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The White Orca Effect Meets the Black Dog Syndrome

July 17, 2012

“Blak Lantern” Henry Richards

Preface: Through serendipity, I was writing of animals about the same time that Dan Leichty wrote his recent piece “Of Pets and Humans”. This piece, like Dan’s, deals with the psychological significance of animals to how humans view themselves.

The Denial File explores what we can’t think about. Sometimes, when we want to acknowledge a collusion to not acknowledge something, we speak of the elephant in the room. Have you ever thought about where that comes from? One claimed origin is Mark Twain’s short story The “Stolen White Elephant.” [No, this is not the Lakoff’s white elephant of try not to think about white elephant fame] Twain’s story goes like this: An official responsible for delivery of a divine white elephant, sent as a gift to the Queen of England from the King of Siam, secures the great beast in a the basement of a huge warehouse in New Jersey, hoping to restore its strength and majestic appearance before it is again subjected to the privations of a sea voyage to England. [Twain never explains why it is sensible to stop off in New Jersey when you are on your way from Siam to the UK, but then people, including people living in Jersey, are at a loss for what they are doing there, so I shouldn’t expect Twain to explain it.] The next day the official is mortified to learn that someone has stolen the precious elephant. Before the detectives assigned to the case can make progress, a series of news headlines decry a wave of murder and mayhem in the city,  and mass destruction of livestock and property across the NJ countryside, all accompanied by sightings of an ill-tempered white elephant, of demonic proportions. The situation escalates daily. an international incident is imminent, and the chief of police sets up a command post in the very place from which the elephant was stolen. Sixty detectives are placed on full-time duty, night and day, ordered to sleep as best as they could on mattresses thrown on command center’s cold concrete floor.

The cops rack their brains in every conceivable way, because, duty aside, the King of Siam has set a reward of $50,000 for the man who recovers the elephant.  After a few days, the colonial official arrives breathless at the command post to be informed personally by the chief that the case was resolved. What he learns causes him to swoon, but he is soon revived with smelling salts, and the chief repeats the unbearable reality. According to the chief, a rookie detective had been playing cards with a circle of his fellows, just beyond the bustle of the ongoing investigation. Bushed, cramped, and more than a little claustrophobic, the rookie launched out in the dark to stretch his legs and light a pipe just a score of paces beyond the card game, where he almost immediately tripped over something like a leather-padded log and fell face first into the massive, cold and clammy flesh of the divine being lying lifeless on the basement floor.

Becker fans will appreciate the links between denial, death, money, and the quest for meaning through accomplishment (and cash) all wrapped up in Twain’s little tale. The tale also has imbedded in it a value that you aren’t supposed to think too much about, namely, the importance of white animals to the symbolic systems of a good part of the world. White animals are given unusual reverence, even when you rule out unicorns and Moby Dick and stick only with animals living in the material world.

For example, white killer whales, politely known as orcas (or orcae, if you prefer Latinate forms of English plurals, I don’t. I like “this data”, but I must admit I prefer “these data” “these datas”, but I digress). In April of this year, MSNBC reported on an all-white orca sighted by a Russian marine research team, which dubbed him” Iceberg”. Erich Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, was quoted as saying, “In many ways, Iceberg is a symbol of all that is pure, wild and extraordinarily exciting about what is out there in the ocean waiting to be discovered.” National Geographic described Iceberg as “handsome” and noted that although most orcas eat other mammals (such as cute little seal pups)  Iceberg’s pod ate only fish. They are –one supposes–a pod of the Brahmin caste among orcas.  At first, Iceberg was touted as the first ever sighted white orca, but later reports qualified that he was the first mature adult sighted with this coloration, and that the team had observed two immature white orcas in previous years.   Although the “news” was two years old (the sighting being in 2010), a photo of Iceberg, swimming with his humane pod, took the first half of the front page of the Seattle Times under the headline: “White orca: A whale of tale.” The accompanying article quoted co-director Hoyt: “If nothing else,” Hoyt said, “the team hopes to see and take more pictures of this mystical-looking creature that people already seem to be identifying with as a symbol of wild nature.” He went on with greater enthusiasm: “Killer whales are so starkly black that when you see an all-white one it’s pretty amazing,” Hoyt said. “It’s a moment for celebration. It’s a strikingly beautiful animal.” All well and good, I thought, since all of these behemoths have a sublime beauty, but unless my memory betrays me, orcas prototypically have three white or gray-colored  patches covering  at least a quarter of their skin surface.  I wondered how an observational scientist could describe orca as “starkly black” since like penguins they are starkly black and white, due largely to the stark contrast.

Seattle area radio jockey, Will Johnson wrote: “I don’t know why, but I am fascinated with this story. [emphasis not in the original] An all white male Orca whale was spotted off the coast of Russia in the Pacific. The other day when the story came out, it wasn’t clear WHEN the all white Orca [sic] was spotted. Today, the Seattle Times had an extended story about it and as it turns out, the spotting was in the summer of 2010. Scientists kept the information because they wanted to do more research before releasing the pictures. 2 years? Come on! This is exciting news that should have been released immediately. I think people are really fascinated, as I am, about these creatures.

In reading the article, scientists said an all-white Orca [sic] is extremely rare. First, it’s a rare occurrence when one is born. Second, it’s even MORE unusual for one to make it to adulthood — because their natural camouflage is not there and, as a young whale, they would be more apt to be eaten by a predator, like a great white shark.”[Like the mammalian Orca, this fish often gets its name capitalized, in defiance of the rules of capitalization in english).

