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Your standard hedonist is a very easy-to-maintain companion - largely self-sustaining, she will find occupation and entertainment in almost any given situation. However, if you make the choice to welcome a hedonist into your life, there are a number of things that will ensure she remains healthy and contented and will allow you to get the most out of your experience of living with a hedonist in your home.

Creature comforts are, of course, important. Ability to escape excesses of heat and cold, whether through insulation and air-conditioning or provision of suitable clothing is particularly appreciated – but do be prepared to find your hedonist wandering naked around the house in summertime. Soft, supportive bedding, preferably the kind she can share with you, will keep your hedonist feeling physically and emotionally secure. Food is often of central importance to a hedonist - not just as sustenance but as a source of pleasure and contentment. Many hedonists particularly enjoy the preparation of food, such that the anticipation as well as the eating may be appreciated. What you will find generally, as far as the essentials of physical maintenance are concerned, is that your hedonist will derive simple bodily pleasure from whatever sources are available, so it’s not necessary to be extravagant.

Employment and exercise are important for keeping your hedonist in peak condition. Ideally, these two aspects should be combined – the hedonist finds great satisfaction in productive work that also maintains her physical fitness; exercise purely for the sake of exercise will likely feel unbalanced. Gardening is a good option, as is home maintenance and perhaps even renovation – hedonists love the process of setting their surroundings to rights. Do consider, before welcoming a hedonist into your life, whether you are able to offer her the freedom and opportunity she requires to feel useful and valuable to you and whether you are likely to appreciate the results of her efforts.

A hedonist has a strong desire to give as well as receive pleasure, so be sure to make clear to her what you enjoy and what you don’t; it will pay dividends in the long term. It helps if you are open-minded and willing to experiment – and it hardly needs emphasising that sex-positivity is also an important trait for anyone considering a relationship with a hedonist. There may, of course, be some pleasures in which your hedonist indulges that you do not approve; take the time to negotiate boundaries and limits. Your hedonist certainly does not wish you to be unhappy but she does require the freedom to explore and make her own mistakes and deal with her own consequences. Her pursuit of tranquillity will ultimately find the balance between rewards and costs.

Above all, in order to lead a life of real pleasure and fulfilment, your hedonist requires interesting companionship and intellectual stimulation. She loves to take a philosophical approach to life’s questions and problems and enjoys dissecting and analysing experiences and ideas. Be prepared to engage in lengthy discussions on various topics of interest and never shy away from what might seem like dangerous ideas. Never think that your hedonist is simply a mindless pleasure-seeking robot – rather, she is deeply committed to maximising not just her own happiness but yours as well; and she might just be the best thing that ever happened to you.
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What is it that makes us consider certain actions - or behaviours, attitudes, ways of being and so on - to be moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or evil (the latter only if we want to speak in metaphysical absolutes and I seldom to never do)? It's one thing to say that one subscribes to a particular ethical system - like utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics or divine command for example - but why, then, does it actually matter to us to follow such patterns of moral reasoning? These days I mostly take a consequentialist approach to ethics but there are still certain cases in which I find myself wondering why particular consequences are more favourable, or carry more weight, than others and why, for example, an apparently good consequence arising from what seems like bad or "wrong" behaviour or reasoning still leaves a sour taste.

In a previous post I explicitly rejected Hamlet's claim that "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." However, when it comes to moral judgements, I have to concede that this is quite often the case, in that our attitudes, experience, even the degree to which we have actually thought about particular circumstances will colour the judgements we make as to the morality or otherwise of certain behaviours.

I have just been reading the chapters of The God Delusion dealing with the claim that atheists have no basis upon which to mount a case for moral behaviour over immoral behaviour. Dawkins handily decimates the assertion that our modern morality comes from the Bible, quoting a few choice passages of scripture that describe acts of rape, murder, incest and genocide; and he reserves particular vitriol (though not quite as much as Christopher Hitchens, it should be noted) for the New Testament notion of vicarious atonement.

Of course I know that bashing biblical morality (as opposed to Bible-bashing) is shooting fish in a barrel for any "experienced" atheist, if I may so phrase it; I now include myself in this estimation, though of course it wasn't always so. Growing up as a more-devout-than-otherwise Catholic, I fully absorbed the favourable interpretation the church always placed on the more unpleasant aspects of scripture; and if all else failed, there was always the, "Oh, but Jesus didn't really mean it that way," gambit. I was too well-schooled to ask why, if it wasn't intended that way, was it said that way in the first place? Needless to say, this childhood immersion (dare I say indoctrination?) coloured my moral judgement and at times continues to do so, even if it is usually reasoned away with all due haste when I catch myself out. Even many years after I'd discarded my actual religious beliefs, it was still with a certain frisson that I read the brazen criticisms of religious morality leveled in The God Delusion and God is Not Great. Even if I no longer found such criticism offensive, I certainly knew people who would.

I have a delightful little book called Would You Eat Your Cat?, which poses a series of moral dilemmas - or "ethical conundrums", to use the term from its subtitle - and shows how our responses to each situation fall within particular kinds of ethical systems, from the consequentialist to the more absolutist. Not surprisingly, I sit quite comfortably within the consequentialist camp - that is, when asked, "Would you eat your cat?" I am generally the kind of person who will ask for additional information on the circumstances rather than just flatly refuse - but with the odd exception. Why the exceptions? If I were a strict consequentialist I would uphold Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian moral calculus and act such that the greatest possible good would result for the greatest number of sentient beings - even if that number didn't necessarily include myself and those close to me; but I am not that person.

For a start, there are practical problems with strict consequentialism in that it's probably not possible for us to know in advance what all the likely consequences of any particular action will be, or what weighting those consequences will ultimately have in terms of their consequences in turn; and some of those consequences are going to be our own and other people's subjective feelings, which may well be shaped and informed by things other than purely consequentialist considerations. The example of fundamentalist Muslims reacting badly to criticism of Mohammed is perhaps an unfairly easy one to give. What about something like lying? Sam Harris argues that there are compelling reasons to avoid lying in any and all circumstances - and it's certainly true that deception, in any form, can and does lead to subjective hurt even if it doesn't result in objective harm.

If we are to make informed decisions in life, including in matters of morality, it pays to have access to all relevant information. Surely that is the key point - relevant information - and it is the task of the consequentialist ethicist to decide what kinds of information count towards the morality or otherwise of an action. Does it still count as lying if one refuses to disclose some particular item of information that ought not to affect someone's decision, even if it might? To pick a close-to-home example, I choose not to reveal to my parents that I am polyamorous - it's unlikely to affect them (since I am unlikely to bring any of my lovers other than [personal profile] japester to visit them or stay under their roof) and they would probably only be bewildered and offended if they knew. The Catholic me-that-was would have a big problem with keeping such a thing from my parents, even if I had somehow reconciled the fact of polyamory with my religious beliefs; the largely consequentialist me-that-is finds nothing wrong with my decision under the circumstances. That's not to say I might not be happier if my parents were the kind of people who would open-mindedly embrace the idea of polyamory; but they're not, so I save the disclosure for those who I feel will accept the information with equanimity - needless to say, I strongly suspect that includes everyone who might be reading this journal.

Weighing consequences can be very hard work, especially when the interested parties to a particular decision have different ideas about how this should be done. To return to a well-worn topic for a moment just to illustrate, the opponents of marriage equality appear to think that it's more important to preserve their definition of what marriage ought to be and ought to signify than it is to increase the happiness and social recognition of gay couples by allowing them to marry officially. A strict consequentialist might well argue that, if it turns out that there are more people whose peace of mind would be disturbed by gay marriage than there are people who would be made happier by it, then the status quo ought to stand. Even if this could be shown to be the case, however, this is one of those occasions on which I feel compelled by deeper and more instinctive considerations to deviate from strict consequentialism. As it happens, humans normally have an innate sense of justice and the very phrase "marriage equality" is intended to appeal to exactly that. Refusing gay couples the right to marry offends my sense of justice, as it does that of many others; what's more, I see this as more harmful than offending other people's - largely religious - sense that they must preserve a traditional definition of what marriage is; despite the manifold changes in the actual practice of marriage throughout its history. You will easily see that my disdain for religious opinion allows me to place greater weight on the appeal to justice - I simply cannot help but see the religious argument as a case of faulty and misinformed reasoning.

At the end of the day, consequentialism is far from being a simple moral framework. Many people seem to find a strong appeal in rules-based systems in which certain actions are deemed to be always wrong or always right, no matter the circumstances. Indeed, accusations of "moral relativism" are merrily hurled at consequentialist ethicists by people - such as those in the ranks of the religious right - who prefer their morals in the form of unquestionable precepts, regardless of the actual consequences of applying them. However, I am strongly inclined to agree with Stephen Fry's assessment that what "moral relativism" actually means is "thought". Some things simply are more or less right or wrong depending on circumstances and it's not always easy to predict what will be the best course of action in a given situation. Even a broad stricture such as the golden rule - do to others what you would like them to do to you - carries consequentialist implications; we might not always want or need the same things from other people in different circumstances and they might want very different things than we do under the same circumstances. We're continually called upon to make judgements and the best judgements are informed and intelligent; and I think it is ultimately not just the potential for negative consequences but also my distaste for the anti-intellectual slant of absolutist, rules-based moral systems that leads me to reject their apparently easy, straightforward appeal.
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Much as I have been entertaining hopes of - and I think it will be agreed, making at least some efforts towards - becoming a more prolific blogger, today has been one of those days where inspiration simply hasn't been forthcoming. So what's a writer to do when she finds herself in an emotional, intellectual and practical slump?

