Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

Visualizing Depression, Happiness as Esprit d’Escalier

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, metaphor

You can always tell what state my mind is in by the state of my house. I am not really bipolar, but I do swing back and forth in energy levels; sometimes it’s clean (more rarely than I would like), more often it swings between the clutter of doing lots of things, and the clutter of neglect.

Sometimes, the clutter of neglect happens because I’m not home much, or I have too many commitments. Other times, it acquires a patina of depression. This is when things get bad — the place doesn’t smell right; the dust bunnies are mingling too much with the stuff; there are too many things on the floor; everything is collecting dust. That same pair of little girl leggings has been in that same place for two weeks. None of the chairs are sit-able with all the things piling up, and the plants need water.

Depression, for some people, is a familiar place, a landmark, some scenery you thought you had left, but now find yourself back in almost without knowing it. In my particular scenario, there is a big black hole that I have to stay away from. It has a certain gravitational pull, and if you simply march thoughtlessly ahead, you will fall into it. Once inside, the whole paradigm is geared toward “DOWN” and like the Red Queen, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay at the level you find yourself. My sister-in-law says it’s like an ant-lion’s hole, with the loose sand, so that no matter how hard you claw your way out, the terrain underfoot just keeps shifting out from under you, sliding you back.

It’s easiest simply to steer clear of the hole than to get out once you’ve moved over that edge. I know where the hole is, and I know the surrounding countryside well enough that I recognize the signposts to stay away from. There are things that push me toward it, but there are also things which carry me away from it: by consciously thinking positive thoughts when it looms, I can change the countryside I walk through — just a bit, but enough. Like a compass needle pulled toward the North, my thoughts veer toward the hole if I’m close enough, but unlike a compass, I can, with effort, wrench those thoughts off to a different direction — and by doing so, find myself in a completely different country.

Weirdly, pasting a smile on my face often helps; the smile becomes a real one disturbingly quickly. I’d heard from someone that the act of smiling in itself can help you feel better, and it does. Which says all kinds of things, like those people I can’t stand, who smile all the time, may in fact actually feel good about themselves. Or that Americans have crummy lives, because they smile so much to stay sane.

Other ways people think about depression: I have one friend who says her world becomes two-dimensional, like nothing has any substance anymore. It’s all just cheap cardboard cutouts of reality, and all the people she knows, all her friends and family, have lost their depth. The world becomes shallow and lusterless.

For me, I become slow. I labor along, and I’m never able to accomplish anything: the day simply goes past before I can get there. I wind down like a film coming to a halt, and lose the ability to get enthusiastic. Food doesn’t taste good, so I eat a lot of it to try to make up for the lack of interest by trying again and again. Sleep is unsatisfying, so I do more of it if I can.

Another friend of mine is absolutely the opposite: she says depression winds her up. She gets tense, buzzes around uselessly, doesn’t accomplish anything because she’s rattling apart. She snaps at everyone, and can’t concentrate on anything. And she can’t sleep.

Someone else described it this way: it’s like a thickening veil between you and everyone/everything else, and you can’t reach through it. Sort of like a cataract of the soul, isolating you and making it hard to see where you’re going, what you’re doing, why you’re even doing it.

All of these descriptions have an element of the world moving away, becoming distant, of reaching out and not being able to touch anything or feel it touch you. When things are really bad there is this desire to make it all stop: the reaching, the isolation, the inability to communicate across vast distances. Sometimes there is the sense that it’s all your fault, that you have isolated yourself, or that others have turned away because you are a bad person. It’s hard to live with, and it’s hard to live with yourself. The whole thing becomes exhausting. You find yourself just wishing you could wink out, be gone, stop.

“It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.” –Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Elizabeth Wurtzel said, “I start to think there really is no cure for depression, that happiness is an ongoing battle, and I wonder if it isn’t one I’ll have to fight for as long as I live. I wonder if it’s worth it.” Which is an interesting point. Because what are the gauges by which we measure happiness? How do you know if you’ve won the battle, if you’re getting the happiness you’ve been fighting for?

