Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hitch-hiker: the walking wounded and the will to live

On the radio, I recently listened to a military chaplain with PTSD, one more article about wounded soldiers from the years of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. After meeting my hitch-hiker, another survivor from a previous war, I was reminded of a favourite book by Victor Frankl , a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps, called 'Man’s Search for Meaning'. He developed a theory ( logo-therapy) about why it was that some survived and others gave up and died. It is a very moving and thoughtful little book.

Suffering: if one cannot change a situation that causes suffering, he can still choose his attitude. ... As we will see, the priority stays with the situation that causes us to suffer. But the superiority goes to the 'know how to suffer' if need be. - those who master a hard lot with their head held high.
To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning. If there is a purpose to life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all his indignities.
Victor Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, “ He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning. By Victor Frankl

I'm driving home past the building where I used to work long ago, when I see the hitch-hiker with her thumb out. I do not make up my mind until the last second and then pull over. Close up, she looks grey and more than a little wild, but then I would expect that from someone outside this community resource place that serves a variety of folk, especially the poor and disadvantaged. She has an unlighted cigarette in one hand, and a squirming mesh bag in the other. She says, “Is my cat ok?”so I nod and they clamber on board. Her eyes are blank, as though there is no one home inside.

We establish that I am going home via a village on my route and that she is going there to check out a place to rent. She is having her government support cut,and is looking for a very cheap little shack. Do I have a little place for an old lady? She never stays long. She will garden, cook, but no, she is not a live-in caregiver either. The people here, they are too rich, they are not interested in communal living, like she did back in the old country where she was born: -during the war. I establish that this means the ethnic conflicts that wrapped the Balkans in horror for so many years.

I ask her to speak more clearly, I am having difficulty hearing her over the sound of the van, and she is prickly, quick to take offence about her accent, but I explain that if I am listening to someone, I really wish to hear what they have to say.

Have I heard of Nikola Tesla? From Serbia you know, like her. No, I do not need to hear her tell it. Just look him up. She is intelligent she says, but no one cares. We wander down the road but our minds are finding traction; I listen carefully and she begins to move past her defences and into neutral territory. She has been to talk to a counsellor at the centre and gotten short shrift. What she does not know is that I once did that same job for a few years, but now I have no agenda or responsibility to make things right for her so this is a meeting of equals. By the time we reach the village we have formed a friendship of sorts. I know about her grown children and how they say that if the old country is so great she should go back there. In Canada, 'Wonderful Canada', they keep you half alive,she says, but at home at least they shoot you cleanly. Have I seen this or that film or actress?

What I am thinking of is an old Meryl Streep film about a talented musician whose mental illness has landed her on skid row as a bag lady. Heaven knows what terrors have accompanied my companion on her road; from her beginnings in war, rape camps and ethnic cleansing and on down through the years. All concerns about whose side did what to whom during those conflicts do matter, but many who survived, from whatever side, are the 'walking wounded' of today. The 'wounded' part is almost a given, few could go through war without it showing, but it is the 'walking' part that has caught my attention; for here is someone who has experienced life in a hard school and yet retained her intelligence, her ironic humour, and her strong will to live on her own terms. We exchange names and birth dates as she get out of the van; “Astrology you know, it helps understand one another on a deeper level”. She helps people find their lost souls if I should ever need her. I wind down the window and wave goodbye and get a wave and a smile from my hitch-hiker in return.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Nuremberg Rally, propaganda and the real dangers of emotion laden discourse.

We have all seen the old b&w newsreel footage of Herr Hitler speaking before serried ranks of enthusiastic followers and deliberately working himself up into an emotional frenzy. For most of us watching though, it is a long time ago, in a foreign language, and it would be ridiculous if it didn't also raise the warning hairs on the back of our necks.

We do recognize how dangerous this was, how these speeches of his and other National Socialist propaganda, subverted a whole nation and killed millions, but its now ancient history right? Those Germans, we think, how could they have been sucked in by such an obvious charade? So, why do we see his book 'Mein Kampf' becoming a popular book in India and extremist groups becoming more numerous in Europe and around the world? Do we keep careful watch on our own politicians of whatever political stripe and their appeal to our allegiance with emotional language and simplistic solutions to complex problems?

We can recognize our attraction to emotionally laced language as a form of tribalism: the right combination of slanted language, lies and emotion, the appeal to our deepest anxieties and allegiances and we are a ravening mob out for blood, or at least are easily influenced to behave along certain lines. We may be able to vote, but if the frame is constrained correctly, we will vote the chosen party, left or right, into power. How do we avoid this pitfall?

This human tendency is of course not limited to politics or to one particular agenda. Religions that appeal to narrow, rule-based interpretations, or that appeal to our emotions, or to observance rather than to independent discussion and understanding are on the rise. Our media has drifted toward 'feelings' and news magazine formats and away from balanced and analytical reportage: how often do we notice that a factual interview must also contain “ How does that make you feel?”and if a few tears or righteous anger can be elicited so much the better. We eat it up!

