Monday, April 30, 2007

Dream: Death threat, the supernatural way

I received a taunting death threat from someone who seemed almost supernatural because of the way the threat was delivered and the terror it inspired. I don't think I did anything about it other than to try to be alert.

It was the night before a wedding I was to attend, and I was staying in my parents' trailer. It was unfamiliar in every way, and when I looked into their bedroom I noticed that the bed seemed very small in the very large room—the opposite of what it should have been. It took up perhaps one-quarter of the room, whereas it should have been difficult to get around it. I felt confused and disoriented by everything I saw.

Naturally, I was restless and could not sleep with a supernatural death threat hanging over me. I heard someone come into my room, and I flew out of it in terror after briefly considering attacking. It proved to be a male colleague, who was to share my room.

I looked out the front windows or door, hoping to see the police watching out for me even though I had not notified them. I did not think they could do anything even if they were. I wondered if I should call them, but I'm not sure the phone was working.

Something, perhaps a noise, put me on the alert, and I found myself behind a plant in a room full of plants. The killer was going through the room systematically and gleefully killing all the plants with a spray. I held my breath, which I sensed was a futile act because the killer didn't have to hear me to know I was there. The plant-killing spree was for my benefit.

I waited, trying to decide what to do. Finally, I sent poisoned darts into the killer's head and chest, which had no effect and only confirmed my presence.

I heard two shots; they came from a .45 my brother was aiming. He had shot two women, one blonde, the other possibly brunette. I don't think that either of us was sure that the two women were the killers.

I think we had turned on a light by now. The two women did not seem quite alive or quite dead, and I sensed a malevolent presence waiting for me to let down my guard. It was in some way an anti-life force, and I never knew why it wanted to kill me specifically.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everyday poetry: "Ode to Billie Joe"

When you mention poetry to most people, you will invoke for them images of dead bards and the English majors who love them, depressed teenagers, and teenagers in teenaged love. There may be a surreptitiously rolled eye or two as well. Poetry is not for the masses, or so they think.

Of course that isn't true. Poetry is integrated into our everyday lives through popular music. In many if not most cases, song lyrics are poems accompanied by music. Lyrics and arrangements that resonate with the public become hits; those that don't languish as filler tracks.

I was reminded of the poetic nature of popular music when I heard Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" on BBC Manchester this week. The combination of the mysterious lyrics, lush arrangement, and rough vocals vaulted the song to a No. 1 spot in 1967. Later, as a nostalgia craze for the 1960s and '70s started to take root, a movie version (with one possible solution revealed) was released.

Gentry has said that she doesn't know what Billy Jo (the spelling in the lyrics) and the girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. This seems likely to me; it's also not clear, for example, that Margaret Mitchell knew any more about the future of Rhett and Scarlett than her readers. "Tomorrow is another day" tells us only that Scarlett isn't defeated and that all things are possible.

Gentry's allusions leave a number of possibilities open, none of them right or wrong. She has said that the lyrics focus on the cold, nonchalant way the girl's family discusses Billy Joe's suicide. Gentry captures the essence of small-town life and gossip. With the Vietnam War and anti-war protests dominating the news, the family turns its attention to something local that each of them knows something about. Papa says Billy Joe "never had a lick of sense"; Brother says he talked to Billy Joe after church last Sunday night and ran into him at the sawmill; and Mama mentions that the new preacher saw a girl who looked a lot like her daughter with Billy Joe, throwing something off the bridge. All of these references, and the casual ones to what seems to be a tragic suicide, are interspersed with "pass the biscuits, please" and "I'll have another piece of apple pie," as though to make the point that life goes on in its most mundane ways without room or time for emotions.

Gentry's lyrics unveil the underlying story. Brother says, "You know, it don't seem right," indicating that Billy Joe didn't seem suicidal. Now there are two mysteries: What did he (and the girl) throw off the bridge, and why did he suddenly kill himself? Are the two events related? How?

The girl's identity does not seem to be part of the mystery. She is quiet during the conversation and doesn't even comment when Brother mentions a prank played on her. and her mother notices her lack of appetite. If she is the girl who was with Billy Joe, she keeps it to herself and doesn't want anyone to know. Her family, consciously or unconsciously, add to her feelings of grief and possibly guilt.

It's not my point to resolve the questions, especially since the writer has offered no answers. Much of the song's interest lies in interpreting the clues. Does Mama emphasize "young" when talking about the new preacher to make a point to the girl about his availability as an alternative to Billy Joe? What about Choctaw Ridge is associated with "no good"? Is it a poor area, a teen hangout, or a spot with an evil past? Is the family engaging in idle gossip, or are they colluding to make a point to the girl? There are no set answers, nor should there be.

