Alan Kirker

Sermon

August 21st, 2020 by

My father, Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker (1926 – 2004) was a United Church of Canada minister. One particular sermon of his originally delivered in August 1995 on the topic of bitterness may provide a balm or salve when assailed by this emotion’s corrosive effects, as it has for me. I have transcribed it below, and if it resonates with you, please share it, or whatever part of it, and credit my Dad, as I have titled him in boldface in the picture link at the start of this paragraph.

My Dad was born in a royal port. In his case Annapolis Royal, or Port Royal, as it was once known, while I came out the shute as the little black-haired asian-looking “wild man from Borneo” as he had put it, perhaps redirected in the Bardo from Tibet to our more needy parts of the world, up there on the slope of the Royal Mountain, or Montreal, at the Montreal General Hospital.

My Dad’s passion was flight, and  WW2 provided the opportunity for him to earn his wings at CFB Greenwood as the co-pilot of a “flying boat”, the PBY Canso (so named in Canada, after the Strait of, but was the same aircraft as a PBY Catalina). His aircraft was tasked with coastal patrol around the Bay of Fundy, looking for German U-Boats. Persistent memories I have are the times we enjoyed together as members of the Montreal Soaring Council in Hawkesbury, Ontario, where we would often drive to from downtown Montreal for summer weekends during the sixties and seventies and where we had a trailer parked.

Often, because my Dad was a certified glider pilot instructor, his otherwise peaceful sermon-inspiring flights that he so looked forward to would be preempted by line-ups of Saturday students begging him for a half-hour instruction flight that they could proudly record in their logbooks. These times, I took the role of flight control officer – actually more of a timekeeper with a stopwatch in the club trailer parked by the field – and logged the days’ flights; glider name-number, tow-plane name-number, pilot name, tow-plane pilot name, passenger (if any) name, take-off and landing times, that sort of thing. If there weren’t enough hands on the field, I would also help “run wings”. This important task was often assigned to trained, safety-conscious teenagers who could run like the wind and first hold up the glider’s wing as the tow-plane taxied, then signaled to the tow-plane pilot that the tow-rope was taught and he would juice it, and then run alongside the glider, grasping the wingtip until ground-speed was sufficient to keep it up on its single-wheel landing gear by itself, while the tow-plane, either a Piper Cub or a Cessna L-19, roared, pulling it down the grassy runway. On some occasions, I would ride with him, in his favourite two-seat glider, the Czechoslovakian work of beautiful flush-riveted aluminum art, the Blanik.

He passed from our space-time back in late 2004, but keeps in regular, often hunourous contact. Here are screen captures from a serendipitous and un-retouched (apart from overall brightness and gamma adjustments)  10-minute infrared video panorama recorded in September 2017, where he sky-writes himself as a projected, grinning voxelated image, aged a few years but unmistakably him, in the clouds from the great beyond. Watch the entire raw footage of the Conestogo Bridge 360 degree infrared pan.

Dealing with Bitterness

If you have traveled to the east coast during this or an earlier holiday season you may have noticed something unusual about the trees along the ocean shoreline. Gnarled and weather-beaten from constant battling with the elements, often stunted from lack of sustenance in the rocky or sandy soil, these trees seem to lean landward. Yet they are tough, resilient, durable, resisting all that storms do. Why? Or how? I’m told it’s because they have developed their deepest roots on their windward side.

How deep are your roots? So long as the sun is shining and the breeze is gentle, all is well, but when the storm clouds gather and the harsh winds blow, and hopes are deferred and dreams shattered, those without deep roots on the windward side simply collapse in bitterness.

Few emotions can affect one’s physical and mental well-being as readily as bitterness., Leslie Weatherhead, the English preacher and psychologist, told a young woman whose parents objected to her proposed marriage. After an engagement lasting ten years, her fiance was killed in a car accident. With hopes and dreams shattered she became deeply embittered. Physical symptoms appeared. She was unable to see except by holding up one of her eyelids.

