We have dealt no great blow to the Devil by renaming him “neurosis.”

My high school biology teacher was an original. Passionate about his subject, honest and plain-spoken, and invariably good-natured, he was a hero to me at the time. I was terrible at biology but I loved the ideas and I loved him.

He was a park ranger in the summers, and he took us out on field trips in, well, the fields to find out what our local ecosystem had to offer.

His experience stretched beyond life science. He had been a seminary student and on a serious track to the priesthood at one point, and he was also an expert in several Native American spiritual traditions. He wouldn’t eat meat without apologizing to the animal, for example.

One day in class the subject of the occult somehow came up. I’m not sure, but I think it was related to a classmate of mine who scared the pants off herself with a ouija board. Some bit of aleatory coincidence made her think a dead relative was speaking and she flipped. Our teacher looked thoughtful at this and said “I have a story.”

“When I was in the seminary, I had a lot of trouble with the idea of the Devil. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea that an individual, some fallen angel, was permitted to exist and to hate us. And I couldn’t wrap my mind around the dogma of evil, especially personified evil. My supervisor told me to fast and meditate about it and I did.

“So I didnt eat much at all, and prayed and meditated for three days. This is difficult and I do not suggest you do it yourself without a good reason and a supervisor. Near the end of the third day, I got up to go into the other room and there was someone sitting in there. He introduced himself as the Devil, and said he’d heard I wanted to know about him. He didn’t look evil or have horns or anything. But it was clear somehow that he was the genuine article, you know. Not some prank.

“So I talked with the Devil for a few hours, and he explained his role to me, and why there was evil in the world. He himself didn’t know why God permitted him, but he was quite serious about evil and his hatred for everyone. Very calm conversation, but obviously very chilling.

“And then he didn’t leave. I hung around wondering what to do, and he just sat there. I realized then that the problem with inviting the Devil in is that he doesn’t have to leave unless he wants to. I gave up on getting rid of him and went for a long walk, because that’s solved so many problems for me. When I came back there was no Devil, and I had breakfast and went to sleep.

“And yes there is a moral to this story, right? Because there always is with me. Yeah, the moral is that you shouldn’t play with things you can’t understand or control. As much as it may look like a good idea, you’re risking everything. And really it doesn’t matter whether the Devil exists or I was hallucinating after all that fasting. In either case I couldn’t get him to leave and it was terrifying.

“So, yeah. If the ouija board does that to you, leave it alone.”

He had a picture on his wall of the Voyager message plaque, you know the one with the planet map and the humans and the symbols. The right-wing super-fundamentalist creationist smbiology teacher down the hall (yes, I know) got in the room one night and painted it over because it had nakeds on it. He also removed and destroyed the part of the anatomical charts that had genitalia on it. They had a little war, or rather the religioso waged war on my teacher. I think you can guess who won.

Deus Ex Miller Faucher and Cafferty L.L.P.

Just as I was running out of money (temporarily) because the government thingy was being slow and bureaucratic and dumb, something happens that never, ever happens. I was part of the class in a class action suit against SmithKline Beecham about Paxil. They lied about withdrawal symptoms, essentially.

Based on the (large) amount of money I spent on Paxil over the years, I just got a check for $477.08.

Suck it, Smith and Kline and Beecham. That withdrawal was worth more than $477.08 in pain to me, but I’m glad to have it right now.

hated and then loved

Some of my favorite art (books, music, food, all of it) I have hated the first time. Some of it is understandable: the shock of the new. Bitter foods, dissonant music, singers with weird voices, idiosyncratic writers. Other things I still don’t know why I hated at first. A partial list is below. Heavy on the pop music because, well, I am heavy on the pop music. But for some reason my taste there is fluid and weird. I love everything below but couldn’t stand it at first:

Gang of Four
Cilantro
Joy Division
James Joyce
The Mountain Goats
Bill Hicks
Van Morrison
Prefab Sprout
John Coltrane
Faulkner
Neil Young
Thomas Mann
Sashimi

Part of it is just maturing, I think, and not needing everything to be accessible. But I liked bitter, weird, dissonant, and generally obscure crap starting very young. I can’t explain those taste changes. Glad I enjoy all those things now.

The list of things I liked and now despise is shorter, more boring, and pointlessly negative so I won’t share. Most of them are pop culture that I liked because of some personal context and then realized was shit, or things I enjoyed because I was immaturer and later found the real version thereof.

no swimswim witem ol meme pool

Two recent topics (list of high school cliques and defining the internet/watercooler news story) resulted in another phenomenon. Certain topics present the nearly irresistable urge to respond personally with an opinion or experience, even if that’s not the original intent of the discussion.

