Defending Us From Healthcare

Unlike our Calvinist brethren and most of the members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. I actually believe that the way healthcare is practiced in the United States qualifies almost as a criminal enterprise. Certainly I’m not happy with many of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act as passed, particularly the concessions made to the insurance industry. Yet, I wonder if any bill could have gotten through, given the track record of any effort to advance socially mandated healthcare over the past 40 years, unless attempts were made to indulge conservatives by adopting something like their own successful program enacted in Massachusetts. The ACA isn’t what I would have liked, but the accomplishment of actually having passed a law addressing healthcare as a “right” is a major accomplishment. It goes to the heart of everything dividing Americans into what appears to be irreconcilable factions. In fact it brings about nothing less than the first faint cracks in the walls of prejudice that have been used as tools for control almost as long as we’ve been in existence, and most effectively since the cold war.
 
I would like to have seen a better law, but this is better than no law at all, and it’s a start. As with Social Security and Medicare, it’s inspired resistance from the same political factions using identical rhetoric. Both programs, after all, entail a redistribution of wealth and thus evoke a visceral response in a country that has been programmed by it’s religious leaders, backed conveniently by the rulers of industry, to believe we are all self-sufficient individuals responsible only before God. Both programs continue to be revised and improved over time to address problems and inefficiencies. Obamacare is not only a crack in the dam of the absolute power of the wealthy, it is in fact another challenge to the concept of white Protestant supremacy. Particularly irksome is the fact that it was passed by a black man and even carries his suspiciously Islamic sounding name (ironically it’s the Republicans who made this possible). You may think this an irrelevant diversion, but I believe it’s one of the issues that most effectively fuels the fires of the trained pack of attack dogs that the Right calls it’s ‘base.’ (I also believe that America is still essentially a racist culture that, having built much of its wealth through slavery and genocide, is still mostly in denial of this fact.)
 
Indeed, the Affordable Care Act is certainly subversive to the American Way as we’ve practiced it for far too long, and it’s a form of subversion that I heartily endorse.   
 

The resistance to any sort of publicly mandated healthcare goes back at least as far as president Truman, and before that to the time of Roosevelt and the labor struggles before and during the Great Depression. It’s that ol’ bugaboo socialism, a word that’s been relentlessly programmed into American business culture in order to evoke a Pavlovian response whenever any expansion of government influence threatens to interfere with the ‘orderly’ process of accumulating capital. 

 
Yes, I’ve heard all of the rhetoric about exceptions and fairness and delays. I just listened to a Representative from Tennessee run all of this out on the news. Pretty obscure and pretty desperate I thought. Undoubtedly these talking points get pounded out everyday on the Rupert Murdock Network. What I hear is the game of politics, to erect as many straw men as one can in order to obfuscate the real issues behind sound bites that hopefully confuse the unlearned masses. I don’t think it’ll work this time. The Democrats actually appear to be united around some kind of solid backbone on this, while the Republicans are all over the place. 
 
You may object, “Straw Dogs you say!!” Just like the stuff about the NSA and the military, which are trotted out whenever either side disagrees with those who we’ve elected to defend us from our own screw ups. (Why don’t we defund these instead of making business pay for our healthcare?) Ironically, The very same people who are fighting tooth and claw to prevent the expansion of government are the ones who benefit most from military contracts in their districts. As for our foreign policy, it’s the very same fear of the socialist menace that has gotten us involved in all this hot water in the first place. We are the ones, after all, that overthrew the first democracy in Iran and financed the Taliban, both actions taken in order to stop the spread of socialism. It’s we who’ve reaped the whirlwind that has resulted in an explosion of extremist Islamic factions on a kill spree all over the world. Americans who think we can just wash our hands of all this and take our military forces and just walk away and let ‘them’ work it out, without considerable blowback, are deluding themselves as far as our complicity and responsibility. 
 
So, as the forces of reaction have chosen siege warfare as their tactic, I say let the siege begin… 

 

Hearing Voices (Revisited)

In the fall of 2001, under a harvest moon on the last weekend of September, three weeks after the bombing of the World Trade Center, a group of musicians and artists of various sorts gathered in Rangely, Colorado for an extraordinary event. I drove up from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the invitation of my friend Michael Stanwood to be initiated into what was then called “The Order of the Tank” The Tank was a large water tank built on a hillside just above the town, where a railroad had been planned but never completed. Never used for what was intended It had been abandoned for years, a destination for teenagers and their dates or a target for graffiti, until one of the teenagers introduced a visiting musician from Denver to the unique soundscape contained within. 

 The nation was still in a state of shock and it was the dawn of a new state of paranoia. On my approach to the site I stopped to take a photo and was interrogated by the local sheriff because of some public buildings that happened to be in the foreground of what I was shooting. On the way home I was stopped once more near the border of New Mexico for a reason so obscure I can’t even remember what it was, other than it had to do with “suspicious” driving conduct of some sort. 

 After talking my way past the sheriff and reaching the site I entered an entirely different dimension, where the burdens of the world, the fear and paranoia and the drumbeats for war had no reality or relevance. What follows in an account of that weekend. This was the first recording session in a project that became teh album Portal, produced by Michael Stanwood. Here is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared originally in Volume 16 of Fish Drum Magazine.

 Hearing Voices (Revisited)

 I.

The approach to this small corner of western Colorado from the south, once you’ve accomplished the steep escarpment called Book Cliffs, is through Canyon Pintado, a long winding flat bottomed valley full of cows, ranchers and Indian petroglyphs. I needed to reach town by dark and didn’t really have time to stop for anything between dodging wandering herds of cattle and following the weaving dust of pickup trucks. But something caught me as I drove by a series of national park pull-offs; it was a sign reading “Kokopelli” and a pointer up toward some rock paintings just beneath a steep cliff face that overlooked the road. I resisted at first, driving on about a quarter mile. Something tugged me back, and I stopped and turned back. The hump backed flute player was too close to the theme of the journey for me not to stop and pay homage. 

