Friday, February 12, 2010

Smilla's Sense of Snow and Brahms

Last winter I read Smilla's Sense of Snow and watched the snow fall while listening to Brahms. Those three things go really well together, the book, the music and the snow. As much as I covet a warm climate there is something about the snow and the cold that affirming...I can't find the word but it makes me doubt the wisdom of relocating to a warm climate. I definitely write more when it is cold.

Now that we are relying solely on our wood stove for heat the cold adds an new dimension of contact with the earth. I am always aware of the temperature inside and outside. When I wake up in the basement and it is 51 degrees I know the fire has gone out upstairs or that the temperature outside is approaching single digits.

Stacking firewood and hunting for kindling in the woods creates a healthy disconnect from civilization. It is like a genetic memory is being reawakened, as if my DNA is more comfortable with the woods and the fires than with heat pumps and digital thermostats. I am continually fascinated by the wood stove, such a technologically simple device but it must have been life altering at the time of its invention. Compared to the fireplace it uses so much less wood to create so much more heat. The iron is rarely hot to the touch yet can warm the furthest reaches of a 2200 square foot house without even using the central air fan.

I imagine a modern tipi/yurt style dwelling with a wood stove on the underground level in the exact center with on over sized cast iron chimney which runs through the center. Of course it would be a geodesic dome, predominantly translucent, I can't decide if it should be earthship style with only the southern half glass or if it should be all glass (or whatever material I will be using that will have better thermal efficiency and less weight than glass).

Ideally from a heating/cooling perspective it should be sunk into the ground on the northern side, on a south facing hill so that the ground creeps up the north face nearly to the roof. Double paned translucent panels with a large gap would be ideal. Jennifer mentioned that they have developed translucent concrete which would make for an interesting patchwork pattern. Depending on the sunlight in the climate it may be necessary to use "transition" type glass on certain exterior panels. Okay, enough writing, time to draw it.

How we are made into slaves

What does it mean to rise up? First and foremost it is an internal process. An inventory of the control mechanisms which have been placed within one's psyche and then reinforced for 20 or more years. I thought of a new one today, a new reinforcement mechanism that is.

When I played football in college we ran sprints at the end of every practice. The coach would call out the name of the person who crossed the line first. This had a strong motivational effect on those of us who still had some energy to spare but I realized today, over twenty years later, that this was a very subtle and pernicious form of Pavlovian conditioning.

To hear one's name called as the victor is very enjoyable. In a state of physical exhaustion, suffused with adrenaline, surrounded by armored comrades with whom one has just been doing battle, to hear one's name called out as the victor, is arguably as pleasurable for a human male as eating some dog food is for a dog. Indeed it is rewarding on a much deeper psychological level than the mere food reward of standard Pavlovian conditioning.

This then begs the question "why"? I was always under the impression that I held my football coaches in the same contempt as every other authority figure in my life but did I? Of course I secretly craved their approval, there was a feeling of discomfort in hearing my name called; the sensation that I was being exposed, as a kiss-ass, a boot-licker, a lap dog.

So this negative feeling, stacked with fatigue and every other disincentive to run hard after practice was not enough to deter me from the reward of hearing my name called. Why?

In kindergarten we love our teachers, I loved my teacher, I thought she was pretty, and I still remember her name. I wanted her approval, I wanted her to call my name as the winner. There was a slot in my brain for her to slide into, and that is the same slot that coach Kelly resided in 12 years later. I had reasons to dislike my kindergarten teacher. On the first day of school in my life she took the box that I had carefully selected to contain my eraser and other precious learning utensils and violently ripped the top off.

In what could only have been a predetermined strategy to cement her authority in our four and five year old brains she did this to every single student as we filed passed her table on the first day of institutional learning in our lives. As our mothers stood impotently by and watched, she ripped the top off of each box that she had instructed our parents to purchase for us.

Would it not have been more practical and less cruel to simply tell the parents in advance that the box should not have a top, that an old cigar box or chocolate box, or children's shoe box would be perfectly acceptable? But this would not achieve the desired effect.

The box itself is meaningless. But the box as a metaphor for hope, anticipation, excitement is brutally effective. We walked through the store, holding our mother's hand, carefully selecting Aquaman over Batman and aligning our new treasures carefully inside, a bright green eraser, a dull yellow pencil sharpener, our little scissors with the round ends, a small bottle of Elmer's glue. We took our small package of dreams to the desk and RRRRRRRIIIIIIPPPPPPPP. Mrs. Fitzpatrick tossed the box back to me, the contents wobbling around, their precious placement ruined forever, their sacred container defiled and issued the first command "sit here" as she pointed to an arbitrary place on the carpet.

And I obeyed hoping to hear my name called.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Divide and Conquer

Yesterday on "Democracy Now" the guest was a food writer who studied the disgustingly cozy relationship between the food industry, and food science as it is practiced in both academia and the government. He remarked that the "food-industrial complex" has a miraculous way of spinning new research into a marketing campaign. For instance in the 70's when research concluded that high levels of fat were detrimental to cardiovascular health the food industry responded by labeling foods "No-fat" and even something as nutritionally useless as jelly-beans could be labeled in a way that made it appear healthy.

