Part the Second

Thu 12/17/09 at 4:35 pm

For those of you who don’t already know it, I’m on the list awaiting a lung transplant. [Well, maybe someone has arrived here through or the like.] I have severe COPD; i.e., “end-stage emphysema” as it was called back in the days of plain speaking. Since being diagnosed, I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating my mortality. For some, such contemplation results in a taking up, strengthening, or renewal of faith in a higher power or powers. For me, it has proved the opposite.

If all goes as planned, these next few blog entries will prove precursors to getting back to the writing of my novel, The First Voice (“Voice”). Depending on the way my existential winds blow, however, it may remain unfinished. Thus, I thought I’d use this entry as an opportunity at least to present a piece of what has been written. I do so because as it happens, Elfredge Bettisdatter, Voice’s protagonist, has traveled a spiritual path nearly identical to mine. A while back she had occasion to review this journey one fine afternoon while riding the subway from the 14th Street stop in lower Manhattan up to St. John the Divine:

For this trip under the island, Elfredge opted for the express train. Maybe I’ll even walk from 96th. Dad would be so pleased I’m going to a church on Sunday. Religion had played a major role in her childhood. Weekly attendance at Sunday school and Sunday services was mandatory. No comics until afterward so we’d be in a proper frame of mind. Each night the family gathered for devotions, and then bedtime songs and prayers. Now I lay me. Way scary. Summers brought Bible school and Bible camp. Epiphany was her favorite church holiday. Come to think of it, that might have more to do with Joyce than the Magi. Still, my favorite participants in the Christmas story were those three wise men. Maybe I should take a closer look at Zoroastrianism.

Elfredge grew up across the street from the Lutheran Church she and her family attended. God’s House. Specifically, God the Father. The church was never locked, and she would often stop by on the way home for a quick audience. The glowing red light above the altar informed her that God was “in.”

If anyone had asked, Elfredge would have said that she pictured God the Father as He was depicted on Michelangelo’s ceiling or in William Blake’s illustrations. If she stopped to think about it though, Elfredge realized that, in her mind’s eye, the presence she felt was a great brooding dragon draped over the altar. Upon hearing her enter the sanctuary, He would open the monocular eye facing her and readjust His giant head ever so slightly for the best viewing angle. He never spoke, only listened, and for that reason these encounters were, for the most part, dissatisfying. Even so, she usually felt somewhat better simply for having articulated her wishes, couched, always of course, in terms of doing His will for her life. She envied her Catholic friends who were permitted to ask for specifics without qualification.

As for the other members of the Trinity, for many years she had the feeling that the Holy Ghost awaited her somewhere. She also somehow knew that before any such encounter could occur she first had to come to terms with Jesus Christ, and she found the whole Son of God thing troublesome. She had tried desperately to believe. Christ, however, turned a deaf ear to her entreaties to come into her heart. For a while, she would only recite the first and last parts of the Apostle’s Creed, remaining silent during the middle section. She wanted to avoid committing blasphemy just in case Jesus being the Son of God and all was true. She lacked the strength of character to decline to be confirmed, and would have totally understood had God seen fit to strike her down by lightning rather than permit her to take her first communion. I believe. Help my unbelief! Afterward, whenever possible she would cut out of church just before that part of the service.

Belief or no, Good Friday had a profound effect on her. 3:00 p.m. It is finished. The temple curtain. Torn asunder. The cross on the altar draped in black. God in all Three Persons dead. Black Saturday. On Easter Sunday, Elfredge would sit in the balcony by herself, and look down upon the communion of saints in their Easter finery and she would have fleeting sensations of what it meant to be a member of the Body of Christ, a communicant. Then the first shaft of sunlight would beam through the stained glass window behind the altar, the brass choir would sound, and the congregation would rise as one. A person would have to be dead to fail to thrill as the worshippers began to sing in glorious four part, descanted, harmony, “Christ the Lord has risen today, Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, lay, ay, loo, oo, ya.” Pooh-pooh Lake Wobegon all you want but Garrison himself has waxed poetic about singing with Lutherans. Even then, faith eluded Elfredge, and the exhilaration of the moment gave way to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Eventually, belief in a Creator God went by the wayside, and, finally, Elfredge gave up the Holy Ghost. On off days, she might echo Gloucester. We are as flies to wanton boys; they kill us for their sport. Overall, though, she viewed the human race as an evolutionary anomaly. A fluke of the universe. The Number 3 screeched into the 96th Station, and Elfredge returned to the material plane.