What else but write about it?

I have just been up making a cup of instant coffee (yes, I am very far from being a coffee snob) in the hopes that physical activity of some sort might assist with the flow of ideas. It has perhaps afforded me modest success. Earlier in the day I had the same theory about going shopping and my clumsy efforts (thanks to my munted left thumb) to sow some dill seeds in small pots. It didn't really work for me then - instead I fell asleep on the couch, after reading for a bit. It all just seems too hard today.

There were a few things I had hoped might happen in this past week that didn't happen, so that has perhaps contributed something to my present feeling of dullness. Then there are all the necessary yet prohibitively boring tasks - like doing the dishes, doing my taxes, mowing the lawn again - that I know I'm going to have to do at some stage but which are currently staring me down into a giant puddle of reluctance. Moreover, there are a couple of larger situations in my life which lately haven't been going the way I would like; one day I might get around to writing about those in detail, but that day is not today.

Ordinarily I would simply write today off and think, "Tomorrow will be better," which will work right up until that moment tomorrow when I notice I am feeling equally disenchanted and unmotivated. Except, of course, if I don't end up feeling that way. Still, I think the best I can muster at this point is to say, "Well, tomorrow might be better..."
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One of my favourite treats from Queen Victoria Markets is ham made from free-range pigs raised in the Otways. Well, I say ‘treat’ but the truth is that I buy some nearly every time I visit the markets, simply because it’s the most delicious ham I have ever experienced. I’m not sure how much of a psychological aspect is involved – perhaps a significant one – but I strongly suspect that the deliciousness of the ham is due in no small measure to the fact that the pigs from which it’s made are afforded a healthy, natural, outdoor life rather than one spent cooped up in a concrete prison.

As you might well suppose, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about food and the food choices I make – which, of course, affect much more than just my own health and conscience. Matters of animal welfare, environmental impact and fair trade all influence the decisions I make with regard to the food I consume. These days it’s become quite the trendy thing to be a foodie, though not everyone takes it to the extent of building an entire food philosophy.

My first attempt at taking my food choices seriously culminated in what turned out to be a brief flirtation with vegetarianism. At the time, it seemed like an easy and logical choice to make for someone who genuinely cared about the welfare of other animals, including the ones we use for food. For some time already, we had been opting for free-range eggs and I had long since stopped eating veal, having found out how veal is commercially produced; so going the whole hog, so to speak, and giving up animal flesh altogether made sense. Besides, I reasoned, I could probably never bring myself to actually kill another animal for food – and if I couldn’t obtain it for myself, what possible entitlement could I have to eat meat?

Transitory though it was, my stint as a vegetarian was quite instructive. For one thing, it allowed me to appreciate how many people actually misunderstand vegetarianism to mean that, oh, maybe you’ll still eat chicken or maybe fish; not long ago, in fact, we were happily told by a waitress that the restaurant’s mussel special could be made vegetarian by removing the bacon. I also found that actually being vegetarian pretty much forces one to be more creative with cooking – provided one does not simply resort to meat substitutes. Much as I rather enjoy tofu and Quorn, for example, I am much less a fan of “fake meat” than I am of finding new and interesting ways to make use of vegetables, eggs and dairy products.

However, the biggest thing I learned from pursuing vegetarianism was this – I really, really like meat. I missed it, in all its varieties; I missed its taste, its texture and the qualities it lends to the dishes of which it’s a component. In the end, I had to admit that vegetarianism can actually be as culinarily limiting, in its way, as the old meat-and-three-veg approach. This is not to say that I don’t, even now, enjoy vegetarian food, both cooking and eating it; it’s just that these days it’s one of several possibilities, rather than something I feel constrained by my food philosophy to do.

So, having decided that my diet would contain meat, I felt it necessary to consider the ethics of meat production and consumption. I became much more conscious of the welfare issues involved in the meat industry – in the ways animals are bred and raised and eventually slaughtered. Happily it is becoming easier to obtain meat from animals raised in humane conditions, where they have access to outdoor foraging and the chance to pursue their natural inclinations. Some people would say – indeed, have said to me – “Well, what’s the point of them having decent lives if they’re only going to be killed anyway?” The question comes down to the degree to which the animal suffers. It’s one thing to be concerned about the brief suffering involved in the actual slaughter; the more prolonged suffering the animal endures during its life is a separate but related concern. I feel much better about eating meat from an animal that has led a contented existence while it lasted, than one that has been raised in miserable, cramped, unhealthy conditions. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think death is necessarily the worst experience a sentient being can have.

It was some time after I had become more attuned to the ethics of meat-eating - and of food altogether - that I first encountered Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage philosophy – and it resonated powerfully with my own thinking. At the core of the River Cottage approach is respect – respect for the animal during its life and respect for its meat as the precious food source it really is. This respect extends to food in general and the central importance it has in our lives, whether we recognise it or not. I like to think my own involvement with food is reflective of my deep appreciation for it; not just cooking and eating it, but also especially the exercise of growing my own food enhances my sense of connection with the natural world that produces it. Food is so integral to the business of being alive that it makes perfect sense to me to immerse myself in the enjoyment of it, from paddock and garden, via kitchen, to table; and on that note, I am now going to head out into our garden to fetch some garlic and onions for tonight’s dinner.
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I have recently become hyperaware of my left thumb. The reason for this is that in my enthusiasm for preparing dinner last night, I sliced quite deeply into the tip of it and it is now snugly taped up with steri-strips and a bandaid. It’s not just that I’m left-handed, which of course makes this accident all the more inconvenient; or that I now have to pay close attention to how I handle and manoeuvre objects in order not to cause myself additional pain; it’s that I have seldom noticed before how much of a role that thumb plays in my general level of manual dexterity. I feel hobbled.

This is really just a particular instance of not appreciating what I have until I don’t have it. Fortunately, in this case, the situation is temporary – the injury is already showing good signs of healing, so it’s likely I will have recovered full use of my thumb well before the minor adaptations I’m currently exercising have become habitual. It does make me wonder, though, how I would respond to a much more profound and long-lasting – even permanent – change in my ability to function; and opens the broader issue of dealing with change generally, especially if it’s not a change for the better.

Coping with change is a field that has already spawned self-help books and websites by the bucketload, so I don’t want to add to the vast body of peppy, preachy literature that already exists. This post isn’t going to contain any advice. Like the good little aspiring philosopher I am, though, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about change and how to deal with it, accept it, even embrace it as part of a more general Epicurean approach to pursuing a life of tranquillity.

“Life is change,” sang Jefferson Airplane in ‘Crown of Creation’. “How it differs from the rocks.” Of course, everything in nature, including rocks, is continually changing – it’s just that living things appear to do it more rapidly; and moreover, many of us are capable of consciously experiencing change, which, so we presume, rocks cannot do. It’s so simple it sounds like a truism but actually taking on board the idea that life is change can have profound effects on the way we think about the world and our time in it. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

I suspect it may in part have been the result of a religious upbringing that I started out approaching my life with a sense of certainty. Religions deal in certainties about the way the world is and the way it ought to be – trouble is, they’re often wrong, not just about the fact claims they make but also in their resistance to change. Had not this sense of certainty in me been challenged by my experience of the world, or had I been more reluctant to admit the challenges as they came, I would be a very different person to who I am today. Looking back, I wonder at this – how many seemingly insignificant circumstances added up to a significant change over time; an evolution, of sorts. It’s tempting to think that there have been a few pivotal moments, momentous decisions I have made along the way that have “shaped” my life in significant ways; but I suspect it’s closer to the truth to say that an accumulation of smaller changes brought me to those pivotal moments where decisions were required.

I have found it intellectually and emotionally liberating to consider my life in terms of its fluidity rather than as a series of more-or-less fixed states. Evidence from neuroscience is mounting that our brains are more capable of change and adaptation than was previously understood. I have my own set of evidence for neuroplasticity in the ways I have found to deal with recurrent episodes of depression. The first time, I didn’t understand what was going on and I wondered if I would feel that way forever. I’ve since learned that depression, like any other mental state, is transitory and open to influence from both internal and external sources.

Of course not all change is going to be positive – unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I don’t subscribe to the solipsistic “nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” maxim. Some things are just not good, no matter how you dress them up. Cancer, dementia, even just getting old and frail are the kinds of changes most people would prefer to avoid if they can. Yet it’s curiously comforting to consider that without bad changes, there would almost certainly be no good changes either. Admitting the changes we don't necessarily want is the price for not subsisting in a state of flat, dull sameness. It’s easier to accept the bad things that happen in life when I consider them as part of the vast, endlessly mutable tapestry of existence.
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This evening I have been inspired by this article, by The Philosopher and the Wolf author Mark Rowlands, to consider the subject of the consciousness of nonhuman animals and whether they can be said to exhibit any form of morality. You'll notice right away that I avoid the dichotomy of speaking of 'humans' and 'animals' as two distinct categories - of course I recognise that we humans are animals, as a matter of biological fact; and based upon my own experience, we have far more in common with other animal species than many people seem comfortable acknowledging.

