Saturday, July 18, 2020

My Nightmares

“How many of our daydreams would darken into nightmares if there seemed any danger of their coming true!”Logan Pearsall Smith

            This is going to be a somewhat personal blog, and for those who think I am a little strange, this blog will not help much.  I want to also state, this is not fiction or a short story.  Please understand, however, that I will offer this in the most interesting terms I can conceive.  Just because something is true, doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting.
            Last night, I woke in the middle of the night and looming over me was a very large child with a stone pale face, murky red lips, and disheveled hair.  He was smiling a menacing smile as he looked down at me.  I rose as quickly as I could, yelling “GET OUT!”  and I threw a punch at the face.  There was nothing there.  My shoulder and neck ached for a short while after and kept me up for a while.  One shouldn’t throw punches immediately upon waking for two reasons: 1. your body isn’t prepared and you can pull a muscle and 2.  The mount of force in throwing is much higher than a waking punch and can cause injuries, especially when either one makes contact with an object or when one does not. 
            As I mentioned this is not fiction.  So let me continue, as if it were a plotted story.  The monstrous visit of last night is not new or unusual.  Almost every night I am visited by monsters, or demons, or living religious icons, or dead children, or murky forms that rush at me.  When I was a little boy these visions and apparitions terrified me into screeching howls that could last hours.  At some point in my early teens the howls mixed with a really hysterical feeling of rage and I started to fight the things I saw.  The howls subsided shortly there after.   The fear, the terror, did not subside.  I want to mention it is terror and not fear.  I’ll explain more about this shortly.  I would like to also mention the events take place now fairly silently, but when I am moved to speak I say ridiculous things.  A joke with a friend of mine consists of the phrase “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” as this was one of the more awkward phrases I roared at one of my monsters.    Whenever the subject of sleep or dreams comes up the phrase “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” pops up and I smile like an idiot and my friend laughs.
            Some of the more awful sights have been dead children.  Always very pale and somewhat bluish, often girls, less frequently boys, but the boys almost always have red hair and glasses.  On one occasion the red haired boy appeared as a red haired man. I distinctly recall the shock of this night.  He was so clear, so vivid, I could not blink him away (which works fairly often).  He became more clear.  He crouched at the foot of my bed.  I could see the distortion of the lights from my stereo through his glasses.  I was very quiet when I attacked him. I recall it seemed very, very quiet and still, almost verging on white noise.  I reared over him and my fist was just perfect.  I was in a position of great advantage for violence. He looked up at me and my fist met nothing.  I threw several frantic panicked punches after this, and quickly ran to the light which I left on for the rest of the night.
            That was probably 27 years ago.
            The monsters have transformed in some qualities since the first group.  And some other visitors of note have stopped by to watch me sleep.  I’ll discuss two, one troubling because it is not my own experience but seems to have leaked out, and the other maybe offering some hints of randomness in these events.  The first occurred when I was 17 and lived with my parents.  I have two sisters.  My older sister had moved out, and my younger sister, who is six years younger than I am, was still in elementary school.  I woke when it was somewhat light, but not yet dawn, and at the far corner of my bedroom against the wall was an old robed man holding what looked like a lamp.  I had had these sleep visitors for long enough to be able to dismiss the less alarming as residual dreams.  Unlike many but not unknown to me, this sight was not frightening, but it felt filled with importance.  Please take note of this.  I mention these experiences with terms that point out exaggeration, which will, hopefully, make some sense by the end.
            To continue, the old man slowly faded as I woke more fully.  But I felt worried.  I had by this time heard the legend of Diogenes the Cynic searching the world for an honest man.  I had the distinct impression, if it was Diogenes he was not impressed with me.  I fell asleep again, but remember, and was thoughtful, but not very deeply moved by the whole experience.  I was driven to school that day, as was my little sister.  She crankily remarked “I had a dream I saw an old man in my room at the foot of my bed holding a light.”  I confessed the same dream, and she didn’t believe me.
