Monday, February 26, 2007


"Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum." - Rene Descartes

"I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am."

It's interesting to me, that most people know the latter part of the quote. "I think, therefore I am." Yet very few know the first part, the part about doubting. Doubt, after all, seems like such a negative thing. It doesn't look good on all those motivational posters, or quote-a-day calendars. To me, however, it's the most essential part of the entire sentence. Descartes began to doubt, and therefore began to question his own existence. Without doubt, the Cogito would never have crystallised in his mind.

In doubting the existence of a deceiving god, Descartes came to the conclusion that he existed. Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as that. First, he had to convince himself that everything did not exist, the trees, the sky, an entire world of noise and light - then, he could believe in himself.

"Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakable." - Descartes

Archimedes did not shift the earth physically, yet it could be said that he did scientifically. His works have inspired countless mathematicians, scientists and engineers. He has gained a measure of immortality that is granted to very few, in having his name passed down as a man of advanced intellect and knowledge.

Yet for a moment Descartes convinced himself that Archimedes had never walked the earth. For a while, Descartes was alone, perhaps without even a body to sense the world around him. A being a pure thought, pure intellect, stripped of all the shibboleths and fears that society had imprinted upon him. For a while, Descartes was free.

I wonder: when he returned, how was he changed? Did he understand then how little he had to fear of the world, and how much he could accomplish? I think he did, or at least, I think he began to understand the possibilities his life had to offer.

There is little to fear in the world, except the inability to think. When we surrender our freedom of thought to anyone, or to any institution, we surrender ourselves, and we become shadows. Mere possibilities, instead of true human beings. When we do not allow ourselves to doubt, and question the world, we fail to search for meaning in our existence. Without that search, we fail the test of life.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sleepy Hollow Country

I live in Sleepy Hollow Country. Horse country. Lush, green, rolling farmlands interspersed with great groves of trees. As you drive along the roads at night, mist rises and fills the hollows and valleys, creeping along the lines of the old stone farm walls. There are no other cars, and the houses are huddled and silent under the blanket of fog. Sometimes, I'll stop, roll down my window and stare into the night. The moonlight floods the air with silver, reflecting off the droplets of haze suspended in the air. All is silent, eerie and breathtakingly beautiful. On nights like this, the Headless Horseman becomes more than just a tale to frighten children. He becomes one with the atavistic fear and awe that comes bubbling up from the pit of the stomach. He comes riding out of the night, his horse as black as sin and his hand held out in greeting.

We have lived here for over fifteen years. Lately, the old wanderlust has descended upon me like a storm. It tears at my complacency, makes me nervous and I become frustrated with this place. I see the shortcomings of this semi-rural life. I grow annoyed at the invasion of Yuppies, searching for a more peaceful life, bringing with them a level of faux gentrification. The slow, unchanging routine of life that I once found so soothing now annoys me. I miss the ever changing palette of the city.

Then, all at once, I glimpse the mystery again. Under it all, the mushrooming McMansions and shining new stores, I see the true nature of this place. The wild nature. The dangerous, eldrich nature.

I stop my car, roll down my window, and stare into the night. I'm glad I don't have to walk home. There are things out there, just beyond my sight, things that have no respect for the tidiness of the modern world. It makes me glad.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I got Sharkey One at the New Orleans Aquarium. A miniature Great White shark, the perfect size to fit in my hand bag. I never thought that I would actually find a plushie shark that was an actual representation of a real shark. I had always seen plenty of caricatures, facsimiles of the watered-down cartoon shark from the latest kids movie. Or bean-bag sharks, with overly bright neon colored skins and impossibly gaping mouths. Sharkey was perfect. No-one could mistake his silhouette as anything but a Great White, and although his skin was soft to the touch it was the proper shades of grey and white.

I have been fascinated by sharks from my earliest childhood. There's a photograph of me at age two, taken outside of an aquarium. On the back, my father had written that I had wondered how the sharks brushed their teeth, as they had so very many. Later on I found out that dental hygiene is easy for sharks: they just constantly replace old teeth with newer ones. Their teeth are a part of their efficient whole, cruising the oceans silently, the perfect predators.

I've visited sharks all over the world. They are both beautiful, and terrifying. As they swim past the glass, with their cold eyes and powerful bodies, they awaken atavistic fears deep within me. That primitive part of me worms up among all the knowledge I have gathered, around the careful classification of teeth, jaws, gills, fins and behaviour and chokes me by the throat. All that separates me from being prey is some concrete and glass.

I have been in the water with a shark, which is why I no longer swim in the ocean. It was in the warm waters of Africa, and for what seemed like an eternity I was suspended in the ocean with a large shark. I thought I was a good swimmer, yet I felt that I wasn't moving at all. I was at the mercy of the tide, yet this creature was not. It was powerful enough to swim against the tide.

I made it to the beach, quite safe yet very shaken. The life guards cleared the water. I left, went to work, and life continued. Yet my faith in my swimming never returned. I've never been back in the ocean. I stick to swimming pools now.

Sharkey One, that I got in New Orleans, disappeared one day shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. I like to think he returned to the wild. A friend bought me Sharkey Too, who lives in my handbag. Another friend bought me Hammurabi, a Hammerhead shark
who guards my back door. Finally, I have Sharkey Three, who is a full 3 foot long Great White, who lives on my bed.

Perhaps the primitive within me is trying to lay the fear of the great sharks by collecting totems. I'm not sure. All I know is that there is something about these Sharkeys that makes me happy, and I am never one to turn my back on happiness.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Secret Pathways

When I look at my "List of Things To Do Before I Die", I'm struck by how all of the things involve travel. It's not quite a list of places I want to see before I die, it's more a list of things I want to do in foreign places.