From my earliest days, my life has been spent in the company of nonhuman animals. When I was born, it was into an immediate family that consisted of my then-three-year-old brother, my parents and their beagle, Angus. There was never any question that Angus was a member of the family; though my actual memories of him are rather vague and nebulous, like all my memories from my first few years, looking back I know that at some level, I was aware that Angus was one of us. I have pretty much been a 'dog person' from birth, and an 'animal lover' all my life. Indeed, there are times when I explicitly prefer the company of my furred, four-footed cousins to that of my own species. I think it's fair to say, then, that I do not approach the subject of nonhuman animal consciousness with the same aloofness as someone like Peter Singer, who acknowledges in the original preface to Animal Liberation that he feels no particular sentimental attachment to other animals; though I am inclined to agree with his argument that one ought not to need such attachment in order to deplore any treatment of nonhuman animals that ignores their needs and interests as fellow sentient beings.

To my way of thinking, it ought to be obvious to anyone who has ever had any interaction with other animals that they are, after their various fashions, thinking, feeling beings who behave purposefully. Yet throughout human history, at least in the West, they have, for the most part, been treated and spoken of as objects, as possessions, as means to ends rather than ends in themselves. Indeed, I believe it is still customary, in formal English discourse, to refer to any nonhuman animal as an 'it'. Perhaps there has been an element of necessity involved in this - considering the way humans have treated other animals over the centuries, it might be less distressing to suppose that they don't experience pleasure or suffering as we humans do, if at all; although the way humans often treat each other would seem to give the lie to this interpretation.

Apart from the weight of history and custom, the other great bedeviller of any discussion about nonhuman animal consciousness and behaviour is the spectre of anthropomorphism - to make any inference about how other animals might think or feel automatically leaves one open to the accusation that to do so is to incorrectly invest them with human characteristics, as though humans somehow have a monopoly on intellect and emotion. As far as I am concerned, it is just as unhelpful to suppose that other animals only act on instinct and biomechanical programming as it is to imagine that all human behaviour is the product of thoughtful reflection and consideration. Much as I despise the concept of human exceptionalism, I also think there are times when anthropomorphism can be taken too far. It won't do to consider other animals as if they were human - to do so would be to ignore the unique context in which their thoughts and feelings occur, how they have been shaped by their particular environments and evolutionary histories. To really respect another being, one must meet them where they're at. Sure, they might not think and feel like we do, but that does not mean their thoughts and feelings are absent.

This is the way I like to observe our own nonhuman companions. This evening, our two cats have been facing off against each other. They've never been friends, as such; but they have reached an accommodation of sorts. Yuki, whom we've had since she was a tiny kitten, has always been the queen in our household. Jellicle, our foster-cat, she has always seen as an interloper. It seems to us that Yuki has been working to maintain her dominant position and thus keeping Jellicle's ambition in check. Does this sound anthropomorphic? Perhaps so. Yet consider the fact that this is merely our human interpretation of the complex array of behaviours the two cats have been exhibiting. Much of it we don't know how to read - there is a whole language of gesture, gaze, posture, scent-laying, food- and territory-claiming that we simply don't understand, so of course our assessment of the relationship dynamic between them is painted with a very broad brush. Yet I have never felt the slightest doubt that there is emotion and thought going on behind our cats' behaviour. The only thing that could possibly make me suppose their actions to be purely mechanical and informed only by instinct from moment to moment is acceptance of the notion that thoughts and feelings are an exclusively human province. In the face of the varied and intricate set of cat behaviours we witness on a daily basis, it seems not just counterintuitive but highly artificial to simply reject out of hand the possibility that they have conscious experience.

To me, it seems self-evident that other animals think and feel, if not in precisely the same ways humans think and feel - how could they be the same when their actual experience of living in the world is obviously different from our own? - but what of the question of morality? Do other animals exhibit the capacity for ethical behaviour? It's certainly clear that some, particularly the social species, demonstrate altruism, even if only towards kin and offspring; but it also seems likely, from an evolutionary perspective, that human moral behaviour had its origins in the same kinds of modest demonstrations of care for others. Mark Rowlands, in the article I referenced above, wonders if the patient tolerance and apparent concern displayed by his two dogs towards his baby son could be called moral. Maybe there was not much, if any, conscious calculation in the dogs' behaviour; some human philosophers might insist that without a conscious decision to behave morally, morality as such is not present - behaviour is just what it is, whether it looks like moral behaviour or not. It's the thought and intention behind them - the calculation - that turn mere actions into moral or immoral actions. The misanthrope in me, I freely admit, finds great satisfaction in Rowlands' thesis from The Philosopher and the Wolf - that the innate nastiness and deceitfulness of the ape is what made it necessary for us to develop morality in the first place, to keep our wicked natures in check, to turn our capacity for calculation to less destructively selfish ends.

It's at this point that I find it worthwhile to draw some comparisons. Late last year we adopted a rescue dog, Max. His behaviour and demeanour when we brought him home suggested to us that he had come from an abusive background. So we lavished attention and love on him, and gradually it seemed that he was coming to trust us and feel affection towards us. A few months into his residence with us, he killed one of our cats, Spooty. Whilst I was understandably horrified and distraught, Max seemed not at all conscious of having done anything wrong, as such, even when I locked him in the garage for the night, simply because I couldn't stand to look at him after what he had done. The next day, when I let him out, he seemed as happy to see me as he'd ever been. I found that I just couldn't blame him for his behaviour - clearly he had a strong prey drive that had been triggered by seeing Spooty run from him. I justified his behaviour to myself, and it was primarily for the practical purpose of keeping Yuki safe that I brought him back to the shelter from which we had adopted him. In this instance, I think it's fair to say that Max didn't know he had done anything wrong or unacceptable - I doubt very much that any of it was premeditated in any way. But does this mean that he was in all other ways incapable of the kind of caring behaviour that might be considered a primitive form of morality? I couldn't say so with any confidence. His actions were, after all, no different to those of a human hunter who is infused with the thrill of the chase. Humans can be similarly overcome by emotional excitement - even our legal system recognises the existence of crimes of passion.

At the end of the day, it might simply be the case that the differences between humans and other animals, in terms of moral capacity, are differences of degree rather than of kind. Much as many of us have an innate sense of empathy and altruism, consciously moral behaviour, I am convinced, is learned behaviour. I see examples all around me and in the news of human behaviour that makes me marvel that any person could possibly imagine such actions to be acceptable, yet it seems there's no limit to what some humans might do if they think they can get away with it; and the only difference between me and those other people is our upbringing and social environment. Other animals are not greatly different to us in that regard - they can be taught to behave in ways that look remarkably similar to the exercise of morality, whether or not they understand any actions in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'. It's true they are propelled by instinct and raw desire - but so are we, to a much greater extent than we often seem to appreciate. Sometimes we simply do the right thing because it feels right, whether from an innate sense of justice or because of social conditioning. Is that moral behaviour or just...behaviour, plain and simple? Ultimately, I wonder if we can simply say that morality is as morality does.
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Life might not have a purpose or ultimate significance but it is not devoid of satisfactions, temporal and transitory though they may be. I have, in the past, refuted claims made by religious believers that in the absence of hope for an eternal reward in a spiritual afterlife, my earthly life must be terribly depressing and meaningless; why, I ask in return, should any experience, even a human lifetime, lack meaning just because it doesn't go on forever?

It's easy to see why such claims might be made, though. As has been observed by both Mark Rowlands in The Philosopher and the Wolf and Sam Harris in his speech at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention - and no doubt by others as well, though I'm not aware of specific examples - humans as a general rule are rather poor at what's called living in the moment. I know I certainly am very bad at turning off that part of my brain that's busy thinking ahead to what I'm likely to be doing hours, days, weeks, months ahead; and perhaps even worse at turning off the part that loves to dredge up my past failures and use them as a club with which to beat my present self. It takes effort to simply be aware of the present, to just experience each moment as it happens without the baggage of the past and of possible futures.

One of the great sources of pleasure in my life these days is working on developing our vegetable garden. Now, this is obviously an activity in which I engage with a view to the future rewards of harvesting fresh, home-grown produce. It's hard not to look forward to the day when I can just wander out into the backyard and come back to the house with virtually all the ingredients I need for a delicious soup, stew, salad or other culinary concoction. So there is certainly an element of anticipation involved in the pleasure of gardening; in a similar vein, as I have observed in previous posts, the pleasure of cooking also contains no small measure of anticipation of the pleasure of eating - but in both situations, the present enjoyment of the requisite activity cannot be wholly dependent upon the anticipated result. It would be quite possible for me to be the kind of person who loved eating but had no interest in or talent for cooking - in fact, I used to be that person. I am also only just getting over my all-encompassing cluelessness as a gardener, even though I have for a long time been appreciating the delights of fresh - market-sourced - produce. So I think it's fair to say that I do, in fact, enjoy the processes of cooking and of gardening for their own sake as well as for their repayment potential.

Still, I'm unhappy to admit that all too often, it takes an effort of will to really immerse myself in the enjoyment of doing something. A couple of days ago I ventured out into the garden with a pitchfork, a small shovel and a handful of potatoes that had been making valiant efforts to put out shoots within the confines of our root pantry. It was the work of maybe half an hour to dig over the garden bed with the fork, hollow out some holes and plant the spuds; and I can't help but think that it should have been a pleasant and satisfying half hour of physical activity on what was a beautiful early-spring day, with the weeping cherry tree blossoming nearby and the rest of the backyard an explosion of various shades of green. Yet even grubbing around in the soil, surrounded by beauty and bathed in sensory delights, aware of being alive in the midst of so much other life, I still couldn't quite switch off my all-too-human tendency to think myself out of the moment, to what I might be doing later in the day, to all the things that still needed to be done that I hadn't done already, even to wonder whether I might be enjoying myself more if I had been gardening for half my life and really knew what I was doing.