            The second variety of visit, the one I hope will point out some random aspect, was in the afternoon.  I had decided to take a nap after working an early morning shift waiting tables.  When I arrived home from work I was very tired, and my thinking was cloudy, so I quickly fell asleep.  It was summer, and the sun was up late in the afternoon.  I woke up with an deep sense of urgency, and when my eyes opened I saw a giant vision of the Virgin Mary.  She was very angry, and glaring, looking at me with snarling displeasure.  I am not a Catholic.  I am not even a Christian.  I am a confirmed, steady, atheist.  I feel no old devotion or connection to the Virgin Mary, I was not raised under an umbrella of perceived Marian beneficence.  I come from several generations of agnostics, and on the whole the stories of religious figures have been traditionally given over to my family as charming, and very idiomatic, stories.  For those who know me, you will of course be aware I spend a lot of time studying religious history, and the history of myth, but I’m certain that everyone knows that my interest in these things is not based in belief, or a search for faith.  If anything I just like solving complex puzzles, and these complex puzzles involve fantastic stories, which I like as well.  So I’m sure you can imagine my surprise as I trembled beneath an angry Virgin.  In like fashion, I once saw an icon of a disembodied head.  It looked Hindu.  As a side note, years later I found a photograph of this head from a ruined Indian temple.  Whether I applied this photo to my memory is not something on which I can clearly opinionate.
            Let me give over some details about these monstrous visits that seem worth mentioning.  They occur almost every night.  They happen most frequently at night, especially in very dark rooms.  They are often oriented to doors, windows, and closets.  At times the sights are assembled from indistinct shadowy forms that are actually in the room (recently a ladder, for example).  Other times they come from nothing and are very highly detailed.  Often they are stiff and almost picture like, but very active and more horrible ones appear more often than I like.  When my artwork seems to be in a lull, the sights diminish in potency, and can be blinked away.  When the art is going to appear in a flood the sights become nearly unbearable, and I will sleep with the lights on, or even fear to sleep, and delay it as long as I can.
            I have been asked, fairly frequently, if my ideas come from my dreams.  I haven’t ever painted one of my dreams.  I recently started to paint something with the quality of one of my more horrific visions, but was asked to stop, and I think, for now that may not be a bad idea.  But this is the first time I ever thought to do this.  The connection between my artwork and these visions isn’t direct or very clear to me.  But I hope to point out some very strange things in the next portion.
            The term for what I experience is “Hypnogogic sensations” or Hypnogogic hallucinations.  Sometimes the term Hypnopompic is used to specifically name the experience when one wakes.  Usually this experience is accompanied by sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis is what keeps people from acting out their dreams.  I am not a sleep walker, but I do not seem to be largely inhibited by sleep paralysis.  In one of my battles with the monsters, one that lasted unusually long, I ransacked my room and threw a punch that compress my brachial nerve, and effected my medial and spiral nerves in my left arm, nearly paralyzing my arm for 8 months (very painful injury.)  Sleep paralysis would be kinda nice, I think. (On a little side note, I thought it was interesting that after 8 months of what I was despairing to think would be a permanent diminished use of my left arm, it took about two weeks for the arm to surge back into use.  Nerves are strange.)
            This odd type of hallucination is well known, and has been depicted in art.  It also receives the blame for alien abduction reports, and witch’s stealing breath, and visits by succubae in previous centuries.  I have never had any of these experiences exactly, especially aliens, which would, for some reason, seem counter intuitive to my sense of fear.  
            So there, it now seems somewhat normal, recognizable and calmly dealt with in science.  Which seems good.  But I would like to shake off a bit of the calm and restful recognition.  I would like to mention some things that place uncertain possibilities in the way of comfort the security of the light of science.  I would like to make this uncomfortable and uncertain again by mentioning some problems.  So let’s first examine my death.
            When I was 3, my family was visiting old friends, when I managed to quickly sneak into our friends purse, and steal a full bottle of stelazine.  I opened the child proof cap and ate the contents of the bottle.  By the time they discovered what had done (a pill was stuck to my clothes) I had largely digested the stelazine.  Here is a brief list of the side effects of stelazine :

