Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Importance of Lies

(*tap tap tap* Hello?  Is this thing on?  Oh, good.  Alright, Hellooooo blogosphere!  I'm back, for now, sporadically.  You know how I am.)
Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. 
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers? 
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies. 
Susan: So we can believe the big ones? 
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing. 
Susan: They're not the same at all. 
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged. 
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point? 
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become? 
--"Hogfather" by Terry Pratchett
I use the above quotation a lot.  One might even accuse me of abusing it (*ahem*), but it's so bloody profound that I think it would actually be hard to overuse.  However, I think it is very easy to underestimate the power, the point, or the import, of what is packed into this set of lines.  And what's so neat about these lines is that the meaning and depth of them keep unfolding for me.  I think I've got my brain wrapped around the message, and then WHAMMO! whole new perspective opens up before my eyes.  Awesome.

I've spent a lot of time this morning thinking about cases for action--that is, reasons for why action is better than inaction, or worthwhile at all, or not a waste of time, etc.  I'm talking about this in a very generic sense on purpose.  I'm not talking about "the case for fighting climate change" or "the case for adapting in place" or any other particular "case for blah-blah-blah".  I mean the more generic "what is the strategy by which one determines that something is worth doing."  Because I'm sure there are plenty of things that really are worth doing, and plenty that are not worth doing, and it might matter which one is which when deciding things like, oh, how to live your life.

I've seen lots and lots of "cases for action" for a variety of topics, and I like a lot of them in various situations.  For example, I've always thought that Pascal's Wager is a perfectly awful rationale for agreeing with any particular religious doctrine, but a pretty wonderful rationale for changing one's lifestyle to combat climate change.  I'm also favorably disposed to arguments for action based on the marketing strategies of "opinion leaders" (and I really could have sworn I'd written a post about that at some point, but right now I'm not finding it.  If anyone knows what I'm talking about, linkit, wouldja?)  I find these positions and others fairly persuasive, at least for certain topics.

There is one core problem with all of these, though (isn't there always)?  Almost all of the cases for action I've seen are predicated on the idea that one has the power to purposefully change their world, or at least, their own situation.  Any case for action you want to pick, that's pretty much operating somewhere in the background.  Your decision to make X, Y, and Z changes in your life will (at least likely) have the affect of A, B, and C in the world, in society, in your own life, etc.  These cases for action, then, revolve implicitly around the need to convince you of your own power--that you can do these things.  Think of the great (if overused) quotation from Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

But what if you don't believe that we have the power to purposefully change the world?  What if you genuinely, thoroughly, not-gonna-be-convinced-otherwise believe that the rank & file humans (i.e., us) have been so thoroughly stripped of our power that we cannot even make purposeful decisions in our own lives?  That whatever sense of decision-making and personal power we have is little more than self-deception in order to keep us chugging along?  When the distinction between "redesigning your life to plan for the collapse" and "redesigning your life to react to collapse" becomes deep and meaningful, and you think that the first one is off the table, what then?

This isn't an academic question for me (and certainly not for my husband), because I pretty much agree with this position, at least when I pull off my self-deception goggles.  I don't think that we are really capable of working to change our society in ways that will have any effect.  If we ever really had that power, it's long gone.  Deep down, I believe that the most power we have left is to attempt to map out a lifestyle that will be capable of reacting to collapse when it happens, not in any way to steer how it goes or work towards any specific outcomes.  We'll be riding the wave, not driving it.

So if I really believe this (and I do, so I'm guessing there are others who do as well), what could possibly function as my case for action?  No power = no action, right?  That seems almost like a self-sealing argument.  Where does my source of normativity come from--that little, insistent "ought to" voice in the back of my head, urging me on to new and different lifestyles?  Why doesn't she just shut the bloody hell up and let me enjoy my Playstation and my dryer?!