Yes, I do find it very difficult to live in the moment, to just be. Even at the point where I actually succeed at losing myself in some activity, my traitorous mind finds a way to question it, to draw me back from the edge, as if I'm somehow afraid of enjoying myself too much...or worse, that I'll have such a good time that I might never be able to repeat the experience - I'll reach the peak and that will be it for me for the rest of my days. These are completely foolish thoughts, of course - I don't know what's going to happen or how I might feel tomorrow. I can only make an educated guess and goodness knows I've been wrong before. In any case, I am not discouraged from making the effort to appreciate my existence moment to moment - I think it's worth putting the work in to savour the small pleasures in life just as much as the greater ones; because as far as I know, I only get this one chance to do that.
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This post may in fact be a continuation of yesterday's rant; but I'll be heading off on a somewhat different tangent and hopefully rounding out and concluding my present contemplations on the notion that life must have some kind of purpose.

One of the concepts the Catholic Church co-opted from the Ancient Greek philosophers was the idea of Natural Law; and if the selection of articles I read yesterday on Life Site News are anything to go by, it's one that still heavily infuses their thinking on matters of morality, particularly (and the cynic in me says exclusively) sexual morality. I am once again reminded of Stephen Fry's most elegantly cutting summation of the Catholic Church's attitude to sex - "The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese; and that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic Church in a nutshell."

But I digress...well, a bit. The basis of Natural Law in terms of ethical reasoning is that everything in nature - in creation, as religious believers would have it - is directed towards a natural end, an ultimate purpose. What this means in terms of sex, since this is the example most readily to hand, is that the proper, natural purpose of sex is procreation. The upshot of this is that any use or practise of sex that is not accompanied by the active intent to conceive is violating its correct moral end. Hence the church's condemnation of homosexuality and its insistence that nonprocreative sexual activity is the height of selfishness, an act of moral evil.

I'll leave aside, for the time being, the fact that the only arena in which the church's adherence to Natural Law theory apparently prevails is in matters of sex and reproduction - in most other aspects of life, natural moral ends tend to fall by the wayside. But what of this idea that nature itself, upon rational examination, yields answers to the philosophical quandaries of what we are here for and what we ought to do with our lives? You might think, on the basis of my professed pantheistic leanings, that I would be all over the idea that nature provides the key to understanding our purpose in life; I have already indicated my enthusiasm for Sam Harris's claim that science can determine human values through examination of what constitutes human well-being in the world as it is. I think there is a genuine sense in which nature can and does inform our moral thinking and behaviour. This is not, however, the sense in which it is used by Natural Law theorists.

The defining feature of the concept of Natural Law is, of course, this idea of natural ends - everything, including the human animal, has a purpose, a reason for being, some goal that it was designed to accomplish. Behaving in ways that tend towards this designated end is thus morally good; behaving in ways that don’t tend towards it is morally bad, wrong, evil, unnatural. Notice right away the first glaring problem with this assessment – its narrow conception of purposes and ends. Everything has an end, singular. Nothing ought to be repurposed, hacked, or in any way moved from the correct channel that leads towards the achievement of its one true object. The idea is laughable when taken to its logical extreme.

Notice also the problem inherent in the very question of how we can know what the particular purpose or end of any being or action is or ought to be. Undoubtedly the ancient philosophers observed the world around them, noting that certain beings tended to behave purposefully and that certain actions tended towards certain ends. So far, so good – but by what leap of reasoning does one conclude that because something tends towards some end, that one particular end constitutes its true purpose?

This may have been what David Hume was getting at with his insistence that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' – you can’t look at what is the case in nature and thus determine what should be the case in an ethical sense. I have my own issues with this idea – I don’t know how else you can derive an ‘ought’ other than by means of what ‘is’ – but I do feel that the ancients and the Catholics after them have gravely misused and belittled nature by trying to limit the concept of what is ‘natural’ and therefore morally good to such a small set of strictures. This does, in fact, constitute a highly artificial imposition of human rules and regulations upon the natural world and our own behaviour as beings deeply embedded in nature.

Having said all that, however, the real kicker is this – it’s also natural for humans to try to categorise and impose order on the world around us. This is a glorious irony, in view of the fact that nature is as nature does – and it is not static but almost endlessly mutable, elastic, malleable – and while we are part of it, we cannot say with truth that any of our actions are unnatural. We certainly can say that some actions lead to objectively positive or negative outcomes and subjectively good or bad experiences but we cannot impose the judgement that any such actions are unnatural – how could they be? It’s also worth observing, though this is not the place to delve into it, that by these lights, the set of actions leading to positive outcomes, by both objective and subjective measures, is rather different from the set of actions deemed morally acceptable by the Catholic Church.

So where does all this leave us, in terms of identifying and pursuing the purpose of our existence?

Well, I think it should be abundantly clear by now that I do not believe life has a purpose, an ultimate end, as such. I’m also realistic enough to recognise that it’s a very naturally human characteristic to yearn for answers, for meaning, for a reason to get out of bed every day. We very often can’t just have what we want for the asking, though – usually we have to make an effort to go out and get it...or invent it, if it’s not yet available. Yet to say that we make our own purposes and meanings in life never seems to be enough to satisfy those who want our existence to have some ultimate, cosmic significance.

For myself, I find it oddly liberating to consider the very likely possibility that we are just here, for no better or more profound reason than that nature just happened that way. I don’t know if I want my actions to be important to anyone other than myself and those affected by them. I am content with the idea that my life will be important to me and mine while it lasts but when I’m done, I’m done. The knowledge that when my body is no longer any use to my conscious self, because the latter will have ceased to exist at my death, it will sink into the earth, decompose and its atoms be used, perhaps, by other life, is a greater source of comfort to me than contemplation of any possible spiritual afterlife.

I can think of no better way to round off this post than with a quotation from The God Delusion, which I am currently rereading. It’s from an interview Richard Dawkins conducted with James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix molecular structure of DNA. As those who have read any of Dawkins’ work will know, he rejects the idea that religion and science address completely different questions of existence – the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) school of reconciling empirical investigation and supernatural faith. Science, so the claim runs, attempts to answer the questions about how the world works; religion, on the other hand, tries to find out what it’s all for. Watson’s response to this idea, quoted in the book, is delightfully dismissive: “Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.”
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Today my attention was drawn to this article, a reflective piece on the writer's desire to be a mother over and above every other possible life goal. Amongst other things, it contained the bizarre phrase, "A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." It was a fairly moderate article, considering it appeared on Life Site News, which is essentially a repository of Catholic fascist propaganda; but it nevertheless got me thinking about the fact that reproduction is often spoken of as something - quite often the thing - that gives life meaning and purpose; and how the political pro-life movement have made it their purpose to strive for the maximum quantity of human life without consideration of its quality.

First to the article itself and its saccharine hymn to motherhood. Surely it's worth all the pain and sacrifice, the writer opines. Doesn't having children mean hope for the world? Isn't it just so important to reproduce, regardless of whatever else you do with your life? The following quotation sums up the thrust of the whole piece:

"I imagine someone of great mystical authority standing before me - let’s say Gandalf the Grey – and saying, “You must choose. You can’t have both. Here are your choices: all the fame and respect you’ve ever wanted, the ability to do comedy and write and act and sing and get paid for all of it gloriously, and win Academy Awards and have everyone admire you and find you beautiful and go down in history as a great voice of your age. Or: motherhood.”

I choose motherhood without hesitation."


If it weren't the case that women all too often do face the choice between motherhood and career success under our present societal arrangements, this might seem like a fairly harmless declaration of committed intent - "Sure, I'm willing to sacrifice one set of goals for a different goal that's more important to me"; but there is something undeniably sinister in the glorification of a choice women are often forced to make, in a way most men are not. You may not fulfill your intellectual and creative potential, runs the article's message, but what does that matter if you succeed at having babies? That's the real point of your existence, after all.

At first it seems fairly innocuous to say that the purpose of life is to procreate; consider all those blissfully pro-natal magazine features with celebrities declaring that their offspring have given their lives meaning; as if they could, with perfect equanimity, give up their fame and fortune and go and live in a flat to raise their children without all those expensive toys and round-the-clock nannies and so on - because they've found their one true calling in life.

On closer inspection, though, the idea that the point of life is to create more life is quite absurdly circular. It might be a marvellous feat of engineering to build a machine that does nothing except make copies of itself which, in turn, make copies of themselves and so on - but it seems rather a waste of time and resources if they don't actually do anything else. It's certainly legitimate to claim that a function of life is to produce more life but can it really be called a purpose? Is that what life is for? In a purely biological sense, maybe so; but I don't think that's what the "children give my life meaning" brigade are really on about.

And what about this odd notion that "A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on"? Even if I believed in a supernatural power, I think I would still find this idea slightly creepy. What kind of a god looks at the world and human society the way it currently is and decides the best thing for it is more humans? Especially if those humans are born in grinding poverty and deprivation, in conflict zones, or to parents who are unable or unwilling to care for them?

This is, of course, the core of the pro-life philosophy - more human life is a good thing, intrinsically so, no matter the circumstances or the likely quality of that life. In fact, the more suffering, the better. How else to explain their perverse insistence that all pregnancies must be carried to term - or at least as long as possible, even at grave risk to the mother or if the child is likely to be profoundly disabled, or was the result of rape, or in any and all circumstances that make it undesirable for the woman in question to have the child? And their commitment to preventing the legalisation of euthanasia, ensuring that patients suffering from terminal illness stick around to endure as much pain and indignity as possible?

