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Tempting Fate

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Machine God

In the Rivera court of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) I was amazed by the artistic vision encompassed in the work that surrounded me. The 27-panel, four-wall mural titled Detroit Industry absolutely captivated my imagination.

In 1933, Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, commissioned the controversial Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural on two walls of the DIA depicting the spirit of Detroit autoworkers. After Rivera had spent time observing autoworkers in Mich., he excitedly proposed covering every wall in the courtyard with his mural.

I had little knowledge of the man or his work beforehand. Fortunately, the DIA offered free iPad tours of the mural, which I was somewhat skeptical of at first. I didn’t like the idea of staring at an iPad when I could be immersing myself in the line, color and shape of the beautiful artwork that whorled around me.

Yet, after handing my I.D. over in exchange for Apple’s latest sensation, I was happily surprised by my virtual tour. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice how my experience of the artwork, aided by a technological device, reflected one of several themes present in Rivera’s mural, the relationship between humans and technology.

Detroit autoworkers are depicted at work, in rhythm with factory machines. The back and forth of the assembly line directs the eye of the viewer in and out of the mural.

A large stamping press appears on one of the main panels. It towers above all the workers in the factory, symbolizing more than a machine that stamps large pieces of metal into auto body parts.

Without taking the iPad tour, I would have never realized that Rivera drew from his expansive cultural knowledge when he associated the stamping press with the Aztec deity Coatlicue.

Coatlicue was the goddess of birth, death, regeneration and war. To Rivera, this deity represented a full range of contradictory potential.

By infusing the imagery of the stamping press with the Aztec goddess, Rivera was commenting on the power machines have over people.

Aztecs believed that Coatlicue had to be fed with human blood for the world to remain in harmony. In Rivera’s mural the stamping press is shown being powered by human energy. Rivera was suggesting that humans have replaced old gods with new, industrial deities. The irony being that man created machines, yet machines end up pontificating human life.

As I learned about Rivera’s intention of showing the conflict between man and technology by interacting with a 21st century technological device, I wondered what he would have thought about such a powerful handheld computer. There I was holding one of this century’s most stunning inventions, gawking at one of last century’s most impressive artistic achievements.

Throughout the mural, technology is shown in both positive and negative light. In one example a passenger airplane is depicted as an exciting new way for people to travel across the world. Yet in juxtaposition, warplanes are painted on the opposing panel, with men standing beneath wearing gas masks.

Another wall depicts a modern nativity scene. An infant receives a vaccination from a doctor as a nurse stands by. Three scientists stand behind them working on an experiment. Animals appear in the foreground. Clearly, the infant represents Jesus, the doctor is Joseph and the nurse symbolizes Mary. The scientists are the three wise men. The animals are not rendered any differently then they appear in the original nativity scene. However, in this case the animals represent the source of the vaccination serum.

When the mural opened to the public, clergy members bemoaned the nativity scene was sacrilegious.

But Rivera meant it to be a statement of hope. He saw technology as both good and evil. Science was making beneficial advancements for humanity, especially in the medical field. Rivera meant to drain the nativity image of its old meaning and infuse it with new meaning in the context of 20th century faith in science.

Seventy-eight years later, science has made strides beyond Diego Rivera’s imagination. But as I stood there surrounded by his murals, I realized that many of the problems depicted in the mural are still present today.

There is division between wealthy and poor. Natural resources are depleted in order to build machines that end up dictating human behavior. And humans continue incomprehensibly to wage war.

Technology has given us the ability to save lives, communicate instantly, decode DNA, view other galaxies in space, and clone animals. Technology has made it possible to blow up the world many times over with nuclear bombs.

Technology is neither good nor evil. It is man made and it reflects the impulses of its creator. Rivera was brilliant in making the connection between the stamping press and the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Just as Coatlicue embodied possibilities of contradiction, so does technology. Both are only as powerful as humans believe them to be.

Technology, like religion, encompasses all the potential of a complex creature on the course of evolution.

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Night Terror

“Do you believe there is a soul?” I asked John.

“No,” he said.

“What do you think happens when you die?” I asked.

“Nothing. It’s over, you’re done,” John said.

I knew his answers before I asked my questions. John and I have been friends since high school and have had many similar conversations. We both haven’t strayed far from our ideas regarding metaphysics. But tonight we are a little buzzed from beer, slightly euphoric after a long hike through the Olympic rain forest and enjoying the chance to converse around a campfire on a topic other than the material world.

“You don’t think there is more to it than that?” I asked. “What about the realm of the unknown. Not everything can be explained.”

“Look at how far science has come in such a short time,” John said. “Today, science, not philosophy, is the frontier of knowledge. Great advancements are being made in making the unknown known. Scientists have decoded the human genome. You cannot prove to me that a soul exists.”

John is a very smart man. If he were here writing what he said it may sound a little better. Naturally, he is better able to articulate what he thinks than I am. If he were here writing what he said, he would certainly use many more words, but the argument is there. Science will explain the unknown. Tests, raw data, arithmetic and concrete scientific evidence will illuminate the darkness of the unknown. Things such as a soul and spirituality are a bunch of hoopla, according to John.

