Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trees of the Ages

One of my more incongruous musical interests is late period Laura Nyro. My 'like' here is odd not only because of her style of music and when she recorded, but also because I'm most interested in her recordings after her ambitious early work. This music (which in my mind is represented by her Smile album and everything after it) lacks the critical acclaim, urban hipster chic, and hit making power she enjoyed in the 60s and early 70s. Instead, this stuff was critically panned, nature-themed, and anti-Top 40.

Nowhere was this more true than on her 1984 album Mother's Spiritual. This is a folkie, pastoral album of piano-based musings on motherhood, feminism, environmental concerns, and keeping your 'special light' on against the cold, cruel world. Not a drum machine or dance song in sight and no flashy videos or fashion statements, yet it came out the same year as Prince's Purple Rain and Madonna's Like a Virgin. You can imagine the indifference it received from the public and, of course, the rock critics of the time weren't up for it at all.

But I love Mother's Spiritual - and Nyro - and I even love her when I do not know (or want to know) where she's coming from, as on a 1993 song she penned ("The Descent of Luna Rose"), which is dedicated to her period. No matter what the rest of the world was doing, Nyro was always doing her thing and - as a result - she's always fresh and original.

But my point to this post is not pour accolades on Nyro. On Mother's Spiritual, she has a song called "Trees of the Ages" which is a meditation on the peace-inducing power of trees (how crunchy is that!). I thought of the song yesterday as Jim and I spent a day in bike riding and then most of the afternoon sitting on the back porch reading, cooking out, and just enjoying the greenery. Specifically, there's a lyric in "Trees of the Ages" that has never fallen out of my head. Nyro sings: "Believe in a tree/Trees know what every/zen master needs to know".

Photo taken while hiking during my 2005 'Pete Retreat'
While I think Nyro was Wiccan and that is likely the slant she was going for in her song, as a Zen Buddhist her words resonate tremendously for me. When I think of what symbolizes a right-minded state, it is very much the sorts of things we usually ascribe to trees. Many large trees grow slowly (patiently, if you want to anthropomorphize them), yet they become tall and strong as a result of this. They are not active, but they are very powerful (ever see the results of a battle between tree roots and a concrete foundation?).

There is also a clarity, simplicity, and serenity about the way trees exist, and I think this is something most people feel about them to varying degrees. While trees are active in only a few ways, they are masters at adapting to and sometimes even in determining the environment around them. They bend in the wind, seek out sunshine, and lose leaves in cold weather, but they last and endure despite not being more active. Although trees are silent, they are never not seen. They also seem to exude life and other creatures rely on them, sometimes instinctively.  Animals use trees as a place to build homes and as a source for food.  We people, have affinity for them because we appreciate their beauty. I think it's safe to say most people, when confronted with the sight of a big tree that has fallen to disease or a storm or the saw, regret it on some level.

Laura was definitely onto something.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nearing 300

Up to 275 miles after a 21 mile ride today.

We rode north of Wheaton and saw the after effects of a huge storm that blew through the area a few weeks ago. Massive trees uprooted and big branches on the ground. In some places, it looked as if every large tree had branches ripped off at the top. The sound of these trees being torn up must have been really scary to the people living around there.

It Gets Better

The end of this month is the first anniversary of our civil union ceremony. Prior to that we had celebrated our anniversary at the end of August to commemorate the day we met. Last week, I asked Jim which day was our anniversary now? We decided that - while we're happy to finally have the same rights as everyone else - the fact is that the civil union formalized something that had already existed for 15 years. Our anniversary remains the day we have always celebrated it and we plan to celebrate 16 wonderful years together at that time.

Of course...that doesn't mean we can't celebrate twice!

Since I never did post more pictures from the civil union, I thought I'd do so now. As I was choosing these pictures, I found myself thinking about some of the really huge strides that have been made even in the year since we had this ceremony. I have to admit I never thought I'd see such progress in my lifetime. So I have to say how grateful I am to the 'soldiers': the people who risked and dared and stood up for justice and gave our community a voice over the years. These pictures and joy would not exist without them. So thank you! In a small way we gave back with this ceremony, as instead of gifts we asked guests to donate to It Gets Better.

And for any young people out there who are struggling with prejudice and ignorance. It gets better!
Forget flower girls. We had the Bubble Girlz!
Those who stood up for us danced down the aisle to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"

Here come the grooms!

