Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lies the Spider Told Me, Part 3: A Fable

Once there was a woman who loved her daughter very much. But it had been a long time since they spoke regularly, and she had not heard from her daughter in several months. On this particular day, she was thinking about this and feeling very sad while making her breakfast.
Just then, she noticed a spider crawling up the wall. Because the woman was a wise old witch, as many mothers are, she knew this was no ordinary spider. It was none other than Anansi, trickster, teacher, and king of all stories.
"Please, can you help me?" she asked the spider. "I'm afraid my daughter doesn't love me anymore."
"I'm always glad to listen," Anansi said. His deep baritone voice boomed comically from the tiny spider body. "What's going on?"
"Well, I haven't heard from her for a long time," lamented the woman. "She hasn't called, or written, or come by to visit me. She must not have room in her life for her old mother anymore."
"And what happened when you called her, or wrote her a letter, or stopped by her house to say hello?" Anansi asked.
The woman shook her head. "I couldn't do that. I know she doesn't want to hear me. If she did, she'd have been in touch by now."
Anansi burst out laughing. "You humans are so silly sometimes," he said.
The woman's face grew red and hot with anger. "How dare you laugh at my pain when I came to you for advice?" she shouted.
"Your pain is real," said the spider. "Now let me show you the mistake that created it. It's true that your daughter might not care about you anymore, and if so, you have my sympathy. But set aside that explanation for a moment and think of another one."
The woman pondered, and soon tears were welling up in her eyes. "How could I be so insensitive? She must be sick, or injured, or in trouble. She could even be dead!"
Anansi laughed again. "Also true, but now set that story aside and think of another."
"Hmm..." said the woman. "She could just be busy with work or her friends. She always did make too many plans..."
"Good," said Anansi. "Why else?"
The woman thought, and then suddenly smiled. "She could be in love! That's so overwhelming. Why didn't I think of that before?"
"Because you were too attached to the first story you thought of. Even though you didn't like it," Anansi replied. "Now you see the lesson. A great storyteller once said, 'Our lives become the stories that we weave.' So you must always try to spin tales that empower, tales that comfort, tales that transform not just your friends or your family or your community, but most of all yourself.
"Now go tell your daughter this story, and give her a big hug for me."

Monday, December 26, 2016

Don't Be a Serf, Be a Badass Storm God

I'd like to take a little time here to talk about some of the ways in which my beliefs have evolved over the past couple of years. Like most chaos magicians, for a long time I was in an approach-avoidance dance with belief. I considered it a useful tool, and could turn it on in a surprisingly deep way. Unfortunately, I also discovered that when the trance got deep enough, I couldn't simply turn the switch back off. Fundamentalism is a heady drug, but at this point I feel comfortable saying that with the help of doctors, family and friends, I was able to swim my way back up, get my head above water, and find my way back to shore.

Belief, I now feel, is not so much the problem by itself. It's belief without question, in other words "putting your sword down", that can be the real danger. And I've come to the unfortunate conclusion that it is the notion of worship itself that's largely the problem here. I'm going to illustrate why, by discussing the idea that we each are created in God's image and have the spark of divinity within us. To me, it seems worship is when we take that spark, externalize it, and tell ourselves we can never truly aspire to be that awesome. Partnership, in contrast, would be when we recognize it's our own higher self, and do what we can to fan the internal spark into a mighty flame. Perhaps these two modes needn't be mutually exclusive, but I find them hard to balance. And if I were to pick one, partnership would be the obvious choice. If that's a revolutionary idea, consider that Hanukkah is the most revolutionary holiday we have; it is literally about trying to retake Israel from the Syrians through terrorism / guerrilla warfare.

During one of my more loopy periods in late 2014 or early 2015, I went to the local New Age / occult bookstore Journeys of Life to look for minerals and gemstones. I knew that I was feeling out of balance, not grounded or centered enough, but wasn't sure what to do about it. In the course of finding some stones that I hoped would help to even me out, I spoke to a lovely employee about what many of their stones could be used for. I remember her saying there were certain ones best for communication with gods or spirits vertically, and others that were better for communicating horizontally; she illustrated this point with her hands.

Vertical communication would be "worship" - the other being is in a superior place, and you are below as supplicant, asking for a favor. Alternatively, in a goetic situation, you may be the one at the top, negotiating your summoned spirit into a subservient position through threats or manipulation. One need only look as far as Genesis or Exodus to see that God does this to the Hebrews / Israelites in the bible again and again. But it's important to keep in mind that every book is a product of its times. When the Jews were wandering in the desert, never knowing where their next food or shelter might come from, the idea of a strong, all-knowing, protective, even territorial father god must have been very comforting indeed. Giving such a being offerings in exchange for protection from those who must have been far worse makes some sense. But in today's world, the phrase "protection money" conjures up far less appetizing images.