Of course they all put it back onto God - it's "God's will" that we don't interfere with "his plans" for human life, whatever those may be; that we accept his "gift" of children even in the most unfavourable circumstances; that we remain and endure whatever suffering he has in store for us at the end. This is a god that loves suffering and hates pleasure, and its worshippers the world over follow suit because they believe that the ultimate point of life is not to be found in this world but in the one they imagine is waiting for them after death.
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In his brilliant and moving speech at the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate on whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world, Stephen Fry described himself as "someone who is filled with love; whose only purpose in life is to achieve love". So far, so good, if one wishes to define a purpose for oneself – and Stephen Fry quite correctly, I believe, referred to a purpose “in” life, not a purpose “of” life; the very idea of life existing for a reason other than “just because” is, I think, absurd and indefensible. Be that as it may, if one’s purpose is the achievement of love – and I think there are many for whom it is, at least in part, myself included – then what can we say love itself actually is?

Since I mentioned it, the Catholic Church has plenty of its own ideas about what love is and what it means to demonstrate love. “Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends,” so the scripture goes (or words to that effect, depending upon which version you happen to read). Real love, to be worthy of the name, must be self-giving, self-denying, self-sacrificing…self-destructive, one might say. This notion of selfless, sacrificial love infects even our modern secular thinking to some extent. Love isn’t the real deal unless it hurts - if you’re not suffering for love, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s the thing, though – we all want to be loved (if you’ll pardon the gross generalisation) but how many of us actually want people to suffer for us? I certainly have no wish for anyone to hurt or destroy themselves on my account. Consider, for a moment, the effect of knowing that another person had undergone a terrible, painful death in order to spare you a similar fate. Especially if it was someone you loved in return, not only do you now have to deal with their loss but also the dreadful burden of responsibility that comes from knowing they suffered and died horribly for you. Here you have the essence of Catholic guilt – Jesus is supposed to have done exactly that for each and every one of us; only the horror is mitigated by the fact that crucifixion is something far removed from the everyday experience of most of us these days; and anyway, Jesus came back to life after a few days, so it’s all okay, really. Just imagine if it really happened. That is not a gift of love I would ever wish to receive. I have argued with Catholics who claim that only their faith instils the kind of noble, selfless love required to give up your own life for someone else’s. They are welcome to it; I don’t believe this is a kind of love worth wanting.

At what might be considered the opposite extreme is the claim that love is just a chemical reaction in the brain. In terms of what we actually experience, the sensations, thought processes and motivation to action to which we give the name of love, it’s quite true that what we are talking about is a matter of chemistry and physics. But what people seem to intend when they call love just a chemical reaction is to dismiss it as insignificant, as if it’s just like the effect of a drug that will sooner or later wear off. Sometimes this is done with the intention of riling someone up or counteracting excessively romantic notions of what it means to feel love for another. However, I have more often encountered this form of dismissal from those who are trying to point out that if I actually think love is the product of material interactions, then I am the one dismissing it as insignificant – because unless love is some great and mysterious supernatural phenomenon with cosmic significance, then it doesn’t really matter. Why a philosophically naturalist approach to love should be considered as devaluing it and stripping it of all meaning in our lives is just one facet of the much larger question of why so many people seem to think that all conscious experience must be beyond the purview of science – otherwise it’s just not special, don’t you know? It should be quite clear by now what my own views are on that subject.

The Ancient Greek philosophers identified four particular types of love – agape, eros, philia and storge, which roughly translate to spiritual, physical, mental and natural, or innate, love respectively. Agape is often touted as the Christian ideal of love – again that selfless, sacrificial love that Christ is supposed to have had for all humanity and which Christians are called upon to emulate. Eros of course refers to romantic or erotic love, whilst philia is the bond of shared interests; storge, finally, is the kind of natural affection felt towards members of one’s family, tribe, etc – those to whom we have an innate attachment. Of all of these, it seems that agape is the one that might constitute a purpose in life, simply because it’s the one that doesn’t come easily or readily – one must strive for it. Yet I’ve already rejected the idea of anything that might be called spiritual love, both because I am a philosophical naturalist who entertains no notion of souls or higher powers; and also because I believe it is neither entirely possible nor even desirable to pursue love in such a way that it involves the destruction or sublimation of the self.

So what does it mean for me, given my naturalistic and non-self-effacing approach to understanding love, to say that the achievement of love is part of my purpose in life? For a hedonist, the answer to that is deceptively simple – love is one of the greatest pleasures available to conscious beings and pleasure is the highest good that can be pursued in life. I am sufficiently self-interested to want to be loved for myself and because I give pleasure to those who love me – not because they feel obliged by some higher calling to subvert their inclination and behave as if they love me, through an effort of will. I want to love and be loved because I am a social animal shaped by millions of years of evolution to desire love and acceptance. The particular pleasures of love – the heady experience of being in love, the sudden surge of joy at meeting an old friend, the satisfaction of sharing hobbies and intellectual pursuits, the comfort and security of curling up with a long-term lover – whilst transitory in the grand scheme of things, are nonetheless worth wanting for their own sake; as is the tranquillity afforded by the knowledge that there are those who accept us and value our company just because we are who we are.
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Following on from yesterday's post about pushing rocks uphill, I thought it might be worth reflecting upon the idea of setting goals and working towards them – in short, leading a purpose-driven life. I don’t mean this in the sense elucidated by Rick Warren in his infamous book, obviously – even if I thought my life had a single overarching purpose, it wouldn’t be anything to do with a supernatural god. It does seem, though, that as humans we are obsessed with purpose, with needing to know, “What’s the point of it all?” I think the metaphor of continually pushing the rock uphill, only to watch it roll back down again, is very fitting for the kind of life that consists in being constantly driven to achieve - no sooner is one goal reached than it’s time to start striving towards the next.

This is not to say that there aren’t things we generally feel we need and want to do in life. Obviously the business of living makes its own demands upon our time and effort; but this is just maintenance. After our various fashions, we work, eat, sleep and keep ourselves clothed and sheltered because we have to do those things to keep ourselves alive.

So what’s it all for? This is the question that has kept philosophers thinking and theologians ranting for millennia. The thing is, it's hard to see what the ultimate purpose of life could possibly be, especially if it's true that there's no god and no afterlife. If this life is really all we get, if we have no final purpose to work towards, maybe it is all just a big old waste of time, at least from a cosmic perspective.

If it is, though, is that something that really should trouble us? Maybe the question of life's purpose is as ultimately meaningless as it is unanswerable - at least for those of us without a preprogrammed religious response to hand. Perhaps it's the case that there's no other reason for us to be here than "just because." Where to go from there will be the subject for at least another post or two.

Rolling On

Sep. 16th, 2013 06:01 pm
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In an Ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a rock uphill, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom, every time. As it was likely intended to be in its original telling, this is a great metaphor for the often tedious tasks of living in the world; and some days I can really feel the weight of the rock and the seeming pointlessness of continuing to push it. Progress, when it's discernible at all, is painfully slow.

It's at times like these that I like to take a step back and consider the process of working towards a goal. It seems like the most straightforward thing in the world - you want to achieve something, you make a plan for how you're going to  proceed, you work through the plan, you achieve your goal, rinse, repeat. Sure, it's never actually that simple - real life throws up challenges and setbacks and changes of direction all the time; but there does seem to be a deeply ingrained belief that in life, we're always heading towards something - or we should be, otherwise what's the point?

What indeed? And why should there even be a point to it all? Maybe there isn't and we're just so busy counting the trees that we completely miss the beauty of the forest; too busy ticking off the great landmarks in life to notice the pretty little rest stops along the way. I know I spent much of my life doing just that.

During my adolescence, I felt keenly the expectation that I would have a plan for how my life would progress beyond school and accordingly, I formulated such a plan. I set out to push my rock uphill. I would go to university, I would study to be a teacher and I would follow in the footsteps of my aunt and those of my own teachers whom I admired and respected. So far, so good. 

Only it all went pear-shaped after I actually started my career as a teacher, only to discover that in fact, it really wasn't something for which I was suited. That was the first time the rock came crashing back down the hill. In hindsight, it would probably have been better had I taken a break in between my BA and my BEd - in which case, I suspect it's unlikely I would have done the BEd at all. By the time I got there, I had already begun to rethink my life path. I realised at last that I was not the kind of person who lived to work but for whom work was a means of supporting my other interests. I had a new rock, one that had been patiently waiting for me to help it on its way up.

So there I was, on the other side of the country from where I'd grown up, struggling to find work as anything other than a teacher (having apparently defined myself as such). It was fortunate that I discovered teletext captioning, something I didn't even know existed as a job of work until I applied for it. So that became my bread and butter - something I was good at, that didn't stress me out, that would provide me with an income whilst I pursued more interesting and creative avenues. It seemed a light, undemanding burden.

In the meantime, other things were happening. I was building relationships, learning about myself (sometimes painfully), pursuing hobbies to a greater extent than I would have thought possible; during this time, some of the most significant milestones of my life occurred, which had nothing to do with gainful employment - that was just the backdrop against which the real drama of my life was played out. It was as if I took time out from the uphill toil to explore the landscape either side of the path.

Eventually, the work I did to earn a living began to seem far too much like the situation of Sisyphus - constantly pushing the rock uphill only to watch it roll back down again. My whole life took on this sameness - there was no change, no progress, nothing but the same old struggle every day; and having recognised it as such, the struggle just became harder and harder, seemed more and more pointless, less and less rewarding.

So I left that rock at the bottom of the hill.

