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In This Issue



Daily Column

  Come join the editor Jennifer Barnick as she searches for the Champagne Life....

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Sparkling Wine

Interview with flight attendant Peggy O'Brien-Gould by Dr. Timothy Smith

Feature Italy's Surprising Sparklers: A Guide to Italian Sparkling Wine by Sandy Mitchell

Sparkling Wine Review John Euclid reviews Spanish Cavas

Arts & Sciences Flying High: Is Alcohol More Potent at Altitude? by Dr. Timothy Smith

Industry News ...a brief survey of sparkling wine news

First Person

HelloGoodbye Ian E. Detlefsen says hello and George Mentis says goodbye.

Passion ForumDarlene Foster writes about LSU women's hoops

Under the Goldlight—True Tales of Drinking Champagne Felisha Foster revisits New Years 2003

Life Before Ten J. Blake Gordon tackles the nightmare

Art & Literature

The Marcia Reed Virtual Gallery Paintings by Lorraine Smith

Drinker's Poetry Fredrik Bergström and Robert Slattery

Fiction The Garden Keepers by David Sirois

Film in Review Anna Luciano opines on a current release; Suzie Sims-Fletcher evaluates a current DVD rental, and John Euclid digs deep in the closet to review a classic movie

Other Goodies

Founder's Page Greeting from Dr. Timothy Smith

Letters to the Editor click for full list

Photo Gallery Click for Pics

In Search of the Champagne Life
by Jennifer Barnick

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DESIGN your future: part I

 

 

       

         “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is a moving book about how things were, how things are, and how things could be. They are not your ordinary environmentalists—they actually want to work with big companies, are not so sold on the effectiveness of recycling, and do not think “use less” is a workable option. Instead, they want to wholly transform how we think of making, selling, and re-making things: they want to change our current “cradle to grave” model of consumption to “cradle to cradle”. And this transformation has already proved itself possible today with buildings that actually generate surplus energy and fabric that can simple be thrown on the ground and be used (after it’s initial life) as nutritious fertilizer.

         William McDonough is an architect and Michael Braungart is a chemist and together they have forged not only a business relationship, but a visionary one as well. Together they have constructed a philosophy and appending vision of abundance, health, beauty, and growth. It was fascinating reading an environmental book that was not all doomsday and did not suggest severe sacrifice on the part of humanity (including withholding from having children) in order for the planet to heal. Quite contrarily, both authors insist that with intelligent design we humans can have our cake and eat it too—we can have a world with economic growth, convenience, luxury, beauty, and—and, yes, a healthy planet.

         “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” is absolutely the battle cry of most environmentalists, however McDonough and Braungart insist that that model is essentially only delaying the inevitable whereas their model cradle to cradle or waste equals food stops environmental destruction completely. Reduce, reuse and recycle essentially tells companies to try not to grow, it encourages often dangerous applications of waste materials and downgrades materials versus upgrades.

          The first traditional tenet—reduce—is contrarily to our entire economic system which depends on growth for continued success and profit. Also, the need to request the population to reduce can often prove too demoralizing to have any lasting success. Most importantly, however, is that the problem with “reduce” is that it entails that manufacturers are not actually cleaning up their act or making safer products rather they are simply making less of them which eventually will lead to the same human and environmental health issues as before.

         Reuse, the second major tenet for traditional environmentalists, also brings with it some serious problems. The key example the authors use is that of using plastic soda bottles for clothing fabric. At first when this product was invented and announced, it was touted as a great environmental breakthrough. The plastic bottles were finely shredded and made a polar fleece like fabric. However, the authors point out that those soda bottles were never made or considered with this application in mind therefore and while they proved to be relatively state in their virgin or original form when they were processed into cloth they “off-gassed” many toxic chemicals to people therefore making the clothes extremely dangerous to where. Additionally, these bottles were not meant to be finely shredded and worn against human skin. The friction would also release toxic particulates onto the wearer’s skin making the “eco-friendly” clothes actually toxic dangers.

         Recycle is the last and most holy of traditional environmental thinking and for the authors of this book, should be seen as only crudely effective and in most cases causes more trouble than good. First off, like the example with the plastic soda bottle fabric many things that are currently being recycled were never designed to be recycled and reused and therefore often produce dangerous to people and the earth products. Additionally, for all of the trouble and expense of recycling the products are always downgraded into something less strong and valuable (not to mention toxic). These second lives of bottles, aluminum, and paper are often brief leaving the product to end up in a landfill with recycling only delaying the problem and not solving it.

         Essentially, it is this final point that the current dogma of the environmental cry “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” merely delays a deadly problem and does absolutely nothing to solve it. And in some cases the tenets can prove more harmful to humans and the environment than if they were not employed. McDonough and Braungart are not, however, all gripe. The book is actually an up-beat call for change with re-life solutions and an incredible vision for the future. Tomorrow, I will be bringing you their rebuttal and solution to current environmental thinking.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part XIV

Practical Wisdom

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter thirteen: Practical Wisdom.

         This marks the final chapter of the prophetic masterwork as well as my final essay for the series. I will first say to those who have not read the book that the final chapter is oddly brief—particularly considering some of the more monolithic chapters. The final chapter is not an apology, however, it serves to be in some way in that Northrop hedges his optimism, idealism, and solution with some sobering insight—particularly when dealing with the pesky problems of theistic religions and the reality that while technology may be going one direction for the most part man’s heart remains with his past. This I believe is the most poignant matter that Northrop elegantly bemoans. He describes the perils of a torn modern man. He described the modern, democratic French man who has embraced science and technology and the thoroughly Lockean ideals of freedom and yet who still attends mass—though with a wink to his non-catholic friends. This concept—the idea of “going through the motions without deep and real faith”—Northrop contends is “playing with fire”. Northrop reasons that as man continues to practice religions that he does not truly have faith in then eventually man will struggle to believe in anything and will reach a level of despondence and meaninglessness. And while Northrop does see the peril of theistic religions in there relation to world harmony he also sees a peril of man living without profundity and spiritual nourishment.

         Northrop also agrees that while science and technology appear to be evolving at lightning speeds the heart of man does not: for modern man still often bases his prejudices, society, and law on philosophic and religious beliefs that paradoxically man recognizes has been debunked by science. For instance, Newton’s discoveries absolutely proved Aristotle to be wrong in his theory of natural hierarchy. Catholicism is absolutely based on Aristotle’s science. It is difficult to see Catholicism this way, however, before Newton came along official Catholic dogma was not based on some supernatural mysticism rather on (what they thought was) hard science. People in the past were not torn like modern man is—they did not have the burden of faith we do now in that they thought their religion was scientifically proven whereas now man is asked to believe because they are told to believe.

         While in the final chapter Northrop does point out all of the inherent problems with his solution—that is build a “world philosophy” that encompasses the best each culture has to offer and tosses out all that is both scientifically proven false and that is directly harmful to differing parties—however, Northrop also points out some ways he feels his “world philosophy” could genuinely come to pass: art. Northrop writes that art if allowed and encouraged to express these varying world philosophies that this new art could help feed the heart of man and fill in some of the emotional, spiritual gaps that science and technology have carved out of the soul of man. Northrop strongly believed that the world was becoming too economic-centric in its vision of society—he felt that if economic theory was the only guiding philosophy for a society that many would eventually suffer—whereas bringing art into society as a communal, ritualistic and integral part of life would bring a healthy, balanced world. Northrop argues strongly that while certainly man does need food—man also needs his spiritual, emotional side nourished as well.

         Ending the book I have to admit I had many mixed feelings. On the one side I will never look at my civilization or other civilizations in the past quite the same way again. There was something eerie and empowering studying the roots of not only my worldview but also my culture’s worldview. It is a deeply humbling exercise for it challenges any solid footing regarding right “worldview” and wrong “worldview”. I believe in the end I somewhat fought his idea of developing a one-world view, however, when I finished I came away a little different—I suppose after closing the book and taking the dogs for a good long walk I loved the book. Two of Northrop’s sons were fighting in WWII as he wrote this book. It is a masterpiece of writing, insight and scholarship. I can only imagine the depth and seriousness he felt as he crafted his very best effort to end war on earth. And now as I write this—the present being nearly a week since I finished the book—I have come to see that the future Northrop was seeing was grim between the east and west including strife between the major theistic religions and now more than ever I hope that more and more people realize a little Northrop within their own hearts.

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part XIII

The Solution of the Basic Problem

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter twelve: The Solution of the Basic Problem.

        This chapter was not only the most difficult to comprehend it was also the most bizarre in that Northrop goes from sober, brilliant scholar to outrageous, mad philosopher. There were some great moments when describing the definition of man as it pertains to economic theory in relation to the Marxist view of man and the Lockean view. Northrop wonderfully illustrates one of the fundamental reasons why America and Communism do not like each other. Man for Marx was a being that required (e) energy from without with e being primarily food. Therefore the function of a good state is to put emphasis on providing this “incomplete” being (man) who is necessarily incomplete do to its dependence on energy from without, a sufficient amount of energy (food). This concept is also the base for Marxist economic theory. Locke posits that man is a mental substance wholly independent and autonomous. This mental substance is the owner of their body like an owner of land. Therefore the function of a good state is to solely provide protection of an individual’s land (including one’s body). That means that what one’s property (including one’s body) requires is solely up to the discretion of the owner of said property (the mental substance). It is this basis in which America’s government and economic theory has evolved.

There are, however, moments in this long and complex chapter that leaves one scratching their head and nowhere does wide-eyed disbelief come than when he deals with theistic religions. Now certainly we all know the obvious problems theistic religions bring when striving for world peace. Each theistic religion (such as Christianity) claims that it is absolutely perfect and that everyone else is wrong. Unfortunately, Islam and Judaism make the same claim. Northrop’s idea for making Christianity more “world friendly” is to me beyond insane, and I feel he wholly presupposes that it is doctrine that rules the religious heart whereas I believe faith and the religious experience (which is beautifully dealt with by William James) rule the religious heart. He suggests that Christians take up the steady, whole, and devout worship of the Virgin Mary as is found with the phenomenon in Mexico with the Lady of Guadalupe. This he reasons will balance the over-masculine, theoretical basis of God the Father as it pertains to the Christian vision of god. This balance will allow Christianity to better merge with the people of the east causing better world harmony. Northrop also writes that missionaries should cease coming to Asia in order to convert the people, but instead should come in order to better learn about Asian culture and to only share in their scientific and medical knowledge. The idea that we should get Christians to worship the Virgin Mary as an equal to God the Father is to me crazy. I do not know if Northrop knew many Christians but I cannot wholly understand how a renowned scholar from Yale could seriously suggest the plausibility of getting the whole of Christendom to betray one of their most precious tenants: monotheism.

Essentially, Northrop is building a theory that if we are to get along we must formulate and adopt a worldview or world philosophy that is the blend of the best of what the world has to offer philosophically and reject the ideas that do not work. I believe in his theory in that all major, world “groups” and movements from Christianity to Islam to America to Soviet Russia were all created from a philosophy espoused by either a prophet persona like Jesus or Mohammed or by a philosopher as in Locke or Marx. So to this I agree that to change the world one begins with a philosophy brought to the world by either a philosopher or a prophet. The second important factor is of course who decides to embrace the philosopher or prophet and usually things do not take off unless humans in power decide to embrace the philosophy. With that said one wonders that unless the world is ruled by a singular force Northrop’s one world philosophy plan could never work. How can a leader who rules only a part of the world bring about a philosophical change throughout the whole of the world? One can easily see through the history and eventual collapse of Soviet Russia when a provincial worldview pretends itself as being a pan worldview only to find that just because one nation thinks they have found a way towards universal utopia it does not mean that others will agree.

I only have one more chapter to go from this massive undertaking of a book and I look forward to hopefully finding some resolutions to what I see are massive flaws in his ambitious plan.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part XII

Contemporary India, Japan, and China

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter eleven: Contemporary India, Japan, and China.

         One of the most curious aspects of reading anything “contemporary” several decades later is that one can gain some fresh insight as to how people (for instance) felt about the world in 1946 versus reading the perspectives of 1946 through the lens of a 2005 scholar. The differences are profound. Northrop, though incredibly impassioned in his goal for world peace is oddly indifferent to some of the more horrific realities of foreign occupation. He even goes as far as saying (or at times implying) that western imperialism has proved helpful to the oppressed nations. Definitely, as in the case of China, western science and the widespread use of an alphabet, theoretical friendly written language were all pressed upon China during the time of the oppressive unfair treaty system in which the major western nations including Japan somehow decided they had the right to control and rule over all of China’s ports (which was done with gun boats and inland governors). However, there is also a chance that China would have learned about, evolved and adopted western science without losing her dignity.

         Remembering that this book was published in 1946 is important when considering India, Japan and China and surely one could not find three hotter nations. India was now absolutely insisting on emancipation from Britain and Gandhi was just ramping up, China was about to become communist, and Japan had been brutally defeated. Of the more interesting prophetic failures in the book was the downplaying of Gandhi’s influence; the marginalizing of Mao, and most importantly the tension and absolute consequence communism would have on our world. Personally, it was almost impossible to believe how Northrop, for all of his immaculate brilliance, did not see the upcoming cold war. Of the more successful prophetic moments was his discussion or Mohammedanism (or Islam) and its current and future influence in India and elsewhere, and many of the conflicts we are seeing now Northrop beautifully prophesized and explained. He also described wonderfully the Christian paradox that actually encourages violent wars, and I believe he would be none too surprised of the current situation in the Middle East. And while Bush and no doubt many others see the current wars as a “here and now” crisis based on contemporary issues, after deconstructing our most fundamental cultural and philosophical grounds one can see the conflict years in advance.

         Contemporary India, Japan, and China is now India, Japan, and China in 1946. It is eerie to read intelligent perspectives on things that have now already come to pass. This chapter also made me wonder about the authenticity or rather accuracy of history. There really were differences between how Northrop saw things in the nineteen forties and how things were taught to me regarding the nineteen forties. The whole point, however, of this book is not eerie history lessons—Northrop is on a mission and his mission is world peace and while so far I feel I have learned a great deal about the east and the west I still have not grasped the magic bullet that is to save us all.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part XI

The Meaning of Eastern Civilization

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter ten: The Meaning of Eastern Civilization.

For the first time in Northrop’s book I am starting to sense that Northrop, though brilliant and idealistic, is beginning to reveal within his own work the challenge of his goal: mainly by fully understanding the pros and cons of western and eastern philosophies one can then forge a “one-world” philosophy based on the best of both hemispheres. The whole point being world peace, and the theory is that a common philosophy could provide world peace. Obvious considerations like getting all the people of the world to base their worldview on a “one-world” philosophy so far have not been dealt with by Northrop. However, what I am starting to see is a not so subtle distinction between Northrop’s dealing with the west and the east. I will first say that any cultural bias is not conscious nor do I believe Northrop had any intention on being one-sided, in fact, I thoroughly think that Northrop believed he was being every bit the man of the “one-world” spirit. However, as someone who does have some scholarly sense of the east I will say Northrop grossly over-simplifies and glues the whole of the east together in one big glop whereas when he dealt with the west he gave much attention and time to the many complex and not always complimentary west (as in the case with Kant, not Locke working in Germany). With all that said, however, the book is still quite elegant and I believe richly insightful, and while I do think he should have worked harder on his dealing with the east as I read I am still drawn by the overall project and look excitedly forward to the punch line: the “one-world” philosophy Northrop has been cooking up.

         Of the actual content of chapter ten: The Meaning of Eastern Civilization, besides it being not much different from its proceeding chapter Northrop does introduce one new concept regarding morality and the east.

         If you can think of the east of seeing that essentially the one truth or one reality is this sort of collective, yet empty undifferentiated continuum and that all differentiated things such as the color of the sky, pain, happiness, a flower are all transitory. Even man is to be seen as merely a transitory aspect of this one undifferentiated continuum. That implies that each moment in one’s life is ultimately unique or novel and that the only constant or truth is this “empty” field from which all transitory, differentiated things come and go. Things like pain or sexual passion therefore are not to be given too much importance because ultimately pain or sexual passion will disappear back into the undifferentiated continuum. With that said morality is then necessarily relative—because every moment of one’s life is novel. The west has fixed moralities such as “honor thy mother and thy father” and this moral is to be taken as true all the time. The east sees morality as always relative therefore though they too take seriously the idea of honoring their parents they also understand that there might be a time in which it is better to go against their parents. In one rather charming (and culturally arrogant) passage in this chapter Northrop retails the frustrations of an American Methodist missionary working in China who felt the Chinese could not ever keep to their commitments and what worked one day could be wholly abandoned the next. Northrop points out that while the western missionary saw this relative quality to be a sign of immorality, for the Chinese, excepting and practicing moral relativity is exercising the highest form of morality for in doing so they are recognizing and realizing the ultimate truth that all differentiated things are transitory and therefore must not be given importance over the undifferentiated continuum.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part X

The Traditional Culture of the Orient

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter nine: The Traditional Culture of the Orient.

         This is Northrop’s opening chapter covering the Orient, and I will say it was long and somewhat opaque. There were some novel moments (remember this book was written during WWII and published in 1946). The British were still fully occupying India, Islam was called “Mohammedanism” and eerily for all of Northrop’s prophetic insight there appears to be not even an inkling of what was to almost immediately come: Mao and his communist regime. There was, however, some complex and illuminating insights regarding the eastern worldview or at least its ancient core in which all eastern religions have emanated and its difference from the western worldview.

         Language is an immediate and profound way to see a major difference between the eastern mind and the west and nowhere it is more obvious than with the Chinese alphabet—or lack thereof—Northrop discusses the evolution of a character based written language and how it reveals a profoundly different worldview in contrast with the western alphabet. The core of this difference is in the western object/ subject view of the world: meaning we see and explain our reality based an internal viewing of an external public space. I see the boat. I am Jennifer. The boat is a boat. This absolute separation between subject and object has led to our sense of science and the theoretical, and our language allows a person to understand what it may or may not have ever experienced. Mathematics and physics are immediate cases of the theoretical being intellectually understood though never directly experienced. With a character based language it implies that an object or experience must be experienced by a person in order for the symbol to be fully comprehended. This type of language can bring profundity to poetry; however, can be impossible to use in the case of western scientific method. Ironically, after Northrop’s book was published a language revolution would commence in China in which a more universal, theoretical friendly language would spread. Before only the very educated and wealthy would have mastered written language. However, what their language does lend is a deeper experiential truth and here is where the most profound difference between the east and west lies.

         For the east there is a “oneness” or common ground that unites all man to the universe. Confucius called it “man to manness”, Taoism called it the “tao”, Hinduism “Brahmin”, and Buddhism “Nirvana”. The idea is that through direct experience one can work to empty one’s mind and through that experience absolutely feel the nature of the universe—the oneness that binds all matter. And through this experience a person can realize the unchanging, eternal aspect of being. For the west, an unseen god is the eternal and unchanging and this god grants us our eternal life with our personality being spared. For the east even our personality is ever changing and will die and change as all “differentiated” objects do. For the east there is the undifferentiated totality that is the only unchanging solid reality and everything else from a blue curtain to an angry person to a barking dog are transitory and part of an ever changing continuum. Whereas the west focuses on the differentiated objects and this contrast can most boldly been seen in art. Western art focuses on discrete objects and ideas and views them as separate whereas eastern art focuses on the experience of the continuum and sees objects (such as mountains and streams and even the artist himself) as being part of a connected, ever changing continuum.

         Tuesday, I will be continuing on with the next chapter where the meaning of eastern civilization will be further explored.

                                                                                          Have a nice weekend. See you on Tuesday.