What makes "Ode to Billie Joe" poetic is the spare but effective way in which the story is told. Nothing is stated, leaving much to be inferred. By the end, through only a few details, the listener (or reader) can see how the family might represent the decline of small-town farming America. With the father dead, Brother abandons the farm for his wife and their new store in town, and the mother and daughter are left with their grief for their respective losses.

Gentry doesn't describe Choctaw Ridge or the Tallahatchie Bridge, but we don't need to know what they look like for them to serve as the song's emotional centers. The rhythm of the names, combined with their repetition, sears them into our memories. Both places are haunted by the girl who picks flowers on the ridge to throw off the bridge and by the emotions associated with an unexplained tragedy.

"Seems like nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

No fats, no carbs, no trans fats—no worries

Did you know that Marshmallow Peeps are a "fat-free food"? You would if you had looked at them during the recent Easter season. There it is, proudly proclaimed on each package of the cute confections—"a fat-free food." That should satisfy both fad dieters and those whose doctors have the annoying habit of nagging them about "bad" cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and heart disease.

Don't look under "Nutrition Information," because you may learn that (1) there is no nutrition in Marshmallow Peeps and (2) there is sugar in them. Lots of sugar. Enough sugar to sweeten an ocean of coffee and tea.

Well, no one eats Marshmallow Peeps for nutrition, anyway; it's not clear how many of us eat Marshmallow Peeps at all. Made from the connective tissues of deceased bovines, et al, Marshmallow Peeps are designed to look achingly cute in your children's baskets on Easter morning, then to harden into an inedible stale solid suitable for beaning playmates or for using in various science experiments.

Sausage party bites are, however, made for eating, or at least indulging in at social gatherings that involve large quantities of cheap American beer, preferably served directly from the keg. If you are South Beach dieting or have health concerns, do not be concerned—at least one brand of these delicacies declares that they have "NO CARBS!" Sure, there is enough fat to keep Jenny Craig, Richard Simmons, and a few dozen Bowflex machines occupied for generations, and enough salt to make a ghost of the Dead Sea, but for the carb-conscious consumer there are "NO CARBS!" Never fear, though; if you insist, you can get them from the beer.

Finally, for now, there is the dairy whose milk cartons carry the happy announcement that there are "NO TRANS FATS!" The cynical among us might note that one doesn't expect to find partially hydrogenated fats, or any of the more typical sources of trans fats, in their dairy cow excretions and that, while whole milk is still a good source of delicious fats and calories, it's not really intended to be a good source of mutant molecules like trans fats.

Clearly, the folks who package and market these food products, who are not to be confused with those who produce them, have the best interests of the dieter and the health-conscious, overweight, or obese consumer at heart. So enjoy some savory sausage bites, top them off with some sweet Marshmallow Peeps, and wash them down with some cold milk. No carbs, no fats, no trans fats, no worries. Why, you just might live forever.

Or until that first massive coronary.

Monday, April 23, 2007

As time goes by

I have no sense of time. I will think to myself that I need to do something by a certain date, say, pay the insurance, with the idea that it is far off. Then suddenly, without warning, I will be confronted by the date. In most cases, it is not procrastination or even absent-mindedness. It's a dysfunctional, deranged internal clock.


The same thing sometimes happens during the week, where in my mind I will think it's Tuesday, only it's really Thursday. This doesn't mean that I am irresponsible or that I miss deadlines. I just have to be more conscious of reminding myself of the date, and I have to do what I can right away, so that it doesn't become lost in the mists of time or the time warp created by my mind.


I experience the same confusion about life. I can't conceive of how nearly 24 years have passed since college graduation. I have few, if any, personal milestones by which to mark them—no wedding, no births, no first day of school, no first Scout badge, no graduations to the next school level. I have no great vacations to remember, no "year I went to London," "year I went to the Amazon," "year I went to Romania," "year I went to Egypt," and so forth.


My last travel of note was 10 years ago in April, a trip to San Francisco that was half business, half vacation. Since then, I've visited family members or attended the Ann Arbor Art Fair. I no longer have much opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., where one day my aunt and I got lost in Rock Creek Park. On another day, we took a quick trip to Monticello, Michie Tavern, and Ash Lawn, with a stop at Luray Caverns. While we were driving south on Skyline Drive, I saw a bobcat cross the road in front of us, going from one side of a little bridge to the other, and watched its little tail bob as it zigzagged up the hillside. This fleeting sight is one of my fondest memories. And it happened, I think, in 1993 or so. That bobcat has long since passed on, yet it seems it was only a few years ago since it startled me with its unexpectedness.


