Monday, July 21, 2014

Synchronicity 1

The first in a series.

I've been making a living as a Web designer and developer for more than a decade, but I've always viewed that as a sideline, one that provided me the tools and skills to create my own Web content and run my own sites, so that I could eventually get on with my real life's work, writing and making art.  My previous sandbox, Byff's Personal Hell, was a long-running labor of love, a concoction of my own ASP (and later ASP.NET) pages running over COM (and later .NET) components and a SQL database, the combination of which compelled me to construct a whole enterprise network in my apartment.  It was always a work in progress; it was never really finished.  I never took the steps necessary to publicize it, so it remained a fairly well-kept secret, held by myself and a few close friends and family members.  It was expansive, though, built with an eye toward providing room for all the kinds of content I like to produce.  There were sections for science fiction stories, science articles, essays on nature, politics and religion, drawings and graphics renderings, photo galleries, lyrics, musical compositions, cartoons, a forum for discussing human nature, a weblog, and the centerpiece:  the "Visible Head Personal Locator System," a graphical sitemap that visualized this mindscape as my own trepanned skull, with various bones and bits of exposed brain representing the different sections.  I spent far more time constructing and perfecting the layout than in actually posting content to it.  It was as much about creativity itself as it was about promoting the results of creativity.  It was about creating a framework and daring myself to fill it, about shaming myself--via the views and comments of outsiders--into perfecting my art.

Creativity, it would seem, is my thing.  When I look back over the awards I won in school for my participation in art competitions, I have as many ribbons labeled "Most Creative" as I have blue ribbons for Best In Show.  The most head-swelling thing that was ever said about me, within earshot, was said by my former art teacher Mrs. Shepard (nee Scoggins), when I returned to Langham Creek High School, during my college years, in order to contribute to a seminar for graduating students on what to expect in the real world:  "This is the most creative student I have ever had."  It could have been said entirely for my own benefit, signifying nothing real, but ever since then--ever since Mr. Sanders and Ms. Scoggins encouraged my artistic drive, and Mrs. McFadden and Mrs. Kanyo encouraged my writing efforts--I've been trying to live up to it.  The site was built in order to prove to myself that she was right.

One of the thematic emphases expressed in the site was human behavior as a special case of animal behavior.  I'm very interested in evolutionary psychology, in aggression, in ritualized (and not-so-ritualized) competition, in kinship and in social organization.  When I found myself delving more deeply into politics, circa my early 20s, I found that certain ideologies that had been natural and easy to adopt in my teens were no longer a good fit.  Over a rather torturous process of discovery and personal evolution, I came to realize that as adolescents, we are driven more by peer acceptance and rebellion than by reason, and that we often use our anger and disaffection as justification for our policy preferences, all the while cloaking our derision in "compassion" and empty labels such as "social justice."  To the teen, who is just learning how to adapt and adopt a peer group, collectivism is an instinctive norm.  To the adult, who is just learning how to stand on his own, individualism is the more correct path; but many of us, arrested in our development by our attachments to our youth and our friends, cling to the adolescent worldview.  (The chief irony of the progressive, I've come to understand, is an inability to progress past one's own embryonic viewpoint.)

One of the things that precipitated my journey was a casual reading of Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, which put a few aspects of my observations of human nature into perspective.  It introduced me to evolutionary psychology, a discipline which has since become a steady interest.  And it provided a framework for working my own ideology out.  It invited me to take as many issues as possible, the entire political arena if possible, back to first principles.  To understand the human animal, you must understand the animal.  To understand society's choices, you have to understand society.  To discern truth in a wide world of bias, aesthetic and propaganda, you have to build as broad a base of fact as possible, and erect a scaffolding of theory atop that, hoping that all lines of evidence will converge at a pinnacle in which the truth is illuminated, unmistakable and inviolate.  I think of it as a pyramid of knowledge.  I hope it comes out nice and symmetrical.

Ardrey was not a scientist, although his statistical acumen was instrumental in demonstrating the thesis whence his conclusions derive, a thesis advanced by Raymond Dart, discoverer of Australopithecus:  the so-called Hunting Hypothesis, describing what Dart's paper termed the "predatory transition from ape to man."  Ardrey paints a compelling portrait of the original human and his divergence from the great southern apes, but there have been discoveries since the early 1960s to account for, as well as the cognitive input of many real scientists.  To put civilization into perspective, you need a broader base.  E. O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have popular books that can broaden that base, and of course there are many papers in The Literature.  But evolutionary psychology is still just a jumping-off point, into sociology, paleoanthropology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and macroeconomics; it's also the surface entrance to a deeper dive into neurology, ethology, evolutionary biology, and ecology; hell, take it back far enough, and you can find yourself at abiogenesis, trying to understand the origin of life in terms of physics and chemistry.  What's interesting about the overall structure of the investigation, if you view the politics - anthropology - sociobiology - evolution trunk as the long axis, is the commonality found at the endpoints of each dendrite:  abiogenesis, ecology, sociology, economics, all additionally linked by complexity and emergent phenomena.

