Thursday, April 17, 2014

Consciousness, Drugs and Dying

Whether any trace of our human essence survives during and after dying process is, for science, uncharted territory. In some documented instances, the essence of consciousness continues on without the biological support of a living body. Severe physical damage throws the body into shock, so it seems logical that the same thing could happen to the conscious mind, triggering a physical reaction that causes it to take refuge elsewhere.

My partner, Deborah had an out-of body experience as a student in college. In her case, she woke up in her own bed, in the middle of the night with a stranger on top of her trying to strangle her. What happens next she describes as a scream so powerful it emanated from her mouth as a filament of light that went straight up to the ceiling of the room. That light contained the essence of her consciousness. From the ceiling of her bedroom, she watched the attack on her physical being with a sense of peace and detachment that would not have been possible had she remained present in her besieged body.

Deborah was not murdered and returned to her body at a point when she was able to communicate with and escape her attacker. In true instances of near-death experience, when the body is badly wounded or killed, some essence is perceived to proceed onward to a dimension most describe as one of boundless peace and connectedness.

Now I tend to believe that religion is not only the opiate of the people but the scourge of humankind. Still, I try keep an open mind especially when it comes to science, biology and physics. I don’t pretend to comprehend of the universe, but since all these people worldwide have had oddly similar experiences, that there might be something to this that science does not yet understand.

In the surgical profession, there have been numerous reports of people who have flat-lined on the operating table yet were able to recall conversations, music and exactly what transpired during the period when they were technically dead.

I have to admit a large part of the reason I remain open to the existence of other dimensions is the fact that I did a lot of hallucinogenic drugs as a young person. While tripping on various psychedelics, I witnessed the universe broken down to a molecular level where mathematical pattern and incredible geometric design prevailed.

In that vein, I just read an article, Five Amazing Things ScientistsHave Discovered About Psychedelics , posted a few days ago on Alternet. This piece notes that besides helping the dying let go of their fear of death, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin actually suppress certain parts of our brains. It is this more limited capacity that opens up our brains to new information, not the other way around. It’s as though the filter breaks causing incredible hallucinogenic sensations to rush in.

Possibly, this is the state that autistic people and, assuredly cats, inhabit their entire lives.  The filter ruptures, the world rushes in. The mind continues without the body. The universe breaks down into connection and light.

It all sounds remarkably similar to brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s electrifying Ted Talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” in which she recreates her amazing sensory journey, conveying the intensity, beauty and transcendent serenity she experienced when a stroke shut down her brain functions one by one.

No one really knows happens when we die. A dying brain could produce many experiences, but can a dead one? These questions remain unanswered. By the time we are sure, it seems we are no longer able to pass on this information. We know only that the trajectory leading out of this life is one that each of us must follow. Rest assured, if I get there before you, and I can, I will send you a sign!

Friday, March 28, 2014

In Defense of Negativity

Sisyphus Couldn't Do It Either!
I’ve seen a lot of online posts and lately defaming a segment of the population blithely referred to as “negative people” Naturally, I’ve come to wonder what these folks have done to incur this disproportionate load of cultural wrath?

Doesn’t each individual have a right to a wide array of personal traits and characteristics?  What some people call negative, others simply consider realistic. Researchers have recently discovered that a healthy dose of cynicism in a turbulent, often intensely distressing world, just may be the most prudent, self-nurturing stance a person can take when it comes to enduring and fielding those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Dark-sided people have lower expectations of the world and, for that reason, are less often disappointed with their fate. Sunny-bunny types face continual disillusionment aside from being a real pain in the butt. At times, I may enjoy a chocolate-covered ├ęclair with gooey custard inside, but if I ate one for every meal, it would make me quite ill. However, due to the preponderance of happy posts, I have to assume that many people genuinely delight in continual sweetness, that perpetually bright-sided mind in all its soul-shattering glory.

Maybe I’m just paranoid about this because I’m Jewish. Jews have a long, hard-earned tradition of big portions of negativity with a heaping side of humor a la self-deprecation. It’s a survival tool as ancient and well-documented as the history of stand-up comedy.

All underdogs experience negative emotions. They are a natural response to institutionalized, omnipresent oppression. The word “negative” conjures up the word “edgy” which connotes walking a line close to the edge of acceptability, pushing the envelope of propriety. This is the domain of outliers, outsiders, a group of people who contribute the lion’s share of creative work to any given culture: people who doubt, who question, who refuse to sit back and smile. 