A reader’s comment to the Iceberg story posted on the CBS news website stated: “If the NAACP doesn’t complain about this finding, they will surely insist on a search for an all-black orca!” In urban vernacular I’d have to say “It’s mighty white up in here”. But in all fairness, we all know that any mean-spirited thing can and will be said on the internet, and in the spirit of universalism, I was beginning to wonder whether as an African American, I was actually being the “too sensitive” person that many whites describe when a black person brings up issues related to race that are in any way subtle or troublesome. [Did you wonder about the conceptual issue reflected in the capitalization, or lack of it, in the previous sentence?] Also, I wondered if the orca’s association with death would cause the thought of a white orca to play havoc with our dissonance reduction system. The god Orcus was the Roman version of the Greek Hades, god of the underworld, and the Romans thought of these magnificent animals as belonging to Orcas. Oddly, many people prefer the name orca to killer whale, wanting to avoid the obvious connotation of violence and death in the latter, but to do so is to escape to a word that means much the same thing. A white orca could create the dissonance of whether white or black is associated with death, a meme-conflict that appears to exist in many cultures.

While still repentant of my errant racial sensibilities–well just barely– I turned to my PBS channel to see the trailer for the TV documentary “Cloud,” and learned that: “In 1995, while filming wild horses in the mountains of Montana, Ginger Kathrens discovered a striking, almost pure white colt just hours after his birth. Kathrens named him Cloud. She feared that his distinctive coat would make him an obvious target for mountain lions; but he survived and Kathrens continued to follow him in his adventures. In Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, this wild horse developed from a bumbling, unsteady colt into an adventurous, defiant youth.” Two additional episodes followed.

This was in April of this year. Then in May, PBS premiered the documentary series “The White Lions—the story of two remarkable and extremely rare white lion cubs on their journey to adulthood. Both are female, sisters born as white as snow in May 2009 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Growing up on the savanna, they must overcome not only the same survival challenges that all young lion cubs must face, they must also overcome the threats their high visibility brings.” I had to see it; I was as fascinated as that radio jockey had been by the white Orca, but not by the lions, whose actual existence seemed simply inevitable, but by the behavior of PBS and the documentary creators. I had to see it.

The program was, of course, replete with anthropomorphisms and redundant superlatives used for these “very special lions. But I was surprised to hear them called “white youngsters,” and to hear repeatedly the epithet “white pride.” Only two of five members of the pride were pigment deficient. I suppose that the others were honorary whites, a term reserved in pre-liberation South Africa for educated Coloreds and East Asians. Anybody writing a documentary film script for a program filmed in Kruger National Park, South Africa should have had some degree of self-consciousness when they found themselves constantly using the term “white pride.” I imagine if I were to confront the script writer with the racial connotations of this epithet, he or she would state that it never entered their mind, meaning “Silly, Negro, you are being too sensitive. There were no humans filmed, so this documentary could not possibly imply anything about human racism.”  The script of “The White Lions” ends as follows: “A new chapter is now beginning for the white pride and the white sisters have a whole new life ahead. They are the first white lions to reach maturity in the wild in more than two decades. Their success so far has been remarkable; they began as scruffy little cubs and grew into fine lionesses. For the past two years they struggled to survive Kruger’s fierce wilderness and the challenges of their white coats. But they have had two amazing lionesses to look out for them, teaching them everything they know. Their futures will soon depend on their own abilities, their teamwork and their own wisdom. Will they be strong hunters raising their own cubs in years to come? The story of Kruger’s white lions has just begun.”

The common themes are obvious. White animals are special, wonderful, and starkly beautiful. They evoke an unexplainable fascination (in some folks).  They have to contend with the extra burden of whiteness (the white lion’s burden we might say) but are triumphant. There is probably no need to gloss over the obvious projections, most of which occupy the preconscious space between awareness and the unconscious where denial is easy whenever it is convenient, and spelling out those projections would only bore the reader. However, I am finding the absence of a scientific or historical literature on this topic fascinating. It appears to be one of the things people can’t think about for very long. The academic archives are silent on this topic. About the only thing I could find was the literature on the mythic or magical attributions to atypically white animals. This cultural theme was written about by Jung’s biographer,  Laurens Vander Post in his Dark Eye Over Africa, where he claimed the white color symbolism, or actually light versus dark color symbolism,  exists in virtually all cultures, and  virtually always is accompanied by a preference given to lighter skinned humans. His work wouldn’t pass as scientific nowadays. I was able to find one article that took a psychological approach relating racism as a projection of the animal nature. Its subject was the reluctance of African Americans to identify with the animal rights movement or at least to become members of organizations promoting such views.  But this article was speculative, had no hard data, and did not specifically deal with white people’s fascination with white animals. I also found a dissertation on racial symbolism of animals in Walt Disney productions, but still no data. Although clearly this white animal thing is selling newspapers and capturing viewers for PBS, I was not able to find one marketing study that seemed to be on point,  So I decided to do some informal research. You might want to do your own, or you might find yourself doing it inadvertently, after the phenomenon has been brought to your awareness. I decided to use as the data source the Sunday editions of NYT and the Seattle Times for the same Sunday in June. My method was to simply look for images of white animals: white animals anthropomorphized, or used as examples of the superlative, or special.  I found an interesting collection of them. One of the articles contained images I hadn’t thought of. The NYT reported a new version of Swan Lake by French choreographer Luc Petton opening at Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris on June 6.  In this version, live swans participate on stage, and were integral to the training of the dancers, who mimic the animals movements and strive to be accepted by the birds as fellow swans.  According to NYT “In the first half [of the ballet] black swans appear in a river onstage meant to represent the Styx, and a dancer floats by like a cadaver”. And later: “Backstage the handlers must keep the black and white swans apart so they don’t tear each other to pieces. Undeterred, Mr. Petton is already planning his next work, with bats. “Now that’s rich in meaning,” he said, grinning. “That’s really loaded.” Yes it is loaded with the color symbolism of death and violence concretized in Mr. Petton’s consciousness.