Pulling off to the side I let another pickup truck pass and got out to climb the stone pathway up to an overhang. I could actually glimpse from the road a figure in red beneath the leaning stones, bent beneath the hump carried on his back, gazing back along the valley, the flute or didgeridoo he’s holding pointing along his gaze. I’d never seen this figure drawn so large or colored in such a deep red ochres. Below his feet was the inevitable spiral that traces a path from origin through migration and back to the center of the world. 

I’d traveled that day more than 400 miles, leaving a country of burning forests around Los Alamos, then up one of the most beautiful roads in north America, Route 84 through the Chama Valley. The evening before I stood with my ten year old son across from a gambling casino where we could watch the long dragon tail of the Cerro Grande fire as it wound it’s way through the canyons and over the slopes above the town of White Rock. The next morning I left behind the vanilla smell of burning yellow pine and the dangerous ghosts that emerged to haunt the birthplace of the atom bomb. I came up through Ghost Ranch country, past the red cliffs and standing rocks and natural amphitheaters by Canjilon Creek, turning west at Chama. Turning west, I entered Indian country, winding through the woods and canyons guarded by the Jicarilla Apache, passing the town of Dulce and then into the vast northern reaches of Navajo land. Across the Navajo Dam, it’s reservoir stretching off between the mesas, I crossed the border of Colorado, continuing through Durango and Creede following the white waters pouring through gorges. Leaving old mining towns transformed into tourist destinations I climbed out of the Navajo desert and onto the Colorado plateau and into the high northern country.

I gazed at this Kokopelli, placed here before the first Spaniard came looking for gold, looking back along the trails of natives and explorers, miners and gamblers, fluting his remembrance that once we emerged from a world destroyed by darkness. I remember thinking that we could easily lose our world to deadly darkness once again.  

At the end of that long canyon where the southern road joins the northern route that follows the White River is the town of Rangely. I had been told to look for a water tank, and the whole dry valley was full of water tanks. Here in a parched corner of Colorado I found myself in another high desert, more desolate than the desert from which I’d come. Rangely is an oasis among the gray mesas, a town filled with trees and trailer courts built all along the river and the encroaching bluffs. Once through the town another expanse of desolate hills begins and marches off to the horizons to the north and west. 

I was told that the tank was on the far edge of town and that it couldn’t be missed. After being the town’s main street, Route 64 turns to the north and just to the right one looks up and sees what appears like an enormous silver painted art deco spaceship overlooking the bottom land that lines a creek and a winding dirt road that slithers its way back between the hills. A rakish Rio Grande Railroad logo is painted in black letters up near the top and around the bottom up to a tall man’s height is a multi-colored ring of graffiti 

At the base of the bluff just across the dirt road sits a couple of dwellings built around a converted house trailer. I pulled up and parked, walking up to the porch door of the main house where my knocking stirred the interest of a couple of enthusiastic dogs, more interested in wrestling with each other than with bothering a stranger. An energetic woman in her 60’s appeared at the screen door, grabbed the dogs firmly by their collars and welcomed me loudly over their frantic yipping, “You must be Ralph from Santa Fe…your friends are already here. Come on in and have some food…you wanna beer?” 

The enormous front room was filled with knickknacks, a bar, a full size store dummy dressed like a rather effeminate looking cowboy, and the biggest television screen I’d ever seen. A game show is on and the image is so impressively huge that I’m temporarily transfixed in the glare of the faces, voices larger than life, diving for dollars across the virtual wall of phosphors. Rescue came with the sound of familiar voices and the smells of a feast issuing from the kitchen.   

Over the next hour or so I listened to country gossip: Chevron, the town’s biggest employer was set to move on and a good chunk of the male population would be out of work, the vacation business was growing, the black folk up at the Community College had started to wander into town. I heard an extended commentary on the vices and virtues of the nearest big towns of Craig and Vernal, where there was a new Walmart and a shopping center. We urban types got plenty of good-natured ribbing from the hostess and her husband, but it all came as a piece with their amazing generosity. 

After a while it was time for the four of us who’d arrived from the cities to climb up the hill to the tank and embark on the ceremony to which we’d been invited. 

Denver musicians had been coming up here for 14 years, ever since, on a Chataqua concert tour, one of them was turned on to the sounds of the Tank by a local teenager. Visits became increasingly regular over the years, attracting a growing circle of inspired sound explorers. In the early nineties recordings made inside the Tank became an album called Leaving Eden. It featured a host of instruments and voices, including hand drums, whirl tubes, autoharps, a viola, Synclavier and a child’s chorus.  

For a short time in the mid eighties the graffiti on the Tank took a turn toward rage and racism felt by teenagers who were being displaced, perhaps fueled by the climate of Reagan’s America. Eventually a heavy-duty lock was affixed to the outside hatch and most of the verbal ugliness got painted over. The Mormon businessman who’d assembled the Tank as part of an anticipated business venture turned ownership over to a musician who was willing to take on the property taxes. In this way a vessel that was moved here in the fifties from another state to hold water became instead a wonderfully unique temple to sound.  