And meditate on this music fans: how would a room without a roof truly feel? Inadequate? Like a failure?

Now wipe that insipid grin off your face and tell me, once and for all, what’s so bad about a little correctly perceived and appropriately directed realism, er, negativity?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Lesbian Movement Comes of Age

Those of us now referred to as boomers share a common history. We cut our teeth in a tumultuous era of love and war, protest and upheaval. The freedom riders fighting and dying to fight racial segregation and restore voting rights paved the way. The outcry against the draft and the Vietnam War galvanized massive numbers of young people.

Then the Women’s Liberation Movement descended with a vengeance and split organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wide open. When women stopped taking notes and fetching coffee the patriarchal left began to crumble.
It was a time of relative prosperity. Drugs were widely available. The birth control pill had hit the market. Taboos were being exploded. Free love and sexual experimentation was everywhere. The rules of the old order were no longer applicable.

In 1970, at Ohio State University, I joined a consciousness-raising (CR) group. There was one lesbian among us when the group began. Two years later, when it ended, there was only one woman left who still considered herself straight.

It was as if a wall of shame and fear had fallen. All our wildest fantasies, sexual and otherwise, were suddenly okay. I made new friends in a group that called itself, Radicalesbians. These women were fearless. With proud names like Debbie Dyke and Lisa Lesbian and none of them looked scary or predatory like the old British “bulldaggers” in the movie, “The Killing of Sister George,”or suicidal like Martha in “The Children’s Hour.” Young and hip and angry about oppression, they looked a lot like me. Groups like the Lavender Menace and the Lesbian Avengers and became the persistent thorn in the side of the mainstream women’s movement, the specter of what heterosexual women feared most.

Today, we lesbians seem to be making grand leaps in LGBT civil rights. When folks claim it is all happening so fast, I want to smack them. Fast? The Stonewall riots were in 1969 so 45 years is not exactly the blink of an eye. But it’s relatively rapid when you consider the duration of slavery or how long it took women to get the vote.

Political change always feel geologic in its pace because we are sacrificing our very lives when we are denied full human status. Living to see some of the new dwellings rise over the foundations we laid is gratifying but no excuse to lay back and rest before the job is completed.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Former Classmates and Mortality

I carry so much baggage around with me that, if you could see it, I would look like a bag-lady with the biggest shopping cart ever. A sizable percentage of that baggage comes from the experiences of youth, those formative years when everything seemed daunting and overwhelming. Family is a large component of this weight but high school and junior high loom large in my legend.

That’s why I was caught off guard when I looked at a web page of my high school classmates from the class of ’69 and saw the large number of folks who have already died (about 50 out of around 650). While this percentage isn’t huge, it still seems like a lot for folks in their early sixties. I know it will grow larger with each passing year. That really hit home with concrete evidence of my own mortality.

I remember hearing about Kim’s death in the late seventies. She was found hanging in a jail cell tripping her brains out on acid. She had hung herself with her belt. Neil was killed in a car accident. But these recent deaths were from more natural causes. I googled them for their obits and found out a little about their lives as well as their deaths. Studious David had run a bookstore in Seattle before his number came up and sexy Sarah had worked for a lumber company for 40 years then finally retired and died the same year.
These facts are neither earth-shattering nor startling. In fact, of the other living classmates I found online some moved away and some stayed in Ohio, had gotten married, divorced, had kids or didn’t, were prominent or impossible to find. Some others, like me, had even come out as queer. 

The ways they died weren’t particularly noteworthy either. They include the ways all of us will probably go. Marcia died from breast cancer, Donna succumbed to complications of lupus and with Carol it was Crohn’s disease.

Then I realized the truth: the kids who made my life a living hell as well as those who made it worth living were simply people, totally blown out of rational proportion because of the pressures and lack of perspective that are part and parcel of youth.

None of these folks caused me to feel inferior or less than the person I truly was. Even my misguided, neglectful parents didn’t do that intentionally. I still can’t figure out exactly what it is about being young that can make some people mean and heartless. When I read about the bullying that still happens at that age, I don’t find more clarity.

But I can find greater compassion. We all do the best we can with the tools that are available to us at the time. Can I humanize and forgive those who were imperfect actors in this short, one-act play called life? At this point, I think so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Living Apart Together: Another Option

Getting married didn’t change my life at all. My partner (please don’t call either of us “wife”) and I still live in different cities. My house is in Berkeley, hers is in Oakland. We talk by phone every day but spend only about three days a week together. We have separate and joint friends, separate bank accounts, separate and joint lives. And it’s not just a stage we are going through. Last year we celebrated our anniversary of fifteen years as a couple.