Nietzsche wasn't wrong about biblical morality being slave morality. If God is an all-powerful father, then humans occupy the role of protected, permanently infantilized children. At best, the situation is comparable to domesticated dogs or cats. But can't we do better than that? We aren't wandering in the desert anymore. Today we should all be aiming at self-actualization, not mere survival. Whatever abilities we delegate to God, we are choosing not to learn ourselves. And Galileo put it best: "I am not obliged to believe that the same Creator who endowed us with sense and reason intended us to forgo their use."

Since the rise of hasidism in Europe, and likely ever since the writing of the Zohar, Judaism has had a different metaphor for communication with the divine.  Shabbat comes, and the presence of the divine visits us as the Sabbath Bride, dwelling among us, communicating with us in a horizontal way I would call "partnership". (Yes, that's a double entendre for talking face to face and also intercourse, but it's not really a secret that these two forms of communication are different variations on the same theme. It's why the bible uses the verb "to know" the way it does.) God comes around to Netflix and chill with us because we're not just good listeners, but because we're also really hot in the sack and God wants to bang us so hard. Like, he's seriously been stalking us for millennia now. We are just that cool. Being "a kingdom of priests" means God wants to whisper sweet nothings in our ears 24/7, if we feel like listening and actually have the time.

So remember, this is a partnership with a being who wants to be with you. You are not a serf or a vassal, but a treasured life partner. When that little voice in your head tells you that God is a big disapproving father figure in the sky, remember this is the voice of the Christian culture in which you live. More importantly, remember not to sell short your God-given internal divinity. You can't "sin" against your higher self, except by ignoring that it's there in the first place. Apotheosis isn't stealing anything from heaven... it's reclaiming what is rightfully yours (and freely given). And while any lover appreciates gifts, if they're sincere and well-deserved it means a lot more than some lousy obligatory socks or fountain pen. Use your talents to change the world in the most effective way you know how; there is no greater gift.

The legacy of Judaism that I love the most is that of free thought. "Two Jews, three opinions," as the saying goes. We are the people whose patriarch Abraham is held up as an example for telling God he was full of shit about Sodom and Gomorrah... and that's to say nothing of smashing his father's idols, years before. His wife Sarah laughed in God's face for saying she could have a baby at her age. In one rabbinic story, a poor illiterate man recites the alphabet instead of praying, realizing God can put the letters together to form the prayers without his help. In another, God sends an angel of death to destroy the earth, and a rabbi earns praise from heaven by abolishing the decree and threatening to curse that angel. Even outright miracles that contradict the laws of physics should not be enough to shake our conviction in what is right, the Talmud tells us.  "Israel" = "The one who wrestles with God".

We are a proud, arrogant, stiff-necked people, and if there's anything that will make us "a light to the nations" in the oncoming Trump years, it's that very quality. I daresay it's what we were chosen for. We have big mouths and we're not afraid to use them. One only has to look as far as that perennial Hanukkah favorite The Hebrew Hammer to see that we are as stereotypically famous for our ability to kvetch (complain) as for our perceived musical aptitude. Certainly this has taken commedians like Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld far. The outsider status is critical to effective satire, as Canadian and British comedians have also taught Americans for a while now. And with regard to fascism, we would seem to be the canaries in the coal mine today.

While his scholarship is sometimes a bit fast and loose, Gershon Winkler claims one possible meaning for the word "Hebrew" is "boundary-crosser". I thought it was a perfect title for a blog in which I rarely seem to hit the same topic twice. But it also inspires me to tear down useless boundaries, as you can see from posts like "A Few Words on Lawful Privilege" and "Coming Out of the Golden Apple Closet" . Sometimes repairing those broken vessels means breaking other shit. The time for poetic terrorism is now, and as Jews we must be poised to take advantage of it.

Sing, canaries.  We are keepers of important music. Sing it loud and often. Sing as if your life depended on it, because perhaps it does. Sing it out for the ones that'll hate your guts. Sing a better world into being, not because the great skydaddy told you to, but because you actually do carry a part of the wisdom we all need right now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Golden Age Draft: Evolution of a Vision

Since the Moon went out
dire wolves have been seen about the town.
Since the Moon went out
fiery pools are opening underground.
Since the Moon went out
the ocean lost its hold over the Deep.
Since the Moon went out
the Old Blood spell now fails to turn the feet.
Since the Moon went out
there's a God and a Hell that can't believe in themselves anymore.
Since the Moon went out
what had once seemed demons dream of all they once were before.
Since the Moon went out
the Lady of the Mountain has lost control of the Wild Hunt.
Since the Moon went out
pureblood Magdalenites can do almost anything they want.
Since the Moon went out
both the Djinn and the Fae have been poised to reconquer this world.
Since the Moon went out
the Lightbringer's banners are once again being unfurled.
Since the Moon went out
it seems fear itself
might just rip our small world apart,
for the Moon's gone out
and now none may doubt
what's been concealed inside each human heart.
-Simon Zealot

