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Monday, August 3, 2009, 12:05 PM
Yesterday I took the two-hour drive from my little corner on the west side of Puget Sound down through Tacoma, crossing the Sound at the Narrows Bridge, then proceeding up the east side of it to Seattle. (See Google Maps: "Puget Sound.")
Ordinarily I take the ferry, but the wait for a boat was over two hours yesterday, what with vacationers and weekenders returning to the city, so it was easier to make the excursion.
It turned out to be a revelation as well. The air pollution on the Seattle side is shocking right now.
I hadn't been to the east side of the Sound since before the big heat wave started about July 27. The hottest day -- Wednesday the 29th -- broke all records when Seattle hit 104 degrees in the middle of one of its worst air inversions ever.
I didn't think I'd ever live long enough to see the atmosphere in this region look exactly like Southern California's, but right now there's no difference. Coming up the freeway through the Kent Valley yesterday, I looked at the surrounding hills, obscured by that same gray-brown haze that has given the hills of SoCal their characteristic look for decades.
Population growth and the associated activities collectively know as "development" have reached and then surpassed their limit in this area, and we can be grateful that the environmental degradation that accompanies "progress" has now slowed somewhat, thanks to the recession. I keep hearing talking heads on TV and reading economists on line chirping about "recovery," which not only isn't going to happen, but is an outcome to be dreaded and feared. We don't need more of what got us here.
Anyway, as wiser heads such as the Angry Bear (angrybear.blogspot.com) understand and have pointed out, this isn't a recession, but a collapse. Now that we've established that, can we please have our air back?
Sunday, August 2, 2009, 5:20 PM
David Sirota's indictment of our corrupt political system
's lame performance on the issue of health care for everybody is the sort of thing you'll never see or hear in any corporate medium. It begins with a brief review of the sad history of the past decade:The 21st century opened with a handful of Supreme Court puppets appointing George W. Bush president after he lost the popular vote—and we all know the costs in blood and treasure that insult wrought. Now, the decade closes with another cabal of stooges assaulting the “one person, one vote” principle—and potentially bringing about another disaster.
Here we have a major congressional push to fix a health care system that leaves one-sixth of the country without coverage. Here we have 535 House and Senate delegates elected to give all 300 million of us a voice in the solution. And here we have just 13 of those delegates holding the initiative hostage.
He proceeds to name them -- six senators and seven representatives who control key congressional committees -- and to divulge how much money they have collectively gotten from the health insurance lobby to do their dirty work -- $12 million. Sometimes I'm amazed at how much the government we have today resembles that of the late nineteenth century, in those grim days before Teddy Roosevelt and the progressives began putting some mild restrictions on the corporate dictatorship of that era, and hedging the power of the trusts.
I found Sirota's conclusion to be the most important part:Of course, there is talk of circumventing the 13 obstructionists and forcing a vote of the full Congress that cannot be filibustered. Inside the Washington palace, the media court jesters and political aides-de-camp have reacted to such plans by raising predictable charges of improper procedure, poor manners, bad etiquette and other Versailles transgressions.
But the real crime would be letting the tyrants block that vote, trample democracy and kill health care reform in the process.
This is a crucial test for Obama. If he has any serious intention of actually becoming the leader he represents himself as being, he'll demand such a vote, and will not flinch at the accusations of disrespect for congressional procedures, traditions, and protocols.
It's really too bad, but it's going to take a bit of dictatorial heavy-handedness to straighten out the parliament of whores.
If Obama fails this test, then the responsibility for forcing government to respond to the needs and will of the people, as Jefferson intended, will once more rest with us, and I don't know if we're up to it.
Friday, July 31, 2009, 2:44 PM
In 1954 the young New York artist Jasper Johns produced an image of the American flag after dreaming of it. He used encaustic, oil paint, and collage on fabric pasted on plywood. The resulting image is identical to the original but appears texturally different. These subtle differences lend meaning to Johns's image, but no one, incuding Johns himself, can say what that meaning is.
This is one of my favorite paintings of all time, and I'll always have a framed copy of it in my living space. I love the fact that it's the 48-star flag, which was the flag of my early youth, back before the fake states Alaska and Hawaii were added. How can they be states? They're not even connected to the rest.
In those days we spoke of "the 48 States" and said "One nation indivisible."
Today my Jasper Johns flag lives above the bathtub. When I'm in the tub I see it backward in the mirror, where it becomes the perfect symbol for our backward, semi-civilized nation, the only developed, fully industrialized country without comprehensive public health care.