Here's my answer.  It comes from the lies we tell ourselves about our power.  It comes from hanging onto beliefs that we still can effect the world if we work hard enough and are sincere enough, from drinking Margaret Mead's kool-aid.  Assuming that the world isn't just "a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan," and there really are powerful people in it, I think those really powerful people would find this amusing, and are generally glad that there's something to keep people occupied who don't have televisions.  But they're wrong to think so.  They should be far more concerned about people who mistakenly think they have power.

You see, here's the catch.  I do not believe that we have the "power to change the world!"  But at the same time, it is manifestly the case that the world does change, is changed, all the time at the hands of people that I think are powerless, like me--often those small groups of sincere people that Mead described.  The difference is, the change that comes is not planned or purposeful.  You see, the real source of our powerlessness, I think, is not that we have no power, but that we really don't have any control over that power.  It's not the lack of power per se, the problem is with the "planning" or "purposefulness" end of things.  I think there's a lot of reasons for this:  a genuine lack of control over our lives, the usual human condition of not knowing the full scope of our actions and their effects, and so on.  Be that as it may, we have power, but we don't have purposeful power.

So we delude ourselves--what else could we do?  And here is where my case for action comes in.  As I said before, I do not believe we are existentially powerless, I think there's just too much evidence to the contrary.  I suspect strongly that about 99.8356% of us will never do anything on purpose with our lives which results in the sorts of history-changing events that so many of us activists work towards, and that maybe 99.365% of us won't even manage to pull that off.  But there is this slim percentage of people who will make these changes--and they have absolutely no idea who they are or how they will do it.  They do not have control.  They react to their environment.  The changes that take effect are the billiard-ball reactions to a thousand other things which somehow careen themselves into events which make our world a better place (or worse, it works both ways).  Maybe they can prepare a bit, maybe they can be well-read and have a bright imagination; all of that will help, I suspect.  But at the end of the day, they react to their environment and the gods *bing* them with their wands of power-granting and the world morphs.

So what?  So why lie to ourselves about all of this?  Because, as the quotation above says, I think that we have to believe the little lies in order for the big ones to become.  We have to act to create the preconditions for the world-changing events to happen.  We have to be the sorts of people who will change the world, even if we simply never will be.  We have to continually create and maintain that culture, and bring other people into our delusion.  Because someone, somewhere, will be the source of important and good things, even if the huge majority of us really, really, really never will be.  We have to create the world that allows those people to exist, and that means we have to believe that maybe, just maybe, it will be us.  But if we do not believe that we will be, if we do not act as if we will be, then the chances of the change we desire happening go to naught.  We shrink the options, the possible times when great things could happen.  Mohandas Gandhis turn into lawyers who never felt the compulsion to turn their back on their profession.  Dietrich Bonhoffers become quiet Lutheran ministers.  Anyone who's watched enough Dr. Who should have no problems understanding this sort of reasoning, convoluted and wibbly-wobbly as it might be.

So if you believe that people do have the power to change the world--on purpose--then go on your merry way!  I'm not interested in dissuading you from this belief, because I think it's a fundamental part of what will in fact make our world a better place, even if I disagree on the particulars of how we'll get there.  And if you don't?  If you feel utterly helpless and hamstrung by our current situation, stripped of all motive for action, then think on this post.  Maybe it will help, maybe not.  But I think there is a case for action, purposeful-yet-pointless action, in the long span of human history, and even over the course of a human lifetime.  Act like you will change the world, and somehow, someday, in ways we would never imagine or plan for, the world will change.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's that time of year again....

Time for the annual posting of my favorite holiday story!  I hope you enjoy it!  I'm not ashamed to say it makes me tear up every time I read it.

by Margaret Morrison

Five minutes before the Winter Solstice circle was scheduled to begin, my mother called. Since I’m the only one in our coven who doesn’t run on Pagan Standard Time, I took the call. Half the people hadn’t arrived, and those who had wouldn’t settle down to business for at least twenty minutes.

”Merry Christmas, Frannie.”

”Hi, Mom. I don’t do Christmas.”