The truth is, we don’t know until it’s past. “A long and happy life” is something people often say in eulogies, in biographies; but did the person with the “happy” life actually know they were having it, while they were having it? Or is that something you can only judge in hindsight? Is the “long” part of that statement mandatory for the “happy” part to be assured?

An interesting study came out recently that compares satisfaction and happiness levels. For example, people with children are generally less happy than people without children; however their satisfaction levels tend to run higher. What is the difference between satisfaction and happiness? Unfortunately, I got this information third hand, so I don’t know what the creators of the study call happiness, or what they call satisfaction. But I think it’s actually an interesting point to consider.

I suppose I would say happiness consists of moving unobstructedly through the world, of being able to take those moments that are beautiful and really wring some enjoyment out of them — notice them as they go by. It is a matter of being. You are happy; your happiness is a state of being. In the case of the person who has had a “long and happy” life, that happiness may be an artifact of hindsight, of perspective: only when you get far enough away from it do you realize that all that — that hurdy gurdy and running around and having meltdowns and tears and holding each other close and kissing your child’s head — that held all the ingredients of happiness. But, for most of us, I think we don’t know it’s happiness nine-tenths of the time.

Satisfaction, on the other hand, is about doing. You get satisfaction from the things you do. When your life is satisfying, there is the sense of a job well done, a completion, a feeling that you have done well. You look at your child and see someone well-read and capable and vivacious and you feel that you did the best you could. Your garden is full of flowers; you grow tomatoes and you knit sweaters and you work hard at your job. These are all good things, and honestly, satisfaction is an important emotion to have.

The thing, I think, is not to allow yourself happiness as a reward for satisfaction. The doing of things has, I think, ruined many of our lives, because we don’t allow any cracks for the happiness to get in. If there are no pauses, the happiness can’t slip in on us unawares. Those moments of quiet, that happiness, they need nourishing; and if the doing of things balloons outward to fill all available space, then you will look back on your deathbed and say, “My, I’ve had a full life,” and if you’re lucky, you’ll confuse fullness with happiness.

Because there are always those moments of joy, some of them tiny — like watching your daughter lean down over her book in the sunshine, her hair hiding her face, and seeing the beautiful line of her back; or when the first curling leaves of your garden begin to sprout; or even that moment when you take the time to sit outside somewhere beautiful with a glass of wine and watch the sunset with someone you love and like talking to. In those moments, if we take them carefully and in the spirit of trust, we can allow the happiness to take root, like a shy plant, and grow through the hurt, the isolation and the busy-ness. And with it, the world will begin to poke through the caul, begin to thin the membrane, the heaviness between ourselves and the world. The isolation can diminish, the compass needle can be taught to point elsewhere, and at the end of it all, we’ll be able to see and touch everything again.

“It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” — Virginia Woolf

Drunk On Color

Cabinet of Wonders, metaphor, natural wonders, Personal, philosophy, physics

“Imagine, if you will,” he said, “that we are not in a dank and mossy crypt, but in a room of gold… that warm rays make the air softer and yellower than butter; that you breathe not this base, black, wet mist, but a sparkling bronze infusion that has been mellowed by its constant reverberation within walls of pure gold.” He sucked in his breath. “The light of this room would be just that shade that we are told arises sometmes against the clouds beyond the bay, making the world gold the way it is said happens once in a… every… well… sometimes. My plan, you see,” he said in pain, writhing internally, “is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will be open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever…

“You can bathe in the light, drink in the air, run your hands along the smooth walls. Even in the pit and trough of night, the golden room will be brightly boiling. And it will be ours.”
– Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

My writing group has a term for that period every writer goes through in phases: the “I Suck” phase, where you can’t imagine anyone would ever want to read what you’ve written. It’s difficult to get anything done during this phase because you are so self-critical; it’s hard to edit things when you can’t see the merit in it.