Dr. Weatherhead, whom she sought out for counseling, helped her to understand that there was nothing organically wrong; the closed eye was simply an indication of her unwillingness or inability to face her situation. It was as if her mind was saying to her body, “You must bear this bitterness for me”.

Bitterness is also contagious. Someone feels wronged and soon family and friends take up the resentment. The other person retaliates in word or deed and quickly two widening circles of people are involved. The seriousness of the alleged offense grows in everyone’s mind until it is grossly distorted and exaggerated.

I remember how two families in one of my earlier congregations were in dispute involving their children. Eventually I was able to help them resolve the problem only to find that one the mothers remained bitter, and no reminder of the harm she was doing to herself and others would placate her. It turned out that she was suffering from deep resentment toward her husband, one which the dispute with the other family simply brought to the surface. But once recognized, accepted and talked out, the bitterness gave way to a new relationship.

It must be said, however, that some people seem to enjoy their bitterness – or at least find satisfaction in it. Perhaps it is the pride that comes of feeling that as victims they are somehow special. You know the type: men or women who think that everything bad happens to them. This “dirty deal complex”, as psychologists term it, results in such folk gaining attention which becomes a way of restoring their self-esteem.

The fact is, however, the world closes in on bitter persons. Friends who are “turned off” soon turn away until, unable to find anyone to listen to their complaints and grievances, embittered people grow sour on life itself.

This surely is the most difficult kind of bitterness to deal with: to turn against life, thinking that you have been singled out for harsh treatment by God.

Yet even scripture records stories of people who felt they were victims of divine retribution. Naomi, for instance, who saw both her husband and son die. So sure was she that the Almighty had inflicted those tragedies she told her friends to friends to call her Naomi no longer but Mara, a name which means “the Lord has dealt bitterly with me”.

So with King Hezekiah. In our First Reading we heard him recall his feelings in a time of illness. “In the noontide of my days I felt I must depart… Like a weaver I have rolled up my life… All my sleep has fled because of the bitterness of my soul”. Then the mood changes, for he survives and begins to see things from a different perspective: “Lo, it was for my welfare that I had such great bitterness. But thou, Lord, has held back my soul from the pit of destruction”. Or as this might be translated, “You have loved me out of the pit of bitterness”.

So it was for Job. Afflicted in body and soul he asks the age-old question, “Why? What have I done to deserve this?” In the end he comes to understand that God is greater than any personal misfortune. His sufferings fall into the background, and his struggles cease. Because Job has experienced the divine presence and heard the voice of God, his bitterness of soul dissolves.

Then there’s the apostle Paul. Paul knew from personal experience how people have a way of nursing their resentments, brooding over the insults and injuries they feel are directed at them. So at the top of a list of things which must go from the life of a Christian Paul put “pikria”, the Greek word for “long-standing resentment”. Thus we hear him saying to the Esphesians in our Second Lesson: “Get rid of bitterness” (Good News Bible)… Instead be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

Yes, consider Christ. Throughout his short life Jesus encountered situations which evoked the whole range of emotions: anger, fear, despair, loneliness. But bitterness? Never, even when the world seemed set against him and his disciples deserted him. Why? Surely it was because his life was so deeply rooted on the windward side, so completely lived in the full awareness of God’s presence and power, that he was able to draw on the deepest well-springs of spiritual strength.

Friends, we, too, need roots that run deep on the windward side of life, for the storms can be severe, the testing-times intense. Who has not had some experience that has not left a taste of bitterness?

“Bitterness paralyses life; love gives it power”, wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Bitterness imprisons life; love releases it. Bitterness sours life; love makes it sweet again. Bitterness sickens life; love heals it. Bitterness blinds life; love annoints its eyes.” God grant that our eyes may be open to perceive this truth, and our souls to receive it.

E. A. Kirker, August 1995.

Attention

July 27th, 2020 by

In 1964 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made the prescient observation:

“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media” (p.19).