So much for casual weekend research. Back in the archives, I could find only two lines of research in psychology that approach these unthinkable topics. The first line of research was social psychological research  using the concept of racial micro-aggression. [Sue, Capodilupo, & Holder (2008) Racial microaggressions in the life experiences of black Americans. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 39, 329-336.] Racial microaggressions are negative comments or acts toward people of color by whites that maintain race as a salient social category advantageous to white people. Acts and comments that constitute racial microaggressions may be deemed “politically incorrect” in many settings, which rather than eliminating them, may cause the microaggressions to become more subtle. This lionizing of white animals in the mass media, which feels to me like a bombardment of images advancing whiteness, could be described as what the researchers have called environmental microaggressions, because the images and expressed attitudes are just out there in the environment, like “Whites Only” signs used to be, or idioms such as white lies and black lies continue to be.

The second line of research has been called the Black Dog Syndrome. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, psychologist Stanley Coren was interested in the concern stated to him by shelter workers that black dogs had poorer chances of being adopted.  From these concerns he developed the hypothesis of a Black Dog Syndrome; that is a cultural or psychological bias toward viewing black dogs as more aggressive and less suitable as pets than lighter colored dogs.  Using photographs of dogs, he employed the usual standardization methods of psychology (a variety of dogs of different colors, but otherwise identical) and the usual obfuscations to avoid making his hypothesis patently obvious, and therefore something that could be consciously circumvented. His research design compared people’s impressions of black, brown, and yellow dog photographs. [Damn it! He left out the striking handsome white dog, and downgraded the “blond” dog to a mere yellow.] He tested sixty people on the UBC campus and reported his results in his Psychology Today column, “Canine Corner.” [He did not report on the age or ethnicity/race of his subjects]. He found a direct linear correlation between dog color and likability of appearance, perceived friendliness, likelihood of being a good pet, and aggressiveness. The black dog stimuli were rated as lowest on all but the last attribute, aggression, on which the black dog was rated as higher. On all four attributes the brown dog was intermediate in rating to the other two stimuli types. The average of difference between the black dog stimuli and the yellow dog stimuli was 1.65 On a 1 to 7 scale. Coren reported that all of these differences reached traditional statistical significance, indicating that they were meaningful differences.  Nevertheless, Coren was happy to report an anecdote of his being able to overcome this prejudice and win adoption a long time resident of the shelter, who happened to be black. He did this by renaming the black dog “Happy” and putting a bright colorful bandana around its neck.

To bring this lengthy post full circle, the elephant in the room is the white elephant of awareness, in this case, awareness about racial projections that are so constant and integral to popular thought that without knowing it, you are awash with images of white animals, cartoons in which the darker creatures are violent, where the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” is going to get your momma, and where little black dogs are more likely to be seen as unadoptable pets. On the last point, which addresses reality and not fantasy, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 to 4 million pets are euthanized in animal shelters each year; many because they are unadoptable, that translates into black dogs being more likely to be euthanized because of their color. [No. Remember, I am just talking about dogs, not death row inmates]

For some readers, this topic will seem trivial or irrelevant. To me, it’s another example of awareness being its own punishment (and only potentially its own reward), a kind of mental white elephant, “a burdensome possession; creating more trouble than it is worth.” It is very exhausting to live in a world where the kind of thinking and culturally promoted unthinking behind such productions as “Cloud”, “The White Lions” etc. is so pervasive, and to know that to openly acknowledge the implied insult or assault is to be seen as being “overly sensitive.”  Trivial or not, to my knowledge this blog contribution is the first linkage of “the White Orca Syndrome” with microaggressions, or either with the “Black Dog Syndrome.”


Ego-Consciousness – New and Improved. Still Packed Special Ingredients Guilt and Shame

April 4, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What we cant think about: Language and consciousness are essentially outgrowths from self-reflective anxiety.

Humans have such capacity in action. We have gone from huddling around fires to protect themselves from the big predator cats and canine pack hunters to eradicating, in many areas, creatures that will not yield to domestication. Not even the birds–which come and go like random thoughts–can escape the silver-meshed net of our minds or the dark blanket of our mindlessness. Only the prolific and polymorphic insects and the cunning arachnids have a strong chance of surviving our era.

Equally amazing is our ability to not act externally, to introspect and reflect on ourselves and our condition. We gained this moment of pause through the evolution of empathy: feeling into and imagining what our peers were experiencing in the hunt or in competition for a lover.  In that moment of pause (many really, but easily represented by a single moment) so much happens, or at least the seeds of so much are engendered: helplessness, worship, guilt, desperation and fear. To extend this analogy, it’s as though we carry forward from that moment between actions such variegated seeds in a bag made of tightly woven anxieties. We plant these seeds latter, but at each planting we either choose a seed at random, or if we are more mature, we pick with foresight the seed that will grow into the most useful thing in our future, a winter harvest for winter’s need. Each time we want to plant a seed, we have to pry open the cord that seals the anxiety sack we carry around our necks like the ancient mariners talisman. That cord is the ego and ego-consciousness, the opening is our capacity for conscious awareness of our anxieties and fears and aspirations, and of the broader world. [The Sanskrit root underlying Indo-European words like ‘anxiety’ meant ‘to choke’ or ‘to strangle,’ the feeling that something closing in on us and our possibilities, causing us doubt the next breath.] The catch 22 is that if we abandon the bag to escape anxiety, the seminal possibilities it holds are also unavailable to us. We have no life without ego-consciousness. It is both cornucopia and Pandora’s Box. The ego is the vocal cord of anxiety, and finds its voice in the bubbling fountain of possibility itself–language. The headwaters of chosen words and others left behind. The paragraphs, pages deleted and lost. The wrong word, the gesture that mangles the meaning.