In part, this conclusion of flukedom comes from there simply being too many shared “plot points” among the hundreds, if not thousands, of “one true religion(s)” that have come and gone from the beginning of human sapience. I include here a couple from the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditons. For instance, imagine my surprise a few years back, when, as a near lifelong admirer of Leonard Cohen, I learned that for Muslims, the story of Isaac is the story of Ishmael.

For those of you unfamiliar with matters religious, the big three patriarchal religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) share Abraham as The Patriarch. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Yahweh, in return for Abraham’s agreement to worship Him as the one and only true God, entered into a covenant with Abraham promising that he would be the father of nations. Well, the years went by and Abraham and his wife Sarah remained childless. Eventually, Sarah, seeing as how Yahweh was preventing her from conceiving, gave her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. Hagar and Abraham, who was 86 at the time, had a son named Ishmael. Fourteen years later, Sarah conceived and bore Isaac.

The Hebrew Bible contains an account of Yahweh’s command that Abraham offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. Just as Abraham, in his unwavering obedience, begins the downward sweep of the axe to kill Isaac, Yahweh stayed his hand and provided instead a sacrificial ram that just happened (wink, wink) to have caught his horns in a thicket. Isaac went on to become the progenitor of the Jewish nation, and, by extension the Christian “nation” through Jesus (assuming His mother Mary’s lineage, like that of her husband Joseph, can be traced back to King David).

With the birth of Isaac, Sarah made Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert where they would have died of thirst but for Yahweh a/k/a Allah’s intervention. The Koran also contains a section chronicling Allah’s command for Abraham to offer his oldest son as a sacrifice. Thus, Muslims maintain this son was Ishmael. Moreover, Muslims believe the name “Isaac” was inserted into the Hebrew Bible at a later date, and therefore represents corrupted text. Ishmael went on to become an expert with the bow (according to Genesis) and the progenitor of the nation of Islam.

And how many of you know that Muslims, too, await the second coming of Jesus Christ? Indeed, I still remember the first time I read the section addressing this belief in Wikipedia. I was blown away. The section as it appears today has been reworked somewhat, but I still have a copy in my notes of the Wiki entry which read as follows:

The mainstream Islamic view of the second coming maintains that Jesus was replaced by a duplicate who looked like Jesus, and that it was the duplicate who was crucified while the real Jesus was lifted up to Heaven by God, where he is waiting to descend during the “last days” when corruption and perversity are rife on Earth. He will then wage a battle against the false Messiah or Dajjal, break the cross, kill swine and call all humanity to Islam.

I realize that two examples or two hundred examples of “both sides can’t be right” will fail to persuade most of you that maybe as far as religions go we humans made it all up in the first place. Even I, who can state unequivocally that I believe ours is a random, indifferent universe, still find myself at times imploring a God in whom I no longer believe to make it so my brother is no longer dead.