 

 

The President and I are Back From Vacation

 

         August was long—delightfully long—and this weary explorer much enjoyed her break. I had planned to immediately resume my lengthy series covering the entire classic “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” by F.S.C. Northrop, however, considering Katrina I felt no other subject should be discussed. Tomorrow we shall kick off the second part of the series commencing with exploring the East.

         It was curious, being that I have a tendency to be a television addict that I did not know anything about Katrina until the day after. Somehow in my usual vacation routine of lots of eating and dozing in front of the television I found myself in a pocket of quiet and little did I know the Gulf Coast was being pummeled sincerely as I listened to jazz and fretted over my vacation ending. Consequently, when my normally programmed adventures were cut short by a news report concerning the aftermath of Katrina, I was more than a little stunned. Last night I watched the ABC special report on Katrina and found myself almost visiting the dawn contemplating the whole mess and the nature of life, and in this time I found a few exercises of solace that I can only hope will donate some light to our suffering southerners.

         I suppose the first most basic thing anyone can do in times like these is pray. Pray is a complicated term particularly so if one does not wholly believe in God and even more so if one ardently believes in the absence of God. However, to this I say why not give it a go just in case. I do not mean this flippantly and considering the direness of the current situation I think a few rounds of asking god or the universe or whomever you can imagine to help out is well worth the effort. Natural disasters rip away all of our artificial notions of control. Prayer, I believe, is a natural counter balance to the human condition, and deep inside I believe that the immense comfort I feel when I am sending love and comfort out through the silence somehow reaches its destination. If you are uncomfortable praying to a god try just sending a message from your own heart to the suffering. I do not think much matters beyond the sincerity of intent.

         Next to praying donating money or time (depending on your location) I believe is the next soulful protection a human can do in the face of tragedy. While surely, the victims of the storm are shouldering the brunt of the burden there is a curious pain that runs through all of man when we witness the mystery and power of disaster. We come terribly close to realizing our own profound fragility—we come to see the artifice of our lives and the supposed permanence of all we have worked for, of all we have loved, and of all we assume will come to pass.

         Lastly, what I believe is the most important and I believe in the long run the best thing we can do in times like these is to not let the suffering come in vain. Now absolutely is a time to take stock in one’s life. Now is also a time to see all of the good in everyone and everything in our lives. By turning tragedy into a precious opportunity one can feel the eternal in the impermanence.

         To all the people and families touched by Katrina I send my best hopes and wishes. I pray that solace comes swiftly.

 

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part IX

The Meaning of Western Civilization

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter eight: The Meaning of Western Civilization.

         The Americas, and particularly the United States of America are absolutely the end product of Western thought. Beginning with Plato and his writings on Atlantis we commence a long tradition of a Utopian vision. For the West there is always a sense of a possible utopia and this utopia will be realized through science. Science for the West has two components: the theoretical and the empirical with the theoretical enjoying more or less the elevated status between the two. Additionally, the West has formed its society and ideologies with a preference for utility as valuation over emotional or aesthetical value.

         The West is always in search of a utopia. What does this say about our culture and how does this affect our worldview? The belief and search of a utopia or perfected or ideal world or society posits man as explorer and posits one’s current time as essentially flawed—as only a small part of a continuum towards some supposed perfection off in the near or far distance. Immediately, we can see our religion in this model with the case of both heaven, Eden, and then the final Judgment in which God will re-assert absolute rule over man on earth. We can also see our sense of science as a way to cure all of our problems: physically, environmentally, and even psychologically. Today, regardless of your personal, current religious beliefs the want or need for perfection is absolutely a case of your “Western roots” showing. Believing in a time of everything finally being “great” or “perfect” or “finally happy” is really no different than believing in heaven. I cannot really say if the concept of utopia is correct—after all the whole premise of my column is based on the existence of a utopia—of the Champagne Life. However, I can say that the belief in a utopia can and has caused some serious problems.

         The route in which the West has placed its faith in its search for a utopia has been the road of Science. For the West all ideologies—including theories regarding religion—are based on scientific evidence. For people today it is difficult to imagine God being taken seriously and used in “hard science” due to our current atheistic scientific environment, however, for Aristotle and Newton and even Einstein God was absolutely part of the picture. It is important to note that (theoretically at least) God is just as difficult to prove as he is to disprove—therefore one should never presuppose one’s own cultural primacy over another (many of our current understandings in Physics are just as empirically impossible to realize as God or the immortal soul). Essentially, remember that this current atmosphere of an atheistic science is based more on “fad” than on “fact”. How does the idea of worldviews being based on Science effect the West? Well, the big “effect” of basing worldview on science is its changing nature. For the West, ideology is not perfect or eternal it is simply “adequate” and will over time be replaced as man’s understanding of nature (science) evolves. This is a very important concept to understand if one wants to understand the West: for at the very core of the western mind is revolution. Utopia is the goal. Science is the way. Change or revolution is guaranteed. Which is, in all honesty, a most curious paradox and may explain our need for a lot of really good wine: on the one hand Westerners have faith in the existence of perfection and believe this perfection can be eventually realized through science, however, this science will never be complete—will never be perfect—one discovery will eventually debunk another. Lucky, for all of us, the West has come up with a pretty snazzy solution for this big bummer of a paradox: champagne.

         The blessedness and ultimate compassion of champagne leads us to Northrup’s final analysis of the West and that is the primacy of utility and theory over emotional, aesthetical valuation and sensory experience. We can really say “blame it on Plato” for this issue and then blame Aristotle for taking it to an even harsher level of the theoretical as being the better of the empirical. Plato saw that for man and nature there were two elements to deal with: the theoretical and the empirical or sensory. The theoretical was the “good” while the sensory; empirical was the “evil”. Essentially, one could not trust their senses when it came to science. Empirical evidence (like a lab experiment) could only help to support a theory and could not provide a truth wholly within itself. This idea of the theoretic as primal—over the sensory—has developed a prejudice regarding the human emotional experience. Additionally, this rift between the theoretical and the sensory or empirical has also allowed for utility to rule over aesthetics when considering value and yet in reality there is no evidence that pure utility is indeed more valuable to society (or individuals) than sensory or aesthetical value. Personally, I have been known to budget my money not on utility but on aesthetics and on one notable occasion in college I spent my week’s food money on one bottle of vintage champagne—living off a box of Apple Jacks cereal and the memories of sensory heaven instead. Now, while today I am better fed, it is not the memory of hunger I hold, rather the memory of profound sensual courage I displayed at such a young age, and I hold this “sensual courage” to be more valuable than my current success of feeding myself properly. However, for the West to put sensory value over utility is near sacrilege, and already I can feel my mother blanching by my college tale.

         For Northrop, the West can be wrapped up with four points: the constant quest and belief in the possibility of a utopia, the belief that science should be the foundation for an ideology that will produce a utopia, the belief of theory to be primal and empirical evidence as supportive of theory, and finally the preference for utility over emotional or aesthetical value. And I suppose the big question for you all today is do you believe Northrop’s assertions regarding the West? Do you believe his assertions still hold true today for the book was published in 1946? And if you do believe in Northrop’s assertions regarding the West do you believe in the assertions regarding utopia? Science? The supremacy of the theoretical? And lastly, what are your feelings regarding utility and emotional value? Is it better to be fed by food or by love or by beauty?

         This marks the end of our discussion regarding the West. On September first I shall be resuming my series on Northrop’s “Meeting of East and West: an Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” where the East will be discussed.

 

We're the Same (Summer '04)

 

            Some time ago I was in Seattle having a fine Mexican dinner with some friends.   A woman, whom I was meeting for the first time, was there and she was clearly unhappy.   She had studied in college, and grad school, all the things one studies in order to save the world.   She was a director (of sorts…I cannot remember exactly her title…I was thoroughly enjoying the Mexican fine art of margarita-merry-making…) of a homeless shelter and was frankly disillusioned.   Her face and voice were bitter and it wholly ruined an otherwise exceptional beauty that nature had bestowed upon her.   I was her cross-mate at the table and while enjoying her relatively unusual occupation—grilling her about the homeless shelter experience—as the night progressed (and the margaritas) I found myself envying the laughter at the other tables.

            Her major complaint was that the residents at the homeless shelter were rude ingrates who not only were not grateful they acted as though they deserved everything they got and more.   This had really angered her, and she was in the process of leaving the save-the-world sector and moving into the sunnier pastures of straight capitalism.   I never saw her again (as I was living in New York at the time and only visiting Seattle), and it was not until my Can Lady came into my life that the woman I met over dinner in Seattle returned to my mind.

            Somehow, over a complicated series of events I have acquired my very own personal can lady.   Approximately every other day she stops at my house, and I give her cans (for a five-cent refund) and toilet paper.   She is old (although claims to be in her forties) and a bit “touched”.   She has been in my life steadily for two years, and in that time we have built a most curious relationship.

            The first day she came I was shy towards her as well as deeply happy to give her my cans.   I, however, felt a bit embarrassed by the obvious gulf of fortune between us…but that would begin to change.   By around the fifth day of our arrangement (for she came so out of the blue into my life I had, by then, began to suspect that Zeus and Hera were up to something…) I managed the courage to pause and chat with her.   “What is your name?”   I asked.   “Jenny,”   she belted-out in her part elf, part husky-trucker voice.   “What's yours?”   she hollered.   “Jennifer,”   I answered (noticeably wide-eyed).   Jenny then looked deeply into my eyes—hers blue like mine—and said,   “We're the same!”   (I knew then absolutely Zeus and Hera were up to something.)

            Over time, our relationship grew, and I came to know more and more of her life…she had been a singer in a “hillbilly” band…she was currently engaged (but was adamant that they had not had sex yet!)…and she was still expecting that her luck would, in fact, change.   These things, however, are natural in all growing associations, but the real surprise was her gruffness, yelling, lying, impatience, swindling, and over all ability to show up very, very early in the morning.   She will ring the bell over and over—causing my dogs to go crazy—and if I do not fly immediately out of bed and make it to the door during the “forty-ring warning” she will then begin to bellow:   “Jennifa!   Jen-ni-fa!   Jen-ni-fa!   Jen-ni-fa!”   I then find myself standing in my open front door in various states of nudity, trying to settle my barking and lunging dogs, looking at her with obvious (and now unmasked) anger, and she looks at me smiling like a crazy old tomcat and plainly says,   “Got any cans?”

            I stare at her, sigh, and then dutifully march to my back deck (in rain and snow) so tired and crabby that I do not care that I am in my underwear and fill a bag with cans, a bag with toilet paper, and sometimes, a bag with soup and chocolate mints.   And I hand them to her…and sometimes she makes me reorganize and re-bag some of her other found recycle—all the while harping at me how to do it—not caring or noticing my bare feet and legs.

            And, and, and…I could not be more pleased.   I am not embarrassed or shy when I am around her, and I find myself loving and needing her as any niece loves her (albeit eccentric) great aunt.   Thank you Zeus and Hera!   I so dearly miss (and still need) all my beloved great aunts that have long since left Earth.

 

 

Fifty Things I Can Say About Pamela Anderson

 

         It is Sunday for me and I was in a right panic. For I had a dinner party this evening which meant that I would not have my usual time to come up with, research, and write a good column. In addition to my angst, instead of spending my Saturday reading I opted to goof around all day and then top my evening off with a friend. We spent the evening listening to very old Robyn Hitchcock and Nancy Wilson albums. It was a good night and we talked a great deal about the Pope and the history of the papacy. However, I really couldn’t see myself doing the legwork involved in writing up a good historical piece regarding what happens now after the Pope has passed away (which was suggested by my friend as I moaned that I hadn't a clue what to write about). My condolences to all who mourn him, and my hope goes out for a new Pope with wisdom and genuine grace…this world could use a good Pope. Popes are good topics…St. Catherine spent almost the whole of her career on this topic…and if I were one to pray for this type of thing (and if you are praying about this) I would most definitely light a candle and put a quarter in the box for St. Catherine of Sienna. If anyone could pick and help bring about a good Pope then this Saint would be it. “Oh St. Catherine, raise your sword.” For that was my quiet little prayer.

         However, as I above mentioned I just do not have the energy to give you the whole lowdown regarding the ancient burial and selection rites. They are, I will tell you rather marvelous and rich indeed, but not a good Sunday activity for a weary writer needing to smell and look gorgeous by early evening.

         In a panic, I called a friend desperate for something to write about. He suggested Pamela Anderson. I said, “Pamela Anderson?” And he returned, “Yes, Pamela Anderson.” He then said, “Without any research see if you can say fifty things about Pamela Anderson. It would be a great experiment regarding fame. Could you actually, without researching her in any way, come up with fifty things about her?”

         So, being that I am still in my pajamas, and I know I will not be able to write a gem after my dinner party I have decided that I have no other choice but to take up my friend's most curious challenge. So, without any more stalling…here goes…fifty things I can say about Pamela Anderson:

  1. She is from Canada.
  2. She was discovered at a hockey (I think it was hockey) game and became the Labatt Blue Beer Girl.
  3. Inspired by being a Beer Girl she got fake boobs and dyed her hair very fair blonde.
  4. Her big break came from being a “Tool Time Girl” on the television show “Home Improvement”.
  5. She posed in Playboy, however, I do not know which came first…the chicken or the egg…Playboy or “Home Improvement”.
  6. She appears to always be tan.
  7. My friend from the U.K. told me there were a great deal of rumors regarding how much is “real” regarding Pamela Anderson and two of the rumors were that she ditched a rib for the “Bay Watch” gig and that she had pumped up her lip size.
  8. She was in the television show “Bay Watch”.
  9. I read a tabloid in the nineties where she said, “People keep on saying I’ve been with all these men, but really I’ve only slept with like fourteen guys.”
  10. She is a vegetarian and spokes person for PETA.
  11. She has two sons.
  12. She was married to rocker Tommy Lee.
  13. He beat her up.
  14. They had a large custody battle, but in the end all became chummy and lovie.
  15. She lives in Malibu, CA. I saw her house on some see my house show and it appeared very cluttered…this irritated me as I like empty everything…but I did like that everything was ultra-fearlessly girlie. So, I sensed some real bravery there.
  16. She is now fooling around with some younger guy. He is an actor, however, I have no idea who he is or what he has been in, however, on the television show they were talking about the gent as if he was something quite big.
  17. She had her fake boobs removed, then had super fake boobs put back in. They are very weird now I think. Fake boobs are fascinating, but if pushed too far they just become weird. I wonder what she thinks about her weird boobs? I actually do….
  18. She has her own company selling things. I know this because I am always looking for glamorous vegetarian shoes, boots, belts, and purses. This is difficult as most non-leather items are either very cheap or very, very crunchy-granola. However, Pam is a glamour vegetarian and has now made some sexy vinyl for us softhearted Fem-Fatales.
  19. Oh…man…I do not think I am going to make it to 50. I shall lower my standards to 25…Pamela has been on the top of Howard Stern’s “wish list” for so many years that two years ago he announced that he was taking her out of the running to give the other girls a chance.
  20. Pamela was with Kid Rock for some time. I don't know why but I was never wholly convinced. With Kid Rock I just sort of saw them hanging out and drinking canned beer.
  21. Did I say 25? I meant 21. Pamela Anderson was once violently and terrifyingly mobbed on some beach in, I believe, Brazil (somewhere in South America). I felt very bad for her. I kept on thinking that she was this girl, this slim human, trying to do her best for promoting (I think it was Budweiser this time) and being rushed by a hot mob of strangers in an angry, lust crazed moment. I can still perfectly think of her in that event, and promotion, and smallness, and humanity, and fame, and the insanity of mass devotion, and bosoms and very fair blonde, and quickly my mind returns to my first thought regarding Pamela Anderson: She is from Canada.

 

 

The Spare Tire that Unites Us (Summer '05)

 

            Personally, I love weight loss books.   Growing up, my house was full of them, and I remember reading them as a little girl.   Weight loss books are fun, I believe, because they are fundamentally weird, and as they age they get even weirder.   I still remember an old diet book written in the sixties that had “the NASA approach”.   It was written by a doctor that trained astronauts and felt if we were to train like the astronauts did, then we would all be thin, healthy, and happy (because mind you, all diet books have an underlying philosophy).   This idea for a nine-year-old child was exciting, and I still remember envisioning myself gaining beauty and happiness through pretending to be an astronaut.   And practically all of the suggestions he offered I saw being applied while dressed in a big, puffy space suit…helmet included.   The book was weird.   One would think a physician training astronauts would give a sound and reasonable plan for better living, however, (like all diet books) when the doctor was allowed a forum to express his inner “health utopia” (without all those pesky NASA onlookers) then things got pretty far out.   The NASA doctor felt that food and exercise were not the issue.   He felt that it did not matter what we ate or how much we ate.   Rather, we were fat and unhappy when we did not have enough oxygen.   And mind you, exercise was even scoffed at.   Being overweight and unhappy would not be cured by exercise either.   It was oxygen that we needed and were lacking.   And so, the whole book was a lot of breathing exercises that would enable us to breathe our way to complete fitness.

            Now, while it's fun to laugh at the diet books of yesteryear, today's fare I am quite sure will be seen as just as silly.   But it is the actual expression (dare I say)—the actual art form of the diet book that keeps me loving them.   It is funny and odd to see our diets blown up to philosophical and utopian proportions. Diet books are always written with such zeal and evangelism, that in truth, it makes me simply love people…I'll explain….

            I have this one diet book (for indeed I collect them) that is based on a “poop your way to happiness” theory.   And honestly, it really wasn't penned any subtler than that.   Chapter after chapter with headings such as “The Real Poop” and “Something Stinks” ran rampant throughout the book.   And again, an active and joyous colon not only brought thinness, but also happiness.   So, why does this make me love people?   First off, both diet books I mentioned were New York Times #1 best sellers, and to be honest I find it really heartwarming to think that somewhere out there people all over the world are trying goofy breathing techniques or working to become friends with their colons—all in order to feel a little better about themselves.   I guess knowing that even powerful CEO's and macho truck drivers will find themselves experimenting with a high protein diet or a special live-enzyme diet reminds me how fundamentally vulnerable we all are.   And the fact that countless people from all races, genders, ages, education levels, and classes will all try these clearly weird (and philosophical) diets—often life altering (have you ever seen a “wheat-free-er” or a “raw foods-er” try to negotiate a holiday dinner?) diets—shows that people genuinely are willing to experiment and try new things.   And to think of humans as beings united by a sense of vulnerability and a continued earnestness for self-improvement is a very happy stance.   Diet books seem to return me to that stance, and having a soft affection for humanity as a whole, I believe, can serve one well.   I am not saying that people are these perfect, harmless creatures, but I am saying that no one likes a harpy.   And taking a step back and thinking of your neighbor trying (and most likely suffering) the “Peanut Butter Diet” or the “Good Blood Sugar Diet” (which requires a very complicated daily eating schedule…very complicated…sainthood to all who suffered this one over a year) can, I assure you, really soften your heart when you interact with them.

            Throughout history people have tried and espoused all sorts of diets.   The fad diet (and the various attached philosophies) is not a new phenomenon.   The Old Testament, Xenophon's writings on Socrates, and Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography all offer a prescribed diet that will not only make us slim and healthy, but will also improve our overall moral character.   And while I personally do not believe there really is such a thing as a perfect diet, I do believe that people are trying to find one.   And it is this spirit of hope and experimentation that makes people genuinely cool…and…a little goofy.

Have a great weekend!   See you on Monday.

 

 

The OC (Fall '04)

 

 

            For the past two months or so the Fox television network has been telling me that America's most popular drama on television was a show called “The OC”.   They also went on to tell me that The OC “was the show that changed a generation” or was it “the show that transformed an era”?   Either way this show was touted to be THE show to watch.   Fox's claims were doubly backed up when MTV aired its “the real OC” which, was a reality show made with genuine OC kids whining, primping, and crying all over Southern California…all by the way completely synched up to soulful, complaint rock playing almost as loud as it would be in a rock video.