For awhile, I seemed to be in or attending a wedding every other week, which was stressful. At the time, I thought I wanted them all to be over as soon as possible so my life could return to normalcy. Now, the products of some of those unions are entering college. Didn’t I just go to the one girl’s first birthday party? Or was that really in 1990?


I've stopped watching television and listening to popular music stations, so I can't mark the years by the popular TV shows and stars or by the hit songs and performers. Everything, especially in the last 10 years, post-depression, post-stressful consulting job, has become a blur of days that are very much the same as another.


My emotions have changed, too. When I was younger, under 35, I enjoyed every change in routine, even small ones like a day trip or regular ones like visits to family. Anything that I had never done before, even something simple like a visit to Volo Bog or a Mennonite store, was the height of excitement that made boredom, loneliness, and daily frustrations at work and home tolerable.


Once in a while I think I should do or plan something to break out of this gangrenous stagnation and apathy, but there are obstacles. Sometimes they are purely practical, for example, no money or time. Sometimes they stem from my dislike (not fear) of flying. Sometimes they have other psychological foundations, like an overwhelming sense of anhedonia and that I don't deserve to do positive or enriching things for myself. I don't consciously think that, but I can't attribute my inertia and apathy to anything else, only to vague fears of something in the future.


Still, a large part of the problem is my distorted sense of time—my idea that "someday" I will do the work I want to do, take the type of vacations I think I would enjoy, meet and spend time with people who have come to mean something to me, and treat myself to what I deserve as much as anyone.


What does "someday" mean? My life is half over, my health is starting its middle-aged decline, and at best I may have 20–25 good years left. My aunt, who lived a very full life, died at age 71 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. I may have 27 years left, or I may have one day—who is to say?


Why do I have such difficulty living for today? Why do I have such difficulty living? Why do I have such difficulty answering those questions? And why must I ask them at all?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Jean-Luc Picard, CEO

One day a few years ago as I was watching a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it suddenly struck me: Captain Jean-Luc Picard runs the Enterprise like a CEO runs a corporation. After that, I could never enjoy the show as much or in quite the same way as I had before. It began reminding me too much of work.

I am not sure what triggered this minor epiphany. When I began working in 1983, it was not in a conventional corporate environment. Although I had a supervisor, I rarely saw her in that role. There were no regular meetings, no status reports. We got together primarily for the obligatory biannual evaluation and obligatory pat on the back, and that was pretty much it.

As for teamwork, I was part of a tiny department, with two or three full-time people and one or two temporary employees. We had no team meetings and no formal discussions about the team, our processes, or our issues. We did our jobs, trying to stay on schedule so as not to cause problems for the next person. We had few of the trappings of a team and virtually no leadership, but perhaps that is why we were as cohesive a team as any that invests time and efforts in meetings, retreats, bonding, outings, and so forth.

So when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, I didn't recognize the officers as a corporate-style team or Jean-Luc Picard as a CEO. Now I do.

Picard's style of leadership marked a departure from that of James T. Kirk, whose command was more militaristic. Subordinates kept him informed and sometimes made recommendations; he made command decisions. On rare occasions, Kirk might call a meeting of the senior officers to talk about the situation, but much of the discussion seemed to be within his own mind, where often he seemed to have made his decision already. Sometimes, Spock, Dr. McCoy, or Scotty questioned his actions or followed his orders only reluctantly, but in most cases only when he would prove to be impaired in some way. Generally, his word was final. It was this combination of rapid internal weighing of the options and quick, incisive decision making that gives some fans the impression that Kirk was a better leader than Picard. For the 1960s, he may have been. But Picard was a 1990s kind of captain.

The bridge between styles may have been Spock. In "The Galileo Seven," he made command decisions that his subordinates did not agree with, partly because to them the needs of the individual should carry as much weight as the needs of the many. The crew questioned Spock's decisions and orders openly while Spock, who was not a natural leader, defended his logic and thereby exposed his weakness as a leader. In our society, leaders do not defend themselves or what they do.

At one point, Spock began to question his own choices, just as the crew did. Spock fails to achieve full leadership, while the crew does not gain true democracy.

