Communion Of Dreams


Proving title.

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

So, a couple weeks ago I had an idea … which, if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, can sometimes get me, well, not exactly into trouble, but can lead to things not entirely intended. Anyway, the idea was to build a climbing tree for our cats, which might take advantage of the 12′ ceilings we have in our historic home (ours is the next-to-last in that article).

Here’s the (probably) final result:

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Now, for those who may be curious about the process of making this cat tree, there’s more below.

We have a huge slump of an ancient catalpa out in front of the house, near the road. Here it is:

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It’s been a favorite of photographers and children for generations, and overall is doing pretty well. But one large part of it died a couple of years ago, and we’ve delayed removing it. That part is the pair of major mostly horizontal limbs which come out from the tree towards the viewer in that image.

After some discussion, my wife and I decided that the lower limb could serve as the basic structure for our cat tree. So I cut it off, and then trimmed it and started removing the bark, as seen here:

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It’s a little hard to tell scale in that pic, but that limb is about 12′ from base to either tip, and about 12′ from tip to tip.

After removing most of the bark, we somehow managed to get the thing in through the front door and then into our living room. Without breaking any windows. Or bones. This was trickier than it might sound. And did require a bit of additional editing with a chainsaw on some of the various extensions. Of the tree, I mean.

So, we got it into approximate position, then braced it with a couple of chairs. Here it is, with Greystoke (our younger cat — he’s not quite two) investigating:

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Next, we got it mounted to the wall securely. This required some stacked-lumber spacers in order to make sure that the branches cleared the windows and curtains safely. The way I mounted it was to mount the lumber to the wall, then I added heavy hook brackets to the lumber, and cinched the tree down with rope. That way, if it was ever necessary, we could detach the tree fairly easily. Here it is mounted, with a 12″ cardboard concrete tube I intended to use for part of the ‘furniture’:

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Almost as soon as it was secured, Greystoke was wanting to explore:

That's an 8' ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

That’s an 8′ ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

Hello, there!

Hello, there!

I started adding elements to the tree: a couple of simple platforms, and a horizontal bridge which would support a carpeted tube. These (and all the subsequent elements) were mounted using a combination of metal shelf brackets and rope.

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At this point I also started wrapping cotton rope around the branches, to make them more cat-claw friendly/safe:

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The branch on the left was at enough of an angle to let the cats climb it easily. On the right, I decided to put in steps similar to a ladder, but spiraling as they went up to make it easier for the cats to climb:

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Next I settled on a final design for the tube:

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Then it was time to carpet it, as well as add carpet to the ladder steps and the platforms:

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Covering the steps and platforms just required a rectangle of carpet the correct size and some double-sided carpet tape. To do the tube was a PITA using a combination of carpet tape, construction adhesive, and hot glue. I recommend checking YouTube for instructions. And gloves. Definitely you want gloves.

Here’s the semi-finished tree, before I added a final platform on the upper right, or some ‘interactive’ toys/elements:

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The (probably) finished final result again:

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Complete with a suspended ‘bird’, a dangling rope, and a couple of simple wood spinners. Note that Greystoke, instead of being on the tree, is snoozing in his favorite chair below. Typical.

But he has already started climbing on it, playing with things, looking out the windows, climbing *into* the windows …

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Silly cat. But that’s why we built it.

So, all of the wood and most of the hardware used in making the tree was stuff which I already had leftover/recovered from other projects. The tree as shown in the final version (which may get tweaked a bit over time as we see how the cats use it) has about 800′ of rope on it, and that was the biggest expense. All together, had I had to buy both rope and all the wood & hardware, the out of pocket costs would have been about $200 (I actually spent about half that). And it took me a total of about 30 hours labor, in 2-3 hour sessions over the last couple of weeks.

Fun project. I was a little concerned that wrapping it with so much rope would detract from it feeling like a ‘tree’, but it has maintained that organic feeling, even with the other elements I added. I’m pretty happy with the final product.

Jim Downey



Faith.

I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.

 

Jim Downey

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Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.

