Friday, January 30, 2009

Questioning people's motives

This is the second in my series of "thinking out loud" posts loosely grouped under the banner of Toward a 21st Century Ethos. The ideas are laid down here with broad brush strokes, and the devil will most certainly be hidden in the details.

Never one to take small bites when chewing on a subject, today I try to tackle the question of what motivates people and the need to build a social economy not centered around profit and greed. To discuss economics might seem off-topic, but I would argue that how a society functions at its most fundamental level and the behavior it encourages cannot be compartmentalized from the ethics we preach in church or at home.

In our capitalistic society, no ideal is enshrined as highly or protected as thoroughly as the right to private property and profit. Our legal system was constructed to preserve it. Our myths and metaphors revolve around it.

Our cultural icons are rugged individuals who thrive on self-reliance to achieve great material success. They disdain weakness and collective action. Yes there are many exceptions, but the general storyline still runs through most of our pop-culture mythology. These are ideas that arose from and suited the needs of industrial capitalism.

Some may try to argue that as a "Christian" nation, our ethics are actually informed by the New Testament. And on an individual level that may be true, but it's not the behavior that is expected or rewarded by the prevailing social order. In fact, I would argue, that the lessons taught by Christ are often in direct opposition to those encouraged by our society.

Despite the fact that Jesus repeatedly assailed greed as a motivating force (see Matthew 19:23-24, as just one example), many Christians seem to wall-off their religious beliefs as separate from their economic ones. This is usually rationalized with Christ's own words "render unto Caesar." The meaning of those words is ambiguous, but many take it as an implicit endorsement of maintaining a split personality in our secular and spiritual lives. It may be that he was renouncing participation in the economy at any level, but I'm not here to argue his intention.

I'm also not here to argue against the separation of Church and State, which I completely agree is a vital component of our democracy. What I am here to do is argue for better aligning our social behavior with our ethical beliefs, and there are plenty of common moral principles that span the plethora of our different spiritual traditions.

Here are just a few that I think most of us can agree on: ensuring an equality of opportunity for all to contribute; serving the greater good; rewarding honesty and accountability. Our current system fails at those things in most instances. Naomi Klein, who I saw speak just last night and who is the author of The Shock Doctine, does a better job of documenting specific examples of that than I ever could.

What I would like to do in this essay is provoke people to begin to question whether the social system built up around profit and private property still suits us in a day and age when advances in technology are rendering their pursuit not only obsolete but damaging to our further growth.

There is no argument that as a social system, capitalism served some very well. I firmly believe, however, the beneficiaries of its largesse are a rapidly shrinking minority. I'm also convinced that the corrosive influence of profit-seeking as the prime motivator in our society is undermining the integrity of all our essential institutions: medicine, education, government, and beyond.

There is also a very dark cynicism to the ethos of capitalism. It feeds a myth that human beings are essentially lazy and corrupt, and that they can only be motivated by the promise of fulfilling their most selfish material desires. My experience, and I'm guessing yours too, is that most people are on the whole good-hearted and giving. They are motivated by a desire to contribute to their communities and better the situation of their families. They want a purpose in life, and to belong to something greater than themselves.

What could arise in place of a profit-based economy? I think the glimpse of an answer was provided in Pekka Himanen's book The Hacker's Ethic. It describes a culture where people are motivated by respect and recognition among their peers. These hackers (the term did not originally hold its current pejorative sense) collaborated on open source projects, not to win great riches, but to establish their reputations. Because of the collective work of so many talented indivduals, they also created much stronger products than their proprietary competitors.

How much more successfully could a society function that did not limit how its members could contribute their talents, and that did not impose false rationing of resources in order to preserve an opportunity for the few to profit at the expense of the many? It's a matter of giving up our allegiance to old and outdated ideologies, and of looking at the world with the fresh eyes of a newborn. We do have the ability to make radical changes in the way we live, but we still lack the political will.

The trends of automation, digital communications, and open-source software and hardware (check out this interesting Wired article) are pushing the cost of manufactured goods further and further down. They're reducing the possibility of profit through any but the most artificial of means. This may seem like a scary proposition, but it's also a tremendous opportunity. It offers us a chance to remake ourselves and our society. But first we need to acknowledge the moment for real change that stands so clearly before us.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The flapping wings of half-formed ideas

Suddenly I find myself beset by the flapping wings of too many half-formed ideas. It could be the straying focus of a mind forced into mid-winter isolation. Or it could be a newfound need to obsess over details. But it's become much easier for me to begin projects than to bring them to completion.