So much of human experience and being is ineffable; so much so that to speak at all is to have guilt. This is why the biblical gift of tongues was so much a miracle, not that each man heard the proclamations and praises in their own language, but that those who were themselves sub-merged with the power of the Holy Ghost knew not what they spoke and expressed the full fervent desires of their hearts with assurance that their words were in God’s ear. Their ecstatic expression was a fluent overflowing, a guiltless circumvention of ego consciousness. Recent neuroimagery studies suggest that worship in glossolalia is neither language in the normal sense, nor is it neurologically the same as singing. The frontal lobes are less involved than in communicative language and the parietal lobes that construct our sense of self within the flow of perception are in high gear. Glossolalia is perhaps the opposite of meditation, in which frontal activity predominates and the parietal self becomes a mere whisper in the background. Meditation is facilitated by the repetition of  a single word or phrase, and connects one to the One. It is for those who would die to the ego. Glossolalia dismantles the ego-self and reforms it in the context of the cosmic. In the Christian context it is an experience and expression of the self-in-God/God-in-self. Glossolalia is an abundance of semantics, deep-structures, clangs, rhythms and rimes–all heavenly clothes of sensory perception– the resurrected body, the New Self–. Glossolalia, and experiences like it such as ecstatic prophesy, are for those born again to the ego-in-God.

Is this part of the mystery of  גַּן עֵדֶן,  Gan ʿEdhen and of the reason for our expulsion from the Garden? Was the fruit that  Satan bid Eve to eat the idea that the Lord’s words could be taken in a different way?  That the Lord and his words were not one?  That the Lord is himself divided against himself, meaning, against meaning, because he allowed the existence of a snake that walks on legs–the cunning human intellect? Or was the forbidden fruit the idea that the Lord’s words had only one meaning, the one that Satan (easily parodied by William Blake as Newton’s cold, constricted view of reason) could articulate perfectly? Was our sin giving away the gift of tongues and divine meditation to affirm the body’s guilty reality?

Shame and guilt are implicit in the punishment God gives the newlyweds. They are banished under conditions that will require that they are looking down all the time: Adam, the agriculturist (red clay, the root meaning of his name) must till the field that will either sustain or starve them, and which they will eventually become (human: creature that is buried in the earth, humus ). Eve (still a Paleolithic gatherer of fruit, nuts, roots, and small rodents) must forage in the high grass in trepidation of the Snake writhing to bruise her heel—her ever-present awareness of a painful and malevolent death. So guilt and shame anticipate a punishment. For post-Theists, and those with a loving God, where is the punishment to come from but from within?


Glossing the Gilding on Guilt

January 27, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

A conversation on the Becker LinkedIn Discussion Group centered on guilt (thanks to Liz), and I would like to offer some observations about guilt here in The Denial File.

Right off the bat there’s the problem of definition. How does guilt differ from shame, from sadness? To what extent is guilt a derivative of anxiety?

There is recent scientific evidence on the former question.  A team of European scientists have mapped guilt-specific processing in the prefrontal cortex. (Wagner, N’Diaye, Ethofer, & Vuilleumier, in Cerebral Cortex, November 2011)  The methodology involved having subjects relive, while undergoing functional MRI scanning, recent personal experiences of guilt, shame, sadness, and emotionally neutral events. The brain regions involved in each emotion were then combined across subjects and the brain regions activated by each emotion were compared to each other and to knowledge about localization of other experiences and operations, such as–of particular importance here—the mental operation of focusing on oneself, or focusing on others. The researchers found that the brain regions that were most active for guilt experiences were different from those related to shame. The shame areas were active simultaneously with self-focus areas. In contrast, the guilt-specific areas were coactive with other-focus areas, and especially areas whose activation is triggered by the coordination of goals and interactions with another person, such as in a competitive game. All the emotions investigated (sadness, guilt, and shame) rely on brain areas that are functionally impaired in psychopaths and other antisocial disorders. The bottom line for this study is that (in terms of brain functioning) guilt subsumes shame (all areas involved in shame are active during guilt) but not vice versa, and that guilt is closer to sadness than to shame. Guilt is an other-focused experience and shame is a self-focused experience. From other contrasts, the researchers concluded that guilt is evoked when a social norm is violated, whereas shame predominates when there is a violation of personal values. This suggests that guilt has evolved to maintain one’s relationship with others, and shame has evolved to maintain the values undergirding the self.  [Unfortunately all the subjects in this study were female, leaving open the possibility (based on the widely held theory that men have no conscience) that the study might not be replicated with male subjects.]

As to my first question (Is guilt a derivative of anxiety?) my knowledge extends only to psychoanalytic theory, in which guilt is a topically defined anxiety experienced by the ego in reference to the superego. Guilt is the self feeling anxious about its relationship to the internalized parent, a relationship which has been jeopardized by some action or wish. Of course, psychoanalysis presumes that most guilt is unconscious, heavily defended against, and unfounded in reality, i.e., neurotic. In seeing guilt as related to an internalized other, psychoanalytic theory comports with the neuro-scientific findings cited above. Psychoanalysis also (like the summarized study) views shame as a self-focused emotion (with an anal and urethral in libidinal cathexis). Shame is anxiety about a shortcoming in the self. It could be said that it is anxiety about the capacity and adequacy of the self. Shame says in effect “I do not want to be seen.” The desire to hide. [As a result, it often defends against exhibitionism and unacknowledged ambition].

With that all above taken into account (which is easily said but not so easily done)  guilt and shame are used somewhat differently on the offerings [atonements, sacrifices for putting the reader through all this] that will follow in my next post.

Pop Quiz: Did Adam and Eve experience guilt or shame when they violated God’s instructions? Since Adam was in charge (in their male dominated, two-person world) did the two experience the same emotion?


The Plot of Mind Is Death, But Its Telling Is The Adornment Of Time.