Is our awareness being hijacked by the barks and ululations echoing through the streets and civic squares of McLuhan’s Global Village, a community whose digital tentacles reach out hypnotically pulling our attention this way and that? Do we willfully allow ourselves to be commandeered by every other stray notion that makes its way into our head through our various sense gates and technological interfaces?

Attention, according to Wikipedia, “is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether considered subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. It is a state of arousal“.

While in design school, as many hours were spent coming up with clever, often humourous word-plays and visual double-entendres to get people’s attention, as were expended on the actual technical production of such pieces of commercial art. Creativity in this sense is valued for its ability to flesh out such hooks, to find the correct lure that invites a quick z-shaped scan of a print advertisement, having one’s focus perhaps then land on a brand logo, some call to action, or otherwise imploring the eventual opening of a wallet. A firm builds up its image through consistent public displays in digital, print, televised, and outdoor media. Many digital messages we now receive are targeted, sidestepping the need for creative appeals to our attention. Data says we’re already interested in this product, service, or idea, while technology says “click here” and skip directly to the wallet-opening or sign-me-up part.

Beyond the consumer sphere, can an increased efficacy in targeting and seizing our minds using technology more generally, even pushing them to action, have any positive effects? Is the arresting of our attention through something we’ve revealed, whether publicly or privately, ethical in certain contexts? If it is, should it still be mitigated, given the truth-bending ability of technology and bad actors? Are we capable of changing our stance on a topic or idea whilst being insidiously steered in a different direction? Moreover, must the scope of our critical thinking skills widen to include scrutiny beyond the appeals to our fear and ego, beyond the truth, whether distorted, to the intentions and motives underlying the images, messages, narratives, and actions we now encounter?

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Language

June 23rd, 2020 by

Language is a coded system of information transmission whose specific origins are a mystery, according to psychologist and professor Steven Pinker. It is a root example of representation, expressed both symbolically as various alphabets, as well as aurally via the myriad complex vocalizations used to similarly communicate ideas and emotions. Pinker colleague and noted linguist Noam Chomsky highlighted language’s important attribute of malleability, making it a creative tool of expression and understanding.

“Thought cannot go where the roads of language have not been built”, declared psychedelic philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, in one of his many insightful, wide-ranging rambles. In some abstract manner it must therefore form the bedrock of what we perceive as reality. Could this be part of the reason why we can have such a difficult time grasping complex ideas? Some of which, despite the descriptive latitude afforded by language and the visualization power of our imaginations, seem to simply escape understanding. In such cases, must conceptual understandings only exist in the realms of mathematics and binary code?

Language evolves not so much as a result of prescriptive top-down norms, but rather from the ground-up, often due to socio-cultural forces. What role does language play in the recent advent of the information age, where these coded systems of information transmission appear to be under some form of change, evolution, or as some argue, siege? How influential is the wider context of this rapidly shifting socio-cultural landscape in which we, or rather “for me”, are immersed on, “like, u know, r “ language and thought? To use his apt metaphors, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls language “the software we run on our neck-top” and that “words are virtual machines designed by cultural natural selection”.

While presenting themselves with both transcendentally uniting and knowledge-sharing capabilities, as well as newly-evident narrowing and fracturing tendencies, have our new language and communication technologies leapt too quickly out of Pandora’s Box, before our being able to understand their full potentials? If this is the case, how can the negative potential be dampened, so the positive attributes can be fully realized? The issue is vast, and central to it is language, which Pinker asserts is itself at the very nexus of thought, biology, social relationships, and human evolution.

Our current socio-cultural landscape is further complicated by philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s significant notion that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (p. 24).

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Wholeness

June 18th, 2020 by

According to Wiktionary, the first recorded uses of the word holy are a literal translation of “wholly”, as healthy and whole, in both Proto-Germanic, and Proto-Indo-European languages. This use predates more recent Old and Middle English ecclesiastical meanings of the word.