My list of in-progress items includes three poems in various stages (working titles: Turn tables, Transparency, and A Hungry Ghost); the rough sketch of a new drawing (tentatively called New Life Sprouting); an outline of the next installment in my series of philosophical essays (Questioning people's motives); plus the very slow to resuscitate next chapter of my short story Belly.

It will help me finally grasp the annoying buggers if I publicly set a deadline for myself. So, I'll commit to completing the essay by tomorrow. And I should have Transparency ready by the weekend.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A hungry ghost

This bit of weirdness was inspired by a recent dream. It would take a very long post to put it in context, so I won't bore you with the details. I'm trying to build a poem around it and the line "a hungry ghost in me, machine-carved." If I'm going to have strange dreams, I may as well use them as fodder to fire off some art.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A mutating light

This poem evolved quite a bit over the course of the past few weeks. Two of its lines were taken from recent drawings: Thin-Fingered Dawn and Aura Spilling. The original working title was "Mr. Sunshine," but it and the overall mood moved away from my first too-personally indulgent impulses to something much more lyrical — at least I hope so.

The sweetness of light
by Francis Scudellari

His early, yellow years
marked by a restless gaze
this thin-fingered dawn that
passing quickly, gently
taps so many strangers
shoulders clad in new day's
rosy hope, his own vague
wishing deep-pocket tucked
close to a youthful heart:
one face returns the smile

His middle, muddy days
ever-creasing, hands held
up to blue-straining eyes
a pale, tulip-cup cap
to direct his wheeled mind
that sprays silver droplets
into shadowy nooks
a knobbed spigot of light
he endlessly spins to
capture the dust-mote dance

His dying, desert hours
golden aura spilling
from a low, lone-struck wound
his self-inflicted flow
that forms three-pronged puddle
that slow-spreads, swallowing
the too-loved particles
long ago cast, outward
waving spores to carry
this infecting sweetness

Friday, January 23, 2009

An update, and two thank you's

I wanted to very quickly let you know that my Zazzle t-shirt arrived, and I am quite pleased with the printing of the image. I still have to see whether it holds up to laundering, but I can honestly say it's a very nice product. I'll upload more designs to my Zazzle Shop soon.

I also wanted to extend a brief thank-you to two lovely bloggers who bestowed awards on me (not so) recently. Daisy Bookworm  and Ellie Blunt (aka The Transparent Hypnotist) both gave me the Butterfly Award. I really appreciate the recognition, and I apologize for taking so long to acknowledge them. I recommend you check out their extremely well-written and interesting sites.

I have a drawing and poem still to post for the week, so don't stray too far over the weekend. With more arctic chill on its way here to Chicago, I think I'll be spending a lot of time in front of the computer screen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

When stark outlines get fuzzy

This is the first in the series of philosophical essays I promised under the very broad and probably too self-important sounding banner of Toward a 21st Century Ethos. Because I don't want to write chapter-length posts, I'm skimming the surface on most of this. I hope what's under-treated will be fodder for the comments.

I admittedly chose to start with the topic that has only recently begun to shape itself in my mind. The outlines of my argument may appear vague and shifting, but that fits well with the subject I'm trying to tackle here.

The human mind seems to have an obsessive compulsion to neatly order the universe. We place the objects around us into tidy classifications, perhaps in order to convince ourselves we've mastered the world we live in. We especially like to stick these everyday things, and even each other, into numbered boxes. The problem is that sometimes the objects don't fit very easily, and we have to shave off a layer or two of truth in order to get them to squeeze into their assigned compartments.

Take as examples some very simple categories that are widely accepted, even though improved science and more accurate measuring devices have proved their inaccuracy. From childhood we learn there are nine planets; five senses; twenty-four hours in a day; and 365 days in a year.

Working in reverse, the precise measurement of a day (one earth rotation) is actually 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.2 seconds. That's not an amount that can be captured very easily on the face of a clock, however. This error in our neat 24-hour rendering of a day of course ripples through the measurement of our year, and we tack a leap day onto our calendars (not exactly) every four years to even things out.

The number of planets that wheel their way around our Sun might actually be eight, as some have demoted Pluto to asteroid status. Or it could be as many as eleven, if you insist on including the maybe-asteroid and its brethren in the Kuiper belt (see the Wikipedia summary of the controversy).

As far as our senses, without even raising the possibility of ESP, some scientists believe we should include proprioception (a combination of self-orientation and location) as a sixth. There are also those who are actively working to hack the ways we receive stimulus from the world, so one day we could, for example, see with our taste buds (see Wired Magazine article Mixed Feelings).