During these phases I retreat into making things. I find that a certain amount of physical creativity keeps me alive, keeps me full of interest in the world around me, and makes me more able to write. I come back to the keyboard refreshed, with new stimulus to inspire my descriptions. And my favorite kind of making things pretty much always involves the mixing, blending, and juxtaposition of color.

Knitting, for example. I must stay away from yarn stores, because the intensity of all that color makes me lose some portion of my reason, and I find myself buying hundreds of dollars worth of yarn. And, though I love knitting – capturing all that color into something I or my loved ones can wear, it’s never quite as beautiful as the raw yarn. The transformation removes some random quality of the way the colors overlap and interact, and I’m left with some nice item which is merely an echo of that original glowing dream.

Similarly, the pastels section in the art store grabs me. I want to have it, to dive in it and swim through it the way Scrooge McDuck swims through his money. Color, to me, is riches. I want to surround myself with it, lay it next to itself, play in it. It is a gastronomic experience of the eyes, like eating. It has flavor and timbre; each color is a note in a riotous and elegant orchestra of beauty.

So when I make something, color is a big part of the making. But, similarly, I am caught by it in the everyday world. In the grocery store, for example, I buy tangerines when they are in season not only because I love their flavor, but because they are presented in big, shining orange heaps, sometimes with wonderfully crackly dark green leaves mixed in. And the heritage tomato booth at the Farmer’s Market draws me like an addict to her dealer. Somehow, the color and the flavor become mixed in my perception so that the depth of the fragrance mingles with the richness of color and incites me to salivation, both physically and mentally.

Another place I absorb color’s juicy goodness is fabric stores, especially really good stores with imported fabrics. Tweeds, especially, get me, with their subtle flecks of color; or the deep intensity of the velvets. Iridescent fabrics and deep, changing furs and the liquid brilliance of good satin. And the trim: thin strips of fluttering color to edge your sewing, bobbling tassels and piping and the thin, gauzy brilliance of translucent ribbon.

Color has always been symbolic, and very culturally driven: from the Victorian construct of the meaning of roses, to the colors people have been allowed to wear (as in the Sumptuary Laws of Elizabethan England and earlier), to the colors worn traditionally for rituals such as marriage and mourning. In Western culture, for example, black symbolizes darkness and the unknown, and death is nowadays associated with the extinguishing of light. In Asia, on the other hand, white is the color for mourning, either to symbolize enlightenment, winding-sheets, bones, the leaching of joy, or perhaps some other point of view I’m not familiar with: but interestingly, there is evidence that until recently, white was a mourning color in Western society, as well.

The sumptuary laws of Rome defined exactly who could wear the Tyrian purple dye, and how much. The Victorians believed that yellow roses symbolized jealousy (though my father gave my mother yellow roses when I was born. I doubt that was the understood symbolism between them). In America, a bride wearing a red dress would traditionally be frowned upon as a hussy; but in China, Japan, and Korea it is a traditional bridal color, symbolizing good luck and auspiciousness. And with this influence entering Western society (along with the decrease in popularity of virginal brides), the red wedding dress has become all the rage.

So the cultural definitions of the meaning of color are constantly changing. Until quite recently, men’s clothing was much more on the model of male birds: the more colorful ones were more successfully showing their desirability. And less than eighty years ago, pink was considered a masculine color.

One of the greatest contributions the early Modernist painters made to art was to break with tradition, painting not in the accepted colors of nature but in the colors of feelings, of nuance, and of mood. Who, for example, has a green line down the middle of their face? Or the idea that you can sprinkle together wildly varying colors which have nothing to do with the subject at hand – and still end up with an image that is recognizable, even full of light and beauty. So perhaps my knitter’s obsession with flecked yarns is not simply an addiction, but is rooted in a deeper artistic vision: that of the greater beauty of delicately trembling variety.

Everywhere I look, there is something to drink in. The seasons themselves aid me in my color addiction, changing ordinary things subtlely each month so that I cannot stop looking. The oak trees around my house, for example, are covered with a type of fast-acting moss, which interacts with water over the course of minutes to transform from dull, dry-looking brown stuff into glowing green fairy-carpet. When it rains hard, I go outside to look: I can’t help it.