In Scandinavian countries my relationship with Deborah is called LAT, short for living apart together.  We consider ourselves really fortunate that we are financially able to do this. Deborah is still teaching and I am a retired librarian. We both have, or in my case had, civil service jobs with pensions and health benefits, as well as life-long work histories. It is definitely more expensive to maintain two individual residences than to live together. As we both age out of our working years, who knows what the future holds? But I can unequivocally say that, for the past fifteen years, having a relationship that includes a certain degree of separation been great.

Still, this past summer we tied the knot. Both of us are sixty-something so we wanted the legal protection that marriage brings. In this way each of us are protected in case of death or serious injury. Her family is predatory, mine mostly non-existent. This year we will fill out our first married but filing individually tax return, so we’ll see more concretely what our new financial relationship entails.

The city of Oakland forced us to pay, not only 100 dollars for the marriage application, but around 80 dollars more for a ridiculous ceremony with some judge who took the whole thing far more seriously than we did. We had trouble trying to keep from cracking up with all that somber sanctity of marriage crap. And we needed witnesses so we brought along two friends, a heterosexual old hippie couple who have the same ambivalent relationship the m-word that we do. It was a contrived formality containing a dose of pathos and ridiculousness in equal measure.

It’s not that Deborah and I don’t love each other, it’s just that queer marriage, like gays in the military, is not a struggle to which either of us have hitched our proverbial wagon. As folks who want to transform society, including marriage, trumpeting its virtues is not the place I want to begin. And both Deborah and I are unimpressed by consumerist occasions that turn out to be meaningless, gift-grabbing Hallmark moments.

The marriage industry in this country is massive with tremendous financial power and influence. It is part of the reason that the sustained drive for marriage equality is finally meeting with some success. Little girls are brainwashed from birth that the most wonderful day of their lives will be their wedding day. Working-class people who are barely keeping their heads above water in this economy are persuaded to call out all the stops and spend money they don’t have for a big blowout wedding. 

So how does living apart together work for us? For one thing, we don’t have to have the same cleanliness style or personal habits. I am free to be disorganized but clean, and Deborah is free to be a total neat freak. We have a more urban home, mine, and a more suburban option. When we go to events together, we can stay at the closest place. We can stay together when friends come in from out of town and give them the privacy of their own place. We can entertain at either house or have private meetings without disturbing the other but the main advantage is, we can take breaks from each other when we need to and enjoy each other’s company only when we choose.
There is also a level of solitude that allows each of us to pursue our creative interests. I am a writer. Deborah is a photographer, collagist and ceramicist. Having separate spaces helps us each get more accomplished in our chosen work lives.

We share one cat, Luna, who lives with Deborah. That way, when we travel during the summer, we only need house sitters for one place. I love the access to cat energy as well as the freedom to leave my house for long periods of time without having to worry about a pet. During our various travels, and teachers with summers off love to travel, we do inhabit the same space and it has always gone well.

Of course living apart together has a down side. When the weather is bad it takes more effort to visit. Coming home alone from sustained time together on trips can be disorienting. But the added expense is the biggest drawback.

Friends used to continually inquire when we’d be taking that famous lesbian U-Haul trip. Today, for the most part, they have given up that line of questioning. Many couples we know, even ones who live together, no longer have one single answer for that eternal question, what did you do today?

So, I am technically married now. It hasn’t changed my life at all save for the fact that if I get seriously ill or die suddenly, my non-traditional partner who is now my spouse, will have the legal right to make decisions or to inherit my house. That gives me a sense of security. We are also about to complete our first tax return together: married filing separately.

But let’s face reality. No matter how we delude ourselves with spouses, children and flowery promises of love that lasts forever each one of us is traveling through this world alone. Still, it can be quite nice to have company on the journey. And only the two individuals that comprise a couple can decide the form that joining will take. I’m only sure that commitment is something that must be done by choice not by contract.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Friends and Cohorts: Small Talk and Big

According to the Washington Post, the Inuit people have approximately 50 words for snow and the Sami people who live in Northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. These language differences expose the relative importance of snow and reindeer in the lives of the speakers. Unfortunately, the English speaking world has a dearth of words for friendly relationships that are neither romantic nor sexual.