The 1990s corporate dynamic of leadership culminated in Jean-Luc Picard, whose answer to nearly every crisis was to call a meeting of the senior staff. Fortunately, such crises announced themselves hours before a solution was needed, or the threatening aliens were courteous enough to allow a grace period long enough in which to hold a meeting, even an impromptu one. This gave Picard the opportunity to demand, "Options?" at which point Geordi, Data, Wesley, Worf, Crusher, or O'Brien came up with a technological or, less often, tactical solution. After a brief discussion of the risks and possible outcomes, Picard visibly weighed the ramifications and then said, "Make it so" or "Proceed" in his deepest, most decisive, and most authoritative tone.

Sometimes, two choices were proffered, and Picard had to make two decisions—to do something or to do nothing, and to use Officer A's suggestion or Officer B's idea. In at least one episode, "Cause and Effect," he made the wrong choice not once, but several times,leading to the demise of the Enterprise over and over again. Only in an entertainment vehicle does a commander get to make the life-or-death error multiple times and still emerge with his ship and crew intact and unscathed.

In "Attached," he and Dr. Crusher had to decide which way to go to escape. He paused for an instant. Then he said:
"This way."
"You don't really know, do you ?"
"What ?"
"I mean, you are acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you are only guessing. Do you do this all the time ?"
"No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence."
No, leaders do not always know what they are doing, or they do know but hope to evade the consequences (like the executives of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and so on and on and on).

The key to leadership lies not only in making good or correct decisions, both routinely and under duress. Many people are capable of consistently making good choices; I am, and so are you. Otherwise. more of us would be utter failures at managing the business of our own lives. (Yes, sometimes we do fail, but mostly we make good choices.)

But I am not, and do not wish to be, a leader. A strategist, yes; a leader, no. A leader's intellect, ability, and personality combined inspire confidence and belief. People don't argue with leaders because they fear them or what the leader can do to them; they don't argue with leaders because they respect and trust them. Both Kirk and Picard, and every senior officer portrayed on their ships, had earned that respect and trust from the crew.

The corporate environment is not so different in its day-to-day operations. Of course, there is usually no threat of Romulan or Cardassian ships hanging off the starboard bow, and imminent danger to life. There are, however, bad leaders at all levels—those ho consistently make questionable decisions, and others who are neither respected nor trusted. They rise to their leadership position through their connections, self-marketing, ability to take credit for the ideas and work of others, and plain luck. Their lack of genuine leadership ability soon shows to everyone they fail to inspire or lead. At best, the organization muddles along, failing to thrive. At worst, it rots from the inside out.

It disappointed me to think of Picard as a CEO, but he is at least a CEO with a an adventurer's heart and a poet's soul. That is why I think I would respect and trust him, despite my inherent distrust of leaders and the very idea of leadership.

And that is why he is captain of the Enterprise, not the chairman of Federated Conglomeration of United Intergalactic Foods.

To serve with such a leader would be a challenge, a thrill, and an inspiration.

Instead, I work with what I have.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Why?

The question "Why?" is part of what drives the human experience. Small children ask "Why?" (or "Why not?") incessantly, and those with great minds—da Vinci, Newton, Einstein—ask "Why?" and "How?" about the fundamental nature of the universe and existence.

The rest of us are left asking why someone would kill 32 fellow travelers before turning against himself. The need for what we call "closure" is also an essential part of the human experience.

The simplest answer for many is to say that he was a "monster." But what is a monster if not a human—a horribly flawed human? In Christianity, humanity was defined as flawed when it defied God, who cast it from the Garden of Eden. Literature exists to expose and describe the flaws of heroes and anti-heroes and those around them. Without flaws, we would not be human. With flaws, we should not be "monsters," either.

The most rational answer seems to be mental illness. A person might kill someone in a fit of blind rage or jealousy or another strong emotion, when the primitive brain dominates. A person might plot against an individual or group who has, in their perception, wronged him or her, for example, a spouse's lover. Such an action is not normal or justifiable, but it is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. Coldly gunning down dozens of random, innocent people in revenge for a lifetime of slights, perceived and real, after planning it and memorializing the thought behind that plan, seemingly without emotion, is.

What is "mental illness"? It's too vague a term, as "physical illness" would be. In most cases, it's relatively easy to test for and diagnose a wide range of physical abilities, ailments, and impairments—heart, lung, liver, kidney function, even brain function; the presence of antibodies; the malformation of organs; the deterioration of structures. I don't think we have even begun to determine what the mental illnesses are, without which diagnosis and treatment are difficult and sometimes impossible.