 



“All our futures tend to be made up out of bits and pieces of our present.”

A very insightful essay into the role which speculative fiction played in the Victorian era, and how it is still echoed in our fiction today:  Future perfect Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere – how the Victorians invented the future

Here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is very much worth reading:

It’s easy to pick and choose when reading this sort of future history from the privileged vantage point of now – to celebrate the predictive hits and snigger at the misses (Wells thought air travel would never catch on, for example); but what’s still striking throughout these books is Wells’s insistence that particular technologies (such as the railways) generated particular sorts of society, and that when those technologies were replaced (as railways would be by what he called the ‘motor truck’ and the ‘motor carriage’), society would need replacing also.

It makes sense to read much contemporary futurism in this way too: as a new efflorescence of this Victorian tradition. Until a few years ago, I would have said that this way of using technology to imagine the future was irrecoverably dead, since it depended on our inheritance of a Victorian optimism, expressed as faith in progress and improvement as realisable individual and collective goals. That optimism was still there in the science fiction of Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, but it fizzled out in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, we’ve been watching the future in the deadly Terminator franchise, rather than in hopeful film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The coupling of technological progress and social evolution that the Victorians inaugurated and took for granted no longer seemed appealing.

 

I think this is very much why many people find that Communion of Dreams seems to fit in so well with the style of SF from the 1950s and 60s — in spite of being set in a post-apocalyptic world, there is an … optimism … and a sense of wonder which runs through it (which was very deliberate on my part). As noted in a recent Amazon review*:

James Downey has created a novel that compares favorably with the old masters of science fiction.
Our universe would be a better place were it more like the one he has imagined and written about so eloquently.

Anyway, go read the Aeon essay by Iwan Rhys Morus (who happens to be a professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales — no, I did not make this up).

 

Jim Downey

*Oh, there’s another new review up I haven’t mentioned.



Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

 



Italy, 2012: The ghosts nearby.

“Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old time irruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb – the one that contains the active volcano – seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high, and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall, – is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger-nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long, at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last – it had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.”

Mark Twain, Chapter 30 of The Innocents Abroad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Yeah, it isn’t quite that bad climbing Mount Vesuvius today. There’s now a very good path which switchbacks a couple of times, then winds around the mountain a fair amount, making for a longer walk but one which is still fairly steep, climbing the final 200 meters of elevation from the parking lot. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

Then once you’re to the top, you can walk about a third of the way around the lip of the crater. On one side, you look down into the crater, on the other out over the volcanic plains to the Bay of Naples:

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Naples.

 

There’s a dark patch of green surrounded by buildings directly above the corner post: that’s Pompeii.

 

 

At the top – at the very end of the public trail – there’s a little hut selling refreshments and souvenirs. And the prices are more reasonable than you might expect. But I decided that I didn’t really need either an ashtray or a skull carved out of black pumice.

Standing there on what’s left of Vesuvius, looking out over the plains below, I felt a bit melancholy. It could have just been the exertion to climb to the top. Or that I knew the trip was coming to a close. But looking out over the misty cities, it was easy to picture another eruption. There are millions of people within potential reach of the volcano. Naples – a city of some 4 million – is conceivably at risk. In the immediate area around the volcano some 600,000 people are subject to possible pyroclastic flows. Current scientific models indicate that there would probably be two to three weeks of warning before a serious eruption, but no one is entirely confident of that. And at best, it would take 5 -7 days to evacuate those most at risk.

 

* * * * * * *

 

We came down off the mountain, but in some sense didn’t leave it. It lurked there on the skyline as we went to Herculaneum.

I said that visiting Pompeii was “sobering,” but the primary thing that going there did for me was to help me envision what a Roman city was like.

Herculaneum was different. It was even more immediate – more “real.” That’s because of the way the city was destroyed.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was mostly out of the immediate ash cloud. In Pompeii, the city was largely buried by ash and small rock debris to a depth of several meters in the first few hours. This caused roofs to collapse, and entombed people in ash after they suffocated or died from blunt trauma.