In these cases: The mention of teenager social cliques caused almost everyone to deliver their personal clique membership experience: claiming one, resisting them, etc. This accidentally proved my point about the power of that experience well into adulthood. The discussion of bloggable watercooler news stories got a lot of responses opining about the particular story that sparked my interest. In short, a watercooler was formed.

In both cases the general wasn’t nearly as attractive as the opportunity to share the personal and specific.

I think I hit the “talk about the weather” organ again. I wonder where that thing is? I’m sure as hell not “above” it; mention the weather and I’ll discuss it at length, and I’ll bet I’d do the same on the other topics if I hadn’t been the one with the less magnetic general questions.

So the next question is; what is the list of those topics? My first guess is that a lot of things about food, sex, and sleep would cause a similar response.

I’ve had a lot of mean in me lately and I ain’t proud.

Fortunately most of it is theoretical and occurs as military exercises rather than actual attacks. But my snark is at a near all-time high.

Example. My brother is in town, and we were talking about scammers and beggars. I related the story of one local addict, the kind of guy who goes from looking pretty much okay because his family has cleaned him up, through increasingly scruffy, to Gone For A While. He has a hunted look and that near-permanent sunburn of the person who has been outside not by choice. Sometimes he just bums cigs, but he usually does the “out of gas” scam, which is a script I have not seen vary in multiple cities and decades:

“Hey, I feel really dumb, can I ask you a question here? I was at a [bachelor party,picnic,church] and didn’t pay attention and I ran out of gas! I have to get back to [suburb about 20 miles away where no poor people live] tonight and I don’t have my wallet on my. So dumb. Do you have a couple bucks?”

The last time our local guy did this my answer was “This is the third variation on that lie you have told just to me. Did you know that?” He looked surprised and said “Sorry! No, I didn’t.” and left. So that was kind of snarky and unnecessarily mean, since the poor fucker is a drug addict and kind of doomed. I got my button pushed by the lie and was nasty.

My brother told me in response that he’d been taken in by a young woman who worked this scam at the college where he works. There had been some kind of kampus kop alert about scammers so he reported his misadventure to the cops in case it was someone they were looking for, etc etc. The young policewoman who took the report mocked him to no end, basically calling in the other cops to say hey look at the dumb professor who fell for the scam haw haw haw, on and on. He was pretty upset. My response was that he should have replied:

“That’s funny all right. Here’s an even better joke. Did you hear the one about the girl who was so dumb she barely made it out of high school and ended up a third-rate rentacop working for the smart people? It’s FUCKING HILARIOUS!”

I think I shocked my brother. I certainly shocked myself! Maybe I need to take up punching clowns or something.

Reverse engineer your brain

More than 40 years ago, my father wrote a short story called “Dr. Pettigott’s Face.” The eponymous doctor of the story has a theory that pushing the face into happy expressions will make people happy, and has constructed a machine to do this. I remember that for years he had a correspondence with some neuro researcher who was interested in facial expressions because the guy liked the story so much. The title has been a shorthand in our family for people trying to reverse engineer things in weird ways.

The polyvagal theory and some of its implications suggest that there may be a grain of truth in this. The connections between emotion and facial expression are very tight and it’s possible that it “goes both ways”. This story from the LA Times on Sunday is fascinating:

botox for a better brain?

Interesting news from the phrenology ward

Today in a psychotherapy session I was discussing my problems with relationships, and more specifically my lack of intimate relationships. The working theory is that my own emotional life is too intense to communicate to others and that I shut them out in ways I’m not consciously able to control, mostly nonverbal.

This is particularly true if I have an attraction to someone, because my feeling of attraction is tightly coupled with unacceptably strong fear, shame, and self-hatred so that I become exceptionally false and not “present”.

Okay, interesting theory. But what’s the mechanism here? One theory is that the problem lies in the 10th cranial nerve. This is the vagus nerve, which goes to both the gut and the lungs from the brain. The “polyvagal theory” holds that separate branches of the vagus nerve, when stimulated, produce strong and opposed feelings: either you feel very safe, or not at all safe.

This has implications for a number of problems, including some autistic spectrum disorders, PTSD, panic attacks, and social adjustment problems. If the two systems become, as my therapist puts it, “overcoupled”, then it can be impossible to make a serious connection with someone without being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions. The result is a kind of neural shutdown, which makes people like me seem distant or standoffish when we’re feeling exactly the opposite.

Stephen Polger, the originator of the polyvagal theory, has had some promising results at the University of Illinois treating autism with sound. There are also some suggestions and tips for dealing with these problems in this interview with Polger, which is intended for a lay audience. The other information I’ve found about this so far has been much more technical.

In my own case, since I am not autistic, PTSD, or suffering from panic attacks, the goal is to get the neural function more normal through a combination of neurofeedback, EMDR, somatic therapy, and medication. It’s kind of a science project though, since some of these ideas are very new and raw and will undoubtedly be further refined later.