When the ceremony began, I admit I was blown away at what was happening!


And while cake is always good...

...the best part was having our friends and family there!

It gets better!

Monday, July 23, 2012

QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble

The QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble is one of my favorite groups. They put out some really great classical music, and I am a total groupie. If they had T-shirts, I'd buy one. As it is, I have all their CDs - or at least the ones I'm aware of. 

The first one I purchased was Elisa is the Fayrest Quene, a recording of Elizabethan music written back in the day by various composers. This is a tremendous CD to have if you have any interest in Tudor England or Renaissance music. It is lovingly performed and recorded and, as close as these untrained ears can tell, sounds very authentic. The CD is also beautifully packaged.  I purchased this as a gift for a Tudorphile I know along with Alison Weir's biography on Elizabeth. It made a great one-two punch.

I find myself listening to this CD quite a bit, especially at work. It's wonderful to put on the headphones and shut out the world. Several of the tracks are in my Top 25 played list on my iPod.

Since discovering the QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble, I've picked up their other two CDs: In Venetia and Moon, Sun, & All Things. These are just as interesting as Elisa is the Fayrest Quene. In Venetia, and the name suggests, is a collection of old Venetian music. Moon, Sun, & All Things is even more non-standard, being Baroque music from Latin America written as long ago as the 1500s but not more recent than the 1700s. Very different than anything else in my collection (although it's questionable if this is truly a CD by the Ensemble since they do not appear on every track).

All of the music by the Ensemble truly evokes the world in comes from, and it's all beautiful recorded. The other thing I like is that each CD is a very different kind of music; it makes each CD of their a whole new sonic adventure. Great stuff!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

26 more miles

Brings the cycling total to 254. Better still, I realized my odometer wasn't working because it wasn't snapped quite all the way down. While my mileage for this season still has to be tracked via blog, at least I'm okay to measure it now.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mumonkan, Koan 22: Kashyapa's "Knock Down the Flagpole"

photo: Professor Gary Lee Todd
Ananda asked Kashyapa, "The World-honored One gave you the golden robe; did he give you anything else?" "Ananda!" cried Kashyapa. "Yes sir!" answered Ananda. "Knock down the flagpole at the gate," said Kashyapa.

Sometimes there are references in koans which, not understood, make it difficult to interpret them. So a little background:
  • The World-honored one is the Buddha
  • The giving of the golden robe refers to transmission of Zen
  • The flagpole - The flag is raised when a master is about to teach
  • Koan 6 (The Buddha Holds Out a Flower) describes the transmission of Zen from the Buddha to Kashyapa (called Mahakashyapa in that koan). The picture here is a wooden sculpture of his head from the Tang Dynasty.
Ananda's question is surprising if he is a monk. Zen is not given from a teacher to a student; a person finds it for themselves. There was nothing else to give since nothing at all was given. Kashyapa's response could mean several things. It could be an attempt to illustrate that a master does not need to teach his students overtly for them to find satori. It might even suggest Kashyapa refuses to teach Ananda until he meditates on his own to answer this question for himself. Sekida's notes suggest a third possibility: 'knocking down the flagpole' as striking down what one is striving to learn in order to not be deluded by some imagine purpose.

In any case, this koan once again highlights that satori or Zen is something reached by a person, not given to them by an instructor.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Emile Zola - 'Pot-Bouille'

This is the seventh novel of the Rougon-Macquart cycle (based on the order in which Zola suggested reading them). I'll start with an interesting note about the title of this book. When I saw that some of these books kept their titles in French and some not, I admit I assumed it was some sort of pretense by the translator. However, I see things differently after reading this book. The Oxford World's Classics edition I read is a new translation, with Pot-Bouille translated as Pot Luck. Another translation has the title Piping Hot. So there is no agreement on an English translation of the title.

In fact, neither English title mentioned above really works. From what I read in the introduction, Pot-Bouille as a title has connotations that render it untranslatable into English. Pot Luck gets at part of it; the idea of a melting pot. However, it doesn't get at the negative associations Zola was after. Hence, the French title Pot-Bouille is probably the best title.