Now I have a whole new rock, one that I have only just begun to push toward the summit. Sooner or later, I will get there, only to watch as this new rock, perhaps still coloured with the charm of novelty, goes tumbling back to base camp. I know it will happen; but that's okay - because each time I set out to push the rock back up the hill, I will find ways to make the experience different. I'm not going to waste my time planning exactly how I'll get the rock from the bottom to the top of the hill; instead I'll leave myself open to possibilities. I'll welcome those who offer me their companionship for the journey; I'll prop up the rock at convenient resting points and enjoy the view from different places on the hill; and above all, I'll resist the temptation to define my existence in terms of how far I've progressed.
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In my previous post, I reflected on my recent infliction of death and destruction upon the inhabitants of my garden, observing that in our world, there is no life without death. It seems kind of appropriate, I suppose, to follow up with some of my thoughts about death - which is something I have also written about before but not for quite some time.

One thing that appears to trouble religious believers particularly upon finding out that someone is an atheist is the question of what's supposed to happen after you die. Being an atheist doesn't automatically require one to abandon belief in the concept of some kind of afterlife; but any serious consideration of such evidence as we have does tend to point towards the actual, terminal finality of death, the cessation of consciousness, the obliteration of the self. Rejecting belief not just in gods but in all supernatural entities, including souls, eventually and inevitably leads to confronting the fact that when we die, we cease to exist.

I didn't always think this way, of course. As a child, I was very thoroughly indoctrinated with the concept of an immortal soul, of heaven and hell, and the idea that one's behaviour in this life was the primary determiner of one's ultimate fate in the next. It was a long and meandering road by which I eventually walked away from this belief but in many ways, it has been a road to freedom.

According to those who feel that life has no meaning or purpose if we're not working towards some kind of ultimate reward, what should have been my response to rejecting the idea of an afterlife was to sink into a deep, dark melancholy, to become paralysed by the pointlessness of living if I'm only going to die at the end of it. Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the deep, dark melancholy; but it's not the fact of death that brings it on, not even when I am directly confronted with it; and if anything, reflecting upon the sheer absurdity of life is something I actually find deeply comforting. Much has been written about the liberating joy of embracing this life as the only one we have, rather than relegating it to the subordinate position of a mere proving-ground for an eternal afterlife; what I will say from my own experience is that accepting death as final has led me to a more careful contemplation of my behaviour - there's no judgemental god to tally my sins and virtues, only myself and those affected by my actions.

There was a time when I was afraid of death, when I thought that dying was the worst thing that could happen to someone. That time is long past. It's true that I do sometimes worry that the manner of my death will be unpleasant; but with the prospect of ceasing to exist, I am largely unconcerned. If consciousness does indeed stop when we die, I will not be around to experience not being alive - so what's to be afraid of? As Epicurus put it, "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not." What fear remains is indistinguishable from the fear of change - losing a loved one is, after all, a permanent change that I am forced by my beliefs to accept as such; not for me the superficially comforting thought that I will meet them again in the next life. Knowing that I will never see someone again once they cease to be can be a hard truth to swallow; but it does remind me to treasure every moment of the time I do have with them and take nothing for granted.
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It's been a little while since I last wrote anything about religion - or specifically my own lack of anything resembling supernatural belief - although I've hinted around it in several recent posts. It might look a bit bizarre to combine this with a post about gardening; but I promise it will all make sense in the end.

A couple of days ago I spent a satisfying hour or so ripping up ornamental vegetation from our back garden bed. This was not an act of wanton destruction but in fact part of the process of preparing the area to become a vegie patch. It already contains a tomato plant - which I'm very happy to say is now fruiting - and if the seeds I am currently attempting to germinate actually end up sprouting, it will soon be home to peas, carrots, celery, dill and stevia.

But in order for this to happen, a substantial amount of vegetation had to die and large numbers of worms, grubs, snails, spiders and sundry other small wildlife were disturbed. This is not a small amount of harm to be inflicting, when you think about it. So I have to say I have mixed feelings about my gardening project - the satisfaction of actually making progress is tinged with a certain sadness and self-questioning.

On the whole, though, I am inclined to consider it a positive experience and oddly enough, the reasons for that actually have something to do with my present approach to religion.

The opening chapter of The God Delusion is headed 'A deeply religious non-believer' and it aims to make clear that there is a vast difference between the God of Classical Theism and the god to which scientists such as Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have been known to refer; the argument being that it is disingenuous to claim that such distinguished minds believe in God, when what they are actually demonstrating, when they use the word 'god', is their awe and wonder at the glory of the universe. This is the god in which I believe, if I might be said to believe in any god at all.

Clearly this isn't a god that requires worship or answers prayers - it's not the God in whom I was taught to believe as a child; it's not a god with a personality or feelings of any kind. Nature, my god, doesn't care about me or any other individual - it just is and we are all part of it. I've had arguments with theistic believers who either think it's ridiculous to glorify nature (mostly because, well, you can't pray to it) or who find the idea of a universe indifferent to our joys and pains, our achievements and failures, indifferent even to our very existence, deeply depressing. For myself, I must own that I find this idea exhilarating; the feeling of reverence for the universe in the face of our own insignificance, expressed in the likes of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech, makes my heart sing.

It's in this context that I consider my actions with respect to gardening. In the grand scheme of things, what I do here and now makes not a jot of difference to the universe. It only makes a difference to me and to those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly; including the plants and animals that inhabit our garden. Yes, I am inflicting death and destruction - on a relatively small scale, to be sure, but let's not quibble over the fact of what I am doing, just because the victims happen to be small and insignificant from our perspective; from far enough away, we're all small and insignificant. The facts of our world are such that there can be no life without death, and we all play out this balance every day of our lives. The trade-off here is that by destroying some life, I am allowing other life to flourish. On the one hand, it's an easy decision to make; on the other hand, I don't take it lightly - it is what it is.

It may seem odd to consider gardening in such a philosophical, even religious way; but I can't deny that on top of the physical satisfaction (and it must be said, the resulting aches and pains from muscles that haven't seen enough use before now) of furthering my aim to grow my own food, there is the deeper, more comforting - though sometimes unsettling - consciousness of actually participating in the destructive and creative processes of nature. I suppose it could be said that the garden has become my place of worship.
dormant_dragon: (Default)
This seems like an appropriate follow-up to my last couple of posts in which I have been pondering how we define and value relationships. This post is drawn from an idea suggested by [personal profile] etfb, regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of the standard questions one finds on forms - "Name?" "Sex?" "Relationship status?" Quite often, especially when it's an electronic form that suggests a list of responses, the range of answers being sought seems woefully inadequate. The catch-all phrase "It's complicated" seems at first to be a good alternative to more defining terms; but really, it just reinforces the fact that we're reluctant to discuss the real breadth of possibilities.

It's perhaps kind of appropriate that I have a YouTube video playing right now which is a discussion about how or even whether morality is something that falls within the purview of science, since the idea that it does runs counter to the "received wisdom" that morality occupies some nebulous territory impenetrable to empirical observation; since it's easy to see how, in discussing issues of identity, sex, gender and relationships, one can become mired in the notions imparted by received wisdom, sometimes without even noticing it. Once we start questioning, however, we very quickly find that the received wisdom is really an artificial construct, one that requires constant reinforcement to remain in place. Official - and some unofficial - forms are at present one means by which this reinforcement is conducted.

As humans, we're generally very fond of defining and categorising - it's the way we create simplified, understandable models of an incredibly complex world, in which some of the most complex things are our fellow humans. We are limited in our abilities to observe and comprehend; if we can quickly size up a particular individual and place them in a familiar category, that makes this individual immediately easier to understand. Or so we suppose. The trouble is that it's all too easy, having categorised someone, to dismiss the more nuanced aspects of their personality, to misunderstand their behaviour, in short, to treat them as a type rather than an individual.

Let's start with names. I have a number of friends who have, for various reasons, changed their names or who go by two or more different names in different contexts. I changed my own name by taking [personal profile] japester's surname when we got married; though this was much more of an aesthetic choice than a wish to uphold an outdated tradition. There's a peculiarly persistent notion that everyone has a "real name" - which, depending upon your perspective, might be the name you were given as a baby, or the name you've later chosen for yourself that you feel better reflects your personality, or maybe some other name that you have yet to discover. The name we're asked for on most forms is the name by which one is known for legal and financial purposes but again, this may or may not be what one considers one's 'real' name.

A name is essentially a label by which we identify a particular person and sometimes the identification is at more than just an individual level. Most names are gendered, so we can tell immediately whether a particular name belongs to a male or female - but what if a name is ambiguous? It can be unsettling to consider the extent to which our interaction with a person, especially in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, can be coloured by the assumptions we make based on their name. I have written under ambiguous names in online fora and often been taken as male, which I find amusing; but it's easy to see how there could be a more sinister aspect to this kind of assumption - especially if a particular individual is seen as an easy target for online bullying or harassment.

And what if one's legal name doesn't, for example, match one's sex on a given form? That carries potential for awkward questions from whatever official organisation provided the form; and raises another issue about which society at large is only gradually becoming more enlightened.

A person's sex is one of the first things we recognise, generally speaking, upon seeing them. When there is ambiguity in a person's appearance, it's hard not to do a double-take, seeking those tell-tale features that will define an individual as one or the other. It's easy to see why, in evolutionary biological terms at least, it might be important to pin down the sex of people we meet; but being human, we just can't leave it at that - being placed into the category of male or female comes with a raft of expectations about how we will behave and what roles we will fulfill in society. Not everyone wants to or is capable of living up to the expectations attached to their physical sex, nor should we, I believe, assume that they will - but many do assume, even to the point of castigating those who mess up their tidy little categorisations by not looking the way they "should" or not behaving in expected ways.

That brings me to the fraught issue of relationship status. This is where the "it's complicated" response really comes into its own but it's hard to find that option on forms outside of social media. I have bumped up against unexpected - to me, anyway - questions on the basis of forms I have filled in, using what I had always thought was the status-neutral term 'Ms'. When a form calls for a title - and most official and legal ones do - a man has the single option 'Mr' but a woman has a choice between 'Miss', 'Mrs' and 'Ms'. Unbeknownst to me in the past, 'Ms' is not the "none of your business" approach to marital status I had always thought it was; the assumption attached to it is that you have been married but are now divorced - or so I was once told by a very confused administrative assistant.

It is undoubtedly a result of the historical fluctuations in the legal and social status of women that we have three options for women but only one for men (assuming you're not a doctor or a lord or some other titled individual). Men, historically, have been far less defined - and their legal standing far less affected - by their relationship status than have women; but it's not just this baggage that gives us reason to question the requirement to declare one's relationship status - coupled with the limited range of options - on a form, official or otherwise. Again, being human, we tend to like things to fit neatly into categories; but increasingly, intimate relationships are breaking out from under the tidily defined labels offered by most forms. One might be married and have a partner or two in addition to one's spouse; alternatively, one might be 'single' in a legal sense but be sharing accommodation with a handful of partners. There's no current legal recognition for polyamorous relationship arrangements; and even if there were, the possible permutations would make the most dedicated bureaucrat's head spin.

It might be nice to suppose that one day, there will be forms that are not implicitly designed to fit people into narrowly defined categories but which genuinely and inclusively seek such information as individuals are prepared to provide. It might be a pipe-dream but at the very least, it would be encouraging to see forms that don't tend towards excluding those of us who prefer not to live within the confines of the box.
dormant_dragon: (Default)
(This is the post I had intended to write yesterday before it all went pear-shaped. Thanks to [profile] alamark for the idea!)

At the recent election, Family First came in last on my ballot paper. Not just because they stand for the kind of 1950s ideal of "family values" that most sane people realise was a propaganda piece for capitalism and a thin veneer over the repression and exploitation of women; but because of what I found to be the deeply offensive implications of their giant billboard over the West Gate Freeway proudly declaring, "This election, I'm putting my family first!"

Why would I find such a thing offensive?

Well, for one thing, it's clearly not a socialist idea. They're not talking about the whole human family here, obviously, but the very narrowly specific concept of the nuclear family - a man, a woman and their children. There is much I could say about my feelings with regard to the nuclear family and the pernicious belief that it is the "natural" state of human relationships; but that isn't quite the direction I'm taking in this post. There's something wider and deeper going on with the insidiously reactionary sentiment expressed in the Family First billboard and it's been going on in our society for some time - the attempt to contain the definition of 'family' within a small, manageable, capitalistic box.

For several years now I have been adamantly and openly child-free - that is, I have no children by my own choice and do not feel that by making this choice I am missing out on anything that I actually want to have in my life. I am very fortunate to be married to someone who is of the same mind on this point but I think it's fair to say that [personal profile] japester and I would thus not qualify as a family by Family First's standards. Moreover, there still seems to be a sense in wider society that it's children that make a family. I want to talk about why I don't believe this to be the case and why I think the concept of family should be more expansive.

What seems to be at issue is really how we define relationships and what makes us attach greater importance to some than to others.

"Blood is thicker than water" is an old and well-known saw expressing the belief that those to whom you are related "by blood" - or genetically, as we'd now say - are ultimately the most important people in your life; even if you don't get along with your relatives, you'll still be there for them when they need you. All well and good but in practice, many of us have friends, unrelated by blood, for whom we'd drop everything if they were in a crisis - even if we haven't so much as spoken to them for years. Why do people not more generally consider such friends to be 'family'?

The point might be made that there's a biological imperative to advance the interests of those who carry one's own genes and that therefore your relationship with your own children is the most important connection you can have in life. It seems reasonable to suppose that there's something to this argument but again, in practice there's much that runs counter to it. Some parents abuse and even kill their own offspring - not exactly a means of advancing one's genetic contribution to the next generation. Do they still get to be called a 'family'? And what about adopted children? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's children are not all their biological offspring but they are all collectively referred to as a family. So it's quite apparent that the notion of children making a family is only loosely related to our biological drives.

How about other animals? I am very much a dog person and I've observed that amongst those who readily identify themselves as such - including many of my friends - dogs really are part of the family. I might be laying myself open to charges of profound weirdness in this, but I genuinely cannot imagine being more devastated by the death of a child than I was when I lost my dog, Bosworth, to cancer in 2011. He was very much family to me and home just hasn't been the same without him. Our cats are part of the family too. Unfortunately, society in general hasn't yet caught up to this more enlightened embrace of our fellow mammals. It might, however; at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, Peter Singer gave an excellent speech about expanding circles of ethical consideration. It seems, from research done by Steven Pinker and others, that humanity has been gradually, over its history, becoming less violent and more broadly altruistic; progressing from kinship bonds through to caring for people of other groups, other countries, other races, even through to caring about the interests of nonhuman animals - recognising that ultimately, we are all family.

I think that is why, in the end, I found the Family First billboard so offensive. So narrow and selfish in its scope (and yes, I am alive to the irony of being called selfish myself for not having children of my own) and so closed to the possibility of a broader concept of family than man, woman and 2.4 children, all tucked up in their cottage behind the white picket fence, it offers no understanding to those of us who want something different for our lives and our relationships.

I may not fit the little model of the family so vaunted by conservatives but I do have lovers, friends and nonhuman companions whom I count as my own; I also have the consciousness that the interests of my brother and sister humans - and my nonhuman cousins - matter as much to them as my own do to me; and so if anyone is ever foolish enough to ask me, "When are you going to have a family?" my response will always be, "I already have one."
dormant_dragon: (Default)
Today has been one of those days where I've now just thrown up my hands and said to myself, "Tomorrow will be better."

I did, in fact, have another post in mind for today, one suggested in response to my request for ideas on Facebook. However, it's a topic that requires and deserves more time and energy than I have to devote to it today, so it will become tomorrow's post. That's one way tomorrow will be better.

I have also been meaning to get myself out into the garden this week but so far I have been allowing the weather to put me off. It's been doing that peculiarly annoying Melbourne thing of raining intermittently between bursts of inviting sunshine, which seems to have been affecting my mood and also the degree to which I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of mowing the overgrown front lawn. I am, however, going out tomorrow in quest of company and gardening inspiration. That's another way tomorrow will be better.

Today has been punctuated by sleep, largely because I haven't had much of that over the past few nights. This morning, after driving to the city and back, rather than actually making breakfast, I raided the freezer for hash browns. Then, instead of making the most of the rest of the morning, I gave in to the lethargy and had a long nap. With any luck, I'll get a decent sleep tonight - if I can switch my brain off, that is. Then I'll get up and actually make breakfast before I set off towards Ballarat for the day. That's another way tomorrow will be better.

Then, of course, there has been the problem of headspace. My rational faculties have an alarming habit of surrendering territory to fears and doubts and paranoia; the optimist in me is in constant warfare with the cynic; and every so often I just have to give myself a mental slap in the face and say, "Oi! Get the fuck over it!" Maybe tomorrow it will be different. Maybe I'll wake up feeling positive; maybe I'll be able to stop second-guessing myself and assuming the worst about everything that's going on in my life; maybe I'll be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of the day just for themselves.

If that happens, then tomorrow really will be better.
dormant_dragon: (Default)
So, it looks like Australia will have to wait at least another few years before catching up to more progressive parts of the world which have recognised the right of homosexual couples to officially marry. I see little chance of it happening under a conservative government headed by a Catholic prime minister, who at his election victory speech rather disturbingly displayed his daughters clad in virginal white.

I've written about the subject of marriage and marriage equality elsewhere before but this seems like a good time to air some more thoughts about it. I have to say right up front that I am in two minds about the issue as a whole.

Those who wish to 'protect' marriage by denying homosexual couples the right to legally and socially sanctioned recognition of their commitment are holding up one of the last bastions of segregation in the more enlightened parts of Western society. Superficially rational statements like, "Children need a mother and a father" are just the oil-slick on top of the much deeper waters of prejudice and exclusion.

What, exactly, do the conservatives think they are protecting?

Some of them, of course, adhere to blatantly religious views such as the notion that marriage was "defined by God" as the union of a man and a woman. The Catholic view is particularly sinister in that the sacrament of marriage is what legitimises the sexual union between the man and the woman; and furthermore, every act of intercourse must be "open to procreation" in order not to be a sinful expression of selfish desire. As long as it's balanced by the effort and pains inherent in bearing and raising children, then it's okay to enjoy sex; but it's not okay otherwise. Hatred and fear of pleasure permeates the morality bequeathed to the West by Christianity and given his declared religious allegiance, we must suppose this to be the view held by our new prime minister.

Whilst it is a biological fact that a homosexual couple, left to their own devices, are unable to procreate, this cannot be the real reason for excluding them from marriage. Heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to have children are permitted to marry; and on the other side, there is no longer a social stigma attached to the fact of children being born "out of wedlock" - even the phrase now sounds archaic - so it's simply not true anymore that marriage is considered to be primarily about bearing and raising children.

Yet it seems there is still something special and meaningful about the concept of marriage that conservatives think would be undermined by the act of attaching the name and all it implies to a union between two people of the same sex - though not, apparently, by the prevalence of divorce, the legal standing of de facto relationships, not even by the gaudiness of the wedding industry.