As dusk approached Michael removed the padlock, and one by one we crawled in through the round bolted hatch about two and a half feet across, where a large pipe would have entered to conduct the flow of water in and out of the container. Now a long electrical cord climbed the hill from the house below and climbed into the opening. Grasping the bolted edge of the hatch we slid in feet first to find ourselves at first in total darkness. As our eyes gradually adjusted we first noticed a dim blue-green glow emanating from what appeared to be a mixing board set in a square metal case occupying the center of the floor. The space inside the Tank is about 45 feet across and 75 feet high. A faint circle of daylight leaks in around the circumference of the conical roof high above. A ladder goes up one side to a hatchway opening to the outside. A slim pipe near the ground bridges the middle of the floor from wall to wall, providing a place for sitting down. Several fat candles burned at either end and in the center. The walls of the Tank are black except for about 10 feet of white around the bottom and up along the sides of the ladder where there was once graffiti.

Immediately upon entering one realizes that this place is in love with sound. The smallest scuffle of footsteps or the sound of a dropped whisper are taken up and whirled around inside the container to be transformed into awesome and numinous voices. A single note launched by voice or instrument is sustained for up to 35 seconds. The Tank is a place of perfectly circular echoes, every sound transformed into pure ambient presence, unveiling its inner dynamics like the unfolding of a flower. This is a soundspace that can’t really be duplicated by electronic means. Like the world’s great cathedrals it attracts those who hunger to be in the middle of the sound, exploring it like the landscape of another planet. Entering the space one finds oneself immediately in a state of trance. 

For an interval our company drifted around the circle, making sounds, stopping to listen, adding overtones, shaping new notes, replying to our own voices vibrating in the air. A couple of wide PVC tubes were propped against the pipes with bundles of cloth stuffing one end and an extra large kitchen sponge resting near the other. I learned that these make an instrument of deep ethereal rhythm dubbed the “whirl tube”. When one claps the sponge against the open end of the tube a deep ethereal harmonic booming is created.  A row of didgeridoo are propped next to the entry hatch. Almost the entire floor is covered with blankets and the blankets are covered with musical instruments and noisemakers of every kind. Turning back toward the entrance, one glimpses the outside world through the circle of bolts that line the open hatchway. Another world out there that has been utterly left behind. 

 

 

II.

 

At the beginning of the evening a neighbor from down below brought her teenage daughter and we invited her to crawl inside and have a look. She was very young and quite shy among these strange older men, but she was fascinated and curious. The array of instrumentation spread over the blanketed floor was like nothing she’s ever seen. Jeremiah showed her how to get a sound from blowing into a conch shell and this inspired her to ask that her mother fetch from the van outside the French horn she played in her high school band. Tentatively she lifted it to her lips and blew a couple of clear brass notes that filled the space like the sound of trumpets in an angelic choir. We were all a bit overwhelmed at power and beauty of the sound. The girl, overcome by shyness and weirdness, retreated outside to her mother and they left. The memory of that excellent sound stays behind and is in some way resurrected in the sound of Michael blowing into conch and pipes, calling the proceeding into formal commencing. As the full moon rose above the tank no one doubted that spirits would be pulled out of the air and come down into this place to play and echo and improvise through the persons of all of us. 

As the evening proceeded each of us was merged with a collective voice, made up of every sound seamlessly woven into one in the magnificent chamber of air. As the sound was woven and blended and as it rose and fell I found myself joined in the chorus with a loud clear voice, a vocalization brought out of me as an improvised language made of pure sound, responding to every nuance in the ever evolving breath of the evening. I felt my whole body moving with the changing character of the sound, becoming part of a whirling dance gracefully moving  and swirling around the circumference; Jeremiah and Mark and I circling Michael with shakers and strings, pipes and drums.  

Occasionally Jeremiah would crouch over the digital console, face dimly lit by the green LEDs, concentrating on capturing whatever sonic messages he found circling in the air. Both images and abstractions became consigned to the nether darkness. We were like denizens of the ancient Lescaux caverns, finding refuge and ceremony to enter a world beyond dream. There were no words or images inside, for the sound in the Tank is more primordial than language itself. All sound blends and swirls and transforms like the waves and ripples washing over sand patterns at the bottom of a tide pool. Underneath the far off canopy of moonlight the candle flames flickered. Shadows were dimly discerned against the black walls. The sounds of voice, rhythm and breath beckoned the spirit toward ecstasy. Four clear male voices rose in chant and song. The deep booming of the Whirl Tubes echoed in unearthly rhythm while in counterpoint Michael strummed the delicate silver strings of an autoharp. Mark played runs on a guitar while chanting in tongues and Jeremiah marched around the circle to the beat of an African djambala. The dancing and singing and playing wove and pulsed in and out of the hours with an occasional silence as a cycle discovered its natural conclusion. Then another song began, and a new ceremony with another theme, another rhythm and a new harmonic. 

Once, as we sang and danced and played we heard the sound of a great booming descending upon us like the ghost of a passing train, or an earthquake. We are struck silent and then realize its the sound of a great evening desert wind, striking the sides of the Tank and rising against them like the herald of another angel of the air. The immense sound played on the sides of this tall metal ark as if in response to the exuberant voices rising from within.

After several hours we were exhausted, and the sounds of wind and voices declined with the descent of the moon. We crawled outside beneath an incredible star canopy and stood together wrapped in a blanket of absolute silence. Then the musicians scattered to their bunks and trailers and Jeremiah kept vigil in the tank until morning.  

*    *    *    *

 

III.