“Abnormal secretion of milk, abnormal sugar in urine, abnormalities in movement and posture, agitation, allergic reactions (sometimes severe), anemia, asthma, blood disorders, blurred vision, body rigidly arched backward, breast development in males, chewing movements, constipation, constricted pupils, difficulty swallowing, dilated pupils, dizziness, drooling, drowsiness, dry mouth, ejaculation problems, exaggerated or excessive reflexes, excessive or spontaneous flow of milk, eye problems causing a state of fixed gaze, eye spasms, fatigue, fever or high fever, flu-like symptoms, fluid accumulation and swelling (including the brain), fragmented movements, headache, heart attack, high or low blood sugar, hives, impotence, inability to urinate, increase in appetite and weight, infections, insomnia, intestinal blockage, involuntary movements of tongue, face, mouth, jaw, arms, and legs, irregular blood pressure, pulse, and heartbeat, irregular or no menstrual periods, jitteriness, light-headedness (especially when standing up), liver damage, lockjaw, loss of appetite, low blood pressure, mask-like face, muscle stiffness and rigidity, nasal congestion, nausea, persistent, painful erections, pill-rolling movement, protruding tongue, puckering of mouth, puffing of cheeks, purple or red spots on the skin, rapid heartbeat, restlessness, rigid arms, feet, head, and muscles, seizures, sensitivity to light, shuffling walk, skin inflammation and peeling, skin itching, pigmentation, reddening, or rash, spasms in jaw, face, tongue, neck, hands, feet, back, and mouth, sweating, swelling of the throat, totally unresponsive state, tremors, twisted neck, weakness, yellowing of skin and whites of eyes.

Stelazine may cause tardive dyskinesia--a condition marked by involuntary muscle spasms and twitches in the face and body.”

How charming.  When they brought me to the hospital, I died.  That is a bit vague, and maybe somewhat untrue.  My heart stopped, and they had to spend an uncomfortable period of time resuscitating me.  I’m not exactly sure how we can define the boundaries and threshold of death, as I only tried it this once and I was too young to think to look for any sure signs.  In any case, I was about as near to death as one would like.  They were able to revive me.  The doctor sent me home that day, with the strangely callus comment, “We did all that can be done.  The next three days will tell, he could die at any point in the next three days.”  For the next three days I was stoned.  I would walk, leaning to one side, pause, smile with half my face, drool, and then pass out.  I recovered without any of the above side effects, but maybe two others, or one and then another born of the first.