So what's the something? This is where my views drift into murky waters.

For one thing, opponents of marriage equality will frequently say things like, "But gay couples can have civil unions - what are they complaining about?" as if a civil union carries the same legal and social weight as a marriage. It doesn't, as a matter of fact, have the same legal definition, nor the breadth of rights and recognition attached to marriage. It also seems to lack gravitas and certainly it lacks a sense of romance - "I'm entering a civil union!" really doesn't evince the same kind of excitement as, "I'm getting married!"

What I wonder is why this is the case.

I am married, as most people reading this know; and the day [personal profile] japester proposed to me was indeed one of the happiest of my life. But why this particular expression of commitment and the desire to be part of my life should seem more significant than something like moving in together, buying a house together (both of which we'd done before the wedding) or even, for that matter, entering a civil union together is something I really can't explain. Yes, marriage has the weight of history behind it; but that history is far from edifying. I do at times feel a bit strange referring to myself as a wife, precisely because of its uncomfortably antiquated connotations, the hint of staid conformity and repression of individuality that hovers about it like a bad smell. At the same time I can't help feeling that the phrase, "My husband" somehow has more clout in society than "My partner", as if I, as a woman, am more accomplished, more well-defined as a person for having married a man than for merely having a relationship. Why this should be so is in itself an issue that might well become the subject for another post.

So on the one hand, I certainly appreciate in an emotional sense why same-sex couples want to be able to get married; rationally I can see no good reason to exclude them from the legal rights and social privileges that accompany marriage. On the other hand, there is that part of me that questions the status and value of marriage as an institution; and wonders whether we shouldn't all be holding out for something better.
dormant_dragon: (Default)
I think I have been quite fortunate, at least in the second half of my life, to have been able to find like-minded people pretty much everywhere I've lived. What seems to have varied is the extent to which people who think similarly to me represent the character of the general population of each place.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a libertarian socialist, an atheist and a hedonist, and that I vote Green. As such, I have to acknowledge that I feel more at home in Melbourne than anywhere else I've lived so far. Much as it's fair to say of those people who broadly agree with my views that presently they make up a minority of any given population - and they may always do so - it seems to be a much larger minority here than most other places.

Let's take Bathurst, for example, where I was born and grew up and spent most of the first half of my life. For much of that time, I felt pretty much like a minority of one. That was, however, more a case of feeling like a social fringe-dweller than from any sense of having a well-formed worldview that didn't match with that of anyone else. My opinions then were far more conservative in many ways than they are now - a definite product of my fairly strict Catholic upbringing, rather than anything to which I'd given serious thought in my own right. I have observed in the past that as a place to grow up, Bathurst kind of offered the worst of both worlds - none of the intimacy of a truly small town but none of the excitement of a big city either. When I visit these days I am not overly conscious of not fitting in, but I feel no real need to interact with anyone other than my parents. Most of my school acquaintance no longer live there - Bathurst is the kind of place from which young people tend to move away if they want to expand their horizons.

Canberra was the next place I lived and where I first began to realise that I was not quite so much of a misfit as I had previously felt. The first half of my time there was spent in the melting-pot of campus life and as such, not entirely reflective of the attitudes of the 'native' population of Canberra. Over the years, though, I gradually began to meet more people who actually called Canberra home - indeed, became one of those people myself. It was there also that I first found myself amongst medieval recreationists - again a small subset of any population, with even smaller subsets within it - of which more later. I have observed that although its population is not uniformly thus of course, Canberra does tend to produce a particular sort of person who is a delightful - to me, at least - blend of rustic and sophisticate; quite appropriate, I suppose, for the Bush Capital.

Then there was Perth. What can I say of Perth, with its curious cultural mix of laid-back, sun-loving conviviality and slightly uptight parochialism? For one thing, I have seldom been as readily welcomed as I was when I first moved there; I suspect that was in large part because I had a ready-made circle of acquaintance through [personal profile] japester but having said that, I felt they were genuinely accepting of me in my own right as well. In keeping with my previous experience, the people with whom I spent time were largely of the subcultural persuasion - not just medieval recreationists this time but fans.

Fandom as such was a new concept for me. Of course I understood generally that one could be a fan of some particular form of creative expression - a type of music, a series of novels, a movie franchise or television series for example - and of the creators themselves; but I had not yet come across people who fully immersed themselves in fandom, engaging not just aesthetically with creative works and those who produce them, but also intellectually, emotionally and even socio-politically. Although Canberra and Melbourne and just about any Western city one can name have their own fan communities, the only one with which I have really associated is that of Perth; and that, I suspect, is how it will stay.

Much as I was embraced with open arms by the medieval recreationists in Perth, there were approaches to the game here that never sat well with me. In one sense, I think this is for similar reasons to those that prevented me from fully engaging with fandom - in each subcultural group, there are those for whom it isn't just part of their lifestyle; it is their life. Perhaps I hadn't been paying enough attention before but it seemed to me that I encountered more of the latter amongst medieval recreationists in Perth than I had anywhere else. Or perhaps it was simply that the particular culture of Perth's recreationist groups was not one that readily absorbed a darker and more subversive interpretation of medieval life - which can be fun to explore if you don't take the game too seriously.

So much for my experiences. It scarcely needs repeating that they have not exactly been of mainstream life in any of the places in which I have lived, with the exception of my childhood and adolescence - so it doesn't surprise me that this was the period of my life during which I felt most out of place. I don't know that I can say I've noticed great differences in the overall character of the people anywhere I've been in Australia; but it's likely this is just a reflection of the fact that I tend to gravitate towards similar kinds of people wherever I happen to be. Of course Melbourne, like anywhere else in the country, has its share of religious fanatics, social conservatives and Liberal voters; but their voices somehow seem more muted here and that suits me very well indeed.
dormant_dragon: (Default)
As I'm writing this post, [personal profile] japester is practising his violin playing in the front room - and in fact it was his suggestion that I write about music tonight. A musical muse is a useful thing, especially when one is dead tired and stuck for ideas after a long drive on very little sleep.

So, what words do I have to write about music? As it happens, quite a few.

I was about five years old when I first picked up a violin, with intent to learn how to play it. It was not very long afterward that I gave it up as a bad job and instead picked up a cello which, for some reason, seemed to suit me better. Years of cello lessons ensued with a variety of teachers, but it became quite apparent that I lacked the temperament and dedication to be a concert musician (and in any case, I doubt that had ever been my parents' intention in having me learn an instrument) and in the middle of high school, I packed it in.

In the year or two following I had unsuccessful flirtations with both flute and piano which, in addition to being productive of unpleasant noises and a great deal of frustration, seemed to demonstrate that if I wanted to be at all musical, I should stick with strings - of the bowed or plucked variety that is, not the ones hammered with keys in the guts of a piano. Duly chastened - or enlightened, if you want a more positive spin - I returned to my cello-playing and kept it up through my end-of-school exams.

It wasn't until a couple of years later that I once again picked up my cello, this time to play with a medieval-style music group who really wanted a bass instrument to join them. Obviously the cello isn't a medieval instrument, but amateurs work with what they have - and I did get a couple of useful tips from my last cello teacher (who was by then teaching my older brother classical guitar) on how to make a modern cello better emulate the softer, less robust sound of a baroque cello, which is just a little bit closer to the sound of even older instruments like the bass viol, which actually fit the period of most of the music we played.

After another, more lengthy hiatus and a move interstate (about as far as I could go and still be in the same country) I once again took up the cello in the cause of reviving live dance music as part of the culture of our local medieval recreation group - a cause in which I was supported and encouraged by [personal profile] japester, who at that time was also once again picking up his childhood instrument - the violin - with intent to play.

Whether I should call it a departure from my true path or a musical evolution is open to debate but this time, having observed previously that most of the arrangements in circulation either lacked a bass line or had one that was quite dull relative to the other parts, I also taught myself to play the recorder. Like many others, up until my first encounter with medieval music, my only experience with the recorder was that it was that horrible squeaky plastic thing I was made to play in primary school. But I had by now learned that a wooden recorder can be a truly beautiful instrument, in the hands of a competent player - so I set out to become one.

Small problem with this plan, however - I was very, very bad at reading treble clef notation. Bass clef, no problem; but I just didn't know where any of these notes were on a recorder, much less how to quickly match notation with fingering whilst sight-reading. The solution at which I arrived owed much to the fact that I already knew many of the more popular dance tunes by ear, so I could pick them out on the recorder whilst following the music; eventually, I worked out which notes went with what fingering and could now learn new music. For the most part, though, once we'd assembled our core group of musicians, I was still the only bass-instrument player, so when there were bass lines, they fell to me. But that was okay, as long as it meant we were actually playing music at medieval events, rather than just listening to it coming from discreetly-placed and artfully concealed speakers.

So where has all this musical dabbling left me today?

Well, the music group we worked hard to establish is still going strong without us, which makes me happy because that had always been our intention. For me, though, moving back across the country has seen yet another lengthy hiatus in music playing, punctuated by rare and short-lived bursts of enthusiasm. For the most part, my cello, recorders and guitars all lie neglected and unplayed.

However, [personal profile] japester's recently renewed enthusiasm and commitment to playing violin, coupled with the fact that I hear him improving all the time, has made me think that maybe, just maybe I can overcome my present musical lethargy and become, if not anything like a great musician, at least a competent hack who can bust out a tune or three at short notice.

Yes indeed, a musical muse is a fine thing to have...

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