When I first started working on Golden Age a few years ago, I have to admit my ideas were a bit fanboyish and one-sided. The original concept for the game came out of my passions for mythology, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Islamic Spain (also called al-Andalus). I wanted to show a historical period in which the convivencia of Muslims, Christians and Jews created a society in which literature, art, and science flourished in a way rarely seen in European history (let alone the Middle Ages). Cordoba was the ornament of the world, featuring technologies and even tropical fruits that were unknown in the rest of Europe, and a cosmopolitan society unlike any the continent had seen since Rome. Al-Andalus was a veritable paradise of religious and cultural toleration, before such terms had even been invented. I was going to educate the world (or a few gamers at least) about interfaith dialogue and religious toleration, through the historical tale of the wonderful land in which rabbis and imams studied each other's scriptures, advancing kabbalah and Sufism rapidly in a comparatively short amount of time.

The truth, as is usually the case, turned out to be far more nuanced than the myth above. That interpretation is the one currently in vogue with most historians, but it also happens to be primarily the narrative of the minority Muslim and Jewish aristocrat and merchant classes. The Spanish Christian ("mozarab") majority's day-to-day life was far different. Much as I enjoy the poetic justice of Christian Europeans as conquered rather than conquerors, living in a society where Muslim and brown are privileged over Christian and white, the fact remains that colonialism is an ugly and destructive business, regardless of how supposedly enlightened the conquerors are. Thanks to my new coauthors, Simon Zealot and Sara Mastros, I've come to realize that this game does not have any one villain, least of all the forces of the Unformed, who are simply performing their function: un-creating things whenever they can. There is only a single villain if we define it nebulously as "the forces of patriarchy, colonization, and slavery". That definitely feels like a win for everyone.

Al-Andalus was a society constantly at war with both the Spanish expatriates to the north, and between various small kingdoms within its own borders. Certain non-Muslim groups - Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabians - were allowed to live in their own communities, under their own sets of laws, so long as they paid a steep tax (Arabic: jizya) and did not blaspheme against Allah. Maliki legal sources are clear on the dual purpose of the jizya: to humiliate the conquered people, reminding them of their place, and to provide a means by which the Muslim elite would not need to work (or work much) to earn money. In practice, Spanish Jews had higher social standing than their Catholic neighbors, because many helped the invaders in the hope of receiving better treatment under Muslim rule.

So if Spanish Muslim society divided its citizens into faith communities and determined their rights and privileges that way, we've already covered everybody, right? Well, no. Especially in rural areas, several types of paganism still existed, primarily involving deities from the Roman, Lusitanian, and Basque pantheons. Over time, some concealed their practices within a Catholic or Sabian exterior, while others simply went deeper into hiding. Regardless of its long-standing Iberian roots, paganism was a weed to be destroyed at any cost. Muslims, Jews, and Catholics could all agree on that, so being openly pagan in medieval Spain was a death sentence. Likewise with being openly LGBT, but that hang-up is exclusive to humans; the non-physical races have little interest in legislating each other's gender or sexuality. Women did have more rights and autonomy under the Spanish Caliphate than they had under the previous regime, though still less than in pre-Roman matriarchal societies (of which only the Circle of Gibraltar survives, below).

Now we come to the supernatural elements of the game. It was always my plan to have the metaphysics and gameplay reflect Golden Age's commitment to presenting cultures in an accurate and balanced way, with a special emphasis on the need for cooperation and dialogue with those who differ from oneself, in order to survive a harsh and unforgiving universe. As one example, I decided that the water elementals of both Spain and the Middle East had long ago been transformed into blood elementals because of near-constant warfare between tribes with close blood ties. The resulting blood elementals are considered both Elementals and Undead from a mechanical perspective; when brother kills brother, even the lakes and rivers eventually begin to weep that blood. A bit heavy handed, perhaps, but my heart was in the right place.

But I had some pretty big blind spots.

While the game is highly focused on magic, I had only thought of one magical school, the Solomonic College. Intended as the precursor of 11th- and 12-century Solomonic grimoires, this school caters mainly to male Jews and Muslims, and is also willing to admit Catholic men. While women are able to join, climbing the ranks would be difficult if not impossible for them. The College's magic, on a good day, is about striking bargains with djinn, angels, and demons... but Solomonic magicians are not above binding or outright enslaving an uncooperative spirit. So despite my lofty goals, the only magical school in this game was an agent of the patriarchal, monotheistic belief that God authorized the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths to be spiritual bullies in the tradition of King Solomon / Suleiman. Need some magic? No problem - just go to the Solomonics and buy yourself a ring or a lamp with a djinn imprisoned inside. Thanks to my coauthors, we now have the older and more egalitarian (as well as historical!) Sabian Academy, practicing a syncretic form of hermeticism, as well as the Circle of Gibraltar, heirs to ancient feminine mysteries of Moon and Earth that predate language itself. Everyone knows the best midwives come from Gibraltar, but only a few still remember how far their abilities extend beyond the anatomical and the herbal.