The next day I stood over the gray hills that sweep northward under the hot dusty breezes of the desert. The rising and plunging of oilrigs dotted the landscape like huge insects drawing sustenance out of the rocky soil. Farther north are dinosaur bones near the source of the Green River that soon merges with the Colorado in an impossible landscape just south of the Four Corners. There are the Canyonlands known by migrants, Navajos and Mormons. Golden angels trumpet from the tops of white churches and ancient carvings appear in the rocks. Still farther south is Monument Valley and a landscape that turns brick red and the twisted shapes of enormous gods that parade over the desert. At the end of a long spiral around this Indian Country are the Hopi villages where the dramas and contradictions of human life on earth are played out in the timeless costumes of a yearly round. In square stone structures built into the earth the ceremonies unfold, passed on through generations, going back to the emergence of the People out of the destruction of the fourth world 

As the morning grew late we began packing up the instruments and moving them outside. In one last sing before we emptied the place Michael vibrated a long droning breath through the didgeridoo. Again the sound builds and climbs and is sustained. I’m inspired to climb the 75-foot steel ladder hugging the side of the miraculous cylinder, to where the air grows hot in the presence of a sun climbing into another day. Hugging the rungs with one arm I turned around to gaze straight down on our magic circle. Michael set down his instrument and his strong clear voice poured over the rhythm of someone’s drum. On the other side of the circle Jeremiah once again attended the green glowing meters of the mixing board. Michael’s voice chanted through the intense vibrating tones of air while Mark was captured and taken by the rhythm of the tribal drum and I found myself calling out into the air suspended from above. The powers we summoned had been waiting through the night for our spirits to totally surrender and now, miraculously, they’ve caught us by surprise in the dark of the day.  

Finally our voices allowed themselves to fade into silence and in the middle of the silence Michael softly wept, overcome by the feeling his own clear singing called up in him. Then, each of us in turn laid our hands upon him, letting him know that we had all ridden the sound, and although we will never know, we all somehow understand.  

IV.

“There is sanity and madness, but the key to creativity and life lies precisely on the boundary between.” – R.D. Laing 

…and Orpheus falls…and the children dance…and no one can doubt that there are angels in the symmetry of these sounds…the grail that we seek is direct, unmediated experience.  

In the beginning we hear voices. After a time the voices shape themselves into words. The words then shape themselves into stories and the stories become our reality. These narratives help us form the web of wonders we call human society. By the tone and the colors of the words we discover an identity amidst the undifferentiated weave of what we see and hear and allow ourselves to perceive. 

We learn to make symbols for these sounds. We learn to scratch letters in the sand and find ourselves cast out of the garden and into our own heads. Comprehension becomes a matter of interpretation and we are well on our way to the burning times; a long adolescence that stretches from the 13th through the 19th centuries. From the invention of the printing press to the total segmentation of mind and god, logic and morals, science and religion, through seven centuries of war and struggle, suppression, revolution and atrocity, the adolescent makes war upon the world in order to differentiate from it. Culture tears itself from culture while philosophy battles with desire 

Then comes the photograph and humanity is transfixed in its own shadow like a beast on the highway frozen in the headlights. Blink…Blink…Click …the Civil War…Blink…Click…World War One…Blink…Click…the Second…Click…Flash…the photographic age transfigured into the nuclear age…the colonial age replaced by the digital age…the age of pirates is swept aside by the age of programmers… 

We are lost in images…hopelessly confused by them. We live in urban containers where all reference to anything other than ourselves has been excised. We can no longer tell what is spirit and what is mirrored shadow. We no longer particularly care. Unlike previous empires that fell to conquest, our own culture dissolves into the sea of its own chaotic artifice.  

There is a moment in the Caribbean religion of Santeria when the presence of the god comes down to the worshipper to ‘ride’ them like a horse, displacing personality and taking over form, moving voice and body like a divine puppeteer. Santeria is a religion descended from Africa, made of sound and rhythms and dancing. When we dig down through the layers of representation and meaning that fill our lives and we contact the body of the earth there is something we discover that’s beneath our personalities and that unites us with everything. This is what I came to the Tank to discover. This is the secret within the sound.  

Relevant texts:

 

Odland, Bruce. 

        Leaving Eden. Arcadian Recordings, 1991

Stanwood, Michael. 

        Arc of a Buzz. Babyjane Records, 1999

Stanwood, Michael

         Portal, Pansy Productions, 2001

 

 

A Case for the Longer View

A Case for the Longer View
 
I’ve found that the best antidote to being overwhelmed by political trivia and the day-by-day struggles of the electorate and their representatives is to step back and allow one’s perspective to embrace a wider angle view of history including past, present and future. Lately I’ve been returning to science fiction, which by its nature embraces the longer view. I’ve been reading Hunters of Dune and listening to an audio version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy. Both epics challenge us to think in terms of thousands of years of cause and effect. If nothing else, they provide a useful exercise for stretching our perspective outside of our immediate impulses. 
 
Certainly, in the context of human history the current political struggles are more clearly apprehended as part of a continuing discourse that stretches across boundaries of time, war, religion and empire. Every election and every personal choice at every point in time in fact contains the entirety of our relationship to every other moment. In Buddhism this is known as the principle of interdependent co-arising. Given the principle that everything we do and think is inextricably linked with the ongoing flow of time and with the totality of collective experience, we are either driven toward a helplessly deterministic frame of mind or we fully take on the responsibility of our actions and their consequences in relation to the whole. In this context my frequent but fleeting surrender to the emotions of fear or anger appears somewhat irresponsible at best and extremely counterproductive. 
 
Yes, every election is “the most important election of our time.” Given the almost infinite vectors of historical and personal history colliding at the point where we pull the lever or drop our ballot in the box (or don’t) the potential consequences of the choices we make may appear either overwhelming or meaningless. Here the advice inscribed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appears most relevant: 
 
“Don’t Panic.”
 
Over the years, at least since the overthrow of Jimmy Carter, every election season evokes in me feelings ranging from short lived elation to rage and disappointment. It appears that every time America is on the verge of actually grappling seriously with real world situations we collectively surrender to some dream of manufactured reality. While the rest of the world begins to face the consequences of some of humanity’s unfortunate choices (We’ve been thinking and talking about climate change since the late seventies) America pretends that the consequences of our actions (other than financial gain and loss) are mostly irrelevant.
 