            Wanting to experience the show “that changed an era or generation or transformed” I sat myself down (even with pen and paper) and watched Fox's “The OC” as intently and as soberly as I could….   And to be perfectly honest….   I Loved it!!!   Just loved it!!!!   And now I know that pretty much from here on out Thursdays between eight and nine are booked.   First off, as expected everyone (except for the blond male lead) is really rich, and right off the bat we are informed that they are the way all Americans like their really rich:   beautiful, jaded, and very very unhappy.   There is a father character who I believe is a lawyer who seemed perhaps to have a soul, but early on you see nobody really listens to him.   The other adults are as saucy and fashionable as their teenage co-stars and have big problems of their own to drink, pout, and silently stomp along with loud, driving pop music.

            But the real treasure was the kids.   Man do I love spoiled, depressed teens.   I am actually not kidding here.   To see two hot bikini clad teen-babes (who looked not a day under 25) drinking before noon by the pool and being suspected of having eating disorders (one teen suggests that the other hotter, taller, more depressed, and harder drinking teen was perhaps too thin…something only the very few and privileged are suspected of).   And while, for at least the season opener it seemed the girls were getting all the really dramatic, rock-video, teen diary moments, the boys proved that they too can have diva fits and moments of tear-jerking silence while loud music drove home that life was INTENSE.   And this dear friends was why I loved “The OC”, and why I love teenagers.   I would simply give anything to feel life like that again.   And as I think about last night's show, I realized the amazing thing teens offer to the table of life:   heartfelt drama.

            A boyfriend decides to leave home (threatening that it is for good) (leaving his new address and number) because his best friend moves almost what appears to be a half-hour away.   The girlfriend of the boy who moved a half-hour away (to stand by a girl he had knocked up) begins to drink vodka straight from the bottle and while she was still this amazingly beautiful, posh young lady she cried a great deal when she was alone in the mansion and was really really curt to her glamorous mother.   Frankly, these kids were managing better skin and more emotions than any adult could ever hope, and as I watched all I kept on remembering was the Fourth of July in my neighborhood.   This past Fourth of July I had walked with my dogs to a park near my house where several people were gathering.   I sat with my dogs on the grass a bit to enjoy the illegal fireworks a group of teenage boys were putting on.   Teenagers were everywhere, and I found myself actually a little jealous.   They were picking each other up, fighting, cussing, crying, and having torrid meetings about either love or hate.   Best friends were inevitably dressed like identical twins and while they all still had these pouty-toddler faces one could immediately tell that their activities were not for the faint at heart.   Oh, the passion of the teenager!   May God Bless them all!

            Just after watching Fox's “The OC” I quickly changed the channel to ABC's “Life As We Know It”, which is a sort of east coast, intellectual version of “The OC”.   Here the kids are not as rich, not as tan, but just as beautiful and just as heartbroken, confused, angry, and passionate.   It struck me as identical to the iconic show “Thirty Something”, and to be honest I have to say (once again) I LOVED IT!   Unlike adult shows were everyone is being tough or subtle or working on a career or worrying about stuff, teens could not care less about anything but the present crisis before them and when teens are in crisis they are anything but subtle.   They scream, drink heavy, hate everyone, lie, get in fist fights, make their families suffer immensely and show an almost deadly loyalty to each other...and all the while soulful, moody pop music roars and rolls….   Oh, the passion of the teenager!   May God Bless them all!

            I suppose my suggestion for today is that perhaps all of us subtle, well-healed adults could use a little teenager in our lives.   I mean it, when was the last time you threw a chair after someone asked you a question?   Or, when was the last time you daydreamed and wept about your love interest (all the while dressed in amazingly hip clothes and listening to the moodiest and deepest of pop music)?   And how often do you solely value what you feel above all else?   I suppose I am suggesting that while most of us would cringe at the thought of being teenagers all over again, perhaps we should not take leave of those awkward years completely.   There is an honesty and passion to the teenager I think we all can learn from…not only do I believe it could help us find the sweet shores of the Champagne Life…I also believe it looks like a really fun time….   Just to make out one more time like a teenager…just one more time…man oh man.   Oh, the passion of the teenager!   May God Bless them all!

 

 

Warm, A Parable…. (Winter '05)

         A very long time ago, when I was quite young and was just starting to want to understand fine living and my kitchen, I learned a very valuable lesson. The evening has become somewhat notorious and very comical now, particularly between the parties involved, but at the time it was a complete embarrassment.

         I was at the time of the event very poor. I was painting my heart out—writing too—and living a life rich on life and art, but not much else. I had a budget of around thirteen dollars a week for food. The rest of my money (after rent and bills) went to cigarettes, beer, and paint. I had a lot of optimism then, as I still do today. My parents had come out to visit me and during their visit they had taken me grocery shopping. It was an utter treat, and it allowed me to use my precious funds on extra cigarettes, paint, and instead of beer I managed to buy wine. Glory days I assure you!

         As I watched my heavenly food evaporate, I decided before my return to beans and rice and soup I would have a gent over for a “fancy” grown-up dinner. I had this vision of me as a sort of Doris Day, Jasper Johns hybrid where I would be this totally glamorous yet still wildly bohemian hostess and serve up genteel heaven amongst paint stained hands, clothes, and furnishings. The gent was perfectly on time, excited, and brought good wine. He too was very poor, but since I was providing food he was able to buy wine instead of food—in essence, it was an exercise in the pooling of resources.

         And what resources I had: real butter, fresh onions, fresh garlic, some good beef, two large portabella mushrooms, some leftover wine (a rare find indeed!), and…much to my chagrin…some sour cream.

         The night was going perfectly. Lots of talk and really terrific jazz. I felt divine in being such a glamour-puss kitchen goddess as I sautéed and marveled at what good food looked like (namely not requiring lots of water to make edible as in the case with dried beans or Top Ramen). And for a while all was well. Table was set, dining music on, egg noodles nearly complete and my beef, mushroom, with wine was simmered, tender and wonderful. But then, but then…. Oh, if only we could turn back the hands of time! I had this flash idea: why not go for broke and make it even better…even richer…why not throw in a tub of sour cream?! It would become Beef Stroganoff! Beef Stroganoff…one of my favorite meals in the world! So, I stirred in the sour cream as my dinner guest was already anxiously sitting at the table when I came to see that mixing white into a dish that had a lot of red wine would turn your meal bright purple. I am not kidding here: my beef with mushrooms and wine was now bright purple and actually managed to taste bright purple. I panicked. This was terrible. And we were so hungry…so very hungry…the wine for the night had meant that we would not have much for the day. But it was bright purple!

         Being an artist I decided to approach the problem from a color standpoint, however, not being a cook I failed to recognize you really couldn’t approach food that way. I added a can of chopped tomatoes thinking the deep red of the tomatoes would soften the terrifying harshness of the bright purple. How wrong I was. Now we had a brash hot pink dish on our hands that went from tasting like bright purple to scary. It was sort of gritty too…somehow the canned tomatoes had affected the sour cream. I was ready to cry, and I really didn’t think putting anymore into this mess was going to help…besides, all I had left in the house was some frozen burritos…I highly doubt they would have saved the day if stirred in.

         I decided on putting as much salt and pepper as I could and lots of dried herbs (in a last minute attempt to tone down the hot acid pinkness of the dish), and I served up the nightmare on a pile of egg noodles.

         My dinner guest, though shocked by what was presented before him was a true gent and after a long, longer than usual toast, for surely he was stalling, he daringly took the first bite. I looked at and oddly hoped that somehow between all of the extra dried herbs, extra salt and pepper, and with the generous pile of egg noodles underneath that perhaps my dish would come to together and be this sort of exotic new food-wonder (as surely the cook who realized Beef Stroganoff did). Waiting on a response I too decided to tackle my plate, for I was terribly hungry, and what I saw even made me blush. You see, I had spent so much focus on the hot pink aspect of the dish I had not really noticed that the long strips of portabella mushroom and beef when swimming in a sea of red, lumpy, hot pink sauce looked really, really creepy. It was very close to vomit in appearance, but a little more sinister: really the beef and the mushrooms looked like the terrible, massive sand worms in the movie Dune.

         Finally, my guest finished his bite. I couldn’t even speak…not even to apologize…this meal really went too far for any kind of sorry. He then took up a glass of wine, raised it to me and said, “It is warm, nice.” And I looked at him completely shocked, and then burst out laughing. My gent had found one thing good about my dish and with total honesty and sincerity negotiated a very fine evening (for surely after that response he managed to charm the hostess). I laughed very hard and agreed that the meal was warm, and then declared that that was the name of my dish: Warm. And while I highly doubt Warm will ever take the place of Beef Stroganoff I will also say that I highly doubt the chef who invented Beef Stroganoff enjoyed as fine an evening (after dinner) as I did. Perhaps, there are some times when Warm is more effective than Beef Stroganoff….

 

 

A Zen Parable (Holiday '04)

 

 

            A great scholar was traveling on a pilgrimage carrying commentaries on the Diamond Sutra.   He had dedicated his life to the holy Buddhist scriptures and found no equal to his knowing of the Diamond Sutra.   He was excited to teach and share his findings with other great masters he had heard about.   One day he passed an old lady selling fried rice cakes, and he decided to stop for a light repast.

            The old woman asked him what he was carrying and he told her that he was carrying the Diamond Sutras and that he was a scholar of them.   The old woman then said,   “I have one question for you.   If you can answer my question then I will give you the cakes as an offering.   However, if you cannot then you will have to buy them somewhere else.”

            The scholar agreed and the woman asked,   “It says in the Diamond Sutra that it is impossible to catch hold of the past mind; it is impossible to catch hold of the present mind; it is impossible to catch hold of the future mind.   Reverend monk, then with which mind will you satisfy your desire for something light to eat?”

            The scholar had no answer and the old woman directed him to Ryutan, a Buddhist master.

            The scholar went to see the great master.   By nightfall the master came to see the scholar and said,   “Why don’t you leave?”

            The scholar was about to leave when he noticed it was dark outside.   He went back to the master and said,   “It is dark outside.”

            The master then handed the scholar a lit paper torch, and as the scholar took it the master then immediately blew the flame out.   The scholar then suddenly experienced a profound enlightenment.   The scholar, so overwhelmed by the experience and his revelation that for all he had studied it never brought him enlightenment, burned his commentaries of the sutras immediately after.

            A great medieval Japanese Zen master named Bassui told this parable to his students.   Bassui is one of my favorite Zen masters.   He was rebellious and honest.   He cared little for the strict adherence to the ceremony and ritual of the monastery.   For him pursuing enlightenment was the only goal for a Buddhist whether one was a monk, a nun or a layperson.   This parable came from Bassui’s collection of teachings called Mud and Water.   The essays are all dialogues between Bassui and his students who were comprised of monks, nuns, and laypeople.   The parable above comes from an essay entitled:   On the Value of Knowledge.

            After telling his students the parable of the scholar and the old woman selling rice cakes he explains the deeper meaning to the story.   Bassui explains that regardless of how learned a person is if they have not discovered their true nature then they will never find enlightenment.   However, Bassui also points out that simply keeping ignorant will also not lead one to salvation.   The key is in the heart.   Bassui teaches that gaining enlightenment wholly depends on one’s aspiration and not on whether or not one is educated.   When the aspriring heart is shallow than lack of education becomes an obstacle for the ignorant, and knowledge becomes an obstacle for the learned.   When the aspiring heart is deep, education becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the learned, and lack of knowledge becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the uneducated.

            For Bassui, enlightenment was only to be found within.   One can become great at anything—sports, writing, or even knowing the scriptures—however, only a deep earnestness and looking into one’s own self will ever lead one to the Way.   For me personally, I think this teaching can be applied to just about anything of importance—that ultimately to succeed one must not depend on our depth of knowledge rather our depth of commitment.   For some, what they understand will lead them to greatness, and for others it is what they do not understand that will lead them.   However, for all who have achieved success the heart is always the road they traveled.

 

 

The Trouble With Angels

 

         Recently, a friend of mine confided to me that his mother told him that she now completely believes in the existence of guardian angels. This was fantastic news for me because I know his mother and she is no weirdo. She is wise and educated, worldly and chic. Essentially, if she in her early sixties has come to believe in the existence of angels then, at least for this weary wanderer, I have come just a little closer to believing in them myself. I have wanted forever to believe in these winged wonders, and yet so often I find myself crippled by doubt. After hearing this amazing news I decided to put this question to my Yahoo tool bar: “Do guardian angels exist?” And what I received was exactly what the trouble with angels is….

         Angels, at least the ones everyone seems to be seeing and believing in, are supremely, overwhelmingly…tacky. And this saddens me beyond measure…and it splits my brain in two. On the one side when terribly chic, well-traveled ladies of uncommon wisdom say they exist then I cheer with delight and my imagination stirs. However, on the over side when I cruise the internet (or bookstore or mall—angels are everywhere) and see all of the images and descriptions of these angels my stomach turns…how could these wondrous loving entities be so badly stuck in the late Renaissance as realized through the nineteen seventies? I mean in one site the Archangel Michael looked like a cross between Conan the Barbarian and Farah Faucet circa Charlie’s Angels. And really the tackiness doesn’t end with bad hair and even worse get-ups and I stress the term get-up because so far in my angel research I find these winged lovelies opting for the weirdest costumes imaginable, and I still do not understand why in the time when pants have reached supreme comfort and elegance do these angels still insist on frilly nightgowns? Terribly frilly nightgowns…I mean in one illustration, Archangel Gabriel (who was actually fighting some demon thingy) was wearing this sort of flowing negligee topped off with a sort of leather looking breastplate…it was just terrible and I really cannot see how flowing chiffon could aid one in real otherworldly battle…let alone keeping me from serious injury. I just have a hard time with the idea that my guardian angel could be dressed like this. I am sure our fashion designers today could really work with the difficulty of fitting the wings and allowing for total comfort and range of motion…look at the latest advances in dog fashion…surely, if designers can now make dogs look like Queen Elizabeth II, then a wing-heavy angel could wear a sports coat.

         Bad fashion is not the only terribly cheesy thing about angels. It appears they also have absolutely weird names and political arrangements. In one site (and this was corroborated by several other sites) I was informed that angels actually have a ranking system and this system is usually called something like (ee-gads!) “the celestial hierarchy of Nine Orders”. And these “Nine Orders” are: Seraphion, Cherubium, Thrones (thrones?!), Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and finally Angels…just plain angels. Other odd “political arrangements” are that angels appear to prefer shoulders for perching, they battle “fallen angels” a lot, and there is some discrepancy with regards to Jesus being their ruler or his father or they are more like an independent contractor for a mysterious all knowing power in the universe. It is clear that within the angel community at least, angels are not dead relatives watching over you. Those are different. Angels were always angels and were never human. However, some angels do live on earth and appear human in order to more closely work with us humans. In one site these “secret angels” often do not know they are angels and very often show up in psychotherapists’ offices for being unnervingly co-dependant.

         Angel merchandise is not helping their cause much either, and I assure you there is a lot of angel merchandise. I do not really have to go much further on this note excepting to say that what made the merchandise worse was the aching sincerity of the peddlers.

         I really, really want to believe in angels. I did as a child. I want that belief back more than even my smooth skin and my ability to spin around without getting sick (now just watching something spin will get me queasy). When I believed in angels I owned the art of spinning round and round. No county fair would claim my deep fried dinner—ever. However, the trouble with all of this angel business is that they and their biggest evangelists are just so tacky and the angels they purport range from being sickly sweet to having the qualities of a science fiction monster-slaughtering hero. I need an angel. I hope I have a guardian angel. But the angels I want are outrageously hip. They know jazz. They understood Cézanne. They like fashion or at the very least have refined tastes. I need angels that I would actually want to hang out with…for maybe a cry…or maybe a laugh. I seriously could not have a cross dressing swashbuckler with flowing golden locks in my kitchen. I just couldn’t. And I am not sure I like all of the “glow” reports. It appears many angels glow all sorts of colors from “serene pink” to “healing golden rays” or in some (special cases) “a shimmering rainbow aura”. I do not want to hang out with someone, particularly someone that has dedicated himself or herself to having my back, who is shimmering pink or purple. It would frighten me, and at best I could not take anything they said seriously.

         No, I need my angels to be cool.

 

 

You Hit My Nerve

 

         You hit my nerve Ms. Merriam…and I wanted to bite you back for it…but in no time at all…I wanted to sit on your lap and kiss your cheek…you naughty Mother Goosey.

Hickory Dickory Dock
The Crowd ran up the block.
The cop struck one,
A rock got thrown;
Hickory Dickory riot.

                   —From Inner City Mother Goose

         The above poem was taken from a book of poems by Eve Merriam entitled Inner City Mother Goose. The book was published in 1969. Upon its release it was greeted with much critical acclaim, however, quickly the tide would turn. Because Ms. Merriam was primarily known as a children’s poet and author, Inner City Mother Goose caused much alarm. In response Ms. Merriam explained that the book was meant for adolescents and adults and not for children. The title alone proved too inflammatory and her book of poems would become one of the most banned books in America.

         I came to know about Inner City Mother Goose when I was researching another book of her poems: Finding A Poem (1970). The copy I read was found in the children’s section of my local library. I was intrigued by the publisher’s introduction on the book flap: “It’s a plastic age. An age of computers, of time for everything and time for nothing, of masses of people and lonely individuals, of new discovery and numbing sameness. To display and protest this world, Eve Merriam has written poems that speak of the terrifying every day.” Now remember two things: this was written thirty-five years ago and this book was intended absolutely for children.

         At first I will say I hated the book. I thought it was a doomsday report without any solution. And for me that is the key for doomsdaying: for I will suffer the cries of any man as long as he offers suggestions for relief. Essentially, I do not like people who simply piss on the world. Be polite offer an umbrella. However, as the evening wore on and as I researched the life and works of the poet, Eve Merriam, I found myself experiencing an absolute change of heart. I re-read the poems and wanted to say a little sorry for my jump to bite.

         What I came to realize was that Ms. Merriam had brought a solution with her acidic shower—dialogue. For anyone who has a child or who is near to one they will know that children’s books are made to be read out loud. Even children alone will read out loud. This immediately opens up discussion for surely many of her poems will leave a lot of unsettling questions (most likely more for the supervisng adult). In truth, war, pollution, crime, and loneliness are wholly part of a child’s world. Darker still, too often it is the child that intimately experiences these darker aspects of life. Poetry, even the reading of it, is a profoundly creative exercise and I came to see that for adults and children alike reading these poems was a way to not only work through some of these frightening aspects of life and the world around, it also brings in a pro-active mode of contemplation and discussion. And maybe just maybe the tender churls that were read honestly beautiful poetry will be refreshed and haunted enough to grow into umbrella makers and perhaps even problem solvers. And for the adults perhaps some creative contemplation will make us savvier in dealing with sorely bitten nerves.

         Eve Merriam was a poet, playwright, director, and lecturer. She was born in 1916 in Philadelphia. Her first book Family Circle (1946) was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In 1981 she was named the winner of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. She died in 1992.

THEY is another useful word.
You can use THEY to scare people.
Like on Hallowe’en.

                   —excerpted from the poem Basic for Further Irresponsibility (from the book Finding a Poem)

Praise of plastic thus we sing,
Plastic over everything
Keeps us cool and safe and dry:
It may not pain us much to die.

                   —excerpted from the poem The Wholly Family (from the book Finding a Poem)

as mugger to purse,
bad to worse,
so, dearest one,
I yearn to be your mate.

                   —excerpted from the poem The Happy Cynic to His Love (from the book Finding a Poem)

         And I think this last poem I excerpted from “The Happy Cynic to His Love” completely reveals the larger truth of Ms. Eve Merriam…that for all the bad in the world one profound good remains and persists…. Love.