The negative associations Zola aims at are tied up in his description of the courtyard of the apartment building on the Rue de Choiseul in Paris, a 'decent dwelling' in which all of the various characters reside. It's a bit like a high-end condo building from today. The front of the dwelling, its hallways and doors, present an imposing facade of quiet of middle class respectability. However, inside the various units the petty ambitions, grasping greed, empty lusts, and hypocrisy of the characters boil over. The servants in each unit work in filthy kitchens, which all face to an inner courtyard. This courtyard is the image that lies closest to the title. It's a filthy hole into which the servants pour their trash and refuse and from which they shout scathing gossip about their masters, sharing all the filth of what goes on and pouring that into the hole as well. It's like a sewer into which the moral and literal excrement of the characters flow. Pot Luck? Doesn't really fit the bill.

In any case, this is the first of two novels about Octave Mouret (the other is The Ladies Paradise, although Octave also makes a tiny cameo at the very end of The Masterpiece, as well). Octave is the handsome, womanizing eldest son of Francois and Marthe Mouret (from The Conquest of Plassans). He arrives in Paris, renting a room in this dwelling. At first impressed by the respectable facade of bourgeois life, he is soon privy to virtually all the conniving, adultery, and social climbing that teems like roaches in the building. This book is an acid expose of middle class sensibilities and aspirations.

The focus on the middle class leads me to see more of Zola's potential structure in the 20 novel cycle. Zola largely explores the lives of the wealthy when he write of the Rougon family. He explores the working and lower class through the Macquart family, and the middle class seems his target with the Mourets (who merge the Rougon and Macquart bloodlines). So instead of focusing on an aspect of society, such a finance and banking in Money or art in The Masterpiece, Zola is really commenting on a whole class in this novel. For the middle class, love and all finer feelings are trampled in a competitive stampede of backstabbing and one-upsmanship aimed at gaining higher social standing. On the other hand, those who have achieved their middle class stature also try to reclaim the joy of life they threw aside in the pursuit (this is mainly the driving force of all the adultery, in which few of the characters ever enjoy any real pleasure).

Zola's broadest observation on the middle class comes towards the end when Doctor Juillerat and Father Mauduit visit complacent shop owner Madame Hedouin and Octave, her shopkeeper. Juillerat and Mauduit represent the social institutions of medicine and religion (that is science and morality). After leaving the ever satisfied Hedouin, the following exchange takes place:
Juillerat: Bad sort of patient, that, eh?
Mauduit: Who?
Juillerat: Madame Hedouin. She doesn't care a damn for either of us. No religion wanted there, nor medicine either. There's not much to be got out of folk like that, who are always well!

This brings to the fore something Zola has built throughout the novel and makes even more explicit in these last few scenes. Medicine - or the rational/scientific mind - offers no censure to the behavior of the middle class slugs inhabiting Pot-Bouille, while religion indulgently casts a blind eye. Medicine and religion are businesses that make their way in the world only if people are not moral and happy, so medicine simply rationally attends to its needs while religion is best off not trying to hard to correct people's foibles. This bleak picture of religion, reflects Zola's generally black view of the impact it has on society. The overall assessment is that there is no moral compass provided by society for these middle class social climbers.

Even the gossiping and venomous 'court of public opinion' that could condemn immorality takes no real stand. Berthe's adultery should bring the judgement of everyone in the apartments upon her, but life is quickly back to normal and the attitude - as expressed by the cuckolded husband's sister - is 'far better not to rake up things that everyone had forgotten'. Morality is all for show and - as Zola also suggests through some of the political conversations of his characters - the interest of the middle class in an ethical complacency is to maintain their 'image' as a means of social control. Unperturbed moral pretenses help justify their higher social position and keep the poor masses in their place.

In the end, Zola portrays middle class society as a stagnant pool of immorality polished to look bright and shiny. As a lowly servant comments at the very end of the novel when asked if she would get a position elsewhere: "...this hole or that hole it doesn't matter. They're all pretty much alike. If you've been in one of 'em you've been in 'em all. They're just pig-sties." The characters here are virtually all unsympathetic, with Octave functioning as a 'guide' for us simply because he is the most successful in his opportunism. Zola does not pull his punches at all.