Another blind spot: I had originally conceived this game as a high fantasy RPG mixed with a historical RPG. But at the same time, I was trying to include as much real-world magical theory as possible, for the benefit of those who might like to learn some Western occultism while they play. With the help of my new coauthors, it quickly became clear that the game couldn't be fictionalized high fantasy if I wanted it to be based on sound occult principles. At best, I'd end up with a sloppy hodgepodge of made-up silliness and historical magical systems. So we have re-conceived the game as historical magical realism: the magic is as real-world correct, in terms of historical magical practices and beliefs, as we can make it. That isn't to say the core book is primarily a book of spell recipes, but you can generally expect that the procedures and components of the included spells will have sound correspondences, research, and occult theory behind them. We have removed anachronistic elements such as the Lurianic Tree of Life and the tarot, in favor of systems that were actually used at that time, such as the seven planetary intelligences and geomancy. Instead of eight or more arbitrary types of magic, we have reduced them to four essences that echo the four classical elements: Soul (Water), Energy (Fire), Substance (Earth), and Thought (Air).

For the sake of verisimilitude, we've also removed some types of humanoids (such as fish people) and replace them with species that could have reasonably have evolved from currently-known hominid species. Hence, we now have the Okeanids, with one tribe a bit like otters and others more like walruses, whales or dolphins. They evolved this way after being driven from the land by early homo sapiens:

The legends tell that, before even the Old People came to Europe, there were people in Iberia.  As the Old Ones moved in, they pushed the First People out of their caves, to the coast.  The Old Ones were smart; their tools were sharp and strong, and they had no need to wait for fire from the sky, they could make it on their own!  Soon, the Old Ones, with their big heads and sharp knives, pushed the First People to the brink of extinction.  And so the First People entreated with the Sea, who was their Mother, to show them a new way.  And she did.  The First People retreated first to the swamps and the islands, and then into the Sea itself.  The Mother who bore us took us back into her womb, and there we thrived.  The Great Teachers, Whale, and Orca, Dolphin and Porpoise, Walrus and Seal, and Little Otter taught us the ways of the Sea.  We made pact with them, eating their flesh and communing with their spirits.  The ice retreated, and most of the Great Ones with it.  Many of our people went with them.  Here on the coasts of Spain, only Little Otter, the Mother Ocean’s beloved son, remained with us.

As written now, events only diverge from real-world history circa 950 CE, sometime after the Fateful Eclipse. This brief solar eclipse was immediately followed by a lunar eclipse that lasted three full days and nights... and the moon wasn't just in shadow, it was completely gone, inexplicably, with no individual or group claiming responsibility. This, in turn, caused problems with the tides, people's moods and sanity, and the failure of an ancient spell called the Turning of the Feet, which hid the nonhuman species from the eyes of most humans. For three days, everyone could see these "monsters" everywhere, and there was widespread panic. When the moon reappeared, most people lost this ability and returned to their normal lives, but enough found themselves unable to explain it away that interest in the various magical schools skyrocketed as everyone tried to figure out who stole the moon, and why this replacement moon didn't feel or act quite right. Each of the major species has its own story of the creation of the world, each of which hints at a different likely culprit for what happened to the moon, and different tribes or religions within those species also have their own takes on what happened, how, and why.

The Solomonic College, far from being ancient and tied to Solomon himself as I originally thought, formed in response to this crisis because "obviously" the djinn or the demons must be to blame. The Sabians and Circle of Gibraltar had their own ideas, as did the various djinn and fae tribes, and this is how things have always been. So while some djinn may have converted to Islam, as the Qu'ran and various hadith specifically address them and set forth Allah's laws as it applies to the djinn, this is far from universal. Many djinn consider Islam to be a joint plot between the humans (Mohammed) and the angels (Gabriel) to relegate the djinn to permanent second-class status. Humans are given preferential treatment over djinn in the Qu'ran, and many would be resentful or suspicious of that. Likewise, the feud between the loyalist and rebel angels has more facets than one might expect... but I don't want to give away too much right now. Certain secrets should be for your GM only, but suffice it to say this game can be solely about angelic politics if that's how your group wants to play it. And not everyone currently in heaven is a loyalist.

I have to be honest and admit that many of these changes felt threatening for me at first. This was my game, my vision, and I didn't like the idea of anyone (even close friends) coming in and totally revamping it. But what Simon and Sara saw, on joining the project, were the ways in which my first draft was in conflict with my goals. In order for the game to feel organically progressive instead of clumsily didactic, the issues that result from colonization need to play out on every level, whether we're focusing on about Arabs and Spaniards; haves and have-nots; Muslims and Christians; colonizers and natives; Abrahamics and pagans; angels, djinn, and demons; humans, spirits, and Okeanids; or Solomonics and djinn (just as a few examples). We aim to present a 360-degree view of both al-Andalus and the supernatural realms such as heaven or Jinnistan. Whatever levels of reality your game inhabits, whether you're playing a rich human city official or a great warrior of one of the faerie courts, the effects of war and conquest will be all around you, for you to engage with or ignore as you choose. The social justice elements, much like the magical theory, are now woven into the fabric of every aspect of the game, so that you can learn about them as a natural consequence of gameplay rather than having them shoved in your face. I want to thank my collaborators, Sara Mastros and Simon Zealot, for making this not just a possibility but an ongoing reality.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Wisdom From the Airwaves: Yom Kippur Edition