 

 

Stop To-doing (Summer '05)

 

         A few years ago I read this really snappy and terribly helpful self-help book, and while unfortunately the title of the book and its author elude me now the lessons I learned within the pages do not. It was written by a life coach (a new societal craze and profession), and while at first I really thought it would be a good laugh (for I still sort of wince at the idea of a “life coach”—I found having a soccer coach in high school to have been trying enough) the book turned out to be a fantastic read loaded with all sorts of profound and practical wisdoms. And while sadly I am unable to remember the author’s name or the book title (nor can I find it—for half of my home is packed to move) I will say that it was wonderful, and when I un-pack I will share another of her wondrous pearls and give you the title information.

         The little great wisdom today I want to talk about is her insistence on getting rid of the To-do list. Yes, an absolutely buttoned-up, clearly type-A life coach spends a whole chapter on ditching The List. Shocking, but true. And although I cannot recollect her name right now I can immediately call up her picture, and I will tell you that one needs to only gloss over her image to realize that this woman absolutely has her life in order. I almost needed sunglasses as I read her book for her clarity and glowing sense that life could be far more together than one previously imagined was blazingly bright.

         Her argument against the To-do list can be broken down into three main points: flexibility, the importance of developing habitual wisdom, and removing the “life is a race” mentality.

         Flexibility she argues is truly the mark of a champion—a life champion. One of the big problems she found in helping her compulsive “listers” was that they tended to nurture both a myopic worldview and a false sense of control. In truth, life whether personally or in the work place is filled with many unexpected crises and events. If one is only seeing their day within the boundaries of their To-do list, then they might not pick up on a more pressing problem: a problem that they did not plan on dealing with and did not foresee when they formed their list. Listers tend to have difficulty being flexible with life, and very often are unable to sense or see when they need to change the course of their day. This is not a good habit or way of living, as true success often comes from a broad and encompassing world view: basically if you are focusing on your list you are not paying attention to what is actually going on around you, and you might be missing some key or more pressing issues that deserve your time and attention. By removing the list one shifts their mindset and bases their daily activities on what is actually important rather than what one predicted to be important. This list-free world view will in time teach one a profound ability to not only be flexible but to be aware.

         The second reason one should get rid of their list is that as long as one uses the “crutch” of the list for their compass then they will not fully force their minds to develop habitual wisdom. If, you are facing life with flexibility and awareness and acting on what is important at hand and not trying to hold onto what you insist should be or you thought would be important then you begin to develop wisdom. And the more you allow this sense of wisdom to develop then eventually this wisdom becomes habitual. Habitual wisdom is not unlike muscle memory. Anyone who has taken a dance class or has played a sport knows that the moment one “thinks” about what they are doing is the moment they mess up. One practices and practices their moves so that when they are on the stage or on the field they are able to “just do it” and not think about it. The same goes for habitual wisdom. If you take away your list you will begin to develop an inner knowing of prioritization. As you move through your day more and more you will simply just know what it is you should be doing, and operating on this deeper, instinctual level is far more wise and effective than hanging on to a list that was made beforehand. The To-do list is really an big wish for control; surely an illusion; in truth, we do not really know what the day will bring; and if we can get rid of that false control then a real sense of life mastery will be allowed to flourish. Essentially, the To-do list short circuits our ability to learn how to develop sharp instincts, how to trust those instincts, and then how to act on those instincts regarding what one should be doing to most effectively use their day.

         The last major argument against the To-do list is the idea that as long as someone reduces their day to a list then they perpetuate the idea or mentality that “life is a race”. In truth, life is not a race. Life just is. We can sculpt and perceive our lives anyway we want. To-do lists really are stress producers not stress reducers. For they are based on an illusion: that one can wholly control the world around them. The only thing a person can control is one’s perceptions of the world around them. Living your daily life off a list creates a perpetual sense of “got to”, “have to”, and “should”. However, living in a sort of future-based hypnosis prevents one’s mind from truly seeing and experiencing the moment and it constantly engenders a sense of urgency and risk of failure; for really there is only so much time in one day and many things that were wholly unforeseen will take up that time you had so boldly promised yourself to fill with items on you list, hence, making the To-do list is absolutely an exercise in futility. And what this life coach found was that To-do listers become extremely stressed out and wholly ineffectual as they constantly try to support and insist on a futile schematic.

         So, for today my dearest Sailors and Patrons it is my suggestion that you all experiment with letting go of those lists. Now, I know that telling a lister to not make a list is rather like ripping a security blanket away from a small child…but then again shouldn’t that analogy say it all?

 

 

Third Place Gets the Girl (Summer '04)

 

 

            Today I am going to talk about defeat.   Never give up dearest sailors and patrons…never give up.   Lately, I have been doing a lot of research in an effort to learn all I can about the Champagne Life and all the paths that might lead one there; and to be frank, the “winners” are getting a little on my nerves.   I recently read one self-help book where the author's stance was thus:   “Hey everybody, everything I have done in my life has turned out great!   I have a hot wife, and we do it all the time.   My kids are angels (because I parented so well), and I made a whole lot of money in my life from telling people I never lose…and this is why…”

            Needless to say I read his advice with little faith—how could someone who has never had their butt kicked (badly) really learn a good defense…let alone prevention of further butt kickings?   Losers, however, are the go-to people.   I know a man who growing up was very poor, and very often he was ridiculed by the other kids because of the state of his clothes and living circumstances.   Now, he is very rich and makes very sure his clothes and living circumstances are in order.   At first glance you could argue he is a “winner”.   No, he is most definitely a loser of the highest order.   Losers are different than winners, and their successes are grounded in a different perspective than winners.

            First off, you cannot mess with a loser who has succeeded (although I really wouldn't recommend messing with a loser who has not…generally speaking losers are tough folks).   Losers are bright.   They have superior memories.   They have above average tolerances for discomfort.   Losers are not good to cross—they are very, very, patient—and not afraid to lose.   Losers are special.   They take nothing for granted.   They tend to respect chance, and understand the strength of personal power better than winners.

            They are often a little sad though…losers.   However, this only makes them more interesting and allows them a vulnerability that usually makes them very successful romantically.   (Remember Heathcliff?   Mr. Rochester?   Mary Magdalene?)   Losers all have a story and deep into the night with moonlit tears in their eyes they will tell you that story, and when they do…well….   And it's important to note that losers never have to succeed to be successful romantically.   Every time a loser loses, a piece of their ego is chipped off—allowing someone to peer a little deeper into their soul—and this folks can be irresistible to hotties of both sexes!   Oh sure, losers can by day often put on the thickest lion's mane and walk as proud as a boxer, however, any good lover knows when the moon becomes high and small the little black portals of a loser's ego glint like jet.

            So, my dearest sailors and patrons know that failing will not impede your progress in searching for the Champagne Life.   Be proud of those second and third place ribbons.   Crack open a good bottle of bubbly and recount your fondest disasters.   Right now I sigh fondly as I think of an “F” I received in high school—it was a thrilling incident indeed—I believe I stormed into the teachers office, swore a great deal and threw things (ahh…not only a failure but a glaring example of poor self-control).   Now, though, as I recall the incident I find myself laughing and quite pleased by the event.   You must try this exercise:   you must allow yourself to peruse all your greatest disasters and truly see the brilliance in them!

            I am quite sure this column seems terribly “tongue and cheek”, however, I assure you it is not.   Defeat should be held as high as triumph.   Only the gods truly know what is for the best…so let us not be so quick to judge ourselves or others.   Perhaps, one loss can lead to saving your life?   One can never tell.   So, if you do find yourself in the bottom position hold your head high and never give up the quest for the Champagne Life…because, oddly enough this explorer, at least, believes that the Champagne Life will not give up on you.

1832—Failed in business.   Bankruptcy

1832—Defeated for legislature

1834—Failed in business.   Bankruptcy.

1835—Fiancée died.

1836—Nervous breakdown.

1838—Defeated in election.

1843—Defeated for U.S. congress.

1848—Defeated for U.S. congress.

1855—Defeated for Vice President.

1858—Defeated for U.S. Senate.

1860—Elected president.   (Abraham Lincoln)

 

 

The Circle (Holiday '04)

 

 

            I have two dogs.two beloved dogs.   For many years now I have lived on the east coast with all of my family in California.   This modern family-less existence has forged an uncommon bond between me and my dogs.   They have become my family.   Fricka, my oldest at twelve has been with me since she was a puppy, and when I look back at pictures of me when I first got her I can see I was not far off from being a puppy either.   Arthur is my other dog.   He is only one and is still quite new to me.   Arthur is different from Fricka.   Arthur is clippy and light-hearted whereas Fricka is soulful and has suffered much in her long years.   When Fricka was only a year she nearly died from some unidentified illness.   This illness would plague her for many years, and over the course of ten years she would face death many times sometimes so thin and frail that I hardly could believe a being could still breathe.   At six Fricka was run over by a car and suffered immense injuries.   One of her front legs was torn off at the wrist (it was surgically re-attached), three of her paws were torn apart destroying the nail beds (she now has at times six or seven toe nails growing in all directions from her feet), and some of her teeth were knocked out including one of her upper fangs (I still have the fang-a friend of my found it in the cuff of his blood soaked pants-he had helped me take her to the hospital).   With all that pain and near death experiences my Fricka has somehow managed to see old age.

            Old age.   Caring for Fricka has not been unlike caring for an aging parent or grand parent excepting for the bizarre relationship in that I see her more as my child-and it is a curious thing to have to deal with geriatric care of one's child.   She has become somewhat incontinent, and now I need to have several washable beds, a large unfolded diaper underneath her at all times, and frequent bathings to assure she does not get "urine scald".   Her poor teeth are going bad so I have had to switch her to canned food, and on more than one occasion I've panicked on her walks because I had walked too far from home and she was really stumbling, and I knew I would not be able to both carry her (she still weighs sixty pounds) and hold on to Arthur at the same time.   Many times now she gets up at night and nervously paces, and I have to comfort her and re-show her her bed and cover her up snuggly with a blanket.

            While all of the above has been trying at times (including the sixty dollar bottles of high grade Cosequin) the toughest part of all is the absolute stress of seeing her near death.   Absolute stress sounds too light-outright fear would be better.   And seeing her struggle to get up from her bed or worse (the worst sight in the world) see her fall over is heartbreaking.   There is also the terrible death scares in which Fricka falls into a very heavy sleep and I panic when I see her thinking she has passed away.

            However, it is just this-this circle of life that spins so quickly for our beloved canine family members that is perhaps the greatest gift dogs give us humans.   Fricka is teaching me and helping me prepare for the winter of life:   the winter of my parent's life and the winter of my own life.   Whenever I think too much, or rather, worry too much about my beloved Fricka.and then my beloved parents.and then my beloved self my mind always goes to one of Shakespeare's poems, and whenever I read the poem somehow my heart softens and somehow senses that all truly is well.

            So, to all owners of old dogs or owners of old bodies or owners of lives that are embroiled with worry I give you this poem.   And Dad, I think, this is my tape measure.

The Wind and the Rain

William Shakespeare

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
A foolish thing was but a toy,
            For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate,
            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
'Gainst Knaves and Thieves men shut their gate,
            For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,
            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
By swaggering could I never thrive,
            For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,-
            For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our Play is done,
            And we'll strive to please you every day.

 

 

 

Can’t Get You Out of my Mind (Winter '05)

 

 

         Two Buddhist monks walk into a bar….

         I have been chipping away at Buddhism for the better part of a decade, and while I cannot really say if I’ve taken any solid ground I can say I have enjoyed the trip. One of the teaching styles utilized is the parable. Today I want to share with you one of my personal favorites. This is a Zen parable and is oddly clear in its meaning—many Zen parables are opaque and only slightly open up—even over great periods of time.

         Two monks are walking together through the countryside on their way back to the monastery. As they approach a crossroad they see a beautiful young woman weeping in front of an enormous lake-like puddle caused from a flash summer storm. The older monk approaches her right away and asks her what is wrong. She explains that she is in her finest clothes—for she only has two dresses—her work clothes and her formal clothes. She was on her way back from visiting her relatives and that explains why she was dressed in her finest dress. The problem she cried was that if she were to cross the enormous puddle-lake caused from the storm she would ruin her fine silk dress, and going around it was not possible for the fields and woods were deep with mud. The young woman was terrified of the trouble she would get in if she were to come home in ruined clothes. Surely, she cried, she would be beaten.

         The older monk with lightness and ease said he had a solution: if she would allow him, he could carry her across the lake. He laughed that surely being carried by a celibate monk would not be improper—particularly considering the situation. The young woman much relieved acquiesced.

         The monk hoisted the woman up and carefully carried the woman across the flooded area of the road and placed her gently down on safer, drier land. She was overjoyed with both her dress and honor intact.

         The two monks continued their journey back to the monastery in silence. However, later that night the younger monk, deeply distressed confronted the older monk. The younger monk was visibly angry when he addressed his older traveling partner. The older monk, much lighter in expression and mood asked the younger monk what was the matter. The younger monk said, “Today on our journey I lost my faith in you…you know we are not to speak to women…and not only did you approach her, but you carried her. I could not believe my eyes…it was terrible to witness, and I am finding that it has me so upset that I finally needed to confront you.

         The older monk still with much good humor looked at this younger comrade and laughed. He then exclaimed, “Well young monk the difference between you and I is that I left the young woman at the other side of the road…you appear to have carried her all the way home!”

         This is a good parable to carry around in one’s mind. How often do we not leave the girl safely on the other side of the road…how often do were carry her home? So often we allow ourselves to be overcome by our mental loops. One of the goals in Buddhist practice is to learn how to not become hapless victims of our own obsessions—our own self-perpetuated dramas. Viewing the two monks from the outside it seems wholly obvious to root for the wise, older monk, and laugh at the judgmental (clearly projecting), younger monk, however the reality is that most, if not all of us are in the same boat as the younger monk…it is no easy task to leave beauty on dry land and walk home empty. And it is nearly impossible to leave ugly anywhere…we carry ugly as if she were the finest of treasures.

         Another more subtle, but again quite clear message is the ultimate reality surrounding the judgment of others. It is quite clear that the young monk’s vexation has more to do with his own sexual conflicts surrounding the appearance of the younger woman than the old monk. However, the young monk will not face or accept his own powerful desire and projects his self-loathing onto the older monk. The reality is that the older monk saw a deeper priority in impeccable behavior: with compassion and pragmatism tempering dogmatism. True, the rule was that the monks were not to socialize with women, however, the reason behind the rule was to aid in the monk’s celibacy. The older monk was strong and secure in his convictions and at this point in his life, carrying a maiden across a flooded crossroad would not harm or threaten his beliefs. One should take great care when they find themselves judging another…perhaps it has more to do with one’s own shaky stance than another’s fall from grace.

 

Confrontation (Fall '04)

 

            Today I want to talk about a very delicate and a very difficult topic:   confrontation.   I found myself over the weekend having to do a little of it (actually a rather big, almost-overwhelming dose of it) with a friend, and oddly just the night before I had seen a documentary about Africa and how one culture had managed to tackle this very touchy subject.   While it was very late at night, so my memory for exact details may be minimal, essentially this tribe that lived at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro had some fabled plant that had many life-sustaining uses.   One of the uses, however, was social…and awfully clever…so much so I truly wish that New England had something similar….   The plant had long, palm-ish sort of leaves that were very flexible.   If, someone in your town had in some way upset you, or if in some way you felt the need to confront this person, but this person was difficult or intimidating to confront then all you have to do is hand them one of these leaves, knotted in the center and then they will know you want to confront them but were to afraid to.   Then the person receiving the knotted leaf knows to soften and welcome the person into conversation.   The knotted leaf was a sort of ice-breaker, or in some cases a red flag…and man oh man do I wish we had this system.

            Unfortunately, while our founding fathers drafted up one heck of a constitution and civil society, they did not, however, come to peg some type of flora or fauna down as being the “hey buddy you're out of line” signal.   Instead, most of us are faced with usually two options with both more often than not requiring each other.   The two options I speak of are:   A. you tolerate the behavior as much as you can and then behind their backs vent everything to as many friends and family members as you can.   The obvious pitfall is that you are often reduced to becoming a petty gossip.   B. you tolerate the behavior as much as you can then finally blow up…usually at bad times in public places like restaurants, parties, or street corners.   The obvious pitfall is that you are often reduced to becoming a crazed fool…often becoming the topic of petty gossip yourself…and giving the offender a much needed advantage in the court of public opinion.

            However, even with all of the pitfalls, confrontation is actually one of the healthiest and often most profound acts of love one human can offer another.   Because in truth, only people who genuinely care about you are really going to bother…particularly when you consider the costs often paid by the person doing the confronting.   One of the costs (as I learned over the weekend) is feeling like the high school principal or worse, like the over-achieving student hall monitor anxiously waiting for someone to get in trouble.   Another cost is making someone cry, which even in the face of immense correctness is never good…it always sucks…which brings me to another cost…actually being too right.   Yes, too right.   Sometimes when you confront someone you find out that things were actually much, much worse that you had imagined (as in my case this weekend).   Then you find what was irritating or somewhat “wrong” was actually far more intense and involved than you ever realized…I believe the cliché “can of worms” comes into play under these circumstances.   Lastly, one of the most involved costs is the responsibility of the confronter.   I assure you, if you are to confront someone than you will be seen as the primary officer regarding the issue.   Meaning, if you tell a friend they are drinking too much then you will quickly be made into the “drinking cop” by your friend, and truthfully by your own sense of guilt.   Now, mind you everyone has different levels of guilt and senses of responsibility, but this very often appears to be the case.

            So what are some good ways to confront someone?   Because I want to say again that confrontation is actually one of most loving and compassionate acts a person can do.   I suppose I can readily think of a few tips—based on both times I had to confront someone and times when someone confronted me—and while it's never great when someone confronts you a few people in my life have done a great job and I will always be grateful for their love for me.  

            Never confront someone when you are angry.   Wait a little.   Collect yourself.   Never confront someone when you have been drinking.   I do not believe I have to say any more.   Try walking with a person as you talk.   This is a good one.   Walking will naturally reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) in the body.   Walking will also keep a person well oxygenated, which also reduces panic sensations.   And generally speaking moving around helps the conversation to move rather than stall-out into an argument.   Warn the person ahead of time.   Tell the person before you talk that you need to confront them on something.   I really think it is fair that you allow someone to “brace” themselves.   Accept and be prepared for the other person the defend themselves and realize you may not be one-hundred-percent correct in the situation.   Really, really, know what you want to say.   Rehearse the confrontation if you have to, but I think it is important to really know what it is you are upset about…otherwise, the confrontation can just become nothing more than a personal attack, which is neither loving nor healthy.   And this brings me to my last tip, and I think the most important:   only confront people you really love.   This is a big rule.   True confrontation—confrontation that was meant to either repair a suffering relationship or aid an out-of-control loved one (as in the case with substance abuse) is always grounded in love and never grounded in self-righteousness or meddling.  

            Looking back at my own confrontation this weekend I will say I feel a mix of irritation (that the whole terrible event…on such a lovely fall day…had to ever happen), self-doubt (that perhaps I was getting in “way over my head”), and hope.   And while I still feel a little bit of “confrontation shock” (something I am quite sure you all have experienced) the day ended with a warm, long hug and a heartfelt “thank you” from the friend I had finally found the nerve to confront.

