 Butler) first anniversary group show, "Strangely Familiar: Uncanny Works on Paper" are the highlights of the evening. The latter features work by such local stalwarts as Mary Tremonte, Mike Budai, and Thommy Conroy, as well as relative newcomers like Heidi Tucker and Mario Zucca. That should be massively entertaining, folks!

Check out the schedule HERE.

If instead, you are willing to weather the hassles of the South Side on a weekend night- you must check out "Wicked Bitches" (7-10:30 PM), a group show of female artists at the Elixir Lounge (1500 Carson Street) that benefits the Animal Rescue League of Western PA. Pay your $5 and see the work of Pittsburgh luminaries like Lissa Brennan and Jenn Wertz.


Come down to Guardian Storage (2839 Liberty Avenue, 6th floor) in the Strip District for PIX, Pittsburgh's FIRST independent comics expo. The expo runs from 10-5PM on both Saturday and Sunday. This amazing production is presented by the Toonseum, and sponsored by Copacetic Comics Co., The Sprout Fund and The National Cartoonists Society Foundation. There will be tons of local and regional exhibitors and a few heavy hitters like Kevin Huizenga, Ed Piskor, Jim Rugg, AND Frankie Santoro. Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pittsburgh Zombie Fest 2010.

c. David Grim (taken 10/10/10)

Despite the more than two decades that I have spent in Pittsburgh, I'd never attended a zombie walk before this weekend. If you know anything at all about the walking undead, you're certainly aware that this city has a special relationship to the grotesque and slow moving creatures. George Romero made the seminal movie in the genre- "The Night of the Living Dead", and he followed it with a succession of likeminded flicks over the last thirty years. And there's Tom Savini too... award-winning special effects artist who has worked on the Romero films, as well as "Creephow", "Friday the 13th" and "Maniac". Savini was born in Pittsburgh, and Romero attended CMU, and shot some of his earliest footage here.

Although the very first zombie-related public-event on record happened in 2001 in Sacramento, CA, horror luminaries like Savini and Romero inspire legions of fans that want to avoid tarnishing their legacy. Perhaps that's why the largest gatherings of folks in zombie make-up are traditionally held in the Burgh. On this past Sunday, hordes of monstrous citizens collected in Downtown's Market Square for this year's Zombie Fest (an event which is supposed to benefit the World Food Bank). The first of this particular series was in 2006 at the Monroeville mall (set of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead") and it established a Guinness Record for such gatherings with 894 walkers. Naturally, that standard has been eclispsed multiple times since.

Truthfully, I had no real intention of going to this thing until I ended up at a friend's house too early in the day to start watching movies on television. It was way too nice a day to sit inside, and since I knew that something was going on I suggested we check it out. My friend is also a local art photographer who I knew would be game for shooting zombies. We found a parking space and started looking for the festivities. It wasn't too hard to find the center of activity, as there was a huge stage set up, a registration table mobbed by costumed creeps, and tons of people milling about and taking in the scene.

Some participants really get into the spirit of the event and the characters they are playing. They shamble along and ape for the many cameras. Others sport colored contacts that make them look especially spooky. No doubt an excessive amount of man (and women) hours go into outfitting those who attend such an extravaganza. There is certainly a healthy amount of good-natured one-upmanship, as fanatics try to be excessively more gross than the rest. And then there are those with a sense of humor- furries with stuffed animals protruding from their mouths, the "Where's Waldo" zombie-version, and such-like. There was even a small clan of inevitable Marcellus Shale protestors seizing the opportunity to press home their point.

I'll admit to having had a certain amount of goofy fun wandering around, and looking at the creativity on display. I wasn't there very long, so perhaps I'm not very qualified to say, but it certainly seemed that the crowd was extremely orderly for a collection of zombies. People were freely partaking of alcoholic beverages in the open air, yet I didn't see the type of boisterous behavior I might expect from an outdoor weekend party. I'd say that it was truly a family-friendly event... at least for those with a strong stomach.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


c. David Grim (taken 8/20/08)

Lately I've found myself reading a series of science books. I picked them up at Copacetic Comics a couple of months ago, and now I'm working my way through them. I hardly want to speculate on the mood I must have been in when I took them home. It's rare for me to be drawn to this type of material. So often it's written in a manner that's tough for a layman to get through. Without a lot of background in physics or chemistry or biology, I have a bit of struggle relating to these concepts. But I am aware that some authors have developed an accessible style that allows all levels of readers to appreciate their work.