However, when I step back and take a few breaths I can see that there is change and even progress over the years and decades. While our politics cycle through periods of vision and retreat our collective awareness of a world beyond our expectations gradually and steadily expands. Awakening proceeds much more slowly than I generally appreciate, given the nature of one short human lifetime. We try and fail and try again and slowly the boulder moves on up the hill. 
 
It appears that the best we can do is to help each other stay awake while urging one another not to surrender to cynicism and complacency. There’s so much to be explored and so many choices ahead of us. We all need help to prioritize and to hold things in proper perspective, as various waves of panic and despair and misplaced enthusiasm roil over the surface of civilization. We need collectively to decide from moment to moment what’s important and what’s better left behind.  
 
In the interest of our common interests I’d like to share with you an interchange between myself and my friend Jason, whose reply to my last post includes a representation of our political situation that’s both simple and clear. He quotes the part of my piece that I believe is the most provocative and open to debate:  
 

“To those who are lost in the kind of cynicism caused by over-exposure to the mind numbing critiques of the left, particularly over issues of foreign policy, I can only say that I don’t believe for a minute “both parties are the same.” The difference, even in foreign policy, is clearly put forth in the rhetoric of the presidential candidates. Mitt Romney forthrightly represents the old colonial assumptions of white supremacy and the just rule of financial elites. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which has been criticized for being too reactive (rather than pro-active) consistently emphasizes themes of cultural diversity and cooperation and are never mired in the rhetoric of religious and racial bigotry. It’s true, I will concede, that both candidates and both parties support the continued strength and overwhelming superiority of the American military. Both will do what it takes to keep the lights on. Both will use drones (or whatever means necessary) in wars against foreign enemies (with consequential collateral damage to civilians). I do believe, however, that the switch from a rhetoric of domination to the rhetoric of cooperation and defense is more than just a change in vocabulary. It indicates an important step toward new approaches in a world facing enormous changes where cooperation is the only path that can take us beyond disaster.”

Jason replies:
“I think both parties goals are the same, but they have different strategies/ideologies to reach the goal. Reminds me of being a young child in the back seat of the family car and listening to my parents bicker about how to get to a certain destination. Sometimes the gloves would come off when there was a disagreement about the current location or even which direction north was. But you know – where we were hoping to end up was never in dispute.” 
This inspired the following response:
 
Absolutely true. All of us, left, right and center are riding in the same vehicle, toward heaven or oblivion or more likely someplace in between. 

What we expect from our governments and leaders is that they maintain the infrastructure that supports our existence, and that they protect us from those who want to hurt us. ALL of us who choose to live in a particular country agree on these things. 

Some of us may see the destination more clearly and most of us disagree somewhat on the path from here to there. Some of us are extremely short sighted and selfish. Some of us are lost in our dreams.

The war that’s raging in this country and most of those raging around the world are religious wars, dealing with disagreements about the purpose and destination of the journey. In this election two very different metaphysics are represented. The parental metaphor is apt. American politics in fact, has long been characterized as a clash between the “daddy” state and the “mommy” state. 

I see it as a clash between two distinct value sets. One is based on the religious concept that our ultimate destination is another world completely (the Abrahamic religious legacy in the west and the Hindu philosophy in the east). Against this is the view that our natural destiny is one of codependency with the natural world and each other. The latter view flows most recently out of the conclusions of science, particularly as Systems Theory. It also is seen in several religions that emerged out of the so-called Axial Age that began about 2500 years ago. 

If you listen to and analyze the vocabulary used in virtually every speech at the Republican and Democrat Conventions you will see an amazingly stark representation of these opposing metaphysics.

This is a conflict that is much older than America. In a country that’s a melting pot and in some ways a microcosm of the whole world, our political process is a mirror of this ancient struggle. 

Unlike in many other countries in the world, we may be sitting in the back seat, but we ultimately decide, collectively, who will sit in the front.

 
Addendum:
 
As for my comment about “the mind-numbing critiques of the left,” a bit of clarification is in order. 
 
…which leads us to the question of Drones…
 
Oh yeah…and here’s Sarah Silverman with another public service message (uncensored). 

*************************

Freedom is just Chaos, with better lighting.

– Alan Dean Foster

 

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Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

To subscribe to the Arclist send a message to melcher@nets.com

“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

The Vote

I haven’t spent much time bloviating about the election this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. Early every morning, just after sitting and reading a few Buddhist texts, the next thing I do is look up the polls and the best political analysis I can find (usually on the Washington Post app or RealClearPolitics. I check them repeatedly during the day whenever I can get away to my local hotspot at work. There’s so much information and opinion out there that it hardly seems worth the time to add more to the mix. I suppose you can say that I’m a bit more emotionally detached, but this is a natural function of paying such close attention for so long. Over the past year I’ve been getting together about once a week to watch old episodes of The West Wing. It’s almost amazing how little the basic issues have changed in the decade since these shows were produced. (We are currently on the seventh and last season, just before the debates, so our timing has been perfect.) 
 
I must say that this election is the most interesting I can remember. Two candidates are running who aren’t idiots and who are able to clearly articulate their positions. Both presidential candidates and both parties have become clear expressions of two polarized views of the world. The ferment among the population has been a long time coming. This election could mark a decisive defeat for forces of right wing bigotry and religious intolerance that have tried over the past 30 years to turn the country into a racist colonialist theocracy. Or not. I look forward to this inevitable defeat, which will mark the passing of an aging population of baby boomers who are caught in the passing remnants of idealistic illusions that have clashed since the advent of television and the long slow decline of the American Empire. In the midst of all this dreaming the Republican Party made a deal with forces that promoted the extreme dreamworld of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America.” This gave rise to a frightened community who see their rights of racial privilege threatened at every turn and would deny the validity of virtually every progressive change that’s emerged since the end of the Civil War and the ‘Guilded Age’. 
 