So I broadened the base, and in the process developed a deep appreciation for complexity.  To understand Ardrey, you must understand Freud, Jung and Adler.  So I read Freud, Jung and Adler.  And I added to my growing list of appreciations an appreciation for Jung.  While working toward political understanding, I've been working toward an understanding of my story and the storytelling process, so I also studied mythology and storytelling.  To understand mythology, you must understand Joseph Campbell, in addition to the ancient cultures (and not-so-ancient cultures) whose myths you read.  To understand Joseph Campbell, you must understand Jung.  To tell a story about dreams, you must again understand Freud, and you must again understand Jung.  So there is a neat convergence in Jung between my disparate interests.  The same can be said for F. A. Hayek, whose "spontaneous order" is at work in the field of macroeconomics, in which he first wrote, as well as in all the other aforementioned disciplines, which cannot have truly taken shape without those first writings.  His work is seminal to them all.

Hayek taught me about the Constitution of Liberty and the Free Market.  Jung taught me about the Collective Unconscious.  Ardrey taught me about the Amity / Enmity Complex.  Together, they taught me about society and about politics.  Individually, and in various combinations, they have taught others I've known.  Hayek taught Heinlein.  Jung and Ardrey taught Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick.  Ardrey taught Strother Martin, who then taught Sam Peckinpah.  Many of my media influences are steeped in their theories, which in retrospect may have been an essential aspect of predisposing me to those theories.  (You'll probably see me, in future posts, citing a lot of my favorite movies in making points about Liberty or the Unconscious or the Complex.  Sorry bout that.)

Maybe that's what the Collective Unconscious does, though.  Maybe it's just the organizing principle to our experiences, at least for those who have become aware of its existence and are trying to pay attention.

In writing my novel, I've come to develop a close personal relationship with synchronicity.  It plays a pivotal role in the lives of the characters, and in my getting inside their heads to tell their stories in their words, it has played a pivotal role in mine.  I have to remain in character for extended periods while telling those stories.   While this is so, I keep witnessing compelling instances of synchronicity, from the most minor and mundane to the truly profound.  I don't presume there's any Grand Point to it all, or that I'm capable of figuring it out.  I take it all as admonition to stay on task, to keep moving the ball.

Here are two examples from the past week, both quite possibly near the low end of the significance spectrum, but both of personal interest.  (The "meaningful" part of meaningful coincidence is, of course, entirely in the eye of the beholder.)

Between 1990 and 1993, I served in the Army Infantry at Schofield Barracks.  In my final year, I was a fire team leader in a light infantry platoon.  Late in my tour, I decided not to reenlist; either to punish me for that decision, or move me out of the way of the replacements who would soon be coming in to replace my outgoing COHORT unit, I was transferred to the antitank platoon and put in charge of a team of Dragon gunners.  I didn't have a clue about antitank operations, and the AT guys were in a different regime altogether, as regards discipline.  They were good soldiers, but used to a somewhat cleaner, less footwork-intensive way of life.  There had always been a friendly rivalry in Bravo Company between the gunners (and the mortarmen) and us, the "real" infantry guys in the rifle platoons.  Now I found myself on the other side of that rivalry.

My battalion's last major deployment was to the National Training Center tank range in southern California.   (As a jungle warfare outfit, we naturally spent the bulk of our training deployments in desert regions.)  My first movement-to-contact mission with an AT platoon--men who were more used to being trucked to their destination than walking to it--was a live fire exercise.  For whatever reason, we didn't make it to the objective by the designated time, and the live-fire cadres had gone home by the time we arrived.  We couldn't perform the mission, and everybody was disappointed and out of sorts.  As the sun began to set, the men pulled up into a platoon area, our side of a rectangular company perimeter, a rocky outcropping on the sandy, gravelly desert floor.

And there were sidewinders.  Everywhere.  You could hear them buzzing no matter which way you turned.   You couldn't see many, but they were there, watching and listening in their own, head-down, jaws-to-the-ground way, the racket of their tiny rattles scattering every which way off the backdrop of boulders.

Most of the men were freaked.  I was the company's Snake Handler, so I wasn't terribly perturbed, but I was nonetheless careful about where I stepped.  As the men continued to voice their bitter unhappiness in having missed the objective and being stopped in this pit viper paradise, I came upon Andes, using his M-16 in a repeatedly unsuccessful bid to butt-stroke a fifteen-inch rattler.  He shouldn't have had any ammo locked and loaded at that point, and most likely didn't, but I couldn't take a chance he had a live round in the chamber while he was smashing the buttstock against the rocky ground.  The snake didn't like the idea either. I stopped him and used the muzzle of my rifle to goad the critter into leaving.  It would have been a pain in the ass to try to escort it all the way out of the perimeter, though, and Andes clearly still wanted to smash it.   So I ill-conceived a plan to use the muzzle to lift the rattler off the ground and catapult it out of the assembly area.  It went along with that idea for a moment, but then quickly began to slide over the muzzle as I lifted it.   So I grabbed it by the tail and held it steady for the moment or so needed to fling it.  The flinging went off without a hitch, but it's probably pure luck that I didn't end up tossing it onto someone else.