Below the level of language, our brains function in a fast shifting ferment of conceptual frames and feelings: everything is in flow; from our cerebral cortex to the more ancient parts that supply our most basic emotions. The correct choice of language and imagery by leaders, the right orchestration and tone of voice and we are lead by the nose. It takes a conscious effort on everyone's part to keep debate up out of that powerful emotional gravitation. If we do wish for a change we need to analyze what we hear and see around us, look for the emotional hook, the slanted language ( I have been using some myself, did you notice?), and out and out lies regularly repeated to beat down down our rational minds. We need to point out propaganda when we see others use it and catch ourselves as we slip into the same trap.

As a Canadian I see this in operation in my own national government, in parliament, in interviews with ministers and in the framing of issues to appeal to the most primitive of our emotions: crime ( the streets are unsafe, we need more jails), immigration ( keep out the poor and sick), military, (support our boys, do not question), global warming, ( not proven), environmental, ( terrorists!) and so on. Science, clarity, truth, compassion and reasoned debate, are not wanted here! I am sure that we are not alone in this, that it is on the rise around the world along with increasing populations and diminishing resources and that as human societies we have been down this road many times before and found deadly dead ends.

We do not need to diminish emotion or glorify rationality, that is the complexity of the case, but we do need to take a step back as individuals, groups and political parties, and analyze more, to refuse to be swayed by emotion when thinking is required and to feel genuinely and personally when that is appropriate. We must learn to be selective with language and careful in our debates, whether that be within our families, our town hall meetings, regional and national governments, or between nations. Hold! Enough!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

'Transhumance'. adjusting a drawing using Lightroom 4 photo program


 Transhumance:   The sheep are taken up into the high mountain pastures once Spring has melted the snow.

This whimsical little drawing grew out of an art session with a granddaughter. I was just making smudges when I saw the mountain and drew in the distant landscape below and finally the little figures. It was very soft and faint but I knew that I could scan it into my photo program and make any adjustments I liked at that point. Lightroom 4 ( I've just upgraded) has some very useful tools for these kind of adjustments that would be impossible to do on the original 'light touch' drawing. The shadows that give modelling, the sheep dangling on the rope that was draw onto the background colour and later whitened, adjusting of colour intensities and sharpness; all done with the same techniques I would use for adjusting a digital photograph.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The relationship between metaphor and visual language.

In his book,'The Stuff of Thought', Steven Pinker makes a convincing case that the use of metaphor in language is a powerful instrument in creative thinking. We use potent metaphoric comparisons about the world as we understand it to think ourselves into more complex speculations and abstract thought. So how could this also be applied to visual thinking, and the development of humankind through time?

Carl Jung may have already approached this through his concept of Archetypes: powerful forms of basic imagery that underlie our thinking selves and surface imagery and are inherited as part of our genetic 'software'.Whenever we see something and the hair figuratively or literally rises on our neck we can be sure we are experiencing a visual metaphor. Whether this is a photograph of two children running into a darkening wood, Hansel and Gretel, or a renaissance painting, a cave painting from ten thousand years ago, or the paintings of Australian Aborigines on rock shelters, there is the probability that images too have been used to propel thought from the practical towards the theoretical. We are what we are today because we were able to imagine ourselves here.

With this in mind then, the role of 'Artist' was a pivotal one in the development of religions and religious imagery and a necessary stepping stone of visual thinking that lead to the sciences of today. At each step along the way visualization stood upon the imagery of the previous generations or rather the framework of thinking that came before. Once the idea of abstract thinking, the development of complex religions had been established, the stage was set for abstract thinking in Greek philosophy and eventually from there to the scientific method as we use it today.

Beside every set of words that changed our way of thinking were the statues and paintings that helped express parallel thought. The architecture of the past underlies the buildings of the present.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Avoiding that splitting headache: making firewood.

Firewood. part 2:  Splitting, stacking and air drying

I have now begun the splitting phase of my firewood project. A big job in itself, but if I take it a bit at a time and spin it out over a couple of weeks it will get done. I do not get myself into a lather and out of breath however, no blistered hands and aching back, but when I am splitting I am very productive, because I have done this job all my life and have developed a style that gets the best out of the splitting maul and the special characteristics of trees.
Firstly, when handling the maul, which is not an axe but is designed for splitting, I do not grip it tightly and use all my force but rather swing it smoothly and guide it accurately. A careful blow, aimed precisely in the right place will cause the wood to spring apart, while one swung hard but a half inch to one side will either bounce off or jamb in the wood . A steady rhythm, a calm and focused mind will see the wood pile grow as if by magic. If this sounds like the Zen of.... , or the Tao of..., you would be right!