I've known for a few years now that while I have always loved books, I seem to absorb important moral and philosophical lessons better from media. This Yom Kippur, just as I have several times in the past, I watched the Coen Brothers' incomparable film A Serious Man. I plan to watch Atonement later, if only for the title, but A Serious Man is the only film I can really say feels like a Yom Kippur movie to me. Even though the holiday doesn't appear in the movie, I see new levels of its take on personal responsibility, sin, and repentance every time I watch it. As I was loading it up in Plex, I noticed it was billed as a black comedy, but I think of it as a morality play blending Job-like suffering with an understanding of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

To explain why, I'll also need to talk a little about two specific episodes of the show Six Feet Under. Perfect Circles and All Alone . Actually, I don't need to talk about them all that much. All I need to say is that when taken together, Nate from Six Feet Under is undergoing the same exact trial as Lawrence Gopnik does in A Serious Man. Both men fail and are punished. Nate's trial is about overcoming his pattern of betraying the women he loves and seeking greener pastures after a certain amount of time, while Lawrence's concerns the ethical dilemma of accepting a bribe from a failing student. And in both cases, he tells us about the Uncertainty Principle in his own words, so that when we find out he is going to die, we realize he was the cat in the box all along.

The terrifying part of this usage of the Uncertainty Principle is when one realizes that God is the thing with the power not just to give you cancer, but to decide immediately that the already-tested growth is going to be cancerous, at the exact moment when you decide to accept the bribe and change the student's grade. It is not a coincidence that the phone rings immediately after Larry erases the F and writes a C- in its place. Just as it is not a coincidence that after years of vacillating about his career and cheating on one wife, Nate Fisher dies right after he makes the choice to cheat on his pregnant new wife. Either we we repent, or we may not be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. This is the narrative of both characters, with the added tension from the Uncertainty Principle being used to point out that we never know at what point God might judge us unworthy and yank our life away.

Much as I would like to launch into my usual rant about how God as a critical parent figure judging us from the sky infantilizes people and prevents them from truly taking responsibility for their lives, today I am religiously obligated to be more introspective than that, and I do consider this day potentially valuable. I can see how for a certain kind of mind, the idea of being accountable to a cosmic being feels more urgent than trying to become a better person just for oneself and one's friends or family. I understand it because I used to be that guy. But I also think the message of the holiday is encoded in the usually communal nature of our confession of sin: it is a time about reconnecting to your loved ones, making amends for whatever you've done that hurt them, and most importantly, for breaking destructive patterns that are harming yourself as well.

In that spirit, I wish everyone a helpful day of introspection about whatever it is you regret from the past, especially the past year. I know that I can be dismissive, pretentious, or honestly just mean at times. I take people for granted, and I'm awful at keeping in touch, even with the people I'd like to see more often. If I have done anything in the past year, deliberately or unintentionally, that caused you to feel hurt, unloved, unimportant, or like I wasn't really your friend, please accept my sincere apologies. Maybe I was preoccupied with something that seemed more important at the time, or maybe I was sincerely being an ass. Perhaps we could talk about it if you're so inclined.

A rabbi once compared today to a car wash: better to set aside some time for washing yourself off and cleaning up your messes, than to wait so long that the grime becomes caked on and it's nigh-impossible to make a dent in it. It's not even noon yet, and already I have a long list of issues and regrets to work on with my therapist. That is invaluable, and nontraditional as my observance of the holiday may be, it is still tradition that gave me access to the list. I have long struggled with the concept of "sin", as the older I got, the more I began to see it as beating oneself up with self-imposed guilt. Repentance is the important bit, and repentance is nothing more than the moment in which we decide whatever we did was a bad decision and we aren't going to do it again. That's all: just be more awesome this year than last year.

I wish you all an easy fast if you are fasting, a sweet New Year, and many useful insights on this Day of Introspection.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Coming Out of the Golden Apple Closet

It's time for me to come clean about something: I enjoy Judaism for its cultural heritage, including folklore, mythology, and of course magical technology, but I'm not particularly interested in being a good Jew anymore. All the rules are useful in certain ways, but ultimately I feel like rule-based thinking needs to give way to something more intuitive and organic. And if I'm completely honest with myself, Discordianism has always felt far more right for me. In this post, I'm going to try to explain why.

As far as I know, Discordianism is the original joke religion. But is it *really* a joke? Well... that depends on which Discordian you ask. Some people treat Eris like an older, spookier Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that's cool. Others of us realize that when we talk about constructive disorder or destructive order, or claim Eris lives in everyone's pineal gland, those are important teachings we're spreading because people need to hear them. My approach to Discordianism isn't better, only different, and truthfully I need to get better at talking about such ideas in a funny way. Recently I wrote a game to that end.