Physicist David Bohm points to scientific evidence for the wholeness of the universe as lying in two theoretical frameworks. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity whose key tenet that the universe is a continuous, dynamic space-time field, out of which particles emerge as singular, strong regions and whose stable pulses gradually merge with other particles, describes an underlying unity where space and time are themselves relative aspects of the whole. The second framework, Quantum Theory, describes three particular characteristics of wholeness. First, its processes, such as electricity and magnetism, are themselves whole and indivisible; second is the wave-particle duality which, dependent on the observational context, describes a wholeness from different perspectives; and third is the notion of non-locality, where particles exhibit properties of interconnection, hence wholeness, despite being physically apart.

These two broad frameworks run counter to classical Newtonian physics, if only in the sense that the latter highlights the study of the part, whereas Relativity and Quantum theory look instead at the primacy of the whole. Bohm illustrated this difference by equating a description of Newtonian physics to the apparent random behaviour of particle-like people at a busy downtown intersection, each moving under their individual directives; as compared to the fluid, quantum-mechanical motion of dancers in a ballet, where the whole is given salience, and thus points to pattern and process as integral to larger systems.

Philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead, each a naturalist in their respective times, described a wholeness, a God, in nature, and vice versa in their Panpsychic worldviews. Big-thinking renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake extends this notion all the way up to space, arguing that celestial bodies and stars, including our own sun, possess a form of consciousness. Such speculation suggests large, self-organizing space-time systems as exemplary of an even greater unity, not unlike James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis of planet Earth as a large, self-regulating system.

Despite our best intentions in attempting to perceive things from broader Systems Theory perspectives, a tendency to fragment and compartmentalize can arise due to an incomplete recognition of the wholeness, which is often hidden beneath layers of complexity and interdependence. When complicated challenges such as anthropogenic climate change are faced, Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus describes the vexing issue of comparing present and future costs and benefits of climate change mitigation strategies, and a tendency to “discount the benefits of the societal value of reduced damages in the future” (2013). In key environmental spheres of thought, meaningful opportunities at climate change mitigation are said to be nearly lost, with some suggesting the most cost-effective approach at this point is one of societal adaptation to its effects.

Bohm believes that a central incoherence which arises from failing to properly recognize wholeness, in all of its forms, is due to communication. The nature of language, according to Bohm, is that it has been developed to emphasize the part over the whole. Regardless, language can be used differently, as in the case of poetry, not to mention all of the various potentials held by new communication technologies. If we then draw parallels between naturally occurring systems and larger, more complex ones, does Bohm’s random crowd versus ballet metaphor not have particular relevance today? As a society, are we exercising our potential to behave quantum-mechanically, as coordinated dancers in a ballet, or rather as objects in a Newtonian space; each on our own separate path?

Nordhaus, W. (2013) The Climate Casino. New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

From afar a coastline might look as though it is smooth and inviting, whereas a closer-up, higher resolution view might reveal a rocky, forbidding shore. Similarly, standing directly beside a large circle painted on the asphalt might make it appear elliptical or oblong-shaped, as compared to looking at it from directly overhead. Even with adequate context, appearances can still sometimes be misleading. What we perceive as the truth is often just an emergent phenomenon and perhaps only a partial picture of the whole. Notions of scale, context, as well as the abilities and limits of our own perceptual systems, all play a role in interpreting how things look, sound, smell, and feel.

In stereophotogrammetry, photographs of a particular region, purposefully taken seconds apart from an aircraft flying high above, might initially appear identical. A closer look reveals minute changes, such as shadows shifted due to the slight difference in perspective. Nowadays this type of imaging data can be fed into complex algorithms, and in some instances combined with range-finding laser data (LiDAR) to generate accurate three-dimensional views of the landscape.