            Shortly, thereafter I began to draw obsessively.  I have done some reading on stelazine.  For a while, I had a theory of sorts that the stelazine may have triggered something, or caused some brain functioning to exaggerate, but before I get to that, let me offer this:  my mother is an artist, and began to draw obsessively at about the age of three as well.  I have heard that art runs in families, but with little proof.  My sisters have some or no interest in art.  Other examples throughout history can back up the idea art does not run in families, and may have more to do with nurture, than nature.  In any case, it may not be the drugs and death at all.  But there may be some reason to consider the idea that maybe it was, or at least triggered some odd side effects.
            When I had been drawing some, and my drawings have always been “dark” (by popular description) I drew a monster.  I was very pleased with how well I drew the picture and asked my mom to pin it to the wall.  She did so.  When I went to sleep that night I had my first hypnogogic hallucination.  I said the picture came to life, and I was hysterical.  My parents recall this very clearly and certainly as the start of my sleep problems.  It seems that the trigger to my monsters was artificial.
             I have never really studied after this information with any great zeal.  Every so often I would check into it and see what I could find, which isn’t all that telling.  In the light of day I never worried about it.  But I stumbled onto some interesting things a few years ago.
            I was doing some research on a word, and how it relates to both the origins of art and the origins of religion.  I was reading about Siberian Shaman, as the word led to Siberia, across Asia, America and down to South America.  While I was reading about Siberian shaman and how the word appeared and changed in their idiomatic rites and myths.   I read about “possession sickness”.  Among shaman (which are somewhat specific types of healing magicians in Siberia, but known elsewhere as “ecstatics” and I’ll differentiate between the two here) there were accounts by shaman of how they became shaman.  The accounts are sometimes reversed, but the shaman described how they did not necessarily become shaman, but were chosen to be shaman.  The way they knew they were chosen is, while they slept they suffered attacks by other enemy shaman, demons, or spirits.  Sometimes it was not malevolent spirits but former shaman that attacked them, sought to tear them limb from limb.  
            This was very interesting to me as it seemed to echo my own unpleasant sleep.  What was further interesting was that sometimes, as I mentioned it was reversed.  Another way to become a shaman, a more dangerous way was to fast, deprive oneself of sleep for a week, self flagellate, cut off fingers, inflict dangerous wounds, or take excessive amounts of drugs or poison.  This was done to bring the hallucinations.  
            In some cases the rites decayed and shaman and ecstatics pretended to do these things with great theatrics, but there were contemporary accounts going back centuries, of witnesses who saw the dangerous rites, and of men who died.  In South America, the Chavin culture not only used drugs but elaborate statuary and subterranean mazes to induce monsters.  
            This leads to some strange territory, and it has not been ignored by scientists and scholars.  What can be put together is alarming. The terms are varied and not quite set.  Altered states, autistic states, “a cosmos in the brain”, inner cosmos, and other terms have come up and variously describe the same thing.  When events arise that cause dramatic effects in chemical levels in the brain (such as stresses of various sorts, or induced trances, even seizures) experience changes.  Sensations read as different than reality but with convincing durations and consistency.  This set of sensations have the ability to be “mapped” or set in a realistic, but different order (cosmos meaning ordered world.)  They can be mapped with some fair consistency, usually into a three tiered division of heaven, earth and the underworld.  These sensations of heavenly flight and subterranean darkness have neurological correspondences.  That is when areas of the brain are triggered the sensation can be reproduced.  What is strange is this other world has its own principles, laws, limitations, and is fed extending out into the “real world.” The monsters, as experience, are real.  They are not tangible fact, but have aspects that are brought out, qualities that are put together tangibly, by people afflicted with the monsters.  For some unclear reason, many people, artists and others have set about realizing this special inner cosmos, and its monsters.  They have created souvenirs, momentos, even “houses” for this other place.  It is so effective it can be contagious, other people have been and can be brought into this inner cosmos, making it not quite inner but conscious ands shared.  In other words they are nagging it into existence.  They are manifesting. 
            Part of this seems to be due to a benefit of sorts referred to as “kindling”.  Kindling is when the neurons take on new more frequent firing habits due to some new stimuli, like great stress, or other event- drugs or dying, or nearly dying.  This kindling opens new and more frequently used neural pathways.  It is the opening of doors that don’t close.  This is somewhat beneficial in ways, if you like creativity, and invention.  But in ways this is also bad.  Kindling often occurs with schizophrenia which seems to have characteristics of true ecstasy.  It seems the inner cosmos can become very real.  Or as the Greeks termed it “existanai phrenon”, driven out of one’s mind, to be beside oneself, or “moved”.  Recovering schizophrenics describe a feeling of being pushed aside and an audience while another has control of their bodies, and often internally addresses them.  They also describe, oddly, how this other reports events before they occur and will taunt the moved.  (This isn’t impossible but would take a while to get into).              Another maybe unpleasant aspect is the inner world is generally frightening, if not terrifying.  This is because it is exaggerated.  In dreams emotional exaggeration is very common, and often over trivial things.  It is also the case with stimulation of the limbic system when awake.  Certains drugs can cause this over exaggeration, as can focal point siezures.  The point to be noted here is the experience of the inner cosmos whether induced, or arbitrary is terrifying or sublime.  It is overwhelming.  This type of thing tends to lead to extremity.              For example, even though I am aware of the reasons, and reality of my hallucinations, I don’t want to fall asleep tonight.  It is too convincing.  Whether the monsters are tangible or not, they affect me, they do not seem part of an imaginary inner cosmos.  They are, whatever they are, in some sense real.  And in some way, a way that often seems involuntary, I attempt to create monuments, or reminders with them, maybe for them.  I have read accounts of others doing the same thing.  In light of how awful these things seem, there is something unwholesome about the monuments though they are exhilarating to make. I mentioned the monuments are not monuments OF them but WITH them, as if the one cooperates with the other.  I have to wonder to what end, though in the same thought I have to stabilize and think there is no end, as it is just hallucination.  The pull of the two places makes reason in some ranges hard to keep balanced.  Amplified, innate, emotion is very potent when it clashes with learned and somewhat impersonal reason.  