The corruption of knowledge, the twisting of facts to reinforce the status quo is a phenom which is omnipresent. It is offensive to see an internet pop-up ad with a ridiculous claim such as "I lost 60 pounds without exercising or changing my diet" but this strikes a discordant note in our logical faculties because the argument must be made in the small time and space of an ad. The more pernicious lies are the all pervading forms of deception that exist on a subtle level, in history classes, in news reports, and in academic debates.

When I posted John Trudell's comments about Columbus part of me asks the question "what does this have to do with you? shouldn't you be grateful for Columbus, you are the descendant of European immigrants who followed after the "discovery" of the new world so what do YOU have against Columbus"?

So my legal training comes to the rescue and causes me to invert the question, why do I identify with Columbus? Because I am white? Because I am the descendant of Europeans? No and No. It is because I am not native American. This then begs the question "must one, or should one be native American to question the justice of the history of the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas?" We will table the debate on whether or not genocide was committed and leave it at 500 years of systematically being disenfranchised. It doesn't really make any difference as regards the point I am trying to make.

I identify with the native peoples of the Americas because they were free men, women and children. They came into the world surrounded by a culture which taught them how to live in harmony with the land, to extract food, clothing and shelter from it and to spend their time in ways that were meaningful.

Just as the food industry can turn research data into a marketing campaign the academic industry can turn a war on free people into a race war. Activists are divided by race, ethnicity, cause, in any myriad of ways to dilute their overall strength and hide the fact that many of us are fighting for the exact same cause..namely a society in which we can live and work and spend time with our loved ones in a meaningful and dignified manner. It all boils down to this. From labor movements, to immigrants rights, to aboriginal rights, to gay rights, to womens rights it is about one thing. The system as it exists uses human beings for fodder to perpetuate meaninglessness. Whether you are dying of cancer from working in a uranium mine, suffering PTSD from a battle tour, or wasting away in a cubicle in a suburban coffin you have been deprived of your dignity by a system you never elected or chose to participate in. We were all born as slaves, to nit pick about what kind of slaves we are, divide ourselves by race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion or any other meaningless and arbitrary category is to defeat ourselves before we begin.

There is the system, and there are its victims. Unless you are amassing wealth from the toil of others you are a victim, a slave, and that's all the categorization you need to know.

Rise up.

Meditation and Ram Dass

I learned about Ram Dass when he made a cameo on 'Six Feet Under'. I learned a great deal from that show, I discovered the Neti pot, that places existed which are entirely devoted to the study of altered states of consciousness, Blue Oyster Cult, modern hippies and many other gems I can't remember now. But there is one line from the show which sticks in my craw after all these years when I think about it from time to time. It is a scene in which Claire is complaining about a new temp job her mother has made her take by threatening to force her to pay rent or move out or some other unoriginal parental coercion technique. Her oldest brother Nate states bluntly "we all have to work Claire". And my blood begins to boil. If you live in the forest and rely on wood for heat then you must cut wood. If you rely on your own crops for food then you must plant, cultivate and harvest them, and if you wish to achieve enlightenment you must meditate but some part of me rebels at the notion that "we all have to work".

Perhaps I don't consider the activities I enumerated to be work. I take Nate's statement to mean that the drudgery and toil that most civilized human beings are subjected to is inevitable for all of us. I don't accept that. I love hard labor, I love to drive a tractor, haul wood, shovel snow, build anything but these are not "work" in the sense that Nate means "work" as I infer it.

As with many scenes in 'Six Feet Under' the writer and director deserve a great deal of credit for provoking such strong intellectual debate. I wonder if the writer isn't using Nate as a foil, as a representation of all that she disagrees with. I wonder if Claire isn't the embodiment of unadulterated creativity, of the rebellious spirit that thrashes and flails when any attempt is made to harness and restrain it. Because I always agreed with Claire, I rarely agreed with David, and I agreed with Nate more often than I care to remember now.

In retrospect it seems that the three siblings represented three levels of engagement with the world. David embraced the system unquestioningly, the church, the work of his father, his place in the community as a funeral home director, Nate rebelled initially and then returned the prodigal son. He arrived just in time for his father's death and assumption of the mantle of responsibility as a father and a part owner of the family business. Claire followed her own path, not a rebellion against the family, nor an integration into it but simply her path.

I always resented Nate's remark because Claire was trying to become an artist, and his words were a dismissal of that ambition, as if to say "you can play at being an individual but you still have to do your time in the system like the rest of us."

Up until that moment Nate always seemed so reasonable to me, like someone who did what he had to do to survive without losing his individuality. But that line was a transition point for Nate, with those words he crossed over into the system. He became the worst of what the system creates...a dream killer. In those words I heard every discouraging comment from my parents and any parent as they sought to make their children more practical, to mold an artist into a graphic designer, or a poet into a copy writer or lawyer.

I am currently reading The Illuminatus Trilogy and there is an amazing line in the first book to the effect that the political system is a monolith. It isn't about whether communism or capitalism is better, the system has already won when you begin to think in those terms. In other words once you have aligned yourself with an existing faction you have already lost because that alignment presupposes you have given up on your own unique perspective.