I enjoyed reading Pot-Bouille, and it's plot certainly is titillating enough to keep the novel moving as a series of events.  However, it's not up to some of the best novels in the cycle.  Conceptually Zola completely succeeds in saying what he needs this novel to say within his overarching theme, but as a novel on its own it lacked a trajectory in plot one might desire. Of course, the lack of plot trajectory reflects and serves Zola's desire to depict middle class society as a hypocritical wasteland of pretenders and moral degeneracy. Certainly the book was more shocking in its time, but there are definitely scenes that make even the modern reader cringe...but not cringe enough to stop reading. And maybe that's part of the point!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Influx of Input

I have been on fire the last few days:, updating the Netflix queue, and reviewing my magazine subscriptions. Here's what's in and what's coming:
  • Two new CDs by BT: If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I and Nuovo Morceau Subrosa
  • Renewed subscription to ArtNews
  • New subscription: BOMB - A magazine in which artists, musicians, authors, etc. are interviewed by other artists, musicians, authors, etc.
  • Swann's Way, Marcel Proust - Gotta give this guy a try.
  • Death in Venice, Thomas Mann - Angst from the early 20th Century
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov - Absurdist lit from Russia
  • Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine - Comments about this novel promise that it will make Sartre and Zola look like lighthearted romps
  • The Complete Stories, Franz Kafka - I have yet to read "The Metamorphosis"!
  • Orpheus - directed by Jean Cocteau (this is coming on the Netflix queue) - Led to this by his connection to Andre Gide.
Lots of stuff for my mind to digest. Oh but I have neglected to mention what's here at our home now from Netflix...ah yes...The Muppets! One must moderate oneself.

Here's Animal! He's always been my favorite!

Topping 200!

Did 30 miles this morning, which takes us to 228 miles for the season. So far!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Propaganda

I actively dislike 'pundit news', that is shows like Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly. I don't think these shows are about news or even discussion of news (as they purport to be). They are propaganda for a political party.

Now it's everyone's right to support their favored political party and even blindly do so, if they wish, by agreeing with just about everything that party proposes and disagreeing with just about everything the other party proposes. What I find offensive about people who follow these pundits, though, is that they always seem to forget it's propaganda. They eventually take what they hear as legitimate information upon which to base their world view.

On the one hand, you might say that people can be forgiven for doing so since each of these shows makes an effort to come off as 'objective' (notably Fox's 'fair and balanced' claim). I do not agree. These shows and pundits are all clearly biased, and anyone who uses the shows for information is an irresponsible citizen. A responsible citizen forms their own opinions based on facts they know about the world; they do not gobble down ready-made talking points from the filthy trough of propaganda and then vomit them up on cue when important issues are discussed.

In my post about Koan 18 in the Mumonkan (Tozan's 'Masagin') I commented on what (I believe) is the root cause of people allowing themselves to be fooled in this way. It's about avoiding the difficult effort to connect with reality on our own, which is very difficult to do with a deluded, cluttered mind-set. The reason for this is that a person in this mind-set (whether it be about politics, religion, or something in their personal life) is all response. They are not thinking deeply (or at all), just reacting. Propagandists exploit this to create a sick feedback loop. For the deluded person, the idea of having to connect with reality is disturbing. So the propagandist gives them a comfortable way of quickly disposing of all questions and issues without having to think or discuss or expend energy. In exchange, the propagandist turns the deluded person into an adherent who will think/vote as they are 'programmed' to.

Of course, another bad thing about propaganda is that it always seems to rely on demonizing someone. Fox demonizes liberals and the Olbermann's of the world demonize conservatives the same way cult leaders demonize anyone outside their religion. Hitler and other dictators are masters at it, because by creating adversaries for their adherents to hate and fight, the propagandist keeps his herd of adherents lost in a swirl of delusion that has nothing to do with reality. He can control what they think (even how they think), and that makes it easy to create some whip (usually fear) to drive them towards whatever ends the propagandist has in mind (usually power, money, and fame). Since a cluttered or deluded mindset always pulls a person off the path, the propogandists' aims can never be good for the people being controlled.

Propaganda is also very dangerous because just about anyone can do it and get their hands on the whip. For example, Sean Hannity. This is a guy who, in 1996, was given a huge stage by Fox News from which to pronounce his views on...everything. What were his qualifications up to 1996 that marked him as someone deserving of this? Let's run it down:
  • Education: High school diploma (he dropped out of two colleges)
  • Personal: Married with two children
  • Career: 7 years as a radio talk show host
And that's it. Since 1996, he's been a star on Fox News, written books, etc. This is not someone who in one's ordinary life we'd hand over so much attention and respect to around political and social issues. You might say he probably reads up on politics in his current role. I hope he does, but I don't know that for sure. Even if he does, I know lots of people who read up on politics and are also much more educated about our political system (or are just more educated). Why aren't they selected to be the voice of the conservative movement?