It might be worthwhile to note, the former term for these hallucinations, whether manufactured or natural, the inner cosmos, and the madness and creations it induced was called “art”.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Artist Block

Hello. How are you? You look great! Have you (gained/lost) weight. Well, it suits you! I’m well thanks for asking.

Let’s get to it.

So art block.  For a little over a year I have been trudging through an expansive art block. It has been, in the words of Abraham Lincoln: “About as fun as a chapped ass”.  It has very recently faded and slipped away, but it has been troubling.

Let’s go through what art block is and then some stuff to work through.

Art block isn’t one thing!  Surprise!!  I’m sure you are aware of this but just to be sure we start out with a good premise.  It can include stalled imagination, lack of ability to focus, dissonance between expectation and skill, slipping into tedious habits, distortion in proportion, forgetfulness, and difficulty.

Let me address this last first.  With any expertise comes ease.  Even something like automation.  You don’t need to think about it, it just happens.  Here is a brief video about it:

With expertise comes an expectation of ease.  You go into projects with the ease of moving your fingers or walking.  But like suffering an injury to nerves these ready actions can become shockingly difficult. This effect is called “the yips” in golf, but has other names in other sports and playing musical instruments.  Your brain, amazing as it is, is a fallible, ever shifting, thing. It builds patterns based on repetition and value. It takes time to reconfigure, rewrite, and shift. At times it can get tangled and overworked. It can even propagate misreads. Visual art (ooph, I hate these terms but it will have to do) is a highly complex set of activities and unlike golf and single musical instruments isn’t quite as dependent on one family of interactions. The yips aren’t as likely to end a career in art as they are in golf.  Fortunately, as part of the package an artist will have to reinvent physical and mental methods fairly frequently.  But that isn’t to say it is a walk in the park.

A way to deal with the aspect of difficulty is changing media, study (without practicing-just look and solve), exercise, and deliberately breaking habits.  Find a habit, break it. There won’t be immediate results.  Creating new patterns and standards in your brain takes time, so just ride the disappointment and frustration as calmly as possible and proceed.  What else can you do?

Stalled imagination: This can be related to “the yips”.  None of the aspects of block is independent of the rest.  But strangely the fix might be indirect.  Sometimes when you draw a face the nose doesn’t seem right.  So you redraw the nose about 50 times until the paper is compromised and tattered.  It finally dawns on you every nose was acceptable, it was the eyes and mouth that were the offenders. Your point of focus is off-you are fixing what isn’t broken. Your attention lands on the thing that points out the problem not the problem itself. It is misattribution based on new awareness. Stalled imagination is much like this.  The problem isn’t your imagination the problem is boredom, or a lack of new information to feed novelty and discovery.  You have retread the alleys of your best art high too much, and need new things to learn.  I don’t mean new art things to learn (though that may be a parallel part), I mean in your life.  You need to do new things, face new challenges, difficulties, joys etc.  Your imagination is dependent on your ability to be actually alive and subject to experience.  Don’t believe in the “introvert” myth.  To draw worlds you have to live in the world.
Current events take note.