Like physical illness, mental illness covers myriad disorders. Just as most people are physically ill at some point in their lives, even with a cold or flu, I suspect most people experience mental illness, too. I believe that many suffer from bouts of depression at least once in life, perhaps situational depression triggered by the loss of a spouse, other family member, friend, or a job, or depression that can accompany some illnesses, including those that are chronic. Bad things happen to nearly everyone, and only the most resilient individuals might never feel depressed for any length of time.

While many people have been depressed, mental illness carries a stigma because it is so often associated with the extremes—the cold-blooded sociopaths, the serial and mass killers, the murderous pedophiles.

We try to answer the question of "Why?" with various theories that it is too late to prove and that are now of no use. Sociopathy? Personality disorder? Depression? Which? Caused by what? Faulty biological wiring? Environmental and experience factors? Both?

Many children and even adults are bullies, more than many of us realize. My reaction to bullies, learned quickly at age 5, was to hold my head high and ignore them—that is, not to give them the reaction, thrill, and satisfaction they craved. I dreaded them and feared a surprise attack every day for many years, but found other things to take my mind off them most of the time. I may have thought of embarrassing them in revenge, but never of anything violent. I am not a bully.

We will never know how the man was bullied,or how much was real or perceived. A lonely, sick mind may make itself sicker with time, experience, brooding and the lack of balance provided by normal human interaction. In a nation as large as ours, in a world as populated as ours, there will always be sick minds, and there will always be bullies. They are both outliers of human society, and we have not learned how to manage them, or even to identify them. For now, the risk of a sick mind turning into the violent bully it most decries is one that we continue to live with. Let us hope that the lonely, the shy, and the depressed are not made to pay a price.

And let us hope that someday we are able to find out why.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Review: The Mothman Prophecies

The Mothman Prophecies by John A Keel. Recommended (for fun).

The Mothman Prophecies opens with a mysterious event—an unusual-looking stranger knocks on a door in rural West Virginia during a storm to ask to use a phone. The couple who live in the house can't help him—and three weeks later both are victims of the Silver Bridge collapse. A visit from the devil, one of his minions, or the angel of death? No. As it turns out, it was Keel himself, stranded and looking for assistance. This first anecdote shows how easy it is for superstitious people to misinterpret an ordinary event.

Most of The Mothman Prophecies consists of such anecdotes, some with explanations, many without. Many, not all, occur in the Ohio valley area centering on Point Pleasant, the focal point of the "Mothman" sightings, Point Pleasant was located on the West Virginia side of the Silver Bridge, which collapsed on December 15, 1967, due to a combination of factors, including heavy, backed-up traffic and a flawed piece of steel, the failure of which triggered the bridge's collapse.

Keel cleverly builds on anecdote after anecdote. Even if some are questionable or unbelievable, they all can't be, or that seems to be his rationale. Dozens of witnesses can't be mistaken, lying, or paranoid. For the susceptible, this accumulation of horror stories makes this a frightening book. Some of those people, including Keel himself, must have seen something—from the strangely moving lights in the sky to the aerodynamically impossible "Mothman," which doesn't flap its apparently unnecessary wings but flies straight up like a helicopter.

Keel decries "self-style investigators" and believes himself to be a thorough professional. Yet his reporting, whether first- or second-hand, is full of holes. He tells of an odd stranger with "thyroid eyes" (a common feature of these sightings) who comes into a fashionable New York City watering hole but can't read the menu and doesn't know how to cut or eat a steak. He tells the waitress he's from "another world." That is where Keel leaves the story, "a stranger in a strange land," with some seemingly trivial but critical questions unasked and unanswered, such as: Did he understand what the check was? How did he pay? Did he know to leave a tip? If so, did he leave an appropriate one? Where did he keep his money and what condition was it in? Without answers to those questions—things that a waitress would easily remember—her assessment that he's "another put-on artist" seems most likely.

He visits a farm where, coincidentally, the farmer has seen a UFO that frightened his cows off (in another anecdote, the exposed cows are found dead), burns out a piece of electrical equipment, and leaves behind a "fairy circle." All this is so familiar to Keel that he doesn't bring in someone to perform chemical analyses to see, for example, if there is any kind of residue in the circle that would help to explain its cause. The opportunity seems to be deliberately missed.

Conveniently, Keel's "ultra-dimensional beings" operate in a way that precludes independent verification of their existence. Cameras and film malfunction. Supporting witnesses are rendered unconscious or develop amnesia. While Keel believes these beings are interested in him, they contact him primarily through third parties whose reliability is questionable. When "Jane" reports that an envelope he sent was tampered with in the mail, he never considers the possibility that this woman, whose behavior is odd, is telling him what he wants to hear.