Thursday, July 30, 2009, 7:53 PM
I was gratified as I thumbed through a recent issue of the New Yorker to see Ruth Franklin's appreciation of the book which since the sixties has become established as the Great African Novel, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," ("After Empire," May 26). Drawing his title from a line in the W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," which is possibly the greatest as well as the most misunderstood of all twentieth century poems, the young Ibo author presented his understanding of the sorrows of contemporary African society through eyewitness testimony by older family members and friends, of the old, traditional West African society which was destroyed by colonial penetration.
It's been fifty years since western critics puzzled uncomprehendingly over this profound work, which is as brilliant a bit of social documentation as it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Writing in English (not his first language) because it is the only language Africans have in common, Achebe avoided the twin traps of portraying the vanished society as a lost paradise and casting the European colonialists as devils. The result is analytical and at the same time affectionate, but without sentimentality or romanticism. Above all, it's a work of astonishing honesty.
I taught this wonderful book for several years, and would highly recommend it to anyone who has not read it. Every European and North American who thinks of precolonial Africa as a patchwork of "primitive" societies could learn from it.
And for those who read it and persist in finding a chronicle of primitivism, I would not recommend, but prescribe Achebe's 1977 essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." It's a dose of harsh medicine, but should cure anyone still laboring under the illusion that the history of subjugated people can be accurately told by the subjugators.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009, 6:59 PM
A woman in California is appealing her suit against General Mills for calling one of their boxed "cereals" "Captain Crunch Berries." The suit was dismissed by a judge back on the fourth of June, but the woman and her lawyer say they are not giving up yet.
I can't get a link to this story, because I saw it on a video on Yahoo! and the little pop-up window won't let you get the web address.
The basis of the suit is that there are no berries in "Captain Crunch Berries." All it is is baked blobs of berry-shaped, day-glo colored glorp, made mostly of refined white flour mixed with high-fructose corn syrup. You know, childhood obesity and diabetes stuff. Some sources are saying that for years the woman bringing the suit thought they really were berries. Whatever; I guess that's possible.
I'm also guessing judge #1 decided General Mills could call their stuff whatever they want to, whether it bears any relation or not to what's in the box. Besides there being no berries, there's no real cereal in a box of "Captain Crunch Berries cereal either, just a bunch of refined, processed wheat and corn dust. Let's see if judge #2 has any more respect for truth in advertising. An appeal is always like putting the dice back in the box for another throw.
I wish this woman and her lawyer well in their efforts. Thus are a mighty people rendered weak and helpless, by eating whatever garbage they're fed by the God-machine, and feeding an even worse version of the same stuff to their kids.
Strike a blow today for alimentary liberation! You are what you eat!! So don't be a baked blob of berry-shaped, day-glo colored glorp!!! Instead, be two boiled eggs with whole wheat toast and hummus, an orange, a banana, half an avocado, and some pieces of broiled fish.
Monday, July 27, 2009, 4:04 PM
At a sidewalk table in Palm Springs on a late fall Sunday afternoon a few years back, I was contemplating what I had in front of me -- a cup of coffee and a cigarette -- and nothing else mattered.
All up and down Palm Canyon Boulevard people were drinking four-dollar designer coffees and munching 28-dollar, artfully presented entrees. I was alone with my thoughts of the Prophet Ezekiel. Did he have visions of God? or schizophrenia?
Meanwhile, in Ougoudougou, an HIV-positive mother was giving birth in a tin-and-cardboard shanty, unassisted, while three feet away from her, on the other side of what passed for a wall, a dope deal gone bad ended in gunshots and death.
Most likely, you've never heard of Ougoudougou, even though it's as big as San Francisco.
I hadn't heard of it either, until I began making a renewed effort to figure out why a few of us have so much while about a third of the people on earth have nothing. I already knew of the huge shantytowns of Bombay and Beijing, Tegucigalpa and Lagos, but was unaware of the dozens of slum cities that were no more than wide spots in the road a few years ago, with names like Nouakchott and Antananarivo. Knowing that, it was less surprising to find out that one third of the world's three billion city dwellers now live in slums and shantytowns, most of them in the least developed parts of the world,* where there are no services, no sanitation, no safety, and no future.
As I pondered these thoughts, people strolled by on the avenue, dressed in khaki shorts and expensive sneakers. They had the clean, confident look of prosperity -- winners who had made it, and had it made. A few yards away a schizophrenic beggar sat on a bench, panhandling for change. Most passers-by simply ignored him.
Where is Palm Springs in relation to Ougoudougou? Jesus told a story about a beggar named Lazarus, who camped out beside a rich man's gate. They both died on the same night. You'll have to look it up to see what happened next.