Not so in Herculaneum. They only got a few inches of ash initially. This meant that they had a lot more time for the city to be evacuated. But when the blow came to Herculaneum, it came very swiftly – in the form of a pyroclastic flow of molten rock and debris moving at 100 mph and at a temperature of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those who were in the city died almost instantaneously, their flesh vaporized in the heat. All that was left was bone.

Likewise, structures were encased in the molten mass, and it happened so quickly that wood didn’t burn – it was carbonized, turned to charcoal, sealed in super-heated rock. Roofs didn’t collapse, as the structures were filled inside as well as covered over on the outside. Eventually, the entire city was covered to a depth of more than 20 meters. The result was a city which was even better preserved than Pompeii. Better preserved, and because of that more tangible. You couldn’t help but walk the streets, enter the houses, and feel like you were in a living city, one which had just misplaced its populace. The ghosts were still close here:

Vesuvius waits.

 

The boathouses where the final refugees died.

 

Courtyard of the baths.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Carbonized rafters.

 

Street scene.

 

At the wine merchant’s.

 

Wood on the outside of the wine shop.

 

A local snack bar.

 

Another street scene.

 

Wooden screw press, now carbonized and behind glass. This was probably used in the making or cleaning of cloth.

 

City above, city below. (Ercolano – the modern city, and Herculaneum).

 

* * * * * * *

It was our last night at the villa. Usually this is something of a party night for everyone, and for much of the group this was true. But somehow I just wasn’t really in the mood.

Jim Downey
PS: there’s an excellent collection of additional images from this trip, taken by Angie Bohon, another member of the group. They can be seen here, here, and here.



Looking back: that first novel.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on July 1, 2007.

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There was a very good segment on this morning’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Jon Clinch, the author of the novel Finn. Clinch talks about his experience in working on several prior novels, none of which were satisfactory to him, before embarking on Finn. It is interesting that he used the web to first promote himself, then land an agent, then get a publisher for the novel – the same kind of thing I am attempting to do with this site and Communion of Dreams.

But even more interesting was the business with his attitude towards his previous novels, which he thought were important in helping him as a writer, even though they were “failed” projects ultimately in terms of artistic satisfaction (and not being published.) I think we tend to underestimate the value of failure, in our focus on success. I have lots of what would conventionally be characterized as “failures” in my life, but each one was an experience which helped lead me to new understanding about myself and the world. Basically, I’m of the opinion that if a failure doesn’t kill you, it isn’t really a failure. And since none of us gets out of this life alive, anyway, we’re all doomed to “failure”.

The most interesting people I know are not the ones who have only succeeded in everything they’ve tried – that type is either too self-satisfied to be interesting, or so unambitious to have never pushed themselves. Give me people who go too far, who push themselves in what they do past their abilities, who are ambitious enough to want to Paint the Moon. Those are the people who are interesting.

Communion was not my first novel. No, during college I wrote one, another near-term speculative novel, once again based on the notion that a pandemic had caused a general societal collapse. I think it is stuck away in a box someplace in the attic. Even though post college I spent several months trying to rewrite it, it is fairly dreadful, and deserves banishment to the attic. But it helped me learn a *lot* about writing a novel, and allowed me to work out a number of themes and ideas which I then used in Communion to much better effect. So that book (titled Equipoise) was not entirely a failure. And I’d bet that most ‘successful’ authors have one or more such books tucked away in a box somewhere, if you can only get them to admit it.

Anyway, I enjoyed the interview with Clinch, and will have to look up his book one of these days.

Jim Downey



Looking back: Welcome to the Hobbit House

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on May 12, 2007.

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Hobbit House

Gotta love this: a collector of J. R. R. Tolkien artifacts needed a small library/museum to house his collection. His architect decided to do the right thing, and go to the source material for inspiration. The result is a wonderful little Hobbit House, straight out of the books:

Asked to design a fitting repository for a client’s valuable collection of J.R.R. Tolkien manuscripts and artifacts, architect Peter Archer went to the source—the fantasy novels that describe the abodes of the diminutive Hobbits.