The beings also control the behavior of contactees. Dozens of "Orientals" with "sharp features" (since when do Asians have "sharp features"?) and "thyroid eyes" are invited into homes for hours at a time, and their questions about personal matters are answered freely. Personally, I don't know anyone who would do this.

"Jane" obligingly takes pills provided by her contacts,which make her ill and which prove to be an ordinary sulfa drug. Other people don't hesitate to climb aboard alien ships. Perhaps most telling, many of the descriptions are vague and refer to contemporary fixtures and technology. "Frosted glass" is one of the few details provided, and "Men in Black," who are smart enough to produced unissued license plate numbers but not smart enough to obtain late-model vehicles, use the same kind of camera and clunky flash available to 1960s reporters.

Keel cites a conversation with Gray Barker, who claimed not to have spoken with him on that occasion; Barker was later proven to be a hoaxer, and witnesses claimed that he did make the call while drunk. In fact, between "Jane's" assertions, Keel's stretched association of "A Pal" with "Apholes," and his phone troubles, he seems to have become a paranoiac by the end. He even determines that the phone company is tapping his phone, but doesn't explain why.

He assesses the reliability of each of his witnesses, but he is not reliable. For example, he discusses a map developed by anthropologists that shows that Indians avoided West Virginia. Keel doesn't provide a source, which makes it difficult to verify this assertion. Of course, there were Indians in West Virginia, despite his claim.

The Mothman Prophecies is entertaining, and Keel tries to make the cumulative evidence compelling. The "facts" are not always accurate, the witnesses are not reliable ("Jane," his favorite, least of all), and questions are not raised or answered.

In 2007, do "ultra-dimensional beings" tap into digital phones? VOIP? Mobiles? E-mail? Instant messages? Digital cable? Have they adapted to today's technology? The anxieties that underlie The Mothman Prophecies seem to reflect those of the times—the fears surrounding the Cold War, Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," and big government. The Mothman Prophecies is a manifestation of the troubled times in which it was set. Today's "Mothman" or "Indrid Cold" might be very different creatures indeed.

Sunday, 15 April 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Dream: Garrison Keillor and a UFO

I was a guest on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor and was reading with him from a book that looked like a magazine. After I started to read, I kept losing my place and missing captions because thee book had been so badly and irregularly designed; it was nearly impossible for my eyes to follow the flow. Keillor kept pointing out what I was missing and didn't seem to understand that the problem wasn't in me, but in the book's design. I came to a part that showed a half dozen coffins and other gruesome photos and mentioned World War II, with half-hidden captions in odd, hard-to-find places among the photos. I began to think the material was inappropriate for the program. I also knew I would never be asked to appear again.

Then I was in a room with a couple of sleeping children, presumably serving as their babysitter. A night lamp began to crackle and streak like a Jacob's ladder. I looked out the window and saw a bright light moving around in the sky; in a few moments I could make out a figure in a space suit tethered to it. They looked unreal, like exceptionally well-drawn, 3D-style cartoons. I was concerned about the lamp starting a fire and concerned that one of the children, now awake, would touch it and told them not to, but at the same time I didn't think I should unplug it, either. I thought, "I am really having a UFO experience" and kept closing my eyes against it. The experience seemed very real, but the ship and the figure did not.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dream: Confession of love and a small death

I seemed to be at a school when I was told that one of the actuary partners from my former firm wanted to see me. He came along, and we were looking for a quiet place to talk. There was a stage in a dark room, but people were rehearsing under it. In the meantime, I thought he was going to confess his attraction to me, which in the dream I desired. We finally settled somewhere that also seemed dark, but it could not have been quiet because his eyes kept following thee actions of children, including his own, who were going into and coming out of a store nearby. The big secret that he wanted to share with me in private and that gave him life for a change was that my interests had inspired him to make a donation or start an endowment at the zoo.

Afterward, I found myself with a small, white, mouse-like animal in my hand. At first I thought it was dead, but it gave signs of being alive yet sluggish. I set it down and to my horror my friend's cocker spaniel (long since gone) picked it up in his mouth. I said something about "the dog," which offended her and her family because I didn't use his name.

I recovered the little white creature, which still seemed unreal to me; it was so solid. It was no longer moving at all and seemed truly dead. I tried putting it into a dishpan of water to see if that would revive it. My grief grew, as did my denial that the case was hopeless. Then I did not know what to do with the body and was reluctant to do anything for fear that it was still alive.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Dream: Murky men

This one is somewhat murky, like the darkness in which it took place. It was 2:00 a.m., and I was in the apartment of a colleague from a Florida community—but the place seemed to be Chicago. I needed to take a train, but when I arrived at the station I realized that I had no money. I found some change in my pockets, including a large $10 coin in the shape of Ben Franklin. Naturally I found this fascinating and did not want to use it.