”Maybe not—but I do, so I’ll say it.” she told me in her sassy voice, kind of sweet and vinegary at the same time. “If I can respect your freedom of religion, you can respect my freedom of speech.”

I grinned and rolled my eyes. “And the score is Mom - one, Fran - nothing. But I love you, anyway.”

People were bustling around in the next room, setting up the altar, decking the halls with what I considered excessive amounts of holly and ivy, and singing something like, “O Solstice Tree.”

”It sounds like a...holiday party.” Mom said.

”We’re doing Winter Solstice tonight.”

”Oh. That’s sort of like your version of Christmas, right?”

I wanted to snap back that Christmas was the Christian version of Solstice, but I held back. “We celebrate the return of the sun. It’s a lot quieter than Christmas. No shopping sprees, no pine needles and tinsel on the floor, and it doesn’t wipe me out. I remember how you had always worked yourself to a frazzle by December 26.”

”Oh honey, I loved doing all that stuff. I wouldn’t trade those memories for all the spare time in the world. I wish you and Jack would loosen up a little for the baby’s sake. When you were little, you enjoyed Easter bunnies and trick-or-treating and Christmas things. Since you’ve gotten into this Wicca religion, you sound a lot like Aunt Betty the year she was a Jehovah’s Witness.”

I laughed nervously. “Yeah. How is Aunt Betty?”

”Fine. She’s into the Celestine Prophecy now, and she seems quite happy. Y’know,” she went on, “Aunt Betty always said the Jehovah’s Witnesses said those holiday things were pagan. So I don’t see why you’ve given them up.”

”Uh, they’ve been commercialized and polluted beyond recognition. We’re into very simple, quiet celebrations.”

”Well,” she said dubiously, “as long as you’re happy.”

Sometimes long distance is better than being there, ‘cause your mother can’t give you the look that makes you agree with everything she says. Jack rescued me by interrupting.

”Hi, Ma.” he called to the phone as he waved a beribboned sprig of mistletoe over my head. Then he kissed me, one of those quick noisy ones. I frowned at him.

”Druidic tradition, Fran. Swear to Goddess.”

”Of course it is. Did the Druids use plastic berries?”

”Always. We’ll be needing you in about five minutes.”

”Okay. Gotta go, Mom. Love you.”

We had a nice, serene kind of Solstice Circle. No jingling bells or filked-out Christmas Carols. Soon after the last coven member left, Jack was ready to pack it in.

”The baby’s nestled all snug in her bed,” he said with a yawn, ”I think I’ll go settle in for a long winter’s nap.”

I heaved a martyred sigh. He grinned unrepentantly, kissed me, called me a grinch, and went to bed. I stayed up and puttered around the house, trying to unwind. I sifted through the day’s mail, ditched the flyers urging us to purchase all the Seasonal Joy we could afford or charge. I opened the card from his parents. Another sermonette: a manger scene and a bible verse, with a handwritten note expressing his mother’s fervent hope that God’s love and Christmas spirit would fill our hearts in this blessed season. She means well, really. I amused myself by picking out every pagan element I could find in the card. When the mail had been sorted, I got up and started turning our ritual room back into a living room. As if the greeting card had carried a
virus, I found myself humming Christmas carols. I turned on the classic rock station, but they were playing that Lennon-Ono Christmas song. I switched stations. The weatherman assured me that there was only a twenty percent chance of snow. Then, by Loki, the deejay let Bruce Springsteen insult my ears crooning, “yah better watch out, yah better not pout.” I tried the Oldies station. Elvis lives, and he does Christmas songs. Okay, fine. We’ll do classical—no, we
won’t. They’re playing Handel’s Messiah. Maybe the community radio station would have something secular humanist. ”Ahora, escucharemos a Jose Feliciano canta ‘Feliz Navidad’.”
I was getting annoyed. The radio doesn’t usually get this saturated with holiday mush until the twenty-fourth.