Besides, proving or disproving God’s existence begs the question. Think about it. Whether God exists is neither here nor there. Let’s say at some point the Hubble telescope (or the Very Large Array) manages to zero in at the precise location of the creation of this universe and the pictures of the swirling cosmos that gets sent back to earth looks remarkably like an old guy with a long white beard. So what? So what unless God knows we exist and does indeed take a personal interest in each of our individual lives. If God has no plans for us or will to be done, then whether or not there is a God doesn’t much matter in our little corner of the universe. And if that’s the case, well, to borrow a line from Joni Mitchell, it all comes down to us.

next post: Fragment 2
previous post: Part the First

Part the First

Wed 11/25/09 at 11:35 am

For two years, or so, I have been sporadically constructing a Walking Raven post, the working title for which has been the “Mother of All Blog Entries” (“MOABE”). I have now decided to publish it in serialized form in the hope that as pieces get fed cloudward (I just made that up), what remains will become manageable enough to finish, so I can get on with fulfilling my destiny — or not — depending on which direction my existential winds blow. Here then is

The Author’s Preface

“Hello. My name is Kris, and I’m an alcoholic.” I can’t remember when, exactly, I first said those words at an AA meeting. It would have been sometime after the Ides of March, 1975, a day that will live in “famy.” It was on the Ides of March, 1975, that I first crossed the threshold of Hazelden. I was 20 years old. (It was the 70s and if you could go over and get killed in Viet Nam you damn well could drink and vote at home, so the legal age for both changed to 18 the summer of 1973.) I had spent the last year and a half attending classes by day, cooking part-time at Pumpernik’s Deli, and drinking until I blacked out nearly every night.

Then, one night, I lost my bosses’ wife’s car. I had taken it home because buses were iffy on Sunday mornings. The Deli had a busy weekend breakfast crowd. I would do the prep and cook 400+ omelets or plates of scrambled eggs (highly recommend pastrami, onion, and egges) each weekend morning with a debilitating hangover. I remember going downstairs and getting in the car on Saturday night. I had decided to go stay with a friend who lived closer to the deli. My last memory of that night was getting in the car. I woke up the next morning back in my own bed with the car key in my pocket and no car. Oops. To this day I have no idea what occurred that night. My boss found the car a few days later at the St. Paul impound lot with two bent wheels on the passenger side.

Sometime that next week, I went to student health services and spoke with a counselor. I explained about how I might be an alcoholic. We went through the twenty questions. I answered “yes” to nearly all of them. When we finished, she reached down, opened one of her desk drawers and came up with a list of treatment centers. She asked me, “Where would you like to go?” (This was Minnesota, remember.) How I knew about Hazelden, I’m not entirely sure, but it was on the list. A couple weeks later, on March 15, 1975 — after passing out and missing last call the night before and drinking a double scotch at the Oak Room Grill (Cutty Sark was the bar scotch for 60 cents a shot) — my brother John and best friend Judi — the two who had been most instrumental in keeping me alive — drove me out to Hazelden. Talk about coming full circle. it was on March 16, 1973 that I had gone to my first bar and experienced my first black out.

During my first individual session, my counselor asked me what brought me to Hazelden. I somewhat flippantly remarked that I knew I could make it as an alcoholic, so I thought I’d see what being sober was like. She looked at me over her glasses and announced that I had “failed as an alcoholic the moment [I had] walked through those doors.” That pronouncement, as much as anything else, has kept me relatively sober since then. Over the next ten years I had a couple of one night slips and a couple bouts of dabbling with a drink here and there over a period of a few weeks, but I’ve not had a drink since the May, 1985.) I have continued, however, to struggle with addictions of one sort or another throughout my life – most notably, my nearly 30-year addiction to nicotine. Two-and-a-half years ago, I stuck the needle in my arm, again, metaphorically speaking, of course. I loaded World of Warcraft (WOW) on my newly acquired Lenovo X61 Tablet PC, created my avatar, a human Paladin named “Elfredge” (female)(mining/blacksmithing), and started my 10-day free trial.

