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March Notes

Natalia J. Garland

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Since I have some long notes for the month of March, I will start without much introductory conversation. As often seems true of our current societal and political dynamics, narcissism plays a major role in how people view the world and relate to one another. My first note deals with what seems to be a progressive unfolding of narcissism in public life.

Narcissism and gift-giving
Have you ever given a gift to a narcissist? Or received one from a narcissist? Recently, there was controversy over the gift exchange between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The gift given by the Prime Minister was much greater in monetary value and in depth of friendship. This unequal exchange prompted me to think about gift-giving, and about the number of gifts I have given and received over the years--especially at office Christmas parties.

Do narcissists feel entitled to receive gifts? Do they underestimate the value of others' gifts and the significance of the relationship with the gift-giver? Do narcissists appreciate only gifts which reflect their grandiose sense of self-importance? In other words, a gift which represents historical or emotional bonds might not reflect the narcissist's self-absorption. An ability to identify with history and to engage in friendship would require the narcissist to affirm others as equal or even superior (or to accept the inferior as nevertheless a worthy human being).

Narcissists (particularly political narcissists) probably prefer gifts that can be worn or displayed as an indication of personal importance. Designer jewelry might be preferred over a hand-carved marble statue of...oh...Winston Churchill who helped win a world war. Knighthood or a medal of honor might be preferred over...let's say...a letter-opener made from the old oak tree in Churchill's backyard.

If it is better to receive than to give, then narcissists are probably stingy gift-givers--unless they feel vulnerable to the approval of someone whose status is regarded as a flattering reflection of their self-inflation. For example, I remember an office Christmas party at which I was given a lovely etched-glass paperweight. I felt esteemed until I turned it over and found the price tag still on it. The paperweight had been bought on sale at a drastically reduced price.

Now, I knew the gift-giver very well. Her manners and etiquette were impeccable. She would never, never, never leave a price tag on anything. The tag had been left there on purpose. The underlying message was that although my co-worker was obligated to buy me a gift because she had drawn my name, she regarded me as inferior. She knew me very well, too. She knew that I would put the paperweight on my desk--thereby reflecting her good taste--and that I would always feel the cheapness and embarrassment of the tag's message. It was a masterful setup and I was too polite to expose it.

There is nothing wrong with buying things on sale. If my co-worker had removed the price tag, the gift would have symbolized her regard for our professional relationship. It would have been a statement of respect and equality. Even if I had later found out that she bought it on sale, the thoughtfulness of the gift would have remained intact because of the integrity of the presentation. Instead, the inclusion of the price tag enabled my co-worker's pathological narcissism to remain intact and dominant. [NOTE: The descriptive details of this section were modified to prevent any identification of real persons and situations.]

Feeling sorry for a president
Should Americans feel sorry for any President of the United States? Should we sympathize with the problems he may have inherited from former presidents? With regard to governing, I do not feel sorry for any president. Since Obama is our current leader, let's use him as an example.

Obama wanted and sought the job of President of the United States. He should behave with dignity and command respect at all times. He cannot blame any former administration for the problems he now faces. Those problems belong to him now, and he must find solutions. If he did not want to inherit those problems, and if he cannot find solutions, then he should not have sought the job. Every president inherits the problems of his predecessors, as well as the advantages of historical hindsight.

If President Obama broke his leg, or if he lost his favorite pen, then I might feel sorry for him. But I do not feel sorry for him because he has encountered extreme problems--that's his job. It is not about misfortune, but about qualifications. The President is not a victim. He is, or should be, a protector of the nation.

Favorite things
Purchasing a new computer is stressful. There are so many different models and prices, and a range of prices for the same computer at different stores. Since I have not found one with which I am completely satisfied, I decided that I might keep my old computer until the next version of Windows is released. Until then, in order to update my old computer, I spent a small fortune on accessories. I got a USB port hub, a media card reader, a wireless mouse, a bluetooth dongle, and some extra RAM. Whew! And, in anticipation of my new computer, I also got an external floppy drive.

While shopping for these items, I came across an attachable light for laptop computers. It connects via the USB port, has a coiled and flexible aluminum neck that can reach around the computer, and shines a small but adequate lightbeam on the keyboard. I bought two. It is guaranteed to provide 3 years of light before it burns out (the LED light is not replaceable). So, I figure I will have a lighted keyboard for a total of 6 years.

My eyes are very sensitive to bright lights and glare. I generally turn on one lamp in a room, and sit several feet away from the lamp. I am comfortable and can function with this soft light, or with filtered daylight from a window. However, I do have difficulty seeing my keyboard at night when all the curtains are closed. The attachable light is perfect for illuminating the keyboard and preventing typing errors. It's a little weird-looking, but I'm glad to have it.