I talked here about how the Principia Discordia was integral to my realization, as a teenager, that being messy or otherwise chaotic was not necessarily a character flaw or a moral failing. It's simply the way I was, and largely still am. For me, it was truly a revelation when I learned that order can sometimes be destructive, and disorder sometimes creative. It touched a chord deep inside me, one that Judaism never has.

Discordianism appeals to me because I enjoy trickery, especially when it's aimed at helping someone to learn something they can't learn another way. "Paradoxical intervention" is the term. That's not to say I know what another person has to learn; usually, I totally don't. The idea is to thwack the person upside the head with enough absurdity that they might wonder, "What other assumptions have I been taking for granted in my life?".

On a larger scale, this practice is known as poetic terrorism or glamour bombing.

Also, it's fun to have a "holy book" that includes some of the funniest absurdist and surrealist humor I've ever read, paired with flashes of insightful philosophy. Or a goddess who's perfectly okay with my calling her a miserable bitch, and who doesn't mind in the slightest if I usually don't believe in her. I think it's fair to say the feeling goes both directions.

But the main appeal for me has always been the emphasis on keeping one's mind open, on paradigm-shifting, on how "reality" is relative to one's assumptions. Sure, there are things we can't change, but how will we ever figure them out if we assume we already know all the answers?

The Principia Discordia flat-out states that we'll never know all the answers. "Life is the original Rorschach," it says. We all view the world through filters or grids that are also called "beliefs". Don't allow others to choose your filters based on their priorities. Facts are one thing, but beliefs are tools that shape how your life will seem to you. From the Principia Discordia, I learned that it was okay to believe in things I had been told "aren't real" by people who had little imagination. I was already a weird kid, but it still felt freeing to be given permission to follow my own vision.

(In case you didn't know, the House of the Apostles of Eris has long since decreed every person on earth to be a genuine and authorized pope. Download your own pope card, and start making up your own metaphysical hogwash / poppycock today!)

It's funny to me how I started with the Principia because my inner chaos made me feel like a raging whirlwind, and these days I'm more like the eye of that storm most of the time. Back then, I had to get myself a chaos star ring just to focus my energy enough to stop disrupting all my electronic devices. That hasn't been a problem in years.

Perhaps Discordian / chaos-magical thought really is the contrapositive of Buddhist thought.("Discordianism is Buddhism upside-down and backwards," as I used to like to say.) The Buddhist says, "Believe nothing but the Buddha's teachings, for everything else is illusion." The Discordian says, "Believe whatever's convenient. It's all a bunch of man-made crap."

Or perhaps I should call the waiter and tell him there's some Buddha in my Discordia soup. I do have two very close relatives who are Buddhists, whom I've been known to discuss this stuff with.

I would declare myself an orthodox Discordian now with great pomp and circumstance, but orthodox Discordianism would be silly for its complete lack of silliness. Therefore I will partake of a hot dog this Friday and praise She Who is the Mother of All Confusion and Cacophony. And yes, that hot dog will be made with pork.

I spent years keeping YHVH's regulations, and while they helped me with developing willpower, many of them are useless for making me a better person. My tribal allegiance to that god will never change, but he knows my heart well enough to realize that I'm not actually his servant. Because I'm not anyone's servant, least of all Eris's. In the immortal words of Cartman, "Whatevah! I do what I want!"

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Psychiatry, Confirmation Bias, and the Scientific Method: A Case Study

Like most people who enjoy studying psychology, I used to have very strong faith in psychiatry. Then I experienced what psychiatric treatment for a serious mental illness can actually be like, and now I'm not nearly so sure it's even a science. Neurology is definitely a science, but psychiatry without neurology is more of a guessing game. My bipolar diagnosis came from a well-respected psychiatrist who literally refused to use the scientific method, which is why I doubted it from the very beginning. Turns out, it was bogus. I'm going to explain how I figured this out, in the hope this information will help others.

A little background about me: Besides studying psychology, I have long identified as a psychonaut. This is a term used mainly in psychedelic and chaos magical circles, to denote a person who enjoys tripping for personal growth, mysticism, or both. You might think of psychonautics as occupying a space midway between psychiatry and shamanism: the goals are pretty much the same, but the substances and methods are a bit different from either one.

All this is only relevant in two ways: I know more than the average layperson about brain chemistry, and when I trip, I write down insights and recollections for later analysis. I learned the latter practice from the writings of Aldous Huxley and John C. Lilly. So when I had manic episodes, I treated them as extended trips. Not only did I write down everything I remembered, but I was also able to get my psych papers from jail and the mental hospital. (The first manic episode included being arrested for disorderly conduct.) What I actually had were probably more like mystical experiences with psychotic features, but that's only vaguely relevant to this post.