 

 

An Independent Redemption Part II (Holiday '05 )

 

            Today I am going to continue my discussion on Chekhov’s final short story The Fiancée.   (click here for part I)   The Fiancée is a curious and deceivingly quiet and simple story about a young woman’s quest for personal happiness and fulfillment and how ultimately the price for such a redemption meant to live solely for one’s own self and not for the happiness of others.   Simply right?   In fact, it sounds rather like many self-help books and talk show themes today…and it certainly, at least nowadays, is portrayed as the healthy thing to do…to help thyself first.   And I believe it is in our own time that the most curious anthem of wisdom was coined:   that in order to properly love others one must first love one’s self.   The problem with phrases and ideas like these, that one must fall in love with one’s self before one can properly manage loving others, is that on the surface (and certainly if said often enough—particularly by celebrity psychologists) they might sound rather profound even wise, however, under rigorous examination major questions arise.   This is where writers like Chekhov are so wonderful:   they challenge our take on life and living.   The story The Fiancée is no exception.

            Before I go on I shall breeze through a quick run down of the story line.   Nadya is a twenty-three year old woman living with her wealthy grandma and widowed mother.   She is about to be married to a handsome, kind man of some wealth and no set profession (as of yet).   Sasha is a consumptive family friend who essentially grew up with Nadya, but who is an intellectual living in Moscow and who holds Nadya’s life and world in contempt.   Through Sasha’s continuing pressure Nadya flees her life in her provincial and backwater town and runs off to St. Petersburg to enroll in college.   Quite unlike many stories of this time and genre (1903) Chekhov allows Nadya to do very well in college and not to somehow be punished (see Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady to see what a writer could do to a woman who goes for independence and adventure).

            Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I think he is such a genius is that he does not give in easily to histrionics.   His stories are deceivingly quiet and simple…that if one were to bully their way through his work one is liable to miss the story…and I relish the daring of his subtlety.

            You see, as one first runs through this story one is relieved and surprised by Nadya’s release:   she is allowed to leave her fiancé at the altar, reject tradition and her family’s wishes, and survive safely and happily on her own.   However, as the story winds down a peculiar discomfort arises regarding Nadya and her happiness.   Three key things are very, very, subtly included as the story ends, and I stress that without care Nadya’s escape and run to school in pursuit of a life of meaning and purpose (as Sasha told her a life of meaning, work, and purpose was the only life worth living—and her and her mother and grandmother were just lazy wastrels who lived pitiful lives without any meaning and at the expense of others) could be seen as the apex of the story and the end was simple a tidy wrap-up of Nadya’s triumph.   However, as above-mentioned three key things caused my mind to stumble a bit and take pause:   had Nadya found the noble cause of pursing a life of purpose and meaning as Sasha had pressed her to do?   Or was Nadya simple, impetuous, and spoiled?   And was there something to be said about self-sacrifice?   Could self-sacrifice offer a happier life than self-fulfillment?   Because one of the most curious and fascinating ideas that arises is that if one lives under the ethos of self-fulfillment will one ultimately live a life of continued searching and will this restlessness cause life to ever-dwindle into tedium and dissatisfaction?   The best part of this story is that Chekhov does not answer these questions.   However, he does give us a meaty enough story to use as a springboard for debate.

            As triumphant (or perhaps as non-punished) Nadya returns home she stops over in Moscow to visit Sasha the man who had brought about her decision to leave home.   She was surprised to find a weak, dying (he was always weak and dying) man who was poor—and here’s the kicker—and well, a little dull, a little provincial.   Suddenly, Nadya’s bold hero was no hero at all; in fact, to her he appeared downright lame.   When Nadya arrives home at her grandmother’s house all has changed.   The once nice home was now not so impressive and due to Nadya’s decision her mother and grandmother are no longer part of any type of social scene.   When Nadya was engaged the ladies entertained frequently, now however, they live in shame and isolation.   Nadya, however, doesn’t really pick up on this but rather notices how boring, ugly and lame everything is back home including her mother and grandmother.   It seems that now that Nadya is a bold, intelligent sophisticate from St. Petersburg her other life is more pathetic than ever.

            What is interesting here is that when the story begins Nadya is quite happy with her life and quite in love with her fiancé.   And actually while Sasha’s claims were partly correct, they were not wholly correct.   For Nadya’s fiancé had recognized Sasha’s claims that he was living a life without purpose and had told Nadya (as they toured what was to be the newlywed’s house) that after their wedding he was going to set out to find a vocation of meaning and purpose.   And upon further examination one senses that part of Sasha’s contempt had more to do with Nadya getting married to a healthy handsome man than of Nadya's lack of purpose.

            Nadya’s world falls apart as Sasha constantly tells her that her world is terrible.   Nadya goes on to live the life Sasha had pressed and with that decision her mother, grandmother, hometown, and even Sasha become dull and stupid, and somehow one can’t help but sense all that Nadya’s bold escape did was make her a terrible snob—and one has a hard time believing that any sort of great redemption was had.   One also has a hard time (at least I did) with the quiet, but obvious ruin Nadya’s flight brought to her grandmother and mother.   For one realizes that Nadya’s marriage also meant a great deal to the survival and success of the whole familial unit.   But even before my heart and mind can wholly stand on these ideas that Nadya was a terrible, selfish brat, I cannot help or avoid the reality that Nadya absolutely did not want to, as the date of her marriage closed in, marry her fiancé, and that Nadya absolutely loved college, was successful at it and unlike her mother (who was not a happy lady) had found a life she loved and enjoyed.             But did she?   Had young (and I stress the word young) Nadya truly found an enduring happiness through pursing self-fulfillment?   Somehow, I feel that her subtle but very real trend of seeing people and places that were once dear as dull and pathetic was a dark foreshadowing of her future.   Was Chekhov delicately showing the peril of pursing happiness based on personal predilection—above all else—at the cost of others’ happiness?   The peril being that if personal happiness and self-worth become the goal of one’s life then will one find themselves in a treacherous footrace against boredom and a continued sense of dissatisfaction.   Would her sense of things once grand going dull continue and move beyond her family and hometown?   Would college become dull?   St. Petersburg tedious?   And would this trend of restlessness become somewhat habit forming—because ultimately nothing could ever match the adventure and exhilaration of her first escape—would this sense of escape and personal adventure perpetuate a miserable trend of dissatisfaction and flight?  

            However, if Nadya had stayed in her hometown and married her fiancé would her life play out any better?   I do not know, but I do know this is why I love Chekhov…I shall be talking about this story and these ideas for sometime…most likely in my kitchen with friends, food, and good wine.   And most likely great arguments will arise…and all from a little story written a hundred and two years ago…with ideas that today seem more relevant than ever.   For in my time, Nadya’s decision is no longer in question, but rather obvious:   of course she was right in leaving her fiancé and going to college.   However, when I look at my own time I do not see an altogether happy population, and perhaps if we as a society were to look at our assumed anthems of wisdom such as the key to happiness is found in a deep love for one’s self, then a more complex, helpful and illuminating wisdom could be arrived upon.   Perhaps Chekhov could see the tide that has finally wholly washed up and perhaps with deeper consideration some clues for resolution are somehow tucked underneath Nadya’s skirts or the purring samovar on Grandma’s grand old table.

 

 

 

An Independent Redemption Part I (1/6/05 Vol. 3 No.26)

 

            Chekhov first came into my life the last day of my senior year in high school.   For my graduation present I purchased myself a lovely old leather volume of The Complete Works of Chekhov.   The book would add little more than decoration for some time.   During the spring of my freshman year of college while living in San Francisco I finally decided to open my lovely, outrageously soft leather copy of Chekhov’s works.   To say it affected me would be a more sober description of what happened once I began reading the dear, contemplative Russian.   In truth, I found myself so overwhelmed and absorbed by Chekhov that I began to dress, think, and most likely (and I admit this with much embarrassment) speak differently.   It was an odd contrast to the general company I kept—being an art student most of my friends were tattooed, pierced, punk-rocker, anti-establishment types—for I found myself wearing exceedingly lovely dresses, curls in my hair, silk scarves around my neck, flowers in my room, and a general air that can only be described as existentialism mixed with theology.   Oddly, it was at this time in my life when I would find myself in the company, not of other artists’ crying foul to the world, rather an old friend from my home town of Modesto who was shamelessly greedy, ambitious, and who carried a general sense that his overall happiness is what living was about and everything else was to be treated as light-entertainment.   I say oddly because it was at this time wine became a big part of my life for he and I would seek out and taste as many fine wines as we could afford, and as we would sip very fine wine we would argue about the nature of life, the world, god, and just about everything else under the sun.   Yet we also would laugh heartily and together come to love wine with such a depth that now he owns a restaurant in Northern California with a decided wine theme, and I co-founded a magazine that is half-soaked with sparkling wine.

            But back to Chekhov….   Although in truth, the above story is not so removed from what I hoping this wildly straying column to be about:   namely Chekhov’s very last story The Fiancée and the troublesome idea that ultimately redemption must be a selfish endeavor.  

            I have some question as to how much I should “blow” the story, meaning if I don’t give you the ending I cannot really explain Chekhov’s wonderful survey of redemption, however, if I tell you the ending than I risk taking away the joy of discovery if one were to choose to take up reading Chekhov (a highly recommended activity by the way).   I have decided in this case to give the ending because I feel that Chekhov’s writing is so wondrous and amazing that it surpasses being a clever story, and that like Shakespeare while we all know the ending to his plays it in no way takes away our enjoyment of them because the themes are endlessly engulfing.   Essentially, I can tell you what happens in The Fiancée, however, the deeper themes of redemption, responsibility to others, to oneself and to tradition, and the morals surrounding happiness I believe will be forever fresh and complicated.   I heartily suggest you read this story and then see if this writer’s take comes anywhere close to how you saw it…or perhaps you can get a friend and a fine bottle of wine and argue together over it…for it can be read in a matter of a half hour.

            I shall breeze us through the story:   a twenty-three year old girl waiting to be married, living with rich grandma, and mom in a large but out-dated home where the servants still sleep on the kitchen floor and where there is no indoor plumbing or running water.   Male, youngish, consumptive, lives in Moscow, educated, maybe a little in love with above mentioned girl, but dying and more in love with education, modernity, and the idea that all people should have purpose…not, as in the case of the ladies he is staying with, lying around all day having servants do everything.   Sasha is the consumptive’s name and slowly over the course of a few months manages to really get to Nadya the young fiancée.   Her perfectly safe and quaint life including her perfectly handsome and sweet fiancée are now suddenly dull and terrible and she finds herself in a pretty hefty panic.   This is classic nineteenth-century stuff, however, this was to be Chekhov’s last story and it would be written in 1903—a very important time for the world and a very, very, interesting time for Russia.   What happens next is truly (if you’ve read a great deal of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction) shocking:   Nadya leaves her family and fiancée and runs off with Sasha.   However, even more shocking is that it is not some man/ woman thing for Nadya only departs with Sasha, but then heads up to St. Petersburg alone and enrolls in college (Sasha lives in Moscow).   And then what makes this story outrageously shocking is that she succeeds!   Chekhov does not punish her for pursuing personal fulfillment.   Her family forgives her she does well in school and basically knows she has done the most wonderful thing in the world.

            Chekhov though is no mere master for he gives the story a subtle but complicated ending.   An ending that brings to surface the nature of happiness and perception and the tantalizing question that is fulfillment a noble-enough quest for an individual or is it simply hubris?

            That is all I have room for today.   Tomorrow, I will be continuing my discussion of Chekhov’s The Fiancée.

 

 

A Road I Refuse to Travel (Spring '05)

 

         Yesterday I was struck by an odd question, “Do more people die at night or at day?” Not really knowing where to begin to find the answer I commenced my research with the Internet. This seemed particularly right being that I write a column for the Internet. Quickly, however, I realized that punching in the question, “Do more people die at night or at day?” will bring you into very dark electric waters. The first page of Yahoo was a loose collection of various death tolls from wars or disasters. This was only slightly lightened up by a very energetic and excited page dedicated to Hell with really good feverish writing regarding the absolute existence of Hell. The author wove in bible verses and scientific facts more fearlessly and with more artistic interpretation than I have seen in a long time. By the third page my stomach felt weak. There were many suicide pages. And finally, this explorer, found one of her first real-live cyclopses on her perilous journey searching for the Champagne Life: it was a quasi-scientific site dedicated to explaining to people that We Were All Doomed. The curator of the site had collected several essays and scientific papers on themes such as the social implosion of Africa, over population, global warming, bio terrorism, and many other weak-in-the-knees-ideas. It was an ironic moment for me because in this site I had essentially found my evil twin for as he was doing everything in his power to insist you should not get out of bed I was putting in eighty hours a week under the premise that we should all most definitely awake mightily. I am no Pollyanna; I understand the world around me as well as anyone; however, I have come to believe that for all the dark there is light, and that the theater of life is a comedy no matter how convincing the villains are. So, in an effort to rebel—fully completely reject the doomsayers—I have decided to list a few things on this planet that have brought me much joy. And it is my hope that some of these things you will try out yourself and most importantly, all of these things will get your mind rolling around the things in life that give (or have given) you great happiness.

         Believe it or not this “high-brow” literary gal actually has a fondness for a little guilty pleasure from time to time…. One of my favorite things to do, so favorite that I do it very, very seldomly, is to run out and get some terrible Dunkin Donuts and listen to Howard Stern. Once, I actually had to flip over a profoundly sincere anthology of poetry because it felt too wrong to be laughing over a man who could “sing” songs with farts as I downed several rainbow-sprinkled lovelies.

         A long time ago a very wise boy who was quite handsome and desperately poor took me out on a heavenly date. It was early in the evening at summer and the dusk was warm and sweetly bright. He picked me up and was dressed finely. He then drove me to a park and walked me to a grand old Sycamore tree. He then informed me that this was one of the most wonderful trees he had ever seen and that he wanted me to see it. We walked around and studied and sat underneath the tree the whole of the evening. And it truly was the most wonderful tree in the world. The bark appeared as lovely and ornate as a Gustav Climpt painting. I traced the ornate puzzle pieces with my fingertips. The branches were low and long—they were better than mothers’ arms—you could wrap your arms around them tightly and the limbs filled your entire torso. We did not eat or see a movie or hear a song or even take a drink of water and yet when he dropped me off I went to bed completely satiated. Now whenever I see a Sycamore tree I feel utterly happy. What a wise man.

         Just a few days ago I was awoken by the sounds of geese coming home. I immediately leapt out of bed and struggled to see the arrow as it passed overhead. I actually pressed my cheek against the glass. No luck, but their “hello, hello, hello, we’re back, did you miss us” was enough to make me feel completely spring-rainly happy.

         One day I was completely bored with my life and completely bored with myself so I decided to pretend I was someone else. I pretended I was a charming gay man who wrote and designed beautiful coffee table books. That day, I (as the charming gay man) was working on a book about scones. A friend came over and completely—tacitly understood—so my friend also became a charming gay man. My friend's new persona was a physician’s assistant who had a reckless fondness for vintage BMWs. It was heavenly to have a day off from being me. My friend agreed.

         The surprise joy of siblings…. When I was perfectly new to the city I found myself out with perfectly new people. One gent was a little nervous from all of the newness and drank himself out of even being cab-able. So another new gent and I had to drag him back to my place. We had to walk by a beautiful almost cathedral in my neighborhood and I simply would not let him vomit in front of the church. So we kept swearing at him and kicking him lightly to keep him from puking. When we got him back to my place we draped him over my toilet where he puked several times and then passed out over the toilet. I took his cell phone out of his pocket and called what I hoped was a friend of his (for I did not know him very well). It turned out to be his brother. His brother came to pick him up. He coolly walked into my house checked out his moaning, vomit covered brother who was still draped over my toilet and then joined me and my other guest in the kitchen. “Hey, are these paintings yours?” he asked me. I answered “yes”. He then said, “Cool. You got a smoke?” I then gave him a cigarette and a beer and he leisurely smoked and drank and chatted about art—and then—finally saved his brother. That moment still cracks me up…oh the surprise joy of siblings. They will pick you up in the middle of the night when you are covered in vomit.

         Surely, there is enough to find pain and fear in, so for today, my beloved Sailors and Patrons, it is my suggestion that you contemplate what it is that gives you happiness and mirth. It is I believe a road of rebellion that when traveled can vanquish even the best of the hairy ogres.

 

 

Our Internal Happy Meter (Summer '05)

 

         Recently, a friend of mine told me about a book he was reading with the suggestion that I could maybe talk about it in my column (which know dearest Sailors and Patrons is something that I heartily welcome…for this explorer genuinely needs all the help she can get). The book is called: “Conscious Loving—The Journey to Co-Commitment—A Way to Be Fully Together Without Giving Up Yourself” by Drs. Gay Hendricks & Kathlyn Hendricks. Within the pages are insights after insights, however, one observation made by the couple-counselor duo after years of practice I found wholly profound, revolutionary, and something that not only brought a new perspective towards people but a seriously great tool towards achieving happiness.

         What the doctors came to see was that people have a “happy meter” (of sorts). For thousands of years the struggle of survival had chiseled a worldview based on hardship and suffering. Essentially, life was hard. This worldview and material struggle caused a certain reaction to form in the human psyche regarding moments of joy. Times of joy were such a striking break for man that while they were absolutely wonderful a deep sense of dread would ensue after the moment of joy. For hardship and struggle were, though negative feelings, comfortable; whereas joy and happiness, though extremely positive and pleasureful, were uncomfortable in that they were new, surely fleeting, and untrustworthy (in that they were too foreign to be trusted).

         As man evolved and life became more balanced between raw survival and leisure the doctors theorize that our collective psyches are still stuck in the cave man worldview of serious fight or flight and still are not able to trust or relax in happy states with struggle and hardship being more comfortable and therefore subconsciously pursued and held on to. Time and time again they would observe that in times of celebration or joy a person would seemingly suddenly “turn on a dime” and find themselves almost overwhelmed with negativity and sometimes anxiety, and within that moment would begin to mentally talk themselves out of their happiness (and usually bringing others down with them). Suddenly, the wonderful dinner party that was so fun becomes a time of worry: perhaps the people did not like the food; or pleasant conversation can be perceived by a person, racing to find negativity, as being suddenly offensive. The doctors discovered that people seem to have a certain level of happiness that they can handle, and once that peak of joy is reached than they will quickly scramble to bring their happiness level down. This can be a problem, especially when one’s meter is set rather low, but it can also be a hint towards a way to live a seriously happy life: for the doctors have also found that patients of theirs can learn how to set their happy meters seriously high, and some people can manage to dump the meter altogether allowing their psyches to lavishly enjoy life without any fear or mistrust of the happy state.

         In one example taken from the book a female patient was talking about a special Christmas arranged for her mother. Friends and family had flown in from all over the country to gather around and celebrate Christmas with her mother. It was meant to honor her mother especially. The day was described by the patient as filled with joy and merriment, and her mother appeared to have been deeply touched by the outpouring of love. Then as if “a switch was turned on” her mother then worked “to do everything possible to reject it”…the mother could not handle the outpouring of love towards her and worked to lower the positive energy level of the party. Quickly, what began as a wonderful family Christmas became a tense event as the mother suddenly began to point out all the shortcomings of everyone around her—of everyone that had traveled thousands of miles just to be by her side for Christmas. In another example, a couple was in counseling and experiencing a breakthrough moment. A huge outpouring of love was expressed by the couple as they reached a new understanding regarding their relationship, however, almost as soon as the room filled with positivity the husband then blurts out to his wife that she “smelled funny”. Instantly, his wife became deflated and they returned to their comfortable argument pattern.

         For me personally I found this human observation to ring outrageously true: so much so that I was amazed that I had never noticed it before. The idea that people have a certain amount of happiness that they can take before they need to retreat to a comfortable personal level of negativity was to me revolutionary. And I found that, as I looked at my own self this to be unbelievably true. I saw that very often in moments of utter happiness my heart would turn and “run for the hills of negativity” and I would find myself almost seeking the bad in the situation and denying the good.

