Saturday, April 14, 2007

Smart Skepticism

Mediums and psychics are generally ignorant in their own field, and when they open their mouth, they usually do more harm than good. Obviously, I speak from experience. Personally, I believe that I am a damn good medium, but I also know that I have a long way to go before I can claim any knowledge in the field of parapsychology. I do get brownie points for trying, though.

Luckily for all of us, there are parapsychology researchers out there, both professional and novices, who keep the light shining on this topic in a way that is both presentable and respectable outside our own community. A way I call smart skepticism.

Recently, I've discovered a smart skeptic, Alex Tsakiris, who hosts a brilliant podcast with some stellar interviews. It's called Skeptico, and well worth your time.

Here is an interview from his site with author, psychologist and skeptic
Dr. James Alcock.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Raccoon Resurrection

Death and resurrection are obviously appropriate topics for Easter Sunday. In fact, if you stretch the metaphor a bit, death and resurrection are appropriate topics for most holidays. It seems particularly relevant on Saint Patrick's Day, when millions of people drink themselves to the brink of death, and somehow are miraculously resurrected by the next morning (not without mental stigmata, of course). So, not to diminish the importance of Easter, but my Saint Paddy's Day resurrection story outshines any personal connection I might have to the Easter story, though this story involves a furry, four-legged nature critter instead of a persecuted messiah.

No disrespect to the Irish, as I am married to a wonderful Irish lass, but aside from that good fortune, "the luck of the Irish" has never really been with me. Case in point, my job interview on Saint Paddy's Day, 2004. I was still a full-time freelance writer, doing my spiritual work part-time and totally pro-bono. Since moving to California from New York a year earlier, I was spending a lot of time hustling work.

I got to the interview with five minutes to spare and quickly parked next to the building office. Right away I noticed that this was no ordinary building. Circular in shape, surrounded by a large circular yard, and fenced in by seven foot high iron spikes, the building had all the appeal of a county jail, though I later came to find out it was a converted Methodist church.

The other thing I noticed about this odd building was a cheap, vinyl banner (like they make at Kinko's) hanging on the fence advertising "Jobs available inside." I've always considered street recruitment vinyl banners as a warning sign to stay out.

"What is this, an ad agency or a Wendy's?" I thought to myself.

I turned off the car, but before stepping out, I spotted two weird men loitering outside of the main gate of the building. I gathered that the gate was locked, but it was almost 8:30 AM, and this type of security measure seemed way out of place for an insignificant advertising agency.

Again, my intuition kicked in; I became increasingly suspicious of the scenario. I called my headhunter and asked her, "Amy, are you sure this is where I am supposed to be? This place looks like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or maybe a Scientologist recruitment center." My headhunter confirmed the address and said to go in and check it out.

As I hung up the phone, someone opened the gate for the two loitering weirdoes. I waited a minute in the car so that I wouldn't have to enter with them. As I made my way into the main entrance of the seven foot iron spiked fence, I saw a pretty young woman in a business suit stop in her tracks and stare up at something on the iron fence. I looked too; my jaw dropped in disbelief.

At first I thought it was a stuffed toy animal, but then I saw its blood dripping down the fence. Even in this shocking state, I couldn't help but have a Hallmark moment and think, "what a cute raccoon." Quick glances here and there, and I suddenly realized that the raccoon had been lanced by the sharp tip of one of the iron fence spikes. Struggling to grasp the spike with his front claws, the raccoon tried to pull itself free, but to no avail. It knew that it couldn't let go. If it did, it would be hanging upside down and death would painfully follow.

It was a weird moment. I laid my portfolio down. The young lady and I were facing each other on opposite sides of the fence, looking up at the bloody scene. The raccoon seemed deeply aware of the situation. He looked into our eyes with a knowing sense that the young woman and I were witnesses to its crucifixion.

I looked down at my feet and saw a broken branch. My CSI sense told me the whole story - raccoon steps out on to a weak branch, it brakes, raccoon falls ten feet in the air and lands on the iron spike of the fence. A centimeter or two to either side, and our friend would have hit the ground and escaped relatively unharmed. Luck (or fate) always seems to be a matter of centimeters, doesn't it?

The young woman informed me that she had just called 911. Apparently, 911 was sending over Animal Control. In the meantime, the young woman and I hardly shared a word. We waited silently with the raccoon, only mumbling sorrows in hushed tones. Occasionally, a totally uninterested employee from the creepy office building would walk right pass us, never once thinking that two weepy people on either side of a spiked fence starring up at a dying raccoon was odd.

Soon, Animal Control arrived. Out of the van came two slightly awkward-looking government employees, who when trying to assess the scene, resembled Laurel & Hardy trying to open a can of beans without a can opener. They weren't really sure what to do or where to begin. Their big idea was to the pull the raccoon off the spike like a piece of shish-kabob meat. I suggested that they sedate the creature first. After another 5 minutes of scratching their heads, they finally agreed with my idea.

