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Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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My last picture was of a mousetrap…so here’s the mouse to go with it.

It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.

The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.

I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).

Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.

And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:

KILL IT!

Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.

My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.

But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?

There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. 😉 I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”

But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.

For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do – strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!

…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.

Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.

I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”

We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.

I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”

“…We’re both human.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

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Never Be Afraid To Improvise (Teaching Lesson of the Day) November 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Music, Serendipity, Teaching.
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Today was one of those days that make any piano teacher rejoice…a day when things “click” for students, not just once but in almost every lesson. One student who, week after week, had done essentially zero work on her pieces (I’d begun to dread her lessons) came in having prepared them so well that I had to stare in amazement. :O Another who announced she’d “forgotten” (??) to work on a song nonetheless sat down and played it perfectly. We went on to try some theory and ear training – new concepts for her, but she caught on quickly and enjoyed them.

But the best sort of lessons are the ones where I learn something too…and one of those happened today as well.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve always been terrified of teaching young beginners. It’s a horrifying sense of responsibility: I’m providing the foundation for the rest of their musical lives. I continually worry that I’m not getting new concepts across in a way they understand, as they’re often only five or six years old. It’s also difficult to hold a really young child’s attention for half an hour – especially because pieces for beginners use just a few notes and are often not that “interesting.” I often have this nagging feeling that if I were a TV program, they would have pressed the “change channel” button on the remote long ago. 😉

My beginner student today – let’s call her Jasmine – had just started learning how to read music a week or two ago. Today we were tackling a new piece from the Primer level of Piano Adventures. Now, this is by far the best series of “beginner” books out there on the market: the pieces are fun, unique, and impressive at an early stage. They don’t contain huge distracting or “babyish” illustrations like so many primer-level books. The upper-level pieces (books 2b and on) are, really, masterpieces of “miniature” composition; I’m continually in awe at how the writers (Nancy and Randall Faber) managed to create so much from a few five-finger patterns or chords.

However, even the Fabers had, apparently, some trouble making the first 5 notes of C major interesting. And as I played today’s piece (“Fourteen Little Frogs”) for Jasmine, she appeared distinctly underwhelmed.

“Fourteen little frogs…sat upon a log…”

No, this wasn’t going anywhere. And honestly, what self-respecting five-year old would want to learn a song about Fourteen Little Frogs when all the amazing diversity of rock and pop and jazz and country and, yes, classical music was an iPod button push or a YouTube click away? In fact, I had to respect her simply for coming and sitting in front of a piano for half an hour when the rest of her friends were all too audibly laughing and talking in the next room.

As my mind was busy grappling with this sad truth, my fingers were approaching the end of the song:

“One by one they jumped into the little waterfall…”

Jasmine’s eyes were glazing over, and at that moment I knew I had to do…well, SOMETHING quick. Something like:

“SPLOOSH!”

…I suddenly heard myself shout, while my hands hit a big loud “tone cluster” – also known as “random group of black and white piano keys all next to one another”. 😉

Jasmine jumped, startled. (Believe me, I was as surprised as she was.) Then her face lit up. Her eyes brightened. “SPLOOSH!” she echoed, banging a similar handful of random notes.

All of a sudden she wanted to learn Fourteen Little Frogs. I told her, of course, that she had to play all the notes in the song before she could do the surprise ending. That was fine by her, as long as she was allowed to do the “sploosh” at the end. I’ve never seen someone so eager to learn a beginner song.

It’s amazing what a simple tone cluster can do, correctly placed. 🙂

The moral of the story: never be afraid to improvise. Your students will thank you for it…and they’ll pay a lot more attention if you have some surprises up your sleeve. Who doesn’t like pounding out a sudden tone cluster or sweeping a glissando down the piano? And they make a much better reward for diligent practicing than chocolates or even stickers… 😉

Even more importantly, though, it keeps the lessons fun for the teacher as well.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Rainbows and Rumi November 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Environment, Just for Fun, Nature, Serendipity.
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Three times a week I walk to the private school where I teach, about half an hour away. In fact I tend to walk almost everywhere (living in the downtown core, most services are pretty conveniently located) and, though I’ve thought several times about getting a car, it simply doesn’t seem worth it…either financially, ecologically or from a health perspective. (An hour a day of brisk walking is excellent exercise!) On those rare occasions when it is raining or snowing hard enough that I can’t bear the thought of slogging through the mess, I take public transit.