Beyond such accounting tricks for worldly things, we also like to label and define each other. We group people and stereotype them, and kid ourselves that we can "know" them based on such superficial characteristics as occupation, gender and ethnicity. If I remember my Jean Paul Sartre correctly, and I probably don't, part of it arises from a frustration over not being able to ever fully understand what's in the mind of the other. Unable to accept that reality, we distort it and reduce the other person to a parody of themselves.

The human mind is, obviously a very complex thing. Not only are individual personalities much messier than any categories we can hope to try to group them into, they can also contain traits that we normally view as contradictory. The idea that two opposites can co-exist in a single entity is a particularly challenging one for most of us.

It's much easier to come to terms with an unsubtle universe of clear divisions; constructing a worldview based on black-white, either-or, right-wrong, and us-them paradigms. The more nuanced conception that multiple, sometimes contradictory traits can exist in one person seems to threaten our too-secure sense of who we are, and how we fit into the world.

This may seem a bit of a leap, but what if we take the concept even further and extend it beyond the physical realm to that of ideas. The literal and the metaphorical, for example, are always treated as contradictory, but what if Genesis and evolution weren't viewed as mutually exclusive truths? It's a subject I tried to delve into in one of my very early posts here: The Serpent, the Tree of Knowledge and Evolution? What if hidden within the poetic imagery of the forbidden fruit is a seed of truth about how our consciousness actually evolved?

Can Science and religion on some level be reconciled? What about the teachings of the various religions we view as contending for a single truth? What I'd like to suggest is that these "opposing" truths haven't been reconciled not because they can't be, but because it requires us to extend ourselves beyond our usual comfort zones. It means putting aside the petty desire to prove one "side" superior to another, and instead do the hard labor necessary to win a fuller understanding of reality. It means putting our common humanity above serving any narrow ideology.

It might seem like I'm making an argument for a relativistic truth, but that's not quite accurate. What I am trying to say is that we, the world and the universe are so immensely complex that our limited mental capacities aren't able to wrap themselves around the entirety of it all. Individually, in fact, we may only be able to grasp a small piece of that complexity.

Uniting those billions of pieces collected by each of our receptive minds, however, gets us much closer to a comprehensive view. As technology allows us to link up more easily and gather these fragments into a whole, that becomes a very real possibility. That's a discussion for a future post.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Knitting wheel: an unfocused mind

Slightly late, here's this week's poem. I'd normally explain the particulars of the inspiration, but I think that might skew the reading of it. Let's just say that too much time spent alone in an apartment can affect the mind in strange ways.

Knitting Wheel
by Francis Scudellari

My minded eyes
reluctant too
out of focus
into slumbers
with their numbing
blue, inward rush
on half-hearted
dusty, dull blades
me up, against
a ceiling's cut
knitting wheel rays
spinning golden
to make, a sleeve
to warm, a chilled
white fingers, that
beckon, icy
my spine, trip on
my dreaming, a-
these mindful eyes
reluctant a-
let go, focus
sharpen, thought a-
blurry thresholds
slow-fading, a-

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Be Zazzled

I interrupt this blog's normal programming for a very brief commercial message. As you may have noticed, I've added a widget in the sidebar for my new Zazzle shop. It's a way to "merchandise" my art work, and I'm hoping the images actually transfer well to the medium of a T-shirt. I've ordered one for myself, and will give everyone a recommendation either way once it's delivered. If it works out, I'll also add a lot more designs.

I'm working on a new poem that should be ready later today, in keeping with my weekly commitment ... darn new year's resolution!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Eye on the future

My friend JD left a very thoughtful comment in response to the post on my recent feeling of disequilibrium. He rightly challenged me on something that I should have never done: portray a personal opinion provoked by individual circumstance as a universal truth.

Contrary to what my statements may have implied, I am not opposed to spirituality. It's a trait that I believe lies at the core of who we are. I do have serious objections to organized religion, which I feel uses our innate inclination toward spirituality to control rather than free us. Most major religions were created under much different social circumstances than we have now. They have, in my opinion, become so intertwined with the status quo that they can't help but oppose any movement toward legitimate social change.

Of course religions aren't the only entities standing in the way of our progress. Corrupt governments, greedy corporations, and unaccountable financial institutions have also proven quite capable of making out very well while keeping us running in place. We're facing a worldwide economic meltdown, while these various mis-leaders play Nero and fiddle on amid the destruction.

I suggested to JD, half-seriously, that it might be interesting to have a dialogue to find common ground between my penchant for chaos theory and his belief that there is an organizing force in the universe. Going even further, I'd actually like to begin that conversation with a series of posts on the question: How do we arrive at an ethos for the 21st century? I'd also love to broaden it out to as many of you as would like to participate.