December 30, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What do we make of Hemingway’s observation that every story, if we take it far enough, ends in a death? I attribute this observation to Hemingway to give the idea a beginning, to start a narrative. Of course this convention of attributing ideas to named persons, is another means of fighting off death, of keeping the accounts of immortality in order, of enforcing the rule that this idea should not go in the coffers of an animal with the symbolic label “Henry Richards” but to the symbolic being, “Ernest Hemingway” who now is no longer an animal, has no bones a molderin’ in the grave. That bone pile in Ketchum Ohio belonged to the biggest game animal that Hemingway ever shot, although he authored no story about the hunt or the kill. He slew, of course, his animal self.

This essay starts by assigning a starting point to the idea the essay itself addresses, but you, dear reader, are anticipating the essay’s end, its wrapping up, at best its coda containing a codex (and it already contains a death). Hemingway is much like the idea I am treating here: the idea that all stories end in death if taken far enough. It is not a coda or codex that Hemingway “comes to”. Hemingway never arrives but carries, as in arithmetic you carry values higher than the “place” will hold,  a sum of purposes, influence, a thematic force that dips in and out of time, lifts the lid on the tenses that hold the pending additions we call life, like dry parsnips dangling from the root cellar.

In writing these sentences, I stumble over pronouns: he, his, I, my, you, your, we, those other holding places, temporary marks [Latin temporārius, from tempus, tempor-, time.] in pencil that we use to carry over the official columns of identity. Pronouns are more oblique than the usage we could adapt to hold time and identity in abeyance. We could stick to the passive voice, or refer to “one”, or in a heroic tale “the One” or referring to someone within in earshot “that one”. (One recalls the symbolic stripping McCain gave Obama during a televised debate. Suddenly it was–in McCain’s mind at least, it seems–a private conversation between McCain and millions of white listeners together considering “that one”, no longer a you or he (an addressable subject) but an object, an objection, an obstacle. The tone was a bit conspiratorial, but supported by a fine old convention carried over from slavery, Jim Crow, and the cold war of the Civil Rights era. But one believes one knows the end of that story.) Or one may leave off quotation marks altogether. Say everything fresh.

This may all seem trivial, but it all relates to the end, because with human flesh (and it is not so with any of our animal relatives), if we fall upon the blades called pronouns, we bleed. The shield of ‘you’ does not save us from the sword of ‘I’, from the pronoun’s relentless rowing through time toward death. It is only for nonliving things and non- symbolic animals (including any-man-not-thinking) that this renaming is “pro” noun, an enhancement of the nomen and favorable toward it. Or to squeeze another drop of symbolic juice, this renaming is to the symbolic animal  “pro-noun”, as venomous as Eve’s interlocutor, pushing the person back into thingship to be a named and not a namer, out of the garden of the godly pro-subject. (I exhort you, dear reader, to speak a language that is pro-subject, that dances over the shoddy illusion of self, stomp-dances, taps, on the ego, crushes those scratched contact lenses that we try to make a unitary, but are no more singular than eyes, deer, water, an air, soil, earth, destiny, death, and like these contain a million transitory worlds dissipating back into clouds of stardust.)

Dear reader, we are more than halfway through our journey. Isn’t it always that way, Dante turning on his heels, (that beatific gaze from eyes long since rotted in their sockets) before he realizes there is nowhere to go but forward, where hope must be abandoned and retrieved, no place in nature except the mocking stairwell of time to go winding through, which is for us (and no other creature) an earthly purgatory of perils, until heaven or hell gives refuge, breaks our doubleness and give us single vision? For the symbolic man, time dances like this: moves to rhythms heard or unheard of, or to symbols coherent and inaudible. Time darts like a hummingbird sucking meaning from the tenses, those linguistic petals, hanging above us like purple orchids on green or rotting boughs, whose monumental trunks (broader than the hummingbird’s perception, tasteless to wanderlust tongue craving fruit) those druid’s rockets, roots bark blasting, and pulp, sap, and mapled blood against the infinite gravity of nothingness.

The hummingbird’s story (the mini-series of time on the boob tube of nature) started there in the last paragraph. Will the end be abrupt, from a net or a storm, an owl’s last chance for a meal before cloaking from the sun? Does winter carry the humming bird along–arboreal romance suspended for this episode-until the snow heavy winds engulf the story, like the white page engulfs the sentence never written, but is never permanently absent or fully present (our hummingbird, a sentence, time)? The clouds could be clearing, the blizzard buzzing from an avalanche of wings shedding the morning dew, the seasons themselves coming out of hibernation? The year yawns, the plot thickening toward death like sap to amber, a maple wound to cloying syrup?

The author may choose to start here as well. Yes, even this close to the end. The hummingbird makes no choice, but then the hummingbird has no character, no soul, does not stand on the occasion of a proper noun, raises no memorials, except a nest with eggs as bright with potential and ever moving as your own eyeballs, each of which could be a coda, the sign so much like null and also evoking the infinite crosshairs of life and death, the sign that directs the music and the dance to the tail of the tale, the mortifying cacophony of silence. But as St. Paul says, we must redeem the time because the days are evil. So I leave Hemmingway graveless, immortal in symbolic being, and you and I in our imperishable sarcophagi of pronouns and tenses.