Later that night, we moved from the rocky desert floor to a grassy hillside, just upslope from a bunch of OPFOR Tankers in their Bradley fighting machines.  They'd used that hillside as a latrine, in typical Tanker fashion:  simply squat and go, and leave the soiled TP blowing in the wind.  I wanted to dig a proper, infantry-specification latrine right through the skull of their CO, but he was no doubt better armored than I was.  Our collective mood was little improved, and we got little rest that night.

We finished up the field exercise, then finished up the deployment.  A few months later, we finished our tour in the 1/14th Infantry Battalion.  We trickled through Fort Lewis in Washington to outprocess, finding bus tickets (or, in my case, a personally-owned vehicle previously shipped across the Pacific and waiting for the drive) home.  We returned to our civilian lives.  We lost track of each other.

In 2005, Andes, having launched a career in drug smuggling, disappeared en route to a rendezvous in Chicago.  His whereabouts are unknown; he is presumed dead, murdered by a cartelito rival.

In 2010, an informant who spied on Andes for the DEA wrote a tell-all article about working with Andes.  A year or so later, I found and joined the Facebook group for our old unit.  There, I read about Andes' disappearance, among other sad news items about other former Golden Dragons.  A couple of weeks ago, news broke that another of our number had recently died.  This compelled one of the group members to set up a memorial page for fallen Dragons, and Andes' name came up once more.  Another old Army buddy linked the informant's article to the thread, and I read it a few days ago.

In it, the informant tells a story of hiding in the desert outside El Paso, watching Andes wait for a drug connection.  While crouching in the brush, he heard a nearby rattlesnake buzzing its indignation at his presence.  If his story can be taken at face value, he found the only immediate solution available to the problem of holding his position while not giving it away to Andes:  he grabbed the rattler by the tail and flung it away from him.

I've no way of determining whether that's a true story.  I can only state that it's highly unlikely he read my version of events before posting his own, as I only told my story a few months ago, in that same Facebook group.  If he did grab a rattlesnake, though, it cannot have been a sidewinder; most likely, it was a western diamondback or a rock rattler (but also could have been a Mojave or a blacktail).

So is it synchronicity that we both have a rattlesnake story, involving Andes, in which a viper was grabbed by the tail and flung?  Yes, I think.  I think there's no way I can avoid thinking about those similarities, and that's what makes the coincidence a meaningful one.

The second instance begins the next day, the day after I read the informant's story.  On that day I decided to launch a Blogger weblog about the creative process and in support of the novel project.  I also decided to begin reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson.  Shortly after completing Chapter 7, "The Tastemasters"--in which he discusses the pros and cons of several different music-marketing schemes, using the artist Bonnie McKee and her unfortunate  2004 experience with LAUNCHCast and Reprise Records as an object lesson in the pitfalls of improper categorization--I took a break from the book to do some design work on my new blog.  I was pulling up links to my profiles on other social media, to add the URLs to my "Pages" widget, when my MySpace page presented me with a link to a new MySpace video series, "Getting Nailed."  The inaugural episode was about Bonnie McKee.

I don't have any opinion on her music; I'm not into pop, and I'd never heard of her before encountering her name in Anderson's book.  All I can say after watching the video is that she is indeed hot, and that the LAUNCHCast categorization scheme was indeed probably doomed from the start in trying to classify her.  But I think it's significant that I came across her name in two different connections within minutes of each other, one of them involving a peek at my own MySpace profile.  (And, as I began writing of it, the song "Winding Road" by Bonnie Somerville began playing on Windows Media Player.  Different Bonnie, but a reminder nonetheless.)  I've no idea what the meaning here could be, other than perhaps a directive to continue paying attention.  Or maybe to heed what Anderson has to say about her travails, so I can avoid similar error in promoting my product.

So what does it mean when two instances of synchronicity occur within such a narrow time frame?  Is not the temporal juxtaposition a form of synchronicity itself?  I think yes.  It's a kind of meta-synchronicity that occurs with some regularity as I turn my attention back to my writing, after the kinds of delays that have attended these hectic few weeks of changing my living circumstances.

I'm no longer living in my apartment in Houston, with a dedicated fat pipe to the Net.  I no longer have my enterprise Microsoft domain network or my multiple workstations and game servers.  I'm living in a small house in the middle of Limestone County, with a satellite connection and limited space, where the electric bill is closely monitored and there's a byte cap on my monthly data throughput.  I can no longer operate my site; I can no longer manage security, retrieve data, or serve active content.  I'm having to outsource my Web domain, for the first time.  So here I am, on Blogger, finally, making use of an extensive, robust suite that I should have been using 15 years ago to, quickly and efficiently, publicize my work and make connections and mature as a writer.

And as I get settled in to my new digs--at home and online--I expect my focus will shift away from Facebook and video games and movies and onto writing, about politics, about mythology, about my story, about creativity.  And I expect an increase in the frequency and intensity of synchronistic activity, at least during this transitional phase while I settle back into the heads of my characters.

I just gotta keep moving the ball.

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