If only I could embrace the notion that 13 or so billion years ago someone or something uttered what amounted to “Let there be light” — or performed one of the other equivalent actions as reported by other religious, philosophic, or scientific entities to explain the beginning of this, our universe — thereby causing the precise series of events that led me to the Best Buy just off I-40 in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I acquired the software containing the virtual world of Azeroth. In other words, if only I could believe that everything since the beginning of this timespace universe has occurred according to the laws of the unified field theory. Then I could simply accept WOW as a wonderful gift from the universe. Because truly, just as I once would have been content to drink myself to death, or, as I have nearly done, smoke myself to death, I stand content to play myself to death.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) (everything is, after all, relative), I believe that our universe operates on what has been labeled the “uncertainty principle” in quantum physics. I will not attempt to offer an explanation of the principle here. Suffice that God does indeed throw dice (metaphorically speaking, of course). In my mind, the uncertainty principle accounts for humans having free will which means that I, as a human being, have a choice to do something other than exist enveloped in the mind-numbing bliss generated by playing my massively multiplayer online role playing game (“MMORPG”). This belief that I am neither victim nor puppet of some higher or natural law has led to my decision, time, and time again, to stop playing WOW to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

And why do I keep going back to the game? Well, that’s easy. I’m an addict. (Assuming I’m right about free will versus predetermination.) Even so, why not play, if it makes me happy and isn’t hurting anyone else? Just surrender to the addiction and enjoy? At the moment, as I await a call that I have a donor for a new lung or lungs, it can be said it sort of sucks to be me. Ay, there’s the rub, as my favorite Dane is/was wont to say. [Actually Hamlet has fallen out of favor lately. He’s a whiner.] In the first place, I wrote, without thinking, “anyone else,” in the previous sentence. Somewhere, then, deep down, I must believe that playing WOW is hurtful to me. At least “bad,” “wrong,” okay, “immoral” rather than what I might – perhaps even “would” — like to believe, “amoral.” If I believed playing was amoral, I wouldn’t feel bad about playing all the time, but I am unable to deny that while playing to the exclusion of everything else on the one hand is as close to nirvana as I’ll probably get in this lifetime, it also causes a sensation in the pit of my stomach, the place where I’m supposed to feel bad when I’m doing something “wrong.”

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Christian – though [the] God [I no longer believe in] knows I tried to believe, to have faith, in my younger days. In those days, I had a fascination with the unforgiveable sin, first introduced to me as the topic of a Sunday sermon based on Christ’s declaration in Matthew 12: 31-32 (NRSV):

Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

I remember endeavoring to learn what word or words might constitute this sin. (As a young pup I took things quite literally – still do actually. It was a sad day when I finally understood that “not every sentence is a contract.” That knowledge, however, has made life much less painful and confusing.) I was fascinated by the idea that with a word, I had the power to condemn myself to eternal damnation. Sometimes I wondered if, in possession of this knowledge, I would have the courage and perversity to say it and be done with it. Other times, I recall having some concern I would utter the word or words by mistake.

Over the ensuing years I became acquainted with Faust and the notion of selling one’s soul, but that is different because it involves a “boutique” unforgiveable sin not a sin out there for just anybody to commit. Then there is Huck’s “and then says to myself, ‘Alright, then, I’ll go to Hell’.” (It is this decision that puts Huck right up there as one of my most admired people.) And there’s Ahab. But even their sins, as bold as they are, were sins against Yahweh, not the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t until I read The Faerie Queene as a graduate student in my late 20s that I found a satisfactory answer to the question –in part because, as I’ve just now realized, I had forgotten the unforgivable sin was a speaking sin against the Holy Ghost. To Spenser, the unforgiveable sin was to despair to the point of suicide. That explanation served me in good stead for many years. Lately, however, and to bring it around to the subject at hand, my addiction to WOW, I’ve been having second thoughts.