”This is too weird.” I said to the radio, “Cut that crap out.” The country station had some Kenny Rogers Christmas tune, the first rock station had gone from John and Yoko’s Christmas song to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Silent Night,” and the other rock station still had Springsteen reliving his childhood.

”—I’m tellin’ you why. SANTA Claus is comin’ to town!” he bellowed. I was about to pick out a nice secular CD when there was a knock at the door.

Now, it could have been a coven member who’d forgotten something. It could have been someone with car trouble. It could have been any number of things, but it certainly couldn’t have been a stout guy in a red suit—snowy beard, rosy cheeks, and all—backed by eight reindeer
and a sleigh. I blinked, wondered crazily where Rudolph was, and blinked again. There were nine reindeer. Our twenty-percent chance of snow had frosted the dead grass and was continuing to float down in fat flakes.

”Hi, Frannie.” he said warmly, “I’ve missed you.”

”I’m stone cold sober, and you don’t exist.”

He looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and compassion and sighed heavily. “That’s why I miss you, Frannie. Can I come in? We need to talk.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to slam the door on this vision, hallucination, or whatever. So I let him in, because that made more sense then letting all the cold air in while I argued with someone who wasn’t there. As he stepped in, a thought crossed my mind about various entities needing an invitation to get in houses. He flashed me a smile that would melt the polar caps.

”Don’t you miss Christmas, Frannie?”

”No.” I said flatly, “Apparently you don’t see me when I’m sleeping and waking these days. I haven’t been Christian for years.”

”Oh, now don’t let that stop you. We both know this holiday’s older than that. Yule trees and Saturnalia and here-comes-the-sun, doodoodendoodoo.”

I raised an eyebrow at the Beatles reference, then gave him my standard sermonette on the appropriation and adulteration that made Christmas no longer a Pagan holiday. I had done my homework. I listed centuries, I named names—St. Nicholas among them. “In the twentieth century version,” I assured him, “Christmas is two parts crass commercialism mixed with one part blind faith in a religion I rejected years ago.” I gave him my best lines, the ones that had convinced my coven to abstain from Christmasy cliches. My hallucination sat in Jack’s favorite chair, nodding patiently at me.

”And you,” I added nastily, “come here talking about ancient customs when you—in your current form—were invented in the nineteenth century by, um...Clement C. Moore.”

He laughed, a rolling, belly-deep chuckle unlike any department-store Santa I’d ever heard. “Of course I change my form now and then to suit fashion. Don’t you? And does that stop you from being yourself?” He said, and asked me if I remembered Real Magic, by Isaac Bonewits.

I gaped at him for a moment, then caught myself. “This is like ‘Labyrinth’, right? I’m having a dream that pretends to be real, but is only made from pieces of things in my memory. You don’t look a thing like David Bowie.”

”Bonewits has this Switchboard Theory.” Santa went on amiably, “The energy you put into your beliefs influences the real existence of the archetypal—oh, let me put it simpler: ‘in the beginning, Man created God’. Ian Anderson.” He lit a long-stemmed pipe. The tobacco had a mild and somehow Christmasy smell, and every puff sent up a wreath of smoke. “I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than Bonewits tells it, but that’s close enough for mortals. Are you with
me so far?”

”Oh, sure.” I lied as unconvincingly as possible. Santa sighed heavily. ”When’s the last time you left out milk and cookies for me?”

”When I figured out my parents were eating them.”

”Frannie, Frannie. Remember pinda balls, from Hinduism?”

”Rice balls left as offerings for ancestors and gods.”

”Do Hindus really believe that the ancestors and gods eat pinda balls?”

”All right, y’got me there. They say that spirits consume the spiritual essence, then mortals can have what’s left.”

”Mm-hm.” Santa smiled at me compassionately through his snowy beard.

I rallied quickly. “What about the toys? I know for a fact they aren’t made by you and a bunch of non-union elves.”