“I came back my client and said, ‘I’m not going to make this look like Hollywood,’” Archer recalled, choosing to focus instead on a finely-crafted structure embodying a sense of history and tradition.

The site was critical too—and Archer found the perfect one a short walk away from his client’s main house, where an 18th-century dry-laid wall ran through the property. “I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to build the structure into the wall?”

Now, my wife is an architect, so I know a little about this profession, and having a client willing to go along with such a design is a real boon. And as a rare book and document conservator, I appreciate an architect who went to the trouble to make sure that the environment was appropriately climate controlled for the archives. And as a craftsman, I really appreciate the attention to detail by the contractor and his crew – this isn’t just a facade, it’s well-crafted workmanship.

Wonderful, all the way around. I can’t help but think that J.R.R. would be pleased.

Jim Downey

 



Nine words.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

* * * * * * *

I have a secret I’d like to share. It’s something that almost everyone thinks they know. But it is something which we all think doesn’t apply to us.

The secret? Just nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

* * * * * * *

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers

* * * * * * *

I don’t care who you are. We’re all prone to making this mistake. To ignoring this thing we know – which has been common wisdom for millenia, and across almost all human cultures as far as I can tell.

Why do we do this?

* * * * * * *

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” *

* * * * * * *

I think that we do it because we have to. Trusting our knowledge, our experience, is the only thing that allows us to make sense of the world.

It starts with the most basic things. Breath. Life. Light.

Then it grows upon those, builds with knowledge accumulated and shared.

* * * * * * *

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Kay

* * * * * * *

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

It’s the central mystery at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

What does it mean?

* * * * * * *

From Communion of Dreams, Chapter 16:

Jon shook his head. “I still don’t see where it really makes that much difference to us.”

“Perhaps not to us. We’re inside the bubble. But to the crew of the Hawking, it made a very big difference. They got on the other side of the bubble.”

There was a moment, a heartbeat, as the implications of this sank in. And then the universe changed. “Sweet Jesus . . . ”

* * * * * * *

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

Actually, it’s just attributed to Twain, thanks to a Reader’s Digest entry from 1939. It sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, but Twain scholars haven’t been able to document it as actually having been his.

Nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Neither am I. None of us are.

More later.

Jim Downey



“You got a license for that, bub?”
December 26, 2011, 1:28 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Humor, Mark Twain, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Writing stuff

Hold onto your hats: I’m about to say something nice about religion.

Don’t worry, I promise not to over-do it.

* * * * * * *

I don’t watch TV, but I have seen enough clips of the stand-up comic Louis C.K. online to be something of a fan of his stuff. News about his recent self-distributed, no DRM concert show raising over a million dollars in a matter or days brought him back to attention recently. And it was while reading about that massive success that I found an interesting essay that got me to thinking about some other things.

That essay is “Louis CK’s Shameful Dirty Comedy” and I recommend you read the whole thing when you get a chance. It’s an interesting exploration of this moment in our cultural history, and is quite insightful. But what in particular got me thinking along different lines was this bit about the nature of Louis C.K.’s comedy style:

Someone once asked Allen Ginsberg how one becomes a prophet, and he simply replied, “Tell your secrets.” Lewis Hyde’s done a bit of writing on shame in his book Trickster Makes This World, and he says that “Uncovering secrets is apocalyptic in the simple sense (the Greek root means ‘an uncovering’). In this case, it lifts the shame covers. It allows articulation to enter where silence once ruled.” CK’s comedy does the job of finger-placing our dirty, shameful thoughts. It doesn’t validate them, but it does recognize and identify them, and in their airing, we have to consider and deal with the lines that separate how we are expected to behave and think, and the shameful dirt of this world.

* * * * * * *

Shame. A staple of religion. Has been for the bulk of whatever passed for human civilization at any point in our history.

I don’t particularly want to write about shame. Not now, at least. But I want to touch on something related to it, which I have had kicking around in my head for a couple of years*, and which I think deserves a little attention. It’s called “moral license.”