Go to any 12-step program meeting of whatever ilk, AA, NA, Al-Anon, COA, CODA, OA, GA, and one soon learns that “denial” is “more than just a river in Egypt.” Unlike many alcoholics, it took me almost no time at all to accept that I was an alcoholic. After all, what better excuse to drink? Of course I drank, that’s what alcoholics do. Once in treatment, however, I went a day without drinking, and then another, and then another, and I kept waking up. Eventually, I had to admit it was unnecessary to drink to live. After that, I pretty much had to accept drinking was a matter of choice – indeed almost everything in life involves some sort of choice. Moreover– gasp! — I am responsible for the choices I make. It wasn’t a rotten childhood, or a genetic predisposition, or any of a number of other excuses I used to keep drinking. It was a choice I made. But that’s where things start to get insidious. At a certain point, choice moves beyond choice to “rationalization.” And, at a certain point, the words we tell ourselves to justify our actions or inactions, to dissolve that pit in our stomachs, can, I submit, amount to speaking against the “Holy Spirit.” Rationalization, then, is the unforgiveable sin.

It’s a disease, and the ultimate denial is non-denial. The game’s, not the play’s, the thing. And oh, it catches my conscience so. And so, just for today, this hour, this minute, right now, I write through the desire, the urge to double click the WOW icon, type in my password and start merrily killing everything in sight (Well, not everything. “There are no honor points in killing guards” – but people do it, oh yes they do.) And why not simply succumb? Because I believe there is a qualitative difference between playing a video game and reading a book and, for that matter, writing a poem or performing some other creative act than reading a book. (And I mean qualitative, not just quantitative, and I know the difference because I went to college in the 70s and we got to take cool classes like Marxism for credit. “Production is immediate consumption.” (Come to think of it, in high school, I had a large poster of Karl Marx on my bedroom wall, along with Moshe Dyan. What’s that all about, Alfie?) Semper Fi.

next post: Part the Second
previous post: Once Upon a Time…

Once Upon a Time…

Tue 11/18/08 at 10:25 am


[hat tip to Robin]

next post: Part the First
previous post: Interim Report

Interim Report

Wed 11/05/08 at 1:24 pm

Well, my Mother of All Blog Entries (MOABE) remains unfinished, but a few days ago, I experienced a series of events I decided deserves (it’s all connected) a separate post.

Until last Saturday night, my MOABE had remained untouched since September 27, 2008. Instead, I pretty much mainlined World of Warcraft (WOW) through the entire month of October. Finally, I reached what I wanted to call “saity;” i.e., the point of being sated. I conducted a number of searches, but found no such word. I tried a few spelling variations. For instance, an Encarta search for “satity” takes one to the entry for “satori.” (A synchronous occurrence as I am at present intrigued by the proposition that Hamlet can be read as Our Hero’s journey to satori. The rest, after all, is silence.) I finally found the sought-for word, “satiety,” which brings us back on task.

Saturday night I played WOW to satiety, and actually turned my attention to non-WOW things. (A promising development in my addiction process). I wrote a bit in the MOABE, started a new book, and even played a different computer game.

Sunday morning I awoke to a brainstorm. Thoughts flashed like lightening and boomed like thunder. I started to pay attention and realized my brain was channeling stuff related to The First Voice a/k/a My Unfinished Novel. At present, I’m stalled in the middle of Chapter 15 with Johanna explaining the importance of memes to Elfredge. For those who find themselves asking “who’s Johanna,” or “who’s Elfredge,” I leave it to you to peruse my other blog entries for answers to these, and other, questions that may arise while reading this entry. Please note the search feature in the upper right directly below the Walking Raven. I realize I am being a lazy writer, but that’s just the way it is. By way of introduction, I will, however, supply you with Encarta’s definition for “meme” which reads “any characteristic of a culture, e.g. its language, that can be transmitted from one generation to the next in a way analogous to the transmission of genetic information.” Memes can also be images or music. I suppose a meme in its purest form is some sort of mathematical expresses ion.