         What makes these doctors kind souls and not just smart is that they offer a solution to this ingenious observation, and I will say from personal experience, that already their suggestions work in raising one’s happy meter. The first step is to become emotionally aware. Meaning that before one can really work on one’s happy meter that one needs to be aware how it is one is feeling at any giving situation. Once one can learn to become keenly aware of their rolling emotional states then one can quickly begin to feel the phenomenon of the happy meter. It’s strange, but I found I could really sense when my ability to accept joy was being peaked and my want to “take it down a notch” would kick on. At the moment you feel this almost irresistible urge to retreat from feeling good you are to rest. Yes, rest. This means that instead of allowing yourself to begin the self-talk that can change your perspective from positive to negative, you just rest in the moment trying to keep a sort of neutral inner voice. I have found that when I begin to exercise negative self-talk that just paying attention to my breath and really staying in the moment is not only enough to stop the inner happy killer, but to keep me in a sort of sustained neutral to good state. Over time one’s mind will adjust and their happy meter will rise—allowing for longer sustained periods of joy—and less negative self-talk. For really the meter was only formed out of habit with people choosing what is comfortable and familiar over what is necessarily positive or negative.

         So, to all my beloved Sailors and Patrons, today it is my suggestion that when you find a want or urge to deflate a positive moment resist the impulse to engage in negative self-talk and instead choose to simply rest in the moment. For surely people strolling the golden shores of The Champagne Life have chucked their happy meters out all together. Surely.

 

Keeping It Real (Holiday '04)

 

            Believe it or not this current (and most likely waning) rage for reality TV actually has rather classy roots.   Our time is not the first to recognize expression in “ordinary folk”, and while one could argue that today's reality television could not and should not be considered an art form its emergence was absolutely made possible by some of history's greatest artists.   Paris in the late 19 th century would not only have to reconcile with the Industrial Revolution, but a profound artistic revolution as well, namely Realism.   Realism was an art movement that insisted for the first time not to use highly stylized, historical, and idealized subject matter and techniques such as painting biblical, quasi-historical, or mythological paintings with skin like glowing pearls and robes that seem to ripple and wave miraculously.   The Realists sought to paint the world as it was, right now, in the present.   They strove to show the plain, ugly, and mundane with absolute honesty.   But why?   How did this movement begin?   And what does it say about us today and our current obsessions?

            Gustave Courbet would have to be without a doubt the father of Realism.   Painters such as Manet would follow in his footsteps and bring on another movement:   Impressionism.   Oddly or ironically, it would be Realism that would make the first “loose”, “abstract”, or “expressionistic” techniques for painting as in the case with Monet and more obviously Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.   However, after seeing Van Gogh's paintings of the victim's of the Potato Famine and self-portraits one can see the immediacy and honesty of Realism in their work.   But why?   Why did artists almost suddenly become driven not by broad, grand historical subject matter, but by simple daily living?   A quote from Courbet gives a great deal of insight:   When asked why he never painted angels, he replied,   “Show me an angel and I'll paint one.”   In a relatively brief period from 1789 to 1852 France had gone from being an absolute monarchy under Louis XVI, to the empire of Napoleon III, then the revolutionary reign of terror, a republic, the Napoleonic Empire, a royal restoration, a constitutional monarchy, and then a socialist commune.   Along with the unbelievable amount of political upheavals an even larger, more world altering revolution was taking place:   the Industrial Revolution.   Workers in the 18 th century saw a tangible exchange between their labors and payment as in the case with produce and handmade wares, now they exchanged the intangible elements of time and labor for a paycheck.   Science too was questioning and dissolving long-held religious beliefs; in short, the world had transformed at such a speed and such intensity that writers such as Balzac and Dickens became more concerned with social and political criticism than grand heroics or religious idealism.   Courbet's quote could not better encapsulate the mood of the day… “Show me an angel and I'll paint one.”

            How does the Realism movement in the late 19 th century have any relation to the early 21 st century?   And furthermore, how does this movement affect one's quest for the Champagne Life?   Today, there is a current obsession with reality TV.   And while I will be the last to compare it artistically speaking with painters such as Courbet or Honoré Daumier (a great social critic), I can immediately recognize the relationship between reality TV and Realism—one could not have happened without the other.   To sit and be entertained by a chunky housewife trying to come to terms with a bossy teenager, or an over-sexed twenty-something crying because perhaps not everybody likes him or her is surely a case of demystifying art and the human experience.   Basically, Wife Swap is no Dallas or Dynasty .   But why did we turn to the ugly and the mundane, and turn our backs to the fantastical?   While it is nearly impossible to see clearly above when one is sitting deeply in the middle (as I am in my own time), I can say that it is possible that some of our social and technological advances have moved somewhat faster and stronger than perhaps we are consciously acknowledging.   I remember when the “latch key kid” phenomenon was seen as rare, now both parents work in over sixty percent of families today.   That is just one example of how our social fabric has profoundly and dramatically changed in just over a decade.   Science too has advanced at an unbelievable pace with stem cell discoveries, cloning, and genetic screening testing every ethical notion of humanity and the sacredness therein.   Have we become a society that like Courbet will paint an angel when we see one?

            While I will be the first to say that I do believe reality TV to be like all things and eventually fade away or at least retreat, however, Realism in the nineteenth century also faded away and new movements such as abstract expressionism and Fauvism would evolve.   However, while Realism did slowly give way to other styles its imprint would be permanent—the singular human was now a subject for art and expression—one no longer needed Zeus, Moses, or a king to express profundity.

            What does this all have to do with living the Champagne Life?   Everything.   The artists of the nineteenth century gave us an incredible gift:   our own right to drama.   A shoe salesman, a housewife, or a widower are all fascinating universes to be discovered.   No longer are the days when only an incredible luck of birth must occur for a human to be expressed and celebrated as complicated, profound, or interesting.   Yes, we do still love to obsess over Royals and movie stars, however, we also like to see movies, television shows, and read books about policemen, butlers, or hapless souls falling into all sorts of love.   So, thanks guys…Courbet…Zola…for making the case that “the great unwashed” actually was where the heart of the world thumped.

 

 

The Panther (Summer '04)

 

            On one snowy, cold afternoon in early spring I was at the Franklin Zoo in Boston with a very dear friend.   Franklin Zoo has a warm tropical pavilion with a rather charming, musky gorilla family as its main attraction.   It is a sweetly strange place to visit on a blustery New England afternoon and yet, just artificial enough to not feel far from home.   Across from the modest crowd of gorilla fans was a smallish, corner rainforest-office, and its uneasy occupant was a gentleman panther.   He was black and perched high and painfully too beautiful for his lot.

            My life at the time was being self-interpreted as “angst ridden”, and I believe the purpose of the zoo trip was to whisk me away from a then daily ritual of impatient malaise.   At the time, I had convoluted optimism with a hardy case of the “ I'll be happy whens” .   More and more I had allowed my impatience and sense of expectation to remove me from life and perch me high on a simulated limb.   Friends would laugh and share stories while I would internally pace on my lofty false branch and think how happy I would be if….

            The corner office was dim and not enjoying the same upbeat revelry as the gorillas and those rosy-bottomed macaques.   He was plainly and clearly unhappy and looking back, I can see the zoo comers' point in avoiding the panther.   However, I found myself entranced by the black panther as he paced back and forth on his vaulted, simulated tree branch.   His eyes were wide and sad, and his rich, completely flawless tail hung low with only the slightest arc at the bottom.   And he paced and he paced, and as he paced my friend pointed up at him and said,   “That panther reminds me of you.”

            I looked at my friend and the panther, and then my friend said,   “This is an odd coincidence because just the other night I had read the poem The Panther by Rilke, and I thought of you.”

            Obviously, when I returned home I read the poem.   Here is the second stanza of The Panther (In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris) taken from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (and I strongly recommend you either see if your local library has it or purchase this amazing volume of poems):

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over
The movement of his powerful strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

            I looked up at the panther and said,   “I am you, I am you!”

            And he replied,   “No, you fool!   No, you fool!”

 

 

A Star Is Born 1937 (Spring '05)

 

         Lately, movies have been on this editor’s mind, and I must admit I have a great deal of mixed emotions regarding this art form. My current mental exhaustion surrounding this medium is due to the fact that The Better Drink’s next issue will be debuting a new column: “Film in Review”. This new column has me more than just a little nervous, for in truth, I actually minored in Film when I was in art school and from that experience I found myself to not only be wholly terrible at making movies I came to fear the whole society involved. Film people are very different from painting people (which was my better suited major). And when you study film, you must work with a lot of film people: which for me was mainly in the form of very crabby graduate students who ruled over all of the equipment, sound studios, and the dreaded editing room where undergraduate painting majors found only the bleakest open hours in which to work (not to mention film cutters that, no doubt, were made at the turn of the century). I did manage to learn enough to understand how much money and disaster goes into a film: like when spending forever getting everyone to put their beers and cigarettes down and getting the lighting just right only to find that after around fifteen seconds my camera began to emit a most curious sound. I gingerly lifted the door of my lovely hand-crank, 16 mm Bolex only to find the whole roll of film popping out at me like the spring-snakes from a gag-tin of candy. Filming would resume when I could starve my way into another $46.00 dollar roll of color film. I also learned that to make a good movie you needed to be a good hustler (that I was actually good at): I was known to be able to turn total strangers on the streets of San Francisco miraculously into proficient film crew. However, with all that said I did take away a good dose of film history, sound theory, and at the very least an inside appreciation regarding films and how they are made.

         Every once in awhile I like to completely brake with my usual lighthearted approach and see a movie not as someone needing some R & R, but as a truly critical viewer. It is a wholly different experience and one that I am suggesting to you my beloved Sailors and Patrons: for in taking in a movie as a work of art to be considered and contemplated upon one finds themselves not as passive viewers but rather as active participators. It is a rich creative experience, and last night I found myself buzzing with all sorts of delightful insights, theories, and questions…and I will tell you that to find one’s mind lush and darting on a Monday night is some feat…and one that I heartily suggest you all attempt. For my sleep was even restless—but a good restless—the kind of restless you get with a new crush.

         The movie that caused all the commotion was the 1937 version of A Star Is Born. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March star as the doomed, yet engrossing “Vicki Lester” and “Norman Maine”, and William A. Wellman directs. The story was by the director and Robert Carson (in which they won an Academy Award), and later the money man David O. Selznick would bring on Dorthy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell and a few others to write the script (often to the consternation of the director William A. Wellman). The cinematography was by W. Howard Greene who was a pioneer in color cinematography. Mr. Greene was brought on because Selznick insisted that the movie be made in the newest triple Technicolor process. Mr. Greene would earn a special plaque at the Academy Awards for his work on A Star Is Born. There are two other remakes of the movie: a 1954 musical version starring James Mason and Judy Garland and a 1976 version starring Barbra Striesand and Kris Kristofferson. Most critics argue that the 1937 version is by far the best, and some argue that A Star Is Born was actually a remake of the 1932 movie What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor (in which it is notable to include that Mr. Cukor actually directed the 1954 remake with Judy Garland).

         First, I want to say that this movie is amazing. It was actually the first time I had seen it (or any incarnation). I was glad I waited for this icon for I believe it is a movie that requires some heartache and maturity to really appreciate: most likely it will be even better as I age (I have already found this to be the case with Hemingway). The movie is essentially an elegant morality tale: something of great value exacts a great price. However, what keeps this movie from becoming trite is its open stance regarding this concept: in the beginning of the movie as our young, would-be starlet is off to storm Hollywood her encouraging grandmother tells her that, “Remember, that it is your heart, and you have the right to brake it.” This is not a usual stance: that yes if you want a big bite from this world you will be bitten in kind, however, as long as you asked for it than the scars are tattoos of honor not folly. This idea alone kept me pacing my house.

         Another thing that separates this movie from being obvious is its controlling use of light and dark. A Star Is Born is about karma: it is an emotional take on the physical reality behind “what goes up must additionally go down”. Throughout the whole of the movie every scene is shot with a dramatic use of light and dark. It is hard to remember as one watches the movie that, generally speaking, Hollywood is a sunny place, for always the characters and their surroundings are chiseled deeply with light. It is a rendering that causes the viewer to never really get a complete hold of what they are seeing: particularly with the characters. This is beautiful as it almost palatably causes the viewer to lunge forward, yet still feel like they are just an observer to the action and not a participant (which some movies foster). This dramatic use of light and shadow married beautifully the dark themes surrounding this movie, and I do not believe many of the darker sequences (or even the uncanny “light” ones) could be as subtly rendered had not light been used as part of the story telling. It is also notable to see a color movie use light and shadow with such genius as too often color movies fall terribly flat (compared to their black and white cousins) in this respect.

         I loved the movie. And what I also loved was watching the movie as an active participator. And today it is my suggestion that you seek out a great classic and really take it on as a work of art and afterwards really open up your big brains and delight in what spirals forth.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part IX

The Meaning of Western Civilization

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter eight: The Meaning of Western Civilization.

         The Americas, and particularly the United States of America are absolutely the end product of Western thought. Beginning with Plato and his writings on Atlantis we commence a long tradition of a Utopian vision. For the West there is always a sense of a possible utopia and this utopia will be realized through science. Science for the West has two components: the theoretical and the empirical with the theoretical enjoying more or less the elevated status between the two. Additionally, the West has formed its society and ideologies with a preference for utility as valuation over emotional or aesthetical value.

         The West is always in search of a utopia. What does this say about our culture and how does this affect our worldview? The belief and search of a utopia or perfected or ideal world or society posits man as explorer and posits one’s current time as essentially flawed—as only a small part of a continuum towards some supposed perfection off in the near or far distance. Immediately, we can see our religion in this model with the case of both heaven, Eden, and then the final Judgment in which God will re-assert absolute rule over man on earth. We can also see our sense of science as a way to cure all of our problems: physically, environmentally, and even psychologically. Today, regardless of your personal, current religious beliefs the want or need for perfection is absolutely a case of your “Western roots” showing. Believing in a time of everything finally being “great” or “perfect” or “finally happy” is really no different than believing in heaven. I cannot really say if the concept of utopia is correct—after all the whole premise of my column is based on the existence of a utopia—of the Champagne Life. However, I can say that the belief in a utopia can and has caused some serious problems.

         The route in which the West has placed its faith in its search for a utopia has been the road of Science. For the West all ideologies—including theories regarding religion—are based on scientific evidence. For people today it is difficult to imagine God being taken seriously and used in “hard science” due to our current atheistic scientific environment, however, for Aristotle and Newton and even Einstein God was absolutely part of the picture. It is important to note that (theoretically at least) God is just as difficult to prove as he is to disprove—therefore one should never presuppose one’s own cultural primacy over another (many of our current understandings in Physics are just as empirically impossible to realize as God or the immortal soul). Essentially, remember that this current atmosphere of an atheistic science is based more on “fad” than on “fact”. How does the idea of worldviews being based on Science effect the West? Well, the big “effect” of basing worldview on science is its changing nature. For the West, ideology is not perfect or eternal it is simply “adequate” and will over time be replaced as man’s understanding of nature (science) evolves. This is a very important concept to understand if one wants to understand the West: for at the very core of the western mind is revolution. Utopia is the goal. Science is the way. Change or revolution is guaranteed. Which is, in all honesty, a most curious paradox and may explain our need for a lot of really good wine: on the one hand Westerners have faith in the existence of perfection and believe this perfection can be eventually realized through science, however, this science will never be complete—will never be perfect—one discovery will eventually debunk another. Lucky, for all of us, the West has come up with a pretty snazzy solution for this big bummer of a paradox: champagne.

         The blessedness and ultimate compassion of champagne leads us to Northrup’s final analysis of the West and that is the primacy of utility and theory over emotional, aesthetical valuation and sensory experience. We can really say “blame it on Plato” for this issue and then blame Aristotle for taking it to an even harsher level of the theoretical as being the better of the empirical. Plato saw that for man and nature there were two elements to deal with: the theoretical and the empirical or sensory. The theoretical was the “good” while the sensory; empirical was the “evil”. Essentially, one could not trust their senses when it came to science. Empirical evidence (like a lab experiment) could only help to support a theory and could not provide a truth wholly within itself. This idea of the theoretic as primal—over the sensory—has developed a prejudice regarding the human emotional experience. Additionally, this rift between the theoretical and the sensory or empirical has also allowed for utility to rule over aesthetics when considering value and yet in reality there is no evidence that pure utility is indeed more valuable to society (or individuals) than sensory or aesthetical value. Personally, I have been known to budget my money not on utility but on aesthetics and on one notable occasion in college I spent my week’s food money on one bottle of vintage champagne—living off a box of Apple Jacks cereal and the memories of sensory heaven instead. Now, while today I am better fed, it is not the memory of hunger I hold, rather the memory of profound sensual courage I displayed at such a young age, and I hold this “sensual courage” to be more valuable than my current success of feeding myself properly. However, for the West to put sensory value over utility is near sacrilege, and already I can feel my mother blanching by my college tale.

         For Northrop, the West can be wrapped up with four points: the constant quest and belief in the possibility of a utopia, the belief that science should be the foundation for an ideology that will produce a utopia, the belief of theory to be primal and empirical evidence as supportive of theory, and finally the preference for utility over emotional or aesthetical value. And I suppose the big question for you all today is do you believe Northrop’s assertions regarding the West? Do you believe his assertions still hold true today for the book was published in 1946? And if you do believe in Northrop’s assertions regarding the West do you believe in the assertions regarding utopia? Science? The supremacy of the theoretical? And lastly, what are your feelings regarding utility and emotional value? Is it better to be fed by food or by love or by beauty?

         This marks the end of our discussion regarding the West. On September first I shall be resuming my series on Northrop’s “Meeting of East and West: an Inquiry Concerning World Understanding” where the East will be discussed.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part VIII

Roman Catholic Culture and Greek Science

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter seven: Roman Catholic Culture and Greek Science.

         Tackling the ideology behind Catholicism will be no easy task, for now more than ever religious ideologies have come under much fire. The interesting thing though, with regards to Northrop, was that his tone was that of sympathy towards the Catholic worldview—profoundly more so than now—for reproductive, cloning, and stem cell issues regarding the sacredness of man were not such hot issues as they are now (reminder: The Meeting of East and West was first published in 1946).

         Catholicism is essentially the philosophy of Aristotle as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. Before Aquinas, Catholicism was the philosophy of Plato as understood by St. Augustine. One of the gravest misunderstandings non-Catholics have regarding Catholicism and her official doctrine is that of the church’s use of art and its sense of the supernatural. In truth, the official Catholic doctrine is based on the highly rational, science based philosophy of Aristotle. The logic behind the use of art through sculpture, architecture, poetry (think Virgil), and music was that few were educated or even literate enough to study and comprehend Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas’ writings on Aristotle and so the heavy use of art was meant to give people an immediate, sensory experience of a profound philosophical truth—essentially the ornate church and ceremonies were “live picture books” of the complex Greek logic of Aristotle. One of the more striking aspects of Thomas Aquinas’ writings is its complete lack of moral judgment or religious sentimentality. (Regarding Thomas Aquinas’ writings) “All terms are carefully and precisely defined by means of the technical terminology of Aristotle’s logic. The reasoning moves forward step by step syllogistically and systematically. It has been said that only five men understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. Yet Einstein’s theory of relativity is simple in comparison with the abstractness, the technicalities, the distinctions, and the ramifications of the theology of St. Thomas.” (p.286)

         With all that said, classy Greek influence notwithstanding, the Catholic worldview also has with it—particularly when considering advances in science—some real problems, problems that Locke was forced to deal with when facing Newton. Aristotle on many counts still holds both in his sense of natural classification and his sense of knower and thing to be known with regards to the world as it “is” and the world as it is realized or sensed by man. But many of Aristotle’s theories were torn down by Newton, and if you consider that not only did Aristotle base his philosophy on science but also felt that all philosophy should be based entirely on science then you could see that even Aristotle would change his tune if Newton had come along during his lifetime. The most profound change that came with Newtown was: “Instead, inescapable experimental evidence forced Western scientists in the seventeenth century to replace Aristotle’s conception of nature as a hierarchic system of physical objects governed by mechanical causes.” (p.282) Essentially, Aristotle saw the order of the universe to be based on ruling hierarchies with “the Unmoved Mover” or God was at the top. The Unmoved Mover was for Aristotle the logical perfection of the totality of the Universe and this perfection is what God was perceived to be. It is important to point out that within this logic god is not supernatural—rather God is the highest point of perfection in nature with man taking second place and the soul being the perfected conclusion of man. The big problem with all this is that Newton came along and said that the Universe is not run by a chain of hierarchies rather by cold, thoughtless mechanization.