We are limited to the words acquaintance and friend. Friend implies a whole range of intimacy from catching a movie together, to the kind of genuine soul mate that can help make the world a less lonely, unforgiving place. I feel compelled to add another category, the label of cohort. Cohorts are important but not as intimate as friends. They are folks we have genuine connections with, often meeting in places like political organizations, classes or support groups, but they fall on a different level of intimacy than friends. You might call a cohort to help process an issue but you probably wouldn’t call her if you just found out really terrible or very wonderful personal news.

Cohorts have always been important in my life, but they are not the cogs it turns on. Those cogs are friends. Friend is a word that gets thrown around recklessly in our society. In the span of a lifetime, I have had few friends at any given moment but have cycled through many of them over periods of time. When paths diverge and interests shift many times friends are left behind, leaving deep memory traces and inevitable feelings of regret and nostalgia. Friends are precious. Cohorts are valuable. Acquaintances are nice. Folks who don’t care one way or another are numerous and enemies, well, I’m not even going to go there right now.

The division between cohorts and friends is often one of small talk versus big talk. Small talk is just filler in life, like popcorn it can be fun to consume but lacking in nutritional value. This fiber aids personality digestion, but is completely devoid of in protein. An acquired skill and a staple at larger parties and gatherings, it is often goes hand in hand with the word mingle.

Big talk goes beyond simple observation into connection. It reflects back into personal experience. Big talk can cause people at parties who are looking for more superficial interaction to recoil, make polite excuses and walk away. The new online initials for big talk can be TMI (too much information). To some, it is the exclusive domain of lovers and college students, a tacky tendency left behind in youth. But to weirdos like me it is the first step to making friends.

So, some folks find probing parlance threatening or just mildly irritating. Others find it interesting and ingratiating. I guess it all just depends on the perspective of the speaker and whether she wishes to become your acquaintance, cohort or friend.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do Women Undermine Each Other?

I have been an ardent feminist since I first read Simone DeBeauvoir’s, “The Second Sex” around 1966. So, it took me many years of being a low-level lackey in the capitalist pecking order to come to the contradictory realization that male bosses tend to be easier to work under than female ones.

This makes sense only in the illogical world of exploitation. Yes, it is a hoop we have all grown accustomed to jumping through and by hoop I mean Heritage of Oppression. As Bob Marley sang: “they take the chains off your body and put the chains on your mind,”Clearly once our minds are conquered, the rulers no longer need actual chains.

Women as bosses are usually harder to work for, especially for other women. They tend feel less secure in positions of power to begin with, so, when they get there, they exert more of a need to prove themselves. Being hard-nosed and to-the-letter strict is a natural outgrowth of this attitude.

I have experienced this with women physicians who have been to say, modifying a prescription slightly to make it more affordable and cost effective, while the male doctors I have gone to don’t even blink at suggestions like this. Of course, men are subjected to a lot less personal scrutiny and are inclined to possess a indefatigable sense of entitlement.

As women we have survived by learning to read the small print of other people’s psychology. Because marriage was the goal for our gender for so many years, we learned, Darwin style, to master the art of passive-aggressive manipulation. While your average heterosexual man, may be a bit thick and a bit of a buffoon, there is a what you see is what you get quality to him that allows, for example, male lawyers to vehemently argue two opposing sides of a legal case in a courtroom and then go to the gym and play racket ball together as though it were the most natural thing in the world. For women with conflicting views, it is more likely that they would dismiss each other coolly when passing in the hall, than to even consider going out for a drink together.

The other huge problem is that everyone is raised to think less of women so both women and men prefer men. Just as every person is socialized to prefer straight folks, and all races conditioned to prefer white people, women consciously or unconsciously assign more status, more credibility to men even when they don’t particularly like them. Female bosses are inclined to be harder on women employees, often subjecting them to a different standard or infantilizing them with micromanagement pettiness that they are embarrassed to apply to males

Sometimes simply the potential friendship model just gets in the way. When I worked at the library, I had a boss who was a part of several communities of which I was also a member. We had been equals in the lesbian community but when she was appointed to head the Gay and Lesbian center at the library, all traces of our human connection vanished.

Of course my boss had to prove herself. And when it comes to love, war or livelihood, fear is firmly in place. Yes, we have to humanize the way we live and it must begin in the family and move to the workplace, an environment in which we spend so many hours of our lives. 

We are not all that far from the world of the 1950s in which I was raised. It was a place where women were sexualized and our opportunities for employment were severely circumscribed. The legacy of our history persists in spite of our best efforts to change it.