What do I mean by “moral license”? Here’s a good discussion of the term, in light of some studies conducted a couple of years ago:

Sachdeva suggests that the choice to behave morally is a balancing act between the desire to do good and the costs of doing so – be they time, effort or (in the case of giving to charities) actual financial costs. The point at which these balance is set by our own sense of self-worth. Tip the scales by threatening our saintly personas and we become more likely to behave selflessly to cleanse our tarnished perception. Do the opposite, and our bolstered moral identity slackens our commitment, giving us a license to act immorally. Having established our persona as a do-gooder, we feel less impetus to bear the costs of future moral actions.

It’s a fascinating idea. It implies both that we have a sort of moral thermostat, and that it’s possible for us to feel “too moral”. Rather than a black-and-white world of heroes and villains, Sachdeva paints a picture of a world full of “saintly sinners and sinning saints”.

This is intuitively true to me. And, I think, to most of us. We formulate a mental “bank”, which allows us to make trade-offs: if I work out a bunch at the gym this morning, this evening I can have an extra serving of ice cream. If I scrimp by taking lunch each day rather than buying it from the corner cafe, then I can indulge myself with that new Kindle. If I spend time playing with the kids on Saturday, I can kick back and watch the game on Sunday. And so on.

Much of our whole modern culture is predicated on this kind of trade-off, this kind of license. Studies have even shown the impact it has on how we behave environmentally, or in making decisions to donate to charity, or how we interact with others.

One interesting aspect of this is the danger of praise, whether it be external or internal. From the “General Discussion” conclusion of the aforementioned study:

In three experiments, we found that priming people with positive and negative traits strongly affected moral behavior. We contend that these primes led participants to feel morally licensed or debased. To compensate for these departures from a normal state of being, they behaved either less morally (moral licensing) or more morally (moral cleansing). We measured moral behavior by soliciting donations to charities and and by looking at cooperative behavior in an environmental decision-making context. In Experiment 2, we also showed that moral behavior or the lack thereof is related to changes in how individuals perceive themselves. Participants showed the moral-cleansing or -licensing effects only when they wrote about themselves, and not when they wrote about other people.

* * * * * * *

And here is where religion enters the picture, in two ways.

The first is the “moral cleansing” aspect: doing penance for some kind of moral wrong. This can take the form of confession & saying the rosary, or going on a pilgrimage, or paying a fine, or even a literal rite of cleansing such as washing away sins in the Ganges or through baptism.

The other way gets back to where we started: shame. Many religions inculcate a belief that the individual is “not worthy” of whatever grace or blessing the religion has to offer. Promoting such a belief would tend to offset the ‘credit’ in your moral bank, and so reduce the tendency towards moral license.

* * * * * * *

Of course, you don’t have to be religious to draw this moral lesson. Mark Twain’s famous The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg story deals with this exact issue: people who think that they are moral, who have led moral lives, are willing to exercise the moral license which would allow them to claim a fortune they haven’t earned. It is only after they have had their moral failings put on display that they learn the danger of thinking of themselves incorruptible, and then seek to challenge this assumption of themselves regularly.

* * * * * * *

And I think that this insight explains a phenomenon widely recognized in association with religious leaders. It seems that often, those who have the greatest religious ‘power’ – who hold high offices within a church or other such organization, who are some kind of ‘moral authority’ for their followers – are people who have great moral failings behind the scenes. It may come directly from a rationalization: “I’m a good person, therefore while what I am doing may raise some moral questions, my intent is good.” It may come from the moral licensing effect: “I accomplish great good for others, so it’s OK if I lapse a bit in this one small way.” Or it may even come from an unconscious attitude, as noted by one of the above authors:

When I read about these effects, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ warning about giving to the needy:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Of course, it could work the other direction just as well – that since these people have these moral failings, they try and “do good work” to right the scales in their mind. And chances are, it’s a mixture of both – a feedback loop that encourages and reinforces both a moral failing and attempts to compensate for it.

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See? I told you I wouldn’t over-do it. Gotta balance these things out, after all.