People around the web have been discussing the Law of Attraction for some time now. It's usually done within the context of attracting a mate or making money. I like the concept, but not the customary application. What if, however, we used the same method (listing out the characteristics we're attracted to) to conjure the future we want for our society?

I've long been an advocate of the idea that we get the future we imagine, and I hope this series of posts will be a small first step toward conjuring the future I want for the world. The ideas I'm going to discuss are in no way original. They are the synthesis of years of reading and conversing, and I'll borrow heavily from sources to which my memory can't manage the proper credit. If you know of a book or website that goes into much more details on these subjects, please do leave a comment.

This is of course very ambitious of me, and I'm not delusional enough to believe that I have a monopoly on the truth. It would help greatly if people fill in the gaps where needed, especially those with expertise in the areas discussed. In an ideal world, I hope there's even occasion for all of us to meet up face-to-face and have a more robust conversation. I know that things will only change with a groundswell of activity at the grass-roots, and the first step toward that could be finding a way for people from around the world to get together and talk about what we need.

Here's a short list of posts that came directly to mind, which I'll try to tackle over the next few weeks:
  • Seeking to resolve not exploit contradictions
  • A respect-based economy: removing the corrupting influence of the profit-motive
  • Divesting ourselves of unnecessary things
  • Openness, transparency and collaboration
  • Grass-roots, direct democracy
  • A non-anthropocentric universe
  • One mind: piecing together the mosaic
These are meant to be wide-ranging philosophical essays, as you can tell. I'm sure that the posts will take the form of me thinking out loud, and I expect to be challenged often when I stray too far from other people's experience.

Before I dive into it, I might just take a stab at the "law of attraction" game on a much more personal level and try to solicit your help in identifying my ideal new occupation. Oh, and there will still be the weekly poems and drawings to keep us amused and distracted.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Auric Spill?

Back to my normal programming... I spent a lot of time tinkering with the colors on this one. It's still not perfect, but what is? I want to call it Aural Spill as in someone's aura bleeding out, but that adjective technically means "related to hearing."

The adjective Auric relates to gold, which is a little closer but not correct either. If there are any linguists out there, please let me know what the correct adjective form for "aura" is. I think I'm going to try to go back to more figurative illustrations, as these abstracts can be quite exhausting.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finding a selfish balance

Warning: This post is a piece of potentially over-indulgent navel gazing. If that sort of thing annoys you, skip it and stay tuned for the upcoming much more audience-friendly drawing.

As you may have noticed, I've been in a bit of a funk lately. I can best sum up the anxiety that I've been feeling as the product of a general disequilibrium in my life. This unbalanced state is also a condition that plagues the macro-organism within which I currently function, or at least am supposed to.

What I'm trying to say is, I don't think I'm alone in the unsettled feeling. In fact, I'm pretty sure the same maladjusted orientation is rippling through the general population as the tidal wave of societal dysfunction builds.

Getting back to the problem with me though, and I know that's why you're here, I can broadly attribute my failings to an imbalance in the way I approach relationships. I've always been a very selfless person, and contrary to conventional wisdom that's not really a good thing.

I do have a very strong sense of self, don't get me wrong, but I lack the ability to effectively communicate who I am to those around me. I'm also terrible at gauging how others perceive me, and that causes an awkward over-emphasis on making sure they like me. This leads to one-sided relationships where I try to do too much and ask nothing in return.

I had a conversation last night with a friend of mine about fate and chance. She tried to convince me that everything in our lives, including the connections we make with others, happens for a reason. It's something I've heard often, but I've always had difficulty embracing it. Chaos theory makes much more sense to me.

I do believe we're attracted to certain people for specific reasons, whether it be the inclinations established through our early-life relationships or something hard-wired into our DNA. Not all of these patterns are positive, however, and sometimes the "meaning" we take away from them is a lesson in our own self-destructive tendencies.

The universe and its grand interplay of matter and energy is, after all, essentially indifferent to our individual comings and goings. If the path we embark on is to be purposeful, it's up to us to chart the course. It can't be left to some vague sense that a god, angel, or guiding spirit is shepherding us along the way.

Bringing this full circle, the point is that I need to be a bit more self-aware and self-centered or the repeated missteps will take me too far down the wrong road. It's not that I'm going to stop caring for others. It's that I need to take care of myself first in order to continue to do so. I may seem more self-absorbed, less accessible, and overly inward-focused but right now that's the only way forward toward balance.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A single hair ... strange inspiration

This isn't the poem I originally intended to post today, but the other two I'm working on still need some time and thought. I dashed these lines off in a few hours, as I'm sure it shows.

The poem was inspired by the most mundane of moments: the sight of a single dark hair (my own) raised against stark white bed linen. I don't know why it captured my attention, but it did and here is the result.