On my bookshelf
Although James Michener (who died in 1997) is a popular author who wrote many novels, I never read any of his works. Recently, I came across what is probably one of his lesser-known novels, Journey. Written in 1988, the story takes place during the gold rush days of Alaska. It seems like an appropriate novel for 2009 because it is about money: both the adventure of obtaining wealth and also the conflicts which arise when people are motivated to amass wealth from character qualities of greediness and selfishness.

There is an extra treat at the end of the novel. Michener includes a chapter on writing novels in general, and specifically on how he went about writing Journey. The following is excerpted from pp. 298-300.

A manuscript is a subtle affair, and long ones such as those I most often write need to be carefully constructed; components that appear in an early episode are established there to be put to effective use in the latter part of the book, and incidents which seem almost irrelevant may have considerable meaning because they create values which become important later.

I do not mean by this the use of contrived clues, as in a detective story. I mean the inherent components of storytelling, whose proper use is so essential in establishing style and winning reader confidence and participation. And I mean particularly the phenomenon of resonance.

Almost any component of a narrative, adroitly used, can produce resonance. novel is an interwoven series of freighted words and images, of characters who behave in certain ways, of a physical setting which carries its own unique identification, and of the narrative which can be strengthened, or foreshadowed, by comparable incidents that have occurred earlier. I try constantly to introduce words, phrases, incidents and meanings in one part of the narrative so that when they reappear later they will do so with intensified significance. One of the joys of reading is the friendly recognition of these resonances.

Resonance occurs, to the great advantage of any narrative, when the reader comes upon a phrase, a complete thought, a character or an incident with which he or she is already familiar. The reader then enjoys the pleasure of recognition or the thrill of renewed acquaintance or can admire the aptness of the passage.

I have thought of my novels as seamless webs which could start anywhere, end anywhere, and that, I suppose, is why some have felt that my concluding chapters are unsatisfying. The criticism is justified. I do not tie loose strings together; I do not want to imitate certain composers of symphonies who start to end their music some four or five minutes early and proceed with a noisy series of crescendoes until they finish with a titanic bang. I prefer to have my novels wind down at exactly the same place I used in starting them, as if to let the reader know that the basic situation goes on and on, and since it can't all be of maximum intensity, I am forced to stop my orchestra somewhere.
[End of quote.]


Growing up with books
Those of us who grew up with books (and only books) might have a cultural advantage over those who are growing up with computers. Let me make it clear that I enjoy and depend on my computer and the internet. I enjoy having worldwide communication with others whom I could never have met otherwise. And, I depend on smooth access to vast research materials which would be much more difficult and time-consuming to find in libraries.

Books, however, offer a different kind of pleasure: the opportunity to follow a particular author's thoughts through successive publications, the joy of discovering a new author (such as Michener mentioned above, even though his works are relatively old), and the ability to pick and keep books as physical objects. My personal library provides me with great comfort. I have bought books which I have never read. But there they are, on the shelf, waiting for me like ripe fruit that never spoils. There is a satisfaction in the hunt for books, the acquisition of and organizing of subjects and authors, and the reading and re-reading of the printed word on paper pages bound together.

It is difficult to read articles on the internet because computer screens are hard on the eyes (I know, my age is showing). I usually visually scan an article and if it fills my needs, I download it and print it later on. This process does not carry the resonances of which Michener spoke in the above quotation. The literary processes of words, phrases, paragraphs, plot and characters do not stir my mind in the same way as a book held in my hands. It is difficult to imagine an intellectual or creative life bereft of browsing bookstores and libraries. Perhaps the key to a literary life is to blend the convenient and communicative aspects of technology with the ownership and relationship aspects of books and authors.

Soldiers and priests
It has been reported that, as the economy worsens, more people are joining or re-enlisting in the military. It is a way to make a living as well as an act of patriotism. In addition, more young men are enrolling in seminaries. The priesthood is regarded as a vocational opportunity in these tough times.

Are these seminarians sincere? Perhaps an unexpected benefit of the current economic crisis is that people have to be more creative about survival, more soul-searching regarding values, and more open to developing other parts of their personality. What is surprising is that multitudes of people had not already flocked to the seminaries, monasteries, and convents. It would seem that our decaying culture would have stimulated a genuine spiritual revival a long time ago.