And with that, here follows a distillation of the thoughts that flooded my brain last Sunday morning as I waited for the leftover coffee to heat in the microwave. Before the Big Bang which many scientists believe marks the beginning of this universe, there existed a singularity. The “spark” that set off the Big Bang caused this singularity’s three visible dimensions to fuse with the fourth, thereby creating spacetime, or what we call real time, which in turn set up the determination we now refer to as the expanding universe. What if, I asked myself on Sunday Morning, before the Big Bang, the singularity was comprised solely of dark energy strings? And what if the universe began because one of the dark energy strings morphed into a meme which turned out to be the first bit of visible energy? In other words, “Let there be light.” Or, if you prefer, “In the beginning was the Word.” I have read it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain light. I have also read no one can really explain the mind, or where or what the mind is.

Understanding “self” is a bit easier. According to Andrew Newberg in his book Why God Won’t Go Away, our brain contains a highly specialized bundle of neurons known as the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg renames it the Orientation Association Area (“OAA”). He goes on to explains the OAA actually consists of two areas, “the left orientation area creates the brains spatial sense of self, while the right side creates the physical space in which that self can exist.”

I have a keen sense of my OAA. Ever since I can remember, I have imagined a small Mini-Me that stands before a control panel just behind my forehead. Over my lifetime, this Mini-Me has had various names. These days I refer to her as “Tink,” as in, yes, Tinky Winky, the large purple Teletubbie. I have created an avatar of Tink as one of my WOW characters. As you can see below, she is neither large, nor purple. Rather, she is a Gnome Mage Engineer. (And yes, for you Halo fans, she’s a bit Cortana-esque.)


Also, I confess I started out my WOW career with visions of grandeur. Tink is a few avatars down the character list. The Night Elf Hunter Walkingraven (see below) is my second creation:


In case you are wondering, the cat figure next to him is his pet, Jensen. But enough. Tink is my mind, my consciousness, my self (sic). Tink looks out through my eyes. She looks in with the third, inner, eye.

My OAA is the seat of my imagination where I go to convert memes into thoughts which I can then endeavor to communicate to the rest of the world. If the same meme comes from enough people it becomes a piece of our culture. I’m writing this particular paragraph on Election Day morning, so I offer the following example of meme-travel. Last week, a friend came over, whipped out her wallet, and pointed to a red, white, and blue sticker that read, “I voted.” To me, however, she exclaimed, “Look! I Obamaed!”

I’d like to think this effort to communicate goes somewhat beyond the 100 monkeys’ scenario, but who knows. The survival value of intelligence with respect to evolution remains to be seen. But even if the human race is just a blip on the spacetime continuum, I believe we have a duty to contribute to the memes of the universe.

One way I fulfill this duty is by opening my moonroof and playing CDs of poetry, letting the words waft up into the sky. Each read, written, or spoken word frees a meme. Creative activity creates new memes. Without memes, spacetime will revert back to a dark singularity. At least I think that’s in part what Michael Ende wants to convey in the German fantasy novel The Neverending Story. Those of you who have read this incredible book will recall it begins with the inhabitants of Fantastica (Phantásien in the German version) seeking guidance from the Childlike Empress as to how to stop the Nothing from devouring their world. The Childlike Empress reveals that the only thing that will keep the Nothing at bay is to find a human child who will give her a new name. Naming creates reality in the sense that naming defines an object and calls it forth from the rest of the material soup. As explained by another character in the book, Grograman, the Many Colored Death, “beginning at the moment when you gave [something] its name it has existed forever.” Ultimately, The Neverending Story shows the importance of stories, or perhaps more accurately, imagination, in regard to existence.

Similarly, in the final pages of The Amber Spyglass, volume three of Philip Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy, inhabitants of the multiverse are admonished by Lord Asriel to continue to tell the stories.

As I noted above, the Big Bang marked the beginning of time. It comes as no surprise then that my brainstorm ended with a revelation as to the meaning of that first meme. The English translation reads “Once upon a time . . .”

next post: Once Upon a Time…

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