This is where it gets more interesting. I discovered that the psychiatrist at the jail lied and said I smelled of alcohol when I arrived. I am not a drinker, and I have clear memories of what I did and didn't consume. But I was in rural Pennsylvania, where they likely had very little knowledge of what a tripping person looks like... so they lied and said I was a drunk. Not really a big deal, but weird and a little creepy.

I stuck with my current psychiatrist (we'll call him Dr. A) after that first episode, but we decided I should stop taking Strattera. I had once been manic on it before when I was taking way too high of a dose, and I had been taking it along with Wellbutrin (whose effects it magnifies). I switched to taking Wellbutrin by itself and things were good for a while. Then the second manic episode happened, and afterwards I decided to switch to a new psychiatrist ("Dr. B") who my therapist often works with. We agreed that I shouldn't take any of the things I was taking when the manic episodes happened, so there went the Wellbutrin. This left me taking the lithium and haldol the hospital had prescribed, which Dr. B felt were appropriate. I had terrible sleepiness and hand cramps from the haldol, though, so he switched me to risperdal. So far, so good.

But then came the confirmation bias and refusal to use the scientific method. I came in with a great deal of information, much of which he ignored, even though it was relevant:

1. I have only ever had manic episodes when I was either on Prozac, Effexor, Wellbutrin, or Strattera. These are all reuptake inhibitors for various neurotransmitters that affect mood and attention  (serotonin, dopamine, and/or norepinephrine).

2. I have only ever had exogenous depression, the kind caused by bad things that happened to me. While I was very depressed in high school, it was because I was unpopular, in the closet, and a moody teenager with a mother who pretty much refused to let me be an introvert. When I got out of the hospital, I was depressed because my life had pretty much imploded, and I had lost my full-time tech support business and had to get a day job. I do not enjoy being an employee.

3. I require AD/HD medication in order to be able to focus on work. That's what the Wellbutrin and Strattera were for. I don't like the way Ritalin and Adderall give me the jitters, make my heart race, and make me sleepy when they wear off. They are not a good idea for people with anxiety.

4. I smoke pot not just because it's fun, but because it helps with my anxiety also. Never been much of a drinker, like I said above, and honestly marijuana is less harmful than alcohol anyway.

The only pieces of information he was willing to act on were these:

1. I had two manic episodes in the same year.

2. He had never treated anyone with both bipolar disorder and AD/HD before.

3. He had only ever prescribed Ritalin or Adderall for AD/HD in the past.

4. Bipolar people often refuse to take their medication.

5. My uncle was bipolar and had recently committed suicide.

6. Bipolar  can sometimes remember things incorrectly, if the memories are from when they were manic or depressed.

Since I had had two manic episodes, and was refusing to take my medication, that meant I must be bipolar. He even uttered the words "if you respond to lithium, that means you have the disorder". Early on, we had a conversation about how I was not convinced bipolar was the right diagnosis, because all my manic episodes had had psych meds and/or psychedelics involved. He agreed with me that after perhaps a year, I could go off the lithium and risperdal to test (scientifically!) whether or not I could ever have a manic episode in a vacuum. Later he claimed this conversation had not occurred, and that either I was twisting his words or that I led him to say something he didn't mean. Also, I had to stop smoking pot because it would obviously unbalance me and cause mania. The study I found saying that bipolar people who take lithium and smoke pot have better scores on brain function tests than ones who take lithium by itself "doesn't count" because I found it on the internet. Nevermind that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal also. And my lack of desire to take a medication that could eventually put me into kidney failure was just another symptom of my bipolar disorder.

My logic teacher used to call this last bit a self-sealing argument. Any criticism of the argument is interpreted as proof the argument is true. It's maddening.

He also refused to prescribe me anything for my attention, despite the fact that I repeatedly told him I needed it for work. I don't think he actually believed in adult AD/HD at all. When he finally came around on this issue, he told me he was only willing to prescribe Ritalin or Adderall because he had prescribed them before. Even though they were much more likely to cause mania in a bipolar person, he would not give me the modafinil I asked for, preferring to have me come in WEEKLY to check for mania from the meds I specifically told him I did not want. And in order to get even those, I had to stop taking "the soup" (his words) of nootropics I was taking on my own to try to mitigate the AD/HD somewhat. This was the last straw that caused me to go back to Dr. A. He isn't perfect either, and probably a little too laissez-faire, but at least he listens to me and doesn't pull any of this authoritarian, manipulative gaslighting bullshit I had to deal with from Dr. B.

Fast-forward to now. I have been smoking pot regularly for two years, and not taking the lithium or the risperdal for over a year. Modafinil has been every bit as great as I hoped it would be. There has not been a single hiccup. Every time I check myself or ask someone to check my behavior for signs of mania, it turns out that I'm just happy or excited in a completely normal way. Smoke without fire, in other words. I don't have manic episode without the influence of SSRIs, SNRIs, and/or strong psychedelics, and I have always known this to be the case. But when you are a hammer, everyone else looks like a nail. And Dr. B has been a hammer for a long, long time.