I gave the schizophrenic a dollar, but he didn't notice; the voices in his head were too loud. Jesus's handprints were on his shoulders, but Jesus doesn't spend much time in California these days. He's mostly in West Africa now, where the biggest footprint of human misery on earth lies between Abidjan and Ibadan,* and where the fastest growing religion is Pentecostalism. People there know that if Jesus doesn't help them, nobody will. But what do I know? I'm not even a Christian.
*U.N. Human Settlements Programme, The Challenge of Slums, New York, 10/03.
Sunday, July 26, 2009, 6:29 PM
"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him...Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"
So declared Friedrich Nietzsche toward the end of the nineteenth century, adding the exclamation point to 200 years of rationalist philosophy.
But the idea of God -- the religious impulse -- has proved to be made of tougher stuff than Nietzsche or any of his predecessors imagined.
Religion is instinctive in humans. It provides a way of dealing with the irrational facts of existence -- the unexplainable things that happen in our daily lives and in the wider world. The only way, philosophically, we can deal with these chance occurrences and inexplicable events is by submitting to them.
Thy will be done.
Besides the accidental and random events we all experience, we also deal with the sometimes unexplainable contents of our own minds, especially the subconscious. The rationalist philosophy of Nietzsche, of Voltaire, of David Hume and John Locke, can't help us in dealing with those things.
We humans can't discover a reason for existence anywhere except in the workings of a power greater than ourselves. Without it, our own existences, the world around us, and even the universe itself quickly become meaningless.
As the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung pointed out shortly after Friedrich Nietzsche's demise, "When the rationalist directs the main force of his attack against the miraculous effect of the rite as asserted by religious tradition, he has in reality completely missed the mark. He has overlooked the essential point of religion -- the psychological effect."
Photograph: Godseye painting by Estevan Munras (Spanish, early 19th century) at Mission San Miguel, California, by Dave B.
Tarot image: The Wheel of Fortune, from the Visconti-Sforza Deck, ca. 1450; attributed to Bonifacio Bembo.
Mandala drawing by Dave B.
Saturday, July 25, 2009, 4:19 PM
Daily Practice now takes about an hour and twenty minutes. It's a comprehensive set of procedures that includes movement (asana), structured breathing (pranayama), and meditation.
Many people mistake asana for the total package because in this country the emphasis and public face of yoga emphasize that facet. That's where most of us start, and a majority of practitioners, while deferring to "the spiritual aspect," probably don't go there. It's Gary Kraftsow's observation that 90 percent or more of his students never develop a daily pranayama practice. "They just won't do it," he says resignedly.
However, because the original intent and ongoing goal of yoga is intended to enhance the functioning of body, breath, and mind, a practice that doesn't include disciplined breathing and meditation is incomplete.
So far my teacher training class has focused only on asana, its fundamental postures and a few of the more difficult ones, its sequences, and planning a class. However, the study of pranayama and meditation is on the schedule.
My current personal practice at home starts with a short prayer, then goes into about 40 minutes of very basic sorts of movements ending with six or seven minutes of rest, which is the perfect transition to pranayama (about 11 minutes).
Because I have emphysema, I can't achieve the "classical" prescribed breath proportions for inhalation, retention of the breath after inhalation, exhalation, or suspension of the breath to end the cycle. One symptom of the disease is an inability of the lungs to fully exhale; there's always some air left no matter how conscientiously one tries to empty them completely. Consequently, full inhalation is impossible, and mine lasts only for a short count of three, followed by a three-count retention. The exhale is proportionally much longer, and lasts for eight counts, with only a very brief pause before the by-now-necessary inhalation begins. This makes a complete cycle of 14 counts.
There is no transition from pranayama to meditation; the object of attention merely shifts from the breath to concentration on the chakras, one at a time and starting with muladhara, at the base of the spine. With the mind focused on the attributes and qualities of each chakra on inhale, and mentally chanting the bija mantra, or sound associated with each of these centers on exhale, the attention moves sequentially up the spine to the point between the eyebrows over the course of 12 minutes or so. Practice ends with a short period of chanting.
My asana practice is fairly progressed, as I've been doing movement more or less regularly about five years now. Pranayama is coming along; I've been at it close to a year. I've barely scratched the surface of meditation, but feel like it's already taken me to places I can't identify. They're very far away, these places, even though on the inside. Coming back from that far place always takes awhile. It has a profoundly calming effect on the mind, which consequently becomes capable of enhanced insight.
I wonder where I'll be going as I progress in this practice.