”Oh, that’s quite true. Manufacturing physical objects out of magical energy is terribly expensive and breaks several laws of Nature—She only allows us to do that on special occasions. It certainly couldn’t be done globally and annually. Now, the missus and the elves and I really do have a shop at the North Pole. Not the sort of thing the Air Force would ever find. What we make up there is what makes this time a holiday, no matter what religion it’s called.”

”Don’t tell me,” I said, rolling my eyes, “you make the sun come back.”

”Oh my, no. The solar cycle stuff, the Reason For The Season, isn’t my department. My part is making it a holiday. We make a mild, non-addictive psychedelic thing called Christmas spirit. Try some.”

He dipped his fingers in a pocket and tossed red-gold-green-silver glitter at me. I could have ducked. I don’t know why I didn’t.

It smelled like snow, and pine needles, and cedar chips in the fireplace. It smelled like fruitcake, like roast turkey, like that foamy white stuff you spray on the window with stencils. It felt like
a crisp wind, Grandma’s hugs, fuzzy new mittens, pine needles scrunching under my slippers. I saw twinkly lights, mistletoe in the doorway, smiling faces from years gone by. Several Christmas carols played almost simultaneously in a kind of medley.

I fought my way back to my living room and glared sternly at the hallucination in Jack’s chair.

”Fun stuff. Does the DEA know about this?”

”Oh, Frannie. Why are you such a hard case? I told you it’s non-addictive and has no harmful side effects. Would Santa Claus lie to you?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again. We looked at each other a while.

”Can I have some more of that glittery stuff?”

”Mmmm. I think you need something stronger. Try a sugarplum.”

I tasted rum ball. Peppermint. Those hard candies with the picture all the way through. Mama’s favorite fudge. A chorus line of Christmas candies danced through my mouth. The Swedish Angel Chimes, run on candle power, say tingatingatingating. Mama, with a funny smile, promised to give Santa my letter. Greeting cards taped on the refrigerator door. We rode through the tree farm on a straw-filled trailer pulled by a red and green tractor, looking for a perfect pine.
It was so big, Daddy had to cut a bit off so the star wouldn’t scrape the ceiling. Lights, ornaments, tinsel. Daddy lifted me up to the mantle to hang my stocking. My dolls stayed up to see Santa Claus, and in the morning they all had new clothes. Grandma carried in a platter with the world’s biggest turkey, and I got the drumstick. Joey’s Christmas puppy chased my Christmas kitten up the tree and it would have fallen over but Daddy held it while Mama got the kitten out. Daddy said every bad word there was but he kept laughing anyway. I sneaked my favorite plastic horse into the nativity scene, between the camels and the donkey.

I came back to reality slowly, with a silly smile on my face and a tickly feeling behind my eyes like they wanted to cry. The phrase ”visions of sugarplums” took on a whole new meaning.

”How long has it been,” Santa asked, “since you played with a nativity set?-“

”But it symbolizes—“

”The winter-born king. The sacred Mother and her sun-child. Got a problem with that? You could redecorate it with pentagrams if you like, they’ll look fine. As for the Christianization, I’ve heard who you invoke at Imbolc.”

”But Bridgid was a Goddess for centuries before the Catholic Church-oh.” I crossed my arms and tried to glare at him, but failed. “You’re a sneaky old elf, y’know?”

”The term is ‘jolly old elf.’ Care for another sugarplum?”

I did.

I tasted gingerbread. My first nip of eggnog the way the grown-ups drink it. Fresh sugar cookies, shaped like trees and decked with colored frosting. Dad had been laid off, but we managed a lot of cheer. They told us Christmas would be “slim pickings.” Joey and I smiled bravely when Mama brought home that spindly spruce. We loaded down our “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” with every light and ornament it could hold. Popcorn and cranberry strings for the outdoor trees.
Mistletoe in the hall: plastic mistletoe, real kisses. Joey and I snipped and glued and stitched and painted treasures to give as presents. We agonized over our “Santa” letters...by now we knew where the goodies came from, and we tried to compromise between what we longed for and what we thought they could afford. Every day we hoped the factory would reopen. When Joey’s dog ate my mitten, I wasn’t brave. I knew that meant I’d get mittens for Christmas, and one less
toy. I cried. On December twenty-fifth we opened our presents ve-ery slo-wly, drawing out the experience. We made a show of cheer over our socks and shirts and meager haul of toys. I got red mittens. We could tell Mama and Daddy were proud of us for being so brave, because they
were grinning like crazy.