Don’t Just Talk the Talk…Walk the Walk, You @#$!!**@#$

November 8, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

I am flying back from Toronto and have been contemplating our use of signals, symbols, signs and space, and how these act together musically, merge, emerge, collapse, and cascade into odd sculptures we often assume we understand, but are both as crazy and as patterned as the view in a kaleidoscope. [The inventor of the Kaleidoscope coined the name from the Greek in 1817, literally– “observer of beautiful forms”, may we all be kaleidoscopic.] Of course, we share a language with the Canadians, as well as most of a hemisphere and lots of aspects of general and high couture. But I began to doubt the depth and substance of this Northern Mitwellt when my faith in the natural order of things was shaken by an ungodly delay at customs after recurrent experiences  of Canadians ramming their bodies into mine as I tried to traverse Toronto city streets. The same thing happened in the quaint tourist town of Niagara on the Lake, Gateway to the Falls. [I wanted to write something here about Viagra on the Lake, Gateway to the expletive deleted, but there is no reasonable occasion for it, save the love of aborted limericks.] This has happened to me before in American cities, being forced to deal with these human battering-rams, and wondered why it was, that one (that one being me) could walk down crowded streets in Manhattan, Paris, Cairo, and Mexico City and never seriously collide with anyone or anything, except, in the case of Manhattan, where you are likely to collide with the opportunity to buy pretzel Rollex on the cheap. You certainly can’t say it’s because NYC is the more genteel locale.

I was offered an explanation by a true anthophile [in biology this term is also used as an adjectival modifier for various parasites, but here I refer to that meek breed that  Jesus spilled the beans about – may they indeed inherit the earth, which is the power-lust behind their dirty little conspiracy of masochistic sabotage of rational hedonism] that it all had to do with the Canadian demographic. Canada’s population is hopelessly doomed to bitter conflict due to division into groups with conflicting loyalties – namely Anglophiles, Francophiles, Freethinkers that despise one or both of these groups, and are therefore aligned with the Americans, and finally, sundry indigenous peoples and folks that even Canadians can recognize as foreign. [East Indians are not foreign, definitively Anglophile in orientation. You can’t trust Africans, they are as likely to be Frankophile or pro-American as anything else]

Here’s my anthrophilic friend’s atomic theory of homoculi in motion on sidewalks: Anglophiles insist on the affectation of walking on the left because they know the British drive on the left, and the Frankophiles stick to the right (oddly enough like their decedents on the Isles of  Greater Normandy). Freethinkers (really pro-American at heart) are dedicated to doing the opposite of what they think some despised group is doing. All of this takes a certain amount of mind reading and influence at a distance, [what we used to call magic until we found that electrons really do it].

Canadians for the full integration, as rare as ghost neutrinos, hold the middle ground, while the First Nations people are exercising any ancestrally rite (read right) of passage urged on by the spiritus loci, making them sort of like quantum jumpers, but somewhat less predictable. But, I protested, to my anthrophilic buddy, I have never had any body bang into me point blank in any of the international cities I mentioned, or on any of the few Indian towns I’ve been in here in the states, where, I have to admit, I have never seen a crowded sidewalk. Most folk just amble in the road in harmony with the weaving winds and with the same Honda pickups, RAV 4s, and Chevy trucks folks amble around in harmony with in Appalachia, only country ‘n western style.

Now, the folks who were running into me on this Canadian holiday of mine (I was not running into them, of course) were usually not built for intimidation. Some were panty- waist-sized metrosexuals, others were twenty-something bulimics imagining that they were laid off until the next fashion season. Others had a good solid thud to them, and some had a hollow sound that made me wonder if they had any innards at all. I know its unmannerly at best to speculate on another person’s innards, but when a thick side of Canadian comes ramming into you belly-first, your own belly is astonishingly orca-like in sonar capacity (however many inches of sufficiency or deficiency of orca girth). Instantaneously, you know more than you want to know about this person, such as how many hours had transpired since lunch when they decided to take you on, and you know with such exactitude that on the busiest sidewalks there is no need to carry a watch, or for the truly discerning, no need to buy the morning paper. [Read not the Times, Read the Tines. Rough paraphrase of Thoreau’s “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”.]

I have read in no less an authority than the NYT that the way to avoid such sidewalk communions is to never make eye-contact with the approaching obstacle, since these are no mindless ice-bergs to be steered around or plowed through, but thinking, reacting, spontaneous minds, that once aware of a similarly endowed consciousness in their proximity, cannot help but to engage in some kind of battle for dominion for the space defining you as someone who is not them. The most benign battle is that to be the one who most deftly avoids collision, while not yielding to the adversary a mote of recognition (although bashing the other fellow’s head in with your tightly rolled NYT or Guardian is another ploy).

If all this seems trivial, dear reader, please recall that it was Sophocles himself who first took up the feather or stylus and gave us that grave and fateful tale of Oedipus meeting a man on the road to Thebes (or from Thebes from the other guy’s perspective).  In those days, the road was no broader than a city sidewalk, and sort of a foot pounded clot of mud with a moat of muddy slush on each side, which in this early phase of the Carbon Era, contained along with any and everything else, the solid CO2 left over by horsepower, amply reeking of methane. Neither man yielded–no doubt eye contact was at fault–and the death and crowning of Kings, marriage to a queen-mom, bilateral self-enucleation, and psychoanalysis ensued. Freud himself, recalling that Jews of his father’s generation were forced to step off the planks for any approaching Gentile notable, may have had his own dog in this battle for the sidewalk.

Of course the internet teaches me more than I wanted to know. It’s being called Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Sidewalk Rage, and at the University of Hawaii a researcher has created a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale, with these items:

·       Acting in a hostile manner

·       Feeling stressed and impatient

·       Walking much faster than the rest of the people

·       Not yielding

·       Walking on the left of a crowded passage way, when most are on the right

·       Muttering at other pedestrians

·       Bumping into others

·       Not apologizing

·       Making insulting gestures

·       Hogging or blocking the passage way

·       Expressing rage at drivers as well i.e. throwing objects or yelling

·       Feeling engaged at other pedestrians and enjoying thoughts of violence

What this doesn’t capture are all the people who pretend that this is never a problem, that either people always yield to them (intimidators) or that they are above it all (deniers and meek ‘n mild-ers) and just couldn’t condescend to acknowledge the annoyance.