The elements that represent the worst of America flocked to the Republican party when the Democrats embraced civil rights in the sixties. What were once solid “Blue” states in the south turned bright red and have remained so ever since. Racism and evangelicalism accompanied by assumptions of white superiority aided by voter suppression became the backbone and the curse of the new “conservatism.” The migration between parties won them several decades worth of electoral power over Democrats who were trying to redefine themselves as the party of diversity rather than the party exclusively of labor in the north and segregation in the south. 
 
For Republicans the cost of their bargain has come due. Through the globalization of electronic communication and the consequent liberalization of culture the base of their party has become narrowly white and is aging. As populations have become more concentrated in urban centers a cultural war is being waged between rural and urban America. Superimposed on this are the contradictions of a heavily subsidized (and mostly white) rural sector that hates government against a concentrated and diverse urban population that in many ways is compelled to find more creative ways to enter the future. 
 
Two very different sets of values have taken over each party and in every successive presidential election this split has become more pronounced. The configuration of both parties has now become all but set in stone. Although many will disagree, I believe that the old colonial values that we inherited from England have come to dominate the south and are backed up, particularly among the poorest and least educated class of whites, by Christian fear mongering. What sometimes appears to be a war of religious values is really a war about race and class that has been raging since our beginnings as a nation. Religion is used as the self-justification for the worst kinds of behavior. On the other hand, An increasingly secular and increasingly diverse and progressive (and young) population has become the base of the Democratic party. 
 
The victory of Obama in 2008, by breaking through the previously impenetrable barrier of race allowed the true underlying issues of class and culture to emerge as the driving themes of today’s politics. For me this election has been extremely encouraging. We are making progress in articulating our vision of the future after years of sliding back into denial of the present.
 
To those who are lost in the kind of cynicism caused by over-exposure to the mind numbing critiques of the left, particularly over issues of foreign policy, I can only say that I don’t believe for a minute “both parties are the same.” The difference, even in foreign policy, is clearly put forth in the rhetoric of the presidential candidates. Mitt Romney forthrightly represents the old colonial assumptions of white supremacy and the just rule of financial elites. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which has been criticized for being too reactive (rather than pro-active) consistently emphasizes themes of cultural diversity and cooperation and are never mired in the rhetoric of religious and racial bigotry. It’s true, I will concede, that both candidates and both parties support the continued strength and overwhelming superiority of the American military. Both will do what it takes to keep the lights on. Both will use drones (or whatever means necessary) in wars against foreign enemies (with consequential collateral damage to civilians). I do believe, however, that the switch from a rhetoric of domination to the rhetoric of cooperation and defense is more than just a change in vocabulary. It indicates an important step toward new approaches in a world that faces enormous changes where cooperation is the only path that can take us beyond disaster. 
 
 

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Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

The Teacher

Dear Charlette,
 
So, this morning as I came before my teacher for our weekly meeting (dokusan) the first thing he says to me is “How was your week? Were you finished beating up on yourself?”
 
My thoughts were: “Shheeeyt, is this so obvious to everyone around me? Three people that I treasure have pointed out this quality in just the past couple of weeks. Is it my most prominent feature, like a huge mole on the end of my nose? Oh well, I had to tell the teacher that I still indulged in quite a bit of it (see my last email to you). He told me a story about how we first erect imaginary obstacles and then have to summon up the courage to ‘overcome’ them. They are, after all, imaginary
 
Let this be my Zen journal, as it feels like one hell of an adventure upon which I’ve embarked and I’d like to tell it to somebody that can either sympathize with or at least comprehend the ramifications. 
 
Speaking of hell, you could call this a “journal from hell” I suppose. Hell defined as the “six realms of samsara” that the Buddha perceived as the source of human suffering. They are as follows:
 
Hell is the realm where we make each other suffer. Or when we subject ourselves to the frustrations of some inner struggle that we can’t let go of. 
 
Hungry ghosts are beings that exist in a world of unending and unsatisfied craving. Consumerist society thrives in the world of hungry ghosts. Our economy would collapse if too many of us diverced ourselves from this delusion. 
 
Animals are those who are content to eat and sleep and work and have no other aspirations in their lives. They are those who have surrendered their volition to others.
 
Asuras are those who define themselves in opposition to those perceived as enemies. It’s this one that I’d like to illuminate. (see below)
 
Human Beings are those who project their success or failure endlessly into the future. They are never satisfied with the present. 
 
Heavenly Beings are those who have achieved everything that our society defines as the necessary ingredients of success. Their primary motivation is to protect what they have gained and they are governed by the fear of losing. 
 
Usually in the time of presidential politics I’m ‘out there’ o the firing line launching scathing critiques and obsessive analysis regarding the tide of battle, the enormity of hypocrisy, the evil of Republicans, etc. This is what I’ve done in the past, but haven’t really wanted to get into in the present. It doesn’t really nourish me or anyone else. If negativity is the only voice I can summon I’d just as soon sit this one out. 
 
I’ve tried to take the angry reactivity that so much of the political dialogue sparks and turn it into statements that project something positive and optimistic into the future. I’ve even seen this as a ‘spiritual’ practice…and so it is. The problem is that the political discourse has become so much more poisoned and polarized than ever before (in my lifetime) that even to get near it is to risk the danger of being overcome by the fumes. So, I’m not writing much of anything these days, laying low until something new and authentic and not merely reactive arises from within me. 
 
Shohaku Okumura in his book Living By Vow describes the realm of hell that’s most relevant to the tendencies with which I’ve most strongly identified in the past.
 