So, I said, “Okay, science is wonderful and has given the world a lot. It has led civilization out of the medieval ages and into a more sophisticated and reasonable way of life. Of course, the tragedy of it is when science is used to do very bad things like nuke entire cities. But for all the advancements that science is now making, there will always be the unknown. Things happen that can’t be explained. Life is mysterious and death is even more so. There is a force inside of us that science cannot explain. There is a part of us that cannot be decoded in terms of DNA. I’m not talking about religion here, you know I’m a non-subscriber. But there is energy, spirits, forces out there, whatever you want to call it. And the nature of this energy, how it works and why it exists, is unknown.”

“Language is inadequate,” I went on. “When I say ‘soul,’ you have one idea and I have another. Even when I say ‘farm,’ you may think of a red barn and cornfields, while I’m thinking of organic food with a hippie commune to tend to it. On a basic level the language we use is inadequate to communicate our true ideas.”

I must be honest once again. Most of our conversation was not spoken as it is written here. But the ideas we were both trying to express are the same. The unknown exists and will never be explained. There are forces or energy in all of us, beyond neuroscience. And that the language we use is an inadequate tool to explain these ideas.

Time wore on and our campfire died down. We decided to meditate on our conversation. John and his girlfriend, Dani, retired to their tent to sleep and me to mine, accompanied by Sara, my girlfriend.

2am, I woke up from a deep sleep screaming, “AHHHRRR, AHHHRRRHHH, AHHRRRHHRHRHRHHR!” Sara grabed me and started screaming too, “EEEhhhhhHHG, EEEEHHHGGG, hhhhHHHEEEG!” We screamed for over a minute. I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea where I was. It was pitch black. Something was pulling at me. I had no idea who or what was screaming next to me.  I had never screamed this loud, for this long out of shear terror in my life. I couldn’t control it. I was truly and completely terrified. When I finally gathered some of my senses I pronounced, “Dani?”

“No! This is Sara, your girlfriend.”

“What? What happened?” I asked embarrassed, confused and on edge.

“I don’t know, you’re really scaring me,” Sara said. “You’re scaring me, what is going on?” Sara was shaking and in shock. “John, Dani,” she called out. They didn’t answer. Perhaps they were half awake, still sleeping or just a little uneasy as what to do.

Sara continued to repeat, “you’re scaring me, you’re scarring me. You are scaring me.”

And I continue to repeat, “I don’t know what happened, I think I had a bad dream. It’s okay, I think I just had a bad dream.” We turned on the flashlight and gained a sliver of security.

Bad dreams don’t sound like what I experienced. Like I said, I have never screamed so long and so loud in my life out of shear terror. My throat hurt. I still couldn’t make sense of it.

Eventually a fellow camper came over to ask if everything was okay and I explained that everything was. I told him a bad dream had caused the commotion. He was satisfied and went away.

Sara and I on the other hand couldn’t calm our nerves. Sara kept telling me that she thought something had me like a bear or a cougar or a person. She felt something pulling me and heard a low grunting noise. I kept assuring her it was nothing. It was just a bad dream.

In reality I had no idea what had happened. I was still terrified. We checked outside our tent and found nothing. The night fog was dense and no stars showed through. Our flashlight did little to soothe our fried nerves.

We laid in our tent for a few hours, trying to forget what happened. The sound of rain filled the air with mystery. Footstep or raindrop, footstep or raindrop was a question I repeated to myself. When the first glimmer of sunlight illuminated our tent we fell into a restless sleep.

In the morning we discovered that my bad dream not only terrified the two of us, but it had several campers concerned as well. It turns out that their concern was great enough to involve a park ranger.

The ranger came to our tent with stern, condescending questions. I explained that I had a nightmare and unfortunately, was very vocal about it. He said okay, took my license and ran a quick background check. I was clean. He handed it back and told me to seek psychological help. I was indeed not normal. I withheld any honest response and said good day.

Now, after a few days to think about the event, I still wonder whether I had a bad dream or not. If I did, I can’t remember what the dream was about. I have no idea why, when I was finally able to stop screaming and speak I said “Dani.” Perhaps she was involved in my dream somehow. I don’t know.

Sara thinks that it was more than a dream. She thinks that something was pulling me from outside the tent and claims she heard a low grunting noise beneath my screams. In the confusion of the moment, she thought our life together was over. It was that real. My screams were so guttural, that she really thought something had me. Looking back on it, she still does think it was more than a bad dream.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to conclude that I was being pulled by something of the material world. There are no scratches or tears on our tent. On the other hand, Sara does not think some sort of spirit was pulling me, which is the direction I am headed.

We camped at Lake Ozette. It has a long history of Native American settlement, which leads me to think of it as a place rich in the spiritual realm. Perhaps some sort of spirit was pulling me. Perhaps I was very close to being possessed. I will have no way of knowing for sure. But I do feel like something was pulling me and in the absence of scientific evidence, I turn to metaphysical explanations.

We will never know what is unknown.

When we talk about experiences, science becomes problematic. There are no scientific tools to retrieve objective data in this scenario. There is only room to speculate.

I’d like to think it was just a bad dream, a night terror. Whatever it was, it felt real. Maybe it was not real on this level of consciousness, only real in a separate reality.

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Transcendental blibber blab

It occurred to me that if we move beyond the world of opposites and recognize that we are all one, one universe, one eternal organism. Then when I speak with you, I am really talking to myself. And I already know what I’m going to say.

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