As for me, I have resorted to carrying an umbrella or walking stick lance-style in the crook of my arm. I now accept that walking in populated areas is the modern plebian version of medieval jousting. I start off with my lance in the nook of my left arm and away from any vital organ (American conventionalist that I am) ready to steer off anyone veering too much into my lane, but I stay on the alert to switch to the other arm to deal with those who imagine a sidewalk shoulder on my right or who really want to play chicken.


Silenced voices, ever louder symbols: Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail

October 4, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

By the time I turned my attention to Troy Davis, he was already wrapped in symbols. The symbols I saw were channeled through my usual lenses. On the cable news commentary shows that I tend to watch (because they affirm my beliefs) I saw the image of  a healthy, vigorous, positive young black man in a collage of still photographs, mainly in somber black and white. In one, he wore a sweatshirt with a thick embroidered cross, raised and in a darker grey than the background fabric, but not as dark as Troy’s face. In another, this one in color, he wore a white t-shirt with a bright red logo. This photo was probably taken during some sweltering visiting day at the Georgia Diagnostic and Assessment Prison. The t-shirt logo was the word Jesus written in blood bright red in cursive letters that reminded me of a Cardinals Jersey. I saw images of Troy’s family members, fatigued, already grieving, although there was still some symbolic chance for Troy to live beyond this week. I saw defense lawyers and journalists of all ages and races straining to tell the story in a way that made sense to them, to give a moral ending to that story that would be some bittersweet blend of justice and mercy.

I also saw photographs of the young thin, eternally youthful “white” face of  the man Troy was convicted of killing, Mark MacPhail.  Beyond his face, I did not see him literally wrapped in symbols, as I did Troy Davis, but the symbols were there nonetheless. These were more the symbols of honor and duty than the symbols of faith. One of the police sergeants who commemorated him on the day Davis was executed said that MacPhail had died because of the badge and the uniform he wore. He was a police officer slain on his off-duty job of guarding a Burger King, in a society where it makes some kind of sense to guard a Burger King using guards who are moonlighting cops with guns. We have all seen them, men who are too wiry or too fat from years of stress, alcohol, nicotine, and stale coffee. I did not see Mark wearing a cross, or a Jesus t-shirt. On my usual channels and websites, I didn’t see photographs of Mark MacPhail’s family, but I knew they were out there. I knew there were flags and badges in the story that people were making for him since his death. Mark was not there to tell any story.

I heard and read stunning facts about the course of justice in the case. I learned that the scales of justice had been pushed several times to reset the balance, and it never stopped in Troy’s favor. Mark was not asking for reconsideration, at least not from anywhere that sends us news. I heard many people speak of Troy’s innocence and I knew that many people had testified to Mark’s heroism, valor, and charity in trying to break up a parking lot fight over a bottle of beer.

I heard an old colleague, Allen Ault, formerly Director of the National Institute of Corrections being interviewed on TV. Over a decade ago, Allen had sent me to my first professional job in the South. I was to conduct a training workshop on psychopaths in Montgomery Alabama, to an audience of criminal justice students and professionals.  The local psychologist who acted as my guide in Montgomery drove me around all the major sights, but what sticks in my memory was inching down a residential street past a scorched white frame house. This was the home of former Governor George Wallace. It had been hit by a Molotov cocktail after Wallace had renounced the hard version of racism and came out against the Klan. My guide had explained that Wallace’s bodyguard and caretaker was a retired black state trooper. Although I had no wish to ever go back, I was long grateful to Allen for sending me down there. I learned something about the slow squeeze of institutional and cultural racism that eventually makes something pop, like an infected patch of acne that you just can’t keep your hands from trying to sooth and heal, all the while making it worse. It helped me understand why from 1690 to 1976, 49% of the executed were African American while 41% were European Americans, and why since 1976, the practice of frequent state-sponsored executions has become almost the exclusive province of former slave states or territories, which include all of the top seven (Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia).

Allen was asked during the TV interview, by a proud, self-proclaimed liberal commentator, if he thought Troy Davis was innocent. Wisely, Allen said he had no way of knowing that. He said he did know that there was no justification for our death penalty. I knew that the Pope had repeated his stand against the death penalty, and in this instance of it, so had any number of eminencies. I also knew that Troy Davis was going to die.

In the end, it was decided by the Supreme Court, as a matter of law, that there was no basis, no grounds, and no reason for intervention in Georgia’s enforcement of the law. Davis had presented no new evidence. Recanting witnesses were new evidence, but of what? Claims of police coercion against witnesses could have been investigated and confronted in the original trial and appeals. Hearsay of the confessions of an alternate suspect in the murder could have been made admissible as new evidence if the defense attorneys had confronted the man with his alleged words at a formal court hearing. Bottom Line: whether he was innocent or not, in fact, or morally, Davis was found legally guilty of an act that no one doubted was a crime.

I found myself thinking that all the symbols and many of the practices interwoven in this story were the same as in the Jesus execution story. Jesus was guilty as a matter of law. He had claimed some authority separate from Caesar, or so the witnesses said. He had claimed to be the son of God, or claimed to be some kind of god himself. These were all crimes punishable by death. Jesus had exhausted his appeals in a system not as elaborate and counter-balanced as ours, but which was its own kind of civilized justice machine, one that delivered justice much faster than ours. I also found myself thinking that Mark MacPhail was not here to put on Jesus t-shirts, or to be anything to those of us who did not know him but a flashing symbol of being wronged, and the less we knew about the details of his work and life, the more readily he became a symbol. I found myself thinking that Troy Davis had not seized and shaped the narrative, as liberal commentators are always saying Obama should do. Mark MacPhail was not here to try to shape any kind of narrative. Now, Troy Davis, like Jesus and Mark MacPhail, is no longer shaping a story. Through different doors, perhaps, they have entered the empire of symbols and images where they continue to exist through narratives containing their names, but shaped by the living.