Friday, July 24, 2009, 5:24 PM
This past Tuesday in lieu of yoga practice I climbed a mountain instead. Some people, like my sister the mountain climber might call Hurricane Ridge a hill (a 600-foot vertical ascent over 1.6 miles), but to me it was a mountain.
I didn't do too bad for a 65-year-old guy with emphysema, and my sister took this picture of me at the top, from where we could see all the way across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, B.C., Canada. The weather here this summer has been perfect for these kinds of outings. Actually, perfect and then some.
Because this year's vacation-season weather has been so ideal there was a pretty dense crowd trudging up the mountain that day, young and old and everything in between. On our way down I was checking out the variety of climbers' footwear. My sister the mountaineer had hiking boots and poles. I was just wearing my regular old street sneakers, and I says to me sis, "The one thing I don't think you'll ever see is somebody trying this in flip-flops," adding that I didn't think the climb would be possible without some sort of real shoes.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than three teenagers, two gals and a guy, all of them about 17, came around the bend below us, starting started up one of the steeper inclines of the ascent. All three were slogging along in flip-flops, of course. It may have been my imagination, but I thought they gave us dirty looks as they puffed past us with a desultory "Hi," proving once again that there's nothing we can imagine that hasn't been done.
For a larger view of the picture, go to my yoga journal blog and click on the image.
Thursday, July 23, 2009, 5:32 PM
According to the legend, Prince Gotama, who later became the Buddha, never ventured outside the palace walls before he was 29. When he finally did so, accompanied by his charioteer, he saw in quick succession an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. He had never witnessed pain or death before, and witnessing them that day changed him forever.
Two years today I woke up, stumbled into the bathroom and looked in the mirror at the reflection of an old man, a very sick man, a dying man. It was frightening, and my conscious mind was dominated nearly all the time primarily by fear, resentment, regret, and sadness -- such lovely emotions!
I had been rejected three months earlier by my wife of 25-plus years, for whom I still had overpowering feelings of affection, and she was living 100 yards away from me. I was a cigarette smoker and had been for 50 years. But I had reached the point where, due to emphysema and chronic bronchitis, I couldn't light up without coughing violently and gasping for breath.
Just three years earlier I had been a respected and well-liked teacher of English in a large public high school, a happily married homeowner and person of some substance. My career took up all my energy then, and I was able to ignore the long-term effects of smoking and eating badly, which had blessed me with the joys of chronic ulcerative colitis.
But now, in the summer of '07, I was nobody: broken, finished, dying alone and isolated in a travel trailer in a remote desert, like a hermit unfit for human companionship, and playing the end game with the health conditions I had ignored for so long. Thus my misery, lack of faith, lack of confidence, and lack of energy were complete. My daughter, busy as she always is, called me every day, as she had me on suicide watch. "Where did my life go?" I would ask her.
I sat shivering in that travel trailer feeling like it was my coffin, listening to the wind howl outside.
But even in my deepest misery I was doing a few things right, and unknown to me, those few things would grow and yield results that would provide the basis of what can fairly be called a rebirth. I was participating in hatha yoga classes a couple times a week, three or four and half hours. Since I didn't feel like cooking, I began eating a lot of raw fruit -- no preparation necessary. In spite of myself, I began feeling physically a little better, though still suffering the utmost despair in mind and soul.
In early October I quit smoking, not because I wanted to, but because my body simply wouldn't tolerate another cigarette. Then I was really in the soup, dealing simultaneously with the pain of divorce and the mental obsession and compulsion of a vicious drug addiction. But for some reason, I suddenly found the confidence -- the faith -- to believe that somehow, some way, I was going to prevail over my troubles.
Quitting smoking was really the key to everything. I could breathe, for the first time in 50 years. Pranayama -- the structured breathing method of the yogis -- became a possibility, an unanticipated high.
In late April of 2008 I took a three-day workshop in Marin County, northern California, with Gary Kraftsow. That was my introduction to Viniyoga, and I was immediately sold. Seven months later I signed up for my teacher training class. I'm a convert.
I helped my mother die at home in early December of 2008 (of lung cancer), the last really difficult task I needed to get through during those two extraordinarily difficult years. Somehow I knew my life would turn around in 2009. Suddenly, to my surprise, I had faith -- I had "Sraddha."
Today I woke up early and looked in the mirror. I saw the reflection of a reasonably healthy and fit 65-year-old non-smoker and would-be yogi, a practitioner on a path whose destination is TBA. I'm not dying, and in fact I'm even discovering that the news I have acquired an unexpected and incurable illness, and learning to deal with it, somehow serves as part of my overall recovery. I have faith...