Jim Downey

*There’s actually a lot of this stuff kicking around in the undertones of Communion of Dreams, though manifest in terms of philosophical discussions of ontology and epistemology. Yeah, it’s something I have been interested in for a long time. And I guess that makes the joke on me, since the whole question of the book ‘being made manifest’ has been such a contentious one for going on five years now . . .



Scenes from a trip: feelin’ groovy.
November 20, 2011, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Mark Twain, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

There’s the grey of spring, and then the grey of fall. Temps and clouds in Wellington were about the same as we had left back in Missouri, but somehow it felt warmer . . .

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I looked out the window of our hotel room. I was not expecting Richard M. Nixon wearing an afro to look back at me. This was the horror of it:

I know one can become a bit overwhelmed when traveling to foreign climes, but for a moment I was wondering whether my sanity had “lit out for the provinces.”

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Breakfast, then an optional tour through the city with Helen on our bus. First we went up to Mount Victoria, a gorgeous vantage point at which to enjoy the whole city (and location for a couple of scenes from Lord of the Rings). This was followed up with a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa – the national museum and gallery of New Zealand.

It’s a very interesting place, a mix of the traditional and the innovative. They’ve got a decent collection of modern art, and a lot of good stuff covering the history and culture of NZ, from the earliest settlements of the Maori to the present day. But what I found to be most enjoyable was the use of the built space inside the museum: it isn’t just simple layers of different floors, but rather incorporates multiple layers of open space/mezzanines so that you enjoy the exhibits from many different perspectives, creating a visual melding of the different aspects of New Zealand depending on where you are. It’s a very effective bit of architecture, and the museum staff make use of it very very well.

Martha, ML, and I spent several hours enjoying the place, including a break for some refreshments at one of the museum cafes. Then it was off for a walk back to our hotel.

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Te Papa sits right on the waterfront of Wellington Harbor, and our hotel in the city center just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. So it was an enjoyable walk back to the hotel, past docks and seaside restaurants, then into the main shopping and restaurant area of downtown. We spent a good time just enjoying and doing a bit of shopping, then grabbed some lunch at a little local hole-in-the wall place.

Back to the hotel to relax a bit. Martha had a rehearsal that afternoon, I popped out to a grocery store and got some ‘picnic’ type items for a light dinner for us.

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I always enjoy going to grocery stores in other countries. It is one of the best ways to get a handle on how local people live, and to see the differences between their culture and my own.

I’d mentioned previously I found NZ to be more like the US than like the UK or Europe. This was another manifestation of that. Yeah, there were clear differences between this grocery store and the ones at home – different brands, some different packaging approaches (such as cat and dog food in long tubes, similar to a sausage). But for the most part you could drop any American in the place and they’d feel right at home. The salad bar and deli areas were just like back home, though with meat pies and a couple of other such distinctions. There was more lamb than you’d find in most meat cases, but otherwise it was familiar. Baked goods on display were typical. Snacks and the beer/wine department like you’d find in a Hy-Vee store here.

All in all, perfectly normal.

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ML and I again went with the choir when they went to the Opera House that evening, and we set up to sell CDs in the lobby. It was a great place, and was in pretty good shape, what you would expect of a classic Edwardian structure which has been renovated and cared for.

But the weather turned colder and wetter, and attendance at the performance that evening was fairly light. The performance itself, which included the Wellington Male Voice Choir as well, was quite good. We only sold a few CDs.

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Following the performance, we were all invited to the Welsh Dragon Bar – a former public toilet which now plays off that history (and the Welsh connection) with their motto: “come in for a leek.” It’s owned by a Welsh emigre, and is generally considered the best (only?) Welsh pub in the Southern Hemisphere.

They’d made a bunch of Welsh & NZ finger food for the group, all of it welcome and quite tasty. The bar was mobbed, and we kept the place hopping with happy voices for a good while, some of the choir members staying on until closing time.

But not me, nor Martha. We went back to the hotel and crashed. We had to be traveling again early in the morning, catching a flight to the South Island.

Jim Downey