I don't know whether was in a dark underground train station or at a dark underground party or bar. Someone I had gone to high school with, who was in the class behind mine, kept trying to put his arm around me, which embarrassed and disturbed me. I sensed that his attentions were somehow hurting a potential relationship with someone important to me. I started to feel like I was highly desirable to many if not all of the men around me. There was another man who expressed interest; he was physically unattractive but interesting and compelling. I both craved and feared his attentions, the latter for the same reason as before—that being seen with him would hurt a desired relationship. He seemed to be an aristocrat of some kind.

I saw a man, a famous actor whose persona and work do not appeal to me, lying on a lower level with his head on a rock, pining for me. The rock was engraved with my image or name. This turn of events, combined with the surreal dimness of the setting and situation, confused and upset me. I did not know what to do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Dream: Motes and tail tips

I was getting ready to go out to do something important, perhaps to vote. From the porch of my house on a hill, I could see the midnight blue night sky and thousands of golden flecks flying by horizontally. I got it into my head that they were “shooting stars” and that I was witnessing an elusive asteroid shower. “No,” my dad said from the front yard, “they’re motes,” which I took to mean insects. He could feel them and soon I could feel them striking me, too. It was like an apocalyptic plague, and sadly I realized that I could not go anywhere in those conditions.

I went into the house, which was an old rural one, and found the bushy tip of Pudge’s tail. She was nearby, wide-eyed, frightened, and almost kittenish in appearance. Her tail was only 3/4 long. I told myself that she had “shed” her tail tip before, that it was normal and that she didn’t need veterinary attention, but I did not really believe it. I could see bone and a little blood on the tip that had come off, but her remaining tail seemed complete. I was puzzled by events and nervous.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus

America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. Highly recommended.

In America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, editor Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., presents a series of essays that dispel the popular idea that the American continents were sparsely populated by primitive hunter-gatherers (or, after Hollywood, Plains Indians whooping on horseback). These essays, written by contributors such as Alan Kolata and Peter Nabokov, reveal the breadth and depth of Indian language, culture, arts, spirituality, and life ways. Part One covers the continents geographically, from northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, while Part Two examines language, religion, family and tribal or clan life, migration and cultural influence, systems of knowledge, and the arts. Renowned Native American writers N. Scott Momaday and Vine Deloria, Jr., contribute the first chapter, "The Becoming of the Native: Man in America Before Columbus," and the afterword, respectively.

The weaknesses of the approach are evident; some essays are stronger than others, depending on the writer's skill and bias and on the material available. Some contradict one another. In "In the Realm of the Four Quarters," Kolata's admiration for the success of the Inca empire is nearly boundless, while in "American Frontiers," Francis Jennings doubts the real strength of the empire over its conquered subjects and its economic, political, and military sustainability. Such a survey book can cover only so much information, and, not surprisingly, the Aztecs and Incas are more prominent than, for example, the nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.

Another weakness is focus, perhaps driven by lack of information in critical areas. Topics such as food, clothing, structures, tools, seasonal migration, major rituals, and so forth, are described in some detail, but whole areas are sometimes untouched or only briefly alluded to, such internal conflict resolution and justice systems, practical leadership (political vs. spiritual or hunting), the practicalities of daily life in large communal homes, and the frequency and practice of warfare. How often did conflicts occur and what provoked them? How were they conducted? How sustained were they?

Despite the inevitable shortcomings, 1492 does provide a good overview of life in the western hemisphere, from the head-hunting spiritual practices of some Amazonian tribes to the agricultural practices and cultivation of maize that spread from Mesoamerica, from trade routes to migration patterns. There are some surprises here for the novice, for example, that the Navajo so strongly associated in our contemporary minds with the southwestern desert migrated from the northern tundra; that the Great Plains were inhabited by farmers and that the tribes we associate with them, such as the Lakota, had not yet arrived there; and that extensive trade routes and trade centers existed, even if the concept of investment capital did not.