 Secondly one must have a familiarity with the tree, its way of growth, its species, the special characteristics of the particular piece you are approaching. At first this will seem like a science study, but later it will become instinctual so that the wood you split is really part of yourself. ( see Zen of... etc.): like so many other relationships we have with things around us be it a piano, a motorcycle, or even with people we are close to.

It makes a big difference whether the species will split cleanly ( like maple) or will cling and resist the maul's attempt to force pieces apart, (like fir). How the tree has grown at this particular section of its trunk makes a big difference; wood that has grown under tension, or which has twisted fibres, can be very difficult. Knots are impossible to spit through and must be worked around. A knot is a branch that began when the tree was small and so extends from the centre core right out to the bark; you cannot split across it (well, never say never). So, if making firewood is this difficult why start at all? Because there is a way.

The most important part of the tree for splitting purposes is the middle of the growth rings, the bulls eye. Notice that this is not necessarily the centre of the tree because a tree does not usually grow symmetrically, even the rings will be wider on one side and more tightly packed on the other, and that will affect how it will split. That centre eye is critical to smooth splitting. One might say that centring oneself takes place in unity with each separate piece and its own true centre. When both are in alignment the blow falls and the wood comes smoothly apart. ( see Tao of...). I'm making a joke out of this, but it is true never-the-less.

A smaller piece, chopped through the eye
A small diameter piece needs a different approach from a larger one, so a simple blow directly across the end and through the eye will break it into two halves and these pieces will also split once more through the central eye. Miss that centre however and even a small diameter piece will resist splitting and you will find yourself with the piece of wood jammed securely on your maul. The temptation will be to lift the whole mass and bang it down again to force the split. This might work of course but is bad form and should only be performed in secret! Then you pick up the pieces and chuck them away from your work site because stumbling over wood underfoot is dangerous and upsets the even tenor of the work. For small pieces its a good idea to place them on a larger round as a chopping block because your blow will be more effective if much of the energy is not absorbed by the soft ground. Closer to hand too!

Splitting the pie

Removing the outside of each pie shape

The completed pile of wood

The big grand fir was beginning to rot in the centre
A large round of wood, like the kind I usually work with, (I am thinning my forest of larger, over-mature trees so the smaller can grown more rapidly) requires a more considered approach. Depending on my mood and the size of the round of wood, which might be up to three feet across, I will look for a fine hair-line crack running through the eye, the line of least resistance, and start my first split there, and continue to split pie shaped pieces until it is divided up reasonably evenly. A knot will have to be incorporated within a pie shaped piece however, so split close to either side of it because it will not split any smaller and you may not be able to use a super large piece in your stove! I try to keep the pieces together and standing upright because I hate constantly bending over and dealing with separate pieces too often. I will then circle the round of wood, splitting off the outside third of each piece (except for those with knots in them which will not spit any more) . With luck, (and usually we make our own luck) I will have a nicely splayed set of firewood where once there was one solid piece. And to accomplish that might have taken, in one smooth sequence, about as long as you have taken to read this. I then finally bend over and throw them to one side, preferably just where I will later build a wall with them so they may begin to air dry.

Progressively removing pieces off the outside
An alternate approach for a large round is to begin, not with a split across the centre eye, but with a series of smaller pieces peeled off the outer edge, following the direction of the growth lines. One must avoid knots of course, but things usually go smoothly, and then the final smaller centre section can be split across into pie shaped pieces. This technique is particularly useful when there is some resistance to beginning with a split directly across the round as in the previous example.

Completion of that round!
When I have finished splitting there will be some particularly awkward pieces that have complicated knots or cross grains. I will use steel wedges to beat them into submission or cut them up with the chain saw, whichever works the fastest. ( No Zen here!)

That little knot needed extra force
Although I haven’t begun yet, I will describe the reasons for building the woodpile and drying the firewood in the forest. Of course I could just throw the wood into rough piles and then immediately haul them up to my woodshed and stack them just once. I don't do that for several reasons: wood fresh from the tree is heavy and my VW van which has to double as a truck would not carry much in each individual load; loading and unloading would be heavy work too, especially for my back, and tightly packed wood in a shed would not dry well, even through the dry summer months. Dry wood is essential for proper burning!

Wood that is stacked in a sunny place ( like the clearing you have made just by cutting down the trees), just two rows wide, four feet high and as long as you like, with some plastic tarp or old metal roofing to keep the rain off will loose a lot of its weight with the sun beating down and wind free to blow through it. Then in the Fall, before the winter rains make the forest road soft and slippery I pack the the Winter's firewood up the hill and stack the now dry wood into the wood shed which is within a short walk of the house. Mind you do not stack you firewood against the house ( think of those wood eating bugs) or have your wood pile or shed too close to the house ( think forest fire and all those combustibles so close to home.) And, happy wooding!