Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mouth closed, eyes open.

" You can see a lot by just observing." -- Yogi Berra

One benefit of not being able to fully interact in social situations is that you do a lot of observing. I've found that when you are not involved in the give-and-take of conversation, when you are not mentally contriving your next story or rebuttal, that you see many things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Years ago, when I was writing a story from the perspective of a blind protagonist, I took it upon myself to try to experience a brief period of blindness. Instead of stumbling around the city streets with a blindfold and a cane (too often done in the movies) I drove to Fall Creek Falls and perched myself in a spot just off the trail overlooking an area called Buzzards Roost (yes, there really are buzzards there). It was about half an hour before sunset, so I sat down in the duff, leaned back against a big pine tree, and closed my eyes.
Beginning writers (and too often experienced ones as well) frequently make the mistake of concentrating too hard on only one of the 5 senses. It is easy to describe things from a visual perspective, but real people have more than just vision operating at any given time. So good fiction, fiction that engulfs the reader, is fiction that encompasses more than just that one sense.
So, I sat there on the side of the mountain, my eyes closed to the breathtaking scenery of the Cumberland plateau, and concentrated on my other four senses. I paid close attention to the smells around me...the scent of the pine, the decaying leaf matter below me, the nuances of the odors on the breeze. And I felt that breeze, how it brushed my face and moved my hair. I felt the crispness of the pine needles and leaves I was sitting on, and the roughness of the bark at my back. I listened, and heard the chirping of birds around me, sparrow, wren, blue jay, others I couldn't identify. I heard the movement of the leaves, and how the trees in the valley beneath me brushed against one another. I felt the sun on my face.
Then, the sun started going down. Its heat on my face growing slowly less intense. And, as that intensity lessened, other things changed as well. It began to grow cooler, more rapidly that I would have imagined possible. The heat on my face disappeared. Surprisingly, the scents around me grew more intense, as if the coolness had caused the forest floor to release incense it had held in all day long. The chattering birds grew quieter. And I began to hear other sounds...birds I had not heard before. As darkness fell, I heard the hooting of an owl, and the calls of other night birds. Cracking of tree branches I had not noticed during the daylight. Had those sounds been there before, drowned out by the cacophony of the daylight clatter?
Back to Yogi Berra.
Sitting quietly in a crowded bar, at a wedding reception, at a party, at a family gathering, at a concert...wherever...I quietly listen. And I observe. And I 'see' a lot. And what I see, more often than not, are the things that are left unsaid verbally, but are communicated in all the other senses. People rarely say what they really mean. They hide their meaning with obfuscations and weasel words, but their other senses scream the truth, to those who know how to 'listen' to those senses.
Take the resurgence of Fundamentalist Christianity. Pliny wrote a very intuitive blog on this subject, and Brian has covered this topic as well, but my opinion is that they have both just missed the mark. Botts has pointed out (correctly) the most 'christians' seem to go through the open door, but he doesn't go further to speculate why, other than the assumption that they are following the mantra of organized religion.
I don't listen much to what christians SAY. People say a lot of crap they don't mean or don't believe. Some of them do it almost constantly. It is incredibly obvious in their actions...their eyes, their body language, the tone of their speech, the cadence of their conversation. Even their scent. Most christians don't really believe in god. Oh, they SAY they do...they often say it loudly, to convince themselves and anyone else listening. but deep down they don't really believe it. They WANT to believe it...oh yes, they desperately want to. They pray for the day when they will fully feel it in their hearts...fully feel that feeling that they tell you they already feel. But looking in their eyes, knowing what to 'listen' for, you can see the desperation. I feel a great sadness when I meet these much wanting to see the Emperor's splendid clothing, but only seeing a naked old man. They want so much to belong. They want to feel what they perceive the others as feeling, as knowing. But they don't. And what they can't see is that most of the others don't either.
But this is not all of it. If it were, it would be sad, but not dangerous. And there is a danger, because hidden beneath the words and the wanting are primitive feelings of fear, separatism, and loathing of the unfamiliar. It is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism coincides with the rise of affirmative action, and the elimination of the last vestiges of segregation. It is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism coincides with the rise of minority religions (or lack thereof) being finally given a legal voice to demand their constitutional rights. It is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalist religion coincides with the demands for social and legal equality for minorities, women, and individuals of diverse sexual orientation.
The rise of fundamentalist religion has nothing to do with God. Oh, they SAY it does, but my spidey sense tells me they lie. This is not about God. This is about fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown. Fear for safety. Fear of losing money. Fear.
The problem with leveling the playing field is that in order to bring some people up, other people have to go down.
In order to respect all religions, or lack of, you must sacrifice the comfort in knowing that your children will be able to grow up unexposed to diversity.
In order to respect all races and sexes, you must sacrifice the automatic (and often undeserved) perks of being the "right" race and sex. In order to level the field, you might have to sacrifice some of your undeserved safety and your undeserved monetary worth.
They say this is about Jesus. Bullcrap. Jesus was about sacrifice. Jesus WAS sacrifice. Fundamentalist christianity is about as far from sacrifice as you can get. Fundamentalist christianity might preach some bible stuff just for show, but what it is really about is white folks desperately trying to regain the unlevel field. That's it, folks. That's the sad, sorry, sickening truth behind all the sound and fury. They want their old lives back...where no one had to deal with a neighbor who wasn't white and christian, where no one's children had to be exposed to the ugliness of the ghetto (roll up the windows, kids), where there were Christmas plays and prayers in school, sporting events, and city council meetings, where every one flew a flag that was red, white, and blue (no rainbows in sight), where there were 4th of July parades and picnics and everyone saluted the veterans. They want a world without drugs, gangs, abortions (only 'bad' girls had sex anyway). In short, they want a world isolated from the realities of life. They want the life of the Eloi, while the Morlocks stay safely in the ghettos, or the closet, or at least know better than to voice their opinions (or insist on their rights).
And the frightening thing is that they might succeed. When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it usually doesn't swing back to swings violently to the opposite direction, often overshooting the point at which it was originally. That is how dark ages happen. That might be what it happening now. And I fear for the future.