There was an increase in church attendance after 9/11. However, the economy seemed stable at that time. Anyway, most of us kept our jobs and did not lose our investments. But then church attendance diminished as the shock of 9/11 also seemed to subside. Denial, rather than spirituality, became the coping method for many people. It is more difficult, however, to deny the economic crisis. People experience it directly and see it all around them. For some there is unemployment and deprivation. It is not a one-time shock, but an ongoing struggle and worry.

Will more people continue turn to God for mercy? Will some turn to totalitarian governments in which idolatry of the leader replaces worship of God? Let us hope that the influx of new seminarians will help to restore faith, hope, and charity in America.

Abstinence for terrorists
As detainees are released from the Guantánamo Bay Prison, President Obama apparently wants them to sign a pledge that they will no longer participate in terrorism. How will these individuals uphold their pledges when they return to terroristic countries or communities, or to whatever country will accept them? Will terrorist groups not track them as they leave prison? Will they or their families not face persecution if they do not rejoin terrorist groups? And, after spending years in prison, would some of them not seek revenge on their captors (i.e., by resuming terrorist activity)?

Obama apparently believes that imprisonment and/or torture are ineffective and unjust--as a matter of personal principles and values, rather than military strategy and national security measures. But why does he believe that an anti-terror pledge would be effective? Where is the evidence or what is the argument to support anti-terror pledges as an effective way of stopping or preventing terrorism?*

Cultural problems are greater than political problems
Is it cultural dynamics or political tactics that cause oppression, or a combination or sequence of both? If society (or the various cultural groups composing a society) approve of the oppression of people who disagree, then those oppressive practices can become laws. We see this today as extreme multiculturalism finds virtue in all the world's religions except Christianity. Christians are regarded as haters because of their moral beliefs about certain lifestyle issues.

Christians are beginning to live in fear in America because of the oppression of their personal moral values which are perceived as contrary to tolerance and to the general welfare of the nation. However, perhaps with the exception of their anti-abortion stance, most Christians do not attempt to translate their beliefs into laws. Christianity is a free choice. But, extreme multiculturalism is becoming increasingly regulatory. Prayer, the crucifix, and even Christmas trees are targeted as actions and symbols of intolerance.

Christians are at risk of losing their rights: free speech, assembly, worship, and the pursuit of happiness. Whether in the workplace or at school, some Christians feel inhibited to identify themselves as followers of Christ and to voice their worldview. Unless Christians assert their rights, influence society by appropriately role-modeling biblical teachings, and vote for officials who correctly interpret the Constitution, then they will have to attend churches underground or face persecution. It is not an exaggeration to say that someday certain social themes could become illegal as sermon topics.

Road-rage in the parking lot
There are a lot chips, scrapes and scratches on my car--all of which were gotten in parking lots. I do not remember, years ago, that cars were so relentlessly mistreated by other drivers. As I tried to figure out why people slam their car doors and shopping carts into the car parked next to them, I considered the following possibilities: (1) There used to be more parallel parking, (2) Parking spaces used to be painted with diagonal lines, making it easier to pull into a space more evenly, (3) Perhaps the spaces were also larger, leaving more room between cars.

Then it came to me. Slamming one's car door into another car is an expression of road rage. It's quick, easy, and anonymous. The perpetrator never gets caught. Angry people can unleash some of their hostility by marring the nice car next to them, and by imagining the pain they caused the owner. Oh well, looking on the bright side, I suppose I would rather have a multi-chipped car than to be rammed on the highways. America: drive safely!

Today's essay is not finished. I had a few more topics outlined and ready to be written up. But, perhaps like Michener, I do not feel (at least for today) the need to bring everything to a refined completion. I will simply end rather than finish. I write will other essays; perhaps a novel. (Written 03/16/09: bibliography available.)

[*ADDED NOTE: As of October, 2010, The Director of National Intelligence has reported that 150 of the released prisoners (out of 589) have returned or are suspected to have returned to terrorist or insurgent activity. In reaction to this, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Bond (R-MO), said:

Unfortunately, these latest numbers make clear that fulfilling a campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay is overriding what should be the administration’s first priority—protecting Americans from terrorists. It is unacceptable to continue transferring these dangerous detainees when we know that one in four are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight. If one of these dangerous detainees attacks our troops or civilians, I don’t know how the administration will explain to the American people that we had him in custody, knew the risk he could return to the fight, and let him go anyway.
[End of quote.]

One can only wonder if any of the 150 had signed Obama's anti-terror pledge. As I wrote in Hatred Complex and Self-Hatred Sequence, there is a difference between terrorist honor and civilized honor. One cannot expect a terrorist--at least, without some form of rehabilitation--to behave according to the rules, standards, and values of Western Civilization.] (Written 12/13/10)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2009, 2010 Natalia J. Garland