In days gone by, viewing such a stereoscopic pair of photographs, or stereogram, required a contraption called a stereoscope. You may recall the more recent plastic View-Master with its shutter-like lever that came with round disks of tiny, paired images, or 3D glasses based on the same principle, that are still in use today. These technologies present just the left perspective image to the left eye, and the right perspective image to the right eye, from a set distance. When the nearly twin images are viewed in this manner, the resulting three dimensional illusion does not appear on the glass of the device, or as on the page or screen of an artist’s drawn visual perspective, but rather materializes with realistic clarity directly in the viewer’s mind. Viewing an air-photo stereo pair would have hills and mountains rise up from the erstwhile flat land, while the valleys and lowlands receded. A rich gestalt sense of an area could be derived from such a  three-dimensional portrayal, not otherwise apprehensible from an individual air or satellite photo. Convincing appearances thus need not necessarily exist in just the physical world, and are sometimes purely figments of the perceptual system, or even of the imagination.

More broadly, beyond our hacking of binocular vision, nature has conferred on us the intrinsic ability to illude; to imagine what is and isn’t there. The world around us is perpetually being crafted as we perceive, as though we’re each an artist interacting with it, conjuring illusions and interpretations of what’s in front of us, and what lies beyond the range of our perceptions. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks remarked that, “each act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”.

Serendipity

January 25th, 2020 by

Serendipity is a phenomenon that reveals itself in both art and life. According to Wikipedia, “Serendipity is the occurrence of an unplanned fortunate discovery” (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2020).

This photograph of the Cadillac Motel sign on Victoria Street in Kitchener, Ontario, taken back in the mid-nineteen-nineties, reminds one of how much things have changed in a relatively short span of time. Not only is the content of the image itself emblematic of change; a fifties-era motel sign sitting abandoned in an empty field, but its recording using film and subsequent printing onto photographic paper are now processes reminiscent of a bygone era.

The photo, taken with Kodak high speed infrared film using my father’s appropriately-designated fifties-era rangefinder 35mm camera, required precise handling and developing in total darkness, as well as a degree of guesswork when it came to making the actual exposure. This latter fact was not only due to the camera’s tiny viewfinder which sat outside and parallel to the lens and necessitated intense squinting at the subject, but also because it was difficult to predict, unlike with the case of more modern imaging technology, how the finished photo would turn out. There was no “preview” mode other than what could be seen through the tiny viewer, and even this did not show what this particular film would ultimately reveal; the infrared light and heat radiating from a scene, similar to, but uniquely different from what would be imaged in the visible spectrum. Compounding this were the unpredictability and idiosyncrasies of this variety of film itself, where slight adjustments to the camera angle in relation to the subject, or exposure under subtly differing lighting conditions, could dramatically affect the result. The film’s interesting attributes included its ability to create dark, dramatic skies, and to capture green plants’ “chlorophyll effect” (greenery becoming white, often glowing, in black and white infrared recording) when the camera was appropriately oriented in relation to the subject and direction of the sunlight.

This uncertainty is very often prized by artists and photographers. Having an element of surprise in the production of an image or an artwork can enable the creation of magical, serendipitous “happy accidents”, where added beauty is revealed by a confluence of factors, often unforeseen and sitting outside the creator’s control. Elements within the frame can become unexpectedly highlighted, perhaps imparting an otherwise plain image with a unique, vibrant appeal. Granted, this uncertainty would have contributed to a larger share of “not-so-happy accidents”; instances where the frame wound up being simply blown-out, drastically dark, some measure between, or perhaps another variable would intrude into the process and destroy any potential aesthetic value.

A state where events and outcomes can be predicted with increasing accuracy, often as a result of the influence of technology, is of obvious benefit to many aspects of modern life. Does a collection of data pointing to some future outcome mean it will necessarily happen? Do some predictions defy any margin of error? Is complexity guaranteed to play a role in confounding the results in some way? Despite our technological advancements, the ability to make accurate predictions often remains elusive. As in the case of creating art or a photographic image, are there places where serendipity can arise in forecasting within the complexity of the wider world to reveal new facets of a subject or topic when precision and prediction fail?

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About Alan Kirker

Introduction & artist statement.

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