         One thing that is fascinating about this book is how all of these philosophies based on science eventually set themselves up to be false—and yet the massive organizations that were formed and indoctrinated by the debunked philosophies still continue—and as they continue strife seems to build. Aristotle was debunked by Newton, however, Einstein antiquated Newton’s clock-like universe, and Schrödinger’s Quantum Mechanics would forever change our belief that the world was mechanistically ordered essentially crushing all worldviews up until that point. Today with Chaos and String Theory the discipline of physics continues to evolve and change our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet, the Lockean worldview, which was based on Newton, remains as our primary American ideology. The Catholic Church hangs on to Aristotle, and many countries continue to realize shades of Marx. Yet, all of those philosophers, who took great pride in basing their philosophies “on science”, have now been absolutely proven faulty by modern scientific evidence.

         There are of course current philosophies based on current science being taught and created today. However, all of the “Big Eight” nations and most (if not all) of the leading world religions are based on ideologies of old, and it is clear by the present state of ideological and material strife (war/ terrorism) that these differing worldviews are not harmonious.

         As I have been cruising (well struggling) through this book I have first wondered why on earth I chose such a terrible choice for summer reading, but also I have realized how much I needed to re-look at my world and the roots of my own worldviews. For so far, I have been amazed by the amount of built-in prejudices and ideologies that have unconsciously pervaded my worldview, and furthermore, it has been utterly enlightening to realize how much of these prejudices are based on debunked scientific theory. It is important to bring up the issue of science for all of the key philosophers absolutely believed that science should be the core of any philosophy.

         And I guess I shall ask this question today. If a major institution is based on a ideology that has been disproved by current science do you believe it is that institution’s obligation to adjust itself or do you believe institutions continue and hold value in so much people continue to see value in them? And furthermore, in the case with conflicting institutions, what basis would you use to reach some sort of resolution? And lastly (and this is a very, very big question…a question that should just float on the outskirts of your mind it is so big), do you believe that there is such a thing as a “universal good” or do you believe that all “good” is relative?

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part VII

Russian Communism

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter six: Russian Communism.

         For the first time in a most ironic way Northrop’s prophetic skills fall outrageously short, and yet never more does his initial premise of ideology being the root hope for world peace. I will say that reading a commentary regarding Russian Communism that was written in the nineteen forties and published in 1946 was strange (to say the least) for the tone was so even and at times complimentary regarding what Russia had achieved with her Marxist revolution. Not even a hint of what was to become—namely, the cold war—is within the thirty-three-page chapter. However, not seeing the cold war does not wholly prevent me from seeing the pivotal strength within Northrop’s thesis, and that is the inherent power of philosophy. And considering the fact that the cold war was based solely on strife over an ideology then it does give some hope that people do take this stuff rather seriously. And if people do take philosophies—ideologies—seriously then it is not so much of a stretch to think a philosophy (over say a more pragmatic approach such as bombing) could in fact produce superior results. It will be assumed at this point that a “superior result” means peace on earth.

         It was also difficult when reading this chapter to separate the historical reality of the Marxist revolution in Russia from the (eerily) cool critique of Marxism as it translates to Russian Communism. It was one thing to simply state that Marx’s Hegelian (via Kant) presupposition of the dialectic perspective led to the belief that revolution—not evolution—was the only way anything could become realized.

         Hegel’s dialectic, which became Marx’s “materialistic dialectic”, was based on the idea that in reality there is a thesis and for every thesis there is an antithesis and ideally a society must rise to a higher level of synthesis. This is flawed in that it does not match the workings of nature, which is more Darwinian. Nature is not based on revolution rather evolution—while humans did evolve from “lower life forms” those lower life-forms continue to exists along with evolved man. Under Hegel’s then Marx’s theory of dialectic the old must wholly be destroyed to make way for the new—hence revolution. Which in real practice, as in the case of the Russian revolution, turned out to be exceptionally brutal. Nature is found not to be so violent and is able to produce profound and enduring change in a gradual, evolutionary way. This difference, the dialectic-rooted necessity for revolution over the scientifically based, evolutionary theory is profoundly important in that within the Soviet constitution lies a most curious dictum: “This places another qualification upon the Soviet Bill of Rights. It appears that Article 124, which affirms that ‘freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda shall be recognized by all citizens,’ is so far as the beliefs and influence of the Communistic party are concerned, taken advantage of only with respect to its second portion. The Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice Webb were scholars of Communism) continue: The Communist party ‘will have nothing to do with the supernatural. It admits nothing to be true which cannot be demonstrated by the ‘scientific method’ of observation, experimentation, ratiocination, and verification.’” (p.244) In reality, Marxism based on Hegel’s theory of the dialectic is no more based on science than any ghost, and furthermore has been proven by science to be contrary to Darwinian evolutionary theory as it pertains to the nature of the universe. Basically, Russian Communism replaced one religion for another, and was hardly a society based on science.

         The interesting positive Northrop points out regarding Marx is that Marx, unlike Locke et al., saw that man was a physical being with physical needs. Essentially, Marx was the first to say that at the very core of humanity is the need to survive and survival meant food, shelter, etc…. Whereas in the past, man was either a creature of god, a creature of reason, or as in the case with Locke (which our nation was built), man was a legal entity. This recognition of man needing physical material needs is profound, and I agree with Northrop in that it fills the gulf of nature and the intellect. However, the sad irony of Marx being the one to point out man is a physical being with physical needs is that it produced a society that was unable to meet those needs effectively. Furthermore, by negating the spirit, legal, and intellectual properties of man it produced an increasingly unhappy populace that wanted freedom of mind in addition to their material needs being met. For while it is stated in their Bill of Rights that they shall have employment, it is also stated in article 131: “Persons making attacks upon public socialist property shall be regarded as enemies of the people.” It is also important to mention that while “’freedom of expression” is in their Bill of Rights they also go on to say “printing shops, supplies of paper, public buildings…and other material requisites’ at the disposal of the workers in order to make the guarantee real.” (p. 241) And surely freedom of expression being expressed on state-provided materials is hardly free.

         However…however…however…one can see by my last sentence that Locke is firmly embedded in my psyche and that the idea of freedom is extremely discrete for an American, and it is profoundly important to note that this idea of freedom is not the only possible meaning—it is merely the ideological meaning from which I was raised.

         I will end this column with some questions. What is freedom to you? What do you think is supreme one’s mind or one’s body? Do you believe in God and do you believe God has any effect on the world? Do you believe a government’s ideology (if you believe in God) should be rooted in a belief of God or something else…and if “something else” what would that be? Do you believe a nation’s philosophy or worldview should be based on science? Do you believe ultimately science will provide (or be able to provide) the true reality of the universe? And lastly, do you believe empirical evidence can furnish meaning? Does the nature of reality mean the same as the meaning of the universe—does the understanding of life bring the meaning of life?

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part VI

German Idealism

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter five: German Idealism.

         First off I will say that up until this chapter I thought the 100+ pages of the chapter on America would be as tough as it got, however, I soon found that absolutely nothing could be more difficult and opaque than twenty-six pages worth of German Idealism. While it took me five hours to read the hundred pages on America (Locke and company) it took me three hours to plow through this chapter. It seemed not only did I have to re-read each paragraph I additionally had to pause and genuinely try to comprehend what it was that was being said. I would love to blame the crisis entirely on Northrup, but in truth I have been in this position before: back in high school, where it was I first met up with Kant, I remember that while I flew joyfully through the philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas, William James, and Paul Tillich something terrible, like a dark fog, overcame my brain when I read Kant.

         This is terrible because in truth Kant is a core pillar of philosophy: meaning to understand Kant is to understand many, many important philosophers that followed him. Hume followed Locke, Plato followed Socrates, etc…. The funny thing with Kant is while I have no real clue what it is he is talking about when it comes to the Kantian philosophers that followed him things become crystal clear. And believe me some very big hitters followed Kant here is his “family line”: Fichte, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx. And if that were not an incredible line of world-altering things—all forked off of the incredible fount of Kant—Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism (a profound, world-altering philosophy that would eerily foreshadow advances in physics), wrote in direct opposition to the absolutism of Hegel. Hegel…Nietzsche…and Marx…all clear as a summer day, however, when it comes to Kant I feel barely literate.

         So with all that said I will try my best to, at the very least, give you the broad strokes and impact that Kant and later his adherents would bring to Germany—unfortunately building a national mindset of world domination. I think the best way to break Kant (et al) down is thus: creativity, history, and will. The key difference between the German thinkers and the Anglo thinkers is a lot less Locke and lots and lots more Kant and this gang made a very important jump: they brought forth a logical framework that placed man as creator—meaning—that not only was man made up of what he sensed he made theoretical estimations of what he would sense. In both America and Britain the creative was grossly left out of the human equation—forming a protestant culture based on the plain snow-white church. Kant came to see that people do not just “take in sensory information” they actually hypothesize and form theories. This enables humans to comprehend things proven or known mathematically but not experienced in “real sensory life” such as infinity. Essentially, man can think beyond what he readily senses.

         There is a whole lot more to this (I assure you) including a curious jump into the pool of absolutism. Basically, Kant’s philosophy (I am jumping ahead big time) ends up with a universal ego. Under his theory the part of us that can hypothesize is a universal quality amongst all man—and by universal I mean the same—god is using “us” to experience life. The big problem is that Germans (who were nursed heavily on Kant) came to see that “universal” and “us” as synonymous with “German People”. This lead to a national sense that Germans were not simply god’s people—god was actualized in Germans—hence two world wars all based on Germany attempting world domination.

         Before I wrap up this column I would like to point out that so far all of the cultures or nations we have discussed have based their society on essentially hardy but flawed philosophies. Locke breaks down the moment someone does not own land…Aristotle breaks down the moment a lowborn person exhibits profoundly better leadership skills than a highborn person thereby challenging the “organic” or natural principles of social hierarchies (a.k.a. the divine right of kings). Kant breaks down with his moral theory based on will, which ultimately creates despotism or “might makes right”. And in thinking about all this I ask what philosophy is invisibly ruling the world today? Has the world philosophically changed since this book was published in 1946? Do nations still have discrete ideologies or has it become a genuine East versus West situation?

         We are not quite half way through Northrup’s masterpiece, and already I see its brilliance: for truly one begins to see what lies beneath the surface of our social earth. Humanity begins to shine with an earnestness and complexity as one takes up the study of philosophy. This book is curious in that it is part history and part hope. Northrup is not merely attempting to inform us of the ideologies of varying nations he is attempting to divine a superior ideology based on the collective philosophies of the world and with this superior ideology he is hoping the world could realize peace. And I suppose I ask myself (and hope you ask yourself) would a superior ideology save us from this mess?

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part V

Unique Elements in British Democracy

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter four: Unique Elements in British Democracy.

         I have a great girlfriend who is your consummate debate buddy…she has issues…and has no problem sounding out those issues and one of her issues is the Royal family of Great Britain. We spent a goodly hour or maybe two, arguing over the pros and cons of the British Royal family. I, liking all of the pageantry and drama, was absolutely all for the royals whereas she being thoroughly pragmatic felt they were a waste of money and attention. It is interesting to note that while neither of us were practicing Christians she was raised protestant, and I was raised catholic—this is significant and helps illustrate a key difference between the U.S. and the U.K. Her protestant background—particularly her American protestant background is firmly based on Locke’s view that humans are total individual creatures born with a blank slate. My catholic background is based on the organic social principles of Aristotle, which purports that man is ultimately—innately—a social animal and therefore requires and best lives by a natural order of power. Essentially, Locke felt each man can take care of and govern himself whereas Aristotle felt that human societies required organization and leadership in order to run smoothly. Under Locke government was a necessarily evil, which was only meant to protect individuals’ private property. Under Aristotle government was inherently good as it was based on natural, organic truths: people will always fall into hierarchical lines.

         To be honest the night we had our big debate neither one of us was informed or savvy enough to throw around philosophers such as Locke and Aristotle, but looking back I am beginning to see the root or core idea behind Northrup’s tome: you are what you philosophically eat and if we are to get along we first must find out what is on the menu and then pick the finest dish. Additionally, in looking back to our debate over the royal family and thinking about how deeply, and hauntingly unconsciously, Locke had ruled her worldview and Aristotle mine I came to wonder how much of my worldview is actually mine? Do we humans possess an original thought in our heads? This question is not new and a great book that asks it over and over again is Dostoevky’s The Idiot. The irony was when I first read The Idiot I came to feel that all philosophy was were “pools” where people who are predisposed to believe swim—however (and this is a big, however)—now, I am coming to see that the initial predisposition arises from an outside philosophy (such as Locke and Aristotle), therefore, philosophies do indeed effect change in human minds and are not merely attractors of like minds. With this renewed logic, I am increasingly beginning to believe Northup’s premise that a philosophical, a theoretical framework, could indeed help bring peace to the world—as apposed to a wholly pragmatic and experimental method as is often preferred by America.

         But back to Britain…. Essentially, the most profound difference between the U.S. and the U.K.’s worldview is the Locke/ Aristotle contradiction. Britain views government as a “good” and sees themselves as being a natural, organic part of a British society. America views government as a “necessary evil” and sees themselves as being naturally independent with an allegiance to the government only out of personal choice and necessity. Additionally, Marx must come into the mix for England—remember it was in England where Marx saw the effects of a pure, Lockean laissez-faire society—which was horrid (beyond horrid really) industrial city slums. In balance, however, it was Maynard Keynes (who actually because of his work became Lord Keynes in Britain) who created the economic theory of America’s New Deal lending the concept of government as essentially “good” for society to the U.S. Locke, however, certainly made his mark in England with respects to human rights including religious freedom. What is interesting is that now more than ever (remember this book was published in 1946) both the U.S. and the U.K. exhibit the values of both Locke and Aristotle. At first his might seem as a happy comprise between the need for leadership and the need to protect the rights of individuals, however, the two are absolutely in conflict with each other and will ultimately serve to fail society with the built in failure of contradiction. I will give you a quote from Northrup regarding Britain, however, I see America struggle today with the same issue. And before I give you the quote ask yourself were you stand…do you believe man is inherently social and will always group and produce hierarchy in order to effectively function? Or, do you believe that man is essentially an individual who was born a blank slate and if left alone will rule himself and himself only and under this self-rule will thrive?

         “Although the British have envisaged one of the basic problems of the contemporary Western world, that of relating Locke and Aristotle, they have by no means resolved it. For the initial Lockean assumptions of the modern world and the basic Aristotelian premises of the medieval world contradict each other, and the contradictories cannot be reconciled by being embraced; they can be resolved only by being superseded by a new philosophy which provides the merits of both without contradiction.” (p.192)

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part IV

The Free Culture of the United States

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         If you are just joining the series note that it is a chapter by chapter covering of F.S.C Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry concerning World Understanding” (1946). Today I shall be discussing chapter three: The Free Culture of the United States.

         I shall first say that this chapter was both long and complicated and took five hours to read. I will also say that not only did I learn a tremendous amount regarding the ideological backbone—or even better—the ideological mind that informed the creation of the United States. However, it was the impression the chapter had on me that struck me first then the ideologies. While certainly it was enlightening, awesome even, to learn the root of my nation’s core values and reason for being, I also found it to be…well…disturbing. Yes, disturbing. I could not believe how embedded philosophers such as Locke and Hume were inside of not only my nation’s values, but I saw many remnants of their thinking and bias or concept of good inside of my own mind. First one realizes the curious (or grim…depending on how you look at it) reality that many of one’s thoughts are not original, rather they are received or sponged up from one’s local environment.

         Other points were disturbing in this chapter and I came to see the value in reading great books aimed at being a contemporary work—meaning Northrup wrote this book to address the people of his time in order to prevent more wars after WW II in which he saw a future of many more conflicts especially between Asia and the U.S. Sadly, Northrup was eerily prophetic: for wars in Korea and Vietnam would rise after WW II and the increased hostility between the middle east and the West would also rise leading us to the insecure violent situation we are in now with two wars in Asia and a pan world terrorist crisis. However, as glaringly prophetic as Northrup was I find this only to be comforting, for he offers a solution, or at the very least, a sound ground from which a person, government or culture could begin a theoretical framework for peace between not only the East and West but also between any varying cultures such as between Latin and Anglo America.

         What was disturbing was actually his writing from a contemporary perspective about events that I had only learned from a historical perspective, and I will tell you the difference is profound. This difference also reveals the vulnerability capitalist democracies have for absolute collapse as in the case of the great depression. To read it from a writer who viewed it as a contemporary phenomenon definitely was frightening—more so than reading a historical perspective. Basically, to read it as though the great depression and the crumbling of the Treaty at Versailles, which lead to another massive world war as if it all just happened or as with the case of war, that it was all happening carries with it a different tone: a tone both oddly cooler and profoundly more sober. What made it even creepier was that many of the seed values and U.S. policies that lead to both the Great Depression as well as WW II were present in my own time. It was also disturbing to read about the New Deal as a genuinely new thing and to realize its theoretical roots and also to realize that for it to genuinely work two key sides must be met, both the high spending during depressed times (such as the big government projects ensuing after the New Deal) but also the secondary need to force high taxes on the populace on the rise of a boon time—the purpose being to keep the economy healthy and stable—the problem being that people do not like to balance a boon only a depression which destroys the effectiveness of the whole system. And all this thinking is absolutely what this book is about: serious nitty gritty.

         In truth, to be American is to be an adherent to Locke. Locke is everywhere in our blanched white protestant churches, our sense of government, religion, self-possession—Locke is everywhere. But where did Locke come from? And it is this question that raises the stickiest and perhaps disturbing questions. Locke rose at an age when science was beginning to be understood as the supreme authority regarding the reality of life and the world. This attitude not only ruled the thinking people of the seventeenth century, I believe, it continues to rule our society today from our courts and laws to even our own moral judgments. Locke was Newton’s close friend and based his philosophy on the world-altering discoveries of Newton. The world over night had changed from God’s law being primal to the laws of physics as being supreme. Our founding fathers not only were informed of Locke’s philosophy they wholly embraced it and formed our government on Locke’s principles.

         The big problem is that Locke based his philosophy on science and argued that only a philosophy based on science could be true and effective as a means by which a society is formed. This science as supreme idea was also held by our founding fathers and still, I believe, in our society today. However, while Newton was the scientist of his time and certainly his laws of physics remain Darwin’s theory of evolution, quantum physics, chaos theory, and string theory have absolutely departed from Newton’s ordered Universe and we now know his theory regarding the nature of the universe was not accurate and yet, the root of our government’s values—values that we impose on other cultures particularly when imposing democracy—are based on a philosophy that is rooted in defunct science. With that idea in mind my question for you all today is should we not as a culture begin to question our Lockean heritage and perhaps contemplate a new theoretical framework from which to grow and build our society?

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part III

The Rich Culture of Mexico

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         For those of you just dropping in for the first time I am currently writing a multi-part series covering, chapter by chapter, the 1946 classic by F.SC. Northrop (a philosopher from Yale) “The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding”. Today I shall be discussing the second chapter entitled “The Rich Culture of Mexico”.

         While it at first may seem puzzling that a book entitled the Meeting of East and West would actually commence with a lengthy and luxurious chapter on Mexico, I found this Latin American chapter to be exciting, illuminating, and at some moments earth shaking—yes—earth shaking. His main purpose for the book is to prevent world war. WW II was just wrapping up as Northrop wrote this book (with his sons fighting abroad) and by the end of the war Northrop could see the next wars gearing up with the primary conflict being East against West. In the light of our current relationships both with the near and far East I find his book to be startlingly prophetic, for already the European, American, and Russian foreign policies were setting up what would blossom eventually into the mess we have on our hands now. However, Northrop does offer an idea for a solution and that is to first learn about each cultures core values or ideologies then gleam the cream from these ideologies. He strongly felt that instead of constantly asserting one’s values as being inherently right, that nations should learn, share, and then adopt values that serve to protect and better mankind.

         I will first say that my overall knowledge of Mexico is at best rudimentary and it was exciting to learn about the cultural and political history of Mexico—particularly its relationship with regards to the U.S.—it was wild to read secretary of States from days gone by for their quotes, acts, and policies were eerily the same as today. Secretary Hull…Secretary Root…Secretary Polk of President Wilson’s administration…it was intense and remarkable to read about Presidents from the past written about nearer to their contemporary time. It shines a wholly different take than reading history books today about the world in the nineteen forties and beyond—there is an immediacy and frankness in tone as Northrup discusses U.S. foreign policy as it was in the nineteen forties and back through the turn of the century for that was his world, his time, and his reality, and not a distant past that has lost most (if not all) of its emotional teeth. I assure you even as early as fifty years from now September 11th will be discussed coolly historical with maybe even some delight as the author or lecturer threads his or her own theory as to how and why September 11th ever happened.

         The pivotal point of Mexico is that while the U.S. is essentially Lockean, Anglo-American—embodying the Lockean idea that man is born a blank slate making us all equal—Mexico is Latin American and views life with profoundly more passion and does not see Reason as the one true reality (as do Anglo-Americans), rather Reason (male or yang) co-joined with Mystery or the unknown (female or yin) is the one true reality. For Mexico life is full of unknowns—full of brutality—however, it is also lush and exciting and wonderful and it is this combination that makes up the human experience. The Lockean worldview (which is the pillar of our nation’s core ideology) man is born a blank slate and from that can create or be created in whatever fashion one or some other chooses. This is a profoundly optimistic worldview as it suggests that life is simply what one makes of it—add freedom to operate—and boom you have an opportunity to have a wonderful life. I believe “The American Dream” is another way to wrap up the Lockean vision. However, the Latin American worldview is more affected by Native American, Spanish, Catholic, and French thinking which sees life a bit more soberly and pessimistically—however, there is also more art and passion thrown into the mix. Mexicans are not so sure we are all blank slates. They are also not so sure that life and people are like plants: just add water and watch them thrive…just add freedom and watch them blossom.

         The cornerstone of Lockean freedom is economic freedom or the protection of private property ownership over the protection of human rights. This is where the Pollyanna like conflict between U.S. worldview and the Latin American worldview gets very, very tricky. International law (which was essentially written by the U.S. and Britain) and U.S. foreign policy supports in action the Lockean ideal in that private property rights must be protected, however, when that protection comes in direct conflict with human rights is where the trouble begins and troops get sent. However, before I wholly paint the U.S. and the Lockean ideal of making economic freedom paramount to human freedom I will say that Lock believed that human rights could not and would not be possible unless economic freedom was achieved and to Lock’s credit this appears to be true in the world today: for only as people become economically free to do business and to own property do we see an increase in human rights. China and Russia are excellent examples. However, social democracies such as Sweden cause some pause in this argument.

         The resolution and reasoning of the Mexico chapter of “The Meeting of East and West”: Northrup’s whole purpose for writing the book is to offer a road to peace for the world. For him Pan American harmony is as important as Russian American harmony. Also, by learning the ideological differences between our neighbors and us we begin to see the ideological lines of the world. Spain was actually held by Arabs for some time giving Mexican a curious relationship to Arabian and Persian thinking and art—particularly with tile making that came from Persia via Spanish Arabs. Mexico also has a profound and highly embedded indigenous culture, which better dovetails with much of Eastern thought—particularly with the feminine principle—which is most intensely seen in their absolute worship of The Virgin of Guadalupe. Northrup’s solution is that future world peace could be better had if the U.S. were to learn a little from Mexico’s worldview for it could help us better work with other Latin and Asian countries. Northrup also points out that Mexico too looks to the U.S. for improvement on their own culture.

         I will say that after this chapter I am excited to learn more about Mexico’s history. I found the differences between the Latin and Anglo American worldview to be profoundly illuminating and it made me question my own core beliefs. Was I really—truly—born a blank slate?

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part II

The Contemporary World

 

 

         Special note: while this is a multi-part series it is my intention that they be written so one does not need to read them in succession. There is a logic in the order in that I am discussing the book chapter by chapter in their found order, however, the ideas and questions do not necessarily depend on the succeeding columns and (hopefully) each column can be enjoyed as a “stand alone” essay.

         Today marks my second installment of what will be my longest (and hopefully not my most tedious) multi-part series. In an effort of reply actively and creatively to the current new wave of terrorist attacks (in London) I decided to pick up a dusty classic from my bookcase: F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding.

         Chapter one “The Contemporary World” is both eerie and curious to read being that I am reading it in 2005 and the book was published in 1946. However, what makes this case even more curious and eerie is how much things have not changed. Some things were funny and obvious as his hope in Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek who, as we all know, would be soundly crushed by Mao. Not only would Mao overtake Chiang Kai-shek shortly after this book was published Chiang Kai-shek was so cheesy and gaudy with both his power and military that an American general who had witnessed the entire period of conflict stated before the U.S. congress that while Mao’s communism was an issue, Mao was clearly the better man and had absolutely earned the power he had seized. So as you can imagine as Northrop gushed about he hope and possibility of Pres Chiang Kai-shek I am smiling like a cat and saying, “…but Northrup his doom is soooo very near and Mao would shake things up more than you could ever imagine…” However, in truth, after reading chapter one my thought was, “Northrup no wonder your tone was hopeful when penning about Chiang Kai-shek, for your fears and this book would prove more accurate than you could possibly imagine…a war in Korea…civil war and harsh dictatorships allowed to foster from a faulty colonial evacuation…a war in Vietnam…more tension in Asia including a communist Vietnam and a split Korea…and now Northrup, an ironically cheesy, power addict Chiang Kai-shek cum Mao leader in communist North Korea keeps threatening to bomb his swinging, western friendly neighbors….”

         So wanting to make this series a genuine forum I will be weaving many questions throughout: how much do you think America had to do with the current Korean crisis? Do you think the crisis in Asia (and we seriously could include the raising hostility against America brewing in Indonesia) had anything to do with the unequal treaty system throughout the 1920’s up until the end of WW II? Do you think European colonialism and U.S. political/ economic “involvement” (America hates the “C” word—“colonialism”) in Asia throughout the early and middle of the twentieth century has anything to do with the current problems today? However, with those questions one needs to ask whether or not inherent worldviews had anything to do with the problems we see today. Surely, the unequal trade system between China, the U.S. and Europe was based on greed—an international value to be sure—however, are their deep philosophical differences between our cultures that divides us to the point of violence (or at least the threat of violence)? Is it these profound ideological differences that allowed the west (and continues to allow the west) to view Asians as human chattel and not much else? How do you feel about Asia currently being the west’s laborers working in slave-quality conditions? Do you think you are able to support this system because of greed or ideological differences? The last question was harsh to type and taken to my own soul and my own conscious I must admit that I am not sure of the answer. Surely, I benefit and wholly enjoy the benefit of virtual slave labor, and yet if questioned on my love for humanity or my feelings regarding other races, creeds, etc. I believe I would paint myself every bit the saint. However, in truth I support daily a system that I would abhor if I witnessed it in my own local environment. Why do you think westerner’s can support and handle morally child labor, indentured (a.k.a. slave) labor, dangerous working conditions, and absolutely paltry payment for labor when it is across the globe and while it has outlawed these practices locally under the flag of “idealism” or as being part of “American ideology”? Furthermore, we justify war in an effort to spread “American Ideology” (a.k.a. democracy or as more commonly put: freedom) and yet, stop spreading this “American ideology” when it comes to blue jeans or Christmas tree ornaments.

         I ask these questions (in my Made in China everything) not to lay a “guilt trip” but to raise a huge question: is differing ideology at the root of this now violent and massive East versus West conflict? Does it allow both parties to hurt each other with more ease than if our worldviews were the same? Or, is greed for money and power at the root of our conflict—which is actually a universal quality—but is greed really an ideology? In truth, do not we humans form ideologies in order to become perfected—in order to overcome qualities such as greed—as in the case of Christianity and Buddhism?

         The first chapter of Northrup’s The Meeting of East and West reveals the ambition of the entire book: to solve the mounting crisis between East and West, which Northrup saw would be the world’s major problem if people did not find a way to get along. He believes that it is our different ideologies that allows all sorts of mistreatment, suspicion and general bad behavior and with this root cause he has devised a solution: to first understand the differing ideologies then to sift out the bad from both sides and promote the good from all differing ideologies to form a sort of “Perfected Universal Worldview”. Ambitios yes! And yet, if one remembers that while Northrup was researching and writing this masterpiece his sons were off fighting in WWII—so I would say what tempers this ambition and keeps hubris at bay is the pragmatism and sincerity of Northrup’s tone—for attempting to prevent your children or grandchildren from being killed in their tender prime is a reasonable undertaking to be sure.

 

 

Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West Part I

Introduction and Preface

         Yesterday while waiting to have my groceries rung in I studied the cover of (I believe) Newsweek and on it was a handsome, weary, blonde woman wrapped in a blanket, clinging to her bottle of water, and holding a curious countenance of worry and resolve (or perhaps disbelief—resolve is usually born out of disbelief). It was perfect and sad to see this cover amongst a small pamphlet-like cookbook regarding easy no-cook meals and cooking with hamburger—not to mention all of the tabloids and the television guide—but what was more haunting and true was that it would come in and out of focus between all of my groceries and other eye-catching grocery store details. Essentially, as big and terrible as terrorism is I am still animal in the moment and require a more solid approach if I want to genuinely take-in or on something of any heft.

         I am not inferring that I am going to commence a multi-part series on terrorism today, but I am going to begin my longest multi-part series based solely on one book: The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding by F.S.C. Northrop. It is my (perhaps too lofty—we shall see) goal to take us all through the entire book with each column covering a chapter. Driven by a want to be active in my dealing with current and frightening world events I found myself absolutely drawn to this old tome that has spent some time on my bookshelf un-cracked. This classic was first published in 1946 just after the war. In fact as Northrop was writing it he says in his preface that his sons were at war fighting. By all counts this book is not only a case of prophetic foreshadowing of events occurring today it takes a more profound step than mere reportage: F.S.C. seeks out solutions.

         I do not know much about this book. The gent who gave it to me said that he could not finish it…but that he promised himself he would one day. His reasonings for not having finished was that he was still having to contemplate and digest what he had read thus far—this digestion period so far is nearly fourteen years! He also said he was excited about my current project—hoping to find a forum in which to at the very least see what others felt about this heady book. I then decided to look up both The Meeting of East and West and Northrop on the Internet and really all I found was three citings. Two were in dissertations and one was a college lecture. Otherwise—complete ghost town—when one searches for Northrop’s masterpiece. The last place I found some reasonable discussion was in Pirsig’s MOQ: a most curious site (Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and has founded or appears to have founded a somewhat organized and awesomely dedicated philosophical school MOQ or Metaphysics of Quality—lest you take his school lightly it boasts an amazing amount of academic papers covering it and so far by the writing of the adherents it is backed with some seriously brain-heavy folks). On the MOQ site I managed to plow through some of the writings others have done regarding this book, and all I can say is that I hope this thoroughly sun-soaked Californian brain can handle it—however—I figure that if I cannot then that is what I shall write about then. Consequently, if it becomes “what I did not understand about The Meeting of East and West” versus “what got me thinking about The Meeting of East and West” then fine.

         What I am going to try to do: I want to take us all through this book asking it and you questions and weaving in my world and my 2005 brain throughout Dr. Northrop’s 1946 world, work, and brain. I found some irony with me reading his book and writing this series for oddly I am the living embodiment of his book: I am a western Buddhist. However, cross-cultural beliefs and sharing of traditions is not unique to our time and indeed there has been a long tradition of Buddhism in the west and Christianity in the east, but my point is that as a reader I feel at least some good ground to say I have some familiarity (and perhaps even) intimacy with both sides of the fence…and yet even as I type that last line I question my own words and wonder if my Buddhism is as western as my childhood Christianity and that a deeper conflict or difference between east and west roots our fears, judgments and observations. Already questions questions questions! And it is my hope that as you my beloved Sailors and Patrons follow me through this awesome work of insight and scholarship that you too will ask questions, debate, and actively contemplate not only the world as it suffers but the world in her healing. For truly it is my belief that simply standing by worrying and reporting will lead one farther and farther from peace both inner and outer—contrarily it is my belief that a true blue Champagne Lifer not only deals with issues in depth but keeps grounded in the whole point: finding solutions. We may not in the end agree with Dr. Northrop, however, know that he wrote this book in an effort to find a solution to what he saw was a profound and simmering conflict: the clashing of east and west.

         I will give you a long quote from the preface—it is eerie and difficult to believe it was written so long ago for the world he describes is my world today—and so I hope that as I now want to deal with my blonde lady, with char on her cheeks and knuckles, with her shock blanket and bottle of water through a time-honored path—seeking understanding and then solutions through the road of insight. Lofty goal to be sure! And I have much fear and grave doubts regarding this (surely) half-baked ambition. However, I will read the chapters and do my best to open up good and hopefully discussion-fostering debates. Absolutely, try to get a copy of this book today: whether online, local bookstore, or your library and follow this adventure….

         As taken from the Preface of The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding by F.S.C. Northrop: “Jewish aspirations are at odds with an Arabian culture in Palestine. The Mohammedan version of a good society conflicts with that of the Hindu in India. The medieval Roman Catholic aristocratic conception of moral and social values grounded in naturalistic Aristotelian divine law opposes the modern Protestant democratic and pragmatic concept of an ecclesiastical and civil law which derives its authority solely from the humanistic conventions of majority of men. Similarly, in the Orient, political institutions and religious observances inspired by Shintoism, combat, even in Japan, those which are the fruition of Confucianism, Toaism and Buddhism. And in Pan-America the traditional Latin American ideals and values conflict with those of traditional Anglo-America. It is literally true in all these instances that, in part at least, what the one people or culture regards as sound economic and political principles the other views as erroneous, and what the one envisages as good and divine the other condemns as evil or illusory.

         "The time has come when these ideological conflicts must be faced and if possible resolved. Otherwise, the social policies, moral ideals and religious aspirations of men, because of their incompatibility one with another, will continue to generate misunderstanding and war instead of mutual understanding and peace.”

 

A Little Virtual Vacation: The Newest Issue Is Out!

         I am proud (and extremely exhausted) to introduce the newest Better Drink issue: The Vacation Issue. While we are into our second year of The Better Drink (our first issue came out Summer 2004) the Vacation Issue is our first ever. We wanted to dedicate a whole issue to that time of year when either we are genuinely on vacation or mentally on a vacation. Normally, I like to espouse working hard to fulfill all of your dreams—professionally speaking—however, even Buddha said “moderation in everything including moderation”. And somehow as the summer wears on there really comes a time when we should all become a little slower and a lot more playful whether we must be at the office or not!

         As I have said before, my one goal as an editor for The Better Drink is to make each issue better than the last and this newest issue is no exception for truly I am proud to publish such an edition. Our feature story is by a Better Drink newcomer Sandy Mitchell. She wrote an informative and tantalizing article on the sparkling wines of Italy. Personally, I wished myself to every region she wrote of. Sandy personally has lived in Europe and wrote with an uncommon intimacy regarding her subject. To make the virtual vacation to Italy complete I also included some of Marcia Reed’s newest Tuscan Landscapes, which are sumptuous. I truly hope that for those Better Drinkers who find themselves having to toil this summer (myself included) our little virtual trip to Italy offers some pleasure.

         Dr. Timothy Smith outdid himself this issue with two incredible articles. One is a great interview with flight attendant Peggy O’Brien-Gould and the other is a fantastic Arts and Science column in which Dr. Smith investigates the truth behind mile high drinking.

         Like many vacations the Vacation Issue has many clan gatherings: Lorraine Smith, Dr. Timothy Smith’s grandmother is our featured artist whose work is alive, fresh, and touchingly sincere. She did not begin painting until her middle seventies and it is my hope that her commencing such a profound undertaking so seemingly late in the game inspires all of The Better Drink readers to remember that it is never too late to pursue one’s dreams and passions…perhaps that great American novel is still in your future! Another great family affair is between our Sales and Marketing Goddess Felisha Foster and her mom Darlene Foster. Felisha takes us along for one heck of a champagne-soaked adventure in “Under the Goldlight—true tales of drinking champagne”, and her mom, Darlene, shares with us her passion for LSU woman’s basketball. I have personally met Darlene Foster—in fact I had this mother/ daughter duo over for dinner once, and I will tell you that these two are more like best girlfriends than a mother and a daughter. I found their love and camaraderie to be both merry making and infectious. I thank both of you great southern ladies!

         The Better Drink staffers return in full force this issue—even under the immense pressure to enjoy their summer—without their pesky editor bugging them. J. Blake Gordon pens a soulful recollection of a recurring nightmare from his childhood, and David Sirois delivers a delicate and poetic short story. Anna Luciano and Suzie Sims-Fletcher deliver poignant and honest movie reviews, and I definitely implore you to check out what they have to say in our Film in Review column before you head out to your local theater or movie rental place. John Euclid, another Better Drink newcomer, shares with us a “Closet Classic” that you definitely should check out when the summer thunderstorms strike.

         Ian E. Detlefsen (who is becoming a budding Better Drinker…with his third submission for the magazine) wrote a great Hello for our HelloGoodbye column, and George Mentis returns to share with us a tale from his early days in San Francisco in the Goodbye half of HelloGoodbye. Fredrik Bergström, once again, returns to the electronic pages of The Better Drink with some great poetry. If you didn’t read his Passion Forum in the last issue (the Summer Issue) you might want to as his poetry was inspired by working on his Passion Forum. Fredrik deals with the struggles between one’s heart and one’s head when considering their career and life. Important stuff to be sure.

         It does not seem to be enough simply to run down all of the great and new articles that are being released today…. I want to stress just how hard everyone in the Better Drink family works to get each new issue out—for everyone has day jobs, families, and a whole lot of life in between—and yet I am astonished by the quality, honesty, and integrity all of the contributors deliver. I believe this is really what The Better Drink and the Champagne Life is really all about—living with passion and integrity. However, never fear, for if you sense the Better Drinkers know how to have fun and do indeed enjoy life I assure you they do! And I am proud of them and completely baffled and honoured to have them in my life. And I suppose I entreat you all to read through this new issue and welcome them into your life as well. There truly are better drinks to swim….

         Lastly, I want to thank all you loyal readers. We are still continuing to grow steadily, and I know we could not bring each issue together if it were not for the loyal and continued support of you the readers. Thank you many times over.

         And for you my Beloved Sailors and Patrons our adventure commences on Monday…for hopefully we will all one day find the Champagne Life!

         Jennifer Barnick, editor

         July 15, 2005

 

 

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