Big Sur, one of my favorite places to visit, is largely attractive to me because of the varied carpet of plants which grow on the roadside: sage brush, Indian paintbrush, yellow lupine, yarrow, iceplant reddened by salt, and any number of others which I can’t name but which add to the mixture in rich but imperceptible ways.

Similarly, there is an ever-changing panoply of plants along the road where I live – sage, sticky monkey flower, yarrow, succulents and ferns – which has a completely different flavor, a milder, more delicate spice. And both change, depending on when you visit. Right now we are drenched in orange and blue, the color simply licking at your eyeballs, as the pastures explode with purple lupine and California poppies. When this happens, which is not quite as often as I would like – certainly not every year – I try to go and sit, at least once in the season, in the middle of one of these seas of color and just keep my eyes open until I’m full. There are so many things to see around us: the electrical fizz of the California sky against the edges of things; the phosphorescence of the right kinds of geraniums (the Mediterranean kind, not the English kind). And every country has a different light, making the colors wash over you all over again.

Cities, with their muted greys and sombre, sooty brick, hold a peculiar fascination in the romance of the grit, but after living in some very industrial cities I can truly say I don’t miss the oppressive lack of color. Although in the east end of London, sometimes, the brilliant green glow of London Fields against the sooty backdrop of the rest of Hackney used to make my mood rise and my eyes dazzle.

Interestingly, the science of color tends to look the same no matter if you are coming at it from biology, computers, or painting; the structures are similar, if the specific results are different. For example, mixing colored light is what’s known as additive color: you start with blackness, and add light to get a color. Mixing pigments is subtractive color – you start with a white reflective surface and add things which absorb some of the light (subtract it), changing what is reflected, in order to make color. When you mix all additive colors together (mix light together), you will end up with white; when you mix all subtractive colors together, you get… well, a dull grey – but in theory, you’ll end up with black.

Computers use additive color, mixing red, green and blue to create, if not every color in the universe, then at least millions of them (which for our eyes is close enough, most of the time; the human eye can distinguish about 10 million separate colors). By adding no colors, you can get black; by adding red, green, and blue (RGB) in equal amounts, you can begin to approach white. The more of all three colors you add, the more pastel the colors.

Pigment, on the other hand, works quite differently. The traditional color wheel shows red, yellow, and blue as primaries, which, by mixing any two equally, creates the secondary colors orange, green, and violet. But as anyone who has tried mixing fire-engine red with blue can tell you, these colors in actuality don’t work that well. So for color printers, the inks are actually cyan (turquoise), Magenta (pinky red), and Yellow (and black, to make things get dark, because the pigments for printers tend to be somewhat transparent and let the light through).

Our nervous system, on the other hand, “derives color by comparing the responses to light from the [three] types of cone photoreceptors in the eye [as opposed to rods, which distinguish only dark and light]. These cone photoreceptors are sensitive to different portions of the visible spectrum. For humans, the visible spectrum ranges approximately from 380 to 740 nm, and there are normally three types of cones. The visible range and number of cone types differ between species.” [wiki]

Long ago, before the dinosaurs, our early fish-like ancestors had trichromatic vision (three cone receptors). For some reason, this was lost it in the time of the dinosaurs, and then later, regained by a few primates, in an act of complete Darwinian fluke. This explains why primates are the only mammals who have trichromatic vision – it is a trait mostly found in birds and reptiles (dinosaur descendents). Even then, it’s mostly old-world primates who are trichromatic; for new-world monkeys, only some females (depending on individual inheritance rather than species) are trichromatic. All the males of most species, and many of the females, are dichromatic, meaning they only have two kinds of cone cells. This is because two kinds of cone designation are passed down on the X chromosome, so the males can only ever have those two, while females who have a double helping, so to speak, of cone types actually end up able to inherit all three.