I couldn't imagine a life spent in one place. I want to see the world, and experience all of the wonders and cultures I have read of since childhood. I want to hike the Great Wall of China, walk in the Forbidden City and sail along the great Yangtze river. Explore the Minoan ruins of Knossos, home of the Minotaur. Walk the pathways of Angkor Wat. Visit the temples of Kyoto, and sleep afterwards in some traditional Japanese Inn.

I've found the experience of being in a place infinitely purer than the experience of reading of it. No matter how many times I read the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, or how many photographs or diagrams I studied, nothing compared to the reality of standing on the plain of Giza. Nothing prepared me of the truth of the Pyramids, their great bulk, the way they overwhelm the senses. No-one wrote that the interior of the Great Pyramid is hot, and that when you climb up within the great gallery the humidity lays upon you like a great wet shroud. The burial chamber is by contrast cool. What a frightening and wonderful achievements, those great monuments.

It was the same with the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, African Elephants in the wild. No media compares to the reality of a thing. The human brain is the greatest processor on the planet, and the human eye is infinitely superior to the best camera lens. After all, the camera is a mere imitation of the eye, a two-dimensional substitute for the brain.

Perhaps one day, humans would have invented virtual reality so real that people will be able to "plug in" and be immediately transported to the location of their choice. They'll be able to experience all the tastes, smells, temperatures and dimensions of the places they "visit". I'm in favor of the technology, for many reasons. It will allow many bed-ridden people to experience things they normally couldn't. It will allow us to record and preserve monuments that are fragile, or threatened by natural disasters, pollution or war. It will allow us to teach children by allowing them virtual access to sites all over the world.

No, I'm not at all a Luddite. Yet I think I'd still be visiting those places in person. I'd always want to explore my own secret pathways, even if I was really only following the footsteps of thousands of people before me.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Snow Queen

Suddenly, winter had arrived. After such a long, warm spell it felt like Narnia's snow witch had descended and thrust her nails deep into my body, penetrating down into my bones. I couldn't get warm, even hunched next to the heater, and after many cups of hot chocolate and tea.

There is something to be said for the Norse version of Hell. Eternal, biting cold, damned never to be warm again. The Norse could not comprehend a Hell of flames. Fire, to them, was a welcome and life-giving necessity, not a means of damnation. I can understand their attitude. I hate the cold. I can endure heat, and the discomfort it brings, but cold is just painful. It wracks the body with chills and muscles spasms, makes the extremities go white with pain.

So, I fought it the only way I could. I made blankies. One for everyone in the family. Mine has Penguins on one side, and blue curlicue designs that remind me of the ocean on the other. I used blue baby blanket ribbon to edge it, so it's a like an over sized baby blankie.

I may be reverting to childhood. I don't even remember having a blankie like that, but I always remember wanting one. Something warm, soft, and with that wonderful satin edge that was so smooth to the touch. I made blankies for us all, to keep us warm, and I was happy.

Let the Snow Queen come. Now I have something better than any weapon on earth to fight her: A blankie, to melt her icy, witchy heart.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Great God Pan

I have seen the Great God Pan. Not the harmless diluted modern Pan. The true God. He ran across the road in front of me, in broad daylight, and it froze my blood. I had once discussed the nature of the divinity, and how I felt that any human that was drawn to touch a God was a fool. I always felt that such things were better left alone. I knew, when I saw Pan, that I had been right in my belief. No human would ever be able to stand before that and survive intact.

He came from a field to the left of the road, moving with incredible swiftness. He ran in the light, yet shadows clung to him like a long, trailing cloak. He was of this world, yet beyond it. He was neither human nor animal, a creature that stopped my heart and twisted my stomach. He ran across the road, fluid, graceful and wild. When he appeared, the world seemed to slow and the sunlight paled, while everything around him leapt into sharp contrast. He was the Original, and the world was just a worn, tired imitation of his life.

Just as suddenly as he came, he disappeared into the trees on the right. I continued on my way, stunned and frightened. The sun wasn't as bright as it had been minutes before, and for days afterwards the air had a washed-out quality to it. I knew I would never see Pan again, and I was immeasurably glad.

Writers like M.R. James and E.F. Benson wove frightening stories about the supernatural. Benson specifically wrote about Pan, in his story "The Man Who Went Too Far." Both writers understood the fearsomeness of the Other, and I believe that their stories stand as classics of horror. Although I've read all of James' stories dozens of times, the titles are enough to send shivers of memory up my spine. I don't scare easily, yet these stories plugged into the atavistic fear within me that all humans possess. The fear of the dark, and the cold, unmoving and predatory creatures that live within the dark. The fear of human frailty and helplessness. The fear of a horrible, lonely death.

Benson's stories lack James' malicious, wicked edge. I find them less frightening, and more philosophical in nature. Yet they can be just as disturbing. He imbues his characters with an almost gleeful evil. To him, the wickedness that exists in the world is an active force that fully acknowledges and enjoys its depravity. His stories are a study in contrasts. He writes of comfortable villages, of cheery middle aged men living in comfortable circumstances. When the supernatural occurs, it provides a horrifying contrast: A vampire preys on young boys, Pan gleefully tramples a man to death or a ghost takes horrible revenge on a man. Disturbing events that tear at the fabric of the characters lives, and leave them forever tainted.

In order to frighten the reader, the writer must first frighten himself. Fear refines life and sharpens the wits. That's a lesson that I learn every day.