Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World: Space and Reality in a Digital Age

Leaping from the Page. Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012

Knowing what is real is becoming more complicated these days. People talk about existing "in the real world" and what I think they mean is existing in a space unmediated by technology rather than living in alternative spaces like the internet or a system of text messages. But what is it that makes one space (a face to face conversation for instance) real and another (a conversation held through instant messaging) a sub-section of that primary reality? Digital spaces are now just as likely to feature as forums for interaction as classrooms, offices, parks, and other "real world" spaces. The digital realm has changed our capacity for collaboration. It is also changing our ability to read facial expressions and other physical cues. My aim is not to make an argument about the value of digital spaces but to delve into their reality.

Let's travel back in time a bit, to a day before computers and the internet. One might argue that all people lived in the "real" world at that point since they had no access to non-physical spaces. But consider that we have had writing in the form of books and letters for a very long time. Books are one of the earliest technologically mediated spaces where ideas are delivered via a technology (pages bound together in a cover). The book is a space highly charged with human interactions. Open a book and you immediately have a host of participants--the author, the characters or subjects, the reader--who intersect in the page-space to create a collaborated reality. Read a letter and you have a situation where a writer is constructing a particular version of their life and self for a particular reader. How different is this from the internet where Facebook, Twitter, and realms of other social media applications allow people to present a version of themselves for consumption? The online space becomes the point of intersection where creator and viewer collaborate to assign value to a life. The author posts something about the amazing dinner they whipped up, someone else "likes" the post, and a sense of validation is created for the author. Facebook, love it or hate it, is a real place where real interactions are occurring. They are interactions with real world consequences, as has so tragically been illustrated in the case of Amanda Todd.

It's hard to say where all these online interactions will lead, but I don't think we can see them as "fake." We are reinventing what it means to be human every day and where once you just had to wear the right clothes and have the right degrees  to put up a proper personal front, now you also need a website and content for your blog and a daily list of dazzling life events to post to Facebook so that the rest of the world will think that your days are perpetually glorious and free from sorrow. I find that in the digital world people write who they wish they were, creating a divergent, over the rainbow, reality where success is marked in "likes," "pins," and "tweets." It is now easy to browse thousands of photos of your friends doing fun and interesting things until your own life seems like a sad conglomeration of tiny failures and insignificant successes. When we can suddenly compare our measly talents to the talents of all the other people on the planet, it's hard not to despair of ever standing out from the crowd.

The spaces that we live in have expanded exponentially along with the vast universe that is the internet. We may not like these spaces, but they're very, very real. What we do in them affects other people and also affects the construction of our individual lives. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she would probably call for a room of one's own along with a website of one's own. Identity is tied to ownership of space, whether it's physical or digital. It is too early to say how we will be transformed by our use of online spaces, but I believe that it's dangerous to toss those digital lives aside as sleight of hand and trickery. I wait with interest to see what we will become.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Books: James Hillman and the Dual Self

I recently spent over a week slowly winding my way through The Soul's Code: On Character and Calling by James Hillman. It was a strange book, full of mythology, demons, and spirits. The central premise is that we each come into the world bearing a soul that holds an acorn of potentiality and purpose. The soul chooses the body for a particular purpose and we spend our lives developing a relationship with our calling. Hillman means this in a completely secular way, and he means it to be a metaphor that adds a third dimension to our general nature/nurture dichotomy. Perhaps there is another principle that fuels the unfolding of our character--something that Hillman calls your daimon or soul. I found Hillman's ideas challenging. While he states concretely that his acorn theory of the soul is a metaphor he cites dozens of concrete examples of its hand at work making it seem like a tangible thing rather than a metaphor. I stood in contention with Hillman on a number of issues, but I also found that some of his ideas were uncannily good at accounting for personal drive to achieve particular goals and I was interested in his attempt to muddy the water of the nature-nurture debate with this third, spiritual, interloper. 

I was most interested in Hillman's discussions of the soul as an entity distinct from, yet attached to, each individual. For Hillman we live doubly--the soul whispers its edicts and we either embrace or deny its call. Its  push is greatly involved in why our lives unfold as they do. 

In illustration of the daimon's influence Hillman discusses the human propensity for inventing aspects of their biographies. He suggests that these "lies" are actually truths about your character as described by your soul. Essentially there is a second version of you--your "doppelganger. Someone walks the earth who is your twin, your alter ego, your shadow...

Hillman writes that "Fairy tales, the poems of Rumi, and Zen stories say something about this doubleness, this strange duplicity of life. There are two birds in the tree, a mortal one and an immortal one, side by side. The first chirps and nests and flies about; the other watches." He goes on to discuss myths and superstitions related to knowledge of each person's innate doubleness. "The placenta," he says, " must be carefully disposed of in many cultures, for it is born with you and must not be allowed to enter the life you live. It must remain stillborn and return to the other world, or else your congenital twin may form a monstrous ghost". In regard to twins he goes on to say that, "Twins themselves are often considered ominous, as if a mistake had occurred; the two birds, the human and ghost, this world and that, both present in this world. Twins literalize the doppelganger, visible and invisible both displayed. So tales tell of the murder (sacrifice) of one twin for the sake of the other: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus. The shadow, immortal, otherworldly one gives way so that the mortal one can fully enter this life" 

The notion of a twin coiled within your self seems superficially nuts but it goes some way to explaining our compulsions and desires. I'm sure each person can think of a time when they were drawn in a particular direction, experiencing a strong sense of necessity, without being able to give rational reasons for the attraction. Sometimes ideas, revelations, obsessions, and a draw to particular areas of talent arise as if by magic from somewhere deep inside us. We might call this fate, we might call it coincidence, Hillman says that this is your daimon at work.

I have had a recurring experience over the course of  my life that I have found unsettling. I'll be going about my daily life when suddenly, in a flash, I am yanked out of my life into a state of bizarre reflection. In these moments I am startled by the fact of my embodied state. I suddenly become overwhelmed by the fact of  my embodiment--the fact that I have ended up in this particular body, living this particular life, when I could have ended up in any of the other billions of bodies out there living their own lives. The unlikely specificity of my me-ness takes me by surprise and pulls me up short, paralyses me briefly. I've always wondered about these experiences and had passed it off as a common human failing: our inability to truly account for our own existence in a secular world. Hillman would probably say that these fugues belong to my daimon. My twin suddenly flares to life and is shocked to find itself embodied and earthly. I have to say that Hillman's ideas are tantalizing. I recommend reading the book if you've ever had an existential crisis. It may just help to explain some of your idiosyncrasies and provide insight into your insatiable need to pursue certain things--music, art, a career, whatever it is that makes you tick. At the very least you'll  have a new system of metaphors to apply to the world and something to think about when the old nature-nurture debate is inevitably invoked in response to a behavioural question.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Blue Screen of Death

Death is no longer the sole domain of organic life forms. Death is now something that happens to our electronic devices, the apogee being the Blue Screen of Death. I have been lucky enough to rarely encounter it, but a few days ago my netbook had a near death experience, and very briefly, in the midst of an email, the dreaded blue screen appeared. Now I'm not sure if this has happened to other people, but the blue screen   had a very specific message for me. In the moment before my monitor went completely black these words emerged from the blue:

"He's dead Jim!"

And that was all. If my computer was trying to minimize my frustration at having to deal with it's death by making me laugh enough to spurt tea out my nose, it worked.

So in honour of my computer, who had a sense of humour even on its death bed here's a video compilation of Star Trek characters saying "he's dead Jim". Enjoy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Home: An Accidental Adoption

I recently stopped breastfeeding. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but given the severe problems I've had with it all along and my baby's increasing frustration with the whole process, I finally decided to give it up completely. There were some unexpected side-effects. The most prominent being inflated emotional responses that outstrip anything I experienced during pregnancy. My emotions have been so overblown as to be humorous...even to myself.

Case in point:

I was at a local swap meet looking at kids toys and clothes. I had a few things in mind that I wanted to buy: shoes, and a Cabbage Patch Kid for my little boy. I think boys should have dolls too, but that's not what this post is about. As luck would have it a woman was selling three Cabbage Patch Kids that had been hers when she was a child, probably 40 years ago. They were in great condition. There was a boy doll, a girl doll, and a baby doll. I considered them trying to decide which one to bring home to my son. It was then that I hit a completely unreasonable mental block. I couldn't choose. I was facing a dilemma of epic proportions. These Cabbage Patch Kids had been together for 40 years. They were probably attached to each other. I really couldn't see my way to separating them after they had developed such a long history together. It would be like adopting one of three siblings and letting the others fend for themselves. What if they didn't go to good homes? And surely they would miss each other terribly.

I had to walk away. I was starting to tear up and I didn't want to make a hormonally induced scene. I figured I would shop some more, return, and hope that only one was left so the decision would be made for me. So I wandered around to all the other tables and returned. All three were still there looking at me with their large painted eyes, and their arms outstretched as if eternally asking for a hug.

"How much will you take for  all three?" I said wearily, defeat settling into my bones.

The woman debated to herself. She obviously loved these dolls and was only parting with them because she was middle-aged, and, well, middle-aged people aren't supposed to play with dolls I guess.

"I'll take $12," she said.

That seemed like a steal so I bought them all on the spot. I had to spend a somewhat embarrassing half hour wandering around the swap meet clutching my new adoptees after that, wondering what I was going to tell my husband.

When I got home I found my way to donating the girl doll to my friend's two year old daughter. Surely I didn't need three Cabbage Patch Kids. And if I gave it to my friend I would know the girl doll was going to a good home, and could possibly even visit with her siblings! I kept the boy doll because I figured my son would like that one best, and I kept the baby doll because I was simply unable to part with it having developed, over the previous hour, a completely irrational attachment to it.

So far my son doesn't do much with his dolls except chew on their faces and throw them on the ground, but he's only nine months old and I hope will develop a greater sense of empathy as he gets older. In the meantime I get a pang of maternal protectiveness every time I look at those two dolls living out their continued lives together. I'm kind of hoping this hormonal surge is going to wear off soon. I only have so much room in the house and I don't want it to become a Cabbage Patch orphanage. And god knows what would happen if I stumbled upon an abandoned puppy...

Cabbage Patch Kids. Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Photography: A Wild Evening with Cornshed

I was recently asked to do a photo shoot for a local band, Cornshed. They might be described as bluegrass on steroids, and they put on a fantastic show a few days before Halloween. Photographing a band during a club gig was a new thing for me and as it turns out I didn't consider the hazards that would come with the job.

Let me set the scene: I walk into Chinatown's Fortune Sound Club on a Saturday night in late October completely forgetting that Halloween parties will be in full swing. East Pender Street is a madhouse. The night is dark and rainy and strange folk are about wearing terrifying masks, carrying bludgeons while draped in black clothes of every description. Amid the revelers are leagues of homeless people with their shopping carts and their drugged eyes. It's hard to know who to fear most and I clutch my camera gear to me, feeling like Little Red Riding Hood pursued by wolves.

Inside the club I feel safer. At least there are bouncers. The atmosphere is one of excess and release. The ghouls are out for a good time. I meet the band--all of them are wearing skeletal make-up, two sport waist length dreadlocks, they're all clutching beers and crackle with pre-show energy. If ever there was a chance to capture images of people with a lot of character, this is it.

Before their set I wander out into the crowd to stake out a spot near the stage. I snap a few test shots, battling with complicated stage lighting. When the  music starts all hell breaks loose. I'm clinging to my tripod like a sailor holding onto the rigging for dear life in the face of a tempest. The crowd is an ocean gone wild, leaping, swaying, screaming, and crashing into me again and again as they battle to get closer to the action. I try to look official and confident. I sustain some pretty major bruising in my attempt to get some great action shots. I hope to god that no one spills beer on my camera.

In the end I lose myself in the shoot. It's kind of like being on safari--you're surrounded by wild animals and are desperate to get that one perfect shot of an artist in his natural habitat. Cornshed is a band that doesn't hold back. Their playing was technically fantastic: full of driving rhythms and smoking fiddle that had the audience in a fever state. I survived the 45 minute set and retreated with my camera to the safety of my car. And here's my photographic retrospective of the evening!

Moonshine. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

What's the Next Note? Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Fiddle Inferno. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Mandolin Mayhem. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Photography: Baby Yoda's First Halloween

Here is a short photographic journey through my little guy's first Halloween. The Yoda hat was hand knit and then wet felted in the washing machine. My mother-in-law made the robe. All photography is my own.

I wasn't intending to do a costume for myself this year, but when Halloween actually arrived I felt that I had to throw something together. That limited costume ideas to things I could pull off with make-up and clothes I already own. Thankfully I own a fantastic cape with a huge hood that makes just about anything into a scary costume. Since my kiddo was going out as Yoda I figured I should keep with the Star Wars theme and decided to be The Emperor. I did the make-up during afternoon nap and ta-da! I hope everyone had a fun night haunting the streets and eating ridiculous amounts of candy. (I think I ate 6 Wunderbars, 2 Crispy Crunch Bars, a Zombie sour patch kid, and a Reese Peanut butter cup).

The Emperor. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012

The Emperor 2. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Baby Yoda is Wise. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Baby Yoda. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.

Baby Yoda 2. Copyright Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012.