Eggs: Green or Red?
For the monkeys, this has been shown to make for an evolutionary advantage, since the color-blind monkeys can’t see fruit so well, and so therefore, not being distracted, tend to concentrate on other foods (such as certain kinds of leaves) which are noticeable by their shape; these foods, combined with the fruit found by the color-sighted monkeys, ensure that the group as a whole has a much broader diet than it would otherwise.

There seems to be a very interesting possibility that more cone types actually exist, because most genetic color-blindness is based on a mutation of the X chromosome’s color receptor genes. In other words, they shift to a type of cone that doesn’t perceive color the way it is supposed to. Theoretically, this could mean that both the monkeys and color-blind people, then, could have a type of cone which perceives something else – something which hasn’t been measured.

Perhaps there is, then, some higher purpose, some evolutionary advantage, to those of us who get drunk on color. My children have a book by Leo Lionni called Frederick, about a mouse who doesn’t help with the work all summer, harvesting and storing and preparing for winter. When the other mice complain, he says he is storing up all the color, the sounds and smells of the warm weather. When winter comes and all the food they have gathered is running low, he then begins to recite to them his poems, which warm the mice and fill them with the poems’ evocation of flowers, sunshine, the color of fresh berries, and so on. So, in a very real sense, he was doing his work as well.

On this basis, I would like to think that my attraction to color is not merely some form of magpie consumerism, but a hoarding of beauty which I can then play back in my writing – bit by bit, during the dark times, the moments of I Suck-ness: those periods when things have gone dull and flavorless. All hail those piled-up tangerines!

Leafcutter Designs: Large Concepts in Small Packages

art, blogs, Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, games, metaphor, miscellany, neat stuff, tiny

Trade tokens: the best kind of friendly economy

I’ve been receiving notices from Leafcutter Designs for a long time, but recently went back to visit (finally), and was blown away by the creativity and joy in its wonderful pages. It’s interesting, because it combines conceptual art and actual goods and services for sale. Really, a perfect example of someone getting creative in their work, and making art pay.

Lea Redmond is the driving force behind it, and runs it like the tiny business it is. The welcome says, “we live upstairs on top of this online shop and you can holler up to our kitchen window where a pie is sitting on the windowsill.”

The items for sale started as small things she made for friends and family which became so popular that, as the website says, “we decided to make a bigger batch.” The ideas are all ecologically sound, everything they present seems to have both a micro and macro emphasis (in other words, using tiny things to emphasize and talk about larger concepts), and every one of them is made or thought up with the idea of joy in mind – not the sale of joy, but actual joy, the kind where you do good things for other people and have fun doing it, or the kind where you simply get curious, get playful, and enjoy the basic physical wonders of living. Which is the main reason why I like them.

For example, she has created a series of conceptual knitting patterns. I like the sky scarf, where you buy a bunch of yarn in all the colors the sky could possibly be and then knit two lines of whichever color matches the sky every day. After a year you have a record of the sky – and a scarf!

Another favorite is the BART scarf, based on a local train system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, in which you get yarns the color of the different BART lines and knit in that color whenever you are traveling on that line. Whenever you change lines, you change colors.

Other wonderful services and items are such as these:

Earrings for Spontaneous Seeding: “You never know when an opportunity for planting might present itself.” Refillable, of course.

Recipe dice: Roll these to decide what ingredients to use in dinner. They are 5/8″ across and “feature seasonal vegetables (different dice for each season), grains, meats, spices, herbs, and a few additional ingredients like lemon, ginger, and hot chiles.”

Wiggly Eye Dice: wooden dice with wiggly eyes for dots. Weird and fun.

– The World’s Smallest Postal Service, which began as a tiny post office which Ms. Redmond set up in cafes and other places. If you gave her a letter, she would transcribe it “on a miniature desk in the tiniest of script, sealed with a miniscule wax seal with the sender’s intial pressed into it, packaged up with a magnifying glass in a glassine envelope, and finished off with a large wax seal.” Nowadays you can order the letters online (though they are no longer hand-written), and she has a variety of timely variations, such as Mother’s Day cards. Imagine receiving a letter smaller than a quarter in the mail! Magical. Good for Tooth Fairies and other small creatures, as well.