Hannity is better than Fox News' former puppet, Glenn Beck. His credentials are chilling in their total lack of anything to fit him out for the prominent role he stumbled into when his Glenn Beck Program first aired on the radio in 2000:
  • Education: High school diploma
  • Personal: First wife divorced him due to his substance abuse issues. He took a second wife later. Four kids.
  • Career: 13 years as a radio DJ/shock jock for a slew of radio stations, several of which fired him. In one case, it sounds like he was fired after being arrested for drunk and reckless driving.
This is someone millions of Americans followed religiously for years as a thought leader? If I run a cable new network, I wouldn't hire this guy as a weatherman! Which brings us to the broader question of why Fox News employs such minimally credible people so visibly? I think the answer is because you do not need credentials to be a pundit or to spew propaganda; you just need to have a loud voice (see Sarah Palin). This is why I question whether any of these people really keep up on politics in any meaningful way; such knowledge is beside the point in their role.

I will say that - in general - the most visible liberal commentators seem far more qualified. Take Rachel Maddow. Here's her resume prior to her Rachel Maddow Show airing on radio in 2005:
  • Education: College Degree in Public Policy (Stanford); Graduate work at Lincoln College (Oxford), PhD in Politics from Oxford. Maddow was the recipient of a John Gardner Fellowship and a Rhodes scholarship.
  • Personal: In relationship since 1999. No children.
  • Career: Several years as a radio talk show host.
Now am I saying a person must be a college graduate to be listened to? Or am I saying everyone should follow Maddow and dump Fox? No, on both counts.

I have met plenty of people in my life with loads of education - some with PhDs - who have their heads so far up their asses that if they told me the sky was blue, I'd open the window to check. I've also met people with minimal education who have incredible natural intelligence. To the other question, I would not advocate following any propagandist, educated or otherwise.

My point? If people find themselves unable to avoid the wrong mindedness of following 'personalities' or becoming lemmings around political, religious, or social ideologies, then they should at least be paying attention to who they're following! Is the person credible in some way that justifies turning over control of your thinking to them? Again, even if the answer is 'yes' it's still wrong to do so. However, we need to be careful - at least - because the Hitlers of history were not usually successful, well-educated, self-actualized people.

Unfortunately, the problem with wrong-minded thinking is that the most vehement response you would likely get if you urged them to break out of the mindset is the insistence that they are thinking for themselves. They're so invested in staying comfortable that they reject any notion that threatens the propaganda.  They'll deny it even as they tell you why Obamacare is bad, playing back word for word what Fox News says about the issue, and they will become defensive and angry if you question their position in any way that reveals they are powerless when they lack a talking point from the propaganda trough to vomit at you.

No matter how much one waves the flag or squawks about patriotism and democracy, propaganda adherents are not free. They are members of a herd of big, dumb cows waiting for someone to stumble on a way to crack the whip.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

198 Miles and Rising

Jim and I have stubbornly continued biking, despite the 90+ - and even 100+ - temperatures. We're slowly getting ourselves up the ladder of mileage. Over the past several weeks, we have logged a total of 114 miles. This brings us to 198. Not too shabby for this time of year, but we'll have to keep at it to log a good solid season.

We even biked one day where it ended up getting towards 100, but we usually get out early enough so we can avoid the extreme heat. The problem is that when it doesn't cool down much at night, the morning heat can still be really nasty. On the Fourth of July we only rode 17 miles, but we were exhausted by the end and had run through all of our water. On the way back, we saw a couple of paramedics on the path coming to help a jogger who seemed to have collapsed from heat stroke. Yikes!

On a more positive note, during a ride in Blackwell we saw a baby deer just off the side of the path. We pulled up to take a look, and the baby deer stood still for a while just watching us. I almost got the feeling this little baby had not seen people before the way it just watched us.  Then he started gamboling towards us as if he trusted us! That came to a quick end when Jim saw the mother come out of the brush. She was HUGE! She just watched us and, somehow, it seemed as though she signaled to her baby, because he did a gazelle-like leap away from us to return to her side.

We watched them walk off but, at one point, the mother was coming towards us. I suddenly thought: "Um, that deer could probably kick the crap out of me if it charged and pounded me with it's front legs." But she veered off and they vanished back into the brush.

I'm pretty proud of our perseverance in the face of this inhospitable weather. Makes me want to flex my arms, gnash my teeth, and go "ROOWWWWR!"