”Go out to the garage for apples.” Mama told us, “We’ll have apple pancakes.”

I don’t remember having the pancakes. There was a dollhouse in the garage. No mass-produced aluminum thing but a homemade plywood dollhouse with wall-papered walls and real curtains and thread-spool chairs. My dolls were inside, with newly sewn clothes. Joey was on his knees in front of a plywood barn with hay in the loft. His old farm implements had new paint. Our plastic animals were corralled in popsicle stick fences. The garage smelled like apples and hay, the
cement was bone-chilling under my slippers, and I was crying.

My knees were drawn up to my chest, arms wrapped around them. My chest felt tight, like ice cracking in sunshine. Santa offered me a huge white handkerchief. When all the ice in my chest had melted, he cleared his throat. He was pretty misty-eyed, too.

”Want to come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?”

”You’ve already given it to me.” But I sat on his lap anyway, and kissed his rosy cheek until he did his famous laugh.

”I’d better go now, Frannie. I have other stops to make, and you have work to do.”

”Right. I’d better pop the corn tonight, it strings best when it’s stale.” I let him out the door. The reindeer were pawing impatiently at the moon-kissed new-fallen snow. I’d swear Rudolph winked at me.

”Don’t forget the milk and cookies.”

”Right. Uh, December twenty-fourth, or Solstice, or what?”

He shrugged. “Whatever night you expect me, I’ll be there. Eh, don’t wait up. Visits like this are tightly rationed. Laws of Nature, y’know, and She’s strict with them.”

”Gotcha. Thanks, Santa.” I kissed his cheek again. “Happy Holidays.”

The phrase had a nice, non-denominational ring to it. I thought I’d call my parents and in-laws soon and try it out on them. Santa laid his finger aside of his nose and nodded.

”Blessed be, Frannie.”

The sleigh soared up, and Santa really did exclaim something. It sounded like old German. Smart-aleck elf. When I closed the door, the radio was playing Jethro Tull’s “Solstice Bells.”


Monday, November 21, 2011

Pie Crust Confidential

This was actually a comment on Sharon Astyk's post "Pie Crust Chronicles".  I claim that I only posted it because I love her, and while this is true, I love all of you as well!  No one should have to suffer through difficult crusts when there are tricks to be had.  So here you go, with a sincere hope for a happy thanksgiving with you and your family & friends:

Only because I love you, I will pass along my very best secret weapon for pie crust making--vodka.  No, not as in "drink it until you don't notice how bad the crust is", but as in an ingredient.  I actually got this from Cook's Illustrated (who certainly can err on the side of fetishizing things).  You see, the big tension with pie crusts is getting them to come out tender and flaky at the same time.  Flaky isn't too hard (non-fully-incorporated butter is the key), but tender is tricky, because the water wants to combine with the flour to make gluten, which makes things tough.  That's why all recipes say to add barely enough water to make it come together.  But then it's hard to roll out, and you end up overworking the dough, which makes--heyhey--gluten!  And you're right back to tough.

BUT, vodka doesn't make gluten when combined with flour!  Woo hoo!  So we keep some in our freezer (nice & cold), and substitute about half of the water for vodka in the recipe.  You can then add a reasonable amount of liquid, making the dough more workable (and less stress-inducing), and gives the cook more wiggle room on adding water, while maintaining tenderness.  The flavor bakes out, as does most of the alcohol (and really, we're talking 2-3 TBSP of vodka for an entire pie).  Works a treat!