Innocently, I asked if a veterinarian might operate on the animal after they removed it. "Operate?" they mused, "Oh no, this little guy will have to be euthanized." The death sentence was now sealed. There would be no last minute reprieve from Governor Schwarzenegger. However, the minute Animal Control told us this detail, the raccoon stopped struggling to free itself, and quietly resigned to wait for the light.

We all stood quietly with it, totally helpless. Even Laurel & Hardy found some grace in the moment. The young woman couldn't take our helpless state for much longer and searched around the ground for a small something. She found a morsel of bread and stuck it on the iron spike right next to the one that the raccoon had been impaled on. The dying critter looked over at the morsel of bread, taking it gingerly into it's mouth with one paw while keeping itself propped up with the other one. This was the last supper.

It was 8:45 AM, and technically we were both 15 minutes late for our interviews. As the sedation slowly weakened the raccoon, the young woman and I decided to say our final goodbyes. It was a slightly awkward and embarrassing moment, but no one made fun of anyone. I turned to the young woman and said, "I'm here for an interview, but now I don't think I can concentrate any more." She replied, "Me too. I have an interview right now, but now I just don't care."

We walked in together to building's lobby. I tried to snap back into a professional tone and told the receptionist, "I'm here to interview for a freelance copywriter position. I'm a bit late."

"Me too," said the young woman. "Me too, what?" I invited.

"Me too. I'm also interviewing for a freelance copywriter position, and I'm a bit late," she offered confidently. Then as if a chain reaction had been unleashed, the two weirdoes who had previously been hanging outside the fence when I pulled up, said, "Us too, we're also interviewing for a freelance copywriter position."

I was under the impression that I was having a personal interview with the president of the company. I was told to bring samples of my work and to be prepared to have extensive discussions about my qualifications. It quickly became apparent that there weren't just three other copywriters standing in the lobby, but three copywriters standing in my way to this job.

I said out loud, "I can't believe this! They scheduled four different copywriters to come in at the same time and compete with each other for one job." As the words finished coming out of my mouth, another man walked up to the receptionist and said, "I'm here to interview for freelance copywriter."

Instantly, I recognized that the raccoon was a sign - death isn't glorious, survival is. At times, we are all animals struggling to stay alive, hanging upside down with a stake driven through us. Life can be oddly cold in its warmest intentions.

The job we would be competing for turned out to be a chance to write TV commercials for those "caring" lawyers you see during daytime television. You know the ones... "Injured in a car accident? Hurt on the Job? Call Whitcomb & Meyers at 1-800-636-3636. We'll defend your rights and get you the money you deserve. Remember, we don't get paid until you get what you deserve. Call right now at 1-800-636-3636."

We were hustled into a large debriefing room. Ms. Wallace, the company president, was a self-important, slave driver. Trying to ignore her abrasive attitude, I looked out the window and could see the raccoon's last stance. A sense of defiance came over me, and I asked the company's president if the 1-800 Lawyers agency handled worker's comp cases, because if they did, your company's in big trouble with that raccoon out there. She gave me a small cutting laugh which I interpreted as..."keep that up, and soon your ass will be freelancing at the end of my shoe."

We were instructed to go to separate parts of the building and come up with an ad concept for the "Legal Defenders." We were to write 1 to 2 TV spots for that concept, turn them in and go home. No one-on-one interview, no need to show the portfolio of work we were asked to bring, just give them free work and hope you are selected.

I looked outside the window and saw Animal Control driving off with the raccoon. I searched for the young woman whom I had shared the raccoon moment with earlier hoping to share another sad goodbye. I found her deep in the land of litigationville dreaming of trouncing the competition. One thing about compassion, it always has an experition date when saddled next to self-preservation.

I felt a competitive animal instinct kick in. I jumped into the lion's den, and my adrenaline started pumping. I wasn't about to fall off the branch onto an iron spike without a fight. I spent 3 hours secluded in a small room churning out TV spots for a bunch of ambulance chasing lawyers. With each TV spot I wrote, I felt more and more alive, distancing myself mentally from images of the crucified raccoon.

I left the building drained and tired. Outside, I could still see the raccoon's blood drying in the sun. Had this whole incident been a random act of natural selection, or some kind of omen warning me away? Then I thought a nice, cold pint of Irish brew might help me figure things out. Happy Saint Paddy's day.

A few days later, I got the assignment. Any elation over my victory faded as the whole writing for a money-grubbing slave driver Cruela Deville type turned out to be an experience even more miserable than the interview. Yet less than a month later, I made a personal decision to balance out my capitalistic talents with my spiritual ones. I made the leap from "street medium" to "professional medium."

Even today, every time I am driving behind a city bus advertising one of those 1-800-INJURED lawyer ads on the back, I think of the damn luck of that poor raccoon. Deep down,even though I know our consciousness survives, I want to believe that life is more than just dumb luck. I want to believe that on that Saint Patrick's Day both the raccoon and I were somehow resurrected to a better place. I want to believe that we're not all just walking out on to some weak tree branch with a spiked iron fence waiting below us. Who knows?

Lesson: The signs are everywhere. Acknowledge their wisdom even if you can't follow their path.