Given the amount of walking that I do, a friend of mine suggested I should always carry a camera with me, and as I was running out the door last Thursday I actually remembered to grab mine. The walk to the school was unmemorable but on the way home I snapped some beautiful shots. It had been raining and to the west, the nearly-setting sun was gleaming through a rift in the clouds, flooding the scene with golden light and creating a gorgeous rainbow…

About a minute later, a second arch had appeared above the first…pretty faint, but visible. (Note the color reversal on the second arch…red at the bottom, green/blue at the top. Now that’s awesome.) 😀

The same friend had asked me for more pictures of my spoiled rotten but oh-so-adorable golden pussycat known affectionately as Rumikitty, so I obligingly snapped a few when I got home. Here he is looking absolutely kittenish and innocent, a pleading look in his big round waif-like eyes… 🙂

…And here he reveals his true devilish personality. 😉

(As I write this post, my little feline friend is curled up in a ball on the table beside my laptop, napping contentedly as he soaks up the warmth and affection and giving no hint of the bounding, leaping, demonic clawed terror he will become in a few hours. (sigh) Cats…the Jekyll and Hyde of the animal world.)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Ella Minnow Pea (Or, the Advantages of Missing a Bus) October 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Language, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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…A cross between Survivor, 1984 and your favorite childhood alphabet book…

While doing research for my posts two weeks ago on lipograms and univocalic writing, I ran across a reference to a novel (“progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”) entitled Ella Minnow Pea. According to Wikipedia,

the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel.

I thought this was a rather neat idea, but promptly closed the computer window and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to Friday, October 1…

I was on a bus headed downtown, from where I needed to transfer to a second bus that would take me to the private school where I teach several afternoons a week. There were only two buses that would get me there on time, and the first was due at the connection point any minute.

Unfortunately, due to construction my nearest stop had been shifted. Then shifted back beyond the cross-street, at which (due to a red light) we had halted. And, even though my transfer point was right on the corner, no amount of pleading on my part would persuade the driver to let me out on the corner while the traffic was stationary instead of transporting me most of a block ahead, from which point I would have to backtrack.

I was in the process of said backtracking when – sure enough – I saw my first bus slide elusively by. Fortunately there was still another one I could catch, so I settled down on the corner to wait. On that particular corner there was a bookstore which often had a table of reduced-price books outside. Of course I went over to look while I waited for my bus, and there on the table was a slightly damaged copy of…

You guessed it. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn.

Of course I ran in and bought it, then read it while I travelled back and forth between students’ houses and waited for my soccer to begin that night. I finished it on the last bus home.

*********

Ella Minnow Pea is set on the (fictional) island of Nollop, named after the (supposed) inventor of the famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – words immortalized on the cenotaph Nollop’s citizens have erected in his honor. Yet one day a tile containing the letter Z falls from the cenotaph, a sign interpreted – by the power-hungry High Council – as a sign from Nollop himself from beyond the grave: none of the island’s citizens are ever to speak or write this letter again, on pain of banishment or death. And then another letter falls, and another…

As the book is in the form of letters between the book’s central characters, the banishment of each letter from Nollop ensures its banishment from Mark Dunn’s novel as well. Hence the book seems at first like a clever language game, and on some level it is. But there are distinctly dark, indeed Orwellian, undertones as well. As the tiles continue to inexorably fall from the cenotaph, available vocabulary becomes ever more restricted and the characters’ letters to one other ever shorter and harder to read. It is as though one sees language itself falling away, dissolving, meaning crumbling before one’s eyes, as in Orwell’s Newspeak.

Its content as well as its form is Orwellian. The basic premise is, at first glance, ridiculous, even comic. Yet this very randomness with which the tiles fall, and the arbitrary way in which Ella’s friends and relatives are punished for their accidental slips, give the book at times a nightmarish sense. Such an outlandish series of events could surely never occur in our logical world – Nollop elevated to the status of omniscient god, the Council his all-knowing, all-powerful interpreters and linguistic police – and yet, it is happening and no matter how loud the characters protest or scream or argue, nothing they do will end the insanity. Indeed, in order to win their freedom they must on some level accept the Council’s illogic – only the one who can pen a superior pangram to Nollop’s, containing every letter of the alphabet in 32 total letters or less, is declared worthy to nullify his supposed pronouncements.

If I had one criticism of this novel, it would be the lack of creativity of the protagonists in fighting against their domination by the Council. The few who speak out are immediately jailed, flogged, banished or killed. There is little or no attempt to defeat the Council through sheer force of numbers; at one point a counter-movement forms but little seems to come of it. Given the creativity that the island’s inhabitants use to continue communication with one another, their collective passivity seems a rather “easy out” for the author. (Why doesn’t anyone attempt, say, a general strike? Mass protests? And what happens when the Council’s henchmen themselves use the forbidden letters – as is inevitable?)

All in all, though, a highly recommended work – and one that will significantly stretch any reader’s vocabulary. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus