Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Something More than Mere Survival

Judith Shulevitz, from “Making Room For The Sabbath,” a conversation with Terry Gross about her book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time:

The Sabbath World I was fascinated by rules. I sensed that one of the things about my life that I didn't like is that I was a kind of knee-jerk libertarian. Nobody could tell me what to do. But that's not how life works in a society. Societies have rules and we keep them. We don't object to the ones we all keep because we all keep them together. We object to the new ones that don't seem familiar to us. And I wanted to get familiar with these rules because it seemed to me that rules are how society passes on from one generation to the next moral behavior and moral activity and its idea of how life should be shaped and life should be led. And I wanted to get to know what these rules had to say to me...

The basic principle uniting all these rules is that you as a human being should not be exerting mastery over the world. For one day a week, let the world be as it is and you be in it and you're not trying to dominate it. That's the basic principle. Now the form that the rules took when they were first thought up was agricultural because they were conceived of in an agricultural society. And there's something to me very beautiful about this because not only were they conceived in an agricultural society, they were conceived of in a mainly subsistence farming society. So people were being asked not to bring in the crops. They were being asked not to do basic labors which would have helped them survive and they had to transfer that work of surviving to six days a week. And it had to have been very, very hard because we know how hard it is to survive when you're living off the land. And that to me gives me a sense of the seriousness with which it was taken and the beauty of the idea. Imagine telling people who are struggling to barely survive that one day a week they must give themselves over to something more than mere survival -- and they have the right to even if circumstances dictate otherwise. Those two things are very beautiful to me...

The thing that was most intriguing to me when I was working on the book and remains most intriguing to me, is as a fundamental political idea. And it's an idea that we've really lost in America today, though I think we've had it in the history and, indeed, I try to make the case that we were really one of the most Sabbatarian nations when we were founded by the Puritans. (Sabbatarian meaning keeping the Sabbath.) But this is an idea that we have really moved radically away from. And the idea is this: that as a society we have the right to collectively regulate our time and that everyone has the right not to work at least one day a week. You have to imagine a world in which this idea was conceived of and codified. This had never been said before.

[Thanks Tammy!]

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Preparing for Things that Matter Most

“Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones…Governments keep initiating policies they think will produce prosperity, only to get sacked, time and again, from their spiritual blind side.”

~ David Brooks, from “The Sandra Bullock Trade,” New York Times (March 29, 2010)

To Practice Hope

Chosen Blindness
by Mary Karr, from Viper Rum


Viper RumI was blind to flowers for one thing.
Picture a meadow stitched with dandelion,
those seed stalks whose tall white heads

poke up like ancestral ghosts
(pale auroras of wisdom), but profligate,
the fluff shot through with brown seeds

that others might follow. I never saw it,
just fixed on my own death, sat on the sofa
ingesting poison, looked out

at the rectangular field as if it were a postcard
from some foreign land, useless, already cancelled.
I sucked streams of gray smoke down my lungs

to blacken me deeper. The embroidery sampler I did in x’s
read BAD NEWS. The butterless popcorn I ate
was a bowl full of spiders. Skinny?

My skeleton forced itself forward. No word
of praise passed my lips though a million breaths
moved through me. That’s what human bodies do, keep

breathing, no matter the venom their brains manufacture.


Now I go to church. Who’d think it?
We stand in rows, like graves, I’d once have thought,
like herd beasts lined up for slaughter. Now I notice

our bodies bend in the same places. We form the same angles.
To sing together, we have to breathe in unison,
draw the same air into the dark meat of our bodies

as if it actually were spiritu sancti and ourselves
that spirit incarnate. Every now and then,
a toddler bolts up the main aisle, pursued

by a lumbering adult. Babies list
in sloping arms and toothless grin.
The old lean on canes

and chrome walkers set down slow. People
pause to let them pass. Always a list of dead is read,
always the sick are mentioned so your own aches

seem aggressively minor. My forebears
forebore this way, in company. Bread fed them,
and they had to practice hope to keep

plowing up the Dust Bowl’s
starved earth in rows, year
after fruitless year, till the cotton came back.


At the end of my drinking,
I coiled a garden hose in the back of my station wagon
and set off driving to a town

called Marblehead to breathe in the cool
exhaust and thus stop thoughts from streaming
through my mind like bad current.

I’d left my infant son a note, glowing green
on my computer screen, how he’d be
better off. Now a column of sun

through high windows shines
on his blond head. His hand
holds half our hymnal, index finger

underlining each word as we struggle
to match up our voices, hold the beat,
find the pattern emerging, feel the light

that glows in our chests, keep it going.

for Dev Milburn

Making Every Second Count

The Big C

See also: Laura Linney interviewed by Alec Baldwin, Studio 360

Monday, March 29, 2010


Cleveland International Film Festival, March 27, 2010

We spent the weekend shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded cinephiles, our collective gaze fixed on the lights flickering on the cave walls.

We watched a butcher in Jerusalem let trouble stir life into his cold bones, confining a nibble of vitality to be preserved forever in a meat locker and the icy waters of a nearby spring.

We watched Joseph Brodsky gazing back at the St. Petersburg of his youth: potatoes, paintings of nudes, shelves of books, his parents dancing after the war, an orchestra of musical instruments floating in the sky like clouds.

We watched a Croatian sniper try to dodge the trajectory of his own bullets while hunting down the traumatized Little Red Riding Hood he had fallen in love with through the scope of his rifle and nearly destroyed.

We watched a Mongolian folk singer search for the lyrics to a song hidden in the unrepeatable archives of fading human memory.

We watched Renaud Capuçon perform Gluck’s Orfeo Melody on a 1737 Guarnerius violin in the Paris subway from 7:57 a.m. to 7:57 p.m to mostly indifferent commuters a couple of days before playing the same piece to a sold-out auditorium in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Our hearts were collectively broken until a blind woman renewed our hope by venturing as close as possible to warm herself in the glow.

We watched, Juan Pujol Garcia, a double agent from Spain and his contrived network of spies convince the Nazis to prepare for an attack on Pas de Calais as the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy.

We watched art collectors, dealers, galleries, and auction houses enthusiastically inflate the value of contemporary art to staggering and unsustainable heights through secrecy, speculation, tax strategies, and cornering markets.


Cleveland International Film Festival

Friday, March 26, 2010

We’ve Seen it All Before

Excerpt from the introduction of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up by Norman Fischer:

Taking Our Places Another characteristic of maturity — one that any of us would mention — is experience. A grown-up is someone who is experienced and, through having lived long enough to have seen many things, has a point of view and a measure of savvy about how life works. There is certainly no substitute for the experience that accumulates as the years go by, but it is also possible to be alive for a long time and not really experience our living, not really see our life. The human capacity for self-deception and blindness runs deep. We may be alive, but we have not necessarily lived. If we accumulate experiences without really engaging with them, then our experience tends to make us stodgy and boring. As we catalog and define our experiences, possessing them without ever really being possessed by them, we begin to expect that new situations will just be repetitions of old ones. Soon we feel as if we’ve seen it all before. We know what to expect. Our point of view gradually becomes a set of blinders rather than a searching flashlight.

But if we pay close and open attention to our experiences, life’s larger patterns begin to come into view. We see that all things are transitory and unique. Nothing repeats. We understand that, though always instructive, the past can never tell us what the future will be. Within the larger pattern that experience reveals, there are endless variations. Insofar as we see this, our experience increases our wonder at and appreciation of all that happens. With little life experience, we might be naively excited by the novelty of a person we meet or an event that occurs. But when we truly appreciate our experience, we respond to that newness with a deeper understanding of its meaning and wonder as we relate it to what we have seen before. Far from dampening our sense of wonder, real experience refreshes and mellows it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Language of Individual Freedom

Excerpt from “The Broken Society,” by David Brooks, New York Times (March 18, 2010):

Phillip Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.


[Thanks Suzanne!]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why It Takes All Day

Silk Parachute “On a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s more spontaneous. In other words, I know what I want to have said when I’m finished with this writing, but I really don’t know, when I’m down to the nub of it to address it, what’s going to happen. I mean I know where it should go, but it certainly isn’t — the phraseology — is not prefabricated and that’s why it takes me all day to get one sentence written.”

~ John McPhee, discussing his writing process and his new collection of essays, Silk Parachute, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (March 18, 2010).

Rambling Man


Rambling Man by Laura Marling from her new album, I Speak Because I Can. She will perform at the Wexner Center on May 5, 2010.

Enchanted by the Trick and the Story

How the Puppets from Fantastic Mr. Fox Were Made [Slide Show] by Julian Sancton, Vanity Fair, 11.23.2009

Wes Anderson discussing the appeal of stop-motion animation with Michael Specter from The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox: A Film by Wes Anderson Based on the Book by Roald Dahl:

The thing I’ve always loved with stop-motion, more than anything else, is puppets that have fur, and actually not only that. I also like the fighting skeletons in, maybe it’s Jason and the Argonauts, or maybe it’s one of the Sinbad movies where they have the fighting skeletons. But I have always like — I love the way King Kong, the old King Kong, looked, with his fur – the animators call it “boiling.” And for some reason, the whole magical aspect of stop-motion was one of those things where you can see the trick — I mean, you know the Cocteau movies? The visual effects in Beauty and the Beast, for instance, are things where you can really see that a person is behind this wall sticking their arm through it, holding a torch, and the film is running backwards, and so that is how this light is coming on, or the mirror is actually water. You know, those kinds of effects, where you can see what it is, have always been the most fascinating and mesmerizing and moving to me. And with stop-motion, the whole film is that sort of thing in a way, to my mind. So I guess, to the degree that that makes any sense, that’s more or less where it comes from for me. That magical effect where you can see how it is accomplished — where at one and the same time you are enchanted by the trick to the effect and by the story itself. I have no idea why this concept means so much to me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Evil of Not Doing Anything

Hokai Sobol in conversation with Terry Patten from “Can Dharma Help us Turn the Corner?”, Buddhist Geeks Podcast #163 (March 15, 2010):

Originally, Dharma, meaning all traditional spirituality, in this case…All the great spiritual traditions have appeared in a world where human culture, because of technological reasons, first of all, and because of limited number of humans at the time, did not have the power to threaten the world. To threaten the natural world, to threaten the limits of the resources in the world, to threaten each other. Many cultures existed in spatial isolation, or distanced enough from each other to feel safe, which is now an impossibility. We can’t even plan to achieve that in the future because we’re going in the opposite direction. We’re not just closing on each other, we’re mixing up to an incredible degree all over the world.

So, basically, Dharma appeared in a situation where warnings and instructions on the importance of digging into the fundamentals of human culture and working to transform the culture, not the individual mind, was extremely important. So, that type of instruction couldn’t even appear at that time. Because if you simply practice non-violence, meaning if you did nothing wrong to anyone, there was nothing that could go much wrong on its own accord. But, at this moment, in human history, if you just passively don’t do anything wrong, this may be the greatest evil. Because if you’re capable of not doing anything wrong, then you are one of rare humans who are extremely equipped of doing a lot of good. And if you don’t contribute that good, a certain destructive or a certain skeptical or a certain small-hearted attitude may prevail in the world. Thus, allowing the culture, equipped with an incredible technology now, to actually wreck havoc all around us. We can see traces of this havoc already taking place, right?


A Global Water Cooler

Excerpt from “Texts Without Context,” by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times (March 17, 2010):

Today's technology has bestowed miracles of access and convenience upon millions of people, and it’s also proven to be a vital new means of communication. Twitter has been used by Iranian dissidents; text messaging and social networking Web sites have been used to help coordinate humanitarian aid in Haiti; YouTube has been used by professors to teach math and chemistry. But technology is also turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break. And in an effort to collect valuable eyeballs and clicks, media outlets are increasingly pandering to that impulse — often at the expense of hard news. “I have the theory that news is now driven not by editors who know anything,” the comedian and commentator Bill Maher recently observed. “I think it’s driven by people who are” slacking off at work and “surfing the Internet.” He added, “It’s like a country run by ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nature Guards Its Secrets

Spring Equinox 2010

Look Again
by Sarah Lindsay, from Twigs and Knucklebones 

I know how little I know
from observation:
that the dog sleeping on the rug
with pure concentration
will be sleeping, each time I look up,
in a different direction,

that five wart-lidded mushrooms
can form on the lawn
in the time rain takes
to shift from falling to fallen,

that my eyes are too slow
to track shooting stars, too quick
to spy continental drift,
and Earth conceals its spin
by spinning me with it,

that a tree won’t let me
see its growth, only its height,
that hairs on my head go singly gray
only by night. 

Opening to Sounds

“Everything supports wakefulness if you are willing to let yourself be awakened by tenderly yet consistently connecting though your senses. Everything. But it requires a brave heart, and a mind that sees the folly in clinging…to anything.

As an experiment, see if you can be here in the pure awareness of hearing, surrendering over and over, again and again, to a hearing that is always happening without your having to do anything or exert yourself at all…opening to sounds and the spaces between them, and to the silence lying inside, underneath, and in between all sound.”

~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness

That Spark Will Never Be a Commodity

Excerpt from “America’s Real Dream Team,” by Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times (March 21, 2010):

Photo by Felipe T. Marques In today’s wired world, the most important economic competition is no longer between countries or companies. The most important economic competition is actually between you and your own imagination. Because what your kids imagine, they can now act on farther, faster, cheaper than ever before — as individuals. Today, just about everything is becoming a commodity, except imagination, except the ability to spark new ideas.

If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use to handle fulfillment. I can use to find someone to do my logo and manage by backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.

[See also: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk]

The Shrine Down the Hall

“Seven years after the beginning of the Iraq war — and with U.S.troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeding 5,000 — a look at some of the bedrooms America’s young war dead left behind.”

Ashley Gilbertson/VII Network, for The New York Times

FIRST LT. BRIAN N. BRADSHAW, ARMY Killed June 25, 2009, Kheyl, Afghanistan; roadside bomb. AGE: 24 HOMETOWN: Steilacoom, Wash.

From the New York Time Sunday Magazine.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Clock in the Zendo

time ticks
     mind tocks

life gestates
     heart narrates

soul flows
     self knows

ruts in the road
     slowly erode

Speak Up



Friday, March 19, 2010

Listen and Watch

Untitled #15,  2006
 Pigment Print
© Mikhail Baryshnikov
Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York“It’s said that to understand a people you don’t need to speak their language, you just listen to their music and watch them move.”

~ Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Notes on Design,” from the Spring 2010 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story

[See also: Merce My Way]

Thursday, March 18, 2010

You Can Read Me Anything


The Book of Love
by Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), covered by Nataly Dawn (Pomplamoose)

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It's full of charts and facts and figures and instructions for dancing
But I
I love it when you read to me
And you
You can read me anything
The book of love has music in it
In fact that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
But I
I love it when you sing to me
And you
You can sing me anything
The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we're all too young to know
But I
I love it when you give me things
And you
You ought to give me wedding rings
And I
I love it when you give me things
And you
You ought to give me wedding rings
And I
I love it when you give me things
And you
You ought to give me wedding rings
You ought to give me wedding rings

Less Small Talk

Excerpt from “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” by Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times (March 17, 2010):

…people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

“We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Become What You Are

Excerpt from the introduction of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up by Norman Fischer:

Time is strange. We live within it, depend on it, take it for granted, yet it relentlessly passes, and our lives slip through our fingers moment by moment. Where does time come from, and where does it go? How is it that every moment we are different, we grow, we develop, we are born, we die? What are we supposed to be doing with this life?

After many years of grappling with these questions during the course of my long spiritual journey, I have come to have a feeling for their answers. We don’t really know what appears, what time is, where it goes. But we are here to try to understand. And we all have our own way of understanding, and of expressing that understanding through the living of our lives.

Each of us has a place in this world. Taking that place, I have come to feel, is our real job as human beings. We are not generic people, we are individuals, and when we appreciate that fact completely and allow ourselves to embrace it and grow into it fully, we see that taking our unique place in this world is the one thing that gives us a sense of ultimate fulfillment.

Bantu tribesmen, it is said, sneak into the rooms of their children as they sleep and whisper in their ears, “Become what you are.”

To take our place is to mature, to grow into what we are. Mostly we take maturity for granted, as if it were something that comes quite naturally and completely as our bodies grow and our minds and hearts fill up with life experience. In fact, however, few of us are truly mature individuals; few of us really occupy our places. We are merely living out a dream of maturity, a set of received notions and images that passes for adulthood. What does it really mean to grow up? How do we do the work that will nurture a truly mature heart from which can flow healing words and deeds? Each of our lives depends on our undertaking the exploration that these questions urge us toward. And the mystery is that the whole world depends on each of us to take this human journey.

With Liberty and Justice for Many

“I accept this award on behalf of those who have been struck down, beaten up, and — instead of attention and praise — have gotten only intolerance, violence, or — even worse — indifference.”

~ Will Phillips, accepting the award for Outstanding TV Journalism Segment at the 21st Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York on March 13, 2010.


Phillips appeared in the award winning segment "Why Will Won't Pledge Allegiance" from CNN's American Morning on November 16, 2009.

Both Respect and Imagination

Excerpt from the preface of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Inalienable Rights) by Martha Nussbaum:

Today, large segments of the Christian Right openly practice a politics based upon disgust. Depicting the sexual practices of lesbians and, especially, of gay men as vile and revolting, they suggest that such practices contaminate and defile society, producing decay and degeneration…Although the influence of such appeals peaked, perhaps, in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since been declining, the politics of disgust continues to exercise influence, often in more subtle and unstated ways. We need, then, to understand why it is not a good approach to politics and law in a democratic society.

The politics of disgust is profoundly at odds with the abstract idea of a society based on the equality of all citizens, in which all have a right to the equal protection of the laws. It says that the mere fact that you happen to make me want to vomit is reason enough for me to treat you as a social pariah, denying you some of your most basic entitlements as a citizen.

…the politics of disgust is alive and well in America today, as many groups aggressively depict same-sex practices in such a way as to arouse disgust and then draw on that reaction when campaigning against the legalization of same-sex marriage, or nondiscrimination laws. Such appeals are often seen as not politically correct today, so other arguments are increasingly put forward. Disgust, however, has not gone away. We still need to understand its force, and why arguments based upon it are bad political arguments. A closer study of the emotion of disgust and the ways in which it has been used politically through history will suggest some powerful arguments against disgust’s apostles in theory and in practice, by showing how that emotion expresses a universal human discomfort with bodily reality, but then uses that discomfort to target and subordinate vulnerable minorities.

…Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination. Humanity does not automatically reveal itself to strangers. No placard hung on the front of a fellow citizen announces that this one is a full-fledged human being. Seeing the shape of a human being before us, we always have choices to make: will we impute full equal humanity to that shape, or something less? Only by imagining how the world looks through that person’s eyes does one get to the point of seeing the other person as a someone and not a something. (Sadly, racial minorities have long been seen as somethings rather than someones, and women are all too frequently so seen today, given the ever-present phenomenon of sexual “object-ification,” in which a person is treated as a mere thing.) That crucial imaginative engagement has been sadly and sorely lacking in majority dealings with lesbians and gay lives…

The politics of humanity, as I shall use the term, includes respect. But respect, as usually conceived, is not sufficient for it: something else, something closer to love, must also be involved. First of all, we are unlikely to achieve full respect for one another unless we can do something else first – see the other as a center of perception, emotion, and reason, rather than an inert object. Put that way, it might appear that this imaginative and emotional attitude is a mere instrument to a respect that might be arrived at by some other route. However, respect without this attitude is certainly no a complete basis for political action in a diverse society: for only imagination animates the cold and abstract categories of morality and law, turning them into the ways we can live together. So, respect is politically incomplete without imagination.

One may, however, make a stronger claim, and I shall defend this claim: the capacity for imaginative and emotional participation in the lives of others is an essential ingredient of any respect worthy of the name. Only this capacity makes real an ability that is a key part of respect, the ability to see the other as an end, not as a mere means. The politics of humanity includes, then, both respect and imagination, and imagination understood as an ingredient essential to respect itself.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Real Fortune-Teller Knows

Excerpt from Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler:

“I mean, your left hand is your whole entire past! I wonder if one of my books deals with this.”

“If it’s my past, why do we care?” Liam asked. “We just want to know about my future?

“Oh, you can’t read one without the other,” Esther Jo told him. “They’re intermingled. They bounce off of each other. That’s what the amateurs fail to understand.”

She released his hands with a dismissive little pat that gave Liam a sense of rejection, absurdly enough.

“Let’s see if I can explain this,” she said. “You know how farmers can predict what kind of winter they’ll have by looking at the acorns and berries? Those acorns and berries are the way they are because of what has gone before — how much rainfall there’s been and et cetera, et cetera. A whole lot depends on the weather that’s already happened. And the farmers know that.”

She gave him a quick, self-confirming nod.

“We, just the same way, a real fortune-teller — and I’m not one to brag, but I am a real fortune-teller; I’ve just always had the gift, somehow — a real fortune-teller knows that your future depends on your past. It keeps shifting about; it’s not carved in stone. It keeps bouncing off whatever happened earlier. So, no, I can’t do a thing without seeing what’s in your left palm.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Not as Good as the Needle

“Sugar pills, injections of nothing -- studies show that, more often than you'd expect, placebos really work. At TEDMED, magician Eric Mead does a trick to prove that, even when you know something's not real, you can still react as powerfully as if it is.”

Discovering Columbus

“Stretching along High Street, south of the Ohio State University campus, the Short North is Columbus’s designated arts district and home to a hugely popular arts event called Gallery Hop. On the first Saturday of each month, street performers, musicians and artists hit the sidewalks, shops set up temporary exhibits, and art galleries remain open late. Drawing crowds since it started in 1984, Gallery Hop helped transform the formerly neglected, crime-ridden urban district into the vibrant, independent arts enclave that it is today.”

From “Hello, Columbus,” by Ingrid K. Williams, New York Times (March 14, 2010)

Kirk Irwin for The New York Times

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Lorianne DiSabato

Goodale Park

Wexner Center for the Arts

Friday, March 12, 2010

Intimately Meshed

“An unsentimental elegy to the American West, Sweetgrass follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montanas breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.”


Recordist’s Statement (Lucien Castaing-Taylor):

We began work on this film in the spring of 2001. Living at the time in Colorado, we heard about a family of Norwegian‐American sheepherders in Montana, who were among the last to trail their band of sheep long distances — about a hundred and fifty miles each year, all of it on hoof — up to the mountains for summer pasture. I visited them that April during lambing, and was so taken with the magnitude of their life — at once its allure and its arduousness — that we ended up working with them, their friends, and their Irish‐American hired hands intensively over the coming years.

Sweetgrass is one of nine films to have emerged from the footage we have shot over the last decade, the only one intended principally for theatrical exhibition. As they have been shaped through editing, the films seem to have become as much about the sheep as about their herders. The humans and animals that populate them commingle and crisscross in ways that have taken us by surprise. Sweetgrass depicts the twilight of a defining chapter in the history of the American West, the dying world of Western herders — descendants of Scandinavian and northern European homesteaders — as they struggle to make a living in an era increasingly inimical to their interests. Set in Big Sky country, in a landscape of remarkable scale and beauty, the film portrays a lifeworldcolored by an intense propinquity between nature and culture — one that has been integral to the fabric of human existence throughout history, but which is almost unimaginable for the urban masses of today.

Spending the summers high in the Rocky mountains, among the herders, the sheep, and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days.

*     *     *

Where You Are

Rocky Mountain National Park (2007)

by David Wagoner, from Traveling Light 

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

The Most Fruitful Type of Mind Wandering

Excerpt from “Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State,” by Carl Zimmer, Discover (June 2009):

When our minds wander, we lose touch with the outside world. We don’t actually black out, of course, but we are more likely to make mistakes, fail to encode memories, or miss a connection. Zoning out makes us particularly prone to these errors. Schooler and Smallwood, along with Merrill McSpadden of the University of British Columbia, tested the effect of zoning out by having a test group read a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which a villain used a pseudonym. As people were reading the passages discussing this fact, the researchers checked their state of attentiveness. Just 30 percent of the people who were zoning out at the key moments could give the villain’s pseudonym, while 61 percent of the people who weren’t zoning out at those moments succeeded.

These results are shocking when you stop to think about them. Each of us has a magnificent hive of billions of neurons in our head, joined to each other by trillions of connections. The human brain is arguably the most complex organ in the natural world. And yet studies on mind wandering are showing that we find it difficult to stay focused for more than a few minutes on even the easiest tasks, despite the fact that we make mistakes whenever we drift away.

The fact that both of these important brain networks become active together suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead, Schooler proposes, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Our brains process information to reach goals, but some of those goals are immediate while others are distant. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.

Even more telling is the discovery that zoning out may be the most fruitful type of mind wandering. In their fMRI study, Schooler and his colleagues found that the default network and executive control systems are even more active during zoning out than they are during the less extreme mind wandering with awareness. When we are no longer even aware that our minds are wandering, we may be able to think most deeply about the big picture.


[See also: Shinzen Young’s Focus Out strategy]

A Little Flower

“Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

~ Hans Christian Andersen

Crocus vernus


Crocus vernus

Steven Cox Flowers

[Thanks Kirstin!]

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Selection Process Creating Your Reality

From “The Focused Life,” by Winifred Gallagher, from her book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life:

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life Like consciousness or mind, attention is a complex neurological and behavioral business. There’s no tidy “attention center” in the brain. Instead, an ensemble of alerting, orienting, and executive networks collaborate to attune you to what’s going on in your inner or outer world in a coherent way that points you toward an appropriate response.

Neuroscience’s truly groundbreaking insight into attention is the discovery that its basic mechanism is a process of selection. This two-part neurological sorting allows you to focus by enhancing the most compelling, or “salient,” physical object or “high-value” mental subject in your ken and suppressing the rest. Outside of an elite scientific circle, however, this finding’s implications for everyday life have been stunningly unremarked.

When you focus, you’re spending limited cognitive currency that should be wisely invested, because the stakes are high. At any one moment, your world contains too much information, whether it is objects, subjects, or both, for your brain to depict clearly for you. Your attentional system selects a chunk of what’s there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate and, therefore, the chance to affect your behavior. This thin slice of life becomes part of your reality, and the rest is consigned to the shadows.

Attention’s selective nature confers tremendous benefits, chief of which is enabling you to comprehend what would otherwise be chaos. You couldn’t take in the totality of your own experience, even for a moment. Whether it’s noise on the street, ideas at the office, or feelings in a relationship, you’re potentially bombarded with stimuli vying for your attention. New electronic information and communications technology continually add to the overload. By helping you to focus on some things and filter out others, attention distills the universe into your universe.

Along with performing the Apollonian task of organizing your world, attention enables you to have the kind of Dionysian experience beautifully described by the old-fashioned term rapt—completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even “carried away”—that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession. Some individuals slip into it more readily, but research shows that with some reflection, experimentation, and practice, all of us can cultivate this profoundly attentive state and experience it more often. Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living.

A Journey into Worthy Perception

Barry Hannah

"Reading and writing train our people for logic, grace, and precision of thought, and begin a lifelong study of the exceptional in human existence. I think literature is the history of the soul. Writing should be a journey into worthy perception."

~ Barry Hannah, who died last week at his home in Mississippi

[Thanks Jonathan Carroll!]

In the Absence of that Conversation

Jonathan Lethem, discussing his most recent novel, Chronic City, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (January 28, 2010):

“I was very interested in thinking about the condition of an actor, someone who’s learned to operate within scripts that are handed to them — whether the scripts are worth anything or not. It seemed to me that, in a way, stood for the problem of a lot of us as we get through our days. The scripts right now aren’t very good, but we don’t know how to step outside them very readily or at all.”

*     *     *

Chronic City“A writer, a social satirist, looking for ways to exemplify the hypocrisies of contemporary economic disparities — the unacknowledged class system — it’s almost impossible not to find easy targets. It’s so near at hand that you only have to turn your hand and it falls into your grasp. And so I couldn’t be terribly interested with looking for those kinds of symbols. Instead I wanted to talk about what happens when you and I and everyone we know lives with them right in front of our face — two inches from our face — and yet they’re not spoken of. It’s the denial. It’s the fact that symbols of this kind of reality proliferate wildly in books and in life.

Every day you open the newspaper and you find another allegory that would’ve made Karl Marx’s jaw drop — or Roland Barthes’s jaw drop. And yet we all go on reading that newspaper. We all go on moving through our days and this is the subject of the book: what we do instead, what we think about, and how we behave in the absence of that conversation. When everything is as exaggerated and hysterically out of whack and yet somehow the machine tumbles forward day-to-day. We wake up and take our positions inside it. Well, that’s an interesting subject and an elusive one. The social satire is not elusive at all.

All you have to do is take it to the ultimate degree and then you’ve got John Carpenter’s They Live or Idiocracy. Then you’ve said it as stridently as you possibly can. You’ve made the cartoon of reality into a cartoon and then it can be shrugged off again. I was trying not to shrug it off. I was trying to inhabit it with these characters. It’s the fact that we all live in a situation that is patently absurd in many ways and yet we we have no opportunity to take it lightly. We’re living real lives. It’s tragic…I don’t mean to fall into the trap of saying there can be a non-ideological space, but you do the best you can. You meet what’s before you. You try to solve the cartoon conundrums that come your way with as much real sincerity as you can bring to them. ”  

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not Beyond Your Imagination

James Cameron, in conversation with Elvis Mitchell for a special online edition of The Treatment, recorded live at a benefit for the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“I’ve always believed in exploration. I’ve always believed in that sense of going beyond and looking where we haven’t looked. I think the film connects that way in a number of different ways. There’s one line I hate and studios love to use: Beyond your imagination. It’s not beyond your imagination. People have great imaginations. They have great dreams when they’re kids. You can fly when you’re a kid in your dreams. As you grow up, your dreams somewhat diminish and you don’t fly as much in your dreams. I wanted to go back to that childlike dream state in this movie because I think we all kind of connect at that level. And so I wanted to create essentially a lucid dream that would connect us all at some kind of unconscious level.”

*     *     *

“We were tasked with designing all these creatures and plants and everything for this movie. And every time we thought we had a great idea somebody would bring in a photograph or some bit of nature here had beat us to the idea. Ultimately, at the end of a two-year design process, we had to just admit with great humility that nature’s imagination was better than the combined imagination of the best visual artists on the planet that I had gathered to make Avatar. And it’s true.”

*     *     *

In his talk at TED 2010, James Cameron “reveals his childhood fascination with the fantastic — from reading science fiction to deep-sea diving — and how it ultimately drove the success of his blockbuster hits Aliens, The Terminator, Titanic and Avatar.”

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

To See What Was Going On

Margaret Phelan Taylor

"I did it for the fun. I was a young girl and everybody had left and it was wartime. You didn't want to get stuck in a hole in Iowa; you wanted to see what was going on."

~ Margaret Phelan Taylor, on her experience as a Women Airforce Service Pilot, “Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls,” Morning Edition (3/9/10)

Give and Take

Excerpt from “Chopin’s ‘Soul and Heart’,” by Byron Janis, The Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2010):

No word is more important in describing the playing of Chopin's music than rubato. It comes from the Italian word robare, to rob, but in music it means "give and take." If you steal a little time here, you've got to give it back. For example, in playing a melodic phrase, if you go forward in the first two bars, you must pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical pulse. The classic feeling will come from the left hand, which Chopin insisted should be played as evenly as possible. Then the right hand can have its romance and play as freely as the left hand will allow. Every performer will use that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the "disciplined freedom" that makes Chopin Chopin.

Chopin said the Polish word zal—a "bittersweet melancholy"—best described much of his music. Paradoxically, it can also mean anger, even rage, an emotion also found in Chopin's musical vocabulary. Schumann agreed, describing Chopin's music as "cannons buried in flowers." For example, listen to the Ballade in G-minor and the Scherzo in C-sharp minor.

Massimiliano Ferrati plays Chopin's Ballade in G-minor

Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor

Monday, March 08, 2010

Something That We Use Rather Than Something That Uses Us

Soren Gordhamer, from “Happiness — There’s an App for That,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast #161 (March 1, 2010):

Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected There probably are people on the planet today who can actually live fully present in every waking moment of their life, right? 24/7. Like, somehow their ego and their old patterns have completely gone. But for the rest of us, we’re somewhere in the middle, right? There’s a certain level of awakening, but there’s not kind of a full level of awakening. And so for us, I think it particularly helps to have some time each day where we’re just quiet. We’re not taking in new information. We’re kind of emptying our cup. You know the old Zen story where the professor goes to the Zen master and says, “I know all this information about Zen,” and starts telling the Zen master all the information he has. And the Zen master responds by saying, “Would you like some tea?” And the professor says, “Yes.” And he starts pouring him tea, but even as the cup is full, he just keeps pouring and pouring and pouring. And the professor says, “Stop pouring. The cup won’t take any more tea.” And he says, of course, “Just like the cup, your mind is so full of information, it can’t take any more.”

So I think that for those of who are trying to balance this life of mindfulness and technology, it’s extremely important to have some time where we’re not taking in information and we’re bringing attention to our breath and our internal world. And we’re not as focused on our external world. But then the challenge, of course, is to not become a good meditator. The challenge is to become awake, right? And to bring that sense of awareness and full engagement no matter what we’re doing. And if we’re checking email, can we do that fully? If we’re tweeting, can we do that fully? Whatever it is, can we bring our full attention to that? And that whatever we imagine our life is going to be in the next moment, we never know. We don’t even know what the next five seconds is going to be like, much less the next day. And I think that if we can use or engage with technology that’s fully engaged in the moment, I think then technology can be something that we use rather than something that uses us. And I think for millions of people in our culture right now, technology actually feels like something that uses them rather than something they kind of creatively engage with.

[See also: Soren Gordhamer’s contributions to The Huffington Post]

Leaving the Outside World Behind

Excerpt from “All-Nighters: Failing to Fall,” by Siri Hustvedt, New York Times Opinionator (March 3, 2010):

In sleep we leave behind the sensory stimulation of the outside world. A part of the brain called the thalamus, involved in the regulation of sleeping and waking, plays a crucial role in shutting out somatosensory stimuli and allowing the cortex to enter sleep. One theory offered to explain hypnogogic hallucinations is that the thalamus deactivates before the cortex in human beings, so the still active cortex manufactures images, but this is just a hypothesis. What is clear is that going to sleep involves making a psychobiological transition. Anxiety, guilt, excitement, a racing bedtime imagination, fear of dying, pain or illness can keep us from toppling into the arms of Morpheus. Depression often involves sleep disturbances, especially waking up early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep. Weirdly enough, keeping a depressed patient awake for a couple of nights in the hospital can alleviate his symptoms temporarily. They return as soon as he begins to sleep normally again.

The Neuronal Switches for Waking and Sleeping

Keep Your Temper

Excerpt from “Algebra in Wonderland,” by Melanie Bayley, New York Times (March 7, 2010):

Alice has slid down from a world governed by the logic of universal arithmetic to one where her size can vary from nine feet to three inches. She thinks this is the root of her problem: “Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” No, it isn’t, replies the Caterpillar, who comes from the mad world of symbolic algebra. He advises Alice to “Keep your temper.”

In Dodgson’s day, intellectuals still understood “temper” to mean the proportions in which qualities were mixed — as in “tempered steel” — so the Caterpillar is telling Alice not to avoid getting angry but to stay in proportion, even if she can’t “keep the same size for 10 minutes together!” Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry.

Scene from Jan Švankmajer's Alice.