Lack of ability to focus:  This one is rough and has many factors…and few fixes. So attention is an expansive issue.  Some of which is chemical, or dependent on brain function that is highly variable moment to moment. Depression can affect attention, as can caffeine, sound, driving awareness (like thinking of the action of your fingers while trying to draw, or the actions of your hands or eyes while driving), among many other things. So what do you do?  How do I know?!  I’m not your dad!  Wait…sorry, sorry, lost track of the convo…

Like that last sentence…divert attention in a completely different direction.  As it is so variable and some of it out of reach for fixing, diverting and doing something else might be in order.  If it is persistent there might be underlying physical or chemical issues to consider.  Nothing interrupts attention, memory, and continuity like an overload of stress hormones. This may include living conditions, work conditions, or disorders.
Shut off the damn news!  Seriously-it is in made to sabotage attention and continuity to create addictive “watching” habits - eyes on screens and compulsive clicking.  That’s why it is persistent cliff-hangers.  It is herding to the next click.  Read the news if you have to, but avoid attention destroying habits.

Dissonance between expectation and skill:  Drawing is a complicated process.  It incorporates many cognitive functions- subtle and overt.  Some have to do with your ability to control and measure pressure and angle.  Other parts have to do with projecting agency and “theory of mind”.  Still others have to do with how your brain understands your body in space, motion, and angle. Recognition of these experiences is itself a cognitive set.  These are at times competing cognitive functions or are uncoordinated.  Your expectation of what you can do, or your standards, can jump ahead of your mechanical knowledge.  But it will seem like you should know how to do it.  But this is a misunderstanding.  It may take a few tries to recognize the problem, but some intensive study will help.  Again, don’t expect immediate results.  It takes some time for your brain to process.

Slipping into tedious habits: Habits!  Part of art is feeding the exploration and discovery of the artist. Without intention we are mapping and projecting our senses of space incrementally into new territory.  Literally.  But we are also satisfied and fulfilled by successes.  It has been noted that addiction is a learning error. Drug addicts have been known to return to the place of their best high as if it magically holds some essence of the high and if they reproduce the ritual of their high it will come back.  This learning error is mirrored in habit.  Ritually returning to actions and sequences that had success becomes extremely tedious and stunts development.  It is a learning error.  Successful tactics become tools and can be incorporated into practice and are additive, repetitive rituals stunt, frustrate and create tedium.   Break your habits and unnecessary rituals, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, useful tools and recurring tactics are not habits.

Distortion in proportion:  At times you may find that your sense of proportion in figures, faces or composition are surprisingly distorted.  Sometimes the distortion will be consistent across images.  Overlarge hands, long or squat faces, big torso and small legs, big eyes and small nose, etc. This might be a mapping problem or how you feel vision, and, in turn, how your experience of vision will contort to match the feel.  When you recognize the distortion you can incorporate testing and adjusting this personal idiom in your regular work.  But sometimes your work will suddenly shift, become distorted and messy and you can immediately recognize it. You may note this under the scientific phrase : “My work looks like crap”.  And so it does!  But exercise can help this as can study, as can anatomy study, especially novel study.  Approach studying anatomy looking for a new angle or different approach, as you are likely fatiguing your patterns and entering habits.

Forgetfulness: Again this can have any number of causes. Sometimes the fix is a simple study session or review.  But other times it can be systemic in drawing.  The coordination and sequences you use to create the images can drop out, lose connection, and or stumble along too late. You actually have to think through what was previously automatic.  It can be surprising, disappointing and frustrating to have to manually set up what was so easy before.  Likewise, it can undermine confidence and exacerbate the issue.  It can get so bad you question if you ever knew how to draw or paint.  Again there can be real and serious causes for this.  But barring the worst case scenarios, some fixes include the strange idea of starting over.  Accept, briefly, that you have forgotten forever, or that you never knew and that things are broken.  Then proceed to go study and learn as if starting fresh. Assume: 1. It won’t take very long to learn and 2. It’s not a big deal.  With this relaxed premise in place go study.   You will quickly find you do recall, your anxieties will ease, and you will become very bored as it turns out: you actually do know all the lost stuff and nothing was forgotten.  Abstracting your abilities (like saying “aluminum” or “cinnamon”) seems like forgetfulness and is a sign of fatigue or repetition.

I hope that was helpful.