There is something about the scientific method that makes people who engage in it rather dry. Artifice and unconventionality tend to be heavily discouraged. The stories involved are supposed to be communicated in a straightforward and direct manner, and precise descriptions employing technical language are hard to avoid. This all means that scientists are stereotypically characterized as square and pallid. That's not a typical equation for engrossing accounts on the page.

Yet now and again I run across someone capable of translating difficult ideas and research in a n entertaining and elucidating way. For instance, right now I'm reading "The Three-Pound Enigma" by Shannon Moffett. She wrote it while she was in medical school, and I find it remarkable how deft she is as an author. A lot of the stuff included in her selection of interviews with famous and accomplished neurologists should be completely over my head. But somehow I get it, and I even enjoy it. It doesn't hurt that I am specifically curious about the mysteries of the brain. Still it would have been very easy to present this information in a way that would have completely eluded me.

Anyway, I don't know how useful it will be for me to corrupt some of the ideas that particularly attract me in Moffett's work. I may or may not get into that stuff on here. Specifically the function the hippocampus serves in memory formation is fascinating. But Moffett is so elegant in her explanations that I'd much rather simply recommend that you track down her book and buy it as soon as possible. It simply seems like essential information for anyone in modern day society. And I don't have the chops to set it down in this venue. I have to give full props to those fighting the good fight.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Early Relationships.

c. David Grim (taken 10/2/10)

It's interesting to consider that every social relationship that we ever form will mirror the very first bonds (or lack of same) that we made with other human beings. Naturally that's usually with the mother, because she is more often there at the beginning than any other individual . Think about how well you did with your Mom and extract from there. What level of attachment did you form with her (or whomever raised you)? When you take these connections into account, are the qualities of your relationships surprising? It's difficult to be objective with self-assessments, so try hard to be honest with yourself.

I've been thinking about this concept because I meet a lot of new people every year. I am in a position of authority with a lot of them, so the situations that make the first impressions are skewed my way. I am expected to set the tones of these relationships. Obviously any such proposition is a two-way situation. If the person I'm interacting with has a stubborn idea of what type of relationship (s)he will have with me, then that intention is likely to stick, regardless of the power dynamic that exists at the time of contact.

To think that we are constantly recapitulating our very first experiences with bonding is a remarkable and sobering revelation (if true). It puts an inordinate amount of emphasis on early social exhanges. After all, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I do believe in telescopic philosophies. Social laws have corollaries, whether you apply them to the macro or micro levels.

Ultimately, one important way we define our own identities is through the relationships we form with other people. Whatever personality characteristics we think we have will likely be reinforced through our interactions. It certainly seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps I'm mistaken and we are born with immutable traits that leave us unchanged no matter what we experience when we are in the process of personality formation. But I doubt it.

Research with monkeys at the National Institute of Health* has shown that babies tend to take on the qualities of their foster parents, regardless of what they initially brought to the table. This suggests that nurture (to a large extent) determines our social approach. How long we retain the flexibility to change has yet to be determined, as far as I know. If we are aware of the fundamental forces determining how we engage with our fellows, can we choose to get off to a better start with someone new?

* This information comes to me by way of "Love at GOON Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection" (2002) by Deborah Blum.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What's so bad about Harry?

c. David Grim (taken 8/19/08)

Sometimes I do get flummoxed by politics and the various pet causes that people adopt. For instance I recently read "Love at GOON Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection" (2002), and its author (Deborah Blum) attached an epilogue to the book that outlined the objections animal rights activists have to Harlow's legacy. Harry Harlow was an eminent psychologist who put together a lot of essential work using rhesus monkeys in the mid-20th Century. Apparently he has also been vilified for his approach.

Specifically Harlow did studies involving the isolation of baby monkeys from their mothers. He put them in cages with artificial constructions meant to simulate the basic shape of female adult monkeys. In some instances they were hooked up to a milk supply, and in others they were wire structures wrapped in terry cloth, with basic wooden croquet balls for heads. The infants who had to contend with these surrogates experienced significantly debilitating stress that had long term measurable effects on their ability to socialize throughout their life spans.

For other trials the scientist developed apparatuses that he informally referred to as the "Pit of Despair" and the "Rape Rack". By all measures these inventions were torture devices used to provoke severe emotional difficulties in the animals. It certainly didn't help that Harlow demonstrated a cavalier approach to the sensitivities of those disturbed by his methods. While the times during which he operated were radically different, he still managed to stand out for his caustic wit and lack of social graces. He managed to offend feminists, administrators, and his cohorts.

But his work was in the service of a vitally important end- proving the importance of love and affection in the normal development of the higher-order animals. Before he published his results, the scientific community believed that mothers should keep a certain distance from their offspring in order to discourage overdependence and maintain a sterile environment for infants. People scoffed at the ideas that touch was crucially important for ideal human development and proper socialization.

It was only after the horrifying results of his experiments (some of the monkeys actually expired from the emotional distress) that society in general realized just how inhumane subjecting animals to social isolation could be. Of course this had serious ramifications for the parenting experts that had been advising a "hands-off" strategy for decades. An entire paradigm was shifted through Harlow's controversial work. Without it modern day critics wouldn't even know the true extent of damage that could be caused simply by separating a mother and child. It seems therefore a little ridiculous for the armchair ethicists to take pot shots at the man's legacy from the 21st Century.

Anyway, I don't understand the complete resistance that some have to animal testing. While replicating these experiments for the purpose of training future researchers seems excessively cruel, I maintain that the initial work was absolutely necessary for our scientific advancement. And it so happens that we can now identify the causes of so much suffering, and legitimize the avoidance of practices that hinder ideal growth patterns. The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, relying on what can be fatally-flawed "conventional wisdom". No thanks.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who has eyes on the back of their heads?

c. David Grim (taken 8/28/10)

If you read my post about Sheldrake's "The Sense of Being Stared At", you probably guessed that there are some fairly provocative ideas contained within the book. One of the remarkable conclusions from his research involved the comparative abilities of different demographic groups to detect when they were being observed from behind. In a seemingly exhaustive series of studies in Amsterdam (with 18,793 participants) it was found that the most successful group was "Boys under the age of 8", and the least successful was "Girls from 9-16".

Why should this be?

To begin with, I have a bit of difficulty coming up with theories as to why those boys performed the best in the experiments. Perhaps it has something to do with the intuitive nature of children. Certainly kids younger than 8 years of age should have (in general) been able to avoid becoming too distracted by abstract concerns. Maybe that lack of "noise" allows them to be more receptive to ingrained, defense-oriented, extrasensory data that could have been selected for over millions of years. But why should it be the boys who had the most success? Perhaps it's because the males of the species require a certain level of this capability to make them good hunters. That's a plausible explanation.

And what about the girls and their relative lack of "eyes in the back of their heads"? This is a bit of a stretch (and it may get me into a spot of trouble with my female friends)... but maybe little girls are trained by the age of 9 to take being stared at for granted. They wouldn't notice anything out of the ordinary because they expect to be looked at and evaluated, as budding members of the "fairer sex". This is certainly a disturbing conclusion. While it may be a self-protecting mechanism for girls to remain largely ignorant of the many eyes assessing them (because, who in their right minds wants to be aware of being watched constantly?), it truly describes an unfortunate state of society if this is what we subject them to.

If we follow the logic of these observations, I believe we really ought to examine our values with the aim of constructing a more egalitarian society. It may be folly to try and correct for the developments of nature (and evolution), but to continue to dull the extrasensory perception of half of our population with an inordinate amount of emphasis on objectification is inexcusable.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rupert Sheldrake, "The Sense of Being Stared At"

c. David Grim (taken 8/28/10)

I recently worked my way through "The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind", by Rupert Sheldrake. The title is likely to be shelved in the "science" section of your local book store, as the author has worked as a biochemist and plant physiologist. However there might be some controversy about such a classification because Sheldrake is more famous (perhaps) for being a parapsychologist. Practitioners in the field of psychology are already up against it when it comes to seeking legitimacy as "scientists", so to have someone mucking about in subjects like ESP and Psi phenomena really tends to raise some hackles.