History emphasizes the differences between Europeans and pre-Columbian Indians, and certainly these differences—most obvious in the concepts behind language, in spirituality and philosophy, and in the ideas surrounding the individual and the community—are fundamental. As I read 1492, however, certain similarities to post-Roman Europe struck me. For example, there were the waves of migration that changed the face of Europe many times. There was the ability of Europeans, and others, to establish and use trade routes and centers despite geographical, language, and transportation barriers. In very general terms, on both sides of the Atlantic there was restlessness over land and power combined with a need to live cooperatively and to exchange easily obtained goods, such as shells on the coast, for desired ones found inland, such as corn and furs.

This raises the question, "What is an Indian?" Indians are the native peoples of the Americas, just as Europeans are those who inhabit Europe. It is a broad category that does not reveal much. As in Europe, there are hundreds of languages, cultures, and beliefs, and most likely there is no common ancestry among many of the groups. "European" provides you with only a very vague notion of a person or group; "Swedish" or "Greek" paints two very definite, and different, pictures. That is what should be kept in mind when you read 1492. "The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus" changes with every few miles, every alteration in climate or topography, every season, and the world of the Incas is nothing like the world of the Arawaks or Arikara.

As Vine Deloria and others tell us, prophecies pre-dating Columbus predict the arrival of the white man and go on to say that his predominance will be the shortest of all. We look around at our impressive infrastructure that has altered (and in many cases ruined) the land, our health and long lives, and our prosperity, and think that such a prediction seems absurd. Yet we have been here a tiny fraction of the time the Indian has, and as the latest reports about climate change and other environmental and resource issues should remind us, our present way of life is not sustainable for the long term; in fact, it has become problematic in only slightly more than 100 years. The year 1492 marked the end of thousands of years of Indian tradition; what year will mark the end of our ways as we know them?

Sunday, 8 April 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Dream: Instruments, proposals, and pool snakes

I was at the grocery store with my shopping cart, looking through a big cardboard box. It was full of things that I must have given to the store to sell as used. I didn't mind the idea, but I found my recorder, my Clarke tin whistle, and one or two other things that I regretted parting with. I wrestled with my conscience over the need to make a clean break with things vs. my interest in these particular items. In the end, I couldn't leave the recorder and tin whistle there. I worried about having enough room to bring them home in my cart and wondered how I would pay for them, since they did not have price tags.

I seemed to be at a poolside with a man and a couple of women. I don't think I was a visible participant in the group, but was more of an invisible observer. The man proposed to one of the women, and I had a flash of insight that he had been engaged to the other woman at another time. I tried to say, somewhat jokingly, "You've proposed to every woman you know."

He pulled out a pencil and composition book and started to work on his novel; he was a noted author, I began to think. One of the women, a minister's daughter, had stripped and jumped into the pool, then she asked if there were any snakes in the water as she had forgotten to look. It was dusk and hard to see; there may have been. The man was standing in the water a few feet from the end of the pool, where I suddenly noticed an enormous black snake. It must have felt his movements in the pool because it came out a little and started to raise its great head toward him while the speculated as to why snakes would get into the water. I was unable to warn him.

P.M.
In a Whose Line Is It Anyway? dream, I and another guy were supposed to listen to disco-type music and demonstrate, on our respective examples of Kansas football players, which activities on a cruise ship the music is used during. The first song was “Ladies Night,” and we both started doing a chest massage, but I immediately thought, "No, a massage would require soothing music," so I changed my activity to exercise class. The next song (unknown) inspired us to put our guys on gurneys and roll them into oblivion off the football field-like set (the famous cruise activity of "taking to hospital"?), while the host said, "No, come back, there are two more!"

Then I found a rail car and pushed, and too late realized it was attached to another, maybe a caboose, and that because of momentum I couldn't stop it, although I tried. I worried about them never stopping and about grooves in the floor. My dad later found them blocking the trailer hallway and wondered how they'd ended up there, when normally they were in the kitchen. I found there were others elsewhere, too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Dream: The "inter-dimensional shift"

Dad was driving a man named Don, another man (possibly his cousin J.), and me in a very large van south on Route 20. We were all spread out, and I was in the back on the right-hand side, trapped behind something. I noticed that Dad had gone missing and that no one was driving. I tried frantically to scramble to the front to get control of the vehicle, but I couldn't move and couldn't seem to make the others hear me or understand the danger.

The van crashed into a train and almost seemed to become part of it in a blended way, not as a whole, as though there had been some kind of "inter-dimensional shift" (this was the term that came into my sleeping mind). I panicked in my anguish and concern over the fate of Don, the cousin, and especially my dad, and only later realized that after the accident I was observing events from the outside, as though I had not been in the van, which was fading into the train cars. I'm not even sure I was still in my own body.

That will teach me to read The Mothman Prophecies, even for fun.