Let me be clear: I am not a typical patient. I do lots of research and I am very assertive. I'm the son of a school counselor, and always have read psychological research on my own. I've explored altered states of consciousness enough to know how my own mind works. (I might have stayed manic for months, rather than a week and a half each time, if not for this. The doctors were surprised how quickly I came out of it.) And I tested most of the factors in my first manic episode individually (legal drugs, psychedelics, sleep deprivation, immersive live-action role-playing games,) to ensure they weren't dangerous by themselves. I left out only the ones (ayahuasca, underworld journeying) that I have no intention of trying again (or at least, not any time soon).

But I still feel that everyone should always remember the doctor-patient relationship is about trust and referred power. If you don't trust someone, then you shouldn't be willing to give them power over you. And if they don't listen to your input, there is no reason you should trust them. Doctors are fallible human beings just like everyone else. And there is never any shame in getting a second opinion. Don't let anyone tell you that you're "just shopping for a doctor who will give you a diagnosis you like better". (Unless it's true, of course. Don't do that.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lies the Spider Told Me, Part 2: An Easter Egg for Golden Age RPG

The Spider Charmer

Ask the Charmer a question, get a grin and a wink.
If he offers advice, ignore it at your peril.
Always invite him to your parties.
And if he stops smiling, run.
-Solomonic proverb

            The Spider Charmer, as he’s usually known, may be the weirdest and least predictable ally of the Solomonic College. His visits have no discernible pattern – he might wander the college for weeks and then disappear for a few decades ... or come by again next month. New students usually don’t learn about him for a while, because the administration prefers not to discuss him unless or until he has already made an appearance. It’s not that he’s malicious or dangerous – quite the opposite, in fact. But the upper echelons of the College have long known that speaking about him tends to make him appear within the next few days… and even though he’s benevolent, he is still a wild card. He’s also a strange foreigner that talks to spiders. Who really needs that kind of distraction while trying to study or make potions?
            He usually appears a man with dark brown skin and eight thick dreadlocks, sometimes dressed in traditional Nubian garb, and other times in common Arabian-style desert travel robes. But on occasion he shows up as a person of a different ethnic group, sex, or even species, generally without any explanation other than “because it’s who I needed to be right now” (or better yet, “because it’s who you needed me to be right now”). Normal magical methods have thus far been unable to identify whether this is an illusion, shapeshifting, or a combination of both. He has demonstrated great knowledge of magic and metaphysics, but seems not to cast spells as such, relying on his innate abilities instead. According to a previous Magister of the College, he is unable to be harmed or restrained while traveling, unless he wishes it.
When pressed for a name, he tells the person to call him “Oba-itan”, but also freely admits that he sometimes lies. Masters of Name magic have long known that this is not his true name, but Destiny magic has been unable to reveal what it actually is. Whether he is a human, a spirit, or something else entirely is likewise unknown. When asked directly, his standard response (with a characteristic grin) is, “I’m a traveling storyteller; everyone knows that.” Some of the tales about him suggest he has the ability to cure madness or even physical disease, simply by telling the proper story in the proper way.
At times, he speaks casually of his travels (sometimes to lands no one else has visited or even heard of) or about events that happened decades or even centuries ago… yet his skin is smooth, his back unbent, and the corners of his mouth eternally upturned, even if only slightly. His tales have the captivating air of someone who has seen a great deal, but lack the cynicism and world-weariness many explorers develop after seeing too much war, starvation, slavery, and the like. In short, either the Charmer does not age, or his identity has been passed from father to son for a very, very long time.
He seldom offers advice, but when he has in the past, it has sometimes proven to be a hint about future events. One student recounts the story of spending several months in a cell because his facial features looked like those of a missing murder suspect. After a few weeks imprisoned for a crime he hadn’t committed, he recalled the time the Spider Charmer happened by to watch his project in one of the College laboratories. The Charmer’s eyes darted from vial of acid in the student’s hand to his face, and then he opined, “Looks aren’t everything, young one.”
Most of the time, though, the Charmer prefers to ask questions, observe, or tell jokes or anecdotes. Many of his tales are about this or that elaborate and dangerous prank he once played on someone who angered him or harmed one of his friends. But if anyone currently living has ever seen him upset, they aren’t talking. He enjoys the full hospitality of the College whenever he is in the area, but usually prefers to sleep under the stars or in a hammock hanging from two trees.
According to Ali al-Katib, current presiding Magister of the Solomonic College of Cordoba, the Charmer volunteered the following assessment of the Unformed situation soon after the disappearance of the moon: “This isn’t really how the story should go, but I’m going to enjoy watching how you all handle it.” Of King Solomon himself, he has been known to claim, "We met once in Ethiopia. I'm not usually a wine drinker, but the taste of his still sticks in my memory. Lovely wives, too. For a man so serious, he certainly knew how to have a good time."