As the title suggests, Sheldrake seeks to examine the feeling of being observed without actually witnessing someone doing so. He claims that many folks have had such experiences, and contends that it is legitimate to apply science and its methods to characterize the,. While this may seem counterintuitive, researchers have actually attempted to study this poorly defined "sense" using laboratory experiments. Sheldrake bolsters his review of such research with a fairly extensive analysis of a database of relevant anecdotal accounts.

What amount of credibility you are willing to invest in these methods likely depends on your personal philosophy. A purely-defined "rationalist" is likely to turn his nose against such work. But if you are interested in considering materialist explanations for what most scientists would call a paranormal phenomenon, then it's all worth a read. Just don't expect unchallenged revelation. Sheldrake's theories are intriguing, yet murky. They involve the idea of the extended mind- which entails a consciousness and memory that extends beyond an individual's brain in a morphogenetic field.

I'm not going to belabor the reader with all the details of Sheldrake's theories. You can either engage this on his level, or stick with your intuitive sense of what is real. Do you believe that you can affect someone by staring a hole into the back of his head? There's nothing to stop you from trying it, say, on the bus to work. I'd suggest you employ a certain level of discretion- people are growing more hostile nowadays. Make sure to keep a detailed record, and maybe you can share your results with Mr. Sheldrake. He's very encouraging of amateur research (an attitude that a lot of his critics find offensive).

Ultimately I guess I'm undecided about the existence of Sheldrake's "extended mind". His use of the pseudopodia of amoebas ** as an analogy for intention is definitely intriguing, but seems a bit outlandish to me. I can say I've had the experience of concentrating on a person who has seemed aware of my perusal without directly acknowledging it. I've seen figure models react in very localized ways as I've attempted to render a specific body part. There does seem to be something to an unconscious awareness of being observed. Still I'm not sure what it all actually means. If Sheldrake simply means to say that we are all interconnected in a way that we have never quite acknowledged, then I guess there's nothing wrong with that.

** If a term like this piques your curiosity, then you're just going to have to track down the book or ask me about it in person.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Car vs. Bus.

c. David Grim (taken 8/3/09)

I'm going to go on the record and state that I don't really believe in precognition. In order to buy into the idea of accurately predicting the future, it seems necessary to accept determinism as a fact. There is just enough chaos involved in our reality to make such a proposition untenable. It's worth considering concepts like statistical probability, but to actually think that we know what is going to happen seems like so much hubris. That's why when I get a hunch that something is likely to occur, I can usually twist it around in my head.

Reading the Sheldrake book made me consider once again whether or not to embrace extrasensory perception as a possibility. I have had the sense in the past that something was coming that I wouldn't like- I truly believe I've had accurate forebodings of traffic accidents that I would be involved in. In fact, while thinking about whether or not I put stock in any of this stuff, I reminded myself of these previous occurrences. And then I thought that just recalling these things would bring on another road mishap. Well, what do you know...

On the way back from the coffee shop the other night I got hit by a port authority bus. I was going down the twisty road that leads from Polish Hill down into the Strip, and I got side-swiped by a behemoth that was crowding into my lane by several feet. My driver side mirror popped against the side of my car, but I didn't know what other damage had been done. The bus driver honked and went on his way. I pulled over to inspect the situation, and stood bewildered about the hit-and-run. My fender was ruined, and my headlight smashed, and the wheel well crushed in against the tire. Great.

When I got home afterward I searched for the public transit police telephone line to report the incident. Apparently the driver thought twice about leaving the scene without notifying anyone. He claimed to have continued to the top of the hill, before doubling back to see if I was alright. I have no way of knowing if this is true, and I suspect that no one else (excluding whatever passengers were along for the ride) can either. I had thought about trying to pursue the bus but I didn't know whether my car would even make it home. So I made it back to my neighborhood safely first. I discovered the authorities already knew about the event, and the cop I talked to on the phone gave me a bunch of specific information that I needed to pursue a claim.

I did later find out that government and municipal vehicles and their drivers have a sort of immunity which precludes them from ever having to reimburse an insurance company for property damage, etc. I've been told by the adjuster that I can get my deductible back if the driver is found to be at fault after the investigation, but that's where their liability ends. Ain't that a bitch?