Asuras are fighting spirits. Asura was a mythical Indian god of justice. When we believe we are right, we criticise others based on our own concept of justice. If necessary we fight with others until we win. Exterminating people who oppose us becomes the purpose of our lives. Such people cannot be satisfied without enemies. They can’t live without something against which they can struggle. We all have this sort of attitude sometimes. When we have someone to criticize, we feel safe, righteous and good.”
 
That sure sizes up the spirit I’ve identified with for most of my life. I probably will never quite get beyond this identification, as I’ve spent so much time living it, but perhaps I can step back from it and not let it possess me so completely. 
 
I’ve long thought that it’s almost impossible for people to fundamentally change their habit patterns. I still tend to believe that only in the most extreme circumstances do human’s really change. However, I now see that it’s possible, by seeing clearly these habits for what they are, a person can allow them to show themselves but choose not to hitch a ride. 
 
I may try my hand at another essay this week. No promises. I’m trying to write something everyday. It’s kind of a vow I’ve made to myself. The biggest challenge is not letting exhaustion overtake me. Of course, the nature of a vow is that it may be unattainable but at least it’s a target to aim for. 
 
With Love,
 
Ralph
 
 

 

Oversight

A friend of mine today asked me what I thought of Thrive, a propaganda documentary currently making the rounds on the New Age circuit. I thought I’d already sent out a review weeks ago, just after I saw it in January. Lo! I poked through my Arclist archive and could find no trace. It turns out I posted the piece on my Blog but either hadn’t sent it out as a mailing or for some reason deleted it from the archive. Perhaps I didn’t want to offend any true believers in my audience. Whatever the reason, here I want to correct the oversight,
You can read my review here, under the title, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
In the past several weeks I’ve been much too distracted by circumstances to find the energy to write much of anything although I watched the Oscars last week and, amazingly, found that I’d actually seen the majority of nominees. My own personal picks for best movies of the year, in descending order: My Week With Marilyn (more on this in a future piece), Contagion and Melancholia, with The Tree of Life (certainly the most ambitious) as a close runner-up. My own reviews of these are here and here. I measure them according to the enduring effect of their message and imagery. 
So, here is a little review of the past few weeks.
________________________________________________________________________

“Whenever two or more are gathered in my name it turns into a mob of power junkies.”

Who is it that said this? Was it Jesus or the Buddha? I don’t know, maybe Jesus. He always seemed a little more self absorbed, probably because of the “God” thing. Maybe he could see from first hand experience, being personally tempted in the wilderness and all, what all of this would likely come to. Buddha, frankly, couldn’t give a crap. He was more of a take it or leave it kind of guy, not trying to overturn some major religion or empire or anything, maybe a little more adaptable. His line was a throwaway: Suffer or not, it’s up to you.
Still, we have numberless generations passing the torch and along the way adding a little of this and a little of that, just to make the thing more palatable at a given place and time. Of course, there’s the irresistible urge always to skim a little authority off the top by adding robes and ceremonies and grades of enlightenment and lots of lists of things to do. Nothing wrong with it, as without somebody being the ‘designated driver’ so to speak, whatever might trickle down from mouth to mouth gets quickly and hopelessly distorted and the core of anyone’s teaching is lost in all the haze.
I’ve been caught up myself in sorting out some haze these past few weeks. I won’t go into details here, but let me tell you, the lessons learned when one is involved with other people are both priceless and nerve wracking. I’ve been in corporations and communes, political organizations and spiritual communities, and I swear to the almighty (whom I don’t believe in) that the same games get played in every one. Somebody’s gotta be right and somebody’s gotta be wrong, and whoever fancies themselves closer to the ‘source’; that being whatever brings the group together, ideology, vision, a teacher or leader, money, ends up being the one who calls the shots. The more effective the organization, the more power it draws to itself, and the more baroque and underhanded the social games and power plays.
We forget that we got involved for relatively simple, even primal reasons. We wanted to feel that we weren’t alone in the world. We wanted to meet somebody else who saw things in some way we could relate to, or maybe we just wanted to get laid. We thought that being involved would give us a sense of purpose that would connect us with the rest of humanity in this big empty universe. So we knocked on the door and hoped somebody would show us the way in.
Trouble is, once we get inside the door we get confused all around the issue of what it means to be ‘inside’ as opposed to being ‘outside.’ Suddenly the universe looks like Dante’s Inferno, with circles inside of circles, and everyone wishes they could get to the one in the middle where there aren’t anymore barriers to cross.
Chogyam Trungpa called this ‘Spiritual Materialism.’ Instead of simply wanting to be happy, we become goal oriented and our happiness is dependent on some arbitrary definition of ‘success.’ When we finally achieve the goal we find that another beckons. The road is endless where happiness is defined by circumstance and the actual experience of happiness recedes like the edge of an ever-expanding universe.
Speaking of Trungpa, in the middle of my own dramas I saw Crazy Wisdom, the documentary of his life. Certainly one of the great teachers and transmitters of the Buddha’s message to the West, Trungpa and his followers provide an excellent study in all I’ve mulled over in the previous paragraphs. Was he also a drunk and a sexual libertine, taking advantage of his devotees in a manner that personally made me cringe? Am I just being obtuse and refusing to see the lessons in all of these actions of a master?
As my own Zen teacher, who learned it from Roshi Bernie Glassman, who got it from The Dude, likes to say, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
So I will here let it all go. I simply don’t presume to know the answers in all of this complexity. Still, I will look for fellowship with others amid all of our common craziness. I pray only that in the midst of it I can attain compassion. Maybe then I will find myself brushing against happiness.

Two Movies

Two exceptional movies framed the past year for me. 

The Tree of Life begins as a seed of light and then expands to the whole territory of existence. Through the memories of ordinary life juxtaposed with glimpses of the primal forces of creation we are given a view of a universe spawned in raptures of what may be called love. 
 