Full Faith and Credit…How I Figured Out What’s Going On with Congress and Wall Street

August 18, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

I too was confused, until I realized that the model for understanding the whole thing was sitting in the trunk of my car. I have been driving around Seattle with it for months now:  a battery-powered coin counter stuck on “on”, counting perfectly identical wafers of air. At first, I had decided to donate it to some good cause, like Good Will, along with a bunch of other stuff and get the microscopic tax deduction. (I bought this thing back when Sharper Image was just getting the reputation for being artful at featuring junk in up-scale; design-conscious shops hosted by with-it 20 something’s rattling off why Shaper Image junk is better than other junk. Sharper image junk was, well, just sharper!  Cooler. (I had wanted a coin counter for months. I had the fantasy of rolling up all the pennies, and even the silvery coins lying around my home office cabinets and counters and in nooks and crannies of my car, but especially the pennies, because they actually are worth more than one cent as scrap metal. You could actually use them to wire your house, with enough work at it. You know how pennies can pile up like hordes of dead roaches lying around on top of each other, all helter skelter, after the Unthinkable has happened, I mean the Apocalypse, the second coming of Raid.  Unlike the roaches that will survive the nuclear holocaust, these dead dud cooper shells didn’t desiccate as the weeks and years tick by (the love of money is surely the root of all evil and the wages of sin is death), mocking all decency and mortality they had stayed heavy enough for me to almost break my long toe (you know the one that’s always competing with the Big Toe by trying to be the longer toe (It’s such a puny 90 gram runt, but then its running in the tight field of only four other competitors, and its clearly the only one with a chance of beating out the Kauna Toe, Mr. Krakatoau to you, bub.) when I kicked a Glad bag of them in my office, which had been propping the door open like a half-packed sandbag. I had been pretending it was a kind of lumpy, slumped over pigskin, after giving up on shooting paper balls into my wastepaper basket, as being too much like shooting fish in a barrel. When I look down at my long toe duct-taped to my Kahuna toe, I see clearly why office football has never caught on like office putting or wastepaper lay-ups, but at the time it had felt like a manly, non-nerdy thing to do, until I had done it and then cast from the garden, had to walk around for weeks with the secret castration anxiety of a guy with an offending, rebellious long toe taped to that same envied Big Toe, the disapproving, unwilling Big Brother who you can’t shake and who can’t shake you, like you were duct-taped side-by-side by Mom.)) The guys at Sharper Image sold me said battery-powered coin counter with lots of those little paper condoms you fill up with quarters or nickels or those roach-head Lincolns, and yes, when rolling coins, as in much in life, size matters. I actually counted several bags of coins, at least of wine-rack refill value. (I had had even more loot forthcoming back in the days of the great Green Rush, back when S &H Green Stamps went from the Green Shield Standard to electronic “green points” and there was a run on the Redemption Centers. Many were called and much was chosen. (There were still millions in Green Stamps that were never cashed in. Better round-up your greenbacks, history repeats.)  When I hauled my rolled coins proudly into the  bank, and heaped the bags like gold ore on the counter in front of two 20-something Neo-con finance nerds who somehow reminded me of the same guys at Sharper Image who sold me the electric toothbrush “with a frequency for cutting plaque that none of them can touch.” I had to push the bags through the bullet plate glass contraption that keeps out offending dental decay and even Bonnie and Clyde. They looked at my bags of loot as though they had been the end result my walking my pet elephant through the neighborhood while scrupulously observing the leash laws. (They had the same look on their faces that I imagined must have been on the face of a local court clerk when my brother showed up to pay the fine of their local-yokel speed trap for us urban city-dwellers who were guilty of driving while reasonably civilized. He paid in odd change sitting loose in bursting plastic bags and torn paper bags. He said he had counted it and that if they didn’t believe him, he had time to wait for them to count it on the spot)  Anyway, these nerds told me that no way could they take my count as accurate, they would have to count it again, and that mean they would have to unroll it, which meant a fee for me. After that the dust grew on my coin counter and it was put out to pasture via my trunk. It has never made it to Good Will, despite my good will to get it there. I put it in a plastic see through bag, complete with the paper condoms (which would protect you from the filthy lucre, had there been any) and left in batteries. I have been cranking out these air coins, and by golly, that’s the key to the perpetual motion machine. Whenever I look, it is still cranking them out. With each whirl, a plastic gear turns and makes these air wafer coins and rolls a stack of them in an air spiral and pays itself to keep going. Sharper Image has gone bankrupt. Green Stamps are worthless after the decades in the sixties when folks had just started forgetting how to save, and the rewards catalog was the most widely circulated publication in the United States and three times as many Green Stamps were being issued than U.S. Postage Stamps, which is, after all, a kind of cash. (What’s the last time you’ve seen a Green Stamp). Now they are closing down the U.S. Postal Service too. I understand now how they also have been cranking out these air wafers, Congress, Wall Street and them, and the US and Them (China, of course) are duct-taped together like the long-toe and the Kahuna toe, but neither brother wants to give in to who is really the Kahuna toe, and who is just, you know, long, but not as long. That’s how I figured out what is going on with Congress and Wall Street. Really, after tracking it like through obfuscations as bewildering a labyrinth of parentheses you are forced to run for speed like close hurdles, but sometimes they’re spread out, just to trip you up.) But I swear, I am pulling over to Good Will sometime this week, and I am asking the guy from Pakistan who runs the place what he thinks is fair to put on the blank tax receipt (the one they give you for donating stuff ) for the gift of my perpetual motion money maker and counter. A one and how many zeros?