You can also find out about the history of flour sack clothes, undergo creative courtship consulting (or tell stories of your own in the Project section), get poetry ribbon, and many other things. The Project section is full of broadcast-style art pieces where you can submit your own electronic postage stamp design, send her artifacts for the Game of Infinite Possibilities, make a rolodex card of something you love or think about for her rolodex machine, and several other participation-based fun art activities.

You can read Ms. Redmond’s blog here.

The portable version of the Game of Infinite Possibilities

Evil, Incarnate

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, fiction, history, media, medicine, metaphor, propaganda

This past two weeks I’ve been suffering from what may be Giardia (warning: don’t click and read if you’re squeamish). It’s a mild case, without the really horrific symptoms, but it has affected my self-image: giardia makes you bloated, dyspeptic, and flatulent, like the icky Baron Harkonnen (above) in David Lynch’s Dune (but minus the pustules). Feeling like a gross person has made me really rethink the way we tend to associate the ugliness of the body with the ugliness of the mind: because I feel gross, I worry that people who don’t know me will think I am a gross person. As a result, I’ve been hiding.

This idea that the corruption of the body is a manifestation of the corruption of the soul or the mind has a very long history, and is clearly a difficult idea to shake. Susan Sontag notes that language used by contemporary society implies a “blame the victim” mentality, as if the victim is the creator of his or her own illness; but historically, the victim is the disease, and the pauper is poor because that is their destiny, the place they have been put for some hidden sin. The divine right of kings, manifest destiny and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination are three big expressions of a deep-seated belief that quality of life is an expression of divine will, that people who suffer – or do not – do so because they inherently deserve their destiny.

But on an individual level, the superstition goes deeper than that. The shunning of sick people, while evolved as self-preservation, often carries over into the shunning of people who have been disfigured by illness. Birth defects, when they showed up, caused much signing against the Evil Eye, muttering about what sin the mother had committed for the wickedness to show up in her child, and/or discussion of who in the village might be a witch. When Christ embraced the sick and deformed, actually touching them and welcoming them into his hearth, there was probably a huge number of the populace who were horrified that he would associate so with the evil and the impure: really a revolutionary moment, which like all revolutionary moments either opened peoples’ minds or closed them.

Leonardo da Vinci was well-known for following people with odd facial features, and then going home to draw them, sometimes putting them together to make wildly creative faces. However, his fascination with the anomalies of the human form was actually typical of Rennaissance humanism: the belief that people can determine right and wrong – or the cause of events – using universal human qualities, such as rationality, and the rejection of transcendental reasoning, such as “God is punishing your wickedness by giving you the pox.” Leonardo, famous now for his beautiful paintings and excellent “inventions”, was at the time considered a difficult man, poor on follow-through and liable to try some new (and impermanent) type of paint for a commission. And he really didn’t care much what people thought of him, or whether someone was evil inside.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is a fine example of the reverse of this: although there is little evidence that Richard III was lame at all, Shakespeare, who knew his audience, made sure that they were reminded, at every moment, of how twisted the character really is by his imposed lameness. Dickens, the master of melodrama, also relied heavily on his villains’ facial features, bent bodies, scars, and even modes of dress to signify their real natures – despite the fact that, at the same time, he advocated an approach to poverty and misfortune which claimed that it was not always the unfortunates’ fault, and that charity and opportunity were required from those who were better off:

“Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist, shocked readers with its images of poverty and crime and was responsible for the clearing of the actual London slum that was the basis of the story’s Jacob’s Island. In addition, with the character of the tragic prostitute, Nancy, Dickens “humanised” such women for the reading public; women who were regarded as “unfortunates,” inherently immoral casualties of the Victorian class/economic system.” [wiki]

This popular change in attitude had begun in the late 1700s and grew, on through the 1800s, until by 1869 “In London alone there were about seven hundred philanthropic societies, devoted to every conceivable human misery or affliction.” [link] People like E. Nesbit, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw joined the Fabian Society, dedicated to chipping away at the status quo and introducing ideas for changing society, trying to get at the causes of suffering: the Victorians were great ones for the notion of “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can”, a perfect motto for the Industrial Revolution, when so many people were getting rich on the backs of increasingly miserable labor, allowing the rich to continue to do so, while ameliorating their guilt by telling them to help those whom their gains have made miserable along the way.