Melancholia is no less of a masterpiece, but its subject is the utter finality of death. 
 
Tree of Life is actually the first movie by Terence Malick that I totally enjoyed and appreciated. As ambitious as any film can be, it’s also so unconventional in structure that to many it has been either overwhelming or inaccessible. The only film I can think of that embraces so wide a vision is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, while that movie approaches the big ideas from a rather cerebral standpoint and spends most of its time outside of the earth, Malick’s singular achievement is to uncover the secrets of the soul through the device of memory and the lens of an ordinary life. 
 
We watch a life unfold from infancy to adulthood in a little town in Texas and we are also witness to the initial explosion of creation leading to the evolution of life on our planet. Malick’s theme is the continuity between the extremes of our mundane existance and of the greater evolution within which our lives unfold. Only a director who is equally at home with the grandest vision and the minute particulars of memory could pull this off.
 
On one hand this is certainly one of the best portraits of growing up that I’ve ever seen. I could feel the textures and almost sense the smells and touch of my own childhood, growing up in the fifties. The intimacy and the struggles of family life, and particularly the relationship between a father and a son are revealed in such finely selected detail that what we witness reveals universal themes of love and struggle contained in singular circumstance. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father is truly exceptional as is the performance of the young Hunter McCracken as the son and Jessica Chastain as both mother and as the embodiment of grace. 
 
Somehow, woven through the family drama, in a manner that is miraculously seamless, we witness in breathtaking segments the big bang, the evolution of stars, the emergence of life and the birth of the world we are familiar with. I can’t describe how or why this works, but it’s a feat that only a master of film and a true spiritual visionary could achieve without for a moment falling into the maudlin and sentimental. 
 
At center the movie carries an essentially Christian message, but one that is both universal and transcendent. When we contemplate the last few images of skyscrapers and the Golden Gate bridge, we are seeing them through the eyes of a man who has taken the full lesson of life, that all that we are and all that we build are the products ultimately of the love that has been passed on to us.
 
Melancholia, by Lars von Trier, is about the denial of love and of life and the profound emptiness at the core of our suffering. Von Trier is a controversial director whose films have earned both the highest recognition and vitriolic condemnation. His actresses have won acclaim while he has been accused of misogyny for the usually harsh treatment of their characters in his films. His movies are not always easy to watch or gentle on our sensibilities, but he is an absolute master at constructing images that transcend the content of his narratives. Like one of his mentors, the Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky, he approaches film as a painter or sculptor in time, building for us in a precise accumulation of impressions a total picture that leaves us usually stunned and breathless. 
 
About five years ago a very good friend of mine ended her life by jumping into the Rio Grande Gorge. I’ve often tried to imagine what went through her mind as she drove her ramshackle car with a broken window 40 miles up through the canyons toward Taos under the cold and overcast April sky, arriving at the bridge in the dark of evening. She walked to one of the exposed platforms that overlook the river, 600 feet down. You can’t see the river once the sun goes down, so what you are looking into is a vast pool of darkness with the distant sound of the rapids sifting between the canyon walls. What was she feeling as she removed her coat and her shoes, climbed the railing and jumped? Was it sudden fear or the exhilaration of flight, or just a numbing descent into oblivion? 
 
I believe that the motives we imagine for suicide are full of misconceptions. Sometimes we think that a person who commits suicide is trying to leave here for a better place or was seeking some sort of transcendent experience. We may think that it’s an act of violence or revenge enacted toward we the survivors. Finally I’ve come to accept that for some people this life means nothing but constant pain, and death for them is not about transcendence or revenge, but only a blessed end to it all.   
 
In Melancholia a world ten times the size of our own collides with the earth. We see it twice. During the overture we view the spectacle from outer space, as one enormous globe embraces and devours the other. Then we watch a woman’s life unravel in her total collapse into depression. We then see her slowly revive with the revelation of the end and finally in a welcome embrace of death. Then, once more we witness the collision of worlds, this time from the perspective of those whose lives are ended in its vast and sudden conflagration. 
 
These are timely images in a year when visions of strange planets and worlds colliding echo in the consciousness of many who expect the revelation of dire prophecies. But von Trier isn’t talking about prophecies. He is addressing the condition of both longing and avoidance as we face each other and our individual mortality. The character Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a woman who tries to find meaning in the enveloping ritual of an elaborately staged wedding celebration. When confronted by the contradictory undercurrents and self deceptions of family, friends and associates, she fails completely in her efforts to conform, and what results is the almost complete collapse of her world. What remains is her relationship with Claire, her sister and caretaker, Claire’s husband, and their young son. The final drama plays out on a huge estate separated from anyone else in the world. Overshadowing every relationship is the approach and impending arrival of the mysterious planet, which is in the end, death itself. 
 
What we witness is that in the face of death all of our illusions and rituals unravel and we can no longer hide from our fears. We are unmasked. The scientist must set aside rationality and embrace the unknown. Those who have everything under control see that control is ultimately an illusion. To those who welcome death with open arms, and perhaps for the children who are too innocent to have constructed a body of fear there is the possibility of calm acceptance or even embrace. 
 
In the final image in the film, the two sisters and the child sit under a tent made of branches while the beautiful and awesome planet fills the horizon before it obliterates everything. This singular and powerful image is one that I will carry with me for a long time. For me it conveys a certain acceptance. To my surprise I found in this film a kind of understanding and a kind of peace. 
 
These are the two movies, out of all that I saw in 2011 that stand out as special achievements. On the surface they appear to be contradictory in their themes, but as both strive to address universal questions of life and death they are not as far apart as they seem. Perhaps, as my own awareness vibrates between the poles of light and dark, life and death, love and despair, I find it  quite natural to embrace both visions.