A single hair
by Francis Scudellari

A single, coarse black hair
by mere Chance, or Fate's hand
(who can say?) now plucked from
the anonymity
of a fielded likeness
then, on swirling current
carried till interest
or energy ebbed, and
it was sudden dropped — here
blindly, perhaps, drifting
down in tighter circles
onto a uniform
bed of white, itself new
found in significance
an ebon strand raised there
on unlike surroundings

Friday, January 09, 2009

Seeing other cities

Eventually all relationships grow stale, and after 28 years together I'm beginning to think it's time to move on. Chicago and I have had a really great run together, but it's not really working out for either of us any longer.

We each have a share of the blame to shoulder, and she's got some pretty big ones to pile on the criticism. I looked the other way when she hung out with friends of questionable character and threw money around on superficial baubles. I stuck it out through the frigid times when I had to retreat into my apartment until she warmed to me again.

Admittedly, I wasn't pulling my end as well as I should have; especially with the tax base dwindling each year. I did some flirting with other locales, but never anything serious. To tell the truth, her individual quirks became less and less endearing. They began to grate on my nerves to the point where I lost interest.

We're holding each other back. So, if there's a metropolis out there looking for a fun new citizen to add to her ranks, you can reach me here. I prefer large public transportation systems, some nice greenery and cozy neighborhood bars. A growing economy would seal the deal. Feel free to send a photo, but I can also look you up on Google Earth.

In other news, I'm working on my poem-a-week resolution and should deliver on that promise (for better or worse) tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Thin-fingered dawn ...

That's the name I came up with for this drawing, and it may become a line in my next poem (at least some variation of it). I'm a little hesitant to name abstracts, because it influences what others see in them. It's definitely a departure from the previous illustrations, as far as coloring. Thanks to all who commented on the last post. The majority verdict was "no" on Ad-sense, but "yes" on Helium and Project Wonderful.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

To add sense, or non-sense?

I've long been wary of including paid advertising on this site. First, I probably don't generate enough traffic to make it worth anyone's while. Second, I've always been quite fond of that story of Jesus chasing the merchants from the temple, and this blog is my sort-of sanctuary.

I have given a small amount of ad space out to friends who have books and sites to promote (and will continue to do so as requested), and there are the pseudo advertisements for the various social networking sites to which I belong. So, I'm not completely "commercial" free.

All that said, I am curious about Google Ad Sense, and I'd like to get some real-world feedback regarding how, and whether, it works. To you fellow bloggers out there who use it, please leave a comment about your experience. To everyone lese, please let me know what you think of those sites that you visit that have it, and whether you even notice.

My biggest fear is that it will promote content I don't approve of. And I've heard tell of pittances for payouts, which wouldn't justify my taking the chance.

Speaking of self-promotion, I'll have a new drawing up soon ... I promise.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Focused on structure

Continuing the "new year, new optimism" theme of my last post, I'm feeling the need for a few blog-related resolutions (prodded by similar efforts I've seen on some friends' sites).

It will start with a commitment to much more focus and structure in my daily routine. I've learned over the life of this blog that the more consistently I write, the better the output.

With that in mind, I'm committing myself to at least one new poem a week. I'd also like to finish two new drawings in the same span. In addition, I'm going to resuscitate the short story Belly that I abandoned in its crib last year.

Not a very exciting post, I know, but it helps to "go on record" with the details. I do have a new drawing in the wings, which I'll decorate with a much brighter color-scheme to reflect the new attitude.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Meet the new year, same as the old year?

As the metaphorical bells tolled in the year 2009 the other night, I greeted the man-made demarcation of a new planetary cycle with the usual mixture of hope and anxiety.

There was the hope that individually, and as a society, we'll find our footing in a new, positive direction this year. This optimism was of course beset by the well-found fear of falling into the previous patterns of self-defeating missteps and backsliding.

As my last poem likely indicated, I've been feeling a bit painted into a corner lately. It was a trap I set for myself, but with the silver lining of a forced reckoning. There's nowhere to go but up, and I'll need to sprout wings to get there. The good news is, I feel the nubs now pushing their way out through my shoulder blades.

I spent most of New Year's Day in deep meditation and emerged with a fixed resolve, and a clearer sense of purpose. One way or another, I can't finish 2009 the way I'm starting it and I'm dedicating myself to entering 2010 from a better place.

The details of that narrative arc are yet to be determined, but I'm finally giving up on the previously imagined ending of a Deus Ex Machina hand reaching down to rescue me from above. It's time for me, and us, to recognize and nurture the seeds of change growing from within.