Of course, despite their affection for the poor and miserable, the Victorians were great ones for manifesting evil physically in their villains. Dickens was wildly popular, as were the Penny Dreadfuls, which are full of villains of the most extraordinarily disreputable kind. The play-houses were crammed with bent and horrible men ruining the lives of blushing maidens (even Victorian porn seems to delight in this awful pairing).

Alongside all this, in the scientific world, the evolution is toward “once a character flaw, now a diagnosable illness.” Think, for example, of the relatively recent changes in thinking on alcoholism and depression, which are now regarded as, respectively, genetic and largely chemical. ADD children are no longer treated as “bad” children, and even those people who shout obscenities are found to have Tourette’s Syndrome. It seems that nearly everything is diagnosable, and the only person for whom we don’t feel some sympathy is the total sociopath who kills four hundred people while looking like a CPA.

Which is probably why there are so many shows on television now about serial killers. Like the Victorians, our society seems to have become obsessed with one particular type of villain, and we play it over and over; we can’t get enough.

This brings us full circle, for several reasons. One is the recent interest in more traditional stories, and the archetypical, corporeally ugly baddies found in places like fairy stories and myth. Neil Gaiman’s witch-queen in Stardust, who is old and ugly but artificially remade to her former beauty, is a nice re-take on the traditional evil witch disguised as beautiful lady (and Diana Wynn Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle does a wonderful flip on that same theme). Heath Ledger’s horrific Joker blows its counterpart – the mad, scarred villain of melodramas – completely away, partly because he plays brilliantly off the scientific take on mental illness: he tells contradictory stories of how he got his scars, and we are given a terrifying glimpse of our own “not his fault” trope from the other side of the chasm.

Another reason why we are coming full circle: in an era where evil can be diminished to a diagnosable illness, how do you represent the time-honored role of the villain? How can storytellers supply that need for darkness, with which to showcase the Light? Aside from resorting to faceless villains, such as Sauron or the Tripods in War of the Worlds, who simply seem to represent Evil in a sort of blanket way. And setting aside the less-intellectually satisfying slasher movie/serial killer genre.

One answer right now seems to be about looking backward at older villains. The Lemony Snicket books, for example, are a perfect, tongue-in-cheek take on Victorian melodrama; or the recent comic-book movie trend: Batman, Iron Man, and V for Vendetta, to name just a few; or the remakes of myths like Beowulf.

Another answer seems to be to take the tools we have to hand, and, in our increasingly complex world, come up with increasingly complex villains, who at times are not always easily identifiable as such. Even the backwards-looking examples above are re-made with less surety about Right vs. Wrong; and in books like the Golden Compass and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it is never clear about the Bad Guys – their badness is a of a strange, ambivalent type – even though the heros must eventually go against them in order to survive, complete their quest, or save the world.

In a world where artificially-created beauty and power over our health are increasingly expected, we and our children are bombarded continuously by the idea that beauty and health are not a gift, but a necessity, and if we do not have both, we have only our own shirking of responsibility to blame. As a result of this, we are the bad guys, those of us with scars, missing parts, or illness, who don’t work hard enough to hide our flaws. Like the witch-crone who looks nice on the outside, we know we are bad, and we hope no one else ever finds out.

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
-Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor


The Swedish government’s truly amazing little demo on how retouching changes what we see – highly recommended. Wait for the star to appear, then click on it.

Where to find Charles Booth’s bogglingly wonderful poverty maps of London in the 1880s to 1890s (see image, below)

Dickens’s Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture (a book about same)