This is why media is so taxing to my ears, because there is rarely a voice which asks if the debates are even worth having. There is never a point-counterpoint style debate as to whether civilization is actually a good thing for mankind. But such a debate would be useless because it is appallingly obvious to any thinking person that the world we live in now consists almost exclusively of absurdities.

To return to Ram Dass: by a strange series of what civilization would term coincidences, I received as a gift a book by Ram Dass from someone I hardly knew. After a brief conversation he simply stated "I have this book that was given to me and I was told to hold on to it until I met the right person". He did not tell me anything else about it and the next day he gave it to me and the name of the author sounded familiar but I did not connect it with "Six Feet Under" or with something I had read by Ram Dass a few years ago.

That book Remember Be Here Now now sits on a shelf in my meditation room. The cover is a drawing of an old wooden chair inside of a circle comprised of a series of points, all the points are connected by lines which criss-cross over the chair. When meditating if I concentrate on the image of the chair it fades in and out. When the Ohm vibration is sustained the chair disappears and when I inhale the chair returns. With intense concentration the chair will disappear for longer stretches and the various lines will merge into a solid circle.

I discovered this purely on accident while happening to look at the book one day and noticing that the image of the chair seemed to vanish for a moment. As I stared harder to focus on the chair it vanished again. When I said something about this to the previous owner of the book he simply responded "well isn't that the point".

So I am beginning to understand this image of the chair as a metaphor for reality. That one may exert a great deal of control over the reality one occupies, up to and including changing what appears to be a solid object.

Nate's statement is an acceptance of reality as it has been given to him, to Claire and to us. It is an alignment with an existing faction, it is the picture of the chair as one sees it for the first time. And if one were to stop at that, accept that one must work, choose a side, and silence the voice of "why?", then the image as it appears initially is real, one must work and choose a side and live and die as dictated by other men. But if one simply looks deeper, asks "why?", questions the validity of alignment with a preconceived notion, then the chair wobbles and disappears and the journey begins.

Paschal Beverly Randolph and John Trudell

"I guess I'll just start with Columbus, see I have a real problem about all of this, to me he was like a virus, a disease, see there's this predator energy on this planet and this predator energy feeds on the essence of the spirit, feeds on the essence of the human being, the spirit, the mining of the essence, the mining of the spirit, mining our minds, the pollution from that is all of the neurotic, distorted, insecure behavior patterns that we develop. Because in order for this predatory system, this disease to work we must not be able to use our minds in a clear coherent manner." John Trudell Columbus day interview 1992

"We must not be able to use our minds in a clear coherent manner". That's it isn't it? The fundamental premise upon which "civilization" is based. In order for any structured society to exist there must be a constant 'resetting to zero' of any awareness one might gain of the absurdity of our surroundings. Let us analyze the existence of civilized man on planet earth as an alien anthropologist would. Let us begin with the basic goals held up to be universal: career, home ownership, and respect of one's fellow civilized man.

"Career" is an Orwellian term embodying the most blatant type of deception. It is a euphemism for spending the vast majority of one's waking moments toiling away at, commuting to, thinking about, or searching for an arbitrarily categorized series of actions which not only contribute nothing to one's personal growth but often contribute nothing to the system which relies so heavily on those contributions.

This very exercise in meaninglessness, the repetitive, endless routine which deadens the soul and aborts the question "why" in the proverbial intellectual womb is the foundation upon which all other deception is built.

For 13, 17, sometimes 20 years or more we are programmed by an unthinking, unfeeling bureaucracy to submit and obey, to toe the line, not rock the boat, not be a trouble maker and above all not ask a child's most fundamental response to every command "why?". Because I said so, because your teacher said so, because the government said so, because our version of god said so, these our the answers we grow accustomed to expect until eventually the very ability to mentally form the question "why" is removed from our mind.

Why should I spend all my time working while strangers care for my children?
Why should I go to school to learn nothing useful?
Why should I spend 30 years paying for a dwelling that I could build in a matter of months with my own two hands with the most rudimentary training?
Why is none of the time I spend in educational institutions devoted to teaching me how to build a home, grow food, repair an engine, build a vehicle, think creatively?

The answer to every question is the same. Because the system has no use for independent men. An independent man is at best neutral to the system and at worst its greatest enemy. An independent man thinks about the orders he is given by society, questions them and most likely disobeys them. If you were trained to build your own home, grow your own food, repair your own vehicles, and think creatively you would never settle for a meaningless job at slave wages, a crippling mortgage or rent payment, buying everything on installment in a never ending cycle of debt and partial repayment that ends only with your death.

Wars, political struggles, debates about health care, capitalism versus socialism, the Super Bowl, video games, TV, radio, newspapers, the internet are all an endless stream of meaninglessness to distract you from the simple truth that you are a slave to a system which has a single goal: to perpetuate itself.

Breathe deeply, look at the sky and the earth that will be here long after all this meaningless is gone, feel your connection to the universe, and know the simple fact that you have all that you need already, and your journey to freedom will begin.